Tag Archives: Science

An experiment in scientific discourse: Fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle

I get the sense that many people feel as if science and scientists are in an ivory tower; that science is out of reach of most people because they don’t have the educational background or the quantitative skills typified by professional scientists.  I think also that sometimes scientists disregard the ideas of non-scientists because they don’t have the educational background or quantitative skills most scientists have.  I think that both of these notions are mistaken.

Science is a community endeavor.  It benefits form discourse; the tossing around of ideas and interpretations by multiple people from many different backgrounds.  Whether we admit it or not, all humans are bias.  Our thought processes and interpretations of the natural world are the result of our prior experiences.   Hence, science benefits from many different people eyeing up the same problems because what one person may see as an intractable problem or routine observation is seen as an easily solved problem or extraordinary phenomenon.

In an attempt to engage a wide community of people, both professional and non-professional in the human endeavor called science, below I describe a research project I am currently working on related to the ultraviolet fluorescence of the rattlesnake rattle.  I will be presenting a poster of this very project a the 2nd Biology of the Pitvipers meeting in a few days.  After the description, I provide a short URL to a form where you can leave your comments and suggestions about the scientific process in general and the fluorescence project, specifically.  I ask that you use the URL instead of the comments section of this blog so that I have everyone’s comments in one place in a user-friendly format.

Ultraviolet Fluorescence of the Rattlesnake Rattle: Preliminary findings

All animals communicate within their own species and between species. For example honey bees do the waggle dance to tell other bees in which direction and how far to a plentiful food source.  Rattlesnakes advertise their potentially harmful bite by rattling the rattle on their tail.  Essentially, communication is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver in which both parties benefit from the information exchange.  In many cases it is helpful to send information in more than one sensory channel.  For example some rattlesnakes use an auditory signal and a visual signal (some rattlesnakes have a conspicuously colored tail).

Fluorescence is a physical phenomenon in which light is emitted when the electrons of a substance are excited and change energy levels, whereby in the process photons are released.  The late, great rattlesnake biologist Laurence Klauber noted over 50 years ago that the rattlesnake rattle fluorescences under ultraviolet light.  No one has investigated the phenomenon since even though it is known that other animals utilize UV fluorescence, including parrots, many fish, and scorpions.Diversity_of_fluorescent_patterns_and_colors_in_marine_fishes_-_journal.pone.0083259.g001.png (1620×2741)

Our study had three objectives:  1) Develop methods to quantitatively  assess rattle fluorescence, 2) Document interspecific variation in rattle fluorescence, if it exists, and 3) Test hypotheses regarding the function and biological role of rattle fluorescence.

To meet these objective we built a 3×3 UV-LED (395-400 nm) light array in a black box and photographed rattlesnake rattles.  We utilized western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes from the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Museum of Natural History.  We then quantified the intensity of the fluorescence using computer software similar to Photoshop.

We found that Western diamondback rattlesnakes exhibit more intense fluorescence than prairie rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

Rattlesnake rattles fluorescing under Ultraviolet light.

We have come up with a few ideas about why this might be.  First, it is possible that the fluorescence is a signal enhancer (that is how humans use fluorescence; that’s what Woolite and Tide do do to your clothes).  We thought this might be related to differences in habitat use or activity in these species, but they use very similar habitats (at least in Oklahoma) and both are active at night (there is available UV at night, however).  It is interesting to note that the Western diamondback has a banded tail which is also conspicuous.

Another possibility is that the fluorescence enhances the mimetic similarity between the rattle and segmented insects.  Several species of rattlesnakes exhibit a behavior called caudal luring in which they wiggle their tails to lure food within striking distance.  The video at this link is of copperheads luring, which are close relatives to rattlesnakes.

So, now is your chance to think like a scientist.  Follow the link below to a Google form that will provide you an opportunity to record your thoughts on this research.


The form can be found here:  http://goo.gl/vmGiXU


Keep your eye on the prize

I want to write a quick post on why I teach.  Not just why I teach, but why I enjoy teaching at a small liberal arts university (at least as liberal as it can be in NW Oklahoma, which isn’t very ;-)).

