Sunday, March 31, 2013

Bird of Paradise

Jay Barber shared this video with me, and although it has nothing to do with Missouri, I had to share it with you.  The incredible photography shows the aesthetic value of diversity in nature.

Watch this Cornell Lab of Ornithology video and enjoy the glorious diversity of Birds of Paradise on a single island in the Pacific.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Socrates at Nine

From Youtube
When I am talking to a child I have a bad habit of talking to them rather than listening.  After all, we are supposed to have the wisdom to pass on to the younger generation.  NPR had an interesting story about what can happen when you just listen to a 9 year old.

You will notice in the video that even the cameraman feels the need to interject from time to time.  That is the nature of adults with children.  Now lean back, be quiet and listen to "The Philosopher."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Horse Hair Worm

Horse hair worm-
Years ago a child brought me a worm like this, strained in her toy net from the swimming hole.  She asked what it was and the all-knowing adult in me answered "Its a worm."  No, that didn't impress her either.  After Thursday's Stream Team training, I can answer her better although she might not believe the answer or at the least would say "Yeeew!"

Horse hair worms  (Nematomorpha) are aquatic parasitoids with a complicated life cycle.  A parasite generally requires the resources of the host but doesn't routinely reduce its chances or reproducing.  A parasitoid on the other hand is like an ungrateful parasite in that it either kills or sterilizes its host.

Horse hair females are
These tiny threadlike worms reach 20-32 inches in length.  They lack an intestinal tract and absorb nutrients directly through their skin.  When a male and female find each other they form a complex tight knot, leading to another name, the Gordian Worms.  Occasionally, clusters of up to 100 will form a complex ball in puddles or watering troughs, leading to the legend that these are the long hairs of horses come to life.

The worm lays thousands of tiny eggs which develop into 0.01 inch long larvae.  Some of these larvae collect on vegetation that is then exposed when water levels go down.  Some species will be eaten by grasshoppers or katydids, developing in their hosts until they are ready to spring forth.

Grasshopper worm- CSU Extension
It gets really weird at this stage as they seem to take over their host's brain not unlike the Cordyceps fungus affects an ant.  The insect is unnaturally drawn to water, be it puddle. pond or even moist earth where the adult worm crawls out leaving its disabled host to die on its own.  This process is shown in this Youtube video.

Addendum April 7, 2013.  Video taken of a horsehair worm on the Master Naturalist field trip is on line at this link.    Gordius robustus
For closeup pictures of worms and their claspers, see 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hairless Bears

When I was growing up, a sarcastic come back to a question with an obvious answer was "Does a bear have hair?"  Yes, that was a more innocent age.  It turns out that a few bears have lost their hair.

Spectacled bear- Wikimedia
The spectacled bear is a native of the west coast of South America.  It is the only surviving bear species in South America.  More interesting, it is the last living species of short faced bear, the North American megafauna which became extinct in the Late Pleistocene age.  You may be familiar with them from the Riverbluff Cave outside of Springfield, MO, where they left scratch marks 12 feet high on the wall.

So where does the hair come in, or more properly where does it leave?  The reported that a spectacled bear named Delores and her mates at the zoo in Leipzig have lost all their hair for unknown reasons.  This has left them susceptible to rashes and skin infections.  It also has brought a lot more people to the zoo.

If you want to see a bear without hair, click here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sand Magnification.

Last year George Lantz shared some incredibly fine sand with me to view under the microscope.  These came from a beach in Hawaii and were tiny jewels at high magnification, showing incredible diversity of color and shape.

Even with my relatively inexpensive microscope used for these photographs, I could see that many were remnants of tiny sea creatures.  In addition to the diverse colors, there were grains with holes through them and others that were spiral shell imprints.  I suspected these were microfossils as the tiny shells seemed unlikely to have survived the pounding and grinding of the sea.

Just today I came across a site by Dr. Gary Greenberg dedicated to photographs of magnified grains of sand.  He has pictures from many different beaches and discusses the origin of the sand grains.

There are many estimates of the number of grains of sand on earth and arguments on whether there are more stars than grains of sand as Carl Sagan proposed.  If you are interested in the debate, check out blog in which Robert Krulwich does the math.  Incredibly, it turns out that 10 drops of water contain as many water molecules as the estimated number of stars in the galaxy.

If you are starting to feel small, you can go to the Grains of Sand Magnified site.  There you can take solace in your individuality.  Dr. Greenberg says that each grain is different, just like snowflakes, and us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

They Are Baaaaack!

Spring is showing signs of returning.  It was 80 degrees on Friday at Bull Creek and I got my first attached tick of the year.  We have had occasional crawling ticks through the winter but they didn't seem to have their heart in it until now.

Fortunately there are many other more positive signs of spring.  Our most exciting one is the return of the black vulture couple to the stall in our barn.  We have watch them hatch and raise chicks the last two years.  I saw them sitting on the corral fence a month ago but hadn't seen them since.  Just when I was about to give up hope, they returned, apparently unable to find a better nest site that met their budget.

They have produced a beautiful set of eggs, laying on the bare ground as usual.  One of the expectant parents was perched in the opening in the wall which they use as their front door.  Each year they are less easily spooked and Friday this one paid no attention to me as I took some early family portraits.

The deer have been especially active lately and we saw 11 the other night just driving down the lane to our house.  An owl sailed overhead, making an aerial surveillance run.  That night the game camera spotted not only the usual deer but a pair of male gobblers heading down the road together.

The warm spell brought out the fence lizards in abundance on Saturday.  Every time I turned around at the house another one scurried by, stopping suddenly to use its camouflage to fool me as I turned to face it.  This one posed for several minutes, letting me crawl up close on my belly.  Like photographing butterflies, I apparently intimidate lizards more when I am above them.  By clicking on the picture, you can even make out the blue chest of this one, probably a male.

Finally, the wildflowers are fighting off the winter blahs.  Linda Ellis reports hepaticas and thousands of trout lilies down by her creek.  We see an occasional harbinger of spring and the Barb is pulling lots of invasive garlic mustard from the riparian area.  Its head start on natives is one of its secrets of success.  On the good news side, Saturday I found a solitary trout lily struggling through the gravel and rocks in a rather sterile hillside among the trees.  As Bill Bryson says, “Life just wants to be; but it doesn't want to be much.”

Barb, the ticks and I are all ready for spring.  Grab your magnifiers, nets and wildlife field guides, and  head outside.  Oh, and put the tweezers near the sink for the tick check.

P.S.  As usual, Linda Ellis one-upped me the next day with these pictures.
Trout lilies (Erythronium albidum)
Round-lobed hepatica (Anemone americana) 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Nesting Birdcams

"In the spring, a wild bird's fancy, lightly turns to thoughts of....." well you know what happens next.
     -Apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

From Iowa DNR
It is spring, and eggs are in the air, in some cases way up in the air.  Modern technology and the Internet have allowed us nature voyeurs to follow individual families as they are raising their chicks. lists their version of the top birdcams available in the web which I have reproduced below from their 'Top 10 (9) List". So far the peregrine falcon hasn't returned to the MDC birdcam so you will have to get by with osprey, terns, puffins, murres and the ever popular eagles.  

"Have you ever snuck a bird's-eye look at a wobbly eaglet as it emerges from its shell? You can, by checking in on an eagle's nest web camera, or webcam, through March. Wildlife webcams are wildly popular for taking people deep into eagles' nests, high onto osprey platforms, and deep into puffin burrows. It's the nearest you're likely to get to having wings. Birds make ideal webcam subjects because their nesting activity is contained in a small area for weeks. The best viewing is generally during the spring nesting season, when birds are most active. Here are some standout refuge birdcams:

1.Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
2.Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, New York (until the new camera is installed, check out the streaming eagle cam from on the campus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia)
3.Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

4.Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
5.Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, New York
6. Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, Idaho

Common terns:
7.Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Maine (Best live viewing: May-August)

Atlantic Puffins:
8.Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Maine (Best live viewing: Mid-May-August)

Common Murres:
9.Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Daylight Saving Time

This morning, my circadian rhythms awoke me to pitch black.  A few days ago there would have been the early strands of daylight, but thanks to the government, this is no longer true.  As of Sunday we have daylight saving time (DST) again.  Even an owl knows when to get up and go to bed with nature.

Birds, mammals, insects and even some flowers operate on the concept that when the sun comes up it is time to get up.  That is unless you are a nocturnal creature like an owl which decides it is time to go to bed.  Unfortunately we humans have "advanced" to a higher state where we wake up to clocks and run on time unrelated to the sun.  The tyrannical invention of the alarm clock was bad enough, but daylight saving time complicates this further by playing tag with the sun twice a year.

By now, most of us have learned that satire and humor in writing needs to be identified or someone is likely to take it seriously - for instance, the federal government.  It turns out that is how Benjamin Franklin got the blame for daylight saving time.  He was joking!

"Can't you take a joke?"
As described at, Franklin was 78 and cooped up in his room in Paris when he was awakened by noise at 6AM.  He started thinking, a chronic condition for Franklin, and ended up writing a humorous letter to friends, one of whom was the editor of the Journal de Paris.  They published it without a smiley face and the rest is history.

Franklin calculated the amount of money that could be saved by getting up at daylight and going to bed at dark.  He even suggested punishments and taxes for those using too many candles or going out late.  Even today, news articles give his tongue-in-cheek suggestion serious credit for the idea.

Originally designed to save Americans cost of electricity, DST has ended up costing us big time.  A recent news report suggests that the US lost $433,982,548 because of switching to daylight saving time on Sunday.  I suggest that we get back to nature and just get up when the sun comes up.

An interesting discussion on how computers and modern technology has replaced natural time cycles is at  To quote a bit of it:

"While our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, we humans and our culture evolved over millennia and are slower to adapt. The body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, syncing to everything from the sun and moon to levels of violence and available water. We can't simply declare noon to be midnight and expect our body to conform to the new scheme as if it were a Google Calendar resetting to a new time zone. Neither can we force our businesses to conform to an always-on ethos when the people we work with and for are still obeying a more deeply embedded temporal scheme." 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Owls Turn Heads

Indiana Public Media
As you probably aware, owls can turn their heads an incredible 270 degrees.  That is the equivalent of turning your head to the right until you are looking over your left shoulder.  This is a feat unrivaled since Linda Blair did her head spinning in The Exorcist, and no, I am not going to give you a video link to that- I am still getting over it 40 years later.

So how does the owl do it?  It is all in the neck with twice as many vertebrae as you and I have.  Owls also have special adaptations of their vascular system.  Aside from my mother and my 5th grade teacher who had "eyes in the back of the head", this is one of the most amazing tricks in nature.

Check out this Science Friday video.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Prickles and Spines

"A rose (prickle) by any other name is still a pain."
                       -Editor, 2013

The identification of the big thorns on a large tree should be straight forward.  Take my honey locust....please."  Apologies to Henny Youngman*  What we have always called a honey locust thorn is actually a spine. To get to the point sorry, naming these sharp objects becomes a thorny problem.

Now back to business.  Armature refers to all the sharp sticky things on plants that can penetrate your skin.  As described at,  these sharp appendages can be divided into thorns, spines and prickles.  It all depends upon what they grew from.

Honey Locust Leaf Structures?
Technically thorns are modifications of stems or branches, such as those found on a hawthorn.  Spines develop from leaf tissue including stipules and even extensions of the leaf veins, as seen in the American holly on the left.  The armature on a honey locust is a spine, even though to all appearances it is growing from the trunk like a twig with a bad attitude.

Some botanists do not differentiate between thorns and spines as both have vascular tissue.  From the point of view of an amateur naturalist strolling the woods, the differentiation of these technically is a pain in what ever part of your body brushes up against or sits on them them.  I will chose to lump thorns and spines together rather than split them apart.

Multiflora Rose
Prickles are extensions of the plant surface (cortex and epidermis), somewhat analogous to our hair and nails, but again with a mean streak.  Examples include thistle, blackberry and rose "thorns".  The term prickle seem mild when used to describe the vicious weapons of a multiflora rose specimen whose recurved points dig further into your skin as you pull away from it.  You would think it would be happy to see you go but it seems to be saying "Stop where you are!"

So what good are armatures?  They obviously have some value or the plants wouldn't have used the energy to produce them over thousands of years.  It is postulated that they protect the plant from the browsing and chewing habits of animals. Useless structures have a way of disappearing in evolution.  When we see a structure that persists without apparent value, it may be that we just haven't figured out its value yet.

The appendix, found only in humans, is a good case in point.  After decades of removing this structure during other abdominal operations believing that "while we are here we should to prevent appendicitis", the tide is changing.  There is increasing evidence that the lymphoid tissue in the appendix, so prominent in the first years of our lives, is important in priming our immune system.  More recent reports suggest that it serves as a reservoir of good bacteria to repopulate the colon after diarrheal disease has flushed the normal flora.

The major value I find in armatures is in identifying the relative few trees and shrubs that grow them.  Finally a reason to suffer the pain - tree identification!
Black locust
  • Honey locust
  • Black locust
  • Hawthorn
  • Gum bumelia
  • Common buckthorn
  • Osage orange
  • Callary pear (Bradford pear escapee)

More exotic examples are at

* For the younger generation, Henny Youngman was an comedian whose routine included the famous one-liner was "Take my wife—please."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Nature Deficit Disorder

Miranda Anderson- filmmaker
I recently was sent the link to another story about "nature deficit disorder" (NDD).  Many of you are familiar with Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods.   If not, you can at least understand the disconnect that modern society has with nature.  The more "connected" you are with society and city life, the harder it is to get out in nature.  It is doubly so for children, raised in the world of TV, video games, cell phones and computers.

This is Miranda Anderson who is pictured above.  Her first introduction to nature deficit disorder came as a 9 year old when she was talking with a childhood role model, Ruth Foster, who had read Richard Louv's book.  Three years later Miranda heard Mr. Louv in person.  This led her to make this very professional video, The Child in Nature.  The educational and inspirational video and story are at 

We tend to blame our electronic world as the cause of NDD but that is only a small part of the story.  Kids have an additional barrier, especially in an urban setting- lack of transportation.  Unless parents motivate and transport their kids to nature and show an interest, video games will rule.  It doesn't take a lot.  Here are a few easy steps.
  • Head outside with the family.  Parks are great but even turning over rocks and logs in the backyard can dig out treasures.  Find a bug and look it up.  Check out the leaves on a tree.
  • Hiking and biking trails are great exercise but don't forget to stop along the way and connect to the dirt and plants.  As Miranda says, organized sports don't count as time in nature.
  • Computer time isn't bad in itself.  Just like an occasional French fry, the problem is balance and avoiding excess.  Looking up and learning about what you found outside is the next step.  Maybe even making a video for school.  But like Miranda, you have to leave the keyboard and get back outside.
Patty and Miranda Anderson
As talented as she is, Miranda didn't do this by herself.  She had parents who took the time to take her to Vancouver to hear Richard Louv.  Much more importantly, they allowed and even encouraged her to be out in nature starting early in her childhood.

Take a kid outside soon.  And often.  Show them a bug, let them catch a crawdad, and the rest will start to happen.  Oh, and cut down your energy use...turn off the TV more often.

That link again is

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cockroach Cleanliness

American Cockroach-
Cockroaches are really clean.  At least their antennae are.  The story of how and why they are so fastidious was recently told on a Science Friday video below.  But before you get to that reward, here are a few interesting roach facts that you won't find on a Real-kill bottle.  (If you can't wait, click here.)

I will start with the good news.  Although there are 4,500 species worldwide in the Blattaria family, only 30 species are found around human habitation and only 4 of these are considered pests.  One of these is proudly named the American Cockroach.  There, don't you feel better about roaches already?

Cockroach In Amber- Wikimedia
Cockroaches are in the same group as praying mantis and termites.  The earliest cockroach fossils date to the Carboniferous period 354–295 million years ago.  The one on the right is relatively younger, preserved in amber some 40-50 million years ago.  Hard as that is to believe, recent genetic evidence suggests that termites evolved from the more primitive true cockroaches. This fact has done nothing to win them human friends.

They are incredibly hearty.  They can go without food for a month while still running around your garage.  Their food habits are omnivorous- they can even digest the glue on postage stamps.  This may be dated as I would like to see them peel the modern stamps off the paper.  If they can do it the USPS promises they are "forever".

The popular story that they will inherit the earth after a global nuclear war has some basis in fact.  Radiation affects dividing cells and the cockroach cells only divide when they are molting, which occurs roughly once a week at most in juvenile roaches.  That means that most would not be affected by the initial radiation blast.  If they could hunker down in a nice moist sealed basement, which they do anyway, they might avoid radiation for some time.

So what is not to love?  They eat our food, smell, and transport microbes from filthy places into our living spaces.  They also have a gift for running across the floor when your mother is visiting your basement college apartment. 

So if you were patient, here is the video on How dirty roaches get clean.

Information from Wikipedia

Friday, March 1, 2013

Plant Fungus Recycles Insects

The common soil fungus Metarhizium may just be a plant's new best friend.  Imagine a naturally occurring common fungus that not only kills insects but literally feeds their nitrogen to the plant.  An article published in the journal Science describes how this was found and proven.

Bug infected with Metarhizium- K. Knight.
Metarhizium fungus is found around the world in a mutualistic association with plants, meaning that they both benefit from the relationship.  This is somewhat like a marriage, although my editor/wife is still trying identify what her benefits are.  And like a marriage, the fungus actually lives with the plant in its roots.  Like when I spray the wasps living by the front door (at last a benefit!), the fungus kills some of the plant's insect pathogens.
Metarhizium spores-

Normally plants absorb nitrogen from the soil which is produced by nitrogen fixing bacteria- think clover and legumes.  Nitrogen is also produced by bacteria breaking down decaying plant material and in some cases by fire.  A few plants such as the Venus flytrap and pitcher plants have even been able to catch their own nitrogen by collecting insects.

In the study reported in scientists inserted a nitrogen marker isotope into waxmoths Galleria mellonella.  They had planted "Phaseolus vulgaris, the quick-growing haricot bean, and Panicum virgatum, a slower-growing perennial bunchgrass" in sterilized soil.  Then they introduced waxmoth larvae infected with either Metarhizium fungus or Aspergillus flavus which is a non endophytic insect fungus.  Plants without any larvae served as controls.

They found that the plants with the Metarhizium fungus infected waxmoth larvae had higher levels of the nitrogen isotope in their leaves than those sterile or Aspergillis infected larvae.  The plants are essentially being fed the digested and processed nitrogen isotope by the Metarhizium fungus.  Now that's marriage with benefits.

Science journal abstract.