• Luna and the Mirror

    Recently I moved to a new place to live, that’s less expensive and closer to work. Yay! Luna is still getting used to it, but she’s doing pretty well. Our morning and evening routine consists of her squeaking at me until I gather up several of her toys, and then I toss each one high over her head so she can leap up and snag int midair. It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes in the evening, if I don’t play enough she will also carry one of her favorite rattle mousies over and drop it in front of me. Often we’ll play fetch for several rounds til she gets bored again. It’s pretty adorable.

    One new thing about this place is there are lots of full-length mirrors throughout. Luna has always been fascinated by the other kitten she sees in mirrors or reflective windows. She often squeaks at them and paws at anything that reflects, wanting (I assume) to play with the other cat. She didn’t have experience with full-length mirrors at my last place, though. Which leads me to this amusing encounter.

    I was tossing her toys toward the front hallway, and she was scampering after them to chase and catch them. At one point, she came around the corner and caught sight of her own reflection in the coat closet mirror. Instantly her tail poofed up in surprise.

    A gray & white cat crouches in front of a mirror, her tail poofed up.

    She slunk closer, the fur on her tail slowly lowering as she gained confidence and then finally flattening completely when she came nose-to-nose with the “mystery” cat in the glass.

    Are you in there?
    Odd, you don’t smell like another cat.
    One last sniff- Is there really nobody in there?

    She sniffed at the crack between the two mirror panels, thinking perhaps maybe she could smell the kitten imprisoned here, and then looked expectantly back to me, ready for her next toy to be thrown as if nothing unusual had ever happened. Typical cat! I love her so much.

  • Three Legs

    Recently I had an unplanned shift at the fee booth, to fill in for an absent coworker. This meant I didn’t get to spend as much time walking around and interacting with visitors as I had expected. But I’m not complaining, because I did end up having a really cool encounter with an insect I rarely get to see.

    Our park police officer for the day was standing next to his car, watching traffic for any signs of trouble, when he called out to us that a praying mantis had just fallen onto his car. He thought maybe it had been fighting with another bug in the branches overhead, because it only had three legs. In fact, he thought it was dead, because it didn’t budge for about 15 minutes after falling. I asked him to bring it over so I could see it. He tried to scoop it up, at which point he called back to us that it wasn’t exactly dead!

    He managed to get it onto his hand, but then we had about 10 minutes of constant traffic that prevented him from bringing it over. Regardless, he hung out with the bug- patiently letting it sit on his arm that whole time, including when a young visitor asked him questions about it.

    When he finally brought the bug over to us, it turned out to be a walking stick, rather than a praying mantis. I could see why he had the theory that it had been fighting: it had only three legs left of the usual 6. But it was still lively, and I let it climb around on me as I finished my shift. My coworkers laughed at it sitting on the back of my hat, and also marveled at how calm I was about having a large insect roaming on my body. I shrugged, “I know it’s not going to hurt me.” Walking sticks are herbivores, so I figured it had no interest in my flesh except as a climbing wall.

    I later found out that walking sticks can pop off a leg or two when they’re attacked- sort of like some lizards that can detatch their tail in order to escape, while the predator is distracted by the still-wiggling tail. I wonder if the walking stick’s legs also keep twitching for a bit after detaching?  

    At any rate, missing a few legs barely slowed this walking stick, as it rambled all over me. Imagine having so many legs you can literally lose half of them and you’re still able to get around fine! This whole bipedal nonsense we humans use doesn’t seem very efficient in comparison. The walking stick even paused long enough beneath the brim of my hat for me to get a couple funny selfies with it. Thanks, little bug!

    When I finished my shift, I scooped the insect off my neck and placed it on the outside of one of our windowsills where the officer could still see it. After that it ambled off, and last I knew it was hanging upside down from the sill, doing its usual best to imitate an unobtrusive twig. One of the ways walking sticks camouflage is by swaying back and forth as they walk, to imitate a stick blowing in the breeze.

    I also found out that when the legs grow back, they’re likely going to be a little smaller than its other legs. There are a lot of energy costs involved with to growing a whole new leg! Spending energy on a new leg can affect the insect’s reproductive ability too. But as they evolved, this trait didn’t get selected out, so it must be worth the cost to be able to do it. I think I would probably make that choice too—lose a limb versus lose my life to a voracious predator.

  • ,

    Starting Again, Again

    So it’s time again for my recurring attempt to relaunch this blog. I do this at least once nearly every year. Often I try in November, to piggyback on Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), so I can utilize some of the tools and camaraderie of that program. I also sometimes get reinspired after a vacation, when I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what is important to me.

    What went wrong the last few times?

    Obviously I failed the last few times I tried, whether in Nanowrimo or as a result of a rejuvenating vacation. Each time, I think of something new to try so it will be different this time. Last time I wanted to restart, after my summer vacation in Maine, I decided I would set a goal of publishing four posts a month, three shortish ones and one longer one that might take outside research. I hoped I could write and post short ones quickly, and work on the longer one throughout the month, and by the end of the month would have posted something every week. Well, I started off with a topic that I thought would be short but turned into a long and deep research topic. Whoops!

    Cycle of shame

    By the time I had gotten deep in the research, weeks had gone by, then months. Now, when I first started this blog back in Blogger days, I wanted to keep my posts current and punctual, so whatever I was writing about would still be happening in the natural world for anybody who wanted to go see it for themselves. Since that was how I started, I’ve always assumed it was how I should continue. But when I’m struggling to post at all, that idea trapped me in a problematic cycle. I’d take too long to write, then by the time I had finished even a first draft, the bird had already migrated, or the flower was no longer blooming. So I didn’t bother posting despite all my work, and eventually started on another topic. After a few rounds of this, I would feel just massively embarrassed, I’d even avoid writing altogether so I didn’t have to face my own guilt and shame. That would end up with me not even thinking about this blog for months until eventually either I had lots of unstructured time to think (like on vacation) or November approached and I started hearing about Nanowrimo plans.

    Time is fleeting

    So. THIS time I’m going to try to release the expectation of being current. I’m just going to write about whatever, whenever. If it was interesting enough to me in the first place, it will stay interesting with the photos I post. And after all, the internet is pretty much timeless. I grew up writing with the expectation of print publication, so you did have to be really tied to a time of year, or else write in advance to publish when the event came around again.

    That means I’m going to start working backward on the photos on my phone, of things that interested me and intrigued me. I do think my idea of several shorter pieces plus an occasional longer piece is a good one. I’m also trying another trick– writing drafts directly in my blog editor. So I don’t have a psychological barrier that makes it feel longer and more onerous to go from draft to published. At least, that’s my hope! lol

    Out of time, out of place

    In fact, I’m probably going to end up writing about things I can’t even experience any more– I’m about to move closer to where I work, so anything that was linked to my previous home will be not only out of date but out of place, in a way. That’s ok though. I can find ways not to have to follow up on whether something is still there. It was just a moment that was interesting, and I can connect it to other moments. There’s no requirement that it must still be accessible to me irl. I hope this time it works out and I get a regular blog schedule going again! (Did I ever really stick to a schedule? I’m not sure I ever did even in my Blogger days. But I posted more often than I do now. I guess that’s my goal, to keep posting.)

    Pick a picture first

    One other trick I hope will speed the path from drafting to publishing, is to start with the photo, rather than start with words. That is, to find the photo I want to write about first, and have it in front of me (or in another window on my computer) while I write. Another thing that used to tie me up would be trying to find perfect photos to illustrate what I had just written about. That could take forever sometimes. And then I’d have to watermark them before publishing, to boot. I usually did have photos of the thing already when I wrote, but I didn’t yet know which one I wanted to use. Maybe turning my order of operations around can help– once I have the text polished I can basically hit publish right away.

    Dealing with guilt and shame

    Since the last time I was able to keep this blog going for long, I’ve gotten a much-needed divorce (hooray!). I’ve also become polyamorous. Along the way, I learned a lot about what to do with negative feelings. I used to try to not have the feelings at all. I would avoid the triggers (such as not blogging because I felt guilty about it), or would try to repress the negative feelings and blame myself for even having them, in a horrible cycle. I’ve learned now that it’s actually ok and normal to experience negative feelings like guilt or jealousy. What matters is what I do with them.

    For example, if I feel jealous/envious about another partner, stuffing those feelings down and trying not to have them at all only leads to worse feelings and resentment. Ugh. Instead I’ve learned first to just sit with the jealousy, accept its existence as totally normal. When I do that, I can go deeper under the emotion and figure out what I’m really feeling at the moment– am I lonely? Do I wish I was getting/experiencing something different from my partner? Do I feel like I’m missing out on something? Do I feel unworthy or less pretty/trusted/loved than somebody else? There are so many things that could be underlying the envy/jealousy– for me at least, it’s never the primary emotion. It’s always caused by something else.

    Once I find the root cause, I can address that– call a friend and ask for compliments and/or company, for example; or start making plans to go out another time; or reach out to someone who needs help and give them support, so I feel wanted and needed. Whatever suits my need at the moment. And if that doesn’t fully resolve the emotion, I TALK to my partner(s) about it. The first time I tried this, I was feeling envious of my partner’s spouse because she got to spend every night with him, while I went home alone after our dates. He reassured me when I told him how I felt, we agreed to have occasional overnights at my place, and I really felt heard and cared about. What a concept!

    To sum up, I’m going to:

    • Let go of trying to be current– write about anything, anytime, anywhere.
    • Aim for several short pieces, and just a few longer pieces now & then.
    • Write directly in the WordPress editor, not in a separate program that needs to be cut and pasted.
    • Start with the photo and write from that, not the other way around.
    • Let go of the guilt and shame if I miss a post or two.

    Let’s go Nanowrimo!

  • , , ,

    Blogtober- Foul Odor

    I usually think of flowers as lovely, sweet-smelling decorations. They’re actually plants’ reproductive organs, though, and some are distinctly weird. The fragrant, colorful ones like roses and asters attract bees and butterflies for pollination. However, other kinds of flowers are downright stinky, because they evolved to attract a whole different set of insects.

    Skunk cabbage flower at Great Falls Park

    Rather than courting bees and butterflies, these plants have a pollination partnership with carrion-loving flies. Thus their flowers smell rank, like rotting meat, and they may even also be a dark, meaty, burgundy color. Skunk cabbage, a carrion mimic in my area, blooms as early as February or even January. They’re able to do this because they even create enough heat to melt through any snow that might still be on the ground! Talk about a plant with superpowers.

    Turns out this heat also is an attractant for carrion flies, helping spread the flowers’ foul fragrance. Actual rotting flesh creates heat too, so it’s yet another way the plants fool the flies. In addition to melting any snow, the warmth also helps waft the plants’ stench to hungry flies and beetles. Not all carrion mimic flowers occur in late winter, though, several bloom later in the spring or in summer. In fact, there are carrion mimics found in lots of plant families. Even beloved milkweeds! See https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)00881-7.pdf for a discussion of carrion mimic biology. Another flower that might be a carrion mimic is the Paw paw, whose maroon flowers appear in early March before the tree has sprouted any leaves. This flower doesn’t seem to stink very much, at least I never noticed it, so it may not be exclusively a carrion mimic. The color is certainly right though.

    Paw paw flowers, photographed April 9, 2021.

    Now, if carrion mimic flowers can melt through snow in order to bloom during the winter, how would their pollinators be still active? Turns out, carrion type flies can be active as soon as the weather warms just a bit. Different kinds of fly use different techniques for soverwintering: maybe they molted into pupal form before the cold hit, so they’re ready to finish on the first warmish day. Others are waiting in egg form ready to hatch into larvae; still other species spend the winter as adults by finding a warm protected shelter: inside your home, perhaps, or buried in a convenient compost pile. Flies also have a really fast turnaround from egg through larva, pupa, and finally adult. That means they can take advantage of even short winter thaws.

    In fact, their fast life cycle is how police investigators can figure out how long a murder victim has been dead: knowing the general order of arrival for different insects, and how long each takes to go through the stages of metamorphosis, they can easily estimate how long a corpse has been available to carrion insects. If you’ve watched any of the CSI shows or other police procedurals, you might have seen this in action. In fact, real-life forensic scientists sometimes keep research fields studded with carrion, where they measure how long it takes for each insect to arrive and go through metamorphosis. Imagine how rank that must smell! All in the name of science, though.

    Nature is weird, and disgusting, and totally fascinating. I may not want to sniff a bouquet of carrion-mimicking flowers, but I love that they exist.

  • Blogtober: poison

    The idea of poison is really interesting among insects. Many plants have evolved toxins within their tissues, presumably because it reduces the amount of animals that eat them. But then several kinds of insects evolved not just tolerances, but preferences for these toxic plants. Insects like caterpillars (larval moths or butterflies) can build up those toxins in their flesh so that they too are distasteful to their predators. Probably the best known is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillar eats milkweeds. Although predators don’t instinctively know that certain organisms are toxic, they learn quickly after trying to eat their first example. Think about what it felt like to eat the sourest, most bitter, foul-tasting thing you ever tried- that’s probably what it feels like to be a young bird that unknowingly tried to eat a plump monarch caterpillar! One young blue jay was observed trying to eat a monarch– it gagged immediately and repeatedly. What a horrible surprise that must have been for the bird!

    To my knowledge, there’s no predator that evolved enough tolerance of toxic caterpillars enough to use the same toxins as their own protection (like the monarchs do with the milkweed they eat). In order to do that, the species would have to eat pretty much exclusively the toxin-carrying insect. Some predators do tolerate the chemical defenses, however, such as the Chinese mantis eating monarch caterpillars. A 2017 study by Jamie L. Rafter, Liahna Gonda-King, Daniel Niesen, Navindra P. Seeram, Chad M. Rigsby, and Evan L. Preisser (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371951/) found the mantids did not suffer reduced body size nor produce fewer eggs when fed a diet including monarch caterpillars. I don’t know if that applies to our native mantids, though.

    Do not eat.

    I wondered how insects can even taste poisons– they don’t have saliva and tastebuds like we mammals (or is it just humans?) do. It turns out that they do have tastebud-like sensors, just not mouth-based. Instead, they have tastebuds on their feet or antennae or even ovipositor. Wow! Guess the ovipositor makes sense, when you’re a ichneumon wasp that lays eggs on/in wood-boring beetle larvae. You need to tell if you’ve found a suitable food for your babies, while probing deep in the wood where you can’t see. Anyway, back to poison…

    A pair of mating wheelbugs. Note the long pointed mouthparts they use to liquefy and consume their prey (but not each other)

    Some insects use poisons more offensively too– like wheelbugs who inject their prey with a nasty toxin that basically dissolves the victim’s insides, so the wheelbug can slurp up the resulting insect smoothie. That might be more like venom than poison, though, now that I think about it. Still, though, it seems like poisons are pretty useful to develop , considering how many plants and insects evolved them independently. I wonder if I can take poisons I’ve metaphorically consumed and turn them into something useful? Sure would be nice if I could turn toxic relationship messages into, say, a brilliantly colored elytra! (Who couldn’t use a nice jewel-toned protective shell now and then?) But since I can’t, I’ll at least try to avoid consuming known toxins,

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The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.

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