Readers’ wildlife photos

January 1, 2022 • 8:30 am

This is the second part of a two-part batch of photos by Matt Young (part 1 is here). His IDs and captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

I was in the Galápagos Islands during the end of December 2005, and the beginning of January 2006, bearing my trusty Canon PowerShot S30, with 3 megapixels and a 3X zoom. I took one or two pictures through an 8X monocular, but other than that I was on my own.

Mammals. The only mammals I saw, other than bipedal, were Galápagos sea lions, Zalophus wollebaeki.

A little snack:

And a nap:

Some geological features. Landscapes.

Lava tunnel. You could have easily crawled inside.

Lava flow.


Stubborn little plant.

Invertebrates. Sally Lightfoot crabs, Grapsus grapsus.

Painted locust, Schistocerca melanocera.

Tourist. Not exactly an invertebrate, but looking kind of spineless at the end of a hot day.

And for good measure, Machu Picchu.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 10, 2021 • 8:00 am

Do send in your wildlife photos, as I always can use more. Thanks!

Today geologist Robert Seidel has sent us photos of plants and their substrates. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

For your consideration, I’d like to submit some photos of plants growing on geologically interesting stuff. We geologists don’t usually care much for plants since the pesky things tend to cover our outcrops, but they make for nice juxtaposition in pictures like this. I’m not a biologist and so I’m not able to identify all the species; maybe your other readers can help.

Sicilian milkvetch (Astragalus siculus), a plant endemic to the island, on young lava from Mt. Etna. It’s not really visible in the picture, but clumps like this were also crawling with grasshoppers, I assume because the thorns protect them from birds and other predators.

Ferns – I’m not quite sure about the IDs, but I think these are three different species of fern, Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) and Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis) on glacial deposits of the Snowball Earth period, Islay, Scotland. This is the famous Port Askaig tillite, one of the best outcrops from this period around 720 Ma ago, when much of the Earth was frozen.

Thyme – Wild thyme (probably; Thymus serpyllum) on conglomerate from the time of the Messinian salinity crisis, Southern Spain. This was a period ~ 5 to 6 million years ago when the Mediterranean dried up and became a giant salt pan.

Unknown 1 – Unidentified species on gypsum evaporite, also from the Messianian.

Unknown 2 and 3 – Two unidentified species growing on peridotite (an exposed section of the Earth’s mantle) of the Semail ophiolite, Oman.

Lagniappe – quite a few years ago, you posted a recipe for sour cherry pie by your friends Andrzej and Malgorzata. Sour cherries are a bit hard to come by in the UK, but I found that damsons make a good substitute. So many thanks for sharing this recipe, it was delicious!

JAC: If you want Malgorzata’s cherry pie recipe, I can ask her again.


Readers’ wildlife photos.

November 24, 2021 • 8:00 am

You know what to do: send ’em in! Thank you.

Today we feature photos of Mount Etna in Sicily taken by Richard Bond. His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

My photos near the top of Mount Etna might be of interest, though not all of nature is colorful or beautiful or both.

Anyway, from a service complex at 1,900 metres one can take a cable car to 2,500 metres. Previous iterations went higher, but were repeatedly damaged by lava flows, so now a fleet of rather specialised buses goes to nearly 3,000 metres.

The first photo shows one of these: its large wheels, long suspension travel, high ground clearance, and 4WD testify to the difficulty of the terrain. There are no fixed tracks, as new lava keeps changing the upper route.

This shows a fairly recent flow in the foreground with the top of the mountain above it. That bit of white halfway up to the left is steam issuing from a vent. The peaks are a little hazy owing, I think, to dust emitted along with the steam.

This is a close-up of the lava. The whitish inclusions are limestone, carried up from around sea level.

A general view of a crater at about 3,000 metres. It seems to be a complex of one main crater about 300 metres across containing some subsidiary ones. I walked anticlockwise right round this crater, and the next photo looks back to its lowest lip.

The next three photos are of various vents in the sides of the crater, and the fourth one is a mini crater inside the main one.

Mini crater:

This was taken near the highest point of the crater rim. The serpentine track of the bus gives some idea of the steepness and difficulty of the route.

This shows the then highest peak of Etna, 300-400 metres higher, taken as I was walking down from the crater rim. I did not have enough time to walk to the peak. There is a rather neat small crater in the middle ground. Pity about the dusty haze.

Here is one of the numerous boulders scattered around and in the crater, showing embedded limestone. This one was a bit bigger than a rugby ball.

About 30 kilometres from the peak is the delightful town of Taormina. Its main feature is a Greek theatre, which seems to have been deliberately set to have Etna as a backdrop. My photo of it below is most disappointing: I had to use a wide-angle lens setting to include all of the theatre. That not only shrunk Etna but also seemed to exacerbate the obscuring effect of the dust. I include it mainly because I wonder if any of the accomplished photographers among WEIT readers could suggest how I could have done better.

This was taken the following day at Syracuse and shows part of the quarry in which the Athenian troops who surrendered in 413 BCE were worked and starved to death. The rock is limestone, presumably part of the bed that lies under Etna and which is the source of the limestone inclusions.

Readers’ wildlife photos and video

May 22, 2021 • 8:00 am

We have a Saturday potpourri of videos and photos today, with all contributors’ captions indented. Click on the photos to enlarge.

First, a bunneh from Graham Martin-Royle:

As you’re getting short of photos I thought I’d send this one in. Prey animals quite often freeze when they think they’re in danger in the hope that they don’t get spotted (I know you know this, I’m just trying to explain this photo). This rabbit saw my friend and I approaching in this dry gulley in southern Utah, back in 2018 and froze, allowing us to get up pretty close.

Can you spot the rabbit?

Visiting foxes from Randy Schenck:

First, an adult in April:

Jerry,  Foxes in the front yard about 7 am. today.  There were three all together, two adults and one about half grown.  Wish I could have gotten a picture of all three but no luck.  Not a good window looking out front for photos.

This is urban Wichita, Kansas.

So all three foxes were back today, May 1, 2021.  Arrived about 7 am and stayed maybe ½ hour.  This is probably because we put out some food (five big dog biscuits) for the foxes.  The first two photos are of the pup or smaller fox.  The second photo also shows he is carrying one of the dog biscuits.  Having the food out there really did the trick and we will probably try again tomorrow.

A balancing rock from Bryan Lepore:

I am sharing a photo of Balance Rock in Pittsfield State Forest, MA (easy to read about on the Internet). I am sharing this because the rock is amazing, and also because photos I found on the internet are rather weak :

And from Bryan Tarr: a mother and ducklings in Poland. This warms my heart; I wish only that my own ducklings were so well behaved. I count ten.

I had the good fortune to see a mother with her ducklings recently, this time in Radzyń Podlaski near a small stream. I managed to grab my phone just in time to catch the second half of their hurried journey past me.

How tall is Mount Everest?

October 1, 2020 • 1:30 pm

If you asked me the height of Mount Everest, I could tell you without missing a beat: 29,029 feet (I don’t know it by heart in meters, but it’s 8,848 m).  That’s been the accepted height since the 1954 Survey Of India, which established the height using a number of observation stations and triangulation (trigonometry). Since then, there have been a few other measurements, all yielding heights close to the 1954 data: a 1999 National Geographic measurement gave 29,035 feet (seven feet higher), while a 2005 Chinese survey yielded 29,017 (that was the rock height, neglecting the roughly ten feet of ice and snow covering the summit).

There’s no doubt that Everest’s summit is the highest spot on earth measured from sea level (Chimborazo in Ecuador, however, is the highest mountain measured from the Earth’s center), but people want an exact figure. This article in the new National Geographic (click on screenshot) shows the difficulty of actually getting that figure.

First of all, the height of Everest keeps changing, both rapidly and slowly. Slowly because it’s still rising as the Indian tectonic plate collides with the Asian one—the event that created the Himalayas to begin with. That rise is about 0.5 centimeters per year. The more rapid changes are due to earthquakes: one in 1934 is supposed to have lowered the mountain by two feet. Then there’s the decision about whether to count the ice and snow blanketing the peak in its total height, for that blanket can be up to ten feet thick. (Triangulation of course includes that.)

Finally, there’s the tough decision about the baseline, taken as “sea level.” The problem is that calculating “sea level” is hard because it varies from place to place and time to time due to irregularities in the Earth’s shape, and so what they’d like is “what the sea level would be under Mount Everest if there were sea under Mount Everest”.  That involves making two models, as depicted in the figure below from the article, and it’s apparently the sum of the geoid height and the ellipsoid height is the mountain’s height. (It’s a bit complicated, and I can’t say I understand it fully, because sometimes the geoid height looks to be negative.)

