Category Archives: Biology

Don’t Be a Silly Goose! Fly South for the Winter!

Whose idea was it to spend winter here?

Recently, I was walking Loki, the family dog, when I saw a flock of Canada Geese (a gaggle ?) on a frozen pond in my Kansas City area neighborhood. It was a beautiful sight. The low afternoon sun cast a golden glow onto the melting water, reflecting the geese and the yellow foliage of grass and cat tails. If you didn’t look too closely, you wouldn’t see the goose poop scattered artistically across the frozen surface. I took the dog home and returned with my camera. The geese don’t like paparazzi, so they headed to the opposite side of the pond.

These geese like the neighborhood.  After a heavy snow, I saw the geese gathered on a golf course, taking advantage of a lack of golfers.

About Canada Geese.

This golf gallery is a gaggle of geese gawking on a golf green (now white with snow.)

This golf gallery is a gaggle of geese gawking on a golf green (now white with snow.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

8 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Humor, Kansas City, Natural History, Photography

Camouflage #Fail

Katydids are usually heard, but not seen. With their leaf-shaped green wings they blend in perfectly with greenery. This katydid didn’t get the memo.

I rarely see katydids, unlike their grasshopper distant relatives, which boldly munch on my flowers and vegetables. Katydids are more reclusive, heard but not often seen.  They are related to crickets, another noisy insect.  Katydids’ green leaf-shaped wings help them to blend in with the greenery. This “katydidn’t” get the memo. He (or she) was resting on the sidewalk, where he definitely didn’t blend in. How long before a hungry bird finds him?

True Katydid.
About the katydid family.

6 Comments

Filed under Biology

Pure Water

People are always attracted to water. We hiked up the mountain to this cascade in Le Tigre National Park, Honduras.

(This post has been sitting in my drafts for a couple of years.  Now, that we’re on a “boil” order in my county in northeast Kansas in July 2011, I thought again of how we take our clean water for granted.  I wrote this about a visit to Honduras, where you can’t drink the water from the tap.)

It’s early on a February morning in 2007, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and already hot.  I don’t mind.  Back home in Kansas City it’s freezing.

Behind the courtyard wall, I wait at the gate, listening.  I’m an early riser so I volunteered to make the water bottle exchange.

“You’ll know when they’re coming,” my friend Michael told me the night before.  “They call out “Agua Azul, Agua Azul.”  He likes the sound of it.  “It’s like a call to prayer.”

Most societies and religions find spiritual and cleansing properties in water, so Michael is right about that.

Three large empty bottles sit on the driveway near the gate.  I hear the faint call, and I lean out to look.

I see a truck slowly rumbling down the steep incline of street in this affluent neighborhood in the capital city of Honduras.  The back of the truck is stacked with large water bottles.

“Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.

I wave my hand at the truck. A man darts to the gate, grabs the empty bottles and replaces them with full ones.  He hops back on the truck and continues his call.  “Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.”

Now we’ll have purified water for the next couple of days.  We go through it quickly, using it for everything that passes our lips. The water truck comes three mornings a week.  It saves the trouble of taking the bottles to the store. The house has running water, but it’s not purified.  We have to be careful not to drink it or even use it for brushing our teeth.  I keep a small bottle of purified water in the bathroom during my visit.

You can’t be careful everywhere, and on a trip to see the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, some of us come down with horrible gastrointestinal distress.  I’ll spare you the details (worst diarrhea of my life!), but it was touch and go on the drive home.  Michael and Anita knew the roads and the rest stops, and thankfully, my husband is an Eagle Scout, prepared with supplies at all times, including a roll of toilet paper.

At home, we take pure water for granted.  But civilization has long been plagued, literally, with contaminated water.  Cholera is one disease spread by water fouled by bacteria.  People would often drink alcoholic beverages, rather than water, because they were less likely to get sick. Steven Johnson writes about a cholera epidemic in “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.”

Hacienda San Lucas overlooks the Copan River Valley, where the early Mayans settled more than a thousand years ago. Maintaining pure water is always a problem wherever people gather in cities.

In Copan, we visited Flavia Cueva, who owns the Hacienda San Lucas.  Anita, who is with the U.S. State Department, had met with Flavia before on an official visit.  Local people and members of the International Rotary were working to improve the water quality. International Rotary is providing water distribution and health education to six remote villages in the area.

My water district at home, WaterOne, sends out an annual water quality report, summarizing what’s in the water and provides lots of facts, which are also available on the website.  WaterOne was one of seven utilities worldwide selected as a finalist for a global water award for its Wolcott Treatment Plant. We’re very lucky we don’t need to buy bottled water, regularly, although there is a run on bottled water now because of the boil order.

Here’s a copy of the story in the Kansas City Star about our boil order:


Raccoon Believed Culprit in John County Boil Order

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

Posted on Fri, Jul. 01, 2011 03:57 PM

A raccoon appears be to the culprit in a water pipe rupture that led to a boil advisory for more than 400,000 water customers in Johnson County.
Officials of Water District No. 1 found the animal dead inside an electrical unit at the Hansen treatment plant on Holiday Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
Eric Arner, a spokesman for WaterOne, said the animal may have chewed into wires or just brushed by the equipment, triggering an event that will affect customers at least until 5 p.m. Saturday during one of the hottest spells of the year so far.
People in the WaterOne service area — which includes most of Johnson County but excludes most of Olathe — are advised to use bottled water or to boil their tap water at least two minutes before consuming it. Unboiled water is safe for washing and bathing.
Retail stores in Johnson County are reporting brisk sales of bottled water. People are buying shopping baskets full of it at the Lenexa Sam’s Club, 12200 W. 95th St.
“We’ve got plenty for today and two more semis were dispatched when we heard about this,” said club manager Eric Rector. “We should have more in stock tonight.”
The Price Chopper at 8686 Antioch Road in Overland Park was sold out by mid-afternoon. A new shipment was expected over the weekend but store management did not know when it would arrive.
The boil precaution is necessary because the pipe rupture led to a drop in water pressure, which may have drawn contaminants into the system. Officials are testing tap samples from across the 275-square-mile water district for safety. That process, and flushing any contaminants out of the system, takes at least 18 hours.
Arner said water officials noticed a sudden drop in system pressure at 7:20 a.m., which they later attributed to a raccoon that got inside the housing of one of the huge electrical switches that run the pumps. The animal apparently shorted out the switch.
“The pumps themselves are designed to trip off when there is any fluctuation in power so they don’t fry their circuits,” Arner said. “So when the power was restored in a matter of seconds or even milliseconds the pumps turned back on and created a water surge.”
Officials believe that surge caused a 54-inch pipe near the Hansen plant to rupture at a joint. Arner said the pipe should not have failed even with a surge and WaterOne is investigating whether there were any other factors involved.
Water officials were able to restore pressure throughout the system shortly after the pipe break but some areas may have less pressure than normal.
While most of Olathe is outside WaterOne, between 6,000 and 7,000 people in northwestern and southwestern areas of the city are affected, said city spokesman Tim Danneberg.

7 Comments

Filed under Biology, Drink, Health, Life, Personal, Random, Travel

Why Did The Mongoose Cross The Road?

When it stands, this mongoose looks like its relative the Meerkat.

Years ago in a biology class, I learned about the Indian Mongoose’s introduction to Hawaii (in 1883) as a predator to kill the rats that were thriving in sugar cane fields.  Well, like so many ideas like this, it was a disaster (rabbits to Australia, for example…) The mongooses ate the native birds and their eggs instead.

I’d forgotten about the mongoose  until I recently saw one dashing across the road on the Big Island of Hawaii, where they are pests. As it dashed, it looked like a small ferret.  Every so often, my husband and I would see another one running like mad across the road.  I was never fast enough with my camera.  Finally, I did get a few blurry photographs of a mongoose that seemed to live in the bushes of someone’s yard outside of a botanical garden.  When it stands, it looks like a meerkat, which is one of its relatives.

Standing here, he looks like his relative the Meerkat. He may have a burrow in the yard of this house.

From wikipedia: The 1800s were a huge century for sugar cane, and plantations shot up on many tropical islands including Hawai’i and Jamaica. With sugar cane came rats, attracted to the sweet plant, which ended up causing crop destruction and loss. Attempts were made to introduce the species in Trinidad in 1870 but this failed. A subsequent trial with four males and five females from Calcutta however established in Jamaica in 1872. A paper published by W. B. Espeut that praised the results intrigued Hawaiian plantation owners who, in 1883, brought 72 mongooses from Jamaica to the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island. These were raised and their offspring were shipped to plantations on other islands. Populations that have been introduced to these islands show larger sizes than in their native ranges. They also show genetic diversification due to drift and population isolation.

Only the islands of Lana’i and Kaua’i are (thought to be) free of mongooses. There are two conflicting stories of why Kaua’i was spared. The first is that the residents of Kaua’i were opposed to having the animals on the island and when the ship carrying the offspring reached Kaua’i, the animals were thrown overboard and drowned. A second story tells that on arriving on Kaua’i one of the mongooses bit a dockworker who, in a fit of anger, threw the caged animals into the harbor to drown.

The mongoose introduction did not have the desired effect of rat control. The mongoose hunted birds and bird eggs, threatening many local island species. The mongooses bred prolifically with males becoming sexually mature at 4 months and females producing litters of 2-5 pups a year.

If that isn’t bad enough, Mongooses can carry the infectious bacterial disease Leptospirosis.

About the mongoose.

More about the mongoose.

News report about trapping Mongooses.

 

This mongoose ran back and forth on this road on the Big Island of Hawaii near Hilo several times. He kept checking to see whether I'd left.

7 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Life, Natural History, Nature, Travel

Egret on a Red Bridge in a Cypress Swamp

An egret perches on a red bridge in a cypress swamp in a South Carolina botanical garden.  Spanish moss hangs from the trees.

An egret perches on a red bridge in a cypress swamp in a South Carolina botanical garden. Spanish moss hangs from the trees.

The egret perched on the red bridge is the focus of this photograph, but what intrigued me in this cypress swamp was the Spanish moss. Spanish moss is a strange plant. It has no roots. Its leaves look like stems. It has tiny, inconspicuous flowers. It looks dead.

A ghostly gray color, Spanish moss hangs from trees like tattered shrouds. Although it sometimes almost engulfs the trees it lives on, Spanish moss is not a parasite. The main damage it does is block light from the tree leaves, slowing the tree’s growth. The burden of the extra Spanish moss foliage also makes the trees less wind-resistant and more prone to falling during hurricanes.

Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoidesis, is an epiphyte, which means it absorbs nutrients (especially calcium) and water from the air and rainfall. Spanish moss is also known as “air plant”.

Several kinds of creatures, including rat snakes and three species of bats, live in Spanish moss. One species of jumping spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae, has been found only on Spanish moss. Spanish moss is found in the humid, warmer climates of southeastern United States. It was also introduced to Hawaii, where it is known as a Pele’s Hair, after the Hawaiian goddess and is sometimes used in leis.

I took this photograph in a botanical garden near Charleston, South Carolina. The egret was kind enough to pose for me.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Natural History, Nature, Photography

The Prairie Center

 

Botantist and Environmentalist Frank Norman displays a sumac shrub on a recent nature walk at The Prairie Center in Olathe, Kansas. Smooth Sumac is a native shrub that is widespread across the country.

 

October is a favorite time of year in the Midwest.  It’s not too hot, there’s a crisp feel to the air, and a tangy fragrance wafts in the wind.   This smoke-tinged perfume could be just the dying breath of trees as they shed their leaves and hunker down for winter, but it brings back sweet memories of apple harvests, and trick-or-treating and shuffling in the leaves on the walk home from elementary school.  (On the way to school, I trudged rather than shuffled through the leaves.)

I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for most of my life, but I’m still discovering its treasures.  One is the Prairie Center in Olathe, Kansas. On Oct. 10, some friends, family members and I joined two dozen others on a stroll through part of the center’s 300 acres.  Frank Norman of Norman Ecological Consulting led the walk, which focused on native medicinal prairie plants.  Sue Holcomb of Grasslands Heritage Foundation also pointed out many of the native plants in the prairie preserve, which includes 45 acres of virgin prairie. Virgin prairie means that the land was never plowed, which is very rare to find.  Only five percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains today in the United States.

 

 

The Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) is a beautiful, rare find. It's small, but because of its brilliant blue color, it's easy to spot if you're lucky enough to find some.

 

 

The partridge pea (Cassia chamecrista) is a bright spot among the browning fall grasses at the Olathe Prairie Center.

 

 

In Autumn, sunflowers tower above the asters and other plants at the Prairie Center in Olathe.

 

 

Milkweed pods and willow-leaf purple aster at the Prairie Center in Olathe.

 

Here’s a post I wrote in the summer of 2008 about the Kansas City Symphony’s performance in the Flint Hills: Kansas City Symphony in the Flint Hills.

To learn more, click on these links.

Olathe Prairie Center

Grassland Heritage Foundation.

Dennis Toll has stopped blogging here, but the blog still contains a lot of information about the prairie, as well as useful links.

Flint Hills, Tall Grass

Sumac.

5 Comments

Filed under Biology, Conservation, Education, Environment, History, Kansas, Kansas City, Life, Nature, Photography, Science

One Woman’s Garbage…

Eating a banana peel

I toss banana peels in my flower beds because the peels are good for the soil. I rake mulch over them when the weather is better. Here an opossum quickly gobbles up a peel within minutes after I tossed it. The flowers won't get the potassium. I'm fine with that. It will be recycled through the opossum.

 

“Waste not, want not” is my motto. It’s almost a sickness, so I have to make an effort not to be one of those hoarders who pile up junk.  I try to find a good home for everything, rather than hang onto it, but you might not think so if you saw my closet. 

I even hate to throw away garbage.  We have a compost pile in a natural area of our yard.  Sometimes I toss banana peels into the shrub beds when it’s too cold to walk to the compost pile, which I admit is most of the time in the winter. The peels shrivel and then I eventually rake them into the mulch.  I tossed four banana peels and a few pear cores into a shrub bed Thursday afternoon.  Soon a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) ambled across the lawn.  I ran for my camera and fumbled to change lenses.  I wanted to send photos of North America’s only marsupial to our friends in Australia, whose interest in our local wildlife when they visited us made me appreciate squirrels more than I had.  (Cockatoos are the Aussie equivalent of a ubiquitous neighborhood mildly pest-like animal.) 

Opossum eating banana peels in my yard.

 

There are about 334 species of marsupials.  More than 200 of these species are native to Australia and nearby islands to the north. There are also species in South America.  The Virginia Opossum, pictured here,  is the only marsupial native to North America. 

The best known marsupials are the kangaroos, koalas and wombats of Australia. 

 

I was sure the opossum would be gone by the time I could screw in my telephoto lens, but I found him in the shrub bed gulping the peels.   

We live near woods, so there are always wild animals visiting. I probably shouldn’t attract them, but I am living in their territory.  I never dreamed any animal would find a banana peel appealing… It’s been a colder than normal winter with more snow covering food sources, so any plant-based food I toss into the compost heap will be gobbled up. (Don’t put animal products into the compost heap.) 

Links about the opossum below. 

From National Geographic:  There are more than 60 different species of opossum, which are often called possums. The most notable is the Virginia opossum or common opossum—the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States and Canada. 

A female opossum gives birth to helpless young as tiny as honeybees. Babies immediately crawl into the mother’s pouch, where they continue to develop. As they get larger, they will go in and out of the pouch and sometimes ride on the mother’s back as she hunts for food. Opossums may give birth to as many as 20 babies in a litter, but fewer than half of them survive. Some never even make it as far as the pouch. 

Opossums are scavengers, and they often visit human homes or settlements to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and other containers. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near roadkill. Opossums also eat grass, nuts, and fruit. They will hunt mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens. 

Opossum eating banana peel.

These animals are most famous for “playing possum.” When threatened by dogs, foxes, or bobcats, opossums sometimes flop onto their sides and lie on the ground with their eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. They extend their tongues and generally appear to be dead. This ploy may put a predator off its guard and allow the opossum an opportunity to make its escape.

 

Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals. 

Learn about the Virginia Opossum on Wikipedia. 

The National Opossum Society. 

Learn about the Virginia Opossum on National Geographic. 

Banana peels make a fine meal.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Environment, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science

Monarch Butterflies in Space

KU Professor to help send monarchs into space

By RON SYLVESTER

The Wichita Eagle

(published in Kansas City Star on Nov. 16, 2009)

LAWRENCE, Kan. – (By Ron Sylvester) Chip Taylor is used to people giving him strange looks.

As director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Taylor has placed radio tags on butterflies and tracked them across pastures and plains.

Sending monarchs to space is not that far-out an idea to him.

Three of Taylor’s monarch caterpillars are set to blast off to the International Space Station on Monday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Why send butterflies to space?

To study the effects of gravity.

And yes, the thought of sending butterflies to space has drawn some quizzical looks.

But Taylor is used to that in his field.

“We got strange looks last summer when I was working with National Geographic and we radio tagged a butterfly,” Taylor said. “We have to go knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Can we go look for our radio-tagged butterfly? We think it landed in your pasture.’ I mean, you talk about having strange looks.”

Studying insects helps us learn how the world around us works, Taylor said, and how it affects our lives.

“The nature of what we do is to find out what life is all about,” Taylor said. “When you’re doing that sort of thing you’re up close and personal with all these insects, and that’s something people aren’t comfortable with.”

About 600 individuals and schools will be able to watch the caterpillars develop as they orbit in the space station, about 220 miles outside the earth’s atmosphere.

The schools will receive their own caterpillars in a small rearing station similar to that in the space station.

Students will watch those in their classrooms develop and compare them to how the caterpillars grow in space. Researchers hope they’ll turn into butterflies sometime after Thanksgiving.

The object, Taylor said, is to see how gravity, or the near-zero gravity in the space station, affects the insects. These will be the first of their species to travel in space.

“It is so gravity oriented,” Taylor said. “None of the insects they’ve taken up into space have had a particularly strong gravity orientation. The monarchs do. They’re going to be in a nearly weightless environment. It could pose all sorts of different problems for them.”

That will tell scientists more about movement and how life functions, said Steve Hawley, Kansas professor of physics and astronomy and an astronaut on five shuttle missions.

“The more we learn about how physiology works in space whether it’s human physiology or insect physiology or plant physiology the more we’ll be able to use that information on the ground to understand fundamentally how biological systems work,” Hawley said in a statement from the university.

Monarch Watch is working on the project with the BioServe Space Technologies program at the University of Colorado.

Stefanie Countryman, business development manager with BioServe, said their program created habitat and stringent requirements for the butterflies in space.

But they had no food.

Taylor and his Kansas program developed an artificial food for the caterpillars. That’s how they’ll eat in space.

Since April, Taylor has been perfecting the artificial diet.

“That’s what’s making this all possible,” Taylor said.

A study guide being sent to the schools explains that monarch caterpillars walk with 16 legs and spin silk to attach themselves to surfaces.

“What will happen when they lose their grip?” the guide asks, referring to the force of gravity on liftoff or the weightlessness of space.

How the caterpillars are able to react could teach astronauts how to move better in space, the study guide says.

“You win if they succeed, you win if they fail, because you learn something,” Taylor said. “You learn what their limitations are when they fail. You learn how they adjust if they succeed.”

People will be able to follow the experiment through photos, videos and other information at the program’s Web site: http://www.monarchwatch.org/space.

Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

2 Comments

Filed under Biology, Butterflies, Entomology, Insects, Life, Natural History, Nature, Science, Technology, University of Kansas

Natural Trap, Wyoming, 1975

In August 1975, there were three ways to get to the bottom of the Natural Trap — scaffolding, rapelling and falling. I liked to rapel into the cave but climb the scaffolding back to the entrance.

In August 1975, while working for the University of Kansas, I was assigned to report on a dig in a cave in Wyoming. I didn’t know the Miocene from the Eocene, but I was happy to be on the road, it was a paid week out of the office, and I wanted to get back to Wyoming for a visit. I didn’t get paid expenses, so a friend and I camped out along the way to save money, making a stop at Yellowstone National Park.  I still remember the bird-sized mosquitoes buzzing around the tent, driving us crazy.  We eventually slept in the car.

Here I am standing outside of my Army Surplus tent. To the left you can barely see an overturned car from the early 1960s that had been used for target practice. The paleontologists’ camp was near derelict uranium mining camp cabins. (August 1975)

The dig itself was a thrilling adventure beginning with the drive up the boulder-strewn single-lane John Blue Canyon into the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains (below the road was the carcass of a Range River that didn’t survive).  Once there, we lived in Army surplus tents, ate grilled Cornish game hen and rapelled into the cave, which was packed with fossils from the Pleistocene epoch.
I soon got a crash course in paleontology. For thousands of years during the Pleistocene Epoch, mammals had fallen into an 85-foot-deep cave on the western slope of the Big Horn Mountains. Paleontologists from KU and the University of Missouri at Columbia were digging up the bones of thousands of animals, such as mammoths, cheetahs, camels, bison, bears and horses. (After horses went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, they didn’t populate North America again until the Spanish brought them in the 1500s. )

Paleontologist Larry Martin examines a specimen.

I’ve been hooked on paleontology ever since this trip. I don’t mean that I love the dirty and painstaking work of actually uncovering bones and fossils and trying to figure out what and how old they are, but the excitement of seeing discoveries made in exotic locales and learning about how these animals lived and died. I’m afraid that makes me a bone-digging voyeur.

 The dig revealed a lot about the climate in the area by the types of animals that were found.  The Pleistocene climate was marked by repeated glacial cycles.  At the maximum of this Ice Age, 30 percent of the Earth’s surface was covered by ice.  At the time of this dig, it was thought we were heading into another Ice Age. Newspapers and magazines warned that it could happen very quickly and that possibly a little more carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels might stave it off and keep us from freezing to death.

The food in camp was great!

Larry Martin, now head of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Kansas, was one of the expedition leaders at the dig, which was conducted with B. Miles Gilbert from the University of Missouri at Columbia from 1974 to 1980.  Some of the Natural Trap specimens are on display at K.U.’s Museum of Natural History. Paleontologist George Blasing featured Dr. Martin and the Natural Trap in Episodes Nine of “Jurassic Fight Club” on the History Channel. Dr. Martin has also appeared on NOVA.
I’ve kept up with Dr. Martin through the years and have written about K.U.’s dig of Jurassic dinosaurs near Newcastle, Wyoming. (More on that in a future post.)
Below is a story I wrote that appeared in several newspapers in 1975, including The Kansas City Star.  Except for a few minor editing changes, the story appeared as published below.

AUGUST 1975 — The western foothills of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains are arid, red and rocky, peppered by clumps of pungent sage brush and dwarfed juniper trees.

A few cattle graze on the sparse grass, and an occasional deer bounds through a ravine, but the harsh terrain supports few animals.

It wasn’t always so desolate.  In the Pleistocene Epoch, 10,000 years ago and earlier, the Big Horn foothills teemed with large mammals.  It was a wetter climate.  The seasons were more moderate, the land more lush and more forested than today.

Herds of bison, horses and camels grazed on the meadows, stalked by fleet, long-legged bears and cats.  Mammoths lumbered through the valleys.  Bighorn sheep cropped hillside grasses.

The hills are limestone and pocked with caves and hollows.  One cave mouth was open to the sky at the end of a finger of land, affording no escape for a panicking herd pursued by a fast-moving predator.  This narrow peninsula was flanked by canyons which funneled predator and prey toward a rise, and then they all plummeted into the hole.  Hungry wolverines and jackal-like dire wolves, catching a tempting whiff of rotting meat, crept daringly on a ridge of melting snow along the edge and tumbled below.

Here the crew digs in the Natural Trap Cave. Working hours were short because the crew relied on natural light, which only fell in the cave from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Daylight was augmented by a few lamps.

As thousands of years passed, the cave gathered a scrambled mass of victims, preserved in layers, until a severe change in the climate wiped out most of the large mammals above, ending the cave’s carnage.

 Today (1975), paleontologists and anthropologists from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri – Columbia are making an easier descent to the bottom of the cave to return the bones of those Pleistocene animals to the surface, where they become the survivors of their age.

A grate covers the opening of the Natural Trap to keep modern animals and people from falling in.

The hole, known as the Natural Trap, is a vast 85-foot-deep dome-shaped limestone cavern (karst sinkhole).  Tens of thousands of years ago part of the cavern’s roof fell in, making it a death-trap.

The names of the Pleistocene mammals in the trap may sound the same as some of the modern-day Big Horn animals — bighorn sheep, bison, bear — but the Pleistocene specimens were larger, different animals. The Pleistocene versions often had longer legs. The modern counterparts of other animals also found in the Natural Trap are smaller, such as wolves, wolverines and pronghorn antelope.  Other animals found in the Trap, such as horses, camels, American lion, mammoth, woodland musk ox and American cheetah, all went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

“I don’t think we have a good potential in a specimen from the cave that is a good ancestor of any animal now in the area, ” Dr. Martin said.

Humans, who hunted the large Pleistocene mammals for food, partly has been blamed for their extinction, but most of the evidence points to climatic change as the cause, not only in North America but world-wide, Dr. Martin said.

The paleontologists are studying soil samples and bone deposition, looking for clues to the climatic fluctuations of the past, useful in anticipating future climate changes.  The types of animals found in the trap probably will indicate the climate at the time since animals migrate to their favorite climates, Dr. Martin said.

In the forefront are Dr. Miles Gilbert, left, and Dr. Larry Martin, right, sorting a tray of specimens.

The specimens from the trap went to K.U. Museum of Natural History, which has the tenth largest vertebrate paleontology collection in the country.

There have been some remarkable finds, such as the cheetah-like cat, which has the characteristically long radius and ulna limb bones of the modern-day cheetah and has been found nowhere else in North America, Dr. Martin said.

“The cheetah-like cat found in the cave is the first good evidence that there was one in North America,” Dr. Martin said.  There were several cheetah-like cat specimens found in the trap with the small cheetah canine teeth, necessary to give more space in the nose area. To run as swiftly as it does, the cheetah requires a large lungful of air.

Larry Martin digs in one of the areas staked out in the Natural Trap.

The short-faced bear specimen is one of the most spectacular finds do far (as of August 1975), Dr. Martin said. The beat was a long-legged open country animal, adapted for running and more carnivorous than modern-day bears. (A fight between a short-faced bear Arctodus simus and an American lion Panthera atrox near the Natural Trap is featured in episode nine of the History Channel’s “Jurassic Fight Club” in 2008.)

The bones of horses are the most abundant specimens found. Many seemed to have landed on their feet, snapping their leg bones. The cave’s fine limestones preserved the bones well, but most were broken from the initial impact or later by roof fall and other carcasses.  To find the bones fragment, the crew sieves all of the dirt from each five-by-five section.  The pieces are then painstakingly washed, scrubbed with toothbrushes and sorted at camp. Some are glued there, the rest to be assembled at K.U.

Temporary scaffolding is erected and dismantled each summer, the most dangerous part of the expedition, Dr. Gilbert said.  The group couldn’t afford permanent scaffolding.  Many team members prefer to drop into the cave by rappelling, which was the only way to enter the cave before 1974. There is a natural ledge just below the cave opening from which it’s easy to rappel. Climbing out by jumaring on a rope is a much more strenuous exercise, so everyone climbs up the shaky scaffolding to get out of the cave.

The scaffolding rests in a depression where deposits continually are eroded by rainfall even though the annual precipitation averages less than 15 inches. Bones remain intact in a mound to the east of the scaffolding where the crew lie on their sides and stomachs picking at the dirt, ice picks and whisks brooms.  Dig sites were selected at random until a few productive sections were located.

The dining tent at Armpit Camp.

There are possibly 30 feet of deposits to excavate, Dr. Gilbert said. Specimens could be as old as 50,000 years at the bottom, but there’s no way to tell except to dig there.

“I personally don’t want to dig the entire cave,” Gilbert said.  “I’d like to leave a third or half of it for the future to investigate when they have better technology to understand it.”

George Blasing’s Blog “Dinosaur George” is on my blogroll at the right.

History Channel’s Jurassic Fight Club

About Larry Martin.

About the Pleistocene Epoch.

When the crew wasn’t working, there were classes about the area’s plants, animals and history. Some of us could barely stay awake after a late-night trip exploring another cave, which required climbing in and out by rope. We were led by a geologist mapping the caves for the U.S. Geological Survey. He liked to scare us by leading us into a cavern and then ask us which way we’d come. We never knew. Another time he told us to turn off our acetylene head lamps. It was very dark and unsettling to be so far under the earth. A couple of times while exploring caves we felt the earth shake from dynamite blasts and worried that more rocks would fall from the ceiling to join those on the cave floor.

Armpit Camp.

This is a section of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area north of the Natural Trap.

 

Sign at the opening to the Natural Trap, which is now closed.

An update: Natural Trap to Be Reopened. and The Daily Mail: The Natural Trap to Be Reopened.

24 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Environment, History, Natural History, Nature, Paleontology, Science, Travel, University of Kansas

Butterfly School at Monarch Watch Fall 2009 Open House

Chip Taylor, right, director of Monarch Watch, shows how to hold a monarch butterfly for tagging.

Chip Taylor, right, director of Monarch Watch, shows how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

One of the highlights of the annual fall open house at Monarch Watch is Butterfly School, in which Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, demonstrates how to catch, hold, tag and release a Monarch butterfly before it begins its migration to its winter home in Mexico.

CHip Taylor shows the students in "Butterfly School" where to place the tag on the butterfly's wing.

Chip Taylor shows the students in "Butterfly School" where to place the tag on the butterfly's wing.

The weather for this fall’s event (Sept. 12) was warm and sunny, so the butterflies were very active but with the right technique (wait until they stop to refuel on a flower, don’t chase them!) they were easily captured in a net so that a small tag could be placed on a wing to help to track the butterfly’s migration patterns.  Monarch Watch is on the west campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Soon these tagged Monarchs will be joining hundreds of millions of other Monarchs in one of nature’s greatest natural wonders.  

In North America the Monarchs migrate south starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. The Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south, although no single individual makes the entire round trip.  The Monarchs tagged east of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter in Mexico and start to breed on their trip back home as soon as they encounter milkweed along the route.  This is why it’s so important for people to plant milkweed in their gardens to help the Monarchs along the way. Find out about starting a Monarch Butterfly Waystation by visiting Monarch Watch’s website.  Because of development and agriculture, milkweed is being destroyed in the areas Monarchs have used in the past. Drought and cold weather also reduces the amount of milkweed available.

Chip Taylor shows how to sneak up on a butterfly to catch it with a net. Captured butterflies are tagged so that when they are found, the data on the tag can tell researchers about the butterfly's migration.

Chip Taylor shows how to sneak up on a butterfly to catch it with a net. Captured butterflies are tagged before being released so that when they are found, the data on the tag can tell researchers about the butterfly's migration.

The tagging students were preparing for the  Jayhawk Audubon Society and Monarch Watch annual tagging event for the public at the Baker University Wetlands along 31st Street between Haskell and Louisiana in Lawrence, Kansas. The annual tagging event is open to everyone, with instructions given at the site.  The 2009 event is scheduled for 7:30 AM until 11:30 AM on Saturday, September 19, 2009.  More information can be found by clicking on the Monarch Watch website in my blogroll at the right.

In 2001, 325 participants tagged nearly 3000 of the estimated 20,000 Monarchs present, and at least 85 of those tagged were recovered at the winter roost sites in Mexico, according to Monarch Watch.  Almost as many were tagged in 2008.  You can view all of the recoveries tagged at these events by searching for Lawrence-tagged Monarchs on the Monarch Watch searchable recovery database on its website.  Click on this to find out more about the tagging process and why it’s done.

Getting ready to release a buttterfly

A group gathers in Monarch Watch's biohouse to hear about how to tag Monarch butterflies.

Every year, up to hundreds of thousands of Monarchs stop on their way south to refuel on the nectar from the ocean of yellow Bidens flowers at the wetlands, which is an amazing sight.

Monarch Watch is dedicated to the education about, conservation of and research about Monarch butterflies.  It works closely with schools and with researchers.  Research into Monarch migration is providing extensive information about genetics, for example.

Taylor and others went to the wintering site in Mexico in March 2009.  Here’s part of what Taylor had to say about a new Disney film, taken from the Monarch Watch blog.  It’s very exciting.  “While I enjoyed the entire trip, and this agreeable bunch, I had a side adventure: I spent 4 extraordinary days working with a film crew funded by Disney at El Rosario. It was total monarch immersion, all day every day, from 6AM to 7PM. The film crew was the largest I’ve worked with and there were three cameras going most of the time. The footage will be spectacular and like no other on monarchs to date.Disney has commissioned a series of nature films, and this film about pollination and pollinators is scheduled for theaters in 2010-2011. The working title for the film is “Naked Beauty” – but the bets are the title will be changed in time to something like “Nature’s Beauty: A love story that feeds the world”. The film’s message is important and timely. Nature’s beauty, as represented by numerous pollinators and the fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds that are the products of their efforts, will be skillfully and dramatically presented through the masterful direction and loving eye of the film’s director, Louie Schwartzberg.”

A Monarch butterfly is a beautiful hair ornament -- but just for a few minutes.

A Monarch butterfly is a beautiful hair ornament -- but just for a few minutes. Photo by Evan Jorn.

I’ve posted several other articles about Monarch Watch and butterflies, which you can find through my search button.  The Monarch Watch site has many articles on the butterfly’s biology, reproductive needs and the The Top Ten Butterfly Facts.  You can also find out how you can raise your own Monarchs.

Wikipedia has links, charts and photographs about the Monarch Butterfly.  Monarchs have spread widely and can even be found in New Zealand.  There’s a white version in Hawaii.

Monarch butterflies harden their wings on CHip Taylor's beard.

Newly emerged Monarch butterflies harden their wings on Chip Taylor's beard.

 

Children received a free Monarch pupa so that they could raise a butterfly at home.

Children received a free Monarch pupa so that they could raise a butterfly at home.

 

Monarch Watch provides information about other pollinators, such as honey bees.  Visitors to Monarch Watch's fall 2009 open house watched honey bees at work in this hive.

Monarch Watch provides information about other pollinators, such as honey bees. Visitors to Monarch Watch's fall 2009 open house watched honey bees at work in this hive.

 

Children and their parents found plenty of fun and educational activities to do at the fall 2009 Monarch Watch open house.

Children and their parents found plenty of fun and educational activities to do at the fall 2009 Monarch Watch open house.

 

Chip Taylor discusses research into Monarch butterfly migration, which provides insights in a lot of areas of science, including genetics.

Chip Taylor discusses research into Monarch butterfly migration, which provides insights in a lot of areas of science, including genetics.

 

Monarch Watch raises Monarchs for educationa and research.

Monarch Watch raises Monarch butterflies for education and research.

 

Monarch butterflies are fascinating creatures scientifically, but it doesn't hurt that they are also gorgeous and like to visit beautiful flowers on a lovely late summer afternoon.

Monarch butterflies are fascinating creatures scientifically, but it doesn't hurt that they are also gorgeous and like to visit beautiful flowers on a lovely late summer afternoon.

 

A male Monarch butterfly shows of its beautiful wings while perched on a scarlet milkweed in front of the Monarch Watch headquarters in Foley Hall at the University of Kansas.

A male Monarch butterfly shows off its beautiful wings while perched on a scarlet milkweed in front of the Monarch Watch headquarters in Foley Hall at the University of Kansas.

 

People gets close to Monarch caterpillars at the Monarch watch fall 2009 open house.

People get close to Monarch caterpillars at the Monarch Watch fall 2009 open house.

 

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on a South African Milkweed.  There are more than 140 known species of milkweed, which is the only kind of plant Monarch caterpillars eat.

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on a South African Milkweed. There are more than 140 known species of milkweed, which is the only kind of plant Monarch caterpillars eat.

A Monarch butterfly finds nectar in the blossom of a scarlet milkweed, a tropical species.  I planted four kinds of milkweed, but the Monarchs by far preferred my scarlet milkweed.

A Monarch butterfly finds nectar in the blossom of a scarlet milkweed, a tropical species. I planted four kinds of milkweed, but the Monarchs by far preferred my scarlet milkweed. The other milkweeds in my garden are perennials, but I'll need to replace my scarlet milkweed next spring. I could save the seeds or, more likely, just buy a new one at the Monarch Watch spring open house. This butterfly is one of the many that greeted visitors to the Monarch Watch fall 2009 open house.

Chip Taylor shows the tagging students what the tag says. Monarch watch pays for the retrieval of dead Monarch bearing these tags, most of which are found in Mexico near where they spend the winter.

Chip Taylor shows the tagging students what the tag says. Monarch Watch pays for the retrieval of dead Monarch bearing these tags, most of which are found in Mexico near where they spend the winter.

 

A newly emerged Monarch butterfly hardens its wings before taking its first flight.  The process takes a few hours.

A newly emerged Monarch butterfly hardens its wings before taking its first flight. The process takes a few hours. In the leaf above, you can see the hole made by a caterpillar when it hatched from its egg and ate its first milkweed meal.

 

Children could get a little exercise playing tossing games while learning about butterlies at the Monarch watch open house.

Children could get a little exercise playing tossing games while learning about butterflies at the Monarch Watch open house.

 

Here's where the cycle begins -- the butterfly mating cage at Monarch Watch.

Here's where the cycle begins -- the butterfly mating cage at Monarch Watch.

 

The pollination garden at Foley Hall, the home to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

The pollination garden at Foley Hall, the home to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

 

Here is a Monarch butterfly just minutes from emerging from its chrysalis.

Here is a Monarch butterfly just minutes from emerging from its chrysalis.

10 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Butterflies, Conservation, Entomology, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, New Zealand, Personal, Science, University of Kansas