Winter’s sculpture garden

Seven inches of snow, soft as a cottontail, came to Williamsburg and gently closed all the roads, schools, and businesses. The snow was too dry to turn my yard into a gallery of lopsided snowpeople, so I took the time to enjoy winter’s artwork.

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Wild snails of the flowerbed

Thanksgiving Day,
Williamsburg, Virginia

It’s 3:00 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day and I’m bored and slightly cold. We will eat at 4:30 P.M. I’m not sure what to do with myself so I’m sitting behind the couch using the box for the cat’s scratching pad as a mouse pad and writing a blog while my mother reads and my mother-in-law vacuums.

What to write about? Snails. A good go-to for me.

Two days ago when it was 60 F, I laid on the red-brick patio and watch a snail that I had dislodged from a planter that I moved. It had been hiding under there, probably to overwinter. But I brought it out into the open. It was nice just to watch the snail without any sort of agenda. So often in my science I’m making observations so I can scribble them down, analyze them, write a grant, get rejected by the grant, write another grant and finally give up and move on to another subject. Just like a football coach who points out the errors in the defensive line of a team he doesn’t coach, I can’t help but analyze Nature instead of just enjoying the game. My head instead asks, What species is it? How old was it? How big? How many are in the yard? What predators does it fear? But I let myself relax. I watched and I enjoyed. I watched the slide of its stomach-foot over the electric green moss that cushions the red bricks. While I didn’t take any data, I did take pictures.

And what will this snail eat for it’s Thanksgiving meal? It’s 43 F here today so it may be too cold for it to eat, but if it does feast, it will be on rotting leaves, mushrooms, and if it finds its way to my compost pile – the carcass of a Halloween pumpkin. Some meals don’t require basting. 

By the way, if you haven’t read the beautiful book The Sound of Wild Snail Eating you should. It’s a wonderfully written book about a bed-ridden woman who befriends a woodland snail.

Happy gobbling. Backyard snail (6)

Backyard snail (5)

Backyard snail (2)

Backyard snail (1)

And the spider saltated down beside her

Williamsburg, Virginia

Instead of keeping an eye on my 2-year-old son* at the playground, I watched a jumping spider walk on and jump between a pair of abandoned sandals. It was as though the spider was testing the springiness of insoles as potential launchpads for catching flies. I tried to take his picture, but the spider was shy and launched himself into the grass.

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Not the jumping spider I saw, but another found in Virginia. Jumping spiders are harmless to humans. They were also voted Most Adorable in their class (it’s their big eyes). Photo copyright Kim Hosen and courtesy of http://www.pwconserve.org/wildlife/insects/spiders/palejumpingspider.html

Jumping spiders are in the family Salticidae (sal-tis-uh-day), which sounds like a rejected day of the week. The name refers to the spider’s leaping skills. The movements of animals that jump are described as saltatorial (animals that dig – like moles – are fossorial). The word ‘saltate’ come from the Latin, saltus, which means to leap or dance. Do you saltate up and down with joy when you find one more M&M in the bag when thought they were all gone? I do, too. The saltatorial grasshopper, frog, kangaroo and jumping spider all jump and dance in the grass, the pond, the Australian outback, and on the playground sandal.

What happened to the woman who was in the sandals? Maybe a spider sat down beside her and she jumped clean out of them. And given that many of us saltate when we see a spider – regardless if it jumps or not – there may be a spider writing a blog somewhere about the ‘jumping human’ and its saltations.

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The spider sandals


*My son is fairly careful and let’s off an alarm that brings judging parents from miles around when he’s anywhere close to danger. He also still requires a hand to hold when he saltates (no M&M’s required).

Marsh beauties

It has been a busy summer for my lab. Here is a taste of the beauty that I get to see when I sample the marsh. Most of the pictures below are from the Great Marsh in Massachusetts unless stated otherwise. What a gorgeous ecosystem sparkling with life.

Sea Lavender, Limonium, Rowley, Massachusetts (5)
Sea lavender looking lovely (Limonium sp.)

Sea Lavender, Limonium, Rowley, Massachusetts (6)

Sea Lavender, Limonium, Rowley

Red mite party, West - May 2017 (3)
A shock of red mites meet on the marsh
Snail and eggs, Cushmans Landing (1)
I think these are fish eggs, not snail eggs (Virginia marsh).

 

Spartina patens - Rowley, Massachusetts
Salt hay (Spartina patens) in the sunset

 

Rowley House Sunrise, Rowley, Massachusetts
Good early morning Rowley River. I’m going back to bed. 
Barnacles on Spartina
Barnacles posing as dirt on the grass (Virginia marsh)

Plant bug on fiddler crab, Rowley, Massachusetts

A plant bug sits atop a muddy fiddler crab (female, Uca pugnax)

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What the electric insides of a fiddler crab looks like (Uca pugnax)

 

 

 

Saltmarsh amphipod (Orchestia grillus) on a Spartina stem. Brown is the normal color morph, compare to the orange, parasitized morphs. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts

Amphipods: the new menacing marine menace?

This week a young man in Australia was attacked by something while he was swimming in the ocean. His legs were bloodied and covered with hundreds of small bites. At the hospital, doctors were baffled about what bloodied the young man’s legs. The dad – who rocks in this story – went back into the water with a bloody steak and collected the small, flea-like animals. They were identified as amphipods, which are small crustaceans. If Sharknado has taught us anything, a movie about flesh-eating amphipods can’t be far now. Let’s see what that movie trailer might look like.

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A young, beautiful mother sits on the beach and watches her charming son, who she can’t believe is growing up so fast, swim in the ocean. Gulls wheel overhead and waves roll gently. The sky blue.

Boy: Mom, watch me swim.
Mom: Okay.

[cue the Jaws-theme music rip-off]

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Boy: You watching?
Mom: Yes, dear.

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Cello: Duh-nuh

 [cue that voiceover guy]

 That Voiceover Guy: Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again.

 Cello: Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, etc.

 The boy screams and grabs his leg. His mother runs into the waves and pulls him out. His legs are bleeding but there’s nothing on them. A handsome and rugged marine biologist who looks just a little bit dangerous but you know you’d feel safe in his arms, runs over.

Mom: What did this!?

 Ruggedly handsome marine biologist: They’re amphipods.

 Mom: Oh my go…wait, what the heck are amphipods?

 Director: CUT!!

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What the heck are amphipods? They are small crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs and lobsters. Typically, they aren’t larger than your thumbnail. If you’ve picked up seaweed on a beach, you’ve probably seen them. They are the small animals flipping and tumbling around like fleas. Those are amphipods. Sometimes called ‘sand fleas.’ Or ‘beach fleas.’ Or ‘beach hoppers.’ Or ‘sea fleas.’ The ‘flea’ name refers to the shape of their body (pressed from the sides) and the fact that they can flip around using their tails.

The media has used the term ‘sea lice’, but that really refers to an isopod, which can be parasitic on fish and look like the rolly-pollies (aka doodle-bugs) you find under logs.

Are amphipods the new marine menace? A pack of ravenous, flesh-eating beasts that roam the oceans looking for prey? Well, no. They do eat flesh, but typically not live flesh. We marine biologists (both the ruggedly handsome and other variety) don’t think of amphipods as predators but as scavengers that eat dead plants and animals. They’re more like tiny vultures swimming through the sea looking for something dead to stick their heads into rather than wild dogs looking to tear apart a baby deer.

I study amphipods in the salt marshes of Massachusetts and Louisiana (you can see pictures of them below). Just like on the beach, if you pick up seaweed in the marsh, hundreds of little crustaceans will flip and spring until they can hide in the grass. Not much of a terror. In terms of diet, these amphipods are more interested in a rotting veggie burger than a hunk of a marine-biologist.   

Then why did they attack the young man’s legs in Australia? We’re not sure. Amphipods can bite humans – sometimes beach runners will have a bite or two – but they have rarely caused such damage. The best guess is that the amphipods were in a feeding frenzy and the young man’s legs happened to get in the way.

While I’ve been playful with this story, as a father, I too would have been worried. As a marine biologist, I am curious. It shows that we still have a lot to learn. The next time I pick up an amphipod I will check to see if it’s wearing a handkerchief and holding a knife and fork.  

 

 

P.S. Now that we have flesh-eating amphipods in the news, soon I will write about zombie amphipods. Stay tuned. Duh-nuh…

P.P.S. If you enjoyed this article then please post it on Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite social media. And don’t forget to follow me. 

Why did the fiddler cross the road?

Williamsburg, Virginia

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (28) - Copy
I was riding my bike in my neighborhood when I saw a fiddler crab skitter across the blacktop. I stopped immediately to catch it because when it comes to marine life, I’m like a dog who can’t help but chase the rabbit. Plus, I don’t often see marine life skittering across blacktop in the middle of the day in June. I caught it. It was a red-jointed fiddler crab (this post reminds me that I need to write a post about fiddler crabs, but that’s for later).

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A male red-jointed fiddler crab, Uca minax

Fiddler crabs live in burrows in beaches, salt marshes, and mangroves, not roads. But it’s not unusual to see fiddlers on roads that have been built right through the place where they live. In parts of coastal Virginia where the roads cut through the marsh, you can see herds of fiddler crabs roaming the road like cattle. The question is, why do fiddler crabs cross the road? One reason is that the road used to be a marsh where fiddlers grazed. Now they may cross the road for better pastures. Build a road through my house and I’m liable to wander onto it on my way to the kitchen for an avocado. But mind your honking in my house, I have a 2-year-old trying to sleep and an anxious cat who needs therapy. 

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A lady fiddler has eggs underneath her (up to 10’s of thousands) 

To-get-to-the-otherside-for-a-snack is a fine answer for why fiddlers cross the road when the road is in their backyard. But the road I found the crab on today was at least 100 feet uphill from the marsh with a forest in between. I found seven wandering fiddlers total. What drives a fiddler to hike through the woods and then onto the highway? Fiddler crabs eat algae and little bits of dead plant found in the soil. I don’t think blacktop or frontyards or woodlands offer much forage for a fiddler.

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A male fiddler crab challenges a baby pine tree. Males. Yeash. Am I right ladies?

My working hypothesis is that because we’ve had so much rain that it made the water too fresh for these marine crabs. But that hypothesis was shot down when I found a fine fiddler party in the marsh. My best guess is that because the temperatures were low and the road and forest were damp, they were simply brave crabs exploring new lands. There have been a lot of For Sale signs around. Now might be a good time to move.

 

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (16)
Male fiddler crab doing his best, “I’m on Saturn” impression

In truth, I don’t really know why these crabs traveled so far. As I sit here daydreaming in rain, the why of it leaves my mind, like the crabs, to wander.

P.S. If you enjoy these posts, and of course you do, then please sign up for email updates! I don’t post often. Too much time chasing crabs.

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (10)

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (13)
Without thumbs, hitchhiking crab can’t get a ride
Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (15)
Soccer crab has got the sideways moves for goalie, but he just can’t find the net.


Snake bush

Jamestown, Virginia

I went down to the river today and found at least three* serpentine sunbathers draped across the branches of this bush. My best guess is that they were brown watersnakes, Nerodia taxispilota, based on my visit to the Virginia Herpetological Society’s awesome site. Can you find the three reptilian sunsoakers? 

3 water snakes - Jamestowne, VAI’ll update the post later in the week with the answers. 

*I say “at least three” because there could be more that I didn’t find.