About Me and this Blog

Name: Marc Srour

Contact: marcsrour [at] gmail.com

Current Affiliation: Enalia Physis Environmental Research Center, Cyprus. Personal Page.

Some More Outreach Activities: See me on Quora, where I answer questions about zoology, palaeontology, geology (mostly).

About The Blog:

This blog was originally a small extension of my teaching duties, where I wrote extensions on topics discussed in class, but didn’t have time to elaborate on.

Since then, I kept the blog running and occasionally update on random topics I am currently working on. Earlier posts are scant on literature and further reading; from now (2011), I will be including extensive citations and the posts will look more like introductions to scientific papers (although without the jargon, hopefully). This is both due to me feeling as if I am plagiarising if I don’t include the citations and to guide the reader to where they can get more information. That said, the majority of these citations link to scholarly journals and are not accessible to people without a university connection. In those cases, don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail and I’ll send you the paper (and more literature if you want!).

There is no post schedule. I have a tight work schedule and this blog is not prominent at all on it. I will make exceptions for requests and work as fast as possible to fulfill them though :)

The blog has several sections.

  • The Big Posts list has a listing of all the comprehensive posts so far, the ones that treat a subject completely.
  • Research Blogging had weekly updates on the new research out that week. If it comes down to it (i.e. if someone requests), I will do a more thorough write-up of a paper, and it will be placed in this section as well. Closed due to time constraints. Requests for explanations of new research are always open though.
  • Short Posts has short posts with answers to common or general questions.
  • Talks lists all the talks I can share on the blog. Anything that’s not done yet has to be requested.

Due to several reasons, there will be short posts that don’t fit in any of these categories and will not be archived in them.

If you want to write a guest post, e-mail me with a manuscript (or an idea, whatever)!

Guest bloggers: Sophie.

One section had to be axed because of the high density of morons on the internet: the Pseudoscience Abattoir, which had standard responses to common science-denialist hobby-horses. Due to the flood of hatemail and stupidity this generated, I deleted it. To make up for that, visit these websites which do a more thorough job than I did:

About Me:

I’m in my early 20s. I’m an invertebrate palaeontologist (educated in Germany), my main interest lying in the origin and evolution of the animals during the Cambrian. My taxon of choice is the arthropods and my BSc. thesis involved the redescription and phylogenetic analysis of two exceptionally preserved (i.e. with soft tissues) stem-group arthropods from the Devonian. My goal is to convince everyone that my hypothesis for the systematics of the arthropods is most reflective of reality. Unfortunately, every other worker in this field has this same goal, and each one has a different hypothesis.

That said, I never wanted to shoehorn myself into a narrow field and my range of professional interests varies across the biological spectrum (although, to be honest, arthropods are the center of most  of them). Some disciplinary biases: I only deal with invertebrates and broadly with plants; bacteria and other microcritters only come into the pictures as symbiotes, I do not consider them in any other contexts (except geochemical); vertebrates are boring and useless, and I only consider them when they are hosts destined to die. Here’s an incomplete list of my most prominent interests:

  • Phylogenetic Methodology: Mathematical bases and statistics are included here, but it’s mostly on the roles of morphology vs. genetics (where I fall squarely within the morphology group); also, a harsh critic of molecular clocks (where critic = someone who makes criticisms when they are due).
  • Ecology: Plant-arthropod interactions; terrestrial arthropod ß-diversity gradients; ecological mechanisms of sympatric speciation.
  • Arthropod Taxonomy: on the insect side: beetles, hymenopterans (esp. ants!), dragonflies, grasshoppers, mayflies, antlions; on the non-insect side: spiders, scorpions, millipedes and centipedes [I fell in love with arthropods because of these four groups, not the insects :) ]
  • Fossil Record: of the insects and early arthropods, and what they tell us about the evolution of these taxa; completeness of the fossil record; taphonomy; geochemistry of exceptional preservation
  • Animal Phylogeny: I concentrate on the arthropods, both where they belong on the tree and their interrelationships, but also have an interest in the more basal groups (sponges, cnidarians and the various wormy taxa); molluscan phylogeny is another hobby, but not as deeply involved as with the arthropods
  • Neurobiology: sensory biology of arthropods; invertebrate brains (esp. arthropod); comparative neurology among all invertebrates
  • Terrestrial Arthropod Physiology: especially abiotic influences on them, with view to how global warming may affect their distributions and diversity.
  • Parasitism: evolutionary basis and consequences; kickass examples of it
  • Sociality: evolutionary basis and consequences; criticism of mathematical models
  • Developmental Biology: comparative embryology (arthropods); evo-devo; criticisms of deep homology; morphogenesis and canalisation
  • Evolutionary Theory: levels of selection (individualist, leans towards group selection, thinks gene-level selection is bullshit); role of fossils and palaeontology in identifying and elucidating evolutionary processes
  • History of Biology: Everything, from how much ancient cultures knew, through the medieval periods, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and the origins of the modern biological disciplines to the emergence of modern-day debates (e.g. the group selection kerfuffles, the punctuated equilibrium battles and the silliness of early molecular phylogeneticists and the ways in which that silliness is still present); also, philosophy of biology (species concepts!) and history of biological philosophical concepts; biographical histories.

Those are what occupy me all the time, generally. I sometimes go through fads when I am fascinated by some random subject (in the past, this included cell biology and biochemistry).

I am currently starting up a project to review the terrestrial arthropods of Cyprus: taxonomy, ecology and zoogeography (both in time and space); involved with this project is public outreach (making field guides, etc.). If you have been/are going to Cyprus and feel like helping me out (insect photographer, collector, enthusiast, amateur or professional biologist), contact me with ideas!

Header designed by my friend Papzy. Thanks!

26 responses

29 06 2011
inquilinekea

Ah yes, I love comparative neurobiology among invertebrates!

Do you have any suggestions for invertebrate neurobiology books? (somewhere along the lines of Principles of Brain Evolution?) I’m quite curious about your thoughts on the Portia spiders. There’s a new book that talks about their behavior, although not in a particularly flattering way (it seems to say that their brains basically follow computer science-like algorithms that are optimized for learning quickly): http://books.google.com/books?id=z7PxxLrfoW4C&lpg=PA60&dq=portia%20spiders&pg=PA58#v=onepage&q=portia%20spiders&f=false

29 06 2011
Marc

Astrophysics and invertebrate neurobiology? Are you going for the jack-of-all-trades award? :D

If you want a book that goes systematically through the invertebrates, you can’t go wrong with Breidbach & Kutsch: The nervous systems of invertebrates: an evolutionary and comparative approach. I usually don’t buy books (I rewrite them in notes in library sessions, like a monk), but this one stands proud in my library. Some parts obviously need an update now, but afaik, it’s the most thorough volume that goes through all of them.

There’s a more recent book creatively called Invertebrate Neurobiology (North & Greenspan, 2007), which is more case-study like and has chapters for each sense and function. It’s a bit advanced, but the couple of chapters I read from it were excellent. Check out the Google Books preview to see if it’s your style.

A book like Principles of Brain Evolution doesn’t exist for the invertebrates yet (at least not a modern one). Several reasons, mostly because the “invertebrates” is actually a paraphyletic group, and you can’t really homologise the different nervous systems together, at least not without pissing off many people in the process :P There’s lots of terminologies that get confused by several authors. It’s only last year that someone got masochistic enough to try and standardise all the vocabulary, so maybe now someone will get to work on such a book.

Of course, there’s always the two-volume book/encyclopaedia Evolution of Nervous Systems. 2000+ pages, contains everything you’d want to know.

On Portia: I think they’re fascinating, and the book did a good job of explaining why. In a sense, you could classify all behaviour as running on algorithms, even human behaviour. I agree that it’s fallacious, but considering how behavioural experiments are done, it’s understandable and easy to use computer-science language.

I go into my general thoughts on behaviour here: http://bioteaching.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/the-complexity-of-behaviour-an-example-from-c-elegans/

Basically, the way I see it, if you have a nervous system, you’re capable of having different behaviours, learning, etc., just to different degrees, depending on how evolution’s acted on you. Humans have very advanced social behaviours and tool-making capabilities, because those are the characteristics that allowed us to become so dominant; Portia (and other salticids) need their stealthy hunting techniques, because they’re not big/strong enough to be proper predators. That they have these abilities is not “improbable” or “remarkable”, it’s expected, just like it’s exapected that the C. rhabditis in the above post will learn to avoid places that are not good for it. If you’re into philosophy, behaviour and learning are all emergent properties of a nervous system. As soon as you get enough neurons together, they’ll arise “automatically”.

But that’s all IMO, of course. :)

29 06 2011
inquilinekea

“Astrophysics and invertebrate neurobiology? Are you going for the jack-of-all-trades award? :D”

Haha yup (and into practically every field in natural and social science too). Well, I’m actually still more into vertebrates than invertebrates (it’s this silly bias I have just because vertebrates are cuter and more interactive than invertebrates). But invertebrate diversity is far more interesting than vertebrate diversity.

(Well, also, I’m into the hunt for a habitable exoplanet, and theories about the evolution of intelligence could help us adjust the probability ranges of the Drake Equation)

Oh I see – thanks for all the book recommendations! Yeah – that’s definitely true about paraphyletic groups among invertebrates – classification is such a hard problem! Of course, it’s worse in microbiology. ;) I’ll add these book recommendations in my post on Quora.

“It’s only last year that someone got masochistic enough to try and standardise all the vocabulary, so maybe now someone will get to work on such a book.”

Ah I see. Did he finally succeed in standardizing the vocabulary for everyone?

And thanks very much for all your comments on Portia spiders and CS algorithms! Those are all very good points! (yup – I’m really into philosophy and emergent properties – you’ve heard of Christof Koch, right?) I’ll really try to read the C elegans post after lunch today. :)

29 06 2011
Marc

I already prepared a 60 page PDF which goes through all the 30+ invertebrate phyla back when I was teaching actively. That’s 60 pages of pure text with zero pictures :P It would be a massive project to find/make good anatomical diagrams and phylogenetic trees, maybe I’ll lock myself in a room for a couple of weeks to put it all up on here.

Hunting for exoplanets? If you ever go to Mars and need an exopalaeontologist, e-mail me! :P

“Did he finally succeed in standardizing the vocabulary for everyone?”
I think so – it’s getting cited all the time now, so it seems that everyone is using it.

Christoph Koch? If it’s the guy that writes in Scientific American, then yeah. I don’t know much about his work though, only read a couple of articles from him :)

30 06 2011
inquilinekea

Hahaha nice. :) Oh yeah – phylogenetic trees! Can’t people ever make them without all the scientific names? I mean, I know the Latin names for a lot of the common animals, but when you have to learn the phylogenetic trees for all species (in all classes and orders for both invertebrates and vertebrates), it just takes so long (I’m speaking as a generalist though ;) ).

“Hunting for exoplanets? If you ever go to Mars and need an exopalaeontologist, e-mail me! :P”

Haha okay sure :)

Yup – Christof Koch is the guy who writes in Sciam. I mentioned him since he was talking about a “consciousness index” as well, where insects would have a value of it.

30 06 2011
Marc

“Can’t people ever make them without all the scientific names?”

I had the same thought when I first started (my specialty is phylogenetics) – but as soon as you start going deeper, you realise that you need the proper names or else it all just gets confusing. It’s tough at first, but once you get a grasp of the names, you’ll find that it’s much easier to converse using the Latin names than the common ones :) (It’s certainly easier to say Hymenoptera than to say ants, bees and wasps :P).

That said, when it comes to some vertebrate groupings, I do sometimes have to peek at Wikipedia to orient myself :D

Oh, I haven’t heard of that consciousness index. Thanks for the heads-up, I’ll google around to see what he’s written.

30 06 2011
inquilinekea

Ah yes true. I’m pretty much familiar with the Latin names for all the orders for all the animal kingdoms. And yup – Hymenoptera is definitely easier to say. What problems I do get into, though, come when looking at the trees at the species level. E.g. http://www.wormbook.org/chapters/www_phylogrhabditids/phylofig1.jpg . (I actually posted my issue at http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=477729 ) – I’m really familiar with all the individual parrot species, but when it gets into the Latin names for each species, it’s still sort of a mess. I do hope that phylogenetic trees can come in the form of clickable hyperlinks though – is there software to easily do that now? =)

30 06 2011
Marc

Ah, at the species level, only experience (and a search engine) will save you :) For vertebrates, it’s relatively easy. But when you get to the insects, there is simply no way of memorising all the species. I can recognise most beetle genera by name because beetles are one of my specialties, but I could probably not recognise hemipteran species by name. So there’s really no advice I can give – you’ll just pick these things up automatically as you go along :)

It’s possible to tweak the tree-making softwares so you can edit the labels to make them HTML links. But most researchers don’t have the knowledge or the bother to do that :P And also, where are they going to link to? :) I don’t know for the vertebrates, but for arthropods, databases are scattered across the web and they vary in their focus (some are for entire families, some are for individual genera), so the researcher has to do each individual label. Too much work :P At least until there is some sort of centralised database, like the ZooBank ( http://www.zoobank.org/ ), but that’s still far from completion.

Of course, you could argue that they could use common names instead of the Latin, but that would put non-English speakers in a tight spot (and, well, I’m not even sure every one of the 350000+ beetle species has a common name :P)

30 06 2011
inquilinekea

“It’s possible to tweak the tree-making softwares so you can edit the labels to make them HTML links. But most researchers don’t have the knowledge or the bother to do that :P And also, where are they going to link to? :) I don’t know for the vertebrates, but for arthropods, databases are scattered across the web and they vary in their focus (some are for entire families, some are for individual genera), so the researcher has to do each individual label. Too much work :P At least until there is some sort of centralised database, like the ZooBank ( http://www.zoobank.org/ ), but that’s still far from completion.”

Ah yes, good points. I was thinking of the lazy way out: Wikipedia. :P But yeah, Wikipedia is horrible for invertebrate articles (although it has something for almost all the vertebrates)

Ah, what about the Encyclopedia of Life? Is there something ZooBank has that EOL doesn’t have? i’m just curious.

“Of course, you could argue that they could use common names instead of the Latin, but that would put non-English speakers in a tight spot (and, well, I’m not even sure every one of the 350000+ beetle species has a common name :P)”

Ah yeah good point. Haha true – invertebrate classification should definitely be the motivation for the classification of other animals since invertebrate diversity is far more complex than vertebrate diversity

30 06 2011
Marc

Oh, I always forget the EOL exists ^^ That’s an excellent place for the interested public. The ZooBank is a more professional-aimed resource for taxonomists. So I guess it depends on the target audience. Speaking as an invertebrate-person, there’s a huge difference because of just how many changes and additions happen daily in our classifications, so we need to keep the pro and basic databases apart. I’m not sure how tumultuous the taxonomical situation is on the spineful side :)

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16 11 2012
vprot (@vprot)

I consider myself really lucky to have discovered this blog! This is what I would love to do if I were currently into research. I am an Agricultural Biotechnologist myself and I could work on such a blog e.g. 5-10 years ago, while I was spending whole days in the lab with plant experiments.
However, I have a really great time going through your posts and I hope that you will keep them coming!

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20 12 2013
Virendra Pandit

Hi Marc,

Good to know you are historian of biology. Ever thought of a biology of history? Read a review of my recent book, “The Biology of History-Ascent of Women” here:

http://www.newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/books/Viewing-History-As-Her-Story/2013/11/17/article1892060.ece

It is about the biological inevitability of the Rise of Women!

Looking forward to your comments, if any.

Virendra Pandit

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[…] I scaled the pictures down so I don’t waste my webspace. If you want the full size pic, let me know. I have no problem sending them, as long as I’m told what they’re used for. If you just […]

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