But can it herd sheep? Spot, the Boston Dynamics robot

February 1, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Here’s the YouTube video of Spot the Robotic D*g, of course a product of Boston Dynamics. It’s programmed to do this stuff, meaning it doesn’t find trash by itself and deposit it in the basket (at least, as far as I know). That’s coming, though. And of course it would be good for police work, disposing of bombs, and so on. Spot can certainly bring you your slippers, too!

The YouTube notes:

Now that Spot has an arm in addition to legs and cameras, it can do mobile manipulation. It finds and picks up objects (trash), tidies up the living room, opens doors, operates switches and valves, tends the garden, and generally has fun. Motion of the hand, arm and body are automatically coordinated to simplify manipulation tasks and expand the arm’s workspace, making its reach essentially unbounded. The behavior shown here was programmed using a new API for mobile manipulation that supports autonomy and user applications, as well as a tablet that lets users do remote operations. For more information, watch our launch event at 11am EST tomorrow.

And that launch will be at this site.

h/t: Bryan

Howling with wolves

January 19, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I’m off to the dentist downtown for my first cleaning since the pandemic began. I will wear a mask except when they’re scraping my teeth, and now one must gargle with a hydrogen peroxide solution. That’s okay by me!  I’ll leave you with a short animal video.

If you think yawning is contagious, look at this mischievous woman starting a group howl. What a racket! But how did she get to be with the wolves?

Readers’ wildlife photos (and videos)

October 14, 2020 • 7:45 am

Stephen Barnard from Idaho is back with some lovely photos—and two videos as lagniappe. His captions and IDs are indented.

The first four are mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in flight. Migratory mallards are pouring in from Canada and parts north. There will soon be thousands. Duck hunting season, popular here, starts October 19. You’ll be happy to know I don’t hunt ducks or allow it on my property. [JAC: Yes, I am delighted at this!]

Next is a photo of Hitch (Canis familiaris), two more mallards, two Canada geese (Branta canadensis), and a moose (Alces alces). It’s not much as a photo, but funny.

This bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sometimes perches in this tall blue spruce (Picea pungens) in my back yard, scanning the creek for fish. This is probably Lucy.

A rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) consuming a callibaetis (Callibaetis) mayfly.

Two short videos:

Rainbow trout spawn in the spring, and brown trout (Salmo trutta) spawn in the fall, which is convenient when they coexist because they use the same spawning beds, called redds. These brown trout are on a particularly nice redd, which is also what anglers call a “prime lie” — a favored spot for fish to feed and rest.  They compete with each other, and drive away the rainbows that threaten to eat their eggs. The bird calling in the background is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris).

Hitch moving cows (Bos taurus).

Toby, the duck-guarding dog

August 24, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Finally—d*gs do something good for waterfowl besides scaring them. Here we have a maremma (technically known as the Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdog) who spends his days guarding ducks). These dogs are best known as sheep guardians,  but they do a terrific job with ducks. Or at least Toby does.

From Gold Shaw Farm, we have these terse YouTube notes for a 15-minute video.

Let me tell you the story of our farm dog, Toby. He is a maremma who guards the ducks on our farm.

h/t: Reese

Readers’ wildlife videos

June 26, 2020 • 7:45 am

Today we have two—count them, two—videos.

I had forgotten about the backlog of wonderful videos by the late Ecuadorian naturalist and photographer Andreas Kay, but he posted quite a few before he died at only 56. I’ll parcel them out over the coming months.  Here are his notes on a remarkable caterpillar that almost certainly deters predators by mimicking a snake. Note that, relative to the body, the “snake head” is upside down so, when presented by a clinging caterpillar, it looks like a right-side-up head.

Snake-mimic caterpillar, Hemeroplanes triptolemus, Sphingidae from the Amazon rainforest near Puyo, Ecuador. When disturbed this larva of a sphinx moth expands and exposes the underside of the first body segments, mimicking a snake head with black eyes and even light reflections. Sometimes it also strikes like a snake to deter predators such as lizards or birds. Photos here.

And Rick Longworth made this video, complete with music, of a den of foxes (mom plus kits). The play behavior of the kits is adorable. Rick’s notes:

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). At the end of May, I noticed a group of about 5 or 6 young foxes across the Snake River at a distance of about one third of a mile from my back deck. The mother had dug a den in an earthen mound at the end of a utility road between two farms. At maximum magnification, the uneven heating of the atmosphere made the image quite unsteady.

Readers’ wildlife photos

June 22, 2020 • 7:45 am

We have a few in the queue, but I’d like more, so send in your good wildlife photos (please make sure they’re in focus, of a reasonable size, like 1mB, and have the species identified along with the Latin binomial). Thanks.

We have several contributors today, the first being Dieter Letsch. As always, contributors’ words are indented:

I was at my mother-in-law’s one morning watering her garden, and I saw these tiny bees working on a pot full of black-eyed Susans [Rudbeckia hirta].  They are only about a centimeter long – not typical honey bees for sure, but I have no idea what species these are.  They were very methodically “mowing” the pollen on the cones of each flower, which is actually a composite of many florets, like a sunflower.  Their legs and sides were covered with pollen which I thought was very picturesque.

From Jamie Blilie, our youngest contributor. I lost the email and don’t know the species, but will inquire. In the meantime, you can guess them:

From Rachel Sperling:

Here are a few snakes I’ve encountered in the woods of Connecticut this spring. We’ve got a garter snake  [Thamnophis sirtalis], a couple of northern water snakes [Nerodia sipedon] getting their kicks, a timber rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus], and what’s probably an eastern racer [Coluber constrictor] (but could be a black rat snake). I’m hiking the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail in bite-size sections and I think snakes are beautiful so these have been exciting encounters (though the water snakes made me feel like a bit of a voyeur). I didn’t realize non-rattlesnakes also vibrate the tips of their tails when you get too close. It’s good they do or I’d probably have stepped on that eastern racer!

