Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Whole-Life Update

Hello Folks,

Since I left the Aquarium in April of this year, I have been healing (my body notified me dramatically that it will no longer be ignored), writing, and networking. I have updated my resume to reflect my rich experience in education, program development and management, capacity building (basically just helping people expand their horizons, skills, and knowledge), and volunteer management.

But I am looking for a new type of work that may be in a field well beyond marine biology. I want to work with people who want what I have to offer and love their work, people like the volunteers I left behind at the Aquarium. These wonderful volunteers love to learn, are curious about the world, and really want to make a positive difference. These are the kinds of people I need in my work life.

In between job hunting and healing and networking, I have been photographing bugs and my garden and virtually anything with an interesting texture or design. I have spotted several bumble bee species in my garden nectaring on the red clover that springs up along the burnt edges of what passes for my lawn, and on the flowering herbs and other bumble-bee friendly flowers in my small garden. Strangely, many perennial plants that grew tall last year and bloomed in mid-July last summer are much shorter and developing flowers already; is it the early heat?

Last Monday I presented "Six-Hearted Sex," a Powerpoint about giant Pacific octopus reproduction. I had detailed notes to go with my photos, but like the pollinator presentation I gave last year at Scarabs (the local entomology group), it was too dark to read them. So, I just dove into my inner entertainer. I had a great time, reflected by a cheering crowd and crowned by one nine year old boy's final comment                     "You are a-m-a-z-i-n-g!"

Back to the garden. Increased heat and more days of it means more plant-chomping critters. Even in the many painted pots I use to expand my garden space, herbivorous insects have been making forays. First it was cabbage white butterfly larvae, hiding by day along the spines of dinosaur kale leaves. Wise to their camouflage, I picked their unmoving kale-green bodies off the leaves at night and popped them into my carnivorous pitcher plants. Now I have leaf miners (larvae of an as yet unidentified insect) skeletonizing rainbow chard leaves. If I catch them before they pupate, I pick them out of the middle of the leaf layers and feed them to the half dozen sundew plants on the windowsill. Yum. And big old black flies that enter the house, well, this says it all in my sort-of poem, "Nightcap":

A big, black, buzzing housefly,
the kind that seems almost too huge to be airborne,
keeps banging into the shower curtain,
stuck in her routine.
House-bound flies like this used to drive me nuts
Now, they delight me
Because I have plans.
Big plans,
For this big fly.
 “Just stick around, honey,
I have someone I want you to meet.
Her name is Venus
She’s outside right now visiting the garden,
but soon, 
I’m bringing her pot in for the night.

Can you say: Venus flytrap?

I'll add more photos once I figure out how.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Watch This

Because I care about what I put into my mouth and my brain, I want to know what the food industry is up to  (read or watch "Food Inc."). And beyond my own body, I want to to keep the world safe for the myriad of little creepy crawlies and other creatures that really keep nature running. But right now, the big thing for me is food security, which is featured in a video documentary I just ran across. Access to healthy food is an environmental justice issue, especially for people who live in neighborhoods without access to fresh food, but plenty of fast food chains. "Urban Fruit" is the video. I found it on Amazon's Prime video, had no idea what it was about, but it sounded cool. I have seen it twice. I loved it.

If you care about food security and have a rebellious streak, watch this. The people who are interviewed are just plain folks who are growing vegetables in innovative and empowering ways.
Share it with your kids, partner, friends.

Follow These Women

One woman has come from the world of fashion and filmmaking, the other from science and advanced degrees. Both have famous parents, courage, and bright, creative intellects. The also share a love of the natural world, especially invertebrates, and a rich fascination with the sexual proclivities, parts, and processes of these animals. Each woman has created a world that explores and celebrate the intimate lives of the spineless and other little-known animals.

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, has a current blog at Her 2002 book, Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex, is not to be missed. Written like a Dear Abby column, it purports to give sex advice to confused critters with complicated and mysterious reproductive strategies. The result is a factual, funny, and very detailed account of much more than just what part goes where. I have found copies in used bookstores for under $10. Get one.

Isabella Rossellini's new book is accompanied by a DVD of short videos. Green Porno is a delightful visual exploration of the sex lives and more of marine and other invertebrates. Although shorter on accuracy than Olivia Judson's pieces, the paper creations that depict the animals and sexual processes are delightful.

Since these two books have been published, several other books about animal sex have come out. But these two are, well, ovular (I'm trying to find another word besides the male-oriented "seminal", meaning "formative, groundbreaking, original, innovative). Ovilar sounds like a character from a Hobbit story. Ovumnal or ovanal are awkward. I'll go with ovular.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How They Do It

OK, so you haven't spent sleepless hours trying to figure out how sea stars or octopus or potato bugs make babies. But contemplate now the weirdly wonderful world of sex among the wiggly, squishy, crunchy, often faceless creatures that make up most of the animal kingdom.

And I'm talking sexual reproduction, not asexual. Big difference. Simply put, throughout the living world as we know it, sexual reproduction is the union of egg and sperm. Period. Sex, though, is only one form of reproduction. Cloning, budding, splitting, and such gruesome-sounding activities as pedal laceration, are asexual forms of reproduction that take place without the union of egg and sperm.

