s5 of our first virtual SICB 2021 (Janneke Schwaner & Craig McGowan& Tonia Hsieh) headed up collaboration with high schools in hopes to encourage future science communicators and foster a love of the sciences.
Janneke Schwaner :
As we are getting ready for the upcoming SICB 2022 meeting in Phoenix, AZ, high school students who participated in the NSF-funded outreach project for SICB 2021, have developed blog posts about what they thought were inspiring and entertaining talks and posters from last year’s meeting. In these blogs, students highlight individual conference talks as they reflect on their experiences during the first virtual SICB meeting. Blogs will be posted over the next couple weeks, so please check regularly for the most up-to-date selection. We, the organizers of 2021s’ symposium S5 (An Evolutionary Tail: EvoDevo, Structure, and Function of post-anal Appendages), would like to thank Sheri and her students for these amazing blogs and we hope you will enjoy them as much as we do!
Think death can’t be cheated? Nature disagrees
by String Theory blogger A’ miyah Adams
Close your eyes and imagine that you are in the middle of the woods and a bear is coming right at you at full speed! Do you run or fight? Usually we have one of those two reactions when we are startled or afraid. Even so, what if I told you that these behaviors are not only found in humans but displayed throughout the animal kingdom? Many of the things humans do are variations of what is already done or has been done in the animal kingdom for millions and even billions of years! Scientists and researchers have found inspiration and guidance in many things from our fellow Earth inhibitors, why not include mechanisms to cheat near death experiences.
Over the past few months I have had the amazing opportunity of attending SICB’s 2021 virtual conference where I watched an S3 – Physical Mechanisms of Behavior talk given by Matt McHenry titled, “Chance Events and Strategic Behavior in the Predator-Prey Interactions of Fishes”. Dr. McHenry found that the time it takes for a fish to respond to an attack is more important to survival rate than the speed at which a fish moves. This discovery made me think about the various ways at which animal defense mechanisms have evolved to help them face and avoid danger. I think humans could learn a few things from their book of defense hacks.
React Quickly, then Run
Running is so simple yet very effective. Cheetahs, gazelles, and wildebeest are all runners. Running is a useful and valid defense mechanism that many species use. However, many associate running with speed and speed with survival. While in some cases that may apply, scientist Matt McHenry found that speed is not the main factor in survival. Rather it’s the reaction time to danger that really determines survival.
I’m not saying that being fast doesn’t help you survive, but it may be even more important to be vigilant and aware so that you can spot potential danger early and react quickly . So the next time you are being chased to death make sure you have your running shoes on and keep your head on the swivel!
Turkey Vultures have their own disgustingly unique way of avoiding predators- they have become experts at vomiting. The main purpose of vomiting is to get rid of toxins or rancid food that has been ingested. When we vomit we constrict the back of our throats, leading to abdominal contractions and ultimately an epic toss of the cookies (vomiting). Turkey Vultures are experts at vomiting. Turkey Vultures eat rotten meat which contains hundreds of harmful bacteria species. As a result they have evolved to produce vomit that is so corrosive that it is able to break down corpse flesh and kill bacteria. Surprisingly their vomiting talent is also a defense mechanism. Baby turkey vultures use this technique to protect themselves from predators. When threatened they are able to throw chunks up to 3 meters! So the next time you find yourself in danger, as a last resort you could try sticking a finger down your throat.
The art of blending in.
This art of blending in is also known as cryptic coloration. This tactic can mask identity, location, and even movements. For prey it allows them to hide from their predators, but be aware, this tactic is also used by predators to sneak up on the prey. Camouflage techniques differ from species to species. For example, an animal that uses camouflage with fur will most likely only use it during seasons when it is necessary due to the long growth process. Whereas, an animal that uses feathers or scales like a chameleon can use it more frequently because they are able to shed.
In 1898 during the Spanish-American War U.S. troops wore blue coats. This made them visible targets for enemy snipers. As a result, the U.S. Troops began covering themselves in mud to blend into their surroundings. A few decades and modifications later we have the camouflage uniforms we see today.
Stop, drop, and play dead
Opossums are masters at playing possum however all may not be as it seems. Researchers say that possums do not play dead intentionally, Rather they believe that opossums pass out from the stress. As silly as this technique may seem it has been proven to be effective for opossums and shouldn’t be discounted.
There have been cases of this working out for humans. A woman once played dead inorder to escape being attacked by a bison. While playing dead worked in her situation do not try this strategy when your parents tell you to do something, or you may be dead for real.
Now it’s your turn!
Go out and make your own epic death cheat sheet! Vomiting, camouflage, trickery, and quick response are a few of my favorite animal defense mechanisms with an immediate relation to how humans utilized these methods. There are many other animal defense mechanisms worth looking into. If you enjoyed this blog, then I encourage you to go out and learn more about animal behaviors and see if you can make any connections to humans and other species.
Read McHenry’s ICB paper
Matt McHenry: https://mchenrylab.bio.uci.edu/
How animals survive being poisoned: https://blog.adafruit.com/2016/01/25/how-animals-survive-being-poisoned/
Turkey Vulture Article:
Animal Camouflage: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/camouflage/#:~:text=Camouflage%2C%20also%20called%20cryptic%20coloration%2C%20is%20a%20defense,camouflage%20to%20mask%20their%20location%2C%20identity%2C%20and%20movement.
U.S Military Camouflage History: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/08/01/history-camouflage-military-united-states/13485491/
How similar is your family to a group of baboons?
by String Theory blogger , Andrea Mazzocchi
Countless times, we hear people tell each other “you’re just like your father!” or “you’re just like your mother!” But what we may not consider is how the mere presence of our parental figures affects who we are. After watching Matthew Zipple’s contributed SICB 2021 virtual talk about the baboon species: “Determinants and influences of infant spatial relationships with adult males in wild baboons: a mechanism for intergenerational transmission of early adversity?” I was interested in understanding more about these concepts and exploring how they may connect to parental influences and behaviors of humans.
Pictured here are multiple baboon adults and infants within their social environment. Photo by Jeanne Altmann.
Baboon Social Life
Much like humans, baboons are an incredibly social species. Imagine living with the same group of people your entire life! Baboons live their whole lives in close proximity to each other, including family, other males or females, as well as opponents. These groups can range from 10 to almost 200 baboons living in the same area. In such social environments, it’s not so surprising that social behaviors are significant to their quality, status, and span of life. Although human physical closeness to others may differ, we have very similar social behaviors. In the words of Dr. Zipple, “I was captivated by the idea that we could understand human behavior, especially social behavior, by understanding the role of evolution in shaping the behavior of non-human animals.”
Female Early-life Adversity
One aspect of baboon behavior and a key concept in the talk is female early-life adversity and how it can impact their offspring. Possible sources of early-life adversity in female baboons may include birth during a drought or birth into a large social group with high levels of within-group competition. Further, birth to a low-ranking or socially isolated mother, or even experiencing maternal death before reaching maturity (first four years of life) as well as having a close-in-age younger sibling who competes for resources are all possible forms of early life adversity. Zipple’s research has shown that “offspring whose mothers experienced early maternal loss experienced a 48% higher probability of dying throughout the first four years of life than unaffected offspring, and offspring whose mothers had a close-in-age sibling experienced a 39% higher probability of dying than unaffected offspring.” These intergenerational transmissions of early life adversity show a clear effect that early-adversity mothers have on infant baboon life quality and span.
Pictured here are two male baboons fighting. Photo by Elizabeth Archie.
