ABOUT GrrlScientist

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grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ecology and ethology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked as a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the phylogeography, speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands.

A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Unfortunately, her legacy of abject failure continues here too: she now is a discarded science writer/journalist after writing her eponymous science blog for The Guardian (UK) for longer than six years; The Guardian suddenly and unceremoniously dumped her without formal explanation at the end of October 2015.


GrrlScientist: All Posts


Why do Songbirds Sing in the Autumn?

Posted 1 November 2015 by GrrlScientist

Song is used by passerines (songbirds) to attract mates and to maintain breeding territories in the spring and early summer. Yet weirdly, many songbirds also sing in the autumn. If these birds aren't breeding in the autumn, then why are they singing? There are at least three physiological mechanisms that apparently underlie autumnal singing in temperate-zone passerines. These physiological mechanisms could also underlie out-of-season singing in tropical and subtropical passerines that are kept and bred by American aviculturists, but we... Read more

Birdsong: It’s More Than Just Music to Your Ears

Posted 1 November 2015 by GrrlScientist

The early morning sky blushed pink as it was greeted with songs produced by a flirtatious ensemble of starlings on the power lines overhead. A robin's cheery carol and the intricate whistle of a wren drifted lightly through this concert. As in ages past, the dawn chorus had begun. "Birdsong serves the two main functions of advertising a territory and attracting females" says Eliot Brenowitz, a professor of both Psychology and Zoology who studies birdsong at the University of Washington.... Read more

Catching Dinner on the Fly … The Night is Alive With the Sound of Echoes

Posted 1 November 2015 by GrrlScientist

The evening was peaceful as the sun settled below the horizon. Suddenly, the orange and red sky was dotted with flying blue-grey silhouettes zigzagging above Lake Union. Bats! Some bats dipped low over the water's surface to drink in a manner similar to swallows, while others followed erratic courses above, consuming mosquitoes and other insects in flight. How do bats find and capture insects in darkness? All insect-eating bats produce sounds — either with open mouths or through an elaborate... Read more

Take a Peek at Nature’s Website: Spiders Spin Steely Silken Splendor

Posted 1 November 2015 by GrrlScientist

On foggy mornings, Charlotte's web was truly a thing of beauty. This morning each thin strand was decorated with dozens of tiny beads of water. The web glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil. -- E. B. White, Charlotte's Web . Perhaps the highest achievement of spiders is the orb-web. Orb-weaving spiders (Family: Araneidae) are remarkable artists fabricating intricate webs from the finest silks. Late autumn and early spring is when... Read more

Journal Club: Schemochromes: The physics of structural plumage colours

Posted 2 October 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: Blue plumage colouring is NOT the result of pigments, as other feather colours are, but rather, it is created by tiny structures that reflect blue light, creating the illusion of blue feather colour Most avian plumage colours are the result of different types of pigments that are deposited into feathers while they are regrowing after moult. However, pigments alone do not produce all avian feather colours. Blues, such as those seen in hyacinthine macaws, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, and white, such... Read more

Journal Club: Velvet ants share warning signals with their neighbours

Posted 17 August 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: North American velvet ants are one of the world’s largest complexes of mimics. Although these beautiful insects produce an intensely painful venom, neighbouring species still mimic each other’s many warning signals, a trait that effectively protects them all from predators A team of American scientists report they’ve discovered of one of the world’s largest complexes of mimics, New World velvet ants. These brilliantly-coloured insects produce an intensely painful venom, yet neighbouring species still resemble each other so closely that... Read more

Journal Club: Taking flight: Cape parrot identified as new species

Posted 12 August 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: The endangered cape parrot really is a distinct species, according to a newly-published molecular study -- a finding that could impact conservation decisions and strategies in South Africa for decades to come The taxonomy of the Cape parrot, Poicephalus robustus robustus, has long been controversial, particularly amongst conservation biologists and policymakers. But today, a team of South African scientists published a study that agrees with previously published morphological, ecological, and behavioural assessments indicating that this taxon should be elevated... Read more

Journal Club: Venomous frogs use toxic face spines as weapons

Posted 6 August 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: A team of scientists have identified two species of venomous frogs, a unexpected discovery. While a number of frogs have toxins in their skin and thus are considered poisonous, the term “venomous” is reserved for animals, such as pit vipers, that can inject their toxins into other animals It’s common knowledge that some frogs secrete toxins from special glands in their skin. But according to a paper published today in Current Biology, an international team of researchers report for... Read more

Journal Club: Golden jackal: A new wolf species hiding in plain sight

Posted 30 July 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: A new species of wolf has been discovered in Africa after exhaustive DNA and morphological analyses revealed it is evolutionarily distinct from the Eurasian golden jackal, which it strongly resembles The Canid family -- wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, domestic dogs and others -- are so familiar to us, and have been so intensively studied for so long that you might think that we know almost everything there is to know about them. But a paper published today in Current... Read more

Journal Club: Orchid Observers: a citizen science project

Posted 21 July 2015 by GrrlScientist

SUMMARY: Scientists at London’s Natural History Museum recently launched a citizen science project that will document how wild British orchids are responding to climate change A few years ago, a paper published in the Journal of Ecology reported that an orchid that grows wild in the UK and parts of Europe was blooming earlier than it was 150 years prior. In that paper, the authors examined field records of flowering times for the early spider-orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, for two time... Read more