“My Beloved…” and other dinosaurs.

How does one review a book written by a friend? I guess one doesn’t, so this is not an “official” review, but a personal blog recommendation, and you can make up your own mind. Perhaps the best recommendation is the sheer fact that I have finished the book. Lately, with busy life and online addiction (and likely ADHD) I have been starting many books, but finishing none.

But I finished My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs (amazon) by Brian Switek (homepage, blog, Twitter) today and I am glad I did.

Many of us, decades ago, got excited about nature, science and yes, dinosaurs, by reading books like The New Golden Treasury of Natural History. While a few went on to become dinosaur paleontologists, for most of the others life and career took a different turn, and they perhaps think that what they learned as kids still stands today.

I may be somewhere in the middle. Although I did research in biology, dinosaurs were not the focus – I took one graduate-level class on them just for fun. I try to keep abreast with the advances in dinosaur research, but I am not in the field and can’t pay attention to every detail and every new paper. Which is why I read Brian’s blog (and a few other paleo blogs), read an occasional book (like Brian’s), and, if I can, I go to a meeting where I can quickly get up to date (e.g., 2012 SVP in Raleigh as it was next door, so no big travel arrangements or costs).

Brian’s first book, Written in Stone, was written more for people like me, at least somewhat uber-geeks of all things fossil. But the second book is bound to be a gripping read to a much broader audience than just us geeks.

The first book had quite a lot of Latin language, and lots of detailed taxonomy and systematics. I understand why this is important, and I understand why some people get excited about it (and I certainly enjoyed reading it myself, but I am a geek). But I have always seen taxonomy as a nifty, sophisticated, high-tech scaffolding on which the actual building will be built…and I was always more interested in the building itself. Not so much how various species of dinosarus were related to each other, as what we can learn from those patterns about the mechanisms by which evolution works.

The second book is all about the building! Not so much how dinos were related, but why. How they evolved. How their extinction can give us clues as to how they lived. And, to me, the most interesting aspects of paleontology are figuring out the way dinosaurs lived – their physiology, behavior and ecology, from the way they sensed their environment, or communicated with each other, to the way they looked, mated, raised young and grew up. And Brian’s book covers all of this, vividly, and will leave you not just better informed, but excited as if you were five years old all over again.

If your busy life prevents you from digging in and finding all the details for yourself, yet you’d like to know how the understanding of dinosaurs changed since you were a kid, Brian’s book is a perfect solution. There, in one place, and written in a way that makes reading fun, is everything you need to know to get caught up. You will not become an expert, but you won’t be hopelessly out-of-date any more.

And you will be shocked how the world has changed since you were a kid reading Bertha Morris Parker – our understanding of dinos is very, very different and much, much better today than it was just a couple of decades ago. The green, scaly monsters who deservedly died of their own oversized stupidity when the asteroid struck, are now stuff of dusty old books and memories, not the animals we understand them now to be. You will be viscerally struck by realization how fast science can move while you are not watching!

If you have kids of your own, and you are starting to introduce them to dinosaurs through museum visits, books, or blogs, reading this book first will save your face in your kids’ world. You will save yourself from the embarassment of your own kid telling you, loudly in front of everyone at the museum, “Moooooom! That is not true! It didn’t have green scales, it had black feathers!”

If you are a kid yourself, just starting on the journey of love for dinosaurs, nature and science, this is a great primer, putting in one place, in easy, non-technical language, the current knowledge about dinosaurs, how it changed over the past decades (and centuries), how we know what we know about them today, and what are still the outstanding questions – perhaps there for you to solve.

It was also interesting for me to read this book for other reasons. This is the first time I have read a book in which, I feel, it’s my world, I am there in a way, right there in the book. When Brian mentions visiting a dinosaur quarry after a meeting in Flagstaff, I was at that meeting. When he writes how he snuck early into Yale’s Peabody museum to converse with the Apatosaurus before the other conference goers arrived to drink wine from plastic cups, I was one of those with a plastic cup. When he talks about the press-only preview of the AMNH Giant Dino exhibit, I was there, snapping fuzzy iPhone photos (including one of Brian himself). When he mentions artist Glendon Mellow, I know the guy. It is kinda weird to read a book that happens in a world that so tightly overlaps with my own!

But one thing I was thinking as I was closing the back cover of the book was: how awesome it must be to be a kid today! If stupid, fern-munching, pond-wading Brontosaurs of the 1960s could excite me and so many others, how much more exciting it must be for today’s kids to enter straight into the world of flashy, feathered, super-fast, super-smart dinosaurs! Not just weird-looking, long-dead monsters of the past, but incredibly sophisticated and exciting animals that, if they were not so darned unlucky, could have still ruled the Earth today, and deservedly so, without you or me around to study them and discuss them.

They eat horses, don’t they?

“Behave, or I’ll send you to Italy!”.

That’s a strange threat! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there to visit the wine country, see the art in Florence, learn some history in Rome, and enjoy the Adriatic beaches?

Not if you hear the above and you are a horse! Especially if you were a horse back in the day when I used to ride in my now-extinct homeland of Yugoslavia.

