A Biologist’s Take on Shark Week


Discovery Channel has been doing Shark Week for more than two decades now. Yes, the network dedicates 7 days of precious programming each year to shows about sharks.  Actually, the shows are more about folks who are sufficiently bonkers to drop into the water and tease known man-eaters. The sharks are fun to watch too.

All for entertainment.

Sharks are misunderstood. These fish are among the many organisms on the planet that are facing a bleak future due to exploitation and perhaps climate change. They scare the crap out of us, but we are more likely to die when we get in our car for a drive to town than from a shark attack at the beach. Sharks have more to fear of us than us of them.

But sometimes they get us back.

Shark attacks do happen.  And when they do, the effect is typically fairly disturbing.  The thought of a chunk of your body being lopped off and digested by a cool-blooded fish is sobering and perhaps a bit titillating. Shark Week shows the grisly pictures of the scarred and delimbed survivors – deformed reminders of mysterious encounters with death from below.

Some shark facts:

1. They sense electrical fields in the water using specialized sensory organs in their heads. This is why they attack metal shark cages. It probably smells tasty to them.

2.  They do not have bones. Their skeletons are made of cartilage, like the stuff shaping your ears. Bones are reserved for more advanced fishes and terrestrial critters, like us.

3. The tiny scales on shark’s skin reduce drag by enhancing turbulent flow. In fact, these scales have inspired new generations of suits used by competitive swimmers.

4. Sharks are smart and learn how to capture prey through life.

5. The low reproductive rates of sharks make them particularly susceptible to population collapse due to harvest.

6.  Many sharks give birth to live young.

7. Sharks do not go all Jaws on your butt and chase down your boat, even if you are a bonkers, blood-thirsty Ahab chasing his white whale.

I get the allure, but I beg Discovery Channel to dissuade any viewers from believing that any of the folks chasing the sharks are doing so for science. The dude on his surfboard hanging out next to a stuffed turtle is not conducting a valid study of diet preference. Lucky for him, the shark chose the stuffed turtle.  But I beg him not to say this proves that sharks prefer turtles over surfers.  After all, he didn’t give the shark enough time to discover that he was far tastier.

Quint (from Jaws)

Quint (from Jaws)

Bad Ass in the Aquarium


Most people love aquariums.  But remember, we are putting animals into a confined space, often with no history of interacting with each other.  Put aggressive fish species in an itsy bitsy tank, and they will tear each other apart.  This is not because the fish are nasty or mean.  More than likely, they are simply territorial. Putting them in a little tank that is much smaller than their natural territory and then adding other fish to threaten them is a recipe for stress, death, and disaster.

This is not restricted to our scaled friends.  Many people have moved to the sophisticated realm of keeping corals in their tanks. You can go to almost any big box pet store and walk home with “frags” of corals that were once very difficult to acquire. Folks need to know that these corals are animals.  And they are fighters.

Coral reefs are space limited, and food is rare.  Corals need to defend their space using chemicals, shading, and through the use of tentacles. I have included a video of a favid (brain) coral in one of my tanks.  The sweeper tentacles effectively double the size of this animal.  And they are deadly, containing little stingers called nematocysts.  Even the clown fish avoid them.  Corals bring a legacy of battle to the aquarium that most pet stores aren’t going to tell you about.

The tentacles in the video above will kill any coral that they touch.  Sticking these corals closely to another species – one that likely did not evolve in the same waters as it did – is going to lead to loss of a precious resource in your tank.

Keeping an aquarium or any animal is a responsibility. Do your homework before bringing them home.  Otherwise, take your wallet outside and light it on fire. You’re just wasting your money, and jeopardizing a life for no reason.

Happy Fourth to a Survivor of War

My Aunt Gretchen was in a bunker when Berlin was “liberated” by the Russian army at the end of World War II.

As I sit here in St. Louis waiting for the display in the sky this fine Independence Day Eve, I think of her and her stubborn refusal to go to a firework display during the whole time I knew her before she died.

She was one tough woman, all gruff and bluster, with that thick Prussian accent. But inside….she went down into that bunker as one person and came out another. And the fireworks wouldn’t let her forget all that can be lost. Berlin or St. Louis…

She married a nice American boy. He gave my Opa cigars and whiskey. And brought home my aunt (and eventually her sister-my mom) back to this blessed, frustrating, wonderful place, which we all celebrate tonight.

But don’t forget what those explosions represent. Freedom comes at a cost. For those who fought. For those who hid. And for those who continue to find themselves in the warm embrace of this place we call America no matter where we came from. This place is the clean slate.

Happy Fourth.

Are Eusocial? A Comment on Science Fiction in Ender’s Game and Edge of Tomorrow and …

Bluntly Cruise

Bluntly Cruise

*Spoiler Alert*  This is a biologist’s commentary on the aliens in “Enders Game” and “The Edge of Tomorrow” and the “Aliens” franchise for that matter, all movies that have graced theaters. So don’t read further, unless you want to be spoiled.  Actually, the whole thing’s been played out by science fiction for so long, it’s getting a little cliche. Sorry Tom and Emily.  I did like the movie. But…

Here’s my comment:  The aliens are stupid.

They are eusocial.  And that’s just stupid.

Bees are eusocial animals.

And that’s stupid too.

What’s eusociality?  It is the strange biological tendency for some organisms to make lots of copies of themselves, create huge colonies of strongly related individuals, and send them forth upon the world. Usually, there’s a queen involved, splurging out genetic drones to go off and do her bidding.  Crap, even the Borgs in Star Trek followed the eusocial model.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.


