Monday, September 29, 2008

Migratory Patterns

::David Attenborough voice::

Today we will witness one of the greatest migrations on the Eastern Seaboard.

From my vantage point in the driver's seat of my vehicle, I will be able to observe the great herds in their seasonal movement. In enormous numbers, the vast flocks will gather at places used at this season for generations. In just a few days, they will disperse again, many of them not appearing until the next yearly migration. In the meantime, however, their sheer density will change traffic patterns for miles.

::back to myself::

In other words, I get to sit in traffic on the Belt Parkway later this afternoon. But as long as the documentary in my head keeps rolling, I think I'll be ok.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Just a Little Weevil

I love whole grains, so I keep a variety of them in miscellaneous jars and other storage vessels in a cabinet in my kitchen. I like barley in my soup, curried quinoa, fresh popcorn (no microwave needed!), steel cut oats, and other tasty grains.

Unfortunately, I'm not the only one.

While restocking our popcorn jar, I picked up a bag of barley that I had opened some weeks ago and had rolled and clipped shut. I noticed that some of the barley was... moving. Crawling, really.

This was how we found out that we had an infestation of weevils. More specifically, they were probably wheat weevils, also known as granary weevils, which are a common pest of grain. They look like this:

Unlike the giant water bugs a few months back, however, what you're seeing on your screen is far larger than lifesize. If you check out the post on Wikipedia, you'll see the length given as 3-4 mm from snout-tip to end. These are tiny little critters; they burrow into seeds, very tiny indeed!

They might be tiny, but they don't lack ambition. We found the majority in the barley, but they'd also made it into the wild rice and the oat bran. (Actually, we caught a mating pair in the act nestled in the oat bran. I'm just glad we found them before it was full of their offspring.) It's not entirely clear -- they may have simply navigated the folds of the bag -- but they may have actually chewed through the plastic to get to the barley. (It was one of those flimsy two-pound bags.)

Anyway, we transferred everything to weevil-proof glass jars and threw the infested materials in the trash.

I don't know how accurate the Wikipedia article is, although the description is true enough. (It's completely lacking in citations.) The page about the weevils as a group is fairly interesting, if brief. It's too bad that the article is so short. There are 60,000 species of weevils in the world, so such a short entry really doesn't do them justice.

Weevils are in Curculionoidea, a superfamily of Coleoptera, or beetles; there are approximately 350,000 described species of beetles total, although there may be as many as 5 million in the world. (This might sound familiar -- frustration with mammal-centrism is part of the reason I do these "Better Know an Insect" posts.) As the visualization goes, if you lined up every known species of animal at random, every fifth one would be a beetle. By comparison, there are fewer than 6000 species of mammal in the world. There are not quite 60,000 species of vertebrates. Yet the gallery for weevils has just a handful of pictures, including the very pretty palmetto weevil.

Even the Encyclopedia of Life has no information about the little granary weevil. The best you can do is the snout beetles page, which has a few nice pictures and a phylogeny but not much besides.

I'm tired and it's nearly Friday, so I'm going to end there for now... but there will be more about other kinds of beetles in the future! There are so many, I could just blog about beetles and have several years' worth of material!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Super Supper?

People who know me well are often inclined to ask my opinion about whether something is "good for me." It's an interesting question. I'm not really qualified as a nutrition scientist, food chemist, doctor, or, you know, any other professional food expert. I am a vegetarian, which has made me more aware of what I eat (and more aware about myths concerning protein, for example) but other than that, and being a voracious reader and an enthusiastic Pollangelical, I'm just an ecology graduate student.

But, usually, I have an answer. It's generally along the lines of, "Well, is it a plant? If it's a plant, eat it. If it's not a plant, just eat a little of it." For more information, I turn to the trusty rules of Pollan: does it have more than five ingredients? (Bad.) Are any of them unfamiliar? (More bad.) Are any of them unpronounceable/indistinguishable from the ingredients in your shampoo? (Very bad!)

Now, though, there are new problems. Foods that used to be totally normal foods have become... something else. Do you like sardines, for example? (Many people don't.) What if you couldn't taste them, and they were in your orange juice this morning? Would you like to have some broccoli, kale and beet salad? (Not too appetizing?) That's OK, you can get all your vegetables in a convenient chocolate bar form!

Weird, right? And yet... and yet. Superfood or Monster from the Deep?

So is that chocolate-broccoli-kale-beet bar good for me?

I hope no one asks me, I'm not really sure what to say. I'm pretty sure the answer is, "Well, it's still a chocolate bar!" but what does that even mean any more? What if it supplies all the daily requirements of certain things? I can tell you that eating a square of chocolate will not fill you up, and you'll still want a normal meal. I can tell you that if the rest of your diet is made of burgers and fries, having some antioxidants in your chocolate is probably not going to help you much.

What about having orange juice with sardines in it? Even assuming a negligible flavor difference, shouldn't orange juice have, you know, just one ingredient?

Thoughts from the gallery? I'm moderately sleep-deprived, so let me know if I lost you somewhere along the way.

Monday, September 15, 2008

14 Questions

Have you been wondering where Obama and McCain stand on important science issues? Science Debate 2008 can help. They compiled a list of fourteen general questions about important science issues and put them to each of the candidates.

You can read their full responses here. Too busy to scroll all the way down? (Or is the lack of a Web designer hurting your eyes?) Check out the summary published by the NY Times.

Note: You will not find anything about evolution or the teaching thereof in this article. It just didn't figure into the top 14 questions, I guess. I think that's sort of encouraging, but then again, the people asking the questions are scientists. Would I love to hear John McCain say something dumb about evolution? You betcha, but I don't think it's likely; in the Republican primary debates, there was the following exchange:

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or on. Do you believe in evolution?


MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree -- believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I -- may I just add to that?


SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

So, there's that. But, I also think McCain is slippery enough to try to get out of that one too, especially with what's-her-name in the game now. Gotta love how he has to qualify his acceptance (we don't like to say belief) of evolution. Also love that they work in some discussion of sustainable seafood! Anyway, now I'm going off on a tangent. Enjoy the articles!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


At night, I close my eyes and in my dreams I visit a magical land. A land that, in some ways, is much like our own... but just a little different.

Actually, I have a map... it looks like this:

Let the "keep dreaming" comments begin.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin: Heartless Lawbreaker

Hello readers, I apologize for being very quiet of late. I've been watching and reading coverage of the DNC and the RNC, pondering "change" and "hope", starting the school year, getting the full rundown of teaching assistant instruction, etc.

There are a few things I would like to point out about "moose-hunting hockey mom" (what the heck kind of demographic is a hockey mom, anyway?) Sarah Palin. Namely, that she doesn't only like to shoot big, adorable, antlered critters.

Sarah Palin likes to shoot dogs from airplanes. Specifically, these dogs:

(What, you thought I was going to work a reference to Bristol Palin's pregnancy and Sarah Palin's determination to stick to her abstinence-only, wolf-killing guns? Nah, that would be a cheap shot, no more sporting than shooting a wolf from an airplane...)

OK, yes, the dogs in question are the wild conspecifics of our cuddly canine companions. (And I am being incorrect in referring to them as dogs, since dogs are the subspecies and wolves are the species. It got your attention though!)

But that doesn't change the matter of aerial hunting. Aerial hunting is cruel, unsporting, and just plain awful. Whole packs can be shot in a short amount of time, orphaning pups back at the den. They claim to do this to increase heLinkrd numbers of deer, elk, caribou, etc. so that hunters can put more meat on the table. (In other states, wolves are shot to protect the interests of ranchers who claim that wolves kill their sheep.)

Want to see what wolf hunting looks like? Check out this video on Radar. There isn't a lot of blood, but it's not an easy video to watch all the same. Oh, and so you know, Sarah Palin broke the law (again!) when she offered a bounty on wolves. There was a law against putting bounties on various critters, including wolves. And she broke it by offering $150 per pair of fresh forelegs of a wolf. That seems pretty clear (and pretty grim) to me. (And now they want to go after black bears...)

Do you really want another Vice President with no discernible compassion, no respect for the law, and no regard for the environment? Haven't these last eight years been enough of that?