Thursday, 30 April 2009


64 years ago, a 56 yearold, hiding in his bunker with his enemies surrounding him, committed suicide by cyanide capsule and gunshot to the right temple. That's right, today is dead Hitler day. Never heard of dead Hitler day? What about Führerstodestag? No? Well, more's the shame. It's, naturally, the anniversary of that perticular toad's death. It went a little like this

By late April 1945, his little empire in the sand had got kicked down pretty thoroughly. The Russians were occupying parts of Berlin, where his bunker was located. On the 22nd, he apparently had a nervous breakdown as he realized it was over - that the Russians were battling their way to the centre of town, and he knew they would get him, take him, and they probably wouldn't kill him right away. on the 28th, he leant that one of his senior commanders was negotiating with the Allied forces to surrender, and that former allay Mussolini had been executed. On midnight of April 29th, he married his mistriss in an abrupt cerimony, dictated his will at 4am, took a nap, and at 3:30pm, shot himself in the temple, while his himstress only used the cyinide.

I like spelling out the details, because of how ignoble it was. It really gets the skinheads angry, especially if you lay it on thick. I reccomend the following, myself:
You know how big of a coward he was? He had to test the cyanie on his dog, because he was too scared.
Which is true - he killed his dog, and her offspring, basically in a fit of paranoia. After he died, his staff almost immediately all light up their cigarettes - Hitler was anti-smoking. He was that well liked.

Traditional Dead-Hitler days activites include picking fights with racist jerks, gloating over holocaust deniers, enjoying the feeling that bad people sometimes get what's coming to them on earth, and having a big hunk of meat for dinner - Hitler was a very ardent vegetarian, too. He reportedly liked going into graphic detail about slaugtering animals, when he had meat eating guests over. Strangely, slaughtering humans had no such ill-effects on his stomach...

So, happy vegetarian Führerstodestag, folks. Unless you're a skinhead, in which case I hope it's miserable.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Your standards may vary.

Danger! Human stuff! Remember my disclaimer! Don't fall for the naturalistic fallacy!

It shouldn't come as a controversial that our behaviour is different in winter. We sleep more, we're less energetic, we've got slightly larger appetites, etc. Previous studies had shown that humans also experience shifts in hormone levels. Do seasonal fluctuations in men's hormone correspond to changes in mate choice?

Two Polish researchers, a place with something that passes for a proper winter, decided to put this question to the test. They showed over a hundred men of varying backgrounds computer-generated pictures of females of varying attractiveness, and had the respondents record scores for various attributes (e.g., `facial attractiveness,` `body shape,` etc.). They repeated this in the summer with the same pictures, and took the same measurements.

They found that in the winter, males tended to rate females as being more attractive than they did the same attributes in the summer. This held true for all attributes except for facial attractiveness, which remained constant between seasons.

The authors, being perception researchers, ascribed a different mechanism to this - They suggest that seasonally, your exposure to body types vary. In the summer, males are exposed to more female bodies than in the winter. Though I'm not sure I agree with their hypothesis, I've an anecdote to illustrate this. I was waiting at ADFG for the winter antlerless permits, like the idiot I was. There were a great number of people in line during that -40 snap we had, and you got to talking to stave off boredom (and to take your mind off the cold we were standing in for hours and hours). I spend quite the while talking to someone named Red (the third Red I've met, not counting people called Kavirliq).

Well, fastforward a bit to when it's only -20°C, and a partner and I were going down a mountain when one of our Snowmachines got stuck. We're trying to get it unstuck, when Red and a few others come down the trail behind us. They graciously help us dig it out of the mess we got stuck on... but I couldn't help but notice that Red wasn't a male, like I'd assumed before. She wasn't wearing all her heavy winter gear, and so you could quite distinctly notice she was a her, albeit a tall "her" with a lower voice, but otherwise unquestionably female. You just couldn't tell before, because all the clothes.

Now this is an extreme example. Most of the time, you interact with people indoors, and they're not wearing carharts, a parka, a face mask, a trapper's hat, musher's mitts and bunnyboots. But humans do tend to wear long sleeves and pants, along with looser fitting garments and bulkier clothes in the winter. This is to contrast with Summer, when it's shorts and T-shirts all around. The authors argue chronic exposure to one setting or the other is what leads to acclimatization, and therefore varying the threshold of `what is attractive.` My own thinking runs more toward seasonal fluctuations of hormone titres, but I've minimal evidence to support this.

Perception. 2008;37(7):1079-85.

Men's attraction to women's bodies changes seasonally.
Pawlowski B, Sorokowski P.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Caugak ukuk?

Well, some of you told me you all liked this, so here's an easier one. It's got a skull, if you want to go based on that, but also, it's got a reeeeeally recognizable skin:
You might have seen these on hats, parkas, and a billion other places, because they've got good skins. Be a little more exact that `rodent!` Also, I'm curious what other names exist for these critters.

If you're paying attention, you'd have noticed the title isn't `Cauga una?` That's because there's two of them, so you have to change the question to reflect this. Cauga goes to caugak, and Una for this goes to ukuk for `these two`.

Bad year coming up?

I wonder, how bad are they going to cut into the subsistence quota on the Yukon? The answer that they're going to cut really deep into it. Commercial fishing is going to eliminated all together, probably for the whole season. Fish are food. Literally. Yugcetun, the words for food and fish is the same, and for generic eating also comes from the word for fish. And of all the fish, Salmon are the very, very most important by a huge degree. By orders of magnitude. I know they got to meet escapement goals - continuation of the species is important. But if you think things are tough on the lower Yukon before, you go through and do that to the subsistence quota, and shut down commercial fishing, and you see how things go.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Spring Civil Engineering

I might have invited disaster on us all, because I finally got around to packing away all my winter gear. If the temperature suddenly plunges to -40°, I will gladly hand myself over to the angry mob.

After yesterday morning, though, it definitely felt like spring was in full force. Snow was melting so fast that while I was poking around for gear that I might have lost in the snow (like my axe, which I forgot to paint orange...), I heard what sounded like a large stream. I went on over to investigate, and it was a stream, going into the pond. There hadn't been a little river there before!

Also, it's the time of civil engineering projects around the home. I needed to grain the small ocean building around my house, before it got deep enough to flood me, so I dug a few slit trenches to drain everything off. (Edit to add: pretty much all the runoff from the hills flows directly to me. And I'm in a wetlands to begin with. Thus the water.) Everything's frozen this morning, but it looks like before it froze, I got it to a mere half a foot at its deepest. The trench also filled in with gravel and silt, so if we have much more melt off, I'll need to go re-dig it. Someplaces don't need shovels, but they need backloaders...

It's also to that time of year you're required to take your studs off, and that's exactly why this post isn't longer or more interesting. I've got an early appointment at the shop to swap my winter tires for my summer. I know most people put this off until after the deadline to switch, but I don't want to risk the fine...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Swine Flu in NYC?

I was watching the hockey game on TV (Pens/Flyers) when NBC popped on to say that swine flu had been found in NYC. Well, that's something to be concerned about. I'm not overly concerned yet, but the speed with which this is picking up does give me a few seconds for pause.

I'm no epidemiology expert, but I can point you all to a very good Iowan Epidemiologist who keeps a very neat blog over at She's been a little idle of late, but she popped up to make a post about what you need to know about swine flu.

Friday, 24 April 2009


I'm feeling markedly unwell today (heart burn), and exhausted to boot, so I'm going to be brief.

Usually, I have ads turned off, thanks to a plugin. But today, I had the plugin turned off to watch a few hockey highlights (Go wings!), so I saw this on the DNM website today:
Is it just me, or does that look real old timey? So old that you have to spell it olde. When I saw it, I thought of this places' adverts (They are satire, by the way).

The skull from last week was a Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida), or Nayiq. I love that one, because someone - someone who is not me - wrote nayiq right on the label. I just imagine all the students seeing that and wondering what that's supposed to mean.

I'd throw up a new museum specimen for you all, but it seems interest in that is waning (or was never really there).


A video in which a Nobel prize winning physicist has to explain plate tectonics to a sitting US Congress member. Are these really the best and brightest we can come up with?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

WIth the power of my MIND

I got sent this link in the mail, apparently from a friend who read it on a news site. It's a toy that reacts to how hard you mentally concentrate.

Wow. I mean, WOW. That is so cool. Sure, it doesn't do anything, but that doesn't make it any less awesome!

At the end of the article they talk about a drinking game they made up on the spot, and it reminded me about a fictional drinking game that Douglas Adams made up. Douglas Adams, a humourist, invented a drinking game where you use telekinesis to tip over a bottle of alcohol into someone's glass. And he remarked `once you start losing, you tend to keep losing.`

Technology is awesome.

