Monday, January 31, 2011

A Nice Crustacean Punch

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I really like mantis shrimp, and every time I visit the Invertebrate House I try to get a good look at, and a couple of good pictures of, the zoo’s resident example.

I’m a little concerned, though, because, while the mantis shrimp seems initially intrigued by the sight of my camera placed against the glass—and will in fact come out of its burrow to approach the object—it then appears either alarmed or disaffected by it, and after a minute will huffily retreat.

This is bad enough in itself, of course, since I want to keep the mantis shrimp visible for as long as possible—and have no desire to traumatize it with my lens. But what I’m really worried about is that the sight of the camera has triggered within the shrimp a deep, slow-burning rage that will finally express itself in a punch even more powerful than those typical of the species—a punch so powerful that it will shatter even the specially reinforced glass of its enclosure, and the camera beyond it as well.

On the other hand, that would make a pretty good story…

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

And Even in DC...

...I make mistakes. Some of you noticed that I had labeled yesterday's post with tags for photos of a squirrel and a hawk, neither of which made it into yesterday's entry. So please forgive the lack of narrative arc, but--here they are:

And here's a photo I took in December of an irate squirrel, offended that I was photographing it eating berries:

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Even in DC...

…It sometimes snows. Having been born and raised in Michigan and having lived in Boston for a number of years, I have a certain degree of cheerful scorn for the panic with which people in and around the District respond to a whole four to five inches of snow. Nevertheless, I concede that it is fairly hard to get around here when it snows even a little, since nobody seems to have any idea what to do about this white stuff falling from the sky. Except the animals at the zoo, of course.

Not all of the animals are outside when it snows; the lions and tigers, for example, are kept in, and some warmer-weather creatures like the lemurs and anteaters and small-clawed otters have been kept in warmer indoor areas for over a month now. But most of the residents of the Kids’ farm stay out and about, although they don’t always look too thrilled about it:

And of course, there’s always wild wildlife to be seen:

But what impressed me yesterday was seeing the panda, lolling about outside--although, admittedly, not in the snow:

--And, most of all, the red panda, who was curled up unconcernedly on a branch as the snow started…

…and who stayed there as the snow continued falling, its thick fur protecting it from the cold:

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Flamingo Friday: Photofocus

Next week, watch for an entry on flamingo mating rituals, of which Annie and I saw a great deal yesterday. But lately I’ve been experimenting with different angles and framing when photographing the flamingos:

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Shameless Self-Promotion

(But before you get too mad at me, note that I have also posted a regular entry today.)

Maybe I’m being just as precipitate as all the chocolate and jewelry vendors, but Valentine’s Day is coming up in just a couple of weeks, and if you’re the kind of person who likes giving cards to your friends/love(s), now’s the time to order them, especially if you want an Ambrogio original.

Yes, you can make your own cards from the photos at my Gallery site, but if you prefer pre-made cards with wildlife photos and clever wordplay or atrocious puns, you should visit my Zazzle site, where I have a whole line of Valentine’s cards suitable for friends (e.g. a cephalopod announcing, “Here’s looking at you, squid!”), lovers (e.g. a reptilian Helen Kane sings, “Iguana be loved by you, just you…”), and even those who hate Valentine’s Day (look for the ones with cacti or a tortoise on ’em to see what I mean). Is your loved one fond of humor? How about a cow card claiming “You mooove me”? Is s/he more romantic? How about two tender cheetahs (pictured above) and the statement “You make my heart race”? Amazing, isn’t it? It’s just the way my mind works. (Poor Annie.)

So if you’re planning to send out affectionate greetings on this admittedly made-up holiday, take a look at the possibilities on offer—if only to appreciate my punmanship.

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I Wonder

Is this male Kori Bustard upset because the fencing of his enclosure lacks a sign like that of his neighbors?

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Wild Wildlife: In Which Maryland is Revealed to Be Cold, and Striking, and Full of Ducks

Because our winter break—though lovely in that it allowed us to visit with friends and family—was short on actual vacationing, we took a long-weekend jaunt to Tilghman Island, MD. We got a two-nights-for-one deal on a cabin at a B&B and loaded the car up with good food, books, and cameras, with the intention of holing up somewhere with a good view, only emerging to take the occasional walk or, in my case, to rush outdoors at the sight of an interesting bird.

Things only sort of worked out as planned... By the time we left DC for Maryland, Annie had developed a bad cold, making holing up more of a necessity than a luxury. And we’d managed to choose the coldest weekend of the winter—at least in this area of Maryland—so we woke after our first night to discover that our pipes had frozen. Fortunately, as Annie pointed out, this was vacation, not the real world, so we simply switched cabins and put up with the quiet but insistent noise of faucets left dripping so as to ensure that these pipes didn’t share in the fate of those in our previous cabin.

[yes, the rocks really are
coated in ice]

No question that we could have done without the rhinovirus, the pipes, and the wind-chill, but the island—which also contains a bird sanctuary—was still quite beautiful; we were at its point, surrounded by water, and we could look out the windows and see rafts of diving ducks floating sedately twenty feet away from us.

Of course, as I discovered during one of my walks, if you try to approach them when not concealed behind windows, the ducks are not nearly as sedate:

It was very guilt-inducing to feel I was the Router of Ducks; on the other hand, they came back as soon as I moved away, so I obviously didn’t scare them too permanently. And they have plenty of more serious concerns than me: the sanctuary is the home of a pair of bald eagles, a few red foxes, and any number of red-tailed hawks, all of which have designs on the ducks; one of the proprietors of the B&B told us that the grounds are always littered with “parts” left over from unlucky prey.

Even for someone less delighted by waterfowl than I, the island was pretty spectacular, since the vast spread of Chesapeake Bay provided a magnificent view in itself.

[view from the point]

[spied on the dock]

It also acted as an impressionistic mirror for the light, from the down-colored clouds of midday to the crystalline layers of orange and blue at sunset and sunrise to the wobbling, waning moon that rose over the water, huge and orange like an enormous segment of tangerine.

Yes, I’d have to say that, in spite of our unexpected tribulations, the vacation was…just ducky.

[a bufflehead (no, really)]

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Making an Art of Ill Humor

One of the things I really like about prairie dogs, apart from their ultra-round, winter-fat bodies and their little wagging tails, is that they almost always look really disgruntled—and I can appreciate that.

Last week I spotted a couple of prairie dogs munching on some sort of zoo pellets in the snow; the first looked, as you see it, annoyed, but the second looked contemplative and quite artistic as it was limned against the late-afternoon light.

At least, it did at first. Then it looked as if it were on the verge of saying something:

—But what it might have said, I couldn’t tell you. If anyone feels moved to suggest a caption for this image, I would be happy to hear it.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

One Good Shot: More Close Encownters

“That’s the worst joke I’ve ever heard!”

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Flamingo Friday: The Supplicant

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Love for Snail

Now, for those of you who have accused me of not giving my posts ratings, as per the MPAA, I’m warning you right up front: this post will be about sex. Snail sex.

And, as surprising as this may seem to many of you, there is a lot to tell about snail sex.

Let’s take the charming little creature pictured above, a marine periwinkle of some sort. You wouldn’t know it to look at it (in this picture, at least), but, like all snails, it has its genitalia on the side of its head (thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “necking”). This periwinkle is probably one of the many species of snails that, like us, consist of two separate sexes, male and female.

Snails also, like us, have internal fertilization, so unlike those rather sad species that have to cast their seed upon the waters (which seems like no fun at all), they really do have sex. Some species of snails—including periwinkles—can be locked together in a sexual embrace for several hours at a time. (This is what happens when organisms are not as advanced as we are and thus lack jobs or television.)

And then there are the species, like my favorite study organisms, the slipper-shell snails, that change sex—typically in one direction, from male to female. (This allows for a lot of jokes about how, once the snails mature, they become female.) There are many interesting hypotheses and models about the advantages of sex change (in one direction or another), and I could go on about that for a long time (in fact, I did, in my dissertation)—but here I will be brief. Protandrous sex change (that is, being “male first,” then becoming female) is considered an advantage for species where the number of eggs females can produce increases with females’ size while the amount of sperm males produce is the same regardless of their size. So, if you’re a small male, that’s fine, reproductively speaking, but if you’re a small female, you won’t produce as many offspring as if you’re a large female. What better way to achieve peak reproduction at every point in your life than to be male when you’re small and become female once you’re big? (Plus, it must be fun to know what it’s like to be male and female—though that’s not something that’s included in the size-advantage models.)

[the undersides of a bunch of slipper-shells]

The snails stack on top of one another; in one of the species, C. fornicata (yes, that’s really its name), snails live in stacks of up to 20 individuals, with large, female snails near the bottom, sex-transitioning snails in the middle, and males nearer the top. This means that males, while not as well-endowed as barnacles, still have to reach their penes down several snails in order to mate. It also means that there’s all kind of mating going on within the stack; it’s like a little orgy-tower of gastropods.

And then there are land snails! Land snails and slugs are all simultaneous hermaphrodites—they’re both male and female at the same time, all the time. This means that you’re twice as likely to come across a potential mate, leading many people to wonder why humans have such a poor system.

