22 July 2014

Milkweed in midsummer

The timing varies with latitude and microclimate, but in general, common milkweed reaches its floral maximum in midsummer.    It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call the plants "magnificent" or "stately," but they are certainly impressive, rising 4-5 feet high with a thick stem to help support a half-dozen blossoms as big as softballs.

Through the summer months those compound blossoms provide an abundance of nectar and pollen not just for the Monarchs, but for other butterflies and innumerable solitary bees and other insects. 

I posted earlier this summer about the complex morphology of the blossoms and how their strategy for pollination makes the blossom occasionally lethal to unwary small insects.  That is an uncommon occurrence, and for the most part when one wanders through a patch of mature milkweed, there is an abundance of small insects hovering nearby (and often a resident crab spider lurking in the flower). 

The fragrance is strong and reasonably pleasant, but not a prominent feature of the plant.  Midsummer will also find the plant hosting a variety of other insects - aphids tended by ants, milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, lacewings and their eggs, and the milkweed tussock moth.  The ecology is complex and worthy of a separate post (next summer).

Next step:  the spectacle of seed production.

The first 1000 digits of pi

Posted for 22/7.  Discussed at Reddit.

21 July 2014

The skin of some animals contains light-sensitive opsins

By far the most interesting item I've read this week is at Not Exactly Rocket Science:
When Domenico Fulgione placed Moorish geckos on dark surfaces, he saw what he had seen for years. These spiny, hand-sized lizards changed colour. Within an hour, their typical creamy white complexions transformed into blacker hues that better matched their environment.

And then Fulgione blindfolded the geckos.

They still changed colour. How does an animal adjust its colour to match its environment, when it can’t see that environment at all?...

These bizarre results started to make more sense when the team analysed the gecko’s skin. They found that the skin is rife with opsins—light-sensitive proteins that are the basis of animal vision. When light enters your eyes, opsins in your retinas respond by triggering chemical reactions that send signals to your brain. That’s how you see. The Moorish gecko has plenty of opsins in its eyes too, but the team also found these proteins all over the skin of its torso. It’s especially common in the lizard’s flanks, and in cells called melanophores that are filled with dark pigments.

The researchers think that the flank opsins can respond to surrounding light levels and automatically adjust the gecko’s colour. If they’re right, the lizard has a kind of distributed vision that is independent of its eyes, and perhaps its brain. In other words, it can “see” with its skin.
Fascinating.  More details at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

I found the video of an octopus several months ago at 22 Words.

"Daylighting" explained

Trout Brook long had been buried in a pipe by the railroads, which laid tracks atop the streambed to ensure a smooth descent into the downtown yards.

Now a new and winding streambed for the brook, which runs through a stormwater tunnel near Interstate 35, has been carved down the middle of the 42-acre Trout Brook Nature
Sanctuary and Regional Trail, which is slated for official opening next spring.

It’s called “daylighting,” the process of unearthing a stream typically filled in by urban development, and it’s an increasingly popular strategy to improve water quality and aid neighborhoods in need of natural amenities...

Daylighting streams is occurring across the country and overseas, in places such as Hutchinson, Kan.; Yonkers, N.Y.; and Seoul, South Korea. National Geographic reported last year that more than 70 percent of streams are paved over in some cities...
Further details at the StarTribune.  Photo credit Kevin Duchschere

Don't be embarassed by a colostomy bag

Backstory and additional photos at Huffington Post, via Neatorama.

Tax cuts do not necessarily "pay for themselves"

The situation in Kansas is detailed at Vox:
In 2012, Kansas governor Sam Brownback signed a massive tax cut into law, arguing that it would boost the state's economy. Eventually, he hoped to eliminate individual income taxes entirely...

Yet though Brownback is running for reelection this fall in a deep red state, he's trailed his Democratic challenger in 3 of the 4 most recent polls — and his marquee tax cut appears to be the main reason. Kansas is now hundreds of millions of dollars short in revenue collection, its job growth has lagged the rest of the nation, and Moody's has cut the state's bond rating...

After the cuts became law, it was undisputed that Kansas's revenue collections would fall. But some supply-side analysts, like economist Arthur Laffer, argued that increased economic growth would deliver more revenue that would help cushion this impact. Yet it's now clear that the revenue shortfalls are much worse than expected. "State general fund revenue is down over $700 million from last year," Duane Goossen, a former state budget director, told me. "That's a bigger drop than the state had in the whole three years of the recession"...

The declining revenues have necessitated extensive cuts in state education funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Moody's cut of the state's bond rating this May was another embarrassment...

Brownback, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has blamed President Obama for his state's growing red ink. "This is an undeniable result of President Obama's failed economic policies of increasing taxes and overregulation," Brownback's revenue secretary Nick Jordan said.

Honeycomb as art

"Ren Ri creates sculptures using plastic, wooden dowelling and a swarm of bees…"

Via The QI Elves @qikipedia.

President George Washington was not "reanimated"

In the hours after his death, some of the people close to Washington discussed reanimating his corpse because they couldn’t stand burying “the indispensible man.” The person most passionate about this idea was William Thornton, a close friend of Washington, a physician trained in European medical schools, and an amateur architect who designed the United States Capitol.

Thornton arrived in Mt. Vernon the morning after Washington passed and suggested a unique (for lack of a better word) method of resuscitating Washington’s body. Twenty years after Washington’s death Thornton wrote:

I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner.  First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, & by degrees & by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachaea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. 

Though we don’t know if Martha Washington truly considered this a viable option, we do know it was never attempted.
Text and image from Strange Remains, where there are further details.

Confederate graveyard - in Wisconsin!

This past week I went for a walk at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin. The oldest graves date back to the 1850s-1860s, many of them resting places for native-born Irish, the first settlers in the area.

Most old cemeteries in the eastern half of the United States have sections devoted to casualties of the American Civil War (1861-1865). I was startled to discover this cemetery also has a separate graveyard for Confederate soldiers! They were members of the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment.

This Confederate cemetery is apparently the northernmost one in the country. The reason for its existence in Wisconsin is explained on the bronze marker above, and at this link and this link.

Addendum:  Updated from 2009 to add this video of a local group ("The Whiskey Farm") singing a tribute to the Confederate soldiers (lyrics here.  Warning: audio autostarts).


"A reward of up to $5,000 is being offered to help police throw the book at whoever torched a “Little Free Library” — a wooden house-shaped box atop a post — along a residential street in south Minneapolis...  Anyone with information is urged to call the Minnesota Arson Reward Project at 1-800-723-2020.

There are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, a movement started in 2009 by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks of Wisconsin when Bol built a model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher who loved reading."
Photo: Provided by Minneapolis Police.

17 July 2014


Preikestolen or Prekestolen, also known by the English translations of Preacher's Pulpit or Pulpit Rock, is a famous tourist attraction in Forsand, Ryfylke, Norway. It consists of a steep cliff which rises 604 metres (1982 feet) above Lysefjorden, opposite the Kjerag plateau, with an almost flat top of approximately 25 by 25 metres (82 by 82 feet).

The authorities have opted not to install fencing or other safety devices as they felt it would detract from the natural beauty of the site and the fact that fatalities at the site are extremely rare, despite having approximately 200,000 visitors each year. Furthermore, there were concerns that fences or other devices might encourage dangerous behavior such as climbing onto the fences. It should also be noted that it is a policy from Norwegian authorities that "we cannot fence in all nature in this country", and this is supported by the Norwegian population who are generally more accustomed to "dangerous nature" of their country than foreign tourists.
Via Reddit.  See also this photo.

Addendum:  This video gives a general idea of the access.  More info here.

Bowling going down the gutter

An article at Bloomberg Business Week makes note of the downward trend in the popularity of bowling:
The U.S. had 4,061 bowling centers in 2012, down 25 percent from 1998, the earliest year for which the U.S. Census collected consistent data. But the decline of the bowling alley probably started a lot earlier. The U.S. added 2,000 bowling alleys between the end of World War II and 1958, when the American Society of Planning Officials reported that “the bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important—if not the most important—local center of participant sport and recreation.”..

In those days, bowling was a social imperative for many Americans, says Marcel Fournier, who owned a string of bowling centers in western New York State starting in the 1960s. “The bowling alley was the blue-collar country club,” he says, and most of his business came from people competing in weekly leagues. As the workforce changed and access to other recreational activities expanded, interest in bowling leagues waned.
I've posted before about the similarly waning populatiry of golf.  And stamp collecting.   *Sigh*

Via The Presurfer.

Word for the day: sillage

Al Pacino doesn't use the word "sillage" when he comments about the flight attendant: "Well, she’s wearing Floris. That’s an English Cologne..."

I found the term explained in the "Perfume Notes" section of Bois de Jasmin:
Sillage (pronounced as see-yazh) is a term used to describe a scented trail left by the fragrance wearer. It comes from the French word for “wake,” as in the trail left in the sky by an airplane or on the water by a boat.  Sillage defines how fragrance diffuses around the wearer, and a strong sillage means that a fragrance projects well. Sillage has nothing to do with the richness of the composition, however, but rather with the diffusive nature of the materials that go into it. For instance, hedione, fresh floral notes and some types of musk are extremely diffusive and radiant, while retaining an airy, light character.

Fragrances with a strong sillage include such rich compositions like Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Lancôme Trésor, and Christian Dior Poison as well as light, ethereal blends like Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert and Christian Dior Eau Sauvage. Conversely, minimal sillage fragances are ones that stay close to the skin and create a more intimate scented aura.
A hat tip to reader Jeff Kozoris, who remembered encountering the term when I posted some quite interesting facts about language.

"Crazy worms" can severely damage forest ecosystems

I have previously posted about the damage that fisherman inflict on forests when they dump unused bait on the shore:
At dusk Chaffin provided a tour of a colony of night crawlers — the most damaging of the worms — residing beneath a massive basswood tree behind his campsite. Each year, the worms can eat a season’s worth of basswood leaves, depriving the forest floor of “duff,’’ the carpetlike layer of decaying matter that is a critical component of northern American forests.

In a healthy forest, the duff keeps tree roots cool, germinates tree seeds and mushrooms, and provides a home for ovenbirds, salamanders and other small creatures. But below this basswood the earth is bare, a circle of hard-packed dirt 30 feet in diameter. Trees that might fare better here as the climate warms — hardwoods such as red maple and basswood — can’t take root in the packed dirt. Instead, the worms create ideal conditions for invasives such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, plants that evolved with them in Europe.
Recently, a non-native earthworm was discovered at the University of Wisconsin
The Amynthas agrestis, also called the Asian crazy worm, was discovered last fall in the Arboretum, and the species survived the harsh winter. Officials said it’s the first time the species has been seen in Wisconsin, although it’s been in the East and Southeast U.S. for 50 years, Herrick said.

The eight-inchers come with a ravenous appetite and an advanced ability to reproduce, reaching maturity in just two months and creating offspring without mating. When infestations happen, the worms devour nutrient-rich soil at the forest floor. Erosion sets in, making it harder for native plants to survive. In their place, pesky invasive plants can grow.
The worms are presumed to have arrived in nursery plants received from the east coast.

The best resource I know of online for earthworm-related problems is the Great Lakes Worm Watch, maintained by the University of Minnesota.

Quadrupedalism is NOT evidence of "reverse evolution"

As reported by the Washington Post:
The man is one of five children in a religious family bedeviled by an unusual condition that has flummoxed and fascinated scientists since the scientific community first discovered them in 2005. The parents were normal. but five of their progeny are quadrupedal. They walk appendages down, bottom in the air.

..a new study published Wednesday in PLOS One, further debunks the notion that the siblings represent reverse evolution. They do not, as Tan earlier surmised, walk like primates. Primates walk in a diagonal sequence, in which they put a hand on one side and a foot on the other, repeating this pattern as they progress forward. These humans, meanwhile, walk laterally – similar to other quadrupedals.

Now researchers say the siblings aren’t the product of reverse evolution. Rather, their walk is a bi-product of a hereditary condition called Cerebellar hypoplasia, which an MRI originally revealed. This condition complicates their sense of balance — and to adapt, they have developed quadrupedalism.
More at the links.   For additional information on cerebellar hypoplasia, see these three previous posts:

Video of a boy with cerebellar hypoplasia

Video (2008) of a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia, and another one from 2014.
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