Jellyfish

Flower Hat Jellyfish, photo by Josh More

Jellyfish often get a bad rap. Perhaps that is because they are so mysterious. Squishy. A tad creepy. And some are deadly. Yet as with so many other things, the more you know, the more you can appreciate them. For starters, jellyfish aren’t fish at all – they lack scales, gills, or fins. Anatomically, they are far different from most other animals, too. Not only do they lack a brain, they also do not have bones or blood (though some have eyes, and the box jellyfish has 24!).

Jellyfish are part of the phylum Cnidaria that includes more than 10,000 very diverse creatures (so diverse that some scientists simply refer to them as “gelatinous zooplankton”). They live in a wide variety of habitats from deep ocean to near the surface, from freshwater to ocean. They also come in a variety of sizes, including the more than 400 pound Nomura’s jellyfish and the 120 foot long Lion’s mane jellyfish, as well as the quarter inch wide sea fur and the 7 inch wide Atlantic bay nettle.

Another anatomical fascination includes how they reproduce. Some reproduce sexually, while others reproduce asexually. Some are able to divide themselves in two to create a copy of themselves. Others produce pods of cells to reproduce. There’s even one species called the immortal jellyfish that seem to be able to evade death; instead of dying this tiny jellyfish somehow transforms itself into a juvenile and starts the life cycle again. New word – this ability to transform one type of cell into another type of cell is called transdifferentiation.

Jellyfish have been since long before the dinosaurs. Because of the aforementioned lack of bones, fossils of jellyfish are hard to come by, but available evidence shows that these creatures have floated in the world’s oceans for 500-700 million years. Some jellyfish fossils were even found in Utah from a time when that part of North America was under water! Today we continue to witness their incredible adaptability because they continue to thrive in the face of climate changes that result in ocean acidification and warming oceans.

A few other interesting facts include that jellyfish are rarely seen in groups. When they are in a group, usually following food source or traveling in the same water current, it’s called a bloom, swarm, or smack. It is true that they are among the deadliest creatures on Earth. And some jellyfish are edible and are even considered a delicacy in Japan and Korea (uh, no thank you). After reading this, I encourage you to look at images of jellyfish and perhaps those images and this information will help you have a new understanding of these gelatinous zooplankton!

Giant Sea Worm?

Photo Credit: National Geographic

Imagine swimming in the ocean and coming across what looks like a giant sea worm . It’s translucent, bioluminescent, and looks a bit like a windsock wide enough to swim through. You have just met a pyrosome (some can be up to 60 feet long!), which is not actually a worm. And, it’s not a single creature. It’s a colony of hundreds or thousands of tiny organisms called zooids. Zooids – new word!

Zooids are multicellular organisms capable of copying themselves to add to the colony. Each individual is also attached to others by tissues, forming a “gelatinous tunic.” This jelly-like body joins them together and allows them to move through the ocean. The individuals are also known as sea squirts because they are filter feeders. They pump water through their bodies allowing them to catch phytoplankton, bacteria, and other food sources.

Did you catch that they are bioluminescent? Each zooid can emit blue-green light (like fireflies of the sea!); when one does the others around it do too. And sometimes the light from one colony will cause another colony to light up. These zooids and the colony they form are also delicate and fluffy. Now fluffy isn’t a word usually associated with strange underwater sea life, but one diver, RR Helm, described them this way: “It felt like an exquisitely soft feather boa.”

If you do happen to come across one, consider yourself lucky – they are considered by scientists and divers as the unicorns of the sea because they are rare, improbable, and mysterious.

 

Drought Awareness

Every June 17 is the UN observance of global desertification and drought. And while this is not an overly engaging subject or one full of WOWs, it is an essential one. We are at a point in history where drought and desertification are impacting an increasing number of people. The reasons are lengthy and complex, but really boil down to one cause – human impact. Specifically, production and consumption are driving drought and desertification.

