Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Third Law: It Depends!

Should burns take place in spring
Or wait for autumn rain?
Would baiting help or hinder?
Can owl chicks live through flame?
‘I dunno,’ we had to answer.
‘Not sure, can’t really say.
Needs further replication
Might vary day-to-day.’
PhDs require devotion,
Long days with no weekends
But the ultimate conclusion seems
‘Umm, well, it depends.’
- excerpt from post, 'My Grand Conclusion', on zoologist Bron's blog, Working on the Wild Side
The two of us answered in unision..... "It depends." And looked at each other with a knowing smile.

A retired couple asked for information on where to go to see this bird and that bird. Husband asked for specific details: what species, what location, what time. He was dissatisfied with my answers, including "They were seen here yesterday morning, and there yesterday afternoon, and at this location this morning, but they may be anywhere. They don't send us memos on when or where they go."

When asking for exact details on how to get to 'Point A' from 'Point B' (a distance of 125 miles), my explanation of various options of traveling from Point A to Point B resulted in some visible upset. His wife gently reminded him that they aren't in a hurry and he might enjoy experiencing different things along the way. Her comment was met with a hand wave, pointing at a map, and listing what he expected to see, do, encounter, etc. He wanted no surprises.

"If something changes, if we stray from the map, it will be an adventure!", said his wife.

"No! No surprises, and I don't like adventures. Adventures mean poor planning," Husband responded. "How long will it take to get to 'Point B'?"

Wife and I replied simultaneously, "It depends!"

I looked at them both and then asked Husband, "Are you a mathematician?"
Eyebrows went up and he said, "Why, yes! How did you know?".

"A strong aversion of risk and uncertainty," I responded. Wife returned my smile.
"Oh my God, are you a biologist, too?!" Husband asked with raised eyebrows and looking like he was stuck in between two conspirators.  By that time, all three of us were laughing.

Third Law: It Depends!

My First Law, unapologetically borrowed from The First Law of Thermodynamics (aka 'You can't win'), states that where there's a positive, there is a negative. And this is related to My Second Law: 'Everything is relative'. 'Positive' and 'negative' are relative to the perspective of that which observes or experiences the action/reaction, which depends on time, place and being. (Note that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is 'You can't break even'. See blog post linked above.)

I think you can see where I'm going.

My Third Law is 'It Depends'. If anything I have learned in biology and ecology (and life itself) remains constant, it is: It depends. For the person who demands or insists on a life or reality of 'Yes' or 'No', you will either be disappointed or live in perpetual denial. For life is not simply black and white. A vast area of gray reside in between.

Evolution of......

As an undergraduate back in the early 1980's, and in the 'backward' state of Maine, specialization was not the norm. To specialize meant the same fate as an organism that is specific to a very narrow habitat and diet. It could mean death in a drastically changing environment. As most biologists will recognize the analogy, plasticity in lifestyle, education and thinking meant adaptability and survival.

Thrust into the rapidly evolving culture and society of rampant specialization in grad school (Oregon) was somewhat traumatic for me. But that did not deter me from learning and cultivating both professionally and in my own culture, plasticity. It has been ironically amusing to see a reverse in the trend of specialization the last six years, albeit at a slow rate in academia. Several life science disciplines still resist recognition and acceptance of integrated sciences and practice. Even in my beloved field of biology.

An exception is ecology. Perhaps because the very concept and foundation of ecology is based in dynamic and complex relationships. No longer can only one variable be 'the' determinist'. In ecology, models are not equated with 'laws', but serve as bases for probabilities and predictions. With a good dose of 'it depends'.

Evolution itself operates on 'It depends'. Nearly all phenotypic traits are based on the expression of multiple genes interacting within the context of a dynamic relationship with their environment. A trait will evolve and remain as long as it confers fitness within a set of environmental conditions.

Changing one note in a symphony is sometimes drowned out by the rest of the music. Except for rare diseases, one single gene is not responsible for obesity and/or diabetes. Ernst Mayr commented, "The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable."

Frankly, I feel more comfortable with a world of 'it depends' than dictates of 'The Theory of Everything', the 'Gene for Everything', and 'Models are Laws'. A world of Venn Cubes (a more complex 3-D model of Venn Diagrams ;) makes more sense to me; it's more representative of life and reality. Perhaps I can handle the uncertainty and risk.

So, according to my Third Law, there is a caveat to my First and Second Laws. It depends.

Interview  with the late biologist, Ernst Mayr on

MAYR: "One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution."
EDGE: "Let's call this Mayr's Law."

Further reading:
"The typical ecological answer – it depends", blog post by oikosasa. Website: Oikos: Synthesizing Ecology.
"Which species is best for their host marsh cordgrass? Fiddler crab or mussel? The answer is – it depends"
"Ecological processes depend on …", blog post by CJA Bradshaw. Website:
"In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits."

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Academics' Writing Stinks - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Why Academics' Writing Stinks - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the
transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid,
soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and
impossible to understand?"

Uh huh. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Science in the hands of the beholder

My ex-partner and I had an ongoing argument on university-based scientific research. He adamantly opposed publicly-funded research. His stance was that science research should be privately funded at private institutions and companies.

My primary argument against his assertions was that profit drives private and business-based science. Research is funded by these entities only if they result in a marketable product that nets them capital gain. Public research is motivated by basic, transitional and applicable science. And human compassion.

Additionally, discoveries originating at public institutions are supposed to be free to the public and commercial development. They are shared. Discoveries from commercial research are not shared; they are sold.

The current danger of global antibiotic resistance is an example. The Soviet Union had developed and relied upon using bacteriophages as an alternative to antibiotics for decades. They were forced to because Russians were denied access to some of the best antibiotics developed on the rest of the world. Many countries of the former Union still use phage therapy today.

Faced with the looming disaster of antibiotic resistance, many Western researchers and institutions are now collaborating with former Soviet Union scientists to investigate and develop phage therapies. New projects are funded by governments and non-government and non-profit organizations. They hope to quickly determine which phages target disease-causing bacteria. Because a phage is specific to a bacteria species, phage therapy will not only reduce the risk of resistance but also avoid wiping out the beneficial bacteria.

Most Pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, have not only discontinued their antibiotic R&D, but are also reluctant to get on board with the phage development. They would not likely be able to claim treatments as intellectual property or patent any phages isolated from nature because of last year's US  Supreme Court ruling against patenting natural genes. In other words, they would not be able to make a profit.

Case made.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A-X Challenge: Y. Yodel?

Due to an accident and injury, the last two days of this Challenge were postponed.

Music is language. Not necessarily in word, but in tone, mode, and forms. Yodeling, and its various forms, probably originated not in music but as a form of communicating information by sound. Later it was incorporated into ethnic songs and music.

Most are familiar with the yodel of the commercial for menthol cough drops in the Alps, or in older country and western singers, such as Jimmie Rogers. But few are aware that the 'yodel' is only one expression of a wider form and expression of voice.

According to Wikipedia, yodeling is a "form of singing which involves repeated changes of pitch during a single note. The singer quickly switches between the low-pitch chest register (or "chest voice") and the high-pitch head register or falsetto." The most familiar to American listeners is the yodel from the Alps, where the yodel was used by herders to call their livestock or to locate their location to others. Yodeling and whistles were also used by some indigenous African hunters to communicate location of game and themselves. In almost all cases, this form of communication became embedded in their traditional music, especially during rituals.

Other forms of yodeling are found in many ethnic folk music: Persian, Bulgarian, Arabic, Flamenco, Georgian, and African. The differences can be profound or subtle. In contrast to the wide variation in scale and tone of yodel of the Alps, another form is common in the former Persian countries. Any person that has listened to the morning or evening Islamic call to prayer never forgets the eerie yet entrancing trills that float on the air.
"In Persian classical music, singers frequently use tahrir ("tremolo" in English), a yodeling technique that oscillates on neighbor tones. It is similar to the Swiss yodel, and is used as an ornament or trill in phrases which have long syllables, and usually falls at the end of a phrase. Tahrir is also prevalent in Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Turkish, Armenian, Afghan, and Central Asian musical traditions, and to a lesser extent in Pakistani and some Indian music."- Wikipedia
Voices using micro-intervals and polyphony can still be heard in ethnic and folk music of some European countries. Microtonal music can refer to all music which contains intervals smaller than the conventional contemporary Western semitone. Think of mini-yodeling.

My personal favorite is flamenco, which is rooted in the Andalusian gypsies and ancient Moorish influence. The cante flamenco, or 'flamenco song', often uses micro-intervals and polyphony to express passion. 'Cante jondo' is considered the purist form, the heart and soul, of flamenco voice; it is the 'deep song', expressing death, anguish, despair, or religious sentiments. Cante jondo is often accompanied by flamenco guitar, but also sung to the percussion of hand claps and stamping feet or a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment). 

Flamenco singer Camaron De La Isla championed the traditional style of cante jondo, as did others that followed him (such as Enrique Morente, who passed away in 2010). You can hear a podcast examining Camaron's career and flamenco voice by following this link (Camaron De La Isla: The Voice Of Flamenco).

Variations of a yodel my be heard in other traditional music.  Mugham is a style of music and voice of the Azerbaijani people in the Caucus mountains and nearby. This, too, has roots in old Persian music style.

"The full throated yodeling technique of the Kavkaz Azerbaijani ashikh lends an extraordinary power to the elegant and folksy melodies they employ while accompanying themselves on the saz, a long neck lute. When these two great and ancient musical traditions met and mixed, they gave birth to an extraordinary style of music that is evolving. To best appreciate mugham, it should be understood as a modern development of an ancient practice, which is the use of sound to induce a transformation of consciousness. Today this might be called trance music, but it would not be a good translation, because the word ’trance’ is associated with the hypnotic trance, whereas mugham offers an enhancement of consciousness, not a loss of consciousness of any degree.

Melodies used to attain ’trance’ states are relatively simple and repetitive, and versions of this can be found throughout the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia among the more nomadic tribes. In the cities, the more ’classical’ styles of music evolved, such as dastgah and mugham. In this sense, mugham is modern. It is as evolved in its form as the great classics of European music are in their form." - Visions of Azerbaijani
Another example of voice that incorporates a type of yodeling is the folk music of Bulgaria, exemplified by the wonderful Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. They use diaphonic singing and distinctive timbre, as well as modal scales and dissonant harmonies, usually unaccompanied by instruments. Their voices are melodic and captivating. If you listen to the song embedded below, you can detect the micro-intervals of voice that, again, is a type of yodeling.

So now you know that yodeling is not relegated to the Alps or American country singers. You might even be enchanted by the various forms in other world music like I am.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A-Z Challenge. Xēros and xerosere.

The letter 'x' is rather lonely. Compared to other letters of the alphabet, not many words begin with this letter.

My first association with any 'x' is the female chromosome. But that's an abstract association: the shape of the female chromosome is 'X'. I suppose that might be a legitimate blog post for today's letter, but let us venture into a word that does begin with 'x': xēros. Then we will slide right into another word that descends from xēros: xerosere.

The etymology of 'xero' is from the Greek xēros, which means 'dry'. In combination with a noun or vowel , xero- indicates dryness. Now, if we add the suffix sere, we have 'xerosere'.

Sere is derived from the modern word 'series', which means a group or a number of related or similar things or events arranged or occurring in temporal, spatial, or other order or succession or sequence. The two words were combined as xerosere in the late 1920's to refer to the series of changes occurring in the ecological succession on dry soil, including bare rock.

A primary component of a xerosere is limited water availability. Deserts, rocky places, and lava beds are examples of the type of ecological succession that typifies a xerosere.


This begins on exposed parent rocks or dry sand. The pioneer plants in the primary succession are lichens and mosses which help in forming soil by accelerating erosion. In time, herbaceous vegetation such as grasses, etc., grow on the soils deposited on rocks and enhance weathering. As these plants die, they add nutrients and organic matter to the forming soil deposited on and around the rocky areas.

Mixed shrubs then establish the area, which attracts birds and mammals. These animals help in the succession by dispersing and depositing seed. Intermediate plants develop and form a transition community. Eventually a climax community (also called a 'biome') establishes itself where populations of plants or animals remain stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment.

The following is an example of forest xerosere on barren rock.
  1. Bare rock is first colonized by lichens and bacteria.
  2. Small amount of soil formed by the lichens is colonized by mosses, which do not have roots and require little soil, and ferns.
  3. As the seedless plants live and die, the soil continues to develop to the point that grasses can successfully grow and a grassland community forms.
  4. Over time, the soil level increases to the point that shrubs can grow in the grassland.
  5. The grassland is replaced by a shrub community.
  6. The shrub community may be gradually be replaced by a forest.
A desert xerosere is quite different than that in an environment with greater water availability. For those that live in the deserts, I invite you to look around you and ponder how such a progression of a stable ecosystem might proceed from bare rock or sand. Consider the time involved in these changes, and then consider your own role in this progression.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A-Z Challenge. Wonder and Wisdom

"Wisdom begins with wonder." - Socrates

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." - Socrates

"Socrates liked to tease his interlocutors by saying that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. There is a deep insight in this, for the one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of knowledge and understanding. Such illusion abounds, and one of the first tasks of philosophy – as wonderfully demonstrated by Socrates in Plato's "Meno" – is to explore our claims to know things about ourselves and the world, and to expose them if they are false or muddled. It does so by beginning with the questions we ask, to ensure that we understand what we are asking; and even when answers remain elusive, we at least grasp what it is that we do not know. This in itself is a huge gain. One of the most valuable things philosophy has given me is an appreciation of this fact." - Anonymous quote

To wonder is to keep alive and fresh the child's curiosity. For, indeed, there lies the beginnings of wonder and wisdom. And the beauty of life.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A-Z Challenge. V is for.... Volk?

Americans have their common generic name, 'Smith'. Germans have their common name, 'Volk'. I can always recognize upon introduction a person that speaks German when they pronounce the word as 'Folk', which is the correct German pronunciation.