Pictures from around the home

The little critters are out in force. The geese are returning, the sun is out, and everything's turning to mud and slush. And these little guys are poking their heads up
I love how unwary spruce grouse are. Sadly, season for them ended March 31st.
These guys are out in number, too. They start to look dirty this time of year - like they've been lightly dusted with grey. You could reach out and grab them, there's so many around. But by now, they're becoming wormy, and not really good to eat.

Here's the pond behind (technically in front) of my home. I haven't seen any geese yet, but it's a little too early for them to want to try places like my little old pond. I'll have to go to "my lakes," which are away from my home a bit. The weather is too good. I feel like we're being set up for something nasty.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Oh, yeah, it's earth day...

Oh! It's earth day. I didn't really remember until I read someone's post on things they're doing to `green` up (and I don't mean what comes after breakup!), and maybe get her girl a scout badge at the same time... ;)

You'd think a guy like me would be big into enviro-whatevers. I like sustainability, I'm interested in wind power, and I work for critter conservation. A lot of my co-wokers are all gungho about all this stuff, and they're somewhat aghast when I say I've never read Aldo Leopold. But just because I'm not nutty about it doesn't mean I don't care...

When we think about pollution, we think about New Jersy. Definitely not Alaska. The first indication I got that even remote areas aren't as protected as we like to think was when I was studying the Northern Shoveler in Utah. They're goofy looking ducks, with unmistakable bills. There's frequently concerns about mercury in waterfowl in Utah, due to the Great Salt Lake being about as polluted as my boots are muddy. I took feather clippings and studied them for mercury content. Unsurprisingly, I found quite a bit - more than I'd ever want to eat. Ready to scold the Utahns for sullying perfectly fine birds, a minor fact wafted to my forebrain: the feathers grew in while the birds were up in the Arctic.

The environment isn't just a few people in the lower 48's concern. Folks in China are doing things to poison our birds here. Global warming - sorry crazy guys in DNM's comment section - is real, and it's from folks in California and New York who are pushing it along. For as much as we complain about the lower 48 coming up here and telling folks what to do, it's about time we start doing the reverse.

So here's my modest earthday proposal: We should invade the lower 48, and get involved in the discussion about how they're going to live their lives. Because what they chose greatly influences our own choices.


Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Here comes the sun little darling

It's got to that point of the year, where you need to get out the tinfoil...
... Unless you want to wake up at 5:30 each morning!

Tinfoil. It's Alaskan home decor.

Steer Deer on Kodiak Island

I was all ready to write about some silly post about a story in the BBC claiming that the moon effects the flavour of wine (short version - it only effects the people who believe the moon has power), when someone passed me this story titled `malformations seen in Kodiak deer.` Hey!, I thought to my self. This looks familiar. Perhaps it's that stuff from CSU.

I should have been ready for horrible disappointment. The story is awful. The story is from AP, where they had a single writer stumble through the science, and proceed to mutilate it. Because it's from AP, and it's Alaska related, both the DNM and the ADN instantly picked it up, without even a whit of review. I don't know what's worse, the people who wrote the story, or the people who passed this on. There's a little hope for journalism, though, because the Kodiak Daily Mirror did a better job with the story. Unsurprisingly, they wrote their own version.

Here's my own version.

A little background is in order. First, Sitka Black Tailed Deer (SBTD) are small ungulates endemic to the Alexander Archipelago, mainland SE Alaska, and parts of British Columbia. In 1924, 14 animals were translocated from Baranof island to Long Island east of Kodiak Island. 2 more came from POW in 1930, and 9 more came Kupreanof Island, and were released to north of Kodiak Island. For those of you who need to whip out the calculator, that's 25 animals total. All SBTD in the Kodiak Archipelago come from these founders.

Fastforward to the early-mid 90s, when reports began to emerge about deer with abnormal antlers - antlers with extreme points on the end, frequently with poor symmetry. The body profile of these animals also seemed altered, and most interestingly (to a wildlife biologist!), they seemed to suffer from cryptorchidism, or the failure of one or both testes to develop or descend. The scientists called them `cryptorchid deer.` Locals call them `Steer Deer.` I like the latter.

To compound the issue, there appears to be a locational trend in the Steer deer. A survey of the area found that there was even higher rates of incidence on the Aliulik Peninsula animals (76%) when compared to the rest of the Archipelago (12%). When you look at the rest of the SBTD's range <<5% are steer deer. Clearly, there's something going on here.

Well, if you remembered my post on muskox, you're probably thinking `gosh, 25 animals? That's a small group!` And I would give you a cookie for remembering. 25 Animals is a really small group. It's even smaller when you consider the estimates for heterozygosity - a measure of diversity - are tiny numbers. The Tasmanian Devil, which is critically endangered, actually has the SBTD beat. Now that's just sad.

Well, some people from Colorado State University decided to take a swing at idea that the deer are really inbred, suffer from low diversity, and this is causing their problems. They came up here, did sampling across the Kodiak Archipelago, some in the Alexander, and managed to leave quite a few furious Alaskan scientists in their wake. I hadn't dealt with them directly, but rumour around the coffee pot is that they earned the animosity of a few people.

After their data collection, they looked for a few things -
  • Was there population structure between island?
  • Was there population structure between Kodiak proper, and the Aliulik peninsula?
  • Was there different levels of inbreeding between areas?

These were easy questions to answer, "Yes, No, No." The first, is almost expected, because the deer don't disperse over water, or don't frequently. So they're isolated from eachother. There were no DNA differences between SBTD on the Kodiak Archipelago between areas harder effected and areas less effected. Finally, inbreeding doesn't seem likely an effect, because measures that get at inbreeding and diversity seemed pretty comparable between SE and Kodiak, and within Kodiak.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us without any new answers, just a list of things that aren't causing it. There are still a few remaining hypotheses that need tested, but are much harder to tackle -
  • It could be environmental toxicity.
  • It could be a disease.
  • It could be an epigenetic trait.
There's currently almost no evidence for any of these. Not because they aren't necessarily true - one of them probably is - but because evidence is really, really hard to get. However, people have jumped all over environmental toxicity with vengeance. This seems the hypothesis du jour today (I say, hoping I used du jour right). The AP service story basically said the evidence points to this, when the evidence does no such thing.

Monday, 20 April 2009


I'm very disappointed in our elected state officials right now. The legislative session is over, without any progress on the big issue that affects everyone in our state: energy. Energy is choking our industry. Energy is killing bush Alaska. Energy is causing emigration from even our `large cities.` Many people in the legislature were elected on platforms of energy reform. It's stuff we all care about.

They had one job. Just one. And that was to do something about energy. And they managed to screw that up.

What the heck are we paying them for?
Via Slashdot:
"Not much more to add. The BBC is reporting that 'Stephen Hawking is "very ill" in hospital.' He has had a few health scares before, and as a post-graduate he was told he didn't have much longer to live; he's now 67."
Hawking, who everyone knows as that really smart guy in the wheel chair who can't speak, suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is frankly a horrible condition. His prognosis from that alone is `not good.`

Well, that's put a damper on my day.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Qerrulliik on google?

I've been getting a lot of hits from people googling `Qerrulliik,` which means pants. It's also a place on the lower yukon (Kotlik) that's named for how the delta looks there. Strange thing is, all the people googling it are from Nunavut or Greenland. It makes me wonder if qerrulliik is also pants in the Inuit languages.
I hope one of the googlers responds to this post and says what they were looking for... :)

Friday, 17 April 2009

The history of Reindeer in Alaska

I've been reading a lot about the history of Reindeer herding lately, and my head is so full of thoughts that I can scarcely get them down on paper fast enough. Two very important things I've been reading have been "Eskimos, Reindeer, and Land," a publication by UAF's school of Ag and Land Resource Management from the 80s. More recently, but more tangentially, Gary Kofinas (UAF) and Don Russell (Environment Canada) wrote a chapter in "Family-Based Reindeer Economy, and the Status and Management of Caribou Populations" on the status of North American caribou in the high arctic, and their use as a subsistence resource. There was 4 pages on modern Reindeer herding on the Seward Peninsula, which might not seem that much, but it's helped me clear up some long standing questions I'd had.

If you're not clear on the difference between reindeer and caribou, I'd describe it like this: Caribou are to reindeer as wolves are to dogs. They're both members of the same species (Rangifer tarandus) but they're different subspecies (Reindeer: R. tarandus tarandus; Alaskan Caribou: R. tarandus granti). Reindeer are semidomestic - they've had a long history of being herded in northern Eurasia, but there are also wild populations of reindeer, and the two groups freely interbreed. Physically, reindeer are shorter than caribou, with thicker chests, more muscle mass, and they're more likely to have spots or stripes on their coat. Behaviourally, caribou and reindeer differ in that caribou are less docile, and tend to be migratory. The top picture is of a caribou, and the second picture is of reindeer at the Ag. station.

