Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Inspired by Beatrix Potter

The Morgan Library in New York is currently showing some fabulous letters and art by one of my greatest heros, Beatrix Potter. Potter was especially fond of rabbits, and two of her pets, Peter and Benjamin are the inspiration for her most famous story, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit".

As a testament to the power of artificial selection, rabbits like the Flemish giant can weigh up to 20kg (about 50 pounds).
Flemish Giant Rabbit

Beach mice are subspecies of oldfield mouse (Peromyscus polionotus) that have evolved pale fur to match the pale sand they live on. Hopi Hoekstra and her lab have worked out exactly which mutations in which genes are responsible for this adaptive colouration.

Choctawhatchee beach mouse (Peromyscus polionotus allophrys)
As a Victorian, Potter wouldn't have seen these North American mice in the genus Peromyscus, but I think she would have liked them, with their enormous eyes and relatively infantile proportions.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Evolutionary tricks

The superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) is a diminutive Australian songbird with some evolutionary tricks that are even more spectacular that the male's plumage.

Male superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus)

Fairy-wrens are parasitised by cuckoos, so one would expect fairy-wren parents to have evolved ways to distinguish their own offspring from cuckoo chicks in the nest. One way fairy-wren mothers seem to do this, is to teach their chicks a special password before the chicks have hatched. Cuckoo eggs are laid later, so their chicks probably don't have time to learn this special password. At any rate, once they hatch, only the fairy-wren chicks are able to reproduce the password in their begging calls, so they get fed, while the cuckoo chicks are often rejected.

Another endearingly complex aspect of fairy-wren biology, is that in spite of their being socially monogamous, about 2/3 of a single clutch are fathered by males other than a female's social mate. What's more, males can be seen courting neighboring females with flowers, while females don't respond to these cuckolding attempts till just before dawn, when they sneak off for a spot of what biologists so fetchingly call "extra-pair copulation". Not surprisingly, sperm competition in these fairy-wrens is superbly high.

Colombelli-Negrel, D., Hauber, M. E., Robertson, J., Sulloway, F. J., Hoi, H., Griggio, M. & Kleindorfer, S. 2012. Embryonic Learning of Vocal Passwords in Superb Fairy-Wrens Reveals   Intruder Cuckoo Nestlings. Current Biology, 22, 2155–2160.

Rowley, I., and E. Russell. 1997. Fairy-Wrens and Grasswrens: Maluridae. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Animal Acknowledgements

To all who helped, directly and indirectly in producing Dr. Tong, THANK YOU!

A subset of people are depicted below, sans surnames:

Monday, December 3, 2012

Turkey season

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is essentially a very heavy New World chicken. Benjamin Franklin rather sweetly favoured the turkey as a national symbol, and a much more fitting representative of America than the cowardly bald eagle. Having been chased by turkey toms, I agree with the great man that these birds are not wanting in spirit.

Pre-Nancy, post-Nancy
These bizarre head ornaments on the tom turkey are the result of sexual selection, though why turkey hens find that fleshy growth over the beak (a snood), dangling in all its multicoloured splendor, is beyond me. The skin on a tom's head changes colour, depending on his mood, and accounting for its Japanese name,  shichimenchō (シチメンチョウ / 七面鳥), which means seven-faced bird.

In memoriam: Farish A. Jenkins Jr.

Farish Jenkins Jr. was one of those people who radiated such energy and excellence that even as a baby, he sits ramrod straight, staring directly at the camera with the same intelligent, engaging expression that anyone who knew him later would recognise as the Farish they love and respect.

I know Farish best as a fellow lover of wild Africa, which is why a sable antelope bull is my tribute to his unfailing gallantry, courage, strength, poise, vigour and, of course, the immaculate form that characterised everything he did, from the smallest email, to his renowned sartorial perfection.

One of the things many people love best about Farish, is his ability to make others feel very special. He always seemed so genuinely honoured and excited to know you, that it inspired you to be as worthy as possible of his trust and respect. On our second meeting, Farish discovered that I had worked on zebras as an undergraduate, and immediately decided I was fit to lead a safari to northern Tanzania for the Harvard Museum of Natural History. His very popular annual trip had been oversubscribed, and who could be a better substitute than a 1st-year graduate student who just happened to love Africa too?

Shortly after I returned from this safari, Farish appeared with a massive print of a spotted hyena clan I had photographed luxuriating in a muddy road in the Ngorogoro crater, and asked if I would do him the honour of signing the picture before he hung it in his office. He always made a point of telling me if he had used any of my photographs in his legendary course on vertebrate evolution, even though he must have had more than enough beautiful images in his own collection. One of my favourites is associated with the spectacle of Farish, even more animated than usual, bounding into my office in high glee, to show me photographs of novel elephant behavior from his latest safari. With Farish radiating excitement, and chortling irrepressibly, I stared at a massive bull with a formidable erection, leaning over a tree stump. Farish's expression, when I realised what the elephant was enjoying from the stump, is one I shall always remember fondly -- it was so full of infectious, impish delight.

Farish is renowned for his insistence on doing everything impeccably. What his nephew aptly referred to, during the memorial service, as his "timeless" way of dressing, is symbolic of his perfectionism. The first time I saw Farish in anything other than a three-piece suit was on a Sunday afternoon, in Harvard Yard. His first words after greeting me, were full of apology for being so shabbily dressed in a fleece (heaven forfend!) and jeans-- he had been pruning trees. 

Farish transformed a shooting lesson into a memorable visit to the New Hampshire farm that he and his wife Eleanor lovingly restored. We met at 0830h precisely for the drive up, and upon arriving, were proudly introduced to the lovely Eleanor, and shown about the farmhouse, which overlooks a field bordered by about 50 apple trees, each a different heirloom variety, all lovingly planted and pruned by Farish. Exquisite bluebird boxes that he built and erected are dotted about the lawn. The enormous barn is dominated by an ancient and beloved John Deer tractor, and a blackboard with the year's apple crop and the number of gallons of cider they yielded. In the basement, he has everything so shipshape and spic-and-span that even the nails and screws are organised by size. Ever the superb and thorough teacher, Farish produced several gleaming revolvers, a Glock from a policeman friend, two rifles inherited from his grandfather, and a shotgun for the lesson.

Like Farish, I'm an early riser, and was up before dawn the next day, to walk his trails and look for birds. Hearing a turkey, I thought "that's interesting, it's rather late for the turkey mating season", and went to investigate, only to stumble upon a terrifying apparition in camouflage, pointing a big shotgun at me. Later, Farish was tickled pink to hear that one of the hunters he allows on his property had almost bagged a Harvard graduate student with his artificial turkey mating calls. I shall always be grateful to Farish and Eleanor for this special weekend at the home he loved, when he knew that his time was limited. No one, not even Farish, thought the end would come quite so soon.

There are many excellent obituaries that convey the acme of excellence Farish invariably achieved in everything he did, and his ability to inspire others to attempt their very best, and to relish life with the same zeal as himself. 

There is also a very moving and inspiring video of Farish giving his thank you speech at a celebratory meeting in his honour. Like everyone else there, I am so very glad we had the chance to celebrate Farish, with Farish.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. Fund - to support the field work of students in evolutionary biology; c/o The Museum of Comparative Zoology 26 Oxford Street, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138; or Focus on Tanzanian Communities, c/o Thomson Safaris, 14 Mount Auburn Street, Watertown, MA 02472.