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“Most scientific explanations are causal. This is also the case in evolutionary biology, where the primary goals are to explain the diversity of life and the adaptive fit between organisms and their surroundings. Yet, the nature of causation in evolutionary biology is contentious.” So starts the description of a workshop on Cause and Process in Evolution, organized by Kevin Laland and Tobias Uller. It brought together an eclectic mix of evolutionary biologists, developmental biologists, and philosophers of biology, with the aim of addressing this contention. I sat in on this workshop, like a fly on the wall, in the hope of learning a bit about the latest research and debates in evolutionary biology.

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I just spent two weeks in Mallorca (Spain), with as main goal hiking the Ruta de Pedra en Sec (GR221), a long-distance trail that crosses the entire Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca’s beautiful mountain range. Eight days on the trail (plus one rest day in between), and sleeping most nights in “refugis” (mountain huts). But I also had some extra days to explore in and around Palma de Mallorca, including a visit to some amazing limestone caves and a bike ride along the bay of Palma. All-in-all a fantastic trip that was well worth it. Here are some brief impressions. Click any of the pics for a full-size view, or any of the links throughout the story for more images.

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In this day and age of the internet, where anyone can post anything, it is often difficult to know what is true and what is not. One person claims one thing, while another states the exact opposite. Who to believe among all this (sometimes deliberate) confusion? The upside, also thanks to the internet, is that you don’t need to be a professional scientist to find out at least some of the truth for yourself. With the increasing availability of public online databases and easy-to-use software, “citizen science” can go a long way at countering unsubstantiated claims.

Read the full story on Plus magazine…

We’ve heard it all too many times: animal and plant species are currently going extinct at a rate that is higher than ever before. Climate change, over-pollution, and urban and agricultural encroachment all contribute to the rapid decline of our planet’s biodiversity. So much so, that there is a real danger that even within the next few decades, several major ecosystems worldwide (such as mangrove, alpine, and polar regions) will be seriously disrupted, with major consequences for us humans as well.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to try and curb some of these negative influences. But without knowing better what exactly their consequences are, it is almost like driving in the dark without the headlights on. Is there a way to estimate more accurately what the biodiversity consequences are of, e.g., a two-degree increase in global temperature? It turns out the answer is yes (at least to some extent), thanks to mathematics and computers.

Read the full story on The Naked Scientists…

As part of a workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Wiko), we had the pleasure of being taken on a backstage tour at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Our private and extremely knowledgeable guide Brandon Kilbourne turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on the evolution of mammals, so we were in for a special treat. This 2.5hr tour provided many wonderful insights into amazing adaptations over millions of years of mammalian evolution, with as cherry on the cake some unique dinosaur skeletons to marvel at.

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Le Grammont is a mountain in the Chablais Alps in Western Switzerland situated at the south-east end of Lake Geneva, close to the Swiss-French border where the Rhône River flows into the lake. With a height of 2,172 m (7,126 ft), Le Grammont is not the highest mountain in the Chablais Alps (highest point Dents du Midi 3,257m/10,686 ft), but because of its prominent location right next to Lake Geneva at the lower end of the Rhône valley in the Canton Valais, it is a popular hiking destination that offers wonderful all-round views from the top.

Read the full story on Swiss Vistas

Vienna by Night

Last night I took advantage of a temporary break in the extreme cold weather we’re experiencing this month, and went for a walk along the Ringstrasse in Vienna to take some shots of the various beautiful buildings located along it. This was a bit of a spontaneous experiment, but I’m actually quite pleased with how some shots came out. So here’s a nice impression of Vienna by night. Click any pic for a full-size view.

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In a post just over a year ago, I presented data on earth activity (in particular earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tropical storms). Given all the buzz on the internet about an increased earth activity over the past several years, I was curious to see this for myself, so I downloaded and analyzed some publicly available data. Surprisingly, though, the data showed no such increase at all. In the current post, I present the updated data for up until the end of 2016, which still shows no sign of any unusual behavior. Judge the plots below for yourself…

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The historic city of Graz, in south-eastern Austria, was designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 1999 for having “the best preserved city center of Central Europe”. It combines renaissance, gothic, baroque, and also modern architecture, and has some wonderful natural beauty nearby as well. I recently spent four days exploring this fascinating city and its surroundings, combining culture and nature with a lot of walking.

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Spirals are common in nature. We’ve all admired the beautiful spirals that occur on sea shells, we can find spirals in plants, and even in the arms of galaxies or weather patterns. There are also situations in which spirals aren’t a result of slow growth, but occur spontaneously in biological or chemical systems. A famous example from chemistry is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction: when several chemicals are mixed together in a petri dish, the resulting solution forms changing spiral patterns. In biology a particular slime mould, called dictyostelium discoideum, gives rise to similar patterns. Spontaneous spiral wave formation in such systems can be reproduced and studied with simple mathematical models known as cellular automata.

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Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most profound scientific theories to have ever been developed. However, there were several questions about evolution that Darwin himself could not answer. Not that he wasn’t smart enough (in fact, his intuition often pointed in the right direction), but the answers to those questions required sophisticated mathematical insights that were not developed far enough, or even available yet, in Darwin’s time. One such problem was the evolution of altruism. If evolution by natural selection is all about competition and survival of the fittest, how can altruistic behaviour (which, by definition, lowers the altruist’s fitness and increases the receiver’s fitness) ever evolve?

Read the full story on Plus magazine.