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.