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Science

Words, words, words

I’m a writer and a scientist. For both these jobs, I think a lot about words. Nothing brings me more joy than finding just the right word to describe what I find in nature. Further, nothing gives me more anxiety than seeing how sloppily we throw around terms and phrases in science. I worry that so many of the connections between our individual bodies of work are lost in translation when all the different camps use their own specialized phrases to describe what is essentially the same concept. To this end, a poem:

Whene'er I read papers,
I can't help but feel
that most of our buzzwords
just spin the same wheel.
 
The models we make
hinge on what we can measure
and measurements hinge
on the time at our leisure.
 
More, whether a factor
holds import or no
depends on how deep
our hypotheses go.
 
And since we seek patterns
with broad application,
one critical goal
is precise appellation.
 
But lo, I'm a lumper
and my viewpoint is firm
that each subject in nature
needs not its own term.
 
For the more we partition
the way we confer,
the more power we lose
to connect and concur.
 
If we aim to speak clear,
Our conference to unfetter:
In lieu of new words,
Use the ones we have better.
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Daily Nature Diary

Yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons)

I am the official Bug Wrangler for our household. It’s a pretty great gig. I help my friends feel more at ease in our home, I interact with cool arthropods, and I save innocent creatures from a cruel and unusual demise by slipper. A real win-win-win. Now that we’re all stuck home in springtime, business is booming.

Yesterday, we propped our back door to let in the warm breeze and a yellow jacket zipped inside. He immediately whizzed up the stairs into my housemate’s bedroom.

And that’s when you call in the Bug Wrangler.

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Daily Nature Diary

Nature Diary 5: Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura)

Daily observation and daily writing are my goals, and I’m pleasantly surprised how well I’m able to stay with them. They are rules I’ll try to carry with me beyond this exceptional era. However daily sharing may not be reasonable. Polish takes time, which I have in spades, and energy, which I can’t always muster. We must be kind to ourselves and recognize when we’re asking too much. Rest is essential for clarity and creativity.

I was passing by the road leading to a now abandoned elementary school when I heard loud, frantic flapping, like tattered flags caught in a windstorm. I whipped around to see what was causing the racket.

Two huge black turkey vultures were squabbling over a snag perch, clumsily batting and prodding each other with their enormous wings. The one who couldn’t keep a good talon-hold eventually gave up and resigned itself to settling a couple trees over. If turkey vultures can glower, this one was glowering darkly at its rival while the other bird sat nonchalantly preening the white tips of its wings.

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Daily Nature Diary

Daily Nature Diary 4: onion shoots (Allium cepa)

This will be a short entry because today was a full day. It was also a rainy day, so I didn’t get out to explore other than to make a morning run to the grocery store. It was eerily quiet. Everyone tried to stay six feet apart, but we still smiled at one another as we navigated our carts through the aisles. It reminded me of an old focus-building game I used to play in middle school theater where we had to maintain our personal invisible bubble while still moving purposefully through the space. If any two actors got too close together their bubbles popped and everyone had to start over. This is how I think about flattening the curve: individual actions affect the entire group. By staying apart, we’re all working together to protect each other’s safety.

I did write something I’m quite proud of today: a letter of recommendation for one of my students to join a Distinguished Majors Program at the University. It was wonderful to write something I knew could have such a positive impact on someone’s future. It was wonderful to write about the future.

I found an old onion I’d forgotten about in the back of my pantry cabinet. It’s sprouted little green shoots out the top. Warmer temperatures stimulate the bulb to grow, so I guess my pantry must be just warm and dark enough to feel like spring earth. I’m going to cut the onion for my dinner tonight, but I wonder if it would flower like the daffodil bulbs along our fence if I planted it? I looked it up and sure enough, if you leave sweet onions bulbs in the ground for multiple years they produce little white flower puffballs.

On our video call last night, my sister in law told us how she had planted green onions in a pot on their back porch last year but never saw any shoots. And yet, this year they have green onions popping up in the corner of their yard. I wonder if some creature dug them out of the pot and moved them, or whether some stray seeds fell on a patch of good exposed soil?

I’m amazed by an onion’s tenacity. Tiny seeds manage to spread all over the world through wind, water, and the movements of animals. In Origin, Darwin recognized that seeds persist through extraordinary circumstances. He floated seeds in barrels of brine in his lab and attempted to foster cross-species seed transmission from plant to goldfish to duck (with limited success). Still, his experiments demonstrated that it was possible for seeds to disperse long distances and colonize new places halfway around the globe. An inland seed stuck to the foot of a migrating seabird can germinate on a distant island. A mischievous squirrel can dig up some green shoots and accidentally replant them. An onion from the pantry can sprout an entire garden.

It’s a day of looking ahead, and planting new seeds.

Reference

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

Daily Nature Diary

Daily Nature Diary 3: Birdsong

My friend Mollie asks: “why do birds that hang out near water have ‘uglier’ calls than the birds we like to watch congregating in our trees?”

Mollie lives in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks away from Lake Michigan. To break up the days stuck inside, she’s been running on the beach and watching the squawking flocks of Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) roaming the empty shores. Meanwhile in Virginia, I awoke to the dawn choruses of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), and Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia).

It’s an excellent question. Why do songbirds sound prettier than shorebirds? In response, I’ll consider three different perspectives, all fascinating, all non mutually exclusive.

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Daily Nature Diary

Daily Nature Diary 2: Groundhogs (Marmota monax)

On the surface, today is an ordinary Saturday. I didn’t set my alarm, but still got up before sunrise. I had my breakfast, then sipped my customary earl grey tea at my desk while I listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition. I did some computer work. I read while I ate lunch: my weekend treat of cheese, crackers, apple, and peanut butter. I read some more burrowed under a blanket on the couch. I took a stroll around the neighborhood. And now I’m back at my desk writing.

I saw two groundhogs on my walk. One was trundling along the overgrown bank of the stream at the end of my road. The other was munching clover on the edge of a planted row of trees by the train tracks. I loved watching them rustle around in the greening grass, noses twitching, backsides wiggling. Today has been a groundhog day.

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Daily Nature Diary

Daily Nature Diary 1: Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)

There are 397 daffodils in our yard. 401 if I include the four my housemate Caroline and I snipped off for the jar on our kitchen table. We had no idea that such a happy host of yellow would pop up along the fence of our neighborhood rental home. They all opened in the last couple of weeks: heralds of springtime. We’re delighted to have them!

Daffodils are perennial plants, meaning they flower for multiple seasons. Plants in the genus Narcissus are especially long-lived, with some records suggesting individuals could flower indefinitely, or at least far longer than the lifespan of a human observer. Hence the daffodil’s ancient namesake, Asphodel, after the mystical flowers filling the fields of Elysium in ancient Greek visions of heaven.

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Daily Nature Diary

Introducing Daily Nature Diary: a challenge to enjoy being an animal

It’s an uncanny time to be an evolutionary biologist. Because I’m versed in the literature and the lexicon, I can mostly follow the epidemiological science in the news and separate fact from fiction. That’s a huge help with the incessant and ever-shifting barrage of confusing, conflicting, and sometimes just plain unscientific information surrounding the COVID-19 virus.

But at the same time, I study interactions like those between predator and prey, parasite and host, viral pathogen and susceptible population for a living. I’ve committed those classic papers and figures to memory. And because I am painfully familiar with how the dynamics of what our species is currently facing could play out, I will speak candidly. I am worried. I am scared. My colleagues and mentors and friends in the field are as well. Decades of research tell us that the measures we all take now – strict social distancing, rigorous hygiene and cleaning, a complete restructuring of our institutions, sacrificing the day-to-day customs of our lives – are critical if we hope to flatten the curve of this pandemic.

I have never felt more viscerally a part of nature than I do right now, as our species faces a biological enemy that poses such an immediate existential threat.

Continue reading “Introducing Daily Nature Diary: a challenge to enjoy being an animal”
Science

Phidippus audax

The little black jumping spider tickles its way up my forearm. I turn my head to get a better look as it climbs over the knob of my elbow. It stops, sticks its two front legs up in the air, and stares at me. At least I think it does. With all those glittery eyes it’s hard to tell where it’s looking.

Is the spider reacting to me? Legs up could merely be its resting position. It could be stretching out tight muscles after a long crawl or preparing for an acrobatic jump from my arm to a nearby tree. Or it could be trying to steady its balance.

I cock my head to the side. It rocks back on its abdomen but maintains the posture. I slowly extend my finger toward its face. It scuttles backwards a couple steps, then raises its legs again. Three times in a row, my movements triggered a response. It seems to know I’m here.

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Science

Tide Pooling

We gather for the American Society of Naturalists meetings at Asilomar State Beach to argue about life. We share our most specialized natural history discoveries and our broadest theories about the nature of evolution. We debate the scale and strength of adaptation, sketch out complex feedback loops connecting ecological and evolutionary processes, and weigh the behavioral and life history strategies which organisms use to deal with fluctuating environmental pressures. Are there observable, unambiguous patterns of convergence and divergence, stasis and change, or is most of what we see the product of historical contingency?

And when the day’s presentations are done, I go tide pooling.

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