The story starts about a year ago when I got an email from the Oklahoma EPSCoR office announcing a small grant opportunity for undergraduates.  I read the announcement and it said that preference would go to projects at primarily research institutions working on problems in energy, but that all were welcome to apply.  I asked a student of mine who I knew would be around over the summer and would be interested in getting some research experience.  We tossed around a couple of ideas and decided we would test an hypothesis about mimicry in a little studied snake of Woods County, Oklahoma called the long-nosed snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei).  It was definitely a long shot, but we wrote up a short proposal and submitted to the program.  I had my doubts given the nature of the work and our low standing among research institutions in Oklahoma.  Amazingly we were awarded the grant

Now, Long-nosed snakes look somewhat like coral snakes in that they are black, red, and yellow banded.  The weird thing is that there are no coral snakes in Northwestern Oklahoma, so we wondered if the banding pattern afforded the snakes any protection from potential avian predators since many birds migrate to tropical habitats in the winter that are home to venomous tri-colored coral snakes.  To test the hypothesis, we created 400 clay models of tri-colored brown snakes and placed them around east central Woods County.  If birds pecked or grabbed the models they would leave behind tell-tale marks in the clay.  We later discovered that mammal teeth marks are also preserved in the clay.

The student worked all summer fashioning models, placing them in the field, collecting them and looking them over for evidence of depredation.  She learned field work is not always glamorous, especially when it’s 98 degrees and your clay models are melting.   Preliminary analysis showed the colored models were avoided by birds, but we were not sure if they were avoided because of the warning coloration, or because the banded pattern served as a disruptive pattern on the grass background.  To find out the student created 100 more models and laid them out on white backgrounds so that they banding was not disruptive on the grass background.  This would tell us if was avoidance or camouflage.  Unfortunately, this stage of the project was thwarted by a plague of locusts that literally ate most of the clay models.  Who knew locusts ate clay!

Undaunted the student wrote up a paper detailing the project.  I tightened it up a bit and made some suggestions and it looked to be a decent little paper on the protective coloration of R. lecontei.  I asked her if she wanted to submit it as a short paper to a peer-reviewed journal.  She agreed and formatted the paper herself according to the journals Guide to Authors.  We submitted the paper together last week and waiting with crossed fingers to hear back from the editors.

Long-nosed snakes resemble venomous coral snakes.

Long-nosed snakes resemble venomous coral snakes.

I know this is getting to be a long post, but for those of you not in science, this is a pretty big deal for an undergraduate to submit a paper for publication.  Personally, I am proud of the experience I was able to provide this student.  She “did science” from start to finish.  She assisted in writing the grant, collected the data, assisted in data analysis, wrote parts of the manuscript, and submitted the paper.  She presented the results of the research at our campus research day and won second place (the student who won did her research at one of the state’s R1 schools).

Things don’t always go your way, but if you give it your best shot and keep your eye on the prize, Nothing can stop you.  Not R1 universities nor swarms of locusts.

AAAS-SWaRM Science and Religion symposium talk

On March 31st I will be chairing a symposium on Science and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Southwest and Rocky Mountains Region annual meeting in Tulsa, OK. Attached is the latest version.  It is down to 12 minute. I have posted it here to get CONSTRUCTIVE critisisms. Please don’t comment on the lack of polish or the “ums.” It was the first time I went over it. I know it’s rusty. Please let me know what you think of the content.

AAAS-SWaRM2012 (with audio 4)

You must have a PowerPoint viewer to hear the talk.  Let me know what you think.  As I polish, I will post upgrades.

Science, I don’t need no stinkin’ science!

Many lay people seem to be schizophrenic when it comes to science.  Science is great when it is beneficial.  We can thank science for cell phones and computers, faster cancer diagnosis and better treatment, safer food and drugs, and more energy efficient cars and appliances.  Everyone likes technology as a result of science.  However, when we apply science to human origins all bets are off.  “I didn’t come from no stinkin’ monkey.”  Evolutionary science causes peoples’ hackles to be raised.  Everyone becomes a skeptic.  Most feel that it’s okay if we don’t understand how a cell phone works or how a CT scanner can see into us.  Science is magic in these cases, and we are content with that. But try to explain descent by common ancestry and science doesn’t apply.

So where does the disconnect happen?  I think it is related to how the public defines science and its understanding of how science progresses.  I don’ t think our public education system does a good enough job of promoting science literacy and reinforcing what science is and how it works.

As a Biology professor, each semester I begin with the obligatory lecture on What is Science?  This give me a twice yearly chance to contemplate definitions of science, philosophy of science, and why science is important (if in fact, it is important at all).

The Science Checklist

When most people define science they list science classes in high school or college. A list of courses is not a definition.   I define science as a self-correcting way of knowing about the natural world.  Science is both a body of knowledge (not just facts) and a process by which to gain knowledge about the natural world.  A good way to recognize science is by way of the science checklist as assembled at the  understanding science website. 

How is science done and how does science progress?  Oh,

Convoluted wheels of science

that’s an easy one, right?  Scientists use the scientific method.  That’s what your high school science teacher and textbook writers want you to believe.  Unfortunately, there isn’t really A scientific method.  The scientific process is different each time it plays out.  I won’t get into it in detail here.  Let’s call them the Convoluted Wheels of Science and understand that the process of science meanders through the four main wheels: exploration, testing, community feedback, and benefits.

Why is science important?  Or more precisely,why should everyone understand  what science is and how it is done?  Crikey!  Why not!  A realistic understanding of the world is essential everyday.  Global climate change is a good example to start with.  Some purported news channels suggest climate change is not happening, that the data are fabricated, and that the scientific community cannot even agree among itself if climate change is real.  Start with the easy part, the scientific community cannot agree on the reality of climate change.  This is patently false.  The National Science Foundation has a good summary of the Climate change data here.  The fabrication of data is also easy to deal with.  It has been suggested that Philip Jones of the Climate Research Unit in England, falsified or utilized flawed data.  I don’t know if he did or not, but it doesn’t matter for two reasons.  First, his data were not the only data indicating climate change, there are many independent data sets corroborating the hypothesis for global climate change.  Second, the scientific community will sort him out.  His research will be subjected to peer review and replication.  Every discipline has “bad apples.” That doesn’t make the whole discipline bad.    For more on the importance of science to everyone, look here.

So, to wrap this up, Science is a body of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge is generated.  The process is convoluted and different each time it plays out.  Finally, SCIENCE IS IMPORTANT!  If you think you “don’t need no stinkin’ science,” you are deluded, ignorant, and sadly mistaken.

Science is like ….Hard and stuff…

Recently my university had an open house event to bring prospective students and their parents onto campus.  I volunteered to hang out at the Natural Science Department table with a couple of colleagues from Biology and Chemistry to schmooze.  I made a couple of interesting observations that morning.

The first thing I noticed was that most of the students and their parents avoid eye contact with the science profs.  I fully admit I’m not much to look at, but come on.  I’m not sure why  people don’t want to make eye contact with scientists.  I try to reserve my steely gaze for the lecture hall, so that can’t be it.

The second thing I noticed when I engaged a couple of the students as they walked by, eyes down, was that many students don’t think they can do science.  “Hi, do you have questions about a major in biology,” I ask.  “No, I’m no good at science,” many of them would reply.  Seriously?  I know for a fact students have to pass an end of instruction exam in biology in Oklahoma, so they must be okay at science, at least.

The third thing I noticed was also a reply to my inquiry. Apparently, many students don’t like science.  Now, I understand that not everyone want’s to be a science major, but I heard too often students say, “I don’t like science.”  Ouch, dude.  That’s my bread and butter!  I didn’t care much for sociology, but I found sociology to be interesting and relevant.  What is it that would make someone say they don’t like a specific discipline?

So, students (and parents) don’t like to make eye contact with scientists, they don’t particularly like science, and they don’t think they are good at science.  It sounds to me like Science has a public relations problem.

Too many people have a mistaken, stereotyped view of scientists as people, and science as an avocation.  Most people don’t know scientists, personally.  As a result their only experiences with science and scientists are based on media representations.  Scientists are often portrayed in one of two ways.  1) messy-haired, wearing a white lab coat, standing next to an array of bubbling glass tubes and beakers or “sciency” electronic apparatus.  2) dorks in comic book character t-shirts spouting physics equations.  We might throw in socially awkward and atheist into each of these descriptions, as well.

Stereotype 2: dorks in comic shirts spouting equations

Add to these mistaken stereotypes, a poor introduction to science in public school.  Now, hold on a second.  I’m not blaming the teachers, necessarily.  No doubt there are great science teachers and crappy science teachers.  I blame the bureaucratic nightmare better known as No Child Left Behind.  Teachers, fearful of loosing their jobs because their students don’t perform well on a standardized test, can’t make science fun and interesting because they are “teaching to a test.”  Gone are the days when teachers could go off on tangents to teach concepts their students want to run with.

A kick-ass public relations blitz is the best hope for changing stereotypes and short comings of our public education system.  Scientists need to get out and meet the public head on.  Make tv and radio appearances.  Go to local schools with their research.  Give talks about their research to civic groups and at public venues.

Help teh general public understand who scientists are as a group.  Being a scientist, I know how diverse scientists are as a group. Scientists are men and women; gay, straight, and transgendered; catholic, protestant, jewish, muslim, atheist; mothers and fathers; couch potatoes and marathon runners; laid-back cross-county skiers and gnarly snowboarders.  If you haven’t gotten it yet,  Scientists are people, too!

So, if you are reading this post and you are a scientist, get out there and engage people.  Help them understand what you do.  It may not be easy sometimes.  Make a special effort to pass on your passion for science to kids.  They are naturally curious, we need to nurture that curiosity into their teen years.  And if you are a non-scientist, get informed.  This internet thing is loaded with useful information.  Put it to use.  Email scientists that are dong work you find interesting, follow a science blog or listen to science podcasts (1, 2, 3).  Find out what science is all about.  It’s not just test tubes, beakers, and fancy sciency stuff.

And after all of this typing, it turns out I may be wrong.  Science has been proven to be hard.


Can science and religion be friends?

(This post is admittedly rough.  My thoughts on the topic are still amorphous, much like the organization of this post…All apologies.)

Science and religion are often perceived as begin at war with one another.  And it seems that the people who get the most media play are the ones that are the most offensive and in your face.  Each side shouting and name-calling so loud that neither can hear the other.  Perhaps they are doing it on purpose so they don’t have to hear the other.  I recently listened to a talk given by Dr. John Polkinghorne that set me to thinking about this perceived war.  Polkinghorne is among the most genial and humble people I have ever heard speak on the topic.

I know this video is longish, but I think it is worth a listen.  Dr. Polkinhorne is a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest.  This guy has serious credentials.  He was directly involved in the experiments that discovered quarks and gluons and is now an ordained priest.  He has published a number of books on the intersection of science and religion.

So, can science and religion be friends?  I don’t know.  I do know that it will be difficult for fundamentalist religious folks (Christian, Muslim, etc) and dogmatic atheists to ever get along.  Though, I don’t think that matters.  Not all scientists are dogmatic atheists and most people don’t take the Bible literally.  It is possible for scientists and clergy to  get along and so I also feel, by extension, the avocations of science and religion can be friends, too.

The key to forging this friendship is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each.  That’s what makes friendships work.  Science is well placed to help us know about the natural world.   That’s what science does.  It tells us how the world works.  Religion can help us know what it means to be human.  It tells us how to treat one another.  How to live good lives. The key is to make sure neither overstep its bounds.  Holy books are not science books and science shouldn’t determine our morality.

The first step to forming any friendship is dialogue.  Discourse will help both parties know where the other stands and what they stand for.  And like all good friendships either can explain when the other over steps their bounds and how they did so.  Most people are blissfully unaware of what science is, how it progresses, and how it is carried out.  To most people, science is their computer, or cell phone, or a medical procedure that saved their life, nothing more.  Similarly, they have given very little thought to religion.  To most people, religion is going to church every Sunday.  If these people could see those at the  forefront of science and religion engaged in thoughtful and productive dialogue, they will be more likely to learn about both ways of knowing.

So give Polkinghorne a look or a read, think about what science is , think about what religion is, and consider how each fits into your life and your world.  Both are aspects of humanity (a desire to understand our world and ourselves) that define what it means to be human.

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