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Birds, horror, butterflies, Nabokov, and wine

January 27, 2011

Butcherbirds, shown below right, will prey on small fairy wrens, shown left. Both are Australian species. ‘Tis not hard to imagine how the larger butcherbird seems a monster from the eyes of the wren. So why does the male fairy wren give a mating call after a butcherbird vocalizes? Experiment shows it isn’t a warning call. Perhaps the wren is playing on the same kind of emotional catharsis that makes horror movies so popular with teens?

When Nabokov wasn’t writing novels, he served as butterfly curator at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. He theorized that the several species of the American Polyommatus blues had come over in different waves across the Siberian strait. Recent DNA analysis confirms that evolutionary history.

Vitis vinifera, the grape that makes our wine and raisins, originated in a cultivation event several millennium back. DNA analysis shows it has since lived the life of an adored pet: pampered and sexless. That makes it particularly vulnerable to parasites, such as the phylloxera that destroyed most European vineyards in the 19th century. But new breeding techniques that use that DNA analysis may come to the rescue. I suspect the taste of a wine is more subtle than the genes that provide parasite resistance, else Argentinian Malbec would taste the same as French Côt.

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