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December 15, 2014

The Search For Intelligent Life? Let's Think About This...

Recently, I was watching a series of lectures about the search for life in the universe. It kept my attention while talking about the 800+ new-found solar systems around other stars beyond our own. It seems likely that solar systems are very common in the universe, thus the question arises does life exist in those systems or is our solar system unique?

Actual photograph of planets around a star beyond our sun

Where the series lost me was when the presenter got to the subject of searching for intelligent life in the universe. He made it seem as though us humans were the only intelligence on Earth and perhaps the only intelligence in the universe. Of course, we humans assume we are the most intelligent because we exercise a lot of power on Earth, but this isn't much different than the monarchy thinking they must be smarter than all the peasants because of the power they have over the peasants (it's funny because when I think of all of the great thinkers, artists and scientist over the ages, hardly one was a king or queen). Power doesn't necessarily equate with intelligence and there's a certain arrogance about humanity that has left a trail of disproven claims that should be remembered when ever we make great claims about our superiority. Claims such as the universe was specially created for humans, we must be at the center of the universe, must be the center of the solar system, humans must have the biggest genome with the most genes, we must have the biggest brains, the biggest brain to body ratio, the most neurons, the most brain folds, must be the only tool users, the only language users, the only species with culture, the only species that can learn, the only species that has a sense of self, the only species with emotions, the only rational/non-instinctual species, the only species with a soul. All of these claims have been disproven, but we still hang on to the idea that humans must be superior to all other living things in some way. And so we stare out into the universe looking for "intelligent" life as though, besides humans, the world was just plain full of dummies! I would contend that "intelligent" life is not as rare or elusive as we might think and our search for it in the universe need not lead us far.

What the search for "intelligent" life needs is a reformation over what "intelligent" means. Einstein might have been a brilliant physicist, but he wasn't a gifted farmer. And in order for there to be people who can spend their whole lives thinking about what happens to objects when they're travelling near the speed of light, there must be people who perfect agriculture to the point that they can grow enough produce for teachers to teach children math and science, professors to teach adults higher level math and science, researchers who do the experiments, mechanics and engineers who build the equipment to perform the experiments, and theorists to guide the direction of experimentation, etc., etc., etc. In other words, in order for scientists to perform at their most intelligent level, you need farmers to perform at their most intelligent level. By this configuration, Einstein's genius is worthless without there being genius farmers to support his thinking lifestyle. If Einstein had to grow his own food, it's unlikely he would've come up with Relativity. Thus, intelligence, too, is relative and multiple intelligences are necessary for everyone to maximize their potential.

Extrapolating this argument to the search for "intelligent" life besides humans, we must remember that most of the processes that make Earth a habitable place are not performed by humans. The production of oxygen for us to breathe, for one example, is done by plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria: photosynthetic bacteria.

If humans went extinct, those plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria would live on just fine without us, but if they went extinct we'd go extinct right alongside them. So what's necessary isn't for all organisms to aspire for human-like intelligence, but for each organism to become more intelligent in its own way. If the whole body was a brain it would die. The brain requires the work of the heart, lungs, immune system, digestive system, legs, arms, etc., etc., etc., in order to be specialized in receiving information, interpreting signals, and sending out commands. Thus, it isn't possible that the brain is the superior organ, for it is only as effective as the rest of the body.

Einstein's physics intelligence isn't superior to farmer's intelligence. Farmers would much more readily survive without physicists than physicists would survive without farmers. So what's really necessary is for all members of society to become more intelligent in their own way and better at what they do, so less people are forced to labor where they have the least to offer. Is the world better when everyone is forced to be a subsistence farmer or is it better when farm intelligence makes it possible for only a few to farm, and the rest are freed up to pursue other work?  Societies are not built with the intelligence of one occupation or one individual, but the collective interrelating of many kinds of intelligence.

In terms of the environment, humans can only be as effective as the rest of the beings on Earth make the environment conducive for what humans do. If bees, other insects, bats, and birds, ceased to pollinate our crops and we had to pollinate every flower ourselves to eat.....we'd starve.  If earthworms, fungi and other decomposers weren't constantly at work breaking down corpses and carcasses, the world would become a heap of bodies with no soil for plants to grow in and no free nutrients for bacteria to reintroduce in usable forms into the biosphere.

So rather than considering ourselves superior to the world, using it like a stepping stone to some fairy tale encounter with extraterrestrial "intelligent" life, condescendingly looking for "intelligent" life at great distances while ignoring all the intelligent life that surrounds us on Earth, maybe we had better realize that if humanity is to survive, it will require the collective intelligence of all beings working towards a sustainable planet. Maybe humanity is the frontal cortex of the world, but without a smart and effective rest of the body, the whole person dies.

Maybe we should be grateful that there are bacteria who are intelligent in a bacteria-kind-of-way, and plants who are intelligent with a plant-specific-intelligence, etc., because it is a diverse, collective intelligence that makes Earth a habitable planet. Humans by themselves, would be like a brain in a jar. It takes a body, with trillions of cells who know what they need to do, and trillions of cells who perform all of the essential functions of the body, in order for the brain to maximize its potential in the form of a person who works on and wonders at the world.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it takes many species, great and small, all with their own roles, and all of them striving to fulfill those roles in order for the world to be the place of learning and living that it is.  So perhaps rather than searching for "intelligent" life elsewhere, maybe we should work on recognizing and respecting the diverse kinds of intelligence that already surround us everywhere on this spaceship planet spinning through the cosmos.

-Seth Commichaux

November 19, 2014

Part I: The Evolution of Public Education in the United States

Hello USEE blog readers! We hope you enjoy this new blog from our dedicated volunteer writer, Seth Commichaux. In this post, Seth explores the origins of public education in our country. Though this is not a direct discussion on environmental education, we find this relevant to the larger discussion of education!

The founding fathers of the United States might have been progressives and intellectuals for their time, but the average American at the birth of the new nation was illiterate and few foresaw the importance and value educating the masses would come to have in the coming centuries.  As a result, education (much less a free and publicly paid for education) was never listed as a fundamental right in the constitution of the United States and as such a battle has been waged ever since over who should be educated, what should be allowed to be taught and who should be able to teach that information. 

Pre-Revolution the average person in the United States would never receive an education.  Save for living in a few progressive and large cities who mandated free education for white boys, the only real chance they had at getting a good education was by being born to wealthy and powerful parents.  Elites, realizing the power over people and access to the world (and thus to greater opportunity) that came with being able to read and write, readily had private schools with good teachers built in their towns for their children to go to or hired qualified tutors to teach their children at home, but for the average person in the United States a life of farming, manual labor or domestic labor was their only future.  In other words, realizing that knowledge was power, education was reserved by the elites for elites to preserve the status quo. 

But after the Revolutionary War, politicians began to see the necessity for building a unified culture, with national ideals, and an American story that would make the separation from Old Europe complete.  School was seen as a forum for making patriots and a new culture.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps motivated by more of a social conscience, felt that the United States needed to lead a crusade against ignorance to fulfill its promise of freedom through democracy.  He said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be........The future of a democracy depends on the education of its people."  He felt that genius was not just a product of aristocracy and that a democracy's survival hinged upon an educated public who were free to make informed decisions on their own.  It was his belief that each American had a stake in the course of a democracy and thus each citizen should be willing to invest in the education of all of its citizens (save women and minorities, of course).  Shedding light on the nature of the times, Thomas Jefferson thrice introduced a bill that would guarantee just 3 years of free, public education and thrice it was voted down, many claiming it was too much of a tax burden.  An insightful critic noted something nearly as true then as it is today, "People have more feeling for canals and roads than for education."

