February 2017 Newsletter
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Happy Birthday, Darwin!

We start off this month with exciting updates on our episode release schedule, along with some science communication thoughts. 
This issue also celebrates some of the symbiotic relationships made famous by naturalist 

Charles Darwin: barnacles and whales, a particular orchid and its moth pollinator, and domesticated dogs and their human companions.
(Make sure to celebrate his birthday, February 12!)



In case you missed it:

Our January social media was full of marine symbiosis variety. Two highlights were a fish living inside a sea cucumber's anal cavity and a squid with mutual bacteria helping it glow in the dark.
Darwin's birthday month is also (and more importantly) Black History. Bioluminescence is pretty rad in and of itself, but did you know NASA scientist Emmett Chappelle spearheaded some of its practical uses as a pioneer of remote sensing? Chappelle's creative discoveries have gained him a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 


Emmett Chappelle
Check out more symbioses over on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Being a grassroots organization, we're always interested in your suggestions on what and how to write! Send us a reply at 

In This Issue...

  • Upcoming episodes and science communication
  • A hitchhiker's guide to whales: barnacles and the whales they ride
  • The observed orchid and the possible moth
  • History of human's best friend: the domestication of dogs

Upcoming BIOTA episodes: This summer!

We've been busy brainstorming how to best provide our followers with quality material this past month. Drumroll please...our episodes will be released in 4-minute segments of threes every Thursday at 3 PM PST, starting June 1st through November 30th!
In the meantime, we'll be glimpsing into the average day of a scientist and asking them, "Why is science important?"
Be sure to check our YouTube Channel!

As we've written before, the episode trio will deal with fire ecology in central California (including the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada bioregions). One family of relationships we highlight in this first series is the figurative mutualism* between the scientists who study fire and the people who live with fire impacts. When scientists, politicians, and citizens work together, there's the potential to both do better science and make informed policy decisions. 

An excellent scientist, communicator, and decision informer Dr. Jane Lubchenco points out, "Many of us have worked hard to make scientific information understandable, credible, relevant, and accessible to help inform (not dictate) decisions. Fortunately, many politicians and others join us in believing that decisions based on science will be better decisions. We believe that access to information underpins an informed democracy.".

These ideas are a big part of why we continue to do what we do here at BIOTA. We encourage you to read her letter in the journal "Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment":

*I say figurative mutualism because here, we're talking about relationships between different populations of humans, and usually biologists reserve the term "mutualism" for reciprocally beneficial relationships between species.

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Whales

Barnacles are confusing. Medieval Europeans thought some barnacles were geese (yes, the bird; I know, right?) and later on, 18th-century biologist Linnaeus thought perhaps barnacles were molluscs (like a clam or a snail). The truth is: neither! Barnacles are crustaceans– distant relatives of crabs and lobsters. Barnacles are sometimes thought of as a nuisance if you're a boat owner or if you're trying to walk barefoot on the beach (they're sharp!), but they've also played a very important role in the history of evolutionary biology.
Photo Credit: Pacific Whale Foundation

Though Charles Darwin is famous for his book on evolution, "The Origin of Species" (1859), naturalists respected him for what a good job he did with describing all known species of barnacles in a series of books published a few years earlier (1851 and 1854). Making painstakingly detailed observations of many of these highly modified crustaceans informed his ideas about the way natural selection could work to radically alter the morphology of organisms.
An illustration from Darwin's works on Barnacles
Photo Source:

Many barnacles attach themselves to rocks and filter-feed in the ocean. However, some barnacles attach themselves to larger animals like sea turtles and whales, hitchhiking through the ocean with their hosts. This is a type of commensal relationship is sometimes referred to as "phoresy" or "phoresis," which describes the relationship between a large organism and its comparatively tiny hitchhikers. Recently, fossil barnacles known to be associated with whales were used to help understand the evolution of migration in whales, and how global ocean temperatures have changed over millions of years.
Photo Credit: Mo Riza 

The Observed Orchid and the Possbile Moth

Photo Credits: Michael Wolf and Esculapio

There are lots of cool plant-pollinator mutualisms. Many of the beautiful colors seen in flowers are visual cues for birds and insects to find these flowers with ease. The first person to show that insects can actually see multiple colors (and not just black and white) was Dr. Charles Henry Turner. Dr. Turner was also the first African-American to get his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1907).

The relationship between the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale and the moth Xanthopan morgani praedicta doesn't rely on visual cues, but rather it is an awesome example of the predictive power of the theory of evolution. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace agreed, based on how difficult it is to get nectar from the orchid, there must be an insect (likely a moth) with a very long proboscis (the straw-like mouthparts that almost all moths and butterflies have) that can get this nectar. This extreme example of coevolution seemingly benefits the orchid by minimizing the amount of pollen from other orchid species it comes into contact with. Since only one moth species can take advantage of the nectar rewards, it's likely that the moth will only bring pollen from flower to flower within that orchid species.

From a history of science perspective, this mutualism is super-cool because it was one of the first examples of a vindicated prediction of Darwin's (and Wallace's) theory of evolution by natural selection; they observed a flower that seemed as if it must be pollinated by a moth with a ridiculous morphology, and then, years later, that moth was discovered.
There are some pretty impressive videos of the moth in the act of pollination here:

And a scene from the 2002 film "Adaptation" in which they reference this relationship:
On a tangential note, some barnacles also have a very long, "probosciform" appendage. I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to research that on your own.

The History of Human's Best Friend

An example of mutualism that we don't often talk about in ecology classes is that between humans and some of the animals we have domesticated.
It's likely that the long-term association between humans and dogs evolved as a result of a mutual benefit between species: the dogs helped humans hunt and keep away other predators, and the humans shared meat from the animals they hunted. Over the course of thousands of years, more specialized relationships between humans and dogs evolved - as humans actively shaped the selective pressures on dogs (a process usually referred to as "artificial selection"), some breeds of dogs became increasingly specialized and strange-looking. Interestingly, some scientists think that dogs may have actually made the first move, and started the coevolutionary ball rolling by essentially being friendly.
(Photo Credit (above): Secord)

Darwin wanted to convince people that natural selection could change the way populations looked over long stretches of time. Part of the way he accomplished this was using examples of many different types of domesticated organisms (for example, pigeons) to bolster his argument. Lots of people could relate to the idea that humans had selected dogs so that the dogs with the most desirable traits had the most babies, and, over the course of hundreds to thousands of years, shaped the looks of the modern breeds we recognize today. Darwin's insight into the similarity between artificial selection and natural selection played a major role in his ability to convince people that evolution by natural selection might be a thing.

Obviously, you can all find lots of pictures of cute puppies on the internet, but check out this documentary for more insights into the evolutionary history of domesticated dogs:
Photo Credit: Evocateur
This newsletter is brought to you by BIOTA science writers Jesse Czekanski-Moir and Helen Cheng.
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