In recent years, it’s become a well-documented fact that koalas are about as picky as they are adorable. These beloved Australian marsupials have evolved to become ecological specialists: consumers that feed primarily on a single organism, or small number of organisms. Eucalyptus, their organism of choice, encompasses approximately 900 species, most of which are native to Australia. To the koala’s benefit, the leaves of eucalyptus trees are difficult to digest, low in protein content and their chemical composition contains compounds that are toxic. This makes their competition for eucalyptus with other species virtually nonexistent.
That’s not to say there isn’t competition amongst themselves. Of those 900 species of eucalyptus, koalas are only really known to feed on about 40–50 of them, and of those 40–50, they tend to limit their diet to around 10. Depending on their location, however, some koalas will only stick to one preferred type, which can lead to trouble.
We spend a lot of time looking at history and imagining—”what was it like when…?” As a biologist, I find myself most drawn to stories about the evolution of life. Why does this plant have purplish leaves? How did this species end up in a symbiotic relationship with this other species? How did this animal get to this tiny island 20 miles off the Southern coast of Iceland?
That last one was too specific to be rhetorical, wasn’t it? The volcanic island of Surtsey broke the ocean surface on November 14, 1963, and continued to erupt until June 5, 1967, reaching its maximum size of 2.7 km2 (about the size of Central Park in New York City). At this size, it was large enough to be a good site for biocolonization. Only a few scientists are allowed to visit the island, ensuring that colonization of the island can occur without human interference. Continue reading “Science Visitors Only: Watching Life Grow on a New Island”
This blog was written by guest blogger and 2018 Promega Social Media Intern Logan Godfrey.
Only 30 years ago, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
was used for the first time, allowing the exponential amplification of a specific
DNA segment. A small amount of DNA could now be replicated until there was
enough of it to study accurately, even allowing sequencing of the amplified DNA.
This was a massive breakthrough that produced immediate effects in the fields
of forensics and life science research. Since these technologies were first
introduced however, the molecular biology research laboratory has been the sole
domain of PCR and DNA sequencing.
While an amazing revolution, application of a technology
such as DNA sequencing is limited by the size and cost of DNA sequencers, which
in turn restricts accessibility. However, recent breakthroughs are allowing DNA
sequencing to take place in jungles, the arctic, and even space—giving science
the opportunity to reach further, faster than ever before.
The newfound accessibility of DNA sequencing means a
marriage between fields of science that were previously largely unacquainted.
The disciplines of genomics and wildlife biology/ecology have largely progressed
independently. Wildlife biology is practiced in the field through observations
and macro-level assessments, and genomics, largely, has developed in a lab
setting. Leading the charge in the convergence of wildlife biology and genomics
is Field Projects International.
“In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house
The glass is tinged with green, even so
As tendrils crawl over the fields…”
—James Dickey (1)
I grew up in Georgia, where on a hot, humid summer day you could almost hear the hiss of growing vegetation, especially the Kudzu as it climbed over fence posts and encroached upon the roadside, the king of invasive species. In Florida you worry about the alligators along the roadside if you have a flat tire; in Georgia, beware the Kudzu.
Invasive species, animal and plant, are an issue in all ecosytems. Imported from distant (and not-so-distant) areas both by accident and misguided intent, invasive species are species that have escaped the checks and balances of natural competitors and predators that existed in their native habitats. This lack of predation and competition enables them to outcompete and overrun other species.
Now, just a few years later, the resulting fruit of a crowdsourced labor is Phylo: The Trading Card Game. Phylo is a frankly beautiful, “sneakily educational”, immediately compelling and truly cross-functional collaboration of the artistic, gaming, scientific, education and even intellectual property law communities all coming together to create and curate a sort of “biodiversity Pokemon.”
A lot has happened since I first wrote about White-Nose Syndrome, the fungal disease that has devastated bat populations in North America. The disease, caused by the cold-loving fungus Geomyces destructans (now renamed Psuedogymnoascus destructans), has been identified in many more places, including most recently confirmed cases in Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois and Missouri in the United States and Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Controlling the spread of this disease is a tremendous problem, because as I indicated in a previous blog post, keeping a hardy fungus from spreading among a population of densely packed small animals in tiny, cold damp areas is not a simple task.
On a blustery, frigidly cold day in mid-April, a small gathering of cub scouts from one of several local packs congregated outside the Lussier Heritage Center on the southern end of Madison for the annual bat festival. They had braved the elements to see these furry creatures, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and to put aside the myth that they are little more than Transylvanian-born vampiric vermin. The cub scouts had come to hear the experts talk. And there could have been no better person for the job of getting the education process started than conservationist Rob Mies- indisputably the star of this year’s bat show.
Far Eastern vines
Run from the clay banks they are
Supposed to keep from eroding.
Up telephone poles,
Which rear, half out of leafage
As though they would shriek,
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
–from Kudzu by James Dickey
I grew up in rural Georgia, so I saw first hand how kudzu climbs up telephone poles, invades and conquers fields and strangles giant oaks. When I was in graduate school, ecology graduate students on the first floor of our building were searching madly for something, some bug, that would eat kudzu, in hopes that they might some day graduate.
When I lived in Sioux City, IA, I had the opportunity of hanging out with a zoologist who studied the Plains Spadefoot Toad (Spea bombifrons). I would go out with her on nighttime listening surveys, and we would slowly drive the gravel farm roads in the middle of nowhere, weaving from one side to the other as we dodged hopping frogs and toads, and I would be amazed as the clamor of these calling anurans rattled my eardrums.
Just last week in Madison, as I took my lunchtime walk, I passed by a roadside wetland, and my ears filled with the calls of Chorus frogs, singing with all their one-inch might in hopes of attracting a mate. And, later that evening, as my daughter and I weeded our garden at home, I heard the crisp bell trill of two American toads carrying over the chorus frogs in the neighborhood.