Monday, October 12, 2009

Blogs for college biology instructors

I came across a blog on philosophy teaching, called In Socrates' Wake, and while the post was good, I wondered if there were any equivalent blogs for those of us teaching organismal (vs. molecular) biology at the college level. I know lots of bloggers intersperse teaching (and griping about teaching) with other topics, but I'm looking for a dedicated blog. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

DIY Comparative Osteology Collection

Mike Taylor over at Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week has an excellent non-sauropod post on how you too can amass your very own bone kit (a.k.a. comparative osteology collection) for next to nothing. Go learn how to obtain and make your very own pig skull for under ten bucks. Start with the small, easy stuff - chicken, duck, rabbit, frog, etc. - if a pig's head is a bit much in the beginning. Great Saturday project!

Monday, April 27, 2009


I've started weekly work at the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters at the Nairobi National Park, with the help of KWS vet Dr. Edward Kariuki and staff. I'm measuring basic body measurements of antelopes (juveniles especially) regularly to see how body sizes and body proportions change with age. It's definitely a long-term project, since I have to opportunistically acquire non-laughable sample sizes. But it's really nice to break out of the lab/library/home-office routine, breathe some fresh air, and try to convince a ruminant to do my bidding.

Understandably, at NNP the juveniles are at the Animal Orphange. The nearby Safari Walk has adults of various kinds in larger, more natural habitat enclosures. There's much to blog about, which I will return to regularly over the next six months, but here I want to record the first in-person adult male bongo I have seen. And boy is he beautiful (even if decorated with mud from today's copious rain).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Swim, little pilgrim

On the lighter side of things...

A homemade rap music video starring mindless blood-thirsty crocs eating not-so-brainy East African herbivores, mainly Thomson's gazelles.

Hattip to Dr. Vector.

(If you want to see the total demolition of a full-grown zebra in under 9 minutes by over a dozen crocs, go here. Warning: not for bleeding hearts.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Two kudus

I promised pics of antelopes - voila!

Here is an 8-month old female greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) at the Nairobi National Park Animal Orphanage.

And next is a 12-month old female lesser kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis) at the same place. They're basically the same height, and it'll be interesting to see how the greater kudu grows over the next few months. I'm in the process of setting up a research collaboration with the veterinary staff there, to take regular measurements of these and other antelopes in their care.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Oliver Twist, Jr.

Well, Monday I got verbal permission to establish a research collaboration with the staff at the Nairobi National Park Animal Orphanage. It's the same basic idea as my field work - get measurements from males and females at different stages of development in a handful of related species to piece together a picture of their patterns of growth - what's normal for a species, for a sex, for an age, etc. It has lots of highly practical applications, in addition to insights into evolution. In the field I have to do it with photographs, looking at body proportions but no absolute measurements. By working with captive animals though, I can get both kinds of measurements from known-age individuals over the course of their growth, and get much better information with more details. My target species are notoriously shy, and it's very difficult to view babies in the field. As it turns out, the Orphanage has an 8 month-old greater kudu female who doesn't terribly object to being man-handled. This is like saying you have a cat that willingly takes baths. Huzzah!! Till Monday, the best photos I'd ever gotten of kudus were either blurry from them running away so fast, or had a tall bush between them and my camera. I talked with the head vet, and he was very supportive and interested in my project, and promised to push through my paperwork as fast as possible (which doesn't mean it'll be fast, just faster).

The above flower is a gratuitous pretty pic using my new lens (click for larger view), which I meant to post back in early February. The pic was taken at a distance of about 12-15 ft, using my Nikkor 70-200mm VR, and cropped to approximately 10% of its original size. This is my just-saw-an-antelope-at-100m-running-away lens :D. I'll have new animal pics next time, I promise.

Oh, Oliver Twist was the name of an orphaned buffalo I met at the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy's Animal Orphanage back in 2007. I think it's a better name for an orphaned spiral-horned antelope, know what I mean?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Happy (belated) Birthday, Mr. Darwin!

I'm delighted to report that - through unintended logistical opportunity - I was the Darwin Day speaker at the Nairobi National Museum's monthly seminar, which just happened to be on Darwin's Birthday (Feb. 12th). I gave an overview of my dissertation research, and a shorter second talk centering around the day's auspicious date. It was the first time I've ever given a talk about Darwin or the history of evolutionary thought.

I bought a cake for the occasion - how often does Darwin turn 200 and I'm the invited speaker on the same day? I designed the top decoration when I learned the bakery could print out, on edible icing, any picture of your choosing. So I modified the design from the Essig Museum's (of the Berkeley Natural History Museums) Darwin Day flier, which was quite spiffy already. I added some barnacles on the left, some orchids on the right, and increased the resolution of his face since I was worried he'dcome out all grainy on the icing print-out. After the usual logistical ado that is typical of Kenya, I managed to get the cake safely from the bakery to the seminar room on the appointed day. Huzzah. The image is above, and next the actual cake prior to demolition.

I have to say, my research talk was probably the best research talk I've ever given. There are many ways I want to improve it, if I get the chance to give the talk again, but overall it was the most comfortable, most well-spoken talk I've ever given on my research. I'm proud of my slides, the content and logical flow, and my ability to articulate on my feet the big and small ideas alike.

