Beautiful Butterflies

June 20th, 2006

How do you make a new species? Scientists are on the trail of the answer to that question.

Researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have apparently copied one possible form of speciation in the laboratory, maybe even recreating the evolutionary steps that took place in birth of a species. In the wild, a species called Heliconius heurippa looks suspiciously like a blend between the two species H. cydno and H. melpomene. To see whether H. heurippa may have resulted from a process called hybridization, the scientists brought H. cydno and H. melpomene into the lab for breeding. After just three generations of interbreeding the two species, the scientists had an intermediate color form of butterfly that exactly matched H. heurippa individuals in the wild. Genetic analysis also supported that they had produced a strain of butterfly genetically distinct from either of the parent species.

That’s fine, but what about breeding? Usually some sort of isolation has to occur for a species to become truly distinct as a species or else it will eventually blend back into the parent populations remaining only an occassional variant form. Well, it turns out that H. heurippa is reproductively isolated, which means that its reproductive behavior doesn’t usually lead it to mate with any but its own kind. The researchers found that when given a choice of mating with H. cydno, H. melpomene, or H. heurippa females, males chose H. heurippa 75-90% of the time. This suggests that this sort of natural reproductive isolation might occur quite often in nature allowing hybrids to branch off and become a separate species.

Hybridization is an interesting occurrence, which can lead one to question the defined boundaries of species. Many times in nature the process results in reproductively inviable individuals, like the mule, but can sometimes lead to perfectly viable animals. Dogs, cats, and birds are often hybridized by breeders in order to create new strains for pet enthusiasts. After time, hybrids can be considered their own species if they don’t tend to mate with dissimilar individuals for either behavioral or physical reasons. But, if they maintain that ability to even a slight degree what does it mean for speciation, and to that end for conservation?

Are animals that maintain some amount of reproductive connectedness with other members of their genus or species more or less likely to weather changes to their environment? Does it matter if a hybrid species like H. heurippa goes extinct as long as the probable parent species remain extant? How much information will be necessary to make such a decision as we learn more and more about genetics and the complexities of speciation? Where will we start to draw lines?


June 13th, 2006

So, I have been neglecting my blog lately. The reason is that I am currently trying to focus as much of my energy as possible onto completing my dissertation. I am spending half of each week at the University of Reno counting bird brain cells in the hippocampuses of White-crowned sparrows, and the other half here in Davis working on writing and my radio program. It’s amazing how much time can be spent in front of a computer with nothing getting done when you would rather be writing something else. Anyway, the work is coming along. And, I hope to be able to share bits and pieces with you all as it progresses. Proof of progress if nothing else.

Today’s blog, however, is a hodge-podge of things that I have been thinking about in the interim… mostly political in nature.

I was recently interviewed by an online magazine called W. Weekly for their new section on podcasts to check-out. It was neat to be interviewed, and hopefully this will be just the beginning of good press for This Week in Science. I’m going to need all the help I can get in turning my podcast into my livelihood after finishing the Ph.D.

Recent important items in the news that have caught my attention, and I feel must be shared as widely as possible involve attacks by our government and respected leaders on personal freedoms and media. While it may not seem like much to some people, the end results of each individual bill or budget cut chips away ever so slightly at our freedom. Unless we begin to take action now by letting our leaders know that we do not stand with them in their actions, we will wake up one day in a world much less colorful than the one in which we now live.

I learned that Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who I have mostly respected for many years, has introduced/is introducing a bill which will effectively make it illegal for radio stations and internet radio stations to stream mp3s.

According to local low-power and community radio station activist, Todd Urick:

“people would be forced to use proprietary streaming technologies with DRM (digital rights management). This will cause internet broadcasters to drop high-quality streaming, and force consumers to buy a DRM-friendly sound card. This should aid in killing-off internet community radio and small streamers.”


I have to say that I was suprised to hear that such a bill is being proposed by Feinstein. She must honestly think that what she is proposing will protect musicians rather than only the music industry. Unfortunately, the bill will just end up protecting the homogenizing force that big music moguls these days are pushing. If you are interested in stopping such basic infringements on communication and personal choice in media, please send a letter to Feinstein. Here is a template letter that you can use to get started:

Dear Senator Feinstein,

It has come to my attention that you are working to pass S. 2644 “PERFORM Act,” that would make it illegal for radio stations/internet radio to use MP3 streaming. In a time of unprecedented media consolidation, democracy is losing face. We cannot run a successful democracy if citizens do not have the basic freedom to iterate and rebut ideas and opinions (through access to media, like internet radio). I understand that this bill is aimed at punishing satellite radio for offering its subscribers devices capable of recording off the air. However, adding a provision that would effectively require music webcasters to use DRM-laden streaming formats, rather than the MP3 streaming format has the latent function of undermining basic access to non-corporate, public media across the country and around the world. This bill would punish those it is not aimed at (like community low power radio stations, public radio and college radio stations) and must either be scrapped or re-written to protect our civil rights and our democracy!

Additionally, the word is back out on the street that The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and therefore NPR and PBS, are under attack again this year. It is true that Congress just voted to reduce the CPB budget by 23%, and are looking to cease all funding of the CPB after 2008 even though we just managed to save it last year. Currently, funding is assured through the end of 2008. The House still has to vote to approve the budget cuts if it is to pass, so there is still a chance to maintain CPB funding if people bring back a repeat performance of the outcry that saved the CPB budget last year. has a petition that you can sign as well as information on how to contact your representatives before they vote.

I found an interesting perspective here. Maybe we can talk the House and Congress into making it possible for the CPB to become fiscally independent before they take all the funding away. anyway, that’s my political two cents for today and I haven’t even touched on recent science/politics news like the FDA’s approval of the cervical cancer vaccine and Harvard’s plan to start stem cell research into cloning (TWIS’ interview w/ Christopher Scott on Jan. 10, 2006 can be found in iTunes).