I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. I have also been a curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a contract curriculum writer for the Discovery Channel. In my spare time I am a blogger here at "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com), a science and nature blog for naturalists and outdoor educators. I love rowing crew, birding, hiking, kayaking, and being outdoors. My undergraduate degrees are in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and my graduate degree is in Biology. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD.
What's the Difference Between Moles, Voles, and Shrews?
Eastern mole (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Dave GovoniL)
A Quick Chart and Guide
I hate it when the first online search results for any creature involves their death and killing, and moles, voles, and shrews are no exception. This post will walk you through the differences between these three distinct types of animals that show up in yards but that are often confused and misunderstood. I won't give you management information here, that's up to you, but at least this will help you understand the animals you may be living around and with.
Great blue heron on trail camera (Photo: McDonald)
Wildlife Watching Unobtrusively
I find it a personal challenge to give gifts that will be meaningful and used well beyond the occasion when the gift was given. This Christmas I decided to buy a trail camera for my partner. In all fairness I thought it might be a good family gift too, mainly because I work in environmental education and I was also excited to see how one works and the potential use for educational programs or observations. What follows is a short article on my observations and suggestions for personal or educational uses of a trail camera (or multiple cameras).
I didn't really plan on writing about stomach eversion until I began researching how owls form pellets and I ran across some interesting information about frogs and their ability to burp up their entire stomachs. I started to follow this thread of research and thought I'd share with you information about stomach eversion in five different animals that I found absolutely fascinating. You'll probably never really use this information at polite cocktail gatherings but will make for great "one up" gross stories while drinking beer with friends.
Have you ever wandered around a parking lot, sidewalk, or trail in the fall and seen a Wooly Bear caterpillar? They're the familiar fuzzy orange and black caterpillars that everyone dodges stepping on and that kids love to pick up and play with.
Adult male Isabella Tiger Moth (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, Flicker Sharing).
These fuzzy wee beasties are technically called the "Banded Woolly Bear" and they are the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The adult moth isn't very striking. It has golden-brown wings. They also have faint darker brown lines on their wings and the females have a pinkish-orange hind wing. The nice thing is that the caterpillar isn't a crop pest and mostly feeds on common deciduous forest trees such as elm, ash, low growing herbs, and other forest plants (they're not very picky and tend to sat away from gardens).
THE WOOLLY BEAR MYTH
Now most people have heard the myth that the woolly bear caterpillar can predict winter's length and intensity based on how much black is on them or how big the orange band is around their middle. This is really an old wives tale because as the caterpillar grows, during each molt (or shedding of its skin) the fuzzy black tips become less and less pronounced and the orange band grows. So, the caterpillar color barometer is really subjective based on which one you found and what molt phase it's in. Not very reliable if you ask me.
Adult woolly bear caterpillar (Photo: Wiki Commons)
So, seeing all those fuzzy cute woolly bear caterpillars got me to thinking and wondering, if they don't predict winter, what exactly do they do to over-winter? Where do they go? How do they survive? Seeing as they can't crawl very far they have to have some strategy to make it through freezing conditions. After all they are found all the way from the Arctic to North America and Mexico.
Bold jumping spider (Photo: Flicker sharing, Tibor Nagy)
Little Spider, Big Attitude
I'll admit it, I'm a big fan of little spiders, especially little wee hairy ones with big attitudes. That's why I wanted to feature the bold jumping spider Phidippus audax (say it with me, fid-DIP-us Ow-dax) for today's post. The name alone says it all, they're small spiders, about the size of those removable pencil erasers on mechanical pencils (6-13 mm), but they've got attitude enough for a mega-spider.
Have you ever been digging in the garden or your flower bed and come across a HUGE grub or large black beetle? If you've ever spent any time digging around outside or under logs in the Eastern US (or Midwest) then you've probably encountered our guest beetle for today, the Bess beetle or Bess bug . Their Latin name is Odontotaenius disjunctus (O-don-tote-a-knee-us dis-junk-tus). Odon means "tooth" and taeni means "band" or "ribbon". This refers to the bands of teeth on their bodies (abdomen and wings) that they use to make sound. Dis refers to "separate", "double" or "two", and junc refers to a "rush" or "reed". This may reference that they sound like rushes or reeds rubbed together.
Bess beetle (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Bess beetles are one of the largest beetles you can find (1.2-1.6" long) and can be quite startling. Their backs look like shiny patent-leather dress shoes with legs (there's an image for you). Their bellies have golden hairs and their head has a single horn. Bess beetles are in the scarab super-family (Scarabaeoidea), and there are over 500 species around the world. The Bess beetles of North America (Odontotaenius disjunctus) are one of the few scarabs in the US. Look carefully and you can see the characteristic scarab looking club-like antennae on their head.
Bess beetle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Cotinis)
The common Bess beetle name probably comes from the the early English term buss meaning "kiss" or the French term baiser or evenune bise, which also means "to kiss." Both sound very close to "Bess." This name may attributed to the noise that the beetles make when they're startled or feel threatened. It's akin to a "kissy-sound," like what you'd make when making fun of your older brother kissing his girlfriend or the practice smooches you did as a kid in the mirror. The sound is made much like how a cricket makes sound, by rubbing body segments together, a process called stridulation (st-rid-you-lay-shun). Listen to this...
If you're like my friends then the thought of finding a spider in your house causes an immediate visceral response, least of which would be putting on boots and grabbing the Raid can. I know I can't change most people's minds, but I can at least help you identify the spiders you might find and reassure you that they are (for the most part) harmless and quite beneficial. In today's post I'm going to give you a quick guide to the types of spiders commonly found in and around homes in the Eastern United States. These spiders are often referred to as "common house spiders" but the term "house spider" is a bit misleading, and how common they are depends on where you live and the environment in and around your home.
How many comedies have you watched where someone was stung by a jellyfish and the "hero" very selflessly offers to pee on the sting site? It really is just a comedy line, there is no truth in the myth and it can even make things worse! Yes, research as been done on this, and there's a great article in "Scientific American." If you'd like to read it, click here. For this article I'm going to do two things: 1) Explain what happens when you get stung by a jellyfish and 2) Give you some treatment options.
Fairy ring or mushroom circle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Unukorono)
Magic or Mundane?
One of the magic parts of summer, for me, is the appearance of mushroom circles and lightening bugs. Fairy rings have captured imaginations around the world, and they are found in folklore from Scandinavia to Europe and North America. They're even included in fairy tales called "The Fairy Ring: A Collection of Tales and Traditions" by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1857).
There's some neat biology around mushroom circles (also called elf circles or pixie rings), but it makes them no less magical. So let's dive into to explore what is known about them.
Sometimes there's an irony to being a blog writer. When I was researching primary sources for information about wineberry vines (Rubus phoenicolasius, pronounced Rue-bus foe-knee-col-ass-e-us), I found out that the majority of the field research has been done by researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where I work. To be fair, there are 16-19 research laboratories at any given time and over 200 on staff, so individual projects and research is hard to keep up with. Being at SERC is what has inspired my interest in the wineberry, because it is a widespread plant that produces fruit in July and has become a significant symbol of summer for me and the staff and volunteers I work with.
Recently I had the good fortune to be paddling just past dinner time, in the cool twilight of sunset with some friends. We noticed fins sticking up out of the shallow waters of the Bay (Chesapeake Bay to be exact). Soon, we found ourselves in the middle of a nice school of cownose rays. They were just at the surface of the water, splishing and splashing their wings, while diving back down to blow and suck water to expose tasty clams. Several hit the bottom of my kayak. Now for some people this might be a terrifying sight, and at least one of our paddlers didn't find the "magic" in it that I did (though here's a video of what one looks like, imagine this magnified by about 50 rays).
After posting on social media I discovered a general fear of the gentle cownose rays that I didn't realize existed, specifically many people wanted to know, "can a cownose ray sting and hurt you?" To answer this questions I've prepare five basic facts for you.
As a child you learned about bees and how they fly from flower to flower pollinating the plants, and that they carry the pollen on the hairs of their legs while some even carry it on hairs their bottoms (called scopa). However, there's another way that bees can pollinate that most people don't know about and its immanently useful for gardeners to be familiar with. The process is called sonication or buzz pollination.
Owl at night (Photo: Wiki Commons, Martin Mecnarowski).
Owl Hearing Explained
Nature never does anything without a reason and there’s a reason for everything that birds do, such as why hawks and eagles hunt during the day and most owls hunt at night. In ecology lingo it’s called “habitat partitioning,” which means using different parts of the habitat at different times or in different ways and not overlapping. This allows predatory birds like eagles and hawks to avoid conflict, and mice to be terrified 24 hours a day (it’s rough being lowest on the food chain).
Hunting at night isn’t nearly as simple as hunting during the day. Night hunters can’t use their eyesight very well (except during times of the full moon), prey animals can hear them coming (because it’s more still), and they have to land on a scampering wee beastie that is moving lightning fast (in, under, and around things) on the forest floor (or flying) with accuracy. Not much to ask eh? Owls are spectacular hunters, and I’ve come to appreciate their adaptations for catching prey, in particular their accuracy and hearing. That's why I thought I'd do a post on how an owl hears.
I don't often do blog posts that are just images, but occasionally I get inspired, so today I want to share with you images I've taken of spring here in the Eastern US. I know many of you are snow-bound right now, or you may live in the Midwest or Western US. In an attempt to share with you all the beauties here, I have created a photo gallery of images from here on the Chesapeake Bay. Enjoy!
It's Spring, and despite the weather doing its bipolar dance of 40's to 70's and back, the animals and plants are already starting to bloom, call, sing, mate, and lay eggs. Here where I live spring peepers are vociferously calling every night. Soon they will be joined by cricket frogs, bull frogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, grey tree frogs, pickerel frogs, wood frogs, and toads. Already there are quite a few tadpoles of mixed origin gracing our vernal pools and ponds, which leads me to today's post about tadpoles. Tadpoles are the larval stage of amphibians. Most people only think about tadpoles as being frogs, but don't leave out their moist cousins (which have larval tadpole stags too) such as salamanders and toads. With that said, let's dive into the world of tadpoles.
Living in the nation's capitol comes with a certain panache of patriotism, and with that DC has gone bald eagle crazy for the latest round of chicks that have hatched at the National Arboretum. You can watch every move of mom and dad eagle, every pip of the eggs hatching, and the woozy wobbling of the young in real time on their eagle cam (short for camera). It's fascinating, and unpredictable. I would also venture it's something like watching fish in a tank, it is relaxing and lowers blood pressure too. In light of this I thought it would be useful to list some of the best live eagle cams on the web.
Spring peeper sitting on a finger (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Speklet)
Spring Peeper Basics
As surely as crocuses and daffodils mark the arrival of spring, so too do the calls of spring peepers (Pseudacris cruicifer). If you live in the Eastern US you're hearing the northern spring peeper (Pseudacris cruicifer crucifer), and if you live in the Southeastern US (roughly from Texas and Georgia to Florida, along the Gulf coast) then you might be hearing the southern spring peeper (Pseudacris cruicifer bartramiana). Both subspecies belong to a genus of frogs in the family Haylidae (hay-la-day), which is commonly known as the "chorus frog" family. These guys can belt it out! There are mountain chorus frogs, upland chorus frogs, striped chorus frogs, and more. Remember the singing frog from Bugs Bunny? Chorus frogs, and spring peepers, would qualify as champs up there with this guy.
If you're like me, you hike through the woods looking around for neat rocks, stones, shells, and feathers just like a magpie. I have a reason to collect, because I teach with what I find, so I don't just pick up stuff (and my institution has a permit for whatever I collect). However, for many people they just like to look for neat things in the woods as they hike or seek solitude. One of the most popular posts on this site has been about the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Feather Atlas. I'll include more information about that particular resource, but I wanted to start with a quick primer on the parts of a feather, and what you should be looking at when you find a feather and how to ID it.
During the Winter and early Spring, it's often hard to find anything that is green in this part of the Eastern US, outside of a few evergreen ferns, scattered cedar trees, and holly trees. However, there is still color in the woods, on the trunks of trees and on rocks, walls, and boulders. It comes from lichens. Lichens are fascinating, because they look so simple and boring when you first see them, but if you dig just a bit deeper you'll find they're really quite amazing, so let's dig into lichenology.
Fill Ins for Science Cards: Cards Against Humanity
An example of cards from "Cards Against Humanity" (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Science Fill Ins for Blank Cards
I thought it would be fun to take a break from the usual blog post and try something a bit different. It's just past Christmas and many of us spent the holidays with family and friends, playing games, talking, and eating. One of the challenges that some friends of mine issued was creating our own deck of funny cards related to the game "Cards Against Humanity " (CAH).
For those of you that aren't familiar with the game, it involves selecting a black card from the deck and reading it aloud, and then everyone in the group answers the question on the card from a selection of white cards in their hands. The white cards have wildly inapproprite and non PC answers. Granted, the game is very offensive to almost everyone, which is why it's funny. I ended up removing some of the more offensive cards on principle, and we always have rules about being able to take out cards or put them back in the deck if they cross a personal line. However, the game can be fun and rowdy.
I also like that CAH donates a good portion of their profits to non-profits. I was surprised to find that a teacher friend of mine had her entire third grade "Go Fund Me" project funded by CAH. It seems appropriate that it was owl pellets! So I encourage folks to actually buy the game.
With that said, I did like their science expansion pack, but I thought it was a bit light, so for today's post I'm going to give you good fill ins for blank cards that come with the game, or your own science themed party.
Lion's Mane Jellyfish: Winter Visitors to the Chesapeake Bay
Lion's Mane jellyfish (Photo: Aplonid, Flicker Sharing).
Lion's Mane or Winter Jellyfish
As a kayaker and rower I tend to stay on the water as long as safely possible, right up until water and air temperatures become unsafe without a dry suit. Winter paddling and being on the water can be great fun, especially when you look for winter visitors that may be here for the season. One such visitor is the lion's mane jellyfish or winter jelly. Here in the Chesapeake Bay it's a common visitor to our waters in cold months. Many of my friends send me pictures asking exactly what they're seeing, and why there are jellyfish moving in the waters in winter, so I thought a post about these unique invertebrates might be in order.
Mistletoe berries from the UK (Photo: Wiki Commons).
The Irony of Mistletoe As the "Kissing Plant"
Evergreens have long been a symbol of winter and holiday celebrations around the new year. Evergreen boughs are brought inside, holly trees and their red berries seem festive, and even Christmas ferns are used for decorations. There's one evergreen that has especially stood out over the years, and that's mistletoe. Today's post is all about this unique plant, and why it's ironic that this particular evergreen is associated with lovers and "kissing under the mistletoe" traditions.
I'm often asked for natural history themed reading selections or books that might be good for a science/nature book club. I know there are many different flavors of science and what people like to read, but I thought I'd offer a list of books that I've read or those that are good for conversations in nature-related book clubs. This list is largely populated by the "Natural Selections" reading list from the Cape Henlopen book group I belonged to for years. I miss those late night discussions, they were wonderful. So for those of you thinking of buying books for loved ones, starting a book club, looking to expand your library, or for some fun winter reading, here's a list.
Short-eared owl (Photo: Flicker Sharing Rick Leche)
Introduction to the Short-eared Owl and What To Look For
Most people are pretty familiar with at least some of the owls of North America, including barn owls (big, white pretty owl), barred owls (the ones that say "who cooks for you" when they hoot), great horned owls (the really big ones that make characteristics hooting), screech owls (cute little fuzzy things that sound terrifying, like whinnying horses), and of course snowy owls (made famous by Harry Potter). However, there's an owl that is just as common that few people know about, and it is currently coming down from Canada and the Arctic, visiting all of North America. It is the short-eared owl. In this post I'll tell you what to look for and where, so you can start to keep an eye out for amazingly beautiful owls, because they're actually easier to see than most other owls.
Buster Wigglebottom the First doing his best impression of a pretzel, while purring. (Photo: Karen McDonald).
Acoustic Healing and Purr Therapy
Whether your a cat person, a dog person, or a friend to other types of animals, you may soon come to appreciate the common household cat for something other than sitting in your lap and shedding. Researchers are conducting studies on cat purring as a method for healing bones, encouraging blood flow, the repair of muscles and encouraging tissue regeneration. Your trip to the doctor may some day include purr therapy.
Seedlings growing in a tray (Photo: Wiki Commons).
What Exactly is Thigmomorphogenesis?
I've always been one of those educators that hates big "sciencey" words that scare students and visitors when they come to my programs. Long words with complex Latin roots can lose attention and seem overwhelming to the average reader too. However, as a philosophy major and scientist I have a deep love of the break-down of words and their etymology. Today's word is just too good to pass up. It's an important ecological concept critical to those who own gardens and grow plants.
It's nearing Thanksgiving and suddenly you start seeing see pictures of tables decorated with turkeys, vegetables, sweet potato pies, fall leaves. All that's fine, but then there's a thing that thing that looks like a woven basket with fruit and nuts spilling out. How the heck did that make it onto the table? Where did it come from? Sure, it looks like a horn or some such but what is it?
Big Brown Bat "Sweetie" (Photo: Matt Reinbold, Flicker Sharing).
Brown Bats 101
You can't look at Halloween decorations without seeing bats hanging everywhere. They are often lumped with spiders and black cats and relegated to the "scary things" category. Like many "scary" things, bats really aren't that bad if you understand a little bit about them. This is why I want to introduce you to brown bats, a good place to start on your way to appreciating our bat neighbors. After all, Bat Week is October 25th-October 31st (Have you planned your party yet??)!
Little brown bats (Photo: Wiki Commons).
BATS AREN'T RODENTS
First, let's get this straight, bats are not rodents. If you question this simply throw a mouse in the air and see if it flies. Bats are the only flying mammals. The creature that comes closest are flying squirrels and they simply leap like demented nocturnal paragliders and then float around using the flaps of skin between their arms and legs as they go from tree to tree.
Marbled orb weaver (Photo: Ben Jackson, Flicker Sharing).
Identifying The Most Common Orange and Black Spider
It's fall here in the Eastern US, and time for my favorite spiders to start showing themselves. I admit a soft spot for these orange spiders, because they always signal fall and Halloween to me, a changing of the seasons if you will. So what is the most common orange and black spider you see right now? Most likely you are beginning to notice Araneus marmoreus, or the marbled orb weaver. It's a great name for a rather large and brightly colored spider.