Small

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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.

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The space-for-time substitution

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…

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…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.

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Not chasing Marsh Wrens

dsc_2711While I was working on my dissertation, I imagined that finishing it (finally!) would mean a sudden change in my life. I pictured an acceleration, a speeding-up of things: all the junco research published, a new research project started up efficiently thanks to everything I had learned from the juncos, new analyses performed and revealed quickly.

But although the junco research is on its way to publication, and although I am starting a new research project, neither process has been swift. I catch myself laying the blame for this at my own feet: why can’t I work faster? Why didn’t this get done yesterday?

I’ve been spending a lot of my free time in marshes lately. I like the combination of open space and dense impenetrability. I like the stalking egrets, the hovering kites, the harriers bounding along just above the reeds.

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Birds as friendly faces

A birder’s brain responds to photos of familiar bird species in a way that is, neurologically, “strikingly similar” to the way that anyone’s brain responds to photos of familiar human faces (Tanaka & Curran 2001): birders seem to use a similar strategy to recognize birds as everyone uses to recognize people they know. If you are a birder, this probably isn’t surprising; certainly, to me, recognizing a bird species feels similar to recognizing a friend. And it isn’t only birders: the study also looked at “dog experts”—which I did not know existed before I read this—and found the same pattern when those experts looked at photos of dogs. If you are passionate about models of cars or architectural styles or garden flowers, I wouldn’t be surprised if you experience the same thing.

(Bafflingly, the study reports that the photos it showed to the birders included “the robin, sparrow… oriole… [and] hawk,” none of which are actually individual species. Which sparrow, guys? Didn’t you talk to your birders at all while you were studying their brains?)

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The sparrow, obviously. (Rufous-collared Sparrow, San Jose, Costa Rica.)

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Puffins taking baths

I always thought of puffins as fairly dignified birds. They look sleek and posed in the photos you usually see, like statues of themselves. Recently, however, I discovered that to get that sleek, clean look, puffins take on some poses that would be quite hard to capture in a statue.

Just preening in a photogenic way....

Just preening in a photogenic way….

SPLOOSH!

SPLOOSH!

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Nudibranchs defend themselves with their food

Nudibranchs, or sea slugs, are descended from animals with protective shells like those of modern snails. Nudibranchs have lost that shell, leaving them potentially vulnerable: squishy morsels in an ocean full of hungry things. But nudibranchs have some tricks to avoid becoming someone else’s meal: they use their own food to protect themselves.

Hermissenda crassicornis may not have a shell, but he is well-defended. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Hermissenda crassicornis may not have a shell, but he is well-defended.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

One trick is to steal the defenses of your prey. Many nudibranchs eat stinging animals like hydroids and anemones. These animals use specialized stinging cells to catch their own prey and to defend themselves.

Hydroids. The stinging cells are on the ends of the long tentacles, waiting to catch prey. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Hydroids. The stinging cells are on the ends of the long tentacles, waiting to catch prey.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

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