Monday, December 9, 2013

Aerial acrobats

Black-tailed trainbearer, Lesbia victoriae
Black-tailed trainbearer, Lesbia victoriae

With more than 300 species worldwide, hummingbirds come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. One thing they all have in common is their ability to amaze us with their acrobatic skills. A few of them, such as the trainbearers and racket-tails, have extra-long tails that act as counterweights, allowing them to make some remarkably fast mid-air twists and turns.

Booted racket-tail, Ocreatus underwoodii

Sparkling violet-ear, Colibri coruscans

Tyrian metal-tail, Metallura tyrianthina

Purple-bibbed white-tip, Urosticte benjamini

Shining sunbeams, Aglaeactis cupripennis

To purchase prints or license images for use in your publications or products, just click on the photos above, or choose from thousands of other photos here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The bullfrog blues

Way back in 1969, folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded a song called "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog." It was a pretty silly song (with an important social message as well), as you can see from this verse:  

Well I'm not worried about our kids, 
 I know they'll turn out neat. 
They'll be great lookin' 'cause they'll have my face, 
great swimmers 'cause they'll have his feet!

To a kid who had already spent much of his life in the company of frogs, it seemed even sillier, for reasons that should be obvious: Falling in love with a frog was one thing, but a big blue frog? I mean, c'mon. Everybody knows frogs come in green or brown, with maybe a touch of red or yellow on the legs and belly.

Later I learned about Dendrobatidae, a family of tropical frogs with skin secretions so toxic (in some species, at least) that Amazonian Indians used them to poison the tips of their arrows. In an adaptation known as aposematism, or warning coloration, these frogs have evolved bright colors, making them easy to see and giving potential predators a clear message that they are not to be messed with. They come in a variety of colors – reds, oranges, yellows, and, yes, even blue. But Dendrobatids are tiny, with most species less than an inch long. Maybe the song should be called "I'm in Love with a Little Blue Frog."

You can imagine my surprise, all these decades later, when I found myself face to face with a big blue frog.

(Note to my many friends who are photographers, printers, or graphic designers: Yeah, I know – the frog's not blue, it's cyan. Get over it. Of all the people who have seen these photos, or who saw the actual frog, I didn't hear even one of them exclaim, "Wow! Look at that cyan frog!")

Now, if you're thinking this encounter happened in some exotic, unexplored wilderness, you're wrong. It was right here in Northern California, and the frog in question was none other than Rana catesbeiana, the common American bullfrog. Commonly green, that is.

(OK, now a note to my friends who are biologists, copy editors, or just language geeks: Here in California, bullfrogs really are exotic – meaning they're not native. But calling such a common species exotic just sounds wrong to most people.)

So what's going on here? Why, in a pond with hundreds of ordinary green bullfrogs, would there be one that seems normal in every way except for its striking and improbable color?

The short, simple answer is that it's a rare mutation. How rare? I really don't know. I found one article that called it "one in a million," but that phrase is so overused that I just take it to mean "very rare," without any specificity. I do know that I've seen thousands of bullfrogs in my life, and this is the first blue one I've come across.

The details – how a frog gets its color – are surprisingly complicated. Frog skin has three layers of pigment cells, collectively called chromatophores. The deepest layer, the melanophores, contain melanin, which gives a frog its black or dark brown pattern and can make the overall color lighter or darker. At the surface are the xanthophores, which contain yellow pigment. In between are the iridophores, which don't really have any pigment at all – they contain mirror-like crystals that reflect blue light.

When light hits a frog's skin, it passes through the xanthophores to the iridophores, which reflect blue light back up through the xanthophores – having the effect of adding a yellow filter to the blue light. If you remember finger-painting in kindergarten, you know that mixing blue and yellow will make green, and that's more or less what's happening in a normal frog. Without the xanthophores' yellow filter, we would see the blue reflected by the iridophores.

In a blue frog, the xanthophores are missing – or maybe they're not. Scientists Michael W. Berns and K. Shankar Narayan analyzed the skin of normal and blue frogs in great detail, but their results were inconclusive. The blue frogs' xanthophores might never have developed properly, or they might have atrophied for another reason, or they could have been replaced by another type of cell. In spite of the obvious importance of this line of research, the question remains unanswered.

And it gets even more complicated. Biologists have always assumed that the blue mutation was genetic, but when researchers tried breeding blue and normal adults in various combinations, all they got was a whole bunch of little green frogs. That doesn't rule out the possibility of a genetic origin, but, as Berns and Narayan put it, "it appears that expression of the characteristic either does not follow simple Mendelian lines, or is greatly influenced by environmental factors (or both)."

Whatever the explanation, it all adds up to one very special frog. I think I might be in love.

Song lyrics copyright © Leslie Braunstein

Thanks to Gary Fellers for finding the scientific publications. 

Interested in publishing these or other photos? Click here for more information.

Monday, July 22, 2013

It's a sheep! It's a bird! It's a ...

Most of my exploring in Arizona has been at lower elevations, in habitats dominated by saguaro, ocotillo, and cholla, and by now I usually know what to expect there. But one afternoon a few years ago, I went for a hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Although it's just a short drive from Saguaro National Park, it's a completely different ecosystem, one of Arizona's "sky islands" – small mountain ranges that are isolated from each other by surrounding low desert. As I hiked a trail in the upper part of Bear Canyon, I crossed an open area in the dry pine forest, where a powerful stream cascades down the mountainside, splashing over the exposed granite. Or at least that's what I picture happening in a rainstorm or spring snowmelt. At the time, the streambed consisted only of scattered boulders and a few downed trees. From the trail, I couldn't even see the tiny pools of water that remained in the canyon below me.

As I walked, I heard a distinctive sound – a sharp, staccato baa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa – that seemed to come from somewhere among the rocks below the trail. I didn't know whether any desert bighorn sheep lived here, but both the habitat and the voice seemed about right. If that was a bighorn, I wanted to find it.

I slowly made my way down the rocky slope, pausing every few steps to listen for another call. The echoes off the rocks made it hard to know exactly where the sound was coming from. I had to keep changing directions, triangulating, to zero in on the source.

After about a hundred yards I seemed to be very close. I was surrounded by nothing but rocks and a few small trees. There was no place for a sheep to be hiding, and yet it had to be nearby. By this time I had begun to think it might be a bird I was hearing, so I kept an eye on the trees and the higher slopes of the rocks. Still nothing. I kept moving, as slowly as possible, until eventually I was at a point where the source of that sound couldn't have been more than two or three yards away.

Finally I saw it. No, it wasn't a bighorn. It wasn't a bird, either. It was a canyon treefrog, the first one I had ever seen – or heard, obviously. After recovering from the shock of being fooled by a frog (after all, I'm supposed to be the frog guy), I refocused my attention and found there were several more within a few yards of me.

Every species has its comfort zone – or maybe I should say discomfort zone – an invisible circle that defines the area that, if you cross into it, you will usually cause the animal to flee. In a lifetime of watching reptiles and amphibians, I've learned how to cross that line with most of them. As I got closer to the canyon treefrogs, I discovered some pretty cool things about these little critters.   

The first thing I noticed is that they can be pretty hard to see when they're not moving. The pattern on the frog's back blends in perfectly with the granite. I made a few shots showing the camouflage, and others with very shallow depth of field to isolate the frog from its background.

Even more interesting, and just as challenging to photograph, was the way the vibrations of the male's vocal sac send ripples out across the surface of the water.

Later that evening, I heard a chorus of hundreds of frogs, a truly impressive sound that echoed up and down the canyon and seemed to come from everywhere at once. (And it didn't sound anything like a sheep.) But it was that first encounter that I remember most vividly, the frog that confused me and reminded me that I really don't know all that much about frogs.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sidewinder races? Really?

I hope you enjoyed my April Fool's Day story! (Some of you may remember it from last year.) It sounds like a few people fell for it, others were amused by it, and some wanted to know how much "truth" the story contained. So, just for the record ...

Panamint Springs Resort, the Death Valley Natural History Association, Furnace Creek Resort, and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe are all real organizations. I hope they don't object to my using their names. Bakersfield is a real place, too, or so I've heard.

All of the historical figures I mentioned are real people. Death Valley Scotty was a well-known con man who I like to imagine would have staged a sidewinder race if he had thought of it. Albert Johnson was a Chicago millionaire who continued to fund Scotty's extravagant lifestyle long after realizing he'd been conned. His vacation home in Grapevine Canyon, which he called Death Valley Ranch, is now known as Scotty's Castle. Shorty Harris and Pete Aguereberry were prospecting partners, until Shorty took credit for Pete's gold discovery and named the resulting town Harrisburg (it's now called Aguereberry Camp). Father John Crowley was a priest whose parish covered 30,000 square miles from Bishop to Barstow. He was well known to Death Valley's prospectors.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) really does have an anti-fur campaign called "I'd rather go naked." I don't know how often, if ever, their protests have been stopped by a shortage of sunscreen.

The Yosemite Firefall was a real event. Each evening during the summer tourist season, employees of the Glacier Point Hotel would build a bonfire and shove the glowing embers over the cliff after dark. By current standards it sounds like a pretty crazy thing to do in a national park - almost as crazy as holding a snake race in Death Valley.

Turtle races, rattlesnake roundups, and other cruel forms of "entertainment" really do exist, and various people have tried to shut them down. I hope they succeed.

I can't be absolutely positive, but I'm pretty confident that the following two sentences are true: "The Mark Twain Archive at the University of California has no record of the invitation," and "If you travel to Death Valley next spring looking for the sidewinder races, you're not likely to find them."

On the other hand, you really can buy a t-shirt or mug as a souvenir of the fictional race.

As for the photos - well, as Paul Simon might say, "Mama, don't take my Photoshop away!"

Monday, April 1, 2013

A day at the races

Excitement was in the air - along with the usual blowing sand - at the annual Stovepipe Wells Sidewinder Races, an event that stands out even in Death Valley, where quirky characters and unlikely occurrences are part of the local history. With a record number of entrants, this year's competition had to be extended to three days, although the party has traditionally lasted somewhat longer. The actual races take place only for about an hour each morning and evening, avoiding the oppressive daytime temperatures and leaving plenty of time for other activities.

Most entrants this year were self-described "desert rats," although each of the park's major concessionaires and partners also sponsored an entry. Panamint Pete, representing Panamint Springs Resort, fared the best of the sponsored entries, edging out Rambo, the entry of the Death Valley Natural History Association, in the semifinals. Shorty Hairless, entered by Furnace Creek Ranch, and Timbisha, representing the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, each made it to the quarterfinals. Scotty's Ghost, a rare albino sidewinder entered by a reptile collector from Bakersfield, also performed well but lost in the semifinals.

In the end, the coveted Slithering Serpent trophy went to Creosote, the entry of a mysterious character who identified himself only as Gyro. After a quick thank you and a cold beer, he hopped into his pickup and slipped away before he could be interviewed.

Origins clouded

As with much of Death Valley's history, the origins of the race are clouded by legend and exaggeration. Most popular accounts credit Walter Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty, with organizing the first race. Scotty was inspired (so the story goes) when he read Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and saw the promotional opportunity in staging a similar event in Death Valley. In a letter to Albert Johnson, his long-time benefactor, Scotty claimed to have invited Twain to visit Johnson's Death Valley Ranch and document the race. Whether Scotty was unaware of Twain's death a decade earlier or had simply let his tendency to exaggerate go too far is not clear. The Mark Twain Archive at the University of California has no record of the invitation.

Other historians, while acknowledging Scotty's unparalleled marketing skills and role in promoting the event, cite evidence that the idea for the race originated with Pete Aguereberry, the reclusive Basque miner. It was his one-time partner Shorty Harris, they say, who first promoted Pete's idea while claiming it as his own.

Most accounts agree that the legendary "Desert Padre," Father John Crowley, officiated at that first race, presumably because he was the only observer sober enough to accurately judge the winners. Surprisingly, there are no reports of snakebite, fatal or otherwise, resulting from the race.

The race was resurrected sometime in the 1960s or 70s - again, no one is really sure - and occurred sporadically over the next couple decades, becoming an annual event around 1996. In the past few years, what began as an informal gathering of desert rats and amateur herpetologists has blossomed into a major celebration.

The last race?

Not everyone, however, is celebrating. In 2007 a small group of animal rights activists, inspired by PETA's "I'd rather go naked" anti-fur campaign, attempted to disrupt the race while wearing only sandals and carrying a 30-foot-long inflatable snake. They had to abandon their protest due to a shortage of sunscreen.

More recent criticism has centered on the safety aspects of handling venomous snakes, and especially on the appropriateness of holding the race in a national park, where all wildlife is protected by law. While the National Park Service has never officially sanctioned the race, rangers have always looked the other way and allowed it to continue. Critics compare it to the Yosemite Firefall - a summer tradition in which burning embers were tossed off Glacier Point - which was discontinued in 1968 because it conflicted with the mission of the national parks.

Others argue that the race should not exist at all. Animal rights supporters consider it to be cruel and abusive to the snakes, and biologists point out the stress on individual snakes as well as on the natural ecosystem. Most of the snakes are released afterward, but participants don't always return them to the exact locations where they were captured, which can disrupt existing populations.

In recent years, turtle races and rattlesnake roundups in Texas and other states have been the target of environmentalists and animal rights activists. For many years the Stovepipe Wells race escaped such criticism because it was not widely known, but all that has changed now. If you travel to Death Valley next spring looking for the sidewinder races, you're not likely to find them.

Been there, done that, forgot to buy the t-shirt? Get your official Sidewinder Race souvenirs here!

Update: Just in case you didn't notice the date on this post, here's the story behind the story

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The cat that waited for me

After a miserable night at Red Rock Canyon – a howling wind that blew dust and whipped the tent all night, plus a too-bright moon and a migraine – Tuesday was a predictably lousy day. By mid-afternoon I was exhausted and just wanted to be home, or at least someplace familiar. So I headed for Wildrose Canyon, on the western edge of Death Valley.

I don't know why, but Wildrose has always felt like home. Maybe it's just because it was the first place I camped in Death Valley, more than thirty years ago. It's a wide canyon (or narrow valley, if you prefer) full of sagebrush and creosote, rocks and springs – in other words, it's much like any other canyon in the Panamint Range. But, as familiar as it is, Wildrose can still surprise me. In a wet year its hillsides are carpeted with wildflowers. In 2005 it was overrun with cottontails. I saw my first panamint daisy there, practically growing out of the pavement at the side of the road. Its springs are a haven for warblers, finches, orioles, and dozens of other birds, while the rocks are home to chuckwallas and collared lizards. And, while I tend to avoid the noise and crowds of official campgrounds, preferring the solitude of more remote areas, the campground at Wildrose seems to be ignored by most park visitors.

I arrived at the Wildrose campground at about 5:00 and was happy to see that my favorite spot was available. (In fact, twenty-one of the twenty-two campsites were available.) I immediately felt better, so I set up my tent and decided to look around.

At the far end of the campground is a trail that passes between a steep hillside on the left and a small spring, thick with mesquite, on the right. A few steps down the trail, I saw a bobcat on the hillside, just above my eye level and no more than ten steps in front of me. I stopped. It stopped. I took a step back; it took a step back. Neither of us knew what to do next. It was so close, and so unexpected, that it took me a few seconds to really understand what it was. I ran through a checklist in my mind: tufted ears ... short tail ... long legs ... spots ... twice as tall as a house cat ... this was definitely a bobcat.

Have I mentioned that my camera was still in the car, a hundred yards behind me?

For the next few seconds, while the cat and I stared at each other, I had two conflicting impulses. The first, of course, was to run back for my camera. The other was to stay where I was and enjoy the moment – I had never been this close to a bobcat before, and might never be again. And besides, did I really expect a bobcat to just sit and wait for me?

I decided to go for the camera. All the way to the car, and all the way back, I cursed myself. How could I be so stupid as to walk away from my camera in a place like Wildrose? I knew I'd never see the cat again, at least not that close.

I guessed the cat would go up the hill, so on the way back I went up the hill myself, coming over a low ridge a few yards above where it had been. I stood for a while, scanning the hillside as well as the trail and spring below. Nothing. Then I thought I saw movement behind a small shrub about twenty feet below me. Something was different about that bush; the ground behind it was the wrong shade of brown.

I aimed my lens at the bush, trying to focus beyond the branches on whatever might be behind them. When the cat's face popped into focus I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Yes, the bobcat had sat – literally – right where I had left it, and waited for me to return with my camera. Thank you, Mother Nature!

I moved left for a better view. The cat looked at me for a moment, then walked downhill toward the spring – and lay down in the shade of another bush. A minute later, it stood up and disappeared into the mesquite.

I stayed for two days and never saw the cat again. I had three photos, and one more surprise from Wildrose.

This story was published in Death Valley Photographer's Guide: Where and How to Get the Best Shots, Nolina Press 2011

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Celebrating Death Valley, part 2

The story so far: After planning to be in Death Valley for the two-day grand re-opening of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, I encountered one photographic opportunity after another and missed all of Saturday's events. But I was determined not to miss a Sunday morning panel discussion with the park superintendent and three former superintendents, representing thirty continuous years of Death Valley management.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: what kind of geek gets excited about listening to a group of National Park superintendents talking about management challenges? A Death Valley geek, of course.

Sarah Craighead, superintendent from 2009 through 2012, introduced the rest of the group: Ed Rothfuss (1982-1994), Dick Martin (1994-2001), and JT Reynolds (2001-2009). Each talked briefly about the major issues of his or her tenure, and then the four of them answered questions from a very interested and well-informed audience. Topics covered included the Desert Protection Act of 1994 – the decades-long political battle to pass the bill as well as the challenge of running a park that had grown by more than a million acres overnight. Dick Martin spoke about his efforts to make the Timbisha Shoshone tribe an equal partner in managing a park that is, in fact, their homeland.

JT Reynolds stressed the importance of being able to work with very different groups of people, each with its own ideas about what the park should be. It sounded at times like he was describing parenthood. "The previous superintendent always approved our events." "We've never had to pay for this before." "Mommy always lets me do this." All four agreed that, sooner or later, a superintendent has to be willing to risk his or her job by standing up for what's best for the park.

It was clear that these were people who have devoted their careers, and their lives, to the place they love. (They don't just work in the park, they live here.) In fact, there was an obvious affection for Death Valley on the part of each of the participants, and everyone in attendance as well. Every one of us, park employees as well as visitors, had chosen to be there because of our love for Death Valley. 

I spent the next hour just relaxing in the courtyard at Furnace Creek Lodge, something I've rarely, if ever, done before. Normally, if I stop there at all, it's to fill my gas tank, get some ice for the cooler, maybe buy a book or get something to eat, and quickly be on my way. Today, though, felt different. This was a weekend of celebration, and that fact had definitely influenced my attitude toward the crowds. I read a book while listening to two guys with guitars holding an impromptu concert, then had lunch at the 49er Café.

After lunch it was time for the main event: the dedication, awards, and ribbon-cutting ceremony. The whole thing had a slightly hokey, small-town feel about it, and I say that in the most affectionate and positive way. There was nothing slick about it. Like all similar events, the speeches were a mix of inspiring and dull, polished and halting. One was predictably corporate; another sounded like it was written on the way to the podium. One or two were very moving. Each of the speakers, in his or her own way, expressed the same love of place I had been seeing all day.

The dedication by Timbisha elder (and former tribal chairperson) Pauline Esteves was especially powerful, though hardly anyone understood the words. Her prayer, in an ancient language now spoken by fewer than two dozen people, was a connection to the past and a reminder to all of us that we are part of a continuum of people who have found spiritual sustenance in Death Valley.

After the speeches it was time for cake and schmoozing. I chatted with a few people and then saw Alan van Valkenburg, a ranger I've worked with on some interpretive exhibits. We talked about the Visitor Center, the weekend, Death Valley, and our latest encounters with sidewinders. I was about to leave when he said he was leading a tour of the building and would be talking about its history and the challenges of updating it. How could I resist?

I'm glad I stayed for his talk. The story of modernizing this historic structure is one of conflicts, surprises, and flexibility, as the Park Service worked to balance the needs of historic preservation with modern standards of energy efficiency, water use, safety, and accessibility. That might sound a little boring, but Alan is an enthusiastic and entertaining presenter, and he brought the Visitor Center to life.

After the talk, I said good-bye to Alan and was ready to call it a day, but Death Valley had other plans.

Halfway to my car I looked up the road and saw twenty mules pulling a borax wagon, heading my way. It was not a replica. This was an original borax wagon, pulled by a team of twenty mules and accompanied by a handful of cowboys on horseback. I ran alongside them, shooting what I could from various perspectives, not really knowing what kind of photos I'd get. I felt like a little kid, with a big silly grin on my face, and when I looked around I saw the same expression on the dozens of faces that had suddenly appeared along the road. Everyone was smiling and laughing, making jokes about Death Valley Days, and just feeling thrilled to see a bit of living history.

What a perfect ending to this day of celebration.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Celebrating Death Valley, part 1

I had been planning a fall trip to the East Mojave, so when I heard that the grand re-opening of Death Valley's Furnace Creek Visitor Center was scheduled for the first weekend in November, I decided to make that part of my trip. The decision felt a little out of character for me. I usually avoid people on my Death Valley trips, camping in remote locations and rarely stopping at the Visitor Center or the various museums, gift shops, and restaurants in and around the park. I always buy an annual pass, so I don't even have to stop to pay the entrance fee.

