This semester, my upper-division Animal Behavior class (BIOL 330) conducted a study on the feeding behavior of house cats. We recruited our friends and families to volunteer their cats as research subjects. Students in the class came up with a research plan and carried out all aspects of the project. Pairs of students wrote short blog posts about the results. I’ve posted a great one below by seniors Shane McWirther and Nick Loken. There were several other great ones, and we had contributions from every class member (listed below). Thanks so much to all of the participants that took the time to complete the study. Check out the results – they’re great!

To Eat or Not To Eat Protein? That Is The Question 

It’s that time again – Snickers is sitting at his empty bowl with a look of despair. You completely forgot to run to the store and get him his usual bag of Fancy Feast. Finals are coming up and you have a term paper due tomorrow. As much as you don’t want to waste time driving through traffic to get more food, nobody likes an agitated cat. You rev up your 96’ Honda and speed down to PetSmart. This trip has been made many times before; walk through the doors, take a right and awkwardly power walk down to aisle 8 where the Frisky Feast awaits you. You go to grab the bag but it’s nowhere to be found. What now? The term paper looms over you and you grab the first bag of cat food you see. He won’t even know the difference. It’s just cat food. But what if he could?

Researchers have discovered that food preferences for many animals are not simply determined by chance. Balancing macronutrients through selective foraging has been found throughout the animal kingdom. Primates (Felton et. al 2009) and mice (Sorensen et. al 2008) are known to maintain stable protein levels in their diet over time regardless of caloric intake. These observations are potentially explained by the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, which posits that animals adjust their level of food intake to reach a constant protein intake level.

The aim of the current study is to see whether cats adhere to the Protein Level Hypothesis and choose foods based on their macronutrient content. Specifically, we tested 3 predictions: (1) If cats selectively forage to maintain stable protein levels, those pre-treated with low protein foods will compensate by eating protein rich foods when given a choice between foods with varying protein content; (2) If cats do not selectively forage, they will prefer whatever food they are pretreated with regardless of its macronutrient composition; (3) If a cats current nutritional state does not affect its foraging habits, pre-treatment will have no effect on foraging habits of cats when given access to foods with varying macronutrient content. The results of the study could provide support for the Protein Leverage Hypothesis and in turn inform pet owners on eating habits of their beloved felines and help them make better choices when scouring the grocery aisles for the perfect cat food.

Methods:

Table 1. Major components of Purina One Urinary  Tract (UT) and Healthy Metabolism  (HM) dry foods

Table 1. Major components of Purina One Urinary Tract (UT) and Healthy Metabolism (HM) dry foods

Thirty-eight cats (from 25 cat owners) were recruited to participate in the study. Cat owners received a package containing one bag of low carbohydrate + fat, high-protein cat food (Purina Healthy Metabolism (HM)), one bag of high carbohydrate + fat, low-protein cat food (Purina Urinary Tract Health (UT)), one bag containing a mixture of both formulas, and one pre-treatment bag containing solely UT or HM formula (complete dietary information is listed in Table 1). All food bags were labeled and weighed prior to distribution. Cats were weaned onto bags containing a mixture of the two formulas for four days by serving it along with their customary food brand. On day five, cats were given access to only the pre-treatment bag containing solely HM or UT formula. On day six, cats were given equal access to both HM and UT formulas. Bags from days five and six were returned to the researchers and weighed upon arrival in the lab. Multiple cat homes were treated as one participant. Data was analyzed using JMP.

Results & Discussion: 

Figure 1. Relationship between pre-feeding treatment and % protein eaten when cats free fed one day later

Figure 1. Relationship between pre-feeding treatment and % protein eaten when cats free fed one day later

We found that cats consumed the same amount of pre-treatment food on day five of the experiment regardless of what formula the bag contained (Average intake of UT = 120.4g, HM = 126.4g, p>0.05). This result shows that cats ate whatever was given to them in the absence food choice. However, cats were observed to eat almost twice as much of the high protein HM formula compared to the low protein UT formula when given equal access to each on day six (Average intake of HM = 82.0g, UT = 43.1g, p<0.05). This result indicates that cats were selectively foraging for protein. However, we also found that pre-feeding conditions significantly affected foraging behavior on a subsequent day. Specifically, we found that cats pre-treated with the low-protein UT formula ate a significantly higher proportion of protein (higher HM:UT consumption) on day six compared to cats pre-treated with HM formula (Figure 1, p<0.05).

Our study is the first to test for nutrient balancing in domestic cats using a citizen-science study design. The protein compensation that we found on day six observed in UT pre-treated cats provides strong support for our main prediction – that cats selectively forage to maintain nutrient balance. Prediction two was supported by the fact that UT pre-treated cats did not consume a larger ratio of UT:HM formula which would be indicated by consumption of a lower proportion of protein on day six (Figure 1). These results are consistent with a recent study using lab cats (Hewson-Hughes et al. 2011). Although the exact feeding methods of the cat owners were not directly observed, we do not believe that this impacted our results since owners were given detailed instructions on the protocol.

Shane 2Many cat owners do not take into account the macronutrient composition of the cat food they are buying even though it may be in their cat’s best interests. Being force-fed low-protein foods may cause many cats to over-eat in order for them to stabilize protein intake in their diet. Over-eating can lead to several different health disorders, possibly shortening the lifespan of cats. So next time you’re rushing through the store looking to buy a new bag of cat food, take the time to stop and look at its nutritional composition. This simple choice could be the difference between a fat cat and a happy cat.

Citations:

Felton AM, Felton A, Raubenheimer D, Simpson SJ, Foley WJ, Wood JT, Lindenmayer DB (2009) Protein content of diets dictates the daily energy intake of a free-ranging primate. Behavioral Ecology 20: 685-690.

Hewson-Hughes AK, Hewson-Hughes VL, Miller AT, Hall SR, Simpson SJ, Raubenheimer D (2011). Geometric analysis of macronutrient selection in the adult domestic cat, Felis catusJournal of Experimental Biology 214: 1039-1051.

Sørensen A Mayntz D, Raubenheimer D, Simpson SJ (2008) Protein-leverage in mice: The geometry of macronutrient balancing and consequences for fat deposition. Obesity 16: 566-571.

About the authors: Shane McWhirter & Nick Loken our senior Neuroscience majors at the University of St. Thomas. Other class contributors were Sam Bach, Maureen Carberry, James Giorgi, Justin Hummelgard, Cory Jensen, Angela Kramlinger, Lauren Kvam, Abby Lown, Mike McGoldrick, Lauren Mumm, Losha Ndemeno-Tegomoh, Jillian Nielsen, Zac Novaczyk, Meghan O’Reilly, Luis Ortega, Danny Oseid, Marchellie Sheldon, Tori Shepard, Kale Siebert, Ariel Steele, Lexi Tartar, Asha Urban, and Carissa Van Slooten.

Posted by: jerryhusak | May 22, 2014

The social lives of Caribbean lizards

Social behavior is a very complex phenomenon, as we all know. Although we understand a great deal about why many aspects of social behavior evolve, we know surprisingly little about what mechanisms evolve to cause species differences in social behavior. One interesting, and somewhat surprising, aspect of behavioral evolution is that similar types of social behavior can evolve in distantly related species. This convergent evolution is due to the distantly related species experiencing similar environmental/social pressures. For example, maternal care strategies in placental and marsupial mammals have converged, as has web making in Hawaiian spiders and echolocation call structure in bats. My colleague and I studied a potential mechanism to explain behavioral convergence in Caribbean Anolis lizards.

ImageCaribbean anoles display convergent evolution in habitat use, morphology, and behavior. The picture above shows the different “types” of lizards you can find on Jamaica, Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas.

Caribbean anoles are best known for convergent evolution in habitat use and the anatomy associated with locomotion in different parts of trees in the forests in which they live. That is, on different Greater Antillean islands, the same lizard shapes have re-evolved independently based on where they live in the forest. But wait, it gets better! They also display striking convergence in their levels of aggression. Twig anoles are laid-back lizards that rarely display, whereas trunk-ground anoles display at anything that moves! Other species fall somewhere in between. The astute reader may be thinking that differences in aggression may be due to differences in that “male hormone” testosterone, and that’s what we tested. Based on decades of literature that led us to our hypotheses, we tested whether convergent evolution in aggression is due to convergent evolution in testosterone levels, and the results were surprising. Lizard species with high aggression had low testosterone levels (and vice versa) on three of four islands that we studied. Puerto Rican species showed the relationship that we expected: high testosterone = high aggression.

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Two extremes from the Bahamas: Anolis angusticeps (left), a twig anole that lives life slowly, and Anolis sagrei (right), a trunk-ground anole that wants you to believe that he can take you out.

Our results suggest that the same social behavior can result from the evolution of different mechanisms. This is a phenomenon that functional morphologists call “many-to-one mapping.” The idea is that the same functional end can be reached by multiple mechanistic means. It seems that being an aggressive anole (or not!) can evolve by changes in different mechanistic pathways. For some testosterone levels have changed in a predictable manner, but in others it is likely due to changes in hormone receptors or some other hormone system completely. We’re currently looking into these possibilities, so stay tuned. For more info, check out our webpage!

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Three trunk-ground anoles. Each species evolved the same general body shape (and aggressive behavior) independently from different ancestors.

Las Cruces Biological Station was the second stop for the J-term Biology course in Costa Rica. Las Cruces is a mid-elevation site that receives about 4m of rain a year. The station is connected to a small (~300 hectare) primary forest fragment. It also has the Wilson Botanical Garden – the most famous botanical garden in Central America – filled with rare and endangered plants from the New and Old World tropics. We had about a week at Las Cruces. We asked our students to come up with a project idea and then execute the research during that time. It’s impressive that they were able to do high quality work during such a short period of time. Here are their abstracts (along with some pictures and videos):

Does release from herbivory facilitate plant invasions? A test in a tropical rainforest

Jorgen Kvaal, Ryan Merry, Morgan Reeve

invasive plantsInvasive species are major threats to biodiversity in many ecosystems, including tropical rainforests.  One mechanism that could allow exotic species to invade new ecosystems is if these species face less predation and parasitism in novel areas than in their native habitats.  At Las Cruces Biological Research Station in San Vito Costa Rica, three non-native plant species have escaped from the station’s Wilson Botanical Garden into the native forest and are visibly encroaching on native species.  Here, we tested whether parasitism reduction may allow these non-native species to outcompete native inhabitants.  Specifically, we hypothesized that herbivory and epiphyte loads (=parasitism) would be reduced on non-native than on similar native species, and this reduction in parasitism would lead to higher growth rates.  We paired each of three non-native species with a native species that was present where the non-native species was found, was being pushed to the periphery of the available habitat, and had a growth form similar to that of the paired non-native species. We assessed plants for herbivory and epiphyte cover, and assayed photosynthetic levels and leaf nitrate content (a rough indicator of leaf quality).  We found that parasitism was ~9x greater (main effect of native/invasive status: F1,24 = 12.96, P=0.001), photosynthetic levels were significantly lower (F1,17=20.941, p=0.0003) and nitrate content was significantly lower (F=6.778, p=0.0005) for native plants than for non-native plants. These results suggest that reductions in parasitism result in greater allocation of resources to growth in non-native plants which could in turn allow for a competitive advantage versus native counterparts. Read More…

Posted by: Adam Kay | January 24, 2014

Puma sighting!

La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica: On Wednesday, January 22 at ~4:30 pm, Morgan Reeve, Meg Thompson, and Jake Anderson saw evidence of a puma (Puma concolor). They were on the CCC trail ~300m from the La Selva station clearing. Initially, they saw foot-long scat filled with peccary hair, teeth, and armadillo skin. The scat was directly on the walking path. After discovering the scat, they walked down the path ~100 meters and then heard two low growls, consistent with sounds of a puma (supported by on-line research). All three then heard something large run off into the forest. One person (Jake) clearly saw the back end of a large beige animal 60-75cm tall. Jake said it ran off “like a puma” (supported by on-line video research). La Selva, which is connected to the Braulio Carrillo National Park on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, supports 5 of the 6 feline species in Costa Rica. Naturalist Kenneth Alfaro said that there are about one direct puma sighting a year at La Selva. Probably the best support for feline conservation is participating in low-impact ecotourism that values pristine forest protection (e.g., visit La Selva).

This January, our class – Introduction to Field Ecology (BIOL 211) – is conducting research at sites across Costa Rica. Our first research site was on the Osa Peninsula near Corcovado National Park (we have a post about our accommodations here). At the site, the students were responsible for coming up with a project idea, developing an experimental design, executing the project, and creating a presentation. They had to do all of that in just over two days. Many of these students have little experience with ecology, and none of them had ever been to the tropics. Here are abstracts and pictures from their incredible work:

Communication behavior in the endangered scarlet macaw

Jorgen Kvaal, Erik Sathe, and Taylor Schuweiler

Communication among conspecifics can improve foraging and anti-predator success. Many birds communicate with conspecifics through vocalization while living in groups of two or more. However, the function of conspecific communication likely depends on behavioral context. In this study, we studied vocalization patterns of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) near Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. Scarlet macaws are endangered, but the Osa may support the largest macaw population (800-1200 individuals) in Central America. Here, we compared macaw vocalization patterns in flight vs. while perched; we also tested whether vocalization frequency varied with group size. We predicted that call frequency would be higher for individuals flying than for those perched because of the greater need for activity coordination in flight. Similarly, we predicted that individual call frequency would increase with group size because of the increased need for coordination in larger groups. We found that, as predicted, call frequency was significantly higher while an individual was flying than while perched. We also found that per capita call frequency was dependent on group size while flying but not while perched. Interestingly, we also found a significant difference in mean call frequency between the most vocal and least vocal individuals within a group, particularly while birds were perching. These patterns suggest that call-response behaviors are critical for organizing flight patterns, which likely help in navigation and anti-predator success.

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gold miners panning near Luna

gold miners panning near Luna

Honestly, we didn’t plan it this way. Our course, Introduction to Field Ecology, was scheduled to stay at the Sirena field station deep inside Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. To get to that station, we would have had to have walked 6-8 hours through the rain forest (from Los Patos to Sirena). We then would have camped for 4 nights on a platform in the forest. It’s a fairly primitive site: supplies are all brought in by boat or small plane, there are only a few hours of generator-produced power each day, and even mosquito nets don’t provide enough protection from the biting insects. In short, it’s an intense off-the-grid experience deep in a pristine rainforest (see our post about our 2012 adventure here).

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Posted by: Adam Kay | January 16, 2014

Refuge in a Cloud Forest?

by Kate Hanson with help from Biol 211 coursemates

Our course – BIOL 211: Introduction to Field Ecology – is visiting 4 sites in Costa Rica this January. Our group’s first venture into the Costa Rican forest was at the Cuericí Biological Station in Cerro de la Muerte. We left the urban center of San Jose unsure of what to expect. We could see the changing landscape and feel a chill in the air as the bus climbed higher into the mountains. After hours of driving, our driver Jorge pulled over and explained that he couldn’t take us any further. In fact, he had no idea how we were supposed to get to the station from there. The terrain was much too steep and dangerous for the bus to maneuver (after all, Cerro de la Muerte means mountain of death.) We waited for the station’s owner, Carlos Solana, to come find us. I was expecting Carlos to be an able-bodied man with some four-wheel drive trucks to whisk us away. Much to my surprise, the Carlos that arrived was just a gentle older man with kind eyes. And he had just one, small truck. It became clear that the plan was to hike the 5 km to the station. As we descended the slopes of the mountain of death, it began to pour. After trudging over the gravel hills in the rain, Carlos’ rustic log cabin was more than a welcome site.

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Every even-year January, the University of St. Thomas sponsors an Introduction to Field Ecology course in Costa Rica. The main component of the course involves student-led ecological research projects at various field sites across Costa Rica. Before getting started, the course spends a day in San Jose working on a vicious stats assignment and exploring the city. We asked students to write short essays to describe their experiences and reflect on how San Jose culture relates to the natural world. We chose two entries (by Jorgen Kvaal and Morgan Reeve) to present here. All pictures are by Meg Thompson.

The Happiest Place on Earth?

by Jorgen Kvaal

The first thing that I noticed as I stepped off the plane in Costa Rica was a large banner that read “Welcome to the happiest place on Earth”. The poster was accentuated with beautiful tropical animals and plants that I look forward to seeing while I’m here.

in a park in San Jose

in a park in San Jose

I started doubting the validity of that slogan, however, after spending my first night in the capital city of San Jose. During a night out, some of my classmates and I were frequently harassed by local riff raff asking for money; they probably thought we were a group of naïve foreigners ripe for the taking. In truth, that is exactly what we were; straight off the plane in a foreign country that none of us had ever been to before. Nevertheless, I believe we were undeserving of some of the horribly vulgar comments shouted in our direction, specifically towards my female counterparts. I went to bed that night thinking that even my hometown of St. Paul MN seemed happier that the town of San Jose.

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Posted by: Adam Kay | December 13, 2013

A poem on the neuroscience of pair bonding

This poem was written and performed by UST seniors Daniel Volovets (on guitar) and Joshua Serre (reciter) as an extra credit assignment for Dr. Sarah Heimovics’ class BIOL/NSCI 398: Topics in Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.  In this poem, a prairie vole laments the fact that he must engage in copulatory behavior in order to form a pair bond, as he adheres to a conservative moral ideology and wishes to save such activities for marriage.  Josh and Daniel highlight much of the research covered in class about the neuroendocrine basis of social affiliation, referencing several of the major findings of Aragona et al. (2006) “Nucleus accumbens dopamine differentially mediates the formation of maintenance of monogamous pair bonds.” Nature Neuroscience. Vol. 9 Number 1 (133-39).

Posted by: Chip Small | August 9, 2013

Aquaponics research update

Several exciting developments to report in our aquaponics research.

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Recent UST graduate Isaac Bergstrom presenting aquaponics research at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis.

First, Isaac Bergstrom presented a poster at the Ecological Society of America meeting on the research we did this spring on nutrient efficiency in coupled vermicompost-aquaponics systems (where we attempt to answer the question: “How can we turn coffee grounds into tilapia and basil).

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Posted by: Chip Small | July 10, 2013

Closing the Loop in Urban Ecosystems

In the Bible Jesus turned water into wine, but can students at the University of St. Thomas turn coffee grounds into tilapia and basil?  Turning food waste into new food is a question being explored by the students in my Urban Ecosystem Ecology course.

Because cities have a lot of people living in a relatively small area, large inputs of food, energy, water, and other materials are required in order to support these urban ecosystems.  Our waste products leave the system in the form of garbage going to the landfill, nutrients in wastewater and runoff entering the river, and carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere.  Cities exemplify open systems, with lots of inputs, lots of outputs, and lots of waste.

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Below is a summary of a study conducted by Dr. Adam Kay‘s Animal Behavior class (BIOL 330) at the University of St. Thomas in April 2013. Students collected data with help from friends and families. Students then wrote blog posts that they submitted as an assignment. Below are excerpts (in quotations) from these posts, with some text (from Adam) to tie things together. A complete list of authors (i.e., students in the class) is at the end of the post. We are grateful to the owners and dogs that participated in the study. 

cute 1“Imagine a scenario in which you and your sibling are paid to walk your family’s dog. That sounds great at first. But then imagine you find out that your sibling is being paid twice as much as you to do the same task. Not fair! How would you respond to such a situation? You might put less effort into doing the chore or maybe even refuse to cooperate altogether because you know you’re not being fairly compensated. This behavior, a resistance to perceived unfairness in social situations, is known as inequity aversion, and its existence is thought to explain some uncooperative behaviors in otherwise cooperative species.”

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Posted by: jerryhusak | June 11, 2013

More than one way to modify a fly wing

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. Although this euphemism is a tired cliché, it applies to how morphological traits may evolve. To solve a functional ‘problem’, species may evolve different morphological means to reach the same functional end. This is called “many-to-one mapping” in evolutionary biology. My colleagues and I studied how a fascinating group of insects, stalk-eyed flies, might morphologically overcome impaired flight brought about by their ridiculously exaggerated eye stalks, the span of which can be longer than the fly’s body itself!

ImageOne of the more dimorphic species, showing the extreme differences between males and females in eye span. Yes, the eyes are on the tips of those stalks!

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UST Bio studentsCalling all biology-oriented students thinking about where to go to university – here is a post for you!

The Biology Department at the University of St. Thomas is a national leader for undergraduate-led research. We invest a lot in our teaching, but we also are committed to our research with the aim of making an impact on our field (see our recent publications here). Unlike at many larger schools, undergraduate students in our department play leading roles in our research programs. In fact, many of our students present their research at national meetings and co-author papers with their faculty mentors. We strive to create an exceptional environment for students interested in learning how to be the research leaders of tomorrow.

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New Faculty Portrait

Kurt Illig

Adolescence can be an awkward time. For humans, the teenage years can be marked by behaviors that are not seen in people of other ages. These behaviors can be relatively benign, such as dressing in all black and going to all-night dance parties, and they can be more dangerous and risky, such as indiscriminate sexual behavior and drug use. Teens usually outgrow most of these behaviors (how many “emo” adults do you see?), but drug use is particularly problematic; research has shown that someone who first uses drugs as an adolescent is far more likely to become chronically addicted than someone who first uses as an adult. Why?

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Ecology Gangham style? Well, not quite. But this June UST Biology’s Hangkyo Lim and Tony Lewno will be leading a course that will travel around Korea to learn about the culture and ecology of this biologically diverse area. The course will provide upper-division Biology elective credit. Tuition will be similar to on-campus credit costs. There are only a few slots still available, so contact Hangkyo (lim94497@stthomas.edu) or Tony (awlewno@stthomas.edu) right away if you’re interested. The course is also open to students from other ACTC schools. A full description of the course is below.

BIOL 398: Topics in Ecology and Culture of Korea

7haeinsatemple2 (1)

Hangkyo at Haeinsa Temple

This course is designed  to help students learn about the biology and culture across the diverse environmental conditions of Korea.  The ecological variety and cultural heritage found on the Korean peninsula are ideally suited to serve the course objectives: 1) the peninsula exhibits a wide range of diverse Northeastern Asian ecosystems, which are not well represented in ecological studies, 2) the Korean peninsula has been populated for longer than 25,000 years and has a well-preserved historical and cultural heritage, and 3) the country is one of the fastest developing countries in Northeast Asia, which provides ample opportunities for studying human impacts on and interactions with ecological systems. Many Korean instructors and their students will support and participate in the program both logistically and intellectually thanks to the connections of the program director.

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Phosphorus and the evolution of sexual reproduction 

potamo mating

Mating Potamopyrgus antipodarum snails (photo Bart Zijlstra)

Why do animals reproduce sexually? The answer may seem obvious until you consider that some animal species actually reproduce by making identical clones without input from a partner. Cloning, also referred to as asexual reproduction, has advantages. Most importantly, it results in parents transferring their full complement of genetic information to their offspring; in contrast, sexual parents only transfer half of their genes (the other half comes from the other parent). This advantage is enormous, making it paradoxical that sex is so common in the animal kingdom.

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A sign on a building in downtown Christchurch

A sign on a building in downtown Christchurch

At first glance, Christchurch looks like a war zone. We’ve spent several days here this January (for our project on the ecology of sexual reproduction in a freshwater snail), and we’ve seen shocking evidence of the major earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. There are ruined buildings, piles of rubble, and empty lots throughout the downtown. It’s so different from the quaint city Adam remembers from 2007 when he was here for a conference with UST student Katie Theisen and her sister Becky. However, as we’ve walked around we’ve found so many imaginative recovery projects being developed around the damage. What’s particularly interesting to us about these projects is that they share many features with ecological sustainability efforts happening elsewhere.

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During our field sampling in New Zealand this January, we’ve found that it’s easy to get excited about all of the beautiful landscapes and striking plants and animals. However, the more we learn about New Zealand ecology, the more we realize that we have to have a nuanced emotional response to what we see. New Zealand has many invasive species, many of which do substantial damage to native ecosystems. It turns out that much of the biology that catches our attention only exists in New Zealand because of recent introductions resulting from human activities.

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Field ecologists need to be adaptable, patient, and persistent. We often work in remote locations under variable conditions with limited resources. These limitations certainly make things more difficult, but it’s also really fun to figure out ways to get around the constraints and unexpected challenges that come our way.

whitebait can solve most problems. its a fried pancake filled with fish fry (the white worm-like forms)

Whitebait can solve most problems. It’s a fried pancake filled with fish fry (those white worm-like things)

This January, UST Biology major Liz Chambers and I (along with our colleagues Maurine Neiman from the University of Iowa and Amy Krist from the University of Wyoming) are measuring ecological characteristics of various lakes on the south island of New Zealand. Our funding for the project comes from a grant from the National Geographic Society (to Maurine). Our main goal is to test our hypothesis about the relationship between environmental phosphorus limitation and the relative success of sexual and asexual forms of the freshwater snail, Potamopyrgus antipodarum (for more information about the project, see here). Toward this end, we’re sampling 15 lakes across the south island to estimate the extent of nutrient limitation for algae (the main food for our snails) and to determine algae chemical composition. We’re also collecting snails for various biochemical analyses that will help us estimate the extent to which their growth is limited by phosphorus availability.

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Why have sex? It’s a difficult question to ask without sounding creepy. But the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think.

A male trying to offset the two-fold cost of sex

A male trying to offset the two-fold cost of sex

Evolutionary biologists have shown that sexually reproducing organisms should theoretically be at a disadvantage when competing with asexual organisms. The reason for this is that sexual females need male partners to reproduce, whereas asexuals can reproduce by themselves (“who needs guys anyway?” says Liz). Therefore, all else being equal, sexual females (which produce both males and females) will produce only half as many descendants over the long term as asexuals will. The production of males is referred to as the “two-fold cost of sexual reproduction”, and it should result in sexual forms being outcompeted by asexual forms. However, sexual reproduction is very common, especially in animals. Why sex remains so common despite this two-fold cost has been termed the “queen of questions” in evolutionary biology.

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Below are posts from UST Biology’s Kerri Carlson and one of her students, Ryan Augustin. They are reflections on a departmental seminar from this semester given by David Largaespada from the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

Dr. Carslon’s reflections

Kerri CarlssonIt has always amazed me how scientists are able to harness the power of naturally occurring phenomenon to develop novel tools to enhance our understanding of genetics.   The use of plasmids and restriction enzymes revolutionized the way we study genes through the advent of gene cloning.  An understanding of homologous recombination led to gene knock out technologies in mice.  In Dr. Largespada’s seminar we were presented with another example: the use of a transposon system called Sleeping Beauty to identify novel cancer genes.  (Transposons are DNA elements that are capable of “jumping” from one DNA location to another DNA location in the cell of an organism-and in some cases cause mutations).

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Students in Dr. Jill Manske‘s class (BIOL 467- Emerging Infectious Diseases) completed a semester-long project on dual use research (life sciences research that yields information with the potential to be misused to threaten public health or national security) and the case of influenza A virus subtype H5N1. As part of  the project, the class wrote an informal opinion piece. Here it is!

Pandemic in the Periphery:

How Dangerous the Search for a Cure Could Be

Edward Aika, Daisy Alfaro, Erica Bye, Terese Heighway, Abby House, Ashton Johnson, Brandilyn Reak, Toni Teague, Linda Thomas, Paul Zerfas

21 December, 2012

Department of Biology, University of St. Thomas

Introduction to Influenza: The Common Misconception of the Common “Flu”
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Dr. Dalma Martinovic-Weigelt and friends sampling from the Bahai farm in Minneapolis

Dr. Dalma Martinovic-Weigelt and friends sampling from the Bahai farm in Minneapolis

The Biology Department at the University of St. Thomas is committed to integrating research, teaching, and community outreach activities. On Friday December 14 (2012), our new sophomore-level class (Biology 209 – Biology of Sustainability) had a symposium to display student projects from a service-learning lab on sustainable agriculture. The lab was designed to assess soil quality and gardening practices for our community partner, the Youth Farm and Market Project. Youth Farms is a Twin Cities organization that provides experiential education and training activities for over 600 youths organized around the themes of urban agriculture and local food production. Our UST students collected samples from 13 urban farms in the Youth Farms program and analyzed soil samples for nutrients, heavy metals, and other measures of soil quality. Students then analyzed and summarized the results, and prepared products to disseminate their findings. They were allowed to choose among three target audiences: farm managers, youths involved in the program, or the UST community. Student groups produced a variety of products including prezis, web sites, brochures, handouts, and posters. There was even a children’s book and a board game! We awarded prizes for best offerings in each of the categories.  It was a hard choice because there were so many good ones. Here are the winners:

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UST Biology’s Chip Small and colleagues recently published a study in Limnology & Oceanography, a leading ecosystem science journal. Below is a general audience description. The full article is available here.

Chip Small

Chip Small on Lake Superior

Gazing out across Lake Superior from a rocky beach on Minnesota’s north shore, it’s easy to imagine that this massive lake has been unaffected by humans.  The crystal-clear waters of this lake, which holds 10% of Earth’s liquid freshwater, hide the fact that, over the past century, nitrate levels have increased more than five-fold.  Scientists have assumed that this increase is simply due to external inputs such as nitrogen deposition from the atmosphere.  However, a new study published in the journal Limnology & Oceanography, my colleagues and I show that a group of microbes that was only recently discovered is playing an essential role in maintaining an imbalanced nitrogen cycle.

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New FacultyUST Biology’s Jadin Jackson and colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Below is a general audience description. The full article is available here.

Learning to associate rewarding experiences with the location at which they occurred is a fundamental adaptation for survival, that allows us to return to a food source or other primary reward in order to get more of something valuable. Using rats, we studied the simultaneous activity in two important brain regions involved in learning these reward-place associations and planning actions that will lead to reward: the hippocampus, involved in place and episode learning; and the ventral striatum which uses location and reward-related information for the planning of actions. We found that neurons in the hippocampus most reliably represented the location of an animal when the animal was able to predict that a reward would be available, and that ventral striatal neurons included more spatial information in their activity during this same period. Additionally, the activity of neurons in the hippocampus much more precisely locked to the time it would take the animal to reach a reward, fitting with the involvement of the hippocampus in human episodic memory. This study clarifies the information being processed by these two important brain regions and how the presence of reward-predictive cues in an environment will bias that information.

