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:

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:

October 12 – It’s Full Of Stars

Today’s factismal: Some dinoflagellates use bioluminescence to attract big fish that eat the little fish that eat dinoflagellates.

Obi-wan said it best: “There’s always a bigger fish”. And he probably learned that from dinoflagellates. These tiny little critters have a whip at one end that they use for propulsion, a shell made out of cellulose, and a variety of lifestyles that ranges the gamut from photosynthesis to hunter. Then again, with more than 2,200 species of dinoflagellate, there is plenty of room for just about any oddity. But perhaps the oddest thing that any dinoflagellate species does is flash blue lights when startled or jostled.

A dinoflagellate (Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

A dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

Interestingly, it was that blue flash that first attracted people to them; the very first paper written about dinoflagellates was called “Animalcules which cause the Sparkling Light in Sea Water” and it hit the popular press way back in 1753. Today, quite a bit is known about how and why they flash. The reaction is similar to that of the firefly (and uses some of the same chemicals) but it happens for much different reasons. Like the firefly, they flash only at night. However, the firefly flashes in order to attract his lady-love and the dinoflagellate flashes to attract big fish (partly because dinoflagellates don’t have lady-loves. Poor dinoflagellate.). The rapid motion of small fish causes a pressure wave which triggers the flash; this is why they often flash in the wake of boats at sea. And the light that they generate attracts big fish that come to dine on the little fish that are feasting on the dinoflagellate.

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate (Image courtesy Maria Faust)

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy Maria Faust)

Dinoflagellates aren’t the only critters that float around in the water. There are literally millions of different species of microscopic critters in sea water; the generic name for them is plankton (which is Greek for “little floaty thing”). And the interesting thing about plankton is that they are our greatest source of oxygen; about half of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from these tiny critters! Scientists are still learning about plankton and they need your help to learn more. So why not float on over to the Plankton Portal and give them a hand?

July 11 – What A Croc!

Today’s factismal: A female Nile crocodile determines the sex of her children by changing the temperature of the nest; too hot or too cold means more girls!

When Alice went to Wonderland, she recited a poem about Nile crocodiles; the poem praised their “shining scales” and “gently smiling jaws”. But what she should have praised was their ability to determine the gender of their children. As is the case with many other reptiles, the Nile crocodile can change the sex of its children simply by changing the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. If the eggs are kept between 89.1°F and 94.1°F, then the babies that hatch are male. But if the eggs stay too cold or too warm, then the babies that hatch are female.

A baby Nile crocodile hatching (Image courtesy Africa Wild Trails)

A baby Nile crocodile hatching
(Image courtesy Africa Wild Trails)

This would normally just be an interesting and somewhat puzzling phenomenon; biologists could (and have) argue for years over why such a mechanism for determining the sex of the offspring is necessary. But the world is currently undergoing something of a heat wave. The past fifteen years have been stuck on “hot” and the next few decades don’t look much better. And what that means is that the Nile crocodiles will have a harder time keeping their eggs in the temperature range needed for male hatchlings. In effect, the number of male Nile crocodiles will serve as a proxy for the temperature.

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn't he? (My camera)

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn’t he?
(My camera)

And Nile crocodiles are far from being the only critters that will change as the climate does. Trees will sprout further up on mountains, and butterflies will migrate earlier in the year. Flowers will bloom earlier or later. And even fish may change their spawning in response to changes in the climate.

The Washington Monument, peeking out from the cherry trees

How will global warming change the annual cherry tree festival?

Naturally, phenologists (scientists who study the timing of natural events) would love to record all of these changes. But Nature has the phenologists out-numbered eleventy billion to some. And that’s where you come in. If you would like to spend a little time each week observing the flowers in your backyard or the birds in your neighborhood or any other regular natural event, then the folks at the National Phenology Network would like you to become a Nature Observer! Just mark down your observations and add them to the easy-peasy web form and watch as the phenologists use your data!

June 15 – OK Biome

Today’s Factismal: Biologists have identified fewer than 15% of all of the species on Earth.

One of the most important questions in biology is “how many species can a given area sustain?” Knowing the answer to that question tells you about how energy- and nutrient-rich the area is (more species need more energy and nutrients), how long the area has been habitable (more species take more time to develop), and most importantly how well the area can withstand a change in the environment (more species mean that the death of some won’t kill them all). But it is surprisingly hard to answer that question for the Earth as a whole; we’re still not sure how many species there are on the planet even though we’ve been identifying them for more than 4,000 years and have found more than 1,300,000 species!

A "Tree of Life" showing the number of known species (Image courtesy iTOL)

A “Tree of Life” showing the number of known species
(Image courtesy iTOL)

Part of the reason that it is a difficult question is because most of the species on Earth are microscopic. For example, there are more species of bacteria in your intestine than there are species of bats across the world! A teaspoon of soil may contain up to 10,000 different species of bacteria, not to mention all of the fungi, protists, plants, and earthworms. (It is a wonder that there is any room in the soil for dirt.) And because most of these tiny species have very few regular structures, the species must be identified through DNA analysis, which is notoriously expensive and time consuming.

