Clouded leopard cub overwhelms the internet

One of the world’s most beautiful cats (my favorite is still Pallas’s Cat) is the clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa, a denizen of southeast Asian forests—and highly endangered.  Habitat loss and poaching have reduced the cat’s population to around 10,000, and that’s not many.

That’s why people are excited about the birth of a clouded leopard cub in Tampa, Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo—that and the fact that the cub is adorable, what with its little squeaks and all. Here is the two-week-old cub, which is simply overwhelming the Internet, especially Facebook (even I’ve posted it):

And here is video from 2011 of a one-month-old cub in the Nashv9lle zoo:

But although some places, like the Tampa Bay Times, aver that this birth is a good sign for the species’ survival, what does that survival mean if the animals are kept in zoos—jails for endangered species? Even the zoo is overly optimistic; as the Times notes:

“This birth signifies a milestone accomplishment in our conservation programs at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo,” said Dr. Larry Killmar, vice president of animal science and conservation. “Species survival programs for animals like clouded leopards take years of planning, development and staff commitment. This kitten will contribute to the long term viability of our conservation efforts within the managed population, as well as range countries.”

I’m not sure what that last sentence means, but I translate it roughly like this, “Since we can now breed this cat in captivity, it gives us hope that we can have them to see behind bars for years to come, and of course we can always hope that they can be reintroduced.”

Yeah, right—not with poachers around and habitat loss rampant in their range. We simply have too many damn people. 

Here is what we’ll lose, except for those in animal jails:


I was in Banff; why didn’t I get to see this?

h/t: Norm

Governor Pence’s signing of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Bill”

A few hours ago I wrote about Indiana’s odious new “Religious Freedom Restoration bill,” which allows people virtually any form of discrimination so long as it has a religious justification. Gays, of course, are the bill’s main target.

Reader Amy then sent me a photo of the bill’s signing ceremony, a ceremony largely kept secret. Because the photo was so bizarre, I wanted independent confirmation that this was a real photo instead of a PhotoShop job. And I found it: the photo was posted on LGBTQ Nation’s site, credited to the “Indiana governor’s office.”

You can see why I was skeptical:


Yes, we see not only Republican (of course) governor Mike Pence signing the bill, but all the people around him who were invited to watch—presumably those who favor such discrimination. Oy gewalt!! (That goes especially for you, rabbi!)

You can read the bill here, and there’s a video on rtv6, the local ABC news channel, that also shows the picture.  Indiana now joins 19 other states in legalizing discrimination. The video also shows Pence frantically justifying his decision.

New paper shows that Nowak et al. were wrong: kin selection remains a valuable concept in evolutionary biology

In 2010 three authors—Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson—published a paper in Nature (reference and link below) purporting to explain the evolution of eusociality in insects: the phenomenon whereby a colony contains different “castes” that perform different tasks, and at least one caste is sterile.  In bees, for example, there is usually a single fertile queen, who produces all the offspring, a bunch of sterile working females (“workers”) who defend the nest and tend the brood, and fertile male “drones” who do basically nothing but compete to mate with the next generation of queens. Nonreproductive castes are general (though not ubiquitious) in the Hymenoptera (ants and wasps), as well as in some other animals like termites (Isoptera) and naked mole rats.

It’s hard to understand how it could be advantageous for some individuals to evolve sterility, which, of course, seems patently maladaptive. Darwin was the first to notice this problem. At any rate, one solution involves the notion of kin selection: the idea that a gene can promote sacrificing your own personal reproduction if it more than compensates for that loss by increasing the number of relatives you have—relatives who also carry copies of the “sacrifice” gene. It turns out that under a simple calculus that involves weighing the reprodutive benefit to relatives (discounted by the degree of relatedness) versus the cost of sacrificing your own reproduction, you can indeed evolve genes that cause you to lose reproductive ability—so long as they increase it in your relatives.

Such kin selection was an important explanation for the evolution of eusociality. Some think it’s because of the peculiar “haplodiploid” nature of inheritance in Hymenoptera, whereby the male who fertilizes the queen is haploid (has only a single set of chromosomes), and the fertile queen is diploid, with the normal two sets. In such a case, the female workers are more related to their sisters than to their own offspring, which may help them evolve the tendency to stop having their own offspring and produce more sisters; i.e., become sterile and help the queen raise her brood. Others question the importance of haplodiploidy in eusociality.

But the evidence for kin selection and relatedness is still clear. For example, eusociality in Hymenoptera has evolved several times, but always occurred in an ancestral lineage in which queens mated singly rather than multiply: a statistically significant finding (Hughes 2008; reference and free link below). That’s important because in such cases offspring are more related to each other than offspring produced by different fathers. Further, Bob Trivers showed that other patterns in bees, ants, and wasps—especially the observed ratios of males to reproductive females in colonies—also followed the dictates of what kin selection predicted. There are still other behavioral recognition experiments of kin versus non-kin supporting the importance of relatedness.

