21 Nov

The Unknown Five Scientists Who Saved Science Education in Alabama


Scott Brande

On Thursday, December 14th 1989, five Alabama scientists joined together, forming a small line of defense in a battle most of us weren’t even aware was happening. This clash was one of the most important, yet unknown, battles in a war to keep science in public classrooms. Alabama, a critical state in this conflict, reviews only one or two subjects each year. Consequently, science standards and text, once adopted, remain so for a period of six years; gaining a near permanence in Alabama classrooms.

Compared to their adversaries, the five are horribly outnumbered, underfunded, and poorly organized Outside of a few phone conversations, most of the group has never met. The five march up the steps of the daunting, white facade of the Gordon Pearson Building in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott Brande, a geologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham; John Schweinsberg, a mathematician and software engineer and David Sims, a physicist, both from Huntsville; and a pair of paleontologists, James Lamb from Birmingham’s Red Mountain Museum and Ron Lewis at Auburn University, comprise as Brande notes a loose “confederacy”. Their opposition is a nationally funded conservative movement, one of the most politically well-connected and tenacious groups of conservative women in the entirety of the South, an impressively clever and well funded Texas creationist organization, one of the best trial lawyers in Alabama, and nearly 12,000 signatures.

The Book: Of Pandas and People

514Mj1zOqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The debate centered on the introduction of Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins as a required supplemental text into Alabama biology curriculum. The 1989 book, written by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyan (both young Earth creationists and intelligent design proponents) raises several unfounded objections to the theory of evolution. The book and the movement that spawned it, intelligent design, were thinly guised attempts to introduce creationism into science curricula. As noted by the Gary Bennett, a former NASA engineer and scientist who later became a defender of science,

Science is based on finding natural explanations for why the universe works as it does. Pandas invokes a supernatural belief called “intelligent design” (which looks like nothing more than the latest manifestation of the discredited belief system known as “creationism”) to explain the origins of life and the creation of the different species of life. Since science does not deal with the supernatural, because it is beyond measurement, Pandas does not qualify as a science textbook.

At the time the publishers Of Pandas and People, Haughton Publishing, did not have other books in print or science advisors. The Foundation of Thought and Ethics (FTE) financially supported publishing of the book through donations. FTE itself was lead by ordained minister Jon Buell with the purpose of “proclaiming, publishing, preaching [and] teaching…the Christian Gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of the day”. Prior efforts to introduce creation “science” in the classroom relied on pro-creationists legislators passing laws, but FTE mobilized Christian conservative groups to pressure local teachers and school boards. The ingenuity of FTE throughout was impressive.

In Alabama, FTE and Haughton found allies in the state chapter of the Eagle Forum, part of a national organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly. The notoriety of Schlafly should not distract from the prominence of the Alabama chapter or their leader, Eunie Smith.   Smith, the wife of the late Albert L. Smith Jr., a one term U.S. Representative and four-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, is very well connected in Alabama politics. Behind Smith was a formidable group of strong conservative Southern women. One scientist who came face to face with the Alabama Eagle Forum described them as a Southern archetype, “dressed to the 9’s, hair perfectly coifed, so sweet [they’re] insipid.”

Over the years Haughton and the Alabama Eagle Forum have also found an ally in Norris Anderson. With a B.S. in science education and a M.S. in natural sciences, Anderson taught science at a variety of levels and served a minor role writing for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a nonprofit center that develops curriculum and conducts research in the teaching of science. Norris Anderson has served as the executive director of the small Cornerstone Ministries Inc, a film distribution company since 1958. Norris served multiple times on the Alabama State Textbook Committee and was perhaps the strongest Panda supporter among them. The Eagle Forum of Alabama continuously promoted Anderson. He often speaks at their hosted events. Later in his career, Norris authored the now infamous Alabama disclaimer in biology textbooks.

Events Prior to the December 1989 Meeting

Haughton Publishing worked actively to prevent copies of Of Pandas and People being reviewed prior to the textbook committee meeting that would partially decide the book’s fate in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Education requires all books up for review to be on public display in 21 designated state libraries. This was supposed to occur by early July of 1989. On September 12th, Scott Brande attends a textbook committee meeting. During the meeting an Eagle Forum member speaks highly of Of Pandas and People. Brande discovers the book will be voted on after the meeting and searches for a copy at his own institution, one of the depositional libraries, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The book is noticeably absent there and at the other designated libraries.  

I could not believe I had missed such a critical text. Upon returning to Birmingham, I immediately checked with Gordon Dunkin, the UAB librarian who received the submitted texts. He confirmed that Sterne Library had never received “Pandas”. Was there a deadline for receipt and display of these texts by the designated libraries? Gordon extracted from his file a June 16 letter from Barry Buford of the State Department of Education instructing him to ensure that all submitted texts were on display by July 10. “Pandas” was now nearly 3 months late to the UAB library! Because I wanted to review this text, I called every one of the other 21 designated libraries across the state. Not one of them had a copy of “Pandas”. The absence of the book from the designated libraries raised a serious question: If a book were not on public display as required by the Alabama Department of Education, could it be voted on legitimately by either the State Textbook Committee or the State Board of Education?

Brande eventually secures a copy of the book and completes his review two weeks prior to the October 2nd meeting.   Haughton Publishing eventually sends bound copies to each library. Of Pandas and People arrives just one business day before the committee’s vote. Nonetheless, in October 1989, the Alabama State Textbook Committee votes 17-5 not to consider the book for inclusion.

Thursday, December 14th, 1989

None of the Science 5 live in Montgomery, the state capital. The furthest of them drives nearly three hours to make the 9 a.m. meeting. The closest still drives an hour. Each has taken time from their jobs to meet in the auditorium that morning. Brande must rush back quickly to teach a class that afternoon. The five arrive and scramble to their seats in an impressively packed board meeting.

Haughton Publishing, despite the decision of the textbook committee, appeals to the state board to ignore this recommendation and adopt the book. Haugton’s legal representative at the board meeting, Francis Hare, Jr. is a prominent Alabama attorney. Hare works at one of the largest law firms in Alabama, taught at several law schools, and held distinguished chairs at two law schools. His father helped found the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame. On that Thursday morning, Hare presents 11,800 signatures to the Board to adopt Of Pandas and People. A prominent Christian radio station out of Tuscaloosa urged people to sign the petition for several weeks prior. With an impressive attorney and pages of signatures, the Science 5 is miserably outgunned. Brande with a sense of wit notes, “I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den.”

Each of the five delivers their two-minute remarks.

After discussion, one board member moved to approve the book as supplementary text. In response to the inquiry by another board member, the Department of Education lawyer stated the board lacked such authority. The board voted instead to return the book back to the textbook committee for review.

In a bizarre turn of events at that textbook committee meeting, Hare announces that Haughton is withdrawing Of Pandas and People for consideration. Haughton recognizes the proceedings are not faring well and cannot afford the precedent that an Alabama ruling would set. Three days later the Alabama State Board of Education notes the withdrawal and the book never makes it into the Alabama classroom as an approved textbook.

As the battle continued to wage in Alabama, Brand continued to fight. In 1995 a review of state science standards begins again. The Alabama Eagle Forum is at the frontlines. Eunie Smith in a letter to Alabama school teachers states the proposed standards of “scientific literacy is part of the national agenda to use science for social change.” The governor, in his role as the ex officio chair of the Alabama State Board of Education, forces the board to give Eagle Forum a stage. Scott Brande sends a 19-page, his second of the year, point-by-point rebuttal of the Eagle Forum to the State Board. In the end, things do not fare well. On March 9th, 1995 the state board adopts, with the blessing of the Eagle Forum, a curriculum full of loopholes and the now infamous disclaimer in biology textbooks stating evolution should be considered just a “theory” without substantial evidence.

The curriculum is so bad that by 2000 the Fordham Foundation ranks the treatment of evolution in Alabama with its lowest score, F. In 1995, the State Board also decides to include a disclaimer in biology textbooks.


Alabama Textbook Disclaimer

Brande drafts an alternative disclaimer that is scientifically defensible which he sends along to the state education board. Brande’s alternative is not adopted.

Monday, August 17th 2015

I’m sitting in a Birmingham breakfast joint sharing coffee with Scott Brande. He’s humble when talking about his role in these events. He mentions that scientists can commit their careers to research, teaching, and public service. “I might not have developed the research career I wanted but I dedicated myself to teaching and public service. Many freshman I teach have taken biology in the state of Alabama two years before. This affects me personally because these are my students.” For every page other scientists write towards a grant or scientific paper, Brande writes two pages reviewing Alabama science standards and textbooks.

Without his contribution things might be much different in Alabama, in this country. Alabama and Idaho were the first and only fights for a full statewide adoption of Of Pandas and People. A win in Alabama for the book would have made it easier to adopt in subsequent states. That never happened and later battles concentrated on local school districts, like Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a U.S. District Court ruled that intelligent design was not science and essentially religious in nature, and inclusion of Of Pandas and People in the public classroom violated the First Amendment. No doubt the efforts of Brande and others in Alabama laid part of the groundwork for that case.

P5270188Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The influence of Alabama Eagle Forum on Alabama education continues today; a member of the Eagle Forum, Stephanie Belle, holds a seat on the State Board of Education. In January of this year, Brande once again sent multiple pages of comments on the new science standards. Brande noted the preface still contains, “the old language of anti-evolution rhetoric and factual errors inherited from previous editions should have gone extinct long ago.”

In the last few months the State Board adopted new science standards. Surprisingly, the teaching of evolution is mandated. Today I spoke with Brande online. He knows the new science standards are released but with his university responsibilities has not had time to review them. I read him the preface

Scientific theories are developed from observations and evidence to explain the nature of phenomena, to predict future outcomes, and to make inferences about the past. Scientific laws are supported by replicable experiments from within a controlled environment. Both theories and laws have equivalent utility and are open for revision in light of new evidence. The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.

He is speechless at first as the preface text represents a massive leap forward. He eventually responses, “I’m elated. The vestiges of creationism are finally removed after a three-decade fight. We finally a board that puts greater value of science education than it did for the last 3 decades.” Again, Brande is humble, “It’s not just me but multiple forces pressing on the agency.” Brande is right multiple people throughout Alabama have fought for this moment including the other members of the Science Five, members of the Alabama Science Teacher’s Association, Alabama Citizens for Science Education, and the Alabama Academy of Science. But throughout it all Brande was common fixture.



10 Jul

The Absence of Evolution in Arkansas

On January 18th, 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sent a letter to the school board of Beebe, a small town of less than 10,000 located in the Northeast Central part of the state.  

The ACLU of Arkansas wishes to make clear our intentions in this matter. While we would prefer to avoid litigation, we seek the immediate removal of the sticker regarding evolution that now appears in textbooks in the Beebe School District. We expect to hear from you concerning this matter within two weeks from the date of this letter.

 The sticker in question had been in the front of Beebe textbooks for nearly a decade.


What had changed?  A few days earlier in Selman et al. v Cobb County School Board a federal judge ruled that stickers included in textbooks in this Georgia school district need  to be removed because it “improperly entangled itself with religion”.

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Approved by Cobb County Board of Education Thursday, March 28, 2002

Of course, Beebe’s sticker went far beyond the Cobb County three-line sticker.  By a July, the Beebe School Board in fear of lawsuit ordered the removal of the stickers.  A month later Beebe teachers were ripping the pages with the stickers out of the textbooks.

The teaching of evolution in Arkansas has always had a contentious history.  The landmark 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas trial invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in the public schools.  Nearly four decade later the issue of teaching evolution was still controversial. In 2003, Bob Dunning, a pastor of Rocky Comfort Assembly God Church, asked for a religious exemption for Rogers school district students to opt out of evolution studies.   Dunning brought several pastors and nearly three dozen congregational members with him to the April school board meeting.  Dunning proclaimed in these proceedings that “Evolution is the worst thing ever foisted on human beings.”  The school board voted against this 5-2 largely because local school boards cannot pass resolutions exemption students from any state required class work.  

In 2007, also in the Roger’s School District, a dentist, Don Eckard, and a patron, Mark Moore, approached Rogers school board to augment textbooks with “supplemental materials” including a DVD “How to Teach the Controversy Over Darwin Legally”and other materials from the pro-intelligent design and conservative think tank Discovery Institute .  Eckard stated

Teachers may have trouble fully meeting state science standards without supplemental materials for textbooks when some textbooks present a one-sided commitment to a portion of the material covered…all four [biology textbooks] present the neo-Darwinism theory of evolution…with very little critical analysis…no objective observer can look at these textbooks and with intellectual integrity say they fulfill state standards.

Roger’s High School science teacher, Steve Long, stated the materials were

superfluous and may detract from the overall biology curriculum by creating confusion where no mainstream controversy exist or adding additional days of instruction to an already crowded curriculum.

The school board ultimately didn’t adopt these extra materials

But all of this may be a moot point.  Fifty miles south of Rogers in the Ozarks is Cedarville, Arkansas. I graduate from the small high school here.   There were a mere 42 people in my graduating class.  I never once heard about evolution during any of my science classes. Not once.  Evolution was simply not a controversy because my teachers never mentioned the topic despite being a requirement of Arkansas state science standards.  

This absence is by far more dangerous than the visible cases about whether evolution should be taught.  In these silent school districts the choice has already been made. Censorship rules the day.

Back in Rogers, apparently unknown to Eckard and Dunning before,  the theory of evolution was apparently rarely covered.  Dr. Angela Potochnik, an associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, happens to be a 1998 graduate of Rogers High School.  In 2002,  while at Stanford she found she had deficiency in her understanding of evolution compared to her classmates. We had both faced a similiar issues only realized by both of us later in our academic careers when the gaps in our education became noticeablew .  In Potochnik’s letter to the Roger’s School Board  later that year, she noted that she could not recall evolution ever being brought up in the curriculum.  She recounts in her letter an interaction with a teacher who told her that evolution was not mentioned in class because “other students weren’t mature enough for such a subject.”  

I leave with Dr. Potochnik’s words

…we live in a state forward thinking enough–at least in our laws–to say that we will teach the methods and theories of science, including those regarding evolution.  We are as a population, I believe, forward thinking enough to realize that covering our ears when such subjects are mentioned is not a way to deal effectively with the situation.  Dissenters can, by all means, dissent.  But dissenters, either school children or their parents, should not be feared to the extent that teachers fails to teach information than can turn out to be central to someone’s academic or professional success.





02 Jul

Monkey’s Uncles, Evolution, and the South



My journey for understanding the frequently tense relationship between the South and science has led me to an unlikely place—Oakland, California. In what appears to be a former auto body shop, complete with large garage doors, resides the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization striving to keep evolution and climate change science in public school curricula. NCSE serves as a clearinghouse of information, resources, and literature including everything from creationist pamphlets, news articles, evolution textbooks, and policy documents to email exchanges and hate mail. I am currently pouring over boxes of vitriol in paper form. “You are the enemy.” “You commie bastards. Leave other people’s children alone.” And my personal favorite, “I think you should be locked up with your monkey ancestors.” (Never mind that spending a day hanging around with monkeys actually seems fantastic.) You likely have an image in your head of the kind of person that writes these words—Southern, poorly educated fundamentalists. You may be surprised that these words originated from residents of Minnesota, Arizona, and New Hampshire.


In part this assumption stems from the fact that some of the most famous legal cases about teaching in evolution in classroom have occurred in the South. In 1925, in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. In the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, 10th grade teacher Susan Epperson filed a suit to test the constitutionality of Arkansas state law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution in public schools. Both courts ruled in favor of teaching of evolution in the public classroom. In the latter, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the First Amendment prohibits a state from requiring, in the words of the majority opinion, “that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”

The geographic locality of these landmark cases, along with the often-unfavorable press coverage of stereotyped Southerners, has bolstered the view of an anti-science South. The famous journalist H.L. Mencken who covered the Scopes trial characterized the local population of Tennesseans as “morons”, “hillbillies”, and “peasants” with “degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls.”

Down the street from NCSE, I am grabbing a hamburger at an oddly Southern inspired restaurant with my long time friend and colleague Josh Rosenau.   Josh is NCSE’s Program and Policy Director, a rather succinct title, given his actual daily responsibilities of working with grassroots groups across the U.S., testifying before school boards, organizing scientists and concerned citizens, meeting with legislators, speaking with journalists across the country, and contributing writings to dozens of popular media venues. His characteristic bow tie and gentile nature often seem better suited for a Savannah gentleman of leisure than a Jersey raised superhero charged with defending science education. “The South doesn’t have a monopoly on being antiscience.   I’ve worked with groups across the U.S. Nearly every state has tried to pass anti-evolution legislation.” Indeed, that morning Josh pointed me to a series of file cabinets designated to “flair ups” files. The folders are named for places where an incident as occurred ranging all the way from Templeton, California to Dahlonega, Georgia and everyplace in between. I see just as many folders in these cabinets from outside the South as I do from within.

image010In one of the most thorough books every written on the subject, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, Pennsylvania State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer state, “there is overwhelming evidence…No matter how the questions are asked, no matter the theme of the survey, no matter the sponsor of the survey, we see again and again evidence that large majorities of Americans want to see creationism taught in the public schools.” In general between 33-44% of those polled, depending on the poll, favor teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools. The percentages are even higher, 59.5-68.1%, for teaching creationism along side evolution.  

Favoring Teaching of EvolutionstatescoreGeographic variation does exist in these relationships and it would be disingenuous to not recognize that anti-teaching evolution sentiment is not greatest in the South. However, it is equally disingenuous to think it only exists in the South. In New England, 20% of those polled believed the statement “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals” is false. In the Pacific states, this rises to 29%. Yet, in East South Central, West South Central, and South Atlantic states percentages range from 43-51%.

State by state level data on acceptance of evolution is not existent, requiring a surveying effort beyond the scope of a single researcher or research team. Berkman and Plutzer actually solve this problem by combining several previous polls and analyzing them in an amazingly sophisticated statistical model framework with the lengthy name of Multilevel Modeling with Imputation and Poststratification. This model actually allows the researchers to estimate levels of support for teaching evolution in public schools. At the top of the list are Massachusetts and New York with 40.7 and 39.0%, respectively.   At the bottom are Kansas and Tennessee with 24.4 and 23.3%. Overall percentages are statistically lower in the South (p=0.003) and statistically higher (p=0.04) in the Northeast.EvolutionScoreBoxPlot Favoring Evoltuion Only Box Plot

Yet despite this lack of support for teaching evolution and some legislative success in Southern states, state science standards do not seem to equally suffer. In a survey of state science standards, a team gave each state a score with 0 being the lowest and 100 being the highest based on the inclusion of evolution in the state mandated biology curriculum. When we view those scores for Southern states, while somewhat lower, they are not statistically different from other regions. Indeed, the Carolina’s have some of the highest rankings and Kansas the worst with a grade of abyssal F-.

It is easy, though utterly fallacious, to equate the anti-evolution sentiment in the South with ignorance. The evolutionary biologist, defender of science, and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins once stated that, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” An opinion I do no share. Indeed, my own interactions with Southern creationists have lead me to the opposite and quite unexpected opinion. Indeed, Berkman and Plutzer find that those who do not accept evolution are not quantitatively any less intelligent or more scientifically illiterate. Instead these researchers argue, “anti-evolutionists choose to ignore scientific arguments demonstrating evolution.” The single biggest predictors of antievolution sentiment appears to be the proportion of the population that are conservative Protestants, the proportion of the population holding masters or doctoral degrees, and the degree of urbanization. All of these point to similar factor—deep involvement in organized religion. Among the urban and suburban highly educated, participation in organized religion is low.

Perhaps then our view of an anti-evolution South is antiquated. Indeed, for ten years the United States premier (although I am biased as I served as its assistant director for six years) evolutionary think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, resided in North Carolina and forced to reconsider this view.   The real anti-evolution sentiment resides with conservative Protestants, who happen to dominate throughout much of the South and inspired the moniker of the “Bible Belt.” This group is not scientifically illiterate but chooses the Biblical narrative. And thus science needs a stronger narrative.  We need a better narrative for connecting science and the South; one that takes the beauty of the geographic place and the culture of the South and unfolds the beautiful scientific narrative underneath it all.

09 Jun

A Lightning Bug Rave on the Forest Floor


If you bottled up a caricature of Southern culture and poured it all over a town, you would get Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The streets of Gatlinburg look more like the midway of a low budget, small time carnival than an actual town. Everything from mountain cabins to southern cooking and moonshine to grits are commercialized and distilled to absurdity. If the South has an armpit, it is this town in the corner of Tennessee. Minutes from my hotel, itself homage to the worse of this town, paradoxically lies one of the most beautiful places in the South— Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My wife and I are here in early June to witness one of the most spectacular displays of biology found in the South, the lightning bug Photinus carolinus. About 30 minutes after sunset, thousands of males light up the forest in the former logging town of Elmont, now in middle of the park. The males are known to flash in synchrony, signaling and then going dark in unison.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.05.22 PMTwo months before, everyone around me witnessing the light show, was sitting in front of his or her computers to gain a ticket. Thousands of these tickets went in just 24 hours in April to see the insect light show in June.  Scientists use a model developed by Lynn Faust and Paul Weston in 2009 to predict when the actual light show will occur. The model uses growing degree-days, a tool also used to predict when flowers will bloom. Think of the model as a bag. One fills this bag with temperature coins gained when the average daily temperature exceeds some base temperature. When the bag is full of temperature coins the lightening bugs emerge and being lighting up the forest floor. For Photinus carolinus, the base temperature is 50˚F. If the day temperature is 80˚ and the night temperature is 40˚, the average is 60˚. This is 10˚ greater than the base so you get 10 temperature coins to add to the bag. Males typically emerge from larvae at about 840 coins with the peak display at 1,069 coins, which also coincides with when females emerge. Scientists start counting coins at the start of March. By April, park scientists know the week and half the light show will occur.

fireflyMy wife and I jockeyed for our position at 7:00 pm, among hundreds of tourists, to observe this magnificent display. At approximately 8:30 the sun begins to set and by 9:00 the flashes begin. My wife and I are done and head out nearly an hour before the males stop flashing. Male will keep the display going for up to three hours. Photinus carolinus males are extremely motivated to keep the flashing going. They are evolutionary pawns in the age-old tale of attracting a female. The males signal in flight, while females lay low in the leaf litter. Indeed, females are rarely seen flying. During the dark phases, approximately three seconds after the last male flash, receptive females will signal with a double flash.

Amongst the forest floor light show, select males and females begin their close range mating dialogue of light. The males will switch from multiple flashes to a single aimed flash as he circles the female. As he approaches the female flashing his lantern, he first flies then walks. Within minutes, the couple will move to a discrete and sheltered location to seal the deal.

The combined flashes of males light up the forest floor in every direction around me, a disco light party fueled by biological blue-white LEDS illuminates the forest floor. Each male produces a train of 4-11 flashes, on average between 6-7, in half-second intervals followed by 6-9 seconds of dark. The flashing is a discontinuous synchrony. For ten seconds or so, males will flash multiple times in the period, each at their own pace. After about ten seconds, the forest goes completely dark. Eight seconds later the forest floor is lit up once again.

photo_mergeThe reason for the male synchrony is unknown. Jonathon Copeland and Moiseff Andrew in 1994 speculated the rhythmic light show is due to weak female flash. The female possess a single half-moon shaped lantern while males possess two lanterns. A bunch of males, with 2x the lightening power, would swamp out the female’s signal. Or because this occurs in the dense vegetation of the Smoky Mountains, synchrony could extend the intensity of any single male’s flash. I think it all happens because a single male starts off, saying with light, “Pick Me!” This causes a cascade of males all to respond, “No Pick Me!” This happens repetitively for a few seconds until all the males get tired. They rest up and the show starts again.

16 Oct

I don’t care if its bee vomit, I still want it on my biscuit.


The greatest joy of the South is undoubtedly a fresh biscuit with Tupelo honey. That is until you realize that the honey is a product of multiple regurgitations.

picture-61-1We tend to focus on the beautiful part of the process where a honey bee visits a flower for the nectar. It seems we bee-leave (ha) that they carry little bee-sized buckets for nectar transport. I guess in a sense they do in that the bee-sized buckets are their bee-sized organs. Actually it is a honey stomach, a bulbous area, technically a crop, right before the stomach that stores liquids for later regurgitations. At the hive, the worker bee will regurgitate and ingest the nectar multiple times. The worker bees will do this a group until the vomit mixture is just the right mix.

During this time an enzyme, invertase, and digestive acids turn the surcrose, by hydrolyzation, into the simple sugars of glucose and fructose. Another enzyme, glucose oxidase which as the name suggests oxidizes glucose produces hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. The acid considerably lowers the pH (~3-4) of the honey. After the cycle of puking and eating, evaporation takes over in the unsealed honey comb to achieve the final viscosity of honey. Bees inside the hive will actually fan their wings to create a draft to aid in the evaporation. Because of this lack of water, acidity, and presence of hydrogen peroxide, few bacteria or microbes can actually live in honey. In fact honey is so dehydrated it is hygroscopic, i.e. attracts water, and thus any living thing will have the water pulled from by the honey.

But as I sit here and consume my honey-filled biscuit, I don’t care about any of this nectar vomiting business.

Feature photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel on Flickr via CC

This woman gets it.  Photo by Mary Helen Leonard on Flickr CC

This woman gets it. Photo by Mary Helen Leonard via Flickr CC

30 Sep

Where There’s Heat, There Are Cockroaches


The sticky Southern summer heat makes me slightly insane.  It’s an agitation that grows deep within me as the season ripens, and the humidity and temperature rise in equal fashion. This heat has been both a blessing and a curse throughout my life.  The giver of swims in the local creek and refreshing mint juleps is also the giver of 20-pound sweat drenched t-shirts and late summer landscapes browned and brittle as death itself. As Mrs. Pearson states it’s a “pregnant heat.” No doubt ready to burst forth with “lost dreams and wayward souls.”

This intense steamy heat, so taxing for me, is a dream for another wayward soul–the cockroach.  In North Carolina a single home can host an alarming variety of these heat-seeking insects. Brown-banded, German, American, Smokybrown, and Oriental—these enterprising pests with intercontinental names will turn any warm inviting home into a United Nations of roaches. It’s a terrifying thought—notoriously indestructible vermin that feed off hot, humid misery.


Luckily roaches are not indestructible. You might expect a cockroach with a German moniker to enjoy the cold heartiness of tough Northern European stock. However, as it turns out, German cockroaches aren’t really German. They hail from the wet heat of Southeast Asia and while the jury’s still out on their ability to withstand nuclear proliferation, we’re positive they are quite fragile in the face of cold.  Cool and dry climates, anywhere too high in latitude or elevation, are uninhabitable for the German cockroach.  At the chilly temperature of 23˚F, 50% of German cockroaches die within 10 hours.  At 14˚F, 50% die within the first hour.

German cockroaches suffer for their evolutionary past.  Their ancient brethren originated and expanded 220 million years ago during the Carboniferous when the planet was on average 6-7˚ warmer than today.  This warm Earth produced a heyday for roaches and ultimately gave us the 3,500 species known today.  Paleontologists affectionately nicknamed this time period the Age of Cockroaches.

So in many aspects German cockroaches suffer from the genes of their long dead insect ancestors. Of course these same genes allow them to fare very well in the sultry summer heat of North Carolina.  Whereas the genes from my forefathers that produced my bald head are having quite the opposite effect.   Thus the roach’s genetic preference for warmth means it fares poorly in the cold outdoors.  Indeed, its life is intrinsically linked to mine, well, humans in general, and more specifically our temperature controlled homes.

Blatella germanica (German_cockroach)

I don’t know much about roaches, professionally.  I’m a marine biologist.  I know them as well as any summer-sweat-drenched southern boy would. However, my time in New Mexico, seeing 2-inch American cockroaches in the thousands enjoy the warmth of the cement patio in the cool evening, drove home the linkage between roaches and heat.

I digress. Let’s get back to the enterprising German cockroach, shall we? It seems their outlook for invading colder temperatures may not be so bleak after all.  (Sorry Minnesota, your safety is not guaranteed.)  First, populations of German cockroachesliving in France more than 550 miles apart are not genetically different.  This means that these prolific little buggers possess an amazing ability to migrate and spread genes over very long distances. Second, this same study also shows a remarkable amount of genetic distance among German roaches within different habits of the city, i.e. bakeries versus homes. Third, German cockroaches are able to acclimate to colder temperatures.  Half of the roaches acclimated for two weeks at 50˚F were able to survive over 4 days, rather than just 10 hours, at 23˚F.  Outdoor strains of the German cockroach from a dump that wintered in a nearby field also faired better in colder temps than those dwelling in a warm bakery.

This ability to quickly adapt to new conditions and extensive migration have no doubt lead to great success for the German cockroach.  Our warm homes may provide oases allowing them to spread beyond their means.  Our homes–and bakeries–are evolutionary halfway houses to cooler pastures. As stated so well in this abstract, “we may conclude that the spreading of this animal will not soon come to an end.”

27 Sep

On Cowboying Up & Catching Fish With Your Bare Hands

A catfish dish at a restaurant in Hope, Arkansas by Jay Cross from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catfish_Hope,_Arkansas.jpg

This post was originally published at Mental Floss

Lincoln Sadler eyes one of his favorite fishing spots, Great Rock, from a distance, but times his approach around an oncoming boat so as not to reveal the rock’s secret location. He has already hiked two miles in the boiling heat of an August North Carolina day followed by two miles of swimming and wading in the Pee Dee River.

Lincoln can wait a moment longer.

He reaches below the water and extends his arm into a dark cavern under the boulder. Enthusiastically wiggling his fingers in a dark underwater hole, Lincoln hopes a catfish bites him. Once Lincoln’s fingers are in the catfish’s mouth, he jerks the beast to the surface.

Near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border where I’m from, we call this noodling. In the Carolinas, the term is hand grabbling. Either way, it ends in a Greco-Roman grappling match where noodlers across the South, like Lincoln, wrestle very large catfish from their underwater holes. But this fishing story started long before Lincoln Sadler began his pilgrimage to Great Rock that August morning.

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