Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Unseen Spill

There’s an article in the Austin American Statesman about the ongoing Gulf oil spill. It talks about the effects of the spill throughout the water column. The massive use of dispersants at depth is noted as being experimental: nobody knows exactly what outcomes you get by doing that. Well, other than that less of the oil washes ashore where it is convenient for photographers to document the pathetic demise of many a bird and marine mammal because of the oil. It is a lot harder to get cameras on the pathetic demise of benthic, nektonic, and pelagic animals, but those deaths count no less because they pass unseen. Nor is most of the problem going to be at the level of charismatic megafauna, as the authors point out. This spill is disrupting the food web from the lowest levels right up to the top predators. Further, they note that the bacteria that are relied upon to consume the oil over time do so in the presence of oxygen. As they metabolize the oil, they deplete the oxygen. High levels of methane gas are not helping, either. It doesn’t take much to make the inference that “dead zones” with low to no oxygen in the water will expand. What’s worse is that given the toxicity of what we’re dumping into the Gulf, they may well persist over time scales we have not experienced before.

It seems to me to be only common sense that off-shore oil drilling at any depth, if done at all, should be conditional on the principals demonstrating that they have the capacity on-hand to deal with even worst-case problems within a short time window. Turning loose the machinery and hoping for the best is no way to safeguard the public welfare.

As usual, this is only personal opinion.

Listening to Snapping Shrimp

I’m working on setting up a citizen scientist project to document where snapping shrimp (family Alpheidae) are active pre- and post-contamination by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In this post, I just want to introduce the basic concepts and provide an example sound file.

Snapping shrimp comprise a number of species, mostly distributed in tropical to temperate waters. They live in near-shore structured environments, including seagrasses, rocks, and coral reefs. They are predators on small, live prey, and they kill or stun their prey using a snap from a disproportionately large claw. The snap of the claw generates a cavitation event and, by the way, a high-amplitude, broadband transient sound that is also called a snap. The combined noise from the local population of snapping shrimp is a familiar feature not only to bioacoustics researchers, but to anyone who snorkels or SCUBA dives in areas with snapping shrimp.

Because of this noise and the role snapping shrimp play in the marine food web, they are an excellent candidate as an “indicator species”, a species that can be easily monitored and which provides a measure of the health of that part of the marine food web. Better yet, the monitoring and assessment can be done acoustically, by sound recording, to get a measure for a local population.

If I had a chunk of money to throw at this, a sophisticated way to do this would be to make a baseline of calibrated sound recordings and be able to characterize tidal and daily cycle effects on snapping shrimp sound activity, and thus be able to statistically determine a reduction in activity post-contamination. I estimate somewhere around $10K would be needed to set up a portable data collection system from scratch with that kind of capability. Not having that in spare change in my pocket, I’m looking at a somewhat different approach that a lot more people can get into with minimal outlay of funds and just a bit of do-it-yourself drive.

Because snapping shrimp noise is broadband, you can hear it even in plain audio recordings, though the peak frequencies are actually ultrasonic. This means any sort of audio recorder can be used to find out if snapping shrimp are present in a location: cassette tape recorder, digital recorders, and even video cameras. The thing that any of those will need is a microphone input. What to plug in for that recording? A hydrophone would be great, but most people don’t have those lying around. But one can also make a normal microphone water-resistant and use it. It is best to think of such a microphone as disposable, since better sensitivity also corresponds to the water-resistance being more fragile, and saltwater is great at destroying electronics. In another post, I’ll describe making your own hydrophone or water-resistant microphone. If you already have a recorder, the additional cost is under $50 to be able to record underwater sound. I’m not looking for this sort of recording to do as much, simply to say whether a snapping shrimp population is active or not.

Below is an example of a simple recording I made last night that demonstrates the presence of an active population of snapping shrimp at one location and time. I’m still working on what additional information should be noted along with the recording, but I think what I provide here may be sufficient.

File: s_sunshine_skyway_201006241851_WS_30006.wma
Recorder: Olympus WS-320M, ST HQ mode, CONF mic sensitivity
Transducer: Salvaged hydrophone from a sonobuoy
Transducer depth: Approximately 2 feet
Recording made by: Wesley R. Elsberry
Date: 2010-06-24
Time: 18:51 EDT
Latitude: 27.586371
Longitude: -82.620388
Location description: South Sunshine Skyway Bridge on road to south fishing pier, at overpass over water, north side, toward east end.

I’ll be posting more on this topic later.

Does a Stealth Evolution Textbook Exist?

I got an email request from a college student. He asked if I knew of a high-school level textbook that covered the concept of natural selection without using the word, “evolution”. He has relatives who are Mennonite and who home-school, and would reject any textbook that explicitly said “evolution”, but whose kids deserve to have an understanding of some of the basic concepts in evolutionary science.

This is the text of my reply to my correspondent:

I personally do not know of such a textbook, and I’ve tried to get feedback from people who should know the textbook market better than I do without success.

I think that it would be outside expectations that such a textbook would be written, though. Writing a textbook is a major undertaking, and those who are inclined to cover evolutionary science have little incentive to try to target a market segment that will, if they figure out what is going on, not buy their book.

I have myself considered writing a book (not a textbook) with a working title of, “What Every Creationist Should Know About Evolution”. It would cover the basic information and try to be non-confrontational about most aspects of religious antievolutionism. (I haven’t gotten sanguine about the outright lying part of antievolution yet.) The prospects for a market for it are similarly dismal, I expect.

Personally, I think that you might be better off to point out that overturning something like evolutionary science is only going to happen when people motivated to do so can approach the topic with an excellent understanding of the current state of that science. It is that sort of person who would be cognizant of the flaws and have the drive to do the research that would demonstrate it to be so to the scientific community. If they believe that evolution is false and have the courage of their convictions, they should utilize a standard textbook to show their children what the scientists *actually* say about it, rather than accept second-hand slurs about it from people who never bothered to learn the topic. This does, of course, run the risk of convincing the children that the scientists have a point, but the children will eventually have the opportunity to learn these concepts without their parents’ guidance anyway. They might find it better to meet that problem head-on while their children are still in their care than to have them discover evolutionary science concepts and evidence on their own.

I think this latter course of action is better than the stealth textbook on the openness front.


Diane and I finished up a course in boating safety this week. Flotilla 72 of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary in St. Petersburg has a continuously-running series of lectures for the introductory boating safety course that happen every Tuesday evening from 7:30 to 9:30 PM. As their flier puts it, “Start Any Tuesday Evening”. The place is the Flotilla 72 building on the Coast Guard base, 1300 Beach Drive SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Discovery Institute Bleats

In an article discussing Google and the news, the Discovery Institute complains that they are victims of a uniform journalistic culture:

We know from our uniform and repeated experience that once something like intelligent design is misdefined as, and equated t,o[sic] creationism, the label sticks. It sticks for exactly the reason that this story subtly highlights in explaining how hidebound traditional reporting is when compared to the internet age. A newspaper reporter defines the idea, and all future reporters at that publication (and many others when you consider somewhere as influential as the AP) simply copy the definition as the defecto[sic] standard no matter that it may be wrong or completely out of touch with reality. So, eventually you get thousands of reporters with one consensus reading, not five.”

There’s a problem with the bleat, of course: “intelligent design” is a label for a subset of the arguments of creationism, so the people who report “intelligent design” as such are simply “following where the evidence leads”. There is nothing that is argued by “intelligent design” advocates that wasn’t argued previously by “creation scientists” and “scientific creationists” before, either as attempted argument related to agency or in the strategy of general criticism of evolutionary science. This was amusingly well-documented during the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District trial, where such things as “cdesign proponentsists” were a topic of discussion, and where the Discovery Institute’s own experts testifying under oath show that we had seen those arguments in religious antievolution before:

[Eric Rothschild] Q. We’ll return to that. In any event, in Pandas, there are arguments for intelligent design of higher level biological life?

[Michael Behe] A. Yes, there are.

Q. And we’re clear, that’s not based on your work?

A. It’s not based on any concept of irreducible complexity. It is based on a concept that I discuss in Darwin’s Black Box, the purposeful arrangements of parts.

Q. That purposeful arrangement of parts, that’s not — you didn’t originate that?

A. No, I didn’t.

Q. At least, it goes back to Reverend Paley?

A. Yes, it does. Further back than that.

And DI Fellow Scott Minnich a bit later:

[Stephen Harvey] Q. Dr. Minnich, I’d like to know whether you know that a man named Dr. Dick Bliss, who was affiliated with the Institute for Creation Research, was using the bacterial flagellum as part of his argument for creationism years before the intelligent design movement picked up on it?

THE COURT: All right. The objection is overruled for the record. You can answer the question.

[Scott Minnich] THE WITNESS: No, I wasn’t aware of it, but I’m not surprised. Again, like I asserted yesterday that, the bacterial flagellum is one of the organelles that we know the most about of any. And so it’s natural to look at this structure as a model for either evolution or irreducible complexity. So I’m not surprised. I didn’t know it, but I’m not surprised.

It’s possible for tropes to become established convention and passed on. Certainly, the religious antievolution movement practices this assiduously. But there’s another reason why things may get repeated once stated, and that is because they happen to be true and well-supported by the available evidence. “Intelligent design” is just a label for a subset of religious antievolution argumentation, and represents nothing but a sham to evade legal rulings against religious antievolution being injected into the public schools. Of course the DI has to say it isn’t so, since admitting forthrightly what the evidence has shown over and over again would be “game over” for any future outings in court. The new news should be just as resistant to accepting propaganda from the self-interested as the old-school journalism was supposed to be.