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:

November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:

September 9 – Rubbernecking

Today’s factismal: Scientists have recently identified four distinct species of giraffe.

Giraffes have been in the news a lot lately, and for an unusual reason. It isn’t because they’ve been robbing banks or running for office; no, it is because there are both a lot more and a lot fewer giraffes than we used to think. How can it be both? Welcome to science!

The giraffe's spots help hide them in the brush (My camera)

The giraffe’s spots help hide them in the brush
(My camera)

Scientists used to classify giraffes into nine different subspecies, mostly named after the region where they were first identified: Nubian, Angolan (Namibian), Kordofan, Masai (Kilimanjaro), Rothschild’s, South African, Rhodesian, and the common reticulated giraffe. Each subspecies of giraffe lives in a different part of Africa with a different environment. For example, the shorter trees of mean the Kordofan giraffe is smaller than the Masai which lives in a region with taller trees. And the common reticulated giraffe is adapted to live in almost any savanah or woodland in Africa. Now the interesting thing about a subspecies is that it can (and will) have children with a member of another subspecies. So, under the old classification, we could expect to see giraffes that are children of South African and Rhodesian or of reticulated and Rothschild’s.

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood (My camera)

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood
(My camera)

But when scientists started looking at the DNA of the giraffe subspecies, they discovered something interesting. Though some of the subspecies were interbreeding, many were not and had not for more than a million years. They weren’t subspecies at all; they were distinct species! And “giraffe” didn’t mean one type of animal – it meant four!Just as there are several species of “cat” (e.g., lion, tigers, and housecats {oh, my!}), there are now four species of giraffe:

  • Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),
  • Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata),
  • Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),
  • Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis) and Nubian giraffe subspecies (G. c. camelopardis)
A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees (My camera)

A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees
(My camera)

Now this has implications beyond just telling us which giraffes have been having fun. For example, there are about 90,000 giraffes in the wild if we count all four species. That’s enough to make them of Least Concern to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature even though the number of giraffes has declined by about 40% since 2001. But that 90,000 isn’t distributed evenly. There are a lot of reticulated giraffes and Southern giraffes and not nearly as many Masai giraffes; as a result, some of the species may be in danger of extinction.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

So how can we tell? With science, of course. Snapshot Serengeti has been operating camera traps in Africa for several years now and they’d love for you to go through their photographs and tell them which animals you see. And you’ll see more than just the four species of giraffe. There are lions and tigers and warthogs (oh, my). So head on over and let them know what you find!

June 24 – On Wings Of Eagles

Today’s Factismal: In the time since the Endangered Species list was created, 34 species have recovered – and 10 have gone extinct.

It is no secret that man has had an outsize effect on the environment. Sometimes, our influence has been a good one; we got rid of smallpox and are close to making polio extinct as well. But sometimes our influence hasn’t been so benign. Thanks to our need for energy, we’ve increased the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and increased the globe’s temperature as a result. Thanks to our need for fresh food, we nearly obliterated the ozone layer (but it is getting better).  And thanks to our need to get rid of tropical diseases, we nearly made our national bird extinct – along with more than 2,000 other animals and plants! Fortunately, we discovered our mistake in time and set about rectifying it with the Endangered Species Act. Since the Endangered Species Act was made law, some 2,270 species of animal and plant have been put under federal protection. And since then, 34 species have recovered enough to be delisted. unfortunately, another ten species have become extinct.

A bald eagle being rehabilitated at the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center (My camera)

A bald eagle being rehabilitated at the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center
(My camera)

As an example of the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness, consider the bald eagle. The steady flap of its wings, the piercing cry as it spies a fish, and the sudden swoop on its dinner combine to make for an unforgettable moment. And yet, in 1963 we thought that the bald eagle might be lost forever. At that time, years of hunting by sportsmen, poisoning by farmers who thought the eagles stole livestock, and slow attrition due to the accumulation of pesticides and other poisons had reduced the number of bald eagles in the wild to the point that many thought they were headed for extinction.

A wild bald eagle on the lookout for some tasty salmon (My camera)

A wild bald eagle on the lookout for some tasty salmon
(My camera)

But laws passed to prevent hunting bald eagles and to clean up the environment have allowed a dramatic turnaround in bald eagle populations. Where they once were restricted to Alaska and Florida with a few strays in the Great Lakes, they now fly over forty-nine states. (They’d fly over all fifty, but cannot get enough frequent flyer miles to get to Hawaii.) Not surprisingly, Alaska is the state with the most bald eagles; the abundant trees and fish make the state a veritable paradise for more than 50,000 of the birds. Surprisingly, the state with the second largest number of bald eagles is Minnesota, with more than 2,600. Florida comes in a very close number three with some 2,300 bald eagles. And more than 23 states have at least 100 pairs, with every state having at least one pair of bald eagles!

A bald eagle's nest (My camera)

A bald eagle’s nest
(My camera)

So the return of the bald eagle is one of the success stories in the history of conservation. But that story is still being written, and we need more authors. If you’d like to add a line or two, then why not join one of these programs dedicated to observing and reporting on bald eagles?
Arizona Bald Eagle Nest Watch Program http://www.azgfd.gov/inside_azgfd/employment_eagle.shtml
Audubon of Florida EagleWatch http://fl.audubon.org/audubon-eaglewatch
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory Bald Eagle Watch http://rmbo.org/v3/OurWork/Science_/CitizenScience/BaldEagleWatch.aspx

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!


April 7 – So Cool!

Today’s factismal: PenguinWatch is the world’s most popular penguin-related citizen science project.

It may be late Spring up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but way down in the Southern Hemisphere, it is late Fall. That means that farmers are reaping their crops in Argentina, shepherds are shearing their sheep in Australia, and penguins are stuffing their faces in Antarctica.

Pebble stealing is a common activity (My camera)

Pebble stealing is a common activity
(My camera)

Antarctic penguins don’t have the easiest of lives. They spend more than half the year in a world of frozen snow with nothing to do or eat and then they spend the rest of the year frantically trying to hatch eggs, raise chicks, and get fat enough to survive the next winter. They have a full schedule which is made even fuller by the fact that they don’t have any trees to build nests with. Instead, their nests are built out of pebbles. Though cold and pointy, pebbles offer one indisputable advantage to nests built out of clay (like those of the ovenbird) or spittle (like those of the swift) or dug into the sand (like those of the kingfisher) – pebbles drain. And when you live in a climate as wet as the coast of Antarctica, you need a nest that will drain. Because there aren’t enough really good pebbles lying around, penguins will steal them from other penguins’ nests!

A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

As is common in warmer climes, the nests typically hold more than one egg. What is unusual is that not all nests get eggs at the same time; instead, the eggs are staggered out over a period of weeks. Why would penguins do this? If all of the penguin eggs were laid at the same time and hatched together, then the whole colony would be vulnerable to an unseasonable cold snap or strong storm. By staggering the clutches of eggs, the colony ensures that there will always be another generation. As a result, it is very common to see eggs, hatchlings, and young adults in the same colony.

Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

And when a penguin isn’t on the nest, odds are it is out hunting for food. Penguins spend about three-quarters of their lives in the water, searching for food. It takes a lot of energy to be a bird, and it takes even more to be a bird that lives in a cold region. As a result, penguins must eat almost constantly in order to build up enough fat to survive the winter. Since their food lives in the water, that means that penguins must spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food.

A Gentoo Penguin father feeding his baby.

A Gentoo Penguin father feeding his baby.

Now because penguins spend so much time in the cold, it is hard for scientists to keep tabs on them. After all, thermal underwear just does so much. And that brings us to PenguinWatch. This citizen science project is run by Oxford University and counts the number of penguins seen on cameras that are scattered around Antarctica. By keeping tabs on the penguin population, they hope to understand how other populations, such as krill (which penguins eat) and leopard seals (which eat penguins), are adapting to the changing conditions in Antarctica. To help them count penguins – and see some cute penguin pictures – just toboggan over to: