Journal archives for February 2016

February 03, 2016

Observation of the Week, 2/3/16

This Southern Desert Horned Lizard seen by flygrl67 in Joshua Tree National Park, California, is our Observation of the Week!

Michelle C. Torres-Grant (@flygrl67) recalls that “one of my favorite things to do [as a child] was turn over rocks and check out all the critters. All the hidden life amazed and fascinated me.” Her busy life led her away from exploring nature, but when the 2008 recession hit and she had to quit her hobby as an aviator, Michelle says “suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands, and after having lived in San Luis Obispo (SLO) since 1988 I finally decided to start hiking regularly and exploring the local trails.” She has been photographing and documenting her hikes since then.

Michelle has also been a professional architectural photographer since 2012, but lately “photography became almost all work and no play.” Luckily for her (and iNat), she was acquainted with iNaturalist users R.J. Adams (@rjadams55), Christian Schwarz (@leptonia), Damon Tighe (@damontighe), and John Brew (@brewbrooks), who inspired her to make her first iNaturalist post - California’s new State Lichen, seen on a private tour with Christian (see below - from L to R Christian, Professor Tom Volk, Michelle, and Michelle’s husband Leonard). Since then Michelle has posted over ninety observations, many taken from the “hundreds, maybe thousands” of images in her photo vault from all those years of documenting hikes - including this Southern Desert Horned Lizard.

As a flight attendant whose regular route included flights to Palm Springs, Michelle loved seeing the desert in bloom during springtime and in 2010 finally organized a trip there for her 43rd birthday. It was on her birthday when she photographed the Horned Lizard while hiking the Lost Palm Oasis trail in Joshua Tree National Park. “I remember seeing it hanging out right beside the trail, and I found it especially interesting because of its coral coloring, which I had never seen before on a horned lizard, not that I had seen many horned lizards in my life.”

One of the Mojave Desert’s more well-camouflaged reptiles (which Michelle captured wonderfully), Desert Horned Lizards are insectivores who specialize in eating ants. And while some species of Horned Lizard are known for their ability to squirt blood from their eyes as a defensive measure, Desert Horned Lizards cannot. They instead rely on camouflage and frantic scurrying to escape predation.

“I'm enjoying going back through all the old pix, which are bringing up so many memories of some great outings, and it has reminded me to keep exploring the environment,” says Michelle. “My hopes in using iNaturalist are that I'll learn more about my immediate environment and eco-system, and how it fits into the larger ecosystem of our region, the world, and universe.”

- by Tony Iwane

You can check out Michelle’s photos on Flickr here.

Here’s some information about Christian Schwarz’s Redwood Coast Tours.

Posted on February 03, 2016 11:23 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 07, 2016

Its Cactus Week on iNaturalist! Feb 7 - 13, 2016

That’s right, it’s not only critters on the Critter Calendar - this week we welcome our first plant group, the family Cactaceae, or cacti!

While there are exceptions (we’ll get to those later), the vast majority of cacti are succulent plants who have evolved to live in arid or semi-arid conditions. They’ve traded true leaves for spines and use their fleshy, water-storing stems to carry out photosynthesis, which dramatically reduces moisture loss. It’s these famous spines and how they grow that separate true cacti from similar-looking plants such as Aloes and Agaves (but some unrelated spiny Euphorbias mentioned below can look an awful lot like true cacti!). Look closely at the spines of a true cactus and you will see they grow from a structure (often wooly or hairy) on the stem called an areole. Areoles are believed to be condensed shoots or branches, and spines and flowers emerge from them (Euphorbia spines don’t grow from areole and also have milky sap). While cactus stems and leaves are some of the most modified and specialized in the plant kingdom, their flowers are almost unchanged from some of the very first ancestral flower. They are radial in shape and have many petals and stamens. Cactus flowers all rely on birds, insects, and bats as pollinators.

A familiar cactus is the Prickly Pear (Genus Opuntia), which has flat paddle-like stems and brightly-colored flowers and fruit. Both the young paddles and the fruit are commonly eaten by humans (if you've every had nopales!) and many animals such as tortoises and birds. Like all true cacti, Prickly Pears are native to the the new world but have been introduced to many other continents by humans.

The huge, iconic Saguaro Cactus is found naturally only in Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. While they have been known to reach heights of over 70 feet, this is an exceptionally slow growing plant - an inch-tall cactus might be ten years old! Saguaros become homes for many animals, including many birds who nest in holes made by Gila woodpeckers. The Saguaro is a famous example of a bat pollinated cactus.

The only Cactaceae member found growing naturally outside of the new world is the Mistletoe Cactus, which is found in Africa, Sri Lanka and some islands in the Indian Ocean, as well as South America. It is an epiphyte with long dangling stems and white berries, somewhat resembling mistletoe.

Plants of the genus Pereskia are the only cacti who have persistent non-succulent leaves. However, look for the tell-tale areoles from which their spines emerge. These plants live in tropical regions of the new world and may resemble shrubs, vines, or trees. It is thought that the cactus ancestor resembled Pereskia.

If you think you see any of these this week, share your observations with us. We’ll be keeping track here. Happy Cactaceae hunting!

Posted on February 07, 2016 09:26 AM by loarie loarie | 8 comments | Leave a comment

February 14, 2016

Its Salamander Week on iNaturalist! Feb 14 - 20, 2016

The Critter Calendar journeys from the arid deserts of the cacti to cool, damp forests and streams where there be salamanders!

Most salamanders (order Caudata) are shaped like lizards with long tails and short legs. But unlike lizards, salamanders are not reptiles. Reptiles evolved protective scaley skin, leathery egg shells, and other adaptations that allowed them to colonize the driest parts of the globe. But salamanders, frogs and other amphibians, with their moist and slimy skin and jelly-like eggs are tethered to moist climates.

Typically, salamanders are aquatic as juveniles and terrestrial as adults. Juvenile salamanders resemble tadpoles but usually have limbs and have feathery gills branching out behinds their heads. Some salamanders, like the vicious Amphiumas, are aquatic even as adults and have eel-like bodies with vestigial limbs. Some, like cave-dwelling Olm, are blind.

Salamanders range mostly through the northern hemisphere, going no further south than the Amazon basin and no further north than the Arctic tree line. They are absent from Australia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. The greatest diversity of salamander species occurs in the Appalachian mountains of southeastern North America, where there has been a tremendous radiation of a group known as lungless salamanders (Plethodontidae). Lungless salamanders breathe only through their porous skin and membranes in their mouths, and have a distinctive nasolabial groove between the nostril and upper lip, which aids in chemoreception. Most do not have a larval phase; young emerge from eggs as miniature adults. The Appalachian mountains is also home to the huge aquatic Hellbender, one of three surviving ancient giant salamanders (Cryptobranchidae). The other two species are slightly larger and live in Japan and China.

Whereas the lungless salamanders are mostly confined to North America, the family Salamandridae, often known as newts, are common both in North America and Europe. Newts lack the costal grooves seen in most other salamanders and normally have pebbly rather than smooth skin. Many newts are toxic and have evolved bright aposematic coloration to warn predators. The skin of the Fire Salamander from Europe, for example, has bright yellow markings against a black ground color.

Winter and spring are of the best time to see many salamanders because they must migrate to breeding pools and streams, which have filled with rainwater. Salamanders of the genus Ambystoma, such as the Marbled Salamander, spend most of the year in underground burrows, eating invertebrates, but they too must migrate and can often be found on rainy nights. The famed Axolotl of Mexico belongs to the same genus but never goes through metamorphosis - it retains its feathery gills and lives aquatically its entire life.

If you think you see any of these this week, share your observations with us. We’ll be keeping track here. And remember that salamanders, while cute, are fragile creatures and many are protected under law - something to keep in mind if you feel like handling one. Happy Salamander hunting!

Posted on February 14, 2016 08:48 AM by loarie loarie | 9 comments | Leave a comment

February 18, 2016

Observation of the Week, 2/10/16

This Giraffe Weevil seen by nlblock in Madagascar is our Observation of the Week!

When recalling his family’s road trips to places like Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon, Nick Block (@nlblock) says “I don’t know why, but I always wanted to put a name on everything I saw.” With some field guides and a cheap pair of binoculars as his companions, he became hooked on birding as a young teenager, especially after attending a ranger’s talk about birding at Big Bend National Park: “I had no idea so many people shared my interests! And listing! Making the interest into a bit of a competition sent me over the edge, and I've been a hardcore birder ever since.”

As a grad student Nick studied birds (of course), and his interest in avian phylogenetics and speciation took him to Madagascar on a couple of occasions. His focus on research took up most of his time there, but on his last morning in Ranomafana National Park he asked Haja (a guide) if it was possible to see a Giraffe Weevil and a Mantella frog - two iconic Madagascar animals. “Of course!” was the response. They went to a well-known tree by the visitor center and “in no time at all, Haja had located a male weevil. What an amazing creature!” Male Giraffe Weevils use their long necks (which are 2-3 times longer than the necks of females) for fighting over mates. After mating, a female Giraffe Weevils will fold a leaf into an elaborate cigar-shaped pouch into which she lays a single egg. She’ll then bite the leaf off the tree, where it will fall to the forest floor and be used as food for the larva.

And yes, and not too much later Haja was able to find Nick a Mantella frog:

Nick only found out about iNaturalist last year, from birder Jennifer Rycenga (@gyrrlfalcon) and says “the ability to contribute to a citizen science database and keep track of my life lists is a win-win combination that I couldn't pass up.” Now an Assistant Professor of Biology at Stonehill College, Nick used iNaturalist to conduct a campus-wide BioBlitz last fall and hopes to incorporate it into introductory biology classes, having students document the campus’s biodiversity throughout the year. “I've been very inspired by the teaching examples on iNaturalist's website,” he says, “I think iNaturalist is the perfect tool to help our students become more aware of the amazing natural world around them!”

And while he “slowly” uploads his past observations onto iNaturalist, Nick says using the site is expanding his interest and knowledge of the natural world beyond his favorite taxa of birds, butterflies, and odonates. He contributes identifications to the site and says “ I’ve probably spent way more time than I should have perusing the ID help sections.” He’s even traded up his cell phone: “I've held onto my old flip phone for ages and ages, but the desire to have an omnipresent camera so that I could document things for iNat finally won me over. I'm no longer in the dark ages. Thanks, iNat. :-)”

- by Tony Iwane

Great footage of male Giraffe Weevils fighting and a female making her leaf pouch.

Posted on February 18, 2016 06:14 PM by tiwane tiwane | 2 comments | Leave a comment

Observation of the Week, 2/17/16

This Land Planarian seen by plantcrazy007 in the Solomon Islands is our Observation of the Week!

As his iNaturalist username - plantcrazy007 - suggests, Matthew Bond has been obsessed with plants and nature since childhood. “Around age seven, I started to collect and dissect plants in a manner that was eerily similar to my future university taxonomy and physiology classes,” he says, and he is now a PhD student at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, where he studies ethnobotany - how people and plants interact.

Matthew’s current research has brought him to the Solomon Islands, where he is studying “how people look at the forest around them and decide what plants to use for medicine,” and is working in four villages so isolated that “it takes two days to get here by being jostled in the back of a truck on gravel roads, riding on cargo ships and motor boats, and hiking three kilometers up a mountain.” Running water, of course, is not an option so he has to walk through the jungle to the latrine.

“I know these paths very well so I notice instantly when anything is different - in this case I saw a glimmer of orange next to the trail, partially hidden by leaves,” recalls Matthew. “I quickly dug in the leaves and was delighted to discover this planarian!” Matthew uploaded it to iNaturalist to see if someone could identify it. Jean-Lou Justine (@jeanloujustine), a Professor of Parasitology at Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, saw the observation and sent it to his colleague Dr. Leigh Winsor, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at James Cook University Townsville in Australia, who believes it’s probably an undescribed species in the Geoplanidae family of land planarians. Matthew will collect specimens of the worm when he heads back to Hawai’i in a few weeks and send them to Jean-Lou and Leigh for study.

So just how does one identify a planarian specimen? Dr. Winsor, who has been studying land planarians for over 40 years, was kind enough to send me an explanation, with the caveat that “taxonomy of land planarians is not for the faint hearted.” Because color and patterns can vary quite a bit within a species, one has to look at morphological features such as musculature and copulatory organs, as well as molecular data. After being put in several media, including molten paraffin wax, the worm is serial sectioned at 7-8 micrometers. The sections are stained, then “examined microscopically and drawings of particular areas of the body are made with the aid of a drawing tube, then they are combined to reconstruct the anatomy of the specimens as a 3-D illustration,” says Dr. Winsor. Ideally one would also have a DNA profile of the specimen. “Only some 55-60% of the 900-1000 described species of land planarians have been examined anatomically,” he says. “There is much yet to be done,”

As for Matthew, he says that once his fieldwork in the Solomon Islands is complete and he has steady internet access, he plans on uploading observations from his previous fieldwork locations such as Rapa Nui and the Dominican Republic. “I love being able to ask for help from scientists (both professional and amateur) to identify what I find so that I can learn more about it,” he says. “Although I’m collecting plant samples as part of my work I’m excited that even the photographs I take of other organisms for fun will help my fellow scientists.”

- by Tony Iwane

For more pictures and stories of Matthew’s research in the Solomon Islands and around the world, check out his twitter and blog.

If you would like more information about land planarians or are interested in sending him a specimen, you can contact Dr. Leigh Winsor at

Posted on February 18, 2016 06:16 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 21, 2016

Its Fish Week on iNaturalist! Feb 21 - 27, 2016

This week for the Critter Calendar we’re challenging you to find some of the most plentiful vertebrates in the world...yet less than 2% of all observations on iNaturalist are members of this class - they’re the Actinopterygii, or Ray-finned fishes!

OK, close your eyes and picture a fish. Odds are you were thinking of a ray-finned fish. They make up more than 99% of all 30,000 described fish species and are found in oceans, streams, lakes, rivers and pretty much any other freshwater or marine environment you can think of. While they come in many shapes and sizes, ray-finned fishes all possess fins which are made of membranes of skin supported by bony or horny spines. Fish that do not belong to the Actinopterygii include the lobe-finned fishes, like the coelacanth, or the cartilaginous fishes, which includes the sharks and rays.

Fins themselves lack muscles, but are attached to muscles in the fish’s body and are used mainly for locomotion. Each fin has its own use. Caudal, or tail fins, are used for propulsion, while dorsal fins, which are found on the “back” of the fish help maintain stability.

The large dorsal fin of the Sailfish is raised when the fish is excited or threatened, making it seem larger than it really is. Sailfish will also use it to “herd” prey.

Pectoral fins, which are located on the side of the body, aid in steering, balancing and braking. The greatly enlarged pectoral fins of Flying Fish are even used for gliding in the air, a maneuver that helps them evade predators.

Most fish use their pelvic fins (found on the ventral side) for going up and down in the water, as well as for making quick stops. Gobies have evolved fused pelvic fins that form a suction cup, which they use to attach to rocks and other objects. The “Inching Climber” goby (Sicyopterus stimpsoni) of Hawaii even uses this suction cup to help it climb up waterfalls!

Some fish use their fin-rays not just for locomotion but for defense. Lionfish and stonefish deliver painful and sometimes deadly venomous stings through their fin-rays. Originally found in the Indo-Pacific regions, Lionfish have been introduced to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, where they are considered invasive organisms.

So head to the watery parts of the world (apologies to H. Melville) and find some fIsh! Check out a pond or stream, explore some tidepools, perhaps even do a little fishing - we want your ray-finned fish observations! We’ll be keeping track of them here.

Posted on February 21, 2016 07:35 AM by loarie loarie | 6 comments | Leave a comment

February 28, 2016

Its Hummingbird Week on iNaturalist! Feb 28 - Mar 5, 2016

The Critter Calendar returns to the skies for some of the most acrobatic and vibrant birds in the world, the order Apodiformes - swifts, treeswifts, and hummingbirds!

The Apodiformes are similar in that they have strong, short humerus bones in their relatively long wings, and their legs are small and not useful for much more than perching. Apodiforme wings allow them to fly faster than almost all other birds, and in the case of hummingbirds, hover and even fly backwards!

Here are the three extant families which comprise the Apodiformes:

Swifts (Apodidae)

Small acrobatic birds who catch insects on the wing, swifts are often confused with swallows, who hunt the same prey. Taxonomically they are separate, however, and are superficially similar due to convergent evolution. Best identified by silhouette, swifts have wings which are thin, sickle-shaped, and longer than their bodies, in comparison to the shorter, broader wings of swallows. Swifts also flap their wings less than swallows do and can reach speeds of over 70 mph. In fact, swifts are so at home in the air that they spend all their time there unless they’re nesting. Common Swifts have been known to sleep and even copulate in mid-air! Swifts use their tiny feet and legs to cling vertically to sites such as trees and chimneys, and the famous Cave Swifts of Asia and Oceania use their saliva to make nests on the walls of caves, which humans use to make bird’s nest soup. Swifts can be found nearly worldwide.

Treeswifts (Hemiprocnidae)

A small family consisting of one genus and four species, the treeswifts range through India, Southeast Asia and into New Guinea. While similar to the true swifts, treeswifts have softer plumage, facial ornaments such as crests, and longer forked tails. They also have feet with non-reversible hind toes, allowing them to perch on branches, something which true swifts are not able to do.

Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)

Recognizable due to their diminutive size (usually 3-5 inches in length), ultra-fast wing flapping (around 50 beats per second) and darting, hovering flight pattern, hummingbirds make up the bulk of Apodiformes species, with over 300 described species. Ranging throughout the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean, hummingbirds use their flying skills to sip nectar from flowers, supplementing that diet with small insects. Male hummingbirds, like the White-necked Jacobin, have gaudy iridescent plumage around their heads, gorget (throat), back and wings, and will orient themselves to flash the colors at females. Hummingbirds can often be found flitting about from flower to flower or perched on a bush or tree, establishing their territory by singing and calling.

If you think you see any of these this week, share your observations with us. We’ll be keeping track here. Happy Apodiforme hunting!

Posted on February 28, 2016 08:17 AM by loarie loarie | 1 comment | Leave a comment