Science-y things for a Tuesday morning

Two things that caught my eye this morning, the first is a story about students gaming a professor’s grading scheme on the final exam:

“‘The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,’ Fröhlich said. ‘After about 20-30 minutes I would give up…. Then we all left.’”

Why would the students boycott? Because the prof curved his grades based on the top performer… so if the top score was a 0, then everyone gets an A! The prof was cool about the whole thing, but he has since changed his protocols so it can’t happen again. Full story here.

Ever thought about getting a tattoo? Perhaps you already have one, maybe you are totally against the very idea. I personally don’t have any, but I’m not against them – I just haven’t found anything I’d like to have permanently imprinted on my body. This may, however, have changed this morning, when I saw this:


which of course sent me on a random walk through nerd tattoos on the web, and wow there are a lot! Including this one, based on Darwin’s original mock-up of the tree of life:


Now I’m imagining where these would look good on me. Do you have any science tattoos? Would you consider getting one?

Aquairus lives! Sort of…

Good news today! It seems that the Aquarius Reef Base mission has secured funding… enough funding to keep it alive anyway, if not actively doing science. Full story from BoingBoing here, self-promoting links to where I’ve talked about this before here, flickr photostream of pictures of Aquarius so that you can spend too much time dreaming about diving on an awesome undersea lab here.

Climate change and the human population

Climate change is making headlines today, after President Obama spoke directly on the subject yesterday in his 2nd inaugural address:

     “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition.  We must lead it.

We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.  We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

– Barack Obama

Stirring words, and yet I was quite surprised to hear them. Not only because the topic of climate change was nearly absent during the recent election cycle, but also because the latest Draft Climate Assessment Report, what will eventually be the official government stance on the subject, was released at 4:30PM on a Friday, the time-slot reserved for low-priority federal news. What does the report say? In short, we’re all screwed: climate change is real, it’s already happening [by the way, did you hear that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US?], and we are not doing nearly enough to slow it down.

Also in the news today is Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and proponent of the rather unpopular opinion that, frankly, there’s too many of us already and no one has the right to have as many babies as they might want. Dr. Ehrlich’s latest paper, recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society presents the hypothesis that, just as many historical civilizations have collapsed in the past, a similar fate is destined for our current, global civilization, and the main cause will be self-made climate disruption. So even if the world’s human population eventually levels off around 9 billion, and according to Dr. Hans Rosling, this is entirely possible, even this might be too many humans for one fragile earth.

The Wonder of Jellyfish

Last week my friend Jeff sent me a link to a really fascinating article about  Turritopsis dohrnii – the “immortal” jellyfish. Turns out this little animal never seems to die but rather it sort of morphs backwards when it reaches the last stage of its reproductive cycle. For most jellyfish, their life cycle alternates between two stages – the polyp stage, which is rooted to the substrate and can reproduce asexually, and the medusa stage, which is the more familiar “swimming” jelly stage and reproduces sexually. What the immortal jelly does different is, after reproducing as a medusa, the animal first turns back into an amorphous blob of undifferentiated cells before shooting up stalks that turn into new polyps. Never before has this reversal been noted in another species – polyps turn into medusae but not the other way around! Until now, of course. It remains unclear as to what, exactly, this news means to us humans. Dr. Shin Kubota,a researcher in Japan, has been growing T. dohrnii in his lab for the past few years. He, for one, is convinced that the secrets of the immortal jellyfish can be applied to us humans so that one day we too could be immortal. I am not so sure about this, seeing as how the “regeneration” event from medusa to polyp stage involves a complete reorganization of the body plan (imagine, in order to keep on living, your body has to revert to an infant!). Nor is it clear that immortality would be a great thing for all 7 billion (and counting) of us humans already here on earth. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story about a fascinating species, one that belongs to a group of creatures called the Cnidarians.

Upside-down jelly

Upside-down jelly

Another amazing Cnidarian is the upside-down, or Cassiopeia jelly. These guys live all over the canals and shallow backwaters of the Florida Keys. Like corals, they have photosynthetic zooxanthellae that provide the jellyfish with energy and their greenish coloration. The symbiotic algae hitches a ride with the jellyfish, trading the protection afforded by a nest of stinging tentacles for extra food that it provides to the jellyfish. All in all, two amazing examples of Phylum Cnidaria.

