Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Avian Influenza and the 'War on Birds'

Millions of birds are being slaughtered throughout eastern Asia in an effort to contain the deadly “bird flu”. The avian influenza virus, which causes “bird flu”, is very contagious among birds, and often has dramatic consequences when it infects domestic ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys. Even though influenza often enters the domestic poultry population by crossing from wild to domestic ducks, domestic chickens are most acutely affected, usually hemorrhaging to death within 24 hours after infection.

But as illustrated by an editorial cartoon in the January 27 (2005) Bangkok Post that depicted migratory birds dropping “H5N1” fecal bombs from the sky onto an innocent planet Earth, wild birds have been vilified for a problem that primarily stems from human-based activities. In fact, the widely sanctioned practice of harassing and killing wild birds only makes the problem worse by distracting public attention and energy from the real problem, poultry farming methods.

“Bird flu” is typically carried in the intestines of wild birds. These avian carriers often remain healthy but shed the virus in their feces, especially when they are under stress, thus transmitting it to other birds and also becoming ill themselves. In 1997, this “bird flu” virus roared onto the epidemiological scene by decimating poultry markets in Hong Kong and stunning health officials around the world by killing six people in that city. However, after extensive testing, scientists realized that this supposedly “new” virus had actually been identified decades earlier: It is a variant of the H5N1 virus that was first isolated in 1961 from terns in South Africa.

It is not known how this particular virus managed to disperse away from South Africa, but scientists suspect that it sequestered itself inside the intestines of migratory wild birds and hitchhiked around the world, as is typical for flu viruses. But this virus did not pose an international health problem until it reached eastern Asia, where huge concentrations of domestic poultry are found. Thus, combined with the effects of widespread poverty, particularly with its resulting overcrowding, poor hygiene and inadequate nutrition, H5N1 found itself in the ideal environment to enhance its lethality and transmissibility while also being presented with numerous opportunities to “jump” the species barrier into humans and other animal species.

To prevent the “bird flu” from becoming established in the area, panicked officials implemented a domestic poultry “depopulation” program combined with a vigorous campaign to slaughter wild and migratory birds and pet exotic birds. This extermination program has been ongoing for several years now, and has triggered increasing numbers of protests worldwide. Fortunately, after attending last month’s emergency Avian Influenza meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, United Nations officials finally ended their silence on this matter several days ago.

“Killing wild birds will not help to prevent or control avian influenza outbreaks,” asserted Juan Lubroth of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Animal Health Service. Even though wild birds do act as a reservoir for avian influenza viruses, “to date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife is the major factor in the resurgence of the disease in the region.”

Further, avian eradication programs can have dramatic, unanticipated and tragic consequences, as illustrated by China’s Great Leap Forward Program in the late 1950s. This misguided program effectively declared war on birds by legitimizing the extensive slaughter of sparrows and crows, which led to the failure of rice crops and triggered widespread famine because these birds actually controlled crop pests.

The other main focus of this program, the unrestricted harassment of wild birds, also exacerbates the problem, according to William Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City. “Hunting wild birds, some of which are listed as endangered, or cutting down trees to destroy roosting sites, is likely to disperse wild birds into new areas, stress them further and could make them susceptible to avian influenza or other diseases.”

Instead of making war on wild birds, public health officials should instead focus their attention on designing effective programs that honestly assess and realistically deal with how poultry farming practices in the region contribute to the development of increasingly lethal avian influenzas. This would have the added benefit of improving public health in the region because other pathogenic organisms thrive in the same or similar conditions as avian influenza viruses.

First, more than 90 percent of domestic chickens and ducks in Asia are free-range birds that can intermingle with wild birds. These wild birds then potentially infect their domestic brethren with influenza viruses. These free-range domestic birds then bring the virus home to their roosts or carry it with them to market, where cramped, damp and filthy living quarters facilitate rapid transmission.

Such overcrowded living situations also provide avian influenza with many opportunities to infect other animal species. In fact, this season’s H5N1 variant is becoming progressively better at making this jump, a feat that greatly concerns health officials. By late 2004, this virus had “jumped” the “species barrier” numerous times by infecting 55 people, killing 48 of them. It also jumped into cats, another species that avian influenza had never before infected. It rapidly killed several endangered tigers and leopards after they ate infected chicken carcasses provided by zookeepers.

Second, intensive poultry farming is growing rapidly in Asia and as such, presents increasing opportunities for avian influenza to mutate. Intensive poultry farming relies upon overcrowding birds and raising them to a marketable size as quickly as possible so as to maximize profits. Because overcrowding birds stresses them and thus weakens their immune systems, they become vulnerable to infections that they normally could fight off. To avoid this problem, poultry farmers provide commercial feeds that are laced with small doses of several antibiotics. Antibiotics in feed conveniently mask latent disease problems and have the added benefit of increasing the rate of weight gain in young, growing animals, for reasons that are still not clear.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but they do affect bacteria. In fact, widespread use of antibiotic-laced animal feeds by farmers around the world is one of the main contributors to the development of drug resistant bacteria, some of which cause pneumonia when inhaled by flu patients. Pneumonia, whether bacterially- or virally-caused, is the most common sequela of influenza. As if that was not bad enough, drug-resistant “super bugs” freely share their resistance genes with other species of bacteria in the environment that may have never been exposed to these antibiotics, some of which also cause disease.

Dr. Romeo Quijano, a medical doctor and toxicologist at the School of Pharmacology with the University of the Philippines, says “the massive use of antibiotics and many other toxic chemicals inherent in the capitalist food production system leads to the weakening of the natural capacity of both animals and humans to co-exist peacefully with microbes.”

Co-existence is certainly a worthy goal because, if anything, avian influenza is already established throughout the region. “This virus is not just endemic in Vietnam and Thailand,” says Dr. Guan Yi, an avian-flu expert at the University of Hong Kong. “In countries like Cambodia they don’t have a systematic surveillance program, so we don’t know yet. But I’m sure the virus is endemic in Southeast Asia.”

In 2004, H5N1 influenza was found in 10 countries and is known to be currently present in at least four; Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Indonesia. Estimates place the Asian population of domestic chickens in excess of 7 billion birds, even though more than 50 million have already been slaughtered and mass poultry killings are ongoing in Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and Taiwan.

Faced with the magnitude of avian influenza’s distribution and its increasing capacity to jump into new species, the ultimate goal should be to prevent influenza infection of domestic birds, and not the killing of wild, migratory and exotic pet birds. The most immediate, realistic way to accomplish this objective is through improved biosecurity for poultry; this means (1) keeping domestic birds – particularly chickens and ducks – separate from their wild brethren using fences, (2) quarantining all poultry for at least several days before eating or selling them, and (3) thoroughly disinfecting baskets used to transport birds to market.

“We can talk about vaccine development, strength of surveillance, stocking of Tamiflu [an expensive antiviral drug], and all that, but in the end the reduction of pandemic risk will be decided by the number of chickens infected in Asia,” says Dr. Klaus Stohr who heads the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Program.

It is short sighted, ineffective and potentially dangerous to exterminate wild, migratory and exotic pet birds when the real problem can be found in how people raise and market domestic poultry. The way to deal with this problem and to prevent a pandemic is by educating the populace about safe poultry husbandry, slaughter and meat-handling practices and also by investing money, materials and personnel into improving poultry farming methods in the region.


Avian flu: no need to kill wild birds [FAO Newsroom]

Farmers 'key to bird-flu control' [CNN].

Avian Flu: one more indictment of unsafe industrial food production [Centro Internazionale Crocevia]

Russian Scientists Join Effort to Track Avian Flu [Audio Link to All Things Considered, National Public Radio story, 28 March 2005].

My brain, which collects all sorts of information from the many (many!) papers, books and magazines that I read, from the scientists who tell me cool things, and from the superb university classes I've taken.