Nowak et al.’s paper, however, attacked this body of knowledge, claiming that kin selection and relatedness were not only unimportant in the evolution of eusociality, but were unimportant in general. (Ed Wilson has spent the last five years, for instance, arguing in his books and talks that kin selection is a misguided notion in evolutionary biology, and that group selection is far more important.) Nowak et al. used a rather complicated model of colony selection in which mother and all offspring were genetically identical and argued that relatedness was a consequence of the evolution of eusociality and not a driver of eusociality.

As I noted at the time, their dismissal of relatedness and kin selection from their model seemed bizarre, since they didn’t vary relatedness in their model. If you don’t do that, how can you say it’s unimportant in evolving eusociality? And people in the field found other problems with both Nowak et al.’s model and their conclusions about the uselessness of kin selection (go here for all my many posts on this issue). Over 120 experts in the field, for example, wrote a letter to Nature criticizing the conclusions of Nowak et al. But Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson have remained obdurate.

Now, a new paper in PLOS Biology by Xiaoyun Liao, Stephen Rong, and David Queller (reference and free link below) shows not only that the model of Nowak et al. was bizarre, with little obvious relationship to the evolution of eusociality, but was also flatly wrong its three major claims about the evolution of eusociality.

What Liao et al. did was simply vary the relatedness and other assumptions of Nowak et al.’s model. After doing that, they found that the original authors’ claims about the generality of their model were incorrect. Keep in mind that Liao et al.’s conclusions were based simply on manipulating the very model that Nowak et al. used to claim the irrelevance of kin selection, or on deriving new equations using Nowak et al.’s exact modeling strategy.

Here is what Liao et al. found, contra Nowak et al.:

1. Relatedness does help the evolution of eusociality, so kin selection is not irrelevant.  Unlike Nowak et al., Liao et al. varied total relatedness by allowing a certain fraction of offspring in the nest to be unrelated to the “queen” rather than simply her clones. (This could occur by immigration of insects from other nests, or by queens laying eggs in other queens’ nests.) What they found is that relatedness indeed makes a big difference: under conditions in which worker behavior is affected by their own genes rather than just the queen’s, eusociality evolves much more easily when relatedness between queen and “worker” is higher. In other words, higher relatedness (kin selection) is causal in this circumstance, not just a consequence of the evolution of eusociality. Nowak et al. were wrong, and all the statements of this group about the uselessness of kin selection based on this model are also wrong.

2. Workers’ evolutionary interests can differ from those of the queen. Nowak et al. saw workers as “evolutionary robots” who could not have an evolutionary strategy differing from that of the queen. This was a bit weird, since we’ve known from experimental and natural history data that there is a conflict between queen and workers (predicted by kin selection theory), and the results of that conflict are seen in the sex ratios produced in nests. Further evidence for that conflict occurs when the queen produces more males than the workers “want” (i.e., more than is in the workers’ genetic interests), and in that case the workers kill those males. This wouldn’t happen if the interests of queens and workers were coincident.

Liao et al. showed that varying how the genes for worker behavior and sterility were expressed—whether in queens alone or in offspring alone—had a substantial effect on the probability of evolving eusociality. As kin-selection theory predicts, eusociality evolves much more easily when the queen has absolute control over the behavior (and fertility) of her workers. When workers get a say—that is, when their own genes rather than just the queen’s genes control their own behavior—it’s not so easy to evolve eusociality, for workers sometimes have an evolutionary impetus to produce their own offspring rather than just raise the queen’s. This shows, as kin selection predicts and observation shows, that there is indeed a conflict between the interests of the queen and the workers.

3. Eusociality isn’t as hard to evolve as Nowak et al. assert.  In their paper Nowak et al. claimed that eusociality is “hard to evolve.” It’s difficult to evaluate this claim because you have to ask, “Hard relative to what?” But Liao et al. showed that some of the difficulty in the Nowak et al. model is because of two wonky assumptions: 1). Below a certainly colony size no worker can add anything to the offspring production of the colony, while 2). above that threshold there is a fixed output of offspring that does not change with the addition of more workers.

This seems completely unrealistic, for why wouldn’t two workers add more offspring than one, and why, over the threshold, wouldn’t more workers help produce more offspring by defending the nest better and tending more brood? Further, why would workers in large colonies remain in those colonies, since their presence adds nothing according to the “threshold” model? They should, instead, join smaller colonies, pushing them over the threshold. And indeed, when Liao et al. added more realistic assumptions to Nowak et al.’s model—a “stepwise” feature whereby, up to some limit, each worker adds an increment to the offspring production of the colony—eusociality evolved more readily.


