Thursday, May 31, 2012

How We Spent Memorial Day Weekend

(Adventures in Arthropod Voyeurism Part 2)

[carapace of a lady crab (a species, not an epithet)
on the porch of the house we rented in DE]

At midnight on Friday, six members of the Limulus gang (those who weren’t either asleep or still in transit) walked the block and a half from the house we’d rented down to the beach. It was a clear night and the sky was scattered with a profusion of stars—a sight so mesmerizing to us city-dwellers that several members of our party nearly ran into trees, parked cars, and other roadside obstacles as they attempted to walk while gazing up at the heavens.

In spite of these dangers, we reached the beach without incident and stumbled along the uneven sand to the water, which we could hear more than see. We were guided in our trek by the light from some beach partiers’ bonfire; the young men and women gathered around the flames watched us curiously as we made our way to the shoreline and, using a crank-powered flashlight and the “flashlight app” on Annie’s phone, swept the beach with their beams.

There were no horseshoe crabs.

We walked further down the beach, moving our lights back and forth over the wet sand, and still found nothing.

“Maybe it’s too late in the season after all,” I concluded resignedly. “Well, we can at least enjoy the stars.”

We stood with our feet lapped by waves and stared up at the sequined dome of sky.

And then a different light source caught our attention. Two figures—mere silhouettes—were jogging down the beach, powerful flashlights and miner’s lights bobbing with their steps. As they got closer, we could make out a man and his ten-year-old son (he was the one with the miner’s headlamp) moving rapidly along the shore.

They too, it turned out, were looking for horseshoe crabs—but unlike us, they had found them: shining their powerful beams into the surf, they pointed out the shield-shaped shadows just beneath the surface.

[there are three horseshoe crabs in this picture;
can you find them all?]

We had arrived on the beach before the horseshoe crabs, but the crabs were coming, too.

They didn’t come en masse, as I had hoped they would and as they probably had done during the peak of the season. Nonetheless, gradually we could make out more and more of them in the shallow waves near shore—some already locked in a precopulatory embrace.

Soon we learned to recognize the shadows in the waves and the faintest hints of curved shapes breaking the smooth line of sand, and we’d cry out and run for them, much like sailors on whaling ships scanning the horizon for spouts (but less bloodthirsty).

At first the horseshoe crabs were shy of our lights, veering away from portions of the shore that we illuminated and making us feel a bit like police officers spotlighting parking couples:

We discovered, however, that once they had gotten onshore and the female had entrenched herself, we could gawk at them to our hearts’ content; they had more important things to focus on.

(We weren’t just peeping Toms, either: when one horseshoe crab got flipped upside-down by the tide and lay, helpless, on the sand, we did what you’re supposed to do and gave it a hand, turning it right-side up—but making sure not to touch its fragile tail, or “telson”.)

We saw several mating and pre-mating pairs spooning in the sand:

We also saw satellite males approaching and joining the mating action! (For more information on what satellite males are—although the name and photos should tell it all—see this post.)

[mated pair with approaching satellite]

[mating pair with two--count 'em, two!--
satellite males; note how much bigger
the female, partly submerged in sand,
is than the males]

Just to be clear: I may have been the one who thought up this adventure and provided the initial enthusiasm—and I was certainly the one who wrote up a fact sheet and made buttons—but I was not the only one who was excited by these sightings, not by a long shot.

Annie and our friends exclaimed just as loudly as I did, stared just as avidly into the waves to spot approaching individuals, and, even more fascinated than I, bent, rapt, over the gleaming armored shells of the amorous arthropods.

[our friend is shining a flashlight on the
horseshoe crabs--but doesn't it look like
she's interviewing them?]

This is not to say that all human visitors to the beach were equally thrilled with the invertebrate party going on. The group sitting around the bonfire had been blissfully ignorant of the momentous season during which they had chosen to camp on the beach, and once the man and his son, with their powerful flashlights, had shown them that the waves were alive (with the sight of crab-sex), their excitement was doused as swiftly and surely as their bonfire. By the time we got back to that portion of the beach, nothing was left of the group but a pile of sand covering the former fire-pit. Once again, the shore was ceded to invertebrates.

In the end, we couldn’t last much past 1:30am (although the horseshoe crabs certainly could). We wandered back home, bleary but smiling, and fell into bed with visions of merostomates dancing in our heads.

What more can I say? It was the best Memorial Day weekend ever.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Gripping Tale: Strong Embraces and Hangers On

(Memorial Day Arthropod Voyeurism Part 1)

[the button I had made for all 10 of us
in "The Limulus Gang"]

During the horseshoe crabs’ lustful storming of the Delaware beaches during May’s high tides, it’s all about sex—but not always in the same way.

For horseshoe crabs, fertilization is external but still close-up and personal—none of that soulless, faceless broadcast spawning for these invertebrates, thank you very much. Instead, a male grips a female—either before or soon after she’s crawled on shore—and, while she releases eggs into a nest she’s dug in the wet sand at the water’s edge, he releases sperm over them.

All well and good, and very romantic—a midnight embrace on the starlit shore, the waves murmuring sweet nothings—but that’s not the only kind of hanky-panky going on. Some males don’t compete to grip females; instead, they hover around already mated pairs, clustering close, and also release sperm over the female’s eggs.

These males are called “satellite males,” and—although the number of eggs they fertilize varies a lot—they still end up with enough offspring from their sideways encounters that their tactic is considered a legitimate alternate mating strategy.

And it really is a separate strategy, not just a back-up plan for those males too slow or shy to find a solo female; I’ll have to check my sources to provide you with citations, but I’m pretty sure researchers have found that the same males remain either satellites or grippers (not the technical term) at different times and under different circumstances.

You have to admit, this adds a whole new level of coolness to the whole spawning event. Think of it: a massive group mating that rivals even the worst excesses of ancient Rome or the 1970s, happening right here on the beaches, reminding us of the magnificent diversity and perversion of the animal world! (And I mean that in the very best way possible.)

And did we see it happen?

All will be revealed in the next installment of Arthropod Voyeurship!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Did We or Didn’t We?

This Memorial Day weekend, 10 of us came together on the shores of Lewes, DE, our only desire to observe the mating rituals of spawning horseshoe crabs (and, okay, to enjoy a beach vacation in each other’s company, but that was really peripheral).

But horseshoe-crab mating peaked early this year, and the evening tides this past weekend were weak, neap tides at midnight and 1am. Were the horseshoe crabs still tugged shorewards by their burning desire to mate—and if so, did we see them?

And either way, why should you care about the private lives of ancient-looking arthropods?

Stay tuned to learn the answers to all of these questions—and more!

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Flamingo Friday: The Missing

Doesn't this flamingo seem to be wondering where all of its pink has gone?

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shore Thing

In a world wracked with chaos and uncertainty, it’s nice to know that there’s at least one thing you can count on: each May, as the days lengthen and the waters warm, the horseshoe crabs emerge from the deep waters off of Delaware Bay and, pulled with the highest new- and full-moon tides, gather on the beaches in a seething wave of lust to propagate the next generation of bizarrely shaped arthropods.

It just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?

I’ve known about this yearly ritual for quite some time—ever since I did a literature review on horseshoe crabs back in college—but this is the first year that I will be present for it. This in spite of the fact that Annie and I have been here in DC, just a few short hours from the Delaware Bay, for two years now! It’s embarrassing, how long it took me to put two and two together…

But there’s no point brooding on the past—for this year, this Memorial Day weekend, Annie and I and six of our friends (and my parents) will descend upon Lewes, DE, and spend the weekend being Limulus polyphemus voyeurs!

Well, some of us more than others. I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some members of the party are more interested in spending the weekend at the beach (or watching DVDs in company) than they are in observing this once-a-year mating event. But I can live with that, especially since I intend to discourse extensively on horseshoe crabs regardless of the level of enthusiasm of my audience (I’ve even made a fact sheet).

In fact, the only thing I’m actually concerned about is that we’ll have missed the peak of horseshoe-crab mating—which, like every other seasonal event this year, occurred weeks earlier than usual. Still, there should be a fair number of stragglers still swarming the beaches, like late-comers to a party.

We should also get to see a good number of the migratory shorebirds that depend on the beach-laid horseshoe crab eggs for fuel during their long flights to the Arctic. So look forward to hearing about more absurd-but-true shorebird names in the weeks ahead! (Yes, they really are called “dunlins.”)

[actually, these are willets]

And you can definitely expect another post describing the fascinating sex lives of horseshoe crabs. (There will be citations. There may even be illustrations.)

All in all, it should be a pretty great Memorial Day weekend. I can only hope that all of you have equally exciting plans.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

More Bear than Bare

Maybe it’s because it’s my hometown zoo (although technically the late, lamented Belle Isle Zoo holds that distinction), but the Detroit Zoo has always had a special place in my heart. I think it’s a great place, and not only because it has an incredibly extensive collection of species. This is a zoo that has rethought and redesigned many of its exhibits and enclosures in order to make them both beautiful and appropriate for the animals they house, with enough space and “enrichment” activities to keep the animals engaged and enough hideouts to allow them to avoid prying eyes if they so choose.

[they also let the peacocks run free!
how great is that??]

One of their many very cool exhibits is the Arctic Ring of Life, an area with both a series of large outdoor enclosures and a below-ground-level space in which excited humans can peer into—or up at, in the tunnel—water in which, if you’re lucky, seals or polar bears swim. (But not together—they haven’t brought in that level of verisimilitude.)

When I visited the zoo in March with my parents and sister, we caught glimpses of arctic foxes adorably curled in little balls in their den, seals getting massages by positioning themselves in front of water jets, and polar bears...well, being kind of weird.

There are three polar bears roaming the Arctic exhibit, strolling around their vast terrain or sculling through the water, pausing occasionally to inspect the visitors under glass. Seeing a polar bear press its enormous paw against the plexi-glass arch of the underwater tunnel, you find yourself developing an instant respect for good architects—and cherishing a fervent hope that whoever designed this tunnel was one of them.

On this day, though, only one polar bear submerged itself, and only briefly. By the time we got back out to the outdoor exhibit, she was already out of the water and pacing, pausing occasionally to pose like a character in a Jack London novel.

And then she sauntered over to an area of scuffed-up gravel and dirt and, flopping herself down, proceeding to roll around for a good five minutes at least. This bear was really into her dust bath.

Or was it a dust bath?

When she was finished, she had turned a near-uniform brownish-grey and was hardly recognizable as a polar bear. In fact, visitors who arrived at the exhibit after her extended dust-roll were completely baffled.

[color of the dirt-disguised bear]

[color of another, normal polar bear,
also surprised by her transformation]

“They have a brown bear in there!” several people exclaimed. Another asked, “Is that a juvenile?”

“No, no,” we assured them, “it’s just a dirty polar bear.”

I’m not sure they believed us.

That may, in fact, have been the polar bear’s intention. I recognize that I’m anthropomorphizing like mad here, but the glee with which she rubbed herself in the concealing dirt was far greater than what could be explained by the pleasure of a simple dust bath. Instead, I’m pretty certain she was mischievously delighting in the confusion she knew she would cause zoo visitors.

Call me crazy if you like, but look at that grin and tell me I’m wrong.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Otters in Water (take 2)

I don’t have any astute observations to make about the otters I watched today—except to note, as no doubt many have before me, that otters have the shortest attention span of any animals ever. Except maybe extremely young kittens, or children right after a sugar-suffused birthday party.

This makes it especially challenging to photograph them, especially when they’re underwater, but the challenge is worth it to try to capture these funny, sinuous little creatures as they wriggle around in their pond, looking alternately curious, suspicious, and mildly offended.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Billed Up

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Short Photo-Series of Otter Siblinghood

The new batch of Asian small-clawed otters (there are 9 siblings and two parents). For more information on this large and interestingly named family, visit the zoo's page on them.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother’s Day Meditation

When I was a kid, a couple of times each year, birds—usually house sparrows—would get trapped inside our garage. Even though the big, car-sized door was open, they wouldn’t understand how to get out, and would batter themselves against the glass of the garage’s little window, panicked and uncomprehending.

My mother—with a degree of skill that might more accurately be called magic—would catch these birds in her cupped hands and carry them out of the garage to freedom.

My mother has many talents, and she’s an avid birder; she taught me how to tell a starling from a grackle, where to look for the movements of wrens and nuthatches, how to make the pssssssh sound that lures perching birds into coming close enough to be identified. Her understanding of and appreciation for the natural world has certainly and profoundly influenced me.

But on this Mother’s Day, when I think about her relationship with nature, it’s those moments in the garage that come to mind: when I would watch anxiously as a frightened bird fluttered, so close to the vision of its freedom.

My mother’s hands held around the bird—that mixture of firmness and delicacy, of competence and tenderness; I can’t think of a better way to describe her or a better way to explain how much I admire her.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Flamingo Friday: The Sea Serpent

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Towards the Bird Blind

Prime Hook National Refuge, DE

I remember how beautiful and isolated it was, and how the quality of the light made the water seem to glow from within. I remember that no matter how cautious our progress across the boardwalk, every step sent up another explosion of honking and wing-beats as geese and ducks took off.

I remember that once we were inside that dark and intimate space the marshes around us, so wide and smooth and peaceful to watch, were aurally cluttered with the trills of sparrows and the soughing of reeds and the distant gabble of waterfowl—and there we were, the silent audience, part of—because we were apart from—the world around us.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

In Appreciation After a Few Poor Nights

Another author said it first, far better than I could:

Sonnet To Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes.
Or wait the Amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

- John Keats

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shanthi [Sings] the Blues

I just discovered, on the National Zoo’s website, a video of Shanthi, the 36-year-old female elephant, playing the harmonica. Apparently she’s musically inclined and will play percussion with found objects, so the zookeepers presented her with other music-makers, like horns and harmonicas, and, just for fun, she composes and plays music.

This is maybe one of the coolest things that I personally have ever learned about zoo animals, and it also made me long to see (and hear) a whole elephant orchestra. Ask yourself: what would ever be more fun than that?

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Flamingo Friday: The Fight(?)

Last Saturday I walked through the zoo with a (very patient) friend, and we stopped, of course, to watch the flamingos.

When we got there, all of the flamingos were snoozing peacefully, heads tucked under(ish) their wings and one foot in the air in the best relaxed manner.

And quite suddenly they began honking and squawking, lifting their heads and waving their necks like provoked cobras as they threatened each other with their beaks. My friend jerked back as they began their ruckus, and her moment of surprise was quite vindicating to me: no one else anticipates this behavior either, and its instigation is entirely inexplicable to us humans.

Equally inexplicable is its just-as-precipitous end—when, with nothing (to my eyes) having been resolved, two (or five) flamingos that have been billing at each other in the most pugnacious fashion cease their imprecations and go back to one-legged sleep.

It won’t astonish you to learn that I don’t have any answers here. I can only point out that this fleeting (yet characteristic) flamingo weirdness highlights the value of spending time with animals, and watching them more than once, so that we at least get the chance to observe these short encounters, even if we can’t explain them.

And having satisfied my need to moralize, I bid you all a good weekend.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Can’t You See I’m Trying to Write??

Knowing as I do that invertebrates represent the vast majority (over 97%) of animal life, and knowing too that invertebrates are everywhere, I cannot in good conscience say that there are “more” invertebrates in North Carolina than there are here. I can, however, say that from my visit I’m convinced that there are many more visible invertebrates in North Carolina, and that their abundance and diversity surpasses anything I’ve seen in DC.

For example, I’ve never seen so many kinds of spiders before. I don’t have a lot of photograph evidence of this, though—since, not being skilled at instant arachnid identification, I hesitated to bring my lens too close to them for fear one would bite me in an excessively venomous manner. –But trust me, there were a lot of spiders.

There were also slugs, bees (carpenter, honey, and bumble), flies, and a variety of other multipodal creatures, like this huge and amazing millipede:

And these (perhaps-tent) caterpillars:

I was very excited about these caterpillars when I saw them along the small portion of the Appalachian Trail on which I wandered one afternoon; I also spotted lots of other cool insects, like this…um…katydid, perhaps…?

And this enormous (and slightly camera-shy) beetle:

After a while, though, I decided that I wanted to sit, eat an apple while admiring the river, and write. Unfortunately, the invertebrates had not been informed of my new agenda.

There I was, sitting on a rock near the water, trying to concentrate, and all these creatures were getting in my way.

The caterpillars landing on my jacket weren’t so bad, but the spiders that decided to colonize my rock were a little more alarming. And the tiny biting flies that landed all over and—well, bit me—were just too much.

[they even landed on my pen; how shameless can you get?]

I was in a state of incredible indignation for quite a while. Then, slowly—ever so slowly—my incredible temerity dawned on me. Here I was in the great outdoors, scandalized that these organisms were present in their own habitat. –How dare they treat me like the interloper that I was? Couldn’t they understand that I wanted to commune with nature? –And here was all this wildlife getting in the way!

Once I realized what I’d been doing, I was able to be a little less critical and a little more appreciative of this opportunity to be surrounded—albeit very closely—by nature.

It didn’t reconcile me to the biting flies, though.

[big scary hairy spider on my raincoat]

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}
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