Friday Cephalopod: So that’s what octopus porn is like

The photograph is, I think, tastefully provocative.

A male and female giant Pacific octopus mating in captivity at the Aquarium of the Bay (San Francisco, California, USA). The male is on top. The arrow points to the insertion of the male’s hectocotylized arm into the mantle cavity of the female. (Photo by Kevin O. Lewand.)

It’s the accompanying text, describing multiple observations of mating, that gets hot and heavy.

A female was placed in a 12,000 l display tank and the male was added 10 min later. The female weighed 18 kg and the male weighed 20 kg. The female was sitting motionless in a lower corner of the tank when the male was added. She was oriented horizontally, facing outward from the corner. As he swam to the bottom, the male inked. He jetted directly to the female and enveloped her with his web and arms. There was then an active intertwining of arms for 2 min. At the end of this period, the female was facing into the corner and the male was on top of her facing the same direction, with his dorsal arms wrapped around her head and mantle. The hectocotylized arm of the male was inserted into the right mantle opening of the female. He was a mottled gray/pink color with frontal and mantle white spots apparent. The mantle was papillose. The female was dull red and smooth. The male’s respiration rate was 5.9 sec/breath, and the volume was judged “deep breathing.”

At 78 min after first contact, there was an increase in the intensity of the mottling and the brightness of the white spots on the mantle of the male as he raised his body up off the female slightly and then settled onto her again, whereupon the intensity of the mottling and white spots dulled. This was likely an arch and pump. At 3 hr 43 min, the male removed the hectocotylized arm. He moved away from the female at 4 hr 1 min. At this point, he was smooth and bright red; she was smooth light pink.

After 17 min apart at the opposite corner of the tank, the male again approached the female. She was in the same corner facing outward. He mounted and grasped her as before and turned mottled and papillose with mantle and frontal white spots apparent. After 3 min, she turned toward the corner as before, so they were facing the same direction. He again held her with his dorsal arms. His hectocotylized arm was inserted into the mantle of the female. They maintained this position for another 4 hr 12 min. He then moved off to an opposite corner of the tank and turned smooth dark red. She maintained a smooth pale pink for several minutes and then turned mottled and papillose. No spermatophores were observed protruding from the female’s mantle cavity as reported by Mann, Martin and Thiebsch, (1970).

Whew. Get back, EL James, there’s a new bestseller in the making. I’m also impressed with the male’s endurance — 3-4 hours? We hoo-mans are not worthy.

Playing games…for Science!

For the past few days (and wrapping up today) I’ve been at the Science Museum of Minnesota as one of a team of advisors helping them on a future interactive exhibit on evolution, which I’m not going to tell you about, except to say that they have an ambitious schedule and maybe you’ll get to see it as early as this summer. One of the things we had to do yesterday is introduce ourselves with a 5 minute talk about what we can contribute to the project, and so I threw together a little something about my background and my experience as a teacher, yadda yadda, and because I could, I put up an illustration on YouTube to play on the screen behind me — so I used this one, which is just a general time-lapse of zebrafish development.

You have to picture me standing at the lectern, saying something like, “…and this is the experimental animal I work on”, clicking on the play button, and turning to wave gracefully at the screen…and discovering that YouTube had inserted an ad at the beginning, and that what I was pointing at was a shirtless, hunky, muscular man flexing and saying something about an exercise or diet program, I don’t know, because I was busy clicking on the “skip ad” button.

Now everyone has a much more exciting impression of my research.

Aside from that little misstep — do not trust YouTube to serve up your sober, serious videos — it’s been an enlightening experience. My colleagues here have an eclectic mix of skills, with theater people, professional game designers, and museum directors all contributing to the construction and critique of this coming exhibit. Our evenings have been spent playing games, looking for ideas that could be used to involve and inform the general public.

I have been introduced to escape rooms. I did not have the slightest inkling these even existed until this weekend. I guess I’ve been totally out of it, and you’re probably going to tell me you’ve been doing these for ages, and make me feel old.

Anyway, for my fellow old codgers, escape rooms are a big booming business right now. The idea is that someone designs an elaborate series of puzzles in a locked room — you have to figure out a hidden code with clues in the room to find a secret switch that opens a concealed door that leads to a room with more puzzles that then fit with clues to reveal more puzzles, for instance, and if you solve them all within a certain time limit you are allowed to escape, or discover the murderer, or save the world, or something. They seem to be hugely popular — a search for Minneapolis escape rooms reveals they’re dotted all over the map.

And now, I’ve gone from a state of total ignorance to having played 3 escape rooms at the Science Museum’s expense.

I’ve learned many things this week — if you want to teach people about science, it’s helpful to listen to theater people and game designers, and it’s good to get away from the model of telling people what the answer is to instead have them figure it out for themselves. Also, escape rooms are kind of fun.

Now if we can just get a few more women and dark-skinned people on the research team

It isn’t at all surprising that ancient Britons were dark skinned — we know the genes behind pigmentation, we have sequenced genomes from skeletons that are thousands of years old, and we know that light skins were the result of a mutation that swept through Europe about 6,000 years ago. So when a reconstruction of Cheddar Man, a 10,000 year old skeleton found in England, is made from the skull plus genomic information, we should expect that he’d be found to have been dark-skinned.

