Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Somewhere over a rainbow.

On a recent family trip to Beavers Bend, we took the scenic route through a portion of the Talimena drive (a stretch of road that connects Talihina OK and Mena AR). It was a pretty miserable day by the time we were driving on the Rte. 1 hogsback - grey and drizzly.

As we were getting to the top of the hill, we could see that the sun had managed to break through the clouds on the South side of the hill. The light just just passed over the summit to illuminate the land on the North side, casting a long shadow into the valley.

Through the trees we could see a vibrant band of colors below us. Luckily there was a turn-off just ahead where we could get a better look. The combination of the mist rain and the low angle of the sun shining down into the valley was creating rainbow in the valley beneath us. It was not the typical half-round most commonly associated with unicorns, but long and wide. Just as if the bottom 3/4 of the rainbow was buried in the ground.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hairier than I thought.

I took this picture out on our back porch one evening a few weeks ago. When I took a look at the image a few minutes later, I was surprised at how the flash made the individual hairs pop out in the image as compared to my observation.

The next morning I got an even better first-hand view when I walked out my back door and had it light on my face while wrapping it's web around my head. It loomed large in my LED headlamp for a split second before it made an audible "thud" against my nose.

I was able to dislodge it into a bush without harming either of us. Glad I found it before my wife. If she survived the encounter she would still be in therapy.

The Horror. . .

This will be the last tadpole update for 2009. When we started the process back in August things seemed to proceed at an orderly pace: tadpoles grew legs, then arms, their tails finally shrinking to nothing before they decided that it was time to venture from the tank so they could eat something else besides boiled spinach.

Every morning for a number of weeks I would ferry 5 or so small frogs from our back porch down to a patch of ferns at the back edge of our property.

After a few weeks of no activity in the tank, it was time to clean up and put things away for next year. Much to my surprise I found the layer of oak leaves in the bottom of the tank was not completely vacant.

There were:
-3 tadpoles - one with legs stubs, and two without any at all.
-One very skinny frog with a weird shriveled tail.
-One frog with a bloated leg.
-The pictured example with entire-body-bloat.

I guess out of such a large sample the occurrence of some with less than desirable traits are to be expected. We all can't be winners.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009


The other day I spied this on the screen of our back porch, and thought:

"That butterfly has one freaky-big head."

Upon closer inspection, the truth was revealed:

Note the position of the butterfly - the jumping spider has seemingly turned it around from how it would light on the screen. Either that, or it plucked the thing right out of the air. As I was clicking away, it got spooked and began to amble off with such vigor that it actually folded the wings shut.

Jumping spiders are perhaps my most favorite creature, and I welcome them in my home. They are imbued with a intelligence and personality not found amongst their kin.

The array of eyes give us a clue to their grasp of spatial relationships. When hunting, they have been observed to move away from their prey to get a better angle of attack. During this maneuver they may lose sight of their target entirely. This seems to be a trait unique to their species - in all others if the visual image of the prey is lost in their mind it has never existed.

Try this: The next time you happen to meet one, make your hand into a spider puppet and extend your index and middle fingers in different waving motions. If you are lucky enough to get the right combination of moves, the spider may fancy you to be a potential mate. It will rear up and sign back to you with a semaphore of leg-wags and mandible clicks saying "Hey there sailor."

I handle them at every encounter, and have never once been bit.
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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beetle - Up close and personal.

When my daughter was about a year old, I picked up a beautiful book on electron microscopy called Hidden Worlds. I knew that she was too young for it at the time, but we would pull it out now and again to look at the pictures. She seemed to think they were pretty, and that was about the extent of it.

A few months ago I came across it again and added it to the pile of books for the bedtime read. She flipped through the stack and stopped when she came across this volume. Grasping the book in two hands she intently stared at the cover image for long seconds.

Without taking her eyes of the book, she whispered:

"Tell me about these things."

I mentioned this to a colleague of mine at the museum who is our curator of micropaleontology and resident SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) wrangler. He graciously offered for us to bring in an insect to view with his scope.

When we arrived, he had us look at out collection using a binocular microscope so we might choose what we wanted to look at with the SEM. We had been amassing a collection of dead bugs in an old ice-cube tray, and had quite a rogues gallery to choose from. The Girl picked what I felt was one of our more lackluster specimens - a rather dull beetle of the june-buggish variety.

After determining tha the beetle was in fact dead and quite dry, the good doctor mounted the beetle to a small stage - a device similar in appearance to a fat pointless thumbtack. This was accomplished using a carbon-based electrically conductive double-sticky tape.

The mounted beetle was placed in a small glass chamber onto a mechanism of gears, rollers and chains. The vessel was sealed shut and a small vacuum pump energized. We waited long minutes while the air was evacuated from the chamber. When the air was sufficiently gone, a switch was flipped and the gears were set in motion, both rotating and tilting the beetle simultaneously. After a second switch was flipped a soft violet light appeared as electrons jumped from the top of the jar to the bottom, passing over the spinning insect. The electrode emitting the beam is made from a thin foil disk of Gold/Palladium alloy, which is slowly being vaporized in the process. The vaporized particles deposit on the beetle, eventually building up a shiny silvery layer a scant 10 atoms thick.

Once the plating of the insect is complete, the pump is turned off and the chamber is equalized to room pressure, allowing it to be opened. The small stage with it's metallic passenger is transferred to the SEM. It is placed upon a small device that will allow it to be rotated, tilted, and moved closer to the detector using a joystick. The door is shut, and another round of pumping begins.

After the specimen is under a vacuum, the electron beam is energized and we get our first look at the beetle. What was to our unaided eyes a drab lump of an insect is revealed to be a staggeringly complex multitude of plates, barbs, hairs and other features I could not begin to name.

We spent over an hour exploring this strange beast. What was once pedestrian was now surreal, and we could never look at a June Bug the same way again.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Found these two brave souls this morning. As mentioned in the previous post, the most advanced are also the smallest. They have not chosen to leave the warm embrace of the tank as of yet - just exploring.

I think that I need to consider moving the tank to a new location that will allow the new frogs to exit the tank and make it to the trees without crossing what amounts to (on their scale) a walk across Rhode Island.

If not for them, then for me. When I was walking in the yard tonight a small frog (about the size of those pictured) jumped between my foot and the insole of my Birki. It is very dead.

I can just imagine what it will be like scraping off my shoes when the mass exodus comes.
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Tadpole update - Week 2.

The tads continue to develop, but at different paces - the larger the tadpole, generally the smaller the legs.

Much to my surprise I found this guy - probably the smallest tad of the all. The small ones seem to hide at the bottom of the tank amongst the oak leaves and lettuce and spinach that have sunk to the bottom. The larger ones feed at the surface of the water on whatever happens to be floating.

Back legs grow gradually, but the front legs seem to just suddenly appear.

Is there a purpose to the delayed development? If they all matured at the same rate and left the pond at roughly the same time, would the bulk of them fall to predation?
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Monday, August 17, 2009

Weekly tadpole update.

After a little more than a week, the tads have developed from 1/8" long yolk-suckers to +1" voracious feeders. Small leg nubs have appeared on their hindquarters.

They have eaten almost an entire head of lettuce and a package of frozen spinach. (chopped, boiled 5 minutes, placed on a tray in cookie- sized chunks and frozen. Makes for convenient feeding.) They much prefer the spinach over the lettuce. When that is gone they will nibble on the oak leaves and the algae that grows upon it.

Their appetite however, pales in comparison to the tadpoles of the endangered mountain chicken frog Leptodactylus fallax of Montserrat.

I do not recommend watching this video while eating or on a full stomach. Or if you plan on eating anytime this week. You may want to ask the children to leave the room.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Katydid din.

The night sounds about our house this summer are truly astounding. It has been a good year for the True Katydid Pterophylla camellifolia - a large ungainly bug that mimics a green leaf. An imitation so perfect you can be a few yards away staring right at the source of this incredible noise and still fail to see it.

The chorus was was considerably more louder earlier this summer when everybody was out looking for mates. At this point only the guys that haven't got lucky are still singing. As the nights gets cooler and summer dwindles into fall, the last desperate crooning of the bachelors will also fade.

On the subject of flying: To say that the katydid is capable of flight is like saying that I am capable of piloting a helicopter. Off to a good start, but crashing into something just when it starts getting to be fun.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Giant Leopard on our back porch.

Moth, actually. Hypercompe scribonia

A few months ago we found a large black furry caterpillar on what passes as our back porch. In addition to the spiky blackness, each segment was separated by a smooth orange ring that circled its body. The Girl and identified it using my old Golden Press "Butterflies and Moths" that I had as a kid.

I pulled up some handfuls of plantain (the weed, not the banana - we live South but not that far South) and took it in to the Education department at the museum where I work. It munched happily for a few days, then disappeared under a chunk of log, binding a mass of woodchips about it laced together with strands of silk.

More to our surprise, a few weeks later the moth appeared. It was not expected until it had overwintered. Our capture and observation had some effect on the the normal course of events.

Schrodinger's cat existed in a quantum state of half-live/half dead, the outcome unsure until the actual observation. Our moth emerged from it's vessel retaining that state of caterpillar/moth. The wings never fully expanding, the body retaining some essence of it's juvenile shape and color.

Sad and beautiful at the same time.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

The side effects of deer.

While taking a short hike at our local state park, we encountered this young deer coming up the trail towards us.

After it patiently let me take a few photos, it bounded off to its right to join half a dozen of it's brethren.

A few short moments later we determined that the deer was not fleeing from us, but rather the untold scores of minuscule seed ticks that festooned our ankles. It appeared that we were wearing brown socks. Socks that were being slowly pulled up our legs that would soon transform into a nice beige pair of pantyhose that rides up our arse.

The Girl had a run-in with these a few weeks before, so I knew the drill: copious amounts of DEET over the affected areas followed by careful scraping with a pocket knife.

Spray-Scrape-Repeat. Showers, VSE, and baboon-like grooming of each other when we got back home.

The Boy in his jogger remained immune to the parasites advances.
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You"ll never hear it.

My neighbor appeared at our back door on Friday bearing a gift. He was working in the yard when he came across this 11-5/8" long Western Pygmy Rattlesnake Sistrurus miliarius streckeri.

He was working in some low weeds when it struck his little finger. Luckily for him it hit right on hs fingernail and bounced off.

It is maybe a year old. If you look closely at its tail, you'll see 3 buttons on the rattler. They get a new one every time the molt, which can be 3-4 times a year. This snake is so small that it is a misnomer to call it a rattle. I had to press my ear against the jar to hear the tail's soft zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

While no humans have been recorded dying from it's bite, I would not recommend taunting it.

I let it go a few miles from the house. The other 2 found this year he dispatched with a shovel.

No barefootin' kids. Sorry.
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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tadpole City.

Last Friday I awoke to find that tree frogs has laid a mass of eggs in our wading pool. Luckily the chlorine level was at a low ebb, and I thought there was a good chance that these were going to be viable.

I scooped them into a small aquarium and headed to work. When I got home there were little tadpoles throughout the small tank. I pulled our 10 gallon tank our of storage, filled it with well water and waited until the temperatures of the two tanks matched. After placing some oak leaves and sticks in the tank, I made the transfer.

For the first few days the tadpole were fairly sessile. I added some boiled celery to the tank but they had no interest. They were still living on their yokes - hiding - only moving when disturbed.

By Wednesday they were beginning to move about and display hunger. By Saturday they are inch-long ravenous feeders

Updates to follow.
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Don't even think about it.

What you won't find on this blog is nuanced descriptions that will allow you to discern what an edible fungus is. I'll leave that to people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself.

Let's just say I believe that I have successfully identified Chlorophyllum molybdites and can tell you it is something you do not want to eat.

While not always fatal (pets and children are most at risk), the description of severe collicky abdominal pain, followed by explosive - perhaps bloody- diarrhea leads me to believe that it would be a less than ideal experience.

This fungus is the leading culprit in mushroom poisonings in North America for two reasons:

1) If you have a lawn, there is a good chance you have this large showy mushroom growing there - maybe in a fairy ring. It's everywhere, it's beautiful, what's not to like? It's a percentages thing.

2) It is uncannily similar to other varieties that are edible. Mistakes were made. Don't make the plunge after breezing through the Cliff Notes for "Good Eat'n Mushrooms" or viewing some grainy photos on Be mentored by someone who has done this their entire life. Better yet - let that person eat a sumptuous meal of the fungus in question, lock them in a cage and observe them for a week or so. Just to be sure.

I think that given the severity of this mushroom's toxicity, it deserves a more appropriate moniker:

The Death's Pajamas.
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Boring. Well, at least in the larval stage.

Witness Plectrodera scalator, a long-horned beetle otherwise know as the Cottonwood Borer. Darn thing is about the length of my thumb, not counting the "horns."

The beetle lays its eggs at the base of a cottonwood or poplar. After hatching, the larvae boring into the tree for 2-3 years before the morph into the adult. Might even kill the tree. Yay.

This one is in the freezer, awaiting the the judicious application of a pin.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

No Refrigeration Needed.

Playing Possum-

Surprised this guy early one evening when I rounded the corner of the house. He just slowly rolled over onto his side, face contorting into this rictus grin.

Unresponsive to gentle prodding with stick.

And when I say stick, I mean the kind that fell off a tree.

I envision some sort of clockwork or wind-driven device on a tripod placed over the animal that would give it a poke at semi-random intervals. In this way the meat could be kept fresh indefinitely.