Guest Post: How Sanguivore-Savvy Are You?

Amy Wray, one of my classmates and good friends here at Columbia University, is doing a super cool thesis on vampire bats! She submitted this guest post as a part of our Science Communication class, with the goal of spreading the word about how cool her study species is! Follow her on Twitter: @amykwray

Vampires have always been fascinating as mythical creatures, but real vampires in nature are often surrounded by misconceptions. Take this quiz and find out how much you really know about blood-sucking creatures in fiction and in fact.

Question 1: Which one of these is a real vampire?

                          A.                                                  B.

Bat1

Finch

 

 

 

 

Answer: B. The vampire finch, Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis, is native to the Galápagos islands where it feeds on the blood of other birds. The bat pictured here, the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), eats only insects. In fact, out of nearly 1200 bat species, there are only 3 that consume blood.

 Question 2: Which one of these vampires has an impressive running ability?

                     A.                                                   B.

Edward crawl

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: A & B. Trick question! Edward might have super-speed abilities, but the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus also has the unique ability to run on land. By using its forelimbs to propel itself forward, this bat can even jump vertically into the air.

Question 3: Which of these vampires likes to snuggle?

                  A.                                                B.

cuddlepam

 

 

 

 

 

 Answer: A. Pam from True Blood probably doesn’t like to snuggle, but common vampire bats do! By roosting together in colonies, these bats are able to thermoregulate and stay warm even when temperatures drop.

 Question 4: Which one of these vampires has provided medical help for humans?

                        A.                                                       B.

bat2 Carlisle

 

 

 

 

 Answer: A & B. Tricked you again! While Dr. Carlisle Cullen may have helped lots of humans in Twilight, vampire bats have lead to medical advances which have helped real humans. A drug called desmoteplase, developed from the anticoagulants in vampire bat saliva, has been used to help stroke patients recover.

Question 5: Which of these vampires can survive without consuming any blood?

                                  A.                                         B.

bat3 TrueBlood

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: B. In the True Blood universe, some vampires that are very old no longer require blood to survive. In the wild, however, vampire bats must consume blood at least every 3 days or they will starve to death. Reciprocal blood exchanges, where an individual who has fed will regurgitate and share its blood meal with an unsuccessful roost mate, help these bats decrease their risk of starvation.

 

Question 7: Which one of these vampires can spray a foul-smelling liquid when threatened?

                          A.                                              B.

Dracula

bat4

 

 

 

 

Answer: B. Although Jonathan Rhys Myers delivers plenty of stinging insults on NBC’s Dracula, only the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi) is able to spit a nasty-smelling liquid at its perceived enemies.

 

8. BONUS QUESTION! Here are two species of vampire bats. Which one prefers to feed on the blood of mammals?

        A.                                            B. 

bat5

bat6

 

 

 

 

common vampire bat    white-winged vampire bat

Answer: A. The common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, is the only vampire bat that primarily feeds on mammalian blood. The other two species of vampire bats, including the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi) pictured here and the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), both prefer to consume the blood of birds.

 

YOUR SCORE:

0-2: Sparkly Megaderma (false vampire bat). Not quite a true vampire, but at least you’re cute.

3-5: Baby vamp/vampire bat pup. You’ve still got a lot to learn, spider monkey.

5-7: Hungry Dracula. Almost a badass vampire -  but you might need a bottle of True Blood or a shared blood meal first.

8: Former Viking turned vampire turned bat biologist. You’re a true expert at tween pop culture AND the ecology of hematophagous critters!

Field Work

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Annnd we’re back! We arrived in Suva yesterday after a week of sample collection in Nagigi (pronounced Nai-ni-ni) on the northern island of Vanua Levu. And man, what a week…I’m at a loss for words when I try to articulate what we’ve experienced. Coming to mind right now are the vibrant colors of the reef fish - brilliant oranges, silvery greens, pale yellows, deep reds, fading slowly from the limp fishes’ tissues as they wait patiently in their plates for us to process them. The cerulean blue of Nagigi’s lagoon, impossibly clear as the prow of our tiny boat cleaves a path through liquid color. The weightlessness of diving, being suspended in space with the tip of my spear glinting five feet ahead and the mechanical sound of breathing through my regulator punctuating the depths. Life in the village was elegant in its simplicity, everything revolving around those few hours spent underwater and the golden afternoons processing samples. The villagers were among some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, especially our hosts Nancy and Nyo. These wonderful people cooked our every meal, insisting we eat more than our fill, and made sure we were comfortable and well-kept throughout our time spent in the village.

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More importantly, our research endeavors were extremely successful. By the end of the trip we had collected over 100 different species of reef fish, and had observed over a dozen endangered species that we can’t collect but can record as present. The biodiversity on Nagigi’s reefs was astonishing, while apparently not even being up to its full potential. We collected dozens of surgeonfish, damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and triggerfish, a handful of groupers, jacks and mullets (which are more commonly fished by the villagers), two lionfish and a handful of extremely small gobis, blennies, and cardinalfish. I’m definitely missing a lot of fish families there, but that’s what I can remember without looking at my field notebook. :) And, like most field expeditions, we did experience a few hiccoughs in the plans - delayed ferries, boat problems, having to take time off because of terrible weather, etc. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about fieldwork, and not just on this expedition, is to always expect the unexpected. It sounds really cliche but it is truly crucial to have a back-up plan for when things don’t go as planned. For instance, one of the days we were supposed to collect a lot of data we woke up to torrents of rain hammering on our little tin roof, and when we saw the current absolutely RIPPING in the lagoon, all chance of diving that day went out the door. So we had to improvise, sending a few of us into the nearby town to run some necessary errands we had been putting off, and the others staying behind to do interviews with Helen. It ended up being a productive day despite not getting our expected work done, and that day was chalked up as a success. Thankfully the weather wasn’t always like that and we did get to dive in some absolutely fantastic waters (eee!), and collect all the fish and sediment samples we needed.

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Sitting here in Suva, heading back to the US in three days, I realize how much I’m going to miss this place over the next year. BUT, I’m also bolstered by the possibility of returning next summer for my thesis research (!), and am so looking forward to what my graduate school experience holds in store - it has certainly started off on the right foot. :)

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Off to Nagigi

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Stumbling upon a praying mantis in the street, we fall to our knees - cameras up, voices low, immediately ensnared. It starts moving towards Amy’s arm, which is outstretched in hopes of a species to species greeting, and soon she has the insect close to her face, cooing encouraging noises. I keep my distance, perfectly content with getting a close-up of its alien-like eyes through the lens of my camera. We hear a car approaching and reluctantly get out of the street, urging Sir Manty out of harm’s way. This is such a field biologist moment.

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Life here has settled into a comfortable routine. Breakfast around 7am at the Hot Bread Kitchen amusingly located on Butt Street or the coffee shop on Loftus, reading the paper and discussing our day’s plans in between bites of coconut buns and fruit rolls. The beginnings of our days are usually filled with field preparations, yesterday involving permitting (always, always checking on the permits), tracking down ethanol and formalin, maps, and liquid nitrogen. Today involving more permitting, tying up loose ends from yesterday’s errands (the formalin quest has taken us on a wild goose chase around various University of South Pacific campuses), and playing with underwater cameras and GoPro rigs. Lunches are taken at the food court just down the hill from our hotel, filled with amazing Indian food and sushi, and afternoon activities usually involve either doing interviews with Helen in scenic places or the tedious but extremely necessary prep work like filling hundreds of microtubules with ethanols and sharpening pencils. Evenings usually consist of more amazing food, lots of laughter and story telling, a bit of down time and then early to bed to prepare for another jam-packed day ahead.

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While this time in Suva has been ridiculously enjoyable (the Drew Crew’s ab muscles have significantly strengthened from all the laughs), we are all intensely focused on the prize ahead - our week in the village of Nagnini, diving daily to collect samples, conducting interviews with fishermen and fisherwomen. This is what our expedition is all about, everything comes down to this week in Fiji’s “hidden paradise” (which we were delighted to hear the Suva locals calling it). We depart tonight at 7pm, after one last day of frantic errand running and equipment packing, boarding an overnight ferry that will land us on the northern island at 4am the next day. After arriving in Nagnini I will be effectively off the map, not using internet or phones both because it will be extremely difficult and also for the purpose of fully immersing myself in our work, enabling myself to be fully present for every aspect of the field.

Edit: We are now leaving tomorrow morning at 4am, arriving in Savusavu in the afternoon to head to the village. The ferry was delayed so we have scrambled to make it work and it looks like we won’t be too set back :) Ahhh the challenges of fieldwork! Adios everybody, talk to you again when we have 800+ fish added to our inventory!

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Bula from Fiji!

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Hello from Suva, Fiji! It’s so crazy to actually be here, after months of talking and planning and prepping. The entire Drew Crew (which we dubbed ourselves this morning for an 8k fun run) arrived in Suva in a state of near disbelief, stunned that we had actually reached our destination with every single bag and piece of equipment fully intact. We landed in Nadi (pronounced “nandi”), crammed all of our things into a flower print, velvet-covered minivan, piled onto the plastic-covered seats (think grandmother's house) and shot straight over to Suva, the capitol of Fiji, where we’ve been for the last 3 days. And from there it’s been an absolute whirlwind! Buying gear for the field, checking up on permits, giving talks, unpacking equipment, playing with cameras (two waterproof GoPros lent to us by some colleagues - woohoo!), and planning our week of sample collection. And in between all the important things we have been doing, there are the gems of cultural experience that inevitably occur when halfway across the globe. We stumbled across a music festival last night, where we got to watch a bunch of adorable children do adorable dances and listen to some great music by a few local Fijian bands. We have been eating amazing food as well, lots of Indian curries and coconut dishes, although we have yet to eat any traditional Fijian food here in the capitol. The fish market in Suva is amazing, so many colorful reef fish alongside large offshore species, and whenever we walk through it’s kind of like a collective ichthyology nerdgasm. There is a beautiful flower market as well, and a very interesting kava/tobacco market where we’ll be getting our kava roots to present to the village officials for our sevu sevu (kava ceremony). We’re heading to the village of Nagigi on the south coast of Vanua Levu (Suva and Nadi are on the island of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu is the island just to the north) on Wednesday, and staying there for about a week.

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More updates and photos later, mothe everybody!!

Salmon Mystery Debunked!

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Super cool breaking news! Researchers at Oregon State University have shown that salmon use MAGNETISM to find their way back to freshwater rivers to spawn! This is really cool for multiple reasons, first because while we know that salmon return to the exact streambed they were originally hatched from via chemical cues (odors), we never knew how they found the general location of the river on a larger scale. When they are born they imprint on the unique smell signature of their specific little nook of the freshwater world in order to find it within short distances (which is cool enough on its own), but the recent study has found that they also imprint upon the magnetic signature of that spot as well! This basically refers to (from my understanding) the fact that each spot on Earth is uniquely situated in relation to our planet's magnetic poles. Many other animals have been shown to use the Earth's magnetic fields for general orientation (many migratory birds, sea turtles, salamanders, frogs, even bacteria!), but this is the first evidence that salmon use it, AND the first evidence that magnetic signatures can be learned, or "imprinted". This magnetic signature is how they locate one infinitesimally small rivermouth along the relatively vast expanse of ocean and coastline, and begin the journey back to their spawning grounds - where the females release thousands of eggs, the males release lots of sperm, and they all promptly kick the bucket. Literally going out with a bang!!

Here's the link to NSF's press release about the study if you want to read more. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

On Grad School and Saving our Reefs!

It has been a tragically lengthy amount of time since I've posted, but not without good reason. I've been applying to graduate programs! :) Well, technically I haven't applied to a single school yet haha BUT I've been writing a ridiculous amount of essays for grant proposals! There are two huge pre-doctoral grants that I've applied to, one from NSF and one from NOAA, and they both involved long and torturous application processes. SO cross yo fingaaaas! I find out in May whether I'll be a funded grad student or not ;)

But one SUPER cool thing I wanted to share with you all has to do with the research I'm planning to conduct in the next few years. (Hopefully) we all know that our oceans are IMMENSELY important to the health of our planet, not only environmentally (providing climate stability, storing excess CO2, full of a ton of unique ecosystems and crazy cool critters), but also economically. Last year, CORAL REEFS ALONE were estimated to provide over US$ 30 billion in goods and services to world economies, through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection (uhh, Hurricane Sandy, anyone?? We could definitely have used a nice litte coral reef off the Jersey shore to break up all that wave action...) So if coral reefs alone provide all that, what about the high seas, the Arctic circle, the mangrove forests, the deep ocean? That's a lottt of money coming into the global economy. Couple that with the massive importance of oceans to our planet's general health, and it's pretty obvious. We need to start taking care of our oceans better, and inspiring people everywhere to care! There are actually a ton of amazng NGO's and non-profits out there doing just that, reaching out and connecting science to the public to raise awareness for the plight of our oceans, it's extremely inspiring and uplifting. I try to take an optimistic approach to the whole climate change/end of the world projections, because I'd like to believe that we won't let our planet die without putting up a good fight!

SOO, as a major ocean advocate myself, I'm hoping to pursue a graduate degree in Marine Conservation. I will hopefully end up at Columbia University in the fall, where I'll be working with Dr. Josh Drew to investigate the phylogeography of certain coral reef fish. Ahh, big word! Basically it means I'll be checking out how genetically related fish from one area of the ocean are to fish from a different area. This actually has a whole slew of conservation applications, because it's really important to know how connected two populations are if you're going to try to make management decisions about a specific area. The idea is, whatever you do to one area could very well be affecting another area down the road, or even across the fricken ocean on a different island! So I'm looking to get into that crazy world of genetics and use my findings to help make effective, informed management decisions. I'm pretty excited!

Here's a little video by Dr. Drew introducing some local, traditional forms of management already in place in Fiji! (Fijians are pretty on top of it with preserving their reefs)

[vimeo 39862662]

Have a great day everyone! More later!

Blanket Octopus, Weekend Photos

Happy Thursday everyone! Almost the end of the week, ahhhh feels so good. I have had a particularly excellent week so far, which is awesome - lots of productive lab work, diving, gym time, good food and hanging with friends :) What more can you ask for in a typical week? Last night I hung out with my madre and my neighbor Lily (it's really cool having neighbors you're not only friendly with, but are like besst friends with - even our dogs are super close!), we cuddled up on our amazing couch and watched Disney's Oceans. And let me tell you, I was BLOWN AWAY by some of this footage, it was bee-ootyful! One of the more fantastic things we got to see was footage of the elusive and ethereal Blanket Octopus - here's the clip! (yes, that is Pierce Brosnan, and yes, he sounds extremely silly )

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TVPYf9Rlhw]

Also in my list of favorites was the footage of the cuttlefish, I have a special place in my heart for the little guys. They remind me of that golden month I spent on Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef, full of sunshine and laughter and cuttlefish chases (always involving one cuttlefish, two 20-year old girls, three minutes of crazed, erratic swimming all over the reef trying to remain inconspicuous and also not drown from laughing so hard). Also, the boy (man? boy-man.) I'm dating calls me cuttlefish occasionally so...they've got that going for them too. Haha

Some photos from my awesome weekend/week:

That's all for now, ta ta sweet blogger friends! Have an absolutely marvelous weekend, and if that embedded video up there doesn't work, I WILL vanquish these technological trials of mine...someday! Soon! Probably not until Monday! But soon!

EDIT: Blast! Didn't work, stupid hyperlink...*gnashing teeth*

Altruism is a Good Thing

Yesterday I learned two of the COOLEST things related to the whelks we're working with. 1) They are apparently highly venomous, and their venom contains neurotoxins that have the capacity to kill human beings (my reaction upon hearing this: slowly and carefully put the whelk down...) BUT, the reason I am here typing this instead of living out a slow painful death-by-sea snail scenario, is that they only use their venom when hunting and never in self-defense. Silly snails. Plus, even if they did get the idea to inject their neurotoxins into a person, the little drill that they use would take like 2 days to burrow through the skin and into the bloodstream. Hah! Still super cool though :)

2) These whelks eat mussels, and the mussels have evolved a pretty neat defense mechanism against them. Mussels live in huuuge beds so when a whelk finds a mussel it could pretty much be set for a lifetime of meals, just moving from one mussel to the next. BUT, these little mussels do an awesome job of being selfless little martyrs - when a whelk is in the process of eating one, the mussel's last act is to secure a bunch of byssal attachments (the strong threads that attach them to the rocks) to the whelk's shell - so when the whelk has devoured its meal and moves on to the next, it's completely stuck to the first mussel it ate! And the rest of the mussels in the bed are saved, yayyy!

Aka altruism rocks. :)

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Just wanted to share some fun facts. I'm off to make dinner with my mom and maybe do some painting (I've been loving that have time these days to dabble in art every once in a while), and then spend a little with my "beau" (as my mother likes to call him) haha. Hope you guys are having a great week! Hump Day, almost the weekend!!

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First Post

Oh herrooo there, blogging world of WordPress! I feel like such a grown up moving my blogging hobby onto here, all my past blogs have existed via blogspot (lame), tumblr (uber lame), or mass emails sent to friends and family during my travels (what are we, in the Stone Age?). So I'm stoked to move my ramblings, travel accounts and occasional science factoids to a new and snazzy-looking home. I started blogging when I studied abroad in Australia in 2010 and absolutely loved it (both the blogging and Australia, duh), but when I came home my life just seemed so boring comparatively that it kind of took the fun out of blogging. It would have read like this: June 16, 2010 "Oh my gahhhhd today I swam with majestic sea turtles and got stung by a bluebottle jellyfish and then drank beers with pro surfers my life ROCKS!" June 20, 2010: "Today...I walked the dog. She pooped. I picked it up. Then I took a nap. Then...then....psh, nevermind" (aka Australia was the time of my life and it was slightly depressing coming home) ANYWAY, I haven't really gotten back into blogging since! Actually, I made an attempt when I was traveling to Fiji for 2 months - I had it all set up via tumblr and was stoked and ready to go, flew over there, gathered some good blogging material in my head for a few days or so, and then sat down to type furiously and gloriously about my experiences...but then the Fijian government blocked my website for reasons completely unknown to me (I seriously didn't tell anyone about those plans to topple the dictatorship). Sooo there went that. And now, here I am, sitting down for attempt #3 and actually getting pretty stoked about it, because I kind of want to be a writer. Kiiind of. I also kind of want to be a professional underwater explorer. And a successful painter living in San Francisco. Oh and also a science writer/marine biology professor. And maybe a model for mermaid costumes or something, you know how it goes, changes every day. But, in reality the marine biologist thing is kind of what I got going for me these days, it's what all the shit on my resume tells the world I do. BUT, I think the only cool thing about being an underemployed 20-something year old living with your parentals these days, is that you can afford to pursue other interests you've always wanted to explore. Like writing. And painting. And volunteering at science museums. :) So here's to that! Doing things just for the sake of doing them! And doing them well! Hellz yeah! (ew I promise no more z's instead of s's, my mom does that in texts - "Whatz up" "Seriously mom?! There is no difference between a z or an s on your T9 phone.") Okay wrapping up first post, now I'm going to fiddle with settings and colors and customizations, joy!