This Week I Found: January 11-17 2014

The capybara as a unit of measurement.

The Pasta Theory of Memory & Your Personal Beginning of Time‘.

In case you ever wondered how a corpse can be transformed into a diamond.

Wiping out top predators wreaks havoc on the balance of the ecosystem: some things are meant to be eaten.

Lizards Need Social Lives, Too‘.

Colour-change ‘lemmings’ with bi-pronged seasonal super-claws‘. This almost makes me like voles.

A nuclear bomb helped us learn about the longevity of great white sharks.

The ancient oceans were a crazy place.

Over the years, fashion has done a number on our bones.

We now know where tannins, an important component of red wine and black tea, come from in a plant.

Speaking of wine, what makes it good?

In Norway, the sea froze so fast that it killed thousands of fish.

How did so many dinosaurs coexist in North America?

What does Tiktaalik teach us about tetrapods and how we got on land?

What Happens When Water Freezes in a Box So Strong It Can’t Expand?

The heat wave in Australia is wiping out bee hives.

Why vulcanologists go through so many boots.

80-Year-Old Vintage Snake Venom Can Still Kill‘.

An indigenous Malaysian language allows speakers to describe smells like we describe colors.

I find this title very amusing: ‘Six Years After Chemical Ban, Fewer Female Snails Are Growing Penises‘.

Snow fleas are rather adorable.

If you dumped all the world’s tea in the Great Lakes, it wouldn’t taste very good.

Some birds fly in a V formation and it’s complicated.

Old trees can better deal with climate change.

It’s Really Hard to Get Rid of Dead Whales‘.

Of course Australia has dragons. And by dragons, I mean lizards.

More rediscovered kings: this time it’s the remains of King Alfred the Great found in museum storage.

Ball lightning is definitely not a hallucination.

I don’t think I have the acting chops to be a ‘standardized patient‘.

Forget the ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’, here’s how to reconstruct dinosaur fights.

China and India each have only one time zone. What if the whole world only used one time zone?

Lithopedions or ‘stone babies’ are rare but incredibly fascinating and terrifying.

I don’t know much about birds, but I really like this infographic: Never Trust Passerine Nomenclature.

To save the northern spotted owl, the barred owls are being shot.

Scurvy, skinny-dipping and giant sea cows.

Cicada Princess‘ is a short video narrated by Stephen Fry.

Hope Jahren explains why she ‘hijacked’ #ManicureMonday.

Dr. Carin Bondar’s Miley Cyrus ‘Wrecking Ball’ parody: Organisms Do Evolve.

Twitter + Science = Communication

It’s the beginning of a new year and of a new semester. Maybe you’ve resolved to use Twitter for networking or as a news source. Regardless of your reasons why or what you’re interested in, there are plenty of scientists on Twitter for you to follow. Here’s a small sampling of people that I follow.

Science Communication

Kate Wong is a science writer who covers paleontology, anthropology, archeology and animal behavior for Scientific American.

Carl Zimmer is a science writer who covers a wide, wide range of topics. I won’t try to pigeonhole him.

Hannah Waters is a science writer who tweets about science and equality.

Ed Yong is a science writer force of nature. Between Ed and Carl, they supply me with most of my science news.

Realscientists is a curated account that features a new scientist tweeting every week. Topics range from microbiology to astronomy to paleontology.

Kyle Hill is a science writer and is my source for exceptionally nerdy links.

Nautilus Magazine and Aeon Magazine are digital magazines with articles about science, culture and philosophy.

Paleontology

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) tweets about news in vertebrate paleontology, as you would expect.

The Geological Society of America, like SVP, tweets about news in the geosciences.

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer who covers paleontology. If you like dinosaurs, you’ll love Brian’s tweets.

Jacquelyn Gill is a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who tweets paleontology, ecology, and conservation.

Darren Naish writes for the blog Tetrapod Zoology and is half of the Tet Zoo podcats (podcast).

Anthropology

John Hawks is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a part of the Rising Star Expedition at the end of 2013.

Sex and Our Species is devoted to tweets about reproductive health, sex and gender, as well as other relevant topics.

Strange Remains tweets about stories in forensic anthropology and bioarcheology.

Lee Berger is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He was also a part of the Rising Star Expedition.

Entomology

Andy Warren is one of my favorite entomologists on Twitter. He tweets lots of pictures of butterflies!

Bug Girl is my other favorite entomologist on Twitter. Her blog posts have taught me everything I know about insects.

Biology

The University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) tweets about life at the station, as well as news in conservation, ecology and biology.

Brilliant Botany tweets about, you guessed it, botany. She also sprinkles in some science outreach and museum enthusiasm.

Hope Jahren is one of my favorite voices on Twitter. She tweets science, equality and routinely makes me laugh out loud.

Astronomy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most well-known scientists today. He is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Follow him for occasional tweets about the universe.

The Curiosity Rover tweets from the red planet!

Katie Mack tweets about the universe and women in STEM.

Women in STEM

Tenure, She Wrote describes themselves as ‘women on the tenure track with something to say’.

Trowelblazers is all about women in geology, paleontology and archeology.

5 Brainy Birds are women scientists writing about their experiences.

This Week I Found: January 4 – 10 2014

What Paleontology Teaches Us About Our Own Future‘.

In case I haven’t made it clear, here are 5 reasons not to use antibacterial soap.

I have a newfound admiration for the pink fairy armadillo.

Why do tropical rain forests have so much diversity?

An icebreaker was just rescued from the Antarctic ice and it does not disprove global climate change.

Global climate change is to blame for the wandering polar vortex.

Is the polar vortex more like the Hoth or beyond the wall?

The extreme cold from the polar vortex might help to wipe out invasive insects, as well as kudzu.

Now that the polar vortex is back in the Arctic, how did plants cope with the cold?

While North America is experiencing record low temperatures, the Australian heat is killing off thousands of flying foxes.

The Palaeobiology Database lets you visualize extinct species in time and space.

What does the Universe have in common with the floor under your fridge?

Dinosaur poop is harder to find than you would expect.

Home HIV tests are coming and that’s a good thing.

E. coli is one of the most well-known microbes, and it still surprises us.

If you want to find a new species, I recommend first looking in a little rural market or in museum collections, or in the Amazon.

Humans had cavities before the rise of agriculture.

The ancestor of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) wasn’t very big or fearsome.

Speaking of lions, they’re nearly extinct in West Africa.

I love when technology and paleontology collide: fossils and 3d printing.

Congratulations to the Great Lakes, the only region in the US with an increase in wetlands!

An interesting visual of how a few dog breeds have changed over the past 100 years.

Prairie dog ‘jump-yips’ are like a cross between a yawn and a sound off.

Birds and crocodiles use tools, but did dinosaurs?

Some birds eat fish and some fish eat birds.

My inner child can’t believe that there are ways to determine what color fossil organisms were.

I Love Science Because‘.

‘How to fossilize…yourself’ from TED-Ed

Ice balls in Lake Michigan

Paleontology and the Species Problem

A few months ago I wrote a post about ‘What Makes a Species‘. However, I only talked about the biological species concept which states that a species must be able to interbreed and produce viable offspring. Like I mentioned before, nature doesn’t like to follow the rules that we establish for it.

As genetic techniques have improved in the last few decades, they have been used more and more to identify new species. Genetic species share a common gene pool and are more genetically similar to each other than to anything else. For example, traditionally there were two species of elephants: African elephants (Loxodonta africana) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Recent genetic evidence suggests that African bush elephants (L. africana) and African forest elephants (L. cyclotis) are separate species. To many, genetic species identification is the gold standard. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible.

Paleontologists have to deal with a unique set of problems when it comes to species. How can you identify species when you have never seen these creatures and have few clues as to how they behaved? The primary method is morphology, or what the organism looked like. Paleontologists assume that organisms that are more closely related will look more similar than organisms that are more distantly related. Unfortunately, fossil remains are typically restricted to bones, while soft tissues such as cartilage, fur and feathers generally don’t preserve (with some impressive exceptions). However, morphology can be misleading. Just think about those elephants; even though African bush and forest elephants look the same, they are genetically different. Regardless, scientists often use comparative collections of modern species to identify fossil specimens. 

So what happens after paleontologists compare fossils to modern specimens? Depending on the age of the fossil, things could get complicated. More recent specimens may have modern relatives that are similar in appearance, which makes comparison easier. But what about more ancient fossils without obvious modern relatives? Historically, fossils have been dramatically misinterpreted. When the Greeks found the fossils of ancestral elephants, they thought the bones were the remains of the giant cyclops. Victorian scientists studying dinosaurs drastically misunderstood the creatures’ morphology. It takes time, experience and quality comparative collections to identify a taxon’s place in the taxonomic hierarchy.

