Spotted in Fruita- the elusive Spotted bat!

IMG_2381

Friday morning I got a call from my friend Dan Neubaum, “You home? Want to see a Spotted bat?” And I thought, “That is a waste of a question mark Dan,” but I said “Heck yeah!”

A gentleman in my little town had found this bat on his front porch when he headed out in the morning. A bit dumbfounded, as you would be if you found this fantastical creature on your doorstep, he searched the internet and somehow stumbled across this article I wrote on Spotted bats for the local paper about three years ago. In the article I described how biologists were on the lookout for this species and provided Dan’s contact information. Dan is a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Dan loves bats (he did his Master’s research on them), and upon receiving the gentleman’s call he quickly hustled out to Fruita to pick up the bat. It was unable to fly but appeared uninjured. Since the bat was found just a few blocks from my house, he very thoughtfully swung by so I could get a look at it.

IMG_2382

Spotted bats are uncommon and rarely recorded, but this is actually the second spotted bat reported to Dan as a result of my newspaper article. Soon after it was originally published, a local resident contacted Dan to report he had seen one in his yard- and had pictures to prove it! That newspaper assignment paid peanuts, but I consider it one of my best successes in my (very limited) writing career.

Even more exciting, Friday’s Spotted bat was a lactating female. This is exciting because it means that they are breeding in the area (yay!) It’s also exciting if you’ve been wondering what bat boobs look like (but were afraid to admit it). Apparently they look (disturbingly) like human boobs. I guess a boob is a boob- we’re all just mammals.

IMG_2378

Thankfully, Dan said that at this time of year, this mom’s pup was probably flying and feeding independently (though still nursing some) which means that if she recovered they could reunite and mom’s absence wasn’t necessarily a death sentence for her pup. Dan took mama Spotted bat back to his house and let her crawl up in his bat box to rest for the day.

At dusk, mama bat flew out of the box and Dan said she looked pretty strong. Hopefully her weekend turned out better than her Friday. While I enjoyed the experience of “meeting” her, I am sure it wasn’t how she planned to spend her day. Still I am very thankful Dan thought to bring her by so I could check her out. Look at those crazy ears!

IMG_2377

Spotted in Fruita- the elusive Spotted bat!

Don’t fear a book by its cover

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 7.40.23 AM
I have a hard time looking at this photo of a Japanese Giant Hornet. (Photo by Hornet Boy 1970/Wikimedia)

I have a confession to make. I have a phobia of wasps and bees. Basically most of the order Hymenoptera, though ants bother me less- probably because they don’t fly (most of the time.) It’s a mild phobia. I don’t have the full-fledged panic attacks and disabling symptoms associated with severe phobias, though I have been known to exhibit ridiculous behavior, such as running, flailing and squealing, in the presence of bees and wasps.

I also have an irrational fear of hyenas. Hymenoptera, hyena. . . do I simply have an aversion to animals whose names start with “HY”? Nope. I think hyraxes are adorable and have neutral feelings towards tiny freshwater hydrozoans in the genus Hydra.

My fear of hyenas most likely stems from an experience I had in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, when hyenas came into our camp site at night. I had taken my weekly dose of Larium, an anti-malarial drug notorious for sometimes causing bizarre dreams, anxiety, and in extreme cases, hallucinations.

I was awoken from a nightmare involving giant crabs by the noisy hyenas. They were just looking for stray bits of food, like a gang of 120 pound raccoons. But their garrulous snarling, squealing and loud breathing were hair raising even for my fellow campers who were not tripping on Larium that evening. I had also recently read a story in the New Yorker by Joanna Greenfield which detailed her attack by a captive spotted hyena. Great story, but don’t read it before you go camping in Africa. Seriously– don’t.

These irrational fears embarrass me. The hyena fear is less embarrassing because fear of a large, intelligent, predatory mammal that is fully capable of eating you and will give it a try if you look easy, is really not that irrational.

But a fear of wasps, bees and some ants is genuinely embarrassing because I am a biologist, I should know better. I hung out with lots of folks who study wasps and ants in graduate school and they taught me all sorts of cool things about their favorite insects. I learned about the evolution of eusociality, haplodiploidy, and all that fascinating stuff. (Back to hyenas for a moment. Female hyenas have pseudo-penises. Also fascinating, but doesn’t make them any less scary to me.)

