Plant Or Animal?

Internal surface of the peridium of the plasmodial slime mold, Tubifera dudkae. Magnification 2000x via electronic microscope, colored with computer graphic tools (Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Internal surface of the peridium of slime mold, Tubifera dudkae, magnified 2000 times (a Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This beautiful photograph from Wikimedia Commons is a living organism magnified 2000 times by an electronic microscope, then colored using computer graphics.  Can you guess what it is?

The description says:  "Internal surface of the peridium of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae is covered with folds resembling sea waves. Among them oval shaped reticulate spores occur."

In other words, the blue waves and brown beads are part of the same organism, a slime mold called Tubifera dudkae.  It is a rare member of the Myxomycete class.  I don't know if it occurs in North America but I do know it lives in Crimea (thanks to the photos from Wikimedia Commons) and in Tasmania, Australia (thanks to the Myxomycetes website by Sarah Lloyd, an expert in slime molds).

In the photo, the blue waves are the inner surface of the protective layer that holds the spores until they're ready to release.  This layer is called the peridium.

The brown beads with squiggly lines on them (i.e. reticulated) are the spores.

Here's what this slime mold looks like from the outside at normal size, sitting in a matchbox.

Fruiting body of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Fruiting body of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And here's the amazing thing:  Are slime molds plants or animals?

Neither.  They're not even fungi.  Slime molds are such weird organisms that scientists keep changing their minds about their classification.  Here's why, with thanks to Ann Jone's article The Blob:

  • In their reproductive stage, slime molds release spores.
  • When the spores settle down they become one-celled organisms similar to amoebas that move around looking for food. They don't need to swim in water to do this.
  • At some point in their life cycle, the amoeba-like individuals are drawn to each other and meld into one big cell with millions of nuclei.  Yes, there's only one cell wall.  This cell is called a plasmodium and it's slimy.
  • The plasmodium can move! In fact it oozes across the forest looking for food: bacteria, fungi, other slime molds. Some slime molds can stretch 10 feet.
  • Though they have no brain, slime molds remember where they've been and don't go back there.

Watch a slime mold move in this Deep Look video on YouTube.

Read more about slime molds in Ann Jone's Australian radio article:  The Blob, but smaller: Tasmania's slime molds.

And learn about Sarah Lloyd, a birder, gardener, and self-taught slime mold expert who lives in the wet eucalypt forest of northern Tasmania.

 

(Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
p.s. I'm using the American English spelling of mold, which is also spelled mould.

The Snowies Are Coming!

Snowy Owl, Headlands Beach, Ohio, 2 Dec 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Snowy Owl, Headlands Beach, Ohio, 2 Dec 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

The snowy owls are coming!

Reports from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay indicate this may be a great winter for seeing snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus).  Tony Bruno traveled to Ohio last weekend and found this one at Headlands Beach.

There are clusters of snowies this month along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast as shown in purple on this eBird map.  The screenshot shows only December 1-8, 2017 data.  Click it to see the latest snowy owl eBird map for December 2017.

Map of snowy owl sightings in/near Pennsylvania, 1-8 Dec 2017 (screenshot from eBird)
Map of snowy owl sightings in/near Pennsylvania, 1-8 Dec 2017 (screenshot from eBird)

Is it time for a road trip?  Or will the owls come south to Pittsburgh?  Rumor has it they already have.

Read the latest snowy owl news at Project Snowstorm.  Watch PABIRDS and Ohio Bird News for location updates.

 

(photo by Anthony Bruno)

Which Glaciers Will Flood Your City?

Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)
Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL, pink circle added to highlight Miami)

Though the ocean will never flood Pittsburgh, I'm still fascinated by the rising sea. (*)

Back in October I wrote about sea level fingerprints, the pattern of tiny elevation changes in sea level caused by uneven gravitational forces around the globe.  The highest ocean peaks are in the tropics, the deepest valleys are near melting glaciers.  As the land loses mass (ice) its gravitational pull decreases and it stops hugging the ocean to its shore.  The water has to go somewhere so it goes to the tropics.

This means that glacial melt affects sea level rise in two ways:  (1) It adds water to the ocean that used to be sequestered on land and (2) it alters the sea level fingerprint, lowering the ocean nearby and raising it far away.

If you do the complicated math, you can find out how individual melting glaciers will affect sea level at specific locations.

Last month, scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab did just that when they published a paper in Science Advances and an online tool that illustrates how glaciers will affect 293 coastal cities.  Let's take a look at Miami.

Almost half the sea level rise in Miami will be caused by glaciers (47.4% of total sea level rise) and almost half of that will be Greenland's fault (20% of total sea level rise). That's why Greenland is so red in the screenshot above.

The next highest glacial contributor in Miami will be Antarctica (12% of total sea level rise).  In the screenshot below you can see that South American glaciers help, too.

Map of Antarctic and South American glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)
Map of Antarctic and South American glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)

In fact, the entire northern hemisphere is endangered by Antarctica's melting ice because it's so far away.  Ironically the safest place to be is right next to a melting glacier.  Sea level will go down at those sites.

See the maps for yourself and try the online tool at NASA JPL.  Read more about it at These are the melting glaciers that might someday drown your city, according to NASA in the Washington Post.

 

(*) Pittsburgh's Point is 711 feet above sea level. My immediate family lives 10 to 25 feet above sea level in Virginia and Florida.

(screenshots of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami from the online tool at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.  On the first screenshot I added a pink circle to highlight Miami. Click on the images to use the online tool.)

Inspired By A Mountain Lion

Five years ago a wildlife camera at Griffith Park, Los Angeles photographed an unexpected animal -- a mountain lion!   Also called a puma or cougar, the big male cat had crossed two 10-lane freeways to make his home in the park that houses the HOLLYWOOD sign.

Since then he's been radio-tagged as Puma #22 (P-22) and seen repeatedly on the park's trail-cams.  He was even recorded vocalizing though no one knows what he was saying.  (Click to hear The Sound of Our Griffith Park Mountain Lion:  P-22 and the Mysteries of Puma Communication.)

P-22 is very shy of humans and stays away from busy areas yet he's garnered a fan club anyway.  His presence has taught Angelenos about the dangers wildlife face and prompted his fans to help him.

Because of the freeways P-22 is stuck inside 8 squares miles instead of the 200 square miles that mountain lions prefer, so his supporters are raising $50 million to build the largest ever wildlife bridge.   When it's completed P-22 will be able to roam and find a mate.

It's an ambitious project inspired by a mountain lion.

Watch the movie trailer for The Cat that Changed America and click to read about A Day In The Life of P-22 in the L.A. Times.

 

(trailer for The Cat that Changed America on YouTube)

Needles In A Haystack

California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

"One of these things is not like the others.  One of these things doesn't belong."

This little chant from Sesame Street is a reminder that large flocks of ring-billed gulls can contain one or two rare birds.  You just have to look for them.

On Sunday afternoon December 3, Geoff Malosh was taking photographs of a black-headed gull (Rare Bird #1) among a flock of 500 ring-billed gulls at Moraine State Park.   When he looked at the birds on a nearby roof he found a California gull among them.  Rare Bird #2!

As the name implies, California gulls (Larus californicus) are common in California but not here.  They breed from Great Slave Lake in Canada to the Great Plains and the Great Basin, and spend the winter on the West Coast, especially in California.  They rarely travel east of the Mississippi so this bird is a great find for Butler County, Pennsylvania.

How did Geoff know the bird was a California gull?   His eBird description has all the details.  Here's a quick summary:

The California gull has a dark iris (ring-billed adults have yellow eyes), a red-orange spot on its lower mandible behind the black ring (missing on ring-billed), and is slightly larger and darker than the ring-billed gulls.

California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

The eye and bill colors are diagnostic.  Here's a closer look.

California gull, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

If Geoff hadn't traveled to see Rare Bird #1 he wouldn't have found Rare Bird #2.

Here's the black-headed gull that sparked Geoff's trip, beautiful in its own right.

Black-headed gull, Moraine State Park, 3 Dec 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
Black-headed gull, Moraine State Park, 3 Dec 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

 

Would I have identified the California gull if I'd been birding alone?  I wish my answer was "yes," but I forget to look closely at gulls.  I probably would have called this one a lesser black-backed gull and stopped looking.

"One of these things is not like the others.  One of these things doesn't belong."

When it comes to gulls you have to look for needles in the haystack.

 

(photos by Geoff Malosh)

Danger From The Air!

European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)
European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)

I'm sure you've seen starlings fly away to avoid a predator.  Have you heard their warning signal?

Over the years I've noticed that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) make a spitting sound just before they flee.  Sometimes only one or two birds call the alarm, a sharp note repeated three or more times.  It sounds like this.

When I look for the reason they're making the sound, I always see a hawk in the air.  I've learned to look for a raptor when I hear that sound.

The starlings must be saying, "Danger From The Air!"

 

(photo of starling flock by Pat Gaines on Flickr; click on the image to see the original. Recording of common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) by Toon Jansen at xeno-canto #XC393749)

By The Light Of The Supermoon

Moon rising, crows roosting, Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Moon rising, crows roosting, Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Tonight is the night of the Supermoon, a full moon at perigee that looks 14% bigger and 30% brighter than normal.

What will you see by moonlight on Pitt's campus tonight, clustered at the treetops like large black leaves?

Thousands of crows.

Despite the weird scarecrow sounds played from the buildings, Pittsburgh's winter crow flock continues to roost in the mature trees surrounding the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel.

On Friday I tried to count them by the light of the moon. They were clustered in 30 trees and on the roof of Carnegie Museum. The densest trees held 300 crows.

Crows roosting in the trees near Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crows roosting in the trees near Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Could there really be 9,000 crows in the area of Forbes, Fifth, Bellefield and Bigelow Avenues?  Maybe I over counted.  Last year I estimated 230 crows per tree making this total 6,900 crows on December 1 at 6:15pm.

What is their fascination with the University of Pittsburgh?  It isn't the buildings.  It isn't the lawn.  It's the well lit trees.

Crows prefer to roost where they can see danger coming.  The campus is well lit for our protection.  The crows like it, too.

Well lit trees near the Cathedral of Learning with American crows roosting on top, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Well lit trees near the Cathedral of Learning, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Alumni Hall is a good vantage point for watching crows and the moon rise next to Heinz Chapel.

Stop by this evening to see it all by the light of the supermoon.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

Look For Aliens

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Late fall is the perfect time of year to look for alien plants in Pennsylvania.  Natives are brown or leafless but alien species are still cuing on the seasons back home.

How do you find aliens?  Notice patches of green in the brown landscape.  Here are three photos to give you some practice.

Aliens in the top photo are circled below.

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens while you're driving ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens on the ground ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

There's so much goutweed and garlic mustard in this last photo that it would be filled with red circles if I labeled all of it.   🙁

 

(photos by Kate St. John)