Be a citizen scientist for nature

I recently discovered iNaturalist, which is a website and smartphone app that encourages you to collect observations of plants, animals, and insects. By recording when and where they were observed, you contribute to the store of data about these organisms. This place must be every biologist’s dream come true! Data for free!

They’ve put some thought into how to ensure high quality data. When you log an observation of, say, a ladybug, you can simply record it as “insect” and let others refine it, or be as specific as you feel confident to narrow down its precise species. The crowd of other users will review your tag and vote for it as correct or make corrections. When an organism is pinned down at the species level, that observation becomes “research grade.”

So far I have contributed observations of a praying mantis (needs review) and a raccoon (research grade!). When you log an observation and connect it with a species, you also get to see a map of where else that species has been seen.

You can also “subscribe” to get updates whenever a particular organism of interest is spotted! I signed up for praying mantises (mantis religiosa), spiny lizards (at the genus level (sceloporus), not a species), and collared lizards (family crotaphytidae – a beautiful creature from my childhood). Just today I’ve seen a bunch of new lizard observations (one dead). I’m looking forward to more. (I’m also being exposed to the Latin names for things. What fun!)

Another cool feature is that you can browse an area (say, where you are currently standing) to see what has been observed there.` You can also join specific research “projects” and contribute your matching observations (e.g., a project might specify that they want only pictures of reptiles observed in southern California).

I love to see well constructed efforts to engage people in the process of science. This one seems particularly compelling and enjoyable to use.

A monk and his cat: Pangur Bán

In my class on the History of Books and Libraries, we were recently introduced to this fun 9th century Irish poem. My own cat and I are amused.

The cat’s name, Pangur Bán, is a little tricky to decode. “Bán” means “white,” and “Pangur” seems to have been a common name for cats (maybe like Felix) that may mean “Fuller” (as in fulling cloth: beating it to remove dirt and impurities — like how cats knead blankets?).

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Translation by Robin Flower

An ant under the microscope

I killed two ants the other day, for Science. “Adventures with a Microscope” instructs you in how to kill a fly so that you can remove its legs and eyes for a close look under the microscope. No flies were available, so I victimized some ants who kept trying, with mindless persistence, to invade my personal space. I put them under glass, where one asphyxiated, slowly, as I had no chloroform. The other escaped and I flicked it into some water, where it drowned. I felt more than a few twinges of guilt, staring at their huddled corpses, but then decided to examine them under the microscope.

And oh, how glorious!

40x (lowest magnification):
The segmented, slightly blurry object on the right is its antenna.
The thin filament is (I think) carpet fuzz.

Note the difference in texture between chitin and eye (zoom 100x):

Zoom 200x:

These were all taken with reflected light, since ants don’t transmit light well. But are they not beautiful and alien, seen up so close? We’ve all heard of the fly’s multi-faceted eye. I’m not sure I realized that the ant’s is likewise complex and compound.


Chinese Edible Dogs

Yeah, I blinked at the headline, too. One of my projects at the Monrovia Library is scanning old newspapers (on microfilm) into digital files for easy later access (and hopefully indexing). This item came from the July 2, 1915 issue of the Monrovia Messenger:

Interesting slice of history!

Kitty litter considerations

After seven years of scooping kitty litter on a daily basis, one can’t help but meditate occasionally on the environmental impact of the stuff. What kind of litter is best? And what’s the best way to dispose of the scooped-out pet waste, or the used litter?

“Litter and the Environment” (2008) discusses the environmental impact of clay, silica, and plant-based litters. Did you know that the raw clay material (sodium bentonite) is obtained through strip mines, and that “The United States Geological Society estimates that 85 percent of the 2.54 million tons of clay used in this country every year is used for absorption of pet waste, with cat litter being the dominant”? That’s about 2.15 million tons of (ultimately) used-up clay that goes, most likely, into landfills. The article concludes that plant-based litters may cause the least environmental impact, but ultimately there is no perfect solution.

Some alternatives to clay-based litter that caught my eye, and have favorable comments in discussion fora, are:

These are inevitably more expensive than clay-based litters, but might ease your environmental conscience. For the ultimate in cost savings (at the expense of time), you can make your own paper-based litter.

Once you select a litter, there’s still the question of how to dispose of it after it’s used. I scoop waste (pee clumps and feces) from the litter into a Litter Locker, which is super handy (and keeps odors down) but not only consumes plastic, it seals the waste for eternity and guarantees it’ll never break down. But you can’t compost it (temperatures don’t get high enough to break down feces), you shouldn’t flush it (can clog pipes, and there’s a small risk of infecting marine life with toxoplasmosis, although apparently VERY small risk if your cat lives indoors and doesn’t eat mice), and from what I’ve read, most sources regretfully recommend sending it to the landfill. Probably the best solution is to put it in a paper bag or something a little more likely to ultimately decompose (versus plastic), then put it out with your trash.

I change out the unused litter very rarely, like every few months. From browsing online, I learned that some people just let the box fill up with waste and then throw out the whole thing once a week, which must make them go through a ton of litter! Why why why?

Finally, no discussion of this issue would be complete without mentioning the alternative strategy of toilet-training your cat, which uses no litter and takes another chore off your hands. However, the small toxoplasmosis risk would still be present.

I’m considering trying out Feline Pine and/or Yesterday’s News, just to see how well they work (and whether my cat will use them!). And I may try to devise an alternative to the Litter Locker that avoids the use of plastic. Hmm.

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