Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I visited the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in NYC this weekend. I was awed to see the excellent way that phylogenetic relationships were represented in the museum exhibits and especially in the Halls of Saurischian and Ornithischian Dinosaurs (take the virtual tour here). The museum biologists and designers did an incredible job at making cladistics accessible, by draping the phylogeny of vertebrates across the floorplan of the entire fourth floor, which lets the visitor walk evolutionary branches - stopping at the nodes to learn about evolutionary novelties. I spent nearly 30 minutes looking at pterosaurs, a group that includes pterodactyls and which, long before birds, were the first vertebrates to evolve flight.

In the Spectrum of Life, the massive evolutionary tree spanning a wall in the Hall of Biodiversity, one bright bird caught my eye. I knew I'd seen it before - and not in the wild. I figured it out looking at some of last year's photos. It is/was a scarlet ibis, Eudocimus ruber, that I previously saw in La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's second home, now a museum (though not of natural history), in Valparaiso, Chile. So, AMNH, there you go, helping yet another biologist draw curiously odd conclusions. Below, La Sebastiana's ibis, on display in a plastic bubble in Neruda's old living room.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

science in Obama's inaugural

Inspired by Obama's inaugural theme of "American Renewal," I made the trek to Washington, DC and braved the crowds for the inaugural ceremony. It didn't disappoint - the optimism and the friendliness of people gathered in the capital was invigorating. I've been especially excited about Obama's political appointments of renowned scientists, many of which are nobel laureates and national academy members. Which is why I screamed the loudest (of all 1.8 (±1) million spectators) when Obama said in his inaugural speech, "We will restore science to its rightful place." The wording was perfect; science, the application of observation and rational thought, deserves an honored position in government.

Below are my photos of the lively (but frigid) scene on Inauguration Day, Tuesday, Jan. 20th, in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

lake blue

From maritima

Glacial lakes (fed primarily by glacial meltwater) are often a milky blue-green. These surreal lakes captivated me when I visited Torres del Paine National Park in Chile in October 2008. A park ranger explained to me that the unique color comes from suspended sediment, or "rock flour," reflecting sunlight. When I visited Mendoza, in the foothills of the Argentine Andes, in November, I noticed the same color quality in a lake there (see images of Pehoe Lake in Torres del Paine and the lake in Mendoza above). I think that the blue color in the Mendoza lake is probably also related to suspended sediment - there must be impressive erosion from the Andes each year. The lake was fed by a turbid, muddy, braided river. Water color can be affected by a number of factors, such as algal growth, bottom color, and depth, so I can't be sure, but it seems highly likely that the same process of erosion and sediment suspension caused this lovely scene in dry, sunny Mendoza as in the famously harsh landscape of Torres del Paine.
From maritima

Monday, January 12, 2009

'tis the season

Well, it's technically a bit after the season, but here is a plant that inspired in me some Christmas spirit. It's not related to Christmas holly (Ilex spp.), but this Argentine Berberis species (possibly ilicifolia or buxifolia) does a good imitation. My Argentine colleagues told me the common name of this plant is "calafate" - like the Patagonian city.

According to the Bradt Chilean Travel Guide, there is a saying "Quien come el calafate vuelve por más" (Whoever eats the calafate berry will come back for more). Berberis is in the barberry family, and other barberries are edible and supposedly make a good jam. However, take care on your identifications - my Plant Systematics textbook (Judd et al. 1999) says that many other Berberidaceae species are "extremely poisonous."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

better than special effects

Here is an amazing video compliments of David Gallo and TEDBlog. I have seen Roger Hanlon's clips of cephalopods many times now. These animals are enthralling and it never gets old. However, before seeing this video, I'd never seen these images of deep sea bioluminescence. Truly incredible.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

pollen slick

Observed: June 9, 2008

Out and about in Narragansett Bay, RI, last summer, near a field site on Hope Island, Joey Bernhardt (pictured below) and I spotted what looked like a film of pollution on the surface of the water (see photos). Upon closer inspection, the material looked organic. I can't be completely sure (no samples were taken), but I think it was a slick of pollen, taken from the shoreline by the tide. Many types of pollen are the same shade of yellow. I wonder if it came from synchronized flowering of a single high-pollen-producing species, or if it is the result of a high tide carrying off a mix of pollen from the shoreline. In the second week of June, we were coming off a spring tide series, one of the largest of the year, and it is an active flowering time in the area. Seen something similar?
From Blogger Pictures

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Perrito del agua

On a recent trip along the Atlantic coast of Uruguay, these nocturnal insects appeared one night by the dozens. An Uruguayan native called them "perritos del agua" (little water dogs) because they supposedly emerge prior to a rain. The book Latin American Insects and Entomology notes that dobsonfly larvae are often called "perros del agua." It doesn't look like an adult dobsonfly, but the black claw-like extensions on the first leg and the short translucent wings seem characteristic enough. All the individuals I saw were approximately 5 cm long. Anyone recognize this bugger?

Update 1/5/09: Prof. Doug Morse suggested that it might be a mole cricket. I'm sure he's right. See another photo of a mole cricket on Wikipedia.