Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist: A reliable feature of American political theater is the spectacle of the cost-cutting senator bravely holding up the laughable excesses of science to the public eye. $165,000 for maple syrup research? Ridiculous. $246,000 to study bovine tuberculosis? An irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars! But what does it feel like to find your own work under such scrutiny? Biomechanicist David Hu shares his perspective as a target (PDF) of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s report on “wasteful” government-funded research in a recent Scientific American blog post. What did Hu do? Among other things, he studied how "dogs shake water from their bodies." (Though it sounds trivial, the information gathered from this research could profoundly change society.) Among Hu’s thoughtful point is that the report reflects a broader failure to communicate science to the public effectively.
A Petition to List the Chambered Natuilus Under the ESA: The chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) is a deep sea cephalaopod with an iconic spiral shell and is part of a lineage that has changed very little in the past 500 million years. But due to the international shell trade, overfishing, and climate change, the species is experiencing major population declines and a loss of genetic diversity. For these reasons, a Tucscon-based NGO has submitted a petition to have the nautilus listed under the Endangered Species Act (heavily citing UW nautilus expert Dr. Peter Ward). The petitioner—the Center for Biological Diversity—is infamously confrontational and arguably the most effective conservation nonprofit out there.
Orca Cultural Groups Are Genetically Distinct: How does culture interact with evolutionary processes? In science, culture is broadly defined as information or knowledge that affects behavior and is socially transmitted between individuals. Culture can allow populations to persist in new, challenging environments with learned behaviors, buffering or redirecting the effects of natural selection. In humans, for instance, the colonization of Greenland by a small group of Inuit was facilitated by a culture of hunting marine mammals, which itself led to adaptation to a hypoglycaemic and lipid-rich diet.
Do other animals have culture?
Though this question has been historically contentious, examples of “ecotypes” (populations within a species adapted to a particular environment) characterized by unique behaviors abound in birds and mammals. Orcas in particular have attracted research attention because of two well-documented ecotypes that coexist in the coastal North Pacific: mammal-eating “transients” and fish-eating “residents.” Additionally, biologists believe their their matrilineal group structure and long postmenopausal life span could help the transfer of ecological and social knowledge from matriarchs to their kin.
Now research published in Nature Communications has demonstrated significant divergence between the genomes of different Orca ecotypes. Their findings closely mirror studies on human populations such as the Inuit, and suggest Orca ecotypes originated as small groups that passed on adaptive behavior through social learning, ultimately resulting in a different natural selection regime than other ecotypes in their species experience. (Read another perspective on this groundbreaking study here.)
The Last Word on Ray Hilborn?: In the latest development in the ongoing saga of Greenpeace’s allegations against fisheries researcher Dr. Ray Hilborn, the University of Washington has formally responded that Hilborn followed all policies and procedures related to funding disclosure. Meanwhile, Hilborn attracted what I can only assume was more welcome attention last month as the recipient of an international fisheries science prize.
Science Event of the Week: In keeping with this post’s maritime theme, it’s World Ocean Weekend at the Seattle Aquarium this weekend (June 11–12). Attend for hands-on activities and a good dose of nautical learning.