Monday, July 17, 2017

Smart Sakis: A Spoonful of Termite Mound helps the Bitter Seeds Go Down

Captive Sakis at the Como Zoo

One of my academic siblings, Dara Adams, just published some interesting new research from Saki monkeys in Peru!

New Scientist has a nice summary, as well as accompany video, see feel free to check that out!

Saki monkeys are a Neotropical primate found in Amazonia. They are seed predators, which means that rather than ingesting seeds and passing them whole (like spider monkeys), their teeth and digestive system destroy the seeds they eat. This is a good way to get maximum nutrition from those seeds, but the seeds contain high levels of secondary compounds like tannins. Tannins are the bitter, astringent compounds that give coffee, tea, and wine their unique flavors, but high levels of tannins (much higher than we consume), can be toxic.  Other Amazonian seed predators, like parrots, eat soil with clay and high cation exchange capacity, both of which neutralize the toxic effects. Seeds eaten by parrots in the same region have tannin levels toxic to most verterbrates. If the Sakis are eating the same seeds, how do they cope with those levels of toxins?

Sakis eat termite mounds, which contains soil, clay, and nutrients. Adams and colleagues tested between two hypotheses: 1) Sakis eat the termite mounds because they provide nutritious minerals (like vitamins), or 2) to help counteract the potentially toxic effects of secondary compounds (like a detox supplement). If the soil they ate from termite mounds contained more micronutrients, that would support the vitamin hypothesis. If the soils contained that have more clay and and cation exchange properties, that would support the detox hypothesis.

They observed how long the monkeys ate termite mounds, which age/sex classes at the termite mounds, if there were termites present. They also collected samples from termite mounds that the Saki fed at, and compared to control soil samples and unvisited termite mounds.

About 2/3 of the termite mounds contained termites, and Sakis did eat termites at the active mounds. However, they fed from both active and inactive termite mounds, all age/sex classes fed on the mounds. Termite mounds did have higher levels of some minerals than topsoil, and those levels were similar in the both the Saki-eaten mounds and univisited mounds. The eaten- and uneaten-termite mounds did not differ in in clay content, but the termite mounds that were eaten had twice the cation exchange capacity. Adams and colleagues conclude that the Sakis are eating the termite mounds primarly because it helps counteract the effect of the tannins, supporting the detox hypothesis.

So basically, Sakis are wisely self-medicating with termite mounds to counteract the effects of their potentially toxic diet!

An important caveat: Adams and colleagues do not use terms like the "vitamin" or "detox" hypothesis--I use these terms only to simply the function of termite-mound eating. Also, humans are not seed predators, so we do not have the same need for detoxing. Most talk of "toxins" in human diets is pseudoscience, and unless you're eating some strange things that are not suitable for human consumption, you should have no need for detoxing!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Who Tells your Story?

Recently, there's been a lot of twitter discussion on the negative experiences of women in academia, and follow-up discussions on the experiences of POC and WOC in science.

These discussions dovetail with my current research, as well as recent research published by members of my lab.

Women in science experience biasdiscrimination, and harassment, and these experiences are intensified for women of color.  Many of us know this personally or anecdotally. But we're at the stage where more of those experiences are being shared openly, and some personal and anecdotal information (which is so easily dismissed or denied by others who haven't experienced it) is being codified in peer-reviewed data.

But I have mixed emotions as I read others responses, and grapple with my own analysis of qualitative data on women of color's experiences. It's INCREDIBLY important that people contribute to these discussions. But in response to the concern that people might not want to share openly, there was an anonymous survey posted, so that those responses could be shared on Twitter. And something about that made me uncomfortable.

Often, we can only share those stories anonymously, because of the discomfort of bringing attention to our own experiences, or the fear of negative reprisals. BUT, I worry that when we report those eexperiences anonymously to others, we give away the power to tell our own stories. Storytelling has power, and those stories have power regardless of who's telling them. But I'm reluctant to tell my own stories in an anonymous way, because I don't want to give away agency over my own story.

This puts pressure on me to consider the way I report the qualitative data I've gathered from participants. Other people have entrusted me with their stories. How do I report on the emerging themes from those accounts while giving them full agency over their own experiences? This is a question I'm going to have to keep thinking about as I move forward in analysis and writing.

 But for my own stories I'm not ready to share many of my experiences openly on Twitter, nor do I want them to give them away to be told anonymously. I want to maintain agency over my own story, so that I can tell it on my own terms.

I highly recommend reading Ambika Kamath's perspective, I Have Forgotten. Also, in case you were under the impression that only underrepresented minorities experience discrimination in science, read RajLab's Anti-Asian Bias in Science.