Male antelopes lie to increase their chances of having sex

Replace “antelopes” with “humans” and I think most of us would nod in agreement. But this is the first time researchers have found “intentionally misleading behavior in animals for the explicit purposes of mating.” Ars Technica has a great overview of the study:

The four-year study looked at the behavior of topi antelopes (Damaliscus lunatus) in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This area is dominated by a huge number of predators, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, all of which prey regularly on antelopes. When topi detect a predator nearby, they often make snort-like alarm calls.

From February to March, male topi hold small territories through which receptive females pass to assess each male’s mating potential. The authors noticed that, while a female in estrus was on a male’s territory, the male would sometimes emit alarm calls, even in the complete absence of a predator. These false alarms are acoustically indistinguishable from true alarm snorts.

The authors set out to determine whether these false alarm snorts are simply predator detection errors, or if they function to deter the female from leaving the territory in order to secure more mating opportunities with her. The results overwhelmingly supported the authors’ “sexual deception hypothesis.” False alarms almost never occurred without a receptive female on the territory, the onset of the false snorts was highly correlated with a female’s attempts to leave the territory, and, after emitting a false snort, males managed an average of 2.8 extra booty calls.

You may be wondering why females continue to fall for the lies of males. If this behavior evolved, you think females would also evolve to detect lies, right? It boils down to probability and consequences: Lies happen a lot less frequently than truthful signals, and believing a lie has less severe consequences (mating with a less desirable male) than ignoring a true signal (getting eaten).

This questions comes up a lot when you’re discussing dishonest signaling, which actually happens more than you would think in nature. One of the more popular example is bluffing in fiddler crabs. Sometimes when a fiddler crab loses its enlarged claw, it will grow back a weaker, cheaper claw. While these claws aren’t as good in fighting, they’re just as good at intimidating other crabs. It’s not worthwhile for crabs to check and see if another crab is bluffing, because the consequences of the signal being true are so large (getting the crap kicked out of your crabby self).

Still, it’s very interesting that they’ve now documented this type of bluffing specifically in regards to sex. I have a feeling we’ll see more examples of this in the future, now that researchers will be keeping their eyes open!

(Via Carnal Nation)

Who needs God when you have biologists?

Yes, I’m being very sensationalist – but this still freaking awesome. Craig Venter’s research team has officially created the first artificial organism. The complexity of this endeavour is mind boggling – a genome isn’t a simple thing – which makes this very technically impressive. But in addition to being able to say “Look what we can do!”, this also has a number of large implications for future projects. Now that we can make our own genomes, we can create artificial organisms specialized for fuel production, insulin production, etc… How neat is that?!

PZ has a more scientific summary, and Jerry Coyne has a very good “quick guide” for the not so biologically inclined readers.

I do like Coyne’s response to those that are wondering if biologists are “playing God”:

But what creationists cannot get around is the increasing demonstration that life is merely an immensely complicated chemical reaction. Venter’s team made a genome able to direct and support life using off-the-shelf nucleotides and some other reagents. Eventually, in a few decades, they’ll be able to make a fully living bacterium in the same way. And then we will have played God, at least the way religious people mean it. …Life is just complex chemicals—nothing more, nothing less.

Biology is awesome*!

*Obviously not a biased statement.

Don’t forget to visit me in Chicago Saturday!

This is just a friendly reminder that I’ll be giving a talk about feminism, skepticism, and boobquake this Saturday in Chicago! It’s for Women Thinking Free (yes, WTF), and should be a load of fun. Especially since it’s in a pub. The Skepchicks have all the details over here.

You know how I know it’s going to be awesome? Because the sheer anticipation sent the organizer, Skepchick Elyse, into labor. Congrats on producing another skepchick, Elyse!

Indiana congressman resigns because of affair

Indiana congressman Mark Souder (R) is resigning after admitting he had an affair with an aid. PZ summarized my shock perfectly:

“He’s one of those conservative, abstinence-only sorts of politicians who
uses family, family, family to flog his politics for him, so it’s no surprise
that the reason he’s quitting is that he got caught with his pants down in an
affair.

