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.)

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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.

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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.

2014-06-28 nasturtium 005

2014-06-28 nasturtium 002

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.

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Summer Solstice…zoological celebration

A few of the creatures we’ve run into on St Catherine’s Island, GA, during the Island Ecology class:

Anhinga in morning backlight

Anhinga in morning backlight

Carapace of loggerhead turtle washed up on beach. Cause of death is unclear.

Carapace of loggerhead turtle washed up on beach. Cause of death is unclear. Turkey vulture didn’t care about cause of death, but sea turtle program and State of Georgia did. Turkey vulture proceeded without paperwork; humans went to work with datasheets and calipers.

Great egret chicks.

Great egret chicks.

Nestling woodstorks in goofy stage. They still have fluffy heads. All these cute down will fall away to reveal the characteristic bare skin of the adult. This naked head allows them to forage in muddy water without fouling (...fowling...) their feathers.

Nestling wood storks in goofy stage. They still have fluffy heads. All these cute down feathers will fall away to reveal the characteristic bare skin of the adult. The naked head allows them to forage in muddy water without fouling (…fowling…) their feathers.

Dead horseshoe crabs eyes the beach.

Dead horseshoe crab eyes the beach. In addition to these compound eyes, they have smaller eyes on their telson (tail), near their mouth, and on top of their carapace.

Gopher tortoise on its apron of sand. Its burrow extends many meters below the ground.

Gopher tortoise on its apron of sand. The tortoise is headed for its burrow which extends many meters below the ground.

Alligator tracks on the sandy road.

Alligator tracks on the sandy road.

Big Moma Gator footprint and tail drag.

Big Moma Gator footprint and tail drag.

Baby Gator footprint and tail drag.

Baby Gator footprint and tail drag.

Eastern glass lizard, a legless lizard. This one has lost and regrown its tail. They get their vitrine name from the fragility of the tail.

Eastern glass lizard, a legless lizard (found by Hali Steinmann). This one has lost and regrown its tail. They get their vitreous name from the fragility of the tail.

Glass lizard: note ticks attached in the fold of skin down its flank. The island is amply endowed with ticks. A never-failing succession of them.

Glass lizard: note ticks attached in the fold of skin down its flank. The island is amply endowed with ticks. A never-failing succession of them, in fact.

Vetebra from dolphin. Found by Annya Shalun on beach.

Vertebra from dolphin. Found by Annya Shalun on beach.

Homo sapiens students headed out to gather data on shorebirds.

Homo sapiens students (Annya Shalun and Alec Hill) headed out to gather data on shorebirds.

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Washed up

The students in the Sewanee Island Ecology Program have repeated the studies that I began last year of “trash” on the beaches of St Catherine’s Island, GA. We search standardized transect lines in the wrack on the upper beach.

If our samples are representative of the whole beach, and assuming a 20 meter wide wrack line, a 10 km stretch of beach would have just shy of half a million individual pieces of anthropogenic debris. Foam pieces are the most common (80% of pieces), followed by other plastics. Half of all debris pieces were 2cm wide or smaller. These data only include pieces of debris that are visible on the surface. Much more is likely buried deeper. We did not examine microscopic fragments.

Here are some photos of some of the items we found.


Brut. Advertized on their websites as the “Essence of Man.” Indeed. This one washed up from …somewhere… as we were walking our transects.


Epibionts on plastic bottle. Darwin would be proud. It’s all about barnacles.


Still life with pill bottle.


Just what the ocean needs, a little more engine oil. Probably drilled from under the ocean. Sustainability is all about closing the circle…

I also made some sound recordings along the beach. The first is made with a hydrophone, a microphone that picks up sounds below the surface of the water. I suspended it in some gentle surf. The second recording is the same surf, but recorded with a regular microphone, in the air, at the top of the beach.

Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Travels, Water | Tagged | 8 Comments

Garlic mustard, when it’s at home

Naturalists from North America will recognize this plant, the maligned, non-native garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). I photographed this one in South Queensferry, Scotland. Recognition is likely not the only response to the sight of these leaves and flowers. Hands and elbows may start twitching in anticipation of the pleasure of uprooting the plant. This tugging reflex is organized into gatherings called “pulls” where people mass to yank swaths of the plant from the soil, bag the plants, then consign them to the landfill or fire. Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.


garlicmustard2This vigorous dislike has a good ecological foundation. The plant invades woodlands and smothers native plants, reducing botanical diversity. Chemical weapons are used in this process: garlic mustard releases chemicals into the soil that sap the vitality of surrounding plants. These chemicals act by suppressing the germination and growth of mycorrhizal fungi whose mutualistic relationship with plant roots helps many forest plants to grow successfully.

In the UK, where garlic mustard is native, the species is known as Jack-in-the-hedge and is fairly common in damp hedgerows and field edges. Unlike their American counterparts, local naturalists esteem the plant for its role as the host plant for caterpillars of several native butterflies. The orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) is the most well-known of these. This conspicuous white butterfly with bright orange wing tips often loiters in patches of Jack-in-the-hedge. The green-veined white (Pieris napi) is another species that uses the plant as a primary host for its caterpillars. The small white (Pieris rapae) — sometimes known as the “cabbage white” — will lay its eggs on Jack-in-the-hedge when it can’t find a gardener’s cabbage or broccoli.

In North American, the plant’s relationship with butterflies is not so nurturing. The West Virginia white butterfly (Pieris virginiensis) normally lays its eggs on native toothwort (Dentaria), but the female butterflies are also attracted to garlic mustard. Unfortunately for the caterpillars of these fooled females, the novel chemical mixture in garlic mustard prevents the youngsters from growing. The plant is therefore an ecological trap: drawing in butterflies with the promise of good food, then killing them.

This confused tale has its origins in the close family ties among the species involved. Toothwort and garlic mustard both belong to the family Brassicaceae. North American butterflies are drawn to the presumably familiar scent of the import. But family resemblance only goes so far. American butterflies have not evolved the particularities of biochemical detoxification needed to feed on garlic mustard, whereas their European kin in the same subfamily of butterflies (Pierinae) have mastered these mechanisms. Whether evolution will be fast enough to allow the Americans to adapt remains to be seen.

It doesn’t help that butterflies in Bible Belt states are kept in the dark about natural selection, giving the missionary mustards a boost in their colonial quest.

Orange-tip butterfly, male, on Jack-in-the-hedge. South Queensferry, Scotland.

Orange-tip butterfly, male, on Jack-in-the-hedge. South Queensferry, Scotland.

Orange-tip butterfly, female. South Queensferry, Scotland.

Orange-tip butterfly, female. South Queensferry, Scotland.

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