So what is the upshot? First, that kin selection, i.e., the relatedness between queen and her offspring, plays an important causal role in the evolution of eusociality.  Nowak et al. were dead wrong in denying this. And since the subsequent statements of both Nowak and Wilson on the evolutionary worthlessness of kin selection were based on a model that could not show what they claimed to show (because relatedness wasn’t allowed to vary), we should not take their dismissal of kin selection seriously. Kin selection remains a viable and valuable view in evolutionary biology—indeed, one of the most important advances since the 1950s—and, as I’ve shown in my earlier posts, has helped us understand a wide variety of biological phenomena.

The other points are less important, but still show that Nowak et al.’s model was too narrow to support their generalizations about no conflict between queens and workers, or about the “difficulty” of evolving eusociality. Yes, it may indeed be hard to evolve such a bizarre system, and it may require uncommon ecological and/or genetic circumstances, but it’s not as hard, at least in theory, as Nowak et al. maintained.

The final lesson is that one’s biological conclusions from a model are only as good as the biological assumptions built into it. Because Nowak et al.’s assumptions were flawed, and because they failed to examine the robustness of the model to varying its assumptions, they arrived at faulty conclusions. But because Nowak and Wilson were already famous evolutionary biologists (particularly Wilson, who is an iconic figure in the field), and because the paper was published in Nature, their conclusions were taken far too seriously. The paper should have been reviewed by more critical reviewers in the field. Even I, who do not work on the evolution of eusociality, could see that you can’t dismiss the value of genetic relatedness from a model in which relatedness isn’t allowed to vary!


Hughes, W. O. H., B. P. Oldroyd, M. Beekman, and F. L. W. Ratnieks. 2008. Ancestral monogamy shows kin selection is key to the evolution of eusociality. Science 320:1213-1216.

Liao, X., Rong, S., and D. Queller, 2015. Relatedness, conflict, and the evolution of eusociality. PLOS Biology | DOI:10.1371/

Nowak, M. A., C. E. Tarnita and E. O. Wilson.  2010.  The evolution of eusociality.  Nature 466: 1057-1062.


Indiana governor signs a bill legalizing discrimination against gays—and other people

The Moral Arc has stopped bending towards justice today, as the governor of Indiana signed a “Religious Freedom Restoration” bill in which the “freedom” is the freedom to discriminate against people based on your religious beliefs. And the “people” against whom you can now discriminate in Indiana were clearly meant to be gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals.  Not surprisingly, the bill was signed in secret. As PuffHo reports:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow any individual or corporation to cite its religious beliefs as a defense when sued by a private party. But many opponents of the bill, which included business leaders, argued that it could open the door to widespread discrimination. Business owners who don’t want to serve same-sex couples, for example, could now have legal protections to discriminate.

“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” Pence said in a statement Thursday. “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”

The bill received national attention, but Pence signed it with little fanfare in a ceremony closed to the public and the press. The Indianapolis Star reported that members of the media “were asked to leave even the waiting area of the governor’s office.”

As usual, the supporters of the bill (Republicans, of course) lied about their intents:

Conservative supporters, however, have denied that the bill is about discrimination and instead have argued that religious liberties are under attack.

“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” Pence said in his statement Thursday. “For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”

It’s not about discrimination? How is that, when it allows you to discriminate against nearly anyone if you can claim that violates your religion? And can people of one faith discriminate against those of another on religious grounds? Can an Orthodox Jewish male legally refuse to sit next to a woman because it violates his religion? The implications—and possibilities for lawsuits—are endless.

Some businesses are boycotting Indiana, and I have a strong inclination myself to refuse invitations from any public university in that state. Not that it will make a difference, for Indiana (as we learned from the Ball State issue) is basically a conservative Southern state. But we can express our displeasure.

h/t: Cindy

Readers’ wildlife photographs

I’ve been accumulating photos from reader Stephen Barnard (apparently he hasn’t yet been killed by his Cobra), and I’m nearly caught up posting them. Here are a bunch:

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis):


Northern Harrier (female) (Circus cyaneus):


Moose (Alces alces):


Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris). The Marsh Wren is the best. They’re difficult to capture.


This series was sent to me labeled simply, “Moar moose.” I asked Stephen if they made any sounds, and he replied:

Yes, but rarely. When I let Deets [the border collie] out this morning, when it was still  dark, he ran right at the moose (which I didn’t know was there) and it let out a bellowing-sounding warning. Once I watched a bull getting  frisky with a cow, and her two nearly full grown calves were standing by watching, making pathetic mewling sounds. (Bulls will attack calves to drive them off.)




They jump!RT9A7224

RT9A7227And earlier series:

Deets (Canis familiaris) was pretty exited to see these moose (Alces alces) across the creek this morning. Also, some mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).






More on the German plane crash

There was some hint of this on last night’s news, which noted that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who apparently programed the Germanwings flight to crash—killing the pilot (locked out of the cockpit) and 148 others—had taken a break from his flight training in 2010 for unknown reasons. I wondered then if Lubitz had a mental illness, but they did not disclose the reason. Now it appears that he had some medical condition, at least according to my CNN bulletin:

Documents found in the apartment of Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz indicate he had an illness he kept “secret from his employer and his professional environment,” official says.

Investigators found a medical leave note from a doctor issued for the co-pilot that included the day of the crash, the Dusseldorf public prosecutor’s office said.

The prosecutor’s office did not say if the medical leave note related to a physical or a mental health issue but said the co-pilot appeared to have been under treatment by a doctor for some time.

Investigators added that no goodbye letter, and no evidence of political or religious motivation was found, the prosecutor’s office said.

While a mental illness seems likely, it’s also possible he had some terminal condition and killed himself to avoid a prolonged death. The baffling part is why he decided to kill so many people with him. My thought on that was this: it’s painful and sometimes uncertain to commit suicide by other means, but death by plane crash is instantaneous, and if you’re a pilot determined to kill yourself that way, you’ll have to take others with you. It’s still unconscionable and puzzling—unless the man was mentally ill and didn’t care about how many people he killed. Either way he is a mass murderer, perhaps the worst in modern German history.

The New York Times adds a bit more:

. . . there had been an instance six years ago when Mr. Lubitz took a break from his training for several months. He said that if the reason was medical, German rules on privacy prevented the sharing of such information. Mr. Spohr [the chief executive of Lufthansa] said the revelation of Mr. Lubitz’s actions had left him stunned.

The tragedy has, according to the NYT, led to a change in airline practices:

Some international airlines responded to the crash by introducing new rules requiring that two crew members always be present in the cockpit, after the French prosecutor revealed that Mr. Lubitz had locked the plane’s pilot out of the cockpit before starting the deadly descent. The airlines that said they were instituting a two-person rule in the cockpit included Air Canada, easyJet and Norwegian Air Shuttle.

All German airlines will introduce that requirement, the German aviation association said on Friday.

Thomas Winkelmann, the head of Germanwings, however, expressed doubt that such a rule would have prevented Tuesday’s crash.

“I ask myself, when a person is so bent on committing a criminal act, whether that is preventable if for example a stewardess or steward is in the cockpit,” Mr. Winkelmann told the German public broadcaster ZDF on Thursday.

Well, having another crew member in the cockpit while the pilot hits the lavatory couldn’t hurt, could it? A suicidal pilot would then have to overpower that other person before crashing the plane.

The NYT has a detailed series of interactive map of the crash, as well as an informative diagram of how the cockpit-door lock works. Note that the co-pilot could have prevented anyone from entering for five minutes simply by overriding the keypad entry code by pushing a “lock” toggle. But since the pilot was locked out for ten minutes (see the map), Lubitz must have somehow barred the door.

We almost got ‘em all. . .

From time to time I check the geographical location of the readers. When do, I find that we’re read pretty widely: in fact, the only three places where I almost never get hits are Mongolia, North Korea (only the elite have Internet there) and several countries smack in the center of Africa. Well, I checked again yesterday, and am pleased to report that we now have invaded every country in the world—including those pesky Central African ones—save North Korea. (One glorious year, though, we had two views from the DPRK!).

Here’s the map of readers over the last 365 days. Naturally, anglophones dominate, though Germany has more readers than other European countries:

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 3.05.46 PM

Note that there are no white spaces except for one—the lacuna between south Korea (which looks like an island west of Japan) and China. That is the DPRK. If only we could fill in that blank!

In an attempt to do so, I’ll try to lure Kim Jong-Un back by posting a picture of him and the execrable Dennis Rodman, the Basketball Ambassador to Hell™.  Come back, Dear Leader, and be my reader!

North Korea Rodman


It’s snowing again!

And before some wiseass says, “It’s always snowing somewhere in the world” (the same wiseass who, wanting a drink before 5 p.m., says, “It’s 5 p.m. somewhere in the world), I mean here, in Chicago. Here are the flurries on my way to work, with the Robie House again pictured for lagnaippe.  (The snowflakes make eerie patterns, which one might well mistake for spirits—if one were a complete bloody fool):


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday——which seat can you take? I hope mine will be in the CeilingCatMobile, which should be repaired today, and I am tired of going carless. Plus, I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: an inexcusable act of oversleeping, and now I must rush.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is cryptic in both body and word:

Hili: It’s easy to say “Fear not” but what if it attacks me?
A: But what is it?|
Hili: And that is the question!

P1020434 (1)

In Polish:
Hili: Łatwo powiedzieć, nie lękajcie się, a jeśli to na mnie napadnie?
Ja: A co to jest?
Hili: I to jest właśnie pytanie!

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