Start looking

Science requires careful planning, foresight, and scrupulous attention to detail. Everything must be controlled so that the variables of interest can be examined. One mistake could bring everything down. Only with years of training can someone hope to add to our body of knowledge.

But if you take all of that too seriously, you’ll spend all of your time planning and theorizing rather than looking—and the most important part of science happens when people just start looking.

Peder V. Thellesen is a dairy farmer in Denmark. He has no formal scientific training. Evidently he loves starlings: he started banding them and observing their nests in 1971 and continued to do so every year, in nestboxes on his own farm and on his neighbors’ farms.

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It’s easy to see how you might fall for that gorgeous plumage. Photo by Phil McIver, reproduced from flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Birds and turtles work hard even before they hatch from their eggs

You would think an embryo in an egg could relax. They can’t eat, or go anywhere; what can the world ask of them, besides that they grow? A decade ago it would have seemed ridiculous to talk about “embryo behavior.” Now, though, we know that even embryos have things to do.

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There’s more going on in there than you think. Photo by Chris Setter on flickr, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Very hungry caterpillars

It’s almost a pity that we introduce children to caterpillars so young. The magic of the transformation of a squishy, unimpressive tube into a living, fluttering creature apparently made of stained glass gets muddled up with the rest of the magic of childhood and is too easy to forget when we grow up. Everyone knows about caterpillars turning into butterflies, but almost no one really thinks about it.

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Photo by Andrea Westmoreland, reproduced through a Creative Common license from Flickr.

Even before they turning into butterflies (or moths), caterpillars are impressive. They hatch tiny, into a bird-eat-caterpillar world, and their one crucial job is to grow big in time to metamorphose. This isn’t a particularly complex task—there’s a reason caterpillars are basically just digestive systems on legs—but it isn’t necessarily easy, either. They need to find the right food and eat it quickly without being eaten themselves.

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What can we learn from 1500 junco bills?

Every scientist has a few favorite science stories: those papers or sets of papers that we read early in our careers and then reread often, that we think of when we imagine our own ideal research program. One of mine—not exactly a hidden gem, as it’s in all the textbooks now, and is the subject of a very good general-audience book, The Beak of the Finch—is the Grants’ work on Galápagos finches. Peter and Rosemary Grant have spent decades documenting how bill size and shape in these finches fluctuates as rainy years and droughts change the food available on their small island. It’s as complete a picture of evolution in real time as anyone has ever drawn, and a powerful argument for predictable rules (like “bills must be the right size to open the seeds that are available”) leading to unpredictable outcomes in the complexity of a natural system. It’s beautiful.

I wanted to see if I could see similar patterns in the juncos. Like the finches, juncos are primarily seed-eaters. Unlike the finches, the juncos are not neatly contained on a small island; and unlike the Grants, I did not have 30 years to study them. Fortunately, I work in a museum, which is basically a biological time machine. Want to know what junco bills looked like in 1915? No problem!

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Thus my time communing with the long-dead feathered denizens of the specimen drawers. Where the Grants had had to live through the decades of data they acquired, I took a shortcut.

Like all shortcuts, however, there were some downsides. I did not get to live in the Galápagos. Also, I was very limited in which juncos I could measure: I might be interested in juncos from a certain mountain range, but if a junco from that range hadn’t been stuffed and placed in a drawer 70 years ago, I was out of luck.

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Gooseneck barnacles and Barnacle Geese

One of the joys of biology lies in appreciating how strange and varied the world is. When humanity starts to feel claustrophobic, you can imagine the life of an albatross, aloft over the ocean for most of her life, searching out schools of delicious fish by their scent; or a cuttlefish, flashing colored signals at his companions as he shoots through the currents, flexible tentacles waving. When the world feels narrow and limiting, you can remember that clownfish change sexes depending on their place in the dominance hierarchy, with males becoming female when they advance to the position of top dog.

Yet—amazingly—biology used to be even wilder. Before satellite tracking and genetic analysis, before “biology” was a recognized science at all, natural philosophers looked at a perplexing natural world and invented some truly outside-the-box explanations for what they saw.

Some of these are fairly well known: for example, the idea that there is a “homunculus”—a tiny human—inside the head of each human sperm cell.

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As drawn by N. Hartsoeker in 1695. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=635170

To be fair, we now know that sperm (and eggs, etc.) contain the genetic blueprint for building a human, which isn’t all that far off from containing a tiny human.

But my favorite old science myth involves—of course!—birds.

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Niche partitioning by the bay

DSC_6511The sun dips low over the bay, its fading rays gilding the avocets as they swish their heads through the water. The egrets eye their own reflections as if in profound self-contemplation. A willet flashes past, its black-and-white wings an exclamation in the dusk.

DSC_7921Faced with such beauty, two words come irrepressibly to mind: niche partitioning.

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Finding the tiny dinosaurs in hummingbirds

Hummingbirds wear a public image of fragile, ethereal beauty: tiny jewels whirring through the air, occasionally pausing to drink daintily from a flower. Their unusual appearance supports this: the iridescent feathers, the long dainty bill, the near-invisible feet all make them seem quite apart from the everyday world of animals who don’t shimmer in the sun and do have feet.

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80% gemstone, 15% fairy from a storybook, only maybe 5% actual bird. He doesn’t even have feet! (Yes he does.)

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But hummingbirds, like all birds, evolved from dinosaurs. Hidden under that glimmering exterior is a tiny, fierce raptorial dinosaur.

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