Mar 29, 2010

sloppy science journalism

This science news in USA Today pissed me off. I am a dogged champion of the idea that insect wings evolved as an aquatic structure. When I read about "two" competing theories of wing evolution I know someone will come up short.

One theory, as Dan Vergano wrote, is "wings are brand new features" that evolved from an insect's shell. The other is that they are modifications of legs. In truth, there are other theories and many possible ways wings may have evolved.

Deciphering evolutionary history from available evidence is science with a dose of art. Pretending only two ideas exist about how wings evolved cuts out the art; vastness of the data set limits understanding of the science. The result is a worn nub of a narrative that misses the best tale: wings were swimming organs long before they became aerial appendages.

Once I read the abstract of the article, I saw my beloved aquatic theory. The omission was in the reporting, not the science. The authors studied mayflies because their tracheal gills are a likely precursors to wings. They concluded that wings grow when regulatory genes triggering leg growth and gill growth are both expressed, affirming the theory that abdominal gills begat thoracic wings as mayflies radiated into fresh waters almost a half billion years ago.

The authors also studied bristletails, a wingless insect that is an ancestor of mayflies. If you could go back a half billion years and watch for a few hundred million, you'd see tiny silverfishy things slithering into fresher water and drier habitats, breathing through gills, then flapping gills, then flapping thoracic gills built for power, which became wings.

This is a dragonfly, an early offshoot of the mayfly lineage. Mayflies spawned all insect lineages.

Mar 14, 2010

How cold was this winter?

Finally elms have flowered. Last year I took a photograph of elm flowers emitting pollen on February 21. They bloomed three weeks later this year.

Elms are wind pollinated. So are maples, oaks and other trees. Wind-pollinated trees typically flower before they leaf out. Insect-pollinated trees do the opposite, and their flowers are large, even ornate. Wind-pollinated flowers are tiny. The plants up their odds of fertilization by saturating the air with pollen, sparing the cost of growing larger flowers. Before insects evolved, flowering plants relied on wind to spread pollen. The most primitive plants require water for pollen transport.

Because elms need not synchronize their flowering with the emergence of some bee or beetle or butterfly, they have more flexibility in their timing. If winter is colder and pollen production takes longer, they just postpone flowering.

I have seen elms flower as early as February 11 after a mild winter. The day their flowers open is probably as good a measure of winter's severity as a statistician could manage. The winter of 2010 was 21 elm-days harsher than winter 2009.

Mar 10, 2010

fishermen catch the crazy

The ranting hysterics of the tribal right showed up in an unexpected place today, a supposed news article on the ESPN Outdoors website. Robert Montgomery has been writing about a proposed federal rule on fisheries management since October, but today's installment got picked up by a right-wing PR firm called Special Guests, which email-blasted the article with the subject "FEDS SET TO BAN ALL U.S. FISHING! Says ESPN." The press release said, "The Obama administration is reportedly putting the final touches on an Executive Order to ban all fishing in the United States."

The ESPN article does not go that far, but it does insinuate dire outcomes. It is the fifteenth installment in Montgomery's series, but this one got more attention than most thanks to the PR blast. Soon it was generating complaints to editors, and executive editor Steve Bowman issued this statement: "Though our series has included numerous news stories on the topic, this was not one of them -- it was an opinion piece, and should have been clearly labeled as commentary."

Calling it "commentary" is supposed to make us feel better, but what it means is claims in the article can not be substantiated and are likely wrong. Looking over the previous 14 articles, it becomes clear that Montgomery has been writing in the same style all along, starting with the first installment, "Why anglers aren't environmentalists," which begins with the first-person declaration "I'm for a stronger Clean Water Act." Montgomery has been writing commentary throughout his series.

Beyond that, his claims make no sense. The task force recommended that nine regional groups form and adopt fisheries plans appropriate for their region, so decisions like the ones Montgomery and his oft-quoted sources say are being made are at least another year down the road, will be different for each region and will be made through collaborative, public processes yet to begin. Sadly, it has become routine for right-wing groups to hit the most shrill note available and screech it incessantly.

Obama is no more on the verge of banning fishing than he is Kenyan-born or a socialist, but when you can't or won't do the heavy lifting of being honest and informed, insufferable bullshit is an option. Montgomery's shtick is familiar: guilt by association, absence as evidence, and lots and lots of quotes from industry. He tries to create a wedge between anglers and environmentalists, but both groups want clean water and healthy fish. He also warns anglers that they are being lumped in with commercial fishermen, his evidence an alleged absence of language distinguishing the two. The document talks about "commercial fishing" and "recreational fishing" repeatedly, so Montgomery uses the phrase "recreational angling" and draws worrisome conclusions from the fact that this phrase appears nowhere in the document.

That's the quality of propaganda the right is churning out these days: shrill and vacant. Believing outrageous lies is the secret handshake of the Republican Party. Are you a member?

Mar 1, 2010

Sand dune mushroom

Mushrooms are abundant in the moist forests of the Southern Appalachians, but I did not expect to find a colony growing in the dunes of Tybee Island, Georgia in February. Here they are. Dozens of these small, gilled mushrooms were sprouting from the sand at the toe of the dunes.

An Internet search failed to turn up clues to its identity, but a few minutes with my Peterson field guide uncovered Laccaria trullisata, Sandy Tallowgill. The description is not an exact match, but close enough. According to the McKnights, no other mushroom grows on sand dunes, and this species fruits in summer and fall. It is found as far north as the Great Lakes, and there it surely is dormant in winter. Southern populations apparently emerge on a different schedule, possibly preferring the cooler, shorter winter days.