Odyssey Interlude: a little slice of heaven

Here’s a panoramic photo I took at sunrise (I discovered that feature on my iPhone) of Stephen Barnard’s place, facing the back. Notice Deets in the center, with whom I played a vigorous game of Frisbee. He also tried to HERD me: when I tried to run, he’d circle in front of me and growl!

To see this place in all its glory, click on the photo (twice, with an interval between) to enlarge it.


Sunday: Hili dialogue

I arrived in Idaho yesterday at 4:30 pm—after a grueling twelve-hour drive through northern Colorado and much of Utah. And indeed, Stephen Barnard’s place is paradise: backed by a gorgeous stream with views of the mountains, and teeming with wildlife. Today we’re going on a canoe trip, followed by a pig roast held by his fishing club.  I have played Frisbee with Deets the Border Collie (there’s another border collie here, too: an aging one); I have gone for a ride in the Shelby Cobra, an amazing car that accelerates fast and LOUD; and I saw four Great Horned Owls (two adults and their offspring), the first such species I’ve seen in the wild. I have photos, will take more, and will put them up soon, but the borders of this post are too small to contain them all. Tomorrow I’m off to Nevada (not far away) and then to Davis, California and the Bay area. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili shows three of her prime traits: her imperiousness, her desire for noms, and her cuteness, which lets her get away with the first two!

A: Hili, breakfast.
Hili: Fill the bowls. I’ll be there in a minute.

P1030037 (1)

In Polish:
Ja: Hili, śniadanie.
Hili: Napełnij miseczki, ja zaraz przyjdę.


The Great PCC Odyssey 3

by Grania

As Jerry mentioned this morning, the Great Trek is underway again.

I just received this photo from him, he has left Aspen behind and is now in Utah.

Click twice to achieve maximum enbiggerdness.



Let us all hope that he manages to do better than Stephen Fry in Utah.

First you were all like “whoa”, and we were like “whoa”, and you were like “whoa…”

by Grania

Here’s a  cool video of a sea turtle with a GoPro mounted on its shell swimming on the Great Barrier reef. It’s part of a new conservation project on The Great Barrier Reef by WWF Australia.

The video description says:

To find out more about the level of pollution affecting turtles within the Great Barrier Reef, WWF is working on innovative project in Queensland with the support of our partners Banrock Station Wines Environmental Trust, James Cook University, The University of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, State and Commonwealth government agencies, Indigenous rangers and local community groups.

As part of that project, the opportunity arose to very carefully fit a small GoPro camera to a turtle, to better understand the post-release behaviour of tagged green turtles. The result is this amazing video.

It’s very relaxing and beautiful to watch. Or you can pretend you are Nemo’s dad.

Caturday: Independence Day edition

by Grania



But first a VERY important notice from The Oatmeal.

From LoveMeow, a kitten that decided to “help” a photographer at work, more photos at the link.

Then we have the crazy story of the cat who traveled the world. This brave adventurer appears to have journeyed from Australia to Northern Ireland. They’re still not sure how. He was found hungry and stray and is now being cared for by Cats Protection until they find his family.

And here is  a wild cougar visiting someone’s house and getting teased by the possibly brave, possibly foolhardy resident felid.

And to ensure your weekly dose of Awwww is kept up to suitable levels, here is a tiny African wildcat (I’m afraid I don’t know the species – can someone Identify it?) Source: Imgur

And last, from Country Life, your house is not complete without a catio. Some of them are pretty impressive (there are more at the link). It’s only right and proper to give your felids a warm, safe outdoor place where they can snooze or survey their domain and do other important Cat Stuff.

Hat-tip: @OrAroundTen; @TychaBrahe; Matt; Marella


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Robert Seidel sent two photographs along with biology anecdotes:

Here two photos on the prowess of organisms: First, a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) short-circuiting a honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium). Meant to be pollinated, so I read, by nocturnal moths, this flower is too long for this species’ sucker. So it gnaws the base, and “steals” the nectar of the flower, without pollinating it. Other species I’ve seen doing this as well, though I’m not sure if all of them are clever enough to invent that technique, or are just using the holes made by the buff-tails. I really do wonder if this is learned behaviour, or inherited?
Professor Ceiling Cat guesses that this is inherited, but you could test that by exposing a naive bumblebee—one who had no experience with the flower—to a honeysuckle, and observed what it did.
Bombus terrestris Juni 2015
Second, the power of pioneering, demonstrated by chives (Allium schoenoprasum). About twelve years ago, my father renovated the wall seen to the left, which is on a first-story roof. He didn’t remove all of the old plaster, and that chives (perhaps escaped from someone’s balkony pots or kitchen garden) took residence soon. No earth was ever added to the spot, it’s just the original centimetre of plaster debris on tar paper.
Allium schoenoprasum Juni 2015 - 1
I also include a link to an interview of professor of evolutionary biology Ulrich Kutschera, about creationism in Germany. The  second-to-last question and answer is especially interesting.
Here’s the Q&A that Robert mentioned. Feel free to weigh in below:
How does the United States compare with Germany in terms of creationist movements?
In Germany we have ethics or religion classes. Here in the U.S., it’s not allowed to teach religion in public schools, due to your Constitution. When you do not allow the teaching of religion in schools, then this irrational belief remains an uncontrolled private business. Creationists in the U.S. try to introduce their religious dogma into biology classes because they are not allowed to teach religion in ethics classes. It would be better for the U.S. to allow the teaching of Christian religion in public schools, as is the case in Germany and other European countries.
And we have one photo from from Stephen Barnard in Idaho: a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus):

