White pine wood for breakfast

You can hear them from twelve feet away. Rhythmic grating sounds from within a dead white pine tree in our neighbor’s yard. Sarah heard them first on her early morning walk. We returned later in the day, but the munchers had fallen silent. It seems that their appetite is keenest at dawn.

Here are the sounds, with a labeled spectrogram of the same sound. I suspect that the crunching sounds are coming from large Cerambycid larvae (long-horned beetles). The hairy woodpecker that was diligently extracting them from under the bark would know for sure. Beetle larvae that live under bark can thrive on seemingly indigestible wood using a combination of detoxifying enzymes produced by their own guts and through use of cellulose-digesting enzymes that the insects derive from the fungi that live inside the wood. This is a bit like digesting moldy cornflakes by harnessing the power of the mold. A clever strategy, but one that I’ll leave to the beetles.

Spectrogram (time moves left to right; frequency (pitch) is on the vertical axis):


Posted in Beetles, Bioacoustic revelry, Trees | Tagged | 7 Comments

Young treefrog

We’ve had a consistently wet summer in Tennessee, great for plants and even better for amphibians. Pools and streams that dry up in most years have remained wet, allowing many larval amphibians to grow up without their lives being cut short, as they so often are, by dry spells. Once metamorphosed and on land, the youngsters find a moist world. Most welcoming.

A careful eye will discern legions of young frogs and toads loping and bouncing in tangles of vegetation. Here is a young Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) warming itself in the sun before plunging back under the shady leaves. The animal is small enough that it could sit comfortably on a penny. For photos of the adults and eggs, and sound recordings of the breeding males, see my previous posts here and here.

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Young vertebrates enjoying the South Platte River in Colorado

High in the mountains, in Eleven Mile Canyon:

A Common Merganser with her brood. She incubated the chicks in an old woodpecker hole and will stay with them as they learn to forage. These “sawtooth” ducks dive under the water to snatch fish. They’ll also feed on invertebrates such as snails and mayflies.


American Dipper fledgling. This young bird left the nest a week or so ago. It waits for the parent to appear…

dipper1…from beneath the fast-flowing water. Dippers dive into mountain streams and walk along the bottom, gripping with their toe-nails for all they’re worth, plucking stream insects from rocks. Once emerged, the adult is met with the youngster’s loud whistles, sounds that cut through the roar of the water. When food is stuffed into the gullet of the noisy birdchild, the sound changes to delighted chirping.



And when the feeding is done, it is time for more piercing begging cries, delivered at the water, below which the parent feeds.

dipper3Another gullet-stuff, another flurry of chirps:


Downstream, in the heart of Denver:

At Confluence Park, in the center of the city, the South Platte has been engineered to provide a series of chutes and rapids for the amusement of Denverites. In the photo below a youth leader takes one of several disabled kids on a paddle ride down the rapids. I’ve blanked the faces because I was not able to ask whether it was OK to post these two water-lovers’ faces on my blog (sorry, dippers and mergansers, speciesism…). As he lurched through the spray, the kid’s face went from apprehensive frown, to a big O of surprise, to a grin of delight. A (mile-)high-five ended the ride.


In the 1960s and 1970s, this stretch of river was the most junky, polluted part of the whole city. Old cars, tires, and mattresses were heaped along the banks; factories piped effluent directly into the river; oil oozed from every bank. Thanks to the very hard work of the Greenway Foundation, The City of Denver, and many other partners, this is one of the most popular places in town for people of all races, incomes, and levels of physical ability. One hundred miles of riverside trails radiate out from here, punctuated with parks of all kinds.

The river flows onward from here, east through Colorado and Nebraska, hopefully encountering a few more young lifeforms reveling in its waters.

Posted in Archosaurs, Travels, Water | 8 Comments

Humanitarian assistance for Gaza: where to donate.

My last blog and facebook posts have been a little bleak. On a more proactive note, here are some ways to help people in Gaza. These organizations help people directly, using money for humanitarian assistance, not for arms.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, working under the mandate of the UN General Assembly. UNWRA’s work “encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.” I saw UNWRA’s work during my visits to the refugee camps in the West Bank: they run schools and clinics. Many people in Gaza are currently crowded into UNWRA’s schools, hoping for shelter, but sometimes getting bombed anyway. UNWRA has launched an emergency appeal. For US donors, the US Friends of UNWRA provides a mechanism to donate within the US tax code (i.e., 501(c)(3) tax credits).

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): Operate clinics in Gaza and work in the Al Shifa hospital. They also work in many other parts of the world and are very highly rated in Charity Navigator.  “MSF observes neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and the right to humanitarian assistance and claims full and unhindered freedom in the exercise of its functions” (from their Charter). Donate here.

(For US residents, the bill for arms comes due on April 15th: about $3 billion each year flows from US taxpayers to the Israeli military. US AID spends about 5% of that amount in non-military spending in the West Bank, often on projects mitigating the consequences of Israeli military rule. For example, when the Israeli military closes roads to all Palestinian cars, turning the roadways into settler-only routes, US AID builds another road to connect major West Bank cities. Hamas’ funding sources are less clear, but their rockets come from Iran, Syria, or are “home-made”; various Middle Eastern states have been implicated in funding their military wing.)

Posted in Travels | 8 Comments

Jerusalem mourning. Fracture.


This is what the busiest street in the Old City looked like today in the midafternoon. Shopkeepers have shut down in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Normally this street is so utterly packed that movement from one end to the other is like walking against the crowd in a New York subway station, with the added complication that every ten paces a merchant is ready to sell his wares. These guys (all men) could squeeze oil from the most shriveled olive, so good are they at the fine arts of persuasion. That well-pressed oil keeps many a family fed in beliguered East Jerusalem.

The streets’ silence and emptiness felt dark. All the bitter ghosts of Jerusalem’s bloody history could seep out into the quiet and join their new companions. I don’t normally get frightened on daylight streets, but I quickened my pace in this grim quiet. The few shopkeepers sitting in small groups at corners had the unseeing, unmoving gazes of the shocked and weary. The carnage in Gaza is felt as a very close, deep wound indeed. All the Arabic papers run front page pictures of families in the rubble. One Palestinian I met studies the papers to look for his cousins.

As many have pointed out, this war has an outrageous asymmetry of who is shedding blood. The world’s most advanced war machinery is ploughing through one of the poorest, most caged-in places on the planet, a place where guerilla gunners intermingle themselves by design and by circumstance with civilians. Here in Jerusalem, the war is echoed by another asymmetry, heavier military pressure in Palestinian neighborhoods. I see Palestinians pulled off the sidewalk all the time for ID checks. Among civilians, anti-Palestinian sentiment is in plain view. I had a man stop me on the street and fill me in on the evils of these “immigrant thieves”.

On the west side of town, across the 1967 Green line, the malls and restaurants are a-buzz with local shoppers and a few tourists. It feels like Paris: sidewalk restaurants, strolling couples, high-end jewelers next to trendy clothes stores. But the surface jollity belies a deeper unease. Unlike US wars which have lately been fought without the draft and therefore keep many social classes disproportionately out of harm’s way, here everyone has to serve, with an exclusion for most Arab Israeli citizens and some ultra-orthodox Jews. Today, the Hebrew newspapers had front page pictures of yesterday’s fallen Israeli soldiers. In a country born out of European genocide and surrounded by hostile nations, the feeling of threat is deeply personal and rallying around the flag takes on a degree of fervor that rivals even the nationalistic vigor of the US. Unlike the US, the shadows of past and possible future annihilation are very real here.

One of war’s many tragedies is that it pushes both sides into the pit of pain. From what I see and hear — and my view is, I admit, biased by the particularities of my travels and my own preconceptions — this pain is feeding extremism on both sides. Paradoxically, the radical violent wings of both sides benefit from the worsening situation. Blood and bombs feed their narrative of the subhuman nature of “the other”. It is hard to see how more terrorism and military thuggery will not emerge from the  darkness of Gaza.

The old “Holy City” is indeed shut for business today.

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Dawn over the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem


Welcomed by calls to prayer, rooftop roosters, and hundreds of explosions, the 3:30am chorus of fireworks detonated in narrow streets.

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Jerusalem, before Ramadan sunset


The streets are jammed and the food vendors are almost crushed by the crowds surging at them. Then the sun drops, the sawm (fast) is over, and the evening iftar feast begins. Just thirty minutes after the streets were choked with people, emptiness descends and yowling cats emerge the tear at trash bags, disturbed only by the occasional hurrying passersby carrying a steaming pan of food.

A few miles south, rockets fly and a ground invasion seems imminent. War’s juxtaposition with the everyday life of peacetime. Incomprehensible.

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Hidden communities of fungi nestled within tree leaves

A maple leaf is more than it appears to be. Its substance is made not just from plant cells, but from a community of many species. “Maple” is in fact part plant, part fungus, part bacteria. Just as the human body is comprised of a vast “microbiome,” plants are also composite creatures.

To get a glimpse at this diversity, I cultured some of the fungal species found on and within the maple leaves growing on the tree by the front door.

To look at the fungi on the leaves’ surfaces, I dabbed maple leaves onto pertri dishes containing agar and fungus food, then waited a few days. Here is one such dish, displaying the diversity of species found on the leaf. Of course, many fungi don’t like petri dishes, so what we see below is a mere fraction of what is actually present on the leaf. The leaf itself is not so thickly coated; the petri dish gives fungi a place to grow and reveal themselves to our eyes.


These fungi from the surface are a mixed bag. Some are potentially harmful to the leaf and will ultimately eat the leaf away when it drops in the autumn. Others are likely protective or live as commensal squatters. Some feed on the droppings of caterpillars or the honeydew of aphids. A few might have drifted from the humans, goats, and stacked firewood below.

To peek at fungi that live inside the leaf, “endophytes,” I sliced some leaves into tiny pieces, sterilized their surfaces, then placed them onto petri dishes. Compared to the leaf “prints” taken from the surface, it took a couple of days longer for these endophytic fungi to appear on the dishes, but they too showed quite a diversity of forms. Here are two examples:

Maple_endoMaple_endo2To make sure that I was not simply growing fungi that were wafting in the air or present on my forceps, I also ran some “control” plates which yielded either nothing at all or a few white blobs.

How endophytic fungi interact with tree leaves is largely unknown. But one of their roles is protective, secreting substances that deter the growth of pathogenic fungi. For example, endophytes isolated from Douglas maple release a chemical that poisons a variety of nasty plant diseases.

Interestingly, endophytes in sugar maple leavs seem to be more diverse in old growth forests than they are in younger, managed forests, or in urban areas. But these are preliminary findings. We have only the haziest understanding of the ecology of the fungal world hidden within leaf laminae.

Inside each leaf: a whole community. Within the community: hundreds of stories waiting to be heard. One story is clear, though: if we believe that creatures — humans included — live apart from “the other,” we’re deluded.

Posted in Fungi, Microbes, Trees | Tagged , | 14 Comments


After heavy rain, water turns mercurial on nasturtium leaves. The water balls into a skittering drop, seeming to float just over the leaf’s surface. I was reminded of chasing liquid metal over chemistry lab benches in the days before kids were protected from such amusements. But similar delights, minus the metabolic cost, await in the garden.

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The drops were dancing. Water on the leaves of other plants was sluggish, gathering in flat pools or damp stains. These plants were wet, soggy, but the nasturtium leaves were perfectly dry, even where silvery drops had sat a few seconds before.

A recent paper by James Bird and colleagues in Nature reported that nasturtium leaves are covered with “superhydrophobic ridges” (literally, “super-water-fearing ridges”). These minute structures on the leaf surface exert a strong repulsive force on water. When a water drop hits the surface, the repulsion is so strong that the drop recoils, shatters into minute droplets, and jumps back into the air. The Nature paper does not mention this, but my observations suggest that nasturtium leaves only shed large drops. On dewy mornings, smaller drops manage to cling, although they still sit as silvery globes.

Leaves of almost all land plants have a waxy covering that keeps water away from the core of the leaf and eventually causes water to run off. But on nasturtium leaves, water doesn’t just run, it springs and sprints. Nasturtium beats even the former superchampion of “hydrophobicity,” the water-shedding upper surface of lotus leaves. What function might this serve? We do not know, but shedding water must surely combat fungal infections by depriving spores of damp places in which to germinate.

All this makes for ephemeral beauty in the garden. It may also be of practical importance. Surfaces that vigorously repel water not only stay remarkably dry, but they self-clean and resist icing. Engineers would love to incorporate these features into all kinds of surfaces, especially cloth, windows, painted walls, airplane wings, and the insides of ketchup bottles (the BBC has a nice overview).

I look forward to venturing into the woods clad in a coat of nasturtium, a fig leaf for rainy climes.

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Listen: underwater crackly, groany kōans

Drop a hydrophone into shallow salt water at latitudes less than 40° and you’re likely to hear a crackling sound, sometimes so loud that it drowns out almost all other underwater sounds. This din is created by snapping shrimp, tiny crustaceans that click one of their front claws so fast that the motion creates a bubble of air, a cavitation in the water. The rapid opening and closing of the bubble generates sounds as loud as 200 dB (as loud or louder than dolphins and whales) and very briefly heats the bubble to a temperature just shy of that on the surface of the sun. Understandably, nearby prey are stunned, as was I when I read these figures. The shrimp also use their loud, hot snaps to wrangle over territories and to attract mates.

Here are the sounds of these creatures recorded from the dock at St Catherine’s Island (if you’re an email subscriber or viewing on a phone, you might need to click on the header link to go to the website to get sounds…):


In some tropical sponge-dwelling snapping shrimp “a sentinel shrimp reacts to danger by recruiting other colony members to snap in concert for several to tens of seconds” (Tóth and Duffy 2005). So these shrimp are somewhat like crows, honeybees, and other social creatures: networking information through their societies.

Another sound from the dock, heard amid the shrimp (I filtered out many of the high frequencies to make the sound a little easier to hear):


This is the territorial call and the mating cry of a toadfish. These ogre-like creatures sit under rocks or in crevices the bottom of the seafloor, waiting to ambush smaller fish and other morsels. The Billy Goat Gruff of the seas. Their mouths are liked toothed baseball mitts.

Despite its unappealing visage, the toadfish has much to recommend it to the curious naturalist. The call is produced by vibratory muscles attached to the swim-bladder (bagpipes?). These muscles are the fastest known among all vertebrates. Once mating is done, the male toadfish defends the eggs, then guards the hatchlings until they find their own bridge to hide under.

NASA once sent toadfish into space. According to Wikipedia, they found that toadfish inner ear bones developed in the same way in orbit as back here on planet Earth. Good to know. This study also answers the kōan,

Can a toadfish in space orbit be said to be under his rock?

But poses a new one,

If a toadfish vibrates his swim bladder in the vacuum of space, is he singing? And, for extra kōa-credit, who might answer his airless call?

For now, toadfish are hiding under their rocks with even greater diligence, fearing capture for space experiments, waiting for Homo sapiens to pass on by. Here is the sound of our departure from the dock, heard from the toadfish’s watery home:


Many thanks to Dr John Schacke from UGA and the Georgia Dolphin Ecology Program who helped me to understand what I was hearing.

Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Travels, Water | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments