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.