With total number of horses in the country small and dwindling after the cavalry was disbanded in 1948, with fast urbanization of the country reducing the number of horses working the fields, and before equestrian sports started taking off again in the late 1980s, there was no need for a dedicated horse slaughterhouse. Occasionally a really urgent case would be slaughtered in a cattle slaughterhouse. A horse in agony after an injury would be killed on the spot (e.g., on the racetrack) and its meat donated to the perennially strapped-for-cash Belgrade Zoo for lions and other carnivores, But most horses at the end of their lives ended up on trucks headed to the meat market of Italy (and probably a few also to Austria – but I don’t have access to any documents, just what everyone in the horse business at the time knew).

With all the horse meat ending up in Italy, there was not much left for domestic consumption. Thus whole generations grew up without ever tasting it. The culture gradually changed. A horse butcher had a store in Belgrade for about a decade in the 1960s, but had to close due to low demand. Later, in mid-1980s, another entrepreneurial butcher opened a horse-meat store, this time promoting it as a delicacy rather than utilitarian, cheap alternative to beef. That store did not last long, either.

While there is no taboo against eating horse in the Balkans, there are definitely cultural forces that prevent it from being as popular as it is for its neighbors to the West, And those forces are divided by generations.

According to the elders, especially those with clear memories of World War II, horse meat was a poor man’s food, only to be consumed in times of war or famine. If you can afford beef, pork, lamb and chicken, why should you stoop so low as to eat the tough, acidic horse meat?

On the other hand, youngsters saw horses in a much less utilitarian way. They did not remember thousands of cavalry horses, cart horses, and draft horses filling the countryside. They did not remember poverty and hunger. Every horse they met had a name, be it a nice riding school pony, or a stunningly beautiful sports horse.

Obviously, neither of the two age groups could be easily persuaded that horse meat is a delicacy.

I saw that generational divide myself one day, back in the 1980s. We grilled some horse steaks…at the barn, right after we finished riding, grooming and petting our horses. There were horses inside, happily munching their oats in their stalls. There were other horses outside, sliced and roasting on the grill. How conflicted everyone’s feelings were!

But that was an excellent opportunity for all of us to discuss and debate the ethical, utilitarian, economic, nutritional, ecological and other angles of horse consumption. Why older people found it easier to eat the meat than the younger folk? Why was it easier for men than for women? Why some found it delicious, while others hated its texture and taste? Many of the young, pony-obsessed girls wouldn’t touch it, while younger boys gave it a try despite obvious disgust.

In the end, it all came down to names. You cannot eat an animal whose name you knew when it was alive. Name gives it a personality. An animal whose name you know is also an animal you know well – its looks and behavior and personality. It’s a friend. Friends don’t eat friends.

The steaks we had came from a horse we knew nothing about. Not the name, not age, sex, breed, color, anything. Perhaps the previous owner really loved that horse, cried when loading it onto the slaughterhouse truck. Just like one day, certainly, someone in Italy was going to eat the flesh of our horses we loved, and could do it because of not knowing those horses personally.

But by buying and eating that horse’s meat, we helped that previous owner recover some of the financial loss. Perhaps it was a farmer who lost a horse essential for working his farm. Without taking the meat price for the old horse, the farmer would not be able to buy a new horse, and would not be able to work the farm and feed his family. The circle of life would have been broken, both the human one and the equine one.

That was the economy of individual horse ownership by regular people. Of course, if you are rich or live in a rich country, and if you can afford to keep all your horses out on pastures until they die the natural death, by all means do that. But most people cannot afford that. And yet they need to have horses for their livelihoods. Eating horse meat is an essential part of such an economy.

I can attest that this statement is true.

I can attest that this statement is true.

But then it got tricky. The problem became more complex. After all, it is relatively easy for an individual to decide not to eat horse meat because of ethical concerns. But that is the meat of a dead horse who died in order to provide that meat. So, how do you try to use ethical considerations to explain why you refuse to eat meat of the horse who is still alive? I am talking about marinated, delicious testicles of the stallion who is still prancing out in the paddock. In a country where offal is a perfectly normal part of everyday cuisine, and one can order sweetbreads in any decent restaurant. No harm was done to any animal. So, why not eat it? Not an easy question to answer. And it’s pretty obvious that the answer is not rooted in ethics, economics, ecology, nutrition or health concerns. It is psychological and aesthetic, thus it is rooted in culture.

And this is where we switch gears, as we need to start comparing cultures, in this case Balkans with America.

“Behaving or not, you’re going to Mexico!”

The question “shall we eat horse meat?” is coupled with the related question “shall we slaughter horses?”. In both countries, most of the horse slaughter (and consumption) is outsourced to other countries (Italy in the case of the Balkans, Mexico in the case of USA). Yet the attitudes are different. There, if there were more horses and there was more appetite for meat, there would be horse slaughter in place with almost nobody’s objection. Without too much emotional opposition to eating horses, economic forces would be allowed to dictate what happens on the ground.

Here, there is an overabundance of horses, but because there is no appetite for meat at all, slaughtering horses is considered a very bad idea. Hence such outcry when the slaughter of horses was recently made legal again after a long time (and opening a slaughterhouse is fraught with difficulties).

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.

The shift in culture that I started observing in the 1980s there, already occurred much earlier here in the States. Horses are still used in agriculture there, especially in more mountainous regions where tractors are ineffective and uneconomical. Many small farmers cannot afford tractors, or have too little land to need one. Older people still remember the life on the farm, and even kids have seen horses working in the field. The movement from country to city happened too recently.

