The Cost of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Friday, April 30, 2010 at 1:30 PM Bookmark and Share
This post will be updated regularly. There are links below to related articles, blog posts, and other resources on the flora and fauna affected by the gulf coast BP oil spill. If you know of other links or suggestions, please send them to me via email or in the comments below.

Bloggers, biologists, naturalists, science writers... I need your help. Life is about to get very bad for the inhabitants of the Gulf Coast, with the first waves of raw crude oil projected to reach shore in the coming days, if it hasn't already. While this will certainly have an impact on local economies and an even bigger impact on those who make their living from those waters, there will be a great many other living organisms and even entire ecosystems that will be utterly devastated by the spill.

So why don't more people seem to care?  While there is no single answer to that question , it is in part because pretty much every single person has absolutely no idea that most of the affected species even exist.  It's hard to fault someone for not caring about something they don't even know exists, and I'd bet most people would care if they only knew...  That, my friends, is where I need your help!

How you can help...

To help raise awareness of the environmental costs of the gulf coast oil spill, I'm asking others to take at least one of the follow actions to draw attention to particular species and ecosystems affected by the spill:
  1. Share this post, and this request with others, and be creative about it -- encourage your local news paper's science writer to showcase the environmental costs of the spill, organize a public talk by local conservation groups, university or government researchers, and so on.  Check back now and then and share some of the posts below with your family, friends and coworkers.
  2. If you have a blog, choose an organism -- plant, animal, or other -- and tell the rest of us about it. No blog? No problem... you can always write a guest-post for someone else's blog, or use other media outlets. You can make a video and post it on youtube, send some info you your local newscasters, do whatever you can think of!  Share pictures, natural history facts, economic value, whatever you can come up with to convey to the public why anyone should give a rat's tail about the demise of your chosen subject.  Once you've done that, if it's on the web, please send me the link and I'll include it below.
  3. Stash some cash if you can, and consider donating to the recovery efforts.  I'll post more information below once I get the time to offer up suggestion.
Check back soon for updates!


Related Links...

News and Updates
Other Links

Mid-week Reptilian #17: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 3:17 PM Bookmark and Share
Known for their eagerness to bite when handled (and the anticoagulant properties of their saliva), Northern Water Snakes are a common species throughout much of eastern and central North America (map).  These snakes appear to either have evolved color patterns that mimic venomous snakes like the Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), or their coloration is simply a case of convergent evolution.  Either way, many people are quick to kill any venomous snakes they encounter and the similarity between Nerodia sp. and some venomous snakes often costs the misidentified water snake it's life.

Below are a few photos of Ithaca, NY area Northern Water Snakes from July and August of 2009 (as always, click to enlarge).  I was actually out trying to get bit when I took these, as I wanted to informally check out their anticoagulant saliva by comparing bites between these and comparably sized Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). The results? Well, I wimped out... all I could get close to were the larger water snakes and I wasn't THAT eager to see how much they could make me bleed.  Hopefully I'll have better luck this year - ha! 

Figure 1: A largish individual getting ready to shed. Note the opaque eyes and overall faded look.

Figure 2:  An even larger (female?) individual basking on a boulder in the middle of a creek.

Figure 3: A smaller (male?) found a few feet from the above female.

Monday Mammal #2: African Wild Dog

Monday, April 26, 2010 at 8:07 AM Bookmark and Share
I've been busy the past few days, so this post is brief.  To kick off the week, I considered offering up a familiar mammal, something like the domestic dog...

 Figure 1: Not an African Wild Dog (way too lazy).

...but instead decided to go with something slightly more exotic.  So instead, here's Lycaon pictus (aka the African wild dog, African painted dog, cape hunting dog, etc.)  Below are a couple of photos taken at the Denver Zoo in late summer, 2009.  You can read more about African Wild Dogs here, here, here or by following the links listed here.

