Posts Tagged: Matan Shelomi
If you like Pokémon, you know the insect connection.
Satoshi Tajiri of Japan, who developed Pokémon, collected insects in his childhood and initially toyed with the idea of becoming an entomologist.
He never forgot his love of insects and showcased them in Nintendo's Pokémon, now the world's second most successful video game-based media franchise, eclipsed only by Nintendo's Mario.
Enter three young entomologists at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. What they did is amazing.
They published a humorous take on the evolutionary development and history of the 646 fictional species depicted in the Pokémon media over the last 16 years.
“We made a very real phylogeny of the very fake Pokémon creatures,” commented lead author Matan Shelomi, the UC Davis entomology graduate student who conceived the idea.
The article, “A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokémon,” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a tongue-in-cheek journal meant “to make people laugh and then think,” according to the editors. In keeping with the “laugh-and-then-think” concept, the journal also awards the infamous IG Nobel Prizes.
Shelomi, a graduate of Harvard where the IG Nobel Prizes are awarded, said he based his idea “in part on other AIR papers like the phylogeny of Chia Pets and the taxonomic description of Barney the Dinosaur.”
Until now, however, no one has traced the evolutionary history of the 646 fictional species, let alone develop a 16-generation phylogenetic or evolutionary tree.
The Pokémon project is the work of Shelomi; Andrew Richards, a junior specialist at the Bohart Museum; and Ivana Li, an entomology student/artist who works part-time at the Bohart.
Oh, wait! There's a fourth author, too--Yukinari Okido, whom Pokémon fans may recognize as the Japanese name of one of the fictional Pokémon professors from the game/TV show, Professor Oak.
How did it all come about? “I had a lull in my dissertation research and decided to spend the weekends and downtime making this phylogeny,” said Shelomi, who is studying for his doctorate in entomology with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis. “It took at least a month to actually collect all the data, which I did manually by scrolling through Pokémon websites.”
What about reader reaction? “The paper is slowly making the rounds,” Shelomi said. “We've had quite a few people disagree with the tree, as some of the conclusions violate Pokémon canon, and we do have the usual phylogenetic problems of long-branch attraction, etc. The disconnect between the tree and Pokémon mating groups is a problem, but I argue that the Biological Species Concept should not be assumed for Pokémon and I stand by my tree.”
“So far, one scientist--a linguist in Japan--has asked for a copy of the dataset to use in a class on phylogram building," Shelomi said, "and he apparently came up with a different tree.”
“It would be nice to see a wide set of articles responding to this one,” Shelomi said. “I think it would be quite easy to fill a journal of Pokémon science, although much harder to justify creating one.”
Want to see the phylogeny? Click on the link or see it at the Bohart Museum, 1124 Academic Surge, Crocker Lane, UC Davis.
They did it! From left are Andrew Richards, Ivana Li and Matan Shelomi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
That was basically the question that UC Davis entomologist/doctoral candidate Matan Shelomi answered on Quora.
Shelomi answered it so well that he tied for a first-place Shorty Award, the social media-equivalent of an Oscar. The Shorties are given annually to the best producers of short content on social media, as determined by popular vote. The question, posted on Quora, the popular question-and-answer website which engages worldwide users, drew scores of answers, but Shelomi's answer went viral and resulted in an invitation to the fourth annual star-studded Shorty Awards ceremony on March 26 in Times Square, New York City.
And nobody was more surprised than Matan Shelomi.
“I’ve been posting on Quora for a few months now after my sophomore roommate from Harvard, who works there, invited me to it. Not to question a website with employees from Harvard, I signed up. I occasionally go on there and post answers to entomology questions, especially if I get an e-invite to answer a specific question. I’ve answered more than 100 questions so far.”
"I saw this one question on ‘If you injure a bug, should you kill it’ on Nov 30, 2011 and was dissatisfied with the answers, which mostly answered from a religious or philosophical standpoint. I looked up insect pain reception briefly and answered it. I had no idea my response would be so popular! Apparently it's a question a lot of people had. It was popularized on Gawker as one of the 'most demented questions on Quora.' "
“They liked my answer, though. That was surprising enough, and later I got an email out of the blue saying I had been nominated for a Shorty, 'The Oscars of Twitter.' "
“Looks like the philosophers and theists have made their cases. As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don't feel ‘pain,’ but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged. Even so, they certainly cannot suffer because they don't have emotions. If you heavily injure an insect, it will most likely die soon: either immediately because it will be unable to escape a predator, or slowly from infection or starvation. Ultimately this crippling will be more of an inconvenience to the insect than a tortuous existence, so it has no ‘misery’ to be put out of but also no real purpose anymore. If it can't breed anymore, it has no reason to live.
“In other words, I have not answered your question because, as far as the science is concerned, neither the insect nor the world will really care either way. Personally, though, I'd avoid doing more damage than you've already done. 1) Maybe the insect will recover, depending on how damaged it is. 2) Some faiths do forbid taking animal lives, so why go out of your way to kill? 3) You'll stain your shoe.”
Shelomi's answer drew widespread praise on Quora, including:
--“This, by far, is the funniest answer I have read on Quora. Not only the funniest answer, but also the funniest show of authority on a subject. You have to love the casualness of it and the mockery aspect. Funny and yet not frivolous. Well done. 10/10. I will read it again now.”
--“Great answer, the shoe comment is what really sold it.”
Shelomi's response was subsequently nominated for “best answer on Quora," a new category of the Shorties. Another commitment prevented him from being at the Times Square award ceremony, held March 26, but he posted his "equally short" video acceptance speech. He earlier recorded it at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, where he studies insect physiology.
As it turned out, Shelomi shared the first-place award in the Quora category with former police officer Justin Freeman, now an evangelical pastor in Mountain Grove, Mo., who answered “What’s the best way to escape the police in a high-speed car chase?”
If you have a question, you, too, can post it on Quora. And if it's an entomological question, you just might get a creative answer from Matan Shelomi.
A red-shouldered stink bug peers at the camera. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Quick! What's the answer to this question?
"I am a blood feeder; I have no hair but have a comb. What am I?"
That was the final question posed when the University of California, Davis competed Monday night with the University of Hawai-Manoa team for the championship of the Linnaean Games, Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America (PBESA).
The Linaean Games are college bowl-type games featuring questions about insects, entomologists and entomological facts. Each branch of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) can send two teams to the nationals. This year ESA meets in Reno Nov. 13-16.
So, UC Davis and the University of Hawaii are in a dead heat at the PBESA meeting in Hawaii. Tied game. Buzzers ready. And then comes that final question. "What am I?"
"A flea," Emily Symmes of the UC Davis team correctly answers.
Yes, a flea! A flea, indeed.
Emily Symmes, who is studying for her doctorate with major professor Frank Zalom, joined the winners' circle with her fellow teammates who also did equally well: Matan Shelomi, studying for his doctorate with major profesor Lynn Kimsey; Meredith Cenzer, studying for her doctorate with major professor Louie Yang; and James Harwood, studying for his doctorate with major professor James R. Carey.
Winning at the branch level is indeed an accomplishment, as well as a fun endeavor. The PBESA encompasses 11 U.S. states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming); several U.S. territories, including American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands; and parts of Canada and Mexico.
If you've never been to any of the Linnaean Games, you can see videos online by Googling "Linnaean Games." See if you can answer those questions.
Might be another question about fleas in there, too.
Practicing for the Games
You never know who's coming to dinner...er...reception.
When the UC Davis Department of Entomology hosted an open house today for prospective graduate students, the Bohart Museum of Entomology brought along some thorny walking sticks.
Graduate student Matan Shelomi, who studies with major professor Lynn Kimsey, showed the thorny stick insect to various individuals: faculty members, staff, students and prospective students.
The thorny walking stick (Aretaon asperrimus), native to Borneo, is covered with...guess what?... thornlike spikes. The female "stick" reaches three inches long and the males, two inches long. Their diet: bramble, oak, ivy and rose. No human beings; these little walking sticks are harmless.
If you'd like to hold walking sticks or Madagascar hissing cockroaches, be sure to attend the Bohart Museum's upcoming open house, set from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26. Admission is free. The Bohart is located at 1124 Academic Surge on California Drive.
The insect museum houses more than seven million insect specimens, plus a live "petting zoo," which includes Madagascar hissing cockroaches and walking sticks.
During the weekdays, you can visit the Bohart Museum Monday through Thursday from 8:30 to 5 p.m. (closed during the lunch hour). Group tours can be arranged with Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator, at (530) 752-9464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out the thorny walking sticks!
Meeting a Walking Stick
Ask any entomology student and it means "Bring Your Own Bug."
And that's exactly what the UC Davis Linnaean Team did this morning during an interview with the TV anchors of Good Day Sacramento.
By request, the team members brought along their favorite bugs: Madagascar hissing cockroaches (see hisser at right) and assorted walking sticks, all from the Bohart Museum of Entomology; and soapberry bugs from professor Sharon Lawler's lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology.
The TV station labeled the event "a bug invasion."
And indeed it was.
Extension entomologist Larry Godfrey of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty coaches the team, which includes graduate students Andrew Merwin (who studies with major professor Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology), Meredith Cenzer (major professor Louie Yang), Matan Shelomi (major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology) and prospective graduate student Ralph Washington, who received his bachelor's degree in entomology from UC Davis in 2010.
They competed last December in the national Linnaean Games, a college-bowl type competition that's a traditional part of the Entomological Society of America's annual meeting. Teams answer questions about insects and entomologists and compete for the championship. Ohio State University won the 2010 championship, defeating the University of Nebraska.
But, back to the bugs at the TV station...
Godfrey quizzed the anchors on their knowledge of insects. Each time an anchor answered a question incorrectly, he received temporary custody of a bug.
The final score: Bugs 3; Anchors, 0.
Name the title of the Robert Frost poem that includes this line: “An ant on a table cloth ran into a dormant moth of many times his size.”
No, not "Ants in Your Pants." The answer: “Departmental.”
Another question: “What insect was used as a symbol for the film, The Silence of the Lambs, and what is unusual about the insect’s food habits?”
"No, little more detail, little more detail,” Godfrey coaxed. The answer. “Death’s-Head Hawkmoth” and it raids bee hives (Apis mellifera) for the honey.
The third question dealt with the vedalia beetle: “Where was the vedalia beetle released for the control of cottony cushion scale and what industry did it save?”
“The Southeast" and "Cotton"? No.
“It was released in California," Godfrey said, "and it saved the citrus industry."
The UC Davis team now heads to the next competition, the Linnaean Games at the ESA Pacific Branch meeting, set March 27-30 in Hawaii. Each ESA branch can send two teams to the nationals. Reno is hosting the ESA's 59th annual meeting Nov. 13-16.
Meanwhile, the Bohart Museum should be drawing lots of visitors. It's located at 1124 Academic Surge on California Drive, UC Davis. Admission is free. Visiting hours: Mondays through Thursdays. Times: 9 a.m. to 12 noon and 1 to 5 p.m.
Pop quiz: How many bugs at the Bohart? More than 7 million specimens. Plus, there's the "live petting zoo" where you can touch the hissers and walking sticks...including the ones on the TV show...
Bugs R Us
About That Insect...