Tag Archives: natural

Erica McAlister: On the Appreciation of Flies

Dr. Erica McAlister of the British Natural History Museum recently released The Secret Life of Flies, an exploration of the more fascinating side of the fly (Image Credit: Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Norwegian ForBio conference occurs once a year, and brings together a large collection of biosystematics experts from the Nordic countries. Biosystematics being a bit outside my field, it’s not something I’d generally attended, however this year it was 250m away from my office, so I considered attending. But what tipped me over the edge was the presence of Dr. Erica McAlister of the British Natural History Museum, who in late 2017 published The Secret Life of Flies, a brilliant expose on one of nature’s traditionally less sympathetic taxa.

Erica’s talk was fascinating, replete with stories of lost artifacts, mosquito sex and David Attenborough. Afterwards, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Erica about everything from the problem with honeybees, to the beauty of mosquitoes to issues with a certain Jeff Goldblum character.

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Blending In

In nature, it often pays to blend in to your background, especially if you’re a prey species like the deer mice used in this study. (Image Credit: David Cappaert, CC BY 2.0)

Linking a mutation to survival in wild mice (2018) Barret et al. Science, 363, p. 499-504.

The Crux

A big part of ecological studies involves investigating how certain traits or behaviors work (adapted) or don’t work (maladapted) in a specific environment, while scientists who study genetics may investigate specific parts of the DNA that are under selection for specific values of a given trait. Surprisingly, not many studies investigate these two aspects of natural selection simultaneously, instead they will attribute selection to a specific trait value without knowing the genetic mechanisms behind it.

The authors of this study used a well-studied model system of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) to link these two aspects of ecology together, tying a mutation in a gene that codes for coat color into selection in the wild. The study took place in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a relatively young region (in geological terms) where these mice are expected to have recently adapted to the environment due to strong selection for traits that promote their survival.

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