Weeds making waves

I just got an essay published in Science! This is a big deal because Science is one the premier science journals in the world. Unfortunately I can’t upload a pdf to my blog because of copyright issues, but I can link to the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. If you can’t get over the paywall, then please let me know (manayunkia@gmail.com) and I’ll get you a copy of the piece.



Weeds making waves
Science 18 April 2014:  Vol. 344 no. 6181 pp. 255


Exciting Friday!

Why the Easter Bunny is full of crap

The Easter Bunny, who goes by E.B., slumped in the chair across my desk like a box of melted crayons. Pastel colors smeared his matted and otherwise dirty fur. The only primary color was the red that streaked his eyes. The air was infused with the sickening smell of booze and sweat as the alcohol wept from his pores.

“Man, I don’t how much longer I can do this,” he said. “I don’t sleep. Do you know how long it takes to dye millions of eggs and coordinate their delivery? And some kids expect Easter baskets! I don’t even have a workshop like that fat-sack up north does.”

For millennia, E.B. has been trying to get in on the human belief game, get some of that good old ‘real creature’ recognition. Some time back he followed the lead of his peers the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. You know, the old “provide services to humans” game: he scratches your back, you provide him with validation . His appearance was too genteel to be considered scary like the Boogey Man or even Sasquatch, who have very small workloads.

Like Santa, E.B. inserted himself into Christian customs. Santa had already taken the birth of Jesus as his day. E.B. took Easter. He used Santa’s tactic of bribing kids, but instead of presents he started with colored chicken eggs that he ‘laid’ and hid from the kids. Hiding them reduced the number he had to produce. Kids who didn’t get any eggs just assumed they were hidden too well. And at the time, eggs were cheap. Then egg prices skyrocketed as did the number of kids. And then Easter baskets came into play. All of this to celebrate the resurrection of a 3-day dead Jesus from 2000 years ago. To his amazement, he was accepted this way.

But E.B. was tired. He wanted to be accepted by science as real so he could retire as the Easter Bunny and simply enjoy life as a large woodland creature.

This is how I came to find him sitting across from me. I am a scientist who advises ‘mythical’ creatures. I long-ago advised the painfully shy Loch Ness Monster to remain hidden in an undisclosed lake (not Loch Ness) and have deployed many disreputable hucksters who pretend to be scientists. You may know them as cryptozoologists.

E.B. chewed and ripped off a hangnail. “Can’t I just get accepted as a large rabbit?”

“Maybe, but you’re going to have to be more rabbit-like.”

“Like eating carrots and hopping around?”

“Certainly you’ll need to lose the bipedal gait and yes, you need to be more of a vegetarian. So no more bacon cheeseburgers.”

E.B. sighed.

“Most of all, there are two things you need to do if you want to be accepted by science. The first is that you have to stop this ‘egg-laying’ business. All egg-laying mammals are known as monotremes, which is Greek for ‘one-hole’ and in this case refers to a cloaca. Only the platypus and the echidna (once considered ‘mythical’ themselves) are monotremes. And they live in Australia. You, my friend, are rabbit-shaped and without a cloaca. All rabbits are classified as lagomorphs, which is Greek for ‘rabbit-shaped.”

“ ‘Rabbit-shaped’? You scientists are clever, aren’t you?”

I said nothing.

“Okay,” E.B. said. “What’s the second thing?”

I leaned back in my chair. “You’re not going to like it.”

He leaned on his elbows across my desk, “Just tell me!”



“It’s Greek. It means ‘to eat feces.’ You need to start eating your feces.”

E.B. threw himself back in his chair. “You want me to eat my own…?” His eyes motioned downward.

“Your feces, yes. Lagomorphs produce both a hard and soft feces. Many of people have seen the small, round ‘rabbit pellet’s’. That’s the hard feces. Some rabbits eat it, but you don’t have to. What very few of us see is the soft feces. The reason we don’t see it is because a rabbit takes it directly from its anus and swallows it like pills.”

He wanted to give me a kiss, but I made him settle for a low five.
He wanted to give me a kiss, but I made him settle for a low five.

E.B.’s mouth was open and he was staring straight ahead. An uncertain and thick silence was held. He said slowly, “I didn’t know bunnies – those cute and cuddly and hoppy rabbits – were so…disgusting. Why would you eat that crap?”

“The short answer is nutrition. Rabbits mostly eat vegetation, which is difficult to break down and a lot of the energy in the vegetation isn’t assimilated and passes straight out of the rabbit. Many herbivorous mammals have this problem. Ruminant animals such as goats, cows, giraffes, and deer regurgitate a ‘cud’ and chew it again to further break down the vegetation. Lagomorphs don’t have the same digestive structure as ruminants (which have multiple stomach chambers) and instead re-ingest feces to increase caloric uptake. Impressively, the rabbit’s gut is able to produce hard feces, which has very few calories and produce a high-calorie soft feces.”

“Egads, man! Why not just eat more grass?”

“There is a cost to foraging for more food. Not just in terms of the energy to go out and find food, but the more time you are foraging, the more you are exposed to predators. Lagomorphs forage at night to avoid predation by visual predators such as hawks and eagles. At night they ignore feces as a food source. During the day they rest in one place and produce soft feces for re-ingestion. So the rabbit can basically eat all day.”

E.B. shook his head. “It’s still disgusting.”

“You’re in good company though. From dung beetles that eat other species’ feces to mice, dogs, pigs, beavers, nutria and lemurs, many animals re-ingest feces. Heck, it has been reported in mammoths from 10,000 years ago! Presumably because there was little vegetation to graze then.The overall notion is to gain nutrition.”

“So, to be a rabbit I have eat my own feces?”

“It could be worse.” I handed him a copy of Hirakawa and Haberl’s 1998 paper entitled, The behavior of licking the everted rectum in shrews.

“E. Gads. I need a drink.”

“That might help things go down. Just don’t let a scientist see you swill from your bottle of cheap bourbon.”

I handed E.B. his file with my recommendations, as unpleasant as they seemed. E.B. dragged himself out the door.

The door opened again. It was my next client.

“Ah, Mr. A.S. What can I do for you?”

Scientific sources consulted:

Geis, A.D. 1957. Coprophagy in the cottontail rabbit. Journal of Mammalogy 38:136

Hirakawa, H. 2001. Coprophagy in leporids and other mammalian herbivores. Mammal Review 31:61

Hirakawa, H. and Haberl, W. 1998. The behaviour of licking the everted rectum in shrews (Soricidae, Insectivora).

Soave, O. and Brand, C.D. 1991. Coprophagy in animals: A review. Cornell Vet 81:357

van Geel, B. et al. 2011. Mycological evidence of coprophagy from the feces of an Alaskan Late Glacial mammoth. Quaternary Science Reviews 30:2289


Holdfast the beauty

February 2014
Nahant, Massachusetts

Holdfast the beauty. Photo: Alison Gould, http://agould.carbonmade.com/
Holdfast the beauty. Photo: Alison Gould, http://agould.carbonmade.com/

It’s just a piece of seaweed in February. Too cold to pick it up.

Brown kelp on the beach. Note the blades and holdfast. Photo: Alison Gould, http://agould.carbonmade.com/
Brown kelp on the beach. Note the blades and holdfast.
Photo: Alison Gould, http://agould.carbonmade.com/

But you do pick it up despite your gloveless hands. You look at the rubbery leaf-like structures (which you later learn are called ‘blades’). You notice the root-like structures (which you later learn are called holdfasts) are holding something. It’s a shell. You hold it against the sky. Look at how those holdfasts hold fast onto the shell. How they curl and melt around the contours of the shell and of each other. How it looks like a soft claw clutching a stone.

You learn later that this is kelp, a large brown algae. And that algae are plant like, but not plants. They sit low on the Tree of Life and plants should really be called alga-like because algae were here first. But we don’t give bouquets of kelp for Valentine’s Day, so we are plant biased. But it was from algae that plants learned to harvest energy from the sun; holdfasts became roots and blades became leaves. But kelp found their formula for life suitable and hold fast to their primitive forms. A form that rivals that of any rose.

Yankee Redneck Engineering: making a boat out of invasive weeds

Salisbury, Massachusetts

The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.
The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.

 37 degrees F. That’s how warm the north Atlantic is in February. And this is where I stand with my Yankee friends with a boat made of invasive weeds. 

For you Yankees who think I’m talking baseball, I’m not. I’m from the South and I still say “ma’am” and “sir” and call anyone from the north a “Yankee”. (oh, did you notice my use of capitalization? That was unconscious but I’m not fixin’ it).

My friend John, a Yankee and middle-school science teacher, has made a boat out of weeds and we’re out here to test its sea-worthiness. The weed? Phragmites australis, or known better as Phrag (pronounced ‘frag’).  Phrag is an aggressively invasive reedy weed that towers up to 20 foot tall, its tufted head swaying in the wind. Phrag invades marshes and wet grasslands throughout the country and is of particular concern in salt marshes as it displaces native grasses. It’s so aggressive that attempts to poison it, cut it, freeze it, dig it up, graze it, and burn it have done nothing but left us exhausted. In the local Great Marsh, the concern of Phrag has prompted the creation of the film Danger in the Reeds for public awareness of the reed presence. 

John stands among the tall Phragmites.
John stands among the tall Phragmites.

The idea to build a boat out of an invasive weed started first as a challenge by John to his students to make something useful out of this nuisance plant. Maybe if we can monetize this aggressive reed we can do a better job of controlling it, he reasons.

The students made spears and pens and decorations. John had another idea when he walked into his neighbor’s yard where the reed grows 20 foot tall. Some of the reeds had a natural bend in them, presumably due to a persistent wind. He thought, “I wonder if I can make a boat out of that?”

After two-weeks worth of work stretched out over a number of months, John harvested the tall reeds and lashed them together with hemp rope. He used the natural bend in the reeds to form the curved bow. His Mighty Phragmites (this is a name I have given it) raft looks like a single, curved pontoon.

I hadn’t  seen the finished boat and shot him an email to see if he’d set it on its maiden voyage yet. He hadn’t but would in the afternoon if I could make it out. And now I stand with three of his 7th grade students, his son and his son’s friend and one of John’s friends. The cold Atlantic licks the beach hungry for warm blood.

John claps his gloved hands together and says, “Let’s do this!” As the bow bounces over the first small wave, we whoop and holler –  we are all teenage boys today. Those of us in wetsuits jump on and paddle and surf it. I am only in waders in February water and stay in the shallows. I do make a brief surf in and almost roll the thing. 

After two hours and a near sunset, we haul it back. It is much heavier and is like what I imagine carrying a dead small walrus is like. As we grunt and walk over the uneven snowy terrain with our dead walrus I say, “Y’all may be Yankees, but that was redneck stuff right there.” A boat made of weeds and then thrown into the ocean to see if it floats? Yeah, that’s pretty redneck. All we need now is a trolling motor and a six pack.

John’s Mighty Phragmites may not lead to the eradication of Phrag, but it may require that kind of redneck ingenuity to control it. After all, in Louisiana they’re trying to turn the big rat that is nutria into a delicacy. Maybe we can feed the nutria Phrag…

To space or not two space?

But I must put one more space! No! No, you mustn’t!

Ask this at your dinner table tonight. How many spaces do you put after a period? After a question mark?

I put two. Guess how many I’m supposed to put? One. One after this period. One after these exclamation points!!!!! Know what I learned in high school in my typing class? Two. Thanks public education.

Why are there still two-spacers in a one-spacers world?

According to this article in Slate by Farhad Manjoo, it’s because the old two-spacing ways are still being taught out of habit. Two spaces were used for typewriters because the characters each took up equal amount of space. So a skinny ‘i’ had the same cozy space that a fat ‘W’ fit in. It makes the text look ‘loose’ and for the eye to follow to the next sentence it was best to give two spaces after the period to give enough definition to the sentence. The white space signalling, “Hey, the sentence is over buddy! Get ready for the next one!” Though I thought that was what the period was for in the first place. Computers use proportional typesetting so the skinny ‘i’ only takes up a small space and the fat ‘W’ takes up more space. Now we only need a small bit of white space to signify the end of the sentence. Again, which is what I thought the period was for in the first place.

And while we’re at it, why capitalize the word at the beginning of a sentence? To signify the beginning of a new sentence? Didn’t that question mark just signify the end of the last sentence and therefore the next word will begin a new sentence? Grammarians, please educate me.

And back to my education. 15. When I became a two-spacer. Now I’m trying to convert and it’s driving me batty (thanks a lot Farhad). And how much of my life has been wasted with all those extra spaces?

Let’s see, typing since I was 15…22 years now with an average of 5 pages per day, average sentence length of 20 words per sentence, 500 words per page each space represents a letter and there are on average 5 letters per word and I type an average of 45 words a minute (mock not my slow fingers!)…carry the 3…

Holy cow! I have wasted 1,003,750 spaces for a total of 200,750 words meaning I’ve spent 75 hours, or over 3 days typing extra spaces. Oh, what could I have done with those 3 days? Oh how misspent my youth. How misspent.

Johnny Fleegs joins the Hall of Fame!

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This weekend, Dr. John Fleeger is being inducted as a member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS),  known to us scientists as Triple-A S, because we’re too busy for real words.  Tiple A S is like the Hall of Fame for scientists and has ties to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison in the late 1880′s.  Triple A S is a big deal.

Why am I telling you about this Dr. John Fleeger, who most of you don’t know?  Well, I could list his many accolades including over 150 publications in the scientific literature including topics from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to carbon sequestration in the deep ocean to community ecology of very small crustacean in the dirty, dirty mud.  I could highlight his wonderful teaching career at Louisiana State University spanning over 30 years.  But probably one of his most arduous and significant accomplishments was guiding yours truly to a Ph.D.

What I appreciated most about my experience with John was his mentoring style:  his door was always literally open.  And no matter the crazy nattering that spewed from my lips, he looked at the floor while nodding and waiting for me to finish.  Then we would discuss.  He never said my ideas were stupid, though he gently said they needed more ‘development.’

And he was patient.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard him say without annoyance “Again David…” meaning that he already told what he was about to say and he was gently reminding me.

I appreciated how quickly he made comments on my scientific manuscripts.  Well, how quickly he massacred them.  My words were slain without mercy for their wrongness and their bodies littered the battlefield of my manuscript.  It frustrated me because I prided myself as an excellent writer.  But academic writing has its own style and language and John was teaching. Today I’m a better writer because of the time he took.

One Saturday morning in Baton Rouge I was at the scope sorting samples.  John came in with a draft of my research proposal that he massacred.  He asked me, “David, what are you trying to say here?”  Then before I had a chance to answer, he looked at the draft and said with rare exasperation, “Do you even know what you’re trying to say?”  I started to say something, but said, “Well no.”  And then he took the time to help me start over.

I still seek John’s advice today on my manuscripts.

John and I spent so much time together that I learned his patterns.  If I was in the lab and heard a slight shuffle of feet, the stop at the water fountain, and a slight “ah” of refreshment I knew I needed to stop watching funny cat videos.

And he learned that I was not the easiest of students.  Brilliant though I may be, I am riddled with a brooding recalcitrance, hard-headedness, and fool-hardiness.  John and I butted heads from time to time.  I won’t tell you who was right most of the time.  I will highlight most of the time.

The following is from the Acknowledgements of my dissertation:  “In 2003, the brave or foolhardy Dr. John Fleeger, with his nodding head and seemingly infinite patience that I tested more than once took in my independent and sometimes irascible spirit and navigated it down a tortuous, yet productive path.  I thank him for reading (and re-reading and re-reading) every word I’ve written as a graduate student, for swatting and cursing mosquitoes with me in the marsh, and for always having his door and mind open.”

Five years later, those words, unmassacred by John’s pen, still ring true.

Congratulations John.  Your induction into AAAS is well-deserved on many levels.  I hope you finally do some nice laurel sitting.