A Scientist Walks Into a Bar

Dr. Kevin Feldheim talks sharks at The Hideout. Photo by L.J. Bailey

Tuesday I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Kevin Feldheim chat with a Field Museum science writer about sharks in the monthly “A Scientist Walks Into a Bar” function at The Hideout in Chicago. His research focuses on inferring the mating system and population biology of sharks using genetic markers called microsatellites. These are repetitive parts of DNA, and they help form DNA motifs. It’s the same science used to determine paternity and to profile cancer. In other words, Dr. Feldheim is the Maury Povich of ichthyology.

He talked about parthenogenesis (“virgin birth”), a method by which a shark (and other animals) can reproduce without male sperm. As unlikely as it sounds, this is a real phenomenon, observed both in aquariums and in the wild.

How does it work? Stay with me here because I have to go a little technical. Remember that meiosis is sexual reproduction, as opposed to mitosis. In meiosis, a particular type of cell copies its chromosomes and splits into four gametes, which are cells that unite with another of the opposite sex to produce a zygote, which is a fertilized egg cell.

In females, only one of the four gametes becomes the egg cell and receives the bulk of the cell material. The other gametes that are left over become something called “polar bodies,” which typically degenerate into the body. In parthenogenesis, however, one of those polar bodies fuses with the egg cell instead of disintegrating and begins embryonic development. This is called chromosomal crossing over and it means the mother’s paternal and maternal DNA strands are exchanged so the embryo is not a clone – it has half the genetic diversity of the mother.

Most shark species are in precipitous decline around the world because of the insatiable shark fin industry. Parthenogenesis, then, seems like a great alternative to traditional mating when populations are in decline. However, if this is happening as frequently as scientists suspect, the issue is a lack of genetic diversity in shark populations. The result is essentially inbred offspring. Too many of those and you end up with King Joffrey!

If you can check out this series at The Hideout, it is totally worth it. It runs monthly on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 7:30. Tickets are $5 and supposedly available at the door, but I recommend buying them ahead of time.

My friend holds a whale shark fin Dr. Feldheim brought as an educational prop. Photo by L.J. Bailey

Science and Writing

Speaking of science and writing, there is an event at the Writers Museum in downtown Chicago on August 16th: A Celebration of Science Writing. Annie Minoff (Undiscovered podcast host), author David Quammen, and others will be there! Tickets are $25 but so worth it!

Picture is for attention, although it is science-related. Chicago Academy of Sciences has a display at Notebaert and here is a picture from that exhibit.

A Week of Science and Writing

I have been neglecting my posts because I have been visiting venerable Chicago institutions like the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, the International Museum of Surgical Science, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Notebaert. I had two interviews and picked up a volunteer job with Lost Boyz (lostboyzinc.org), a fantastic nonprofit that works with youth and young adults in the South Shore neighborhood in Chicago. Finally, I am at the three-day Summer Writers Conference at Northwestern University to learn, network, and listen!

What an amazing city Chicago is. I leave you for now with some pictures from my explorations with science at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

No Life is Too Small to Save

Rescued baby gulls starting their recuperation and recovery at Willowbrook Wildlife Center. Photo by L.J. Bailey

Good news alert!

Some of you may remember when I wrote about the seagulls that Chicago Bird Collision Monitors rescued in downtown Chicago back in June and my visit with them at Willowbrook Wildlife Center soon thereafter. The public had called in to the Hotline originally about baby gulls lying on the ground surrounding one building in the sweltering heat. Although initial speculation was that humans had thrown these vulnerable birds off the roof, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service scientists found that adult gulls were attacking rival offspring. The cause was not determined, but there are several theories that the unseasonable heat combined with potential toxic material somewhere on the roof led to this behavior.

Out of the gulls on the ground, twenty-five were rescued and twenty-two were released. This article and accompanying video describe the incident and the release of seven of the gulls into the wild. Even if you do not read the article, you have to watch the heartwarming video.


Pterosaurs and Swag

A pterosaur enjoys a soda during the Titanosaur Sleepover at the Field Museum. Photo by L.J. Bailey

If you like pterosaurs as much as I do (and I adore pterosaurs), you simply must visit pteros.com, if you have not done so already. It is a collaboration among scientists, artists, and writers to provide encyclopedic information on all 150 genera of pterosaurs, adding individual pterosaur illustrations as the artists complete them. Pterosaurs are the only known flying reptiles, and while they are extinct now, you can still learn all about these fascinating creatures. Whatever you do, don’t call them dinosaurs, though!

An additional feature of this site is the direct connection to Studio 252MYA, a site where you can unleash your inner nerd into a proud declaration of your enthusiasm for prehistoric creatures. Exclusive merchandise featuring the illustrations of paleoartists is available here. There are other items with natural history illustrations worth investigating, too. Did you leave your heart in the Cretaceous? There’s a t-shirt for that. Need a throw pillow with an Archaeopteryx on it? There’s one of those, too. There are mugs, stickers, shower curtains, phone cases – the possibilities are vast!

Plus, while you get cool natural history swag, you are also supporting some pretty fantastic artists and a unique project. I don’t receive anything in return for my promotion of the site – It’s just really cool. I’m ordering something now! Of course, I have to decide between the Ankylosaur Fancier shirt and maybe something featuring a Tupuxuara. Any suggestions?


Mile of Murals in Rogers Park

“Birds of Climatory Prey” (a partnership with the Audubon Mural Project) Artists: Ruben Aguirre, Cheri Charlton, Andrea Jablonski, Tyrue “Slang” Jones, Anthony Lewellen, Chris Silva

Beginning in 2007, the Mile of Murals project in Rogers Park, Chicago celebrated the arts in this storied neighborhood. These large-scale works span over ten blocks, run through seven viaducts, and display on two overpasses. The murals run a mile along the CTA Red Line from Estes Avenue to Pratt Boulevard along the Glenwood Avenue train line.

These are not the only murals in Rogers Park, but they are probably the most well-known ones. There are maps and more information available here. I love these murals, and I thought I’d post the “Birds of Climatory Prey” because it is an important part of Chicago, has a message that is especially relevant now, and involves birds (a great love of mine).

The Eagle Huntress: A Review

The golden eagle is the traditional bird used in falconry competitions in Mongolia.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv was only thirteen when she became the first female to compete at an all-male eagle hunting competition. She also won. This documentary by Otto Bell tells a little bit about her story and her journey towards becoming an eagle hunter in the Mongolian steppe. Aisholpan and her family are members of the Kazakh population, a Turkic-speaking people who claim ties to Genghis Khan. Despite the forbidding landscape, Aisholpan and her father move through it on their horses with a practiced ease.

The story presented is so compelling: a young girl defies the strict patriarchal limitations imposed by her culture and becomes one of the first female eagle hunters. The trouble with this narrative is that while it is true the activity is male-dominated, there is a documented history of female eagle hunters. This fact makes sense because I expected Aisholpan to face challenges to her entry into the festival, and there were no public challenges. Something did not exactly add up for me here.

Furthermore, the only way I knew about the documented history was because I had to research a lot about Kazakh culture. The film told me precious little about the culture, the people, or even the tradition of eagle hunting. The entire film did not have to be a National Geographic episode, but some context and a little bit about the culture would have been nice. Aisholpan’s culture does matter, and I fervently wish Otto Bell had paid more attention to what he was doing when he made the film.

Maybe this is not fair because Aisholpan’s story is inspiring, and she is one of the toughest young women I have ever seen, yet she makes her work look easy. Imagine a thirteen-year-old girl carrying a fifteen-pound golden eagle on one arm while actively handling a horse on a mountain in a few feet of snow. Yes, she’s that tough. There was no need to exaggerate Aisholpan’s story, for she is remarkable without embellishment. Is this what documentary audiences demand nowadays?

I want to recommend the film and in some respects, I do. I have learned a little about the Kazakh culture because the film spurred me to research it on my own. I feel inspired by Aisholpan’s extraordinary journey and her early determination to compete in the all-male festival. She is a positive role model for young women. The landscape is also gorgeous and the eagle-eye images of the foothills and cliffs make some of the other less attractive aspects of this film fade into the background.

The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell. Starring Aisholpan Nurgaiv. Released in 2016 and available on DVD.