Happy Amphibian Week!

May 6, 2022 • 1:45 pm

by Greg Mayer

May 1-7, 2022, is Amphibian Week, which is being celebrated by anurophiles, salamander lovers, and caecilianists all over the country, including Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Zoo. We’re late to the party here at WEIT, but better late than never!

A bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) on the shore of Greenquist Pond, Somers, WI, 5 May 2021.

And speaking of late, it’s been a very late season for amphibians here in southeastern Wisconsin. The picture above is from May, 2021, because it’s been a very cold spring, and there’s been hardly any amphibian activity. Normally, chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) begin calling in mid-March; this year I first heard them on April 7, and, since then, calling has been only sporadic. A year ago, American toads (Bufo americanus) began trilling the first week of May; I haven’t heard any yet. I have seen one adult bullfrog, in the last week of April. It was actually quite large– I spotted it with my naked eye across the Pond while scanning for turtles. (Turtles are out, but not in large numbers or consistently.)

Among the participating organizations is the Department of Defense PARC, which is charged with protecting and managing amphibians and reptiles on military lands, and they have been sending interesting items all week. One of the most fun ones for me was an amphibian identification quiz. It was done as a Powerpoint file, but I can’t figure how to set it up here in WordPress, so you’ll have to take my word for it 🙁 . They sent a nice guide to modern amphibian origins:

And this set of links:

  • When folks think of migration, usually, people think of birds and whales carrying out this process. However, did you know that some of our amphibians migrate, too? When the night is right, thousands of spotted salamanders will make their way to temporary wetlands known as vernal pools to breed in the spring. Checkout this great video by the Tennessee Aquarium: https://youtu.be/8xGZ8SLqVa8
  • If you find an amphibian in need, check out this video on how to safely assist: https://youtu.be/wBZ00p85IUE
  • Looking for some educational inspiration to teach about salamander migration and vernal pools? If so, check out this resource list put together by Of Pools and People: https://www.vernalpools.me/ecology-2/
  • Check out how the Boreal Toad was brought back to Colorado by biologists working to reintroduce the species and how they’ve been affected by a decimating fungus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9RQVA_d1DU
  • Gifford Pinchot National Forest biologists created breeding habitat for the threatened Oregon Spotted Frog through an innovative interagency conservation project in this video: https://vimeo.com/278211745
  • Scientists at Olympic National Forest are using environmental DNA (eDNA) to look for the presence of amphibians through samples taken from water bodies. This helps them find those amphibians on the move, even if they cannot see them!: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/olympic/learning/?cid=fseprd902658&width=full

We’ll finish up with DOD PARC herpetologists in the field and lab (yes, some of these feature reptiles, not amphibians).

The eclipse from Wisconsin (and Texas and Canada)

August 22, 2017 • 7:45 am

by Greg Mayer

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the eclipse yesterday was at about the same time as in Chicago, 11:54 AM to 2:40 PM, with the peak at 1:18 PM, and slightly less complete (85%). The eclipse glasses worked fine, but drifting cloud cover obscured the view for much of the time. And, without specialized cameras, the brightness of even the partially obscured sun produced an essentially circular image.

Here’s the start of the eclipse at 11:57 AM. At this time, the moon, approaching from the upper right, had made a noticeable nick in the sun’s disk, but the camera did not reveal this.

Eclipse, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017, 11:57 PM.

At 12:03 PM, the nick was even more noticeable with eclipse glasses, but even using zoom, the camera could not capture it (it would be on the upper right).

Eclipse, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017, 12:03 PM.

I tried taking a selfie at 12:08 PM, without much success.

Eclipse, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017, 12:08 PM.

Here is the sun at the peak, 1:18 PM; you can see the substantial cloud cover moving through.

Peak of the eclipse (85 %), Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017, 1:18 PM.

The sun was then obscured for some minutes. As the moon continued its traverse, moving down to the lower left, I tried taking several pictures through the eclipse glasses. They were consistent in showing an obscuration of the lower left of the sun, and I think this is actually an image of the eclipse.

Eclipse, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017, 1:30 PM. Taken through eclipse glasses.

I did try to note if there was any unusual animal behavior. Over the about two hours I was out watching the eclipse, I saw three birds (a swallow and two LBN’s), and a moth flew into my left arm, i.e. nothing of any significance. It did get darker and cooler, but the effects of the eclipse could not be readily distinguished from the effects of the increasing cloud cover. Here’s the rest of my eclipse party.

Eclipse watching is fun! Eclipse, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 21 August 2017.


Addendum by Jerry: Greg’s photos show pretty much what I got using my camera and eclipse glasses: not much. But you can see great photos on the Internet, and two readers sent in their own.

Reader Mark McCauley sent in an image of the eclipse from Texas:

This was taken eight miles west of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. I used the binoculars-on-tripod method to project the image. We will have a total solar eclipse here in 2024!
Reader John Corcoran in Canada also has some indirect images:

The eclipse here in Kitchener, Canada (about 60 miles west of Toronto) was partial but still very exciting. I had to walk my sister’s dog about ten minutes before maximum eclipse. I hadn’t yet made the pinhole camera I was planning on for viewing the eclipse. (I’m a last-minute kind of guy.) We were walking over a stretch of grass and dirt. While I always pick up the dog’s poop, other people aren’t so considerate, so I was watching the ground to be sure I didn’t step in any. I suddenly noticed there were dozens of images of the partially eclipsed sun on the ground! Tiny gaps between the leaves on the tree I was standing under were acting as the lenses of pinhole cameras and projecting images of the eclipse.

John asks this: “Was I facing north, south, east, or west when I took these two photos? Remember, this is maximum partial eclipse.)”  And he found other images:

I brought the dog inside and and went up to the rooftop patio of my sister’s condo, where a group had gathered. I borrowed someone’s eclipse glasses and used them, but while it was fun, I’d enjoyed the images made by the tree more. So I looked around the patio for something similar.

There were two tables whose tops were covered with tiny holes for rainfall to drain through. I looked under the tables and saw that every one of those thousands of holes was projecting an image of the eclipse!

Darwin Day in Kenosha, 2016

February 12, 2016 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry should be getting ready to sign books in London about now as part of the lead up to his talk for the British Humanists, but for those not in the UK but in my vicinity, I will be giving a Darwin Day talk tomorrow, February 13, at 2 PM, at the Kenosha Public Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My talk will be “What Darwin Did for Biology”, on what the key puzzles in natural history were, how Darwin solved them with a unified explanation, and how this led to the rise of such modern disciplines as ecology, genetics, and geology, and, somewhat paradoxically, to the divisions among these disciplines. The Darwin Day events at the Museum run 10 AM to 4 PM, although I don’t know what the full schedule is. It’s also an excellent chance to see the “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx” exhibit. For those who’ve been to past Darwin Days in Kenosha, this year it’s at the main Public Museum, not the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. If you arrive early, I’ll be across the street at Ashling’s having a bloody Mary at noon– stop by and say hello.

Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs

January 27, 2016 • 8:00 am

by Greg Mayer

This coming Monday, February 1, at 7 PM in the Student Union Cinema, the University of Wisconsin-Parkisde will present Luis Chiappe, Director of the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will speak on “Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs”.

Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM
Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM

Many of the features commonly associated with birds (feather, wings, hollow bones, wishbones) were inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, and these features arose at various times during the birds’ long Mesozoic history. New fossils have laid out this evolutionary saga in great detail, allowing us to trace the changes from the earliest birds, such as Archaeopteryx, to the dawn of modern birds. The talk, part of UW-Parkside’s Science Night series, is intended for the general public.

At noon on Monday, in Molinaro Hall D 139, Dr. Chiappe will present a more technical talk at the Biological Sciences Colloquium entitled “Birding in the Mesozoic: Recent Insights on the Early Evolution of Birds”. There’s also a small exhibit in the UWP Library, “Dinosaurs and Birds: The Art of Science”, that you can stop in and see.

