Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hunting prey versus feeding time

Great Blue Heron
Photo credit: Lee Karney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, I was standing with my family on an elevated wooden pathway, feeding the ducks and Canada geese at a local pond, when I realized that there was a wading bird right beneath us. I believe it was a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), although it might possibly have been a Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor).

As the diet of the Great Blue Heron is primarily fish, this bird had no interest in our offerings of bread. It was stalking the small fish that were drawn to our crumbs. Every now and then, a duck would venture too close to this bird's hunting grounds. Zap! The heron would unfurl its great neck to peck at it. One time, the heron came away with feathers in its mouth. Otherwise, the heron just stood there calmly, patiently watching the scene unfold. And then, zing! It would thrust its beak into the water and snap a fish. Chomp, chomp! Two bites, and the fish was gone.

The wary interaction between the ducks & geese and the heron's sharp beak led me to think about the intersection of humans and nature, and how our intervention can often "domesticate" a wild species. In general, I try not to disturb wildlife (although I've been known to rescue turtles from the road), but even I feed the ducks sometimes. Watching the contrast between the geese & ducks (so drawn to humans for food and attention) and the heron (ignoring people, annoyed by the ducks, and hunting prey), reminded me that animals make choices too, whether they realize it or not. I suppose that our responsibility as humans -- as minders of the Earth, so to speak -- is to make sure that their available options are good ones.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Website(s) of the Week: Year of the Frog

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums has designated 2008 as The Year of the Frog to highlight the plight of our amphibian friends. Many are facing the threat of extinction due to habitat loss and disease. Frogs are uniquely sensitive to changes in the environment because they spend part of their life cycle on land and part in the water.

Global efforts are now underway to help save the frogs. One such organization, Amphibian Ark, is co-sponsoring an auction from now through June 30, 2008. The winner gets to name an endangered frog species native to Ecuador! Proceeds from the auction will go toward helping to save endangered frogs in that country.

You can sign up to be a friend of the frogs -- and learn more about how to support this global amphibian-saving effort -- at Year of the Frog. And be sure to stop by Amphibian Ark's How people are helping amphibians for some heart-warming tales of conservation fund raising in action.
Wood Frog
Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Phoenix Mars Lander

Martian surface as seen by the Phoenix Mars Lander
(Photo credit: NASA)
The NASA Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the surface of Mars on May 25, 2008. This nifty little robot, powered by a two-wing solar array, is equipped with a meteorological station, a robotic arm to collect soil samples, and a machine to analyze the samples. The robot has landed in the northern arctic plain, which is known to contain water (in the form of ice) below the ground surface. Could Mars have once supported life?

No samples have been analyzed yet, but the Weather Report for Mars was clear, sunny, and very, very cold, with a high of just -22 degrees F (-30 degrees C)!

The Phoenix Mars Lander should be working on Mars for the next three months. You can read about the goals of the exploration at Mission Overview and Mission Objectives.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Young Birder's Guide Giveaway at 10,000 Birds

Photo credit: David Hall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I don't normally post on Tuesdays, but I wanted you to know that 10,000 Birds is giving away three free copies of Bill Thompson III's The Young Birder's Guide. (Hey, I just realized that's Bill of the Birds, the guy who wrote about the giant dinosaur of cheese!). Young birders under the age of 16 can write a 100-word essay on the topic of Why Watching Birds is Fun to be entered into the drawing. Adults can enter, too, by writing on the topic of how to get children interested in birding or by helping to promote the contest. But the deadline is tomorrow, May 28th! You can read more about the contest and how to enter at Young Birder's Guide Giveaway and Deadline for Great Giveaways. Good luck!

[Update: 3/5/09 -- There's a new web address for Bill of the Birds.]

--If you like this blog post, you might also like:
*Learn Bird Songs!,
*Hunting prey versus feeding time,
*Mama Joules' Young Birder, and
*Find the Bird.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Nature Blog Network

I recently discovered Nature Blog Network, which bills itself as "a resource for the very best nature blogs on the net." You can sort through member blogs by topic, such as ecosystem (that's where I put Mama Joules), marine, birds (a very popular topic, I learned), mammals, mollusks (three snail blogs at the time of this writing), and flora (plants & trees).

I'm still picking my way through the listings, but I have a couple of early favorites. Ugly Overload is a nice compliment to Mama Joules' Weird Animal Names. Ugly Overload is just what it says -- a website for strikingly ugly animals (with great pictures). According to their website, Ugly Overload is for "giving ugly animals their day in the sun." Check out the entry from May 22, 2008 on Insects and Friends about giant live beetles found unexpectedly in a package at the post office!

I also liked the photographs at tHE tiDE cHAsER, especially the close-ups of sea life. And be sure to check out Bill of the Birds and his giant Goudasaurus!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Website of the Week: National Park Service

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Photo credit: National Park Service

If you are planning any travel in the United States this summer, head on over to the National Park Service and see what interesting places might fall along your route. You can browse through a listing of national parks, monuments, historic sites, (and more!) by state. Many parks have online video and photography like these gems:

Click to see a Live View of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park in California, courtesy of the Yosemite Association.

