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


The Great Blue Heron and the Catfish (with Video!)

Note: If you do nothing else, check out the videos at the very bottom before leaving!!

What a day! A two post day for sure.

The morning started off with an entertaining and educational tour of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC (blog post to follow).

Next, my wife and I were off to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where I had a birding opportunity heretofore unprecedented for me.

Duke Gardens is a massive cross between city park and botanical garden, sprawling with trails and ponds and happy people. My goal was to simply find some interesting natural wonders to photograph, as it's been a while since the weather has allowed me to partake in my outdoor hobby.

We began at a nice looking little pond where my eyes became drawn to a set of cypress knees under a beautiful sun.

For oxygen or support? The jury is still out...

For oxygen or support? The jury is still out...

After snapping a few shots, I looked way across the pond and saw a Great Blue Heron patiently fishing. I've photographed many herons - in fact, I had previously considered my coolest heron spotting as last summer when one let me get within about 15 feet. Normally in the wild, I've found that blue herons get rather irritated when a human passes too closely, letting you know quite vocally before taking flight that you've mucked up their fishing.  If you've heard their loud angry squawk, then you know exactly what I mean. If you use your imagination you can almost hear the word "asshole!" escape their beaks as they take off.

If only I could get closer...

If only I could get closer...

I have a decent (non-professional) camera - so the above image was taken with 12x optical zoom - further than it looks.

Immediately after getting this shot, a couple of kids approached the heron and started throwing bread at it.

"Damn," I think, "now they're gonna scare it away."  I look over at my wife, shaking my head. "They don't even eat bread!"

But the big bird doesn't move. In fact, he gets closer to the the kids and begins staring at the water where the bread floats by. The heron had become completely acclimated to people! (note: I'm using "he" but herons are not sexually dimorphic, so I have no idea its gender)

"I've got to get over there to get some pictures - mind if I run ahead?" I ask my wife, as I begin sprinting down the trail around the far side of the pond - just knowing that the bird will be gone by the time I get there.

It was my lucky day - it was still there!

I immediately (and slowly) perched about 15 feet away and started shooting.



See the arrow? (S)he let me get that close!

See the arrow? (S)he let me get that close!

I decided to test his comfort zone limits and slowly moved to the arrow in the above image.

He still remained statuesque. In fact, the kids continued to thrown bread into the water, even pelting him a couple of times. At this point it became quite clear that this bird had learned to use human behavior as fish bait.  He stared intently directly over the floating bread, waiting for any fish to nibble.

This went on for ten minutes (no fish), so I just began taking as many cool shots that I could.

No sexual dimorphism?

No sexual dimorphism?

Blue Heron Feathers

Baby got back!

You know I can stab you with this, right?

You know I can stab you with this, right?

Next I took a quick video of this beautiful bird.

And then - for the climactic ending.

I was in the middle of setting up for another shot when the heron lunged into the water in about a third of a second! I immediately tried to switch to video mode as quickly as possible, which took about two seconds.

THIS is what followed:

Truly amazing!

I was a bit sad to have missed recording the actual capture - but hey - how much can I really complain after witnessing it myself AND getting all these cool shots.

As an aside, after this event we went to watch "Coraline 3D" (an insanely creative movie by the way). This required wearing special polarized glasses.

Which got me thinking - any fisherman knows the value of a good pair of polarized glasses for reducing surface glare. Do herons and other fishing birds have polaroid filters in their eyes? I found one mention that this is the case in the abstract of a paper from 1973, but I haven't absolutely confirmed this.

And finally - check out this video of a green heron actually fishing with a piece of bread - utterly astonishing behavior!


Another Black Widow Where She Shouldn’t Be

Southern Black Widow tending her nest above my porch

Southern Black Widow tending her nest above my porch

I just got home and happened to look up into the corner of my porch today, when what do I see but a Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus) tending her egg case above my steps.

I have seen hundreds of black widows at my house (see some really cool closeups in my previous post on black widows). Normally they are down low, barely above the ground, peeking out from leaves or tree roots. Occasionally I'll see them hanging beneath my porch steps. But this is the first time I've seen one elevated so high. My guess is that she is only roosting so high for the sake of her eggs.

Hanging up high instead of down low

Hanging up high instead of down low

Below is a cool video I took of a black widow I caught this summer.  As mentioned before, the widows I've seen in North Carolina are the Northern Back Widow (Latrodectus variolus), and not the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans), though it is my understanding that their neurotoxin venoms are equally dangerous. That being said, bites are extremely rare and deaths rarer. They are very unaggressive in my own experience and will instantly hide when approached. I usually just note their locations and leave them alone. This girl, however, is not long for this earth. Too close to my door, and I don't want the babies working their way inside. Plus, my wife is terrified that we have so many widows around to begin with. If it's any consolation to you insect/arachnid lovers, I am usually much kinder and appreciative of our six- and eight-legged cousins than most.

You can tell the species apart by the fact that Southern Black Widow has a complete abdominal hourglass, while Northern Black Widows have a "broken" hourglass (see the movie below and this previous post).

Also, if you like cool spider videos, check out this Golden Garden Spider video I took.

Northern Black Widow videos:

For your own edification, here is a bit about their venom from wikipedia:

The venom spreads rapidly throughout the body and acts by causing the release of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and GABA.

And symptoms:

During the first 24 hours after a bite:

In some rare and extreme cases, severe complications can arise:

Symptoms that may be present at or near the wound:


Behavioral Mimicry in the Golden Garden Spider

I witnessed a pretty awesome display today by my friendly neighborhood Golden Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia), that I had never before seen. In fact, I had no idea that spiders would make such defensive displays.

As I approached her web, I noticed the web start to vibrate back and forth in quite an exaggerated fashion. So I ran and grabbed my camera. When I got back out she had stopped, but she started back up immediately as I got close.

Note - my hand is actually about 6 inches from the web. Also, my hand produced no wind (you can see this clearly toward the end of the video - the last ten seconds are by far the best).

Considering the bright yellow and black markings, my nearest guess is that she was mimicking the movement of a carpenter bee or some other poisonous hymenopteran (we have lots of carpenter bees). It seems clear that it was her way of saying "get the fuck away from me! I'm dangerous". Of course, it may be that it's not mimicry at all, but to me it looks very similar to the movement of the carpenter bees against that very same wood as they bob forward and backward.

For another cool picture of an Argiope, see my previous post (which also has some cool black widows from my house).


Amazing Neurons from Embryonic Stem Cells in a Dish

I grew these mouse embryonic stem cells on a plate, and through various molecular trickery, I made them turn in to the crazy cell types you see here. (Click for larger images)

Check out the next two images. They are the same cells viewed in two different ways (normal light, and epifluorescence).

Long neuronal axons stretch across the dish below.

Two beautiful connected cells.


Spiders and Insects Around the House

First, for the last two summers my property has been overrun by the Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus). These are distinguishable from the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) by the fact that Northern Widows have broken hourglasses on their abdomen, while Southern widows have complete hourglasses. Note the broken hourglass on the female below.

Next up, we have the Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia), or I used to call them when I was a kid: the "zig-zag spider", for obvious reasons. I love it when I get these around the house. They're just plain cool. I also have an amazing video of the female below spinning her egg case.

These are freaky little creatures: I believe they are Coreidae sp. That's about all I can figure out with a quick look on bug guide.
Menacing Giant Stag Beetle (Lucanus elaphus). These things scare the crap out of my wife.

And finally, an awesome example of obvious Natural Selection: a moth of the Hydriomena genus.