Monday, March 31, 2008

Monday Myth: Crane Flies

Adult Crane flies mating
(family Tipulidae)

Crane flies belong to the family Tipulidae, and are not "giant mosquitoes", or even mosquito-eaters ("skeeter eaters" is their common name where I come from). Adult Crane flies don't suck blood, they don't bite, pierce, or sting. In fact, the adult life stage lasts just long enough to breed, so many species forego feeding altogether (those that don't are nectar feeders). You can't get any more benign that that.

They are similar to mosquitoes with their long legs and snout-like head. A minority number of Crane fly species are even small enough to mistake for a mosquito at first blush. But the majority of Crane flies are 1-2". They belong to the Diptera order of insects (flies), and as such their second pair of wings is modified into little navigational nubbins called "halteres". The halteres act as a rudder of sorts, and are easier to see in Crane flies than other smaller flies. They're located behind the front wings, and are short with a club-like tip.

Crane flies are a floppy flier, and if one happens to fly into your ear or something (which they do pretty often because, with all due respect to nature, they seem pretty stupid), then you might hear their wings give off a faint, low buzz. But most of the time they're a quiet flyer, just looking for a dark, undisturbed place in your home to hang out (on walls, in closets, bathrooms, last week I found one resting in my cat's litter box -- kinda gross).

The larvae aren't well described. They're small, and either soil-dwelling or aquatic (freshwater). Some of the aquatic species of Crane fly larvae eat mosquito larvae. The soil-dwelling larvae sometimes feed on the roots of plants, and are maligned as turf pests when they do. Golf courses really don't like them.

The adults may be nuisance pests, but they don't pose a significant health threat. They're pretty fragile and squash easily. Keeping screen doors closed is the best way to prevent them from coming inside. We've had a ton of Crane fly activity here in the southwest for about a month. By May the rest of the country should be enjoying their floppy-flying fun.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Insect Haiku!

Dang, this'll teach me to lapse in my blogroll reading... NC State University Museum sponsored one of the coolest things I've ever heard of, right up there with wormholes and peach pancakes: Hexapod Haiku. And I missed it! The entries were entertaining and impressive, especially the kids'.

Well, over peach pancakes this morning I decided to cop my own Haiku fix. (Wormholes will just have to wait.)

The mud is free
The leaves are sturdy
Eagerly I await your pot

Dwindling Araneae for
Policing Polistes
Fair trade

The busy thatch is
Never lacking
A high roof

{Photo: Thatch ant mound. Washington state. Tom Green. Help me. I can't stop typing in Haiku.}

Pneumonic Plague II

{Continuation from previous post}

So what killed Eric York, Grand Canyon National Park wildlife biologist, were aerosolized droplets of primary pneumonic plague that he breathed (through his unmasked mouth and nose) while doing a necropsy on an infected mountain lion. The photos he took while doing this -- with ungloved hands -- serve as sort of a morbid documentation of his infection, which resulted in his untimely death just days later. As I sat in a conference listening to the details, viewing the photos this week, I got squirmy. Oh to go back and warn him...

It has to hit home for anyone who works/ed in field wildlife biology, since they are at greater risk of contracting any of the three forms of plague in plague-endemic areas. I've been there, too. The warnings, the cautions, the Personal Protective Equipment (when they’re there) quickly get lost in the long hours, inclement weather, rough terrain, and blind determination necessary to accomplish field work. I think working with wildlife in the field draws a certain sort of person, too -- often with noble ideals and a strong conservation ethic. It sort of predisposes such folks to losing site of caution, even when it's most needed. It’s a little disconcerting to think back on the daily dangers and near-misses I (and so many others I knew) experienced in the field -- malfunctioning equipment, dangerous weather, whacko’s in the woods, to say nothing of the presence of bear and cougar while in these remote locations alone... Who has time to worry about zoonotic diseases?!

