Noah Wilson-Rich on The Best Bees Company

Author with beehive

Wilson-Rich on May 9, 2010, just six weeks after founding The Best Bees Company. Photo credit: Izzy Berdan

Pollinator decline is a grand challenge in the modern world. We are losing 40% of beehives annually nationwide, and more in places with tough winters, which are now at 50% or higher. Can you imagine if we lost half of our population each year? And if those we lost produced food for the rest of us? It’s untenable. I predict that at this rate, bees will be gone in 10 years. Furthermore, we will be without fruits and vegetables, causing global hunger, economic collapse, and a total moral crisis worldwide … if not for beekeepers, who replace those dead bees,

When I finished up my doctorate at Tufts University in honey bee immunology, I needed to find a laboratory, field sites, data points, and funding! It was 2009, in the deepest throws of the recession, so grant funding was more competitive for less resources, and the job market for academia was just as scarce. So I set up a laboratory of my own in the living room of my apartment in Boston, and started a Facebook page offering to install beehives at people’s home gardens and business rooftops in exchange for research funding. I’d volunteer my time to manage the beehives, they’d get all the honey, and I’d get the data.

And so our de factocitizen science journey began. We’d created a new way to engage the general public to own these little living data factories, pollinating gardens and farms, allowing everyone to participate in research.

When I told my apartment landlord in Boston that I’d set up a bee research lab in my living room, I was admittedly nervous. I must have caught him on a good day. He replied not with an eviction notice, but with a big smile and said, “Let’s put those bees in the back alley!” I was shocked. To all of our delight, that little data factory produced more honey that first year than any other beehive I’d ever worked. Over 100 lbs.! We were filling up pickle jars with the stuff! Since honey never goes bad, some of the tenants are still sharing it with their loved ones and the greater community.

The Bee coverThat beehive and this citizen science approach, shifted my research question forever. It moved me away from why bees were dying, as so many researchers ask, and toward what is it about this beehive – this urban beehive – that’s allowing these bees to live and thrive?

With that, The Best Bees Company was born! As we grew, more people and companies got our research-based beekeeping services throughout urban, suburban, and rural towns alike. Meanwhile, the more data we got, the more accurate our maps became. Trends began to emerge for precisely where bees were thriving best.

Nine years later, The Best Bees Company and I oversee 1000 beehives, in 10 greater metro areas, with 65 beekeepers on our team in this little company that we made up. We’ve brought in 25 million pollinators nationwide, enhancing the properties of citizen scientists. That’s 10 million data points, this year alone, a sum of nearly 20 million data points since the first pickle jar beehive. For my team, that scale meant more accurate maps, which we now share with NASA and Google Earth. And now I can report what’s saving bees to you.

You, too, can be part a citizen scientist – If you have a balcony in your apartment, a backyard at your home, you can participate in stabilizing our food system! To become a citizen science client and purchase The Best Bees Company’s beekeeping services nationwide, visit www.BestBees.comor contact info@bestbees.comor (617) 445-2322.

 

Browse Our New Biology 2018-2019 Catalog

In our Biology 2018-2019 catalog you will find a host of new books, from a look at how genes are not the only basis of heredity, a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotions in humans and animals, and an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

If you will be at ESA in New Orleans, we will be in booth 303. Stop by any time to check out our full range of titles in biology and related fields.

For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes–and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.

 

The Neuroscience of Emotion presents a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotion across species. Written by Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson, two leading authorities on the study of emotion, this accessible and original book recasts the discipline and demonstrates that in order to understand emotion, we need to examine its biological roots in humans and animals. Only through a comparative approach that encompasses work at the molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive levels will we be able to comprehend what emotions do, how they evolved, how the brain shapes their development, and even how we might engineer them into robots in the future.

In Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

Bird Fact Friday – the Lesser Black-Backed Gull

Adapted from pages 266 to 273 of Gulls of the World:

The Lesser Black-Backed Gull is a four-year gull, and resembles a dark-backed, more slender version of Herring Gull, with rounder head and slightly thinner bill that appears less blunt-tipped and slightly drooping. They have long, slender wings are often held lowered when relaxed. Their head and underbody is whitish with dark streaking to mottling and dark eye-mask, while their central hindbelly and vent may lack dark spotting. The darkest of these birds have rather uniform brown head and underbody. Meanwhile, their upperwing is dark brown with blackish flight feathers, only rarely with indication of paler inner webs to inner primaries. They have two solid dark wing-bars, formed by blackish centres to greater coverts and secondaries, and an underwing that is blackish-brown to barred grey-brown in contrast to paler flight feathers. Finally, their rump is white with dense dark spotting reaching upper mantle as slight paler wedge against darker scapulars, and their tail is black with narrow white bases and spots along edges of t6; sometimes with more extensive white at base and narrower black tail-bar.

A gull

An adult Lesser Black-Backed Gull (intermedius). It’s a rather dark individual
with blackish upperparts, almost concolorous with wing-tip. Photographed by the author in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In flight, they are dark enough to be mistaken at range for juvenile skua (especially Pomarine, which is similar in size and dark overall plumage). The majority retain juvenile plumage in first part of autumn, unlike Yellow-legged, Caspian and many Herring Gulls, which from Sep have renewed mantle and scapulars and have slightly worn coverts. They breed colonially along coasts and on islands, locally on islands in lakes and rivers, on moors and on buildings.

There was a large increase since the 1940s with the extension of breeding range from 1920, so it is able to manage competition with Herring Gull. Since the 1990s, they have been breeding in Greenland; they probably also breed in North America, where scarce visitors to East Canada and USA. Most of the European population is migratory, but some remain near breeding sites to winter in milder parts of West Europe. Birds leave breeding sites from late July, with several stops during southward journey. Most winters are spent in the West Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline between the South Iberian peninsula and Mauritania, with some reaching southwards to interior West Africa and Gulf of Guinea coasts.

Gulls of the World
By Klaus Malling Olsen

With more than 50 gull species in the world, this family of seabirds poses some of the greatest field identification challenges of any bird group: age-related plumage changes, extensive variations within species, frequent hybridization, and complex distribution. 

Gulls of the World takes on these challenges and is the first book to provide a comprehensive look at these birds. Concise text emphasizes field identification, with in-depth discussion of variations as well as coverage of habitat, status, and distribution. Abundant photographs highlight identification criteria and, crucially, factor in age and subspecific field separation. Informative species accounts are accompanied by detailed color range maps.

Gulls of the World is the most authoritative photographic guide to this remarkable bird family.

  • The first book to provide in-depth coverage of all the world’s gull species
  • More than 600 stunning color photographs
  • Concise text looks at variations, habitat, status, and distribution
  • Informative species accounts and color range maps

 

 

 

The Dog Days of Summer: Sniffing & Smelling

Adapted from page 60 of The Dog:

Smelling is an active process and dogs can inhale air at a rapid rate, approximately 4–7 Hz (sniffs/second). This ensures that odorous molecules also reach the deeper parts of the nose cavity, and about 15 percent of them stay there for the next round of smelling. This increases the concentration of the chemical in the nose and also provides more time for analysis. Sniffing behavior also changes during a search. Dogs smell very effectively at the beginning when they need to locate the start of the trail. After finding the start, dogs may wander along in a more relaxed way and sniff less frequently.

German Shepard sniffing

The German shepherd is a breed that is highly suited to tracking work. Photo credit: Melica, Shutterstock.

Several experiments have established that, in the case of some chemicals, dogs have a much higher sensibility than humans. Depending on the molecule, this difference could be 3–10 times higher, or even 10,000 (in the case of n-amyl acetate). In most cases, dogs need to be trained to recognize specific odors (such as narcotics or components of explosives). After training, skilled dogs are able to detect these substances at minute concentrations.

Although differences between breeds are expected, they have not been documented well. There is some evidence that the spontaneous performance of scent dogs (such as the beagle) and wolves is higher than that of non-scent dogs (such as the Afghan hound) and shortnosed ones (such as the boxer).

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

Amazing Arachnids: Whip Spiders

Adapted from pages 88-90 of Amazing Arachnids:

Imagine a world of giant horsetail trees, ferns, and clubmosses. Everything looks oddly familiar, but dramatically out of scale. Plants that you think of as being only a few inches in height are now tall trees. Huge dragonflies with 2-foot (0.6 m) wingspans hunt in the air, while 4-inch-long (10 cm) cockroaches and 2-foot-long (0.6 m) millipedes feed on the abundant decaying plant material on the forest floor. Small reptiles forage among the vegetation, and occasionally one is drowned in the water-filled stump of a clubmoss tree. Lurking in the swampy pools are large, salamander-like amphibians. This is the world of the Carboniferous Period 300 million years ago, and in this world another predator lived. This flat, spiderlike creature stalked its prey on vertical surfaces, tentatively bending its antenniform feelers around curves as it hunted. These feelers were in fact modified legs but were no longer used for locomotion. They had become long and thin, and articulated with many joints, forming the elegant structure that gives this arachnid its common name “whip spider.”

Whip spiders possess a diverse array of cuticular sensory structures on their antenniform legs. Among the hairs (or setae) are bristles, club sensilla, porous sensilla, rod sensilla, leaflike hairs, and trichobothria. In addition to the setae, there may be other structures present, including a pit organ, a plate organ, and slit sensilla. Among the most numerous of these cuticular sensory setae are bristles. Bristles are most likely contact chemoreceptors, able to “taste” chemical traces via an open pore at the tip of each bristle. These bristles are arranged in 5 evenly spaced rows around the circumference or the tarsi and may range in number from almost 500 in the protonymph to more than 1,500 in the adult. Approximately 500 club sensilla may also be involved in chemoreception, primarily in olfaction, as are the porous sensilla consisting of hairs perforated by numerous pores. Among mechanoreceptors are the trichobothria, the leaflike hairs, and the slit sensilla. In whip spiders, the long delicate trichobothrial hairs are found on the tibia of the whip as well as on the tibia of the walking legs. These, as well as the slit sensilla, provide long-distance mechanoreception, extremely important in detecting moving prey. In fact, the walking legs provide an important backup in this crucial aspect of hunting.

Two long, slender antenniform legs characterize amblypygids, giving them the name “whip spider.” These legs are no longer used for locomotion but are sensory in function. The antenniform legs
are also essential in intraspecific communication.

Even if the whip spider has lost both antenniform legs, it can still find and capture prey successfully by using the trichobothria on the walking legs; however, the whip spider absolutely must have trichobothria in order to locate moving prey. Once potential prey has been detected, the amblypygid orients itself facing toward it and unfolds its raptorial palps in preparation for the capture as it approaches the quarry. With a sudden lunge, the prey is grasped with the armed palps. Perhaps because whip spiders possess no venom and are somewhat delicate in physical structure, the creatures they capture are usually smaller than themselves. Crickets, moths, small lizards, and small frogs have been documented as prey of whip spiders in the wild. Once the prey has been captured, the whip spider uses its chelicerae to tear a hole in the body wall and regurgitates digestive juices into the opening. The chelicerae continue to masticate the prey into an amorphous mush while the digestive fluids break down the tissue. Like most other arachnids, the whip spider ingests only liquefied food, filtering out solid particles as the powerful phyrangeal pump and stomach suck in the predigested meal.

Amazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

Bird Fact Friday— Mediterranean Gull

Adapted from pages 68-71 of Gulls of the World:

The Mediterranean Gull is a three-year gull. They are medium-sized and compact with large squarish head, a deep parallel-edged bill with drooping tip, dark eyes and long legs. The largest males of this species are almost size of Common Gull and have the heaviest bills. Meanwhile, the smallest females are Black-headed Gull-sized with shorter, stubby bills. Settled birds look stocky with long legs; when relaxed, often appear compact and neckless with flat back. Swimming birds sit high on water.

In flight, these gulls are full-bodied with a short neck, ‘well-fed’ belly and shortish-looking wings, appearing rounded and in adults very pale. Flight with stiffer wing-beats than Black-headed and Common Gulls, somewhat recalling that of small egrets (particularly in the case of palewinged adults). May feed with short dips, but will also chase flying insects like Black-headed Gull.