But humans don’t compete or rank themselves… right? Socioeconomic status is the combination of an individual’s or family’s economic and sociological status/position in relation to others. Although human competition and social circumstances are much more complex, there seems to be a similar relationship between parent adversity and its intergenerational effects. Low socioeconomic status in early life has been linked to higher mortality rates. As defined by Science Daily, “Socioeconomic status is important because it is a summary measure of lifetime exposures to hazardous circumstances and behaviours, that goes beyond the risk factors for non-communicable diseases that policies usually address” Similar to the effects of early life adversity in baboon mothers, low socioeconomic status among parents can project onto their children, causing shorter lifespan. To further understand the effects of socioeconomic status, watch this video talk by Susan Alberts.
Impact of Male Involvement
As significant as mother baboons demonstrate to be, father/male involvement has shown interesting impacts on infant behavior. In the SICB talk, it stood out to me that mothers who had higher levels of early adversity became more socially connected to males throughout adulthood, therefore their young had more male involvement in early life.
Pictured here is an infant baboon on the back of a female. Photo by Chelsea Weibel.
So, how does male presence impact infant behavior? In the talk, it was described that male baboon presence/ involvement is linked to more social behaviors as well as independence. In humans, father involvement has been shown to stimulate more exploratory and independent behaviors in children. This independence may include stress management and problem solving skills. It seems that in both baboons and humans, there is a pattern of positive male influence.
Pictured here is a female carrying an infant alongside a male baboon. Photo by Matthew Zipple.
As this research continues, the group of baboons in Zipple’s data will continue to be observed in their adult life. This will bring exciting new information about male involvement and mother adversity on life span, social connections in adulthood, and parenting abilities. To follow this research and learn more about it, you can research the Amboseli Research Project. As complex as we are, we may not realize how similar we are to other fascinating animals!
ICB reads :
Social Awareness in Monkeys by Seyfarth et al
References/Citations for this blog:
Can humans run 900 miles in less than 15 days?
by String Theory blogger, Grace DiDomenico
Alaskan racing dogs are considered the best athletes in the world, what would happen if we could use these dogs as a model to enhance human athletic ability creating “superhuman” athletes? These dogs have the ability to run 1500km, covering more than 900 miles in less than 15 days. They have insane endurance unlike any other animal. If research could provide just a fraction of that endurance to humans, it could fundamentally change athletic capabilities.
Symposia 11 covered canine science, and I attended a talk titled “If you want to run with the big dogs, you need to not be so human” given by professor Michael Davis from Oklahoma State University. His talk encapsulated his lab’s research on Alaskan racing dogs. He explained what they have uncovered so far about the processes that allow these dogs to run for such a long distance at such a fast pace. This led me to think, If humans could replicate this same process who knows the limits to our athletic abilities.
These photos are of the dogs Professor Michael Davis has worked with at his Big Lake Laboratory located in Big Lake Alaska. The lab has been studying comparative exercise physiology for nearly two decades. Click on the link for more information about Professor Davis’s lab and the other work they do. https://vetmed.okstate.edu/labs/cepl/index.html
The Alaskan racing dogs studied operate on a highly digestible, calorie-dense diet. Up to 70% of their daily calorie intake comes strictly from fat. The high fat buildup within their diet leads to the sled dogs flipping a metabolic “switch”. This switch changes the way these dogs burn fat calories, allowing for unmeasured endurance and strength without any obvious pain or issues. The basic metabolic makeup of these dogs is similar to their human counterparts, however the switch that is flipped once the intense workout begins allows for these dogs to burn extreme amounts of calories without depleting glycogen and draining their energy. Could this switch be from selective breeding or intense training?
Their research found that muscle cells in their bodies are able to extract fat directly from the blood and transport it across cell membranes and into cells in order to burn that fat directly to be used as fuel. Glycogen(a store of carbohydrates) is a big piece in the metabolic switch in these dogs. Within the first few days of racing the dogs switch from depleting all of the stored glycogen to burning the fat directly from their diet. The way the fat gets into the cells can be understood by the dog’s insulin sensitivity(the fat is transported through similar pathways as glucose). Insulin is a hormone in the body that is used to turn blood sugar(glucose) into usable energy in the body. It stores this energy in muscles, liver, and fat cells to build reserves in order to use later whenever the body needs it, for example when you are exercising.
To read more on the alaskan sled dogs metabolic process, attached is an article published by Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sled-dog-science
If scientists can identify the biomarker or “switch” then they may have the key to activate a similar metabolic switch in humans, leading to increased endurance in athletes. Professor Michael Davis said “I don’t think we’ll ever make humans as capable as racing sled dogs because by most measures, the dogs are capable, pound for pound, of 4-5X the exercise metabolism of a human. But it is also important to note that while we are unlikely to make improvements of that magnitude, a 50% increase in human exercise capacity (i.e., a dogs being merely 3X as good as humans) would still be a HUGE increase in human athletic performance and would certainly seem “superhuman”. And I think that is possible.”
Marathon runners. Image created by Picasa (licensed by wikipedia commons)
With even a 50% increase in exercise capacity imagine how that would change the world of athletics. If you had the opportunity to enhance your athletic ability to a “superhuman” level, would you?
And read more of s11’s canine research at
Rethinking How We Light Up The Dark– ALAN & other light pollution & what we can do about it
by String Theory blogger Isabella Palamara
Awareness of climate issues has thankfully been on the rise, like that of air pollution or water pollution. Their counterpart, light pollution, is often ignored or seen as insignificant in comparison to other forms of pollution. However, artificial light (especially at night, which will be referred to as ALAN) has surprisingly detrimental effects upon people and animals. SICB has given the chance to explore the topic with Claire Hermans MSc, part of s1 from SICB’s 2021 virtual conference.
SICB’s “Symposium 1: Blinded By the Light” includes an intriguing talk by Claire Hermans. Hermans studies animal ecology and is a student under Dr. Marcel Visser and Dr. Kamiel Spoelstra (supervisors at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology). The talk, Effects of artificial light at night on the spatiotemporal pattern of bats and insects, focuses on light pollution and how, due to their nocturnal nature, bats are very vulnerable to ALAN. Red lights create less of a disturbance to bats than normal lights. The discussion of the negative impact of ALANs along with the benefits of red lighting inspired me to research more.
What is light pollution?
Light pollution is defined by the International Dark-Sky Association as “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light.” ALAN endangers ecosystems, changes biochemical/circadian rhythms, and puts a veil over the night sky. In fact, 83% of the world population cannot see the stars at night. ALAN from big cities such as Las Vegas shines more than 40 miles out from the city center (not counting blue/white lights—meaning that the radius of light is far larger than 40 miles). Furthermore, the current design of street lights sends light far out of the intended illumination zone, and reflects light upwards. Shockingly, from 2012 to 2016, light pollution increased by about 8%.
Street lights send light far outside of their intended illumination zone. Street Lights and Fog by Dunkin Rawlinson
How can this be harmful?
Light pollution is an often disregarded form of pollution, but it should be taken seriously. As examples of the effects of ALAN, birds are often disoriented by the light, and will fly into windows or buildings to their deaths. In Toronto, specifically, buildings kill tens of thousands of birds per year. Bats, insects, plants, fish, turtles, marine invertebrates (like coral), and primates are also negatively affected by ALAN. Animals like the wallaby that require the dark to mate have seen decreased median birth rates. Baby turtles struggle to use the reflection of the moonlight to find the ocean. Sadly, this list goes on.
This image depicts birds among artificial light. Birds on Wire by https://torange.biz
ALAN is similarly disorienting to humans. Rhodopsin is a chemical that controls night-vision and detects darkness. In humans, when very low light levels are detected for about 20 minutes, this rhodopsin is created. Unfortunately, it only takes a few seconds for the presence of light to decay rhodopsin production and eliminate night vision. This dramatically minimizes the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. The lack of melatonin can increase an individual’s risk of obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, and breast cancer. This is because, other than promoting good sleep, melatonin has antioxidant properties, boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol, improves thyroid function, and more.
Are there types of lights that are less harmful?
