The Greenhouse

greenhouse1_web

This map project (for the corpse flower bloom event) has fertilized my love of greenhouses and my admiration for the people who make them blossom.

Greenhouses remind me of libraries – and I adore libraries. If you’ve read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, you understand that a library is like a wise, old, introverted friend. Not a know-it-all braggart, out to prove something. But someone who willingly helps answer any question you have, as long as you ask and take the time to listen to the answer.

Greenhouses also hold and conserve vast amounts of knowledge. They’re quiet, helpful, and friendly – like the people who work there. There’s even a couple of books about them, though not nearly as popular as The Library Book.

In 1980, an expert in greenhouse history (van den Muijzenberg) estimated that greenhouses enclosed 75,000 acres (~30,000 hectares). A quarter of those greenhouses stood in the Netherlands. The earliest documented “greenhouse” used oiled cloth, rather than glass, to keep cucumber plants growing year-round in Rome.

I think I’ll have a cucumber salad to celebrate.

Dinosaur Snowflakes

DinoSnow

Want to make your own Dinosaur Snowflakes? (Ok, one is a trilobite, not a dinosaur. But trilobites are just as cool.) Patterns are available online – they’re free!  Enjoy!

I created these patterns for Darwin Day fun at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. What a great way to celebrate Darwin’s Birthday!

Is Your Favorite Animal a WUG?

AnimDiversity_RNG

Think of your favorite animal. Is it warm and fuzzy? Or fine and feathered?

Many people think of “animals” as mammals, birds, or reptiles. Occasionally a fish, crustacean, or insect will creep in there. But, let’s face it, our view of animals is limited.

Children reflect this discrepancy when asked to draw a picture of a habitat. For instance, Snaddon et al. (2008) found that children drew ~75% mammals, birds, and reptiles in their portrayals of a rainforest. In reality, rainforest animals are 90% insects.

The rainforest isn’t unique. Most animals are insects (beetles, to be specific). It makes the Victorian hobby of beetle-collecting seem a little more understandable now.

And the Nematodes! Nematodes (roundworms) make up a surprisingly high percentage of animal species. Scoop up a trowel-full of soil from your yard, and you’re likely to have thousands upon thousands of nematodes in there.

If we can get children to understand that ecosystems, like rainforests, contain more animals than just vertebrates (and plants too!), the consequences include a better understanding of ecosystem functions and conservation issues.

So introduce yourself and your children to insects and worms (sometimes called “wugs” – worms and bugs). Attend insect-related events at a museum, make insect-face masks for play, visit natural environments, sow insect-promoting native plants (and keep careful track of all the worms in the ground), or tend an insect or worm as a pet for a couple days.

Maybe your new favorite animal won’t have fur or feathers.

 

Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579

Newts of Fire and Ice

newt

Newts 101:

Red-Spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) are the coolest animals on the planet. I should know – I worked with over 10,000 of them for two years.

Newts have four different life stages – egg, larva, eft, adult. The eft stage is most unusual since it’s completely terrestrial (for up to 7+ years!) AND incredibly poisonous (you have to eat it though). People used to think that efts were born from fire. The red color may have contributed to this folktale, but it may also be their emergence from logs thrown on the fire. Newt skin secretions can protect them from flame for a short time. It’s the reason many firefighter companies have a newt in their logo. Asbestos was once called “salamander wool”.

Frozen Newt-sicle

I researched the Red-Spotted Newt for my Master’s Degree (and fell in love with them – hence, the name of this blog). Every week, I trapped newts and recorded their spot patterns to identify each one individually. Since Red-Spotted Newts are fairly common, I trapped, identified, and released over 10,000. The scientific relevance of this work turned out to be … well… lame. Reports indicated that this population was very unusual. Turns out (sigh) it wasn’t. But I did learn a couple random things that no one else has reported.

  1. Newts can freeze solid and survive. I know because I left one out too long while I was checking traps and it was a little newt-popsicle when I returned. I took it back to the lab to use as a dissection specimen, but thankfully she’d recovered.
  2. While most experts call Red-Spotted Newts aquatic as adults, I think my study population was terrestrial with a brief aquatic period for reproduction. Even in permanent pools of water, newts leave in the fall. Only a few females overwinter in the ponds.

Penis Bones – no joke!

bacula_JMLCarnivores have ‘em. Rodents and bats have ‘em. Even many primates have ‘em. But not humans.

The baculum (penis bone) is one of the most variable bones in the mammalian skeleton – you can even ID an animal by the shape and size of that one bone. Just like with insect penises, the shapes of these reproductive structures can change quickly in evolutionary terms (Carl Zimmer writes a wonderful post looking at these shifts)
What’s its function?
Well, we’re not 100% sure yet. It may allow males to copulate before being fully, ahem, at attention. Or it may stimulate the female to ovulate. Some bacula grow spiny projections which may, like some insect penises, clear out other sperm before injecting one’s own.
Let’s not leave out the girls!

The penis and clitoris develop from the same structure. So, if the penis has a bone… does the clitoris? You bet! It’s called the os clitoridis (or baubellum).

Snoods, Caruncles, Wattles and Spurs

turkeyThe male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) weighs in as one of the largest birds in North America at around 20 lbs (by comparison, many domestic turkeys weigh twice as much). Females are roughly half the size of the male.

The heads of male wild turkeys are featherless and colorful, with odd sounding structures such as the snood, caruncles, and wattle. Their head can even change color depending on their mood (blue means “Hey, good lookin’!”; red means “I’m ticked off!). The “beard” of the wild turkey grows from the chest and is comprised of filamentous feathers. Males also grow spike-like spurs on their legs, used for fighting.