The Brain Scoop
Wolves can be… Coy

Wolves and humans have a prehistoric relationship - and it’s complicated, to say the least. Between the 1600s and the mid 1960s, nearly every wolf in the lower 48 states was completely wiped out; the eradication of wolves was largely encouraged by government-issued bounties and extermination programs, carried out by farmers and ranchers who saw wolves as threats to their livestock and families.

But after the gray wolf received protection by the Endangered Species Act in1974 and populations started once again spreading across the United States, a funny thing began happening. The wolves - unable to find and therefore breed with other wolves due to scarcity of individuals - ended up breeding with coyotes instead.

And now, there exists a huge amount of confusion about some of these populations; wolves and coyotes are hybridizing at a rate faster than can be detected through scientific studies or can be managed by wildlife conservation laws and programs. How much DNA of an endangered species does an organism need to have before we consider it endangered itself? How can we enforce laws and regulations to manage - or restrict management - of population growth? 

We spent four months working on this video and it’s the most comprehensive episode we’ve ever made for The Brain Scoop. We even got the grossometer back in there. I hope you like it- and please do share! 

Woops, someone skipped the ‘Camouflage’ chapter in the stick insect handbook! A colourful new species, Calvisia kneubuehleri, was discovered in South Vietnam by researchers Joachim Bresseel and Jérôme Constant from our Institute. While the nymphs of C. kneubuehleri do a great job at hiding, conforming to the “master of camouflage” reputation of the stick insects, the adult ones show flashy red, yellow and blue colours. It is not yet clear in what way this Picasso-like look is helping them to survive. Maybe the bright colours are warning predators that the insect is toxic, but this requires further investigation.

The species is named after Dr. Bruno Kneubühler (Lucerne, Switzerland), who designed an innovative method for breeding the species. Amongst other things, he managed to extend the incubation period by keeping the eggs at lower temperature for several months. This allowed the eggs to hatch in spring, when food plants were available again. As a citizen scientist, Bruno helped breeding the walking sticks in captivity, allowing a larger set of specimens to work on. He also documented the nymphs, so Joachim and Jérôme were able to describe those as well.

Oh, and by the way, our two taxonomists described the second largest insect in the world (a stick of course) in 2014.


A small selection of the frogs I photographed in Marojejy, NE Madagascar in 2016. Click the photo to see the species name.

Photos by Mark D. Scherz © 2016.

This is how we would call cetaceans if we sticked to a literal translation of their scientific name:

Humpback whale: Megaptera novaeangliae

  • Large-winged New Englander

Blue whale: Balaenoptera musculus

  • Mouse whale - Keep in mind that this huge animal is the largest mammal ever. Mouse whale is its name.

Minke whale: Balaenoptera acuto-rostrata 

  • Sharp-snout whale

Killer whale: Orcinus orca

  • Whale from the kingdom of the dead, or Orcus’ whale - Orcus was the Roman god of death and the underworld.

Sperm whale: Physeter macrocephalus 

  • Big-headed blowpipe

Harbour porpoise: Phocoena phocoena

  • Big seal

Cuvier’s beaked whale: Ziphius cavirostris 

  • Sword-shaped hollow head

Inktober Day 2: Divided

The Yellow-rumped Warbler complex (Setophaga coronata) has variously been split and lumped into several species. Three of the most distinctive are the Myrtle Warbler (above), Audubon’s Warbler (right), and Black-fronted Warbler (left). Recently there has been a proposal to divide them once again into separate species.

Collected on this Day in 1900

North America used to have over 150 species in the genus Aster. But now only one species remains. That isn’t because they went extinct, but instead, they were re-named. Many of these species are still referred to in general as “asters.” 

Collected on September 22, 1900, this specimen was found in Fern Hollow, Frick Park, Pittsburgh by early museum botanist John Shafer. 

Eurybia divaricata (formerly Aster divaricatus) is commonly known as “white wood aster.” This beautiful fall blooming plant (like many asters) is a common native in eastern United States forests. 

So why the new name? Taxonomy (the science of classifying organisms) is an ever-changing science, subject to revision as more research is done, especially at the molecular (DNA) level. As we understand how organisms are related, we can better understand the history of life on Earth. Taxonomic studies of plants often lead to the splitting of one species into many or the lumping of many species into one. In some cases, a “new” rare species may have been hiding under our noses, previously grouped with another species. These studies are important for the conservation and protection of vulnerable species. We must know what these species are to actually protect them!  

Like most herbaria (plural for herbarium), the Carnegie Museum herbarium is organized by genus within families. Earlier this year, collections manager Bonnie Isaac and a team of interns and volunteers reorganized the sunflower family (Asteraceae), one of the largest families of flowering plants. After a month of reorganizing and renaming folders, the work is still ongoing. No surprise, as this family is represented by over 51,000 specimens (or about 10% of the entire collection)! Ongoing taxonomic rearrangements like these are just one reason why the work of herbarium staff is never done. 

White wood aster blooming on August 31, 2017 at Fern Hollow, Frick Park (same location as specimen pictured). 

Botanists at Carnegie Museum of Natural History share pieces of the herbarium’s historical hidden collection on the dates they were discovered or collected. Check back for more! 

Random Fact #915

According to Ancient Greek myth, the first spider was a woman named Arachne who bragged she could spin better than the goddesses themselves (which, if you’re not familiar with Ancient Greek culture, is a big no-no). As punishment, she was transformed into the first spider.

Spiders’ class name in taxonomy, Arachnid, is a reference to Arachne.

daziy  asked:

That ask about your not capitalising the regular names of the aliens got me thinking.. Any ideas on what human scientists name the aliens' species scientifically?

So… Going down the taxon levels (pun not intended), I’m pretty sure that all the aliens we see in Animorphs are Animalia kingdom given how much they all tend to move around and react to the environment, which would make them by default Eukarya domain.  Within the Anmalia kingdom I’d be comfortable saying that andalites and hork-bajir are almost certainly Chordata (Cassie kills a hork-bajir by breaking its neck, and at one point Ax mentions his back legs “collapsing” after a fall breaks some internal bones in #8, both of which suggest the existence of spinal cords), whereas yeerks are probably part of the Mollusca phylum and taxxons might be Arthropods given their number of legs.  We know that taxxons eat, of course, and #43 strongly implies that they poop, so I’m a little more confident in that one than I am with the yeerks - after all, yeerks are solar-powered, and on Earth that only happens with plants and bacteria, never with animals.  (All right, now I’m kind of headcanoning that each yeerk is a single GINORMOUS bacterium cell, but there’s really no basis for that in canon.)

Of course, all of this speculation assumes that ALIENS HAVE CELLS WITH NUCLEI, which is already a pretty big jump, but the very fact that all these species can walk around on Earth without spacesuits (except the yeerks, who I guess kind of use humans as spacesuits) suggests that at the very least they can do something meaningful with oxygen and/or nitrogen and/or carbon and/or argon when they breathe.  We also know that they can’t just skip breathing, because there are mentions of Marco successfully strangling both taxxons and hork-bajir, whereas #29 establishes that yeerks can’t “breathe” unless they’re in some kind of liquid and MM4 hinges partially on Ax not being able to breathe underwater unless he’s in morph.

Moving down to class, I’m pretty comfortable putting andalites down as mammals: they have warm blood (#29), they’re covered in fur (#1), they perform complex brain operations (#29), and it’s strongly implied they make little andalites through birth rather than eggs (AC).  None of the others fit into classes that well, given that taxxons have too many legs to be insects or arachnids and too much variation in “leg” shape (everything from tiny hands to cone-shaped pods to segmented leg-limbs) to count as Diplopada, yeerks absorb all their energy from their sun (which rules out their existences as actual slugs), and hork-bajir have too much exoskeleton in combination with bipedalism to fit most vertebrate classes.

So I think I’ve talked myself into the hypothesis that class would be the taxon where the poor confused biologists of a post-Animorphs Earth would have to start making up names.  I’m not sure if it would make the most sense to have a new general class called Extraterrestria (or something) as a preliminary “junk pile” category before the evolutionary ancestry of these species could be established thoroughly enough to make more nuanced categories more feasible, or if it would instead make sense to establish a taxon above domains that accounted for Terrestria vs. Extraterrestria.  Either way the issue of how to define “species” would inevitably get complicated, given that right now the rule of thumb is “Can they make babies together?” and Tobias’s existence would imply that humans are a subspecies of andalite (or vice versa) until everyone could agree on a new rule.  Heck, if we count Seerow Hamee as well, now andalites and hork-bajir and humans are all the same species, and while I love the diplomatic implications of that idea it wouldn’t be particularly informative for anyone trying to study aliens systematically.

As for what the specific names of those species end up being, I bet you dollars to donuts they’d be a) Eurocentric, b) not that descriptive to the point where they end up getting revised a lot, c) kind of dumb, and d) bad fake-Latin combined with bad fake-Greek.  Since that’s the pattern taxon-names tend to follow right now.  The thing with just sort of mushing together Greek root words and suffixes to make crappy neologisms that nonetheless sound impressive (*cough* eleutherophobia is not a real word *cough*) is the number-one parlor trick of life scientists, and I have a sneaking suspicion it would persist even when describing species that have no history of Latin, Greek, or even characteristics that can be meaningfully described in Latin or Greek.  Because, well, we’re only human.


The Brain Scoop:
What is a Species?

When I was in high school, I learned that the definition of a species is two animals that can interbreed and give birth to fertile offspring. Like, dogs are all one species because they technically can interbreed (although, functionally, watching a Great Dane and a Chihuahua work it out might be… difficult), but donkeys and horses are different because – although they can mate and give birth – their offspring (mules) are sterile.

At the time, I thought – well, that’s pretty straight forward. Thanks, scientists, for solving yet another mystery of life. 

Fast forward to a few months ago when I asked one of my taxonomist colleagues to define a ‘species’ for me. The result of that (many hour-long) conversation inspired this video. Turns out, the answer isn’t, at all, straight-forward. 

24 / 05 / 2017
Study space is ready, time to start working!
I really need this 7 days and I am so nervous, damn.
I feel the need of procastination but I know I can’t let myself to do that. I need to focus and get this done asap.
Holy guacamole, the stress makes me disabled, freezes my brain.. I have to find some way to keep calm and get more confidence about this subject.

Any idea, anyone?