Interestingly, dim red lights do not inhibit rhodopsin production. Oftentimes, astronomers and safety officials use red flashlights to see their way while also preserving their night vision. Warmer lights are not only used on expeditions; Have you ever wondered about the feature some mobile devices provide that make the screen color “warmer”? The warmer the light, the better for everyone and everything. Therefore, an increase in the use of red outdoor light fixtures could be beneficial to prevent the disorientation of animals, human health, and the loss of the night sky.
Kelvin measures the “warmth” of artificial lighting; The lower the Kelvin, the warmer the light. Kelvin Temperature Chart by Mifsud26
What can you do?
There are actually many ways people can help themselves and other species. In your own home, you can use low temperature (AKA warm) LED lights and compact fluorescent lights, set timers on outdoor lights, turn off unnecessary indoor lights, and try to avoid all light at night or use a dim red light. Workspaces can opt to use drapes to prevent bird collisions and other possible disorientation.
Light pollution is a serious problem. More needs to be done by individuals, organizations, and governments to raise awareness and combat its negative effects. From simple solutions to organized city or statewide blackouts, there is a wide range of actions that can be taken to reduce light pollution.
S1 BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: EFFECTS OF LIGHT POLLUTION ACROSS DIVERSE NATURAL SYSTEMS
by Ditmer et al
How Leopard Geckos may just hold the key to Neurogenetic mysteries.
by String Theory blogger Mariah Wright-Moses
Have you ever wondered what happens to your brain cells after a traumatic brain injury?: During my attendance at the SICB conference I became interested in just this question when I watched the talk within the Contributed Talk Session under Neuroanatomy and Neurobiology titled, “Injury-Mediated” Neurogenesis in the brain of the Leopard Gecko (Eublepharis macularius)”. Laura Austin, the presenter, from the Vickaryous Lab within the Biomedical Sciences department at the University of Guelph explained the process of neurogenesis in Leopard Geckos. While lizards are well known for their neurogenic abilities, such as tail regeneration, the Leopard Gecko has the ability to produce new neurons for the medial cortex, completing neurogenesis in 42 days. This makes them a great model organism to understand the timing process of neuron recovery and neurogenesis. As a bonus Leopard geckos are docile, readily available and have tons of charisma.
The pics of the leopard geckos are the ones Laura worked with in her lab, left and the picture above is her team at the Vickaryous Lab! The geckos’ charisma has permeated the lab. Photos courtesy of Laura Austin from the University of Guelph.
Realizing the Leopard Geckos neuroregenerative timing, I was led to my driving point of research, what would the timing and functionality look like in humans? I was aware of the large genetic difference between leopard geckos and humans but still questioned just how much of a difference in neurogenic processing there could be. I questioned what neurogenesis appearance would pose as in injuries/diseases that posed brain cell injury to humans. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s alongside traumatic brain injuries each stemmed from the talk of understanding the neurogenesis process. However, determining the validity of my research was the most important due to the ethics behind human neurological injured neurogenesis research, the topic itself poses as taboo.
There was much to learn from Leopard Geckos, as Laura explained, they are a great model organism for neurogenesis. By learning from their experimentation it left endless possibilities for the verification of human injury induced based neurogenesis. Still determined to attempt to verify the possibilities and understand the human process of neurogenesis, I dove in, interested in reliable results lying within the matter.
- Check out Laura’s cool descriptions of the behind the scenes working of her work on the geckos Laura Austin’s Presentation Graphics and Information
You might be wondering, what exactly is Neurogenesis?: Neurogenesis means just as it sounds, neuro meaning neurons that are within the brain and genesis meaning generation. In the adult brain there are two regions, one is the subventricular zone and the other is the hippocampus, they are the areas that allow stem cells to multiply and generate new neurons. The process of neurogenesis has been known to be very important in memory and learning.
Here is an image that depicts a process of the experimentation process of neuron regeneration within the Leopard Geckos at the Vickaryous Lab. Photos courtesy of Laura Austin from the University of Guelph.