A Mediterranean Gull.

Their most common call is a mellow yelping ee-ar or yee-ah, slightly reminiscent of male  Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope, or small barking dog.

These gulls nest along coasts and lagoons with sparse vegetation, generally avoiding barren sand. They breed mainly from Black Sea region westwards; extension of breeding range from 1940s to scattered regions of S Europe northwards to Denmark and westwards to southern England.

Migration takes place mainly coastal with large concentrations around W Black Sea in September before leaving for winter quarters in S Black Sea and Mediterranean. Most of W European population gathers in N France following breeding season. They are regular visitors to Europe north of breeding range. Vagrant to Iceland, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Macaronesia, Africa S to Senegal, The Gambia and Kenya, and Jordan, Iraq, Arabian Gulf and Kazakhstan.

Gulls of the World
By Klaus Malling Olsen

With more than 50 gull species in the world, this family of seabirds poses some of the greatest field identification challenges of any bird group: age-related plumage changes, extensive variations within species, frequent hybridization, and complex distribution. 

Gulls of the World takes on these challenges and is the first book to provide a comprehensive look at these birds. Concise text emphasizes field identification, with in-depth discussion of variations as well as coverage of habitat, status, and distribution. Abundant photographs highlight identification criteria and, crucially, factor in age and subspecific field separation. Informative species accounts are accompanied by detailed color range maps.

Gulls of the World is the most authoritative photographic guide to this remarkable bird family.

  • The first book to provide in-depth coverage of all the world’s gull species
  • More than 600 stunning color photographs
  • Concise text looks at variations, habitat, status, and distribution
  • Informative species accounts and color range maps

Dog Days of Summer: Barking

Adapted from pages 108-109 of The Dog:

The most striking difference between the vocal repertoires of wolves and dogs appears to be the predominant habit of barking in the dog. While wolves emit short bouts or single barks, mostly at a young age and during agonistic encounters, most companion dogs are known to be “barkers” and there are several contexts where dogs bark rather abundantly.

One theory about the evolutionary origin and function of this typical dog vocalization claims that the contagious barking of neighborhood dogs upon the arrival of an intruder (the mail carrier, for example, or somebody with a dog on a leash walking along the street) is similar to the harassing of predators in species such as corvid birds.

Dogs barking.

Dogs also bark during play. This feature is a new addition to their vocal repertoire, as
wild-living canids, such as wolves, jackals,
and foxes, do not bark while playing. Photo credit: George Lee, Shutterstock.

Another hypothesis suggests that, since domestication, dogs have shared their social space with humans, and this coexistence paved the way to new communicative interactions, including vocal signaling. Thus, barks became the type of vocalization through which dogs could convey several kinds of messages toward their human audience. The highly variable and repetitive barks of dogs show a much broader acoustic range than wolf barks and, according to recent experimental data, humans can attribute accurate contextual and affective meaning to dog barks.

However, barking is not a solely human directed vocalization: Other dogs can also decipher information about the barking individual’s identity and emotions by listening to its bark.

Disregarding the elements such as syntax, symbolism, and size of vocabulary that hallmark human language, dog vocalizations seemingly lack one other important feature that makes human conversations so meaningful—the referentiality. Dogs do not vocalize about things that are independent of their own inner state or qualities. In principle, the acoustic signals of a dog indicate its internal mental state and its indexical attributes (size, age, sex, identity). These are equally informative for humans and other dogs as well.

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

Amazing Arachnids: Fishing Spiders

Adapted from pages 296-297 of Amazing Arachnids:

Resting its front feet on the water’s surface, a Dolomedes fishing spider waits along the edge of a small, slow-moving stream. It reads every disturbance, however subtle, on the water’s surface much the way that an orb weaver spider reads the vibrations within its web. In addition to detecting motion with its feet (specifically with the metatarsal lyriform organ), it can also see quite well; its large eyes are not very different from those of its cousin the wolf spider. The fishing spider’s patience is rewarded when an immature grasshopper attempts to leap across the stream and falls onto the surface of the water. Faster than the eye can follow, the fishing spider gallops across the water’s surface and grasps the hapless grasshopper between its two impressive fangs. The spider then returns to the edge of the stream to eat the grasshopper on land, where it efficiently masticates its food and sucks down the liquefied portion until all that is left of the grasshopper is an unrecognizable crumb and a few fragments. 

Dolomedes belongs to the family Pisauridae, also known as nursery web spiders and fishing spiders. In some ways, the fishing spider is the aquatic analogue to the terrestrial wolf spider. This family includes characteristically large, handsome spiders with good eyesight that depend on their speed and strength in order to capture prey. Many of the family frequent moist habitats, but it is the genus Dolomedes that has mastered a lifestyle connected to the water. Despite the fact that some of the species in this genus reach an impressive size (Dolomedes okefenokensis has a leg span of 4 to 5 inches, or 10 to 12.7 cm), they can “row” or even rest their bodies on the water’s surface without breaking the surface tension. The water simply indents or dimples where their legs and body contact the surface. While the spider is on the surface of the water, it

An impressive predator, this mature female Tinus peregrinus fishing spider has captured a fish as large as herself.
She has carried it up into vegetation, where she will masticate and predigest the fish. She must feed out of water or the enzymes needed for predigestion will be diluted out.

is vulnerable to attack from below by underwater predators such as frogs. In this situation, the spider literally levitates by rapidly pushing all its legs downward against the water’s surface to generate the force needed to jump straight up. It then gallops to safety. If the fishing spider becomes startled or frightened by a bird or a wasp, it scrambles underwater, clinging to vegetation so it doesn’t pop back up to the surface. A thin layer of air clings to the hydrophobic cuticle and hairs on the spider’s body, giving it a lovely silvery appearance. It can remain underwater for a good 40 minutes while waiting for the danger to pass. 

Dolomedes spiders must remain vigilant while hunting, because they themselves are hunted. A spider wasp in the pompilid family, Anoplius depressipes, preys exclusively on female Dolomedes spiders. If a fishing spider sees one of these wasps nearby, it takes evasive action, fleeing from the wasp and diving under water in an attempt to escape. But the wasp does something really extraordinary. It actually dives and then swims underwater in pursuit of the unfortunate spider. Once it finds its prey, the wasp stings and paralyzes the spider. The wasp then surfaces with the paralyzed spider and drags it across the water as it skims across in a low flight trajectory. The spider is installed in the nest burrow of the wasp, and a single egg is laid on it. The wasp larva feeds on the still-living, paralyzed Dolomedes until it finally kills the spider. Then the wasp larva pupates.

Unlike the wasp, Dolomedes hunts on the surface of the water. Some authors have written that it hunts underwater, but this has yet to be clearly documented. Instead, it captures its prey primarily either at the surface of the water or on land. Despite this limitation, it can readily catch fish as they swim very close to the water’s surface. The fangs and venom appear to be highly effective in killing the captured fish almost instantly, making it easier for the spider to carry its prey across the water and onto land or up into vegetation growing at the edge of the water. Because spiders ingest only liquefied, predigested food, the fishing spider must eat its prey above the water or else its digestive fluids will be diluted or lost.

Amazing Arachnids coverAmazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

Joseph Barber on The Chicken

The Chicken coverInherently social creatures, chickens are enjoying a renaissance as prized members of many households and small farms. From feathers and flock formation to imprinting and incubating, The Chicken by Joseph Barber provides a comprehensive, richly illustrated guide to understanding how chickens live, think, and act both alongside people and independently.

How did you get involved with chickens?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in London, I was hooked on the subject of animal behavior, and knew I wanted to continue studying this subject. I even came across the perfect PhD project that was focused on researching cheetahs in the Serengeti. You cannot get much cooler than that in terms of an animal behavior research project. However, I wasn’t even close to being qualified for research in this environment given that the most fearsome animal I had worked with at that point was a bank vole (and no, they are not fierce!).

Instead, I found a research project focusing on the social behavior of laying hens at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Marian Dawkins. This was an amazing opportunity to work under one of the foremost experts in behavioral research. It also meant I had to get up close and personal with chickens. In fact, the chickens at Oxford were the first chickens I had ever really interacted with, and they were a little terrifying at first—what with their beady eyes and dinosaur-like legs. Over the three years of my research, I certainly developed an appreciation for these birds and their strong personalities. What I never learnt to appreciate was their desire to pull the hairs on my legs as I was cleaning their enclosures.

But really, a whole book about chickens?

My PhD research focused on the social behavior of chickens. This subject area represents a tiny slice of what makes chickens so interesting (yes, a slice of the chicken pie, if you like that sort of thing). The various chapter authors in this book all bring their own amazing expertise in terms of discussing the evolutionary history of the birds, their anatomy and physiology, their complex behavior, their treatment in captivity, and the delightful range of appearances and characteristics of the many breeds of chickens that exist. In other words, there is so much to learn about chickens that there is probably no single person who knows everything there is to know.  More importantly, the reason for this book is to encourage people to develop their own appreciation of chickens, especially people who might be considering having their own backyard chickens.

Why have backyard chickens?

Well, because the plentiful supply of eggs you can get will taste far better than intensively farmed eggs you buy, and can give you great satisfaction in terms of bringing food to your table from your own backyard. Even if you didn’t want eggs, chickens can be wonderfully fun to watch as they wreak havoc on the bugs and vegetables you have in your gardens. You can find many online retailers selling the most exotic chicken coops you can imagine if you want to get really fancy, and the possibilities for posting chicken-related pictures on social media are endless (#drinkingwithchickens on Instagram as an example).

Any interesting chicken stories or facts?

Based on my experience, if you hold a chicken under your arm whilst wearing a lab coat, and if you keep your keys in your lab coat pocket, then the chances are high that you will end up with chicken poop on your keys. Also, if you study chickens for 3 years, everyone will buy you chicken-related gifts for your birthday and any and all other celebrations. There are just so many chicken-themed gifts that can be bought at any time of the year. To be honest, I think it made all my relatives very happy that I studied chickens, because they always knew what to buy me! And finally, chickens don’t fly very well, but they have still have the ability to generate significant lift when motivated. A single hen who freaks out at a sudden sound or movement can trigger a superabundance of flapping birds trying to get away from whatever it was the first bird thought was worth fleeing from. This explosion of feathered fowl and sawdust can be terrifying for a human caught up in the midst of it whilst innocently gathering eggs from the nest boxes.

So, why did the chicken cross the road?

It is definitely important to ask this. From a research perspective, a potentially easier question would be “how would we determine why the chicken crossed the road?” Since chickens cannot tell us the answer directly, we only have their behavior to go on to figure out an answer.  What we are interested in as animal behaviorists is what is it that motivates a change in behavior. Is it something internal, such as hunger, or something external, such as the sight of a predator or something that other members of the social group are doing? Chickens tend to perform a lot of socially facilitated behaviors—that is, they tend to do what other birds in the flock are doing, at the same time and in the same location. It is easier to spot predators if there are lots of eyes scanning the environment. So, chances are high that most chickens cross the road because they are simply following the chickens ahead of them. As for the first bird who crossed it—perhaps she was actually riding on the back of an alligator who was chasing a clown who lost his wallet in the laundromat which just happened to be on the other side of the road.

After reading this book, will I stop wanting to eat chicken?

My PhD research and the topic of the class I teach at Hunter College both focus on animal welfare. This is a hard subject to define easily, but one way to think about welfare is to consider whether the animals we house in captive environment can cope with the challenges they face in these environments. If our farmed animals experience pain everyday because they are housed on a hard concrete surface, or if they are frustrated because they cannot perform a behavior that they are highly motivated to perform, then these would be examples of poor welfare. In these cases, the animals are faced with negative experiences that they cannot overcome. The more we understand about farm animals, the easier it becomes to see where their captive environments are not set up to meet their various needs. There are certainly farming practices that turn people off intensively farmed food once they learn about them. This book provides great insights into the life of chickens, and so can be helpful to people as they think about whether the meat or eggs they eat come from an environment that they feel is welfare friendly or not. With a little research, it is absolutely possible to find local farmers who rear animals in a way you would hope they would be reared. Indeed, if you have chickens in your own backyard, you can be far more certain that the eggs you eat come from well-appreciated birds reared in an environmentally sustainable manner!

Joseph Barber is a senior associate director at the University of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Bird Fact Friday — Pallas’s Gull

Adapted from pages 46-48 of Gulls of the World:

Pallas’s Gull is a four-year gull, but with initial rapid plumage development as in three-year gulls. The largest hooded gull by far, Pallas’s Gull is almost as large as Great Black-backed Gull, and dwarfs almost any other gull in its company. Its pear-shaped head has flat crown that peaks well behind dark eyes. These gulls have a long, heavy bill, while its head looks small relative to heavy, barrel-shaped body. In settled birds, the breast appears full, but their rear is attenuated with wings extending moderately beyond tail-tip. Loosely folded tertials create a prominent hump. Meanwhile, their legs are long and thin, with long visible tibia. 

With regards to their in flight profile, it is front-heavy with triangular head, protruding breast and slender wings, like an oversized Caspian Gull. They fly ponderously and slowly with heron-like wing-beats, gliding on angled wings with little flexing at carpal joint. The birds are known for often lowering their bill in flight. They frequently catch fish by hovering and diving. Swimming birds sit higher on water than other large gulls.

A gull.

A Pallas Gull in Uttar Pradesh, India.

These gulls are not very vocal. Calls deep and short, on breeding sites a deep há-u. Flocks utter a goose-like ga-gaga. They also make a low, slightly nasal oow, similar to the calls of the Common Raven Corvus corax. Finally, their alarm call a barking whe-ow.

These gulls breed from Central Asia W to Ukraine and the S Caspian region, along with E to W Mongolia. They nest on barren islands in saline and fresh waters, generally in warm, dry steppe areas and mountain lakes. Colonies often relocate from year to year. Main winter areas are between E Mediterranean (westwards to Sicily) and Bay of Bengal along fish-rich coasts, rivers and lakes, also fish-ponds and reservoirs. Populations from Tibet winter mainly in Bangladesh. They are scarce southwards to Lake Turkana in Kenya and eastwards to Gulf of Thailand and Hong Kong. Regular visitor to SE Europe in increasing numbers from late 1980s, with most records May–Sep; majority recorded Hungary, Romania and Poland, probably after following Dnieper River system from Ukraine. Vagrant NW Africa, Canary Islands, Madeira, most European countries northwards to Norway, Uganda, Burundi, Vietnam, E China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

 

Gulls of the World
By Klaus Malling Olsen

With more than 50 gull species in the world, this family of seabirds poses some of the greatest field identification challenges of any bird group: age-related plumage changes, extensive variations within species, frequent hybridization, and complex distribution. 

Gulls of the World takes on these challenges and is the first book to provide a comprehensive look at these birds. Concise text emphasizes field identification, with in-depth discussion of variations as well as coverage of habitat, status, and distribution. Abundant photographs highlight identification criteria and, crucially, factor in age and subspecific field separation. Informative species accounts are accompanied by detailed color range maps.

Gulls of the World is the most authoritative photographic guide to this remarkable bird family.

  • The first book to provide in-depth coverage of all the world’s gull species
  • More than 600 stunning color photographs
  • Concise text looks at variations, habitat, status, and distribution
  • Informative species accounts and color range maps

 

Dog Days of Summer: Communication & Ritualization

Adapted from pages 98-100 of The Dog:

It is beyond question that animal communication is a complex phenomenon that often gives the impression that the observed behavior is brought about by high-level cognitive mechanisms. Therefore, it is no wonder that, when thinking of animal communication in general and dogs’ communication skills in particular, one can fall into the trap of anthropomorphism and endow animals with human-like mental abilities.

Communication is an interactive process during which a signaler displays and a receiver responds to a signal. Signals are perceivable behaviors (or bodily features) that have the potential to change the behavior of a receiver in a way that is beneficial to the signaler, not excluding benefits on the part of the receiver.

A dog being trained

Dogs readily attend to human-given cues, and they show a particular preference for face-to-face interactions and eye contact with humans. But their attention toward humans depends on their socialization and relationship. Photo credit: michaelheim, Shutterstock

Communicative signals passing through various sensory processes (visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile) may evolve from preexisting behaviors that already have some value to the potential receivers. If the receiver’s response evoked by such informative behavior is beneficial to the signaler, then, on the evolutionary time scale, the behavior becomes gradually transformed into a communicative signal by increasing conspicuousness, stereotypy, and separation from its original function. This process is called evolutionary ritualization, during which the behavior evolves to a signal that elicits the most appropriate response from the receiver.

Although the original function of hair bristling is to regulate body temperature, hair bristles on the back and shoulders also make dogs appear stronger and bigger than they really are. Virtual body size is an important informing cue in conflicts, and thus hair bristling has become ritualized as a communicative signal indicating an aggressive behavioral state that is produced in a wide variety of contexts.

Ritualization may also take place at a developmental timescale. This latter process is called ontogenetic ritualization, during which individuals mutually shape their behaviors over repeated instances of social interactions and the signaling function of certain behaviors is shaped through individual learning.

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

Amazing Arachnids: Pirate Spiders

Adapted from pages 285 to 286 of Amazing Arachnids:

With infinite patience, the pirate spider Mimetus slips into the web of an orb weaver and approaches its prey. Its progress is almost imperceptible as it pauses for long minutes between each stealthy step. But eventually the pirate spider is within striking distance of its quarry. With a sudden lunge, Mimetus attacks the target, using its long chelicerae to administer the lethal bite. Immediately, it releases the victim and waits a bit, making sure that the spider victim is dead. It does not have long to wait; the orb weaver dies almost instantly from the potent venom,  which is highly effective against spiders. The pirate spider then settles down to suck out the contents of the orb weaver, leaving the cuticle of its prey almost completely intact. The web built by the orb weaver to capture food is now the platform for its own consumption.

Slow and stealthy, pirate spiders hardly seem like lethal predators at first glance. But pirate spiders have made a specialty of hunting other spiders, especially the orb weavers and the combfooted spiders (the theridiids), including even black widows. The spiders in the family Mimetidae possess extremely long front legs armed with heavy, slightly curved setae. Another spider hunter, Rhomphaea, also has exceptionally long front legs. Perhaps this is a useful adaptation when attacking a spider in its web, giving the attacker a superior reach.

Pirate spider

A Metapeira met a pirate. Incredibly slow and stealthy, the female pirate spider Mimetus hesperus slipped into the web of a small Metapeira orb weaver, taking more than an hour before getting close enough for the final lethal attack. The pirate spider then fed at her leisure.

The name Mimetidae is based on the Greek word for “imitator, actor, and impersonator.” In fact, the genus Eros is notorious for incorporating deception into its hunting repertoire, utilizing what is called aggressive mimicry. Aggressive mimicry is defined by a predator (the mimic) imitating a harmless organism (the model), thereby attracting the prey. Aggressive mimics that target more than one species of prey may have evolved highly complex repertoires of behaviors, and may demonstrate plasticity in the use of these behaviors. Staying near the periphery of the victim’s web, Eros seductively plucks the silk, imitating a courting male. When the resident spider hurries over to investigate, Eros bites her on the leg and kills her. Eros then eats not only the spider, but any eggs as well. In 1850, Nicholas Marcellus Hentz wrote, “The Mimetus … prefers prowling in the dark, and taking possession of the industrious Epeira’s threads and home, or the patient Theridion’s web, after murdering the unsuspecting proprietor.” Occasionally, though, if Mimetus becomes a little careless, the hunter may become the hunted, and the pirate spider may be killed by the resident spider and then eaten.

Although the female Mimetus seems to prefer spiders as the predominant prey, male Mimetus readily hunt other small arthropods such as gnats. The males may be seen as regular visitors on sliding glass doors at night, feeding on small gnats attracted to the light. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that this innocuous male belongs to the same species as the lethal female.

Amazing Arachnids coverAmazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference