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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The Christmas Bird Count

Dec 07 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

For over a century the Audubon Society has organized a massive citizen science undertaking: The Christmas Bird Count. Tens of thousands of volunteers help take a census of the bird populations of Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central and South America.

Data from the annual surveys has provided biologists and conservationists a picture of long term changes in the distribution of North American bird populations.

For example, analysis of data collected over the past 40 years shows that the the winter range of many bird populations - 177 of the 305 species examined -  has shifted north, in some cases hundreds of miles. The shift correlates with an increase in mean January temperatures of almost 5 degrees during that period, and it's likely that climate change is at least partially responsible. Based on that data, the Audubon Society's report on birds and climate change (pdf) concludes that "ecological disruptions that threaten birds, other wildlife and human communities [due to climate change] are likely already in motion".

The Christmas Bird Count has also helped identify common bird species - from  meadowlarks to hummingbirds -  that "have taken a nosedive" over the past 40 years.

On the other hand, doves and pigeons have expanded their ranges along with growing urban and suburban development.

It's data that would be difficult to collect without an army of volunteers.

If you'd like to participate, this year's Christmas Bird Count begins on December 14th and runs through January 5th.  You'll need to register for a count:

There is a specific methodology to the CBC, but everyone can participate. The count takes place within "Count Circles," which focus on specific geographical areas. Each circle is led by a Count Compiler. Therefore, if you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. In addition, if your home is within the boundaries of a Count Circle, then you can stay home and report the birds that visit your feeder once you have arranged to do so with the Count Compiler. There is a $5 fee to participate in the CBC for all field participants aged 19 or older.

Find a count circle near you (unfortunately only searchable by state or province).

Even if you can't participate in the Christmas Count, you might be interested in similar bird observation projects:

Images from  from Our Winter Birds: How to Know and How to Attract Them by Frank M. Chapman (1918).  Chapman, an ornithologist with the American museum of Natural History and officer in the Audubon Society, proposed the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900. Top image: Tree Sparrow. Bottom Image: Northern Shrike.

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Good news, everyone! Brown widow spiders have arrived

Oct 06 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Black widow hanging out on my planter

I don't like spiders. I know, deep down, that they are unlikely to hurt me, and that they eat flies and other pesty insects.  Even so, I have a visceral reaction when a  spider crawls into my vicinity. I'm pretty much OK with spiders that stay outside (although stumbling on a big one, like the one Zuska found on her rain barrel might cause me pause1).

But black widow spiders (Latrodectus hesperus) are another  story. They are indeed venomous and their bite is supposed to be quite painful. Just reading about the symptoms makes me cringe:

Severe muscle pain and cramps may develop in the first two hours. Severe cramps are usually first felt in the back, shoulders, abdomen and thighs. Other symptoms include weakness, sweating, headache, anxiety, itching, nausea, vomiting, difficult breathing and increased blood pressure.

But no one in the U.S. has died from a black widow bite in over a decade, so it's not that bad, right?

Fortunately, black widows rarely end up inside the house. Instead they make their webs in dark nooks and crannies, usually only coming out after dark or if they are disturbed.  Their amorphous webs - straight from a haunted house - are pretty easy to spot and sweep away.  They leave me alone and I pretty much leave them alone.

Brown is apparently the "New Black"

But then one of the local newspapers had to run an article ensured to freak me out a bit: "Brown Widows Now in Inland Area"

Brown widows (Latrodectus geometricus) are cousins to the  black widow. They are more drably colored than the black widow, with brown bodies and an orange or yellow hourglass on the abdomen.  Brown widows are originally from  South Africa, and have been working their way west from Florida for the past 10 years or so. Only recently have they appeared in Inland Southern California.

How do brown widow spiders compare to black widows? According to the article:

  • Brown widows are more abundant than black widows. According to Rick Vetter, who studies spiders at UC Riverside, "Where you might find six or seven black widows in a backyard, now you find 100 brown widows."
  • Brown widow venom is twice as toxic as black widow venom.
  • Brown widows live in more open locations - such as under patio chairs and in chain link fences - than black widows

They sound pretty nasty, right?  I'll admit I went out to my patio and made sure there weren't any webs on my plastic patio chairs shortly after reading the article.

But the real story - easy to overlook among all the scary-sounding description2 - is that brown widows are much less likely to bite than black widows, and when they do, they don't inject as much venom. That means that they aren't actually considered to be dangerous.

