Posted by: Ryder Diaz | July 22, 2012

Hummingbirds

Where have all the hummingbirds gone? Find out here.

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Photo courtesy Roger Adams.

 

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | July 22, 2012

Brains!

This is a fun story about why humans are so much more smarter than robots.

BRAINS!

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Posted by: Ryder Diaz | July 19, 2012

More stories from Aspen

Here’s a story I did on how Aspen physicists celebrated the discovery of the Higgs boson!

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Posted by: Ryder Diaz | July 12, 2012

Stories from APR

I’m going to start putting up links to the stories I’m doing at Aspen Public Radio this summer. This is the very first one I did, on my very first day at the station back in June.

Invasive Mussels

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | June 16, 2012

Science reportin’ at Aspen Public Radio

This summer I’m working as an intern at Aspen Public Radio, covering science. It’s great. Check out the station here.

If you type “Ryder” in the bottom search box, my stories will pop up.

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | March 31, 2012

Soundtap Madness

UC Davis’ radio station KDVS (the station where I play my science segments) has been battling other non-commercial radio stations in a competition paralleling NCAA’s March Madness. But this competition has been much more fun. I have listened to a lot of incredible radio stations this past week. KDVS has made it to the “Fab Four,” accumulating hundreds of listener hours.

Check it out here.

To participate, you need to create an account and register.

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | March 31, 2012

Bug Bytes: Xylocopa californica

Take a peek into the nest of a carpenter bee!

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | March 5, 2012

The Last Taxonomist

The Last Taxonomist

By Ryder Diaz

Phil Ward has the body of an ant. If you look only at his face you’d never know. He stares back from behind a bushy goatee and a pair of large-framed glasses. But his head is perched on top of an armored body. Six long, skinny legs extend outwards from his thorax and a large abdomen juts out directly behind it like an inflated balloon.

This is the image that greets you outside of Dr. Ward’s office. The small drawing is tacked up directly under the room number and his name plate. It conjures up the memory of a centaur, the stuff of myth and legend.

Ward is a bit of a legend in his own right. He is often referred to as “ant guru,” “the ant guy,” and “lord of the ants.” Part man and part ant is undoubtedly how many of his students think of him. His intimate knowledge of these tiny creatures draws students from around the world. Students also flock to Ward because he is one of the few scientists left that does his type of research.

Face of an ant in the genus Pseudomyrmex, the specialty of Dr. Phil Ward. Image copyright AntWeb.org and April Nobile.

Ward is an ant taxonomist and systematist, which means that he slaps name tags on species of ants (that’s the taxonomy) and assigns them to a twig on the tree of life (the systematics). Taxonomy takes years of training to become deeply familiar with a certain group of organisms. Even then taxonomy requires painstaking work before any project is complete.

Yet, taxonomists who discover and name new species of fish, plants, lizards, insects, and other organisms are now finding themselves to be an endangered species. Advancements in genetics are shifting the field away from examining organisms under a microscope and towards machines that are capable of reading an organism’s genetic code. Ward fears that by losing scientists who describe the diversity of creatures in nature, a new generation of biologists is becoming disconnected with the natural world.

“Most graduate students don’t even know the plants in this area,” said Ward pointing out the window of his third floor office. Below a magnolia tree is in full bloom, its bright, pink flowers a stark contrast against the cold, grey, cement building that houses the Entomology Department on the University of California, Davis campus. How many students know the name of this tree? How many more know that it’s not native to California?

“New graduate students are expected to come in with questions and hypotheses before they are even able to explore and get inspiration from the natural world,” said Ward wistfully, remembering how different it was for him in the 1970s when he pursued his own graduate work.

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney in Australia, Ward studied ants that lived in patches of tropical rainforests sprinkled along the eastern coast of the continent. Armed with a machete, Ward would slice his way through the forests, finding ants among the fallen leaves and dirt and dropping them into alcohol-filled vials.

Back in Sydney, he would labor over the ants he collected, examining them under the microscope. As a taxonomist, he would measure as many features as he could for each ant: the length and width of its head, the size of its jaw-like structures called mandibles, the length of its antennae, and a plethora of other minute details bound to make anyone go cross-eyed.

Ant in the genus Thaumatomyrmex. Photo copyright AntWeb.org and April Nobile.

The goal: take a big box of ants that no one had seen before and decide how many species were actually there. Then he could name the different species and determine how they were related on the tree of life. Chances are someone looks more similar to their sister or brother than a distant cousin; that same principle was applied to ant species. If two ant species shared a particular feature with each other, but that feature was absent in the other species, most likely those two species were more closely related.

In the late 1990s, a new technology came on the scene which turned that simple principle on its head. Ward was running his own lab at UC Davis and had a graduate student, Sean Brady, interested in the evolution of army ants. These ants form streams of thousands to millions of workers and soldiers which crisscross over the earth. They mob and devour any small insect unlucky enough to meet their path. Brady had learned that other scientists were effectively getting information out of a creature’s genes and using those short fragments of genetic code to identify organisms and figure out where they belong on the tree of life. He began looking at army ant DNA and convinced Ward to try it.

Ant in the genus Colobostruma. Photo copyright AntWeb.org and April Nobile.

“Initially we were building trees with just a few genes and sometimes we’d just get these kooky results” said Ward. Groups of ants were showing up in places on the tree where it just didn’t make sense. But Ward and Brady pressed on and started adding more genes, until they were looking at 10 to 20 genes for each project. “That molecular data really was providing new information and showed how we had been misled by morphology.”

Some of the ants that they believed to be closely related based on looks alone, ended up being distant cousins on the basis of DNA. “I sort of lost faith in morphology as an indicator of evolutionary relationships,” said Ward.

Instead of lamenting the fact that his decades of morphological work led to some false relationships, Ward found this new approach, and the discoveries it revealed, very exciting. “I have a certain fascination for history itself and recovering the history of life on this planet,” explained Ward. Looking at the genes that serve as the blueprint for life was simply another clue to figuring out the puzzle.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Scientists estimate that there are over 20,000 species of ants (they are present on every continent except Antarctica) and over half of them remain undiscovered. On the tree of life, these species would represent the twigs at the top. In 2002, scientists couldn’t even agree on what the trunk and the branches of this tree looked like. Every group had its own pet theory based on similarities or differences in morphology. That same year, Ward met with three other ant experts in Sapporo, Japan to tackle this question, this time with DNA.

“We weren’t just a few molecular biologists saying, ‘let’s just get a few ants and sequence them,’” said Ward. “We knew the group of ants as organisms very well, so that was to our advantage.” They couldn’t sample every species but they knew which ones would be crucial to answering the question. And they knew where to find them.

The team spread out across the world, collected live ants from tropical locales where they are most abundant, and uncovered rare species preserved in museum cabinets. They extracted hundreds of DNA samples and processed incredible amounts of data.

The tempo of Ward’s speech quickened as he spoke of the ants that have played musical chairs to the tune of this new genetic information. “Every few months we’ll put in new data and produce a tree and have these eureka moments where some taxon goes in a different part of the tree than we’re expecting. It’s a super exciting project, I must say.” Grant money for the ant tree of life project dried up last year “but we’re gluttons for punishment, so we’re still putting data together,” said Ward smiling.

Even as he and his colleagues are making unprecedented discoveries, a new wave of technology is hitting the scene. “The kind of thing we did in the ant tree of life program with 10 or 15 genes, it was considered ahead of its time 5 or 6 years ago, but now it’d be considered passé.” Scientists are now sequencing entire genomes, capturing every last bit of an organism’s DNA. The human genome was completed in 2003, the entire genome for a Hereford cow was published in 2009, and many more genomes are available for a range of species from algae to fungi.

Ant in the genus Calomyrmex. Photo copyright AntWeb.org and April Nobile.

Although Ward has sped through this race toward the future once before, his excitement was tempered by an unsettling feeling that scientists, dazzled by new technology, are overlooking the basics. Some of his colleagues show a “great disdain for those people who are still pursuing methods of the 20th century biology,” explained Ward, whose microscope was located within arm’s length of his computer. Strings of DNA data filled the computer’s screen.

He picked up a box of ants sent to him for identification by a colleague in the Caribbean. Ward receives a steady flow of ants to identify, sent by people from all over the world (scientists, farmers, homeowners, and governments). He continues to identify them the quickest and easiest way he knows how, using the staple of 20th century taxonomy, a microscope. “If we can get morphological features that allow us to identify ants efficiently then we should use them,” said Ward inspecting the box. Ward can look at an ant under a microscope and assign it to a group in seconds, a process that would take numerous chemicals, expensive machines, and considerable time if using cutting-edge genetic approaches. “Bird watchers don’t have to get a feather out of a specimen, sequence data and determine what the bird is.” In this sense, taxonomists are living field guides.

What troubles Ward the most is that scientists are becoming stuck in their labs and losing touch with the natural world. Darwin went out with open eyes, it was exploratory” said Ward. His own discovery of nature was fostered as a young boy in the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada. He chased butterflies in wooded areas around his home, admired their colors and features, and reveled in the marvel of their diversity in form and function.

Ward placed the box of Caribbean ants next to the microscope and took a seat, surrounded by cabinets packed with millions of ants from all over the world. He has been building this collection since his arrival on campus decades ago. He uses less than 1 percent of these ants for his own research but spends a lot of time maintaining the collection, sorting, labeling and identifying ants. He believes that it’s important to build a general knowledge about ant diversity, where they live and what they do. Other researchers often borrow ants from the collection for their own research. There are species in the collection that may even be extinct due to increased logging and development in tropical rainforests.

Ant of the genus Anochetus. Photo copyright AntWeb.org and April Nobile.

Twenty years ago, Ward made a rare discovery in the town of Woodland, just north of Davis, where large swaths of oak once dominated the landscape. In one of the few remaining oak patches, he stumbled across an ant he had never seen before and has never seen since. The only known individual lives in a cabinet behind his desk.

These rare or extinct species could play a crucial role in recovering part of the history of life on earth but Ward gets no formal recognition for maintaining the collection. When it’s time for promotions, the focus is mainly on the number of publications he’s written. His long hours laboring over labels and insect pins don’t play a role.

Ward advises his students to combine their taxonomic work with more cutting-edge technologies. “It’s that combination that one hopes will still give them a promising academic future,” said Ward, who has seen jobs for skilled taxonomists decline throughout his career. A situation now exacerbated by a wave of retirement of older taxonomists.

There are still jobs for taxonomists outside the United States, in countries such as Australia and China. Many developing countries promote taxonomy because of its low-cost, a microscope versus incredibly expensive machines and supplies. One day US scientists may lack the skills to look under a microscope and put a name to a face. If that time comes, Ward said “we might be sending our ant specimens to China because we can’t do it ourselves.”

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | January 8, 2012

A Darker Shade of Green? Solar Energy in the Mojave

Transmission lines are an increasingly prominent feature in the desert landscape. Photo courtesy Kara Moore.

 

 

This story explores the potential effects that solar energy developments have on the environment and how scientists and the State of California are working to mitigate those effects. It aired on KDVS‘ (90.3 fm) Local Dirt radio show on January 9, 2012.

CLICK HERE to listen to “A Darker Shade of Green?”

For more information on the State of California’s plan to manage desert ecosystems, visit the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

 

 

Desert plants are generally small as a way to adapt to the heat and limited water availability.

A pink Mimulus mohavensis nestled among the rocks. Photo courtesy Kara Moore.

The White Margined Beardtongue, Penstemon albomarginatus occurs in fragile dune habitat. Photo courtesy Kara Moore.

The Mojave desert tortoise is a federally listed endangered species.

Dr. Brian Todd and his team perform their experiments in rearing desert tortoises in these outdoor enclosures. Fences and nets keep predators out. Photo courtesy Brian Todd.

A juvenile tortoise living in a protected enclosure where it will remain for the first several years of its life, safe from predators. Photo courtesy Brian Todd.

Posted by: Ryder Diaz | August 29, 2011

Raptor Rapture

My story on the UC Davis California Raptor Center aired on KDVS‘ (90.3 fm) Local Dirt radio show on August 29, 2011. The Raptor Center has been taking care of orphaned and injured birds since 1972. The Central Valley is home to many of these amazing creatures.

Click Raptor Rapture to listen to the story.

Surrogate dad (left) with young female owl (right).

Ferruginous Hawk

Burrowing owl

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