Monthly Archives: January 2011

Best of January

I posted 57 times in January.

January was dominated by ScienceOnline2011, of course, and I let others do all of the in-depth blogging (so far), But before it started I got one last ScienceOnline2010 interview in – with Steve Koch.

Open Laboratory 2010 is almost ready. But while you wait – we announced the new cover art: And now…. the brand new Open Lab cover!. And we have opened up for submissions for the next year: Open Laboratory 2011 – open for submissions.

I also asked Can WordPress do this?

I made sure that the Scientific American Guest Blog was busy all month as well – check them all out:

The discovery of the ruins of ice: The birth of glacier research By David Bressan
The Ferret Hunters By David Manly
In the wake of Wakefield: Risk-perception and vaccines By David Ropeik
Can sitting too much kill you? By Travis Saunders
The Emperor’s New Missile Defense By Lawrence M. Krauss
Anecdotes from the Archive: From the basement to the blog By Mary Karmelek
Could chess-boxing defuse aggression in Arizona and beyond? By Andrea Kuszewski
Anecdotes from the Archive: Bed bugs are vintage, and vintage is in By Mary Karmelek
Invisibility: After several years of research, it’s just gotten weirder By Greg Gbur
Words, pictures, and the visual display of scientific information: Getting back to the basics of information design By Lena Groeger
An arsenic-laced bad-news letter: Who is the audience for online post-publication peer review? By Marie-Claire Shanahan
The Lady and the Trump–without hungry puppies: The science of stray dog sterilization By Cynthia Mills
Anecdotes from the Archive: Taking On the Monocle Problem By Mary Karmelek
The mores of makeup By Christine Ottery
Anecdotes from the Archive: Diesel milk By Mary Karmelek
Can you be both obese and healthy? By Peter Janiszewski
Psychotherapy and the healing power of narrating a life By May Benatar
The low-carbon diet: One family’s effort to shrink carbon consumption By Robynne Boyd
Anecdotes from the Archive: Bad news for sneak thieves, porch climbers and window workers By Mary Karmelek
Can you hear me now? Animals all over the world are finding interesting ways to get around the human din By Rose Eveleth
Anecdotes from the Archive: When zookeepers looked like doormen By Mary Karmelek
When animals attack: Death databases indicate that our fondest phobias may be misdirected By Rachel Nuwer
Biting the hand that feeds: The evolution of snake venom By David Manly
The Higgs boson particle meets Shakespeare By Laura Neuhaus
Me and the copperheads–or why we still don’t know if snakes secrete melatonin at night By Bora Zivkovic (yes, that’s me – I wrote a science post!)
How to humanize technology: from the scatological to the sublime By Laura Neuhaus
Anecdotes from the Archive: Relief for Writers By Mary Karmelek
In search of the origins of warfare in the American Southwest By Dan Bailey.

New post on the SciAm Guest Blog – Anasazi

There was a new post on the Scientific American Guest Blog this morning. Check out In search of the origins of warfare in the American Southwest by Dan Bailey. Enjoy, comment, share.

Open Laboratory 2011 – open for submissions

Jason and Blake were both at ScienceOnline2011 so had more important things to do for a few days. But now they are back, finalizing the Open Laboratory 2010. A couple of more hard-to-get bloggers to chase down, and we’re ready for production and publishing. Another week or two…and the book will be out.

There may be some changes in the way we do Open Laboratory in the future, so I am holding off, for now, on announcing the next year’s Editor. More information later….

In the meantime, you can buy the last four annual collections here. You can read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here. The instructions for submitting are here.

And, most importantly, you can now start submitting your posts (and other people’s posts) for the next edition. The submission form for the 2011 edition of Open Lab is now open. Any blog post written since December 1, 2010 is eligible for submission.

Just two months into it, it should not be hard to go back into your archives and submit your recent posts now – when next November comes you’ll hardly remember them ;-)

And once you are done submitting your own posts, you can start looking at the others’, including on aggregators like ScienceSeeker, and

Here are the submission badges, designed again this year by Doctor Zen. You are encouraged to display them prominently on your websites and blogs:

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<a href=””&gt<img src=””&gt</a&gt

Or take the Open Lab 2011 submission bookmarkletOpen Lab – and drag it to your browser’s toolbar to have it always handy as you browse around science blogs.

Two new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

Two new posts today on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

First, continuing her reporting from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Laura Neuhaus wrote How to humanize technology–from the scatological to the sublime.

Then, wrapping up the week for the blog, Mary Karmelek (not knowing about my carpal tunnel troubles today) fished out this from the 156-year-old SciAm archives – Anecdotes from the Archive: Relief for writers.

As always: read, comment, share….

Me and the copperheads–or why we still don’t know if snakes secrete melatonin at night

It seems this is a week of venom here at the Guest Blog! First it was Rachel Nuwer on Monday who looked at the U.S. death statistics at the hands (Okay, fangs and stingers) of venomous animals. Then yesterday David Manly explained how snakes bite and how their venom evolved (and still evolves). So, I thought I should complete a trifecta, and tell you a brief story about my one and only close encounter with venomous snakes (also recounted in a very old post of mine).

For background, I did my graduate studies in the laboratory of Dr. Herbert Underwood studying circadian biology – how animals’ brains measure the time of day and time of year. Dr. Underwood is one of the pioneers in the field and has, over the years, done research on several species of lizards and birds. By the time I joined the lab, it has somewhat shifted in focus from a comparative breadth to a more focused depth of research on circadian physiology in Japanese quail.

While most of our work was done in quail, we were also allowed to make brief forays into studies of other species, including some colaborative work on turkeys, a small study on crayfish by me, and an interesting study on three species of geckos by my lab-mate Chris Steele. Chris came to our lab from a herpetology background, so I was not surprised when he suggested we team up with another colleague of ours, Jim Green who studied the evolution of snake venom, for a small study on snakes’ circadian rhythm in melatonin synthesis and secretion.

What is important to know is that melatonin is a hormone secreted by all vertebrates (and many invertebrates and even plants) only at night. The main place where melatonin is produced in vertebrates is the pineal gland. Apart from producing melatonin, the pineal of non-mammalian vertebrates (e.g., lampreys, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds) is also a photosensitive organ – it detects the intensity of environmental light. Light is quite capable of penetrating through the skin and skull of animals and the pineal is located on the very top of the brain, often under a spot where the skull bone is thinner and more transparent.

Detection of light directly by the pineal entrains (synchronizes) the circadian clock to the light-dark changes of the environment. In many non-mammalian vertebrates, pineal is also the place where the circadian clock is located, thus it makes sense that it is directly sensitive to light. Rhythmic secretion of melatonin then synchronizes other body functions to the day-night cycles in the environment.

In mammals, there are no photoreceptors in the pineal. There is also no circadian clock in the pineal. It serves only as a melatonin source in mammals….and in snakes – at least according to anatomy. Snakes are the only non-mammalian vertebrates that have pineal glands that, under the microscope, look like they came from mammals.

What we wanted to do is to see if snakes have melatonin at all, and if so, if it shows a daily rhythm in concentration like it does in other Vertebrates (believe it or not, nobody’s done that yet). We wanted to see if snakes, like all other vertebrates, secrete melatonin only at night. And, as this was Jim Green’s research animal, the copperheads were the only snakes we had at our disposal (once the project was greenlighted by the Animal Care committee), about ten of them, each in its own terrarium in a tiny shed outside of campus.

We needed to take blood samples at noon (hypothesizing that we would not be able to detect any melatonin in the middle of the day) and, after a few days of recovery, again at midnight (testing the notion that the snake’s pineal secretes melatonin at night). So, we went in at noon one day. Jim would pick up a snake and hold it by its head. Chris was holding the body of the snake. Jim’s advisor Hal Heatwole was taking the blood samples straight from the heart, and I was the “nurse assistant” taking care of needles, syringes, anticoagulant, test-tubes, etc. The whole experiment, sampling blood from 10 snakes, took perhaps an hour or so and worked out perfectly without any glitches.

About a week later, when we came for a repeat session at midnight, we were starkly reminded that copperheads are nocturnal animals. They were active. And I mean ACTIVE! To avoid the acute, direct effect of light on stopping all melatonin synthesis and release, we had to take samples in the dark, aided only by a very dim red pen-light, with some highly uncooperative snakes. The process took hours!

At one point one of the snakes, a large male, got loose in the room and, since the room was essentially dark I could not see where it was underneath the cages. So I said, “OK, you snake guys figure out where it is and call me back once you have it under control,” and I slid out of the door. I got teased for this act of cowardice for years afterwards.

Unfortunately, the melatonin essay did not work and we did not have enough blood volume to try with a new kit, so the study was never completed. The snakes got used in other experiments, Jim finished and defended his thesis and left town and nobody else wanted to try to do a repeat of this experiment. I hope one day someone will. Perhaps with a non-venomous snake species for a change – makes midnight sampling much safer and easier!

Image from (now sadly defunct) Backyard Jungle.


Kunkel, B. W., The paraphysis and pineal region of the garter snake, The Anatomical Record, Volume 9, Issue 8, pages 607–636, August 1915

Ralph, C. L., Evolution of Pineal Control of Endocrine Function in Lower Vertebrates. Amer. Zool. (1983) 23 (3): 597-605. doi: 10.1093/icb/23.3.597

Kalsow C. M., Greenhouse S. S., Gern W., Adamus G., Hargrave P. A., Lang L. S., Donoso L. A. Photoreceptor cell specific proteins of snake pineal. J Pineal Res. 1991 Sep;11(2):49-56.

Two new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

Two new posts on the Scientific American Guest Blog today.

First in the morning, Laura Neuhaus is reporting for Scientific American on the science-oriented sessions from the World Economic Forum in Davos. Here is her first dispatch: The Higgs boson particle meets Shakespeare

Then, to complete a hat-trick of posts on snake venom, I (re)wrote and posted my own piece – Me and the copperheads, or, why we still don’t know if snakes secrete melatonin at night.

Enjoy, comment, share….

#Scio11: Staten Island Academy Boys (#SITT Exclusive) – video