Tag Archives: nature

Born to Move – a review of Great Migrations, part 1

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Of all the fascinating areas of natural history and animal behavior, perhaps the one closest to my heart (even if my current research isn’t exactly focused on it) is Migration: the systematic movement of populations of animals from one location to another, one habitat to another, there and back again! And I mean it in this narrower sense of migration, which is not just a moving away from one place to another, but a pulsing rhythm of the life history of many species where individuals and entire populations move back and forth between locations in a predictable pattern. I studied migration in a group of tiny little birds, the Phylloscopus leaf warblers (you wonder where this blog’s name comes from?) of the Old World for my Ph.D. thesis during the early 1990s. I was drawn in by the uncanny way in which millions of these little birds – each weighing in at 7-15 grams depending on which of the several score species it belongs to – flood the tropical forests and woodlands of India, and ended up studying what influences their survival on the wintering grounds, and what ecological forces may guide their movements. But more on that in my published papers, or a future blog post or two. In hindsight (and psychoanalytic goggles, if you will), it should come as no surprise that someone living with a deep-rooted sense of displacement should be fascinated by the lives of those evolved to migrate!

Fascinating as I think the leaf warblers’ migration is, perhaps it isn’t as visually spectacular as the examples you will see in National Geographic Television’s new series, Great Migrations, of which I wrote briefly yesterday. There is also an accompanying coffee table book, which I will also refer to as I review the films. The series kicks off this evening (in less than 3 hours from now for those on the US east coast), and features some truly spectacular images of migrating animals, sharing with us the little and big dramas of their lives, from around the world. But visual spectacle is surely the least one expects from National Geographic, especially given the several years spent filming the stories, and the clever technologies employed to track the migrants, large and small, along their journeys.

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In the first episode “Born to Move“, we follow four stories of migration, ranging in scale from a small island to entire continents and oceans, and involving the elements of earth, air, and water. Two of these stories, I suspect, are likely to be familiar to most wildlife enthusiasts. I’m sure you’re acquainted (if you watch any wildlife shows about Africa at all) with the story of the the Wildebeest, migrating in an endless loop around the Serengeti, chasing rainfall driven forage across the savanna, often running the gauntlet through rivers filled with hungry crocodiles congregating (in their own migration) to feast on the moving smorgasbord of meat on thundering hooves. How can you forget scenes like these?

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You are likely also to have heard about the incredible multi-generational migration of the Monarch butterflies (see video clip in my previous post) between Canada and Mexico, surely one of the most remarkable and bizarre (if you think about it!) examples of migration in the animal world. The other two stories are perhaps less familiar (they were to me): the Sperm Whales moving through the oceans chasing food supplies, and the Christmas Island Red Crabs migrating between land and sea to complete their breeding cycles.

My favorite story is that of the crabs: perhaps because of the haunting image of the gravid females holding their claws aloft to maintain balance while being buffeted by the waves of the ocean into which they must release their loads of hundreds of eggs. Or perhaps it is their tenacity against the near inevitable futility of it all: given the dangers facing them at every stage of their lives, the odds of survival for any one individual from egghood in the shallow ocean to adulthood on land are really low! Add to that the misery we have wrought by introducing a new terrestrial predator, the yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes, which has disrupted the entire ecosystem of Christmas Island, and one has to shake one’s head and wonder how long the crazy crabs will last!

As illustrated by the yellow crazy ants, no story of contemporary animal migrations is complete without a sad chapter about how our actions have pushed so many migrant species to the brink of extinction if not over it. Migrants are particularly vulnerable because they are critically dependent upon multiple areas of habitat, which only adds to the challenge given how our ravenous species is reluctant to share even single bits of land or ocean with other species. The impacts of humans on these migration systems is addressed more in subsequent episodes of Great Migrations, with the first one focusing mainly on the spectacle.