It would take over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson would get his way, but in the meantime the seeds of public education were planted in the United States and it has been evolving ever since. 

Early public schools were more like local army barracks for small people rather than places of personal development and centers of knowledge for the young and growing.  Often it was nothing more than a small wood building with a dirt floor where kids aged 5-15 were brow-beaten by a single teacher into memorizing passages from the bible.  In the early 1800s, teachers were most often men and discipline, morality and hygiene were bigger topics of study than were math, science and literature.  It wasn't unusual for teachers to have as little as a 5th grade education themselves.  But, beginnings are beginnings.  At least when you start you create a baseline from which you can learn and progress.  And public education has seen a lot of progress since its birth. 

Slowly, but surely states began to better fund and create the infrastructure for public education and more children started to go to school.  In the 1840s after a series of debates in New York City over whether religious schools should be funded with public money, public education began to take a more secular path as it was realized that there wasn't enough money to go around to fund every single religion's separate school and agenda, nor was it democratic to fund institutions with public money that professed ideologies that not all taxpayers adhered to.  In addition, strong arguments resonated about the divisiveness of religion in the public sphere due to the vitriolic conflicts between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other religious groups who felt their children shouldn't have to endure the evils of a secular education.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the side of secularists, made the case for a more secular morality, saying, "The heart needs something to rest upon.  And if it is not God, it will be the world." 

Around the same time, strong voices like that of Horace Mann began arguing that education was the means by which a fairer society with a leveler playing field could be created.  Education, especially a free, public education was the key to freedom, excellence, social mobility and a guard against the rise of elitism, nobility, and the bourgeoisie.  He also felt that public schools should be the place that civic virtue was taught and a sense of civic duty instilled as well as a place where people could build character if their family upbringing was lacking in such training.  Travelling to every school in the state of Massachusetts while secretary on the first ever created school board of education, he saw the great discrepancies in funds, number of teachers to students as well as level of experience and expertise, school supplies, etc.  As a result of seeing such great discrepancies in the administration of public education he called for there to be a common curriculum to better ensure that everyone was receiving a quality education.  He also called for teaching as an occupation to professionalize by requiring teachers to receive more rigorous training.  In addition, he fought for there to be a wider curriculum, better teacher pay to attract individuals of higher quality, and for better social conditions for he believed that poverty and prejudice prevented public education from being as effective as it could be.

With the coming and going of the Civil War, education became a symbol of freedom especially because denying people the right to an education was a key element in maintaining their bondage.  Important figures like Frederick Douglass articulated that it was knowledge that brought the realization of the absolute immorality of slavery upon them.  It was an education that made them aware of the in-humaneness and manipulations of others and gave them the courage to fight injustice.  Frederick Douglass, a man who ran to freedom pre-Civil War said, "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.......once you learn to read you shall forever be free."  In his autobiography he talked about the time he finally realized that education was the key to empowerment and freedom.  Ironically, it was the man who was exploiting him who revealed the power of ignorance in controlling people, "Learning would spoil the best [expletive] in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that [expletive] (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)

With some progress made, post-Civil War,for some minority groups in America, yet another oppressed class began to find its voice......women.  Catharine Beecher and many other women and supporters of women's rights began to take on the prejudiced views that held that women were intellectually inferior to men and incapable of being employed in any serious occupation because of their fragile, emotional natures.  Beecher went to school, but was mostly taught domestic arts and manners rather than any intellectual subjects.  Undeterred she taught herself math, latin and philosophy and became determined for life that women should receive a more intellectually rigorous education.  Catharine Beecher paved the way, against great opposition, for women to gain access to an occupation traditionally held by men, teaching.   Arguing that men were too harsh and prone to corporal punishment to be effective communicators of information, and that because women were mothers they were the most qualified to be the nurturers and teachers of the next generation.  Her efforts to raise awareness for the need for educators in the frontiers, and that women could best fill those positions, led to the archetypal woman teacher arriving in some small western town to exorcise it of ignorance.  This allowed many women to escape the trap of unwanted marriages and to attain some level of autonomy and respect within their communities as single women or working women.  Additionally, the women's rights movement of the late 1800s also advocated for and won many more public dollars for the education of girls and women in public schools

In 1870, the USA had 7.6 million students enrolled in public schools and taxpayers spent $63 million a year on them.  In 1890, there were 12.7 million enrolled with a public expenditure of $141 million.  At this point America had more children in school and spent more money on education than any other country in the world (probably contributed to the rise of America's power, don't ya think?).

With the constant evolution of public education to incorporate disenfranchised groups and the greater belief in the mass's ability to be educated, the theory of public education also evolved a more powerful rationale.  Alfred Adler argued that public schools should help people overcome their backgrounds and equalize access to opportunity.  One's family, culture, sex, appearance, socioeconomic status, etc. should not be the pre-determinants of one's future.  Public education became a symbol for creating a utopian meritocracy where one's destiny was not determined by their past, but by their efforts.  It was argued that taxpayers should not just take an interest in the welfare and future of their own children, but in the welfare and future of all of society's children.

By 1900, about 50% of children aged 5-18 were in public schools and they received an average of 5 years of schooling.  It was around this time that Thomas Jefferson's wish was finally granted and compulsory, publicly-funded, primary school became law in the United States.  It coincided with the Progressive Era when sentiment was running high to abolish many forms of child labor.  In many ways, compulsory education replaced child labor.  John Dewey advocated around this time for a more child-centered education, believing that every child had talents that could make a meaningful contribution to society.  He was also a big believer in the capacity of science to enlighten and experimentally-based education to help people be more reality-based in their world outlook and approach to problems.  On education he remarked, ""education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction".  Dewey strongly felt that education should be interactive....not passive.  And that public schools should be centers for raising social awareness and letting people experiment with movements.

Because the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great industrial development in the United States and also a time that saw great unrest and protest amongst exploited laborers, it was also a time during which there was the definite influence of the worker's movement in the curriculum.  It was thought that public education should make scholars out of workers and workers out of scholars.  It also became more common for public schools to focus more on training people to get a job rather than on educating them to more intellectual pursuits.  This correlated with the introduction en masse of intelligence tests that were often misused as ways to fast track people to their "career."  If your IQ was low, you were on the fast track to becoming a tradesman.  If your IQ was high, you were on your way to becoming an engineer.  This IQ railroading introduced an intellectual caste system where people of "high intelligence" deserved the best pay and to become doctors and lawyers, whereas those of "low intelligence" deserved low pay and to work in the more dangerous arenas of unskilled or skilled manual labor.  Such simplistic diagnostics that determined the fate of individuals so early on didn't seem to trouble enough people for attitudes to change about the legitimacy of such test results for decades to come.  And there was a definite undertone of racism about the results which tended to fast track many minorities to low pay, manual labor jobs, not because of lower intelligence, but because of language and cultural barriers as well having to start from a position of disadvantage in American society because of prejudice, socioeconomics and a general lack of opportunity, exposure and support.  It was around this time that progressive educators began to realize that factors such as low self-esteem due to the effects of social stereotypes and prejudices as well as coming from the stressful background of poverty and disempowerment could result in lower performance without necessarily having any bearing on the true intelligence of the individual.

In 1900, only 6% of people had a high school diploma.  In 1940, about 40% did.  In 1950, only 28% of people with disabilities were enrolled in school.  The slow evolution of public education continued.  It got a boost in terms of support and funding with the start of the Cold War and the Eisenhower administration's National Defense Education Act which prioritized the need for a well educated public as essential for National Defense.  But it was really the Civil Rights Movement that saw the next dramatic shift in the aims and philosophy of public education.  For too long, in a country that espoused freedom and equal opportunity as it ideals, there were great inequities in access to education and opportunity and thus freedom and quality of life enjoyed.  Public education was segregated, not equitably administered and was not the equalizing factor that it had set out to be.  The poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, minorities and women were still waiting and fighting for their chance to fulfill their potential. 

The Civil Rights Movement was a stride forward for all people in terms of quality of life, equality of treatment and access to opportunity as well as public education.  The Civil Rights Movement also changed the curriculum towards a more socially aware and culturally diverse one where people of all kinds, shapes and colors were recognized for their contributions and achievements.  In 1950, only 13.7% of African Americans received high school diplomas.  By 1980, about 51.4% did.  In 1950, only 0.0095% of medical and law degrees were awarded to women.  By 1980, 30% were.  In 1950, the average adult in the USA had 9 years of education (8th grade).  By 1980, it was 12.5 years, almost all school-aged children were enrolled and there was an 80% high school graduation rate.

The Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of a 100 years of struggle for rights since the Civil War and one of its major achievements was the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was the strongest and most sweeping legislation yet passed to promote taxpayer funded education for everyone.  It was a statement that all people in a society have a stake in the future of everyone's children because the it a well-educated public that promotes a just and fair democracy that ends up improving everyone's quality of life.  The bill established the federal government's role in funding primary and secondary education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged.  It aimed to shorten achievement gaps by providing fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education.  It provided funding for the disabled, minorities and the poor.  It provided funding for bilingual education programs which helped children who didn't speak English as their first language not get railroaded to manual labor jobs against their will.  Too often these children were considered non-intelligent and unfit for any occupation but low-wage, unskilled labor, when the real issue was the cultural and language gap......not a lack of intelligence.  Acknowledging that student achievement decreases as school poverty increases and that poverty in general leads to lower student achievement, the bill sought, through taxpayer funding, to overcome these disadvantages by allocating more funds and materials to fulfill the American promise of equal access to opportunity.

Starting with the 1980s there was a move away from public education towards homeschooling, charter schools and private schools.  The people of the world were becoming connected, motivations were becoming more business-driven/profit-driven; education began to see more pressure from the bottom line; concerns moved toward the economy and away from social progress; competition became an ideal and the marketplace was crowned king.  Due to the perceived, overriding importance of economics, the Ronald Reagan administration began to emphasize the importance of standardized testing for measuring the quality of education going on at public schools nationwide.  Such grading of public school performance by standardized testing, resulted in the federal government being able to  withhold funds if there wasn't improvement.  Of course, this gave a mixed results as schools began teaching students "to the test" so as to avoid financial hardship.  This logic was counter to that as found in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it sought to punish failing schools with more austerity rather than to provide more funding so that struggling schools could invest in better material and teachers.  Financial punishment for not performing has led to less funds, the lay off of teachers and the reduced capacity to invest in materials for many schools who would benefit from such investments. There was also the rise of the school voucher system which supported "choice" in the education market with more private schools, charter schools and homeschooling. 
In 2002, the number of students in public schools was at 47.8 million, but the percent of children enrolled in public schools had fallen to ~90%.  Today there are about 98,817 public schools, 6,187 charter schools, 7,110 catholic schools and 33,366 private schools in the United States.  There are about 3.3 million full-time, public school, primary and secondary level teachers, 72,000 charter school teachers and about 0.4 million, full-time, private school, primary and secondary level teachers.  There are about 54,876,000 students enrolled in K-12.  49,484,181 attend public schools; 1,941,831 attend charter schools; 1,508,000 are home schooled; 2,031,455 attend catholic schools; and 5,488,000 attend private schools.  The total funding of public education costs about $597,485,869,000 with the following breakdown.
  • Federal: $75.99 billion (12.7% of total)
  • State: $259.8 billion (43.5% of total)
  • Local: $261.7 billion (43.8% of total)
I hope to have shown that the public education system has greatly progressed since the illiterate pre-Revolution America.  It has not always been a perfect nor ideal evolution, but to lose faith in public education is to desecrate the enormous strides that have been made and dishonors the enormous efforts, in the face of stiff opposition, many educators have made so that ALL Americans could be better educated and thus freer, more empowered, and standing on nearer-to-equal ground to access opportunity.  The question now is where we will take this great project of public education in the future.

Soon, I hope to write another installment of this blog, talking about more modern issues and debates surrounding public education using the historical backdrop I've outlined here. 

-Seth Commichaux

Sources Cited:
School: The Story of American Public Education.  Film Series.  Films for the Humanities.  Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton.
The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.  Dana Goldstein.  2014.

October 13, 2014

How birds find their way: a blog about migration and navigation

It's amazing how many different kinds of beings there are on Earth, each with it's own life and concerns, each with some sense of what they are and where they need to be.  This time of year when I see birds, of many different kinds, heading off for their wintering grounds either individually or in formations I often wonder where they go; and even more I wonder how they know where to go and when to go.  How did migratory paths evolve in the first place?  Has it been a gradual process?  And why did some birds evolve to migrate whereas others stick around?  During the winter I sometimes see very small birds I think would die of exposure to the cold, but who stick around in the snow and survive nonetheless.  

Migratory birds aren't just running away from the cold and snow, though it might be part of the reason (during winter, resources tend to be more scarce...spring and summer bring a certain abundance that sustains far more lives), as many migratory birds leave during good weather and oftentimes pass through very nice places with great weather on their way to some far-off, unseen destination.

Year-after-year many species of bird fly between their breeding grounds and wintering grounds along the same sky-ways their ancestors took.  Some of the individuals, or even all of them, may never have migrated before and yet they will still find their way.  Extraordinary examples of migrations (and way-finding) are the Bar-Tailed Godwit who flies 8 days non-stop on a 7,000 mile journey from New Zealand to Alaska.

Bar-Tailed Godwit in Alaska

Another extreme example is the Arctic Tern who flies all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and then from the Antarctic to the Arctic every year.  Several arctic terns tagged with GPS trackers have been recorded to fly nearly 60,000 miles on their convoluted migrations every year!  How do they find their way?
GPS track of Arctic Terns making journey to and fro the Antarctic and Arctic.
As you can see from the picture above, the Arctic Terns don't all take the same route nor do they make a bee line to their destination nor do they take the same paths going North-to-South as they do from South-to-North.  In fact, it is well recorded that there can be great differences in migratory routes between species, between populations of the same species and even between individuals of the same species.  Just as in humans, some birds seem to be anal about leaving for migration at an exact time and take the exact same route every year, both coming and going; they rest and refuel at the same stopovers and use the same breeding and wintering grounds.  All the while other individual birds have a freer sense of timing and place, leaving when it suits their fancy and taking whatever route appeals to them.  There is a genetic component to migrations as is observed for many birds who are natural migrators, but who are kept in cages; they will often beat themselves against the bars or seem agitated for weeks when they otherwise would've been migrating.  Also, their bodies seem to seasonally transition to a state ready for intense physical exertion.  But as is becoming apparent, genetics isn't all for there is also a great deal of individual choice and variation. There probably is an instinctual framework shaped by evolution, a heritable memory of their ancestor's interactions with the environment, that guides them along, but to what degree?  It can't be too automatic for the environment is dynamic.  From year-to-year conditions along the migratory route might be vastly different; there might be storms, strong winds or unseasonably warm or cool weather; fire might've ravaged a normal stopover and a new one needs to be found to refuel and rest; human activity might make a certain route impossible to travel; drought might've dried up a lake or river that was needed for food along the way; new forage patches or waters might be found; predators might be encountered; winter might come early and an early migration might have to occur; the weather at stopovers might be favorable or unfavorable leading to longer stays or hastier departures; etc., etc., etc.  Additionally, from year-to-year an individual might not feel as healthy or might have some other kind of personal problem that affects how they migrate.  The mystery of bird migrations and navigation got me intrigued about how birds find their way when they're traveling far-and-wide.  Particularly insightful to the elucidation of how birds find their way have been experiments with homing pigeons.  In these experiments pigeons are kept in a 'black box' and transported to a never-seen, unknown-to-them location, tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their home and then released.  Inexplicably, the pigeons, without knowing where they are at their release location nor how they got there, more-often-than-not, find their way back home!

If I was free to go where I wanted, I'd use a map or ask for directions or just follow the signs on the highways and byways.  If I had to get to Africa from Utah, but without maps, signs or asking for directions I don't know how I would do it.  Perhaps I would use the knowledge I had of the stars on the sun to set a course East and as I ran into different cultures, kinds of people and languages I might roughly know where I was and where I was going, but this is relying on my previous knowledge to find my way.  The intriguing thing with some bird migrations is that some individuals might never have made the migration before and might have no knowledge of what the larger world is like to use as reference for orientation.

But despite all obstacles, most migratory birds find their way.  So how do they do it?  From doing a little digging into the scientific literature I distilled out a few tools and methods the birds are using on their epic journeys to find their way.  Many interesting experiments had to be done to discover these.

The main known tools and methods by which birds find their way and the ranges over which they're probably most useful, in no particular order of importance:
-Sight (short-to-long range)
-Smell (short-to-medium range)
-Experience/Memory (short-to-long range)
-Magnetic Fields (long range)
-Astronomy (long range)
-Genetics (?)
-Culture, Teaching and Learning (short-to-long range)
-Skylight polarization (long range)
-Internal Map and Compass (short-to-long range)
-Landscape/Atmospheric Patterns and Trends (short-to-long range)
-Circadian Rhythm/Internal Clock (?)

Visual way-finding seems straightforward enough, recognize a site and fly to it, but there are many levels of complexity therein we shouldn't overlook.  When birds see their destination they can go to it, but depending on how it is approached it might take a minute for them to orient.  Ever been driving in a place you normally know, but because you drove into it from a different angle you didn't even recognize where you were?

Seeing your destination seems a sure method of finding your way, but most migratory destinations are out of sight.  Over long flights birds use their vision to follow landmarks like mountain ranges and shorelines to navigate.

Major migratory flyways over North America.  Notice the use of landmarks like the East and West coasts, the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Birds also use their vision to watch the stars and sun.  In wind tunnels with overhead displays of stars or sun, migratory birds in the season for migration change the orientation of their flight based upon the orientation of the stars and sun.  Homing pigeons that are kept under artificial conditions where a light mimicking the sun is manipulated to be out of sync with the real sun's position and then who are released tend to home at a particular angle of orientation off of the real direction of home that correlates with the artificial sun's position.  For instance, under artificial conditions the birds might be conditioned to believe that it is 3 pm based upon the artificial sun's position and then released to home in the real world where it is actually 10 am.  The birds will treat the 10 am sun as if it was at the 3 pm position and orient themselves accordingly, thus homing at a predictable angle off from the true direction to home.  Another proof that birds use the sun came from an experiment with homing pigeons who had their circadian rhythms offset by artificial day/night cycles.  Released far from home in any direction they deviate at departure by an angle roughly corresponding to the angle between the observed sun azimuth and that expected according to their shifted timescale.  This all indicates that birds are constantly watching and keeping track of the location of the celestial bodies in order to navigate. 

Other things some birds are known to visually navigate by are patterns of wave direction and snow drift direction which is related to prevailing winds.

But how do birds navigate when there are no real landmarks to visually track, such as far from shore over a calm ocean?  or what about when the days and nights are cloudy and the sun and stars can't be seen?  When pigeons wearing frosted contact lenses, so that they can't see with any clarity, are released far from their roosts they still return within about .25 - 1.5 miles of their home, but can't get any closer, presumably because they can't see it.  This means that birds can navigate without actually seeing where they are going.  One tool the birds are believed to be using to accomplish this feat is olfaction, or the sense of smell.

A strange fact that supports olfaction as a tool for navigation in birds comes from several experiments and observations.  Homing pigeons can be born in captivity and never allowed to fly around their roost to get a sense of the area and yet when taken tens or hundreds of miles and released from a foreign location still find their way back home.  However, if the pigeons are not exposed to the open air while in their roost, they will lose their way.  Furthermore, if they are in a controlled environment where the air stream is manipulated so that they aren't exposed to natural winds, they will also not be able to home.  What's so special about open air and the wind?  The wind carries information.  If we had a better sense of smell we'd realize that a wind blowing from the North smells different than a wind blowing from the West.  The only experience I can think of for around here is that when the wind blows from the North, we can smell the Great Salt Lake in Utah County.  Each place has its own scent signature and surprisingly most birds have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell that seemingly can distinguish between the smells of different places for hundreds of miles around.  When pigeons are in their home roost they take note of the different odors that accompany winds from different directions, forming an olfactory map of their local area.  When they are taken to a location unknown to them, they seem to be able to recognize the scent of the place and to know what direction it was relative to their roost and they can home accordingly.  This method works for nearly a thousand mile radius as this is the maximum limit homing pigeons have been able to find home.  Thus, if we had better noses we might see a landscape of odors as clearly as we see the landscape with our eyes.

A cruel experiment that also supports that pigeons, starlings and other birds are using their sense of smell to home has to do with cutting the olfactory nerve so that their brains no longer receive information from their noses.  Without the ability to smell, birds have an extremely difficult time of homing from any distance greater than that from which they can see their home.  Other, less cruel experiments that involve anesthetizing the noses of birds provided similar results.  The question remains about exactly which aromatic compounds the birds are using to home.  Some seabirds have been known to use the smell of dead fish in dense fog at night to find fishing boats over 50 miles away.  Whatever molecules bird use to navigate what is clear is that experience still plays a role because some pigeons who are experienced at homing and who have no sense of smell can still find their way back home from distances greater than within-sight.  What's more, the sense of smell for practical purposes is mostly limited to a range of about 200-300 miles (which would be like living in SLC your whole life, getting dropped off in St. George and sniffing your way back to SLC!).  For longer ranges other senses seem to be needed for birds to navigate.

Such a candidate seems to be found in the magnetic sense.  As far as is known, humans have no way of detecting the Earth's magnetic field with their bodies, but birds can.  In many bird beaks are cells with deposits of magnetite, a mineral sensitive to the Earth's magnetic poles, used in compasses, that can detect magnetic north and south.

The magnetic field of Earth is created by convection currents in the core where there is an abundance of heavy metals such as iron.  The magnetic field of Earth isn't static, it changes quite rapidly over the long-term and short term, but it seems to be a reliable enough source of information that birds and another animals have evolved to be able to detect it in order to orient themselves.  Experiments such as attaching magnets to the heads of honeybees and sea turtles have found that interfering with an organism's ability to detect the Earth's magnetic field, if they can detect it, can cause them to become disoriented.  Experiments with birds have shown similar results.  In one such experiment, birds were conditioned in an artificial environment where there was a very strong magnetic field that was oriented differently than the Earth's magnetic field.  When released to home, the birds headed off in a direction offset by the angle from truth North that they had been conditioned to in their artificially created magnetic field.  Also, homing pigeon's have a harder time homing during events that affect the Earth's magnetic field such as solar flares and solar winds.  What's even stranger are experiences where the eyes of birds were covered to see if it affected their sense of Earth's magnetic field.  Oddly enough, it did have an affect.  With their right eye covered birds can no longer detect the magnetic field, but with their right eye open and their left eye closed they can sense the magnetic field again and what's more when the birds have their left eye closed and their right eye has a frosted contact lens over it they can't sense the magnetic field either.  This implies that it isn't light, but the clarity with which that they can see that helps birds detect the magnetic field of Earth.  Therefore, there might be something about the horizon which betrays the magnetic field.  No one yet knows.  These examples provides evidence that birds along with their many other senses and strategies are using the Earth's magnetic field to navigate too. 

Besides sight, smell, astronomy, magnetic fields, and landscape/wavescape patterns birds probably use their experience and memory, skylight polarization, culture, teaching, learning, an internal map and compass, perhaps their genetics, time and some other as of yet unknown tools and methods to navigate on their migrations and daily trips.

Do birds ask for directions as they travel along?  It might seem unlikely, but so did the idea that birds have culture until it was proven that songbirds of the same species have different dialects of song in different areas much like people in the USA might speak with a twang down South or with more slang in the Bronx.  It is also known that many species of birds teach their generations their flight routes, but other species seem to have no such passage of information between generations.  How do these birds find their way?  Can birds tell each other about their travel experiences?  Can they communicate across species about what birds, other beings and places are like in other parts of the world?  It is known that a crow that has a run in with a bad-tempered human can communicate to other crows for tens of miles around about this trouble person and the crows will respond by cawing angrily at the human where ever they go.  It is a mystery how crows can tell each other about the appearance of a human without actually having to see them and how they can recognize them, but somehow they can.  Perhaps they have a different kind of expression than language that they can convey information through.  We shouldn't be surprised considering that birds have a magnetic sense and an incredible sense of smell that humans can't even fathom.  Additionally, many birds can see into the ultraviolet spectrum of light.  Something else I like to consider is the circadian rhythms.  Is time a compass?  Can time be used to navigate through space?  Do birds keep track of how long they've been flying in order to give them an idea of how far they've flown?

It is truly remarkable that these feathered descendents of the dinosaurs find their way all over this Earth on some of the most epic journeys life is known to undertake.  Somehow, between their cells and molecules that make a whole organism there is a mechanism by which some, like the Arctic Tern, can literally find their way anywhere on Earth.

It seems likely to me that migratory birds use all of their senses to find their way and that there are probably senses and tools better for different ranges.  For instance, the magnetic sense is probably most useful for long range navigation while smell is best suited for medium ranges and sight probably most effective at short range navigation and orientation. 

What role does genetics play in bird migration and orientation?  Is there an internal map of the world contained within their genomes somehow?  Are there other means by which birds obtain information in order to find their way in this world?  Probably and they probably have to use every means possible in coordination with thought, memory and comparisons with previous experiences to orient.  I say that there must be quite a bit of complex thought going on in their bird brains or wherever thought goes on because having tools says nothing about how you use them.  Just because you have a saw, hammer, wood and nails doesn't mean the house is going to build itself i.e. just because birds have so many senses and methods for finding their way doesn't mean they will find their way.  Birds do get lost and can't find their way back home, thus it seems that having tools and instincts still isn't enough to survive; instinct and tools still require conscious modification in order to serve a purpose and to be effective.  So when you see the birds taking flight on their migrations take a moment to remember just how amazing those birds are and what they are doing really is.

-Seth Commichaux

1) Michael Walker, Todd Dennis, Joseph Kirschvink, 2002.  The magnetic sense and its use in long-distance navigation by animals.  Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 12, pg 735-744.

2) Maria Dias, Jose Granadeiro, Paulo Catry, 2013.  Individual variability in the migratory path and stopovers of a long-distance pelagic migrant.  Animal Behavior, vol.  86, pg 359-364

3) Bird Sense: What It's Like To Be A Bird.  Tim Birkhead.  2013.

4) Hans Wallraff, 2003.  Avian olfactory navigation: its empirical foundation and conceptual state.  Animal Behavior, vol. 67, pg 189-204.  

August 29, 2014

Animal Madness, The Hierarchy of Needs and The Economics of Well-Being

I got done reading a book called, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves by Laurel Braitman (highly recommend).  In it, she explores how and why animals lose their minds and if there are any connections that can be drawn with human mental illness that might help us to understand and cope with our ailments.  Many aspects of animal mental illness are considered in the book like anxiety and depression, trauma and suicide, rage and revenge, inconsolable grief and phobias amongst many others.  Aside from more organic diseases that can be attributed to the breakdown of physiological or genetic processes, I distilled an important contributor to mental disorders in animals: stress induced by the deprivation of needs. 

Baby Orangatan
From a dog named Oliver, with severe separation anxiety, who would lick all the fur off his paws and ransack the apartment when ever the humans would leave, to elephants who would go on murderous rampages when beaten to their breaking point.  From gorillas that died of depression from being isolated, to racehorses that can't calm down without goat companions.  From dogs with PTSD from war and search-and-rescue missions, to birds with feather-plucking, self-destructive tendencies because they got their wings clipped.  From abused circus animals that might respond by becoming overly-vicious or by becoming numb and indifferent to any further inhumane treatment, to animals that are low in the hierarchy of their troop who get picked on to the point that they cease to take an interest in social affairs.  From chimpanzees who were frozen by fear in social situations because they were taken from their mothers too soon, to many seemingly bored animals whose boredom led them to obsessive-compulsive acts like hamsters running in their wheels for over 12 hours to complete exhaustion, polar bears who swim figure eights all day long in their swimming pool at the zoo, and dolphins who similarly swim in tight circles all day long in their enclosures.  There were even mentions of Harry Harlow's torturous experiments where mother-deprived, baby monkeys would endure starvation with a friendly-looking, soft doll rather than get milk from a metal, unwelcoming doll; showing that many beings prefer to be comforted over having their most basic physiological needs met.  It is truly eerie that such familiar complexity afflicts the lives and minds of our evolutionary relatives.  And as another proof of life's common ancestry on Earth, many of the pharmaceuticals we use on ourselves to treat mental disorders are used successfully to alter the biochemistry of animals like mice, bears, birds and cats who have seemingly similar mental ailments. 

Found Somewhere Warm to Sleep

A main point and rhetorical question of the book is, "How could an animal lose its mind, if it didn't have one?"  Evoking Charles Darwin, from his book The Descent of Man, she emphasizes that if evolution has gradually shaped and differentiated the bodies of species over time, then there's no reason to believe that the same process didn't shape our minds as well.  Darwin tried to prove by evolution and natural selection, much science affirming since, that the minds of humans and other animals only differ by degrees and flavors as would be expected if species were related by common descent.  After reading the book there was little doubt left in my mind that there was an enormous amount of commonality between our minds and those of other animals because example after example was given of animals who had mental disorders induced by things most people would become troubled by.  Being traumatized by seeing death and violence, the experience of torture and other abuses, being separated from loved ones, desiring for companionship, nurturing and love, the need for fairness, the need for routines and certainty, the need for acceptance, boredom, etc.  So many unmet needs leading to mental anguish though, like humans, variation in personality affect how different individuals respond to similar conditions.  All these unmet needs made me think of Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.  I did some research and found the original 1943 paper in which the idea was presented called, "A Theory of Human Motivation."

Abraham Maslow put forward a seemingly stupid theory.  Stupid because it seemed so simple and obvious.

But if we stop to think a little deeper about what he postulated and the implications it might have for people, societies and the biosphere......it seems quite simply profound.  The basic premise of the hierarchy of needs as put forward in A Theory of Human Motivation is that, in some way, every person is neurotic, and the source of a person's neurosis is the level of need that is unmet.  For instance, if person X has clean air to breathe, good food to eat, clean water to drink, sufficient time to rest per day, enough sexual outlets, etc. (i.e. all the Physiological needs are met), but lacks safety because they live in a war zone...then person X will be neurotic with stress about how to meet their needs for safety.  If person X has never known the trauma of Physiological deprivation, then they will take those needs for granted and be overly-concerned with the next level of need, which is safety for person X.  All the levels above safety won't concern person X because if they can't even meet their fundamental needs then the higher levels of need won't be practical to waste energy on.  This means that a person whose basic needs are not met will not have the time nor energy to expend on things like self-actualization where they fulfill their unique potential as a creative, capable individual nor will benefit from the contributions such a person might make.

Of course, Maslow recognized that life is more complicated than a simple hierarchy and he really envisaged the Hierarchy of Needs as a graduated pyramid of percentages in that someone might have 60% of their Physiological needs met, 43% of their Safety needs met, 27 % of their Love/Belonging needs met, 13% of their Esteem needs met, and 2% of their Self-Actualization needs met.  Maslow also thought it was possible that some people might switch the order of their Hierarchy of Needs, for example, a starving artist might value Self-Actualization more than anything else.

Maslow felt that people tended to unconsciously take for granted the level(s) of needs that they always had met, but tended to be traumatized and consequently neurotic about the level of need they had experience the most deficiency in. 

I can think of many points of disagreement that I have with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs though they are more criticisms about things I think he overlooked and should've added.  Some things I think he overlooked or underestimated was the need for fairness, a healthy environment and the need for meaning (not just at the last level of Self-Actualization, but every level.  For even Viktor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, talked about the importance of finding meaning in life, to go on living, even if you found yourself in a concentration camp.....which he did).  Another fundamental point I think Maslow missed, as I tried to illustrate at the beginning of this blog, is that animals just as much as humans have their Hierarchy of Needs too.  This should come as no surprise, for humans are just another kind of ape nestled in the kingdom of animals, evolutionarily related to all life on Earth.  That we are related means that we share many traits in common, including the capability of being driven mad by not having needs met.

In a brave, new world driven by technology and information where government has seemed to have taken a backseat to the gods of economy (Supply and Demand, Money and Capital, Productivity and Profit, Commodity and Trade) you'd think that we'd disproven Animal Madness and the Hierarchy of Needs, but I don't think that is the case.  Try as we might, we can't escape our biology nor our environment which dictate that certain needs must be met so that we're high-level functioning neurotics and not just down-and-out mad.
Even if you look at life from the standpoint of economics one must accept that people who are overwhelmed and exhausted by the stress of meeting their basic needs are not going to be productive in a way that makes society great.  Such stress is the breeding ground for extremism, self-destructiveness and irrationality.  A Great Society according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and a rational society according to Animal Madness would be one that strove to meet as many levels of needs from the bottom up as it could.  Because, just like individuals can become neurotic and driven mad by unmet, fundamental needs...so too can societies.  If our society only secures the Physiological needs for us citizens, then we'll all be neurotic about trying to meet our safety needs.  But if our society uses it resources to meet as many of the needs of its people as it can and if it honors the environment by acknowledging that it and human effort and ingenuity are the only true sources of economic value, then maybe we might become a society which is neurotic about the noble effort of becoming Self-Actualized...rather than driven mad for all the wrong reasons.  We must remember that, like all the animals in the world, we are just as capable of being traumatized by our experiences and our unmet needs.  Thus we have to answer for ourselves whether such trauma and deprivation for some in our societies and biosphere, while others have much, will lead to the result we desire for.  Which is most economically, or otherwise, productive at the end of the day?  A few with all their needs met and most others overburdened with the stress of meeting their basic needs....or the masses with as many of their needs met as society can procure striving to ever higher levels of existence?

Something Like BFF!!!
-Seth Commichaux

August 26, 2014

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor,

This letter is in response to the "Monarch Butterflies in Trouble" post on Feb. 11th, 2014.

One of the icons of many childhood memories seems to be experiencing a population decline. Numbers of the dazzling orange & black Monarch Butterfly have dropped recently due to reduction in habitat in both their breeding and wintering sites.

It is well known that Monarchs east of the Rockies overwinter in a very few select sites in Mexico. Those along the Pacific Coast journey to Southern California. Not as much is known about those in the Utah Inter-mountain region.

We want to change that. Here's a chance for the residents of Cache Valley to help do a little scientific data collection.

The Cache Valley Wildlife Association (Utah member of the National Wildlife Federation), Stokes Nature Center and Bridgerland Audubon are sponsoring a Monarch larva/caterpillar collection project on Saturday, September 6th. All Cache Valley residents are asked to inspect milkweed plants for larvae within their own communities. If you are not certain as to what milkweed plants, or monarch larva, look like come to Nibley City Hall, 455 W. 3200 S., at 9:00am for a quick workshop. We'll be out collecting by 9:30.

Although Milkweed is not considered a noxious weed by the State or County, it is usually confined to roadside areas where the soil is somewhat moist. Most folks know that it is about three feet tall, has green leaves about six inches long which grow opposite of each other on the stem, will ooze a milky substance if injured, and often has seed pods which my students said resemble pickles. The milk is mildly toxic if taken internally, but the plant is critical to the survival of the Monarch as it is the only species where eggs are laid.

The harmless larva have yellow-white-black stripes, and have antenna near their head and tails. They are usually found on the underside of the leaves, and are quite fragile so don't drop them. Their max size is about two inches, but the smaller you find them, the better their survival.

Bring a container and lid large enough to hold several milkweed leaves, and transfer larva into that container very gently.

Call the number below to learn where to bring your larva, or email me to arrange a pickup in your community.

The larvae will be well cared for, and will morph into butterflies in about a week. We feed them for 3 days to make certain they are strong enough for long flights. Then they are marked with the small "Utah Code" color and pattern and released to begin their migration. If we can mark and release a good number of them, scientists in California may have a chance to spot them. Our Utah Code will help identify them even if they are up high in trees. Once a migration route and destination are determined people can be encouraged to plant milkweed along that pathway.

If you collect larva during other dates (like students bringing them to school in jars), please contact us so that we can mark them for you to release later.

Their migration is truly miraculous since their three proceeding generations have already died off, yet these new babies return to the places that their great-grandparents left in the Spring. Please take a couple of hours to check the milkweeds in your community.

Ron Hellstern
Nibley, Utah

July 27, 2014

How You Can Tell If A Mantis Shrimp Has Color Vision???!!!

The FULL SPECTRUM OF LIGHT OR ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION is far wider than the narrow band of VISIBLE LIGHT which humans can see.  Light consists of small packets of energy called photons that simultaneously act like waves and particles.  Changes in the wavelength of light corresponds with changes in energy.  We perceive these different wavelengths/energy-states of light as colors.

Waves of light can be as long as several miles (radio waves, not to be confused with sound waves) or much shorter than the diameter of an atom (gamma and cosmic rays).  Humans can only see light of wavelengths ~370 nanometers to ~700 nanometers (nanometers are billionths of a meter and symbolized as nm) although it varies somewhat between people and can be quite reduced in people with color-blindness where one or more of the main pigments are missing.  Some birds and insects can see light waves as small as ~280 nm well into the ultraviolet range.  Some other organisms can see things slightly into the infrared.  Humans can only see the part of the light spectrum that we perceive as the rainbow of colors from red to blue, but we still feel infrared as heat and get a tan from ultraviolet rays.

Scientists can study the range of light that different organisms see by biochemically analyzing the light absorption of different photo-receptors, chromophores, pigments, proteins, oils and other molecules in their eyes that affect the range of light and resolution of their vision.  Two such applied methods are called spectrophotometry and electrophysiology.  Some information can also be gleaned from DNA sequences as well.  It is assumed that the light absorption properties of these bio-molecules reflects the range of vision that an organism actually experiences.  Humans, who see from about 370-700 nm, have four main light absorbing pigments that are contained in 3 types of cone cells (absorption peaks at 437 nm, blue cone, 533 nm, green cone, and 564 nm, red cone) and 1 type of rod cell (absorption peak at 498 nm).  These pigments are coded for in our genome.  The cone cells help us see in color and the rod cells help us see contrast in black, grey and white.  The figure below shows the light absorption range of these pigments and as you can see these pigments absorb light from about 370-700 nm. 

In other animals the number and absorption spectrums in their eyes may be quite different.  Take a finch for example.

We see that this finch has 4 main color sensing pigments with absorption patterns extending all of the way down into the ultraviolet.  Remember that humans only have 3 color absorbing pigments and one pigment that helps us with contrast and can't "detect" color.  If a human has 0,1 or 2 instead of the usual three cone cell pigments, they will be color blind maybe only seeing shades of grey, black and white...or maybe unable to see red and green or maybe some other combination of colors.  So what does a pigeon see with 4 pigments?  Do they see the world in more colors than humans?  Are humans unable to see things in nature that other organisms can?  And what do organisms experience for vision that have eyes with pigments that absorb into the ultraviolet and  infrared?  It is known in the case of some insect pollinators like bees and butterflies that they use ultraviolet to see flowers that are advertising that they want to be pollinated.  Some flowers "glow" in ultraviolet and display patterns that are thought to lead pollinators to where the nectar is.  When an insect gets the nectar and pollinates the flower, the ultraviolet markings often fade.  This seems to help insects distinguish between flowers that have already been visited for nectar and those that haven't.  Below are pictures of flowers in visible light (left frames) and in ultraviolet (right frames).  Just like a person who is color blind will miss cues that are in color, humans are unaware of many natural signs because our senses don't allow us to perceive all that there is to perceive.

I'm going to dig a little deeper into an interesting example of an organism with eyes that might very well see the world in details and colors we'll never even be able to imagine.  It is the Mantis Shrimp. 

Yes they really are that colorful!!!!!  Why did they evolve to be so colorful and why did such a complex vision system evolve in what humans would rather arrogantly consider such a simple creature?  How does such an elaborate vision sensory system affect their world view?  So many questions I have and not enough time to find out, but I will tell you a little bit about what I know about their amazing eyes!!

(For some strange mantis shrimp comic relief check out this video!)

As of 2014, Mantis Shrimp are known to have at least 16 photoreceptor pigments in their eyes (compared to 3 in humans) with 6 absorbing in the ultraviolet range.  This number is increased even further because some of the photoreceptor cells contain a variety of oil droplets (called cone cell droplets) that act like molecular filters that modify the range of light that a particular photoreceptor can absorb.  All these components together allows them to see a wide range of colors and probably many more fine gradations of color than humans.  It is also known that this array of receptors allows Mantis Shrimp to see linear and circular polarized light.

For what purpose they have so many photoreceptor pigments is unknown, but very intriguing (not to mention the sci fi's that could be written about the mystical powers of seeing with 16 color absorbing pigments...perhaps you could see spirits.).  Perhaps greater visual acuity is handy for surviving underwater or perhaps the Mantis Shrimp communicate through color signals.  No one knows with any certainty right now. Mantis Shrimp, however, are made even more amazing by the fact that they have two eyes that are subdivided into 3 each.  So instead of having binocular vision, they combine 6 images into one. 

What's weird about the molecular filters, which essentially increase the number of diverse photoreceptors in the Mantis Shrimp eyes, is that many of the chemical compounds are similar to ultraviolet "sunscreen" molecules that are present in other insect's eyes to protect them from ultraviolet damage.  It would be like co-opting the melanin in our skin, which makes our skin darker to protect us from the sun's ultraviolet rays, to make sun glasses that help us see more colors than we would normally.  Weird, right?  And it seems Mantis Shrimp don't actually manufacture these compounds in their bodies, but get them from their diet and somehow the chemicals get absorbed through the digestive tract into the blood stream where they find their way to the shrimp's eyes. 

Beyond just being a packet of energy that travels in waves, light can carry a lot of information like emotions, symbols and patterns, identification signs, communications, memories, etc. and a lot of the spectrum of light is beyond what our eyes can sense.  Are humans color blind to a vast world of tones and hues that other organisms can see and utilize?  If we could see more of the light spectrum, what would it tell us about the world we think we know?  How should the fact that many species, from chickens to squirrels to butterflies, can see far more colors than we can affect our interpretation of their behavior?  Why did vision evolve?  When and how did it evolve?  Is it a sense that is still evolving?  If color was always there, but it took so many millions and billions of years for eyes to evolve so that some organisms could see them what other phenomena are part of our world that we are ignorant of because we lack the sensory apparatus to perceive them?  And what does it imply, that though our biology is geared towards survival, we can and do use our biological tools to do so much more than survive, searching for meaning and understanding?  So many questions...and as of yet, so few answers.....

A good video about Mantis Shrimp vision can be found in the short video below.

-Seth Commichaux


Osorio, D., Vorobyev, M., 2008.  A review of the evolution of animal colour vision and visual communication signals.  Vision Research.  Vol 48, pp 2042-2051.

Bok, M., Porter, M., Place, A., Cronin, T., 2014.  Biological Sunscreens Tune Polychromatic Ultraviolet Vision in Mantis Shrimp.  Current Biology.  Vol 24, pp 1-7.



July 7, 2014

Spider, Anelosimus studiosus: To be or not to be social

You might think that sociality is a fixed biological trait for some species.  For instance, humans might be considered a social species as we instinctually form social units from clans and tribes to states and nations.  We also prefer social life, but all these factors are related to our biology.  We humans require a lot of care for many years to reach an age where we can take care of ourselves and societies seem to be the best way to incorporate and sustain as huge of a diversity of individuals as compose humanity.  But for some species like the spider Anelosimus studiosus sociality is dependent on the forces of environment and biology.  They are facultatively social, meaning that they will only form colonies under certain circumstances.  Most spider species that are social are web builders.  Amongst spiders social behavior is believed to have independently evolved 12-13 times.  These social spiders can be split up into two groups: colonial and cooperative.  In colonial species, many spiders share the same web, but they compete for territory and hunting rights on the communal web.  In cooperative species, many males, females and juveniles build/maintain a common web and rather than competing for hunting space on the web like colonial species, they cooperatively capture and share prey as well as collectively raise the next generation.  In cooperative species there are often more females than males.  Many spiders that aren't strictly social still have maternal care (that's right, motherhood has a long evolutionary history!).
Anelosimus studiosus

Anelosimus studiosus can be found from Argentina to New England.  The study I read dealt with differences in social behavior between populations of Anelosimus studiosus in Florida and Tennessee.  In Florida a typical colony was described as:
Composed of one adult female, her juvenile offspring and a few unrelated males that don't participate in web maintenance or communal prey capture.  The mother guards her egg case and feeds the newly emerged spiderlings through regurgitation.  As the juveniles grow, they increasingly participate in web maintenance and prey capture.  During this time, the mother accepts the entry of foreign juveniles and males into the nest while driving off intruding adult females.  The colonies are ephemeral because the spiderlings disperse upon reaching maturity and the mother eventually dies.  The young males often disperse first to go searching for mates while the young females are later driven off by their mother.  When the mother dies, it isn't unusual for another adult female to come along and use the web to raise her own offspring. (1)
In Tennessee, many colonies exist that are like the single-female-and-offspring ones described in Florida, but a new type of cooperative colony behavior appears that consists of:
Multiple females (3.7 females on average) cooperatively sharing a web, with cooperative foraging, communal brood care (baby spider daycare), and communal building/maintaining of the shared web. (1)
Why are there only single-female-and-offspring colonies down South in Florida?  And why is there a mixture of single-female-and-offspring colonies as well as multiple-female-and-offspring colonies further North in Tennessee?  Other trends to take note of with Anelosimus studiosus colonies are that the density of colonies goes down, and the spider webs get much bigger as you move from Florida-to-Tennessee.  Can we decipher any environmental, evolutionary and/or biological reasons that might explain these patterns?

A key to this puzzle is that juveniles require a lot of parental care for an extended period of time.  An advantage to communal parenting is that "if a mother dies in a multiple-female colony, the surviving females can foster the deceased female's brood." (1)  If the single mother of a single-female colony dies, so will her brood.  But if this is the case, why aren't all of the spiders communal?  Wouldn't natural selection favor communal parenting because it's a hedged-bet against the sometimes irrational environment?  Yes and no.  As it turns out, communal, adult females tend to have less offspring and have to spend more energy on colony activities on average than females who strike out on their own.  So the trade-off is between security
and reproductive success.  So what is it about Florida vs. Tennessee that makes being a lone mother vs. a communal mother good strategies, respectively?

A clue to the kind of sociality Anelosimus studiosus practices can be found in the environment.  Anelosimus studiosus spiders are most commonly found near water bodies like rivers and lakes.  From Tennessee to Florida there is great variation in air and, correspondingly, water temperature (Average air temperatures: @ latitude 26 degrees North in Southern Flordia is 23.5 degrees Celsius.  @ latitude 31 degrees North in Northern Florida is 19.5 degrees Celsius.  @ 36 degrees North in Tennessee is 14.5 degrees Celsius.)  It tends toward the waters being warmer in Florida and colder in Tennessee.  For Anelosimus studiosus as air and water temperature decreases so does the rate of development of the offspring (Mean time for juveniles to reach independence of mother: @ 22 degrees Celsius, 45.5 days.  @ 27 degrees Celsius, 28.7 days.  Thus about 5 degrees difference in average temperature affects almost a two-fold difference in rate of development!).  This means that where air and water temperatures are colder there is a greater likelihood that the mothers will die while raising their offspring because the cold causes the spiderlings to develop slower.  There is also the issue that there is higher juvenile mortality in colder climes.  Thus, where it is colder it is a good strategy to form colonies because if a mother dies the other mothers will pick up the slack.  Additionally, there is a higher risk that juveniles will die in colder places without proper care.  A community, evidently, is a better parent in these circumstances than an individual mother.

We can explain why the average size of colony webs becomes larger as you move north.  As you move North the proportion of multiple-female colonies goes up.  In Southern Florida there are only single-female webs, in Northern Florida there is only a small percentage of multiple-female colonies, and in Tennessee there is an even higher proportion of multiple-female colonies though it should be noted that for all locations single-female webs were the most common.  The seeming reason why colonies become more widely dispersed as you move North is that the environment becomes harsher by Anelosimus studiosus spider terms (meaning colder and perhaps less rain and vegetation). 

One of the interesting statement/conclusions in the paper I derived this blog from is that:
cooperation can allow populations to expand into and persist under harsher circumstances than individuals could otherwise endure.
It isn't that the spiders become tougher as you move North that allows them survive, but the fact that they work together toward a common destiny that allows them to endure harsher conditions.  Something to keep in mind for our lives I think.

A question that comes to my mind is if this example of facultative-sociality is just a case of instincts being switched-between based upon environmental conditions or if there is a level of recognition and agreement between the female spiders.  Do they recognize the potential for their own mortality in some harsh environments and the affect it would have on their brood?  Do the spiders recognize the utility of cooperating in these circumstances?  Afterall, not all of the spiders choose to form communities, even in colder climes.  Is it the less "fit" individuals that find it too hard to survive on their own in the cold locales who choose to band together as a solution, communally building/maintaining nests, cooperatively foraging, and communally caring for the baby spiders?  If this was true, it might be, as Darwin said in The Descent of Man, that humans became social because we were too weak to survive on our own.  If you're strong and self-sufficient you'd be better off not cooperating.  Yet it does seem to be weakness that brings us together, but united we become so much stronger than the sum of strong individuals competing for their own, selfish interests could ever be.

I hope to instill all my readers with a sense of complexity about all the creatures I speak of.  Assuming simplicity about things has been the source of much confusion and suffering.  It's taken a lot for people to see each other as more than black or white, or, good or evil.  Similarly, we too often assume that organisms other than humans are just instinctually-driven automatons.  But with just a little effort at delving into the world of those we don't understand, we soon find ourselves coming to the realization that nothing and no one can be simply defined and disregarded.

-Seth Commichaux

Sources Cited:
1) Jones, T., Riechert, S., Dalrymple, S., Parker, P., 2006.  Fostering Model Explains Variation in Levels of Sociality in a Spider System.  Animal Behavior vol. 73, pg 195-204.