Showing posts from 2012

Mammals in Montana: the birth of modern mammal communities

30 to 20 million years ago in Montana, instead of cows or buffalo, herds of oreodonts munched the vegetation. They shared the landscape with rhinos, packs of dogs, and fierce pig-like entelodonts. This period of time, called the Arikareean, marks the beginning of the modern mammal communities we see today. More familiar animals, like raccoons and beavers, began to replace the stranger groups – entelodonts, hippo-like anthracotheres, and creodonts (an extinct order of carnivorous mammals).
       This changing ecosystem is what I try to understand. We have a pretty good idea of what this time period was like in the Great Plains of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. We also know much from the rich fossil record of Oregon; but the picture is much dimmer when it comes to the northern Rocky Mountains. Fortunately, in the 1970s, the work of Donald Rasmussen (and others before and after him) brought to paleontologists’ attention the Cabbage Patch beds of Montana. This series of fossil-bearin…

Grad Publication: Emily Grason

Good news everyone! Emily Grason has had her work on rampaging crabs published today in PLoSONE. Congratulate her when you see her. Here's the link!Now for some colorful background from the woman herself: Alien/s vs. Predator: Rampaging Red Rock Crabs I have a special warm and fuzzy love for our local red rock crabs (Cancer productus). I suppose most people prefer Dungeness crabs, but those people clearly haven’t had to actually handle live crabs.  Dungies are nuts! They’re totally irrational and they just flip out at you in an incoherent manner for absolutely no reason – flailing about with their pointy, pointy legs (1). Rock crabs make sense – sure they can snap your thumb off if you aren’t really paying attention, but you know when they’re going to try. Rock crabs are also more fun to watch.  As part of my master’s research at Shannon Point Marine Center, which is affiliated with Western Washington University, I did a series of experiments where I got to watch rock crabs rampag…

weekend links: sticky stuff

Grad Publication: Pat Lu-Irving

Congratulations to Pat for her recent publication! Make sure to check it out.

This paper is the first chapter of my dissertation. It's a broad overview, or "first pass", at revealing the phylogenetic history of a species-rich group of neotropical plants. The results show that the major evolutionary lineages within this group don't correspond well with what taxonomists have long thought them to be. Most notably, fleshy (animal-dispersed) fruits have evolved independently multiple times from dry-fruited ancestors. Because this group of plants is recently radiated, further untangling its evolutionary history is tricky, and subsequent chapters of my thesis (in preparation) will deal with this challenge by breaking the the tribe up into component clades, to examine each in more detail. This paper was an invited submission to a special volume of Bot J Linn Soc on neotropical botany, put together by the organizers of a symposium at the International Botanical Co…

Puerto Rican Switcheroo, Part I

Earlier this year Pat Lu-Irving of the Olmstead lab and Matt McElroy of the Leaché lab crossed paths in the possible 51st State while conducting very different fieldwork. Here's Pat-the-botanist's take on her encounter with the herpetology crew and an overview of their work in her words. Look for Part II of the Puerto Rican Switcheroo, soon! ~BP

Here's Pat:

        It is Monday evening in late August. I meet Matt McElroy at a roadside cantina outside the town of Adjuntas in Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central (central mountain range). We greet each other enthusiastically in the crowded dirt parking lot, beneath flapping signs advertising local beer; it is nice to see a familiar face – I have been in the field for a week and a half, having traveled through the threat of tropical storm Isaac from Miami and driven around Puerto Rico for a few days. Matt has been doing fieldwork in Puerto Rico for the last three weeks.
        Adjuntas has a reputation for experiencing s…

weekend links: under the sea

weekend links: innovative methods

The Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Lizards!

We left Seattle for México with one plan in mind: to find three species of elusive horned lizards (genus Phrynosoma). Plans changed. We adapted. The trip evolved. Immediately after leaving the airport, a change in plans. We wanted to make a bee-line to our hotel to avoid México City traffic, some of the worst for any major city in the world. The moment we left the rental car parking lot with our wheels for the week, a seven-seater minivan, the GPS unit malfunctioned: “Lost satellite reception…recalculating”, became its mantra. This was going to be an interesting trip… Forty kilometers and three hours later, along potholed alleys and horrific traffic on the second longest avenue in the world (Avenida de los Insurgentes), we were at our México City hotel. In the morning, we would meet up with professors and students from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and go to the field to catch some lizards.
Horned lizards belong to the genus Phrynosoma, one of nine genera within …

weekend links: tasteful

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

[We finally heard from Elli! Here's her commentary on being involved with the Seattle Times article we linked last week. I think the feature might have had more to do with merit than she claims, though! -- KMP] Not only is phenology (the study of seasonal events) all about perfect timing, but this summer I found myself in a serendipitously-timed visit from the Seattle Times. Two weeks into a 10-week, fast-paced field season Lynda Mapes, a science writer from the Seattle Times called me and expressed interest in my work. Happy to oblige and enthused that she found my research interesting, Lynda and photographer Mark Harrison joined me and wrote an article, articulating some of the hypotheses I am testing and explaining some of my preliminary results. I have always considered myself one of the luckiest people around but getting a full-page article on the front page of the Seattle Times must mean that I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time! -- Elli J. Theobald

weekend links: astronomy

Faraway worldsA hot planet has been found at Centauri B! So close! And we become part of Cassiopeia as seen from there, what a glorious idea. A so-called diamond exoplanet is actually a superdense carbon crystal, so it may not look like much. Sorry. Planet found by amateurs is part of a four-star systemCloser to homePossible bacterial contamination of Mars due to lack of sterile technique. Way to go, guys. Beautiful geyser of water from Enceladus feeds one of Saturn's ringsOde to Voyager

Biograds in the news

Plants Are Cool, Too! Episode 2: Fossilized Forests features David Tank and Hannah Marx, both UW Biology alumni (former members of the Olmstead lab!) now at the University of Idaho. The exciting stuff that they're doing with the Clarkia fossil flora is showcased. They even got a mention in the Huffington Post! -- Pat Lu-Irving Former biograd Haldre Rogers' work in Guam shows what replaces birds in a drastically changed ecosystem: spiders. Former biograd and current postdoc Jevin West and the Bergstrom lab look at gender in academic publications Elusive current Ph.D. student Elli Theobald studies plant flowering and seed set on Mount Rainier.

weekend links: habitat

Species species of the Week week # 6 OR Goodyear Mollusks

Post previously published at Rah Rah Radula.Previously on Species species of the Week week: The tautonomical diet of the Blue Dragon! Up first on the Menu menu: Janthina janthina
Figure 1. The Violet or Purple Snail, a prey item of the non-tautonomical
Blue Dragon nudibranch. I propose the new common name: Baggins Snail If we accept the premise that snails are like Hobbits - you know, pretty much homebodies (insert rimshot here for the best snail pun ever!), and not overly predisposed to doing anything too hastily - Janthina janthina (Figure 1) is the Bilbo Baggins of snails. J. janthina is not content to trail unambitiously along the ground, or leaves, or rocks, or mud, or whatever. This snail FLIES! And it does this by making its own blimp (Figure 2). True, they do so underwater, but to a regular old humdrum sea snail confined to haul their shells across the substrate, this must look like magic. Figure 2. Witness: the Goodyear snail. J. janthina (Baggins Snail)
constructing its own…

Amazing pollinator

I'm in Japan this quarter, imaging plant embryonic development, and I'll have something to say about my actual work here pretty soon -- but today I solved a little mystery. A few times I've seen really fast insects zipping by and been a little alarmed by their orange-and-black coloration, since Japan has some enormous and nasty hornets. They never bothered me, though, and never hung around long enough for me to figure out what they might be. Tonight as I came out of the lab at sunset, I saw a bunch of these things flying around the fragrant Weigela hedge. They turn out to be hawkmoths! Probably the very cosmopolitan Macroglossum stellatarum, because they have some truly impressive speed and the coloration looks right. The only hawkmoth I'd seen before was lab-raised Manduca sexta, and that species is like the Spruce Goose compared to these little dynamos. These buzz just like hummingbirds, and almost all my photos are just blurs. So that was my sense of scienti…

Species sort-of of the Week week #5 OR On the benefits of a tautonomical diet

Post previously published at Rah Rah Radula. I'm sure you've heard the conspiracy theory that sea slugs are involved in a major trans-species arms smuggling operation. Well, your humble narrator has done some investigative journalism for which she is completely unqualified and can tell you, the rumors are true. That's why I'm cheating today, starting a Species species of the Week week with a nudibranch that's not even close to a tautonym (2). Here is the culprit: Blue Dragon
Glaucus atlanticus(1) Figure 1.Glaucus atlanticus - the Blue Dragon (nudibranch). Holy Daenerys Targaryen, Batman! Am I right?! This thing is crazy, and if your heart doesn't explode just a little bit when you see this and contemplate that you share the earth with this creature, well ... I can only sputter my disbelief. Ok, so it looks cool, fine. But why does it deserve the [ahem, rather distinguished] honor of being a Species species of the Week week (weak?) when it's not even a tauton…

Autumnal re-opening

Welcome back, everyone! With our Welcome BBQ today, Scipos is officially back in business for the academic year. We have a great new co-admin and blogger, Brandon Peecook, so look forward to his contributions. As always, Science Positive is all about the grad students of the UW Biology Department. If you're a grad, and you're doing cool science, reading about it, looking at the natural world, or taking pictures, we want to post your thoughts here, so let us know. New grads, that definitely includes you! For our re-opening I thought I'd post a photo of the autumn crocus that are starting to flower here in Seattle. Natural history: They put up leaves in the spring, but those die back before the flowers are ready in fall. Scientific applications: Colchicum autumnale is the original source of colchicine, which is a microtubule inhibitor. This means it inhibits mitosis, since microtubules are integral to the mitotic spindle. It's useful for karyotyping, since …

vacation links: under the sea


weekend links: plants being fascinating again

There's a lot of Ed Yong in here, but that's totally reasonable, right? Chemical weaponry as seed dispersion strategy?World's largest flower steals more than nutritionNepenthes with unusual bug-trapping style -- not sure if this species is available in our greenhouse, but many Nepenthes are. And other plants hire assassins.

weekend links: explosive news

First, the literal fireworks: Then, a little about the putative Higgs boson: CERN press release
Geekosystem article with explanatory video

Crabronid wasp

It may be quieter around here in summer, but new opportunities for natural history study buzz by more often too. I was lucky enough to block the particular location where this wasp wanted to bury a paralyzed fly at the bus stop near the UW Medicinal Herb Garden last week, so I got to take a few good pictures of her and talk about the amazing world of parasitoids with members of the university public. (I caught the next bus.) Although she looks rather like a standard Polistes paper wasp, paper wasps make relatively large paper nests hanging in sheltered locations like your eaves or utility shed and bring caterpillars to their young there. Dragging a fly into this crack didn't fit that scenario very well. So I turned to the amazing community at -- I gave them the pictures to post as part of their guide, and they figured out where they should go. Experts there have identified the wasp to subtribe Crabronina so far. Crabronids are called "digger wasps" an…