The Myth of Monarch Migration

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Monarchs in Pacific Grove California (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Do They Really Travel That Far?

Right now, Autumn, is the time of Monarch Butterfly migration. You can see monarchs languidly gliding on the cool fall air against a backdrop of colorful leaves and scattered pumpkins. When I lived along the coasts of Delaware I loved to see the monarchs cross the dunes on fall winds. This brings me to one of the most common misconceptions about monarch migration, which is  that it's one butterfly that makes the entire trip North and South for migration.

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Teaching Climate Change through Prehistoric Leaves

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Leaves Tell the Story of Climate Change

In a previous post I provided a list of climate change resources for those interested in knowing more about climate change, and for those who may be needing resources for teaching about it. In today's post I want to share with you another great resource.

One of my favorite types of lessons, in and out of the classroom, involves real world applied science, which integrates fields that might once have seemed diametrically opposed. The folks in Smithsonian Education have created a wonderful lesson plan all about the research of Scott Wing, an SI paleontologist, whose work focuses on paleobotany, climate change, and leaf-margin analysis of fossil leaves from about 55 million years ago. This is a free curriculum, complete with lessons and background materials, that can be found online. It's aimed at middle school students, though it could be adapted for high school.

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Ugly Animals of North America: It's Time to Celebrate Ugly

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California condor (Photo: Wiki commons).

 

Ugly Animal Gallery

Sometimes it's fun to just go off the rails and post something completely different. Today, I bring you a gallery of under appreciated animals of North America. Some may call them ugly, but they are all an important part of their relative ecosystems.

However, there's no getting around the fact that these critters won't win a beauty contest. I did have to make some tough choices here, but I went mostly with animals that I would think of as "ugly" and not scary or frightening. If I missed any, feel free to e-mail me!

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Animal Skull ID: Identifying Animal Skulls By Their Teeth

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Canine skull with clear carnassial and canine teeth (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Animal Skull Dentition

In my previous post about animal skulls I provided you with some basic animal skull identification resources, but in this post I want to help you begin to narrow down what type of animal skull you might have found. The easiest way to start is by looking at the teeth of of the skull. If the teeth are present, this is easiest, though you can sometimes muddle through by looking at the skull if only the tooth sockets remain. It's also helpful if you have both jaws available,(upper and lower mandibles)  though it's not required. Often one or the other is enough to help you.

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Corn Husk Dolls and Play: A Fall Craft

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Corn husk doll (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Corn Husks Offer an Inexpensive Fall Tradition

Guest Post Writer: Anne Littlewolf

As the fall approaches, and corn crops are coming in, this is a timely post. Thanks for author Anne Littlewolf for this fun and whimsical guest post.

There is an old saying that the more complex the mind, the more important the need to play.   This is probably one of the truest axioms of our world and so let's  look at some of the traditions and treasures of toys and playing.   In this post we will revisit the incredibly versatile corn,  which you can read more about kernels and ears of corn in our previous post, and see that this amazing plant offers even more than just good nutrition. ...continue reading

How Birds Prepare to Migrate

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Migrating birds flying in formation (Photo: Wiki commons).

Bird Physiology as Birds Prepare to Migrate

Fall is just around the corner (though according to some stores Christmas is already here and we should be planning for Valentine's Day!) and as the weather turns cooler our feathery friends begin to depart on their migrations to the South.   Bird migration has been studied extensively, from beginning to end, though we're just now really starting to make heads or tails of how it all happens.   Birds can do such amazing feats of travel and navigation and no one quite knows how.   For me, the question has never been about why the birds migrate, it seems pretty obvious that cold and lack of food is not conducive to creatures that can weigh mere ounces and need insects, nectar, or protein to survive. I've always wondered why it was that male birds wanted to beat the snot out of each other for three months (in Spring and Summer), calling, threats and warnings, and then suddenly they are buddies with the birds next door and can fly south with everyone else in big flocks. So, I did a little digging to find out.

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Identifying Common Insect Bites and Stings

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A bee with its mandibles and sucking mouth parts. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Answering Questions About Spider & Insect Bites and Stings

When I take groups into the woods, along the shores, or into the field, invariably we have to deal with bug bites. One of the most common questions I get is, "What does a spider bite look like?" or "How can I tell what bit me?" It's a tough question to answer, but I'll try to provide you with some basics of what to look for.

There are more insects and invertebrates on Earth than any other living creatures, thus it becomes difficult to specifically classify how they all behave, and how they interact with humans, in part because it varies by where you are, the temperament of the creature, the invertebrates physical make-up, your physical chemistry, etc. However, there are a  few commonalities you can look for.

NOTE: I am not a medically trained doctor, so please take the materials below as general advice and guidelines, and seek professional treatment if you have been bitten or stung, and you need assistance.

First, Not All Things That Bite And Sting Are Insects

Remember, all insects have three body parts and six legs. This means that not all invertebrates that bite are insects. This is true of spiders, which have two body parts and eight legs, as well as ticks, chiggers, scorpions, and leeches.

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Facts about the Moons  and Its Optical Illusion

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A composite photo of the moon from NASA.

Teaching materials and fun facts about the moon

As an Educator, working in the field, or looking to fill conversation, I frequently turn to subjects that are close at hand. Often it's cumbersome to carry objects on a trail, you can't always find certain plants or animals when you need them (a general rule of thumb), and sometimes you just need to keep people's minds busy to avoid kids wandering off, people losing attention, or just "losing" your audience all together. One of the constants you can always talk about, especially at dawn, dusk, or for evening programs is the Moon. No matter where you are in the world, there it is. On top of this, the new Next Generation Science Standards have a strong component of space literacy too. Specifically they are targeting 1st and 5th grades, middle school, and high school. This program includes determining phases of the moon and determining distances in space. In this blog post we'll explore some quick moon facts, a fun exercise in proportion and size, and I'll provide you with some books and lesson plans that I like for teaching about the moon.

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Resources for Teaching or Learning About Climate Change

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This is a screen shot from NASA's website for kids and climate change. (Photo: NASA).

Global Climate Change Teaching Resources

One of the most challenging things to talk about, and teach,  is the topic of climate change or less commonly known now as "global warming." This is especially true because in many places it's getting cooler and not hotter, wetter and not drier. This post is dedicated to some of the climate change teaching resources I've found useful.

First, you need a good definition of global climate change. Climate is the average, or overall, pattern of weather over a long period of time. There have been many changes in climate over the long history of the Earth, from hot to cold, but the global climate pattern is currently getting warmer. This means the ups and downs in the weather are getting more "up" and more "down" or hotter and colder than ever before, and they are staying that way, not changing. This up and down being caused by the trapping of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and these gasses come from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil. Teachers are trying to move away from using the term "global warming" because it does not accurately represent all of the ups and downs in weather patterns and trends, especially in places that are cooling!