The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed.

The fossil, known as Cheddar Man, was unearthed more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. Intense speculation has built up around Cheddar Man’s origins and appearance because he lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age. People of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.

It was initially assumed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but his DNA paints a different picture, strongly suggesting he had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.

The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

Here’s the reconstruction in a BBC video. Cheddar Man is as we ought to have expected. Actually, the only thing that made me raise my eyebrows is that the research team consists of 6 white men and 1 white woman, kind of like how the SpaceX rocket team was mostly white men, too.

It would be nice if the research effort that is revealing the genetic diversity of our recent ancestors at least reflected a bit of that diversity today.

By the way, the comments on this reconstruction also reveal a tremendous amount of denial from the usual racists who think this is an invention cobbled up by scientists to appease radical leftists. This, also, is not surprising.

I’m skipping class for a few days…what will my poor students do?

I’m flying away to give a talk on Moscow, Idaho this week, and early next week I’m going to be a consultant on an NSF grant awarded to the Science Museum of Minnesota, so I’m missing a few class days soon. Oh, the wailings and lamentations of my students! They howled with grief at missing out on my sparkling presence for any length of time! Or I might have imagined that, but it was pretty vivid.

Fortunately, I found a babysitter. I’m having them attend the 2017 Evolution conference in Portland last June. That’s something technology lets you do nowadays — the Society for the Study of Evolution recorded all the session talks and uploaded them to YouTube, so you can attend, too, sans the hallway schmoozing and the arguments at the bar (we can only hope technology progresses to that point someday). I’m telling them to watch with a critical eye and report back when I get home about which of the subset of talks they enjoyed, and why, and to summarize the questions that were asked and methods that were used.

I remember getting the opportunity to attend Western Nerve Net and Friday Harbor Development meetings when I was a senior in college, and they impressed me greatly…but I was just lucky, getting to tag along with advisors at these events. We couldn’t bring along a whole class to a 3-day meeting back then, but now I can do it virtually, which is pretty cool.

Vegetables will kill you!

A new study, as reported by the Independent, finds that vegetarians are less healthy than meat-eaters.

Vegetarians are less healthy than meat-eaters, a controversial study has concluded, despite drinking less, smoking less and being more physically active than their carnivorous counterparts.

A study conducted by the Medical University of Graz in Austria found that the vegetarian diet, as characterised by a low consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, due to a higher intake of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products, appeared to carry elevated risks of cancer, allergies and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

It’s a classic example of confusing cause and effect. In other news, people who are sick with chemotherapy treatments are more likely to have cancer — therefore, chemotherapy causes cancer. The statistics can’t lie!

Alternatively, it could be a situation like mine. I was diagnosed with heart disease, so then I reduced consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, and went with a vegetarian diet to help reduce the damage of a lifetime of indulgence and maybe squeeze out a few more healthy years. I also took up an exercise program. I’m going to have to inform my wife this morning that we’re skipping the gym today because it’s going to shorten my life.

Except — and this is an odd thing — the end of the article that happily mongers fear about vegetarian diets includes a disclaimer from the investigators.

Study coordinator and epidemiologist Nathalie Burkert told The Austrian Times: “We have already distanced ourselves from this claim as it is an incorrect interpretation of our data.

“We did find that vegetarians suffer more from certain conditions like asthma, cancer and mental illnesses than people that eat meat as well, but we cannot say what is the cause and what is the effect.

“There needs to be further study done before this question can be answered.”

Why would you publish a bullshit article that includes a clear statement from the researchers that your interpretation of the work is bullshit? Are readers of this newspaper so reliably stupid that the publishers can trust that they’ll only read the bullshit headline and never get to the disclaimer, which is buried at the very end of the article? As an experiment, I wonder how many people will read only the title of this article, and not get to the substance, which says the exact opposite? If you actually read the whole thing, and decide to comment, be sure to include the word “taradiddle” in your reply. This is a test.

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: The feminist crayfish

What else can you assume they are? The marbled crayfish are triploid, they’re all female, they only produce daughters, and they’re taking over the world.

Before about 25 years ago, the species simply did not exist. A single drastic mutation in a single crayfish produced the marbled crayfish in an instant.

The mutation made it possible for the creature to clone itself, and now it has spread across much of Europe and gained a toehold on other continents. In Madagascar, where it arrived about 2007, it now numbers in the millions and threatens native crayfish.

I don’t know whether to bow down before our new crustacean masters or prepare for an awesome crawfish boil.

Back to Moscow with me!

This Friday I’ll be speaking at Darwin on the Palouse, in Moscow, Idaho. All you Eastern Washington/Idaho people should show up, it’s free!

I’ll be talking about “On the Edge of Evolution: A Critical Evaluation”, looking at some of the hullabaloo over the last few years about a new synthesis, all that evo-devo/accommodation/epigenetics/etc. stuff, trying to put it into a more reasonable context. My message, in case you can’t make it, will be that of course in a lively and active science, we’ll be uncovering new stuff all the time, but it’s more of an evolution of evolution than a revolution of evolution, and people need to master what’s already known before announcing that it’s all wrong. It’ll be fun!