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The “Hot Sword of Shock”

Some readers know that the E who appears occasionally in this space is my husband, Everett Shock. Some readers also know that he’s a geochemist on the faculty of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the department of Chemistry at Arizona State University.  But up until now, no one knew that an organism has been named in his honor.  It’s official, and in print — a newly identified archæon discovered living in the very hot water of a geothermal spring at Yellowstone National Park: Thermogladius shockii.

Thermogladius shockii: if your Latin’s a little creaky, that’s New Latin (the “made” Latin of scientific names) for “Hot Sword of Shock”.  The transmission electron microscopic photo F to the left shows why — according to M.Osburn and J.Amend, the authors of the article in Archives of Microbiology, some individuals sport “occasional stalk-like protrusions.”  (TEM images from Osburn and Amend, 2010)

But the “thermo” of Thermogladius doesn’t really refer to anatomical hotness (despite any claims to the contrary).  Thermogladius is a genus of HYPERthermophiles, tiny, single-celled, anaerobic cocci who prefer to live in very hot, nearly boiling, gas-rich water fermenting complex organic substrates.  What a way to make a living!

Congratulations, E!

Posted by Allison on Nov 5th 2010 | Filed in close in,E,etymology/words,natural history | Comments (5)

Three small pictures of four small things…

… I missed at first, when outside friday morning shooting passionflowers.

It really irked me to not have my own photo of a Gulf Fritillary to post yesterday, so once the sun was higher, I went out to fetch one, if possible (a photo, that is, not a flutterby). I ended up encountering not only the butterfly, but three other notable things. Here they are, in the order they appeared (be sure to click to enlarge, except the kestrel, which is too blurry to bother, and actually will just get smaller anyway; all photos A.Shock):

A. The Gulf Fritillary, which started it all. The insect is sort of hidden in the negative space between stems and leaves (almost a “Spot the Bird“).  This was the best photo I was able to nab — the name flitirraries would suit them even better, because they never seem to rest. They are Passiflora specialists, and are clearly thrilled that we have four vines in the yard. (Well, six vines actually — this morning I found two small seedlings, thriving about 4 feet away from where their parent plant refused to take.) >>

B. The Echinopsis in bloom (or “Easter Lily cactus”). This one is a cultivar, I don’t know which, since these shade-growing cactus have been living in this yard longer than we have. In my experience, it’s unusual to find its crepuscular flowers still open at noon. <<

C. The Fearsome Predator. >> The neighborhood male American Kestrel, about the size of a Mourning dove, checking out the Dee-licious Finch Bar (the birdfeeders) for lunch. I looked up when I heard a house sparrow give a rough alarm call; the little falcon was just 20 feet away from me, perched on a low wire with a good view of the menu. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of him until he’d swooped up to the top of the corner phone pole because my trigger finger was distracted by D:

D. The Ants that were biting me painfully on the feet. Due to hastily brushing them off and sweeping them out from under my sandal straps in a undignified quick-time version of the Myrmex Dance I did not immortalize their image, although they were just doing their job, Protecting The Nest, which I’d accidentally trodden upon trying to photograph the Echinopsis. Perhaps the Gilded Flicker family who lives here (and who, I think surprisingly late, just fledged a young’un) will be making a visit to the Dee-licious Ant Bar.

Do you suppose the Ant Bar has a Formica countertop?

Bonus etymology: Formica, etc.

According to the archives of “Word of the Day”Greek murmex [is] “an ant,” which also gives us myrmecology “the study of ants” and myrmecophagous “ant-eating.” In Latin the related word for ant was “formica,” from which we have the former Word of the Day “formication,” the sensation of ants crawling under the skin. The proprietary name “Formica” applies to a plastic laminate ultimately derived from formic acid (which comes from ants), but it is also a pun—it was originally developed as an electrical insulator that could be substituted “for mica.”

For the detail-oriented, let me add that Latin formīca is the ancestor of the French and Spanish words for ant, fourmi and hormiga, respectively. The Latin and Greek words formīca and myrmex (μύρμηξ) at first glance may not seem similar to each other, but as neatly summarized by Wikipedia, both are generally accepted to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *morwi- along with a pile of words for ant in other languages: Latin formīca, Iranian /moirbant, Avar maoiri, Sanskrit वम्र (vamra), Greek μύρμηξ (murmēks)/μυρμήγκι (mirmigi), Old Norse maurr, Crimean Gothic miera, Armenian մրջիւն (mrǰiwn), Polish mrówka, Albanian morr, Persian /murče, Old Church Slavonic mravie, Russian муравей (muravej), Tocharian /warme, Kurdish Mérú, Breton merien.

Posted by Allison on Oct 16th 2010 | Filed in birds,botany,close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,natural history,yard list | Comments (1)

Quite a lot of penguins

It’s still hot in Phoenix, although less hot than formerly, so here’s a cooling black-and-white-and-gray vista to cool the eye.

These King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) are amassed on South Georgia Island, located at 54〫S in the fearsome southern Atlantic ocean.  There are tens of thousands of them on this breeding beach.  Most of the individuals in this photo are adults — males are larger than females, but the sexes are similar in plumage — but note the so-called “oakum-boys” in their shaggy browny downy chicky plumage standing around waiting for semi-digested krill to be delivered by mom or dad. (Photo A.Shock)


According to this site the term “oakum boy”, referring to King penguin chicks, is explained this way:

“The old sealers called them the oakum boys as they looked like the rolls of oakum used for caulking ships. Oakum was a loose fibre got by picking old rope to bits, sometimes, even rope that had been used to hang criminals. Convicts or paupers often did this work. (Ever heard the expression money for old rope?). The word oakum comes from the old english (before 1150 AD) acumbe, literally off combing. The word comb comes from old saxon. Caulking was the stopping up of the seams of ships using oakum and a waterproofing material like tar.”

Posted by Allison on Sep 30th 2010 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)

More Mightier Pink

The last post, on Roseate Spoonbills, was mighty pink. But I have to admit Flamingos are pretty dang pink, pinker even than Roseates. This is because they are bigger, and their entire neck and head are flaming salmon. And these two are American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), who are among the pinker of the world’s six flamingo species.

Two American flamingos feeding in a brackish lake in the Galápagos Islands. Color not fiddled with, honestly. (photo E.Shock) >>

Flamingos have a propensity for extreme environments: highly alkaline lakes in Africa, the high Andes, Florida, rugged volcanoes sticking out of the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here’s a pulled back shot of the area where this group of flamingos were wading:

I love the setting because it’s both peaceful and bizarre: a big volcanic hill covered with lava and dry thornscrub, bright pink preposterous birds with upside down heads, and giant cactus. Only in the Galápagos.

<< Flamingos in the Galápagos (photo A.Shock)

Another admirable thing about flamingos is their name. In Italian it’s fenicottero, derived from the genus Phoenicopterus, “crimson-winged”, which is the latinized version of the modern Greek name for the bird as well: Φοινικόπτερο; French, flamant rose; and Spanish, flamenco. The connection between the name of the colorful birds, which perform lavish, mannered dances, and the national dance of Andalusia is reportedly still debated; which came first — the dance or the name?

Posted by Allison on Sep 9th 2010 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,field trips,natural history | Comments (1)

Another excellent tropical owl

(This post newly updated with better link to owl sound)

Here’s a Spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata), staring hard at us from its perch in the tropical lowlands of Sarapiquí in Costa Rica.  What could be more delightful than a cinnamon-and-cholcolate owl with white “spectacles?”

I have the answer: one that makes a strange, rapidly pulsating noise like a ray-gun, pwup-pwup-pwup-pwup.  Click on this previous post for etymological details of its scientific name.

(Photo A.Shock)

I’m dying to make one out of clay — a jar perhaps, with a swiveling head?

Posted by Allison on Aug 24th 2010 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,field trips,natural history,owls | Comments (0)

Did you see a Resplendent quetzal…

…when you were in Costa Rica?  Yes.

Did you get a photo of a Resplendent quetzal?  No.

And was the Quetzal resplendent?  Yes.

Resplendent quetzales (Pharomachrus cocinno) are glimmering emerald birds who inhabit the dense, wet montane and cloud forests of parts of Central America. The males have splendid iridescent fringed tail plumes which trail extravagantly behind them, inviting stares and admiration from both female quetzales and birders, and challenging artists with inadequate pages.  During my recent visit to Costa Rica, several quetzales crossed our path, looking down on us from a secure height, feeding, drying wet feathers, or just loafing.  One adult male bird appeared suddenly overhead, so silently we almost missed him, while we were admiring hordes of busy hummers at feeders near Monteverde.  As with hummingbirds, the exact shade of a quetzal’s plumage depends on light and angle, and can look emerald, azure, glinting with gold, or simply black.  I’ve never seen a photo do the colors justice, let alone an unsubtle computer-graphic image like my effort (although it improves with enlargement, click on image to embiggen).

