Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

21Apr/09Off

Some Quick Link Love for Hoxful Monsters

Nagraj Sambrani of Hoxful Monsters

Nagraj Sambrani of Hoxful Monsters

If any of you have not read Hoxful Monsters, you should leave me and go there immediately.

I swear - everytime I read a post by Nagraj Sambrani, I find myself at least a tenth of an IQ point smarter (that's a joke - no IQ debates here...). That adds up!

Nagraj's latest post (New tree of animal suggests nervous system evolved only once in animal history) is on a recent huge study that analyzed a large number of genes throughout the "early" metazoan lineages, coming to the conclusion that the nervous system only evolved once (among other conclusions).

The amazing thing about Nagraj is that he has about as in-depth a grasp of the intricate data of metazoan taxonomy and phylogeny as possible (not to mention his expertise in developmental biology - a huge plus in my eyes).  And for someone for whom English is not a first language, he is an incredibly excellent writer, and getting better all the time.

I just wanted to give a quick shout out to Nagraj and point some more readers his direction, as he is most assuredly among the best writers to cover the detailed evolutionary and developmental science being published.

Scientifically speaking, Hoxful Monsters is most definitely my absolute favorite blog!

20Apr/09Off

Great Darwin Beard Challenge – An Extinction Event Has Occurred

As I have recently shown you all, Spring is here in full force in North Carolina.

I love it more than almost anything, but there are two weeks of Spring that are quite hellish for me.  You see, I am incredibly allergic to Oak pollen (most species but not all).

This fact has lead to a tragic event for me and my place in the Great Darwin Beard Challenge - a mishap involving pollen, drugs, sleep, and ravenous beasts.

I awoke with the tell-tale symptoms: swollen eyes, a Tommy-gun sneezing fit, and a foggy brain. Yes, the oaks were having sex and the fruits of their lust were ravaging my insides.

So I took some pretty hardcore antihistamines and sat in a chair in my front lawn to flaunt my chemical invulnerability to the trees' love weapons. Alas, the antihistamines knocked me out cold.

Now everyone who has lived in the rural deciduous forests of North Carolina knows that you should NEVER fall asleep outside in the daytime.

NEVER EVER!

But in my drug-laden mind I had thrown caution to the wind, leaving my beard as an irresistible free meal to those nasty predators of woolen faces: the native Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears (Hirsutophagous imaliari).

Much to my dismay, my wife had photographed the entire ensuing feast. Apparently she found it too funny to awaken me (in her defense, being an original city-girl she was unaware of the almost certain transmission of virus I was receiving - see below).

Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears making a snack of my beard

Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears making a snack of my beard as I lie unconscious from the antihistamines.

Look what they've done!!

Look what they did to my beard!

Damn you Dwarf Bears!!

Damn you Dwarf Bears!!

Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the Keratinous Dwarf Bears carry a virus that renders humans infertile (see the 1997 Science article for more info). Thus it seems that I have left this competition in a truly Darwinian fashion: unfit to spread my genes to the population.

Thus, I am saddened to leave this greatest of beard contests disgraced and shamed.

Saddened and rendered impotent, I leave the Great Darwin Beard Contest behind...

Saddened, impotent, and infertile I leave the Great Darwin Beard Challenge behind...

I'd like to thank Kevin Zelnio (Deep Sea News, The Other 95%), Andrew "The Southern Fried Scientist" and David "whysharksmatter" (both of Southern Fried Science), and the also-shaven "David2" for the opportunity to compete with such woollenly adapted men. It has been great fun and I wish those stupid dwarf bears had not eliminated me from the running for "Most Darwinesque Beard."

May the three of you remain bearded and fertile for the remainder of the competition!

Great Darwin Beard Challenge History:

18Apr/09Off

Nature Walk #4.4 – Plants & Fungi

Spring is Here!

This Nature Walk edition continues from #4.3 - Reptiles, Amphibians, & Mammals.

I've broken this post up into four parts due to the large number of images:

The images are highly compressed for bandwidth's sake, but you can click on the images for larger versions (and a few are much deserving of an extra click).

As always feel free to give me any species identifications where I have failed to do so or done so incorrectly.

Plants

I have next to zero skills when it comes to identifying plant species.  As such, the following will consist mostly of images with no real description. Don't get me wrong - I love me some botany. However, every time I learn a new plant, at least five other pieces of information fall from my skull. I'm just not that knowledgeable on  plants.

One defining characteristic of the Chapel Hill/Triangle region of North Carolina in the Spring is the blanketing of the land by invasive (but beautiful) Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). This stuff is everywhere, covering large swaths of canopy, much like the invasive Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) which is also from China.

Wisteria

Wisteria

Wisteria

Wisteria

Wisteria

Wisteria

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) - a perennial Easter visual pleasure

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina Domestica) - Okay, so this is an ornamental as well.  It's still cool.

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina Domestica)

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina Domestica)

My property has quite a few various native ferns growing wild throughout the woods. I particularly love them this time of year when the new young leaves are still "fiddleheads."

Fern

Fern fiddlehead

Fern

Fern fiddlehead

Fern

Fern fiddlehead

Fern

Fern fiddlehead

I found this tiny unknown wildflower in the woods as well (anyone care to ID?):

Unknown flower

Unknown flower

I really love these very tiny spring flowers, also found wild in the woods.  They are Azure Bluets or Quaker ladies (Houstonia caerulea)

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

Another ornamental from home - the classic early bloomer Forsythia.

Forsythia

Forsythia

Climbing ivy from my front yard:

Ivy

Ivy

Ivy

Ivy

A random pretty leaf growing on the forest floor.  I found lots of these and would love to know what they are...

Unknown leaf

Unknown leaf

I took this shot just because it was really a quite lovely scene. The sun shone bright as a breeze drifted through a huge expanse of grass on campus.

Grass

Grass

A nice unfinished (and apparently abandoned) beaver-felled tree:

Beaver-felled tree

Beaver-felled tree

Epiphytic plants growing in a tree (technically these are probably not even normal epiphytes - the tree is basically acting like a pot, so the plants are probably in the ground for all they are concerned):

Plants in a tree

Plants in a tree

My ornamental peach:

<br /> Ornamental peach

Ornamental peach

The ground of my property is also covered in a variety of mosses:

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Fungi

Finally, I found a nice set of Puffball Fungi growing on the base of a tree. I have no idea what they are beyond that...

Puffball Fungus

Puffball Fungus

And that is the end of this latest collection of my observations of nature. The reason I love doing this is that it gives me the perfect excuse to do a little research and learn a little bit about the organisms surrounding me, particularly on how to identify them.

Hopefully, you all get a little bit out of it as well.

See the rest of this Nature Walk:

18Apr/09Off

Nature Walk #4.3 – Reptiles, Amphibians, & Mammals

Spring is Here!

This Nature Walk edition continues from #4.2 - Birds.

I've broken this post up into four parts due to the large number of images:

The images are highly compressed for bandwidth's sake, but you can click on the images for larger versions (and a few are much deserving of an extra click).

As always feel free to give me any species identifications where I have failed to do so or done so incorrectly.

Reptiles

One creature that exists by the thousands at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science is the turtle. If my identification skills serve me right, these are Florida Cooters (Pseudemys floridana) - though they could be one of a few different slider turtles. I really love the fact that there are turtles called cooters!

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Cooters perched on a beaver lodge

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Dead cooter. As Steve Irwin would say (in that awesome Aussie accent), "It's nature's way."

Amphibians

I just happened to look in a ditch at the spot where I eat my lunch. What did I see but hundreds of tadpoles.

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Back in the swamp behind my house, which is currently flooded and filled with millions of chirping frogs, I came across quite a few Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans), though it was nigh impossible to get a shot of them.

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Mammals

I happened to glance down a swath of land cleared for a high-power transmission line and saw a familiar lone figure staring back at me. It was a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Of course, these are a dime a dozen at my workplace as I've shown you before. Yesterday I managed to get a good shot of a deer's backside as he looked back at me.  You can even see the nubs of his little antlers poking through.

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

"Take a Picture - It Will Last Longer"

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

"Get one of my guns too!"

Also in the flooded marsh behind my property, almost every single surface was covered with the shape of deer hooves.

Deer Tracks

Deer Tracks

If I don't see at least fifty Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in a day...I probably haven't gotten out of bed.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Ain't he cute?

As a rare treat, I managed to spot the elusive Carolina Forest Cow (Bos notrealicus).

Cow

Carolina Forest Cow (Bos notrealicus)

And finally, in the wee hours of a beautiful Spring morn, I awoke to the bloodcurdling hungry cries (and annoying paws to my sleeping face) of three not-so-big Carolina wildcats:

The Rare White Ocelot (Felix spoiledieai)

Cat

Rare White Ocelot (Felix spoiledieai)

The Marbled Manx (Felix epililepticus)

Cat

Marbled Manx (Felix epililepticus)

The Pygmy Jaguar (Felix obnoxious)

Cat

Pygmy Jaguar (Felix obnoxious)

Apparently all three of these magnificent beasts are part of some scientific study. You can tell by the radiotelemetric tracking tags affixed to their necks.

See the rest of this Nature Walk:

18Apr/09Off

Nature Walk #4.2 – Birds

Spring is Here!

This Nature Walk edition continues from #4.1 - Arthopods.

I've broken this post up into four parts due to the large number of images:

The images are highly compressed for bandwidth's sake, but you can click on the images for larger versions (and a few are much deserving of an extra click).

As always feel free to give me any species identifications where I have failed to do so or done so incorrectly.

Birds

Other than all the other scurrying, fluttering, swimming, and pulsing critters of the world, birds are my favorite.

I've managed to snap quite a few good bird images over the past few days (though more eluded me, such as the dastardly killdeer that continually thwarted my focusing attempts). Here are some of them.

First, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). This bird was hanging out over by the Environmental Protection Agency (near the NIEHS). It was quite a distant shot, but turned out pretty well, considering. I am rarely able to get close enough to bluebirds around here. They're just so skittish.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

This next is my favorite bluebird image ever. Today I just happened to walk by this birdhouse nestled in in the woods at the treeline (the NIEHS campus is covered with them), and I saw this single eye staring out at me.  Priceless!

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

"Please don't eat me, please don't eat me, please don't eat me!"

And the cutest thing I've seen this spring: a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) mother with eleven ducklings.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Swimming among the algal mats - Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Check out the front baby's face! - Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

And to top it off, I even have some video:

As I've mentioned before, one of the great things about the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (and the EPA) is the large lake in the middle of campus. We are a stopping ground for all sorts of migratory water fowl, with several species appearing and dissappearing throughout the year. (see the ruddy ducks from a previous Nature Walk)

One bird that I've seen alot of this year is the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus

So regal!

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

"Do I look fatter to you?"

Of course, our campus is infamous for the gazillion Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) that stalk the grounds.  Right now the females are mostly nested, with the males hovering nearby - both ready to start a hissy fit (literally) if you get near the nests.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

"Back off!"

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

"And you think we don't have teeth"

To truly appreciate their menacing display (more hiss than bite) you must see the video:

Don't worry - this goose was not overly stressed by me.  They nest about 3 feet from the walking trail. This female makes this display probably about a hundred times per day as each jogger strolls by.  It's quite hilarious actually. One has to admire their ability to keep up the front (I know of quite a few people who find them dangerous and terrifying - trust me, they are neither once you've figured out their game. It's the same as a defensive opossum: open your mouth and hiss alot - that's it).

As I was walking along, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) plopped down right next to me.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) coming in for a landing

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Back at the homestead, I captured another priceless avian expression: an American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) suddenly noticing that I had snuck up behind the feeder.

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

Nearby, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) skittered up the huge poplar tree in my front yard:

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

A Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perched as well.

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

Finally, I managed to capture a far away American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) scoping the farmland below for tasty treats. I grew up calling these "Sparrow Hawks," which is apparently a common misnomer - they are actually falcons (not hawks).

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Who says the dinosaurs went extinct?

See the rest of this Nature Walk: