Monday, February 26, 2007

How to graduate from Berkeley

No, really. This post is just a list of deadlines and resources for my own personal use, and perhaps for the use of my fellow graduates. If you were hoping for gory dissection pictures or reviews of bad movies, you'll just have to troll the archives for a while.

The Graduate Division's list of Filing and Form Submission Deadlines. The only date on the list that hasn't passed already is May 18, 2007.

Also from the Grad Division: Ten Common Mistakes Student Make When Filing.

Guidelines (PDF) for formatting and submitting your thesis or dissertation.

Integrative Biology graduation checklist. If you're a grad student, ignore the thing about getting on the degree list. That's for undergrads.

If you're planning on going to graduation, you've got a bit less than two days to register for tickets. The lights go out at 5:00 PM this Wednesday, Feb. 27.

Many thanks to Rob Bingham for looking all this crap up and giving me printouts. Now that's friendship.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

A day at the Oakland Zoo

And pictures of only three animals to show for it. Ah, well. At least my devotion is deep.

When I was a kid, this was my hierarchy of awesomeness:

1. Dinosaurs
2. Giant tortoises
3. Other turtles
4. Elephants
5. Whales

The only change in three decades is that giraffes have edged out tortoises as my favorite zoo animals. Still, I feel compelled to give tortoises pride of place in this post.

A passing zookeeper let us know that the two tortoises you see here are both more than 100 years old. That's pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it.

Oh, they're Aldabra tortoises, not Galapagos. Just for those of you who keep track.

We were there to see a zookeeper putting out hay for the giraffes.

This sneaky guy got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

You might be thinking that the giraffes' stock is rising because I like sauropods. But actually, I kinda like giraffes despite liking sauropods. Giraffes are just so slender and graceful. After you've been looking at giraffes for a while, sauropods look pretty fat.

I'd still give a major bodily organ to see a living sauropod. But I would not bet on it being halfway as graceful as a giraffe.

This partial mount of the giant Cretaceous croc, Sarcosuchus, is on display in the kid's area. You can't tell from the photo, but this bad boy's skull is about as long as I am tall.

Sigh. Maybe this alligator looks so down because he knows he will never measure up to his ancestors.

He should cheer up. Crocs are still pretty boss. They can break the one ton barrier, which is more than I can say for the other half of extant Archosauria.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Yucky Awesome


A group of flatworms called monogeneans are among the closest relatives of tapeworms, and instead of living inside their hosts, they mostly live on the outside....some monogeneans give birth to offspring without releasing them from their bodies. Their offspring mature inside them and give birth as well. Like a hideous Russian doll, a monogenean may contain twenty generations of descendents inside its body!


Suppose someone stops and asks you for directions. You start giving them the goods, but a couple of guys come down the sidewalk carrying a door and they walk right between you and the direction-asker. After they go by, a different person is standing in front of you, patiently waiting for you to continue. Would you notice the switcheroo?

Probably not.

No, seriously.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My afternoon with Apteryx

I spent most of the afternoon dealing with kiwis, genus Apteryx, in one way or another. I passed a few pleasant minutes photographing the MVZ's mounted kiwi.

Then I had a look at Richard Owen's 1841 monograph on Apteryx australis. Two things you need to know about kiwis:

1. Despite the genus name, they really do have wings. And their wings still have most of the parts they started with. More than those of an emu, anyway. The real "apteryx" (name means wingless) was the moa. Moas had the scapula and coracoid fused into a little splint, but no forelimb bones at all.

2. Their eggs are retarded huge. Above is an x-ray of a pregnant kiwi. I think it's pretty clear that the bird can't eat, drink, poop, or even breathe while that monster is in the pipe. It's science.

Below is one of these oddly disreputable-looking birds* sitting on its egg (image stold from here). Sorta like those weirdos at the gym that sit on the big plastic balls and pretend to be working out.

*Seriously. Every lovin' one of 'em looks like it might hit you up for spare change. I've never seen a picture of kiwi without thinking, "Dammit, boy, have some respect for yourself! Take a bath, shave and get a haircut! And for the love of Pete, put some pants on!"

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Well, it's about damn time

So. Planet Earth is finally be shown over here, on the Discovery Channel, successive Sundays from March 25-April 22 (episode guide and photos here). Which is good.

