To Vaccinate or not to Vaccinate?

vaccine

(Image from Steve Sack, Star Tribune)

 

I’ve been intrigued by the vaccination debate for a few years now, mostly because vaccines were such a routine, yet mundane, part of my young life. My high school required that students be vaccinated against everything from Hepatitis B to Whooping cough. My mom insisted that I get a flu shot every season, and I was given the Gardsil (HPV) shot soon after it was released. Unlike most children, needles didn’t bother me, so getting vaccinated was just one other thing I had to do.

About two years ago, I went down to my local pharmacy to receive my yearly flu shot, and then I drove over to my friend’s house. At one point he grabbed my upper bicep, which was still slightly sore, and I flinched away quickly. When I explained that I had just gotten a flu shot, he panicked.

“Shannon! You can’t just put things in your body like that! Don’t you know what can happen when you get flu shots!” Uh…I won’t get the flu? Wrong answer. He quickly pulled up a youtube video that  appeared to show a girl who got a flu shot and suddenly was only able to walk backwards. I have no idea how he found this video or, more importantly, how he thought this could have any legitimate basis in science or reality. I patiently explained that thousands of people get flu shots each year, and that he likely has a greater chance of literally dying from the flu than of becoming disabled as a result of a flu shot. He was adamant. He had never gotten a flu shot before and I’m sure he hasn’t since.

I think of him  when I hear stories about the anti-vaccination debate. What’s always bothered me is that he’s a relatively well-educated, upper-middle class white male. He had access to information and resources (like doctors) who could have adequately explained to him the true pro’s and con’s of flu shots. Instead, he relied on an old and likely fictitious youtube video. Such is the case with many people who refuse to vaccinate their children; some of the wealthiest and most-educated areas in California, like Marin county, are also the areas with the lowest percentage of children being vaccinated.

I could devote an entire blog to posting solely about the anti-vaccination movement: where it came from, who supports it and why, why its bogus. I could post something every day for years and never run out of material. I’m not going to do that, but I am going to point out two interesting articles that came out this week. The first is a New York Times article about the development of a possible Zika virus vaccine. Up until now, researchers had no way of testing vaccines because most animals don’t react to Zika in the same way that humans do – interestingly, they are almost completely unaffected by it, which is not conducive to testing vaccines for obvious reasons. However, researchers have found that certain immune-deficient mice actually do react to Zika in a similar manner to humans, which means that vaccines can be tested on them. This is especially significant when considering the potential implications of a Zika vaccine. Travel to South America (summer Olympics, anyone?) would become dramatically less dangerous for women of child-bearing age.

If they’re willing to get the vaccine, that is.

The second article, also from the New York Times, details Robert De Niro’s decision to remove an anti-vaccination documentary from the Tribeca Film Festival. Information about the film, which was widely discredited by scientists and is directed by the original discredited anti-vax scientist, is detailed in the article. Stepping back, it is important to consider the implications of an anti-vaccine documentary. Consider the roles the films like Blackfish and Supersize Me had in influencing public opinion. Now, more than ever, it is extremely important to educate ourselves and our friends about the importance of vaccines. The world is changing, viruses are becoming more virulent, and we have a responsibility to make sensible choices about how to be healthy.

 

 

Stranger than Fiction Post 1

blue whale kayak(Photo courtesy of BarCroft Media)

One thing I hope to do on this blog is have recurring “Stranger Than Fiction” posts, where I discuss things in nature that are simply…strange! This is the first post-let’s see how it goes!

If you’ve been following pop culture news, you may have seen that rapper B.O.B has been claiming that the world is flat in a series of bizarre tweets. I’m not going to go into how ridiculous this has all been, but the whole incident did remind me how much I love a good conspiracy theory. As you might imagine, my favorites are the X-Files-esque ones that deal with strange natural phenomena: the government has a warehouse where they keep aliens, bigfoot is real and he lives in California, things like that. An interesting one that came up on my radar recently was the belief that Megalodon can still be found in some parts of the ocean.

For everyone not up to date on their prehistoric sea animals, Megalodon is an ancient shark that is believed to have gone extinct around 2 million years ago, according to the most liberal estimates. Megalodon, like today’s sharks, had a cartilaginous skeleton; cartilage does not fossilize well, so the only remains we have are the jaws and teeth. As a result, there’s been much speculation about the exact nature of Megalodon’s size, shape, and general physiology. However, some skeptics argue that because so much of the ocean remains unexplored, it’s entirely possible that Megalodon did not, in fact go extinct. Many questionable photos supposedly bolster their claim; my personal favorite is a sepia photo from the 1940’s which shows a Nazi submarine in the foreground and the dorsal and tail fins of an animal in the background. Based on the known size of the submarine, the distance between the two fins was estimated to be about 64 m, and only Megalodon could be this size right? So there it is! Irrefutable proof that something the size of Megalodon was still around as recently as 70 years ago ( By the way, the photo and a great article debunking it can be found here).

The debate reminds me of when I used to docent at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz. The center is known among locals for its awesome exhibits like the shark touch tank, but it’s most striking feature is the giant 87-foot long blue whale skeleton (one of only a handful in the United States). Miss Blue, as we called her, was by and far my favorite stop on my tour. I had props, I had jokes; I was without a doubt on my A-game when I stopped here. I always started by walking my tour group slowly from the tail of the skeleton to the rib cage, where the benches were place. This walk allowed them to really marvel at the sheer size of the skeleton. After seating them, I introduced Miss Blue and explained that the blue whale is the largest thing to have ever lived on Earth. At this point, there was almost always one excited young child who would frantically throw their arm up. “But…but…what about Megalodon?!?”

At first I was stumped. I had been told during my training that the blue whale was the largest creature to ever roam the Earth, but I didn’t really know enough about Megalodon to properly correct the child. So I went home and did some research, and I found this:

megalodon_size_comparison

The blue whale isn’t just bigger than Megalodon; it’s considerably bigger. Even our most extreme estimates still place it at only about 2/3 the size of the blue whale, and its much more likely that most Megalodon sharks were only about the size of an Orca. Now I know that there’s something especially alluring about the idea of a giant shark. They have a special and strange place in both our popular culture and our old legends. My point in bringing all this up, though, is for people to consider the animals that do exist today. We often get so caught up in things that were and things that might be, and we forget to pause and wonder at the thing that actually are. We don’t need to look into the past to find strange and giant creatures, because they’re still around. Only about 5% of the ocean has been explored, and I suppose its possible that Megalodon could be lurking down in the unexplored depths. But it’s important to remember that the things we have found are still amazing and deserving of awe and respect. The fact that we are currently sharing the environment with the largest animal to ever live truly is stranger than fiction.

Strange Love- The Reproduction of Wrasses

wrass

(Image courtesy of reefs.com)

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘hermaphrodite’? When I ask most people, the common answer is “Banana Slugs!” I’m not surprised- it is our school’s mascot, after all. Students here love to talk about the fact that banana slugs have both male and female sex organs, which ensures that they can reproduce even if the male organ is damaged or ripped off.

This is all true, and it’s cool stuff, but as far as I’m concerned there are hermaphrodites in nature that lead much more unique and interesting reproductive lives. Of course, I may be biased, as I’ve spent over a year researching the reproduction of wrasses. Wrasses, or labrids, may not be household pets, but show anyone a picture and they’ll recognize these tropical fish immediately. Maybe you saw them in the wild while diving, or maybe you just recognize them from your dentist’s tropical aquarium. There are over 600 different species and they can be found all over the world, making them an incredibly large and diverse group of fish.

One thing almost all of them have in common, though, is the way they reproduce. The large majority of wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites. This means that at some stage in their lives, female fish will undergo an internal transformation from female to male. While each species has a slightly different mechanism for transitioning from female to male, it generally goes like this: one large male will control a harem, or large group, of females and reproduce with all of them. However, if he is killed, the largest female in the harem will assume his position. Within only a few days, she can complete her transition and begin reproducing with the females in the group. There are many complexities to this system, such as ‘sneaker’ males that will attempt to mate with unprotected females or larger females trying to take control of a harem. In some species, all females, not just the largest, will transition into males, and this transition usually occurs during sexual maturation. No matter the mechanism, the general principle is the same. Females transition to males because it is beneficial for them to do so.

But not all species are hermaphrodites, which makes this entire system that much more interesting. When looking at a phylogenetic tree*, we can see that some species with hermaphroditic ancestors made the transition back to gonochorism (individual males and females that remain one sex their entire lives). The question is…why? If hundreds of species in one family of fish have adopted hermaphroditism as the reproductive mode with the best fitness, why have some species returned to gonochorism. And what is it about these few species that makes this mode of reproduction more beneficial for them.

These are the questions my research is trying to answer. I’ve sifted through hundreds of papers trying to deduce exactly which species are confirmed as gonochoric (for a long time, all wrasses were assumed to be hermaphrodites, so the discovery of gonochoric wrasses is relatively new). I’ve collected over 300 pictures of 75 different species of males, females, and juveniles. I hypothesize that there is some significant anatomical difference between gonochoric and hermaphroditic fish that may shed some light on why certain species utilize the reproductive mode that they do. As my research progresses I’ll keep posting any significant updates, as well as more details about different aspects of my research (and hopefully a final published paper!). But no matter what I discover, I’ve already learned one thing for sure: Wrasses are awesome.

 

*Please contact me if you would like a copy of the phylogenetic tree; there’s a high likelihood that it will be posted on the blog soon.