Not sure if I should include “parrot wrangling” in my activity categories.

Originally posted 2012, scroll to the bottom for the final update!

So now that my topic has officially been approved, I thought I would share my primate behavior research with the interwebs!

I am going to be working with Saimiri sciureus, or squirrel monkeys. They are small, diurnal anthropoid primates found in the rainforests of Central and South America!

They are also adorable- er I mean their facial features are similar to that of a juvenile human and therefore cause me to feel affection. Yeah. Science.

Anyway, I plan on observing the population of squirrel monkeys at the Norfolk Zoo for ten hours. I will be using instantaneous/scan sampling (where I record the behavior of the group at regular time intervals) to collect data on how these little guys spend their time. Or, put another way, to create an Activity Budget.

What’s that, reader? Why would I choose to study how captive squirrel monkeys spend their time? What are the larger implications of such a study? Why, I am so glad you asked. One of the major problems zoos face (and are sometimes criticized for) is the fact that captive animals behave differently than their wild counterparts. This often includes captive animals engaging in “abnormal” behaviors (see Birkett and Newton-Fisher’s article “How Abnormal is the Behavior of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees” for an example).  Therefore, a major goal for any zoo-keeper or trainer worth their salt is to try and help the animals they care for live in a way more like how they would in the wild. A good way to compare the behavior of zoo animals with that of wild populations is to look at their activity budgets. This also provides a good measuring stick when testing to see if an enrichment technique is working (see Fekete, Norcross, and Newman’s article “Artificial turf foraging boards as environmental enrichment for pair-housed female squirrel monkeys”).

Now, of course my research is just a simple 12 page paper assignment. I will not have the time or wherewithal to compare my findings with an analogous wild population or institute any new enrichment techniques. Instead I intend to compare the budgets of male and female group members, and test to see if there is a statistical difference in the amount of time they spend on a given activity. This will not change the world or the situation of any bored animals in zoos, but this will provide me with some much-needed experience in observing and recording the behavior of animals in real-time. Skills that I will hopefully use one day to understand, protect, and better the lives of animals like the squirrel monkey.

That’s the plan anyway.

Update 10/24/19

Wow. A lot has happened in 7 years! Since doing this project, I’ve gone onto a ton of interesting work–but I still love the simplicity of the study design. Anywho, what did I actually find? Glad you asked.

Through some simple statistics (chi-square analysis, for my fellow nerds), I found important differences in how the juvenile and adult monkeys spent their time in the zoo. Basically, kids played more and adults spent a bit more time resting (big mood, tbh) and uh–to put it delicately, putting on some Marvin Gaye and spending adult time together. These conclusions make sense, and showed that how the way individuals of the same species spend their time can vary between age classes.

I WANT YOU... to help protect local wildlife!
I WANT YOU… to help protect local wildlife!

Originally shared in January 2013

My current focus on conservation has made me realize how easy it is to despair when looking into the serious threats against biodiversity. With logging, agricultural expansion, and poaching threatening major diversity hotspots, and ever-growing list of endangered species, it’s easy to feel like there is nothing a single individual can do to help protect wildlife and the environment. And while it is true that large scale environmental movements require large amounts of funding and clout, looking to a more local and individual level, there are a few things anyone can do to protect wildlife. The following tips go for everyone, whether you live on an isolated farm, or the middle of a city. Wildlife are everywhere, whether we often see them or not. What follows is a list of easy steps anyone can take to become part of the solution instead of the problem for wildlife that live in close association with human populations.

  1. Keep pets indoors when unaccompanied! I know from my own experiences that many people let their dogs and cats run wild throughout the day. It may feel good to know that your domestic animal is getting a ton of fresh air, which is obviously very important to their health and well-being, but even a single invasive pet can have devastating consequences for local wildlife. They are surprisingly effective predators, despite how “sweet” and “cute” they may seem to us. Some people think that placing a bell on a cat’s collar will eliminate this problem but unfortunately it seems that this is not the case as by the time the bell rings your pet is already close enough to pounce.  So, when possible, keep your pet indoors or at least confined to some kind of enclosure. Luckily for me, Stella is perfectly content to stay inside
  2. If you have a yard, create a “backyard habitat”. Local ecosystems where wildlife once thrived may start to become inhospitable due to human encroachment. Water tables can lower, invasive plants may compete with local food sources, and forest clearing may leave many species without any cover. In order to mitigate these problems to a least a small degree, you can artificially recreate a more suitable environment by bringing in new sources of water, food, cover, and places to raise young. Although this may not make a difference in the grand scheme of species conservation, you are helping individual birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians to have more of a chance to survive, which is certainly a victory in itself.  And by displaying a “certified backyard habitat” sign you may even encourage neighbors to participate as well! Find more information on how to create and certify a backyard habitat here
  3. Advocate against lead bullets! We all know lead can be very harmful, yet many hunters still use lead bullets. When a hunter fires a lead bullet, pieces of it will shatter throughout the prey. And when parts of hunted game (sorry for the terrible image!) are cleaned out and left in the wild,  a very serious problem for animals like eagles, hawks, and other raptors is created. These animals and other scavengers will eat the contaminated remains, leading to lead poisoning. This can cause serious neurological deterioration, limit reproductive success, and in high enough quantities, death. A simple solution to this problem is to use alternative kinds of bullets, but many people resist this change. Without action however, raptors and other birds, including our national symbol the bald eagle, will remain imperiled. So if you hunt yourself, or know anyone who does, do us all a favor and use non-toxic ammunition. And since lead-free bullets have been shown to be just as effective there really is no viable reason to resist the switch. Help to end poisoning of America’s most beloved symbol, and other equally important species!

These simple steps may not save entire species from extinction, but they can make a huge difference for those living in your neighborhood! So do what you can, when you can, and hopefully others will be inspired to pitch in as well!

Have any other ideas about how to help local wildlife? I would love to hear them!L



Well folks, 2016 is (finally) coming to a close. Every year around this time, I like to reflect back on the last twelve months and try to sum up the year in one word. For me, that word was transition. Between changing jobs, entering into the final portion of my Master’s program, readying my first book for publication, and preparing to move to a new city, a lot has changed this year. But I also like to look forward, and decide on a single word that represents my resolutions for the coming year. For 2017, that word is adventure. All too often, especially when things in the world and my personal life get stormy, I react by clinging to the familiar and the easy. That’s fine sometimes—everyone needs to recharge—but in 2017, I am determined to get out there and try new things more often. That’s why I made the list below of ideas that could fill every weekend in 2017!

Now, of course, I’m not going to have time (or cash) to go on all of these adventures in just one year, but I plan to check out as many as I can. So if like me you’re looking to shake up your routine in 2017, here’s a run-down on some weekend excursions. I’ve included ideas for every budget (including free!) as well as every comfort level (from the relaxing to the daring). Have you tried any of these? Have any ideas for adventurous weekends I didn’t put here? I’d love to hear about your own experiences and thoughts in the comments!

  1. Learn to scuba dive or go snorkeling($$$)– One of the pricier adventures on the list, this adventure could be the start of an exciting new hobby. Even if you don’t live near the ocean, you might be surprised about the local opportunities for diving when you research your local dive shop.

  2. Hike somewhere new (free-$)– Hiking is a perfect way to get some fresh air, take in amazing views, and get a new perspective on your area. I suggest trying a new trail, especially if you can find one with an extra special view or feature. One of my favorite hikes ever was Ice Glen in Great Barrington, MA. I lived in the area for years, but didn’t know it existed until I visited years later! So talk to your outdoorsy friends or do a little research—you never know what you might find.

  3. Volunteer at an animal shelter or other charity (free)– Want to combine adventure with doing some good? Look into local charities that need volunteers either on a regular basis or for special events. Animal shelters/rescues are my personal recommendation, but there are all types of ways to give back and have fun at the same time.

  4. Visit a roadside attraction ($)– Sure, they’re often cheesy and over-priced, but they can also be a ton of fun! If you’re a Virginian like me, I highly recommend Foamhenge (recently relocated to Fairfax, VA) or Dinosaurland. What they lack in historical accuracy, they more than make up with whimsical charm.

  5. Go on a ghost tour (or hunt!) ($)– These are offered in many cities/towns around Halloween, but some of the more “haunted” cities may have options available all year round. For the believers who want to go even deeper, try researching and connecting with the local paranormal research community to see if you can get involved with ghost hunting. I’ve done a bit of both, and just a tip: Savannah, GA is where I’ve had some of the spookiest encounters.

  6. Go kayaking ($-$$)– Or canoeing, rafting, whatever your preference. Kayaking is a great way to exercise and check out areas only accessible by water. Research options for special kayaking trips as well. Some of my favorites have included a bio-luminescence tour and a search for prothonatory warblers.

  7. Go birding (free-$$$)– Speaking of warblers, some of the craziest adventures I’ve gone on have been birding trips. Sound nerdy or old-fashioned? Maybe, but there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing a rare species, or even learning to identify what you see and hear. The best way to get started is to contact your local bird club, since it’s helpful to have an experienced birder on the trip to point out the best spots and help with identifications. If birds aren’t your thing, you can also try “herping” (i.e. looking for reptiles) or other naturalist excursions.

    pine warbler

  8. Go zip-lining ($)– Flying through the trees, speeding from platform to platform, the world nothing but a blur beneath your feet—does it get any better? Try out your own Tarzan scream for bonus points!

  9. Go monster hunting ($-$$$)– Okay, hear me out on this one. Skeptics and believers alike have searched for mythical beasts for centuries, sometimes with surprising results. Think you don’t have any creatures to search for in your area? You may be surprised with a little research. For my Virginians, check out Mr. L.B. Taylor’s book “Monsters of Virginia” for ideas. Just make sure to stay off private property (or get permission)!

  10. Go camping ($$)– There’s nothing like a tent, campfire, and s’mores to get you feeling like a kid again. Try combining a camping trip with some of the other ideas on this list to up your adventure factor.

  11. Visit an Escape Room ($$)- This is on the top of my list for the coming year! Who doesn’t want to connect with their inner Sherlock Holmes and sleuth their way out of a crazy situation? Attractions like this are popping up all over the country, but be sure to plan this adventure in advance as reservations are usually necessary.

  12. Try Geo-caching (free)- Here’s your chance to tap into your Indiana Jones fantasies and try some real-world “treasure hunting”. You can register with the official app to get started for free! I haven’t tried this one yet, so would love to hear about your experiences if you have.

  13. Plan/go on a scavenger hunt (free)– You can either get together with friends and create your own teams and challenges, or keep an eye out for scavenger hunt events in your area. I recently used the app traipse to go on a Harry Potter themed “Horcrux Hunt”, and had a blast (don’t worry—we found them all!).

  14. Visit a Historical Site (free-$)- No yawning allowed! History is filled with amazing stories, and it can be exciting to visit sites where such stories occurred. Again, research is your friend. My personal recommendation has to be Harper’s Ferry, the site of John Brown’s raid, but you can find fascinating bits of history just about anywhere you go.

  15. Go on a museum crawl (free-$$)– Have you ever watched the Travel Channel show Mysteries at the Museum? If you have, I don’t need to tell you how many different and unique museums there are out there, just waiting to be explored. Washington DC is obviously a great choice since the museums are mostly free and close-together, but you may have some amazing options much closer by.

  16. Go rock-climbing ($$)– Depending on your experience, you can either try an indoor wall or an outdoor climb. Either way, another fun way to combine exercise and adventure (lord knows my upper arms could use a little strength-training!).

  17. Visit a lake, river, or beach ($)– Another classic that can be especially adventurous when combined with other ideas.

  18. Experience a LARP or re-enactment ($-$$$)- LARP stands for Live Action Roleplay, events that let you unleash your inner warrior princess or wizard. Check out online groups or postings at your local comic book/game store for info. Not really the corset-wearing, staff-wielding type? Maybe a historical reenactment is more your scene!

  19. Go to a convention ($$)– Whatever it is that you love, whether it’s comic books, video games, rare coins, or films, there’s a convention (or ten!) out there for you. Keep an eye for ones coming nearby and remember to buy your tickets early, when they often have special pricing.

  20. Go horseback riding ($)- Whether you’re a novice or an experienced rider, there’s just something freeing about riding a horse. Beach rides, trail rides, or even simple lessons are a great way to spend some time with a four-legged companion.

  21. Learn archery ($-$$$)- Legolas, Hawkeye, Katniss… the list of awesome archers goes on. Granted it would take you more than a weekend to master this skill, but you can still learn the basics and see if this is a hobby you want to explore more.

    UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 01: "The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the ring" In United States In December, 2001-Orlando Bloom as Legolas. (Photo by 7831/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
    (Photo by 7831/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
  22. Take a self-defense course ($$$)– Part adventurous, part empowering, learn to protect yourself by participating in a self-defense workshop or longer course. While I hope you never have to use these skills, it never hurts to know what to do in a bad situation.

  23. Go to a shooting range ($-$$)– Another skill to file away in the “I hope you never have to use” section. We live in a country where there are more guns than people, so it isn’t a bad idea to at least learn basic gun safety/handling.

  24. Go to a jazz bar ($)– Jazz is all about improvisation, so no two nights at a jazzy joint will be the same. Dress up, enjoy a cocktail or two, and take in the local talent. Sing or play an instrument yourself? Why not look into options to perform yourself?

  25. Do karaoke ($)- One of my favorite TV shows ever, Angel, featured a karaoke bar frequented by demons and vampires. While your local bar will likely feature human clientele, there’s still something exciting about putting yourself out there and embracing your inner diva.

  26. Go dancing ($)– Salsa, tango, ballroom, clubbing—the options are endless!

  27. Go contra dancing (free-$)- For an extra dose of something different, check out contra dancing. Think Jane Austen-esque reels mixed with folk dancing. These family friendly events are a great way to try something new!

  28. Eat adventurously ($-$$)- You don’t have to go all “Bizarre Foods” on me (unless you want to), but sometimes eating something a little different can help get you in the spirit to try other new things.

  29. Get a psychic reading ($-$$)– Palmistry, tarot reading, pet psychic—whatever captures your fancy enough to suspend your disbelief and embrace the unknown.

  30. Run a themed 5K etc. ($)– Try a color run, obstacle course, or even a zombie run! A great way to get you moving and tap into your imagination.

  31. Investigate local legends (free)- Similar to the ideas about ghost or monster hunting, you might try looking into the local color that makes your town unique. You may gain new appreciation for places you pass every day, or learn of opportunities for continued research and exploration.

  32. Go hang-gliding, para-sailing, or skydiving ($$$)– Who doesn’t have that on their bucket list?

  33. Visit an ethical animal attraction (free-$)– It’s always an adventure to spend some time with furry (or scale-y) friends. Just make sure to do your research and only patronize well-regarded, ethical establishments that put the animals first.

  34. Climb a tree (free)- Hey, it may sound simple, but when was the last time you did it? Just be careful and wear appropriate shoes/clothes. Scraped knees are all part of the adventure, but I don’t want anyone hurting themselves seriously!

  35. Go spelunking or visit a cavern ($)– Another great way to reach your inner Indiana Jones. Though, hopefully, the caves you visit won’t be booby-trapped.


  36. Go snow-tubing, skiing, or snowboarding ($$-$$$)- Just because the temperature drops doesn’t mean your spirit of adventure has to as well. There are snow sport options for every skill level, so try whatever sounds the most fun to you.

  37. Go to a “haunted” house or trail ($)- Like ghost tours, these tend to pop up around Halloween. Nothing like a good jump scare to get you in the Halloween spirit!

  38. Make art or learn a craft ($-$$)- Draw, paint, sculpt, knit, needle felt…whatever calls to you. Think you’re not an artist? Try a guided event like a “sip-and-splash” (aka wine + painting) to learn more.

  39. Visit your local library or check out their programs (free)- Again, no laughing or yawning. I’m 100% serious here, and I’m not just saying this because my mom is a librarian. Despite the stereotypes, libraries are hubs for free speech and expression. Nowadays, some libraries offer a lot more than books, including maker spaces with access to art supplies, recording studios, or 3D printers, as well as a multitude of programs for all ages. In the past few months alone I’ve attended a Shakespearean ball (with free henna tattoos, fairy crowns, and personalized caricatures) and a screenwriting course, as well as hosted a nature walk. So take the great Wishbone’s advice and visit your local library today.

  40. Go treasure-hunting (free-$$$)- This might be the fact that I just marathonned season 1 of Expedition Unknown talking, but there are still many mysteries left to be solved, and treasures large and small left to find. And even if there are no stories of hidden gold in your town, you can check out local antique stores, thrift shops, and yard sales for special finds that might be worth more than you realize.

  41. Go on a weekend trip ($$$+)- Try saving on usual travel expenses by staying with friends (or checking out AirBnB). You can also keep an eye out for deals on plane, bus, or train tickets. This is one adventure that might require you to save-up a bit, but it is definitely worth it if you can. If you do stay with friends, make sure to offer to return the favor if they’re ever in your neck of the woods!

  42. Visit a nearby town you’ve never been to ($-$$)- Here’s an idea on how to travel without breaking the bank. You may be surprised at the interesting places and things to do just outside of your usual haunts, so why not take a day trip out of your comfort zone?

  43. Go to a Renaissance Fair or Celtic Festival ($-$$)- All the fun of going back in time without all the pesky complications of actual time-travel!

  44. Go to a concert (free-$$$)– Whether it’s a local band or someone a little bit bigger, the energy of concerts are hard to beat. Especially fun if you can find one at an interesting venue, like an arboretum or historical building.

  45. Go to a speakeasy ($)– Secret, unmarked doors, prohibition era cocktails, back rooms behind false walls—these are not just things of the past. See if you can learn about the secret spots hidden around your city!

  46. Visit a brewery, distillery, or winery ($$)- Support a local business or visit one of the larger manufacturers of your favorite libation, either way it’s a great way to learn and try new drinks.

  47. Go surfing, paddle-boarding, water-tubing, or boogie boarding ($$)- Just like snow sports, there are water sports for just about every level of skill or daring. Get out there chase those waves!

  48. Go paint-balling or laser-tagging ($)- Remember, humming the James Bond or Star Wars theme music to yourself makes it even cooler (but not too loudly—you don’t want to give away your position).

  49. Go biking (free-$)- Dust off your old ride, borrow a friend’s, or rent one for the day. Even if you haven’t ridden one in years, what’s that saying…?

  50. Go sledding or make a slip-and-slide (free-$$)- This adventure has options for both winter and summer, all you need now is a big hill!

  51. Make a short film ($-$$$)- Whether it’s a goofy movie shot on your cell phone just for fun, or a serious project you might be able to showcase, film-making isn’t just for the Hollywood elites. Check out local competitions or clubs to learn more.

  52. Make a radical change to your appearance ($-$$$)- Get a tattoo. Dye or cut your hair. Pierce something. Whatever it is, sometimes making an external change is a great way to build your confidence and inspire yourself to try other new things! Tip- there’s something magical about pink hair.

Those are my ideas–have any of your own? Please share below and let’s make 2017 the most adventurous year yet!

Credit: Virginia Tech/ John McCormick
Credit: Virginia Tech/ John McCormick

I know. That title is a pretty bad joke. One could even say it was a poultry attempt. Okay, I’m done now, promise. Now, to science!

In a new study published in the online version of the journal Biology Letters, a group of chickens show us just how quickly evolution can take place. A team of scientists led by Oxford’s Dr. Greger Larson looked at fifty years worth of data in order to trace how mitochondrial DNA was passed from mother to daughter. Now fifty years may seem like a long time to us mere mortal humans, but on the evolutionary time scale it’s a drop in the Darwinian bucket. That’s why what the scientists found was so surprising. In just fifty years, this dynasty of chickens had not one but two mutations in their mitochondrial genomes. This means that the rate of evolution for these chickens was fifteen times faster than thought possible, since according to estimates based on fossil studies, scientists had previously thought the rate of change for mitochondrial genomes to be at most a measly two percent per million years.

But the surprising findings don’t stop there. As anyone who has ever marathonned CSI may be able to tell you, mitochondrial DNA is supposed to be passed strictly as is from mother to offspring. But our fine feathered friends were having none of that, as the scientists discovered when they noted an instance of mitochondrial DNA being passed from father to child. Combined with the much higher than expected rate of mutation, this “paternal leakage” shows just how busy evolution can be, even over relatively short time periods. As the study’s lead author Dr. Michelle Alexander said, “Both of these findings demonstrate the speed and dynamism of evolution when observed over short time periods.”

So what does this mean for our understanding of evolution? For one, it underlines the fact that evolution is happening all around us, all the time. And if we don’t see it, it may just be because we aren’t looking closely enough.


Credits: Eurekalert, Biology Letters