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

8Feb/09Off

Cephalopodtastic Wooden Art!

It is well past time that I used my connection with you ocean/invertebrate blogging types to point you all to one of the most artistically talented branches of my family tree.

My cousin, Steven Garrison, has been an accomplished sculptor and artistic engineer for as far back as I can remember. My favorite of his types of work is his series of nautiloid carvings. Be sure to check them all out at his website, www.stevengarrison.com.

Update: (2/9/09) Steve has informed me that he managed to get his work in del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles (considered the premier gallery in the nation for woodwork - you'll find his work there sometime this summer). Congratulations Steve!

Eastern Red Cedar Shell

Eastern Red Cedar Shell - Steven Garrison

Fiddleback Nautiloid

Fiddleback Nautiloid - Steven Garrison

Aromatic Red Cedar Nautiloid

Aromatic Red Cedar Nautiloid - Steven Garrison

He also makes all sorts of other crazy sculptures, the accomplishment and engineering of which can boggle the mind.

You MUST check out his elliptical gears about halfway through this clip.

And one of his latest pieces: wooden gear driven window blinds!

And finally, his own favorite piece:

All Screwed Up

"All Screwed Up" - Steven Garrison

Obviously, I've always harbored a bit of jealousy at Steve's talent.  But that's ok - the artistic thread runs cleanly through his lineage. My Uncle Bill and Aunt Gloria are both highly accomplished artists as well, with Bill focusing on oils and Gloria on watercolors (and oils).

Leatherwood Creek

"Leatherwood Creek" - Bill Garrison

A Fine Pair - Gloria Garrison

"A Fine Pair" - Gloria Garrison

3Feb/09Off

Circus of the Spineless – The Other 95%

badge made by me for the love of bugs (not just hemipterans)

badge made by me for the love of bugs (not just hemipterans - the "true bugs")

Do you love invertebrates as much as I?

If so, make your way now over to the resurrected Circus of the Spineless, a blog carnival devoted to the world of invertebrates, hosted this 35th edition by Kevin Zelnio of The Other 95% and Deep Sea News.

And to my old ecology/zoology professor, Dr. Matt Moran - thank you so much for making me memorize every major order of insects! It came in handy reading this edition of the CotS. I love the organization.

Note: Kevin kindly included my own post on Black Widows around my house (with cool videos).

19Sep/08Off

Don’t Fear the Creatures

Me manly. Throw baby.

Me manly. Throw baby.

I fear nothing.

No, that is not statement of my own masculine machismo, which I generally lack. In fact, if you were to stick a fuzzy kitten or a baby before me, you would find me near-instantly reduced to fawning and cooing like a 5-year old girl. I’m not ashamed of that.

No, what I mean is that, for whatever reason – be it upbringing or genetics – I seem to lack a trait that in my experience 95% of the general public harbors. That trait is an irrational fear of some aspect of the living world.

Here is one example of this. I have talked to literally hundreds of people about this over the course of my thirty years, and without fail, nearly everyone I have ever spoken to reveal some sort of prejudicial bias against some specific branch of the animal kingdom. Usually it either is bugs in general, spiders, or snakes. For others it is raccoons, or opossoms, or rats, or any “pesky” vermin.

Often, instead of verbalizing it as fear, they will say “oh, I hate them,” or “I really don’t like them.” However, it all seems to break down to the same thing: an irrational distaste for entire groups of living creatures.

"I hate you too."

"I hate you too."

I simply cannot understand it. I mean, yes I understand intense phobias. My wife is a psychologist and I have a firm grasp on the nature of phobias. But the prevalence of this hatred and fear seems to go far beyond a massive case of societal phobia.

Considering that I seem to be alone in this (though in view of the subject of this blog in general, I’m sure many of you readers are like me), it seems to me that the main question I have is not “why do they fear?” but “why do I not fear?”

I was raised as a redneck rat-tailed child in the woods in Northeast Texas and then in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I grew up surrounded with snakes, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of wildlife. But the rub of it is this: so did everyone else I ever grew up around! So did my parents, my siblings, and my friends. Yet still, all of them have some major irrational bias or another against one or more of these creatures.

So why is it you can throw a timber rattlesnake 3 feet in front of me and I’ll be like “wow! cool!”, whereas most people will scream and cry? My entire property is overrun with Northern Black Widows (see pics and video here), yet I have never had the faintest urge to call an exterminator.

I think at this point I should quickly define fear. If you stuck the same snake within striking distance of my body, you can be damn sure that fight-or-flight would kick in and I’d retreat in haste. I wouldn’t dare handle a black widow. The fight-or-flight is reflex to avoid bodily harm. The rest is rational fear, or more accurately, simple respect. This is not the fear I am talking about. I’m referring to the guttural yuk, eww, or aghhh factor that so many harbor.

So tell me, dear reader, because I honestly would like to understand – why do you fear/hate/dislike whatever part of the animal world you do?

I have thought about this a lot, and my best hypothesis is that, for me, fascination trumps fear, and even kills it. I have had an insanely passionate fascination in all things biology (and science in general) since I was 5 (as far back as I can remember). When I was young, I dissected dead things, I played with insects, and I handled king snakes. Some of my little friends did this, but even then, I remember that I seemed much more interested by those things than my friends did. So is this the simple answer? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

If so, the question just shifts a degree to “why the hell doesn’t everyone else find the living world as fascinating as I do?”

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

I had several traumatic animal-related events as a child. When I was 9, a scorpion found its way into my pajamas while I slept. It got wedged against my calf where it stung me 8 times. My dad ran in, ripped my pants down, and stomped the scorpion that fell to the ground, while I screamed bloody murder. Still, I think scorpions are awesome. A giant black rat snake I once handled grabbed my hand and chewed it until the blood flowed (also see my related post on black rat snakes and ignorant rednecks). I’ve been stung by countless hymenoptera (hornets bees, wasps, yellow jackets). I’ve been bitten by spiders. Still, I love them all.

Is my brain simply not wired to make the kind of phobic connections that so many others have? My wife is deathly afraid of cockroaches, yet I’m sure the worst that ever happened was that she got one in her hair. Somehow I doubt that a difference in my own susceptibility to phobias or conditioning is the answer – I can’t imagine I wouldn’t develop PTSD if a truly traumatic event were to occur to me.

Am I more rational? I know that in many cases I’m much more rational than others, though I still have my own irrational quirks. However, my lack of fear also extends to other things – like death. I have thought and thought and I can honestly say there is nothing that I simply fear. There are many things that I’d rather not happen, but none that I chronically fear.

I don’t mean this to come across as arrogant at all. I have many many faults, most of which I can admit. But this seems to be a trait of mine I have observed. Those that know me – tell me if you disagree.

It just doesn’t make any sense to me to dislike, hate, or fear any type of creature. There is nothing logical about it. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like the color green.” What does that even mean? I can understand not wanting to wear green because one finds it less aesthetically pleasing or because it doesn't match one's eyes. But this is fundamentally different from not liking the color itself. I would be scared to tromp through a grizzly den, but I don’t hate or fear grizzlies in general.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough on this. I would very much like to hear any thoughts any of you have.

16Sep/08Off

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:

3Sep/08Off

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).