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Image of Kelsi Rutledge

The nature of innovation

Marine scientist Kelsi Rutledge explores new possibilities for bioinspired design

Image of Kelsi Rutledge on a beach in a lab coat, holding a preserved museum specimen of ray.

© Jade Nelson
UC Grad Slam finalist Kelsi Rutledge holds a preserved museum specimen of Pseudobatos buthi, a new ray species she discovered.

Lucy Berbeo

Kelsi Rutledge wants you to understand the world from a fish’s perspective — a stingray’s, to be exact — and for good reason: this fascinating creature and its relatives may help lead the way to a more sustainable future.

Swimming the seas since prehistoric times, the ray is famed for its flat body, wing-like fins and venomous barb. But it has something else that the casual observer can’t see: a curiously shaped, powerful nose that can track a scent like a bloodhound. Rutledge, a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is shedding new light on this sensory superpower and what we can learn from it.

“There are all kinds of rays — huge, pelagic manta rays, deep-sea thorny skates, blind electric rays — and they all have different types of noses,” she says. “Some are circular, some are slit-like, others protrude from their heads. Why do they look so different, and how do they work? It’s not a simple question to answer. Unlike humans, their noses aren’t involved in breathing; they evolved only for smell. Without a pump-like system to bring odors in, how do their noses still smell so efficiently?”

Rooted in these questions, Rutledge’s research earned her a spot as a finalist in this year’s statewide UC Grad Slam competition. She’s interested in how the rays’ sniffers may influence bioinspired design, where technical innovations take a cue from nature’s systems and processes. Her findings are already being used by U.S. Navy engineers to improve underwater technology.

Image of a ray underwater, photographed from below with the nose visible.

David Clode/Unsplash

Rutledge’s research journey started at L.A.’s Natural History Museum — where, she says, scientists can check out animals “like books.” After borrowing a number of ray specimens, she worked with staff at UCLA Radiology to CT-scan the fishes’ heads, including their noses of varying shapes and sizes, then used a 3D printer to construct anatomically accurate models. Back at the lab, she used powerful lasers to illuminate water movement and compare the noses in action.

“We tracked individual water parcels to find out how the different nose shapes harnessed odors, which was fastest and most effective, and then tied that back to their ecology,” she says. “We wanted to understand why they evolved this system: do some species rely on sense of smell more than others? For example, deep-sea fishes with limited vision might need an odor-harnessing system that’s quicker and more efficient.”


“Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”


Learning to imitate the rays’ evolutionary “design” may be a game-changer in the era of climate change. Odors are chemicals, and monitoring chemical content in the ocean is vital in tracking the health of our seas, which provide nearly three-quarters of our oxygen. Chemicals like phosphorous, silicate and nitrogen also form the basis of the ocean’s food web, giving nutrients to phytoplankton and algae. And while current chemical detection methods are expensive and tech-heavy, the form and function of ray noses may inspire simple, energy-conscious solutions.

“There’s so much we can learn from animals. I have another paper that looked at the crushing power of stingray jaws — they can actually crush material that’s harder than their own skeleton,” Rutledge says. “Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”

Rutledge has long been curious about nature’s hidden, yet complex and fascinating worlds. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, she was drawn to ocean life and to the study of fishes in particular because of their incredible biodiversity, which led her down endless “research rabbit holes.” As a master’s student, she discovered a new species of guitarfish, a lesser-known and threatened ray relative. The news was covered by Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine and more — hardly typical in the old-school world of taxonomy.

Image of Kelsi Rutledge in a red dress on the beach, holding a preserved museum specimen of ray.

© Jade Nelson
Rutledge named the new species Pseudobatos buthi in honor of her supportive graduate advisor at UCLA, the late Don Buth.

“I staged a photoshoot with my professional photographer friend where I took silly photos with one of the museum specimens of my new species, similar in style to a birth announcement,” she shared on her website. “With a bit of apprehension, I then took to Twitter to post the photos. My hope was to engage scientists and non-scientists alike and highlight the importance of museum collections and this understudied and endangered group of fishes.”

After graduating this year, Rutledge will go on to Caltech’s Dabiri Lab to shine the spotlight on another odd but fascinating creature, the jellyfish — which, like the stingray, has managed to outlive the dinosaurs. “I’m really excited about this new project. Jellyfish are one of the most efficient swimmers in the ocean,” she says. “They’re so simple and complex at the same time.”

And in a field with endless possibilities, Rutledge continues to find wonder and inspiration in fishes, our strange evolutionary ancestors. “There’s so much we can learn about them,” she says. “There’s still so much to be discovered.”

Learn more about Kelsi Rutledge’s research and teaching at her website, fishandfreckles.com.


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What wolves’ teeth reveal about their lives

Biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of large carnivores. Here she displays a replica of a saber-toothed cat skull. At left are the skulls of a spotted hyena (in white) and a dire wolf (the black skull). Photo credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA.

UCLA evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of many species of large carnivores — including wolves, lions and tigers —  that lived from 50,000 years ago to the present. She reports today in the journal eLife the answer to a puzzling question.

Essential to the survival of these carnivores is their teeth, which are used for securing their prey and chewing it, yet large numbers of these animals have broken teeth. Why is that, and what can we learn from it?

In the research, Van Valkenburgh reports a strong link between an increase in broken teeth and a decline in the amount of available food, as large carnivores work harder to catch dwindling numbers of prey, and eat more of it, down to the bones.

“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” said Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology.

For the new research, Van Valkenburgh studied the skulls of gray wolves — 160 skulls of adult wolves housed in the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Montana; 64 adult wolf skulls from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior that are housed at Michigan Technological University; and 94 skulls from Scandinavia, collected between 1998 and 2010, housed in the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. She compared these with the skulls of 223 wolves that died between 1874 and 1952, from Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho and Canada.

Yellowstone had no wolves, Van Valkenburgh said, between the 1920s and 1995, when 31 gray wolves were brought to the national park from British Columbia. About 100 wolves have lived in Yellowstone for more than a decade, she said.

In Yellowstone, more than 90% of the wolves’ prey are elk. The ratio of elk to wolves has declined sharply, from more than 600-to-1 when wolves were brought back to the national park to about 100-to-1 more recently.

In the first 10 years after the reintroduction, the wolves did not break their teeth much and did not eat the elk completely, Van Valkenburgh reports. In the following 10 years, as the number of elk declined, the wolves ate more of the elk’s body, and the number of broken teeth doubled, including the larger teeth wolves use when hunting and chewing.

The pattern was similar in the island park of Isle Royale. There, the wolves’ prey are primarily adult moose, but moose numbers are low and their large size makes them difficult to capture and kill. Isle Royale wolves had high frequencies of broken and heavily worn teeth, reflecting the fact that they consumed about 90% of the bodies of the moose they killed.

Scandinavian wolves presented a different story. The ratio of moose to wolves is nearly 500-to-1 in Scandinavia and only 55-to-1 in Isle Royale, and, consistent with Van Valkenburgh’s hypothesis, Scandinavian wolves consumed less of the moose they killed (about 70%) than Isle Royale wolves. Van Valkenburgh did not find many broken teeth among the Scandinavian wolves. “The wolves could find moose easily, not eat the bones, and move on,” she said.

Van Valkenburgh believes her findings apply beyond gray wolves, which are well-studied, to other large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears.

Extremely high rates of broken teeth have been recorded for large carnivores — such as lions, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats — from the Pleistocene epoch, dating back tens of thousands of years, compared with their modern counterparts, Van Valkenburgh said. Rates of broken teeth from animals at the La Brea Tar Pits were two to four times higher than in modern animals, she and colleagues reported in the journal Science in the 1990s.

“Our new study suggests that the cause of this tooth fracture may have been more intense competition for food in the past than in present large carnivore communities,” Van Valkenburgh said.

She and colleagues reported in 2015 that violent attacks by packs of some of the world’s largest carnivores — including lions much larger than those of today and saber-toothed cats — went a long way toward shaping ecosystems during the Pleistocene.

In a 2016 article in the journal BioScience, Van Valkenburgh and more than 40 other wildlife experts wrote that preventing the extinction of lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants and the world’s other largest mammals will require bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide.

Discussing the new study, she said, “We want to understand the factors that increase mortality in large carnivores that, in many cases, are near extinction. Getting good information on that is difficult. Studying tooth fracture is one way to do so, and can reveal changing levels of food stress in big carnivores.”

Co-authors are Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, professors of forest resources and environmental science at Michigan Technological University; and Douglas Smith and Daniel Stahler, wildlife biologists with the National Park Service.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Park Service.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Shane Campbell-Staton

UCLA biology professor uses superheroes to help students sift fact from fiction

Photo of Shane Campbell-Staton

Shane Campbell-Staton, shown in his UCLA office, says comic books offer a fantastical look at biological concepts.

While Shane Campbell-Staton was working on his dissertation at Harvard in 2013, he walked into a comic book store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and saw a comic in which Superman fought Muhammad Ali. That was the first comic book he ever bought.

An evolutionary biologist, he spent his days writing about the evolution of a small green lizard that adapted from a warm, sub-tropical environment to the cold winters of Tennessee, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Before going to sleep, he read the comic book as a guilty pleasure.

“Pitting the peak of human performance in Muhammad Ali against the peak of science fiction performance in the Man of Steel, in a ring with gloves on, I had to see how that fight ended,” Campbell-Staton said. (He refuses to spoil the ending by saying who won.)

Campbell-Staton became curious about other comic book universes, and returned to buy a couple of other superhero comics, which he also read before falling asleep. He started to have strange dreams that combined the biology he was thinking about with the comic books he was reading. He had a dream about the Flash – the fastest person in the world whose super speed is coupled with superhuman reflexes – running faster than a bullet. Campbell-Staton woke up thinking about muscle fiber, friction and metabolism — things that fuel a body.

“Science fiction and comic books are a really good way of approaching classic questions in biology from a different angle,” said Campbell-Staton, a UCLA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, whose research focuses on how reptiles and other animal species adapt to extreme environments, and the physiology, biology and evolution behind that process. “Comic books offer a fantastical look at the same concepts.”

Campbell-Staton started his popular Biology of Superheroes podcast in late 2017, which was a top 20 iTunes science and medicine podcast this January.

This quarter he is teaching a new “Biology of Superheroes” course for juniors and seniors in the life sciences. He uses superheroes such as Batman, Captain America, Black Panther and Wonder Woman, as well as Jurassic Park and zombies, to teach his students the biology of aging, genetics, evolution, genetic engineering, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, the ethics of reviving extinct species, parallel universes, intelligent alien life and how biology shapes modern society.

Photo of Shane Campbell-Staton giving a lecture to students.

Shane Campbell-Staton teaches his “Biology of Superheroes” course at UCLA.

Students read peer-reviewed research journal articles, chapters from science books and comic books. They can create their own science fiction or superhero podcast for their final project, or write a paper or a superhero short novel. Campbell-Staton said he would like to include some of their podcast material on his podcast.

Campbell-Staton said he wants to push students to think about biology in ways they typically would not.

“Regardless of whether these students go into medicine, research, politics, or other fields, my job is to help them sift fact from fiction,” Campbell-Staton said. “If you can sift fact from fiction in Spider-Man, that is a training ground for asking questions about what is true, what is not, and how to tell one from the other when it comes to complex ideas they will confront later in their lives.”

His students agree.

“Usually, we learn the biology of plants and animals. This class is refreshing and cool,” Fayt Sarreal said.

Student Andy Duong said Campbell-Staton cleverly weaves science into the superhero discussions in a creative and engaging way.

In a recent class session, Campbell-Staton raised a question posed by Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould (who died in 2002): If you replay the tape of evolution, will you repeatedly get the same results or different results?

The consensus among the students was the results would be different. One said the six-mile-wide asteroid that crashed to Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and approximately 75 percent of the world’s animal and plant species, might miss the Earth in an alternate scenario, and if so, the dinosaurs likely would still roam the Earth.

The 2018 movie, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” addresses this question with alternate universes. The character Peter Parker is Spider-Man in one universe, while Gwen Stacy is Spider-Woman in another universe. The same characters appear in different universes, but as a superhero in one universe, a normal person in a different universe, and a supervillain in another universe. The role of determinism in evolution is a lively, ongoing debate in evolutionary biology — one this movie explores through the lens of the multiverse, Campbell-Staton said. Gould argued that replaying the tape of life repeatedly would yield different results, likely not including humans.

An earlier class session covered whether elite athletes have to be extraordinarily gifted genetically. Campbell-Staton discussed specific gene mutations that influence endurance and muscle strength. He plans to teach the “Biology of Superheroes” each year in winter quarter.

When Campbell-Staton was in high school, he took a memorable course on myths and legends that delved into broader issues. “That always stuck with me as a unique and enjoyable learning experience that forced me to push myself,” he said.

Technique from biology helps explain the evolution of the American car

Borrowing a technique that biologists might use to study the evolution of plants or animals, the scientists plotted the “births” and “deaths” of every American-made car and truck model from 1896 to 2014.

Blaire Van Valkenburgh appointed Inaugural Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology

Professor Blaire Van Valkenburgh

Professor Blaire Van Valkenburgh, an internationally renown vertebrate biologist and paleontologist, has been appointed the inaugural Donald R. Dickey chair in Vertebrate Biology within the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. This endowed chair was created through a generous endowment from Donald R. Dickey, Jr. and Hisae Dickey. The endowment supports the professor who stewards the Donald R. Dickey Bird and Mammal Collection; it also supports the curation and maintenance of the collection.

The Dickey Bird and Mammal Collection is one of the world’s best collections of bird and mammal specimens from the American southwest and Central America. It houses nearly 64,000 specimens from North and Central America, and from islands in the Pacific. Also included in the collection are Donald R. Dickey’s rare photographs, books, and field notes. The invaluable collection of specimens are actively used, both for research and for undergraduate teaching. Professor Van Valkenburgh has curated the collection since 1986, and led the effort to bring the collection to its current optimal conditions in UCLA’s Hershey Hall.

Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals

UCLA biologists report in a new study that a species of foxes living on six of California’s Channel Islands have a surprising absence of genetic variation.

Dog domestication may have increased harmful genetic changes, UCLA biologists report

Domesticating dogs from gray wolves more than 15,000 years ago involved artificial selection and inbreeding, but the effects of these processes on dog genomes have been little-studied.

Why are some wild animals more tolerant to human interaction than others?

Over time, some species become more tolerant of humans’ presence, but the extent to which they do is largely driven by the type of environment in which the animals live and by the animal’s body size, according to a comprehensive new analysis.

UCLA’s Bird Genoscape Project to aid conservation efforts for North American birds threatened by climate change

UCLA researchers announced today the Bird Genoscape Project, which will create the first maps identifying the population-specific migration paths of several bird species and their sub-groups to determine where conservation is needed most to combat the effects of climate change.