Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mr. Taron Goes to Washington

At the last minute, I have developed new travel plans that I'm excited about. I'll be headed off to Washington, DC on Tuesday. Actually, I'm going to the University of Maryland in College Park. I'll be meeting with a couple of folks to sort through some of the citizen science data about monarch butterflies and try to get some sort of order out of it. Who knows, maybe we'll be able to actually say something about it. Since I'll be in town, I'll also stop in on a colleague at the Smithsonian who has been developing their upcoming new butterfly exhibit. I've been answering lots of his questions as he has proceeded through the exhibit development process, and I'll probably get a sneak peek before they actually open.

Meanwhile, the promised wild weather here in Chicago in fact materialized:

Temperature at 4PM yesterday: +49° F
Themperature at 5AM this morning: -2°F

Yep, a 51 degree temperature plunge in 12 hours. Oh, yeah, and the wind chill this morning is -25° and may actually go down. Only 17 days to the tropics!

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Disappointment

I'm getting ready for a trip to the Lesser Antilles next month. Of course, I'm planning on enjoying the insect fauna of this interesting corner of the globe. Last week, I encountered a reference to a what I hoped would be a great guide book, Butterflies and Other Insects of the Eastern Caribbean by Peter Stiling. I've been eagerly awaiting it, and it arrived today. I'm afraid that I was rather disappointed.

My expectation, given the title, was that the majority of the book would be devoted to butterflies, but that there would be some information on other groups as well. Butterflies do get the largest share of real estate in the book- 27 pages out of 83. And the book is strongest there, though still only so-so as a field guide. Strictly on this basis, I should be happy. There are other volumes available about Caribbean butterflies, so a lot of space devoted to the other groups would normally be a good thing. So not.

My main complaint is from the remainder of the book. Rather than being a guide, or indeed giving much information useful to an insect watcher, the book is more an attempt at Entomology 101 for the orders of insects found in the Lesser Antilles. Virtually all of the information is readily available (in much greater detail) from other sources. For the vast majority of the book, the text consistes of descriptions of the salient features of the orders (occasionally families) with no indication of group characteristics (like distribution, abundance, or diversity within the region) that have specific relevance to the eastern Caribbean. The book is extensively illustrated with attractive photos, none of which give any indication of locality data. Another book on Caribbean butterflies (Butterflies of Jamaica by Garraway and Bailey) gives much more complete information about the butterflies of that island, some of which will apply to the Antillies. I feel that I gained no new insights or information about Caribbean insects from Stilig's book. It will not accompany me next month.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

I go to extremes

A bunch of bloggers have been posting titles that are song lyrics. I'm not planning on doing this on a regular basis, but the Chicago weather forecast makes this Billy Joel offering particularly apt.

Tomorrow's predicted high themperature: 44°F
Tomorrow's predicted low temperature: 0°F.

I love living in a continental climate.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cruising to the Valley of Desolation

Dominica's Valley of Desolation

Yesterday, UrSpo posted a brief blurb about an upcoming trip. As is typical for us, next month we are doing our mid-winter escape from the cold with Spo and Someone. This year we are taking a Caribbean cruise. While the Spos are cruise veterans, this will be our first. This cruise was chose in part because one of the spots is the island of Dominica (pronounced dom-in-EE-ka), a place that Leon and I have visited (and loved) previously.

Shortly after I started blogging, I posted about my favorite ecosystems. The Valley of Desolation was one of them. Dominica is volcanic, and high up near the crater there is an area of fumeroles and hot springs. The vegetation is sparse because of the volcanic fumes. At the summit, there is a large boiling lake. Unfortunately, our stop at Dominica will be too short to allow us to hike there (it requires a full, long day of strenuous hiking to get to the summit and return). Nonetheless, we are planning to go off and do some of our own exploring rather than participate in a group activity on the island. I got on a web site specifically about hiking in Dominica and found the perfect hike:
These sulphur springs at Soufriere are a mini-Valley of Desolation. Features a wide area devoid of vegetation due to the fumes and streams of boiling hot water. The area also has a network of trails worth exploring. Recently a large pool has been built where you can soak in the warm waters!
Sounds perfect. Once again, we are taking a trip where Spo can get tossed into a volcano if he misbehaves.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Frigid Weekend

This past weekend was too cold to do much other than stay indoors. The high temeprature at our house on Saturday was +3°F. Sunday got up to a balmy +7. In a rare move, we cancelled Saturday's Bluff Spring Fen workday.

Saturday, Leon and I did venture out to Brookfield Zoo, wehre we each took out annual test to renew our state herbicide licenses. Retesting is done every three years, and we were up for a retest this year. We have had bad luck with the weather and this event. Three uears ago, we drove down in a blinding snowstorm. Unfortunatley, we did not get the instant gratification of knowing whether we had passed or not. The machine that scores the tests shorted out just before we turned them in. I'm confident that I passed.

Sunday we realized that we were tired of being cold. So we went shopping and bought an electric blanket. It's so nice to get into a bed that's already warmed up.

It's much warmer today. Typical of the Midwest, it warmed up to snow, and we got about 4" last night. Today the temperature will snap down again, but it won't be as cold as over the weekend. I'm tired of winter. On the bright side, there's only 3 1/2 weeks until I depart for a tropical experience.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Slime Molds and Computers

A slime mold about to form fruiting bodies
From the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens

Yesterday, Gary Lee left a comment mentioning slime molds in conjunction with computers. Slime molds are some of the weirdest and most fascinating organisms that you are likely to run across. Unless you are in a lab, you are most likely to see them as slimy masses growing on bark or decaying vegetation. They are much more interesting than their humble appearance, however. Slime molds are social amoebae. Now, you might not think of amoebae as having much of a social life, but you'd be wrong.

Dictrostelium amoebae
From the National Institutes of Health

Imagine, you are an amoeba oozing about on the forest floor, occasionally engulfing a tasty morsel but otherwise minding your own. Suddenly, you find that your food supply has dwindled. You feel lonely, unfulfilled (OK, I'm anthropomorphizing. Work with me here). You need the company of other amoebae. The others near you feel the same way. Slowly, you begin migrating towards on another and aggregating.

The slug-like phase of Dictyostelium
From the University of California at San Diego

Eventually you come together and form a slug-like structure. What was once a group of independent, individual organisms is now a single multi-cellular organism, complete with a front and a back end.

Dictyostelium fruiting body
From Oxford University

The change continues. One end curls upwards and forms a stalk. A fruiting body forms at the tip, ripens, and releases tiny spores which hatch into a new crop of amoebae.

Slime molds, particularly Dictyostelium discoideum have been incredible tools for scientific discovery. They have been particularly informative in terms of their chemical signalling (the cues for when and where to come together during the aggregation phase), and the development of cell polarity. Their genome has recently been sequenced. I've never worked with them myself (beyond writing a term paper on the role of cyclic AMP in cell signalling back in the early 1980s). But I have always found them fascinating.

So what's the connection with computers? Back in the mid 1980s I was part of a group called GATES, the Gay Association of Technicians, Engineers, and Scientists. Leon, Gary Lee, and Gary Lee's partner were also members. In practice, the majority of the members were software developers, computer technicians (nobody referred to this as IT back then), and technical writers. Meetings were often dominated by talk of personal computers (which then could do considerably less than most cell phones and PDAs do today). I had little interest and eventually began changing the subject to slime molds every time people started talking about how much RAM they now had. My reputation stuck, although Gary Lee is one of the few people from those days whom I keep contact with.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

WInter Doldrums and a Boring Post

I officially have the winter doldrums. I'm unmotivated and just kind of blah. It's probably due to coming off of an extremely busy time of my life, but the short days of winter are not helping matters any. I was gently excoriated by UrSpo last night about my slow blog posting. What to do? A meme, of course. This one is from the Spomeister, but a lot of other folks have been doing it.

# 1-What is in the back seat of your car right now? My gym stuff, a bit of homemade cheese that I forgot to bring in to work with me, and my ice scraper.
# 2- When was the last time you threw up? About 3 years ago I got some kind of food poisoning. I remember it was summer because the windows were all open. I spent most of the night in the bathroom.
# 3-What’s your favorite curse word? The F bomb.
# 4-Name 3 people who made you smile today? It’s 6:45 AM. I haven’t even seen 3 people yet today.
# 5-What were you doing at 8 a.m. this morning? It’s before 8. Yesterday morning I was preparing a report for the USDA.
# 6-What were you doing 30 minutes ago? Commuting to work,
# 7-Where were you born? Wareham, MA
# 8-Have you ever been to a strip club? Nope.
# 9-What is the last thing you said aloud? Goodnight, dear.
# 10-What is the best ice cream flavor? Homemade raspberry.
# 11-What was the last thing you had to drink?. Earl Grey tea
# 12-What are you wearing right now? Khakis, a yellow Oxford shirt and a brown tweed jacket.
# 13-What was the last thing you ate? High fiber breakfast cereal.
# 14-Have you bought any new clothes this week? No
# 15-Where were you last? In my car.
# 16-What’s the last sporting event you watched? On TV, the final game of the 2007 World Series.
# 17-Who won? The Red Sox. Yay.
# 18-Who is the last person you sent a comment/message while blogging? Rodger at Rodger Dodger.
# 19-Ever go camping? Many times. I have blogged about it.
# 20-Where do you live? Northeast IL.
# 21-What song are you listening to? Nothing at the moment
# 22-Do you tan? Yes.
# 23-Do you drink your soda from a straw? Yes if it’s in a glass, no if it’s in a can.
# 24-What did your last text message say? I’ve never sent a text message.
# 25-Who are your best friends? Rick and Mel.
# 26-What are you doing tomorrow? Helping a new employee ease into her first day of work here.
# 27-Where is your mom right now? Pleasant Street Cemetery in Massachusetts.
# 28-Look to your right, what do you see? Plants of the Chicago Region by Swink and Wilhelm.
# 29-What color is your watch? Silver. Real cheapo Timex digital.
# 30-What do you think of when you think of where you live? The Fox River
# 31-Ever ridden on a roller coaster? Yes. I love them but don’t go often.
# 32-What is your birthstone? Topaz.
# 33-Do you go in at a fast-food place or just hit the drive through? Both. I eat more fast food than I should.
# 34-What is your favorite number? 1024. It’s 2^10.
# 35-Do you have a dog? I have 2 cats.
# 36-Last person you talked to on the phone? UrSpo and Someone.
# 36-Have you met anyone famous? Harold Edgerton, Liza Minelli, Richard Daley, Richard Durban, Rahm Emmanuel, Jane Goodall, Paul Erlich, Tomas Cech (Nobel laureate)..
# 37-Any plans today? Work on Monarch statistics.
# 38-How many states have you lived in? Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois.
# 39-Ever go to college? Colby College (BA), Northwestern University (Ph.D.)
# 40-Where are you right now? At work.
# 42-Biggest annoyance in your life right now? Winter.
# 43-Are you struggling to forgive someone right now? No.
# 44-Are you allergic to anything? Bee stings, codeine, crustaceans. I find it ironic that 2 of my allergies are to arthropods.
# 45-Favorite pair of shoes? Shoes- meh.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Cookie Day 2008

Last year I blogged about Cookie Day. It's a big workday at Bluff Spring Fen. The occasion is the opportunity to get rid of the end of all of your Christmas cookies- but it's really an excuse to get a very large group of volunteers together to do some major brush and tree clearing. This year, I left my camera at home, but I did get some great before and after pictures.

Just for grins, we'll start with the picture taken just before last year's Cookie Day. We kept working in the same area- so this year's "before" picture is last year's "after" picture.

December 29, 2008- 1 week before the workday

Jan 6, 1 day after the workday. We are doing final cleanup and spreading a whole bunch of prairie seeds here. The snow endured until Cookie Day and disappeared in about 24 hours.

Some years ago, I actually had some Jan Hagels make it from Christmas until Cookie Day. They were a big hit. The next year, it was pointed out (repeatedly) that I had NOT brought them. Now I have to make a batch every year just for Cookie Day (which alsays seems to me like it's defeating part of the purpose. But I digress). Lemuel will vouch for their popularity.

Jan Hagels are actually easy to make

1 c butter (2 sticks)
1 c sugar
1 egg, separated
1 tsp almond extract
2 c all purpose flour
1/2 c sliced almonds
1 tblsp sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp cinnamon

1. Cream butter and sugar. Stir in egg yolk and almond extract.

2. Stir in flour.

3. Turn dough into a 15 x 10 x 1 cookie sheet. Spread evenly to the edges with a spatula.

4. Beat egg white until foamy. Use a pastry brush to spread evenly across suface of dough. Scatter the sliced almonds evenly across dough.

5. Sprinkle sugar cinnamon mixture over dough. Bake 20 minutes (or until golden brown) at 350°. Cool cookies 10 minutes in pan. Cut into 8 lengthwise strips and make 12 diagonal cuts.

Hungry yet?