A mother protects her genes

Shall we end the week with a felid? Here we see kin selection in action!


Peacock spiders: Nature’s jewels

Here’s a short but nice article from the ABC (Australia) on everyone’s favorite spiders. Even if you’re an arachnophobe, you’ll like these because they’re a) gorgeous, b) have cute leg-waving behaviors for mating, and c) are very small, so they pose no threat. I’ve posted about them briefly before, and go see the video there.

Peacock spiders are salticids, or jumping spiders; all are in the genus Maratus, and all are endemic to Australia. The ABC report notes that a scientist in Sydney has discovered four more species, bringing the known number of species to 48:

The man who made the discovery, Jurgen Otto, said he believed even the most extreme arachnophobes would be enchanted by the beauty of the creatures, which are just a few millimetres in length.

“They’re just absolutely incredible. People still think that I make them up because they’re so unbelievable,” Dr Otto said.

“People can’t picture that they’re such a package of beauty.”

Indeed they are. Here’s a short film that’s in the article. Now aren’t these much more thrilling than “Blue Fool” or Warhol’s soup cans?

What strikes him about these spiders is their incredible dance moves to attract females.

“The males that have the best routines and best colour combination they will get to spread their genes into the next generation,” Mr Knowles said.

“From a Darwinistic, ecological point of view that’s the females putting pressure on the males to look better and dance better.”

Dr Otto said the peacock arachnids could be found anywhere in Australia.

“As far as we know they don’t occur anywhere else in the world and they seem to prefer the southern half of the continent where it’s more temperate,” Dr Otto said.

“Pretty much every type of bush is suitable for them but you cannot predict where you’ll find them, so you just have to spend a long time looking until you find one.”

If you’re an Aussie and have seen one, weigh in below. But they’re hard to see, despite their color, as they’re this big:


Photo: Jurgen Otto

I can’t resist showing some photos of these creatures:


They raise their abdomens as part of the mating ritual:


Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 7.33.16 AM

Photo by Jurgen Otto

This guy really raises his abdomen!:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 7.33.32 AM

Photo by Jurgen Otto



A species described by Dr. Otto last year:

“[Maratus sceletus] looks dramatically different than all other peacock spiders known to date, making me think that this group is perhaps much more diverse than we had thought. Despite the large number of species we have discovered just in the last few years, I can’t help feeling that we may have just scratched the surface of this most exciting group of spiders, and that nature has quite a few more surprises in store.”







Here’s another video showing the beasts as well as their primate student, Jurgen Otto:

And a final video from YouTube, posted by “Peacockspiderman”:

In September 2014 I travelled to Middle Island, a small uninhabited speck of land a few km from Cape Arid in Western Australia, famous for its bright pink “lake Hillier” (google it !) as well as the pirate Black Jack Anderson who made the island his home and whose treasures have never been found. As tempting as it may have been to look for them I was after a different type of treasure, a bright blue peacock spider (Maratus caeruleus) that has been found there a couple of years ago. So far no live individuals have been film or photographed and my goal was it to do just that. This video is the result. The female by the way is still “unknown to science”

h/t: Phil D.

Switzerland: Muslim students must shake teachers’ hands or get fined

The past few weeks have seen two related episodes involving Muslims’ refusal to shake hands—a religious dictate against members of different sexes touching each other (the same holds, I believe, for ultra-Orthodox Jews). The New York Times has a note that, in Austria, a female schoolteacher sued a Muslim father who refused to shake hands with her.

And, as the Inquisitr reports  the government of the Swiss canton Basel-Landschaft overturned a local school’s ruling exempting Muslim students from shaking hands with their teachers. Apparently in Switzerland it’s the custom, and a sign of respect, for students to shake their teachers’ hands. (I encountered a similar behavior in a French laboratory, where I shook everybody’s hand at the beginning and end of the day.) The government ruled not only was the religious exemption for cross-sex touching a violation of Swiss policy mandating gender equality, but also that handshakes were an integral part of Swiss academic culture (“a teacher has a right to demand a handshake”). Violating this new law (remember that so far it’s limited to one canton of Switzerland) could cost the student’s parents the equivalent of US $5000 per violation.

In the U.S. this restriction would not be legal: the First Amendment requires that religious demands be accommodated so long as they don’t impose an onerous burden on the employer (or school). Refusal to shake hands is not an onerous burden, for one can simply stipulate that Muslims can, in its place, be allowed to place their hands over their hearts—another way of greeting. European laws, of course, are different, and the secularism stronger. That’s why banning face covering in public is the law in France, but wouldn’t be legal in the U.S.