But the larger part of the reason for the uncertainty is because the different places to live on Earth (what biologists call “biomes“) are so, well, different. The creatures and plants that live in the deepest part of the ocean can’t survive in the Saharah desert and none of those critters could live two miles down in the Earth. As a result, though we have a fairly good idea of how many species of big things that live in well-studied areas (read “popular places”), we are still discovering how many species there are in more remote regions (read “places without beer”).

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

There are a lot more of these in the world than there are elephants
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Despite this, scientists have estimated how many undiscovered species there are. Those estimates range from a mere 7,400,000 species (six times as many as we have identified) to as many as 100,000,000 species (seventy-seven times as many as we have identified!). That means that we have discovered fewer than 15% of all the species that share this planet with us. If the larger number of unknown species is true, then we have found just 1.3% of all living species on Earth! And, given that biologists only discover about 15,000 new species each year, that means that they will be identifying new species for at least 500 years and possibly for as long as 6,700 years!


Of course, there are ways to speed things up. And chief among these is getting more information and more help. And that’s where citizen scientists like you come in! By submitting photos and locations of animals to Project NOAH, we can help biologists discover new species and (equally importantly) map out the distribution of known species. If you’d like to add a picture and lend a hand to the biologists, then head on over to:

June 13 – How Doth The Little Crocodile

Today’s factismal: Nile crocodiles have been spotted in the Everglades.

When Alice  was In Wonderland, she recited a poem about the Nile crocodile:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

A crocodile waiting for the little fishes (My camera)

A crocodile waiting for the little fishes
(My camera)

The poem was a gentle satire on Victorian “children’s poetry” that described a creature that most children in Victorian England would never see, the Nile crocodile. This walking handbag is one of nature’s most perfect predators. Lurking just under the water, it waits until a wildebeest or tourist wanders too close and then – SNAP! – lunges up with jaws agape to bite, twist, kill, and eat its victim. Fortunately, until recently, this fearsome beast has lived in the southern part of Africa and been no trouble to the rest of the world. Until recently.

An American alligator waiting for its prey (My camera)

An American alligator waiting for its prey
(My camera)

In the past few years, Nile crocodiles have been seen in the Florida Everglades. Three different Nile crocodiles have been captured there, indicating that there may be many, many more. And that’s bad. That’s bad because in the absence of things that prey on it, the Nile crocodile can easily take over the area, driving out (or eating) the resident predators and devastating the resident prey. What are the resident predators? In the Everglades, there are two critters that fill the niche that the Nile crocodile is attempting to usurp: the American alligator and the American crocodile.

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn't he? (My camera)

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn’t he?
(My camera)

The American alligator is well-known to people who visit zoos. Large and lazy, these beasts are an important part of the wetland system thanks to the holes that they dig and the prey that they eat. These lumbering behemoths can reach15 ft long and 1,000 lbs heavy; they range from the tip of Texas to the edge of North Carolina, with stops in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana (where they are often called “Cajun yard dogs”). And the American alligator is notable for another reason, too. In 1967, the species had been hunted to near-extinction and was placed on the endangered species list. Thanks to the efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it recovered quickly and was removed from the list in 1983. Today, it is considered to be a species of least concern.

An American Crocodile with gently spread jaws (Image courtesy USFWS)

An American Crocodile with gently spread jaws
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Less well-known is the American crocodile. Smaller and more sensitive to colder temperatures than its big cousin, the American crocodile is confined in the US to the tip of Florida and Puerto Rico (though some people have reported seeing it in Louisiana); it can also be found on the Pacific coast of Mexico and throughout the northern coast of South America. Unlike the freshwater-loving American alligator, the American crocodile prefers brackish water and does best in estuaries and small ponds near the sea. And thanks to rising seawaters and shrinking estuaries, not to mention invasions by Nile crocodiles and Burmese pythons, the American crocodile is becoming a threatened species.

If you’d like to help spot invasive species and keep the American crocodile off of the Endangered Species list then why not join the Introduced Reptile Early Detection and Documentation program? The swamp you save may be your own!


June 4 – Up In The Air

Today’s Factismal: Humans put out 135 times the amount of CO2 of all the volcanoes on Earth combined.

Today is Clean Air Day, so here are five fast facts about air pollution:

1 The ozone layer has begun to recover, thanks to the ban on CFCs enacted in 1996. But it will take another four decades to complete heal.
2 Though ozone in the stratosphere is essential for screening out UV rays, ozone at the surface is a pollutant that can cause emphysema, asthma, and other breathing problems. So pity the folks of Los Angeles, which has the highest ozone count in the USA!
3 Smog created by burning old palm trees and forests to clear land for palm oil plantations can reach all the way from Indonesia to Oregon!

Smoke from Siberia reaches the USA (Image courtesy NASA)

Smoke from Siberia reaches the USA
(Image courtesy NASA)

4 Two-thirds of the people killed by air pollution live in Asia, thanks to their lax standards.
5 The world’s worst air pollution is over the Iranian city of Ahwaz, which is three times more polluted than Beijing!
Air pollution in Beijing isn't the world's worst (Image courtesy Discovery News)

Air pollution in Beijing isn’t the world’s worst
(Image courtesy Discovery News)

If you’d like to learn more about air pollution, including how you can measure it at home and what you can do to help reduce it, then head on over to the EPA’s EnviroAtlas: