Friday, May 29, 2009

I'm He-e-e-re!

I arrived in Massachusetts Tuesday night, May 26, via the Hartford, Connecticut airport. My friend Cynthia Boettner was kind enough to pick me up there and take me back to their place in Shelburne Falls. Her husband Jeff had to make an unexpected trip to British Columbia to collect some parasitic flies that are potential biocontrols for the winter moth, an invasive species here in Massachusetts.

Wednesday morning I met my new housemate, Crystalyn, and her companion Ruby (a delightful dog), as she was headed off to work training horses. Crystalyn went out of her way to accommodate me and my stuff, which considering the relatively small house, took some doing. The owner of this 1910 “railroad house” lives in New York, but she has been most gracious as well.

Cynthia was kind enough to take me shopping for groceries and other essentials Wednesday evening, but doing the shopping on my own is going to be problematic. South Deerfield is not exactly a bustling metropolis, and major grocery stores are few and far between anyway. I do not drive, either, and making bus connections looks like it is going to be a struggle on a “good” day. Schools are out for the summer, so buses come and go with even less frequency in many cases. The good news: several routes servicing the “Five Colleges” area are free!

The weather has thus far been cool (upper 50s, low 60s) and damp, but there is still no shortage of fauna out and about. I’ve seen many birds, lots of insects, spiders, and harvestmen just on the property of my residence alone. There is a state preserve (Sugarloaf Mountain) just a stone’s throw from my immediate neighborhood, and I look forward to exploring that park soon. The view of the Connecticut River Valley from that bluff is worth the hike all by itself.

Tomorrow (Saturday) I meet my immediate supervisor at the lab on the campus of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and will relate what I am in for as far as the job goes. Thank you for your patience while I get settled in here. Posts should become more regular as I establish a routine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Leigh Anne DelRay

I recently met a person so exceptional that she deserves to be featured in both of my blogs, just to make sure you can’t avoid getting to know her. We met via (what else) the website where she has started submitting images. While she is a certified animal enthusiast, from the feathered and two-legged to the hairy and eight-legged, her passion for life and art is contagious.

Leigh Anne has endured serious tragedy and drama in her life, but you wouldn’t know it from her affectionate, sunny disposition and creative and intuitive personality. She has a way of turning her experiences into a shared tapestry through her evocative photography skills and choice of subjects. Many of her images literally bring me to tears, but Leigh Anne recognizes the power of imagery and uses it to remind us that places, people, and stories are worth knowing, if only briefly.

One of Leigh Anne’s favorite pursuits is hunting meteorites. It has been a real education for me to learn just how popular a “hobby” this is, and the great value, both scientific and monetary, that is attached to “space rocks.” She recently invited me to a party at her employer’s house to watch the television debut of Meteorite Men, featuring her boss, Geoff Notkin, and his teammate Steve Arnold. Who knew Kansas was such a mecca for meteorites? About 30-40 friends of Geoff’s were packed into his living room, riveted to the TV screen, tuned to the Discovery Science Channel. A fun time was had by all, and I thank Leigh Anne for continuing to introduce me to more fascinating people. I’m not the most sociable sort, but she may change that.

Leigh Anne is well-traveled, too, and embraces all that a given location has to offer. While she was in Los Angeles she successfully auditioned as an extra in several films and popular television shows. For example, she was a patient with a broken leg on an episode of ER, and stood in line behind leading man Kevin Costner in the airport scene in the movie Dragonfly (alas she was left on the cutting room floor in that one). That kind of spontaneity speaks to her adventurous nature.

I should really let Leigh Anne’s work speak for itself, so I encourage you to visit her website, Callisto Images, and see if you, too, are not moved by her profound vision, the intimacy of her subjects, and the playfulness that she expresses. Thank you, Leigh Anne, for helping me re-awaken to the depth of life around us, and reminding me to “live in the moment. Oh, and lest one get the wrong impression, Leigh Anne is with another wonderful gentleman who is a gifted woodworker and a caring, upstanding individual in his own right.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dust Bunny National Wildlife Refuge

I am not a messy housekeeper. Instead, I am promoting biodiversity. Hey, where will all those molds and mildews go when disinfectants have scoured everywhere else? Why not spare the dust mites the vacuum, at least for awhile? We are helpless to exclude nature completely from our lives anyway, so acceptance may be in our best mental and philosophical interest.

Obsessive-compulsive personalities need no help in exaggerating the threat of “germs” and other health hazards, real or imagined, but the rest of us need substantial coaxing. The commercial media are only too happy to oblige, bombarding us with advertisements for all manner of caustic chemicals, air filters, and disposable cleaning gadgets. Since by themselves microbes are relatively innocuous, they must be digitally morphed into something more menacing, anthropomorphosized into growling, English-speaking monsters that make overt threats to life and limb. It would be comical were it not so crass.

Perhaps I am blessed with a good immune system, but I have decided that the threat from bacteria in the bath and kitchen is grossly overrated. As an entomologist, I have known for a long time that cockroaches are, at least at normal population levels, little more than a cosmetic nuisance, a reminder that you are leaving too many crumbs about, and not doing the dishes frequently enough. I approach fast food restaurants with far more trepidation than I do my own crusty basin and range. At my present apartment in Tucson, Arizona, a Mediterranean house gecko once happily devoured the German cockroaches. How cool is that, having a food chain on the premises that does not involve you and the refrigerator?

Mind you, I am not one to live in total filth. When the opportunity to entertain others presents itself, I do make an effort to cull the herds of dust bunnies that normally roam freely. As stewards of real estate indoors and out, we do have an obligation to “wildlife management.”

It is not a stretch to consider a dust bunny a living creature. They seem to reproduce quickly, lending a serious argument to the theory of “spontaneous generation.” They even come with their own parasites, as it were: dust mites. There are at least two types. One feeds primarily on the tiny flakes of dead skin cells that we humans (and our pets, also) shed constantly. The other dust mite preys on the former dust mite.

My bathroom tends to breed its own flora and fauna. Molds and mildews are rather problematic, even in an ostensibly dry climate like Tucson’s. Still more astounding, I have found that tiny creatures called springtails regularly appear in my shower. These are certifiably moisture-loving organisms. I would not have thought that even daily showers would create such a hospitable habitat for something so dependent on water. Oddly, I rarely see moth flies, those ubiquitous little flying furballs usually seen perched on the side of the bathroom sink, or a wall. Their larvae develop in the residue of the drain trap, and probably do a better job of preventing clogs than any dose of Draino. Now and then I see root gnats, little black flies that inevitably commit suicide by diving into the soapdish.

The kitchen must be domestic ecosystem central. After all, it is where the food is prepared. I am constantly astonished by the ability of mold to overtake refrigerated bread, invade the last dregs of the sour cream and salsa, and almost instantaneously rot a tomato. I love bananas, but must share them with the pomace flies (“fruit flies” to most folks, but a different creature entirely) that hover around the bunch. Knowing that these flies have contributed greatly to our fundamental understanding of genetics makes it easier to tolerate their appearance at breakfast.

As my rent goes up annually, and my wages stagnate, it occurs to me that it may be time to seek public assistance. Considering the menagerie of organisms I sustain and manage, it seems that compensation is due. Perhaps it is time to apply for federal recognition of my apartment as a wildlife refuge. Depending on your definition of “dependent,” I could probably take a tax write-off already.

I am convinced that if more people felt honored to host a diversity of living things in their own homes, sheds, yards, gardens and garages, then there would be a collectively different attitude towards biodiversity in general, one that embraced all manner of creatures. A true reverence for life does not exclude things that are ugly, or mischievous, or that are simply products of our own fears and biases. Removing the stigma of an untidy abode, a weedy lawn, or a yard planted with mundane but native flora would go a long way to improving the health of the Earth as a whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's too darn hot!

This past week we made it over 100 F in Tucson for the first time this year. The local meteorologists affectionately refer to the event as “breaking the ice.” The average first one hundred degree day is about May 28, so we were twenty-five degrees above average for at least a day or two. No matter, it doesn’t have to be even that hot before cold-blooded animals (scientists call them “ectotherms”) start feeling uncomfortable. You can often tell when an animal is heat-stressed by the body posture it adopts. It is all done in the name of “thermoregulation,” these behaviors designed for cooling off.

Lizards enjoy basking on large rocks in the morning, but before long the surface gets too warm for their liking. This eastern collared lizard is literally “back on her heals,” pushing her body as far away from the hot rock as she can, and lifting her hind toes to keep from singeing them. Male lizards will do “push-ups” as part of a territorial display, but will not stay propped up for as long as a lizard under heat stress.

Even insects will hot-foot it when need be. I spied this grasshopper, Psoloessa texana, on the sidewalk outside my apartment building. Notice how it has lifted its hind feet off the pavement entirely. I have seen other grasshopper species lift their feet alternately to cool them off briefly while enduring the heat with the opposite appendage. I just about scorched myself while capturing this image, lying on my belly on the hot concrete!

Dragonflies perform an even more contortionistic maneuver called “obelisking,” whereby they orient their abdomen to expose as little body surface to the direct sun as possible.
This gray sanddragon, Progomphus borealis, is pointing itself straight up in the air, at around noon on a hot day in Sabino Canyon. Quite the dramatic angle, literally.

There are endless ways in which reptiles and insects cope with both heat and cold. An excellent popular summary of insect behaviors can be found in the book The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insects Survival, by Bernd Heinrich (Harvard University Press, 1996). A slightly more technical reference is Biology of Desert Invertebrates, by Clifford S. Crawford (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, and New York, 1981). Children might enjoy the article I did for Ranger Rick nature magazine, entitled “Dune ‘Buggies’ and Other Desert Survivors,” in the September, 2000 issue (vol. 34, no. 9, pp. 14-21).

All this talk about heat making you hot? Let’s go grab a cold one at an air-conditioned watering hole, whadda ya say?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Animals and Insects?

I’ve always been amused by the phrase “men, women, and children.” Are children a different gender? I can still vividly recall an exchange I had with a couple that revealed we are also collectively prone to consider insects outside the boundaries of the rest of the animal kingdom.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was hosting an evening gala to celebrate the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, held in the Queen City that year. The majority of guests were VIPs of one sort or another. During such events, the staff of the insectarium sometimes circulated with a “bouquet” of walkingstick insects acting as ambassadors of the arthropod fauna exhibited at the zoo. Other keepers paraded around with more cute and cuddly creatures. That evening was no exception.

One gentleman approached me wondering who the flowers were for. I pointed out the large, camouflaged insects, and he was incredulous.

”That’s an animal?” he asked in disbelief.

”Yes, sir” I replied. He beckoned his wife over.

”Honey, come take a look at this.” She dutifully inspected the floral arrangement as her husband gestured toward the walkingsticks.

”Oh, my!” she said, with more fascination than fear in her voice.

”That’s an insect?” she inquired.

”Yes, ma’am” I respectfully concurred. Her husband was taken aback.

”But you just told me that’s an animal!”

That night I learned the true depth of public ignorance about insects. It is not necessarily a failing of John or Jane Doe, either. This gentleman was obviously successful, probably wealthy, and no doubt well-educated, too. No, this kind of misunderstanding represents a failure of educators to properly communicate the very basics of the natural world. It also represents the abdication of responsibility of the media to balance truth with sensationalism and fear-mongering.

Educators need more informal platforms for interpreting the natural world for the public and promoting "nature literacy." We need professional educators, too, not just volunteers and docents. This continues to be a low priority at museums, zoos, nature centers, even national and state parks. Most naturalists I know are behind a desk pushing papers, and training docents to do the public relations.

Meanwhile, pest control services, and the manufacturers of pesticides, capitalize (quite literally) on the lack of public knowledge about insects and arachnids, and their place in the natural world. Truth in advertising appears to be nearly non-existent in most television commercials promoting the latest product or treatment.

Hm-m-m-m, maybe I’ll approach the Ad Council and ask for “equal time.”