Saturday: Hili dialogue (and lagniappe)

Happy Independence Day! I’m leaving early for Idaho today, hoping to make it to the Bar(nard) X Ranch by evening. My iPhone doesn’t seem to have synched with the local time, and so my alarm woke me at 3:30 instead of an hour later. Well, what else is there to do at this ung*dly hour except post Hili? And then I’m off to Idaho. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili once again shows us which or her organs is most active:

Hili: Are you going shopping?
A: Yes.
Hili: Look around for something tasty for me.


In Polish:
Hili: Idziesz na zakupy?
Ja: Tak.
Hili: Rozejrzyj się za czymś smacznym dla mnie.
And for you d*g lovers who don’t get your Cyrus quote, Malgorzata sent a note and a picture yesterday about him:
Hili slept at home when it was very hot (29C) but went out a moment ago. Cyrus is a happy dog because little Hania [daughter of upstairs lodgers] has a visitor – her cousin, a girl her age – who adores dogs and was patting Cyrus as much as she was allowed by Gosia [Hania’s mom]. Hania became smitten with the other girl’s enthusiasm and they both were hovering over an extremely happy dog. Hili just escaped from those small hands.

Hail hurts!

Reader Diane G sent me this nice (well, in one way) video of a pair of ospreys weathering out a bad hailstorm storm on their nest. As she commented,

These poor ospreys! Hail hurts! It is a bit sad, but touching at the end, seeing those great reproductive instincts take over again. (Sweet pair-bond; a little home repair…)

Reluctant hero Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Holocaust, dies at 106

Nicholas Winton is not only an unknown hero, but a reluctant one.  A London stockbroker, he flew to Prague in 1938 and, seeing the many Jewish refugees (and prescient about what would happen to Europe’s Jews under the Nazis), he went to work organizing a series of railroad trains to evacuate Jewish children to Britain, one of the few countries that would accept them. Winton saved 669 lives in seven trainloads, but on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the trains stopped. The 669 children lived, but became orphans, as nearly all their parents died in the concentration camps.

Here’s Winton with one of his beneficiaries:


From the NYT: A family picture of Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish children whose lives he saved during World War II. Credit Press Association, via Associated Press

Winton, whose effort was hercuclean—involving bribes, donations, and complicated paperwork—never spoke of his deed after the war. Indeed, even his wife didn’t know about it until fifty years after the war, when she found a scrapbook in the attic. Eventually his deeds were recognized (though he always minimized his role), and he received many accolades, including, in 2003, a knighthood.

According to the New York Times, Winton died Wednesday at the age of 106.  Do read the Times article; it’s a fantastic tale, and you’ll be astounded at how humble this man was. He’s my kind of hero: one who doesn’t boast of his accomplishments.

I learned about Winton when he appeared in a segment on the only television show I watch, Sixty Minutes. Do watch that 15-minute segment below; it will bring tears to your eyes when you see him meet up again, after many years, with some of the children he saved—now old people.

How many of us can claim to have done nearly as much good in this world?

Did that make your day?

Inbreeding depression in man

by Greg Mayer

In a paper soon to appear in Nature, Peter K. Joshi and a cast of thousands show that inbreeding can make you shorter, ‘dumber’, and less likely to succeed in school, but not a blowhard. In a study of hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of populations from all over the globe, they found that height, educational attainment, g (‘general intelligence’, derived from various cognitive tests), and expiratory volume (the amount of air you expel while breathing) are all negatively correlated with the degree of inbreeding. An original aspect of their study is that they did not estimate inbreeding from pedigrees, but by directly examining large swathes of the genome for homozygosity, thus allowing the scope of their study to be considerably enlarged.

The slopes (beta) of the regressions of 16 phenotypic characters on the estimated inbreeding coefficient, F. Note that all slopes are near 0, except for those for educational attainment, cognitive ability, height, and FEV1+ (a measure of how much air the lungs expel when you breathe out), which are all negative. negative slope

The slopes (beta) of the regressions of 16 phenotypic characters on the estimated inbreeding coefficient, F. Note that all slopes are near 0, except for those for educational attainment, cognitive ability, height, and FEV1+ (a measure of how much air the lungs expel when you breathe out), which are all negative.

This is an interesting, but expected, result. It has long been known that matings between close relatives, in both plants and animals, can lead to reduced viability, reduced vigor, reduced fertility, and phenotypic abnormality: inbreeding depression. Though long known to breeders, the phenomenon was first quantitatively investigated by Darwin (who fretted over the possible effects on his children of his own consanguineous marriage– Emma was his first cousin); he studied the effects of inbreeding and outcrossing in a number of plants, many of which have adaptations that limit the extent of inbreeding and insure outcrossing. Inbreeding is also often said to have afflicted the royal families of Europe, who repeatedly married within a small group of families. A historically famous case often attributed to inbreeding, that of the ‘Habsburg jaw‘, however, is not due to inbreeding, as the allele causing prognathism is apparently dominant (see below on why this is relevant), although inbreeding may well have contributed to the family’s physical and mental decline.

Charles V , Holy Roman Emperor, ca. 1515 (reigned 1519-1556).

Charles V , Holy Roman Emperor, ca. 1515 (reigned 1519-1556).

The converse of inbreeding depression, hybrid vigor, has also long been known: the offspring of crosses between unrelated individuals or different strains of the same species often show increased vigor, increased viability, and increased fertility. Almost all of the corn grown on farms in the United States comes from seeds produced by crossing disparate varieties. So-called ‘hybrid corn’ has higher yield than the parental varieties (and also insures that the seed companies get paid every year, as the high-yielding variety cannot be regenerated by the farmer the next season by reserving some of his yield for seed). A similar phenomenon can occur in interspecies crosses, but offspring of such crosses, despite being large and vigorous, may well be sterile (e.g., mules, a cross between horses and donkeys), so such sterile crosses are said to show somatic luxuriance.

There is a longstanding debate in genetics over the cause of hybrid vigor/inbreeding depression. There are two main possibilities. First, inbred individuals may have reduced vigor because they are more likely to be homozygous (i.e. possess two copies) for deleterious recessive mutations. In a heterozygote, the deleterious effects of a recessive allele are masked by the dominant allele, while in a homozygote such deleterious effects can now be expressed. And, the chief genetic effect of inbreeding is to increase homozygosity, and hence the phenotypic effects of deleterious recessives. The second possibility is that inbred individuals are less likely to be heterozygous at loci that show overdominance for fitness, and thus will express the less fit phenotypes associated with the homozygous genotypes. In overdominance for fitness, heterozygotes have the highest viability and/or fertility, while both homozygotes are lower. Perhaps the best known example of overdominance for fitness is the sickle cell allele of human hemoglobin in malarial environments: heterozygotes don’t get sickle cell anemia, plus they are resistant to malaria, and thus have higher fitness than either homozygote. (In a non-malarial environment, the fitness of heterozygotes is essentially the same as that of wild type homozygotes.) Both of these genetic phenomena– deleterious recessives and overdominance for fitness– can lead to inbreeding depression. In an extensive literature review a few years ago, Deborah Charlesworth and John Willis showed that the predominant cause is deleterious recessives, and that overdominance is a minor contributor.

The relationship between dominance and fitness also figured in another longstanding debate in evolutionary genetics: the debate between R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright, two of the founders of theoretical population genetics, over whether new, deleterious mutations are recessive ab initio (fide Wright), or whether selection on modifying alleles causes initially dominant or additive effects of deleterious mutations to become recessive (fide Fisher). Wright showed that the selective effect of such modifiers would be very small (of about the same strength as mutation rates, which are very small), and he doubted that such modest selection could prevail over other factors (including selection on other phenotypic effects of the modifying alleles) in natural populations. Fisher, who thought that natural populations were large, thought they could. The fact that newly observed mutations were generally recessive, and some rather clever work by Jerry’s student Allen Orr using a normally haploid alga to show that recessivity was the rule even when there had been no opportunity for selection of modifying alleles in a diploid state, has finally convinced most people “that recessive phenotypic effects of rare mutations do not result from selection on dominance modifiers.” (Charlesworth and Charlesworth, 2010:183).

Joshi’s study focused on the relationship of the phenotypic traits and inbreeding within populations, so it says nothing directly about the effects of intermarriage between ethnic and national groups. For largely additive, polygenic traits like height, children of such marriages would be expected to be intermediate between their parents in height (not taller than both), but hybrid vigor in other traits cannot be ruled out.

Alvarez, G., F.C. Ceballos and C. Quintero. 2009. The role of inbreeding in the extinction of a European royal dynasty. Plosone 4(4): e5174, 7 pp. pdf

Charlesworth, B. and D. Charlesworth. 2010. Elements of Evolutionary Genetics. Roberts, Greenwood Village, Colorado. (pp. 170-183)

Charlesworth, D. and J.H. Willis. 2009. The genetics of inbreeding depression. Nature Reviews Genetics 10:783-796. pdf

Darwin, C. 1876. The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom. John Murray, London. (Darwin Online)

Joshi, P.K. et al. 2015. Directional dominance on stature and cognition in diverse human populations. Nature in press. html

Orr, H. A. 1991. A test of Fisher’s theory of dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 88: 11413-11415. pdf

Provine, W.B. 1986. Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (pp. 243-260)

Thompson, E.M. and R.M. Winter. 1988. Another family with the ‘Habsburg jaw’. Journal of Medical Genetics 25: 838-842. pdf


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