Old Biophilia

Happy Father’s Day
June 21, 2010, 5:34 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world

Happy Dad’s Day to all the father’s out there who invest more than just their genetic material in their offspring! Like, for instance, nature’s Mr. Mom: the male seahorse.

It’s actually quite common for male fish to play the dominant parenting role, but fish in the family Syngnathidae (which includes pipefish, seahorses and sea dragons) take fathering to a whole new level: Pregnancy! When seahorses mate, the female deposits her unfertilized eggs into the male’s brood pouch (an external structure that grows on the body of the male), after which the male then releases sperm into the pouch to fertilize the eggs.

But he’s not just passively carrying around embryos; the male closely controls the prenatal environment of the embryos in his pouch by keeping blood flowing around the embryos, controlling the salt concentrations in the pouch, and providing oxygen and nutrition to the developing offspring. He does all this until they hatch, then releases fully formed, miniature seahorses into the water. What a good dad!

For other examples of good fathers in the Animal Kingdom, check out the National Geographic Slide Show.


“Don’t it always seem to go…
June 17, 2010, 5:53 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Threats to biodiversity

…that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” -Joni Mitchell

I’ve been procrastinating writing a post on the oil spill. My thoughts about it are just too overwhelming to articulate. It is a disaster. At this point, we cannot even guess at the magnitude of this catastrophe; we are getting better estimates (??) of the amount of oil released but still don’t know how far it will travel and how it will be chemically and physically transformed.

These questions are too big for me to tackle. Instead, I will do what I do best — focus on some of the organisms that are, or will be, affected by one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time.

If you haven’t seen the pictures yet of what is going on above the surface, then you’re not paying attention. But what about the organisms we can’t see? For example, just last year, Prosanta Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist at Louisiana State University, discovered two new species of pancake batfish in museum collections and later caught specimens of both during bottom trawls in the northern Gulf of Mexico. We’re unlikely to see these guys on the cover of Time Magazine next to oil-covered Brown Pelicans, but they are pretty charismatic in their own right. They are found hanging around at depths down to 400 meters, hopping along the sea floor on their pelvic fins instead of swimming. With an unknown amount of oil below the surface encroaching on their habitat, it is questionable whether these newly-discovered animals will be able to weather the impact.

In the last few weeks, 228 dead sea turtles and 29 dead marine mammals have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil-slicked Brown Pelican, a bird that has come back from the brink , has become a poignant symbol of this tragedy.  And what about the clams, mussels, and corals that live on the deep sea floor of the gulf? Or the polychaete tubeworms that can grow up to several meters long and can live for centuries? The marsh grasses and organisms that reside in the coastal sediment?

And yes, I am well aware of the consequences of the spill on human health and well-being, and the livelihoods of so many people….but that is a topic for another day.

For now, click here to read more on the “Science of the Oil Spill”

Wildflowers still going strong
June 7, 2010, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the plant world, Wild Places in Orange County

You’ll never hear me complain about the rain here in Southern California — the wetter the better. We were spoiled this past winter and the evidence is hard to miss. For months now, the hillsides have been dotted with an explosion of color. The peak of flowering has passed, but it was a great spring to traipse around Orange County parks and observe the bounty –lupines, shooting stars, CA buttercup, and popcorn flowers to name just a few.

If you haven’t had a chance to explore, don’t worry! Many wildflowers are still going strong and you have a bit more time before the summer heat kicks in. Here are just a few lovelies I saw yesterday on a hike through El Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park:

Coast Prickly Pear (Opuntia littoralis)

Wild Rose (Rosa californica)

California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)

Pollination in action

What are your memorial day weekend plans?
May 30, 2010, 5:28 pm
Filed under: Human biology, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: C. Lauren Loban

Does moderate alcohol consumption in women lead to a smaller waistline?

In a study originally published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers may have discovered a link between drinking alcohol and maintaining a slimmer waistline. This study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was conducted over a period of 13 years and followed almost 20,000 women, all of who began with healthy weights. The study showed that moderate amounts of alcohol might curtail weight gain in women over time, specifically 30% less likely to become overweight or obese. However, “moderate” drinking should be clearly defined for women, as many women may create their own interpretation from this study of what “moderate” drinking is. The small amount that researchers discovered may cause women to gain less weight as compared to those who drank no alcohol at all was the equivalent of one to two drinks per day. Red wine had the greatest association with lower weight, while the effects were also found for white wine, beer and spirits.  However, an example of one drink is considered a 5 oz glass of wine, and many restaurants and bars serve glasses of wine much larger than 5 oz, so it is easy for women to miscalculate how many calories they are actually consuming. It may also become easier for women to justify their drinking habits if they believe it will keep them trim, however it is important to consider the other lifestyle habits of those who drink regularly.

The common characteristics of those who imbibe regularly are essential details of the study, and are very likely linked to the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on body weight. Women who drink moderately are also more likely to consume fewer calories from food, exercise more, have less healthy diets and perhaps not surprisingly smoke cigarettes. So, in the long run of overall health, who is going to win, the moderate drinker-smoker with a lower body mass index who eats less amounts of unhealthy food, or the non-drinker who eats healthfully and doesn’t smoke? My vote is for the latter, or even better –mindful, healthy sensible eating coupled with moderate exercise topped off with a small glass of red wine!

Read more here: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/09/science/la-sci-women-alcohol9-2010mar09

Sound promotes coral growth?!?!
May 27, 2010, 12:35 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: Saum Senemar

What is the first thing we think of about coral reefs? Tropical destinations? Snorkeling? Coral reefs are made of millions of cells that are in the phylum cnidaria. How would you think they reproduce and grow? Well recently a study was done and researchers found out that when coral are in the larvae stage they follow sound and swim toward the stimulus and end up growing there. According to the scientists who did the research the coral larvae have tiny little hairs on their bodies that react to stimuli such as sound waves and swim toward them. The sounds that the coral most likely hear are the slurping sounds of fish or whenever fish scrape coral reefs. This is a perfect example of an adaptive trait because without this ability to swim toward the sound the coral wouldn’t be able to reproduce. The fact that these little cells can respond to sound  is just mind-blowing! Never in a million years would I come to the conclusion that these guys just hear sound and swim toward it. From afar a coral reef looks pretty dormant in activity when in reality probably millions of cells are lurking around responding to sound. Scientists also did tests to confirm this phenomenon by placing speakers underwater and waiting to see what happened. The coral actually grew upward toward the speakers. The scientists are also looking at potential hazards to the coral like human interactions in the form of boats and what not because they say that the coral reefs are dying. Also sonar and wind turbines can be a huge problem. Whales for example get a lot of nutrition from the coral reef and they could be impacted in result of the coral reef dying. Coral reefs are very fragile because they really don’t have any protective feature. This is definitely not a good thing because the coral reef is the base of nutrition for many important organisms and animals. And whats also worth knowing is that many other organisms may act the same way by reacting to sound according to the same scientists who conducted the study. Read more about the original story here:  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0010660

Many coral reefs worldwide have been dying, and one researcher pointed out that human activity in the ocean could be making enough noise to interfere with the baby coral’s ability to find safe places to settle. (Wolf Hilbertz, Associated Press / May 20, 2010: http://www.latimes.com/news/science)

Before we get serious, I’d like to see the results of your genetic testing kit
May 23, 2010, 5:42 pm
Filed under: Human biology, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: Pauline Do

Imagine a world of dating where you could ask your significant other for the genetic risks he or she carries before you decided to start a family with this person. High blood pressure? Strong likelihood of getting a heart attack? Sayonara. Well, look no further and imagine no more because  San Diego-based company Pathway Genomics plans to make genetic testing kits called the Insight test available at 6,000 Walgreens stores nationwide. Although genetic testing kits are old news, this decision signals the first attempt at mass marketing personalized genomic medicine.

Ranging from $20-$249 per kit, customers are instructed to spit into a vial which is sent to the company. Depending on the amount of money spent, the company will test  customer’s DNA for 23 genetic conditions that they carry (and can potentially pass on to their children) such as diabetes or 23 conditions they are at risk for such as high blood pressure and obesity. Another test presents likely responses a customer’s body would make if introduced to 10 different substances such as caffeine and an assortment of other drugs.

Opponents of the kit maintain that because few things are understood about reading genetic markers, results from the kit will be inconclusive. Paralleling the Humane Genome Project, there is a possibility of misusing and misinterpreting the information. However, the company argues results could motivate individuals to lead healthier lifestyles and even provides guidance for interpreting results over the phone.

According to Robert Stein, many are also concerned that: “[the kit] will open a Pandora’s box of confusion, privacy violations, genetic discrimination and other issues.” Adding to the confusion, many customers may psych themselves out and procure an unwarranted sense of security which could lead to negligence of important, preventive measures or over-worry about diseases and conditions they don’t have which could lead to uncalled for costly treatments.

In my opinion, these genetic kits are precarious. I agree with the article when it says that our decision to genetically test ourselves could lead to testing of the fetus. I think this leads to parents playing “God”. People could become discriminatory and decide they’d rather have an abortion and try again, to obtain the perfect baby. As kits become more advanced and more companies join the arena of over-the-counter kits, maybe the parents will want blue eyes over brown eyes or maybe they don’t want to deal with the costs of a diabetic child. In the same manner, a person in a serious relationship might decide to end it because, “There is no way I’d want to marry a guy who might have leukemia in the future”. Moreover, what if companies begin to play on these issues to make more money? My belief is that access to such information is controversial and people are unready to deal with such power.

To read more  (or to test  your genes, whatever floats your boat), the article is available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/05/10/AR2010051004904_2.html?g=0.

Life in the intertidal: no day at the beach!

I spent the past couple of days exploring the intertidal with my biology students. No matter how many times I visit this coastal system, I am always fascinated by how much beauty and how much biology there is to observe. Especially when I go with students whose “oooohs” and “ahhhhhs” remind me once again of how amazing the natural world is.

Here in So Cal, we are lucky to have so much coastline to explore. Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach has 3.2 miles of pristine coastline that is perfect for exploring tidepools and sandy coves, or just relaxing on the beach.

Life in the intertidal is no day at the beach. Organisms need to cope with being exposed to air and sunlight during low tides and submerged with water during high tides. They also have to be able to withstand the incessant pounding of the energy-filled surf and compete with other organisms who are looking for a prime piece of real estate. Animals have evolved suites of adaptations in responses to these environmental challenges. Here are a few of my favorites (oh so hard to just pick a few….more to come in future posts!):

Ochre Sea Stars (Pisaster ochraceus) are common inhabitants on rocky beaches all the way from Baja California to Alaksa. Students are often very excited to find these creatures and remark “Awwww…..how cute!!”. I agree, but quickly remind them what voracious predators these animals are. The ochre sea star is a major predator of mussels, barnacles, limpets and snails. We found this guy here mid-meal: the animal is using its hundred of tiny tube feet to latch on to the shells of this mussell, tugging until they open. The sea star then extrudes its stomach out of its body into the opened shells and digests the mollusk in place. Once it is satisfied with its meal, the stomach is brought back inside the body and the partially digested food is moved to a second stomach (pretty “cute”, huh?).

A few more quickies:

Do not disturb this California Sea Hare (Aplysia californica: a hermaphroditic marine gastropod mollusk); it is capable of squirting you with a reddish-purple ink from a gland in its mantle cavity (much like an octopus does).

These small aggregating sea anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) are often mistaken for debris covering the rocks. In fact, they are almost always covered with sand and shell pieces, which may conserve moisture, prevent sun damage during exposure, and help in hiding from predators.

Where’s Waldo? Green algae, brown algae, mussels, barnacles, sea stars and more!