My name is Karen and I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, working with students K-gray and doing outdoor science education based on Smithsonian research. 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 love to explore nature topics that I want to know more about, which has lead me to blogging here on "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com). I've designed it to be a science and nature blog for every-day people, naturalists, and outdoor educators. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD. If you have questions you can reach me at email@example.com. Let me know if you enjoy the blog or if you would like to see a particular topic covered. Thanks for reading!
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
Fall, in the Eastern US, is a time for my favorite spiders to start showing themselves. I admit a soft spot for 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.