Thursday, April 10, 2014


See below for the essays about the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences field meeting last weekend.

There are some people—the exact number is hard to determine—who care nothing for their fellow world citizens. Some of them are psychopaths, whose brains make them incapable of empathy, but psychopaths are only part of the problem. There are many others who are anti-altruists even though they may not be clinically psychopathic. One example, and I’m sure you can think of many in your own experience, is the people who left beer bottles and cans on the beach and under the trees at the state park where the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences had its meeting last weekend. They left their litter—some of it dangerous broken glass—not by accident but deliberately. They were sending a message to the rest of us. They wanted to make it perfectly clear that they hate the rest of us and the planet that we share with them.

I’m not talking about careless litterers, of which Oklahoma has a large number. A lot of people put trash in their truck beds and seem totally unaware that this trash can blow out of the truck bed and onto the road. One time, as I drove at full speed down an interstate highway, a plastic door lifted up out of a truck bed and slammed against my car. I wonder if, sometimes, Oklahoma drivers lose furniture out of the backs of their trucks (maybe a couch with Granny still sitting on it). Just yesterday someone lost a truck wheel out of the back of their truck and left it on a busy street. Instead I refer to deliberate litterers. Deliberate litterers are on a par with chimpanzees flinging their shit at people. They are worse than if they were children who never grow up.

What do we do about such people? There is nothing we can do. Laws do not stop them. They will not listen to any appeals to reason much less empathy. All we can do is to tolerate them. All we can do is to clean up after them and hope they don’t shoot us. Empathy is one of the greatest capacities that has evolved in the human species, and we must simply accept that there is a margin of losers who do not possess this most important human trait. We are accustomed to thinking of mutations such as trisomy 21 as a deleterious mutation. But Down’s syndrome people are almost always cheerful and nice. The lack of empathy, socially and perhaps genetically influenced, is a truly bad part of human variation. You may have heard about the psychologist who discovered that he was genetically psychopathic but had grown up training himself to be empathetic. We can only hope that some of the kids who have received anti-altruism in their genes and upbringing may be able to similarly overcome this curse. We continue to offer messages and examples of altruism in the hope that this may, once in a while, occur.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Scientists Learning from Nature: Oklahoma Academy of Sciences Field Meeting Spring 2014, part two.

See the entry below for the OAS field meeting, part one.

Since there was such a small number of people at this field meeting, most of the field trip activity involved the whole group at once instead of numerous separate field trips. We took morning and afternoon trips on April 5 at Lake Murray State Park. It was a lot of fun to have everyone together, because wherever we went we could learn about everything all at once (mostly about plants and insects). There is a lot of fascinating conglomerate rock around Lake Murray, and I wished there was a geologist along to tell us about them.

Lake Murray is surrounded by a perfect example of a cross-timbers forest consisting mostly of post oak (Quercus stellata). This species of oak grows slowly on poor dry soil. The cross-timbers forest, found mostly in Oklahoma, is the only kind of forest that post oaks dominate. We also saw blackjack oaks, white ashes, black hickories, and chittamwoods, all of which had leaves that were just beginning to expand. It was beautiful to see how leaves and flowers are neatly packaged into buds. This was a late spring; back in 2012 the leaves of these trees were already fully expanded by this time. Because these forests are open and dry, cactus plants grow in the understory. Among these are Coryptantha missouriensis, a tiny cactus down in the leaf litter, the bright red fruits of which were mature and falling from the stem.

The sporophytes were emerging from the mosses.

Mosses and cacti growing together? The mosses are dormant during the dry summer when the cactuses are fully active. We also visited a transition zone between forest and prairie, where we saw forest edge trees such as chittamwood and persimmon, as well as grasses from tallgrass, midgrass, and shortgrass prairies.

We pretty much knew which plants we would find, but when it comes to animals, you have to wait until you stumble across them. We saw a leaf-footed bug that smelled like almonds, because it produces cyanide as a defense against predators. We saw a large moth almost perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter, except for the big predator-scaring eyespots.

We saw cottony fluff on a beavertail cactus, produced by cochineal insects as a defense against predators. These insects were the original source of carmine dye, and the skillful use of a knife can reveal the bright crimson color under the fluff. One group of explorers even surprised a nest of shrews.

We benefited immensely from the expertise of botanists Gloria Caddell of University of Central Oklahoma (see photo below) and Suneeti Jog (behind the mosses in the photo above) of Northeastern Oklahoma State University and entomologist Ken Hobson of the University of Oklahoma. Mycologist Steve Marek of Oklahoma State University helped us find mushrooms and understand the lichens, which were astonishingly crowded all over the oak branches and bark (see photo below). David Bass of the University of Central Oklahoma looked for aquatic invertebrates, and Michael Shaughnessy of Northeastern Oklahoma State University showed us how to interpret animal tracks. Gregory Plumb of East Central University brought his computer and screen to demonstrate how geographers integrate many kinds of digital information and also brought his telescope for viewing Jupiter. We pretty much searched all of heaven and earth we could find at Lake Murray.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the field trips for me was that six of my students took these trips, and were able to learn from scientists other than me (they already hear plenty of stuff from me). The three morning students were Maryam and Nasim Akhter and Brian Ridgway; the three afternoon students were Bobby Long, Ben Singleton, and Kristin Brooks.

One of the students told me that she had never been out in the woods before. Clearly, for her, the most important part of this trip was just getting out in the forest and noticing how much is in it. And I wanted them to experience nature as fully as possible without compromising safety. I induced them to eat greenbriar shoots, wild mustard, and cactus fruits (which is what the students are doing in the second photo). Some of these students plan to study medicine. Therefore I and Connie Murray, a botanist at Tulsa Community College, talked with them about wild medicinal plants. There were also a few students from other Oklahoma universities.

Also, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is life after being OAS President. We found past president Craig Clifford, of Northeastern Oklahoma State University, lying in a gutter. But he was not there for the usual reasons a man might be in the gutter; like many of us, no posture is too embarrassing to get that perfect photograph.

I believe it was also important that I got to demonstrate what a good ecologically-minded citizen does. A lot of people who come to the lake deliberately leave behind huge numbers of beer cans and bottles, some of them smashed. With help from others, I collected as many of these as I could (not, of course, broken glass) to take back and recycle. The attitude of responsible stewardship, which we all felt, could not contrast more greatly with the deliberate offense that litterers show to nature and to the other humans with whom they live. One of my favorite experiences at Academy meetings is to be among people who care about the Earth and the other humans who share it with us.

Scientists Learning from Nature: Oklahoma Academy of Sciences Field Meeting Spring 2014, part one.

When you get these three elements together, something good is bound to happen: First, the minds of people who know a lot about nature and want to know more; second, the minds of people who care about nature and want to talk about how to protect it; third, a beautiful natural ecological community. Such a convergence occurred this past weekend at the field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Science at Lake Murray State Park in southern Oklahoma. I will post two blog entries about this meeting. The first essay is about the two evening presentations.

On Friday, April 4, Jona Tucker from the Nature Conservancy gave a beautifully-prepared presentation about the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, the Blue River, and TNC’s restoration of what had once been a beautiful riverside forest in Oklahoma.

The Oka’ Yanahli Preserve on the Blue River is not what you would think of when you hear The Nature Conservancy’s slogan of “the last great places.” It was until recently a cow pasture where even the very streams had been mashed out of existence, and where a thin layer of trees lined the river. But historical evidence and old maps clearly indicate that it used to be one of those great places. TNC wants to make it back into such a place.

The main impression I got as I listened to Jona’s presentation is that you cannot understand, protect, or manage anything by simply reducing it to its component parts. The Blue River is a perfect example of this. Almost all of its water comes from springs that emerge from the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer, but you cannot understand either the river or the aquifer merely by knowing how much water flows from one to the other. (Alas, governing bodies often do not even correctly consider the amount of water flow when making decisions about how much aquifer water can be pumped and used.) It is a system that changes over time, as when the river itself changes course. Water flow and quality are affected by the riparian forest along the river. If this forest has been damaged or destroyed, it must be restored before you can have a healthy river. But restoring the river is also a complex system. You cannot just go out and ceremonially plant a tree or two; the beavers will chew them down. So what do you do? You could put up a fence to keep the beavers out. But even this does not work; when the river floods, a fence can be knocked over and crammed with debris. The Conservancy, and two graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, are using fences that can be quickly dismantled if a flood is coming then reassembled after the waters have gone down; and you can only hope the beavers aren’t bright enough to recognize their narrow window of opportunity before and after a flood.

But because the river and aquifer and forests are a system, it is not necessary to replant the entire thing. It is important to get a few trees started, but after that, just keep the cows away and most of the plant and animal species will return. This can be seen at the nearby Blue River Public Hunting and Fishing Area, also on the Blue River, which was pretty much just a pasture until a few decades ago. Now it is lined with, among other things, a healthy population of rare seaside alder trees.

And you have to think of the way the entire natural system of the Blue River interacts with the human system. It doesn’t work for a government (e.g. a court or the Fish and Wildlife Service) to impose rules on land owners, rules with which the land owners may minimally comply (or not). Instead it is important to get the land owners to want to protect and improve their land. Humans can be a positive part of the system. Once when I was studying alder trees along this river, a fisherman asked me about the trees. Then he said that maybe fishermen were causing damage by walking around among the trees. I told him that the fishermen were causing no damage at all, and in fact their license fees maintained the state land, which is where most of these rare alder trees survive. We need for people to feel welcome to do harmless things in the natural world, thereby becoming aware of its beauty and being more likely to support its preservation. I believe the fisherman was delighted to hear that rural Oklahoma has a rare subspecies of tree found nowhere else in the world.

I am definitely proud to have served as Jona’s undergraduate advisor when she majored in botany at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. At the same time, it is clear that nearly everything Jona knows she has taught herself, and most of what she does she has figured out for herself. She is one of our best examples of a student whom we got started on a professional path but who has made most of that path herself. Her work is not necessarily what she was trained to do; a lot of it involves talking with and arranging agreements with land owners. This requires the kind of positive spirit that Jona has, and is something you cannot simply learn by taking a public relations course. For example, it was necessary to consider the public impact of choosing a name for the preserve: they chose a Chickasaw name, Oka’ Yanahli, that recognizes the efforts to bring the river back to what it was like in the nineteenth century when the Chickasaws first arrived, and recognizes rural Oklahoma’s increasing pride in its Native American heritage. Now the only problem is that we might get complacent and expect Jona to do the whole job by herself, which nobody can.

On Saturday, April 5, Matt Bolek of Oklahoma State University described his research into all aspects of the life cycle and ecology of hairworms. We did not have a show of hands to see how many of us scientists even knew what hairworms were, especially since they do not live in humans. They live primarily in insects. They are one of those phyla of animals that people seldom see. But they can be quite surprising. A single large tropical roach can be the host of a 4.3-meter-long hairworm tangled up into what looks like a Gordian knot (after which one of the genera is named). They have amazing adaptations for surviving and dispersing from one host to another. Matt is an active member of a very small worldwide group of hairworm experts.

Small and (to us) obscure organisms are also hard to study. One example of this is the swallow bug. Usually, Valerie O’Brien is at our field meetings, but this weekend she and Charles Brown were marking individual swallow bugs to track their dispersal patterns. That is, each bug has to have its own individual mark distinguishable from the others. Now, how do you mark a swallow bug? I assume it cannot be a radio collar or a GPS transponder. I’ll be interested in finding out how to mark a bug.

In the next entry, I want to tell you about the OAS field trips.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Roots on the Prowl

The Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is April 26-27. You can read about it here and the direct registration link is here.

And now for a story that you will probably think must be an April Fool’s joke. But it is real. We usually think of animals, especially charismatic predators, as foraging for food. They ramble through the underbrush looking for cute furry things to eat. In contrast, we usually think of plants as being passive. They are mere surfaces into which molecules and sunlight enter, and from which molecules exit: green leaf surfaces above ground, white leaf surfaces below ground. It is part of our bias, which goes all the way back to the first chapter of Genesis, of seeing animals as alive but plants as being merely a covering on the landscape.

But plants are active. They respond to their environments in many creative ways. Rather than to tell you about them, I will refer you to an interesting book by Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows. He stops short of endorsing the Trewavas idea that plants are intelligent, but Chamovitz certainly expands our view of plants as active respondents to their environments.

My own small contribution to this topic has been to develop a botany teaching activity in which students investigate foraging by roots. You can find this module online on the PlantEd page of the Botanical Society of America website; click on the document link at the top.

Roots do not just grow down into the soil. They have some kind of physiological feedback (which, not being a physiologist or molecular biologist, I cannot investigate) that allows them to proliferate when they encounter rich soil. They proliferate by growing a lot of branch roots. In contrast, they produce fewer branch roots and simply get on with the business of growing downward when they encounter poor soil.

Students can investigate root foraging by growing a sunflower seed in a clear glass cylinder that is filled with layers of rich soil alternating with nutrient-poor perlite. While soil and perlite are not identical in their physical properties, they are pretty similar (so long as the soil has enough peat in it to maintain air spaces); the main difference between them is the presence vs. absence of nutrients. Students can watch the roots grow downward through the perlite but proliferate in the soil.

Not only can they watch this process but they can measure it. They can measure the length of the roots using a map wheel. Of course, they can only measure the roots that are exposed to the glass, but this is likely to be the same in soil as in perlite. They can also, at the close of the experiment, harvest the plants and weigh the roots. And since, for each glass cylinder, they have a set of numbers, they can perform a statistical analysis.

This project also allows the students to consider experimental design. For example, it might make a difference whether the top layer is soil or is perlite. In other words, a cylinder with soil-perlite-soil-perlite might give different results from a cylinder that is perlite-soil-perlite-soil. So they try both arrangements. (It turns out to not matter.) Also, seeds placed on perlite might mold; soil microbes will prevent this. Therefore every cylinder has at least a thin layer of soil on top. Furthermore, it matters which species of plant you use. If you use a grass such as wheat or oats, the fibrous roots will not grow all the way down to the bottom of the cylinder. If you use beans, the roots will show no preference for soil over perlite, since the large seeds already have plenty of nutrients stored in them and the roots can form mutualistic associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. For both of these reasons, you would not expect bean roots to “care” whether the medium through which they are growing is rich in nutrients or not. It turns out that sunflower (which is a relatively small seed and does not form nitrogen-fixing nodules) is just about right.

This project also allows students to think of applications of this principle. Perhaps the most readily apparent application is that some plants are “hyperaccumulators” whose roots actually seek out toxic ions such as zinc or cadmium. Genetic engineers can make hyperaccumulator plants into superhyperaccumulator plants, if I may so call them. The roots of such plants seek out metal toxins in contaminated soil and remove them. This is fundamental to the process of bioremediation—the use of plants to clean up toxic waste sites.

What does evolution have to do with this? Natural selection has favored plants whose roots have ways of diverting their resources to areas of greatest benefit—e.g., that do not waste their resources growing roots in poor soil when there may be rich soil nearby. Presumably plants that grow in soil that is nearly always poor do not have this response (if anybody wants to investigate this, let me know at But why would plants seek out toxins? Some plants accumulate these toxins in their leaf vacuoles where they are not in contact with the metabolism of the cell cytoplasm but where they can spill out in the mouth of a herbivore that begins to eat the leaf. They constitute a chemical protection for the plant.

