Monday, March 31, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/31/2014: Black Skimmers

 Charles Darwin
"I here saw a very extraordinary bird, called the Scissor-beak (Rhynchops nigra), Is has short legs, webbed feet, extremely long-pointed wings, and is of about the size of a tern. The beak is flattened laterally, that is, in a plane at right angles to that of a spoonbill or duck. It is as flat and elastic as an ivory paper cutter, and the lower mandible, differently from every other bird, is an inch and a half longer than the upper. ... They kept their bills wide open, and the lower mandible half buried in the water. Thus skimming the surface..." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

He's describing one of my coastal favorite, the Black Skimmer. This species has a nesting colony on the beach near Stone Harbor, NJ. One of my favorite places to be in the summer.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/30/2014: Jaguars or drunks?

 Charles Darwin
"On the Parana they have killed many wood-cutters, and have even entered vessels at night. There is a is a man now living in the Bajada, who, coming up from below when it was dark, was seized on the deck; we escaped, however, with the loss of the use of one arm." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

If these stories are accurate then I was in considerable danger and just lucky I wasn't killed (and devoured) but I suspect that the jaguar is blamed for murders done by people with machetes and axes. All very disturbing if you think about it, I think I'd rather be killed by a jaguar - seems much quicker. 

When I did come across the tracks, especially when they were on top of mine and going in the same direction (so they followed out to the forest), the hair on the back of neck would raise and I would get the eeby-geebies. I came across a hair ball of one that was filled with giant anteater hair. The size was between a baseball and a softball. 

One did kill a cow when I was there and the ranchers ended up shooting that one. We had extra beef which we cut into thin strips and dried on the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp. What kept the flies off? Nothing, the drying meat was covered in them. Once dried the jerky was chopped and added to the bean stew. I lived.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/29/2014: Darwin doesn't do big cats

 Charles Darwin
These thickets afford a retreat for capybaras and jaguars. The fear of the latter animal quite destroyed all pleasure in scrambling through the woods. This evening I had not proceeded a hundred yards, before, finding indubitable signs of the recent presence of the tiger, I was obliged to come back. On every island there were tracks; and as on the former excurion "el rastro de los Indios" had been the subject of conversation, so in this was "el rastro del tigre." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

He's given up crossing land and was hitching a ride to meet up with the Beagle and his taxi moored up on an island and Darwin got out to explore. There he encounters evidence of jaguars and this worries him. I found this interesting because I know of no cases of jaguars attacking humans. I have, however, been followed multiple times. I never saw the jaguar but their prints were on top of mine. I also talked to people that have come across jaguars. Another Amazonian ornithologist had one watch him at night look for frogs. I was in camp when a butterfly researcher had one lay down in front of her. She walked slowly back and went another way.  Jaguars are cool and they could easily kill a human if they wanted to - but they don't. 

This is one of my favorite videos:

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/28/2014: Horses; here, there, then everywhere

 Charles Darwin
Certainly it is a marvellous fact in the history of the Mammalia, that in South America a native horse should have lived and disappeared, to be succeeded in after ages by the countless herds descended from the few introduced with the Spanish colonists! -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

Although the oldest horse ancestor (on the lineage that leads just to modern horses) was found in London, the 50 million years of subsequent horse evolution occurred in North and South America, with many contemporary species living together in North America. Just as humans may have crossed the Bering Straight to reach North America. Modern horse ancestors went the opposite direction to colonize Asia. 


A nice web page on horse evolution is (got to love a page called Stratmap) here:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/27/2014: Last reference to genocide, I hope

 Charles Darwin

"St. Fe is a quiet little town, and is kept clean and in good order. The governor, Lopez, was a common soldier at the time of the revolution; but has now been seventeen years in power, This stability of government is owing to his tyrannical habits; for tyranny seems as yet better adapted to these countries than republicanism. The governor's favourite occupation is hunting Indians: a short time since he slaughtered forty-eight, and sold the children at the rate of three or four pounds apiece." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  

I'm 25% into the Voyage and there's been several accounts of genocide - none more than General Rosas. But I'm tired and tired to these account. More pangolin! or any pangolin! Or cute puppies or wacky birds or 


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/26/2014: Like a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean

 Charles Darwin

"We passed some houses that had been ransacked and since deserted; we saw also a spectacle, which my guides viewed with high satisfaction; it was the skeleton of an Indian with the dried skin hanging on the bones, suspended to the branch of a tree." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  

Darwin is on horse back traveling from Buenos Aires to St. Fe. He describes one road that was too dangerous to take (wait.. the other roads were safe???). 

Done editing 4/5 of the articles that are mine for Biological Conservation. Need to finish mine to submit.  I was also given to weeks to finish a book chapter that's <1/3 done. Have bronchitis. Going to be a crappy next couple of days. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/25/2014:

 Charles Darwin

"The little owl (Athene cunicularia), which has been so often mentioned, on the plains of Buenos Ayres exclusively inhabits the holes of the bizcacha; but in Banda Oriental it is its own workman. During the open day, but more especially in the evening, these birds may be seen in every direction standing frequently by pairs on the hillock near their burrows." -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  

Darwin is describing the Burrowing Owl. The Little Owl is a similar looking congener from Europe, whose genus Athene, alludes to the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. The specific epithet, cunicularia, is the Latin for miner. This species is relatively common in the dry open areas of North and South America. 

Owls are interesting and this species particularly so. I wish I had more time for details but this species apparently brings dung to the entrance of the burrow then eats the insects that come to it. I've seen what was apparently the one nest for much of the Amazon located in a pasture. I've also seen them at western airports. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/24/2014: Cheeky Chinchilla

 Charles Darwin

"The bizcacha has one very singular habit; namely, dragging every hard object to the mouth of its burrow: around each group of holes many bones of cattle, stones, thistle-stalks, hard lumps of earth, dry dung etc., are collected into an irregular heap, which frequently amounts to as much as a wheelbarrow would contain" -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  

Darwin is most likely referring to the plains viscacha, a type of chinchilla. If this behavior were done by a bird, I would think it was done by males to attract a female. The amount of stuff at the burrow an indicator of his status. But, these burrows are used by a number of individuals for years. Why then, this behavior? It still could be done by an alpha male as an indicator of his quality or by the entire group to mark their territory. If I had the time, this would be interesting to check.


Might have the flu. Feeling like crap. Finished being an editor on two papers and three to go. One isn't in yet and I have lab at 2 tomorrow. This editing gig is going to kill me.. and I mean that in a very real sense. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/23/2014: Killer thistle!

 Charles Darwin

"The clumps were the most brilliant green, and they made a pleasing miniature-likeness of broken forest land, When the thistles are full grown, the great beds are impenetrable, except by a few tracks, as intricate as those in a labyrinth. These are only known to robbers, who at this season inhabit them, and sally forth at night to rob and cut throats with impunity" -Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  

Not only does giant thistle make land unusable as pasture, it is used as a liar for those that would do harm. Reminds me of the stories I heard about the areas around New York City and New Jersey at the mouth of the Hudson. Now these areas are a sea of phragmites (common reed) but it was covered in white cedar. Not only is white cedar a superior wood (rot resistant) but the white cedar forests harbored pirates that would harass ships coming into New Amsterdam. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/22/2014: Monster thistle!

 Charles Darwin

"Near the Guardia we find the southern limit of two European plants, now become extraordinarily common... the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) has a far wider range: it occurs in these latitudes on both sites of the Cardillera, across the continent. I saw it in unfrequented spots in Chile, Entre Rios, and Banda Oriental. In the latter country alone, very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants, and are impenetrable by man or beat. Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live." Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle 

The giant thistle is a nasty bugger; native to Europe and found globally, making pastures completely unusable. Here is speaking of the plains and pastures outside Buenos Aires.

Field trip today to Merrill Creek then met my sister at Hot Dog Johnny's. A very nice day. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/21/2014: Hail no Darwin!

 Charles Darwin

"hail as large as small apples, and extremely hard, has fallen with such violence as to kill the great number of the wild animals. ... These hail-stones were flat, and one was ten inches in circumference, and another weighted two ounces. They ploughed up a gravel-walk like musket-balls, and passed through glass-windows, making round holes, but not cracking them."

Still in Argentina and traveling without the Beagle. A few more stories peppered in about murder in the frontier. 

Wiped out today. Could barely stay awake in the office in this afternoon. Started out a fantastic day. Caught a few sparrows and chickadee with some newer students. All very excited. Then went to a local ski shop to get set up for cross-country skiing next year. I will not have another winter like this one! 

Haven't touched my scholarly stuff in the last few days. Think my brain has been overloaded and needs to reset. Going out with my Ecology class tomorrow and we're visiting Merrill Creek reservoir in NJ to see lots of snow geese, ducks, and who knows. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday night thought

Dear anti-vaxer and creationist,
 If you only accept the science that reinforces your beliefs, 
you're doing it wrong. 

My Year of Darwin 3/20/2014: Home on the range

 Charles Darwin

"That the danger was very little was certain, for my two companions made a good fire - a thing which is never done when it is suspected that Indians are near. I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and drinking much mate, and smoking several cigaritos, soon made up my bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never slept more comfortably."

While the Beagle is off doing more surveys, Darwin is exploring the South American continent. Here he is on the Atlantic coast exploring the mountains between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca to the south, which he finds bleak and not very interesting. 

I've skipping over several pages in the Voyage that are downright depressing - the genocidal acts of General Rosas. This is followed by pages of geologizing, which are, sadly, beyond me. 

As a lover and cigars and hot beverages, I know where he's coming from here. He had been hiking up hill most of the day, suffered leg cramps and had to come back before dark - all alone. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/19/2014: Thou shall kill savages - all of them

 Charles Darwin

"but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood? When I exclaimed that is appeared rather inhuman, he answered, "why, what can be done? they breed so!"  Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians, Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilizes country? "

And so they were exterminated in Chile and Argentina. Mostly by General Rosas but also by tribes threatened by Rosas.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/18/2014: just going to drink some blood and whiskey

 Charles Darwin

"ONe day an account came that a small party forming one of the postas on the line to Buenos Ayres had been found all murdered. The next day three hundred men arrived from the Colorado, under the command of Commandant Miranda. A large portion of these men were Indians (mansos, or tame), belonging to the tribe of the Cacique Bernantio. They passed the night here; and it was impossible to conceive anything more wild and savage than the science of their bivouac. Some drank till they were intoxicated; others swallowed the steaming blood of the cattle slaughtered for their suppers, and then, being sick from drunkenness, they case it up again, and were besmeared with filth and gore."  Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle


I have nothing to add. Interesting story about life on the trail. Not calling Darwin fearless but experiences like these must make getting rejection letters trivial. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

My Year of Darwin 3/17/2014: Easy Bake Ovenbird

 Charles Darwin

"The genus Furnarius contains several species, all small birds, living on the ground, and inhabiting open dry countries. In  structure they cannot be compared to any European form. Ornithologists have generally included them among the creepers, although opposed to that family in every habit. The best known species is the common oven-bird of La Plata, the Casara or housemaker of the Spaniards. The nest, whence it takes its name, is place in the most exposed situations, as on top of a post, a bare rock, or on a cactus. It is composed of mud and bits of straw, and has strong thick walls: in shape it precisely resembles an oven, or depressed beehive."  Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

This is the closest Darwin comes to antbirds in his writing that I've come across. What a pity he didn't come across them with an army ant swarm. The ovenbirds were in the Amazon but I don't recall seeing a single nest at the time. Much has been published on ovenbirds and their nests. These aren't the ovenbirds in North America that are actually warblers but the Neotropical ovenbirds are among the ancestral lineages of passerines. Thus, understanding their biology in the context of other passerines and non-passerines my give some insight into why passerines became so successful in the sense that they are the most species rich avian order. 

Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus)