Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shark Ballet

Continuing a week of "I'm too busy to post about stuff myself, so here are some interesting animals to look at instead."...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water around South Africa...

Great White Sharks -- Planet Earth

There are many, many documentaries on sharks. Discovery has a whole week of them, for cryin' out loud. People love the bloody, violent footage of sharks mangling their prey, attacking cages, and generally being eating machines.

But -- this one is a real standout among all the millions of hours of shark footage out there. The high-speed camera allows the producers to slow down the action so we can see a 20 foot great white fully out of the water, gracefully suspended in the air. It's haunting, and beautiful. Instead of showing the blood and gore that we typically associate with feeding sharks, we see the power, the elegance, and the sheer strength behind the teeth.

Damien Hurst wishes he could make it look so good.
Interestingly, recent studies have suggested that great whites are actually somewhat social creatures that have developed ranking hierarchies, communication via body language, and other traits that we typically think of as "advanced." Natural History did a cover story on it a little while back, and it's a great read -- plus, more fantastic photos of sharks leaping out of the water! Some of the behaviors they describe may sound familiar; you've probably seen bison or other large mammals perform very similar ones, and for similar reasons. There's a lot more going on in the deep sea than we thought!

Oh, and they're curious, have distinct personalities, and don't appear to care for the taste of human. So if they come up and nibble on you, it's only because they're not sure what you are. Reassuring, no?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Great Moments in Documentaries

I love nature documentaries. I can't get enough. I watch everything that the BBC sends us as well as Nova, most of the Discovery Channel, and more. Deserts, deep ocean, mountain peaks, rain forest, it's all good to me.

But sometimes, there are moments that really stand out from the pack, that really make you sit up and take notice. This clip is one of my absolute favorites. The first time I saw it, I had to rewind several times to get the full impact.

The Dance of the Red-Capped Manikin

One smooth mover.

This is from a Nature miniseries on PBS; the episode was "Deep Jungle". The whole program was fascinating but this was by far the best moment.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Minor Mental Meltdown

Hello readers (or other visitors looking for pics of Johnny Depp),

Just so you know, blogging this week might be a touch on the sporadic/incoherent side. I have two papers to finish writing this week. But lucky you, I might actually post on the topics of my papers after I finish them, because I happen to think they're really interesting! (Then again, I also think Trivers-Willard is interesting, but I might be the only one.) If you like "Better Know an Insect" you'll like them, how about that?

If you're looking for fun things to read, check out my "Favored Links", they're good fun and will keep you busy.

Stay tuned, next week I'll have an update on our garden, Things You Didn't Know About Ants, atrocious puns, rumination, speculation, meditation, and more!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jurassic Peck

This morning was notable in that (among other things) it was the first time I've been bitten by a dinosaur hard enough to draw blood.

I'll start at the beginning.

As part of my course on field ID of birds, our field excursion today was to our professor's house to mist net for birds. A mist net is a very fine-gauge nylon net that, when properly hung up and stretched taut, is nearly invisible to birds. The nets we were using were for small birds; catching the resident turkeys takes considerably more than a mist net!

Step 1: Hang up mist nets and go away for a while.

Step 2: Come back and check out the catch of the day.

A little help here?

The little cutie in the net there is a tufted titmouse, henceforth a "tuftie". Tufties are related to the chickadees. They can hang upside-down from branches while foraging, they're fun to watch at feeders, and they can open sunflower seeds by hammering on them with their bills.

The next step is to disentangle the bird from the mist net. All you need to do is gently loop all the little openings in the net over the various limbs and head of the bird, coaxing it out while retaining a firm but gentle grip on it. After all, they are small and very delicate. Be gentle and it should be relatively painless.

The question is... for who?

Getting a screaming, angry tuftie out of a net is a pain in the hands. As in, the damn thing bit mine AND WOULD NOT LET GO. You know the webbed part of your hand, between your thumb and index finger? Imagine a beak that is meant for cracking hard seeds has just gotten your hand into its mouth and you cannot do a damn thing to convince it to let go. The upper bill is slightly decurved, which means that simply pulling your hand out of its mouth will cost you a piece of hand.

Now, imagine that it finally does let go, and begins using that strong, pointy beak to hammer down on the back of your thumb knuckle, which is the closest piece of flesh to its face, but there's no way of holding the bird without exposing something to it, and this is the best option. Oh, and did I mention that they can hang upside-down? That's because they have very strong feet with very sharp claws. And the thing is... if you let go of the bird for a second, they have a tendency to get themselves more caught up in the net than before, prolonging the time the two of you get to spend together. Also they're noisy little critters, and they don't stop yammering the entire time they're biting you.

So your best option, really, is to swear like Calamity Jane on a bad day, adjust your grip, and remember that you weigh approximately 2600 times as much as it does.

Was it worth it? Look at this photo -- that's my hand!!

Deceptively cute!

It's just like they always say, a bird in hand is worth being pecked and bitten! (Something like that anyway.)

The other birds we banded were not *nearly* so quarrelsome as the tufties. We had a total of two robins, three tufties, and four or five white-throated sparrows.

Untangling a sparrow.

Once you have the bird in hand, it does actually get pretty easy. Even the angry little tufties calm down a good bit when they're out of the net and in your hand. The next step is, naturally, to actually band the bird. You pry open a tiny aluminum ring, record the number on it, and close it again so that it just hangs on the leg of the bird.

Haha, we've got you now!

After you've banded the bird, you let it go. It's that easy. If we were doing a study of bird diseases, bird health, or anything like that, we might take a blood sample, weigh the bird, take a few measurements, etc., but today was just a banding day.

Nice sparrow picture.

Sparrow showing off his leg band.

One of the robins after banding.

The way we released the birds was by holding them on their backs and slowly opening our fingers. Some of them fly off almost immediately, but not all... occasionally they need to "take a moment" before getting back to what they were doing before they got all tangled up. Watch in this video as Jay releases a bird! (Don't bother adjusting your speakers; there isn't any sound. My camera only takes silent movies. Just imagine the sound of wings flapping.)

So, aside from the fact that my knuckle still hurts, this morning was amazing. Birds are so tiny -- sometimes we forget how little there is under all the feathers. Feeling their hearts beating in your hand is amazing. They're so fragile and so beautiful. And yet despite their size they will stand up to you and let you know exactly how they feel about being deceived, ensnared, and manhandled. Marvelous little creatures.

PS: Don't believe me that I was bitten by a dinosaur? Read this... geneticists have finally agreed with what we've already known for a while!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eat More, Make Boy Babies

It's always a nice thing when things I learned about in Animal Behavior class come back and may actually *gasp* apply to humans!

Boy or Girl? The Answer May Depend on Mom's Eating Habits

A little background: I can't find the reference right now, but a few years ago I read about a study that showed that mating success among male red deer (I think it was red deer) was directly correlated with how much they were fed as fawns. Only a fraction of the males in a population -- the biggest and most impressive -- will mate. However, since these males get all the mating opportunities, their mothers' genes are spread through many grand-fawns. This is good for grandma deer, since her fitness goes up every time her son reproduces.

On the other hoof, a wimpy son won't get to reproduce at all, effectively halting the spread of grandma deer's genes through the population. When times are tight, it makes more sense for a doe to produce a female fawn, because most females, even ones that didn't quite get enough to eat as babies, will reproduce at least once or twice in their lifetimes if they make it to adulthood. She might only get one or two grand-fawns, but this is a lot better than none at all.

At least, that was the hypothesis. But the researchers checked out the sex ratios of deer during good and bad years... and found exactly what they had predicted. Remember, deer are mammals too, and have the same kind of X-Y determination that we have. But females can control, to a certain extent, the sex of their offspring. That is pretty freakin' amazing, in and of itself.

And that's what they're referring to (at least partially, I think this has been found in other organisms as well) in the last line of this article. If it really does happen in humans, we wouldn't expect to see a radical skewing because we still have a genetic component and I would guess we don't want heavily skewed ratios. But we might expect to see a slight change in the ratios, which we do. Your body doesn't know that there is a lot of food in the world or that you want to be a size 6; all it knows is what you put into it. Skip breakfast? Times must be lean; better make a girl. Hearty breakfast? Excellent chances of producing a dominant male -- make it a boy! If I remember correctly, our closest relatives do have dominance hierarchies with top males getting most of the matings (although I think there are opportunities for other males to breed as well), so this isn't coming from out of left field, evolutionarily speaking.

I have to wonder what the implications of this study might be. Moms in China having big breakfasts to increase chances at boys? Women who want daughters skipping meals? What if parents want different sexes? Will fathers be able to say, "You're not eating enough, you're trying to deprive me of a son!" I don't know what the end result will be -- after all, it's a small study. There are still so many things that are unanswered. What is the mechanism for this kind of sex determination? As some comments on the post have pointed out, how does the father's health figure into this equation? It should be an interesting area of research for years to come.

Edit: OK, here's some more info. What I'm talking about is the Trivers-Willard hypothesis. I realize that Wikipedia isn't a great source, but not everyone will be able to access the original paper at JSTOR. (Also, they were talking about caribou, not red deer. My bad.) Oh, and the Wikipedia article also includes a citation about primates, although they're macaques and not great apes. There's also this article at BioOne titled
"Maternal Diet and Other Factors Affecting Offspring Sex Ratio: A Review." If you want to try to find it through your own institution, here's the rest of the info: Rosenfeld & Roberts, Biology of Reproduction, Volume 71, Issue 4 (October 2004).

PS [dang, I wish I had a timestamp]: EVEN MORE info from the
Science website, but this should be accessible to everyone for the next few weeks. But they mention Trivers-Willard as well, so I was on the right track before and therefore I am not crazy, I am just a bio geek. Yay biology!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Worms are a Girl's Best Friend

You know what would look great in my apartment?

A composter full of worms, of course.

Since we live in an apartment, a regular compost bin is basically out of the question. We have neither space nor dirt enough to run it properly. But a worm composter is a little easier. Instead of waiting for microbes to break down your vegetable scraps in a matter of weeks, worms can do it in a few days. Also, worms are way cuter than microbes.

If you as fascinated by compost as I am, you might want to check out this article about choosing a composter (granted, it's written by a store, but it seemed helpful) before you decide. For apartments like mine, they recommend something like the Worm Chalet. (Makes you think of little worms in ski boots, sitting around the fireplace, sipping après-ski cocktails, right?)

Also, here's an article about composting in the city. Not as sexy as Sex and the City, but ultimately way more useful.

The only downside is that they do their magic best when kept warm... so they would have to come inside for the winter. Dustin feels that worms are outdoor pets, so until we have a spare utility closet we might have to wait. Oh well, a girl can dream of worm farming, can't she?

Blog Update

Hello readers,

I have some exciting news: my wonderful and loving fiancé has given me what every girl really wants. That's right -- I have my own domain name! So exciting! What does this mean? Well, you can continue to come to my blog at, OR you can now view my blog at:

Yay! I have a domain! Maybe one day there will be other content there as well, but for now it's just a redirect to this site. Ready, set, update your bookmarks!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Bother?

Michael Pollan wrote an article for the NYTimes magazine this week. What, you thought I wouldn't post it? I was saving it for Earth Day!

Why bother?

In brief: plant a garden, it's good for you, it's good for the planet, and it will give you food.

I am excited to say that Dustin and I are trying to plant a garden this year. We're starting small -- a few sugar snap pea, tomato, and jalepeno plants, and some pots of herbs. Since we don't have any land, we have to fit everything on our balcony, and we've never done this before. So far so good, though. Everything is sprouting nicely. The tomatoes shot up in two days, the peppers , basil, and cilantro followed after about a week, and we're finally starting to see some pea shoots and tiny parsley seedlings. It's all very exciting. We even play them death metal on occasion. Photos to follow, as soon as I take some.


Things that are Unique

The Mona Lisa


Our Beautiful Planet

... so let's do what we can to keep it healthy!

Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Blechs" Prize

PETA Offers $1 Million For Test-Tube Meat

Putting aside whether or not this goes against PETA's mission statement... eww. Meat grown in a test tube actually sounds kind of gross. I mean, part of what makes meat good is the texture, right? Muscles need to be used to develop that texture; I don't think there's a way to make muscles without all the support structure that goes with them, and once you start building that... well, why don't you just raise cattle?

But the bigger picture is more disturbing. No matter how much it may discomfit PETA to think about it, this process is going to require energy. Cows and chickens ultimately get most of their energy from the sun, which is free. Laboratories are generally not solar powered, which means more fossil fuel consumption than producing beef the old-fashioned way, most likely. I really don't think this is the solution.

PS: Someone is going to remind me that fossil fuels are also mostly solar energy, which is true. But they're and indirect form, I'm talking about a two-step process: plants make sugars and starches, cows/people/insects eat sugars and starches to sustain life.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Free Rice

See the link to the left? (It's below the saiga antelope.) Click on it to play the best vocabulary-building game ever. Every time you get a word correct, they donate 20 grains of rice. Might not be the most effective way of donating food, but it's really addictive. So far my best level is 49. (Max is 55, I'm still trying to get there.)

In case you're interested, a cup of rice contains approximately 7200 grains. (I know that that's a fact because I found it on the Internet!) So get clicking, you just need to get 360 words right to get there. That isn't very many, and it goes by fast!

Smoking Guns and Drunken Logic

Today is April 18!

You know what that means, right?

Today's the day Expelled opens nationwide!

The Times has a brief and scathing review.

From the review, it sounds like Ben Stein listened to Billy Flynn: "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle, razzle-dazzle 'em... Long as you keep 'em way of balance, how can they spot you've got no talents?"

You're just a bagel, Ben. And your arguments are like a piece of Swiss cheese -- nutty and full of holes.

PS: I couldn't bear to post a picture of Ben Stein's smug face on my blog, so I put up a picture of Mr. D. instead. He looks displeased about the movie too.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quick Rant

I am so tired of being told that my wedding dress is the most important dress I'll ever wear. Yeah, it's important. But let's say I was in a field in which the Nobel Prize was awarded (come on Nobel committee, there's more to biology than medicine!), and I somehow manage to win one, and I go to Sweden and wear a formal evening gown and look fabulous while accepting my prize. Isn't that gown ALSO important?

I actually really like wedding planning stuff, most of it has been pretty fun so far, but I am SO TIRED of the hyperbole! Bands do it, stationers do it, photographers do it, magazines do it. Yes, it is an important and significant milestone in my life. BUT it is not a reason to abuse the English language within an inch of its life. For example, one band told me that they would end my party on the highest possible note. Yeah. OUCH.

I just wish they would stop the terrible writing. It actually makes me less likely to like you when you can't use the word "literally" correctly to save your life. Literally is the opposite of figuratively, not a synonym... thus no one is going to be "literally dancing on air" or whatever. If they were, that would be some pretty sweet advanced technology! (Human-sized air hockey sounds like a GREAT idea for a wedding reception!)

Godzilla does not like high notes either.

Ok, I'm done now.


10 Reasons to Rent "Life in the Undergrowth"

Rent it! D. and I just watched the last episode a few weeks ago. It is amazing. It was far too short, in my opinion, for all the diversity of creepy-crawlies out there, but it was nonetheless an astonishing nature documentary.

There are actually eleven good reason to rent it. Check out these ten video clips that the producers considered the highlights of the series.

(Don't worry, they're short, but if you're really pressed for time, the slugs mating, the feather-legged bug, and the titan beetle are my favorites. Oh and the bees. Check out the bees!)

The eleventh reason? This man:

Sir David, with friend.

Sir David Attenborough -- do you need any more reasons to watch anything? Go rent it now! I know for sure that Netflix has it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


OK, let's get something straight here. I am fond of 18th century-style pirating. Not 21st century style pirating.

Jack does not approve of whaling, unless whales are full of rum!

BUT! I am incredibly excited about eco-pirates, or "pirates of compassion" as they style themselves.

Green Pirates Claim Victory

It's really sad that countries I otherwise have no real problems with (Canada, Japan) insist on maintaining these out-of-date marine mammal hunts. Whaling is so nineteenth century! But it seems like the pirates did a fantastic job; the Japanese whaling ships were only able to take about half the number of whales they had set out to brutally slaughter, and none of those were fin or humpback whales. It's still a few hundred whales too many for my tastes, but still -- a good thing for cetacean-kind!

Jumping for joy!

Victory via coconut cream. That has got to be the best pirate I've ever seen!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Godwin's Law: The Movie

A new movie is coming out this Friday called Expelled. It claims to present evidence that intelligent design (aka creationism) is being pushed out of academia despite being well-supported and a good alternative to evolution. Oh, and it also links Darwin to Hitler.


It is propaganda and lies, pure and simple, which is why I'm not actually linking to the movie's web page. (Learn more here.) I actually had this quandary a few weeks ago, and here comes Pharyngula with a solution to my problem! I couldn't bear to link to the actual movie page and boost their Google ranking, but I couldn't just let Ben Stein and his pseudoscience slide under the radar entirely. NCSE to the rescue!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Move, Whales, Get Out the Way!

Humans to whales: "Can't you move it any faster?"

Even the Whales Have Their Predators: Ships

Not much to say here except that I'm rethinking what I said about not hating people. Even the whalewatch boats don't want to slow down!

Short post tonight because blogging isn't my job, being a student is my job!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Giant Water Bug

Like, OMG, I have been totally vertebrate-ing out here. Hares, tortoises... humans!

Let's get back to bugs, eh?

Today's subject happens to be the topic for my insect behavior class tomorrow: the giant water bugs.
Depending on your monitor, this might be life-sized!

Things you should know about the giant water bug:
  • There are several genera that are referred to as "giant water bugs."
  • Really not kidding about that "giant" part, some can be almost five inches long! (Oh, and they fly!)
  • They have one of the most painful bites out of all the insects. (Rated on a different scale from hymenopteran stings, however.)
  • They're true bugs (order Hemiptera) and as such have cool sucking mouthparts. They're predators and inject digestive enzymes into their prey to liquefy them, and then suck out the contents like soup.
  • They really earn the #1 DAD mug every year.
Wait, what? #1 Dad? What's going on here?

Giant water bugs in the genus Abedus are one of the few insects that demonstrate paternal parental care. (Say that five times fast!) After repeated matings (to assure paternity), the female lays her eggs on the back of the male who fertilized them.

He takes care of them for a fortnight or so, even though they may weigh up to four times more than he does. He makes sure they get enough oxygen by "brood pumping", which is to say that he rocks forward and backward to move them through the water. Eventually, towards the end of their development, they encumber his breathing apparatus to the point that he needs to park himself on a plant and stay close to the surface until they hatch.

Furthermore, mama water bugs and unencumbered males will eat any first instar (just after hatching) nymphs that they can get their grasping appendages on, but dads brooding eggs will not eat nymphs. It's not all bad-parent good-parent though; if times are tough, the male will remove the eggs from his back and eat them before moving on to find a better habitat. Mm, embryo-licious!

I hope you've enjoyed these installments of "Better Know an Insect (or Other Arthropod)." I think I'll keep doing them, because they're really fun! I'll probably cut down to once a week or so from now on, but I will keep the series going. Thanks for reading!

PS: You'd probably love to know what my sources are, wouldn't you? Click this link to a Google search for the genus and the author, and prepare to immerse yourself (ha!) in water bug literature. The papers I read today are:
  • Smith, R. L., 1976. Male brooding behavior of the water bug Abedus herberti. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 69:740-747.
  • Smith, R. L., 1979. Paternity assurance and altered roles in the mating behavior of a giant water bug, Abedus herberti. Animal Behaviour 27:716-725.
  • Smith, R. L., 1979. Repeated copulation and sperm precedence: paternity assurance for a male brooding water bug. Science 205:1027-1031.
Borrow your local academic's library subscription if you want to read them... or just ask me for the PDFs. They're really interesting and fun to read!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Tortoise and the Hare

This morning I volunteered at Run for the Woods, the EcoGSA's spring 5K to benefit Helyar Woods. I'm not a runner (I think I've mentioned my knees), so I was staffed at a tricky part of the course, guiding runners and making sure they stayed on track.

Standing about in the woods on a beautiful morning left me plenty of time to think. I was thinking about races in general, and Aesop's story about a tortoise and a hare, and I wondered: what's the difference between a turtle and a tortoise or a rabbit and a hare?

I'm pretty sure I can outrun this guy.

First, tortoises. Tortoises are a kind of turtle; specifically, the kind that lives on land, eats plants, and can't swim. (Although they can float. Maybe.) All of the tortoises are in the family Testudinidae, in the order Testudines. As far as I can tell from Wikipedia and from Vertebrate Life (one of my favorite textbooks!), they seem to be a "good group;" that is, they are all descended from one slow ancestor. I can't seem to find anything called a tortoise that is not in Testudinidae. Which is actually not what I was expecting to find; I had been under the impression that tortoise was a catch-all term for turtles that live on land. Interesting! So, tortoises are a kind of turtle.

Definitely not this guy.

Hares, on the other hand, are not a kind of rabbit. Rabbits and hares, along with pikas, are all in the order Lagomorpha. Lagomorphs, in turn, are not rodents; they're the sister order to rodents, and are thus closely related, but there are significant differences between the two. Rabbits and hares are both in the family Leporidae, but the "true hares," again, as far as I can tell via Wikipedia, are all in the genus Lepus. (Which is a very large genus.) There are other lagomorphs also called hares, but they are in other genera. So... what does this mean for rabbits and hares? I'm pretty sure it would be wrong to say that all hares are rabbits, or that all rabbits are hares. Both of them are lagomorphs, and some of the common names seem to be arbitrary. (Jackrabbits are actually in Lepus, for example, making them hares despite their common name.)

This is why I like scientific names. All of the lagomorphs in Lepus are more closely related to each other than to any lagomorphs in Sylvilagus, whether you call them hares, jackrabbits, bunnies, cottontails, or Peter.

Aesop should have called it "The Testudine and the Lepus," just to clear things up a ... hare.

I hate puns. I am not a punny rabbit... damn.

PS: Three interesting things to know about hares:
  1. Those big ears aren't just good for hearing; they help the hare radiate body heat and cool off.
  2. Hares give birth above ground, rather than in nests like other lagomorphs. To compensate for this, their babies are precocial, meaning that they have fur, their eyes are open, and they can run soon after birth. Most other lagomorphs are born in burrows and are altricial, that is, blind, naked, and helpless.
  3. Hares can hit top speeds of 45 miles per hour!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Feeding the World

Right. I said last month that I am not a vegangelical, and I stand by that.

But it needs to be said.

Stop eating meat.

Despite the fact that I am an animal lover, I am not saying this to spare the cute 'n' cuddlies. The simple fact is that we are running out of grain, and eating animals is an inefficient use of grain, and although I sometimes don't like people, it doesn't mean I want a massive food crisis to hit around the globe. It takes 700 calories of grain to produce 100 calories of cow. I don't know about you, but 14% efficiency, to me, is WAY too low.

Some recent reading material:

Grains Gone Wild -- Paul Krugman's editorial from a few days ago.

Farmer's Spurn Conservation Program -- Science/Business Times this week.

First one is straightforward, just read it. Second article... well, do we want to eat or do we want to worry about the birds, as the baker says? Why can't we do both? Cattlemen have the answer:
“This program is taking money out of your pocket twice a day,” said Jay Truitt, vice president for government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Do you think it’s right for you to pay so there’s more quail in Kansas?"

The cattlemen and bakers argue that farmers should immediately be allowed to take as much as nine million acres out of the Conservation Reserve without paying a penalty, something they say would not harm the environment.
Of course the cattlemen want more land out of the conservation program, they need it to feed their meat-producing machinery. What if I want to pay for the land in Kansas? It doesn't matter to me if the price of beef goes up, but it does matter to me if there is less land available for our native birds. (And who made a bunch of bakers and cattlemen experts on what would or would not harm the environment? Probably the same group that decided airlines could monitor themselves.)

Further, one of the demands on the food system is that countries that traditionally haven't eaten much meat (looking at you, China) are starting to adopt American-styles diets, full of beefy goodness. So, as though Americans weren't enough of a strain by themselves, people around the world now want to eat the way we do. And there just isn't enough land to support that lifestyle.

We're not going to get any more land. We have one planet, and that's it.

There's really only one solution. Stop eating meat. It's the easiest thing you can do today to save the world.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Two Stories, One High School Student

Matthew LaClair is a troublemaker.

Last year, he brought a law suit against his high school (in New Jersey!) for a history teacher's utter failure to make the separation between church and state in the classroom. He secretly taped the teacher saying things like, "only Christians had a place in heaven, that the Big Bang and evolution theories were not scientific and that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark." (Did I mention that I live in New Jersey too?)

Other than the fact that I'm still getting over this sort of thing happening in New Jersey (!), there are two sentences I find alarming in this article. First: "After the tapes became public, Matthew received a death threat and was shunned and bullied by some of his classmates, he has said." Wow. It's unbelievable to me that his actions would actually be cause for people to shun someone. If this had happened in my high school, I'm pretty sure we would have thrown him a parade.

Second: "In the fall, the board reprimanded the teacher and later adopted a policy barring students from taping in class without a teacher’s permission." I find this vaguely unsettling. What if another teacher is saying wildly inappropriate things in the classroom? How can students prepare themselves to keep church out of school if the school makes rules against what Mr. LaClair did? Very shady if you ask me.

Anyway. Sometimes you don't need a tape; the evidence is already written down and published.

You can't keep a good rabble-rouser down, and he's causing some more trouble in history class. This time, his beef is with a textbook that plays down the causes and impacts of global warming. (For example, although millions of people might lose their homes as coastlines are flooded, they won't have to pay as much for heating! Yay!)

Whether you agree with him or not, this guy deserves a lot of credit for standing up to The Man. Freethinking is not taught in most high schools; anyone who comes away with that particular skill is likely to be self-taught. Mr. LaClair, I salute you.

Better Know an Arthropod: Giant Isopod

Have you ever turned over a rock and watched the little creatures that go scurrying away? Under your average rock in New Jersey you'll probably find a centipede or two, a millipede, a variety of insects like ants and beetles, and a few rolly-pollies. Pillbugs. Woodlice. Whatever you want to call them, they're sort of cute, greyish little things that roll up in a ball if you poke at them.

Imagine, if you will, what that would look like if it were light purple, 14 cm long, weighed over a kilo and a half, and lived in the ocean.

Turns out, you don't have to imagine too hard. It would look like this.

What does a beastie of such proportions eat, you might wonder? Fish? Octopi? CHILDREN?

Nah... they're noshers.

Apparently, in Taiwan they're served in restaurants and taste like crab. EXTREME CHEESE flavored crab, in this case.

They're pretty much harmless to humans, being slow-moving deep-sea scavengers and all, but you should avoid looking them directly in their highly reflective, compound eyes.

Not photoshopped!

They can see into your soul, and they will know if you are hiding Doritos from them. Oh yes, they will know.

PS: If you want a t-shirt featuring a giant isopod, get one here! (Third one down.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cute Animals!

Really! Cute animals! Awww... who doesn't love an adorable hippo? No insects in this post, I promise.

Better Know an Insect: On Second Thought...

You really don't want to better know these.

Actually, stay as far away from them as you can. The Five Most Horrifying Bugs in the World

I have to kind of agree with them on all counts, too. Notice how all but one are hymenopterans.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Beatrice

Meet Beatrice. Beatrice was truly an exquisite little creature. She is surely gone to the great garden in the sky now, but she lived in a tank (ok, actually a file box) in our apartment for three days last October.

For my insect anatomy & physiology class, we had to collect some insects for dissection. I had already caught more than I needed (I still have some of the insects I didn't use in a jar on my desk, to remind me not to take life needlessly) when I found Beatrice hiding in a tangle of vines.

She was so astonishingly beautiful (even if her kind is an invasive species) that I knew I couldn't let my classmates find her. I borrowed a jar to keep her in and brought her home with me instead.

I tried to make her comfortable in a file box full of plant matter. (She coordinated with it beautifully.) I fed her whatever insects I could. Strangely, although we almost never get insects besides fruit flies in our apartment, while Beatrice was with me I found two large shield bugs on the screen door to our balcony. I fed both of them to her. She seemed to like them.

Watching her eat was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. (Including the time I saw a snake eat a mouse while hiking in New Mexico!) Mantids are ambush predators, so she would hold very very still and orient towards her prey, whether it was a stink bug, an injured satyr butterfly, or any of the other prey I supplied. Watching her triangular head turn to face her prey could have been science fiction. Once she was within striking distance, her forelegs would shoot out, delivering a crushing blow with the sharp spines on the inside of the grasping section. Then she would eat.

I could write poetry about the delightfulness of insect mouthparts. Humans are so limited. We have a single jaw that goes up and down. With a little thought we can go side to side, a bit. And that's it. Insect mouthparts are derived from appendages, which is why they come in pairs. Several pairs, actually. In addition to the mandibles, which are often the most visible, they have several other pairs that taste the food, help process it, and push it into the opening of the mouth. They are complex, tiny, and fascinating to watch.

Mantids are what we technically call "chewing" predators, which is to say, they eat the whole damn thing, exoskeleton and all. ("Sucking" predators turn the insides of their prey to soup and suck it out through straw-like mouthparts, discarding the exoskeleton when they finish; the true bugs do this.) Beatrice took dainty little bites (owing to her mouth being relatively small for her body) but she was certainly quick. Watching her eat a caterpillar reminded me of how I would approach a baguette, if no one was looking: hold it in both hands, take a big bite out of the middle, and eat through the middle first. Chew up one side until it was gone, then the other. Lick fingers.

Beatrice was as fastidious as a cat. After eating, she would meticulously groom every spine on her grasping legs. She even cleaned her eyes at one point (possibly after the butterfly, which no doubt covered her in little wing scales).

Eventually I felt that I couldn't keep Beatrice indoors any longer -- not when October was continuing in such glorious fashion. I returned to the garden when we first met and set her down on a patch of flowers, knowing that visiting bees and butterflies would supply her with plenty of food. I wanted her to live out her last week or two in her natural habitat, so that next spring there will be more baby mantids out there to find.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Hissing Cockroach

As promised, more critters!

This beauty is a Madagascar hissing cockroach. This one is a male. I borrowed him and a female (henceforth "Hissy" and "Missy") from my friend Eugene earlier this semester for a class project.

You can tell this little guy is a male by the large horns (bumps) on his pronotum. (The pronotum is the part that looks like a shield over his head.) Females are much smoother.

As you might expect for something that is roughly snack-sized for a lot of creatures, hissers are not fond of being lifted. When you pick them up, they flatten against the ground as best they can and expel air through a series of tubes in their abdomens. This creates a loud hissing sound -- and even when you expect it to happen, it can still startle you! Missy wasn't particularly prone to hissing -- I couldn't get a peep out of her -- but Hissy up there was not fond of being lifted and hissed at me repeatedly before I got him up.

Once you pick them up, though, they're very happy to sit for pictures. (I suspect that they liked how warm my hands are; they're tropical and my apartment doesn't frequently reach 85 degrees!) Their legs are strong and they can hold on to almost anything. Eugene says that they can climb glass, and I definitely saw them climbing the walls of their plastic tanks.

They also constantly test the air. In the photo you can see that Hissy's antennae are blurry; that's because he was moving them constantly despite the rest of him being completely still. It's important for potential snacks to know what's going on!

I hope you like my hisser photo. Tomorrow I'll post some pictures of Beatrice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


It bothers me. Yeah. That's right. I'm tired of cute, fuzzy, cuddly critters. (Except that saiga antelope. Man that thing is crazy looking!)

Vegetarian Times has put its April 2008 edition online as a free trial of online magazines, which is actually pretty cool, except that you can get all of their recipes online anyway. (Part of the reason I stopped subscribing.) But the image that goes with the article on p. 68 really irks me. The article is called "Eat for Change" and that's all well and good, but there are way too many mammals. Aside from the female human in the picture, there is a rabbit (which looks like a white lab rabbit, including makeup!), a skunk, a deer, and a squirrel (also wearing makeup, apparently this is the one Eddie Izzard met). There are two birds and two butterflies.


I realize that my idea of "cute" might not be the same as anyone else's (yes, I did bring home a pair of cockroaches one time, and yes, I did start to find them sort of adorable) but what about, at least, other attractive vertebrates? There are some lovely lizards and fishies out there, not to mention the sheer cuteness of frogs.

But even including more vertebrates is, well... besides the point. We're the minority, folks. The insects have us, tarsi-down. There are more species of beetle than there are of vertebrates several times over. More than half of known animal species are insects.

For the rest of this week, and all next week, I'm going to post about interesting insects and other non-vertebrates. Let's call it "Get to Know Your Neighbors" week-and-a-half. Interesting critters live all around us, if we're open to seeing them. For example, leaf-cutter ants mostly live in the tropics, but one species lives as far north as New Jersey! I'll write more about leaf-cutters in a post of their own, though -- those minuscule farmers deserve it.

In the meantime, here's a picture of a pair of frangipani hornworm (aka tetrio sphinx moth) caterpillars that I took in St. John.

My hand is actually right next to that caterpillar; I am not using Peter Jackson's camera techniques. They grow to be six inches in length and can eat up to three leaves a day; one clutch can defoliate a frangipani (plumeria) tree in very little time. They might look fat and succulent, but I wouldn't recommend eating them; some of them sequester toxins from their food sources. However, another theory is that they're also mimicking the coloration of a coral snake, which is highly venomous. Either way, they're pretty spectacular larvae! (You can see the little horn on their abdomens in this picture; it looks like a little hair.)

Enjoy the hornworms. More insects tomorrow!

Chatham cod

Before I launch into this post, I just want to clarify: I do not eat bacon (or any other meat for that matter), and I do not want a gas-guzzling atrocity like a stretch Hummer as my wedding transportation. Check the date stamp, people. NEVER trust anything I tell you on April 1.

Today being April 2, however, feel free to believe away.

I don't know why the Times hasn't just combined the Dining & Wine section with the Science section. It seems like every week there are new articles about food and ecology, which, of course, are basically the same thing. (You said so yourselves, in my poll last week.) Last time it was salmon trouble. This week, it's cod and herring.

This is a cod. They don't start out as fish sticks.

Not a lot of new things to tell you about here. Same old story: we caught too many fish, the stock plummeted, we stopped catching them, they're doing better but still not great, and part of the problem is that we forgot to take into account that no species of fish exists in a vacuum. We (humans) are particularly fond of fish that eat other fish, so when the numbers of the prey fish drop, so do the ones we like to eat. Yay ecology.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Wedding Transportation

For our wedding next June, we'll definitely need some transportation for the wedding party. Limos are so old-fashioned; what I really want (and since I'm the bride I get what I want!) is something that says, "We're young, we're fun, we know how to party!"

What ride could say that better than this?

I even like the zebra stripes; it definitely lets you know that I'm both a nature lover AND a party animal! (See what I did there? Ha!) But seriously, this thing would be great for a safari, I bet lions would come up to it and try to take a bite, and then we'd get some excellent closeup photos. But anyway, it would also totally coordinate with the men's tuxes and stuff. Yeah!


Mmm. What can I say? I love bacon.

The smell of smoked meat... the crispiness of the fat and the chewy meat, the saltiness that's so delicious when combined with a pancake and maple syrup. There is no food more sublime than a plateful of bacon.

Look at the way the meat and fat alternate in beautiful stripes. Notice the gentle undulations of each strip, harmoniously piled together just so to make a veritable sea of smoked pork. If I may quote Pulp Fiction briefly, "Bacon tastes good." Yes! It's true! Bacon is delicious, and there are no two ways about that.