Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What I wish for my TED-Ed video.

In a few hours the folks at TED will be launching a new website, TED-Ed.  The site is meant to build on the popularity of the incredibly viral TED talks on the TED.com website.  TED talks have become so popular largely because, as the tagline says, they share "riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world". However, I think that they have also become so pervasive because of their share-ability.  One click and they are posted on your Facebook wall or attached in an email to a friend.  This has been an extremely powerful tool for spreading ideas.  Indeed the average TED talk is viewed online more than 100,000 times and the most popular talks have been viewed millions of times. The most popular of which is Ken Robinson's talk, Schools Kill Creativity; it has been viewed more than 10 million times. (If you haven't seen it, watch it now!)

With the launch of TED-Ed, they are hoping to take that extremely powerful brand for sharing ideas, and extend it to the world of teaching.  They want to take the best lessons from teachers around the world and help that teaching go viral. To do that they are concentrating on a format that has the best chance of being easily spread online and into classrooms everywhere. They are keeping the videos short (all less than 10 minutes with most at around 5-6 minutes).  They are also pairing teachers with some of the world's best animators to give the lessons visual snap and and an element of surprise that can be tough to do with a straight lecture format.

After being lucky enough to be invited to give a TED talk last month at TED 2012, I am now also lucky to have one of my lessons up on the TED-Ed site for its official launch.  Therefore as TED's new creation is about to be judged by the world at large, so is mine. To be fair, it is not entirely my own creation. I worked with legendary animator Candy Kugel on the project and her work breathed a playful spark into my teaching that I wish could be there everyday. None the less, I do feel very connected to the work and I definitely feel a sense of shared ownership for the project.  As my lesson is about to take its first few steps out into the internet, I find myself reflecting on my hopes for its online future.

My lesson, Sex Determination: More Complicated Than You Thought, is really a 5 minute summary version of 3 of my favorite 45 minute lessons that I teach on sex determination in animals. Over the last seven school years of teaching high school biology, I have seen that these lessons consistently fascinate my students.  When the folks at TED asked me about creating a lesson, sex determination was immediately on my mind as a possible topic.  When they told me that they wanted it to be about 5 minutes long it forced me to stop looking for a way to recreate my best lessons on the topic and instead create a new type of lesson.  A lesson that would distill the essence of those other lessons, but still remain clear and would leave students wanting to know more.  That is indeed my biggest hope for this project; that it will make students want to learn more.

I know that in five minutes I could never thoroughly teach a topic as complex as sex determination throughout the animal kingdom.  I also know that videos, no matter how captivating, will never replace a passionate teacher.  However, I do believe that you can inspire a student's curiosity in a single moment and that curiosity can propel a student to learn for a long time. So that is my hope for this video and I think it is TED-Ed's hope for their new website.  I hope that it will help teachers to generate that spark of curiosity in their own students and become a great tool that is used to support and inspire great teaching as it was meant to be- curiosity driven person to person.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lizard Project Day 14: That's a wrap...for now. Thanks for following along with us.

All good things must come to an end.  We have finished the field work for this spring season of The Lizard Project.  We have nearly all the adult lizards on our study islands marked.  We found out who survived during this past year and who did not.  In the fall we will return to the islands to capture and mark the baby lizards that will be born this summer.  We will then collect DNA from those babies and find out which individual lizards and which traits were successful in yet another generation of lizards on our islands.  We hope to find answers that will tell us how the environments of the islands are shaping the natural selection and evolution of these populations of lizards.  It is our hope that this will help us to better understand how all life on our planet evolves.  I think that I speak for the entire team when I say that we are already looking forward to the next trip down to the islands.

On our final day in Florida, National Geographic Photographer Vincent J. Musi, photographed our lizards.  He brought a real passion and curiosity to our work and I think it shows in his photos. The Lizard Project team has spent countless hours looking closely at lizards, but I know that we have never seen these animals in quite the same way that we saw them through the lens of Vince's camera.  Even though they are small and often overlooked, these little guys really are beautiful animals and we think that Vince's photos will help people to see that side of them.  This little guy is quite the handsome dude. Don't you think so?
That is one good looking lizard. Photo by Vincent J. Musi

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lizard Project Day 12: Almost all the lizards are marked and we're getting ready for a special guest.

Today we were very happy to see that almost all the lizards on our islands have stylish numbers on their sides.  This means that we have already captured and marked them and that means that our work here is almost done for this trip.

We have been having so much fun doing science down here that is seems hard to believe that we only have a couple of days left before we have to head back home.  We will be returning on home with notebooks full of data to analyze and we can't wait to answer some of our many questions. Does the sex ratio effect survival?  Is natural selection working differently on male and female dominated islands? Are growth rates the same on all of our islands? Does the dewlap size really matter when it comes to survival and reproduction? We will soon have answers these questions and more and we are looking forward to that.  

However, we are not quite done yet here and we want to make the most of our last few days. Tomorrow we have a special guests joining us and we are really looking forward to it.

Tomorrow, National Geographic photographer Vincent Musi and his family will be arriving here at the field station.  I met Vincent at the TEDxMidwest conference last year in Chicago. I happened to sit down next to him and his wife Callie (also a profesional photographer) at lunch. We started talking and I told him that I did science with lizards that was supported by National Geographic. He told me that he makes photos for National Geographic.  I asked him how I could take better lizard pictures.  He got so excited about giving me photo advice that about 15 minutes later we were planning his trip to meet up with the lizard project and take pictures of our lizards.  We are thrilled that he is coming down.  Vince is well known for making animal photos and, although he usually works with slightly larger animals, we can't wait to see the pictures he is going to make with our little lizards. Check out some of Vince's latest work with National Geographic if you want to see why we are so excited to have him shoot our lizards. 

He's a bit bigger than our lizards. Photo by Vincent J. Musi in National Geographic.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lizard Project Days 10 & 11: Animals

We have now caught, tagged and released 572 lizards on this trip into the field.  We have already shared with you guys how we search for lizards, how we catch lizards, how we measure lizards and how we learn about evolution by studying lizards.  However, this post is not about lizards.  This post is about all of the other amazing animals that we get to see when we are out working on the islands.

 Manatee. Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com.
Manatees: This morning while we were paddling out we heard loud snorting and blowing. A huge tail then appeared appeared out of the water and two, thousand pound manatees rolled onto their sides and looked at us. We think that they were in the act of mating. They looked at us and continued swim slowly nearby, while they rubbed against each other.  They stayed close to us for about a minute until a power boat came close to them and scared them off.
The lizard project team gets a close up view of manatee mating on our morning commute.

Eastern Glass Lizard on Little Island.  How many of our lizards has he eaten?
Eastern Glass Lizard: Early in the trip we found an Island Glass Lizard, a seldom seen species of legless lizard swimming in the estuary. We thought we were lucky to see a legless lizard period, but yesterday we found another species of legless lizard on one of our islands (I wonder how many of our study lizards he has eaten?). This one was the Eastern Glass Lizard.  When we were releasing him, we accidentally caused him to eject his tail. We were sad that this happened, because it will probably take this lizard a while to regrow such a big tail.  They have the ability to eject their tail to escape from a predator.  When the tail is detached it wiggles like crazy to keep the predator distracted while the lizard escapes.  We filmed it and you can watch by clicking on the video.

Yellow Rat Snake: We found this critter on the mainland, but we have seen these on our islands before.  Like their name says, they like to eat rats and small mammals.  They also probably like to eat our lizards when they are small.  We have not seen any of these out on our islands this trip, but we have seen evidence that they are there.  We found two large skins that have recently been shed out on island L.  Andrew, the resident snake expert on our team, determined that they were skins from two very large (almost 5 feet long!) yellow rat snakes.  If you are
interested in learning about how Andrew can identify a snake from it's shed skin, read his latest blog post on his blog SnakesAreLong.blogspot.com http://snakesarelong.blogspot.com/2012/04/identifying-snake-sheds.html#comment-form

Great Blue Heron: These big beautiful birds are really common on the estuary.  Almost every morning when we put the kayaks in the water.  These guys are sitting on the dock with the fisherman.  Watch this short video of one wading along the shore of Island M.

Still can't get enough Lizard Project.  Check out Tim Mitchell's post on timsfertileturtles.blogspot.com about the strange language of lizard catching.

Tim's Fertile Turtles: Lizard Project- Day 10. Lizard Lingo!: We are on the cutting edge of evolutionary biology, but also on the cutting edge of developing new vocabulary.  After spending days and days trying to catch lizards, we have developed some new vocab words. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lizard Project Days 8 and 9: A field day in the life of an evolutionary biologist.

As a biology teacher it seems to me that many kids who would make really great biologists (Maybe you are one of those kids!), don’t become biologists because they don’t  know any biologists personally and can’t picture exactly what it is they would do as a biologist.  Here at WideWorldScience we love what we do and we want to share it with you.  While it is true that there is a lot of time spent back at the lab, analyzing data, teaching classes, planning experiments and preparing for field expeditions, all of us love to get out and do science in the wild.  We really do love working with our friends outside, paddling kayaks, looking for wildlife, climbing trees and chasing lizards. We live for these field trips!  Here is a typical field day in the life of a biologist:

Dan and Andrew with our rental truck and kayak trailer.
6:30 Wake up- Four of us are packed into the tiny bunkhouse room at the Guano Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Research Reserve.  It is small, but it has air conditioning, running water, electricity and an internet connection, so we are glad to have it.  Many times we camp in tents while we are working in the field.

6:45 Breakfast- cereal, milk and bananas

.7:15 Packing the gear- We pack up all of our gear into the truck for the day.  This includes, lizard nooses, lizard bags, drinking water, dry shoes, sunscreen, cameras, animal coolers, lizard noose repair kit, duct tape (you always need duct tape), life jackets, kayaks, paddles and of course lunch (usually pb&j sandwiches, apples and granola bars).

8:00 Drive 3 miles to the boat launch- This is where we put the kayaks in the water.  There are lots of fisherman that put their boats in the estuary here.  It is a busy place.
The commute to the office.

8:30 Paddle out to the islands- This is one of my favorite parts of the day.  It takes about 10 minutes to paddle to Island M, our closest island, and about 45 minutes to paddle to Island F, the furthest island.  We often have dolphins swim near us while we paddle.

9:00 We land on an island.  This requires us to wade through the shallow water.  Since Tim cut his foot on an oyster shell two days ago, we have to help him keep his feet dry. See this video.

This lizard has already been captured by us.

9:15- 12:15 We hunt for lizards on the island.  We just walk around carefully looking for lizards in the trees.  When we find one we then try to noose it.  We put numbers on those that we have already caught so we don’t catch them again accidentally.

12:15- 12:45 We take a break to eat our lunch.

1:00- 4:00 We move to a second island and catch lizards there.
Looking for lizards in all the wrong places.

4:15 We paddle the kayaks back to the boat launch and load them back up on the trailer to drive back to the field station.

5:00 Cold Showers-  Sometimes we even stop for ice cream on the way home.

5:00 to 6:30 Blogging, Tweeting, Cooking Dinner and updates data notebooks

Processing lizards.
Science is fun, but it is hard work. Rest up there are still more lizards out there!
6:30-10:00 Processing Lizards.  This is what we call it when we measure, weigh, mark and take tissue samples from the lizards.

10:30 Sleep time!  We are really tired by this point in the day!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lizard Project 7: Little by little, making progress towards discovery.

Each day that we have been working on The Lizard Project has been different, but what all of the days have in common is that we are making progress towards our goal of gathering enough data to make conclusions on whether or not or hypotheses are supported.  All of our data collection brings us closer to being able to say something, supported by evidence, about how sex ratios effect the evolution of animal populations.

Since we caught so many lizards yesterday (135! Wow!) we had a huge backlog of lizard measuring, weighing and marking to do. To get everything done we split up the team.  Dan stayed back at the field station to do the measuring, while Andrew, Tim and I paddled out to Islands M and K. We worked for 6 hours total, but only caught 47 lizards today.  Many of the lizards we spotted today were already marked.  That is a good sign because it means we are already getting close to having all of the animals captured, marked and measured on a couple of our islands. We also had a great Skype conversation  with Erin Nash's Zoology class. The Benton High School students had great questions for us and the whole thing was a lot of fun.

Oyster beds are sharp - ouch!
While we are down hear working the pace can be grueling at times.  The work on the islands is often very hot and we often work late into the night measuring  lizards.  Crawling around in the trees and bushes chasing after lizards leaves us scratched up and bruised.  Yesterday Tim got even more scratched up while getting back into his kayak.  He accidentally stepped on a razor sharp oyster shell and cut his foot.

Throughout all of the work that we do with the lizards, one of the greatest perks of our job is working in such a beautiful setting with so many cool animals all around us.  The insect communities on the islands are amazing and would be worthy of an entire research project on their own.  Here are some of my favorites:
Bold jumping spider

Regal jumping spider
American grass mantis
Spiny-backed orbweaver spider

Lizard Project Day 6- Lots of Lizards!
(Reposted from Timsfertileturtles.blogspot.com)

 The cool, rainy day we had yesterday made it slow for both lizards and lizard-catchers alike.  When we awoke this morning to clear skies, we knew that the lizards would be eager to be out.  We visited two islands today, and hunted the lizards like mad.  And we did very well.  We caught 135 lizards today, including this one that was eating a grasshopper!  That is A LOT of lizards.  As our goal is to catch as many of the lizards present on each island as we can, we feel very good about days like this.  What we don't look forward to, is processing 135 lizards tonight.  We "process" lizards, be measuring, weighing, photographing, and marking each lizard back in our field station (aka bunkhouse).  It takes about 3 minutes to process each lizard, so you can do the math (and in case you can't do math, that adds up to about 7 hours of solid processing).

We also noticed this pair of Green Anoles mating as we were searching for our study species, the Brown Anole.  So why did these two end up together?  That is part of the question us biologists are interested in.  The were both able to survive this long, so that is a prerequisite to successful mating.  Did this male have fight off other males to keep a high quality territory? Did he attract this female with a flashy dewlap display?  Was it just a chance encounter, and she would have been willing to mate with any male she crossed paths with?  These are all questions we don't know the answers too, but our work with the brown anoles will give us some insights into at least that species. Notice that he is biting the back of her neck during their mating! Interesting.

On a side note, I had the most terrifying moment of my life yesterday. After the rains, I went for a run and then swim in the ocean.  As I was swimming, I noticed two HUGE shark fins cruising towards me.  I turned and swam/ran/stumbled my way back onto the beach.  They came within 10 meters of me. Their dorsal fins were about 18-24 inches tall, and was about 6 feet in front of their tails, which was also breaking the surface.  This means these sharks were probably about 12 feet long.  I never saw the heads, just the fins and tail, so I don't know what species they were,  but based of their size, I  certainly could have been on the menu. Turns out Florida has had the most shark attacks of any state in history, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History...  I won't be swimming anytime soon.