Find the nest 5

This nest is a great example of juncos’ love of sloping ground. In some cases, like this one, the sloping ground is slope-y enough to call a wall. I wouldn’t call this a typical junco nest, but it’s not really surprising either: juncos are reliably creative with their nesting choices, which must make it difficult for predators to find them. This nest certainly seemed well-hidden—and it didn’t have to worry about being stepped on, either.

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Poison frogs are excellent parents

 

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Ranitomeya imitator giving his tadpole a piggy-back ride. Photo by John Clare*

You can find poison frogs at zoos, aquaria, and some museums now: tiny and colorful, often hard to see in the vegetation-rich tank until— oh! all those little blue things, that’s them! They’re so pretty! You watch for a while, and they sit on their leaves unmoving, doing accurate impressions of the plastic toy frogs being sold in the gift shop, until you get bored and move on to the next exhibit.

They have a secret: they have rich lives full of interesting behaviors. They just aren’t interested in doing those behaviors in front of you.

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Spinning science

Recently I was discussing my dissertation progress with another volunteer at the bird banding station. “I have all the data,” I said, “I just need to figure out how to spin it.”

She looked taken aback. “Well, it’s data,” she said. “It’s information. You don’t spin it; it just is.”

“Right,” I agreed quickly, in my best Objective Scientist voice. “Of course.”

I thought about this exchange a lot over the next few weeks. It had been a while since I had talked about my research at length with a non-scientist, and her reaction to my word choice made an impression. Why had I said “spin”? Did I mean “spin”?

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“Spin” your data? Outrageous!

I paid more attention than usual to the word choices my colleagues made, and quickly realized that we all talk about spinning our data. We also talk about interpreting our data, and framing our data: similar and related concepts, but not exact synonyms for spinning the data. “Spinning” sounds underhanded, deceitful. It sounds like we are making the data say what we want it to say. Shouldn’t the data speak for itself?

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Birds in the hand again (finally!)

Today was my first day volunteering at a local bird banding station. This place is great: they have been banding birds for decades, recording population changes and individual measurements, and they care a lot about both the birds and the data.

More importantly, though:  I finally got my hands on some birds again.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow, obviously delighted to be involved.

It’s been a while. I had an abbreviated field season this summer, so I haven’t held a bird since July. Since then I’ve been applying for postdocs and writing my dissertation, both of which involve a lot of sitting inside and staring at a computer screen. I need some bird time. That is, after all, the whole reason why I’m applying for postdocs and writing a dissertation: because I love these guys.

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Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing his “crown”.

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Hidden worlds: whale falls

I like to read science fiction. I particularly enjoy a good alien world, like Neal Asher’s world of hyper-aggressive invertebrates or Lois Bujold’s planet of radially symmetric beasts. Still better than these, however, are the alien worlds right here on Earth, hidden in plain sight. (Well… if “on the same planet” counts as “in plain sight.”) The hidden world I’d like to talk about today is that of whale falls.

A “whale fall” is just a nice way of saying a dead whale: when a whale dies in the ocean, it sinks—falls—to the bottom, and you have a whale fall. Whale falls are different from other dead animals in two big ways. First, they are, well, big. No other living animal gets as big as our biggest whales. When one of those dies, that’s a lot of dead whale.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Second, when they fall to the ocean floor, they change the environment on the ocean floor dramatically. A dead animal in a forest or jungle or lake is a piece of dead meat in a habitat already full of other kinds of food: leaves, berries, insects, fish, etc. Some animals in these habitats will scavenge on the dead meat, but many other animals will ignore it. The deep ocean floor is not like a jungle. It is barren, with no sunlight to support plants or plankton, which are generally the food sources that the rest of a food chain depends on. The only organic food sources near the deep sea floor are the dead things that fall down from the water column above, picturesquely named “marine snow;” and that water column is filled with creatures trying to eat anything they can find, so not a lot makes it all the way to the bottom. When a dead whale lands on the ocean floor, it is the equivalent of an enormous banquet being dropped into the middle of a desert.

When a whale falls, it gives rise to an entire ecosystem by itself.

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Thanks for your patience!

Black Crowned Crane appreciates your understanding.

Black Crowned Crane appreciates your understanding.

Hi loyal readers,

I just wanted to say thanks for hanging in there – I’ve been short on posts these last few months. It’s not that I’m out of cool biology to cover! Rather, it’s that I’m trying to write my dissertation and apply for some postdocs with coinciding due dates, so all of my writing-about-science-ideas energy has been going towards those goals. Once the postdoc applications are submitted, I’ll be able to write more here again. (And these postdocs, if I got any of them, would make for some great research blog posts—cross your fingers!)

In the meantime, here are some more birds that appreciate your patience with me.

Southern Lapwing says "thank you" with a swagger.

Southern Lapwing says “thank you” with a swagger.

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Fun: birds in small words

The webcomic xkcd posted a comic a while ago that explains rocket science using “only the ten hundred words people use the most often.” It’s a great idea, and clearly the creator thought so too, since he’s now writing an entire book around the concept. He has also made freely available a tool that allows you to write using only those one thousand most common words.

Here is the first sentence of an old post (Animal visual illusions), as I originally wrote it: “Animals interact visually all the time.” Here is the same sentence rewritten using only those thousand most common words: “Animals do things with each other using what their eyes see all the time.” The second version is much harder to understand; there is definitely value in having more than a thousand words to work with.

But what about words that don’t represent some especially nuanced or complex concept, but exist for the sake of specificity: labels, like bird species names? Dark-eyed Junco does not pass muster in the xkcd word checker tool, unsurprisingly. I can get as far as Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has white on the outside of its — but now I’m in trouble: tail isn’t allowed; neither is butt feathers or bottom fan. I have to switch directions and go instead with: Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has a white stomach and black head and looks round in the cold.

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Why not just say “Very great best bird”?

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