Category: Zoology

SFSYO Scientist of the Month: Philipp Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I hope you are all okay and back at school after hurricane Sandy. Now that it is November we have a new scientist of the month. I am so excited to introduce you to Philipp Schiffer who is finishing up his PhD at school in Cologne, Germany. Like I did with Dr. Penny, I asked Philipp a bunch of questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him. Below you can read my interview with Philipp, and if you’d like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

At work in the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.

At work in the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.

Philipp: I’m an evolutionary biologist [this means he studies genetics, DNA, and how different living things came to be,] currently I’ve morphed into a computer geek but I’m hoping to move away from the computer screen a bit more in the future. 

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Philipp: I studied Biology, majoring in Zoology with minors in Genetics and Palaeontology. I did most of my studies at the University of Cologne, Germany with some time in Australia studying and catching wombats.  I’m currently finishing my PhD thesis in Cologne, but I’ve also studied at the University of California Riverside where I was learning about nematodes. I also got to spend some time in Edinburgh in Scotland. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Philipp: It’s called the Cologne Biocenter, in the middle of Köln am Rhein. At the moment I am spending most of my working hours in front of my computer, doing science in-silico, which means I am analyzing data from the genome sequencing assays I conduct. In between I hop over to the lab to study the nematodes, look at their DNA or run some other experiments. 

Erin: Why did you decided to become a scientist?
Philipp: I have always liked to think about things. I guess when I was in the 9th or 10th grade I wanted to tackle the big problems/questions like finding a cure for diseases. Now of course, I do something totally different, which I actually like better!
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Out of the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.

Out of the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.

Philipp: There is a new and intriguing question to answer every day, more than one on most days. That is the main thing, I am really interested in answering questions about life – why it is the way it is and how did it become like that? Why are species different and how does it happen. There is a woo hoo! moment when things finally click into place and make sense, which is really cool. It is also really nice to work with people around the world – I like the exchange of thoughts and ideas in different cultures. I enjoy talking to colleagues very much, and working with students. It is also fun to be able to listen to music when working, and so much more.

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?
Philipp: There is no magic in science, actually most ideas or experiments don’t work the way you think they will, and once something really works the main thing is to wonder why did it work this time? So there is a lot of frustration in being a scientist, but then there is also a lot of fun. Still, the first thing is the most important, science is hard work.
Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?
Philipp: Science IS fun. I also like wind surfing and sailing, I like rugby too and wish I had more time to do that. I also read about history, politics, and the world in general as much as I can. I very much enjoy chatting with friends over coffee.
What do you think first graders? I think Philipp has a pretty cool job, and he’s gotten to go to school in so many different places, can you find them all on a map? If there is anything you’d like to know about his research, make sure to ask him questions in the comments.
For any of my regular (adult) followers you can catch Philipp on Twitter @evolgenomology. If you’d like to be featured as a scientist of the month send me an email or DM me on twitter, I’d love more volunteers and thank you Philipp for lending us your time to share what you do!

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The Bear Skull

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year in first grade we’ve also learned about groundwater in Africanoctilucent clouds done an experiment with butter, talked about hurricanes and sugar maple trees, and learned a song about the states of matter.
This science for six-year-olds post is a little different than my previous posts, because this time I’m back-blogging about a presentation that I already gave to the first graders in person. Since I’m now back in New Jersey, I was able to visit their class to talk about my favorite subject, bears. While we know I’m partial to polar bears, in Mrs. Podolak’s class we talked about black bears. 

Black bears are the type of bear that can be found in New Jersey. The reason I decided to talk about them with the first graders is because I brought Bob in for a bit of show and tell. This is Bob: 

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

I was also impressed with their existing knowledge of animals. The class has been working on research projects to learn more about specific animals of their choosing. We talked about whether or not black bears are predators and if they are dangerous to people. I started to explain to them that black bears are omnivores, which means that they are opportunistic eaters and will consume plants, berries, bugs, or meat. The kids already knew what omnivore meant, and they were also able to tell me about cartilage and that sharks are cartilaginous fish. It was a lot of fun to see what they already knew about black bears, and to listen to their observations.

Bob is a black bear skull that a friend passed along to my Dad a couple of years ago. The skull was found by a hunter in the woods in northern New Jersey within the normal range for black bears (Ursus americanus) in this area. The skull was pretty clean, but we boiled it just to be sure and now it makes for a great show and tell item to talk about the species and how it lived. The kids really loved getting to hold Bob and take a look at his jaws. They asked some great questions, like “where did his brain go when he died?” To answer that we had to talk about decay and how bacteria will break down tissue that isn’t alive anymore. Deep stuff for first graders, I was impressed.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

There have been confirmed sightings of black bears in all 21 counties in New Jersey, but they are more concentrated in the northern area of the state. I just wanted to share a few more facts about black bears that we didn’t get to talk about in the time we had in class: 

  • Black bears are the largest land mammal that can be found in New Jersey
  • Female black bears can weight around 175lbs, while males weight around 400lbs
  • Black bears have very strong senses of smell and hearing
  • Their habitat typically includes hardwood forest areas, but they can also be found in dense swamps or forested wetlands.
  • The most common problems humans experience regarding black bears occur when the bears are attracted to garbage that has been left outdoors. 
  • Black bears can run as a speed of 35 miles for hour. 
  • Contrary to their name, not all black bears have black fur. Some black bears are brown or cinnamon colored, or they can have a white patch on their chest. 
  • Black bears stand about three feet high when on all fours, and can reach five to seven feet tall when they are standing upright. 

For more information about black bears in New Jersey, you can check out the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife website (they have some good resources specifically for kids!) It was a great learning experience for me to try to communicate science to first graders. I was continually surprised by the complexity of the material they were able to understand and often stumped, but impressed, by their questions. I hope everyone who reads this blog who isn’t in the first grade also enjoyed the subject of these posts. Happy summer vacation, everyone!

Zoos and the Protection of Rare Animals

This semester as an elective I am taking another course in the zoology department (the first being Patricia McConnell’s Human and Animal Relationships last semester). In Zack Peery’s Extinction of Species we have been discussing the role that institutions like zoos play in helping to preserve and ensure the survival of rare species. Often we think of zoos in terms of their enjoyment factor for humans or conversely the lack of enjoyment (we think) that animals have being caged. I’ve visited the zoo here in Madison and had a nice time being there with my family, but I was definitely thinking about the care and condition of the animals. Now, I thought all of the animals in the zoo I visited looked healthy and happy, but it did get me thinking overall about how important zoos are for the care and conservation of animals, particularly those that are rare or in need of special healthcare.

Zoos play an important role in conservation efforts, because the good ones provide animals with a safe place to live that is protected from outside threats (predators, pollution, loss of habitat, etc.), in addition to access to veterinarians. I was reminded of this fact when I saw the story of Manukura, a rare white kiwi being covered by the BBC. Not that we really needed further proof that a good cute animal story is going to make it into the news, but I wanted to mention the kiwi story because I think it is a good example of the public rallying behind a very charismatic animal, and a zoos effort to save and protect it.

Manukura. Source: Zooborns

A kiwi is a flightless bird that lives only in New Zealand, and is similar in size to a chicken. There are five species of kiwi, which are all endangered. Kiwis are typically brown or tan in color, but as a result of a naturally occurring genetic mutation Manukura was born white (note that this isn’t the same as being an albino). Manukura was living in Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Center when rangers noticed that the six-month-old bird wasn’t eating. Veterinarians at New Zealand’s Wellington Zoo were called in to examine the bird and found that two large stones were obstructing its intestines.

Manukura was able to pass one of the stones naturally, but the other had to be taken out by a urology specialist from Wellington Hospital who broke the stone up with a laser and then removed the pieces with an endoscope. According to the Wildlife Center, the procedure was comparable to the removal of kidney or gall stones in a human. The bird is doing well following her procedure, much to the joy of her Facebook followers who were able to follow her progress throughout the ordeal.

I think that this story is a great case study for a lot of the topics that we’ve been discussing in my zoology class. It shows a viable option (the creation of wildlife refuges) for the conservation of a species, how a the public can rally behind a species that is particularly like able and important (the kiwi is a national symbol of New Zealand), how zoos can provide access to resources necessary to save an animal, and how communication with the public (particularly through social media) is an important part of conservation and animal protection efforts.

The Arabian Oryx’s Comeback Story

We see so many stories proclaiming the final nail in the coffin of so many species around the world (and indeed, species extinction is a serious issue) but today there is actually some good news about the Arabian oryx, which was previously considered extinct in the wild. Good news needs to be talked about more, so inspired by this post from New Scientist I wanted to share the Arabian oryx’s story.
Arabian Oryx, via Wikimedia Commons
Around 1972 the last wild Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) was killed, most likely in Oman. While the species was extinct in the wild there were still several in captivity, particularly at the Phoenix Zoo, which received four wild Arabian oryx in 1963 as a part of a conservation effort called Operation Oryx.
After the species went extinct in the wild, individuals from the zoo’s breeding program were brought together with individuals from royal collections in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to make a last “world herd.”  A breeding program began and in the early 1980’s the first individuals were reintroduced into the wild in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. 
The Arabian oryx has since flourished, reaching a wild population of more than 1000 individuals, and is continuing to increase. This had led to the Arabian oryx officially being moved from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A 2008 assessment showed that the Arabian oryx had recovered enough to no longer qualify as even an endangered species.

The IUCN Species Program produces, maintains and manages the IUCN Red List, and implements worldwide species conversation projects. The Species Program is headquartered in Switzerland and is designed to determine the relative risk of a species facing extinction. The Red List is used to keep track of and bring attention to the plants and animals that directly risk global extinction. 
IUCN Red List categoriesUnder IUCN Red List Guidelines a species can only move to a lower category if none of the criteria for the higher category have been met for five years or more. To be considered endangered there must be 250 or fewer mature individuals of a species, so the Arabian oryx, which is doing well at over 1000, will be listed as Vulnerable starting this year.
The Arabian oryx is native to the Arabian Peninsula, and doesn’t have many natural predators; humans drove the animals to extinction from hunting. In addition to the 1000 in the wild there are another 6,000-7,000 individuals alive in captivity around the world, many within the Arabian region.

Interestingly, the population that was re-introduced to Oman (where the last wild Arabian oryx were killed before it went extinct in the wild) has been struggling. The Oman population was hurt through illegal live capture for private sale, and has been rendered ineffective because only males remain.  Most new populations are in secure areas that are relatively safe from poaching, but animals that wander outside protected sites have no guarantee of safety. 
Future release locations for animals bred through captivity will be determined by the potential effects of drought and overgrazing, which have reduced available areas where populations could thrive. 
Now that I’m spending my days perusing the internet (so much more than ever before!) I’ve seen a lot of strange, strange, and I mean STRANGE things. In addition there is also so much negative news from hackers to politicians to criminal cases and everything in between that I feel like little glimmers of good news, particularly about successful conservation efforts should to be recognized. It doesn’t make the bad news easier to swallow, but it still makes things seem brighter. 

Wisconsin’s Place in the History of Animal Research

I decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the recommendation of my undergraduate advisor. I honestly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of coming to the midwest. I had never really considered what the cheese state was like before I applied – as a strictly east coast girl it was so far removed from everything in my life I couldn’t even imagine living here. But, when the college admission chips fell where they did, it was obvious to me that UW Madison was the clear first choice for grad school.

That being said, when I arrived in Wisconsin nearly nine months ago, I knew very little about the history of the University I was attending. I knew that UW-Madison was home to an amazing amount of scientific research, but I had no idea how rich the tradition of scientific inquiry really was. I quickly became aware of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) and notorious, and immensely important, psychology researcher Harry Harlow.

Those who follow this blog regularly know that I have written a lot of posts this semester inspired by my zoology class on human and animal behavior. It is this class that really got me motivated to learn more about animal research, and in particular UW-Madison’s role in animal research. That brought me to two books, both written by Deborah Blum a professor in the journalism school here at UW.

272686-LIn 1992 Blum won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on the ethical dilemmas posed by primate research. She turned this into the 1994 book The Monkey Wars. I was enthralled by the history of primate research in the United States, and am ashamed to admit how little I knew prior to reading the book. The story of Edward Taub, the Silver Spring Monkeys (named after the site of the lab in Maryland,) and the rise of PETA in 1981 had me riveted. The condensed version of that story is that PETA founder Alex Pacheco volunteered undercover in the lab of Taub, who was conducting neurological experiments on monkeys (severing the nerves to control a limb and then coaxing nerve regeneration.) The monkeys were held in filthy conditions – but there was no legal standard for research animal care at the time. Pacheco took photographs (some admittedly staged) and went to the police to have Taub arrested (which he was – for animal cruelty.)

The majority of events described in the book take place long before I was even born, and I suppose thats why I felt so removed from them. I didn’t realize I was taking the idea that animals have rights for granted until I learned about the history of animal research in this country. I knew that people are cruel to animals, but I was blissfully oblivious to the cruelty that was standard in research labs in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. After finishing Monkey Wars, my blissful respect for science felt somewhat dingy – and I needed more information.

The book I picked up next, to explore the history of animal research and in particular its role in Wisconsin, was Blum’s 2002 biography of Harry Harlow, Love at Goon Park. I don’t think I had ever heard the name Harry Harlow before moving to Wisconsin – yet his work is something that I reap the benefits of in my daily life. Harlow is both famous and infamous for his “mother love” and “pit of despair” (a catchy term for depression) studies. His research used rhesus macaque babies to show that children need love and social interaction – particularly touch – to function and develop normally, and that being isolated can be the cause of a complete psychological breakdown.

The reason Harlow is so controversial is that the way he studied depression and isolation from one’s mother was to psychologically “break” baby monkeys. These were horrible studies. The monkeys were taken away from their mothers and given a variety of fake substitutes to see which the babies would cling to most (warm, cloth, animated mother was the winning surrogate but cold metal mother caused psychological damage to her babies.) For the depression studies the babies were put in isolation cages for 3-6 months at a time, with no interaction at all. The monkeys suffered tremendously. The concept of love as a necessity needed to be proven, to move parental nurturing into the mainstream. But the question remains if it needed to be proven in that way.

Considering that I was surprised by just how awful the United States history of animal research is, you can imagine how shocking I found it that studies were needed to prove that mothers should hug their children. But then again, as Blum so poignantly points out, the scientific standard at the time was to isolate children for health reasons (limit the spread of bacteria & disease.) What seems so obvious to me – that animals should be well taken care of, that children should be hugged – were really revolutions within the scientific community. Looking back we can say how ridiculous it is that such assertions needed to be scientifically proven, but then again think about where we might be if these ideas had never been generally accepted.

This semester has really driven home for me just how much I owe to animals. The idea that my mom would have been condemned as a bad mother for hugging me when I cried were it not for Harry Harlow and his baby rhesus macaques makes me very appreciative of the role of animals in research. I remember so vividly crying on my Mom’s shoulder at maybe 4 or 5 years old. I remember the silky salmon colored blouse she was wearing. I remember staining it mercilessly with my tears, but I don’t know why I was crying. I do know that all I wanted was to be held, and have my hair stroked and be comforted. I can’t imagine my parents keeping me at arm’s length.

We owe a lot to the animals who started the social movement that changed the way people parented, and the researcher who brought it all to light for making society take notice; and I had no idea about either before coming to Wisconsin. While I do my fair share of whining about being in the cheese state, my experiences here have opened my mind to a lot of new concepts – particularly with regard to the role animals play in society and how we as humans should regard them.