Depth of Field #5 – You’re All Eyespots

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While running to meeting on the University of Florida campus, I looked down and spied this creature on the edge of a concrete walkway. While about the size of one of our local palmetto bugs (a deceivingly quaint name Floridians have bestowed upon one of the local cockroach species), this large docile beetle was far less menacing. I was entranced by its eye spots, and by the discovery of yet another new species (I am a transplant down here and very much dig the constant appearance of novel little beasties).

Due to its unique appearance, it was easy to later discover this insect’s identity – the speckled eastern eyed click beetle, Alaus oculatus. Among its other common names is the eyed elater. Their larval form is known as a wire worm, and due to its carnivorous diet, is often valued by gardeners for its ability to rid vegetation of other less desirable residents.

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Click beetles are members of the family Elateridae and produce their trademark sound when their spine snaps into a groove located on their mesosternum (basically like a bug chest plate). They do this when righting themselves if flipped over, and this snapping action may allow many members of this family to propel themselves away from harm quickly. Additionally, the presence of eyespots in insects are often suggested to be a form of predator deterrence.

 

Speck of Science – 4/19/16 – March of the Crabs

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Source: Animal Planet

Mass migrations fascinate me – massive swarms of creatures on robotic treks to satisfy deep-seated needs for resources – nature’s automatons reaching for food, for mates, for brighter skies. One of the earliest that captured my attention is expressed in this Animal Planet video documenting the movement of red crabs on Christmas Island:

http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/wild-kingdom/videos/christmas-island-red-crabs/

(Note at 1:40, crustaceans seem to be playing “frogger” while obliviously scuttling across roads and railroad tracks. Not the unexpected result of the clash between crab and human.)

A gif of the oceanic equivalent has made a recent appearance online, showing an endless carpet of sandy colored scuttlers (they were in fact red,  or “tuna,” crabs who appeared that way as they stirred up a the sediment on the sea floor). However, this article sheds more light on the unusual event captured by a manned submersible exploring Hannibal Bank off of Panama (fitting name for the location of a slightly unnerving and intriguing event to occur? ). The following video comes from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institut and features scientist Jesús Pineda explaining the details around recording the migration:

 

 

Depth of Field #2: The Sea Hare Emerges

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

The sun is starting to set on expanses of mirror-reflective tide pools speckling the beach of the Tawharanui Marine Reserve in New Zealand. I’ve been walking along staring into them at random in my search for anything novel when I chance across what is at best guess an example of Aplysia dactylomelathe variable sea or spotted hare.

In a surprising contrast to the small chitins, tunicates, and other finds, the sea hare was relatively large, measuring somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 inches in length. As seen in this additional photo, a smattering of spots can be seen along its body:

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

According to this source, sea hares are hermaphroditic though they do not practice self-fertilization. They may often form reproductive “chains”.

As suggested by one of their common names, they may be highly variable in appearance with their coloration primarily determined by the type of algae they feed on.

They release a purple dye as a mechanism to surprise and confuse predators. This particular characteristic was one I had once experienced first hand when handling my first sea hare in the mangroves of Key West. It certainly has a startling quality to it.

Variable sea hares tend to be more solitary, and nocturnal in nature. So perhaps no small amount of dumb luck governed this thrilling little chance encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aplysia dactylomela

Speck of Science – 1/11/2016: The Co-evolution of Poachers

I’m a little late in posting about this story that came out in the Guardian on New Year’s Day.

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Colour changing tree monitors or garden lizards annd Bronze skinks hung in a street market to be sold as pets in Hainan province, China. Photograph: Xiao Shibai/Alamy

The gist of the piece is that the journal Zootaxa has published recent papers omitting the data on where the described species may be found. This is to deter impact to these newly described organisms, after several incidences where animals were depleted or found for offer in the pet trade. This goes to show that seemingly the most innocuous and standard scientific practices (in this case, the standard documentation and provision of data surrounding the description of newly identified species) may still warrant ethical considerations.

This also represents an interesting and alarming co-evolution of illegal or unregulated poaching practices. But this is just a drop in the poaching bucket, as poachers have already clearly upped their game in recent years, arming themselves with high-tech equipment like night vision goggles. However, there is a whole range of combatant technologies emerging for use in the anti-poaching effort being billed as “smarter ways to fight wildlife crime.”

 

 

Depth of Field #1: Coquina and the Palm Coast

“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world” – Bruno Barbey

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So I’m one of those people who use facebook as an image repository – a sort of dusty social media shelf where I can look back and browse through digital photo albums filled with virtual Polaroids (I grieve the fact I never owned a Polaroid camera). However I recognize that the often interesting stories related to these images are buried relatively quickly.

This is the first entry into what I plan on making a regular feature (perhaps weakly-ish?). I will unearth what will generally be a nature or ecology-centric photo and jot down a few words about the context in which the photo was taken. If nothing else, I think this develops some nuance to my interest in cultivating a presence as a science communicator.

The first photo I’m featuring is taken very near where I work on my dissertation research. The shoreline is from Washington Oaks State Park in Palm Coast, Florida – a half hour or so south of St. Augustine. This was winter in Florida which is still punctuated by the vibrant green of algea growing on coquina rocks.

Coquina is a very marine phenomenon – the sedimentary rock consists primarily of Donax variabilis shell – the tiny little Coquina clam. Shells originating from other molluscs and invertebrates may join the mix. The rock was used for many of the Spanish Colonial structures – primarily forts – in the St. Augustine area.

One of the most notable and striking features of the Coquina are the circular depressions weathered through the rock. The shells that comprise the rock are largely composed of calcium, making Coquina a type of Limestone, which is relatively soft and easily shaped by the elements and other influences. A couple sources I’ve found suggest these holes are from Coquina forming around cabbage palms at one time. They certainly make for a visually arresting landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

Whale Tales – Current Cetacean Communiqués

Orcas as captured by drone surveillance. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

There’s been a couple interesting whale-centric stories I’ve come across lately, so I thought I would share on the blog.

While the idea of drone surveillance is proving to make a large part of the public uncomfortable, the technology is proving to have less pernicious applications in observing natural phenomena.

Southern resident orca calf nursing. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium.

With regards to whales, drone footage of southern resident orca pods has recently been captured by a collaborative effort between the Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  NOAA recently released beautiful close-up photos and a video conversation with ecologist John Durban giving some additional context to the what the drone captured.

Over more recent years with advances in genetics and stronger observational data, it was determined that orcas are not a uniform species and instead vary with regards to morphological characteristics, ecology, and behavior, generally referred to as “ecotypes”. The southern resident population of killer whales numbers about 81 individuals. Aerial footage provides a relatively non-invasive way to study and collect data on these animals.

Read more about the study and about “mobly”, the hexacopter used to study these creatures, here.

Another fascinating footage find was this picture posted of an albino southern right whale calf off the coast of South Africa:

Anton Schutte was alerted to its presence by a tourist he had recently befriended and was able to snap pictures and video of the blindingly white baby whale.

Omura’s whale lunge feeding. Photo Credit: Cerchio et al 2015.

Lastly, Discover Magazine released an interesting news bit based on a recently published paper about the Omura’s whale. This whale wasn’t classified as its own species until 2003, and was described based off of samples from carcasses that had washed onto beaches. Scientists spotted living populations off of Madagascar and were able to genetically validate the sighting as Omura’s whales. Surveys were completed over a course of 7 years in order to learn about their ecology and behavior.  They have rorqual pleats like those seen in humpbacks, that allow them to “lunge feed” – quickly engulfing large masses of water and using their baleen to assist with filtering out their prey items. They sport an asymmetrical white patch on their lower jaw, much like Fin whales. They also likely do not wander far from their home base.

Hope you enjoyed the updates. Until next time my friends!

Pest Proof – New Zealand, Part the Second

Pest Proof Fence at Tawf. Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman
Pest Proof Fence at Tawh. Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

On our third full day in the park we pile into the sheep shearing shed complete with a lingering aromatic reminder of its relatively recent use, in order to learn more about Tawh’s (pronounced “Tawf”) ecology. Our master of ceremonies is Maurice “Mo” Puckett, the Auckland Council’s head ranger at Tawharanui who has been part of Tawh’s legacy for 20 years. He started life at the reserve as a single man but now lives on property with his wife where they have also brought up their two kids – a 14 and 16 year old.

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Maurice “Mo” Puckett describing the challenges of pest control at Tawh

Mo launches into an explanation of the park’s ecology while keeping a burlap sack mysteriously on hand. He reveals to us that New Zealand is literally an island nation for the birds – there are no native mammals save a specie or two of bat. He begins telling us that there are, however, plenty of mammals around that have been introduced by other means. As he tells us about each, he unceremoniously pulls out and drops frozen examples from trapping efforts at Tawh.

Overrun by rabbits – Photo credit: Stephen Jaquiery, Otago Daily Times

Both the Maoris who first came to New Zealand’s shores and the Europeans who followed years later brought over certain creatures to help them meet their needs. Rabbits, one of the earlier introduced mammals, were a prime example of an animal that could provide meat, pelts, and sport for those who liked to hunt. However as rabbits tend to do, they multiplied rather quickly. In areas where farming had already depleted vegetation, the holes that rabbits dig for their burrows further de-stabilized the landscape. Paired with rainfall, the afflicted hillsides would erode away or deposit sediment into local waterways, stressing fragile aquatic ecosystems. In addition to fencing and poisoning efforts, ferrets, weasels, and stoats were released in an attempted form of biocontrol. However all three introduced their own havoc on New Zealand’s native flora and fauna, with stoats being the most insidious. Stoats are efficient hunters, “little killing machines” as Mo stressed, and have an inordinate impact on birds. Mo also relayed that stoats are originally adapted to colder climes and tend to bury their prey. But since New Zealand experiences warmer temperature at times, the stoat’s spoils sometimes rot before they ever retrieve their cache. Additionally, female stoat kits may become impregnated before they even open their eyes. The embryos they carry will go into stasis until they are able to give birth sometime later.

Left: Weasel. Right: weasel, stoat, ferret. Photo credit: Northland Regional Council
Left: Weasel. Right: weasel, stoat, ferret. Photo credit: Northland Regional Council

Other pests in the country include possums (the variety originally native to Australia, not the Opossum Americans are used to) who have a greater variety of New Zealand trees to eat relative to the limited variety they enjoy back home. Their fur is soft and has great insulating properties, so is often mixed with merino wool products in New Zealand. Hedgehogs which can often rid gardens of unwanted slugs and other nuisances have themselves become overabundant and a threat to native insects, lizards, and the eggs and chicks of certain birds with ground-nesting behavior. Feral cats or even people’s pets may have impacts on wildlife. Rats may be the most damaging of all as they devastate vegetation and seed banks that support the habitat for bird species.

Staff have armed Tawharanui with a whole suit of ways to combat these pests. One of the most important components is the pest-proof fence lining most of the park’s boundaries. It is constructed with a mesh size small enough to keep anything unwanted, down to the smallest mouse, from getting through. All access points in the fence are designed with two-door entryways where only a single door may be open at a time. The top of the fence is sloped so animals can’t easily climb over and nearby branches are kept trimmed to further discourage stealth breaches of the perimeter. Different varieties of traps are baited and set, and rangers will check them regularly. And while the fence does not extend over the full reaches of the beach that lines the coastlines of the park, it does have an interesting feature. The ends of the fence curl inward in a spiral. Many animals have a tendency to follow the length of the fence and will find themselves corralled into the coiled terminus and into more awaiting traps.

Hedgehog tracks from one the Black Trakka's ink cards. Photo credit: Carrie Schuman
Hedgehog tracks from one the Black Trakka’s ink cards. Photo credit: Carrie Schuman

One tool Mo showed us which I found delightfully elegant and fascinating was what they referred to as “talls” (and more formally sold under the name “the black trakka”). These basically consist of baited tubes with floors lined with inked cards. Animals wander through the tubes, inking their feet and leaving tracks on a blank portion of the cards. The cards can then be later retrieved and examined as a sort of record of what small mammals might be roaming park grounds.

Tawh is certainly not only susceptible to threats of the mammal or even faunal kind. In later posts I will describe some of the additional challenges, including invasive varieties of plants, that park staff must vigilantly respond to.

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