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.
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.
It's fall again, and time for pumpkins. When you're carving up that fleshy orange fruit consider not wasting the left over seeds and rind. Reducing food waste can be good for you, your wallet, and the environment. First, a few things you should know about pumpkins. The pumpkins that you buy for carving are NOT for cooking. These big pumpkins are specifically grown as ornamentation. If you're planning on making pumpkin pie then buy the smaller, less mealy, and sweater baking pumpkins in your grocers produce section. The big pumpkins that you carve are for just that, carving. However, the carving pumpkin's big seeds still make for a healthy fall treat. This leads to today's post, how to roast pumpkin seeds.
Hand Sanitizer Effectiveness on Bacteria and Viruses
It's barely October and like many poor souls who work with children I've already had my first round of a flu-like virus. It's nearly impossible to avoid when you have hundreds of kids coming through, coughing, sneezing, wiping their hands on their noses, and generally being boogery without even consciously thinking about spreading germs. When I visited my doctor one thing she suggested was using a lot of hand sanitizer along with hand washing. So that started me wondering, how does hand sanitizer work? And, how effective is hand sanitizer on viruses and bacteria?
Why Does a Woodpecker Not Bash Its Brains In When It Pecks?
Pileated Woodpecker (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Protections of the Woodpecker for Pecking
Have you ever seen a flicker or woodpecker pounding away at bark, or annoyingly on a tin roof, and wondered how in the world they can do that without bashing in their brains? After all, the force of that is measured at over 1,000x the force of gravity! The answer is pretty complex, but you can break it down into some simple parts:
Garter snake with forked tongue (Photo: Ken Hipp, Flicker Sharing).
The World of Snake Smell-Tasting
When you ask people what creeps them out about snakes, it's often something like, "They're slimy" (which they aren't) or "When the stick their tongue out at me it's scary." This got me to thinking about an idea for this blog post, because most people don't really understand why a snake sticks it tongue out at you and what it's really doing. There's a lot more going on than snake razzberries or just "smelling", especially when the tongue goes back in the snake's mouth. So, here are 10 facts about how a snake can smell:
For those of you who are in the woods all the time you're probably pretty familiar with what a tick looks like. But there are plenty of people who aren't really familiar with what they look like, and let's face it, when you have one on you, you rarely take the time to check it out up close and personal, you just want it OFF! This post is dedicated to some basic tick anatomy (what they look like) and pictures of the ticks that are most commonly found in the Eastern US. I've also created a nice quick table that should help you too.
Sea Nettles and Oysters Need Each Other To Survive
Sea nettles at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium (Photo: Wiki Commons).
How Sea Nettles and Oysters Are Related
Sea nettles are a type of jellyfish, and they are creatures that everyone loves to hate. They gum up nets, sting you when you least expect it, and make water sports difficult. Jellyfish are one of those classic examples or creatures that humans tend to dislike, but they are an important species for ecosystem balance. This is because, despite their occasional annoyance, without sea nettles there might not be any oysters to eat or harvest.
Smell is one of the most powerful ways to connect ourselves with memories, both good and bad. I was born as one of those "super-smellers." I can smell anything, even very faint, ranging from the scent of a friend that has passed in the hall to the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the window of the car in front of me, driving at 40 mph. This gift can be both a blessing and a curse. I'm sure you can all think of smells that comfort you and drive you nuts. One thing is for certain, you don't have to be a super-smeller to enjoy the smell of the ocean.
A male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo: Patrick Colin, Flicker Sharing).
How are Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Beneficial to the Environment?
Outside of the fact that they have an awesome name, yellow bellied sapsuckers are an amazing type of woodpecker that acts sort of like nature's equivalent of the convenience store keeper of a 7-11. How does this work? Let's start with what they look like and how they are built.
Daddy long legs or harvestman (Photo: Wiki Commons)
An Introduction to Daddy Long Legs
As a kid I remember shrieking and being chased around the playground as little boys ran after the girls and tossed daddy long-legs us. Of course we all just knew they were man-eating spiders and we'd be bitten. Invariably though, the poor "spider" would lose a leg or two, fall quite short, and we'd race off to safety. Since then I've come to quite like daddy long legs and the members of their family, mostly because I think they get a pretty bad rap.
Daddy long legs in the UK (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Daddy long legs are arthropods (which means "joint foot"), but they are not spiders. Even though superficially they look like spiders, and move like spiders, they aren't. Their family tree gets moved around a lot, because no one is quite sure where they belong, but most think they're more closely related to mites or scorpions (sans sting or venom). Sometimes they are called granddaddy long-legs, harvest spiders, or harvestmen. Daddy long-legs are found on every continent except Antarctica, and it's thought that there are nearly 6,500 species, 46 families, and 4 suborders world wide! That's a lot of species for a group that is commonly misidentified.
Meadowlark singing (Photo: John Carrel, Flicker Sharing).
How Exactly Do They Make Notes?
One of the joys of walking through a forest is listening to bird songs. It's like meeting old friends when you can hear a song and know exactly what type of bird is singing. Have you ever wondered exactly how birds make sounds and notes? I've always been fascinated by this because there are some birds that can sing more than one note at a time. This is especially true of birds in the thrush family; and my favorite bird songs are those made by the wood thrush (hylocichla mustelina). Check out this video of a wood thrush singing. Close your eyes and see if you can hear the multiple notes that it makes at the same time.
Scanning Electron Microscope image of a yellow mite (Photo: USDA.gov)
What Exactly Are Chiggers?
I have a lot of requests to cover topics about biting and stinging things, mostly because these are the critters that make people's experiences outdoors unpleasant. One such creature is the dreaded chigger. Now most of us have heard of them, and many of us have had their bites, but what are they really? What do chigger bites look like? Should you be worried? Let's start with chigger 101:
How many times have you seen a drawing of a raindrop as something that looks like a drip from a faucet? It's a common symbol that can be found everywhere, from children's books to lawn and garden logos. However, those drawings are perpetuating a very common misconception, that raindrops are shaped like a teardrop.
A very wrong, but frequently used, drawing of the shape of a raindrop (Image: Wiki Commons).
The way teardrops and faucet drips form is very different from how raindrops form, though some of the molecular principles are the same. Teardrops and faucet drips often fall from a short distance and they sometimes drizzle down a surface. Raindrops form high up in the clouds, under pressure from air, changing temperatures, cooling, and gravity.
Six spotted fishing spider (Photo: Patrick Randall, Flicker Photo Sharing)
"Eek...They're Big Enough to Saddle Up and Ride!"
Have you ever been near the water's edge and seen very large spiders that are hanging out in or on the water? If you're in the Eastern United States near fresh water or brackish water, then you've most likely met the common fishing spider also called dock spiders or wharf spiders. At our rowing boat house we call them launch spiders too. In part this is because they like to ride in our launch boat and if you hit high speeds in that launch boat they tend to "launch" themselves at you when they lose their footing (which our fearless coaches can attest to!). Fortunately, fishing spiders are very harmless and quite skittish despite their size (ranging from 1-3").
Fishing spiders belong to the genus Dolomedes (dole-o-me-dees) in the family Pisauridae (fizz-our-i-day), and compared to other tiny spiders they look big enough to carry off small children (when actually they eat small bugs, tadpoles, and other invertebrates). There are 100+ species of Dolomedes world wide but 8 that are common in the US. These include (using my common names and Latin names):
"Chicken of the Woods," and edible fungus (Photo: Karen McDonald)
What Are the Benefits of Eating Mushrooms?
While taking a hike through the woods yesterday I noticed that there was a beautiful abundance of wild mushrooms in all shapes, colors, and sizes scattered along the trail. There's one in particular, with a round dusty red cup and white underside that the squirrels and turtles seem to particularly like, while they leave all the others alone. This started me thinking about the nutritional role of mushrooms and what if anything they can contribute to a person's diet. Are mushrooms good for you? I always thought they were little more than "fluff" or extra stuff in a meal that add a bit of texture, so I started to do a little digging.
This time of year is one of my favorites, it's warm enough to sit outside around a campfire, listen to the night sounds, play music, tell stories, or roast marshmallows. I've been asked to suggest some fun but also educational science activities for kids at dusk or night-time.
Night-time summer activities can be fun, and what you can depends on where you are, how safe the environment is to move around at night, and the age of the kids. Here are a few ideas you might consider:
As a child of the 80's I loved the "Magic School Bus" and "School House Rock" series, their animations, snazzy music, and content all kept me entertained and engaged. I'd like to introduce you to a modern version of this, but with a great slant, the "Good Thinking" animated video series from the Smithsonian Science Education Center. It's aimed at teachers, educators, and even those just interested in learning about how science is taught. Specifically it addresses misconceptions in science.
Did you know fish and invertebrates that live under water make sound? Of course we've all heard of dolphin clicks, whale songs, and haunting melodies by marine mammals, but there's a much richer symphony of sound that occurs under water. Water is a perfect medium because sound waves can travel quite far in vast regions, and areas of reduced visibility. Fish can find mates, signal danger, sense vibrations, and find food/prey all by sensing sound under water.
Depending on the species, fish make a wide variety of sounds, from grunts and clicks to honks, burps, purrs, whistles, hums, groans, and growls. I had a particularly aggressive flounder that used to vibrate his 800 gallon aquarium in breeding season, and he made growling sounds (often before leaping at the naturalist). Many of the sounds that fish make are vocalizations like we make, though some are byproducts of feeding or swimming. It's thought that over 150 species of fish on the East coast vocalize. Fish that make sounds are called soniferous (sound-producing). Check out the research by Dr. Rodney Alan Roundtree and New England soniferous fish.
I know you're dying to hear some sounds, so here are a few examples, the first is the vocalization of the oyster toadfish, the next is a the croaker fish croaking, and a gronco or grunting fish from Cuba grunting like a pig.
It's been a while since I last did a post about sprickets, so I thought it was time for another, especially because I get so many questions about "spider crickets," also commonly called camel crickets.
These insects are the creepy wee beasties of some people's nightmares. They're actually crickets but with a hunched back. They dwell in dark places and basements, and while it's bad enough that they look like spiders these lookalikes take full advantage of the similarity to hop like a demented spring when startled, scaring the bejeebus out of basement goers.
Don't worry, sprickets are quite harmless, much like the grasshoppers you see in yards and fields. They don't have fangs, they aren't venomous, and they can't bite, but they are omnivores, eating just about anything in sight. This leads us to the question of the blog post,
Japanese Honeysuckle: Why There are Two Flower Colors
Japanese honeysuckle (Photo: Karen McDonald)
What Gives with Japanese Honeysuckle Flowers?
Here in the Eastern US there are many different native vines, along with a cadre of introduced or invasive vines as well. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicrea japonica) is one of them. If you're like me, as a kid I loved plucking the yellow and white flowers, nipping off end and sucking the base of the flower to get the sticky sweet drop of nectar from inside. As an adult I occasionally do the same thing, while cursing the rapid growth of the vine as it takes over my backyard fence. I'm not going to go into the whole life cycle of Japanese honeysuckle here, but if you want to know more check out this great dissertation about its life history and ecology by Anna D. Letherman and her PhD thesis from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Mostly what I'm interested in is a very basic question: Why does the Japanese honeysuckle have two different flower colors?
Black And Yellow Spiders: What Type of Spider Is That?
Black and yellow garden spider (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Identifying Black and Yellow Spiders
Spiders come in all shapes and colors and sizes. It is the ones with the bright colors and large sizes that both frighten and fascinate us. In a previous post I talked about identifying brown spiders, so I thought it only fitting that I do a post on black and yellow spiders, which are commonly found in the Eastern United States.
First, a disclaimer, I'm not a spider expert, but I am a naturalist who has had years of experience in the field. This is by no means a complete picture of all of the yellow and black spiders out there, just a snapshot of the most common ones. None of these spiders are harmful to people, but they can and will bite when frightened, like all animals or insects. However, their presence and job as insect eaters far outweighs the possibility of being bitten by these harmless spiders.
The black and yellow spiders that you are most likely see are (in alphabetical order):
Answers The Question: What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?
Juvenile common snapping turtle (Photo: Karen McDonald)
Food Preference of Snapping Turtles
You're driving down the road on a perfectly nice Spring day and you spot a turtle. Being the good Samaritan that you are, you decide to get out and help it. First, you have to identify it, then figure out if it's going to bite you, and if it's safe to move. I've found myself in this position countless times, usually in sandals and standing a few feet from said turtle wondering if it was going to try to bite. How can you tell if the turtle you're facing is a snapper? Check out these photos:
Bumblebees like this can sting multiple times, and don't leave in a stinger (Photo: Karen McDonald)
What To Do If You're Stung
At the best of times it's nearly impossible to avoid bees and wasps. Regardless of how most people view them, I'm a huge fan of bees and wasps. This is because they help pollinate plants to create food and they eat other insects. The upshot is that nature has armed them a defense that humans find painful, stings.
I'll say this up front, I'm not a doctor, but I have been an outdoor educator for over 15 years, and I've been stung, or dealt with stings, in places you don't want to imagine (including the tongue). From these experiences I wanted to share with you ways to find bee sting relief and what to do for a bee sting if you are stung.
A rather funny blue footed booby (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Bird Related Book Humor
Birders (those who bird watch) and naturalists often have very esoteric (strange?) and earthy humor but it's uniquely paired with wit, which I love. In this blog post I want to tip my hat to a bird humor group that I joined called the "Facebook Bird Identification Group." This group prides itself in all the completely wrong and improbable identification makes that you could possibly every come up with about birds, in a fun and cheeky way. Recently one of the members posted a request for members to think of all of the bird-based novels they could possibly come up with, and the responses were amazing. I couldn't help but want to share these with the greater world because they are just that funny. So, without further ado here are Book Titles for the Birds, brought to you by the inspired minds of the "Facebook Bird Misidentifiers.
A Predictive Weather Modeling App for Students and Teachers
I usually don't mix my professional life with my personal blog, but I wanted to share with you a neat interactive weather app that I helped develop. It is a tool that can be useful for weatherphiles, teachers, and students. It is called the Weather Lab, an online and mobile application from the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) in association with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The Weather Lab helps students visualize how weather is formed though the complex interactions of ocean currents and air masses in North America.
Hummingbirds are one of natures miracles of flight. Here in the East our most common humming bird is the Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). They are bright emerald green (the males) or a muted green (females) and are about 2-3" in size. The males have a patch of iridescent feathers on their throats for display. Amazingly Ruby-throats weigh about 2-6 g. To give you an idea of how light this is, the standard penny weighs about 2.5 g, so a hummingbird can be about 1-3 pennies in weight! Their wings beat so fast (up to 53x per second) that they make a humming sound. When they fly their wings actually make a figure 8 motion. Check out this slow motion video below.
As an indoor cat lover (yes I firmly believe in keeping cats ONLY indoors), I find it nearly impossible to go to any pet store without seeing catnip this or buying catnip laced that. Catnip is one of those plants everyone hears about, or sees in garden shops, but what is catnip?
As warm weather is setting in the chorus of frogs is starting up once again. Every time I pass a pond or water filled ditch I'm amazed at the cacophony. One pond I like to visit is devoid of any man-made lights or nearby sounds, so when you close your eyes and listen, just sitting in the dark is like being in a sensory deprivation chamber of just frog calls, quite stirring. This all got me to thinking, how do frogs make sound? Also, since they don't have external ears how do they hear those sounds?
Ladybugs are familiar sights in the Spring. (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Biting Ladybugs: Should I Run and Hide?
Ladybugs are one of those insects that even non-insect lovers tend to like. They're bright and colorful, tickle when they walk, and are easy to handle and play with. Kids don't feel threatened by them and adults will often go out of their way to move them or take them outside. There are countless children's story books about the wee creatures. However, they are still insects. In this post I want to share with you the awesome life cycle of lady bugs (you will never guess what they look like as babies!), their mouth parts/anatomy, and a few ideas for lessons or teaching materials.