Category Archives: animals

In search of cranes

a stuffed sandhill crane
The closest we got to a sandhill crane. A stuffed bird among the exhibits.

After 6 months in Tennessee, I’m still a little overwhelmed by the number of beautiful overlooks and natural spaces within a short drive. So we’re already compiling a mile-long mental list of places we’ll want to visit, particularly to take a peek at the various animals that live there.  But the tricky thing about going in search of wildlife the way that nature, weather and the animals themselves can thwart your plans.

Case in point, in January, we couldn’t resist a trip up the road to the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, an annual event that celebrates the stopoff of thousands of  these birds. In November and December, they nest and raise their young in Florida. Then the sandhills stop off here, in the gray months of January and February, to feed before spending summers in the upper Midwest.

We wandered through the exhibits at the host school and waited in line for the bus to the Hiwassee Refuge. Except that there were no cranes. Well, to be fair, we might have seen 20. It was a far cry from the thousands that had been munching on corn and grasses in these fields just days earlier.

several sandhills in a field
A few cranes showed up for the festival

Mother Nature didn’t get the memo about the crane festival this year. For several days before, we’d had sheets of rain. The local dams had released water to control the risk of flooding. And, voila, this favorite spot had suddenly become too soggy for the birds. Rangers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told us of hundreds of cranes that had moved to nearby farms, so we drove around the country roads before turning our car toward home. No cranes.

But we are determined. And we suspected that the cranes would be back. So, two weeks later, we turned the car north once again.

This time we saw fewer people and more birds.  The sandhill cranes seemed to prefer a small island up the road near Blythe Ferry. But we saw (and heard) hundreds rather than a handful of these majestic birds.

hundreds of sandhill cranes on a small island in the lake
Hundreds of cranes just a few weeks later

We lingered until sunset because we hoped to see an endangered whooping crane. As we were watching the sandhill cranes, we met volunteers with the International Crane Foundation who had just released an injured whooping crane back into the wild. As the sun got lower and the temperature got colder, we shivered but kept thinking we’d see that great white bird among the scores of red headed sandhills.

But alas, the whooping crane eluded us. Maybe next year.

The most interesting part of the video is the sound. These birds make a racket.

Photos by Sarah Webb. Video by Preston Foerder


In search of manatees

Though my current home is in the Big Apple, I was born and raised in the Sunshine State and return on occasion to visit my family. This time our trip south also included an animal-based day trip to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park in search of manatees.

manatee closeup


In the area around Crystal River, particularly this time of year, manatees huddle in the warm springs and near power plants and even around the docks and waterways. We picked a bad year to make this trip– the temperatures hovered in the 70s, balmy for December, and the manatees didn’t need to come in to shore to stay warm. We could have headed out on the water to snorkel near them, but we didn’t have time or the right gear (Next time!).

Lucifer, the hippopotamus So we did the next best thing and headed a few miles south to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park. On the boat ride from the park entrance, our guide (whose accent indicated pointed to origins farther north, say Long Island) gave us the twisting Floridian history of this park, originally set up as an exotic animal park that including monkeys and a hippo (Lucifer, who is still in residence).

When the State of Florida took over the park, they turned it into a showcase of native animals. So in addition to the half dozen manatees, some of whom were injured and others of whom are permanent residents, we saw Florida panthers, river otters, and a whole host of cranes, flamingos and raptors.

As a Florida kid, I’d heard a lot of the manatee basics before. They’re marine mammals, slow moving, and herbivores, and they’re often injured in boating accidents. But my image of those boating accidents had always been run-ins with slashing speed boat propellers. That’s one possible injury, but the big danger is that collisions will watercraft can lead to broken ribs and punctured lungs. Unable to float (and breathe), they’ll drown. Because of their migratory patterns from the warm Florida waters in winter before ambling north, sometimes as far as New York, they aren’t bred in captivity. To maintain these patterns, captive breeding programs can’t help support the wild populations, they need to learn them in the wild.

active river otters
River otter
Sandhill crane
Florida sandhill crane



Photos by Preston Foerder


From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill

photo by stevendepoloEven if you wanted to, you couldn’t buy test-tube hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue, but maybe in a decade or so we’ll all be noshing on barbecued goodies raised in the sterility of a laboratory near you. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or yucky?  For me, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m fascinated by in-vitro meat. In part, I’m drawn in by this strange intellectual and visceral war it brings out in me. The resulting meat could eventually be tasty and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, I like good, real food. I just joined a CSA. I grow herbs and vegetables. My parents each grew up on farms. I can see where science might be able to feed people with high quality meat from a lab. But, intuitively,  my body isn’t quite sure whether I’d like it. Considering how wary I used to be of “mystery meat” in school cafeterias, it’s hard to figure out whether there’s a real future for it in supermarkets and restaurants.

I love the complex cast of characters that enter the discussion of lab-grown meat: a hodge podge of scientists from stem cell researchers to engineers, animal rights activists, chefs, food activists and sustainability experts. So Michael Specter‘s New Yorker story, “Test-Tube Burgers” was right up my geeky alley.

Lab-grown meat is a fascinating tissue-engineering problem, with all the same challenges of building organs in a laboratory for transplant. It has all the great drama of an automated architectural design challenge. What structures, conditions and chemicals do you need to allow a few seed cells to produce the marbled muscle that becomes good meat. The biggest scientific challenge is producing blood vessels to feed the tissue and create meat-like texture.

Specter’s story connects all of the threads of science, food, sustainability and even “the yuck factor” right back to the Petri dish. If you have a chance this weekend, it’s worth the read. I dare you to read it while the burgers are on the grill.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo on flickr

Where my interest in in-vitro meat began: I wrote this short item for Discover about 5 years ago.


Biology on a Dinosaur Scale

Titanosaur nest

Last week, along with a group of other journalists, I got a sneak peek at The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, an exhibit that opened on April 16 at the American Museum of Natural History and will be open until January 2. This exhibit departs from the traditional dino-formula of towering skeletons by asking questions about the biology that supported the growth and maintenance of those massive bodies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big dinosaurs. The model of the Mamenchiosaurus strains the room proportions, but the best part is her double-role as a screen for videos that describe how she breathed, the hundreds of liters of blood coursing through her body and 30-ft-long neck, and how she digested hundreds of pounds of food each day.

But though Mamenchiosaurus is daunting in size, she’s positively awe-inspiring once you get to the exhibit where you push a pump that simulates the heart that would pump her blood. I managed to keep her going for a few heartbeats, but I soon got a warning message: “The dino is dizzy.” I didn’t last much longer.

Mamenchisaurus at the AMNH's The World's Largest Dinosaurs

In a quick conversation with respiratory biologist, Dr. Steve Perry, I learned about their über-efficient lungs. Like birds, these dinosaurs likely had lungs with two chambers. As a result, they could absorb oxygen both as they inhaled and as they exhaled, boosting their ability to extract oxygen from the air to 35 percent from the 20 percent that we mere humans manage.

By making all kinds of connections to large animals that currently walk the Earth—elephants, giraffes, and even large egg-laying birds—it became a little easier to wrap my head around these large creatures roaming the Earth. It was fun to get some biology to add some meat to those bones.

More on the research that formed the basis for this exhibit in Science and in the New York Times.

Want to follow a dinosaur on Twitter? @Giant_Dino

Image credits: © AMNH/D. Finnin



Whales in NY Harbor, Part III

Blue Whale, copyright our corner of Brooklyn, we’ve been waiting for our local whale sighting. But it looks like it just might be a matter of time. According toNY Daily News article, local boat owners are already making money off a revenue stream that seemed confined to calmer waters: whale watching tours.

I’ve posted before about the acoustic evidence that whales are living right here in the busy New York shipping lanes. Christopher Clark and colleagues listened in on the giant mammals with underwater microphones and recorded a complex chorus of several species. But lack of funds has paused any follow-up research.

Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll try to time my harbor walks for whale sightings  and bring along my binoculars. But I hope we and the whales can adapt to each other. I’d like to keep cetaceans in my neighborhood.

Image credit:


Close encounters of the bird kind

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island
a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Count-em, three, quirky animal stories


Quirky animal stories are big fun, but three in a month is a new record for me.

The most recent one, hot off the presses in C&EN’s Environmental SCENE, looks at how arctic seabirds provide a convenient way to track persistent pollutants in marine environments.The researchers measure the chemicals in stomach oils, a concentrate of fish oils from their food that collect in an upper part of their stomach. Chicks are exposed to higher levels of pollutants when they’re fed stomach oils than from whole fish or crustaceans. Fun factoid: the smelly mess is super-easy to collect because the birds also spew it on intruders. Yes, that includes your friendly neighborhood field scientist.

At the end of July, I went to the 47th Annual Animal Behavior Society meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what came out of that trip for ScienceNOW:

First, a look at unusual beluga whale behavior: except for during mating season, male whales at a Canadian aquarium prefer to hump other males rather than females. Is this hanky-panky an assertion of dominance? A form of play? In the wild, male whales tend to live in groups on their own for most of the year and under the Arctic ice.

Finally, a new chapter in the story of duck penises: Male ducks have unusual, spiraling penises that grow for mating season. Now, researchers have shown in two different species that social competition shapes either how long a duck’s penis will grow or how long it will stay elongated. It’s as if the ducks walked into a quacking singles bar and their sexual prowess changed based on the other guys in the room.


Brilliantly beautiful bee nests

nest constructed by female bee, Osima avosetta, by J.G. Rozen, AMNH

I tend to think of bees in hives, but three out of four species of these pollinators strike out on their own. A newly discovered species, O. avosetta, lines its underground nests with flower petals. Two teams of researchers found these unusual nests in Turkey and in Iran.

From the American Museum of Natural History press release:

“In this species, a female shingles the wall of her brood chambers with large pieces of petals or with whole petals, often of many hues,” says Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. “Unfortunately, her larvae never enjoy the brilliant colors of the nest’s walls because they have no eyes—and, anyhow, they would need a flashlight!”

Hat tip to NPR— Read more about how these bees make the nests and see more amazing flower nest photos.