Giddy-up Strange Seahorses

baby seahorsesThe seahorses at the museum had babies. Lots and lots of babies. Most folks are aware that the males are the sex that give birth. An evolutionary anomaly in the animal kingdom. But seahorse reproductive mode even stranger than males giving birth. For all you marine biologists out there who don’t mind doing research without pay–there is some weird stuff going on with these fishies that begs being looked into. Yes they are fish, so they do spawn. The males squirt their sperm into the water, but the females don’t drop their eggs in the water or a simple nest. Nope. They inject them into the males brooding pouch. You have to be quick to see it, research states it takes 5-10 seconds. Interesting, but not shocking. What is shocking is the sperm swim through the water and into the pouch in those mere seconds. How they know where to go no one knows quite yet. Must be some hormone that leads them there. Reproduction is all hormones. But it gets even more weird. There are only about 100 sperm, there are about 100-1800 eggs depending on the species. (There is some research out there that looked at this.) And most of those eggs turn into baby seahorses. Poly-embryology? Lots of twins, triplets, quadruplets? Really what is the story? Well no one really knows because there is no funding for research and who wants to do research for the pure joy of doing research. I hear you all yelling, “Me! Me! Me!”. So someone out there do the research please because this is fascinating stuff.

Meanwhile the babies are getting big. Here is a low res photo I took the other day with my phone. These fry are 4 months old. They are taken from the main tank to a special tank that is room temperature and has anti-bacterial agents added every few days. Many didn’t make it, those R species do it that way, lots of offspring, only the strongest survive. Grow babies grow, and end up to be weird vertical swimming fish we all love.

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Posted by on October 29, 2015 in backyard science, Science


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Yellow Jackets

yellow jacketYellow Jackets. Just those two words together evoke a visceral reaction to swat the air and sweat.

Around here everyone has had a close encounter of the third kind: actual contact. It is never pleasant.

Yellow Jackets are wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. They are black and yellow and mean. Okay, that is anthropomorphic, what they are is protective of their hive. I know this first hand. Once I was gardening and was pulling goldenrod when I unfortunately ripped the top off of a nest. A cloud of wasps flew out of the ground and around my head, so thick my vision was blurred. I ran. I swatted. I yelled. This attracted the neighbor’s dog. He was an Irish Wolfhound. He chased me being chased by a swarm of angry wasps. It was like a cartoon.

Once I was out of range I stopped and brushed hundreds of the yellow and black ladies off my body. Amazingly they bit me only 23 times. It felt like 23 matches being touched to my skin. These ladies meant business. The signal was clear–stay away from our hive.

So of course, I crept back around to the nest to see what damage was done. A 4 foot ring 2 feet thick of wasps was circling the nest.Their wing beats could be felt like electricity in the air. Fascinating.

The life cycle of these animals is a little know secret. It goes like this: colony initiation, growth and expansion, production of reproductives, reproductive dispersal, and colony decline.

Everyone seems to know that the “queens” over-winter, but where do the rest of the wasps go here in New England. Its not a nice story if you are wasp. The queens do overwinter. They hide out in the ground, old logs, tree bark, your house. In the spring she starts a new colony since she held the sperm over the winter so she can fertilize her eggs. But she doesn’t have to. Wasps are haplodiploid. That means males develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid (have half a genome), and females develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid (like you and me, they have half a genome from their mother and half from their father). At first though she does fertilize the eggs and gets females. She starts the nest building but then leaves it to the first offspring to finish.

Most all the members of the colony are females. They are all sisters. They all have modified ovipositers (egg layers) that are stingers. They are the builders, hunters, hive protectors (the Yellow Jack venom is only for protection they do not use it to stun their prey). There may be multiple queens in Yellow Jacket colonies. More power! These yellow and black bullet bugs might seem to be a nuisance to us, but on the flip side they are hunters. They hunt caterpillars, flies (house flies being their main prey), they also drive down fly populations by competing for garbage, dead animal wastes and rotten fruit.

