Monday, May 26, 2008

Javelina: Duck or Dodge

I frequently encounter javelina -- or more specifically for the southwest:"collared peccary". I am lucky enough to live close to our nation's largest city park preserve, with a fenced-off greenbelt adjacent to my apartment, and a spill pond immediately below my deck. The combination of shelter, water and plentiful prey draws many forms of wildlife, which I've written a little about here.

Javelina: regular visitors to my apartment

My encounters with javelina are fairly regular, always the same: either duck or dodge. They are at once shy (hence, "duck" to get a good picture) and unpredictably aggressive (hence "dodge" upon being charged). I guess the thrill of the chase goes both ways!

Being charged by javelina is not inevitable and bears over-rating (but I dare ya not to dodge!). They are most often happy to move off without any encounter. If happened upon at close range or otherwise startled, they may burst forth in a head-on sprint -- as if suddenly whipped from behind. I have been charged this way many times and to their credit, they always veer at the last minute. I now keep a cautious, albeit curious, eye out when walking home along the dimly-lit path from my night-time work outs, but dodges still occur due to limited views.

It is comforting to know that even in the nation's 4th largest
ungulates -- not muggers -- are the cautionary visitor.

The javelina venture into the complex for a drink and a nibble, especially during dry stretches. It is not unusual for the Sonoran desert to go more than 2.5+ mos. without measurable rainfall -- tough even for desert-adapted animals. Since our buildings and parking lots replaced their succulent cacti and water-retaining tubers, it's only fair that we share. The javelina's adaption to urban environments is to be celebrated, though not all my neighbors would agree.

It's difficult getting a good picture of javelina, in part because they're primarily nocturnal and emerge well after dark. I've belly-crawled and bush-crouched to no avail. But suddenly, this lovely family of four came to visit below my deck during our recent cold snap.

Unusual day-time activity... Needed more calories?
the cold was too exciting to nap through...

Javelina are often mistaken for pigs. Both are grouped in the order Artiodactyla , which includes other even-toed hooved animals (hippos, camels, deer, etc.). Our domestic pigs and wild boar are actually (descended from) European transplants, whereas javelina are native to the New World. Their range is from mid-level South America to the U.S. southwest (AZ, TX, NM). Pigs and javelina began their evolutionary separation more than 30 million years ago, and have many diverging characteristics...

Collared peccary, Tayassu tajacu (a juvenile)

Javelina facts:

Family: Tayassuidae (consists of 3 genera of peccaries)
eighboring families: Hippopotamidae (hippopotamases) and Suidae (pigs).
up to 22 inches at shoulder, and 3 ft. long; 35-60 lbs (males are larger than females)...smaller than pigs.
Characteristics: covered in bristling hairs; have white vertical band on shoulder; one pair of bottom canines protrude straight upward (whereas with pigs & boar, the canines are curved or lateral).
Social organization:
entire life spent in same social group of up to 20 individuals; scent gland on rump helps in identification of group and social hierarchy within group.
muffled grunts; the young give a loud bark-quack ("bwaak!"), squeals, grunts.
primarily herbivorous: cacti (esp. prickly pear), roots, grass shoots, fruit, nuts; also opportunistic, and will eat eggs, scavenge on garbage, etc.
average 2 young per mating; 1-2 mating cycles per year
diverse: javelina inhabit grasslands, deserts and forests in both arid and tropical habitats.
Status: not protected; hunting is allowed at least in Arizona.

Interesting links for more on javelina:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday Sky

The weather gods have bestowed a freak cold snap on the Southwest, granting Phoenicians one last chance to indulge in sweaters, hot tea, and open windows. We went from a high of 110 deg. F to a high of 68 deg. F in about 48 hours. A lover of all things cold and cozy, I am in seventh heaven on the deck, shivering under a sweater with my hot tea.

Freak cold snap...Aaaaahhh, clouds.

It's old hat to other regions in the throws of spring, but a unique sight for the low desert in May. I snapped this in Scottsdale, near where I used to live. For some really neat sky photos, check out Sky Watch Friday.

Hel-lo Ricoh!

IT IS HERE!! My new Ricoh Caplio R7...

Ricoh Caplio R7

Thanks to Alex Wild (myrmecos blog), macrophotographer extraordinaire, for tipping me off to Ricoh in my search for a compact digital with good macrophotography capabilities. The Caplio R7 is perfect! It powers on in an instant, like an elf on speed, and boasts a 1 cm macro focus -- 1 cm!! From everything I've recently read, these cameras are known for quality. I went with the 8.2 megapixel R7 (2007 generation) after reading several reviews comparing it to the 10 megapixel R8 (this year's model). Bleh, who needs 10? Plus, it sounds like the upgrade came at a price to image quality.