While the spectacle is visually engaging, I am not as thrilled with this episode (and series) as I had hoped to be. The four stories are told in overlapping threads weaving us back and forth throughout the episode – and I don’t mind that intercutting technique for it is mercifully not as bad as some of the sequences in the recent hit series Planet Earth which seemed to suffer from a more acute case of ADD. Here they have taken the time to develop the story a little bit and the transition between story-lines is also smoother. Why then did I find my attention wandering while watching this? I blame the narration (by Alec Baldwin) which follows a rather too overwrought script suffering from an excess of adjectives and bombast, but surprisingly lacking in scientific depth. The dramatic orchestral music doesn’t help either. Have we reached such a cultural low that even National Geographic deems it necessary to dumb down the science and ratchet up the bombast to attract sufficient distracted eyeballs to maintain their ratings? Even the official companion book shies away from giving us much science – you won’t even find the scientific names of any species in there, although the images are obviously incredibly beautiful. Are they really afraid that anyone who picks up the glossy coffee-table book enticed by its striking silver-and-black jacket featuring thundering herds of zebra and wildebeest is going to recoil if they find a few words of italicized Latin in parentheses following the common names of animals? Really?!

I suppose those question answer themselves if you make it a habit to watch nature / wildlife shows nowadays – even the BBC now hypes its shows as seen in the recent series about tigers in Bhutan. Even if the writers are afraid of losing the audience by putting in too much scientific detail, why can’t they trust the inherent drama of these tales of migration, enhanced by their own fantastic footage? Where do these writers get schooled to come up with such juicy overripe prose for nature documentaries anyway? Did no one sit them down in school to watch – and listen to – David Attenborough, to see how it should be done? Apparently not, at least here in the US, where the TV networks felt compelled to replace his voice (and script) with the much less weighty celebrity voices for such recent series as Planet Earth and Life. But I’m probably in the minority, complaining about this. OK – I’ll quit whining if you show me that this communication strategy really works to grab distracted viewers and turn them into genuine enthusiasts and students of nature, and that more of them will then want to support (and fund!) the endless hours of tedious research that has helped us understand these fascinating stories uncovered from the ongoing evolutionary struggles of countless animals, not the imagination of some scriptwriters.

A subsequent extra episode, following the series, shares more of the real science and technology behind the stories, so look forward to that. In the meantime, you might want to turn down the volume as you settle down to enjoy the spectacle on your telly tonight.

Scientia Pro Publica #44 (the silly walks edition?)

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Welcome to the 44th edition of Scientia Pro Publica, the (now weekly) blog carnival of science! Since this bonus edition of the carnival is already late, what with yours truly being sideswiped by several unexpected deadlines, let me just throw you into the fray without too much further ado.

Well, some ado, because first, there is some fine print: This bonus edition comes to you about a week early (and a day late) because the previous host had, well, a host too many submissions! Therefore, we now need hosts for a weekly edition, to be published every monday, to cope with this healthy growth in submissions. A good problem for a carnival to have, I think. So if you’ve been participating (posting or merely reading) in this carnival but have balked at hosting it at your digs, now might be the time to take the plunge! Please volunteer to spend part of an upcoming weekend reading (as you already do, don’t you?) some good science posts and compiling them for other readers. Check the schedule, and let us know when you can host. If all you want to do is submit an article for consideration in a future edition, use the automatic submission form or send your link directly to the Scientia Pro Publica email address. Those of you on twitter, surely you’re following this carnival’s tweets already, right? And while on the subject of twitter, how about a list of twitter apps for scientists, courtesy the e-Health News Blog?

Right ho, then: what else have we here, in this iteration of the carnival?

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I always like to start with history, something too often ignored by young scientists. Romeo Vitelli offers a very nice biographical account of the perhaps rather autistic / Asperger’s affected, but perhaps just merely very shy and awkward, but nevertheless quite brilliant chemist Henry Cavendish, arguably the greatest English scientist of all time after Isaac Newton (so says the author of this post). Ok, I’ll argue that last bit, for, what about one Mr. Darwin, eh?! As for Cavendish’s legacy, or at least that of the subject he is most known for, Chemistry, Akshat Rathi offers a top-ten list of how that science has changed the world, and will continue to do so.

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Regular readers of my blog (and I mean all 7 of you who visit here often, I hope!) know my enthusiasm for citizen science. It shouldn’t surprise you then, that I share Zoologirl’s excitement over the serendipitous discovery of the long-distance record for whale travel by a tourist snapping a picture on a whale-watching trip! Think about that the next time you are irritated by some tourist paparazzi pointing cameras at wildlife that you want to enjoy unencumbered by technology.

Got kids? Worried they spend too much time with technology and not enough out in nature – but the computer’s all you have at hand right now that grabs their attention? Perhaps you could use a handy list of online resources on wildlife conservation upon which to let them loose while you take a nap? Here you go. How about 20 unbelievable TED talks about animals to keep them glued to the computer screen? OTOH (as the kids abbreviate) those video games that have you despairing for the youth may not be so bad after all, going by this list of recent studies compiled at the Psychology Degree website. On the other OTOH, Bjørn Østman wonders if intelligent people really watch more television, if our species’ intelligence supposedly evolved through novelty seeking – or rather, selection for solving novel problems. Well, I’m not sure merely watching TV, however novel the content on it, quite qualifies as any kind of problem solving. 

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Whatever you do about them hyperactive kids, think hard before medicating them! The Addiction Inbox reviews why it may be time to say goodbye and goodnight to Codeine, perhaps the most prescribed opiate in the world. I wonder, though, what those ever drunk fruit bats think of that, given their extraordinary ability to hold their liquor. Emily Willingham writes about a fascinating study of drunk-echolocating which suggests that alcohol may even drive speciation in bats.

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Lab Rat reviews the many fascinating ways by which Bacteria move. I daresay you might find some ideas there for a grant application to the ministry of silly walks, perchance. If that’s not odd enough for you, how about the Platypus, profiled nicely on the Schooner of Science? Staying with animal tales, we have GrrlScientist channeling her grrlish affection for horses into an excellent post at her new Guardian digs, on a new DNA study that sheds light on the origins of the modern Thoroughbred matrilines that have produced celebrities who may right be burning up the silver screen in your neighborhood multiplex.

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On this election day here in the US, when subversive ideas seem to be brewing everywhere, you might enjoy this take at the Beaker blog on instigating subversion at the cellular level, to treat cancer! How about that, eh? Meanwhile, at Protein Spotlight, Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen shines a… well, spotlight… on a more harmful subversion, when an acquired modification of a protein causes a serious disease in humans.
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Joerg Heber blogging at All That Matters is celebrating the Physics Nobel Prize going to work on graphene, but urges caution on the actual uses to which this amazing form of carbon may or may not end up being applied. Meanwhile, Akshat Rathi ponders the implications of something we lament all too often these days, the commercialization of the university, where academic productivity is increasingly measured by bean counters not necessarily in terms of quality of teaching and research, but by the amount of grant monies brought in by professors. In another post, young Akshat also joins the growing debate over peer review, and what’s to be done about it, raising some questions of his own in response to the Curious Wavefunction’s post about Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto’s recent rant against the peer-review system.

That rounds up our carnival for this week, folks! Come back next monday, and every monday thereafter for another edition. And, if you have a blog, please consider playing host too!

“… a geometry of things which have no geometry” – Benoit Mandelbrot, RIP

Benoit Mandelbrot, who invented fractal geometry, the geometry of things which have no geometry, to measure the roughness of our world, died today at the age of 85. Here he is, in his last TED talk a few months ago, recapping his life’s work in pursuit of roughness:

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The sky boils over suburbia

An angry brooding sky greeted us, stopped us in our tracks as we stepped out of a Costco store in Fresno a few evenings ago. Not sure what had got the clouds all roiled up boiling like that. Took my breath away just looking at the dark grey storm clouds, tinged with the fiery red of the setting sun. Threatening as they were, the clouds didn’t burst on us though. Just sprinkled a bit. Then hurried on eastward instead, to keep some elemental appointment with the mountains looming in the distance behind us. Meanwhile, with a scarce anxious upward glance or two, the restless grind of suburbia carried on underneath. Thus did the summer’s late heatwave break as we entered October, hoping these clouds were harbingers of another wet winter to come. Still parched as ever, California sure can use some more rain.

Where I’d rather be this Monday…

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… not attending another faculty senate meeting, but traipsing through this meadow in full bloom under darkly brooding skies, cooling my heels in the tranquil streams, and catching the occasional cloudburst of the late monsoon!! I wish!

This and other similarly fantastic images come from Kaas, part of the Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra, India, as captured through Ganesh’s lens. Go lose yourself in the gallery, escape from your Monday afternoon blues, imagine a better world…

Here’s another image, a more intimate view of a single flower and a little bug enjoying a walk along its stalk.

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The Second Fastest Growing Hobby is… Birding? – So what’s the first?!

I’m guessing the headline on this CBS newreport is based on / derived from / linked to this analysis from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Birdwatching does seem to be a growing hobby in this country, which is great news, and has significant economic impact as well! Although I wonder how the recession plays into it.

But what I can’t find, is the basis for the claim that birding is the second fastest growing hobby in the states! So what’s the first then, eh? Is it really beer can collecting?

Bee-assisted wind pollination? Or daylight pollen-robbery by sweat bees?

Grasses are all supposed to be wind-pollinated, right?! So what’s this sideoats grama doing flashing its bright red anthers so flagrantly? Watching the sweat bees carefully at work collecting pollen from these grass flowers, in this languid hi-def video (check out the 720p version in full screen!), you can also see puffs of pollen being launched into the still air by the bees! So are the bees providing an assist to the flowers in their normal wind-driven sex, even as they steal pollen? Do the flowers actively attract the bees or are they mere victims of pollen robbery? But if the bees are helping, and the flowers want to attract them, what are they doing with bright RED genitalia?! Those are among the questions that come to my mind, and those of several commenters over at the Myrmecos blog of Alex Wild, the biologist behind the smooth hi-def camerawork in this video. You should also check out some of his other HD videos of insects in action.

What blows me away further is knowing that this wonderful cinematography comes through a proper macro lens on a digital SLR camera! Alex has one of the new Canon 7D model that can do HD video – and this clip now has me wishing for one to enhance my own amateur photography! Now how do I justify it on my next grant?! 🙂

Waking up to Nature (or resurrecting a blog post from before there were blogs!)

A reprint request came in the mail today, for a report and a paper from surveys I had done in Arunachal Pradesh early in my graduate career – two decades ago! Given that I wrote those articles some years before even Mosaic had made it to the Mac Classic in my graduate advisor’s lab at UCSD, they remain, thus far, rather beyond the reach of Google’s tentacles. I did have an electronic reprint from one paper, which had made the transition to digital form courtesy of the scanners at Interlibrary Loan (at Arizona State University; I think that’s where I’d managed to obtain an e-print of that paper), despite having been published in a low-budget journal. The report was going to be harder to find, I told the young Indian grad student who had emailed me, prompting him to ply me with some more questions about the survey (which I may write about here at some point).

So I took the plunge into the deeper, darker, far less frequented neighborhoods etched on the whirling platters of my current laptop’s (now a Macbook Pro!) hard drive, hoping to find a copy among folders that had faithfully been copied over from pc to mac to mac through dozens of upgrades (or sidegrades) over the course of two decades, give or take. And there, like tumbleweed blowing across a deserted Western town, what should flit across my screen but the following essay I had written around the same time, but had completely forgotten about!

So now that I’m completely distracted (no sign of that report yet), I figured it might be worth sharing this distraction with some of you. So if you’re interested in reading one of my earliest blog posts (you know that’s what it would’ve been if written today) from before there were blogs, read on below the fold. Hey, just for you, I’ve even spruced it up with… um… what d’you call em?… links! (But I haven’t changed anything else, not one comma; except for the double spaces between sentencesugh!)

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Is it really this strange to see Indians camping?

And I mean real Indians, like me, from the country of India. Not Native American Indians, whom you expect to find camping in teepees anyway – right?!.

I ask because, on the second evening of our recent camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park, an American neighbor walked into our site wearing a t-shirt from India (which he used to strike up the conversation), and started talking about his travels in India and so forth. Both our families hit it off so well that we ended up roasting s’mores together by the campfire that night. But one of the first things he remarked upon was how unusual it was to see an Indian (i.e., from India) family camping at all!! Which is why I felt we must invite them over for s’mores later – because how often is that going to happen, right? Eating s’mores roasted on a campfire by Indians? 🙂

Funny as that struck us all, I wonder how much truth there is to the observation that Indians don’t go camping much in this country. I mean, I know some who do – but that’s my friends. What about the rest of them(us)? Case in point: in our 17 days on the road when we visited / camped at 5 National Parks/Monuments through Colorado and Utah, we only ran into one other Indian family (not counting our friends whom we had invited to join us in the Rockies) camping – an astrophysicist from Bombay and his mom who was visiting him; i.e., another academic, whom we might as well count among the small circle of our friends who camp. What about “regular” Indian immigrants in the US? How many are “outdoor nature freaks” – as another young Indian friend (a not-camping type of fellow) teased us on this trip?

Anyhow, I was reminded of this:

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Come to think of it, we didn’t see too many Black folks on this camping/road trip through the wilderness either!