Individuals have to take responsibility for their own health precautions – that is true. But when you're exhausted and everything is going wrong (and in the field everything regularly goes wrong), it’s the path of least resistance to let your own safety slide in favor of accomplishing the work. It's especially true when education and awareness about protecting one’s self isn’t properly addressed (or addressed at all, perhaps) by one’s employer. Being encouraged to tuck a wild animal into my shirt to keep it warm while it crapped and bled all over me wasn't something I thought twice about at the time, given the circumstances. I guess we'll never know where Eric York stood on the continuum of exhaustion, things going wrong, and the slippery slope of relinquishing caution, or what role any of that played in his mind.

The preventability of York’s case during fall 2007 launched a shake-up in wildlife/field biology protocols. The National Park System is taking a comprehensive, honest look at what went wrong and already implementing preventative changes. They’re collaborating with CDC and others to update their training and education of both visitors and staff on zoonotic diseases, increasing surveillance of potential exposure incidents, and tracking “signs” of disease among park staff (absenteeism, tick exposures, ranger incident reports, etc… this is being bundled into a pilot project at Yellowstone National Park). I’m impressed that they have the fortitude to self-question why no “red flag” was raised when a field biologist called in to work sick just a few days after performing a necropsy on a mammal… in a plague-endemic area.

Ironically, York’s incredible dedication to his research – which included long, odd hours and a limited social life – turned out to be instrumental in curbing direct (primary) transmission of pneumonic plague to other humans at Grand Canyon National Park. While he never knew it, he probably saved a lot of lives. It was nice to hear the U.S. Public Health Service medical doctor honor him during the conference this week, while admitting "we got lucky" that no outbreak occurred. By all other accounts as well, it sounds like his passing is a recognized loss to international research for the study and protection of wild cats.

If you’d like to honor the life or passing of wildlife biologist Eric York, apparently you can donate to the Felidae Conservation Fund -- an organization with whom he collaborated on domestic and international research projects toward the protection of wild cats.

Felidae Conservation Fund
14 Cove Road
Belvedere, CA 94920

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pneumonic Plague

Eric York

Plague is endemic to certain parts of the desert southwest. 10-15 people in the U.S. die of some form of plague each year, most of them in that region -- my region.

Primary pneumonic plague (PPP), in particular, is unsettling. While attending a 2-day public health conference this week, I learned all about the loveliness that this organism isn't. No flea vector is needed to transmit PPP (fleas vector the bubonic plague, the one that's well-known for widespread death in Europe during the middle ages). PPP jumps directly from one mammal to the next. It's high on the bio-terrorism list, with a near 100% mortality (w/in 6 days) if untreated, and transmission via aerosolized droplets from a sneeze, a cough, or... a necropsy

One of the conference talks by a U.S. Public Health Service medical doctor yesterday provided new details on a plague case that was widely publicized last fall. It was on the wildlife biologist, Eric York, working in the Grand Canyon National Park, who contracted the deadly Yersinia pestis bacterium (PPP) directly from an infected mountain lion. He was found dead in his home on Nov. 2, 2007, six days after performing a necropsy on the mountain lion, and just three days after calling in to work sick with flu-like symptoms. It made national headline news last fall, and with good reason... A potential outbreak of the most deadly form of plague, with the ease of direct human-to-human transmission similar to the common cold... Can you imagine that in a place as transient and populated as Grand Canyon National Park?

Only the biologist was infected with PPP, as it turns out, though 49 people who may have had some degree of interaction with York or the mountain lion (primarily park staff) were administered antibiotics. The CDC, epidemiologists and a slew of public health scientists were called in, among them was the guy who this week gave the presentation I attended. So I not only got to hear the science beyond what little the media covered, but I got to hear it straight from the horse's mouth.

The story of how York came to be contaminated with PPP is rare and scientifically fascinating, but also incredibly tragic. He had tracked the lion to a remote and off-trail section of the park using the signal from her radio collar. He came upon her dead, laying on her side, with fresh blood coming from her mouth. He captured the scene in a chilling photograph which was shown in the presentation. The blood was, in fact, the first of several subtle symptoms of pneumonic plague wreaking havoc on the lion’s respiratory system. His notes mention the blood and attribute it to potential trauma, which he suspects could have possibly been caused by a scuffle with another mountain lion since she had cubs in a den in that area.

