On February 11th, I was able to host Dr. Craig McClain and Dr. Gregor Yenega of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). NESCent is a research center dedicated to promoting Evolutionary Biology research and is supported by Duke, UNC, NC State, and the National Science Foundation.
Craig talked about how the Giant Squid and Giant Isopods adapted their large body sizes. Most small creatures which live near the shore grow in size when they move out to the deep ocean. Likewise, large creatures shrink in size when they reach the deep ocean. Together, both large and small creatures usually find some middle size to settle upon. However the Giant Squid and Giant Isopod have grown past the middle sized creatures to become Giants.
The Giant Squid does this by growing very quickly in order to avoid predation. The rule of the sea is pretty simple: Large eats small. By being large, the Giant Squid only needs to fear the Sperm Whale. To avoid being attacked by the sperm whale, the Giant Squid has sharp, chitin-covered suckers on its arms which is used for defense.
The Giant Isopod’s (think of a roly-poly bug about 1 foot long) large body size and armor helps it to get food. When devouring the carcass of an animal, the isopod can sit on top of the food blocking other organisms from eating its food. The large body size also helps in the ability of the Isopod to store enough fat allowing it to survive for at least eight weeks without food.
Gregor had an interesting discussion about Hummingbirds. Apparently the nectar-eating birds are closely related to the insect-eating Swifts. At some point in time, the ancestors to these two species split. While hummingbirds are known for feasting on flowers, they cannot live on nectar alone and need to eat insects for protein. Unfortunately, long, skinny beaks are not the best for hunting. To overcome this shortcoming, hummingbirds change the shape of their beaks by twisting the sides of their beaks out. This allows the beak to open 20-30% larger and also increases the width making it easier to catch bugs. Another interesting finding is that the bugs are captured near the base of the beak, not the tips of the beak. Besides being inefficient at capturing prey, the tongue must ratchet the food from the tip to the back to the mouth. Only 40% of all bugs it attempts to catch becomes food.
After the assembly, Craig and Gregor spent several periods fielding questions from our students in the classroom. Our students asked many questions including how to get started in science, experiences in the deep sea submarine, and the differences between the Giant Squid and Colossal Squid. Some of the more interesting questions were how the Giant Squid reproduces and who would win in a fight: a Giant Squid or Chuck Norris.
To finish the night, I was able to take Craig and Gregor to Ole’s Steakhouse in Paxton for dinner. It was great allowing two biologists (who were already playing tourist) loose with their cameras in a place full of stuffed animals. After some good conversation about evolution in education we parted ways.
All-in-all, the visit was great and I have already heard great comments from students, parents, and staff about the visit. I cannot thank NESCent, Dr. McClain and Dr. Yenega enough for the great visit and for inspiring the students of Perkins County.
Some of the pictures Craig and Gregor took during their trip can be found in the links below:
If you were here for the Darwin Day Visits, share your thoughts below.