But sit down, here’s the part you will not believe: it was a heterosexual
fling! Maybe he should get a medal from his party for confounding
expectations.”

Good job, Indiana! We’re so great at defeating stereotypes!

Of course, I can’t rejoice too much. Knowing my state, he’s just going to get replaced by another conservative hypocrite.

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Twenty years ago on May 17, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders. To commemorate that, we have the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. From the IDAHO (not the greatest acronym…) website:

In 2008, sexual relations between persons of the same sex were punishable by death in 7 countries and considered to be some form of crime in more than 80 others. In most countries in the world, people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transexual, intersex, queer, … community are being denied their fundamental human rights as defined, inter alia, by the Universal Declaration of Human Right, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Day has been launched with the idea of creating a worldwide community of activists and committed people, sharing the ideal of a world without homophobia nor transphobia in which everyone can freely live their sexual orientation and the gender identity they wish to live in.

One of their current campaigns is to “expose and oppose the negative impact of religious fundamentalist discourses and to give visibility and promotion to voices who are working for inclusion, tolerance and peace.” I tend to do that all the time, so maybe I’ll participate in their other campaign: a Kiss-In!

Gay, straight, black, white — whatever you look like and whatever your political stripes are — as long as you believe in love and equality for ALL people everywhere, we want you to join us in a kiss-in near where you are.

Record a video of you with your partner and/or friends featuring friendly kisses in a creative way. Put these videos on Youtube or other video shareware and share them with [email protected] or go directly to our special site www.gays.com/idaho

Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone to kiss here, so I’ll post an old picture of me about to kiss a really hot gal:

Heh heh, I’m so tricksy.

Anyway, go check them out and show your support!

I graduated!

I now have a Bachelor of Science with the Honors curriculum in Biology from Purdue University!

Major 1: Genetic Biology
Major 2: Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Biology
Minor: Psychology
Honors thesis: Inferring mating habits in banner-tailed kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spectabilis) using DNA extracted from copulatory plugs

Wooooo! A big thank you to my family, friends, and instructors for helping me along the way. I now will sound ten times smarter in any debate because I have some letters after my name ;)

And thankfully our commencement ceremony wasn’t too religious. Purdue has four ceremonies due to the sheer number of students, and mine was the last one. The first three had a Lutheran minister speak, and apparently he enjoyed referencing God a lot and asking people to pray during the “Moment of Reflection.” Our commencement got a Rabbi, who was wonderful – he was funny and completely and utterly secular.

Now, I don’t think a public university should designate a time for religious speakers, as that inherently shows a preference for religion over non-religion. Not to mention, even when they try to be diverse, they never include anything outside of Abrahamic religions – when I went a couple years ago (for the grad of my boyfriend at the time) they still just had a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and a Muslim (no, they didn’t walk into a bar). My big beef is that after the “Moment of Reflection,” the choir sings “Amen” over and over again. Um, yeah, that’s not a moment of reflection…

But anyway, it was nice. Afterward there was a little reception for the College of Science, where my parents got to meet some of my professors. I liked this one interaction with my biology professor from Sophomore year:

Prof: I love meeting parents because I get to see Mendelian genetics in action!
Me: *laughs*
Parents: *awkwardly chuckle because they have no idea what that means*

Then later I got to explain that he was nerdily saying that I looked like both of them, hehe.

I guess I’m officially a scientist now, yaaay!

PS: Oh, and I got recognized by random professors and parents I didn’t know because of Boobquake, hahaha.

No talking about animal sex in academia!

A while ago a paper was published that discussed oral sex in bats. Now, if you’ve ever hung around biologists or evolutionary psychologists for more than five minutes, you know that we tend to be a little obsessed with sex. Seeing papers like this greatly amuses and interests us – I know I was sent this paper by at least 10 different biologists I know.

So what happened to Prof. Dylan Evans of University College Cork surprises me. I’ll just repost his letter so you get the whole story:

Dear Colleagues,

The President of University College Cork, Professor Michael Murphy, has imposed harsh sanctions on me for doing nothing more than showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a colleague.

The article was about fellatio in fruit bats. You can read it online at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007595

It was covered extensively in the media, including the Guardian – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/10/oral-sex-bats-improbable-research

The colleague to whom I showed the article complained to HR that the article was upsetting. I had been engaged in an ongoing debate with the colleague in question about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behaviour, and in particular about the dubiousness of many claims for human uniqueness. I showed it the colleague in the context of this discussion, and in the presence of a third person. I also showed the article to over a dozen other colleagues on the same day, none of whom objected.

HR launched a formal investigation. Despite the fact that external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment, Professor Murphy has imposed a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counselling on me, and as a result my application for tenure is likely to be denied.

I am now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. I would be grateful for your support on this matter. I have created an online petition at:
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/freedebate/

I’d be grateful if you sign the petition and ask your colleagues to do so. If you also felt like writing directly to the President of UCC, his address is:

Professor Michael Murphy
The President’s Office
University College Cork
Cork
Republic of Ireland.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

Dylan Evans

If someone gets upset for you bringing up something sexual (that’s relevant) during a biology discussion, something is wrong. Just because us humans like to be puritanical about things doesn’t mean nature follows suit. I’ve blogged before at the diversity of sexual behavior in living organisms – we shouldn’t be ignoring that because “oral sex” sounds gross or sinful. It’s still part of the discussion, whether you like it or not.

I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Evans showed this colleague papers about homosexuality, polygamy, rape, necrophilia, traumatic insemination… I’m betting on fainting and pearl clutching.

(Via Pharyngula)

Why Boobquake failed: God’s relationship with mankind is passive aggressive and abusive

Kazem Sedighi apparently got wind that people around the world were laughing at his ridiculous claims that immodestly dressed women cause Earthquakes. Apparently we misunderstood what he really meant, so during this Friday’s prayer sermon, he offered further explanation:

“Some ask why (more) earthquakes and storms don’t occur in the Western world, which suffers from the slime of homosexuality, the slime of promiscuity and has plunged up to the neck” in immorality, he said.

“Who says they don’t occur? Storms take place in the U.S. and other parts of the world. We don’t say committing sin is the entire reason but it’s one of the reasons,” he said.

But, he said, “sometimes, God tests a nation. … (God says) if believers sin, We slap them because We love them and give them calamity in order to stop their bad deeds.”

“And those who have provoked God’s wrath, He allows them (to commit sins) so that they go to the bottom of hell,” Sedighi said.

Oh, well, in that case, that makes perfect sense! I totally understand now. God’s relationship with humans is really like a relationship with an irrational, passive aggressive, emotional abusive person.

Me: *puts on tank top*
God:
Me: What’s wrong?
God: Nothing.
Me: Are you sure? Do you not like this shirt?
God: It’s nothing.
Me: Okay *prepares to go out*
God: Ahem.
Me: What?
God: You should know what.
Me: I’m expected to read your mind? You know only you can do that.
God: Didn’t you read that book I gave you?
Me: Yeah, but it didn’t say anything about tank tops…
God: Whatever.
Me: Okay, well, I’m going out now.

And then three months later God slashes your tires, kills your cat, breaks your entire CD collection, and sends you to the bottom of hell.

Seriously God, if you created humans, you should really know how they learn. Punishing people months after they perform the naughty deed does not produce negative reinforcement. Our behavior isn’t going to improve if you conveniently make earthquakes and tornadoes and floods appear to be caused by natural means, irrespective of the morals of that area. Do you really want us to behave, or do you just take sadistic glee in watching the US sink into the ocean?

What do you want to delete from your brain?

Sometimes I wish I could delete useless information that has slowly accumulated in my brain to make room for stuff that really matters. It makes me sad that I can still sing the whole Pokerap and every other song from the Pokemon CD, but memorizing stuff for biochemistry was nearly impossible. 150 Pokemon? No problem? 22 Amino acids and their structures? Gaaahhh! If only we made silly child jingles about biochemistry…

Though I do have one useful song I learned – a little ditty that sings every state in the US alphabetically! I’m amazed that I still remember it from 5th grade.

What useless knowledge would you delete from your brain if you could?