Archive for the 'Biology & Environment' category

Absentee Gardening and Lucky Weather

May 26 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

One of the advantages of living in an area with a warm dry climate is the long growing season. I normally start my vegetable garden with seeds and seedlings in the last week of March, and finish harvesting peppers and tomatoes around Thanksgiving.

This year, though, March flew by before I knew it. That actually turned out to be a stroke of luck, because a freak snowstorm dumped a couple inches of snow on April 9th, which is well after temperatures are normally hitting the 70s.

So it wasn't until almost the last week of April that I finally planted this year's vegetables. I don't have a good patch of dirt, so I grow them in large pots on my patio, following the recommendations in my dog-eared copy of Square Foot Gardening for growing vegetables in small spaces.

I like to grow a variety of vegetables that are either taste best home grown, are expensive or are hard to find in the supermarket, or grow easily.  This year I planted tomatoes (Early Girl, Sweet 100 and Black Cherry), Japanese eggplant, lemon cucumbers, floral gem peppers, tatuma squash (aka Mexican zucchini), and Blue Lake bush beans.

I started with small plants (except for the lemon cukes, which I started from seed), watered and fertilized them. And then I got sick. For several weeks my garden sat untended. Last weekend I finally got around to some serious gardening again and found that it had done just fine without me.

The tomatoes are thriving, the peppers are blooming, and there are already squash that are a couple of inches long. The eggplant was munched on by some kind of hungry bug, but it survived. And the cucumber seedlings are still small but growing.

Some of that was again luck - the weather has continued to be mostly cool and rainy, interspersed with some sunny but not-too-hot days. But it also made me realize that my usual frequent fussing over the newly planted vegetables (and tendency to overwater) might actually do them more harm than good.

I also joined to track my progress. It's not perfect - I'd like to upload photos directly, rather than posting them on Flickr or Picasa first - and several of the nicer features aren't available with the free version I'm using. But so far it seems better than my usual method of jotting notes on loose pieces of paper that end up jumbled and a bit illegible by the end of the year. I like the idea of being able to easily keep track of when the plants sprouted and flowered and when the veggies were first harvested each year.

I'm hoping that all of this bodes well for a bumper crop this summer!

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Ant Talk

Apr 19 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Ant on a mustard flowerWhen a wood thrush flew by the Trailhead mound carrying a grasshopper to her own nest and dropped part of the crushed insect to the ground, a patrolling worker found it in less than a minute and triggered a chain action. The worker examined the grasshopper, tasted it briefly, then ran back to the nest entrance. On the way, she touched the tip of her abdomen repeatedly to the ground, laying down a thin trail of chemicals. Entering the nest, she rushed up to each nest mate she passed, brushing her face close to theirs. With their antennae, her nest mates detected both the trail substance and the smell of grasshopper. The signals now proclaimed, Food. I have found food. Follow my trail! Soon a mob of ants ran out, followed the trail, and gathered around the delicious grasshopper haunch.
~ From E.O. Wilson's "Trailhead"

When I think of ants it's with a mixture of fascination and loathing.

Loathing because of the seemingly constant battle required to keep them from taking up residence in my kitchen. It's not just the unpleasantness of having to remove all the contents of my cabinets to figure out how the ants are getting in.  It's the lingering sensation after handling ant-covered bowls and plates or wiping down ant-strewn counters that the little buggers are still crawling on me.  Intellectually I know it's unlikely they can cause any real harm, but just thinking about it gives me the creepy-crawlies.

But out in the wild - or at least my back yard - ants are really interesting to watch, especially when scouts lead their colony-mates to a food source or mobilize when their colony is in danger. Clearly while not particularly clever as individuals, communication between colony members allows them to function effectively as a group.

Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson is one of the world's leading experts on ants. Here he explains at World Science Festival how ants use chemical signals communicate:

The quote at the beginning of this post is from E.O. Wilson's history of an ant colony - "Trailhead" - published in the New Yorker. Wilson's anthropomorphic descriptions of ant communication work pretty well as fiction, but he may be oversimplifying what happens in an ant colony.

For more detailed look on the complexities of how an ant colony functions check out Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon's TED talk about her research on harvester ant colonies in the Arizona desert:

(note: you can view the video with captions on the TED talk page)

The "haphazard" interactions she's observed sound a lot messier as a form of communication than the chemical "statements" described by Wilson.

Why does that matter? Figuring out the details of how ants are directed to perform specific tasks could be used to develop ways of naturally controlling invasive ant populations or preventing home invasions with some sort of "Danger, keep out!" signal. That's a result I'd like to see.

Top Image: ant on a mustard flower by me

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Gold

Mar 27 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Yesterday I posted about the variety of blue and purple wildflowers that have sprung up after the recent rains.  But while the lupines and bellflowers and blue dicks provide spots of color, it was the yellow flowers that brightened the hillsides on an otherwise gloomy evening.

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Blues

Mar 26 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

I love spring rain.  It makes the air fresh, the weather cool and after a day of sunshine brings a profusion of yellow and blue and purple flowers.

Admittedly I consider most of those flowers weeds when they appear in my garden. But they look lovely on the local hillsides and add color to the less-well-tended bits of pavement around town.

Yesterday evening I walked the nearest hillside trail and took pictures of some of the flowers underfoot. I've done my best to identify them, but I wouldn't be surprised if some are mis-identified. Corrections are welcome!

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Ant vision and other animal superpowers

Mar 01 2011 Published by under Art & Science, Biology & Environment

Imagine you were an ant, crawling through the grass.  You would have a view of your surroundings invisible to the people towering above you.

Or imagine you are a bird, using your ability to sense Earth's magnetic field to migrate halfway around the world.

Interactive media designers and artists Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada collaborated to provide people with the experience of experiencing the world the way non-human animals do.   They call these animal superpowers.

For example they have developed an ant apparatus that uses microscope "antennas" on your hands to transmit a 50-fold magnified view of wherever your hand is resting. Watch their promo video:

As you can see, they've also developed a head-mounted solenoid compass that's supposed to provide a bird's sense of a direction. There's also a cool child to adult converter, which lets a kid see the world from an adult's height and speak in a deeper voice. I would have loved that when I was 10.

Watching regular people try out the ant apparatus makes it look like it's an interesting experience.

The project is ongoing, and Woebken has considered a number of other "superpowers" he could mimic through technology - for example insect communication through pheromones.

More info: Chris Woebken | Animal Superpowers

(via the TED blog)

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Fishy Skin Treatment

Feb 27 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

This may be TMI, but the wintry weather we've been having has made my feet really dry and itchy (and not too pretty to look at). Soaking my feet in a warm bath brought to mind a story I read a few years ago about pedicures that used fish to nibble away dead skin.

The fish turns out to be the Garra rufa or Doctor Fish. Native to Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the fish are used in spa treatments all over the world. Watch them in action:

Doctor Fish made a splash in the US news when a salon in Alexandria, Virgina imported 10,000 of the little guys from China in 2008. Since then, a number of states - including California - have banned the use of Garra in pedicures because they cannot be "disinfected" between treatments. The alternative - limiting each fish to a single treatment - would be cost prohibitive and would result in lot of "retired" fish to dispose of in some way.

That unfortunately means I'll have to stick to traditional treatments - pumice and lotion - for my dry heels.  My husband claims my feet are too ticklish to withstand 15 minutes of fish nibbling anyway.

Interestingly, one preliminary study found that Garra nibbling - more properly called ichthyotherapy - may be part of an effective treatment for psoriasis.  Maybe someday you'll find them in your dermatologist's office, even if they aren't allowed in your local salon.

Additional Reading:

Shishkin P. "Ban of Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Salon Owners on the Hook" Wall Street Journal (2009)

Grassberger M and Hoch W "Ichthyotherapy as Alternative Treatment for Patients with Psoriasis: A Pilot Study"  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. December; 3(4): 483–488. (2006) doi: 10.1093/ecam/nel033.

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Cat Burglar Caught on Tape

Feb 19 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

GrrlScientist reports on her Punctuated Equilibrium blog over at the Guardian that a cat burglar has been stalking a San Mateo, California neighborhood. In this case the thief is 6-year-old Dusty, a mixed-breed housecat.  Dusty prowls the neighborhood at night and grabs gloves, shoes, toys and other items from his neighbors' yards and carries them home to share with his family.  His record is 11 items in a single night, and he seems to favor drying swimsuits.

Local station ABC 7 caught him in the act with their night vision camera. Watch their report:

Apparently Dusty's neighbors are understanding about his behavior, as they know where to go to find their missing items.

Dusty isn't the only feline thief roaming our cities and suburbs. Apparently this sort of "misdirected predation" behavior is not uncommon in urban cats. The UK cat site has a whole collection of cat thief stories - and those are just the ones who both got caught and had stories written about them.

Personally, if I had a cat I'd much prefer a "gift" of the neighbor's flip flops than a half-dead mouse.

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Happy Darwin Day!

Feb 12 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Sorry for the long posting hiatus.  The past couple of months seem to have flown by unexpectedly quickly. I thought a post celebrating Darwin Day would be an ideal way to get back into the swing of things.

Today, February 12th, is the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. The day is celebrated by biology-loving folk all over the world as International Darwin Day.

So far there hasn't been any official recognition of Darwin's birthday here in the U.S. (at least that I know of).  But I'm proud to say that a few days ago Representative Pete Stark (D-CA)* submitted  House Resolution 81 in support of officially designating February 12th, 2011 as Darwin Day.

I quite like that the resolution was framed as support of science in general. As Stark said in his introduction to the Resolution:

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 and his life has had a profound impact on the course of human history.  Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has not only provided a compelling explanation for the diversity of life, it is also the foundation of modern biology and genetics.  Darwin exemplified the scientific curiosity that has led to new scientific breakthroughs that have helped humanity solve numerous problems and improve our quality of life.

Charles Darwin is worthy of recognition and honor.  His birthday should be a time for us to celebrate the advancement of human knowledge and the achievements of reason and science.  It should also be a time for Congress and other elected officials to ensure that children are being taught scientific facts and not religious dogma in our public schools.

The mention of "religious dogma" is sure to antagonize those Representatives who think their religious beliefs can take the place of science (or at least think their constituents want them to believe that). And Stark  threw in  in a bit about climate change, which seems  like a poke at Republican climate change deniers. But even so, I'm hoping the bill at least garners enough support to pass out of committee.

But even if it passes, it will be too late to celebrate Darwin's birthday this year.

So to celebrate  Charles Darwin's birthday right now, I give you Australian poet Emily Ballou, reading from her collection The Darwin Poems:

As you read this Darwin Day may be over, at least for this year. But you can still celebrate:

• Read Darwin's original notebooks, diaries, and publications at Darwin Online. Not only can you read Darwin's works on evolution, but the notes on the development and growth of his children and his best selling book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (all about earthworm behavior and ecology)

• Ask your US Representative to support House Resolution 81 in Recognition of Darwin Day

• Listen to the 2008 Humanist Hour podcast interviewing P. Thomas Carroll, who transcribed thousands of Darwin's letters and personal correspondence.

• Learn more about evolutionary biology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution site

• Buy some Darwin-related gear to support The Beagle Project. The project aims to build a working replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship that "carried Charles Darwin around the world"

• The bill was co-sponsored by fellow Democrat  Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey

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Green Christmas Trees

Dec 13 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This weekend was the annual Christmas tree lighting in the small  park in front my local City Hall.  As you can see from the picture, the decorations aren't the most inspired - nothing but white lights, large ornaments (which you can't see after dusk) and a broad white garland that unfortunately looks a bit toilet paper-like when viewed from a distance.

I personally prefer more brightly colored holiday decor. But one of the nice things is that no tree was killed to decorate our civic center. It grows there year round, providing greenery even in the hottest part of summer. Very ecologically sound, that.

Of course a living tree isn't a usually a practical option when you put up a Christmas tree in your living room. It's not just that a tall potted fir is difficult to move. You also need someplace to put the tree when Christmas is over and the decorations have been removed – planting it in your yard requires a lot of space, considering that firs and spruces and pines can grow as tall as 100 feet.

But I was interested to read about another option in the LA Times this weekend.  The Living Christmas Co. rents potted Christmas trees for the season. You just pick out your tree, and it will be delivered to your home - assuming you live in western LA County, then picked up again after Christmas.  You can even adopt a special tree of your own to be delivered year after year. It's both easy and "green".

The company's owner,  Scott "Scotty Claus" Martin explains his philosophy:

"How, on one hand can something mean new hope, new joy, new love, and on the other hand be so easily discarded? And is that really Christmas?" he said.

The company's mission is not just to be sustainable but "regenerative," he said. Beyond saving trees, that means using all recyclable materials, running delivery trucks on biodiesel and employing adults with disabilities to maintain the trees around the year.

There are similar companies in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and many other cities.

The down side is that it seems a bit pricey. A 6 foot tree costs $80 to rent, plus another $40  for delivery and pickup.   Adopting a specific tree costs another $50 per year, only offset a bit by a $20 credit towards the next year's rental. And of course a living tree requires more TLC than one that's going to end up on the curb come January.

Despite the cost and extra care required, I find the idea pretty appealing. It just seems so wasteful to cut down a tree, only to toss it out after a couple of weeks. We usually don't spend Christmas at home, so the past few years we've only put up a token little artificial tree.  But if tree rental becomes popular enough to spread way out the the 'burbs where we live, maybe we'll give it a try.

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There's an App for that! Free Biology Mobile Applications

Dec 10 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

I was surfing around for sciency holiday e-cards, when I came across this cute albino alligator looking for a kiss from the California Academy of Sciences.  You can choose one of several e-gifts, including polar bear wallpaper, a catchy tune,  or a Golden Gate Park field guide mobile application .

If you download the Golden Gate Park Field Guide iPhone app this month, you can just show it at the ticket window for $5 off admission through December 24th. That's a great deal if you happen to be in the San Francisco area.

That inspired me to see what other biology-related free iPhone/iPod Touch applications I could find.  I haven't had a chance to try them out yet, but the ones below looked the most interesting. I've noted which ones are available for Android devices as well.

Wildlife and Nature

While the Audubon and Petersons field guides will cost you, there are several apps that allow you to find, record and share wildlife sightings for free.

Golden Gate Park Field Guide (iPhone App store): Field guide, park map, self-guided activities, share your wildlife sightings.

Project Noah (iPhone App store):  Field guide, share wildlife sightings. They have a special project to document the impact of the Gulf oil spill on wildlife.  You can your Google account to sign in and share your sightings and photos.

WildObs Observer (iPhone App store; Android Market): Record  and share wildlife encounters. Has companion apps: WildObs Lookup (iPhone App store) field guide;  WildObs Lookout (iPhone App st0re) to find out what others have observed around your location;  and WildObs Naturalist (iPhone App store) to "keep your encounters and re-use them". WildObs is a partner of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watch. A free WildObs account is required.

NatureFind (iPhone App store):  This app allows you to search for nature spots and events near your ZIP code.

Science News

Get science-related news.

Scientific American Advances (iPhone App Store): Scientific American news and in-depth reporting. Requires registration at to view content. (iPhone App Store): Science news stories and the latest published research in Nature and the other journals from the Nature Publishing Group. News articles, abstracts and some research articles are free.

Science Mobile (iPhone App Store, Android): news from ScienceNOW, abstracts from the journal Science. This doesn't look as useful as Nature's app.

Molecules and Anatomy

For exploring the bits that organisms are made of.

Molecules (iPhone App store): 3-dimensional rendering of molecules that you can manipulate.  You can download molecules from the RCSB Protein Data Bank or elsewhere online.

BioCourseWare: Apps developed by the University of Nottingham, aimed at students in the biological sciences. Their free offerings include a Biology Dictionary, History of Genetics, and  Genetic Decoder.

Nature Human Genome Special Edition (iPad App): Nature's Human Genome at 10, repackaged into an interactive app for the iPad.  It looks pretty neat, but it's not available for the iPhone.

BrainTutor 3D (iPhone App store) : Explore a three-dimensional model of the  human brain.

Paleontology Apps

For learning about animals that no longer walk the Earth.

Dinosaurs (iPhone App Store): This app from the American Museum of Natural History allows you to explore their amazing dinosaur fossil collection.

MEanderthal Mobile App (iPhone App Store, Android):  This app from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History allows you to morph yourself into a Neanderthal.  I suspect the novelty of this wears off pretty quickly.


If any of you use one of the wildlife spotting apps,  how well does it work for you? Is there a better free option?

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