Friday, August 3, 2012

What will I be when I grow up?

At some level I have always been fascinated by living things.  All through my childhood I collected frog spawn and watched the tadpoles emerge in plastic buckets in my back yard.  Hedgehogs that wandered near our house were frequently detained and kept as pets.  I grew cactus plants in a shed my father built for the purpose and my brother kept, and continues to keep cage birds.  For me, the Natural History Museum in Dublin was essentially a place of pilgrimage.

I suppose that many children go through phases like this, but not all of them end up as professional biologists.  As a child, it never occurred to me that one could really get paid to collect caddisflies, skulls, and pressed flowers.  The only contact I had with scientists was through the Regional Veterinary Laboratory where we dutifully sent the little feathered carcasses of departed birds from my brother's aviary.

But it turns out that it is indeed possible to get paid and indeed have a career observing birds, sampling lizards, or collecting insects.  What makes it possible for a youngster to realize such a strange fantasy and make a living studying the amazing organisms that share the planet?  This question occurred to me recently when reading a blog written by a 10 year old.  Jake's bones was started by a Scottish school boy when he was seven. Jake photographs and documents skulls and bones he has collected.  He takes an amazingly sophisticated scientific approach to his collection and his blog.  One page includes advice for others interested in collecting skulls and skeletons and he has one prank page devoted to the "wild haggis".

On reflection, I can see what Jake has in common with a boy who grew up in Athlone in Ireland.  Both of us were encouraged by excited parents to pursue our interests.  Each of were given the support and space explore hobbies that less enlightened parents may have dismissed as weird.  And let's be frank and honest here, collecting pinned insects, or dealing with the stinky process of cleaning skulls, if not weird, is a tad unusual.  But what's so bad about being unusual?

So, my suggestion for parents everywhere is that you encourage your child's passion for the unusual or the ordinary.  Whatever holds her attention for longer than average is a potential avocation.  Your son writes poetry?  Cherish those poems; frame them on the fridge; submit them to a newspaper!  The hobby that may simply appear to be a time filler could be a life-long passion that becomes a career.  And what better career could one have than to get paid for something one chooses as a hobby.  I tell my students that they should regularly have a few moments in their job when they can smile and say "yes, I get paid for this".  Not every hobby becomes a career, but every hobby adds color to our lives and makes us more interesting and interested human beings.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Head first

A student recently found a nearly intact coyote skull near campus.  He did a nice job cleaning it up and agreed to sell it to me for teaching.  I was impressed by it's large size and it started me on a minor quest.  I needed a lab activity to look at geographic variation in a species.  Any species would do and coyotes seemed to be a as viable a candidate as any other.  They occur in 49 out of 50 US states; Hawaii being the exception.  There are no hunting restrictions and in many places they are killed as pests.  So I have made it my business to accumulate some more specimens.  It goes along with my brother's suggestion to name my blog "dead things" I suppose.

The size of the first skull struck me as unusual.  I had considered coyotes to be somewhere in the range between foxes and wolves, and I had naively considered them to be nearer the fox end of the scale.  Red foxes top out in the 15kg range.  Coyotes, I learned can be more than twice as large as the largest red fox.  There are good reasons to expect a Vermont coyote to be larger than average.  Coyotes in the northeast United States are generally considered to be the product of hybridization between western coyotes and wolves.  The hybrids colonized the northeast during the early part of the last century and have expanded their range since then.

Bergmann's rule is a reason to expect coyotes in the north in general to be larger than those in the south.  The idea is based on thermoregulation.  If an animal gets longer in one dimension, it's skin surface area gets larger by a square function of that linear dimension.  Body mass increases by a cube function of the linear dimension and so overall, larger animals have a larger surface to volume ratio.  Bergmann's logic was simple: large mammals can better thermoregulate in cold conditions and so we should expect to find the larger examples farther north.

So, are coyotes in the northeast larger than western coyotes?  Do we find the largest coyotes as we travel farther north?  These are the questions my students will answer during my spring course.  To answer questions such as this requires a large sample of skulls.  I have accumulated more than 30 specimens thus far from 14 states from Texas to Alaska and a single specimen from New Brunswick Canada (based on all logic it should the largest one; it is not...).

You may wonder how one goes about acquiring 30+ skulls?  Is there some professional network of biologists bartering skulls for insect specimens?  Perhaps a biological supply house meets the demand?  It turns out that the source is far more pedestrian......Ebay!  And I should point out that I have had skulls donated by trappers in Texas and New Mexico.