Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why molly fishes?

Why mollies?  This is the question I most often hear regarding my master’s thesis research.  To be honest, I find myself wondering that same question when I’m submerged up to my shoulders in stinky fish water scrubbing the walls of their 150-gallon tanks.  Why do I do this?  Well, sailfin mollies (Poecilia latipinna) are an excellent example of a species subject to strong sexual selection.  Just like the male peacock with his outrageous tail feathers, male mollies have developed an enormous dorsal fin that serves to attract females.  How do such traits evolve?  One hypothesis – the handicap principle – suggests that because these enlarged traits are a burden to have, they must signal high mate quality to interested females.  So the debate is over – bigger is better, at least in the animal kingdom!  But wait – what’s a small male to do?  Well, smaller, less preferred male mollies have adopted an alternative mating strategy in which they try to sneak mating attempts on unsuspecting females.  While not so nice, these strategies are equally successful as the courtship strategy employed by large males (see courtship video below), so both strategies, sneaking and courting, are maintained in wild molly populations.  Pretty cool if you ask me.    

male courtship display

hey girl, do you like my tail feathers?

large male (50mm)

small male (25mm)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

SICB 2015!

I couldn't help but feel like a dorky groupie this past week while attending the annual meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in West Palm Beach Florida. I think my jaw actually dropped slightly when I realized that Daniel Weihs and Paul Webb were BOTH giving a joint symposium talk (which was hysterical!)... I may or may not have "run away" when I noticed Peter Wainwright was coming up to join the conversation I was in because I was so nervous....and thank god I did not realize the man with the Italian accent who commented on my talk was Paolo Domenici until half way through the next talk... I probably would have fainted.... 

But this is why SICB is so awesome! On top of all the great talks, this conference still manages to allow for time to meet some amazing people! Go to workshops that are actually helpful for your future work, and catch up with people you have not seen since the last annual meeting.

Looking forward to the Portland meeting next year, so I can feel like a star-struck teenager all over again... only I actually get to learn things instead of just permanently damaging my hearing!

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Hi, everyone! I just finished my first year here in the PhD program at Clemson, and I’m in the middle of my first round of research. To begin this project, I needed to collect gravid female Eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) and bring them back to our lab to rear their eggs under different experimental conditions. I spent a few weeks in April and May looking for field sites in the Long Cane Ranger district of Sumter National Forest—a large section of national forest land that stretches between Greenwood, McCormick, Edgefield, and the SC-GA border.

All that green is the Long Cane Ranger District. The red "X"
marks my field site.
This is the first picture I took of my field site. Not too far
from this spot is where I caught that first lizard.
After a month of off-trail hiking a few days a week in spots all throughout the forest, I finally found my site in the first week of May. And it’s been a great site!  On my first visit to check out the site, I found half a dozen lizards in about 30 minutes, including one gravid female. In fact, the first fence lizard I ever caught was also the first gravid female I caught for this project. I returned with my advisor, Mike Sears, and easily caught two more gravid females. We sent those three off to Arizona for a collaborative project to sequence the S undulatus genome (which is awesome!). Then I spent the rest of May, June, and July exploring my site and tracking lizards 6 to 8 hours a day, several days a week.

I had a lot of fun exploring my field site and working hard to find lizards. If off-trail hiking in the back woods of a primarily pine section of a national forest in the southern part of South Carolina in 90°-plus weather looking for elusive lizards sounds fun to you, then you can understand why I had such a good time. Even on the days when I returned empty handed (which happened more often that I would have liked), I got to see all kinds of other wildlife and enjoy time to myself in the outdoors. Also, I got tons of exercise and sweated off all the extra pounds gained from sitting around all school year reading papers and writing grant proposals.

This is that first female I caught.
One of the first males I found.

As I write this, I am on a break from measuring heart rates of the embryos I’ve been incubating all summer. Some time over the next few days, they will start to hatch and the next stage of my project will begin. Then I can post again and update you all on the growth rate, metabolic rate, and sprint speed measurements I'll be taking (I can’t wait to build and try out our sprint track and camera setup). Plus, I can share some baby lizard pictures!

Here are just a few of the many, many pictures I have taken so far:

Feeding time! have a little something
on your chin.
Learning a lesson about keeping the
terrarium closed. She jumped on me
and climbed up my arm onto my shoulder during
feeding time. So I snapped a picture
before putting her back.
Here you go, Chris. The only turtle I saw out there.
Anoles were all over the place. So were skinks, though I
haven't grabbed any pictures of those yet.
A rough green snake I found hanging out in a bush.
I almost stepped on this little guy. Thankfully, I saw him
right before I dropped off a fallen tree he was hiding near.

This guy was so well camouflaged,
I didn't see him until my face was
a few inches away (I was going after
a lizard that had climbed up the tree).
Sexual dimorphism can be funny.

And here's a video from one of the feeding days:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Better late than never

As I sit here and digitize the seemingly endless number of videos and photos collected during my field season this past March, I realized I should probably write a blog before I hypocritically antagonize the rest of you about posting all of your summer adventures. So here it is...

Rick Blob trying to scare some pretty
innocent fish
Home made squirt gun
I spent the last 3 weeks of March in Hawaii trying to scare the snot out of these little fish using a flow tank and what one could describe as a home made squirt gun (a couple of bbq skewers, a syringe and a piece of plastic tubing)... And with much assistance we got to be
pretty darn good at scarring these little buggers!
Super awesome fish that climb waterfalls...
yes these little guys are the climbers!
SEA TURTLE (Almost punched me
in the face...I kind of deserved it)
When not filming the goby version of predator... We spent time snorkeling (aka me chasing sea turtles around for hours with my camera... never has anyone from Orlando felt more like the annoying tourist that invade my home town every summer), and eating the most amazing food I have ever tasted! (When I got back Corbin asked if I did anything besides eat, because the food was really all I talked about for a week)

Overall it was a pretty successful field season and a trip I will remember forever!

o.k. guys now it's your turn... don't forget to post all of your progress/ summer adventures on here when you get a chance!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Relay for Life 2014

As many of you are aware, several BSGSA members came together this spring to form a Relay for Life team.  Beginning in February, we started fundraising individually, as well as planning group fundraising events.  We set an initial fundraising goal of $1,000, which seemed rather ambitious at the time.  As the semester and our fundraising plans progressed, we started to build momentum and really raise some money.  All 3 of our fundraisers, a chili cook off, dye-it for cancer, and a bake sale, were incredibly successful.  With unflagging support from the department and the Clemson community, Team BSGSA managed to not only meet its $1,000 goal, but to exceed it, raising a grand total of $2,650.52!  With this total, Team BSGSA ranked as the 3rd highest fundraising team participating in Clemson's Relay for Life (out of 43).  Our efforts would not have been such a great success without the enthusiastic support of the faculty, staff, and students of the Biological Sciences Department.  Thank you all for helping us make a difference in the lives of those fighting cancer!  I sincerely hope that BSGSA can continue to participate in Relay for Life and I look forward to the opportunity to be involved in future years.

Monday, March 24, 2014

CBASS 2014 a Great Success!

Finally a fresh blog entry!  The below note is from BSGSA VP Jason, who chaired the committee that made CBASS 2014 such a great success this year! 

Clemson Biological Annual Student Symposium is an annual event hosted by the Biological Sciences Graduate Student Association showcasing the research that the Biological Science, Environmental Toxicology and Microbiology graduate students are involved in.  Over the course of the day, a poster session and a talk session were viewed and evaluated by faculty and peers.  The morning talk sessions were very well received, following a change in format from normal 15 minute sessions to 5 minute quick talk sessions, designed to concisely present one’s research to a lay audience, delivering the main points and goal of the research without getting mucked up in methodology. 

All the talks (21 in all) were very well done, with awards going to Christie Sampson (Habitat Use and Critical Threats to Asian Elephant Conservation), Christopher Mayerl (The functional significance of the fused pelvis to the plastron in Pleurodire Turtles) and Caitlin Rinz (Congenital Myasthenic Syndrome in a Labrador Retriever Family).

The poster session was also very well done, with excellent posters from both the graduate and undergraduate entrants.  Of the 35 posters presented, 3 graduate and 3 undergrad posters were voted on, by their peers, as the best on show.  Graduate awards went to Tyler Collins (Assessing the Role of Melanocortin 4 Receptors in Diversification of Poeciliid Fishes), Evan Apanovitch (Rising Stress: Investigating Plethodon Stressors Across Elevation Changes), and Snehal Mahtre (Water for Electricity in the Upper Savannah Basin: Impacts on Freshwater Bivalves). Undergraduate winners were Sarah Hoffman (It’s Not Easy Being a Reef: The Impacts of Corralivory and Competition on Live Coral Cover), Grant Davidson (The Effect of Social Environment on the Development of Sailfin Mollies (P.latipinna), and Rachael Weber (Fecal Source Tracking in Little Eastatoe Creek).

Many thanks to GSG for sponsoring the event, all the faculty that judged, the sponsors of the raffle prizes: Brioso’s Fresh Pasta, Moe’s Southwestern Grill, Firehouse Subs, BGR: The Burger Joint, Judge Keller’s Store, Jimmie John’s, and Christie Sampson.  Great job to all the participants, we look forward to seeing your research advance next year!