About toughlittlebirds

I'm a graduate student in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. I'm interested in why animals do what they do. Disclaimer: I don't speak for UC Berkeley or the MVZ in anything I write - if you don't like something, I'm the only one to blame!

Small

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When people want a different perspective on the world, they may go to the mountains, or the ocean, or admire the endlessness of the night sky. Landscapes so vast as to approach incomprehensibility let you feel small, temporarily lifting the weight of consequence from your shoulders.

You can get a similar effect rather closer to home by seeking out the opposite: worlds so small that you become incomprehensibly vast, and therefore as irrelevant as a distant snow-crested peak.

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Tough little frogs

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If a magical being pops into existence in front of you and demands that you choose a non-human animal into which you will be reincarnated, one of the first things you should consider is: how many babies does the species have, and how big are they? If you want a good shot at surviving past infancy in your second life, you will want to select a species that has just a few, big babies. Elephants are a good option, with their single giant offspring; ditto whales. Large sharks are a solid possibility, often birthing just two large babies at a time (but you’ll want to be careful that you don’t pick a species—such as the sand tiger shark—in which many embryos are formed in the uterus, and then all but two are eaten by their siblings before birth).

You will most certainly not want to choose to be a species whose offspring look like this:

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Cope’s gray treefrog pair with eggs

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Frog season

Frog season is upon us, and for us in the Frog Lab, regular sleeping hours are a luxury of the past. In the day we hide from the sun in basements and prepare our equipment.

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Painting frog models to perfectly match real frogs.

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Calibrating a speaker so that it ouputs the sound of a frog call at exactly 85.0 dB.

In the night, we don our chest waders, take up our headlamps, hang bags of tupperware from our wader straps, and walk into the ponds to seek our prey.

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The space-for-time substitution

Recently I flew from a particularly dire version of Minnesota winter—periodic rain making no dent in the graying heaps of snow, while rendering the smooth ice-covered sidewalks puddle-pocked and slick, so that it was not unusual to find oneself sliding inexorably down an icy slope into four inches of slushy water—into the blush of spring.

This new season was in California, where I was visiting my fiancé for the weekend. (Long-distance relationships are a staple of academia; my Minnesota labmates have significant others in Seattle and India.) Three hours on a plane headed west and I seemed to have jumped forward two months. Puffed-up robins in the snow…

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…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.

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Can tuco-tucos survive a volcanic eruption?

If any animal ought to be able to expect a safely uneventful life, it’s the compact, guinea-pig-adjacent tuco-tuco. These South American rodents live in burrows underground, popping up into the dangerous above-ground just long enough to grab some veggies for dinner and then retreating again into their tunnels. Male tuco-tucos have the occasional reckless phase, during which they travel above-ground in search of tunnels inhabited not by familiar females but by attractively novel females; but aside from that, they stay underground.

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Wild tuco-tuco. Photo by Anand Varma, former member of the Lacey lab; http://www.varmaphoto.com/

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the danger also came from underground, pushing through its own tunnels, burrowing upwards like a hungry tuco-tuco. Late on June 2nd, 2011, and continuing through June 3rd, in the area around the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex in Chile, more than one thousand earthquakes shivered the earth. They came more and more frequently, until by midday June 4th they were coming more than twice per minute, a near-constant shuddering.

At 3:15pm a spot on the mountain exploded and sent a 5km-wide ash and gas plume into the sky.

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New state, new science (and some old science too)

The early stages of a scientific career are designed to be unstable, slingshotting you from place to place as you acquire new skills. I bucked this paradigm somewhat in the first years after finishing my PhD, teaching and working on local projects in order to stay in the Bay Area; but the lure of learning from a cool new lab (and having health insurance) proved irresistible. At the end of August this year I moved out to Minneapolis to start a postdoc.

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Is it debunked?

**This post brought to you by a recent attempt to change someone’s mind using solid scientific findings.**

You, a well-trained and diligent scientist, have finally finished rigorously analyzing your data, writing up your results, and then re-analyzing your data according to the suggestions of peer reviewers, and have at last published your findings.

Tellin, an interested person/kitten, is going to try to debunk your findings.

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You don’t have a chance.

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