Monthly Archives: March 2005

New Rules for Falconry

The US Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposed change to the Migratory Bird Permits regulations. This is a full reworking of the Federal regulations on falconry in the United States. The FWS has been working on these for a number of years. The official comment period ends May 10, 2005.

Changes include:

  1. Single permitting system. Falconers would obtain a permit from their state or tribe of residence, and no Federal permit would be required.
  2. “Electronic reporting of acquisition, capture, or loss of birds.”
  3. “Apprentice falconers will be allowed to possess Harris’s hawks.”
  4. “Apprentice falconers may possess non-imprinted captive-bred birds of the species they are allowed to possess.”
  5. “Master falconers will be allowed to keep five raptors for use in falconry, though only three of the raptors may be taken from the wild.”
  6. “The required examination for apprentice falconers and new residents may be developed and administered by each State or Tribe.”
  7. “A new resident of the United States can qualify for a falconry permit appropriate for his or her experience.”
  8. “Facilities and equipment requirements are simplified and rewritten to make them easier to understand.”
  9. “Possession of facilities for housing raptors will not be a prerequisite for obtaining a permit.”
  10. “The 180-day-per-year limit on take of raptors from the wild is removed. Raptors may be taken for falconry during periods specified by the States or Tribes.”
  11. “Hybrid raptors must be imprinted on humans or be surgically sterilized if they are to be used in falconry.”
  12. “All falconers will be responsible for treatment and rehabilitation costs of falconry raptors injured in trapping efforts.”
  13. “Banding of all goshawks taken from the wild will be required.”
  14. “Temporary release of falconry raptors to the wild (‘‘hacking’’) will be allowed.”
  15. “General and master falconers may use suitable raptors in raptor propagation if the propagator has a raptor propagation permit.”
  16. “A falconer may transfer a wild raptor captured under a falconry permit to a propagation permit after the raptor has been used in falconry for at least 2 years.”
  17. “General and master falconers may use suitable raptors they hold (except golden eagles) in conservation education programs without an additional permit.”
  18. “The age for apprentice falconers is lowered from 14 to 12.”
  19. “General and master falconers may assist Federal- and State-permitted wildlife rehabilitators in conditioning of raptors for release to the wild.”
  20. “A visitor to the United States with a falconry permit from his or her country may practice falconry in the United States if the State in which he or she wishes to do so allows it.”
  21. “Requirements for capture and possession of golden eagles for use in falconry by master falconers with sufficient experience are added to these regulations.”

DATES: Send comments on this proposal
by May 10, 2005.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments,
identified by RIN 1018–AG11, by any of
the following methods:

• Federal eRulemaking Portal: . Follow the
instructions for submitting comments.

• Agency Web site: . Follow the links
to submit a comment.

• E-mail address for comments: Include
RIN number 1018–AG11 in the subject
line of the message.

• Fax: 703–358–2217.

• Mail: Chief, Division of Migratory
Bird Management, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax
Drive, Mail Stop MBSP–4107,
Arlington, Virginia 22203–1610.

• Hand Delivery: Division of
Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, 4501 North Fairfax
Drive, Room 4091, Arlington, Virginia

Instructions: All submissions received
must include Regulatory Information
Number (RIN) 1018–AG11 at the
beginning. All comments received,
including any personal information
provided, will be available for public
inspection at the address given above
for hand delivery of comments. For
detailed instructions on submitting
comments and additional information
on the rulemaking process, see the
‘‘Public Participation’’ heading in the
this document.

Brian Millsap, Chief, Division of
Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, 703–358–1714, or
Dr. George T. Allen, Wildlife Biologist,

The big change here is the elimination of the Federal falconry permitting system. This has plusses and minuses. On the one hand, the elimination of a bunch of bureaucracy is not to be sneered at. Having just one permitting fee is another plus. On the other hand, having a federal permit in hand is a reminder to authorities in other states that falconry is something with national oversight.

When commenting on these proposed changes, keep in mind that these regulations implement policy with respect to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and that everything not specifically permitted is prohibited. So if you can think of something related to conventional falconry practice that is not covered in these regulations, you need to make sure that Dr. Allen is made aware of it via your comments. The proposed changes along these lines include the specific mention of hacking and permitting the falconry use of golden eagles.

Apprentice rules have changed significantly. The age at which one can obtain an apprentice permit is dropped to 12 from 14. The list of species approved for apprentices under the federal regulations is expanded to include Harris’s hawks. In addition to the list of four wild-caught species suitable for apprentices, the regulations permit apprentices of any captive-bred birds of species approved by one’s state or tribe for falconry. Apprentices are barred from use of eyas or imprinted birds.

The readability of the regulations has improved dramatically. The form taken in the new regulations is that of questions and answers.

The Gear is Here

Diane’s gear for the field season has arrived. Now it is time to configure everything to make things go. She has two of the Core Sound PDAudio-CF based sound systems — HP H5550 PocketPC, dual PCMCIA expansion pack, 4GB Compact Flash card, PDAudio-CF card, two CF to PCMCiA adapters, Mic2496 pre-amp and AD, and a custom version of Gordon Gidluck’s Live2496 software. The Mic2496 units were modified by Jeff Schmitt at ViAcoustics in Austin, Texas, to provide detented gain control for the preamp. She has the TOSLINK cable and the XLR input cables for the Mic2496 units. There are eight more systems waiting back at the lab. Everyone involved went the extra mile to get the units to Diane in time for her departure next weekend for Wyoming. Thanks to Len Moskowitz at Core Sound, Jeff Schmitt at ViAcoustics, and Gordon Gidluck at Gidluck Mastering for making it possible to go from sudden announcement elsewhere that no data recorders would be provided this year to having an alternate system in hand in just three weeks.

One of the big issues remaining is power, which brings along the concern about temperature. It’s still cold out in those Wyoming nights. Batteries don’t work as well in the cold. We have a chest freezer here that will be employed to test the longevity of batteries to power the gear.

A Weblog Birthday

I write articles at the Panda’s Thumb weblog (PT), and today marks its first year of operation. It has been well received this year. The main focus of PT is discussion of evolutionary biology and critiques of antievolution claims.

There are some plans for tongue-in-cheek activities for this coming year, so keep checking from time to time.

A Blast from the Past

Patrick McGoohan turned 77 this past Saturday. I found this little piece of trivia because I decided to Google for “mcgoohan scarecrow”. For some reason, I vaguely recalled a Disney television show from back when I was a child. And I found this page among various eBay memorabilia links. The bit about McGoohan was on the “News” page there.

It turns out to be an extremely thorough web page concerning a project Patrick McGoohan starred in during the 1960’s. There were a number of titles attached to it. For convenience, let’s call it, “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” and leave it at that. It was shown by Disney in a set of three weekly installments, shown twice in 1964 and once in 1970. I’m pretty sure it was the 1970 airing that caught me in front of the TV as a child. For one thing, I somehow remembered McGoohan’s name being attached to it, and I don’t think that as a child of 4 in 1964 I could have done that.

But enough about me. Let’s go back to talking about Tom Hering’s page on the Scarecrow. Hering has produced a stunning set of pages concerning this bit of ephemeral entertainment. He produced a lot of ingenious graphical content himself, in addition to collecting pictures of memorabilia associated with the show. All in all, the quality of these pages and the sense of enthusiasm that comes through are something that should have various big-budget modern theatrical releases puzzling over why they are paying the bucks for sites that, no matter how much Flash is loaded on them, are simply insipid. One talented fan appears to be capable of feats that many established web design houses simply cannot match. Hering doesn’t go for the one-screen page, for instance. Each of the pages is several screens long, but Hering balances well-integrated graphics with actual content. Yes, Hering uses real information to populate his page. Isn’t that cool?

So, my hat’s off to Tom Hering. It was a pleasure to step back and fill in a lot of gaps in my fuzzy recollection of this bit of television.

Can’t Install Just One FireFox Extension

I’ve installed the Mozilla Firefox browser on the machines here after a particularly vicious spyware trojan got installed on one via Internet Explorer. (Recovering that machine — which is the one I am using now — took three weeks of clock time, about twelve hours of effort, and the use of an uninfected machine to work over the boot hard disk.)

Microsoft has made sure that Internet Explorer has to be kept around, but I’m only pulling it up if I cannot view a page under FireFox, so the opportunity for it to open the door to the bad guys is extremely limited.

There was a feature in IE that I missed, though: single-file web page archiving via the MHT file type. This is essentially a single file that MIME-encodes the page of interest and the graphical elements, suitable for use as an email attachment, or for archival purposes.

The out-of-the-box Firefox menu options under “File | Save Page As” are “Web page, complete”, “Web Page, HTML only”, and “Text files”. The first saves the page and its graphical elements via an HTML file and accompanying directory for local storage of graphics. This keeps a record of the page as it appeared, but it isn’t terribly convenient as a means of archiving or sharing that page. The other two options don’t save any of the graphics.

So I went Googling for “firefox mht”. There were several techy discussion boards that ranked high in the results. At least two of them airily dismissed calls for an MHT option in Firefox, saying that MHT was a Microsoft pseudo-standard and that Firefox already did have the “Web Page, Complete” option, and if you wanted a single file you could print to PDF. Sorry, guys, but just because Microsoft implemented the MHT file type does not automatically mean it was useless. Nor do the alternatives have it all over MHT. Complete web pages require handling an HTML file, a related directory, and all its contents. The drawbacks to this for archival purposes should be clear. Archiving argues for a single file to hold everything related to a single resource. Which leads to the other alternative, printing to a PDF file. Some time back, I was using the FreePDF utility. Not everyone can afford Adobe Acrobat Distiller, and the price was right. I was printing to PDF left and right. Then I discovered that not all the pages were showing up properly; some of my archived files were truncated on the right hand side. In order to be sure to get all the text, I had to set “Landscape” orientation each time I saved a page. And I didn’t get working hyperlinks. Maybe Adobe Acrobat Distiller fixes all that, but I likely will never know because of the price. So, while MHT under IE had its own issues, it at least offered the opportunity to save to a single file without run-time configuration and it retained the hyperlinks just fine.

Then I found a discussion that touched upon a Firefox extension to provide for saving a page to a single-file format, “Mozilla Archive Format” (MAF). Even better, the Firefox extension to do this also provided MHT compatibilty. The MAF format does things better than MHT, though. While you can save a single page to MHT, the format is capable enough to also save multiple pages to the same file. Bring up multiple pages in tabs in Firefox, then go to “Save Page As”, and there is the option to save multiple pages in the archive. The writers plan to add more features, like the ability to merge MAFs and edit MAFs. The technology underneath MAF files is XML via RDF, which is a big step up from the MIME plus index approach in MHT archives. It also allows them to note the original URL and date / time of saving the page to the archive file. That’s a very welcome development for keeping track of “Last accessed data” and source when one wishes to cite an online resource.

See the MAF extension home page for all the details and the download. The install was smooth, though it did require taking down Firefox and bringing it up again.

Having been pleasantly surprised by the MAF extension, I started looking for other Firefox extensions. I went through the list on this page and loaded extension after extension. Though I have turned off several of them, I now have a bunch of extra toolbars available to go to work when I want them. These include replacements for the IE Google and Yahoo toolbars, a bible lookup toolbar, a biological database lookup toolbar, and a web developer toolbar. I also got ChromeEdit for the user tweakable side of Firefox, the Newsfox aggregator, a Firefox calculator, CopyURLPlus which makes it a snap to put both the URL and a selection on the clipboard, ready for blogging, and the Greasemonkey extension for user scripts. There are a lot of new projects starting up that should be very interesting this summer.

If you are using Internet Explorer, you could do a lot worse than to switch over to Firefox. The features being programmed for Firefox are very attractive.

Snowed Under

Sorry there haven’t been more entries lately.

I’m back at work full-time, which means when the day is done, so am I, pretty much. They keep me busy there. I’m also helping Diane with preparations for her field season in Wyoming, now about a dozen days away. There are revisions to papers to get done, a five-day seminar to prepare, and a review of a submitted paper for Journal of the Acoustical Society of America to do.

OK, enough explaining. I’m off for some doing.

Diane’s Gear for the Field

Diane and Gail have settled on using the PDA-based acoustic solution using Core Sound’s PDAudio-CF and Mic2496 products. Now they are trying to get everything purchased in time to go to Wyoming around the 1st of April.

The specs on the sound quality looked good, and we spoke with Jeff Schmitt of ViAcoustics who said that he has recorded levels down to about 15 dBA in an anechoic chamber using the Core Sound gear.

There’s a lot of other details to take care of, like protecting the gear from the weather and cold. But at least the direction is picked out.

“Why Intelligent Design Fails” in its Second Printing

A few days ago, I received my author’s copy of Why Intelligent Design Fails (WIDF). This is an anthology published by Rutgers University Press on the topic of the claims made by “intelligent design” advocates.

While “intelligent design” advocates hold conferences and publish books, and at some conferences critics of “intelligent design” attend and present, there has been no hardcopy published proceedings of such a conference put together by the ID advocates that included the papers of critics. (There are some books that were jointly edited by ID advocates and critics, but those aren’t linked to any particular ID sponsored conference.) So the critics got together and published their own anthology. When “intelligent design” advocates talk about peer review, WIDF is the work that should follow off their tongues as a reference. It is the peer review of “intelligent design”.

Science and the USA

EducationWeekly has a short article about the fears of a technologist concerning the future of science education.

Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s former chief technology officer, is “fundamentally fearful” of a decline in science education in the US, especially in primary schools.

“I just fear for our long term competitiveness,” he said. “Education in the US is lousy and getting worse. We are on the way to being a second or third world country from [the point of view of] technology.”

Gelsinger is not alone. Others have pointed out the same cause for fear, noting that the proportion of graduate students from the US in US schools has been declining. There are a number of warning signs which simply have not made an impact on policy.

The push to change the definition of science in science classrooms to a “theistic science” will be a huge aid in making the US a science and technology backwater. If we want to have a chance at continuing to be a science powerhouse in the world, we need to be clear about what is — and is not — science. Current pedagogy already has plenty of problems with confusing the students. Adding politically defined science to science classrooms has a history of making a difference. It led to widespread hunger and economic deprivation under Lysenko in the former Soviet Union, hastening the downfall of that regime. And now we have a widespread, well-funded movement in the US trying to make us the next object lesson in what comes of inserting politically mandated “science” into the science classrooms.

As the former administration famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The socio-political controversy over science content isn’t academic; it has a direct bearing on the ability of future workers and researchers to utilize science and technology, and to make sense of an increasingly technology-dependent world.

Hyping the Science

I’ve mentioned here before how big claims made in news reports of science can be misleading. Here’s a news report on hype in science as a pernicious — and growing — trend.

ELEANOR HALL: In the modern world of mass communication it seems no one is immune, not even those in the normally staid world of science. The language of marketing and public relations is everywhere, and it’s increasingly being used by research scientists attempting to sell their stories to newspapers and broadcasters.

This is partly driven by the scientists’ pursuit of research funds. But some in the field are now warning that talking up research is damaging the image of the profession, and giving the public a false impression of the value of scientific work.

The usual suspects appear: competition among scientists for limited sources of funding, recognition, or even fame. Yes, scientists are human.

And the story has a bit about how some countries address the issue of hype in science:

PETER YATES: In the UK, the media centre has established a database of a thousand scientists across multiple disciplines. They’ve all been trained in communication, and once the topic, a particular science topic emerges, then the centre calls them and quickly puts together a panel of scientist who can then respond, there and then, providing different types of views on a particular science topic when it moves into mainstream media.

By making sure that there is one centre where all news desks can go to – if they choose to – we can ensure that the timeliness, the quality and the balance of science reporting is improved. This is exactly what happened in the UK.

I can see some pros and cons here. In general, having a pool of scientist-commentators who can respond to media requests for information is a good thing. But then this bit about scientists being humans leads one to wonder if placement on such panels would itself become part of the competitive equation, giving certain cliques the power to naysay research that doesn’t come from within their group. It seems to me that the critical element is to have the individual researcher take the responsibility for assuring that his or her own statements to the press do not mislead. Perhaps a history of misleading press statements needs to be part of the evaluation of the performance of scientists, such that those who engage in those behaviors find that there are penalties as well as payoffs for having the gift of blarney in talking up their own work.

Skype Works

For years, my sister and others have tried to get me to install various “voice chat” programs that would allow us to converse via Internet connection. And for years I’ve been too lazy to set up the tedious firewall rules that would lead to success with those programs, or too cautious to simply open up a machine to the outside network.

Enter Skype. This is a freeware program that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms. (Haven’t checked for FreeBSD compatibility yet.) Skype is a peer-to-peer (P2P) voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) program. I think that there have to be some “helper” servers that Skype initially connects to in order to find out who is online and to make the initial connections between two peers, but I can’t confirm that. What I can confirm is that Skype works across my firewall, without the tedious drudgery of setting up specific rules for it.

I had a nice half-hour conversation this morning with Jeff Shallit using Skype. Jeff lives in Waterloo, Canada, and I live in Concord, California. Not even weekend minutes on my cell phone help much with the international calling and rates. The quality of the sound is pretty good. I’m trying to figure out how to accomplish “podcasting” using Skype and Audacity without shelling out the bucks for Virtual Cable. One caveat: both parties have to either use headsets or otherwise prevent the amplified sound from the conversation to go back to the microphone on either end. If that happens, you’ll get an annoying echo of the conversation.

For those people who you cannot convince to get Skype, you can use SkypeOut, which allows you to call a regular telephone anywhere in the world. That service does cost you money, starting at 0.017 Euros per minute to much of the English-speaking world (including the contiguous US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand).

If you like talking as well as typing, stop your IM client long enough to go to and download the appropriate file for your computer.

Prepping Diane for the Field Season

Diane’s new post-doctoral position has to do with acoustics and sage grouse. The idea is to go to Wyoming and record noise sources and also the sage grouse themselves during the mating season. Male sage grouse display for females in a restricted area, and each male has his own small patch of territory that doesn’t have obvious food or other resources. This sort of arrangement is called a lek, and the term for having this phenomenon of males gathered into a restricted area pretty much solely for the purpose of finding a mate is called lekking.

The principal investigator on the project is Dr. Gail Patricelli at U.C. Davis. Gail had arranged last year for several custom-built “automatic recording units” (ARUs) to be available for the field season. These were to have a set of nice features: 24-bit audio capture, four channels, battery-operated, weather-resistant, using removable hard drives, able to record continuously (with a large enough hard disk), and able to be programmed to do sampling on a user-defined schedule. All of that for $2,500 a pop, a veritable acoustic bargain.

Yesterday, Diane and Gail got word from the manufacturer that the ARUs would not be ready in time for field season this year, which is now only a couple of weeks away.

So now the project needs to find audio recording systems that can do at least part of what the ARUs were going to do, and do so within a very short timeframe.

I’m helping find some options on this.

So far, we’ve identified two candidate approaches. One is to use the PDAudio sound system from Core Sound. This is a stereo 24-bit/96 kilosamples per second sound acquisition system that interfaces to a PDA via a Compact Flash slot. Taking into account the cost of a PDA, the PDAudio-CF card, the Mic2496 preamp, cables, batteries, and software, this works out to about $1,500 per unit. We got very good assistance on the technical side of things in a phone call to Len Moskowitz, the owner of Core Sound.

The other approach would be to start with a recorder and figure out how to control it to sample sound on a schedule that we set. Gail has a Marantz PMD670 Compact Flash recorder, which has a “Remote” jack. In a simple test with a microphone from an old dictation system, the recorder can be set to turn on and record when the remote is switched on, and the stop recording and power down when the remote is switched off. The difficulty here is coming up with a controller that works off of battery power and allows us to control the state of the remote jack. So far, everything we’ve found is going to require at least some basic engineering and programming, and the choices run from stuff like $30 PIC modules with battery-backed real-time clocks to a $700 touch-panel controller.

We’re trying to figure out if a TTL digital output will permit control of the Marantz remote jack, or if we need to drive a relay instead. If we need a relay, it’s just that much more that needs to be done in a short amount of time.

If anybody has a better, or at least another, suggestion, we want to hear from you. The desired daily routine would be to visit each deployed unit in the field, swap in a fresh battery, swap out digital recording media, and do whatever (hopefully minimal) adjustments that have to be made to schedule the next day’s recordings. Audio of at least 16-bit depth at 44.1 kilosamples per second needs to be recorded to removable media. We will be doing spectral analysis on the resulting data, so no lossy compression can be done on it. We will be using XLR microphone connections. The whole system needs to run off batteries, and the less massive the battery system, the better.

Update: Well, I am trying a low-tech approach. Take a wall clock. Tape a small but strong magnet to the minute hand. Affix a normally-open magnetic switch at the periphery of the clock. Wire the magnetic switch leads to a 2.5mm mono plug, which is plugged into the remote jack on the Marantz. It seems to work. The clock should run for half a year on the 1.5V AA battery. The magnetic switch needs no power. I got about a 3 minute recording on the Marantz in a test. So that’s less than 90 minutes of record time per day, and a Marantz rechargeable NiMH battery pack should handle that just fine.

Heisenberg for Biology?

There’s a press release that reports on a drastic shift in sex ratio of offspring of water voles in animals with radio tracking collars.

Radio-tracking associated with ‘dramatic shift’ in water vole sex ratio
Wildlife researchers are being warned that radio-tracking could be affecting the animals they are studying. According to new research published today in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology, fitting radio-collars to water voles was associated with a “dramatic shift” in the sex ratio of the animals’ offspring, casting doubt on the assumption that radio-tracking does not fundamentally affect the biology of radio-collared water voles.

The water vole (Arvicola terrestris) is an endangered species in the UK, and ecologists Dr Tom Moorhouse and Professor David Macdonald of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit had been monitoring the size of two populations – one in Norfolk and one Wiltshire – when they noticed a 48% decline in the number of females born at the Norfolk site. At both sites vole numbers had been monitored using small traps baited with apple and carrot during 2002 and 2003, voles being released after counting. However, Moorhouse and Macdonald had also fitted radio-collars to 38 of the voles caught at the Norfolk site for in-depth study of the voles’ movements.

According to Moorhouse and Macdonald: “Our analysis revealed that the most likely cause for the female decline was a shift in the sex ratio of young raised by radio-collared females. This result has implications for conservation research, especially for monitoring water vole populations.”

Skewed sex ratios have been reported in stressed and malnourished females of various species, including water voles. The ecologists suggest this could be explained in terms of the local resource competition hypothesis, which predicts that mothers with access to poor resources will produce offspring of the sex most likely to disperse and therefore reduce local competition for resources.

“Radio-collars clearly have the potential to cause some stress to water voles, and it is possible that this might stimulate sex-ratio adjustment as part of an evolutionary mechanism mitigating impacts of suboptimal habitats, similar to the sex-ratio bias and stress response in food deprived water voles,” they say.

Researchers have long been aware that the techniques they use had the potential to cause unexpected effects, and there have been many studies into the effects of radio-collars. However, this is the first study to show an association between radio-collars and sex ratio, although further work is needed to establish a causal link. According to Moorhouse and Macdonald: “We would expect any such effect to be species-specific, but our results will alert those studying other small mammals to look for similar associations. Our findings are a reminder that the assumption that the use of radio-collars does not fundamentally affect the biology of the subjects always requires careful checking. This study emphasises that the effects of commonplace wildlife marking and tracking techniques may be difficult to detect and yet both important and revealing. Clearly, it is both scientifically and ethically important to be aware of, and to strive to minimise, any such effects.”

(EurekAlert! Press Release)

One simplified view of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is that observation changes the system being observed. While Heisenberg’s principle applies to the very small end of things, biologists have to come to grips with the issue of whether their techniques actually change what they are trying to study. This has tripped people up in many cases. For example, ornithologists discovered that different colors of leg bands used to identify individuals made a difference in mating success.

There was a lecture that Diane and I attended in 1993 that described physiologists trying to establish whether a certain species of penguin was bioenergetically at its limits. The person giving the lecture was a krill biologist who was talking about the work of some of her colleagues. The species had rookeries in the Antarctic several miles inland from the edge of the ice. This cuts down wonderfully on the predators taking advantage of not-very-mobile adults and vulnerable young. But it also means that the parents switch off care of the young to go to the ocean and stuff themselves with krill. If a penguin that is foraging is nabbed by a seal or killer whale its mate will eventually have to abandon the egg or young bird. So along come the physiologists with their nets, scooping up penguins fresh from the ocean and headed back to the rookery. To get a measure of energy resources, one up-ends the penguin to get the stomach contents, and then does bomb calorimetry or a similar analytical technique to figure out energy input. Coupled with known data on penguin metabolism, the result obtained by the physiologists was that these penguins were operating at the very edge of the bioenergetic resources they had.

After the lecture, we approached the lecturer with a question. “Do you know,” we asked, “what the physiologists put back into the penguins they analyzed as a replacement diet?” The lecturer gave us a stricken look. She didn’t know, in fact, what they had put in, or indeed if they had put in anything. The outcome of not replacing the penguin’s repast was easily predictable, in light of the research results themselves. If they had simply dumped a now-empty penguin back on the ice edge, it would have no choice but to go back into the ocean for another round of foraging. And back at the rookery, its mate would have no choice but to abandon its offspring so that it, operating at its bioenergetic limit, would have enough energy to make it back to the ocean to forage for itself. We don’t know that the penguins in the study went hungry, but we don’t know for certain that they didn’t, either. But it does illustrate another way in which the act of observing can have an effect, even if it doesn’t show up in the specific results of the research.

As biologists, we owe it to our research subjects to think very carefully about the effects that our interaction with them may produce. There is no pat answer. “Model it on a computer!” works when we already have a lot of information to base a model upon, not when we are mostly ignorant concerning some aspect of biology. I say this as someone who routinely has applied computational techniques to biological research, including a variety of models. Most of the time we still need to make observations of real organisms. The reasons to question our observational techniques are multiple: to assure that the results are not unduly skewed by the mode of observation, to avoid introducing extraneous factors into the study population, and to minimize any negative effects our observations may have for the individuals involved.