For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!


Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.


30 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    Seems complicated. I’ll just believe in intelligent design instead.

  2. 2
    kindness says:

    I was bottle fed from the start. That’s my reason & I’m stickin’ to it. When I asked my mother why she didn’t breast feed me or my younger sister she said it was because my older brother (I am a year & 1/2 from both) bit her and she got infected when she breast fed him. Well that and this was the middle/late 50’s when doctors said ‘formula is just as good as Mother’s milk’. Wonder how much those doctors were paid to say that?

    My mother’s excuse? Not real plausible as he didn’t have teeth when she stopped nursing him (at about a month).

  3. 3
    Poopyman says:

    Just in time for skunk rutting season! Those of us with olde houses built on piers understand just what that entails, unfortunately.

  4. 4
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    When I was a little kid, I spent my summers on a farm in central Michigan. The family had six milch cows (many of whose names I still remember), and I remember vividly crouching close to the udder of Alice or Bessie, and getting a squirt of warm, fresh milk squirted straight from udder to my open mouth. (Did the same thing with the barn cats.)

    The family (and us children who boarded there for three months every summer) used what we could of the milk, cream, and butter, and the rest went into huge metal vats and was sold to a local dairy for processing and retailing.

    Before I was old enough to learn to milk the cows myself (no milking machines at this family farm), my job was to spray DDT lavishly around the cows’ hindquarters. In the barn, there was a shallow trough behind the cows where they would shit and piss as they stood immobile in the milking stalls, and needless to say, the excrement attracted flies. Nasty things. So I stood there every evening whiffing vast amounts of poison around the milk pails and the air that we all breathed. I swear, it’s a fucking miracle I’ve survived to almost age 72.

    (I loved it when I was old enough to actually milk the cows — Alice was the most docile of the cows, and my favourite — and I also really enjoyed churning butter with one of those old-fashioned wooden churns. Yes, I know this makes me sound like something out of Little House on the Prairie era, but it was, in fact, the late 1940s and early ’50s.)

  5. 5
    raven says:

    My bride works in the WIC program and heads up a group of breastfeeding peer counselors. She takes this very very seriously.

  6. 6
    cathyx says:

    @kindness: My mother didn’t breast feed me either and she said that the doctor told her that formula was better.

  7. 7
    Anoniminous says:

    What the hell are you talking about?

    Wolverines and Honey Badgers inhabit two completely separate ecological niches.

  8. 8
    raven says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Cringing in Athens.

  9. 9

    When I was a kid I worked at a Dairy Farm, it was kind of an adventure for us. We used to pile in the back of a truck and head to the farm and then work. Bottling milk, feeding pigs, you name it. When we got back, the farmer would play a game with us to figure out how much we would be paid, the “prizes” started at 50p (75 cents) up to the grand prize of a box of chocolates. When I think about it now the man was brilliant, getting kids to work for him for the possibility of a box of chocolates.

  10. 10
    MikeJ says:


    and getting a squirt of warm, fresh milk squirted straight from udder to my open mouth. (Did the same thing with the barn cats.)

    I guess it is true that you can milk anything with nipples. How much can you get from one cat?

  11. 11
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I know. I completely shudder when I think of what was just normal back then. Not to mention the mosquito trucks that came through town pumping poison clouds of choking fumes into the air on a summer night. What we inhaled and ingested then is truly scary to contemplate, and I feel certain we’re all walking around in a pre-cancerous (at best) condition.

  12. 12
    raven says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Hell yes we did. I can still smell it. Salt Creek was a pit.

    And then there was Agent Orange.

  13. 13
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    LOL. When I re-read that (after the edit window had expired), I wondered who would be the first to pick up on the ambiguity!

    No, I have never nursed from a lactating cat. But the barn cats used to come around at (cow-) milking time to get their own squirts of milk directly from their bovine friends.

  14. 14
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    In addition to my pesticidal chores, and the churning, I also picked cucumbers which ultimately ended up at the Heinz pickle factory up the road. And of course there was collecting the eggs ever day. I think I’ve told the story here about the rooster, nearly as big as I was, who used to flap and squawk at me every day — scared me to death he did — and made the egg collecting a nightmare (the hens were nice, and soft, and warm, it was just that damned rooster). We finally killed him — I helped, with gusto and pleasure — and had him in a stew with dumplings. Kind of a tough bird, but I swear, I’ve never enjoyed a meal more than I did that one. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old by then. Bloodthirsty little bitch.

  15. 15
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    And then there was Agent Orange.

    Now see, that makes me not only cringe, but weep.

  16. 16
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I only wish there had been chocolate at the end of the day!

    I didn’t much enjoy those years for a lot of reasons, and haven’t been back since about 1953, but I am thinking of casting out, or at least confronting, the demons next month and paying a visit to the farm (I have no idea who lives there now, of course) on my way to Canada.

    If only they had offered chocolate, I probably would have had a much better childhood.

  17. 17
    aimai says:

    @kindness: Well–babies can bite you pretty hard with their gums, and lots of women get very severe infections, called mastitis, right away when they are nursing. I wouldn’t assume that your mother was making it up as an excuse to stop breastfeeding. Mastitis is horrifically painful and if it doesn’t clear up fast it can be very serious and by the time it clears up if you weren’t able to successfully nurse through it you would have had to put the baby on formula and your milk might have dried up. Between your milk coming in late (for some women) and breast infections nursing a one month old baby can be quite dicey and if the baby is losing weight rather than gaining it the doctors absolutely used to prescribe formula rather than risking the baby’s health while the mother tried to get breast feeding established.

  18. 18
    WaterGirl says:

    @aimai: Thanks for taking the time to write this. My niece is going through some of this now, and it’s very hard on her.

  19. 19

    Is it just me who found last week’s muddy Mary with the pigs scenario, unlikely? Animal Farm, my review of last week’s Downton Abbey.

    P.S. Yes, it has spoilers.

  20. 20
    Dee Loralei says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: My mom’s family had a dairy farm in OK. But they used an electric milking machine in the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up. But same troughs at the tail end. And it invariably never failed that whichever end of the barn I went in to at milking time, my grandparents and great-grandparents would be at the opposite end and I’d have to precariously thread my body down the center. It spooked the crap out of me every time.

    My great grandmother also kept chickens and I’d go to the hen house with her to collect eggs. She also churned her own butter even during the 70’s. How I wish I had that old wooden churn now! And she’d make her own cottage cheese too. She also had one of those hand cranked washing machines that would squeeze the excess water out of the clothes between two metal and rubber rollers, and then she’d hang them on the line to dry. I still love the smell of sun and wind dried clothes.

    She used to make quilts and sunbonnets out of old flour sacks. They were very colorful too, I guess during prairie days and maybe up until just after WWII many flour sacks would have nice gingham or flowered prints so the homesteaders and poor women folk could re-use them.

    They were Oklahoma dust bowl depression farmers who kept at it, even in the worst times. She passed when I was a Sophomore in HS in 78. My Great Grandfather died when I was a freshman in college.

    I was an extremely lucky person, I knew 3 Great Grandmothers and 2 Great Grandfathers and all 4 Grandparents. And they all died in their late 80’s to late 90’s.

    My father turned 75 today. My son and I took him to a Thai restaurant for dinner. Tomorrow I’m making Hungarian Goulash, which is one of his favorite things. Sunday night we’re having his birthday party with his sister and a few friends. Haven’t set the menu yet, but I’m thinking of anchovy bread and homemade ricotta cheese for an appetizer and Cioppino for the entree. And I’m making his favorite cake for dessert.

    For many years during dinner conversations he mentioned quite a few times that he wished he had taken up the viola as a music student, instead of the trombone. So Cooper and I bought him a students Viola, music stand, beginners book with DVD, and found a teacher for him. I really hope he loves his gift. We want him to have a new hobby hopefully to lessen his feelings of my mom’s death. Which unfortunately was exactly one month ago, today. I’ve been wearing a happy birthday face for him all day. And not mentioning the anniversary at all.

    Now I’m +3 and pretty melancholy. Which explains my verbosity, and my memories of other loved ones long gone.

    I know: TL;DR.

  21. 21
    Dee Loralei says:

    Oh and Tom Levenson, I love that painting. It reminded me of some scenes from Lark Rise to Candleford. The woman in the picture even looks a wee bit like Laura Timmons, one of the main characters in the story.

  22. 22
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: You milked cats?

    ETA: Damn you, MikeJ

  23. 23
    jenn says:

    @Dee Loralei: Thanks for the story!

  24. 24
    WaterGirl says:

    @Dee Loralei:I read every word.

    It might be hard for your dad to get excited about something new, but finding a teacher for him seems inspired, and I hope he comes to love the new thing in his life. You’re a good daughter and your dad is lucky to have you.

  25. 25
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Dee Loralei:

    You were very lucky to know so many great-grandparents, as was I. I remember two great-grandmothers and two great-grandfathers, and three of my four grandparents (both grandmothers lived well into their nineties).

    Tomorrow is the 19th anniversary of my father’s death, and I am certainly feeling it — the more, this year, as he would be coming up on his 100th birthday later this year. All these marker dates are tough, and I’m sorry it’s your turn to deal with the months and six months and years, and every birthday, anniversary, Mother’s Day, and whatever else your family observes. My own mother died just a few days before Hallowe’en, and ever since, that holiday has been all wound up with memories of her.

    That said — it really does get easier with time. But at only a month out, it’s bound to be raw. Thinking of you. And happy birthday to your father!

    ETA: Meant to mention, but forgot: I think the idea of viola CD and lessons is a wonderful inspiration! I hope you dad enjoys his new musical opportunities!

  26. 26
    Dee Loralei says:

    Thanks you guys for commenting on my mom’s family story and my dad’s Bday and gift, it’s much appreciated.

    My Dads Grandmother was a member of the RNC in the 60’s and 70’s and maybe even the 50’s. When she died, Nixon was Pres. and the family got all sorts of telegrams from him and Kissinger and a bunch of other Republican bigwigs. Unfortunately her daughter burned all of her personal papers. But before she joined the Republican Party she was one of the first members of the American Women’s Party and worked towards getting women the right to vote. They were Republicans because of slavery, and after women’s suffrage, she rejoined the party, thinking they would be the first to field a viable woman Presidential candidate.

    If you’ve ever seen the movie “Call Me Madam” that was a Hollywood version of her best friend Pearl Mesta. She and Pearl M. were THE socialites of OK and DC at one time, both named Pearl. And within 7/8 years from now, my Dads family will have been American citizens for 400 years.

    Damn, I am rambling……Thanks for listening, y’all.

  27. 27
    JoyfulA says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Old-fashioned butter churn, indeed! On my great-aunt’s farm, she had a windmill on the roof, which provided all the electricity she needed for the churn and the refrigerator.

    Then she bought a TV and had to run a power company line to the house.

  28. 28
    Aimai says:

    @Dee Loralei: beautiful. Thank you. My father is 83 and has picked up many new hobbies and interests since he turned sixty. Your father is lucky to have you.

  29. 29
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    A windmill on the roof! That sounds amazing! At the farm where I stayed, it was just the traditional weathervane.

    The family eventually got indoor plumbing, but for the first several years it was an outdoor privy (chamber pots for nighttime), and a heavy-handled pump in the kitchen. Baths were a weekly event, with the same bath water shared among half a dozen children.

  30. 30
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: I don’t remember any of my great-grandparents… but my grandmother is still alive at 95, and my daughter will remember her.

    If she lives as long as her great-grandmother has, she’ll be alive in the year 2101.

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