Archive for category Natural History

Herpetological Review: The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins

It has been some time since my last contribution to the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘ journal, Herpetological Review (see also SSAR’s facebook page), so I was honored when I was asked to contribute a retrospective on the late herpetologist and artist Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Cyril Stebbins (March 31, 1915—September 23, 2013) for the column, “Art in Herpetology.”

Hot off the presses in the second issue of the 2017 volume (page 472-473), The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins looks back at the life and career of a man whose contributions to the field of herpetology are still not only celebrated, but put to work on a daily basis as biologists young and old pick up their copy of Stebbins’ field guide, A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, and thumb through the pages to identify this or that lizard, check a species’ range, or compare a specimen to the carefully illustrated plates within.

In the process of preparing this piece, I had the opportunity to handle Dr. Stebbins field notebooks and original intricate illustrations at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Bancroft Library, and had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Emeritus David B. Wake, former Director and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and Theodore Papenfuss, research specialist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, about their experience working alongside this venerable herpetologist. But nothing says more about Dr. Stebbins’ passion for herpetology than his artwork.

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2017. Art in Herpetology: The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins. Herpetological Review 48(2): p 472-473.

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Count Your Blossoms at the Antioch Dunes (2016)

Throughout April and May this year, biologists at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge will be conducting plant surveys for the endangered Antioch Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides howellii) and Contra Costa wallflower (Erysimum capitatum angustatum).

ADEPrimrose_IMG_9664_smThese two plants are exclusively found at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in Antioch, California, where years of sand mining at the Antioch Dunes has pushed these plants (and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly) nearer to extinction. That’s why refuge staff need your help counting plants to inventory the refuge’s populations. Plants counts are scheduled for the following dates:

  • Wednesday, April 26th – 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Contra Costa wallflowers)
  • Thursday, April 27th – 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Contra Costa wallflowers)
  • Wednesday, May 24th – 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Antioch Dunes evening primrose)
  • Thursday, May 25th – 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Antioch Dunes evening primrose)

Newcomers and veterans alike are welcome to participate, but participants must be 18 years or older. Volunteers are cautioned to wear layered clothing in anticipation of the unpredictable cold, wind, or listless heat; sturdy shoes/boots and long pants (jeans) for uneven terrain and spiky weed seeds; knee-pads; sun-protection (e.g. sunblock, sunglasses, hat) and plenty of water; and your lunch.

If you are interested in volunteering for the April/May plant counts, please contact Susan Euing (by email at susan_euing@yahoo.com or by phone at (510) 521-9717). If you leave a message, please leave your name, phone number and email address, and Susan will contact you as soon as possible to confirm.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that writing about the Lange’s metalmark butterfly and the Antioch Dunes for Bay Nature magazine in 2005 was the genesis behind my children’s book, Sardis and Stamm. You can read more about the book – and order a copy for your shelves – here:

http://www.sardisandstamm.wordpress.com/

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The 2017 Jepson Herbarium Workshops

The Friends of the Jepson Herbarium recently announced the program for The Jepson Herbarium Workshop’s 2017 series on botanical and ecological subjects. These programs are open to the general public and consist of basic, introductory one- to four-day basic botany workshops and more technical one- to five-day weekend workshops.

The basic botany series includes “Introductory Plant Morphology for the Botanically-Curious” and the not-to-miss “Fifty Families in the Field: San Francisco Bay Area,” an excellent workshop I had the pleasure of taking in 2007 with instructor Linda Beidleman (co-author of Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region: Mendocino to Monterey) (and, in the past, the late ever-entertaining Richard Beidleman, the author of California’s Frontier Naturalists which was reviewed with great enthusiasm here). Among this year’s technical weekend workshop series are such select, wonkish offerings as “Northern California Seaweeds,” “Butterflies: Biology, Behavior, and Identification,” “Exploring the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness,” “Climate Change in California: Past, Present, and Future,” and “Insect-Induced Plant Galls of California.

The workshops run throughout the year, but class sizes are limited and waiting lists back up quickly. Sign up soon.

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Game Review: Evolution

evolution_box_rt_2nd_edition_1024x1024Evolution (2nd Edition), by North Star Games (http://www.northstargames.com), 2015 [ages 12+, 30-minute play time, 2-6 players] $54.99.

In the game of life, survival is key. And that’s not so different in the board game Evolution, the breakthrough Kickstarter success story in its second edition by North Star Games whose very DNA mimics our dog-eat-dog world.

As the game begins, each player takes charge of a new “species.” During each player’s turn, the species in their hand can be enhanced by playing or trading trait cards. Trading in a card to level up a species’ body size or population size makes them harder to be attacked or driven to extinction, but doing so comes with the added burden of needing additional food to sustain them. Playing a trait card confers that species with unique abilities that help them collect extra food (e.g. “scavenger,” “long neck,” and “fat tissue”), fend off attacks (e.g. “climbing,” “hard shell,” and “warning call”),  or attack other species (e.g. “ambush,” “pack hunting,” or “carnivore”). Each species is limited to three unique traits, but these cards can be swapped throughout the game to “evolve” in response to the competition as new species come and go.

In lieu of leveling-up the prehensile proto-llama or feathered faux-ferret you’ve created, each player also has the option of instead adding a new species to their hand to create various amalgams. And with every new species spawned (and their numbers grow), the food begins to dwindle as the watering hole gets that much more crowded. Because Evolution‘s game mechanics allow enough plasticity to repeatedly reboot or rebrand any number of species combos, the game play continues to change as different species thrive or fade to extinction. With a swap of one trait card you can transmorgify your seed-gathering arboreal pocket mouse into a blood-thirsty carnivorous arboreal pocket mouse who, because strength lies in numbers, may be the downfall of an opponent’s saber-toothed salamander.

Especially for those with a science background, it’s hard not to try and imagine real life examples of the pseudo-species you’ve created in the petri dish that is your “hand” of species. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you had better hope it has teeth because when the food runs out, no one is safe.  As players fight to evolve or eliminate the competition, they may have to cannibalize their own creations to become the last pygmy manatee standing in a playing field truly red in tooth and claw (or, if you play your cards right, hoof and trunk).

Evolution’s game play is so carefully crafted and expertly executed, it appears to have been lifted straight from the pages of Biology 101. Inhabiting a unique niche among board games as both tool and toy, Evolution has no equal. Imagine a lesson plan so addictive and so illustrative, the act of learning – a journey of enlightenment about species interactions, competition, and survival – unfolds unconsciously. One can only imagine the trajectory scientific progress might have taken if the Beagle’s own Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy had sat down to tinker with this board game in the captain’s parlor during their long voyage at sea instead of frolicking after a few fickle finches.

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#mcd (Must Come Down) – A Citizen Science Project

mcd_ballonHelium balloons pose a unique threat to wildlife and the environment. When released outdoors, the balloons eventually shatter and/or fall to earth, where the latex fragments are often mistaken by wildlife as food, or individuals become entangled in the strings or latex, leading to stress, injury, malnutrition, and sometimes death. What differentiates balloons from other garbage and debris, however, is that the very nature of their being – that they are filled with a gas lighter than air – not only allows them to stay airborne and disperse farther distances from their point of origin than might otherwise occur with a discarded straw or plastic bag, but also disperse to higher altitudes where latex balloons undergo an explosive “brittle fracture” that results in both large and micro material that fall to earth, making it difficult to track their fate.

As one who spends time outdoors, the number of spent balloons I’ve found littering my favorite open spaces has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. If you throw a plastic grocery bag on the ground, there are few among us who would dispute that the very act constitutes littering. So what makes balloons any different?

2-iphone-rightTo better understand – and to help educate the public – about the fate of air- or helium-filled latex and mylar (foil) balloons released outdoors, and the inevitable fact that when balloons are released, singly or en masse, they must eventually fall to earth, I have started #mcd (Must Come Down; https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com), a citizen science project whose purpose is to collect geotagged data on balloon trash through the app Litterati. Here’s how it works:

Once you’ve downloaded the Litterati app (visit: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/litterati/id982782776), you can start logging your observations in three easy steps:

(1) Track it down!

Whether you are in an urban or open space (the woods, the beach, the desert, the city, or your backyard), keep an eye out for latex and mylar balloons.

(2) Tag it up!

Take a photo of any balloon you encounter with the Litterati app and tag it with #mcd, as well as #latexballoon or #mylarballoon.

(3) Pack it out!

Properly dispose of any garbage you collect.

As you collect and record balloon trash, you will be contributing to a growing open source database that will help future policy makers begin a meaningful dialogue about the consequences of balloon releases based on hard facts.

img_7737Although the balloon industry maintains that latex balloons are made out of natural latex and are, thus, biodegradable, it can still take 8-10 weeks when exposed to air and more than 5 months when submerged in water before a latex balloon degrades and breaks down. That leaves plenty of time for wildlife to ingest them.

Why do wildlife mistake balloons for food? On land and in water, balloon remains can resemble common prey or food types, like flower petals, fruit, or jellyfish. If biomimicry is the intentional design and production of materials and systems modeled on the natural environment, when inadvertent this process could be thought of as “apatobiomimicry”:

a·pa·to·bi·o·mim·ic·ry

/əˈpatōˈbīōˈmiməkrē/

noun

The inadvertent and deceptive resemblance of anthropomorphic materials, structures, and systems to biological entities and processes.

{from the Greek words apatē (ἀπάτη)/apatēlos (ἀπατηλός) meaning “deception”/”deceptive”, βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation, from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), to imitate, from μῖμος (mimos), actor.}

When balloons enter the natural environment, they become apatobiomimics: anthropomorphic materials that inadvertently and deceptively resemble biological entities or process. Among the species that are vulnerable to this bait and switch are marine birds and mammals, big horn sheep, and sea turtles and desert tortoises, many of which are threatened or endangered species. It’s true that what goes up, must come down – but when balloons fall to earth, the consequences can be fatal.

If you are interested in learning more about the #mcd project or how balloons impact the environment and wildlife, visit: https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com/.

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