Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hero of the Week

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA is a group of scientists charged with exploring space (among other things). A lot of attention is given to the astronauts (and often should be), but I want to recognize the group as a whole. There are thousands of people who donate their particular skill set to the greater overall goal of exploration. Thanks to these scientists we can now see deeper into space than ever before.
            I often take for granted the things I see every day. I get to view images that were impossible a few hundred years ago. Can you imagine what Sir Isaac Newton or Leonardo Da Vinci would have been able to do with a simple calculator, much less a super-computer or super telescope? Just a few thousand years ago we were monkeys poking things with sticks. Now, we are still monkeys poking things with sticks, our sticks just happen to be super telescopes. We are unbelievably lucky to be living right now.

I look at the glowing screen and laugh at a stupid video. I don’t take into consideration the work and history that went into being able to see Charlie biting his brother’s finger. I don’t see the nerds that worked their entire lives to design a tiny bit of technology that adds to an overall project.
            There are people right now inventing new ways to explore the universe and they are sharing it with us. Just one of the newest things NASA has accomplished is the Spitzer telescope. They have taken a 360° picture of the Milky Way and put the whole thing on line for us to look at. We can literally explore the universe from our own home because of them. Here! Click on the link and see something that no one before this moment in the history of the planet could see, until now.   

                So since I can now explore the universe from my home computer, I will call NASA my hero of the week… light year. Please leave a comment about your favorite NASA image, moment, discovery, nerd, etc. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Evening with the Dark Lord and her Lovely Minion

Chapter 2

Side Note- If you haven't read chapter one, it can be found below the next blog entry, if you scroll down the page. I suggest you start there, unless you want to get straight to the brutal parts that follow this message... 

I peered in the rearview. The Zoë was looking right at me. Our eyes locked, and I swear she winked. Her cute button nose crinkled up like a puppy growling at a whiff of its first fart. I turned back to the road, fearing for my life. What was this beast in my back seat?
Then the noises began. At first it sounded like a whiney little cough. Tabitha stiffened next to me. Her head snapped toward the creature in the back seat. “Oh no! She’s going to throw up!”
Emergency. “Should I pull over?” I asked.
“There’s no time,” Tabitha said from behind me. I turned to where she had been, only to see a wisp of dust. She had teleported to the backseat in the time it took my spidey sense to go from red to DEFCON upchuck. “Damnit! Where’s the vomit bag?” Tabs moaned through gritted teeth.
I couldn’t answer. My job was to drive. I must protect the horror-dorable one and her hot sneaky minion from vehicular incidents. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a vomit bag, except maybe on airplanes. Do they sell them? Was there a vomit-bag baby aisle at the baby stuff store? This was not in the Boy Scout manual. I imagined the interior of my car being splashed with pea soup, mangled carrot chunks, milk drippings, and bile sludge. “Find the bag,” I said as my world went into slow motion.
The noises continued. They deepened and became a sort of guttural clicking growl. It sounded as if a lion was hacking up a hairball made of Harley-Davidson motorcycles that were lubricated in pudding.
“Got it!” Tabitha shrieked as she covered the soon-to-be erupting toothy spigot of special sauce. The vomit bag turned out to be an empty bread sack. For some reason my frazzled nerves calmed as I saw the long thin plastic kid-ketchup-catcher. It hung limply ready to receive its speedy delivery of awful.
Zoë raised her hands above her head as if she were on a roller coaster. Then her tiny fists clenched and her toddler arms flexed like Hulk Hogan, if he were shooting lasers from his pectorals. She barked out chunks sounding like an elephant seal that swallowed a machine gun. The limp sack jumped to attention. Each jolt of fluid, reminding me of those inflatable fan dancers you see in front of car dealerships. The power behind her expulsion was respectable, beyond respectable, almost inhuman. Without the bag, my car would have been saturated in ectoplasmic regurgitation.
As the sickening splashing ceased, Tabitha pulled a wet wipe from her purse. The only time the child fussed was during the wiping away of the froth. By fuss, I mean she growled. She seemed to want to keep the foulness until it crusted off. The minion was skilled, fast, and most of all, brave. I wouldn’t get my delicate digits anywhere near those tiny snapping teeth. I’ve worked on an alligator’s open mouth, extracted the fangs from an angry rattlesnake, and even cleaned the gaping maw of a Komodo dragon. That minuscule blonde monkey’s cornucopia of needles put a fear into me.
We eventually arrived at my house. Finally, I would have backup in my plight. General Grettabot has always been a staunch ally in the fight against squirrels. Surely I could count on her allegiance. Technically, she was my dog, so loyalty was not too much to ask. Before the first introductions I let my best friend, pup, into the back yard while I unloaded the 88,483,408 tons of gear into my living room.
Upon her grand entrance, Zoë giggled, possibly anticipating the destruction of all that I own. She looked to Justin Beaver (my gold-toothed, mustached, sword wielding, cigar smoking, stuffed beaver that is the centerpiece of my classiness). Then Zoë pointed saying, “Oowwchhheeeee,” again, just like she did previously with the road kill.

Tabitha shuffled nervously, still mumbling about fuzzy blankets.
I piled pink bag on top of pink bag for what could have been days. Eventually all the equipment was unloaded. I once again made a mental note to research this creature’s language. What could that word, ‘Owwwchhheeeee,’ mean?
Then I let General GrettaBot in the back door. She had never seen such a small (so-called) human and was instantly confused by its squeals. Gretta’s head turned as she stared at the squishy, bi-pedal ape-cub. The dog immediately went into high defense mode, which is to stand behind me, peering suspiciously though my legs.
Zoë made a noise so high-pitched that all the bats in a two mile radius fell from the sky. It could only be considered a battle cry. Her ten tiny talons came up, obviously in attack mode. She rushed my poor, defenseless, eighty-pound Doberman pincher.
Even with the years of training, and fighting hoards of militarized tree-rats, Gretta instantly realized this predator was too strong for her. She bolted. Unfortunately, she bolted into my kitchen table, which bounced off of her skull as it had on countless other occasions. While she was in full escape mode, the pain and sudden clatter of noise convinced her of the true danger this beast wielded.
Zoë squealed even louder than before seeing that her prey was within her grasp. Though victory would not come so swiftly.
General GrettaBot ran for her life, in circles, around me…

I became the eye of a hurricane. The beast chased its prey, hungry for fresh meat. Both animals were full of energy. Zoë’s power came from youth and an insatiable hunger to destroy and maim, and snuggle. Gretta drew her energy from wells unlocked by fear and adrenaline, like a gazelle with a cheetah snapping at her feet.
“Open the door!” I yelled. “I don’t want to know what happens when the streams are crossed.”
Tabitha somehow heard me above the winds and did as I asked. Though she got me into this position, I still feel I owe her for her fast-acting on that day of days.
Gretta seized her chance and escaped out the back door, while Zoë toddled after.

Please comment below if you want to read more of my adventures with the Dark Lord, her Lovely Minion, and General GrettaBot. Also please follow and share (like a good minion!)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hero of the Week

Craig Kielburger

Pardon me if I get a little ranty today. This rant is directed at myself for inspiration as much as to show people what they are capable of. I read a lot of articles about horrible things happening all over the world. I shake my head, and go to the next article. I (we) are capable of so much more than reading a story, being offended and stopping there. I do it all the time. I might leave a snarky comment if it’s on social media, and feel like I’ve done something. But that’s not enough and I (we) know it. What good is being offended if you do nothing to change the reason you’re upset. If you see or hear of something wrong, fix it, or at least try. There are millions of problems in the world. You can’t fix them all, but you can focus on one. Rant over (mostly). Here’s a story about a kid that did something.
Craig Kielburger reads an article about kids working in poor conditions in south Asia. Mind you, this kid was twelve at the time. He doesn’t just shake his head (like I do). He goes to freaking Asia! He films his trip and interviews kids. He records the horrible living conditions. Then he comes back and gets to work. He starts a charity, Free the Children. It has a three step mission.

1. Help kids help themselves locally.
2. Help people across the seas.
3. The help must result in a tangible change.

Here’s how his work (along with help from thousands of others) has blossomed into results. Please think about the numbers here. They are astounding.

650 schools built – resulting in over 55,000 kids attending school every day.

1,000,000+ were provided with clean water, health care, and sanitation.

30,000+ women were helped into a position of economic self sufficiency.

$16,000,000+ worth of medical supplies have been shipped around the world.

So next time you complain about how terrible something is (still ranting at myself as much as everyone else), think about Craig Kielburger. Get up off your butt and do something about it. Pick your battle and fight. Don’t make me start listing examples of some problems we can fix. Just watch any news channel. They are all filled with stories written specifically to offend you, but rarely suggest a way to fix the problems. Stop pointing fingers unless you see a solution. Then point to the way to get there, and follow your finger (wow, that sounded kinda gross, but I’m leaving it because it’s also a little funny). If you have a solution to a problem and want some help, please leave a comment. We can all follow your finger (*snicker).  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Evening with the Dark Lord and her Lovely Minion

Chapter 1

So there’s this new girl. She’s smart, pretty, and only marginally insane (in a fun way, not a binoculars and wood-chipper way, so far). It’s a fantastic combination considering my record. A girl has to be fairly off or at least a little crooked-brained to appreciate my idiosyncrasies. Somehow, after wooing her like only a 38-year-old, chubby, nerdtastic, adolescent braggart could, she succumbed to my charms. This new girl (Tabitha) has a two-year-old human child (Zoë). Tabitha, being a single mom, doesn’t have much time for dates. So we see each other when we can. Within only a few weeks of dating she tricked me into being her boyfriend. This new girl was sneaky. I reminded myself to keep my guard up.
The time came to meet her small human child, this Zoë thing. We (she) decided they would spend the night at my house. I told you she was sneaky. I wasn’t sure how to interact with the creature. Maybe I should think of her as any other animal. I am a biologist. She is a living being. It was logical. But what kind of animal was she? I was uncharacteristically nervous about the meeting. Should I treat her/it like a predator? Maybe let it sniff my hand or offer it the best cut of meat from a fresh kill…  No, I didn’t have time to hunt, and to bring road kill might be considered rude. I felt totally unprepared and wished I had researched these tiny ape creatures more prior to my first encounter. 
Upon arriving at Tabitha’s compound I was met by a pack of local dogs. They all sniffed me. I knew how to deal with these beasts and we got along swimmingly. Soon, Tabitha greeted me with the usual shy smile and enormous shining eyes. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I recognized that tiny sparkle of trouble in her grin. It was the same as when she tricked me into monogamy. I again reminded myself to remain vigilant and stay on guard. 
There was a tugging on my pants leg. I looked down to see the creature Zoë looking up at me. She smiled brightly and offered me a pine cone. I was instantly and unexpectedly mesmerized. All I could do was accept the pine cone and my mouth uttered the words, “Thank you.”  I desperately wanted to say something horrifying such as, “Aww, da puddin!” or “My, my! You are just cuter than pie!” But I held the words back. I couldn’t look away, the creature, the child, the little girl was…adorable. Finally, I broke the gaze and noticed all the dogs were watching, quietly. Tabitha had been filling my car with enough gear for three cross-continental voyages. Time may have lapsed while I was bedazzled. My guard and suspicions instantly went to code red. 

For all the equipment and frightening expectations that came along with the creature, she was quite small. She measured less than two-thirds of a meter in height. I did not feel at ease because of her size. I have seen a tiny mongoose take down a cobra. If the predator was cunning enough, size was of small issue. Most of her body was made up of her head, which contained dozens of tiny, pointy teeth. 
        As described earlier, she had massive, powerful eyes. I could only assume they were for nocturnal vision. Perhaps she hunted at night. Her hair was yellow and she wore pink clothes. As a predator this strategy confused me, then I thought of the coral snake and poison dart frog. She was so confident in her abilities that she didn’t need to sneak, or camouflage. She owned her danger. What wolf or mountain lion would attack such a creature without thinking twice? I had to stay focused. The danger was real.
So, I played along, not sure what to expect next. We continued to fill the car to its breaking point. Then, finally, Zoë’s throne was carried out and fitted in my back seat. Once all were secured, we were off.
        In the rearview mirror, Zoë’s eyes met mine. Each time we made contact she flashed her maw of fangs at me. Needless to say I was intimidated. I prefer a predator I can predict, like a crocodile or rattlesnake. I know how those animals will react when cornered. This was no ordinary varmint. 
       Tabitha also seemed nervous. She kept reciting lists of gear aloud, as if it were a mantra or religious text. Occasionally, she would ask herself if she brought the whatever-it-was or whatever-it-is, almost breaking into a panic. Then, many miles down the road Tabitha screamed a curse. I nearly pulled the car over as I mentally prepared for hand-to-hand combat. 
        “What!?” I asked, as my knuckles turned white on the wheel. I was at a disadvantage with the beast’s throne strapped in directly behind me. I felt like a pig that innocently stumbled upon a bar-b-que festival. Every second that passed could be my last. 
       “I forgot her fuzzy blanket.”
       I dared to peer into the mirror. Zoë seemed calm, yet disappointed. Tabitha, however, was a mess. Her eyes were wild. They darted about with fear like a goat trapped in a pit with a tiger slowly circling from above. 
        “I’ve got blankets,” I said, reaching out in an attempt to save the hot sneaky woman from her self-induced horror. Though she put me in the crosshairs of the beast, I still felt empathy for her non-stop plight. Plus, she smelled good. 
      “You don’t understand,” her voice quivered. “They have to be the fuzziest blankets.”
      “Oh,” I said. She was right. I didn’t understand. 
From the back seat I heard the beast speak. “Owwwcheeee,” she said, while pointing out the window with a tiny talon. 
       I followed the line of her finger to a recently smashed raccoon carcass on the side of the road. The child’s diction was unfamiliar to me. What did that word ‘Owwwcheee’ mean? I would have to research it later, when I had time. At the moment I was busy driving, consoling a hysterical girlfriend about the loss of the fuzziest blanket, and fearing for my life. Little did I know I should have been fearing for my soul instead. 


To be continued... 
Leave a comment if you want more of the story.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hero of the Week 

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Anning was a girl with a question. What is that? She lived in England and like most kids, loved to explore her surroundings. She and her brother found a fossilized skeleton, thinking it was a crocodile. So she dug the whole thing up. She was only 11 years old. It turned out to be an the very first ichthyosaur ever found.

This discovery lit a fire in Ms. Anning. She soon researched her finds, learning all she could. It was not easy, because she was a poor, lower-class girl. At the time, only rich white men were allowed to be scientists. But she persisted. She kept fossil hunting and eventually found the first two plesiosaur fossils. 


As she continued finding more and more discoveries, many naturalists began to take notice. This lady really knew what she was doing, and it wasn't easy work. It took many years after her death, but the Royal Society eventually recognized her hard work and discoveries. She was added to the list of top ten women to change scientific history. 
Ms. Anning discovered much more than just a few fossils. She found and described hundreds of invertebrates and even discovered fossilized poop, known as coprolite. 

Coprolite (Fossilized poo)

Because of Mary Anning's discoveries, hard work, and most importantly her questions, many mysteries about our ancient world were answered. She was under appreciated, underpaid, and most of all unrespected. Despite all that she kept learning, questioning, and working. For that Mary Anning is my Hero.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Two Great Weekends in the Woods

Part I. Talladega National Forest

     Last Saturday I spent in Cheaha State Park which is right in the middle of T.N.F. The park is about an hour east of Birmingham, Alabama and should be visited often and extensively. The first rays of spring (technically still February, but in the south spring sometimes starts near the end of January) had sprung. I was on an adventure with two friends, Lenora (wildlife graduate student who has a thing for road kill and fruit roll ups) and Cody (soon to be Ph.D wildlife student who has has a thing for butterflies and annoying Lenora).

         We walked somewhere between 83 and 4 miles near the Devil's Den. The trails were fantastic. There happened to be a race that day. We were constantly being passed by complaining trail runners. I only badmouth them because they littered little used energy packets all along the path. Other than that the day was great. The following is a list of just a few of the critters we saw. I am notoriously good at misidentifying things, so if you see something wrong, please comment, or just comment because it's fun for me... (Cody took the pictures).

Lenora and Cody being awkwardly awesome (as usual).

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

Googled the stump, but just for the picture. (Dorkus miggidy-pastyus)

Ring-neck Snake (Diadophis punctatus)
Cute snake that generally lives in leaf litter.

Webster's Salamander (Plethodon websteri)
Found a bunch of these. This one is full grown, by the way and has no lungs.

Big freaking (possibly European) hornet (Vespa crabro)

A few memorable quotes from the hike (all by Lenora):

"Ow! I just poked myself in the eyeball with a tree!"
"Like my buds? They're like the buddiest buds ever!" - in reference to a stick she picked up with apical maristems. 
"My pants have fake pockets. That's why I hate society."
"Nature is making me bleed." - in reference to walking into a thorn.
"It's not as much of a hole as I thought it was gonna be... hmph!" - in reference to an imaginary hole.

Part II Conecuh National Forest

     Yesterday I went to the land of Jimmy and Sierra Stiles to wrangle some Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). The Conecuh National Forest is located in southern Alabama, on the border of the Florida panhandle. It's one of the largest remaining chunks of the long leaf pine ecosystem. A quick background. I've been lucky enough to take part in reestablishing a population of Indigos in Conecuh National Forest. They once lived there but were extirpated due to habitat loss and fragmentation, burrow gassing, and over-collecting. The project has been going on since 2007ish. I signed on in 2008 and had the great fortune of hatching a lot of the snake eggs. 

     This trip was a little different. I brought an honors organismal biology class down for the day. I am the lab GTA and like to use undergrad students as free labor. Jimmy and Sierra (who do most of the field work, AKA snake chasing) wanted some help looking for the previously released beautiful beasts. There were other groups helping out, too. Dr. Guyer's lab (which I am the lab mascot) found several critters. Many enthusiasts from a field herp forum came for a peek at the rare cuties as well. So our chances of finding one were good. 

     The plan was to line all the students up and walk a straight line across a fantastic stand of long leaf. We were to stay about ten meters apart from each other, so as to cover as much ground as possible. It was a good plan and had worked many times in the past. However, over the years of attending school, most of the students could only walk in single file... or in groups. Dr. Zanzot (the co-bio professor teaching the class) is a mycologist. He often gathered the students to pounce upon a wild fungus. So the kids did learn some things at least.

     After initial failure we decided lunch was needed to liven our snake-hunter spirits. On the way there, one of the students came upon the largest Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) I had seen in the wild. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of it before it crawled down a stump hole. I included a picture of one I had previously seen in the Conecuh, however. As for the Indigo, I finally found one, when describing where one would be in relation to a gopher tortoise burrow. It was right where I said it would be (I was saying the exact same thing Jimmy had said earlier and can't take as much credit as I'd like). The snake was one that I had hatched three years prior, so it was a special feeling to see it. It was doing well and I felt like a proud papa.
Jimmy and Sierra Stiles (Biologist maximus sasquachii

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)

Cute donkey at a gas station (Alabama mule-maker)

Me with an old friend (Drymarchon couperi)

Dr. Zanzot with the same Eastern Indigo Snake

Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis)

A few memorable quotes from the day:

"#$%@&*#!!!! It's like herding cats!" - Me while attempting to get undergrads to walk a straight line.
"This is just like the Hunger Games!" - 3/4 of the students after 30 minutes in the woods.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hero of the Week

Bob Carey
The guy in the pink tutu

Bob is in love. His wife has cancer. Bob is not a doctor. He is a photographer. He wanted to help, but didn't know how, exactly. He wanted to lift her spirits as she went through treatment. So he used his talents to do that. He used his power for good. So he thought to himself, what would make my wife smile? What would make her laugh, even though she's sick and in pain... I know! I'll dress up in only a pink tutu and take pictures. How many of you would do that just to make your girl smile? That is why Bob Carey is my hero of the week.