I went snorkeling today off the coast of Belize on part of its barrier reef. I have no true idea where I was, other than they said the boat ride was going to be about 14 miles. So that clears that up. Anyway, I saw several lobsters, a couple of rays, and a couple of nurse sharks. I was super excited by the rays and sharks. The coral was lovely, but somewhat sparse in that area. Also, there seemed to be a bit of what I can only assume was coral bleaching, which was rather depressing.
I took a cruise up the Monkey River today. Getting there was an adventure into itself. An hour drive to Placencia, then at least a half hour boat ride to Monkey River Town, to finally then cruise up the Monkey River. The journey ended at a spot in the jungle which is completely overrun by mosquitoes, but there are also some howler monkeys. The howler monkeys are about as loud as you can imagine an animal that gets the name howler would be. The Monkey River flows through a grassy and mangrove area that is quite pretty. There were numerous birds just sitting along the edge waiting to be spotted. Our guide also spotted a crocodile on the way back that nicely ignored us.
I visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary yesterday. I did not get to see any jaguars, which is the reason the sanctuary was created. However, thanks to the rain the day before, I did get to see some of their tracks, which made me happy. It appears to me the sanctuary actually belongs to leaf cutter ants though. They are everywhere. They have created ant highways across all the paths, and their mounds are everywhere. I am rather in awe of what these tiny insects can do in transforming their environment. Numerous places of the hiking paths have the weeds completely mowed clear by the ants, so they can walk unhindered. The sanctuary is quite pretty, and I admit, one of my favorite things about it was the moss and fungus growing on trees that I became quite obsessed with photographing.
This past weekend, I got to check an item off my bucket list when I got a tour of Freshkills, the former landfill that is being turned into a park. This is probably not an item on most people’s bucket list, but I have heard so much about the landfill that when I found out New York City Parks Department gives tours, I jumped to sign up. The vast majority of the landfill has been fully capped and vegetated. The mounds are dotted by the landfill gas collection system with gas wells popping up from the high grass at regular intervals. The wildlife has already moved in. There were butterflies flying everywhere in the grass, and birds were everywhere. We also saw a family of deer. The wetlands are lovely and evidently filled with wildlife. Also, the view from the top of the mounds is spectacular. It will be a while before the area will be completely converted to a park and open to the public, but the transformation already is incredible. As an environmental engineer, I am incredibly happy to see it and proud of my profession that did it.
While in Sand Diego, I visited Cabrillo National Monument. Actually I visited it twice. I went in the morning, and the entire area was covered with thick fog. I explored the tidal pool area and met some cute crabs, limpets, and snails. I then went to the peak area and tried to view San Diego underneath the clouds. It was kind of amazing to be on a peak about 400 feet above the ocean and look at a giant fog encompassing almost everything below. I then came back in the afternoon and was finally able to get some good views.
I got to visit Cueva Ventana (Window Cave) today in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The tour starts by walking by Pee Wee Cave, which only meets the bare minimum requirements of a cave. You don’t go in. There is no point or room really. There is a short walk through the forest, which when I visited meant getting to see among other things a bunch of giant snails on the trees. Then you walk through cave number two, which I don’t think they actually named. The middle portion of this cave is, well, cavernous, with huge ceilings and wide walls. However the walk through it is fairly short. Then you walk down an extremely steep path to get to the actual Cueva Ventana. There are bats living in there among the limestone columns. At the end of the cave is the Ventana. It has amazing views of the Arecibo River valley. The valley is gorgeous, and you can see the mountains beyond. The tour is worth the view alone. However the caves are really neat to see also, and I love bats, so getting to hear and see them was also a highlight. Sadly while there, you can see vandalism from years past, but tourism is now helping to support security and clean up for the site.
While touring El Morro, I discovered that it is guarded by a platoon of iguanas. I will assume that is what they are all doing there. That, and most of them seem to be there because they know that is where there is a lot of tourists, and the iguanas like to have their photos taken. Iguanas are hams. One was posing on the top level. I took a few photos, walked away to take photos of the fort, and walked back. The iguana had moved closer to the edge and where the people were. I kneeled down and got out my macro lens, and the iguana obliged by posing to make sure its best side was shown while I took photos for several minutes. Now, I only do what the iguana clearly wanted and post its photos.
I have two cats, Feste and Orsino, and Ferdinand the basset hound. The good news is they all get along. The bad news is they all get along. The get along so well they are a hunting pack. The good news is they keep the house free of pests although not so much the insects. The bad news is the only reason some of the pests are in the house is because some member of the hunting pack brought it in through the pet door. Normally they like to bring their trophies to me live. If I realize a prize has been brought in early enough, I can usually catch the prey and release it back outside relatively unharmed. Otherwise I’m on past prey patrol. Voles, moles, and mice are the main prey. Once in Texas, Puck the cat brought me a lizard. I’ve seen one dead bird. Luckily no snakes. Ferdinand the basset hound takes the prize for once while we lived in North Carolina bringing me an adult live opossum. He dropped it off in my bedroom. Wasn’t I impressed? No, I screamed like the girl I am. Eventually I got my wits about me after calling my mom in Texas, which of course was going to help somehow. She told me to call 911 because well it probably wouldn’t be the stupidest phone call they ever got. [Side note: I did call 911. Orange County North Carolina probably doesn’t get that many phone calls expect for drunks on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. In fact in Orange County you are supposed to call 911 for wildlife emergencies which is my justification for calling them. A very nice operator told me they would come help for wildlife that can carry rabies. Turns out opossums have too low a body temperature to carry rabies so all he could do was give me the phone number of a animal removal company. Still, good to know about opossums and rabies.] Anyway I finally calmed down. The opossum kept playing dead while both basset hounds and both cats kept watch to see if it would move again. I managed get a large trash can over it and pushed it down the hall and out the front door all while I was trailed by my hunting pack. After safely closing the door, I watched the opossum finally realize it was free. Before walking off, it looked at me as if to say thanks and possibly give me the middle opossum finger. I then went to go find a very large glass of wine.
This morning I heard the warning signal of both Feste and Ferdinand running across the living room. The I heard a squeak. I investigate, and both of them are staring intently at something. Great. It’s a mouse. It runs. Feste catches it in his mouth. Lets it go. Ferdinand catches it in his mouth. Lets it go. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Finally, Feste grabs it in his mouth and runs downstairs into my office. I then spend the next 20 minutes trying to catch the poor mouse that is trying to figure out how to get out while Feste mainly watches. Several times I would get close to getting a container on top of the mouse, and it would run to Feste for protection. I kid you not, it would run to Feste who would shelter the mouse in between his front legs. They would just look at each other. The mouse would move away. Feste would bat at it a little. I would try to catch the mouse. Repeat. Finally the mouse ran out into an open location where I could get a trash can over it. I got the trash can over it, turned it over, and got it out the front door. Then it took me a few minutes to get the mouse to finally leave the trash can. I kept telling it to be free. I have to go to work. Look there are nice plants and leaves for you to hide in. Be free. It finally did as I asked.
Recently for work I got to help out in the field taking samples to quantify environmental contamination. Some of the samples we were taking were fish tissue to measure the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in them. The fish live in a river that was contaminated decades ago. The sampling results will be used for fish advisories and also to determine a clean up plan.
Sampling fish starts with the really fun part, which is cruising on a small electrofishing boat. Electroshocking the fish allows you to catch them alive and throw back any fish we didn’t want. We had target fish we were trying to catch to sample, and those were the only ones we kept, and we only the number of target fish we needed. The electroshock sort of stuns the fish but doesn’t kill them. The electrofishing boat has two long poles with anode wires hanging off of them protruding from the front of the boat. There were more wires hanging from the bow of the boat, and those are the cathodes. The electricity flows from the anodes to the cathodes. We stood at the front of the boat in rubber soled boots with nets extended waiting to catch any fish stunned by the electroshocking. Netting electroshocked fish is not actually as easy as it sounds. Some of the fish are more stunned than others, so some fish seem slightly confused but then swim away. Also, some were stunned but at a depth too low or cloudy for us to catch or see. According to the boat’s captain, the water had really low conductivity, which was making it difficult. Since we had target fish we were trying to catch, I, naturally, kept catching fish we didn’t want. I threw a lot of fish back. Still, a day on a boat catching or not catching fish was a wonderful change from the cubical I normally work in. Also, I learned that you really need polarized sunglasses when out on the water.
Once we got the fish to shore, the biologist took over. The fish were weighed and their length measured. He took a a sample of their scales from a standard location, and those scales were going to be used by a laboratory to determine their age. Evidently scales can be used to age fish in the same manner tree rings age trees. WARNING: If you are uncomfortable looking at the insides of fish, do not read any further. You should probably not eat fish also, if you can’t look at an uncooked one.
The rest of the scales were then scraped off. The fish were then cut. Only the fillets were used for sampling. The part of the fish used for sampling can differ depending on what the exposure pathway being examined is. We took two different parts: the filet, which represents what a human would normally eat, and also the fillet with rib meat. The rib meat is normally not eaten, but it would have more PCBs in it, so using it in the sample would represent a worse case scenario for a human consuming fish.
I also learned a bit of fish anatomy during the sampling. The biologist was also sexing the fish.
We weren’t necropsying the fish, but we still got a look inside, including sometimes as to what it had eaten recently.
We sampled quite a few fish, but it was for science and to benefit the community.
Friday I got the incredible opportunity to take a behind the scenes tour of Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. They let a small group of people take a tour of the cetacean collection stored in an offsite location. NMNH has the largest marine mammal collection in the world, and it is awesome. [More properly said, the people of the USA have this amazing collection, and NMNH has been endowed to take care of it.] Most of their specimens are not on display to the public but are stored offsite and in a manner where they can easily be studied. Charley Potter and Nick Pyenson, scientists at NMNH, showed us many of the cetacean specimens, talked about what they do, and answered our questions. I want to thank NMNH and their staff, especially Hilary-Morgan Watt, Katie Sabella, and Trish Mace, for letting us take this amazing tour. Also, thank you to Steve Thornton, a visiting researcher, who gave us a detailed description of how dolphins use their nasal passages to make noises, which at least in my humble opinion is fascinatingly and amazingly complicated. Also, I would like to thank them for having their specimen collection online. I missed some of the species names of specimens we looked at, but because the specimen number was visible in some of my photos, I was able to look up information about the specimen through their website. This is an incredible resource.
They had two bottlenose dolphin skulls out sitting side by side. One was from a coastal bottlenose dolphin, and one was from an offshore one. When sitting side by side, it was easy to see how much smaller the coastal one was than the offshore one. The morphological differences relate to their different eating habits, as the offshore ones feed on larger animals.
They had part of a forelimb bone from a right whale. The fungal like growth on it was bone that had grown around something on which it had been entangled.
There was a drawer filled with narwhal tusks. Only males have the tusks, and most twist in the same direction. Most have a polished end. Up close they really pretty and have interesting texturing. They are hollow with varying diameters.
In the same cabinet as the narwhal tusks are pieces of baleen. Baleen can be used to distinguish different types of whales and is fast growing like hair. Examining the baleen can give information about the trophic feeding level of the whale and can give up to 40 years worth of information on the whale and water conditions, by analyzing it along different points along its length. Before plastics and fiberglass was invented, baleen was split into rods and used in such things as umbrella skeletons, of which they have one.
They have an amazing collection of skulls. There are skulls upon skulls filling up shelves. The skulls are placed side by side by species and thus can compared easily. There were numerous Baird’s beaked whale skulls that had various shades of white and off white depending on the conditions in which they were found.
The Blainville’s beaked whale skulls were really interesting. The males have two giant, erupted, modified teeth on their jaw, which are used for combat. The beaked whale skulls are the only skulls which can be sexed. The males have very dense skulls and thus are quite heavy when compared to the female skulls that were approximately the same size. They let us life each one by the beak, and the difference was really obvious.
They were still processing some specimens. There was a pilot whale skull out that had a lot dried soft tissue attached to it.
There was another skull sitting next to the pilot whale skull that was some type of beaked whale. I was completely fascinated by the porousness of the bone.
There was also a bag full of vertebrae. I don’t know what species it was from, but the pattern on the vertebrae was really interesting.
In an adjoining building they had the bones from the really large whales. The building was complete with a giant garage type door through which to bring the specimens. There were shelves filled entire vertebral columns from various whales. On the floor was the skeleton of a right whale.
All the skulls were propped up on metal carts. They were placed vertical for easy study. Because of the way a Sei whale skull was placed vertical, the radiating lines on the palette could be easily seen. All baleen whales have these lines, and the lines house blood vessels and nerves that feed the baleen.
There were several gray whale skulls all sitting next to each other. The skulls were collected from various years and includes one from pre-1850s. The genetic makeup of the whales before and after the whaling industry can be compared, and it will give information about the genetic bottleneck that occurred due to whaling and the diminished population.
They also had a blue whale jaw bone that is not only the largest blue whale jaw bone ever collected, it is also the largest single bone ever collected from any creature that has lived on Earth.
Finally there was a North Atlantic blue whale skull, which was just amazing to view. It completed dwarfed us when we gathered for a group photo in front of it.