Yesterday morning I stumbled across a paper in TREE by Calboli et al. (2011) that calls for scientists to start an amphibian genome project. This got me thinking about amphibians; how fascinating they are, and simultaneously, how much trouble they’re in.

They’re super cool because (as the name implies) they bridge aquatic and terrestrial living (amphi + bio = both + life). Kind of like olympic swimmers… maybe instead of swimming levels like “blue”, “dolphin”, and “shark” they should use “tadpole”, “frog”, and “salamander”! Check out the Japanese Giant Salamander (1.5m), or the Chinese Giant Salamander (1.8m). These fellas are forces to reckon with. Amphibians were also the first vertebrates to drag themselves out of primordial seas to gulp down air 360 million years ago, which means they could tell us a lot about the evolution of life across our little blue planet!

However, if you clicked the Chinese Giant Salamander link, you may have noticed that on the right side Wikipedia lists the conservation status according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) which places them as critically endangered (CR). The sad side of the amphibian story is that a lot of them are in trouble: 41% of them are ‘threatened’ or worse. As Calboli et al (2011) points out, that is more than ANY other vertebrate group.

It seems to me that amphibians are especially sensitive to changes in their environments, and since they live in TWO types of environment simultaneously, changes in either habitat can mess with them. Roads and cars will kill them as they move between ponds, acid rain and pesticides will change water chemistry so that they can’t breath properly through their skins, introduced pathogens and fungi kill them in droves all across the world, droughts and climate change dry up their wetlands. Humans intentionally dry up their wetlands too. When I was in elementary school my best friend at the time lived next to a massive swamp in Toronto (Scarborough). When developers wanted to buy the land and turn it into retail space, she and her brother rallied the community and got petitions signed to let the swamp stay. I remember them celebrating – the swamp was saved!! Today there is a Home Depot there. What happened?

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When I was a kid we used to tromp about in this swamp wearing big wellington boots (often loosing them to the sticky mud!) and catching tadpoles. Its devastating to me that my friend’s children and their children probably wont have that experience. Even if there are swamps to play in still, pulling out tadpoles to watch how they slowly grow little legs and get bigger and bigger at the front while their tails get smaller and smaller until it’s not a tadpole at all… well, that will be out of the question as they become more threatened. Its devastating because these (sometimes not so little) creatures can tell us so much about why and how life as we know it got to be here. But that window is closing.

I know that there are some captive breeding programs (like at the Toronto Zoo) but there are so many problems with captive breeding in general… For example they often run into inbreeding depression (not enough genetic material to maintain within-species diversity and negative genetic problems begin to surface that eventually decrease survivorship in the captive population). The ultimate goal of captive breeding is supposed to be re-introduction, but that has a whole mess of it’s own problems. If you somehow dodge killing your captive population with diseases or inbreeding, and successfully teach them the skills they need in the wild, then you often need to introduce thousands of individuals a year over multiple years to get them to establish in the slightest. This is all assuming that you can return them to the wild at all; often times there is nowhere to reintroduce them TO because of habitat loss! And then, what’s to stop the same problems that killed them off in the first place from killing them again, making all this work and investment pointless?

Last year I went on a field trip where I heard about captive conservation programs. One thing they told us is that conservation plans are put together to maximize the within-species genetic diversity over a specific time period. To do this, they drag out generation times as long as possible because as soon as an individual mates and has offspring, that offspring represents half of the genetic information that was in the parents (let me know if you want an explanation of why). To keep the greatest amount of genetic diversity for the longest time, they want fewer generations in that period of time. The problem with that is that even though there is more genetic diversity, there are fewer individuals… these species are essentially museum pieces! Sure, they’re alive, but they’re not increasing the population… it feels like a patch, not a fix.

That being said, it’s still these are still the best options available for species that are extinct in the wild. Theoretically there HAVE been a couple of successful reintroductions; Arabian oryx, black footed ferrets, and California condors to name a few. Just because it may not work does not mean we shouldn’t try. Every success is justification for many many more attempts. Besides, captive breeding is supposed to be a last resort, for many amphibian species, the situation is not that desperate yet.

So what can we do? Look for programs like Frog Watch Ontario (sorry, I don’t know what they do in BC yet, I haven’t been here long enough), support conservation programs, fight against wetland destruction, and for goodness sake, don’t pick up frogs. They don’t like that. And it’s not so great for you either.

Pucker up!

Vine Maple

I’ve been taking frequent walks in the fabulous forests they have here, and as I do I encounter more and more fun organisms that I don’t recognize. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the names of all the things I’d encounter while walking through a forest (or other habitat) in Ontario, but most of them would be familiar at least. As I wander around here, I find myself compelled to examine and identify the things I don’t recognize. Maybe this isn’t because I’m in a new place, but because I’ve been spending so much more time outside than I did in Toronto… Actually, that seems most probable.

Anyway, let me introduce you to my friend Acer circinatum or Vine Maple.


(photo by Mike Boers)

The leaves are kind of fuzzy on one side, and the trees grow as spindly-sprawly shrub things. They’re colonizing trees; they like to get in quick after a disturbance, like Alders or paper birch. They hang out in the understory in older forests (which is where I saw this one). They’re super bendy, so sometimes the top ends up growing so that it rests on the ground – if it does, then the top may take root giving you an ARCH. They’re planted as ornamental trees outside of their native ranges (like Toronto and Ottawa – so you might be able to spy it if you’re over there).

While looking for the identity of this tree, I found this fun resource. Though the image in there of a Vine Maple leaf doesn’t look like this to me… it looks more like a classic maple leaf to me.

Banana Slug!

Mike and I have discovered the Burnaby Central Park by our house. Yesterday as we walked through the park, I excitedly encountered this little fella:


My first reaction was OH MY GOODNESS, BANANA SLUG! For the record, there aren’t any banana slugs in Ontario, so in general I find them very exciting. However, I wasn’t about to post about them until I knew for sure it WAS a banana slug. When you google banana slug you get images that look like this! Hardly seems like the same little guy; this one was only about 4cm, has black markings, and much darker pigmentation. Luckily I discovered that this is in fact the Pacific banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus), as opposed to the other two species (A. dolichophallus, and A. californicus) which seem to come in more yellow shades (based on google image searches…).

I also find them exciting because in first year biology they were one of the first examples of the interface between behaviour and evolution that I ever encountered. In brief, the basic story is that there are multiple populations of your regular old garter snake (Thamnophis elegans). They originated inland and slithered out to more costal habitats, where they discovered banana slugs. Some fraction of the colonizing snakes were able to smell the slugs (a physiological trait that is controlled by genes), so all of a sudden with this new prey source they were able to eat like snake kings (!!) while their scent-sensing-deficient siblings suffered (or did no better than in their old habitat). As a result of this difference in predation behaviour, some did relatively better, proliferated more, and the result is that today, only a few inland garter snakes are capable of recognizing banana slugs as food, while most coastal snakes can. BLAM behavioural ecology.


Earlier this evening Jasmine walked past the washroom cabinet that was sitting on the floor, waiting to be mounted on the wall in the washroom. As she went by she paused to look at herself in the mirror for a moment or two before moving on.

This got me thinking about the mirror test and how it was abused by some of my instructors during my undergraduate. The basic idea of the mirror test is that if an animal is self conscious or self-aware, then it will understand that the reflection is actually them, not another animal. To test this, they place a mark on the animal while it is asleep; when it wakes up they show it the mirror and if they touch the mark (on their own body, not the mirror) then they have understood that the image is a representation of their own body (otherwise they would not have touched the mark on their own body)… thus indicating that they understand the difference between themselves and others.

I have a problem with this. I would argue that understanding the difference between self and other is a basic response shown by the simplest of organisms – even individual cells have “internal” and “external” environments that they modulate with membranes, walls, and intercellular communication. The fact that they communicate between cells at all indicates self awareness to some extent to me.

Anyway, the reason I actually bring this up is not because it is fundamentally flawed (though I have since discovered that the wikipedia article talks about some of it’s flaws). The reason I say that it was being abused by my instructors is because they violated some pretty basic philosophies of science with the way that they talked about it. Things like “Dogs are not self-aware. They don’t pass the mirror test.”

Uhm, no.

Lets review some basic philosophy of science.**
1) I have an idea or question (what is the stuff in the cylinder that rests on the table?!?)
2) I form a hypothesis (Maybe it’s salt!)
3) I make predictions (If it’s salt, it will taste salty.)
4) I test my hypothesis (OM NOM)
5) I get results (was it salty?)
6) I interpret the results (it was salty = it’s probably salt. It wasn’t salty = maybe it’s not salt.)

**This example is ripped off from an anecdote of a friend teaching her daughter scientific method. Yes, I am indeed implying that the instructor I’m bitching about is stupider than a toddler.

The problem I have with statements like “They don’t pass the mirror test, therefore, they are not self aware.” is that lack of evidence does not prove anything. There is no PROVING in science to begin with. There is “supporting” and “not supporting”. If the test does not provide evidence to support that my friend’s golden retriever is self-aware, that does not mean that the golden retriever is not self-aware; ALL it means is that the test did not provide evidence to suggest that it is self aware. The stuff on the table didn’t taste salty; that doesn’t mean it’s not salt – it means we don’t have evidence that it IS salt. Maybe you have a cold, and everything tastes like cotton and snot.

Anyway /rant.

Sometimes it amuses me that things like that can still irritate me years later. But seriously, dude, that’s just stupid. I had trouble in classes where I felt the instructor was teaching things that are incorrect. There are too many students (myself included sometimes) who will just trust what the instructor is saying because they must know… that’s why they are the instructor, and we are the students. There’s a certain amount of respect and trust in the teacher-student relationship, and I feel that blatant blatant mistakes are just… well, I felt a bit betrayed (as well as appalled), yeh know? I suppose it was all for the best. Instructors like that one are probably the ones that turned me into a jaded critical thinker. I appreciate the “critical thinker” part.

Wakeupwakeup first day of school, boyohboyohboy WOAH

I went to SFU (which Mike has begun pronouncing sss-fooo and is in danger of catching on for me) for my “first day” today. It ended up being a first morning, but that was lovely too. There weren’t very many people in, but I now have a desk and a key is on it’s way and hopefully I’ll have a staff number soon. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to anyone about potential new projects (a LONG while actually) so talking about it with my new supervisor was pretty exciting! Everything was all very general because we don’t know what direction I’ll be going in yet, but that was part of why it was exciting I think.

After I came home I had a bunch of forms to fill out, many of which require my phone number. I hadn’t gotten around to dealing with my phone number change, so I decided that I should really just do it. However for some reason my account couldn’t do it online. Mike’s worked fine, but mine kept on giving me an error. I gave up on doing it independently and instead called Fido directly. Mike’s online phone number change took 30 seconds; the part that took longest was picking which phone number he wanted. Otherwise, the process took about 5 cursor clicks in total. Somehow the (incredibly incompetent) woman on the phone with me managed to make this 5 click process take TWENTY MINUTES. After 20 minutes the phone number she was attempting to put through “got lost in the system”, and frustrated, I told her I would figure it out online somehow myself, goodbye, and hung up. After a few minutes of abject rage induced gargling and squawking noises flowing freely from my face and fists (yes, fists can make noises if you’re frustrated enough), Mike persuaded me to call them up and tell them I was switching to Mobilicity. I sat down in front of the Mobilicity website and picked out the plan they have that I wanted and called Fido. The first thing the Customer Relations woman (who was so much more helpful) I spoke to did was get me a new phone number; it took her about 1 minute (maybe 2 if you include our brief discussion of what phone number I wanted). Then we got to talking about what plan would work for me. What she came up with was $43 a month with everything I asked for. That’s still more expensive than the $35 plan from Mobilicity that I would get, but I would get to keep my iPhone (Mobilicity can’t support iPhone data). I’m torn. I love my iPhone, and $43 is a great deal (the equivalent of the deal would normally cost something like $57) but I wanted my bill to be less than $40, and Mobilicity’s plans all have features that are unlimited.

Food for thought anyway.

lots of unpacking

My goodness, it’s been a week since I last posted. I don’t have a whole lot to report. Our apartment is really starting to shape up and feel like a home instead of a cell (the barren prison kind, not the fun biology kind, ha. ha. ha. so punny). We got the cat tree up today, which Jasmine really appreciates; I’ll post a picture next time. Monday will be my first day at Simon Fraser. Woo! Wish me luck.

That is all.

Testing Email Posting

You can post to posterous through email, and this is my first attempt to do that. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to add except that tomorrow morning all our stuff is arriving!! Then I’ll skip off to the voting polls before I start unpacking. We have to get the TV set up so that we can watch the election unfold (via internet… so I suppose the TV is not actually necessary, just desirable).

Perhaps I’ll have a post sometime about jet-lag; I’m still so jet-lagged it’s silly. I woke up at 6:30AM bright eyed and bushy tailed as though I had slept in. Dear circadian rhythms, please get a grip. I’m not accustomed to watching the sunrise… though if I never see it again in BC I’ll be happy to have seen it once over the mountains. The view of them lit from the west is starting to become familiar, so east was fresh.

I just watched Obama’s live address Re: Osama Bin Laden’s demise. Just before that I had followed a friend’s link on facebook to his recent comedic speech that included a parody trailer called the “President’s Speech”. It joked about him loosing his teleprompter and having to improv… Anyway I was amused that at the end of his live address the camera pulled out so far that the top of his teleprompter was in frame. Here is an example of the importance of mental priming.

I also finally just finished watching (obviously not live) the “Royal Wedding”. I knew it was going to be terribly boring, but I figured that like so many other culturally important events, I should probably watch it through. In the end I put it on in the background while doing other things. My summary; beautiful architecture, incredible gowns (Kate’s bride’s maid’s dress was my favourite – imagine it in shimmery midnight blue at the Oscars), lots of long religious babble (though the bits that I actually zoned in for weren’t as potently painful as some religious wedding speeches I’ve heard), beautiful music and most amusingly notable; many stupid hats. I hear this guy is who we have to blame for things like this. Incredibly, it also got it’s own cupcake.

I shall leave you (after this long update with nothing science related at all in it) with a video of my squeaky kitty.