Observation of the Owl: Look Sharp... and See!

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 02/2016

Grrr…, again one of those 'perfect' storybook mornings you humans just love so much: a clear blue sky, not the slightest breath of wind – and as soon as the morning sun climbed over the horizon, shafts of golden light streamed through the branches of my tree. Yeah, you can talk well, you've usually just got up thinking, “Oh, what a beautiful day”. But spare a thought for me! Just done with a long, exhaustive night out hunting and there's only one thing I desperately desire: SLEEP!

Well, the bright sun is not the real problem. Millions of years of evolution have shaped us owls to become perfect day-sleepers. Unfortunately, however, at the same time, evolution has also allowed myriads of flying bugs to develop into perfect pains in the arse. And this morning I'm being driven crazy by all that frantic buzzing around my head. It's by far not the first time that I wish I could morph into a bug-killing flycatcher. I'd cause a terrible morning massacre; without the faintest trace of mercy, I'd... I'd...

Um, sorry... perhaps I'm letting my emotions run a bit too wild here. Not for the first time, I know. But, well... now where were we? Flycatchers, yes... Let's just... Damn, there must be something worth telling you about flycatchers... Oh yes, of course...

One morning, some time ago, just as I was flying around a big old oak tree, I almost crashed into an old flycatcher friend of mine, Professor House-Martin. After we had everything (and ourselves) under control again, we sat down on a nearby branch to have a chat. And of course, it wasn't long before House-Martin started telling me something about his recent research...

“It's quite interesting that many of us try to focus our research on the stuff we eat,” House-Martin suddenly remarked. “Your mouse studies, dear Owl, are a prime example. But now, think of me! For ages now, you have been having to 'do Drosophila' when interested in flying insects. Tiny and tasteless little critters!”

“Okay, and what is it exactly that you prefer the most?”

“Wasps,” House-Martin instantly replied. “And that's why I finally decided to try a little side-project on them.”

“Ugh! Not those pesky, daysleep-destroying little monsters... ”

“The very same. But listen! In fact, there is a certain wasp species that is supposedly even more delicious than all the others. I say supposedly because, from time to time, I have caught one of those little titbits – and it was, frankly, a sheer disappointment. A completely different, insipid taste.”

“And, indeed, you wanted to know the deeper reason for it.”

“Exactly,” House-Martin confirmed. “My hypothesis was that these wasps did not actually belong to only one species but rather represented a complex of several closely related and very similar species. I admit this was not exactly groundbreaking but it could, nevertheless, be seen as a kind of broader problem, since wasp and fly species are quite often hard to keep apart.”

“And what was your plan to try solve this... taxonomic problem?” I queried.

“I had some ideas, which were based on a couple of observations I had already made with Drosophila. Actually, their transparent wings seemed to display stable and reproducible structural colour patterns, when illuminating them with different light properties against certain backgrounds.”

“And your expectation was that with this procedure, your scrumptious wasps and their hidden relatives would also show clearly different and species-specific wing interference patterns?”

“You got it! However, when I applied for a grant at the Avian Frontier Science Foundation the reviewers rejected the project.”

“For what reason?” I asked.

“In their eyes, the project was 'purely descriptive'. No clues to 'mechanisms' or 'functions' involved, just pure observation and description as goals, in itself. And that was 'too little', they wrote.”

“Oh no, not this stupid killer argument again. They have several of these: too ambitious, not relevant enough, no clear hypothesis, inadequate methodology, the focus too narrow or too broad, does not fit the scope of the funding programme,... With this armoury they can immediately kill every grant application at will without even having properly stuck their beaks into it. Oh, how I hate this.”

“Absolutely,” House-Martin agreed with a sly grin. “However, the story wasn't over at that point. Of course, I started the project, regardless. Luckily, it didn't need much money. And you know how it is: a bit siphoned from this grant, another bit from that grant,...”

“Business as usual...”

“Yes. And to cut the story short, after only a couple of weeks, it was clear that the wing interference method worked. With certain illumination regimes, we were able to produce stable patterns of colour structures for every insect wing we tested.”

“And your favourite wasp dish?”

“Well, it turned out that my tasty morsel was actually just one distinct species, which formed a species complex having at least four more or less yummy relatives.”

“So, you now have to illuminate your prey before devouring it!?!” I joked.

“Difficult,” House-Martin grinned. “But I haven't yet told you the punchline to the story. This wing colour method has immediately helped, greatly, to elucidate further mechanisms of wing development in Drosophila.”

“Hah, brilliant!” I laughed out loudly. “So much for the absurd claim that 'purely observational and descriptive' studies do not yield any clues to mechanisms and functions.”

Comments: owl@lab-times.org

Last Changed: 11.04.2016