The overwhelming majority of reindeer in the state are the descendants of reindeer imported from Russia in the late 1800s, when the Reverend Sheldon Jackson imported 1,280 reindeer to provide to the eskimo in the areas he was evangelizing. The hope was that with the introduction of reindeer, subsistence hunters would stop hunting, and take up pastoral activities - somewhere in all of this, they were looking for people to join their brand of Christianity. I imagine it worked like opening a bank account, and the bank mailing you a free toaster. "Accept Jesus today and get two free reindeer! (Offer not for existing parishioners)."

Oh, randomly. A lot of the old bible translations use qusngiq for sheep, which amuses me to no end. `Reindeer of god, who takes away the sins of the world.` Okay, I'm easily amused.

All glibness (is that a word?) aside, Jackson was only partially concerned with evangelization, and no doubt part of his importation of reindeer stemmed from a crises that he thought was growing, in the form of declining Caribou numbers. Long ago, it would mean people would merely shift their focus to new food sources, like more whaling or fishing, and de-emphasize caribou as a food source. Similarly, Jackson interpreted the old sod houses and qasgiqs as being miserable, damp places, having overlooked that they were quite nice in the winter, and weren't really occupied past the spring.

Whatever the humanitarian motivations were, reindeer herding was quickly associated with religious missions, and was spread to various areas by various churches - Bethel by the Moravians in 1901, Point Barrow by the Presbyterians in 1898, Kotzebue by the California Yearly Meeting-Friends in 1901, etc. The Barrow situation is of interest, because the reindeer were drove to partially provide relief for stranded white whalers; it's my understanding of the story that the reindeer drive ended up being more of crisis than the stranded whalers. One of my graduate students has the whole story of that, but she's currently out on a well earned vacation. There were other disastrous reindeer drives, such as a drive of animals to Circle, where only about 1/3rd of the animals survived. I can't find a single time in the history books that a reindeer drive worked.

After 1930, reindeer herding underwent a rapid and catastrophic collapse, with populations going from 640,000 to around 25,000 between 1935 and 1950. The numbers remained stable there for a period, before entering a steady decline. The reasons for the collapse are mutlifaceted. Part of it was over-grazing in some areas. Other reasons were failures to retain reindeer when caribou herds would enter the area. Part of it is was related to a en-mass change of ownership mandated by the Reindeer act of 1937. The Reindeer Act of '37 warrants its own post, really. Boy, do I have a lot to say about that!

Now days, reindeer herding is essentially only conducted on the Seward Peninsula, with minor herds on Nunavak, Umnak, St. Paul, St. George, and very recent, small herds in Palmer, Delta Junction and on the Kenai Peninsula. For the herds off the road system, the biggest issues are concentration of knowledge, logistics, and the near-total collapse of the Asian antler market, which used to be a major source of income. The data I see for the value of reindeer meat up to 2000 shows a steady decline from '95 on, suggesting that alternatives to the meat are becoming more desired, or possibly the price of reindeer meat is overvalued, and any increases in price result increased no-sale. I'm not an economist, though. The Reindeer project had more to say about the state's future economic viability.
The reindeer industry in Alaska, and especially the industry at Seward Peninsula, is facing major problems.

The growing caribou herd represents a major threat to the reindeer industry in Alaska. The caribou has a devastating impact on the pasture areas; they attract preditors when they migrate into the pasture areas; and the caribou bring the domesticated reindeer along when they migrate through the permit areas.

There is a huge potential in the market for reindeer meat and other products both within Alaska and in the lower 48. To be able to develop this market the industry depends on access to abattoirs and other essential infrastructure. But the main disadvantage for the development of the industry is the high transport costs. Concerning the size of the potential market for reindeer products, the profitability of the industry could be increased if the above mentioned problems are solved.
Our reindeer and caribou research is focusing on the north slope, especially the Central Arctic Herd, the Western Arctic Herd, the Teshekpuk Lake herd, and to a lesser extent the Porcupine Herd. My own interest is more in the Mulchatna Herd, on the lower Kuskokwim, where the now-defunt Killbuck caribou herd used to reside - as previously mentioned, Bethel was a site of introduction for reindeer by the Moravians.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Cauga una?

The answer to last week's puzzler: River otter (Lontra canadensis). Or "Cuignilnguq"/"Cenkaq" depending on what kind of yugcetun dialect you have.

Here's two pictures of the same thing. Do you recognize the species? Also an Alaskan species of mammal. It doesn't take CSI to figure out how this one was caught! Submit your guesses!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Spam drain

Now here's a neat fact for the day: a report by the IFC international says that in total, spam - you know, junk email trying to sell you prescription drugs, or make your unmentionables larger, or trying to scam you out of your bank information - consumes 33 billion kilowatt hours of energy a year. That's equal to the electric consumption of 2.4 million homes in the US.

That's a lot of power for emails titled "Boost Stamina Today."

I wonder how much power people consume on producing late night TV ads for diet drugs...

Article via slashdot.


Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Random overheard around the lab

It's funny, because just yesterday, I was talking about how I'd prefer polyacrylamide to agarose for my DNA work. Polyacrylamide is a neurotoxic substance (Actually, polyacrylamide is safe - it's the acrylamide monomers that'll kill you). So walking down the hall, my ears perked a bit when I heard,
The irony is that you're the last person to realize you've been exposed to a neurotoxin.

While I'm on random things I've heard around the lab, here's one that's best without any context whatsoever:
I really want a groin shot.
Dang biologist vouyers!

Human behaviour and fallicious thinking

I want to write about some human research, but first I want to put up a huge disclaimer. Normally, I find humans boring, because compared to other animals, we're a bunch of inbred backwoods blue bloods who all look the same, and while a few humans are pretty to look at, ducks don't have the police grab you when you stalk them.

There are a few bits of our biology that's neat, though. Did you know you can probably run distances that would kill a chetah? Did you know the invention of fire caused significant changes in our mandible structure? And did you know that humans can smell when a female mammal is ovulating, but don't even consciously know that they're smelling it? And you thought you knew your own body!

But whenever you talk about humans, and human behaviour (as I'd like to), you need to walk a fine trail. Back in the mid 70s, E.O. Wilson wrote a book titled `Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,` which erupted into a fire storm. The book attempted to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind various social behaviours, like aggression, altruism, nurturing, and preference to kin. And it did a fine job - history has shown E.O. Wilson to be almost entirely right about most of the ideas in there. Where E.O. Wilson got into trouble was in a single chapter, where he took all the methods he applied on other animals, and used them on humans to show our behaviour could be explained evolutionarily.

People were outraged. There were actually protests at scientific conferences. It was astounding, the visceral reaction that the book prompted in people. Politicians also dived in, denouncing poor old Edward (who is quite a gentleman) as all manner of vile thing.

Part of the problem comes from an issue called `biological determinism,` or the pervasive belief that how an organism (such as us humans) behaves is explained entirely by that critter's DNA. A behavioural ecologist (which was my first training) would reply that an organism's genes, and cultural environment, explains much, though not all, of it's behaviour. A critter's biology would most strongly explaining stereotyped behaviour, especially - things we all tend to do, like smiling, yawning, sleeping, sharing food with kin, etc.

A second part of the problem is that critics tend to assume that because we say a behaviour is evolutionarily advantageous, it is morally acceptable. A common example would be if we're evolved to give our offspring everything we can to help them succeed, then nepotism is okay. Taken to the logical absurd, if we discovered that murders lived longer, and were more fit, that would morally justify murder.

This is total anaq.

What people are doing is committing the is-ought fallacy, and the "Naturalistic fallacy." There's a neat wikipedia page on it under that name. There's a implicit step in their reasoning that says that how things currently are is in fact morally desirable, or that the natural state of things, if biologically advantageous, is desirable.

Morality is for the philosophers to quibble over, not behaviourists. What biology seeks to do is explain why things are the way they are, not whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. The fact that viruses reproduce by hijacking our cells to manufacture more of themselves isn't a moral ponderance, but a declarative statement. Science doesn't root for either the wolf or the moose - we don't take sides like that. If we found out that humans are evolutionarily predisposed to commit murder, that isn't saying it's morally acceptable to murder, just that the existence of murder among all humans has an explanation. That's like saying because the robber has an explanation why they robbed the bank, we would excuse it morally. It's just bad reasoning.

That's my disclaimer. If you don't like any of the human stuff I write, you don't have to. I don't like gravity some mornings. But keep in mind because something is described as being "X," doesn't mean we have to like it, or agree with it.

Here's some topics I want to cover:
Picking mates and MHC.
How seasons affect our standards.
Humans as cursorial mammals.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Expanding the lead ban?

While most people had a great Easter, mine was spent being sick with what was either a light case of food poisoning, or more likely a stomach bug. Later on, I did the laundry, because I had to. Yes, I live a life of excitement.

Now excuses why I didn't blog out of the way, I want to write briefly about the lead ban in the Y-K delta. At the conference for the Wildlife Society here in Fairbanks, I got a chance to ask someone about the lead shot ban for game hunting. Now, I'd had a bit to drink - we'd been sitting still all day, and so people were buying each-other quite a bit to drink - and when I got to the fellow, I asked the exact opposite of what I meant to ask. I had everything flipped around in my head, and asked why they were banning jacketed .22 when everyone I knew uses lead shot. Oops!

But the guy responded as if jacketed 22s were, in fact, banned. Now I didn't realize what I'd said until later that night, but when I realized, I realized that the gentleman was clearly thinking the lead ban wasn't stopping with lead shot.

Now, this begs the question: Is the fed subsistence board eyeballing unjacketed .22 rounds in the preserve? If they do, there'll be hell to pay. I see that one being totally unenforceable.

I'd ask the guy I was talking to directly, but it seems he did not like me. So this is all speculation. Very wild speculation.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cauga una?

Can you recognize this skull? This is from my photoarchive of Alaskan Mammal skull, so you can assume it's in our state.
Post guesses below!

Conference wrapup and the warming world!

Well, the conference is winding down, and some people have left already. Finally, I'm back in my office, wondering what on earth I researched before all this started! Mostly, I'm researching where I left my mug, so I can make some tea.

It's actually good to see our work in some larger context. I had to laugh at the number of times someone came up to me and said `someone should fund that work!` Well, yeah, I think so too. Can you spare a brother a dime? But clearly, we're narrowing in on something managers across the state desperately want.

Somewhere, in the last week, it's passed some magic threshold where the snow gets filthy (so dirty!) and I start wearing shortsleeve shirts. In the grand scheme of things, breakup isn't that far off!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


Morning quickie

Just a quick thing, as I'm sitting here waiting for the first of the morning talks to begin while I sip my kuvviaq. I noticed I can tell who's from outside and who's not, without even looking at their name tags. The giveaway is the fact that the people from outside are dressed like Scott of the Antarctic. :)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Our conference contributions

Today is the start of the conference, and if I haven't fled the city in horror, it's also the beginning of the end of a twisty trail for several projects. The Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society's annual meeting begins today at 7am with check in. We're bringing quite a bit to the table to this meeting, a lot of it in preparation for the June meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists. Here's a few of the things our graduate students and us are showcasing:

  • Within the last two decades, we've seen a huge surge in the number of wolves showing major pelt damage due to louse infestations. In other areas of the world, louse infestations don't cause this great of damage, or as widespread. Slowly, the number of wolves demonstrating the ruined pelt syndrome increased, and spread north across the Alaska Range. At this conference, we'll present the results of our wolf surveys, where we examined wolves from across the state. Our data suggests that the infestation appears to be spreading because it is spreading: wolf lice are not native to the state of Alaska. This will inform our decisions in how to manage this serious pest on our furbearer of significant economic and cultural value.
  • Individuals around North Slope communities have long alleged that they've seen Caribou in wild, free ranging herds that appear too much like Reindeer that used to be herded in this area. Experts failed to give this much attention, believing that the inclusion of Reindeer domestic blood in Caribou herds was unlikely to be widespread, if or when it would occur at all. However, recently, reindeer mixing with caribou has been demonstrated with low-resolution markers in the DNA. We use high resolution tags in the DNA, and sophisticated software to see if we can use a mathematical model to find what animals have reindeer ancestors. Our results are strong, and we were able to detect all reindeer, and reindeer hybrids. This opens up a whole new window in how to study herds in areas of historic reindeer herding, and could allow us to increase herd health and vitality.
  • A ratio of Males to Females is one of the most important numbers in large game managers' papers, but these numbers are often hard to acquire. In many areas, heavy forest cover prevents accurate aerial counts, and hunt results are rife with problems. We developed DNA tools to identify the sex of an animal based solely on pellet groups left by them in the woods. By investigating pellet groups, we can put a more accurate value on the ratio of males to females, and we can be assured that all males were alive at the time of the survey (alive and capable of defecation!). We tested this technique on a variety of animal species, and found it worked better than expected for a huge array of critters important to management.
  • Hunters on Prince of Whales Island in south-east Alaska have become concerned that Sitka Black Tail Deer(SBTD) have experienced a major population crash in the area. As SBTD are a major subsistence item on PoW, the forest service saw it fit to investigate this possibility. SBTD on PoW are difficult to survey because of their habitat (rainforest) so we developed a novel technique to census them using DNA. For the first time, we ascribe a population count, and a population trend. Preliminary results suggest a slow decline over time, and not a population crash. The perception of a population crash may be due to changes in the way people hunt SBTD.

Our State Dog

The Alaskan Malamute was voted the official State Dog of Alaska.
All other dogs, out! Out! Begone!

Image from wikipedia.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Early morning addendum

I'm listening to the news, and they got some people on there talking about the outrage over the tobacco tax hike. And there was this gem:
This is just typical of the tax and spend liberals. Stealing our hard earned money for tobacco and giving it to dying children!
Maybe the guy has a valid point, or maybe he doesn't. Let's not get into that. Instead, I want to know if the gentleman can hear himself speak. Because in wording it like he did, he just said he's against dying children. I can't imagine that'll popular rallying cry for anything.

Conference prep.

Does it seem like I "phoned it in" last week? That's because I did. We've got the Alaska Chapter of the Wildlife Society having the meeting in Fairbanks tomorrow, and we decided to reveal our hybridization research. To borrow someone else's words, this has left me in a lurch.

And then my bum computer went and broke. I needed that computer for lots of stuff. Like all my data was on it. We got the computer working on Friday - the powersupply burnt up, but the motherboard was safe.

Anyhow, this week is going to be very busy too, so the posts are likely to be equally bum. I'm sorry in advance.

One thing we realized, while running around at the last minute, is that we rarely take pictures of the animals we work with. None of us had a single picture of reindeer or caribou from our research - though we've got no shortage of hunter caught caribou pictures. I drove to LARS and the agricultural station to snap a whole bunch of quick photos, including this one, which I snapped from 350 yards.

Friday, 3 April 2009

PETA - Consistent in their inconsistency.

WASHINGTON DC – Today the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) published documents online showing that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) killed 95 percent of the adoptable pets in its care during 2008. Despite years of public outrage over its euthanasia program, the animal rights group kills an average of 5.8 pets every day at its Norfolk, VA headquarters.

According to public records from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, PETA killed 2,124 pets last year and placed only seven in adoptive homes. Since 1998, a total of 21,339 dogs and cats have died at the hands of PETA workers.
This press released from the aptly named CCF is against PETA, so they're slightly biased, but what's public record is public record. PETA doesn't even try to deny the allegations, but engages in ad-hominem attacks against the CCF. I slept through that day of class, but I think that's one of those logical falacy things.

They give their usual line about "Well, gosh, we get so many animals that are abused," and "We send all the adoptable pets to proper shelters!" Apparently they only got 5 adoptable animals. But that's besides the point. Remember, PETA says that any a) animal ownership and b) euthanasia is inherently cruel or inhumane. Their stated goal is "total animal liberation." Which means they're against... what they're currently doing. PETA has dammed shelters for putting down fewer animals.

Of course, if you've paid attention to them over the years, you know PETA killing animals (and frequently illegally dumping the bodies) is nothing new. They're fairly consistent in their hypocrisy.

Here's a little something from the comic, IdiotBox. The KKK thing? Really happened.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

"When did fishing become less dignified than banking?"

Imagine a country where you have to certify an area `free of elves` before you can build there.
Imagine that place suddenly becoming a global cornerstone of financial services. You've just imagined Iceland. According to Vanity Fair, Iceland is now the land of the exploding Landrover:
Now many Icelanders—especially young Icelanders—own $500,000 houses with $1.5 million mortgages, and $35,000 Range Rovers with $100,000 in loans against them. To the Range Rover problem there are two immediate solutions. One is to put it on a boat, ship it to Europe, and try to sell it for a currency that still has value. The other is set it on fire and collect the insurance: Boom!
Tip of the cod to Arctic Economics.

Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris–Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

Up until then I had never even heard of the brain stem. I've since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. That day I was brutally introduced to this vital piece of anatomy when a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action. In the past, it was known as a "massive stroke," and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as "locked-in syndrome." Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

I've known about `The Diving Bell and the Butterfly` for a while. I find the concept fascinating, and the House MD POTW got me to poke around a bit more. Someone gave me a link to a free first chapter from the NY times, which I promptly read. I want to get my mitts on a dead tree copy even more, now.