I have some sympathy for the Swiss and the French, who are trying to foster secular societies, and I really dislike these religious dictates that promote covering of women and forbid cross-sex touching—both of which demonize sexuality and foster a sexist culture. But so long as we have freedom of religion, and exercising that freedom doesn’t make an onerous burden for the rest of society, we should accommodate these strange notions. I don’t see handshakes as so integral to Swiss culture that they can’t replace touching with a hand over the heart. And one should realize that such laws can also be divisive in themselves.

But, as always, I invite readers to weigh in.

h/t: Grania

More on the ‘kite runner’ fossil

by Matthew Cobb

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks back we had a guest post from Ross Piper about the spectacular ‘kite runner’ fossil Aquilonifer spinosus, which Jerry posted about. Ross argued that the tiny organisms attached to the main fossil may not have been offspring, as Derek Briggs and colleagues, but instead Deutonymph mites that attach to organisms in order to disperse (this is called ‘phoresis’ so they are ‘phoretic mites’), and which we have previously described here.

Ross submitted a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the fossil originally appeared, and this has now appeared, along with a brief reply from Briggs et al. Both the letter and the reply are behind a paywall, so I’ll give some quotes here:

Ross writes:

The relatively large number of small individuals associated with the Silurian fossil is one reason why Briggs et al. (1) reject them as epizoans. The authors state that “[Aquilonifer] is unlikely to have tolerated the presence of so many drag-inducing epizoans” (1). Deutonymphs are known to travel in groups and they are often found in profusion on a suitably vagile host. Frequently, one deutonymph is attached next to the other, even if other beetle body parts are free of mites (3). Indeed it has even been shown that phoretic deutonymphs prefer places already infested by deutonymphs (4). The impact of these passengers on the flying ability of a beetle is unknown, but it must be at least as significant as the impact of tethered phoronts on the swimming ability of an aquatic host.

One other feature of the Aquilonifer fossil that points to a phoretic interpretation is the location of the tethered individuals. If they were genuinely offspring, you would expect them to be clustered in one area to limit their impact on the parent’s swimming/foraging abilities. Instead, the tethered individuals are scattered across the body of Aquilonifer, which is very similar to mite deutonymphs.

Briggs et al reply:

Clearly these two examples are profoundly separated by time (∟430 Mya) and ecology (the one fully marine, the other terrestrial), but it is worth considering the possibility that the adherence of tiny arthropods to Aquilonifer represents the behavior of some sort of marine mite ancestor. (…)

We considered the possibility that the arthropods attached to Aquilonifer represent epizoans or parasites and concluded that this is less likely than their being juveniles (2). We focused on behavioral comparisons with crustaceans because they represent almost the entire diversity of modern aquatic arthropods; marine chelicerates, in contrast, are very rare (e.g., horseshoe crabs). Aquatic mites (Hydrachnidia) invaded water secondarily from land, probably in the Mesozoic, and most are freshwater (7, 9). Aquatic mites include examples that apparently attach their eggs to their limbs (10). Some aquatic mites (members of the Halacarida) are marine and occupy habitats from subtidal to abyssal (9). At least some freshwater mites are dispersed from one water body to another by a parasitic association with flying insects (9). Phoresy is practiced by mites that live on the strandline but is an unlikely strategy for fully marine (subaquatic) mites and we can find no reports that it occurs.

The evidence indicates that any similarity between the attachment of mites to hosts today, and that of the tiny individuals to Aquilonifer, is convergent. The individuals attached to Aquilonifer had at least six pairs of appendages confined to one portion of the body (2), whereas mites have fewer extended limbs that are usually more uniformly distributed. Furthermore, Aquilonifer does not appear to have been primarily a swimmer, and therefore was not an ideal dispersal agent, and whereas it could have adjusted its molting cycle to avoid casting off juveniles, it is unlikely to have done so to favor epizoans.

And that’s more or less it. We aren’t much further on, and I personally didn’t find Briggs et al’s response particularly convincing – certainly not enough to justify the rather peremptory title to their reply: ‘Aquilonifer’s kites are not mites’.  However, because the fossil was destroyed in the scanning process, unless we find something similar, it isn’t likely this will be resolved one way or the other…

Bullied by Yale students, Erika and Nicholas Christakis resign their residential posts

In October of last year, Erika Christakis, child development expert and associate master of the Silliman residential college at Yale University, sent an email to students in response to a dean’s email about a big fracas involving “inappropriate” Halloween costumes. Christakis discussed the difficulties of determining whether costumes were potentially offensive and warned about the dangers of impeding free speech. It was a pretty innocuous letter (read my post about it here), but it ignited a huge reaction among students, an explosion whose fuse—black students’ feelings of University oppression—had been smoldering for a long while. As I wrote at the time:

Unfortunately, this rather tame letter set off an explosion.  740 Yale students, alumni, faculty and staff signed an open letter to Christakis, accusing her of “invalidating the existences” of marginalized students and disrespecting their cultures and livelihoods. Her husband, the college’s master, met with the protestors, who demanded that he apologize for the email (he wouldn’t). As the Washington Post reports, some Silliman students say they can’t bear to live in the college any more, and others are drafting a letter calling for the resignation of both Nicholas and Erika Christakis.

And her husband Nicholas, a professor of Medicine and of Sociology, as well as co-Master of Silliman, was horribly beleaguered by students holding him accountable for his wife’s email, cursing and shouting at him (see the video here).  That was the beginning of a huge round of protests by students at Yale, with the University by and large capitulating to the now-familiar list of non-negotiable student “demands.”

There was a petition by faculty supporting Nicholas and Erika Christkis, but only 49 faculty signed it. That’s a pathetically low number! And the students called for the Christakises to resign, saying that they had created an “unsafe space” at Silliman, and ruined their “home. As the Yale Daily News reported, at graduation this year some students refused to accept their diplomas from Nicholas Christakis’s hands.

The students won. In December, Erika decided to withdraw from her teaching post at Yale, and Nicholas Christakis took a one-semester sabbatical. There’s little doubt that they did this to avoid further student harassment.

Now, according to a new article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, as of Wednesday both Nicholas and Erika have resigned their residential positions at Silliman College. As the article notes, “Nicholas Christakis will continue on as a tenured Yale faculty member. Erika Christakis, who gave up teaching at Yale last semester, recently published a book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.”

Now I can understand, and find it admirable, that the Christakises would step down if they felt they could no longer be effective residential heads. Many students really disliked them, as the diploma incident above notes. But the problem is this: the immature and bullying students should not have reacted that way. By all accounts Erika and Nicholas were great housemasters and excellent teachers, and now their skills are lost to Yale because of bullying students. As far as I can see, Yale itself has done little to support them. As for the faculty petition, The Atlantic notes this:

Some activists nevertheless cast the couple as symbols of what was wrong with Yale, an injustice noted by a group of faculty members who came to their defense. “In the case of the Christakises, their work has been more directly oriented toward the social justice than the work of many other members of the Yale faculty,” they wrote. “For example, Nicholas Christakis worked for many years as a hospice doctor, making house visits to underserved populations in Chicago. Progressive values and social justice are not advanced by scapegoating those who share those values.”

With regard to Erika Christakis’s email, the faculty members declared themselves “deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman.”

But relatively few humanities professors signed that letter of support. [JAC: As is often the case, scientists are more willing to sign such petitions. Don’t ask me why.]

And when drafting the letter, the physics professor Douglas Stone found himself warned by faculty colleagues that he was putting himself at risk of being protested.

At Yale, I encountered students and faculty members who supported the Christakises but refused to say so on the record, and others who criticized them, but only anonymously. On both sides, people with perfectly mainstream opinions shared them with a journalist but declined to put their name behind them due to a campus climate where anyone could conceivably be the next object of ire and public shaming. Insufficient tolerance for disagreement is undermining campus discourse.

So we have a campus where people are publicly afraid to speak their minds, terrified of student reaction. Yale has indeed allowed a climate of intolerance to grow: a culture of hatred and public shaming.

And so, two great resources for Yale students, and two dedicated teachers, give up a lot of their duties in light of the bullying they faced by students. Shame on the Yale students for their immaturity and Authoritarian Leftist ideology, and shame on the Yale administration for not supporting the Christakises. I urge you to go back and read Erika’s letter to the “Sillimanders”, and see if you find anything in it that would justify such a student response, or anything that would brand the couple as racists. As author Friedersdorf says at the end of his piece, “. . . the couple’s ultimate resignation does nothing to improve campus climate. What a waste.”


Physics explains it all

Reader Pliny the In Between has a new cartoon, “Time Dilation,” on his/her site Evolving Perspectives (click to enlarge):

Toon Background.002

Making these cartoons is no easy job; in another new post, Pliny explains the work behind creating the characters and making the panels. It’s far more complicated and laborious than you’d imagine!

Readers’ wildlife photos

Stephen Barnard in Idaho is sending lots of photos, for the owls and the eagles on his property have young about to fledge. Plus he saw BABY COYOTES. So here’s the latest installment:

Desi (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) taking off from the nest. When they take off they launch into the air and then drop to pick up air speed. I guess it’s easier than flapping wings.

Great Horned Owlets (Bubo virginianus). I thought there were only two until today. [May 23]


I was lucky to capture this fledgling (one of three) in flight. They’ve been out of the nest for a couple of days and are a little clumsy, especially on the landings, but rapidly improving. The adults were watchful. I got some pretty good digiscoped video of one taking off.


This is a freeze-frame from a 4K digiscoped video of an adult taking off.

owl freeze frame May 24



Coyote pups! (Canis latrans):

The one in profile was super bold — much more so than his siblings.





And two videos:

I was lucky to capture this fledgling Great Horned Owl (Bubo viginianus; one of three) in flight. They’ve been out of the nest for a couple of days and are a little clumsy, especially on the landings, but rapidly improving. The adults were watchful. I got some pretty good digiscoped video of one taking off.

A Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) was an unwelcome moocher at the
eagle nest.

Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday, and about noon I’ll head to the American Humanist Association meeting downtown. That means that posting will be light here until Monday, and then on Wednesday I go to Boston for a week or so. Like Maru, I do my best.

On May 27, 1703, Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg (named Petrograd by the Bolsheviks and now restored with its original name). Also on this day, but in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened in California, linking San Francisco and the Marin Headlands.

Those born on this day include Julia Ward How (1819), composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and, in 1907, biologist, environmentalists and writer Rachel Carson. On May 27, 1923, Henry Kissinger was born: the old warmonger and Nobel Laureate for Peace (!) is 93 today.

Notables who died on this day include John Calvin (1564), Robert Koch (1910; the Father of Microbiology and discoverer of the organisms causing tuberculosis, anthrax, and cholera), and Jawaharlal Nehru (1964), a great secularist and one of the architects of modern India. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is chewing out Andrzej for not meeting her needs. Sometimes she’s a bit of a jerk!

Hili: Can we stop working and go for a walk?
M: I just have to finish this paragraph.
Hili: Your life is divided into paragraphs.
In Polish:

Hili: Czy możemy przestać pracować i pójść na spacer?
Małgorzata: Muszę dokończyć ten akapit.
Hili: Wasze Ĺźycie jest podzielone na akapity.

Lagniappe: here’s Gus in a photo called “Chat Eau”. He’s drinking from the backyard pond but, curiously, ignores the goldfish in there


Pair of misplaced glasses mistaken for art

The latest book I’m reading is by the New York Times‘s film critic A. O. Scott: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. It’s a mixed bag, but, to give him credit, Scott’s taken a hard look at the value of his own profession, asking what the purpose of criticism is, whether it is itself an art form, can there be any nonsubjective standards of taste, and so on. The book does make you think, and one of its subjects is this: “does something mundane, boring, or trivial become art at the moment when it’s called art?”  We all know of all-white paintings, heaps of trash mistaken for artworks, and so on.

The latest one of these, reported by The Independent (and BuzzFeed), is amusing but also disturbing.  A 17-year-old boy named TJ Khayatan pulled a prank at the San Francisco Museum of Art, putting a pair of glasses on the floor and, in other places, a wastebasket and a baseball cap. While all of them elicited reactions from the viewers, who often saw them as art, none was as effective as the glasses. To wit:



Khayatan photographed the people admiring his “art” and posted them on Twi**er, where they went viral.

Question: If those glasses were put on the floor by an artist, and given a title and a fancy explanation, they would constitute an “installation” that could be worth many thousands of dollars. What, then, is the difference between this prank and the kind of “art” that doesn’t differ much from it, like all-white paintings or the work below by Christopher Wool, “Blue Fool,” that sold for over $5 million at Christie’s. 


All of us could do that stencil, but none of us would earn even $50 for it. Clearly an artist with a name is more likely to produce puzzling stuff that would be regarded not just as art, but as VALUABLE art. But what about those glasses?

I am ambivalent. I can see the worth of Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, and barely see the artsiness of Warhol’s soup cans, which to me are a commentary on art rather than real art, but “Blue Fool”? It may be intended as art, but it doesn’t move me or engage my emotions. Others, no doubt, will have a fancy explanation of what it means.

I know there are many artists among the readers, so do explain to me why a pair of glasses put on a pedestal by an artist is considered “art,” but a pair of glasses on the floor is not—at least not by critics. The public, long used to puzzling artworks and unsure of their own ability to analyze things, clearly thinks that the glasses do constitute art.

h/t: Grania

DePaul President responds to the Yiannopoulos affair

I had already written to the President of DePaul University about the suppression of free speech shown in this morning’s video, but before he responded (if he even does), I got an email from a member of the DePaul faculty, who, among other things, enclosed a letter that President, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, sent to the University community. The faculty member, who will remain anonymous, said this:

I have forwarded the message sent by DePaul’s President Holtschneider yesterday morning. This is the latest in a line of other messages sent by him to the DePaul community, all affirming the importance of free speech at DePaul. I would appreciate if you could publish a follow-up post to allow other WEIT readers to know that the actions of a subset of DePaul’s students does not necessarily reflect the stance of the institution, its administration, or its faculty on free speech and are, in fact, in direct opposition to it.

Done. Thanks to this person for contacting me! And here’s the President’s letter, which, to my delight, affirms the value of free speech and says that the University will not tolerate further disruptions (my emphasis). Like me, he’s not down with Yiannopoulus’s message but strongly in favor if allowing it to be issued without interruption:

From: “Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.”
Subject: Tuesday’s speech and protest
Date: May 25, 2016 at 11:15:55 AM CDT

Dear Members of the DePaul University Community,

I am writing from France, where Fr. Udovic and I are leading a mission trip to introduce our trustees to the life and legacy of St. Vincent de Paul. Because today is a free day, a number of us are spending the day in Normandy, touring the museum, walking the famous beaches of the D-Day landings and standing silent before the rows and rows of graves honoring the men and women who gave their lives so others might live in freedom.

I tell you this because I awoke this morning to the reports and online videos of yesterday’s speech by Milo Yiannopoulos and the accompanying protest. I was sorry to see it.

Mr. Yiannopoulos and I share very few opinions. He argues that there is no wage gap for women, a difficult position to maintain in light of government data. As a gay man, he has claimed that sexual preference is entirely a choice, something few if any LGTBQ individuals would claim as their own experience. He claims that white men have fewer privileges than women or people of color, whom he believes are unfairly privileged in modern society — a statement that is immediately suspect when white men continue to occupy the vast majority of top positions in nearly every major industry.

Generally, I do not respond to speakers of Mr. Yiannopoulos’ ilk, as I believe they are more entertainers and self-serving provocateurs than the public intellectuals they purport to be. Their shtick is to shock and incite a strong emotional response they can then use to discredit the moral high ground claimed by their opponents. This is unworthy of university discourse, but not unfamiliar across American higher education. There will always be speakers who exploit the differences within our human community to their own benefit, blissfully unconcerned with the damage they leave behind.

Now that our speaker has moved on to UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, we at DePaul have some reflecting and sorting out to do. Student Affairs will be inviting the organizers of both the event and the protest — as well as any others who wish — to meet with them for this purpose. I’ve asked them to reflect on how future events should be staffed so that they proceed without interruption; how protests are to be more effectively assisted and enabled; and how the underlying differences around race, gender and orientation that were made evident in yesterday’s events can be explored in depth in the coming academic year.

As this proceeds, I wish to make a few matters crystal clear.

*   Yesterday’s speaker was invited to speak at DePaul, and those who interrupted the speech were wrong to do so. Universities welcome speakers, give their ideas a respectful hearing, and then respond with additional speech countering the ideas. I was ashamed for DePaul University when I saw a student rip the microphone from the hands of the conference moderator and wave it in the face of our speaker.

*   I was alarmed when I watched individual students on both sides intentionally provoking the others with inflammatory language, but I was proud when I saw students — many students — working to calm each other, and at times, even hold people back from hasty decisions. Many of our students understood that protests only work when people conduct themselves honorably. I wish to thank all of them for self-monitoring the crowd’s behavior. The experience could have been a far worse experience had they not done so.

*   I wish to thank our Student Affairs staff, Public Safety team, Student Center employees, Chicago police and temporary contract safety personnel. They were thrust into an unexpected and challenging situation that we must examine for hard learned lessons.  I am grateful that the situation was calmed and dispersed without serious injury to anyone’s person. I know the staff, too, are reflecting on these events and what might be learned for the future.

*   On behalf of the university, I apologize to the DePaul College Republicans. They deserved an opportunity to hear their speaker uninterrupted, and were denied it.

Here in Normandy, I expected to be moved by the generosity of those who gave their lives on the beaches early on June 6, 1944. I did not expect, however, to be shocked when I realized that most of the soldiers were the same ages as our students today. The rows on rows of white crosses in the American cemetery speak to the selflessness of the human spirit at early adulthood to lay down their lives for a better world.

I realize that many of yesterday’s protesters hold similarly noble goals for a more inclusive world for those traditionally held aside by our society. I realize also that these young soldiers died for all the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech and assembly. We honor their sacrifice best if we, too, remember and honor all the rights of human freedom, even as we fight for more freedom and justice for all.

God bless you.

Rev. Dennis H.


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