Category: Biological Musings

Lady of the Flies: Attempting to ID the infestation in my office

A couple of weeks ago I started noticing a large number of flies in my campus office. They are a mild nuisance as they get trapped between my blinds and windows and the buzzing noise is distracting. The large number of fly corpses is also gross, but I’m a biologist, so I’m taking it in stride.

Due to the fact that I’m a nerd, I’ve been attempting to solve the mystery of where these flies are coming from and what type of fly is in my office. I was quickly able to rule out the blowfly, which means that my fear of a rotting animal in my ceiling is likely unfounded. So it’s a toss up between the common house fly and the cluster fly. Based on the fact that the flies are pretty sluggish and have golden hairs on the thorax my best guest is that they are cluster flies.

Cluster flies feed on earthworms as maggots and move into buildings when it comes time to hibernate. I’m guessing that because September was so warm, it’s only recently that the flies have started to move into my building and invade my office. I’m guessing I’ll see a second wave when they all wake up in the spring.

 

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Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.

 

Impacts of Hurricane Irma on biology

The footage and news coverage of Irma has been amazing and serves to remind us that no matter how much we think that we have been able to engineer our environments we are no match for the power of Mother Nature. While much has been said about the impacts that the hurricane will have on human affairs, culture, and infrastructure, not much has been said about the long term effects that will be felt on the ecosystems in the path of the storm. This focus, when it does occur, will no doubt be on animals. My daughter was particularly disturbed by the Tweets that went out yesterday urging Floridians to not abandon their pets to fend for themselves during the hurricane. While this is certainly disturbing, it is worth taking a moment to think about the wildlife in these regions that will never be the same.

I find it amazing that birds are commonly found in the eyes of hurricanes and that they can be transplanted hundreds of kilometres by this process. Here’s a short article from the Miami Herald on the topic of wildlife and hurricanes. As a plant biologist, I’m really impressed by the ability of the palm trees to survive hurricane conditions. Here’s a quick article on the adaptations that allow them to do this.

I also found the emptying of the bays and the returning storm surge to be amazing. This phenomenon must kill a huge amount of aquatic life due to the changing water levels, salinity, temperature, and oxygen that results.

 

DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.

DoctorAl Digest 6

Quite a bit of excitement for me this week as I participated in my first radio interview with the local CBC station on challenges faced by women in science. I posted on my preparation for the interview here . The link to the interview with myself, Anne Wilson, and the researcher who was the driving force for the display, Eden Hennessey is here.

A very informative and interesting article on the phenomenon of “plant blindness” from the guardian. Despite the fact that I’m a plant biologist, I’m as guilty of having this disease as the next person.

A cool gallery of contenders for the Agar Art contest being run by the American Society for Microbiology. Some of the images are quite stunning!

Stephen Heard has a neat post up on his blog about “The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets. Perhaps as teachers this is worth thinking about?

DoctorAl Digest 5

As a person with a hearing impairment this article talking about exploring the positive effects of having a hearing disability was very interesting. I strongly agree with the finding that having a hearing impairment leads to increased empathy for others as this has been my personal experience as I outlined in a previous blog post.

Based on Jeremy’s book review over at the Dynamic Ecology blog I`ve put this book on reserve at our university library. I’ve always been interested in how movies hire and use scientific consultants.

Ed Yong asks a question important to Moms everywhere. Foetal cells hide out in Mum`s body, but what do they do?

A weird article about giant fruit contests and using DNA to ensure that the winner is confirmed as belonging to a particular variety of tomato.

A very cool story of how parasitized bees may self-medicate with nectar.

Bat poop and spiny lips

The first cool story came out a few weeks ago. In my 4th year undergraduate course “Environmental Stress Biology of Plants” I teach a few lectures on low nitrogen environments and the various ways that plants have adapted to get around this problem. In one of these lectures I cover the many neat types of carnivorous plants that eat animals as a way to obtain nutrients. A few years back I stumbled across a neat photo of a bat hanging around inside of a pitcher plant. This was a great example of a symbiotic relationship; presumably the bat gets a safe place to camp out during the day and the plant obtains nitrogen in the form of bat guano (feces). Biology is so awesome! The story gets even more interesting with the publication of a research paper a few weeks ago that figured out how the bat locates these potential nesting spots. It turns out that the shape of the plant’s opening takes advantage of the bat’s echolocation abilities and tells the bat exactly where to go in order to safely sleep in the plant.

The original article can be found here.

The second story is about frogs which are my favourite animals. While many frogs are poisonous (they produce toxins, but lack a delivery mechanism), this is the first description of frogs that are venomous (they produce toxins, and have a delivery mechanism). Two species of frogs were recently discovered in Brazil that have bony spines on their skull that pass through poison glands and there are some stunning photographs in the article. One of the authors had the unfortunate luck to experience the effectiveness of the toxin first hand while collecting a frog and experienced 5 hours of intense pain. The authors note rather dryly that this defense mechanism would be even more effective if delivered into the mouth of an attacking predator.

The original article can be found here.

Both of these articles likely had their genesis in a scientist noticing something really weird during field work. I always emphasize to my students that one of the best skills that a scientist can develop is a keen sense of observation.

DoctorAl Digest 3

Interesting reads and posts that I’ve stumbled across this week…

DoctorAl Digest 3

Thinking about having kids as an academic and want to do it with a partner? Yes, yes, yes to everything in this article! One of the most honest and frank articles that I have read on this topic.

During graduate school I participated in the thesis support group that was helpful in so many ways. I’m thinking that I might need to start a faculty writing group where I am.

A great overview of social media tools by Bonnie Zink that has been helpful to me as I become more savvy with these platforms.

A good, quick article on disruptions and distractions (and the differences between them) and some strategies on how to deal with them by Natalie Houston.

Having been at the cottage last week and thinking about West Nile Virus, here is a great blog post on how mosquitos look for their next meal by Betty Zou. Her summaries of scientific papers are always well written and interesting!

Happy reading!

DoctorAl Digest 2

An overview of neat things that I’ve found on-line in the past few weeks:

1. Some great tips on handling stress as a graduate student or post-doc. (Also applicable to faculty members!)

2. A very thoughtful post on ignorance and privilege. Confronting My Own Racism on the Women In Astronomy blog.

3. As usual, Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s advice is spot on!

4. We hear about microaggressions, but this blog post very succinctly outlines the threats of micropromotions for those who don’t fit the typical mold.

5. An exceptionally cool paper talking about eye-like structures in dinoflagellates that are assembled using mitochondria and chloroplasts. I especially liked the idea that “hidden organelle networks could be widely overlooked in nature”.

PhD Tree: The website that lets you see how incestuous research science is

Last week I received an unusual piece of spam in my email inbox. It was from a website called PhDtree.org . Evidently someone thought that it would be an awesome idea to spam email addresses acquired from PubMed in order to publicize the site.

The concept behind the website is an interesting one. The idea is to follow the academia genealogy of scientists through their research careers. It’s an idea that I’ve joked about with colleagues at conferences and it’s therefore interesting to see someone attempting to make it a reality. It’s somehow been auto-populated as I haven’t added anything to the site, but two entries from my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees are present. Sort of a 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon for researchers. It would be interesting to identify people who are hubs in the network. Someone has even decided that it’s worth doing an Academic Genealogy of Nobel Prize Winners .

At the moment the tree and most of the entries are very heavily skewed towards one sex. It would be interesting to see if an analysis of the data could highlight leak points in the leaky pipeline or identify particular PIs that exhibit biases in the trainees that they take on.

Not sure if it will take off or not, but it’s an interesting idea.