The complexities of sexual reproduction, especially with animals that lack obvious organs such as penises or vaginas, is what I want to introduce today. The sea star (AKA starfish) for instance, is among the lucky animals that practice *pretty safe sex. No female or male parts collude in lustful embraces. No touching at all. Mature females release eggs into surrounding sea water and males release sperm into the same environment. Sometimes boys go first, sometimes girls. Often one animal's release triggers others nearby, turning the waters into a veritable soup of gametes. If the animals are close enough and the currents work in their favor, egg and sperm will meet, resulting in tiny larvae that will usually join the throng of multi-species plankton that is the basis for most of the marine food-webs.

There is definitely nothing safe about octopus sex. If you want the details (and they are amazing) let me know and that will be my next blog.

*At least one species of NW sea star, the mottled star, Evasterias troschelii, is often invaded by a parasite which causes no visible damage until the sea star spawns. Sea stars expend a lot of energy spawning and are often weakened afterwards, which is when Evasterias's parasite attacks, causing the sea star to literally fall apart and die.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of slime, bathroom visitors, and biomimicry

Going right onto another topic without finishing the last one (why gender matters when talking about critters) is well, maybe tacky or lazy or both. If you want to know the rest of the story, let me know and I'll finish it.

But right now I'm interested in what I found the morning after the last big rain storm (2 days ago?). I was reaching for a towel in the bathroom when something dark and thin appeared on the pale gray linoleum. "Hmph. Wonder if that's a scrap of my last collage littering the floor? I'll get to it later." My housekeeping can generously be called impulsive, light, and infrequent. I tried to ignore the blackish smudge as I scrubbed my face. Then I realized that it was moving--real slow. "Aw crap."

A 2" mottled gray slug was laboriously slimeing across the very dry linoleum towards my spot by the sink. "Where the heck did that thing come from?" The bathroom sat about 6 feet above the concrete walkway outside, and the small window was jammed shut. The bathroom's plaster wall, mostly held together with a wretched pastiche of left-over latex paint applied by some previous colorblind renter, has no obvious holes to the outside. Then I noticed where the molding was absent along the floor, exposing some dark crevices at the edge of the wall. I suppose it may have come up that way, but that's the basement down there. What could it be eating and why come up to a dry place when they need to stay moist?

A few years ago in Portland I discovered a critter that freaked me out when I first saw it. As I reached over the rim of my bathtub to turn the water on, a 2"-3" a hairy scary scurrying thing was frantically running back and forth along the bottom. Imagine a combination of 5 or 6 big spiders all stuck together, butt to head to butt to head. And moving really really fast like an alien on amphetamines. After the initial shock of seeing my first house centipede, and realizing it was waaay more scared of big ol me, I got to wondering how it made it into the bathtub. Not via the plumbing, a closed system. Research revealed that it was probably trying to reach water and had crawled up into the tub from the bathroom floor, couldn't get out, and freaked. These centipedes roam around in houses searching for silverfish, roaches, and any other small critters they can find.

The slug on the floor made less sense than the centipede in the tub, but there it was, a small Limax. These slugs, that can stretch to over 4" long, are usually found in my moist worm bin about 3 yards away from the back porch steps, competing with the compost worms for delicious rotting vege leftovers in the bin. Which was where I tossed it after picking it's squishy little body up with a tissue--you don't want to get slug slime on your skin, especially the form slugs produce when stressed. The stuff can be so resilient that it stays on your hands through several washings, scrapings, and a lot of cussing. It's so persistent that a couple of decades ago the US Navy was investigating it's gluey strength for use underwater. Apparently it didn't pass muster, but another relative's sticky product did.

Blue mussels, an eminently edible relative of slugs, produce byssal threads. These tough strands anchor the mussels to rocks and and other hard surfaces so the mollusks don't get swept away by waves or low tides. But they have another more exciting function. If a predatory snail crawls up onto a bunch of mussels (remember, they're stuck in one spot), the mussels shoot out byssal strands to entrap the snail. It's all over for the predator, which is now permanently stuck in starvation mode. These threads don't dissolve in sea or fresh water, so they would seem to be ideal for underwater adhesion.

I don't know the results of the Navy's research (should go online to search), but this is one of thousands of natural substances being studied for use in medical, industrial/commercial, architectural, and military arenas. Spider silk, the special connective tissues of sea cucumbers, the venoms of various poisonous marine snails, and the silica skeletons of some sea sponges are a few of the myriad of known substances and structures that have been the basis for the science of biomimicry. Nature really does do it best. Yet another reason to preserve all of those creepy crawlie critters that compel some people to ask: "Well if you can't eat them, what good are they?"

I never did discover how or why the slug made it into the dry bathroom. Go figure.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What just happened here and why does it matter?

Two adults are peering into a tidepool and reaching towards one of many very similar-looking sea stars. They both ask questions such as: “Does he bite? Will he sting me? How fast can he move?”

I smile as I reply in my warmest naturalist tone: “She is very slow and does not bite or sting.” And her food doesn’t move and so she doesn’t need speed. It’s perfectly safe to touch her gently with one finger.”

One of the visitors looks up at me and asks: "How do you know it's a female?"

How indeed. Without knowing anything about sea star biology except that males and females look the same until they spawn, what do you think just happened and what do you think I said next to the visitor?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Alien lips? Strange roots? Floating kid's toy? Mating spiny sea worms?

I'd like to say it's #4 above, but It's actually a slurp-fest. This juvenile California sea cucumber is sucking something yummy off the surface of the water. Its white feeding tentacles, at the far right, are snatching particles with their mucosy tips. One by one the feeding tentacles were pulled into the central mouth and sucked clean of sticky food, much like peanut-butter-covered fingers in a human mouth. The double image was created by the water's reflection of the animal's underside.