Monday, September 24, 2012

Georgia's Thoughts about her Xenopus Friends

Georgia is an 11 year old girl who lives in Crown Heights Brooklyn with her parents, two sisters (Grace and Greta), two dogs (Butter and Alfie), two cats (Flower and Digit), two neon tetras (Eller and Bronx), and one betta fish (Brooklyn).  She adopted the juvenile Xenopus from Eben Kirksey at Proteus Gowanus and named them Bananabean Georgette and Spaz Falafel. She has been a vegetarian ever since 3rd grade, she is now in 6th grade.

She changes the water in her 29 gallon tank every few days after treating the water with different solutions.   She also feeds the frogs every other day.   She took the pictures of the frogs which live in our living room.

These are some of her thoughts on her frogs:

I think that the frogs are cool because there is a lot of interesting facts about them, like they only come up for a breath every 15 minutes or so.   I thought since they do get lonely, I wanted to have two.  I didn't know that they would be so close to each other a lot and hold hands.  I think that it is cute that they hold hands but then I also worry that they will have thousands of babies.  

I also think about their personalities.  In the pictures above, the one who is in a stroke is Spaz, is more shy and timid than Bananabean.  Bananabean, who is a girl, is more brave and is more comfortable with people and living in the tank. 

I like changing the water and feeding them.  Because when I feed them and I put my finger in then they start to nibble on it.  

They are different than dogs because dogs are more loyal and they remember you.  Cats are the same too, except maybe not so loyal. I actually think they are similar to fish, except the frogs have more personality than the fish, and probably the frogs are smarter than fish -- like I feel like they remember me and they are more friendly than the fish.

I worry about the water temperature for the frogs because it seems too cold to me, and then I worry it might be too hot.  Since the tank can't stay in the living room forever, I wonder where we will put it.  It will be tricky to find a spot.

I think it is interesting that lay eggs shortly after being injected when they are being used for a pregnancy test with humans.  I don't think it is unfair to the frog because they don't die, they will be shocked afterwards, but I think they will be ok.  They aren't being raised to be killed or anything.  

I think it is cool that the frogs live for 15 years and I wonder what will happen to the frogs when I move out. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

An Obituary for Snowflake

We, the Nichols-Lotterman family, mourn the loss of our strangely beloved companion, Snowflake. An adult Albino Xenopus, Snowflake was the size of a clenched fist and the largest frog any member of her family had ever encountered. In truth, Snowflake intimidated our family and visitors alike. Snowflake was hard to read, spending days a time holding still at the bottom of her plastic enclosure. Her red eyes did not seem to return our gaze in a legible way. We were never able to develop a meaningful language to translate across the boundaries separating our species from hers.
            This is not to say that we did not love Snowflake. For the one week that Snowflake was in our lives, Charlie was always especially excited to get home and check in on her. And Jenny, while horrified, felt an inexplicable but profound love for Snowflake she is still trying to understand. Indeed, since Snowflake’s passing she has had many dreams of tiny frogs that were her children. Even Rosa, a dog, was intrigued by Snowflake and often peered into her tank for extended periods of time.
            This is not the first time that we have believed Snowflake to be dead. The first day we brought her home from the pet store, Petqua, and placed her in her new tank, Snowflake settled at the bottom and became still and unresponsive. After not moving for several hours, even when we violently shook the tank, we determined that she had died. When Charlie used a cup to scoop her body out of the water, however, she sprung to life. Sadly, that was not the case the second time. We knew she was dead when her red eyes stopped glowing.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Xenopus in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn

Greetings Eben! Glad you arrived safely to your new continent. The frog that I brought home is settling in. The cats are happy to have another living room resident. I have her in a 10 gallon tank, no filter hooked up yet. Maybe tomorrow. I have a small sponge filter, but my husband thinks it'll be too much water movement. We're doing water changes. She pooped, and she ate 2 shrimp pellets. But, she has started to shed a clear, mucus membrane sort of thing. And may be eating it. I have sand in the bottom of the tank -- I wonder if that has something to do with it. I never had a frog this big before! We have some big fish in 2 other tanks, but nothing that could stand up to her. Will post a couple pictures of those tanks, they have nice plants and some very interesting fish: upside down catfish, plecko, self-replicating crayfish, knife fish, 12-yr old pictus catfish.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Corroborating Evidence

This morning we woke up early and peered into the frog cam, wondering hopefully if the heavily pixilated dark mass in the center of the tank could be eggs, but knowing full well that algae blooms quickly... By 8AM friends were calling and asking us for news, but we didn't have any yet. We wondered if we had started seeing things, so we reached out for an eyewitness inspection of the tank. A little while later we spotted some brown hair above the tank, followed by an email reporting: no eggs.

Medical counsel advised us to take a home pregnancy today in order to determine whether to discontinue hormone supplements that could be delaying menstruation and keeping us in suspense. Once we knew we'd have to do it, we ran over to a friend's house as fast as we could to find out. Sadly, after peeing on three sticks, we had to accept that Loretta had been right all along. It was shocking, somehow, after such a wonderful day of waiting, and it was hard to know that we now would have to share our disappointment with so many others who'd come along for this wild ride with us. But all things considered it was quite amazing to have shared this moment of hope with everyone who turned up and tuned in to this process. Now we're pinning our hopes on gilded pink frog...

Girls and Frogs

"Is that something?"
"No wait, I think that is a smudge on the screen"
"Move Loretta!  See if she moves then we can tell.  I wish she could hear me."
"Mommy, why is Loretta upside down?"

Even though we control media exposure (Screen time to the tweener set) at our house, we have been glued to my Mac for several hours on and off.  It is actually on the kitchen table for anyone to check as we walk by.  We even carried the computer over to our two juvenile xenopus, Bananabean Georgette, and Spaz Falafel. 

Loretta, the albino xenopus, we are watching through the webcam is impressive.  Her long, strong and beautiful legs propel her through the water.  From the angle of the camera, it looks as if she is suspended upside down and and it takes a moment to orient the angle.  But it is from the top down focused on her.  

We have noticed when the noise of the cooling fan in turns on, Loretta moves -- so we all listen for the sound, drop whatever we are doing -- legos, reading stories, arguing, coloring, making food -- and move to the screen to see if something is happening. Loretta is being watched by many.  We care about her even though the girls never met her.

We also care about the human moms-to-be, generously sharing their experience of 'finding out' with us.  Making their private anticipation a public event is so courageous.  The girls and my investment in their pregnancy raises the stakes in some ways -- and it is a pressure that I wouldn't have welcomed when I was waiting to find out.  (Which by the way took one minute each time and seemed like an eternity.)

Considering our own frogs, I wonder if they will be alive, or one of their progeny (if they don't eat them all) when one of the girls gets pregnant.   I could do the test having witnessed Eben and we could crowd around the tank with some yummy bakery treats. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Crowd-Source Pregnancy Test

Waiting for an indeterminate number of hours to see something that none of us can be certain that we will recognize offers a quite a window of opportunity for reflection. Surely most home pregnancy tests stretch out the 60 seconds that it takes to get a reading into what seems like an eternity: but from our perspective this adrenaline fueled sense of time is condensed and distorted. It situates us in a very brief moment in history that is precisely bounded by the year 1978, and it is one that changes this experience from a gradual process of realization to a sudden ontological shift.

Changing the temporality of becoming pregnant, of knowing, or experiencing oneself as pregnant, has lots of interesting implications. We rightly congratulate ourselves on scientific progress in this arena because pushing back the time of the pregnancy test makes it possible to start prenatal health care or to end a pregnancy earlier and more safely. But how is this connected to the sacred or secular notion of ensoulment – with all of its implications for moral and emotional responsibility, and the burden that places on pregnant women and their kin and communities? Pregnancy literally and figuratively transforms the boundaries of the self (however these were built up and maintained in the first place). So becoming pregnant is, in a very familiar but also very strange sense, a profoundly public event, in which many people and creatures have a stake. Insofar as frogs and rabbits historically have participated in mediating this transformation, they become part of the social space into which new configurations of personhood and kinship emerge. So part of this experiment is about literally making public and thus opening up a space for reflection on the inherently public character of pregnancy, and the way that is mediated by the technologies of knowing the condition of one’s own body and the bodies of others.

In this crowd-source pregnancy test no one knows who will be the first to find out the good news or to experience the disappointment--unless, that is, we can ascribe a certain kind of embodied knowledge to Loretta herself. 

This is what we're looking for:

OK, so we've found the images of the frog eggs and they are not easy to miss. Look for little tiny marble-like formations at the bottom of the tank.  If you do see anything, text 917-822-6522 and let us know!! Eager eyes be on and offline all night awaiting Loretta's produce.  

Revitalizing The Frog Pregnancy Test

"Think you might be pregnant?" writes The Huffington Post. "All you'll have to do is inject your urine into a frog. Cool?"

Earlier this summer I began offering free pregnancy tests involving Xenopus frogs for anyone living in New York City who might be interested.  This morning a friend took me up on the offer.  She was inseminated a few weeks ago and missed her period over the weekend.  Instead of peeing on a stick, my friend will be watching this live video feed the next 24 hours.  If she is pregnant the frog will start laying eggs.

Live Video streaming by Ustream

In the 1930s people began conducting pregnancy tests using Xenopus frogs.  The method is simple.  Pee in a cup, draw some urine into a syringe, and inject the liquid into the lymph-node sack on the frog's hind leg.

