Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #29

Water, water, everywhere, right?  We're all taught that something like 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered in water.  And when you take a look at an image of our "blue planet" from space, it does look more "blue" than anything else.  But this stunning image puts a whole new perspective on it.  Or, at least, it did for me.

Picture of Earth showing if all, liquid fresh, and the water in rivers and lakes were put into spheres..
Earth, with all it's water locked up in a bunch of huge marbles.  Illustration by Jack Cook of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, from the USGS website.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #28

Spanish moss is a lie.  I guess I'd never thought about it, because I'd never encountered this puzzling plant before.  But we crossed paths for the first time when I went to Florida this semester.  As it turns out, Tillandsia usneoides is neither Spanish, nor moss.  It's actually a bromeliad, and it is more closely related to a pineapple than it is to any moss or lichen that it resembles.  Like many other bromeliads (Bromeliaceae), it is an epiphyte or "air plant", and grows by absorbing nutrients and water from moisture in the air as it hangs form the branches of its tree cousins. It's important to note that it doesn't directly harm the trees it clings to, and doesn't take anything from the tree.  But it can reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the trees leaves, or potentially break branches as water absorbed weighs them down.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) blows in the southern breeze at Blue Spring State Park in Florida.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #22 - 27: Energy Edition Part II

Now, where did we leave off last time?  Oh, right, alternative energy sources. I touched briefly on the potential that solar technologies have to offer.  But there are a number of other alternatives to the currently fossil fuel driven system we use.

Things I Learned This Semester #15 - 21: Energy Edition Part I

And now, as promised, it's time for some very "non-avian content".  This semester I took a course on the physics of energy, and the science behind the technologies that power our every day lives.  Natural history may be where my heart lies.  But life isn't all trees, birds, and fossils.  So recently I've been interested in learning more about other aspects of the world we live in, and how our actions as a species impact it.  Energy use is one of the big ones.  Where do we get our energy from?  What impact is that having on the rest of the world?  Is there anything we can do about it?  These are big questions.  And there are no simple answers.  But I learned a few things this semester that, if nothing else, have made me a more informed decision maker when it comes to my energy use, and the politics and science behind it.  I thought I'd share a few of those things with you all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #14

At the beginning of the semester, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many of my readers like birding as much as I do. In fact, I got a pretty positive response from my "virtual birding" posts and the phylogenetic format they followed. So I figured why not give the people what they want, right? Let's expand that cladogram a little to accommodate my two new backyard birds from Saturday's post.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #13

It may be a well known fact that flowers are a popular gift on Mother's Day.  But I suppose I never realized quite how popular.  And I certainly never knew the actual statistics.  One fourth of all flowers purchased as gifts are given on Mother's Day.  Of that quarter, nearly 70% of the flowers are fresh cut (the most popular being carnations) and rest are flowers or other plants that you can keep in the house or put in the garden.  That's a lot of flowers!  But mother's or the world, you're completely worth it!

Happy Mother's Day!

A bouquet of Rosa sp., photographed by Jebulon, from Wikipedia.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #12

The state bird of Maryland, the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula).

Today is International Migratory Bird Day.  And to celebrate, I thought I'd share another thing I learned this semester.  Predictable, I know.  But at least it has to do with migratory birds.  Two of them, in fact, both new to my yard (at least as far as I can tell).  I happened to catch a glimpse of both a Baltimore Oriole and a yellow-rumped warbler, two migratory species known to spend time in Maryland.  Both were a little shy, but I managed to catch them on camera before they took off.  I guess it will take some time for them to get used to me sticking my lense out of the window.  But I'm very happy they are around!

A (male?) yellow-rumper warbler (Setophaga coronata), hiding from me in the  mulberry tree.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #11

I have raccoons in my yard!  How exciting is that?  I knew I had opossums and groundhogs, and I assumed there were raccoons in the neighborhood.  But I hadn't seen any until this evening.  Tonight, I caught one checking me out as I put away my yard tools.  He seemed just as interested in me as I was in him.  Which is good for me because If I'm lucky, I'll be able to see him on a regular basis.  But not as good for him, as a friendly 'coon may end up trapped or killed if the people it lives around decide it has become a nuisance.  Rest assured, as far as I'm concerned he can hang out here as long as he likes!

Procyon lotor, the North American raccoon.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #10

Pēderdor the Fartinator.  Oh yeah, check out all his majesty.
Dinosaur farts make a lot of noise.  And I'm not talking about the actual act of flatulating.  I'm talking about the noise made by the media when a paper was published earlier this week.  What does the paper say? In short, that sauropod dinosaurs would have annually produced around 520 metric tons of methane as a result of their digestive process.  That's just about the same amount that we're currently pumping into the atmosphere today.  The paper, of course, simply presents a model for how they calculated this number, and it relies heavily on a lot of variables that are assumptions at best.  But what did the media say?  Some reliable, unbiased news sources immediately began running stories about how dinosaurs farted themselves into extinction, despite the fact that Wilkinson and his co-publishers never talked about extinction once in the paper.  This was immediately picked up by a number of other news outlets, and spread all over the internet.  Thankfully, there were a number of outstanding individuals at the helm ready to combat this ridiculousness with good science reporting.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #9

One of the coolest birds you may have never heard about, Macrocephalon maleo. Photo by Stavenn, from Wikipedia.