Finally, how long can a single species exist? After millions of years, can taxa be considered the same species even if they look the same? Dr. Benjamin Burger presented on the topic of mammal species durations in the fossil record at the GSA 125th Annual Meeting. According to his talk, the insectivore Centetodon magnus survived for about 25 million years, while the proboscidean Gomphotherium angustidens persisted for about 23 million years. Often, scientists will name new species or genera because it seems unlikely that a single species could persist that long. However, that is a problem for another day.

The moral of the story is that taxonomic methods are human constructs. We are the ones who decided to classify all life on Earth. The more we learn, the more obvious it becomes that our current methods are frequently insufficient. Don’t let that discourage you! That’s the beauty of science; the more you learn, the more there is to learn.

To learn more about even more species concepts, check out this list.

This Week in Science: December 28 – January 3 2014

How much energy would it have taken for the dwarves to melt all that gold in The Desolation of Smaug?

Are dwarves and hobbits more closely related to humans or elves?

Smaug Breathes Fire Like A Bloated Bombardier Beetle With Flinted Teeth‘.

I love terrible science jokes.

What will it take to get more women in science?

No, dolphins aren’t getting high on pufferfish toxin.

This comes as no surprise to any rural Michigander: snow melts faster in the forest than in fields.

12 year old Jake has a great natural history blog.

The Most Fascinating Human Evolution Discoveries of 2013‘.

Here are 10 species that were declared extinct in 2013.

What can Doctor Who teach us about the fear of spiders?

Of vole plagues and hip glands‘.

Sometimes saving a species dooms it for the long term.

Is nail polish harmful?

I agree with Brian Switek: talking dinosaurs make me cringe.

What happened to the Neanderthals and why? The answer is: it’s complicated.

What did the people of Pompeii eat? Some things that you would expect and some things that you wouldn’t (giraffe).

What I learned about science from Twitter

I have used Twitter since my freshman year of college. I have over 12,500 tweets and have taught quite a few of my friends how to use the platform. I would consider myself a Twitter veteran, but for most of my time on Twitter my account was private. After a conversation with my best friend, we both decided to change our accounts to public. I can say without any reservations that making my Twitter profile public was the best decision I made in 2013.

When I began my foray into Twitter networking, I had no idea what I was doing. I followed some science bloggers I had heard of, then followed people that they followed, then followed people that they followed, and on and on. The science community on Twitter is a tangled web and everyone seems to know everyone else.

My mission to use Twitter as a networking tool has really taught me a lot.

First of all, I had one primary goal: to follow female scientists. At first, this seemed difficult. Most of the people that I had heard of on Twitter when I started were men. I soon realized how wrong I was; there are plenty of female scientists on Twitter and they are vocal. I hope to live up to their standards.

Secondly, I realized that I could learn so much about so many different disciplines. I follow paleontologists and paleoecologists because it is relevant to my current and future research. I follow biological anthropologists because I’m fascinated by human prehistory and evolution. I follow entomologists and ornithologists and climatologists because it is important to understand the world I live in. I follow scientists who are well known in their field, scientists who have just started their tenure-track, post-docs and graduate students. I’m sure that many of my non-scientist followers get annoyed at my science tweets and retweets, but maybe they will learn something.

Thirdly, I made friends. My family doesn’t understand when I tell them this, but it’s true. There are people on the internet, whom I have never met, who I consider my friends and wish them all the best. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet one of my internet friends at the GSA meeting in Denver in October. Emily Graslie, one of my internet role models, has a great video about internet friends.

Similarly, I have access to the hive-mind. One of my favorite aspects of the science community on Twitter is the hashtag #icanhazpdf. Scientists will pose questions to the group, seek advice, and offer insight. Stereotypes portray scientists as lone geniuses with limited social skills who never ask for help. In reality, science is frequently based on collaboration, and communication is key. I wish the media saw scientists the way that I do: as men and women who are excited to learn and to share their excitement with others.

Finally, I have a much better idea of what I’m getting myself into than I did last year. I have learned from Kate Clancy’s survey on harassment at field sites. Hope Jahren taught me about being a woman in academia. Katie Mack started a great discussion about alternatives to academia. I know that it is difficult to be a scientist in academia, particularly as a woman. I wish I had known the reality of my decision to pursue an academic career sooner, but even so I don’t think I would have changed my path.

If I could give my fellow graduate students one piece of advice it would be to join Twitter. Sure, there are plenty of teenagers using it to complain about their #firstworldproblems (as many of my classmates complain), but that doesn’t mean you have to follow them. Follow people who interest you. Join conversations. Put yourself out there. Get an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Most importantly, listen and learn.