Once the colony is established energy goes into producing ‘reproductive’ female and male wasps. These offspring are sent off to find mates from other colonies and start new colonies.

yellow jackets on appleAs the autumn approaches the colony no longer has a purpose. No more offspring are produced, and the ties that bind no longer feel so tight. So the individual wasps are forging for themselves.This is why you see more wasps in the fall. They seem a little more aggressive, because they are looking at that juicy food you are eating and not thinking about bringing it home to mama and the babies. And she has more time to sit on that apple and suck out the juices. Its the twilight of her life let her enjoy it, soon she will slow down and die. All but the queens, those royal ladies will hole up somewhere and start the whole thing again in 6 or 7 months. Such is the life of the Yellow Jacket.

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Posted by on October 13, 2015 in backyard bugs, backyard science, insects, Science


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Horror Story

triungulan“There is a horror show starting in the sunlight of my front yard. It has all the makings of a good scary movie, blood, guts, a hijacking, kidnapping, body morphing, things bursting out from the inside all taking place a dark dirty cell under the ground. It starts with a lovely stand of Daisy Fleabane flowers. Very pretty. But if you look close, a story is unfolding unlike any horror movie you have ever seen.

Triungulins are the villains, they are not aliens from outer space or mutants from some mad science project gone wrong, they are products of millions of years of evolution. And they are only babies, tiny, almost invisible to the human eye (to be anthropomorphic they are evil, blood sucking, viscous babies) born with six strong legs and grasping mouth parts. They roam over the center of the flowers–waiting. Waiting for their prey. They are not hunters, they are waiters. As Halictid wasps, AKA sweat bees, stop by to drink up some nectar, these babies grab hold of their body hairs, mouth parts, what ever is closest in reach, and they don’t let go.

But surprisingly, the bee is not the victim, it is just a form of transportation. The well fed bee goes back to her underground nest, one of her larva is the victim. The triungulan wiggles its way between the abdominal sections of the grub. There it says for a long while sucking the hemolymph, bug blood, from its victim. In time a weird creature, not something you would want to see up close and personal in the middle of the night emerges, it is the adult rhipiphoridae beetle.

Adult rhipiphoridae beetle

Adult rhipiphoridae beetle

Rhipiphoridae laying eggs in Daisy Fleabane flower bud

Rhipiphoridae laying eggs in Daisy Fleabane flower bud

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Posted by on August 6, 2015 in backyard science, insects, Nature Curios


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Hot Bugs

Cicada photo by Tom Murray

Cicada photo by Tom Murray

My cousin asked me the other day what real name of the insect that makes the loud buzzing sound in the summer. She told me her husband calls them “hot bugs’ because they make the sound during the hot days. They have to have a real name. They do: Cicadas.

And they are hot bugs, they don’t start buzzing around here until the summer heat hits around 4th of July. They like the hot weather. The buzzing is the sound the males make to attract mates.

There are only 170 species of cicadas in North America and Mexico. And only 10 species in Mass according to current research.*

Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) are true bugs. They spend much of their lives under the ground where they suck sap out of roots of plants. Some live under the ground for 17 years–hence the 17 year cicada. I was going to write about the cyclical cicadas, but its complicated. I thought I’d simplify it, but there is no simplifying it, its a complicated cycle and that’s that. If you want to try and make some sense of it you can find more information and anything you ever wanted to know about cicadas here:

*Biogeography of the Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of North America. Allen Sanborn and Holly Philips

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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in backyard science, insects


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Leopard Slug

leopard slugWhile at the BioBlitz some kids found a big old gastropod Limax maximus: the Leopard Slug. Its Latin name literally means the ‘biggest slug’. This had a leopard pattern, but some are all grey in color. Such a fascinating animal for many reasons.

For starters, these creatures like humans. Yeah, they are almost always found near places people live. And they are aliens, they are not native to America, some think this slug was introduced from Europe, when they were first recorded to be found in cellars in Philadelphia in 1867. From there they migrated across the country. To be fair, other populations may have around the same time been introduced to California.

And although the Leopard slug is a ‘slug’ not a ‘snail’, it is still in the phylum “Mollusca” and it has a shell, you might not notice it at first because the shell is internal. Kind of weird little trick of evolution there. If threatened the animal will pull its head under the shield of its internal shell, like pulling your head into your turtleneck sweater.

Photo of dorsal view of internal shell of Limax maximus. Scale in mm. Locality: N Germany: Kiel. Date: 08-1951.

Photo of dorsal view of internal shell of Limax maximus. Scale in mm. Locality: N Germany: Kiel. Date: 08-1951.

Of course being a slug they makes slime, or ‘mucus’ as scientist call it. If you have the opportunity to pick up one of these bad boy/girls (slugsĀ  are hermaphrodites, being both male and female at the same time) be ready to get sticky. The slime is not easily removed from your skin. But still its worth holding them once in your life, just to say you did. Then you can spend the next hour peeling off the slime like rubber cement glue. Lots of soap and water and nail polish remover should do the trick.

To make things even more interesting, scientists have found these slugs have a sense of home, like homing pigeons. They wander during the night, but will go back to their original crevice they consider home before morning. The diet of these slugs adds more intrigue. They eat detritus, dead leaves and organic matter, kind of boring but useful, but its little known they are also amazing hunters being able to move at 6 inches per minute, and cannibalistic eating other slugs. Think rasping mouth parts on a speeding giant slug–and then try not to ever think it again.

Just look at them in awe–because they are amazing creatures living in your own back yard.

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Posted by on July 19, 2015 in Uncategorized


Frog Blog

holding frogToday the weather was perfect- for catching frogs. Dr. Augie’s set up a gig with the Boy Scout camp exploring the stream by the camp. Unfortunately the path to the stream was bordered in poison ivy. So plan B went into action. I hiked over to another part of the stream and found some neighborhood kids, and asked them to catch me some frogs. They were happy to oblige. I even put on the water boots and did some collecting myself.

We were amazed by the caddisfly larva on the bottom of the stream, thousands of them. We scooped some out and put them in bowls. The bowls were writhing with larva. Very fun to watch. We caught one mayfly naiad, a dragonfly larva, and two species of water striders. We did see lots and lots of watercress. The kids told me that the water in the stream this spring was roaring, but then the watercress grew in and slowed it down. Great observation.

Back to the Boy scouts (there were girls there too! with the Venture Scouts.) When I arrived the group was waiting their turn with target practice and didn’t seem to interested in frogs. (I know how cool is that, you get to shoot BB guns during camp.) But the frogs were jumping and diving in their container making themselves pretty darn interesting. Then I showed them the container of stream organisms and there were lots of questions and answers and looking at the aquatic keys to see what they were looking at. No leaches they decided, to their disappointment. They did key out the frogs as ‘mink frogs’ (Lithobates septentrionalis).

After everyone had their fill of observing, three boys walked over and braved the path of poison ivy so we could release the frogs. They seemed content to be back in the swampy stream.

me holding a frog netting frog looking at frogs caddisfly in stream releasing a frog frog

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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in backyard science, Camps, Children's Art & Science Classes, events


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Mini Bioblitz with the Berkshire Museum

museum bioblitz 2015This June the Berkshire Museum held a small bioblitz at Onota Lake with Egermont Elementary School students. It was a great day, lots of collecting and sharing. The weather was perfect the kids were well behaved and the teachers were great to work with in the field. Thanks to Joann Batman for inviting Dr. Augie’s to participate.

pond collecting kids collections crawdad collecting pond

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Posted by on July 7, 2015 in backyard science, Berkshire BioBlitz, Children's Art & Science Classes, insects, Science, science in the parks


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