Lansink C.,  Jackson J.C., Lankelma  J., Ito R. , Robbins T.W. , Everitt B., Pennartz C.M.A. (2012)  Reward cues in space: commonalities and differences in neural coding by hippocampal and ventral striatal ensembles. Journal of Neuroscience 32:12444-12459

Can where an organism lives on the planet influence something as seemingly unrelated as how much steroid hormone they have circulating in their bodies? It turns out, yes, it can! The reason for this is that in the tropics there is a longer amount of time to potentially breed, and further away from the Tropics (toward the poles) the time available to breed (the breeding season) gets shorter and shorter. During the breeding season, males of many vertebrate species compete intensely over access to females that are ready to reproduce. The steroid hormone testosterone has an important role in ramping up males for reproduction and is typically elevated during the breeding season. Corticosterone, another steroid hormone, typically associated with “stress” and the response to stress, is also moderately elevated during this period, probably to facilitate the uptake, storage, and mobilization of energy needed for breeding. In places where the breeding season is short, for example at high latitudes, competition over females may be more intense than at places where breeding is extended, such as in the Tropics. In a recent study, my colleagues and I sought to test whether species having a shorter breeding season, and presumably more intense competition for mates during this short window of time, would have higher steroid hormones levels compared to species living in areas closer to the Tropics where there is a larger window of time for breeding. To do this, we examined variation in circulating levels of testosterone and corticosterone, as well as latitude and length of the breeding season in two major vertebrate classes: amphibians and reptiles.

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Jon Foley, from the Institute on the Environment, recently gave a seminar  entitled “Can we feed a growing world and sustain the planet?” in the UST Biology Department seminar. (If you missed it, you can watch Dr. Foley’s TEDxTC talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJhgGbRA6Hk). Below are comments on the seminar by Dr. Chip Small and Breanna Arndt from our department.

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Student projects in Costa Rica – part 2: From poison dart frogs to cannibalistic tadpoles at La Selva Biological Station

The January-term course in Costa Rica, Introduction to Field Ecology course, is over. I’m sure everyone is happy to be home, but I hope the memories of the course will stay with people for a long time. I’m finally getting my life in order again, and I thought I would share some information about our final stop on the course – La Selva Biological Station – and post abstracts from the amazing projects that folks did there.

lunch time for our group at La Selva

an eyelash viper, picture from Tyler Abrahamson

La Selva was a great place for our course to visit. La Selva itself is fairly small (about 1600 hectares) but it is connected to the massive 36,000-hectare Braulio Carrillo National Park. The large combined area and the elevational gradient from lowlands to the 3500 meter peaks in Braulio Carrillo make this area a unique conservation area on the Caribbean slope. The flora and fauna are very diverse: there are over 700 species are trees at La Selva, a lot of beautiful snakes such as the eyelash viper (that many of us saw) and the dangerous and aggressive fer-de-lance (that one of us stepped on!), thousands of arthropod species such as the army ant Eciton burchelli (video), charismatic amphibians like the strawberry poison dart frog (see below), and more than 400 species of birds (representing almost half of Costa Rica’s bird species) (here’s a gratuitous baby peccary video). There’s also extensive infrastructure at La Selva. There is also modern lab space, comfortable living quarters, a cafeteria, and an extensive trail system. Some of the trails through the forest are even paved. La Selva is really wet (it gets about 4 meters of rain a year) and a lot of foot traffic on paths would quickly degrade the surrounding area. Paved paths also make it easier for researchers to travel to their study sites; the station even rents bikes that you can ride along the paths (here’s a video from some of our group). The diversity and infrastructure is part of the reason that La Selva is one of the most important places for tropical research in the world: since the station was established by the Organization for Tropical Studies in 1968, there have been over 1600 scientific papers published based on research at the site.

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{Editor’s note: This semester, UST senior Nick Michalak is doing an independent study in which he is reading and writing about prominent books in Biology that are written for a general audience (the “lay public”). Here is the first of his entries.]

Nick Michalak getting some inspiration

Nick getting some inspiration

I’m mingling at a New Year’s party this past December, when the host calls me over to chime in on a discussion her fiancé and his friend are having. I bounce over, we exchange niceties, and the fiancé’s friend confidently states, “Psychology is a soft science.” He’s a chemical engineer, proud of his role as a “hard” scientist, and he goes on to say that, “You can ask a chemist to make a certain amount of a specific compound, and he can cook up almost exactly that amount. Psychology just doesn’t have that kind of predictive power.”

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Maurine Neiman, formerly a post doc in our department and now an assistant professor in the Biology Department at the University of Iowa, recently had her research featured in a Huffington Post article about mating. You can check it out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carin-bondar/no-eggs-no-problem_b_1250895.html

Beef and conservation in a tropical dry forest – notes from Palo Verde National Park

Entering the Palo Verde forest

A main reason that the Introduction to Field Ecology course comes to Costa Rica is so that we can use the rich biodiversity zones as natural laboratories for student-led research projects. Although there is a lot of biodiversity at individual sites, it is amazing how different the flora and fauna can be among the various sites. So far, we’ve traveled from a high elevation, oak-dominated forest at Cerro de la Muerte, to a lowland seasonally wet forest on the Pacific coast (Corcovado), to our recently departed dry forest location (Palo Verde). Visiting such different sites in a short period of time can make your head spin, but it has made for a great adventure.

marshlands at Palo Verde

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Posted by: Adam Kay | January 19, 2012

Student-led ecology projects in a remote tropical forest

Student-led ecology projects in a remote tropical forest

Lab courses in Biology provide students with training in many aspects of the scientific process, but students rarely have the opportunity to come up with and develop their own research questions. The Introduction to Field Ecology course,  which is organized almost exclusively around student-led projects, is an exception. The course travels to sites in Costa Rica for a month. Students spend a couple of days at each site making observations which they then use to generate a question about the ecology or behavior of organisms at the site. They then develop an experimental design, collect data to test predictions, and present their findings to the group. It is a great opportunity to employ their creativity, inquisitiveness, and effort to the process of discovery.

