Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nearing the end of the shortest month

Here are some photos of things I've been thinking about lately. Pithy quotes and other scintillating prose will follow later today.

Recently, a friend asked me if I knew the whereabouts of a stand of Indian Hemp. I do. The three photos of it shown here were taken on the road to the Oakland Feather River Camp, north of Quincy. They were growing at the roadside around 100 yards shy of the camp's entrance gate. Many plants might be named Indian Hemp, so, for the botanically inclined, this one is Apocynum cannabinum. It's in the dogbane family which was recently merged with the milkweed family. It resembles the showy milkweed also found here, that is, until it blooms. The flowers are quite different. For some entertainment and edification, "google" this plant and you find out about lots of traditional uses as well as some silly religious references to why God created it. As for the other two photos: the "organism" sitting on the textbook is Gigantovirus nutandboltum, a creation of my teen-aged son who is studying biology this year, but is still more inclined toward the physical sciences. The lovely pair of grubs, i. e., beetle larvae, were revealed when I was splitting firewood. The lodgepole pine logs came from the Moonlight fire, about 20 miles north of Quincy as the raven flies, and had been sitting on the ground or standing dead for a full year after the fire. I encountered around 100 of these while splitting 6 cords of wood. Amazing critters. Quite an accomplishment to get to the interior of a 3' diameter log, and then out again when ready. As spring unfolds, I'll undoubtedly continue photographing in the spirit of a quote I used here a month or so ago: "God must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles" (having created so many kinds). Nice fairy tale, that, but still, the beetles are truly a wonder of the animal kingdom.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Some Definitions and News From South Dakota

I just learned from my favorite science blog, Pharyngula, that the South Duh-kota senate passed resolution [HCR 1009] that contained the following point about global warming: "the South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following - that there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect [sic] world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative...."
Remember, this is the state whose state animal is the coyote but there's a bounty on coyotes. I guess I shouldn't be too harsh about that since my state animal, the California grizzly, is extinct.
So, here are some "definitions": astrology = NOT science, astronomy = science, thermology = a branch of medicine involving infra-red imaging of the human body, irrelevant to global warming studies, cosmology = can range from science to religion, depending on how it is practiced; one suspects that the SD resolution is referring to cosmology in the Biblical sense. While I'm at it, my blog identifies me as a naturalist, not to be confused with naturist. The former is currently a kind of science - what my late professor Archie Carr would call "whole animal" science, as opposed to microbiology and other branches of biology in which the practitioners often know all about the cells of animals that they wouldn't recognize in their natural habitat. Naturalists before Darwin were mostly creationists and studied lots of animals after shooting them. Modern practice of natural history is, hopefully, quite scientific, and is centered around studying the behaviors and characteristics of whole animals and plants (and fungi, protists, and bacteria) in their natural settings. Naturists, on the other hand, are people who like to live in the nude whenever possible and are often politically engaged in advocating the rights of nudists to do just that. One of these days soon I'll complete and post my essay, "A History of Natural History," in which I discuss how the practice has become more scientific since Darwin as we moved from the shotgun and poisons as primary tools to cameras, sketchbooks, and audio recorders. As Yogi Berra once said, "You can see a lot if you look."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Snow? But it's still winter!

I've been musing about spring for weeks. It seemed that spring was already here in January. Daffodils sprouting, mosses and ferns looking very green, buds on many trees. Although I knew we need to store up some more moisture for summer, I was also looking forward to spring photography. Even started posting photos from last spring. When I went to bed last night it was raining, but, the sound stopped and I went to sleep. Then I got the big surprise in the morning. About 4" and still falling! I guess we're still going to have a normal winter - just a little delayed.
I'm not much of a winter photographer, but I had to take a few snapshots [hate that word] this morning. Here they are.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Fotos

In the mood for fooling around and influenced by my favorite blog other than my own, Pharyngula, I am starting a new series. Friday Fotos. As I perused the archives for the photos chosen for today, I variously considered themes like "Friday Fingernail," "Friday Field," "Friday Field Trip," "Friday Foliage," "Friday Flower," and "Friday Fly." Not confident I could keep up with such a narrowly defined theme week after week, I thought Friday Fotos would be the safer bet. So, here they are. Queries about when are where each was taken are welcome. Why this stupid software keeps moving things around after I click "post" I'll probably never figure out. Help!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Got to feed Einstein today

We got "Einie" when he was one foot long. He's now close to four feet. Very nice fellow.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It was Ferlinghetti!

"The Pennycandystore Beyond the El." Got to read my previous post to make sense of this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Too soon, too soon...."

I stole today's title from an e. e. cummings poem. If you know the poem, you'll know it's appropriate in that these photos are about spring being here too soon. In particular, the photo of newts mating relates better to the poem. It was taken at Table Mountain, as were all the rest of these. Spring of 2009. I'm getting revved up for my first spring trip there for 2010. Mosses and ferns are already putting on a great show at the lower elevations. The wildflowers will peak soon. Remember, you can click on any image for a larger view.
Come to think of it, that might have been a Ferlinghetti poem. I'll check and get back to you later. Also, I'm still having trouble placing these photos and text where I want them. Hope you enjoy them anyway.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Praise of Naturalists and Humor

I'm a day late writing about Friday's photos and Archie Carr. Yesterday, the 13th, I couldn't resist driving 6 hours, round trip, to see an art opening for one of my former students, one whom I've alluded to indirectly as a person interested in scatology.
Now, the photos. I'm still not an expert at manipulating the software on this blog, so I can't post these "captions" next to the correct photos. Instead, it's a narrative and hopefully you can match the cryptic comments with the appropriate photos.
To go along with the "pretentious artist's statement" I said was in preparation for a springtime show, I need to print a set of ID cards for the photos. The millipede will be labeled "My Friend Fibonacci." Math teachers, at least, should get the connection. There are two photos of a bee surrounded by blooming "Showy Milkweed." They will be labeled "Coming in for a Landing" and "Landed." The lady bug on a rock will be labeled "Lonely Lady" even though it might be a male. Still thinking about the two scorpion photos. The one inside a jar lid will probably be called "Handle with Care." The photo of a slug with a pocket comb will be called either "Slug with Pocket Comb" or "Pocket Comb with Slug." I might need to take a poll. The photo of the yellow violet (yellow violet?) is actually a photo of two ants mating. I might steal the title from a cute little insect book I bought yesterday at a great used bookstore in Chico. It was called "Six-legged Sex." But that might not get past the censors. Still not sure about the Jerusalem cricket. These magnificent beasts always leave me speechless. Finally, the red milkweed beetle, my favorite new discovery since I returned to Quincy, is also unlabeled for now. I have around 25 different photos of this beetle, always on Showy Milkweed, and I'm seriously thinking about framing all of them together in one giant mat full of holes and calling it Photographer's Obsession.
Now, Archie Carr, the late great naturalist and sea turtle expert. Dr. Andy Arata, my ecology professor at Tulane was trying to persuade me to do my graduate work at University of Florida which was actually third on my list of choices. One weekend he invited me to take a field trip to places unknown east of New Orleans. To make a long story shorter, he took me to meet Dr. Carr at his home in Micanopy, Florida. On the way, we stopped to get a bushel bag of Oysters. I nearly gagged because I knew I could never swallow a live oyster. When we started up Dr. Carr's long, dirt driveway (I still didn't know where we were.) I heard an amazing variety of beautiful tree frog calls from the trees on either side of the drive. I found out later it was Dr. Carr's kids doing fantastic impersonations of several local species. After meeting Dr. Carr and his wife Marjorie and the kids, it was time to feed Jasper. Archie fetched a fish from the freezer and walked down to the pond in his back yard. He slapped the fish on the surface and called out "Jasper." A huge alligator snapping turtle emerged from the depths and took the fish out of his hand then slipped backwards underwater to dine. Back at the house, I was in such awe of these professors, my own ecology professor and Dr. Carr, that I ate several raw oysters without wincing. Much to my surprise, I loved them! I eventually enrolled at the University of Florida and did two wonderful years of graduate work there including taking Advanced Ecology from Dr. Carr. Dr. Carr was a very busy man and already had lots of graduate students. Being a novice to research I felt I needed more attention than he could give me so I was directed toward Dr. Walt Auffenberg, at the time the world's leading expert on Komodo dragons. I had two wonderful years of working with Dr. Auffenberg ending with his finding me my first post-graduate job in California. Thank you so much Drs. Arata, Carr and Auffenberg for your contributions to my life as a naturalist/teacher. I want to close with a quote from Dr. Carr's great "Handbook of Turtles." Unlike other volumes in this series of academic field guides, Dr. Carr's reads like a novel. He was in love with language and his several books are must reads for naturalists.
"The Cenozoic came, and with it progressive drought, and the turtles joined the great hegira of swamp and forest animals to steppe and prairie, and watched again as the mammals rose to heights of evolutionary frenzy reminiscent of the dinosaurs in their day, and swept across the grasslands in an endless cavalcade of restless, warm-blooded types. Turtles went with them, as tortoises now, with high shells and columnar, elephantine feet, but always making as few compromises as possible with the new environment, for by now their architecture and their philosophy had been proved by the eons; and there is no wonder that they just kept on watching as Eohippus begat Man o' War and a mob of irresponsible and shift-eyed little shrews swarmed down out of the trees to chip at stones, and fidget around fires, and build atom bombs."
You must find yourself a copy of "The Handbook of Turtles" by Archie Carr at your nearest excellent used book store. There are many more eloquent passages - plus lots of interesting turtle lore. Signing off.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Darwin Day.

I'm celebrating, but my brief biography of Darwin will follow later today. "Google" Darwin Day and enjoy. Maybe there are some good events near you. This image of a young Darwin was borrowed from one of my favorite blogs, Pharyngula, by PZ Myers.
Here goes my Darwin pitch: Charles Darwin was born to a wealthy family and there was an expectation that he pursue a profession such as the clergy or medicine. He tried both, but neither fit. From an early age he was quite interested in nature. He taught himself to be a naturalist, and in his early 20s, having quit medical school as well as religious studies, was already known to be a skilled naturalist. An opportunity arose to serve as ship's naturalist and captain's companion on an expedition of HMS Beagle, collecting specimens around the world, and, basically, informing Britain what there was to exploit, not unlike the role Lewis and Clark performed for Thomas Jefferson. He left England as a creationist and returned five years later a doubter. The main reason Darwin is a hero in my book is that he allowed an honest and thorough examination of evidence to persuade him to challenge the dominant beliefs of his day including his own beliefs. Unlike today's creationists [who like to be called Creation Scientists - an oxymoron if there ever was one] he let the mounting evidence lead to his hypothesis and conclusions rather than start with foregone conclusions and tailor the evidence to fit or reject it, whichever is easiest to get away with. Darwin was well aware of the shock value of the conclusion he came to in identifying natural selection as the process by which species change into other species over time. Being very conscientious and sensitive, particularly where his religious wife was concerned, he hesitated to announce his findings for quite a few years. There are many places where you can find more detailed biographies, but I'd like to repeat here the eloquent words found in the closing paragraph of "On the Origin of Species." 'There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. I've included with this brief story photos of some of my favorite "forms most beautiful" found within minutes of my home in the northern Sierra. Tomorrow, I'll add notes about these photos as well anecdotes about one of my favorite professors of evolutionary biology, Archie Carr.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Getting psyched about Darwin Day

When I recently wrote about "getting psyched about Groundhog Day" I was being a bit facetious. This time I'm serious. I love February 12. It's the birthday of Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Edgar Allen Poe. Darwin is one of my heroes because out of his mind came one of the greatest paradigm shifts in human history. When I think of Lincoln, I think of one of our greatest presidents, but also, due to the commercialization of Presidents' Day, we gave up separate acknowledgment of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, and now school kids don't learn when they occurred. That seems to be the fate of many of our rituals and celebrations - find a way to make money off them or forget them altogether. As for Poe, I think I would have enjoyed being his classmate in school. Enough said about that. In honor of these three fellows, I am including two pairs of photos. A spider I spotted up in Eugene, Oregon, last summer, and a "redwood" moth, AKA cercropia moth on my daughter's hand in Leggett, CA. I've included a whole-body view and a close-up of each as a reminder of how incredibly beautiful most insects are when viewed up close. If I ever get into video, I expect to try lots of extreme close-up views of insects in the act of pollinating flowers, one of my favorite things to watch. Happy Darwin Day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Further Thoughts on Bugs

I keep trying to show bugs in a positive light. As I do internet and library research to back up my observations, I run into some really frustrating situations, First, just about every bug I "google" results in dozens of websites for exterminators or advice on how to get rid of bugs. Some of these are about totally harmless bugs and are based only on the perception that they are ugly. Others contain lots of erroneous information. Then I find some wonderful illustrated children's books about bugs that have titles like "Creepy Crawlies." One web definition of 'creepy crawly' I found is "something, as a crawling insect or spider, regarded as frightening and repugnant." I found a wonderful illustrated "Field Guide to the Slug" which could lead one to appreciate slugs for their intriguing variety and their interesting natural histories, but the author starts by calling them ugly.
I have a great video called "Way Cool Creepy Crawlies" which all my students have loved. I guess the phrase "way cool" helps offset the usual stereotype of "creepy crawlies." I highly recommend that you track down this video. It is wonderful! Two memorable scenes - first, a scene of two slugs mating, very slowly, with opera music in the background, and, second, an amazing scene of a dung beetle pushing a ball of dung, bigger than itself, toward its hole. The dung gets stuck on a thorn and the valiant effort of the beetle to free the dung ball from the thorn is truly inspiring.
Years ago I had a small group of students/fans who went on an expedition with me to a High Sierra meadow near Eagle Lake. Each student was charged with proposing a research project about some aspect of this environment that could be accomplished in a week. The meadow was quite crowded with piles of cattle dung in all stages of drying out and decomposing. The students dubbed them "meadow muffins," then later called our group The Meadow Muffins. One student took up the study of scatology and discovered that a predictable series of insects and other invertebrates invade the dung heaps as they dry out. Certain species, like flies, arrive when the dung is still fresh and wet. As it dries out other species find it appealing and/or come to attack or parasitize the early arrivals. This process could go on for several weeks and the sequence is always nearly the same until the dung is totally gone - some, of course, being cut into little spheres and rolled into the holes of dung beetles. This was a wonderful study of ecology, but when the student made his presentation at the end-of-the-week show-and-tell, no one believed he was serious or that such a study had actually been done. I cherish the poster I've had all these years on which the students printed a song they secretly wrote during the week and dedicated to me called "The Ballad of the Meadow Muffins." They also made a huge banner and hung it on the side of my VW van that read "Meadow Muffin Mobile." So, if your child is lucky enough to get curious about piles of cow poop, don't mock or otherwise discourage him/her. You may have a future scatologist on your hands. Further adventures in bugology and scatology coming soon. Remember, you can click on any photo for a larger view.