More Citizen Science–Help out the BioSurvey

George Pisani and Bill Busby are looking for help.  You, your students and other interested parties can help expand the knowledge of two Eastern Kansas snakes:  Red-bellied and Smooth Earth Snakes.  Note that these are some of the earliest snakes to show up in the spring (March).  Spread the word to others in your community.  If you want to participate you’ll need to get going. Here are the details:

Smooth Earth Snake and Redbelly Snake Population Survey

Kansas Biological Survey (KBS) is conducting a survey of these two Kansas snakes recognized as Threatened in the State. We are looking for new populations and ask that students and teachers in the eastern counties of Kansas be on the lookout for these species in your area, and report sightings to us using the report form available at Sightings must be confirmed by us, either by a live specimen (which may be released at capture point after we confirm identification) and/or high-quality photograph. We also need detailed documentation of habitat in which you may find them! If you find either species, note the area well and contact us ASAP! We especially need people to help us in Linn and Anderson counties; email us as soon as possible if you can help.

Both species are cool-weather snakes, and are among the very earliest to emerge from hibernation. Look for them under cover objects (tin, rocks, wood) from early March on (depending upon temperature). A great way to locate these snakes is to distribute 2ftx4ft pieces of salvaged barn tin (the corrugated kind) in likely habitat, especially edge zones between woods and unmowed grass areas. Part of this effort is to determine just what sorts of habitat both species prefer, so don’t overlook pastures, woods , or whatever habitat is in your area.. Spread some tin [with landowner permission]; see what comes in! And don’t forget to remove the tin when done sampling an area..
For an overview of current Kansas records of these species, visit the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas pages from links on our web site (above).

To add incentive, we will award publications to people with the most confirmed sightings in new localities during 2010 as follows:

Most new localities reported: A copy of 2nd printing (1980) Autecology of the Copperhead 1960 by Henry S. Fitch and also a copy of 2nd printing (1991) Reproductive Cycles in Lizards and Snakes 1970 by Henry S. Fitch.
Second place, most new localities reported: CHOICE OF ONE OF THE FOLLOWING- a copy of 2nd printing (1980) Autecology of the Copperhead 1960 by Henry S. Fitch and also a copy of 2nd printing (1991) Reproductive Cycles in Lizards and Snakes 1970 by Henry S. Fitch.
Third place, most new localities reported:  A copy of Biology, status and management of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): A guide for conservation (1993), by William S. Brown.

George Pisani                                                Bill Busby                                  

A Chance to Involve your Students in Citizen Science

A post just came through the KS-Bird list about an interesting Cornell Citizen science program:

The Rusty Blackbird Blitz

Rusty Blackbirds are in decline and Kansas is part of their winter range.  This “blitz”/survey is set up for the first two weeks of Feb.  Check out the link for protocols.  If you decide to get out and count blackbirds don’t just report to eBird;  share your experience here on the KABT BioBlog.

An excerpt from the Cornell eBird website:

January 11, 2010
Participate in the Second Annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz! Singing male Rusty Blackbird, Alaska. Photo by David Shaw (

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds are crashing! Their numbers have plummeted by as much as 88-98% over the last few decades, according to data gathered between 1966 and 2006 for the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count. A species that was once considered to be abundant is rapidly disappearing before our eyes. Your observations can help save this species by arming scientists with critical information about its ecology. The Rusty Blackbird Working Group has developed the Rusty Blackbird Blitz, a winter survey whose goal is to count Rusty Blackbirds range-wide just prior to spring migration.  From 30 January – 15 February, search for Rusty Blackbirds in your area and report your observations to eBird.

JCCC – College Scholars Program Lecture

Understanding the Role of the Dynein/Dynactin Motor in Neurodegenerative Diseases


by Dr. Margaret Kincaid, Associate Professor, Science

6:30 pm reception and 7 pm lecture, Wednesday, February 10, 2010
M.R. and Evelyn Hudson Auditorium at Johnson County Community College

Intracellular trafficking plays an important role in a range of human disease. As a basic scientist, Kincaid is looking at one component of intracellular trafficking – the dynein/dynactin motor complex. Dynein is a motor molecule in cells that converts chemical energy into the mechanical energy of movement. Dynactin is needed to activate dynein activity. Kincaid’s model gives insight into how mutations associated with the motor complex may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases, in particular lateonset diseases associated with motor neurons. A greater understanding of dynactin-dependent dynein movement may lead to potential treatment therapies.

In her evening lecture, Kincaid will present her most recent data that corroborates a working model for how dynactin regulates the function of dynein inside cells in order to transport cargo along “highways” within cells. She will explain the role the motor complex plays in human diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. In the daytime lecture, Kincaid will explain some laboratory techniques she is using to determine how dynactin affects dynein-dependent transport inside cells — techniques such as an in vitro bead-based motility assay and fluorescent tagged molecules within mammalian cells. She will look at how the research is used to determine the effects of dynactin mutants, including mutations linked to ALS.

Kincaid has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in cell and molecular biology, and a PhD in cell biology and biophysics and molecular biology and biochemistry from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She currently is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Stephen King, School for Biological Sciences, UMKC. Kincaid says her lectures will be of interest to JCCC faculty and students who are interested in how basic science research can be applied to human diseases and how a complex biological process is studied in the laboratory.

Hope to see you there!

Wikipedia: Not so evil after all

Wikipedia receives plenty of disparagement these days in the world of education, but much of the disgruntlement is misplaced or is at least too narrowly focused on Wikipedia as perhaps the most conspicuous, convenient target. The vehemence of the anti-Wikipedia sentiments from fellow educators can sometimes be downright intimidating, but I would like to argue briefly on behalf of Wikipedia’s science topic pages as one useful tool in science education and research.

screenshot from Wikipedia's "sequence alignment" page

Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for learning; however, just as a shovel should neither be faulted for failing to be a scalpel nor accused of missing the mark as a jackhammer, Wikipedia is a tool, not the tool. Wikipedia cannot be expected to take the place of peer-reviewed scholarly publications, even though some of the entries could likely pass muster if it came to it. While Wikipedia has historically suffered in the eyes of educators from the stigma of untrustworthiness, I would ask anyone whether the majority of other readily accessed sources on the web are much more reliable, particularly for the sort of topics and subjects most likely to be looked up by the public. If anything, Wikipedia’s explicit construction rules inspire a level of healthy skepticism that ought to be just as appropriate for other web content. To the extent that “Wikipedia” has become fashionable shorthand for much of our web content and its ills, it reflects both Wikipedia’s immense success and the need for educators to more clearly articulate and address our concerns regarding web content in general.

So, at the fingertips of an educator or student, what is Wikipedia? It is a tool for quickly accessing answers to questions, where a nuanced piece of scholarly research is utter overkill, and it is a starting point for more exhaustive research. Is it utterly reliable? No. But then neither are the decade-old biology reference texts on my shelf if I want to know more about the role of microRNAs in gene regulation, for example. Does Wikipedia provide the authoritative content of a refereed review paper from a scientific journal? Not necessarily, but it may get me closer to finding that paper. In the meantime, a series of Wikipedia pages can help me begin to grasp the general topography of a topic I poorly understand, and even help me make much better sense of the jargon and verbage avalanching at me from the pages of the peer-reviewed papers and books sitting in my lap.

You think I jest? Perhaps a simple example will suffice. My turning point regarding Wikipedia came this last summer in the bowels of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. I had just begun a stint working under an NSF Research Experience for Teachers grant in the Herpetology Department. My task was to extract some DNA from a battery of frogs from Africa, isolate some particular fragments, determine their sequences, and then plug those data into larger datasets so that we could refine our understanding of the evolutionary history of those frogs relative to what was already known about them. The chief difficulty was that my knowledge of everything from PCR to phylogenies was “teaching knowledge” more of the general, conceptual sort and I really had no idea how it all worked when plunked down in the lab. Between runs up to the molecular lab on the next floor, I camped in front of a computer in the Herp offices with a pile of books and papers attempting to better understand what I was doing, both functionally and conceptually. Bouncing back and forth between the real and virtual pages, I quickly found that perhaps five or six out of the eight or so simultaneously running browser pages were opened to some topic in Wikipedia. No Hollywood starlets. No controversial periods in American history. No biographies of prominent politicians. I was trying to figure out “bootstrapping,” “Bayesian inferences,” “sequence alignment,” effects of “annealing temperatures” in PCR sensitivity, “noise-signal ratios” in “capillary sequencing,” and much, much more in a short period of time.

from Wikipedia's "chi-squared distribution" page

If anything, I too often discovered that Wikipedia has many science-related pages that are written by and for people immersed in their relatively arcane field of study and thus required ample use of the imbedded links to tease out a basic understanding of the page I originally looked up. Try looking up “chi-squared distribution” for a little flavor of this. I felt fairly confident in much of that information solely on the basis of what I call “safety in obscurity,” in addition to finding that I never ran across meaningful discrepancies between my printed and virtual pages. Since that time I have made frequent use of Wikipedia for both “short answer” and “jumping-off point” purposes. I have been seldom disappointed.

I knew a teacher who had a small poster taped to the front of his desk: “Think for yourself – the teacher may be wrong.” This is some refreshing truth in advertisement which we might do well to help our students also to apply to websites, textbooks, hypotheses, and so on. Teaching that set of skills is very difficult and I claim no special mastery of that pedagogical thicket. In light of the difficulty, one alternative is to try to teach students to stick with only “trustworthy” sources of information, though they may be prohibitively difficult to access, unnecessarily jargoned for the purpose at hand, and ultimately only relatively more trustworthy.

Jeff Witters

Job Opportunity

Last year the KABT Spring Field trip journeyed out to the new Wetlands Museum at Cheyenne Bottoms—they have an job opening:

Educator, Kansas Wetlands Education Center, Fort Hays State University.
Full-time 12 month, nontenure track educator with specialization in
environmental education, ornithology, ecology, conservation biology,
wildlife management, or other related area of expertise.  Required
qualifications:  an earned bachelor?s degree in in an education
discipline, and/or a biological discipline that relates to wetlands.
Preferred qualifications:  an earned master?s degree and teaching
experience in formal and informal settings.  Priority given to
applications received by March 1, 2008.  Further information available at or by contacting Curtis Wolf, Manager
Kansas Wetlands Education Center, P.O. Box 618, Great Bend, KS
(620-786-7456),  Finalists will have consented to and
successfully completed a criminal background check.  FHSU is an AA/EEO
employer.  Minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and Vietnam era
veterans are specifically encouraged to apply.

Mini-grant opportunity

Here’s something you might have an interest in from Paul Adams and the KATS news:

Mini Grant for Urban Birding
Call for Mini-Grant Applicants
Dear Friend,
The Celebrate Urban Birds project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers mini-grants to help museums, afterschool programs, libraries, community centers, and other local organizations fund neighborhood events. These events may involve art, gardening, science, community service or other cultural activities
We’re ready to award a new round of these mini-grants which average $250-$500. If you are planning an event, you’re invited to apply for a grant at Organizations working with underserved communities are strongly encouraged to apply. No experience with birds is required.
Application deadline is February 15, 2010
As you may know, Celebrate Urban Birds is a free, year-round citizen science project in which participants watch birds in their neighborhoods and report what they see. This information helps scientists better understand how birds survive in cities and make use of green spaces, including parks and gardens.
I look forward to seeing all your great ideas!
Karen Purcell, Project Leader Celebrate Urban

Why would anyone go out in -10F windchill?

Hope everyone else is enjoying our Little Ice Age weather!

So why would I go out in such lousy weather? Well, it certainly puts a finer point on any musings regarding metabolism, body size and natural selection to stand in the same Arctic air as a tiny black-capped chickadee foraging for nearly invisible insect pupa on branch tips. While I did, in fact, muse on the different energetic constraints faced by the chickadee in contrast to a crow-sized pileated woodpecker who allowed relatively close approach, I braved the flesh-freezing weather mostly to beef up my “year list” for birds seen in 2010.

I went to the Overland Park Arboretum from about 10:30-11:45 to become their first visitor for the day. The bird feeder clearing down in the woods was hopping and the observation hut at least kept out the howling wind. I got a high count of 18 cardinals. I’m sure there were more, and they were a sight to see! In addition to the handful of white-throats and several song sparrows, there were three fox sparrows. A female purple finch put in a cameo appearance. In better weather, the hut is a fine place to spend a while, even for the non-birders. Set in a clearing in the woods, it is surrounded by feeders and allow a person to view birds near enough that binoculars are not necessary. Come back in spring or summer and you could be treated to close views of indigo buntings — tiny, shockingly blue birds. They have the sense to head for central America, while those of us with different instincts trudge about in the frozen woods in January. And, unlike the sharp-shinned hawk watching the birds at the feeders for an opportunity, I wasn’t even looking for something warm to eat.

Jeff Witters

Two new Cafe Scientifique for NE KS

Over the last couple of years a really neat idea to help popularize science has spread widely across the U.S.—the Cafe Scientifique.  Here, in an informal setting, scientists discuss their work with the general public.  Generally, held in restaurants or brew pubs the programs offer a time to socialize, have a good time and learn a little bit about the science that is happening in your community.  NE Kansas has two of these starting up this month:

In Lawrence at the venerable Free State Brewery the KU Museum of Natural History is offering Science on Tap–here’s their first program:


Kaw Kinetics: Hydroelectric Energy in Lawrence

7:30 – 9 p.m. Jan. 26
Free State Brewing Company
636 Massachusetts St.

Sarah Hill-Nelson, owner and operator of Bowersock Mills & Power Co., will kick off Science on Tap, a new community science event. Hill-Nelson will introduce the history of hydroelectric power in Lawrence and discuss the pros and cons of harnessing the energy of the Kansas River, now and into the future.

Science on Tap is a series of informal discussions organized around topics in science and technology. Here’s how it works: Guest speakers introduce a topic for 15-20 minutes. After a short break for food and drink, the crowd is encouraged to interact by asking questions and raising concerns about the topic. Come early for dinner, or join us just for the conversation. Science on Tap is organized by the KU Natural History Museum and hosted by Free State Brewery in downtown Lawrence,

For Johnson countians sponsored by  The Kansas Citizens for Science:

Join Us For Johnson County’s First

Science Café

Presented by: Kansas Citizens for Science,

Chasing Lizards in Paradise: Biodiversity and Conservation?”

Speaker: Dr. Bob Powell, Professor of Biology, Avila University

Date: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Location: Coach’s Bar and Grill, 14893 Metcalf Avenue, in private room

Time: 7:00 PM

Come and hear about Dr. Powell’s pursuit of amphibians and reptiles, world-wide threats to these and other organisms, and whether we should care about biodiversity.

What is a Science Café? Science cafés feature a short talk to focus discussion followed by a conversational setting for the rest of the evening.

Goal for the Johnson County Science Café: To serve as casual setting for the exploration of scientific understanding by the public through conversation. Though some comments may be technical, the goal of the café is to present science in an understandable way to the average person.

Future meetings:

Tuesday, February 9, Dr. Dick Wilson, Retired Professor of Biology, Rockhurst University, Science and Society—Is Science truth? Why does it take time for science findings to be accepted by society? Same location and time.

Questions: Contact Harry McDonald,, 913-897-9630

If you are in the area be sure to spread the word and think about attending yourself and contributing to the conversation.

Energizing Evolution

it, as well as our understanding of it, just keeps going and growing and going…

During the holiday break, I have come across a number of valuable resources (video, audio, and paper) for demonstrating to students that the processes of natural selection and speciation, that Darwin made us aware of 150 years ago this past year, are actually occuring before our very eyes.  

Instead of hypothetical just-so-stories, these resources are user friendly and thought provoking real world examples with organisms and adaptations that students can relate to.  These examples also highlight the work of the people, and the personalities, behind the acquisition of new scientific knowledge.  I commend these scientists and numerous others who understand the importance of communicating science to a sometimes skeptical public and whose efforts have provided us with these wonderful resources and springboards for learning.


Read on to find out about these 7 resources…

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