Summary of Cancer Research Facts

Friday, April 23, 2010 at 8:18 PM Bookmark and Share
Over at the Respectful Insolence, Orac has shared a video produced by the American Association for Cancer Research which includes a wealth of information about the current state of cancer research.  You to read Orac's take on the video if you're interested in the topic (though do ignore his unappreciative take on the soundtrack!).

What a remake of this video will look like 5, 10 or 15 years from now is anyone's guess -- but one thing is certain: it'll take a whole lot of money, manpower, technological innovation, and sound science if we're to continue to make progress in treating and preventing cancer.

Happy Earth Day!

Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:56 AM Bookmark and Share
An appreciation for nature and science is all about knowing what's out there in the world, and the ways of discovering how it all works.  To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day a valuable gift you can share with others (especially children) is the simple ability to observe.

In fact, if I had only one bit of advice on encouraging an interest in the natural world, it would be this: foster keen observation and encourage curiosity.

If you're thinking "... but, how?" well, you're in luck: getting started is easier than you think!

First, get outside and into close contact with the natural world.  This should involve dirt, maybe a little mud, plants, insects, rocks, untreated water, and a distinct lack of paved surfaces. Fortunately for most of us, this is as easy as heading into the back yard or to a nearby park or natural area.

Second, bring along tools that enhance the senses: magnifying lenses, binoculars, headlamps, telescopes, mirrors -- whatever you've got. Anything that broadens what one can observe with their own senses is going to enhance the experience.  Additional items to bring include things like nets and containers for temporarily collecting various critters. These are great items to bring along, but must be used responsibly and in accord with any local laws that might apply. 

Third, don't just passively observe, but be active about it!  Encourage interaction (safely, of course) and the active documentation of the experience. Passive forms of documentation (e.g. photographs) are easy, but do little to make one think about the experience or to get one to pay attention to details.  By "active documentation" I mean bring a notebook and measure things, count things, weigh things, describe things, identify things, and write it all down.

One of the very best ways I know to develop keen observational skills is to sketch, draw or otherwise describe subjects in a journal or field notebook.  You'd be amazed at the details you need to notice when trying to draw part of an insect under a magnifying lens, or a bird at your local park.  Later, encourage the use of field guides, books and online references to answer questions inspired by these experiences and notes from the excursion.

Whether you're a parent, teacher, part-time sitter, or just a friendly neighbor -- try and set aside some time today to teach someone something about our planet. 

Stunning Photos of Volcano Lightning from Iceland

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:45 AM Bookmark and Share
While the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland continues to belch ash into the atmosphere and cripple air travel, it's also putting on quite a stunning light show. Follow the links below to see more images of  lightening ripping through the clouds of ash above Iceland.

"Photograph by Peter Vancoillie... A blast of white-hot lightning crackles over Iceland's 
Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Sunday" 18 April 2010 [Source: National Geographic].

Photograph by Marco Fulle, Barcroft/Fame Pictures [Source: National Geographic]

Such phenomena aren't anything incredibly new, however (nor are they all that surprising when you think about how much material and energy are getting pumped up into the atmosphere).  Still, these events can lead to new discoveries. For another cool example, here's a shot taken in 2008 of an eruption in Chile.

Chilean volcano with lightening ca. 2008.

Links to Other Images:

Monday Mammal #1: Pronghorn

Monday, April 19, 2010 at 8:09 AM Bookmark and Share
I have a soft spot for cold blooded creatures, but that isn't to say I'm indifferent to those hot blooded, fur covered mammals. So what better use of all those mammal photos filling up my hard drive than yet another weekly series?
(...brief pause to think about that question...)

Yeah, same here - I couldn't think of anything better to do with them either - so weekly series it is!  With that, I bring you the first Monday Mammal from my home state of Colorado: the Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana).

Figure 1: A small herd of pronghorn around sunset in eastern Colorado in January, 2010.
This was shortly after Dr. Wife and I got hitched, and were headed to New Mexico for the
honeymoon. This group is feeding on walking stick cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata).

Despite being ruminant artiodactyls and bearing a close resemblance to true antelope (family Bovidae, along side cows and sheep), pronghorn are the only extant species in the family Antilocapridae and are apparently more closely related to giraffes and the okapi than anything else alive today.  There are currently five recognized subspecies: the nominate American (A. a. americana), Oregon (A. a. oregona), Mexican (A. a. mexicana), peninsula (A. a. peninsularis), and Sonoran (A. a. sonoriensis).

Quick story: Back when I was an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to help state wildlife officials in the capture and transport of some pronghorn from an area where they were in overabundance to an area looking to bolster their numbers.

Figure 2: Dropping the net in 3... 2... 1...

Catching them went something like this...
  1. Herd them into a large V-shaped section of fence with a helicopter.
  2. Drive across the prairie in the bed of one of at least 5 trucks full of people.
  3. Form a line across the top of the V, and drive the herd into a large net (see the second photo above).
  4. Drop the net.
  5. Sprint like mad towards the trap to hold each individual down so they didn't hurt themselves or one another.
  6. Hobble and blindfold them to keep them calm and manageable.
  7. Move them into the transport trailors for relocation.
Fun facts about Pronghorn that I learned that day: (1) their fur is covered in a musky oil that is near impossible to wash out of clothes; (2) 99% of the time, pronghorn don't jump over fences, they dive through them; and (3) they're amazing runners in part due to their surprisingly thin legs

If you'd like to know more about these unique critters, check out the Pronghorn page on the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web.

Update: For more, check out this fantastic post on "speedgoats" by Darren Naish over at Tetrapod Zoology.

Coyening a New Term: "New Creationism"

Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 1:46 PM Bookmark and Share
Recently, Jerry Coyne proposed a new term -- "New Creationism" -- to describe a set of commonly held natural and metaphysical beliefs: basically an acceptance of "Darwinian evolution" and simultaneous acceptance of certain beliefs about God being the creator of it all.  The term is reminiscent of Stephen Jay Gould's idea of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), although New Creationism is more specific than NOMA, having been "coyned" to...
...describe the body of thought that accepts Darwinian evolution but with the additional caveats that 1) it was all started by God, 2) had God-worshipping humans as its goal, and 3) that the evidence for all this is that life is complex, humans evolved, and the the “fine tuning” of physical constants of the universe testify to the great improbability of our being here—ergo God.
I'm not sure (yet) if I'll use the phrase, as I do like having such a nifty term to describe these or similar beliefs. Unfortunately, the part of me that likes terminology that is both broadly applicable and precise has some objections...
  1. It seems too narrow in it's list of religious beliefs, which others have already mentioned, and too particular to catch on without evolving another (related) meaning. 
  2. The root term "Creationism" brings to mind the kind of dogmatic science-denial found in young earth creationism, which is contrary to Jerry's new category of religious and scientific belief.
  3. It isn't all that "new" (which has also been a criticism of the term "New Atheism") and  
  4. just like "New Atheism" it will probably get used more as a derogatory term then as a useful characterization of human belief as plenty of "New Creationists" would probably consider it an insult to be labeled any kind of creationist.
If you're wondering why we need a new term when we've already got "intelligent design creationism" and we can make reference to Gould's NOMA, Jerry has at least a partial answer for you...
New Creationism differs from intelligent design because it rejects God’s constant intervention in the process of evolution in favor of a Big, One-Time Intervention, and because these ideas are espoused by real scientists like Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris.
So what do you think? Like it? Hate it? Do we need it? Can we improve the definition? Will it catch on? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

No Child Left Inside on Earth Day 2010

 at 12:24 AM Bookmark and Share
Many will soon be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22, 2010) by participating in various events and educational opportunities.  The No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Coalition is working to get kids outside as part of their efforts to promote environmental education and awareness -- a fantastic idea! If you aren't familiar with the importance of getting kids outside and involved in hands-on learning experiences, check out this short video:

For more information about getting outside on the Earth Day 2010, check out their Go Outside for Earth Day tool-kit resources.

