Shirley and Jenny: An elephant never forgets

The work week is nearly over here, though not in the States. And, as usual, I like to end with something to palliate the stress and distress of the week. (I hope you didn’t have much.)

I don’t know anything about this video (from 2011) except that it’s gotten over 6 million hits and it’s deeply moving, showing the bond not only between these wonderful animals, but between Shirley the elephant and her former keeper, who removes her chains and tells her she’s “free at last.”

Shirley and Jenny were together for 3 years in a circus, and then were separated for 22 years, with Shirley becoming the sole elephant in another circus. After not seeing another elephant the whole time, Shirley was brought to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesee, a refuge for old, sick ,and injured pachyderms, where she once again met her old friend. I’ll let you watch what happens next, but it’ll bring you to tears.

Trunk in trunk, they’re together for good.

RIP Elijah, famous bourbon-distillery cat

Via reader Kurt and (the site of the Lexington Herald-Leader), I am saddened to hear of the passing of Elijah, the resident cat and mouser at the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Elijah died on June 30 and was at least 20 years old (the age was unspecified, but he’d been at the distillery for two decades).

Woodford Reserve happens to be my absolute favorite bourbon—it’s mellow and smooth, and remarkably free of mouse droppings.

As the paper notes:

“We’re deeply saddened to announce the passing of Elijah, our beloved distillery cat-in-residence,” Woodford Reserve announced late Wednesday night on Facebook. “Elijah called the Woodford Reserve barrelhouse ‘home’ for two decades — often taking the night shift to keep watch over the barrels, ensuring the angels never took more than their share.”

. . . In his honor, the distillery lowered its Woodford Reserve flag to half staff. In a show of camaraderie, Maker’s Mark’s tour team posted condolences.

Fans of the bourbon and the cat also posted hundreds of remembrances on social media, many including photos of Elijah at work or asleep (roughly the same thing.)

“I have never been a cat fan, but any cat that likes bourbon is a friend of mine!” one fan said on Facebook.

“He’s having the angel’s share tonight,” another tweeted, a reference to the whiskey lost to evaporation in the barrel.

Several called for a limited-edition bourbon dedicated to the orange-and-white cat who roamed the rackhouse and watched over the whiskey.

For many people, no tour of the Woodford County distillery was complete without a chance to meet, photograph and possibly pet Elijah, named for bourbon pioneer Elijah Pepper, the first distiller on the site in Woodford County.

Officials plan to honor Elijah with a plaque on the distillery’s grounds.

I’m in favor of the special-edition cat bourbon! Here’s Elijah with a few bottles of their splendid bourbon:
Elijah had a good long life with many admirers and fusses, and that is the best any cat can hope for.

HUGE aquatic insect reported (and other big bugs)

Yes, yes, I know that true bugs are only from the order Hemiptera, but I’m using “bugs” in the vernacular, as “insects.”

Scientific American reports, in an article by Bec Crew, the discovery of the world’s largest aquatic insect. Well, it’s the world’s largest known aquatic insect.

Images have surfaced of a newly discovered insect reported to be the largest aquatic insect in the world. Found in the mountains of Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, the specimen boasts a wingspan of 21 cm. While very little is known about the specimen at this point, it’s been identified as belonging to the order Megaloptera, which includes about 300 described species of winged alderflies, dobsonflies and fishflies.

Just as this new find is so far pretty mysterious, members of Megaloptera are also fairly poorly known. As larvae, they spend all of their time in the water, only venturing out once it’s time to pupate and become adults. While they’re usually found in clean, clear streams, rivers, swamps, ponds and lakes, they’re also perfectly capable of sustaining themselves in muddy and polluted water, which makes them extra hard to spot.

Yes, that’s a chicken’s egg next to this creature, and for those of you who are metric-disadvantaged, 21 cm is about 8.25 inches (just divide centimeters by 2.54).  And of course by “aquatic insect,” Crew means, “adult insect which spends its larval stages in water.”


Credit: China News Service/Zhong

As adults, they enjoy relatively short lifespans, and use the vast majority of this time to find mates. They end up with enormous tusk-like mandibles and mouthparts as adults, but at this point they’re pretty much done eating anything at all, so the males use them to attract females and then hold them in place while they mate.


Credit: China News Service/Zhong

As Crew reports, this is not the heaviest adult insect in the world; that honor goes to the Little Barrier Island giant weta, Deinacrida heteracantha, a wingless cricketlike insect from an island off New Zealand. One of these monsters weighed in at 71 grams (again, that’s 2.8 ounces; divide by 28.3).That is three times heavier than a house mouse, but the insect was abnormally gravid (full of eggs).

I’m sure you want to see one; here’s a picture taken from a Gizmodo article:


From the Daily Mail: Image by Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures/Solent

What about the largest of all insects? Sure enough, Wikipedia has a page of “largest insects,” measured in various ways—weight, length, etc. And if you consider larvae instead of just adults, then there’s something that outweighs the giant weta:

The title of heaviest insect in the world has many rivals, the most frequently crowned of which is the larval stage of the goliath beetle, Goliathus goliatus, the top size of which is at least 115 g (4.1 oz) and 11.5 cm (4.5 in).

Wanna see it? Here (it’s from central Africa):


The Wikipedia page is fascinating, and is precisely the kind of Internet site on which biologists waste precious time. But I can’t help but provide one more fact: the longest known insect:

The longest known stick insect is Phobaeticus chani, with one specimen held in the Natural History Museum in London measuring 567 mm (22.3 in) in total length. This measurement is, however, with the front legs fully extended.

It’s other name is “Chan’s megastick,” named after a Malaysian naturalist.

Here you go:


Only six specimens of this insect are known; all come from Sabah in Borneo.

The news: the good, the woo, and the quackery

Thanks to several readers, I’m kept up on the latest news about religion, cats, woo, and so on.  I’ve collected three items here, which I’ll describe briefly (you can read more at the links). I could post them separately, but that’s an unconscionable division of posts, and I’m also tired.

BBC Africa reports some good news about Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese doctor who was sentenced to death for apostasy—while pregnant, although she wasn’t to be executed until she had her child). As you might recall, she was married to a Christian man, and was herself raised Christian although she had a Muslim father. But that was enough to doom her.

Fortunately, Italian authorities (probably with U.S. help, since her husband was a U.S. citizen) intervened, and she flew from Khartoum to Italy. She’s free! You may remember that she almost escaped, but was rearrested, but now she’s out of Sudan for good:

The BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome says there was no prior indication of Italy’s involvement in the case.

Lapo Pistelli, Italy’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, accompanied her on the flight from Khartoum and posted a photo of himself with Mrs Ibrahim and her children on his Facebook account as they were about to land in Rome.

“Mission accomplished,” he wrote.

A senior Sudanese official told Reuters news agency that the government in Khartoum had approved her departure in advance.

Mrs Ibrahim’s lawyer Mohamed Mostafa Nour told BBC Focus on Africa that she travelled on a Sudanese passport she received at the last minute.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” he said.

Yes, but she is smart enough to know what awaits her if she stays. If the government doesn’t kill her, somebody else will.  Her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair, traveled with her.

. . . She was given South Sudanese travel documents but was arrested at Khartoum airport, with Sudanese officials saying the travel documents were fake.

These new charges meant she was not allowed to leave the country but she was released into the custody of the US embassy in Khartoum.

Last week, her father’s family filed a lawsuit trying to have her marriage annulled, on the basis that a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim.

And. . . the bestest news: she got to meet the Pope!

Mrs Ibrahim met Pope Francis at his Santa Marta residence at the Vatican soon after her arrival.

“The Pope thanked her for her witness to faith,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying.

The meeting, which lasted around half an hour, was intended to show “closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith,” he added.

Spreaking of those who suffer for their faith, how about all Catholics?

To see the video of Ibrahim and  the screenshot below, if you can stand it, to get to the video (there are three in toto):


Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 5.23.21 AM


Also according to the BBC,David Tredinnick, a Conservative MP and a diehard believer in Indian astrology, wants to screw up British medicine by infusing it with his woo. Fortunately, it won’t fly, but the guy is on both the health committee and the science and technology committee:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

“There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

Proven track record?

. . . “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

. . . He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

“I think it’s something that people should be aware of as an option they have if they are confused about themselves.”

He’s also prepared charts for his fellow MPs.  Although the NHS, I think, already provides coverage for homeopathic remedies (and why do you Brits tolerate that?), I hope they won’t consider astrologial diagnoses as well. “You’re a Pisces, eh? Right, well then it’s penicillin for you.”

According to Wikipedia, this guy has not only been an MP for over 20 years (one of its longest-standing members), but was suspended for 20 days for taking a £1000-pound bribe to ask questions in Parliament. That’s a pretty light punishment.  And he’s a long-standing exponent of woo (my emphasis):

He is a supporter of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He has made supportive comments in Parliament on homeopathy, despite continued lack of evidence of its effectiveness. He has supported chiropractic and mentioned the influence of the Moon on blood clotting. In this same debate he characterised scientists as “racially prejudiced”. He has tabled several early day motions in support of homeopathy’s continued funding on the National Health Service. Tredinnick’s views continue to cause amused disbelief  in some quarters and a spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of England said they would “laugh their heads off” at the suggestion they could not operate at the full moon.


Why is this guy still in Parliament?


And, at long last, Houston cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski has been charged by the Texas Medical Board with misleading patients. I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about this guy, as medical scams aren’t really my beat, and people like Orac do it much more thoroughly than I ever could. (For Orac’s posts on Burzynski at Respectful Insolence, go here.)

For four decades Burzynski has been dispensing ineffective drugs (“antineoplastins”, his own invention) as chemotherapy for patients who have run out of hope, all under the aegis of a Food and Drug administration “clinical trial.” There are no data that these drugs work (so why has the FDA allowed the trial to continue for years?), and many people have died. Most would have died anyway, but without the toxic effects of some of these drugs and without spending the exorbitant sums that Burzynski extracted from his desperate patients.

Finally, as USA Today reports, the quack has been corralled:

Once patients arrived at Burzynski’s office, the board says, he misled them in several ways:

• By making patients pay a retainer before receiving any diagnosis or treatment.

• By performing unnecessary tests and “non-therapeutic treatment” with no potential to help them.

• By imposing “exorbitant charges” for drugs and lab tests, without telling patients that he also owned the pharmacy and lab being used.

• By allowing unlicensed staff to treat patients, while describing the staff as doctors.

Burzynski also prescribed unapproved combinations of highly toxic chemotherapy in ways that caused harm to several patients, the board says.

Burzynski — who was the subject of a USA TODAY investigation last year — broke Texas law, the board says, through “unprofessional and dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public.”

Oncologist Howard Ozer, who reviewed the board’s case, said the charges against Burzynski are medically sound. For example, the board says Burzynski tested one patients’ blood oxygen levels eight times in two weeks — at $35 a test, in addition to a $4,500 monthly case management fee. While these oxygen tests are common for patients in intensive care, they aren’t used for patients receiving outpatient treatment, Ozer says.

In Burzynski’s case, “these tests seem to me to be simply for generating extra revenue,” says Ozer, a professor at the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

Burzynski apparently also used unlicensed employees not only to dispense drugs, but to recommend treatments.  Richard Jaffee, Burzyngi’s lawyer, comments:

Jaffe says the board, which put Burzynski on probation from 1994 to 2004, is “under tremendous pressure to take away Burzynski’s license” because of negative publicity that Burzynski has received in recent years.

Jaffe predicts that this would be the last time that Burzynski, 70, will tangle with the medical board.

“One way or another, this is the last time that this is going to happen,” Jaffe says. “Either they are going to take away his license or the board is going to be humiliated, because we are going to ask a judge to decide whether this treatment works better.”

Read a few of Orac’s articles, and you’ll see that the only rational thing to do is take away Burzinski’s license. I’m still baffled as to why he was allowed to continue, since the 1970s, using a treatment which has never been demonstrated to work.

You can see the 202-page complaint against Burzynski by the Texas Board here, and Orac’s superb analysis of that complant is here


Burzynski: How could he be a quack with all those certificates?

h/t: Tony, Susan, Grania

Friday: Dobrzyn

Quiet Days in Dobrzyn, which is just what I need to work a bit and unwind from The Albatross. It is wet again today, so the cherry harvest, which has one day to go, began at 5 a.m. but was called because of rain two hours later.

Today’s post will be mammalcentric, so let’s start with a game. Can you spot the cat?

Find the cat1

Here she is—crouched underneath the bush by the shed:

Find the cat 2

Lunch was what Malgorzata called “nursery school food”: “cherry soup”.  Cooked cherries are ladled over cooked noodles and topped with yogurt and a bit of sugar. It’s like cherry spaghetti: very tasty. What with that, cherry juice for breakfast, and cherry pie as a snack:

Noms 1

Noms 2

I had two helpings.

We had a postprandial walk through the fields and orchards with both Cyrus and Hili. Here’s a video from the orchard. You can see how Hili comes along, in fits and starts, pretending that she’s not walking with us. In the middle she disappears briefly, but then Andrzej finds her—doing her business among the cherry trees. TRIGGER WARNING: Animal excretion!

Malgorzata and the d*g Cyrus:


Hili became disoriented in the tall grass, and began meowing plaintively. Malgorzata had to pick her up and carry her to more familiar territory. Hili is such a diva!


And a family portrait, with all four mammals in the family (Hili, of course, is diffident):

Family portrait


Readers’ wildlife photos (hummingbird rescue)

Lou Jost, a biologist living in Ecuador, sends us a photo of the Green Violetear (Colibri thalassinus) along with a rescue story:

 This poor hummingbird flew into my house and in its rush to escape, smacked into one of my windows and knocked itself out, landing on its face on the floor with its tongue sticking out. But its neck wasn’t broken so I tried to revive it and washed the dirt out of its eye and tongue. I set it on a stool outside, but I was sure it would die. After half an hour I approached it again, and touched it, and suddenly it took off and climbed straight up into the sky like it was shot from a catapult, eventually disappearing out of sight above me, and chattering all the way like hummers do when they are excited. It reminded me of the whale you posted some time ago, jumping for joy after it had finally been cut loose from a fisherman’s net.


This is a Green Violetear, and if you look closely you can see white flower mites on its beak, one near the nostril and another near the tip. This bird’s beak was crawling with these mites when it crashed, but they seemed to be jumping ship as the hummer went limp. These mites ride hummers and butterflies from flower to flower, as they must since flowers don’t last very long (they eat the nectar or pollen). Flower mites are so numerous they can remove half the nectar from some flowers!

The species is found on the edges of tropical montane forest; here’s its range from the Cornell Ornithology website for neotropical birds (Audubon reports that it’s also found in the eastern U.S. as a vagrant from Mexico):


I’ll add two facts to Lou’s story:

1. There are four species of “violetears,” so called because they have large violet feathers sticking out the side of their head, like ears. Here’s a photo showing one, taken from Wikipedia (you can see the “ears” appressed to the head in Lou’s photo):


2. Hummingbirds are in the order Apodiformes, meaning “Things without feet,” referring to their tiny pedal extremities. They are also the only birds that lack scales on their feet, which are covered instead with naked skin. Besides the family of hummingbirds (Trochilidae), the order contains two other families: tree swifts and swifts.

Wikipedia adds this about the order:

While apodiforms do in fact have feet, they are quite small and their legs are short and relatively weak. Many birds in this order cannot walk, and thus rarely if ever land on the ground since quick escape from predators is virtually impossible. For this reason members of this order spend a majority of their time in the air.

Apparently Lou’s bird didn’t have any trouble taking off, but note that it is gripping the edge of a hole in a plastic stool.

Friday: Hili dialogue

Poor Cyrus. I keep taking his space! But where am I supposed to sit?

Cyrus: The American occupier wants to take this sofa away from me.
Hili: You can settle on mine.

In Polish:
Cyrus: Amerykański okupant chce mi zabrać sofę.
Hili: Możesz się osiedlić na mojej.


The infatuated leopard experience

Voilà: a gif from The Meta Picture. Their notes:

Pardus is a black leopard that is currently a part of the Cheetah Experience, a big cat centre that was founded in 2006 with the long-term goal of breeding cheetahs.

Pardus is very enthusiastic about people. Here’s what happens when Pardus notices his favorite zoo keeper is visiting.


Her name is Juhi Agrawal and she works for Cheetah Experience. They have Cheetahs, Lions, Leopards and other animals and Juhi has been able to work closely with them all.

Three notes:

1. The Cheetah Experience is located in South Africa, and is devoted to saving endangered species of cats.

2. The “black leopard” is simply a genetic mutation in the regular leopard, Panthera pardus (clearly the source of the name of the loving leopard shown above).  The black mutation is recessive, meaning that the cat needs two copies to show the color variation. (The mutation is called “melanistic,” and increases the amount of black melanin pigment in the fur.) But in the right light you can still see the characteristic rosettes of the leopard’s coat, as you can toward the end of this video.

A similar mutation is found in jaguars of the New World, Panthera onca, but those mutations are dominant, requiring only one copy to turn the animal black. Black jaguars are also called “black panthers.” Black domestic housecats also have a single dominant gene that darkens their coats, and in the right light you can often discern a tabby pattern in the coat of an all-black cat, revealing its underlying genetics. (“Tabby-pattern” genes are also dominant, but  are largely masked when a tabby also carries the “black” gene.)

3. I would love to be that keeper. Apparently one can touch some of the cats at this place.

h/t: John

A tale of two crows

A famous puzzle about classifying animals involves the abutting distributions of the hooded crow and the carrion crow in Europe. The two crows are considered members of different species, Corvus cornix and Corvus corone, respectively, and have been classified that way because they not only have different color patterns, but tend to mate with others of like pattern, as well as differing in their dominance behavior. Here’s what they look like:

Hooded crow:

Hooded Crow ok

Carrion crow:


The crows’ distributions abut abruptly along a line from north to south through Europe—the red line shown in the picture below, taken from the second reference at the bottom of the page. The caption gives information about where the birds were captured (one taken from each locality) and the genetic relationships between them:

Screen shot 2014-07-24 at 3.45.29 AM

Speciation battleground. On either side of the narrow hybridization zone (dark brown), the carrion crow (Corvus corone) (dark area) and hooded crow (Corvus cornix) (pale area) ( 2) maintain their marked phenotypic differentiation, despite apparent lack of genetic differentiation. Genome-wide admixture analyses (inset at bottom) show that German carrion crows most closely resemble (80%) hooded crows, and are quite distinct from Spanish carrion crows. Sampling sites for the present study ( 6) are shown as circles. Sp, Spain; Ge, Germany; Po, Poland; Sw, Sweden.

Yet they are otherwise very similar, and do hybridize from time to time, so some biologists have considered them subspecies rather than species. The “biological species concept” (BSC) uses the idea of reproductive isolation as the criterion of species distinctness: if two groups inhabit the same area, but do not produce fertile hybrids (i.e., are “reproductively isolated”), then they are considered separate species.

Under that criterion, the presence of some fertile hybrids between these groups means that they aren’t strictly “species” according to the BSC, but in our book Speciation, Allen Orr and I use reproductive isolation as a relative criterion: the more two populations are reproductively isolated from each other, the more “species like,” they are, up to the point where there is no genetic interchange, at which point they can be called “good biological species.”

Under this criterion, these two crows are “species-like” but not “good species,” and how you name them becomes somewhat arbitrary.

But how much genetic difference is there between the groups? If there are extensive genetic differences, spread throughout the genome, that suggests that although there is interbreeding, the genes from one species don’t become incorporated easily into the genome of the other’s, so reproductive isolation is stronger (perhaps hybrids can’t find mates, or don’t survive as well as the parents). On the other hand, if the groups differ by only a few genes, one could more easily see them as subspecies, or “races,” or “ecotypes.”

To resolve this question, a large group of researchers used a number of scientific methods, including sequencing of most of the genome as well as looking at differential expression of the genes, in both groups of crows. The results, by J. W. Poelstra et al., were published in a recent issue of Science (reference and link below, but no free download), and were highlighted in a “news and views” piece in the same issue by Peter de Knijff (reference and link also below).

Here are the salient results, and I’ll try to be brief:

  • The hooded and carrion crows were barely different genetically. Of over 8 million DNA positions that were variable within the two species, they were “fixed” between them in only 83 places (i.e., one could diagnose with certainty the two species by looking at only 83 places out of millions in the genome, while the rest of the DNA bases gave no diagnostic information about whether a crow was hooded or carrion.
  • Similarly, gene expression (as measured by the gene product, messenger RNA) barely differed between members of the two species. The percentage of all genes expressed differently ranged from 0.03% to 0.41% depending on the tissue—less than half a percent difference between hoodeds and carrions. As one might expect, most of the genes that differed in expression were those involved in plumage color, the most obvious difference between the species.
  • Surprisingly, 81 of those 83 fixed differences between the “species” mapped to one small region of a single chromosome: chromosome 18. That region represents only 0.28% of the total genome: about one quarter of one percent. The figure below shows the fixed genetic differences between the species (indicated with red arrows) across the genome, with each chromosome given by either a light blue or dark-blue color. You can see that most of the differences cluster on chromosome 18.

Screen shot 2014-07-24 at 3.39.40 AM

  • The genes in that very small region included “transcription factors” (genes that control the expression of genes elsewhere in the genome); these factors appeared to control pigmentation and vision.
  • The genes that differed in that region were probably contained in an “inversion”: a section of the chromosome that has been turned around in one of the two species since the common ancestor.  That is, if the common ancestor had gene order ABCDEFGHIJKLMN on its chromosome, one of the two descendants had an inversion that made the gene order something like ABCDEKJIHGFLMN, with the region F-K turned around. This happens when a chromosome breaks in two places and re-forms, but with the broken bit inserted backwards.
  • A few genes on other chromosomes also affected differences in pigmentation and probably vision as well.
  • Finally, as shown in the diagram at the top of the species’ ranges, carrion crows from Germany were more genetically similar to hooded crows from Poland and Sweden than to crows of their own species (carrions) from Spain. This probably reflects a historical phenomenon: the Spanish crows were isolated during the last glaciation, while the German crows expanded their ranges eastward out of a glacial refugium to eventually contact the hooded crows that were west from their refugium. Genetic interchange between the adjacent populations have made them more genetically homogeneous, despite their differences in the inverted region of chromosome 18.

What does this mean? Are they good species or not? Well, it’s still a judgement call. There are some fixed genetic differences between hooded and carrion crows, but it looks as if hybridization has homogenized most of their genes, so reproductive isolation is far from complete. In fact, if you just classify species by overall genetic similarity, you’d call Spanish carrion crows a different species from German carrion crows!

What we have here are two partially isolated populations: interbreeding is limited by the fact that there are color differences between the types, and each type tends to mate with others of its color. That clearly means that there are differences in at least two types of genes: color genes, and genes for how one responds to the colors, which makes you more likely to mate with a bird having a color similar to yours. (There are probably differences in visual sensitivity to the patterns as well, which may explain the fixed differences in the DNA of “vision” genes.) The “response” or “preference” genes could be active in females (who do most of the mate choosing) males (who may decide which species to court) or both sexes.

The importance of the inversion is that it keeps these types of genes together, because inversions keep genes tied up in blocks. If an ABCDEFGHIJKLMN bird mates with an ABCDEKJIHGFLMN bird, there can be free genetic interchange (“crossing over” between the chromosomes, except in the inverted F-K region, because a cross-over in that region will produce sperm and eggs that yield inviable zygotes (they will have duplications of some genes and absences of others, leading to inviability).

Therefore, if one species has the first configuration, and the other the second, genes in the F-K region will tend to stay together.  So if that inversion contains, in one species, genes for the hooded pattern as well as genes for preferring the hooded pattern, while the region in the other species has genes for the non-hooded pattern and genes for preferring the non-hooded pattern, the system will be stable.

If crossing-over were allowed, and the species-specific genes were not in inversions, you’d get hybrid birds having, say, a hooded pattern but a preference for a non-hooded pattern, and the species would soon lose their integrity for pattern and mate preference. Population geneticists have shown that, because of this, genes that are involved in speciation will tend to accumulate in inversions if there is gene flow between the populations during speciation. Since we know that there is gene flow between these groups, and they are not yet “good” species (they may never be), this observation is a striking confirmation of population-genetics theory.

So what do we call these things? Are they species or not? My preference is to consider them subspecies, as many biologists have before. Most of the genome is being exchanged between the hooded and carrion crows, so reproductive isolation is far from complete. But that is a judgment call using my definition of biological species as something of a sliding scale. Others will disagree, for no species concept will always work, if for no other reason that species are dynamic entities that begin as populations and only gradually become species. There will always be cases of species in statu nascendi, or gray areas that defy classification under any definition of species. (See chapter 1 of Speciation by Coyne and Orr if you want to see why we prefer to use the BSC.)

Although deKnijff’s piece tends to concentrate on the semantic problem—what do we call these birds?—I find the genetic results more interesting: that they maintain their distinctness due to only a very few genetic differences, and those differences are largely bound up in rearranged sections of one small chromosome.

So when my European readers (and I am, for another few days, a writer in Europe) see a hooded or carrion crow, be aware that you’re looking at a remarkable case of recent evolution, and a puzzle that has largely been solved by work published in just the last two weeks.


Poelstra, J. W., N. Vijay, et al. 2014. The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crowsScience 344: 1410-1414.

de Knijff, P. 2014.  How carrion and hooded crows defeat Linneaus’s curse. Science 344:1345-1346.

Another U.S. execution botched

Here we get conflicting statements from the state of Arizona vs. the executed man’s lawyer and a witness who reported in the Guardian. Joseph Wood III, convicted of executing his estranged girlfriend and her father, was put to death yesterday in Arizona by lethal injection. The procedure normally takes ten minutes. This one took nearly two hours. As the New York Times reports:

In another unexpectedly prolonged execution using disputed lethal injection drugs, a condemned Arizona prisoner on Wednesday repeatedly gasped for one hour and 40 minutes, according to witnesses, before dying at an Arizona state prison.

. . . But what would normally be a 10- to 15-minute procedure dragged on for nearly two hours, as Mr. Wood appeared repeatedly to gasp, according to witnesses including reporters and one of his federal defenders, Dale Baich.

Mauricio Marin, who witnessed it, reported in The Guardian:

The curtains opened. The medical staff checked the man’s veins. He said his last words – “God forgive you all” – and the lethal drugs began to flow, at 1.52pm. James Wood appeared to fall asleep, albeit strapped down to a table, and he looked straight ahead at the wall. The first 10 minutes went according to plan.

Then, a hard gulp. I looked over to my left: the priest praying the rosary. To my right: the family watching on. Then dead ahead: the side of Wood’s stomach appeared to move, even after the Arizona state prison’s medical staff had announced he was sedated.

I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. I knew this because Wood’s stomach moved at the same time, just like it would if you were lying down and trying to breath. Then another of those gulps – those gasps for air, movements just from the throat area and sometimes from the stomach, too.

I started looking at the priest’s watch to keep track of time. Five, 10, 20 minutes … an hour had passed. I started to wonder: Will this get called off? Will this ever stop?

I continued to scribble on my state-issued notepad, counting the gulps and gasps of the man on the gurney. I counted 660. This went on for over an hour and a half.

During that time, medical staff checked Wood six times in total, looking at his eyes, feeling for a pulse on his neck, informing us over the loud speaker that he was still sedated. His eyes were still closed.

My eyes turned to Wood’s attorney, Dale Baich, as he handed a lady a note and she left the witness chamber. I wondered what the lawyer had written, and as the door opened, it let in a bright light, for just a quick moment.

What seemed like an eternity passed – 20, 30, 45 minutes more, looking straight ahead – and finally the gulps and gasps started to slow, from about every five seconds or so, to about one per minute. Finally, the gulps and gasps stopped. A few minutes more went by. At last, the killing had stopped, too. A medical staff member checked Wood again one last time. Another few minutes still, and the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3.49pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had began.

In a move that I think is unprecedented, Wood’s lawyers asked for a stay of execution to both the federal district court and Judge Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme court an hour into the execution, as Wood was still alive. Both courts refused.  (On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court also overturned a stay of execution ordered by a lower court, demanding details about the source of the lethal drugs and the training of those who administered them.)

What were the drugs? The Times notes:

Arizona officials said they were using the same sedative that was used in Oklahoma, midazolam, together with a different second drug, hydromorphone, a combination that has been used previously in Ohio. Similar problems were reported in the execution in Ohio in January of Dennis McGuire, using the same two drugs. He reportedly gasped as the procedure took longer than expected.

There are reliable ways to execute someone by injection. That involves using the same drugs that people take when they end their own lives legally, as they do in Switzerland. The drugs are barbiturates, and are guaranteed to cause sleep and then a painless death. But these aren’t used in the U.S. for executions, for their manufacturers won’t sell them for purposes of execution. This means that a variety of other drugs, produced by dubious “compounding pharmacies” whose names the executioners won’t disclose, are used—with variable and often horrible results. Moreover, persons trained to administer drugs, like physicians, are forbidden from participating in executions.

Naturally, the state of Arizona maintains that Wood didn’t suffer. They said he was snoring, that he was asleep. But how do they know what he actually felt? There is no way to know what a man who is gasping but appears unconscious is actually experiencing. I doubt he was simply “snoring” as he was dying.

And of course Wood’s botched execution was minimalized by both the Governor of Arizona and the victims’ relatives:

“This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’ ” Richard Brown, brother-in-law of Debra Dietz, told The A.P. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?”

Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona said that she was concerned about the length of time the execution took.

“While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process,” she said. “One thing is certain, however: Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims — and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

Drano? That is a caustic drain-cleaning chemical in the U.S. that people occasionally swallow to kill themselves, producing a horrible death. The point, though, is not to contrast the relative ease of the criminal’s death with that of his victims. The point is that when we take away from someone the only thing he has left—his earthly existence—we should not act as a country the way a criminal acts toward his victims. Do we want them to suffer. Of course there is plenty of mental suffering involved in knowing exactly when you’ll die, but what kind of people demand physical suffering as well? We should be better than vicious criminals!

Physicians will not participate in these executions, companies will not sell states the drugs we need for painless executions, and executions cost more than life in prison without parole. Further, capital punishment puts our country into the killing business. We are the only First World country to retain the death penalty (see below), and we can’t even carry it out properly. Isn’t it time to bring this charade to an end?

Here, from Wikipedia, are the countries that have abolished the death penalty (dark green; 97 nations) versus those that retain it in some form. Only the red ones (58 nations) have actually used it in the last ten years. Light green countries (8 nations) have it only for special circumstances like war crimes; tan countries (35 nations) retain capital punishment but haven’t used it in at least a decade:

Capital_punishment Screen shot 2014-07-24 at 6.36.51 AM


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