Monday, December 26, 2011

Breaking up with Christmas

Christmas is over, and now we are left wondering when we should take down our decorations.  Like an awkward breakup, part of us wants to linger in the good feelings and keep the mementos of the holidays around for just a bit longer.  Then there's the other part of us, that is so ready to move on from the holidays that we want to purge everything that reminds us of the holiday ASAP.  Well, whenever you are ready to take that big step and move on from the holidays, your Christmas tree doesn't have to go in the trash; instead consider recycling, or treecycling it!  There are many uses for your old Christmas tree that benefit the environment.  If you search online, you'll find a host of great and creative suggestions, but I thought I'd highlight four of my favorites here.  

Some Christmas trees are sunk in lakes to act as habitat for bass.  In the picture below, members of the Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to sink donated trees using cinder blocks.

If you'd like to enhance your own backyard habitat, prop your tree up using a makeshift stand or by sinking it into the ground or alternatively, you can just lay it directly on the ground.  Birds will use the limbs (with or without needles) as shelter and if you have bird feeders, you may find an increase in your visitors thanks to the extra shelter and safety from predators you have provided.
A female house sparrow enjoying her new Christmas tree perch
(and yes my fellow ornithologists, I know it's an invasive species, but it's the only applicable picture I could find)

Donated trees are used not just to create habitats, but to protect them as well.  A barricade of Christmas trees can act as an effective means of protecting areas such as shorelines and sand dunes from erosion.

If you had a really rough breakup with Christmas and you feel the need for massive destruction, rent a wood chipper and shred that puppy to bits.  Then you can use it as wood chip mulch to spread under trees and shrubs.  The acidity of the wood and needles prevents most weeds and other plants from growing (the next time you are in a pine forest, look directly beneath the tree; you won't see much growing there!).
That's right little penguin-thingy, just kill the tree 
and keep telling yourself that everything will be ok.

There are many other ways to put that old Christmas tree to use, and many will be specific to the area in which you live.  In order to find out your local options, just do a Google search for "Christmas tree recycling" and the name of your city.  If you are served by Waste Management Inc. you can visit the website for your local office (enter in your zip code here) and even see if your town does curbside pick up of trees!  Whether you are wishing you and Christmas could be together just a little bit longer or if you are so over Christmas, you can give away your tree memento with no emotional baggage attached, knowing it will be put to good use. Just remember, there are other Christmases in the sea and thanks to you, a tree in the lake as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Nature of the Holidays

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, everyone!  I thought it would be fun to dedicate this week's post to plants and animals that have become symbols of the holiday season.  You know which plants and animals represent the holidays and you may even know the history of how they came to be holiday icons; now I'd like to share a little bit about their natural history!

We all know poinsettias by their beautiful red flowers, but did you know the red "petals" are not petals at all?  The true flower of the poinsettia is tiny--see the green and yellow part in the picture above?  That's it!  To attract pollinators to these minuscule flowers, the poinsettia relies on brightly-colored modified leaves, which give the plant its red color.  The poinsettia with which we are most familiar originates in Mexico, but we do have our own native species of poinsettia in the United States, found in the southern states.  It may not be quite as showy, but I have always loved the contrast in the two-toned leaves.
Our own native poinsettia.  Isn't it pretty?

Evergreen Trees
(These holiday suckers have not yet located hosts)

One of my favorite mind-blowing facts about evergreens has to do with just how amazing their needles are.  They are designed to shed snow easily and survive through bitter cold, thanks to their shape, waxy coating, and their own kind of antifreeze.  But here's the best part: needles are actually "normal" broad leaves rolled up! (Mr. Nature Geek calls them "leaf burritos")

Ever wonder how to tell a pine from a fir from a spruce tree?  Here's how:
have needles in groups of 2-5.

have flat, single needles that you can't roll between your fingers. (Just remember firs are flat)

have four-sided, single needles that roll easily between your fingers.

This species in particular is American holly (Ilex americana)

There are 13 or so species of holly in the United States, and 400 worldwide.  Not all of them produce berries, however!  Nearly all hollies are what is called dioecious, (pronounced di-EE-shous) which means that there are separate male and female plants.  It's only the females that produce berries.  But remember, without the male plants the females wouldn't be able to produce those beautiful red berries, so this season, show the male holly some love too.

Think about this the next time you're kissing your sweetheart beneath the mistletoe: the name mistletoe means "dung on a twig."  This refers to the way that mistletoe seeds are often spread; through bird droppings landing on a tree.  As I eluded to an earlier post, mistletoe is also a parasite, sucking nutrients out of its host through its roots.  Just why early Scandinavians associated this plant with their goddess of love, Frigga, I have no friggan idea.

Olives (Olive oil)
Olea europaea, known commonly just as "olive tree"

There are over 20 species of olives around the world, but only one (Olea europaea, and its thousands of varieties) is edible and used make oil.  And talk about being productive; olive trees have been reported to live over 2,000 years and still produce fruit!

Reindeer (Caribou)
Sorry boys, you can't pull Santa's sleigh.

Over the years, I've noticed that my joints have more snap, crackle, and pop than a bowl of Rice Krispies.  But the snapping of a reindeer's tendons has nothing to do with age.  Instead, the clicking sound produced by the reindeer's feet help it locate the rest of its herd in the heaviest of snowstorms.  And while both male and female reindeer have antlers, it's only the females that retain them in the winter.  Does this mean that Donner is really....Donna?

No matter what holiday you are celebrating this season, have a wonderful one!  And for you, my fantastic followers, I have a surprise in store in the new year...stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Migration: It's all a Matter of Perspective

Although in many places December so far hasn't been too cold, there are still plenty of people who are packing up their things and are heading down south for the winter.  There they will escape the nor'easters and Alberta Clippers of the north and instead take refuge in the palm trees, sand, and green grass of the south.  Animals go through migrations too as I'm sure you know, but you'll find that one's definition of "migration" depends on how you look at it.

Most of the time when we think of migration, the first animal that comes to mind is birds, as they fly from cold northern regions to warm southern areas in the fall the reverse route in the spring (I previously posted about fall bird migrations, check it out here).

But it doesn't have to be cold to trigger migration.  For African elephants, they follow the rain.  As their native lands dry from lack of rain, the elephants move to areas that still have green vegetation to eat (the grass really is greener on the other side!).  Once the rainy season begins, the elephants will return to their newly-greened homes.

And food isn't the only reason for migration either.  For the monarch, who doesn't hibernate like the rest of its butterfly cousins, they have to fly nearly 3,000 miles each year to Mexico to escape freezing in the winter.  Others migrate in search of suitable breeding grounds; freshwater rivers for the Chinook salmon and Florida beaches for the loggerhead sea turtle.

Nor is migration always in a north-south orientation.  Elk and mountain goats practice what is called altitudinal migration; they move from higher to lower elevations as the snow begins to fall.

Migrations don't even have to occur over a long period or distance!  Some migrations last only 24 hours, as is the case with the tiny shrimp-like krill that live in the ocean.  Krill migrate 1500 feet daily from their daytime protected depths of the ocean to the surface of the ocean under the cover of night to feed while avoiding the keen eye of predators.

So I guess when you think about it, I could consider my 9:00pm raid on the refrigerator a kind of nightly migration; there's no food on the couch, so I have to move to the refrigerator where there is food.  Now if I could just burn the same amount of calories as a Arctic tern that has just migrated from the north to the south pole...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Darker Side of the Holidays: the Christmas Sucker

There are a lot of animals that only seem to come around in the winter.  In my native North Dakota, it was snow buntings (the original "snow birds") and snowy owls.  Here in Pennsylvania, the slate-colored juncos only appear at my feeders when there is snow on the ground.  I have noticed the appearance of an interesting plant though, a presence that is far more...sinister.

This plant is a parasite, feeding on helpless and unsuspecting victims, who only want to get in the holiday spirit. Now I know what many of you are thinking; you're thinking that I'm talking about mistletoe. While it's true that mistletoe is indeed a parasite that sucks life out of its hosts, I'm talking about a plant that targets us. I found a picture of one let me show you:

Yes, it's the dreaded Christmas suckers: the Parasitic Pine (Festivus pinus), the Sucking Spruce (Festivus picea), and the Feeding Fir ( Festivus abies).  

This family of trees all share the same feeding characteristics.  Some attach to their host using tendrils resembling twine, and others like the one above use a strong spider-like webbing.  You'll notice that the trees assume an aerodynamic pose before attaching by drawing in their branches and orienting their bodies so that they face trunk-first on their host.  The attachment through tendrils and/or webbing, coupled with an aerodynamic pose allow the Christmas suckers to feed while riding their hosts at speeds in excess of 55 miles per hour (where did you think those extra miles per gallon where going, hmmm?).  Once inside our homes, we can only prevent them from making us their next meal by making offerings on and beneath their boughs.
This family should be safe this year...I think.

I found some more pictures of parasitized vehicles that I want to share in order to educate you on how far-reaching this infestation is.  Here we can see a close up of the twine-like tendrils, attaching the Christmas sucker to its host.

Parasites are only successful if they live off of a host without killing it.  Otherwise the parasite threatens its own existence by eliminating its food supply.  Here we can see that the Christmas sucker selects its host by finding one of comparable size to itself.

However, sometimes the trees get a little over zealous.  

In 2010, this hefty fellow was not only able to find a suitable host, but was then transported to the White House. The White House, people!

In this photo, a Christmas sucker has resorted to parasitizing a small child. The horror!!
As you can see from the official watermark, I got this from a classified file
 in the Department of Agriculture called "Shutterstock"

This holiday season, keep a keen eye out for the Christmas sucker.  They may look innocent, but that's what they want you to think. But as long as we support one another by giving each other offerings for our trees (often called a "gift exchange") we can make it through this holiday season...alive.

Monday, November 28, 2011

And Now, We Sleep.

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone.  We've stuffed our faces with turkey (or tofurky for my vegetarian friends), dodged pepper-spraying wackos at Wal-Mart, and surfed ourselves silly on Cyber Monday.  I don't know about you, but after all of that excitement and caloric intake, I can't think of a better thing to do than take a nice long nap.  Heck, I just might hibernate.

That about sums it up after Thanksgiving dinner.

Animals hibernate too...just not for the same reasons.  For animals, hibernation is a way to escape periods of winter where food is sparse or temperatures are too cold for survival.  Lots of animals hibernate: bats, woodchucks, frogs, turtles (really most if not all northern reptiles and amphibians), but not bears.  Why aren't bears considered true hibernators?  Although a bear's heart rate and respiration may lower quite a bit during their winter dormancy, it's not nearly to the extent of a true hibernator like the little brown bat, whose body temperature approaches that of the air temperature and only breathes about once per hour.  Keep this in mind if you ever think about going bear tipping, folks; true hibernators take time to wake up, bears don't.

In my opinion, frogs are one of the most fascinating hibernators.  A hibernating frog on land can be found encased in ice, and even with ice crystals within its body cavity, but will still thaw out and come back to life in the spring.  How does the frog survive?  It has a high concentration of glucose (sugar) in its vital organs, which acts as a kind of antifreeze.  

That is one cold amphibian!

Now you probably knew a thing or two about hibernation before reading this, but did you know that there's also a kind of "hibernation" that takes place in the summer?  Just as in winter, there are some animals such as Pennsylvania's red-backed salamanders that can't take the extreme temperatures and dryness that comes with summer.  So to cope, they use a summer dormancy called estivation.  The red-backed salamander spends both winter and summer safely tucked beneath a log, until the cool and rainy days of spring and fall arrive.  Sleeping through half of the year--they must be part teenager.

So go eat your leftovers, share this blog with a few people (hey, I'm not above some self-promoting here), and then return to your holiday slumber.  I'm going to go and see if I can convince some people that bear tipping is a real sport.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Test your Turkey Trivia!

As we prepare for our Thanksgiving feasts, we wash the green beans, melt the marshmallows (after eating half the bag), warm the bread, and of course, try not to burn the turkey ("Don burnt the turkey!") or blow up your house with it.  But how much do you know about this plump bird which we call dinner?  Sure, most everybody knows that Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national symbol, but I'm talking biology here, folks!  So let's gather around the bloggy table,  give our thanks for the internet, and learn more about turkeys.

  • Humans aren't the only ones to gather in large groups; turkeys can be found in large flocks as well, consisting of one dominant male (called a tom) and several females (called hens) and their young.

    • And speaking of young, baby turkeys are called poults and are extremely adorable.
    Admit it, you're totally thinking "D'awww" right now.

    • Male and some female turkeys have beards, which contrary to their appearance, are made of modified feathers, not hair.

    • When strutting their stuff for a female, males not only spread their tails, but they also drag their wings on the ground (which sounds pretty impressive on pavement as I discovered), and the skin on their head changes from red to blue.
    A couple of toms strutting (note the beards)

    • That gizzard that you just removed from the turkey? That is one powerful muscle that you now hold in your hands.  The gizzard is an organ of digestion, and is especially powerful in birds that consume seeds and nuts.  Hickory nuts that normally require 124 to 336 pounds of pressure to break are completely shattered by a turkey gizzard in just over one day.  Another study found that even steel is not immune to the forces of the gizzard--12 steel needles were ground to pieces by a turkey's gizzard in just 36 hours, with no damage to the turkey!  Now put that gizzard down; you're dripping juices on your keyboard.

    • There is only one other kind of turkey in the world, the ocellated turkey, which can be found in the Yucatan Peninsula.

      Quite the handsome fellow, hua?  The turkeys clearly won the plumage lottery.

      • And despite their large size, turkeys can not only run 25 mph, but can fly 55mph!  Ever see a turkey in a tree?

      And yet more poult cuteness.  Poults can fly at just 8-10 days old!

      There you have it, more turkey trivia than your family members will be able to tolerate around the dinner table this Thursday (hey, just be glad I didn't tell you how to tell male and female turkeys apart just by their poo).  
      Have a very happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  

      Thursday, November 10, 2011

      Oh Sawfly Maggot, I Love You So

      First off, to those of you reading this whom I met at the National Association for Interpretation conference this week, hi!  (I'm waving furiously, you just can't see it)

      In my days teaching people about the wonderful outdoors, I've worked with a lot of animals, some of which others wouldn't dream of going near.  I've gently herded western diamondback snakes off of the road, picked up barked scorpions, pet alligators (and not all of them in captivity...I know...I'm nuts), and conversed with slugs, worms, millipedes, bees, and nematodes.  Many people ask "isn't there any animal that creeps you out?"  Why yes, yes there is.  Maggots.

      Maggots give me the heebie jeebies something awful.  Especially when they are surrounded by about a quadrillion of their nearest kin.  And then something happened that changed my view of maggots forever: I met the humble sawfly maggot.

      Hey, I may like the guys, but don't expect me to start talking baby talk to them.

      Some of you may remember me mentioning the sawfly in a previous post on the mini ecosystem that exists inside my compost bin. I mentioned that sawflies not only don't care about humans, but they also drive other species of flies away that are interested in ruining our day.  But the thing that really amazes me is just how good the sawfly maggot is at turning my garbage into soil.  Within days, what used to be lettuce, tomatoes, bread, and pulled weeds is reduced to an unrecognizable brown sludge.  Now that may sound gross, but think about it; these guys are faster than any other decomposer I've ever seen in a compost pile.

      In fact they are so good at what they do that some researchers and farmers are looking into the possibility of using black sawfly maggots to get rid of hog waste, a major pollutant.  The sawfly maggots that grow in the waste can also be used as food supplements for hogs and fish!

      Black sawfly maggots may not be cute and cuddly, but they have earned a new found respect for maggots in my heart.  So until the next time I turn my compost pile, little maggots, may your days be full of delicious compost.

      Thursday, October 27, 2011

      It's Always Halloween in the Natural World

      Happy almost Halloween, everyone!

      A couple of weeks ago I found myself trying to think of animals and plants that had names that were associated with Halloween.  Turns out it was a pretty fun mental exercise and a good idea for a blog post.  Now some of you may be wondering "Gee Katie, if you had this idea for a blog post weeks ago, why did you not post last week?"  Turns out having a full time job and working on one's M.S. degree takes up quite a bit of one's time. heh.  And if any of you really were wondering where my post was last week, then that means you actually follow this blog with some regularity and I love you.  I'm guessing most of my readers are more along the lines of "She posts each week?  I thought it was once a year...hua."

      Anywho, on to the Halloween-themed plants and animals!

      Is it just me, or does this red-lipped batfish make anyone else think of Rocky Horror Picture Show?

      There are actually about 60 members of the batfish family, and no, none of them are named 'Dracula'.  Neatest thing about these guys other than their appearance?  They're poor swimmers, so get around by walking on the ocean floor using thickened pelvic and pectoral fins!

      Ghost Orchid

      The ghost orchid is native to the United States and can be found in southern Florida.  It got its name because the roots of the plant often blend in so well with its host tree that the flower seems to be floating in space just like a ghost.  Nothing scary about this ghost though, just pure beauty.

      Gray Catbird

      You guys know me, I love my birds, and the grey (gray? I still can't decide which spelling to use) catbird is no exception.  The distinctive 'meow' call that the species gives is how it got its name.  What some may not know is that the catbird is also a talented yet shy songster.  Unlike its cousin, the northern mockingbird, who likes to sing and be seen, the catbird is more likely to warble quietly from deep within a thick clump of vegetation.

      Spider Crab
      A giant Japanese spider crab in front of her...what is she taking a picture of?

      Get a load of those legs!  It's easy to see how spider crabs get their name.  However if you look again, you'll notice that it's only spiders that have 8 legs; crabs have 10, giving them one of my favorite terms I like to use to nickname my pet hermit crabs, decapods. (Want to learn more about spider crabs? Check out my blog entry on them here!)

      Witch Hazel

      Although witch hazel has a very distinct and even bewitching look to it, the witch part of its name doesn't come from entirely from a person who can turn you into a newt and is lighter than a duck ("Burrn her!").  Witch is suspected to have its origins from the Middle English wiche, meaning "pliant" or "bendable".  Although seeing as stems of witch hazel were also sometimes used as divining rods, witch may just refer to witchcraft after all.

      Goblin Shark

      Now there is a face only an Ichthyologist could love (hi Mary!).  I think the origins of this deep sea fangly fish's name are no mystery. However much about the fish itself remains a mystery, and it is thought to be one of the rarest-observed fish in the world. In addition to its distinctive snout, the goblin shark is also equipped with jaws that are able to protrude very quickly in order to snatch up soft-bodied prey.

      There you have it, some of the wonderful and unusual plants and animals that share their names with creatures we associate with this time of year.  While the ghosts, goblins, and witches of Halloween might give us a fright, each of these species are fascinating and far less scary.  Though come to think of it, if I ever saw a goblin shark in person, I'd probably give him all of my candy.

      Saturday, October 15, 2011

      The Trees are Out to Get Me

      The trees of Pennsylvania are trying to kill me.  They try to kill me every year.  Oh sure, in the fall people oooh and ahh over the magnificent beauty of fall foliage, but that's just a disguise because given the opportunity, the trees in Pennsylvania will try to kill you, too.

      Leaves aren't the only thing falling from trees in the autumn.  Here in Pennsylvania there are three kinds of trees that are dropping their fruit and making people duck and take cover.  Here are the three shady culprits and their weapons of choice.

      Assailant #1: Oaks

      Weapon of Choice: Acorns

      Sure, the mighty oak's acorns may not look like a formidable murder weapon, but that's what they want you to think.  But don't let these squirrel treats fool you, they are capable of inflicting personal injury.  Just the other day an acorn from a towering 150 year old black oak came slamming down so hard on the pavement in front of me that it made me jump and swear that the acorn hadn't just fallen, but that the tree must have thrown it at me. (Thank goodness the tree has as bad of aim as I do)  Acorns are even more deadly in great numbers.  Two years ago I was hiking on a hilly nature trail covered in a bumper crop of acorns (also known as a mine field) and nearly fell on my face several times.  

      Why do oaks want to kill me?  Maybe they're taking their frustrations out on me from having squirrels steal their nuts year after year.

      Assailant #2: Black Walnut
      This black walnut was recently apprehended and put behind bars.
      (ok, make that "behind chain link fence")

      Weapon of Choice: Black walnuts

      The black walnut's weapon of choice packs a punch on many levels.  First, there is the immediate danger from being hit on the head by one of these green titans.  If the black walnut tree misses you on the initial drop, it can find you for revenge later.  All you have to do is touch the black juices of the walnut husk and your hands will be stained for quite some time.  This is the walnut's version of the black spot of death, a trick that it learned from the pirates of Treasure Island.  

      Even innocent fish are not immune to this villain's attacks.  The green husk of the walnut contains a chemical called juglone, which when mixed with slow-moving or stagnant water, kills all of the fish residing beneath the surface.  This is such an effective fish-killer that Native Americans were known to use black walnut fishing as a reliable way to collect fish.  It seems that the black walnut has acquired a co-conspirator...

      Assailant #3: American Chestnut

      Weapon of Choice: Burrs
      The American chestnut may be iconic come the holiday season, but that's only because by then this tree will have run out of ammunition.  Make no mistake, right now this tree will leave you with anything but a sense of cheer.  No, right now this tree will leave you with a sharp, prickly, vegetative, green sea urchin sticking out of your cranium.  The burrs of the American chestnut are so sharp that I can barely manage to pick one up with my bare hands.  I can only imagine the pain of having one of these dropped on your head from 20 feet or greater must feel like (especially those poor bald-headed victims).  I think no greater explanation must be made as to just how greatly armed and dangerous this assailant is.  

      The American chestnut may have a reason for its outlash, as the species is currently under siege by chestnut blight.  I don't blame those trees that are sick for lashing out, but those trees that are healthy are really all bark and no blight.

      As you are walking the nature trails this fall, admiring the beautiful fall foliage, be sure to keep one eye open at all times and wear a hard hat.  These three assailants may be lurking in the woods near you.  The trees haven't killed me yet, but that doesn't stop them from trying.

      Friday, October 7, 2011

      It's Fall Migration...Get Out Those Life Lists!

      October 7, 2011

      As the seasons transition, you may find that the color of the leaves and daily temperatures aren’t the only thing changing.  If you’re a birder, you may notice some new feathered faces in your area as well!  Fall migration is in full swing, giving bird lovers everywhere a chance to see rare and uncommon birds as they make their way south.

      Why do birds migrate in the first place?  The most common answer is that birds migrate due to the cold temperatures.  And that is true… in a roundabout way.  Birds don’t migrate because they can’t handle the cold, their feathers act as a great form of insulation which is kind of like putting on a big, poofy sleeping bag when you need it.  Rather it’s the food of the birds that migrate that can’t handle the cold.  Birds that eat things that aren’t available in the winter, such as insects, nectar, fruit, or aquatic vegetation, must fly south in order to find food to eat.  And as they travel south, it’s our backyards that many of these birds choose to fuel up.

      In my area of Pennsylvania, fall and spring migration is a great time to see warblers such as the black-throated blue and the black and white.  I can never see or say the name “black-throated blue” without thinking that it’s really the “black and blue warbler.” Imagining a tiny bird with a shiner is kind of a funny mental image.  Today I noticed a female black-throated blue warbler (who is neither black nor blue) making her “refueling” stop at a compost pile, acrobatically catching flies with a snap! of her beak. 

      While living in Florida, I didn’t see American robins unless it was migration time.  Then these American icons would arrive en masse to descend upon the local lawns in search of worms and other tasty invertebrates.  Once when I was washing my birds’ cage outside with the hose (I have two cockatiels…they don’t migrate.), ten or so robins came down to drink from the stream of water that was running into the drive of my apartment complex.

      Although the fall and spring migrations don’t last very long, they are always a treat.  Across the United States, bird enthusiasts gather to watch hawks, songbirds, and even tiny hummingbirds at favorite stopover locations.  Hopefully you’ll spot a feathered gem this fall too!

      I've Upgraded!

      October 7, 2011

      Upon logging on to my page on Facebook today, I was promptly informed that the discussion boards are vanishing at the end of the month. Curse you Facebook and all your changes!  Well, it all works out for the better because now I have an official blog blog!  This thing is so fancy...there's underlining, I can put things in bold, I can even include pictures!

      Me getting (fiddler) crabs in Florida.

      I've graduated to a real grown up blog!  I look forward to using this new space to the fullest extent...that I'm able to figure out without enrolling in an html class.  Over the next couple of days I'll be going through the archives and sprucing them up by adding some pictures here and there.  So stay tuned, subscribe, stalk me if you will (in a friendly, non creepy, I'm-The-Nature-Geek's-biggest-fan kind of way), to see the latest changes!

      Table Scrap Ecosystem

      (originally posted September 25, 2011)

      This spring, I purchased an Acme Cheap-O plastic compost box, so that I could do my part to reduce waste going into landfills. That and my garden could use all the help it can get since it is located beneath a dementor life-sucking life form called the Norway maple. I figured watching the decomposition process might be kind of neat (oooo! Look at all the mold spores!), but I had no idea just how fascinating it would be. Compost bins not only benefit our gardens and landfills, but they introduce an entirely new ecosystem into your yard.

      If you don’t know much about composting, let me give you a brief run down. Composting is a process where you take your food waste and through the help of heat and nature’s decomposers, turns it into nutrient-rich soil. You can’t compost everything, dairy and meat are the two main categories of things that cannot be composted—they putrify and take too long to decompose, but there is a lot that you can compost. If it comes from a plant, it can be composted. Fruits, vegetables, leaves, twigs (though I wouldn’t put in twigs much bigger than your finger in diameter), and even tea bags can be composted. Some people even compost paper, but I recycle mine instead.

      One of the very first things I learned about composting is if you compost it, they will come. You needn’t worry about adding critters like such as the exotic and invasive red wiggler worm to your compost pile; if you’re piling up tasty food scraps, the critters will come to you. My compost pile currently harbors a vast variety of life, including ants, more pill bugs (roly polys) than I’ve ever seen in my life, millipedes, and a few species of flies. I also have a few very intelligent and very well-fed spiders in my bin. The flies that live in my compost bin are mainly fruit flies and black saw flies; neither have any interest in humans, unlike the pesky house fly, deer fly, and horse fly. In fact, the black saw fly actually drives house flies away; any insect that can do that is welcome in my pile of refuse anytime.

      All of these invertebrates live right there in my compost bin, their own micro habitat. They complete their life cycles and in the process, they turn what was once waste into valuable soil. If you have someone in your family that likes to look for insects and other creepy crawlies, a compost bin is a veritable gold mine. I have to wonder what my neighbors think though when they see me staring transfixed into my compost bin.

      The Do-Nothing Killer

      (originally posted September 20, 2011)

      The Nature Geek has a guest blogger today, which is me, Mr. Nature Geek. I know some of my antics (mishaps even?) have appeared in this blog before so I figured I should finally tell a story of my own. It’s about a lowly plant:

      Imagine you’re doing what you do every day, maybe chatting with a co-worker at work. And then all of a sudden…a tiny bit of dust falls from the ceiling lands on your shoulder. Just dust. No problem! Except for the fact that the coworker you were just talking to pointed at you, went bug-eyed and tore off down the hall screaming something about a hideous monster that was going to eat everybody alive. A quick check in the bathroom mirror reveals nothing amiss, though exiting reveals that the office is deserted. As you head outside armed men flood the street and rush towards you, brandishing clubs, torches, and pitchforks, screaming “KILL IT!”

      Now, before things get messy and not-G rated, we’ll end that story just by saying it ends not so well. But what kind of story is that? It didn’t have much plant life, but it is the story of what makes poison ivy “poison”. So what is really happening? Bear with me as I geek out.
      This story starts with my “favorite” plant, poison ivy. Damaging a leaf releases sap full of a type of molecule called urushiol. These little monsters are oil-like, and so can easily penetrate your skin, walking right through the castle’s walls. One finds a random protein molecule on a cell (that cell is you, by the way) and bonds tightly to it. And then, (dramatic pause), it just sits there and does nothing. The cell keeps living happily. No explosion. No jolt of lightning. Just a little dust particle sitting on the shoulder of some cell and doing nothing.
      Now what? That urushiol molecule keeps doing nothing. But other cells, part of your immune system, detect that do-nothing molecule on you and pretty much go bug-eyed and run screaming, just like that co-worker. That tiny little urushiol molecule makes them think you might be a brain-eating zombie, or worse, a virus infected cell. Other well-armed members of the immune system respond to that call (cue angry townsfolk) and flatten the place with you, a poor innocent cell, included.

      As a real person however, you see the destruction in the form of blisters, redness, swelling, and itching. So the next time you wonder if that patch of green you just walked through was poison ivy, think of that story of an innocent cell and the "killer" molecule that does nothing. Just as every plant and animal has its own story, the molecules they use each have their own.

      Hermit Crabs: It's What's Inside That Counts

      (originally posted September 12, 2011)

      Over the summer, you may have collected many souvenirs—sea shells, a tan, and a really tacky t-shirt or two—and some of you may even have a new pet in the family this fall. Yes, each summer, countless children convince their adult chaperones to purchase a hermit crab; you know, the one with the Spiderman shell. Often these little land crustaceans aren’t given much thought as they hide in their shells most of the time, but they are pretty fascinating and misunderstood pets. Today I thought I’d dispense some geeking out of the pet variety.

      First off, there are more than one species of hermit crab. There are about 15 species of land hermit crabs (1100 species of hermit crabs altogether!) and of those, I’ve usually seen five species being sold as pets (purple pincher, Ecuadorian, ruggie, strawberry, and Indonesian) , with the purple pincher being the most common. Each species has its own characteristics, from different eye shapes, to the color of their exoskeleton.
      The purple pincher, the most common pet hermit crab species

      It's easy to see how the strawberry hermit crab got its name!

      By far my favorite species of hermit crab: the Ecuadorian. Look at those adorable eye stalks!

      Although we use the term “hermit” to describe someone who is antisocial, hermit crabs prefer to live in colonies. That’s not to say that they are buddy-buddy with their neighbors, rather hermit crabs live in colonies to make it easier to find a bigger shell as they grow and molt. When hermit Bob down the shore changes his shell, Abby takes his now vacant shell, and Doris takes hers, and so on. Pet hermit crabs will do this too if you have several of them in a tank.

      My next geek-out fact is one big, awesome category, and that is hermit crab behavior. Hermit crabs may not look like they exhibit much behavior at all, but that’s because they are nocturnal—they do their crabby thing after the lights are out. They dig, climb, fight (sometimes using only their antennae…not very intimidating if you ask me), and even make noise. When a crab gets really mad, it’ll make a sound called “stridulating” which has been described as a cross between a frog’s croak and a cricket’s chirp. Check out this video of a Ecuadorian hermit crab stridulating (she refers to it as "chirping"), which in this case translates to Put me down!
      If you watch closely towards the end, you'll see the crab reaching over his shell with one of his antennae and bapping her on the finger as crabs will do to each other when perturbed.

      Cockatiels find hermit crabs fascinating too!

      Finally, perhaps the least-known fact of all about hermit crabs is that they are not bred in captivity; each one is taken from the wild. This does not mean that you can’t have a hermit crab as a pet however; there are many people who are looking for new homes for their tiny pet. Each and every one of the 55 (yes, 55) hermit crabs I have ever owned were all given to me by their owners. Hermit crabs can be fascinating pets, and can live to be 25 years old under the right conditions! Have crabby questions or a problem that is really pinching you? Just ask!

      I Can't Find My Nuts!

      (originally posted September 4, 2011)

      As the days progress towards fall, we find ourselves thinking of things like back-to-school (congratulations parents, you made it through another summer!), apple cider, colorful leaves, and squirrels. What? Fall doesn’t make you think of squirrels? It could be said that squirrels really always live a crazed life, but fall is especially busy for these bushy-tailed seed thieves as they prepare for the inevitable winter.

      Unlike their close chipmunk relatives, squirrels do not hibernate. They remain active all year, from the hottest days of summer to the coldest days of winter. Their diet consisting largely of seeds, fruit, and insects, squirrels can often have a difficult time finding food in the winter. To survive the winter, squirrels spend a great deal of time collecting and storing food. And when it comes to collecting food, squirrels are masters. They can scramble up and down trees without effort, thanks in part to their incredible hind feet, which can rotate 180 degrees to face backwards so that they can have an extra grip when descending head-first. Besides using their agility and sheer determination to collect wild foods, squirrels are equally talented in acquiring food from us, through our bird feeders. There is quite a bit of money to be made in squirrel deterrent devices and methods, and for every method, there seems to be a squirrel that can defeat it. In my case, the squirrels have found their easy pickings in my compost pile. Darn things chewed right through the plastic box!

      After collecting their food, squirrels will bury it underground in spots all throughout their territory. When food becomes sparse in the winter, all the squirrel has to do is retrieve his cache. Sounds easy enough, right? Not really. For every four acorns a squirrel buries, it will forget where it hid three of them. Apparently remembering that you hid your acorn “under a brown leaf by the stick” isn’t a very good strategy. Somehow the squirrels seem to get enough to eat however, and the acorns that are forgotten rejuvenate the forest by growing into new oak trees.

      This fall, have fun watching the squirrels go crazy-go-nuts as they prepare for the winter months ahead. Me, I’ll be making preparations of my own as I install some heavy-duty wire mesh on my compost box.

      An ID Spree 2: The Geek-quel

      (originally posted August 23, 2011)

      It seemed that the first ID Spree was rather popular (and by "popular" I mean 13 people read it) so I thought I’d have a go at a sequel. And like Derek, if you have any suggestions on an ID Spree that you’d like to see or suggestions for any blog topic, let me know!

      Wasp vs. Bee vs. Hornet
      To tell these three apart, just look at the “waist” of the insect; the part between the thorax and abdomen. If the waist is so small it practically looks pinched, you’re looking at a wasp. If the insect does not look like a runway model, then it’s a bee. There are no hornets native to the US (the yellow jacket is actually a wasp), although there is a European species starting to spread on the east coast. It has a waistline between a bee and wasp.

      Snag vs. Log
      If it’s a dead tree and it’s still standing, it’s a snag; if it’s lying on the ground, it’s a log. (Both are provide invaluable habitat for wildlife!)

      Turtle vs. Tortoise
      Turtles usually live in or around water, are omnivores (eating both plants and animals), and when walking their back foot is in the shape of the letter “L”; tortoises usually live in arid climates, are herbivores (eating only plants) and their hind feet look club-like, much like elephant feet.

      Male vs. Female Land Turtles and Tortoises
      If you want to know the sex of a tortoise or box turtle, just look at the underside of its shell, called the carapace. If it is flat, you have a female. If the carapace is concave, it’s a male—the curved shape helps the male fit on top of the female during mating!

      Hare vs. Rabbit
      In general, hares are very slender with long faces and even longer ears; rabbits are more rotund and cuddly-looking. And because nature always likes to make exceptions, the snowshoe hare, due to its thick coat of fur to keep warm in its mountain habitat, more resembles a rabbit.

      Vulture vs. Buzzard
      Although in the US “buzzard” is used as a nickname for a vulture, true buzzards are actually a variety of hawks found in Europe and Africa.

      Feline Scat vs. Canine Scat (because I knew you were dying to know)
      Feline poo has pinches between each of its segments; canine poo does not. Hey at least I spared telling you why cat scat has the pinches!

      And due to popular demand:

      Geek vs. Nerd (from The Nature Geek Dictionary)
      Geeks are people who are very passionate and oftentimes knowledgeable about a particular subject; nerds may also possess the same knowledge, but are considered to be lacking in coordination, social skills, and basic fashion sense (think Steve Urkel).

      Whether or not I fit into the nerd category, I’ll leave that one up to you.

      Got any cheese?

      A Plant's Guide to Water

      (originally posted August 14, 2011)

      As I sat trying to brainstorm what I wanted to write about this week, I found myself drawing a blank. Maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, maybe it’s because I can’t think, or maybe it’s because it has been gloomy and raining most of the day. It’s interesting the effect that rain has on us; we feel compelled to bundle up, stay inside, find something comforting to eat or drink, and put everything on our to do list on hold.

      Which got me to thinking of all the effects water has on plants and some of the neat ways they have evolved to address these issues. Ah-ha! It seems rain can provide motivation after all!

      Plants have some of the most fascinating adaptations to deal with water (or the lack thereof). On their leaves and stems, they have microscopic openings called stomata which are used for respiration. On hot days, plants risk dehydration through these openings, so many respond by wilting their leaves. By keeping the underside of their leaves shaded (which is where the highest concentration of stomata are found), the plants reduce evaporation. Jewelweed, a common plant in the eastern US, Pacific Northwest, and Canada, takes this to daily extremes. Plants in the sun have wilted leaves, while their immediate neighbors in the shade will have erect leaves. You can literally trace the shadows of the overhead trees in the jewelweed below.

      Cypress trees, on the other hand, are adapted to the other extreme, living their lives in saturated swamps. Their wide trunks and vertical protrusions of their roots called knees give the trees a stable hold on the ground, more so than their thin-trunked neighbors. It’s like the difference between standing with your legs together and seeing if your friend can push you over and then standing in a sumo wrestler stance and accepting the same challenge.

      When it comes to dealing with frozen water, pines, firs, and spruces are the clearcut (oh crud, never say “clearcut” around a tree) winners in this category. We all know that these evergreens have needles instead of broad, flat leaves, but did you know that needles are just broad, flat leaves rolled up? The rolled up leaves coupled with a waxy coating reduce water loss, which means that the leaves can be used for photosynthesis year-round. As an added bonus, the needle shape of the leaves makes it easier for snow accumulation to slide off of their branches.

      Plants have all sorts of incredible ways to deal with water, whether it be a lack of it, an abundance of it, or the frozen form of it. Since the rain is forecasted to continue on into tomorrow here, tomorrow when I don my full rain suit, I won’t be able to help thinking how I’ll kind of look like a rolled up leaf with a waxy coating. Ok, a blue and gray pine needle with a waxy coating.

      An ID Spree!

      (originally posted August 5, 2011)

      And now for something completely different; this week I thought I would feature a handy-dandy desk (or lap, or palm, depending on where you are reading this right now) reference for some common and random “how do I tell the difference between a ____ and ____?” questions. Ready? Here we go!

      Cricket vs. Grasshopper
      A grasshopper has short, stubby antennae; a cricket has long antennae, usually as long as or longer than its body. (A katydid is actually a cricket! In other parts of the world it is referred to as a “bush cricket”)

      Frog vs. Toad
      A frog has wet, smooth skin; a toad has bumpy and usually dry skin.

      Legless lizard vs. Snake
      Legless lizards have eyelids; snakes do not—so if it blinks at you, it’s a lizard!

      Venomous vs. Poisonous
      In order to get sick from something that is venomous, it has to be injected into you via hairs, spines, fangs, etc; to get sick from something that is poisonous, you have to touch or ingest it. This means that there are no poisonous snakes, but there are both poisonous and venomous caterpillars!

      Bug vs. Insect
      All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs—true bugs are a group of insects that can usually be identified by a triangle-shape on its thorax (between the head and wings).

      Spider vs. Daddy-long-legs
      Spiders have two body parts and can produce silk; daddy-long-legs have one body part and cannot spin silk. Daddy-long-legs are arachnids (along with ticks, scorpions, and mites), but are not spiders.

      Dragonfly vs. Damselfly
      When at rest, dragonflies hold their wings flat; damselflies hold their wings folded up.

      Northern mockingbird vs. Brown thrasher song
      A northern mockingbird will sing his array of songs at random; a brown thrasher sings each of his phrases twice.

      Moth vs. Butterfly
      Moths are typically nocturnal (active at night) and when at rest, hold their wings flat; butterflies are diurnal (active during the day) and when at rest, typically hold their wings up.

      Millipede vs. Centipede
      Millipedes have 4 legs per body segment; centipedes have 2 legs per body segment. (And contrary to what their names would suggest, centipedes can have between 20 to 300 legs; and millipedes have between 36 and 400 legs, with the most ever counted being 750)

      And there you have it—now go and use your new found geeky powers! (But only for good of course.)