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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know if you enjoy the blog or if you would like to see a particular topic covered. Thanks for reading!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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
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?
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?
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:
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.
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 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.
It's that time of year when colds and flu are prevalent and everyone is hacking and sneezing, bemoaning their stuffed up and runny noses. I thought it would be the perfect time to discuss mucus. Yes, it's gross and one of those things people don't talk about, but everyone deals with it. It is also the lubricant that keeps the natural world from seizing and the animals sliding and gliding.
As a curriculum developer my nose is constantly buried in science education standards, notably the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which are slowly being adopted across the country. As I've been delving into these standards and other literature about teaching pedagogy ( which is the method or practice of teaching), I've noticed a clear shift away from the scientific method. If you're like me, then growing up the scientific method was the bread-and butter of your science classrooms, and you were taught to memorize the steps of the scientific method:
For Valentine's Day my friends at the Smithsonian featured a cute little spider called the pink toed tarantula. This got me thinking about spider feet. They don't really have toes like you and I do, (though the idea of spider tube socks with toes is funny) but they do have special modifications that help them get about. The feet of spiders can be lumped into two general categories based on how the spiders make their living. There are web building spiders and wandering spiders.
The demands of weaving a web and walking a continual tightrope, are very different from those of a spider that wanders, runs, and leaps on prey ( If you haven't read my post on spider legs you should check it out too).
The First thing to know about spider toes is that all spiders have hairy feet (which is why so many people find them creepy), but it's the arrangement and function of these hairs that varies.
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex
Dr. Ruth Meets David Attenborough
In honor of Valentines Day I thought I'd share with you one of my all time favorite books. It's called, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex by Olivia Judson. The reason I like Dr. Tatiana is because she's written a book that I would consider as being the love child of Dr. Ruth and David Attenborough. It has tongue in cheek humor about animals and their unique reproductive problems. As her website suggests, it's "..witty but rigorous."
Have you ever heard the words: "You're spineless?" While meant as an insult, it's actually a compliment in biological terms. You probably already know that some animals, like humans, have internal skeletons (endoskeletons), and some have external skeletons (exoskeletons), like insects. But the story doesn't end there, nature is much more complex and diverse. There is an entire class of organisms that has a type of skeleton, called a hydrostatic skeleton. It is just like the name implies, a static skeleton made of fluid (hydro).
In a previous post I talked about the difference between hibernation and brumation in turtles. Essentially turtles don't sleep all winter, they have punctuated periods of activity. However, turtles do not brumate under water, they usually dig burrows or bury themselves in leaf litter or mud to overwinter. One of the questions I'm asked frequently is, "How do turtles breathe while they are buried?" A similar question was, "How can that turtle breathe while napping under water?" (This was usually aimed at a local terrapin that lived in a tank in the education center). The answers are similar.
Just out of college I began hawk watching for fun, and worked with Hawk Watch International through the forest service. I moved on to hawk watching at the Grand Canyon for a season, then later to the shores of Delaware and now Maryland. I like to encourage all beginning birders to start with raptors because they are charismatic and fairly easy to learn. No matter where you go in the US, raptors are there and they are magnificent birds to watch and enjoy. When I first started learning about raptors I was given a set of books that have stayed with me on all my journeys. Now, there are even more resources than when I started, including free online guides. However, I also like to encourage beginning and intermediate hawk watchers to stay low-tech and use paper based-field guides. I've already written a post about how to choose the best bird field guide, but I want to provide you with a list of hawk ID guides that you can use to prepare for hawk migration or for IDing hawks you're already seeing.
As a science educator I often find myself walking a fine line between wanting kids to experience nature in person, unplugged and engaged with their surroundings. But, I can't turn a blind eye to technology. STEM science education is rapidly emerging as part of classroom requirements, and that includes tech. Besides, most of the kids I teach or write curriculum for were born with smart technology at their fingertips, and it's how they understand their world.
One of the newest technologies emerging for museums, science centers, engineering and design, and even advertising is augmented reality or AR. Augmented reality is a type of smart technology that superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user's view of the world using a smart phone, iPad, or camera on your computer. There are many different types of AR, but most require that you download an app to be able to see these over-laid images. You'll also a device with a camera (phone, tablet, or computer). The idea is that your device, using image cues, uploads a computer-generated video, 3-D image, photos/photo album, news-feed, or interactive animation. The computer program keys in on one of several types of cues in static images, these can be things like QR codes (those black and white boxes of smaller boxes you see everywhere), which is a symbol that is unique to the app you're using, or even a specific picture, image, artwork, or advertisement.
Normally I stick to North American species of animals, but I thought the story of giant clams was too good to pass up, especially because of the emphasis on the study of light in the Next Generation Science Standards. Let's start with giant clam 101:
Sometimes I get lucky enough to be able to travel to some very interesting places and meet amazing new folks. One such example was a recent visit to the Smithsonian Gardens support center. We were filming for a project, and during the filming breaks I couldn't help but marvel at the biodiversity of orchids which they cultivate. But it wasn't just orchids that they offered. Smithsonian Gardens is a series of many gardens around the National Mall, in Washington DC. But, they are much more than just gardens, they are also a hub of orchid conservation and biodiversity.