Field Notes Friday 0026: Death Can Be Beautiful

Cell death within leaves around me reveals beauty.Death Can Be Beautiful

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Dear Curiosity: An Open Letter to the Curiosity Rover

Dear Curiosity, I heard about your wheel troubles recently and wanted to write to encourage you.

We’ve been your supporters since you were a baby – an idea, really. We were so excited to hear about the planning that went into making you, the testing you endured… you were bringing such promise of discovery into the world!

We were with you during your long trip, and we were with you during your harrowing landing. How tense we were during those 7 minutes – or were they 7 hours? It felt like it! – of silence as you plummeted through thin atmosphere, facing searing heat and blowing sand… and then your amazing landing! What skill! I admit we were worried – skeptical, even – about your vertical landing, which was so dependent upon 4 thrusters and a lot of other technology, but WOW. You pulled that off beautifully. It was a great start to your excellent career.

When you sent your first picture home (a photo of your foot safe on firm ground) I almost cried. You’ve continued to work steadfastly ever since then, and humanity is already benefitting from the knowledge you’re sharing. Do you have a favorite discovery yet? A favorite picture you sent, or a favorite place you’ve visited? Which of your images or discoveries do you think will impact humanity the most?

I bet the terrain looks oddly familiar. Weren’t some Earth deserts included in your training? Those rugged, red rocks, the sand and dusty horizon… although they’re Martian, the images you send home remind me a little of Arizona & New Mexico.

Which makes me wonder, are you homesick at all? Or does Mars feel like the place you belong? In a deep sense which no living creature (at least that we know of) can boast, you were made for Mars. I hope you feel a sense of awe knowing you are one of the only explorers on a planet almost as large as the entire land surface of Earth.

Let the grand scale of what you’re accomplishing buoy your spirits. Don’t focus on the state of your wheels. I know you have to travel more slowly now, and some paths may not be open to you. That’s ok. Every explorer has faced similar challenges at some point. If you continue despite hardships, and take setbacks in stride and continue to do the best work you can to benefit humanity (and the Earth and Mars of course; I don’t want to sound too human-centric), that’s what makes you a hero.

Yes, traveling through space, flying through the atmosphere, exploring for years through uncharted terrain, sending telepathic messages across millions of miles – those are all exciting endeavors, and make you worthy of the title Explorer. To be sure, your powers are like a super hero’s! But its your day to day commitment to persevere in the face of adversity that makes you a real hero.

Keep up the good work.

With gratitude,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Dear Curiosity

Field Notes Friday 0025: Patterns in Your Nature Collections

I’m totally into thigmotropism. I bet you are, too.

Into what?? Yeah, I hadn’t heard that word until recently. Very recently. But after learning the word, lots of things make sense.

Like collecting sticks like this…

and this… Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and this…Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and writing a post about this:

Snake or plant?

Snake or plant?

…and being called “Twisted Sister” by one of my botanist friends (Bob O’Kennon, one of the editors of the Flora of North Central Texas). Why does he call me Twisted Sister? Because I LOVE thigmotropism! I just didn’t know it, until a friend (Suzanne Barnard of the LISD Outdoor Learning Area) shared this worksheet (look at definition “c”):Thigmotropism

I knew about gravitropism and phototropism, but I’ve been a fan of thigmotropism for a long time without even knowing the name. I realize not everyone is a word nerd like I am, but isn’t it fun to learn there’s a word to describe something you’ve been enjoying for a long time? I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the human brain and how we learn.

At first it was hard to remember the strange word, but then I thought about the definition: plant growth in response to contact with another thing… thigmotropism… it’s like you’re saying “thing” but with a stuffy nose. (In other words, say “thing” without the ‘n’.) That’s my mnemonic device, anyway.

So, years ago, as these various trees and vines grew together in dappled shade, and touched each other and began an epic battle-dance for height and sunshine and space, I was developing an affinity for all things twisty, winding, and coiled. As these plants responded, each to the presence of the other, and allocated resources to the tussle, I was collecting sticks and stones and shells. And I started to refine my collections of sticks, leaning toward the twisted, the mangled, the beautifully bent. Some of these plants, or parts of them, died, and fell upon my future path, where I found them and treasured them and took them home. These events made a perfect nest in my mind for the word (and the concept of) thigmotropism.

I can understand why some people ascribe to synchronicity – some series of events seem laid out just for us!

Lessons I take from this turn of events (see what I did there?):

  • There’s always something unexpected to be learned.
  • Generous teacher friends are the best.
  • Encourage people to collect natural items (ethically and sustainably, of course). Patterns will emerge, and there are  wonderful lessons to be learned.

What patterns do you see in your collections?

Field Notes Friday 0024: How Do YOU Identify Bugs?

How do you look up a word you have no idea how to spell? And how do you identify a bug if you have no idea where to start? How do YOU unravel the insect mystery in front of you?

My recent entomological adventure started one lazy summer morning when my husband and I heard a familiar sound: a flying insect trying to get out by buzzing against a closed window. The poor thing was too high for us to help. Hours later in the evening, we found (we presume) the same bug, tuckered out and resting on a houseplant. Easily caught, observed, and then released, it filled my next hours with interest.

However, I feel my research could be more efficient if I knew a few tricks… or tips… or resources… or a little more about entomology. I’m looking for your suggestions.

Here’s what I did this time, and I’m hoping this convinces other novices, teachers and students that you DON’T have to already know everything. You can start from ground zero and still get close to the ‘right’ answer pretty quickly.

  1. Capture carefully. Don’t endanger yourself or the insect. Release when you’re done.
  2. Observe, photograph, and SKETCH. Sketching helps you notice important details you’d miss otherwise, which most amateur-level cameras (like cameraphones) are not powerful or fast enough to capture. This became important in step 6!

    Home Nature Journal

    Home Nature Journal (for more info: http://bit.ly/1oCDhFI )

  3. Mentally compare to what you know. What does its coloring remind you of? Its shape? Don’t worry if you have less-than-basic knowledge. If you’ve thought of a comparison for the bug, you can bet someone else has, too, and it may lead you closer to identification. In this case, the coloring and the shape indicated conflicting answers: the warning coloration resembled wasps/yellowjackets, but those bulbous eyes and tiny antennae reminded me of… could it be… a fly?? I based that inkling on having taken a cursory glance at worksheets like this:

  1. Search for your hunch. I typed “yellow jacket look-alikes” into a search engine and scrolled through photos. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.27.56 PMThe closest photo was from a BLOG, a wonderful find with great information, sending me in a new direction (which I’d never heard of): syrphid flies.

  2. Refine your search. Armed with new info, I Googled “syrphidae”. Again, there’s no magic or secret knowledge here – this was a completely new word to me. I wondered whether it would lead to an ID.
  3. Follow your leads but focus on details. If something looks close, follow it! Learn more about it. (Do you have resources to suggest?) The most informative “syrphidae” image I found was a compilation of species on Wikipedia:

    At this point, the trail seemed to get cold. Two of the closest look-alikes in the image weren’t a match to the pattern on the thorax and the golden accents on the abdomen of the individual I’d seen.

  4. Embrace persistence. Don’t give up on details you’ve noticed! False leads and dead ends are all part of the chase. Just keep going.
  5. Check trusted sources. I’d looked at Wikipedia, and felt I was on the right track with “syrphidae.” I’ve seen BugGuide.net several times in other searches, so decided to try that site. It confirmed I was on the right track at the Family level, but there was a LONG list of species to click through, and no thumbnails – not an easy resource for a novice to use.

    The same was true of a Canadian website. OMG, Ontario!

  6. Focus on your area. That Canadian site gave me an idea. Perhaps my bug was unique to Texas, or at least notable in Texas. I Googled “syrphidae of Texas.” Persistence again paid off, because on the ELEVENTH row of images I found something promising (bottom right). Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.32.33 PM Clicking the image led me to THIS page, and a potential identification! Milesia virginiensis, the Flower Fly. (Interestingly, its range is from Canada to Texas. The Canadian site wasn’t far off my trail!)
  7. Ask the experts. You can do this digitally, thanks to iNaturalist. I posted my potential identification and photos and clicked the “ID Please!” button. (I wonder if the iNaturalist community would appreciate the sketch? They seem to be photo-dominated.) Thanks to those who responded, I learned a more full name (Virginia Flower Fly), and that BugGuide has a key I can use next time I find a Syrphid fly.
  8. Be ok with uncertainty. It’s ok to be corrected, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to tell people “I’m pretty sure this is…” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be 100% right all the time. You’re always learning, and you set an example to emulate when you admit it.

I’ve found TWO more blogs that seem to validate my ID.

This ID’ing adventure shows that naturalists have an important voice on the internet. Most people haven’t been trained in their local flora and fauna, and they need a guide – even a digital one – when learning about their natural heritage.

So thank you BugEric, Jim McCormac, Pam, and my fellow naturalists on iNaturalist (sambiology and marcello)! You helped me, and now hopefully I’m helping others.

Field Notes Friday 0023: KISS of DEATH Bugs

The title’s dramatic, but there’s an opportunity for you to help monitor the spread of potentially deadly-disease-carrying Kissing Bugs. You can be a citizen scientist, an epidemiologist, and a nature hero, all while doing what you probably already do: observing nature at home and at your favorite outdoor places.

Some Background

There is a family of bugs called Assassin bugs (the scientific name of the family is Reduviidae). A small subset of these are in the genus Triatoma. An even smaller group of species within this genus may carry Chagas disease, which is an uncommon disease, but worthy of attention. What does this have to do with you? Texas A&M University is studying the spread of the disease, and they need eyes on the ground. Your eyes.

What can you do?

  1. First, stay calm. This isn’t a huge health crisis. It’s just an area of study and interest.
  2. Read this informative brochure about Triatoma and what info Texas A&M needs if you find one.
  3. Continue your nature observations in your favorite places, and get in contact with Texas A&M if you find species that look like Triatoma (contact info is in the brochure link). Actually, based on my experience this week, you may want to contact them just to let them know you’re looking.
  4. Watch for bugs like this:

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

My Recent Experience

Because a friend let me know about this new study, I had Triatoma on the brain as I was helping with a wilderness survival camp for kids at LLELA (led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas). When one of the campers saw a cool bug, I recognized it as an Assassin bug. I thought it looked a lot like Triatoma, so I carefully encouraged it into a little container I had.

I took photos of it and sent them to Texas A&M. In a very short time I had an answer back: the little guy/gal wasn’t in Triatoma after all. I could release it! (Good thing; I didn’t want to have to kill it, even if it was a dangerous offender.)

Interestingly, Texas A&M wanted the location of the bug, even though it wasn’t in Triatoma. In graduate researcher Rachel Curtis’ words:

We are trying to build some models to map where kissing bugs can be found in Texas.  Along with all the kissing bug locations we have, we need some “known negative locations”.  These are locations where people (like you!) are looking for kissing bugs, but not  finding any.  We have a way to randomly generate locations, but it is best to include actual locations where we know people are looking for kissing bugs.

So you may want to contact Texas A&M to let them know you’re looking, even if you’re not finding anything. This may be a case of “no news is good news.”

After all this excitement, I made my third ever contribution to iNaturalist with these photos:

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

After a few responses to my photos and request for help with the ID, I think what I found is a Bee Assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).

Moral(s) of the story:

  • You do NOT have to kill first and ask questions later.
  • It’s great to have friends who are in-the-know about nature and the news.
  • Citizen Science opportunities abound!
  • It’s good to have your camera with you.
  • iNaturalist can be a great source of identification help… as long as you have a reasonable quality camera.