Friday, March 23, 2012

Thorn Bugs in South Florida

Thorn bugs (Umbonia)

Photos taken at Estero Bay Preserve State Park two weeks

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ideology trumps science

Quotes from a state environmental protection agency: "Why would we include things we don't agree with? That's ridiculous," Saenz said. "We were looking at not including very controversial things that are unsettled science."


"It isn't censorship to accurately report in our document what we believe. That's being responsible. That's being accurate"

I'm thinking the citizens may want to have an independent contractor run some water quality tests - there's obviously something in the water in Texas...

Article from Reuters:
The leaders of the agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, are appointed by Republican Governor Rick Perry, who said in a recent presidential debate that the science of climate change was "unsettled."

At issue is "The State of the Bay 2010" report commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has come under scrutiny after Rice University Professor John Anderson said that an article regarding sea-level changes he contributed was censored for political reasons.

Democratic state Senators Rodney Ellis of Houston and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio wrote to Perry appointee Bryan Shaw, chairman of the commission.

In his letter, Ellis said he concluded from the deletions that "the facts simply proved inconvenient to the agency and other state leadership, and thus they were excised."

The commission said on Monday it would remove Anderson's article on sea-level rise in Galveston Bay from the report, ending a standoff with Anderson over the deleted information.
Commission spokesman Andy Saenz said Anderson prematurely revealed the draft report to the media without prior approval, and that the commission did not want to include controversial implications about global warming in the report.

"Why would we include things we don't agree with? That's ridiculous," Saenz said. "We were looking at not including very controversial things that are unsettled science."

Two co-editors of the project, Jim Lester and Lisa Gonzalez, scientists with the Houston Advanced Research Center, a nonprofit research facility contracted for the report, asked the agency to remove their names, fearing their own credibility.

Lester, the center's vice president, called the deletions "scientific censorship." He said Anderson's statements in the article were not political and were reviewed by lower-level staff at the agency before upper management made its own edits.

"As a scientist, my main concern is about the availability of objective science for decision-making in agencies," Lester said.

Saenz denied the claims of scientific censorship.
"Using a word like censorship is very powerful," he said. "It isn't censorship to accurately report in our document what we believe. That's being responsible. That's being accurate."

Saenz said the agency was preparing a response to the senators. The agency, which is embroiled in a lawsuit with the Environmental Protection Agency over greenhouse gas emissions, has been working on the report for more than two years, the agency said.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fuzzy pictures of fuzzy spiders

The southern house spider (Kukulcania hibernalis) is a sexually dimorphic species of crevice spider (Filistatidae). Both the female and male have fine, light-colored hairs on their abdomen and both have been documented as employing autotomy as a defensive tactic.

These were photographed on my car port earlier this week (same male in both pics, two different females):

The brown recluse looking specimen is the male; the female is larger and darker.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What kind of crap is this?

What kind of crap is this anyway?

I’ll give ya a couple hints:

The critter that left it behind lives in Florida, can weigh over 240 lbs, and it is a member of the order Carnivora…

It’s from a Florida Black Bear - Ursus americanus floridanus!

Usually their crap looks a little more like this:

But I guess you never know what you might find when you start digging through another’s crap…

King snake – It’s what’s for dinner!!!

Both of the above pictures were taken near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida a couple of months back.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Two is a company...

Anyone who has ever shared a residence can attest to the fact that cohabitating with others can be an extremely stressful state of affairs. Disputes resulting from a lack of privacy, the unequal sharing of common resources, and poor communication become routine occurrences. Even worse is a cohabiting situation in which those sharing the living space develop a mutual love interest – how does that get resolved? Luckily, a recent study published in an animal behavior journal may offer a glimpse of hope for those truly desperate for resolution.

Weighing as much as fifteen pounds and often sporting wingspans greater than nine-feet, bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) are truly massive birds. First described by the father of modern taxonomy ( Carl Linnaeus) in his Systema Naturae, bearded vultures can be found competing for habitat throughout the mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. Even though a pining for expansive views has lead these bulky buzzards to prefer out-of-the-way nesting sites in hight rocky crags, pressure from human encroachment has caused their numbers to decline in recent years. The huge birds are experiencing population growth in a few isolated locales in the Pyrenees Mountains, but, unfortunately, the increase in the Pyrenees groups has contributed to overcrowding and a lack of housing options for many of the birds.

Under normal circumstances, in un-congested habitats, a bachelor bearded vulture will stake claim to a territory and take-up with a female member of the species; however, with the current surge in population in the Pyrenees, there simply isn’t enough available precipitous homesteads for all of the free-roaming males to settle down and raise families of their own. Lacking options, the roving males have developed a new strategy: they have begun to invade the established territories of their rivals – their already attached rivals. The itinerant bachelor invades the home of another male and claims residence with him and his already courted female companion. As might be predicted, the addition of an interloping male into the love nest of an established male-female pair has proven to adversely affect the reproductive success of the mate-pair.