York conducted the necropsy of the animal back at his garage, apparently without using any personal protective equipment. The photographs York took of this were shown, and are tough to forget. His hands -- his large, rugged, un-gloved hands covered in the blood that would later kill him -- held the skinned head of the female mountain lion in one photo. That photograph in particular captures her swollen lymph, another sign that the plague was at work within her. Other photos he took, which were shared, showed the lion's skinned body laid out in various positions, specifically capturing the coagulated blood pooled in the diaphragm area. His necropsy notes again suggest trauma; however, experts who've examined the photos believe it was PPP at work on the mountain lion’s lungs.

After York's death, health experts inspected the necropsy kit in his garage and found it to contain an unused mask and gloves, further demonstrating that York was not aware of the danger he was in while conducting the necropsy.

This is enough for today. I'll have to finish it in another post.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday Myth: Cats and Scorpions

The scorpion of greatest health concern in the United States, and the one I am keeping an eye out for at home, is Centruroides sculpturatus (aka, the Bark scorpion). Bark scorpion venom is the most toxic of U.S. scorpions, though in the general scheme of things it is considered fairly mild. Bark scorpions are small, with a body length of about 2" (not including tail); sub-adults are smaller. They are the only scorpion in the U.S. that can climb walls and ceilings, and can squeeze through cracks as narrow as 1/8". Second stories and flimsy screen doors are not deterrents. Their ecological needs are so well-suited to the well-watered lawns and structures of the desert southwest, that Bark scorpions are the most often encountered scorpion in urban and rural homes throughout their range.

So of course there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding them. One of the most unsubstantiated is the myth that cats are immune to scorpion venom. When last I checked, no cats were on record as having verifiably died from a scorpion sting, yet only two human deaths in the last 40 years are on record. So much for that. So prevalent is the myth that cats are immune that one established entomologist in the southwest wasn't willing to weigh in either way (!). Fortunately for me, my own observation provided all the proof I need to definitively say:
at least some cats are not immune to scorpion stings.

Last year, my cat spied a scorpion on the deck and received at least two (perhaps three) good hits before I broke up the encounter. (Pulled her off like a street fighter begging for more, really.) Her symptoms included:
  1. immediate swelling to twice the normal paw size (the presumed stinging site);
  2. pain that last for several hours;
  3. lack of eating or drinking during two normal meal periods.
About every 10 minutes for the first few hours, the cat spontaneously sprung from a resting position to dart across the room, yowling, and turning to lick an imaginary wound on her side. She may have experienced the shooting pains that radiate out from the stinging site, which people often describe as "electrical". Within ten hours, the swelling was completely gone, and her behavior returned to normal. I could handle her paw with no apparent discomfort to her. In humans, however, the pain and nauseating effects of a Bark scorpion sting are likely to last at least two days (longer and more severe, if an allergic reaction to the venom occurs, or if an infant or the elderly gets stung).

I half suspect the venom-immune myth for cats comes from exaggerating the following (seemingly standard) observations: 1) scorpion venom does not seem to affect cats to the same degree that it does a human of the same physical size (i.e., an infant); 2) the sight of a scorpion brings out unusual aggression in cats to kill it, in spite of repeated stings (giving the false impression that the cat is unaffected).

As these desert days heat up into the 80's (and any day now, beyond that), I'm keeping an eye out for the start of scorpion activity. Even for an entomologist, they're an unwelcome -- albeit exciting! -- house guest.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Citizen Science: Project BudBurst

Being a biologist and in an educator role, I'm seeing an increase in the amount of projects and activities directed at citizen scientists. There seems to be something for everyone. Data collection is no longer for the degreed alone. It's pretty cool. Recently, I learned that my employer is a member of a collaborative citizen science effort called "Project BudBurst". It's plant stuff (not my forte), but I wanted to share it here as it may tickle some reader's fancy.

The purpose of Project BudBurst:
Scientists are too few and far between to gather needed data about phenology -- the first unfurling leaves and flowers following winter. Fortunately, every citizen represents a possible scientist! Documenting phenology basics in your area -- to whatever degree you can -- will help scientists better understand the local effects of and regional trends in climate change. Project BudBurst also fosters citizen awareness of local ecology, and helps us feel a little more aware and connected to the place we call home. It was piloted April - June 2007 with wide citizen participation.

Who can get involved (and how):
Participation begins with a quick online registration at Individuals must be at least 13 yrs. old to log their observations; however, there is a built-in component to the program for young kids (k-6) to log their observations through school, along with lots of fun stuff for teachers to use in and out of the classroom.

How it works:
Project BudBurst has taken as much guesswork out as possible so folks won't get bogged down in options and frustrated: they've broken down plants into obvious groups (native shrubs/tree, common ornamentals, etc.) in an activity guide. After looking over the activity guide, you can start keeping an eye on the vegetation in your backyard, on your neighborhood walk, or a street you regularly drive down... and log it in when you see that first unfurling leaf or flower. The program makes identifying your observation locations easy, too: you can enter a street address or break out that fancy GPS unit you may have gotten for Christmas and enter coordinates.

If you've got kids, you already know they love this stuff. Have fun!

A Good Friday

I went to church on this Good Friday. An improbable event, given that I am an atheist. So what brought me to a great hall of worship, with stadium-style A-lined pews and sermons steeped in the abstention of sin? The choir. I was invited by a colleague from a nearby university, with whom I recently finished collaborating on a research project, to hear her sing as second soprano in the first row. I love a good choir.

Regardless of my differing beliefs on religion, I really enjoyed it. The choir was lovely, at times giving me chills. But it was the people I enjoyed the most. As soon as I arrived, surreptitiously assuming a seat on the end of a back pew, I was offered the program that belonged to the person sitting next to me. And later, when the congregation began to join-in with singing, I was offered a hymn book, already turned to the correct page even (I didn't sing, but appreciate the offering, of course, and followed along).

It has been a couple of years since I was last in a church. And I forgot how people change in those environments; they can be at their worst, or at their very best... Or a little of both. As the Good Friday sermon carried on over the hour, punctuated by my colleague's beaming singing, I was treated to the best of people's humanity -- unselfish and genuine qualities exuded with the fuzzy goodness and warmth of apple pie and bed time stories. Being a Christian sure would be nice. But for at least one evening in a long while, it was enough to enjoy and observe such abundant kindness and recharge my atheistic idealism. It was a good Friday.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wildflowers galore

Wildflowers galore!

Who needs to go hiking to enjoy the spring wildflowers? This is a street I regularly drive down... Lucky me. :)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday Myth: Harvestmen

You'd be a rare duck indeed if you haven't, at least for a moment, found yourself falling for one of the common myths about arthropods. So in the tradition of Wordless Wednesday and Friday Beetle Blogging, I have decided to do "Monday Myth". I'll attempt weekly, and be happy if I manage bi. Inaugural myth for debunking: "Harvestmen are spiders". Just not true.
  1. Harvestmen aren't spiders
  2. They can't envenomate you
  3. The majority of species are scavengers or detritus feeders
  4. Their taxonomic (order) name: Opiliones. Harvestmen are sometimes confused with the Pholcidae family of spiders (a.k.a., "Cellar spiders").
Harvestmen are not spiders; however, Harvestmen are arachnids, so you can think of them as sort of a second cousin to spiders. Harvestmen are actually more closely related to another arachnid: scorpions and scorpion-like arthropods.

Harvestmen lack venom glands... They could not envenomate you if they wanted to. The majority of species are scavengers of detritus (decaying plant material), fungi, and dead arthropods or other animals. Very few species of Harvestmen are actually predatory, and even they must resort to ambush. Given their menu of choice, Harvestmen are web-less wanderers; they are often encountered on the ground or a wall searching for a meal, or hiding out in moist and protected environments (under eves, rocks, boards, even shadows of door frames, corners, etc.).

To quickly and easily differentiate between Harvestmen and spiders, look at the body... Note that as with (most) spiders, you can see two body sections: an abdomen (posterior section) and a cephalothorax (anterior section, which includes eyes, mouthparts, etc.). While Harvestmen technically have the same two sections, their body appears to be one contiguous oval rather than two distinct parts.

It's important to make these distinctions, because while Harvestmen are quite benign (to us), they are often mislabeled as something scary or threatening. So rest assured! If you find one, just put it outside...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The polarity of evolution

A cartogram map, which accounts for population size among red
and blue states; based on 2004 presidential election.
Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman, University of Michigan.

In the current issue (Mar 2008) of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Kristi F. Bowman takes a look at the abundance, strength, and weakness with which evolution, intelligent design, and creationism are taught in U.S. high schools. The retrospective study asked college students via a survey about the teachings they received in their high school biology course. Eight U.S. states were represented in the study spanning the West, Midwest and South, and Northeast, with clear distinctions among the results.

While I was impressed with the degree to which the students from conservative states (Midwest and South) received evolution instruction (89 %), the survey results indicated a lower level of credibility was given to evolution teachings in these states. So it's taught with a wink and a nod? According to this study, if your kid takes high school biology in the Midwest or South, it's three times as likely that the evolution instruction he/she gets won't be taught with the same credibility as in the West or Northeast.

When Bowman's data was aggregated according to red and blue states (along republican and democratic political lines), the results are more contrasting. You can read it for yourself at the link. It's a little too depressing for me to summarize; having read it over once was enough.

Not to discount the profundity of these findings on evolution in public schools, but Bowman's study highlights the polarity of our country. This (growing?) trend is rooted even in our public schools... with the cultivation of young minds. What does this portend for the future? While the West and Northeast become increasingly progressive, the "reds" stagnate? Perhaps even regress? I don't know. This is a bit beyond the point of Bowman's study, and the sociology and political science avenues I'm taking it to are, well, a little "liberal" of me. Here's where my thought: isn't this very type of polarity of politics and religion the basis for long-standing strife in the Middle East? Will we look back on this time 200 years from now and wonder why we didn't put more emphasis on the unification of the United States?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Information Design

I'm updating and revising arthropod fact sheets at work. I genuinely enjoy this part of my job, where the free rein I'm afforded to wed science with education and a little art means the sky's the limit. And with all that rein, one of the things I've come up with is the above chart: a 2"x 2" diagram to sit unobtrusively in the corner of each fact sheet, showing an arthropod's life cycle activity by month over a calendar year. Pardon the incompleteness; it's a crud prototype. Whether such quick-reference visuals will be helpful to the primarily non-science audiences reading these fact sheets is a big "?". I would think so, but then...I walk around with a collection vial in my purse.

There are a lot of passerby here, some regulars, and rarely comments. I'd really like your opinion... Would you consider this a useful thing on a fact sheet? Do you have any experience with visual design of arthropod biology?

Such charts are really not original. A quick google search and consult with a colleague didn't yield anything quite like the above, but there were others -- more complex and snazzy. This colleague of mine, a seasoned entomologist, suggested keeping the chart simple given its intended size and the audience... Just before lending me a book by Edward Tufte. Tufte is an expert in information design, among other things. My colleague, apparently a big fan of Tufte's, explained that the author and lecturer obtained a NASA PowerPoint presentation that was associated with the mission of space shuttle Columbia a few years back. He used it to make an argument about how the use of PowerPoint effectually glossed over the technical errors that led to Columbia's explosion -- and the loss of several astronauts -- upon the shuttle's re-entry. Egads, that's pretty heavy.

I doubt my arthropod charts as a fact sheet compliment will cause any space shuttles to crash. But they might -- just might -- be that extra enlightenment to cause pause before spraying a pesticide.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bird Speak

Birding by ear... A lazy way of birding from the sofa or bed,
provided there's an open window. Or more scientifically, an efficient way to identify birds for field studies. For biologists, some habitats are quite nearly impossible to see their birds in. On the tall grass prairies of Missouri, Henslow's and Grasshopper sparrows might -- if you're lucky -- briefly be spotted darting just over the tops of coneflowers before abruptly disappearing back into the hip-high grass. "Streak of something" is about as good as it gets without the advantage of their spring time singing from the safety of the grasses. The same is true for birds in numerous other habitats: the dark forests of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, deep canyons of the desert Southwest, etc.