But this trip would be different. Talks, tours, and other events were scheduled all day Saturday and Sunday, with the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday afternoon. I spent the previous week camping in Mojave National Preserve, and planned to arrive in Death Valley early Saturday morning. To make sure I arrived on time, I left Mojave Friday evening and spent the night in Baker, home of the world's tallest thermometer. (It's 134 feet high, to commemorate Death Valley's record temperature of 134 degrees.)

Driving into Death Valley on Saturday morning, I encountered the typical photographer's dilemma: there was just too much to see and photograph along the way. My first stop was Saratoga Spring, especially beautiful in the warm light of sunrise.

Continuing north, I reached the little town of Shoshone just in time for their annual Old West Days celebration. Naturally I had to stop and browse the booths, pick up a couple of books from the Shoshone Museum, and enjoy a date shake from the China Ranch Date Farm.

Finally arriving in Death Valley around 4:00 pm, I had to stop for a couple of coyotes who were creating a traffic jam on Badwater Road. No complaints from me, of course – my only problem was that I had to run back to the car for a shorter lens. But I guess someone thought it was a safety hazard, because after a few minutes a ranger pulled up and used her siren to scare the coyotes off the road. They returned as soon as she left.

By the time I finished with the coyotes, the sun was setting. The obvious thing to do now was shoot evening reflections at Badwater. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

After dark I checked in at the newly remodeled Stovepipe Wells Village. The new owners have done a good job of fixing it up – and of course it has a great location, just a mile or so from the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat. But it's still a motel, and it's hard for me to get excited about a motel room, no matter where it is or how it's described. (A "dune view" room faces the highway; a "mountain view" faces the other way. But why would anyone care about the view from their motel room? Just get out and experience the desert!) I had a late dinner in the restaurant, where, as is often the case in Death Valley, there seemed to be a different language spoken at every table.

Sunday morning I was up early, looking forward to the first event of the day, a panel discussion with the park superintendent and her three immediate predecessors. But that didn't start until 9:00, leaving plenty of time for a walk on the Mesquite Flat dunes.

The weather was beautiful, and had been all week, which is not necessarily the best time to photograph sand dunes. Without wind, any footprints will remain where they are. A good windstorm restores the natural ripples and textures of the dunes to the pristine condition that everyone wants to photograph. It was immediately obvious that I wasn't going to get that kind of photo. On this morning there were more footprints than I've ever seen, and they were everywhere.

Even a mile from the parking area there was still a ten-foot-wide path of footprints upon footprints, all making their way toward the highest dune. Off the main path, heading off in all directions, were individual prints of boots, sneakers, sandals, bare feet, hands, arms, legs, huge strides of children's footprints running across the sand, and wide troughs made by people sliding on their butts down the steep sides of the dunes.

I could have seen all these human-made marks in the sand as ruining my ideal photograph. Instead, I saw stories of exuberance and joyfulness, a celebration of and connection with nature. For someone who usually prefers to be alone in the desert, and was looking ahead with some trepidation to a full schedule of social events, all those footprints turned out to be a pretty good start to the day.

On the way back to my car I saw the tracks of a sidewinder crossing on top of the human footprints. That made it even better.

 Part 2: I finally make it to the celebration.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


One thing you can say about natural selection is that it just doesn't care. It doesn't care about beauty, elegance, or simplicity of design – those are all things that we humans see in nature. As far as biology is concerned, if something works, it works. Never mind how it looks.

Take aquatic birds, for example. When you see a bird preening its feathers, it's not trying to make itself pretty – again, that's just our interpretation. What it's really doing is spreading oil over its feathers, keeping them clean and water-resistant. All birds have oil glands, and the more time a bird spends around water, the more oil it needs.

As you might expect, species that spend most of their lives on or under water – grebes and loons, for example – have evolved super-sized oil glands to keep them from getting waterlogged.

And then there are the cormorants.

When some distant ancestor of modern cormorants first ventured into the water in search of food, it must have been soaked when it climbed back onto land. So it spread its wings out to dry in the sun. That bird survived and passed its behavior along to its descendants, who never evolved the extra-large oil glands of other aquatic birds. Cormorants – which eat fish and nothing else – can only stay in the water for short periods of time. Then they have to get out and dry off before getting wet again.

Does this make sense? Would you buy a boat that wasn't waterproof, that had to be hauled out to dry every hour or so? Have cormorants really evolved the most beautiful or elegant solution to the problem of wet feathers?

Natural selection doesn't care.