Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Caught in My Web: Animals of the California Fires

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
The current California wildfires have been rapidly destroying livelihoods, lifestyles and lives. The damage is horrific and recovery will take time, effort, and lots of support. When fires of this magnitude happen, what happens with our animal friends? We explore this with this edition of Caught in My Web.

1. Sarah Zielinski from National Geographic wrote a very informative article about how wildfires affect wild animals.

2. But while wild animals often have the freedom and abilities to escape the worst effects of fire, those protected in sanctuaries generally do not and have to evacuate.

3. Domesticated farm animals also need to seek refuge, and meeting the needs for large numbers of large animals can be a challenge.

4. Many people have been forced to flee so quickly that they lost contact with their beloved pets. But here is a heartwarming story of two brothers that returned to find their home destroyed and their beloved dog, Izzy, wagging her tail from the rubble.



5. But life does not pause when disaster strikes. Amid the wildfires, the Santa Rosa Wildlife Preserve welcomed the addition of a new baby Nile lechwe (an endangered species of antelope), who is healthy and strong. Their press release states, "It is easy to focus on the darkness in times of trouble but hopefully, stories like ours of a baby born in the midst of disaster, will remind us to see the light".

Do you want to do something to help the animals affected by the California fires? Here is how.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: An Outline

Do you dream about a career of studying animals?
Image by freedigitalphotos.net.
A reposting of an article from March 13, 2013.

**NOTE: Although this advice is written for those interested in applying to graduate programs in animal behavior, it applies to most programs in the sciences.**

So you want to go to grad school to study animal behavior… Well join the club! It is a competitive world out there and this is an increasingly competitive field. But if every fiber of your being knows this is the path for you, then there is a way for you to follow that path. With hard work, dedication and persistence, you can join the ranks of today's animal biologists to pursue a career of trekking to wild places to study animals in their native habitats, testing questions about the physiology of behavior in a lab, or exploring the genetics of behavioral adaptation.

This is an outline of advice on how to get into a graduate program in animal behavior. More details on the individual steps will follow, so leave a comment below or e-mail me if you have any particular questions you would like me to address or if you have any advice you would like to share.


  1. Get good grades, particularly in your science and math courses. And make sure you take all the science and math prerequisites for biology graduate programs.
  2. Prepare well for the GREs.
  3. Get research experience. This can come in many forms (such as volunteering in a lab, working as a field technician, or doing an independent project for credit), but as a general rule, the more involved you are in a project, the more it will impress those making acceptance decisions.
  4. Choose the labs you are interested in, not just the schools. As a graduate student, you will spend most of your time working with your advisor and the other members of your advisor’s lab. This means that the right fit is imperative. Figure out what researchers you may want to work with, then see if they are at a school you would like to attend.
  5. Be organized in your application process. There will be a lot of details to keep straight: due dates, recommendation letters, essays, communication with potential advisors… The more organized you are, the less likely you are to miss a deadline or make an embarrassing mistake.
  6. Write compelling essays. Most schools will ask you to write two short essays: a Statement of Purpose and a Personal History. This is your place to set yourself apart. They need to convey your experience with animal behavior research and passion for working with that particular advisor. They also need to be very well written, so expect to write multiple drafts.
  7. Be organized and prepared when you ask for your recommendation letters. The easier you make it for your references to write a thoughtful recommendation letter for you, the better the letters will be.
  8. Apply for funding. This isn’t essential: Most first-year graduate students do not have their own funding. But the ability of a school and a specific researcher to accept a graduate student depends on what funding is available to support them. If you have your own funding, it is more likely you will to be able to write your own ticket.
  9. Be prepared for each interview you are invited to.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Although heartbraking at the time, it is very common in animal behavior graduate programs to not be accepted anywhere in your first year of applications. If you are rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good candidate. Often it means there is no funding available to support you in the labs you would like to join. Spend the year participating in research and applying for funding so you can reapply next year.
The submission of a successful application takes a lot of planning and preparation. Getting good grades is a continuous effort. Plus, the most successful applicants often have two or more years of research experience. Ideally, you are working on these two things at least by your sophomore year of college. But if you waited too long and you haven’t taken enough science or math prerequisites, your grades are not where they need to be, or you don’t have enough research experience, you can take some extra time after you graduate to take community college courses and volunteer or work in a lab. Persistence and dedication are key to following a challenging path.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mind-Manipulating Slave-Making Ants!

A reposting of an article from October 10, 2012.

An entire colony enslaved by an alien species to care for their young. Slave rebellions quelled by mind manipulation. It sounds like science fiction, right? But it really happens!

Myrmoxenus ravouxi (called M. ravouxi for “short”) is a slave-making ant species in which the queen probably wears a chemical mask, matching the scent of a host species in order to invade their nest without detection. Once inside, she lays her eggs for the host species workers to care for. Armies of M. ravouxi workers then raid these host colonies to steel their brood to become future slave-laborers to serve the needs of the M. ravouxi colony.

A M. ravouxi queen throttling a host queen. Photo by Olivier Delattre.

Enslaved worker ants could rebel: They could destroy the parasite brood or at least not do a good job caring for them. But to selectively harm the parasite brood without harming their own nests’ brood, the host ants would have to be able to tell them apart. Ants learn the smell of their colony in their youth, so any ants born to an already-parasitized colony would likely not be able to tell apart parasite ants from their own species. But what about ants that were born to colonies before they were invaded?

Olivier Delattre, Nicolas Châline, Stéphane Chameron, Emmanuel Lecoutey, and Pierre Jaisson from the Laboratory of Experimental Ethology in France figured that compared to ant species that were never hosts to M. ravouxi colonies, ant species that were commonly hosts of M. ravouxi colonies would be better able to discriminate their own species’ brood from M. ravouxi brood. Host species may even be better at discriminating in general.

The researchers collected ant colonies from near Fontainebleau and Montpellier in France. They collected M. ravouxi colonies and colonies of a species that they commonly parasitize (but were not parasitized at the time): Temnothorax unifasciatus (called T. unifasciatus for “short”). The researchers also collected T. unifasciatus that were parasitized by M. ravouxi at the time. Additionally, they collected colonies of T. nylanderi and T. parvulus, two species that are never parasitized by M. ravouxi. (Sorry guys. All these species go by their scientific names. But really, that just makes them sound all the more mysterious, right?). The researchers took all their ant colonies back to the lab and housed them in specialized plastic boxes (i.e. scientific ant-farms).

On the day of the tests, the scientists removed a single pupa (kind of like an ant-toddler) from one nest and placed it into a different nest of the same species or back in its own nest. They did this for colonies of both non-host species and for colonies of host species T. unifasciatus that were not parasitized at the time. Then they counted how many times the workers bit the pupa (an aggressive behavior) or groomed the pupa (a caring behavior).

Workers from all three species bit the pupa that was not from their colony more than they bit their own colony’s pupa. But the T. unifasciatus (the host species) were even more aggressive to foreign pupa than the other species. And only the T. unifasciatus withheld grooming from the pupa that was not from their colony compared to the one that was from their colony. Although all three species seemed to be able to tell the difference between a pupa from their own nest versus one from another nest, only the species that is regularly enslaved by M. ravouxi decreased care to foreign young. So that is what these ants do when they are not enslaved. How do you think enslaved ants respond to their own species’ young compared to M. ravouxi young?

A 1975 cover of Galaxie/Bis, a French science
fiction magazine, by Philippe Legendre-Kvater.
Image from Wikimedia.
The researchers repeated the study using enslaved T. unifasciatus, placing either a pupa of their own species from a different nest or a M. ravouxi pupa in with their brood. Even though prior to M. ravouxi takeover the T. unifasciatus bit foreign pupa more than their own, after M. ravouxi takeover they didn’t bite foreign pupa of their own species or M. ravouxi pupa very much. Not only that, but they groomed the M. ravouxi pupa more than the pupa of their own species! Ah hah! Mind control!

This, my friends, is the kind of truth that science fiction is made from.

But how might this work? Ants born to an enslaved colony would be exposed to both their own odors and the M. ravouxi odors. Because ants learn the smell of their colony in the first few days after they emerge from their eggs, these enslaved ants would have a broader set of smells that they may perceive as being “within the family”. That would explain why the enslaved T. unifasciatus ants didn’t attack either the foreign-born T. unifasciatus or the M. ravouxi young, but it doesn’t explain why the enslaved ants provided more care to the M. ravouxi than they did to their own species. One possibility is that the M. ravouxi produce more or especially attractive odors to encourage the host workers to take care of them.

There is still more to learn about this system: How exactly may the M. ravouxi be hijacking the pheromonal systems of their host species? How are the host species protecting themselves from exploitation? I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Delattre, O., Chȃline, N., Chameron, S., Lecoutey, E., & Jaisson, P. (2012). Social parasite pressure affects brood discrimination of host species in Temnothorax ants Animal Behaviour, 84, 445-450 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.05.020

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Weirdest Animals on Earth: 12 Amazing Facts About Seahorses

A seahorse in all its glory. Photo by Gustavo Gerdel at Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seahorses are fish. They include about 54 different species of fish and are closely related to sea dragons and pipefish. But seahorses are not your typical fish! A baby seahorse is called a fry (like in other fish), but a group of seahorses is called a herd (like in horses).

2. Seahorses have skeletons unlike any other fish. Unlike other bony fish, seahorses have a neck, an exoskeleton, and a prehensile tail. Seahorses do not have pelvic fins, ribs or scales. Instead, their skin is stretched over a series of bony plates arranged in rings.

3. Seahorses are terrible swimmers and can die of exhaustion if the sea is rough or the current is too strong. The only fin they have to get around with it the tiny one in the middle of their back (the dorsal fin). They use even smaller pectoral fins on the sides of their head to steer. Seahorses and razorfish are the only fish to swim upright, because it is horribly inefficient. It is a good thing they have a prehensile tail to hang on to whatever is nearby.

A pygmy seahorse in camouflage.
Photo by prilfish at Wikimedia.
4. Seahorses are experts at camouflage and can change color. They are even able to grow fleshy appendages (called cirri) that help them with camouflage by giving them a weed-like appearance.

5. Seahorses have terrible smell but amazing vision. They have the fewest genes for olfactory receptors (used in other animals for smell and taste) of any ray-finned fish species known. But seahorses have excellent vision and their eyes can work independently, meaning they can look forward and backward at the same time!

6. Seahorses eat weird. They have a toothless, tubular snout, which they use to suck up small fish and crustaceans. They swallow them whole. Seahorses do not have stomachs and don't digest very well, so they have to eat constantly.

7. Seahorses are one of the ocean's deadliest predators, with a 90% kill rate. Because of the shape of their head and their slow, finless method of movement, seahorses move with near hydrodynamic silence, barely moving the water as their stealthily sneak up on their prey. Once they are within striking distance, they snap their heads and suck up their prey. 



8. Seahorses click when they're courting and growl when their stressed



9. Seahorses are monogamous and pair for life. Their courtship begins with a daily dance between the couple that they do for days. The final courtship dance can last eight hours before the female "impregnates" her partner.

10. Male seahorses get "pregnant". They are the only males that take on the full responsibility of pregnancy, carrying up to 2,000 babies at a time! Although they don’t have a mammalian womb and placenta, they do have an enclosed abdominal pouch specifically for the purpose of incubating the babies. The female deposits her eggs in his brood pouch, in which he fertilizes them and incubates them for 10-45 days (depending on the species). During this time, his body undergoes a number of hormonal and physiological changes. When the babies are ready to emerge as fully developed little seahorses, seahorse dads even experience contractions as they give birth! 



11. Seahorses are evolving faster than any other group of bony fishes. Scientists have sequenced the entire genome of a tiger tail seahorse, a threatened tropical seahorse species.

12. Seahorses are under threat because of the traditional Chinese medicine trade, the pet trade, and the curio trade, all of which capture seahorses from the wild, and because of habitat depletion and pollution.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Caught in My Web: Spiders!

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
Spiders creep most of us out. But let’s face it: they are pretty darn amazing! For this edition of Caught in My Web, we appreciate our 8-legged friends.

1. Did you know that sea spiders use their gut as a heart?

2. And lace sheet weaver spiders make optical illusion webs to lure nocturnal moths.

3. Even our run-of-the-mill spiders are pretty amazing, when you really look at them. Watch this amazing timelapse of a garden orb web spider building a web:



4. Portia, the spider-hunting spider, is a genius with super-powers:


5. And researchers at the National University of Singapore have now found that personality affects how these smart spiders hunt.