Sandal cat!

It’s been a long day, punctuated by a trip downtown to get the pearlies cleaned. Readers will be delighted to know that I’m in perfect dental health (note the “d”, which is not an “m”!).  As relief from the BioLogos nonsense of the last post, here is one of the best cat gifs I’ve seen. Matthew agrees that it’s stupendous:


A teaser for BioLogos’s “Big Story” (i.e., more toxic mixing of science and faith)

What “a miracle of love and creativity” is Homo sapiens!! Or so we’re told by this BioLogos flak in a video describing the organization’s new and super secret Big Project (possibly funded by Templeton). All we know from this teaser is the following (from the flak’s quote):

“What if we told that Grand Biblical narrative with the scientific knowledge of the origins of the Universe that the ancients did not have? What would it be like? Let’s call it The Big Story.”

I call it The Big Steaming Pile of Accommodationist Excreta—another pathetic and futile attempt to get evangelical Christians to buy biological evolution. But perhaps readers can guess about what lies in store here:

h/t: Douglas

A chemically-camouflaged frog

By Matthew Cobb

Social insect colonies rely heavily on chemical signalling to identify members of the colony, and conversely to detect intruders. These communication systems are generally very effective, but as that great scientist Professor Ian Malcolm put it, ‘Life will find a way’. If there’s a locked system, somewhere a pesky but perspicacious parasite will find a way to crack it.

Caterpillars of the Maculinea genus – also known as Alcon butterflies – hatch on the ground near Myrmica ant nests, and are picked up by the workers. The ants take home what tastes/smells like one of their babies, except this is a carnivorous cuckoo that will munch its way through their larvae…

An unusual example of such chemical camouflage was discovered in 2013 by a group of German and Swiss researchers, led by Mark-Oliver Rödel of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. It’s unusual because, as the title of this post indicates, it involves a frog.

The West African Rubber Frog (Phrynomantis microps) is found throughout west Africa, and can often be found living in the underground nests of the ponerine ant Paltothyreus tarsatus (aka the African stink ant).

These are pretty aggressive ants about 2 cm long, which pack a nasty bite and an even more powerful sting. They can be found pretty much throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where they play a very important ecological role. Most ponerine ants have quite small nests of a few hundred individuals, but in a paper published in 2013 my pal Christian Peeters found that some P. tarsatus nests can be as large as 5,000 individuals.

Here’s a rather small picture of Christian with a box of these alarmingly large ants:

Although the ants are notoriously aggressive, they don’t seem to bother about the Rubber Frog, as shown by this photo:

You can see how the ants seem rather bemused by the frogs in this video stitched together from the Rödel paper by a YouTube user – the first part shows ants with an adult frog, the final section with a froglet:

Other frogs, and other arthropods, are immediately attacked by the ants when they encounter them. However, when dead mealworms or live termites were covered in extracts from the frog’s skin, they were generally ignored by the ants, or at least it took much longer for the first bite to be administered:

Figure 1. Time from first ant, Paltothyreus tarsatus, contact with termites (left; inlet A) or mealworms (right), coated with the skin secretion of Phrynomantis microps, until stinging (inlet B).

Figure 1. Time from first ant, Paltothyreus tarsatus, contact with termites (left; inlet A) or mealworms (right), coated with the skin secretion of Phrynomantis microps, until stinging (inlet B). Control groups are termites or mealworms coated with water. Boxplots show the median and the interquartiles of time from first ant contact with a termite or mealworm until stinging. Coated insects were stung significantly later than control insects. Taken from here.

When Rödel’s group examined the chemical composition of the frog’s skin, they found it contained two novel peptides – short proteins, each 9 or 11 amino acids long – with a proline-phenylalanine pair at the end. When termites were covered with either or both of these peptides, the ants took significantly longer to attack them, suggesting these are indeed the active ingredients on the frog’s skin:

Figure 3. Effect of the two peptides from the skin secretion of Phrynomantis microps applied to termite, Macrotermes bellicosus, soldiers and delaying the aggressive behaviour and stinging of Paltothyreus tarsatus ants.

Figure 2. Effect of the two peptides from the skin secretion of Phrynomantis microps applied to termite, Macrotermes bellicosus, soldiers and delaying the aggressive behaviour and stinging of Paltothyreus tarsatus ants. Maximum observation time was 20. Taken from here.

