Springtime in New York (part III)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 5:24 PM Bookmark and Share
With spring now turning to summer, here's a few more photos and comments to follow up on part I and part II of "Springtime in New York". Sticking to my promise, I'll leave the insect world behind with a parting nod to another arthropod before getting into more bird, reptile and amphibian pictures.

When most people think of animal mothers and their young, they're likely to think of a family of some mammal or bird. Indeed, familiar urban and suburban animals like birds, deer, foxes and the like can very noticeable when they've got young in tow!

Still, nearly all major groups of organisms contain examples of moms (and dads!) providing some form of parental care for their offspring - far more species in fact that just the furry and feathered species we tend to notice the most!

Young Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Ithaca, NY - 23 May 2008.

In many spider species, for example, the eggs are carefully bundled up together with various kinds of silk produced by mom, and are then guarded until they hatch. While most young spiders are independent and can fend for themselves, young wolf spiders will spend some extra time under their mother's guard by clinging to her abdomen. Other arachnids (e.g. scorpions) are known to do the same.

A large (dollar coin?) sized wolf spider (species unknown),
Guarding her eggs in Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

Amphibians, on the other hand, are more hands off - they tend to produce offspring that are ready to fend for themselves and need no care from mom or dad once they've hatched.

Similar to the very first vertebrates to adapt to life on land, modern amphibians still need to lay their eggs in water. In most species, these eggs often hatch long after the parents have left, and the young are left to look after themselves as they mature from fish-like larvae (e.g. tadpoles) to more adult-like forms that can leave the water and live on land.

By late spring a variety of frog, toad and salamander larvae can be found in ponds and streams near Ithaca ( full list of these species and other information can be found here at the New York Herp Atlas (DEC) website). Some species have clear preferences for where they lay their eggs. For example, the two-lined and spring salamanders prefer moving water, while others like most frogs and toads almost exclusively use shallow ponds.

A female American Toad (Bufo americanus) nearing the
end of her stay in a breeding pond near Ithaca, NY
Her offpsring won't need any parental care (Note the biting flies!).
24 May 2009.

American Toad eggs from the same pond as the above female.

A Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris) found along
the grassy banks of a stream near Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

Larval salamander or newt (unknown species - approx. 2cm),
Monkey Run, Ithaca NY - 25 April 2009.

A 4-5" larval Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus)
under a rock along a small stream near Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

Northern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea b. bislineata)
An adult from near Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

And of course, there are the most observable of all wildlife - the birds! While I was tempted to stick to "herps" for this post - the evolutionary position of birds more than justifies their inclusion here. Still, I'll be brief.

By late spring, a number of the local breeders have returned from their wintering grounds south of New York - some having traveled up from Central or South America or islands in the Caribbean. Many (like the Northern Waterthrush, below) waste little time - and begin to breed almost immediately.

Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis) with
nest material, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Ithaca, NY - 4 May 2008.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) with
nest material, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Ithaca, NY - 4 May 2008.

Resident or shorter-distance migrants have in some cases already begun to breed by the time these migrants return. This adult red-tailed hawk, for example, is taking a young Cottontail Rabbit to its almost adult-sized chick up in a nest on Cornell campus.

A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) with a prey item
(a young Eastern Cottontail Rabbit) near the hawk's nest,
Cornell University, Ithaca NY - 29 April 2009.

Finally, I'll end with a few shots of our local snakes. Many snakes like the locally uncommon Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis o. obsoleta) emerge from hibernation in spring, and after their first shed will mate and lay their eggs once it's warm enough to maintain the higher temperatures they'll need to hatch later in the summer. Others, like the Brown Snake and the Garter Snake (T. sertalis) are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young - usually in late summer around the time other snakes eggs are hatching.

Dekay's Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi)
near Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
A rear-fanged snake, though it rarely bites. It's venom doesn't
appear to affect humans, only it's prey (e.g. salamanders).
This one was found near Ithaca, NY - 24 May 2009.

Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis o. obsoleta)
Note the opaque eyes, indicating it's about to shed.
Seen near Ithaca, NY - 9 May 2009.

Fear, religion, and bad medicine

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 9:42 AM Bookmark and Share
I recently came across this post by PZ Myers about a 13 year old Minnesota boy and his family (the Hausers), who are currently in court for the right to refuse chemotherapy to treat the boy's Hodgkin Lymphoma. In doing so, they're refusing an 85% chance of surviving the cancer, in exchange for almost no chance of survival without proper treatment - opting instead for natural remedies such as herbs and vitamins (a decidedly bad form of cancer "treatment"!).

In my usual fashion, I followed up on the blog post and read through a few more articles on the story, like this one, this one, this blog post by Jerry Coyne, and http://www.childrenshealthcare.org/ which chronicles the painful and preventable deaths of a handful of children (mostly from Christian Science families) following the faith-based "treatment" their parents elected to provide them in lieu of real medical treatment.

The consequence of all this (and my reading these stories in the middle of a busy few days of thesis work) was that I completely got wrapped up in the emotional aspects of this and other stories like it, and failed to dig deeper! Was their nemenhah religion really behind all this (in my defense, their website was down when I checked)? What was their experience dealing with his cancer up to this point? A whole slew of other questions a little critical thinking should have brought to mind...

Fortunately, I just saw the post below on the blog Respectful Insolence which points out some of the mistakes which I and others have made in reading into these matters. "Orac" gives very level headed view of the situation, and to me it's a personal reminder that we're all susceptible to loosing our better judgment from time to time.

If you haven't looked over the articles and websites above, I'd suggest giving at least some of them a read before reading this one.
Daniel Hauser and his rejection of chemotherapy: Is religion the driving force or just a convenient excuse?
I'll try to post follow-up links on the Hauser case below, as they become available.

Springtime in New York (part II)

Monday, May 11, 2009 at 10:47 PM Bookmark and Share
With the "spring" semester coming to a close, true spring is finally in full force in western New York state. Among the student and amateur naturalists in the region, it's time to shift gears and welcome back the many plants, migratory birds, reptile, amphibians, and invertebrates that can be found in the region during the warmer months. Following up on part I of Springtime in New York, here are a few of my own sightings of this spring. This post was clearly growing to large, so I'll be posting more in a part III sometime in the coming weeks.

Some of my favorite places to frequent during spring are the many woodland swamps, wetlands and creeks in the greater Ithaca area. The reasons are twofold: First, these areas host a variety of organisms during the warmer months, including those mentioned above. Second, visiting these areas before they become thick with mosquitoes and biting flies tends to make for much more pleasant visit!

Like birds, some insects (e.g. some adult moths and dragonflies) migrate to avoid the harsh northern winters. Others overwinter and endure the harsh conditions by altering their physiology to avoid the dangers of freezing or by finding more hospitable environments (like the bottoms of streams and lakes). In either case, the result is that they are some of the first to be found each spring as temperatures warm and the world again becomes a hospitable place for these little critters.

Larval Trichopeteran (Caddisfly) in a shallow roadside waterway.
This larvae likely spent the winter at the bottom of this marshy
area where it endured the cold, New York winter.
25 April 2009 - Summerhill, NY.

For those individuals that are lucky enough to survive the winter, the spring warmth is a mixed bag. Not all invertebrates awake in spring and find the world a cozy hospitable place! Just as the world has again become a livable place for the caddisfly above, so to has it returned to a state amenable to predators like the tiger beetle.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cincidela sexguttata),
25 Apr 2009 - Summerhill, Cayuga Co., NY.

Tiger beetle feeding on a small insect or arachnid
25 April 2009 - Summerhill, Cayuga Co., NY

While these little killing machines might not seem like the most friendly of insects, these and other predatory insects play an important role in keeping other insects (e.g. the kind that might otherwise destroy plants important to people or the local ecosystem) under control. For a more familiar example, the "ladybug" is another such predator, and is even used commercially in agriculture to control damaging agricultural pests like aphids.

All organisms have basic requirements necessary to live and reproduce, and the vast majority rely upon other organisms to obtain the requisite resources. Predatory organisms like the tiger beetle rely upon their prey for resources, while other organisms thrive on non-living resources - including those unlocked from the grip of winter each spring. The growth of plants and other primary producers such as the Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) pictured above help to capture the light's energy and feed it into local (and hence global) food web.

While spring is often considered a time of rebirth, it's also a time of some heavy-duty recycling! With all the growth, scarce resources can't be left to go to waste - and organisms that keep those nutrients in the local food web can provide an essential resource for other organisms. While much of this recycling is done by the work of microscopic organisms, some of it is done by larger organisms like the Margined Carrion Beetle (Oiceoptoma noveboracense).

Margined Carrion Beetles (Oiceoptoma noveboracense)
feeding and breeding on a White-tailed Deer carcass.
25 April 2009 - Summerhill, Cayuga Co., NY

I've been having too much fun with my new macro lens, so I'll leave the insect world for now. In an upcoming post, I'll take a look at some more of our local reptiles and amphibians - so stay tuned for part III!

How open-minded are you?

Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 7:00 AM Bookmark and Share
Note: Another long-lost draft that was saved and forgotten a few months ago, only to have been recently rediscovered and deemed worthy of posting. 

Have you ever been accused of not being "open-minded", or questioned someone else's open-mindedness?  Here's a superb video I've seen a few other places on what it means to be open-minded.

The source of this video is the YouTube channel "QualiaSoup" - I highly recommend taking a look around! The channel contains a variety of other well made videos, including this one.

Chris Matthew's Fails at Science vs. Intelligent Design Creationism

Friday, May 8, 2009 at 3:13 PM Bookmark and Share

Following up on his nice performance putting Mike Pence (R-IN) on the spot regarding science and evolution, Chris Matthews did a horrible job by letting Tom Tancredo talk way too long about intelligent design as though it were a legitimate science - without even calling him on it! To add to his failure, he then went on to fumble providing his viewers with the distinction between intelligent design creationism and real science.

First, for a nice look at why Tancredo is so demonstrably off his rocker (including some references if you would like to dig a little deeper) check out the blog post "Chris Matthews Lets Creationst Tom Tancredo Off The Hook".

I should stop there, but I have to comment on one of the later bits of the interview. At one point, Chris asks what should be an easy question to answer:
Matthews: "What's the difference between saying you believe in evolution but you believe God's behind it? What's the difference between that and intelligent design?"
Not surprisingly, the science-illiterate politician doesn't know (or at least doesn't give) anything close to a reasonable answer...
Tancredo: "I don't think there is really much at all..."

So is there a difference? In short, YES! What is that difference? Well, to answer that as well as Chris's question, we have to roll up our sleeves a bit. He's unfortunately asked a poorly phrased question and as such, "the devil is in the details."

First, how one interprets the phrase "God's behind it" is a crucial matter here. Most people take this one of two ways (and we could reasonably assume that Chris Mathew's only had one of these interpretations in mind when he uttered the question): (1) God "got the ball rolling" early on in the history of our universe then let it run according to natural processes (like evolution by natural selection) without divine intervention; or (2) that God DOES intervene (and continues to today), having largely directed the progression of events so that they have resulted in outcomes today that are substantially different than what natural processes alone would have produced.
For example, some of our Diest founding fathers held beliefs in line with (1) while many religious fundamentalists tend to believe (2).

Cleraly, there could be a third and fourth interpretation, but I think these two cover the bulk of it, so lets press on.

The difference between either of these two options and intelligent design creationism can now be made more clear: for example, believing (1) means that you go to the doctor for scientifically based medical treatment instead of praying really hard that God will violate the natural progression of your ailment and cure you. By and large, (1) means that any sort of divine intervention in the natural world would be quite rare (or completely absent), with nothing supernatural ever occurring enough to be widely noticed.

On the other hand (2) is part of the foundation of intelligent design, which would make Matthew's question pretty much pointless, so presumably he was thinking of (1) when he asked the question (or again, some other third alternative).

My point? The answer is clear, and Chris botched providing it to his viewers. Science is about understanding the way natural processes shape the world we live in and impact our day-to-day lives. Intelligent design is a pseudo-science established to justify religious beliefs that run contrary to scientific knowledge and is founded on the belief that supernatural forces have shaped our world in a manner inconsistent what what natural processes could have produced on their own.

Why does any of this matter? These two interpretations of his question are hugely different and have big implications for the the claims of intelligent design creationists as well as the public understanding of what science is and is not.

In fact, those implications for intelligent design actually work against creationists, and make religious followers look incompetent - which is clearly not true. If you've ever seen someone get bit by the evidence, it can be a little painful to watch!

So how does glossing over this difference come back to bite creationists? Remember, intelligent design is an attempt to rationalize a preexisting belief that some supernatural creator (always God, or whatever deity the intelligent design proponent happens to worship).

When Tancredo and others start to ignore evidence (e.g. by claiming there aren't many transitional fossils) and make bad arguments in an attempt to rationalize their beliefs, they often set themselves up to be shown for what they are - someone rationalizing their unfounded beliefs and not someone "following the evidence." The moment you see who is really following the evidence (and who isn't) is when they're presented with new evidence, especially if its the very evidence they themselves said undermine their assertions and support the alternatives.

In this moment of truth, the staunch adherents end up in a position where, in order to maintain their beliefs in light of this contradictory evidence, they have to do some major backsliding and hand waving to get out of the hole they've dug themselves into.

In the end, Tancredo sums up his lack of understanding quite well. Despite the clear and much discussed differences between intelligent design creationism and real science, he wraps up with this mind numbingly oblivious remark,
I don't think there's a heck of a lot of argument [disagreement?] here...
Nice to see you're so well informed on the matter, Mr. Congressman.

PS: By the way, I'm of course aware that an alternative to his simply being uninformed about what he's saying is that he could very well be knowingly lying for any number of reasons. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt until I have reason to think otherwise!

GOP's Mike Pence (IN) on Evolution, Science and Politics

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 9:51 AM Bookmark and Share
This one speaks for itself.

I'll try and post links to commentary in the comments below this post.

Random Tidbits on Disease and Evolution

Monday, May 4, 2009 at 10:41 PM Bookmark and Share
Swine flu is being pointed out as an example of why we need to understand evolution. Here's a few different takes on the more general subject of pathogen evolution that I thought might be of interest.

First, if you have a couple hours to kill, here's a lecture and panel discussion on the connection between viruses and cancer from Stanford University continuing education course, "Darwin's Legacy."

At the other end of the spectrum...

The Letters To Our Daughters Project

Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 1:45 PM Bookmark and Share
This morning, I saw a post on Pharyngula (which I have to insist that you read!) about the Letters To Our Daughters Project.

Check it out, give it a read, and most of all - please pass along the link to any female scientists and science students you might know! :)