All you have to do is find the “queen” and kill off the invader. Or rely on the fact that the aliens have so little genetic diversity that they’re not going to adapt fast enough to stave off what our heroes have in store for them.  Even HG Wells relied on that little daisy when the aliens invaded from Mars.


So, that’s it. Animals like bees, wasps, ants, Borgs, etc. that depend on a “hive” of closely related or genetically identical individuals, are just asking for trouble. Because, at some point, we humans will find your queen and it is game over.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the crisis with bees across the world.  It’s not because they’re weak.  It’s just that they send out so many replicas of themselves and are so vulnerable because they lack the genetic ability to rapidly adapt through selection to the evils of humanity.

Their loss.  Evil aliens.  Look at the bees.  And beware

Silly Strings – Unifying Theories



When I was a kid, everyone told me that after I die, I would know everything. All mysteries would unspool, and I’d no longer want for knowledge, leaving me to bask in the spiritual glory of the grand creator.

The more I learn about the universe and all its weirdness, I realize that I will likely not be basking, but rather hunched over a table laughing or scrunched in a corner shaking in terror. The emotions are going to be mixed, I think. Both Darwin and Snoopy will be waiting for me in the afterlife, waiting to give me a tour.  I fear the voice of glory might sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon rather than a glorious celestial orchestra playing for peace and goodness.

1. It is so empty out there. Space is so very, very big and empty and cold and terrifying. And it is just getting bigger and colder, and emptier. Loneliness is not fun. There’s lots of room to just be alone. Spirtuality does not thrive on loneliness.

2.  Within the heart of beauty is ruthlessness, with electrons tearing, flesh decaying, blood coursing, matter collapsing, and all of it selecting for the cosmic victor, the gravity that pulls and punches through the fabric of what is and what will be.  Gladiatorial combat is at the center of things.

3. Strings? Are you going to tell me that everything around me is fundamentally just a bunch of threads vibrating to a music that makes matter sing?  If that is true, how beautiful and strange, and wildly creative.

4. All children ask, “What was there before the big bang?”  All physicists answer, “It doesn’t matter.”  Well, it does matter. Look to the eyes of children for the truth. I want to know what and why.

5. Parsimony is typically true.  But it is often less than elegant to the eyes of the beholder.  Seemingly arbitrary numbers link chemical and biological processes, determining whether the universe will contract or expand forever. These numbers?  What do they mean?  Is there something deeper beneath them?

6. Even Einstein described physics as spooky. The spooky behavior is real and unbelievable.  Almost magic.  But don’t trust a scientist to tell you that quantum mechanics are just that.  Magic exists only in our dreams.

7. Enormous energy exists in the tiniest things. How can that be?  But it is. Slide rulers and a man with frizzy hair predicted it over a century ago.  And it came true, turning so many to ash.  Mushrooms growing from the ground are beautiful but so very deadly.

All scientists and philosophers seek the answer to all of it, the grand unifying theory of everything. Perhaps there is one.  Perhaps not. I sincerely believe that the answer will not come to me after death.  Where would the fun be in that?

Genitals Are Weird – A Biological Fact


The picture above is a well-preserved phallus from the ruins of Pompeii.  I bet you are smirking right now, even if you are feigning shock.  Penises are funny.

I hearken back to the hardest course to get into at Miami University, circa 1990, called the “Sociology of Sex”.  You had to be a senior with lots of credit hours to be eligible to get into the course.  It was that popular.  Why?  All of us students were curious about sex, penises and other things.

The modern day version of penis envy is ensconced in all those Viagra commercials I seem to be noticing. We are obsessed with the things, even though most folks would not want to admit it.

Why are penises funny?

Hell if I know.

So, I recall sitting in that classroom at my dear alma mater so many years ago when the Professor showed a slide of an erect penis. My hypothesis was validated, because the entire class roared with laughter.  Check.  Penises are funny.

In the next slide, she showed a picture of a vagina.  The class was silent.

Apparently, vaginas aren’t funny?

Well, sorry folks, vaginas are funny too.  Lest you disagree, please feel sorry for the poor student in Germany who found himself trapped in a vagina the other day…http://time.com/2911716/american-student-stuck-in-stone-vagina/.

It has to be funny if your humiliation makes the international news.  Poor student.  And his poor parents.

After all those years, I am still perplexed about the difference in response of the class to the penis and vagina.  They go together like coffee and cream.  So, why is one hilarious and the other so sacred?

Not sure.

The reality is that sexual selection, coined by Darwin, is a force all around us.  Flowers, antlers, lobster claws, peacock feathers, and frog songs. It is all about mine is better than yours.  Why?

The more you can show off, the more energy you have, and supposedly, the more robust your babies will be.

Back to penises. Many human cultures still revel in displaying phalluses as a sign of status and robustness. Although males typically do not spend much time displaying their real package anymore lest they end up in jail, there seems to be something in the male mind that wants to emphasize the penis and associate it with vitality (and thus the ability to make the babies). In many species, this leads to what is known as “run away” selection where males develop crazy structures like enormous antlers, weird colors, and strange behaviors.  Funny thing is, the selection is usually among males trying to get the girls.  The girls might use this information to select a mate, but it seems to be more important to the boys.

Back to our penises. Big penises are cool.  But vaginas are limited in the size of penis they can accept.  So, this likely stamped down run-away selection for big penis size in human males.  In reality, penis size matters little to *many* human females, but a lot to *most* males.  Hence, the fake phalluses or fancy cars. Next time you see the dude in the muscle car – laugh at his penis.

So, what about vaginas?  Why aren’t these predominately displayed?  And, at least in western culture, they seem to be secreted away?  Ah, you need to see this other post.