I know that the likelihood that I would be killed or seriously injured by a stinging insect is very small. I am not allergic to bee stings. I am much more likely to be killed by a heatwave. I know that the mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is arguably the most dangerous animal in the world.

It’s not like I don’t encounter wasps and bees frequently. I enjoy the outdoors and spend much of my recreation time hiking, camping etc. I should be used to them by now. I have been stung on seven separate occasions. I know what it feels like. Yes, it hurts, but I have endured much worse pain.

I am not scared of many other creatures that people commonly fear. I enjoy catching (non-venomous) snakes with my 6 year-old son- a herpetology enthusiast. There are several black widow spiders living in my yard and I value their contribution to cricket control. I even touched a shark once while snorkeling. (It was a small, docile nurse shark resting in a coral cave, but you get my point.)

Yet hymenoptera– wasps especially– give me the heebie-jeebies. I have tried reasoning with myself. I know their evolution is fascinating, they serve important ecological functions etc., etc. Still they give me the creeps. If a wasp gets into my house and another adult is home, I will ask that person to get it out. If it falls to me to squash it, I will do the deed, but it will make me physically shudder. I will throw the body away but eye the trash can warily for the next couple of hours. If a wasp is trapped in my car, I WILL be pulling over and exiting the vehicle.

I am proud to have made some progress. I am much less fearful of honey bees than I used to be, and I will confidently capture and release them outside if they stray into my house. But there is no way in hell I will ever take up beekeeping or approach a wild honey bee colony. Africanized or “killer bees” are the stuff of my nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, about 10 years ago I saw a segment in a nature documentary on the Japanese giant hornet that I have still not fully recovered from. I have trouble even looking at pictures of them. If I saw a dead giant hornet pinned and dusty in an insect collection, you’d have to pay me a large sum to touch it. If I ever had the opportunity to travel to Japan, these insects would make me think twice.

We’re admonished not to judge a book by its cover, but we do. (If we didn’t, a lot of graphic artists would be out of work.) So you can imagine how I felt when I received this book in the mail.

IMG_2229

My brain sees this cover and says “Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!” There is a good reason for that. The wasp’s aposematic coloration, which is echoed in the jacket design, is intended as a warning to “stay away.” And the book explains how the hymenopterans’ sting– the danger that this coloration warns us about– allows these insects to exploit diverse environment and resources, and develop complex societies.

The book was sent to me by a publicist at Johns Hopkins University Press, which published it. I had recently written a post for Entomology Today about a study on harvester ants in which I quoted the book’s author Dr. Justin Schmidt. This caught the generous publicist’s eye and she asked if I’d be interested in a copy. I was flattered. No one ever offered me a free book, except when they were trying to religiously convert me.

Of course I’d like a copy! Who can turn down a free book? I realized she probably wanted me to read it and write something about it, but I put that out of my mind. The book arrived and it sat on my nightstand– upside down so I didn’t have to look at the wasp on the cover.

But if I do occasionally (frequently?) procrastinate, in the end I am generally dutiful. So I read “The Sting of the Wild” and I enjoyed it. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Southwestern Biological Institute, is an excellent writer. He can write clear, engaging explanations of sting evolution and venom chemistry, as well as spin a good yarn about his adventures collecting stinging insects. I enjoyed his dry, judiciously applied, wit.

Schmidt is most famous for the “Schmidt Sting Pain Index” which is published in its entirety for the first time in this book. He has painstakingly (emphasis on the pain) documented the stings he has received from various species of hymenoptera. In many cases, he has actively sought stings from certain species in order to add them to his index. The pain delivered by each sting is given a quantitative rating of 1-4, as well as a qualitative, often poetic, description. Some examples:

Western yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue. Pain level 2.

Dasymutilla klugii (a huge velvet ant): Explosive and long lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling over your entire hand. Pain level 3.

So is Schmidt just a sadomasochist with literary flair and a thing for collecting data? What would compel someone to get stung on purpose in order to make an index of pain? Science would.

If you quantify something, you can compare it to other somethings. Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index allows him to make and test predictions about insect’s stings. Why does a harvester ant’s sting (pain level 3) hurt so much, but the sting of a large, intimidating-looking cicada killer wasp (pain level 1-1.5) hurt less than the common honey bee? The answer has to do with their life history, the predators they face and the food they eat.

Stinging hymenoptera don’t want to sting you. In fact, they generally give you fair warning to stay away. Aposematic coloring and patterns of high contrast yellow, white, red and black are just one of the signals these insects use to say “leave me alone.” Schmidt also describes auditory warning signals, including loud buzzing and stridulations, as well as olfactory messages.

(This information actually made me feel better about my fear. I’m not irrational, I’m just a good listener. I am simply respecting stinging insects’ requests that I stay away.)

So take it from someone who didn’t initially want to read “The Sting of the Wild” but found it captivating (and a bit spine-tingling)– this book is worth your time. Justin Schmidt is a science hero in my eyes (I would love to know what gives him the creeps.) Creating a “Sting Pain Index,” would be for me a task akin to navigating Dante’s nine circles of hell.

This is a man who has methodically documented the sting of a tarantula wasp (pain level 4). His advice if you are unfortunate enough to be stung by this giant iridescent insect is to “lie down and scream”:

The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting.

Schmidt endured that sting and many, many others. And he did it for science.

Don’t fear a book by its cover

Biological Weapons

About a year ago I started writing occasional articles for the Entomological Society of America’s website “Entomology Today.” These assignments prompted me to delve into some biology I might not have otherwise and it has been so much fun. I’d like to share my entomology articles with my blog readers by posting links to them here. If you are interested, check out what I am doing over there. I hope you enjoy it.

Here’s a look at the diabolical biological weaponry predators and parasites use against one another. Click on the killer photo by entomologist and photographer extraordinaire, Alex Wild, to read the article.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 4.55.56 PM

Biological Weapons

Colorado Ivory

 

IMG_0011
Elk ivories, which are technically vestigial tusks, are small– just over an inch long including the root. Photo by Meredith Swett Walker

 

Elk hunting is a big deal in Colorado, and while many hunters are primarily interested in harvesting an elk for its meat, some hunters are after a trophy bull. Trophy elk are scored based on how large their antlers are and how many “points” or tines they have on each. But if humans had been hunting for trophy elk 25 million years ago or so, they would have been after the animal with the largest tusks, not antlers.

 

Elk are members of the deer family, and while modern male deer are noted for their antlers, prehistoric deer lacked antlers, but had tusks instead. Tusks are technically teeth (usually canine teeth), but are distinctive in that they grow continuously and protrude from the mouth. Today’s elk still bear remnants of their toothy past. Partially hidden in the upper jaw of both male and female elk are vestigial tusks, more commonly known as “ivories.”

 

An elk’s ivories are actually canine teeth. They are not large­– less than an inch of the tooth is exposed in an adult elk– and they aren’t used in chewing. There is no corresponding tooth on the lower jaw for them to make contact with, but they do wear down some over time. While some elk ivories are pearly white, others are stained deep brown by tannins in the plants the elk eats and digestive juices. (Elk aren’t known to use Crest Whitestrips®.)

 

The term “ivory” technically refers to animal tusk material used in art or craft. Humans have used elk ivories to make jewelry and decorate other goods for centuries. Among many Native American tribes, ivories were used to adorn women’s dresses and were a symbol of prosperity.

 

William_S._Soule_-_Eonah-pah_and_Wife
A Kiowa couple, Eonah-pah and his wife Alma, photographed in the late 1870s by William S. Soule. Alma is wearing a dress decorated with elk ivories.

 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s elk ivory became very fashionable and the teeth were used to decorate watch fobs, the short chains attached to pocket watches. At that time these watch fobs were an unofficial symbol of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.), a fraternal order and social club still active today and commonly known at “the Elks.” But elk ivory’s popularity led to a spike in prices for the teeth, which in turn created an elk poaching problem. In 1907, in an effort to stop the poaching, the B.P.O.E spoke out against the use of elk ivories for jewelry and helped establish the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.

 

While humans use elk ivories for adornment, elk use them in a manner that recalls a time when these teeth were much more impressive– they use them to threaten their rivals. An angry elk will sometimes curl its upper lip in a “sneer display” that reveals its vestigial tusks.

 

It is thought that as ancient deer evolved antlers, they lost their tusks. Only a handful of modern species of deer and deer-relatives still bear prominent tusks. Chinese water deer, muntjacs, and tufted deer, are all relatively small species that live in Asia and still have tusks. These species generally lack antlers. With their diminutive size, big brown eyes and large fang-like tusks, these deer almost look made-up, like Bambi masquerading as a vampire for Halloween.

Siberian Musk Deer
Siberian musk deer live in Northeast Asia. This is a small deer, weighing less than 40 pounds, but it sports impressive tusks. Photo by Николай Усик.

 

Scientists are not entirely sure if any of the prehistoric deer that moved into North America from Asia many millions of years ago had tusks. Most of the fossil remains that paleontologists have found so far are incomplete. According to Dr. Darrin Pagnac, a paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines who studies ancient grasslands and the herbivores that grazed on them, “The earliest ‘deer’ in North America is Eocoileus, from the late Miocene (7-5 million years ago).  All we have of it is a partial antler and the back of the skull.  No teeth, so we can’t tell if it had canines or not.”

 

Whether or not any tusked deer ever roamed the plains of North America, elk ivories are a reminder of ancient times, when the wildlife on our continent looked very different than it does today. Once upon a time prehistoric cheetahs and camels roamed here. Giant sloths, weighing a ton, browsed on leaves and the giant beaver, who was over six feet long, presumably cut down really big trees. As magnificent as elk and Colorado’s other wildlife is today, the creatures of the past may have been even more impressive.

This article first appeared in the November 21, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Colorado Ivory

The “Miner’s Cat”

"Miner's Cat" Woodblock Print by Beverly Hackett
“Miner’s Cat” Woodblock Print by Beverly Hackett

If you are ever lucky enough to lay eyes on a ringtail, you first thought will probably be something like: “What was that?! It looked like a fox crossed with that wacky lemur character from the movie ‘Madagascar’!” Ringtails are hard to categorize. Edward Abbey, famed lover of our desert landscape described the ringtail in “Desert Solitaire” as “an animal that looked like a cross between a raccoon and a squirrel.”

Abbey came pretty close to getting it right. The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), also know as a “ringtail cat” is not a cat at all, but a relative of the raccoon. But unlike its masked and cosmopolitan cousin, the ringtail is specialized for the desert. It is slender, with a long, black and white ringed tail and short legs. Ringtails are much smaller than raccoons, weighing less than three pounds and are about two feet long from nose to tail-tip.

This desert dweller has skills that would make the most avid rock climber, parkour enthusiast or “American Ninja Warrior” fan envious. Their ankle joints can rotate 180 degrees giving them tremendous grip and their long tail aids in balance. They have been observed using the climbing technique of “stemming” to move up vertical rock faces–wedging themselves in a crack with two paws on each side and walking up it. If the crack is too wide for this, they may ascend it by bounding back and forth between the walls of the crack like a pinball defying gravity.

The ringtail ranges throughout the southwestern U.S. and Central America. It favors rocky, desert habitats with sources of water. Like raccoons, ringtails are omnivores but their diet tends more towards meat. They eat insects, lizards, juniper berries, prickly pear, other fruits and especially rodents.

In the past, miners made pets of ringtails because they were such effective mousers and kept cabins, mines, and camps free of rodents. This earned them the nickname “miner’s cat.” Ringtails are supposedly relatively easy to tame. It is now illegal to keep ringtails as pets in Colorado– cute as they are, they belong in the wild.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of ringtails, besides their tails, is that they are elusive. They are almost exclusively nocturnal, very shy and pretty solitary. Most people only see ringtails on the side of the road after the animal has been hit by a car. If you know what to look for, you might spot their tracks in the mud after a rain in a canyon bottom. Like raccoons, all five toes on a ringtail’s foot are visible in its tracks, however they are not “finger-like” as in a raccoon. Ringtails walk more on their toe pads like a cat.

Photo by David Wyatt
Photo by David Wyatt

Ringtails are currently considered a “species of least concern” by wildlife conservationists, but their elusive nature makes it hard to be certain how ringtail populations are faring. David Wyatt, a wildlife biologist who studies ringtails in California says they “appear to be locally abundant in some places, but rare to not present in other places that you should reasonably expect them to occur. So, range maps are merely guesses and their true status is just not known.”

Colorado is not monitoring ringtail populations at this time, but local Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Dan Neubaum said he’d be interested to hear if ringtails have been spotted in the area, especially if the sighting is confirmed with a photograph. You can contact Neubaum via email at Daniel.Neubaum@state.co.us.

The rocky canyon country surrounding the Grand Valley appears to be very suitable habitat for ringtails, but sightings are rare. Perhaps a keen-eyed and lucky member of our outdoor recreation community will catch a glimpse of this desert phantom. Maybe a hiker will snap a photo of a distinctive five-toed track near a pool in the Colorado National Monument. How enchanting would it be to know that after the sun sets, the ringtails are at play in our canyons?

Photo by David Wyatt
Photo by David Wyatt

Special Thanks to biologist David Wyatt for his excellent photos of ringtails. Please check out his blog http://bassariscus.me

This article first appeared in the September 26, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

The “Miner’s Cat”

Brainy Birds

Common Ravens, public domain
Common Ravens, public domain

At one time in my life, I was a (very minor) celebrity. I had only a handful of fans, but they were loud, devoted… and covered in black feathers. If they had spoken English, they would have cried out at my arrival: “She’s here! It’s really her! It’s the mouse lady!”

I was working at a facility that housed birds, including 3-4 Common Ravens in large outdoor aviaries. The aviaries were huge and enclosed on all sides with heavy wire mesh that kept the birds in and predators, like cats and hawks, out. Because predators were excluded and there was an abundance of bird seed and other goodies on the ground, the aviaries were a haven for mice.

Mice can carry Hanta virus, and will even eat disabled birds, so they were not welcome in the aviaries. I decided to put a dent in their population using snap traps. Every morning I collected a grisly pile of mouse corpses from my traps. It was disgusting. A few days into my mouse eradication campaign, I decided that instead of tossing my dead mice in the trash, I would give them to the ravens.

Common Ravens will eat just about anything, but they love carrion. I thought the captive ravens might enjoy a treat, so I pitched the day’s mice into the ravens’ bowl. The next morning they were gone, only some leftover dog kibble remained.

After a couple of days of receiving mice, I noticed that the ravens got excited whenever I arrived. They flew from perch to perch and croaked excitedly when I appeared. The other people that worked in the aviaries never got this greeting, not even the woman that fed the raven their daily ration of dog food.  The ravens seemed to recognize me, regardless of what coat I was wearing, or if I had a hat or sunglasses on.

While I liked to joke about how the birds knew and loved me, scientists have recently shown that the Common Raven’s smaller cousin, the crow, does indeed recognize individual human faces, and it is likely that ravens can too. In fact these birds are capable of some impressive intellectual feats.

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist who studied raven behavior extensively and wrote the book Ravens in Winter, devised a clever test of raven intelligence. He tied a long piece of string to a branch and attached a piece of meat to the end of it. When a raven perched on the branch, the long string let the meat dangle of out reach below the bird.

But the raven solved the problem. The bird would reach down, pull up a length of string, lay it against the branch and step on it to hold it.  Then it would pull up another length of string and hold it, effectively reeling in the sting until it could reach the meat. Heinrich tested multiple adult ravens and they not only solved the problem, they did it without using trial and error. The birds appeared to study the situation, think through possibilities and then quickly reel in the meat.

Ravens also have a good memory. They cache, or hide, food to eat later and because they have a lousy sense of smell, they need to remember where they put it rather than sniff it out. Young ravens will practice caching by hiding inedible items, they also practice another favorite raven trick– stealing each other’s caches.

Through a series of careful experiments, Heinrich and his colleagues were able to show that ravens can learn which individuals make a habit of stealing caches and they will wait until the thief cannot observe them before hiding their treat. Ravens can also attribute knowledge to other individuals and predict their actions. In other words, Rick the raven knows that Betty also saw where Cindy hid that tasty bit of rabbit. Some animal intelligence experts believe that the raven’s smarts are comparable to those of chimpanzees and dolphins.

So if you ever get the feeling you’re being watched by your neighborhood ravens, you’re probably right. They know your face and they probably know that Wednesday is trash day and that the Walkers have usually have roast chicken on Tuesday so there will be good leftovers in the bag at the top of the can.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on October 25, 2015

Brainy Birds