My Darwin talk was less about Darwin himself and more a brief history of evolutionary theory since 1859 (which I would not have been able to do without my advisor's seminars on Darwin and evolutionary theory, and Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory - thanks much!). From there I segued into current questions being researched in evolutionary biology, touching on paleobiology, macroevolution, and evo-devo, then moved on to an overview of the state of science understanding and education in America, the re-emergence of creationism, likely sources of the problem, and likely solutions, ending with a infomercial-esque plug for the Coalition On the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) and their Year of Science 2009 initiative.

Overall, I quite enjoyed the experience (at least once it was underway), and I hope to have the opportunity to give one or both of these talks again while I'm in Kenya. The talks ran long, but a lot of people stayed the whole time. And, even though I had planned for ~50 people when I ordered the cake, approximately 20 people managed to eat two-thirds of the cake. I'd call it a success.

I carried the giant cake box the quarter mile back to the guesthouse through the choking fumes of rush-hour traffic and made a gift of the leftovers to the hotel staff. Once I communicated my intentions and the location of the cake, there was a discrete stampede into the kitchen and many broad smiles the rest of the evening - although most were under the impression it was my birthday. I'm not sure many grasped that it was Darwin's 200th birthday, or that many of them know who Darwin was anyway.

I nabbed the last piece of cake with any remnant of Darwin on it (the brim of his hat) and ate it out in the garden, then took the rest of the night off. It was VERY good cake.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Yours truly got a new camera for Christmas! Actually, the timing was coincidental. It was not a gift per se, but a research purchase with lab funds. I wasn't previously a camera buff, but the need to document bovids quickly in the field for research posterity forced me onto the learning curve.

So far, I'm very happy with my set-up. I got a Nikon D90, after reading many rave reviews and losing much sleep hemming and hawing over the D300. I settled on the D90 because of the smaller price tag, lighter weight, single-hand operation (hot diggity-dog!), and more intuitive buttons/operation (a big plus for me).

The big lens (an AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED: bwahahhahaha) has yet to come, but my AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens has pleased me so far. It's more for museum and microscope work, but it's a good general purpose lens if my subject is less than, say, 25yards away.

I've test-driven the 18-55mm lens in low-light and high-light conditions, up-close, at distance, on animals, and moving objects. If I was into naming inanimate objects, I think I'd name the D90 "Jeeves." It does everything but tell the dog to fetch the paper. I particularly love the read-my-brain auto-focus abilities (note the plural). I know I'll get much better at fine-tuning my shots, but the most difficult thing I encountered straight-out-of-the-box was attaching the lens: it was so intuitive, I over-thought it and couldn't figure it out. D'oh.

The vibration reduction (VR) aspect to the lens is said to make tripods nearly obsolete. Hurray! - since I can't use a tripod from the car anyway, which is how much of my "fieldwork" is done. The VR makes my 1/5 sec shots look like my Panasonic's 1/35 sec shots, and my 1/15sec shots look like 1/80sec shots. Lovely! This way, when I crop away 85% of a 200-yard picture, I should have more than a brown smear of bovid to work with - trying to get proportional measurements on otherwise-unwilling subjects.

I can't wait for the 70-200mm to come in, as well as a camera-carrying backpack I ordered that I'm super-excited about. I love ingenious solutions to vexing problems, and I hope the downturn in the economy doesn't take too many niche solutions out of the market.

(I uploaded all these pics at 25% original size (click the thumbnails to see). Original size is 4.5-4.9Mb from a 12Mpix camera).

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Maybe you guessed it, but those are labial papillae - in the corner of the mouth of a female eland. Yes, the same one whose legs I blogged on earlier. The head was available, and I desperately wanted to dissect it, but time did not permit. So I took a few pictures and a few notes. And now I'm going to geek out on mouth bumps.

Cornified papillae (both labial and buccal) are found in much of the mouth of at least cattle and elands (to my knowledge so far). They are definitely not found to any similar degree in horses. I seem to recall a few raised bumps in the corner of the mouth of our (now deceased) family dog, but I just did a quick check on my brother's pit bull here, and [updated 12/29, now that I inspected her lips under good light] she has a few widely spaced papillae that seem to be uncornified (or at least not noticeably cornified). Broader sampling needed . . .

Just in front of the incisors the labial papillae are low rounded bumps (seen on both upper and lower lips in this pic. She has a bit of an underbite since a good portion of the skull's weight is resting on the back of the jaw, pushing the jaw forward. And there are no upper incisors on any bovid, in case you are wondering.)

What surprised me was how the papillae became long and pointed, shaped like sharks' teeth in the angle of the mouth - individually and in their spiral out-folding arrangement collectively.

The papillae look to be part of a widespread pattern of epithelial modification in the mouth; you can see lines of somewhat similar bumps on the roof of the mouth (hard palate). (Sorry for the washed out pic; I had one hand dedicated to the specimen, one had dedicated to the camera, no help, my contacts were corroding my eyeballs, and it was midnight).

According to Budras & Habel's Bovine Anatomy (1st ed.) both labial and buccal papillae help keep cud in the mouth during the wide lateral jaw movements during rumination (thank you, GoogleBook Search). Which might help to explain why dogs and horses (and people) don't have these papillae.

And now you (and I) know!

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Pop quiz

Can you guess where the following picture is from? (I sure couldn't have, before I saw it and took the picture. But maybe you're quicker on the draw than I am.) Answer tomorrow.

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