Need a feel-good news story to pick you up today? Here you go. It’s certainly nice to see Ohio in the news for non-COVID reasons.
The Akron Zoo, where I worked briefly about 10 years ago, recently got a new resident: a blue lobster. Employees at the local Red Lobster restaurant, which is literally down the road from me, discovered this specimen in one of their shipments and reached out to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which put them in touch with the Akron Zoo. It turns out that only one in about 2 million lobsters are blue, which certainly makes this lobster pretty special!
“Clawde” then got adopted and relocated to the zoo, which happens to have a lot of experienced aquatic animal keepers because many were hired on there after SeaWorld Ohio closed in 2000. After settling in there, zoo staff discovered that the lobster was actually female, and she was renamed “Clawdia.” She’s being housed in the Komodo Kingdom building where the aquatic exhibits are located, though you can’t visit her yet as all zoo building are currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 precautions (the zoo itself is open).
Like many of us bored during the COVID stay-at-home period, YouTuber Mark Rober turned to a new hobby: backyard birding. But Mark is a former NASA engineer (you may know him from his glitter bomb bait package video), so when he saw squirrels getting into his bird feeder, this new hobby spun out into an experiment in squirrel-proof bird feeders, which then (naturally) eventually involved into building a Ninja Warrior-style squirrel obstacle course in his yard.
His YouTube video on the subject is highly entertaining, but what impressed me most as a scientist was…the science! Did you know there was going to be science? You might have missed it because it was so interesting.
His observations of the course begin by identifying his subjects: 4 particular squirrels were included in this study. My favorite: Phat Gus aka Phantastic Gus, who turns out to be a pregnant female. Speaking as another currently-pregnant female, Phat Gus is quite frankly an inspiration to me.
The study here really consists of two types of animal behavior science. The most interesting to me is the part involving ethology, the study of animals’ behavior typically in their natural environment with limited interference. This type of research was my primary focus during my undergrad; my career goal was to study animal behavior in zoos (spoiler alert: this is not my current field of biology at all).
For example, I would observe the manatees at the Columbus zoo, creating an ethogram of their behaviors (eating, sleeping, social interaction, swimming, surfacing to breathe) to see how much of their time was spent doing each activity, and what part of the exhibit they were doing them in. This led me to be fascinated by the physiology of how manatees use their tails, flippers, and bodies to rise to the surface to breathe, even while sleeping.
Rober is similarly fascinated by the physics of how squirrels are able to land so cleanly even after being launched or dropped from his platforms: lowering their terminal velocity, turning in midair and pulling in/stretching their limbs, spotting their landings, and using their tails to adjust their trajectory. He nicely ties this back to the evolutionary ecology of squirrels, considering it an adaptation to life in trees.
Also under the ethology category would be his initial pilot study of which type of seeds or nuts the squirrels prefer: walnuts, which he then used as his obstacle course final reward.
The obstacle course itself is a great example of behaviorism, measuring behavioral responses to stimuli (typically in a laboratory environment). This is the kind of research people typically think of with rats in mazes or Pavlov making dogs salivate to a bell.
It only took the squirrels about a week to get to the end of the obstacle course, and they were eventually able to do it all in less than 40 seconds.
Rober also highlighted another important aspect of animal research: the safety of the subjects. I appreciated his repeated comments on how he made the course humane so the squirrels would not actually be harmed.
This video highlights so much of why I love animal behavior research. Animals are endlessly fascinating to me, and I find interacting with them, even just by observing in a research setting, to be a rewarding educational experience.
Rober never did find a bird feeder that completely stopped the squirrels. But in the end, he didn’t really care.
After waiting many months for it at the library, I am happy to report that it is indeed an excellent book and I happily recommend it, though I wouldn’t say it was the best book ever, or even the best book I read this year.
Crawdads is the story of Kya, abandoned as a child by her family in the marshes of North Carolina during the 1950s, interspersed with the 1969 investigation of the murder of a popular young local man. The back-and-forth between the two plot threads is wonderful, though the payoff when they finally connect was a little underwhelming to me.
The writing in general is excellent, though at points it does feel like a debut novel. The world building is really special, with a unique setting and atmosphere. There also is a sweet young love story that I was head-over-heels for.
But what did I really love? The biology!
Kya grows up in the marshes, swamps, and estuaries of the coastal South, and comes to see Nature as her real family. She sleeps outside and lives off the land. She knows all the plants, birds, and fish of the region. She collects flowers, nests, and bird feathers which she then sketches and categorizes by species. She feeds the gulls on the beach and names them. Many people have said that the marsh is treated like a character in the book, and it’s really true.
The descriptions of all these ecological details are like catnip to a biologist like me. As someone with a background in animal behavior, I loved the way Kya approaches human relationships from the lens of the animal behavior she has observed and read about. She always looks for comparisons between animal and human social behaviors; sometimes they correspond well, like with certain male and female mating strategies, and sometimes slightly less, like with certain maternal behaviors.
Owens is a biologist herself, having already published books about her time spent studying wildlife in Africa. (She’s also been published in Nature, which is a pretty big deal for a scientist.) As a biologist and aspiring novelist, Owens is a big inspiration to me, along with other biologists such as Diana Galabdon (Outlander) and Stephanie Laurens (Regency romances) who have gone on to have phenomenal careers as fiction writers.
If you are looking for a quick, engaging read with some new perspectives but nothing too groundbreaking, I think Crawdads is for you. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t think it quite lived up to the excessive hype. Since many of you reading this have probably read it, what were your thoughts?
Yes, she spent hours making these intricate cupcakes, just for the sake of irritating me by putting polar bears and penguins together. She has whole books full of cupcake designs, so I imagine that once she saw these two animals she couldn’t resist.
To be fair, they were really cute, and also tasty.
Mini marshmallows for paws
Marshmallow for stomach, Starburst for beak. Oreos for wings, and he’s also dipped in chocolate.
I’ve seen a lot of calls recently for scientists to do some outreach and explain to the general public what they do for a living, how science works, etc.
A major effort came in February after David Steen, PhD (@AlongsideWild), tweeted that “most Americans can’t name a living scientist.” With some help from Mary Roblyer (@darthmom7), the hashtag #actuallivingscientist took off on Twitter, with scientists introducing themselves and their work.
So…hi! I want to do something similar here, as well as open the floor up for questions.
My Science Career
I have a Bachelor’s in Zoology from a small, four-year liberal arts university, with emphasis on genetics and animal behavior. I received an honors diploma for my independent study research on developmental genetics of C. elegans, a tiny hermaphroditic roundworm. (I also had to sit an exam, but that’s less exciting.) I also did internships at zoos, doing animal care work as well as observational research on various animal behavior.
After graduation I worked as a zookeeper and then at an animal shelter for a few years.
I currently work at a medical school in the research department. I am a research assistant in a lab that investigates how to grow new blood vessels in hearts with heart disease, using stem cells created in the lab. I have been listed as an author on several papers we have published in research journals.
Ask Me Anything
As part of my outreach, I’d like to invite my readers to ask me anything they are curious about regarding science. Some topics might include:
Daily tasks of my job
Current experiments in the field of stem cell therapy for heart disease
Where my funding comes from
Clarification of any terminology I’ve used in this post
How scientific papers get published
Science in science fiction
How science intersects with my religion
My opinions of current science topics in the news
What kind of music I listen to in the lab
For personal and professional reasons, I can’t give too many details about my current work. But I will do my best to answer all your questions as fully as possibly.
Basically, if you ask a sincere, polite question, you will get a sincere, polite answer. Leave your question in the comments below, and I’ll respond to you there. If your question is really good, I might even make a whole post about it. 🙂
The questions don’t even have to be about biology; I have plenty of scientist friends in other disciplines I can appeal to. Though, if you have a very specific question like How much Force power can Yoda output?, I’d encourage you to try submitting it to What If? because I don’t have time to watch The Empire Strikes Back repeatedly to check the X-wing’s rate of ascent.