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The purpose of Science Storiented is to disseminate scientific knowledge in an educational and entertaining manner. As such, while reading through this blog you will encounter an eclectic mix of serious science, funny and/or educational science videos, the occasional infographic, and general geekology references that we scientists find poignantly true.

Melissa Chernick
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  • May 26, 2017
  • 12:34 PM

The Ugliness Penalty: Does It Literally Pay to Be Pretty?

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

There are economic studies that show that attractive people earn more money and, conversely, unattractive earn less money. I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard something along those lines before, but I had no idea they were called the “beauty premium” and the “ugliness penalty.” How wonderful and sad at the same time. But while these seem like pretty commonplace ideas, there is no real evidence as to why they exist. A new paper published in the Journal of Business and Psychology tested three of the leading explanations of the existence or the beauty premium and ugliness penalty: discrimination, self-election, and individual differences. To do this, the researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health. This is a nationally representative sample that includes measurements of physical attractiveness (5-point scale) at four time points to the age of 29. People were placed into 5 categories based on physical attractiveness, from very attractive to very unattractive. They statistically compared every combination they could think of and came up with many tables full of tiny numbers, as well as some interesting results.DiscriminationIt is what it sounds like: ugly people are discriminated against and paid less. And it isn’t just from employers, it can also be from co-workers, customers, or clients that prefer to work with or do business with pretty people. Or it could be a combination, like an employer that hires someone pretty because they know that others will respond to them better. Because there is a monotonically positive association between attractiveness and earnings (an overly academic way of saying that one is linked to the other), it can be tested.The results painted a somewhat different picture than you might expect. There was some evidence of a beauty premium in that pretty people earned more than average looking people. However, the researchers found that attractiveness and earnings were not at all monotonic. In fact, ugly people earned more than both average and attractive people, with “very unattractive” people winning out in most cases. So no ugliness penalty and no discrimination there. Good, we don’t like discrimination. Rather, the underlying productivity of workers as measured by their intelligence and education accounted for the associations observed. Basically, ugly people were smarter (and yes, IQ was a variable).Self-ElectionThis occurs in the absence of discrimination. A person self-sorts themselves into an attractiveness group based on how attractive they perceive themselves to be and may choose their occupation accordingly. If a pretty person chooses an occupation that has higher earnings (or vice versa), then there is a positive association between attractiveness and earnings both across and within occupations.Once again, the results were unexpected. The self-selection hypothesis was refuted. Ugly people earned more than pretty people. In fact, very unattractive people earned more than both regular unattractive and average looking people. This is where the researchers start calling this effect “the ugliness premium.” Good term. Individual DifferencesThis one posits that a pretty and ugly people are genuinely different. Try looking at it in the context of evolutionary biology. Physical attractiveness is based on facial symmetry, averageness, and secondary sexual characteristics, which all signal genetic and developmental health. Many traits can be quantified very accurately with today’s computers. There are standards of beauty both within a single culture and across all cultures. Studies have also shown that attractive children receive more positive feedback from interpersonal interactions, making them more likely to develop an extraverted personality. If health, intelligence, and personality, along with other measures of productivity, are statistically controlled then attractiveness should be able to be compared to earnings.Again, there was absolutely no evidence for either the beauty premium or the ugliness penalty. Rather, there was some support for the ugliness premium. Now keep in mind, this was not as much a this-higher-than-that, but more of a this-different-from-that type of hypothesis. So there actually is strong support that there are differences. There was a significantly positive effect of health and intelligence on earnings. Also, the “Big Five” personality factors – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (or OCEAN…cute) – were significantly correlated with physical attractiveness. Pretty people were more OCEA and less N. This may be why looks appear to have an effect on earnings.Overall, not what you thought it would be, huh? Me either. The importance of intelligence and education as it correlates with attractiveness would be an interesting next step. I wonder if it reflects the time at which these data were taken. We are seeing the Rise of the Nerds, where intelligence is outpacing beauty in terms of success. Had they analyzed data from another decade, would the ugliness penalty find support?Kanazawa, S., & Still, M. (2017). Is There Really a Beauty Premium or an Ugliness Penalty on Earnings? Journal of Business and Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10869-017-9489-6image via Linked4Success... Read more »

  • May 12, 2017
  • 11:43 AM

A Cuttlefish Clash: The Strongest, Stripeyist Guy Gets the Girl

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

I know what you’re thinking: “Why hasn’t she written about cuttlefish mating systems?” I understand, cuttlefish are ridiculously cool and you just need to know more about them. You are in luck as a brand new study has been published online about just that topic!Cuttlefish are cephalopods, which are all predatory marine animals that have at least eight arms, a siphon for jet-propulsion, and highly developed nervous and sensory systems (specifically the most sophisticated eye of all invertebrates). Those last characteristics make them highly intelligent, with complex learning behavior, to the point that many consider them to be “conscious.” Unlike other cephalopods, all of their hard parts (if any) are internal. That means all of their outside parts are soft, squishy and covered in color-changing skin. Their ability to change color is absolutely amazing, particularly in cuttlefish (just google ‘Flamboyant Cuttlefish’!). Located in their skin are tons of chromatophores (pigment filled bags) that expand or contract to reveal/hide their color. And it’s crazy-fast too. They can alter their appearance in as little as half a second! They use this color change for camouflage, courtship rituals, or just to show you how they feel about you interrupting them with your dive camera (a little personal experience with a mama octopus thrown in there).Cuttlefish are in the clade Coloidea that also includes squid and octopuses, and a sister group to the Nautilus. They look like squid but have stouter bodies and a fin fringe that runs around their body that they undulate to move. They have separate sexes and an often elaborate courtship ritual. Should a female find a male worthy, she accepts his spermatophore (sperm packet), which he transfers to her with a specially modified arm (hectocotylus). Then the females will use the contents of this packet to fertilize their eggs and lay them in clusters. Cuttlefish can be seasonal in their mating habits, with some species gathering in the hundreds to find their special someone. Where animals gather to mate, they also gather to strut their stuff. One of the ways they do this is through shear brawn. Basically, the strongest guy gets the girl. A study currently in press in The American Naturalist describes competition between male cuttlefish. Males compete vigorously for female mates. The researchers took a close look at the Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), a species “renowned for its visual capabilities, rapid adaptive camouflage, learning, and memory.” All those amazing qualities and yet oddly lacking in its ability to identify individual mates or rivals. Seriously, telling boy from girl is a challenge. This means that they must use a signal-response system to recognize each other. This system employs the use of intense zebra-stripe displays. Respond to a zebra with a zebra and you are male. If you don’t want to fight, darken your whole body (sign of alarm), ink and jet away. But extend your fourth arm, darken the skin around your eyes, and dilate your pupils and you know that shit is about to get real: inking, swiping, grappling, lunging, rolling, and biting. An all-out cuttlefish brawl.A lot of this information is known from lab studies of cuttlefish, but how do they act in their natural environment. To test this, the researchers went to the Aegean Sea near Çeşmealtı, Turkey and filmed a bunch of cuttlefish. They brought the footage back to the lab to analyze mate guarding and fighting behaviors, frequencies of a series of agnoistic behaviors in individual males, and aggressive behaviors (e.g., bar room brawl scenario). Since it all starts with the zebra stripes, they also compared the intensity between males. They found a generalized sequence of events that correlated to the amount of aggression. For example, just a dark ring around the eye is low-level aggression, adding a dilated pupil ramps it up to medium-level aggression, intensifying the zebra pattern and arching and tilting the body ramps it up even more. The more medium- to high-level aggressive behaviors the more likely the male was to win. The researchers summarize it this way: “weak zebra banding, fourth arm extension, dark eye ring > dark eye ring with dilated pupil, dark face, strong zebra banding, inking > intense zebra display > swiping, grappling > biting, rolling.” This makes sense if you think about it. Fighting may result in injury and injury is costly, sometimes fatal. So you need to make sure you can win. The series of stages allow each male to assess both themselves and their opponent to see if an actual brawl is worth it.Now, take what you’ve just learned and apply it to this video. It shows exactly the type of bout the authors describe. You may need to watch it twice, once to read the descriptions of what is going on and another to watch for the subtle differences described above. Can you see the color and eye changes? Just imagine what we will find out as camera systems get faster. Considering the extremely fast rate at which cuttlefish are able to change their colors, it is very likely that we are missing a lot of the more subtle details in communications between males (and probably with females too). We’ll have to revisit this subject in the future.Allen, J., Akkaynak, D., Schnell, A., & Hanlon, R. (2017). Dramatic Fighting by Male Cuttlefish for a Female Mate The American Naturalist DOI: 10.1086/692009Learn more about Cephalopods at the University of California Berkeley’s Museum of Palentology and the Monterey Bay AquariumImage from the Monterey Bay Aquarium... Read more »

Allen, J., Akkaynak, D., Schnell, A., & Hanlon, R. (2017) Dramatic Fighting by Male Cuttlefish for a Female Mate. The American Naturalist. DOI: 10.1086/692009  

  • May 3, 2017
  • 06:30 PM

Gimme Your Lunch Money!: Feeding Behaviors in Hummingbirds

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Ubatuba, São Paulo, Brazil; 9 October 2014 © Almir Cândido de AlmeidaI just put out my hummingbird feeder this season. It didn’t take those little guys long to find it either. Now I’ve got their cute little bodies whizzing about all over the place. They need Yackety Sax to play as their soundtrack. But it got me to thinking about hummingbirds and to looking through recent papers for a good study. I came across one in Zoologia about the feeding behavior of hummingbirds in artificial food patches. Perfect.First, a little background on hummingbirds. They belong to the family Trochilidae and are closely related to swifts. Males are typically more colorful that females, having highly reflective feathers on their chest and heads. Perhaps these birds are best known for their unique flying. They are able to produce power with both the down- and up-beat of their wing flap, getting 75 percent of their lift from their wings’ downstroke and the remaining 25 percent from the upstroke. This allows for both increased agility and sustained hovering ability. They are the only birds that truly hover and fly backwards. They also move those wings really fast: 60 times per second! So it is little wonder that they have among the highest metabolic rate among vertebrate animals.Hummingbirds are specialized and consume predominately nectar. To collect enough nectar to maintain that high metabolism, they forage many flowers each day. But not all flowers are created equally. Their sugar concentration can vary between 20-25 percent. In order to get the most sugar-bang for their hover-buck, hummingbirds must select and protect the richest food patches in their area. Three behavioral strategies have been observed for foraging:1) Dominance/territoriality – a bird will defend its flowers2) Intruder/subordinance – a bird sneaks into other patches until it is kicked out3) Trapline foraging – repeatedly visiting a set of plants in different patches without being territorial.Often, a bird will perch near a good food source and let others know that it is theirs. But defending a territory can be up to three times more energetically expensive, so those flowers need to be really good.The researchers conducted their study in Itacolomi State Park in the city of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, southwestern Brazil, in the Atlantic forest remnant. They created four artificial food patches, each patch containing a single sugar-water solution concentration of 5, 15, 25, or 35 percent. They observed the birds (using binoculars) for 3 hour stretches in the early mornings and late afternoon, recording all behaviors during that time. They looked at the time spent in each food patch and the behaviors of the birds (feeding, alert, vocalizing, expelling, fighting, frightening, expel attempt) in each patch. In this way, they could identify the birds’ strategies.They found that the most-visited feeders were those containing the highest concentration of sugar. Five of the seven species observed fed more on the 25-35 percent sucrose feeders. But there was a difference in the frequency of visitations for different species. The Brazilian ruby (Clytolaema rubricauda, pictured above), Scale-throated hermit (Phaethornis eurynome), and Phaethornis spp. visited the 35 percent feeder more often. And the Brazilian ruby won most of the aggressive encounters with other hummingbirds, both total and in individual patches. This species often stood alert and fought more often, and even “stood impassive” when faced down by the Violet-capped woodnymph (Thalurania glaucopis). I wonder if they looked down their long little beaks at the other birds with a f*ck off attitude? What a badass...hmm, or a bully. The Violet-capped woodnymph visited the 25 percent patch more often, the White-throated hummingbird (Leucochloris albicollis) and Versicoloured emerald (Amazilia versicolor) visited the 15 percent patch more often, and the Glittering-bellied emerald (Chlorostilbon lucidus) was the one that less frequently visited the food patches. Interestingly, the Phaetornithinae applied a hide-and-wait strategy, where they would be chased away by the territorial bird only to hide in the shrubs, remain quiet, and return to the feeder after the dominant bird left the area. Sneaky sneaky. The time spent feeding was found to be correlated with aggressive behaviors and also with body size. Big birds, big appetites, big aggression. The subordinate species chose resources depending on the presence or absence of the dominant species, preferring patches that were not guarded. This may be why they were seen in lower concentration sugar patches more often. Those itty bitty birds can pack some serious aggression. I guess it isn’t really surprising after seeing all of the chasing that goes on around my feeder. Yackety Sax remains appropriate.Lanna, L., de Azevedo, C., Claudino, R., Oliveira, R., & Antonini, Y. (2017). Feeding behavior by hummingbirds (Aves: Trochilidae) in artificial food patches in an Atlantic Forest remnant in southeastern Brazil Zoologia, 34, 1-9 DOI: 10.3897/zoologia.34.e13228If you would like to put out your own hummingbird feeder, I recommend this kind because it is simple, inexpensive and does a great job.The important part is the big red flowers with yellow centers. Hummingbirds really hone in on those color ques. Do NOT use honey in your feeder! And forget the red dye, if your feeder has red color on it then that is plenty to attract the hummingbirds.Here is a nice and simple recipe to make your own hummingbird food:¼ cup granulated sugar2 cups waterMix the ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Boil for a few minutes or until all of the sugar is dissolved. Let cool to room temperature. Whatever doesn’t fit in the feeder can be stored in the refrigerator. Increase the recipe as needed, it's a 1:4 ratio of sugar:waterChange the solution in the feeder every 3 days, sooner if it is really hot outside. Make sure to rinse the feeder each time it is refilled. Scrub away any growths (fungi, etc.) as needed. Brazilian Ruby picture via The Cornell Lab of OrnithologyFeeder image via World of Hummingbirds... Read more »

  • April 12, 2017
  • 11:59 AM

Flyfocals: Vision and Vectors Help Hunting Robber Flies

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Image credit: Thomas ShahanRobber flies (Asilidae family) are not your typical house flies. They are small, predatory insects that feed on a vast array of other arthropods. While they are small in size (10 times smaller than a dragonfly), these guys are serious hunters. For example, Mallophora omboides is known as the “Florida bee killer” for its taste for honey bees. Other robber flies hunt down wasps, dragonflies, spiders, or grasshoppers, just to name a few. Perhaps almost as impressive as the types of prey is how they are subdued. Typically, robber flies will perch out in an open sunny place and wait, seizing their prey in flight and injecting it with neurotoxic or proteolytic enzymes that both immobilizes it and liquefies its insides.A recent study in Current Biology took a closer look at the robber fly’s “aerial attack strategy.” The authors focused on the genus Holcocephala, a group native to the Americas. Let’s start by going over something you know about but probably never realized had an actual term: constant bearing angle (CBA) strategy. Initially, I tried to describe this just using text, but it is really best visualized with the help of a supplemental graphic from the paper.Figure S1 from Wardill et al. (2017). Diagram showing how the constant bearing angle strategy (CBA) and proportional navigation can be used to intercept targets. It looks like an eye, but you are actually looking down on the "Human" and seeing the top of the head (black) and shoulders (white). Visualize this: You are walking along and ahead of you a ball is rolling along the ground from your left. But you decide that you want to get to the ball before it would intercept your path. If you want to catch the ball you can’t run straight for where you see it or it will have rolled past that spot before you get there. If you want to intercept that ball while it is still on your left, you will technically have to turn to backward, changing your “bearing angle.” You must anticipate where it will be and run in a straight line to that spot. This line is a “parallel range vector.” There are several of these vectors, depending on when you choose to change course.The study considered whether the flies were using this CBA strategy to catch their prey. To do this, the researchers went out to a field and hung up a big white sheet as a backdrop for their high-speed video cameras. Next, they set up their “fly teaser,” a custom made plastic frame that housed a stepper motor and several pulleys to move taut fishing line. This allowed for precise, computer controlled movements of the beads they attached to the fishing line. When a robber fly perched on a blade of grass in their study area, they “teased” it with a bead (a.k.a. dummy prey item for the fly). They included several variations including bead size and direction. They recorded the fly with two synchronized cameras running at 1000 fps to get a 3D view of the attack. For each attack video, they analyzed the frame at which the flies started to take off and until it began a terminal deceleration on final approach of the target. Then: measure, measure, measure, math, math, math.They found that the flies were fairly consistent with the CBA model. If they decelerated or reversed the bead during the attack, the robber flies compensated, actively keeping the range vectors parallel. One unexpected finding occurred in cases where the bead moved in front of the fly and it took off with a head-on collision course. They found that the fly still intercepted the bead while flying at a backward angle, meaning that the latter part of its trajectory was distinctly curved. When they took a closer look, the found the results to reflect a “lock-on” process “during which the fly has a new heading and the speed is fixed to a value slightly higher than that of the prey.” This lock-on strategy has not been described in any other flying animal. The flies were able to compensate for unexpected changes in the target’s velocity and uncertainties in the location, size, and speed of the target.Adapted from paper's graphical abstractThis type of hunting relies very heavily on vision. So each robber fly was captured for later, high detailed analysis of the head and eyes. It is important to remember that insects have compound eyes. Repeating units (the ommatidia, which have hexagonal faces called facets) that make up the eyes function as separate receptors that, when put together, assemble view of the environment. The researchers measured several parts and angles within the eyes, and once again math, math, math. This revealed the ommatidia in the front, center portion of each eye (colored red in the picture) to be nearly double the size of those in other areas, have extended focal lengths and smaller receptors. This means that the flies can reduce diffraction, focus incident light, and optimize resolution in this area. This results in a frontal fovea, or area within the eye that provides greater visual acuity than the rest of the eye. Sort of like the embedded lens of bifocal glasses; while that is an incredibly simplified way to look at it, it tells you a lot about how the flies might strategize prey capture. Also, they could be judging distance using stereopsis. This is when they use both eyes in combination to depth and 3D structure. The authors sum things up nicely, so I'll leave it in their words: "[It is kind of amazing the] accurate performance that a miniature brain can achieve in highly demanding sensorimotor tasks."Interested in more details? Here’s a video summary put together by the researchers: ... Read more »

Wardill, T., Fabian, S., Pettigrew, A., Stavenga, D., Nordström, K., & Gonzalez-Bellido, P. (2017) A Novel Interception Strategy in a Miniature Robber Fly with Extreme Visual Acuity. Current Biology, 27(6), 854-859. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.01.050  

  • February 24, 2017
  • 07:18 PM

Symbiote Separation: Coral Bleaching and Climate Change

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

It’s been a while since I’ve broken down some studies for you, so I took on a big one.I’m sure you’ve heard of coral bleaching. What is it? Why does it happen? Why does it matter? To start off, you need to know a little bit more about the individuals that make up a head (fan, whip, etc.): the polyp. Coral polyps look like tiny plants but are actually tiny animals (less than ½ an inch in diameter). They produce calcium carbonate to create a protective shell or skeleton that, when thousands are living together, make up what you see as a single coral head. Really, only the outer-most layer of a coral head is actually alive (yes, they build their houses on top of the skeletons of their ancestors). Lots of individual corals make up a reef. Polyps have stinging cells (nematocysts) on their tentacles that capture any prey that swims a little too close. But a polyp does not live alone inside of its skeleton-house; it is actually in a symbiotic relationship with dinoflagellates (a.k.a. marine algae) called zooxanthellae (zo-o-zan-THELL-ee). Zooxanthellae live inside the tissues of the coral and photosynthesize, passing some of the energy they make to the polyp. They get a place to live and the polyp gets some energy, it’s a win-win. And, it is the zooxanthellae that give the corals much of their color.When the coral gets stressed, it expels the zooxanthellae, causing them to turn completely white. Not dead, but very stressed and more likely to die. This is coral bleaching.All sorts of things can stress a coral and cause them to eject their zooxanthellae: temperature, light, tides, salinity, or nutrients. A polyp as cemented itself in its skeleton-house so it isn’t able to relocate when conditions change. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystmes on the planet, definitely in the oceans. Coral is serves as both food and/or shelter for many other species, up to ¼ of all ocean species. And their location means they protect shorelines too. That is a lot of responsibility.Now let’s look at those stressors. Remember middle school chemistry? Yeah, me neither. Here’s a little refresher: water reacts with carbon dioxide to make carbonic acid (H2O + CO2 = H2CO3). Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (yes, we’re talking climate change here) both increases surface water temperature and water more acidic. That’s two stressors, y’all. And more than 30 percent of human emitted CO2 gets taken up by the oceans. A paper published by Anthony et al. (2008) in PNAS did a nice experiment looking at what happens to coral when the ocean acidifies and/or warms. They collected three of the most important “framework builders” in Heron Reef in the Indo-Pacific and transferred them to lab aquaria: Porolithon onkodes (common crustose coralline algae [CCA] species), Acropora intermedia (a fast growing, branching species), and Porites lobata (a massive species). Next, they used a custom-built CO2 dosing (bubbling) and temperature control system to test different acidification and temperature regimes that simulate doubling and 3- to 4-fold CO2 level increases as projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Then, they waited, they watched, and they took pictures for 8 weeks. From these digital images, they measured the amount of color and reduction in luminance of the corals. They also measured net rates of photosynthesis, respiration, and rates of calcification. They found that increased CO2 (i.e., acidification) led to 40-50 percent bleaching in the Porolithon and A. intermedia. For both of these species, the effect of increased CO2 on bleaching was stronger than the effect of temperature. Porites was less sensitive to increased CO2 alone, but was most sensitive in both stressors. High temperature amplified the bleaching by 10-20 percent in Porolithon and Acropora and 50 percent in Porites. In Porolithon, increased CO2 lead to a severe decline in productivity and calcification that was exacerbated by warming. Acropora’s productivity actually maximized with intermediate increases in CO2, but dropped at higher levels. Porites's productivity dropped with high CO2 but not like that of the Acropora. These species had similar calcification responses to each other, each much less than Porolithon. Overall, the authors proposed that CO2 induces bleaching through its impact on photoprotective mechanisms. Porolithon was the most sensitive to acidification, which is concerning because it is a primary reef-builder and serves as a settlement cue for invertebrate larvae (including other corals).A very recent study by Perry and Morgan (2017) in Scientific Reports zoomed out to look at corals at a large scale. They looked at magnitude of changes that followed the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO)-induced Sea Surface Temperature (SST) warming anomaly that affected the central Indian Ocean region in mid-2016, sort of a natural experiment. The ENOS-induced SST warming was above the NOAA “bleaching threshold,” defined as the point where SST is 1°C warmer than the highest monthly mean temperature. To do this they went to reefs in the southern Maldivian atoll of Gaafu Dhaalu, ran transects (basically, a line along which you measure stuff), and collected data on coral mortality, substrate composition, reef rugosity (a measure of complexity), and gross carbonate production and erosion. Then they determined carbonate budgets for the 3-dimensional surface of the reefs (there are equations…I won’t go into it…you’re welcome). They found extensive coral mortality over 70 percent. This was mostly driven by branching and tabular Acropora species (remember them from the last study?), which declined by an average of 91 percent! All of this coral death resulted in a decline in the net carbonate budgets. This decline reflected both reduced coral carbonate production and increased erosion by parrotfish as they graze on the algal film that grows on coral rock. Pre-coral bleaching, carbonate production was dominated by branching, corymbose and tabular species of Acropora; post-bleaching production by non-Acropora increased, with massive and sub-massive taxa (e.g., Porites species) more than doubling. Together, carbonate budgets were reduced by an average of 157 percent! All of this equates to a rapid loss in coral cover, growth potential, and structural complexity. The overall impact of the carbonate budget was profound and has major ecological implications. These habitats have gone from a state of strong growth potential to one of net framework erosion and breakdown; basically, the reefs are eroding faster than they are growing. And it may take 10-15 years for a full recovery, depending on the frequency of similar anomalies.So what’s the take-away from all of this? Corals are sensitive to their environment, but not all species of corals respond equally. Climate change is a huge factor in health and recovery of coral reefs, and steps need to be taken soon if we want to keep these little guys and the phenomenal habitats that they create. Here are the studies:... Read more »

  • February 13, 2016
  • 04:54 PM

Where Are My Chocolates?: The Role of Gift Giving on Valentine's Day

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

I think that the day after Valentine’s Day is actually the best. After all, chocolate is 50 percent off. However, using the holiday as an excuse to delve into the myriad of studies that attempt to explain the complexity of human attraction and relationships is pretty fun. Last year I examined moves, specifically some fly dance moves and rather cheesy pick-up lines. Today, I think I’ll explore gift giving.In the field of animal behavior, gift giving (or nuptial gifts) is practically its own subdiscipline, particularly in insects. These gifts are typically food items (but sometimes are inedible tokens) presented from the male to the female during courtship. They may be to show the female that he is worth her time, show how healthy the he is, how good a provider he can be, or simply to keep her distracted from eating him during the actual mating (except in those cases of specialized body parts or “suicidal food transfers”…now that is the ultimate sacrifice for your bae!). The gift giving behavior, especially if it involves an extreme sacrifice on the part of the male, can only arise if the giver has some net fitness benefit. He must be able to increase his paternity share (particularly in polyandrous mating systems) and/or boost the female’s fecundity, thereby increasing the number of offspring.Humans are not insects. Obviously. But gift giving, and many of its underlying behavioral mechanisms, is still very important to our mating system. I’ve already mentioned chocolate that, while offering little nutritive value, sure does make us ladies happy. As you know, these are not the only gifts given on Valentine’s Day. An interesting paper by Rugimbana et al., published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior in 2003, examines the role of gift giving on Valentine’s Day. The authors point out right up front that if you think about this “holiday,” you might notice that it is rather small in scale compared to the high rollers (i.e., Christmas). However, it is unique in that it has become almost ritualistic in its symbolic gift giving. So much so that it has become over-commercialized and now causes increased anxiety and pressure to those who involve themselves in it. The study looks at the role of social power exchanges as the basis for gift giving on Valentine’s Day, specifically in young men. To assess this, they interviewed male participants aged 18-25, asking about their attitudes towards Valentine’s Day, perceptions of female expectations and various types of gifts, and the appropriateness of various types of gifts to the length of a relationship.This study found that for young men “the overwhelming motive for [giving] gifts on Valentine’s Day was obligation.” The men thought that gift giving was necessary when in a relationship simply because their significant other was expecting it. How romantic. This obligatory gift giving was thought essential early on in a relationship, especially if they wanted to avoid a conflict. The phrases “all hell would break loose” and “I hope…I’d still have a girlfriend” were used. However, only 25 percent of men replied that they expected something in return for the Valentine’s Day present. That sounds a bit harsh. But not so fast. When the researchers broke things down by their altruistic value, or lack of, some interesting patterns emerged. For example, when men were asked “if you were to buy lingerie for your partner, would it be for you, or for her?,” 90 percent said that it would be for themselves. Shocker on that one, I know. That isn’t to say that altruistic answers weren’t given (e.g., “you don’t need a day to say I love you”), just that it is difficult to separate from self-interest (e.g., “if you do it right, you’ll be glad”).The authors were able to boil Valentine’s Day gift giving down to three motives: 1) obligation, 2) self-interest, and 3) altruism. Importantly, these motives existed in combination and a “social power exchange” was present. In other words, giving rewards the giver. All of this sounds rather callous and almost Machiavellian. Ladies, we sound rather demanding…I mean, “all hell will break loose” over one day and one gift? Wow. And guys, while turning an obligation into a reward is rather cunning and evolutionarily arguable, it is also sort of cliché at this point. Perhaps both sexes should consider the gift giving rules of other holidays like Christmas. Just a thought.Rugimbana, R., Donahay, B., Neal, C., & Polonsky, M. (2003). The role of social power relations in gift giving on Valentine's Day Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3 (1), 63-73 DOI: 10.1002/cb.122(image via Valentines Day Pictures)... Read more »

Rugimbana, R., Donahay, B., Neal, C., & Polonsky, M. (2003) The role of social power relations in gift giving on Valentine's Day. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3(1), 63-73. DOI: 10.1002/cb.122  

  • November 26, 2015
  • 04:00 PM

Thanksgiving Eating: Is There Short Term Holiday Weight Gain?

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

For some Thanksgiving blogging I started out by typing the keywords “family” and “Thanksgiving” into Web of Science. Weirdly, I got a lot of articles in Korean, one on birth rates in the Old Order Amish, and one on whole body donation in Australia. Okaaay, new search term time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I crossed paths with nutrition research and ended up with a multitude of articles about weight gain. I mean, let’s face it, ‘tis the season for spending money and eating, which are not mutually exclusive.A short paper published by Hull et al. in 2006 in the Nutrition Journal looked at weight changes over the Thanksgiving holiday in college students. If you are a researcher, college students are a convienient demographic to study. There are many of them, they are close, and you can incentivize them with free food. That being said, this age range (18-29) also has the fastest rising obesity rates, attributed to lower energy expenditure that result in gradual yearly weight gain. In the past, wrote about a study that addresses the myth of the Freshman 15, a study that also concludes that gradual weight gain is to blame. However, this is all annual time scales. The Hull study addresses more discrete periods of weight gain within the year. The holidays are one of those fat-inducing times of year, postulated to be the result of increased stress and caloric intake combined with decreased activity. Did I mention that I’m sitting on a couch, watching football, and blogging? Check that box, science.The researchers recruited a bunch of college students to visit their “human body composition laboratory” prior to the Thanksgiving holiday break and asked them to return 5-7 days after the break. During each visit, demographics, body weight and measurements, and body mass index (BMI) were collected. They found a significant increase in body weight between the two visits, about 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg). This was true for the group as a whole but also when broken down by gender. However, when broken down by class standing, graduate students gained and undergrads did not. When categorized by BMI, those that were already overweight/obese (over 25 kg m-1) are the ones that increased in weight rather than those classified as normal BMI (less than 25 kg m-1). Additionally, in females, there was a correlation between baseline BMI and weight change. Oddly (at least to me), was their finding of decreases in waist circumference and waist/hip ratio – not something they really take the time to explain.Frankly, the authors don't spend much time interpreting their own results, just listing a bunch of other studies without really relating it back to their own. But let's think about it. I mean, we’re only talking 1 pound here. Sure, that seems rather trivial, but remember to factor in time. This study followed people for a relatively short time period (5-17 days) and still saw significant change. Expand your timeline and you add evidence to the gradual weight gain argument. This study showed that this is a risky time of year, particularly for those groups already prone to overeating. The authors do conclude that their findings have important practical implications for effective intervention strategies, especially in those higher risk groups (although their use of “associated co-morbidities” seems a bit, well, morbid).Soooo…..I think I’m going to go eat some turkey and mashed potatoes and green bean casserole and cranberry sauce and…. Happy Thanksgiving!Hull HR, Hester CN, & Fields DA (2006). The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutrition & metabolism, 3 PMID: 17192197(image via Tshirt Pusher)... Read more »

  • October 8, 2015
  • 12:38 PM

Who Are You Wearing?: Does Competition Affect How Women View Luxury?

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

What do you think of when I say “luxury consumption”? Probably something that requires a Robin Leach voice over, right? Now what if I ask you why these luxuries are so valued? Is it because they are of excellent quality? Aesthetically appealing? Highly exclusive? Next, consider the audience for the luxury – who is admiring who? And what does that luxury symbolize? Status? Wealth? Success?A recent paper in Evolutionary Psychology takes a look at these questions and has one of the best titles ever. To date, much of the research on luxury consumption has focused on why men spend so much money on brands that “offer no additional utilitarian benefits compared to their cheaper counterparts.” I found that rather odd as I tend to think of women when I think of luxury shopping. Perhaps because I am one. For example, did you know that an Hermès Birkin bag can go for over $200,000? Yes, that is an extreme example, but think about how many women you see every day that carry Coach bags, wear designer brand clothes, and/or own at least one pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Put that way, perhaps it is unsurprising to know that women spend huge sums of money on “conspicuous luxuries,” an average of $100 billion each year. This study looked at the psychology of women in relation to symbolism of these luxuries by breaking it down into two experiments.Experiment 1 – Does competition trigger women’s luxury consumption and preferences?A group of 195 women, under the age of 50 and of various incomes and education levels, completed an online survey. A 2 (context) by 2 (luxuries) by 2 (product type) factorial design used to test fictional scenarios.In the context of competition:Competitive Scenario: Women were asked to rate four pictures of attractive women. Then they were asked to read a scenario with those pictures in mind. For example:Imagine that you are at a class reunion and you meet an attractive, smart, funny, intelligent man with an engaging personality. However, the woman in the picture also shows an interest in this man and she has struck up a conversation with him while you were gone to get a drink.Noncompetitive Scenario: Women were asked to rate four pictures of landscapes for attractiveness. Then they read a scenario such as:Imagine that you are walking through the most beautiful landscape and you enjoy the environment, weather and views.The luxuries and types:Women were asked to read a description of a luxury product that enhances physical attractiveness (like a dress) or a neutral product that does not (like a smartphone). Then the luxuriousness of the product was manipulated by using various adjectives. For example:“Imagine you see a little black dress in a store. It is a very expensive but beautiful dress. The dress is a unique piece of an exclusive clothing line. It has an excellent quality and is only available in a luxurious clothing store. When wearing this dress you will feel luxurious.”When asked to read the scenario, they were asked to imagine the items in a fashion store and rate how much they liked the item.They found that women in the competitive context felt more competitive, and women in the luxury condition found products to be more luxurious. Okay, yeah, I would pretty much expect that. But more specifically, they found interaction: women who perceived the luxury smartphone as more luxurious and expensive in the competitive context. It was context that ended up playing the dominant role in female-female competition, particularly with luxury items that enhance physical attractiveness (like the dress). I definitely believe that one.Experiment 2 – What do luxury goods signal to rival females?An online survey was also used for this experiment. A 9 (product) by 2 (product type) between-subjects design was used. First, women read a scenario where a woman leaves for a trip and upon arrival realizes she forgot a product. So she goes on a shopping trip and purchases Product X for Price Y. In the luxury condition a dress or watch would be purchased for 300 Euro (did I mention this was conducted in Belgium?). In the non-luxury condition, an alarm clock or night cream would be purchased for 15 Euro. Next, respondents were asked to assess the woman on various traits (attractive, sexy, loyal, smart, mature, ambitious, wealthy, etc.) and mate value (agreeableness, sexual willingness, ambition, status, etc.). They were also asked if they would consider this woman to be a friend, if she spent a lot of money on that product, and if they would spend similar amounts of money.The respondents in the luxury condition agreed that the woman spent a lot of money on the product, and that they would spend less money on it. This luxury-loving woman was also perceived to be more attractive, sexier, flirtier, youthful, ambitious, and richer but less loyal, mature, and smart. She was also less likely to be a potential friend. However, there no differences between the mate value perceptions and the degree to which the woman was considered to be a rival. There were also some interaction terms here. For example, the woman was perceived to be more youthful in the luxury condition when she purchased the attractiveness enhancing product.So what do we take away from all of this? Perhaps we just like the self-promotion. Or maybe we just feel more attractive wearing a luxury dress. Yeah, sure, maybe. But these results really show that we like to look luxurious to up our attractiveness to beat another woman. Frankly, ladies, we sound like judgmental bitches. Hudders, L., De Backer, C., Fisher, M., & Vyncke, P. (2014). The Rival Wears Prada: Luxury Consumption as a Female Competition Strategy Evolutionary Psychology, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1177/147470491401200306... Read more »

  • August 28, 2015
  • 02:28 PM

Swarming Squid Sperm: A Strategy in Sneakiness

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Sneaky swarming squid sperm. Yeah, let’s talk about that. ‘Cause you hear that and you gotta know, right? But before all the sperm and the swarming is the amorous squid. Let’s start there.As you may expect, squid have both a male and a female. Male squid produce spermatophores, packets of sperm that they can transfer to the females. Female squid carry around these sperm packets until they are ready to spawn. That can be quite some time in some species. When they are ready, they will use the stored sperm to fertilize and then release hundreds or thousands of eggs into the water as jelly-like strands. That’s about what we know about squid reproduction, the rest is relatively mysterious.A newish study in Current Biology sheds some light on the mysterious nature of squid sperm. The study organism is Loligo bleekeri, one of the more common of the pencil squids (Loliginidae) in Japan and southern Korea. It is moderately large (40 cm) with very short arms. It is a polyandrous species, meaning that males only mate with one female, but females mate with many males. It is a good mating system for researchers interested in mate choice and sperm competition (oh yeah, there’s a whole subdiscipline of the science of sperm competition – rethinking your job now aren’t you?). These have been shown to drive sperm evolution (yes, that’s a thing) and morphology to optimize fertilization success. Because in this game, it’s all about how many babies you have.One of the things that makes this squid species particularly interesting is the dimorphism among males. Large “consort” males do all the work. They compete with other males, court females with colorful body displays, and guard the female until she spawns his offspring. Smaller “sneaker” males are just that: sneaky. They rush in under the nose (or beak, as it were) of the consort male, attach their spermatophore and book it on outta there. The dimorphism in males is reflected in their mating as well as their size. Consort males place their spermatophores inside the female’s oviduct, while the sneaker males just stick it onto the external body surface near to the seminal receptacle near the mouth. It isn’t as close to the eggs, but it must be a successful otherwise why do it? What is it that makes this stick-and-ditch strategy so successful?To find out, the researchers dissected consort and sneaker males to recover their spermatophores. Then sperm were released into test tubes, diluted and tagged with fluorescent labels (each type with a different label). They observed that when the sperm suspension was drawn into a capillary tube the sneaker, but not the consort, sperm aggregated (or “swarmed”) to form a regularly striped pattern along the tube. And, when sneaker and consort sperm were mixed, still only the sneaker sperm swarmed. The sperm weren’t slowing down or sticking together, so what was causing the swarming? It’s not like the sperm are problem solving. So the next thought was: Maybe it’s a chemical response. So a filter assay was designed where two chambers were separated by a filter so fine that only small molecules could get though. A sperm suspension was put into the lower chamber and then each type of sperm added to the top to see where it swam. Again, only sneaker sperm migrated toward the filter. Okay, so it must be some kind of chemical attractant, but what and how?Again, labeled sperm suspensions were put into capillary tubes. Then bubbles of different gases were microinjected into the solution. This assay revealed that carbon dioxide (CO2) attracted sneaker, but not consort, sperm. This CO2 is likely generated by the sperm via the carbonate system. Not exactly a super-simple system. To tease apart the mechanism, they developed caged carbonate (you’re thinking Han Solo…me too, but not quite the same) to sculpture gradients of bicarbonate (a basic solution, pH-wise). This system allowed them to determine that swarming depends on acidic (CO2 and/or H+) gradients but not on a biocarbonate gradient. Next, they found that carbonic anhydrases (CAs) are involved in swarming as CO2 sensors in cells. But let’s go back to the acid thing (as both CO2 and H+ increase acidity). The researchers used a pH-sensitive dye to look at the acid gradient during swarming. They observed that the middle of the swarm acidified first, producing a H+ gradient outwards. When they added a buffer, the swarming disappeared. When they put a pipette of acid (H+) into the suspension, both sneaker and consort sperm moved toward it. But remember that only CO2 attracted the sneaker sperm. Additionally, the pH at which these types of sperm responded was different. They found that only sneaker sperm lowered their intracellular pH with environmental pH. This means that only sneaker sperm have a H+ transport system that allows for the CO2 attraction. And finally, they showed that calcium (Ca2+) influx controls cause the sperm to turn around when they reach the end (weak part) of the gradient.Whew! That’s a lot of compact information! So let’s put it together in a whole-organism, what-the-heck-is-going-on kind of way. Why does it matter that sneaker sperm like CO2? Remember back to the placement of the spermatophores by each of the males. When the female releases her eggs, the consort male’s sperm has first access because it is in the oviduct. They fertilize a lot of eggs but not all. Then the female holds her eggs in her arms while she swims to a good substrate to release them. Squid arms and mouth are not all that far away from each other. This is when the sneaker male sperm goes to work. The swarming allows the sperm to stay close to the site of egg deposition and may be sensing CO2 released from the eggs; both increase the chances of fertilization. And, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.Hirohashi, N., Alvarez, L., Shiba, K., Fujiwara, E., Iwata, Y., Mohri, T., Inaba, K., Chiba, K., Ochi, H., Supuran, C., Kotzur, N., Kakiuchi, Y., Kaupp, U., & Baba, S. (2013). Sperm from Sneaker Male Squids Exhibit Chemotactic Swarming to CO2 Current Biology, 23 (9), 775-781 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.040And for a little more info, here's an earlier study on the same topic:Iwata, Y., Shaw, P., Fujiwara, E., Shiba, K., Kakiuchi, Y., & Hirohashi, N. (2011). Why small males have big sperm: dimorphic squid sperm linked to alternative mating behaviours BMC Evolutionary Biology, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-236(image via -- Note that this species is Loligo vulgaris, the European squid. It is weirdly difficult to find images of L.... Read more »

Hirohashi, N., Alvarez, L., Shiba, K., Fujiwara, E., Iwata, Y., Mohri, T., Inaba, K., Chiba, K., Ochi, H., Supuran, C.... (2013) Sperm from Sneaker Male Squids Exhibit Chemotactic Swarming to CO2. Current Biology, 23(9), 775-781. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.040  

  • August 20, 2015
  • 03:09 PM

Falling with Style: Controlled Gliding in Spiders

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Sometimes I read a paper because the methods catch my eye. I can just imagine some scientists sitting around a table with a beer and saying, “I wonder what would happen if we just dropped a bunch of spiders from the tops of trees.” An article published online yesterday did just that.Barro Colorado Island is a man-made island is located in Gatun Lake, created by filling of the Panama Canal. It is covered in tropical rainforests, and its inhabitants have been studied extensively. It would be a mistake to look at a forest as only ground habitat. The canopy supports a tremendous abundance of life, particularly arthropods. These critters are particularly tasty to predators and must find a way to escape within their decidedly hazardous habitat that is located over 90 feet (30 meters) off the ground. Falling is a bit of a risk. But what if you do fall? You could land in the understory or on the ground which, if it doesn’t kill you, is both unfamiliar and full of predators. To avoid this potentially lethal scenario, many wingless arthropods have developed the ability to orient their bodies (via visual cues, appendages, and other structures) such that they are more likely to fall towards tree trunks. The genus Selenops is a large and common group of nocturnal spiders. They are easy to find and collect, often hiding under bark or in crevices. The researchers went out into the forests and collected a bunch of these spiders. The spiders were then weighed and photographed. The images were then analyzed for the horizontally projected areas of different segments and appendages. Then these data were put together to give “effective wing loading.” Here’s where we get to the fun part. The spiders were put into individual plastic cups and taken up into the canopy. The cups were held at a known distance from a tree trunk, inverted and tapped to release the spider. Geronimo! These drop tests were filmed at 60 frames per second so that glide index (ratio of horizontal distance from the tree trunk to the total distance traveled) could be calculated. The videos also allowed for the measurement of how the legs were being used to maneuver. The spiders were also scored in terms of their performance, either directly reaching the tree, indirectly or irregularly gliding towards the trunk, or failing completely and landing elsewhere. Most of the spiders had a successful, directed decent without the aid of draglines or balloons. They fall several meters and then glide to a trunk. During this fall, they were observed to adopt body postures that orient their bodies to descend head first with the forelegs out to the side and slightly forward and the rest of the legs out and back. This foreleg asymmetry was shown to significantly change body heading meaning that they are using their legs to control their glide trajectory. Also, glide index was shown to decrease with increasing body mass. They hypothesize that this negative relationship means that larger spiders must accelerate under gravity to airspeeds where aerodynamic lift becomes significant relative to body weight. This is an interesting result because other arachnids do not show it. These spiders have developed the ability to control their glide trajectory. This means that they have evolved novel mechanisms of body righting and maneuvering. Gliding spiders….cool.Stephen P. Yanoviak, Yonatan Munk, & Robert Dudley (2015). Arachnid aloft: directed aerial descent in neotropical canopy spiders J. R. Soc. Interface, 12 : 10.1098/rsif.2015.0534(image via Toy Story screencap)... Read more »

Stephen P. Yanoviak, Yonatan Munk, & Robert Dudley. (2015) Arachnid aloft: directed aerial descent in neotropical canopy spiders. J. R. Soc. Interface. info:/10.1098/rsif.2015.0534

  • August 11, 2015
  • 04:16 PM

Mutualism a.k.a Caterpillars Drugging Ants To Do Their Bidding

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

The manuscript is done! Submitted! Summer interns are finished. Boot up Normal Life Mode, please. Recommence blogging. So many good papers have come out during my hiatus. Where to start…where to start…If you have read this blog for any amount of time then you will come across by fascination with ant manipulation, particularly zombification. This is why my cursor stopped over a new paper in Current Biology about caterpillars manipulating ants to do their bidding. Let’s start with mutualism. This is a topic that I have visited in the past, and in ants for that matter. It’s a nice little relationship between species that involve an exchange of goods and/or services. In the natural world, this often means food and protection.In this study, the researchers chose the Japanese oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica), a lycaenid belonging to the Theclinae subfamily of butterflies. Many in this group are myrmecophilic, meaning they associate (often mutualistically) with ants in some way. The Japanese oakblue caterpillar has a specialized exocrine gland, the “dorsal nectary organ (DNO),” that is located on the seventh abdominal segment and is flanked by tentacle organs (TO). The DNO secretes sugar- and amino acid-rich honeydew while the TO secretes scents to “talk” to the ants. A “Come on down!” or “Danger, Will Robinson!” type thing. The ants tend to the caterpillars and keep them safe for a nice, sugary food reward. But is that all to the story? Obviously not or this post would end here.To do this experiment, butterfly eggs and their associated ants (Pristomyrmex punctatus) were collected and reared separately. Then three test situations were set up with 50 ants per treatment: “Experienced” ants – had free access to the caterpillars and their DNO secretions“Inexperienced” ants – no caterpillar access, just some sugar soaked cotton balls“Unrewarded” ants – had access only to caterpillars that had their DNO’s blocked (a little bit of clear nail polish goes a long way)After 3 days in their test situation, 10 ants from each treatment were moved to Petri dishes that were set on pieces of white paper with a line on it to divide the dishes into 2 halves. After the ants acclimated to their new little plastic arenas, they were observed to see how many times they crossed the center line (“locomotory activity”). Also at the 3 day time point, ants and caterpillars were frozen in liquid nitrogen until their brains could be dissected out, specifically removing the optic lobes. Now, I’ve done some pretty small dissections, but those come nowhere close to ant brain removal! Wow, just wow. Once those itty bitty brains were out, they were processed for liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-ESI-MS/MS) for serotonin, dopamine, octopamine, and tyramine. Very simply, that means making an ant brain aerosol that is then separated and identified by component.They found that experienced ants had significantly less locomotory activity than the other two groups. So what does an ant walking, or in this case not walking, across a line even mean? Well, the fact that the ants are staying put signals that they are “standing guard” for the caterpillars. Okay, let’s say that standing means guarding, how do we know that this is really caterpillar-related and not just standing there? Well, first of all, it was the experienced ants only that did this. Second, the researchers observed that the caterpillars often “everted their TOs,” meaning that they turned them outward. This is typically a response the caterpillar makes when it is attacked by a predator – “Raise shields!” Experienced ants responded differently than the other two when they saw this caterpillar behavior in that they responded aggressively. This aggression is a response to the caterpillars’ alarm, one that has the ants defending against the predator. The fact that only experienced ants had these responses suggests that something in the DNO secretions is eliciting these defense behaviors.So what is it about these secretions? That’s where the LC-MS/MS comes in. Biogenic amines are known function as neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and/or neurohormones. This means that they can modify behavior in insects. DNO secretions contain biogenic amines. This analysis showed that experienced ant brains had low dopamine levels. Now, that’s important because dopamine has been shown to be involved in both locomotory activity and aggression in well studied organisms like fruit flies. Starting to see some links here, yes? To confirm the linkage, ants from each treatment were given reserpine, a small-molecule inhibitor that depletes dopamine but not serotonin in the brain. This test resulted the same behaviors, but the LC-MS/MS showed increased dopamine and serotonin in the ant brains. So same but different.The overall question was: Do caterpillars manipulate ants? According to this study, yes. The compounds secreted by the caterpillar cause their ants to both stick around and defend against predators. As the authors put it, they are “manipulative drugs that could function to enforce cooperative behavior…from attendant ants.” Put that way, I’m okay calling it “ant mind control.”Hojo, M., Pierce, N., & Tsuji, K. (2015). Lycaenid Caterpillar Secretions Manipulate Attendant Ant Behavior Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.07.016p.s. The supplementary materials have a nice little video of ants in lined Petri dishes.(image is Figure 1 from the above paper)... Read more »

  • June 9, 2015
  • 06:48 PM

Vampire Plants: Sucking Life into the Community

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

I would like to introduce you to the yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This little plant has pretty yellow flowers that belie a dark secret: it is a vampire plant. Okay, technically, it is a hemiparasite. The yellow rattle has green, photosynthetic leaves to make its own food, but its roots latch onto those of nearby plants to steal their water and nutrients. I guess you could say that it hasn’t gone full parasite. So what’s wrong with a little leaching of material from your neighbor? Must be like stealing cable, right? Well, not exactly. Hemiparastitic plants can have impacts that are highly disproportionate to their small size. By stealing water and nutrients, they reduce the host plants’ photosynthetic rate and biomass, making them less competitive in their habitat. When you are less competitive in a highly-competitive environment then you don’t last all that long. But this is looking at it on an individual, plant-by-plant, level. Let’s scale it up a bit.We’ll start by following the logic trail. Hemiparastic plants are widespread in ecosystems such as meadows where they attach to dominant grasses (in this case, dominant meaning numbers). As individual grass plants are weakened or killed, overall grass biomass decreases. When the dominants are gone there is more room for other types of plants to move in, increasing species richness. More types of plants attract more primary consumers (like insects) to feed on them. More insects attract more secondary consumers, and on and on. All in all that one little plant has caused indirect community level changes. A new paper by Hartley et al. in Ecology looks at how this one little plant can affect multiple trophic levels (or levels in the food chain).The researchers laid out 13 blocks, each containing four 1 by 1 meter plots, in a field site in Sussex, UK. Three out of those four plots were allowed to be naturally colonized by yellow rattle. These “infected plots” were then randomly assigned to one of three treatments: yellow rattle removed, present, or enhanced. Then, during maximum vegetation and invertebrate abundance, plots were censused. Counts, ground cover, vegetation height, and species richness were measured for plants. Invertebrates were sampled with a Vortis suction sampler (a.k.a. bug vacuum) and hand counts. They were identified and classified into their trophic levels: herbivore, predator and detritivore.They found that the density of yellow rattle had pronounced effects on the plant community. Grass cover was lower, plant diversity higher (although not richness), and plant height lower in plots where the hemiparasite was present or enhanced. Going up a trophic level, sap-feeding insects (Hemiptera) increased by 130%, caterpillars (Lepidoptera) by 217% and weevils (Curculionidae) by 188%. Whoa! Going up another level to the predators, spiders and harvestmen (Araneae and Opiliones) increased by 142% and bees and wasps (Hymenoptera) by 180%. Continuing with the whoa! Going down to the detritivore groups, wood lice (Isopoda) went up by 116% and springtails (Arthropleona) by 58%. Of course, not all animals fit into a single trophic group, but as you probably guessed by the trend you’ve been seeing, those groups went up too. Slugs and snails (Gastropoda) by 103% and mites (Acari) by 57%. That’s quite a list, but not everything increased. There were some non-significant groups including flies (Diptera), rove beetles (Staphylinidae), and springtails (Neelipleona and Symphypleona). It is also important to note that these numbers are from enhanced compared to removed plots. The present plots had increases in many of the same categories, though not as dramatic.In scientist-speak these results showed that “the manipulation of a single sub-dominant plant species causes substantial changes in the abundance and diversity of organisms across four trophic levels in individual plots in a complex grassland community.” Basically, they demonstrated that grasses went down and just about everything else went up just by the addition of one, small and less numerous hemiparasite. This one little plant species caused striking (their term), rapid changes in the community. The less obvious effects of yellow rattle were how the effect was actually occurring. Was it on plant community composition or plant quality or stand height? The authors cite a greenhouse study that showed insects to prefer parasitized to unparasitized grasses when given the choice. Add to that that it is known that parasitic plants impact nutrient cycling, especially enhancing the nitrogen content of vegetation overall. This suggests that it may be plant quality that is the driving mechanism. So the observed, large increase of sap-sucking invertebrates, particularly the Hemiptera, with altered plant quality makes sense as does the increase in detritivores with newly nutrient-rich litter. At this point, perhaps you have considered the impact of these plant-attacking invertebrates as well. Good on you. They are probably themselves doing some damage on and affecting change on the plant community, but this work doesn’t go into that. Time for another study I think!Hartley, S., Green, J., Massey, F., Press, M., Stewart, A., & John, E. (2015). Hemiparasitic plant impacts animal and plant communities across four trophic levels Ecology DOI: 10.1890/14-1244.1(image via Urban Butterfly Garden UK)... Read more »

  • March 23, 2015
  • 05:55 PM

A Dottyback in Damsel Clothing: Color Mimicking in Fish

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

I was looking around for a study and stumbled upon one about fish mimicry in Current Biology. What first caught my attention was its use of a video abstract. What a cool idea amped up a few notches by beginning with music reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Then I started to think back about posts I've done on predator-prey relationships and could only come up with 1, the One-Third for the Birds post back in 2012. Clearly it is time to revisit that topic. Oh, and while we’re at it, we’ll throw mimicry into the mix.Different prey species employ various options in predator avoidance including mimicry. Generally, mimicry is a strategy of looking, acting, smelling, or sounding like something else as an act of deception to gain protection. But prey species are not the only ones that mimic. Predators use it to get close enough to catch their prey. Blending into the background or looking like something familiar can be very useful in sneaking up on an unsuspecting prey animal. However, in both predator and prey, there is a huge caveat to mimicry - numbers. The mimic must be rare compared to their model. If the mimics are encountered too often then the predator/prey learns of this cunning deception and the mimicry becomes ineffective.This month Cortesi et al. published a short paper looking at body color and predatory behavior in dusky dottybacks (Pseudochromis fuscus). This small species (8 cm) is a generally solitary and aggressive predatory reef fish native to the southwester Pacific Ocean and eastern Indian Ocean. The fish are usually found in association with branching corals (e.g. Cauliflower corals [Pocillopora]  and Staghorn corals [Acropora]), setting territories where they love to hunt and eat juvenile coral reef fish, particularly the similar-looking damselfish. Individuals range in color from yellow to a “dusky” purple/brown. The researchers based their experiments on 3 interesting facts: 1) when the dottybacks matched the color of other reef fish they increased their hunting success, 2) dottybacks have been shown to change body coloration within 2 weeks when translocated to a different, dark colored reef and 3) dottybacks aggressively mimic similarly colored adult damselfishes. Does one color work better than another? Are there cues that drive the color change?Figure 1 (A and B) from Cortesi et al (2015) Current Biology To test this, the researchers set up sites at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Ya know, given the option, that's probably where I’d do my research too. They collected dottybacks and adult damelfishes and assessed the home ranges of the yellow and brown dottyback color morphs. Then, to look at the genotypes associated with different color morphs, they used microsatellites on fin clips from fish from three lagoon locations. Next, they conducted a translocation experiment. They found an open area and created a small patch reef using pieces of live or rubble coral. A total of 15 yellow damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis, P. moluccensis) and 15 brown damselfish (P. chrysurus) of all size classes were placed on the patch reefs. Once the damselfish were adjusted to their new home, the dottybacks (tagged unique fluorescent elastomer markers) were added. They used a 2 x 2 x 2 design (dottyback color x damselfish color x habitat type, each with 2 levels: yellow/brown dottyback, yellow/brown damselfish, live coral/coral rubble). Once all of the fish were on the patch reef, they were observed for predation and body color (using spectral imaging, skin biopsys for histology, and lots of mathematical models).They also conducted a very similar experiment using controlled conditions. Damselfish and dottybacks were caught and placed into experimental aquarium tanks containing live and rubble corals. Both juvenile and adult damselfish were acclimatized to a tank before a dottyback morph was introduced. Then strike rates of dottybacks directed at the damselfish were recorded. The researchers then conducted a prey color choice experiment to examine if dottybacks had a preference for a particular colored prey fish, again in the experimental aquariums. Considering that dottybacks aren't just predators but also prey for larger fish, the researchers tested to see if dottybacks also benefit from matching the color of the habitat using coral trout (the predator) in controlled choice tanks.Whew! That’s a lot of experiments for one little report paper. In the field, they found that yellow dottybacks associated themselves with live coral and yellow damselfish, and brown dottybacks associated with coral rubble and brown damselfish. The translocation experiment showed how the color of resident adult damelfish induced color change in the dottybacks in patches where their colors were mismatched, independent of habitat type. The skin biopsies showed that unlike other species of fish, the dottybacks did not achieve this change by altering the number of chromatophores (pigment containing cells that reflect ligh) but, rather, the ratio of xanthophores (yellow pigment cells) compared to melanophores (black pigment cells) alters.In the aquarium experiments, they found that dottybacks were three times more successful in capturing juvenile damselfish when their color matched that of the adult damselfish. This bit of deception works on the fact that the juveniles are less vigilant when they perceive all bigger fish as harmless adult damselfish. The strike rates showed that dottybacks prefer to go after prey fish of the same coloration to themselves, but, when mismatched, brown dottybacks are more likely to have successful strikes than yellow ones. When the dottybacks became the prey species, coral trout were found to strike more often at fish that were color mismatched to the background. This means that the color change has a secondary camouflage benefit and possibly a dilution effect when they are associated with similarly colored damselfish.Graphical Abstract from Cortesi et al (2015) Current BiologyCollectively, these experiments uncovered a novel mechanism of the mimicry game: phenotypic plasticity. Phenotype is an organism’s observable characteristics (how it looks), and plasticity is describes a quality of being easily shaped or molded. Phenotypic plasticity is one of those rare scientific words that mean exactly what it sounds like: the ability or an organism to change its characteristics in response to the environment. This plasticity allows the dottybacks to deceive their prey using multiple guises and thereby increase their hunting success with the added benefit of hiding from their own predators.F. Cortesi, W.E. Feeney, M.C.O. Ferrari, P.A. Waldie, G.A.C. Phillips, E.C. McClure, H.N. Sköld, W. Salzburger, N.J. Marshall, & K.L. Cheney (2015). Phenotypic Plasticity Confers Multiple Fitness Benefits to a Mimic Current Biology, 25 (1-6) : 10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.013Write-up by the a... Read more »

F. Cortesi, W.E. Feeney, M.C.O. Ferrari, P.A. Waldie, G.A.C. Phillips, E.C. McClure, H.N. Sköld, W. Salzburger, N.J. Marshall, & K.L. Cheney. (2015) Phenotypic Plasticity Confers Multiple Fitness Benefits to a Mimic. Current Biology, 25(1-6). info:/10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.013

  • February 12, 2015
  • 02:38 PM

Will You Be My Valentine?: Making All the Right Moves

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

My Valentine’s Day themed posts have been both popular and fun to write. In last year’s Getting a Date for Valentine’s Day series, you learned that you should wear something red, gaze without being creepy, tell a good joke before walking up to your potential date who is preferably standing next to some flowers, and then open with a unique request to segue into asking them out. But that isn't the end of the story. Oh no, there are many more things that you can do to attract that special someone, all scientifically examined of course. Today we’ll take a look at two more of them.Bust-A-MoveIt’s serendipity that our V-day themed discussion about sexual selection starts on Darwin’s birthday (Happy Birthday Chuck!). Did you know that Charles Darwin was actually the first to suggest that dance plays a role in evolution? It is a sexually selected courtship signal that reveals the genetic or phenotypic quality of the dancer, usually the male. Basically, the quality of the movement signals things like physical strength and fluctuating asymmetry (FA). The latter is a term you see a lot in these types of studies and it describes how much an organism deviates from bilateral symmetry. Essentially, if you develop all lopsided then it will show in your movement. Take what you know of testosterone, or other steroids. Increase that and you see improved physical strength and athletic ability. Now translate that, and its developmental implications, to dance.It has been suggested that human women have developed ways to assess these visual cues in men in order to select high quality mates. However, quantifying these decisions in a study has proven difficult as women use the appearance of the dancer as well as their quality moves. A 2009 study by Hugill et al. in the journal Personality and Individual Differences looked at whether male physical strength is signaled by dancing performance. They included 40 dancers, recorded their age, body weight and height and then gave them a series of handgrip tests to quantify their physical strength. Then they dressed the men all in white overalls (I know, sexy right?), put them in a blank grey room, and asked them all to dance alone to the same song while they were being video recorded. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that this scenario doesn’t induce awkwardness in these men. Then each video was converted to grey-scale and a blurring filter applied to cover information about body shape. Once this prep work was done, the researchers recruited 50 female to rate each video. The results showed that the women perceived the dances of physically stronger men as more attractive. The rise of motion-capture technology has added a very useful tool to this type of study. Rather than going through all of those post-conversion video steps, complex movements like dance can be captured by the computer sensors to be applied to homogeneous human figures. A 2005 study by Brown et al. in Nature did just this to look at the variation in dance quality with genetic and/or phenotypic quality. They motion-captured 183 dancers and selected 40 dance animations based on the composite measures/level of fluctuating asymmetry of the dancer (hmm…I wonder if they could get Andy Serkis to help out). Then they showed these dance animations of symmetrical and asymmetrical individuals to 155 people (themselves characterized for FA) to rate. In both males and females, the results showed that symmetrical individuals were better dancers, with males better than females, but sex didn’t matter within the asymmetrical group. For the raters, generally males liked to watch female dancers rather than male (you’re shocked, I can tell), and females liked symmetrical males. Data also showed that female raters, more than male raters, preferred the dances of symmetrical men, and that symmetrical men prefer symmetrical female dancers more than do less-symmetrical men. If you have ever interacted in any social context ever then you know that beautiful, good dancers liking beautiful, good dancing partners isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But what does this study mean for the hopelessly asymmetrical? Shift your preferences downward to a less symmetrical potential date.Now the question becomes about the dance itself. Which body movements are the attractive ones? A 2010 study by Neave et al. published in Biology Letters looked at specific movement components within dance to see which one(s) influenced perceived dance quality. Using motion-capture, the created digitally dancing avatars of 19 men for 37 women to rate for dance quality. To quantify specific movements, angles, amplitudes and durations of joint, angular and unidirectional movements were measured. Good dancers were those that had larger and more variable movements with faster bending and twisting movements in their right knee. Weirdly specific, right? Especially that right knee thing. But, considering that most people are right-handed, this might be expected. So what have we learned? Well, we now know that how you move tells someone a lot about you, regardless of how attractive you are. Maybe a good dance class is in order?Hey baby, you must be gibberelin, because I'm experiencing some stem elongation.You've got your eye on someone fabulous. You walk over; lean against the bar and…What you say next can make or break that first meeting. What do you say? There are several studies out there that look for practical answers to this question. Considering our current dating discussion, we’ll use a subset of the what-to-say category: pickup lines (or chat-up lines), which run the gamut from cute to cringe-worthy. In general, these types of studies ask “What makes a pickup line good?”To get at this, many categorize them according to a 1986 study by Kleinke et al.:Cute-flippant – convey interest with humor that is usually flirtatious or sexual “You must be tired, because you’ve been running through my mind all day,” (A line that has actually been used on me. Sigh.)  “Do you have any raisins? No? Well then, how about a date?” Innocuous – convey interest without incurring the pain of from potential rejection by using simple questions to start conversations “Have you seen any good movies lately?” “What do you think of the band?” Direct – convey interest with sincerity and flattery “I saw you across the room and knew I had to meet you. What’s your name?” “Can I buy you lunch?”Evolutionarily speaking, women are making choices that optimize the viability of any offspring, but the male attributes they prefer are dependent on the type of relationship they are seeking. If they are looking for a long-term relationship then they prefer males who appear likely to be good fathers. Broadly, these women are picking up on signals for warmth-trustworthiness (honesty, reliability, kindness) and status-resources (intelligence, dominance, earning potential). If they are looking for a short-term relationship then signals of good genes like attractiveness and health are important. A 2010 study by Senko and Fyffe applied this evolutionary perspective to pickup lines, examining the perception of these signals. They asked 70 women to imagine that a man comes up to them and initiates contact using either a flippant, innocuous, or direct pickup line. Then the women rated that imaginary man on several attributes including trustworthiness, intelligence, sociability, sense of humor, and creativity. The women also reported their willingness to carry a conversation and long-term or short-term relationship potential. The original Kleinke study found that everyone agreed that cute-flippant lines were the worst; go with innocuous or direct lines. Both studies found this to be particularly true for women. Senko and Fyffe found long-term relationship seeking women much less receptive to a flippant pickup line even though the men were judged as more sociable, more confident, and funnier. Conversely, they were also deemed to be less trustworthy and less intelligent. Short-term relationship seeking women judged a man based on his attractiveness rather than his choice of opener. Nice when your findings line up with the theory isn’t it?Okay, so now we have zeroed in on the categories that work best: innocuous and direct. But is there something about the lines themselves that make them successful? A 2006 study by Bale et al. aimed to construct a pencil and paper instr... Read more »

Brown, W., Cronk, L., Grochow, K., Jacobson, A., Liu, C., Popović, Z., & Trivers, R. (2005) Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men. Nature, 438(7071), 1148-1150. DOI: 10.1038/nature04344  

Neave, N., McCarty, K., Freynik, J., Caplan, N., Honekopp, J., & Fink, B. (2010) Male dance moves that catch a woman's eye. Biology Letters, 7(2), 221-224. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0619  

Bale, C., Morrison, R., & Caryl, P. (2006) Chat-up lines as male sexual displays. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(4), 655-664. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.016  

Cooper, M., O’Donnell, D., Caryl, P., Morrison, R., & Bale, C. (2007) Chat-up lines as male displays: Effects of content, sex, and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(5), 1075-1085. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.001  

  • January 21, 2015
  • 05:21 PM

Not So Simple: Social Evolution in Silk-Weaving Ants

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Silk weaving ants. That in and of itself is really neat. Then you see this picture of Polyrhachis shattuck...I mean, look at her! How many cool points can one animal rack up? A new study in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology takes a look at these arboreal nesting and silk-weaving ants.Let's begin with sociality. It is one of those subjects in biology that is considered its own discipline. When you think of social animals you probably think of herds of mammals or maybe schools of fish. Sociality reaches its peak in eusociality, a surprisingly complex and truly social organization. These animals live in groups, cooperatively care for juveniles, divide labor, and overlap in generations. Studies of these social systems has shed light onto broader concepts of collective decision making, even leading to advances in our own technology (traffic flow, communications networks, internet searches, etc.). However, as much as we know about the social mechanics, we know very little about the evolution of such systems.Most eusocial animals are found in the phylum Arthropoda, with the order Hymenoptera being the largest and most well-known, and all ants classified as eusocial species. And ants are the focus of today's chosen study. Ant larvae spin individual protective cocoons of silk and, depending on the species, that silk is either allocated to the colony or sequestered for the larvae’s individual needs. Donated silk is used by the worker caste to weave together leaves into nests. The “lowest grade” of arboreal (a.k.a. tree-dwelling) ants, Dendromyrmex, have larvae that produce silk without any interaction or provocation from the worker ants. In “intermediate grade” ants, Camponotus senex and Polyrhachis ?doddi (re-described as Polyrhachis robsoni (Kohout 2006)), the workers hold larvae at the work site and, with simple ritualized behaviors, the workers collect the silk. In the “highest grade” genus, Oecophylla, the larvae donate their silk supply to the colony. A worker ant will use highly ritualized behaviors - bring the larvae to the work site, straddle a leaf seam, use antennae to tap the head of the larva (telling it to extrudes silk from its salivary glands), use silk to glue together the seam, repeat. A comparison of ant genera in this way, simple to complex, is thought to represent possible evolutionary steps in nest-weaving behavior. However, molecular sequence data suggests that nest-weaving has evolved independently in each of the four genera in which it occurs. This new study focuses on Polyrhachis ants. This genus offers good within-taxa comparison of multiple life strategies as different species vary in their nesting locations, from intertidal to subterranean to arboreal, the presence of nest construction, and even silk sources.A total of 37 specimens of ants from all 13 currently recognized (*grr*, an often frustrating term in insect taxonomy) subspecies and five outgroup taxa were used for this study. The researchers isolated total genomic DNA and amplified and sequenced DNA from six fragments using specific primers for each gene region. After they collected the sequences, they analyzed and aligned them using computer programs. In their complicated analysis (they used Bayesian…that always makes my eyes cross) they input the gene level data along with variables of nesting preference (ground = soil, logs, stones vs. arboreal = twigs or leaves in trees) and nest construction (silk weaving vs. no silk vs. other silk). All of this allowed them to construct phylogenies (like an evolutionary family tree) and infer relationships among the species and ancestral states for behavior.Their results showed robust phylogeny with strong support for the monophyly of the genus Polyrhachis, further supported by the inclusions of nesting preference and nest construction.This is good because it provides a nice, solid ancestral reconstruction for the evolution of the different species and their relationships to each other. It also allows for the comparison of the different nesting strategies within the framework of evolution. The investigation turned up some very interesting results. Simply, their results do not support the stepwise evolution of simple to complex. They found that the production of arboreal silk nests is the ancestral state with at least two transitions to subterranean nesting and the loss of silk weaving as species become more derived. There is also some flexibility and reversal in the behavior. Basically, the ants evolve, abandon and then re-evolve the nest weaving practices. The loss of silk nest weaving seems to occur with the transition from arboreal to terrestrial nesting followed by the re-evolution of silk nest weaving. This suggests a strong but flexible link between nesting preference and nest construction.To illustrate this evolve-abandon-re-evolve point, the researchers present the example of Hedomyrma, a subgenus within a larger clade of subterranean nesters. This larger clade has already lost both arborality and nest weaving. But there are 2 species of Hedomyrma (Polyrhachis argentosa and Polyrhachis fervens) that have reverted to arborality. The re-evolution of this nesting preference has come with the modification of building nests within the hollow internodes of bamboo sans silk. Another reversal pattern is seen in a third species of Hedomyrma (Polyrhachis turneri), which has larvae that retain all of their silk for their own cocoon-constructing needs. Rather, worker ants steal silk from spiders to build nests on the sides of rocks. So the nest construction characteristic is what has re-evolved, just with a different mechanism. Larval cocoons have been lost in 2 of the arboreal nest-weaving species studied, and the allocation of larval silk to colony rather than individual need is considered a more derived but decoupled characteristic of nest construction.I think that both the flexibility and the rapid evolution (or re-evolution) of this system is what attracted me to this paper. We know that evolution is a complex concept that we often boil down to from-simple-to-complex, and in many cases it is exactly that. This study almost reads like a sequel, a what-happens-next sort of thing.Robson, S., Kohout, R., Beckenbach, A., & Moreau, C. (2015). Evolutionary transitions of complex labile traits: Silk weaving and arboreal nesting in Polyrhachis ants Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology DOI: 10.1007/s00265-014-1857-x(image of Polyrhachis shattuck, Maliau Basin, Sabah via News and Media of James Cook University)... Read more »

  • December 19, 2014
  • 12:05 PM

The Chemistry of Christmas

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

What are the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the textures that you associate with Christmas? Perhaps it is Christmas trees with their lovely green shape, color and wonderful pine smell. Maybe it’s the smells of cooking, the savory smells of turkey or the sweet smell of warm cookies. Or what about all of the cozy feelings you get with big sweaters or a roaring fire? Did you know that there is a lot of chemistry that goes into all of the senses we associate with this holiday?I was browsing through holiday-related articles, looking for something different from the usual psychology or sociology centered holiday study. That’s when I came across an article from 2012 published in the Journal of Chemical Education about the five senses of Christmas chemistry. The authors look through the lens of organic chemistry and take five “Christmas compounds” to examine in the context of the five senses.Sound: Silver FulminateIn 1824, Justus Liebig correctly determined the molecular formula of silver fulminate (AgCNO), and, around the same time, Friedrich Wohler identified the molecular formula for silver cyanate (AgOCN). Now, these might look the same, but they are in fact very different. Soon after, these scientists collaborated and rationalized these differences by introducing the notion of isomerism – molecules that have the same kinds of atoms but because these atoms have different arrangements in shape they differ in their chemical and physical properties. Silver fulminate is highly unstable, and even a small amount of friction leads to its violent decomposition. That makes it very useful when you want to make things go boom.Christmas crackers are items that are a more traditional favorite in the UK. The Christmas crackers used today are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colorful paper. When they are pulled – bang! – out comes a colorful hat (usually looking like a crown), a small toy or a joke. The sound is made from the rapid breakdown of silver fulminate present in small quantities in the paper. Two thin strips of cardboard are glued together, one containing silver fulminate and the other a rough surface. When the cracker is pulled, the surfaces rub together to produce friction and facilitate the reaction. The compound goes through a redox reaction followed by a release of nitrogen gas and carbon monoxide. This sudden production of gases is what produces the distinctive popping sounds.Sight: α-pineneA beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree is one of the most common sights of this holiday. For the purposes of this section, we’ll assume that you bought a real tree rather than an artificial one. Geographic region can play a big part in the species of tree that is available to you, but they are very likely all evergreens (fir, spruce, pine, and cedars). In their resin, these conifers release terpene hydrocarbons, specifically monoterpenoids that is composed of two isoprene building blocks. This word should sound familiar as it is a derivative of turpentine, which you may know for its distinctive pine scent. Pine oil contains two monoterpenoids, α-pinene and β-pinene, which are both liquid at room temperature. This is another case of isomerism; although both have the typical C10H16 molecular formula there are four stereoisomers of each where the bonded atoms differing in their 3-D orientations. α-pinene is one of the most common volatiles in nature and is directly linked to the Christmas tree’s smell. Touch: Sodium Acetate I don’t live in what most people would term a cold climate. Sure, we get cold weather, but we’re not talking blizzards. However, in my days as a field ecologist I spent many a winter day outside taking measurements. On those days, I was ever-so-grateful for one little invention: the hand warmer. Squish around the contents of the packet to get it to heat up to keep you pockets, and hands, toasty all day long. Bliss.Many hand warmers are based on a simple chemical reaction – the crystallization of a supersaturated sodium acetate solution. When you squish around the contents of the hand warmer, you are triggering a chemical process. A nucleation site, usually a metal disk with small seed crystals, causes rapid crystallization of the super saturated solution. This is a highly exothermic process that releases energy to its surroundings as heat. These types of hand warmers are often reusable because of their physical mode of action. Other hand warmers rely on the exothermic oxidation of iron when exposed to air. Activated charcoal is used to catalyze the reaction, along with vermiculite and salt as additives. However, this chemical mode of action means that these are one use only products.Taste: TryptophanIf you are a fan of a big turkey dinner then you have probably heard of tryptophan. It is a common misconception that the tryptophan from your turkey binge brings on sleepiness. It’s true that tryptophan is involved in sleep and mood control. However, turkey doesn’t contain enough of the compound (only 350 mg per 115 g) to have a soporific effect. It’s more likely that the sheer volume of food that you eat (and probably the wine you drank with it) on these occasions decreases blood flow and oxygenation, inducing the drowsiness.Tryptophan is an essential aromatic amino acid that is commonly found in proteins. This compound has two enantiomers, chiral molecules that are mirror images of one another (kinda like left and right hands). L-tryptophan exists in nature and has a pronounced bitter taste, while D-tryptophan is synthetic and has a very sweet taste. Once you consume tryptophan, it goes through a series of metabolic reactions, one of which ends with melatonin. This final product is a neurohormone that is naturally secreted by the pineal gland, is involved in regulating circadian rhythms and may also have strong antioxidant effects.Smell: GingerolGingersnap cookies and gingerbread houses are common sights around the holidays, and with them come their wonderful ginger scent. Ginger products usually contain fresh or powdered bits from the rhizomes (rootstalk, or modified underground stem) of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale). One of the organic compounds produced by this plant is gingerol, an aromatic vanilloid compound containing a β-hydroxyketone functionality. Interestingly, the taste of this compound can be modified via laboratory synthesis. Shogaol is derived by either refluxing gingerol with concentrated sulfuric acid or allowing a dehydration reaction can occur on gingerol to give the aldol condensation product. Shogaol has a more pungent flavor than gingerol. Conversely, ginergol can completely break down into zingerone after refluxing in strong aqueous base. Zingerone is considered to have less pungency than gingerol.Considering this chemistry, you can alter the flavor of the ginger you use in your cooking. For example, if you cook ginger extensively, particularly in the absence of acid, then you produce the mildest tasting vanilloids, zingerone. But also keep in mind that your kitchen conditions are not laboratory conditions. This means that you are likely to end up with a mixture of all three compounds in your cookies.That’s all for our journey through the senses of Christmas. If you are a chemistry teacher, or simply a chemistry nut, then I recommend reading through the paper. It has all sorts of skeletal formulas that you’ll love.... Read more »

Jackson, D., & Dicks, A. (2012) The Five Senses of Christmas Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(10), 1267-1273. DOI: 10.1021/ed300231z  

  • December 12, 2014
  • 05:51 PM

The White Elephant in the Room: The Gift of Subversion

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Ah, the holiday work party. Free food, spending time with people you spend your whole day with already, and enough boozy libations to make things a bit more interesting. Here in North America, many workplaces engage in the gift “game” called the White Elephant Gift Exchange. On this topic, I'm basing today’s post on an article that I recently came across by Gretchen Herrmann in The Journal of Popular Culture where she dissects the Machiavellian nature of this little holiday game.The White Elephant Gift Exchange (that I’ll abbreviate to WEGE, which you are free to pronounce as ‘wedgie’ even though no one does) is a pastime aimed to upend our normal conventions and beliefs of holiday generosity by celebrating and subverting the materialism. The goal is an unleashing of entertainment and satire, made all that much better after the first glass or two of eggnog.I've written before on the topic of the perfect gift, concluding that considering someone’s interests and getting them something that you know they will love and use is the way to go. Herrmann generally agrees on this conclusion, pointing out that the ideal gift is a special item that is imbued with personal sentiment. This special item carries with it an emotional attachment that transcends the obligatory reciprocity of typical gift-giving. But object of the WEGE is exactly the opposite of all of that.Actually, the name WEGE can vary depending on the type of gifts. The specific version of the game typically goes after a particular brand of holiday subversion: shrewd trading and parsimony (e.g., Yankee Swap, Scotch Auction), undercutting holiday beneficence (e.g., Dirty Santa, Evil Santa), turning Christmas on its head by those that are considered inscrutable and untrustworthy (e.g., Chinese Christmas, Chinese Gift Exchange), pointing to the dubious value of the gift or that it might be pre-owned (e.g., WEGE), and/or telegraphing personal gain at the expense of others (e.g., Stealing Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Cut Throat Christmas).Basically, the rules are these:Participants bring an anonymous wrapped gift that fits within prespecified guidelines (price, regifting, etc.) that they slip into the gift pile. Everyone picks a number that is used to determine the gift-choosing order of the participants. First Turn: The first person called chooses a gift from the pile, opens it, and then displays it to the other participants. Second Turn: The next person has three choices. They can either a) steal the gift from the first person, sending them back to the gift pile for another, b) select, unwrap and keep a gift from the pile, or c) select and unwrap a gift from the pile and swap the unwanted gift with the first person. All Subsequent Turns: Each new person can steal any unwrapped gift or choose a wrapped gift from the pile. However, a gift can’t be stolen more than once during a turn, and a particular gift can’t be immediately stolen back from the participant who just stole it.WEGE it isn’t about the personalization, it’s about the stealing. The Machiavellian nature of the game is spelled out in its stealing, its taking, its greed. Rather than the generosity of the personalized, perfect gift, the emphasis is placed on personal gain, creating a series of winners and losers, and getting something for nothing with impunity at the expense of another. I think we can all agree that that is what makes it fun.You want to make sure that you bring a gift that will engender group favor and can trigger a chain reaction of stealing and hilarity. For example, one of the most popular gifts I’ve seen at one of these events was a big battle axe. Yeah, a real one. How many times it was stolen = funny; who actually wanted a battle axe for their very own = hilarious. In other years, the same group went crazy over gifts like a big stuffed moose or a case of craft beer (I ended up with that one!). So is there a key to picking out the perfect gift for one of these events?First is to consider your group. Do they appreciate the tacky, silly, and weird or are they more the classy, mainstream crowd? However, slipping a bizarre gift into the latter crowd’s pile will likely cause unexpected amusement. Second is to keep to those prespecified rules. Don’t spend a lot of money trying to impress people; keeping to the anonymity means they won’t know it was you anyway. Next is to not forget the creative wrapping and use it to satirize as well – although you might have to be equally creative to keep it anonymous as you walk into the party.Herrmann explores the transient nature of both the receiving of the gift and your attachment to it. In the game, the gift itself can be arbitrary and that participants are forced to focus on the transience of possession instead. She cites behavioral economists who describe the “endowment effect,” wherein the brief possession of an item makes it worth more to the owner than other identical items. This extra value makes the stealing of this item even that much more poignant. However, she also points out what we’ve all heard during particularly rousing games: “Give me that! I want it!” so there is at least some value of the item too.Herrmann breaks down the gifts into three categories:Fetishized Commodities: Those items that are disproportionately coveted and stolen. My battle axe example is a good one. These gifts take on a life of their own as they gain more value every time they are stolen. A hierarchy of items can emerge as the game goes on. Within this hierarchy are also a series of substrategies like pointing out other gifts to take attention away from yours, loudly hawking lousy gifts in the hopes of trading up, sitting low and hopping no one will see and remember what you have, or even making after-game deals.Booby Prizes: Of course, no one wants to end up with the “booby prize” or gifts at the undesirable end of the hierarchy. So much so that often the rules will stipulate that the final recipient must take it home with them. It can sometimes be difficult to predict whether a gift will be seen as a booby prize. Perhaps the battle axe was originally meant as a booby prize, a way offload an old D&D costume. But bad became good.Lazarus Gifts: These are the items that make reappearances in coming years. They are the ones that are most commented on, laughed about, or pawned off. These resurrected gifts actually add to the layers of complexity and amusement of the WEGE.Ultimately, the WEGE is about group bonding through entertainment. Perhaps that’s why it is so often played at workplace parties. There’s a ritualistic swapping of gifts, but you don’t need to go through the stress of finding the perfect gift. So this year, think of a creative, subversive, fun WEGE gift. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to steal all those good ones away too!M. Herrmann, G. (2013). Machiavelli Meets Christmas: The White Elephant Gift Exchange and the Holiday Spirit The Journal of Popular Culture, 46 (6), 1310-1329 DOI: 10.1111/jpcu.12090(image via The Lovely Journeys)... Read more »

  • November 28, 2014
  • 01:11 PM

Packing on the Pounds: Let the Holiday Eating Season Begin

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Here in the U.S., yesterday was Thanksgiving. A time of family, thanks, and lots and lots of food. Be honest, how much did you eat yesterday? Me, I watched a lot of football while I ate appetizers followed by turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and cake. Then I entered a food coma for a few hours. It was glorious.I typically approach a holiday with a journal article, but this time I am going to use the holiday as a jumping off point: Thanksgiving as the start of the holiday eating season. Work parties, family parties, gifts, shopping, etc. All we do for 6 weeks is eat eat eat. And we aren’t eating vegetables, people. A slightly older study from 2006 in Nutrition Journal takes a look at the effect that Thanksgiving has on holiday weight gain. As with many university studies, this one utilizes their pool of willing college students for their evaluation. However, this isn’t just a story of easy subject access; college students have alarmingly high obesity rates. This demographic gains approximately 0.4-1.8 pounds (0.2-0.8 kg) per year. But is this a result of continual daily increases or more discrete periods of weight gain? That is what this paper aims to answer with this relatively straight-forward study.The researchers evaluated 94 participants from the undergraduate and graduate programs at their university. These participants visited the human body composition laboratory one week prior to the Thanksgiving holiday break and then revisited again 5-7 days after the break. During these visits, the students were measured for body weight, height, and waist and hip circumferences. From these data, the participants’ body mass index (BMI) was also calculated and categorized as normal (less than 25kg) or overweight/obese (greater than or equal to 25 kg/m2).They found a significant increase in body weight for the entire group, about 1 pound (0.5 kg). When they broke the group down by characteristics, they found that both males and females gained, and graduate students gained while undergrads did not. When they looked at “fat patterning” (such a lovely, descriptive term), they found a significant decline in waist circumference and waist/hip ratio for the group, males, females, and undergrads. No significant increase in BMI was found in those classified as normal, but those students classified as overweight/obese increased. After calculating correlations, they found the only significant correlation to be in a change in baseline BMI in females. So in general, everyone gains a little weight, but grad students and those already overweight are the most likely groups to pack on the pounds.The authors discuss a few holiday eating pitfalls: longer eating durations, easy access to food, eating in the presence of others and increased portion sizes. All true. But what they spend zero time discussing is the differences they found between groups, simply stating that the Thanksgiving holiday is “a critical period for weight gain and obesity development.” Um, duh? I would posit that grad students use the holidays as a time to see friends and family and to relax and let loose. That, perhaps, they abandon their normal eat-at-my-desk strategy in favor of home cooked food and lots of wine (and/or beer). For those already classified as overweight, I would say that this demographic already has a problem with food, one that is only exacerbated during this time. For this group, the food challenges are that much harder to resist and all of those pitfalls are magnified.What are your thoughts? And how do you cope with holiday eating?Hull HR, Hester CN, & Fields DA (2006). The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutrition & metabolism, 3 PMID: 17192197(image via The Bella Vita)... Read more »

  • October 28, 2014
  • 02:40 PM

The Final Girl: The Psychology of the Slasher Film

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Halloween has put me in the mood to talk about slasher movies. Once I got to looking around, I found more papers on the topic than I thought I would. I gotta warn you, this is a long read, so grab some popcorn and settle in for some slasher movie fun.If you are a fan of horror films then you know Randy Meek’s “Rules that one must abide by to successfully survive a horror movie”: (1) You can never have sex…big no-no, sex equals death, (2) you can never drink or do drugs…it’s the sin-factor, an extension of number 1, (3) never, ever, under any circumstances, say "I'll be right back" ‘cause you won’t be back. Scream got me to thinking about the psychology and tropes of the horror movie (don’t worry, this post is spoiler-free). Today I’m going to focus on journal articles and so won’t take the time and space going through the history of horror films (there are a list of good links below).I used Scream (1996) as an example because it is one of those movies that both parodies the genre and, at the same time, becomes an entry within the genre. That’s tough, and when done well, really great. In Scream’s case, it also resurrected a dormant genre to a whole new generation, the Gen Y teens of the 90’s (including me). In 2005, Valerie Wee published a paper in the Journal of Film and Video that looks at the role of this movie, and its sequels. She redefines and labels a more advanced form of postmodernism “hyperpostmodernism,” and in Scream, this is identified in two ways: (1) the loss of tongue-in-cheek sub-text in favor of actual text and (2) active referencing and borrowing of influential styles. The rules I quoted above are a great example of the first point, a type of discussion among characters that happens throughout the films. The dim lighting, camera angles, character names are all good examples of the second point. It’s s slasher film about slasher films, if you will. It worked so well because it acknowledged and played to the media hyperconsciousness of the American teenagers of that generation. As Wee puts it, a group that is “media literate, highly brand conscious, consumer oriented, and extremely self-aware and cynical.” Now doesn’t that make us sound like lovely people?As this hyperconscious generation, we can look back at the conventions, ideologies, and representations of those past works. We can ask what the attributes and associated tropes are of a successful horror movie. To do that, let’s go back to a 1991 paper by Douglas Rathgeb. In it, he identifies one of the most effective attributes of a horror film to be the unsettling sense of intrusion it creates, that feeling of normal versus abnormal. It is true that we must separate movie reality from real life but in the case of horror movies, the shock of the sudden, often freakish, intrusion of the horror to be terrifying element whether it is the perception of the reality or the acts of a bogeyman (or both). This unnerving feeling is evident in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in which Wes Craven creates a nightmare state coexistent with reality. He removes the conventional signposts and distorts the physical parameters that we use to measure reality. Rathgeb spends a good amount of time on the id/superego model (specifically the “bogeyman id”) that I won’t go into, but he continually draws on the point of the victims’ moral blemish – the Original or Unpardonable sin – that permits some evil to terrorize the world. Randy’s first Rule plays out in Freddy Krueger’s increasingly disturbing, nocturnal, murderous visits upon the sexually active teenagers of Springwood. It is also exemplified in Michael Myers’ first murderous act in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the act that leads him down the path of transformation into the bogeyman that menaces the morally deficient residents of Haddonfield.This segues nicely into a discussion of misogyny, the male monster, and the Final Girl. You don’t have to be a film expert to notice that slasher films contain a lot of violence primarily directed toward women, usually after they have broken Randy’s first Rule. In 2010 in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Kelly Connelly studies this closely. She examines a marked change in the structure and action of horror films in the mid-1970’s, the birth of the slasher film subgenre. Within this subgenre a new role emerged: the Final Girl, the sole female survivor of a rampaging psychotic who has managed to rescue herself. You will know her when you see her in the beginning of the movie as she is the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic, the tomboy. She probably has a male name, isn’t sexually active, is resourceful, and is watchful to the point of paranoia. Connelly spends most of the paper breaking down Halloween and Halloween H2O: Twenty Years Later. I don’t have the space to cover all of that here, but ultimately, the Final Girl character boils down to one word: empowerment. The female victim achieves active empowerment through the act of rescuing herself.But are women really slasher film victims more often than men, or is it just more noticeable? A 1990 study by Cowan and O’Brien asked participants to analyze 56 slasher films to see how female and male victims survived as related to several traits, including markers of sexual activity (clothing, initiation, etc.). They found that women were neither more likely to be victims of slashers nor less likely to survive when attacked. In fact, they were more likely to survive than men. The authors postulate that this perception is likely because of the female victims in memorable films/scenes, especially when sex is involved, and that the female status in society as someone to be protected makes their victimization all that more evident. They also found that the non-surviving females were more frequently sexual, physically attractive, and inane. Randy got it right on that one. Nonsurviving males tended to be assholes (my term, not theirs) in that they had bad attitudes, engaged in illegal behaviors, and were cynical, egotistical and dictatorial. Notice that whether or not they broke the first Rule is not included.A 2011 paper by Richard Nowell argues that although early teen slasher (and/or stalker) films were made primarily for male youth, the marketing campaigns were also geared toward young women. Keep in mind that Nowell is not asking you focus on the nonviolent content and the films’ promotional campaigns. He asks you to consider movies like My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Prom Night (1980) which had posters picturing teens slow dancing beneath decorative hearts and tag lines like “There’s more than one way to lose your heart.” Even A Nightmare on Elm Street billed the principle protagonist as “she’s the only one who can stop it – if she fails, no one will survive.” Movies like Prom Night and Carrie (1976) spotlight female protagonists, female bonding, and various courtships. These tactics can been seen throughout the genre and even into their contemporary remakes.On the topic of remakes, in 2010, a paper by Ryan Lizardi compares the original movies to their remakes to see how they relate and how they speak to current cultural issues. Slasher movie remakes tend to stem from a particular period, the 1970’s through the early 1980’s, a period known for its ideological issues with gender and political ambivalence. There are quite a few anti-remakers that take the view that the original is better partly because they are best understood in relation to the periods in which they were produced. Remakes often have to redefine normal vs. abnormal to fit a contemporary time. Also, to fit the new time, the rules have changed, trending towards more gore and stylized production. Lizardi goes through the details, but Scream 4 boils down the Rules to successfully survive a horror movie remake: (1) death scenes are way more extreme, (2) unexpected is the new cliché, (3) virgins can die now, (4) new technology is now involved…cell phones, video cameras, etc. (5) don’t need an opening sequence, (6) don’t f- with the original, and (7) if you want to survive, you pretty much have to be gay. Okay, so maybe Lizardi doesn’t say the last one. He does spend some time revisiting the remake of the Final Girl. Remakes often have this character learn and witness the full extent of the killer’s depravity (in a really gory way) and endure the most psychological damage. Lizardi concludes that these films speak to contemporary concerns and even have endings. Let’s turn our head to sequels, 'cause let's face it baby, these days, you gotta have a sequel. A 2004 paper by Martin Harris examines the horror franchise. Here he draws on the concepts of postmodernism and the unsettling feeling of normal vs. not-normal. Why do the killers – Freddy, Michael, Jason – keep coming back? He argues that their resurrection in sequels engenders its own frightening uncertainty. Where is the threshold? When is dead really gone? Harris spends a good deal of time arguing that it is more the economic realities of Hollywood that drive the sequel-making process rather than a demand from moviegoers to revisit the killers. I can see a lot of truth in that as these are known prop... Read more »

Wee, Valerie. (2005) The Scream Trilogy, "Hyperpostmodernism," and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film. Journal of Film and Video, 57(3), 44-61. info:/

  • October 23, 2014
  • 05:42 PM

Trick-or-Treating: What Do You Hand Out On Halloween?

by Melissa Chernick in Science Storiented

Halloween is almost here. And you know what that means: Candy! It’s one of those Halloween traditions that I just never seem to have grown out of. Those little chocolate bars are seriously dangerous to my waistline. Remember how much Halloween candy you ate when you were a kid? Were you one of those kids who gorged on all that sugary goodness, or were you the type to parse it out and make it last? I was a Trader, that kid that made deals to trade all her bad candy for the good stuff. Anyway, the topic of Halloween candy got me to searching through the scholarly journals in search of an article for today’s post. I came across a paper that asks if children really need all of that candy on Halloween. My first instinct was “Of course they do! It’s Halloween!” But, well, read on…It seems that being a fat American isn't just limited to adults, childhood obesity has been on the rise over the last 3 to 4 decades. Access to unhealthy foods and the poor nutritional quality of their diets is much to blame for this. The promotion and glorification of high sugar, high fat foods on Halloween is simply a good example. It probably comes as no surprise that research has shown that when children are given free access to tasty food that they eat it, especially if it’s sweet, even when they are not hungry. But is there a good alternative that kids will like? A slightly older paper published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior investigated the option and value of nonfood treats as substitutes for candy on Halloween.To do this, the researchers gave 284 trick-or-treating children a choice of a toy or candy. The toys included stretch pumpkin men, large glow-in-the-dark insects, Halloween theme stickers, and Halloween theme pencils. The candy choices were recognizable name brand lollipops, fruit-flavored chewy candies, fruit-flavored crunchy wafers, and “sweet and tart” hard candies. All of these toy and candy options ranged between 5 and 10 cents per item. When a trick-or-treating child arrived at a door, they were asked for their age, gender and a description of their Halloween costume (pretty typical…except maybe the gender question). Then they were presented with 2 identical plates: 1 with 4 different types of toys and the other with 4 different types of candy, alternating by site/household which on side the plates were located. Only children between 3 and 14 were included. And, if the child asked for both toy and candy, they were allowed to take both but were excluded from the study, but only 1 little girl did that.The results of the study showed that children chose toys as often as they chose candy. This suggests that children may forego candy more readily than adults expect. The authors cite Social Cognitive Theory as providing a way for candy alternatives to become more commonplace. According to this Theory, when parents see that children are accepting the candy alternatives they are more likely to continue the new toy giving behavior. Factor in the other fun Halloween activities – dressing up, walking around the neighborhood at night, etc. – and these toy treats become positively associated with the fun and the holiday.Okay, so what about the Halloween-only-comes-once-a-year argument. I’ll admit it is a good one and it something that the authors spend time to address. They point out that Halloween isn’t the only holiday where food and candy are advertised. Well, isn’t that the truth. They even make a nice list of other food laden holidays and events: weddings, new babies, graduation, back-to-school, birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Earth Day (wait…you get food on Earth Day?), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day. What they don’t add in are all of the other food-filled events that come seasonally (picnics, cook-outs, etc.) and socially (happy hours, get-togethers, etc.). Put together, that’s a lot of bad food choices all year long.Ultimately, what the authors are getting at is promoting healthy choices throughout the year. Part of this is giving children healthier options and traditions. It is almost more of a change for adults than it is for children. Breaking those food habits and associations isn’t easy, y’all. Food isn’t love, no matter how many Hershey’s Kisses you give someone. Wow did that ever sound shrinky!But I’ll throw in a last little note that I think almost every child on the planet would agree with: Don’t be that house than hands out toothbrushes.Schwartz, M., Chen, E., & Brownell, K. (2003). Trick, Treat, or Toy: Children Are Just as Likely to Choose Toys as Candy on Halloween Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 35 (4), 207-209 DOI: 10.1016/S1499-4046(06)60335-7(image and product via epicurious)... Read more »

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