Snippy the Leopard Gecko

Noble leopard gecko
A good-looking leopard gecko. Geckos by Mark Brooks (2009) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

The internet over the last couple of weeks have been chock full of reports that very hungry caterpillars have been observed eating holes in plastic bags. These caterpillars, known as “wax worms,” have also been shown to make holes in plastic film when applied as a ground-up smoothie, indicating that their digestion is due to some chemical factor inside the caterpillars and not just a solid pair of chomping jaws.

wax worm caterpillar
A good-looking wax worm. Wax worm by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (2015) . Public Domain. via Flickr.

It may be a little too early to hail the humble wax worm caterpillar as a panacea for the Earth’s plastic pollution problem (or that eating plastic is not terrible for wax worm tummies!) This report triggered the memory of an almost entirely irrelevant, but amusing, anecdote from my Shmita Adventures.

During the Summer 2013, TEVA sent me to work as a wandering nature educator for day camps at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds on Central Long Island. My aunt kindly hosted me in a guest room at her home in the Five Towns. However, I was not the only house guest that summer. It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy that year, when many of my aunt’s neighbor’s homes had been seriously damaged.

The humans and dogs from one family of neighbors’ had temporarily relocated to a hotel until they could repair their house for habitation. However, they needed a quiet place to house their geriatric leopard gecko. That is how my aunt came (who is otherwise understandably squeamish about small reptiles) to host Snippy the Leopard Gecko in her upstairs guest room. Snippy became my roommate when I moved into the guest room for my summer job at HKC.

After Hurricane Sandy, Snippy’s human would come by once a week or so to feed Snippy live food and clean his cage.  However, I had been my aunt’s lodger for about a couple of weeks when I realized I hadn’t seen Snippy’s human the entire time I’d been there.  I asked my aunt when the last time Snippy had food, she was pretty vague on the subject. “I don’t ask too many questions about the gecko,” she said, “but it may have been a while. I’ll give them a call.”

Leopard Geckos are tough little critters, but I had developed a certain amount of affection for my reptile roommate. In the interest of science and roommate solidarity, I took it upon myself to ensure Snippy had adequate nutrition.  After camp, I went to the local pet store reptile section to purchase live food for my scaly friend.

Upon consulting with the salesperson, I returned to my aunt’s house with a take-out container of live crickets, a tube of vitamin powder (for dusting the crickets) and a special treat of high-fat live wriggly wax-worms for fattening up the possibly-undernourished Snippy. My aunt saw me stashing the take-out container with the wax worms (with air holes) in her basement (extra) refrigerator.

“Do I want to know what’s in there?” she asked, warily.
“Nope!” I responded, cheerfully.

Anyway, Snippy enjoyed the wax worms (he ate them immediately when I put them in his cage), and found a newfound-bond with my reptile roommate. I told my aunt that would continue to feed Snippy for the rest of the summer. And my aunt was relieved that she didn’t need to ask too many questions.

Oddly, only friction in my relationship with Snippy came from the crickets:  In order to feed live crickets to Snippy, I would add the crickets to a plastic bag filled with special reptile vitamin powder, and shake the bag gently so that the crickets were well-dusted with powder.

I put the disoriented, white-frosted crickets immediately into Snippy’s aquarium. The crickets’ grogginess and disorientation gave Snippy time to snap a least a couple of them up, but the survivors would continue to hop around the aquarium, disconsolately chirping throughout the night.

I think the re-oriented crickets were generally too spry to be of interest to Snippy. It took several days for him to either get around to consuming them, or for them to succumb to other causes.

When asked how living with Snippy measured up to other roommates, I explained, “He was very quiet and tidy, and I got to feed him live food!”  A win for everyone!


Lurking in the Laundry: Part 2

Microplastics under a microscope by GTM NERR (2016) CC BY-NC 2.0 on Flickr,

Last time, I posted about the issue of microplastic fiber pollution discharged in washing machine wastewater.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention my interest in the topic (as a clothes-wearer, water-drinker and eater-of-food) started with a series on articles on plastic pollution by science writer Lola Gayle at STEAM Register and Science Crush (Read some of them here, here and here. ) Thanks, Lola!

In addition, outdoor retailers like Patagonia and environmental advocacy organizations such as The Story of Stuff have been generating awareness about how wearing and washing synthetic fabrics can contribute to this pollution stream.

Check out some citizen scientists sampling microfibers from Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress:

Adventuress Microplastics – 090 by Schooner Adventuress (2012) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr.

But as a science-educator and a concerned citizen, being informed about the problem isn’t enough. I also want to know how to take action. What can we  (both as individuals and society) do to both reduce microplastic pollution and mitigate its effects?

One reader suggested that nudity (ignoring for a moment the issues of frostbite and indecency laws) could solve the problem of washing clothing made from synthetic fabric (It seriously reduces the volume of dirty laundry!) This suggestion would also possibly improve one’s Vitamin D levels by increasing overall skin exposure to sunlight.

Other suggestions have included only purchasing clothing containing natural fibers (i.e. cotton, wool, silk, hemp),  whose fibers will biodegrade more readily when discharged with waste water.

But what if you already own a lot of synthetic-fiber based clothing and want to keep wearing it?  These fibers seem to be in everything, from yoga pants to t-shirts to wool-blend socks.

1. Reducing washing frequency and intensity.

This cat won’t let you wash his fleece!

Anniversary picture by Eirik Newth (2007) CC BY 2.0, on Flickr

Suggestions from Patagonia and researchers at UC-Santa Barbara include washing your fleece outerwear less frequently, and using a front loading washing machine.

Any machine washing will wear down the fiber and cause micro-bits to break off. If you wear your stuff a little schmutzy (as any TEVA educator will attest), you don’t have to wash it as often (ergo, reducing breakage potential in washing machine).

If you use a front loading machine (vs. a top loading machine) it lowers the intensity of the laundry agitation, reducing impact on the fabric and breakage of fibers.
The folks at Plastics Pollution Coalition also add: Washing in cold water (is less tough on the fibers), using liquid detergent instead of powder (ditto) and drying on slower speeds (less impact during tumbling.)

2. Improved filtration of wash water.

mesh by Eric (2005) CC BY-ND 2.0 on Flickr,

Another strategy is improving filtration of the washing machine water to remove as much of the microfibers as possible before the effluent is released down the drain.
Some filters, like this one, are installed on the washing machine itself to catch microfibers from the water. The filters must be periodically cleaned out and have the microfiber clogs disposed of in the trash. These were originally designed with septic systems in mind, because plastic microfibers don’t break down in a septic system’s biological digestion process and clog up equipment.

If you can’t modify your washing machine, the folks at GuppyFriend have developed a wash bag (like a lingerie bag) that will catch synthetic fibers coming off your clothes. Users put laundry in the bag before putting it in the machine. Then after you remove your laundry, you clean out the bag after each wash and dispose of fibers in the trash. GuppyFriend bags started with a crowdfunding campaign, and do not yet appear to be available to the general public for purchase. Will keep you posted.

3. Bioremediation

Since we’ve been washing synthetic fabrics for awhile, a lot of plastic microfibers have ended up in our bodies of water, as well as in our farm fields (fertilizers made from treated municipal sewage sludge may contain laundry-borne plastic microfibers).   The plastic microfibers are out there in the world.

Some organisms may be adapting to consuming and breaking down plastic fibers in our soil and water. For example, researchers have discovered that mealworms (darkling beetle larvae) appear to be able to eat styrofoam (polystyrene) due the special Exiguobacterium sp. of bacteria that live in their digestive tract.

Other researchers have found a fungus (Pestalotiopsis microspora) that can break down polyurethane plastics.

A team in Japan discovered a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, in wastewater and sediment samples at a recycling plant. These bacteria can eat a thin film of polyethelene (PET)- the same plastic used in water bottles and polyester fleece- given enough time and the proper temperature.

It is still too early to tell if any of these organisms (or others like them) will be able to tackle the massive amount of plastics humans have dumped into the environment. The fact that these critters exist gives me hope that microfibers may not be floating around forever. However, it is still better to try to keep microplastics out of water in the first place.

Bad-Ass Librarians

Timbuktu manuscript library: termites' work
Timbuktu manuscript by Leslie Lewis, (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr

I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.

I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.

Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:

Library confusion, 23/12/1952, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales on Flickr Commons

I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.

However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.

Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.

We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.

That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.

Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.

However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.

For more news coverage of Data Rescue events, check out this list of publications.

A Sense of Place

I’ve lived in Michigan for a little over a year and and still trying to figure out my “Sense of Place” here. Every geographical location I’ve lived in over the past few years (rural Connecticut; suburban Kansas City; Long Island, NY) has been an opportunity to engage with this concept, which is something both inherent to a place and held in the perceptions of the people who live there. It’s more that just being able to navigate successfully through a town’s maze of streets or identify plants in local ecosystem (though these are part of it.)

Photo by Joe Loong (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

“Sense of Place” in a particular locality is something you can feel, just like proprioceptors give you a sense of your body in space. However, the internet (which is usually so good for this stuff), offers no quick and pithy definitions for this lived experience of being in a particular spot.

From Wikipedia’s entry on Sense of Place: “… a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence.”

Wallace Stegner (1992) cites Wendell Berry’s observation, ” ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.'” Stegner continues, “[Berry] is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. … He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in.”

As environmental educators, we talk a lot about “place-based education.” It’s the idea that for kids to learn effectively, they need to have a connection (historically, geographically, ecologically, emotionally) to the space that immediately surrounds them. We are not only connected to the land through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but the stories of the people and creatures and rocks that came before us.

I experienced successful place-based pedagogy as undergraduate at Biosphere 2 Earth Semester in Oracle, AZ. Not only we were studying the physical topography and ecosystems of the Sonoran desert, we also studied the human stories of the Southwest. We learned the stories of the Tohono O’odham people, and those of the Spanish ranchers of the hacienda to the Anglo-speaking tuberculosis sufferers who came to “take the air” at the mountain resorts in the early 20th century.

Fifteen years later, here in Michigan, I am now attempting to learn to learn the stories of the humans, animals, plants and rocks of this place. For my first few months in Detroit, I was plunged into the human history and culture of the city, acutely conscious of my status of newcomer and outsider. I attempted to absorb as much as I could from reading articles and from talking to residents. And to try to fill in the details about what was left unsaid.

Everything was strange, from how “going Up North” (which is not the same as going to the Upper Peninsula) was an acceptable description of weekend plans, and “the Michigan left” required a U-turn around a boulevard rather than waiting for a left-turn arrow in a turn lane. It was especially how Michiganders explained the location of their hometowns by using the palms of their right hands as a map of “Mitt.”

I have now moved from midtown Detroit to the outlying Wayne county. I have gradually become more acclimated to the practical realities of navigating the metro sprawl, such finding the grocery store and post office. I continue to remain mindful of the quirky details learned from living in this place.

I am fascinated by invasive Phragmites reeds that clog roadside ditches, and the historical routes of the highways through downtown Detroit and outlying areas. I’m even curious about the landfills of western Wayne County, that rise like ziggurats from the flat glacial plain. You can easily see them (and their attendant flocks of gulls on the active surface) as you drive down I-275 freeway.

I’ve checked out library field guides to the flora and fauna of the area, read about the geology and repeated glaciations, traced the watershed of the Huron River and walked the wooded trails of the state parks in a succession of seasons. My attempts to recognize the landscape, and to identify its human and non-human players, all contribute to my slowly accreting sense of place in Michigan.