It's being shown out of order. Dunno how bad that is. I know in some of his earlier series, Attenborough capped each episode with a short, tantalizing segue to the next. I really liked those, for the same reason I like Darren's lists of upcoming blog subjects. At least some of those earlier series were scrambled when they were released on video and DVD, and the segues were chopped. I honestly can't imagine why anyone thought that was a good idea, ever. At this point, if David Attenborough wants to go through the natural world in a particular order, I'm inclined to follow his lead.

Finally, the American DVD (to be released on April 24, right after the end of the TV run) will feature Attenborough's narration, but the broadcast will not (details here). It's been redubbed with Sigourney Weaver. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Ripley plenty. But this is David Freaking Attenborough, know what I'm sayin'? His infinitely calm, omniscient delivery is a significant part of the appeal. I'm pretty upset about the redub. They better not have dumbed it down, those bastards.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In defense of speculative zoology

The attraction of speculative zoology is obvious: cool critters. But there is another reason to play the game. It is natural for us to look at the history of life on earth and wonder how much of it was inevitable and how much was accidental. This is maybe the biggest, baddest question in evolutionary biology, and a lot of ink has been spilled over it. Complex life was inevitable. No it wasn't. If you replayed the Cambrian explosion you'd get the same results. No you wouldn't.

Speculative zoology is a way to sneak up on these questions unannounced and, just possibly, take them (and yourself) by surprise. When I ask, "What would have happened if marsupials had gotten the northern continents and Africa and placentals had been stuck with South America and Australia?" what I'm really asking is, "Would changing the players on the board make any difference after a few rounds (= tens to hundreds of millions of years) of play?" Is evolution completely unpredictable, or are some things bound to happen just because the Earth and life are what they are?

When people ask me about contingency versus determinism in evolution, I usually pimp contingency all the way. But tonight I learned something surprising.

I was playing the God game with Randy (as described in the previous post) and he said he'd like to wipe out all eukaryotes. That's all the amoebas, fungi, plants, and animals, plus a few things you've probably never heard of. Bacteria and archaea would be the only survivors.

This suggestion momentarily discomfited me. I had a vision of the world stuck at the bacteria stage for billions of years. What if it never got past that stage? What if it was just Bacteria World until the sun went nova?

But then I thought, "Hey, wait a minute." The Earth already was Bacteria World for billions of years. But not forever. Complex life eventually got rolling. Things did come out on land. Things did learn to fly. A few things discovered fire and eventually blogging.

Don't get me wrong. I am familiar with the arguments for why all of those events were lucky breaks, one in a zillion long shots that might never be repeated. But I don't believe it anymore. I think they were inevitable. You can say, "Complex life might not evolve again" or "Consciousness might not evolve again". But you would have said the same standing on a Proterozoic beach or wandering through the rubble after Chixulub. It would have been wrong then, and I think it's wrong now. Whatever stage or level you think life might get stuck at, it's already been through once and didn't.

"Of course you think that because you're a product of a world where life never got stuck." Yeah, yeah, take your Anthropic Principle and cram it up your protostome. When I look at the history of life, there are some plateaus, but they don't last forever. Not a one. I don't think it was inevitable that some Miocene primates would come down from the trees and end up splitting the atom, but I think the combination of intelligence, tool use, and communication was bound to come along sooner or later.

I could be wrong. I'd be happy to be wrong. The upshot is that I've thought about this stuff more intensely tonight than I ever have before in my life, and it's mostly thanks to the game.

I also want to explain the effect that speculative zoology has on me. A naive observer might think of it as an escape from the real world, dreaming up phantasms to replace the mundane critters I'm stuck with, an ultimately life-denying exercise in futility. That's exactly backward. Playing the game doesn't make me appreciate life less, it makes me appreciate it more.

Just think about all the totally badass things that have ever lived. Giant pterosaurs. Indricotherium. Conodonts. Glyptodonts. Anomalocaris. Dunkleosteus. Koolasuchus (yes, really). Champsosaurs. Multituberculates. Mihirungs. Ichthyosaurs. Carcharodon megalodon. Sharovipteryx. Drepanosaurs. Effigia. Deinosuchus. Helicoprion. Pelagic trilobites. And yes, freakin' Amphicoelias.

In the immortal words of Tenacious D, that shit came off the top o' my fuckin' head, y'all. That's a ten-second seine haul through my RAM. The tip of the paleobiology iceberg.

Speculative zoology invites you to cast your eye over the whole Dramatis Personae of Earth's history and start rewriting their lines. You can't wish for a monotreme takeover unless you know and love monotremes.

You want to know the real whole total uncensored and unabashed truth? Screw sauropods (sorry, Mike, it had to be said). The coolest stuff that ever lived is alive right now. Whales with heads that wouldn't fit in your living room that live on mile-long swarms of crustaceans the size of boogers. A mammal with an electrosensory nose and poison spurs on its feet that dives for worms and lays eggs. Snapping turtles. Opossums. Peccaries. Poison dart frogs. Hummingbirds, man--the whole saurischian machine, that powered animals six stories tall, crammed into a fun-size package the size of your thumb. And they fly for thousands of miles, drop their bodies into torpor, and lay eggs that are even smaller than they are (not all at once, of course). Naked mole rats. Eagles. Hyenas. Saltwater crocs. Sturgeon. Loosejaws. Arctic terns. Armadillos. Axolotls. Kodiak bears. Velvet worms. Ratites. Hornbills. Sea otters. Manatees. Horseshoe crabs. Moray eels. Nudibranchs. Earthworms 20 feet long. Ruminants that can stand in the palm of your hand. SLIMES.

Ants, people! Crawling all over your bodies!

I cannot contemplate this smorgasbord, this wall-to-wall concentration of coolness, without wanting to run screaming into the street, shouting and laughing and tearing my clothes off. I exult in the facts that (1) these things are alive, (2) I am alive to see them, and (3) this is what I get to do with my life.

That straight-up pedal-to-the-firewall mushroom-cloud-in-the-rearview-mirror ROCKS!!

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Further rounds of the God game

Sometimes you kick a rock and all you get is a sore toe. Sometimes you kick a rock and it hits some other rocks and pretty soon half the mountain is coming down.

It's probably too early to tell on this one. I blogged on Brain Candy Topic #117 the other day--or, as some would have it, threw down a gauntlet. Darren Naish picked it up. We'll see where it goes. I've already gotten some good suggestions, and I'm sure Darren will get a lot more.

I've got more ideas. Ideas for speculative zoology, and ideas about speculative zoology. I'm putting the former in this post and the latter in the next.

This evening I grabbed some awesomely cheesy, greasy pizza with my freakishly productive labmate, Randy Irmis, and we took turns coming up with evolutionary experiments.

I would like to see how Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes) would fare if all the sarcopterygians (lungfish, coelocanths, all vertebrates with legs) suddenly went extinct. I assume they'd invade the land, but how? Their limb musculature is all inside their bodies. Would they be forced to truck around on fins modified into stilts? Maybe they would evolve jointed limbs actuated remotely by freaky long tendons. In gestalt appearance, they might be closer to arthropods than tetrapods.

I would also like to clear out all tetrapods other than bats. I've always been intrigued by the utter absence of flightless bats, and the flightless bats from After Man were wicked cool. What would a world repopulated by flightless bats look like? Would some bats find new uses for their fingers and wing membranes if they were no longer constrained to be airworthy? Would we get penguin bats? Whale bats? Fossorial bats? What if some bats lived in caves and only came out at night? Oh, wait.

I think games like this are a good heuristic for finding out what animals you are possibly more interested in than you realize. I would like to see a world where edentates took over. No, monotremes. No, lissamphibians.

As for Randy, he'd go back to the Triassic and rub out the cynodonts (basal synapsids get to live). Would mammals still evolve, or would reptiles get the whole pie? (My guess: the latter. Mammalian success in the Triassic looks like a fluke to me.) He'd to go the K/T and let the mosasaurs slip through. Do whales, sirenians, and pinnipeds even have a chance to evolve? (My guess: yes. Marine mammals evolved in the presence of sharks, and later in the presence of other marine mammals. You don't have to get there first if you can get there better.)

He would go back to the Cambrian and whack the early chordates. Excellent choice. It is hard to imagine most non-chordates stepping into those shoes. But then they've never had the chance, have they? That's the whole point.

After a while, "kill X" or "kill everything but X" gets a little old. So we started tinkering with the world in more subtle ways.

What if the Earth had no axial tilt? No seasons. That could have some radical implications for ecology. In a classic paper, Hairston, Smith & Slobodkin (1967; free PDF here) posed the question, "Why is the world green?" Why aren't herbivores able to eat up all of the available plant biomass? "Because they'd starve to death" is not a convincing answer. If starvation was all that was holding the herbivores back, we ought to see constant cycles of overgrazing, mass starvation, and recovery. But we don't. Something is keeping the herbivore populations in check. Maybe it's predators, maybe it's plant defenses. I suspect a big part of the answer is seasonality. We may look at the green world and think, "This place could support a lot more herbivores," but the real question is, how many herbivores can a region support when it is dry or brown or covered in snow?

But what if there were no seasons? No dry season, no winter. Without seasonal harshness to hold them down, could herbivores catch up with plants? Maybe the world would become a wasteland, populated by fast-growing plants that could flower within a single day, and prowled by lean, fast-moving herbivores that would range over wide areas eating plants as soon as they appeared and aestivating between rains. Even if herbivores couldn't catch up, something would have to change. Possibly evolutionary arms races would be accelerated. Plants would need more horrendous defenses, and burgeoning populations of herbivores would need some way to fight off the carnivores. Would a world without seasons be a hyperkinetic pressure cooker of biotic destruction? (As a proponent of Predator Theater, I'm not opposed to that.)

What if the collision that created the moon had never happened? (Image courtesy of Nova Celestia.) The Earth would be a little smaller, a little lighter. It would spin faster. Days would be shorter. And with no moon to slow things down, days would stay short for a long time. What would tectonics be like on this smaller, lighter, faster-spinning planet?

Speaking of, what if we could turn the tectonic fires up, down, or off? Say plate tectonics stopped right now. How long would it take for erosion to grind everything down? Presumably the whole world would eventually be under water. How long would it take? What would the topography of this static world be like, as the mountain ranges wore down and the ocean basis filled up? Perhaps the flattening land and the filling, rising seas would meet in huge mud flats, hundreds or thousands of miles across. How would plants and animals adjust to Mudworld? Maybe there would not be empty mud flats, but mangrove forests spanning entire continents.

All of this brain play is not in vain. In the next post, I'm going to take a stab at a big question: why engage in speculative zoology?


If you like wacky chimaeric critters, check out the photoshopped animal contests at Worth1000, where I stole a couple of the images above.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 09, 2007

Playing Darwin's God

Figure 1. The Lesser Tadwee of southern Uqbar.

I don't want to play God.

All I want is the ability to live for billions of years, see and control everything that transpires on Earth, and speed up and slow down time at my leisure.

Why do I want these powers? I blame Dougal Dixon. His book After Man: A Zoology of the Future came out when I was still in grade school. I was freakin' fas-cin-ated. After After Man I was much taken with Dixon's The New Dinosaurs, Wayne Douglas Barlowe's Expedition, the awesome but dead-link-ridden Speculative Dinosaur Project, the creations of Nemo Ramjet, so on and so forth, imaginary zoology without end.

Figure 2. One of Nemo Ramjet's horrors.

I want the powers, obviously, so that I can tinker with evolution. Here are some experiments I have planned, just in case I wake up some morning with the aforementioned abilities. Most of them involve you either dying right now or never coming into existence, so I'll understand if you think they suck.

1. Humans go extinct immediately, and global temperatures rise to Jurassic levels over, say, 20 million years. When will Antarctica lose its ice cap? How fast? How much of the newly exposed land will be under water, and how fast will isostasy bring it back up? What will colonize this empty continent? Birds, obviously, but what else? What terrestrial flora and fauna will colonize Australia? How long will it take? It's a long haul to the nearest sizeable landmasses; on the other hand, transoceanic dispersal is apparently more common than we thought (de Queiroz 2005 Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20:68-73).

2. Another Antarctica experiment. The land bridge connecting Antarctica to South America never breaks. The circumpolar current never forms and Antarctica does not ice over. No polar ice caps, no ice ages. What survives on Antarctica? What happens in the rest of the world? In the warmer, wetter climate, Africa will probably be covered in forest, not savanna. What hominids, if any, evolve? Ooh, ooh, ooh--with the addition of Antarctica, South America ought to have more land area than North America. Maybe South America wins the Great American Interchange. That would be rad!

Figure 3. A truly fantastic image of SpecWorld.

3. Go back to the end of the Cretaceous. I know what you're thinking, but you're dead wrong, foo'. The dinosaurs DO go extinct. Everywhere except Australia. I don't care what the mechanism was, asteroid, or, uh, one of those lame reasons--whatever it is, it skips the Land of Oz. What do these dinosaur do with the Cenozoic? What do the monotremes and marsupials do with them dinosaurs? What happens during the Pleistocene? Do any of those dinAusaurs cross the ole Wallace Line and wreck some Asiatic shop? Or do the Aborigines smoke their asses 'til they ain't no moa? Ha ha hee hee.

4. Go back to the Permian. You know that part where the continents split up? Yeah, not so much this time. Fast forward to the Mesozoic. Any dinosaurs around, or did they lose out to the therapsids? Or did the harsh conditions on the mostly-desert supercontinent favor archosaurs right from the start, so that mammals don't even get a toehold? And what's going on geologically with this unnaturally large and long-lasting landmass? Those hot spots are still going to be burning. Maybe Pangaea is pocked with resurgent calderas. A desert supercontinent stocked with volcanoes and dinosaurs? Sounds like a nice getaway.

5. Starting now, all tetrapods go extinct except turtles. No more mammals, birds, crocs, lizards, snakes, amphibians... Obviously turtles are going to have to step up and take over the world. But how? I mean, they're turtles. Or maybe the turtles don't take over the world. Maybe fish beat them to the punch. Could they get out of the water in time to give the turtles some fight? Maybe not. But think about it, man! Super-tall giraffe turtles. Lean, mean cheetah turtles. Blind cave turtles. Giant whale turtles.


Seriously. If you had the aforementioned powers, what experiments would you do?

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007

My best friend's nuke

Figure 1. Real nuke.

By now I'm sure my fascination with nukes is obvious. I have to admit, any movie that doesn't have at least one mushroom cloud leaves me feeling disappointed and hungry. I'd give up body parts get to see one go off live.

The next best thing is to cook one up for yourself. Well, not for yourself, but maybe for one of the most popular TV shows on the planet. I haven't done that, but my homeboy Jarrod Davis did. The mushroom cloud on the season premiere of 24 was his creation. He explains how he did it here. You can find the relevant footage everywhere; search on "24 nuke" or the equivalent.

Good job, buddy. Here's hoping that shot gets you another Emmy (the bastard has two of those already).

Figure 2. Jarrod's nuke.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reason #317 to be depressed: journal impact factors

Everywhere I look, I see a common problem. Someone a long time ago came up with a numerical measure of X, and simply because this number exists bureaucrats and administrators have jumped on it as a convenient measure of Y.

One of the most pernicious is the use of student evaluations to decide almost everything. Student evaluations are a popularity contest, pure and simple. Are the best teachers always the most popular? Think about what factors would make a student give a teacher high marks--light workload, infrequent class meetings, easy tests, big curves, and a please-walk-all-over-my-life office hour policy come to mind. Are those the things we really want to be rewarding?

Another is the use of journal impact factors to decide how hot your research is. If you're not familiar with these, the top journals are rated by how frequently their articles are cited. Usually higher impact factors go with more exclusive journals with higher turnover rates. A lot of museum publications and regional journals aren't listed at all. And people (well, bureaucrats) use these things. A lot. So often the decision of whether to hire or promote someone is based less on, "Is their work any good?" than "What journals have they been published in?"

(One obvious loophole is that a paper can be cited a billion times not because it is good but because it is spectacularly bad.)

So there are big problems with journal impact factors even if they were calculated in an honest, transparent way by a disinterested party. They're not.

Thomson Scientific, the sole arbiter of the impact factor game, is part of The Thomson Corporation, a for-profit organization that is responsible primarily to its shareholders. It has no obligation to be accountable to any of the stakeholders who care most about the impact factor—the authors and readers of scientific research. Although we have not attempted to play this game, we did, because of the value that authors place on it, attempt to understand the rules. During discussions with Thomson Scientific over which article types in PLoS Medicine the company deems as “citable,” it became clear that the process of determining a journal's impact factor is unscientific and arbitrary. After one in-person meeting, a telephone conversation, and a flurry of e-mail exchanges, we came to realize that Thomson Scientific has no explicit process for deciding which articles other than original research articles it deems as citable. We conclude that science is currently rated by a process that is itself unscientific, subjective, and secretive.

During the course of our discussions with Thompson Scientific, PLoS Medicine's potential impact factor—based on the same articles published in the same year—seesawed between as much as 11 (when only research articles are entered into the denominator) to less than 3 (when almost all article types in the magazine section are included, as Thomson Scientific had initially done—wrongly, we argued, when comparing such article types with comparable ones published by other medical journals).

Makes me wanna holler.

Thanks to Mike for the tip.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, February 03, 2007

You have to check this out

Been meaning to post on this for a few days now. The other night I was surfing the net and I found a list of nominees for some kind of blogging awards. One nominee for a funniest post award was (oh yes oh yes) Bobby Lightfoot's Asshole Celebrity Fight Week #1: My FIGHT With Wilford Fucking Brimley, at Bobby Lightfoot and the Orchestra of Sweet Regret.

Just read it, okay.

I have no idea if it won, but it should have.

So went to the Orchestra to see what was new. At the time, it was post on eatin' froots, which is one of the funniest damn things I've ever read in my life.

I tooled around in the archives. It is chock-a-block full of amazing stuff.

And the writing, oh my sweet patootie. If I could write like this guy, I might have a career crisis on my hands.

I could point you to a dozen awesome posts, or two dozen, or basically however many you want. But if the two I linked to above don't convince you, nothing will.

Hop to it!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 02, 2007


I've always liked ants.

When we were kids my cousin and brother (two different people) and I would put ants in jars and watch them dig tunnels and stuff. A fair number of caterpillars and grasshoppers went into the jars as well, to be torn apart in grisly episodes of Predator Theater. We lost our taste for it when we put a toad in. First his ass got covered in ants. Then he covered himself and them with copious amounts of poison snot exuded from his skin. We pulled him out, washed him off, and set him free.

Reading that now, I suppose it sounds pretty awful. But what you gotta realize is, we realized at the time that there was a line and we had crossed it. If we'd been caught and spanked, it would have been just one more in a long line of forgettable Times We Got In Trouble. But we had the freedom to escalate things until we made ourselves sick, and I will never forget that. It unsettles me to this day.

And hey, the toad was none the worse for the wear.

A few years later E.O. Wilson's monster book, The Ants, came out, and it was celebrated with a big National Geographic article with lots of detailed full-color paintings of ants taking care of business. I must have read that article about a zillion times. I had ant-mania for a while, but it didn't last.

Ants have popped up in my life from time to time since then. Most recently last month when I got to spend a day chasing ants with Bill Clark in Big Bend. I picked up a random, fist-sized chunk of granite halfway along a transect. I held it close to my face to get a good look at the crystals and the weathering patterns. Then I flipped it over to see what the bottom side looked like.

The other side of the rock was completely covered with an undulating swarm of tiny red fire ants. None of my fingers were more than a centimeter from the ants. I have no idea how they could have been so riled up and not come around the side of the rock and eaten my freakin' hand off, but they didn't.

Imagine picking up a hamburger, flipping it over to look at the bun, and finding it totally covered with a living carpet of ants. I was caught equally off guard. The rock went up in the air, I jumped back about ten feet and started doing a modified form of the spider dance. Eeeeeeeeee-yargh!! [shudder]

Then I discovered this post on litter ants by Mike Kaspari, an ecologist at my old alma mater. Litter ants are cool, man. They are tiny. Their colonies are tiny.

Litter ants live on the forest floor in small hollow twigs, empty acorns, or even between leaves. The whole colony may consist of only 100 or so ants, just enough to cover the tip of your pinky. This small size allows litter ants to be incredibly abundant: in a tropical rainforest there may be 5-10 species living together in a meter square plot.
How cool is that!? A whole colony in an acorn. These things are to the rest of the ant kingdom what my aquarium is to the Amazon.

How much would it suck to pick up that acorn and put it in your pocket?

Anyway, litter ants are also cool for another reason.

And then the “aha!” moment.

I saw this Pheidole colony as carrying within it a little tally sheet as to how much it had allocated to growth and colony maintenance (the number of workers), how much it had allocated to defense (the majors), and how much it had allocated to reproduction (the winged males and queens). Furthermore, if I looked very carefully, I could see the ants carrying pupae of workers, majors, and reproductives: a record of where the colony wanted to go in the future! The mind raced. I was surrounded by thousands of litter ant colonies, hundreds of species (of which, scads were Pheidole) all waiting to be harvested and tallied toward understanding a big question in EEB: “by what rules do individuals invest their limited time and resources into different activities–all of them critical to the colony’s fitness?"

Van Valen, eat yer heart out.

I gotta say, it's being able to answer exactly those kinds of questions that occasionally makes me wish I worked on something a little smaller and more, um, alive than sauropods.

Oh, who am I kidding? Sauropods rock too hard, even if I will die with a lot of unanswered questions.

I suppose everyone does.

And then?

Your mortal remains get decomposed.

By freakin' ants!

Labels: , ,