Friends Don’t Let Spiders Do Drugs

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Hello Everyone!!!

Well hello there. It has been QUITE a long time since I’ve graced these bloggy filled pages.  For the record (in case you can’t read the little auto-date stamp thing) it is the evening of Tuesday, the 24th of January, 2017.  It’s been quite a day for science.  If you’re reading this in our Hunger Games-like future world, then this may seem quaint by comparison, but we science-types were rather taken aback by a series of announcements by the new president.  Right now, there are scientists all across this country, terrified that they are going to lose funding for their research, they will have to lay off staff, and that their research will be silenced.  That’s right.  Taxpayer funded research will be kept from taxpayers.

Earlier in the day I saw a report that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had received a gag order on all research, similar to the one the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Parks Service (NPS) had been given.  That now doesn’t seem to be the case as far as the USDA is concerned.  But this news is still troubling.  It may very well come to fruition.  Agriculture is an essential component of our society and is the primary revenue source in many states, including my own.  As an entomologist, I know the absolute necessity of further investigations into arthropods.  Whether it’s Zika, Lyme, Malaria, stored product pests, or the famous Monarch butterfly, this research is essential for the survival of our species.  And our planet.

This post may not be very cohesive, as I am quite frustrated at the moment and a bit out of practice.  I had hoped to be wrong about the next four years.  I seriously did.  I still want to be wrong.  I want to see our economy improve.  I want to see our planet safe and still able to support human life in fifty years.  These things will not happen if science is denied and scientists silenced.

In response to these (and other) developments, a number of scientists on Reddit came up with an idea.  That idea became a plan.  And soon, that plan will become action.  When Scientists March on Washington we will make our voices heard.  Join the cause.  Science is for everyone.  Science is the future.  Wiping off every mention of climate change will not make the reality of it go away.

Can’t make it?  Want to do more?  GREAT!!!  Call your local representatives in your state legislatures.  Then call the ones in DC.  Be polite.  Tell them your position.  Do not be upset if you talk to a staffer.  They WILL deliver your message.  Make your voice heard.  Use those first amendment rights.

Be loud.  Be strong.  And be heard.

 

 

**Here’s a cat…because the internet demands it.**

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Herr Wolfgang McYubNub

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Season One of The X-Files (part 2)

Yesterday I posted about my first close encounter (har har) with invertebrates on The X-Files.  Ice (S1 E8) is a great episode that should be on everyone’s list of must see episodes.  But season one isn’t done with us just yet.  There is still some buggy goodness to be found in the spooky stories to be told.  In fact, there are two episodes for me to elaborate upon…well, three but that last one doesn’t count…sort of.

Next up…

The X-Files: Season 1: Episode 18: Miracle Man

Basic Premise:  People died! Mulder & Scully to investigate!  This time it’s a faith healing teen and his preacher dad in the middle of it.  Was someone murdered?  Who did it?  Where’s the healer kid?  WTF is going on!?!

This episode doesn’t really focus on bugs really, but they do play a small part.  While in court, the room is swarmed with grasshoppers.  There is a shot of the judge being swarmed by grasshoppers as well as a nice pile of crickets on his desk.  Cut to the courtroom and its filled with some real and many CGI swarming grasshoppers.  This is meant to serve as a representation of one of the 10 plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.  In fact the next scene is Mulder reading the passage to Scully.  Surprise!  She was raised Catholic and knows all about locusts and plagues.  But did-ya-know that the grasshoppers that were swarming were the only ‘locusts’ in that courtroom?  Crickets are not locusts.  And for you Mid-Westerners out there, Cicadas are not locusts either.

S1 E18: Miracle Man He’s covered in locusts! Okay, less than ten…but creepy bugs right? A plague, a plague!

The Science of the Episode: The insects themselves don’t play any real part in the underlying plot but they are instrumental in moving it along and ultimately solving the crime.  The ultimate logic (again, avoiding too many spoilers) is the insects were lured into the courtroom for nefarious purposes.  Not, as divine retribution as is initially believed.  The items used to lure the critters in I doubt would do the trick, but the premise is solid.  Given the right conditions they could have been coaxed in there.  Good job writers!

This was another great episode as it begins to build some in depth back story for Mulder (beyond basic exposition) and is more Law & Order-like, than Unsolved Mysteries.  It actually feels more like an episode of Scooby Doo for grown ups with some elements of supernatural woo.  But not too much.  The elements of woo are minimal and can be explained logically within the framework of the episode.  I love that about the first few seasons of the show.  Overall, a good episode, not the greatest but I do enjoy it.  It’s in my top 10 for the season.

The next episode to feature creepy crawlies has been one of my favorites of the whole series.  I want to give it its own post so I’ll hold off on that until tomorrow.  So I’m going to skip and make a brief mention about the fourth arthropod-related reference in season one.

Season 1 Episode 21: Tooms

I won’t go into the plot because it has nothing to do with bugs.  Not one bit.  It does have to do with a creepy Captain Fantastic-like man who eats human liver.  No word on the inclusion of fava beans and a nice Chianti though.

So, where does the bug reference come into play?  A nicely built up scene where Mulder sleeps on his couch while Tooms is slowly sneaking into his apartment.  Why was Mulder on the couch?  As far as we know he doesn’t acquire an actual bed until many seasons into the show…but I digress.  This great scene, were we anxiously await to see if Mulder will wake up in time to thwart Tooms is juxtaposed by a scene from a classic science fiction film playing on the TV.  That’s right.  It’s the original The Fly.

That’s it.  See you next season.

That movie poster is simply amazing. I need it.

Insects & Critter Fear Survey

Heyloo there everyone.  If you haven’t noticed, I know a bit about bugs.  I also happen to be an arachnophobe.  Yup.  I’m not the only one either; and am looking to get some insight into the minds of my fellow humans.  I’m curious about what it is about critters that makes us afraid or just uncomfortable.  So I created an impromptu survey in hopes of letting you all speak your minds.

The first link below is to the survey itself.  At the end of that are links to the photo surveys if you wish to add your impressions of those. The photo surveys are split in two because Survey Monkey only let’s me use 10 questions per survey.

Thanks for your help everyone!

Actual survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/W8KRHKB

Photo Survey p1: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKZX72L

Photo Survey p2: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKT6S5G

Jack the Ripper Solved? Nope.

The other day I spent some of my morning playing around on the Book of Face when it seemed everyone was going bonkers.  Not only had the OSU Buckeyes lost but apparently someone figured out who Jack the Ripper was.  And they used SCIENCE to figure it out!  Wow!  Needless to say I was very excited. As a history nut and a science junkie I couldn’t wait to see how they did it.  And then I read the news about it and became sad.

“With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888 Wikipedia

I would like to start out stating that I am NOT a Ripperologist.  I didn’t even know that was a word until learning about it watching the show Whitechapel.  Why am I stating this right off the bat?  Because it seems part of the marketing campaign for this book has included an automatic jab at anyone who will dissent in its findings.  Claiming that Ripperologists will not accept the conclusions because they have a financial stake in the matter.  I’d wager that they are actually seeing a nice influx of income at the moment thanks to this book.  Regardless of their perspective on its conclusions.

The basics are this: DNA was found on a scarf which had belonged to Miss Eddowes, the 4th apparent victim of Jack the Ripper.  According to the news reports and this video, her DNA from blood and organ fluids was found as well as his DNA.  **I may have missed it but it seems to be implied that his DNA was recovered from semen stains?**  These were traced to modern descendents and relatives of the individuals to confirm not only the identity of Eddowes but also of a man named Aaron Kosminski.  Mr. Kosminski had been considered a suspect at the time but was not held or tried.  Many people were considered suspects at the time.  The presence of his DNA is touted as “proof” that he killed this woman, and therefore is Jack the Ripper.  I have a few thoughts about this…

Miss Eddowes, the 4th victim of Jack the Ripper http://www.casebook.org/victims/eddowes.html

They used Mitochondrial DNA for their work and this is great for molecular analysis.  It doesn’t change much over time (i.e. little genetic variation) which is why it’s been so useful for looking into our ancestral roots.  That’s great!  You can look at the mtDNA and figure out who is related to who.  .

But here’s where I would like to address a few concerns.  Let’s break down a few of my problems with what I’ve read about the matter thus far:

DNA degrades over time.  The DNA that would have been available for analysis was likely in poor shape.  Yes, there are methods of analyses which allow for testing of older and degraded samples, but it can increase the amount of error observed.  DNA from far older sources has been used to great effect in other fields such as archaeology, but this is always a point that never seems to be brought up.

It’s a big assumption that the presence of his alleged DNA on the scarf is only indicative that he came into contact with the scarf.  How do we know it occurred during the time of the killing?  Did they know each other?  Those who are more familiar with Ripper lore than I may know some answers to these questions.

Chain of custody issues aside, it’s difficult to make a solid determination and certainly not possible to “prove” that Aaron Kosminski murdered this woman.  We certainly cannot conclude that, even if he did murder Miss Eddowes, that he also murdered the other women as well.

Mr. Kosminski may have been admitted to a “string of lunatic asylums” but this is hardly evidence against him.  Admitting criteria were far different back then.  Someone with a trisomy disorder (Down Syndrome, etc) would have been held.

Granted, I have not read the actual book as it has yet to be released and many of my doubts and concerns may very well be addressed within its pages.  However, I do proceed with a large amount of skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong.  I find this fascinating and I look forward to checking the book out from the library when it is released.  This sort of thing really excites me and I just absolutely love it.  But, as I’ve learned over the years, by bringing science to the pop culture realm, we lose sight of some of the basic scientific principles we operate by.

 

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

ESA Meeting – Yup, Another One!

Yes, I’m at another meeting for us bug folk.  This time I am in Des Moines, Iowa.  After the 11 hour drive here I’m settled in with a nice local beer, working on my presentation and about to kick back and relax for a while.  Stop by tomorrow or come by my talk on Monday.  Don’t worry, it may be boring but it’s only ten minutes.

Tasks for this trip:

1) Give a successful presentation.  By “successful” I mean ‘speak using words that resemble English and do NOT go over 10 minutes.’

2) Schmooz

3) Try not to get too sad because I miss my kitty.  For those not in the know, my JD kitty has radiation therapy just over a week ago.  He seems to be okay but I still worry.  We’ve been together just over 14 years.  Talk about a long term relationship!

4) Finish my bloody exit seminar presentation!  Yes, that’s coming up in just under two weeks!  That’s right! I’m almost done.  Wish me luck world.  Hope to see you on the other side.

 

Stop by if you see me this week.