Animals I saw today

May 4, 2022 • 11:46 am

We are at harbor in Portimão, Portugal, near the southwestern tip of the country (red circle). Tomorrow I fly home around noon:

We had a fine day up in the mountains, consuming a lovely lunch in a country restaurant, touring a museum that used to be a sardine canning factory (the sardine story is fascinating!), and seeing some wildlife. I’m in a rush for our Final Dinner, but here’s some of the wildlife I saw.

Matthew will identify this: I can’t, but he’s a fan of swifts and swallows. Or, readers can tell us:

OMG. Stork City! I have never seen white storks (Ciconia ciconia) so close, or so close to the ground:


Cork oak (Quercus suber). The “6” means it was stripped in 2016; they leave 9-12 years between successive peeling of bark. A cork tree first yields cork at about 25 years of age, but the first two harvests after that yield inferior cork. You don’t plant cork for yourself, or even your children1

The cork bark:

And our own favorite mammal, Felis catus tuxedosis:


Vegetation in Tenerife

April 25, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Tenerife is one of the seven large Canary Islands, all of which are volcanic in origin and thus formed with no life on them. They are what we biologists call oceanic islands, whose origin means that indigenous species must have derived from ancestors introduced by birds (poop contains seeds), wind, or organisms floating at sea. Such islands are usually rich in indigenous insects, plants, and birds, all of which can get to the island and form new species. Such islands have almost no indigenous amphibians, reptiles, mammals, or freshwater fish, though they can be introduced by humans. (Read the biogeography chapter in Why Evolution is True.)

We have some indigenous plants below, but also many introduced plants that grow like gangbusters here, for the climate is wet, salubrious, and not too hot. I’ll show some of the plants I photographed in the lovely Botanical Garden in Puerto de la Cruz, the second oldest botanical garden in Spain. I didn’t take notes, and can’t identify many of these, but I hope readers can.

First, the volcanic origin of Tenerife. Looming over the island is Mount Teide, a big volcano. It stands at 3,715 m or  12,188 feet. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

If measured from the ocean floor, its height of 7,500 m (24,600 ft) makes Teide the third-highest volcano in the world, and is described by UNESCO and NASA as Earth’s third-tallest volcanic structure.[8][9][b] However, as Teide was formed just 170,000 years ago due to volcanic activity following a catastrophic landslide, Teide’s base is actually situated in the Las Cañadas crater (the remains of an older, eroded, extinct volcano) at a height of around 2,190 m (7,190 ft) above sea level. Teide’s elevation above sea level makes Tenerife the tenth highest island in the world. Teide is an active volcano: its most recent eruption occurred in 1909 from the El Chinyero vent on the northwestern Santiago rift. The United Nations Committee for Disaster Mitigation designated Teide a Decade Volcano because of its history of destructive eruptions and its proximity to several large towns, of which the closest are Garachico, Icod de los Vinos and Puerto de la Cruz. Teide, Pico Viejo and Montaña Blanca form the Central Volcanic Complex of Tenerife.

A view from near Puerto Cruz;

From Wikipedia: “This 3D panoramic view of Mount Teide was created using SRTM data (160% elevation).”

Puerto de la Cruz, where we stayed the first night at the Hotal Botanico, which is right by the gardens:

And plants. First, the famous Canary Islands “dragon tree“, Dracaena dracoendemic to the archipelago and other nearby areas. I didn’t know of it, but it’s plenty weird. From Wikipedia:

. . . a subtropical tree in the genus Dracaena, native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Madeira, western Morocco, and is thought to be introduced in the Azores.Its closest living relative is the dragon blood tree of Socotra, Dracaena cinnabari.

It was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1762 as Asparagus draco. In 1767 he assigned it to the new genus, Dracaena.

Other stuff. Great gobs of Spanish moss, which grows well here.

I’m not sure what this is, but the locals make maracas out of it. Pick the gourd, poke a hole in one end to dry it, and then after a while, when it’s dry, you can shake it and use it as a maraca since the seeds rattle around inside.

Unknown palm.

A young pineapple (bromeliad):

This is some kind of weird epiphyte, and I have no idea what it is. I hope a reader can identify it:

The flower of a bromeliad:

Below is a strangler fig, Ficus macrophylla, which was represented to us as endemic to Lord Howe, a remote oceanic island between New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand, but it’s found other places as well, notably Australia, where the Lord Howe ancestor undoubtedly came from. I don’t see that this tree from Lord Howe, which has a high proportion of endemic species, is given subspecies status.

But it’s one impressive strangler fig–a killer tree! Look at those roots!

Closeup of incipient palm leaves (I think)

Common blackbird (Turdus merula) singing in the cool of day. I think this is the first one I’ve ever heard, and oh, what a lovely song!

I have no idea what this is, but it isn’t endemic:

A “conch flower”, because it resembles a cowrie. You tell me what it is!

Everyone’s favorite flower, the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), native to South Africa and first described by Joseph Banks (Darwin’s pal):

This looks like a species of Daturaall of them poisonous (“jimson weed” in the U.S.) Lovely flowers, but don’t eat them or the seeds!

I’m not sure what this flower is, but it was gorgeous.

. . . and especially gorgeous when backlit:

Pollinated by bees:

And my obligatory “art shot’: water in a fountain:

More soon, but I have to steal time from sightseeing to post. Today I saw enough sights and left the tour a couple of hours early to wash up, do laundry, and post these photos.

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 25, 2022 • 9:00 am

This may be the final posting of wildlife photos until I return from Antarctica (assuming I test negative for covid-19 today). The contributor is ecologist Susan Harrison from UC Davis, a place I know well since I did my postdoc there. And the birds are along the creek that flows through campus, Putah Creek. Susan’s captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge her photos by clicking on them.

Early fall at the local creek

Birds were active on mid-September mornings at our local creek, and a bridge made a good vantage point for watching them.

Juvenile Hooded Orioles chased each other through the alders.

Hooded Orioles, Icterus cucullatus:

A White-breasted Nuthatch and a California Towhee darted between bridge and pavement.  They appeared to be foraging on grain from the passing farm trucks.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis:

California Towhee, Melozone crissalis:

Cedar Waxwings and Orange-crowned Warblers fed on feral wine grapes dangling from a Eucalyptus.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum:

A magpie sat in a dead California walnut tree (Juglans californica).  Magpies will drop walnuts on the pavement and eat them after cars crush them. The trees have recently been decimated by an introduced fungus (Geosmithia morbida).

Yellow-billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli:

Also watching from the top of a dead walnut was a Red-Shouldered Hawk.

Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus:

Along the nearby streambank, a Cooper’s Hawk hunted songbirds, and a Great Horned Owl took its daytime rest.

Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii:

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus:

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 22, 2022 • 9:00 am

Today’s photos come from the North Island of New Zealand and were taken by Chris Taylor. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

In response to your request I’ve been looking through my photos for some you might be able to use.  To start off with, here’s a set of photos from New Zealand, from a trip I made to the North Island a few years ago.
First, a panorama of the active volcano Mt Tongariro.  It looks peaceful enough, but you can see steam issuing from two vents in the volcano’s slopes.
New Zealand Dotterel, Charadrius obscurus.  Also known by its Maori name of Tuturiwhat.

New Zealand Pigeon or Kereru, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae:

Grey Duck or Pārera, Anas superciliosa.  Although known in Australia as the Pacific Black Duck and Grey Duck in New Zealand, there is almost no black in the plumage.  It is very closely related to the Mallard, and will interbreed with introduced birds.

Red Billed Gull or tarāpung, Larus novaehollandiae. Also called Pacific Silver gull in Australia.

Pied Stilt or Koaka , Himantopus himantopus . Two photos taken at the Hell’s Gate Thermal area near Rotorua.The birds were feeding in the warm water of the springs, and it was a couple of minutes before I saw the chicks – they were quite camouflaged against the volcanic rocks!

Pohutukawa treeMetrosideros excelsa.

Photos from the Pūkorokoro / Miranda shorebird reserve.  Flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit/Kuaka Limosa lapponica, Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres, Wrybill/Ngutuparore Anarhynchus frontalis  and others.  I was there at low tide, not the best time to see the birds!  This is looking out across the flats and the Firth of Thames to the hills of the Coromandel Peninsula.   This is a vital area for many of the migrant species that arrive in New Zealand, as they can feed here to build up their bodies after the rigors of their flight.  The Bar-Tailed Godwit or Kuaka is the world champion when it comes to migration, traveling from NZ to Alaska and back each year.  The Northward flight usually goes via Indonesia and China, but the southward return to Pūkorokoro is often done non-stop.  Last year, one bird known as 4BBRW, was fitted with a tracker and was observed to make a 12,050km non-stop flight.

Silver FernAlsophila dealbata, in Rotorua.  One of the Floral Emblems of New Zealand.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus.  Introduced by the British after colonisation.  This one was flying around as we sat having coffee at a cafe in Whitianga.

Tui, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae:

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 19, 2022 • 9:00 am

We have two contributions today: plants and ducks. Let’s take the ducks first. All readers’ captions are indented, and can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The first trio comes from evolutionist and ornithology expert Bruce Lyon of UC Santa Cruz, who’s just returned from Argentina and has great photo to come. These, however, come from his home town in California.

Since you love ducks, I will attach a couple of recent photos. I was trying to get photos of wood ducks at a wetland in town (sewage processing area) but the wood ducks were hanging out where the sewage is actually processed, so I struck out. There was, however a confident Northern Pintail [Anas acuta] that swam up to me to check me out. Every time I photograph a new species of duck and then examine the photos closely, I am shocked by the exquisite plumage details that are not apparent when looking through binoculars. The pintail was no exception and had lovely vermiculation on the sides and back, and the long, elegant scapular feathers coming off the back were particularly beautiful. In some light, the brown on the head turns copper or even greenish.
JAC: Enlarge photos to see the lovely patterns.

And some flowers from Rik Gern:

Here’s a small batch of pictures I hope you can use for your Readers’ Wildlife feature. To photograph these specimens I had to leave my  home, travel a whole six feet from the front door, and then lower my elevation by about another six feet and lie on my belly. I know, I know, it’s a hell of an expedition, but these are the things one does for beauty!

At any rate, the specimen in question is a tiny yellow flower known as a Lawnflower or Straggler Daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis). The flowers are small enough that you could fit several on the nail of your little finger. They’re pretty common here in Central Texas and are considered a weed, although I don’t know anyone who tries to get rid of them, as they look nice and feel good underfoot for those who like to go barefoot. In fact, they’re the perfect excuse for avoiding yard work; I’d feel like a war criminal if I chopped these pretty little flowers down!

Readers’ wildlife tale: Of figs and wasps

February 12, 2022 • 9:00 am

Today’s contribution is a biological tale of fig wasps, a fascinating species. (Do you know that every time you eat a fig, you ingest at least one wasp?) The photos aren’t from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior, but the story is, and it’s a good one. Click on the photos to enlarge them. Athayde’s tale is indented:

When ecologists talk about ‘keystone’ or ‘indicator species’, what they often mean is ‘my favourite species’, or ‘the species I work with’. But one group of organisms truly deserves the label of keystone species: figs. The genus Ficus comprises over 900 species spread throughout the tropical and subtropical regions as shrubs, lianas (woody vines), or trees. Strangler trees – which don’t strangle anything – are one of the best known types of fig plants.

Many fig species produce fruit asynchronously throughout the year, so many animals have a steady supply of abundant and nutritious food. This is especially important during the dry season, when most plants do not fruit. Figs are often preferred even when other fruits are available because they are rich in calcium, a mineral usually in short supply. So figs are essential for a range of birds and mammals such as pigeons, toucans, parrots, macaws, bats, peccaries and monkeys. Over 1,200 vertebrate species feed on figs.

Below: The strangler fig Ficus aurea © Forest Starr and Kim Starr, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Below: The diversity of fig fruit characteristics © Lomáscolo et al. 2010. PNAS 107(33):14668-72

Figs support the diversity and functioning of ecosystems around the world, but they can only do that thanks to some tiny wasps.

Below: Chalcid wasps are an enormous group of insects, estimated to contain over 500,000 species. Most of them are parasitoids of other insects, but a small group belonging to the family Agaonidae has one purpose in life: to get into a fig to reproduce. By engaging in fruit breaking and entering, these wasps, appropriately known as fig wasps, pollinate the fig plant.

The mission is made immensely complicated by figs’ morphology. Botanically speaking, a fig is not a fruit but a type of inflorescence known as a syconium (from the Ancient Greek sykon, meaning ‘fig’, which originated ‘sycophant’, or ‘someone who shows a fig’; a term of curious etymology). A syconium is a fleshy, hollow receptacle containing simplified flowers or florets, and each one of them will produce a fruit with seeds in it. A fig harbours dozens to thousands florets and fruits, depending of the species. The crunchy bits of the figs we eat are not seeds but fruits.

Florets need pollination, not an easy proposition when they are bunched up and locked inside a container. So the fig wasp’s first hurdle is to get inside the fig. A female wasp does it through a hole at the bottom of the fig (the ostiole), which loosens when the fig is ready for pollination.

Below: Longitudinal section of a syconium. The inner wall of the hollow chamber is covered with florets, and the ostiole at the bottom is the door for female wasps © Gubin Olexander, Wikipedia Creative Commons:

A receptive fig does not make life much easier for the female wasp. She has to chew her way through, pushing and squeezing, often having her wings and antennae snapped off in the process. She will find a floret, insert her long ovipositor into it and lay an egg. As she’s busy doing that, pollen grains attached to her body get rubbed off onto nearby florets, assuring their pollination. With the job done, the female wasp dies.

The ovules of florets that receive eggs will form galls in which the wasp larvae develop, while pollinated ovules turn into fruit. The adults chew their way out of the galls, males first. Sometimes they help females get out from their own florets and mate with them. Males will then chew a hole through the fig wall to let the females escape. Males stay behind: they couldn’t go anywhere, as they have no eyes and no wings. After an short life spent entirely inside a fig and marked by fleeting glorious moments such as fertilising females and setting them free, males die.

Below: two male Pleistodontes imperialis wasps on the left (wingless, smaller, black headed and amber-colored) and two females inside a Ficus rubiginosa syconium. The inseminated females have emerged from their individual flowers and are ready to escape © W.P. Armstrong, US Forest Service:


A female collects pollen grains from intact florets or picks them up by accident before braving the world outside. She will follow the trail of chemicals released by a host plant to find another fig receptive to pollination and start the cycle again. But she must be quick: she has a few hours to three days to live, depending on the species. And to complicate things, not any fig will do. Each species of fig tree is pollinated by one or a few host-specific fig wasps, which is an outstanding case of coevolution.

The great majority of female wasps don’t make it, but a few catch rides on wind currents above the canopy to find host plants over 10 km away, farther than most pollinators. This is a remarkable achievement for such small, fragile, and short-lived insects.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies better the wonders of fig pollination than the exploits of Ceratosolen arabicus in Namibia. This wasp pollinates the African fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) along the Ugab river in the North Namib desert. This is one of the most inhospitable and remote corners of the planet, famous for its Skeleton Coast, a place of shipwrecks and marooned sailors. African fig trees occur in isolated clumps along the riverbank, but that’s not a barrier for a female wasp: she covers average distances of near 90 km and a maximum of 160 km over the desert, at night, in search of a receptive fig. As she lives for less than 48 h, her quest must be flawless.

Below: Dry Ugab riverbed, Namibia © Theseus, Wikipedia Creative Commons:

How do figs and fig wasps relate to us, denizens of fig-less countries? This pollination system has a profound influence on global biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, so it affects us as well, even if indirectly. The story of figs and wasps also illustrates the capabilities, drive and hardiness of minute, easily overlooked insects that are so important for us and nature.

You can learn much more about figs and fig wasps at Figweb from Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Readers’ wildlife video and photos

February 3, 2022 • 9:00 am

Today we have a video and a couple of photos from a couple of readers. (All readers’ comments and IDs are indented; click photos to enlarge them.)

The video below comes from Avi Burstein, who sent this information:

I just caught this footage outside my home in the Catskills of a woodpecker creating a nest. Thought you’d enjoy it. Feel free to share it with your readers. I was inside my home while filming so no audio.

I believe this is a pileated woodpecker, (Dryocopus pileatus).

From Bryan Lepore:

Dear PCC(E) – the early morning walk revealed a breathtaking decoration of hoarfrost on a lilac (Syringa vulgaris). It brought to mind the absolute zero discussion. I picked out this particular detail for a more artistic interpretation. Perhaps a story can be invented for it by the beholder:

Some plants from Hawaii by Emilio d’Alise. I’m not sure, nor is he, whether these are native or introduced, nor do we have the species or IDs (His note on our first batch was “here are a bunch of flowers photos from when I lived in Hawaiʻi.”) Just enjoy the beauty:

On January 15 I published a few photos by Christopher Moss of a pair of squirrels fighting over a feeder full of sunflower seeds.  They achieved a temporary truce, but then. . .

Here are the remaining pictures of the squirrels learning to tolerate each other. Their truce didn’t last long, as they were back to fighting noisily yesterday.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 22, 2022 • 9:30 am

Richard Dawkins and Robyn Blumner (CEO and President of CFI and of the Dawkins Foundation) were in Dubai this past week, and both sent photos. I don’t have many captions, but these show you the intricate topiary and some of the food. (Photos by both RD and RB.)

A topiary plane!

Camel meat for dinner. Robyn said it “tastes a lot like beef but drier and chewier.” Sounds like beef jerky to me.


Some pictures of the flamingos in Dubai at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary:

My book at the mall in Dubai. Robyn said that they didn’t carry Faith Versus Fact, but that was no surprise to me.


Readers’ wildlife photos

January 20, 2022 • 8:30 am

Today Mark Sturtevant is back with some lovely wide-angle photos. Mark’s IDs and comments (links are also his) are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

A specialty area of macrophotography is wide angle macrophotography. Here, a subject can be seen in extreme closeup while its broader surroundings are also in view since the lens is also a wide angle lens. The best-known wide angle macro lens is one made by Laowa, but that lens is rather expensive. But there is a near clone of that lens made by Opteka—the Opteka 15mm f/4) which retails for just over $100. So. . . I bought the Opteka. It took a while to figure out how to get along with it since these kinds of lenses are very challenging, but I can definitely say that this is the most fun lens that I own. Here are some wide angle macro pictures.

This is a ground-level view of my favorite spot to look for aquatic fishing spiders on lily pads. None were here that day. You can see that the depth of focus is pretty amazing when stopped down all the way to f/32 (!):

Views up a tree are always interesting. This lens encourages one to look for unique angles. The picture is focus-stacked from several pictures:

Mushrooms near a forest trail:

But of course, photographing spiders and insects is especially fun (for me). Here is a nursery web spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus), which is one of the biggest and scariest spiders around here. I could trust that she would not leave her babies in the web nursery, though, even though the lens is practically touching her:

Black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia):

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus):

European praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). I rather like the solar flares that often turn up in this lens. There is a short lens hood, but it’s pretty useless because the working distance is often just a few millimeters for wide angle macro lenses.

Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis):

Thanks for looking!

If anyone wishes to learn more about this kind of photography, one cannot do better than watch this delightful review from the great Thomas Shahan. He concentrates mainly on the Laowa wide angle macro lens, but it really is like the Opteka model as far as I am aware.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 17, 2022 • 8:30 am

Our contributor today is Christopher Starr, a retired Professor of Entomology at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.  His photos span a range of taxa. Christopher’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them. (See his first contribution here.) His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

In the early morning, before the sun got hot, I consistently saw bright red velvet mites (Trombiculiidae) walking in the open on a sandy surface.  They were large (about the size of a raisin), soft-bodied and very conspicuous, yet the abundant agamid lizards were not eating them.  Wondering if they were protected by defensive chemicals, I tasted one, and sure enough.  It was so dreadfully bitter that I couldn’t bring myself to try another, so my sample size remains at one.  Ghana.

We are all familiar with mimicry, in which the mimic gains an advantage when the predator mistakes it for something else: a type-1 error.  Those of us with an eye for mimicry sometimes make a type-2 error by mistakenly seeing a deception where there is none.  Coming upon this dried, twisted vine, my reaction was “Aha, a snake camouflaged as a vine.”   Georgia.

The pachyrhychine weevils are a distinctive, extremely hard-bodied group almost entirely restricted to the Philippines and the Pacific islands fringing Taiwan. Pachyrhynchus tobafolius (first photo) is sympatric with an unidentified otiorhychine weevil (second photo), which has the appearance of being one of its mimics.

Although it is highly venomous, the fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper, avoids contact with humans and other large animals.  Note the effective camouflage of this one, which was lying immobile against a backdrop of vegetation. Trinidad.

This male Anolis lizard in the process of shedding his skin ate the old skin as it came loose.  Costa Rica.

Trinidad’s Pitch Lake is analogous to the La Brea Tar Pits in California.  Unlike La Brea, the Pitch Lake has not been mined for fossils, which it very likely contains.  This caiman was trapped in the surface tar and gradually sinking into it, possibly on its way to becoming a fossil.  Trinidad.

JAC: I’ve inserted a 2016 photo of Pitch Lake taken from Wikipedia:

A primary defensive feature is one that operates all the time, while a secondary defensive feature comes into play only when a threat is perceived.  Tortoises present my favorite example of a primary defense enhanced by a secondary defense.  The hard shell is always present, but when the tortoise is threatened it withdraws its head and feet tightly inside the shell. Mexico.

This newly-hatched Gonnatodes gecko was fully active from the moment it broke out of its shell.  Trinidad.

In studying the responses of various orb-weaving spiders to a simulated predatory disturbance, I found that common cross spiderAraneus diadematus, has one that I have not seen in any other. In the early stages of the disturbance, the spider raises its forelegs as if to parry the intruder.  Italy.

In some parts of its range, the large pink-toed tarantula, Avicularia avicularia, is common in rural buildings, including in my house.  I have often seen visitors startled and even fearful when encountering one fo these, but I like having them around. Trinidad.

I have usually found this Hersilia sp. building its web on the surface of tree trunks and sitting in the middle of it, flattened and well camouflaged.  Philippines.

Cnidoscolus urensl is commonly known as “burn bush” or “mala mujer” on account of the highly urticating needles on its leaves, stems and fruits.  Where this plant is very abundant, we found the orb-weaving spider Argiope argentata preferentially basing its web on this plan. St Vincent & the Grenadines.

This Myrmarachne sp. [JAC: note that this is a spider] has the appearance of a specific Batesian mimic of a Crematogaster ant that is abundant in its habitat. Taiwan.