Old Biophilia

Weekly dose of cuteness
July 2, 2010, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Weekly Cuteness

Introducing Teuthowenia megalops, or as my trusted source for cuteness calls it,  Eddie McBlobbules, “the inside-out-seahorse-in-a-ball-nerd of the deep”.

Actually, he is a paralarval squid that is found in the North Atlantic Ocean. The polka dots that add to his cuteness are actually chromatophores —  a special type of pigment-containing, light-reflecting cell that helps certain animals (fishes, cephalopods, amphibians, crustaceans) to camouflage or communicate.


Weekly dose of cuteness
June 25, 2010, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Weekly Cuteness

Both photos via National Park Service

A litter of 3 mountain lions (Puma concolor) was born late last month in the Santa Monica Mountains….the first documented litter in 6 years!!!  The National Park Service has been tracking a population of about 19 mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains to better understand how they live amidst so much development.

The birth of the kittens is exciting for reasons other than just cuteness. Their father made headlines in spring of 2009 after he successfully crossed (over? under?) Highway 101 to enter the mountains last spring…..bringing new genetic material along with him. Here in Southern California, there is limited open space and a serious lack of wildlife crossings that allow for safe passage to other wild areas to the north and west. This can lead to conflicts over territory and often results in inbreeding within the confined mountain lion population….so the “new genetic material” is a welcome contribution. The National Park Service is informing project proposals that are currently under way to establish a safe and effective wildlife crossing point (a.k.a. habitat corridor) under Highway 101.

50 ways to convince your husband to get a dog
June 22, 2010, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Human biology

I’ve been working on my husband for quite some time now to let me adopt a dog. This week’s reason is that I would feel oh-so-much safer in the house on those long lonely nights when he is fishing until midnight. He’s entirely unconvinced. We all know about the variety of jobs that our domesticated friend can perform for us — rescue dogs search for missing persons, seeing-eye dogs help the blind….on a recent trip to Mexico I watched a dog walk the conveyor belt sniffing every piece of luggage for the faint trace of blood. These feats aren’t enough to convince my hubby…..but wait! There’s more! Biologists are now working with dogs to solve a variety of scientific dilemmas.

Looking to initiate an invasive plant management strategy?? Set this guy loose at your site.

A study just published in Invasive Plant Science and Management showed that trained dogs outperformed humans in their ability to detect invasive plant species. This weed outcompetes native plant species and causes both ecosystem and economic destruction, but it is often difficult to control the plant if you can’t find it! Enter Fido! Dogs are more accurate than humans (overall success rate of 81% compared to humans 59%) at locating the invasive week and could find it from much greater distance.

Kincaid’s Lupine, a rare, endangered, Oregonian plant, is the one plant on which the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly will lay its eggs.Conservationist have been working with the belgian sheepdog Rogue to spot this  endangered plant and the tiny eggs laid there by the blue butterfly. Rogue and his buddies made only 5 errors in a total of 378 plots.

Rogue working hard for his steak dinner

Of course the possibilities are endless. “EcoDogs” are being used to sniff out a variety of different endangered species – plants and animals alike! Sophie, a 15-month-old black Labrador retriever, is trained to find scat from eastern spotted skunks, while Bishop, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, is trained to find scat from striped skunks in Alabama. Both have been trained through EcoDogs, a collaborative organization that trains “detection dogs for ecological research”.

If you happen to be on the Puget Sound this summer and see Gator with a stiff body, mouth open, tail erect, and nose twitching it’s because he just smelled a killer whale pooping nearby! Gator’s first class nose can also detect black bear, grizzly bear, lynx, bobcat, puma, maned wolf, wolverine, fisher, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crack —and all he wants in return is to play with his ball.

Dogs have also been reported to sniff out low blood sugar and skin cancer. They can identify prostate cancer from urine samples. A study published in Intergrative Cancer Therapies in 2006 report that, in a matter of weeks, “ordinary” household dogs could be trained to accurately distinguish breath samples of both lung and breast cancer patients from those who were cancer-free.

Now, if you were my husband….wouldn’t you be convinced???

Oh, and if you’re ready to adopt a dog, check your local shelter or animal rescue! If you’re here in orange county check out Friends of Orange County’s Homeless Pets.

Happy Father’s Day
June 21, 2010, 5:34 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world

Happy Dad’s Day to all the father’s out there who invest more than just their genetic material in their offspring! Like, for instance, nature’s Mr. Mom: the male seahorse.

It’s actually quite common for male fish to play the dominant parenting role, but fish in the family Syngnathidae (which includes pipefish, seahorses and sea dragons) take fathering to a whole new level: Pregnancy! When seahorses mate, the female deposits her unfertilized eggs into the male’s brood pouch (an external structure that grows on the body of the male), after which the male then releases sperm into the pouch to fertilize the eggs.

But he’s not just passively carrying around embryos; the male closely controls the prenatal environment of the embryos in his pouch by keeping blood flowing around the embryos, controlling the salt concentrations in the pouch, and providing oxygen and nutrition to the developing offspring. He does all this until they hatch, then releases fully formed, miniature seahorses into the water. What a good dad!

For other examples of good fathers in the Animal Kingdom, check out the National Geographic Slide Show.

“Don’t it always seem to go…
June 17, 2010, 5:53 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Threats to biodiversity

…that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” -Joni Mitchell

I’ve been procrastinating writing a post on the oil spill. My thoughts about it are just too overwhelming to articulate. It is a disaster. At this point, we cannot even guess at the magnitude of this catastrophe; we are getting better estimates (??) of the amount of oil released but still don’t know how far it will travel and how it will be chemically and physically transformed.

These questions are too big for me to tackle. Instead, I will do what I do best — focus on some of the organisms that are, or will be, affected by one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time.

If you haven’t seen the pictures yet of what is going on above the surface, then you’re not paying attention. But what about the organisms we can’t see? For example, just last year, Prosanta Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist at Louisiana State University, discovered two new species of pancake batfish in museum collections and later caught specimens of both during bottom trawls in the northern Gulf of Mexico. We’re unlikely to see these guys on the cover of Time Magazine next to oil-covered Brown Pelicans, but they are pretty charismatic in their own right. They are found hanging around at depths down to 400 meters, hopping along the sea floor on their pelvic fins instead of swimming. With an unknown amount of oil below the surface encroaching on their habitat, it is questionable whether these newly-discovered animals will be able to weather the impact.

In the last few weeks, 228 dead sea turtles and 29 dead marine mammals have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil-slicked Brown Pelican, a bird that has come back from the brink , has become a poignant symbol of this tragedy.  And what about the clams, mussels, and corals that live on the deep sea floor of the gulf? Or the polychaete tubeworms that can grow up to several meters long and can live for centuries? The marsh grasses and organisms that reside in the coastal sediment?

And yes, I am well aware of the consequences of the spill on human health and well-being, and the livelihoods of so many people….but that is a topic for another day.

For now, click here to read more on the “Science of the Oil Spill”

Sound promotes coral growth?!?!
May 27, 2010, 12:35 am
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: Saum Senemar

What is the first thing we think of about coral reefs? Tropical destinations? Snorkeling? Coral reefs are made of millions of cells that are in the phylum cnidaria. How would you think they reproduce and grow? Well recently a study was done and researchers found out that when coral are in the larvae stage they follow sound and swim toward the stimulus and end up growing there. According to the scientists who did the research the coral larvae have tiny little hairs on their bodies that react to stimuli such as sound waves and swim toward them. The sounds that the coral most likely hear are the slurping sounds of fish or whenever fish scrape coral reefs. This is a perfect example of an adaptive trait because without this ability to swim toward the sound the coral wouldn’t be able to reproduce. The fact that these little cells can respond to sound  is just mind-blowing! Never in a million years would I come to the conclusion that these guys just hear sound and swim toward it. From afar a coral reef looks pretty dormant in activity when in reality probably millions of cells are lurking around responding to sound. Scientists also did tests to confirm this phenomenon by placing speakers underwater and waiting to see what happened. The coral actually grew upward toward the speakers. The scientists are also looking at potential hazards to the coral like human interactions in the form of boats and what not because they say that the coral reefs are dying. Also sonar and wind turbines can be a huge problem. Whales for example get a lot of nutrition from the coral reef and they could be impacted in result of the coral reef dying. Coral reefs are very fragile because they really don’t have any protective feature. This is definitely not a good thing because the coral reef is the base of nutrition for many important organisms and animals. And whats also worth knowing is that many other organisms may act the same way by reacting to sound according to the same scientists who conducted the study. Read more about the original story here:  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0010660

Many coral reefs worldwide have been dying, and one researcher pointed out that human activity in the ocean could be making enough noise to interfere with the baby coral’s ability to find safe places to settle. (Wolf Hilbertz, Associated Press / May 20, 2010: http://www.latimes.com/news/science)

Life in the intertidal: no day at the beach!

I spent the past couple of days exploring the intertidal with my biology students. No matter how many times I visit this coastal system, I am always fascinated by how much beauty and how much biology there is to observe. Especially when I go with students whose “oooohs” and “ahhhhhs” remind me once again of how amazing the natural world is.

Here in So Cal, we are lucky to have so much coastline to explore. Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach has 3.2 miles of pristine coastline that is perfect for exploring tidepools and sandy coves, or just relaxing on the beach.

Life in the intertidal is no day at the beach. Organisms need to cope with being exposed to air and sunlight during low tides and submerged with water during high tides. They also have to be able to withstand the incessant pounding of the energy-filled surf and compete with other organisms who are looking for a prime piece of real estate. Animals have evolved suites of adaptations in responses to these environmental challenges. Here are a few of my favorites (oh so hard to just pick a few….more to come in future posts!):

Ochre Sea Stars (Pisaster ochraceus) are common inhabitants on rocky beaches all the way from Baja California to Alaksa. Students are often very excited to find these creatures and remark “Awwww…..how cute!!”. I agree, but quickly remind them what voracious predators these animals are. The ochre sea star is a major predator of mussels, barnacles, limpets and snails. We found this guy here mid-meal: the animal is using its hundred of tiny tube feet to latch on to the shells of this mussell, tugging until they open. The sea star then extrudes its stomach out of its body into the opened shells and digests the mollusk in place. Once it is satisfied with its meal, the stomach is brought back inside the body and the partially digested food is moved to a second stomach (pretty “cute”, huh?).

A few more quickies:

Do not disturb this California Sea Hare (Aplysia californica: a hermaphroditic marine gastropod mollusk); it is capable of squirting you with a reddish-purple ink from a gland in its mantle cavity (much like an octopus does).

These small aggregating sea anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) are often mistaken for debris covering the rocks. In fact, they are almost always covered with sand and shell pieces, which may conserve moisture, prevent sun damage during exposure, and help in hiding from predators.

Where’s Waldo? Green algae, brown algae, mussels, barnacles, sea stars and more!