The first of two recent sets of measurements were taken by a Nepalese survey team that climbed Everest in 2019, summiting in the middle of the night to avoid the rush of climbers.  Laser trigonometry as well as GPS technology established the summit height. They also used a method to determine the thickness of ice and snow on the summit. That “official” height is now known but hasn’t been revealed, for the Chinese get a say as well: the border between China and Nepal runs right through the summit, and so this spring, when all expeditions were canceled because of the pandemic, the Chinese used a combination of climbers and a surveying plane to get their own height (see below).

And politics are involved as well:

“There’s a lot of history here,” says Ed Douglas, a respected Everest historian who recently published a history of the Himalaya. Douglas notes that, like Nepal, China has long used Everest as a symbol of national identity. In 1960, Mao Zedong ordered a large state-run expedition of Everest. That team made the first successful ascent from the Tibet side of the mountain. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China imposed restrictions on climbers on the Tibet side of the mountain so that an official expedition could carry the Olympic torch to the top without incident.

Nepal, one of the poorest nations in Asia, has numerous reasons to keep its wealthy and powerful neighbor happy. During the last fiscal year, some 90 percent of foreign direct investment in the nation came from China, and during his state visit, Xi pledged $500 million in financial aid. This comes in addition to the millions of dollars China has invested in Nepali infrastructure projects, including new airportsrailways, and hydropower plants.

There is precedent for Nepal and China coordinating on the issue of Everest’s height. After the Chinese completed their 2005 survey, Nepal and China announced a joint agreement to recognize both the new Chinese survey of the highest point of rock and the 1954 Survey of India elevation, which included the snowcap.

So we’ll have at least two new heights, and they’re very unlikely to be identical. But it doesn’t really matter, as Everest will remain the highest spot on Earth—calculated from an estimated sea level. That’s why I trekked in to see it twice, and why so many have tried, and many have died, trying to stand on the roof of the Earth. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and an excellent trek, and I’m content to not have climbed it. Seeing it was enough, for, believe me, you may think you’ve seen high mountains, but, like Crocodile Dundee’s knife, this is a mountain! I wish I could embed some of the photos I took on my trips, which are on 35 mm Kodachrome slides.

Here are two photos from recent measurement efforts. Photos and captions are from National Geographic:

In 1999 an American expedition put a GPS receiver on the summit of Mount Everest to calculate a new elevation. PHOTOGRAPH BY TRIMBLE

From the recent Chinese expedition:

A member of a Chinese survey team sets up a marker on the summit of Mount Everest on May 27, 2020. With the mountain closed to virtually all other climbers due to COVID-19 during the spring of 2020, China sent an expedition to remeasure the mountain, which is known to Tibetans as Qomolangma. PHOTOGRAPH BY XINHUA, ALAMY

Below is an informative but scary chart from the Encyclopedia Brittanica, showing the peril of trying to climb it. Even I got cerebral edema climbing the small peak next to it, Kala Patthar, which is only 18,519 feet (5,644 m). That, and not base camp, is where you get the view of Everest in all its glory. (You can’t see anything from base camp.)

I made it up and down Kala Patthar on both treks, but the second time I got cerebral edema, wanted to lie down and sleep (my companion stopped me from that, knowing I’d die) and I repeatedly stumbled trying descend. I stopped at the Trekker’s Aid Post nearby for a checkup, and they told me what I had and that it would go away when I descended. (A doctor inhabits a quonset hut during the trekking season.)  I hiked down to 15,000 feet, and then I was fine.

Here, from Wikipedia, is the view of Everest from Kala Patthar. On both days I climbed the small mountain, it was perfectly clear like this, and the view was stupendous. (There was also plume of snow from Everest’s summit, showing high winds.)

h/t: Andrew Berry, a fellow Everestphile

Stunning volcanic eruptions filmed in real time

September 12, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Here we have some pretty amazing shots of the Ecuadorian volcano Reventador erupting between January 5 and 7 of this year, and filmed by Martin Rietze. It’s quite active, and there are two sites reporting the activity (here, and a better one here).  The curious thing is that, as the second site reports, January 2020 wasn’t a particularly active time—even though there were daily explosions! From the second site:

Volcanism in January 2020 was relatively low compared to the other months of this reporting period. Explosions continued on a nearly daily basis early in the month, ranging from 20 to 51. During 5-7 January incandescent material ejected from the summit vent moved as block avalanches downslope and multiple gas-and-steam and ash plumes were produced (figures 120, 121, and 122). After 9 January the number of explosions decreased to 0-16 per day. Ash plumes rose between 4.6 and 5.8 km altitude, according to the Washington VAAC.

Here’s the location:


. . . and the YouTube notes, showing it in real time, but during several periods. The noise is amazing, as are the lava flows. At 45 seconds in, you can see the shock wave spreading through the atmosphere before the big blow.

Reventador volcano, Ecuador. Activity documented between 5.-7.Jan.2020. Filming in real time (including nighttime with near full moon). Rare highres material showing vulcanian and strombolian with volcanic lightning and shockwave. Now with real sound! Filmed from observation point in 4,5km distance east of the main summit cone.

If you film it, it’s about 11 seconds from the visible explosion to the sound, or a bit less than 4 km of distance, comporting with the description, though the sound probably started before the large eruption.

Reader’s wildlife photos

March 28, 2020 • 8:00 am

Today’s photos are a bit different in that they’re not of wildlife but of rocks. These lovely pictures come from Tony Eales of Queensland, who usually sends us insect photos. His notes are indented:

I thought I’d send something a little different.

Over the years as an archaeologist/anthropologist I’ve had the privilege to see some Aboriginal rock art in remote places around the state of Queensland. Here’s a few from places near the towns of Barcaldine, Mt Isa and Winton.

I can’t add too much about them regarding interpretation. It’s not really my place and interpreting art is hard at the best of times, let alone when the artists’society didn’t have writing. These are fairly representative of the kind of art one finds in western outback Queensland. Hand prints are ubiquitous and “emu tracks” are nearly as widespread, nets and boomerangs are also very common. You can also find anthropomorphic figures and many symbols of esoteric meaning. Age-wise, some individual engravings in the large palimpsests may be quite old, thousands or even tens of thousands of years. The paintings, on the other hand, are probably less than two hundred years old given how fragile the rock on which they are painted is. You can also notice that many of these sites are heavily graffitied. This practice of defacing the art goes back to the 1800s in some places.

The first six photos are labeled “Barcaldine”, and the rest “Mt. Isa”.











My short intro to the genetics of speciation

July 11, 2018 • 2:45 pm

UPDATE: If you want a pdf of my article, which seems to be behind a paywall, just inquire judiciously.



The journal Molecular Ecology is producing a special issue on “Sex chromosomes and speciation”, which will contain about 17 papers. Some of these have already been published online, and though there’s not yet a central link, some of the papers are here.

Since my lab more or less kickstarted the area by reviving interest in Haldane’s Rule and its probable cause by sex-chromosome evolution (see the paper for an explanation), I was asked to write a personal and historical introduction to the field to open the issue. My short paper can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below, which will lead you to a pdf of the manuscript—very close to the version that will be published.

I tried to write this paper so it would be accessible to not only general biologists, but also laypeople who are scientifically interested and a bit informed about evolution. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but, like Maru, I do my best.

This may be the next-to-last scientific paper I’ll ever publish, although it’s a short review rather than a data paper. However, a few colleagues and I are writing what may be the last real paper I’ll publish, chock full of data and, if I do say so myself, a nice piece of work. I think it’s a good way to go out. It’s been in the works for about a decade, since it took a long time to do all the morphological analyses and DNA sequencing, but I’ll say more about that later.

When the Big One hits the U.S.

July 20, 2015 • 11:00 am

Professor Ceiling Cat has an article that he highly recommends you read. It’s in the latest New Yorker, and is called “The really big one” by Kathryn Schulz (subtitle: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”). It’s a superbly researched and written account (also free to access) of what’s going to happen when the Big Earthquake hits not California, but the Pacific Northwest.  The scenario is not pretty, with at least 30,000 deaths and massive destruction of the infrastructure. Here’s a short excerpt:

When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says

In fact, the science is robust, and one of the chief scientists behind it is Chris Goldfinger. Thanks to work done by him and his colleagues, we now know that the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake [magnitude 8.0-8.6] happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three. The odds of the very big one [magnitude 8.7-9.2]  are roughly one in ten.

. . . Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.

Don’t miss this article. If you live west of Interstate 5, you may want to move, as the quake is way overdue.

h/t: Diane G.