Day 4. Spiders grow up so fast!

Just another of my daily updates. They grow up so fast!

Not shown here is that I have 3 other sets of hatchlings that are eating fruit flies as fast as I can make them — I’m going to have to ramp up Drosophila production.

Especially since I have four other egg sacs incubating in the wings. These are fecund little critters.

Oh, hey, also: I’ve been noticing that YouTube demonetizes these spider videos very quickly. Does YouTube have arachnophobia, or am I doing something wrong? Not too worried about it — I don’t expect to make a fortune from home movies of spiders — but it’s just a curious thing.

[Read more…]

Friday Cephalopod: The Ecstasy Protocol

The story of this experiment where octopuses were given a hit of Ecstasy (MDMA) is all over the interwebs right now, but not very many people have bothered to read the original paper, given the weird twist it’s been given, that these bored scientists were giving their pets drugs to see what they’d do. That isn’t the case at all. The first part of the paper is all about sequence analysis of the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 (the gene that is affected by MDMA), and a comparison of the gene in different phyla. This research starts with some serious, detailed work on the functional mechanics of the gene. If you want to study the role of serotonin in mood and behavior in humans, comparative work of this sort is essential if you want to puzzle out which bits and pieces of the gene are important.

The starting point of this work is the phylogeny, which tells us that serotonin is an ancient transmitter, and that many of the elements of its signaling process are evolutionarily conserved. It should also tell you that its history is complicated, because there are a lot of duplications and subtle variants.

(A and B) Maximum-likelihood trees of SLC6A transporters (A) and SLC6A4 serotonin transporters (B) in select taxa. Species are mapped to tree and protein identifiers in Table S3. For a larger version of (A), see Figure S1.
(A) A maximum-likelihood “best tree” for the SLC6A gene family. The maximum-likelihood tree produced by RAxML includes 503 proteins and 21 species, with tree building based on a MAFFT alignment of full-length sequences.
(B) The SLC6A4 gene family, a subtree of the maximum-likelihood “best tree” in (A).

Thus, monoamine transporters may represent an ancient innovation that arose early in bilaterian evolution, with various ancient and more recent duplications in different lineages.

We know, though, from the molecular work that the octopus has an SLC6A4 gene, and further, that the portion of the gene that binds to MDMA has been conserved. The next question, then, is to ask how this gene modulates octopus behavior. That’s when the test of exposing them to MDMA was proposed.

Of course, you don’t just give animals the drug and watch to see what happens. You’ve got to have a hypothesis. In this case, prior observations, much of it informal, in a different model system, Homo sapiens, was used to infer that MDMA exposure might increase social behavior (“I love you, man”), so they designed an experimental setup to directly test that behavior. Here it is.

(A and B) Diagrams illustrating timeline (A) and experimental protocol (B) for three-chambered social approach assay.
(C) Quantification of time spent in each chamber during 30-min test sessions (n = 4; two-way repeated-measures ANOVA: p = 0.0157; post hoc unpaired t test pre, social versus center p = 0.4301, object versus center p = 0.0175; post, social versus center p = 0.0190, object versus center p = 0.1781).
(D–K) Comparisons between pre- versus post-MDMA-treatment conditions (paired t test pre versus post, social time p = 0.0274; object time p = 0.1139; center time p = 0.7658; transitions p = 0.3993).
(L) Photograph of social interaction under the saline (pre) condition.
(M) Photograph of social interaction under the MDMA (post) condition.
Error bars represent the SEM.

The design is straightforward: since you can’t ask an octopus to explain the sensations they feel under MDMA, you give them a choice. They have a 3-chambered box, and they put the octopus they were testing in the center box. On the left, there is an object, a toy they can explore. On the right, there is another octopus, an opportunity to socialize. Will they prefer an inanimate object they can tinker with, or to approach a conspecific?

In observations without any drugs, they determined that, as expected, octopuses are relatively solitary animals — in part because nobody likes the males. Both male and female subjects spent most of their time in the central chamber, but would spend more time in the social chamber if the octopus there was a female, but if it was male, they were suddenly much more interested in hanging out with the object.

Nevertheless, somewhat surprisingly, both male and female subjects did exhibit social approach to a novel female conspecific, a finding that may reflect an adaptation of laboratory raised animals or an incomplete ethological description of the full repertoire of social behaviors in the wild. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that the female versus male social object preference effect is governed by relative size differences between subject and social objects, we think this is unlikely since we observed aversion to a male social object both when the subject was greater and smaller in size.

I’m just going to assume that the male aversion was because males are assholes, which is apparently a phylogenetically ancient trait.

What they clearly saw, though, was that under the influence of MDMA, the subject octopus switched to expressing a far greater interest in exploring the social object, whether it was a male or female. The animals responded to the entactogenic properties of the drug, an interesting observation that suggests that this is also a phylogenetically ancient trait.

A word of caution, in interpreting these data: there has been a tendency lately to cherry-pick examples of complex animal behavior to justify specific human social structures. What this work tells us is that there are conserved biochemical pathways that are regulated to trigger behaviors along a continuum — that diverse animals use serotinergic pathways as a kind of slider control, that can be ramped up to increase cooperative, social behavior, or tuned down to increase aggressive, asocial behavior. That this kind of neural regulative control exists, is conserved, and has deep roots in animal evolution cannot be used to argue that humans are naturally supposed to build capitalist dominance hierarchies any more than it can be used to claim that humans are adapted to live in cooperative communes full of peace, love, and understanding. The pathway is present in animals with diverse behavioral patterns.

Monoamine transporters, including human SERT, DAT, and NET, appear to be a bilaterian innovation, suggesting a possible ancient evolutionary role in nervous system centralization and elaboration, both hallmarks of the Bilateria, and the families have undergone complex patterns of gene duplication and loss throughout the clade over time. Phylogenetic analysis revealed clear orthologs of human SLC6A4 in octopuses, as well as high levels of conservation in the transmembrane domain and amino acid region critical to MDMA binding. Interestingly, we found that SLC6A4 is broadly conserved in the fruit fly, the worm, and most other bilaterian animals but is surprisingly absent in both of the eusocial hymenopteran insects, the honeybee and leaf cutter ant.

I’m sure that warning won’t stop everyone, though. I also expect that there will be some humans using it to argue that we all ought to be taking more E, a position that the research does not endorse at all, either.


One last thing I want to mention is a bit from the methods section (yeah, I read the methods): cephalopods are completely exempt from the ethical regulations for the care of laboratory animals, but the investigators followed them anyway.

Care of invertebrates, like O. bimaculoides, does not fall under United States Animal Welfare Act regulation, and is omitted from the PHS-NIH “Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.” Thus, an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a Committee on Ethics for Animal Experiments, or other granting authority does not formally review and approve experimental procedures on and care of invertebrate species, like O. bimaculoides, at the Marine Biological Laboratory. However, in accordance with Marine Biological Laboratory Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee guidelines for invertebrates, our care and use of O. bimaculoides at the Marine Biological Laboratory and at Johns Hopkins University generally followed tenets prescribed by the Animal Welfare Act, including the three ‘Rs’ (refining, replacing, and reducing unnecessary animal research).

You can’t punch a kitten with a meat hammer, but you can do it to an octopus, if you want, which seems backwards to me. No! I mean, you shouldn’t be allowed to punch any animal with a meat hammer in the name of science. But once again, our laws are inconsistent and arbitrary.

Knut news

We haven’t been hearing about our grandson, Knut, quite as much lately, because he’s visiting the maternal side of his family for the past month or so. He’s in South Korea getting spoiled by his other set of grandparents, in a culture that is making much of the fact that he’s the first grandson in the family. I knew he was getting the royal treatment, but I didn’t realize how much until I got this photo today.

Very traditional. Very classy.

The Brian Wansink saga comes to a close

First, the good news:an investigation into Brian Wansink’s research practices “found no fraud, no theft, no plagiarism, and no sexual misconduct or Title IX issues.” We ought to recognize the reality of that, that most men have no incident in their past of wrestling unwilling women down and trying to rape them, so we should notice that, especially when some men are trying to pretend that attempted rape and sexual assault are just a phase that all boys go through. By all accounts I’ve seen, Wansink seems to be good, collegial, helpful person, and not a US senator.

But now the bad news: he’s not a very good scientist.

Cornell University has been investigating his research since November. In a statement, the university told BuzzFeed News that Wansink was found to have “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

The news came a day after six of Wansink’s papers were retracted, giving him a total of 13 retractions.

Now it’s all over. Wansink has announced his retirement. Just as well, since his idea of research was to take ideas about diet that people wanted to be true, do lots of experiments and observations, and then when they turned out not to be true, finagle the statistics until he got the results everyone wanted to hear.

Under his leadership, the Food and Brand Lab produced studies that reinforced a theme: Simple environmental cues can help people lose weight and eat healthier, without the need for rigorous dieting and intense exercise. It was a theme that earned him coverage everywhere from Good Morning America to O, the Oprah Magazine, to the New York Times. He once led the USDA committee on dietary guidelines. He oversees a $22 million federally funded program to promote “smarter lunchrooms” in nearly 30,000 schools.

But for years, the Food and Brand Lab massaged shoddy data into published, peer-reviewed studies in a brazen ploy for media coverage, as BuzzFeed News has reported.

I guess winning the approval of Oprah and not trying to rape anyone isn’t the same as doing good science.

Being a white man really is a superpower

Wow. We can get away with just about anything.

An Anchorage man who strangled a woman unconscious on the side of a road, all while threatening to kill her, and then masturbated on her, walked out of court on Wednesday with no future jail time under his belt.

How? How can he escape punishment? Well, the judge decided that losing his job was penalty enough, and since he was a “member of the community”, he had faith that he’d never be naughty again.

Let’s just ignore that he said this:

After Schneider’s victim woke up, he reportedly told her “that he wasn’t really going to kill her, that he needed her to believe she was going to die so that he could be sexually fulfilled.”

And this:

“I would just like to emphasize how grateful I am for this process,” Schneider said. “It has given me a year to really work on myself and become a better person, and a better husband, and a better father, and I’m very eager to continue that journey.”

He’s going to do it again. You know he’s going to do whatever he can get away with.

By the way, does anyone still think Kavanaugh won’t be on the Supreme Court soon enough?

The Queen of Evil’s crown is secure

Our REAL problem is that many men have no choice but to rape because they have no opportunities to date attractive women.

An interesting “defense”. So if I can’t land a date with Scarlett Johansson, I can justifiably rape someone? If someone finds Ann Coulter attractive and asks her out, she’d better put out, because turning him down means he’ll go on a rape rampage?

It’s also a curious binary. If you don’t get a date, your only alternative is rape?

SPIDER MADNESS!

I must update my diary. Change is happening fast, and I begin to fear that my experiment, my delving into esoteric, alien knowledge, could outstrip my feeble efforts at control. Let this be a record to explain my fate.

Prelude: I opened the mysterious sac, and to my delight, discovered beautiful jewels: like opalescent pearls, they rested quietly in a great mass, promising fortune for the future.

Day Zero: I kept the pearly orbs in a glass chamber, where I could observe them whenever I desired. I often desired. My eyes were drawn to their simple elegance, time after time. My obsession, I realize now, was a portent of danger.

Day One: O Glorious Day! The orbs dissolved away to reveal candy-like, plump babies, pale and soft, capable of only feeble stirrings of their pallid limbs. Such innocence warmed my heart.

Day Two: Their limbs have lengthened. They walk about clumsily, but still somewhat endearingly, peering about with their eight eyes. I try not to notice that a few of their siblings seem to be motionless, empty husks, drained of all life and flesh, but perhaps they are just molted exoskeletons? One can hope. I feel a vague disquiet, so as a precaution, I scatter a few flies in the dish.

Day Three: I peek into their chamber. All is quiet. The flies all lie dead and crumpled, sucked dry, but of the Children of the Orbs, almost nothing. The dish is quiet and empty. I examine the egg sac, and find it also nearly empty, with only a few scouts meandering about, and a tiny few babies just stirring at the bottom. Where have they all gone?

Then I notice a thin strand of webbing from the egg sac, stretching upward and to the side. I follow it, and there, massing on the lip of the chamber, is a great army of spiders, clustering together and building a citadel of cobwebs. They are working together. They are cooperating. What are they planning? Escape? Rushing their captor? Constructing an altar for the dark ritual that will summon Atlach-Nacha, the spider god, and begin their reign? I do not know.

[Read more…]

It doesn’t take much to build an online empire

Apparently any twit with an obsession and a lot of persistence can do it. For example, Mike Adams, the “Health Ranger”, peddles silly supplements and “cures” alongside his right wing weirdness, and it seems he’s been a fanatic about linking to himself, and building a mass of self-referential garbage websites to create a custom echo chamber.

Much has been written recently about online “echo chambers”: the idea that we are catered to on the Internet with sites and recommendations that reinforce our preexisting beliefs. If you watch a lot of science videos on YouTube, follow many scientists on Twitter, and regularly search for scientific questions on Google, your online experience will shift away from neutrality, as search results, post sorting, and recommendations will be tailored to your pro-science stance. This is an echo chamber because, in due time, you only hear your beliefs repeated back at you and stop seeing what’s happening on the other side.

Echo chambers for the pseudoscience crowd exist as well, though Mike Adams’ online bubble is so vast and self-sufficient, it warrants the term “ecosystem”.

It’s impressive, in a narrow minded way. Every little whim he has prompts the creation of a new website, and then they all link to each other, so once you find your way to one, you reverberate all over the place, getting nothing but the Mike Adams perspective and the Mike Adams sales pitch.

A bit of online sleuthing revealed that Mike Adams owns over 50 websites. The topics they cover go beyond alternative medicine and help shape an entire worldview: fear of medicine and science (gmo.news, medicine.news, vaccines.news), anti-Left and pro-freedom hype (campusinsanity.com, libtards.news, freedom.news), and doomsday prep advice (survival.news, collapse.news).

He has his own search engine and his own social media site! Get sucked into that bubble and you’re never getting out again, by design. All it takes is dedication and a small team of people constantly taking advantage of search algorithms to assemble a self-reinforcing internet empire. One thing surprised me.

His Twitter account boasts 124,000 followers. On the day I write this, he has tweeted about reducing your risk of stroke by drinking full-fat milk; about the chemical bisphenol-A causing gender confusion; and about a woman who cured her cancer with cannabis oil. These tweets lead to his websites, which can be searched via his Good Gopher engine and accessed through his social media platform.

Mike Adams’ dark, conspiratorial Wonderland is vast and the rabbit hole is frightening in depth. “Down, down down. Would the fall never come to an end?”

OK, 124,000 twitter followers is a respectable number, but it’s not that large — I’ve got something over 150K, and I’m a nobody. What it takes is willingness to leverage those numbers, to use those people to shape a profitable network, and that just takes persistent wanking over yourself. Mike Adams is not particularly intelligent, and even he can do it…which makes me realize how little real insight it takes to create, for instance, a religion. Build a bubble around whatever — Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Mike Adams — seed it with busy little monkeys telling each other how vital their message is, and basic human predispositions will take over and make it grow, and fling more reinforcement/cash to the object of their fascination.

If ever I try to turn those 150K followers into a Church of PZ (I won’t), remind me of this post and tell me that once upon a time I considered that kind of manipulation to be evil.

You probably don’t have to worry about it, because one thing it requires is a lot of mindless work to keep the pump running, and that’s something I’m not good at.

Painted plywood, dirt trails, and a cornpone old guy

Kent Hovind has been working on “Dinosaur Adventure Land”, Part Deux, on a pretty piece of property in Lenox, Alabama, and it’s gotten him a credulous, friendly online interview. If you want to see what it looks like, Hovind himself gives a video tour — there doesn’t seem to be much at all there. This one photo says it all.

Man, it must be rough when he and Ken Ham get together, if they ever do. It’s a toss-up whether Hovind would be mortified in the competition over who has the fancier big boat, or Ham who would be shamed by the fact that Kent is offering the same amount of scientific information that he is.