Real men don’t… attacking the “Green” stereotype

Bruce Feirstein’s 1982 New York Times Best Seller “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was a tongue-in-cheek book which satirized stereotypes of masculinity as men in the 80’s had confusion about how they ought to behave, after feminist critique on traditional male roles and beliefs.

Men have been struggling with the concept of true “masculinity” since time immemorial.  When men fail to fit neatly into a gender stereotype; they begin to question their manhood.

The Forbes article “Real men don’t need work life balance” brings up a good point on male gender and its associated role definitions, where “real” men (single or married) don’t need work-life integration.  The article says that women with kids (even if their married) have a higher career flexibility.

Here is a list of Men Don’t in no particular order:

Real men don’t carry totes, don’t drive Priuses, don’t ask for directions (Isn’t everyone else in as big a rush as me?), don’t do green, real men don’t cook, don’t write blogs, don’t eat veggies, don’t keep cats, and real men don’t text (they call the girl instead) and if they absolutely need to text they sure as hell don’t use emoticons (Ok. these last two are true)

It’s the truth.  Most men are afraid to drive a Prius, they won’t use reusable water bottles etc.  I remember having to constantly remind a roommate to take his back pack and one of the hundreds of reusable bags we had under the sink when going to the supermarket.  Why is going Green such a major mood kill why is it considered a niche only for crunchy pot smoking granola hippies or rich elite snobs?

There’s no need to be insecure about doing the right thing.  Going green is asexual: for women it may be “environmental choice” and for men “economic choice”.  I live in Edmonton Alberta and I can’t tell you how many people have a truck and use it for nothing but going from point A to B.  At this point it’s either pure esthetical interest or for safety purposes; surely it wouldn’t be for economic reasons unless you were masochistically drawn to high gas prices.  Manufacturers are doing a good job of offering products that you don’t have to sacrifice your ego (Ford-150, Explorer, Fusion, Etc.) while Honda, Kia, and Hyundai make mid-sized cars that easily get in the 30’s mpg.

Carrying totes or reusable shopping bags makes carrying groceries easier.  They are much strong then flimsy plastic bags, you can wash them to avoid fecal contamination and they are easier for seniors to carry because they hang down low making it easier on the arms and shoulders.  You don’t have to tote a pink tote festooned with flowers, get a dark color or some flipping skulls on it for Christ sake.  Infliction with some skulls on it fine!  It doesn’t have to say “I break for big foot”

Maybe the problem is men are not as “trendy” as women, if green becomes more popular and can stick with true facts and figures it can catch on.  Of course we need to make sure we boycott or punish the green scamming that is going on; those that guilt people into buying something by marketing when there is no clear benefit.

Sustainability could use its Marlboro Man moment.  We need celebrities, manly ones, like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Hugh Jackman to jump on the band wagon.  We need Nascar promoting soy hotdogs or Priuses that run on bio-fuel.  We need to make eco-friendly male ego-friendly.  Being Green should not have to be all or nothing.  People should stop using machismo to live like an ignoramus; I don’t think THESE people really want to ignore reality and retreat to the comfort of ignorance.

Being a real man is easy.  A real man is strong, focused and reads, he keeps his house in order, knows the importance of family, doesn’t gossip, doesn’t talk behind people back he talks to your face if there is a problem, his word is his bond, and strives to be a role model.  He isn’t afraid of what people think.  He has his own code of ethics and sticks to it because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

If you’re not an activist you’re an inactivist

The sad truth is that most people are slactivists and sadly that also goes for registered voters.   I often see people wearing a shirt, or bracelet, that says I promote x cause, but I’ve always wondered if they really do?  These are the same people that like a cause on Facebook to make world think they actually care about humanity and the environment.  Clearly this type of behavior is just a false sense of self-importance; they are not activists – not even close.  All it says is that there good at copying and pasting and they give “support” because its vogue to do so.

Let me tell you what “support” really means.  If you actually have to sacrifice something to support a cause, that’s what support means: to bear the weight of something.  Tweeting requires essentially no investment whatever. Just because you discusses politics does not make you an activist so please don’t claim the label.  Of course, using social media to spread awareness is a wonderful thing, but if everyone is just sitting there updating their statuses rather than actually donating time or money, what is really being accomplished?

Scientists are often hesitant to make their science accessible and hopping on the outreach bandwagon because (depending on your level of cynicism) they want to maintain their “objectivity” and “integrity”, or just thought the public wasn’t smart enough to understand all those complex ideas that we scientists do.

We want to be scientists, but I think it is also our duty to engage in productive, reasoned discussions with our fellow citizens. Science really is only about as good as the audience that listens to it, and I think scientists have a responsibility to keep finding ways to share their knowledge – which is unique and often not easy to get – with the general public.

It’s a sad reality that people who reject, without due consideration, the conclusions of the scientific community, are having a larger and larger role in shaping public policy at all levels of government. Science is becoming equated with “mere opinion.”  If we stay silent, we run the risk of losing the policy debate. And if we lose the policy debate, we lose so much more. (No, I am NOT talking about research funding!).  Our main problem is that we are not particularly good at advocating our position. So, in a way, we had it coming and should quit whining about other people who are more effective in the public debate. We’re getting our butts kicked…. and for very good reason.  We often lose sight of the fact that if we don’t engage the public, they won’t embrace our views.

Jeremy Fox, from the University of Calgary, opines that if solving real-world ecological problems is your overriding goal, you should consider going into law, politics, or economics rather than field ecology.  His point was that the ultimate causes of anthropogenic impacts on the environment are not ecological and while ecological knowledge is essential for addressing those impacts, lack of knowledge is typically not among the biggest impediments to addressing those impacts.  Dr. Fox has a point, it’s not all about poor communication; it’s not like there is a dearth of knowledge on many global environmental issues– by any means.  Scientists have made the story clear enough to world leaders about the intergenerational injustice of present energy policies.  It becomes clear that needed actions will happen only if the public, somehow, becomes forcefully involved. Because the executive and legislative branches of our governments turn a deaf ear to the science, the judicial branch may provide the best opportunity to redress the situation. Our governments have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the rights of young people and future generations.

I understand that becoming involved in politics isn’t for everyone but anyone can lead-by-example and be the unsung hero type. Sacrifice convenience and reject the products of green washing by: riding your bicycle to work instead of buying a hybrid automobile, compost your organic waste with a worm factory, do research in local ecosystems instead of flying to foreign lands, wear organic cotton and hemp clothing instead of clothing made from reduced fossil fuels, promote local alternatives to those that shop at national chains, etc. ad infinitum.

We still need to figure out ways to get out of our comfort zone and outside the college walls. And, that’s not writing a book instead of an article if it’s going to be read by largely the same audience….. or creating web sites that believers will flock to. It’s talking to the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce or retirement homes and not giving that guest lecture at another university. Web pages with tricky widgets are cool, but that’s not as effective as sitting down with a single “honest” skeptic (and they do exist) and trying to talk to their reasonable side.

We need more Paul Watson’s, Julian Assange’s, Mahatma Ghandi’s, and Martin Luther King Jr’s. in the world and not lazy pseudo-activists.  Get off your high fructose corn syrup asses and do something you fat sheeple!  Go ahead and support causes that make you look uncool (ex. Men totting reusable plastic bags or Jim Carry’s Environmental Man) even if it puts you at odds with the boys in your Harley Davidson club, it might make you more of a man for not caring what others think of you.  Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary). Take action. Take career risks.  A conservation biologist brings facts to the table making the advocacy campaign stronger and infinitely better thought out.  Lobby using the science behind an issue.  As long as you are willing to change to your stance based on the evidence at hand you will never have to worry about objectivity.

To the young people I say: stand up for your rights – demand that the government be honest and address the consequences of their policies. To the old people I say: fight on the side of young people for protection of the world they will inherit.


“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” – Robert F. Kennedy

A Word for Everything and Everything In Its place.

As a scientist I write a lot and effective communication is absolutely essential.  Whether I’m writing proposals, correspondences, emails, or papers for peer reviewed journals, the goal is communicate with brevity, clarity, and impersonality.   This means doing away with needless passive phrasing, and cutting out wordiness, for example: “a majority of” can be truncated by replacing it with “most” or “has been proved to be” replaced by “is”.  However, one thing I don’t agree with –for any type of writing- is using plain or colloquial language.

I understand that when writing science there is no need to be superfluous, layer double meanings, add flowery synonym.  God forbid you add rhyme and cadence – that can be left to authors, poets, or Naïve science journalists.

I had a bit of an argument with a supervisor in the past concerning the use of language.
My supervisor wanted me to substitute “plain” words in a paper that we submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal.  Imagine my surprise when Trevor Quirks piece “Writers should not fear jargon” was published in Nature a couple weeks after the argument.

While I will recommend cutting out jargon when writing for non-scientists, I think to do so for scientists is simply unacceptable.  If you’re a scientist and don’t understand “paradigm” or “synergy” I’m seriously worried about you.

I don’t mean to be pessimist or a pejorist but there is an increasing trend of aversion to using jargon and substituting it with something more colloquial.  For example, a PhD student at the University of Innsbruck, Austria won a competition to explain the concept of a flame in words that a 11-year-old could understand.  However, the problem, as Mr. Quirk pointed out is that “specialized terms capture the complexity and specificity of scientific concepts” and “no other words in the English language encapsulate their meaning quite as well, and if they are dismissed as jargon, then that meaning is lost”.

Often times one may have a feeling that they are impoverished for words; a sense of onomatomomaina you may say.  Perhaps you felt you used “x” word too many times and take a look in a Thesaurus to spice things up a little.  The only problem is that language is imperfect; words are imperfect as symbols.

It’s true that Eskimos have at least 50 words for snow and Albanians have 27 words for eyebrows but that is because these cultures view differences between snow conditions or eyebrow shapes.  Words may have different semantic alliance but never different DEFINITIONS.  For example “crafty” and “skillful” are often used interchangeably, depending upon the context as their definitions are similar.  This is simply not correct as their meaning has diverged to a greater extent.  Skillful has positive connotations, whereas “crafty” carries mostly negative connotations.  The general public’s attitude toward erudite language is likely due to laziness in having to consult a dictionary; which is unacceptable in a day where definitions are just a click away.  The truth is that few word pairs (if any) are really 100% true synonyms; synonyms are situational and each one has some context or nuance of meaning that fits one and not the other.

The word synonym has “no synonym” and by that I mean a word that specifically is a synonym for “synonym”.  My thesaurus lists “equivalent”, but that is too generic, synonym refers specifically to words.  Quite humorously, the cinematographer David Watkin, wrote a biography titled “Why is there only one word for Thesaurus?”

The use of progress in place of adaptation is a perfectly cromulent word – picking the wrong word plain and simple.  Just because the English lexicon is sloppy does not mean that clarity should be abandoned, scholars should be politely but firmly insistent upon “proper usage”.

Use of the proper term is a necessity as well as the work done by the reader to understand it.  The only time synonyms should be misused correctly (for effect) is in the use of catachresis where there exists no actual name (a tables leg, for example) or for rhetorical effect as so cleverly demonstrated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To take arms against a sea of troubles”.

This reminds me of a story about Samuel Johnson, who was not perfect with respect to personal hygiene.  At a grand supper Lady Marmalade turned to him and said to him rather imperiously, “Sir your SMELL!” Johnson said, “Madam, YOU smell – I STINK!”

Perhaps I should stop this floccinaucinihilipilificatory post and get back to writing about science.

An ethical case for eating meat

There is a lot of controversy and debate surrounding eating meat.  I’ve heard many arguments over the years from vegans and vegetarians objecting to eating meat, everything from animal rights, environmental ethics, religious reasons and health issues – an entirely different subject, beyond the scope of this posting.  What I wish to discuss today is the ethics of eating meat.  As a proud meat-eater’s meat-eater I was glad to see that the New York Times recently had an essay contest to make an ethical case for eating meat “Put your ethics where your mouth is”.  I’m a vigorous and unapologetic carnivore and I feel that veganism as practiced by most is sanctimonious at best, and at worst harmful arrogance.

Probably the most common ethical objection to the killing and consumption of sentient beings is that people living in the developed world no longer have a dietary necessity for meat consumption –we can obtain all the other nutrients from non-meat foods- therefore the slaughter of animals to please human taste buds is not morally justifiable.  This was opined by Peter Singer from Princeton University the pioneer of the animal liberation movement.  He believes that if alternative means of survival exist, one ought to choose the option that does not cause unnecessary harm to animals.  For example the grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals (a loss of energy); the need for pasture fuels deforestation etc.   However, if one accepts his viewpoint we can logically extend it to eliminating many low yielding crops from our diet because they destroy natural habitat and extinguish life, be it plant or animals.  Thus we should only eat foods which have the lowest carbon footprint leaving us with tofu and mushrooms, or only organic seasonal foods produced locally.

The second ethical philosophy personism says that animals with a consciousness or who are capable of feeling pain should not be eaten. This includes only animals with a central nervous system which would mean that although biologically oysters are not in the plant kingdom when it comes to ethical eating, they are indistinguishable from plants.  However, this philosophy does not hold up biologically with a strict vegan or vegetarian diet if they consume oysters.  This ethical reason was lampooned by the punk band NOFX’s song clams have feelings too:

“They have no face, no place for ears
There’s no clam eyes, to cry clam tears
No spinal cord, they must get bored
Might as well just put them out of misery

I don’t beleive it’s selfish
To eat defenceless shellfish”

I also feel this is a foolish philosophy because although suffering animals feel anguish, a suffering plant also struggles to stay alive (albeit in a less visible way); no living organism “wants” to die for another organism’s sustenance.

If you want to talk about overfishing and sustainability then the real issue is human overpopulation – again, an entirely different subject beyond the scope of this posting.  If “ethical” should be defined as living in the most ecologically benign way then NOT eating meat could arguably be unethical and ecologically foolish as animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems – production of vegetables without the use of animals requires much larger amount of energy.

To give up eating what we have been doing since time immemorial we endanger ourselves genetically and socially.  Second, when consumed in proper proportions eating meat is pleasurable and is good for the mind and body.  However, as a meat eater I do abstain from meat of animals reared in particular ways, such as factory farms, veal and foie gras.  My moral concern is not one of eating meat but the treatment involving the raising and humane slaughter.  This is truly the next step, and I don’t think anyone –vegan, vegetarian, carnivore- disagrees with it: end the way we grow, process and slaughter, distribute, and eat meat.  Give thanks for the meat you eat as well as all your friends in the vegetable kingdom: accept the biological reality that death begets life and that all life is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form.

Help for picky eaters: Seaweed

With an ever expanding human population, irreversible loss of arable land, and a high rick of mass species extinctions there are increasing worries about food security and a push towards intensive factory farming to feed the projected 8 billion in 2020 (Currently 13.1% -or 1 in 7- of the worlds 6.8 billion is starving) .  Looking at the ingredient lists of popular food products today, we find that many of our culture’s most beloved snacks sound more like science experiments than anything else. Yellow Dye #5, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Thiamine mononitrate, dextrose—these are a just few of the chemicals we routinely inject into “food” today. Sounds scary, huh? Well, Margaret Atwood takes it one step further In Oryx and Crake, envisioning a (not so unbelievable) dystopian future in which science and technology has run amok in a society with rampant capitalism and consumerism pushing genetically altered food onto the market as the environment is collapsing.   Instead of travelling down this untrodden path we should eschew our twinkies and McNuggets for healthier and more “natural” products.  In the Omnivore`s Dilemma by Michel Pollan the choice of what we choose to eat is explored as well as the implications of what`s at stake: our health, our chidrens, and the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.  In short he endorses savoring your food; appreciate the colors textures and beautiful forms of natural and organic fruits and vegetables.

Today, researchers are looking towards seaweed for proteins and other ingredients with health benefits for use as cheap functional foods. Edible seaweeds are consumed by coastal communities across the world and are a habitual diet in many countries, particularly in Asia. One of Bob Marley’s favorite drinks was Irish Moss (or Big Bamboo – I’m sure you’ll figure out why) a thick, clotted drink made with red algae, condensed milk and cinnamon, ginger, strawberry or vanilla.  The drink is served cold and is thought to have aphrodisiac qualities.  Loved for its taste but also for the promise of a healthier sexual lifestyle, Irish moss has been bottled and sold in almost every supermarket in Jamaica.  Indeed, whole seaweeds have been successfully added to foods in recent times, ranging from sausages and cheese to pizza bases and frozen-meat products.

Source of protein

Protein-rich red seaweeds such as Palmaria palmata (common name Dulse) and Porphyra (common name Sleabhac or Laver) could potentially be used to develop low-cost, highly nutritive diets that may compete with current protein crop sources such as soya bean. The protein content of Dulse varies from between 9-25% depending on the season of collection and harvesting while P. palmata has the highest percentage protein per gram of dried whole seaweed. Furthermore, valuable amino acids such as valine, leucine and methionine are present in Dulse and the amino acid profile of Porphyra species is similar to those reported for leguminous plants such as peas or beans.

Health benefits of seaweed

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) accounts for more than 4.3 million deaths each year and high blood pressure is a main cause of CVD.  ACE-I inhibitors are commonly used as therapy in reducing high blood pressure. Food-derived peptides may act as inhibitors of important enzymes such as Angiotensin I converting enzyme (ACE-I) and renin. Researchers at Teagasc have recently found a renin-inhibitory peptide in the seaweed Palmaria palmate and are assessing their use in bread products for human consumption.

The Marine Functional Foods Research Initiative, or NutraMara programme is attempting to develop the marine sector by identifying novel, functional foods and bioactive ingredients from seaweeds, microalgae, marine processing co-products and aquaculture materials.


“Nature is to zoos as God is to churches.”

-Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Putting and end to the Economy Vs. Environment myth. II. Three cheers for environmental Keynesianism

My intention is to voice my concerns and offer a suggested alternative approach.  As a biologist venturing outside my field of technical expertise I cannot promise that what I propose would work; however, I know that the current model is unsustainable (both environmentally and economically) and therefore it’s worth exploring and implementing alternative models.  In no way am I advocating a non-market economy. It’s not capitalism but consumerism which causes harm to the environment.  The creation of artificial needs for the sole purpose of creating a business and generating revenue does nothing for society.  Capitalism is amoral and makes no judgements on what is good.

Since the financial downturn that began in 2007, one of the most appealing has been the call for a program of environmental Keynesianism.  In the broadest of terms, one could define this as channeling public spending towards low-carbon industries and environmentally friendly activities.

Economic forces driving ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss are extremely complex and present a multifaceted problem.  Socioeconomic institutions, including inter alia, market prices, capital flows, laws, political bodies as well as macroeconomic policies and structures favor expansion of the consumption-driven patterns of development.  They promote unsustainable resource consumption and degradation of ecosystems.  Sustainability has not been part of development plans; the environment has been treated as a virtually limitless source of resources and services.

The neo-classical economic perspective will find that incorrect prices for environmental services lead to environmental degradation; the Malthusian perspective will find population change is responsible; and from a Marxist perspective will find class structures to blame, and so on.  Although communism didn’t work there are lessons still to be learned from the works of Karl Marx; specifically government control.  Although capitalists will assert that government control causes market inefficiency, this does not mean it is the moral and socially acceptable policy.

Attention should focus on ways to compensate for “failures” in laws, policies, and organizations.  Policy failures can be due to two factors: perverse government policies that provide incentives for degradation or resource exploitation or when government policies and market institutions fail to incorporate environmental values, including the value of biodiversity into decision-making.  The latter is the focus of Environmental Keynesian which promises a “win-win” situation where the removal of harmful policy or introduction of interventions to compensate for market failures creates economic and environmental benefits for everyone.

The current system cannot be saved; unfortunately, this implies the unraveling of the very capitalist system.  I hope I highlighted the impossibility of capitalism in the long run and the necessity of facing up to the task of implementing alternative theories.  Humanity is heading towards unchartered waters and there is no way to square the circle of continuous growth in a finite world.  More radical thought is needed, we need socialized investment; it’s time to green the fingers of the invisible hand of the market!

Putting and end to the Economy Vs. Environment myth. I. Capitalism has no endpoint

Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s book, How Much Is Enough?, explores the diminishing returns on greater and greater wealth and examines capitalism’s limits.

Defenders of capitalism have always recognized that it’s a system with moral flaws, but they have regarded such flaws as the price of progress. Keynes was typical in this respect.  In the essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” he writes: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone else that fair is foul and foul is fair”—he knew his Shakespeare—”for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer, for only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into the sunlight.”

To me, it is clear that capitalism, left to itself, will carry on endlessly and pointlessly – pointlessly because it never asks the question, “What is this for, what’s it all about?”  As a gentle nation, our passions must be just, measured and continuous.  No nation can last that as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity –with existence- go on despising science, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrate its soul on money.  Do you think these are harsh or wild words?   How much do you think the contents of the bookshelves of the all the Universities in the world, public and private, would fetch as compared with the contents of it petroleum reserves?  What position does our expenditure on science compare with our expenditure on luxury?   All these virtues we nationally despise.

We have despised Nature; which is to say, all the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery.  There is no parcel left of land which we have not trampled coal ashes into, nor foreign cities not consumed by the white leprosy of new hotels and the convulsive hiccough of self-satisfaction.  We have despised science.  What! You say, “are we not foremost in all discovery?  Yes; but do you suppose that is national work?  That work is all done in spite of the nation; by private people’s zeal and money.  We are glad enough, to make our profit of science; we snap up anything in the way of a scientific bone that has meat on it, eagerly enough; but if a scientific man comes to us for a bone or a crust to us, that is another story.  We call ourselves a “rich” nation and we are filthy and foolish enough to thumb out funding almost exclusively to applied science.  If someone tells us where the oil is or how to get it easier, we understand the use in that; but is the accident of his having found out how to employ himself useful any credit to us?  

We pour our whole energy into the false business of money-making; without any true emotion.  All this is supported by the “science” of the modern political economist, teaching covetousness instead of truth.  What an absurd idea it seems, put fairly in words, that the wealth of civilized nations should ever come to support science instead of capitalism!

Christianity, the religion of unachievement is the part of the West’s check on the necessary amoralism of the market. However, to me it seems this has been forgotten and is now reduced to Paul Ryan’s love of Ayn Rand or the “Prosperity Gospel” and Christianism has all but internalized capitalism as the end rather than the means of human flourishing. Meanwhile, we are destroying the planet in search for “more” and “more”. Are we happier now? Will we ever be if this materialism is our primary source of values?

There is only one cure – and that is public education, directed to make people thoughtful, merciful, and just.  We talk daily about improving education, which will lead to “advancement in life”; this is all we pray for.  We never seek, so far as I can see, an education which is good in itself.  No single business can be blamed; it’s the economic foundation which has created the problem.

In my next posting I will examine what I believe to be the best possible economic and environmental solution, one which will, hopefully, put and end to the economy versus environment myth: Environmental Keynesianism.

What you will find here

I will generally write about anything that happens to be in my head at the moment, whether it’s random science or just my feelings and experiences because I think it can be useful to people dealing with similar issues.

However, there will be some topics I will leave alone.  I chose to write under my name rather than choosing to hide under a pseudonym because I am willing to stand behind whatever I have to say.  I will avoid criticizing anyone who works with me or writing about things that may be politically problematic; which is more than I can say for a lot of bloggers.  For example, how would you feel if you found out that your boss was using a public website to complain about your perceived weaknesses?  Comparing you to your lab mates and describing you as petulant and childish; an obnoxious, abominable, unprofessional and condescending way to do things.

Paul Knoepfler’s piece in Nature talks about how blogging is a much more accepted means of communication by scientists today, and also addresses how not to blog.  The truth be told what you write can jeopardize your credibility in your department, or even your degree.  Of course it depends on how much has been written and what was said, but there is certainly no ignoring it.  Using a pseudonym is a pretty thin veil when it comes to one’s identity and I choose NOT to be the man behind the curtain.

I hope to be a source of knowledge, advice, suggestions and reassurance in the blogosphere for grad students, recent graduates and undergrads.

My life as a mosquito magnet

My life as a mosquito magnet

How come some people attract swarms of mosquitos while others –often nearby- rarely get bitten?  How come you get singled out and not the guy or gal next to you at the backyard BBQ?

Mosquitos primary senses are sight and smell, says Jonathan Day, a professor of medical entomology at the University of Florida in Vero Beach. Lab studies suggest that 20 percent of people are high attractor types, he says.

Mosquito’s vision is highly acute, especially later in the afternoon, and their first mode of search for humans is through vision, explains Day. People dressed in dark colours — black, navy blue, red — stand out and movement is another cue.  While standing completely still may not always be possible, unless of your course you are a robot street performer, wearing light colours can make you less conspicuous.

Once the mosquito locates a promising visual target, she (and it’s always “she” — only the ladies bite) then picks up on smell. The main attractor is your rate of carbon dioxide production with every exhale you take.  Larger people and pregnant women have higher rates of carbon dioxide production.  Your rate of carbon dioxide production also increases during exercise.  While you may be able to outrun them in a golf cart, it’s a big red flag for mosquitoes that says “meal time”.   Although carbon dioxide is the primary attractant, other secondary smells coming from your skin or breath mark you as a good landing spot.

Lactic acid (given off while exercising), acetone (a chemical released in your breath), and estradiol (a breakdown product of estrogen) can all be released at varying concentrations and lure in mosquitoes, says Day. Your body temperature, or warmth, can also make a difference. Mosquitoes may also flock to pregnant women because of their extra body heat.

Researchers are still uncertain behind a mosquito’s preference for certain people, says Joseph Conlon, a medical entomologist and the technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association due to more than 350 compounds isolated from odors produced by human skin.   Human odor and genetics are not the only factors, studies of twins have revealed it’s more complicated than that, suggests Conlon.

Conlon said that recent thoughts are it may not be what mosquitoes find attractive but what is repellent.  It could be that individuals who get less bites produce chemicals on their skin that make them more repellant and cover up smells that mosquitoes find attractive.

Mosquitoes don’t feed off you, since they feed off plant nectar, Conlon explains. Females use your blood to obtain a necessary protein for egg development.  I will try and forget this next bit of advice: Mosquitoes are more attracted to people after they drink a 12-ounce beer.

Here are more fun facts about mosquitoes and bites provided by our experts:

  • Eating bananas will not attract mosquitoes and taking vitamin B-12 will not repel them; these are old wives’ tales.
  • Some mosquito species are leg and ankle biters; they cue into the stinky smell of bacteria on your feet.
  • Other species prefer the head, neck and arms perhaps because of the warmth, smells emitted by your skin, and closeness to carbon dioxide released by your mouth.
  • The size of a mosquito bite welt has nothing to do with the amount of blood taken and everything to do with how your immune system responds to the saliva introduced by the mosquito into your skin.
  • The more times you get bitten by a particular species of mosquito, the less most people react to that species over time. The bad news? There’s more than 3,000 species worldwide.

Rite of Passage: Montezuma’s revenge

On our day off we went to visit the Mayan city of Tulum.  Tulum, one of the last cities inhabited by the Mayans, is situated along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.  It was one of the best fortified Mayan cities helping it survive approximately 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico.  It had numerous watch towers and was is protected on the seaward side by steep cliffs averaging 12 meters and on the landward side by a wall that averaged about 3 to 5 meters.  Although its strong fortifications kept the city safe from attacks and hurricanes it could not protect against disease.  Tragically its inhabitants succumbed to Old World diseases brought by Spanish settlers.

Quite comically, I suffered Montezuma’s revenge a day later, the common colloquialism in Mexico for travelers’ diarrhea, a mild or explosive (no pun intended) illness.  The name refers to Moctezuma II (1466–1520), the Tlatoani (ruler) of the Aztec civilization who was defeated by Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador.  The revenge element of the phrase alludes to the supposed hostile attitude of countries that were previously colonized by stronger countries, which are now, in this small but effective way, getting their own back.

It was comical not due to the illness itself but the fact that I had visited the Mayan ruins, not the Aztec’s.  Therefore why did Moctezuma feel the need for revenge?  Although both civilizations were conquered by the Spaniards there were some important differences between them and the reason for my shitty time (pun intended) was not the ill will of a malevolent spirit but science.

Firstly the Aztecs were huge believers of human sacrifice and were at it all the time. The Mayans on the other hand believed in offering blood instead, though they were not averse to sacrificing the captain of a leading football team! But I digress, what really set the Mayans apart was there very scientific temperament. They studied stars and in fact had come up with a very scientific calendar comparable to the modern one. They had an obsession with time and tried to measure it by studying astronomy and correlating it with their current events.  If the Mayans had possessed the technology here is how they would have described Montezuma’s revenge.

The primary source of infection is ingestion of fecally-contaminated food or water…yummm! These sources have no adverse effects on local residents, due to immunity that develops with constant, repeated exposure to pathogenic organisms. The most common isolated pathogen is the enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli.  While other times it results from introducing different flora into your guts.

The symptoms I developed were diarrhea, abdominal cramps, low fever, malaise and bloating, with a nonexistent appetite.  Apparently the average person experiences four to five watery bowel movements each day.  However, I lost count after 20 “es mi dia suerte” I guess.  I tried a bunch of over-the-counter anti-diarrhea products with minimal success and 3 days later I was symptom-free and ready to take on the world again.

The truth is that in many ways I kind of knew I would eventually get Montezuma’s revenge, even though I took preventative measures.  It has a way of getting to travelers; especially those spending as much time here as I am.  It’s not something you can avoid unless you want to live in a bubble the entire time.

For me, it was almost a rite of passage.  That being said, Montezuma’s revenge seemed to get the best of me.  And for now, it’s time to move on to greener, and hopefully healthier, pastures.