Disruptive Patterns & the Artist-Scientist

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Many animals display disruptive coloration, a pattern that visually breaks up the edge of their shape. For example, Mabee’s Salamander (Ambystoma mabeei) wears speckles like frost along its side. And it was an artist who first described this biological phenomenon – Abbott Thayer. (1) His studies of these patterns influenced the use of camouflage in the military.

In a recent fun study, researchers placed graphic squiggle-snakes on a mock-leaf background or plain background. They manipulated the coloration – solid, patterned, or patterned with bold and bright edges to the shapes. The edge-enhancement made the squiggle-snakes more difficult to spot on a leafy background. It also confused the observer about the shape of the snake when it was on a plain background.

  1. Behrens RR. 2008. Revisiting Abbott Thayer: non-scientific reflections about camouflage in art, war and zoology. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society 364(1516) 497-501
  2. Sharman RJ and PG Lovell. 2019. Edge-enhanced disruptive camouflage impairs shape discrimination. i-Perception 10(5) 1-9

The Greenhouse

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This map project (for the corpse flower bloom event) has fertilized my love of greenhouses and my admiration for the people who make them blossom.

Greenhouses remind me of libraries – and I adore libraries. If you’ve read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, you understand that a library is like a wise, old, introverted friend. Not a know-it-all braggart, out to prove something. But someone who willingly helps answer any question you have, as long as you ask and take the time to listen to the answer.

Greenhouses also hold and conserve vast amounts of knowledge. They’re quiet, helpful, and friendly – like the people who work there. There’s even a couple of books about them, though not nearly as popular as The Library Book.

In 1980, an expert in greenhouse history (van den Muijzenberg) estimated that greenhouses enclosed 75,000 acres (~30,000 hectares). A quarter of those greenhouses stood in the Netherlands. The earliest documented “greenhouse” used oiled cloth, rather than glass, to keep cucumber plants growing year-round in Rome.

I think I’ll have a cucumber salad to celebrate.

Limes & Science Go Together

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In 1740, an English commodore led an ill-fated squadron of ships out to sea, prepared to circumnavigate the world (and attack some Spanish holdings along the way). Of over 1800 men starting the voyage, only 500 survived. The main killer was not war or weather, but  nutrition.

Just a few years after the flotilla returned, a naval doctor conducted one of the most famous experiments in the history of science. After a few months at sea, sailors on Dr. James Lind’s ship began exhibiting signs of scurvy. The doctor treated sick sailors with random supplements to their regular diet. Some shipmen received vinegar, or sea water, or barley water. They made no improvement. Sailors who were given citrus fruits, though, made quick and full recoveries.

Unfortunately, dogma and a small sample size caused many (including Dr. Lind) to underestimate the power of citrus. It wasn’t until the mid-1790s, as scurvy-free anecdotes and experiences grew, that ships rationed out citrus juice to prevent the disease. Enjoy some lemons, limes, or oranges in celebration of science!

Phoenecia: Land of Purple… Snail Dye

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“One of the costliest substances ever produced by man” was actually produced by sea snails (Hexaplex and Haustellum sp.). The Phoenicians (in modern-day Lebanon and Syria) harvested whelks and manufactured a reddish-purple dye called Tyrian Purple. Processing just one pound of the dye required millions of snails and cost almost $100,000 in today’s dollar. The color was prized by the Romans, who used the rare and expensive cloth to designate nobility. Romans named the land that produced the dye “Land of Purple,” or Phoenicia. (1)

As you can probably imagine, destroying millions of whelks for one pound of dye is pretty unsustainable. Over time, populations of the Mediterranean snail declined and were eventually extirpated from the region. The dye industry also collapsed. Even though other sources of purple dyes were found, they paled in comparison to Tyrian purple – literally, since Tyrian purple doesn’t fade in sunlight.

Today, many more species in the Mediterranean are facing extirpation. Almost every sea resource (like snails and other mollusks, turtles, crustaceans) in the area has plummeted to less than half its past population size. (2)

Nature can be an amazing provider, if respectfully and responsibly utilized. Populations of plants and animals produce more than could ever survive, so harvesting a certain number of individuals can actually help many species. But that “certain number” is important. Harvest too much, and the populations we rely upon decline. In harming other species, we ultimately harm our own – a lesson we could learn from the Phoenicians and the snails.

  1. McCord, C.P. 1969. The Lowly Whelk and the Lofty Royal Purple Dye. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 18(3) 379-385.
  2. Lotze, H.K., M. Coll, and J.A. Dunne. 2011. Historical Changes in Marine Resources, Food-web Structure and Ecosystem Functioning in the Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean. Ecosystems. 14(2): 198-222.

A Poinsettia by any other name… the cuetlaxochitl

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Politics was different in the early 1800s. You didn’t even have to run for office to be elected. Joel Poinsett’s friends nominated him to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and he won. By that time, he’d already completed years of travel through Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and South America where he’d met with foreign ministers, consuls, an empress, and many other political figures.

Within a few years, Poinsett became a U.S. congressman and then the first foreign minister in Mexico. That’s where he saw that plant that would later carry his name. He sent cuttings back to his greenhouses in Charleston and introduced the United States to a beautiful Mexican plant. Unfortunately, Poinsett got in a bit of trouble over his political views in Mexico (the word “poinsettismo” was coined as a result of his intrusive meddling) and was recalled from his post. Poinsett went on to cofound the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, later known as the Smithsonian Institution.(1)

Of course, the Poinsettia was well-known in Mexico long before Joel Poinsett. The plant is called cuetlaxochitl (pronounce), and grows as a shrub in Mexico City. The blood-red bracts are symbolic of sacrifices and creation.(2)

  1. To learn more about Joel Poinsett, read “Joel R. Poinsett: Versatile American” by J. F. Rippy
  2. Lots of interesting information about Poinsettias can be found at http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/

Purring Predators

flea_byJMLandin

As agriculture took hold in Middle Eastern societies about 10,000 years ago, archeological evidence of cat domestication appears. When humans began storing grain, any rodent-killing animal was a benefit. But the presence of cats didn’t spread along with agriculture. Egyptians may have revered cats, but other civilizations used weasels or snakes to limit mice. In the painting “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, the weasel may symbolize purity or the young woman’s last name (similar to the Greek word for ermine). With all due respect, however, I think the animal may have just been the lady’s pet; weasels were more common pets than cats at that time.

ermine

Cats may have been popular in Egypt during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but Greeks and Romans kept weasels as their rodent-killing pets. Cats joined European families around the fourth century but were relatively uncommon until the 1600s (1).

Nowadays, of course, cats are popular pets and internet memes. Their omnipresence is also a major cause of concern to ecologists and bird lovers. In a 2013 research article, Loss et al. estimated our purring pets (and their feral cousins) kill about 2.5 billion birds and 12 billion rodents each year in the U.S. alone (2).

P.s. The adorable cat who posed for this painting is our own 18-year old feline princess, Flea. She’s killed exactly one bird in her life, a fledgling finch who accidentally flew into her mouth. Flea didn’t even bite down; the little bird panicked to death.

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life. G.L. Campbell. 2014. Oxford University Press.
  2. Loss, S.R. et al. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4:1396.

Happy Darwin Day!!!

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Barnacles. Not that appealing, right? Charles Darwin probably would have agreed… until he ran into a small problem. He found a new species of barnacle on his trip around the world and couldn’t place it into a taxonomic category. So, Darwin ended up examining, dissecting and analyzing every known species of barnacle, re-ordering the entire crustacean sub-class to figure out where his little guy fit.

It took 8 years… of barnacles… and microscopes. Turns out that Darwin’s newly discovered species (which he politely called “Mr. Arthrobalanus”) was the smallest barnacle in the world. With close and careful observation, Darwin also realized that some species of barnacle, thought to consist only of females, actually housed minuscule males inside small compartments of the feminine form. However, the most influential aspect of such this detailed study was the realization that immense variation occurs within and among species (variation being a key component in natural selection). Those barnacles changed not just biology, but our understanding of the world.

February 12, 2016 is Darwin’s 207th Birthday. Enjoy some cake (and maybe even send some love to Mr. Arthrobalanus)!

 

Interested in learning more about Darwin? I recommend three books: The Autobiography of Charles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle, and Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin (although all of Darwin’s letters can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).