Birding by ear was a requirement for several of the temp/seasonal wildlife jobs I had. Once I caught the itch, it became addictive. And it will for you, too. Imagine this: you arrive at the grocery store, and as you walk across the parking lot, you hear two American Robins, a gaggle of early-arriving male Western Tanagers, and a gentle "tseeew, tseeew" from the oft-overlooked Cedar Waxwings atop a deciduous tree...All without EVER taking your eyes off the ground in front of your feet. Birding never was so sweet.

This is the best time of year with the chatter of singing males. Try it! Bird song CDs are often available at your local library. You can alternatively drop $30 and own a good set; I'd recommend Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs (note: many CD guides are divided into Eastern and Western United States). A non-comprehensive (but free) on-line source for bird songs and descriptions:

For beginners of bird speak:

Songs vs. calls. Males "sing" spring through summer (rarely into winter). Songs are distinctive, typically composed of many syllables/notes, and are the easiest place to start with vocal ID. Calls are given by males and females alike (as well as young) year-round. Calls are often short (less than 3 syllables), and often several exist for each bird species. Calls can quickly get frustrating, so best to focus on songs. Start with the birds in your area; Audubon will find your local chapters, whose websites should have available bird lists.

If you hope to really embrace birding, versus trying to impress your friends (I've never been accused of that), then I'd recommend getting hold of a bird identification guide book (there are numerous), or bookmarking the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's webpage on bird ID. Create a "profile" of each bird, which will make ID fun and the details easy to recall... Become familiar with where the bird likes to hang out, how it feeds, moves, as well as what it looks like. As you listen to its sound on CD, assign it a personality that'll tie it all in for you. Example: in my native Northwest there are three species of chickadee. Here in the Southwest, there are verdins. The two are very similar in niche and attitude. Verdins sing "tea-cher! tea-cher chew!" Like it's any of their business whether the teacher chews or not... Verdins = a desert chickadee.

Good luck!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pressure Cooker

This month I hear back on two fellowships I've applied for. Each fellowship carries a monthly living stipend, tuition, and research expenses for at least one year -- a lot of money, very competitive. I am sweating bullets and feeling the pressure that comes with the overdue desire to move on. Hackneyed and half-cocked, part of me is languishing while hesitant to hope; the other part is on pins and needles. Fortunately, I'm an idealist and, as a scientist, a fan of slow-and-steady.

So how does one arrive at the inside of such a pressure-cooker, you might ask? There are really two ways of going about it:

Option #1: short-term pressure cooker. Network with colleagues, search online, etc., and when a funded graduate research project crosses your path, grab it and don't think twice. This works best for those born with an innate propensity for serendipity (or sell-out).

Option #2: hazing-process pressure cooker. Thoroughly research professors according to your interest area (me: insects) and geographic preference (if you have one). Then research professors within those parameters according to your preferred sub-specialty (example: agricultural entomology, medical entomology, etc...Mine: conservation). Critically consider the type of university they're associated with, and whether it's the right institution for you. If "yes" then release the hounds! Stalk them. Study their publications. Inquire about them among those you know. And when you fortuitously happen to encounter them (i.e., a well-orchestrated meeting), POW! Hit 'em with your smarts and sell yourself as their only logical option for a future research student. Then the formalities: apply to the university, and work with your prospective professor to secure a boatload of funding. Then the pressure cooker really heats up... You wait. And hope.

It's grad school as I see it, anyway.

Option #1 - obviously much easier. In my case, this approach produced research opportunities and great professors, but nothing in conservation -- my passion, above the bugs and birds. So for quite a while now I've navigated the waters of option #2. I have done all the homework and stalking, and secured myself (with a handshake) as the future student of a professor with a well-defined conservation project in entomology. The end is where I currently sit. Pressure cooker's on full blast.