Here, agriculture has long ago moved from small farmers to gigantic agribusiness. Very few people have any personal experience with a horse working the land. Most horses are used for pleasure and sport – they have names and are treated as pets, rather than as beasts of burden.

Also, there is an overproduction of horses here. So many horses are bred, often of poor quality, that many never get to be ridden at all – they go straight to Mexico while still young. It is not that just old, sick or lame horses get slaughtered, it’s healthy foals! It’s not just a natural circle of life, it’s production of horses directly for slaughter.

Then, there is the issue of food safety. There is a reason Europe does not allow import of American horsemeat, no matter how much demand there may be there (and demand is dropping there as well). One never knows if the meat came from a racehorse (or if it’s horse meat at all). The rules for drug use (from steroids to painkillers) in racehorses in the USA are so lax compared to other countries, that it is almost certain that the meat of an American racehorse is unfit for human consumption. And how can one know if the steak or sausage came from a draft horse or a racehorse? With eating horse in America being potentially dangerous, it’s not strange that people don’t do it, and the cultural tradition of eating horses quickly dies out. If your parents never ate horse meat, you won’t either. Cultural food habits start at home.

But there are other reasons why American culture is so strongly against eating (and thus slaughtering) horses. I vaguely alluded to some of those already, but now need to be more explicit. And for this, we need to go back to the old master, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and his 1976 essay La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in which he takes a close look as to why Americans eat cows and pigs, but don’t eat horses and dogs.

Manly Men in the Feed Lot.

True, “in most parts of the world, people are grateful to eat whatever is available to them.” Vast areas of the planet have scant vegetation. Plant agriculture is impossible due to poor soil. People need and want to live there anyway, at least as nomads if not settlers, but cannot sustain themselves on an occasional root or berry. They have to carry their food with them, but that also takes up energy. So the best way to survive in such harsh environments is to have the food walk along with them. Cattle, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, mules, asses and yes, horses, are the sources of daily nourisment, both meat and dairy.

In places of plenty, in times of plenty, one can afford to have culture, rather than necessity, dictate what foods are deemed OK and what foods are not:

Yet the point is not only of consuming interest; the productive relation of American society to its own and the world environment is organized by specific valuations of edibility and inedibility, themselves qualitative and in no way justifiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage.

There is no nutritional reason not to eat horse. If anything, horse meat may have some advantages over beef. If production of horse meat was a viable, large industry due to high demand, it would have similar environmental impact as beef industry has now, and the economics would be the same as well. Low demand is due to culture, which determines even how food taste is perceived. It is not surprising that food preferences then become deeply ingrained, and offers of locally unusual foods elicit strong negative responses based entirely on emotions, rather than rational calculations. So even during times of crisis and famine, those cultural and emotional obstacles prevent the population from taking advantage of available food sources, regardless of governmental, corporate, scientific or media efforts to help enlighten the population about it. The angry reactions are based entirely on cultural norms and emotional sense of disgust. Sahlins uses this example from the Honolulu Advertiser of 15 April 1973:

“Horses are to be loved and ridden,” Gallagher said. “In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef … they’ve never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that. To buy someone’s horse up and slaughter it, that, I just don’t see it. “

Sahlins again:

In a crisis, the contradictions of the system reveal themselves. During the meteoric inflation of food prices in the spring of 1973, American capitalism did not fall apart-quite the contrary; but the cleavages in the food system did surface. Responsible government officials suggested that the people might be well-advised to buy the cheaper cuts of meat such as kidneys, heart, or entrails-after all, they are just as nutritious as hamburger. To Americans, this particular suggestion made Marie Antoinette seem like a model of compassion (see fig. 10). The reason for the disgust seems to go to the same logic as greeted certain unsavory attempts to substitute horsemeat for beef during the same period.

When I came to the States, I understood that I would not be eating horse here at all. Which is fine with me – I tried a steak once and a sausage once, and while they were OK, I can totally live without them. But when we castrated a couple of colts at the barn, none of the whites would touch the testicles. But they were expertly prepared by an African American friend and we ate them with great appreciation.

Salome serves roasted unicorn head, which inludes cheecks, lips, tongue and brain.

As I wrote at length a few years ago, one of the specifics of American cuisine, due to culture, lies in its history. When we talk about Balkans food preferences, we are covering pretty much everyone who lives there – the class divisions and cultural divisions were always quite miniscule there. But when we talk about American food preferences, we tend to forget a big chunk of American culture. Whites prefer beef to other species, and will almost universally not eat offal. But there is a whole parallel culture, often unmentioned. The soul food, the Southern food, all the offal and innards and roadkill and strange foods that were cooked, and recipes perfected into delicacies by generations of African Americans, descendant of slaves who fixed steaks for the white masters and learned how to utilize everything else from the slaughtered animals. They have no problem with offal – or horse – as that is an intergral component of that subdivision of the American culture. Sahlins:

The poorer people buy the cheaper cuts, cheaper because they are socially inferior meats. But poverty is in the first place ethnically and racially encoded. Blacks and whites enter differentially into the American labor market, their participation ordered by an invidious distinction of relative “civilization.” Black is in American society as the savage among us, objective nature in culture itself. Yet then, by virtue of the ensuing distribution of income, the “inferiority” of blacks is realized also as a culinary defilement. “Soul food” may be made a virtue. But only as the negation of a general logic in which cultural degradation is confirmed by dietary preferences akin to cannibalism, even as this metaphorical attribute of the food is confirmed by the status of those who prefer it. I would not invoke “the so-called totemism” merely in casual analogy to the pensee sauvage. True that Levi-Strauss writes as if totemism had retreated in our society to a few marginal resorts or occasional practices (I 963a; 1966). And fair enough-in the sense that the “totemic operator,” articulating differences in the cultural series to differences in natural species, is no longer a main architecture of the cultural system. But one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects, which like totemic categories have the power of making even the demarcation of their individual owners a procedure of social classification. (My colleague Milton Singer suggests that what Freud said of national differentiation might well be generalized to capitalism, that it is narcissism in respect of minor differences.)

Marshall Sahlins then delves into the question of words and names. As he reminds us, Red Queen said, “It isn’t etiquette to cut anybody you’ve been introduced to.” Horses (and dogs) have names. Most cows (and pigs) don’t.

Muscles of accepted food animals have cute monikers that hide what parts of the animal and which animal they came from. There is beef and pork and mutton. There are steaks and t-bones and round and chuck. But un-acceptable species don’t have such cutesy names for their muscles. Horse meat is called horsemeat. Dog’s would be dog-meat. Nothing to hide. Likewise, names for innards are not cutesy, hiding the obvious source: liver is liver, tongue is tongue, kidneys are kidney (though intestines become tripe, and testicles, probably due to puritanism, become whitebreads). Sahlins again:

Edibility is inversely related to humanity. The same holds in the preferences and common designations applied to edible portions of the animal. Americans frame a categorical distinction between the “inner” and “outer” parts which represents to them the same principle of relation to humanity, metaphorically extended. The organic nature of the flesh (muscle and fat) is at once disguised and its preferability indicated by the general term “meat,” and again by particular conventions such as “roast,” “steak,” “chops,” or “chuck”; whereas the internal organs are frankly known as such (or as “innards”), and more specifically as “heart,” “tongue,” “kidney,” and so on-except as they are euphemistically transformed by the process of preparation into such products as “sweetbreads.”The internal and external parts, in other words, are respectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body-on the same model as we conceive our “innermost selves” as our “true selves”-and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption. The distinction between “inner” and “outer” thus duplicates within the animal the differentiation drawn between edible and tabu species, the whole making up a single logic on two planes with the consistent implication of a prohibition on cannibalism. It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand. The social value of steak or roast, as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of “better” and “inferior” cuts would be difficult to defend. Moreover, steak remains the most expensive meat even though its absolute supply is much greater than that of tongue; there is much more steak to the cow than there is tongue. But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joins with that organizing the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat.

Of course, there are cultural (and language) differences between nations as to how they name the animals and how they name edible body parts. French is quite different from English in that regard, for instance. In Serbian, the words for muscle-meats from various animals are not cutesy but directly derived from the names of those species: govedo=govedina (cattle=beef), tele=teletina (calf=veal), ovca=ovcetina (sheep=mutton). Where eating animals is both an economic and a cultural necessity, where there is no taboo or even mild unease about eating meat, there is no need to come up with linguistic camouflage.

But what I find most interesting in Marshall Sahlins’ article is this passage:

The exploitation of the American environment, the mode of relation to the landscape, depends on the model of a meal that includes a central meat element with the peripheral support of carbohydrates and vegetables-while the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its “strength,” evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or increasable wealth with virility. The indispensabilitty of meat as “strength,” and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of American diet (note the training table of athletic teams, in football especially). Hence also a corresponding structure of agricultural production of feed grains, and in turn a specific articulation to world markets-all of which would change overnight if we ate dogs. By comparison with this meaningful calculus of food preferences, supply, demand, and price offer the interest of institutional means of a system that does not include production costs in its own principles of hierarchy. The “opportunity costs” of our economic rationality are a secondary formation, an expression of relationships already given. by another kind of thought, figured a posteriori within the constraints of a logic of meaningful order. The tabu on horses and dogs thus renders unthinkable the consumption of a set of animals whose production is practically feasible and which are nutritionally not to be despised.

The American meal – a big juicy beef steak surrounded by a little bit of vegetables mainly as decoration – as a manly man’s meal. The meal of the pioneer, the cowboy, the self-sustained, survivalist, rugged individualist. The beef steak as a descendant of the steak a hunter hunted in the past. Beef steak as a product of the hard work in the harsh environment in the vast expanses of the American West. Only the toughest need apply. The cultural mythology that led to placing beef at the pinnacle, that led to distaste for eating any other species (not for macho men!), that led to taboo against eating horses (companions and co-workers in the difficult production of beef), and that eventually led to hyperproduction of beef for the growing population by consolidating it from small farms into huge feed lots owned by large agribusiness. So, both the illogical, uneconomical, and environmentally damaging food instructure in the States AND the taboo against eating horse may stem from the same cultural source – the early self-sufficient pioneer man.

But that was centuries ago. Surely we have progressed since then. Remember when Michael Pollan made the full circle, from feed lot (symbolic hunt) through a series of organic and local small operations back to the non-symbolic, real hunt, he had difficulty pulling the trigger. We are more civilized now.

In his book A Primate’s Memoir, Robert Sapolsky relates how he adjusts his own diet depending on where he is. Earlier in his career he used to split his year in half. During the half spent teaching neuroscience at Sanford, he was a vegetarian. In America, one has that choice. But in the other half of the year, studying baboons in the field in Africa, he ate what the locals fixed. Yes, a zebra leg. Not just that he would have insulted the hosts by refusing, but if he refused it would incur additional expense and effort of the hosts – they would have to find nutritious plant food every day for him, something that is not as easy to do in that region. There are good reasons why local diet is mainly based on hunted animals.

Thus, the deep roots of the American culture may prevent us from ever eating horse. Although it makes no economical, health, nutritional or environmental sense, that is OK as it makes cultural sense and we can afford this taboo.

But we should re-analyze why outdated machismo is still guiding the way our food instructure works in damaging ways and perhaps do something constructive about it to bring it along into the 21st century, somewhat away from beef and gigantic feed lots and toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, public-health reasonable, nutritionally balanced food system.

~~~~~

References:

Marshall Sahlins, La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) (pp. 166 – 179)

Images:

Photo of me: original photo by Russ Creech, photoshop by Mindy Weisberger.

Unicorn on the grill and on the platter, original art from Taymouth Hours, 14th century, at British Library, additional photoshop by Sarah J Biggs. Originally posted on April Fool’s Day by Julian Harrison at Medieval manuscripts blog of the British Library.

Best of August at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 3 times in August, including:

Sharks have rhythm, too

ScienceWriters2013 – great program in Gainsville in November.

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Sharks have rhythm, too

Sharks are not known for being good at running in running wheels. Or hopping from one perch to the other in a birdcage. Which is why, unlike hamsters or sparrows, sharks were never a very popular laboratory model for circadian research.

The study of fish came late into the field of chronobiology due to technical difficulties of monitoring rhythms, at the time when comparative tradition was starting to make way to the more focused approach on choice model organisms – in this case, the zebrafish.

But the comparative tradition was always very strong in the field. Reading the old papers (especially review papers and loooong theoretical papers) by the pioneers like Jurgen Asschoff and Colin Pittendrigh, it seems like researchers at the time were just going around and saying “let me try this species…and this one…and this one…”. And there were good reasons for this early approach. At the time, it was not yet known how widespread circadian rhythms were – it is this early research that showed they are ubiqutous in all organisms that live at or close to the surface of the earth or ocean.

Another reason for such broad approach to testing many species was to find generalities – the empirical generalizations (e.g,. the Aschoff’s Rules) that allowed the field to get established, and that provided a template for the entire research program, including refining the proper experimental designs.

Finally, this was also a fishing expedition (no pun intended…oh, well, OK, intended) for the best model organisms on which to focus more energies – organisms that can be studied in great detail in both field and lab, that are easy to find, breed, care for, house and handle, and organisms in which circadian rhythms are clear, robust, and are easy to monitor with relatively cheap and simple equipment. Thus hamsters, cockroaches, and sparrows, green anoles and Japanese quail. Later, with molecular discoveries, organisms with better tools for genetic manipulation, even though perhaps not as good as circadian models, took precedence – the fruit fly, mouse, zebrafish and the like.

But it’s not that sharks were never looked at before. They may not run in wheels, but researchers can be creative and monitor the rhythms nonetheless.

Horn Shark and Swell Shark

The Nelson and Johnson 1970 paper appears to be the very first systematic study of daily rhythms in sharks. They cite a number of previous non-systematic observations in the field, all suggesting that many shark species are nocturnal (night-active). They combined field and lab studies in two species (horn shark Heterodontus francisci and the swell shark Cephaloscyllium ventriosum).

Pattern of activity of bottom-dwelling sharks in the field. From Nelson and Johnson 1970.

In the field, they dove at different times of day and night, counted and observed the sharks, and rated their activity levels. Both species were exclusively nocturnal, barely making any movements at all throughout the day, while actively swimming at night.

In the lab, they placed sharks in small pools, each pool in a light-tight enclosure. They controlled lighting regimes (e.g., constant dark, constant light, or various light-dark cycles) and they monitored the activity with a nifty sensor – a set of six steel rods in each pool, each rod hanging from above all the way to the bottom of the water. Whenever a fish pushed one of the rods (and they did not observe any avoidance), the rod would move and momentarily close an electrical circuit. This would be recorded as a dash line on long paper rolls by an Esterline-Angus recorder.

Afterward, they would take those paper rolls out, cut them (by hand) into strips, glue the strips (by hand) onto large pieces of cardboard, do the measurements and calculations (by hand, using rulers and compasses), and photograph the best records for publication. Yes, very manual work! In this day of computers, it’s pretty easy to just click. Our PI used to sometimes take us grad students to a back room to show us the old equipment and to describe the process, just so we would appreciate how easy we have it now.

Actograph of the Swell shark in different light conditions. From Nelson and Johnson 1970.

What they found is that the two species are quite different. The Horn shark readily entrained to the light-dark cycles (both 24-hour and 25-hour cycles), starting activity as soon as the lights go off, and ceasing activity the moment the light come back on. They kept swimming all the time both in constant darkness and in constant light. This suggests that their behavior is triggered directly by environmental light and not driven by an internal clock.

On the other hand, the Swell sharks showed circadian rhythms – they alternated between active and inactive periods in constant light and in constant darkness. In light-dark cycles of both durations, they showed a little bit of anticipation, starting their activity a few minutes before lights-off. This suggests that the daily alteration of behavior is driven by an internal circadian clock.

In a later study (Finstad and Nelson 1975), they changed the intensity of light of the experiment, and this time Horn sharks also exhibited internally generated circadian rhythms.

Dogfish Shark

Daily rhythm in the dogfish shark. From Casterlin and Reynolds 1979.

In 1979, Casterlin and Reynolds tried a different experimental setup and a different species – smooth dogfish shark, Mustelus canis. In their setup, as sharks swim through a series of chambers they break photocell-monitored light beams. Instead of simple light-dark cycles, they used light-dusk-dark-dawn cycles in which dawn and dusk light was dim, while daytime light was bright. Again, most of the activity was observed during the night:

Lemon Shark

In 1988, Nixon and Gruber took a bunch of Lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) and placed them in a complex setup in order to simultaneously monitor both locomotor activity (that is: swimming around and around in circles) and the metabolic rate (oxygen consumption):

The lemon shark setup. From Nixon and Gruber 1988.

Daily rhythms of activity (top) and metabolic rate (bottom) in the Lemon shark. From Nixon and Gruber 1988.

The sharks were only tested in light-dark cycles, which is not a proper test for the existence of the circadian clock, but the data were strikingly “clean”. While behavior can be strongly affected by direct influence from the environment (e.g., sudden lights-on), it is harder to explain changes in metabolic rate purely behaviorally, suggesting that an internal clock is likely driving the day-night differences in metabolism.

Megamouth Shark

Megamouth shark daily dives. From Nelson et al. 1997.

This big guy is hard to find. The subject of this paper was only the sixth individual known to science. It was caught, they scrambled for about a day to get all the gear in place, attached satellite telemetry radiotransmitters, and let the animal lose to swim. What they saw was a distinct pattern of diving deeper before the sunrise, and rising up closer to the surface before sundown. While nothing can be said about circadian regulation, as the pattern could just be the animal following light clues or vertical migration of its plankton food, it is nonetheless a very cool study.

Hammerhead Shark

It is interesting that a number of senior researchers, as they come close to retirement and are not in the rat-race for grant funding any more, abandon the standard lab models and go back to the old comparative tradition, picking unlikely species (from chipmunks to Monarch butterflies) and moving out of the lab back into the field. It’s definitely more fun to do!

One of them decided to shift his focus to juvenile hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately, Milton H. Stetson suddenly died in 2002, and I could only find one publication from that work (Okimoto and Stetson 1995), which I cannot read as it was published in a conference proceedings (if anyone can scan a copy and send me, I’ll be grateful):

Nonetheless, this paper was cited in several other places, and if they cited it correctly, what Okimoto and Stetson found was that the pineal glands of these sharks (and later the same also found in dogfish shark Squalus acanthias) does not show cycles of melatonin synthesis and release in constant light conditions (it does in light-dark cycles). This does not necessarily mean that there is no clock in the pineal, or that there is not rhythmic production of melatonin, as later work in our lab showed that culture medium can have a dramatic effect.

Whale Shark

Combined 206 daily records of a whale shark dives. Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

Combined 206 daily records of a whale shark dives. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

In Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006, nine whale sharks were tagged with archival satellite tags which provided data on water temperature, illumination and depth. What they found are three distinct types of rhythms: ultradian (short), circadian (about a day) and infradian (long) cycles.

The short cycle was about 45 minutes long, essentially the sharks swimming up an down underneath the surface, not really diving very deep.

One day record of a whale shark diving activity. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

One day record of a whale shark diving activity. From Graham, Roberts and Smith 2006

The long cycle was a 29-day cycle, likely not generated from within the nervous system of the shark, but rather the animals following the snapper spawning events which are modulated by the moon phases.

The daily cycle was that of deep dives. The sharks made very deep dives – sometimes over a kilometer down – only during the day. Again, nothing in this experimental protocol can distinguish between internally generated rhythms and behaviors directly induced by the environment, e.g., light intensity, vertical migrations of prey, etc.

And yes, this is it, that’s all. Not much work on sharks done, for obvious reasons – they don’t do well in running wheels.

References:

Casterlin, Martha E., and William W. Reynolds. Diel activity patterns of the smooth dogfish shark, Mustelus canis. Bulletin of Marine Science 29.3 (1979): 440-442.

Finstad WO, Nelson DR. Circadian activity rhythm in the horn shark, Heterodontus francisci: effect of light intensity. Bull. S. Calif. Acad. Sci, 1975

Graham, Rachel T., Callum M. Roberts, and James CR Smart. Diving behaviour of whale sharks in relation to a predictable food pulse. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 3.6 (2006): 109-116.

Nelson, Donald R., and Richard H. Johnson. Diel activity rhythms in the nocturnal, bottom-dwelling sharks, Heterodontus francisci and Cephaloscyllium ventriosum. Copeia (1970): 732-739.

Nelson, Donald R., et al. An acoustic tracking of a megamouth shark, Megachasma pelagios: a crepuscular vertical migrator. Environmental Biology of Fishes 49.4 (1997): 389-399.

Nixon, Asa J., and Samuel H. Gruber. Diel metabolic and activity patterns of the lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris). Journal of experimental Zoology 248.1 (1988): 1-6.

Okimoto, D. K., and M. H. Stetson. Effect of light on melatonin secretion in vitro from the pineal of the hammerhead shark, Sphyrna lewini. Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Reproductive Physiology of Fish, The University of Texas at Austin. 1995.

Images: Shark in the running wheel: shark from ClipArt Supply, wheel from Shaping Youth, photoshop by Tobias Gilk. Shark clock – ToadAndLily on Etsy (where you can actually buy the clock). Other images are figures from papers, according to the Fair Use principle.

ScienceWriters2013 – great program in Gainsville in November.

ScienceWriters 2013 conference, organized jointly by National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), will be held this year on November 1-5, 2013, on the campus of The University of Florida in Gainesville.

You can follow the event on Twitter by following @sciencewriters and the hashtag #sciwri13.

The official Schedule was just released, and it is, as usual, a fantastic lineup of lectures, workshops and panels. Just check out the list of speakers!

As I have been over the past few years, I will be involved this year as well. I am a co-organizer of two sessions during the NASW professional development day:

On Saturday, November 2nd, 11:00 am to 12:15 pm:

A view from the future

In our new, rapidly changing media ecosystem, it is easier than ever to write about science — but harder than ever to be heard above the din, to build a reputation, and to make a living. How are science writers and journalists adapting to these shifting rules? Links, documents, data and transcripts, in addition to quotes, are expected by readers. How do today’s science writers use these ingredients to establish trust with online-only readers? How important is the brand name of the media organization vs. the byline of the writer? With researchers now able to directly communicate with the public, how has the role of the writer changed? These panelists, who occupy different niches within the Web-based media ecosystem, have successfully adapted to the new “rules,” and are helping shape the future of science communication. Twitter hashtag for this session is #vftf13.

Organizers:

Bora Zivkovic, Blogs editor, Scientific American.
Deborah Blum, Author; professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moderator:

Nadia Drake, Reporter, Wired

Speakers:

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, Editor, EverydayHealth
Kelly Poe, Reporter, Greensboro News & Record
Cassie Rodenberg, Freelance, blogger at Scientific American
Julianne Wyrick, Student, UGA Program for Health and Medical Reporting

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On Saturday, November 2nd, 3:45 pm to 5:00 pm:

Rising above the noise: Using statistics-based reporting

Science writers must produce written, audio or visual stories that capture and hold the attention of a reader/listener/viewer. With so much information just one “swipe” away, editors and consumers are demanding stories that stay fresh and relevant long after the initial post. The one-word solution to such predicaments? Statistics. In this session, science writers with deep backgrounds in mathematics will provide key takeaways attendees can use immediately to help their stories rise above the noise. The takeaways will include: necessary vocabulary for talking about statistics, a framework for understanding how numbers can be manipulated, a checklist to ensure quality data, and, not least, examples of stories built solidly with statistics. Statistics is not a “catch-phrase” for serious journalism. It is key for better reporting and better story-telling.

Organizers:

Kathleen Raven, Freelance journalist,
Bora Zivkovic, Blogs editor, Scientific American.

Moderators:

Kathleen Raven, Freelance journalist

Speakers:

Hilda Bastian, Blogger & editor, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health
Evelyn Lamb, Mathematician & writer, Scientific American
Regina Nuzzo, Freelance journalist & associate professor of statistics, Gallaudet University
John Allen Paulos, Author & mathematics professor, Temple University

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Best of July at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 4 times in July, including:

Good Night, Moon! Now go away so I can sleep.

#SciFoo in pictures

FtBCON: Science Communication

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2013

July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2012

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Good Night, Moon! Now go away so I can sleep.

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Mars has two moons - Phobos and Deimos. Here we see Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars. How would having two moons with different phases affect behavior of Martians?

Scientific papers usually don’t faithfully convey exactly how the researchers came up with the idea, or the chronological order in which the investigation proceeded. And there is a good reason for that – papers need to be standardized so other scientists can easily read them, understand them, replicate them and use them to perform further research.

But sometimes, a paper is honest about the process. It is wonderful – and shows that scientists are human, with a great sense of humor – when #OverlyHonestMethods sneak into the text of a scientific paper, surprising and rewarding the careful reader with an ‘easter egg’.

One such paper – on the effects of moon phase of sleep quality – just came out in Current Biology.

The first thing I noticed was that the data were collected in 2000-2003. Why did it take a decade to publish? Was it just sitting on a back burner of a PI for years after the student left the lab? Did it have to go through many rounds of peer review in several journals until it finally managed to get published? None of those reasons, actually! See for yourself:

We just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study was completed.

And that is where we encounter yet another effect of the full moon (in synergy with ethanol) on human behavior, at least on WEIRD populations, such as scientists!

But jokes aside, this is also a great example of a paper that usefully re-visits and re-analyzes old data sets. Of course, the authors emphasize the positives of this post hoc approach – nobody at the time of the study could possibly know that the data would be analyzed in this way, so there were no possible subconscious psychological effects – it was a truly triple-blind study:

Thus, the aim of exploring the influence of different lunar phases on sleep regulation was never a priori hypothesized, nor was it mentioned to the participants, technicians, and other people involved in the study.

On the other hand, a study specifically designed to test for moon-phase effects on sleep quality would have been designed differently to ensure it has just the right controls and that maximum information can be derived from the data.

Research in chronobiology is frustratingly slow. In circadian research, each day is just one data point, so each study has to keep subjects in isolation for many days. In the study of lunar rhythms, each month is a data point and the subjects need to be kept in isolation for many months.

To determine if a rhythm is generated by an internal timer (daily or monthly) as opposed to being a direct behavioral response to environmental cycles requires a whole battery of tests, which are hard and time-consuming enough in circadian research, and twenty eight times more so in circalunar rhythm research

Back in the 1960s, it was possible to keep (well compensated) human subjects in isolation rooms for long periods of time (see pioneering research by Wever and Aschoff in the underground bunker in Andechs, Germany). Likewise, animal subjects can be kept and monitored in isolation chambers for long periods of time.

As lunar rhythms are more “messy” than daily rhythms, more data over more time are necessary for the robust statistical analysis. And, due to ethics creep, it is not certain that either animal or human studies of such scope can be approved and performed any more. So, one has to be creative and get quality information out of imperfect experimental protocols (just like we cannot wait to observe multiple cycles of 17-year cicadas, but have to invent creative, short-term approaches instead).

But this time, the researchers were just lucky! Their data-set came from an old experiment which was designed well enough for this new purpose. The key is they had LOTS of data. Their subjects came in to the sleep lab many times and a number of different parameters were measured. Ideally, each subject would stay in the lab for a few months instead of just four days at a time. But having such a huge data set allowed them to weave together a patchwork of fragmented data into a large, trustworthy whole. Each first night of the test was eliminated from the data due to potential influence of the previous day (and the so-called “weekend effect”, as people tend to change sleep times on their days off). Each phase of the moon was covered by multiple subjects multiple times. So they could employ powerful statistics to tease out the effects of the moon phase on various parameters of sleep quality.

And they found some interesting stuff! My colleague Dina Fine Maron has covered the paper in greater detail here. In short, human subjects with no access to information about moon phase, or any ability to perceive the moon itself or its light intensity, nonetheless slept about 20 minutes shorter on the nights of full moon, mostly due to taking roughly 5 minutes longer to fall asleep in the evening than on a night of the new moon. Levels of melatonin, hormone released by the pineal gland during the night, were lower during full moon nights as well. Some of the age and sex differences cannot be explained at this time due to imperfect experimental design – and that is OK. I’d rather see new interesting information coming out of an old data set, than never seeing it at all just because it cannot be “just perfect”.

There are many claims around about lunar periodicities in all sorts of human behavior. For some of those, there is no evidence the claims are true. For others, there is strong evidence the claims are not true. But a few subtle effects have been documented. This paper adds another set with persuasive statistics.

Is this a demonstration that there is a working circalunar clock in humans, operating endogenously, and independently from the actual moon? It’s not possible to tell yet. Those kinds of demonstrations (just like for circadian clocks) require a battery of tests, starting with documenting multiple cycles (I’d say at least three complete monthly cycles) in complete isolation, ability of artificial moonlight to phase-shift the phase of the rhythm in a predictable manner (consistent with a Phase-Response Curve), and hopefully identification of body structures or cellular components which are devoted to generation of the rhythms, with at least some hint of the mechanism how they do it.

We are far from it yet even in animals we can manipulate in lab and field studies. Much work has been done over the decades in the study of lunar and circalunar rhythms in various animals, mostly aquatic and intertidal ones. There are documented lunar cycles (but not necessarily internal lunar clocks) in a variety of organisms, including sponges, cnidaria, polychaetes, aquatic insects, and many different crustaceans including crayfish.

In the terrestrial realm, antlions possess internal lunar clocks, but many other species show modifications of behavior during different phases of the moon, including honeybees, rattlesnakes, ratsnakes, some rodents, some lizards, and lions.

The gravitational force of the moon is so weak that it can affect only very large bodies of water on the Earth’s surface. It cannot even affect smaller lakes and rivers. There is no theoretical mechanism by which any molecule or cellular structure in a human body can be so sensitive as to detect the gravity of the moon. So that hypothesis is out.

In field studies, animals can see and synchronize to the changing night-time intensity as the moon goes through its phases. But in the lab, as in the case of this study, there are no visual clues to the moon phase for the subjects, and, since they had no idea the data would be analyzed for moon phases, they probably did not pay attention to that before they entered the light-isolation lab.

With both gravity and light eliminated as potential clues, the internal clock remains the strongest hypothesis. But it’s still a hypothesis that needs to be tested before one can state with any certainty that it is the case.

As for evolutionary explanations for the existence of a putative lunar rhythm of humans? I would be very careful about this. Demonstrating that any trait is actually an adaptation (and not an exaptation or side-effect of development, or something else) is an incredibly difficult task. Just because something seems “obviously useful” does not make it an adaptation. It is an error of hyperadaptationism to pronounce a trait an adaptation just because it exists, and then to tack on a semi-plausible scenario as to how it may have been selected for. Evolutionary biology is much more rigorous than that kind of lazy armchair speculation.

Sure, if our ancestors actually had lunar clocks as adaptations, it is possible that the mechanism for it may still remain, even if in a weak state, in at least some of today’s humans. But maybe not. And like a rudimentary organ, it does not seem to have any obviously useful function for humans living in the modern society. Twenty minutes of less sleep, that’s all. But it’s good to know. So we can find good use to those extra twenty minutes, perhaps come up with new scientific hypotheses over a pint with colleagues at a local pub.

Reference: Cajochen et al., Evidence that the Lunar Cycle Influences Human Sleep, Current Biology 23, 1–4, August 5, 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.029

Images: top: by NASA, bottom: from the paper.