Both talks are free and open to the public. For the evening talk, parking in the Student Union lot is free after 6:30 PM. For the noon talk, there are metered spots, but if any WEIT readers are planning to come, email and I’ll see what we can do. The talks are presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx”, by Silver Plume Exhibitions in conjunction with the Yale Peabody Museum, at the Kenosha Public Museum, on display now through March 27th.


This is a very well done exhibit, combining fine reproductions of almost all of the eleven known Archaeopteryx specimens (the real ones almost never travel!), with an exploration of how several distinguished paleo-artists create their works, including Julius Cstonyi, whose work we’ve highlighted here at WEIT before.

Anyone from Chicago to Milwaukee is within range, and you can make a day of it– the exhibit at the KPM, two talks, and a stop in UWP’s Library. Even if you can’t make it Monday, the exhibit at KPM is well worth a trip on some other day. Here’s a tidbit– a realistic sculpture– from Dinosaurs Take Flight; I hope to post a fuller report later.

Archaeopteryx at its nest.
Archaeopteryx at its nest.


Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum: report

February 15, 2015 • 4:11 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has just returned from his Darwin Day activities in Mississippi, and I’m sure we’ll be receiving a report on how things went (including in the culinary department). In the meantime, here’s a report on how things went at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s Darwin Day event last weekend.

The museum has one main exhibit hall, having a very large number of dinosaurs (especially theropods); most are high quality reproductions. In the lobby, I set up a temporary exhibit table on the theme of “Highly Evolved Tetrapods”, meaning ones that have lost or rearranged major parts of their skeletons. My table, manned by my son Christian and myself, featured live animals.

The tetrapod table.
The highly evolved tetrapod table.

The hit of the exhibit was Vivian, an adult ball python (Python regius). Many people, as urged to by our signage, asked to see Vivian’s hind legs.

Vivian-- the star of the show.
Vivian– the star of the show.

Most people (even biologists) don’t know that some extant snakes have vestigial hind limbs, and my son and I have always liked to show them off. Once, when he was in grade school, he told a naturalist at a creationist nature camp (admittedly an odd combination) about the legs on a python they had on exhibit. She demurred, but my son, in good faith (he didn’t know they were creationists) persisted, and offered to show the legs to her. She allowed as she had seen the structures, but that they weren’t legs. He again persisted, stating (correctly) that the leg bones and pelvis were still there, and that they were legs. She could only sputter that they were not legs “in my world view”!

Curator of Education Nick Wiersum with a friend.
Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, ain’t afraid of no toad.

The giant toad (Bufo marinus; called cane toads in Australia, but native from Texas to Argentina) was also quite popular. You can see the large ellipsoid poison glands behind the eye, and the swelling of the body to make swallowing difficult, another defensive attribute. We also had an American toad (Bufo americanus; common throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada) for comparison. Both are good-sized adults.

American Toad vs. Giant Toad
American Toad vs. Giant Toad

We also had Slidey, a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); we’ve noted before here on WEIT how highly evolved turtles are.

Slidey the Red-eared Slider
Slidey the Red-eared Slider

My paleontological colleagues Summer Ostrowski and Chris Noto set up a temporary exhibit featuring small, touchable fossils and a very fine selection of plastic animals.

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The plastic animals (all high quality collector-grade pieces) were arranged in correct phylogenetic arrangement. Although you can barely see him under the mammoth’s chin, humanity is represented by a 3D print of Charles Darwin as depicted in the sitting statue of him at the Natural History Museum in London.

The pyhlogeny of plastic animals.
The phylogeny of plastic animals.

Chris and I also gave lectures in the museum’s downstairs class room, on “How Evolution Works” (me) and “What the Fossil Record Tells Us about Evolution”. Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, led special activities in the main exhibit hall.

“I once caught a fish, this big.”

I think the event was quite successful, with events suitable for kids, students, and adults. There was a good crowd, from kids through adults, with steady numbers the whole day, and lots of good questions. The attendees included WEIT readers, some who came from Milwaukee and Evanston– thanks so much for the support, and it was good to meet you!

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Thx for pix: Chris Noto, Jim Shea

Darwin Day 2015 at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin (and at the University of Southern Mississippi)

February 4, 2015 • 11:32 am

by Greg Mayer (and Professor Ceiling Cat):

Darwin Day, Feb. 12, is fast approaching, so start making your plans now. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin will be holding its event this coming Saturday, February 7, from noon to 5 PM.


There will be educational displays (including live herps), activities for children, videos about evolution from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Chris Noto and I will each be giving public lectures during the afternoon. Chris’s talk will be on  “What the Fossil Record Tells Us About Evolution”, while I’ll be speaking on “How Evolution Works”.  My talk is at 1 PM, Chris’s at 3 PM; each should be about 30 min.

If you’re in southeastern Wisconsin or northeastern Illinois, come by to join the festivities!


Professor Ceiling Cat will be lecturing on Darwin Day in the Deep South, my favorite place to spread the gospel. I’ll be talking about the evidence for evolution and the religious pushback against it, at the University of Southern Mississippi on February 13 (announcement here). There will be books on sale, and the good Professor will sign them; if you say “Felis silvestris lybica” (the wild ancestor of the house cat), you’ll get a cat drawn in your book.

I was going to combine this with an eating trip to nearby New Orleans, but discovered to my horror that that’s during Mardi Gras, an awful time to be nomming in The Big Easy. However, I’m told that Hattiesburg, Mississippi has two world-class barbecue joints. Stay tuned.


October 21, 2014 • 10:44 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has been enjoying Bulgarian cuisine, and I’m he sure will continue his reporting, but I thought I’d report on a stateside culinary event. Southeastern Wisconsin is noted for its German heritage due to its large number of German immigrants. One of the traditions they brought with them is Oktoberfest, a fall celebration associated in the US with German beer and food. I’ve never been to an  Oktoberfest in Germany, so I can,’t say how authentic the American versions are. In the particular place in southeastern Wisconsin where I am, the immigrant heritage is actually more strongly Danish and Italian than German, but there are plenty of Oktoberfest events, so I went with some companions to Ashling on the Lough, an Irish bar, to experience their Oktoberfest.

Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.
Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.

Most important of course is the beer. As I had tried some of the beers they were featuring for Oktoberfest on previous visits, I decided to have a blind tasting of the two I had liked most, Paulaner Marzen and Spaten Munchen. The bartender poured two small glasses of each while my back was turned, and I then tasted them. The winner, by a nose: Spaten!

We actually began with Bloody Marys, which are a house specialty. The vodka comes from a large bottle of hot peppers, where it becomes infused with the pepper flavors. They also add a quick pull of Guinness to the drink. The garnishes are string cheese, pickle, beef stick (a Wisconsin specialty), pimento-stuffed olives, lemon slice, and lime wedge. In addition, one of my companions brings marinated asparagus and bacon (pre-cooked, of course), which we add to the mix. On the side there is a chaser of Harp, a Canadian beer (which was once made in Ireland, hence its use in an Irish bar).

Bloody Mary, Ashling
Bloody Mary, at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha.

With the first drink having so much to eat in it, I did not require much more, but my companions ordered the “Munich burger”, a passable hamburger, made more German by having sweet German mustard and sauerkraut as the condiments. The sides, German potato salad (a common Wisconsin recipe– not sure how German it is) and potato pancakes (crispy, not the more traditional pancake-y kind) were good.

Munich burger.
Munich burger.


German potato salad.
German potato salad.

I went for something lighter than the full meal: German beer and cheese soup. The bartender gave us a taster, and it was quite good, so I went for the full bowl.

German beer cheese soup.
German beer cheese soup.

The beer was Hofbrau (not sure if it was the German original or made in US under license; there’s a mix of the two in the US, and most brewers with overseas operations try to make it hard to figure out exactly where the beer is coming from), and the cheese a mix of cheddar and Irish (naturally) white cheddar.

We had gotten there early, so the first of two bands, the Brewhaus Polka Kings, was setting up as we finished. The band members were wearing lederhosen. I had thought polka was more Polish than German, but one of my companions reminded me of the popular Liechtensteiner Polka with German lyrics, and Liechtenstein is a German-speaking principality. Perhaps a reader with more knowledge of the popular music of Mitteleuropa could enlighten us.