Getting a (science) PhD is not the most terrible idea in the world

It seems as though, every few months, an article called something like “Never EVER Get A PhD, It WIll Ruin Your Life Forever!!” is published. It is then met with various response articles, either of the “Yes It Ruined My Life Too” or the “Actually PhDs Are Completely Worthwhile, You Jerks” varieties, and fades into obscurity just in time for the next article to come out.

I really don’t want to be another one of those response articles, but I think it’s worth writing a few things here that I generally don’t see mentioned in the PhD hate/lovefests. If you don’t care about PhDs, here is a fluffed-up Anna’s Hummingbird so this post isn’t a total loss.

hummingbird_fluffed

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Birds who can see what we can’t

Seeing in the ultraviolet

Even in the visible spectrum, birds can discriminate more subtle color distinctions than we can, thanks to their at-least-five functional cone photoreceptor types (we only have three). But it’s in the ultraviolet (UV) part of the spectrum where they literally can see what we can’t.

Somewhat disappointingly, birds don’t generally have secret UV patterns the way that, for example, some flowers do (Andersson 1996). Instead, they seem to use UV to augment signals we can already see: bluebirds turn out to reflect UV, as do the spots on some thrushes, and so on. But the UV can still contain information invisible to our eyes. In the Alpine Swift and the European Starling, better-fed chicks reflect more UV from their skin; their parents can use this information to give more food to scrawny chicks in good times, or to cut their losses and favor the healthiest chicks in lean times (Bize et al. 2006).

Starling adult and fledglings - who may be too old and feathered to reflect much UV from their skin now, but are definitely still hungry. Photo by Tina S. White.

Starling adult and fledglings – who may be too old and feathered to reflect much UV from their skin now, but are definitely still hungry.
Photo by Tina S. White.

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Genetics is complicated: mouse edition

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?

This happens. (Incidentally, doesn't this look like a mouse version of the Canadian flag?)

This happens.
(Unrelatedly: doesn’t this look like a mouse version of the Canadian flag?)

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Avian flight II: albatross flight

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 Schneider

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?

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Another freelance science mouse

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 back

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.

PLEASE just leave me alone.

Much better.

Much better.

Animal April Fools

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)

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)

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)

Ouch ouch! What a flailing broken mess of deliciousness I am being over here!
(Photo by Jon Rutlen)

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