Macho Science

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 05/2017




It’s no fun getting old, I can tell you. Every night my bones and muscles protest loudly just at me spreading my wings. More­over, ­wind and weather feels chillier than ever lately; at least my beak keeps dripping most of the time.

Much worse, though, all those yummy little furballs appear to be whizzing over the forest ground faster than ever before. Often too fast for me, so that most nights only “the old and sick” remain an easy target for my dinner. Brrr!

And then there are certainly all those beautiful and elegant lady owls, who nowanights don’t even spare me the slightest glance as they fly by. Damn hormones! Still floating around in my body but only serving to shatter my ego into ever smaller pieces...

Enough whinging! There is at least one thing that I definitely do not miss at all from my younger days: brood care. Our damned hormones drive us to mate and then relentlessly force us into the whole programme: the lady lays the eggs and incubates them until the babies hatch, at the same time the guy has to hunt and deliver the food – first for the breeding lady alone and, after hatching, over weeks and weeks for the fledglings as well. Believe me, in my better years I hunted more than two thousand mice to feed my whole, actual family through such a reproductive cycle – which makes twenty to thirty per night...

Hah, I hear you humans spouting off about how to balance working in science and raising a family. But what should we birds say? You definitely cannot begin to imagine how much the way we reproduce distracts us from doing science. We have absolutely no choice in the matter! Hormones, old chap, hormones...

Well... I haven’t started telling you this, just for the sake of a good old peck at you humans (although, there’s nothing I enjoy more, as you know!). You see, the sad fact is that even a few of our bird fellows obviously don’t have a clue as to exactly how strong these reproductive forces are for the vast majority of us! And that it is not a point of not wanting to escape them – but that we simply cannot! Neither females nor males!

What kind of nasty consequences can arise from such incredible ignorance is perhaps best exemplified by the story of Bowerbird. Allow me to enlighten you...

Bowerbird was a strange guy, who showed up in our forest one day out of the blue. It turned out that he had acquired a grant from the Bird-of-Passage Programme, which aimed at luring eminent bird researchers from all parts of the globe to our forest, in order to lead a group on a specific project for a given time.

To put it bluntly, I didn’t like Bowerbird from the first moment I saw him perched on one of the highest branches, staring arrogantly around with his pungent blue eyes. It was my old chap Skylark who finally told me a bit more about Bowerbird’s species. In actual fact, he had once spent a sabbatical in their homeland and so he knew a lot about bowerbirds, first hand. I liked almost nothing of what he reported; however, the most important information relevant to our story was as follows: Their hormones drive the male bowerbirds to build up elaborate bowers, which in a somewhat crazy effort, they decorate with lots of colourful stuff, to attract females for mating. Well, what shall I say... Everybirdy to his own! What Skylark told me next really took the biscuit, “A successful male who has built a good bower might attract more than 25 females and mate with all of them over one mating period. Other countries, other habits – shall we say!” Enough said!

I let that sit for a while and finally pondered aloud, “But that means that in the end the females...”

“Exactly!” Skylark nodded. “They are left completely alone with breeding the eggs and raising the fledglings. Their males do not take any part in parental care. They just donate their sperm and send them on their way. Real macho birds!”

Given this, it was rather foreseeable what finally happened...

Bowerbird’s first victims were a pair of crested grebe PhD students. Unfortunately, he had obviously not known before that grebes are among the birds with the longest breeding times of all – and, furthermore, that both breed: male and female. When they finally returned in late October, after four months of breeding absence, they found their benches occupied by two starlings – genuine short-breeders (for those of you not in the know).

Even worse was what happened to Bowerbird’s first postdoc, a white stork lady. Again, Bowerbird had only been impressed by her elegant appearance and had not been aware of the rather long breeding and raising time that white storks generally have to invest in their reproductive success. When the lady was about to lay her second set of eggs, Bowerbird fired her without further ado. He didn’t care much of a feather that in doing so, he killed off her whole scientific career before it had really taken off.

If that wasn’t enough, Bowerbird’s egocentric recklessness didn’t end there. He took all the clones and cell lines the white stork lady had produced during her postdoc time and threw them away. He did, however, keep her lab book; he gave it to his technician, also a young bowerbird from his homeland, and instructed him to repeat all the experiments, exactly as noted therein. Within a short time, he had reproduced all the results of White Stork – and Bowerbird could finally publish the corresponding article, without her name, in one of our very top journals, Bird Genetics...

My dear readers, I’ve never cared much about things like Gender Mainstreaming (and its sometimes all-too crazy excesses) but old owl that I am now, it is still one of my most pleasurable memories to recall how, after two or three more similar incidences, our acting Women’s Officer finally chased that dastardly Bowerbird far out of the forest and into pastures unknown. She was an eagle lady with a reeeeally strong beak and particularly sharp talons...

Comments: owl@lab-times.org





Last Changed: 01.10.2017




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