Journal archives for June 2018

June 03, 2018

Observation of the Week, 6/2/18

Our Observation of the Week is this group of cockroaches, seen in Mozambique by @ldacosta!

As a child, Luis da Costa said he “wanted to ‘treat’ animals, mostly big magic mammals like tigers, lions, or elephants - as a lot of children I guess, I wanted to be a vet. But later, still young boy, I realised that I preferred to study ALL animals to get a global overview and to understand their connections.” Eventually he got into bird watching and and finally fish. “I am currently focusing my research on taxonomy & systematics of freshwater fishes (mostly southern African and south-western European species). But still believing that my work will help to protect them by helping to refine their conservation status.”

And it was while walking to a pond in Mozambique that he noticed the group of cockroaches you see above. However, neither fish nor cockroaches were the organisms they were looking for while on that trail… “We (team members and rangers) were mostly listening all noises around us to be "ready" if an elephant appeared on the path and decided to use it as an escape way,” recalls Luis.  “We saw several dungs, so they were around.

Of course, while walking we observed everything (flora, insects, birds, mammals). And I saw these cockroaches!!! They were resting on the tree about chest height. Quite an amazing circle, and more amazing was when they moved by circle everytime I approached my hand to their position. But they never run away. After 2-3 minutes I left them alone. In the way back they were gone!!!

Cockroaches, along with termites, are members of the insect order Blattodea. Termites, of course, famously live in colonies and demonstrate eusocial behavior. Cockroaches don’t have such complex social lives but they do posssess aggregation behaviors, especially when younger. I reached out to Eddie Dunbar (@eddiebug) of the Insect Sciences Museum of California for any insight he might have into the behavior shown in Luis’s observation, and he told me that they were likely hatchlings, using pheremones to regulate their behavior:

The aggregation probably at one time mimicked a poisonous plant. There's a lot of mimics mimicking a model that has gone extinct...I think the photograph depicts aggregation behavior not uncommon with many arthropods. Spider hatchlings in the genus Araneus form a ball and disperse over time.

Because they are considered pests, German cockroaches are a cockroach species that has been extensively studied, and Eddie pointed me to this paper, which describes their “pre-social” aggregation behavior and the efforts of scientists to create robots which mimic said behavior - very cool!

“I always registered my observations in a spreadsheet. Not really fun though,” says Luis (above, photographing an Orchis anthropophora. With the growth of citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist, he’s begun to post his findings online and says he uses iNat as a “public spreadsheet” for his casual bird observations, which he can then check from anywhere. He explains,

I really enjoy to share my photos and I look forward for iNaturalist community identification. I think the key word is "to share" with the community and not to keep these observations for myself or in the drawer.

- by Tony Iwane.


- iNat user @luisguillermog found a similar array of caterpillars in Mexico, which was our Observation of the Week for August 18, 2017.

- Eddie shared this video with me, which depicts termites following lines drawn in ballpoint pen ink. The ink is similar to their pheremones.

- While most people think of cockroaches as pests, note that only four species (of over 4,500) are considered to be major pests for humans.

- “Milk” from a certain species of cockroach has been found to be incredibly packed with nutrients.

Posted on June 03, 2018 05:14 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 10, 2018

Observation of the Week, 6/9/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Ethiopian Wolf, seen in Ethiopia by @veronika_johansson!

Veronika Johansson wrote to me from the Swedish island of Öland, where she is currently on vacation and where she spent her childhood. “I was brought up very close to nature so the interest has always been there. My father has also always been interested in birds, plants, insects and nature in general so perhaps I was inspired by him,” she says. “I figured out that I might be able to make a career of my interests and so far it has been going quite well.”

Veronika finished her PhD at the Department of Ecology, Environment, and Plant Sciences at Stockholm University in 2015, where she “studied recruitment limitations and recruitment mechanisms of plants with dust seeds.” Her focus was on the Ericaceae family, which includes blueberries, heathers, and azaleas. These plants “are mycoheterotrophic and parasitize on mycorrhizal fungi during parts of or during their complete lifecycle,” says Veronika, meaning that they draw most of their nutrients from mychorrhizal fungi rather than from photosynthesis.

Six years ago, she and other PhD students in her program organized a trip to Ethiopia, and “were awarded funds from SIDA to finance both us going there and as many Ethiopian PhD students to join us during our trip and course events. We were around 25 persons in total traveling together.”

One of the places they visited were the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia:

It was mainly to study the afro-alpine flora but of course we also hoped to see one of the rarest canines in the world! We were lucky and saw it quite immediately when we got up on the mountain plateau. It posed for us a while but got afraid and ran off. It’s really cool to have seen it and it is a beautiful animal. I decided to upload these six year old observations both because someone might find them useful or interesting but also for myself to get help in determining some of the species we observed six years ago.

Veronika is all too correct in that the Ethiopian Wolf is one of, if not the, rarest canines on Earth. According to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, there are only about 500 adult Ethiopian Wolves left in the wild, their already small numbers having been diminished by rabies, habitat loss, and shooting by humans. These wolves live only in the high mountains of Ethiopia above 3000m and live in social family packs. While packs may hunt larger prey, the wolves’ diet consists mostly of smaller mammals, including the Big-headed Mole Rat.

Currently, Veronika is working for GBIF’s Swedish node, “which is now from this year part of a larger new Swedish research infrastructure for biodiversity informatics, called Biodiversity Atlas Sweden (BAS).” She says, “I enjoy helping others determining their observations [on iNaturalist] and to connect with like minded [people]. I also like that you have to add a photo with your observations even though it might limit you sometimes and that there is a validation process. The observation is then of higher quality which is necessary for research use.”

- by Tony Iwane


- You can check out Veronika’s research here.

- Veronika has started an iNaturalist project for the island of Öland.

- Enjoy some amazing footage of an Ethiopian Wolf on the hunt.

- Sure, more footage. Why not.

- Orchids are probably the most well-known plants that have “dust seeds.” Here’s a cool article from Kew about them.

Posted on June 10, 2018 12:47 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 11, 2018

Farewell, Joelle!

Photo: Joelle Belmonte

Alas, Joelle, our designer, has decided to move on to greener pastures, making her our first ever staff departure. We'll miss you, Joelle! I remember several conversations with Scott around the time we joined CalAcademy that ended with the agreement, "We need a designer." We interviewed a few, but Joelle was the only one who showed up with an iNat account and a bunch of suggestions on how to improve the look and the experience of iNaturalist. Joelle jumped feet-first into the job, but also into being a naturalist, cultivating a passion for dragonflies that I hope will continue. She has always given us great-looking designs, and, perhaps even more valuable, the perspective of a new or not-quite-as-obsessed member of the naturalist tribe. She and I didn't always agree on matters of taste, but looking back on screenshots from before she started it's clear what an enormous improvement her work represents. I'd post those pre-Joelle screenshots, but, uh, they're embarrassing.

Anyway, good luck, Joelle. We'll certainly miss your contributions to iNat, but we'll also miss your commitment to costumes and unexpected dart obsession. I'll personally miss having someone to commiserate with about Game of Thrones and Star Wars (and I seriously need to vent about Solo!).

P.S. Oh fine, here's a comparison of obs search before Joelle and after:

Before

After

Posted on June 11, 2018 07:44 PM by kueda kueda | 9 comments | Leave a comment

June 16, 2018

Observation of the Week, 6/15/18

Our Observation of the Week is this rattlesnake-eating Brown Bullhead fish, seen in California by @phaneritic.

“I lost a 20" plus trout at the boat within the first hour and that was the last trout we'd see for the day!”

So says Ryan Hollister (@phaneritic), who was on a fishing trip with his father at California’s New Melones Reservoir. While they may have missed out on a trout, Ryan and his father later made what he calls the “Catch that Rattled the World” when they brought a Brown Bullhead, which is a type of catfish.

After laughing that I caught a ~14” Bullhead in open water I opened its mouth to remove the hook. I spied a scaly “tongue.” Upon further inspection, I realized there was a snake, oriented headfirst, in the bullhead's belly! As I turned the hook to free the catfish, the hook shot out under tension and snagged the snake. I had to remove the obviously dead and limp snake to retrieve my hook. The fish was released unharmed. We laid the snake on the boat seat only to realize that “OMG, I think it’s a rattlesnake!!”

When he got home, Ryan uploaded his photos to iNaturalist “after learning how rare of an occurrence my catch was!  I wanted the world to see that the food web isn't always as linear as many think.”

Dr. David A. Steen, a herpetologist who does a ton of great outreach (check out his Twitter feed), came across Ryan’s photos on Twitter and told me that when fish prey on snakes, they often go for aquatic snakes like Nerodia and not rattlesnakes “largely because this kind of rattlesnake generally sticks to terrestrial habitats and fish…well, don’t.” He of course doesn’t know exactly how this specific predation event happened, but told me he suspects “the rattlesnake was crawling along the shoreline or perhaps took a brief dip near land when it was consumed. This type of catfish...had never been documented eating a Western Rattlesnake before.” He worked with Ryan on making a short note about the encounter and hope to have it published.

Likely the major reason Brown Bullheads haven’t been seen eating a Western Rattlesnake before is because the fish themselves are native to the eastern parts of North America, although they have been introduced as stock for recreation and food in many other parts of the continent, including California. An opportunistic feeder, this species is considered to have a detrimental impact on native fish in areas where it has been introduced.

Western Rattlesnakes, of course, are native to the area and actually range throughout much of western North America, from Canada through Mexico. As Dr. Steen noted, they tend to prefer dry habitats, but will come to the water at times. Like other rattlesnakes they are not aggressive but their bites are considered to be medically significant to humans. Contrary to Ryan’s observation, the usual predators are raptors, mammals, and other snakes such as the California King Snake.

While Ryan (above, with his family) was outdoors with his father on that day, he more often spends times in nature with his students. A geoscience and AP Environmental Science teacher at Turlock High School, he runs a nature club with the school and the group has “gone on day hikes into the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite, and Coast Range,

and they perform lots of amazing stewardship tasks for our local San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. In October, twelve students get to participate on a 6-day backpacking trip in Yosemite's wilderness thanks to NatureBridge and the WildLink Program (for which our club is named). The best part is, the majority of our students come from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. They are going to be change agents in their community and stewards for their environment.

Ryan has only five observations on iNaturalist, but says that it’s become invaluable for him now that he has a five year-old son.

Now I can post and get help identifying less common critters and plants that stump my wife and I when our son asks "What's that?" while on our hikes and adventures.  The community has been really great in coming to our aide.  

- by Tony Iwane


- Ryan uses to take his students on virtual field trips when they don’t have to funds for an actual excursion. Check out Earth magazine’s article about it - very cool!

- Western Rattlesnakes may not be big swimmers, but I did manage to find one at the edge of creek, wanting to get a drink. One of my favorite nature encounters.

Posted on June 16, 2018 02:52 AM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comments | Leave a comment

June 19, 2018

*Bonus* Observation of the Week, 6/19/18

Our *Bonus* Observation of the Week is this “mating frenzy” of Ringed Goniobranch nudibranchs, seen off of Israel by @barchana!

Sometimes we want to highlight several observations that have been posted to iNaturalist, so in addition to the Brown Bullhead with a rattlesnake meal, we’re writing a blog post about stunning “mating frenzy” of nudibranchs you see above, posted by Dani Barchana.

Dani is a veterinarian and lecturer with the the Hebrew University Of Jerusalem and The School Of Marine Sciences in The Ruppin Academic Center, where he specializes in marine mammals. He has always loved nature, and explains “so my profession and hobbies (mountain biking, diving and photography) are just [about] being there and observing.”

“We are fortunate in Israel to have beaches to the Mediterranean and to the Red sea.” says Dani. And because of this, he was able to witness the Lessepsian migration, which is the movement of flora and fauna between those two seas via the Suez Canal. “We used to see them only at the Red Sea but they were observed, for the first time,  in the Israeli Mediterranean cost on 2006 and now they are [the] most common nudibranch in our beaches,” says Dani. “They almost disappear at winter but when spring comes, they are everywhere and for the last few weeks they [have been] mating and laying eggs all over. The sight of a few specimens together is not rare, though so many together is not so common.”

Like other nudibranchs, Ringed Goniobranchs are known as “sea slugs,” and are marine gastropods that move around on a slimy foot. “Nudibranch” is derived from Greek and means “naked gills”. These feathery gills protrude from the dorsal side of the slug and are, in this species, encircled by one of the purple “rings” on the dorsal side. The rhinophores, or sensory organs, are found inside of the other ring. As Dani noted, Ringed Goniobranchs form groups when they are mating, and they are also hermaphroditic.

With photography being one of his hobbies, Dani (above, photo by Ilan Ben Tov) has a large backlog of fantastic photos, and says

I was asked several times by biologists to provide pictures of different species of animals to their articles, books and lectures, since my web albums are biologically oriented (arranged by species). When I discovered iNaturalist, I thought I can help in a more organized way to the scientific community.

- by Tony Iwane (As English is not Dani’s primary language I also did some light editing with his quotes.)


- Some great nudibranch footage here, including a group of Ringed Goniobranchs and another laying its eggs in a spiral pattern. 

- Some nudibranchs practice...interesting...mating techniques

Posted on June 19, 2018 11:53 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 22, 2018

An Interview with @gcwarbler

I know it’s the end of June, but I’d like to bring you back to the early days of April, 2018 if I may. A group of iNat users met up in Del Rio, Texas to hang out and “iNat” together in some spectacular country. I was lucky enough to represent the iNaturalist staff and finally get to meet, in person, some real luminaries of the site.

I’ll write a longer post about the meet-up at a later date, hopefully not too far in the future. Today I just wanted to share a short video interview I conducted with Chuck Sexton (@gcwarbler), a naturalist who is deeply generous with his time and his vast knowledge of Texas flora and fauna, and was a real treat to have as a guide in this new-to-me place.

Although he’s retired, Chuck’s curiosity and work ethic are still strong, and he has recently directed his energy to the study of Cisthene moths, in part using images from iNaturalist. Last year he posted on iNaturalist a rough identification guide as several journal posts, then took this work and collaborated with lepidopterist @hughmcguinness on a more scholarly version, which was published in Southern Lepidopterists News this past December.

I spoke with Chuck about his work and his thoughts on iNaturalist, which you can watch below. iNaturalist is truly lucky to have such an incredible, inspiring community.

An Interview with Chuck Sexton from iNaturalist on Vimeo.

The older Cisthene work Chuck cites is: Knowlton, Carroll B. 1967. A revision of the species of Cisthene known to occur north of the Mexican Border (Lepidoptera: Arctiidae: Lithosiinae). Trans. Amer. Ent. Soc., 93(1):41-100. Link to pdf copy available on BugGuide: bugguide.net/node/view/790908

Posted on June 22, 2018 05:54 AM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment