Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fulica americana

Yesterday was the first day of winter. Let's get excited about our days getting longer! Even though we're experiencing freezing temperatures and the lowest amount of sunlight of the year there's still a fair amount of wildlife in the area. Specifically, water birds. I went to the pond yesterday and found this:

It may be a little hard to tell but those are herring gulls and mallards out on the ice. I was especially amused by this image:

A male and female mallard walking across the ice slowly and carefully. They forgot their duck boots! But among all these relatively common and well known water birds we see in New England is another.

Do you see the one I mean? Just there, in the middle of all the mallards there is a gray and black bird with a white beak. It's a coot. Coots are smaller than mallards and can be found in and around bodies of fresh water in most of North America. They appear a lot like ducks most of the time, bobbing at the surface and diving for food.

When I first started noticing the coots I thought the were ducks. But they're actually in the order of birds colloquially known as cranes containing true cranes, bustards, sunbittern and coots. Rails are technically coots. This particular coot is the North American Coot which, as I mentioned, can be found from Canada to southern US and from the east coast to California. They are omnivores and feed on plant material as well as small animals such as fish, tadpoles and insects. These birds, like many north american waterbird species, serve as an important component to freshwater ecosystems. They impose predation pressures on many aquatic animals and in turn their eggs are preyed upon by many larger animals such as raccoons (Procyon lotor) and foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Supposedly they are migratory and travel to the southern part of the country during the cold months. Either we're seeing some change in that behavior or these coots are just on a stop over from even further north.

I find coots to be especially enjoyable water birds to watch. Their small bodies are often pushed about at the surface of the water by even the smallest wake and when two coots meet they often squabble briefly, giving them a somewhat comedic personality. But they are clearly capable swimmers and divers. When they leave the water one clearly sees that they are not ducks at all, their long, lithe legs gracefully take them around the shore in search of other food sources or a place to rest. The next time you're at a pond or fresh water marsh look for these small gray and black birds.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The other day I was looking through images of sea turtles with a coworker when we came across one of Archelon. I described it as a "prehistoric sea turtle." I then had the thought that it's funny how we describe animals as being "prehistoric." In reality pretty much every species on earth evolved before written history which would make them all prehistoric. I'll probably keep using the term to describe "extinct" species but now I'll smile whenever I do, thinking about all those "historic" species running around.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Analogous and Homologous

This post is going to start out really sciencey but there's a reason why. So bare with me for a minute while I geek out:

In taxonomy, which is the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms, there is a distinction made between things that we call monophyletic and paraphyletic. Monophyletic groups are those that share a common ancestor. For example: birds, as far as we can tell, are monophyletic. Structures such as the beak, feathers, etc. that make birds unique among vertebrates (again, as far as we can tell from the fossil record) did not evolve multiple times. There is only one group of birds.

Paraphyletic groups appear to be very similar but are actually groups or organisms that do not share a common ancestor that gives them that similarity (because we presume that every living thing on earth does share a common ancestor somewhere). So to follow the example, birds and bats are paraphyletic. They are the only vertebrates to achieve powered flight but their common ancestor (which goes way back to the proto-reptiles/proto-mammal anapsids) did not have powered flight.

Likewise we have two terms for structures that either are or are not produced by common ancestry: these are analogous and homologous. So my hand is homologous with a bat's wing (because both my hand and a bat's wing came from the feet of those early terrestrial vertebrates) but an insect wing and a bat's wing are analogous (because they do the same thing, allow powered flight, but did not derive from a common ancestor).

OK, still with me? No? Aw, I knew all that science was going to scare folks off. Well for those that are still reading there is a point to my inane ramblings. I have seen a fair amount of lessons based around classification that end with students sorting organisms strictly by morphology (how they look) rather than phylogeny (how they're actually related). So you get wacky groups like "things with wings" and "things that eat other animals" and so forth. This is by no means bad or wrong and is sure as heck the best thing for the real young'ins. But by the time children are in second or third grade they are developmentally capable of going further and are often really interested in stuff like dinosaurs and other animals that no longer exist.

So I encourage those of you who work with young people to strengthen your phylogenetic knowledge and the next time a student asks you if you should group a butterfly with a parrot engage them in conversation about exoskeletons and endoskeletons or segmented bodies or beaks or open and closed circulatory systems. You might think I'm crazy but I've tried similar things and it often works. We should never underestimate how much science a third grader is willing to digest.

"Weird Animals"

Of course I started thinking "what is so weird about a hand-fish?" when I read through this list of National Geographic's Top 10 Weirdest New Animals of 2010 but some of these critters are pretty cool.

To keep on the worm theme, be sure to check out the polychaete in the list.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

More Worms

A week or two ago I was visiting a science classroom teaching a squid dissection and the teacher had a poster on the wall that was a visual map of the different phyla in the animal kingdom. It was a really amazing poster and I tried to find out if I could order it but apparently the company that makes it only sells to retailers. So that was sad.

But the important thing is that I counted the number of phyla that were described as some kind of worm. The total count? 11. That's about a third of animal phyla.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


In honor of the thanksgiving holiday I was thinking of writing about wild turkeys. I looked into it and frankly couldn't find a single surprising or interesting thing about them. They're fantastic and beautiful birds, don't get me wrong. I love seeing them around, and you can in most parts of New England. But they're big birds that eat mostly plants. And they are dumb. So ecologically and behaviorally they're just not so fascinating. The one area I did not check is phylogeny. So I guess I challenge my readers, if you're still out there, to prove me wrong. What's interesting about turkeys?

So I thought of another food animal that's just plain weird: the Atlantic Salmon. Salmon are weird partly because they are anadromous, that is they spend some of their lives in fresh water and some in the ocean. But the really weird thing about the Atlantic salmon is that it goes through up to seven life stages. They all start out as alevin, little larval fish living in the gravel in streams or rivers where they were born. The yolk sac of the egg still attached, they live in relative safety. Not needing to feed they are able to hide from predators all the time.

As the energy store of their yolk sac deminishes they must seek outside sources of nutrients and they change into fry, a common word for larval or young fishes. Fry develop quickly into parr and develop the camouflaging vertical stripes necessary for survival in the gravely rivers where they will spend the next few years of their lives. After several years of dwelling in fresh water they undergo yet another change: their bodies become silver and internal chemistry changes to deal with life in salt water. This process is my new favorite vocabulary word: smoltification, as this next life stage is known as the smolt.

They will then spend two to three years in the ocean as smolts. Those who survive will metamorphose yet again into adults, the males growing a distinctive hook on their lower jaw known as a kype. This hook is involved in mate choice just as many bird species have crests or brightly colored feathers. The full grown adults will return to the riverbeds and spawn. Most of their lives end here, but once in a while an adult salmon returns to the ocean again where it is called a black salmon or a kelt. Usually they will live another two to three years, spawn again and then end their lives in the riverbeds where they were born.

And you thought transforming once from a caterpillar to a butterfly was impressive. Well it is. But check out these crazy fish!


Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife:

Friday, November 12, 2010

What's In a Name?

Most of us know about the caterpillar and the butterfly. These are not two different animals but rather the larval and "adult" stage of the same arthropod. Most, if not all, arthropods have a larval form and the time that is spent in that form can vary drastically. The reason I put "adult" in quotes is because I think in many situations the term is misleading. We assign a level of importance to the final stage of life the animal takes, generally looking at things anthropocentrically with the notion that the more "advanced," "older" form of the organism is its true self. We humans, as adults, tend to think of this period of our lives as who we really are, not the child we grew up from. But in the insect world things don't really work the same way. Here's a couple of examples.

Many species of fly become "adults" only for a single day and lack feeding parts altogether. They are maggots for essentially their entire lives, sometimes years, and metamorphose into their final stage only to fly around, look for a mate, hopefully find one and then die after running out of energy. It seems like these organisms are surely more maggot than fly and yet we insist on calling them flies. They don't really fly all that much, only for a day out of their whole existence.

A similar situation are the "cyclical" cicadas. Many species of cicada live underground as nymphs for thirteen to seventeen years before emerging as "adults." The "adult" phase only lasts about a month, and the main purpose is basically the same: grow wings so you can find a mate more easily. I'm not sure what the ancestral form of the insect world may have been like but it seems that wings may have been an adaptation specifically for finding mates and nothing else. Many of these animals seem perfectly content to spend the vast majority of their lives burrowed underground or in a rotting carcass or up a deer's nose.

So are flies maggots or are maggots flies? Are beetles grubs or is it the other way around? Is it a monarch caterpillar? It's odd to imagine but I wonder how we would look at things if vertebrates spent the bulk of our time on earth in one form and then in our twilight years, just before our cell replication was ready to give out we changed shape into something completely different and flitted off to find a partner with which to reproduce.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Turtle "Hibernation"

"The tortoise, like other reptiles, has an arbitrary stomach as well as lungs; and can refrain from eating as well as breathing for a great part of the year." --Gilbert White

I've just been learning about turtle "hibernation," or bromation. Lots of animals apart from those true hibernators can employ periods of deep sleep or vastly reduced metabolic activity. Freshwater turtles that live in parts of the world that freeze over have to go into such a state to survive the cold winter.

What they will do is usually drop to the bottom of a pond or lake. Unless frost line dips below the bottom of the pond the water will remain at 39 degrees F all winter no matter the temperature above because this is the temperature at which water is at its densest. So if it ever cools to below 39 degrees it will begin to float up and away from the turtle.

This might seem extremely cold but the turtle actually does just fine with it. The animal will also, as is the case with most forms of hibernation, lower its metabolism to an extremely low level. Many species' heart rates will fall to one beat about every ten minutes.

What I started wondering is: how do they breathe? Well they have specialized organs in their pharynx and near their anus that have a thin enough membrane that oxygen can be absorbed directly from the water. However, they are still unable to exhale. This means that lactic acid begins to build up in their muscle tissue. To compensate for that (and I think this is the most amazing part) calcium compounds from the shell will dissolve and enter their bloodstream, neutralizing the acid.

It's just wild to think, from a mammal's perspective, that all winter can be spent at the bottom of a lake, completely submerged in near freezing water. Evolution never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Education and Service

So here's some great thinking to wake up to on a semi-frozen November after an election no less.

I've been having a lot of thoughts involving alarmism and nightmare scenarios. While this is in no way new (I tend to be predisposed to this kind of stuff) I'm just finding myself more and more frustrated with the status quo. What set this off is this: I went to a talk the other day by a science writer who described the Deepwater Horizon accident as the "worst spill in human history."

This is a complicated statement. It's also probably false. We don't have enough data but it's probably true that 3 or 4 oil disasters were technically "bigger" in that they spilled more oil. And all her agitated, furious emoting led me to think about one thing and one thing only. That the speaker would, after lamenting the human-induced environmental degradation of the Louisiana marshland get in a car powered by fossil fuels and drive home.

We're all very angry and most of us don't seem to change our actions.

I know this is not supposed to be a blog about sustainability but to me this isn't necessarily a question of how much oil is left in the Gulf. It's the fact that even when we first started drilling oil it was incredibly damaging to local ecosystems. By its very nature oil is bad for the environment. This has nothing to do with how much is left. The stuff is almost the archetype of pollutant.

So I'm not sure I follow my own thinking but here's where it's gone, in two directions. Is educating enough? Is appreciation enough? I've felt comfortable with my role in all of this. I teach, I get kids and grown ups excited about the natural world. That will mean they'll be better stewards. Right...? Or should I be rethinking this? Should I be on the ground giving service instead?

Secondly: If we're all so angry why don't we do something big. No Impact man has tried this but I think his ambitions are a little too lofty. What if we talk about a strict two or three day boycott of fossil fuels? I'm sure folks who care enough can take a few days off work to boycott dirty energy. I'm sure we could do it over the weekend. My thinking is that until we show the oil industry and the government that we really mean business things are going to stagnate here, where we all care but nothing is really happening. And I'm pretty sure a massive boycott of oil would hit industry in its wallet. I know it's not something we'd be able to keep up: after all we're all dependent on petroleum products. But what if we really committed ourselves to letting go of at least a little bit of that dependency? What then?

Not sure how that's all going to read. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, whoever you are.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Horseshoe Crab Diaries Part Three: In Which Paul Learns Something New and Then Must Tell Everyone

Here we are near the end of the month, again lamenting the sad decline in posting frequency. But hey, look! Another post about horseshoe crabs. This must be your lucky day!

So last week I went to a talk by a guest PhD student at the aquarium who studies the ecological impact of horseshoe crabs. The take away was basically that, in the area of study, which was across several mud flats in Great Bay, New Hampshire the HSCs are foraging in nearly 100% of available space across two weeks. Diligent little chelicerates.

She also found that that in areas where the HSCs were foraging the invertebrate population was about a third of that in undisturbed mud. Basically they are exerting some pretty intense predation pressure on these mud flats.

And that brings me to the real revelation: The HSC really is, like the sea star, a top predator of the inter-tidal zone. I have been telling it all wrong. When asked I generally tell people that horseshoe crabs eat "dead stuff" or "soft stuff" because they don't have teeth or jaws. While it's probably true that they're not terribly picky and will scavenge, they are in fact hunters as well. The really cool thing I learned was that they are capable of cracking soft shell clams with their legs. I had no idea that they were so capable at being awesome predators. It really has changed my already very favorable opinion of them. They're like the sharks of the mud flats,

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is it Worth One Bird?

One of my newer favorite things to do is listen to the podcast "Radiolab." It's a science podcast, not specific to natural history, but I'll plug it anyway because, well, it's awesome. I keep thinking about one story I listened to recently about an endangered bird called the Kirtland's warbler. You should go listen to the story here:

For those of you who don't have the time or came up with some other excuse to skip the homework I'll quickly summarize. The warbler is very endangered partly because it nests in trees that need fires. Thanks primarily to Smokey the Bear the amount of forest fires has drastically been reduced in the US. Unfortunately, fires are an incredibly important part of forest ecology. So you have this endangered species which, by law, the DCR is required protect. How do you protect a species which relies on fires? Well, you have to set fires. One day a fire goes out of control, it creates a whole lot of damage and kills a DCR employee. The reporter basically asks the question: is it worth one bird?

The comments on the page I've linked to are also very interesting and take the question a little bit further, I think.

It also reminded me of a book I read (most of) called Out of Eden by a guy named Alan Burdick. It deals with management of invasive species and the author takes a somewhat controversial stance: that essentially we do too much, we worry too much, we waste effort that could be best spent elsewhere. I'm not sure. It's worth at least borrowing it from your library. The only reason I didn't get all the way through it is that I felt each case study was too similar and Burdick's musings were, likewise, too similar.

So I just wanted all you readers to think about these things. I spend a lot of time at my job talking about endangered species. I think it's important to consider what's actually happening on the ground. How are these things actually managed? Are we being overly cautious? Will there be an ecological collapse? Should we always err on the side of safe rather than sorry? And how do we make people care about species besides the charismatic whales and turtles? I clearly don't have answers to any of these questions but I think it's important for us to think about.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I’m going to try something a little different today on the Network. I have limited my topics to either local species, generally accompanied by a photo that I took myself or musings on natural history education in general. Today I’m going to start a series that introduces organisms that are oddities, phylogenetically speaking.

Perhaps my most nerdy passion is learning about phylogeny. Phylogeny is essentially the study of relationships in the tree of life. The organisms I want to take a look at are those that have diverged in interesting ways from their close relatives.

So today’s featured creature: the shipworm. I’ve been thinking a lot about the word worm. It’s one of those words that, speaking technically, carries almost no actual meaning. It’s a descriptor of body type (long and thin) and before biologists were able to start the project of classifying animals based on their actual relationships instead of what they looked like it got used as a label for all sorts of things. So we end up still using the word “worm” today to describe at least four major phyla (annelids, polychaetes, nemerteans and nematodes) and probably more that I’m missing as well as a host of other creatures that aren’t part of any of those groups.

Image courtesy of the US Geological Survey

Like this guy here. The “shipworm.” Folks tell me he’s not a worm at all. He fits the description more or less, though. He’s long and thin. But this animal is actually a bivalve mollusk, meaning his closest relatives are clams, mussels, oysters, scallops etc. and most closely the geoducks and soft shell clams. But this creature has diverged away from the “normal” bivalve physiology by growing into an organism with an elongated body. It retains the two shells of other bivalves but these have been altered into a cutting or boring device at one end of the animal.

Shipworms are so named because they are well known by sailors to bore into ships’ hulls, destroying them in the process. Wood can become so concentrated with the burrows of shipworms that it becomes nothing but an empty husk, brittle to the touch. The family of shipworms has also been dubbed “termites of the sea.”

This behavior of drilling into wood serves two purposes. First is protection. The animal will remain inside its burrow and secrete a calcareous compound to line it. The second is nutritional. These mollusks actually consume the wood and live symbiotically with a bacteria that takes nitrogen from sea water and synthesizes proteins. They also extend their siphons into the water through the open end of the burrow both to breath and to supplement their diet with plankton.

Even though a single piece of wood can become almost completely saturated with shipworm burrows they never make them long enough to interfere with a fellow shipworm. They simply stop growing. So apparently they are not only fascinating but also really great at sharing!

So the next time you pass some drift wood at the beach inspect it more carefully and you may find the little holes left by these bizarre bivalves.


Chesapeake Bay Field Guide:

Grave, B.H. Natural History of Shipworm Teredo Navalis, at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Accessed at:


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Insect Including Spiders

I get a kick out of how this is phrased: Insect* Including spiders.

In any event this is a neat website where you can identify spiders and insects by color and state.

Phalacrocorax auritus

I am attempting to semi-triumphantly return to the world of actually posting on my blog. But of course the frustrations of photography tend to get in the way. I need to make time to actually go shoot and then when I do I realize after looking at the images that my camera was set on all the wrong settings. O well, some of them are actually passable.

So I spent some time trying to identify exactly which cormorant species this is and I think it is the double-crested, so named because during the breeding season the males grow long white tufty "crests" on their faces. That's sexual selection for you. It'll favor just about any weird morphological change if it aptly correlates with fitness. Even weird grandpa eyebrows.

Sexual selection is the freakish step-sister of natural selection. Instead of the selection being imposed by the environment it is imposed by (usually) female mate choice. So with natural selection features are generally selected for that make the organism better at surviving. Being better at surviving will in turn increase the number of offspring you have because if you die you can't have offspring. Alternately, sexual selection increases the number of offspring you have because if no one wants to mate with're sad. Plus, no offspring.

Sexual selection is sometimes dubbed "runaway" sexual selection when it does REALLY crazy things: like the peacock tail. This is the classic example of runaway sexual selection. Their tails are actually a hindrance to survival because the sheer weight of them severely decreases their ability to escape from predators. And the peacock's range is occupied by one of the world's most efficient land predators: the tiger. Solely due to the peahen's preference for more ridiculous tail plumage the peacock has continued to evolve larger and larger tails. Researchers have actually studied this by gluing false "eye spots," the round markings found on peacock tails, and found a direct correlation between the number of eye spots and female mate choice. So its an evolutionary "choice" between not getting eaten by a tiger or not mating. Poor peacocks.

But I digress: I've always been attracted to cormorants because they can often be seen out of water sunning themselves. The reason they do this is because they lack the special oil glands that ducks, geese and most water birds have to keep water from soaking their feathers. So they have to dry themselves the old fashioned way.

Though they're not my best shots I did enjoy seeing this one because it has three species and they're all chordates! The cormorants, Canadian geese as well as some species of turtles in the bottom right. Pretty cool.

Futuyma, Douglas J. (1998). Evolutionary Biology 3rd Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Autumn Colors

One thing I am downright baffled by as I continue writing the Mycelial Network is how people who have real jobs maintain their blogs. I guess I’m just lazy. But not today!

It’s officially fall. The moon says so. And the leaves in my neighborhood have already started to change colors. This is one of those events, like that sun rising every morning, that we all expect. But how and why does this occur?

Chemistry of course! Most of us are probably familiar with one of the molecules in tree leaves that gives them their green color: chlorophyll. But tree leaves have other pigments in them as well from two major classes of molecules: carotenoids (I may have ranted about these when I talked about the red aphids. Carotenoids give most red things in nature their color.) and anthocyanins. These compounds aide the work of chlorophyll by absorbing additional wavelengths of light.

A quick note about color for those who’ve forgotten their high school physics: colors are produced by rays of light with different amounts of energy or wavelengths. So red, orange, yellow, etc. each have a very specific amount of energy associated with that color. When white light strikes an object some of those wavelengths are absorbed by the pigments in the object. The colors that are not absorbed are reflected to our eyes and that produces the color we see. For example: a red object is actually absorbing all or most wavelengths of light except for red. The red is then reflected to our eyes and we perceive that color.

So when autumn comes the days start getting shorter and the nights get longer. This begins to trigger trees’ response to get ready for winter. Deciduous trees’ leaves are not capable of surviving frost so they have evolved to drop them off to conserve energy during cold months and months of low sunlight. It’s simply not worth while to try to photosynthesize only a few hours a day. As this happens the chlorophyll begins to degrade but the carotenoids and anthocyanins remain, showing the pigments that were always present in the leaves but were unnoticed due to the presence of chlorophyll. Sometimes leaves simply turn brown and shrivel instead of turning a brilliant red, purple or yellow. This is because the other pigments have also degraded and waste material is building up in the leaves, giving them a brown color.

The range and intensity of the color change can vary greatly depending on weather especially rainfall and sunlight. These processes are still not entirely understood and scientists are working on figuring out the more precise patterns of autumn color change in leaves.

What other fall-related natural history topics would you like to see on the Network? Leave me a note and stay tuned for (hopefully) more from me soon.


University Of Wisconsin:


Science Made Simple:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Horseshoe Crab Diaries Part Two: In Which Paul Rambles About The Awesomeness

So I'm sad because I have not been keeping up with my silent promise to myself to be slightly more active in posting. Fall is fast approaching so I'm brewing some post ideas that are autumnal. Like: why in the heck do leaves change color anyhow?

But even though I've got two days off from my "real job" as a sea star wrangler I'm having trouble finding the time for the real meat of the whole posting process: the research. So instead of posing another lousy post that's nothing but a poorly shot photograph I thought I would do some rambling about the Horseshoe Crab.

I spend a lot of time with tidepool animals and I can honestly say that hands down my absolute favorite is the HSC. I wanted to wait to write a full post until I had a nice photo of them but you can of course go to or to check out plenty of photos of them.

So why are these animals so amazing? Well, first is their ancientness. Although our North American Horseshoe crab, limulus polyphemus, does not show up in the fossil record and the genus probably only goes back about 20 million years, the basic design of the family goes back about 300-400 million years. That's older than dinosaurs by a good 100 million years or so. Heck it beats amniotic animals all together by 40 or 50 million years. For those plant evolution experts it's about the time that ferns first appeared.

And some of you may know this, but I love to point out that they are not crabs at all. Not even close. Hermit crabs aren't crabs but at least they're decapods, in the same family as lobsters, shrimp and true crabs. But the HSC isn't even slightly a crab. The story likely goes that westerners who first came to the "new world" (it really wasn't all that new...) found these things in huge numbers all along the American coast. It lives under water (for the most part) and it has a shell, a bit like a crab, so heck, it's probably a crab. Oh, and it looks like a horseshoe, I guess. (I quite get the resemblance. If I had discovered this creature rest assured that it would have a much cooler name. Like Gorgax, Lord of the Seas. Something Awesome.)

So if it's not a crab, what the heck is it then? Well it's a chelicerate, of course! That's the family that includes the arachnids, spiders and scorpions as well as a really bizarre group of animals we colloquially call "sea spiders" (they aren't really spiders at all, and many scientists are arguing they don't even belong in the chelicerata). So not only are the HSC's closest living relatives spiders but it's also the closest living relative of trilobites, those highly successful early arthropods that are such common fossil finds.

And what makes a chelicerate a chelicerate? Well, chelecirae, of course! These are little appendages that don't quite count as legs near the mouth. In spiders we call them pedipalps and they generally are used in mating, in scorpions they have evolved into claws but on the HSC they are just tiny little finger-like grasping tools to shovel food (quite literally) into the mouth.

So I think I've rambled enough for today, but check out my references for more information and I'll plan on writing another post (of course) on the HSC. There's a lot to tell. I'm trying to learn more yet about the eyes. It seems that my source was certainly correct about the number but as I read more there may be some further speculation about the exact position of those nine eyes. In the mean time, get out and enjoy nature.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weird Bryophyte

I just realized it has been a very long time since I've posted anything. I was going to try to figure out more about this weird possible club moss but I was having trouble and I've been really busy so here's the picture at least. This is another photo from the white mountains.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nature Blog Network

I have officially become a member of the Nature Blog Network. So says the widget to the right. Nothing big is changing other than the fact that you can now click on said widget to visit the NBN homepage and check out some other really fantastic nature blogs and keep track of my ranking...which will probably be towards the bottom for the most part.

Monday, August 9, 2010

White Mountains Part Four: Pseudorchis sp.

So I'm slowly getting through the different wildlife I found in the White Mountains. It seems like about two million years ago that I was actually there. But here is a flowering plant we found in our campsite. We guessed, correctly, that it was an orchid. I managed to figure out that it was a pseudorchis genus but haven't been able to get any further. Nor have I found much information on the psuedhorchis genus other than that it has a few members common to the northeast US.

Orchids are especially common in the tropics but will grow just about anywhere and are extremely varied. Most orchid fruits produce a huge amount of seeds, sometimes in the millions. These seeds are generally only a few cells and require a special relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus to germinate (thanks again fungi!).

I also just learned today that vanilla is an orchid. Beautiful and delicious!


Stern, Kingsley R. (2006) Introductory Plant Biology, Edition Ten. New York, NY: McGraw Higher Education.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shark Post

I spend a lot of time demystifying myths about sharks. I'm still surprised at how many people really believe sharks want to eat people. They don't. And with shark week wrapping up on the Discovery Channel I thought what better time to write about sharks on the Network.

If you live in the Northeast, and I suspect most of you do, you have probably heard of the very publicized sightings of white sharks near Chatham, MA and Westport, RI. People are, to put it mildly, freaking out about it.

This is completely normal. This part of the Atlantic has always been within their distribution and there are a couple of reasons we're seeing so many white sharks this summer. The first is that populations of Grey Seals are rebounding. This is a good thing. But more seals means more sharks. The second reason is simply that we're looking for the sharks more than ever. You won't spot an animal you're not looking for.

Should we be afraid of sharks? I don't think so. We should certainly respect them. I could ask the same question about dogs which bite a vastly larger number of people every year. Yet to my knowledge there has never been a public outcry to go around killing all dogs. Heck, people bite more people every year. All that said, of course, we should not go swimming in water near seals. You shouldn't hold a large metal pole above your head during an electrical storm. If we use common sense and respect the animals for what they are we will not be put into dangerous situations with them.

Check out the state of Massachusetts's shark project here:

There are some gorgeous photos of these amazing animals.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

Backyard Nature Photography

I haven't talked much about the photography on the Network yet. A few days ago I was reading another natural history blog and bumped into a new technique which resulted in the shot above. It's not nearly as awesome as the shot that inspired it and it got me thinking about the frustrations of having a camera that's very very good but not quite at the pro level. I don't quite have the right macro lens for a lot of my shots. I don't have as high an ISO as I'd like a lot of the time. And even though it has a high resolution my images can still come out grainy or blurry. I've seen plenty of images that look out of focus but still somehow amazingly good. That really doesn't tend to happen with my camera.

In any event the idea for the image above is to have a very small aperture and fast shutter speed with an intense flash (so a new thing I've learned is that I also don't have an adequate flash). The image was taken in full daylight but almost no ambient light makes it to the sensor. Instead it picks up the focused light from the flash, only illuminating the intended subject. Now check out the inspiration here.

What are your techniques for taking interesting images of wildlife? What's your favorite place/time of day/year/etc. to shoot nature photos?

White Mountains Part Three: Monotropa uniflora

I am very excited to bring you the next post covering my brief trip to the White Mountains. This somewhat bizarre flower is colloquially known as the Ghost Flower, Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant, Indian Pipe and probably a few other names. Besides having a pretty awesome set of common names the plant itself is fascinatingly weird. It’s a flowering plant with no chlorophyll. As you probably know (or maybe you don’t) most plants contain a chlorophyll, molecules that both give plants their color as well as serve to absorb light and start the process of converting it into usable energy for the organism. In a quick search of definitions for the molecules you may hear that they are found in all plants. Not true.

So if the Ghost Flower (I think that’s the best name) doesn’t gather energy from sunlight like most plants how does it gather usable energy? Well this is the other reason I’m so excited to write about this plant. Instead of employing photosynthesis it taps directly into (any guesses?) the mycelial network!

These plants (there are actually many species of these flowers) are considered to be parasitic on the mycorrhizal fungus of the network but the energy (mostly in the form of carbon) that the plants use to power themselves is coming primarily from the photosynthesis of trees that are tapped into the network. Apparently the drain is so small that the trees, and thus the fungus, are “physiologically unaware” of the energy loss. Perhaps they’re pirates but the amount of energy is at such low levels that it’s almost negligible.

These flowers are found growing in unusually dark places in New England forests. Because they no longer rely on photosynthesis they fill a niche unavailable to most ground plants. You often find them where even the trees only have leaves or needles at the very tops. The next time you’re out in the woods look for these weird plants. I often mistook them for fungi when I first learned about them because they have such weird white bodies and flowers.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure they’re haunted.


University of Wisconsin:


Friday, July 30, 2010

White Mountains Part Two: Fungus

One of my favorite parts about visiting the White Mountains is the sheer diversity of fungi there. We have a decent amount of different and unusual looking fungi here in Boston but it's no match for the Whites. This is probably only about half the number I found.

Some kind of puffball fungus

This is a lichen, so only half or so fungus. An interesting one, though.

Little Hygrocebes.

I think this is another little Hygrocebe. These guys were everywhere.

A white Coral Fungus. I believe I've shown other pictures of this kind here before.

And this one too, a yellow Coral Fungus.

So many fungi, so little time.

Up next: the mysterious Ghost Flower.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

White Mountains Part One: The Hills Themselves

Last week I was camping in the White Mountains. Despite some rainy (and downright stormy) weather we managed to get some pretty stellar hiking in. I learned a couple things in my attempts to turn some of my experience into posts for the Network. First, I am terrible at shooting mountains. I'm sure I can learn but my familiarity with the very small and my lack of experience shooting them made it a somewhat fruitless attempt. The shot above represents the best of probably about 20 shots and still it doesn't capture the experience of being there in the mountains.

Another thing is that I know almost nothing about geology. I'm pretty good with biology and have at least a cursory knowledge of other sciences but I'm just darn confused when it comes to rocks. So I wanted to write a little about how the mountains were formed but found it nearly impossible to find any credible resources on the interwebs. So maybe I'll have to do some research and get myself a good geology 101 textbook. If anyone has any suggestions, please leave a comment.

What I do know now is this: there are several ways mountain chains can form. The formation of the White Mountains is actually fairly complex but if you're more interested than me here's a blog post by a White Mountain Naturalist that I didn't even have the patience to read myself because apparently I just don't get geology:

In short, one of the ways mountains form is when two or more continental plates push together. This process causes one plate to sink under the other and push the surface sediment up, forming mountains. I also know that you can generally tell something about the age of a mountain chain by how tall and pointy the mountains are. The taller and pointier (like the rockies and the alps) the younger the mountains are. I believe (do not quote me on this) that I read somewhere that the alps are actually still on their way up.

That would probably (probably) make the Whites an older range. They are fairly low elevation and have smoother, more rounded peaks rather than the sharper tops of mountains in the the Rockies or Himalayas.

So please, send us all your mountain knowledge. Where is a geologist when you need one?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Unnatural History: The Banana

I've grown a little wary of writers who offer book-length reading about sustainable living. They can come off a bit preachy, hard to relate to (as many lifestyle changes required for true sustainable living can be very, very expensive) and the lessons learned can often be summed up in a sentence or two: "don't buy too much stuff" "avoid read meat at all costs" "shop and eat locally" etc. These things have sort of been driven into my skull over the last few years as the green and sustainable movements have become trends and marketing tools.

But I heard Barbara Kingsolver on the radio this morning and I guess she's written a book about living sustainably. There's a really good chance I won't read it for the reasons cited above but she brought up a really interesting point that relates to things I've thought of before and written a little about here on the Network.

She talked about how one thing she gave up was bananas. Many people, myself included, think about the first big food step to be giving up meat. But, Kingsolver says, bananas require so much refrigeration in big trucks and all that fossil fuel did not seem like it was "cruelty free." It's a really good point and drew me back into the somewhat sordid relationship man has had with the banana over the last few hundred years. Maybe I'll take that story up more specifically some other time but the point that I was reminded of was this: those of us who really care, who have passion and compassion for the planet we live on and its health, we drive ourselves nuts over-thinking things. I think it's totally fair to make a point about refrigerated trucks and maybe I will think more carefully about bananas the next time I'm at my giant, air conditioned supermarket, but I think most fossil fuel burning is completely out of my control and until the whole picture of how we obtain energy changes we're honestly damned if we do and damned if we don't.

Reduction of our consumption still strikes me as the number one most important rule of thumb and it saves us all of the sanity shattering stress of having to figure out if bananas or beets or kale or local turkey or rice or any of the bajillion other foods we use every day is REALLY more sustainable than the next. I'm going to keep eating bananas. They are delicious and a great source of potassium. Hopefully the fact that I don't drive a car will make up for it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Danaus plexippus

Another local species! And an arthropod to boot! How lucky you are!

This is the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly, known for its relatively long migrations across parts of North and Central America. However, unlike migratory bird species, the adults do not return to their original homes. The children or grandchildren will return to the homes of their ancestors, however. This is because cyclically, four generations of monarchs do not survive longer than a few weeks. How the progeny can find “home” is still subject to research. Perhaps they are following the sun, magnetic fields or geographic landmarks. This puzzle has prompted a project (alliteration!) called “Monarch Watch” which encourages hobbyist naturalists to record and report their sightings of these butterflies. You can visit their website here.

These butterflies and their migration patterns are considered threatened, mostly due to habitat loss and efforts by both the US and Mexican governments are underway to protect their habitats.

Their eggs are laid on plants in the Asclepiadaceae milkweed family. By processing certain compounds found in milkweeds they are given an unpalatable taste or even toxicity to their predators. Like most toxic insects both the larvae and the adults are brightly colored to warn of their poisons. Being poisonous doesn’t do very much good if your predators don’t know you’re poisonous.

Oh, a natural history factoid just popped into my head. There is a distinction between poisonous and venomous: poisonous animals are ones like our friend the monarch here which deliver toxins when eaten. That is, toxins are stored or produced within the organism. Venomous animals introduce toxins directly into their targets, often with a bite or sting. So lionfish, rattlesnakes, and wasps are all venomous animals. Ah, how I love distinctions.


EOL (again):

Great Plains Nature Center, Wichita KS:

Monarch Butterfly Website:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Geukensia demissa

The Atlantic ribbed mussel is a common mussel species found on much of the shoreline of the eastern United States (from about Maine to northern Florida). They are an important part of the Marshy tidal ecosystems and filter feed bacteria, heavy metals and algae from the water column.

Mussels are bivalves (meaning two shells) which are a family of mollusks. This puts them into relationship with snails, octopuses, squids and cuttlefish (in addition to a few other smaller families). Like all other bivalves (clams, oysters) these ribbed mussels have a muscular “foot” with which they are capable of crawling through the sediment. They typically will remain in one spot, however, unless their ecosystem changes drastically enough.

In fact mussels have the habit of holding themselves fast to stable objects such as grasses, rocks, other bivalves as well as docks and other man-made objects. They do this with something called “byssal” or “byssus” threads, strong, sticky threadlike structures secreted from their foot. This is what keeps mussel “clumps” held together and is both a strategy for keeping safe from predators (their shells aren’t as thick and hard as their cousins the clams) as well as for preventing themselves from being swept away by waves and tides. This also puts them in a mutualistic (symbiotic) relationship with marsh grass. The grass provides the mussel with an anchor to attach to and the mussels provide fertilizer in the form of waste products.

These mussels are typically found in marshy areas with just their very tops poking out of the mud. I found these in West Dennis on Cape Cod over the weekend. I have also seen these mussels in other marshes in Massachusetts.

This is a hilarious quote from the Chesapeake Bay field guide: “While the Atlantic ribbed mussels are edible, they have an unpleasant taste, unlike the popular blue mussel.”

Edible yes. Pleasant, no.


The Assateague Naturalist:

The EOL:

University of Rhode Island:

The Chesapeake Bay Field Guide:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

More Natural History at the PCM

Over the last weekend I did a couple of super fun things and both of them related (at least tangentially) to natural history. First up: I finally was able to visit the new exhibit at one of my favorite museums in the world, the Providence Children’s Museum. It’s called Underland and highlights local animals.

The exhibit is fantastic and has all the elements of a great children’s museum play space. It’s outdoors, which is awesome, and contains weatherproof costumes of different animals such as a spotted salamander. There’s also music involved in the form of an underground marimba.

As always the artwork is phenomenal. Here’re a couple examples:

a star nosed mole!

a chipmunk!

But the best part? Latin names!

This really made my day and represents a philosophy that I share that it’s never too early to introduce folks to real hard science. Even if they don’t really understand what those funny words mean they are getting primed just by seeing them. Later in life many enthusiastic PCM players will still have those fond memories of playing in Underland and reading those Latin words. Not only will they be more ready to understand their real meaning, having been exposed to them early, but this will bring them back to what can only be a magical and fun experience: playing at the PCM. I can only imagine that will help to fill science learning later in life with memories of play and exploration. Just fantastic.

Look forward to a couple of new posts about local fauna.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis

Yesterday morning, as I got my bike out to ride to work, I came upon this snake lounging on the stone steps coming down from our back yard. I didn’t have time to leisurely shoot this reptile because, well, I had to get to work, so the pictures aren’t amazing. But at least I documented another vertebrate. I think that’s two!

So T. sirtalis sirtalis, the Eastern Garter Snake is a subspecies of the Common Garter Snake. The term subspecies gets a little hard to define (considering species is hard to define) but it’s basically another distinction under species. There’s not a whole lot to say about them: they’re little snakes that live in most parts of the US. They are nocturnal and diurnal (not crepuscular?) and eat little amphibians, worms and slugs.

One somewhat interesting thing about these snakes is that they give live birth. This is called viviparity and when I was in grad school I found that there’s actually a whole lot of squamate reptiles (snakes and lizards) that do this. I think a lot of people assume that mammals are the only ones who give live birth but sharks and reptiles also employ this strategy. It’s evolved a good number of times over the last few hundred million years.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Name My Fungus, Please

So I guess I got lucky with the burdock. No one has been able to name any other unknowns for me. But it's always worth a try. Let's up the prize: a million science points for the genus.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Morality of Nature and Niche Theory

This post was going to be titled “Not For the Faint of Heart” but I didn’t actually capture the image that was going to headline it. I was out for a walk yesterday looking for things to shoot (Bang! Bang!) when I cam across a dead bird full of green flies. I watched them seethe for a bit, brought my camera up, lowered it, watched a bit longer, walked away and then walked back. I had decided I wanted to shoot it but as I came back I disturbed the flies and they alighted.

Why didn’t I just shoot them? They were animals. And as I first came upon them they were undisturbed. I really could have had a fantastic image of them. But I kept thinking about reactions to an image I have of a dead bird. It’s not particularly beautiful and was unfortunately killed by my pet cat and not from something (more) natural. But most people hate it. So I decided not to capture another dead bird.

But as I was walking away the first time I thought about how similar this scene was to every other scene of organisms gathering resources, organisms getting energy from their environment. I resolved to capture that just as I would a honey bee landing on a flower. As I walked away the second time, having failed to get my image, I thought more about how we impose our own morality on nature, how we anthropomorphize even a pile of flies. There was no right or wrong in that dead bird. It was just a pack of organic compounds waiting to be reacquired by the ecosystem. The flies were merely obliging.

Niche theory, in biology, states that when there are resources, when energy is bound up somewhere in the ecosystem, eventually an organism should come along in evolutionary history to take advantage of that source of energy. We see this in the small changes of cichlid fishes’ pharyngeal jaws (jaws within jaws, see this x-ray of a moray eel), we see it in the rise of pollinating insects (once flowers appeared so did creatures that took advantage of them) and we see it in flies and other animals like burying beetles that use the cadavers of vertebrates as energy sources.

Probably something in us roots for the vertebrate and is sickened to see it crawling with arthropods (I've mentioned our innate nauseated response to creepy crawlies probably being an adaptive response to finding them in spoiled food). But there’s certainly nothing “moral” about the process. It’s just another niche to be exploited by another intrepid organism.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mollusks of Jamaica Plain

June has been a quiet month on the Mycelial Network. My "real life" has been really busy so I haven't had enough time to take pictures or research critters. I have, however, been thinking a lot about mollusks. I know you all have too. They are amazing. I've posted about the Grove Snail but there're a couple of slug species we find around in Jamaica Plain as well. Leopard slugs are everywhere and they can get quite large, maybe five or six inches. But I've been having trouble identifying this species so I thought I would just post the picture since I took it ages ago. So here it is: a garden slug.

Yum! Dead ginkgo leaf!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Another Day in the Dark

I don't want the Mycelial Network to turn its focus too much towards sustainable living but I mentioned here that to observe Earth Day back in April I was going to go a day without electricity. I tried the same thing again yesterday and I wanted to just jot down a few reflections and things I've noticed.

First I was definitely right about the most annoying things being no music and no photos. I listen to music almost constantly, especially when I'm not at work, and not being able to do that is quite annoying. I try to see it as a good thing and just pay attention to what's around me more, though. I could hear sounds from outside all day. Sometimes this was nice, like when those sounds were bird calls. But other times it was a little awful like when all I could hear was a yard tool buzzing.

Second: I've noticed that I just plan around it in a lot of ways. I get computer use out of the way the night before and I save things that don't use electricity to do on the day I'm not using it like reading my comics for the week. It doesn't necessarily mean I haven't used slightly less electricity (I probably would have been listening to music while reading comics on an ordinary day) but it still doesn't feel like that much from a sustainability point of view. I also used more gas. I did everything with the stove instead of a microwave or electric coffee pot and I actually have no idea which is better. Usually with these things it's tough to disentangle all the factors that make both bad for ecosystems.

I also did my fair amount of cheating. I decided I wouldn't buy anything this time, to put a further restriction on my consumption. But then I decided I really needed a loaf of bread and I was going to buy that loaf of bread anyway so I was really just inconveniencing myself and not reducing any consumption by not buying it that day as opposed to any other day. So I went and bought it. I still managed not to buy anything I could really avoid: no Dunkin' Donuts coffee, for example.

Lastly, I've noticed a significant urge to start using immediately after the day is over. I don't usually flip my computer on in the morning before work but here I am, checking my email and writing a blog post because I couldn't do that yesterday. I guess it more or less evens but that's not the intention: the intention was to prevent some consumption from happening at all.

All in all I think my strategy of adopting less extreme forms of reduction and sustainability into my life that I always stick to instead of practicing a low impact "sabbath" may make myself and the planet better off. I saw yesterday's overall "impact" as more for myself than for any ecosystems. For now, though, I'll continue to try going the day with reduced consumption now and then and see how it evolves.

Friday, June 4, 2010

When Should We be Intolerant of Other's Views?

When a biologist teaches creationism:

A Very Odd Moth

And because I promised photos today:

I found this very weird looking moth in the house a few weeks ago. 79 science points for the genus.

And a little closer up:

Scutigera coleoptrata

Quite a while back when I was dealing with the natural history of arthropods you can find in your house I was asked to treat the housipede or house centipede. Finally, here it is. I don’t have a shot of this creature because I don’t see them to0 much and when I do it’s only for a second. They, like silverfish, move creepily quickly. But for those who aren’t familiar or haven’t heard the term housipede before you can check out the shots on the encyclopedia of life:

House centipede is a term used to describe levels of taxonomic specificity all the way down to the species Scutigera coleoptrata and all the way up to the family Scutigeromorpha. To imagine that there’s an entire tribe of these creepy beasts running (yeah, running) around in our basements is slightly unsettling. This all started with my encounter with a spider and me singing the praises of finding wildlife indoors but the housipede is another flat, many-legged crawling critter I’d prefer stay outside.

The housidpede is indeed a member of the arthropod group of centipedes. Its first pair of legs has been modified into fangs for dealing with its prey. This is typical of centipedes. All (all) centipedes bite. It’s just a matter of how painful a bite they can deliver that classifies them as harmful to humans or not. (A quick tangent: I really like to make this clarification with jellies. All jellies sting but certain kinds, like the moon jellies that are common in Massachusetts, simply cannot sting through our skin. But the strategy of stinging with specialized mechanical cells is common to all jellies, and I believe all Cnidarians.)

Housipedes (or the specific species S. coleoptrata) are thought to be native to the Mediterranean but can now be found in many places worldwide. They, like the silverfish and thrips, thrive in humid environments which is one reason they tend to show up in our basements and (much more unfortunate for us) our bathrooms. However the housipedes are apparently predating on silverfish. So there’s a great reason to like them. Any enemy of a silverfish is a friend of mine. (Wow, I just worked two of my pet peeves into one sentence: the demonization of an animal and the description of a prey item as an “enemy.” Now I’m starting so see how emotions run so hot when nature comes indoors.)

Just Briefly...

I know you’re all probably sick of hearing about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. You should be. None of us want to hear about it. We all wish it just wasn't happening. But I can’t really resist throwing in my two cents. I’m having some serious frustrations. The first is that everyone is freaking out as if this is the craziest thing that has ever happened. Don’t get me wrong: it is awful. But I will try to continue to refrain from using language like tragedy and disaster. Things like this happen every year in other parts of the world (Nigeria seems to be a popular talking point) and I strongly feel that in some way Americans should see what our out of control oil consumption is really doing to local ecosystems. And wait…what about all that CO2 we are poisoning the ecosystems with every day? How come we’re not talking about that?

Directly related to that, each time I have a conversation with a visitor at work it goes directly back to the animals. I try to link it to personal consumption, reducing ones own use of petroleum products but it has seemed (this is my personal experience) that the words don’t hit home. I’m glad they care about the kemp’s ridley sea turtles and other charismatic creatures of the Gulf. But if they aren’t able to see that their own actions are directly linked with the spill…well I’m just not sure we’re making progress.

And lastly, I was going to write about children and conservation this morning and how, for the most part, it is easy to recruit younger folks into the movement. Children have a seemingly innate love of animals and that can easily be translated into passion (though possibly blind passion) for environmentalism. With this issue (the spill) I’m not sure it works that way at all. Children are only consumers of fossil fuels indirectly through their parents. Sure we could encourage (and often do) that they talk with their parents about these issues but ultimately the grown ups are the ones making the big decisions about what car to buy and what house to buy and how to heat the home and, much more importantly, what stuff and what food to buy. I don’t have the heart to advocate that a child not buy a plastic action figure. I know. I hate plastic. I hate useless stuff. But children love action figures. Heck, I still have a hard time resisting them. For whatever bizarre reason the Star Wars, Comic Book, LOTR nerd has a hard time being confronted with plastic reproductions of his/her favorite characters. Honestly a child’s happiness is worth a little more plastic in the world. It’s a though scale to weigh.

OK, that’s my oil spill rant. You won’t be hearing any more about it from me. I get the inclination through the Marine Educator’s listserv and coworkers that some have had slightly more positive educational experiences using this ugliness as a teachable moment. Stories, please!

And I’ll try to bring you something a little more cheery by the end of the day. Even if it’s just a photo.