Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Field Guide to the Birds of whereever I am right now.

Planning a recent trip to Baja California, I decided to buy a field guide to the birds of Baja, only to discover that there is no such book. Ornithologist colleagues suggested I just bring a guide to the birds of Mexico, but that seemed much less than ideal. Mexico has more than a thousand species of birds. Somewhere around 300 of those 1000 have ever been seen anywhere on the peninsula of Baja, and maybe a 150 of those have a moose's chance in Texas of showing up where we where when we were there. I looked through my very old edition of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico (so old they don't even have pictures of all the species because of the cost of printing illistrations), and decided that almost every bird we were at all likely to see was in the much more usable National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (which in this case means the US and Canada), so I just brought that.
Of the 66 bird species we saw, only one wasn't in the Nat Geo guide, or at least only one I successfully identified, the Grey Thrasher.

But this system of having to have a different guide for each place one goes is just so cumbersome, especially when one goes to a place for which a guide is not available. It's time for field guide 2.0. What I want is an electronic guide that detects where I am and what season it is, then displays a list of species that could possibly be there. This could even be a fairly simple application for an iPhone or PDA. I click on the name of the species I want to see, or the group I want to explore, and I get that page. If I know I am looking at a booby, but don't know which one, I click on the genus Sula. Based on the fact that I am in Baja in winter, I get pictures of a Blue-Footed Booby and a Brown Booby of the brewsteri subspecies.

If I am an ambitious birder and hope to find birds that aren't normally found where I am, I tell the program to be less picky in the list it gives me. If I am a novice who will only notice the species that there are at least a thousand of all aroud me, I can get a more selective list and have an easier time IDing the Yellow-footed Gulls.

This would require no new technology, only someone from one of the several companies who make bird guides to take the data they already have and slap them in a program. But no, instead they want to sell us stacks of bound paper. How 20th century.

(EDIT: Just after posting this it occurred to me that someone might already bo doing this. The closest I can find are "Handheld Birds" from National Geographic and iBird Explorer. They don't yet have any more birds than what appear in field guides to the US and Canada, and they don't seem to have the capability to let your wireless device filter by your location and season, but I hope that will come soon. It is clear at least that bird guides are going digital.)

Here, by the way, is the unorganized list of bird species Iris and I saw on our trip:

La Paz, La Ventana & Puerto San Carlos, Baja California Sur, Mexico Dec. 15-25th, 2008

1. White-winged Dove
2. California Quail
3. Magnificent Frigate Bird
4. Brown Pelican
5. Turkey Vulture
6. Crested Caracara
7. Merlin
8. American Kestrel
9. Western Gull
10. Gila Woodpecker
11. Cassin’s Kingbird
12. Cactus Wren
13. Northern Mockinbird
14. Gilded Flicker
15. Phainopepla
16. Western Scrub Jay
17. Spotted Sandpiper
18. Royal Tern
19. Ring-Billed Gull
20. Orange-Crowned Warbler
21. California Gnatcatcher
22. Common Ground Dove
23. Common Raven
24 Costa’s Hummingbird
25. House Finch
26. House Sparrow
27. Pyrrhuloxia
28. Hooded Oriole
29. Great Egret
30. Sanderling
31. Bonaparte’s Gull
32. Lesser Scaup
33. Double-Crested Coromorant
34. Green Heron
35. Little Blue Heron
36. Great Blue Heron
37. Snowy Egret
38. Great Egret
39. Cattle Egret
40. Tricolored Heron
41. White Ibis
42. Osprey
43. Red-Tailed Hawk
44. Heermann’s Gull
45. Western Sandpiper
46. Rock Pigeon
47. Mourning Dove
48. Anna’s Hummingbird
49. Blue-Footed Booby
50. Caspian Tern
51. Forster’s Tern
52. Eared Grebe
53. Yellow-Footed Gull
54. Ash-Throated Flycatcher
55. Grey Vireo
56. Verdin
57. Rock Wren
58. Semi-Palmated Plover
59. Long-Billed Curlew
60. Black-Throated Sparrow
61. Belted Kingfisher
62. Ladderback Woodpecker
63. Willet
64. American Oyster Catcher
65. Grey Thrasher
66. Brown Boobie

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Writing a paper with others, in the sense that we all have to agree to have our names on every bit of it, and publish it, is a difficult but rewarding process. The paper is surely improving because of it, and the disagreements have all been purely intellectual and cordial, but every step of the process has involved spirited discussion over a thousand details of fact, style and strategy. I have 'won' about as many of these discussions as I have 'lost' and I am satisfied with the outcome in pretty much every case. It will all be well worth it if we actually get the paper into print.

240 mile deep water?

Listening to NPR news this morning, I heard of a break in an underwater fiber-optic cable between Europe and the Middle East, just off the coast of Alexandria in "240 mile deep water."

It struck me as odd that this was such a minor news item. After all, the previous record for deepest water on earth was only seven miles (held by Challenger Deep, off the Marianas Islands.) NPR has just increased the deepest water on earth by 3328%, an astonishing accomplishment.

I am not sure what the message was supposed to be. Perhaps the water was 0.24 miles deep? The break was 240 miles from Alexandria? There are a great many plausible options.

To anyone to whom numbers communicate anything "240 mile deep water"just off shore in the relatively shallow Mediterranean should be instantly absurd. Unfortunately, basic competence in subjects such as science and math are not expected of those in the news business. If I were king...

Monday, December 29, 2008

A conjecture on the link between babies and lack of sex

I am told by those who have children that one of the many sacrifices couples make to raise a baby is opportunity for sexual intimacy. I don't have kids, so don't know from personal experience, but it certainly makes sense. Between exhaustion, vehement interruptions and company in the house, it can be hard for a couple to find the time, privacy and energy to maintain their pre-parental levels of activity. I have had friends say that it seems very much like the baby is plotting to destroy its parents' sex lives. It has just occurred to me that in a sense, this could be very true.

Evolutionarily, there are many ways in which the interests of the parent and the interests of the offspring are aligned. The fitness of both are improved if the baby grows, thrives and go on to produce its own offspring. They share many genes, and anything that is good for the one is at least a little bit good for the other. But some things that are good for the fitness of the parents are a net selective loss for the baby. Such as having another baby come along too soon. The parents of course are equally closely related to all their offspring, and therefore will tend to distribute care and resources between their children in a way that maximizes the number of future grandchildren. But the baby is twice as closely related to herself as she is to her full sibling; she is much better off monopolizing her parents' time and resources for longer than they might desire. The parents' fitness is maximized by having an interbirth interval just long enough to get a good return on their investment in this offspring, without unduly diminishing their opportunity to have more children in the future. The child's fitness is maximized by having the parents wait somewhat longer, until the diminishment of their future reproductive chances for each additional day waited is twice the per day increase in her own fitness gain. The technical term for this disalignment of interest, appropriately, is parent-offspring conflict.
At first glance, the advantage in the conflict over the length of the interbirth interval would seem to be distinctly on the side of the parents, rather than the sessile, pre-sentient, altricail lump of chub, digestive organs and breathing apparatus. But oh, those breathing bits can very easily be used to make sounds. Sounds that communicate desperate dire need to protect and nourish the baby. Sounds that cannot easily be ignored. What harm if one screams just a little bit louder, a little more frequently, screams and cries with slightly less provocation, and makes the parents increase their interbirth interval just a little while longer?

Before you label me a conspiracy theorist, let me be clear. I am not implying that the babies of the world are 'trying,' in any intentional way, to deprive their parents of sex. They don't have to try. It comes naturally to them.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Experts in a Lesser Known Phylum

Ask most people to name some phyla of animals and they will just look at you funny. Those who do know what you are talking about are likely to name Chordata, Arthropoda, Annelida, or maybe Mollusca. Most people will run out of Phyla long before getting to Rotifera. We humans tend not to pay a lot of attention to a Phylum whose members are mostly microscopic and don't cause any known disease. This is true not only among lay-folk, but among scientists as well. Web of Science, a catalogs of the scholaraly articles from about 8700 publications, lists fewer than 100 papers focusing on rotifers in the last year. Arthropoda, by comparison, gets more than 38,000 hits in the same period. So rotifers are not the best studied group in the world.
But those almost a hundred publications had to derive from somewhere. That somewhere is a scattering of experts across the globe. And it gets lonely being the only one in your city, state, country or continent with a strong interest in rotifers. (For example, I think I my lab is the only one in California which focuses on rotifers.) So what's a lonesome rotiferologist to do? Organize a conference, of course. Every two or three years there is a Rotifera conference somewhere in the world, and I have just found out that Rotifera XII is in Berlin, Germany next August. I very much plan on going, and hope to give a short talk on my work. They have about 60 slots open for presentations, which I think means almost everyone who studies rotifers will be there presenting. It should be interesting.

Le Deluge

I'm in a new place. For the first time in my career, I have gobs of data. Over the last couple of years, with the help of all my students, I have amassed a couple of enormous data sets. I've got this data-gathering thing down.

Faced with all these data demanding to be analyzed, written up and published, I have a new and different challenge. I need to decided which of the hundreds of different papers I could potentially write with all these data I actually will write. In some cases it is obvious that I need to write a particular paper. For other potential papers, it is fairly obvious that the opportunity cost would be higher than the benefit. This still leaves a vast middle ground.

I need to figure out how to think about how many, and which, papers to try to publish soon, which to present at conferences, get feedback, then publish, and which could be filed away in case I ever decide they are important.

Some of this last group I will use as motivational tools for my students, saying in effect, "I will put the time in to get the project you worked on published if you do a particularly good job moving the process along, and I will make you an author on the paper." Relatively few of my papers do I expect to be co-author on. Most I will need to include advisors, collaborators, students, or some combination thereof.

What is clear is that between now and next August (when I will move to Germany) I need to write about two papers a month, which is about two papers a month more than I am accustomed to writing.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

40,000 Senegalis or My Building

The building I work in has a yearly energy bill of over $1,000,000 dollars a year. That translates to about 10 Million Kilowatt-Hours per year, the same as about 100 average American houses or 40,000 Senegalis. Granted, it is a big building, with a greenhouse on the roof, four elevators, large water dionization systems, lots of -80C freezers, class rooms, laboratories and offices. Still, that seems like a lot of electricity for one building. The building manager emailed everyone to ask if we had ideas for cutting that down some. I suggested getting a smaller autoclave. The building has three autoclaves, each big enough to park a Mini in. Hundreds of different people use these, each setting them to their own specifications, usually to autoclave one or two bottles or one tray of equipment. A machine with 1/100 of the internal volume would work for most of these jobs, and get it done faster. I emailed to suggest installing a smaller autoclave, and the building manager wrote back that, "buying and installing one would cost over $50,000, which is about $50,000 more than is available at the moment." I am sure he is right, still I can't help thinking that if we saved even 0.1% of the building's energy usage, the thing would pay for itself in five years. Different budget line though.

Journal of Biodemography

Yesterday on the BART I sat down to write a list of papers I hope to publish based on my rotifer work. Most of them I had a pretty good sense of what type of journal they should go into. But one, the article in which I present a detailed human-style demographic analysis of my rotifer population, I just didn't know. It is a paper that I specifically want to write to an audience of demographers, to say, "Hey Look! Other species are good for demographers to study other than humans!" But I was not at all sure a demography journal would accept a paper on a species other than humans. I emailed my demography professor, and he said he had never sen such a thing in a demography journal. And frankly, most biologists aren't that interested in this type of analysis, and I'm not sure what biology journal I would send it to. I decided that since there is a journal for everything, there must be a Journal of Biodemography. But nope. I looked it up. Nothing even vaguely like that exist as far as I can tell. So either I'll have to found the journal myself (unlikely) or I'll have to shoehorn it in somewhere.

I'm just too interdisciplinary for my own good.