Some species of land snails, though not all, engage in courtship rituals that involve shooting their partner with “love darts,” little calcium-carbonate harpoons that the snails create and extrude. The reasons for love darts, apart from the obvious S&M explanation, are still unclear. The variation in dart forms among species is pretty incredible. (Also, sometimes snails get a little too excited during courtship and shoot themselves in the foot.)

Then there are land slugs, who will meet at night on the underside of a branch and suspend themselves from slime cords—and, hanging there in the moonlight, will intertwine themselves with their partner; each will evert a penis(-like organ) twice the length of their body, which they also intertwine, and they will then exchange sperm from the tips of these organs.

And then there are sea slugs, which are also simultaneous hermaphrodites and who often engage in orgies, daisy-chain style, wherein each individual mates with one slug in the male role and, at the same time, another in the female role.

I could go on and on… But perhaps you’ve had enough excitement for one night.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

My Vegetable Love Will Grow

Annie and I visited the National Botanic Gardens today. It was the first time we’d gone, and we had a lovely time, although I wish that not quite so many other people had had the same good idea. The Conservatory—the indoor part, and the only part we visited on this cold winter day—has a number of themed rooms whose leafy denizens either share a habitat (The Jungle, World Deserts) or are a focus of specific human interest (Medicinal Plants, Rare and Endangered Plants). There’s also a Garden Court with all kinds of fascinating and pretty photosynthesizers, including—this was the big one for me—a kumquat tree, the sight of which instantly inspired in me a desperate desire to own one myself. (Annie seemed amenable, though not enthused.)

The largest area, the Jungle room, reminded me of the Amazonia exhibit at the zoo, although the Jungle has a much more extensive botanical collection and Amazonia has more monkeys (two; as opposed to zero). The exhibits are similar in that they’re both pleasantly warm and humid and positively filled with oxygen from all those respiring plants, and both are equipped with water systems that emit sudden, startling showers of mist, causing the many people wielding cameras to curl up, shrimplike, around their digital equipment as they shield it from the spray.

[notice the condensation on the window
behind the orchids]

I’m no plant expert (in fact, I managed to get through college and graduate school without ever taking a single botany course), but I can appreciate them, in an amateur fashion, and it’s impressive to see the vast diversity of approaches they’ve taken in order to survive in various climates and deal with the problems of reproduction and/or pollination. The variety of flower types alone is mind-boggling.

[a bromeliad, maybe]

[a giant orchid]

[maybe a bougainvillea?]

And, of course, the great thing about visiting a zoo or a botanic garden is that you don’t have to be an expert to have a good time—to appreciate behaviors and colors and forms.

And, while my heart still belongs to the zoo, I have to say: you hear a lot fewer people giving misinformation at the botanic garden. Maybe there’s just no plant equivalent for calling an orangutan a monkey—or maybe, since the plants stay still, nobody gets as excited about pointing things out and, in doing so, naming them incorrectly. Either way, it’s a very peaceful place to visit.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

One Good Shot - Dusky Titi Monkey

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hazards of Sex

I think I’ve already mentioned the mother lions’ tendency to swat and gnaw on their young in a way that seems a little rough and yet doesn’t appear to relate to any specific action on the part of the cubs (in other words, it seems less like punishment and more like a whim). But the mothers are also watching out for their young—and one of the ways they do this is to keep a sharp eye on any father-cub interactions.

In the wild, male lions will kill any cubs that have been fathered by other lions, and their tolerance for their own young isn’t so hot, either. Looking at Luke, the male lion at the zoo, as his offspring swarm around the enclosure, you can almost see him thinking that things were so much easier before these seven little irritants made an appearance. It might just be me, but I did kind of get the impression that he would’ve eaten his young if the females hadn’t been around—not out of spite or anything, but just to get things back to normal.

Because he’s testier than the lionesses and might hurt them—deliberately or not—the cubs are, of course, completely fascinated by him, and like flirting with danger by hanging around him.

Eventually, one of their dare-devil routines turned into a general pile-up of adults and cubs, with mini-lions swarming all over the place:

This was a mainly peaceful event, except for the moments when Luke behaved in a way that the lionesses considered inappropriate—at which point there was an incredible amount of snarling as one lioness or another read him the riot act.

[a snarl-fest with cub in the middle]

But the zookeepers know what they’re doing when they put animal family groups together, and nothing untoward occurred. In fact, the cubs even tired—eventually—of their excitingly dangerous father and went back to exploring and stalking each other. Luke, relieved of these burdens, rolled around in the leaves for a while to shake off the interlude. Then, he turned to the many visitors crowding the rails of the exhibit and gave us a long-suffering look, clear as day. I’d swear he was advocating for Planned Parenthood.

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