Thursday, February 23, 2012

With their powers combined...they are SUPER GEEK!

Scary things happen when two like-minded geeks get together. Not only do they start "geeking out" together by gushing on about their shared passions, but they also teach each other things and add to each other's geeky knowledge.  Such an occurrence recently took place.

About two years ago, I met Karen Verderame of the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia. I was getting a tour with a couple of coworkers and being introduced to some of the staff, when I saw Karen's office. It was full of bugs.  I can't remember my exact words, but I think they were something to the extent of "Look at those giant cockroaches! COOL!"  The geeky fire had been lit, and Karen and I spent the next 10 minutes or so talking about everything with an exoskeleton. Then, like a reluctant child, I was told by my coworker that we had to go.

Last night I was able to meet up again with Karen at a discussion about insects held at the nature center where I work. It was an hour and a half of geeky goodness--I had found someone as insanely passionate about her field as I am mine.  She shared stories of insect courtship, expensive insect shipments gone wrong (curse you FedEx!), and her love for her favorite insects: cockroaches.  I asked Karen if she loved the movie Wall-E for its cockroach star...
...and not only did she reply with an enthusiastic "yes!" but she also proceeded to identify Hal (yup, that's his name, I Googled it and everything) as an American cockroach and spouted off all sorts of facts about what will undoubtedly be the last survivor on Earth. And speaking of cockroaches and courtship, some male cockroaches will backup with their *ahem* "equipment" bared and just hope they run into a nearby female. No dinner first or anything!

Remember how I said that geeks learn things from each other?  The above cockroach love quest story is just one example of a geeky factoid I picked up from Karen. Last night I also discovered that I didn't know as much as I thought about scorpions!  At the discussion, Karen brought along a vinegaroon, which is one of the coolest looking scorpions ever.
No, that is not my hand. Or Karen's.

See those claws on the front? They as much define a scorpion as their distinctive tail (which tailless whip scorpions lack). Well those claws are also not legs, they're mouth parts!  Scorpions, like spiders, have modified mouth parts that help them acquire food. In spiders, they're called pedipalps and sometimes resemble small legs. In scorpions, they resemble claws and can function just like a crab's pincers!

The shortest "legs" in the front are actually mouth parts!

Oh and the name vinegaroon? It has to do with the scorpion's defense, which is not the venom that other scorpions use. Instead, the vinegaroon emits a small drop of acetic acid, also known as vinegar. Karen told us that often times she won't even know that a vinegaroon has used its defense on her until those around her start asking if anyone else smells vinegar. Hey Karen, with Easter coming up, I think you should tell them it's just the Easter bunny preparing to dye all those eggs and watch their response.  Maybe they'll learn something too!

Would you like to acquire some new geeky knowledge?  How about watching some videos...for science?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Help The Nature Geek: Watch Videos for Science and Fun!

In December, I told all of you that I had a surprise in store for the new year.  It’s time to reveal just what I have up my sleeve!

I am conducting research on audience preferences in online interpretive video style and am looking for volunteers to participate in what could be ground-breaking research. Just what exactly does that mean, you ask?  Each month I will create two short (less than five minutes) video versions of my blog.  The two programs will be created using slightly different styles of program delivery.  I’ll then ask participants to watch both videos tell me which they preferred.

So what would be your part?  Each month for ten months, you would watch two short videos on The Nature Geek’s channel on YouTube. To share your opinion on the videos, you’d complete a 10 question survey (nine multiple choice and one fill-in-the-blank) and submit it to me via email.  And that’s it!  The amount of time you’d have to invest is about 30 minutes per month. Not only will you be making a significant contribution to the field of interpretation, but you will have the inside track on Nature Geek videos not advertised to the public.

If you are interested in helping me out with my study or would like some more information, email me at katie <at> I hope to hear from you soon!


Katie Fisk
The Nature Geek

Friday, February 17, 2012

You Show Off! (part 2)

You can now take a deep breath everyone, Valentine's Day is over. Whether you got so sick of pink and red that it made you see red, or whether it's because you narrowly escaped forgetting the holiday altogether, you can relax knowing February 14 has come and gone.  Last week, I highlighted different techniques that both humans and animals share when it comes to impressing that certain someone.  This week, I would like to continue that list, touching on some techniques that either you witnessed others doing (and probably had a good laugh at) or dare I say, employed yourself.

Last week, I started off by talking about bird songs.  Birds and humans may be the first animals that come to mind when we think about singing, but plenty of other animals do it too: whales, canines, primates, and even alligators.  Male (and sometimes female) American alligators participate in bellowing, which is a deep vibration that resonates throughout their entire bodies and makes the water on their backs dance.  For you musicians out there, these bellowing bases belt out a B flat two octaves below middle C. Take that Barry White!

Hellooooooo, ladies!

If you are more of the type who would rather be seen than heard, you share the limelight with animals that participate in what I classify as non-aggressive displays (in other words, not fighting). 
We primp and preen, we put on the clothes that accentuate our best features (and hide our worst), arrange our hair just so, and literally strut our stuff. The animal kingdom has mastered this art as well. Fireflies flash their trademark lights, birds don spectacular plumage, and even the humble guppy comes in an array of colors, as always all to demonstrate superb genetic lineage.

And if that weren't enough, some animals as well humans up the ante by shaking their groove thing. Undoubtedly many of you have seen what has been called the "moonwalking bird", the red-capped manakin, who has the remarkable ability to channel Michael Jackson.
The manakin's dance begins at 2:00 (though the rest of the video is neat too)

Finally, there are those among us who have a "no holds barred" approach to courtship.  These individuals often provide the rest of us quite a bit of entertainment as they attempt insane daredevil feats. In the human world, it may often seem that those who fail get more attention than those who succeed! Course, these people probably aren't impressing too many ladies. One of the most impressive daredevil acts in the animal world can be found in...surprise surprise on The Nature Geek blog...birds. Some species of eagles do a fantastic display called cartwheeling, or whirling. This dance of sorts is used both between mates and rivals. Two birds will fly high into the air and then lock feet and spin towards the ground. In courtship, both birds let go. In a fight however, the cartwheel is like a game of chicken: the first bird to let go loses. 

Whether you participated in any of these or last week's methods of showing off or just watched in amusement, we humans are not alone in our methods of courtship. Just think, you now have an entire year to practice for next Valentine's Day!  Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Michael Jackson music to cue up.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

You Show Off! (part 1)

Valentine’s Day is next Tuesday and you know what that means, it means you’re glad that I reminded you that you have yet to get something for your sweetie.  That's because Valentine’s Day also means looove.  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, it’s this time of year especially when our thoughts turn towards romance and finding that special someone.  To impress the object of your affection, you may try to outdo potential rivals by offering gifts like chocolate and expensive (or at least expensive looking) jewelry, you may get all dressed up for your date, and if you’re feeling especially bold, you just may try to show off with some dance moves or your hidden musical talent. This time of the year means love for animals too, and the techniques that they use to impress potential mates are not so much different from our own.

Although we’re barely in to February, I have already been hearing birds singing outside my window. When birds sing, they are generally conveying two messages: “this is my territory” or “hey baby, check this out”.  Males want to show females how talented they are so that she will want to mate with him to pass along his superb genes to her chicks.   

The songs of birds are highly variable, but the mimics are probably the most varied of all.  Birds like the northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, and European starling all copy the sounds of other birds (as well as car alarms) in order to impress their mates. The male with the largest repertoire gets the girl.  We may think of parrots being the greatest mimics, but I think this guy gives them a run for their money: the superb lyre bird.
The chainsaw and camera make my jaw drop every time.

If you're one that likes to show off by spending money, you have some friends in the animal kingdom as well. Those that present gifts to potential mates are demonstrating that they are good providers, and can take care of the couple's future young.

...translates to this:

So guys, think about just what it is you are conveying the next time you give a gal some chocolates on the first date.

Some animals choose to show off by trying to outdo the competition in a battle of the brawn.  Deer clash their antlers, wolves challenge dominant males, and rams slam their heads hard enough to need a lifetime supply of Motrin. Again, this is all done to show the females who has the better genes for strength. In Florida, I always got a kick out of watching the anole lizards fight.  They escalate through a series of steps that involves push-ups, flaring their dewlap (the flesh beneath the chin), and posturing before duking it out reptile style.  This video not only shows one heck of an anole fight, but the soundtrack is perfect.
Ouch!  That face grab has gotta hurt.

Stay tuned next week, when I'll highlight even more ways that animals show off to mates!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Can Woodchucks Really Chuck Wood?

Can you believe that I was sitting here, having a hard time thinking about what to write today?  It's Groundhog's Day! I thought in honor of the day I would forsake the history of the holiday and instead focus on the star himself: the woodchuck.  In November I brought you turkey trivia, now it's time for woodchuck wonderings! (Yes, I just made up my own word. You're allowed to do that on the internet.)

  • Which is the true name, woodchuck or groundhog?  The answer: woodchuck, which stems from the Algonquin word for the animal, wuchak.  Contrary to the Geico commercials, the name woodchuck has nothing to do with chucking or wood. I still love that commercial though. 
"Hey you dang woodchucks! Quit chucking my wood!" Ah, comedic gold.

  • The woodchuck is the third largest member of the rodent family in the United States (behind the North American beaver (#1), and porcupine (#2)) and is the largest member of the squirrel family.  

  • "Chucks" are true hibernators. While asleep, their body temperature drops from over 90 degrees F to below 45 and their heartbeat slows from more than 100 beats to minute to a mere 4.

  • Regardless of whether they see their shadow or not, male woodchucks start emerging from their underground burrows in February to fight with other males and establish territories.  If Punxsutawney Phil went back to sleep today, he's going to miss out on all the ladies.

  • Woodchucks are most definitely rodents when it comes to their gestation period: only 28 days!
Yup, cute overload.
  • Also as with other rodents, a woodchuck's teeth are constantly growing. It's the wearing of the upper and lower incisors on each other that keep them at a constant length.  However, woodchucks are known to suffer from malocclusion, which means that the incisors do not line up and do not wear each other down.  

Sadly, sometimes the teeth even grow up through the roof of the mouth, causing a painful death.

    • Like American robins, the woodchuck has actually benefited from human development. Trading in forests for manicured lawns provides robins lots of hunting grounds for earthworms, and a green carpet of food for woodchucks.

    • A woodchuck's den is a virtual Motel 6 for other animals, such as skunks, raccoons, and foxes, which use abandoned burrows to raise their young. Rabbits don't even wait for a burrow to go empty; they will use the dens for shelter in winter while the woodchucks sleep below.

    So on this Groundhog's Day, I salute this rotund rodent not for its weather predicting ability (Punxsutawney Phil's accuracy stands at about 39%, which is worse than guessing) but rather for its biological charisma. Happy Groundhog's Day everyone!  Although I think it should have been called "Whistle Pig Day" after yet another one of the woodchuck's nicknames.