3D animation for teaching ecology and evolution

July 29, 2010

The Plant Ecology and Evolution group at the University of Vigo in Spain has been making 3D animation videos about their research, which are free to download for teaching purposes.

Here’s a sample of their work, showing how lizards disperse seeds

A full list of their videos is available on their website.

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Finding a “real” job

July 22, 2010

The postdoc journal of today’s issue of Nature has Katherine Sixt lamenting about the lack of “real” jobs (ie tenure track, academic positions) for PhD graduates and postdocs, and how making the sideways shift into an alternative career can feel like a failure.  She cites these figures from the US:

According to the US National Science Board’s report Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, 56% more science and engineering doctorates were awarded by US institutions in 2007 than in 1993. The number of postdocs grew by 44% between 1993 and 2006. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions increased by only 10% in the same period, and the number of non-tenure-track academic positions increased by 51%.

In New Zealand the situation is even worse, as with the dumping of the FRST postdoc scheme there are only a tiny number of postdocs available, and for most PhD graduates the career bottleneck comes immediately after graduation (either that or they leave the country).

I can really relate to this article, being one of those postdocs searching for a “real” job and grappling with the idea of doing an alternative career, while trying not to feel like this would be some kind of failure.  But the reality is that, by the very nature of academia, there will always be more PhD graduates than postdocs, and more postdocs than permanent academic positions, and alternative careers like consultancy, writing, patent attorney etc should be held up right from the start as perfectly viable career options.  The thought of an alternative career doesn’t need to be a dirty little secret.

K. Sixt. Finding a ‘real’ job. Nature 466, 519 (21 July 2010) | 10.1038/nj7305-519b


Beating the creationists at their own game?

July 21, 2010

ResearchBlogging.org The presence of “gaps” in the fossil record is one of the main arguments creationists use against evolution. The transition from Coelurosaurian dinosaurs to birds is one such purported gap that creationists like to harp on about.  Evolutionary biologists would argue that Archeopteryx fills this gap quite nicely, but this is disputed by creationists, who argue that Archaeopteryx is a true bird and not a transitional form.

A recent study by Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, published in Journal of Evolutionary Biology, takes another look at the evolution of Coelurosauria but with a twist.  Senter takes on the creationists on their own terms, using a statistical method developed by creationists to visualise morphological gaps in the fossil record, to show that actually, there aren’t any morphological gaps in the fossil record between basal birds (including Archeopteryx) and a range of non-avian dinosaurs.  These findings will come as no great surprise to evolutionary biologists who have long accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and that Archaeopteryx has both bird-like and dinosaur-like features.   However, Senter’s rational for doing this study was that if you can demonstrate evolutionary relatedness between species under creationist’s criteria, then they will be obliged to accept the results.

Read the rest of this entry »


So now you know…

July 15, 2010

This from Stuff.co.nz:

British scientists believe they have cracked the answer to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Researchers have found that a protein called ovocleidin (OC-17) is crucial in the formulation of eggshells, and it is produced in the pregnant hen’s ovaries, the Daily Express reports.

Therefore, the answer to the conundrum must be that the chicken came first.

Using a high-tech computer to look at the molecular structure of a shell, the team of scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick found that OC-17 acts as a catalyst, kick-starting the conversion of calcium carbonate in the chicken’s body into calcite crystals.

They make up the hard shell that houses the yolk and its protective fluids while the chick develops.

“It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first,” said Dr Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University.

“The protein had been identified before and it was linked to egg formation but by examining it closely we have been able to see how it controls the process.”

But the researchers have not yet got an answer to how the protein-producing chicken existed in the first place.

I may have more to say about this later…  I don’t quite see how this is “proof” that the chicken came first.

Update:  Here’s PZ Myer’s take on this.  In a nutshell:

You simply can’t make the conclusion the reporter was making here. The species ancestral to Gallus gallus laid eggs, the last common ancestor of all birds laid eggs, the reptiles that preceded the birds laid eggs…the appearance of egg laying was not coincident with the evolution of ovocleidin. The first chicken that acquired the protein we call ovocleidin now by mutation of a prior protein also hatched from an egg.


Genomics tidbits

July 14, 2010

Its been a little quiet round these parts over the past month, as the daily juggle between motherhood, work and blogging usually ends in me dropping the blogging ball.  I do have a couple of posts in the works, but in the meantime here’s a few tidbits from the past week in the genomics world to keep ya’ll occupied…

A new group blog on personal genomics called Genomics Unzipped has hit the blogosphere.  According to their inaugural post, they aim to “provide you with independent analysis of advances in the field of genetics, with a particular focus on implications for the budding industry of personal genomics. We’ll also be discussing ways in which you can make the most of your own genetic data using online resources and techniques developed by researchers”.  Several established bloggers will be contributing to Genomics Unzipped, including Genetic Future‘s Daniel MacArthur, Genomics Law Report‘s Dan Vorhaus, Luke Jostins from Genetic Inference

The genome of Volvox carteria multicellular algae, was published in the latest issue of Science.  The genome is a step forward for US Department of Energy researchers investigating how photosynthetic organisms convert sunlight to energy for potential sources of biofuels.   The researchers compared the genome of V. carteri with that Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a unicellular algae used extensively for research on potential algal biofuel generation.  There were surprisingly few differences between the two genomes, suggesting that the evolution of multicellularity (there’s a mouthful) is not as complicated as once thought.

Another paper published in Science claiming to have identified genetic signatures of longevity appears to have a few major flaws.  Genetic future and Newsweek have more…


The taxonomic affinities of Big Bird

July 6, 2010

I’m not talking about any big bird, but THE Big Bird, the one who hangs out on Sesame Street. Mike Dickison, zoologist and information design specialist in Christchurch, gave this talk at a recent pecha-kucha event (a pecha-kucha is a talk in which 20 slides play for exactly 20 seconds each, and the speaker tries to keep up). Mike first gave this talk at a graduate student conference while in the early stages of his PhD on flightless birds. He says he had a revelation while poking around in the storage cabinets in the Berlin Museum of Natural History: “I had… an original scientific insight that I am happy now to share with the world. I realised what kind of bird Big Bird almost certainly is, and figured out something of its evolutionary history.”

I have to say, I’m pretty surprised about the conclusion.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The taxonomic affinities of Big Bird, posted with vodpod
Hat-tip to Carl Zimmer at the Loom