You can’t see me

 

Gray Treefrog, Jamestown, VA (3)

We were outside when I saw a blob on the table. We were feeding our infant son so I thought it was some food that he had launched in his excitement to show us how his arms work. We are first time parents so we are amazed every time his arms work. When I walked to the side of the table I saw that blob had eyes and was not baby food but a small gray treefrog*. All that move on the small amphibian dollop was it’s rapidly beating throat as it breathed. As though it chanted to pulse-pounding club beat the phrase,  “You can’t seem me, you can’t see me, you can’t see me, you can’t see me.”

Gray Treefrog, Jamestown, VA (1)

But I could see it. And I wanted a better picture. So I picked it up. My punishment? The treefrog peed on me. Meh. I’m a dad. I’ve had worse. 

Gray Treefrog, Jamestown, VA (5)

*I think it’s a Gray Treefrog, which looks just like Cope’s Gray Treefrog. My Frogs of Virginia map tells me that it should be Cope’s. The best way to tell is through the frog’s call. The frog, after relieving itself on me, was in no mood to sing.

P.S. The pictures above are of the same frog. It’s almost like a river, you can never see the same frog twice. 

 

Don’t judge an egg by its color

“The color of the [egg’s] shell is an indication of the breed of the hen and has no connection with the quality of the egg or its flavor.”

                                                                                                –From Joy of Cooking

Yard eggs (2)

Even though I know better and no matter what my go-to cookbook says, I still prefer brown eggs over white eggs. I will even sometimes pay a higher price for their well-tanned shells. This is illogical. And possibly heresy since I’m a scientist that makes his living on logic. But I am a scientist who is also human; sometimes my emotional brain vetoes my logical one. I am paying extra for an experience, not nutrition.

I grew up with chickens in the yard. Rhode Island Reds surveyed the grasses for bugs and spiders along with the Plymouth Rocks and an entire assortment of other Gallus domesticus. And most of these chickens laid brown eggs. Country eggs. Eggs of the land, not of the factory. My emotional brain is a romantic one and equates brown eggs with ‘natural.’ My emotional brain can be both a fool and easily fooled.

The shell is a protective canvas stretched over the egg, and its color is determined by the peculiarities of its painter, in this case, the breed of the hen. Some chicken breeds – like the Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks of my childhood – lay brown eggs. One of my students sells me eggs from her Ameraucana chickens, which lay an egg with a slight peak-a-boo of blue. But these yard birds are not overly industrious or even reliable egg layers; seeming to lay only if 13 leaves fall in the yard and not 17, or not laying out of spite because you were short on corn one day last week. If you’re an industry and a grocery store that relies on steady and predictable egg production then you need a less fickle and moody chicken.

Yard eggs
Locally produced yard eggs. If you look close, you can see a hint of blue on the pale eggs. The date is when they were laid. Eggs will last about one month in the fridge.

According to the American Egg Board, the most common commercial egg-laying hen is the Single-Comb White Leghorn. Leghorns have been the foundation of commercial egg production for over a century in the U.S. One industrious and determined Leghorn hen can lay 250 eggs. E.B. White suggested this expert layer is so dedicated that “…if she were on her way to a fire, [she] would pause long enough to lay an egg.” And Leghorns, champion of the commercial egg industry, lay white eggs, not brown eggs.

Arty eggs (4)

But brown eggs are romantic. They evoke pastoral scenes of cows skipping and chickens dancing with ducks on farms. White eggs come from dirty and possibly unethical factory farms. Those are city-folk eggs, not country-folk eggs. But I are city-folk now, in a way. I don’t have chickens so my eggs are mostly store-bought. Even though my brown eggs are probably factory farm eggs, I still want that connection to holding a chicken like I did as a kid or watching a hen with her feathered thighs chase June bugs on a summer evening. Brown eggs make me nostalgic for the country and I’m willing to pay for it.

Marketers know this, which is why labels like organic, all-natural, and etc. are plastered on products. Those labels come at a cost. I think when I sell my car I’ll say that’s its free-range and all-natural and increase the price by 40%.

While the color of the eggshell has no bearing on its nutrition, what the chicken eats does. Country or farm eggs – to me – often have a richer, more orange yolk. I assume that’s because their diet includes not just feed, but insects and seeds and whatever household scraps might get thrown into the yard. Which is why I am surprised to see on the more expensive, and supposedly better eggs, a label that says the eggs were laid by chickens fed a “Vegetarian Diet”. Chickens are not vegetarians. If they were, this would be exciting news to the world of grasshoppers and beetles and spiders. I can imagine a fly one day on the kitchen window reading the “Vegetarian Diet” label and misinterpreting that to mean that all chickens are now vegetarians. The fly, as busy a busybody as you’ll ever find, reports the news to hidden arthropod citizens of the backyard. Soon, backyards and frontyards and especially the barnyards erupt in ticker-tape parades. Arthropod newspapers splash headlines, “War Over: Chickens Vegetarians!”

And then as the celebrations slow and the grasshoppers and the beetles and the spiders mend whatever feuds they had before, they hear the padding of chicken feet. Their instincts make them tense, but they remember recent news. They don’t flee, they don’t hide. But they are still nervous as old terrors still haunt. A grasshopper says, “Joe, don’t worry. She’s a vegetarian. She only eats feed and seeds…Joe?” Before the grasshopper knows what happened to Joe he is in the throat of a supposed vegetarian. In the panic of his mind and as he wedges his powerful legs against the muscles of the chicken’s throat so he’s not crushed or drawn down to the crushing gravel pit of the chicken’s crop, the grasshopper feels betrayed by the fly and the egg carton. And then he realizes that, no matter what anyone says – be it fly or egg carton – chickens are birds and birds are predators. Even the soft, downy chicken will seize the juicy caterpillar in its beak and slam the caterpillar’s soft body into the ground until it resists no more and can be swallowed easily.

And this is part of the egg’s plan – to get the chicken to eat the grains and seeds and bugs and snails and worms and turn them into more eggs. To the egg, the debate of “which came first?” is nonsense. An egg cannot make more of itself so it created the chicken, a self-contained egg factory. One egg makes one chicken, but one chicken makes many eggs. If an egg could make another of itself, chickens would have never existed. In terms of evolution, the chicken is a vehicle driven by the egg. And now the egg has convinced us to take part in its evolutionary plan. It could not be more delighted that we chose to breed a chicken who dedicates its entire life to laying eggs.

I don’t mind being drafted into the egg’s army; I just wish our uniforms were brown instead of white.

A walk in the woods

Jamestown, VA

I strapped my son, Calvin, to my chest, laced up my boots, and went for a walk in the woods on a soggy, but warm afternoon last week. The woods were saturated with the earthy smells of damp leaves, mushrooms, and rotting wood. The rain had swollen a normally jump-able stream. If I didn’t have Calvin strapped to my chest, I could have gotten a running start and jumped the muddy stream. But since Calvin was loosely tick-tocking loosely like a metronome in the harness, I didn’t trust that he wouldn’t go somersaulting and land probably-not-right-side-up in the forest. If you catapult your son in the woods and his mother’s not around to hear him cry, will you still be saying your sorry for the rest of your life?

I searched for a crossing. I found a scrawny but scrappy fallen limb that offered to be my bridge. It was springy and my son tested my balance with his tick-tocking. I made it to the middle when the branch snapped. I stood in the middle of the stream as water poured into my boots and crept up my jeans (thanks capillary action!). I should have done this in the first place. As a kid I would have not even bothered with a bridge. I would have jumped into that water first thing. After I left the stream I walked right through the middle of any and all streams and ponds I wanted to explore.

With spring, the forest has begun to reveal its secrets. But some secrets need to stay hidden just a while longer. Can you find the caterpillar below?
Jamestown, VA, woods (2)

 

Did you find him?

 

Peek-a-boo!
Jamestown, VA, woods (1)

Calvin wanted to touch and try to eat everything. He’s very tactile. He reached out when he saw a tree that needed a slight caress or a wild whack from his little hands. He really liked this tree with its twisted neck and snowflake-patched bark. I did too. Anyone know this tree?

 

After our caterpillar hunting, tree touching, and dead-tree balance beam, we ended our adventure among mossy islands that dotted the forest floor.

Jamestown, VA, woods (10)

Happy spring everyone!

Belated David Life Update

P1100429
Cypress trees along the James River near Jamestown. The home of the first settlers seems like a nice enough place to start a journey

In 2013, I was a relatively unemployed scientist living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a friend I’ve known since kindergarten (Thanks Duley!!). Almost 100 applications and over a dozen interviews had failed to land me in a long-term position in academia. I was hurt. Science hurt me. I was mad at science. I had worked so hard and so long; yet the science I loved so much continued to reject me. Science was the girlfriend who took me for granted and one that I needed to break up with.

 

I needed a change.

 

I lingered long in front of Positions Available signs at Office Depot. I thought about people who quit their jobs and ski across the top of Canada. Or sail the world alone. Or hike the spines of mountain ranges that stretch from one state to another even though there are perfectly good interstates. I couldn’t think of an adventure other than to sit on the back porch with Duley eating his tacos and drinking his elderflower liquor (Thanks Duley!).

I did make one change. With the help of friends and colleagues and Duley’s tacos I pulled myself out of the pit of pity and anger and resentment (though I got sucked right back in more than once afterwards). I made a decision. I would make science love me back one way or another.

How was I to demonstrate my love and dedication? This blog of course. A new attitude. A new leaf.

After four months in Arkansas I returned to where my marine science career began 11 years prior, the Great Marsh in Massachusetts. For the next year I lived in a research field station blogging about the marsh and writing more applications. Massachusetts is where many of you joined me on my journey. Writing about the marsh reminded me of why I am scientist. The joy of discovery. The joy of sharing. The joy of muddy feet and salty smells.

Fast-forward.

2015. Monumental changes. I started as an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which is a part of the College of William and Mary. I got married. We had a son (July 4!). We moved to Virginia. Whew! A long way from 2013.

Many of my posts will now focus on Virginia marshes and wildlife (including my son and wife). Fret not if you wonder about the Great Marsh. I still have a research program in Massachusetts and will have new posts from time to time on the Great Marsh. I am also writing a book about my now 14 years on the Great Marsh so I’ll be shilling for it soon!

Thank you all for following me through this journey so far. I hope you’ll stick around for the next adventures. And maybe even for the next round of tacos.

~David

The vanity of fish and snails like underwater ants

A wonderful video taken in a salt marsh ditch in Newbury, Mass. The fish is who wants to make sure the camera gets his good side is the mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus. For scale, the snails are the size of a BB from a BB gun. In all my time in the salt marsh, I’ve never seen so many! I guess I’ve got to stick my head underwater more often. Thanks to DeRosa Environmental for bringing the video to my attention.

 

The elusive Massachusetts penguin

 

Newburyport, Massachusetts

In today’s episode of Idiot Science: Penguins!
Starring: Dr. David Samuel Johnson, Ph.D. (psssttt, that’s me).

I was driving on Water Street in Newburyport when I saw something strange floating in the Merrimack River.

Are those penguins?

They were! My heart quickened. I happened to have my camera sitting in the passenger seat. I pulled over quickly, but not too close. I didn’t want to spook them. I nervously grabbed my camera hoping to get a picture before they jumped into the water.

CLICK!

P1090915
The rare and elusive Massachusetts penguin.

Success! I snapped a few more pictures of the penguins – three of them on a piece of ice. I was so lucky!

A thought crept up like a cat on a mouse, “Wait a minute, it’s only 40 F. Not nearly cold enough for ice on the river.” I realized that the penguins were sitting on a piece of Styrofoam. I thought about what a great blog post it would be to write about how these penguins – these penguins of Massachusetts – had to use trash to float on. Oh, what a clever post this would be.

I snapped a few more pictures.

Then another.

One more.

Those penguins aren’t moving. Are those…yup, those are fake.

Standing in a wind that slapped my cheeks red, I mentally slapped my forehead.

Of course they’re fakes. There are no Massachusetts penguins, or for that matter North American penguins. Penguins don’t have an address north of South America!

penguin_range
Penguins live here.
massachusetts_simple
Nowhere near here.

Someone had three plastic penguins loitering on a piece of Styrofoam. Sure, some people will be fooled. But I should know better. I’m a marine biologist. With letters and everything! And I know where penguins are found. I have railed against Coca-Cola in classrooms for their biogeographic inaccuracies for showing a polar bear and a penguin sharing a Coke. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and polar bears in the northern! They would never meet. That a polar bear and penguin would share a Coke is biogeographically ridiculous.

 

coca-colas-super-bowl-social-media-touchdown-polar-bears-will-react-to-game-and-ads-live
Ridiculous. Biogeographically even! Harrumpf!  

That my first reaction was, “oh, it’s too warm for an ice” instead of, “uh, there’s no penguins in North America” is embarrassing. But I got fooled. And like a wildlife paparazzo, went for the cover photo before thinking about what I was doing.

Well done, Newburyport. Well done.