More Essays about Avian Influenza;

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds', Part 2.

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds'.

Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production.

Public Confusion Surrounding Influenza.

Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly?


This essay was recognized as among the "Best Medical Blog Writing" by
Medical Grand Rounds XXVIII.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 25.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, March 26, 2005

More Silly Internet Diagnostic Quizzes

My previous blog entry about internet quizzes generated so many responses that I thought I'd do it again, especially since most people are celebrating the holidays with their families this weekend and probably don't want to read and think about anything that's very complicated. Besides that, most of today was devoted to taking care of other people's cats (and then shopping for groceries!) so I haven't had much time for thinking and writing. Even though I love my cat clients and their kitties, and I need the cash desperately, I wish I could send my clone out to care for cats and birds somedays so I can get more writing done. Maybe one day before I die, I'll be paid to write or to commit acts of evolutionary research once more.

Today's internet quiz extravaganza was started by gone to the dogs. Despite the fact that this quiz doesn't give you the code so you can link to a cute picture that pops up on your blog, it is one of the best designed websites I've ever seen (and that includes Ben and Jerry's Iscream website and JK Rowling's official website, which amuse me, too). This quiz is based on the premise that there is a dog inside each one of us, just waiting to get out. It features a quiz, "What dog are you?" that relies on the amazing Canine Algorithmic Transfer System (CATS) to identify your trapped inner breed of dog. I am a Saluki, by the way.

Speaking of our fascination with dogs, I also found this amusing and odd little test that no normal person can get 100% correct; dog toy or marital aid? Go ahead, I dare you to reveal your score here! My score was an abysmal 50% in both the warm-up and difficult rounds .. so unfortunately, I am only allowed to play with the quiz author's dogs while under supervision. This really hurts my aspirations to expand my extracurricular money-making activities into dog sitting and dog walking.

And while we are on the topic of life's little deceptions, have I ever mentioned that one of the biggest fears of the average red-blooded New York male, ranked right after a stock market crash, is .. shemales?? Yes indeed, I was surprised to discover that identifying shemales is one of the top five topics of conversation among NYC men between the ages of 8 and 80 years of age. In fact, when I went out on a first date with one NYC lawyer, he stood next to me at the bar and accused me of being shemale because I was "too tall to be a real woman". That was his exact phrase, I kid you not. The coatcheck woman, who easily overheard every word he uttered (along with 82% of the other people in the bar), told me that she disagreed with his assessment when I collected my coat from her before sneaking out the door. Needless to say, he should have taken this quiz before embarassing me publically; female or shemale; can you tell? I identified all of the pictures correctly so that might explain why I am not a paranoid loud-mouth.

I then discovered Quizilla, which is a very efficient time-waster as its name suggests. I decided to get the most that I could from all the quizzes that I was stupidly sucked in to taking by posting only a few results at any one time. I chose to share my "daemon" results today because it fits well with the dog theme that seems to have unexpectedly popped up here. The font in this picture suggests this is a Harry Potterish type of quiz, so I was bummed out to realize that it does not offer a snowy owl as one of its "daemon options".

Wolf Daemon
Your WOLF DAEMON shows that you are solitary,
ferocious, and often intimidating, but not
without your sufficient loyalty and poise.
People tend to misunderstand you, but you
prefer your own company, anyway.

What Animal Would Your Daemon Settle As?
brought to you by Quizilla

On the other hand, wolves are wonderful animals, too.

If your family is driving you crazy this weekend, may I suggest popping some virtual bubblewrap as a stress reliever? I find that manic mode is the most amusing/addicting.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, March 25, 2005

Birds in the News #4

I and my wonderful flock of bird pals found several interesting news stories this week that describe birds and their relationships with people. I found some RaptorCams to share and I have a special surprise for you; two readers gave me permission to post some of their photographs of a “backyard bird” that might interest you. If you find an interesting story about birds or have some pictures you would like to share, feel free to email them to me.

Birds in Science (Birds teaching humans):

Do birds see the world in the same way that people do? Apparently they do, at least when it comes to being deceived by camouflaged invertebrates, as a research group from the University of Bristol discovered recently. Using “artificial moths” pinned to trees and baited with a tasty insect, they found that the same disruptive color patterns that deceive humans were also most deceptive to birds, suggesting that birds’ and humans’ visual perceptions are similar. Their research was published in the 3 March issue of Nature, one of the top science journals in the world.

Have you ever looked carefully at a bird’s nest? Surprisingly, most scientists haven’t either, but Dr. Mike Hansell, a biologist from the University of Glasgow is changing all that. This long and very interesting article, Building Castles in the Air, discusses various aspects of birds’ nests; choice of materials, patterns of construction and different species’ nest styles along with the functional reason for these structural differences.

Birds Helping People:

Birds and other animals are being used in an unusual therapy program to help people deal with depression and illness as described in Animals are our Friends. Sometimes, birds change people’s lives, as happened to one felon mentioned in this story whose “therapy bird” taught him compassion and led him to become a student of ornithology after his release from prison.

A review of a popular documentary reveals “the behind the scenes story” of how the film, The Parrots of Telegraph Hill, was made and reveals how these feral parrots in SF changed several people’s lives while inspiring the same sort of widespread passion for them that rivals the affection felt for Pale Male and Lola in NYC.

People Helping Birds:

I can’t resist writing this teaser for this news story: What is the relationship between an endangered South American parrot, coevolution and the Catholic Church? (And, do you suppose that reading this story will be made illegal in Florida?) You have to read this story to find out the answer to most of these burning questions!

Recently, India finally outlawed the use of diclofenac, the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug that was causing the extinction of all vulture species in SouthEast Asia. In previous issues of Birds in the News, I have linked to stories that report initial efforts to set up a captive breeding program for those few individual vultures that still live, so I hope that the combination of captive breeding and removal of diclofenac from the environment will be sufficient to recover these ecologically invaluable birds.

If you are following news of the irruption of great grey owls and several other owl species into the northern parts of the United States (as linked in previous Birds in the News), then you are aware that some of these birds become injured and need veterinary care to recover. As is the case for humans, medical care for birds is not cheap, even when veterinarians and their assistants donate their time. Other materials and resources, such as food, supplies and other medical consumables to care for these birds, still cost money. If you wish to make a tax-deductable donation to help these magnificent birds, your donated money will be matched 1:1 by the Katherine B. Andersen Fund.

BirdCams (Bird watching while sipping wine and wearing jammies):

If you are like me, you are looking for fun and free things to do in the evenings and at night. If so, take a peek at this Valmont Owl Cam that features infrared images captured of a nesting pair of great horned owls, Bubo virginianus, in Boulder, Colorado. The camera sponsor, XCel Energy, also supports several other RaptorCams that are linked from this site, so please explore! For a more comprehensive listing of BirdCam URLs (and several MammalCams!) from around the United States and the United Kingdom, click here.

Speaking of nesting, the colony of severely endangered parrots, the kakapos, Strigops habroptilus, are expecting at least 4 chicks to hatch this year, just in time for spring. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn whether Tilly (linked from a previous issue of Birds in the News) also nested this year. Tilly is a female kakapo who recently regained her health and was sent to her island home after a long bout of medical care that saved her life.

Backyard Birds: (reader-donated photos)

Did you know that bird beaks grow continuously, just as human hair and fingernails do? Considering that, would you be surprised to discover a dead woodpecker with an overgrown beak under your bird feeders one morning, as pictured here? One reader thinks this is very interesting and kindly shared these pictures with all of us (click on the photographs to see a larger image in its own window).

Bird beaks are comprised of underlying bone that is covered with hard, smooth layers of keratin. Because the beak is a bird’s primary tool for obtaining food and for building nests, the outer keratin layers grow continuously throughout their lifetimes to replace wear from constant use. Keratin is a tough, fibrous protein that has many functions throughout the animal kingdom; besides comprising human skin, hair and fingernails, keratin also makes up horns of animals such as wild sheep and goats, the outer layers of turtle and tortoise shells and also baleen in whales, just to name a few. In birds, abnormal growth of the beak is caused by a variety of problems, including an infestation with Knemidocoptes mites and malnutrition, as seen in this individual, whose beak was just over 3 inches long.

Two readers who live in Michigan found this dead hairy woodpecker, Picoides villosus, below their bird feeder several weeks ago. According to Jack Swartz, who gave me permission to share these pictures on my blog, “It [the bird] was in pretty sad shape since it could not preen and was infested with mites and it is possible that it had avian pox or some type of bacterial infection.” Debbie Swartz took these excellent pictures and also was temporarily infested with the bird’s mites in the process! They took the bird’s body to their local DNR office and it was then sent to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, where it now resides.

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Non-academic job applications: 1 (full-time neuroscience or biochemistry/chemical biology copy editor)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The New Tangled Bank is Accessible!

Tangled Bank #24 is now available and I have three essays in this issue. (I guess this means that I have to write more new material for the next issue of TB as well as the other blog carnivals I contribute to!). Take a look because there are lots of great articles and essays in this issue, including some from people who were new contributors to "my issue" of TB! Be sure to write comments on your favorite essays and thereby encourage the authors to write more material for future issues of TB.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


One or two of you might be aware that I am working as a part-time temporary Professor of Science at a college in the area. Two weeks ago, I was subjected to a course evaluation/observation in the Anatomy and Physiology course I am teaching (I also teach the lab section for a Biochemistry class, but I guess they don’t evaluate/observe labs). Besides the fact that this was my first-ever course evaluation, it also caused me much angst these past two weeks because the evaluator surprised me by showing up in lecture without notifying me first, as is required. So of course, this meant that I had not meticulously prepared my lecture and I was not dressed in my best clothes (even my best clothes look shabby next to everyone else there). But worst of all, I was simultaneously trying to rebuild my self-esteem as a professor along with my relationship with my students after the majority of them flunked their first lecture exam in the previous lecture period.

Needless to say, my students blamed me for their poor exam performance and I was ready to quit because of the resulting stress and frustration and, well, guilt, too.

But yesterday, I finally was given the results of this evaluation and it seems that I did reasonably well, despite everything. The evaluation itself is rather boring: It basically is a condensed version of my lecture notes about bones. But this is the summary paragraph; “This was a lecture packed with information, which was nevertheless delivered at a calm and relaxed pace. Prof. [my corporeal name] occasionally asked a question of the classroom, and several students would answer. She gave examples where appropriate, and illustrated her explanations with drawings on the blackboard.” The evaluator/observer surprised me with this; “It was obvious that Prof. [my corporeal name] is very knowledgeable in the subject, and she was doing a fine job of passing this knowledge on to her students.

Then, because she had to criticize me for something (or so I suppose), the evaluator also included this in her summary; “I believe that her lecture could be even more effective if she would make use of color transparencies to illustrate some of the more complex points, and to give the lecture an additional dimension.

This evaluation is a prime example of how people are easily fooled. First, because I am a molecular biologist, I know very little about bones except they hurt like a #$%@*!! when they are broken and second, ever since my first day on this job, I have been fighting with several faculty members at the school and also with the book rep to get transparencies, without success.

So the only criticism was for something I have no control over. Sometimes, I think this is the story of my life.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Why I STILL Can't Find a #%*@#! Job

Or, how to politely tell someone to just die already and stop wasting the world's precious and limited resources by keeping his/her useless carcass alive, Part 2.

I promised myself that I would never, ever rant about personal matters on my public blog (people have enough shit to deal with in their private lives without reading about mine, too) and I would at least attempt to maintain some level of objectivity about my life here (especially about those things that I am completely powerless to change), but my resolve has cracked: This is a rant. Seriously, I need to vent before I implode or die from despair. I apologize for this. Please move on to my next message if this sort of thing bothers you. There will be more useful and interesting essays coming soon (I have been trying to write them today, without much success). All I need to do right now is produce my cosmic scream.

Basically, I try to remain calm about my current un(der)employment situation but this is increasingly difficult as I watch my miniscule financial reserves slip away and as my financial dependence on the kindness and generosity of others increases dramatically. But my no-rant resolve was shattered on Friday when I read an LA Times news story by Nicholas Riccardi that made my heart skip a beat or two. In fact, I am still unable to shake the fear that this story inspired. There are two points in this story that haunt me. First;

Even with the national unemployment rate at a relatively low 5.4%, the share of those out of work for more than six months is higher now than during the early 1980s, when the jobless rate was in the double digits, analysts say. The average length of unemployment is also higher now than at any time other than the early 1980s.

Okay, that is absolutely horrible, especially when one realizes that the government compiles their unemployment statistics from data based on state Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits paid each week and by randomly calling people on the telephone to ask about the employment status in the household -- does anyone see a flaw in this process? I do! I do! First, UI benefits last only six months and are never extended under any circumstances, so people who are unemployed longer than six months disappear from state unemployment rosters. Coincidentally, "disappearing from unemployment rosters" is also what unemployed people do after they find jobs, even if they only get a part-time temporary position that places them at or below poverty level. In fact, there are no reliable methods to track the fates of the long-term un(der)employed so, for this reason (and several others), I think this problem is grossly underestimated. The only way to capture even a fleeting glimpse of this problem is by randomly calling households on the phone to poll them, which leads me to my second point; how many un(der)employed people have telephones? Not many, I can assure you. Many un(der)employed people rely on the pay phone on the nearest street corner or on a sympathetic friend or family member to collect their phone messages, or they might be lucky enough to still have a cell phone, as I currently have. Even though a cell phone is cheaper and more convenient than a conventional land-line for most people, especially the un(der)employed, let me remind you that the government doesn't call cell phones (nor pay phones!) to collect their statistics.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the story made another point that grabbed me by the throat and shakes me awake in the middle of the night in a panic;

The number of long-term unemployed who are college graduates has nearly tripled since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, statistics show. Nearly 1 in 5 of the long-term jobless are college graduates. If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed.

I simply must repeat that last sentence because it has made it nearly impossible for me to eat or sleep much these past few days; If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed. Notice that we are not talking about newly minted college graduates who only have so-called "book learning", these are degree holders who already have work experience but are unable to find any sort of job after they become unemployed. Honestly, this statistic robs me of all words, rendering me nearly catatonic, so I'll let you connect the dots while I breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes.

Okay, I am still conscious and relatively coherent right now, so let me change course somewhat and tell you that I received another rejection letter the same day that I read this news story, which certainly compounded my reaction. Perhaps the text of this letter can provide insight to you as to why I am astonishingly, insultingly underemployed in a part-time temporary position that ends in a couple months, earning barely enough money to simply pay my rent.

7 March 2005

[GrrlScientist Note: I guess it took the secretary a few days to lick those hundreds of stamps because I did not receive the letter until 11 March]

Dear [my corporeal name],

Thank you very much for your application for the faculty position in Evolutionary Biology at
[elided]. I speak for the search committee in saying that we appreciate your interest in our College (sic) and our Department (sic), and we appreciate your patience as we wound through the seemingly interminable search and interview process.

[GrrlScientist Note: If he thinks their search and interview process is "seemingly interminable", then I invite the entire search committee to stand in MY shoes for a few hours out of the more than 500 days that I've already devoted to finding a job!]

It is now my unpleasant duty to let you know that we hired someone else for the position. We were greatly impressed by the quality and quantity of applications we received, and we were consequently able to apply very specific criteria reflecting our departmental needs for teaching and research areas. A large number of applicants were competitive for the position, and many more would have been competitive for a slightly different position here.

[GrrlScientist Note: Basically, they are seeking perfect people who are a 110% "fit". This is the standard for hiring these days, as my colleagues and fellow un(der)employed pals tell me. However, after more than 500 days of job hunting, it has become clear to me that I will never be "perfect" by anyone's standards (neither for a job nor for anything else, for that matter) and further, I realize that by diligently following my passions, I have effectively transformed myself into a person who will never be a 110% "fit" for anything that actually pays a (living) wage.]

We wish you the best of luck in all future pursuits.

[GrrlScientist Note: Because I will need it, especially when fighting with the local drunks, crackheads and nutjobs for a park bench to nap on in Central Park this summer.]


[name elided]

Chair, Evolutionary Biologist Search Committee

The personal touch in this letter is surprisingly satisfying because the few rejections I've received are very cold and formal letters that could have been written to almost anyone, well, anyone except a potential future colleague. On the other hand, this letter is also disarming because it makes it easy for me to feel that it is a rejection of me as a person. But at least they sent me a rejection letter, which is more than I get from approximately 90% of my academic and non-academic applications. In fact, most positions that I apply for (and all of the positions that I've interviewed for, save one), have not sent any letters at all, except for those familiar affirmative action postcards that universities send out to their job applicants. Even though I try not to think about it, I am sometimes left wondering what the hell happened? for months afterward.

The implication of this lack of rejection letters is that all those hours I invested into finding the job, assembling the application, researching the school and the departmental faculty and then writing a specific-for-this-job cover letter were so worthless as to not even warrant a response. Further, because these sorts of creative writing exercises consume most of my free time, the oblique implication is that my time is worthless (and it's easy to make the small trip from there to thinking that I, also, am worthless).

Well, on that happy note, I have finished ranting to you about Things That Cannot Possibly Be Fixed In My Lifetime. It's time for me to wade out into that nasty rainstorm that prevented me from distracting myself from my woes by hanging out under Pale Male and Lola's nest today.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, March 19, 2005

How I Hosted the Tangled Bank ..

.. and what I did to make it a success.

When I hosted the 23rd issue of the Tangled Bank (TB23) on 9 March, I didn’t know what to expect because I had never hosted a blog carnival before and in fact, I had only recently figured out what a blog carnival actually is. Nevertheless, my primary goals were to have fun and to avoid the pitfalls experienced by previous hosts. One of the worst problems that recent issues of TB experienced was technological. The previous TB host’s anti-spam software trashed most submissions, so few stories were received and linked for issue 22. I was determined to circumvent the ravages of anti-spam software, so I decided to email acknowledgments to each author so they knew their submissions had been received. Additionally, because I had read, thought about and observed TB during the previous couple months, I took the liberty of developing a few minor goals of my own for “my issue”, goals that (I thought) nicely complimented the original, more encompassing purpose of TB.

As I stated, my main objective was to have fun yet still make it a success. First, to prevent TB23 from becoming a chore, I broke it up into smaller pieces that could easily be accomplished each day and I also made sure that my working and master files were properly backed up. To do this, I made two TB23 files; one was on my blogger account and the other -- the master copy -- resided on my computer desktop. Early every morning, I worked on TB, reading and summarizing each article that had been submitted during the previous 24-hour period of time. This work consumed between 15 minutes to 2 hours each morning and was saved on my computer desktop file. When blogger was cooperating, I then copied the entire desktop file to my blogger TB23 file.

This duplicate system of using a desktop “master” file only consumed a few extra minutes each day but prevented damage due to blogger crashes (always a possibility), and copying the entire file to my blogger account allowed me to work on TB23 anywhere and any time that I had internet access while simultaneously safeguarding this file from corruption due to computer crashes (“my” borrowed computer is very unstable). For those of you who are curious, within the two-week period of time that I worked on “my issue” of TB, I experienced one blogger crash (the day before TB23 was to be published) and two major computer crashes, any one of which would have spelled disaster for this project.

My time commitment abruptly increased on Monday, several days before TB23 was to be published. During the three days prior to publishing TB23, I was consistently investing two and sometimes as much as three hours reading and summarizing articles. I initially tried to work additional time late in the evening on TB, but found that I was not as coherent as I wished the following morning, so I instead shifted my entire time commitment to the morning. This worked out better.

The morning that I posted TB23, I finished writing the lead opening paragraphs, made final edits to the master draft, rearranged the topic categories (again!), and tried to make logical transitions from one article to the next to keep my readers’ interest. I double-checked all internal links on my authors’ articles and notified them of any that were broken (I found only one broken link and the author was able to fix it within a few hours).

To increase the number and variety of articles submitted, I published two appeals for submissions to my blog; one was posted two weeks before the publication date and the second was posted one week prior to publication. Then, regardless of where in the city I was located, I could check my email account for new submissions and add them to my blogger file, beginning the very day that TB22 was published. (You might think this was premature, but my first three submissions arrived that very morning, in fact!). Because I strongly disliked wondering if my own submissions to previous issues of TB (and other blog carnivals) had been received, and because I suspected that other authors felt the same way, I acknowledged each submission as I received it. As each story was sent to me, I replied to the author in 24 hours or less (and cc’d this acknowledgement to PZ when he had forwarded the original message to me) and then copied the text of the original email into my desktop master file (which was usually copied to blogger later) so I could work on it later. I also saved all TB emails to a special file on my email account, so all would not be lost if a “supercrash” somehow managed to destroy both TB files.

As I mentioned earlier, I developed several minor goals of my own for this issue of TB. These goals were to encourage contributions from female bloggers, to seek contributions from “new voices” and, because blogging is a global enterprise, I wanted to foster a more international flavor by encouraging contributions from “non-Americans”. To this end, I approached some of my own contacts in the blogosphere for particular articles that they gladly contributed to “my” issue, and one TB contributor unexpectedly helped by telling me about some “interesting blogs” that I should check out. These “interesting blogs” all contained material that were ultimately included in TB23, and the authors were flattered to be approached by me (some of whom have since sent ecards, personal emails and other tokens of their appreciation). I am pleased to say that I think I achieved all of my goals.

On the publication date after all my work was finished, I copied the entire completed master file to my blogger account and .. held my breath while the wheels of blogger publishing churned .. somewhat clunkily .. and then .. there it was! After quickly checking the document for formatting issues that needed fixing, I sent email to all contributors and included the URL so they all could link to TB23 from their blogs (14 of them did include links).

On Wednesday, the first day that TB23 was publically accessible, my hit meter registered 574 hits (my normal number of hits per day is between 90-150), so this was roughly a three- to four-fold increase in visitors to my site. On the following day, Thursday, MSNBC somehow discovered us and linked to TB23 in a story describing the power of blogs and bloggers. The result was a respectable 301 visitors for that day, approximately one-third to one-half of which were from that one story. In fact, this one MSNBC story resulted in a steady stream of 20-50 readers each day for more than a week and, as of today, I still receive 2-10 visitors each day from this one reference.

Then on Friday afternoon, InstaPundit finally honored my repeated requests and linked to TB23 in the early afternoon (EST). Within minutes, my site meter registered a dramatic jump in visitors: I saw a greater than ten-fold increase in hits, from 30 per hour to more than 300 per hour. The peak number of visits from the InstaPundit link were 421 per hour and total visits for that Friday alone were 2,107 -- a number that diminished to “only” 636 on Saturday. Don’t forget that the number of Saturday visits was still higher than the total number of hits that TB23 received on Wednesday, which is traditionally the single day with the highest number of visitors. Surprisingly, visits from InstaPundit dropped off more rapidly than those from the MSNBC story and I rarely received more than one or two hits from this reference five days after it was published.

I hope this little document can help you make the decision about whether to host TB, and I hope it gives you some ideas for how to organize your time and efforts if you do host it. In short, the entire TB experience was wonderful and I highly recommend it. I read a lot of good science writing and I happily seized this rare opportunity to “meet” all of the contributors through email, to approach and add new contributors to our growing group, to “meet” new readers who subsequently flooded my email box, and I managed to make the contributors happy with additional traffic to their sites as well as with the end product, the TB23 index (or so I think). Hosting TB23 also allowed me to indulge several of my personal goals; to share good science, medical and nature writing with the public and to encourage scientists, medical doctors and others to continue writing by providing a venue for them to share their essays with the public. I also had the added -- and unexpected -- benefit of building stronger personal connections with all of the contributors. In short, TB23 was one of the most positive and pleasant experiences I’ve had in the past 8 months and I would happily (eagerly) host it again.


The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 25.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, March 18, 2005

Birds in the News #3

I have a nice collection of bird stories to share with you this week, thanks to my efforts and those of some birdy friends of mine. Several stories linked here are special because of the quality of their photographs, so be sure to look at those.

Beginning next week, I plan to include interesting bird photos that my readers have sent to me (you would have seen an interesting bird photo today, but technological problems intervened). If you have found an interesting story about birds in the news or if you have an interesting photo that you want to share, please send it to me so I can include it in my weekly "Birds in the News" round-up.

Birds and People:

Here is an absolutely fascinating link that allows you and your kids to soar the heavens with Tilly, a four-year-old female Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos! Using one of those newly-developed microcameras mounted on Tilly's back, this site features astonishing close-up streaming footage of a flying eagle (including an aerial "dogfight" with a buzzard) that you must see!

I cannot resist linking to this story where my Seattle colleagues and former long-time birding pals are interviewed about their version of name that tune. It is so good to see them doing well and helping more people discover the beauty of birds!

After enduring a lengthy hospitalization and several surgeries to cure a cloacal abscess, Pearl, one of only 83 Kakapos, Strigops habroptilus, remaining in the world, was sent to her new home in her own helicopter. Kakapos are large, flightless charcoal-green parrots found only on several islands in New Zealand. Their physical appearance resembles that of a green owl and they are nocturnal, also like owls, so they are locally known as "owl parrots" or "parrots of the night".

This year, North America has experienced a large southward irruption of owls who are searching for food. This has also resulted in a large number of injured owls, some of whom are receiving medical treatment. I included this story because it features a short but very interesting photoseries detailing the surgical treatment of a female great grey owl's broken wing.

Birds in Love:

In news from my other beloved home, NYC, Pale Male and Lola are nesting again, thanks to protesters around the world who prevented them from losing their nest site on their fancy fifth avenue home in Manhattan. (I am proud to say that I played a somewhat prominent role in this protest, which you can read about in earlier entries in this blog). This is a NYTimes story that requires (free) registration. [If you are severely opposed to this sort of thing, I believe you can still access the NYTimes by using "clreader" as your username and password.]

Like people, birds can and will travel long distances across harrowing barriers in their quest for love, as this love-lorn female ferruginous pygmy owl, Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum, demonstrates. (This story also requires free registration).

Birds in Urban Settings:

Chicago is setting an example for all tall cities around the world by holding a meeting that seeks to address deaths of migratory birds that fly into skyscrapers. Already, their concerns about the welfare of migrating birds have led to some changes; they estimate that approximately 10,000 birds have been saved each year since the managers of more than 20 of Chicago's tallest buildings began turning their lights out after 11 pm during migratory seasons.

Speaking of bird deaths, the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada, has a bird problem due to their close proximity to the Fraser River Delta, which provides a superb refueling stop for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl. Unfortunately, as you will learn in this story, birds and airplanes are not compatible. I hope airport officials devise better ways to discourage birds from hanging around the airport other than killing them; methods such as more harassment by dogs and also inviting in falconers and their birds on a rotating basis, as happens at JFK airport in NYC, which is also located on a major flyway and near an avian refueling stop. (This story also includes an optional sound file).

Birds and Art:

If you like bird art, Audubon paintings or if you are looking for fun things to do in NYC, then this is the event for you! The New York Historical Society is currently hosting a special exhibit called Audubon's Aviaries, which features 40 paintings of John James Audubon's North American birds. I have already seen this exhibit and I plan to return tomorrow before I write a more lengthy narrative for my blog. The show ends 3 April 2005, so hurry!

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Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

Academic job applications: 1 (one-year teaching contract (not tenure-track) at a local university)

Academic job rejections: 1 (assistant professor of evolutionary biology)

Other job applications: 2 (part-time science writer, full-time science information specialist)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Carnival of Education #6 was Published

I was a little surprised to see that an essay I wrote was included in the recent Carnival of Education, published this morning. I was surprised because this essay, Owls and other Fantasies, is not one of my more optimistic pieces. My essay is listed somewhere closer to the top than the bottom of this index.

Unfortunately, the Carnival of Education does not have a primary index site that links together everything they've listed (otherwise, I'd link to it from my sidebar), but each new issue does provide links to previous index issues, so you can check them all out if you wish.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Medical Grand Rounds XXV was Published

Hey, dear readers, Medical Grand Rounds XXV was published a few hours ago and several essays that I wrote are included in it! Not bad for an unemployable evolutionary birdologist, eh? Of course, I am very happy about this, so please do check it out, especially if medicine and medical issues are interesting to you. The host, Orac, has a rather unusual way of organizing the submitted material -- making me wish I had a TV! I hope you enjoy it.

(Okay, I'll make it easier for you to find me in Orac's list; I am listed in the Tuesday, 9-10pm time slot, for a TV show called House, M.D., as a "guest star" for an episode titled A Bird in the Hand.)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, March 14, 2005

Pale Male and Lola Have Eggs!

Not only have Pale Male and Lola been rebuilding their nest, but they are now incubating an as-yet unknown number of eggs! They started incubation yesterday (Sunday, 13 March 2005). Thanks to everyone's help, the "People's Birds" are raising another generation!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production

I have received lots of email about avian influenza (thanks!), so I will try to answer at least a few of your questions by telling you about influenza’s basic biology and how that impinges upon vaccine design.

The cutaway cartoon of an individual influenza virus particle (shown below) reveals several important features. First, it shows the eight different segments of the viral genome. These segments encode all essential viral proteins and therefore, define its behavior after it invades cells within the host (you). These genomic segments are comprised of single stranded ribonucleic acids (RNA) that act as templates encoding viral proteins. As soon as the virus particle invades a host cell, it sheds its outer layer of proteins similar to a person shedding a winter coat upon entering a warm room. The “uncoated” RNA templates are immediately decoded and translated into viral proteins by the host cell’s protein-making “machinery”. These all-important RNA segments are also copied and packaged into new viral protein coats that were constructed by the host cell.

The second important feature in this picture is the two proteins on the surface of the viral particle. These proteins are often referred to as the “protein coat”. These proteins are what your body’s immune system sees and responds to. If the structures of either or both of these two proteins are distinctive enough that if your body’s immune system has seen them before, it will readily recognize them again. As a result of this recognition, your body immediately mounts an effective immune response by specifically destroying infected host cells that have been invaded, thereby protecting the host from infection.

These two proteins allow the virus to invade host cells. The first protein, hemagglutinin (abbreviated as HA. Note that it is misspelled in the accompanying cartoon), initiates infection by attaching the virus particle to specific proteins located on the outside of the host cell. These cellular proteins are referred to as “receptors”. Sticking to these receptor proteins is almost like ringing a doorbell because after HA binds, the unwitting cell invites the virus particle inside and, by doing so, signs its own death warrant by initiating viral infection. This cellular receptor protein is shared with red blood cells, too, so when HA binds to red blood cells (which contain hemoglobin, thus the word, “heme”), it causes them to clump together (agglutinate), a quality noticed by scientists many decades ago, hence this protein’s name.

The other viral surface protein, neuraminidase (NA), is an enzyme that destroys the host cell’s receptor proteins that HA binds to. By doing this immediately after the mature virus has been manufactured and assembled, NA allows these new viruses to be released from the host cell so they are free to infect new cells.

There are several types of influenza viruses; A, B and C. Types B and C have a very restricted host range: they only infect humans. In fact, type C viruses cause a very mild illness and never trigger pandemics or epidemics so health officials never subtype them. Influenza type B viruses are generally not serious and only occasionally cause epidemics so they also are not subtyped. But unlike these other two virus types, Influenza type A has a broad host range. Ducks are thought to be the natural hosts for Influenza A because they rarely develop fatal infections. But Influenza A can infect other birds as well as mammals (humans, pigs, horses, seals and whales, to name a few species) with devastating results. Due to its lethality and potential to trigger pandemics, Influenza type A viruses are carefully subtyped based upon which HA and NA proteins they carry on their surface. For example, an “H2N3” virus designates an Influenza type A virus with the HA 2 and NA 3 surface protein subtypes, and the current version of the “bird flu” is an H5N1 virus that has HA 5 and NA 1 surface proteins. Influenza A viruses are sometimes referred to by their numerical subtype alone; H1N1, H2N3, etc.

There are 16 distinct HA proteins (a new one was reported last week) and 9 different NA proteins, and hundreds of combinations of these two coat proteins are possible due to viral genomic rearrangements. Recombinations occur when two different virus particles infect the same host cell. During the virus manufacture and assembly process, individual surface proteins and RNA segments from the two different viral genomes can be mixed up as they are packaged and assembled. As a result, the new virus particles can have characters of both “parent viruses” when they have new and very different HA and NA proteins on their surface and when they contain genome segments that encode different HA and NA protein combinations. These changes radically alter the viral surface appearance such that the host’s immune system cannot recognize these viruses. Dramatic genomic changes such as these are called “antigenic shift”. When this occurs in viruses, a pandemic (worldwide spread) results. A pandemic results when the human population has little or no innate immunity against the virus, and when it can be easily and rapidly transmitted from person to person. Influenza viruses, which are primarily airborne, as especially transmissable.

Influenza viruses can also undergo smaller changes when mistakes are made while copying genomic segments. These mutations accumulate gradually over time and give rise to minor changes in viral coat proteins so they are poorly recognized by the host’s immune system. When this occurs, an epidemic (localized spread) results. These gradual changes are referred to as “antigenic drift”. Both Influenza type A and B viruses experience antigenic drift. In fact, antigenic drift is the reason that the same individual can get flu infections repeatedly, and also is the reason that people should get influenza vaccines every year.

As described, there are hundreds of possible recombinations of influenza surface proteins can result from antigenic shift, but currently, only several subgroups circulate throughout a particular species or population at any one time. For example, H3N8 and H7N7 cause illness in horses while H1N1, H1N2 and H3N2 currently cause illness in humans. Incidentally, an H1N1 virus caused the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic that killed an estimated 50 or more million people worldwide while the less-deadly (but still impressive) 1957 pandemic resulted from H2N2.

Viral subtypes H1, H2 and H3 are best adapted to humans and often cause epidemics and pandemics. Avian subtypes, H5, H7 and H9, have caused sporadic outbreaks of disease in the past when they jumped from birds into humans but they did not trigger epidemics because they were unable to be transmitted effectively from human to human.

How are effective and up-to-date flu vaccines designed and produced? It is a combination of science, educated guesswork and at least some luck because, as you have surmised, the flu virus is a moving target. First, because flu vaccines are effective against only a limited number of viruses, it is important to carefully choose each strain to include in the vaccine. To this end, many labs throughout the world maintain influenza virus collections. Each year, groups of these viruses are sent to one of four World Health Organization (WHO) reference labs. One of these reference labs is located in the United States at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. These labs carry out extensive testing and characterization of circulating and new flu viruses to determine how effectively human antibodies made against the current vaccine react against them. These data are combined with information about current flu activity and then a group of health officials from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and from WHO select two type A and one type B virus (for a total of three viruses) that will be used to manufacture the next year’s flu vaccine. Because influenza strains change every year, each year’s vaccine differs from the previous one by including one or even two new virus strains.

Even though more modern cell culture methods are now being developed, influenza vaccines are still prepared in the traditional way. Fertilized chicken eggs that are 11 days old are injected with a small amount of one of the three targeted “seed strains” of flu viruses. Each targeted flu virus is injected into the albumin (egg white) of individual eggs through a small hole in the shell. After injection, the hole is resealed and the virus then infects the lungs of the developing chicken embryo. Within several days (the specific length depends upon the virus strain), the virus has multiplied to great enough numbers to be harvested from the eggs.

Even with robotic assistance, “working with eggs is tedious,” says Samuel L. Katz of the Duke University School of Medicine, a member of the vaccine advisory committee for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Opening a culture flask is a heck of a lot simpler.”

Because of the nature of flu vaccine production, vaccine companies must place their egg orders six months or more in advance before they begin producing vaccines. Further, each egg is innoculated with only one virus strain and produces enough of that strain for 1-2 doses, so approximately two to three eggs are required per vaccine. This process consumes hundreds of millions of eggs (270 million or more for the United States alone) to produce a sufficient supply of vaccine for the United States. Additionally, when a pandemic is looming, vaccine companies must manufacture as much as ten times more vaccine than they would normally produce.

“The egg method isn’t very flexible if you need to rapidly ramp up vaccine supply,” says Jonathan Seals, director of Process Development at ID Biomedical Corporation of Northborough, MA. “Vaccine manufacturers need to arrange for egg supplies months in advance — and you can’t tell a chicken to lay more eggs.”

Several days after injection and incubation, the virus particles are mechanically harvested from the eggs and purified several times to separate the virus particles from egg proteins. After purification, the viruses are chemically inactivated so they cannot cause influenza and then they are “split” using a detergent. The detergent releases the surface proteins, HA and NA, from the virus particles to increase accessibility to the immune cells of the body. Finally, the three split viruses are combined to make one “trivalent” flu vaccine. After passing safety tests, the vaccine is packaged and distributed to health care workers in time for the September vaccination campaign.

The entire process, from collecting, injecting and incubating millions of specially produced eggs through the safety tests on the vaccine, takes five to eight months. This means that health officials must decide one year in advance which flu viruses to use in its vaccines and how many batches of vaccine to purchase. This can be a risky business when trying to contain a potential pandemic of a rapidly changing virus such as the “bird flu”.


More Information:

Graphic of a individual Influenza Virus particle

Weekly Report: Influenza Summary Update (Centers for Disease Control)

Background on Influenza (Centers for Disease Control)

Influenza production process graphic [PDF]

My brain, which collects all sorts of information from the many (many!) papers, books and magazines that I read, from the scientists who tell me cool things, and from the superb university classes I've taken.


More Essays about Avian Influenza;

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds', Part 2.

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds'.

Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production.

Public Confusion Surrounding Influenza.

Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly?


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This essay was recognized as among the "Best Medical Blog Writing" by
Medical Grand Rounds XXV.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 24.

Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 103.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, March 12, 2005

What's my Problem??

Diagnosing my problems using the internet.

The internet is a source of many wonders and lots of nearly instantaneous gratification. Today, I decided that I will identify all of my problems for free (and nearly instantaneously) using the internet. Following are some diagnoses.

Dating/True Love:

The results of this test probably explains why men love to hang out and talk with me but don't want to date me: I am "one of the boys" (I am talking about the gender percentages shown in the blue square, the other stuff is just "padding" so I don't feel so gender-ambiguous);

Your Brain is
46.67% Female,
53.33% Male

Your brain is a healthy mix of male and female
You are both sensitive and savvy
Rational and reasonable, you tend to keep level headed
But you also tend to wear your heart on your sleeve

Or maybe this test explains my dating problem (as in; do you know an attractive and "normal" man without er, hygiene issues who actually wants to date a nerdy female? If so, send him my way!);

I am nerdier than 99% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Personality Disorder:

This test reveals that my job hunting woes have truly damaged my personality and will probably transform me into a hermit forever;


-- Personality Disorder Test - Take It! --

My parrots demanded that I take this test (I don't know why), arr!;

My pirate name is:

Black Grace Flint

Like anyone confronted with the harshness of robbery on the high seas, you can be pessimistic at times. Like the rock flint, you're hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you're easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from

My Future Home:

Well, the good news is they won't charge me rent and I am grateful that I am not stuck on the tenth level of hell (unemployment and job hunting) for all eternity;

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to
the Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis!

Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Moderate
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Moderate
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very High
Level 7 (Violent)Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)High

Take Dante's Inferno Test


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, March 11, 2005

Birds in the News #2

This week, my bird loving pals and I have found some interesting stories about birds and people that you will enjoy. These stories range from Asian vultures who all are teetering on the brink of extinction, to "webbed" 3-D scanned images of avian study skins and a story about how birds have helped disabled women find meaning in their lives again. Some stories linked here are old but are well worth reading (again). If you have found a story about birds in the news, please send it to me so I can include it in my weekly "Birds in the News" round-up.

Birds and the Environment:

After the unexpected environmental disaster triggered by the widespread veterinary use of the anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, a second breeding centre for Asia's vanishing vultures is being established to recover three species of Gyps vultures from the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, groups of only two species, G. indicus and G. bengalensis, have been captured for this proposed 15-year captive breeding effort which leaves the future of G. tenuirostris in doubt.

Speaking of environmental damage, another cause of environmental damage is the release of animals in locations where they are not native. These "invading species" often cause tremendous damage to native species through competition for limited resources, predation, and by transmitting alien diseases to native species. The Institute for Biological Invasions' "Invader of the Month" is the Monk Parakeet, Myiopsitta monachus. This long and informative article, originally published in December 2000, details the natural history of this little parrot. It comes to the surprising conclusion that "the monk parakeet is a clear example of an exotic species with a positive impact, at least in human sociological or psychological terms." This report goes on to say that "monk parakeets are agricultural pests in Argentina [their native home] and [in] at least one other location, and their nests damage transmission lines by causing them to short circuit (Bucher 1992). At issue is the amount of damage they inflict."

Call for Comments on proposed revisions to the threat status of parrots:

As part of their annual cycle of reviewing the threat status of the world's birds, BirdLife International is currently seeking comment and information on ten parrot species whose categorization on the IUCN Red List is currently under review. Each topic describes the current status of these species, reasons for the suggested revision, and a request for information. The final deadline for comments is 21 March.

For the birders and ornithologists out there, here are a few links that you might enjoy;

The sound that accompanies this blog entry is produced by a pair of duetting eastern whipbirds, Psophodes olivaceus, from Australia (reload this page to hear it again. The male sings the slowly ascending opening note, and the female finishes the song with the whip "crack"). This song was linked from Sound Gallery-Soundbytes of Birds of New Zealand, where many more bird song recordings are available. The name of this website is deceptive because there are many species recordings from other places than New Zealand that can be found there.

Index of bird type specimens are scanned 3 dimensional images of avian study skins at the Zoological Museum Amsterdam that are freely accessible by the public. Each specimen has a complete history as well. This link also shows some examples of the birds that I research (Old World Parrots).

Behavior (of Birds and People):

Following is a touching story makes me proud to know that others find birds to be as life-affirming as I do (while simultaneously making me homesick for my other home, Seattle); Birding Gives Disabled Women Their Active Lives Back. I was a volunteer for the Seattle Audubon for two years (The Audubon is part of this story, which is why I mention this), so I know all the places and the birds they speak of in this story like the back of my hand. Ah, the memories, such sweet memories!

A report about a misbehaving Mallard drake, Anas platyrhynchos won the coveted Ig Nobel Prize for Improbable Research. This story has all the essential elements of a good thriller but I refuse to spoil it by telling you any more. Really, you have to read it to believe it.

This story about the feeding innovations of birds was widely reported several weeks ago, but I thought it was worth including here anyway. This story is interesting because it discusses some rather odd and creative methods that birds use to obtain food and uses those anecdotal stories as a way to speculate about avian intelligence. Even though I don't think this is a good way to measure "intelligence" of birds (we still can't figure out how to measure "intelligence" in humans!), I do think these stories about avian innovation are fascinating.

Avian Influenza:

For those of you who are closely following the avian influenza story, you might be cheered to know that tests of a new vaccine using an attenuated (weakened) H5N1 virus have apparently been successful in monkeys, according to officials in Hanoi. This is an important development because, despite having no hard evidence of human-to-human transmission, many officials claim that avian influenza has already jumped the species barrier into humans and appears to be showing limited transmissability between humans.

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Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

Academic job applications: 1 (in London)

Academic job rejections: 1 -- I wanted this job so badly that I simply lack the words to express how terrible this particular rejection feels.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tangled Bank, Issue #23, The Birdday Edition

Welcome to the 23rd issue of Tangled Bank! The wine and champagne have been chilling all day, the glasses are spotless, I have wonderful hors doerves for you to nibble on and a pianist (one of my good friends) is playing for you. So feel free to come in and help yourselves to this sumptuous smorgasbord of excellent blogged writing about science, nature and medicine. Please wander from room to room where you will find a variety of topics being discussed, or feel free to take your shoes off and sit on the pillows in the bay windows. I think this issue is the largest and most diverse yet, so there is something here for everyone, whether you are a university professor, an interested reader or a 12-year-old aspiring scholar. When you need to rest your eyes for a minute, please sip your wine (yes, 12-year-olds are allowed to drink wine on my blog) and enjoy the company of good friends, each with their special talents and gifts, and indulge yourself with interesting conversation.

I have categorized these essays into sections where they seem to fit best, but please do not limit yourselves to only one genre because there are some interesting surprises that lurk here.

Biology, Zoology and Natural History:

Let’s start this section by talking about one of my most favorite topics in the world; birds. In this essay, Mike, one of the authors of 10,000 Birds, writes about the great gray owl, Strix nebulosa, that recently appeared in NY State for a probable first-ever state record for this species.

New Zealander, Xavier, writes about his paper that was just published in his story, Urban Noise and Birdsong in the team blog, About Town. The link from his blog entry to the PDF of his paper is now functioning (thanks to Hunting the Snark, who is hosting his PDF).

Now that I’ve satisfied my bird passion, let’s make the transition to spiders by asking, ‘what do music, spiders, and beer have in common?’ In Adventures In Journalism: Redback On The Toilet Seat, published in the team blog, Silflay Hraka, Bigwig questions the species identification of an “orange and possibly brown thing” mentioned in a Reuters’ news story and learns something interesting.

Now that you’ve finished reading about identifying spiders, Dinesh, author of Points of Departure and first-time contributor to Tangled Bank, reveals a helpful hint for hikers, naturalists and field biologists for keeping spider webs from encasing your face (thereby causing your inner arachnophobe needless terror) as you wander through the woods in The Spider Web Hack.

Chris, author of Creek Running North, discovers Coprinus mushrooms in his compost pile, and describes their natural history and beneficial relationships to green plants in this amusing and informative essay.

Gaw3 is a neurobiologist who writes Keats’ Telescope, named for a poem that “nicely captures the feeling that I love most about being a scientist – the moments of utter surprise and awe.” In this essay, Life on the Edge, gaw3 talks about photosynthetic bacteria which live under extremely cold and dry conditions.

Invasive Species:

Josh, author of Thoughts from Kansas, discusses the politics and ecology surrounding the pygmy rabbit in Fish and Wildlife Agrees to Review Petition on Pygmy Rabbit, which shares the same vanishing habitat with the sage grouse that, incidentally, was not granted protected status by the USFWS.

I am the Key Master is a brief notice of a variety of on-line resources that can be used to document invasive plants in the New England region of the USA using the electronic field guide to “Invasive Plants in Winter”, by plant ecologist, Jennifer. This might be a useful model for those who wish to do something similar in other parts of the world.

PZ Special Birdday Gift Feature Story:

This amusing story is actually retold from an earlier account related by the author’s father, who seems to moonlight as a practical joker; Squid? Or Octopus? … or atmospheric convection?? This article was written by another first-time contributor and self-professed “PZ admirer”, Alphabitch.

Evolutionary Biology:

PZ, author of Pharyngula, birdday boy and head cheese of Tangled Bank, sends these lovely pictures of cephalopod and polychaete cartilages combined with a discussion of how invertebrates can help us understand the evolution of cartilage in vertebrates in Invertebrate Cartilages. Predictably, this article reminds me of my anatomy and physiology students, who should be studying madly for their lab exam tomorrow -- part of which covers cartilage (I wish we had such lovely slides to look at!).

In this nice transition from zoology to microbial evolution, Syaffolee discusses the evolutionary relationship of mitochondria to hydrogenosomes, an unusual intracellular organelle that allows anaerobic metabolism in certain microbes in The Evolution of Powerhouses.

In this interesting essay that also addresses the “intelligent design” legerdemain, Evolution Project And A Truly Fair And Balanced Fox, Bora, author of Science and Politics, describes how simply changing the timing of one event during embryonic development can result a suite of changes, ranging from social behavior to morphology and even endocrinology.

The Cambrian explosion (when the first vertebrates arose) was not as explosive as many people think. DarkSyd, who writes Unscrewing the Inscrutable, provides a general overview of the event and then launches into his own “wild speculations” as to what might have happened during those early days of evolution before our ancient ancestors pulled themselves from the primordial ooze in Science Brainteaser: The Cambrian Explosion.

Bora explores the historical politics behind Lysenko’s ideologically inspired “scientific” report published in 1949 in Yugoslavia. In Lysenko Gets A D-Minus On My Genetics Test, Bora gives credit to Lysenko for identifying what was wrong with western biology at that time, while simultaneously being blind to what was wrong with his own science, which ultimately led to famine in the Soviet Union, costing many thousands of people their lives.

Charlie, author of Shades of Grey, focuses on semantics in Giving the Truth Scope, which is his proposal to rename the “intelligent design” (ID) legerdemain to accurately reflect what ID sneakily tries to preach to a largely apathetic public.

Josh, who co-authors The Evolution Project, proposes an interesting idea for making evolutionary research more accessible to the public by summarizing the basic hypothesis tested in the paper in terms that the public cares about in Reflections on 300 examples. He also appeals to you for help with this project.

Evolutionary Psychology and Behavior

In an interesting essay that continues the evolution theme, Chris, a cognitive scientist and author of Mixing Memory, explores the limits of evolutionary psychology and explains how it differs from evolutionary biology in What, If Anything, Can Evolutionary Stories Tell Us About Human Cognition?

In this rather pointed essay, Chris describes how careful reading and critical thinking are essential for writing a coherent argument in How Evolutionary Psychology Can Make You Look Like an Ass.

Neurobiology and Learning:

Dave, the co-author of Cognitive Daily and a new contributor to Tangled Bank, describes how little we really notice in our environment in this delightful story, Our ability to see change over time. This story uses a Quicktime animation to make the point.

Another story by Dave explores how our brains perceive optical illusions. He studies a fascinating painting, “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire”, by one of my favorite painters, Salvador Dali, in How do we Decide what We’re Seeing? (by the way, the first picture shown in this story looks more like a gull than a duck to me. What do you think?).

Scott, an assistant professor of music, reports on a very unusual form of synaesthesia, in Musical Taste, as originally described in the journal, Nature. This is something that I wish I had! Scott is author of Musical Perceptions.

In this story, Rami briefly investigates how applied learning is distinct from intellectual learning in TOM’S ONLINE TENNIS LESSON - Learning to Learn Tennis! (Although, I think that both types of learning have more commonalities than differences .. do you agree?).

I’ve often wondered how social trauma affects generations of people, and these two thoughtful and well-written essays explore that very theme. Threading the Needle skillfully blends psychology, sociology and epidemiology in this exploration of the possibility that offspring of slaves are scarred by the psychological legacy of this trauma in Traumatic Reverberation, Part I and Part II.

Clinical Medicine and Epidemiology:

Let’s begin the medicine section with a story describing how a woman’s aching knees saved her life, in Medicine: Family History. The author, smallhands2, has dedicated her blog to raising public awareness about Colorectal Cancer this month.

How often do you actually follow through on your promise to follow your doctor’s advice? Even doctors know the answer to that question, so imagine one physican’s surprise when he learns the real reason for his patient’s promised compliance in Before the Pain Comes. Dr. Charles is a physician who is the author of The Examining Room of Dr. Charles.

Continuing our medical theme is the humorous tale of a medical sleuth, The Life of a Consult, describing the frustrating lack of basic investigation by a patient’s primary physician prior to asking for a medical consultation written by Mad House Madman, author of Chronicles of a Medical Mad House.

Another first-time contributor to Tangled Bank, Trish Wilson, is ill with laryngitis so she is thinking about diseases a lot. After reading a comment from a sympathetic reader whose wife had suffered from a variant of avian influenza, she began reading more about this disease. This article is the result of painstaking research through the CDC website; Scientists Believe That Bird Flu Will Mutate To A Pathogen Transmitted From Human To Human.

Your host for this issue of Tangled Bank, GrrlScientist, asks how mortality and infectivity rates are determined for infectious diseases in Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly? This is the first of several articles that your host is writing that address various aspects of Avian Influenza.

The Art in Science and Life:

In this delightful essay that skillfully juxtaposes several unlikely topics, Rexroth’s Daughter, one half of the pair who co-author Dharma Bums, talks about electromagnetic calling cards and Accidental Time Capsules as embodied by a variety of Lucys that have touched us as a culture and as scientists throughout the years. Then, in this poem, Forty Dozen Eggs, Rexroth’s Daughter continues to delight as she describes the passage of her life in an intriguing way.

Reflections on Science:

Are you more afraid of spiders, the dentist or public speaking? For those of you who said, “public speaking”, here is a “two-fer” by Orac describing how important it is for aspiring scientists to master Public Speaking and how he overcame his fear. This article is followed up with Short Scientific Talks for Dummies, a “nuts and bolts” essay on how to give short scientific presentations. Orac is a medical scientist, author of Respectful Insolence and is a frequent contributor to Tangled Bank.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find a job in science (especially in my field, evolutionary biology) as many people believe (including most graduate students and newly-minted PhDs) as I report in this piece that would be funny if it wasn’t still excruciatingly, painfully true; ’Virtually Unemployable’ Scientist Slated to Sell Body to Fund Research.

To help solve the difficulties that many young PhDs have with merely finding a paying job in their field, YoungFemaleScientist proposes an unusual solution in her article, Propagation of Indoctrination. This is YoungFemaleScientist’s first contribution to Tangled Bank.


How does the sun shine? This well-written and uplifting obituary (because Hans Bethe died recently), Hans Bethe, 1906-2005, celebrates the life of a giant by describing how this discovery came about. This fascinating essay was written by an astrophysicist and software engineer.

To you, dear readers, thank you for reading my issue of Tangled Bank! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it all together for you. The next edition of Tangled Bank will be at Syaffolee on 23 March. Send your submissions to directly to the editor at syaffolee, PZ Myers or to For all contributors to this (the best yet) issue of Tangled Bank, feel free to add this badge to your article along with a link back to this page so your readers can navigate more easily;

The Tangled Bank


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