The perils of searching the literature

Back in the day, there was no internet, and researchers had to search for papers by actually searching. In a library, with old copies of journals. Sometimes they wrote to authors, and the authors mailed them physical copies of their papers. (When you publish a paper, journals still offer you the option to order hundreds of these physical copies, called “offprints.”) I know, right? Ridiculous.

Now we can just search online. Instead of sifting through piles and piles of journals, I search, download, and in mere seconds can have the paper I wanted saved on my computer under some totally non-obscure name like “fledgling_conflict+habitat_yellowwarbler” that I will definitely not forget the meaning of in a week.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Yet despite this incredible technological progress, there are still some perils to searching the literature:

Continue reading

Why I don’t collect

“You work in a museum and you don’t collect? At all?” My officemate glanced up from labeling specimen tags to give me an incredulous look.

“Yep,” I said.

I work in a museum filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens, and I do not add to them. I do not collect: i.e., “sacrifice” (kill) birds in order to add them to the museum’s collections. Many researchers would consider this to be poor teamwork, even poor manners – here I am measuring bills, benefiting from others’ collecting work, and not contributing! What is my problem?

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

Continue reading

A few more ways birds keep warm

Happy New Year! In honor of brand-shiny-new 2013, I have… a continuation of the last post. I left a few things out of that post, since it was starting to get quite long; and then in the course of researching to answer some comments, I found some more things; so here are a few more ways that birds keep warm.

Continue reading

How do birds keep warm?

I’m currently visiting Chicago, relishing the finger-stiffening, face-numbing cold and wind that make up a proper midwest winter. Whenever I look out from the warmth of my big puffy coat and see a bird, I feel a little bad for enjoying the weather so much. I can go home and make myself hot tea; they can’t.

Very cold Tree Swallows. Photo by Keith Williams

Very cold Tree Swallows (up in the Yukon, not Chicago!). Photo by Keith Williams

Like mammals, birds are endothermic (“warm-blooded”), meaning that they maintain their body temperature independent of the outside environment. This almost always means keeping themselves warmer than the outside air. Birds have quite high natural body temperatures, even higher than ours, so any given outside temperature seems even colder to them than it does to us.

Birds are also smaller than we are (well, omitting the ostrich), which means that they have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio than we do. This is a problem because the volume  (inside) of an animal is where heat is produced and stored, while the surface (skin) of the animal is where heat is lost to the environment. Imagine holding your hand in a bitter wind: how would you keep it warm? By making a fist. Making a fist reduces the surface-area-to-volume ratio of your hand, and lets it keep warm longer. In contrast, if you hold your hand out flat with all the fingers spread, your surface-area-to-volume ratio is larger, and your hand will get cold very quickly. Because birds have higher surface-area-to-volume ratios than we do, keeping warm is harder for them. How do they do it?

Continue reading

Featured paper: the heartbeats of fighting penguins

Viblanc VA, Valette V, Kauffmann M, Malosse N, Groscolas R. 2012. Coping with social stress: heart rate responses to agonistic interactions in king penguins. Behavioral Ecology 23(6):1178-1185.

Most animals live solitary lives, interacting with their own kind only to mate, raise young, or fight. In contrast are group-living animals, from meerkats to humans to Greylag Geese. Their sociality means an easier time locating mates and spotting predators, but it can also mean more disease and competition for resources. This competition can lead to injury and stress.

King Penguin colony. Photo by Liam Quinn.

King Penguin colony. Photo by Liam Quinn.

Breeding King Penguins crowd onto shores in huge numbers and claim tiny territories – about one-half of a square meter – where they incubate their egg and then brood the resulting chick. They have to defend these territories constantly, on average 100 times per hour. This occurs over a tiny space, since the penguins have an egg or chick on their feet and so can’t move much; most aggressive interactions are with neighbors no more than 50 cm away. Stressful interactions may not sound like a big deal – hey, we’re all stressed, right? – but these penguins are trying to maintain a high body temperature in cold conditions and keep their baby warm, and while doing that, they fast for weeks. They do not have energy to waste on stress.

Continue reading

Climate change in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Climate change will affect every corner of the globe in some way, from rising average temperatures to ocean acidification to increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather. It may eventually lead to coastal habitat becoming submerged and the desertification of once-green areas. Currently, however, one of the areas in which climate change exhibits its most dramatic effects is on mountains.

Sierra Nevada mountains

Sierra Nevada mountains

On mountains, the variation in elevation causes habitats to change over relatively small areas. Species may be adapted to just a small strip of habitat within a certain elevational range. With changing climatic conditions, those strips of habitat may move on the mountain, and species then have to follow that strip – track their climatic niche – or stay put and adapt rapidly to the new conditions there.

Continue reading

The other juncos

As I mentioned before, I don’t get to be out in the field interacting with the juncos right now. I am, however, making use of the other juncos: the ones that don’t fly away, don’t stress out when I handle them, and are always there when I go to look for them. The ones that live about twenty feet from my office.

I work in a museum, remember?

The other juncos

Continue reading

Featured paper: turkeys help their relatives get lucky

Featured paper: Thanksgiving edition. And it’s doubly relevant – it’s about turkeys and family!

AH Krakauer. 2005. Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys. Nature vol. 434, pp. 69 – 72.

Wild turkeys males show off in front of females in the hopes of being impressive enough to get to mate. While some males show off alone, others form “coalitions” of two to four males and all display for females together. However only one male in each coalition – the dominant male – ever gets to mate. So why in the world do the other male turkeys help him, if they never get to mate? Why don’t they display alone, where they’d at least have a chance at mating?

[Photo from Smart Kitchen]

Continue reading

Junco withdrawal

I miss the juncos. I see juncos around campus, but it’s not the same: they have no bands, so I don’t know who they are. (Except for the weird white-splattered junco, who doesn’t need bands to be distinctive. I was delighted to see him last week.)

I miss those warm, fragile bodies in my hand. I miss going back and finding them again and again.

NOLA

Continue reading

Adventure of a freelance science mouse

Two of my labmates study chipmunks. Recently they have been working with an engineer to develop a small tag that they can attach to a chipmunk to record the chipmunk’s movements. This, if it works, will let them “see” what the chipmunk is doing without actually watching–and bothering–the chipmunk, which would be great: one of the difficulties of behavioral ecology is that, for animals as for subatomic particles, observing the thing often affects the very nature of that thing.

Part of developing this tag is being able to check how well it works. Unfortunately, our lab doesn’t have any chipmunks just hanging around on which to test the tag. So instead, for an unofficial, exploratory test run, we recruited one of my domestic mice.

Oreo the freelance science mouse

Continue reading