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?


July 27 – We’re Off To See The Lizard

Today’s factismal: Reptiles are found on every continent except Antarctica (and they used to live there!).

If you want to call a group of animals successful, then you have your choice of how to define the term. You can base it on the distribution of the critters: those that live in more places are more successful. Or you can base it on the longevity of the critters’ family tree (what biology wonks call a clade): those that have been around longer are more successful. Or you can base it on all of the other critters that have evolved out of that clade: having more branches on their tree of life makes them more successful.

An alligator in Texas (My camera)

An alligator in Texas
(My camera)

But no matter how you define success, the reptiles have it. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica (they moved away from there when it got too cold), they’ve been around for 312 million years, and their descendants include obvious suspects like crocodiles and turtles, and some not-so-obvious ones like the dinosaurs, the birds, and the mammals.

An iguana in Florida (My camera)

An iguana in Florida
(My camera)

But success has its price. In the case of the reptiles, it means getting pushed out by younger and more vigorous critters, like humans. In Los Angeles and other parts of California, the native lizards have almost entirely disappeared, thanks to changes in the environment caused by building and water use. It has gotten so bad that now researchers are out looking for lizards, and they’d like your help. If you happen to live in Los Angeles (or are just stuck in a tourist trap ☺), then why not give them a hand by reporting any lizards that you see to the RASCals Project at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum:

May 10 – Make Yourself Herd

Today’s factismal: The official name for the USA’s National Mammal is Bison bison bison.

As of May 9, it is official: The United States of America has a National Mammal. And what a mammal it is! An adult male stands 6 ft tall at the hump and weighs as much as a car, making it the largest mammal by weight in North America. An adult female is nearly as tall but weighs a dainty 1,000 pounds. As for those cute babies, they are three feet tall and start out at 60 pounds. (Yowch!) And even though many people call it a buffalo, the animals official name is Bison. Actually, it is Bison (genus) bison (species) bison (subspecies). Though many people call it a buffalo, that is a buffa-no; the buffalo is native to Europe and Asia and is not found in North America (except at a zoo).

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

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

The bison, on the other hand, is native to North America. At one point, these majestic animals roamed all over the continent. If we go back a mere 15,000 years or so, you could find bison in Alaska, Newfoundland, Georgia, Texas, California, and all points in between. But changing climates drove the bison away from the coasts, restricting their range. And then came man. Early indigenous Americans were the first to discover that bison were tasty and started hunting them using atlatls (think of it as a spear on steroids) and by running them off of cliffs (instant hamburger). When Europeans started to settle the West, they nearly settled the bison as well. Using repeating firearms, they were able to slaughter thousands of bison each day. The pelts were used for leather; the meat was left to rot. By the end of the 19th century, the number of bison had dwindled to a few hundred, many of which were in small, protected herds on private land.

Why did the bion cross the road? (My camera)

Why did the bison cross the road?
(My camera)

Lucky for the bison, many people loved them and worked hard to keep the species alive. The most influential group was the American Bison Society. Starting with a small herd in what would become the Bronx Zoo,they bred bison and shipped them across the country to start new herds. Thanks to their efforts and those of other conservation groups,  there are bison herds in all fifty states. Public lands support seventeen herds of bison with a total of  10,000 animals; nearly half of them live in Yellowstone, which is also the only place in North America that has had bison continuously for more than 10,000 years!

Bison in Yellowstone (My camera)

Bison in Yellowstone
(My camera)

So celebrate our new National Mammal today. Make yourself herd!

December 14 – On Donder

Today’s factismal: The word “reindeer” means “deer deer”.

It is beginning to look a lot like Xmas and one of the most important parts of that look is the number of reindeer that are sprouting up. You can see them as lawn ornaments, on Christmas cards, and standing patiently by Santa’s sleigh. But what you can’t see is that their popularity is relatively recent. While Santa Claus has been a part of Christmas since the 1400’s, the reindeer only date to Clement Moore’s famous poem in 1823.

A reindeer standing next to somebody's sleigh (My camera)

A reindeer standing next to somebody’s sleigh
(My camera)

Though they may be relatively new to the Christmas biz, reindeer have a much longer history than that. They were well-known to such ancient scientists as Aristotle (who called them “tarandos” or “draggers” for their habit of dragging their feet in the snow to look for food) and were domesticated for milk and meat by people in the snowier parts of Europe as far back as 3,000 BC; even today, reindeer meatballs are a popular food in much of Scandinavia. And that ancient relationship with people helps explain why they are known by so many names. In Canada and parts of Alaska, they are called caribou (“snow shoveler”) while in other parts of Alaska they are called tuktu. In Scandinavia, they are called reindeer (“deer deer”). And in the Russian steppes, they are called pücö (“cattle”).

"You want to call me what?" (My camera)

“You want to call me what?”
(My camera)

No matter what you call them, reindeer are magnificent animals. They are typically about seven feet long and weigh upwards of 350 pounds, with the males being slightly bigger than the females. Unfortunately for armchair biologists, both the males and the females grow antlers every year (unusual for deer) which makes telling the sex of a reindeer difficult to anyone who isn’t a reindeer. And, in a fascinating example of adaptation, the reindeer’s feet change depending on the season. During the summer when the tundra turns marshy, the pad on their feet expands to give them more stable traction. But during the winter, the pad retracts so that the horny hooves are exposed for gripping the ice and snow. Another of their cold-weather adaptations is that they can see into the ultraviolet which allows them to spy the scat of other reindeer and the fur of predators that would blend into the snow otherwise. And though they live in vast herds of animals, it is rare that you will see a reindeer in the wild. Much like any other wild or even domesticated animal, they spend much of their time in places that a human wouldn’t enjoy (e.g., in a blizzard looking for food).

So what should you do if you do see a reindeer (or any other wild animal)? First, think about how lucky you are; most people wouldn’t have the chance to see something that big in the wild. Next, use your phone or camera to take a picture of it so that you will always remember the moment. And finally, report what you saw on Wildlife Sightings. This web site was set up specifically to allow citizen scientists like you to report the animals that they see; the data that you collect is then used by scientists around the world to measure biodiversity (which tells us how healthy an area is) and to discover new species and track old ones. To participate, head on over to:

December 7 – A Huge Problem

Today’s factismal: Browsing animals, like mastodons, eat leaves from shrubs and trees and grazing animals, like wooly mammoths, eat grasses and other things from the ground.

To a biologist, where an animals eats is often as important as what it eats. That’s because the animal’s food source tells scientists a lot about the environment. For example, a browsing animal such as a mastodon wouldn’t do well in an open prairie environment because it wouldn’t have anything to eat. And that tells the biologist what other animals to look for when they find a pile of mastodon bones; there won’t be many miracinonyx (fast cheetah-like prairie cats) or titanis (eight foot tall flightless birds that could run 65 mph), but there would be plenty of smilodons (that’s “sabre-tooth tiger” to you) and castorides (an eight foot tall beaver). From that information, a paleontologist can soon construct a model of the environment.

A mastodon smiles for his close-up (My camera)

A mastodon smiles for his close-up
(My camera)

And that model is important, because it tells them what else to look for (and where to look!). By modeling the environment, paleontologists can understand how different types of animals respond to changes and answer questions such as: what animals thrive as the world warms? what happens when a wetland turns into a prairie? how quickly can animals adapt when a food source vanishes? The answer to those questions then tell us a lot about how life has changed over the course of Earth’s history and give us insight into biological processes; they also often tell us a lot about the animal that we started to study in the first place.

A mastodon in the Houston Museum of Natural History reminds the humans who is the boss (My camera)

A mastodon in the Houston Museum of Natural History reminds the humans who is the boss
(My camera)

If you’d like to try your hand at gathering some information on large browing and grazing animals, why not join mammalMAP? For more information, head over to their web site!

December 2 – A Whale Of A Sound

Today’s factismal: The blue whale is the loudest animal known; its cries can reach 188 decibels, or about twenty times as loud as a jet engine!

Good old Balaenoptera musculus (“muscular winged whale”). Not only is it the largest animal on Earth, ever, it is also the loudest (probably also ever). This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. Interestingly, we are still uncertain exactly why the blue whale makes such loud sounds.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Certainly, it is used for echolocation, but a quieter sound would do as well for that. And it may be used for long-distance communication, but a more focused sound would do as well. And it is possible that it is used for self defense; we know that sharks and other predators will feed on blue whales. But whales aren’t the only things that make noise in the ocean; there are also fish (like the aptly named grunt), waves, and even man. Some researchers think that the increasing clamor in the ocean may be driving the whales to distraction.

And noise pollution isn’t just a problem underwater; it affects the quality of life here on dry land, too. If you’d like to measure the noise pollution at your home, then download the Noise Tube app and see how much you’ve been hearing!

November 23 – That She Blows!

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan in 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.

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.

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 your hand at making the world of science a better place to live in, then consider working with Whales.fm as they try to match whale songs from across the globe: