Thursday, December 22, 2011

It wouldn't be a PNW blog without a post about Orcas!

Huzzah! Another reason to fete the season!  Puget Sound welcomes a new addition to J-Pod.

Figure 1. HEY BABY ORCA! Calves are often born orange,
which is cool.

This orange fellow is the son or daughter (often takes a while to sort that out) of J-16 (AKA Slick).  

I love that I live in a place where every time a new orca calf is spotted, it makes news headlines.  There is no shortage of orcas worldwide, but the population that lives closest to Puget Sound, the Southern Residents (Urban Orcas, I like to imagine they follow the trends and have transitioned from grunge to hipster - Figure 2) have been listed as an endangered species.  They are primarily fish-eaters and have different dialects than the mammal-eating transients that also come through the Salish Sea on occasion.  

Figure 2. You try to put a whale in skinny jeans! It's not what nature intended.

J-pod was always my favorite in my Free Willy years.  J-17 (Princess Angeline) was my adopted orca.  Whoops, busted: I had a Free Willy/Keiko phase.  Whatever, I have no regrets!  It turns out orcas are rad, but not in the way Sea World would like you to believe.  Speaking of which, do not try this at home - just don't.  I shouldn't have to tell you why.

I still really love orcas because they do not care what we think of them, and what images we like to project on them (see again, Figure 2).  They will still kill them a great white shark or some baby sea lions, right in front of us, if it please them.  The Southern Residents are beloved, which is easy because they eat mostly fish.  But most orcas, world-wide, eat things we think are cute and defenseless, and they get depicted in nature shows with some very choice, and very alliterative, language.  But they are incredibly smart!  And that's extremely cool!  Ignore most of the dramatics and graphics in this video, except the reaction in the crowd at the end - and then lets talk about how we felt when the orcas got that baby seal (Oh, Animal Planet, how fast and far ye have fallen).  

In other local orca news:  The latest fashion in Orca research happens right here in my own department: Dogs that hunt for whale scat!

Friday, December 16, 2011

"More than Meets the Claw" OR "How Emily Ruined Christmas with Snails"

Thanks Santa Oyster Drill! This is the best Christmas EVAR!

Every year when I was growing up, I asked for a pony for Christmas.  Never sincerely, of course, because those things are heinously expensive.  But the request was good for a laugh/groan - I am the youngest and my "jokes" were probably humored to excess (this might explain why I have a blog).  My parents were always extremely generous in supporting my horse habit, but since ownership was out of the budget, instead there would be a joke about the pony not fitting in the garage, or some miscommunication and Santa thought I meant a pony ornament, etc.  

This year I got my metaphorical pony - in the form of a

True, it hasn't been on my list as long as the pony, but I asked Santa SO HARD for a first-authored publication.  Theodore and his brothers ain't got nothin' on my Christmas wishin'.  Now entered into the prestigious Annals of Never Again Cited Research:

That's right! Grason and Miner (2010) just got all up in your face! It's such a big deal it doesn't even fit in the column.  It's still only available on Online First, but will appear in print sometime next year (and get it's very own volume and page numbers! eeeeee!).  

Since many of you won't have access to the full text (open access is not free, my friends), I'll summarize.  In the spirit of the season, and with only minimal apologies for ruining Christmas for everyone, here is:

Emily's Christmas Pageant
The Ecology of Fear: Rudolph Redux

Act I: Two kinds of invasive snails (here depicted as Rudolph) eat fewer oysters (here depicted as a little tree Rudolph was inevitably going to otherwise eat) and hide more when they smell native crabs (here, the Abominable Snowman) eating their brethren.   Merry Christmas to oysters!

Where is Yukon Cornelius when you need him?!

Act II, Scene 1: One kind of snail (only one tested) responds strongly even if it only detects smashed up brethren (no crabs around).

I'm only a little sorry if the graphic nature of this offends you.  Nature doesn't
really worry itself about your childhood memories.  Nature is for real.

Act II, Scene 2: But that snail also does respond to the native crab even when no bretheren are involved.

(to soothe the crying kiddos)

Act 3: Neither kind of snail responds less when there are more live brethren around to share the risk (see post on the ecology of awesomeness for more detail on why this matters).

Nothing like killing off the most cherished Christmas symbol to put you in the Holiday spirit!  I'm evidently feeling punchy today. 

Speaking of punchy, I wanted to title this paper, "More than Meets the Claw: Behavioral plasticity... blah blah blah".  I thought this was  a clever reference to the fact that without actually eating the snails, crabs can change the ecological dynamics in the system (more oysters, yay!), and to a popular 80's cartoon.  Academia has a different take on clever, so I went with a more direct title (*cough, cough, SELLOUT!*).  

In all seriousness, I am much indebted to my former advisor and co-author, Ben Miner for telling me to stick to my guns as long as was reasonable and then maybe figure out how to be flexible and take recommendations from the reviewers.  I joke when I say this publication came from Santa, I made this happen with the quixotic tenacity peculiar to junior graduate students.  This was not an easy process, and took about 18 months from the time of first submission.  I would have given up waaaay sooner if not for Ben, or maybe just submitted it to Veliger.  

First: Oecologia, then: THE WORLD!

Wishing y'all happy holidaysmas2011!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Other things Radular OR The bus is a caterpillar and it threw up

I am phoning it in twice today, but hopefully providing the radula-philic among you with new ways to waste time.  

"DO NOT stand under this structure in the event of an earthquake."

Thing the first: Accessible science

People keep telling scientists that they should blog to make their science more accessible to "the public".  But sometimes the science blogs I read are really only for scientists - splenic commentary or response to other work that (perhaps rightly) doesn't inform anyone.  This is a bummer.  

As part of a class I am also writing on "The Bill Nye Effect" a blog by a collective of grad students from different departments across UW who want to be better at talking about science.  I think many of us can count Bill Nye as a positive influence, directly or indirectly, on our decisions to do science, so the name is apt.  In a way, Bill Nye should be in my academic family tree (maybe as a Godfather?).  In any case, the blog seems to be evolving into vignettes of life as a science grad student, and has some very fun things to read.  

More on Bill Nye, because once I get started, it's hard to hold back: In all seriousness, this man has done more than almost anyone to convince me that the best way to teach is to let go of ego entirely. His work has been valuable not only in teaching science, but in demonstrating how to teach science.  By the way, have you ever looked at how many great pictures of Bill Nye there are? I have! Here, let me google that for you.  

Thing the second: 2 videos that will change your entire perspective on transportation:

I have already pointed out how behind the times I am when it comes to most things pop-culture.  But this being a gastropod-centric blog, I would be remiss if I didn't spread the gospel of Marcel.  Thanks to Mike "I wish my middle name started with a C" Hammer for filling me in on what I should have known about at least a year ago:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Snail Mail! OR Where is that smell coming from? Oh, good God! It's Emily's mailbox!

Lookie!  I got snail mail today!  

Can you see the tiny snail in my snailbox? For a few days, I couldn't.  Some amazing Snail Fairy (I hope they will be my Shellentine) left a Batillaria in my departmental mailbox.  Or this snail travelled to campus from Padilla Bay in need of my snail whispering skillz.  Of course, I received the snail today, but I honestly don't know when it was sent, or how long it's been there.  I rarely check my box because I never get mail. But I'm pretty sure it's been there for a few days because I often stick my head into the mail room to see if there's anything in there, but from across the room, without my glasses, I assumed this was a tumblebunny dustweed, since my mailbox is like the wild west, no man's land, and on the floor.  Suffice it to say, the snail is dead, but how long it's been that way I can't say.  This will do wonders for my reputation as  someone who leaves dead invertebrates around the building.

PS. For the observant among my readership (a very exclusive club, with a membership of 5), the Scientistas part 2 will be posted at some point in the future - I didn't just forget I had promised two scientistas and wander off to smash snails - though that has been known to happen.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Scientistas of the World: Part I OR Daydreams of a Graduate Student

So, my brother sent me some homework (thanks, man).  Today is evidently Ada Lovelace Day, on which day, we are encouraged to write something public about a woman in a STEM career (science, techmology, engineering, and math, or maths if, like the site, you're British)  who has provided us with some amount of inspriation or role-model-ship-ness-itude.  I'm not thrilled about having "homework", but without even meaning to think about it, two scientistas (I thought I was being cute and trendy using the -ista, but evidently that's actually the Italian word for a lady scientist, foiled again by romance languages) just popped into my head, and talking about their work would provide a framework for things rad and radula alike!

Part I: 
Nancy Schoeppner & The Ecology of Awesomeness

I sure don't know Nancy Schoeppner at all.  She really flies under the internet radar, this is literally the only actual information I could find on her.  I only paper-know her, as in I've read a handful of what I'm guessing is her PhD research with Rick Relyea at the University of Pittsburgh.  But, in addition to be an EXCELLENT science communicator (I totally heart reading her papers!) and experimental biologist, her work has really shaped some of my, hitherto undescribed, thinking about how prey decide whether or not to be terrified.  There are various names for this sub-discipline of Ecology: Risk-Assessment, Inducible Defenses, the Ecology of Fear (Mwahhahahahaha! It is October after all).  

The quick and dirty is this: Hark back unto my first blog post where I described the terror of being an oysters and knowing a predatory snail was coming for you, grinding a hole into your shell, hell-bent on suckingyourgutsout!  In that moment, that oyster can't really do anything about the snail, except hope he gets distracted by a pretty lady snail on an adjacent oyster and forgets about his hunger on his libidinous quest to pass his genes on (somewhat like terrestrial snails).  But some organisms can tell when they're in danger and do something about it - even plants, I kid you not!  Certain organisms can grow helmets and put spikes on their necks to make it harder for predators to eat them (so goth!), they can try to grow faster so that they get too big to be eaten by predators, or, well, they can run away and hide.  These are called inducible defenses.  Trying to figure out how these guys tell when they're in danger is, it turns out, really fun [for Emily].

Nancy's work has tested a bunch of hypotheses about risk assessment, and I think they are applicable to human decision-making in times of potential threat by carnivorous preadators (i.e., zombies, flesh-eating bacteria, Orca: the Killer Whale, etc.).  So here is Nancy Schoeppner's:  

3 Risk-Assessment Rules to Live and Die By

1.  If you can smell your family being eaten, there's a pretty good chance you also are in danger of being eaten, and you should do something about it.  
If you can smell your friends being eaten, there's still a good chance you're in danger, but maybe don't freak out so much.  If all you can smell is some folks you don't even really know and have never met and who have a totally different diet and culture from you getting eaten - no biggie! It's not really your problem, becuase those other prey (suckers!) are so unlike you, the predator probably doesn't even recognize you as potential food!  (NB: It's possible that this rule also guides US cultural attitudes and policy decisions)

2.  If there is a large cost to defending yourself, you should def. wait until you have good information that there is a serious, serious risk.  
Tadpoles in Schoeppner's experiments only changed their growth patterns (very pricey, energetically, and also non-reversible, so they're screwed with their permanent giant tails if they're wrong!) when they smelled predators consuming AND digesting friends/family, but they changed their behavior (who cares?! You can just come out from your hiding space when you realize your friends were punking you, and all you lose is your dignity!) in response to less threatening smells.  

3.  Do the math, dummy. 
If there's only one shark in the water (Fig. 1) but 500 tasty fat people, simmer down!  Probably that shark will rip off somebody else's leg (phew!) and then realize humans taste like diet soda and a bitterness that can only be acquired from a lifetime of regrets.  If the shark attacks randomly, the probability you will lose your leg is 1 in 500.  But if you all panic, you miss valuable wave time, and increase the probability that you will get crushed by the 499 panicking morons on their way to shore.  If, however, there are 499 sharks, and 500 people, the probability that you will leave the beach with all 4 limbs is 1 in 500, and so taking the chance of getting stampeded by your fellow prey is probably still a safe bet.

Fig. 1 Do not run from this shark - it probably won't rip your 
leg off because, no offense meant, but it would probably rather 
eat a brownie sundae. I put this picture in here because this post
is long and boring.

There are most certainly more rules, but these are the best supported.  I hope to add my own rules some day.  For instance, if you're on vacation, how can you tell whether that Italian man is ogling you because he's hungry, or because he likes the cut of your minigonna?  Are there threat-signals that transcend international boundaries?

My point is that plants and animals seem to be very good at telling when they are safe and when they should hit the deck, and can optimize these situations to make sure that they will live long enough to make many, many babies.  Even cooler, they do this all without actuarial tables, the Central Intelligence Agency, night-vision goggles (well some of them do have pretty good night vision), or even very sophistocated sensory systems.  I have really benefitted from Nancy's clear thinking and writing, and her thorough experimental technique - Swoon.  I'd love to write a review paper with her some day - but these are merely the silly daydreams of a graduate student putting off other work...

Nancy Schoeppner - Selected Publications (in no detectible order):
1. Schoeppner & Relyea (2008) Oecologia. Detecting small environmental differences: risk-response curves for predator-induced behavior and morphology. 154:743-754.
2. Schoeppner & Relyea (2009) Functional EcologyInterpreting the smells of predation: how alarm cues and kairomones induce different prey defences. 23: 1114-1121.
3. Schoeppner & Relyea (2009) Copeia. When Should Prey Respond to Consumed Heterospecifics? Testing Hypotheses of Perceived Risk. 1: 190-194
4. Schoeppner & Relyea (2005) Ecology LettersDamage, digestion, and defence: the roles of alarm cues and kairomones for inducing prey defences. 8:505-512.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Science-Lust OR Giant Eunuch Unicorn Snails

Figure 1. Rad, super-charged, super-muddy student scientists,
supporting the effort to measure all of the 1.4B Batillaria in
Padilla Bay, WA.
I'm not gonna lie, I should definitely be grading student papers right now (Figure 1). I could (and will) make excuses about the fact that I want to print them out and it's a pain to do that at home, about how I need to spend half a day catching up on other things that fell by the wayside this summer (read: begging instructors to let me into full classes since I seem to have missed the memo that it was time to register), about how I just can't muster the fortitude this morning to face the creative grammar particular to student research papers. These are all real things, and, I would argue, legitimate excuses. But I think I am actually procrastinating this way in order to recharge myself with "science-lust".

I do realize I'm a late joiner on this, as I always nearly am on all things (Kittens Inspired by: Kittens), but, damn, parasitesareSOCOOL! Many of us natural history-ragers have seen Sir David Attenborough's rather cinematic treatment of parasitic fungal infections in ants and heard about the archytypal obligate mutualistm: the fig-fig wasp system. Few hearties can really keep their brains from exploding when thinking about the ecological and evolutionary machinations of host-parasite systems, let alone parasitoids (SQUEE!). But being that this is a gastropod-centric blog (and it is), we should, of course, be talking about snails. Here's my story:

This summer I started a research project on the invasive Asian Mud Snail (Batillaria attramentaria, and here's another link, go Linda Schroeder of the PNW Shell Club for taking the USGS reference photo for this snail - I KNOW her!) in Padilla Bay, WA. Researchers have made conservative estimates that as many as 1.4 billion snails might inhabit this bay, which encompasses about 5868 Ha or 14,500 acres of tideland, with densities exceeding 1,500 per square meter in some areas (O'Connor et al. 2001).  SRSLY, absurd, absurd numbers, y'all. In general, only a handful of folks are interested in these snails, because, as yet, no one has determined that they are causing that much "damage" (read: costing us money). So there's not been a lot of research on these snails. But those absurd numbers get us invasion ecologists hot and bothered, regardless of economics. So, knowing very little about these snails, as I do, I start by putting on my field ecology GoGo boots (picture to follow at some point), and walking 2 km out into the bay with a clipboard and a set of calipers (and a lot of help - I'm not gonna lie, see Figure 1).

I have been measuring snails as I walk back to shore to see whether the size of snails changes with tidal height. Imagine, if you can, my excitement when I observed this fine figure (Figure 2):
Figure 2. Snail size with distance from shore. Sorry for the
jenky use of  Excel here, I was too excited to write R code.
Also, dudes, these data are mine, so don't steal em or anything.

Okay.   I won't dwell on this, but for those of you who still have your jaw attached, those are some pretty freakin beautiful ecological data. I'm not at all ashamed of the fact that I posted it on my facebook page.  I've done several more transects, and while those data aren't as orderly, the same general pattern of increasing size with distance from shore holds (also note tiny YOY in the mid-upper range! Adorable!).

Get on with the parasites already, Emily! JEEZE! 

OK, OK...So it turns out an astounding 82% of Batillaria in Padilla Bay are infected with a castrating (!) trematode parasite (Torchin et al. 2005). I started wondering whether infection status varied with tidal height, so I emailed the afore-referenced Mark Torchin about whether he had any observations on it.  It turns out that he (and others) published an entire frickin paper in Proc. B. demonstrating that not only do the flukes castrate the snails, they also cause snails to resume somatic growth (gigantism) and cause them to migrate lower in the intertidal (Miura et al. 2006).  Well...that explains the large snails on the lower end of the transect.  

A) there are so many questions that remain! and, 
B) there are hundreds of thousands of giant (I've measured some as large as 50mm!), eunuch (parasites castrate by consuming gonadal tissue!), unicorn (come on, don't their shells look whimsical?) snails roaming Padilla Bay!

Indeed, for today, it is enough to draw my inspiration from the circus feaks of western Washington (it is pretty close to Bellingham, after all - ZING!). It seems like I have accrued enough exclamation points in this post to achieve science-lust status once again.  

Miura et al. 2006. Proc. R. Soc. B. 273:1323–1328
O'Connor et al. 2001. Padilla Bay NERR Technical Report No. 25.
Torchin et al. 2005. Biol. Inv. 7:885-894.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Death by radula" OR "An introduction to predatory snails of the PNW"

Urosalpinx cinerea having their way with a Crassostrea gigas
One of the things I really enjoy about what I do is getting to talk about killer snails.  Those of us who garden are, of course, lamentably familiar with the destruction wreaked by terrestrial snails and slugs.  But, by and large, the majority of the (non-marine) folks who ask about my research are surprised to learn that snails can be voracious predators of flesh.  My favorite part of this exchange is always watching how people react to a description of death by radula, which, even without the, shall we say, vibrant descriptors and pantomime I typically provide, is actually pretty graphic.  

In the most antiseptic terms, death by radula goes as follows: Snails (and many other Mollusks) have a chitinous feeding structure called a radula, something like a tongue covered with very hard teeth that is adapted to their particular diet.  Predatory snails use this as a drilling structure.  They secrete an acid to soften the calcareous shell of bivalves, barnacles, and yes, their friends if need be, and scrape away softened shell with their radulas, until they have pierced the shell (see below). This has earned the snail depicted above the fitting common name of Oyster Drill. 
Oyster drill (Ocinebrina inornata) hole in Crassostrea gigas shell.

Then they suckouttheguts! 

There are of course, other feeding strategies for predatory snails (see the Conus genus hunt...and be astounded! Moon snails cannibalize their buddies by smothering them!  Come at me, bro!). But my point is this: reactions to this imagery can typically be categorized as either grossed out, or fired up.  No one is completely unmoved by the thought of being an oyster in your lil' shell and knowing, even limited by your relatively undeveloped nervous system, that there is a snail drilling into your shell WITH ACID, and that it will SUCK YOUR GUTS OUT when it gets through.  And there is NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO STOP IT.  

The fired up among us are my kindred spirits.  This blog aims to be a celebration of the little gems of insight on the natural world that get us all fired up, the moments of enlightenment that change the way we look at the world around us, and make us grateful that we are not oysters.

Rah Rah Radula