Wednesday, May 26, 2010

News and Reviews

Howdy folks,

After a long silence, and some rethinking of my priorities, I'm discontinuing the Taxon of the Day series.
I'm not that disciplined, and it's not very informative.

Although tune has changed, the song remains the same. This blog is intended as a forum for public documentation of the idiosyncratic path I weave in my explorations of the biological diversity of life on planet Earth. For the nonbiological diversity of life, see Diverse Affections.

enough melodrama. On to the...


I am going to Central America this summer! Hurrah!
Primarily to watch birds (Oh my goodness Oscar has already tallied 381 oh my goodness) as well as to look for mushrooms (obviously).

In preparation for said adventure, I have acquired the following items, for which I will provide pre- and post-trip reviews as a public service:

A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica
(Stiles and Skutch)
The first seminal work in Costa Rican field ornithology (or so I'm told).

Initial positive impressions:
- Extensive accounts for each of the species including vocalizations, natural history, status, and  
- Each color plate hosts a relatively large number of species. This allows you to compare many
  different species within one group with a minimum of page flipping. For example,  the hummingbirds
  are presented on a grand total of 3 pages.

Initial negative impressions:
- This book is LARGE.
- The color plates are not interspersed with the text (ie. they are clustered in the middle of the book).
- The illustrations are not labeled with the names of the birds, and matching the numbers to the very brief
  field mark descriptions on the opposing page results in a lot of wasted time scanning. This is especially
  true for plates with multiple tens of species (hummers, warblers, etc).
- The large number of illustrations per plate means that many renderings are kind of small...
- There are no consolidated raptors-in-flight plates!
- Out of date! Aside from common name changes and latin-name reassignments Many species have expanded their ranges since this was written. Although the authors hint at some of these changes, things have changed: Pearl Kites are apparently well established now, Southern Lapwings have appeared, Brown-Hooded parrots are moving north, etc.

The Birds of Costa Rica
(Garrigues and Dean)

Initial positive impressions:
- Smaller than it's counterpart, by a long shot.
- Only includes birds likely to be seen from land. Yes, this might fall into some people's negative column, but I
  appreciate the reduction in size at the cost of completeness.
- Larger illustrations of each species, fewer per page, easy to match illustrations to names.
- Two words: RANGE MAPS.
- More up to date in nomenclature and individual species statuses.
- There is an incomplete but dedicated raptors-in-flight page.
- Key field marks are in BOLD in the text. Nice.

Initial negative impressions:
- Raptors in flight page is in the back of the book rather than with the raptors. Why???
- Very little natural history, and inconsistent reporting of vocalizations.
- Fewer species per page, although positive in the end, means that you have to do quite a bit of page flipping to
  compare some species.

A Field Guide to the Plants of Costa Rica
(Gargiullo, Magnuson, Kimball)

Initial positive impressions:
- Well thought out organization: first by 'bauplan' ie. tree vs. shrub vs. vine, then by the color of the
  conspicuous part.
- The authors appear to have put a good amount of thought into the species they included (ie. common, distinctive,
  attractive). Includes both native and nonnative species.
- There is a short but appreciated overview of some plant ecology with specific eye to Costa Rica's habitats.

Initial negative impressions:
- Considering that the authors acknowledge the difficulty of providing readers with species identification, I wish
  there was 20 pages dedicated with one or one half page each dedicated to the most common families and how to
  recognize them.
- Some of the photos are piss-poor (small, lack detail, show nothing of diagnostic value).
- Field marks are not highlighted in the text.

Sunpak MiniPro Plus Ballhead Tripod

Alright, I had a hard time finding reviews of tripods online, so here ya go:

I bought this unit to complement my larger tripod (which doesn't get low enough to take nice photos of mushrooms and wildflowers).
As implied by the model name, this little ditty is real small when fully collapsed:

And it goes from a low elevation of just over 20 cm to nearly 35 cm tall when expanded.
The ball head moves smoothly and achieves almost all the angles at which I might care to position the camera.
It holds my Nikon D80 (1.75 pounds) pretty well, although at the most extreme angles (tilted all the way vertical or pointing directly down) it requires a little workaround in terms of positioning/extending the legs.
The rotating cuffs on the legs don't lock up when tightened, and the second joint (which snaps into place) holds firm when extended.

All in all, a good deal, especially for the traveler.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Kew Gardens Plant Map

Check out this map from the Kew Gardens' GIS (geographic information systems) unit: Interactive Family and Genus Map

Further reason for all of us naturalists to take GIS classes!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (14 April 2010)

Myosotis alpestris - Alpine Forget-Me-Not
Last member of the Boraginaceae for awhile, I promise. 

Myosotis is most diverse in Western Eurasia (around 60 species occur there), but is also quite speciose in New Zealand's alpine habitats (with a not-too-shabby 35 species). Phylogenetic analysis (Winkworth 2002) and palynology (Raven (1973) both support a Eurasian origin for the genus, with isolated long-distance dispersal events to New Zealand.

The color and shape of these flowers are very typical for species in the genus Myosotis (meaning mouse-ear, in reference to the shape of the leaves).

California has one (or two) native Myosotis, depending on which reference you're using:  M. laxa, and M. verna according to the Jepson Manual. However, California also hosts up to 7 other species of Myosotis, the most common and conspicous being M. latifolia, the broadleaf Forget-Me-Not.

I took the above and following photos of M. alpestris in August 2009 along the Eigergletscher Trail, near Alpiglen (a very small town in Switzerland's mountainous Canton of Bern).                                                    
I found M. alpestris (and many other fascinating wildflowers) inhabiting the very upper reaches of the alpine zone, along the edge of steep scree:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (13 April 2010)

Contumyces rosella - Contu's Rosy Hymenochaete
If that common name sounds awkward, it's all my fault. I made it up thirty seconds ago. As far as fungi go, unless you are one of the deadly, gourmet, or extremely unusual varieties, you almost certainly don't have a common name. 

What's special about these little mushrooms? Well, first of all, I do mean LITTLE: the caps on the smallest specimens here are about 5 mm across, the largest about 10 mm. Second of all, they aren't closely related to most of the other fungi that they do look like, and they don't look like most of the fungi that they are related to. Here is a sampling of other members of the Order Hymenochaetales, to which Contumyces belongs:

Furthermore, this species is "bryophilous" which means that the occurrence of this species is tightly linked to bryophytes (moss, in this case). Whether the interaction is parasitic, mutualistic (or something stranger and more complicated) remains to be seen.

This fungus wasn't thought to be particularly common in California until one of the core members of MushroomObserver (Darvin DeShazer) started posting photos of this species from his yard. Then, it seems, people started finding it all over (because we started looking for IT, and we started looking in APPROPRIATE PLACES). This goes to show how important and useful "citizen-science" initiatives like MushroomObserver can be (check it out).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (12 April 2010)

Borago officinalis - Starflower, Borage
My first encounter with these lovely flowers was culinary: they were sprinkled through a salad made solely from home-garden plants. As it turns out, the mild, slightly sweet flavor of these flavors has also led to their use on cakes, and even as a traditional ravioli filling in the Liguria region of Italy.
If you plan on using these flowers as ingredients, be sure to avoid the hairy sepals - they sting a bit on the tongue.

This species is native to Syria, but has been transplanted widely as companion species to tomatoes (it attracts pollinators to tomatoes when intercropped with them). A member of the Boraginaceae, starflower brings the current ToD tally of species in this family to four. But check out the striking superficial similarity of borage flowers to those of Dodecatheon, a member of the Primulaceae (Primrose family):
Photo Catherine Munro
Dodecatheon flowers apparently need to be pollinated by vigorously-buzzing pollinators for successful fruit set, and I have noticed that European Honeybees prefer the Borage in my backyard over the nearby Sage (which attracts native bumblebees).
The starflower photos are from my backyard garden in Santa Cruz, where the plants attain heights of over one meter:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Urban Plant Survey

Hi folks.

On Friday morning, I walked a 4-block section of residential neighborhood in Santa Cruz, and tallied the number of plant species I could see in each yard.

Of course I didn't know scientific or common names for more than 10% of the plants, so I gave them field names to help me remember them, like: Dog Poo Lily, Globehead Spurge, Dani's Magnolia, Giant Red Alien, etc.

It's been indicated that relatively unskilled parataxonomists can often generate reasonable species richness estimates by (roughly) this method. However, Krell (Biodiversity and Conservation, 2004) outlines a number of problems with the Recognizable Taxonomic Units method (he proposes that it often overestimates species richness). In my survey, I guess that I actually underestimated diversity for many yards.

Anyways, I separated the counts by yard, entered the data into Excel, and for analysis, I exported it to R, the latest and greatest (and free) statistical computing environment. Click here for more information on R.

Using the tools in the vegan and MASS packages in R, I made a number of graphs for you to consider:
Figure 1. The number of plants per yard ranged from a low of 2 (the concrete- and asphalt- tolerant weeds in front of the stores bordering busy, noxious Mission street), to a high of 35 species (in a overgrown, but obviously-attended yard on Laurel).

Figure 2. The number of yards in which any given species occurred followed a pattern commonly seen in natural systems (although perhaps more steeply): There are few common species (occurring in >12 yards), and many species that occurred in only one or two yards.

Figure 3. The Shannon-Wiener Diversity indices (H') for each yard. I'm not sure whether or not I should be surprised that the distribution is fairly close to normal.

Figure 4. The species accumulation curve (random collection, 1000 permutations) doesn't appear to level off, suggesting that (at least for awhile), the more yards I survey, the more species I'll add to the total.

Future directions for analysis include: 1) trying to saturate the accumulation curve (ie. how many more yards will I have to survey before I reach a number close to all the species that occur in urban settings in Santa Cruz?), and 2) ordination of the yards with reference to some spatial measure (ie. do neighboring yards share more plant species than yards separated by many blocks?).

I encourage you to download and experiment with the R software, and attempt to do some of this kind of analysis for your home communities. Send me an e-mail, and I will send you the R code for doing these analyses.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (9 April 2010)

Toxostoma redivivum - California Thrasher

A relative of the familiar mockingbird, this species is an equally impressive singer. The latin name means "poisonous opening that has come back to life". I have no idea what the first part refers to (actually, I have an idea, but it is both crude and unlikely). The second part refers to Gambel's rediscovery of the bird, more than half a century after it was originally encountered by a Frenchman by the name of La Perouse.

Thrashers are in the Family Mimidae, along with mockingbirds, catbirds, thrashers, and tremblers. The mimids are strictly a new world family, and are well known for their vocal abilities. To hear a recording of the California Thrasher, click here

It turns out that the California Thrasher is the largest of the mimids. Despite their size, they are commonly claimed to be sulky and difficult to see. Perhaps this is because their preferred habitat (chapparal) tends to be rather low and dense. However, in my limited experience, I have found them to be fairly easy to see, and sometimes downright cooperative. The above photo was taken in January, just south of the Griffith Observatory, near Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.

No Taxon of the Day for weekends, I decided. But! You will get a chewy morsel of biodiversity/ecology investigation that I have been working on.
Have a nice Friday, my friends.