Take an eTour of Glacier National Park in Montana.

Explore a 60th Anniversary Online Exhibit of Everglades National Park.

Enjoy Photos and Multimedia of scenery at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, like this:

Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo credit: National Park Service

Or head on back over to the National Park Service headquarters and listen to the nature on the Natural Sounds page. (Be sure to click on the wolf!). You can also join the WebRangers or learn how to join the Junior Ranger program.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Meet the vug

Yesterday, I was floating around the web looking for photographs to jazz up my blog posts. Let me just say, the National Park Service has an awesome cache of photographs in the public domain. I wasn't looking for a vug, but once I saw one, I knew I had to show it to you.

Crystal-lined Vug in Wind Cave
Photo credit: Jason Walz, National Park Service

Despite the funny name and this rather intimidating photograph, a vug is just a hole (or cavity) in a rock. This hole is often lined with a different type of rock. A geode is an example of a round vug.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Night Sky

Moon Set Over Earth
Photo credit: NASA

Dr Jamie Love provides a free monthly night sky map through his website, Principles of Astronomy. His newsletters show you how to locate stars and constellations, teach about astronomic objects, and provide tidbits of historic context. Check out Night Sky for May 2008 along with Night Sky for June 2008 and let me know what you find in your night sky! Sadly, we have a lot of light pollution where I live so I don't often see too much in mine.

--If you like this blog post, you might also like:
Astronomy Picture of the Day.

[Updated 3/5/09, checked links & added suggested link]

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Magic School Bus™

Today, my son’s class went on a field trip to a museum. On the way there, we rode in a fancy bus and watched videos of Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus™.

Now, if you’ve never met Ms. Frizzle, the wild and wonderful teacher that leads the class on these magical science adventures, you’re in for a treat. Her magic school bus is an amazing machine that can transport students to the far reaches of outer space, inside the human body, or down an ant hill. Along the way, her young pupils make discoveries about their surroundings and learn about science.

At the end of each video, there’s a mock call-in session where kids ask questions of the producers like, “Could this really happen?” This is followed by a brief explanation of which facts are true and which ones were stretched for the sake of a good story.

The Magic School Bus™ website includes Science Fun Activities to try after watching the videos, fun online games and this week’s experiment. In addition to the videos, there are over 40 The Magic School Bus™ books in print, with most geared to the 6-9 year-old set.

Check them out! Or, as Ms. Frizzle would say,

“Wahoo! Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Website of the Week: Ecological Society of America

Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Photo credit: Kip Evans, NOAA/Department of Commerce

This week’s website is the Ecological Society of America.

The ESA, founded in 1915, is a well-respected professional organization in the ecology community. I had the good fortune to meet the current president of the ESA, Dr. Norm Christensen, when I was in graduate school. Norm is an amazing person. Most ecologists have a tendency, I think, to be pessimistic about the future. Not Norm. He embodies the “win-win” philosophy that I believe is so crucial to solving our world’s environmental problems.

For more about a career as an ecologist, check out the ESA’s flyer for high school students interested in ecological careers. If you need to write a report on topic like acid rain, coral reefs, or biodiversity, visit the ESA’s Fact Sheets. And if you’re thinking about an advanced degree, read Walter P. Carson’s advice for “…How to Apply to and Get Admitted to Graduate School in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More weird animal names

Of all the posts I’ve written here at Mama Joules, Weird animal names has been the most popular. So, I thought maybe you’d enjoy some more! Read about these animals and thank your parents that you weren’t saddled with these monikers:

“Fat” is the last name of Psammomys obesus, also known as the Fat sand rat, a rodent living in the sandy, salty deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East. Fat sand rats are sought as research animals for the study of diabetes.

Psammomys obesus by Tino Strauss
This photo was published under the CC-BY-SA-2.5

Doesn’t Nine-banded armadillo sound better than this mammal’s other informal name, the Common long-nosed armadillo? It's even been referred to as the poor man’s pig! Fun fact: When pregnant, Nine-banded armadillos always carry four identical babies. Another fun fact: A South American relative (Dasypus pilosus) is stuck with an even worse name: the Hairy long-nosed armadillo.

Some species of horned frogs, including the South American ornate horned frog, are commonly known as “Pac-Man frogs” because they resemble the round video game character that gobbles everything in its path.

Ceratophrys ornata by avmaier
This photo was published under the CC-BY-2.0

Australia’s Bridled nail-tail wallaby (so named for its pointy tail) was thought to be extinct from 1937 to 1973, when a small population was discovered in central Queensland. There are about 450 Bridled nail-tailed wallabies alive today, according to The State of Queensland Environmental Protection Agency (reference: Recovery Plan for the bridled nailtail wallaby (Onychogalea fraentata) 2005-2009 [Note: this is a .pdf file]). What a wonderful species recovery story – and a nice reminder that it’s never too late to start protecting wildlife.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Earth Island Institute's Lorax Challenge

As part of their New Leaders Initiative, the Earth Island Institute is sponsoring the Lorax Challenge. Groups of two or more young adults (ages 12 – 20 from the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico) are invited to share their ideas for saving the planet. Entrants must submit an “action plan” that includes items like a description of the project, the names of the team members who will put this plan into action, a draft budget, and a timeline. You could win $1,000 to turn your dream of saving the planet into reality! Five grand prize winning teams will be awarded trips to the University of Florida to attend a five-day environmental boot camp. The deadline for entry is midnight, May 31, 2008. Good luck!

[UPDATE: 3/3/09 -- Some of these links were broken and have been deleted or updated. You can read about the winners of the 2008 contest at the Earth Times.]

Friday, May 9, 2008

Website of the Week: Earth Island Institute’s Brower Youth Awards

I found this great opportunity for young adults ages 13-22 over at the Earth Island Institute. The EII, founded in 1982, operates under this motto: "Innovative Action for the Environment."

If you are a young environmental leader living in North America, you should consider applying for the EII’s Brower Youth Awards. These awards, given annually, honor six young environmental activists for their achievements in environmental advocacy and the promotion of environmental justice. Action and measurable results are key; grades and research are not. You could win a trip to California for the awards ceremony in October, a $3,000 cash prize, and meet people to help you further your environmental vision. But don’t delay; the application deadline is May 15, 2008.

(And if you’ve got a great idea to save the planet, but you haven’t quite put your thoughts into action yet, stay tuned! I’ll have another great opportunity for high school students on Monday.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I like caterpillars

Today, I am pleased to announce that I have a guest blogger!

"Kerm" is 6 years old and likes to "play fun games and jump on the couch." Kerm's favorite subjects in school are science and math. When I interviewed Kerm, this is what he had to say about caterpillars:

I have a caterpillar in my room because I like studying the earth around me and I like studying bugs. I want the caterpillar to change into a butterfly. If it doesn’t, then it will probably turn into a moth. Between those two times [from caterpillar to butterfly or moth], it will turn into a cocoon. If it is a moth, I will let it out late at night. If it is a butterfly, I will let it out in the day. I feed my caterpillar leaves. Last night, I saw it nibbling on one.

If you are studying caterpillars, you might want [to read] these books:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle
From Caterpillar to Butterfly, by Deborah Heiligman and Bari Weissman

Photo credit:

Monday, May 5, 2008

Know your sources

When I am researching a blog topic (or any other science topic, for that matter) on the Internet, I tend to gravitate toward sites with addresses that end in .edu or .gov. Why? I assume that, on average, these sites will be more credible sources of information than ones that end with .com.

Now, I'm not saying that every school or government site has useful or timely scientific information. Nor am I saying that you should ignore all .com science sites (because then you'd never come and visit me!). But you need to know where your information comes from.

Let's say, for example, that you want to learn more about the adverse health impacts of tobacco smoke. And let's pretend that your search engine pulls up an impressive looking site with lots of drop-down menus and flashy graphics touting the health benefits of smoking. Maybe the site even has an impressive sounding name, like the Center for Happy Healthy Smokers. Should you believe what you are reading?

Somewhere on the site, you should be able to find the organization that is funding the research. And that's valuable information for you to have.

Let's say, again hypothetically, that the Center for Happy Healthy Smokers is fully funded by a tobacco company. Are their conclusions suspect? Maybe, maybe not. But you should use caution. At best, you know that the Center will be tempted to bias their findings in favor of tobacco use. At worst, they might suppress research or conclusions that don't fit their intended message that tobacco is healthy.

But dot-coms aren't the only websites with agendas. Every website has a bias, a slant, a direction that it is trying to point you. Recognizing this will help you to make informed choices about whether to trust what you read.

At Mama Joules, I want you to enjoy science. And, without intending to, I'm going to point you toward biology and environmental science and ecology, because that's what I know best. That's my bias. I think environmental science is awesome; physics, not so much. I do try to overcome my biases, but I still have them.

And so does everyone else.

Friday, May 2, 2008

I think Mama Joules needs a slogan ...

This isn't a typical Friday post for me, but then, it hasn't been a typical week for me either. Since I've been sick, I've had lots of time to think. I've been contemplating putting up a Mama Joules page on MySpace (I think MySpace could use a little more science, don't you?), which led me to think that maybe we need a slogan over here at Mama Joules central.

These are just off the top of my head, so don't be bashful about commenting. Let me know which (if any) of these grab you:

“Mama Joules is a place for sharing ideas, because science should be fun.”

"A place to share ideas for making science fun."

“Teaching science, one atom at a time.”

"Give a man fission and he'll have a meltdown in a day. Teach a man fission and he'll have power for life." (OK, so I got a little carried with that one ... )

“Because science should be fun.”

"Sharing science, exploring ideas."

“Sharing ideas, exploring science.”

"Sprinkle some science into your day."

Thanks in advance for your input and have a great week-end! :)