Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

The disguises of the mimic octopus: (a) shows a mimic
octopus looking out of its burrow; (b) is a foraging mimic
octopus with coloration to blend with the sand; (c) shows
a mimic octopus as a sole fish and (d) is an actual
sole fish; (e) shows a mimic octopus as a lion-fish and
(f) is an actual lion-fish; and (g) shows a mimic octopus
as a banded sea-snake and (h) is an actual banded
sea-snake. Images from the Norman, 2001 article
 in Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B.
Different animal species have evolved a number of ways to hide in their environments. One of the most popular tactics is by camouflage, often by matching the background or by having patterns that break up the animal's outline (think: zebras and leopards). Others have evolved to resemble other species that are generally toxic or venomous, in a technique called mimicry. But a few amazing species have been recently discovered to have the ability to alter their mimicry to actively imitate a range of species, depending on their circumstances. The most remarkable of these is the mimic octopus, which shifts its shape and behavior to mimic a number of different species as fluidly as a real-life Mystique from the X-Men.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about the remarkable acts of mimicry by one of our planet's most fascinating species, the mimic octopus. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

1. Norman, M.D., Finn, J., & Tregenza, T. (2001). Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B,, 268, 1755-1758 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1708

2. Hanlon, R.T., Conroy, L., & Forsythe, J.W. (2008). Mimicry and foraging behaviour of two tropical sand-flat octopus species off North Sulawesi, Indonesia Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 93, 23-38 DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2007.00948.x

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nature’s Halloween Costumes

Image by Steve at Wikimedia Commons.
It seems like everyone is racking their brains to come up with a great Halloween costume. But we’re not the only ones to disguise ourselves as something we’re not. Many animals put on costumes just like we do. Take this gharial crocodile for example (do you see him?), covering himself in parts of his environment to hide.

Other animals, like this tawny frogmouth below, develop physical appearances that help them blend in with their surroundings. When threatened, these birds shut their eyes, erect their feathers and point their beak in such a way to match the color and texture of the tree bark.

Image by C Coverdale at Wikimedia Commons.
Rather than hide, some animals have a physical appearance to disguise themselves as other species that are often fierce, toxic or venomous. This type of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry, named after Henry Walter Bates, the English naturalist who studied butterflies in the Amazon and gave the first scientific description of animal mimicry. This plate from Bates’ 1862 paper, Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae, illustrates Batesian mimicry between various toxic butterfly species (in the second and bottom rows) and their harmless mimics (in the top and third rows).

This plate from Bates’ 1862 paper, Contributions to an Insect Fauna of
the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae is available on Wikipedia Commons.
The bluestriped fangblenny takes its costume another step further, by changing its shape, colors, and behavior to match the company. This fish changes its colors to match other innocuous fish species that are around so it can sneak up and bite unsuspecting larger fish that would otherwise bite them back! Learn more about them here.

The fish on the far left is a juvenile cleaner wrasse in the act of cleaning another fish. The two fish in
the middle and on the right are both bluestriped fangblennies, one in its cleaner wrasse-mimicking
coloration (middle) and the other not (right). Figure from the Cheney, 2013 article in Behavioral Ecology.
But the Master of Disguise title has got to go to the mimic octopus. This animal can change its color, shape and behavior to look and behave like a wide range of creatures, including an innocuous flounder, a poisonous lionfish, or even a dangerous sea snake! Check it out in action:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Caught in My Web: What Your Dog Really Thinks About You, Understanding Gestures, Camera Traps and Pruney Fingers

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons.
This week in Caught in My Web, I share what I found when pondering interactions between humans and animals, what we have learned from camera traps, and what our pruney fingers in the bath may have to teach us about our animal nature.

1. Greg Berns, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, set out to use an fMRI scanner to learn more about what dogs think about their humans. Read his story here at Psychology Today. And check out this video describing The Dog Project:

2. Although dogs may be “man’s best friend”, they have failed numerous tests in understanding our gestures, such as pointing, without training. Even chimpanzees require training before understanding the meaning of human pointing. But elephants are now the first non-human species that seems to innately understand human pointing, naturally investigating objects pointed to (comparable to a 1-year-old human). Jack Flanagan discusses this research at NewScientist.

3. At The Thoughtful Animal, Jason Goldman discusses camera traps (weather-resistant cameras that use motion detection sensors to photograph wildlife) and how they are used in animal research. He also reveals the secret ingredient to luring jaguars to the cameras at You’ll Never Guess How Biologists Lure Jaguars To Camera Traps.

4. While we’re talking about camera traps, Siberian tiger researchers set up camera traps in southeastern Russia. One of their cameras took a series of 3 amazing pictures of a golden eagle attacking a sika deer. Check out the pictures at National Geographic.

5. Ever wonder why your fingers get pruney in the bath? Maybe it is a primate adaptation! Mark Changizi explains why at TEDEd:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Honeybees Can Avoid Deadlock When Making Group Decisions, So Why Can't We?

This honeybee swarm has precious little time to make a democratic decision as to
where they will move to. A decision deadlock could have fatal consequences.
Image by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia Commons.
In case you've been living in a cave lately, the U.S. Government has been shut down since October 1st. Not because of a terrorist attack or a bank system meltdown or a natural disaster, but because Congress cannot agree on a spending bill to determine our government's funding plan for the next year. The government shutdown has its consequences (such as closed national parks, postponed federal research funding, the halting of the CDC's flu vaccine program, and unpaid federal employees), but these will seem like a slap on the wrist if Congress can't agree to raise the debt ceiling by October 17. If we are still in a government deadlock at that point, we will default on our national loans and suffer disastrous consequences (such as the devaluation of the dollar, social security payments not being made, spiking interest rates, and devaluation and forced selling off of bonds). Congress is up against a deadline to make a group decision, and the consequences of not making one in time are much higher than the consequences of making an inperfect one. It's hard to come to a consensus when so many individuals in the group have a strong opinion one way or another, but the fact of the matter is: honeybees can do it. So why can't we?

This week at Accumulating Glitches I tell the story of how honeybees democratically decide on what new home to move to, all while avoiding a deadlock at indecision. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

Seeley, T.D., Visscher, P.K., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P.M., Franks, N.R., & Marshall, J.A.R. (2012). Stop signals provide cross inhibition in collective decision-making by honeybee swarms Science, 335, 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

Seeley, T.D. Honeybee Democracy, Princeton University Press (2010).

And learn more about group decision-making in animals at Can a Horde of Idiots Be a Genius? and Why This Horde of Idiots Is No Genius

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Applying For Funding

Image by

The first time I applied to graduate school to study animal behavior I was rejected. Heartbroken yet determined, I called them to ask what I could do to strengthen my application for the next year. The response from the woman on the other end of the phone was, “Well, what funding did you apply for?”

Applying for funding had not occurred to me. Wasn’t the whole process of applying for grad school enough? “What funding should I apply for?” I asked. I scribbled down the names of the fellowship programs she listed and immediately looked into them.

Of the list she gave me, I was only eligible for one of them (the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship). So I looked it up, completed the application as best as I could and submitted it at the same time as I submitted the next year’s round of graduate applications.

By the next March, seven of the ten graduate programs I had applied for had rejected me. One had accepted me and the other two had not yet made up their minds. …And then the letter came: I had been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Big Whoop, I thought. The schools have already made up their minds. But my parents talked me into contacting all the schools anyway so they could update my files.

Within a week, I had received e-mails, letters and personal phone calls from not only departments, but researchers from almost every school I had applied to. They all apologized for not accepting me and explained that they just can’t possibly accept all qualified candidates. The limiting factors are the advisors’ time and money available to support the students. Now that I had my own money to support myself, I was accepted into nearly every program I had applied to!

As much as we like to think about our paths in science as pursuing our passions and curiosities, the fact of the matter is money often dictates the limits of what we can and can’t do. Obtaining your own money will not only help you get into graduate programs, but will help you be able to pursue the questions that you are passionate about. Here are some funding opportunities available to students during the time that they are applying to graduate schools:

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP; The NSF Fellowship)
The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is a fellowship that awards outstanding graduate students and graduate student candidates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Awardees get three years of an annual stipend (this year’s stipend is $32,000 per year!), some tuition for the university, and access to international research and professional development opportunities. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or permanent resident; be enrolled in a U.S. graduate program by the following Fall; and have less than 12 months of experience as a graduate student.

Applications for the NSF Fellowship are generally due in the first week of November. Most of the application process is similar to applying to graduate school; They ask for a personal statement, graduate research statement, 3 reference letters, and academic transcripts. It is all online and the technical version of the instructions (which you really should read) are in a document called the NSF GRFP Program Solicitation. This year’s document can be found here.

The heart of this application is your graduate research statement. This is a short research proposal of something you would like to study in graduate school. As a proposal, it should include a hypothesis, the background research that lead you to this hypothesis, briefly how you would test your hypothesis and how you would interpret your results. If you get the award, you won’t be held to the project you propose, but they will be looking for how you think as a scientist, whether your research plan is feasible with reasonable university resources and time, and how your proposed research could contribute to advancing knowledge and benefiting society.

The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships

The Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs seek to increase diversity in academia and promote the use of diversity as a resource for enriching student education. The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship is a program that provides three years of funding to Ph.D. and Sc.D. graduate students and graduate student candidates in a broad range of fields, including life sciences. Awardees get a $20,000 annual stipend, a small university payment, expenses to attend a Ford Fellows Conference and access to Ford Foundation mentors. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, permanent resident, or granted deferred action status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program; be enrolled in a research-based graduate program at a U.S. graduate institution by the following Fall; and have more than 3 years left before you complete your graduate degree.

Applications are generally due in late November. They ask for a personal statement, statement of previous research, statement of proposed research, 3 or 4 reference letters, and academic transcripts. Instructions can be found here.

Because the focus of the Ford Foundation Fellowships is to promote diversity in academia, they are looking for applicants that have very high academic achievement, display interest and promise in following a career as a scholar and teacher, and display a capacity to serve the needs of a diverse student body. Although race and ethnicity does not determine eligibility, they do look favorably upon applicants from underrepresented groups in academia. They also look favorably upon applicants that engage with and will continue engaging with underrepresented communities and who will use diversity as an educational resource in teaching and research.

Marshall Scholarships

If you are a U.S. citizen and you would like to study in the United Kingdom, then a Marshall Scholarship might be for you. This prestigious award can be used for any field of study at any college or university in the U.K. as long as the program can be completed in two years (although it can be extended for a third year under some circumstances). Award amounts vary, but awardees get tuition, travel expenses, living expenses, and an arrival allowance. The interesting thing about this award that you must specify your first choice of where you would like to attend (even if you haven’t applied to it yet) and if you get the award, you must attend that program to get the award (they will try to ensure you get in). Their rules for this year can be found here.

The application is generally due in early October. It is online and they won’t give you the instructions until you open an account and start the on-line application.

All of these fellowships can be applied for in the same Fall in which your graduate applications are due. They are all highly competitive and require that you have good grades and test scores in addition to a spectacular application. But if you are one of the few that can secure your own funding for the start of your graduate program, your chances of getting into a program and specifically the program of your choice will increase dramatically.

Good luck!

Would you like to add a fellowship program to this list? Write it in the comment section below! And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.