A central goal of the NCLI coalition is to ensure public school students are provided adequate environmental education so they can meet future environmental challenges with well-informed and effective solutions.  To this end, they are working to pass the No Child Left Inside Act, which you can read more about on their website -- -- and below...
Background: The No Child Left Inside Coalition is a national coalition of over 1600 business, health, youth, faith, recreational, environmental, and educational groups representing over 50 million Americans. The entire list of coalition members is available here. The Coalition was formed in 2007 to alert Congress and the public to the need for our schools to devote more resources and attention to environmental education.

Goal: The Coalition is working to support legislation sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island to ensure that every student achieves basic environmental literacy. The No Child Left Inside Act would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) to include environmental education for the first time. The legislation would provide new funding for environmental education, particularly to develop rigorous standards, train teachers and to develop state environmental literacy plans. It also proposes giving states that develop such environmental literacy plans access to additional funds.

BCA Drops Libel Case Against Singh!!

UpdateAccording to Ben Goldacre, Singh may go after the BCA to recover his legal costs. You can read more on the case and the remaining need for British libel reform in Goldacre's article in the Guardian.

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped is libel case against science journalist Simon Sigh following the recent ruling that Singh could appeal an earlier verdict against him.  Details can be found on the BCA's website here (PDF) via the Sense About Science site here or at the Libel Reform Campaign website here.


Having carefully considered its position in the light of the judgment of the Court of Appeal (1st April 2010), the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has decided to discontinue its libel action against Simon Singh.
The BCA takes seriously its duty and responsibilities to members and to chiropractic patients. The BCA has considered seeking leave to take this matter to the Supreme Court and has been advised there are strong grounds for appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment. However, while it was right to bring this claim at the outset, the BCA now feels that the time is right for the matter to draw to a close.

Despite this big victory for Singh, it's only a non-loss for free speech.  Libel laws in the UK still need reform to protect free speech and promote open dialog -- and not just in the UK, but world-wide.

I would have preferred the outcome where Simon won his case on appeal, setting legal grounds for future libel cases against journalists. To learn more about libel law reform in the UK, visit the Sense About Science and The Libel Reform Campaign websites.

Michael Specter on the Dangers of Science Denial

Software for Science & Math: R and Maxima (part I)

Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 7:11 PM Bookmark and Share
In the coming months, I plan to write a series of posts reviewing "must-know" mathematics everyone should be familiar with: important concepts from Calculus, Probability and Statistics.  Here I begin by introducing some free software you can use to follow along, or use for your own computational tasks. In future posts, I'll encourage a little hands-on learning of these applications by providing code and other information so you can recreate my figures and results. 

Science has emerged as humankind's most effective way of understanding reality.  The success of the scientific method is largely a product of two key components: (1) a strong reliance on empirical data, and (2) a precise and powerful theoretical framework to properly formulate hypotheses, make predictions about experimental outcomes, etc.

Skipping over the importance of data (for now), I'd like to introduce some computational tools that you might consider installing on your computer. The applications are the computing platform known simply as R, and the software for doing symbolic manipulations (e.g. algebra) known as Maxima. I should mention this software isn't just for goofing around and writing blog posts -- these applications can be used to do research-level mathematical, statistical and numerical work. So you may find on or both to be valuable assets.

Oh, right -- and did I mention they're both free?

Mid-week Reptilian #16: New Species of Monitor Lizard!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 1:45 PM Bookmark and Share
I love monitor lizards (if you haven't already suspected as much). They're just so intelligent, physically impressive, and generally handsome little (ok, in some cases huge) lizards that I don't see how someone could look into their eyes and not be captivated by them.

You might think that all monitor species pushing 6 feet in length have been discovered by now, but recent news (here, here, here, y aquí) out of the Philippines provides a nice reminder that there is still much in the world we have yet to discover and understand. 

Meet the latest addition to the list of known varanids, Varanus bitatawa (aka the Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor):

 Figure 1: Now isn't this V. bitatawa just the cutest thing you've ever seen? 
I mean, this kind of cute just eats up any of the competition! [Source]

The find was published today in Biology Letters (links below), though I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  The discovery itself is pretty big news, but the story gets better!!  These rather large monitors also have some pretty interesting ecology:  they're arboreal and (unlike almost all other monitors, which are carnivores) their diet is at least partly composed of fruit!!

Figure 2: More reptilian cuteness, which was probably followed 
by the photographer getting a nice tail lashing. [Source]


  1. L.J. Welton, C.D. Siler, D. Bennett, A. Diesmos, M.R. Duya, R. Dugay, E.L.B. Rico, M. Van Weerd, R.M. Brown. 7 April 2010. A spectacular new Philippine monitor lizard reveals a hidden biogeographic boundary and a novel flagship species for conservation. Biology Letters. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0119

Dividing by zero

 at 12:52 AM Bookmark and Share
A friend of mine requested I do a post about diving by zero... and recalling this image I just couldn't resist!

While mathematicians publicly cringe at the idea of such divisions, we don't really worry too much about them in practice... they're easy enough to avoid and when the problem does arise, well -- we have our tricks! 

So what happens when you divide by zero? Broadly speaking, a few things can happen. No, the universe won't explode or anything like that, although you can do fun tricks like "prove" that 1=2 (see below).

What really happens -- if you're just dividing a number by zero -- is the outcome is undefinedNot a number. No solution.  It's nonsense.  Nothing interesting happens.   But suppose you divide by almost zero? Then what?  Can we learn anything about these "almost zero" cases?

It turns out we can, and the mathematical tools used to do so turn out to be fundamental to our ability to use math to understand real-world processes.  To understand all this, however, we need to begin by thinking about such divisions in the context of functions.

Suppose you have two functions f(x) and g(x) -- that is, two curves like the ones shown above -- and you make a new curve h(x) = g(x)/f(x) that is their ratio.  If the denominator f(x) is somewhere equal to zero -- in our example, at x=0 and x=1 -- then what happens for nearby values of x?

At this point, we're doing homework straight out of a first course in Calculus.  To do this properly, we'd draw on one of the most useful tools in mathematics -- the notion of limits -- which allow us to formalize some otherwise intuitive ideas and develop a ton of really useful tools for understanding more complicated looking functions (tools like, oh, say... all of calculus).

Without going into the mathematical details, these allow us to obtain precise (and often very general) statements similar to the following statements about our function h(x).

First, we know h(x)  is undefined at x=0 and x=1. If we ask what happens to values of h(x) close to x=0, we begin to learn something more about h(x) which, in some applications might be the answer to an important question.  Here, lets take a look at our toy example as define above.

Graphically, we can see that as x nears 0 from either direction, h(x) nears negative infinity.  In this case, we'd say the limit as x goes to zero is negative infinity.  On the other hand, as we consider x values near 1 we see that h(x) either runs off to negative infinity (x<1) or positive infinity (x>1).  In this case, as the limit goes two different directions depending on whether you approach x=1 from above or below. In this case we say that at x=1, the limit does not exist.  The usual pre-calculus questions about limits of (mostly) continuous functions.

So what does any of this have to do with dividing by zero?  After all, graphically this all seems a bit pointless!

It turns out that the problem of dividing by zero is the comical counterpart to some of the most powerful and ubiquitous tools in mathematics. The same properties of limits used to derive results like those above (from equations, instead of graphs) are the same concepts that provide a foundation for scientific theories in engineering, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.

A great place to build a foundation for understanding and using those tools is with a little bit of calculus, probability and statistics - any one of which would require more than another post or two, but might be well worth doing.

Until then, if you'd like a little calculus refresher there are a handful of free resources online including those here, here and here (all three of which are reviewed here).

As always, suggestions and requests can be shared via email or in the comments below.

R code for the figures above: 

Carnival of Evolution #22 ...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 at 12:53 PM Bookmark and Share
... is up at Ted MacRae's blog Beetles In The Bush.  Check it out!

I'm busy enough trying to keep up reading just a handful of blogs (via Google Reader) so I have avoided blog carnivals in the past.  After skimming this one, I might have to make an exception to that rule.

[Hat tip to Jason, The Thoughtful Animal]

How Science Works: "The Science Network"

 at 11:47 AM Bookmark and Share
What makes science work as well as it does, and why should we trust scientific theories? 

These aren't the kinds of questions most scientists worry about, but they are reasonable questions for the non-science layperson to ask.  Any science educator should have answers for these questions. For one of those answers, hop on over to David Hone's blog and check out his post The Science Network.  It's a good description of why science works, and why it's relatively safe to trust established scientific theories.  It also describes (though, not explicitly) why breaking science news should be taken with a grain of salt: it's the process of checking and re-checking that refines scientific knowledge and weeds out bogus ideas. 

Here's my condensed (ok, ok ... cherry-picked) version if you'd like a taste before clicking that link up above:
A good scientist knows what she knows and knows what he does not know. [They have] a good idea of [their] strengths and weaknesses and [their] areas of expertise and ignorance.

... crucially, I also know people who are good at the things I’m not good at and are not good at the things I am good at... Together we have breadth and depth.

...[Importantly], it allows us to cross check and revise our collective work and have confidence in what we are doing across the whole of science, even, or perhaps particularly, when we have little or no understanding of that field individually...

In this sense then, scientists are not so much a group of individuals as a cohesive whole. There are, obviously, errors made (occasionally profound ones) but this colossal network of research ideas and analysis does produce a singular, and generally very reliable, whole. I may not understand astrophysics, but I recognise and trust the methods used to generate the data, the analyses and the people behind it. So can you.
While I'm at it, this perspective on how science works also highlights the near impossibility of conspiracy among scientists, especially given that nearly all researchers love to call out others on major mistakes.  It's perhaps that impossibility that makes cartoons like this so amusing?

Small free speech victory: Singh wins right to appeal!

Friday, April 2, 2010 at 1:04 PM Bookmark and Share
For details, jump on over to this BBC article. While you're there, definitely watch the video and listen to what Singh has to say on the need to reform libel laws in the U.K.

I couldn't find a way to embed that video here, but here's a little more from him after the ruling...

To learn more about what you can do to help reform libel laws in the U.K., visit the Sense About Science and The Libel Reform Campaign websites.


More from the BBC...

The Power of Genetic Variation

Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 10:27 PM Bookmark and Share
Despite creationist claims to the contrary, living organisms are capable of producing offspring with shockingly different genomes than their parents.  Though often harmful, such changes provide the kind of heritable variation needed for evolution to work.

Just as Darwin gained great insights into heritable variation and natural selection from his study of domestic animals and plants, researchers today are still learning quite a bit about how the natural world works by studying domestic and model organisms.  Here's a recent example, courtesy of UC Davis via their YouTube channel:

I once asked a creationist pseudoscientist (who had just given a talk in which he'd made the silly claim that mutations don't add new information to a genome) why something like the doubling of an entire genome doesn't count as a change in information.  Now, I've previously mentioned the kind of "information" creationists like to talk about and, like clockwork, this guy responded to my question by whipping out out the most ridiculous definition of "information" I've ever seen misapplied, ever.

It should have been an epic embarrassment for him, but he didn't even seem to recognize how utterly dumb he had just made himself look. But hey, maybe some people would rather be right than be considered honest or rational. I wonder... would he consider losing half your genome a loss of information?