To get A Better Understanding of Neurogenesis Here’s A Great Video from STEM Cells and Adult Neurogenesis: https://youtu.be/o98crZWauPI
What about Neurogenesis in Humans?: Although controversial, human neurologically-injured based neurogenesis has been researched for years. Adult loss of human neurogenesis in the hippocampus has been a primary focus for the LabEx Revive. This loss has been linked to the poor ability to distinguish certain episodes and scenes in someone’s life, causing large emotional confusion. Associations of lost neurogenesis range from neurological conditions from depression to post traumatic stress disorder. Conditions such as stress, sleep, deprivation, and the ageing process largely contribute to lost neurogenesis. Noticeably, social interaction, exercise, and learning can instead stimulate neurogenesis. These mechanisms are still being researched today for further validity.
The human brain vs. the rat brain’s structure, they can be similar in terms of brain function which is why rats are often used for neurogenesis testing for ethical reasons. Crews, F.T. & Nixon, K. (2004). Alcohol, neural stem cells, and adult neurogenesis. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved 03-09-21 from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/197-204.htm.Check out this Article Highlighting the “Recent” Evidence Surrounding Neurogenesis in Humans: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/more-evidence-that-humans-do-appear-to-create-new-neurons-in-old-age-65650
The effects of Neurogenesis in Conditioned/Injury Based Diseases in Humans:
Neurogenesis is typically affected in neurological diseases/injuries such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injury). Researchers have high hopes for converting structural cells into functioning neurons in many cases of brain damage. In the cerebral cortex of animals, scientists were able to develop regeneration within damaged areas of the brain through transforming a support cell in the brain. The cerebral cortex typically involves controlling movement, conscious thought and memory, interpreting senses. The cerebral cortex is typically not known to regenerate new cells in adults, once the cells are dead or damaged they are said not to be replaced. However, after a virus-based experiment that has been proved otherwise. Creating new neurons according to Benedikt Berninger may not restore memories that were coded in connections between degenerating cells, but it may allow the system to acquire new memories.
Imaging of what happens to the brain when it suffers a traumatic brain injury.Photo courtesy of Max Andrews, derived from Concussion mechanics.svg
A side by side of a healthy brain (left) vs. an unhealthy brain (Alzheimer’s, right). Image courtesy of National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health.
It’s amazing to think that Leopard Geckos could help provide the keys to activating neurogenesis in humans, possibly providing hope to patients with Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries. However, it’s important to realize the reality of the fragility of your neurons. They can be damaged in many ways but the process of regenerating them completely seems possible but largely hypothetical at this time. Remember the next time you consider your brain to be one-dimensional but functional, the brain is multidimensional and contributes to the very way you speak.
To read more about Laura Austin and her P.I.’s connection to leopard geckos and injury-mediated neurogenesis see below!Ms. Austin’s and Dr. Vickaryous’ Interview.
Images courtesy of Laura Austin from the University of Guelph.
McDonald, Rebecca P., and Matthew K. Vickaryous. Evidence for Neurogenesis in the MEDIAL Cortex of the LEOPARD Gecko, Eublepharis Macularius. 25 June 2018, http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-27880-6.
Yeager, Ashley. “More Evidence That Humans Do Appear to Create New Neurons in Old Age.” The Scientist Magazine®, http://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/more-evidence-that-humans-do-appear-to-create-new-neurons-in-old-age-65650.
“Brain Damage Could Be Repaired by Creating New Nerve Cells.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Nov. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/20/brain-damage-nerve-cells-neurons.
“New Insight Into How The Brain Regenerates After Stroke.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 23 Dec. 2006, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061223092924.htm. Stem Cells and Adult Neurogenesis. 5 June 2018, youtu.be/o98crZWauPI.
Read the paper from the Vickaryous lab in issue 2 of ICB 2021
Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 61, Issue 2, August 2021, Pages 370–384, https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icab098