Saturday, July 30, 2011


I have been struggling to write a post recently about ideas. I know...not very nature oriented...or is it!?!?!

My "background" as such things get described by fancy academic types is technically in neuroscience which is technically a part of nature (and we all know how much Paul loves technical stuff; almost as much as parentheses and semicolons).

I have tried and failed a few times to get started and I think it might be because I was trying to make some deep point or something and not go with usual perspective of "Hey, isn't this [insert natural history phenomenon] really darn cool!"

So, without further ado: aren't ideas cool!?! I've been watching a lot of TED talks recently (if you haven't heard about ted talks check out: but make sure you've got some time to kill...) and that's what got me thinking about ideas. They're really what separate us from all other organisms on the planet. We think, we have complex thoughts and we can quite easily, after a certain age, express them to one another. We've developed vast institutions and organizations simply for the purpose of talking to one another and spreading and developing ideas (read: universities). I know there's folks out there that think that there are other animals that have similar intelligence but until you show me a dolphin that philosophizes then I fully disagree that their intelligence is the same thing AT ALL.

You may ask "but, Paul, what is the point of all that philosophizing?" Personally learning and knowing philosophy has made me a happier and, more importantly, a nicer person. That's a long story and probably not appropriate for this blog. (I am trying to get back to natural history here.) But above all: like all the true bugs, chelicerates and witch hazel in the world I just think it's darn cool that we evolved this capability to describe our neurological experience with such precision AND express that experience to each other. We will probably never know the exact selection pressures that influenced our evolution towards these massive living computers and that's also kinda cool because we can imagine a plethora of situations in which we might have begun to evolve to be the smarty pants that we are.

I'm off for about a week to get some relaxin' in the Adirondack Mountains. I hope to return with some images and post ideas! As always, leave your ideas below.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Life in the Blue Hills

I finally got in my first hike in a few months yesterday at the Blue Hills, just south of Boston, and luckily I brought my camera. I found quite a few interesting organisms.

A robber fly. These are fairly large, predatory flies.

A funny little grasshopper or leaf-hopper. He's got some pretty excellent camouflage so I kept losing him but managed to get a few good shots, including this one.

Not one but...

...two toads. We've begun judging the quality of our walks by how many toads we see. So far the record is three in one walk. That was a great day. It's a little funny to think of amphibians living in the woods and the hills but that's the best place to look for them in the New England area. These are also certainly two distinct species which is pretty cool. We saw some other vertebrates: a groundhog and a ton of birds including a female scarlet tanager and a towhee.

We also saw plenty of witch-hazel, one even reaching the 30 foot range that they grow to. So now I can say with assurance that one of the places in the Boston area one can see wild witch-hazel is the Blue Hills.

But perhaps the coolest thing was this little invertebrate:

Don't see it? It's there in the bottom right of the image. It's not a great shot but this little insect was moving ridiculously fast. Here's a blown up version:

At first I thought it was a little red ant. But I'm pretty sure this hymenoptera is what is called a velvet ants. Velvet ants are not true ants but actually wasps. Though ants and wasps are very close relatives, the true ants are a monophyletic group while the velvet ants are couched within the broader family of wasps. They represent a separate transition from winged to wingless wasps and retain the painful sting of most of the wasp family.

As usual, science points for anyone who can help with IDing these critters. What a great day it was for a hike and some pretty cool New England natural history.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Horseshoe Crab Diaries Part Four: In Which Paul Tries to Explain Why They Have So Many Legs to a Preschooler

So it's summer and during the summer my job has me working with a lot of preschoolers. I love them: they're hilarious. But in terms of science education it can be a really tough audience. I've been thinking about it in this way: preschoolers ask some of the greatest science questions but more often than not they are not developmentally/cognitively capable of understanding even a watered-down version of the true answer.

So the other day I was at an academic summer camp talking with some preschoolers about my favorite animal and one of them asked me: "why does it have so many legs!?"

I know! Why does it need all those legs? Wouldn't six or even just four be enough? Probably it would be. This is more likely than not an example of randomness in the body plan of animals. Take humans as an example. Why do we have four limbs? Because our mammalian ancestors had four legs. Why did they have four legs? Because the lobed-fin fish that gave rise to land vertebrates had four fins that transitioned to limbs as they developed adaptations that allowed them to crawl out of the water. And why did the first lobed-fin fishes have four fins? Probably due to a random mutation in the hox genes (the genes that help to control embryonic development of bodies and limbs).

The same is true of a horseshoe crab: it has ten legs because...well because it's ancestors probably did. Or because there was a random mutation in the lineage's hox genes.

That's a pretty abstract concept even for an adult. So here's what I said: "They have a lot of legs because the group of animals they belong to has a lot of legs. Crabs, insects, spiders, they all have lots of legs and so do horseshoe crabs. That's really all I can say about it!"

I'm pretty sure my answer made no sense to the little guys. I know they can do similar and different but the concept of "relatedness" among different kinds of animals I think is a little out of reach. And like I said: it's frustrating that I've never been asked this question by an adult with the background knowledge and cognitive ability to understand the answer.

Any similar stories out there? What was your biggest success helping young children understand tough science concepts?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eww, Nature is so Gross!

Out looking for stuff to shoot I noticed something moving around in the ground. I took a closer look and found a quite large grub. None of the images I got really do it justice but it was probably an inch and a half or so long.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before but I always find it interesting to think about why grubs make us instinctively nauseous and/or squeamish. There's a pretty good chance it's an adaptive reaction to finding grubs (maggots) in rotten food. If the body gets nauseous before we eat bad food rather than after it saves us a lot of energy and possible dehydration from getting sick.

Of course I can't resist staring at it and shooting it for probably 15 minutes. The thing was creating quite a stir, rooting around in the ground. It seemed like it was trying to dig or find food or both, I'm really not sure. At first I thought it was after ants but it quickly became apparent that all the ants in the area where moving much quicker than it was. Maybe it was just looking for a good spot to bury itself and do some metamorphosing. Ecdysis here we come!

Saturday, July 2, 2011


I'm still here! And I've brought you more of your favorite! Cepaea Nemoralis!

One of Charles Darwin's insights into unraveling the mechanics of speciation by natural selection was that in any species there is variation. In a way it seems dumbly obvious: take human siblings. No too individuals are identical. Darwin bred pigeons so he also knew that this variation could be manipulated, in this instance by human intervention, but he took the leap to imagine (correctly) that nature could also manipulate this variation. These variations are, in essence, the stuff of evolution, the stuff of speciation. So to give you an idea of the amount of variation, in this case color variation, a single species can exhibit I went out this morning and shot a number of snails on the wall outside my house. This is what I saw:

11 different snails with 11 different patterns. Browns and yellows dominate the color variation in c. nemoralis but you can see oranges, tans, even one that was almost totally white. I wonder if there is some environmental factor but if so it must be quite acute since these are snails that were found in range of only several meters.

High levels of variation tends to be "good" for a species. It means that if the species (say c. nemoralis here) did need to start evolving towards one of these colors (say for camouflage) the genes are already present and the snails that were expressing those genes would survive more easily. Pretty quickly the ones with the "best" color would be all that was left. You might also imagine conditions in two parts of the species' range changing in different ways, one favoring one color and the other area favoring another color. That's exactly how you get speciation.

I hope to keep documenting the variation in color of c. nemoralis in our area and see if it changes year to year or season to season.