Irven DeVore is dead.

Outsmarting My Disability: From Struggling Student to Conservation Educator


Held each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. The theme for 2014 is “Expect. Employ. Empower.” To gear up for this month, USFWS biologist Dan Spencer, shares how struggling with his disability brought him to where he is today. Talk about empowerment! 


I am not stupid.  This self-affirmation may seem like low hanging fruit to most, but this realization was profound given the history of how a learning disability influenced my academic struggles when I was younger.  If someone had told me in eleventh grade that I would earn high honors majoring in biology, I would have laughed.  If someone had told me that someday I’d become a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conservation scientist and educator, I would have told them they were crazy.

I was diagnosed with my learning disability in second grade, and by then, it was already obvious to me that I was less than efficient at completing in-class reading and writing assignments.  It turns out I had two of the seven main types of recognized learning disabilities.  My visual processing disorder affects my ability to take in, process, recall and reproduce symbols.  With scrambled letters in words and words in sentences, I loathed reading assignments.  You would often find me hiding under my desk when teachers called on students to read aloud in class.  And I wasn’t just last to finish the test; I trailed the next to last by a solid 10 -30 min.  It seemed obvious to me back then that I was not only different but stupid.

My dysgraphia (a writing-based learning disability) was equally embarrassing.  With deficiencies in processing and fine-motor skills, converting thoughts to paper was laborious and the results were grammatically inferior at best and illegible at worst.  I would sheepishly turn in my assignments to my teacher, fully aware their red pens were about to get a workout.  And sharing my work with peers?  Humiliating is an understatement. 

To address my struggles, I was regularly pulled from gym, the one class that gave me confidence and an energy outlet, to attend a resource room for tutoring.  I was not the only one who noticed, so I would poke fun at myself and my situation in an attempt to beat others to it.  This strategy was not always successful, as I endured plenty of negative experiences from being socially branded as “stupid.”


But perhaps I was smart all along.  According to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, the question is not are you smart, but how are you smart?  With my love for the outdoors, I would have been identified with having a strong “Naturalistic Intelligence.”  Raised in Southwestern Connecticut, I was in close proximity to wooded areas and my thirst for all things aquatic was quenched at the local rivers and lakes, not to mention the marine environments of the Long Island Sound.  When I wasn’t outside immersing myself in nature, I was often producing imitations of local vertebrates and invertebrates on my fly-tying bench in preparation for my next fishing trip.  I also hadstrengths in the Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, and Logical-Mathematical intelligences.  Unfortunately for me, Gardner’s theory, published in 1983, hadn’t yet trickled down to my schools.

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"The question is not are you smart, but how are you smart?

Killer Sources

ktsaurusr3x replied to your post: Mammals and Menopause

If possible, could you send me the killer whale sources? I have no access. 90 to me sounds like an extreme age, and is being presented as an average. But if not, I’d like proof!

[In reference to this post]

Ahh, apologies for the confusion hon. The killer whale age I referenced was not a general average, but as the estimated maximum age (based on photo-identification and longitudinal observational studies) in wild populations.

"Females have a mean life expectancy of 50.2 years, typically give birth to their first viable calf at 14.9 years of age, produce an average of 5.35 viable calves over a 25.2 year reproductive lifespan and have a maximum longevity of about 80-90 years… Males have a mean life expectancy of 29.2 years, typically attain sexual maturity at 15.0 years and physical maturity at 21.0 years of age, and have a maximum longevity of about 50-60 years.” (Olesiuk P.F, et al. p. 209)

There are a few sources on this that I included below here for you. They should all be open access, but let me know if the links aren’t working.


Foote, Andrew D. "Mortality rate acceleration and post-reproductive lifespan in matrilineal whale species." Biology letters 4.2 (2008): 189-191. (x)

Foster, Emma A., et al. "Adaptive prolonged postreproductive life span in killer whales." Science 337.6100 (2012): 1313-1313. (x)

Olesiuk, P. F., M. A. Bigg, and G. M. Ellis. "Life history and population dynamics of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State." Report of the International Whaling Commission, Special 12 (1990): 209-243. (pdf, pg 209)

Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

Aaron Levenstein (via aamukherjee)

White blotches on my tonsils…
That can’t be good.

Mammals and Menopause

Q: Which three species are (currently known to be) the only mammals to have females go through menopause?

Bonus: What evolutionary advantage is there to having long lived - but nonreproductive - females?

*Clarification: I’m looking for mammals where menopause is an expected life history event in the wild species.* 

Menopause is a life history event where the females of a species routinely become unreproductive well before the end of their natural life span. While definitions of menopause can range from ‘cessation of sexual behavior’ to ‘ovarian depletion’ (and a whole range of others), only three mammalian species are currently considered to become post-menopausal under natural conditions.

  • Killer whales (Orcinus orca) stop reproducing in their 30’s-40’s, but can survive well into their 90’s. (x)
  • Pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) are no longer reproductive around 36, yet continue to live an average additional 14 years. (x)

  • Human females spend about one third of their lifetimes in a post-menopausal state. (x,x). Even without the benefits of modern medicine, a study of women in India during the 1880’s found that women of a menopausal age lived an average additional 15 years. (x)

While other animals may go into a reproductive decline, or even perimenopause (literally the time “around menopause”), they generally die soon afterwards.

  • Example. Rhesus macaques: average life span- 25 yrs; evidence for menopause onset (in captivity) - ~35 yrs. (x)

Chimpanzees and elephants were once thought to be potentially menopausal mammals, but both have shown evidence for remaining fertile even in old age! (x, x, x

When looking at the reproductive strategies in the animal kingdom, the ‘have as many offspring as possible’ looks like a common method… so what kind of evolutionary advantage would there be to these three species having long lived, but nonreproductive, females? That’s where the Grandmother Hypothesis comes in. 

  • The Grandmother Hypothesis: When grandmothers help feed and care for their grandchildren after weaning, their daughters are able to produce more children in a shorter period of time. 

Of course there are also resource based (multiple generations cannot reproduce successfully in same group with limited resources) and social group (avoidance of inbreeding when offspring remain in social group) based hypotheses which could also contribute to selection for menopause in these species. (x, x, x)

Could other animals experience menopause? Possibly. Due to sample collection, analysis difficulties, and individual variation, there is still a lot scientists don’t know about when it comes to menopause. We’ll just have to keep an eye on this still developing area of reproductive biology!

This was a tricky one, but you guys did a great job!
Points (for at least 2/3 correct) go out to oosik, koryos, sapiens-sapiens, gaypretzels, solointhesand, corvidheart, hyaenabee, and alphacaeli.

Bonus points to koryos, carriemp, pistol-pony-showdown, sapiens-sapiens, justaquickquestion, wolf-eyedwanderer, mongrelmutt, gaypretzels, solointhesand, ktsaurusr3x, corvidheart, and hyaenabee!

Check out the mess of sources (and open access articles!) below the cut.

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Are Nasty Comments Like These Keeping Women Out Of Science?

"It’s death by a thousand cuts. Every day you’re faced with some comment, some snide remark, some inability to get a name on a research paper. And with an accumulation of those experiences, women tend to walk with their feet."

Go here to read more infuriating stories about women in science. 

Look at the awesome (early) birthday present arrowsforpens got me!!
Primatology art is a beautiful thing.

? Saturday Questions?

Q: Which three species are (currently known to be) the only mammals to have females go through menopause?

Bonus: What evolutionary advantage is there to having long lived - but nonreproductive - females?

"This is a pilot study so no statistical analysis will be performed"