This finding is doubly surprising – most instances of chemical camouflage involve cuticular hydrocarbons, which many arthropods use for communicating (for example, these are involved in the case of the Alcon Blue caterpillars described above). In the case of Phrynomantis microps, not only were novel peptides involved, no hydrocarbons could be detected on the frog’s skin, even though the animals were living in a hydrocarbon-rich environment in the ants’ nest.

What’s in it for the frog? Protection from predators (you’d have to be very foolhardy to take on the ants) and possibly protection from dessication during the dry season. They may also eat some of the ant larvae, although that is speculation on my part.

What’s in it for the ants? Probably nothing. If the frogs found a way to hack their chemical communication system, but at low or zero cost to the ants, then it won’t matter. If there’s a substantial cost to the ants, then you would expect a chemical arms race to begin – any ant nest that used a slightly different system of communication would not sustain the cost of the frog in the room.

The final point about this rather neat piece of biology, which flowed from a field observation, is that it’s opened up a new area of study in chemical communication in ants, and potentially a way of placating aggressive insects.

You see, Professor Malcolm was right:


Rödel M-O, Brede C, Hirschfeld M, Schmitt T, Favreau P, Stöcklin R, et al. (2013) Chemical Camouflage– A Frog’s Strategy to Co-Exist with Aggressive Ants. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81950

Peeters C, U. Braun U & Hölldobler B (2013) Large Colonies and Striking Sexual investment in the African Stink Ant, Paltothyreus tarsatus (Subfamily Ponerinae) African Entomology, 21(1):9-14. (Abstract)

Japanese to resume their duplicitous “research” whaling

The Japanese have long evaded whaling regulations by pretending that their slaughter of whales is based on “research,” though the whale meat ends up being eaten (even in the U.S., where it’s found in underground sushi restaurants) and the “research” is a sham. Japan’s own quote leads to the slaughter of 935 minke, 50 fin and 50 humpback whales every season. While minke and humpback whales aren’t endangered (though some subpopulations are, and the numbers of minke whales is falling), fin whales are threatened. Further, whales (and the dolphins the Japanese slaughter annually) are sentient, intelligent creatures, and their slaughter is morally unconscionable, especially because the “research” conducted by the Japanese is bogus, not helping a bit to save the species (two of which are “species of least concern” anyway). Nor do the Japanese really need whale meat to survive: it’s merely an expensive delicacy. A reasonable view of animal suffering would dictate that this slaughter stop, as it has in all countries save Norway (which fishes only in its own waters) and Japan.

At any rate, the Washington Post reports Japan is off to the annual slaughter:

On Tuesday, Japan’s whaling fleet will set out on a three-month-long hunt for minke whales. The Japanese government argues that this hunt — which will only kill 333 whales, about a third of the average yearly haul before the country’s year-long whaling pause — is being done in the name of scientific research. But the U.N.’s International Court of Justice has already deemed the “scientific” program to be anything but.

Most of the whales won’t end up in laboratories, but on dinner plates. Japanese officials claim that the specimens will be used to study the health and migration patterns of minke whales, but some argue that these research vessels have never been anything but a way around commercial whaling bans imposed in 1986. Today, Japan is the only country that practices whaling in international waters.

As far as Japan’s scientific rationale for whaling, it’s laughable:

In its review of the new plan, a panel set up by the International Whaling Commission agreed, and asked that Japan go back to the drawing board on its whaling plans. A group of 44 scientists from 18 different countries signed a statement arguing against the scientific validity of the killings. But instead of waiting another year to resubmit, Japan will go ahead with the controversial plan — a move that is angering many conservationists.

“We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research’,” Australian environment minister Greg Huntsaid in a statement. It was Australia that brought the ICJ case against Japan, which led to the country’s year-long whaling hiatus and this new, tamer whaling plan.

. . . “There is no need to kill whales in the name of research,” Hunt said in a statement. “Non-lethal research techniques are the most effective and efficient method of studying all cetaceans.”

Nope, there’s only one reason the Japanese kill whales, and it’s this:


Whale meat for sale in Japan (picture from Wikipedia)



h/t: Randy

Evolution: theory, fact, or both?

I’ve long been uncomfortable with explaining, in public lectures, why evolution is both a theory and a fact. To do that properly, you have to explain what a scientists really mean by the word “theory” and why it’s not just an idle guess or speculation. But that can be confusing, because I always say that a “theory” is an explanatory schema that makes sense of a body of facts, a sort of organizing principle for thinking about things that happens to explain all the data. But I’ve never been comfortable with that, as even guesses can make sense of a body of facts, but have not been tested nearly as rigorously as the theory of evolution. “String theory,” for example, makes sense of some things, but nobody knows whether it’s the correct explanation for particles. I always have the feeling that I’m confusing my audience when I explain why evolution is a theory, and then go on to show that what I see as the five pillars of evolution—evolutionary change, relatively gradualistic change of populations (i.e., change over many generations rather than a few), natural selection as the process producing “design” in nature, common descent, and speciation—are actually facts. 

In his famous essay “Evolution as fact and theory“, Steve Gould also made this distinction (my emphasis):

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

. . . Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred.

While I don’t have a big beef with this passage, which is of course very famous, it’s also confusing. If you claim that the “mechanism” for evolutionary change that produces design-like features of organisms is natural selection, is that claim a theory or a fact? It’s not only a theory, for we have enough evidence for it—and no credible alternative theory—that we can take it as provisional truth (i.e., fact). So is there a real difference, as Gould claims, between the “idea” of natural selection (Gould’s “theory”) and the observations that it works in nature, has a sound theoretical basis, and has no other explanation when referring to adaptations (Gould’s “fact”)? Is the notion that lineages split by a process of speciation that renders them unable to exchange genes (a process), a “theory,” as Gould would have it, or a fact? I see it as a fact, and so the distinction between theory and fact that, claims Gould, all biologists accept, is nebulous.

At one point, when Darwin gestated and then birthed the theory encompassing my five points, that theory had not yet attained the status of Facthood, for there simply weren’t enough data on, say, speciation or natural selection in the wild to say that Evolution was a Fact. But over the last 150 years, Facthood has been attained.

I was thus pleased to see that Richard Dawkins has taken a break from tweeting to write a good popular analysis on his organization’s website of the confusing distinction between evolution as theory and fact: “Is it a theory? Is it a law? No, it’s a fact.” In that essay, which is well worth reading, Dawkins encapsulates the ambiguity and confusion many of us feel while teaching evolution, and resolves it in a simple way: stop arguing that evolution is a theory, and emphasize instead that it’s a fact. (It is, of course, both, but it confuses people to dwell on the “theory” claim unless you’re debating someone who argues that “evolution is only a theory.”):

The party line among scientists arguing for evolution is to promote Sense 1 [the way I define theory above, as opposed to “Sense 2,” the popular notion of a theory as an idle guess or speculation], and I have followed it until today. But now I want to depart from the party line. I now think that trying to clear up this terminological point about the meaning of “theory” is a losing battle. We should stop using “theory” altogether for the case of evolution and insist, instead, that evolution is a fact.

. . . We are failing to get across “Theory, Sense 1”. Let’s dump it and talk frankly of evolution as a fact, from which it would be perverse to hold assent.

The notion of “fact” that Dawkins uses above also comes of course from Gould’s essay, as shown above. And I think that’s a good definition of scientific fact, with the caveat that “withholding assent” refers to those people who are qualified to judge scientific evidence. (If you don’t use that caveat, then more than 70% of Americans do not give their assent to a purely naturalistic theory of evolution.)

What remains a theory—or even a hypothesis—is the claim that most of evolutionary change is driven by natural selection. As I said above, I think we have enough evidence that what Dan Dennett calls the “designoid” features of organisms—the spines of the cactus, the cryptic coloration of a flatfish, the insect-entrapping shape of a bucket orchid, the fusiform shape of dolphins, and so on—result from natural selection. But we don’t know what proportion of all evolutionary change (and that’s itself ambiguous: do we mean changes in characters, or changes in genes?) is due to selection versus other evolutionary forces like genetic drift. One can make a good case, for instance, that among all alterations in the genome of a lineage, most of the DNA changes are due to drift rather than selection. So I’m happy, with the proper caveats, to regard as a hypothesis the statement that “most of the change in an organism is due to natural selection,” while accepting as a theory (or fact) the statement “nearly all the ‘designoid’ features of organisms are due to natural selection.” This is, of course, also confusing to non-biologists, and so I agree with Richard when he says this:

In our tussles with creationists it is evolution itself rather than natural selection that bears the brunt of their attacks. So we can set aside the status of natural selection and concentrate on the fact of evolution as something so firmly established by evidence that to deny it would be perverse. It is a fact, beyond all reasonable dispute, that if you trace your ancestry and your dog’s ancestry backwards you’ll eventually hit a common ancestor. It is a fact, beyond reasonable dispute, that when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.

So I’m happy to simply avoid explaining why evolution is both a theory and a fact, and in future lectures will say it’s both, but not go on to the confusing discussion of “theory” unless someone asks in the Q&A. I’d prefer, as this is what I lecture on anyway when giving the evidence for evolution, to claim that the important idea is that evolution (at least the five tenets I give above), is a FACT. And of course in my talks to the public I do mention natural selection and the evidence supporting its pervasiveness.

Richard winds up by arguing that evolution is not a “law,” and again I fully agree with him. But that’s a minor issue, for few evolutionists would even use the word “law,” which to us means something like the “laws” of physics: regularities that are never violated. Evolution is not a law in this sense, for there are virtually no statements you can make about the process that hold across all 3.8 billion years of evolution. The only one I can think of is that “all lineages evolve genetically,” for I don’t think there were or are any exceptions to that. But all other generalizations about evolution are subject to qualifications and exceptions.

Jon Haidt on the origin of the offense culture

I want to call your attention to a piece by social psychologist Jon Haidt on the Heterodox Academy site: “The Yale problem begins in high school.” It recounts a lecture that Haidt gave to an elite high school (the kind that feeds students to Yale), as well some discussions Haidt had with students at other elite schools. What he encountered was a conundrum:  many of the students are in principle in favor of free speech, but fear to express their own views for fear of social opprobrium. In other words, what we see at places like Yale, Columbia, Wesleyan, and Stanford are problems that are already evident among high school students.

Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have suggested that the root cause of the student “offense culture” is a childhood upbringing of “vindictive protectiveness,” and have suggested solutions ranging from abandoning college speech codes and trigger warnings through teaching cognitive behavioral therapy to incoming students to help them deal with offensive speech and ideas. Now, however, Haidt has another solution: promote not just ethnic diversity, but viewpoint diversity:

What do you suppose a conversation about race or gender will look like in any Yale classroom ten years from now? Who will dare to challenge the orthodox narrative imposed by victimhood culture? The “Next Yale” that activists are demanding will make today’s Centerville High look like Plato’s Academy by comparison.

The only hope for Centerville High — and for Yale — is to disrupt their repressively uniform moral matrices to make room for dissenting views. High schools and colleges that lack viewpoint diversity should make it their top priority. Race and gender diversity matter too, but if those goals are pursued in the ways that student activists are currently demanding, then political orthodoxy is likely to intensify. Schools that value freedom of thought should therefore actively seek out non-leftist faculty, and they should explicitly include viewpoint diversity and political diversity in all statements about diversity and discrimination.** Parents and students who value freedom of thought should take viewpoint diversity into account when applying to colleges. Alumni should take it into account before writing any more checks.

The Yale problem refers to an unfortunate feedback loop: Once you allow victimhood culture to spread on your campus, you can expect ever more anger from students representing victim groups, coupled with demands for a deeper institutional commitment to victimhood culture, which leads inexorably to more anger, more demands, and more commitment. But the Yale problem didn’t start at Yale. It started in high school.

I’m not sure about the practicality of getting “viewpoint diversity” among faculty given that most academics are leftists, but I agree that political and ideological diversity are largely lacking on many campuses, and that it would be good for students to encounter, say, a conservative professor,say a Ross Doubthat type—only smart. And while we’re promoting diversity, why not, among students, try to get income diversity, so that there’s a dollop of freshman who come from deprived backgrounds. While these may often coincide with ethnic minorities, they won’t always, and poor students of any group have faced challenges unknown to the “privileged” ones. Many schools have need blind admissions, so students are admitted on the basis of merit, along with consideration of their ethnicity, without anyone looking at their financial means. But why not consider those means as a source of diversity as well? I see considerable benefit in this.

There’s a lot more in Haidt’s long article, and it’s well worth reading, containing many links to instances of student offense and demands. And there’s some decent discussion in the comments.

Apropos, here’s a new Bloom County strip displaying the problem (click both strips to enlarge):


And a Prickly City strip relevant to the Offense Culture:


h/t:  Bob, Gregory


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Darryl Ernst sent photos taken by his eleven-year-old daughter Brianna, who’s had photos here before. She sets the record for Youngest Contributor, but you can’t tell that from hr photos. Darryl’s notes:

My family and I were at Sebastain Inlet, Florida, in early October on a windy day and, of course, took some pictures. There is typically a large variety of birds at the inlet and this day was no different, but there was a large group of Wood Storks that stood out because I usually only see them singly.
So, attached are three pictures of Wood Storks (Mycteria americana). The first image gives a good view of just how homely their face, head and neck is. The second picture shows how beautiful they can be in flight. The third picture is a portrait of a young Wood Stork that has not yet lost the feathers on his neck and head. He wasn’t quite sure of the human with the camera.

Wood Stork 1

Wood Stork 2

Wood Stork 3

And finally, another portrait. This time of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). I encourage you to enlarge this image to see the details of the feathers and beak.
As usual all images were taken by my daughter Brianna. I’d like to take some pictures but she never lets me use the camera I bought for her.

Great Blue Heron 1

And, for a change of pace, some diverse animals and plants by reader Mike Lewis. His notes (readers are invited to identify the plant):

I’ve been following your website blogs and tweets for a while now and I’m always particularly impressed by the quality of readers photos.  Finally took what I thought were a few decent shots with my new camera (Olympus Stylus 1) while on holiday recently in Maderia.
Three shots of (I think) a Madeiran Wall Lizard (Lacerta dugesii) feeding on the fruiting body of some plant I am unfamiliar with, the first two shots included for perspective and a close up of which I am quite pleased. As a bonus I’ve included a shot of another animal hunting, (probably lizards!).
All shots were taken in the Monte Palace Botanical Gardens, Madeira, late November 2015.





Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

It’s Tuesday, the have apprehended the University of Illinois student who made the threat that closed our campus yesterday, and the threat, as I suspected, wasn’t credible. Campus is back open for business today, and it’s also the day of my semiannual tooth cleaning. On this day in 1885, the soft drink Dr. Pepper (“10 2 4“) was served in Waco, Texas, Woody Allen was born in 1935, and the evolutionary geneticist J. B. S. Haldane died in 1964 (I have two letters from him that were given to me by other evolutionists). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili monopolizes Andrzej’s arm and also wheedles him for cream (the yogurt container to Andrzej’s left is also the container used for Hili’s favorite dairy product):

Hili: Cream is also sold in such containers.
A: I know.
Hili: Knowledge isn’t enough.
In Polish:
Hili: W takich opakowaniach sprzedają również śmietankę.
Ja: Wiem.
Hili: Wiedza to jeszcze nie wszystko.

And, in Wroclawek, Leon the Dark Tabby, who wasn’t allowed to attend the wedding of his staff Elzbieta and Andrzej, nevertheless benefits from the wedding largesse:

Leon: Hmm which bunch of flowers I will munch on today?


(Malgorzata’s explanation: Elzbieta and Andrzej got plenty of flowers at their wedding.)

Monday afternoon gifs

by Matthew Cobb

Three tw**ted gifs for a Monday:

JAC: Readers should feel free to explain the last illusion.

An adorable baby tiger and a stately egret

UPDATE:  They caught the threatmaker, who appears to be a student at a nearby school, the University of Illinois at Chicago. We got this:

From: Robert J. Zimmer, President
To: University of Chicago Campus Community
The University of Chicago has received confirmation from the FBI that an individual is in custody in connection with yesterday’s threat against the University.
Classes and events remain canceled for today. The security precautions we announced last evening remain in effect for the remainder of the day. We understand that law enforcement officials will provide more information on the investigation later this afternoon. Once we have this additional information, I will write again with more details, including our plans for tomorrow.

I’m still locked up in my office but the campus and my building are deserted, as everybody’s afraid of getting shot. So far nothing out of the ordinary has transpired, though.

To celebrate my survival, I’m putting up a video that advertises National Geographic’s Big Cat week, and appearing on PuffHo. I dislike both of those sites, but I can’t help putting it up because it has an adorable baby tiger, though Millie doesn’t seem to be enjoying her stint on t.v.  I’d give a lot to be that guy! Also, don’t miss the 50-pound black leopard (“panther”) following Millie’s appearance.

Click on the screenshot to to go the video:

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.56.08 AM

To counterbalance the squee, here’s a video by Tara Tanaka showing the magnificent reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) fishing. I have no idea how it spots the birds, as it appears to be looking around nonchalantly before it strikes. Her notes;

Earlier this year I put the finishing touches on my video of a Reddish Egret showing off his dance and hunting moves. I hope you enjoy it.

This video was shot in 4K and 1080 96fps using a GH4 + 20/1.7 mounted on a Swarovski STX 85 spotting scope. It was digiscoped by manually focusing the scope.

This bird has a limited range, and I’ve never seen one:



h/t: Rick


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