Seeing science

Watch this video to see some facinating images. The ruby-tailed wasp (below) and the cell division in the cress seedling are my two favourites.

Ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ignita): Image from the Wellcome Image Awards taken by Spike Walker

The cause of suffering?

I used to be a Christian. I no longer believe in a god. Things like this are part of the reason. One, or a bunch, of 'christians'-sure they may be extremists, but seemingly claim to be Christ like nonetheless-who blame gays and lesbians for the destruction and suffering caused by an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. How disgusting! It actually makes me feel sick.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. This type of bullshit is commonly spouted by fundamentalist groups following natural disasters, or acts of god, as insurance companies ironically refer to them. Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005 was another natural distaster blamed on homosexuals. A group called Repent America have a steaming pile on their website regarding this belief. But, it's not only fundamentalist christians who get on this bandwagon. Not to be outdone, muslim extremists chime in with similar grabage. A cleric, Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi said "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes,".

I admit that all religious people are not like the above mentioned groups, but to me that doesnot change the following beliefs. According to the bible, koran, torah and a whole host of religious texts, god created the heavens and the earth. That would imply that he controls them. Therefore he is responsible for both earthquakes and hurricanes. I don't see any love in that.

On somewhat of a side note, but still related to the earthquake in NZ, my friend Claire lives in Christchurch. Fortunately she is dong well and uninjured etc. However, like a huge proportion of the city, she has no power or running water. Without water you can't flush the toilet. But Claire and her flatmates??? have remedied that problem with what could almost be described as a luxury outdoor 'dunny'. Check out the pics here. Click the facebook like to make her loo world famous.

In further search of our origins

As usual, thanks wikipedia

Chimpanzees are our closest extant relatives on the evolutionary tree. Some anthropologists use chimps as model organisms to study how human societies may potentially have formed. I briefly mentioned one of the most famous anthropologists of this sort, Jane Goodall, in the post about the New Caledonian crows. Jane Goodall is famous for observing chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania making and using tools. She also observed chimps killing and eating smaller primates, a behaviour that was not previously suspected.

Importantly, the Gombe chimps are forest dwellers, but early human ancestors were most likely savanna dwellers. This means that in order to understand early human evolution it is more appropriate to study model organisms inhabiting a similar habitat. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University recognised this, which led her to study a group of savanna dwelling chimps in Senegal. Here she made some remarkable observations. Like the Gombe chimps, the chimps of Fongoli make tools to 'fish' for termites. In addition to the fishing however, the Fongoli chimps make 'spears' for hunting. The chimps, mostly females it seems, roughly sharpen sticks with their teeth to make rudimentary spears to poke into the sleeping holes of bushbabies. If the chimps detect blood on the spear they smash open the hole to retrieve their prey.

Evolution is largely driven by environmental factors. In forests the monkey population is large, but in the savanna woodlands monkeys are scarce. Jill Pruetz says that "hunting bush babies is a creative way to get protein", and speculates that the reason that females engage in this activity more commonly than males is that females are slower and often weighed down by infants, making hunting monkeys difficult.

 National Geographic has some absolutely beautiful photos and videos of the Fongoli chimps. If you don't have time for the videos (I could only get the first one to load), you should definitely look at the photos.

The 'avian wolf'

Photo courtesy of wikipedia
 The kea (Nestor notabilis), is a large alpine parrot (the world's only alpine parrot) endemic to New Zealand. Kea are highly intelligent birds and have been described as neophiles. This combination has made the birds infamous, often seen causing damage to parked cars by ripping out the beading around windows and even removing valve caps from tyres and deflating them. See the video below, narrated by the man. When you are camping in kea country it is advised to rise early and pack up your tent before the birds get there and "investigate" your tent. When doing a bit of reading about kea, I found the most intriguing video. I won't say much about it other than it is a two minute clip of kea, a parrot, doing something that might surprise you. Click here to watch it.

The video above is taken from a BBC doco entitled "The smartest parrot". You can watch it here where it is broken into three parts. Remember the clever crows from a week or so ago? Well, similar experiments have been done with kea with similar results.

Returning to the place of our origins

My friend in South Africa, Pico, just posted some pics on his facebook page from his trip to Maropeng (Setstwana for 'returning to the place of our origins'). Maropeng is a visitors centre about an hour drive from Johannesburg centred around the history and origins of modern humans. The area that Maropeng is situated in is a World Heratige site called "The Cradle of Humankind" and recognised to have "collectively yielded some of the most valuable evidence of the origins of humankind ever found, including the renowned 'Mrs Ples' and 'Little Foot'."

If you live in Pretoria or Johannesburg it looks like a great way to spend a Saturday or Sunday cramming your head full of human history.

The picture below is for Pico. Seems more appropriate than the one you have on facebook given your chosen vocation.

The evolution of Snippy

Which is which?

I admit that bird watching is not a particularly 'cool' hobby, but who cares? As long as you are doing something that makes you happy. As I have said before, I am enjoying birds more and more recently. But, like so many things that are either new to you or that you haven't done for a while, it can be pretty frustrating. I tried skateboarding again a couple of years back after an eight year hiatus. Not only am I older and more weary of getting hurt, but my body just didn't do things the things were second nature a smoothly as it used to. The same goes for bird watching. It takes practice and patience.

Fortunately however, the guys over at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology made the video shown below to help out. Identifying birds is more simple than it appears. As they point out there are four parts to identifying birds namely, (1) Size and shape, (2) colour pattern, (3) behavior and, (4) habitat. This video covers size and shape and the importance of comparison. The best part is that the diagnostics are universally applicable to birds everywhere. Get yourself some binoculars, a good field guide and, have a go. It is a relatively low cost hobby (although the hard-core birders often spend small fortunes on ocular equipment) and you get to spend time outside, a rarity these days.

Grow a beard and get more sex

A new study, reported here on Science Daily, on the factors that lead to reproductive success of male great bustards (Otis tarda) has suggested that males with more, and longer 'beard plumage' have a greater chance of reproducing. The reasons for this are suggested to be two fold. Firstly, the more 'beard' a bird has, the older and heavier the bird is, hence males who have less 'beard' will not challenge more 'beardy' males for fear of defeat. Secondly, females prefer the more 'beardy' males, seemingly because of their size. There you have it, chicks dig beards. I must be weak because I am 28 and still can't really grow a decent beard. I must have tricked my wife with some other display of virility, and I'm a pretty good cook.

A pair of great bustards. Note the plumage on the chin of the male (standing). Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

This is worth tweeting about

Found this cool site on the New Zealand Department of Conservation's website. It's a collection of some native NZ bird calls, including the morning chorus recorded in the Abel Tasman National Park where I went tramping over New Years. The bird in the foreground is a bellbird/korimako, pictured below. We saw plenty of them while we were tramping.

A pair of bellbirds

What a cheat!

Ken Ham is a the president of Answers in Genesis (AiG), a irrational, fundamentalist Christian ministry. They are bible literalists who think the world is less than 10,000 years old etc. In 2007 AiG opened the Creation Museum which is filled with lies, such as an exhibit consisting of dinosaurs coexisting with Homo sapiens. As worrying as this all is, it is nothing out of the ordinary for a huge proportion of the US population. However, what is worrying is the new Noah's Ark themed amusement park due to open in the near future. As I have said before, the first amendment to the US constitution calls for a separation of church and state. That means that the state cannot promote, in any way, activities of any religious nature. This however hasn't stopped Mr. Ham. He, and the rest of his AiG mates, are seeking funding for their Ark venture. The video below shows a discussion between Ham and Rev. Barry Lynn regarding this abomination where Ham foolishly argues that Ark Encounters is not a ministry. Barry rips him a new one in a civilized, calm and rational manner.

Well AiG are now advertising for positions at the new park. And, despite Ham's affirmation that the Ark Encounters is not a ministry, and thus should get government funding, all prospective employees are required to sign the AiG statement of faith. Have a read of it if you are interested, but here are the points that are particularly ridiculous.

Section 1: Priorities
1. The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge.

Section 4: General
6. By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.

Wow. Even if there is evidence for something, you can't believe it. Imagine signing that, just to get a job


A photo I took of some Hartlaub's gulls (Larus hartlaubii) last October at Mariner's Wharf, in Hout Bay, South Africa. This is for Toby Bear.


Clever crows

Photo: Jolyon Troscianko, University of Birmingham

Humans initially considered themselves distinct from other animals due to our ability to make and use tools. That was until Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees making using stalks of grass to "fish" for termites. But, it is not only primates that use tools. There are a surprising number of animals that use tools including, elephants, dolphins, otters, birds and octopuses (it's acceptable to use either octopuses or octopodes, but NEVER octopi).

Probably the most proficient and innovative tool maker of all is a bird. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) surpasses many with it's almost unbelievable ability to make and use tools. Watch the video below that I saw on Jerry Coyne's blog. After seeing the video I was amazed and did a little more research into this brilliant bird. I found this cool site from a research group at The University of Auckland, just across the road from my university. It has loads of videos and pictures, and for those who don't mind a bit reading, pdfs of some of the research articles they have published.

Do you love birds?


 Found a neat social networking site for bird lovers. is a site hosted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. There are plenty of photos, videos and discussion forums about bird IDs etc. '. It's a place where you can interact with other bird watchers and seriously bird-geek out--and not be judged.

Birdwatchers. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Not so private now

I acquired a fantastic book this weekend called 'The private life of plants', a title tantalisingly similar to a book I posted about previously. It is a book by my favourite nature-documentary host, David Attenborough. I wonder if Colin Tudge is a fan too?

The book is broken up into six sections:

1. Travelling - Mostly about seed dispersal
2. Growing
3. Flowering
4. The social struggle - A great chapter of niche differences
5. Living together - All about relationships between species such as parasitic, mutualism etc.
6. Surviving - Plants in extreme environments

The book has subsequently been made in to a series by the BBC narrated by David Attenborough. I have only seen a few of these but, they are great. The growing episode is awesome using time lapsed footage. Watch the video below for part of the first episode.

Fishing heron

Saw this on Jerry Coyne's blog. It is brilliant. Birds rule.

Got another clever bird video, but more about that later.

Bird time

The last two 'weekly birds' have been African and extant (not extinct), but this week's is an extinct New Zealand bird.  Along with the moa, the huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) is probably one of New Zealand's most famous extinct birds, largely due to it's aesthetic beauty.

A pair of huia on a karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) branch. Image: John Gould
Male huia with a shorter beak. Photo credit: Dr Paddy Ryan
The huia was unique in that the female had a much longer, more down-curved beak than the males--the most prominent beak sexual dimorphism of any bird species. This marked difference in beak size is highlighted by the fact that  John Gould first described the male and female huia as two distinct species. In addition, both parts of the binomial scientific name refers to the birds beak, the genus Heteralocha being derived from Greek and referring to the different beak sizes, and the species acutirostris from Latin referring to the sharp pointed form of the beak.

Female huia with a longer beak. Photo credit: Dr Paddy Ryan
The main hypotheses as to why the beaks differed so much between the sexes relates to feeding habits. Huia were known to be bark borers, feeding on grubs such as the larvae of huhu beetle. It was first suggested that the males used their short strong beaks to make holes in the bark and the females used their longer, more slender beaks to reach into the holes to retrieve prey. However, this cooperative feeding story is not entirely true. What is more likely is that males and females had slightly different feeding niches. This allowed males and females to exploit different food resources, thus reducing intraspecific (within species) competition.

Like so many of New Zealand's extinct birds, it was undoubtedly related to anthropogenic activity. Humans have only been in New Zealand for around 800 years, and yet in that time about 26 percent of 223 breeding birds species have gone extinct. The first settlers in New Zealand from Polynesia would have hunted birds for food and feathers and they also brought with them a predator, the kiore or polynesian rat. But, it was the successive colonisation by Europeans that was devastating. A wave of new predators including rats, cats, stoats and other mustelids and, possums accompanied the new settlers. In addition, many hectares of native forest were cleared for timber, real estate and agriculture, shrinking the habitat for native fauna. Sadly, by the 1920s the huia was extinct. There were later  unconfirmed of sightings of the bird but that was in the 1960s.

Stuffed female huia. Photo credit: John Thomas Pusateri Jr.

The image above is by John Thomas Pusateri Jr.. Check out his website for other similar images. They are great.

Oh my

Saw this video over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers blog. Ken Ham challenges 'banana man' for his clown title.

Read some of the YouTube comments. This one stood out for "Absolutely disgusting. This man is a living piece of garbage, and he is raping the minds of those poor children. This is child abuse".