Category Archives: Animal Behavior

UCLA’s Peter Narins’ lecture on frog communication (video)

BIO101 – What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior

As you may know, I have been teaching BIO101 (and also the BIO102 Lab) to non-traditional students in an adult education program for about twelve years now. Every now and then I muse about it publicly on the blog (see this, this, this, this, this, this and this for a few short posts about various aspects of it – from the use of videos, to the use of a classroom blog, to the importance of Open Access so students can read primary literature). The quality of students in this program has steadily risen over the years, but I am still highly constrained with time: I have eight 4-hour meetings with the students over eight weeks. In this period I have to teach them all of biology they need for their non-science majors, plus leave enough time for each student to give a presentation (on the science of their favourite plant and animal) and for two exams. Thus I have to strip the lectures to the bare bones, and hope that those bare bones are what non-science majors really need to know: concepts rather than factoids, relationship with the rest of their lives rather than relationship with the other sciences. Thus I follow my lectures with videos and classroom discussions, and their homework consists of finding cool biology videos or articles and posting the links on the classroom blog for all to see. A couple of times I used malaria as a thread that connected all the topics – from cell biology to ecology to physiology to evolution. I think that worked well but it is hard to do. They also write a final paper on some aspect of physiology.

Another new development is that the administration has realized that most of the faculty have been with the school for many years. We are experienced, and apparently we know what we are doing. Thus they recently gave us much more freedom to design our own syllabus instead of following a pre-defined one, as long as the ultimate goals of the class remain the same. I am not exactly sure when am I teaching the BIO101 lectures again (late Fall, Spring?) but I want to start rethinking my class early. I am also worried that, since I am not actively doing research in the lab and thus not following the literature as closely, that some of the things I teach are now out-dated. Not that anyone can possibly keep up with all the advances in all the areas of Biology which is so huge, but at least big updates that affect teaching of introductory courses are stuff I need to know.

I need to catch up and upgrade my lecture notes. And what better way than crowdsource! So, over the new few weeks, I will re-post my old lecture notes (note that they are just intros – discussions and videos etc. follow them in the classroom) and will ask you to fact-check me. If I got something wrong or something is out of date, let me know (but don’t push just your own preferred hypothesis if a question is not yet settled – give me the entire controversy explanation instead). If something is glaringly missing, let me know. If something can be said in a nicer language – edit my sentences. If you are aware of cool images, articles, blog-posts, videos, podcasts, visualizations, animations, games, etc. that can be used to explain these basic concepts, let me know. And at the end, once we do this with all the lectures, let’s discuss the overall syllabus – is there a better way to organize all this material for such a fast-paced class.

Today, we discuss animal behavior. Note that I tend to do a lot of drawing on the whiteboard in this lecture, which is not seen in these notes. I also show a lot of short YouTube videos that show examples of strange animal behaviors.

See the previous lectures:

BIO101 – Biology and the Scientific Method
BIO101 – Cell Structure
BIO101 – Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
BIO101 – Cell-Cell Interactions
BIO101 – Cell Division and DNA Replication
BIO101 – From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development
BIO101 – From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype
BIO101 – From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution

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Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe – Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

From e-mail:

I hope you can join us for our next installment of Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe! Below are the details for the evening. And remember, try to come early if you want a seat and a bite to eat before we kick things off at 7pm!

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What: Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

“A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes—who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.”

Author and scientist Vanessa Woods will discuss and sign copies of her new book, Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo. Like chimpanzees, bonobos are related to humans by 98.7%. But in contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male dominated societies where infanticide and lethal aggression are observed, bonobos live in highly tolerant and peaceful societies due to female dominance that maintains group cohesion and regulates tension through sexual behavior. How much of us is chimpanzee and how much is bonobo?

The Regulator Bookstore will be on hand to sell Vanessa’s book after her talk.

Who: Vanessa Woods, Author and Research Scientist at Duke University

Where: Broad Street Cafe, 1116 Broad Street, Durham

When: Tuesday, August 10th @7pm (2nd Tuesday of every month)

Parking: We understand that parking can be tough so please feel free to park at the NC School for Science and Math (catty-corner to Broad Street Cafe)

Additional Info

At the Museum: bonobos and bioluminescence

Two great lectures at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences:

1. Museum hosts presentation on ‘Bioluminescence Below the Bahamas’

RALEIGH ― Join Duke University biologist Sonke Johnsen for a detailed look into the world of marine bioluminescence and its use as an adaptation to help organisms hide, hunt and communicate. Johnsen’s multimedia presentation, “Deep Light: Bioluminescence and Vision 2,000 Feet below the Bahamas,” takes place at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences on Thursday, August 12 at 7pm. Free.

