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.