How to become a botanist in 20 easy steps*!

So you want to be a botanist! Here’s how to do it in 20 easy steps*!

Step 1. Be a curious child. It’s helpful if you’re also raised in the country. Explore outside and be fascinated by nature.

Step 2. Love science. Love it madly and without reservation. Soak up everything you can and ask too many questions.

Step 3. Decide early on that you want to be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 4. Be told early on that you can’t actually be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 5. Reassess your life goals. Decide that science is still awesome and that you’ll decide on a career later.

Step 6. Take all of the science classes your high school offers and decide that you want to study something that people think is really hard, like brain surgery or rocket science.

Step 7. Graduate from high school and head to a really nice college.

Step 8. Major in environmental science and try to figure out what you really love.

Step 9. Have an eccentric geology professor who reminds you that you can actually be a paleontologist.

Step 10. Take an ecology class and realize that field work is one of your favorite things.

Step 11. Take a field botany course and realize that plants are pretty cool.

Step 12. Get a paleontology internship and be the only biologist among geologists. Extol the wonders of trees to them.

Step 13. Graduate from a really nice college and apply to graduate schools.

Step 14. Only get into one Master’s program. It’s your last choice but go anyway.

Step 15. Sit down with your advisor and be told that you’ll be doing paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 16. Start working on your thesis and really enjoy it.

Step 17. Finish up your thesis and start to hate it.

Step 18. Get another paleontology internship. Do more paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 19. Decide that you don’t hate your research anymore and apply to PhD programs.

Step 20. Visit a Pleistocene fossil site and realize that you’re more interested in the paleoecology and paleobotany than the mammoths.

Congratulations! You’re a botanist!

*Results may vary.

Baumgartner Florissant Intern


Plants Aren’t Boring, You Are

I dislike the assumption that plants are boring. When I mention people that I am a paleobotanist, or that I was looking forward to taking a botany class, I’m frequently met with confusion and disinterest. “Why would you study plants? They’re so boring?” “They don’t even move. Who cares?” “My study organism eats your study organism!” I’ve heard it all.

I must admit, I haven’t always been enamored by plants. I have always been curious and plants often were included in the long list of things that caught my interest, but the fascination went no further. As I grew older, my interest in ecology and paleontology led me to taking botany classes and I changed my tune.

My first reaction to my college botany classes was anger. Why hadn’t anyone told me that plants were so cool? This anger turned to frustration. Why wasn’t everyone interested in botany?

Botany is given a bad rap. In my experience, everyone can find something interesting about botany. From middle and high school students to grad school friends to strangers on planes, I will teach anyone who will listen. And people love it! (My go-to fact is telling people that oranges, pumpkins, and cucumbers are all berries.) Students who claim to dislike science and say it’s boring will wave their hands in the air to ask questions. Why do coconuts have milk? Are blackberries berries? How does a cactus work? How big can a Venus flytrap grow? Why does the top of that pine tree look so weird? Here in Michigan we find ourselves surrounded by trees and plants, and we think nothing of them. But when given the chance to learn more, we jump at the opportunity.

Chestnut and beech

I wish that more people could meet botanists. Instead of refrains reminding us that plants don’t move, we could have conversations about the amazing adaptations plants have to survive in unforgiving habitats. Instead of talking about how plants are defenseless, we could talk about the complex and deadly defenses plants have to herbivory. Instead of dismissing plants as boring, we could marvel at the diversity of extinct and extant plants.

Plants are not boring. Everything is interesting if you look hard enough.

This Week I Found: April 26-May 2 2014

Emily Graslie of the Brain Scoop started a new Tumblr: …is not a dinosaur.

Check out the new blog Twilight Beasts! They’ve had 3 blog posts this week: ‘The forgotten sabertooth‘, ‘The elk that wasn’t an elk‘, and ‘Clan of the cave hyena‘.

Too bad so many cool species went extinct.

Paleo parodies are the best: ‘Do You Want to Build a Phylogram?

How Sheep Became Livestock‘.

Chimpanzees make comfy beds.

Megaherbivores are essential for the environment.

Are lab mice afraid of men?

Mantises wearing 3D glasses.

Plants are tough and can communicate.

Humans grew 4 inches in 100 years. Why?

What do moose milk and ulcers have to do with each other?

3D printed casts are beautiful and practical.

How to dance in prosthetics.

March in Michigan was the coldest in the world.

Sweden should beware the eye of Sauron.

A cold star, right next door.


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.

Battle of the Christmas trees: spruce v. fir

Most people call any kind of conifer a ‘pine tree’. Contrary to popular belief, not all conifers look the same. I’m going to teach you some simple tricks to tell the difference between two genera of conifers*: spruces and firs.

Norway Spruce (by Susan Sweeney via Wikimedia Commons)

Spruces and firs can be easily confused for one another. Spruces can be identified by using the 3 S’s: square, sharp, smelly. If you roll a spruce needle between your fingers, it won’t roll very well because the needles have a square cross section. These needles are short and very sharp, and are arranged spirally around the branch. If you sniff a spruce, it will have strong, sometimes unpleasant odor. One of the most well-known ‘firs’, the Douglas fir, is not actually a fir at all!

Balsam fir (by Joseph O’Brien via Wikimedia Commons)

Firs can be identified by using the 3 F’s: flat, friendly, fragrant. Fir needles are flat and soft (friendly), unlike the sharp, square needles of spruces, and the needles are attached to the branch with little suction cups. If you sniff a fir, it will have pleasant fragrance. If you have to choose between a spruce and a fir, I recommend the fir.

*A disclaimer: I learned these tricks in Michigan, so they might not hold true everywhere, but they are a good start!

Once you’ve figured out if your Christmas tree is a fir or a spruce, check out these Christmas themed science videos from Alex Dainis (Bite Sci-zed) and Julia Wilde (That’s So Science).

Science Reads

Science doesn’t have to be scary. There are many books that can offer a good introduction on a variety of typically complex subjects. These four books range in topic from genetics to evolutionary biology to botany.

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff

This is one of my absolute favorite science books. For hundreds of years, western civilization has been obsessed with trying to find and name all life on Earth. This is no mean feat and is still a goal of many biologists today. This book explains the ‘mad pursuit of life on Earth’ and how the techniques used to find and procure specimens have changed throughout time. At the back of the book is a list of scientists who have lost their lives searching for new species. I recommend this book to anyone excited by the discovery of new species such as the olinguito, the tigrina or the pygmy tapir, or interested in the history of science.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

You’ve probably heard of Michael Pollan’s other book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. ‘The Botany of Desire’ is broken down into 4 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one plant and the human desire that it satisfies: the apple and sweetness, the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, the potato and control. Each chapter discusses both the natural history and the social science of the relationship between the plant and humans. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, sometimes it’s a little more one-sided. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science history or an interest in humans’ relationship with plants.

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson

Don’t be alarmed by the title of this book. It written like a sex advice column, but for the animal kingdom. It covers everything from monogamy in large birds to mites that mate with their siblings and die before they’re born to role reversal  in hyenas. It’s written in a very accessible, informal tone and it’s a relatively quick read. When I read this book for the first time, I laughed out loud in sections and kept reading passages aloud to my friends. This is one of my most highly loaned books. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys random trivia or evolutionary biology.

Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley

This might sound cliche, but this book changed my life. I read it for the first time when I was a senior in high school. I enjoyed this book so much, I seriously considered getting my degree in genetics (that didn’t happen, but I still really enjoy it). It covers each chromosome in its own chapter, all 23 of them. The book covers complicated topics in genetics in an understandable way, from genetic disorders to sex linked genes to regional variation. I hope to reread this book sometime soon. Given the prevalence of personal genetics in the news lately, I recommend this book to just about everyone who would like to understand what people are talking about.

This Week in Science: November 16-22 2013

For as long as humans have gone to war, animals have gone with them.

How Goldilocks Moved to Space and the World of Economists‘.

Not very science-y, but I still like it: What deep thoughts do you have during a run?

Humans are very good at anthropomorphizing nature and that’s not always a good idea.

I learned that hummingbird banding is an adorable endeavor and that hummingbirds use spider webs to make their nests.

The microbial Hunger Games: one of the longest running biological experiments.

Here are some amazing animal hybrids.

The big-fin squid might be what my nightmares are made of.

Ever heard of Delia Akeley? The Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History have her to thank for their elephant exhibits.

How much gold is Smaug sitting on?

Potential band names taken from scientific papers.

This suction feeding fossil turtle has a strange looking skull.

My Ecology professor had very strong opinions when it came to feral cats. What’s your take?

Sewage provides insight on cities’ drug habits.

How did microraptor fly?

Here are some fuzzy plants.

Reptiles aren’t stupid.

What would a post-antibiotics world look like?

In honor of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary here are some Doctor Who themed stories: Might some of Doctor Who actually by possible? and Geologizing with the Tenth Doctor.

Many arthropods glow under UV light, which means they are having a rave without you.

Abolished parks, the Kraken, and dead plants: Geological Society of America’s 125th Annual Meeting

I was lucky enough to spend the better part of last week at the Geological Society of America’s 125th Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado. This was my first conference and it was an amazing experience!

My flight to Denver can be described with one word: mountains. I left the ancient Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee for the younger, taller Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The views were beautiful and the temperature in Denver was much more pleasant than what I had left in Tennessee!

Some of the exciting things I did:

On Monday, I presented my talk  ‘Paleoclimate Reconstructions of Three Mid-Atlantic Miocene Sites’ in the session Quantitative Reconstructions  of the Large-Scale Cenozoic Climate Change.

I met Dave Marshall of Palaeocast fame and he interviewed me about my paleoclimate research. On Tuesday we had the opportunity to interview Drs. Bob Bakker and Matt Mossbrucker. If you check out the Palaeocast recap of the conference, you can hear me talk about my research at ~21:05 on Day 2 and on Day 3 at ~14:48 you can hear Dave and I talk to Drs. Bakker and Mossbrucker about the tale of the Brontosaurus.

I really enjoyed Dr. Holly Dunsworth’s talk ‘The Sub-Saharan Origins of Cercopithecoids, Hominids, Hominins, and Humans‘. It was nice to have a little biological anthropology sprinkled in amongst the geology!

On Tuesday night the Denver Museum of Nature and Science was open after hours to students at the GSA conference. It’s a fantastic museum and I highly recommend visiting. I especially enjoyed the Prehistoric Journey exhibit.

At the end of the conference, I went to Dr. Mark McMenamin’s talk ‘The Kraken’s Back: New Evidence Regarding Possible Cephalopod Arrangement of Ichthyosaur Skeletons‘. The room was packed and there was even a film crew! Dr. McMenamin is a fantastic speaker and the presentation included beautiful artist reconstructions, but overall I was not convinced that there was evidence of Kraken attack and subsequent arrangement of bones.

Some of the interesting things I learned:

For me, the first morning of the conference was dominated by the session Geology in the National Parks: Research, Mapping, and Resource Management I. I learned about Fossil Cycad National Monument, a former national monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota that was removed from the National Park System in 1957.

I made sure to attend Dr. Benjamin Burger’s talk ‘Mammal Species Durations in the Fossil Record: Answering the Question, Which Species has the Longest Duration in the Fossil Record?‘. The answer was the fossil insectivore Centetodon magnus. I was pleasantly surprised that a Gomphothere came in second place!

The session Dinosaurs & Diamonds: 125 Years of Geoscience in Museums started with the talk ‘Let’s Talk About Rex, Baby: Communicating Science and the Myth of Dumbing Down‘. Dr. Richard Kissel addressed the idea that museums ‘dumb down’ their material for the visitors. This is not necessarily, and should not be, the case. Instead, it just takes a different way of presenting the information.

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Richard Harris’s (of NPR) talk ‘Why People Trust Scientists but Not Science: Climate Denial in Context’. He talked about the fact that most scientists believe that the lack of acceptance of science (particularly with respect to climate change) stems from the absence of information. Instead, it likely stems from different moral priorities as well as a misunderstanding of how science works.

All in all, the GSA Annual Meeting was a great experience. I met some interesting people, learned some geology and paleontology, and had the chance to miss classes to spend a week in Denver! Hopefully I’ll get the chance again next year!

This Week in Science: October 19-25 2013

‘How many ‘human’ species are there? Is it even a real question? Why does anybody care?’

You want a great white shark on your side during the zombie apocalypse.

Even turtles get the bends.

The past meets the future: paleontology and photogrammetry.

The man who forgot everything.’

Since it’s almost Halloween: ‘Where did the fear of poisoned Halloween candy come from?

Losing fossils to thieves and private collectors is a terrible thing for science.

When did humans split from Neanderthals?

Caitlin Syme explains some of the details of her taphonomy research.

If only I had found a juvenile hadrosaur when I was in high school! It’s so cute! Here’s more about it.

Interested in paleontology? Check out the Palaeocast podcast.

Sorry to break it to you, but crocs eat fruit, as well as everything else.

And if you are curious as to how croc sex works

The remipede is the only venomous crustacean and it means business.

More on the Dmanisi skulls.

The level of preservation of these Archaeopteryx fossils is incredible.

Plants aren’t as harmless as you might think. Even plants you eat every day can be lethal if not prepared properly.

Why is human childbirth so painful?

How do scientists know the age of rocks and fossils?

Taxonomic Hierarchy

Life is complex. In biology, scientists try to organize all of the living things on Earth through taxonomy. Taxonomy is a method of arranging these living things (taxis: arrangement, -nomia: method) and we have Linnaeus to thank for it.

Taxonomy is based on a hierarchy of classification; the lower you go in the hierarchy, the more closely related the living things are. These groups, from largest to smallest are Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. When I was in high school, I learned a mnemonic to remember the order of taxonomic classification: Did King Phillip Come Over For Good Spaghetti?

To make classification simpler, let’s choose two species and follow them through the hierarchy. Let’s compare the domesticated cat (Felis catus) and humans (Homo sapiens).

The largest layer of the classification hierarchy is Domain. There are 3 domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Cats and humans are in Eukarya, so we’ll follow that path.

The next layer is Kingdom. There are 6 kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea, and Bacteria. Cats and humans are in Animalia, so we’ll follow that path.

Classification hierarchy (via Wikimedia Commons)

Next is Phylum. The kingdom Animalia contains about 35 phyla. Cats and humans are in Chordata.

Next we have Class. The lower we go in the hierarchy the more and more choices we have. Cats and humans are in the class Mammalia.

Next is Order. Up until this point, humans and cats have fallen under the same classification. Cats are in the order Carnivora, while humans are in the order Primates. In plants, the suffix -ales denotes an order.

Next we have Family. Now the groups are getting much smaller. Cats are in the family Felidae, while humans are in the family Hominidae. The suffix -dae is used to denote a family within animals, while in plants -aceae serves the same function.

Genus is a commonly used level of classification. Cats are in the genus Felis, while humans are in the genus Homo.

Species is the most specific (pun intended) level of classification. When writing a species name, both the genus and species names are required. Cats are Felis catus and humans are Homo sapiens.

These aren’t the only levels of classification. Between levels there are superorders and suborders and tribes and subspecies and other small levels of subdivision. For example, humans are part of the tribe Homini. The use of these subdivisions is an exception, not a rule. Many species makes it all the way through the taxonomic hierarchy without using any subdivisions.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to taxonomy is that this system was entirely made up by humans to explain the world around us. We’re not perfect and sometimes things don’t fit neatly into these little boxes and the entire tree of life has to be redrawn. Regardless, taxonomy is a useful way for scientists to categorize and understand the world.