January 26 – All’s Whale That Ends Whale

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan on January 26, 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

This sperm's whale's death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters (Image courtesy USFWS)

This sperm’s whale’s death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters
(Image courtesy USFWS)

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale's carcass can provide food to other critters. (My camera)

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale’s carcass can provide food to other critters.
(My camera)

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try find where whales congregate and maybe tell the scientists about your close encounter with a whale (living or dead {the whale, not you}), then swim on over to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Marine
Mammal Sightings Database where you can search their database of whale sightings and add yours:

January 23 – Up A Tree

Today’s factismal: The common tree squirrel can rotate its back ankles 180° in order to climb down a tree head-first.

Squirrels are fun, frolicsome, and fascinating critters. They jump from limb to limb in search of nuts and acorns that they bury in profusion and they crawl on the forest floor hoping to find some tasty insects, slugs, and small birds, or snakes.Because they move from climbing up to climbing down to crawling around with such frequency, they have developed some special adaptations. Perhaps the most interesting of these is their back ankles which rotate 180°; in effect, they can put their feet on backward. Though that would make them a little awkward if they did it on the ground, it is perfect for when they want to head down a tree head-first.

Unlike many other animals, squirrels don't hibernate in the winter (My camera)

Unlike many other animals, squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter
(My camera)

But why would a squirrel want to go head-first down a tree? Because squirrels have a lot of things that like to feast on them. By going down head-first, they can keep an eye out for snakes, birds, raccoons, and automobiles to name but three. Automobiles are particularly deadly; the jerky, back and forth evasion pattern that gray squirrels have evolved to escape from predators in a forest makes it very hard to automobile drivers to avoid hitting the poor beast. As a result, the leading cause of death for gray squirrels in a city is being run over.


Despite their predator problems, squirrels remain plentiful. In part, that’s because of their fecundity. Tree squirrels become sexually mature at six months and a female can have two litters of two to six baby squirrels each year. As a result, even though they only live a short time, squirrels are in no danger of dying out. But they do provide biologists with a puzzle: where do they live? What do they eat?

A smug grey squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder (My camera)

A smug grey squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder
(My camera)

And the biologists would like your help in solving the puzzle. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a few hours, and a willingness to spy on our tree-dwelling neighbors. If you’d like to help, then why not join Project Squirrel?


January 11 – Humble Bumble

Today’s factismal: There are 250 different species of bumblebee.

If you ask the average person what that strange critter buzzing around those flowers is, they’ll probably say “it’s a bee”. They’d probably be right but they’d also be wrong. That’s because there are over 20,000 different bee species on Earth. And even if they said it was a bumblebee (or a bumble bee – you can use either one), they’d still not be completely right because there are over 250 species of bumblebee buzzing about. In order to be perfectly right, they’d need to tell you what species it was, for example “Oh, that’s a Rusty Patched Bumblebee“.


A honeybee sipping nectar from a flower
(My camera)

And if they told you that it was one of those, you should be very happy because the Rusty Patched Bumblebee is a rare sight indeed. They used to be found everywhere from the plains of Illinois to the rose fields of Maine; more than 28 states had underground colonies of these cheerful little critters. But today they are only found in 13 states and have lost more than 90% of their population and 87% of their range thanks to a variety of factors such as changes in farming, pesticide use, and climate change. Because they are in such dire straights, they’ve been placed on the Endangered Species List joining their relatives from Hawai’i and other notable insects.


There are more than 250 different species of bumblebee!
(My camera)

So what can you do to help keep other bees from joining the list? First, plant native flowers around your home. Not only will those attract local wildlife such as bees, butterflies, and rabbits, but they’ll use less water and fertilizer making them better for the environment all around. Next, help biologists learn more about native bee species by joining Bee Germs. You’ll collect bees (it is easier than you think!) and send them in to be analyzed for germs that could be contributing to colony collapse and other problems. To learn more, buzz over to:

January 2 – Anemia Pint!

Today’s factismal: The human body creates two million red blood cells every second.

On a typical day, some 41,000 units of blood will be needed in the US alone. But no day is average; there are good days and bad days. And most of the bad blood days happen in January when there are more accidents and fewer people donating blood. As a result, blood banks are always critically short of blood during the long winter months. And that is why January is National Blood Donor Month.


Which blood type are you?

When you donate blood to the Red Cross, they use it specifically for saving lives through transfusions. But your one pint of blood may be used for as many as three different transfusions! They can do that because blood consists of plasma (55%), red blood cells (40%), white blood cells (3%), and platelets (2%). After you donate, your blood is tested for communicable diseases as a precautionary measure. Next it is separated into red blood cells (which carry oxygen), platelets (which cause the blood to clot), and plasma (which holds the other two). By using the red blood cells on one person, the platelets for a second, and giving the plasma to a third, your one donation can save three lives!

bloodOf the three components, red blood cells are the most important. That’s because the red blood cells are covered with proteins that can form clots if they don’t match the proteins in the serum. Fortunately, back in 1901, Karl Landsteiner discovered that most people have red blood cells that are covered with one of three different sets of proteins. He called them “groups A, B, and C”; this was changed into A, B, and O by later workers. And just six years later, in 1907 the first successful blood transfusion took place in New York. Thanks to his work, there are now more than 30 million successful blood donations every year in the US alone!

Blood Type Rh Factor How many have it?
O + 1 person in 3
O 1 person in 15
A + 1 person in 3
A 1 person in 16
B + 1 person in 12
B 1 person in 67
AB + 1 person in 29
AB 1 person in 167

If you’d like to be one of the 15 million people who donate blood every year, then why not contact the Red Cross? Every drop of blood that they get is used specifically for transfusions and they are always need more than they have, especially in January. So go give!


December 28 – Stayin’ Alive

Today’s factismal: Sixteen species have been removed from the Endangered Species List in 2016.

It is no secret that animals go extinct. Sometimes we cheer when that happens (smallpox, anyone?) but more often we bemoan the loss (the Carolina parakeet, the Western Black Rhino). Fortunately for the animals (and ourselves), we do more than just weep, wail, and gnash our teeth; we also work to preserve species like the tapir and the tiger to keep them from joining their brethren in extinction. And one of the most powerful tools for preserving animals on the brink of extinction is the Endangered Species Act, which was became law on December 28, 1973.

“Extinction? Yech!”
(My camera)

Today, thanks to the Endangered Species Act,  forty-seven species have gone from being in danger of extinction to being plentiful enough to be taken off the list (though some of them are still protected under other laws); sixteen of them have been delisted in the past year alone! Sadly, ten other species have become extinct during the same time period. And the Act continues to work today, thanks to citizen scientists like you.

A rear view of a humpback's nose (My camera)

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, this humpback whale is no longer endangered
(My camera)

One of the more interesting and useful parts of the act is the provision that allows any US citizen to petition to have a species listed if it meets any one of five different criteria:

  1. If its habitat or range is threatened with the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment. (Think: polar bears.)
  2. If too many of the species have been used for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes. (Think: whales.)
  3. If disease or predation is causing a decline in the species. (Think: song birds.)
  4. If existing regulatory mechanisms don’t do enough to protect the species.
  5. If other factors threaten to make it extinct (Think: dinosaurs).

If petitioning NOAA (for marine species) or the Fish and Wildlife Service (for land species) to add a species to the list seems like too much paperwork (and who could blame you), then there are other ways that a citizen scientist can contribute.

A bison grazing near the Great Salt Lake (My camera)

Bison were once critically endangered
(My camera)

The most obvious of these is by helping biologists discover which animals they’ve snapped pictures of in the wild. The Toledo Zoo Wild Shots team has planted cameras all over the world and needs volunteers like you to look at the pictures and let them know if there are any animals in them. To learn more (and see some pretty cool pictures), head over to:

December 26 – One Geek A’Counting

Today’s factismal: There are six types of bird in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Everyone knows the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That’s no surprise, given that it has been a perennial favorite since 1780. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is played approximately twelve zillion times in versions ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. But what many don’t know is that the song is based on the traditional period of Christmastide (also known as Yuletide).

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas (My camera)

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas
(My camera)

This twelve-day period stretches from Christmas day (the first day of Christmas) to January 5 (Twelfth Night) and culminates on Epiphany (the day when the Magi found Jesus). The days are:

  1. December 25 – Christmas (A partridge in a pear tree)
  2. December 26 – Feast of St. Stephen (Two turtle doves)
  3. December 27 – Feast of St. John the Evangelist (Three French hens)
  4. December 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents (Four colly birds)
  5. December 29 – Feast of St. Thomas Becket (Five gold rings)
  6. December 30 – Feast of St. Anysia (Six geese-a-laying)
  7. December 31 – Feast of St. Sylvester (Seven swans-a-swimming)
  8. January 1 – Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord (Eight maids-a-milking)
  9. January 2 – Octave-Day of St. Stephen (Nine ladies dancing)
  10. January 3 – Octave-Day of St. John (Ten lords-a-leaping)
  11. January 4 – Octave-Day of the Holy Innocents (Eleven pipers piping)
  12. January 5 – Vigil of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelve drummers drumming)
  13. January 6 – The Feast of the Epiphany (Christmas is over. Time to pay the bills!)

If you kept track of the birds, you’ll know that the song mentions six different types of bird and a total of 23 birds (assuming that you don’t count the endless repetitions; if you count those, then there are 184 – imagine the mess!).

This isn't a partridge and that ain't no pear tree! (My camera)

This isn’t a partridge and that ain’t no pear tree!
(My camera)

But what you might not know is that there is another grand tradition that also spans the twelve days of Christmas: the Christmas Bird Count! Run for the past 114 years by the Audubon Society, this event tries to tally all of the birds in the world so that researchers know which ones are doing well and which need help. If you’d like to take part, fly on over to:

December 13 – Point It Out

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to: