University of Washington mathematician develops a model that offers an explanation for how monarch butterflies know how to fly from Canada to Mexico.
A University of Washington mathematician developed a model that offers an explanation for how monarch butterflies know how to fly from Canada to Mexico. Manuel M Almeida/

On the Internal Compass of Monarch Butterflies: Migration is a rich area of study in biology, although as an ornithologist, my perspective may be somewhat biased. (Long-distance seasonal migration is common in bird species, and as a result, scientists have spent many decades exploring how and why it occurs.)

Nonetheless, there are major gaps in our knowledge of migratory behavior and mechanism in more distantly related groups, such as insects. How, for instance, do monarch butterflies manage to navigate on their annual trip from Canada to Mexico and back? UW mathematician Eli Shlizerman collaborated with neurobiologists at U Mass Amherst to develop a model of the neurological circuitry involved in this “internal compass.” This model, presented in an article published in Cell Reports this week, details how monarchs navigate south with the help of the sun, automatically compensating for its shifting position at different times of day.

We Haven’t Seen the Last of the Blob: This year’s wetter, cooler winter may have already erased memories of 2014 and 2015, when a persistent region of anomalously warm water formed in the Northeast Pacific Ocean and had a major effect on our weather, eventually dissipating last fall. But research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters last month suggests we shouldn’t get used to its absence. The study, lead by UW PhD student Hillary Scannel, investigated the frequency and duration of recorded blobs (more rigorously known as marine heat waves) in the North Atlantic and North Pacific since 1950. Its major takeaways: Marine heat waves occur every five years on average, and they’ve gotten more frequent since the 1970s, as the globe has warmed.

Which brings to mind a sad Derrick Jensen essay on declining baselines in nature and cultural memory. Someday, the blob may be all we’ve ever known.

Science Confirms Peer Review Leaves Something to Be Desired: Peer review, the process in which researchers present unpublished manuscripts or project proposals to colleagues to evaluate, is an integral part of doing science. Peer review determines which studies end up as part of the scientific literature, which journals they are published in, and which projects get taxpayer funding. It’s the cornerstone of accountability and rigorous scholarship, and it’s hard to imagine an alternative system working better.

That said, science has a tortured relationship with peer review. Complaints about its failings are ubiquitous, and amount to a kind of secret handshake among scientists (the notoriously negative “third reviewer” is an enduring figure in this genre of Keurig-machine kvetching). In particular, there’s a widespread feeling that the fate of grant applications is increasingly stochastic, at least at the highest tiers of competition. (Although stochastic may be preferable to elitist, another major concern.)

Pacific Standard recently summarized research addressing this suspicion, including the work of University of Washington microbiologist Ferric Fang. Fang and his colleagues explored how scores assigned during peer review affected the “productivity” (as measured by the number of times resulting papers were cited) of National Institute of Health–funded research projects. Their conclusion? There was virtually no relationship between the two.

Science This Week: From 7 to 10 p.m. this Friday, April 22, the Pacific Science Center will be a good place to drink Washington wine and learn about viticulture and fermentation. Details on this event and more can be found over at The Stranger’s science calendar.