Spider Legs: Hydraulics in Action

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Spiders are amazing works of engineering (Photo: Karen McDonald).

How Spider Legs Work

Let's face it, spiders are considered creepy by a large majority of people around the world. Yet when you ask them, most folks can't really name what it is about spiders that freaks them out so much. Usually explanations start with beady eyes, fangs, bites, or wrapping up their prey. Spider movement is also at the top of the list. They scuttle and scurry around at night (especially when you turn on the lights and they scamper off), jump, and generally run in a "creepy" way. But what makes their movement really foreign and creepy to us? The answer lies in two key elements of their anatomy, their skeleton and muscles.

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Tree Identification: The Arbor Day Field Guide

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Tree Identification: What Tree is That?

I know that trees aren't the fuzzy charismatic mega-fauna that most people adore and love, but they are an important part of our world, from ecosystem services to wood products and even the lowly toilet paper. Being able to walk into the woods and identify trees is like going into someone's home and saying hello to friends. It creates a familiarity with your surroundings and helps you to understand what is going on around you. For instance, the presence of willows means water and the presence of sweet gums means the land was probably disturbed in the not too distant past. All forests tell stories, you just have to know what trees you're looking at, and what their presence means.

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The Arbor Day website lets you choose your region in North America (Photo: Arbor Day Website).

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Science Toys for Kids

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Uncover Books have great 3-D books for kids.

Science Toys to Inspire Learning

One of the great things about being a science educator is that I never stop playing and learning, because it keeps my teaching fresh and fun. During the holidays I'm always amazed to see the new toys that pop up, many of which I wish were around when I was a kid!  So, for those of you considering holiday gifts around science, nature, learning or STEM here is a list of some of my favorites this year. (Remember, you can always find a great list of science and nature education/toy providers in the tab "Science Teaching Supplies and Nature Gifts" ). Click on each toy's name to be taken to a site that carries it.

Muscle Wire Moving Hand Kit ($30)

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This toy is great, because it involves science and technology, along with a bit of human physiology. It's very simple, but sure to entertain. It's a robot hand, complete with LED lights that light up when the hand moves. Warning though, you'll need a soldering iron for this one, so it's best for older kids under supervision (ages 12+).

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The Cranberry: Natural History and Home Made Cranberry Sauce Recipe

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Cranberries (Photo: Wiki Commons).

What's the story of cranberries?

Cranberries are a common side for holiday dishes in North America, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The red berries are tart and appropriately colored for the season with a bright red color. For many the only thing they may think of when they prepare cranberries is that sucking sound that the solid mass of cranberry makes as it slides out of the can. But, If you're like me, you might like to make home made cranberry sauce, or know a bit more about where those berries came from. I firmly believe in knowing about what you eat, how it grows, and how it is produced. So, in this light, much like the Turkey Snood post, we'll start this one with a short natural history of the cranberry and follow up with a  homemade cranberry sauce recipe that has been in our family for a long time. At the end of the post I'll also provide you with some neat resources for teaching about cranberries in the classroom or on an interpretive hike.

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FEATHERED FEATURE: TURKEY SNOODS

(A Special Early-Bird Thanksgiving Edition of the Infinite Spider Blog)

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What is a turkey snood and why do turkeys care?

By Karen McDonald and guest writer Anne Littlewolf

I couldn't resist, how fun is the word snood? It's a great word to throw out at the Thanksgiving dinner table, for parties, or when exchanging biological insults with your friends (yes, there are those of us that do this). Today's post will be in two parts, in the first part we'll examine exactly what a turkey snood is and why female turkeys care, and in the second part we'll provide you with some holiday tips for making sure your Thanksgiving turkey is tender and moist so you don't get snoody insults.

Let's start with a few key terms. A female turkey is a hen, a mature male is a gobbler, and a juvenile male is a jake. Baby turkeys are called poults. You can see the physical differences between jakes and gobblers in the images below.

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A juvenile male turkey (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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An adult male turkey or gobbler (Photo: Wiki Commons).

  • Hens are usually brownish with buffy tipped breast feathers, while gobblers usually look almost black in color, and their breast feathers are tipped with black.
  • Jakes and Gobblers both have beards or modified feathers that dangle from their chest (they look almost like miniature horse tails). Jake beards are about 2-5" long and gobbler beards are 5-12" long. About 10-20% of females can grow beards too, but it's not common.
  • When you look at the fanned tails of a jake v. a gobbler, you'll see that jakes have longer tail feathers in the center, while gobblers have tail feathers of equal length all the way around. Check out the jake in the far right corner of the picture below, see the longer tail feathers in the middle?
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Jakes and gobblers displaying to hens (Photo: Wiki commons).

I'm not going to go into sordid detail about the anatomy of wild turkeys, there are lots of great websites that have already done that, and I want to get to the snoods. So, if you'd like to know more, check out the National Wild Turkey Federation website.

So, What Is a Snood?

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Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Emerging Technologies Together

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Beetle wings and carapaces are a source of inspiration (Biomimicry) for materials in 3D printers. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Is That An Insect You're Wearing?

One of my greatest inspirations and passions in life is a field of science called biomimicry.  When people hear the term for the first time they usually think of animals or insects "mimicking" a plant or animal through camouflage, like a moth blending into tree bark. Biomimicry is more than this.   It is a combination of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering which looks to nature as a teacher to solve modern human design challenges. This is based on the idea that nature has had millions of years to work out design problems through evolutionary trial and error, using only naturally occurring and biodegradable materials. Biomimicry places value on the inherent wisdom and information that nature possesses, as opposed to what can be harvested, collected, or extracted from nature. The reason I like this field is because it brings together biologists, scientists, engineers, researchers, designers, those who make materials, design products, chemists, and more all to the same table, and all looking at nature differently. But how are biomimicry and 3D printing coming together?

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Women: Biology of Cold Hands and Feet

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Vintage postcard of a girl in winter. (Photo: Flicker sharing Cheryl Hicks)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Our Digits Are So Cold!

As the weather cools and the thermostats go up, a major distinction starts to arise between those who feel cold, and those who tend to run warm, and usually (though there are always exceptions) there's a major difference between the sexes. Guys, how many times have you been nice and warm, only to have your wife, girlfriend, or partner snuggle up and place her icy digits on you? Ladies, how nice is it to find that nice warm guy and just rest your icy numb fingers on him to warm up? Do you constantly deal with thermostat battles for how hot or cold it should be in the house? There is a clear reason why women get cold hands and feet, that's right, biology.

Let's face it, men and women are built differently, and there are some key differences in our physiology (From the US Army Institute of Environmental Medicine):

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Three Sisters Gardening: Nutrition and Culture

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An example of a Three Sister's garden (Photo: Sarah Braun Flicker Sharing).

The cultural and nutritional qualities of the Three Sisters

Guest Post: Anne Little Wolf with Karen McDonald

You may never have heard of the Three Sisters, but they are a part of most of our everyday lives, and as we enter the fall season you see them everywhere. The "sisters"  consist of maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (Cucurbita pepo). These three plants were staple crops of many of the Northeast Native American tribes in the late prehistoric and historic periods.  Evidence for these crops dates back to Central and South America, with histories in the more recent North American Southwest, Plains, and Eastern North America. They were transported to Europe, and Africa, where they are eaten and grown together, much as Native Americans still do in this country.

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How Many Eyes Does A Spider Have to Help It See?

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Jumping Spider eye close-up (Photo: Thomas Shahan Flicker sharing).

Spider Eye Counting

The short answer, it depends. For those of you who don't like spiders, I can see that getting up close and personal enough to count their eyes might be a bit daunting, that's why I'm writing this blog post. Spiders are amazing, and diverse, as well as being very beneficial for you and local ecosystems. To understand their eyes you have to understand their lifestyle. Here's a quick primer:

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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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