- story published by Science

High school biology classes teach us that the circulatory system pumps blood and the digestive system pumps food. But sea spiders (pictured) apparently skipped that lesson: They pump blood using their guts. Researchers discovered the remarkable physiological strategy after injecting dye into sea spiders—common inhabitants of the world's oceans named for their resemblance to land-based spiders—and watching the flow of blood. They noticed that the animals’ hearts were beating weakly. But the digestive system—which is unusually extensive in sea spiders, running down each leg—was contracting in waves, moving food in the gut as well as blood in the surrounding hemocoel cavity, the spider equivalent of veins and arteries. 

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- story published by New Scientist (online and in print)

Ambush hunters normally rely on the element of surprise, opting to stay hidden until the moment of attack. But some spiders go for a flashier strategy. They reflect UV light, which makes the flowers they sit on appealing to bees – a bizarre strategy that has evolved multiple times in crab spiders, which ambush their prey instead of catching it in webs.

Felipe Gawryszewski at the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil and his team collected individuals from 68 species of crab spider in Australia, Europe and Malaysia. All of the species hunted insects using a sit, wait and pounce strategy, but some did so on drab substrates like bark and leaves while others hunted on flowers.

Using genetic information from all these species, the team pieced together a “family tree”, which showed that the flower-based hunting strategy evolved multiple times. What’s more, flower-dwelling crab spiders reflected more UV light than non-flower dwellers.

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It's not easy living on the edge—of a species' range, that is. Preferred habitat tends to be more sparsely distributed and of lower quality. Population densities tend to be lower. And genetic diversity can be an issue because of the stochasticity associated with evolution in small, isolated populations (i.e., genetic drift).

Many organisms have reduced genetic diversity towards the edge of their range. But the vast majority of known cases involve species with continent-sized geographic distributions (e.g., the Canada lynx), and it's not clear the degree to which the same problem exists for species with more limited distributions.

In a recent study my colleagues and I published in the journal Heredity, we document the same pattern—reduced genetic diversity towards the edge of a species' range—in a bird restricted to a single island. After catching over 500 Island Scrub-Jays across Santa Cruz Island, the species' only home in southern California, we found that individuals were more homozygous towards the outskirts of the island. This was surprising (even to us) given that the species is composed of a single population and there's no evidence that certain parts of the island are closed off to dispersal from other parts of the island.

Low genetic diversity is troublesome from a conservation perspective because it could negatively impact the fitness of individuals (inbreeding depression) and/or the evolvability of populations (e.g., evolutionary responses to climate change). Our results show that even within a single population, the processes affecting genetic diversity may vary depending on where you look on the landscape.

A charismatic Island Scrub-Jay was featured on the front cover of the issue that our research appeared in:

KM Langin, TS Sillett, WC Funk, SA Morrison, and CK Ghalambor. 2017. Partial support for the central–marginal hypothesis within a population: reduced genetic diversity but not increased differentiation at the range edge of an island endemic bird. Heredity 119: 8-15 [link]


- story published by Science

No one likes a con artist. People avoid dealing with characters who have swindled them in the past, and—according to new research—birds avoid those people, too. Ravens, known more for their intelligence, but only slightly less for their love of cheese, were trained by researchers to trade a crust of bread for a morsel of cheese with human partners. When the birds then tried to broker a trade with “fair” and “unfair” partners—some completed the trade as expected, but others took the raven’s bread and kept (and ate) the cheese—the ravens avoided the tricksters in separate trials a month later. 

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- post for the American Ornithological Society's journal blog, about an opinion piece I wrote

At one point during last year’s North American Ornithological Conference, I found myself rushing down the hallways to catch a talk by a senior scientist whose research I have long admired. As I took my seat and he began speaking, I was immediately struck with the thought: “Darn, why did I make this mistake again?”

My mistake? Deciding to attend his talk and, in the process, failing to remember that I loathe his presentation style. The slides are always filled to the brim with volumes of text and a seemingly endless number of teeny-tiny figures. And despite going through them at a sprinter’s pace, he somehow fails to finish in the allotted fifteen minutes. It happens every time. The audience experience is akin to watching an action-packed commercial but, in the end, having only a vague sense of what was being advertised.

That incident and many others propelled me to write the commentary “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations,” published this week in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. In it, I argue that scientists should spend less time trying to impress their audience with mountains of data and more time implementing principles of good storytelling. I know this probably elicits a negative reaction in some readers, but hear me out.

Stories aren’t a mode of communication restricted to fictional tales. They are the most effective way to package information so that others can process and remember it (which is really the whole point of communication, right?). It’s difficult to recall a series of random facts; it’s much easier to recall the details of an engaging story.

The nice thing about storytelling is that it is a natural fit for the scientific process. Dr. Randy Olson, author of the book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, defines a story as “a series of events that happen along the way in the search for a solution to a problem.” Sound familiar? As scientists, we are always in hot pursuit of a solution to a problem, but unfortunately we don’t always present our research that way.

So how can we change that? For starters, it’s not sufficient to package information in a logical order with a beginning (introduction), middle (methods and results), and end (conclusions). That’s obviously helpful, but I argue in the paper that you need to go a step further and develop a compelling plot—something that compels your audience to follow along with your journey of discovery. That can be accomplished by clearly articulating a problem to be solved and spending time convincing the audience why they should care about the problem in the first place.

In his book, Dr. Olson outlines a strategy that I find particularly helpful. He suggests framing your story’s plot by proclaiming something that scientists know and something else that scientists know, but then pointing out a critical unsolved problem or point of debate that, therefore, highlights a need for your particular study. He calls this his “and, but, therefore” template, which contrasts with the template used by many scientists: one that strings along a series of facts with “and, and, and” statements. There’s no drama in “and, and, and” statements, but there is with the “and, but, therefore” framework.

A key advantage of Dr. Olson’s approach is that—by setting the stage in an informative and captivating manner—you can bring your entire audience with you on your journey, not just the people who already understand and appreciate your field and study system. And that should be the ultimate goal: to engage the widest fraction of your audience as possible.

The ornithological community is doing important and interesting science, but we don’t always do a great job communicating it, even amongst ourselves. In my paper, I argue for more storytelling, but I also discuss a greater range of strategies for giving effective presentations, including the benefits of visually-engaging slides. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it is my hope that this opinion piece will generate thought and discussion about how to best communicate our science. We can’t afford to let important research be lost in a sea of ineffective communication.

Langin, KM. 2017. Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119: 321-326 [pdf]