Crowdfunding Science

Recently Scientific American came out with a list of ten potential World Changing ideas in science for 2012. On the list among such lofty ideas as DNA free organisms, data mining smartphones, and electronic tattoos, is the idea of crowdfunding science. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while now, after all I managed to fund an entire field season this way, and I strongly believe that crowdfunding represents a new paradigm for funding science.

Besides my own research, I’ve plugged other research projects on this blog in the past. Checking up on the Project Aquarius ReefBase finds the project out of time and far short of their goal. However, a graduate student here at Florida State just raised more than her goal in less than 48 hours! So what lessons are to be learned from these examples? Well, for one I don’t think that crowdfunding is an adequate substitute for public funding. Aquarius ReefBase had to turn to crowdfunding because their sponsoring agency, the National Underwater Research Program, was cut completely from the federal budget (you can read up here on why I think this is a bad thing). The micro-donation model just won’t work to fund a $3 million per year project, however it seems to be perfect for funding smaller projects, like the ones that graduate students take on. If you care about science and think it is important, please consider joining the growing crowd and donate to a struggling scientist!

You can donate to Althea’s project here, or check out a list of other crowdfunding groups that focus on science:


SciFund Challenge (fuelled by Rockethub)


Indiegogo (these guys fund other projects too but they consistently feature science projects)

Salty days, windy nights

Field season in the Keys officially started this year on June 11th. This year I brought with me two interns who are part of the Certificate Program in Marine Biology at FSU. They will be helping me with my research and will also do a research project of their own.

The first day in the field I like to go out to the reef and do a training dive at Sombrero Key. This way we can all get familiar with the boat, the gear, and diving without worrying about data just yet. This year the visibility was fantastic and the interns passed their check-outs with flying colors!

After the reef intro dive, it’s time to go check out grouper holes in the bay. To date I have information on 60 different solution holes that have at some point been home to a juvenile red grouper. Not all of these holes are occupied in a given year, but one thing I’m interested in is tracking these holes over time to see, in a given year, which holes are occupied?

So far this year occupancy by red grouper is right about 50%, which is right about what it has been the past two summers. The next step for my research is to randomly select a subset of occupied holes from which I will remove the red grouper. Removals are done using hook and line, and once caught the fish will be relocated to an empty hole miles away. After removal I return to the hole every few days to make sure no new grouper has moved in and also to record any changes in the number and identity of the fishes and invertebrates that also live in the holes.

However, I can’t get out and work unless it is relatively calm out. When it is calm, as in the picture above, the bay is beautiful! Too bad it hasn’t looked like this for a while now, thanks to Tropical Storm Debby now churning up the northern Gulf of Mexico. But the forecast starts to look good in a couple of days, so stay tuned for more updates on red grouper, solution holes, and doing research in the Florida Keys!

How to sample very large fish

I spent most of the month of May traveling around Florida training  fishing charter captains how to collect biological samples of goliath grouper (formerly known as jewfish). These trips were phase one of a 3-year grant that our lab was awarded to collect age structure information about the goliath grouper population in Florida. Since 1990 when a moratorium was placed on all goliath grouper landings, the population has since increased and goliath grouper are now a common sight at reefs and wrecks along the Florida coastline. Just how much the population has rebounded remains in question and information about the age-structure of the population (How many young fish are there? How many adults?) is critical to determining just how much the population has increased and what kinds of management decisions must be made to prevent another near extinction.

The typical way to age a fish is to use the otolith, or ear bone, that most fish grow inside their heads. Used for maintaining balance when the fish is alive, once removed the otolith can be used to determine how old the fish was. Otoliths grow in spurts, just like fish do, that roughly correspond to the seasons, and so the otolith grows ring by ring, much like a tree. Obviously, counting otolith rings requires killing the animal, something we would like to avoid doing to an endangered species. Instead we use the rays of the dorsal fin which also grow rings like a tree. The rays are embedded in resin, cut into thin sections, and then the rings are counted under a microscope.

In the past few years our lab has caught and sampled about 250 fish, but at least 1000 are needed to reliably estimate the population. This is where the charter captains come in. Once trained by us, they will be able to land and sample goliath grouper if they happen to catch one during a charter. We get the samples and the customers get a rare, up-close experience with a huge fish!

Check out the lab’s website for more info. And here is a video detailing the complete sampling protocol. Spoiler alert: big fish and biologists below!