I think, therefore I am

Biological Sciences student searching for all things fascinating and funky.


Looks like the wondrous Wildlife Society is out and about to show off the Montana student chapter on club day. Now that school is in full swing you will be hearing more from them, for sure!


New episode! - An introduction to: Insect Orders 

We’ve all seen insects, right? Scuttling along the forest floor, buzzing between flowers, or simply basking in the sun. But what are the different types and how are they classified? Phil gets to grips with taxonomy and illustrates some common critters you might see on your travels.

(via theconservationbiologist)

tuggywuggy asked: Is congenital myotonia found in non-domesticated animals?


This question comes from my video about GOATS! so you should watch that first to get an intro on fainting goats (congenital myotonia) and also just because goat science is awesome. 

I just spent half an hour digging through scientific literature trying to find reports of congenital myotonia (“fainting syndrome”) in a wild animal and came up with exactly zilch, zero, and nada. We see it in goats, horses, dogs, cats, people… all of which are domesticated species (except for maybe people), but no reported cases in wild animals. Does that mean it’s impossible?


First let me summarize what should happen in a normal skeletal muscle contraction, then I’ll answer that question.

Muscle cells, like nerve cells, actively maintain different concentrations of ions on either side of their membrane. This resting membrane potential is super-interesting, but also pretty complicated, so instead of me turning this answer into a textbook chapter, all you need to remember right now is that the inside of a muscle cell is slightly negative compared to the outside. The ions we need to keep in mind right now are sodium (Na+, higher conc. outside), potassium (K+, higher concentration inside), and chloride (Cl-, higher concentration outside). 

When a nerve impulse reaches a muscle fiber, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine opens a sodium-specific door on the muscle and lets some Na+ ions inside.

Sodium is a positive ion, so it makes the inside of the muscle more positive. Then that initial burst of Na+ leads to an even larger Na+ wave. Positivity breeds positivity, people!

This burst of positive charge into the muscle cell is essentially what makes it contract (although I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff, like how calcium comes into play, to dig into more detail on all this, check out these great illustrations from MDA.org)

Of course, muscles don’t usually stay contracted, unless you’re dead, diseased, or get a cramp. Why not? After a short amount of time, potassium ions flow out of the cell through their own special potassium doors (making the inside more negative again) and chloride ions move in through their special chloride doors (making the inside even more negative).

It’s the return to that original inside-negative state that makes the muscle relax (now maybe you can start to see why loss of salt/electrolytes can lead to cramps?)

Finally we come to the fainting goats. Congenital myotonia leads to a mutation in that chloride channel I mentioned up there (if you’re into gene and protein names, it’s called CLCN1), meaning that those muscle cells take longer to return to their normal negative-on-the-inside charge and stay locked in the “on” state. 

That’s what we see in “fainting” goats, or any other creature with congenital myotonia. The muscles just lock up, and the “fainting” is really just “falling over thanks to suddenly obtaining the flexibility of a statue.” 

So does this mutation exist in wild animals? Probably. There’s no reason a wild animal could gain a spontaneous mutation in its chloride channel gene and have particularly rigid offspring. Only these statue-creatures would be easy pickings for predators, as in “easiest meal evar,” and that mutation wouldn’t be able spread throughout the population. Since we can’t keep track of every single wild animal and their offspring, we probably never see it (although there might be isolated reports out there). Like, what’s happening with this panda? I don’t even know.

On the other hand, we inbreed the hell out of domesticated animals, and thanks to fences, sharp sticks, and sheepdogs, we tend to keep them fairly safe from predators (not to mention that humans don’t have any predators except each other). So whether or not they have the genetic misfortune of crumpling into a heap of myotonic hilarity every time we sneak up behind them, we’ve artificially (and accidentally) amplified this mutation in domesticated breeds (although breeders are often encouraged to not breed “fainting” animals).

So the answer to your question is almost certainly yes, although the Bad Wolves keep the Weeping Angels from taking over.





During the Bubonic Plague, doctors wore these bird-like masks to avoid becoming sick. They would fill the beaks with spices and rose petals, so they wouldn’t have to smell the rotting bodies. 

A theory during the Bubonic Plague was that the plague was caused by evil spirits. To scare the spirits away, the masks were intentionally designed to be creepy. 

Mission fucking accomplished

Okay so I love this but it doesn’t cover the half of why the design is awesome and actually borders on making sense.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to smell the infected and dead, they thought it was crucial to protecting themselves. They had no way of knowing about what actually caused the plague, and so one of the other theories was that the smell of the infected all by itself was evil and could transmit the plague. So not only would they fill their masks with aromatic herbs and flowers, they would also burn fires in public areas, so that the smell of the smoke would “clear the air”. This all related to the miasma theory of contagion, which was one of the major theories out there until the 19th century. And it makes sense, in a way. Plague victims smelled awful, and there’s a general correlation between horrible septic smells and getting horribly sick if you’re around what causes them for too long.

You can see now that we’ve got two different theories as to what caused the plague that were worked into the design. That’s because the whole thing was an attempt by the doctors to cover as many bases as they could think of, and we’re still not done.

The glass eyepieces. They were either darkened or red, not something you generally want to have to contend with when examining patients. But the plague might be spread by eye contact via the evil eye, so best to ward that off too.

The illustration shows a doctor holding a stick. This was an examination tool, that helped the doctors keep some distance between themselves and the infected. They already had gloves on, but the extra level of separation was apparently deemed necessary. You could even take a pulse with it. Or keep people the fuck away from you, which was apparently a documented use.

Finally, the robe. It’s not just to look fancy, the cloth was waxed, as were all of the rest of their clothes. What’s one of the properties of wax? Water-based fluids aren’t absorbed by it. This was the closest you could get to a sterile, fully protecting garment back then. Because at least one person along the line was smart enough to think “Gee, I’d really rather not have the stuff coming out of those weeping sores anywhere on my person”.

So between all of these there’s a real sense that a lot of real thought was put into making sure the doctors were protected, even if they couldn’t exactly be sure from what. They worked with what information they had. And frankly, it’s a great design given what was available! You limit exposure to aspirated liquids, limit exposure to contaminated liquids already present, you limit contact with the infected. You also don’t give fleas any really good place to hop onto. That’s actually useful.

Beyond that, there were contracts the doctors would sign before they even got near a patient. They were to be under quarantine themselves, they wouldn’t treat patients without a custodian monitoring them and helping when something had to be physically contacted, and they would not treat non-plague patients for the duration. There was an actual system in place by the time the plague doctors really became a thing to make sure they didn’t infect anyone either.

These guys were the product of the scientific process at work, and the scientific process made a bitchin’ proto-hazmat suit. And containment protocols!

reblogging for the sweet history lesson

(via thegreenwolf)


In love with my tattoo, first session is a success

The bird is so well done (what species is it? Looks a bit like the song thrushes I see in my back garden)


In love with my tattoo, first session is a success

The bird is so well done (what species is it? Looks a bit like the song thrushes I see in my back garden)

bioqueer asked: I saw on your response to an anon question on the first of march that you are "uncomfortable with a large part of behavioural science". I was wondering if you could elaborate? I'm currently studying behavioral science, and I'm curious what some of the weaknesses others see are. I see some methodological issues with the field, but think it's still quite valuable. I'd like to know where the problems are, so I can make an informed decision about where to put my further study energy.


A few big problems for me with behavioural science are how frequently experiments are poorly designed, the level of control is impossible to assess, and behaviours are subjectively interpreted. I also think that a lot of modelling that takes place in behavioural science tells us very little about the animals they are looking at except that they don’t necessarily behave like a computer simulation. Quantifying behaviour in a meaningful, informative, and interesting way is extremely difficult. There is also a problem of perceived significance (and the stupidity of arbitrary significance) and pathetic sample sizes in a LOT of behavioural research. I have read several behavioural studies where the effective sample size was about 3 individuals, because of the number that had to be discarded.

I am not saying it’s not a valuable field. I would be the last person to say that a field is valueless, considering how niche my own field is. What I am saying is that in my experience, from the behavioural research I have done, the literature I have read, and the lectures I have sat through, a lot of the conclusions that are being drawn in behavioural fields are stronger than the data warrants. This is something that should be avoided whenever possible in science.

Behavioural science is actually a really exciting field in terms of technological and methodological advancement. Hopefully we will be able to transfer experiments that have previously been done under lab conditions to the field, where control is more difficult but conclusions are more relevant to real behaviours. My partner’s research for example has just demonstrated that the gluing of PIT tags to field crickets doesn’t affect their longevity in the field, meaning that research on these insects can now be done in a field environment without worrying about the study subjects having lower survival than their unstudied counterparts.

I just urge anyone in behavioural science to go forth with careful consideration of their goals and the ways in which to achieve them in a statistically sound and reasonable way. As I have discovered myself, it is so easy to make a study meaningless by less than careful research design. Avoid that at all costs.