It's All About Surface Area and Reproduction

Blue-footed_Booby_(Sula_nebouxii)_-one_leg_raised

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.

...continue reading

Nest and Egg Identification Resources

house finch nest Mike Allen flicker

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.
Jame snyder flicker commons

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!

...continue reading

Botany For Gardeners: A Beginning Botany Guide

botany for gardeners

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!

Culex_sp_larvae mosquito larvae wiki

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.

648px-Culex_mosquito_life_cycle_nol_text.svg

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.

www.mantis.cz/mikrofotografie

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.

Aedes_aegypti_biting_human

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.

Libanasidus_vittatus02 wiki

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

Flicker sharing, James jordan

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.

...continue reading

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

1280px-Stink_bug_(7757617824)

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.

Brown_marmorated_stink_bug_(Halyomorpha_halys)_-_Back_-_USGS_Bee_Inventory_and_Monitoring_Laboratory

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.

Assassin_bug_exhausts_a_Tortoise_beetle_(5070517021)

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

...continue reading

The Gastric Mills of Crayfish and Other Crustaceans

Smoke_Hole_-_crayfish_2

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.

...continue reading

The Infinite Spider Blog: Origin of a Name

3409

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?

042

...continue reading

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

pond watching

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.

...continue reading

What's That? Identifying Preying Mantis Egg Cases

Flicker Lori Erickson

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.

flicker Mike maehr

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.

Mantis_ootheca_Sliced_open_(Hierodula_patellifera)

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.

John Tann flicker

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

Gino Zhand flicker sharing

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

New_Zealand_Mantis_(Orthodera_novaezealandiae)_laying_eggs

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

Miomantis_caffra_laying_egg_case

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

Diatoms_through_the_microscope

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.

diatom wiki

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.

diatomite mine in CA AlishaV flicker

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.

DSCF0017

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

DSCF3641

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.

Dr. E.

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.

ASU website

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)

ant antics

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

are you an ant

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

ant 2

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

EO Wils

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

DSCF5586

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.

...continue reading

Predatory Bird Beaks: Featuring Tomial Teeth and Cranial Kinesis

DSCF3956

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.

DSCF3953

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.

DSCF3862

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.

DSCF3856

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

SKUNKCABBAGE-MOSS-400X575

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.

Eastern_Skunk_Cabbage_along_brook_in_sprintime

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.

Colony_of_Eastern_Skunk_Cabbage_in_Imazu_Takashima_Shiga_pref07bs1800

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).

...continue reading

Tardigrades: Learning About Water Bears and Resources for Teaching

Water bear flicker SaguaroNPS

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.

Waterbear

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.

...continue reading

What To Do If You Find a Baby Bird

Baby_Bird_in_the_Grass_by_Monique_Haen

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;

...continue reading

Leopard Slug Mating is Well....Strangely Beautiful

Northdevonfarmer flicker

Leopard slugs can be quite large, this is a beautiful specimen (Photo: Flicker Sharing, NorthDevonFarmer)

or "Ewwww, I Can't Look Away"

So once in a while I have to veer off track and bring you something completely different (much like my previous post on 50 foot cockroaches). Today I want to share with you something so gross and disgusting that it's almost beautiful (sort of like hairless cats and Shar pei dogs), leopard slug mating. Now for those of you that are gardeners you probably find leopard slugs (Limax maxiumus) a great nuisance that eats your vegetables and leaves slimy trails everywhere, but they are really much more complex (and a good cup of stale beer put out at night will take care of the problem).

Slugs 101

All slugs and snails are in the phylum Mollusca, along with squid, clams, and octopi. Slugs are gastropods, literally meaning "foot mouth". Leopard slugs have a noticeable mantle on their backs and in almost all species it's black spotted. They also have two optic tentacles with eye spots on the tips and two below them for feeding and tasting. Their anal opening is under the mantle (on the right side of the head) and they are hermaphrodites with both male and female genitalia.

Slug_parts

Anatomy of a slug (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Also on their mantle is a large hole or respiratory opening (called the pneumostome) that leads to lung-like tissue for respiration. Their respiratory opening opens and closes at regular intervals to prevent dehydration. Slugs glide along on a large muscular foot. The leading edge of the foot is called the "skirt."  Mucus is produced in glands on the "sole" of the foot. This mucus has specific pheromones that attract other slugs and also acts as a signal, trail marker, and travel lubricant. Underneath the smallest pair of tentacles is the rasping and chewing mouth part that are used to chew plants and vegetation.

...continue reading

Natural Egg Dying for Easter

Eastereggs_ostereier

Naturally dyed Easter eggs (Photo: Wiki commons)

Do-It-Yourself Egg Dying At Home

It's Spring, and with the emergence of the crocus and daffodil it's also time to think about Easter and egg dying. If you're like me then growing up then you probably used the little colored pellets dissolved in vinegar and water to dye your eggs. It was the tradition. Long before there were pre-made dye pellets people used natural coloring for eggs. Today's post is all about how you can make your own dyes from foods and household objects. The nice thing about natural egg dying is that you can compost all of the materials you use to make the dyes and it's OK to eat the eggs after they are dyed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here are some examples of naturally dyed eggs (Photo: Karen McDonald)

...continue reading

Introducing the American Woodcock, or Timberdoodle, the True Sign of Spring

American woodcock flicker tombenson76

Timberdoodle Natural History

One of the sure signs of Spring in this region is the "speent" of the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) calling at night, and their silhouetted flight with spiraling sing song wings as they ascend and descend against the slowly falling dusk. The American woodcock has many  names but the most popular is the timberdoodle. These birds are stocky brown and mottled to match leaf litter coloring, about the size of a pigeon but with a rounded stocky body and broad chest with a tapering and barely noticeable tail. They are actually shorebirds that have converted their hunting methods from using their short necks and long curved beaks to probe in the mud for clams, to probing in the mud for worms, insects, and other creatures in leaf litter. Their beak is flexible and can bend slightly to allow it to move around in worm burrows and under ground (check out "speenting" video below, you can see the beak flex slightly while the male is calling).

...continue reading

The Case of the Disappearing Naturalists

220px-Beatrix_Potter1Beatrix Potter was a children's author, naturalist, and mycologist (studied fungus and mushrooms).

Those with Naturalist Skills Are Becoming Few and Far Between

During an interview I was asked about why I represented this blog as a resource for naturalists and educators. The interviewer was driving at the idea of, “What is a naturalist?" Because you rarely hear the term anymore. I started really chewing on this idea because it’s something that has been rattling around in the back of my head for a long time. I’ve noticed that naturalists seem to be a dying breed. Anecdotally it appears that there is a clear decline in those dedicated to natural history. Why are naturalists disappearing?

...continue reading

Identification Tips for Brown Spiders of the Eastern US

300px-20071030_Wolf_Spider_Carrying_Egg_Sac_(Cropped)

A wolf spider carrying its egg sac. (Photo: Wiki commons)

Knowing What is and is Not A Brown Recluse or Wolf Spider

I'm often amazed at the number of times I've been outdoors with someone and when we see a brown spider, immediately someone says, "Look, there's a wolf spider." I have to admit, I hate identifying "little brown jobs" or LBJs (a term we use commonly for brown sparrows when birding) because it's hard to find the fine distinctions between species, especially when the creatures are moving,  or you're just skeezed out by the hairy eight legged creature crawling across your floor. However, it is important to understand that not all brown spiders are wolf spiders. There are many different types of brown spiders and this blog post will help you begin to differentiate between them. I'm going to be writing mostly about the spiders common to Eastern and Mid-western North America, because this is my home range, but there is some overlap with Western species.

A great starting place to learn spider ID and to become familiar with their body parts, names, and  the eye placement of spiders is on the website "Spider Identification Guide." I am particularly fond of their great graphic on the 25 different eye patterns you can find on spiders (I wonder if they make this in poster form?). Begin with the basics of spider anatomy on their website if you need a refresher. They also have a great guide for finding spiders by region and color. Check out their page on "Brown Spiders" for a quick browse of the diversity out there.

...continue reading

Distinguishing the Differences Between Rabbits and Rodents: Why Rabbits are Not Rodents

easter rabbit wiki

Photo: Wiki Commons

It's All In The Teeth...Well, Actually There's More.....

The iconic image of spring is that of rabbits and bunnies, and for those with a chocolate penchant the Cadbury bunny and his chocolate eggs.  In honor of Spring I decided it's time for a post on the confusion I commonly find, when leading programs, about why rabbits are not rodents. First, there's a wide range of rodents living in the world, in fact it's the largest class of mammals. They're everywhere and on nearly every continent. Rodents can range in size from .25 oz (the African pygmy mouse) to the capybara which can weigh from 150-200 lbs!

Gnagarnas_tandsystem,_Nordisk_familjebok

Notice in this drawing how the rodent's incisors don't have a root and grow continually. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The order Rodentia, from which rodents get their name, derives from the Latin meaning "to gnaw or chew." This is what makes them unique, their teeth. Dentition is a commonly used feature for biologists to sort animals into families and orders. Rodents are specialized gnawers. They all have one set of upper and lower incisors (front teeth) and varying numbers of molars and per-molars (flat teeth in the back of the mouth) with a gap in-between called the diastema. Rodents lack canine teeth. The outer surface of rodent incisors is covered with enamel which ranges from orange to orangish-yellow in coloring (If you find a skull with these colors on the incisors it's always a rodent). It's thought that this coloring is due to strengthening by the addition of iron and minerals. The front of the tooth is very hard compared to the back of the tooth which is covered in dentin, a soft pulpy material. Unlike humans, whose teeth stop growing when they reach a certain stage, a rodent's incisors erupt/grow continually. This is called indeterminate growth. The tooth can continually grow because the base of a rodent's incisors is rootless and open so the tooth keeps growing. Human teeth have roots and are mostly closed off because the teeth do not need to grow anymore.

...continue reading

An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North

Journey North 3

Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone

Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes

Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.

journey north 1

Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.

...continue reading

Want to Learn Frog Calls? Resources for Mid-West to Eastern North America

DSCF6223

Cricket frog (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Where To Find Helpful Frog Call Resources

As Spring nears It's time to consider brushing up on your frog calls, either for personal fun or so that you can help with amphibian surveys. There's nothing like being able to pick out specific species of frogs by their calls. It's like learning the notes of music. Now I'll admit that I'm rusty, every year Spring rolls around and I find myself dragging out the ear buds and MP3 and practicing. I usually get a whole bunch wrong, but it's fun relearning.

Let's refresh on the basics. Most often it's only the male frogs call, and calls are species specific though there are dialects by region (croak, croak, croak yall). Dialects allow males to self-sort and avoid competing with males from other areas that are far away or outside their region. Male frogs call to attract mates and to advertise their fitness to females. Mostly mating is done at night under cover of darkness so frogs use vocalizations instead of visual displays. Calls are produced in the larynx and are amplified by one or more vocal sacs. These sacs are thin membranes of skin that are either directly under the chin or extending from chin to mouth. Female frogs may respond to the males to encourage their advances with short croaks or other sounds (some females object quite vocally if they don't find the male's advances desired).

Lithobates_pipiens N. leopard wiki

Northern Leopard Frog (Photo: Wiki Commons)

When many frogs call at once it's called a "chorus."  Choruses can be quite loud, and the pitch and loudness may increase if there is heavy traffic or noise nearby. Male frogs conserve energy when rivals are not near-by and they have "low energy" calls that simply establish their territory. When competition is high they expend more energy to call more loudly, but what is unique is that they call in a species specific pattern with the other males. This allows all males to be heard without being completely drowned out. This type of cooperation is a unique strategy in the animal kingdom shared by vocal insects and frogs (for those with a mad pash. for reading scientific papers check out this doozy on the call-timing algorithm of the white-lipped frog).  There are probably multiple reasons for this strategy but most likely it has to do with increasing fitness by decreasing energy expended calling, because everyone gets a chance.

Now let's get on to the resources you need to brush up or even learn frog calls for the first time. There are a few things you might find useful before you start.

...continue reading

Winter Searching for Paper Wasp and Yellow Jacket Nests

DSCF3612

An aerial paper nest made by yellow jackets. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Exploring Paper Wasp Nests (and yellow jackets too!)

Winter is the perfect time to look for things that are typically hard to see when trees are in leaf. This includes birds, mistletoe, and wasp nests. It's not unusual to see yellow jacket nests that are grey, round, and large in the upper branches of trees, but how much do we really know about paper wasps and yellow jackets? Are they still in there over the winter? Is it safe to approach? Let's look at these fascinating creatures in more detail.

...continue reading

Salamander Emergence is Coming Soon, Reptile and Amphibian Hunting Tips

DSCF1893

Spotted salamander (gravid) found during nocturnal survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Herp. Hunting Etiquette Tips for Safe Nocturnal Searches This Spring

Spring thaw is just around the corner, and although it's hard to believe the salamanders will be moving soon they will be coming out withing the next few weeks. Conditions have to be just right for salamanders to migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding ponds. Some of the earliest movers for the Eastern US region are the spotted salamanders though marbles and others are close behind.

To view these early emergent visitors you should look for the the perfect conditions (often nocturnal, including at least 45-50 degree temperatures (Celsius), light rain, and lengthening days. Usually these conditions in our region (Maryland) are met around the second or third week of February though this can be variable from year to year. It's not unheard of to see salamanders moving through snow piles to reach their ponds.

There are environmentally friendly ways to look for salamanders and early herps (meaning the study of reptiles and amphibians, short for herpetological), and methods that can cause major harm to an ecosystem. This post is about spring herp hunting etiquette.

...continue reading

Changing Consciousness from Consumerism to Gift-Thinking Awareness

braiding sweet grass coverThe Possibility of Deviating from "Ownership" to "Responsibility."

I like to diversify my posts a bit, and I thought it would be interesting to share a new, yet old, idea that I came across in a book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman, botanist and ecologist. I haven't made it all the way through her book, because it's so full of wisdom and ideas that I enjoy savoring each chapter, reading it, putting it down, absorbing it, and then coming back. It's a slow process, but one I enjoy with good books.

The most recent chapter that I read was, "The Gift of Strawberries." In this chapter Kimmerer discusses the bounty and joy of picking wild strawberries and the gift of fruit.  As a child she picked wild strawberries and then gave them to their mother to bake as a special gift for their father. In the chapter she states, "Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate." The idea that she develops is that the way that an object comes to you, the relationship of how you acquire it,  colors how you use and own it. In modern store bought consumerism, objects that are bought do not have an "inherent obligation" to them because the reciprocity ends when you pay for that object. There is no relationship established between the manufacturer and the buyer. However, the author goes on to explain, when the relationship changes, from producer and consumer to giver and receiver, then a bond is created between the two people. In a "gift economy" there is no capital, or collateral. What develops instead is not "something for nothing" but a form of obligation between individuals. The gifts are not free because they come with an obligation to reciprocate by either giving back to the giver, giving the gift to someone else (thus increasing the value), or not asking for "too much" because what you are receiving is a gift.

...continue reading

Guest Blog by Teacher Ann Johnson Part 2: Inquiring Minds Want to Know-- What is Inquiry Based Science?

DSCF7572

Dragonfly being held during a hands-on science inquiry class (Photo: Karen McDonald)

An Exploration of the Characteristics of Inquiry Based Science

If you didn't read Part 1 of Ann's series  you may want to start by reading her first article about Inquiry Based learning, otherwise, read on!

Picture the following scenarios.....

In a classroom discussion about magnets, one student wonders, “Will magnets work under water?”  Over the next few days, the class debates the question and designs and executes an experiment to get some answers.  Okay, yes, they will work underwater. But then they continue, “What about this statement in our text that says some materials WILL block magnets?”  If water won’t do it, what about plastic, or glass, or wood, or rubber, or cloth, or another magnet?  And they are back to the drawing board, designing more experiments to test these materials, wondering if magnets work through gases and liquids, but not solids, trying ice in place of water and on, and on, and on.  Finally, as a class we cry uncle – we can’t find anything that will block our magnets, and a very eager class is finally given permission to do a little research on the topic.

Another class is looking at a chart in our science text which illustrates the classification of animals by using the example of a wolf.  It starts at the kingdom level and works its way down, gradually dropping all the organisms that don’t cut it as a wolf. After a few levels, we’re left with the cats and the wolf, the dog, and the fox.  The cats get dumped in the next round.  Makes sense.  But in the next level, the fox is dropped with the explanation that this level contains only “dog like” animals. Now we’ve used this chart for years and years, and most of the time, the students smile and nod, and we move on.  But this class is different – they’ve been “inquiring” all year long, and are used to questioning their text, their teacher, and themselves!  When it seems like the fox has just been ousted from the club randomly, they start to wonder. “What is it about the fox that makes it less doggy than the wolf?”  “If it’s not a cat, and not a dog, what is it?  Where does the fox fit in?”   For the next several days the class passionately debates the issue and delves deeply into the process of scientific classification. What specific traits make a dog a dog, and a cat a cat?  Where does the fox fit in with these other animals?  What traits make the cut into “dogginess” or “catness” and who decided all these rules?  It is a fascinating journey

...continue reading

How Do Birds With Long Necks Keep Their Feathers Clean? The Answer, Pectinate Toes with Built in Combs In Their Toenails

Judy Bissett heron feet

Great blue heron feet (Photo: Judy Bissett)

A Short Description of Pectinate Toes

Nature is full of wonderful adaptations that answer questions that we as humans haven't even thought to ask, but that concern the animals they involve daily. One of those questions, that led to this blog post, was, "How do birds with long necks and beaks preen their heads to keep them looking good and the feathers aligned?" After a quick bit of digging, and checking out the stuffed and mounted great blue heron in our education center, I came up with the answer. They use their toes. More specifically they have what are called pectinate toes.

DSCF4421(1)

Pectinate toe of a great blue hear, notice comb like structures (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Pectinate toes are usually found in birds of the Order Ciconiiformes and the family Ardeidae which includes herons, egrets, and bitterns. There are a few other species of birds that have pectinate toes, such as barn owls and night jars such as common night hawks. A pectinate toe is usually the longest forward facing toe on a bird's foot, and can be found on one or both feet. This toe has a special toenail with serration or ridges on the inner edge that closely resemble a comb. The comb is thought to help with preening, cleaning and straightening feathers, removing feather sheaths, and helping to keep the bird aerodynamic. I think it's probably also for a really good scritch on those itchy bits that are out of reach by the beak.

Photographing the pectinate toe, or even getting close enough to see one, is nearly impossible. However, if you can find mounted specimens of the birds or a friendly wildlife rehabber that doesn't mind showing you bird toes you might be able to sneak a peek. One of the best ways to see the toe in action is to watch the birds during a grooming session and see how they use their feet and toes.

DSCF4413

Pectinate toe of a great blue heron (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Check out Dan Tallman's Bird Blog for some more great pictures of pectinate toes on herons and a nighthawk. Check out Owl Foundation website for a picture of a barn owl pectinate talon.