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May 2013 Archives

 (& a big 'thank you!' to Jean Fleming for showing me this on Facebook)

This video featuring philosopher A.C. Grayling, on the BBC's 'Future' page (which alas! did not give an embed code), is a must watch for those concerned with (& about) science literacy. Noting that many people feel excluded by science, he explains why he believes this is a problem, before going on to point out that moves to change things need to start at school:

Our traditional way of teaching science is that the people who are learning it will go on to be scientists. For many people, that's not the way to go... People could get a good understanding of science, without the need to have technical expertise.

Are our current school (& tertiary) curricula able to deliver on this?

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I've got heaps on at work at the moment, but there's always time to share a lovely picture :) So here's the stunning Australian spotted jellyfish, Phyllorhiza punctata. It's native to Australian waters but has apparently become an invasive species elsewhere (eg in the Gulf of Mexico).

And yes, I found it on FB: Photo: Mister No [ITA],, via Biologia-Vida with Luis Balderas Solis

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 The great & wonderful FB (</snark>) this morning delivered me a link to this video, describing it as 'a great depiction of the process of evolution'.

 To which, having watched it, I can only say, 'no, I don't think so'.

Why? Well, apart from the music (repetitive rap-style tracks don't do a lot for me, but then I am a Grumpy Older Person, lol), the whole thing smacks of the old Scala Naturae - the idea that evolution is a linear process. Which is anything but correct. A lot of the iconography of evolution repeats this misconception, but that doesn't make it right.

And the video contributes to another misconception: that humans are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. I mean, that's pretty much all the second half of the video focuses on.

As it happens, it looks like there are several different versions out there. The one below at least has a better handle on mammal evolution (I mean, it has Dimetrodon!, but it still subscribes to those same misconceptions. 

Which is rather a pity, really.

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At the recent graduation ceremony for students from Waikato University's Faculty of Science & Engineering (& those from its sister Faculty, Computing & Mathematical Sciences), we were privileged to hear an absolutely inspirational address from the recipient of an honorary Doctorate at that ceremony: Dr Gordon Stephenson. And I mean, inspirational! After the event I spoke with Dr Stephenson & asked if he'd be willing to provide the text of his speech, because I believed it deserves the widest possible audience, and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy. (I've taken the liberty of adding a hyperlink in a couple of places, for those who may not be familiar with some of the references.)


Chancellor Rt Hon Jim Bolger, Vice chancellor Professor Roy Crawford, academia, distinguished guests, students at all levels, my whanau, everyone.

This really is an extraordinary and totally unexpected honour that you have bestowed upon me. I find it very difficult indeed to adequately express what it means to me.   

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... for I fear the title (not to mention the image below!) of this video by Thunderf00t would put many off if they were not forewarned. A real pity, as the video contains some thought-provoking ideas, eg: the total value of a discovery is the product of data (the utility of an idea) & metadata (can anyone actually find out about it, in the internet age?). So, should scientific publishers become a lot more proactive in using new media to share ideas?

No, seriously - ignore the atrocious cover image & listen to the ideas therein. (I suppose one could argue that the image would get more people to view Thunderf00t's message than a more mundane title, but would those who came for the cars & women stay for the serious sci-comm message?)

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We've been trialling some software for on-line paper/teaching appraisals & I got my results back the other day. The appraisal form included open-ended questions where students could give extended feedback on particular issues that concerned them, & I've been going through it all so that I can give feedback in my turn, thus 'closing the loop'. (This is something that I believe is absolutely essential: students need to know that we value their opinions & that, where appropriate, use them to inform what we do.) I've been interested to see that some of the class are definitely thinking outside the 'box' that represents my paper, and one comment in particular struck a chord:

One concern with the paper is individuals who were not taught certain aspects of the NCEA Level 3 curriculum. This is a major issue that has resulted from the preference of schools to not teach certain aspects of the course. There NEEDS to be consultation to standardise the NCEA curriculum as well as ensuring that the gap is bridged with communication between teriary education providers and secondary education providers. As I understand it there is significant concern over the changed NCEA Level 3 Biology course, which now does not teach genetics in year 13. I don't know the answer in the resolution of this issue, however it will greaty impact on future acedemic success as well as future funding when grades drop.

This student has hit the nail squarely on the head. Teachers reading this will be working on the following Achievement Standards with their year 12 students this year (where previously gene expression was handled in year 13): AS91157 Demonstrate understanding of genetic variation and change, and AS91159: Demonstrate understanding of gene expression. (You'll find the Biology subject matrix here.)

And as my student says, this has the potential to cause real problems unless the university staff concerned have made it their business to be aware of these changes and to consider their impact. For the 2014 cohort of students coming in to introductory biology classes will have quite different prior learning experiences (& not just in genetics) from those we are teaching this year and taught in previous years. We cannot continue as we have done in the past.

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The 'aquatic ape' hypothesis (it can't be described as a theory) has been around for quite a while, & in fact I've blogged about it before. So I was sorry to hear that Sir David Attenborough, who's done so much to promote conservation issues and enhance our understanding of the natural world, appeared to have given the idea some support. He's certainly taken some flak for this (see here, for example), although at the same time other - ahem! - news outlets have picked up the ball and trotted off down the garden path with it.

Briefly, the aquatic ape hypothesis (I will NOT call it a theory) purports to explain the evolution of a number of aspects of our morphology: our relative hairlessness & the distribution of that hair, bipedalism, the way so many people like fish (I will put my hand up as an exception to this), distribution of body fat, & so on. ** Unfortunately for this particular just-so story, there's good evidence that all these features did not evolve at the same time. Bipedalism, for example, pre-dates the chimp-human divergence, but the addition of fish to the diet seems to have appeared much later. Nor is there necessarily strong evidence of any links between a particular feature & the life aquatic. For example, while cetaceans are essentially hairless, seals, sealions and their relatives are covered with dense coats of fur.

Anyway, the hypothesis has recently been the focus of some entertaining parodies, among them the 'space ape' version (face-to-face copulation would really have been the only option, dontcha know? for otherwise the jetpacks would get in the way) and - as a conclusion to his explanation of why the aquatic ape idea doesn't stack up - Henry Gee's thought experiment involving the unlikely combination of elephants and custard.


** "& so on" includes the sinuses in our skulls (another feature that reinforces our African origins). Apparently they provided a buoyancy aid - yet they're found in all mammals regardless of habitat.

[EDIT] However, courtesy of one Smut Clyde I find that the aquatic ape proposal has nothing on this.








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Yesterday's Sunday Star-Times carried the headline: Chinese cheats rort NZ universities with fakes. The story begins:

An investigation has uncovered a well-organised commercial cheating service for Chinese-speaking students in New Zealand. The long-standing business uses a network of tutors, some outside New Zealand, to write original assignments ordered by Chinese-speaking students attending New Zealand universities, polytechnics and private institutions

and provides a link to an essay bought by the reporting team as part of their investigation.

Frankly, about the only thing that surprised me about the story was the fact that the organisation delivering this 'service', and thus helping those using it to cheat, is based in New Zealand. I mean, I've just had one of my regular clean-outs of the spam folder. Anything there just gets deleted; there's so much coming in that I don't have time to scan it just in case a genuine commenter has been dumped there. But occasionally something at the top of the queue for oblivion catches my eye, and I notice things like this: 

Lately, graduates are overloaded to produce essay writing, they can find custom writing services where they are able to buy critical analysis essays.

If you are desperate, you always have a possibility to purchase high quality essay and all your problems will disappear.

Are willing to be a good student? Therefore, you should realise that good high school students buy paper and if it is fits you, you can do the same!

 And the icing on the cake:

Some people have got a passion of composing academic papers, but, some of them do not know the correct way to complete research papers. Professional Custom UK Essay writing service is developed to help students who cannot write.

Frankly, the standard of English in that lot should put potential buyers off! At least some of the time they make an attempt at 'buyer beware' (but don't you just know that the following would link to one of these 'good' sites?):

If you want to escape any troubles while ordering essays at the paper writing services, you ought to be really thorough. Buy essay services only if you have solid evidences that the people you'll be dealing with are highly educated.

Lols aside, there's obviously a market for this sort of stuff; it's worth pondering why students would buy in work, and what options teaching staff have for avoiding/reducing the temptation.

One obvious motivation is the pressure to do well. Students (& often their families) do invest quite a bit of money into their education. This is particularly true for many international students whose families spend a lot to send them here & support them during their studies. (So do taxpayers, via the student loan system, so we - ie taxpayers - do need to know that we're getting good value there, & that includes the quality of students' work.) So fear of getting a poor mark, & perhaps having to repeat a paper, could drive the sort of behaviour that our spammers and the Auckland organisation are hoping to generate.

And unfortunately 'custom essays' are not going to be picked up by anti-plagiarism software (eg Turnitin) - unless the ghostwriters are stupid enough to just do a copy-&-paste! That's not to say they can't still be identified: an obvious clue would be a standard of English that differed significantly from that in other work submitted by a student; the relevance of the actual content would be another.

But there are ways of reducing incentives to be dishonest around assessment. For example, teachers can review their use of 'high stakes' assessment items: single essays or reports that are worth a large proportion of the final grade (& so can offer some incentive to cheat in order to gain a higher mark). 'End-loading' assessment, so that it's all due at the end of semester, is not going to help here either. 

Another tool would be to have students generate work in class. Now obviously that won't work if you want a lengthy report, but what about: getting them to do the relevant research but asking for them to write an abstract, or a summary of their findings, in-class, & having it peer-marked (using your marking scheme) or doing that task yourself? The students still gain practice in useful skills & - hopefully - your workload is somewhat reduced. If students get more involved in the writing process from the start, & are supported in learning the various skills involved, they might be more confident in their own abilities & feel less need to cheat on the assignment. 

Recommended reading**

J.C.Bean (2001) Engaging Ideas: the professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass (Wiley). ISBN 978-0-787-90203-2

** actually, make that highly recommended!


 And in today's spam (May 20) - how blatant can you get?

Nowadays you shouldn't give your best shot in order to come up with quality academic papers since online writing services are willing to provide you with professional assistance. Buy essay example and get out of hard writing assignments.


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I first found out about gastric-brooding frogs (Rheobatrachus silus) when reading Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Here Goes Nothing" (as published in the 1991 book Bully for Brontosaurus). As he said, these frogs really do live up to their name: the frog

swallows its fertilised eggs, broods tadpoles in its stomach, and gives birth to young frogs through its mouth.

Gould's tale first introduces another example of the ability of natural selection to shape truly strange behaviour: male Rhinoderma darwini frogs swallow the eggs they've fertilised and brood them, not in their stomachs, but in their throat pouches. These are the same pouches that male frogs inflate with air & use in croaking (& whistling, & chirping, depending on species) during courtship, which means that a brooding male is rendered voiceless for the duration. However, it doesn't stop them feeding normally, something that was first demonstrated way back in 1888 by biologist G.B.Howes (Gould, 1991). I was interested to find out, while researching this post, that the eggs aren't ingested immediately after fertilisation: they're laid in damp leaf litter and the male remains close by, but waits until the embryonic tadpoles are wriggling around inside the egg membrane before taking them up in his mouth. (I'm guessing that the behaviour's triggered by the sight of the wriggling tadpoles.)

As for the gastric-brooding species: Gould provides an engaging description of how this habit was uncovered. Until 1979

[n]atural birth had not yet been observed in Rheobatrachus. All young had either emerged unobserved or been vomited forth as a violent reaction after hatching.

However, scientists finally managed to get a gravid (I hope that's the right word in these circumstances!) female in an aquarium with their cameras all at the ready:

The mother "partially emerged from the water, shook her head, opened her mouth, and two babies actively struggled out."

It's no small feat to incubate froglets in this way:

This... female, about two inches long, weighed 11.62 grams after birth. Her twenty-six children weighted 7.66 grams, or 66 percent of her weight without them.

And of course, the incubating female must stop eating and switch off production of gastric juices for the duration!

Sadly, confirmation of this highly unusual method of parental care was rapidly followed by news that the species appeared to be extinct in the wild. Which is why I was so intrigued by my student's news of its resurrection. However, it seems that reports of that resurrection may have been somewhat exaggerated. A quick search turned up several articles (this one's a good example) that describe what's been achieved so far: R.silus tissues that had been in the freezer were thawed, and cell nuclei from those tissues were implanted in enucleate eggs from another, distantly-related, species of frog (an example of somatic cell nuclear transfer). Some of those went on to an early (but unspecified) stage of embryonic development before being frozen in their turn, to await possible reanimation in the future.

In other words, R.silus froglets won't be hopping around just yet. (And I'm moved to wonder how achievable the aim of the Lazarus project actually is, as it relates to this species. After all, if the gastric brooding part is an essential part of development, where's the stomach going to come from?)

S.J.Gould (1991) Bully for Brontosaurus. Penguin Books.

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This is a 'glass frog' (image from National Geographic):

It's one of a number of transparent or translucent creatures featured on the National Geographic's "Weird & Wild" blog. (Actually I take issue with the Monarch butterfly image there, as strictly speaking we're seeing a transparent pupal case; the butterfly inside is definitely not see-through.)

Glass frogs (Hyalinobatrachium pellucidum) are on the ICUN's 'red' list as an endangered species, with habitat destruction the likely cause. However, if chitrid fungi are introduced to the frog's limited range  - they're recorded from only five locations on the Amazonian slopes of the Andes in Ecuador - then the population will likely decline even faster (always supposing this particular pathogen isn't already there). These delightful little frogs are apparently about the size of a fingernail, & their translucency is due to a lack of pigment in the skin. Not only can you see the air-filled lungs, the red threads that are blood vessels, and the heart with some of the major arterial arches clearly visible - you can also see the animal's skeleton.

And that reminds me: we were talking in class the other day about gastric-brooding frogs & one of the students said they'd heard that this species had been cloned. An intriguing possibility - I must go off & look into it!


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Yesterday my 'Facebook science feed' (ie daily browsing) brought me this stunning image (click the picture for the hyperlink). It's from the book Thinkers of the Jungle: the Orangutan Report (Shuster, Smits & Ullal, 2008) & shows a young orangutan apparently using a long stick in lieu of a spear, copying local fishermen as they hunted with spears. (It's been blogged about here by Kambiz Kamrani.)

Which is pretty darned amazing. Tool use, & various tool cultures, are now quite well-documented in our nearest living relatives, the chimpanzees, but this is the first time I'd heard about it in a wild orangutan. Also novel: the concept that another great ape might also sometimes eat vertebrates (again, well-documented in the members of some chimpanzee troops). So I decided to dig a little deeper.

It turns out that orangutans do on occasion eat meat, although reports of this are rare. Back in 1997 Sri Suci Utami & Jan van Hooff reported on a total of seven incidents of carnivory by three different female orangutans in Sumatra. More recently Madelaine Hardus & her colleagues (2012) looked at a few additional instances of this behaviour - which in all recorded cases has female orangutans doing the eating and slow lorises as the prey - and considered whether it might be seasonal and related to the availability of other food sources (they felt that it was). Both research teams characterised the behaviour as opportunistic as there was no evidence of any organised hunting activity: it was more a case of a foraging orangutan happening across a slow loris. And they noted that the data are too few to allow any firm conclusions about either the frequency of this behaviour or whether it might be skewed towards one gender or the other.

Nor was this the first documented example of tool use by these Asian great apes. While it's apparently well-known in captive animals, Carel van Schaik first documented this behaviour among wild-living orangutans back in 1994, in Sumatra (apparently it's not been observed in populations from Borneo). The animals he was watching were in relatively high densities and surprisingly tolerant of each other - plenty of opportunity to watch and learn from the activities of others, which may be why tool use hasn't been seen in the wild in Borneo, where the animals are much more widely dispersed).

van Schaik documented the use of sticks to prise open extremely prickly fruit in order to get at the soft flesh within, but more recently he and a group of co-workers provided evidence that, like their cousins the chimps, orangutans in different areas have developed different cultures (around behaviours broader than simply using tools). Which demonstrates (again) that culture is not something that is solely 'ours', and suggests that such behaviour may have been around for a very long time indeed, given the antiquity of the split between the lineages leading to modern orangutans and (eventually) Homo sapiens. As van Schaik and his team concluded:

Hence, great-ape cultures exist, and may have done so for at least 14 million years.


M.E.Hardus, A.R.Lameira, A.Zulfa, S.S.Utami Atmoko, Vries & S.A.Wich (2012) Behavioural, Ecological, and Evolutionary Aspects of Meat-Eating by Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelli). International Journal of Primatology 33: 287-304. DOI: 10.1007/s10764-011-9574-z

S.S.Utami & J.A.R.A.M.van Hooff (1997) Meat-Eating by Adult Female Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelli). American Journal of Primatology 43: 159-165

C.P.van Schaik, M.Ancrenaz, G.Borgen, B.Galdikas, C.D.Knott, I.Singleton, A.Suzuki, S.S.Utami & M.Merrill (2003) Orangutan Cultures and the Evolution of Material Culture. Science 299 (5603): 102-105. DOI: 10.1126/science.1078004


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 The National Science Challenges have been announced - and have already received a lot of attention (including on Sciblogs, with posts by my colleagues Grant, Siouxsie, and John - who also points at where the money's going). What I'd like to address here is the comment by the Panel that it

was concerned by the lack of significant proposals in educational research

I have to admit that my first response to that was, well d'oh! Because, well, the public discussion was around national science challenges, I suspect that for many (most?) submitters the focus was to come up with a science-based proposal. After all (& please note bulging cheek ensconcing my tongue at this point), isn't science education something that schools & other seats of learning 'do', rather than requiring science research? Hopefully not many scientists really think that way, & it's great to see the additional Challenge, "Science & New Zealand Society" with its two goals (the first a science goal, while the second is societal):

To ensure the science capacities and literacy of New Zealand society so as to promote engagement between S[cience] & T[echnology] and New Zealand society, in turn enhancing the role played by science in advancing the national interest.

To allow New Zealand society to make best use of its human and technological capacities to address the risks and Challenges ahead. This requires the better use of scientific knowledge in policy formation at all levels of national and local government, in the private sector and in society as a whole.


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Recent Comments

  • Alison Campbell: Or you could, you know, summarise your own reasons for read more
  • marc verhaegen: For recent info, google "aquatic ape theory made easy 2017". read more
  • Alison Campbell: I feel that may have connotations of 'night soil', which read more
  • herr doktor bimler: Would it sound better as "liquid soil"? read more
  • Alison Campbell: The results in the study you linked to look promising read more
  • Alison Campbell: Thanks, Ed. Totally agree - it's just a matter of read more
  • Ed Darrell: Plague? Antibiotics, plus we know the vector and how to read more
  • Matthew: At least you came at this with an open mind. read more
  • Alison Campbell: No, I think you're wrong. You do get people there read more
  • herr doktor bimler: On the other hand, the comments threads certainly provide some read more