The etymology of the word, 'volk' is interesting because it has several derivations. The noun 'volk' is the generic German and Dutch word for 'people' in the ethnic sense. The Old English noun 'folc' was derived from the an early German term, and was used in reference to 'common people'. Hence, the modern English word 'folk' has the same meaning and pronunciation of the German 'volk'.

The German 'volk' is now used often in compound words, specifically determining 'of the common people'. The most well-known example is the popular little car Volkswagon, literally translated as 'the people's car'. Another example is the 'Volkswalk' (a common event of public walking groups).

Of course, it also is a common surname. In fact, it is my family name and I wear it proudly. And there are other Volk's in the American science community, such as a a chemist at UTHSC in Houston, TX, a biologist at SUNY-ESF (Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY), and an anesthesiologist in Oregon (whom I met while I lay on a gurney waiting for anesthesia).

I know of three scientists in my own extended family: My father (biochemistry), Sherry (retired biology teacher), and myself (biologist). Considering the large number of siblings in past Volk generations from which I descend from (10-12 siblings recorded in several generations), there may be other distantly-related 'Volk' scientists out there we are not aware of. Maybe we are the 'common people' scientists.

Then again, 'volk' is also Slovenian for 'wolf'. That could explain many things. ;) Perhaps wolves and people have a long shared history together.

Hats off to all you 'Volk's out there!

Da bo vôlk sit in koza cela!

Wolves could be people's best friend. Volk's in kind.
"Wolves had a pre-existing capacity to learn from social partners — and that humans capitalized on that capacity more than 18,000 years ago."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A-Z Challenge. U-FOs?

Roughly 96 miles from where I live is a small remote community called Marfa (Texas). Although the town is mostly known for its density of artists (long history), it's also known for UFOs. The phenomena are called the Marfa Lights.

These lights are observed near US67 on Mitchell Flat east of Marfa. There is even a viewing 'platform' on the side of the highway. A mixture of rural legend (a sibling of 'urban' legend) and perplexed scientists, the lights are an attraction like a magnet for passersby and visitors to the Trans-Pecos area.

Paranormalists have attributed the Marfa Lights to everything from space aliens, to secret federal aerial projects, and to wandering ghosts of Spanish conquistadors. Scientific candidate explanations range from vehicle lights, mirages, glowing gases, electrical charges from surface rock, etc.

Whatever the reality behind these lights, think of a West Texas version of fireflies.

People love their legends. :)

Marfa Lights on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A-Z Challenge. T is for Toponyms

Edward Abbey once wrote about the human propensity to ascribe everything with a name:

“Unless we can name things, they remain for us only half-real. A man’s name can become more important than his person. A plant, an animal, a thing without a name is no thing – nothing. No wonder we humans like to think that in the beginning was – the Word. What word? Any word at all, anything rather than the silence and terror of the nameless.”

Having shared that viewpoint all my life, I often make up names for things already named. Sometimes things remain nameless. Even people. 

I live in a place where many things clash, including names. It is the desert. 

This area of the southern Big Bend country encompasses a state and national park, a wildlife refuge, small scattered human communities, and a river. All collectively called many names, such as “The Big Empty”. Or “God’s Country”, “Paradise”, “Devil’s Playground”. I recall perusing topo maps before my first trip down there, smirking at some of the names given to landmarks: Dealer’s Gap, Mule Ears, Dog Canyon, Elephant Mountain, and more. Some quite entertaining, some named after a long-dead person, others with religious names, many with assigned descriptive names, such as ‘The Window’.

But when you are there, you sometimes invent your own personal name for a landmark. I christened a peak in Black Gap as “Randy’s Monolith” because my friend Randy was enthralled with its presence. I’m sure it probably has an accepted toponym decreed by someone long ago and propagated over time without dissent, eventually being recorded on a map and copied over and over again.

But if you are truly in the desert, and a part of it, you don’t remember or care about names. You can make up any name you want for anything there. Or see and know landmarks without a name. 

I've always been interested in how people perceive places and how people create meaning through places. I try to listen to the voices, the versions and the scenes. I don't restrict meaning to organized tours, glossy brochures and pamphlets, but try to really find and listen to the many voices of a landscape. Even the quiet voice of the physical environment, for it is not really silent.

Learning how we ascribe symbols to places, events and other people, or names in general, reveals much about ourselves and those that came before us.  We are products of language, thus, language imparts power. Place names, or toponyms, provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region.  These names attached to the physical landscape inform us of its past and present culture, including ethnic settlement patterns.  The other association with toponyms is the dominant voices in the past and the present, and those voices that have been silenced.

Place names can be quite revealing. The Native Americans sometimes gave many names to non-living things, including each other. Not uncommonly, one individual could have many names. Never were they names that Europeans use. No Native American chose to be Robert or Ester without a strong European influence, or even Anglo-American coercion. Even after death, many natives were buried the Anglo way and assigned Anglo names that were inscribed on their headstones. I witnessed this in several cemeteries, such as in Fort Sill (Oklahoma) where Geronimo was buried.

Here is no different. With reluctance I have referenced this region in south Texas as ‘Big Bend Country’. I also call it 'Occupied New Mexico'. But inside my head and heart, it is the desert and canyons, with special locations called 'Home'.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A-Z Challenge. S. Statement for Today

Today is Earth Day. It should be every day.
It is also 'S' day. So here is my Statement for today.

I pledge allegiance to the Earth, and to the Universe in which it rotates; one planet, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all life. May all life sing on all Days of this Earth.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A-Z Challenge: Quoting a Quark.

"Quack, quack!", said the Quark. He thought he was a duck.

The neighboring Loon looked over and said, "Oh, hum. How elementary. And what is the matter now?"

"I'm not sure. I can't see where my children are! They are always together. Even if they can't be seen," replied the Quark.

"I see," nodded the Loon.

"No you don't. You can't see them!," exclaimed the Quark. "They tend to group themselves in these 'hadrons', as they call themselves. And they seem to elude me all the time."

Loon ruffled his feathers. "Sure; there is probably a very strong force between them. What are your children's names?"

Quark thought for a moment, trying to remember. "I think their names are Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Bottom, and Top. That is, if I remember correctly."

With a shake of his neck, Loon muttered in his beak, "You've got to be kidding me. And they call this 'fysics?'"

In 1963, when I assigned the name ‘quark’ to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of ‘Finnegans Wake,’ by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark.’ Since ‘quark’ (meaning, for one thing, the cry of a gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with ‘Mark,’ as well as ‘bark’ and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as ‘kwork.’ But the book represents the dreams of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the ‘portmanteau words’ in ‘Through the Looking Glass.’

From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be the pronunciation for ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark,’ in which case the pronunciation ‘kwork’ would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.
—Murray Gell-Mann, in his book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.
Murray Gell-Mann, born in 1929, is an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics (or, that 'f' word, fysics) for his work on the theory of elementary particles. Including quarks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A-Z Challenge: P. I smell Petrichor.

Here in the desert some of us can smell rain even before it falls to the ground around our feet. Yet when the precious blood of life hits the ground, the scents released are intoxicating. A musty odor, an earthy smell mixes and invades your nostrils waking primitive instincts and emotions in our lizard brains. Possibly the oldest scent on this earth, next to the salt-laden smell of the seas, it speaks of hunger, rebirth, enlightenment, and longing. More than anywhere else, it is a call to life in the deserts where water is so scarce. After the initial experience, all newcomers and old-time dwellers dream of the smell of the desert: rain.

The scent of rain on the desert floor after a long period of dryness is a pleasure. It's even sensuous. In fact, it has a scientific name, 'petrichor', coined by two Australian researchers back in 1964. The origins of the term are rooted in Greek and its mythology: petros means stone and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.

The odor is said to be a concoction of a variety of compounds. One source is plant chemicals that are trapped in the earth, or in plant leaf and bark cuticles. Rain water releases them into the air. Some plants exude oils during dry periods, which are then absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. Water from rain will often signal plants to release oils from their cuticles, and droplets displace oils that are trapped on soil surfaces.

Many silicious and clay (argillaceous) materials are known to have odors that are released when wet. During a rainstorm and especially after a drought, compounds which accumulate over time in dry rocks and soil are mixed and released into the atmosphere. Falling water disturbs and displaces odoriferous molecules on surfaces, particularly on dry ones, and then carries them into the air.

In wet areas, a metabolic by-product of soil-dwelling bacteria (Actinobacteria) is secreted when they produce spores during dry conditions. These compounds attach to soil particles. The force of rain landing on the ground sends these spores and the odiferous compounds up into the air. The result is a distinctive scent, called 'geosmin'. The smell of geosmin is often the strongest during the first rain after a dry spell because the largest supply of spores has collected in the soil.

Another contribution to the scent of rain may be ozone, especially if there is lightning. A lightning bolt’s electrical charge will split oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere. These molecules often recombine into nitric oxide (NO), which then interacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere to produce ozone. And this can be blown on the wind for miles.

But why are we so attracted to that smell of rain? Why is it like a siren that calls us and makes us smile? Anthropologist Diana Young of the University of Queensland, Australia, explored the connection between color and the smell of rain. While studying the culture of Western Australia’s Pitjantjatjara people, she observed that they associate the smell of rain with the color green. This suggests that there is a deep-seated link between a season’s first rain and the expectation of growth and associated game animals. Both are critical as a food source. She calls this 'cultural synesthesia', the blending of different sensory experiences on a society-wide scale due to evolutionary history.

For us in the desert and other arid-environments, the smell is also associated with a rebirth and awakening of life.

I can smell the drenched desert floor. It’s not the old heavy odor of wet wood, soggy black mud and swollen green grass of the north country. Nor is it the overwhelmingly sharp salty fish and frothy seaweed smell of the ocean coast. Instead it is an acrid aroma of hidden and dead ancient sea creatures whose shells remain to tell stories, a spicy phenolic scent released from plants that awaken only in the presence of moisture. A strong musky odor from eons of baked, blown and accumulated dust, sand, gravel and rocks encapsulates all these other smells into an undulating mixture that wafts into nasal cavities of warm and cold-blooded creatures. If you open your mouth, you can even taste it.

From those sensory channels, these odors are translated into mixed signals and stories in the brain. It is a discourse that knows no words, only ticklings deep inside that elicit subconscious memories and innate responses. - Excerpt from an essay by Elzi Volk (me), My Desert Smells Like Rain

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A-Z Challenge. Ohm.

In case new readers haven't caught on yet, I have an odd and inexplicable curiosity of names. (My favorite subject is toponyms, but that's for the letter 'T'.) This interest even surfaces in my science writing where I often address scientific names and common names of, well, just about everything in science. Yet, I am also known for totally disregarding official names, including my own. I'll let the couch-psychologists toy with that.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes (literally, desert dust) and listening to a quail thumping outside my window while waiting for my coffee to brew, the roulette in my mind landed on a rather insignificant word for today's letter 'O': ohm.

What's in an 'ohm'?

Some might recall from physics (the 'F' word, 'fysics') class learning about the relationship between the potential difference applied across a conductor and the resultant electric current; aka Ohm's Law.

Those with an engineering slant will immediately gravitate to that Pièce de résistance of electricity, the ohm. It is an SI (International System of Units) unit of resistance: the proportionality of current and voltage in a resistor. The definition of ohm as a unit has undergone several revisions since the 1860's, but it also has been assigned a symbol: Ω. That's easier to remember.

Probably few know that Georg Ohm, the German mathematician and physicist, received most of his education in chemistry, mathematics, physics and philosophy from his self-taught father, who was a locksmith by trade. His brother, Martin, also became a well-known mathematician. Despite the lack of exceptional institutional education, both siblings surmounted that resistance with family motivation. Seems to be the 'Ohm way.'

But there are more 'ohm's to be had. A large impact crater on the far side of the Moon (cue Pink Floyd) is known as the 'Ohm lunar crater'. The name of that crater was assigned by the the International Astronomical Union, and, of course, in tribute to our friend Georg Ohm.

The Ohm River lies in the region of Hesse, Germany, and is a tributary of the greater Lahn River. Suitably, the town of Homberg/Ohm in the valley of the Ohm was famous for its beer in the 13th century.

Now let's go across the ocean to the U.S. The small town in Ohm, California, was named (1900) after the Ohm Ranch. Thomas Ohm, a German native, established the ranch in 1868 and raised grain. I wonder if his crop was hops.

South of the border, a Mexican of German descent, Germán Ohm, was a popular featherweight boxer. His boxing career was short, spanning the age 18 to his retirement at 22. Most of his fights of recognition took place in the late 1950's. Seems that his fists carried the Ohm legacy of resistance.

Sweeping across the globe now to India, and overlapping centuries across time, 'ohm' is also an alternative spelling for 'om'. The sound is a mantra of Hindu origin, but also a sacred sound in Buddhism, Dharma and Jainism. The syllable represents many meanings depending on the source.

Anyone that grew up in the 1960's (me, for instance) will recognize its association with the Flower Child and Peace Anti-war Movements. One explanation probably describes it in both earlier and latter contexts: ""OM" is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be "Adi Anadi", without beginning or the end and embracing all that exists." Or, as I like to put it, "No matter where you go, there you are."

And with that, let's slowly form the syllable 'Om' in our throats and mouths, slowly humming it out with no resistance, and embrace the day.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A-Z Challenge. N. What are 'Names.'

What is a name? What is 'in' a name? It's a Human thing :)

Lizard walked ungracefully into the café front room carrying a carafe of coffee, “Hey, my back legs get tired of holding up all my weight all day in here. But will ya look at these thigh muscles! The chicks are going to really like me.”

“You’re just lazy, Lizard. I see your brothers and sisters running around on their hind legs all the time,” Burro chimed in and quickly changed the subject. “So, I heard one of Juanita’s javelina babies got run over last night by one of those big metal things you humans hide in all the time. She and her family tried to cross River Road again in pitch dark. I keep telling her not to do that.”

Coyote briefly looked up from his bowl on the table and muttered, “Yup. Victoria and Hector were cleaning it up early this morning when I trotted by.”

She shook her head while pouring herself another cup of hot coffee. “What?” asked Lizard looking at She. 

“I’m still trying to get used to a pair of vultures named ‘Victoria’ and ‘Hector’.” 

Coyote put his front paws on the table, uttering a sound that could have been mistaken for a sarcastic laugh. “We only use names for you Humans. We really don’t have names; we have smells.” Lizard and Burro nodded. 

“You mean, each one of you has your own smell? And you name each other by smell?”

Burro chimed in with a bray, “I smell good!”

“No, you don’t, Burro. You stink!” Coyote uttered that sound again, more like a snicker, and proceeded to explain. “We don’t name smells. We just…..smell. And our smells change.”

Lizard nodded, swirling his long blue tail in between his front foot pads. “That’s right. We all smell, and you all smell. Your smell changes, too. I can tell when you are mad by smelling you."

“Right. You Humans stink, too. Now would you please fill my bowl? I’d like more cream this time.” Coyote pushed his bowl towards She.
“Only if you don’t splatter it all over the table while slurping it.” She picked up the brightly colored bowl with 'Coyote’s' painted on it in brown and filled it part way with water, adding a dash of cream.

Written by Myself. Her. She. It. Human. Call me whatever you like. :)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A-Z Challenge: M is Message and Meme.

What is a meme? What is a message? What is a gene? What is the basic denominator of life?

If you consider on a broad scale, information is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. That covers all scales, from a phone call, to nanoparticles and electrons, to sound, to firing neurons, to light traveling the universe. Any thing conveyed from one point to another, the 'message', is a transfer of information.

A unit containing information can be thought of as a message. For example, the well-known and greatest significance for the gene is its information transfer in living material. The content of this message carries instructions; it is what determines the structure and function of life. The exchange between a hormone and an organic tissue is an active and dynamic process of information transfer. 

The same can be said of any interaction at any scale and reduced to the laws of physics: for every action there is a reaction. The degree and direction of both action and reaction are dependent upon the information that is exchanged between the two points. Our attempts to understand that information is analogous to decoding the 'message'.

To add another related word to the 'M' box for the day, the information transfer in human social life contains messages that we may or may not be aware of, and which propagates through the social hierarchy like a gene. It is called the 'meme'. A meme is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

In the 1980's, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins likened our social information transfer to genes in that our ideas can replicate, mutate, and evolve. It was Dawkins that coined the use of the term, 'meme'. Just like in physical and biological systems, information is actively communicated in a network, transmitted and received, coded and decoded. Messages that we receive are processed in our brains and then transmitted into the same or another network where it exponentially mutates, evolves and replicates. 

Dawkins wrote:
“Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. They compete with one another for limited resources: brain time or bandwidth. They compete most of all for attention." (The Selfish Gene)
Messages, memes.....They all transmit, replicate, and evolve information. “All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” (R. Dawkins)

It's a meme life out there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A-Z Challenge: L. Life is a strange thing.....

One door closes and another opens.

Deja vu from 18 years ago. 

"Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learnt how to use it
It's gone."
- Shakespears Sister - Hello

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A-Z Challenge. K is for Karma

Karma is the mad hatter of a hater's world. – Amy Wynne Whatley
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does,
that he will reap.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BC 

Friday, April 11, 2014

A-Z Clallenge. J is for Jaguarundi.

A mysterious small and elusive wild cat

A small wild cat, not much larger than the average house cat, the jaguarundi eludes us humans in many ways. Unbeknownst to this wild creature, our species can't seem to decide who and what it really is. So we have created many names for the animal, changing its label depending on place and time. All the while, the jaguarundi smiles and eludes us. 

This member of the feline family is one of the smallest and oddest looking. The size of a large house cat, it has the face of a miniature cougar (aka puma, panther, mountain lion) topped with little rounded nice-kitty ears. Its slender long body (22-31") and tail (14-24") is supported by short legs (stands at ~11" at the shoulder). Indeed, the mammal resembles an odd hybridized version of a house cat and dwarfed cougar whose ear and leg development was arrested within a  week after birth. In fact, the species has many times been mistaken for a large weasel. One wonders what circumstances selected for such odd paired combinations. Unless the other cats are the odd ones. 

The jaguarundi is a New World cat, native to forested and brushy regions, especially those near water, from South America to the southwestern United States. Rare north of Mexico, it is considered endangered in Texas, although sightings have been documented in SW Texas, Alabama and part of Florida. It is also known as the 'otter-cat' because of its otter-like appearance and swimming ability. In fact, early German zoologists mistook the animal for a cousin of the weasel, referring to it as the 'weasel cat'.

The name jaguarundi is interesting for several reasons. Many people recognize the root name, jaguar, which is one of the largest New World members of the feline family. This cat once roamed from the  U.S.-Mexican border southward to Patagonia, Argentina. It is now almost extinct in the northern part of its original range and survives in reduced numbers in remote areas of Central and South America. Similar to the jaguarundi, the largest known population exists in the Amazon rainforest.

The names jaguarundi and jaguar have similar origins. Not surprisingly, because the two species inhabit the same region in South America. Before the arrival of the Portuguese to Brazil in the mid-1500's, the two principal indigenous groups were the Tupí and the Guaraní. The former mainly lived along the coast of Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest. The Guaraní lived further inland, inhabiting what is now Paraguay, southern Brazil, and parts of Uraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. The Tupi-Guaraní language is the most widely distributed traditional language of South America and is a hybrid of the older Guaraní and Old Tupí. In fact, it is the official language of Paraguay.

A fusion of the languages of the Spanish-speaking conquerors of South and Central America and of the indigenous peoples has given rise to an interesting evolutionary tree of name etymology. Many names of flora and fauna are often attributed to Spanish origin. However, the earlier conquerors merely adopted and adapted native names to their own language to try and make sense of them, and probably because they were easier to pronounce. For example,  words like jaguar, tapioca, jacaranda, anhinga, carioca, and capoeira are of Tupí–Guaraní origin. An exploration of plant name origins will commonly end up with root words of the Tupí and/or Guarní language.

The first known use of the name jaguar was 1604. It probably originated with the Portuguese and was derived from from Old Tupí, jawára. Similarly, jaguarundi is American Spanish, first used in 1885, and derived from from Old Guarani yaguarund-i and akin to the Tupi jawarund or Old Tupi, yawaum'di. The jaguarundi is commonly known in Spanish as leoncillo, gato colorado, gato moro, león brenero, onza, and yaguarundí. It is also called gato-mourisco, eirá, gato-preto, and maracajá-preto in Portuguese.

The jaguarundi wears coats of several colors, and several scientific names. With two color morphs, light (black and brownish gray) and light (reddish brown), they were thought to be two different species. Local villagers often refer to these cats based on their color: “jaguarundi” for the darker coat and “eyra” for the reddish coat. (The Tupi name was eirara or irara; 'eyra' is an American Spanish and Portuguese name.) Thus early taxonomists separated them, assigning Felis eyra (1814) or Herpailurus eyra (1858) to the reddish morphs. However, these are the same species and both color morphs may be found in the same litter.

Likewise, the taxonomical nomenclature assigned to this wildcat have gone through several renditions, some concurrently. Various authorities have placed the jaguarundi in their own genus (Herpailurus) or with the other cats (Felis). A French naturalist, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), assigned the small cat the genus and species names Puma yagouaroundi in 1803. A follower of Lamarckian evolutionary theory, Saint-Hilaire's assignment was based on comparative anatomy, paleontology, and embryology.

Use of Felis yagouaroundi has been attributed to two different authorities. However, the earliest attribution was given to Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825), a French naturalist, in 1809. Attributes to assigning the jauguarundi to the genus Herpailurus vary from Lacépède (again, 1809) to Nikolai Severtzov (1827-1885), a Russian explorer and naturalist (attributed to year 1858). Which of these men originally used this genus name might be lost to historical confusion, but this genus was still in use in 1919. Why Lacépède would use two genus names concurrently is beyond me.

Sometimes things come full circle, even if it takes a few centuries. Depending on the source of reference and information, anyone searching for the scientific name of the jaguarundi will  see all three genus names in use today. Interestingly, modern nomenclature again placed in the genus Puma by Johnson et al. (in 2006) and Eizirik et al. (in 2008). Recent genetic studies (mitochondrial DNA analysis) suggests that the puma (aka the cougar/mountain lion) and the jaguarundi are more closely related to each other and other felines in the genus Puma than the domestic cat, which shared the genus Felis. Additional research shows that the jaguarundi is closely related to the much larger and heavier cougar as evident by its similar genetic structure and chromosome count.

For those interested in the paleobiology of the New World felines, according to the 2006 genomic study of Felidae an ancestor(s) of today's leopard, lynx, puma, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8-8.5 million years ago. It is proposed that those lineages subsequently diverged in that order. This and other recent studies have indicated that the cougar and jaguarundi are next most closely related to the modern cheetah of Africa and western Asia, but that relationship is still debated. It has been suggested that ancestors of the cheetah diverged from the Puma lineage in the Americas and migrated back to Asia and Africa, while other research suggests the cheetah diverged in the Old World itself. Consequently, feline migration to the Americas remains unclear.

So, what's in a Name? Well, that is the subject for another post. As readers can infer, names can be very complex and more confusing than not. Regardless, the jaguarundi, or the leoncillo - the little lion- remains elusive in name and reality. Perhaps that is best for it's survival.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A-Z Challenge. I is for Intuition.

"A healthy woman is much like a wolf - strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, intuitive and loyal. Yet separation from her wildish nature causes a woman to become meager, anxious, and fearful.

With the wild nature as ally and teacher, we see not through two eyes only, but through the many eyes of intuition. With intuition we are like the starry night, we gaze at the world through a thousand eyes. The wild nature carries the medicine for all things.

She carries stories, dreams, words and songs. She carries everything a woman needs to be and know. She is the essence of the female soul...

Where can you find her? She walks in the deserts, cities, woods, oceans, and in the mountain of solitude. She lives in women everywhere; in castles with queens, in the boardrooms, in the penthouse, and on the night bus to Brownsville.

Whether you are possessed of a simple heart or the ambitious, whether you are trying to make it to the top or just make it through tomorrow, the wild nature belongs to you.

She lives in a faraway place that breaks through to our world. She lives in the past and is summoned by us. She is in the present. She is in the future and walks backward in time to find us now.

Without us, Wild Woman dies. Without Wild Woman, we die. Para Vida, for true life, both must live."
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves.

And we cannot be tamed or domesticated. It would destroy us.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A-Z Challenge: H is for Heart.

How many times have you asked yourself, "Why am I doing this?", "What am I doing?", "Am I on the right path?"

We've all been there at one time or another. Perhaps several times. For many decades I have always asked myself this: 'Does this path I am on, or about to embark on, have heart?' 

What does that mean?  Our heart is the organ that pumps our life's blood to all of our internal tissues. When it stops pumping, the body dies. Metaphorically, heart is also our inner-most truth-sayer; it tells us the truth. It is the source of our compassion, love, determination, our weaknesses and strength. It is being 'whole' instead of being lost in strewn bits and pieces. It is also the source of our 'knowing', despite our awareness of lack of. When we lose 'heart', we lose our direction, motivation, commitment, our strength, and our happiness. We lose ourselves and we are not whole.

The heart knows the way home; it knows the truth. It knows when we are off-course. It also knows when we are betrayed; by others or by ourselves. A path with no heart can suck all our self-esteem and self-worth from us. Or it can instill false hopes. Losing heart will leave us empty, angry, and unbalanced, leaving us blundering blind on a heartless path.

Embarking on a path may be full of uncertainties. But if we have heart, and we know that our direction is true; if we accept that we may have to change course along the way, and if we learn from all the obstacles along our path, then that path has heart. And as we journey forward, we become stronger and whole; and more happy.
"You must always keep in mind that a path is only a path. Each path is only one of a million paths. If you feel that you must now follow it, you need not stay with it under any circumstances. Any path is only a path. There is no affront to yourself or others in dropping a path if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on a path or to leave it must be free of fear and ambition. I caution you: look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone this one question. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same. They lead nowhere. They are paths going through the brush or into the brush or under the brush of the Universe. The only question is: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then it is a good path. If it doesn’t, then it is of no use" - from The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda
I look forward to my new Path with Heart. I hope you all do the same.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

A-Z Challenge: G is for 'Government'.

To attack the 'government' per se and blame it for all our ills is like sticking a Band-aid on a giant festering abscess.  - Yours Truly

Monday, April 07, 2014

A-Z Clallenge. F is for Forgiving.

"Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future."
 - Lewis B. Smedes
This includes forgiving yourself.

Friday, April 04, 2014

A-Z Challenge: E. Environmentalist

But they are harder to find now, those spirits. I look out across the moonlit Lake District ranges, and it’s as clear as the night air that what used to come in regular waves, pounding like the sea, comes now only in flashes, out of the corner of my eyes, like a lighthouse in a storm. Perhaps it’s the way the world has changed. There are more cars on the roads now, more satellites in the sky. The footpaths up the fells are like stone motorways, there are turbines on the moors, and the farmers are being edged out by south-country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from. The new world is online and loving it, the virtual happily edging out the actual. The darkness is shut out and the night grows lighter and nobody is there to see it.” - Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist

I’m not sure when I realized I was an ‘environmentalist.’ I always scorned being classified or grouped into labels, such as a feminist, liberal/democrat/conservative/republican. To me they were just names of boxes which we crawl in or are shoved into with labels on the covers. Once labeled, all personal thought and individual ideas are ignored. You don’t own yourself anymore.

I realized decades ago that my attachment; actually, my very sense of identity and place, with the non-human environment was an inherent part of me that can’t be ignored or pretended. I am a product of my environment. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Even as a scientist, a biologist, I am constantly reminded of the world around me and how it affects me. I wither and fade in cities. In the forests, the desert, near lakes and rivers, surrounded by a variety of flora and fauna, I am a child and wizened adult, a creative and loving force.

An environmentalist to me is to listen and care for the surrounding environment. To speak for them in a language humans can understand. To learn their stories and nourish their growth. To respect their inherent values and places in our complicated web of life. And to find a way to re-establish connections between people and their wild partners on this planet. Before we destroy it all, and in this way, destroy ourselves. I want to give back what it gives to me: life.

Yet it seems that 'environmentalism' has evolved into something else. Like those labeled boxes we are hide in, even the environmentalists are trading that early set of values for trendy and compromising chips, like playing at an environmental casino. It’s all about trading species in one place for another million hours of air conditioning in an overpopulated desert city. Or the sacrificial lamb in the name of ‘conservation’. Conservation of what? And for whom? This is not the ‘environmentalist’ that I am today, nor was before.

I’ve been called a ‘tree hugger’. So be it. Sometimes I’d rather hug a tree than many of my own species.

“We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.” - Paul Kingsnorth

A-Z Callenge: D is for Dervish (dancing dust)

Dervish wind
Dust in your eyes
and nose.
Pushing sideways

Duplicity wind.
Swirling around us
Dance your dance
Dervish wind.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

A-Z Challenge: C is for Culture

What is culture? Is culture dead? Or is it just running on autopilot in chaotic traffic on a busy highway immersed in a plethora of signage which no one reads or cares?

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”  ― Alan Wilson Watts

“The decay and disintegration of this culture is astonishingly amusing if you are emotionally detached from it. I have always viewed it from a safe distance, knowing I don't belong; it doesn't include me, and it never has. no matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.”  ― George Carlin

“While much psychology emphasizes the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of the family. If the family of the family has various sicknesses, then all families within that culture will have to struggle with the same malaises. There is a saying cultura cura, culture cures. If the culture is a healer, the families learn how to heal; they will struggle less, be more reparative, far less wounding, far more graceful and loving. In a culture where the predator rules, all new life needing to be born, all old life needing to be gone, is unable to move and the soul-lives of its citizenry are frozen with both fear and spiritual famine.”- Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Culture, cultura, is the cultivation of an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance. It is our ideas, beliefs, our morals and our self-identity as a collection of individuals. It is a collective 'Us.' And a collective 'Them'. It was once the fabric of our civilization. Now it is becoming our collapse. 

Perhaps our redemption lies in the following words:

“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity. By suppressing differences and pecularities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death. The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life." 
Octavio Paz  (Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat, 1914-1998)
“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.” - See more at:
“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.”
– Terence McKenna - See more at:
“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.”
– Terence McKenna

“Personal empowerment means deconditioning yourself from the values and the programs of the society and putting your own values and programs in place.”
– Terence McKenna
- See more at:

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A-Z Challenge: B is for Bobcat

I'm cheating today for this letter. I write weekly posts for the FaceBook page of Terlingua Ranch (Terlingua, Texas), and today's post happened to be about the bobcat. This secretive animal deserves some special attention, so it will be the subject for today's letter 'B'.

The Bobcat (Lynx rufus) is found throughout the North American continent and their habitat ranges from forests to deserts. This wild cat is closely related to the larger Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis). Both of these wild cats evolved from a common ancestor, the Eurasian lynx, which crossed the Bering Land Bridge into northern Canada from Asia approximately 2.6 million years ago. The first wave of the Eurasian lynx migrated into southern North America, which was soon cut off from the north by glaciers. This population evolved into modern bobcats around 20,000 years ago. Later migrations from Asia settled in the northern areas and developed into the Canadian lynx.

Most taxonomists do not readily accept the proposed 12 subspecies of the bobcat because their division is roughly based on geographical regions that do not have clear breaks. The only cited differences between the subspecies are general size and coloration, and even these features have blurred boundaries. The larger species members range in eastern Canada and New England, and the smaller are often found in the southeast states, such as Florida. Bobcats inhabiting the forests tend to be darker than those found in the deserts. Then again, a wide divergence exists between sizes of the sexes depending on their location. So it appears that the bobcat is readily adaptable to their immediate environment and habitat.

The bobcat is roughly twice as big as the average housecat. The adult varies from 19 to 49 inch long from the head to the base of the tail, averaging 33 in.  The stubby ‘bobbed’ tail, from which the animal derives its name, adds another 3.5 to 8 inches. An adult measures about 12 to 24 inches tall at the shoulders. The male weighs an average of 21 lbs, but have been reported up to 40 lb. The female averages about 15 lbs with a few weighing in at 34 lb.

Movement of the bobcat depends on the habits of their prey. Typically they hunt during dusk until midnight and dawn hours. An animal’s range size can vary from 8-126 square miles, dictated by season, food and mate availability. They tend to follow alongside roads and in trails, moving 2-7 miles within their habitual route and are usually secretive.

Bobcats are solitary hunters. In southern regions, rabbits, hares and small rodents are the primary food source. Like the coyote, the bobcat is an opportunistic predator that, unlike the more specialized Canadian lynx, will readily vary its prey selection. They will also scavenge kill from other animals. Coyotes also compete with bobcats for food, since they both eat the same prey species.

Here in Texas, bobcat breeding season usually begins in February and the young are born about fifty days later in dens located in caves and crevices. Litter size varies from two to seven, but two is most common. Kittens are weaned when they are about two months old and remain with their mother until early fall, when they move out on their own.

Tracks of the bobcat resemble the cougar, but can easily be extinguished based on size. Like all felines, bobcat tracks show four toes without claw marks. They range in size from 1 to 3 inches wide with the average about 1.8 inches. Additionally, their tracks are larger (by ½ to 1”) than those of house and feral cats. Like most wild cats, the bobcat 'directly registers', meaning its hind tracks usually fall exactly on top of its fore tracks. Also, their front feet are larger than their hind feet.

If you see a bobcat, they are probably more scared of you than you of it. Regardless, leave them alone and feel lucky that you spotted one.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A-Z Blogging: A is for Adaptation

Adapt or.... do what? That's a good question. We know that one of the primary drivers of success and evolution in biology is adaptation. A living cell or organism that is able to change due to altered external conditions, such as pH, moisture levels, temperature, or to change their shape, has a better chance of surviving a wider range of conditions than ones that do not. This ability is often called 'plasticity' in the science community. Organisms that have greater plasticity within a range of conditions adapt easier and quicker. Those that can't adapt may die.

Extending this to cognition and learning, there's more bang per buck in the 'A' department. Think of a Triple-A Club: Assimilation, Accommodation and Adaptation. A Swiss biologist and psychologist, Jean Piaget, developed a fundamental theory for cognitive development in children, and which has then served as a general theory for learning, cognitive function and psychology. After all, we don't stop learning after reaching adulthood, although many adults are less adaptive to change.

Briefly, assimilation of new information into previously existing structures or schema coincides with accommodation, the formation of new mental structures when new information does not fit into existing structures in the mind. The mind's natural tendency then is to organize information into related, interconnected structures, where the most basic structure is the scheme.

For example, a person encounters a geco for the first time and incorporates that into his or her existing schema for "lizards". When the adult meets a rattlesnake  for the first time and learns that it is different from "lizards," he or she must create new representation for "snakes."

Thus, the internal world has to accommodate itself to the external evidence that it confronts and adjust to it. Or, in our principle 'A' word, it has to adapt. And we know that for adults, that can sometimes be a difficult and painful process.

For children, this process is much less painful because they are somewhat 'blank slates'. Assimilation and accommodation in young children is similar to writing new sentences on a brand new chalkboard. On the other hand, adults have dirty and cluttered blackboards on which information is often etched or imprinted with thick crayons and all of which complicates accommodation of new information. Adults take in new information or experiences and incorporate them into existing ideas, or change existing ideas based on their assimilation and accommodation of new information.

Unfortunately, most adults tend to modify new experience or information somewhat to fit in with their preexisting beliefs. Many times, if new information doesn't pigeonhole with preexisting beliefs, that information is discarded. That adult will not likely adapt to changing information and experiences.

Through adaptation, we are able to adopt new behaviors that allow us to cope with change. Apparently, lately in our social and physical worlds modern humans have lost their ability to adapt to new ideas and changes in our worlds. Perhaps that is why our behavior has degenerated to worse than children. Perhaps we can use the excuse of domesticated dogs, for which some biologists claim as the 'arrested juvenile state' of their ancestors, the wolf.

Perhaps that is why we humans have such a fear and hatred of wolves. We and they are less likely to adapt to changing environments and social upheaval like the coyote, who are very adaptable.

The coyote are the Tricksters; we can learn from them. ;)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It - Wired Science

Any scientist that pays attention to evolution should know this would happen. But I suppose that this isn't well accepted by industry and/or farmers.

"After years of predicting it would happen — and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators — scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to Bt corn."

As one evolutionary ecologist commented, "this is yet further confirmation of Malcolm’s Law." (great video clip ;) )

A friend asked me in response to this, “Evolve or adapt? Is this a new species? Has its DNA changed?”

My response was as follows:

Very good question! The short answer is: Yes to both evolve and adapt. No, these resistant insects are not a new species.  To explain in detail would require a long discussion because it is a complex subject. But I'll see if I can adequately summarize.

Evolution and adaptation are not mutually exclusive. Not all adaptations result in one species evolving into a new species. On the other hand, the first and foremost driver of evolution, and therefore part of the process of evolution, is adaptation. The important factor is the degree and expanse of adaptation.

Resistance may be defined as “a heritable change in the sensitivity of a pest population that is reflected in the repeated failure of a product [including GMO plants] to achieve the expected level of control when used according to the label recommendation for that pest species.” Cross-resistance occurs when resistance to one insecticide confers resistance to another insecticide, even where the insect has not been exposed to a different insecticide.

Because insect populations are usually large in size and they breed quickly, there is always a risk that insecticide resistance may evolve, especially when insecticides are misused or overused. In reference to the scenario of the corn rootworm, these animals have evolved the ability to resist mortality from the toxins that are genetically incorporated into the corn plants and which confers the plants’ abilities to repel insects that feed on them, or have potential to feed on them.

Resistance can be acquired in several ways, depending on the interacting organisms. You may have heard about the increased and widespread resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, especially Staphylococcus and the mycobacteria that cause tuberculosis.  Bacteria acquire resistance very quickly because they are single-celled organisms, increase rapidly in population, and they readily evolve, including changes in their DNA via horizontal gene transmission (whereby genes from one organism are laterally transferred to another without traditional reproduction). This is a very basic tool in most biologicaland molecular labs. However, with higher organisms, this all becomes more complicated.

Insects are the second most rapidly evolving organisms, especially in their resistance to pesticides and other toxins. And they have evolved several mechanisms of acquiring that resistance.

  1. Metabolic resistance: This is when resistant insects alter or destroy the toxin faster than susceptible insects, or quickly rid their bodies of the toxic molecules before it can reach its site of action (humans possess many of these same enzymes for the same purpose, such as cytochrome p450). Resistant insects may have higher levels or more efficient forms of such enzymes. Additionally, these enzymes may have broader spectrum of activity conferring detoxification of many different insecticides. Metabolic resistance is the most common mechanism and often presents the greatest challenge.

  2. Target-site resistance: In this form of resistance the insect accommodates the chemical by altering one or more physiological functions. This may involve reduced neuronal sensitivity to insecticides, altered sensitivity by other enzymes and systems, even decreased penetration of the insecticide through the body wall, and increased excretion or sequestration of insecticide preventing it from reaching the site of action.

  3. Behavioral resistance: This involves changes in behavior by which insects avoid insecticides. Resistant insects may detect or recognize a danger and avoid the toxin. Changes in behavior and subsequent resistance have been reported for several classes of insecticides. Insects may simply stop feeding if they come across certain insecticides, or leave the area where the toxin is present.
Two events greatly influence pesticide resistance: dosage and time. Continued applications over time can induce resistance to the insecticide and the resistant pests become increasingly difficult to control at the labeled rate and frequency. This in turn often leads to more frequent applications of the insecticide. The intensity of the resistance and the frequency of insecticide-resistant individuals in the population both increase further and problems of control continue to worsen as yet more product is applied. This can also equate with monoculture of a genetically modified crop containing a gene for toxins targeted at a pest, especially when the same GMO crop is plantedrepeatedly in successive years.

What the researchers in this study with the corn rootworm discovered is that the dosage of the toxin in the GMO plants (aka the expression of the gene that enables production of the toxin in the corn) was below the level where a large percentage of the population is killed. This is called a ‘low-dose event’. Consequently, the surviving population was able to exponentially increase their progeny that carry resistance. A resistant population was at high levels within three generations of these insects.

Another discovery was that in the resistant population, the genes that confer their resistance were not recessive. What that means is that even if many of the resistant insects mated with others outside of the range of the GMO crop, aka non-resistant insects, their progeny would still inherit the resistance from their resistant parents. (I won’t go into pre-adaptation resistance)

When resistance begins to show in crops, managers often switch to another pesticide if one is available.  To reduce acquisition of resistance by insects, another gene from Bt bacteria (which is the original source bacteria for all these Bt GMO transgenics) was inserted into another strain of corn. This strain of corn carries a gene for higher expression of the toxin (‘high-dose event’), to which the insects are more susceptible with higher mortality rate. However, those insects that already had resistance to the low-dose event strain of GMO corn were also more resistant to the high-dose strain of corn, which then compounded their total resistance.

The genetics of the heritable resistance traits and the intensive and repeated presence of the GMO crop containing the Bt toxin together are responsible for
the rapid build-up of resistance in the insects. I cannot answer your last question asking if the DNA of the insects has changed. The authors of this study on the corn rootworm did not (from my initial perusal of the published paper) examine changes in their DNA. They did, however, discover that the transcription of several genes has changed. What this means is that there are changes in how the DNA is expressed, resulting in increased levels of enzymes or other proteins that are coded by DNA. This could suggest changes in some of their DNA, including epigenetics, for genes that control how other genes are expressed. Also, horizontal gene transfer from plant chemicals and insecticides has been documented (published in 2013) in predatory mites (feeding on plants), but apparently the authors did not investigate this.

Speciation and taxonomical classification of species is considerably dependent on morphological differentiation and changes between closely related organisms. These resistant rootworms have not changed their appearances and bodily structures; only their metabolism (and possibly their target sites) and, less so, their behavior. This is why the answer to your question regarding a new species is negative.

I hope this answers your questions.