This weekend we drove 1000 miles to get a puppy.

I think we got the best damn one. Anywhere.

Solstice is doing a great job passing the torch on to Lola, and will be able to go in peace, knowing that Bri and I will have someone to make sure we take walks on the beach and spend at least a little time offline sometimes.

Speaking of which, Lola is sitting on my shoulder biting my nose, which is my cue to go frolic in meatspace for a while.

I’m going to skip the recap of 2006, and get right into what’s coming up in 2007.

Brian and I are about to embark on a trip we have been planning for years— a great Australian adventure. We will be there from January 17 to February 28; six weeks of traveling, visiting colleagues, and seeing as much wildlife as humanly possible.

We will be spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne while Brian does a research project on greater gliders, a week in Tasmania, a week in Queensland, some time in Canberra and Albury, and about a week in and around Sydney. Any suggestions about places or activities not to be missed would be much appreciated. Also, any tips on dealing with a US cell phone over there and not paying an arm and a leg would be great.

I’m looking forward to this trip immensely. It has been a long time since I have been out of the country, and a long time since I have done any fieldwork. I will probably be taking a break from blogging while I’m there, except for trip updates for my friends and family. Between that and keeping Bite Size Standards running, I’m guessing that I won’t have time for much else.

When we get back, I have a week before I leave for SXSW, so I will be pretty swamped until the middle of March. So, have a great first few months of 2007.

Now with multimedia!

Here are some Quicktime videos of the critters we caught this weekend.

First up, the skunk in the trap, getting a bit edgy as we get closer to it to let it out.

We released it by sneaking up on the trap behind a blue tarpand putting the tarp over the trap— skunks don’t spray in a confined space. We then opened the trap and set up a track plate in front of the exit, which is the black box you see in the video below. The track plate contains a black substance that the animal walks through, and then some sticky paper that they walk over, leaving tracks that can be saved. Tracks are one of the main ways to survey mammals, so these tracks can serve as a control for spotted skunks.

Awww, isn’t he cute?

Finally, we got some awseome footage as we released the ringtail (again through a track plate), and it pretty much tramples the student with the camera. If you keep watching, you will see it cross the river.

Pretty kick ass, I must say. I have been trying to see these animals for several years, to see both of them on the same day and get such great footage is really amazing.

It is with great pleasure and great sadness that I announce the retirement of one of Interllectual’s dearest friends.

The spotted skunk is officially removed from the list of animals I want to see in their natural habitat, because I saw one this morning. Which means that if I’m going to keep following my own rules, the spotted skunk theme for this site will have to go. This is a bit of a bummer, since he has been the favorite of many. And also because he is one of the two themes I actually made for this recent incarnation of the site. So, to give him good sendoff and to give me some time to get another theme ready, I have switched the default theme from Okapi to Spotted Skunk for about a week or so. If the change didn’t work for you, you can reset the cookie by choosing the skunk over on the themes page.

Spotted Skunk in trapSpotted skunk in the trap

releasing the spotted skunkReleasing the skunk

As for what will replace the skunk, I’m not yet sure. The most likely candidate, the ringtail, is also out of the running, because I saw one of them this morning, too. It has been one of the best 24 hours in the field I have ever had, and I’m glad I decided to go meet up with Brian and his class on the spur of the moment. I joked with him that to get me to go he would have to deliver a spotted skunk and a ringtail. I’ll be damned if he didn’t comply. I have tried to see these two critters for at least 5 years, and kept missing them. It was worth the wait though. We got great looks at them and some great footage, of which the photos of mine that I’m showing here are the worst. There is video and some better pics that I’ll have my hands on soon.

Me and a ringtailMe and the ringtail

ringtail in trapRingtail in the trap

Gypsy is pretty sure that my lap belongs to her. She can accept being occasionally ousted by the dog, who is much bigger, and way too goofy for her to handle, but she will not accept my new laptop into our home.

We have had several battles of will as she insists on plopping down on top of the keyboard, whines incessantly for lap access, or tricks me into putting the computer away and making room for her, only to then sit on my lap and swipe at me whenever I try to pet her. This is a flagrant breach of our deal, which is that if she is on my lap I must get full tactile benefit of her fuzziness, and she must purr. No purring, no lap.

After a couple of months, I finally had the cat trained to at least wait until I ran out of battery to jump on my lap. That is, until tonight, when a visit to the vet revealed that among the other things that are supposed to show up in a cat’s urine, she also had magnesium crystals, red blood cells, and kidney cells. And the whole shebang has a basic pH instead of the acidic one it’s supposed to have, which floored me because if anything smells acidic, it’s this cat’s pee.

So now Gypsy is on a special kidney friendly diet, taking strangely banana-smelling antibiotics, and has first dibs on my lap.

How this will affect me remains to be seen. I just finished a big freelance project, so now the laptop isn’t as essential as it has been for a while. However, I have a backlog of articles I want to write and now have the time to write them. So we’ll see how the battle wages on. Hopefully when she feels better she’ll rather play than sit on my lap anyway…

This week has been an interesting one for animalia and the Arbogast family.

The Big

Brian achieved 15 minutes of fame, since a dead 70-foot fin whale washed up on shore about 30 miles north of campus. This is the second largest species of whale in the world, after blue whales, and is relatively rare in our waters. In the HSU vertebrate museum, which Brian curates, they only have one fin whale skull from a juvenile. This was a prefect chance for them to salvage the skull of a full grown adult for the collection.

This is easier said than done. A group of 5-6 people worked on the animal for about 4 days to detach it’s skull from the body and move it up the beach to where it could be buried. It will remain underground for about 2 years, allowing bacteria to do their job and remove all the meat from the bone. Then they will dig it up, clean it, and find a place to store it.

This sounds like a pretty easy task, but it’s all about perspective. This photo may shed some light on just how big of an animal we are talking about here. They needed to use modified chain saw blades to cut through the connective tissue, and the blades had to be sharpened about every 5 minutes, due to the sand covering everything. Then, they had to use a huge piece of construction equipment to move just half of the lower jaw up the beach. But the biggest thing of all was the smell— I won’t go into to much detail here, just try imagine 70 feet of rotting blubber that has been on the beach for a week and dead for several weeks before it washed up. I made Brian take two showers when he got home from dealing with it.

Here are a couple of local newspaper stories that have some more info: Fin whale washes up on local beach, which features a photo taken by Brian of the whale just after it washed up, and The tale of a whale. Brian is going to be on the news tonight, too.

The Small

My adventure was much smaller in scale. Yesterday, while Brian was literally up to his elbows in whale, I came home early from work to meet the plumber who was kind enough to unplug our kitchen sink for us.

I was driving home in the middle of the day, and there were thousands of wooly bear catepillars crossing the road. It was quite a sight, and made me profoundly sad. I had no choice but to run over hundreds of cute little fuzzy guys. Well, I guess I had a choice, but it was either kill my self swerving all over Old Arcata Road to miss them, or stay on a straight course. I bet that out of the thousands that were crossing the road, all in the same direction, only a handful of them actually made it all the way to the other side. They are just too slow and the road is too busy.

Which makes me think, what kind of ancient, humble ritual are we ruining for these fuzzballs with our gas guzzling contraptions of steel? And how can it possibly be worth it to us?

Well, now that I have your attention, I’m going to wow you with my full-on bio geekiness.*

Some of you know that in a former life, I was a biologist. I have a Master’s degree in Biology, which I earned after 3 grueling years studying charismatic birds (masked and blue-footed boobies) in a tropical paradise (the Galápagos Islands). I also happen to have a scientific publication about Waved Albatrosses. Then for some reason I morphed into a web designer. That, however is a post for another day. I also married a biologist who makes his living studying mammals, preferably rodents.

I think that we are probably the only two geeks on the planet that have a Tivo box full of Nova, Discovery Science, and National Geographic Explorers. I recently had to ask a bunch of Brits what the good American shows are… but that’s another story. Last night we did watch the Bob Dylan documentary, right after finishing up “Marsupial Madness”. Our friend Terry featured in a show called “Nature’s Nightmares: Eaten Alive”, proudly showing off the flesh-eating bacteria he picked up in Peru. You can also hear our friend Joe on public radio, discussing the bat detecting software he wrote.

So maybe you could humor me as I share my extreme excitement over the first ever photos of a live giant squid that were published yesterday. Think about it— this is a huge animal that is a major food source for other huge animals, such as leatherback turtles and sperm whales, that no one had ever seen alive. This is almost as big as the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker earlier this year.

What I love about these kinds of discoveries is that it reminds me of how little humans matter in the big scheme of things. Despite our best efforts to mess up our planet, nature is still able to give us the finger and go on with her own plans. We think we know all there is to be known, and are cocky enough to think we know how to “save the planet”, but in reality there are whole universes of stuff out there that we don’t know the first thing about. This is an important thing for me to remember periodically, when my ego gets the best of me.

Anyway, I’m excited about the squid.

  • All of you that clicked through just because of the title owe me a beer (that means you Matt Robin!!).

Yes, I’m on the road again— not taking the country roads this time, but leaving on a jet plane to go fill up my senses with the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah river. I’ll probably be staying on grandma’s feather bed and when the sun’s comin’ up there’ll be cakes on the griddle. How may John Denver references can you fit into one paragraph?

I’m off to West-by-god-Virginia for a week to visit Brian’s family, and then dropping by my old haunts in Michigan for about 36 hours or so on the way back to go to a wedding. My plans while I’m there include doing a lot of writing, so hopefully I’ll have some new material when I get back.

I’ll try to post photos on Flickr while I’m there, to give you all the WV experience. Animals on the to-see list include: indigo bunting, black bear, red fox, white tailed deer (these are guaranteed, since Bri’s dad feeds them), Eastern bluebird, FIREFLIES which I’m having a hard time doing without here in the west, striped skunk, beaver, muskrat, groundhog, cardinal, blue jay, porcupine, maybe some nuthatches and flycatchers. We’ll see how we do.

Have a good week!

Today the quintessential scent of summer greeted me along with the bright sun and soft breeze. Some people label themselves as “visual”, meaning they need to see something to truly understand it. Following along these lines, I would have to describe myself as an “olfactory” person.

Certain scents have the power to immediately transport me to a certain time in my past, or clue me in to the changing of the seasons. I am fascinated by the sense of smell, and if Smell-O-Vision was really an option, I would see all my movies that way (and make fun of how they spelled it…). This does not mean I surround myself with aromatherapy candles and room fresheners— I can’t stand that stuff. I like the natural smells of life.

The scent that spells the changing of spring in to summer for me is not the smell of freshly cut grass, as some of you may have been guessing. It is the smell of recently killed skunk on the road. There is a time for a few hours after a skunk unloads it’s scent glands where it does not smell exactly like that nasty smell we all associate with skunks. It smells very musky and a little strangely sweet, and granted it doesn’t smell great, but it doesn’t smell awful. At the end of spring, skunks seem to be more active, maybe scrounging food for their newly born litters, and thus get run over by more cars in the wee hours of the night.

I got to thinking about this, and then realized that skunks definitely don’t exist in Australia, and I was pretty sure they weren’t in Western Europe or Britain, either. A quick check into the 800 page “Walker’s Mammals of the World” on my bedside table (don’t ask…) confirmed that suspicion. I am having trouble imaging going through life without ever having smelled a skunk. What would take its place in the olfactory palette? And what would take over its contradictory role in nature— an animal that is so silly and lumbering that everyone would love it except for the fact that it stinks? Maybe you Aussies and Brits can clue me in here.

I wish they had Internet Smell-O-Vision working so that I could share that smell of summer with you. Of course that would mean that I would be broadcasting the smell of skunk all over the place. Although, I bet I wouldn’t be the first to pull that off if it were possible…

What smells signals summer to you?