Just like my earlier report about the smoke-induced germination of wildflowers, this experiment required almost no budget. The most expensive part was the glass cylinders. But our department happened to have inherited a bunch of glass cylinders from the USDA. If you have some glass cylinders and a couple of map wheels lying around, consider trying this hands-on minds-on project.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Consumer Pressure

Please see below, or visit the website for the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, for information about the upcoming Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip!

Like most college instructors, I wish to give my students an experience that will make a real difference in their lives. Sometimes it is as simple as getting them to take a close look at the world around them, which they may never have done before. Once they have done it, the first step has been taken and they might continue the habit. Well, maybe half of them will.

But I think it is important for us to also participate in some form of activism. While I admire the work of Bill McKibben and,  I have all kinds of excuses why I do not personally undertake such activities. But it occurred to me that there might be something else I could do, which I have a specific ability to do, and which not everyone else has.

I teach classes. And I want my students to become activists on some issues. And students want extra credit. And voilĂ , the perfect fit: have the students write letters.

I have to choose the issues carefully, so that they are related to my field (biology) and are not partisan. But there are plenty of such issues. I decided to start with something that is pretty straightforward: tobacco.  Nobody takes the position that “tobacco is a blessing to the world.” Well, I think, anyway. I realized that I could get students to write letters to tobacco corporations, expressing their disapproval (or horror, if they prefer) at what the tobacco corporations are doing, and their refusal to purchase products or invest in the corporations responsible for them.

This is not as easy as it might sound. A student might have no idea what to write, and almost certainly not how or to whom. So I did this work for them. I drafted a model letter (but I will require students to use some of their own words and insert their own feelings and experiences). I tracked down the contacts to which they could send physical letters or emails. This is not always easy. Some corporations very effectively insulate themselves from the public. Some of the tobacco corporation websites cannot be entered by anyone under 21 years of age, which covers most of my students. If nothing else, there may be media representative emails to which the students can write. The media reps do not want to be bombarded by activist emails, but, tough beans. If they get a lot of emails, maybe they will report this fact to management that is above them. If they don’t want emails, they shouldn’t put their email addresses on the website. I also encouraged students to direct their comments to the CEO, whose name I provided, for each of four major tobacco corporations. (This is down from seven in 1994 when the “seven dwarves” presented perjured testimony to Henry Waxman’s committee in the House.) I also provided the brand names marketed by each company.

This may seem to be a futile exercise. But if this idea spreads beyond my classroom, and if it is maintained over the years, it might make a difference. These comments may never be read—certainly not by the CEO—but they may be counted.

Once a student has written these letters, it will never be as difficult again to write an activist letter.

I had to think carefully about possible legal difficulties, and specifically mention them in the document I posted for my students. And I posted a PDF file rather than an alterable Word file. And I made this an extra credit activity rather than a requirement, for now.

And I hope you, my readers, may join in. And if you have students, get them involved also. You may access the PDF file at my website; the specific URL is here.

Let’s get our students over the activation energy that is preventing them from becoming participants in our economy and society, based on the things they are learning in our classes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Competitive Photosynthesis

Announcement: See the earlier blog post about the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip! Full information, and registration, are available at the website of the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association. Bob Melton will soon post one revision: the Saturday afternoon trip will not visit the fossil site out on Highway 51. It takes too long to get there and the parking along a busy highway seems inadequate to me. My wife and I went out to check on Redbud Valley yesterday, and she helped me find even more fossils there than I had known about.

Warning: If you go to a Chinese buffet and have one of those steamed mussels, do not open up the body. Just pretend the whole thing looks like that nice grayish muscle tissue. If you open the body up, you will see a bunch of organs, most of which are digestive and some, I assume, reproductive. A knowledge of biology only makes the experience worse. Tastes good, though. Now for the essay.

Like many botany instructors, I use variegated coleus as a way of demonstrating that photosynthesis occurs only in green tissue. The leaves of variegated coleus have sections that are green, or red, or white, or both red and green. The procedure is simple. You use a double boiler and ethanol to remove chlorophyll and anthocyanin from a leaf, then use iodine solution to stain the starch. Starch is present only in the green parts of the leaf. (The ethanol boiling process is itself a source of pleasure, I might add.) A variegated coleus leaf is sort of like a field trial with two experimental conditions (chlorophyll vs. anthocyanin), a control (the white part), and an interaction (red overlaps green).

Variegated coleus grows well in gardens and greenhouses and homes, even though approximately half the leaf area is non-photosynthetic. It only recently occurred to me that this ought to seem strange. Why would a plant produce non-photosynthetic leaf area, unless it is modified for some other function? The answer is obvious: variegated coleus is an example of a mutant form that would not survive in the wild.

But why would it not survive in the wild? The plant grows perfectly well. But a plant that produces twice as much leaf area as it “needs” would be unable to survive in the wild because of competition with other plants. That is, if plants produced only as much leaf area as they needed to keep themselves alive, the world would have only about half as much leaf area as it does. Forests and grasslands would look very shabby, and noticeably less green. Even from outer space, our planet would look a lot less green if it were not for the extra leaf area that plants produce in order to compete with other plants. This is what I mean by “competitive photosynthesis,” which might otherwise sound like a new Olympic sport. (The sportscaster would say, Look, there goes a carbon dioxide molecule now…it made it into a glucose molecule! There goes a water molecule, and here comes the oxygen!)

This is not a new idea, but it is a good one to stop and think about. A long time ago Garrett Hardin pointed out that if it were not for competition, all plants would be crusty green goo. Why do any plants grow up into the air? The sun is 93 million miles away, so a 300-foot-tall tree is not significantly closer to the sun than is a one-foot-tall shrub. But the tree’s leaves are closer to the sun than the shrub’s leaves. It is like the old saying, if you and another person are running from a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just outrun the other person. This is competition, the basis of natural selection and evolution. Hardin called it “in praise of waste.”

A natural world without competition would be much less interesting, at least much less green. Competition is a good thing. In our economic system, however, it has gotten out of hand. Big money crushes small business, and anyone who chooses to serve humankind rather is doomed to a life of near-poverty. I say this as a college professor, husband of a librarian, and father of a school teacher. We public servants work hard and well, harder and better than many people richer than we are. Competition is good, but so is altruism. In our species, we need to lay a greater claim on altruism.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Announcement: Registration for the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is now open at the website for Oklahoma Science Teachers Association. The cost is $95. Depending on enrollment, we may have some money left over for partial refunds for teachers.

The buds are opening and the leaves will be coming out and soon here in Oklahoma. I will be taking my systematic botany class on field trips. In this class, the students learn to recognize 38 plant families and 129 species of trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, and grasses. I just want to briefly mention just one reason of many why I am convinced that a class such as this is essential, and why I wish everyone would take a systematic botany class. Fortunately, many of these students have been outside a lot and already know many of the species.

At the very least, people should know how to recognize poison ivy. While this seems to be a simple accomplishment, I have lost count of the number of senior-level conservation majors who cannot do this.

Everyone knows that they should stay away from poison ivy. But people who do not know what poison ivy looks like must be afraid of everything. Not just of every vine, but of every plant. Poison ivy vines can grow in trees, and mix their branches with those of the tree; poison ivy vines can insinuate themselves along the ground and sprout up amidst wildflowers. So if you do not know what poison ivy looks like, you had better not even leave the sidewalk. Maybe, if you don’t learn to recognize poison ivy, it is better to spend sunny spring days inside playing video games.

This would be so, so sad. So, to save yourself from that fate, learn to recognize different species of plants!