As the UCR Spider Research site explains:

A South African medical journal reports on the bites of 15 brown widows in humans (Muller 1993) . Only two symptoms of brown widow envenomation were reported in the majority of bite victims: 1) pain while being bitten and 2) a mark where the bite occurred. That's it. Not much more. The bite of the brown widow is about the same as any non-poisonous spider. It hurts and leaves a little mark on the skin. It is no big deal. There are none of the serious, protracted symptoms that one would exhibit when bitten by a black widow.

So the appearance of the brown widow really is good news, at least from the public safety perspective, because they may be displacing the black widow, which is dangerous.

I'll still be happier if I never run in to one.

If you want to help track the spread of the brown widow spider in California, you can mail any brown widows you find outside of San Diego, Orange, or Los Angeles County to Rick Vetter at UC Riverside.

If you are in Los Angeles County, you can also participate in the Los Angeles Spider Survey, sponsored by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.


1. Where "pause" means that I get my husband to move it away from any outdoor equipment I want to use.

2. Especially when the article concludes with advice from an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association who advises (not surprisingly) dusting with pesticides or calling an exterminator. "Kill them all" seems a bit over-the-top advice for non-dangerous spiders.

Top image: By me.

Bottom image: thumbnail of graphic from the Press-Enterprise article "Brown Widows Now in Inland Area". Click the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.

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Reporting California Roadkill

Sep 13 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Scientists at the University of California at Davis Road Ecology Center and Information Center for the Environment have developed the California Roadkill Observation System to help track animals killed on roads. The ultimate goal

They are asking the public to help add information to their roadkill map, both by reporting the location and type of animal killed. Photos are encouraged, and the web site includes a list of common California animals (which would be much more useful if it were illustrated).

Most of the current reports are for the San Francisco Bay Area, but reports from anywhere in California are welcome.

There is also similar roadkill map for the state of Maine, created in collaboration with the Maine Audubon Society.

Add a California roadkill observation. There's also a printable form (pdf) that you can keep in your car.
Add a Maine roadkill observation
(via Google Maps Mania)

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Flip Over a Rock Day: Life Above the Ground

Sep 12 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

International Rock-Flipping Day, White OutToday is International Flip Over a Rock Day, so I decided it was a perfect opportunity to explore a  local flood basin.  It's presumably been left as open space to help protect the surrounding housing development from the occasional torrential rains that can hit the area in fall and early spring.

Here's what the area looks like:

satellite view

view from the ground

I went out about 1:30 PM, figuring that most critters would be hunkered down somewhere cool - like under a rock -  to escape the 90° heat. Since the area has plenty of snakes, scorpions, and poisonous spiders, I took due caution while flipping over the stones.

And what did I find? Unfortunately, no interesting critters under the rocks I overturned. Maybe I didn't pick large enough stones, or perhaps the local fauna has a better way of staying cool.  Since part of IRFD participation is sharing what we did find, here are a couple of photos (click to enlarge):

Under a shaded rock

The rock I flipped under the shade of a live oak appeared to have only compressed leaves underneath.

Under a rock in the sun

I flipped over a number of rocks sitting in the sun, and there was nothing visible underneath except soil and more rocks.  Here's another example:

Under another rock

There may have been something under the rocks more interesting than gravelly soil and the occasional plant detritus, but I couldn't spot it. I did put the rocks back in their original positions, just in case it was a hideaway.

But that doesn't mean I didn't see anything interesting on my little hike. There were lots of lizards darting from the shade of one shrub to another, a squirrel that apparently had made a home in one of the trees, bees gathering pollen, and a number of other buggy creatures.  There were holes in the ground which likely provide cool homes for some kind of critter - likely snakes. And of course there were lots of plants - trees and shrubs and cacti.

A few more photos:

Century Plant

Century Plant,  likely either Agave parrryi or Agave americana

California Sycamore

California sycamore is Platanus racemosa

Bee on a "Desert Tea"

What I've identified as "desert tea" is likely Ephedra californica (California ephedra) or Ephedra aspera. Note that the North American varieties of Ephedra lack the ephedrine alkaloids that make the "Old World" species so drugalicious.


The "cholla" cactus is likely Cylindropuntia californica (snake cholla). More photos at CalPhotos.

Live Oak

"California live oak" or "Coast live oak" is Quercus agrifolia

So while I didn't find anything interesting under the rocks, I did get to take a closer look at what's living in my neighborhood.  It was well worth it.

I've tried to properly identify the plants, but they are mostly educated guesses.  Corrections are welcome.

(Thanks to Greg Laden for pointing out Flip Over a Rock Day)

Images: All photos by me ©2010.

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