Johnsen is associate professor of biology and director of The Johnsen Lab at Duke, which studies bioluminescence ― an organism’s ability to produce its own light ― and other aspects of visual ecology. He recently participated in an inaugural survey of deep-sea floor bioluminescence and continues to collaborate with Edith Widder, bioluminescence expert and a former curator of GLOW: Living Lights, the first-ever museum exhibit to explore the phenomenon of bioluminescence. Now showing at the Museum of Natural Sciences, this exhibit reveals the world of light-producing terrestrial organisms, from fireflies to foxfire fungus, before traveling to the mid-ocean, where an estimated 90 percent of animals produce light. GLOW runs through September 12.

Adult tickets to GLOW are available at a discounted rate on these evenings, with tickets sold from 5 to 6:30pm. For more information, visit www.naturalsciences.org.

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2. Vanessa Woods to discuss “Bonobo Handshake” at Museum of Natural Sciences

In the midst of the war-torn Congo, there exists a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake. Welcome to the world of bonobos, a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. On Thursday, August 19 at 6:30pm, join author and Duke University scientist Vanessa Woods for a detailed discussion of her new book, “Bonobo Handshake,” at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. Free.

“For thousands of years, we have wondered what makes us human,” says Woods. “To find the answer, we study our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and more recently, bonobos. Neither species is easy to study, but bonobos are particularly difficult, being the world’s most endangered ape in the world’s most dangerous country. But this makes them all the more important, and bonobos could not only unlock the secret of what makes us human, but also teach us how being a little less human could go a long way.” Woods will be signing copies of her book in the Museum Store prior to her lecture.

Woods is an internationally published author and journalist and is the main Australian/ New Zealand feature writer for the Discovery Channel. She graduated with a Masters of Science Communication from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University and has written for various publications including BBC Wildlife, New Scientist, and Travel Africa. In 2003, Woods won the Australasian Science award for journalism. In 2007, her children’s book on space was named an Acclaimed Book by the UK Royal Society and shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Junior Science Book Prize.

Seven Questions….with Yours Truly

Last week, my SciBling Jason Goldman interviewed me for his blog. The questions were not so much about blogging, journalism, Open Access and PLoS (except a little bit at the end) but more about science – how I got into it, what are my grad school experiences, what I think about doing research on animals, and such stuff. Jason posted the interview here, on his blog, on Friday, and he also let me repost it here on my blog as well, under the fold:

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Revenge of the Zombifying Wasp (repost)

Revenge of the Zombifying WaspAs this is a Zombie Day on scienceblogs.com, here is a re-post of one of my old post about one of the coolest parasites ever (from February 04, 2006):
a1%20ampulex_compressa.jpgI am quite surprised that Carl Zimmer, in research for his book Parasite Rex, did not encounter the fascinating case of the Ampulex compressa (Emerald Cockroach Wasp) and its prey/host the American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana, see also comments on Aetiology and Ocellated).
In 1999, I went to Oxford, UK, to the inaugural Gordon Conference in Neuroethology and one of the many exciting speakers I was looking forward to seeing was Fred Libersat. The talk was half-hot half-cold. To be precise, the first half was hot and the second half was not.
In the first half, he not just introduced the whole behavior, he also showed us a longish movie, showing in high magnification and high resolution all steps of this complex behavior (you can see a cool picture of the wasp’s head here).
a2%20wasp-cockroach.jpgFirst, the wasp gives the roach a quick hit-and-run stab with its stinger into the body (thorax) and flies away. After a while, the roach starts grooming itself furiously for some time, followed by complete stillness. Once the roach becomes still, the wasp comes back, positions itself quite carefully on top of the raoch and injects its venom very precisely into the subesophageal ganglion in the head of the roach. The venom is a cocktail of dopamine and protein toxins so the effect is behavioral modification instead of paralysis.
Apparently, the wasp’s stinger has receptors that guide it to its precise target:

“To investigate what guides the sting, Ram Gal and Frederic Libersat of Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, first introduced the wasp to roaches whose brains had been removed. Normally, it takes about a minute for the wasp to find its target, sting, and fly off. But in the brainless roaches, the wasps searched the empty head cavity for an average of 10 minutes. A radioactive tracer injected into the wasps revealed that when they finally did sting, they used about 1/6 the usual amount of venom. The wasps knew something was amiss.”

The wasp then saws off the tips of the roach’s antennae and drinks the hemolymph from them. It builds a nest – just a little funnel made of soil and pebbles and leads the roach, by pulling at its anteanna as if it was a dog-leash, into the funnel. It then lays an egg onto the leg of the roach, closes off the antrance to the funnel with a rock and leaves. The roach remains alive, but completely still in the nest for quite some time (around five weeks). The venom, apart from eliminating all defence behaviors of the roach, also slows the metabolism of the cockroach, allowing it to live longer without food and water. After a while, the wasp egg hatches, eats its way into the body of the roach, eats the internal organs of the roach, then pupates and hatches. What comes out of the (now dead) cockroach is not a larva (as usually happens with insect parasitoids) but an adult wasp, ready to mate and deposit eggs on new cockroaches.
Why was the second half of the talk a disappointment? I know for a fact I was not the only one there who expected a deeper look into evolutionary aspects of this highly complex set of behaviors. However, the talk went into a different direction – interesting in itself, for sure, but not as much as an evolutionary story would have been. Libersat described in nitty-gritty detail experiments that uncovered, one by one, secrets of the neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neurochemistry of the cockroach escape behavior – the one supressed by toxin – as well as the chemistry of the toxin cocktail. Ganglion after ganglion, neuron after neuron, neurotransmitter after neurotransmitter, the whole behavior was charted for us on the screen. An impressive feat, but disappointing when we were all salivating at a prospect of a cool evolutionary story.
He did not say, for instance, what is the geographic overlap between the two species. I had to look it up myself afterwards. American cockroach can be found pretty much everywhere in the world. The wasp also has a broad geographical range from Africa to New Caledonia (located almost directly between Australia and Fiji) and, since 1941, Hawaii (another example of a non-native species wreacking havoc on the islands), but not everywhere in the world, especially not outside the tropics – there are most definitely parts of the planet where there are roaches but no Ampulex compressa.
In most cases in which one species is suspectible to the venom or toxin of another species, the populations which share the geography are also engaged in an evolutionary arms-race. The victim of the venom evolves both behavioral defenses against the attack of the other species and biochemical resistance to the venom. In turn, the venom evolves to be more and more potent and the animal more and more sneaky or camouflaged or fast in order to bypass behavioral defenses.
There are many examples of such evolutionary arms-races in which one of the species is venomous/toxic and the other one evolves resistance. For instance, garter snakes on the West Coast like to eat rough-side newts. But these newts secrete tetrodotoxin in their skins. The predator is not venomous, but it has to deal with dangerous prey. Thus, in sympatry (in places where the two species co-exist) snakes have evolved a different version of a sodium channel. This version makes the channel less susceptible to tetrodotoxin, but there is a downside – the snake is slower and more lethargic overall. In the same region, the salamanders appear to be evolving ever more potent skin toxin coctails.
Similar examples are those of desert ground squirrels and rattlesnakes (both behavioral and biochemical innovations in squirrels), desert mice (Southwest USA) and scorpions (again it is the prey which is venomous), and honeybees and Death’s-Head sphinx-moths (moths come into the hives and steal honey and get stung by bees after a while).
But Libersat never wondered if cockroaches in sympatry with Emerald wasps evolved any type of resistance, either behavioral or physiological. Perhaps the overwhelming number of roaches in comparison with the wasps makes any selective pressure too weak for evolution of defenses. But that needs to be tested. He also never stated if the attack by the wasp happens during the day or during the night. Roaches are nocturnal and shy away from light. The movie he showed was from the lab under full illumination. Is it more difficult for the wasp to find and attack the roach at night? Is it more difficult for the roach to run away or defend itself during the day? Those questions need to be asked.
Another piece of information that is missing is a survey of parasitizing behaviors of species of wasps most closely related to Ampulex compressa. Can we identify, or at least speculate about, the steps in the evolution of this complex set of behaviors (and the venom itself)? What is the precursor of this behavior: laying eggs on found roach carcasses, killing roaches before laying eggs on their carcasses, laying eggs on other hosts? We do not know. I hope someone is working on those questions as we speak and will soon surprise us with a publication.
But let me finish with a witty comment on Zimmer’s blog, by a commenter who, for this occasion, identified as “Kafka”:

“I had a dream that I was a cockroach, and that wasp Ann Coulter stuck me with her stinger, zombified my brain, led me by pulling my antenna into her nest at Fox News, and laid her Neocon eggs on me. Soon a fresh baby College Republican hatched out, burrowed into my body, and devoured me from the inside. Ann Coulter’s designs may be intelligent, but she’s one cruel god.”

Update: That post on The Loom attracted tons of comments. Unfortunately, most of them had nothing to do with the cockroaches and wasps – Carl’s blog, naturally, attracts a lot of Creationists so much of the thread is a debate over IDC. However, Carl is happy to report that a grad student who actually worked on this wasp/cockroach pair, appeared in the thread and left a comment that, among else, answers several of the behavioral and evolutionary questions that I asked in this post.
Update 2: You can watch some movies linked here and here.

Lizards, carcasses and bacteria

Do Komodo dragons kill their prey by making them sick with the bacteria from their dirty mouths? Or do they kill with strength, speed and venom while bacteria are just incidental? Or is it bacteria who hitch a ride on the lizards on their journeys from one juicy carcass to the next?