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.
I feel almost disloyal, saying it, but here goes: I’m working on a new project. A non-junco project.
Not that I’ve stopped working on juncos. When we teach science, we tell students “Science is never finished”—true in the larger sense that science is always testing new hypotheses, refining old theories, and correcting erroneous ideas; but also true in the sense that we scientists pretty much never stop doing things once we start them. I’m still analyzing data on the juncos.
But I’m now also generating data on tuco-tucos.
The noble tuco-tuco, a subterranean South American rodent.
Male Common Yellowthroat, a frequent visitor at the banding station.
Unusually heavy rains have put much of the banding station underwater for the past three months. One side effect of this is that, on the days when the area is sufficiently dried out for us to squelch out in our rubber boots and band birds, the mud shows the tracks of everyone else who has been out there before us.
Usually the denizens of the banding station of whom I am aware are the birds we catch in the nets and band. These tend to be small- to medium-sized songbirds. The mud reveals an entirely different set of creatures living in the area.
Raccoon hand prints near a human bootprint.
Technically, golden moles are not true moles—they are more closely related to tenrecs than they are to true moles—but golden moles are small, burrowing, insect-eating mammals that, with their streamlined heads and powerful digging claws, have converged to look a lot like true moles.
With at least one key difference: golden moles shine. They shimmer. They iridesce.
Juliana’s golden mole. It’s a bit hard to see the iridescence in photographs, but it’s there. Photo from ARKive.
The hairs on a golden mole reflect light in such a way to give the animal a sheen, ranging in color from gold to green to purple. In the museum where I work, we have some preserved specimens of golden moles, and they are remarkable to see: their fur shines and shimmers like the coat of a child’s stuffed toy unicorn.
I’ve become more-than-usually interested in bats recently, for extremely serious scientific reasons.
Okay, no. It’s because of this video:
But bats aren’t just cute (and really, what animal wouldn’t be cute wrapped up like a burrito? I challenge you to think of one; even a cockroach would look big-eyed and winning). They are also intelligent, social, and adept hunters.
Photo by Steve Ryan
You have (I hope!) seen news lately about the Rim Fire, which has been burning in Stanislaus National Forest next to Yosemite National Park. It began near the “Rim of the World” scenic viewpoint off Highway 120, and has been making Yosemite visitors and residents of Groveland quite nervous. It has burned over 200,000 acres and is reportedly 32% contained. A collection of pretty incredible photos of the fire is here.
First: no, this year’s juncos are not currently on fire. My field sites this year are in Stanislaus National Forest, but considerably further north. We have, however, seen smoke and had bits of white ash falling around us.
But of course, even if my juncos aren’t in the fire, other juncos are. And Chipping Sparrows, and American Robins, and mice, and gopher snakes… So what does wildlife do when the world starts burning around it? Are all the animals in that 200,000+ acres doomed?
On our last trip, we had two very different encounters with baby mammals. The first happened when we were searching for nests in some rather strange habitat: the area had been previously logged, then—like all of my sites, rather unfortunately—used for cattle pasture. The cattle presence here had been so intense that the area not only was covered in cow pies, but smelled distinctly like cow. (Ah, nature!) The corn lilies there, usually lush tall green plants, were ragged and brown.And the whole place was hopping with tiny tree frogs.
All photos in this post are by M. LaBarbera.
Belding’s ground squirrel
Stand at one of our high-elevation sites, and at any given moment, you will be under surveillance by at least two Belding’s ground squirrels.
You might not see them, but down in the grass and the flowers, they are watching.