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Close encounters of the bird kind

25 Aug

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island

a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Count-em, three, quirky animal stories

19 Aug

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Quirky animal stories are big fun, but three in a month is a new record for me.

The most recent one, hot off the presses in C&EN’s Environmental SCENE, looks at how arctic seabirds provide a convenient way to track persistent pollutants in marine environments.The researchers measure the chemicals in stomach oils, a concentrate of fish oils from their food that collect in an upper part of their stomach. Chicks are exposed to higher levels of pollutants when they’re fed stomach oils than from whole fish or crustaceans. Fun factoid: the smelly mess is super-easy to collect because the birds also spew it on intruders. Yes, that includes your friendly neighborhood field scientist.

At the end of July, I went to the 47th Annual Animal Behavior Society meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what came out of that trip for ScienceNOW:

First, a look at unusual beluga whale behavior: except for during mating season, male whales at a Canadian aquarium prefer to hump other males rather than females. Is this hanky-panky an assertion of dominance? A form of play? In the wild, male whales tend to live in groups on their own for most of the year and under the Arctic ice.

Finally, a new chapter in the story of duck penises: Male ducks have unusual, spiraling penises that grow for mating season. Now, researchers have shown in two different species that social competition shapes either how long a duck’s penis will grow or how long it will stay elongated. It’s as if the ducks walked into a quacking singles bar and their sexual prowess changed based on the other guys in the room.

Sunday snapshot: whale’s tail

16 May

Two years ago, we took an amazing whale-watching cruise off Cape Cod-- so many humpback whales were feeding around us we didn't know which way to look.

Brilliantly beautiful bee nests

6 May

nest constructed by female bee, Osima avosetta, by J.G. Rozen, AMNH

I tend to think of bees in hives, but three out of four species of these pollinators strike out on their own. A newly discovered species, O. avosetta, lines its underground nests with flower petals. Two teams of researchers found these unusual nests in Turkey and in Iran.

From the American Museum of Natural History press release:

“In this species, a female shingles the wall of her brood chambers with large pieces of petals or with whole petals, often of many hues,” says Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. “Unfortunately, her larvae never enjoy the brilliant colors of the nest’s walls because they have no eyes—and, anyhow, they would need a flashlight!”

Hat tip to NPR— Read more about how these bees make the nests and see more amazing flower nest photos.

Whales, mate!

5 May

I can’t imagine not being awed by massive air-breathing creatures that move through the water. Whales are smart creatures that live in a dark, alternative Earth-world, where sound is the dominant sense.

This weekend I got a chance to see this wonderful exhibition from New Zealand— complete with two sperm whale skeletons and a life-size model of a blue whale’s heart– at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (I’ve mentioned the blue whale replica at AMNH before. The heart replica blows your mind in the same way– an adult person can fit inside). Check out the first part of this video.

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Introducing Material of the Week: Spider Silk

24 Sep
Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis)

Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis) Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Followers of this blog might have noticed that the Molecule of the Week (MotW) feature took a summerish hiatus. I’ve decided to expand the feature to include interesting materials, which are often more complex mixtures, either of synthetic or naturally-made compounds. So, I’m adding Material of the Week (MatotW in blogospheric shorthand) to help round out the idea.

This week, a material near and dear to my Webby heart: spider silk.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is now displaying a length of cloth made entirely from Madagascar golden orb spider silk . At a half million dollar price tag and requiring 1 million spiders, this is the fabric of kings (maybe even Louis XIV) and involves some some serious production snags (See the NY Times or Wired Science for more on those issues).

The silks are made of structural proteins, chains of amino acid building blocks, that in different combinations do the work of living systems and make up other sorts of animal fibers such as hair. The animals use different combinations for different purposes: making webs, catching prey, building nests, or wooing a mate, notes Cheryl Hayashi’s UC Riverside website. (She studies these materials and garnered a MacArthur grant in 2007 for her work).

istockphoto/Taho_H

istockphoto/Taho_H

I’m already making plans to go see the spider silk fabric (and still trying to imagine lining up spiders in harnesses to produce it– quite the mental image). But spider silk reminds me of how much we humans can learn from our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Sure, the military and industry might find all sorts of uses for these threads from armor to moorings. But in this moment I’m simply awed by the natural engineering process and its outcome — a spider hanging from a single super-strong thread, spinning a lacy net to catch prey, and a few dew drops.

Reflecting E.B. White’s words back on Charlotte: “Some Web.”

Whales in NY Harbor: Update

4 Jun
Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

In my post last week about blue whales singing in NY Harbor, I mentioned that I had an email out to the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program to find out the current status of the NY harbor listening project. I heard back yesterday from Connie Bruce at Cornell:

The current status is that we have terminated data collection efforts as of April of this year. The data we collected is approximately 50% analyzed and yielding ground breaking scientific information since this, to our knowledge, is the first acoustic study of it’s kind in the NY area. Dr. Clark is encouraged by the initial results to continue and expand the study.

They are actively looking for funding sources to continue the research, and the clock is ticking.