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In the land of endangered species – sightings of the Baird’s tapir

Liz’s picture of a male tapir on the beach in Corcovado

Our Introduction to Field Ecology course spent last week at Corcovado National Park in SW Costa Rica. This park is the largest protected area of lowland forest on the Pacific coast of Central America. Larger parks can support populations of animals that have large home ranges, special habitat requirements, or are particularly at risk when in proximity to human settlements. Many of these species – jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, and scarlet macaws – are abundant in Corcovado, and they are one of the reasons why this place is such an exciting location to visit.

Braedon’s picture of a baby tapir in the Rio Claro

Probably our most exciting animal sighting at Corcovado was the Baird’s tapir, Tapirus bairdii. Baird’s tapir is the largest non-domesticated land mammal in Central America. It used to be abundant across its range from southern Mexico to northern Columbia. However, in 2002 it was listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which estimated that there were only about 5000 tapirs left in the wild. This number is down by at least a 50% in the last 30 years, and it’s expected to drop by at least another 50% in the next 30 years.

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This January, UST senior Abbie Bruning is conducting research in Panama on how diet affects social immunity in the ant, Ectatomma ruidum. Since January 3rd, she has been on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama canal zone conducting research on her own. Below is a description of her experiences:

Abbie at work in the lab on BCI

A stint on Barro Colorado Island (Panama) in the dry season – by Abbie Bruning

                Coming back to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) has been a fun and exciting experience. I was previously on the island May through July of 2011. The atmosphere of the island is much different this time of year compared to the summer months. This is not only because the number of researchers are significantly reduced but also because, starting mid December, the dry season begins. During the dry season temperatures raise slightly and the humidity drops. The significant characteristic of the dry season is the large reduction of rain fall. During the rainy season there is a 40% to 50% chance of rain everyday which makes it very difficult to stay on schedule with field work. While during the dry season you’re lucky if you get a five minute cloud break from the sun, as my Irish skin can attest. (I am still trying to figure out how I got a sun burn while working under the rainforest canopy all day.) My first few days on BCI, my professor Adam and I collected ant colonies almost every day; it would have been impossible to have done that in the rainy season. (Here is a video of Abbie walking the stairs going into the forest. Here is Abbie going into the forest. She’s not wearing field clothes – this was a quick excursion to a canopy tower)

the “Ambient Soil Lab” on Barro Colorado Island

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Reflections on culture and ecology in Costa Rica – by Leah Ruhland and Evan Nolander

Most of our course – Introduction to Field Ecology – in Costa Rica focuses on ecology research projects at various locations across the country. However, on our first day in the capital city, San Jose, we ask students to visit a cultural site and to write about how this aspect of Costa Rican culture has affected or is affected by the natural world. We had many great submissions, but we picked two exceptional posts for the blog. Here they are: Read More…

Walking to the “most biologically intense place on earth”

Corcovado National Park in southwestern Costa Rica is an amazing place to visit. It is one of the last large expanse of lowland tropical rainforest in Central America. Lowland rainforest is particularly important for conservation because much of the biodiversity in the tropics is located there. Unfortunately, lowland rainforest contains valuable tree species for logging, and it’s relatively easy to convert into agricultural land. Forest conversion not only destroys natural habitat, but the resulting habitat fragmentation makes it difficult to maintain viable populations of organisms with large ranges. Corcovado, with 263 square miles of continuous forest, is the largest primary tropical forest on the American Pacific coastline, and it is home to populations of some of the rarest animals in the New World tropics – Jaguars, Baird’s tapir, harpy eagles, scarlet macaws, white-lipped peccaries, and the Central American squirrel monkey. Read More…

Field Ecology in Costa Rica – A Visit to the Mountain of Death

This January, 14 UST students and 2 instructors are taking part in a field ecology course in Costa Rica. We’re going to visit a variety of forests and ecosystems, ranging from classic lowland tropical rain forest to the endangered tropical dry forests to misty, montane cloud forests. The focus of the course is teaching students how to conduct field-based ecological research. Costa Rica is a great environment for teaching field ecology because there is so much biological complexity. In this environment, students can come up with their own research questions and carry out simple observations or experiments to address them. It’s exciting for everyone when someone is able to discover something new about the biological world using simple tools, ingenuity, and the scientific method. Read More…

Posted by: Adam Kay | December 31, 2011

Student research in Panama – the beginning of an adventure

Student research in Panama – the beginning of an adventure

Today UST senior Abbie Bruning and I are traveling to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) in Panama to start a research project

Abbie with friend

on social immunity in ants. Abbie is going to be on BCI through January and will write several entries about her experiences. Today we wanted to write a quick entry describing a bit about our travels, with some information about Panama and the history of BCI thrown in.

Panama has been undergoing an economic boom over the last few years and signs of modernization are everywhere. The skyline of Panama City looks like Miami – glossy new skyscrapers pressed right up against the beach. But it’s really stressful in Panama City. It’s very noisy – drivers honk constantly (what are they honking for?) – and filled with smog. Crossing a street is treacherous – you just have to go for it. Luckily, there are some cool out-of-the way hostels that give some respite. A fun place to go is Luna’s Castle in the old part of the city (Casco Viejo), which still has a lot of old french colonial architecture – some it well-maintained, some of it crumbling. Read More…

Posted by: Adam Kay | December 3, 2011

I am not a fathead

I am not a fathead

I remember an episode one summer day when I was a teenager. I was daydreaming while I was riding my bike and I rode through a stop sign into an intersection. There was a car at the stop sign on the cross street and a tough-looking guy was watching me while leaning out his open window. He had started pulling out into the intersection and I almost hit him. As I clumsily tried to stop, the only thing he said was “fathead”. And then he drove off.

