Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Holidays From ALE!

ALE Lab (from left): Scott Prajzner, Caitlin Burkman, Ben Phillips, Mary Gardiner, Ian McIlvaine, and Chelsea Smith.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elephant Seals

On my way to see the Pollinator Partnership in San Francisco we drove up the Pacific coast and stopped to see some elephant seals! December is breeding season, and we made it in time to see all the pups! They were frolicking and playing while their parents seemed to be taking well deserved naps.

Beach full of seals

Me with seal nap time behind

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

OSU Linnaean Games Team: National Champs!

At this years, ESA meeting the OSU Linnaean Games Team took home the National Championship! The OSU students on the 2010 winning team were: Joshua Bryant, Ryan Caesar, Nicola Gallagher, Glene Mynhardt, and Kaitlin Uppstrom. The team was coached by Dr. Dave Horn. Way to go OSU Linnaean Team!

Below is some information about the Linnaean Games from the ESA website and photos:

"The ESA Linnaean games are a lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competition on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams. It is an important and entertaining component of the ESA Annual Meeting. Each team is comprised of four players. The teams score points by answering questions correctly. The winning team wins an inscribed trophy cups for each team member and a plaque for the team's department. The runners-up win a certificate for each team member and a plaque for the team's department. In addition to the national game, the ESA Branches conduct their own Linnaean game competitions at their yearly Branch meetings. The winning team and the runner-up both go on to the national competition."

Associate Chair Dan Herms (above) and graduate student Joshua Bryant (below) with the competition board.

Kaitlin Uppstrom (above) and Joshua Bryant and Nicola Gallagher (below) display their medals!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

ALE students awarded at ESA

Graduate student Ben Phillips was awarded the President's Prize for the Student Competition for his poster at this year's ESA meeting. Ben's poster was part of the Pollinators, Pollination and Host Plant Interactions Section.
Bethany Hunt, an undergraduate student who worked in our lab for two summers (2009-10) was also awarded First Place in the President's Prize for the Student Competition for her poster at this year's ESA meeting. Bethany's poster was part of the Undergraduate Student Research Section.
All the ALE students who attended did an amazing job preparing and presenting their work at the national meeting this year, I am very proud of all of them!!

Assassin Bug Deception (Aggressive mimicry)

While looking for articles in the popular media to present to the Biology 101 students I stumbled upon an interesting article about a species of assassin bug (Stenolemus bituberus) that tricks spiders in order to capture them. This behavior is known as "aggressive mimicry". I also managed to find the scientific article that the media article was based off of. The species that is the focus of the study is pictured below.

From the popular media article:
"A new study has just revealed the bugs' devious and deadly tactics. Like nightmarish bass players, assassin bugs pluck spider silk in webs, mimicking the movements of exhausted, stuck prey. When the hungry spider eases in for what it thinks is a sure meal, the assassin bug taps the spider, and then grabs, stabs and eats it." This seems to be a fairly accurate description of what is stated in the scientific article.

From the scientific article:
"The vibrations generated by bugs showed clear structural similarities to those generated by prey struggling in the web."

This particular species of assassin bug (S. bituberus) spends nearly its entire life in spider webs and preys upon a variety of spiders. This is dangerous prey for an insect, and counterattacks by the spiders are often observed resulting in the death of the assassin bug.

Other than being an intersting topic, the other reason I am bringing this article up is to show how the popular media may confuse readers about the significance of findings. After describing the study the popular media article stated: "Studies on the behavior and biology of certain species of assassin bugs, such as those from South America, could help to wipe out Chagas disease, a parasitic infection."

It can be very confusing for readers when reporters make a links to other topics. There are 1000's species of assassin bugs.The particular species that spreads Chagas disease is not the one that preys upon spiders. Chagas disease is spread by the "kissing bug" from the subfamily Triatominae. The picture below shows an example of a kissing bug.
The media will often seek a connection to humans in order to make the topic more interesting to readers. The type of assassin bug that spreads Chagas disease looks, and acts very different from the species described in the study, and is not even mentioned within the scientific article. The media article makes it seem like studying the behavior of deceptive assassin bugs can help wipe out Chagas disease. I do not think that this is a very good connection.

The media article also mentions termite killer assassin bugs, "...But some assassin bug species, such as those nicknamed "termite eaters," can benefit humans. These cunning pest-killers use dead termites to trick live ones into approaching them. This talent could make these assassin bugs a handy, natural form of pest control". Even though it as not mentioned in the scientific article, This statement actually relates to the overall topic of deception! This assassin bug (Salyavata variegata) is pictured below:Termites will often eat the carcasses of other termites for more protien, and to keep the nest clean. Salyavata variegata takes advantage of this behavior by using termite carcasses as bait.

Photo credit: Jim Kramer (;; www.brisbaneinsects http://.com/brisbane_assinsinbugs/TermiteAssassin.htm
Link to the media article:
Citation for the scientific article:
Wignall, A. E. and P. W. Taylor. 2010. Assassin bug uses aggressive mimicry to lure spider prey. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Scott Prajzner presents his poster at ESA

Scott Prajzner presented his research on Tuesday at the Entomological Society of America. Scott's poster focused on his research in Cleveland's vacant lands and community gardens. Scott measured pollinator diversity, abundance, and pollination services within these sites. He will be continuing his work in summer 2011 and is seeking an undergraduate student interested in conducting research in this area.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

OSU Mixer at ESA

The OSU Entomology Department, alumni, and friends gathered at the OSU mixer at the Entomological Society of America meeting Monday evening.

Monday, December 13, 2010

ALE students present their research at ESA

The student research competition at the Entomological Society of America Meeting is underway today. Ben Phillips and Chelsea Smith presented their research as part of the graduate student poster competition. Bethany Hunt's research poster was part of the undergraduate student poster competition.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

ALE made it to San Diego (almost)

ALE lab members Scott, Chelsea, Ben, Mary, and their poster tube have made it to San Diego for the Entomology Society of America Meeting! Unfortunately our undergraduate student Bethany Hunt is stuck in Chicago due to the blizzard. Her flight is rescheduled for tomorrow so we will be awaiting her arrival. At least she will get to experience some nice weather once she arrives and hear Ben's new bug jokes...

Friday, December 10, 2010

San Diego

Most of the ALE lab, and one former ALE lab member is headed to balmy San Diego tomorrow for the annual Entomological Society of America conference. We have all implements of education with us, including hand-outs, t-shirts, posters and powerpoints chock full of buggy things. I've even practiced a few bug-jokes, so everyone should be prepared for a few groans.

If we are lucky, we may get a chance to hear what my Dad, who grew up in a marina town himself, heard last December on a similar trip to the megalopolis.
"The evening of the big storm we drove back to our hotel, which is at a marina with hundreds of sail boats. From the parking garage you could look out at the boats...the sounds were simply incredible. I wish I could have recorded it. The clanging of the lines hitting the mast...hundreds of sounded like nothing I've ever heard before. And because we were in a cement basement with a large open wall to look out over the boats, it added a bass sound. I think the people who live there simply take it for granted..."
Pictures will be forthcoming! Have a good weekend!

Monday, December 6, 2010

An Assistant Professors Life in Academia

I blogged a couple weeks ago about a presentation I was asked to prepare for the Entomological Society of America Meeting. The title is "An assistant professor's life in academia". The way I am going to start off the talk is by showing my head shot taken when I started working at OSU. Then, I will flip to this staged photo we took today and say "but what is life really like!". The person right next to me is Dr. Dan Herms, our Associate Chair. On the far right is Dan Fickle pretending to be a carrot grower. The three students, Ian, Chris and Scott are representing the different types of questions students have with coursework and their own research. It was nice of these guys to help me out with my talk, hopefully it will get a laugh at the meeting.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Science in the media

At the end of this quarter, I was able to help the Biology 101 professor, Dr. Wiline Pangle, write up a lab to teach the students how a scientific article makes its way into the popular media.

The point of the lab was not only to introduce the students to scientific literature, but also to teach them how scientific findings are altered as they make their way though the "media cycle". I am sure that Mary can confirm that even when the scientist is directly interviewed there is still much room for error.

Lets take a look at the cycle, this cartoon is actually pretty accurate! (

Every university has a press release office. When there is research that may be interesting to the public they often write up a blurb about that study and will also interview the researcher(s) to get some direct quotes (this is the first point at which errors, and misinterpretations can occur). After those articles are posted on the university website they will then be picked up by news wire organizations, such as the associated press. The associated press will then usually post the press release to be made available for other people to see. If a study is really interesting people may start blogging about them on the internet. This becomes a large source of misinterpretations. It is often the case that studies that have no or very little connections with humans are strongly related to humans, and the significance of a finding may be exaggerated. If the study gets enough attention on the internet, then the news channels may start to pick up on them. This is yet another point at which studies can be manipulated, exaggerated, or altered. Since the news channels need to draw in viewers to achieve good ratings, they give their newscast a flashy title. They then use tactics such as fear to be sure that the viewers pay attention.

The study we chose to show the Biology 101 students was about deception tactics used by topi (an animal in Africa similar to an antelope). Dr. Pangle was an author of this paper and it had some very interesting findings. It is currently available to view for free:

To sum up the article: Topi grunt to warn predators that they see them and that there is no chance for a surprise attack. This study found that during the mating season the males will have small territories and when they notice a female leaving their territory they will make a "false grunt" making the female think that there is a predator around. She will then move back to the center of the male's territory and the he will them move in and mate with her. So the male is tricking the female to improve his chances to have offspring. A topi is pictured below.

This was a very interesting finding, but as the article made its way through the "blogging world" the main point of deception in the animal world was lost, and replaced with comments focused more towards humans such as "Men are so sneaky!", "Sounds like the average frat party", "Males lie to get laid", etc. So there is a tendency for people to take a study and automatically relate it to humans when it is not always appropriate.

This can sometimes cause problems when people begin to wonder about the funding of these studies. It would be a waste of money to study an animal like topi to learn about the sex lives of humans. Since the focus of this study was lost in many blogs, many readers have really thought that was the case. Of course if you read the article, the real point of the study was to learn about topi behavior, NOT HUMANS.

Learning everything we can about the life history of an organism is becoming more important as humans are having larger impacts and conversation biology comes into play. Therefore, I can see the importance in this study.

So what can be done to minimize this? How can scientists and the media work together to keep the focus, and big picture of the article known and avoid the public from questioning the intentions of scientists?

It may be difficult to find solutions to these problems. Scientists are not the best when it comes to relations with the public, and the media is not very good at understanding how science works.

My hope is that young scientists will recognize this problem and learn how to relate to the media throughout their education so when they finally have a real "adult" job such as a researcher for either a university or corporation, they will be able to convey their findings to the reporters in a way that the public will be able to understand. The same goes for reporters, they need to make sure they listen and understand the main big picture of a study.

So be sure to read "science news" reports with an open mind!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Land grant battle

The State Agricultural College of Michigan and the Farmer's High School of Pennsylvania were both established as state Land-grant institutions prior to the Federal Morrill Act in 1862, which created more land grant schools around the country to promote agricultural science and military training during the Civil War. Later, their names changed to Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University.
Over Thanksgiving I visited the beautiful town of State College for my first time to support my Alma mater, MSU. Through the first snow of the season MSU took the hideous land-grant trophy back from Penn State with a solid game for all four quarters!

"Come to Penn Staaaaate!" - Joe Paterno

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Snow

Sadly we have our first snow here in Wooster today. My poor little aloe is watching with dismay.