Throughout their range from southern Mexico to Panama, quetzales are endangered, mainly due to habitat loss.  They are frugivores, and favor the fruits of trees such as the aguacatillo, which has a sort of miniature avocado-like fruit.  Quetzales are cavity nesters, laying two eggs in old woodpecker holes fairly high in the canopy, and males and females share nesting duties.  During the day, nests can be located by the trailing tail plumes of el macho hanging out of the nest hole.  A curious feature of Quetzales is that, unlike most birds, their toes are arranged two forward, and two back.

Queztals or Quetzales?  Either is a correct plural; the first is standard in English, the second in Spanish.

The name quetzal (usually pronounced KETzul in english and ketSALL en español) is reportedly a word from the Nahuatl language, and refers to the spendors of the birds’ tails.  It’s likely associated at least etymologically with the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent.

Click here for an excellent photo essay on Resplendent quetzales by T.Beth Kinsey of Firefly Forest.

Posted by Allison on Jul 20th 2010 | Filed in art/clay,birding,birds,drawn in,etymology/words,field trips | Comments (0)

Hordes of hummers

Living in Arizona there’s no room for complaint about the quantity and loveliness of the hummers which visit our yard feeders. In the Phoenix area we have Costa’s and Anna’s year round, Black-chinned in summer, with Broad-tailed and Rufous making migratory appearances. I’ve seen a brilliant Broad-billed just two miles from here at the Desert Botanical Garden, so it’s a potential yard bird, as well. Further southeast in the state, hummer numbers swell to around 17 species — by contrast much of the U.S. hosts only one species, the Ruby-throated.

So only a truly spectacular hummer turn-out would impress a southwestern observer. Without doubt, Costa Rica provided that. During a thirteen-day trip, in various habitats and elevations, we saw about 34 species of hummers. Most I couldn’t capture in pixels: with a zoom-impaired camera, the best chance I have for snagging hummingbirds in photos is at feeders. These three posed obligingly on and around the feeders of Savegre Mountain Lodge.

<< Green violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus). These were quite common, and quite beguiling. A bit crabby, too: when another hummer got too near, those violet-ear patches would flare outward. Very threatening; we quailed at the sight. This bird has new feathers molting in on its forehead, visible as tiny white quills, still wrapped in whitish keratin like shoe-lace ends to facilitate outward growth.

>> Right: male Volcano hummingbird (Selasphorus flammula). These little toughies are related to our norte americaño Selasphori like Allen’s, Rufous, and Broad-tailed, and are just as glittery green-gold-bronze. This Cordillera de Talamanca subspecies has a plummy sheen in its gorget, slightly visible in this photo.

And lastly, below is a female White-throated mountain gem (Lampornis castaneoventris) feeding at an aloe, or perhaps a Kniphofia, flower. Her mate (not shown) has a spotless white throat and an azure forehead, but the female is marked with a handsome rusty underside, the “chestnut-belly” of its species name, castaneoventris.

(All photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 19th 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,etymology/words,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)

The Boss in her office: “checking for lard”

[This is a Spot the Bird, although it’s less of a quiz than a photo series. All photos A or E Shock.  Click to enlarge.]

Here are some feral date palms, growing wild at a substantial oasis in Death Valley, CA.  The date palm is Phoenix dactylifera (“finger-bearing”), but in this case we could call it P. bubifera, “owl-bearing.”  There’s an owl in this palm, although you can’t see it. >>

Owls seem to like roosting in palms.   Every birder the world over checks palms for owls.  Great horned, Barn, Grass, whatever the local species are — if there are owls and palms together in a habitat or region, they are likely to be acquainted.  This is because palms (like pine trees) provide what owls like: concealing, sturdy roosts, and habitat and food source for prey items.  An owl perched hidden in palm fronds has a grand view of scurrying, foraging rodents at its feet — imagine regularly finding dinner on your very own kitchen floor… or, to quote Homer: “Mmmm, Floor Pie!”  (that’s the epic Homer Simpson, not Homer the epic poet).

Spot the bird: In the center of this photo, you can see a vague milky blur on the right edge of the darkest dark: the vermiculation, or fine breast barring, of a Great horned owl, Bubo virginianus. >>

It’s nearly invisible because its distinctive yellow eyes aren’t visible; owls roosting in plain sight will often consider themselves concealed by squinting.  When even one eye is revealed, the bird become easier to spot. <<

I’ve checked a lot of palm trees.  I never find owls in them (although I know others who have), but I keep checking.  This repeated optimistic searching is known in our family as checking for lard. The term was coined after a cat named the Beefweasel found an unattended pile of chopped fat on a windowsill in our St. Louis apartment, waiting to be put outside for winter-hungry titmice and chickadees.  Making good her name, the Beefweasel wolfed down the yummy chunks.  Balancing on her hind legs and sniffing hard, she checked that bountiful window-ledge for years hoping for a fatty repeat.  Birders are well-known to check for lard, too: there was a nut tree in St. Louis that was searched every winter by local birders on field trips because once in a decade past it had hosted an out-of-range Bohemian waxwing.  Among birders, places to check for lard are passed down as oral tradition: I knew about that pecan tree, but the waxwing that made it famous alit there long before my time.

So out of habit and hope, I was checking these particular palms with my binoculars, searching the deepest shadows for Good Feathery Detail (vermiculation).  And there was an owl.

>> The bird never fully unhid; this was the maximum best sighting it allowed.

It was a Great horned owl, tucked in out of the breeze, and not at all worried about us (although we didn’t go very close, being equipped with telephoto lenses and optics — owls are like cats; sometimes you have to respect their invisibility, even if it’s just in their heads).

It’s so delightful to luck into a surprise owl (which, mostly, they are), that we talked about it for the rest of the trip.  We referred to this bird as “the Boss in her Office”, because she reminded me of a boss I once had, who lurked invisible at her desk most of the time.  Although she was hidden from us as we scurried around busily, it was never a good idea to forget she was there…

Bendire’s thrasher in Papago Park

Some things always amaze me.  One of them is why there are so many different Thrasher species in the arid Southwestern U.S.

Most of us who live in the Low Desert are used to two of the more common thrashers: the ubiquitous Northern mockingbird, its slender gray-and-white profile often seen on high perches, singing its melodious and varied song.  Our yard mockers rock their own vocalizations, but also the sounds of other birds, like cactus wrens, cardinals, and kestrels.  Our other common thrasher is the larger Curve-billed thrasher.  These are busy and athletic foragers, with big down-curved bills and a loud, ringing song.  They have a distinctive “wit-weet” call that people are aware of, even if they don’t know the name of the bird who’s making it in their backyard.

<< Bendire’s thrasher (Toxostoma bendirei)

But there’s another thrasher, very close in appearance to the Curve-billed, that breeds in the low desert, too, although it’s not as common.  It’s the Bendire’s thrasher.  Also a plain, mostly brown bird with a vivid and intelligent golden eye, it too has a strong, long bill, less de-curved than the Curve-billed, and pale at the base instead of dark (you can see this subtle field mark in the photo at left, especially if you click to enlarge).  It’s perhaps best distinguished by its song, which is “chewier” and to my ear, not as ringing as the Curve-billed.

In the last couple of weeks, E and I have been treated to a very bold Bendire’s thrasher singing from the tops of the sparse trees in a part of Papago Park where we walk several mornings a week.  Its chewy, bubbling song attracted our attention; I’m not sure we would have noticed it wasn’t a Curve-billed if we hadn’t heard it.

Bendire’s thrashers are known to inhabit the Park, but we hadn’t encountered one there before, so it’s been a treat for us to enjoy its consistent presence along our route.  We had a quick glimpse last week of a second nearby thrasher — it may have been another Bendire’s, so we’re wondering if this stretch of desert isn’t supporting a breeding pair.  We’re keeping our eyes open.


Toxostoma, the genus of some of the mimid thrashers like Curve-billed, Bendire’s, Crissal, California, Brown, and LeConte’s, is a compound name formed from two Greek elements, τόξον, bow, and στόμα, mouth, referring to the strong curved bill — in some cases extremely long and curved — of these birds.  They use it to turn over foliage and clear crevices of debris by moving it strongly from side-to-side, the action which gives them their type name, thrasher.  In search of insects and miscellaneous food items, they ream out all the stuff that settles between flagstones or cracks in the pool deck, leaving a line of turned-up crud along the joints in the cement, so we always know when the thrashers have been foraging there.

Posted by Allison on Apr 11th 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,etymology/words,field trips,natural history,Papago Park | Comments (2)

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