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Perspective of an Undergraduate – Attending the ESA meeting in RENO 

(This is a guest post by Katie Miller, a senior Biology major)

Although intimidating as it might be for an undergraduate student to hop a plane to a new place they haven’t been before, possibly by themselves, and attend a big scientific meeting, I believe that it can be an extremely enriching experience. Recently, I temporarily vacated my undergraduate classes to attend the Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nevada. For those who don’t know, this is the largest insect meeting in the world where scientists from almost every continent attend to present their research and attend professional networking and collaborative meetings. Upon the looming date of departure to the meeting, certain troubling thoughts occurred to me such as: “what if I don’t see anyone I know?”, “what if I mess up my presentation?”, and “what about my coursework!” Despite the potential hazards of attending a scientific meeting during the semester, there are numerous benefits that an undergraduate student can gain from attendance. During the meeting, I had a variety of different opportunities to learn about hot topics in Entomology and Ecology and about research related to my current project on ants.

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Posted by: Adam Kay | November 21, 2011

The Real Green Man

 Introducing the Real Green Man

Humanity currently faces significant environmental challenges due to climate change, habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources, and biodiversity loss. These challenges are related to human population size, resource use, and waste production. Given that our population continues to grow and our per capita ecological footprint gets ever larger, there’s a lot of work for us to do. Is there any chance that we can make our society sustainable? Can we create a world in which we live happy lives in a vibrant society without degrading our natural systems? The short answer is YES: good descriptions of the policies that we need to enact can be found in recent books by Thomas Friedman and Paul Gilding. But we need passionate buy-in to create major societal restructuring needed to become sustainable. We need a war effort focused on reducing our environmental impact.

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Posted by: Adam Kay | November 13, 2011

Zombie apocalypse

Population ecology and the coming of the zombie apocalypse

In 300 A.D there were 50-60 million humans, by 1804 there were 1 billion, and last week, the UN reported that there are now 7 billion of us. And more are coming. Given that the planet has a limited resource base, the human population cannot grow forever. Demographers describe constraints on population growth with a metaphor, the carrying capacity, which is the maximum population size that a habitat can support indefinitely. Population growth rate decreases to 0 as the population size approaches the carrying capacity. The processes that bring about this decrease in population growth rate are called negative density-dependent factors. These factors include the crappy aspects of civilization – food and shelter scarcity, violence among individuals, higher risk of disease, waste accumulation – as well as behaviors that reduce birth rates. As of now, resource use per person is still increasing as the global economy continues to grow (albeit unevenly). But it’s impossible for the human population to increase in size indefinitely – even if technology increases resource use efficiency. Population growth rates will decrease, and this decrease will be due to negative density-dependent factors. Hopefully, we’ll figure out a way to reduce birth rates and resource use rates without mayhem. I’m not optimistic.

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Posted by: Adam Kay | November 6, 2011

Humanity’s future is bright, or maybe it’s not

Humanity’s future is bright, or maybe it’s not

The United Nations last week reported that the earth’s population has now reached 7 billion. The 7 billionth person doesn’t change our social or ecological conditions in any fundamental way, but the milestone provides an opportunity for reflection on broad trends. What is in store for this mass of humanity? Will more creative minds give us a better opportunity to develop technologies that enhance our quality of life? Or is the impact on the global ecosystem of so many humans moving us toward a catastrophic collapse?

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Posted by: Adam Kay | October 30, 2011

A blog for the UST Biology Department

(Note: I wrote the essay below for a popular science blog. It didn’t get published, but I can publish it here and I hope it’ll get the ball rolling with this blog)

Why I like Biology

I like biology because it has helped me understand who I am and how I fit into the world around me. As an undergraduate student, I struggled to understand why conflict and suffering seemed to be an inevitable aspect of the human experience. I searched for answers as a religious studies major at the University of North Carolina, but I never found anything deeply satisfying until I stumbled across E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology”, a wonderful book that describes social behavior from microbes to mammals. By the time I finished the famous final chapter, “Man: From sociobiology to sociology”, I was convinced that evolutionary biology had enormous potential to help explain human nature. Over time, I found that core evolutionary theory about social interactions – kin selection, parent-offspring conflict theory, sexual selection – provided explanations for my motivations that were far more satisfying than anything else I had been exposed to. Now, as a researcher and professor studying behavior, I have learned that ideas about the evolutionary underpinnings of human behavior are novel, interesting, and often challenging to students trying to figure out meaning and purpose in their world. Studies from the natural world describing complex behavior help students feel more connected to nature. One of my favorites is a study by Jeffrey Hoover and Scott Robinson that describes how cowbirds, which lay eggs in the nests of songbirds, use mafia-like behavior to ensure that the parasitized songbirds rear rather than destroy the cowbird eggs (Hoover and Robinson 2007). At the same time, studies of the adaptive significance of modern human behavior, for example the studies by Randy Thornhill, Steven Gangestad and others showing how odor attractiveness is sub-consciously associated with body symmetry (e.g., Thornhill and Gangestad 1999), or the study by Melissa Bateson and colleagues showing how the presence of a photograph of human eyes increases contributions to an honesty box (Bateson et al. 2006) often give students new insight into the motives underlying their social interactions. Given the complexities of modern life and the incredible challenges facing the global population, I hope that self-awareness gained through biology will help us understand causes and find remedies for our social ills.

Bateson M, Nettle D, Roberts G (2006) Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2, 412–414.

Hoover JP, Robinson SK (2007) Retaliatory mafia behavior by a parasitic cowbird favors host acceptance of parasitic eggs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 4479-4483.

Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). The scent of symmetry: A human pheromone that signals fitness? Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 175-201.

Posted by: Adam Kay | October 30, 2011

A blog for the UST Biology Department

Our New Blog!

The field of Biology has relevance for many of our major societal challenges and opportunities. Faculty in the Biology Department at the University of St. Thomas conduct research and teach classes that address societal issues, but we are also interested in generating a dialogue and sharing information with a broad community. The aim of this blog is to give department members an opportunity to share  information about their research, their teaching, their philosophy, or their opinions on recent biology-related news. We encourage comments on all posts. If guests (e.g., current students, department alums, other visitors) would like to post an entry, you can contact adam kay (adkay@stthomas.edu). Please include the phrase “Biophilia Blog entry” in the title of the email.

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