Typically, a bearded vulture male-female pair will breed between the months of December and February and produce one or two eggs annually; but, the addition of the second male in the territory decreases the frequency and duration of the pair’s copulations. This occurs for a couple of reasons; firstly, the two males constantly fight each other for access to the female. The time and energy the males expend in combating and deterring one another leaves both far too exhausted to apply any romantic effort towards the female. Exasperating this situation even further, when one male does find the rare opportunity to copulate with the female, the rival male will often physically interrupt the act – he’ll stop them mid-coitus!

In addition to the mood-ruining intrusion of a combative third party during attempted sexual congress, the female can even be put-off by the mere presence of a second male — she’ll terminate copulation if she even spots a voyeur.

Fortunately, there is hope for the Pyrenees populations. As with the cliché, “time heals all wounds,” it turns-out that over long periods of time, the polyandrous model can work for the bearded vulture. Apparently the key to success in the multi-male regime is a willingness of the beta bird to demonstrate submission to the alpha – male on male copulations appear to curtail the aggression of the frustrated vultures.

Journal Reference:
Bertran, J., Margalida, A., & Arroyo, B. (2009). Agonistic Behaviour and Sexual Conflict in Atypical Reproductive Groups: The Case of Bearded Vulture Polyandrous Trios
Ethology, 115 (5), 429-438 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2009.01628.x

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Threatened Orchid

Stenorrhynchos lanceolatum, the leafless beaked orchid, is listed as a Threatened species in Florida. This hummingbird pollinated orchid is found throughout Florida, Puerto Rico, and Central America.

Snapshots taken this past summer near Bradenton, Florida.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Transgenic Veggies Go Wild

A newly published study from Penn State details what can happen when a genetically modified organism escapes from captivity and interbreeds with the wild members of its species.

Transgenic organisms are critters that have been genetically engineered to express characteristics unique to their species. By snipping, swapping and splicing DNA between different species, organisms can be designed to provide specific benefits to people. For example, bacteria can be engineered to synthesis human insulin for treating diabetes, tomatoes can be manipulated to have an improved shelf-life, and pigs can be designed to more efficiently digest phosphorus, thus easing both their own cost of feeding and the amount of phosphorus pollution discharged into the surrounding environment. But, despite the potential benefits to people, what trouble could ensue if a transgenic organism were to evade human controls and escape its confinement? Would the transgenic organism out-compete the wild type and push it to extinction?

Cucurbita pepo is a species of squash cultivated around the world as a popular food; common varieties of the species include the zucchini, yellow squash and gourd. In addition to being commonplace at dinner tables, Cucurbita also maintains fame as a widely utilized transgenic plant – a transgenic plant that has managed to pass its transplanted genes to wild populations.

Prior to their escape, the genes of the Cucurbita plant had been engineered to have resistance to a leaf-wilting virus transmitted by aphids. The reasoning behind the genetic transplant was simple, by reducing susceptibility to the aphid borne disease, the agricultural yield of squash could be increased and more humans could be fed; but, having escaped, would the disease-resistant plants replace their naturally more disease-susceptible counterparts?

Not necessarily.

According to a case study just published in the November issue of the International Journal of Plant Sciences, when mixed populations of transgenic and wild type squash were naturally exposed to the aphid borne disease, the transgenic members did indeed exhibit better health – at least at first. After initially showing better health, the condition and reproductive success of the transgenic squash later equalized and balanced to that of the non-transgenic type. The reason for the equalization was that the robust appearance of the transgenic plants attracted the attention of leaf-munching, and bacteria-transporting, beetles. The beetles’ preference for the healthy looking plants affectively buffered any benefit the plants received from their introduced viral resistance.

Sasu, M., Ferrari, M., & Stephenson, A. (2010). Interrelationships among a Virus-Resistance Transgene. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 171 (9), 1048-1058 DOI: 10.1086/656531

Monday, October 11, 2010

Field Photos: Eastern Coachwhip Snake

Masticophis flagellum flagellum - the eastern coachwhip
Photographed near Inglis, Florida two weeks back.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Field Photos: Fishing Spider in Nyssa Swamp

The fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus as found in a Nyssa swamp near Tallahassee, Florida.

Snapshots taken about a month ago.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Alfred Russel Wallace, a Conspicuous Caterpillar and David Bowie

Prior to yesterday morning I had never contemplated the linkages between rock’n roller David Bowie and the co-founder of Natural Selection Alfred Russel Wallace. It turns-out that these famous Brits hold at least two things in common; the first and most obvious of which is the already mentioned fact that both Wallace and Bowie were born in the U.K. The second linkage between the two, as strange as this may sound, is caterpillars!

Yes, caterpillars!

The Bowie-Wallace-caterpillar connection became apparent to me yesterday morning as I was heading off to work. While stepping outside in route to the car, I noticed a rather strange looking creature attached to the exterior of the door frame (no, it wasn’t David Bowie!). In trying to figure-out what the creature was, my brain struggled to match its distinctive shape, color and pattern to familiar morphological templates filed away in the dark recesses of my memory. Then it hit me! Although the overall proportions of the beastie seemed diminutive in comparison to the model held in my head, its overall appearance reminded me of something from my adolescence back in the late 1980s – it reminded me of a mullet!

For those with a functional fashion sense (or a selective memory), Wikipedia defines a “mullet” as a “hairstyle that is short at the front and sides, and long in the back. Often ridiculed as a lowbrow and unappealing hairstyle, the mullet began to appear in popular media in the 1960s and 1970s but did not become generally well-known until the early 1980s.”

The tiny creature (which fortunately turned-out to be a caterpillar, not an outdated and free-living hairstyle) looked exactly like a mouse-sized mullet! In fact, it looked like a miniaturized version of the very mullet sported by David Bowie just a few decades ago.

Check it out:

As evidenced by the images shown above, both Bowie and the caterpillar exhibited a conspicuous, yet strangely similar, appearance. It’s this conspicuous appearance that brings us to Alfred Wallace; because, Wallace knew a thing or two about conspicuous caterpillars.

In 1889 Alfred Wallace published a book titled, “Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of its Applications.” In this work, Wallace expanded on one of his theories - a theory that he had previously presented to Charles Darwin and to members of the Entomological Society of London - the evolutionary phenomena now known as ‘aposematism.’

Aposematism refers to signaling adaptations exhibited by prey species that serve to dissuade would be predators from attacking. In other words, aposematic species are those organisms that intimidate, scare, or warn predators of their ‘unprofitability’ as potential prey items. Aposematic species are considered ‘unprofitable’ because in addition to the signaling adaptation, they also bear an underlying secondary defensive mechanism. For example, a coral snake could be considered an aposematic species because in addition to its secondary defense mechanism (a venomous bite), it also warns predators of this lethal capacity through the use of visual cues; in this case, warning coloration via strongly contrasting yellow, red and black colored bands along the length of its body.

Speaking to warning displays, Wallace wrote, “…instead of serving to conceal the animals that posses them or as recognition marks to their associates, they are developed for the express purpose of rendering the species conspicuous. The reason of this is that the animals in question are either possessors of some deadly weapons, as stings or poison fangs, or they are uneatable, and are thus so disagreeable to the usual enemies of their kind that they are never attacked when their peculiar powers or properties are known.” (Chapter IX of Alfred Wallace’s 1889 book; my emphasis added)

As an alternative to Wallace’s quoted learned avoidance of prey due to ‘known’ risks (learned through prior bad/unprofitable encounters), predators could also facilitate the evolution of conspicuous prey by practicing dietary conservatism. By simply avoiding prey items that look weird or unusual, predators could thin populations of normal looking individuals, thereby contributing to a reproductive boom for the remaining strange-looking conspecifics. In the case of a predator of caterpillars, for example, by eating ‘normal’ hairless caterpillars a predator could open the door for a surge in ‘strange-looking’ caterpillars - like those caterpillars that flaunt mullets.

In fact, Wallace frequently used conspicuous caterpillars as examples in explaining the phenomena of warning signaling - caterpillars not dissimilar to the venomous Megalopyge opercularis found on the frame of my door yesterday morning.
Megalopyge opercularis, the asp caterpillar, is the larval form of the southern flannel mouth. Its range extends from the southern United States through tropical South America. Though its retro hairstyle may look cute and harmless, it packs a painful punch. The ‘hairs’ of the asp moth aren’t really even hairs at all; they’re actually bundles of venom injecting spikes! The spikes are the caterpillar’s secondary defensive mechanism, and its conspicuousness serves as its primary defense – it sends a warning signal to predators.

Looking strange can sometimes be advantageous - just ask David Bowie!

Wallace, A. R. 1889. Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of its Applications. London: MacMillan.

Lee, et al. (2010). Can dietary conservatism explain the primary evolution of aposematism? Animal Behaviour, 79 (1), 63-74 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.10.004

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Field Photos: White-eyed Vireo in Nest

Vireo griseus the white-eyed vireo; nested in a forked branch of Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle).

Snapshot taken a couple months back in Manatee County, Florida – where vireos nest year around.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Field Photos: Jewel Beetle Vs Yellow-eyed Grass

A jewel beetle [Buprestis rufipes (?)] having a go at the wetland plant Xyris caroliniana.

Xyris caroliniana is a species of “yellow-eyed grass” belonging to the Xyridaceae Family of monocots. It’s an herbaceous perennial common to Florida’s marshes, hydric pine flatwoods, and wetland ecotones. They display a compact erect stem and ascending leaves. Its flowers are short lived with three yellow petals.

The iridescence shown by Buprestis rufipes isn’t due to pigmentation in the exoskeleton, but rather microscopic textures in its cuticle which reflect and scatter particular frequencies of light.

These photos were taken near Goethe State Forest back in April.