It’s been… 20 months (yikes) since my last post, and some stuff has changed! I’m back in the San Francisco Bay Area where the juncos look right – none of this slate-colored nonsense – and I now co-run a bird banding station.Continue reading
When people want a different perspective on the world, they may go to the mountains, or the ocean, or admire the endlessness of the night sky. Landscapes so vast as to approach incomprehensibility let you feel small, temporarily lifting the weight of consequence from your shoulders.
You can get a similar effect rather closer to home by seeking out the opposite: worlds so small that you become incomprehensibly vast, and therefore as irrelevant as a distant snow-crested peak.
If a magical being pops into existence in front of you and demands that you choose a non-human animal into which you will be reincarnated, one of the first things you should consider is: how many babies does the species have, and how big are they? If you want a good shot at surviving past infancy in your second life, you will want to select a species that has just a few, big babies. Elephants are a good option, with their single giant offspring; ditto whales. Large sharks are a solid possibility, often birthing just two large babies at a time (but you’ll want to be careful that you don’t pick a species—such as the sand tiger shark—in which many embryos are formed in the uterus, and then all but two are eaten by their siblings before birth).
You will most certainly not want to choose to be a species whose offspring look like this:
Frog season is upon us, and for us in the Frog Lab, regular sleeping hours are a luxury of the past. In the day we hide from the sun in basements and prepare our equipment.
In the night, we don our chest waders, take up our headlamps, hang bags of tupperware from our wader straps, and walk into the ponds to seek our prey.
Recently I flew from a particularly dire version of Minnesota winter—periodic rain making no dent in the graying heaps of snow, while rendering the smooth ice-covered sidewalks puddle-pocked and slick, so that it was not unusual to find oneself sliding inexorably down an icy slope into four inches of slushy water—into the blush of spring.
This new season was in California, where I was visiting my fiancé for the weekend. (Long-distance relationships are a staple of academia; my Minnesota labmates have significant others in Seattle and India.) Three hours on a plane headed west and I seemed to have jumped forward two months. Puffed-up robins in the snow…
…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.
If any animal ought to be able to expect a safely uneventful life, it’s the compact, guinea-pig-adjacent tuco-tuco. These South American rodents live in burrows underground, popping up into the dangerous above-ground just long enough to grab some veggies for dinner and then retreating again into their tunnels. Male tuco-tucos have the occasional reckless phase, during which they travel above-ground in search of tunnels inhabited not by familiar females but by attractively novel females; but aside from that, they stay underground.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the danger also came from underground, pushing through its own tunnels, burrowing upwards like a hungry tuco-tuco. Late on June 2nd, 2011, and continuing through June 3rd, in the area around the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex in Chile, more than one thousand earthquakes shivered the earth. They came more and more frequently, until by midday June 4th they were coming more than twice per minute, a near-constant shuddering.
At 3:15pm a spot on the mountain exploded and sent a 5km-wide ash and gas plume into the sky.
The early stages of a scientific career are designed to be unstable, slingshotting you from place to place as you acquire new skills. I bucked this paradigm somewhat in the first years after finishing my PhD, teaching and working on local projects in order to stay in the Bay Area; but the lure of learning from a cool new lab (and having health insurance) proved irresistible. At the end of August this year I moved out to Minneapolis to start a postdoc.
**This post brought to you by a recent attempt to change someone’s mind using solid scientific findings.**
You, a well-trained and diligent scientist, have finally finished rigorously analyzing your data, writing up your results, and then re-analyzing your data according to the suggestions of peer reviewers, and have at last published your findings.
Tellin, an interested person/kitten, is going to try to debunk your findings.
My first thought was that the stag was badly injured. He trotted across the rural Wyoming highway wrong, dipping with every third step. Clipped by a car, maybe, I thought, mentally cringing at the internal damage that would have done. I pulled over on the shoulder, but by the time I got out of the car he had vanished.
The land was only moderately hilly, so I could see for a good distance, and the grass was waist-high on me: not nearly tall enough to hide an adult deer. I had taken my eyes off the stag for just a moment and now he was gone. All I could see was a flock of small birds swirling in agitation over the ditch at the side of the road.
I’m not conducting junco-focused field work anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my fondness for the little guys. I was delighted this spring to find a junco nest not five meters from my front door, well-hidden in the crotch of an ornamental tree.