Readers’ wildlife photographs

October 10, 2016 • 7:30 am

Jeffrey Lewis sent us some photos from Bonaire, and there will be more. The subjects are diverse! His notes are indented.

Perhaps hese aren’t up to the normal quality of your Reader’s Wildlife photos, but perhaps the subject matter will make them worthwhile since underwater photos seem to be rare in the series.  These were all taken on a family vacation to Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean just off the coast of Venezuela.  It’s a special municipality of the Netherlands – almost but not quite a normal municipality.  It’s a rather small island, only 114 square miles, with a population of around 17,500.  Its main claim to fame is in being one of the premier locations for shore diving, with many reefs close enough to shore that they’re easy enough to swim to without having to use a boat.  In addition to all the open water scuba diving & snorkeling that we did, we also explored the island itself, including a tour in some of the island’s caves, and a kayaking trip through mangroves.

Unidentified species of Chiton in tide pool. Class:  Polyplacophora. I found this little guy out in the tide pools behind the house we were renting.  He was out of the water when I saw him. [JAC: These are very cute molluscs.]

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Possibly a young Sally Lightfoot Crab (Grapsus grapsus) in a tide pool. It looks similar to photos I found online identified as young Sally Lightfoot Crabs, but the coloration’s not quite the same.  I don’t know how much variation there is within the species.

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American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) flying over ocean:

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Snowy egret (Egretta thula):

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Bonaire Whiptail Lizard (Cnemidophorus murinus). It’s called the Bonaire Whiptail Lizard, but it’s found on a few islands in the Netherlands Antilles, including Curaçao.

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Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana):

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Donkey (Equus africanus asinus). Donkeys were brought to the island by the Spanish, and have been roaming wild for a few hundred years.

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Dracula’s Cathedral. There’s actually no wildlife in this photo.  It was just a very interesting room in the cave.

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Cave scorpion: Unidentified species of tailless whip scorpion. Order: Amblypygi. We found this guy in one of the caves of Bonaire.  We also saw a bat and a shrimp in one of the freshwater pools, but my pictures of those didn’t turn out.

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There was a magnificent sight that occurred at night, but which I was unable to capture because my camera wasn’t good enough.  There’s a type of crustacean known as an ostracod.  Many species produce bioluminescent chemicals that they use for predation defense, but some species in the Caribbean use the chemicals for an amazing mating display.  Here’s an interesting article on ostracods, explaining what they are and the mating display in more detail:

That article also contains a video of bioluminescent animals that contains a clip of an ostracod display.  Unfortunately they’re not the species from Bonaire, but from a different spot in the Caribbean where they behave slightly differently and their display looks slightly different; but this still gives a pretty good sense of what it looked like.  The ostracod part starts about 30 seconds in.  Here’s a direct link to the video, which should jump directly to the segment with the ostracods:

Texas blind salamander has optic nerves but no real eyes

September 22, 2016 • 1:30 pm

This is the kind of post I originally intended to go on this site. When I started this website, I thought that every few weeks I’d publish a bit of new (or old) evidence for evolution, supporting Why Evolution Is True, which was a new book in 2009. Well, as you see, things kind of got out of hand. . .

But here is some information and links imparted by reader Charleen about the famous Texas blind salamanderEurycea rathbuni. As you might suspect from its name, it lives in dark underground abysses, caves, and artisian wells, and has retained into adulthood its juvenile gills. It’s also lost pigmentation, as is the case for many cave-dwellers. Finally, it’s endangered, its distribution limited to the Balcones Escarpment near San Marcos, Hays County, Texas You can find this animal only in the green area below; it’s been listed as endangered since 1967. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notes:

The Texas blind salamander has been listed as endangered since 1967. It remains vulnerable, says San Marcos ARC director, Dr. Ken Ostrand. “They are impossible for scientists to sample underground, so we collect them in nets when they pop out in wells and springs, young ones, too small to fight currents,” said Ostrand. The young go into captivity at San Marcos ARC where they are held in refugia as a guard against potential harm that could come in the wild. Ostrand says their habitats, which he describes as a ‘limestone honey-combed sponge,’ are quick to recharge with surface precipitation, which could be accidentally laden with unwanted chemicals or spills. Preserving Texas blind salamanders in captivity is a security measure.

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Here’s what they looks like:

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Behold it in its habitat; the first salamander shows up at 3:44. What weird creatures they are!

The USFWS has just put out an information sheet about the species, first discovered in the 1890s, giving notes about its morphology, behavior, and adding that 135 of these beasts are being kept at the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center.

What’s relevant for our purposes is the salamander’s vestigial eyes, which appear to be small black dots of pigment below the skin, accompanied by a vestigial optic nerve that doesn’t appear to carry any impulses to the brain. As the USFWS notes:

Recent research on the salamander has yielded other useful information. San Marcos ARC scientists collaborated with Texas State University faculty on a study of eye development in the Texas blind salamander and two other salamander species that live in the Guadalupe watershed: the San Marcos salamander and Barton Springs salamander, both of which are sighted animals that live near sunlight.  Both are held in refugium at the ARC as well.

The research revealed that the blind salamanders retained a vestigial optic nerve with no eyes while the other species had well-developed eyes with structures for focus and variable light adaptation. The findings will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and have already yielded a master’s thesis.

It’s hard to imagine anything but evolution that would explain the presence of these vestigial eyes and nerves. Here are three photos I found of the pigment-spot “eyes,” which, like many vestigial traits, vary in their degree of development (e.g., human wisdom teeth and ear muscles).

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The last one has no visible eyespots at all.  Now I could write some more about eye loss and how it gives evidence for evolution, but I’ll ask you, the readers, to answer two questions:

  1. If you were a creationist trying to show that the vestigial eyes were not evidence for evolution, what would you say? I can think of at least three responses.
  2. Assuming, as is certainly the case, that the eyes have become vestigial via evolutionary processes, how do you think it happened? We don’t know for sure, of course, but I can think of at least three ways.

Put your answers below; there is no prize save the joy of thinking.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

August 14, 2016 • 7:30 am

Today’s a day to display singleton photos and others that are sent in a few at a time. The indented bits are the readers’ commentaries:

Reader Cliff Moser sends a picture of a fearsome caterpillar. But it’s really quite a common one:

I’ve attached a single photo of one of 4 large tomato hornworms [Manduca quinquemaculata] found and dispatched from my Berkeley, California garden. I’m hoping to find one with parasitic braconid wasp cocoons and will send if and when I spot one.the photo has a little forced perspective, making it appear more mothra-like than it actually was.

Cliff Moser hornworm

These giants eventually undergo metamorphosis, turning into the beautiful five-spotted hawkmoth (picture from What’s That Bug?):

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Reader Tim Anderson in Oz sends us a bird famous for its camouflage:

This is a mature tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) resting in a backyard tree in suburban Brisbane, Queensland. This individual regularly spends the entire day more or less stationary until dusk, when it flies off to begin its night’s hunting. It is completely oblivious to the humans beetling about nearby, only occasionally swivelling its head to peer at us. It is about 40cm from beak to tail tip. Frogmouths are fairly common, even in urban areas, and are closely related to nightjars, but in this case was rather easy to spot.

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From Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). I think this is the only amphibian photo I’ve sent you.

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Doris Fromage sent an email headed “Vulture sinuses this time!”

My dear husband just got a new camera!  We live on a hill, and our avocado orchard spreads out down the hillside below us.  Various large carnivorous birds/raptors tend to soar around our property, often virtually at eye level or even below.  Here is a turkey vulture! Cathartes aura is its interesting name, which means “cleansing breeze” in Latin, which I find hilarious given that they are carrion scavengers. What I like best about this picture is that we can see straight through the nares to blue sky on the other side, thus clearing up any lingering questions about the structure of a turkey buzzard’s nostrils!
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JAC: I’ve added a close-up of the head lest you have any doubts:
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And a “spot the ___” from reader Michelle Pearce:

Too easy? Fork-tailed drongo, banana beak (hornbill), and mongoose in Kruger National Park.

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And reader Randy Schenck in Iowa is nice to his animals. These photos were sent in May:

We are into the nesting time for birds so they need more feeding now.  Many might think they only need to feed in winter but not so.  To determine if you have Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) around the area just cut an orange in half and hang it on a feeder.  It is like magic to the Oriole.  I will look for nests later as the female Oriole builds a very interesting nest.

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We have many rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) around and again, if you feed the birds you will soon find out how many are in your area.

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You can identify this one, also sent by Randy:

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“Frog saves fishes” life? Not really

April 19, 2016 • 10:30 am

A reader sent me this recently-published YouTube video titled, “Frog saves fishes life.” (It’s in Spanish, but you can see what’s going on.) The reader asked a reasonable question: why would a frog do this for fish, since they’re unrelated, unless it wanted to eat the fish later?

Well, as you can see, they’re not fish. What is going on here is that these are likely the frog’s own offspring, so we have not a demonstration of enigmatic inter-species altruism, but simply kin selection. And even if only a few of the many tadpoles (not fish!) are the frog’s progeny, it still benefits its own genes to dig that trench:

Readers’ wildlife photographs

March 13, 2016 • 7:45 am

Here’s a melange of photos from several readers. The first two, of disparate subjects, come from Tim Anderson in Australia:

This picture shows the Milky Way rising from the south-east of Mudgee, New South Wales. It is a 30-second exposure taken with a Canon 6D and a Samyang 14mm f2.8 wide angle lens on top of a Skywatcher Star Adventurer mount.
The Southern Cross is towards the bottom middle of the picture, with the bright Carina Nebula above it. The Drop Bear Nebula is off to the right.
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This is a Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris), a common predatory bird in southern inland Australia. It is apparently a juvenile (which have tan patching on the shoulders and breast).
Unlike the closely-related Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus), which is commonly employed by Australia Post to deliver mail in country areas, the Black-shouldered Kite lacks useful employment as it is unable to read. Instead it sits about in trees eyeing off the neighbourhood rodents. I found this one perched on the topmost twig of a eucalypt beside the Old Bara Road outside Mudgee, New South Wales.
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These come from reader Chris Knight-Griffin, who sent some frog photos from Clermont, Florida. Can anyone identify the species?

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Anne-Marie Cournoyer took these photos from the Parc National du Mont-St. Bruno, a small park (8.8 km²) near Montréal.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); mother and fawn:

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A black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) on the hand of a Homo poutinus quebecus!
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The birds in the park are very tame and will fly into your hand. Here’s a photo of Anne-Marie’s partner, Claude, who is clearly the Chickadee Whisperer:
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While we were observing this Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), we realised we were not the only one having an interest in the little fellow! Somebody came flying between us. Did the chipmunk get caught? Not this time!
Anne-Marie would like an identification of the bird. . .
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Saturday: Hili dialogue

February 20, 2016 • 6:30 am

I’m off tomorrow, and until March 2 I will be writing only sporadically. Grania has promised to do a few posts, so bear with us. It’s February 20 (don’t forget that it’s a leap year), and on this day in 1816, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” premiered in Rome. In 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in Rome, in 1877 Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and, in 1962, John Glenn became the first astronaut to orbit the Earth, an event I remember well. Births on this day included Louis Kahn (1901), Ansel Adams (1902), Robert Altman (1925), Walter Becker of Steely Dan (1950), and Cindy Crawford (1966), who turns 50 today. Those who died on this day include Frederick Douglass (1895), Hunter Thompson (2005), and Alexander Haig (2010). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is musing about prayer while sitting on Sarah’s lap:

Hili: Cats on human’s knees have different thoughts than when humans are on their own knees.
A: I suspect you’re right.
(Photo: Sarah Lawson)
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In Polish:
Hili: Koty na kolanach mają inny rodzaj refleksji niż ludzie na kolanach.
Ja: Podejrzewam, że masz rację.
(Zdjęcie: Sarah Lawson)
And a bonus: a Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens), sent by Anne-Marie Cournoyer, whose dog turned it up (but didn’t hurt it):
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You won’t believe this albino sea turtle!

February 10, 2016 • 2:30 pm

This is a lovely beast, and I can confirm that it made it to the sea, but that’s only the beginning of its troubles. Baby sea turtles are the buffet of the sea, and until they get big enough to resist predators they have a precarious life. I almost wish this one had been taken into captivity and kept permanently or at least until it was larger. Its lack of coloration makes it an easy target, and its unpigmented eyes mean that it probably can’t see to well, either.

It is adorable, though.

Readers’ wildlife photos (and video)

January 11, 2016 • 7:45 am

My old friend Andrew Berry, who teaches and advises biology undergraduates at Harvard, recently went on a trip en famille to the Galápagos—as a lecturer on a university alumni cruise. He’s a good photographer, using the same Panasonic Lumix camera as I do, and he sent me a selection of what he calls his “holiday snaps.” There’s a video at the end, too. Captions are Andrew’s.

Galapagos flycatcher, Myiarchus magnirostris, (endemic), Floreana:

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Female sea turtle somewhat grumpily emerging from the water to lay her eggs.  Presumably Pacific Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas.  Floreana, with Isla Campeon in the background.

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Yellow crowned night heron Nyctanassa violacea posing patiently, Floreana.

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The cause of the heron’s patience: a worm hole directly in front.

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Charles Darwin wearing a curious purple finch head dress.  San Cristobal.

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In the Galapagos, prickly pear bushes have become trees.  Opuntia echios.  Floreana.

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Male lava lizardsMicrolophus sp, San Cristobal. Endemic.

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Female lava lizard, Microlophus sp, San Cristobal. Endemic.

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Sea lion, Zalophus californianus, obligingly providing some foreground.

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Brown pelicanPelicanus occidentalis, and blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii.  San Cristobal.

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Lava gull goofing around, San Cristobal. Larus fuligionosus, endemic.

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A sea lion unmoved by considerations of comfort when it comes to finding a spot of a bit of a lie-down.  Zalophus californianus.

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Marine iguana, icon of the Galapagos.  Amblyrhynchus cristatus, endemic.  San Cristobal.  Darwin’s encounter was crudely experimental: “I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide; but it invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood. It swam near the bottom, with a very graceful and rapid movement, and occasionally aided itself over the uneven ground with its feet. As soon as it arrived near the edge, but still being under water, it tried to conceal itself in the tufts of sea-weed, or it entered some crevice. As soon as it thought the danger was past, it crawled out on the dry rocks, and shuffled away as quickly as it could. I several times caught this same lizard, by driving it down to a point, and though possessed of such perfect powers of diving and swimming, nothing would induce it to enter the water; and as often as I threw it in, it returned in the manner above described. Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge.”

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Marine iguana, Española.

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Marine iguana, Española.

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Galapagos dove, Zinaida galapagoenis, Española. Endemic.

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Proud parent, Nazca booby. Sula granti. Española.

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Swallow-tailed gull, Creagrus furcates.  Endemic.  Española.

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Marine iguanas, Española.

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Sally Lightfoot crabGrapsus grapsus.  Española.

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Española mockingbird, Nesomimus macdonaldi.  One of four species of Galápagos mockingbirds, each one on a different island. Darwin recognized differences among islands, but it wasn’t until he talked in London to the ornithologist John Gould that he came to appreciate that the differences were sufficient to qualify the mockingbirds as separate species.  This Española species is particularly tame; here one is investigating the contents of my backpack.

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Española mockingbird, Nesomimus macdonaldi, on the beach at Gardner Bay.  This is a mockingbird territorial face-off. Galapagos mockingbirds are co-operative breeders, meaning that a few individuals breed, and others help out.  They form cooperative groups of as many as 25 individuals, which defend their group territories using the remarkable “dance” seen in the video at bottom (shot at the same time as the photo above was taken).

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Land iguana, Conolophus subcristatus, Baltra Island.  Endemic.  Darwin was a little unkind about this species: “Ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath and of a brownish red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance”

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Giant tortoise, Geochelone elephantopus, Santa Cruz.  Endemic.  Darwin famously missed the boat on this species.  He was told upon arrival in the Galapagos that it was possible to tell from the structure of a tortoise’s carapace the island from which it was derived. However, he failed to follow up on this and his discovery of the role of geographic isolation in the genetic divergence of populations had to wait.  He preferred instead, it seems, to ride the beasts: “I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed it, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently go on their backs, and then, giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away — but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.”

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Andrew also sent a video with these notes:

Española mockingbird, Nesomimus macdonaldi, on the beach at Gardner Bay. This is a mockingbird territorial face-off, with two groups noisily contesting a territory boundary. Galapagos mockingbirds are co-operative breeders, meaning that a few individuals breed, and others help out. They form cooperative groups of as many as 25 individuals, who defend their group territories using the remarkable “dance” seen here. Video by Megan Berry.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 27, 2015 • 8:30 am

Reader Ivar Husa shares more of his photos with us: three birds and a reptile today.

I could hardly resist the invitation to share more birds.  I hope you and the viewers enjoy these, too.

These were all taken within reach of Tucson, AZ last May, when I attended my daughter’s commencement from ASU (MED, Masters of Educational Development, Behavioral Analysis).

Black-tailed GnatcatcherPolioptila melanura:

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Gila Monster, Heloderma suspectum:

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Vermillion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus:

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White-winged Dove, Zenaida asiatica:

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The Talk

December 23, 2015 • 8:15 am

I was never told about the “birds and bees” when I was a kid, with the result that I harbored many misconceptions until I was in my early teens. I won’t go into the gruesome details of my ignorance and their consequences, but if you’re a parent, talk to your kids. They’re gonna have sex whether or not you tell them the facts, so they might as well know the facts.

I’m backed up the The Reasoning Atheist, who tw**ted this:

https://twitter.com/R_atheist/status/679355031057997826