What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

I’m as thrilled as a snail in lettuce that The Forest Unseen‘s hexagonal sex scenes appear in Robert Krulwich’s blog on National Geographic‘s website. He has some fabulous drawings and also discusses Joan Roughgarden‘s work on the evolution of hermaphroditism:

What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

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…the Occupy movement burns seven corporate offices in lower Manhattan

…EarthFirst burns seven GMO research labs

…black teenagers burn seven CVS stores

…jihadists burn seven suburban shopping malls

Media storm. 24/7 coverage of America-in-crisis.

National Guard on the streets.

Bring out the military gear, boys. This is the War on Terror


Seven black churches burn in the South.


Broken only by bullshit chirping of media crickets.

NPR’s website this morning: nothing.

New York Times last nights posted this report from the Associated Press. Stunning, just stunning. The fires are “unrelated” and associated with lightning. This morning, an expanded report in small font, way down the front page, still passes along, without critical comment, the line that these fires are unrelated.

No pattern of racist terror here, nosireee. Trust us.

USA Today, breaking with the highbrows, ran the story from its front page, but spun the line that arson attacks had “no obvious signs pointing to a hate crime.”

Fox News mentioned nothing, except “vandalism” to a statue of a white supremacist.

As Mahalia Jackson sung, If we never needed the Lord before, we sure need him now.


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Tussock moth caterpillar

2015-06-29 tussock moth caterpillar 001revA White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma), one of the more festive of our caterpillars. They have a catholic diet, eating both evergreens and deciduous trees, a feat made possible by their robust gut chemistry.

The caterpillars not only use their hairs for defense (and advertisement of that defense), but use them to sense attacks and respond appropriately. The caterpillars drop to the ground if their hairs are jostled by a fast-moving object. They trundle away when the agitation is calmer. Thus they avoid common predators: Polistes wasps that pounce in an aerial attack, Sinea assassin bugs that launch ambushes from the leaf, and Podisus stink bugs that amble up and probe with mouthparts. Dropping is a good defense against the former two. Walking away is sufficient for the latter.

2015-06-29 tussock moth caterpillar 008The adults are also interesting, but not nearly so bright. The female is wingless and emits a pheromone that the well-antennaed male follows upwind.

“Caterpillars” in The Forest Unseen has more on this species, including some reflections on how struggles with predators change the pattern of light in the forest. Well-haired caterpillars can afford to reveal their locations by shot-gunning leaves with holes. Undefended species are more tidy eaters. Spineless? Tidy your plate.



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The oldest church in the United States?

The stained glass window above the altar at the church of Santa Catalina de Guale:

mission palmStained glass? Indeed: Sabal palm fronds are strengthened by silica. Glass and chlorophyll.

Mission Santa Catalina de Guale was the northernmost permanent settlement of the Viceroyalty of Spain’s Florida, on what is now St Catherines Island on the coast of Georgia. The mission was established within the territory of the Guale Indians by Jesuits in the 1570s then transferred to Franciscans by the 1580s. For a century, Franciscans lived with the Guale, with varying degrees of cultural integration and conflict. The mission was abandoned in 1680 after a large-scale attack from slavers. The attack was repelled, but the island was evacuated. The Guale moved from island to island, then to St Augustine, then perhaps to Cuba. Their living cultural and genetic legacy is currently unknown. They and their ancestors lived on the Georgia barrier islands for at least five thousand years before the Europeans arrived.

In modern times, the mission was known from written records, but its location was a mystery until the work of David Hurst Thomas from the American Museum of Natural History. With help from dozens of colleagues, and years of transects, test pits, and magnetometer work, he located the mission on the southwest of St Catherines Island. After a partial excavation, all the people who were buried within the church were reinterred and the dig site was filled. The church was recreated by planting living sabal palms in the post holes from the original structure.

My students and I were privileged to be shown the site by Mr. Royce Hayes, a man who knows the island better than anyone and who relates both the complexities of history and tangled processes of re-discovering/re-imagining the past.

missionSince the rediscovery of the site, Franciscans have visited and held Mass within the sabal church. I do not know whether they used Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, but the song seems fitting for a place where our kinship to Brothers Sun and Fire and Wind, Sisters Moon and Water and Mother Earth, are so evident. The Canticle is notable because it acknowledges both our membership in the ecological community and honors the both masculine and feminine, although it assigns each gender rather narrow roles. (Robust and strong men, humble and pure women: Please, Francis, imagine also strong women and humble men.)

Neither the ecological view of life or the feminine nature of the divine has fared well within the institutions of the church over the centuries that followed. We are fortunate that the modern namesake of Francis takes kinship seriously, though, starting his Encyclical with a quote from the elder Francis’ Canticle. Whether a woman or member of the LGBTQ communities will ever be allowed to break bread at the altar remains to be seen.

The palms, meanwhile, let their hermaphroditic flowers hang in great sprays over the church walls.

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Skunk babies on the move

What comes here? A writhing ball of hair on twenty feet. (With apologies for the window-blurred photos.)

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 002A mother striped skunk with her brood. The youngsters huddled around her, keeping their flanks pressed to one another. The whole mass trundled as one. When mother stopped to nose-poke the ground, the whole crew flowed forward to see what she’d found. Then, onward.

One of the four youngsters has a black tail. The others are white-striped on tail and face, like their mom.

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 0052015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 006And off they go, tails aloft. The young stay with their mother for two or three months, so these ones I guesstimate at 6-8 weeks. For a species whose adulthood is mostly solitary (the breeding season is a squall of screams and sprays, so little do they enjoy company), skunks start their lives with an intense cuddling-huddle-bustle bond with their families. Then hormones kick in, I suppose, with a burgeoning taste for perfume.

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 014

Collective noun: A charm of skunks.

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Sand tracks

“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.” Rachel Carson, writing in Holiday magazine, 1958.

From the curving beach of St Catherines Island, another blog post in the grapheme series (parts I, II, and III). Sand scribblings. For the full coastal Georgia effect, view in a steam room with the heat turned up to one hundred degrees. Click on any image for the slideshow:

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Loggerhead sea turtle necropsy, and a second chapter

A memento mori, delivered from sea to sand, from Poseidon to Psamathe. The turtle washed onto the Atlantic shore of St Catherines Island. Given the parlous state of sea turtle populations, every breeding adult is important, so a vet from the non-game division of the Georgia wildlife agency came to the site to determine the cause of death.

The turtle been floating dead for a week or so before washing up. The large number of barnacles on her shell indicate that even while alive, she’d been slowing for some weeks.

2015-06-12 turtle necropsy 0022015-06-12 turtle necropsy 003The vet gave the carcass a check with the pit-tag scanner to make sure that this turtle had not been previously tagged by turtle biologists. No signal.

2015-06-12 turtle necropsy 008The esophagus, covered in downward-pointing rubbery fingers. Loggerhead turtles swallow crabs, then grip them in their throats as they expel excess water.

2015-06-12 turtle necropsy 015There were no fish hooks or plastic debris in the gut, only remains of crustacea. A horseshoe crab leg from the large intestine:

2015-06-12 turtle necropsy 017Microbial decomposition was well-advanced (stand upwind…), but the “turtle soup” (as the vet called it) revealed no obvious cause of death.

2015-06-12 turtle necropsy 010The turtle was likely born on this beach or one closeby. She traveled the Atlantic gyre as a youngster, then wandered the ocean for at least thirty years, perhaps as many as sixty. To misquote the Bard, food for vultures, brave turtle: Fare thee well, great heart.

They have their exits and their entrances, And one turtle in her time plays many parts… an exit, yes, but also many entrances:

crawlt…the crawlway of a sister or cousin of the deceased, oaring up the beach to dig a nest. She chose a poor spot, one that would get flooded, so the St Catherines Island Sea Turtle Program relocated the nest to a safer place. One of the traveling eggs:

turtle eggHopefully the egg, and its one hundred siblings, will hatch and then swim out to the Atlantic gyre in mid-August.

Here is a fabulous figure from a recent article by Katherine Mansfield and her colleagues on satellite-tracked loggerhead turtle hatchlings (source: Mansfield, K. L., Wyneken, J., Porter, W. P., & Luo, J. (2014). First satellite tracks of neonate sea turtles redefine the ‘lost years’ oceanic niche. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1781), 20133039.). The upper map is colored by depth, the bottom one by water temperature. Lines show the paths of individual hatchlings.

turtle map

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Palm tree saxophones

When the sea first exposes the roots of sabal palms, a fuzz of sand-gripping tentacles wiggles in the air:

rootspalmThen, after the tree has been felled by beach erosion, the roots are snapped and abraded, revealing the butt of the palm trunk. This haircut reveals a curious structure at the very bottom of the former root ball, a curved trumpet of hard wood. The horn is narrow at the side, then widens as it twists upward into the center of the root mass:

palmbuttpalmbutt2These curved oddities are the remains of the palms’ first few months of growth. Unlike every other tree that I know of (other examples are welcome!), the palm germinates then grows down into the soil for up to half a meter. It then turns up its growing tip and sends young fronds to the surface. This burrowing infancy takes the sensitive growing tip down where it is less vulnerable to fire, drought, and herbivores. Botanists call the growth form a “saxophone”: a narrow down-pointing neck that splays as it curves back up.

The first toot of the sax:

seedling palmPracticing riffs. Young sabal palms stay at ground level for decades, building a wide enough base from which the trunk will launch:

youngpalmA mature palm, playing percussion in the wind, the early saxophone days buried in its roots:

sabal palm


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Meet Twofer and Leftie, the exponential bunny orphans. Born at 30 grams, under the care of the miracle-working Queen of Cudzoo Farm they’ve now shot up to 240+ grams, and growing…



MrLeftieLeftie a few weeks ago, still in his short-eared stage, enjoying a brush:


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Bass Rock gannets

A view from the bull’s eye of the target, right before the release of a uric acid/digested fish bomb. The splattering impact is impressive. The smell lingers.

gannet1170,000 gannets (with 75,259 nests) make their summer homes on the Bass Rock, just off the Scottish coast.

Like Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, the Bass Rock is a volcanic plug, an erosion-resistant intrusion into softer rocks, now standing exposed. The Rock’s lighthouse was built by the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, as were many of Scotland’s nineteenth century lighthouses. Before the lighthouse, the Rock served variously over the centuries as a castle, prison, and hermitage. Now, birds have run of the place.

bass rockgannet2 Gannets are plunge-feeders, diving with wings folded onto their prey (cam-on-human video here; cam-on-bird video here, the green is marking paint on the bird’s feathers).

Gannets fly up to 100 km from the colony in search of food. Unlike most other northern seabirds, gannet populations have grown lately, perhaps because the birds are no longer hunted for meat and eggs (except for a small hunt on the Outer Hebrides). The fishing industry leaves plenty of edible “by-catch” and removes larger fish that would compete with gannets for food.

Nests are perched on every available rock ledge. A seaweed base and rim gives the eggs and nestlings a suitably salty start to life, spiced with plastic flotsam.


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