One of the best resources I've found for teaching about how climate change works (for kids and adults) is from Robert Krulwich, and the NPR Climate Connection web site. He offers five short (5 minute) animated episodes that clearly lays out how climate change works. The series is narrated by Krulwich and follows a carbon molecule, even "in love" with its two oxygen molecules, and how they help trap heat on the Earth.

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This is the carbon character from Robert Krulwich's NPR video series on Climate Connections (Source: NPR).

The Climate Connections series is a year-long exploration of climate change, and has an abundance of interviews, articles, and podcasts of information and research.

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The Natural History of Sunflowers and A Sunflower Seed Cookie Recipe

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Sunflower (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Enjoy The Delights of Sunflowers

Today's guest post is from Anne Littlewolf, our very own helpful author (when I give her enough lead time), with a touch of tag teaming from yours truly!

With wealth untold in my pocket, I'd gotten permission from Mom to go play with the rest of the kids.  We had bikes, we had energy, we had imagination, and with the vast sum of 25 whole cents in my pocket, the world was mine!   Dashing across the street to the little Mom & Pop grocery store, I roamed up and down the aisles, trying to choose between a Chunky candy bar, a candy necklace or at least a handful of Pixie Stix, but when it all came down to a final choice, a ten-cent bag of sunflower seeds (roasted and salted in the shell!) won out.  I'd learned the fine art of cracking them, extracting the seed and spitting out the shell in one swift move, never once losing a single pedal stroke on my bike.  Oh, the things that give you status when you're ten!!

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Sunflower seed and kernel (Photo: Wiki Commons).

It was, as we later learned, a wonderful snack choice.  Sunflowers are amazing plants, they're the type of flower that always makes you smile whether they're in the yard, on an apron, on wallpaper or even on a notepad, and they produce some of the best munchies ever.  The little seeds that come in the familiar black and white striped shell offer all sorts of benefits, beyond just yummy-ness!  Sunflower seeds are used in most countries as a source of cooking oil, while in America we tend to shove them into the snack food category or probably at least as commonly, bird food. I would suggest considering them for human food, and as a great addition for native pollinators and butterflies. The asters that don't make large heads are also an important part of ecosystems, and food for insects, and other native creatures. Let's learn more.

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Toad Houses: Fun and Useful For The Garden

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Toad houses are a great way to encourage natural pest control in your garden or around your home, but you don't need to buy a toad house, like this one, you can easily make one (Photo: Paxabay shared images).

How to Build Toad Houses

If you're like me you don't like to use pesticides or harmful chemicals to prevent insects from entering your home or chewing all the plants in your garden. One of the most effective ways to reduce pest insects is to encourage their natural predators. Toads are one of the predators that do a great job helping clean gardens of insects and harmful pests.

Here in the Eastern US we have the common American Toad (Anaxya americanus). There is also the Eastern American toad, the dwarf toad, and Fowler's toad in our region. In the Western US  there is the Western toad. Regardless of the species, they all play an important role in their ecosystem,  they LOVE eating insects!

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A common American toad (Photo: Karen McDonald).

As you know toads are amphibians, but unlike frogs they can move farther from water, because they do not rely on moist skin to breathe. However, they do need water or ponds to reproduce. To support a population of toads in your area you need to provide the standard food, water, and shelter. The food will  be the insects around your house or garden, but you will still need to provide water and shelter.

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Water is required for toads to reproduce, but they can travel much farther from water than frogs (Photo: Karen McDonald).

Water can take many forms, from damp vegetation to shallow dishes of water (changed regularly to prevent mosquitoes), or even nearby ponds and streams, but toad houses are where you can get very creative!

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Why Corn is Such a Miracle Food

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Kernels of corn are each a unique miracle of flowering plants (Photo: Pixabay sharing).

The Magic of Ears of Corn: Appreciating Your Food

Corn, or maize, is a common staple of picnics and cookouts during the summer, but I was amazed to find out how little people knew about the biological "magic" that is corn.

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Corn is the product of a delicate balance of flowering and ovary development (Photo: Wiki commons).

In the US we use the word "corn" to refer to a very particular type of plant, specifically maize, or the tall plant with yellow compound fruits. Corn is in the family of Poaceae and with the monocots or grasses.  Outside of North America "corn" can mean any grain crop. The fruit of corn is called a caryopsis or grain, and all corn plants have male and female parts. The male part (or inflorescence) is called the tassel, and it emerges at the top of the plant after all of the leaves have developed.

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These are the tiny flowers that have male anthers, which produce pollen for the corn (Photo: Wiki commons).

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The male flowers, or tassel, emerges from the top of the stalk of corn (Photo: Wiki commons).

This tassel has many small branches, and along these branches you can see the male flowers and anthers, which produce pollen. The pollen is wind dispersed, and because it is relatively heavy it doesn't fall far from the plant, usually just on its neighbors and not itself.

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This is the female inflorescence of the corn, with the tassels each attached to one ovule of corn inside the husk (Photo: Wiki commons).

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Copper Head Snakes and Water Snakes

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Copperhead snake (Photo: Michale McCarthy, Flicker sharing)

Identification of the venomous copperhead snake and the harmless northern banded water snake

In the Eastern US one of the biggest fear of homeowners and people who work or play outside, is of venomous spiders and snakes. However, in fear of these creatures, other non-venomous and beneficial species are often misidentified and killed. Today's post is how to tell if a snake is a copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortorix) or the harmless northern banded water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Both look similar, but they have some key differences.

Let's Begin with Copperheads....

Copperhead snakes are the most common venomous snake in the Eastern US. They are in the pit viper family (Crotalidae). They are also in the genus Agkistrodone, which includes the cottonmouth or water moccasin. It is a shy snake that is usually not aggressive, and its bites are rarely fatal, though they can be painful.

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It's All About Surface Area and Reproduction

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Why would this blue-footed booby have blue feet? You have a 50-50 chance of getting it right! (Photo: Wiki Commons)

You have a 50/50 Chance of Getting the Right Answer

Let's face it, as educators, parents, and adults we don't have answers to all the "whys" that come our way. However,  I've found that there are two answers to almost any question in biology: sex and surface area (and is usually all boils down to just sex and reproductive success). I know this sounds funny, but if you remember this rubric, while leading guided hikes in the field, in class or teaching  animal anatomy, you will always have a way to root out the answer you're looking for.

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Nest and Egg Identification Resources

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A house finch nest found with bluish white eggs (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Bird Nest and ID Suggestions

Often times, when walking in the woods, or tending a garden, you'll see a bird nest, but no bird, only eggs or hatchlings. Adult birds are quite savvy about spotting approaching humans, and often fly off and observe their nest from a distance, making it hard to identify which bird belongs to which nest. This post is a rough first start at identifying some common Eastern US bird nests, and some resources you can use to help you with your identification.

Before you begin looking:

Before you begin trying to figure out the bird nest that you have found, a few words of caution:

  • Predators can smell you. Even though smell is not as integral to our lives as predators like cats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, it's still something to be aware of. When you walk to a nest, or around it, you are leaving a scent trail, which is an open invitation to predators.   Try to avoid going directly up to a nest, touching a nest, or walking around it to lessen the danger to baby birds.
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Fox scenting rocks (Photo: Flicker sharing, James snyder).

  • If you can, watch the nest you find from a distance. Use binoculars to check it out, and try to keep away. If you inadvertently come upon a nest, then walk around in circles, and keep moving away from the nest. Stop at other random places, and try to leave a scent trail that does not stop at the nest. When doing bird research I would even take off my smelly shirt or socks and rub them on trees and rocks, well away from the nest, and walk on.
  • Do not reach into nests or remove eggs or fledglings. It's a myth that birds can actually smell you, or will abandon the eggs if they smell a human. However, the stress of having a predator touching and handling the eggs or young, may cause the parents to abandon the nest, so don't do it!

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Botany For Gardeners: A Beginning Botany Guide

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Helpful Plant Biology and Botany Book For Gardeners and Naturalists

As the gardening season swings into full bloom, I'm reminded that it's hard to find good basic information about botany, with the breadth and depth that most naturalists and gardeners desire or need (and not too much of what they don't want). Today's post is a short one, dedicated to a book I've found quite useful in my own garden. It's also a refresher for teaching botany classes and hikes, as well as a classroom tool. The book is called "Botany for Gardeners" and it is by Brian Capon. Currently it is in its 3rd edition, which was published in 2010, which is available in paperback, hardback, or in E-book format.

The reason I am recommending this book, is that it's an essential desktop companion for those wishing to understand plants, or those needing more understanding of the inner workings of their gardens. The author does not treat you like a professional botanist, using high level botanical jargon, but he also does not shy away from taking you into the biological basis of plant growth and development. He starts with plant cells and seeds and then progresses through roots and shoots. Through this book, you will learn the basics of how plant cells and cell walls work, as well as the laying down of xylem (water) and phloem (food) cells that supply nutrients. For me it was great to relearn how roots push their way through the soil and how apical buds unfurl. You can read about how plant growth, hormones, photoperiod, and nutrients affect plants, or you can deep dive into flowers and plant reproduction.

This book is a very simple and concise look at botany in a practical way. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a "gardening-how-to" book, it's about the nuts-and-bolts of botany and plant biology. It is meant as a primer and refresher of botany (especially useful for those that may have had botany years ago and forgotten). "Botany for Gardeners" is written as a high school and adult level.  The  focus is  primarily on vascular plants, with some information on nonvascular mosses.

I've used this book for a plant taxonomy class for advanced biology students, ages 13-16. We didn't read the book from cover to cover, but I had them read sections to go along with the plant taxonomy we were learning. We especially used it during the first 1/2 of the class, which was based more on plant physiology and ecology. I would highly recommend ordering this book for your collection, whether you're leading plant-and-nature hikes or just interested in a deeper understanding of what grows in your garden.

Butt Snorkels and Breathing Tubes Oh My!

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Mosquito larvae floating with their breathing tubes or butt snorkels at the surface of the water. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Knowing Mosquito Biology Can Help with Control

It's that time of year again, when mosquitoes start to hatch and swarm and everyone starts swatting and pulling out the cans of insect repellent.  Now I know that butt snorkels doesn't sound like a true biological subject related to mosquitoes, but it really is.  And knowing about them can help you control mosquito populations in your area.

Mosquitoes are a type of fly in the Culicidae family, and their name literally means "little fly" in Spanish.  Many species are actually harmless, but in some, the females consume the blood of animals.  It's the blood-meal eaters that are often problematic, because they are disease carriers or vectors.  Their bites cause itchy bumps and are often quite irritating. That's not to say that they don't play an important biological role!  They are food for many species of other invertebrates, fish, bats, birds, and more.

Mosquitoes go through complete metamorphosis with a four stage life cycle of egg, larvae, nymph, and adult.  Female mosquitoes rely on fresh water to lay their eggs.  This can be as deep as a pond, as shallow as a dog bowl left filled and not refreshed, an old tire, or even the inner well of a flower or plant.  For those of us in the Eastern US, who are surrounded by fresh water and puddles galore, we constantly fight the standing water battle.  I knew of an elderly gentleman who paid kids $.10 per tire, lid, bucket, or container to dump the standing water in them.

Most female mosquitoes lay their eggs on the surface of the water.  The eggs can be in singles or in small rafts of up to 200 eggs.  Some mosquito females use a technique that is similar to dragonflies, where they tap their abdomen along the surface and drop the eggs into the water.  The eggs stage can last from 2 days to many months, depending on the species, season, and weather.

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Mosquito life cycle (Photo: Wiki Commons).

After about 48 hours, a young mosquito hatches into a larvae.  The larvae (and pupa) are the ones with butt snorkels, or breathing tubes called siphons.  The tube is an extension of their spiracles (or breathing holes along their sides -- those are used more in later life when they become terrestrial).  The larval mosquito's butt snorkel has a fine ring of hairs and a waterproof material that help to break the surface tension of the water molecules.  This allows the snorkel to take in air.  Butt snorkels aren't all that uncommon in the aquatic insect world, some species of water scorpions and other flies have them too.  Some insects like aquatic beetles attach a bubble of air to their butts when they dive, and then breathe through that.  Insect butts are fascinating.

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Here's a close up look at the head and abdomen of a mosquito larvae. Check out the nifty butt snorkel on this guy!

The larvae are not blood suckers yet, they are microbial feeders eating plankton, algae, and other micro materials with their brush-like mouth parts.  To get away from predators they often flex their body in a jerky movement.  This movement can help you identify them when you're looking in ponds or puddles.

After molting their exoskeleton about four times, the larvae then develop into a pupa.  The pupa is described as comma shaped because they have a large head, fused with their thorax, to make a cephalothorax.  Their abdomen is still long and skinny, and they must still use butt snorkles to come to the surface to breathe.  Much like their larval stage, these pupa can use the power of their abdomen to flip around and move, so they're called tumblers.  At this stage many do not have mouth parts, and they are simply hanging around with their butt snorkels in the air waiting to change into an adult.  Pupation can take anywhere from 2 days to months.  Here in the US many of the common species take only two weeks to complete their cycle.

After pupating, the mosquito splits its skin, and then emerges as an adult.  Much like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the adult must harden its body and extend its wings to dry and harden, before it can fly.

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An adult mosquito feeding on human skin. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

If you want to control larval mosquitoes and get them before they become adults, then it's good to know about their butt snorkels and their feeding habits.  First, if you can, remove all sources of standing water.  This includes cleaning gutters, plant pots, refreshing bird baths, turning over tires, emptying cans, etc.  Next, for water that you need standing and can't eliminate, try adding a water bubbler.  The bubbling causes too much wave action for the mosquitoes to be able to use their butt snorkels and they drown, which is why you don't have many mosquito larvae in fresh running streams or waterways that move a lot.

You can also use a VERY thin layer of vegetable oil on the surface of a standing pond.  This layer does not allow the mosquitoes' butt snorkels to penetrate the surface of the water.  Be aware, this may affect other insects that come to the surface to breathe, or aquatic plants, so use with caution.  If you do use this method, use a spray bottle with water and a few drops of oil.  Gently spray the surface of the standing water until you see a thin "slick."  This should evaporate in a few days, so you'll have to re-apply.

If it is feasible, one of the best methods of larvae control is using mosquito fish or tadpoles. Remember to use native species if you plan on introducing them into your body of water.

Last, but not least, you can also use bacteria.  There are two species, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis and Bacillus sphaericius, which can be added to water.  These types of bacteria are eaten by the larvae and they then die from the toxins that the bacteria produce.  The bacteria are suggested by the EPA and are thought to be safe and effective.  You can read more on their website.  My main concern with this type of control would be the effects to other native insects, so use with caution and weigh your options!

Here's a great video that you watch about their life cycle

Mosquito Life Cycle

I know that mosquitoes are a pain, but they are also biologically important.  The best control you can do is prevention.  If you can't prevent them, then knowing about their biology and their butt snorkel physiology can help in treating for them.  Besides, now you have a cool nature fact to drag out at those summer picnics!

Stay tuned for more insect abdomen posts.  Mosquitoes aren't the only ones with unique posterior appendages and uses.  Female crickets have funky ovipositors (egg laying tube) and turtles can absorb oxygen and breathe through their butts!  Biology is awesome.

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Check out the ovipositor (egg laying tube) on the abdomen of this cricket. (Photo: Wiki commons).

 

How to Identify and "Call" Lightning Bugs or Fireflies

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Photinus sp. (Photo: James Jordan, Flicker Sharing).

An "Enlightening" Conversation

As summer rolls around, it's time again for the emergence of fireflies or lightning bugs. They are the bug all kids love to chase and catch. These benign insect ambassadors have been many children's introduction to the world of beetles and friendly insects. For today's post I want to introduce you to the three most common groups of fireflies in the Eastern US, and how you can use LED flash patterns to call the fireflies to you. It makes a great lesson plan for evening programs, or just something fun to do with the kids on a summer night.

Fireflies, or lightening bugs, are beetles in the order Coleoptera, and there are about 170 species in North America. Unlike their cousins, that have hard-bodied elytra (or wing coverings), their bodies and wings are relatively soft, with leathery wing coverings. Their bodies are usually about 2 cm long, and blackish, with reddish or yellow spots on their head covering (also called the pronotum). Around the world, there are over 2,000 species of fireflies, and most live in tropical, moist and damp areas,  in part because of their soft bodies. Lightning bugs are called this because their abdomens glow or light up, using a chemical process called bioluminescence. We'll get more into this in a bit, but first, let's look at their life cycle.

In the Eastern US there are three common families of fireflies that we see, Photinus, Pyractomena, and Photuris. You can distinguish them apart by looking at their pronotum (big segment with dot behind their head) and their wings.

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Stink Bugs: Will They Bite and How Can I Get Rid of Them?

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The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs

Stink bugs are one of those creatures everyone sees, but no one really understands or likes, and for good reason.  The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halyes), also known by BMSB, first showed up in the US around 2001 in Pennsylvania.  It's thought to have been brought in with either fruits or fruit trees of some sort.  As a native to Eastern Asia it is truly an invasive.  Even in its home countries, it's a pest, including in Japan, Korea, and China.  In the last decade or so they have invaded over thirty-four states in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, including Washington DC.  They were first seen in Oregon and out west around 2004 and since then they've spread in California and other states.

I'm going to call these guys stink bugs for now because Brown Marmorated Stink Bug sounds good, but it's long to type and BMSB just looks funny.  The stink bugs we're talking about are mostly brown or marbled brown and tan on top and whitish grey on bottom.  They are usually about 1" long as adults, smaller as nymphs.  They belong to the Hemiptera, or "true bug" family, and more specifically, to the suborder called Heteroptera.  That's not to say that there are false bugs, but true bugs are "typical insects" with the usual set up of body parts and legs. Hemiptera, also, all have piercing mouth parts (bug sippy straws).  Stink bugs and Heteropterns also have a special set of wings (Heteropera means "different wings" in Greek). Their type of wings are called hemelytra.  The wing part nearest their head is leathery while the part near their rear is membranous like the wings of a dragonfly.  If you look carefully at the stink bug's back you can see a large X.  It's this X that lets you know it's in the hemiptera family.  There are two triangles formed by the X, one near the head, and one near the rear. The one near the rear is the set of membranous wings folded up.  X marks the spot when you're looking for all true bugs.

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X marks the spot when looking for a true bug or Hemipteran. You can see the unique wing configuration of this stink bug, with the leathery wings on the top of the X and the membranous wings at the bottom. (Photo: USGS, Wiki Commons)

To be sure you're looking at a brown marmorated stink bug, and not a native US species, be sure to look for the white bands that are on their antennae.  There should be one near the antennae joint, and sometimes a smaller one or two closer to the head.

When talking with friends and "non-bug-folks", some of the first questions they ask are:

1. Do stink bugs bite?  Nope, you're safe.  If you look closely at these little home (and crop) invaders, you'll see that they have a straw like projection that tucks up under their head. This is a sucking proboscis.  It can pierce the flesh of fruit, such as apples, pears, and peaches, so it's not out of the question that it could give you a short poke or stab, but this is rare.  They don't sting either.

There are other Hemipterans that can give a much worse poke than the stink bug.  Check out this picture of an Assassin bug sucking the life juices from a beetle.

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An assassin bug sucking the juices from a tortoise beetle. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

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The Gastric Mills of Crayfish and Other Crustaceans

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Crayfish use gastric mills to help break down their food. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

"Chew All Your Food Dear....With Your Stomach!"

It's not often that you can wax poetic about the chewing, grinding, and digesting of invertebrates, but sometimes it's just really amazing.  Take, for instance, the crustaceans. Inside their digestive system they have a unique stomach that is called the GASTRIC MILL. The gastric mill is found in crabs, lobsters, crayfish, barnacles, krill, and many others. These invertebrates don't have teeth in their mouth to grind their food, so they process it a bit differently.  Their claws rip and tear apart their food (mostly plants and animals), their mandibles (or mouth parts) shred the food down a bit more, and then it is passed on to the digestive tract. The gastric mill functions a bit like a gizzard in a bird, but unlike a gizzard which has rocks and sand for grinding the food, the gastric mill has strong muscles, which are folded into ridges that increases surface area for absorption and helps in mechanical breakdown of the food.  Depending on the species of crustacean, some have ossicles or calcified plate-like structures in the stomach (much like the flat surfaces of molars), while others have chitenous gastric teeth.  Chiten is the same material that the arthropods shells are made out of, and is very strong.  In some cases, after going through the gut, food particles may still be too large or hard to break down, then the particles may be ejected back out of the mouth and reprocessed.  In many crustaceans, there is a set of glands within the stomach to help with digestive absorption and secretion.

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The Infinite Spider Blog: Origin of a Name

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A common garden spider (Photo: Karen McDonald)

How the Infinite Spider Blog Got Its Name

I’ve been asked by quite a few readers to explain why I chose the name “Infinite Spider” for my blog, and what the symbol means. So in this post, I have partnered with Anne Littlewolf  to give you a bit of information about this symbol and the name of this blog.

As the Bard so rightly said, “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet”.  But roses and spiders seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of human emotion.  Roses make us fall in love, spiders send us into a screaming panic (OK, sometimes the two resemble each other) searching for shoes, rolled up paper, fly swatters and other such ammunition.  It’s guaranteed to get you lots of adoration if you rescue your partner from the dreaded Arachnidus Superbadus.  So why name this blog after a spider?  And why do we have such loathing for spiders and their kinfolk?  Yes, they are small and hairy, and they have far too many eyes and fangs… but really?  Most are less than ¼” in size?

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Naturalist's Apprentice Books: Exploring Unsung Naturalists and Inspiring Young Readers

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Pond Watching with Ann Morgan is one of eight books in the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.

Delve Into the History of the Founders of Natural History

As a naturalist I've always prided myself in being self-taught, then going to school, later to teach, and then continuing my learning through teaching. However, I was never taught much about the people that made being a naturalist a possibility.  There are many, many unsung heroes that contributed to the study of natural history that we have never been told about. Do you ever recall learning about the first woman to scientifically study aquatic invertebrates, or learning about one of the first Native American wildlife biologists and doctors, or maybe hearing about a famous African American entomologist? In the history of science, these important people are often glossed over.  If you're like me and countless other naturalists, you were probably never given a history of your own natural history interests. This is why I want to share with you a wonderful series of books called the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.

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What's That? Identifying Preying Mantis Egg Cases

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A mantis egg case or ootheca (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Lori Erickson)

A Quick Introduction

Now that Spring weather is finally upon us, it's time to talk about hatching young. In today's post I want to introduce you to preying mantis egg cases. Early spring is a great time to spot them because they usually hang from twigs or they are laid on bare wood and natural surfaces. Without leaves to obstruct your view (or in early leaf out), they're fairly easy to spot.

Praying mantises are invertebrates that have incomplete metamorphosis. This means that their young look like little adults and they don't make a cocoon like butterflies. Their life stages are egg, nymph, and adult. I'll do another post on mantid natural history later, but for today, I'm going to focus on their egg cases.

There are over twenty types of mantis native to the US and they are wide-spread. The Carolina mantis is the most common and there are two introduced mantis species from China and Europe. Most of these species are insectivorous (eating insects and sometimes even small mammals or hummingbirds) and they participate in the cannibalism of mates (females eat the males during reproduction). I will say from experience, that young mantises, unless separated, will also eat each other. In the Autumn when the days are still warm, mantises will mate. After mating, females lay between 50-400 eggs in a foamy egg case called an ootheca. The foam is secreted from a gland in her abdomen. This foam looks white when laid, but it turns brown as it hardens.

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A mantis egg case laid on twigs (Photo: Flicker sharing, Mike Maehr)

Here is a cross section of what an egg case looks like when laid open. Notice each egg has its own chamber and exit to the outside of the egg case.

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There are a variety of shapes and sizes of mantis egg cases, and as you can imagine, they vary by species though many are very similar. If you haven't checked out Bugguide.net, they are a great resource for identifying insects, eggs, nymphs, and larvae of all sorts of insects, including mantises. Check out the images of different types of mantis egg cases on their web page.

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An example of a common type of mantis egg case. (Photo: Flicker sharing John Tann)

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Here are a few images of mantises actually laying their eggs:

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This is a New Zealand mantis (Orthodera novaezealandia) laying her eggs. (Photo: Wiki commons)

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This mantis is laying her eggs in the corner of a mud wall. The white color will harden to brownish color. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

The emergence of the young is like watching grains of rice, with little black beady eyes, wiggle out of the foam cases and then their legs deploy. When they finally stand up, they look like little miniature mantises. At first they are light colored, but as they mature and molt their deeper color comes in. Check out this short video with great close ups of the emergence.

There are several types of parasitic wasps (Podagrion sp.) that will prey on the egg cases by depositing their eggs into the mass to feed on the mantises eggs and larvae. The wasps are tiny and usually have very long ovipositors (long tubes for sticking into the ootheca). Click on this link to bug-net for some images and also the OZ website for some up close images. This is something to be aware of if you're going to rear mantises for your class or inside the home.

It's quite fun watching mantis egg cases hatch in the Spring, and it's a great experience for students to watch the emergence. If you plan on bringing an egg-case inside, be sure to provide it with a mesh cage, with plenty of air circulation. You can tie it to a twig or branch. The little mantises should hatch in early to mid spring. It's best to take them outside where they came from once they hatch. Rearing isn't too difficult, but it's time-consuming and requires feeding flightless fruit flies or other insects and checking on them every day. If you don't feed them enough flies, crickets, or aphids, they will eventually cannibalize each other. You'll be left with one large mantis with a smile on its face!

Here are a few places you can find rearing information:

You can also buy kits online from a variety of sources from $30-$50.

Mantises are a fun organism to watch and observe. When you're out hiking, look for these brownish egg cases and know that our insect friends will soon be hatching.

Discovering Diatomaceous Earth

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Diatoms as seen through a microscope. Note their stained glass window shapes and silica bodies (Photo: Wiki Commons).

To Use or Not to Use, That is The Question

As Spring infestations of pests, fleas, and insects begin, many homeowners are faced with how to control these critters, either in the home, garden, or even on pets. If you're like me, you'd rather stay away from chemicals all together. There are many different natural solutions out there for different organisms, but it's difficult to tell what works and what doesn't. In coming posts I'll explore some of these solutions, but I want to start with Diatomaceous earth.

Diatoms are a type of microscopic aquatic plankton or algae (2-200 micrometers in size). They are small photosynthetic plants.  We owe almost every other breath that we take to these numerous wee producers that are respiring in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Their shells are made up of silica and calcium carbonate. In essence, they look like tiny stained glass windows.

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Pictures of diatoms under the microscope (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Their bodies are made like a gift box, with a top that slides over a bottom. When they reproduce, their two halves separate and then regenerate a new half. In the oceans, they are estimated to provide nearly 1/2 of all the primary food production for aquatic life! They've been around for a long time, all the way back to the Jurassic. Their glassy bodies have been floating around providing oxygen and food for millions of years. As these small organisms die, their glass bodies either sink to the bottom of the ocean or become sediment deposited on shorelines. When you look at sand under a microscope, you'll often see tiny grains of rock, but you'll also see the remains of diatoms. The main ingredient in making glass is silica, which is added in the form of sand. Guess who provided all those bits of silica? Diatoms!

Diatomaceous earth, or diatomite, is made up of the sedimentary deposit of fossilized diatoms deposited over millions of years.  They are usually whitish and abrasive feeling because of the nature of the silica, though the food grade kind may feel as soft as talc. It is very light because it has a high porosity and it is not combined with all the other heavy elements of rock and sand that are found in sedimentary sandstone.

Diatomaceous earth has been used in a variety of industrial settings, including for filtration, reinforcement of plastic, abrasion for tooth pastes, fillers for rubber and cat litter, and even stabilizing dynamite. One of its more common uses is as an insecticide.

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Diatomite from a mine in CA (Photo: AlishaV. Flicker)

As a pesticide, diatomaceous earth must be unheated or calcified (which is often done to increase its filtration value). Calcification burns or melts the silica, reducing its efficacy. If you were to look at diatomite under a microscope, you would see startling edges. These glassy edges are sharp as razors to invertebrates, but won't hurt humans or large animals. This is why it has been touted as a natural pest control. Before you get too excited though, let's really examine what it does to control all of these "pests."

Diatomaceous earth acts as a very strong cutting abrasive on the exoskeleton of invertebrates, including bed bugs, fleas, ticks, worms, slugs, and all six and eight legged insects. It is essentially the "death of a thousand cuts." Those cuts open up the organism to dehydration and infection within 24-48 hours, causing death. The other property of diatomaceous earth is that it is absorptive. It acts to dry out and desiccate the microorganisms that are cut by its sharp edges. So, how is this bad you ask? Diatomaceous earth is a generalist. When you apply it to your garden, you are in turn, not only killing the harmful slugs, grubs, roaches, silverfish, aphids, and thrips, but you're also killing all the beneficial insect life as well. This includes earthworms, pill bugs, ants, beetles, ladybugs, beneficial caterpillars, and more. This generalist approach is detrimental to the ecosystem, though perhaps less so than most chemicals. The other down-side to diatomaceous earth is that it loses its potency once it rains and the diatoms clump together. It has to be applied during dry days without rain.

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Beneficial jumping spiders may be negatively impacted by diatomaceous earth (Photo: Karen McDonald).

As with all pesticides, you have to consider the ramifications of using it in your garden or around your home. Yes, diatomaceous earth is mostly harmless to humans and pets (with a few exceptions of inhaling etc., and it is a controlled substance through the USDA), and yes, it can be quite effective in killing grubs and other garden pests. However, it's a generalist and like other chemicals, it kills everything indiscriminately. On a microscale, I can only imagine the "gory movie scenes" of what really goes on in the undergrowth and below ground once it is applied. I can picture the razor like edges cutting the microinvertebrates and their slow desiccating deaths. I have my own opinions, but everything has a cost and must be weighed. What do you think? Would you use it? Have you used it?

Ant Teaching Resources for Your Classroom

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An ant keeping his aphid "cows" safe. (Photo: K. McDonald)

Free and Low Cost Resources

As many of you know, I lead a double blogging life with my Citizen Science in the Classroom series on the umbrella citizen science site called SciStarter. If you haven't checked out their plethora of citizen science activities that you can get involved with, then head over to their site. In my series, I focus on specific citizen science projects and then help teachers figure out how to conduct those projects to meet grade specific, Next Generation and Common Core teaching standards. While writing my last post about a project called School of Ants, I was amazed at how little there is out there for teaching about ants. I had to do a great deal of digging to find teaching resources. But when I did, I found some great ones that I thought I'd share here. You can also check out my SciStarter blog post with Next Gen. and Common Core connections.

My favorite resource so far is Dr. Elanor's Book of Common Ants. This is a great free resource with wonderful illustrations, large ant pictures and close ups, and clear text. It's written for adults, but it's also kid friendly (4th-12th Grade). This book, along with a magnifying glass, is all you need to get yourself started with basic ant ID (or toss your kid outside with it and get them busy discovering on their own). I loved learning facts about pavement ants, winter ants, and the common little black ants called the "Odorous House Ant." Odorous house ants are the tiny little black sugar ants that come into the house. She suggests the "Squish-n-Sniff" for these guys because when you squish them, they smell good! This is how they got their names. How fun is that? If you are a naturalist at heart and want to learn more about ants, then this is the go-to resource.

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Dr. Elanor's book is an amazing resource. (Photo: Your Wildlife)

I found some other great teaching resources that might be helpful as well, such as :  ant lesson plans, MP3 interviews with ant researchers, free life cycle and anatomy worksheets, instructions for building an ant colony box, and more that come out of Arizona State University. If you haven't heard about their "Ask A Biologist" teaching resources, it's time to pop over to their pages (click here for their activity page). They have much more than just ant materials. You can find lesson plans, interviews, and worksheets, about plankton, space physiology, the nervous system, and more. It's worth visiting.

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Arizona State University has a great website on ants (Photo: ASU)

I also stumbled across a great video about ants on YouTube. It's called "ANTS-Natures Secret Power." It is a bit long to show in class (about an hour), but you could use segments or assign it as homework to the students.

I'd also like to suggest some of the following books:

DK Readers: Ant Antics. Lock. [2nd-4th] (used $.01)

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Are You an Ant? Allen and Humphries [K-5th] (used $1)

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The Fascinating World of Ants. Julivert et. Al. [2nd-5th] (used $.01)

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Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Holldobloer and Wilson. [Adult reading and reference] (used $.50)

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There are many more books out there that are great, these are just a few. If you need magnifying glasses, ant farm kits, or other supplies, you can find resources on my "Nature Gifts and Teaching Supplies" page. The wonderful thing about ants is that they are everywhere and require very few materials to study and observe. Happy "anting" (this is actually a term used by birders when birds rub ants on their feathers for some unknown reason, but I think it applies here).

Quotes from Visitors to Programs Through The Years

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Naturalists tend to have a very funny sense of humor. (Picture: Ashley Kennedy by Karen McDonald)

Something to Make Visitors, Naturalists, and Interpreters Sigh and Laugh

Over the years, I've worked at several parks and outdoor education centers. In that time, I've always kept a quote wall for those classic moments that just have to be recorded for posterity. If you're an outdoor educator, or just a park visitor, hopefully you can relate. If you have any you'd like to share, feel free to e-mail me (coyoteowlwoman@yahoo.com) and I'll add them. Warning, some have slightly mature content.

When asked about her group of students, "Don't ask me, I'm the teacher. I don't know anything."

"Are those crackles and baffle-head ducks?", asked a visitor about some local birds, meaning grackles and bufflehead ducks.

Instructor: “Why do you think we use alcohol in hand sanitizer?” Student: “To get the germs drunk!”

"Can I return this [toy] turtle? It has lipstick on it and my son wants a boy."

"Hello, nature center.", Interpreter answers the phone. Caller, "Yes, I'm calling about getting my social security card."  Interpreter replies, "This is a nature center." Caller says, "Are you sure?"

"Can you do something for this shark? He keeps getting washed up by the tide every time we put him back.", referring to the 3 foot long spiny dogfish (shark) which they walked from the beach, to the nature center, holding it by its tail with its head in a lunch cooler full of water.

Retired visitor standing with an interpreter while watching his group get coffee before a bird hike: "Look, a flock of gray-tufted-coffee-suckers!"

"We also have hog-nose snakes in the park. They have a stumpy nose, a triangular head, they puff up and hiss, and will eventually play dead if pushed." Visitor, "Sort of like a wife then, eh?" Interpreter switches subjects quickly.

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Predatory Bird Beaks: Featuring Tomial Teeth and Cranial Kinesis

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A Cooper's hawk with a tomial tooth for dispatching prey. (Photo: Taken at Smithsonian Natural History Museum)

Predatory Bird Adaptations for Dispatching Prey

When you hear the term "raptor", it sounds like something out of the movie Jurassic Park, but it's also another name for birds of prey. In Latin, rapere means to literally "seize or take by force", which is how they obtain their food. Birds of prey are apex predators and they eat other animals for their sustenance. Predatory birds include eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards, harriers, kites, ospreys, true hawks, New World vultures (from North and South America), caracaras, secretary birds, and owls.

Raptors are adapted to catching, dispatching, and consuming their chosen foods. To be considered a bird of prey, they must have strong feet and curving talons for gripping prey, a curved beak for ripping apart their food and/or dispatching it, and strong eyesight (vultures are a special exception to most of these, but they are still categorized as a bird of prey due to genetic classification).   Today I want to focus on the beaks of birds of prey; in particular, falcons, kites, and some accipiters (namely, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks). I also want to introduce you to some interesting avian terminology.

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A peregrine falcon with a clearly defined tomial tooth (Photo: Taken at Smithsonian Natural History Museum)

Raptor beaks, like all bird beaks, have an underlying boney support system for both the upper mandible  (maxilla) and lower mandible (mandible), that is super light and hollow like their bones. These boney structures are covered in keratin, which is similar to your hair or nails. This keratin is "keratinized", or layered, to make it very hard. The keratinized layer of bird beaks is called the RHAMPHOTHECA (Ram-theka), which is thought to be a modified version of reptile scales. Many sea turtles that feed on vegetation also have rhamphothecia.

In the beak, there are both melanin and carotenoids which provide coloring. This is why some beaks are dark and some are light. Birds breathe through their NARES, or nasal openings, which are usually found on the top mandible. Falcons have a slightly tubular opening on their nares (see picture above), which is speculated to be to slow airflow into their nose and act as a foil when they are in a dive. Bird breathing is a very fascinating topic that I'll cover later because it's complex.  It is very much like the circular breathing of didgeridoo players.

I'm not going to go into all the details about the boney structures and supports that attach the beak to the skull. You can read about that in more detailed ornithological texts (I particularly like Manual of Ornithology by Proctor and Lynch). However, I do want to focus on two key features of some raptor beaks that make them adapted for dispatching prey. The first adaptation is something called CRANIAL KINESIS.  This is simply the movement between the upper jaw and the brain case through joints that are supported with tendons and muscles. Cranial kinesis is present in fish, reptiles, and birds of all kinds.  It is not present in modern amphibians such as crocodiles, turtles and mammals,  though it was in ancient amphibians.  This means that reptiles, amphibians, and mammals don't hinge their jaws in the same way that birds do.

Most birds exhibit a form of cranial kinesis called PROKINESIS.  This means that their upper beak hinges at the the base of the beak and at the naso-frontal hinge. The beak moves up and down from the brain case using a flexible set of ligaments. The advantages of this are that the birds can increase the angle at which their mouth opens, they can raise their upper jaw but keep their head and lower jaw still, and it provides a faster jaw closure on the hinge system. Parrots have the most extreme prokinesis because they have to use their beaks to crack very hard nuts.

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Notice the clearly defined tomial tooth on this Sharp-shinned hawk (Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center collection).

Raptors use their prokinesis for a variety of functions ranging from ripping and tearing meat to dispatching prey, which leads me to the second feature of raptor beaks.    Found in falcons, kites, and accipiters,  the TOMIAL TOOTH (pl. mandibular tomia) is  the outer, or cutting edge of  of the beak.  This "tooth"  is the protrusion that extends from the tomial edge of the beak and is thought to be used to deliver the killing blow to prey. The tomial tooth of the upper mandible is often matched by a mandibular notch, or divot, in the lower mandible. Look at the picture of the Cooper's hawk above to see these.

This tomial tooth system is important because not all raptors rely solely on their muscular feet and talons to dispatch their prey. Birds like falcons may grab their prey and then use the lever-powered beak to sever the spinal cord of the prey that they catch. They slide their beak over the neck of their prey and use the upper and lower mandible to sever the spinal column. This sounds cruel, but it's quite efficient and puts the prey out of discomfort very quickly.

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American Kestrel (also a falcon) with a clear tomial tooth for dispatching insects and birds. (Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center collection).

I know this is technical jargon, but for naturalists, it's quite fascinating. The tomial tooth is found mostly in birds of prey that eat other birds or insects, and that needed to kill them quickly, perhaps, even in flight. Other birds of prey may show some slight tomial indentations but not to the extent that falcons, kites, and accipiters do. When teaching about raptors, this can be a fun talking point to engage students with raptor beaks and their associated adaptations.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage, a Sign of Spring

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E. Skunk cabbage flower bud (Photo: Wiki commons)

A Plant With Eau-de-skunk

A Quick Note Before You Begin: Many of you have commented that my spelling and grammar is often atrocious, and that is inexcusable for an educator! So, I'm taking steps to remedy the situation. I wanted to say WELCOME to Sally Parker and Anne Littlewolf, my new editors for the blog! Of course, all mistakes are my own, but they are going to try to help me on that score. Thank you ladies and welcome on board!

On To The Smelly Blog Post For Today!

One of the early harbingers of Spring, even before all the snow melts, is skunk cabbage. The variety I'm going to talk about today is the Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). There is also a related western variety. Eastern skunk cabbage grows East of the Mississippi, into New England, and as far south as Tennessee (where it is protected) and South Carolina. It is one of the first buds to appear in Spring, and one of the first bright green leaves you will see with the spring leaf-in.

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E. Skunk cabbage along a waterway in Spring (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Eastern skunk cabbage is a low growing and soft bodied perennial herb that you can find around low lying streams and wetlands. It is in the Araceae family, along with lilies and the familiar Jack-in-the-pulpit (when you see the flower, you'll know why). In the early spring, it sends out a flower bud called a SPATHE (4-6" tall) that grows up through the ground. Inside the flower is a SPADIX (2-5") which is a fleshy stem of flowers coming up through the center (think of your typical lily). The skunk cabbage flower is a mottled maroon color with whitish-green streaks, a spiral curvature, and a noticeable hood. The spadix (flower stalk) is whitish yellow. The flowers on the spadix are tightly packed. If you look closely, they don't have petals, but modified sepals and reproductive bits sticking out.

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E. Skunk weed flower, notice the spadix or flower stalk in the center. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The spadix releases a rotting meat scent that attracts early spring pollinators such as flies, bees, and carrion beetles which emerge earlier than most butterflies and moths. You know a plant is rather pungent when its Latin name includes foetidus (fetid= rank or smelly). Once pollinated, the seeds of the skunk cabbage look like round balls (2" diameter) about the same color as the flower petals. The balls have multiple berry-like seedlets that eventually fall apart from each other in late summer. Skunk cabbage doesn't spread through any other means than its fruits.

Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage)

Skunk cabbage fruit. (Photo: Tom Potterfield, Flicker Sharing).

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Tardigrades: Learning About Water Bears and Resources for Teaching

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Water bear in active state (Photo: Flicker, SaguartoNPS).

Tardigrades in Your Own Backyard!

One of my favorite invertebrates is the water bear or tardigrade. It is arguably the most extreme animal on Earth in the unassuming cute and cuddly form of a moss piglet with bear like claws. In this post I'm going to share with you some of the amazing natural history of tardigrades and some teaching resources that you can use for an indoor or outdoor classroom. If you're like me (and love exploring things like this) then you probably will also want to check these cool little guys out at home too, though you'll need a compound microscope to see them.

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Tardigrade in active state (Photo: Wiki commons)

Tardigrades belong to the phylum Tardigrada. They're aquatic invertebrates commonly found in the base of mosses and lichens; though they can also be found around the world, from the heights if the Himalayas to the depths of hot springs. They are known as extremophiles, meaning that they can live in places on Earth that most creatures couldn't handle. They can endure temperatures of absolute zero, pressure higher than that of the deepest oceans, radiation that would kill all other animals, and they can go without food or water for more than 10 years! Now you'd think a creature that can handle these extremes should be the large and flashy  but they're actually not much bigger to 1/2 a millimeter, about the size of the period made by a .5 mm pen.

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What To Do If You Find a Baby Bird

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Rescue or Not To Rescue, That Is The Question

It's that time of year again, with birds courting, laying eggs, and soon to be hatched fledglings hopping everywhere. This is the season I dread the most because it's when people start calling about baby birds and often dump the babies on my doorstep. For this blog post I thought it would be timely to cover what to do if you find a baby bird.

Before we begin, I want to caveat this post by saying that it's always best to leave wildlings in nature if you can, even if it means their demise. I  know this is a hard thing to hear. After speaking with rehabilitators I've come to accept that survival during and after rehabilitation for most species of birds is very low. They just can't endure the stress of captivity. Put yourself in the shoes (over-sized feet?) of a baby bird bird. You're captured by giants, shoved into a cave with bars, fed food through a plastic syringe, you expect to be eaten by said large predatory giants that have taken you, your family is gone, and you are surrounded by new smells in a frightening environment with people oogling you. It makes sense for something as fragile as a 6 to 10 day old baby bird to be stressed to death. By leaving baby birds in their environments and providing some minimal amount of help if necessary you are giving the bird its best chance at survival. If it gets eaten or passes on then it becomes a part of the cycle of life, as food for something else, and its genes are not passed on. This is how nature works. For those of you with children this may be a bit difficult to convey without lots of tears but I'd suggest the story book "Everybody is Somebody's Lunch" by Cherie Mason. I do want to stress that I have great respect for bird and animal rehabilitators. They are under-paid and truly are wonderful people that are dedicated to wildlife. They do a great job when called upon.

Savannah_Sparrow,_Passerculus_sandwichensis,_nestling_baby_bird_in_nest_with_2_eggs_AB_Canada

Baby sparrow in the nest (Photo: Wiki Commons)

On that note, let's discuss what you can do to help you asses the situation when you do find a baby bird. First, what did you find? Often times you'll see baby birds in various stages of feathering that have either fallen out of the nest, been pushed out by their more aggressive siblings, or jumped out on purpose. Begins with these steps;

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