Finally, from reader Ken Phelps, we are giving d*g lovers their due with a picture of two leaping specimens of Canis lupus familiaris:

Every dog has its day, and today is that day!

Photos of readers

May 31, 2020 • 3:15 pm

Today’s photo and narrative comes from reader Max Blanke and his trusty hound. Max is engaged in an very interesting quarantine project, and his commentary is indented:

Here is an image of the dog and myself today, working in the shop. One of my current projects is on the table. It is a hand cannon, of a type that would have been used in Western Europe around 1750. The originals would have been used to lob bombs over fortifications (“bombs” in the cartoon sense of iron balls filled with gunpowder with a fuse stuck into it) .

I, however, am building this for a different purpose. I sized the bore so that I can shoot racquet balls for the dog.  Almost any other device for shooting rubber balls would have been much simpler to make, but I have never built a flintlock before, and it was on the list of things I wanted to know how to do.  I have built percussion guns before, but they are easier to design and build.

I sort of had the idea of this project in the back of my mind for several years. But recently I was working on a more important project, and ended up with just the right piece of 4150 tubing, so I just stuck it on the lathe and got started. The stock is walnut.

My current quarantine routine is that every other day, I go over to help an elderly friend with his restoration of a 1940 ford convertible. The rest of the time I either do chores around the house, or go down to the shop and work on frivolous projects like this.

Should we open up America now? A cat and a dog debate the issue.

April 18, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I’m going to follow this quickly with another post, as you might not be able to read it if it’s at the top.

Reader Simon sent me this, and it’s about the funniest thing yet to come out of the shutdown. Below you see a screenshot from an article in The Wall Street Journal.

I hate to say this, but, just for the time being, I’m on the side of the d*g.

Readers’ wildlife photos (and one of mine)

February 13, 2020 • 7:45 am

Today we’re continuing on with David Hughes’s photos from India, the first aliquot which I posted yesterday. Here’s the introduction, and David’s captions are indented:

In December 2018 I went on a wildlife-viewing tour to three tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh, central India, a trip I can thoroughly recommend if it ever takes your fancy. We visited Pench, Kanha and Satpura Tiger Reserves. Kanha is the most famous, and probably offers the best chance of seeing tigers in the wild. I’ll add a caption to each photo.

Bee-eater: The Indian green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) on a power line just outside Satpura Tiger Reserve.

Honey buzzard: I’m not 100% sure of this one, but I think it’s the oriental honey buzzard (Pernis ptiloryhnchus), photographed in Kanha Tiger Reserve.

 Crocodile: Mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), basking on the bank of the Denwa River, which forms one of the boundaries of the Satpura Reserve. The bird in the background is a yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus).

Spider: The signature spider (Argiope anasuja), photographed on its web in the grounds of Kanha Jungle Lodge.

Jackal: the Golden jackal (Canis aureus), in Kanha Tiger Reserve. We came across a pair using the jeep trail to move through the forest, and this one obligingly posed for photos close to the jeep.

Here’s a photo I took yesterday of one of my orchids. This one, the natural species Paphiopedilum sukhakulii, blooms once or twice a year in my lab.  I don’t find it nearly as hard to grow as the notes below suggest. It was identified a while back by reader Lou Jost, and here are some photos of the species that confirm the ID.  And here are a few notes from Wikipedia:

True endemic species are often rare, tending to be confined to specific areas. The P. sukhakulii is one of these rare species with a very restricted distribution at one small location. The P. sukhakulii is a species of orchid endemic to northeastern Thailand. It grows at heights of 240–1000 meters on Mount Phy Luang Mountains in the province of Loei This orchid grows in leafy sand-clay linens, usually along mountain streams under the shade of large forest trees. Flowering occurs during the warm months of the year.

P. sukhakulii is a species of the hill evergreen forest and is very sensitive to the environment. It must be grown near rocky high altitude, particular nutrient availability, and shaded habitats.


Belated Caturday felid trifecta: Kittens frozen to ground rescued with hot coffee; cat chases d*g; dog dad brings up abandoned kittens (and lagniappe)

February 2, 2020 • 9:00 am

Oy! As reader Linda Calhoun reminded me this morning, there was no Caturday Felid yesterday. And indeed, although I have about six such posts prepared in advance, I was rushing out to do my grocery shopping morning, and the feature simply slipped my mind.

But one day late is better than not at all, and so I consider my long record of Caturday Felid postings to be unbroken. Here’s what was going to go up yesterday.

This came from BBC News but has gone viral. Several readers sent it to me as well. It’s the kind of video where you realize that yes, there are good people in this world, and so, for all the people who have emailed me that they’re depressed about the world, have a look at this video. As the old Jewish saying goes, “Whoever saves a life saves the world.” And this oil worker saved three. 

Here’s a longer news report as well as an update on the three rescued kittens. They’re fine, and have found a forever home—together.


As reader Tom said about this video, “Legend has it Shackles is still running to this day.”


And yet another rescue of abandoned kittens, and we have a foster d*g parent. Reader Merilee sent this, and reader Michael, seeing it, added, “Valia is a Greek loony animal lady person & more loons are needed!”  Indeed, the hero here is Valia, not Aragon the d*g, whose only duties seem to be sniffing the kittens and covering them with saliva. 


Lagniappe: This picture of what cats really are is, as reader Jon notes, available on a t-shirt from Sheharzad whose Instagram account says, “Illustrator of dark humor cartoons … or is it just regular cartoons? You decide!”

$21 will get you this:


h/t: Woody, Jeremy