Ask a Biologist

David Hone reminds me that I’ve been remiss in mentioning this new and very useful website, Ask a Biologist. The idea is so simple, you’ll wonder why there aren’t many more like it—it’s a kind of central clearinghouse where young people can ask questions about biology and get answers from real biologists and experts. If you’re a teacher, turn your kids on to it; tell them to submit a question to the list, and somebody with some expertise will try to answer.


  1. says

    Thanks, PZ… this is great for me, as you probably saw on your “manimals” thread I’m having some problems wrapping my mind around some of the concepts.

    Sometimes I feel pretty stupid commenting here, but I really do want to understand this.

  2. joltvolta says

    This is a great idea! I hope more sites like this do come up. I’ve found Scienceblogs to be very insightful, spur on ideas and questions leading to learning and an ultimatly an increase in knowledge. And, I hope these “Ask A ____” become popular spur on the interest, that Sb has for me (as well as my college classes, “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins, and various other inspirational sources).

  3. abeja says

    Dorid: I feel your pain! I know I’m not ready to swim with the big boys (and girls) when it comes to the “sciency” stuff around here. There’s lots of questions I have, but I never really feel that I have a place to go and ask my questions. I’ve wished that there was a thread here where we could ask our questions, and have the people here give us answers. I’ve been reading pharyngula for a while now, and I have a pretty good sense of whose answers I would trust and whose I would think are bunk, because certain people around here have established a reputation for being knowleadgeable in certain areas. To go to a website I don’t know and ask questions, I wouldn’t know who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t. I’m hoping that ask a biologist website can help!

    Sometimes I feel as if I’m in over my head here on pharyngula, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I always enjoy reading comments by and talking to people who are smarter than me–it’s how I learn!

  4. CalGeorge says

    There should be one for religious kooks:

    Ask a Religious Kook.

    We believe in being deceitful: if we (or religion) as a whole do not know the answer… ah, who are we kidding, that never happens. If there is a debate on a subject, we will be dogmatic. We want to brainwash you. Simply add a question and one of our kookball experts will post the question and a reply as soon as they can.

  5. glenstein says

    man.. can they change the title of “Top Five/Most Active” to “The Five Latest Posting At Pharyngula”?

    That out of the way, yeah, that is a good idea, though it kind of reminds me of “Google Answers”, except that you are dealing with someone directly informed as opposed to a “third party” researching things for you.

  6. Crow says


    Perhaps I didn’t explore that site enough, but I don’t understand why you point out that particular site as an example of insanity. It seems like a well-done religious site to me. The creation story is actually quite well done, and not in the least offensive to me as a professional evolutionary biologist; nothing there seems to imply that the story be given a literal interpretation, and actually it reminds me that creation story is quite beautiful as a metaphor for how the earth and its many living forms came to be.

    What did I miss?


  7. abeja says

    I found this little gem on the kids4truth site:

    Scientists still haven’t figured out why atoms (small particles that make up all matter) holds together. If atoms followed established scientific laws, then they and all matter would fly apart.

    As people who believe and trust the Bible to be the TRUTH, we know it is Jesus Christ who holds everything together.

  8. says

    Ooh! I want a theoretical physics one!

    I don’t know about physics, but I do know of one for some advanced math — specifically, algebraic geometry.

    I wonder if people would be interested in a general mathematics version of this.

  9. abeja says


    You stated that “nothing there (on the kids4truth site)seems to imply that the story be given a literal interpretation”. I disagree. I copied this from that site:

    We believe in the full Divine inspiration and inerrancy of every word of the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.

    They are saying that they take the story literally.

  10. CalGeorge says

    Ask a Theologian

    It’s by theologians who are Democrats, so some of the answers are halfway decent, e.g.,

    …to become so obsessed with concern for the unborn that one forgets to care for the already born contradicts the Gospel of Jesus in the most basic ways. Yet again and again, we have seen politicians and proponents of “family values” weep and wail about the rights of the unborn, while all but ignoring the screaming needs of living, breathing American families for adequate healthcare, adequate wages to feed and clothe their children, and relief from the horrors wrought daily by a bumbling, fumbling, lying war machine.

  11. Ichthyic says


    sure it’s not Jim Crow?

    It’s folks like yourself that have allowed creationism to be spread without challenge, because you think it’s all just a pretty metaphor, when to them it most certainly isn’t.

    why do you think the site is named “kids4truth”??

    Its function is to brainwash kids into thinking creationism IS truth, just like the AIG site.

    the point of the site certainly is NOT meant as a metaphor.

    the section where kids get to ask questions is where they lie to them about the age of the earth, etc.

    don’t believe me?

    go check out one the contributors to the site, AFDave, over on the “After the Bar closes” area on Pandas Thumb. Where he explicity states that the function of the site is to teach kids the “truth” about materialism and evolution through pretty flash animations. Which of course, as a YEC, is exactly why he contributes his talents to the site.

    IOW, when you ask:

    “what did I miss”

    I’d say, quite a lot.

    maybe you might try working a little harder to bring yourself up to speed on the whole “creationist” thing, eh?

    creationism IS insanity. sorry to say you don’t see the damage to science in general, let alone evolutionary biology, these idiots have perpetrated and the threat they continue to pose.

    where the hell have you been? a cave?

  12. Ichthyic says

    Interestingly, I hadn’t visited the site for a few months, and the flash animations have become MUCH more subtle and well done than previously (they used to have a patently ridiculous anti-evolution animation linked to the “heart of” link at the top of the page).

    but those with noses can still smell the correct underlying scent; it does no good to hide it with rose petals.

    Interestingly, it seems to have fooled Jim well enough, which tells me they are learning from the DI how to hide their message better.

  13. CalGeorge says


    This service is offered courtesy of Pathways to Philosophy, the independent distance learning project run by the International Society for Philosophers.

    Someone asks this stimulating philosophical question:

    Q. Is it true that we lose our energy after releasing sperm?

    Didn’t Aristotle have an opinion on that?

  14. says

    Okay, I’m new here, and thanks for adding me to the blogroll, as I’ve done for you as well.

    I have a particular interest in cannabis research, about which I could ask many questions that would help understand the mechanisms by which it helps the body to cure cancers and other disease. I’m not sure that’s appropriate to put in a place specifically for the young people, however.

  15. Crow says

    Abeja wrote

    “We believe in the full Divine inspiration and inerrancy of every word of the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.”

    That’s what I missed. I stand corrected.

    Ichthyic wrote

    This would have been an excellent answer to my question. I just watched that animation, and I see what you find so troubling about the site. I agree (though whether it is insanity or merely effective propaganda is a matter of dispute.)

    Unfortunately, you c

    sure it’s not Jim Crow?

    Sorry, is there a connection between creationism and the brutal Jim Crow laws beyond the fact that you dislike them both?

    It’s folks like yourself that have allowed creationism to be spread without challenge, because you think it’s all just a pretty metaphor, when to them it most certainly isn’t.

    You seem to know a lot about my professional activities and exactly what I have or haven’t been doing with respect to creationism.

    where the hell have you been? a cave?

    Have you seen Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos? You’d fit in well around the poker table, ruining a perfectly good argument with unnecessary bombast.


  16. CalGeorge says

    This one’s kind of good!

    Ask Dr. Universe

    You can ask Dr. Universe almost anything! She’ll go to Washington State University’s great team of researchers for her information. She’ll follow them out to the field, or into the laboratory or library, to find your answers. If you’d like to contact any of the faculty members who have answered questions for Dr. Universe about their research, scholarship or creative work, just e-mail the Dr. — she’ll put you in touch with the person behind the answer!

  17. Shawn S. says


    NEVER be afraid to ask questions. Those who ridicule questions asked should be slapped until tinitus sets in to the point where they can never hear questions asked or answered again. They forfeit their right to be curious!

    The only time I have ever riduculed a question is when I thought it was a prelude to a grand-conspiracy claim… and guess what? I was WRONG. After that I have learned to treat every question as an earnest desire to learn something. After all, that’s how I want my questions treated.

    There is no crime in ignorance, only in not seeking to alleviate it.

    (Did someone famous say that? I have no clue… dumb question? ;))

    Keep posting! Stay curious!

  18. Ichthyic says

    yes, I apologize for perhaps being a bit overly bombastic, Jim.

    It just shocked me that anybody could visit a creationist site called “kids4truth”, and not grasp its essential function. Creationists on every level one cares to analyze, most resemble nothing more than a cult, complete with disinformation campaigns designed to lure kids into their insanity.

    yes, I could have just posted the link to the watchmaker animation – that perhaps might have explained it all quite sufficiently.

    I think I’ve seen so many creationist arguments dissected recently, that the patterns becomes obvious at first glance to me, but might not be so to someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time looking at them in detail.

    the comparison to jim crow (laws), was that if you gander at much of the public reaction to them in the areas they were passed (white reaction), there were a lot of people arguing that there was nothing wrong with them, that segregation was “natural” and as good for the “black man” as the “white”.

    remember “separate but equal”?

    seeing someone bypass the actual agenda of creationists for the prettiness of a story or the beauty of a flash animation sounded very similar to me.

    anyway, sorry for the overreaction.

  19. Ichthyic says

    … don’t ask me what I think about the poker-game metaphor in “Flock”, cause likely I would get all bombastic again.

    I’m not the only one who thought it ridiculous, however, see PZ’s thread on it.

    scorn and ridicule are often appropriate arguments in and of themselves, especially after ALL the “subtantive” arguments put forth by anti-science clowns have been completely debunked.

  20. TAW says

    Sometimes I feel pretty stupid commenting here, but I really do want to understand this.

    Amen! (he he he)

    Sometimes I feel like I’m the smartest person on earth, but all I have to do is come here to realize I’m just in the top .1%. (lol! I can dream can’t I?)

    I love the ask a biologist idea. I wish there were things like that for every subject! many times it’s REALLY hard to find the answer to that one question that’s been nagging you for a while.

  21. Kjetil Aakra says

    We’ve had this in Norway for quite some time!:

    It is very popular, especially for students who have difficult biology assigments and papers to deliver! And there are also a lot of “identify this creature” posts.

    Myself, I estimate I get 200 or more emails each year asking for identification of spiders (this is a lot, considering our modest population), not to mention all the phone calls. It seems to me people are using the Internet more than any other resource to find answers to such questions nowadays.

  22. JohnnieCanuck says

    Here’s a subject I’d like to hear what is currently known about. I think this might be a better place to ask about cephalopodia.

    How does an ammonia compound help make some squid species buoyant? Is it present at levels that would have required evolution of tolerance to it? Would predators of these squid have had to evolve tolerance as well?

  23. Ichthyic says

    How does an ammonia compound help make some squid species buoyant?

    ammonia is less dense than blood, and less dense than ocean water, so increasing the plasma concentrations of it effectively reduce negative buoyancy.

    certain species of mesopelagic euphasid shrimps also utilize this, and some fish species IIRC.

    yes, the levels are higher than animals that do not utilize this technique, much like potentially toxic levels of urea are found in many elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, and skates), and are used to similar effect:

    the higher concentration of nitrogenous compounds also allows for closer iso-osmoticity; that is, the concentration of solutes in their blood approaches that of seawater, which helps prevent water loss. doing this with nitrogen compounds instead of ionic salts is actually a LESS toxic solution, however bony fishes opt for an entirely different (and more energy intensive) method: they simply pump out the excess ionic salts through special cells in their gills called chloride cells:

    and here’s a decent overview:

    yes, a trait that allows for tolerance of high levels of nitrogenous compounds (like ammonia and urea) has evolved in these animals, and at least with sharks, here is one of the mechanisms that has evolved to counter the increased levels of urea:

    as to whether predators would have had to deal with digestion of the increased levels of nitrogenous compounds, the answer would likely be no, since even at twice normal concentrations (typically toxic in the blood itself), processed through a digestive tract there would be far fewer problems.

    OTOH, if humans are an example, we typically prepare high urea shark species for consumption by “bleeding” them before processing, as the naturally occuring high levels of urea compounds in their blood typically make the meat taste very bitter otherwise.

    so while I doubt there is a direct effect of the nitrogen compounds on the actual digestion of the meat, there might be an indirect effect on predation simply due to a “bad taste”. that said, there are certainly a large number of predators on sharks (especially when small), so it’s not a very strong deterrent, if at all, to most natural predators of sharks (or shrimp or squid, for that matter).

    more than you wanted to know, probably.

  24. mikmik says

    Abeja wrote

    “We believe in the full Divine inspiration and inerrancy of every word of the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.”

    That’s what I missed. I stand corrected.

    Posted by: Crow | February 28, 2007 07:02 PM

    The two different Genesis creation myths don’t agree on the order of creation of man and animals.
    A List of Biblical Contradictions
    The claim is often made by believers in the Bible that it is God’s word, and that it is completely without error. But if this were so, how is it that so many contradictions can be found within its pages? The following is a list (not exhaustive) of such errors, both those of major significance and those of less import, which should go far in providing evidence that the Bible is not, in fact, “inerrant”:

    Gotta love this one: Recommended Procedures in Dealing With Bible Difficulties:

    In dealing with Bible problems of any kind, whether in factual or in doctrinal matters, it is well to follow appropriate guidelines in determining the solution. This is most easily done by those who have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible over a number of years and have consistently and faithfully memorized Scripture. Some guidelines are as follows:

    1. Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not yet found it
    7. Many Bible difficulties result from a minor error on the part of a copyist in the transmission of the text.
    Is it inerrant, or what? You mean that you follow a dogma that has errors? Minor errors that mean completely opposite things, at best?!

  25. TheBlackCat says

    “so while I doubt there is a direct effect of the nitrogen compounds on the actual digestion of the meat, there might be an indirect effect on predation simply due to a “bad taste”.”

    But “bad taste” is usually indicative of something that will have a negative effect on the organism. That is the whole
    point of bad taste to begin with, it prevents the organism from consuming something harmful. Bitterness, in particular, is really just a generic “poison” taste. The chemicals that trigger it have nothing in common except that, generally speaking, they should not be in your mouth. So the very fact that it tastes very bitter should be a warning that something may be amiss. Now that is not necessarily the case, for instance coffee is not toxic in normal amounts but it is bitter to many (although not all) people. But bitter taste is generally indicative of something you should not be eating.

  26. abeja says


    I saw that you had quoted a part of Crow’s comment where he had quoted me, and from reading that, at the top of your comment, (number 32), it appears that I was saying “We believe in the full Divine inspiration and inerrancy of every word of the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.” In case you think that I believe that, I want to to clarify that I was quoting a christian website, in order to show Crow that that particular website believes that the bible is inerrant. I certainly don’t agree–I’m an atheist. If you read posts 8, 9, and 12, you’ll get the whole story about why I put that quote in one of my comments.

    If I misinterpreted your comment, I apologize :) But I just want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t believe in that bible crap. Yuck.

  27. Ichthyic says

    But “bad taste” is usually indicative of something that will have a negative effect on the organism.

    one, lots of things taste bad but are not harmful in any significant way, alkaloids have a tendency to taste bad, but certainly are not always, or even commonly, harmful.

    two, nothing appears to stop predators of various types from chowing down on creatures utilizing nitrogenous compounds for bouyancy or to maintain iso-osmoticity.

    IOW, whatever bitter taste is noticed by humans doesn’t seem to bother predators of these animals, what I said was merely a suggestion that it “might”, but really there is no evidence for it.

    Moreover, the ingestion of nitrogenous compounds at the levels found in the blood of these animals wouldn’t likely cause significant harm, even if cooked and eaten “as is” by humans.

    like drinking very dilute (10% concentration) piss.

    I suppose it wouldn’t taste all that great, but it won’t put you in the hospital, either.