Roadside Science

Exploring science from the roadside and beyond

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The Great Egg Hoax: How a male fish evolved a trick the females can’t resist

A male red zebra cichlid fish displays yellow egg dummies on his back fin. (Photo credit: Maha Dinesh, Creative Commons)

A male red zebra cichlid fish displays orange egg dummies on his back fin. (Photo credit: Maha Dinesh, Creative Commons)

Male stalk-eyed-flies dangle eyes from the ends of long antennae-like stalks. Male widowbirds flaunt tails extending over twice the lengths of their bodies. And male koalas produce deep bellowing calls from highly specialized vocal tracts. There’s no end to the lengths a male animal’s body can be stretched and decorated to win a female’s attention.

But where does the female preference for the elaborate and downright strange come from in the first place?

Mirjam Amcoff, an evolutionary biologist at Uppsala University, suspected that, at least for cichlid fishes, the oddly ornamented males may be tapping into a strong female desire that evolved before it had any connection to choosing a mate. Continue reading

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Skate Park Physics

Photo and captions by Adrian Lenardic.

Photo and captions by Adrian Lenardic.

Adrian Lenardic, a planetary physicist in Rice University’s Department of Earth Sciences, was checking his pocket radar when a ten-year-old skateboarder asked what he was doing.

Lenardic, a skateboarder himself, explained that he was testing how fast he could go. The boy asked what the average speed of skaters was at the park. “I said, ‘I have no idea,’” Lenardic recalls. “I told him, ‘In principle we can do measurements on the range of skaters who come through.’ I said, ‘You could figure out where you sit compared to the average skater,’ and he was fascinated by that.”

Lenardic handed over the radar and told the boy to test his own speed. “The boy was in awe that this science guy said, ‘Here, you take the instrument,’” Lenardic says. “That’s when I started thinking this could be used for education.” Continue reading


Lab Culture: A guest post by Jessie Abbate

Jessie graduated from UVA (the first time) in 2003 with a double major in Biology (BS) and Italian (BA). Focusing on infectious disease biology, she managed to serendipitously put her linguistic skills to good use working on a fungal plant pathogen in the Italian Alps, and eventually on the French side, during her graduate career. After earning both her Master’s (2008) and PhD (2012) from the UVA Biology Department, she is continuing her work on ecology and evolution of infectious disease as a post-doctoral researcher at the French National Research Center for Functional Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Montpellier, France.

This post first appeared yesterday on Jessie’s own blog, Lab Culture. It is the first in a series of posts that will explore the adventures of an American scientist working in France. Visit her blog often to read more!

How do you say “science” in French?

Um… “science.” But with an accent.

A typical meal at the French field laboratory SAJF

A typical meal at the French field laboratory SAJF

After graduating from the UVA Biology department a little over a year ago, I landed a post-doc position in Montpellier, France – home to one of the most lively research communities in Europe. Particularly for studying ecology and evolution, this is the place to be. Yes, yes, there is also the wine and the bread, and here in the south, the Mediterranean. But there’s more to changing continents than a new diet, phone number, and weekend destination list. In general, there’s not that much of a difference between working as a scientist in the U.S. and in France if you just consider the actual science work – you do experiments, you collaborate, you vie for grants, you present your work, you write and review papers. But there are subtle differences that either promote or impede this process, and a slue of things that just take a period of adjustment. Many of the unanticipated differences are almost so cliché that it’s hard to call them unanticipated, but some changes were either contrary to my expectations or just never even dawned on me. I hope this post serves to both inform those who are considering the pond jump and foster some reflection on how our own system works.

I think the single most fundamental difference between practicing science in the U.S. and France is the French natural tendency to compartmentalize work from life, and our belief that this division signals a lack of drive and dedication. Continue reading


Meet the Conopid Fly: A bumblebee horror story

An adult conopid fly (Photo credit: Rosemary Malfi)

An adult conopid fly (Photo credit: Rosemary Malfi)

When I first saw a bumblebee fall from a jewelweed flower and plummet five feet to the ground, I thought I had witnessed an unusually clumsy bee. When another fell only a minute later, I started paying closer attention. When the third bee hit the ground, I discovered the culprit.

Some sort of crazy dive-bombing insect was systematically kicking out every bumblebee that entered the jewelweed patch by ramming itself into the bees’ abdomens. It was shaped like a fighter jet with narrow black wings that formed a V when resting on a leaf. The insect looked like it weighed about one-tenth of what a bumblebee weighs and yet it could shake a bee from a flower with one swift push. Not once did I see it actually pollinate a flower. What was this thing?!! Continue reading

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The Mystery of the Missing Salmon-Trout Hybrids

Study author Matt Gage holds a male salmon in the lab before returning it to the river. (Photo credit: Matt Gage)

Study author Matt Gage holds a male salmon in his lab before returning it to the river. (Photo credit: Matt Gage)

When trying to pass genes on to future generations, mating with a different species is generally the wrong way to go. Most attempts to mate between species fail. Those that succeed often result in offspring that can’t reproduce themselves. (You’ve all met the mule).

Luckily, there are all sorts of barriers that keep animals from mating with the wrong species. Eastern and western skunks share the Great Plains, but can’t mate together because they breed during different seasons. Female green tree frogs avoid mating with a closely related neighboring species by listening for differences in their call frequencies. Two millipede species may try to mate together, but attempts always fail because the necessary body parts just don’t match up. Continue reading

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Hello Readers!

I wanted to check in to let you know that Roadside Science will be up and running again this upcoming week. Since my last post at the end of August, I completed my summer experiments, said goodbye to Maine, and lugged all of my hard-earned seeds and dried plants back to Virginia. Let the data analysis begin!

I plan to post to Roadside Science every other week again. This upcoming week will bring a post on salmon and trout and the obvious and not-so-obvious barriers that keep animals from mating with the wrong species.

In addition to my own posts, I’m hoping to publish some guest bloggers this fall. If you would like to write about a new development in science or your own experiences as a scientist, please contact me. I would love to hear from you!


Homeward bound

Virginia bound. September 2013.

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Field Notes

Whether I’m in my parents’ backyard in suburban Philadelphia or deep in Acadia National Park, I’ve found that if I stay outside long enough, something strange and wonderful will appear. As a field biologist, I log a lot of time outdoors and so I’m often treated to such sightings. Below are just a few of the plants and animals I came across this summer that made me drop my datasheets and jump for my camera. All of these photos were taken along the side of a road or in someone’s backyard. Continue reading