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

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:


10Mar/09Off

Medical Research on Animal Models – Where Do You Stand?

Our self-aware cousins

Our self-aware cousins

This weekend I heard an incredibly interesting story on NPR's This American Life titled "Almost Human Resources" (Act 3). The story was all about the issues surrounding chimpanzees in the human world surpassing their usefulness and how we should care for them. Apparently this now includes retirement homes with TVs.

This story, along with a recent tangential debate over at Southern Fried Science and PETA's "sea kittens" campaign, sent my mind down a familiar path - one that anyone working in biology inevitably travels from time to time: the ethics of animal research for science.

There have been myriad writings, books, movies, discussions, and laws surrounding the practice of using animals for research. I'm sure most of us in the science world have come to very similar conclusions on the subject, though we may vary widely in the details.

Nonetheless, I'm very interested to hear where YOU, my readers and my fellow scientist peers, currently stand on the subject. I would like this post to be interactive.

First, I'd like to give my own thoughts.

In general, I view all living things as uber-complex organic robots (humans included). All life is amazing, precious, and beautiful - from bacteria to humans - but I still see us all as robots, running our nearly unfathomable genetic programs, developmental processes, and higher-level emergent programs of conscious and sub-conscious thought.

Mirror Test

Mirror Test

At the same time, I feel - for no rational reason really - that consciousness and self-awareness inherently grant those that harbor them the right to live relatively free from human induced suffering. This is a feeling. We all feel it, at least for humans. We feel the immorality of conducting experiments on other human beings (though this was not always the case). Why? Because it's...just...wrong.

It's for this reason that I'm completely opposed to any medical research on chimpanzees or any great apes. There is no doubt that our great ape cousins share many if not most of our own emotional and sensory perceptions, as well as similar intellectual abilities (similar in type - not necessarily degree). For all intents and purposes, I see them as people. Not human people. Not anthropomorphized animals. But sentient to semi-sentient beings.

It's hard to measure degrees of self-awareness and know whether another creature has it. But the classic mirror test is one simple way to find when the answer is a clear yes. As of right now, great apes, dolphins, elephants, and at least one bird species, the magpie, have passed the test and shown that they have some understanding of "self."

If a creature can have any understanding of what is being done to "them," I am completely against it. Recently Orac at Respectful Insolence posted on the discontinuation of using dogs for teaching surgery techniques. He caught some flak from a few commenters for showing an emotional relief that dog use was being halted - at least partially because he loves dogs. As if any decisions on the use of other beings for our own benefit could be arrived at using only reason!

No - we as humans place some inherent value on consciousness, on self-awareness. Dogs may or may not be "self-aware" as defined by behavioral scientists. They can't pass the mirror test, but anyone who has had a dog knows that they clearly experience something akin to guilt, and a whole host of emotions similar to those of our own (I'm being careful here not to anthropomorphize). They know when they have done something wrong.

As any behavioral biologist, psychologist, or cognitive neuroscientist knows, there is no clear dividing line between conscious being and automaton. What about rhesus monkeys and the other more "primitive" primates? I personally feel that much monkey research - particularly those studies on the cutting edge of such diseases as A.I.D.S. - are critical right now. However, I also know that I could never be one to perform such studies. There is a mental hypocrisy here in my own mind. I would feel wrong performing primate research. But I support it to a limited extent.

But for some animals, it seems clear when they are well beyond that gray fuzzy line. Xenopus frogs, as far as any observation or measurement can tell, are much too dumb to have any sort of self-awareness. The same can be said of mice or rats. They simply do not have the cognitive capacity - the hardware - to generate emergent properties like self-awareness as we know it. It seems more than clear to science, I believe, that these creatures are fuzzy automatons. I have performed studies (using incredibly regulated and humane methods) using these creatures, and I have no qualms about it, so long as the use of animal models are absolutely critical to the study at hand. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved or vastly improved by such studies. Few people alive today (in America at least) can imagine what the state of human health would be without mice and rat studies.

And just to go one level further "down" the evolutionary ladder, consider fish.

Fish are NOT "sea kittens." We understand at least at a basic level what overall types of brain structures and neural pathways are required for higher cognition. Fish do not have these structures. They are insanely complex, from a genetic standpoint. They are beautiful. They are unimaginably important to the ecosystems of the earth. But they are still slimy scaly robotic automatons incapable of "suffering" in any human sense.

And invertebrates? Well, they're clearly organic machines. Would any of you really argue otherwise?

However, with all of the above being said, I often think about how barbaric people were only a generation ago (or sometimes less), and I wonder which of my beliefs will be considered equally barbaric by the next generation. As Richard Dawkins mused in "The God Delusion," perhaps animal rights is the issue upon which our generation will be judged to have sinned. Perhaps our ancestors will cringe at our actions (while praising the 500 year lifespans our research has given them - kidding).

What do you think? Take these polls and leave your comments below.

[polldaddy poll="1444538"] [polldaddy poll="1444551"] [polldaddy poll="1444559"]

3Mar/09Off

Adaptation of the Week – Bird/Crocodile Symbiosis?

Earlier this week, thanks to the wonderful science & nature Twitter community, I followed a link from someone now forgotten to an article entitled "7 Symbiotic Wonders of the Aerial World."

Therein, in symbiotic relationship number one, sat a photograph that I found utterly astonishing:

WP00955. Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Egyptian Plover or Crocodile Bird (Pluvianus aegyptius) - digital reconstruction of popular myth attributed to Herodotus, 5th Century BC.

"Plovers and Crocodiles"

According to the WebEcoist website which published this list of "symbiotic wonders."

"It looks like something out of a storybook - and in fact it can be traced back to accounts told thousands of years ago - a crocodile opens its mouth, invites a bird in before … what?  ::Chomp:: it swallows the sap alive? Amazingly, the crocodile remains still while the plover picks meat from its mouth. This cleans the crocodile’s teeth and prevents infection while providing a somewhat scary meal for the hungry bird."

The image stewed in my head for a couple of days, and I mentally bookmarked it as an excellent adaptation to cover in my Adaptation of the Week series. The story began to write itself as I drove to and from work.

It's quite easy to see how such a relationship, once begun, would be reinforced over successive generations, with the daring plovers becoming well-fed and the tolerant crocodiles' pearly whites gleaming like Smilin' Bob's.

Egyptian Plover (Pluvianus aegyptius)

Egyptian Plover (Pluvianus aegyptius)

But how would such a symbiotic relationship begin, I wondered?

Regardless of the incremental steps that naturally must have occurred, at some point a single dumb, brave, or incredibly hungry bird had to have been the pioneer to first brave the feast-laden crocodilian death-trap. Imagine being the first bird to firmly plant talons on that massive reptilian tongue. No doubt others had come to this place before - but none had survived unscathed.

And what of the first crocodile. Was he just so stuffed that he couldn't bear the thought of shoving one more feathered morsel down his gullet ("it's only wafer thin"). Or perhaps he was the Einstein of the ancient crocodiles, somehow sensing the advantage of letting the little plover do its thing.

In reality, I thought, the relationship probably came in many fits and starts, with the birds initially pecking around the crocs, grabbing whatever leftover bits they could. The crocs tolerated them, much as cattle do with egrets. Perhaps a fair number of plovers did end up as croc snacks. But over time, the crocs most friendly to the plovers gained a slight advantage, with the "friendly alleles" slowly increasing in frequency throughout the population. The birds, of course, now had to compete with one another, becoming bolder and more adventurous.

Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Human Hand (Lucas skywalkerus)

Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Human Hand (Lucas skywalkerus)

In the end, this beautiful relationship was forged and stabilized, to the benefit of both parties (though I imagined that crocodiles who break the contract probably continuously cropped up).

I had my article, plainly written right there in my brain. But of course, as with any good article dealing with science..er...well, anything, I first had to do a little bit of research. What species of bird is it? How common is the relationship?

I make my way back to the original "7 Symbiotic Wonders" article and click on the above image to get the image credits.

The photography website (Warren Photographic) immediately opens to the same image with the following caption:

"WP00955. Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Egyptian Plover or Crocodile Bird (Pluvianus aegyptius) - digital reconstruction of popular myth attributed to Herodotus, 5th Century BC." [emphasis mine]

Wait...what?!

That's not a real image, but a photoshopped one?  I immediately googled the bird (Pluvianus aegyptius), which pulled up this Wikipedia article:

"It is also sometimes referred to as the Crocodile Bird because it is famous for an unconfirmed symbiotic relationship with crocodiles. According to a story dating to Herodotus, the crocodiles lie on the shore with their mouths open, and the plovers fly into the crocodiles' mouths so as to feed on bits of decaying meat that are lodged between the crocodiles' teeth. The crocodiles do not eat the plovers, as the plovers are providing the crocodiles with greatly-needed dentistry. Two prominent ornithologists have supported this story anecdotally,[who?] but the behaviour has never been authenticated (Richford and Mead 2003)." [emphasis mine]

You mean to tell me that after all of this thought, the whole thing is only an ancient myth?!

Apparently the author over at WebEcoist didn't do his research for the article (sorry Ecoist). I mean, c'mon! The original image they used as the lede explicitly states that it's only a myth.

So much for my Adaptation of the Week...

What a croc!!

In the end, I decided to do some research and find a REAL symbiotic relationship:

And in return?

And in return?

(I photoshopped this)

Update: I found a great post on SkepticWiki that discusses this exact supposed phenomenon, and it even talks about how some creationists  use the "crocodile bird" (erroneously) as an example of a behavior that could not have evolved naturally. Right...


Previous Adaptations of the Week:

  1. Timber Rattlesnake Camoflage
  2. The Aye-Aye’s Freaky Finger (I’ve Been Cursed by an Aye-Aye!)
  3. Flatfish Eyes & Recapitulation Theory
28Feb/09Off

Nature Walk #2 – Birds and a Burger

For my next Nature Walk, on my Friday lunch break I decided to take a quick stroll around the lake at the NIEHS campus, camera in hand. Over the past couple of month several coworkers have spotted two river otters in the lake (which is strange indeed). I even managed to spot one while staring out the cafeteria window.

Unfortunately, I did not see the otters, though I will most certainly be attempting to capture them on digital film next week... I did see the following... (FYI: I am not an experienced birder - if I misidentify, feel free to let me know. Also: these are highly compressed images to limit bandwidth - click for higher res).

Beautiful lake between the NIEHS and EPA campuses

Beautiful lake between the NIEHS and EPA campuses

First up, a flock of ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis):

Ruddy Ducks

Sleepy...

Ruddy Duck

so my tail's stiff...what of it?

Ruddy Duck

Get back to work...

And of course, our ubiquitous Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). We literally have hundreds of these birds all over campus year round, covering every surface with green refuse. I look forward to nesting season when they develop severe huffy attitudes that involve a lot of loud hissing (but they're really all talk).

A while back they hired a company to capture most of them and relocate them...yeah...that didn't work (too many geese leads to many problems, environmental and otherwise).

Bring it on Cobra Kai

Bring it on Cobra Kai

Walk on by...

Walk on by...

And the less exotic, but still wonderful American Robin (Turdus migratorius) far away and HIGH up in a tree (I was surprised this photo even turned out at all.

Fluffed

Fluffed in the wind

After my walk around the lake, I went for a burger at Wendy's (I know - horrible - but they're so tasty). All of the following were taken from my car in the parking lot and at my parked eating spot.

Every year about this time, a huge flock of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) shows up in this fast-food district. You coastal folks may bore of them, but we are pretty far inland, and I grew up in landlocked Arkansas, so I still find gulls utterly fascinating.

Loves me some burgers

Give me fries!!

Call me Narcissus...

Call me Narcissus...

Beautiful eyes.

Beautiful Eyes (mature vs. immature)

One sad bird had a severely gimpy foot. But it seemed to be surviving...thanks to fast-food throw aways. I must say that it looked to be in some pain walking.

Victim of a fisherman

Victim of a fisherman (tangled line and rig)

And finally, I retreated to my favorite natural spot to eat, parked near a tiny copse of pines. Despite the fact that I always pay attention to nature, I somehow had never managed to see the following bird. I could tell it looked like a nuthatch - I'm very familiar with the White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) as we had hundreds on my property in Arkansas - but I had no clue what it was and had to look it up when I got home.

It's a Brown-Headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). He was pretty cute - he would look in the hole and poke around, then jerk his head around to make sure no one was watching, then do it again and again.

Paranoid much?

The Paranoid Nuthatch

The Brown-Headed Nuthatch in action...

Shortly thereafter it was back to the lab...

Previous Nature Walks:

21Feb/09Off

Nature Walk #1 – Hawks, Epiphytes, Woodpeckers and Orchids

As an actively researching scientist, I generally call this blog a "science blog." However, I would argue that most scientists are first and foremost "naturalists." As such, much of my time outside of the lab is not necessarily spent dwelling on all the intricate details of my own research (I try to limit how much "work" I actually bring home - though it is rarely further than a few action potentials away from consciousness). No, much of my time is spent pondering and observing nature. My drives to work usually consist of me staring out the window looking for red-tailed hawks, deer, and any of the other wildlife common along NC backroads and interstate 40, with occasional glances back to the road and traffic.

The point is: I love nature. Paying attention to it is first-nature to me, having been raised as a country boy in the Ozark mountain forests. It is for this reason that I also consider this a "nature blog." In fact, I recently joined the Nature Blog Network - THE community for nature bloggers - which was created by the wonderful Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and I and the Bird fame (note: Mike is in Guatemala at a birding conference right this minute - be sure to look out for what is sure to be an amazing photography collection and story when he returns).

In tribute to  my own inclusion in the Nature Blog Network, I give you the first in a series of posts consisting of my own observations from taking walks into nature. I've been posting similar things for a while now (check out the SWEET footage I got of a Great Blue Heron with a catfish recently), but I'd like to make this a formal posting event for me - especially since spring is looming and I will no doubt be making many forays into the natural world.

Although it is still very wintery here in North Carolina and wildlife is relatively sparse (I miss the bugs and other invertebrates...) there is still much to see if one looks closely enough.

Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

In fact, I had barely stepped outside my front door when I saw one of my all time favorite creatures: the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). When I was a small child I read some tale of a now-forgotten Native American and his spirit or guardian animal - the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Ever since then the hawk has been one of my favorite animals. If I had a "spirit animal" it would be a hawk. Yes, it's insanely silly, but I always pretend like it's a good luck sign when I see one - the key word here is pretend. Really, I love all raptors.

As I walked down my driveway, I heard a squawking sound coming from my neighbors yard. When I looked up, I saw two red-shouldered hawks - one in a nest and the other in a nearby tree. I quickly tried to photograph them, though they were still about 40 yards away. I have a great digital camera, though it is NOT a professional DSLR. However, the 12X optical zoom and decent manual options are more than good enough for me until I have cash to burn.

As soon as I snapped the pic above, both of them took flight. I tried to get an in-flight shot, but the one below was the best I could do in the 1.5 seconds I had before they were gone. Luckily, it was good enough for me to identify it as a red-shouldered rather than a red-tailed. My neighbor (Flyzeyes, who has some pretty awesome nature photography himself) and I both hope that the nest is theirs and that they will return - we shall see.

Red-shouldered Hawk in flight - barely got it.

Red-shouldered Hawk in flight - barely got it.

I mosied on past my neighbors house and through the woods behind it, where a small pond lies hidden within the forest. The pond is surrounded by beaver-chopped trees from last spring. Here are two shelf fungus-laden remnants of the beaver's work:

To my mycologist friend, Southern Fried Scientist: Please identify...

To my mycologist friend, Southern Fried Scientist: Please identify...

Years of growth, felled by one small furry creature.

Years of growth, felled by one small furry creature.

The pond overflows over a small levy into a large swamp below it.

Swamp

Swamp

Flitting throughout the trees, flocks of tiny birds surround the entire marsh. I managed to get one decent picture (they tended to keep a good distance between them and me), and through my trusty bird guide I'm almost certain they were Swamp Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) Note: I had it wrong initially - so much for my bird ID skills... thanks to Mark Shields! The lateral eye-mark and streaked breast with dark spot in the middle is the give-away sign.

Swamp Sparrow (

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

The swamp was also surrounded by one type of bush (I have no idea what kind) covered with cool looking pollen pods (see my non-existent botany lingo and knowledge?).

Pollen pod? Im sure theres a proper word for this...

Pollen pod? I'm sure there's a proper word for this... Update: their called "catkins" - thanks to Inoculated Mind (see comments)

One of my favorite things about wet areas (like swamps and marshes) are that there tend to be various epiphytic species everywhere (epiphytes = things that live on other things - usually on plants. Most are not generally parasitic, but just use plants for structure, though parasites like mistletoe are still considered epiphytic in habitat. Small plants, algae, fungi, and lichens are among the most common - or visible anyway - epiphytes).

I believe this is a lichen - I could totally be wrong.

I believe this is a lichen - I could totally be wrong.

Amazing structure...

Amazing structure...

I also managed to snap two different woodpecker species - both from fairly great distances, so the images aren't superb. I'm almost 100% certain of both of their identities. The first is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), and the second is a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

After watching the birds for a while, I made my way to my own back yard, where I found a returning Lamb's Ear (Stachys sp.)

Lambs Ear (Stachys sp.)

Lamb's Ear (Stachys sp.)

And finally, I took a few photographs of one of two native North Carolina orchid species I've found on my property. The first is the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor). What's interesting about this species is that they only bear one leaf - and only in the fall/winter. Once flowering season arrives in the summer, the leaf dies and they send up a shoot filled with tiny flowers. In the fall, the flower stem dies back, to be replaced by the single lone leaf, which has a bright purple underside.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)

Purple underside

Purple underside

Unfortunately, after a while of searching I was unable to find any of the second orchid - which I know I had several of last year. This second native orchid is quite a beautiful plant - and it has an awesome name: the Rattlesnake Plantain - or Rattlesnake Orchid (Goodyera pubescens). We've had 2 years of pretty bad drought, and an unseasonably cold winter - so I am hoping they have not all died. Perhaps I will find more in the spring. Here's a picture of some I took last September. Pretty amazing foliage pattern, no?

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia). Extinct on my property?

Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens). Extinct on my property?

And with that, my first nature walk of the year is concluded. I cannot wait for everything to start blooming and for all the insects and other crawly critters come out of the woodwork. Keep an eye out here for more nature photos and stories to come...

If you know the identity of anything above, or if I've misidentified something, please let me know.