Genetics is complicated. I have taken courses to this effect; I have taught the concept in Introductory Biology. Mendel’s peas with their neat logical Punnett squares were a lucky rarity—each trait governed by just one gene, each of those genes on a separate chromosome. The genetic basis of the vast majority of traits is far more complex. If the genes involved aren’t physically linked (called “linkage disequilibrium”) then they are pleiotropic (influencing many different traits at once), or epistatic (modified by other genes), or simply so subtle that their effects disappear in the noise of environmentally-caused trait variation. Relating traits to genes is hard.
I know this; I understand it; but until recently, I had never actually seen it. Then my pet mice decided to give me an object lesson in genetics.
What happens when you think you have all female mice, but you actually have mostly females and one male?
(Unrelatedly: doesn’t this look like a mouse version of the Canadian flag?)
Albatross spend most of their lives in flight. They forage in the open ocean, where food may be separated by many miles, and they head for islands only to breed. They have been documented making around-the-world trips in just 46 days (take that, Jules Verne!) and flying for weeks at an average speed of 950 km per day (Croxall et al. 2005). That’s 40 km per hour, so you could beat them in a car (if you could stay awake that long), but still!
I am awesome.
Photo by Tony Linde
How can an animal spend so much time in such fast flight? How do albatross not waste away and die from the sheer energetic effort?
A few months ago, my labmates who study chipmunks enlisted the help of one of my pet mice to test-run a chipmunk-monitoring device that they are hoping to use in the field this summer. That went well, and now they’re calling on another one of my mice for a simpler test: to see how long the glue they’re planning to use will keep their device attached to rodent fur. They want glue that will stay attached long enough for them to get good data, but not so long that the monitor becomes a permanent part of a chipmunk’s life.
Since chipmunks spend a lot of time in burrows, we chose my most burrow-loving mouse, who likes to spend all of his time hiding underneath things. He was not pleased to be forced out into the open.
Porter with the test chip glued to his fur
So far he hasn’t seemed to care a bit about the chip. However, he is quite annoyed that I now dig him up daily to check whether it is still attached. He’s not really a people mouse.
PLEASE just leave me alone.
Oh no! I broke my wing! I’m so injured and defenseless and tasty!
Look how broken my wing is! Are you looking? Ooh, it stings!
(Photo by Glenn Loos-Austin)
Ooh better follow me as I flop brokenly over this way!
(Photo by Ken Slade)
Ouch ouch! What a flailing broken mess of deliciousness I am being over here!
(Photo by Jon Rutlen)
This is the Black Robin (Petroica traversi), a species found only in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand:
Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.
This was the total world population of Black Robins in 1980:
Five birds. That’s not great—and it gets worse. Guess how many of those were adult females?
Almost any conservationist would tell you that this was a hopeless situation. You can’t restart a species from one female—especially when that female is a whopping eight years old already, in a species that generally lives four years.
When you’re little, you play with toy dinosaurs all bright red or blue or painted spotted with many colors. You fill coloring books with purple velociraptors taking down plaid apatosaurs. Then you get older and learn about camouflage; and you watch nature documentaries of brown felines taking down brown gazelles in tall brown grass; and—zebras notwithstanding—you start to think that probably dinosaurs weren’t plaid after all.
Well, buck up! They—at least some of them—probably did look really awesome.
Quote 1 – preface to reviews accompanying the rejection of my application for a grant
“In reading the reviews, please keep in mind that the reviews are… [not addressed] to you, the investigator… Some reviews may contain irrelevant, non-substantive, erroneous or ad hominem statements.”
I love that last sentence – it’s both horrible and hilarious. I would probably find it less hilarious if there had actually been any ad hominem attacks in the reviews I received, but my reviewers were all professional. I can easily imagine how there might be less professionally objective reviews, however.
“This applicant is, personally, the sole reason why we haven’t solved deforestation and climate change! Not only shouldn’t we give her money, we should actually steal money from her when she isn’t looking! Come on, Review Committee, who’s with me?”