Thursday, May 21, 2015

Revealing the Mystery of Bones

In January, I wrote "Revealing the Mystery of Skulls," in which I shared how a closer look at an animal's skull can reveal mysteries about its former life. Many of you commented on how much you enjoyed that post, and so today I thought I would bring to you a second helping of calcified goodness. This time, we'll be taking a look not at skulls, but other animal bones. Although other bones may not seem as exciting as skulls, they too can tell stories about an animal's life and death.

Dive! Dive!
These are what human rib bones look like. No real surprises here, a series of thin, curved bones, designed to protect your most important organs, like your heart and lungs. What is surprising and kinda creepy is that I got this image from Pintrest, where these real bones are for sale. Just smile and walk away, Katie, pretend you didn't see anything and avoid eye contact. Now take a look at this rib bone:
Look at how thick it is! The thickness is disproportionate to the size; this is not some dinosaur or elephant bone. So whose is it and why is it so thick? This is the rib bone of the Florida manatee, aka "sea cow."
Manatees are slow moving marine mammals that spend their days at the bottom of waterways, grazing on sea grasses. If a human wanted to lay on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, they would need to wear scuba dive weights to help them descend. Manatees have their dive weights built right in! Their super heavy and dense skeletons make it much easier to bob along on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea (extra points if you got the reference!). And if you're wondering how a manatee's body counteracts the weight of its skeleton in order to surface to breathe, manatees have extra long lungs along their back to aid in buoyancy.

Two Clues in One
Here we have another mystery bone, this one with two stories to tell. First, let's take a closer look at that hole on top. 
Unlike the manatee's solid rib, this bone is hollow, meaning it can only belong to one kind of animal: a bird! Almost every single aspect of a bird's anatomy comes back to weight reduction in order to achieve flight. Bird's skeletons are hollow, but still have criss-cross struts for reinforcement, just like an airplane's wings. This particular bone came from the wing of a brown pelican. Now let's look at another clue by zooming in on the left side of the bone.
See all those scrape marks? Those aren't a normal feature of this bone, they came after the pelican died and its tissues decomposed. These are chew marks from a rodent! In the wild, animals don't have Flintstones vitamins in order to get the calcium they need, they get it from eating bones. This not only gives the chewer calcium, but also helps break down and dispose of animal carcasses. Rats, mice, squirrels, even deer and pigs will all chew on bones and leave their telltale clues behind.

Super Sensors
Another bird bone, this one is the beak of a roseate spoonbill, a gorgeous resident of Florida that is often mistaken for a flamingo due to its bright pink feathers.
Spoonbills wave their beak back and forth in the water while holding it slightly open in order to find their food. Instead of relying on their sense of sight to tell them when to snap their bill shut, they instead use a keen sense of touch. When we look closer at the underside of this spoony's beak, we can see hundreds of small holes where nerves permeate it, especially at the tip.
 Fish don't stand a chance.

A Successful Defense (but he still died anyway)
Strong and sturdy, a turtle's shell is its ultimate defense from predators. The shell is a part of its skeleton, and is the result of widened and fused ribs, which are attached to the central backbone. When a turtle is withdrawn into its shell, it is protected from the bite of most predators, including raccoons, bobcats, and even...alligators. 
Check this out:
On the back of this shell, you'll see three holes, the middle of which even has a scrape mark. And when we look on the bottom of the shell...
Three more tooth marks, complete with scrapes too! This turtle was one baaaad shut your mouth! It survived an attack from an alligator! How do we know it survived? Well unlike raccoons and bobcats, who can still use their paws to claw at a retracted turtle, alligators eat turtles by crushing their shells in their jaws. Because the shell is intact, we know this didn't happen. We also know that the turtle wasn't just swallowed whole because an alligator's stomach is capable of dissolving bone, so this isn't a shell that was pooped out. Just as well too, because this is a big shell and that sucker would hurt on the way out. We may not know what killed this turtle in the end, but we know it wasn't an alligator!

We may think of skulls as the most interesting part of an animal's skeleton, but all bones, no matter how small or mundane-looking, can tell stories of life and death. The next time you find an animal bone, go all CSI on it and see what you can figure out. Just don't sell any human bones you find on Pintrest, ok? That's still creeping me out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Pollen, WHY?

Ah spring, the time of singing birds, baby animals, flowers, and...allergies. One out of about every five of you reading this right now are likely sniffling, sneezing, watery-eyed messes, all because of a flower.

First off, I want to clear the air (so to speak) about just what plants are and are not causing your misery. You likely know that it's a flower's pollen that is your allergy trigger. But not all pollen is created equal. In the world of plants, there are generally two main ways that pollen travels from one flower to another in order to fertilize it (That's right, that stuff you're inhaling is plant sperm. Awww yeah.). One way we learned about back in elementary school, when bees, butterflies, and other pollinators visiting flowers for their nectar inadvertently collect sticky pollen on their bodies and then deposit it on the next flower they visit. Flowers that depend on animals as their pollen couriers are typically showy and colorful in order to attract the attention of their pollinator pals. The other way pollen gets around is through the wind. The wind blows pollen, hopefully in the right direction, to a neighboring plant. This method is common in grasses and many trees, such as the oak seen in the photo above. These plants are small, numerous, and not very showy, because the wind isn't shallow and doesn't judge a flower's worth by the physical appearance of its flowers. 

When you see pictures, videos, and other images for pollen allergies, you usually see something like this photo. The problem is that the flowers shown are those whose pollen sticks to animals, not goes up your nose. The real culprit for pollen allergies is those wind-blown flowers! But let's face it, a photo like this just isn't as exciting to use for CNN news spots and Allegra commercials.
"Is that man crying over caterpillars?"

Now that we know what causes pollen allergies, the answer is why? Why are we humans allergic to something as mundane and natural as pollen? I just can't imagine our ancestors being successful hunters while sniffling and trying to see their prey through red, watery eyes. In short, scientists still don't entirely know why allergies occur. But there are a few theories. One thing that we know is that allergies don't typically start showing up in children until about age 5 or 6. When you were a child and got sick with a virus, say the common cold, it may have occurred at the same time that there was a big tree bloom going on. As your immune system was reacting to the virus and trying to purge it from your body, your immune system made an association between the pollen and the virus. It reminds me of when I once got seasick on a casino cruise after eating a breakfast buffet. It took me years to be able to eat a croissant again without feeling nauseous. Unfortunately for you, your immune system has a far better memory than my digestive system.

Another theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. It suggests that in today's hand sanitizer-obessed world, kids are not exposed to the host of germs, bacteria, and other pathogens that essentially train the immune system what is dangerous, what is not, and how to react to them. So later on in life, when your immune system encounters something that normally shouldn't be a big threat, it overreacts and has the same reaction as this kitten to a harmless bearded dragon lizard:


The good news is when it comes to pollen allergies, the symptoms are seasonal, unlike those with allergies to pets and peanuts. I know that's not much of a comfort right now, but hey, while you're stuck inside, you always have The Nature Geek archives to keep you company! And for those of you who have children, get them outside, get them dirty, let them play with animals, and yes, maybe even let them eat a little bit of dirt. Those mud pies are not only low in calories, but high in immuno-building goodness as well.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Geeky Origins

I've been doing this blog for 4ish years now and I realize I have never even properly introduced myself! No, "Hey, welcome to my blog, my name is Katie and here's why I'm full of geeky goodness" first blog post or even an info page on my blog. So I figure hey, it's Thursday, let's do some good ol' fashioned throwbackin' and talk about how we got to this point and share some old photos of me in the process. 

Yup, that's me, circa age 13. Growing up, I was always chasing and capturing animals, whether it was leafhoppers and grasshoppers in my backyard in North Dakota, moths at recess in 4th grade, or a menagerie of critters at my family's Minnesota lake cabin during my teen years. I was always exploring, discovering, wondering, and getting my hands dirty. By the time this photo was taken, I had already decided I wanted to go to college to become a wildlife biologist.

And whaddya know, five years later, I was enrolled at Colorado
State University in the Wildlife Biology program. This photo was taken at the one and only college sporting event I ever attended at CSU (go Rams!). I spent most of my extra curricular energy involved in the student chapters of The Wildlife Society and The Society for Conservation Biology. Yup, I was in geeky heaven! I concentrated on ornithology, which is the study of birds. To those of you who are regulars to my blog, this should come as no surprise. I spent lots of time birding with my bird geek extraordinaire friend, Jason, helped a grad student with his research on black-capped chickadees, and studied my field guide more than my text books. I also spent a summer living in a small pop-up camper, which I towed around the prairies of Colorado as I conducted bird surveys for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. It was my first field technician job, and it was an amazing experience. Living out of a glorified tent, spending my days getting paid to watch birds, and being surrounded by beautiful prairie ecosystems every moment. 
After receiving my Bachelor's degree, I had another field technician job in California, working for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now called Point Blue). I lived in an old dairy farm house with my kick-butt roommate and coworker, Jess, and we lived the geeky dream, counting and banding birds by day, and watching movies and X-Files by night.
This Bewick's wren is less than thrilled to be having his wings measured for science.

Fast forward and there are so many jobs and experiences that have made me who I am as an educator, geek, and animal guru today. I have worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, wandered the swamps of Florida, got to work with incredible people and animals at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, studied herring gulls in Virginia, and yes, started programs as The Nature Geek at Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa.
Me and Mr. Nature Geek with members of the animal ambassador team at Lowry Park Zoo. I'm holding Ivan, the Eurasian eagle owl, and Mr. Geek has Kajaro, the red-tailed hawk. One of the best times of my life!

I have known I am a geek for a long time. Instead of hiding it, shying away from it, or ignoring it, I embraced it, and being true to my passions has led to some incredible opportunities and amazing experiences. And through this blog, I'm so happy to get to share those experiences with all of you! So keep geeking on my friends, do what you love to do, and good things will come your way.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Revisiting the Cicada Killer Wasp

Four years ago, I introduced you to the cicada killer wasp, one of my favorite insects. Why do I like these guys so much? I think there are many answers: 1) I like to champion the underdog, the animals that most find terrifying or ugly; 2) they're just so massive; and 3) because of their large size, it makes it easier to observe their fascinating behaviors. (These are the same reasons why I also love the carpenter bee.) 

Every summer, I visit a hill at a local park where a large colony of about 30 cicada killers make their homes. Mr. Nature Geek and I love to sit right in the middle of the colony and watch the action around us, never once fearing we will be stung. When it came time to create videos for my Master's thesis, I knew just where one of my videos needed to be shot. 

Did you see that shot where I picked up a female cicada killer in my hand? Like I mentioned in my previous blog on cicada killers, females with a heavy cicada in tow have a hard time getting lift off of the ground, so they rely on vegetation and friendly humans to gain some altitude. And if nothing I've shown you so far has convinced you that cicada killers are not out to get you, let this be the ultimate proof:
(When she's sitting on my shoulder and waving her abdomen around like that, she's not trying to sting me, but rather is breathing heavily from all that climbing with a cicada that weighs 3 times as much as she does!)

Cicada killers are massive, yes, but they are massively beneficial and massively interesting when you give them a chance. This summer I triple-dog-day-cicada-dare you to find some cicada killers of your own and watch them do their thing. I'm just not responsible for what happens if you go chasing them with giant nets!