Archives for June 2017

Bird Fact Friday – How do hummingbirds accomplish their remarkably controlled flight?

From page 277 in The New Neotropical Companion:

The Booted Racket-tail. Photo by Nancy Norman.

Hummingbirds accomplish their remarkably controlled flight both by a unique rotation of their wings through an angle of 180° and by having an extremely high metabolism. Hummingbird heart rates reach 1,260 beats per minute, and some species beat their wings approximately 80 times per second. Hummingbird metabolisms require that the birds must eat many times per day to adequately fuel their tiny bodies. Suddenly appearing at a flower, its long bill and tongue reaching deep within the blossom to sip nectar, a bird will briefly hover, move to a different flower, hover, and zoom off. The best way to see hummingbirds well is to observe at a flowering tree or shrub with the sun to your back so that the metallic, iridescent reds, greens, and blues will glow.

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Craig Bauer: The Ongoing Mystery of Unsolved Ciphers (and new hope)

When a civilization first develops writing and few people are literate, simply putting a message down on paper can be all that is required to keep an enemy from understanding it. As literacy spreads, a more sophisticated method is needed, which is why codes and ciphers, a.k.a. “secret writing,” always follow closely on the heels of the discovery of writing. Over the millennia, ciphers have become extremely sophisticated, but so too have the techniques used by those attempting to break them.

In recent decades, everyone from mathematicians and computer scientists to artists and authors have created ciphers as challenges to specialists or the general public, to see if anyone is clever enough to unravel the secrets. Some, like the first three parts of James Sanborn’s sculpture Kryptos and the ciphers appearing in the television show Gravity Falls, have been solved, while others remain mysteries. The highly secretive online society known as Cicada 3301 has repeatedly issued such challenges as a means of talent scouting, though for what purpose such talented individuals are sought remains unknown. One unsolved cipher was laid down as a challenge by former British army intelligence officer Alexander d’Agapeyeff in his book Codes & Ciphers (1939). Sadly, when frustrated letters of enquiry reached the author, he admitted that he had forgotten how to solve it! Another was made by the famous composer Edward Elgar in 1897 as a riddle for a young lady friend of his. She, along with various experts, all failed to ferret out the meaning and Elgar himself refused to reveal it.

 

Elgar's cipher

Elgar’s cipher

 

Many unsolved ciphers appear in much more serious contexts. The serial killer who referred to himself as “The Zodiac” was responsible for at least five murders, as well as the creation of several ciphers sent to San Francisco newspapers. While the first of these ciphers was solved, others remain unbroken. Could a solution to one of these lead to an identification of the killer? Although many have speculated on his identity, it has never been firmly established. The Zodiac is not the only murderer to have left us such mysterious communiques, he is just the best known. Other killers’ secrets have persisted through relative obscurity. How many readers have heard of Henry Debsonys? In 1883, a jury sentenced him to death for the murder of his wife, after deliberating for only nine minutes. But this unfortunate woman was Henry’s third wife and the first two died under strange circumstances. Had Henry killed all of them? Will the ciphers he left behind confirm this? I think his ciphers will be among the first to fall this year, thanks to a major clue I provide in my book, Unsolved: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. There are many more such criminal ciphers. One deranged individual even sent threatening letters containing ciphers to John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted fame! The FBI’s codebreakers maintain a list of their top unsolved ciphers. At present, only two of these are known to the public, but many others that didn’t make the top 10 are available for anyone to try to crack.

How do codebreakers, whether amateur or professional, meet the challenges they face? Statistics and other areas of mathematics often help, as do computers, but two of the codebreakers’ most powerful tools are context and intuition. This is why ciphers have often been broken by amateurs with no programming skills and little knowledge of mathematics. Enter Donald Harden, a high school history teacher, who with assistance from his wife Bettye, broke one of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers by guessing that the egotistical killer’s message would begin with “I” and contain the word “KILL.” Context allows the attacker to guess words, sometimes entire phrases, that might appear in the message. These are known as cribs. During World War II, the German word eins (meaning one) appeared in so many Nazi messages that a process known as “einsing” was developed, searching the cipher for the appearance of this word in every possible position. In today’s ciphers, the word President appears frequently.

Of course, time and again cribs and intuition can lead in the wrong direction. Indeed, the single most important attribute for a codebreaker is patience. A good codebreaker will have the ability to work on a cipher for months, for that is sometimes what it takes to reach a solution, ignoring the body’s normal demands for food and sleep; during World War I, the French codebreaker Georges Painvin lost 33 pounds over three months while sitting at a desk breaking the German ADFGX and ADFGVX ciphers.

Fig 2

Fig 3Is it possible that some of the earliest known ciphers, dating from the ancient world, have survived unread by anyone other than those they were created for? I believe this is the case and that they’ve been hiding in plain sight, like the purloined letter in Poe’s classic tale. Those studying ancient cultures have long been aware of so-called “nonsense inscriptions.” These appear on Egyptian sarcophagi, Greek vases, runestones, and elsewhere. They are typically dismissed as the work of illiterates imitating writing, merely because the experts cannot read them. But all of these cultures are known to have made use of ciphers and some of the contexts of the inscriptions are so solemn (e.g. sarcophagi) that it’s hard to believe they could be meaningless. I’d like to see a closer examination of these important objects. I expect some of the messages will be read in the near future, if cryptologists can form collaborations with linguists. These two groups have worked together successfully in military contexts for many decades. It is time that they also join forces for historical studies.

With a very large number of unsolved ciphers, spanning millennia, having been composed by a diverse group of individuals, it seems likely that it will take a diverse group of attackers, with skills ranging over many disciplines, to solve them. Some mysterious texts may reveal themselves to clever computer programmers or linguists, others to those taking the psychological approach, getting into the creator’s head and guessing phrases he or she used in the cipher, and some may be broken by readers who manage to discover related material in government archives or private hands that provides just enough extra information to make the break. I look forward to seeing the results!

BauerCraig P. Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

TigerTalks discuss Princeton faculty ‘Breakthrough Books’

Last month, we partnered with the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council on a TigerTalk in the New York City, featuring four PUP authors—Dalton Conley, Sir Angus Deaton, Nancy Malkiel, and Alexander Todorov—to highlight their ‘breakthrough books.’ The series brings Princeton authors to New York, connecting their ideas and their scholarship with new readers. One takeaway from the event came during the Q&A portion:

[O]ne audience member observed that inequality in one form or another seemed to be a recurring theme in each of the panelists’ research. From economic and educational inequities to genetic and physiognomic disparities, “Inequality is going to be on our agenda forever,” Deaton remarked. But the innovative insights in these books have the potential to inspire “risk-taking actions and value-creating organizations” from the ranks of entrepreneurs across the globe, who will hopefully develop solutions that continue to propel humanity forward.

To learn more about the event, the participants, and their books, visit the Princeton University website.

Conley

The Genome Factor
Dalton Conley & Jason Fletcher

Deaton

The Great Escape
Sir Angus Deaton

Malkiel

“Keep the Damned Women Out”
Nancy Malkiel

Face Value

Face Value
Alexander Todorov

Tuesday’s Trot – Arabian

From page 374 in Horses of the World:

5 things to know about the Arabian horse:

1. This is one of the most ancient breeds in the world, existing probably for three thousand years and prized for its beauty and great sporting abilities.

2. It has had an extraordinary influence on a great number of horse breeds, and has been the most used “improver” in the world.

3. The Arabian is intelligent, sensitive, lively but docile, and bold. It is easily handled, can carry heavy loads, has exceptional endurance, and is fast. It is undemanding, and lives a long time.

4. An animal forged by the desert, it can withstand high temperatures.

5. This is the endurance horse par excellence, but it is versatile and suited to many equestrian disciplines, both for recreation and competition, as well as to light harness work. There are speed races especially conceived for the Arabian.

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

Big Pacific – Violent Pacific

Watch the second episode of Big Pacific, “Violent Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, June 28th. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

Drowned Forest

The stumps of these spruce trees are remnants of the forest drowned by the 1700 earthquake

Although its name suggests calm and tranquility, the Pacific Ocean is riven by powerful natural forces: violent tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes are common occurrences across this mighty ocean. The ocean sits within the Ring of Fire, a zone of intense tectonic activity where multiple plates meet, grinding and driving against each other with sometimes cataclysmic results. Running in a horseshoe shape from New Zealand along the western Pacific to the Aleutians and back down the western coast of the Americas, the Ring of Fire is home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes. All but three of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions in the last 12000 years have occurred in the Ring of Fire, the eruptions of Tambora and Krakatoa among them. The power and destructiveness of these eruptions and quakes is monumental—in 1700 an earthquake in Cascadia caused the coastline to drop by as much as ten feet in a matter of seconds, instantly submerging wide swathes of forest beneath the water. The shockwave took only ten hours to cross the thousands of miles of ocean to reach the coast of Japan in the form of a massive tsunami.

humpback whales

The long pectoral fins of the humpback whale can be used as weapons by battling males.

The life of animals in the Pacific can be no less violent. The struggle for survival manifests both as competition within species, and between species. It is easy to think of humpback whales as placid animals, drifting through the ocean in search of the minuscule plankton on which they feed. Their mournful song is a cliché of New Age relaxation tapes. But competition between male humpbacks over females often turns to battle: during their “heat run” contending males will swipe each other with their long pectoral fins, ram each other, and even breach the surface of the ocean to land on each other. Despite the huge bulk of these animals, mature males weighing in at up to 36 tonnes, they can move surprisingly quickly, reaching speeds of 18 miles an hour. The impact of their collisions is comparable to that of fully-loaded eighteen wheeler trucks. The victorious male earns the right to mate with the female.

Shedao Island pit viper

A Shedao Island pit viper claims another victim

But the archetypal struggle in the animal kingdom is that between predator and prey. Evolutionary adaption has made the predators at the top of the food chain near-perfect killers. The Shedao Island pit viper is found only on one tiny island in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China, where it has so effectively dominated the ecosystem that it is estimated that there is one viper for every square meter of land on the island. The sole source of food for these snakes is migratory birds: twice a year, in spring and fall, birds use Shedao Island as a staging post on the journey to and from their breeding grounds in Siberia. These two six-week periods are the only point in the year at which the viper eats. Motionless and near invisible on the branches of a tree, the viper waits for a bird to land. Its strike is near instantaneous and its victim quickly succumbs to the snake’s powerful venom. The viper will slowly swallow its meal whole, then seek another; it must consume several birds to survive the long fast between migrations.

Discover more of the violent side of the Pacific in Wednesday’s episode of Big Pacific.

Summer Vacation: Archaeologist-style

by Eric Cline

Each summer in June, the annual migration of archaeologists begins. Summertime is when most university excavations take place, because the academics that run them are on summer vacation, as are the post-grads and graduate students who make up the staff. The undergraduate students and the volunteers from all walks of life, most of them checking off an item on their bucket list, are similarly free, or are at least able to take their vacation days to participate for a few days or even a week or two.

In a few days, I’ll be heading for our dig at Tel Kabri, located in northern Israel, where we are excavating a Canaanite palace dating back almost four thousand years, with the oldest and largest wine cellar yet found in the ancient Near East. We’ll have about a dozen staff members and almost seventy volunteers (or team members, as we call them) working over the course of six weeks, and we’re on the small side—some digs have closer to two hundred team members who participate over the course of a single season.

Each team member covers the costs of their room and board, as well as their round trip airfare, for the opportunity to participate in what will be, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some will enjoy it so much that they return the next season; others will be glad to return home after realizing that it involves much more dirt, sweat, and labor that is both much more intensive (think picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows) and painstaking (think dental tools and small brushes) than they ever expected.

The day will begin at 4:45 am, when the team members board the bus that will take them from the field school where we live to the site, which is located about ten minutes away. Retrieving our tools from the storage unit—which is essentially an old railway car minus the wheels—we are digging by 5:00 am, while it is still chilly enough to wish for a sweatshirt or fleece jacket, but those are soon shed as the temperature climbs and perspiration creates damp patches on t-shirts and tank tops.

The first potsherds appear almost as soon as the first pickaxes dig into the soil and are tossed into a plastic bucket; much later, in the afternoon, they will be washed and laid out to dry, so that the experts in the staff can examine and date them, based on a variety of characteristics including color, tempering, decoration, and so on. Our sherds indicate that we are digging in levels from the Middle Bronze Age, dating to the 18th through 16th centuries BC.

Soon a patch of plaster appears in one trench and trowels and patishes—small hand picks—replace the larger pickaxes, as more delicate work is now necessary. The potsherds continue to appear—for each ancient vessel shatters into dozens of pieces when it breaks, all of which remain to be found, for they are non-biodegradable once fired in a kiln. The pottery buckets fill up at an astonishing pace, to the eventual chagrin of the team members, who know they will have to wash each piece separately and by hand that afternoon.

Eventually, after what seems an eternity, a half-hour break is called at 8:00 am, so that staff and team members alike can fill their growling stomachs with eggs, cheese, tuna, tomatoes, and/or chocolate spread on large rolls. The largest line is for coffee, with team members working in different areas of the site good-naturedly exchanging details of their morning’s activities and discoveries with each other.

Soon enough the breakfast break is over and the team members will return to their areas, working until 1:00 pm before climbing back on board the bus and returning to the field school for a hot lunch and a few hours of free time. Most will nap in their air conditioned rooms, though some will venture to the swimming pool and sunbathe, as if they hadn’t already gotten enough sun during the morning.

Late afternoon sees the pottery washing, as well as data entry on the laptop computers, and various other assorted tasks. Dinner is at 7:00 pm, followed by a lecture, for many of the students are doing this for college credit, and the older team members are simply interested in learning about the history and archaeology of the area, or the nuances of how the various specialists do their work and analyses. Lights are out by 10:30 pm, for a much-needed six hours of sleep before the whole routine begins again for another day.

To some this will seem abject misery; for me it is heaven. I’ve been doing this almost every summer for more than thirty years and it never gets old, even though I have. There is nothing else like the thrill of excavation and discovery—not knowing what you will find in the next minute, hour, day, or week. At Kabri we’ve found fragments of wall paintings, large jars that once held wine, bits and pieces of ivory, gold, and other materials, and are slowly beginning to reconstruct the life of people who once lived in this palace nearly four thousand years ago.

What will this summer bring? I have no idea, and that’s the best part about it. I’ll let you know in August what we found. What I do know is that what we are doing is fun, exciting, AND important. We, and the other teams of archaeologists who will be in the field this summer, are excavating and rescuing the remains of past civilizations—the details of our story, the human story.

 

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

 

Eric Cline departed on his travels on June 14. Check this space for updates from the field.

Bird Fact Friday – Mashers and Gulpers

From page 163 in The New Neotropical Companion:

This Toco Toucan is plucking a fruit that it will then gulp down whole. Photo by John Kricher.

In dense interior rain forests where wind is attenuated, birds are essential for seed dispersal. There are two basic methods by which birds devour fruit. Some birds (mashers) mash up the fruit, dropping the seeds as they do, while others (gulpers) gulp the fruit whole, subsequently either regurgitating or defecating seeds. Mashers are mostly finches and tanagers, and gulpers are toucans, trogons, and manakins. Mashers appear more sensitive to taste than gulpers, showing a distinct preference for fruits rich in sugars. Gulpers swallow fruit whole and appear taste insensitive.

This Grayish Saltator is an obvious example of a masher. Photo by John Kricher.

The New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

Paul Strode: Teaching The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn January of 2016 I was asked by Laura Bonetta at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to write a teacher’s guide for the short film Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades. At the same time, Molecular Biologist Sean B. Carroll, the HHMI Vice President of Science Education, was putting the finishing touches on his new book, The Serengeti Rules. To help expedite my research for writing the teacher’s guide for the short film, Laura sent me a pre-pub copy of the book and suggested I read Chapter Six: “Some Animals Are More Equal than Others.”

Instead of going straight to Chapter Six, I started reading from the beginning.

Before I was even halfway through the first chapter, I thought to myself, this book is going to change the way I teach. At the core of Carroll’s storytelling is the observation that everything is regulated, from molecules to megafauna. Indeed, for most of my career teaching biology I have kept my focus on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s argument that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But Carroll has now made it clear that nothing in biology also makes sense except in the light of regulation.

To make a long story short, I wrote the short film teachers guide with the help of Chapter Six in The Serengeti Rules and immediately followed that task by reviewing the book for The American Biology Teacher so that other teachers might benefit from reading the book. In my review, I argued that The Serengeti Rules “should be required reading for students in all fields of science, but especially those pursuing careers in biology education.” My review caught the attention of Carroll’s editor at Princeton University Press, Alison Kalett. Alison was curious to know if teachers like me that planned to use Carroll’s book to enhance their biology courses would find it useful if educational supplementary materials were made available… for free. Alison and I came up with a plan and I began to write.

The Serengeti Rules came out in March of 2016 and one of Carroll’s first public discussions about the book was at the annual Professional Development Conference of the National Association of Biology Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island. Several hundred teachers showed up to hear from Dr. Carroll and it was standing room only. As word got out that supplementary materials were being prepared for Carroll’s book, inquiries began to pop up on social media.

Carroll

The Educational Supplement was released in May and is a document that a teacher can use immediately in the classroom.

Carroll

The questions come in various styles and are designed to invoke classroom discussion, require students to synthesize and connect various biological concepts, get students to engage with ecological data from the published journal articles, and have students analyze and graph data that relate to what they are reading in The Serengeti Rules. For example, the question below relates to Chapter Four of The Serengeti Rules, “Fat, Feedback, and a Miracle Fungus.” The question can be used as a formative assessment question that marries real data with the nature of science and covers several components of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate biology course content.

Carroll

Teachers have already begun planning to use The Serengeti Rules to enhance their courses and since the release of the supplement have expressed their gratitude that it is available and free!

Carroll

And of course, I have assigned The Serengeti Rules as summer reading for my 65 AP/IB biology students and I am looking forward to using the questions in the fall to incite discussion and enhance learning and understanding.

Thank you, Sean B. Carroll, for giving us The Serengeti Rules!

Big Pacific – Mysterious Pacific

Watch the first episode of Big Pacific, “Mysterious Pacific,” tonight on PBS at 8pm Eastern. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

The scale of the Pacific Ocean is almost incomprehensible. This single body of water covers a greater area than all six continents combined; its deepest point, the Marianas Trench, lies far further below the surface than the summit of Everest stands above it. Much of this vast realm is unexplored, inaccessible to the human eye, and even the shallow waters with which we are familiar are home to many strange and mysterious things.

Horseshoe Crab

The horseshoe crab – one of the planet’s “living fossils”

Among them are species that predate humankind, and indeed all mammals, by hundreds of millions of years. The four species of horseshoe crabs are the last remaining members of a family that first appears in the fossil record some 450 million years ago. Horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, being more closely related to arachnids such as spiders and scorpions. Despite their long tenure on this planet, horseshoe crab populations are in decline. Pollution, overfishing, and development along the Pacific shorelines where they mate are all taking a toll on these living fossils, and efforts are underway to protect them and improve their survival rate.

Nan Madol

The abandoned city of Nan Madol

Even the short span of human history presents enigmas. Off the eastern shore of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei lies the magnificent complex of Nan Madol. Comprised of over ninety artificial islets linked by a network of canals, Nan Madol is thought to have been home to the political and religious elite of Pohnpei. Construction of the complex was a monumental task: some 750,000 tonnes of black basalt were transported from the far side of Pohnpei to build monumental structures with walls up to 49 feet in height and 16 feet in thickness. More remarkable still, it seems to have been achieved without even the benefit of simple machines such as pulleys or levers—the building methods used remain unknown. Despite the enormous efforts that went into the building of Nan Madol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the site was abandoned in the sixteenth century after the Saudeleur dynasty was toppled by invasion from without. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site.

Pufferfish circle

The tiny white spotted pufferfish at the center of his circle

Recent years have brought to light a smaller but no less fascinating construction project. In 1995 divers off the coast of Japan noticed unusual circular patterns in the seabed. Formed too perfectly to be the work of chance, these circles featured concentric rings of sand with furrows radiating from the central point like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It was not until nearly twenty years later, in 2013, that the mysterious architect of these circles was identified. Despite the scale of the circles, up to six feet in diameter, they are the work of a species of small pufferfish, only a few inches in length. The male pufferfish works diligently, fanning the sand with his fins or using his body to shovel it aside, in order to construct his circle, which he then maintains carefully in the hope of attracting a mate. Even if he is successful in doing so, the female pufferfish does not stick around to admire his homemaking skills—having laid her eggs, she quickly departs leaving the male to care for and defend them.

With the vast depths of the Pacific largely unexplored, we can be sure that it has many more mysteries to offer us.

Watch the trailer to learn more.

Tuesday’s Trot – Shetland Pony

From page 34 in Horses of the World:

5 things to know about the Shetland Pony:

1. The Shetland Pony is one of the smallest breeds in the world, with such a particular look that it can’t be confused with any other breed. The winter coat is very thick and very long, giving it the look of a big stuffed animal.

2. Its origins are largely unknown, but it is extremely ancient, probably the direct descendant of primitive Celtic ponies.

3. Due to its isolation, it has not undergone crossbreeding. Its small size is the result of natural selection in a difficult environment, and of good adaptation to the cold and vegetation that offers little nutrition.

4. It has excellent endurance and is powerful for its size, capable of pulling and transporting heavy loads.

5. Of exceptional rusticity, this hardy pony has a tendency to get fat quickly, which is dangerous for its health.

Horses of the World
Élise Rousseau
Illustrated by Yann Le Bris
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Sample Entry

Horses of the World is a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. This beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. The treatment of breeds is organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total—and color photographs can be found throughout the book.

Describing and depicting every horse breed in existence, Horses of the World will be treasured by all who are interested in these gorgeous animals.

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.