Sunday, January 10, 2016

What if All Life Ended at Once?

Being The Nature Geek and being married to Mr. Nature Geek, the two of us get into some really deep biological conversations. And being full on geeks, we do it...for FUN. Instead of your typical pillow talk, we talk about everything deep, science-y, gross, strange, nasty, and weird.

Last weekend, while eating lunch at a local park, we had one of our geeky talks. The subject of which was:

What would happen if all living things died at once?
(This is a real photo of a herd of endangered saiga antelope, whose worldwide population dropped by half in just 14 days. 
Learn more about their plight here.)

Not just plants and animals, but ALL living things: fungi, bacteria, worms, protists, everything. Your first thought might be one of repulsion, thinking of the nasty smell that would arise from all the simultaneous death. But here's where things get interesting. The smell of death, whether it be a deer, mushroom, human, fish, or leaves in your gutter, all is the product of decomposition, which is all done by living things, mainly, bacteria. As bacteria break down what was once living tissue, they release smelly gases, such as ammonia and sulfur compounds. And in our thought experiment, all bacteria have now ceased to exist. Other less odoriferous agents of decomposition, scavengers like vultures and coyotes and detritivores like millipedes, worms, mold, and mushrooms are also gone. This means that the dead matter will largely remain just as it is, in perpetuity, forever.

To ease our exercise a bit, let's say this mass extinction occurs now, in winter, and focus on the New Jersey woods where Mr. Nature Geek and I had this discussion. This means all the deciduous trees have lost their leaves and most annuals and perennials have died off. The ground is now covered in leaves, twigs, plants, and the bodies of animals. As the snow falls, drifts will form over these new elements of the terrain. As the snow melts and flows towards streams, rivers, and lakes, inevitably many of this dead plant and animal matter will make its way into these bodies of water. In smaller bodies of water, the extra material will cause enough displacement to notice a significant raise in water levels. (One may think that all the bodies/biomass of dead sea life may also cause sea levels to rise, but these plants and animals were already in the water and causing displacement, so there would be no change in that regard.) In rivers, there may be enough mass to cause jams and congestion in the water, altering the course of the river and causing massive floods. The floods cause new patterns of erosion and deposition, altering the landscape. 

Without plants to withhold water in their roots, stems, and leaves, the water cycle on earth would be forever altered. The transpiration of water from plants is a huge part of the current water cycle on earth. Add to that water evaporating from the bodies of animals and other non-plants, and there would be a lot more free water on Earth. How would this affect the weather? Ocean levels?

Soils would also forever be changed. Soils are made of both organic (living or formerly living) and inorganic compounds (rock, clay, sand). Yes, leaves and such would still be in the soil, but without decomposition, they would not be broken down into small particulate, but remain as larger aggregate. Soils would change, but that would not affect much on this new lifeless planet, as there would no longer be any living things that would depend on the nutrient levels in soil. 

This little thought experiment really got Mr. Nature Geek and I thinking about the impact that decomposition has in the health of our environment. Death and decomposition may be something that is feared and viewed as repulsive by humans, but it is an essential part of life on Earth. We owe our life to decomposers such as bacteria, fungi, insects, vultures, coyotes, and countless others. And in turn, they owe their lives to our deaths. We are all interconnected here on plant Earth, and that's a pretty geekily cool thought.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Talk Nerdy to Me

Being The Nature Geek, there's a lot of nature subjects that I love to talk and write about. But there are some cases where just a single word deserves its own special mention. Whether they're an obscure term for something, highly technical, or just plain fun to say, these words are some of my all-time favorites.

Crepuscular (Kra-pus-q-lar)
This one always makes me think of a medical term for a cut or pimple that has become infected. "Eeew, that thing has gone crepuscular!" But far from being disgusting, crepuscular refers to an animal that is mainly active at sunrise and sunset. Deer, armadillos, and fireflies are all crepuscular animals.

Rhamphotheca (Ram-po-thee-ka)
Being the bird nerd that I am, of course I am going to throw in an ornithology term here. The rhamphotheca is the keratin sheath that covers the bone part of a bird's beak. It gives the beak its color and can add some extra shape as well, such as the hook on an eagle's beak, or the serrated edges on the beak of a merganser.  

Ootheca (Oo-thee-ka)
Ootheca, what an awesome term for an insect egg case! An ootheca is a special kind of insect egg, in which a group of eggs is encased by a layer of protein, which can sometimes be foamy, as in the praying mantis eggs in the photo on the left. I first learned of the term ootheca when working with Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Aren't you glad I didn't post a photo of cockroach laying a big ol' ootheca? I figure after last week's creepy post I'd be nice and give you all a break.

Some of my favorite geek terms aren't actually vocabulary, but are scientific names. Here are the two scientific names that I love to say over and over.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Arc-to-staff-a-lus uva-ur-see)
The only thing just as fun as this plant's scientific name is its common name, kinnikinnick! (That one is pronounced "kin-nick-a-nick") Kinnikinnick, also called bearberry, is a woody groundcover plant found around the world in northern areas and in high altitudes in warmer regions. With its evergreen leaves and red berries, I might give it another fun name and call it "mountain mini holly," even though it has no relation, or connection to Christmas, or really even a resemblance, to holly.
Oncorhynchus mykiss (On-ko-rine-kiss my-kiss)
An appropriate name for a fish so pretty you just wanna kiss it! Oncorhynchus mykiss is the scientific name for the rainbow trout, found in streams and river across the United States. This smooch-tacular latin name refers to the fish's hook snout (Oncorhynchus) and its Kamchatkan name (Mykiss). 

There are certainly some fun words in science out there. When you learn them not only do you have something new and fun to pronounce in your vocabulary, but you also up your geek cred! Today I'm going to end with a Google challenge. A bunch of my geeky friends have submitted some of their favorite words to share with you. I challenge you to find out what they just might add a favorite word or two to your own repertoire! 

Nethergeek: Somnambulism
Engineering Geek: Tuberculated
Painter Geek: Bioluminescence
Pigeon Geek: Synanthrope

Carcass Geek: Kleptoparasitism
Ram Geek: Nutlets
Bio1 Geek: Rhinorhea
Weasel Geek: Thigmotactic
Squirrel Geek: Marcescent

SCUBA Geek: Chemotaxis
Rescue Geek: Ophiophagus
Moo Geek: Coprophagy (you can look that one up here!)
Grackle Geek: Rictal bristles

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Nope with 30 Legs: the House Centipede

A couple months ago, this photo appeared in my Facebook news feed thanks to my friend the Cephalopod Geek. A short time later, another friend, the Turtle Geek, shared a story about one of these creatures crawling on her arm. In both posts, the responses of horror, revolt, and outright terror came in rapid fashion. I have no doubt that some of you by now are no longer reading this, having flung your computer (laptop or desktop) across the room.

The creature above is called a house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) and it Freaks. People. Out. Why? Well let's start with its appearance. It has 15 long pairs of thin, wiggly legs, and on females, the last pair are longer than the body. Combine those legs with fast zig-zag movements, and you've got a recipe for nightmares.

But house centipedes don't have to be a source of stress, they can be something rather interesting and even beneficial! Let's take those things that creep you out and put a new spin on them, shall we?

1. Leeeeegs! So many leeeeeegs!
It's true, house centipedes do have quite a few legs, 15 pairs in fact. But when they first hatch as wee babies, they only have 4 pairs of legs. Yup, they're born pretending to be arachnids with those 8 legs of theirs. As house centipedes grow, they gain more legs each time they shed their skin. They go from 4 pairs to 5, then 7 pairs, then 9, 11, 13, and finally 15 legs once fully grown. Each time the house centipede grows, it only has more legs to hug you with.
House centipedes have the ability to break off some of their legs when caught by a predator, which then keep wiggling on the ground to serve as a distraction. This is the same strategy employed by many lizard species, which can break off their tails in response to predators.

2. They run so fast, it creeps me out!
They do run fast, and when you look at the numbers, it should make you marvel instead of cower. These guys can clock in at 1.3 feet per second! Now let's take that into consideration of the house centipede's body size, which is between 1 to 1.5 inches. This means the house centipede can run a distance 12 times its body length in just over one second. If my 5'3" self were crawling on the ground, it would be the equivalent of skittering 63 feet in the same amount of time. Why do they have to run so fast? That's a nice transition into #3...

3. What are they even doing in my house?
House centipedes, like their other centipede relatives, are predators. No, don't worry, you or any part of you are not on the menu.
These centipedes eat silverfish, spiders, bed bugs, termites, and cockroaches. These guys are like a live-in Orkin man, an Orkin man that needs a jacket with 30 sleeves. This is why house centipedes have such amazing speed, to catch quick invertebrates they have to be even faster.

4. Get them out! Get them out!
Ok, so maybe even after reading these cool facts about house centipedes you still don't want them in your house. How do you go about getting rid of them?
This might not be a good idea. 

If you remember in factoid #3 up there, the house centipede is in your house because it has found a reliable source of food. Get rid of the food, and the predator will move on. Try to find the places where insects and other invertebrates are getting into your house. Do you have cracks in your foundation or walls? Holes or gaps in your window screens? These home fixes will not only reduce the amount of unwelcome house guests, but are probably good ideas to do for preventative house maintenance anyway.

If nothing else in this blog entry about house centipedes gives you any relief, consider this: at least the house centipedes running around in your house aren't as big as this cave-dwelling relative from China.

You're welcome.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Twitch's Treasures

"What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine."

Yup, that pretty much sums up Twitch the common grackle's motto. In the 4 months that I've been fostering him I have found that if he has something and you try to even touch it, you will suffer the pointy, stabby beak of Twitch. And if you have something and he wants it, kiss it goodbye (and also suffer the pointy, stabby beak)

Twitch resides in my office, and when I'm working on my computer or doing other desk work, I usually let him out to get some exercise. He spends a lot of time on top of my monitor singing at me, watching what I'm doing, and bouncing off of the top of my head. But Twitch and his big brain has learned something: the human has interesting and often tasty things at her desk. It started one day with the little green foamy frog you see in the photo above. For 3 years, that cute little frog has lived on the upper left corner of my monitor. Until one day when Twitch decided to remove it, take it back to his cage, immediately decapitate it, and then play with the carcass.
You see how at the end Twitch puts his beak in the air? That's how male grackles assert their dominance. It's common to see two grackles at a bird feeder, beaks in the air, seeming to see who can put their beak the highest in some sort of snobbery contest. 

Well later I got a bit of revenge, when I put a new frog on my monitor in the same place, knowing it would be irresistible to the feathered fiend. But what Twitch didn't know is since this was a new frog, the adhesive on the back of the sticker would be quite sticky. Yes...quite sticky indeed.
Twitch is twitching in this video because he had just taken a bath and was all wet.

Sadly, that was the last time I got the upper hand. Twitch has learned to raid my lunch breaks, helping himself to whatever he can find.
Why did Twitch have to eat the Wheat Thin on my keyboard? I'm going to be picking out cracker pieces for months. Twitch figured out that if he wants to be able to keep his stolen goods, he'd better get it back to his cage, and fast. Now whenever Twitch finds something he likes, which I call "treasures", he immediately flies off with it, usually back to his cage for further processing. How he selects his treasures is somewhat of a mystery, but I do know he likes novelty.

Another day his treasure was a rubber band:

Earlier this week it was a glass marble. Amazing he could fly around with something that heavy for over 5 minutes!

Twitch has become so grabby with things, that I think I'm going to have to ban him from having lunch with me. This is what transpired today.

The last time I banned Twitch from eating lunch with me, he just sat there in his cage, staring at me upside down like this:
It's like he's trying to trick me into taking him out again by being ridiculously weird and adorable. 

And it works.

Yes, for as much of pain as Twitch can be with all his grabby, stealy, bitey, stabby, antics, it still greatly amuses me. He may be a punk, but I love him to death. 

There is one message that I want you all to take away from this blog full of cute and funny videos. I'm sure many people who read this will think "How fun is it to have him in your office?! I wish I had a smart and sassy bird like that!" Yes, Twitch may have a big brain that gets him into all sorts of trouble, but his big brain should be in the wild. Remember, Twitch is only in my office because he was taken from his family as a baby and kept as a pet in a tiny, cramped cage, suffering from malnutrition for 7 long years. He shouldn't be using his brain to steal fortune cookies, frogs, and marbles, he should be using his brain to find bugs and seeds underneath leaves, teach his chicks how to forage, and figure out how to best torment crows and hawks. The best place to observe wild animals is not on the internet, but in the wild.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Whatcha eating?

Petunia the sulcata tortoise likes to wear bananas,
not just eat them.
Different animals eat a lot of different things, just like different people eat a lot of different things. This week I polled a group of elementary students on their favorite foods, and I got answers ranging from pizza and chicken wings to macaroni and cheese and even broccoli (her mom would be proud!). Me, I'm a popcorn girl. I eat so much of it that Mr. Nature Geek calls me a "cornivore." 

One of my favorite thing about science is that scientists have to give special names to everything. They can't just call it a lot of hornets, they call it a bike. They can't just call it a clump of Spanish moss, they call it a festoon. They can't just say winter dormancy and summer dormancy, they call it hibernation and estivation. The same thing goes for animal diets. For just about any kind of animal diet out there, there is a special scientific term for it. This week, I offer a quick-draw version of science-speak trivia for you to use to wow your friends (or at least make them roll their eyes at you)!

Term: What it eats (example)
Carnivore: Meat (African lion)
Cornivore: Popcorn (Nature Geek)
Herbivore: Plants (leopard tortoise)
Omnivore: Plants and meat (raccoon)
Insectivore: Insects (giant anteater)
Frugivore: Fruit (fruit bat)
Nectivore: Nectar (ruby-throated hummingbird)
Granivore: Seeds (rock pigeon)
Folivore: Leaves specifically (koala)
Piscivore: Fish (bottlenose dolphin)
Planktivore: Plankton (blue whale)
Gumnivore: Tree sap/gum/resin (pygmy marmoset)
Coprophagy: Feces (eastern cottontail rabbit)
Hematophagy: Blood (female tiger mosquito)
Scavenger: Dead animals (turkey vulture)
Detritivore: Dead plants (American cockroach)

Now know that for nearly every single term I have listed, there are exceptions. For example, although tortoises are considered herbivores, they have been known to eat dead tortoises, and although hummingbirds are known for their love of nectar, they also eat insects. These terms are used to describe the main component of an animal's diet. And now they can also be used to earn another point on your geek card! Go out and use your new-found powers, my geeky minions, perhaps at a meal with your favorite omnivores and herbivores. But stay away from those who practice coprophagy, alright? 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ear Ye, Ear Ye!

This morning, I went to refill my sunflower and suet bird feeders, and noticed three insects "hiding" in the plastic hook at holds my suet feeder on my window.
"Shhh Dave, I don't think she sees us."

They were earwigs, a very common insect in my garden. Being nocturnal, I don't see them much during the day, but at night they are all over my plants. Many scientists learn a lot about a species through their own observations and interactions with the organism. Tonight, I present to you my own observations and interactions, coupled with what good ol' science has to say.

I have yet to have my brain destroyed by earwigs

Either that, or earwigs are smart enough to destroy the part of my brain that recognizes brain destruction first. Earwigs, whose name literally means "ear creature," were given their name based on the belief that females will crawl into the ears of humans in order to lay eggs in their brains. The only association with "ears" that earwigs truly are known for, however, is with ears of corn. Earwigs are quite fond of corn silk, something I observed one summer when some feeder corn sprouted in my garden.

Earwigs like to squish into some really tight places

When I first found earwigs on my small, developing corn cobs, I had initially thought the earwigs were eating the corn itself. I would peel back the husk on the cobs to check the progress of the corn, and 2 or 3 earwigs would go scrambling. Rather than eating the corn, the earwigs were only using the husk for a place to hide during the day. Earwigs are nocturnal, and favor dark, tight spaces, with ample moisture, so a corn husk would be a perfect place to hide. 

Apparently the three earwigs resting in my clear window hook missed the whole "dark" memo.

Yes, Mr. Nature Geek, those pincers can pinch

The most distinguishing feature of an earwig are their large pincers, geekily known as cerci, on their abdomens. 
In females, the cerci are straight and scissor-like, 

while in males, the cerci are curved, like calipers. 
Some earwigs are known to use their cerci for capturing prey, and all are able to use them for defense, as I found out one fateful summer night.

One day, back in college, I was sitting on a park bench on a warm summer evening with my current love interest, having a pretty big saying-I-love-you-for-the-first-time moment. As we were sitting there, pouring our hearts out, I felt a pinch on my butt...and it wasn't from the guy sitting next to me. I ignore it, not wanting to ruin the moment. But as time went by, I was pinched a couple more times, and noticed an earwig running away from the scene of the crime. I told my summer fling that I had been pinched by an earwig, and he refused to believe me, saying "earwigs don't bite." He was right, they don't bite, they pinch! Finally, after about the 8th time of being assaulted, I pointed to the earwig latched onto my thigh with its cerci. The guy finally had his proof.

A female earwig in threatening posture, cerci in the air.

Over the years, I have told Mr. Nature Geek this story about earwigs and although he has said he believes me, I have always sensed a patronizing tone to his belief. However he doubts no more! That's right, according to him one night a "stupid earwig crawled right up the couch just to pinch me on the elbow." Being the supportive wife I am, I laughed my earwig-pinched butt off, gave him a hearty helping of I TOLD YOU SO, and offered no sympathy whatsoever for his boo-boo. 

Earwigs are kind of drama queens

I'll admit it, even The Nature Geek enjoys teasing wildlife from time to time for her own amusement, whether it's playing house sparrow calls to the sparrows inside of Home Depot or watching a gull try to eat a gummi bear. Another source of amusement is gently touching earwigs that I find in my garden at night. It causes them to absolutely freak out and fall of of their leafy perch almost immediately. 
Other insects might run or fly away, or not react at all, but not the big "bad" earwig. It loses all grip and falls right off its leaf. To give the earwig some credit (and dignity), this is actually a pretty good defense mechanism. An insect that crawls away, like an ant, can be easily followed and potentially eaten. However an earwig, by falling off of its perch, instantly disappears to the ground, where it can scurry away in the split second it takes a predator to figure out what just happened. Defense or not, it still amuses me greatly.

Earwigs have yet to destroy my garden or home (just a small piece of Mr. Nature Geek's elbow)

One of the things I hate about researching an insect for my blog is just how many top results on a Google search have to do with how to kill said insect. Researching earwigs was no different. Earwigs can become a "pest" in your home simply because of the numbers in which they can occur as they look for a place to rest during the day. One source I read calls earwigs an "accidental invader." A household provides many dark, snug places in which to stay safe from predators. In gardens, I'm sure many people find earwigs during the day, like I did in my corn, and assume they are going to destroy the plant on which they are hiding. While it is true that earwigs do consume some plant material, they typically do not cause extensive damage. Instead, earwigs can be a beneficial insect in your garden, preying on aphids, snails, and other garden pests! In addition, earwigs are a source of food for birds, mammals, spiders, lizards, and other predaceous insects.
"Did you say 'earwig?' I like earwigs."

Speaking of birds, I really would like to see the chickadee that frequents my suet feeder try to get her beak on those three earwigs hiding in their see-through bunker! Now that would be some amusement.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Try It! Firefly Watch Citizen Science

Tomorrow is the 4th of July and all across the United States, the sky will be filled with lights of every color. But long before we were setting the night aflame with fireworks, nature put lights in the skies with fireflies. One of my first blog entries back in 2011 was on fireflies and their unique ability to not only produce light, but control it. 

I may miss a lot of things about Florida since moving to Pennsylvania in 2009, but I never had fireflies in my Florida apartment complex. I love watching them light up my backyard like Christmas lights. But a part of me is sad when watching fireflies, because I know that there used to be a lot more fireflies. Fireflies around the world are in decline due to habitat loss and light pollution. When you rely on lights to communicate to potential mates, you need darkness in order for your voice to be heard, so to speak. 

To try to figure out the factors that are influencing firefly populations, the Museum of Science in Boston has started a Citizen Science campaign called Firefly Watch. By looking for fireflies in your own backyard for ten minutes once a week, you can help scientists learn how to help these magical insects.

Signing up online is easy, as is telling researchers about your study area (ie your backyard). You don't have to know plant species, habitat classification, or annual rainfall, you simply choose from the options provided to describe your yard based on what general type of vegetation you have (e.g. grass, flower beds, shrubs, trees), whether there are bodies of water or golf courses nearby, if there are lights in your yard, and if you use fertilizers or pesticides.
Where's the "barren yard under an evil invasive Norway maple bordered by a native garden" option?

Once you've signed up, you can take advantage of a variety of information to turn you into a Firefly Geek before your first observations. Most of this information is found in the Toolkit bar on the right of the screen, but if you click "How to Participate" there's a neat interactive guide called the Virtual Habitat that shows the variety of light colors and blinking patterns used to differentiate between firefly species. If you have kids (or if you're a kid at heart like myself), this is a fun and eye-catching section to play with.

Then it's time to make your observations and report them! Don't worry if you didn't figure out what species you have in your yard, all you have to note is how many different kinds of flash colors and patterns you observe. I may not know what the name is of the firefly Mr. Nature Geek and I call "triple blinks," but I just learned that our "blink ups" are the common eastern, or big dipper firefly! These guys blink in a J-shape and are of particular interest to the study.

So this Independence Day weekend I call upon you, my geeky legion, to come forth and perform your scientific duty and participate in Firefly Watch! With our help, we can contribute to research that might help light up your backyard beyond the 4th of July.