Why Sex isn’t Binary

Well, I haven’t blogged in a really long time, but this topic has been on my mind for months and the current social upheaval in the world has inspired me to take action rather than just sit and think. I’ve been working on an academic piece on this topic, but who knows when (or if) that’ll ever be published, so blogging it is!

I was inspired to write this by an opinion piece that came out in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, by Colin Wright and Emma Hilton. Both are biologists. In it, they decry “transgender ideology” and claim that binary sex is biological reality. Their position is wrong and unscientific, and I’m going to tell you why by describing the evidence for why viewing sex as a binary doesn’t fit with nature. Let us begin!

Wright and Hilton define sex based on gametes, or sex cells. They state:

“In humans, as in most animals or plants, an organism’s biological sex corresponds to one of two distinct types of reproductive anatomy that develop for the production of small or large sex cells—sperm and eggs, respectively—and associated biological functions in sexual reproduction.”

It’s certainly true that there are two types of human sex cell, sperm and egg, produced by testes and ovaries respectively. But the issue at hand isn’t whether gametes occur in a binary; it’s whether sex does. And in humans, it is possible for an individual to possess both ovaries and testes, and to produce both types of sex cells (or neither). Historically these individuals have been called “true hermaphrodites,” and today they’re generally classified under the broader umbrella term of intersex. If we’re classifying humans into male or female sex categories on the basis of possessing certain gametes, two categories isn’t enough. Sex isn’t binary. Boom.

Okay that was way too easy. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well what about chromosomes? There are only two types of sex chromosome arrangements: XX or XY! If we define sex using chromosomes, isn’t it binary?” And the answer is: no. XX and XY are not the only sex chromosome arrangements humans can have: there’s also X, XXX, XXXX, XXXXX, XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, XXYY, or XYY If we’re defining sex on the basis of sex chromosome arrangements, two categories isn’t enough. Sex isn’t binary. Boom.

BUT WAIT maybe you’re thinking or saying aloud like a weirdo. “Isn’t Y the male chromosome and X the female chromosome? Isn’t that a binary?” And oh, my poor misguided imaginary friend, the answer is again no. Obviously the most common “male” sex chromosome arrangement is XY, which means X isn’t uniquely a “female chromosome.” But there’s also the added fact that possessing a Y chromosome doesn’t always mean an individual develops traits we traditionally consider male, like testes and a penis. The gene that primarily controls development of these traits (or genes that control this gene), sry, can sometimes be non-functional or jump off the chromosome entirely (this is an oversimplification of course but you get the gist). In these cases the individual usually develops traditionally “female” traits, like ovaries and a vagina, or some combination of male and female traits. Sex isn’t binary. Boom.

If we move up the biological scale to external anatomy, the idea of a sex binary gets even more laughable. Babies are often classified as male or female based on external genitalia, but it’s long been known that individuals with “ambiguous” genitalia exist (they fit under the umbrella term intersex as well). How do Wright and Hilton deal with this conundrum to their argument? They dismiss it entirely:

“The existence of only two sexes does not mean sex is never ambiguous. But intersex individuals are extremely rare, and they are neither a third sex nor proof that sex is a ‘spectrum’ or a ‘social construct.’ Not everyone needs to be discretely assignable to one or the other sex in order for biological sex to be functionally binary.”

I have no idea what they mean by “functionally binary,” and no explanation or citation is offered. Using rarity as an excuse to dismiss data is patently unscientific. If I survey an area and find three species of frog live there, but one of them is extremely rare, would it be appropriate for me to say there are “functionally” two species in the area? No, it wouldn’t. If I do a study and find evidence that this rare species doesn’t impact a certain ecological process or something, that’s fine. To just outright ignore this species in discussions of diversity in the area is not fine: it’s lying. It’s fraud. Why is that okay when talking about diversity in human sex? (BONUS FACT: intersex individuals occur at the same frequency as natural redheads. Do we exclude redheads from discussions of diversity in human hair color?? No!!)

To preempt a potential counter-point: Jerry Coyne, a highly-cited evolutionary biologist, made a similar “sex is functionally binary” argument in one of his blog posts. He stated:

“For all practical purposes, sex is a binary, and it should be, since evolution produced (in most animals) two sexes that must mate to produce offspring. If you’re neither, or an intermediate, you don’t leave offspring and you don’t leave your genes.”

First of all, there are documented cases of intersex individuals–including true hermaphrodites–reproducing (see here, here, and here). So, to hell with that argument. But furthermore, even if intersex individuals couldn’t reproduce, that doesn’t mean they can’t pass on copies of their genes to the next generation. Any evolutionary biologist–especially one with any knowledge of eusocial insects (which all evolutionary biologists should)–knows this. It’s literally foundational to the field, considered a major extension of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (see here for an example). For an evolutionary biologist, especially one as prominent as Jerry Coyne, to ignore this is (at best) very curious or (most likely, in my opinion) driven by ideology.

So we’ve seen that whether you define sex based on chromosomes, gametes, gonads, or genitals, two categories just doesn’t cut it. It’s unscientific to pretend otherwise, and researchers in the field know this. I’m not saying that sex is a “social construct,” as Wright and Hilton would most likely accuse me of, but the sex categories of “male” and “female” certainly are. Hell, having two sexes isn’t even ubiquitous in human societies–some have included a third sex, and I’m sure there are many more ways sex has been defined/classified in human societies that I’m not aware of. Science has moved beyond a simple sex binary, and its proponents should be seen for what they are: ideologues weaponizing scientific language to justify their anti-transgender bigotry. History will judge them accordingly, and so should you.

Sex isn’t binary. Boom.

Check out the Intersex Society of North America’s website for more info!


A Plant That Can Hear! With Flowers For Ears!

The Negative Nancys and Debbie Downers of the world might say that all the major scientific discoveries have been made already, that no new surprises remain in the natural world waiting to be stumbled upon. Obviously, people who say that are wrong. Today I finally got around to reading a new paper that recently came out from Veits et al. that absolutely blew my mind (in a good way). While not officially published yet, the article is available as a pre-print on biorxiv. In it, the authors report that the evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) can not only detect sounds made by the beating wings of the bees and moths that pollinate it, but also responds to these sounds by producing sweeter nectar.

In other words, the plant hears its pollinators coming and responds accordingly.

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Evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii), with flowers

The group of researchers, all based at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel, used a series of elegant experiments to demonstrate that the evening primrose can detect sounds produced by pollinators. They used speakers to play artificial sounds at low, high, and intermediate frequencies, as well as the recorded sound of a bee flying. When they measured the sugar concentration of nectar produced after exposure to these sounds, it was 20% sweeter after exposure to the sound of a flying bee or to the low frequency sounds (which includes the frequency produced by flying bees). In addition, the group showed that it is the flowers that function to detect sound: plants that had their flowers covered did not produce sweeter nectar when exposed to any sound, and vibration of the flower petals was also directly observed.

Nobody has ever shown a plant responding so rapidly to an airborne sound before, let alone one that is ecologically relevant. It’s one of those things that makes perfect sense when you read about it, but still evokes awe at the wonderful facts the natural world is hiding all around us. There are a couple key takeaways from Veits et al. that are particularly cool for me.

Unwrapping the Umwelt of Plants

In 1934, an Estonian-born German scientist named Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of “umwelt” to the study of animal behavior. Literally meaning “environment” or “surroundings” in German, von Uexküll posited that those studying animal behavior must take care to view the animals as subject in their own unique sensory worlds. In other words, he acknowledged that animals have very different sensory capabilities than our own, and so viewing animal behavior through the lens of human abilities is misleading and unhelpful for generating true understanding.

This paper now adds to our understanding of the sensory worlds of plants. We already knew that plants can detect and respond to many stimuli, such as light, gravity, moisture, touch, and chemicals, but now we can airborne sound to the list. These results open the door for a brand new area of scientific research focusing on how plants hear and how and why flowers evolve to detect sounds in the air. A new piece of the plant umwelt has been unlocked!

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A Venus Flytrap closes around a harvestman in a well-known demonstration of a plant responding to touch

A New Piece to the Co-evolution Puzzle

I have a high opinion of bees, and part of that opinion is a massive appreciation for just how smart they are. Bees are incredible at learning, and when you think about how they go about finding food, it makes sense–a bee that can learn and remember flowers that provide lots of nectar and pollen will do better than a bee that can’t. We thus would expect bees to evolve, via natural selection, to have good cognitive abilities…and alas, they do.

What this paper demonstrates is that plants have also evolved to exploit the cognitive abilities of bees and other pollinators. By increasing nectar sweetness only when pollinators are near, the flower is essentially increasing the motivation for pollinators to visit other flowers of the same type. Pollinators search for food in complex floral marketplaces, so they only bother learning and remembering the best food sources. Sensing sounds produced by approaching pollinators enables the plant to only put resources into sweetening the nectar when it is most beneficial; being super sweet all the time would be energetically wasteful!

We have long known that bees and other pollinators can pick up on signals from the flowers they visit, such as shape and color. Now we know that at least one plant’s flowers are fine-tuned to eavesdrop on the auditory world buzzing through the skies, increasing the closeness of what was already an evolutionarily marvelous relationship.

Image result for bee approaching flower
“The Amen of nature is always a flower.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

As Always, Now We Must Know MORE!

As cool and exciting as these results are, the authors still only tested one plant species. Given that 87.5% of flowering plants depend on some kind of animal pollinator, it is more than likely that other plants have evolved similar sensory abilities as well. Still, this will need to be tested before any final conclusions can be reached. It is also possible that other plants may detect sound through something other than their flowers, such as the stem or the leaves (though the flowers make the most sense, as that is where the nectar is found). As is always the case in science, more research is definitely needed!

I for one am excited to see what the future of this research will hold, and what other fascinating facets of biology still await right in our backyards. And everyone, be sure to watch what you say…you never know who or what might be listening.

In Academia, “Protecting Our Own” Means Destroying Us All

Another day, another instance of Michigan State University mishandling a sexual misconduct case. In a courageous post on Medium, Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin details how high-level administrators used baseless claims of academic misconduct against her in retaliation for her filing a sexual misconduct complaint. In a nutshell, the dean of Dr. Rankin’s college used a (non peer–reviewed!) blog post as grounds to file a research misconduct claim against her. This allegation came after Dr. Rankin filed TWO separate sexual harassment claims (one of which mysteriously disappeared from records) against  an associate dean of the college.

The associate dean in question has subsequently hidden behind the “due process” of the Office of Institutional Equity, which has a dubious track record to say the very very least. After everything that has gone on (and continues to go on) regarding the Larry Nassar case, how anyone could trust the administration at this university to provide true due process is beyond me. The phenomenon of institutions protecting accused sexual harassers is not unique to Michigan State, but is instead a pervasive issue across academia.

Academics, especially scientists, are commonly thought to be rational actors. People who carefully think through the evidence before making a decision or coming to a conclusion. This mindset seems to completely fall apart when the it comes to sexual misconduct. We know that sexual harassment decreases productivity, traumatizes people, pushes women out of STEM fields…yet harassers are protected. Do universities fear the blow to their reputation? Surely the damage done by protecting harassers is worse than any blow-back they’d face for punishing them instead. Do they feel that these men provide a boon to the university, in the form of research, teaching, and service, that no one else could ever match? Surely they understand that there are way more people graduating with PhDs than there are faculty positions. Many people could fill in these roles. Why do university administrators continue to protect these men?

The truth is I don’t know, and I’m not sure that anyone really does. The dark side of my brain tells me its because they don’t care about the lived experiences of victims enough to weigh them over the hassle of punishing harassers. I hope with all of my heart that this isn’t true. Whatever the causes are, immediate and drastic action is needed to change not only the institutional structures of academia, but its very culture. In terms of industries changing due to the #MeToo movement, science has a long way to go. Scientists need to turn to the very principles they claim to hold dearly: rationality, objectivity, and evidence-based reasoning chief among them. But we also must be careful to not fall down a rabbit-hole of pure critical-thinking that is devoid of empathy, lest we subject ourselves to “rationaliz[ing] prejudice and vested interest.” Critical-thinking and logic, but too easy to misuse without empathy and emotional intelligence. The “protect our own” mentality of academic administrators

Academia needs to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror…and then drastically alter its appearance. The evidence says so, as does every sense of basic human decency. I stand with Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin and all of the other victims of sexual assault fighting for justice, and I call on Michigan State University to put forth all of the effort it uses to cover up, defend itself against, or otherwise mishandle sexual misconduct allegations to the pursuit of true justice, equity, and diversity. MSU has caused incredible amounts of suffering, but it also has a tremendous opportunity to learn from these mistakes in order to become a leader in the massive cultural change that academia so desperately needs. As a student and alumnus of this school, there is nothing I desire more.

Flight of the Bumblebee? Making the Impossible, Possible

One of the most pervasive animal myths that comes burbling up from the deepest cesspools of the Internet every now and then is that bumblebees, aerodynamically speaking, should not be able to fly. I will get the obvious out of the way first: this is false. Bumblebee flight does not violate the laws of aerodynamics. If bumblebee flight violated the physical laws that govern the universe, that would essentially make bumblebees tiny fuzzy deities.

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Oh yeah, I would totally worship her

On a personal level I love the idea of bumblebees being gods. There is unfortunately no evidence of this being true, but there is evidence for how bumblebees fly without violating any laws (bumbles are well-known for being good citizens). The whole misconception got started because people took an equation that explains how airplanes fly and tried applying it to bumblebees. Bees, you may have noticed, are not airplanes. So why would we expect them to fly in the same way as an airplane?

Airplanes fly by using an engine to push a lot of air over the wings. The wings are designed so that air flows slower under the wing than it does above, creating a pressure difference between the lower-pressure top of the wing and the higher-pressure bottom of the wing. Gravity makes the plane’s wings push down on the high-pressure air, but as we know from Newton’s third law the air also pushes back on the plane. And because the air above the wing is lower in pressure than that below, the plane is lifted into the air!

Now I know you’re probably thinking several things right now. Number one is: “wow Darren, you explained that super well despite not being a physicist! Your intellect truly knows no bounds!” And number two is probably something like: “hey, bumblebees don’t have massive engines to push air over their wings.” Good news, you’re correct on both counts. Basically, scientists back in the day used an equation that explains airplane flight, plugged in a bumblebee’s wing surface area and flight speed, and concluded that they wouldn’t be able to get their massive bodies (well, massive compared to other bees) off the ground in sustained flight.

The craziest thing about this misconception is that you can prove it wrong by walking outside and looking at flowers. I promise you will see bumblebees dutifully flying from flower to flower foraging for pollen and nectar to bring back to their nest to feed the larvae. Obviously it isn’t impossible for bumblebees to fly, because they do fly. So if they don’t fly like airplanes do, what exactly are they doing? The answer can get very complicated very quickly, so I’ll try to keep it simple.

The main thing that bumbles have going for them that planes don’t is that their wings rotate. They aren’t stationary like a plane, and they don’t flap up and down like a bird; they flap back and forth in the air, more like a helicopter than anything else. This rapid back-and-forth flapping creates a mini vortex at the front of the wing (technically called the leading edge, the part of the wing that contacts the air first). These vortexes pull the wings, and the rest of the bee, upwards. The math behind all of this is intense, so a slow-motion video of a bumblebee in action seems in order. As a bonus, this video also has extremely dramatic music!

Bumblebees move their wings this quickly by flexing two different sets of muscles, one for creating the upstroke and one for creating the downstroke. Bumblebees need to be warm enough in order to fly, so if it’s too cold outside they will first warm themselves up by flexing both sets of muscles at the same time. This is essentially the same as why you shiver when it’s cold! The thermodynamics and energy economics of bumblebee flight are detailed in Bernd Heinrich’s classic book Bumblebee Economics, which is a good read even if you aren’t a bumblebee nerd.

A lot of the work sorting out how bumblebees fly was done in the 1990’s, so why this particular myth keeps popping up and getting propagated is the real mystery here. I guess it’s a testament to how nothing you put on the Internet every truly goes away, and to how too many people will believe and share articles, images, and memes without fact-checking them first.

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What is an animal?

As a zoologist and as someone who has loved animals for my entire life, I have a habit of assuming the average person has more animal knowledge than is reasonable to expect. I imagine this is common across disciplines: physicists and chemists probably think people know more intricate details about atoms and molecules than they actually do, and world history buffs probably think its common knowledge that the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940 ended the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. While that last one happens to be true, of course we all know about how the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940 ended the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, it’s still never nice to assume!

I’ve heard multiple people lately express some confusion or ignorance of the fact that insects are animals. Another recent interaction revealed someone who was unsure whether or not ants are mammals (spoiler alert: they’re not). These conversations, as well as a recent Twitter post I saw that said science communication efforts tend to focus on explaining advanced topics rather than getting across the basics, inspired me to answer one of the oldest questions known to mankind: what, exactly, is an animal?

The basic unit of life on Earth is the cell. An important feature of cells is that they have membranes: barriers that separate their internal environment from the outside world. This is important because it allows cells to control aspects of their own biology and replication. Organisms can be composed of one cell, like bacteria, or many cells working together, like plants and animals.

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Thiomargarita namibiensis, the largest bacteria known; it reaches up to 0.75 mm in diameter
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That white dot is ONE CELL… that’s right, one cell of this bacteria is about the size of that fruit fly’s head!


Animals are multicellular. They represent a distinct lineage of multicellular organisms, which in fancy-speak is called the kingdom Animalia. They’re made up of tissues, which are just collections of cells that work together for a common purpose; for example, cardiac cells work together to form our heart, and nerve cells work together to form our nervous systems. Some animals don’t have any specialized tissues like I just described, but are still made up of multiple cells that work together. Other examples of multicellular organisms include fungi (kingdom Fungi) and plants (kingdom Plantae), which are also distinct lineages of multicellular life. All life is related through a universal common ancestor, but these lineages have been evolving separately for a very long time; the first animals are thought to have evolved 1 billion years ago!

As I mentioned above, animals vary in their complexity, and some really weird-looking things that don’t resemble more commonly thought of animals (like tigers, eagles, humans, etc.) actually are animals. In fact, mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians, some of the most well-known groups of animals on Earth, all fall into one phylum: Chordata (phylum is the broadest grouping of organisms below Kingdom). There are tons of other animal phyla! Below I’d like to highlight some other groups of organisms that you might not know are animals, to really get across the incredible diversity of animals we have here on Earth.

Sponges (phylum Porifera)

Sponges are the simplest animals on Earth. The name of their phylum, Porifera, comes from all of the holes they have to allow water to circulate through them; they can then obtain nutrients from the water! Most sponges are made up of tissues that are only two cells thick, with a jelly-like substance called mesohyl between them. You heard that right: sponges are basically living jelly sandwiches!

Coral (phylum Cnidaria, class Anthozoa)


Corals are related to jellyfish (both are in the phylum Cnidaria). While some corals can catch prey using stinging cells like jellyfish do, most have symbiotic microorganisms living inside of them that provide them with nutrients through photosynthesis. Corals secrete calcium carbonate exoskeletons that give them their hard, rocky appearances. The Great Barrier Reef is made up of a huge number of corals, and is the largest structure made by living organisms;  it’s visible from space!

Also included in the Anthozoa are sea anemones. You know, the stinging home of Marlin and Nemo in that animated fish movie from 2003? It was a little popular, not sure if you’ve seen it. Living inside the protective stinging parts of another animal sure is a smart strategy for clownfish to use to avoid predators!

great barrier reef from space
NASA satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia

Insects (phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta)

As mentioned above, insects are in fact animals, and very diverse ones at that! There are an estimated 6 million species of insect on Earth, more than any other class; for comparison, there are only about 5500 species of mammal (class Mammalia) and 10,000 species of bird (class Aves)!

The greatest of all the insects, in my humble and  biased opinion, are the bees (order Hymenoptera, clade Anthophila). The closest relatives of bees are wasps, ants, and sawflies. While the most commonly thought of bees, like honeybees and bumblebees, live in large colonies, most of the approximately 20,000 bee species are actually solitary.

Tardigrades (phylum Tardigrada)

Ah, the infamous water bears. They are microscopic animals that can survive extreme pressure, temperatures, and even the vacuum of space, and are found all over the planet. Yes, even these tiny, bizarre creatures are animals, which means we share a common ancestor with them. Their closest relatives are the arthropods (like insects) and the nematodes. They are, like koalas, not bears! Though since bears are also animals they and tardigrades are distant relatives.

BONUS: This is unbearable!

Koalas are called koala bears by some people, and may superficially resemble bears, but they are not bears! Koalas are the only living members of their own family, Phascolarctidae, and are most closely related to another Australian marsupial: the wombat.

Panda bears, despite their bizarre appearance and behavior compared to other bears, are true bears in the family Ursidae. They are actually the most basal of that group, meaning they were essentially the first bear species to evolve, with other bears coming later.

Red pandas, as mentioned previously, are not pandas or bears, but members of their own family, Ailuridae. They are very cute and cuddly.


I hope this post made it clear for you what is and isn’t an animal, and that you now have a greater appreciation of the incredible diversity the animal kingdom has to offer. Please feel free to comment any questions you have, or contact me through email (incorva1@msu.edu) or on Twitter (@MegaDarren)!

The Rise of the Red Panda

I remember when red pandas first became a thing. It was in middle school, and all of a sudden the spunky and lovable red panda had catapulted into everyone’s Top 5 Favorite Animals. Wait, maybe it was high school…or freshman year of college?

Okay, so I don’t remember exactly when. But it definitely happened!

red panda in gingko tree
And with faces like that, I’m surprised it took as long as it did

Despite their name, red pandas are not pandas, and actually aren’t even in the bear family. Despite their appearance, they also aren’t in the raccoon family; or the canine family; or the bearcat family. What exactly are they, then?

They’re their own thing entirely. The red panda is the only living member of the family Ailuridae, which falls within the Musteloidea superfamily. This superfamily also includes mustelids (like weasels, otters, etc.), raccoons, and skunks. Red pandas, then, represent a unique branch on the tree of life. Or in the words of Rocket Raccoon:

rocket raccoon gif

The red panda actually used to just be called “panda” in English, because Westerners knew of its existence before they knew about giant pandas. It was first discovered (by a European) in 1848 by Frederic Cuvier, and the name “panda” is derived from the Nepalese phrase for “bamboo eater.” This is because, believe it or not, they eat a lot of bamboo! They also occasionally snack on other plants and insects as well. They started being referred to as red pandas or lesser pandas in English after giant pandas became more well known, in order to avoid confusion. Red pandas live all around the Himalayas, and are arboreal (meaning they live in trees) and mostly solitary, despite how violently cute it would be for them to all clump together into a giant ball of floof.

Oh yeah, they also have a defense mechanism to rival all others: they stand up on their hind legs when threatened! They try to appear big and strong and scary but really it just makes us want to pick them up and swaddle them like a baby! Similar defense strategies are employed by various other animals, such as puffer fish, in order to deter predators. Puffing up to appear bigger than you are is also one of the reasons our hair stands on end when we’re scared, though it’s not nearly as effective for us as it for our hairier relative the chimpanzee.

red panda standing
Photo source: By DANIEL WONG from Newark, CA, USA – Lesser Panda, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3445307

Red pandas can also be quite chatty in a manner that is much more adorable than when a person won’t shut up:

Being as charismatic as they are, you would think red pandas would be like chickens and completely outnumber the human population; but alas, instead they are listed as endangered by the IUCN. Seems as though having such cute, luscious red fur makes one quite the target for poachers, and deforestation has also significantly reduced their available habitat. Another issue is that they are captured from the wild and kept as pets in some parts of the world; while this may sound tempting to our base instincts, rational thought tells us that wild animals tend to not make good pets (this links to a video about a person who kept a pet hyena in his 8th-floor apartment and then the hyena chewed through the pipes and flooded the apartment; ignore the stupid narrators calling hyenas repulsive). All of these factors combined have reduced the estimated global red panda population to fewer than 10,000 individuals.

The good news is that red pandas are easy to keep and breed in zoos, so their numbers could potentially be bolstered by releasing captive-bred individuals into the wild. Those red pandas would still need a place to live and to be safe from poaching of course, so captive breeding presents more of a temporary fix than a long-term conservation solution. They are also legally protected in all countries in which they are found, so efforts are being made to protect their populations from further decline.

There are some organizations dedicated to protecting red pandas that do great conservation work: the World Wildlife Fund and the Red Panda Network are examples of particularly prominent organizations. If you got caught up in the red panda wave with the rest of us, I’d highly recommend donating and spreading the word about how vital habitat preservation and preventing poaching are to conservation efforts!

To thank you for your time, I will leave you with this video of red pandas playing in the snow:

For the Love of Bumbles

I have suffered. Sacrificed. Bled. Cried. Screamed.

I have known pain.

I have seen the eternal hellscape that was predestined.

I have finished my comprehensive exams.

I am a PhD candidate.

It was a long road with much preparation; I read approximately 100 papers and still felt like I knew nothing when the final oral examination arrived. Yet I must have had some knowledge, because after two hours of questioning I found myself shaking hands with my adviser while he offered his congratulations. It was not a pleasant experience, to put it mildly, but it was all worth it for one reason and one reason only.

For the bumbles.

mating bumblebees
I love the bumbles and the bumbles love each other

The bumbles need me. For too long they have suffered in the shadow of their close relative, the honeybee. For too long their important contributions to society have been denied, or worse, violently oppressed.

No longer.

When I tell people that I work with bumbles, and NOT honeybees, I get this question 99% of the time: “What’s the difference?” Well, I’ll tell you what the difference is.

The bees make up a clade called the Anthophila, and their closest relatives are wasps and ants. There are over 20,000 species of bee organized into seven families. Honeybees and bumblebees are both in the family Apidae, which also includes other well-known bees like stingless bees, carpenter bees, and orchid bees. Most of the bees within the family, including honeybees and bumblebees, are also included in a subfamily called Apinae. They are also both commonly included in a group (with stingless bees and orchid bees) called the corbiculate bees because they have specialized structures on their legs meant for carrying pollen, though this is not a strict taxonomic category.

It is here where the similarities end.

Honeybees are members of the Apinae within the genus Apis, and bumblebees are members of the Apinae within the genus Bombus. Though they share a common ancestor, they are distinct lineages within the Apinae group of bees. There are seven species of honeybee, but about 250 species of bumblebee.

The bumbles are a proud, diverse, honorable lineage that shall no longer have their name tarnished. They are not the same thing as honeybees. And I am their protector.

I suffered through two and a half weeks of comprehensive exams all so I could continue studying bumbles, and I would do it all again if the fuzzy little lovemuffins required it of me.

“Save the bees” is not short for “Save the honeybees”. It means all of the bees. All 20,000 of them, including the 250 bumbles. To save the bees, we must know the bees. And to know the bees…

We must know the bumbles.

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Bombus dahlbohmii, one of the largest bees in the world and native to South America, has been described as a “monstrous fluffy ginger beast” and deserves all of our respect and love

Bees: Are they truly dying at an alarming rate?

Millennials love memes; so much so, in fact, that some would go so far as to say that memes are the only thing keeping them sane in our frequently insane world. Memes develop, diversify, and die off at such a break-neck pace that entire websites have been created to document their time in the sun, no matter how brief it is. One such meme that has not only persisted online but also made its way into common speech is that “bees are dying at an alarming rate.” The phrase may be altered slightly, of course, but the general message is the same. The aforementioned meme repository and documentation website has an entry for this, if you’re interested in learning how the phrase became memeified in the first place. One of the earliest documented uses of this meme is below:

dying bees meme
The knowledge of the plight of the bees is enough to dull the euphoric effects of even the most well-constructed Beanie Baby piles


Now as a scientist on the Internet it is my job to ruin things for others, and boy have I been wanting to tear into this one for a while. It certainly isn’t a bad thing to have a meme pop up that’s concerned with bee conservation; in fact, it’s a great thing. But real meaningful conservation actions don’t come from trite memes alone, they require a deeper understanding of the issue and all of its parts. If support for bee conservation work comes from an informed place, it will be all the more powerful and effective! Let’s give this meme a little weight and nuance, shall we?

1.  The meme is narrow-minded

I teach a biology lab course for non-science majors, and in the last semester I asked my students for some ballpark estimates of how many bee species they think exist. I got answers ranging as high as 1,000 to as low as 20, and then very much enjoyed seeing their faces when I told them the answer: there are an estimated 20,000 species of bee living on Earth today. They were stunned, and this pattern continued beyond bees: I had students guessing that there are 100 different kinds of mammal (there are over 5,000) and that there are 10,000 kinds of insect (there are estimated to be between 6 and 10 million insects). The students generally grossly underestimated the amount of biodiversity present in different animal taxa, and this is also reflected in our “bees are dying at an alarming rate” meme. The “bees” referenced in the meme are European honeybees (Apis mellifera), just one of the 20,000 species of bee and additionally just one of the seven recognized species of honeybee (there are many subspecies or “races” as well).

Using the European honeybee as a catch-all for bees in general is thus clearly misleading, and this can be harmful; the plight of one bee is not the plight of them all. While European honeybees are arguably the most important single species for the economy and food safety of human society, the collective efforts of the other approximately 19,999 bee species cannot be ignored. They all act as pollinators, and in fact there are plants (both wild and cultivated) that European honeybees flat-out suck at pollinating (though they are very good general pollinators). As an example, crops including eggplant, tomato, and potato, and wild plants such as those in the genus Dodecatheon, are pollinated by a process called buzz pollination (or sonication if you want to get fancy), which honeybees cannot do. These plants rely on bumblebees and some solitary bees that can buzz pollinate. Honeybees are also horrible at pollinating effectively in greenhouses, while bumblebees are just super at it. Even though the European honeybee is the most heavily managed and widespread bee species in North America, and is an excellent general pollinator, there are still many examples of plants that are best pollinated by a different bee (or other animal!) or can’t be pollinated by honeybees at all.

bumblebee yellow flower
Bumbles are the best! (Beautiful image from Dalton Ludwick, @EntoLudwick on Twitter)

2. Not all bees are dying

As a continuation of my above point, European honeybees certainly don’t represent all bees, and in fact many bee species have been increasing in range and / or population recently (including my study speciesBombus impatiens). Conversely, about half of the native North American bees (which doesn’t include the European honeybee as they were, believe it or not, introduced from Europe and most likely evolved in Africa) are currently declining in population, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. That amounts to 749 native bee species in decline! Despite this, very few bees have been added to the endangered species list: the first in the continental United States, the rusty-patched bumblebee, was added in January of 2017 by the Obama administration, and before that in 2016 seven species of yellow-faced bee native to Hawaii were added to the list. Wild bees are clearly under-protected in the United States, and if we really want to claim to care about bees dying we must undertake efforts to protect all of the bees that need help.

3. European honeybees are actually doing better

The cause of the recent decline of honeybees in the US, colony collapse disorder, is much better understood now than it was when it first appeared around 2007; unfortunately, that better understanding still includes a myriad of potential causes, with the most likely answer being that these multiple causative agents act together to cause it. These agents include varroa mites and other pathogens, a lack of floral resources, and pesticides, all of which are being tackled by dedicated groups of researchers and activists. These efforts have been paying off: the percentage of honeybee colonies lost to colony collapse disorder declined in 2017 compared to 2016 and 2015, according to the USDA’s annual survey on honeybee colony loss. I would never advocate for us as a society to not care about honeybees, or to not continue to research the threats they face, but the plight of wild bees has become increasingly drastic and under-researched in comparison to their more managed relative. “Saving the bees” should involve efforts to help wild bees as well, and this has to start with more effort researching the problems they face. The scope of our awareness can be expanded even further: a recent study found that the amount of flying insects (not just bees) declined by more than 75% in certain protected areas of Germany. These results are clearly alarming, and much more research into insect populations is needed globally if we are to act to protect them.

native bees
Just look at all the different forms wild bees can take! (Image taken from the Bees in your Backyard poster, which I proudly own)


Memes are an incredibly powerful part of our society, whether grumpy baby boomers want to admit it or not. If you see people sincerely sharing memes or other sentiments about protecting bees, I encourage you to share this post (or others like it) with them to ensure they understand the reality of the problems facing many bee species, and not just honeybees. Awareness of the diversity of bees out there in the world will ultimately lead to better efforts to protect them, and remember: we need bees just as much, if not more, than they need us!

If you’re interested in helping bees or other invertebrates, the Xerces Society is the place to go: they can help you build habitat for native bees, tell you how to farm for bees, and provide general information about bee conservation. They even have a section about bumblebees!!

bumblebee yellow flower 2
Without bumbles, would my life have meaning? (Another great image from Dalton Ludwick, @EntoLudwick on Twitter and dalton_ludwick on Instagram)

Surviving the Grad Tax: Strategies to Make Some Extra Cash!

With the Senate rapidly approaching a vote on a tax bill that literally everyone, from small businesses, to leading economists, to the AARP,  opposes, things are looking dire. This bill, if passed, could cause the House and Senate to come together to pass a final tax bill; the House bill, need I remind you, wants to increase taxes for graduate students throughout the country by counting tuition waivers as taxable income, in addition to removing deductions for student loan debt. Yeah, it’s about time those pesky grad students with their fancy $20,000 stipends paid their fair share. If you are one of the many graduate students who is angry and worried about this whole tax reform process, have no fear: here are some unique strategies grad students can employ to earn some extra cash!

grad stipend comic
Graduate students have had it too good for too long!

1. Strip

Alright, let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s the most obvious, lucrative, and fun. You’ll at least get in better shape, those poles will kick your ass if you’re not prepared. Stripping is honest-to-god challenging work, but if you’re one of those weird graduate students who doesn’t stay up all night working and sobbing and questioning your life choices, this is a valid option! There’s a market out there for strippers of all shapes and sizes, so don’t be shy! Get out there and wow ’em, tiger.


2. Grow kidneys in the lab and sell them on the black market

Let’s be honest, you’re spending most of your waking hours in the lab anyway so you might as well be doing something actually productive. You could just sell one of your own kidneys, but why stop there? A real market exists for those charming little piss-filled organs, so turn your lab into a veritable kidney factory! Those little suckers can sell for upwards of $200,000 a piece, so stop what you’re doing and get to growing kidneys!

selena gomez.jpg
I googled “kidney black market” and this picture of Selena Gomez came up so here you go I’m not even joking try it

3. Become a cop, abuse your power 

On average it takes 19 weeks to complete the police academy and become a cop; the perfect way to procrastinate writing your dissertation! Once you get that shiny badge and big, meaty gun, it’s time to take to the streets and join the latest craze gripping our nation–abusing civil asset forfeiture! This nifty little trick lets you take away the cash and property of people you suspect of committing a crime, and let’s be honest, who isn’t a suspect these days? I probably committed twelve crimes before I even stepped out my door this morning. It’s the perfect way for a grad student struggling under the new tax bill to make some money. Need cash? Civil asset forfeiture! Need a new TV? That neighbor of yours has been playing theirs pretty loud, better go make them forfeit that asset! Need someone to spend time with when you’re lonely? Looks like some lucky person is gonna be forfeiting their personal space and free time! I truly cannot think of a single thing you can’t make someone forfeit, so go nuts!


4. Write a musical that performs better than Hamilton, sparking a friendly and lucrative rivalry with Lin-Manuel Miranda

This one may look tricky at first, but I promise it’s a lot easier than it seems. All you have to do, really, is write a masterpiece of a musical and get it to Broadway; the rest takes care of itself! Lin-Manuel will be sure to notice the resounding success of your revolutionary production, and will reach out to you with a challenge: both of you will write completely new musicals, and see which one does better. Now you’ll be guaranteed to have your second musical open on Broadway! Now this is very important: the second musical must be worse than the first. Lin-Manuel will crush you this time, and that’s OK, because Lin-Manuel is a benevolent being. He will feel guilt and shame for beating you so badly, and will pledge to take you on as his deputy playwright. Just like that, you’ve got a whole lifetime to write critically acclaimed musicals with Lin-Manuel Miranda (he can do the hard parts, like writing the songs and the words and what happens) and rake in the dough as you go. Don’t throw away your shot, get to writing!

5. Start a GoFundMe

Hopefully it goes better than the multiple instances where people die because they can’t afford their medicine. This is the future of research funding as well as of funding for personal medication, because our current administration and Congress are more concerned with making rich people even richer than they are with helping ordinary people. Tax cuts for the wealthy don’t work to create economic growth and we need look no further than Kansas to see the disastrous effects they can have. But hey, fuck poor people, right?

this is fine


Call your senators and tell them to oppose this terrible excuse for a bill! Here’s a link to read the bill (it’s from November 2nd and I have no idea if it’s changed since then), and here’s how to find out who your representatives are. Happy calling!

Get a pet and be grad school set? You bet!

puppy pup


I’ts no secret that graduate school can be incredibly challenging and isolating. While it’s true that you’ll most likely make many great friends in your program, the fact remains that many aspects of graduate study are, at least partially, solo endeavors; reading literature, writing grants and manuscripts, doing research, teaching, grading papers, and countless other things can put a strain on your brain that even the best of friends can’t drain. So what is a grad student to do when those feelings of isolation and stress coalesce into a massive mental storm of confused emotions? One thing that I recommend: get a pet!

Talking out your problems with other humans isn’t always possible, but having an animal at home is like having a personal therapist available at all times. They have no choice but to listen to you rant and rave about how graduate school makes you feel inadequate in ways you didn’t even know were possible! And when positive things happen in your burgeoning career, you can bet your buttons that your animal friend will be there to listen and congratulate you. Your pet is always on your side, which is rare to find anywhere in life, let alone grad school.

cat head lady
They can even help with your morning routine!

Plenty of studies have found evidence that cuddling furry animals helps reduce stress, but I am here today to tell you that the benefits of pet ownership extend beyond the cuddly and affectionate. I owned a hamster when I started grad school, and while he obviously couldn’t attain the affection levels of a dog he was fuzzy and occasionally cuddly and a dear companion during my darkest first-year days. Even more recently than my hamster ownership (his name was Konrad, may he rest in the sweetest peace), I am now the proud owner of a scorpion. He is a giant desert hairy scorpion, and I adopted him from a friend whose lab needed to get rid of them. He isn’t cuddly in the slightest, but I’ve found it is still easy to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to him and treat him just like any other pet. His name is Sugarboy and I love him.

My personal theory for why having a pet is beneficial, even if it can’t be cuddled with, was inspired by E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. The psychologist Erich Fromm first coined the term biophilia as a psychological orientation towards living things. Wilson developed and popularized it in his theory that humans have evolved to be naturally drawn to connect with other living things, be they animals, plants, fungi, or whatever. Simply put, just having another living thing in your house (especially an animal because I love animals) can help you feel safe, calm, and relaxed. Unfortunately this only works if the animal is there on purpose, so hordes of insects living in your walls isn’t likely to help you de-stress. It doesn’t hurt that your pet must also be cared for, which is good empathy practice for graduate students who can get jaded and emotionless relatively quickly. My scorpion Sugarboy, for example, while being a pretty independent and inquisitive little guy, still couldn’t eat unless I supplied him with food; there is a sense of awe, a sense of fulfilling some sacred natural duty, that comes with nurturing and providing for a living being. Also it’s cool to watch him eat crickets.



Graduate school can be rough, and at times may even make you feel less than human. The presence of something that is unquestionably and unabashedly alive can make all the difference when you feel your own existence slipping through your fingers into the ether. Be it dog, cat, hamster, frog, or scorpion, get that pet and flourish!