31 Jan 2014

What’s the Name of That Caterpillar?: A Sampling of Identification Guides (Part I)

by Jan Thornhill

It’s the middle of winter, not exactly a traditional season for mushrooming, but the big table in my dining room is nonetheless covered with fungal specimens—weird crusts, desiccated jellies, mini shriveled cups, spore-spewing remnants of slime moulds—all of which I’ve peeled off frozen logs and dead branches with my equally frozen fingers. Many of them I’ve never seen before. Many are minute. Many take hours to identify. But I don’t care how long it takes to find out what they are. I want to know their names. I need to know their names.
Yes, I'm even dragging chunks of firewood up to my table.
Am I weird to be so obsessed with the sorting and naming of my mycological discoveries? Hardly. It turns out I’m not weird at all. Sorting and naming living things is hardwired into all of us. We are intuitively ontological animals, and we start out this way in infancy. Human babies are adept from a very early age at distinguishing between what is alive and what is not, and show a clear preference, (judged by length of attention span), for depictions of animals—of pandas and frogs and chickens, as opposed to hats and hammers and rocks. This preference, along with an ability to easily distinguish between different genera, is even more apparent once we begin to talk.

In one analysis of the first 25 nouns spoken by babies, an average of more than ten of those words represented animals of some sort or form: dog, cat, bird, Daddy, baby, etc. And babies don't just name. They are amazingly adept at sorting, at practicing folk taxonomy. Toddlers, who have only just figured out what DOG is, have an almost mysterious ability to instantly place both a
Chihuahua and a Great Dane—despite the gross visual differences between those breeds—into that DOG category. 
(Image: Shutterstock)
This predisposition to sort and name living things is an adaptation that has stood our species well. For millennia it was crucial to our survival, in all stages of life, to be able to identify which living things were of benefit to us and which could cause us harm. Though most of us in the western world are now far removed from those original wild environments, we continue to exhibit an uncommon interest in other animal species, most strikingly when we’re young, evidenced by the collections of stuffed animals in many children's rooms, the preponderance of animal-themed picture books (some of which I'm responsible for), and, of course, by those dinosaur fanatics who, by the age of seven, can not only name an astonishing taxa of prehistoric creatures, but can also clearly articulate the differences between them. 

Though never a dinosaur fanatic myself, I have been a more than keen sorter and name-seeker since childhood. Birds, butterflies, fossils, leaves, beetles, skulls, animals tracks—I've spent time with them all. And I am not alone. It turns out that there are lots of people out there who are way, way more obsessed with this naming and sorting business than I have ever been. And some of these people write books to help those of us who are identification-obsessed, and some of these books are very specialized.

Jewel Beetles

Take jewel beetles, for instance. Never heard of them? Well, you've actually probably heard of one: the Emerald Ash Borer that has killed tens of millions of ash trees on this continent since its accidental introduction in the 1990s. The Emerald Ash Borer, along with the other 163 named jewel beetles found in northeastern North America, is featured in the new, and very specialized, Field Guide to Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America (Canadian Food Inspection Agency). Specialized, however, doesn't mean this book isn't a jewel itself—and it doesn't hurt that it's free (though they might have run out). 

Each species—many of which are gorgeously iridescent, hence their common name—is represented with at least four clear photographs, including dorsal views of male genitalia, which are apparently helpful for identification. The facing pages have range maps, detailed notes, and easy-to-grasp icons indicating size, habitat, and feeding habits. Sections at the front include the morphology of jewel beetles, tips on finding and preserving them, a glossary, a technical key, and, for those who are inspired to take the task of identification seriously, there is also an illustrated tutorial on how to dissect jewel beetle genitalia to help separate cryptic species! 


Are jewel beetles too specific? How about the lowly caterpillar, then? Though many of us can recognize a monarch butterfly’s striking larva, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify many others. Yes, there are butterfly guides that include a few pictures of the most common Lepidoptera progeny, but the identity of most caterpillars has been out of reach for a lay person. Until now.
David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut, has finally come to our rescue with Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Princeton University Press). Inside this beautifully produced guide are photographs of the caterpillars of nearly 700 species of butterflies and moths. The first thirty pages of the book contain masses of information covering caterpillar anatomy, life cycle, where to find them, how to rear and overwinter them, and more. In the guide portion of the book, each page includes at least one close-up of the star, plus another of an adult specimen, along with a clear description of the larva, its habitat and range, and its food plants. The best part, though, are the detailed Remarks that are so filled with bewitching ecological, historical, and behavioural details, it's difficult to put the book down. Where else would one not only learn that the Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth practices "fecal flicking" to avoid detection by parasitic and predatory moths, but exactly how this "flicking" mechanism works? 


The Scarlet-winged Lichen moth is also featured in the new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), as are nearly 1,500 other species. For someone like me who has been known to spend hours on the porch with flashlight and magnifying glass glorying in the exquisite beauty of the "jewels of the night" that collect under the illumination of the porch light, this book is a godsend. 
Co-authors, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie (both Ontarians), present each species in natural resting position, instead of with wings spread the way they are when pinned, as they have been depicted in other guides. Range maps are included, as are colour bars that indicate when you are most likely to see each species. Beyond this book's near perfection as a field guide, there are comprehensive sections at the beginning that cover various aspects of "mothing" (new word!), such as "How to Find" and "How to Photograph." The names alone are so much fun—Pink-patched Looper, Music-loving Moth—that I can't wait till the weather warms enough to get out there under my porch light with magnifying glass. In the meantime, I could start up a heavy metal band and maybe call it Fragile Dagger. Or Impudent Hulda. Or Sordid Wainscot. The possibilities are endless.

Part II coming February 14!

  • Field Guide to Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America, S.M. Paiero, M. Jackson, A. Jewiss-Gaines , T. Kimoto, B.D. Gill, and S.A. Marshal, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2012. 411p. ISBN: 978-1-100-19794-4
  • Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History, David L. Wagner, Princeton University Press, 2005. 496p. ISBN: 0691121443
  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, David Beadle, Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 624p. ISBN: 9780547238487

25 Jan 2014

My Stinky Sneakers

    Ewww...What is that smell? Were my socks washed in skunk juice? Did my feet turn into moldy cheese I don’t think so. It is my stinky sneakers.

I hold my nose when I take off my sneakers. My mom holds her nose too. My dog sniffs and quivers with delight. Why are my sneakers so smelly?

My stinky sneakers were not dropped in the garbage. They did not come from a manure factory. My sneakers stink because they have tiny creatures called bacteria (back-teer-ee-ah) living in them. It is not the sneakers that smell, it is the bacteria living in them. More precisely, it is not the bacteria in my sneakers that smell, it is their farts.

Your old shoes probably have smelly bacteria too.  But no matter how hard you or I look in our shoes, we will not see the bacteria. They are too small. We cannot see everything that is real.

Bacteria don’t just live in my sneakers… They live all over me, all over my body, inside and out. Bacteria live everywhere. On animals, on plants, in the air, in the soil, in the water. Bacteria live deep in the ground, on the ocean floor, on the top of Mount Everest, in the clouds, in the Antarctic ice.

The bacteria that live on my body are body bacteria. They like it warm, the temperature of me. Not all bacteria living on me are stinky. Some of them keep me healthy. I need them to help me make vitamins and keep my skin clean. But a few of the bacteria that live on my body can make me sick. Sometimes, my throat gets sore because too many bacteria are growing in my mouth.

Most bacteria just hang around, living on me like I live on the Earth. The stinky bacteria living in my sneakers are like that. There is more than one kind of bacteria living in my stinky sneakers. They have big names like Staphylococcus (Staff – ee – low –cock – us) and Propionibacteria (Pro – pee – on –ee – back – teer – ee – a). Stahylococcus are very small, and are shaped like a marble. Propionibacteria are shaped like jellybeans. These kinds of bacteria like to live where it is warm and dark. My sneakers are a perfect home.

My sneakers have something else that these bacteria love..lots of sweat to eat. Feet make a lot of sweat. Most people’s feet make more than a cup of sweat, every day. The sweat my feet makes soaks into my socks and into my sneakers. Sweat is mostly water, but there is also a little bit of salt and a little bit of sugar. Sneaker bacteria eat this salt and this sugar. It is their favorite food.

The more sweat in my sneakers, the more bacteria food. The bacteria grow and make even more bacteria. If there was a straight line of bacteria from my toe to my heel, there would be sixty thousand bacteria in a row. Lots of sweat makes crowds of bacteria. My sneakers are like a giant bacteria concert, like the Superbowl, or Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

My sweat does not smell. But when the bacteria in my stinky sneakers eat it, they sure leave behind smells when they finish dinner. In a way, it is like lots of minuscule bacteria farts. Phew!

Scientists are trying to grow a new kind of bacteria that eats sweat but does not make bad smells. This kind of bacteria would live in sneakers and clothes and eat up all the sweat and dirt. My sneakers would stay clean and never need to be washed. My mom says these scientists should hurry up.

Stinky sneakers mean that I have been playing and running. Stinky sneakers mean that I have been exercising and staying healthy. Stinky sneakers give my bacteria a place to live and food to eat.

When I get home, I take my stinky sneakers off. And I put my smelly socks in the laundry basket. And then I do the stink test.  I lift my leg in the air, point my toes at my sister and say, “smell my feet.” If she holds her nose or runs away, my feet are stinky too. And then I know…

...it is time to take a bath.

17 Jan 2014

Stories in Slate: Touring an Underground Mine

Corris Mine Explorers tour, Wales
By Marie Powell (Photos by L. L. Melton)

A tour of an underground mine offered a hands-on science opportunity during a recent trip to the Braich Goch slate mine in North Wales.

We spent more than two hours in the mine tunnels with our expert guide Mark of Corris Mine Explorers. During that time, we explored the abandoned caverns, learned a little mining history, and examined original artifacts used in this once-prosperous slate mine.
Tallow candles in clay (L L Melton photo)

The underground tunnels date to 1836, and by 1878 the mine employed about 250 workers producing 7000 tons of slab and roofing slate. In its heyday, families negotiated for mining rights to the chambers, which were known as "bargains," Mark told us. Men and boys aged 10-35 worked the mine in near darkness, hoarding the tallow candles made from sheep fat that provided their only light source. They used clay to carry the candle with them and fix it to the slate walls of the mine as they worked

Tools (L L Melton photo)

We had a chance to see several original artifacts used in the mine and left there. These tools date back to the 1860s, Mark said. Using the mallet, a worker would strike the rod three times, then turn and strike three more, for a total of nine strikes. Black powder was packed into the hole. They used copper and brass rods because they don't spark, he added.
Mine shaft (L L Melton photo)

Since the mine is full of ledges and drops, and candles were scarce, it was important to have a reliable method of finding their way around the mine in almost total darkness, he said. They used a form of echo-location, orienting themselves to the sounds of dripping water in the cave, or to their own singing.

Tight fit

Most of the time we were able to walk upright, but at times there was barely enough room for a person to crouch. At one point Mark tied us to a rope and let us look out over a drop in the mine to a level below. Staring down at the eerily echoing caverns far below us, we were glad of our headlamps and gear, and hyper-aware of the danger the miners faced every day.
Mine artifacts (L L Melton photo)
Artifacts lined the mine at strategic locations. Mark pointed out the expected ones, such as a detonation box, explosives, and a "bugle" of black powder. Among the artifacts we saw a 19th Century example of recycling: a jar for W P Hartley's marmalade, probably re-used for drippings from sheep fat, since bread and drippings were a staple of the miner's diet.

These historical artifacts also show the effects of rust, which occurs when water and oxygen goes to work on iron, especially cast iron as would have been the case in the late 1800s.

Stratification (L L Melton)
The walls themselves are a study in stratification, or the layers of rock that form over time. We stopped more than once to examine them.

Stratification (L L Melton photo)Mushrooms were visible in several places as well, and Mark pointed out that these fungi can act as agents of erosion on some artifacts, such as this oxidizing nail covered in what looked like red-orange fuzz.

Ochre coloration (L L Melton)The ochre coloration, generally from iron oxides or limonite, gave the walls of the mine a striking look in places as well.

The geological processes we could clearly see at work in this underground environment made it well worth the trip, and having a knowledgeable guide willing to let us explore at our own pace was invaluable.

Marie Powell is the author of seven books for children, including Dragonflies are Amazing (Scholastic Canada) and a six-book Word Families series (Amicus Publishing). 


10 Jan 2014

Evolution At Work, on Australia’s West Coast

By Margriet Ruurs

Everyone knows of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, on the east coast. The west coast, however, has quietly been harbouring a secret: the Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay World Heritage areas, some 700 km north of Perth, the capital city of the state of Western Australia, are world class attractions but much less visited.

We drive thousands of kilometres through dry, red-soil desert dotted with shrubs, north from Sydney, then west across the Outback. Apart from the odd kangaroo, wallabee or emu, we don’t see many signs of wildlife. And even fewer signs of other people. So it comes as a surprise to find out that some 100,000 visitors per year visit Shark Bay World Heritage Drive. But once you reach this road of global significance, there is plenty to see.

Our first stop, after turning off the North West Coastal Highway, is Hamelin Pool. I had read about this area in Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country. Reading his description of stromatolites left me curious. Would there be brilliant colors? Would it look gory?

Stromatolites are living fossils that contain microbes similar to those found in rocks dating back some 3,500 million years. They are, in fact, the earliest record of life on earth. If stromatolites had not developed, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, you and I might never have come into existence. So we owe a lot to these early life forms and I was curious to see them.

To my untrained eye, they resemble lava formations. Not much taller than two feet, the pillars of rock sit in aqua salt water at the edge of the ocean. Nice, but not spectacular. As if emphasizing the fact that looks can be deceiving, you’d never suspect the significance of these rounded gray and black rocks. But these stromatolites are found in only two places on earth, earning them enough credit to receive special UNESCO status.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) only grants this special recognition to areas of outstanding universal value, and only when they meet specific criteria. Shark Bay earns its recognition by being outstanding in four areas: natural beauty, history of the earth, ecological processes and biological diversity. The World Heritage area covers over two million hectares, protecting unique landscapes as well as many endangered species of animals. Other areas in the world of the same calibre include the Galapagos Island and the Grand Canyon. In comparison, Grand Canyon National Park encompasses just shy of 500,000 hectares and receives some five million visitors per year!

The World Heritage Drive continues north-west onto the Shark Bay peninsula.

Our next stop is Shell Beach. The waters of Shark Bay are home to billions of tiny coquina bivalve shells. High salinity has resulted in the accumulation of millions of these shells along the shore. The shellfish have existed here, in huge numbers, for thousands of years, before being washed ashore, ground up into fine white particles. The 60-km-long stretch known as Shell Beach reaches a depth of some 7 to 10 metres of pure white shells. The effect is brilliant; a long, snow-white beach bordered by aqua-blue ocean waters.

The road ends at Monkey Mia. This reserve is among the best known attractions Australia has to offer. It is here that wild dolphins have been coming to interact with people for over 40 years. I had heard many stories, most people telling me that I should have gone there years ago. “It has really changed,” people told me, “You can’t touch the dolphins anymore... It’s very regulated.” So my expectations were not high and I feared an economic exploitation of a natural phenomena.

My visit to Monkey Mia, however, was fun! I was skeptical of how wild these dolphins would be. And to some extent they have, of course, been conditioned by feedings. But this does not take away from the fact that no one knows if or when the dolphins will show up.

Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Wildlife of the government of Western Australia, rangers greet several hundred visitors from all over the world around 8:00 each morning. They explain basic guidelines, such as no touching and no sunscreen on your legs, before giving information on the local pod. Nicky has been visiting this beach since the seventies. She brings her children who, in turn, come and visit as they grow older. Anywhere from 2 to 26 dolphins might show up at any given morning.

“We can only have five dolphins in our interaction program,” the ranger explains. And these five are always females who have been proven to be good hunters and good mothers. Thus they will not teach bad habits or neglect their offspring. Of course, using only females ensures the continuation of a program on which an entire resort now is built.

But the rangers talk extensively to the visitors, giving everyone a chance to observe, take photos and ask questions. There’s no rush, no feeding frenzy. When the dolphins feel that they have waited long enough, they are fed a few fish before they disappear into the ocean again.

For lots of information and even a virtual tour, go to the Shark Bay website.

All photos by Margriet Ruurs.

3 Jan 2014

Pub Science

For fun and wonder today, the science we're exploring is... the history of London's oldest Pub! Um. Pubs don't sound very scientific. (For those who haven't heard the word, a pub is a British or Canadian bar that's one genteel step nicer than an ordinary bar.) History might not seem very scientific to those who are thinking of rocket ships or particle physics or chemistry. Where are the lasers, the chalkboards covered with equations, the vats of bubbling chemicals? Well, at least the bubbling vats are part of the story. For most of this pub's story, beer was brewed right on site.

And the history of this particular pub from 1476 to the present was investigated thoroughly in archives of records, in old maps, and in old books of fiction and non-fiction. That kind of investigation involves the serious use of library science by an expert. So, instead of a mad scientist peering into telescopes or zapping electric sparks, the expert telling our story is... Pete Brown. A writer. So dedicated to his research that he spent hour after hour in pubs and libraries all over London. And Brown really is an expert on writing about pubs, based on his earlier books titled Hops And Glory, Three Sheets To The Wind, and Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History of Beer. That kind of experience makes Brown well-suited to write Shakespeare's Pub: A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn.

This photo of the George's innyard appeared at a British website's review of the book.
Putting aside any joking about beer, this book is actually an interesting read. Brown shows us the architecture of the George's old building changing through the centuries of fires and rebuilding. His sociological description of the Inn's location at one end of London Bridge has the reader seeing the heads of traitors impaled on spikes, and a steady traffic of small boats crossing the Thames river loaded with goods and people. And the people are the real story: fascinating people who owned and managed the George Inn or popped round for a pint of beer and a bite to eat, and the highwaymen who robbed them. “So before we get to the pistols, paintwork and heaving bosoms, I need to attempt something I don't think anyone has done before,” writes Brown on page 182. “I need to try to make the history of road transport sound interesting to a mainstream, balanced audience.” 

If highwaymen and publicans aren't to your taste, you might not read this book from cover to cover as I did, including the Timeline and Bibliography. I found it a rollicking good read! The photographs and illustrations are appealing, with useful captions. Anyone writing a history paper on London would do well to read a chapter or two of Shakespeare's Pub – or if you're writing about English pubs or British history or the writers Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and of course, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Pub
A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn
Pete Brown
St Martin's Press, New York 2013 
352 pages