Posts in Category: Nature

I’m Not Dead Yet

Posted Oct 4th, 2006 at 9:17 am in Nature, Photography, School, Science | Comments Off

… as the famous line from Monty Python goes.

I’ve put up some pictures of an outing a couple of weeks ago to a local ranch, where my university’s biology department hosts an annual Bioblitz, identifying every species regardless of taxa they possibly can.

I managed to get one picture in particular that I just really like.

hole in the canopy

Another highlight of the weekend was this Hoary Bat, a species I had previously only seen in pictures. They are arguably the most beautiful of bats found in the U.S.

More from me if I survive today.

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A Bird That Moonwalks

Posted Sep 27th, 2006 at 8:25 am in Birding, Nature | 1 Comment

I came across a video highlighting the unique mating system and courtship displays of tiny tropical birds known as manakins. They interesting for forming leks — a place where multiple males will gather and engage in elaborate displays to get the ladies’ attention.

Take a look at this following video. Now for you none birding folks out there, don’t give up on me… The last minute contains a bird moonwalking, and trust me, you’ll want to see it.

It brings back fond memories of a time when I was near the shores of Lake Catemaco in southern Veracruz, Mexico, standing right next to a friend who suddenly found himself look at one of these birds, a Red-headed Manakin. No sooner had he seen it than the bird was gone.

Long-tailed Manakin
Long-tailed Manakin – photo source

I have seen other species in the tropics though. I’m particularly fond of the coveted Long-tailed Manakin. These birds will form leks where males will jump up and down as they call, trying to attract a female. The displays can last 20 minutes.

They’re extremely vocal too, giving a series of varied noises. Two of the most notable are their toledo song and a call that I can only describe as sounding like a baby crying — a descending waaah.

I’ve included them at the bottom of the post. (If you’re using internet explorer, you may have to click play twice due to the new way Microsoft handles the Flash plugin. I won’t get into it).

Toledo Song:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Waaah Call:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

It’s little things like this that should remind us how important conservation is. The life and diversity within tropical rainforests is simply staggering. Even now, after years of study and exploration, it yields new secrets and new beauties.

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Mediterranean Gecko Hunting At Night

Posted Sep 27th, 2006 at 8:04 am in Nature, Photography | 2 Comments

Each night as I come or go from my apartment, I’ve noticed a sizable Mediterranean Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) hunting in the dim lights on the side of the building. As their name implies, Mediterranean Geckos are an introduced species, naturally occurring in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Not being a herpetologist, I’m not sure if they’re having any harmful effect on native species. But being nocturnal and highly associated with urban / suburban environments, you might think of them as the House Sparrows of reptiles. My guess is that they’re filling a niche that was previously unfilled (nocturnal insect hunter on the walls of human structures) and that they’re not hurting anything. But that’s just a guess.

I’ve been meaning to grab the camera and try and get some shots. Here’s an excellent one of a beetle walking by. He didn’t make a lunge for it, but seemed attentive to the movement nonetheless.

Mediterranean Gecko hunting at night

And another one of him clinging to the walls with those incredible suction pad feet. (For further edification, here’s a BBC article on the fascinating foot structure of geckos.)

Mediterranean Gecko

And as always, there are larger versions of the pictures in the photo gallery. Clicking a picture will take you through.

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Bugs For Thugs

Posted Sep 20th, 2006 at 8:56 am in Nature | Comments Off

Let me introduce you to a person you might find handy some day… I’ve just finished setting up a blog for my good friend (and frequent Ocellated commenter) Kelley. Bugs for Thugs.

Kelley’s an entomologist who will gladly answer your questions about “what’s this insect.” Like birders when asked about a little brown bird, she will probably hate you when you ask her, “I saw this beetle, do you know what it was?”

She also reminisces on how we met.

I met Jay more than a couple years ago during some summer field classes we both took in Puget Sound. He was my first encounter with a Texan…and I haven’t met another one like him since ;) . In all honesty though, Jay has an unquenchable passion for birds and for the integrity of science. I admire him very much for that. I would have never guessed that I would be making a life long friend the day I first heard the strange sounds of a Texan accent coming from a guy who was wearing a t-shirt with birds on it.

Well, I’m just glad to put a good foot forward for the lone star state. Good luck Kelley, and I look forward to learning something about insects. (Oh, and do explain the name Bugs for Thugs. It’s a great story).

My Ungrateful Mother

Posted Sep 1st, 2006 at 8:22 am in Cat Blogging, Nature | Comments Off

I was so proud of myself recently. If you’re a reader of the blog, you’ll recall that I got some sweet bobcat pictures recently. People said nice things about me, and I basically felt good about myself.

bobcat kitten
bobcat kitten

But some people just have to go and ruin the fun, doing whatever it takes to crush the competition. My mother’s been a contractor at the local air force base in her town, helping with various bird related surveys. And low and behold, it seems a mother bobcat got a little too used to people and decided to take up residence near the hospital. Naturally this produced some good opportunities for pictures, and she even got an entire photo gallery of bobcat kittens in the trees! She also has video of the kittens being captured by a wildlife rehabilitator. The sweet cute little kittens become roaring lions as they’re being moved to the cage. If she ever posts it, I’ll be sure to link to it.

How, I ask you, am I supposed to compete with that? Nobody can compete with multiple bobcat kittens.

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Awww — Isn’t the Plague Cute?!

Posted Aug 24th, 2006 at 7:12 pm in Nature | 3 Comments
Mexican ground squirrel - Spermophilus mexicanus
Mexican ground squirrel
Spermophilus mexicanus

My wife has taken a job as a teacher’s aide with a local elementary, as she awaits that first real teaching job. Yesterday, a teacher had caught something on the playground and put it in a fish bowl. Taking a look at it, she asked him, “Do you know what that is?” He answered it was a ground squirrel. “Do you know what kind?” He didn’t. “I believe it’s a Mexican ground squirrel. I think the scientific name is Spermophilus mexicanus… I’m married to a biologist,” she added as way of explanation.

Spermophilus mexicanus. My heart swelled with pride. How did she learn such valuable information? I haven’t forced her to remember any taxonomy. Naturally, as any good biologist does, I use it where ever I can, mainly for myself so that I can remember. But how she remembered it, I confess, I do not know.

That evening after telling me the story, she asked if I thought there was a risk of rabies. “There certainly is,” I replied. “There’s a risk of plague too.”

My wife looked at me in surprise. Like most people probably do, she thought plague was something of the past that doesn’t affect the U.S. Though I remembered few details, I knew it was still around in the fleas of some rodents, and that each year a small number of Americans get infected.

I decided to do the most basic of research. From the CDC’s site on plague, I learned that Spermophilus mexicanus is likely a perfect vector.

Rock squirrels and their fleas are the most frequent sources of human infection in the southwestern states. For the Pacific states, the California ground squirrel and its fleas are the most common source.

What the CDC left out was the classification of those two squirrels. Spermophilus variegatus and Spermophilus beecheyi respectively. Thus they are very closely related to Mexican ground squirrel. The CDC continues:

Many other rodent species, for instance, prairie dogs, wood rats, chipmunks, and other ground squirrels and their fleas, suffer plague outbreaks and some of these occasionally serve as sources of human infection.

Now, not wanting to sound alarmist, I should note that the chances of getting infected are very low.

In the United States during the 1980s plague cases averaged about 18 per year. Most of the cases occurred in persons under 20 years of age. About 1 in 7 persons with plague died. [and elsewhere] In the U.S., 1 to 40 cases reported annually (avg = 13 cases) by western states, 1971-1995.

There also have been very few cases of plague that have turned up in Texas, though apparently God is smiting New Mexico and Arizona.

Still, it might be a good time for the teacher to let the poor critter go. Perhaps parents would feel a little better with a hamster, no?

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A Rant Against Bear Hunting and Country Music

Posted Aug 18th, 2006 at 9:59 am in Culture, Nature | 9 Comments

I’ve got a bit of confession to make. I hate country music and country musicians — with a passion. Is that fair? Probably not. Am I biased? I’d have to say so. Am I committing the cardinal sin of stereotyping a large group of people based on the actions of a few? Guilty as charged.

It’s hard not to with stories like this one. Did you hear about Troy Gentry? The guy’s being prosecuted for killing a black bear with a bow and arrow. Now I’m not opposed to hunting (though I’m a lot happier when the prey has hooves and a white-tail – technical schematic here.) So what could be so horrible to deserve prosecution for the manly action of hunting a fearsome predator with a bow and arrow?

Perhaps shooting a tame bear in a cage, then tagging it and doctoring video to make it look like you shot it in the wild… Which is what he and the ranch owner reported to the state of Minnesota.

His defense sounds like it’s going to be a real winner.

“Troy absolutely denies that he knowingly and willfully did anything illegal, and is confident that he will be exonerated,” said his Minneapolis-based attorney, Ron Meshbesher, who said Gentry has never been interviewed by authorities. “They don’t know his side of the story. He was told it was proper and legal to kill the bear.”

Don’t you love it? Words like knowingly and willfully, proper and legal. No one’s denying that poor Troy protected his family by killing the ranch pet in the cage. They just say he didn’t know it was wrong. Apparently, it’s not even the killing that was illegal. It was doctoring the tags and reporting it to the state — and that’s what prosecutors will have to show Gentry knowingly did to win a conviction.

You know, for some reason I’m not as angry at lying to the state. It’s clearly wrong, but I mean, it’s just Minnesota. It’s the killing that infuriates me. Hunters, a question: Why do people hunt with bow and arrow instead of a gun? I think I know the answer, but someone can correct me if I’m wrong. It’s a challenge, it’s a lot harder, and I can imagine that the excitement and satisfaction of taking prey with these tools is a lot greater. And I respect that.

But drawing your bow and arrow on a caged animal? I don’t give a rat’s behind if it’s legal or not. It’s shameful.

Now I have to admit that I didn’t even know who Troy Gentry was before this story. He’s half of the popular (with who?) duo Montgomery Gentry. But upon a little investigation, he quickly fit right into my stereotype of all that’s wrong with country music. For example, in an article on an upcoming album that would make Stephen Colbert very proud, the writer expresses:

This album reflects a deeper exploration of the issues Eddie Montgomery & Troy Gentry have always deemed important: family, religion & the US Armed Forces.

What else is there really?

It’s the smarminess of country music that I can’t stand. It’s the “family values” that look an awful lot like softcore pornography. (Possibly not safe for work, but incredibly educational if you’ve not flipped through CMT recently). Country music has become one more way that culture gets entwined with religion.

Now I’m not advocating that we abandon popular forms of music, including country music if that’s what you like (though your ear for music has obviously been bludgeoned beyond repair). I personally love a vast array of rock music, though I clearly recognize that some of it doesn’t share my moral values.

It’s just that I prefer my decadence to be clearly labeled as such.

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Forget the Friday Pussy Cat Blogging

Posted Aug 11th, 2006 at 11:48 am in Cat Blogging, Nature, Photography | 3 Comments

It’s time for the real deal. A cat that actually has claws. Move over Bruce. There’s a new king of the jungle (or at least west Texas mesquite scrub).

This is Lynx rufus, commonly known as the bobcat. Last week, I was out shooting pictures of prairie dogs at our local state park. One of the little turds poked his head up out of his hole and started yapping like a French poodle. Now this both confused and annoyed me because I’d been there for 30 minutes, and he hadn’t really protested my presence until just now. Little did I know he wasn’t protesting me at all.

I looked up to see a real cat walking out of the woods onto the edge of the prairie dog town. All I could think at the moment was don’t screw it up. Get the pictures. Though the light wasn’t perfect and the cat was a little distant, I sure was glad to have my camera ready.




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How Mosquitoes Find a Mate

Posted Jul 11th, 2006 at 8:45 am in Nature | Comments Off

There’s an interesting article in LiveScience on how Mosquitoes find a mate. It included this tidbit, which I found fascinating.

Scientists have long known that male mosquitoes key in on the buzzing of females to help them find a partner. But a new study finds that female mosquitoes, despite their comparatively simple antennae, are among the best listeners in the insect world.

The research also revealed how the mosquito mating commences.

When two mosquitoes approach each other—typically moving along at about 1 mph—each alters the tone of its buzzing, which is created by the wings beating at up to 600 times each second.

If the tones converge, each knows the other is a potential mate. If the tones diverge dramatically, then they learn they’re chasing a same-sex relationship that’s not apt to produce any little pests.

It is likely, the researchers say, that different mosquito species (there are about 3,000 of them around the world) employ different flight tones in order to recognize viable mates.

So not only do the two sexes have opposite tones, but, if I read that last statement correctly, researchers think that even different species have tones that would allow mates to find their own species and avoid others.

This is somewhat akin to the Hawaiian Drosophila, which have elaborate and very precise mating dances, where if the males get it even slightly wrong, the female flies off and won’t mate.

Biologists refer to these behaviors as behavioral isolation mechanisms — behaviors which isolate similar species and keeps them from mating.

These are precisely the kinds of things that I find so interesting about the natural sciences. I dislike a mosquito buzzing in my ear as much as the next guy. But it’s pretty amazing to realize there’s a lot more going on with that buzz that just flight.

Update: I just noticed that PZ Myers over at Pharyngula put up an in depth explanation of this paper on mosquito “song.” Since that LiveScience article is so sparse, it’s well worth a read.

Mouse Rides Frog in India Monsoon

Posted Jul 7th, 2006 at 9:03 am in Nature | 3 Comments

National Geographic has a picture worth seeing of a mouse riding a frog to escape the floodwaters of an Indian monsoon.

mouse rides frog

It could be the most spirited interspecies escape since The Rescuers. But unlike the 1977 Disney movie, this situation is anything but fun.

Photographed Friday in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, a mouse perches on a frog in waist-deep (for a frog, anyway) floodwaters—a small sign of the early arrival of annual summer monsoon rains.

To my eye, and I’m no mammalogist (though I did play one in undergrad), this looks like a young rat (perhaps genus Rattus?) rather than a mouse. Mouse vs Rat is a rather bad distinction that humans make based on size (we call big rodents rats and small ones mice). I’m even less familiar with old world rodents so I could well be wrong, but that’s what it looks like to me.