Meet the camelopard

So… there’s a faint northern constellation called Camelopardalis. It is so named because someone thought it looked kind of like a giraffe. Which was known as a kamelopardalis, or a camel-leopard, in Greek – because come on guys, it has a long camel-like neck and it also has spots! This cracks me up! :) Words are awesome!

Surprisingly, even English-speaking folks used “camelopard” in medieval times (pr. kuh-MEH-luh-pard).

Of course then I had to wonder why we started calling it “giraffe”. Apparently “giraffe” derives from the Arabic word “zarāfah” (fast-walker). So that one’s pretty good, but not nearly as descriptive. I say, bring back the camelopard! Who’s with me?

Do I have sentient squirrels?

Last year, I bought some solar-powered garden lights and put them along my driveway to make it easier (and more welcoming) to follow the driveway to my house. I was very pleased with the little spots of light marking the edge of the driveway. Then I kept finding two of them knocked over… with scrape/gnawing marks on them. The top part of one disappeared entirely. These had plastic tops, and maybe weren’t as durable, but it was weird to have a piece just disappear. What animal would want it? But what human would take just the top of one light? The two affected lights were under a tree, and squirrels maybe jumped onto them? My best hypothesis was that the squirrels thought they were some kind of bird feeder and hoped there were seeds inside the glass. I finally relocated them to the front of the house and bought metal ones to replace along the driveway. Neither set has suffered further attacks.

Recently I was doing some yard work, and I found the missing top, buried in leaves! But it just raised more questions. Because something spent some serious time and effort extracting just the solar panel. See below an undamaged top (left) and the one I found (right):

You can click to enlarge. It looks like dedicated… gnawing, to me. A human would have used a tool – or just taken the whole top with them (why dig out the solar panel and then leave the shell?).

The back side is equally weird, with the rechargeable battery and its cover removed. A human would have opened the cover with their fingers. Instead, whatever took this battery dug/gnawed it out.

This no longer looks like someone thought it was a bird feeder.

So I’m standing here with this chewed-up solar light and I’m wondering just what kind of squirrel is hungry for this technology. Or am I living next to the rats of NIMH? Help?

A wooly bear in my yard

I was raking up a ton of leaves that had fallen in my yard when I discovered a little ball of brown and black amongst the leaves. I repositioned him in a tree and took a picture:

I did some sleuthing and found that this is a wooly bear caterpillar (they roll into a ball when disturbed). They transform into the beautiful Isabella tiger moth.

I marvel anew at how different these forms can be. And then there’s this amazing part of its lifecycle:

The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws. (Wikipedia)

Wow! I’ll have to look for this guy again in the spring. I hope he makes it :) (But maybe he’ll be a moth by then!)

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

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