Category Archives: The love of writing

Where I love to write.

The Joker in the Salt Marsh

The Great Marsh, Massachusetts
For C & J.

On a recent sampling trip in the Great Marsh I brought along a new assistant, The Joker. He was done shooting his latest film and needed a break from his general villainy.

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The Joker investigates the mud between the stems.
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Like some new interns, The Joker was easily distracted. Here he mounts a steed, a horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) molt, and wields a mighty blade of grass.
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Come on, Joker! Quit horseshoe-crabbing around and let’s get to work.
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The Joker couldn’t avoid villainy entirely as he tried to recruit a horde of coffee-bean snails (Melampus bidentatus) to join his evil gang of gastropods.
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He got one recruit. And it totally went to his head. 
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As one of the more fashionable villains, he fell in love with a blushing pickleweed (Salicornia europa) that matched his hair and jacket. 
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The Joker came across a ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa)… 
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and decided he needed more mussel for his next bank heist. 

 

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The Joker learned the different marsh grasses. Here he’s showing a flowering shoot of marsh hay (Spartina patens) that it’s not the only grass in the marsh. 
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After he learned his grasses, we finally got to work. Here The Joker is estimating the percent cover of grass in the marsh. Looks like about 100%, don’t you think, Joker?
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After a while, I was able to trust him to record data. He was a little slow and a lot messy, but that’s field work sometimes.
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As we left the marsh through the woods, The Joker asked for a snack. I said no. 
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But we did have a well-deserved swim in the river.

Crawl space menagerie

I found some squatters in my crawl space today. Freeloading vagrants who were living in my house without me knowing. How could they have moved in without me knowing? Usually squatters squat in a house that’s empty but these spineless vandals have no respect for property or privacy.

It’s a good thing most of them were dead.

Snails, centipedes, millipedes, and rolly pollies had moved in to my crawl space when there was a small pool of water. What must have seemed like a lake to them has now dried up leaving their equally water-free bodies to litter the desert of my crawl space. Only one large snail seemed to survive.

The most surprising find was the large claw of a male fiddler crab. I don’t know if I should be excited or nervous that the crabs are trying to move in. Have my experiments with the crabs gone too far? What do the crabs want? They’ve conquered the ocean now the crabs are trying to take over my house? Sure, I’m a scientist, but I was never trained for this. The crabs are a crafty bunch.

The lone surviving snail. It sits upon a Minion hat worn by my three-year-old son (yet another freeloader living in my house).
A camel cricket who stored no water in his hump.
A millipede or a fuzzy cheese doodle.
A centipede or a hair clog.
A gang of rolly pollies and their snail enforcer.
The disembodied claw of a fiddler crab. The body was never found; yet another mystery.

Who’s in that there hole?

Outer Banks, North Carolina

In this week’s episode of “Who’s in That There Hole?” we travel to a beach on Outer Banks of North Carolina….

While walking on the beach and not paying attention to my three-year-old to make sure he didn’t swim off to Spain, I spotted a quarter-sized hole. The beach had several quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes in the sand, but no obvious occupants. I started digging in the sand, using my hand as a steam shovel. Each scoop of the cool sand got me closer to the treasure I was hunting for. When I was elbow deep in the sand, I found the treasure. Then it pinched me and skimmed across the sand like shuffleboard puck. I chased it into the water and slapped my hand down on it. It was a ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata.

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Outer Banks, NC (3)
I am the ghost crab. You can’t see me. 

The name Ocypode means ‘fast-footed’ (Ocy=fast, pod=foot, as in podiatrist). And they are fast as a lizard on a hot skillet. These cryptic crabs are found from at least Rhode Island to Brazil and are most active at night. Once, while camping in Perdido Key, Florida, a friend felt something thumping him from underneath his sleeping bag. He lifted up his bag and a large ghost crab angrily shook his claw and ran off into the night.  The ghostly carapaces of these crabs perfectly camouflaged them against the sand so that when they run it looks like a patch of the beach grew legs and ran away.

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Outer Banks, NC (2)

Ghost crabs live in single burrows above the high-tide line that are 1.5-3 foot deep (so elbow to shoulder deep for me). They are semi-terrestrial, meaning they live on relatively dry land but need to run to the water to wet their gills occasionally. A ghost crab will drown if constantly underwater. So if you find yourself on a beach between Rhode Island and Brazil and see quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes above the high-tide line, it might just be a fast-footed ghost crab.*

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Perdido Key, FL (1)

*There are other animals that burrow on the beach including rats and fiddler crabs (e.g., Uca pugilator, the sand fiddler). Fiddler crab burrows often occur in colonies with many quarter-sized holes clustered together, not in single burrows far apart from each other like ghost crabs. And fiddlers, unlike the shy ghost crabs, are showboats, the males constantly waving their oversized claws.

Quest of the Tick

I sit at the end of a blade of grass under a blistering 98-degree sun. I wait. The humidity is thick. I wait. The breeze is dead. I wait.

I wait for you.

I wait all day, still as a stone. When I feel your breath, your heat or your footsteps, I throw open my front legs like a spring-loaded trap the snaps open instead of closed when triggered. I wave my legs around eager to grab you. The hooks at the ends of my legs make sure to snag your hair, your clothes, your skin.

I am the tick, and I have waited for you all day.

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What our eight-legged friend* describes above is the questing behavior of ticks. They sit at the edge of leaves or grass patiently waiting for you or your dog or a deer or a raccoon to walk by. I admire their patience and their clever behavior.

I took the photos below in my backyard after looking for black dots at the ends of grass blades and seed heads. The tick is the Lonestar tick, Amblyomma americanum. Once you know what to look for, it’s amazing, and terrifying, how many ticks you can find riding on the tips of grass blades. Even scarier is the number of ticks you can’t see.

 

*Ticks are arachnids, like spiders and scorpions and mites. They are not insects.

Need a date? Just wave.

Here is a great video put together by the New York Times explaining how female fiddler crabs not only prefer males with larger claws, but also with claws that wave faster. This is based on work by Australian researchers who used robot claws to wave faster or slower. Waving is part of fiddler-crab courtship. So remember, the next time you’re in a bar or the grocery store and you see someone you’d like to court, wave your little claw off!

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. 

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.