There is an entire clade of birds that incubates its eggs by burring them, as opposed to sitting on them and using body heat to accomplish the same goal.  The megapodes (Megapodiidae) either build mounds of rotting vegetation, or lay in holes in the ground where the eggs are heated by solar or geothermal radiation.  The chicks that hatch are superprecocial, meaning that they aren't just born with their eyes open and the ability to scamper around, but also with full wing feathers and finely tuned motor skills.  The chicks of some species, like the Maleo of Indonesia, can take up to two days to crawl out of the volcanic sand in which it is hatched, and when they reach the surface, are capable of hunting their own prey and powered flight. That's completely crazy; I love it!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #8

Back in March I had the good fortune of seeing a talk by Professor Lawrence M. Krauss, Ph. D., hosted by the University of Maryland Society of Inquiry.  Dr. Krauss is a world renown theoretical physicist, and the talk was excellent.  A little cosmology, a little humor, and a lot of nothing.   Absolutely nothing.  In fact, an entire Universe from nothing.  So what did I learn? Cosmic humility, on a scale I never imagined possible.

If you find yourself with a free hour, and you want to learn what I learned, I highly recommend the video below.  You won't regret it.

Uploaded to YouTube by richarddawkinsdotnet.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #7

The red mulberry, Morus rubra, is a wonder native tree that also bares a wonderful edible fruit.  Red mulberries are, by my account, delicious.  I'm lucky enough to have two fruiting trees that hang over from the neighboring properties, and they provide more than enough for me, and the birds.   They grow easily and rapidly as well, so the volunteer seedlings I have are off to a great start. Full disclosure: this isn't something I learned this semester, but I just brought in my first batch and they were quite tasty, so I thought they deserved a shout-out.  Here's to deliciousness!

Who's hungry?  There's plenty to go around!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #6

One of the things I did get done when I moved into my new home was dig an outdoor turtle pond for my Northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin).  She has been very happy since she moved out of her indoor tank and into her new digs.  I adopted "Jersey" about 5 years ago, and a little under a year ago, she did some adopting of her own.  I noticed last spring that a female Northern green frog (Rana clamitans melanota) had moved into the pond. I was, of course pleasantly surprised; the pond isn't huge by any stretch of the imagination, but it still managed to attract some local wildlife. And this frog in particular went on to have  a very good spring and summer.  There was no competition for space, she was protected from predation (the pond is enclosed in a wood and wire frame to keep other critters at bay), and she had all the food she could eat.

This semester, I learned Frog and Turtle are friends. Maybe I'll write a children's book about it.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #5

Loads and loads of native trees, reaching for the sky.
I love trees.  Now I know what you're thinking: "C'mon, David.  You've always loved trees.  You didn't just learn that this semester."  And that would in fact, be true.  But this semester, I learned I really, really, really love trees. Like a lot.  And I've been in a sorry state, because since I moved into my new home a few years back, there have been none on my property.  But no more!  Last year I started growing oak seedlings, and some of them actually made it through the winter.  Combine that with all of the volunteer saplings that I pick from my yard before I mow, and the count goes up even higher.  But these little guys will need a lot more time to grow before they are placed in their permanent home.  Which is why I'm so pleased that I was able to procure some larger, older trees this semester.  Mixed oaks and maples, a few sycamores and birches, redbuds, elms, the works.  All ready to go in the ground, all native.  One day my backyard will look more like a miniature forest, which is fine with me.  I mean, who doesn't love a good tree?  I know this semester, I learned I certainly do.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #4

Today's "thing I learned this semester" is actually a news item I heard about just yesterday.  And boy is it good news. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (SNMNH) is finally going to get a new Dinosaur Hall!  David H. Koch (you may recognize the name from another hall in the museum) has made the largest donation in the history of the SNMNH, and has provided the museum with $35 million to update what is one of the museum's most popular, but ridiculously outdated, halls.

Allosaurus (of course) on display in the center "stage" of the SNMNH's current Dinosaur Hall.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #3

EXTERMINATE your Thursday boredom with this factoid: There is a basal mollusc named after the Daleks.  That is all.

The Cambrian mollusc Yochelcionella daleki, from Runnegar & Jell (1976).
Hat tip to Dr. Holtz for that little knowledge bomb. I definitely see the resemblance.


Runnegar, B. & Jell, P. A. 1976. Australian Middle Cambrian molluscs and their bearing on early moluscan evolution. Alcheringa 1(2): 109-138.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Things I Learned This Semester #2

Callinectes sapidus, photographed at the Maryland Science Center.

Back in 2008, Maryland Governor Martin O'Mally and Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine, at the advice of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, made the difficult decision to pass regulations regarding the harvesting of Atlantic blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) in the Chesapeake Bay.  By shortening the harvesting season, putting limits on the number of bushels allowed to be collected, and curbing the catching of female crabs, they hoped to allow the record low populations to rebound.  Well, good news everyone! Four years later, and the crab population has reached its highest levels in the last 19 years!  A dredge survey made public back in April shows a population rise of 66%, of which 587 million individuals are juveniles.  This is great news for the crabs, but also for the watermen that make a living off of them, and for those of us who love picking a good crab on a late summer evening.  Sustainable fisheries management for the win!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The 1st of May: Things I Learned This Semester #1

I honestly can't believe how long it's been since I've been on the Interwebs. Spring is a busy season, at work, school, and home. And I've certainly been keeping occupied with things. Yes, I've tried I make my presence known through Twitter, but I figure now is a good a time as any to make my triumphant return to blogging. So on this, the first of May, I'm going to introduce something new, and ease myself back into things with a post series on "things I learned this semester". Each post will be pretty quick, and I hope to do one a day for the entirety of the month, but at least it's content. And maybe all of you will pick up a little something along the way; I know I have!