Additional Links:

Rebecca Solnit’s Detroit Arcadia, published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007, was among my first introductions to the history of Detroit.

Jennifer E. Cross (2001) has a good analysis of the different relationships humans develop to a place.

What I remember were the grasshoppers

Perhaps the Most Ornate Grasshopper Anywhere by Alan Levine (2013), CC By 2.0, via Flickr,

September 11, 2001. I had just turned 20 years old. As a junior at Columbia University in New York City, I was studying in a “semester abroad” field science program at the Biosphere 2 Center in Oracle, AZ. In this case, “abroad” was still within the continental US, but it felt like I had landed on Mars.

It looked like Mars, too.

Sonoran Desert Sunset by Jasper Nance (2009) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

I had arrived at the site about a week before, with my hiking boots and brand new backpack full of preconceptions. I woke up early, my body still adjusted to Central Time from my home in Kansas City. Everything about this semester had so far been disorienting, exciting and overwhelming. That morning, I was thrilling over the idea that we had our own compost pile where I could deposit fruit and veggie scraps from our kitchen.

Outside our dorm, the desert was waking up. I brought out what we had for compost to the designated spot, when I noticed the largest, brightest, most jewel-like grasshoppers I had ever seen in my life. Red and green and yellow, they hopped and glowed and mated in the organic litter, like a benevolent alien arthropod welcoming committee. I was completely enchanted. I can’t tell you how long I sat there entranced by the grasshoppers in the compost.

When I finally pulled myself away, I ran back to the dorms and threw open the door of our house. “Guys,” I chattered excitedly, “You won’t believe the crazy bugs I just saw…”

My voice trailed off as I noticed that all of my roommates and the RA were gathered around the TV set to news coverage. The RA wordlessly indicated the TV screen, which my confused brain resolved into images New York City and the first tower billowing smoke. I remember screaming and racing for the phone, because my sister had just started her first week of college in New York City. I tried to call her dorm number, but all the circuits were tied up. I imagine most of the world watching television at that minute were trying to place calls to Manhattan.

I don’t really remember the rest of the day. I know we spent a lot of it glued to the TV, unable to move. It felt completely unreal: The news coverage, being so far away in the middle of nowhere, the sense of shock and denial.

The only thing that I remember clearly were the grasshoppers.

Internet of the Forest

Mycelium Sun by Raya Wolfsun.

When I was teaching environmental education in CT, we used to tell our students about the mysterious “Internet of the Forest.” The “Internet of the Forest” is the network of fungal hyphae connecting tree roots, allowing trees in different parts of the woods “to talk” to one another. (I’m not sure if the kids believed me, especially since we made a big deal of taking away their electronic devices while they visited us.)

But it’s a thing! Really! And it’s very gratifying that the internet and popular press has caught up with it.

Recently, there have been a slew of articles and podcasts about forest mycorrhizal networks (aka “The Wood Wide Web”) that made me think back to the Mesquite Arbuscular mycorrhizae project.

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work on a research project involving mycorrhizae, the mutualistic relationship between fungi and plant roots. The plants and fungal hyphae (rootlets) cooperate by sharing water, carbon and nitrogen, improving the growth and survival of both organisms. I remember my Professor enthusiastically cheering, “Mycorrhizae is Latin for *really cool!*” When I told people about the project, and their eyes would start to glaze over at the technical terms I was spouting to describe the work, I fell back on this slogan. A lot.

We were studying the frequency of mycorrhizal fungal spores and other bits that could colonize plants (aka Mycorrhizal inoculation potential) occurring in the soil around the roots of Mesquite trees in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. We dug a hole in the desert soil alongside the root ball of a mesquite tree, and took soil samples from different depths. Since it’s really hard to count microscopic spores and hyphae bits in the soil samples, we used corn plants as a proxy. We grew corn plants in the various soil samples, and then harvested the corn roots to examine them for colonization by mycorrhizal hyphae.

After dyeing the roots with a blue dye that sticks to fungal cells, but not plant cells, we spent many hours poring over the roots samples with a dissecting microscope. Against a grid, we counted intersections of the blue hyphae with the clear corn roots, which could give us an idea of the inoculation potential of the soil in which the corn plant grew. By the end of the project, which I came to think of as “Tangled up in Blue“, I had extremely chapped hands from work in the unheated lab and particular pride in knowledge of an obscure ecological phenomenon that no one else seemed to be excited about.

Roots by Motorito (2011) CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.
Roots by Motorito (2011) CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

But now mycorrhizal networks have arrived! Maybe it’s their similarity to the internet networks that have become such an enmeshed part of our lives. Or maybe its a growing recognition that non-human entities and systems have their own ways of communicating. To me, it’s a super-exciting development when a variety of media outlets report on the inherent awesomeness of these tangled webs.

  • RadioLab has a great podcast From Tree to Shining Tree, that is an introduction to how networks of tree roots and fungi can communicate across the forest.
  • Suzanne Simard’s TED Talk goes into some more detail about how she conducted her experiments in the British Columbia forests.
  • Ed Yong in the Atlantic and Robert MacFarlane in the New Yorker both describe some of the work different scientists are doing with the “Wood Wide Web.”

Git along, little dogies

On our walk on Monday at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, we noticed the milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) along the edges of the prairie were looking a little ragged. The leaves were chewed up with caterpillar-munched holes, and there were also hordes of little orange yellow aphids having a party drinking the milkweed sap.

Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0
Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0

We tentatively identified the aphids as Aphis nerii, the oleander aphid. A scatter of ants inspected the lines of aphids clustered along the leaf veins, which reminded me of tiny cowboys surveying a herd of grazing cattle. Presumably, the ant ranchers were milking the aphids for their honeydew, a sticky sweet substance that aphids secrete from their butts.

However, something troubled me about this bucolic scenario. These aphids from the Mediterranean feed on poisonous plants such as milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and other members of the dogbane Family (Apocynaceae), so they can store the toxic cardenolides (aka cardiac glycosides) that deter predators.

The aphids’ bright orange-yellow aposematic color serves as “Don’t Eat Me or You’ll be Sorry” warning. (One famous example of this is the notoriously noxious-tasting Monarch Butterfly.) The aphids can also secrete the cardenolides from their cornicles (organs on their butts)to get predators to back off.

So why the heck would ants be cultivating these toxic little critters as a honeydew source?

I did some research.

Ant/aphid relationships can get complicated. The aphid species A. nerii and A. asclepiadis both coexist and feed on milkweed, but according to Smith et al. 2008, only A. asclepiadis establish a mutualism with ant caretakers.

In contrast, other studies have observed the Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile) tending A. nerii aphids under field conditions in California (Bristow 1991, cited in Pringle et al. 2014.)

So what’s going on in my photo?

A few possibilities:

1) The ants aren’t actually herding the aphids for honeydew production, but are there for some other reason.

2)The aphids that I identified as A. nerii are really another species, such as A. asclepiadis. Here is a good photo showing the color contrast between the two species. Fun fact: A. nerii orange aposematic coloring is an ancient gene transfer from a fungus!

3) I haven’t identified the ant species. They could be Argentine ants (or another ant species that herds A. nerii for honeydew. However, as far as I can tell, L. humile doesn’t live in Michigan (it’s too cold!)

4) I also haven’t identified the milkweed species of the leaf. Aphids feeding on different species of milkweed metabolize the cardenolides differently. Pringle’s experiment suggested that ants may be prefer aphid colonies that produce honeydew with lower cardenolide content.
Maybe this particular milkweed produces a mellow-flavored honeydew?

At any rate, I still don’t know what these ants are doing. But this little project has provided me with hours of entertainment and a new appreciation for tritrophic interactions!

More about the Oleander Aphid from the University of Florida.
Some nice pictures of aphids from Living with Insects .