Monday, December 28, 2009

What's In a Name?

Names are important - they tell us what things are, and what they are not.

Recently, two high-schoolers from Trinity High School in New York undertook a most amazing science project. With the help of Rockefeller University and the American Museum Of Natural History, they collected objects around them to determine their DNA identities. They compared the DNA sequences from their objects to a DNA library known in the scientific community as GenBank.

Their first finding was, unfortunately, not unusual among such studies. They found that 17% of the food products that they tested were actually misrepresented by the names on their labels (see press release). Such food products included a brand of sheep's milk cheese that was actually made from cow's milk, venison dog treats made of beef; gourmet sturgeon caviar that was actually Mississippi paddlefish, a delicacy called “dried shark” which was freshwater Nile perch, dried smelt that was instead Japanese anchovy, and “Caribbean Red snapper” that turned out to be Malabar blood snapper from Southeast Asia.

Their study is the latest of many papers that have cast doubt on the foods we eat, particularly some of the more extravagant ones. Last year, two other students from Trinity High School tested the sushi in local restaurants and found that other fish species were often substituted from some of the higher end ones. Of course, despite being rather underhanded, this may work out in the fishes’ favor, as the cheaper fish tend to be more abundant (which is why they are cheaper), and are perhaps less threatened by fishing pressure. But, this is not universally so. Fish that cannot be traded legally often get processed and sold under pseudonyms. A full 25% of fish tested in that study proved to be entirely other fish. Of these, at least one was a species that is farmed and on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘safe’ list (but it is not nearly worth the price of the species it was masquerading as), and another was a federally listed endangered species.

Their second finding was truly inspired. The pair discovered what is potentially a new species of cockroach. If it proves to be new to science, the two will get to choose its name. This means both a common name, and its scientific name - the name that will be recognized by scientists the world over, no matter what language they speak, as belonging to this species and this species only.

The scientific name is a latin name consisting of two parts; a binomial consisting of the genus and species names. For example, we are Homo sapiens, of the genus ‘Homo’, and the species ‘sapiens’. Note that species are never referred to as just their species name. So, we would never call ourselves just ‘sapiens.’ We are Homo sapiens, or H. sapiens. Also note that the species portion of the binomial is not capitalized; only the generic, or genus, name. And, that the genus and species names are italicized.

The name of the common cockroach in New York City, the American cockroach, is known the world over as Periplaneta americana. The cockroach was, in fact, named by Carl Lineaus, the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician who developed the binomial naming system. He named and classified over 1200 species of plants and animals. Many of those names, like Periplaneta americana, are still in use today. Hopefully, the name for this new species of cockroach will persist for as long.

Friday, December 18, 2009

When Science Has it all Wrong

It is human nature to look around us and try to make sense of what we see. So, of course, when observers of the natural world long ago realized that there were female crab spiders that came in different colors, they wondered why. It appeared that yellow spiders lived in yellow wildflowers and white spiders lived in white wildflowers. Therefore, the obvious conclusion, color differences must be for camouflage. Yellow spiders resting on yellow flowers are practically invisible – to us.

Crab spiders eat wasps (this is one spider I would not mind having in my backyard). They sit in the center of the wildflower, and wait. Wasps come to the flower to collect nectar, and the perfectly camouflaged spider is waiting there, and happily collects dinner.

It is completely logical and downright sensible. In an homage to Rudyard Kipling, I argue that this is the perfect ‘just-so’ story. So much so, why would any scientist bother to test this?

But, it turns out that this idea has never been tested. That the spiders eat wasps as described above is known. But, is the camouflage important? Do yellow spiders on yellow plants actually do better at capturing wasps than yellow spiders on white plants, or white spiders on yellow plants? Shockingly, they do not, as featured in the journal Science's ScienceShots. The camouflaged spiders are no better than non-camoflauged spiders. Yellow spiders on white, yellow, or purple flowers all have the same success, as do white spiders.

So, why do the spiders come in different colors? They both eat the same food (wasps), so it is not food causing the color change. They cannot actually change colors when they move to different flowers, so it is something they are born with, and they must then choose the right flower in order to be hidden effectively. Perhaps the spiders are camouflaged in order to be protected from their predators, whatever organism is seeking them out for dinner. I am guessing birds. Or, perhaps it is as the authors of this research speculate; not about camouflage at all. The different colors have differing UV protective qualities. The point is – we’ve got no idea.

I recently gave a presentation of my own research to my group of graduate students at our weekly meeting. I was interrupted a few minutes into my presentation by a student who asked “wait a minute, this relationship seems so obvious, don’t we already know this?” Turns out, young grasshopper, that we do not. And, the conclusion was not as it would have seemed to be, on the surface of it all.

That we do not yet know all there is to know about the natural world is reassuring to me. One – job security. Two – the natural world still contains the greatest mysteries of all time. It is enough to keep me entertained for probably the rest of my days.

So, why does the giraffe have a long neck? Giraffes, it turns out, have not evolved long necks in order to gather leaves from tall trees, though those necks are still darn handy in that regard. Long necks are a sexually-selected trait. Meaning, females prefer males with long necks, and have, with their choosiness, driven the course of evolution. Much like the infamous Tule Elk, whose antlers are so large that the largest males cannot lift their heads off the ground. Biology isn’t always logical, but those female Tule Elk sure like large antlers.

Are blue whales the largest animals ever to roam the earth? And, does the fact that they are in the water, and do not have to bear their weight on land, allow them to get so large. There is pretty convincing evidence now that there were dinosaurs much heavier than blue whales, and that they lived on land.

As for how the leopard got its spots, well Rudyard Kipling had this one pretty close to right in his Just So Stories. The hunter in the story observed that the animals, without their stripes and spots, “ought to show up in this dark place like ripe bananas in a smokehouse.” I’m pretty sure he is spot on.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Science of…Facebook?

After writing about YouTube and Twitter last week you knew I’d have to get to Facebook eventually. A recent study about to be published in the journal Psychological Science has revealed something I find intrinsically fascinating – that Facebook profiles actually capture people’s true personalities.

Now, I am not suggesting that Facebook provides you with some deep understanding of a person and can in anyway replace meaningful, in-person interaction. Even as a regular Facebook user, I will put this caveat right up front. But, what this study revealed is that people essentially tell the truth about who they are when they create their profiles, take those little quizzes, and so on. I find that downright amazing. Isn’t this the standing fear with on-line dating, that you will show up to meet the person (since you cannot have an on-line marriage…but maybe you can now with Facebook), and they’ll be totally different from how they advertised themselves in their profile?

Case in point: Facebook allows you to post whatever picture you want. And, I view the posting of that picture as something akin to attending my high-school reunion. I have not seen these people in a long time, some of them were mean and snooty, and I want to impress them when they see me. And, I do not mind admitting that I would like to impress them with my clearly adorable and smart children, my own obviously stunning intellect, and of course my age-defying good looks. And, this is why there is currently a cartoon version of me on my Facebook page. One that is 20 pounds lighter than the actual me (though not nearly as witty and smart because she’s really very two-dimensional).

I do love that Facebook has allowed me to find old school classmates from across the globe and reconnect with them. And, I am somewhat amazed that when I do find the time to take those little quizzes that I do answer them honestly. Based upon their findings, the authors of the study suggest that this is because “online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners, but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone."

The researchers claim that the psychology behind the success of sites such as Facebook comes from the basic human need to be known by others. If the information people got from Facebook could not be trusted, then it would quickly fall out of favor because we wouldn’t actually know each other at all.

What I am equally surprised by is my own observation of just how much people will put “out there” on Facebook. I’ve seen posts by people blasting their spouses, posts by students blasting their professors, and by employees blasting their bosses. In many of those cases I know/work with/like both the post-er (plaintiff) and the post-ee (defendant) and think to myself “Oh dear, should I know this? Should I do something?” Of course, there is really no need for me to say anything because there is one thing that Facebook obviously isn’t. It isn’t private. Do our usual filters that prevent us from making career- or relationship-ending statements shut down because it is just us and the computer, mano-a-machino, when we are typing? Are we under the impression that the 200 or so people we have “friended” are our circle of dearest and best friends that should all be trusted with our most intimate thoughts the very moment that we have them?

Additional research published in Psychological Science suggests, oddly, that people tend not to adopt “stable disclosure strategies,” and reveal too much information in situations such as on-line social websites. People tend also not to reveal enough information when they most need to, such as admitting unhealthy habits to a physician during an exam. They attribute this to a level of fluency – which they describe as the ability to process information. We are comfortable and process information easily in our little Facebook worlds. We are often uncomfortable, and don’t necessarily understand the medical jargon being used, in our doctor’s offices. In the latter setting, we don’t process information easily, and we are less likely to reveal information about ourselves.

In closing, I add this lovely tidbit. Each year new words are added to the dictionary as new colloquialisms are added to our language. The Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2009 is “unfriend”, as in "To remove someone as a friend on a social networking site such as Facebook."