Edward R. Elkan's 1938 article gives detailed instructions about how to perform the test.  "Some of the objections to this test raised by earlier observers seem to have become invalid," writes Elkan, "as as the early detection of pregnancy remains important from the psychological and the gynecological points of view a method which allows the diagnosis to be made within a few hours should be welcome."

Before frogs, it was mice and rabbits. From Slate:
In the late 1920s, a German chemist, Selmar Aschheim, teamed up with a gynecologist, Bernhard Zondek, to develop the first of these procedures, called the "A-Z test." The doctors would repeatedly inject five female mice with a woman's urine over several days. Then they'd kill the mice, dissect them, and examine their ovaries—enlarged or congested specimens would signal a pregnancy. Within a few years a slightly better test was developed; it used rabbits.
 The Xenopus pregnancy test became a more ethical and economical test when compared to the rabbit or mouse test.  The frogs were not killed and, if treated well, lived up to 15 years in labs.  They can be reused for the test every couple of months.

A talent for helping humans divine pregnancy earned Xenopus a ticket around the world.  Planned Parenthood, and other organizations promoting reproductive rights, began supporting research about the test.  Medical clinics in England, the United States, and Australia adopted the frog pregnancy test as a standard bioassay.

Many people have come to the conclusion that there is something profoundly wrong with how animals are used and abused in the contemporary United States.  Animals and their body parts are endlessly cycled into commodity chains:  a meat-industrial-complex turns animals into food, pharmaceutical companies use laboratory animals to produce drugs, puppy farms generate an excess of potential pets.  In response to these uses of animals by business interests, PETA insists that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way.” 

Val Plumwood, a feminist philosopher, is a sharp critic of those who insist that humans should abstain from all use of animals.  Offering a new approach to interspecies ethics, Plumwood celebrates human-animal relationships and affirms the necessity of entering into new partnerships with others.  She places humans in an ecological universe where relations of mutual use and exploitation are the name of the game.  If PETA holds humans apart from animals—insisting that we should never eat or use animals—in the world of Val Plumwood humans are never “outside nature.”   

New York City pet stores are currently selling Xenopus for cheap.  White albinos and speckled brown frogs are both widely available for sale--for just a few dollars each.  Within a year or two, female frogs reach maturity and are ready for testing.  Adult females, gravid with eggs and ready for testing, can be obtained from Xenopus Express (1-800-Xenopus or

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Visiting Darcy Kelley's Xenopus Lab

Darcy B. Kelley's Xenopus Lab from Ahjin Kim on Vimeo.

On April 5th, 2012, the students in Eben Kirksey’s graduate course “The Anthropology of Science” visited the lab of Darcy Kelly at Columbia University. 

After wandering around the maze of the Columbia campus, riding up two elevators in two buildings, we located the lab. Our small class filled a seminar room where we held our discussion. Dr. Kelley quickly opened up and talked freely about Xenopus frogs and her research. “It seemed immediately clear that Darcy Kelley had a sincere affinity for this species,” wrote Charlie Nichols, one student in the class.  “Indeed, as she spoke to our class she held a toy, a rubber frog, in front of her on the desk. She talked about the politics of procuring frogs for her research, the qualities that make Xenopus an ideal candidate for her academic inquiries, and defended Xenopus against allegations that it has threatened the livelihoods of other amphibians.”

Fifty million year old fossils of Xenopus have been found, according to Dr. Kelley.  She speculated that this adaptable frog will outlive the human species.

Dr. Kelley traces her personal connection to Xenopus frogs back to her early interests in hormones and sexual differentiation. After studying bird song at the beginning of her career, as a post-doctoral researcher, she she began working with frogs because it is “easier to take the whole system apart and figure out how it works.”

After speaking with us for around 40 minutes, Dr. Kelley showed us the frog room. She warned us before we went in that “it’s not too thrilling. They all look alike.” The frogs were stored in clear plastic tanks on metal shelves. In contrast to the sunny seminar room, this room was windowless.  With a concrete floor it resembled a small storage closet. A mechanical hum—the whir of machines, maybe an air conditioning unit—washed the room in sound. A sheet of paper entitled: “Frog Care Procedures” was taped to the door with instructions on how to care for a sick frog: “Isolate and place on bottom shelf” followed by a phone number for reporting the sick frog. Also, the care procedures instructed, in the case of death: “Separate tank, spray it with bleach.”
There were around eleven species of frogs in the room as well as a chimera that Dr. Kelley had made by fusing two embryos together. She picked up a wriggling frog for us to examine, inviting us to touch his slime, promising it felt like “velvet.” Despite her comment that the frogs all looked alike, she spoke affectionately to and about the frogs, calling one “sweetie.”  Cooing to the chimera frog, she remarked: “She’s so big!”  And concluded “these guys are in very good shape.”

The full interview is available on SoundCloud