I have no idea yet how to use half the features, but even without a clue it already blows my former 4 megapixel Sony drivel out of the water.
Organ Pipe cactus, Stenocereus therberi

{A note regarding the vendor: After an hour of frustration with three other vendors, which included waiting on hold for 10 min and being forgotten about after I declined to buy an extra battery at $65, and having the camera price ridiculously jacked up by another as we spoke (they hung up on me when I asked what gives), it looked like I might not buy a camera after all. Crazy. I was begging -- begging -- for someone to take my money and honor their online price. I almost gave up, then came across popflash. They sold me the Ricoh for less than anyone else, it came tax-free due to their location (CA), and it even came with a nice Lowepro camera case and a surplus 2-hr. battery (ya, the same "$65" battery the other place was pushing). They also told me it was a load of bologne that I needed a "special" camera card for this particular camera (yet another lie by the previous vendor). Popflash was SO kind, and turned an icky experience into a really pleasant one. While they saved me money this time, I'd pay extra in the future just to do business with them.}

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday Myth: Solpugids

I needed a DEAD solpugid to get a shot like this.
When alive, they're too busy running away.

I must be one lucky duck because the above critter -- a Solpugid (sol-pew-jid) -- was sitting freshly dead and perfectly intact at the bottom of my apartment stairs last night. I was headed back from an evening workout and came upon it posed as-is with the chelicerae displayed in all their glory -- score!! Bet a neighbor found and doused it with hairspray (or some such) moments earlier, then booted it out the front door to die. This individual is the third in two weeks, and they're much bigger than last year's. I figured they're vying for a Monday Myth feature. So I scooped the dead-but-still-imposing body up for a postmortem photo shoot.

Sun spiders, wind scorpions, and a host of other common names are used to describe Solpugids. So I just call them Solpugids. They belong to the class Arachnida, as do scorpions and spiders; however, Solpugids are distinct from both in several ways:
  • Solpugids have a segmented abdomen like a scorpion, but lack a tail of any kind.
  • Solpugids have pedipalps (modified mouthparts) that are held pincer-like (similar to scorpions), but are not actually pincers.
  • Solpugids have chelicerae that are forward-projecting and beak-like. This is a fairly unique feature.
One important distinction between solpugids and their scorpion/spider cousins: Solpugids have no venom. Crazy, I know. The terrifying and homely creature has no bark to back up its bite. Bacterial infection from fine "hairs" (setae, seen above) covering the body and chelicerae is thought to explain bite site agitation; however, a good washing may prevent that. Contrary to popular myth (and the common name "deer slayer" in certain foreign countries), Solpugids do not bring down large mammals, to say nothing of draining their blood. True, they might pack a wallop with those chelicerae if one was so inclined... But I've encountered more than a dozen in my apartment and find them to flee from human activity entirely.

Ollie likes to harass even the dead ones.

There are more than a dozen families containing around 900 species worldwide. Most live in arid climates and are nocturnal predators of various invertebrates or small vertebrates (lizards, etc.). The largest I saw in my apartment last year -- among more than a dozen -- were barely an inch in body length. The three so far this year: 1.25 - 2.5 in.!

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Sting

An adult Centruroides sculpturatus, Bark scorpion;
approx. 2" long

I am going to get stung by a Bark scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus. I know this. And the reason I know this is because I am going to help it sting me.

I've been working with and living amongst Bark scorpions in the desert southwest for four years now. During that time, I've changed their dirty cages in our lab, lovingly fed them hoards of stinky crickets, watched their babies being born, handled dozens of them -- carefully, and by the tail. And I have "rescued" countless individuals headed for the schmoosh by coworkers or neighbors. I've given several presentations to homeowners and school kids about the facts and fantastics of bark scorpions, and yet I cannot describe fully what it is like to be stung. I feel somehow deficient, like I'm not part of the club... Or half the scientist I could or should be by educating on a topic that in effect I have only read about or heard described: what it feels like to be stung by our nation's most poisonous scorpion. I'm a fraud. I must be stung.

So before I relocate for graduate school in the NW, I'm inducing a Bark scorpion sting (if I don't step on one in the night before then). My departing gift to myself. The sting set up will be in early August, a little sooner if I can get the guts up. Stay tuned!

{This isn't a ratings ploy. A surprising number of internet searches on concerns over Bark scorpions/stings are pulling up my blog, even though I've posted very little on scorpions. Clearly people are freaked out. So I decided to use this personal event to allay fears (anticipation of a sting is probably disproportionate to the sting itself). I'll post pictures and, most importantly, a full description of the sting and its after-effects.}

Monday, May 5, 2008

Monday Myth: Mosquitoes

Not all mosquitoes bite... Only female mosquitoes require a blood meal. The proteins in blood allow for development of her eggs, which she lays in rafts on the surface of calm water or moist edges. Males never take a blood meal; they feed only on nectar. Females also feed on nectar for their energy needs.

Females can detect carbon dioxide from more than a football field away. They zero in on it to find the source: a host. Female mosquitoes may vector diseases, including West Nile virus, malaria, etc. They may contract the virus or organism during the host of a first feeding, then transmit it during a later feeding to another host. The best ways to avoid mosquito bites include lightweight, long-sleeved shirts, pants, tight-fitting screens on windows and patio doors, citronella candles, and insect repellents. Electronic pulsing devices have never proven effective in repelling mosquitoes.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Southwest water: liquid gold

In a place where water is valued like gold, people have pretty strong opinions about what to do with it. In the case of central Arizona's Verde River, issues concerning quality and quantity of water are taking center stage.

The Verde River is "fed" by the Big Chino aquifer of central Arizona. The river is a perennial water source for which the year-round demands are many and growing. Recreation, wildlife habitat, Native American water rights, and drinking water for the Phoenix metropolis (among others downstream) create an eclectic bunch of vested interests. But these aren't the only fingers in the cookie jar. Explosive growth in Yavapai county (southwest of Flagstaff, near the river's headwaters) has prompted a proposal for pumping ground water from the aquifer to supply drinking water for new developments.

The proposed ground water pumping project landed the Verde River on America's Ten Most Endangered Rivers list in 2006. It's been stalled, fought, resisted ever since. But the continued growth and development of Yavapai county during that time seems to confidently say: lost cause.

What happens to a river who's source is sucked up for drinking water?
Pumping water from the aquifer will undermine the Verde River's flow, disrupt habitat, and may lead to squabbling over the remains among current users. What to do about the loss of water? Mitigate. A proposal calls for dumping reclaimed water into the Upper Verde River on an ongoing basis to replace what the aquifer would have provided. I dunno, it wouldn't be the first time it's been done, and there are undoubtedly some success stories from similar rivers. But the idea has a lot of recreationists, environmentalists, and downstream water drinkers expressing concern.

Management should be based on scientific data. That's the position of the local Sierra Club chapter. So they're coordinating with local interests to collect data on the Verde's water quality and flow before the pumping and dumping (my sarcasm, not theirs) begins. Baseline data will provide a frame of reference for "normal" levels of E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorous, arsenic, pH, dissolved solids, etc., and a gaggle of data on flow rate. Toward that end, I volunteered a day with the Sierra Club recently to help collect measurements on the river.

A dedicated volunteer scales a structure after
collecting water quality data

I was impressed with the use and appreciation of this river that we witnessed. I saw the bumper sticker at top prominently displayed on a farm truck along one of our river stops. I don't often see a rural blue collar citizen advocating for conservation... Not here, not usually anyway. A young country couple spending a day on the river with their babies seemed aware of the issues, and pumped us for the latest information on reclaimed water use. As their little ones dipped their toes in the river, it wasn't hard to see their point of concern. Though we managed to avoid them, I was told we may run (literally) into Kayakers who are weekend regulars on the river. There were plenty of fishermen, whom I eyed enviously...

A fisherman forgetting time along the river

Native American cliff dwellings sit unobtrusively above the banks of the Verde at a few points here and there. Apparently there is such a thing as "First Nation's water rights", which makes the Verde River a concern of the descendants of these dwellings as much as anyone's.

Native American cliff dwellings along the Verde River

Who knows... With all these forces working together, maybe the Verde River has a chance at avoiding ground water pumping and reclaimed water.

Personally, I don't think so; Arizona has a track record of allowing rampant growth without adequate resources to support it. Ground water from the aquifer will be pumped. Reclaimed water will be used. People will be upset, and it will make headlines (again). But there is still success in this scenario: in the uniting of fishermen and farmers, scientists and recreational enthusiasts, Native Americans, and families spending a lolly gagging Sunday on the river.