Monday Awesome: travelling to the moon.

Neil Armstrong, via ABC News, via AFP.

Neil Armstrong died yesterday. He was the first person to walk on the moon, which is pretty damn awesome in my book.

Neil Armstrong was globally famous for being the first person to stand on the moon, but he generally kept a low public profile. I didn’t really know a lot about his post-moon life, which was kind of the point: he went back to normal life after his space flight, shying away from the media and letting his achievement speak for itself.

Can you imagine what would happen now, in today’s narcissistic digital age, if we were to plan something as audacious and high-profile as space-flight and moon landings? Given the ridiculous hoopla surrounding the recent London Olympics, I guess it would be quite big deal. There would probably be a TV show plying through thousands of wannabes to find the astronaut ‘talent’, then a reality show based around the astronauts, and live twitter-feeds from the capsule as the astronauts land on the moon. I dare one of the hypothetical astronauts to tweet about “floating in a tin can” while piloting a moon-landing capsule. Once on the moon, they’d probably first have to put a McDonald’s banner, ‘the official sponsor of cosmic endeavours’, up instead of a nation’s flag or anything else that contravenes the sponsorship agreement. And, back on Earth, people at news desks would be busy trawling through millions of people’s tweets about it, and Instagrammed photos of the moon to make social-media snapshots passed off as journalism. When the astronauts got back to Earth, they’d have to do the talk-show circuit, endorse loads of unrelated products and have all manner of hangers-on trying to get a piece of them…..

Pardon my cynicism. I know more about Neil Armstrong following his death than I ever knew about him while he was alive. I respect him more now in light of that. Thank you, Mr Armstrong, for being so humble.

Making epidemiology fun.

I was interested to see that there is a huge outbreak of West Nile virus (WVN) in the US at the moment (various news outlets are reporting e.g., the BBC). According to the CDC, West Nile has been reported from 47 states so far this year, and there have been 1118 cases notified. But worse, 47 people have died. By the way, this is not the ‘fun’ part that I referred to in the title of the post – that’s coming next.

What is WNV? Why is it in the US if it’s named after a river in Africa?

WNV is a flavivirus, which causes fevers and encephalitis in susceptible people, and it has been present in the US since the 1990s. It was first identified following large numbers of bird deaths and people getting sick in 1999 (see the book Mosquito: the story of man’s deadliest foe (by Spielman & D’Antonio) for a nice overview of the first outbreak in the US). It is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes (Culex spp.), and birds are the main reservoir hosts of the virus. Mosquitoes bite infected birds, and suck up the virus in the bird’s blood. Then, when they bite a human (or another bird), some virus particles can be transmitted to the human. Many people who are infected with WNV are asypmtomatic, which means that mosquitoes can bite them, pick up some virus and continue to spread the disease. That’s one mechanism by which outbreaks can grow quickly.

Now, as promised, the fun part. The study of how and why disease outbreaks occur is epidemiology. I never thought I’d find an epidemiologically-related iPad app, but I did. I’ve become a bit addicted to playing Plague Inc. It’s a fabulous little game where you create dangerous pathogens and try to kill the world. There are several elements to consider – the transmission of the pathogen, the symptoms it causes, and the management of mutations to change the way the pathogen behaves. This last part is important because the ‘people’ remaining in the world will try to develop a cure, so evolution of the pathogen is important. Trying to exterminate humanity is surprisingly fun. This is in no way an attempt to trivialise the WNV outbreak – but it gives insight into how viruses can move around and infect people.

Screenshot of Plague Inc., via App Store site.

Taxonomy goings-on.

Perhaps as a taxonomist, I don’t get terribly excited about new species in the same way that the general public does. I do love the satisfaction of discovering and describing something new, but I have not yet named a species after a famous person (only my Honours supervisor, who thought having a parasite named after him was a rather dubious honour), or found anything exceptional-looking. But, this week, I’ve found newly described species who are both those things. And I also found some other extra-interesting bits.

David Attenborough’s spider

P. attenboroughi (image via Museum WA)

Via the BBC News, I learned that taxonomists from the Queensland Museum and the Museum of Western Australia have described a new species of goblin spider and named it after Sir David Attenborough. It’s called Prethopalpus attenboroughi, lives in a very small island off northern Queensland, and is less than 2mm long. I’d be far too timid to name something so tiny after someone so great, but maybe there’s an irony there that I’m missing.

The genus Homo gets larger

Taxonomy papers rarely get published in Nature. So I won’t begrudge Maeve Leakey et al. for having the audacity to submit a species description to said journal, because it’s on a new species of Homo. Fossils examined suggest that there was more than just H. erectus and H. habilis roaming around Africa about 2 million years ago. NewScientist has a nice summary for those who can’t get through the Nature paywall. Homo rudolfensis was found in the 1970s and initially considered to be a morphological anomaly and was disregarded. More recent discoveries of similarly-shaped skulls enabled the comparison with the original and the hypothesis that they were anomalus H. habilis was rejected, reinstating H. rudolfensis as a species. Nice.

New caecilian looks like a penis…

…well, it does. I quote a tweet I got from Science Mag: “The penis-snake is an amphibian![link to]”. A new species of caecilian, Atretochoana eiselti, was discovered in Brazil last year, during the earthworks for a new dam. It’s quite large, around 75cm long (twice the size of your usual, garden-variety caecilian), and, it looks fairly phallic. Most unfortunate.

Atretochoana eiselti (photo by Matt Roper, via MongaBay)

This photo of A. eieslti is necessary for context. Same credit as above.

Want to name a new species?

All this could be yours, via

Conservation scientists in South Africa have found a new species of iris. Not knowing what to name it, they have set up an online auction, to let the highest bidder have a crack at it instead. Check it out at the NewScientist website. Proceeds from the auction will go to the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust, which includes looking after the critically endangered habitats where the iris lives. I think it’s a nice way of generating some interest in taxonomy and species discovery, and also generating some funding for research and conservation at the same time. Get your thinking caps on, and your wallets out. When I looked, the auction was at 1100 pounds sterling (I don’t have the little wiggly pounds sign on my Australian computer).

So there you have it – some highlights of taxonomy from the past week. The beauty of taxonomy is that you never know what you might find!

Agoutis: saviours of the forest.

I discovered a really neat paper this morning, published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Mr IncreasingDisorder had left the PDF open on the computer, which was very helpful in me discovering it! I really liked the paper – it was a simple hypothesis tested in a very clever way. And it involved rodents. Here’s a short summary of the paper.

Jansen et al. (2012) Thieving rodents as substitute dispersers or megafaunal seeds. PNAS 109, 12610-12615. 

In the rainforest of Panama, many palms and trees have fruits bearing very large seeds. Too large, in fact, to be ingested whole by any of the extant fauna, leading researchers to suggest that these palms adapted to dispersal by megafauna during the Pleistocene, now extinct. Very large animals would have been able to eat the fruit and swallow the seeds intact, allowing them to be dispersed as the animals moved around. Yet the palms still survive, and disperse. The simple, yet elegant aim of the research was to find out how good agoutis were at dispersing the seeds.

Dasyprocta punctata (via Wikipedia)

Agoutis, Dasyprocta punctata, are caviomorph rodents who like to cache their food – called ‘scatter-hoarding’ in the paper. While rodents are typically not known for their seed-dispersal ability, the agoutis are large enough to carry the seeds around. In the absence of any other larger herbivorous mammals, the agoutis have gone from partial seed disperser to the only seed disperser for the target palm species, Astrocaryum stanleyanum.

Astrocaryum sp. (via Wikipedia)

Using radio-tracking, of both individual palm seeds and agoutis, the researchers were able to plot the fate of the tagged seeds. Known agouti caches were monitored using remote cameras, which gave insight into the frequency of caches being dug up, as well as information on who it was doing the digging. They found that the agoutis did indeed serve as the principal dispersers of the seeds (over 80% of tagged seeds were taken by agoutis), but it was not via single agoutis moving single seeds to new areas. A complex network of caching, re-caching and cache-raiding was going on. Agoutis did not tend to eat their seeds immediately, but had a tendency to dig up and re-cache their seeds. This re-caching created a step-wise movement away from the point of collection of the seed, increasing the potential dispersal area for the seeds.

But what about the raiding? Via the remote cameras, it was seen that most seeds (over 80%) were dug up by other agoutis, not by the owner of the cache. To quote the article: “Theft was strongly reciprocal: individuals that were robbed also stole cached seeds from others. Thus, the stepwise dispersal of seeds across home range boundaries was driven by reciprocal theft.” (I love the phrase ‘reciprocal theft’.)

What all this means is that the agoutis are far better at dispersing seeds than previously thought. The researchers were surprised by the distance travelled by the seeds, which was facilitated by the stealing and re-burying of seeds elsewhere. The agoutis do not eat all the seeds though, and it was estimated that approx. 14% of palm seeds taken by agoutis would survive to germination. Despite the agoutis being far smaller in size than the megafauna that previously dispersed large tropical seeds, they appear to be doing a rather nice job of filling the vacant niche left by extinction.