Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One-Eyed Jack

I can’t stand being sick, but when I have a stuffed up nose I’m grateful I have an extra nostril to breathe through. If they’re both plugged up I can still breath through my mouth. It’s good to have a back up system when things don’t work. Nature has provided us with a pair of lungs, ears, arms, legs, etc. I wish I had a second brain for the times when the one I have fails me.

Which leads me to One-Eyed Jack, the visually impaired Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) who lives in a big open field in Cape Coral, Florida. If I had a second brain I might be able to tell you what is wrong with his eye, but I don’t, so I can’t. As sympathetic as I am to the bird’s plight I can’t help but find amusement in the inappropriateness of a Cycloptic owl from the genus Athne. Owls of course are the mascot of the Greek goddess Athene (or Athena) who helped conquer the famous Cyclops with a poke in the eye, what was, at the time, an ingenious strategy. I think that was in Homer’s Odyssey. I’m not positive. Look it up on Wikipedia. Again this is where two brains would come in handy.

Regardless of mythological misinformation, the one-eyed wonder pictured here and photographed by wildlife photographer Milla Voellinger, should survive just fine. Although binocular vision would certainly come in handy as the pint-sized, diurnal raptor hunts down lizards, insects and other prey, it’s a handicap that can easily be overcome.

Try your hand at monoscopic vision. With one eye covered, run as fast as you can to the kitchen, grab your favorite snack or beverage from the fridge and return to this riveting piece of journalism. It would have helped to have had both eyes right? But you did it.

Living in the wild, the owl has concerns beyond the family cat, the banister and the step-stool you had to navigate around in this experiment. Burrowing Owls have to contend with outdoor cats, cars and other obstacles as the go about their day. Fortunately for this owl it has friends and family. One-eyed or two-eyed, they all watch out for each other.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Web Slingers

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that the only good spider is a dead spider. With over 40,000 species worldwide, that’s a large group of animals to drop the shoe on. Some people have expressed that it’s ok to have some spiders around but they just don’t want them in their house. Others go so far as to not want any of them anywhere near their home. For many people every spider is misidentified as a life-threatening Black Widow or a Brown Recluse.

The truth is spiders are around us everyday whether we see them or not and most of them serve a vital role in the diversity of habitats in which they are found. While it’s important to protect yourself from the extremely rare danger of a venomous spider bite, it’s also beneficial to offer restraint and tolerance towards those species that are not only harmless to humans but potentially valuable pest predators. Not to mention they come in a wild variety of colors, shapes and sizes and exhibit some amazing behaviors.

The Golden Silk Orbweaver (Nephila clavipes) (top left) is a beautiful species that spins incredible golden webs. They feed on grasshoppers, flies and other flying insects. Hairy “legwarmers” allow them to easily traverse their webs. A stunning, horror movie, skull-like cephalothorax (essentially the head and thorax) with black eye-like spots tricks would be predators into believing the spider can see in every direction.

The Spiny Orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) (bottom right) with its crab-like carapace, spins a web in gardens and around homes where it feasts on flies, beetles and moths.
While not dangerous, I usually escort the Daring Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) (bottom left) back outside where it can return to feasting at the lawn buffet and practice its standing long jump. (They can jump over 50x their body length). This one wanted back in.

Even the notorious Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) (not pictured) eats its fair share of household pests like silverfish and cockroaches, but I wouldn’t put a welcome mat out for it.
Although spiders are unfortunately considered terrifying to most, when they are understood on an individual species basis they can be quite enjoyable to live with and near.

Monday, October 18, 2010

JunglePete turns 40

40 years. Time for a post-mid-life crisis. In the meantime - here's a nice montage put together by my sister of 40 years of birthdays. Some have reported this to be a tear jerker but I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying I don't die in the end of the montage.

Thanks Tiff and everyone who has shared them with me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain

When I was single I rented a one-bedroom apartment. It was the perfect amount of space for a social hermit.

When I got married, more space was required and we moved into a two-bedroom apartment with two cats.

With a baby on the way, the space requirements have leaped considerably and we now have a spacious three-bedroom house. As space requirements changed I constantly looked around for new living quarters. But I never looked back until I thought about the Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain.

What sounds like branding nightmare for a chain of hotels, the Hermit Crab Vacancy Chain is an interesting study in recyclable resources. First of all, “Hermit” Crab is a misnomer. Although it’s usually a one crab, one shell scenario, Hermit Crabs (Pagurus sp.) are far more social then they are given credit for. It has less to do with loneliness and more to do with securing their next housing upgrade. As they outgrow their current living requirements they begin seeking new and improved digs. Unoccupied sea snail shells tend to be the preferred type as they can easily grasp the interior curvature of the shell.

Hermit Crabs will often gather around a new shell and line up for a fitting process in a game like musical shells. It’s known as a synchronous vacancy chain. If the new shell fits, the crab slips out of its old shell creating a vacancy for a smaller crab waiting nearby. Each subsequent smaller shell is tried on until each crab has a new upgrade.

The Hermit Crab I found on Bunche Beach in Fort Myers died of unknown causes. When resources are slim, fighting may occur and a crab can be left without a shell or even be killed. This one may have lived out its life in this Pear Whelk (Busycotypus spiratum). The ants will eat it and the tides may return the shell to the sea for a future occupant.

The housing market is such that I didn’t experience such harsh circumstances. In retrospect I think about the places I once lived and the people who slipped into them after my departure. Someday they’ll outgrow those places too and have an eye on a bigger home. For better or worse, shells abound here in south Florida.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deck the Palm With Shells and Snail Kites

In the middle of Estero Bay, half way between the Fort Myers mainland and Fort Myers Beach in Florida is Mound Key, a 140-acre island comprised primarily of the discarded remains of shellfish. Centuries ago, the Calusa lived along the gulf coast of Florida from Tampa south to the Everglades. Mound Key was thought to be the ceremonial center of their civilization and over the course of thousands of years, the fishery dependent culture developed several massive middens. At an elevation nearly 40 feet above sea level, Mound Key is the highest point in Lee County, Florida.

It’s hard to imagine the amount of shells necessary to create such a pile, and these days it’s not particularly easy to see either as Gumbo Limbos, Red, White and Black Mangroves and other subtropical trees now dominate the landscape. From a lookout at the apex of what is now a state park you can survey the gulf waters, the bay and the mainland. The height of this particular mound would have given the Calusas a visual advantage over invaders as well as protection from storm surges.

Snail Kites (Rostrhamus sociabilis) thrive in a similar fashion. I watched an endangered kite perched on a dead Sabal Palm (Sabal palmetto) trunk and upon approach I noticed the “boots” or dead fronds of the tree were decorated with empty Apple Snail (Pomacea sp.) shells. Snail Kites feed exclusively on the semi-aquatic gastropods, hovering over the shallow lakes and canals, swooping down and fishing an unsuspecting snail from the water. They usually find a perch to rest on and feed while they watch for winged pirates who might take their prize away. They use a deeply hooked beak to pluck their prey from the shell before discarding the now empty home. Many kites use a perch repeatedly and in a short time an amazing mound of shells begins to form.
After witnessing the debris that one escargot-eating bird can create in a few weeks, it becomes easier to imagine how thousands of Calusas, over several millennia can create the impressive mounds that they did.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How To Check A Bear's Prostate

If you have never seen a black bear at the urologist’s waiting to get a prostate exam there are two good reasons why. A) I would imagine most doctors have a “no bears” policy and B) from late summer through fall, American Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in the southeastern United States are feeding heavily on Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) berries – a food source that has been shown to have positive medicinal value for men with enlarged prostates.
Saw Palmettos are one of the most common palms in the U.S. and are found in the Gulf states from SW Louisiana to Florida. The shrub-like palm is often overlooked and occasionally confused for a young Sabal Palm. The palmetto has a similar fan-shaped frond but has distinguishing spines along the leaf edge, thus the name. The branching trunk often grows parallel to the ground before reaching skyward but rarely attains heights above seven feet.
The insect-pollinated flowers bloom from April through July and by September, greenish-yellow, olive-like fruits begin to ripen and turn black. They make an excellent food source for deer, bears, raccoons, pigs and gopher tortoises among others. Apparently they don’t taste good. I haven’t tried one but if someone asks me to I will.
The fruits that are not eaten by wildlife, collected by pharmaceutical lackeys or tasted by curious naturalists will fall to the ground where it make take them months to germinate as the endocarp or interior layer of the fruit slowly breaks apart. New growth is slow, but eventually the shrub matures and fruits.
The question remains, do Black Bears that live outside the range of saw palmettos have enlarged prostates? Check to see if the bear has a hard time peeing, which is the first indication of this condition. (Keep in mind that bears go into torpor in the winter and can convert urea to amino acids – the building blocks of proteins). Next get a pair of latex gloves. I haven’t tried this next step and if someone asks me to I won’t.