Last update: 14 May 2015
In overhauling Intro Bio this past year, we substantially changed how we covered diversity. Instead of having what I thought of as the death march through the phylogeny (e.g., one lecture on fungi; one lecture on “lower animals” – though, of course, we didn’t call it that; one lecture on vertebrates, etc.), we integrated diversity throughout the course. For example, I covered arthropods when I taught about herbivory and mutualism, I covered fungi when I taught about ecosystem ecology and nutrient cycling, and I covered plant diversity when I taught about biomes.
Overall, I think that was much more engaging for the students, but I was left feeling like it would have been nice to cover diversity a little bit more. Near the end of the semester, I remembered that my postdoc advisor, Tony Ives, starts his ecology lectures with an “Organism of the Day”, and that students love it. I think I am going to introduce this when I teach Intro Bio again next year. I start lectures with a video (more on that in a future post), but I think the OotD could be a fun way to break up an 80 minute lecture.
Here are the organisms that I’m currently considering as organisms of the day:
1. Animal Diversity Web (ht: Jessica Light) (added 10 January 2015)
2. Creature Feature, written by Ambika Kamath. (added 10 January 2015)
3. Deep Sea News’ Favorite Species (added 11 January 2015)
4. Mammal March Madness, run every March by Katie Hinde of Mammals Suck. (ht: Reno Hates Me) (added 11 January 2015)
5. IUCN red list (ht: jstrat) (added 11 January 2015)
1. Vibrio cholerae. Obviously it’s a major pathogen, and the story about how knowledge of its natural history led to major reductions in infection prevalence is interesting and important. There is also new work about how it can evolve rapidly; this recent piece by Ed Yong summarizes this new work on how cholera kill each other with spears to steal DNA. Whoa!
2. Whatever bacterium has the smallest genome. (link to comment from Greg Crowther) (added 10 January 2015)
3. Myxococcus xanthus. This bacterium has sophisticated cooperative behaviors. Jeremy says: “That would really open students eyes; undergrads don’t often realize just how sophisticated unicellular organisms can be. And it would be a good intro to a lecture on cooperative behavior and its evolution. See, e.g., Greg Velicer’s work.” Meg adds: Yes, I agree that undergrads don’t think of bacteria as having behavior! For that reason, I have them watch Bonnie Bassler’s TED talk on quorum sensing as part of their pre-class assigned work before the behavior lecture. (added 10 January 2015)
4. Lactobacillus. Suggested by Simon Stump, who wrote: “The bacteria that gives us sourdough, saurkraut, kimchi, yogurt, … (and the list goes on). This is something that many of your students eat on a daily basis without knowing it.” I think this would be a great OotD! (added 28 January 2015)
5. H. pylori. This would be interesting both for the story of how the link between H. pylori and ulcers was made (which led to a Nobel Prize), for newer arguments that H. pylori might have beneficial effects on humans (which are being lost due to heavy antibiotic use), and for this recent study suggesting that the risk of stomach cancer goes up when there’s a mismatch between human and H. pylori genotypes. And, thanks to Pat Schloss, I now know that people have tracked human migration using H. pylori, which is really neat. (added 22 February 2015, updated 24 March 2015)
1. Rainbow eucalyptus: this past semester, when I was looking up more information on chaparral biomes, I saw a picture of Eucalyptus deglupta. I had no idea such an organism existed. Very cool! I think it would capture students’ attention, and would be a good way of discussing gymnosperms vs. angiosperms and evergreen vs. deciduous plants. (This past semester, I think many of my students had the impression that all gymnosperms are evergreen and all angiosperms are deciduous, so I’d like to cover this more next year.) A rainbow eucalyptus was the picture of the week on Science Friday in 2013.
2. Tasmania’s giant ash trees, which might be the world’s tallest flowering trees. There’s lots of great information in that link (to a BBC story on them), which talks about the tradeoffs plants face in growing very tall – they are better competitors for light, but it is hard to get water up very high.
3. Ferns: among other cool things, they can launch their offspring with medieval-style catapults.
4. Bladderwort: this video has really neat high speed videography showing a bladderwort catching aquatic invertebrates, and explains how the trap works. I, of course, especially like that a copepod is captured, while the Daphnia escapes (I’m choosing to ignore that it’s really just that she’s too fat to get sucked in. 😉 ) Everyone loves carnivorous plants, right? Update 26 Jan 2015: turns out they’re not just carnivorous! They eat plants and fungi, too.
5. Gingko. This is another one that would provide a good opportunity to discuss gymnosperms vs. angiosperms and evergreen vs. deciduous plants, with the added bonus that we have these on campus, so students might be familiar with them. The females of the species produce seeds that smell like vomit, which is sure to get students’ attention, and which could be used to introduce plant reproduction. (I suspect many students have not considered plants as potentially being male or female before.) It also could link with the possible economic value of biodiversity (and with the mixed evidence for the actual effectiveness of some of these naturally derived compounds). Given all this, I’m pretty sure I will use this one next semester. (added 10 January 2015)
6. Milkweeds (Asclepias). Jeff Ollerton suggested these based on their unusual pollination systems, but they would also work well in terms of discussion of herbivory and defenses. (We already cover this a bit in my course, so I could flesh it out more if I used milkweeds as an OotD.) (added 10 January 2015)
6. Heliconia. Suggested by Emilio Bruna, who wrote: “Beautiful plants characteristic of the tropics, a great story about co-evolution (e.g., genus originated in the pacific but exploded when reached the Americas and met the hummingbirds there; colors and floral shape can vary on islands based on what hummingbird species is there: see Temeles, Kress), it has some cool herbivores that can be used to study metapopulations (Strong, Johnson) and the date the orgins of herbivory in the fossil record (Garcia-Robledo), and is a model system to study plant demography and how it is influenced by habitat fragmentation (who did that? the name escapes me). Plus it is also a great example of how taxonomists think: Heliconia are closely related to the bananas (genus Musa), so to show this affinity Linnaeus named them for the for the home of the Muses in Greek mythology: Mt. Helicon (though this it is worth noting there are multiple stories for where the Musa came from, including homage to the physician of the first Roman Emperor and the Latinization of the Arabic name for the fruit).” (added 10 January 2015)
7. Picea abies, Norway Spruce. Suggested by Konsta Happonen, who wrote, “Recent genetic evidence suggest that some individuals of Picea abies survived through the last Ice Age in refugia near the coast of northern Norway. It’s one of northern Europe’s most common and most important trees, both ecologically and economically. Still, spruce is a late-successional species, slow to spread, and there was a time after the Ice Age when other trees were the dominant trees in northern Europe because of this slow dispersal. It’s a great example of how gymnosperms are still the dominant plants in northern areas, and how their traits are better adapted to a cold and dry climate than the newer innovations of angiosperms. (added 11 January 2015)
8. Dandelions. Suggested by Konsta Happonen, who wrote, “They’re EVERYWHERE. Dandelions teach us about antropophilous traits, invasive species, the evolution of apomixis, among other things. You could even serve some edible dandelion leafs or sweet rolls with dandelion flowers baked in for the courageous.” From Meg: I love the idea of using dandelions, because they’re so common, but probably most students haven’t thought much about them. They could be used as an OotD in a lecture on succession and disturbance. (added 11 January 2015)
9. Cycads. Common in the Jurassic, now rare. (ht: Skip) (added 11 January 2015)
10. Bromeliads. Epiphytes are generally interesting, but bromeliads are particularly interesting because each is a little microcosm for a variety of insect larvae, etc. (ht: Skip) (added 11 January 2015)
11. Carpetweed. This video argues that it’s an extremophile, because it does really well in asphalt cracks in parking lots. The video mentions some of the traits that help it do well there, and I think it could be an accessible introduction to the idea of humans as really strong selective forces. Plus, the video shows someone using a skateboard for fieldwork! (added 26 April 2015)
1. Daphnia, of course. 🙂 They could go in a lecture on herbivory, or in a lecture on nutrient cycling. But, actually, I’m more likely to use one of the other possibilities for those lectures.
2. Tarantulas. I teach in the fall, so spiders could be a good organism of the day around Halloween.
3. Dragonflies. This could be the organism of the day in the lecture where I teach about arthropods. In that, I already mention how arthropods have been studied to try to learn about locomotion and to design robots. From 3:00 to 3:42 in this video has very cool high speed videography of a dragonfly flying, showing it moving backwards and moving its four wings independently. I would also be able to cover this new Nature study, which showed that dragonflies predict and plan their hunts. And look at these beautiful photos! The could also be used to cover aquatic-terrestrial linkages; very cool photos of dragonfly nymphs are shown here. (Photo links added 28 March 2015 and 15 April 2015)
4. Pleasing fungus beetle. This beetle shows maternal care and gregariousness, so could work in a lecture on behavioral ecology. It also has chemical defenses and warning coloration, so could work in a lecture on predation. The link has a cool video showing them moving from mushroom to mushroom.
5. Punk rock snails. Their shells are covered in spikes, and they live in extremely hot, acidic conditions. These would fit well in the lecture where I teach about herbivory and constitutive vs. induced defenses. Something I learned this semester is that students are very confused about mollusks, which causes problems for them understanding an example of induced defenses that I use (where mussels make thicker shells in response to predator cues) and ocean acidification. The Latin name of these snails is Alviniconcha strummeri, after the lead singer for the Clash.
6. Stick insects. Did you know that they can be two feet long?
7. Stomatopods (mantis shrimp). Incredible predators! (ht: cjpaster) (added 10 January 2015)
8. Puss caterpillars. How could students not be intrigued, given that name? These are highly toxic. They also look kind of like the caterpillar that the birds listed in Vertebrates:5 below! (ht: cjpaster) (added 10 January 2015)
9. Case-making caddisflies. As cjpaster pointed out in the comments, you can view them as freshwater hermit crabs. Some of the cases they make are striking. (ht: cjpaster) (added 10 January 2015)
10. Tardigrades (water bears). How did I forget to include these on my original list?! Extremophiles that are the first animal known to have survived in space. (ht: Reno Hates Me) (added 10 January 2015)
11. Peacock mantis shrimp. It’s super bright, has incredible eyes and eyesight, and has club-like appendages that can strike at the speed of a .22 caliber bullet, which helps explain why The Oatmeal declared it his new favorite organism. ht: Reno Hates Me) (added 10 January 2015)
12. Leafcutter ants. From Jonathan Klassen: “I often give guest lectures on this to intro students and find it’s a great way to introduce both the importance of microbes and the flavors of symbiosis. It certainly checks your “non-vertebrate” box: the ants themselves, their food fungus “cultivar” mutualist, a co-evolved fungal pathogen of the cultivar “Escovopsis”, “Pseudonocardia” bacteria that produce antibiotics vs. fungal pathogens, and more! I particularly like how this system covers the entire mutualist-parasite spectrum of symbiosis and provides a simple community ecology network with both direct and indirect interactions.” He also pointed out that there’s lots of good multimedia on them. (ht: Emilio Bruna and Jonathan Klassen) (added 10 January 2015)
13. Philodina rotifers. From Jeremy: “Lets you introduce rotifers, and lets you talk about the evolution of sexual reproduction. Bdelloid rotifers like Philodina are about the only “ancient asexuals”, an old and diverse monophyletic group, none of whose members have ever had sex. IIRC (and I may not), Philodina has exceptionally effective DNA repair and thus a very low mutation rate, which is a bit of comparative evidence in favor of Muller’s ratchet as an explanation for the predominance of sexual reproduction. Asplanchna would be the other obvious pick for a rotifer with cool biology.” Meg adds: bdelloids can also do crazy things [for an animal, at least] like pick up DNA from the environment. (added 10 January 2015)
14. Leucochloridium paradoxum. This parasitic flatworm turns snails into zombies with pulsating antennae. I’ve shown videos of infected snails in class before, and students love it. Could be used to introduce the ideas that animals can be parasites, complex life cycle parasites, micro- vs. macroparasites, and parasite modification of host behavior. (ht: Belinda Fabian) (added 11 January 2015).
15. Episyrphus balteatus, marmalade hoverfly. Suggested by Konsta Happonen, who wrote, “Diptera! True flies get way too little attention, despite being the second most diverse insect order. Such a diverse order performs many ecoogical functions. Bees get a lot of credit for pollinating plants, but what many laymen forget is that there are many areas of the world, especially in high latitudes, where it’s our two-winged friends that perform the majority of pollination. Hoverflies of the family Syrphidae are probably the most important family of true fly pollinators. They are a wonderful example of mimicry (different species imitate wasps, bees and ants). Episyrphus balteatus is just one example of common, noteworthy syrphids. They form giant migratory swarms and scare the hell out of people on islands or boats when they cross larger bodies of water (such as the Baltic sea).” (added 11 January 2015)
16. Sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers can defend themselves using something known as evisceration. You really need to read about this. As a teaser, “Different kinds of sea cucumbers evert/expel different organs. These can also vary depending on certain times of the year.” (ht: Laura Sirot) (added 11 January 2015)
17. Bombardier beetles. Produce a noxious, hot spray that they use as a defense. (ht: Kevin Chase) (added 11 January 2015)
18. Photosynthetic sea slugs. (added 4 February 2015)
19. Snails that make their shells out of iron, possibly due to a symbiosis with bacteria! (added 20 February 2015)
20. Golden tortoise beetle, which can change colors rapidly thanks to an optical illusion. (ht: Cindee Giffen) (added 26 February 2015)
1. Pliosaurus (also known as “Predator X”). This is a fossil that was discovered in 2006, and is considered the most powerful marine reptile discovered to date. Here’s a video and some more information from BBC Earth. And here’s more on the naming of the species. I think this could be a useful organism of the day in the lecture I give on the fossil record, history of life, and vertebrate diversity (yes, the lecture covers a lot of ground!) It would be a good way of exploring how we learn things about the ecology of extinct organisms, and of exploring how fossils are discovered and named. And I think it would be a great segue to a discussion of who was the first predator (hint: not Pliosaurus or any of its close relatives, but, much more likely, a bacterium).
2. Coelocanth. Another good potential organism of the day for the lecture on the fossil record, history of life, and vertebrate diversity is the coelacanth. I think it’s hard for students to grasp the whole tetrapods evolved from lobe-finned fishes idea, and featuring a lobe-finned fish might help. Plus, it has a cool story. Here’s a video from National Geographic on coelocanths.
3. Hellbenders. This video is really well done, and talks about hellbenders as an indicator of ecosystem health. It also includes some impressive hellbender fight scenes that I am sure students would like! Given the links with human health, it could fit well in my lecture on human impacts on the environment.
4. Filefish. This fish evades predators by producing chemicals that make it smell like the coral it eats. Pretty cool!
5. These baby birds make themselves look like a toxic caterpillar – a pretty cool example of crypsis!
6. Electric eels. A new study shows that they can remotely control their prey’s muscles. Whoa! Definitely has potential as an OotD for the predation lecture.
7. American alligator. Reptiles that can use tools and that have parental care, both of which will probably surprise students. (ht: Reno Hates Me) (added 10 January 2015)
8. Turkey vultures. They vomit as a defensive strategy, which is sure to grab students’ attention. (Via twitter, Alex Bond points out that fulmars can also vomit as a defensive strategy, which caused problems for the reintroduction of sea eagles to Scotland) (ht: Reno Hates Me) (added 10 January 2015, updated 11 January 2015)
9. Bowerbirds. They trick mates with optical illusions! (ht: Jeremy) (added 11 January 2015)
10. 9-banded armadillo. Suggested by Skip, who wrote “fits the common species category, but it’s got some cool features, and the range expansion into the SE is ongoing, so there’s an interesting point there too. You see a lot of dead ones on road sides in GA, FL, AL, and I assume elsewhere I haven’t driven in awhile. They jump up in the air when startled, so a lot of them become road kill. Not sure how they crossed the Mississippi River, probably had help by some other upright-oriented mammal.” (added 11 January 2015)
11. Dogs. (suggested by Skip.) (added 11 January 2015)
12. Wood frogs. They can freeze for months and then thaw! Here’s a video. (added 11 January 2015)
13. Tamius striatus, eastern chipmunk. Suggested by Jim, who wrote: aka “Tamius the Beast” I taught a class to 5-8 graders and they loved it. T. is extremely fierce w/ rivals, and competition among Ts is very intense. Not so cute and cuddly as you might expect.” (added 11 January 2015)
14. Fox squirrels. There are lots of squirrels on Michigan’s campus, and there’s even a squirrel club, so students would probably be entertained by this as an OotD. (added 11 January 2015)
15. Sideblotch lizards (Uta stansburiana), which have a rock-paper-scissor mating dynamics. (suggested by Simon Stump) (added 28 January 2015)
16. Whiptail lizards (genus Aspidoscelis). Interesting because they are a vertebrate that reproduces parthenogenetically. (suggested by Simon Stump) (added 28 January 2015)
17. Crocodiles. Crocs are the sort of thing that automatically capture student attention, but they can also be used to cover topics like tool use and habitat preferences/specificity (and other cool features of their habitat use: Nile crocodiles dig the deepest burrows — 12 M deep! ht: Jacob Tennessen). I think it will surprise many students that there are multiple species of crocodile, and it can provide an example to talk about how we group things into species. It also would link well with coverage of vertebrate evolution. And there’s new evidence that estuarine crocodiles ride surface currents to help them travel long distances, which is neat. I also remember thinking it was neat when I learned as an undergrad how to tell crocodiles and alligators apart. (Look at the teeth!) (added 24 March 2015)
18. Opah, “the only truly warm-blooded fish“. There’s lots of great info in that linked piece by Ed Yong, including on how the scientists weren’t initially setting out to study opah. (added 14 May 2015)
1. Clathrus ruber, a kind of stinkhorn fungus. Just look at this picture:
And this one! That looks like a toy my kids have, not a fungus. For me, this seems like a good candidate for organism of the day in the lecture where I teach about decomposition and fungal diversity.
2. Endolithic lichens of Antarctica. (pdf link) Live inside rocks, as their name suggests. I bet most students haven’t considered the possibility for things to live inside rocks, and this could help with a discussion of primary succession, which my students had a hard time with this semester. Also could be used to introduce lichens more generally (ht: Skip) (added 11 January 2015)
3. Ophiocordyceps. Suggested by Jonas Kuppler, who wrote, “Infecting the brain of ants and turning them into zombie-like creature is just a pretty awesome and somehow scary thing to do.” I agree! I show them a video of Cordyceps when I teach about parasitism. (added 11 January 2015)
1. Vampire amoebas. This one could also be a good organism of the day when I teach about predation, because most students don’t think of single-celled organisms as predators, and especially don’t think of them as being able to prey on much bigger organisms. Given their name, I suppose this is another one that could work well around Halloween.
2. Euplotes, a marine ciliate. Suggested by Jeremy as an example of an organism with interesting phenotypic plasticity. From Jeremy: It’s “one of the best worked-out examples of the benefits and costs of plasticity. The presence of certain predators induces them to grow lobe-like appendages, making them too big to eat, but comes at a cost of reducing reproductive rate (here, the rate at which they can go through a cell cycle). This is work from Wiakowski and others, if memory serves.” (added 10 January 2015)
3. Tetrahymena vorax, a ciliate with an inducible offense as well as an inducible defense. From Jeremy: “There are three morphs, all produced via plasticity: the football-shaped bacterivorous “microstome” that lacks either defense or offense, a defensive microstome that grows a “tail spine”, and an offensive “macrostome” that’s basically a much bigger version of the football-shaped microstome, allowing it to eat other ciliates (including smaller members of its own species) at the cost of making it an ineffective bacterivore. In laboratory culture, you’ll see all three morphs in the same population–competition for bacteria induces some cells to adopt the macrostome form and eat their competitors, which in turn induces other cells to grow tail spines. Aabir Banerji has published some work on the ecology of Tetrahymena vorax.” (added 10 January 2015)
4. Blepharisma. From Jeremy: “Not well-studied, but very cool. It’s a big pink bacterivorous ciliate. Yes, pink. The function of the pigment (called blepharismin) is unknown. Blepharisma also has an inducible offense–bacterial scarcity induces some cells to grow really big and eat other ciliates rather than bacteria.” (added 10 January 2015)
5. Paramecium bursaria. From Jeremy: This “is an interesting example of symbiosis. It’s a ciliate with endosymbiontic zoochlorellae, so it’s both heterotroph and autotroph. But it’s not that well studied, and so as far as I know it’s not 100% clear if this is a mutualism, or if it’s more a matter of P. bursaria “enslaving” Chlorella (which are capable of a free-living existence).” Meg adds: in my mostly failed work on Asplanchna rotifers, we found that Paramecium bursaria was the magic food for culturing the Asplanchna. We decided that the Asplanchna liked lettuce (Chlorella) with their hamburger (Paramecium). 🙂 (added 10 January 2015)
6. Lacrymaria. Also from Jeremy: It “is just a really cool protist to watch. Watch these videos to see why its name means “tears of the swan: video 1 and video 2”. (added 10 January 2015)
1. Hyperthermophiles (e.g., Pyrococcus). These live at ocean vents “breathing” metals at above the boiling point of water. (ht: Jonathan Klassen) (added 10 January 2015)
2. Halophiles (e.g., Haloferax). These lives in saturated brines and are visible as the red color of evaporation ponds such as the one shown here. (ht: Jonathan Klassen) (added 10 January 2015)
Viruses: (though, of course, you could debate whether they are “organisms”)
1. Norovirus. It makes you incredibly miserable, but it’s a really amazing virus. (added 10 January 2015)
2. Common cold (rhinovirus). Here’s a new piece by Carl Zimmer on them. (added 10 January 2015)
3. Whatever virus has the smallest genome. (link to comment from Jeremy) (added 10 January 2015)
Do you have other ideas? Please suggest possible organisms of the day! (My plan is to keep this post updated, much like I do with my post on videos for teaching ecology.) Bonus points for suggesting charismatic organisms that are not vertebrates. Extra bonus points for suggesting cool Archaea; I feel like I really did not cover them enough, and want to cover them more next year.