In North America, since the time of European settlement and domination, access to water (and the freedom to use as much as desired) has been viewed as an inalienable right. I contend that it is time to alter our privileged perception and rethink this. Access to water is, of course, a need for human survival. But one look at the American West and its depleted reservoirs, and growing desertification worldwide, reveals that over-consumption is driving us toward disaster.

It is not hard to curb water use; it just takes a new mindset. I do realize it will be an uphill (if not futile) battle to combat overuse with some industries (say, for example, golf courses and factory farms), but many individuals together can make a difference. Think about how many people live in your town or city. If every person saved one gallon of water per day (shorter showers, watering lawns for less time, turning off faucets, etc), how many gallons of water would be saved? In my city, that would add up to almost 109,000 gallons of water saved per day. In a year that adds up to 39,785,000 gallons saved.

But it’s not just about how much water we use in our homes. It’s about what we buy and how much we buy. For example it takes over 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That is not a typo. The same amount of water is used to extract and refine one barrel of oil. It takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans.

So what can we do? A lot! Start by thinking about your clothing – what you buy and what you do with your clothing once you no longer want it. Read more about sustainable fashion here. Think about the amount of fossil fuel you use. And, consider the food you buy. Buying local from farms using sustainable practices is a great start. Most importantly, we need to change our mindset. We need to educate others. And, we as a species need to take a long, hard look at what we want versus what we need.

Fruit or Vegetable?

We all think we know the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, but when it comes down to it, do we really? Take the tomato. Many of us, myself included, were raised calling it a vegetable when it is indeed a fruit. For this we can blame the government, not my parents. In a classic political blunder, tomatoes were ruled a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893. Yes, the case of the tomato went all the way to the Supreme Court when an importer argued (correctly) that his tomatoes, like all fruits, should be tax exempt. Vegetables, on the other hand, were subject to a 10 percent tax on foreign vegetables. Obviously he lost, had to pay the tax, and we all grew up thinking the tomato was a vegetable.

The tomato is not the only fruit or vegetable that is commonly misidentified. Botanically speaking, a fruit develops from the flower of a plant and contains seeds. This includes not only tomatoes, but also apples, cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkin. And guess what else? Nuts are fruits too! On the other hand, vegetables, are the edible parts of the plant that aren’t fruits, such as leaves, roots, stems, tubers, bulbs, and flowers. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, asparagus, and broccoli are all examples of vegetables.

That brings up the oft-debated question, where does that leave beans? They are called vegetables but are actually fruits! The botanical reason beans (which includes peas, string beans, snow peas, green beans, etc.) are fruits is because they are the seeds of the fruit pod of the plant. There is still some debate about the true classification of beans but unlike the aforementioned Supreme Court justices, I’m going to stand on the side of science.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

A new bird showed up at the feeder a few weeks ago that I didn’t recognize. Despite photos and books and apps it took me a while to figure out what it is. I’ve finally decided that my new visitor is a brown-headed cowbird.

I’ve learned that what this bird lacks in attractiveness, it makes up for in audacity. Notably, these birds do not build nests. Nope. Not at all. Instead, they lay their eggs in active nests of other birds. Brown-headed cowbirds will use nests of all shapes in sizes in a variety of locations including marshes, on the forest floor, in shrubs, at the tops of trees, and even in tree cavities. And they’re not overly picky about who they leave their eggs with. Studies have also revealed that cowbirds will leave their eggs in the nests of over 220 different foster species, anything from tiny kinglets to much larger meadowlarks. Before laying their eggs, cowbirds watch other birds building nests. Then, when the time is right, they flush the parents from a nest and lay the cowbird eggs among the others. Apparently they even choose nests where the size of the eggs is smaller than their own. How to do they know this???

Female cowbirds can lay an egg a day for several weeks in a row. She may lay 40 or more in a single season. And once she lays her eggs, she done. As in, she does not rear her young at all. She leaves it to the foster family. This is called brood parasitism (new term!) – as Merriam says, “characterized by a bird of one species laying its eggs in the nest of a bird of another species and giving no parental care to the eggs.” Unfortunately for the foster family, young cowbirds will sometimes push the other eggs out of the nest. Some birds do recognize the cowbirds eggs as not their own. Larger species will simply crack or remove the cowbird eggs; smaller bird that cannot physically manage this may build a new nest over the old, like the yellow warbler does. Overall, though, most birds do not recognize the cowbird eggs as different, and they end up rearing another bird’s young.

It gets even more interesting – the cowbird eggs hatch often faster than their foster siblings. This gives them an advantage in getting more food from the parents. In addition, they usually grow faster than the others and will sometimes toss the smaller birds out of the nest or smother them. Yikes. Makes me wonder where my neighborhood cowbird has laid its eggs and hope that they are getting along with their foster siblings.

House Finch

The most common visitors to my feeders are house finches. Admittedly, they became part of the landscape as I kept my eye out for new or rarer birds. But this past weekend I decided to take my own advice (part of a picture book I’m working on) and I took some time to get to know my feathered neighbors. And while house finches may be common, they are amazing little birds.

House finches are native to the western US and Mexico but were brought to New England (to be sold as pets) and later set free in 1939. Now they are one of the most widespread birds in North America. These little birds are extremely adaptable and can thrive in a variety of habitats, from deserts to woodlands, and grasslands to urban areas. They will also nest in all kinds of places, such as cacti, hanging planters, pine trees, deciduous trees, rock ledges, and windowsills. Did I mention adaptable?

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. House finches differ in appearance – they vary by the size of their bills and bodies, by wing and tail length, and by color. Their coloring comes from the food they eat, thus the reason some house finches are more yellow or orange. Of course females are attracted to the reddest males, which to them signals that those individuals are healthy and will do their part tending to young. Not only that, house finches, across the country have different accents – some songs are short while others are long, and some have more syllables than others. In New York state, studies found that these accents even differed within one square mile. differ in appearance. But no matter where you live, the finches and their songs are a welcome addition to any neighborhood!

 

Bushtit

Introducing the bushtit – a tiny little bird with a hugely unfortunate name. Name aside, I was thrilled to find this new addition to the birds at my feeders. Apparently bushtits are very social, living in flocks of 10-40 individuals. Yet the bird at my window was alone (aside from all the chickadees, finches, and grackles). A friend told me that he (or she?) was probably doing recon to spread the word to the rest of the flock. Was my seed good enough? I waited. Well, apparently it’s good enough for my friend, but he or she has yet to tell everyone else. Still, I’m glad to have it visit.

I’ve learned that these little songbirds make hanging nests, like a tightly woven, stretchy pouch. Both the males and females work together, sometimes spending over a month, to build it. They use spider webs, moss, lichens, roots, and grass as building materials. The nest hangs up to 12 inches from an anchor point on a tree. At the top of the nest, which can be up to a foot long, is an entrance hole. This hole leads to the nest chamber, which is lined with fur, feathers, and downy plants for insulation.

In an unusual twist, breeding pairs of bushtits often have helpers! These helpers not only attend the nest, they also help raise the young alongside both parents. During the nesting season, helpers also sleep in the nest with the breeding pair. Usually this helper is an adult male, something not often seen among nesting birds.

I have yet to see my friend’s flock, but apparently bushtits don’t generally like feeders. Perhaps he or she is just more adventurous than the others and his/her family and friends are nearby. You bet I’m keeping an eye out!

Robins

In my opinion, robins are often overlooked or dismissed as ordinary and unremarkable. They are common, yes, found across almost the entire North American continent and well-adapted to coexisting with humans. But like with many things, what we think we know is only part of the story.

Photo credit: www.naturespicsonline.com

One seldom-discussed fact about robins is that the females are part engineer, part artist. They make their cup-shaped nests using the wrist of their wings to press together grass, twigs, paper, moss, feathers, and other materials. They then reinforce it with mud to make it sturdy. The final touch is lining the inside with soft grass. Their masterpieces are heavy and study nests, measuring about 6-8 inches wide and 3-6 inches deep.

Food-wise, robins have quite a varied diet. They eat both fruits and invertebrates, like earthworms, and insects. What they eat also depends on the time of day. Worms in the morning and fruits in the afternoon. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of robins is of them on lawns pulling worms out of the ground. But have you ever watched the whole hunting process? They rely on both sight and hearing. Often they will move in short bursts on the ground. Then they stop and tilt their head to one side, standing perfectly still. By doing this they can use both senses. They can hear the worms. And their sharp eyesight, with an eye turned and aimed at the ground, can see the signs of a worm near the surface.

So the next time you see a robin, watch it hunt or forage. Note what it’s eating and how, and what time of day it is. Then, if you are lucky, see if you can track where it goes and you may be able to spot its wonderful nest.

Wigeon

Photo Credit – Howcheng

As I walked along the creek path recently, I stopped to watch the ducks like I often do. After a moment I realized that one of those ducks was not like the others. Looking more closely, I noticed more of them. They were not the mallards that I am used to seeing. Instead, the males had a white stripe atop their heads and a green eyepatch. The females were more brown, with a grey-brown head. I later learned they are called wigeons, a word and a bird I’d never heard of before. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention.

Like other ducks, they congregate on a variety of water habitats – lakes, rivers, marshes, estuaries, bays, and tidal flats. They are mostly plant eaters, foraging on both land and in the water. During breeding season, though, they will eat more insects as well as aquatic invertebrates (which includes yummy morsels like horseflies, midges, beetles, crustaceans, and mollusks).

Males, like with many other birds, go to great lengths to attract a female during breeding season. However, male wigeons leave before eggs even hatch – yes, they are deadbeat dads. Lucky for moms, the newly hatched young leave the nest almost immediately and can feed themselves. We should all be so lucky. She does stay with the young brood, like a good mom, until they can fly (approximately 45-63 days after hatching).

A GiRaft

Photo credit: Bernard DUPONT (2008)

Rothschild’s giraffes are an endangered species with fewer than 3,000 animals left. In Kenya, there was a small population on a reserve on a peninsula of Lake Baringo, a key location because the animals were easily protected from poachers. But intense rain and flooding in 2020 began to turn the giraffe’s peninsula into a shrinking island. There wasn’t enough food and several giraffes died, despite efforts to bring food to them. The giraffes needed to be relocated. But relocating a giraffe isn’t easy.

First of all, the largest of the giraffes is over 18 feet tall. They can weigh as much as a small car. And they can’t be fully sedated. Because of the physiology of a giraffe, when sedated they can choke on their saliva; in addition, if horizontal, they can suffer a sudden loss of blood flow to the brain and they are prone to both neck and leg injuries. Not only that, the lake they needed to cross is full of crocodiles. So how do you did they move them to the mainland?

A specially designed GiRaft! The raft needed to be well-balanced to take into account the giraffes’ weight and high center of gravity. The rescue team designed a barge that sat on 60 empty metal oil drums. The sides were also reinforced to keep the giraffes from getting off the raft, which was pulled by a motorboat. Then there’s the matter of getting the giraffes on the raft in the first place. The plan involved initial tranquilization and then a tranquilizer-reversal drug. This allowed the animals to be fitted with harnesses, guide ropes, and blindfolds. Much to the relief of rangers, the giraffes moved calmly and tolerated the raft ride well.

The giraffes had to be moved one at a time. But they are all safe now, in a new 4,400 acre reserve, complete with fencing to protect them from both predators and poachers. Rangers and the community have high hopes that this rescue mission was the first step to recovering the population of Rothchild’s giraffes in their historical habitat of the Western Rift Valley.