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Flying Creatures of the Night

Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Photo by Dan Riskin, used with permission.

Last year, in August, I had the privilege of going for my first ever night-time hike. The hike itself was extremely short and straightforward but the goal wasn’t distance or challenge. The goal was to see and hear some of the flying and screeching mammals that come out at night: Bats.

To see these creatures, you need to go out at twilight, which is what myself and members of the Norfolk Field Naturalists did in August 2022. The night sky was beautifully clear, and as stars began to appear so too did small flying creatures seeking insect prey with high-frequency calls. I think everyone knows that bats use echolocation to locate prey in the darkness, but something else everyone “knows” is that bats are blind… but this isn’t true at all. Bats can see about as well as we can, which is to say that they can’t see amazingly at night. To compensate for this, bats create extremely high-frequency calls that are beyond the range of human hearing, and interpret the reflections of these calls, discerning objects (ie. Flying insects) that break up the soundwaves they create before the soundwaves return to the bats’ extremely sensitive ears.

Despite what I said earlier about most of their echolocation calls being too high-frequency for human hearing, I was able to listen in on their hunting cries with the aid of technology, an amazing experience. I used a bat detector which works by bringing any frequency sound down 100 Hz so that high-frequency sounds are emitted within human hearing range. This meant a bit of fiddling with the dials to hit the right frequency that the bats were calling at. 

This is the Bat Detector that I borrowed and used for the evening to listen in on hunting bat calls.

Once I got the hang of it, I was able to listen in on bats hunting in the night. The input was directional, so I had to aim my detector at where I thought a bat was flying which became increasingly difficult as the sky darkened. This obscurity was rewarding when I would happen upon a bat that I could not see by just scanning the dark sky with the detector. There were a few side effects of detecting high-frequency sounds and transmitting them loudly to my headphones. One was that on a certain frequency I could hear very distinctly a loud jangling and clinking sound every time that a fellow Field Naturalist put their hand into their pocket and bumped their keys. Another was that if I tuned into another frequency, the already-audible calls of many katydids in the woods became deafeningly loud in my ears. Whenever I caught the bats’ channel of calling and honed in on a hunting bat, any drawbacks were instantly alleviated.

Which kinds of bats were we observing? According to the website batnames.org (an online taxonomic tool tracking bat diversity) there are 1456 bat species named worldwide (Simmons and Ciranello 2022). Within Mammals, the order Chiroptera is second only in species diversity to the incredibly diverse order Rodentia (with approximately 2635 named species (Mammal Diversity Database)). Within Canada, there are just 20 species of bats, all belonging to the Family Vespertillionidae (Naughton 2012). Within Ontario, there are only 8 species of bats*, so we really only have the tip of a very massive iceberg of bat diversity worldwide. Our hike was led by Liv Monck-Webb of Nature Conservancy Canada and she identified the bats we heard and saw as likely belonging to just 2 species: Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) and Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis).

*Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Eastern Small-footed Myotis (Myotis leibii), Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) are the regularly occurring 8 species of bats in Ontario. Apparently there has been a single specimen of the Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) found in Ontario on Point Pelee in 1911 (Naughton 2012). Naughton (2012) goes on to say that this species could appear more frequently in Ontario in the future with warmer average temperatures.

I would like to talk about the two bat species we observed in more detail in future blogposts, so stay tuned for that!

Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), photo by NACairns, used with permission.

Being able to listen in on bats hunting was an incredible experience, and unlocked one more piece of local ecology. If you have the opportunity to do the same, I would highly recommend it!

References:

Simmons, N.B. and A.L. Cirranello. 2022B. Bat Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic database. Accessed on 12/29/2022.

Mammal Diversity Database. (2022). Mammal Diversity Database (Version 1.10) [Data set]. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7394529

Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. University of Toronto Press.

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Norfolk Naturalist Year in Photos (Dec 2021-Nov 2022)

Last year, as part of the Norfolk Field Naturalists, I was able to present 20 of my photos and discuss them. That was what prompted my still-ongoing “Top 20 Nature photos 2013-2020” series (Links to Introduction, 1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta, 2. Moose (Alces alces) Family , 3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) , 4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) , 5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant ). This year, I am able to present another 20 photos. I’ve decided this time to keep the range of selection and the range of discussion much more condensed and to form it around my blogging year and my blog’s namesake locality: Norfolk County, Ontario. By keeping the time constrained to a single year, representing each month at least once and the location constrained to a single county in Southern Ontario, I think it can give a sense of the turning of the seasons, something I’ve always been fascinated by. One further restriction is I tried to avoid photos/organisms that have already featured on my blog this year. Introduction complete, here come the photos of my blogging year in review:

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Port Rowan, December 2021:

These beautiful birds are a sight to see in the winter, snow falling around their dancing forms. Their resonant trumpeting calls, and their acrobatics in the white fields are breathtaking.

Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) in Simcoe, January 2022:

I’m always pleased to find a species near to home, which I associate with farther away. I first encountered Hooded Mergansers in Algonquin Provincial Park, so I think of them as something from the wild north rather than my own county, but this past January, I took some photos of a female swimming through a park in downtown Simcoe.

Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) in my backyard, February 2022:

While reading through nature books and articles, I have read often of Pine Siskins moving through my area during the Winter in some years, and I had always hoped to see them. This year was the first time I saw them, and while my photographs are not very high quality (taken through my back windowpane), I was very excited to see and document this species at my backyard bird-feeder.

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in my backyard, March 2022:

Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials in Canada, part of a diverse group of mammals that are distinct from the placentals which make up the rest of the Canadian mammals. People often shorten the name to “possum” but this is technically incorrect for these animals. Pouched mammals in the New World (ie. North and South America) are known as ‘opossums’ while those in the Old World (Mostly Australasia for this group) are called ‘possums’.

American Winter Ant (Prenolepis imparis) in my backyard, March 2022:

These common ants are active early in the Spring and late in the Fall, which is how they acquired their association with Winter (Ellison et. al. 2012). Some workers of this species can store excess amounts of food in their abdomens and become living storage canisters, much like the more well-known honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus in North American deserts, or Camponotus inflatus and Melophorus bagoti in Australian deserts) (Ellison et. al, 2012).

Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on my Parents’ Farm, April 2022:

The first members of this species were seen in Ontario in the 1860s. Prior to European colonization and agriculture (which opened up preferred habitat for them) these adaptable mammals were located further south in the United States and Mexico (Naughton 2012).

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in my backyard, May 2022:

Similar to my Hooded Merganser observation above, my first encounter with these amazing ground-foraging woodpeckers has coloured my appreciation for them as unique and surprising. I first saw Northern Flickers when driving through MacGregor Provincial Park in the early morning. Their speckled pattern was striking but even more distinctive was the way they move, like woodpeckers hopping up a tree trunk but horizontally on the ground surface rather than clinging to bark. Seeing a Northern Flicker in my own backyard was an exciting experience (it’s happened a few years now) and adds to my appreciation of the diversity all around me.

European Woolcarder Bee (Anthidium maniculatum) in my backyard, June 2022:

These solitary bees scrape the hairs off of leaves to line their nests (usually in a preexisting cavity in wood or plant stems). As the common name indicates, this particular bee species is introduced from Europe, and is the species you are likely to see in mid-summer (the native Anthidium species are active earlier in Spring) (Wilson and Carril 2016).

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) in Long Point, June 2022:

Migratory Warblers are always a treat to see in the Spring and Summer, and this colourful bird singing its heart out is one of my favourites. This species is widespread across North America and northern South America. In the more southern regions of its range, it may breed in mangrove swamps, while in Canada it can be found breeding in windswept tundra.

Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis) in my backyard, July 2022:

Just as Cuckoos lay their eggs within another bird’s nest in order to benefit from the original inhabitant’s parental provisioning, so does the Cuckoo wasp benefit from another insect’s parental provisioning. In the case of this Genus, Chrysis, the female wasp lays her eggs inside the nest of other solitary wasps where the cuckoo wasp larva either feeds on the growing host wasp larva or the host larva’s food supply, placed in the nest by the host wasp parent (O’Neill 2001). The adult cuckoo wasp is well-armoured and can roll into a ball like an armadillo to present this tough shell as a defense against its hosts (Marshall 2006).

Marsh Snipe Fly (Rhagio tringarius) in my backyard, July 2022:

The larvae of Rhagio snipe flies are predators of invertebrates that dwell within the soil, but the adult diet (if they do eat anything) is unknown (Marshall 2012). This species, R. tringarius is introduced from Europe and is possibly replacing the similar native species, R. hirtus (Marshall 2012).

Eastern Cicada-killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) on my Parents’ Farm, July 2022:

Cicada-killer wasps are an example of a species that I had encountered significantly in print before encountering in the wild. I had read of their enormous size and strength, so when I spotted giant robust wasps on a visit to my parents’ farm I had my guess that these were the fabled hunters. These are impressive insects, but despite their large size and the males’ territoriality (the males will occasionally dive-bomb humans), they are not actually dangerous to people and should be tolerated and admired, rather than feared. The female can remove up to 1000 times her weight of soil to create her multi-celled nest which she provisions with adult cicadas (all of which used to be included within the genus Tibicen but which have now been moved to several genera (see Hill et. al. 2015 for a recent taxonomic review of the Cicada genus Tibicen)). Each larva is given 1-4 cicadas to feed on, males are given only 1 and female larvae more because females are sometimes 2.5 times larger than males (Evans and O’Neill 2007). The reason for this size disparity is that females do the digging and carry the giant prey items. The cicada-killers cannot carry paralyzed cicadas in flight unless they first drag them to a height and drop, which they will do occasionally in order to transport their large prey (Evans and O’Neill 2007).

Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:

This very large grasshopper can be up to 4.4 cm long and feeds on a variety of plants and crops (Marshall 2006).

Prionyx atratus in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:

Prionyx atratus is a solitary wasp which hunts late-instar* or adult grasshoppers, like the one photographed on the same day in the same garden above. The wasps sting the grasshoppers on the head or thorax, and then construct a burrow in soil for their single prey item. Once the nest is constructed they will place the paralyzed grasshopper inside with an egg attached and close off the nest. While working on the nest, the female hunter will sometimes cache the grasshopper prey nearby (O’Neill 2001). Researching this species led to a rather alarming observation noted in O’Neill 2001: “I have seen the cached grasshopper prey of Prionyx species devoured by other grasshoppers”. It seems that grasshoppers are not always only plant-pests but will consume each other if given the opportunity.

*instar refers to any larval stage between moults, so a late-instar means a larval stage that is close to being an adult.

Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates  in Long Point, September 2022:

One foggy morning in September, I was out taking photos in Long Point. The main thing I was looking for was birds, but every step I took along the wetland trail was punctuated by the sound and motion of leaping frogs. Taking a closer look at the path, I managed to crouch down and capture some closeups of this Northern Leopard Frog, helpfully sitting very still. 

Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax) in my backyard, October 2022:

There comes a time in the year when insect populations begin to go into hiding or die off as Autumn and Winter creep upon the land. Every buzzing, whirring, crawling invertebrate at this time of year gains my attention all the more because I am conscious of the seasons’ turnings that will soon cover the flowers with snow and a hush will fall upon the local pollinators. So in October, I was quite excited to find a small gathering of pollinators right by my back step where an Aster was growing. This photo shows one such late-Fall insect: a Drone Fly.

Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) on my Parents’ Farm, October 2022:

Yet another late-flying insect caught my eye in October, this time a butterfly: an Orange Sulphur. This species of butterfly may or may not overwinter in Ontario. The adult individuals that we see in the Spring are likely migrants from its southern range (which includes Central America and the United States) (Hall et. al. 2014). I’m guessing this means that this individual spotted in the Fall was possibly on its way South to warmer climes.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in my backyard, November 2022:

As I prepared to choose at least one photo from every month of the past year, I realized that I didn’t have any photos taken in November. So I rushed outside in my backyard to take some photos of the backyard birds at our feeders. My favourite picture was this of a Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are familiar and common backyard birds, though they prefer to feed from the ground, rather than directly from the hanging feeders. I feel like this is a perfect species to end with: very common and familiar, found in my own backyard, yet I still find it exciting to see and observe these amazing creatures. I’m looking forward to next year, and can’t wait to see what other species I will wonder at and learn about through 2023.

References:

Ellison, Aaron, Gotelli, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, adn Alpert, Gary. 2012. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. Yale University Press.

Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Harvard University Press.

Hall, Peter, Jones, Colin, Guidotti, Antonia, and Hubley, Brad. 2014. The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.

Hill, Kathy, Marshall, David, Moulds, Maxwell, and Simon, Chris. 2015. “Molecular phylogenetics, diversification, and systematics of Tibicen Latreille 1825 and allied cicadas of the tribe Cryptotympanini, with three new genera and emphasis on species from the USA and Canada” Zootaxa Vol. 3985 No. 2: 10 Jul. 2015. [you can read the article yourself here: https://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2015/f/zt03985p251.pdf] DOI: https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.3985.2.3

Marshall, Stephen. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. Firefly Books.

Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: Their Natural History and Diversity. Firefly Books.

Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. University of Toronto Press.

O’Neill, Kevin. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History. Cornell University Press.

Wilson, Joseph, and Carril, Olivia. 2016. The Bees In Your Backyard. Princeton University Press.

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I Love Jurassic Park

Perhaps timely, as I await the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, I thought it might be fun to explore my relationship with the franchise as a whole and maybe you’ll have fun reading about it. SPOILERS ahead for all Jurassic Park films and novels released to this date.

The first film holds up amazingly well special-effects wise because it contains mostly animatronic dinosaurs which was always incredible to me. The soundtrack is great, the dinosaurs are powerful and terrifying, the editing and filming is awesome. I always dreamed of having an animatronic (preferably the T. rex of course) outside my house as a child. I also had vivid nightmares of T. rex creeping outside my window as a child… maybe I watched these movies a little too young? In any case, the imagery of the movie is burned into my brain, and the scene of the T. rex attack on the tour vehicles is one of my favourite scenes in any movie ever. The Lost World is filled with animatronics and mostly convincing CGI as well and in that respect it holds true to the Spielberg vision of the original and “feels” like the first film in that way. I really like it, lots of animatronic tyrannosaurs roaring and stomping around, the infamous long grass scene, all of it is great fun and exciting and I have watched it and enjoyed it many times.

When I first saw Jurassic Park III I was really bothered by it. During the first quarter of the movie, the new dinosaur antagonist is introduced, Spinosaurus, and the creature defeats and kills an adult T. rex. This was very bothersome for me since T. rex was (and is) my favourite dinosaur, and as such felt like it should always be shown as superior. Looking back at it now, I’m not as bothered by the Spinosaurus (it’s probably the best part of the movie) but there are some major holes in the plot and general bad movie making that went into JP3, but it’s still a fun movie to watch because there are dinosaurs (and some scaly Pteranodon types) interacting with people and each other. 

The Jurassic World movies are less paleontologically inclined, but still fun for the same reasons as JPIII. Jurassic World was my first Jurassic film that I watched in a theatre and the experience was super fun and exciting. It rekindled my excitement and passion for dinosaurs. Leading up to the sequel’s release (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a tie-in videogame was highly anticipated by myself: Jurassic World Evolution. While the game had its problems (especially right at release), it delivered on fantastic looking dinosaurs and atmosphere which meant that I could immerse myself in the Jurassic Park world and immerse myself, I did. While playing the videogame I read and very much enjoyed Jurassic West by John Foster. Jurassic West is an excellent introduction to the world of technical paleontology books, describing the Morrison Formation dinosaurs* and their environment. There are a few subjects like paleontology that I had always been interested in from a popular aspect, but had never delved into the more dense scientific books of that field. Jurassic West opened wide the doors to learning more and more intensely about paleontology to the point where now I have a decent paleontology book collection (something I plan to write about more in future). 

*these are some of the most famous household name dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus, as well as many others.

An excellent introduction to semi technical paleontology. Well-written and great at explaining concepts like stratigraphy and deep time in an intuitive manner.



Despite the problems with the sequel films (I think they have less… integrity? Consistency? Majesty?) they sparked and renewed my interest in dinosaurs and fossils and they’re still very fun to watch! I look forward to the next installment coming out in the next few days…

Now I’d like to take a look at another aspect of Jurassic Park that I have enjoyed for a long time… the novels…

My paperback copy of Jurassic Park, pocket sized for easy transport.

After watching the movies (JP and TLW) countless times I was trawling through my local library and found the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I only then realized there was a book that the movie was based on. I borrowed the book immediately and dove in. As I was in elementary school (somewhere between 9 and 11 years old by my calculations), I was disturbed by the adult language and graphic descriptions of violence, certainly far more terrifying than anything I had seen on-screen. A standout example is the scene that details Dennis Nedry’s grisly demise at the jaws and claws and spit of the Dilophosaurus. He is literally blinded and holding his own intestines as the dinosaur slowly eats him. I distinctly recall reading sections of the novel while sleeping over at my grandparents’ house and being nervous that they would wonder what it was I was reading. The Dilophosaurus attack sequence was the point at which I quit reading Jurassic Park several times before finally reading all the way through. By then, the book had become a part of my Jurassic Park experience and I would re-read the novel (and its sequel, though not as often) many times. It has become something of a comfort book for me, which may be rather strange but what can you do!

The first novel (especially the first ¼) is written in a journalistic report style and there is considerable mystery and intrigue building up to the reveal of what John Hammond is doing on Isla Nublar. Despite myself already knowing exactly what InGen was doing and how they were doing it, I found this mystery aspect very appealing and still think that the first chunk of the book is an excellent slow build of tension. The buildup establishes an air of authenticity giving the novel a feel of something that might have happened but was not reported on in the wider media. This pseudo-historical style is taken to an extreme in Michael Crichton’s introduction which blends fact and fiction in a way that plants you right in the middle of the “InGen Incident”. 

The novels grew with me. The discussions of scientific ideas such as Chaos Theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and genetics went way over my head the first half a dozen times I read the books, but after going to university for Biology, I found that I appreciated the level of detail and “correctness” that is contained in these discussions. Michael Crichton did his research, and it shows.

There are so many details that I love about the books that are lost in the films. They keep Compsognathus packs in the park to clean up the sauropod and other mega-herbivore dung. The T. rex swims after Grant and the kids, a very plausible behaviour nicely on display in the recent BBC documentary Prehistoric Planet (Highly recommended viewing!).

One of my most prized possessions is this beautiful hardback copy of Jurassic Park and The Lost World novels in one volume. The pages are silver edged and there is a red tassel bookmark.

Another standout scene is the Tyrannosaur escape sequence. I’m unsure if it’s because the scene in the film is so iconic and informed my reading of the novel, but that scene in the book always gives me the same sort of chills and goosebumps as the scene in the movie does*. 

*there was one time that I was up late rereading Jurassic Park for the umpteenth time when a thunderstorm slowly rumbled and approached and reached a crescendo just as I read the T. rex escape scene. A wonderful, immersive experience. 

There are major differences in the book’s portrayal of characters versus the movies: Dr. Grant has a beard in the books and is not romantically involved with Ellie Sattler who is a much younger grad student. The lawyer, Donald Gennaro, is an action hero (there is a scene where he fires a rocket launcher at rampaging velociraptors) instead of being eaten on the toilet. The children are reversed in age, so that Lex is the younger kid in the books, and the hacker skills are the older Tim’s as well as all of the likable qualities. Lex takes on all the whining and whingeing in the books and Tim has all of the dinosaur fascination and computer knowledge. Dr. Ian Malcolm is a stand-in for Michael Crichton himself in a lot of ways in the novel, cautioning against the progress of technology for technology’s sake and generally describing research that Crichton obviously found compelling. He generally maintains this author-stand-in role for the movie, but with more “ums and uhs” and very unique line delivery (thanks, Jeff Goldblum… seriously thank you). John Hammond is another major departure from the novel. In the film, he’s a likable grandfatherly figure with dreams and drive. He’s played by David Attenborough’s brother, Richard Attenborough, and apparently modeled some of his mannerisms off his natural history obsessed brother. In the novel he is a rich eccentric who is only interested in money and profits. As a villain in the novel, he meets an untimely end which is rather brutal when you imagine the movie-version character. He gets turned around in the park, falls into a ditch and is nibbled to death by “compys” (Compsognathus), the little green dinosaurs that swarm Dieter in The Lost World film.

My paperback copy of The Lost World. I bought this at the same time as my paperback Jurassic Park. A purchase that saved me countless trips to the library.

The Lost World novel is Crichton’s only sequel, and he runs into some problems. The main issue with a sequel to the Jurassic Park novel was the journalistic news-report style of the original. The closed nature of the first book kept the InGen Incident under wraps and the epilogue mentions offhand that Ian Malcolm died of his injuries in a hospital. As mentioned previously, Ian Malcolm is Crichton himself in the novel so to fulfill this role in the sequel he had to return from the dead. Just as he was killed “off-screen” so to speak in the epilogue of JP he is resurrected in the introduction to TLW. 

Another character that returns in the sequel is Lewis Dodgson, who in the novels is the ‘main villain’. He’s the guy who hired Dennis Nedry to steal the embryos for his company BioSyn, a genetic engineering rival to InGen. He actually interacts with the dinosaurs himself in TLW, as he travels to the island with a small crew. His colleague, Baselton, has a great death scene. It rectifies in the books one of the silliest ideas proposed in both book and movie: that T. rex can only see movement. This bothered me as a kid because I wanted T. rex to be the biggest baddest dinosaur ever (see my reaction to the Spinosaurus deathmatch). Later on, I objected to this portrayal because it just doesn’t make any sense for an active predator to only see moving objects as prey. In The Lost World book we have Baselton get captured by the T. rex because he was “misinformed”. Dodgson is also later fed to the tyrannosaur babies in their nest.

There are some other fascinating bits of dinosaur lore in The Lost World. There’s an encounter with chameleon-Carnotaurs that can colour-match their backgrounds so effectively that they are almost invisible to the main characters (hmm, sounds like a certain hybrid dino in the Jurassic World movie…). The sauropods are described as keeping their necks horizontal, which was vogue at the time (and something I was already keen on after Walking with Dinosaurs) but has since been overturned (https://tetzoo.com/blog/2019/1/18/the-life-appearance-of-sauropod-dinosaurs). The explanation given in the book for why they might have long necks was for counterbalancing their long tails, used in defense. A bit of a stretch if you ask me (see what I did there?), but animals that are still living today often surprise us with their bizarre anatomies. 

The scientific discussions and monologues by Malcolm in the sequel are focused on animal behaviour, evolution and extinction, subjects that are closer to my areas of interest than genetics and complex systems focused on in the first book. Some of these discussions are fascinating and great writing in my opinion and others are a little bit off (see my comment above about the sauropod neck-tail balance theory). TLW is more of an adventure novel than JP, but there are still a lot of dense scientific concepts discussed and presented alongside the usual fun interactions with living Mesozoic dinosaurs. 

Both books are excellent if you like dinosaurs and/or science, if you like a good thriller, or if you like the movies and want more detail/discussion. 

Hopefully you enjoyed my personal thoughts/experiences with the Jurassic Park franchise books and movies. 

For previous paleontology themed blogposts, see:

TetZoomCon 2020

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton (Book Review)

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton (Book Review)

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TetZoomCon 2020

I’ve been a fan of the Tetzooniverse for the past few years and have been reading through the incredible amount of amazing science writing that Darren Naish has posted on the various versions of Tetzoo (link to the current version, here). There was one aspect of the Tetzooniverse that I could never join in on: a conference in the UK of like-minded people. I live in Ontario and the trip would simply be too expensive. Enter 2020, a year where people aren’t allowed to travel at all, and I have finally obtained that elusive entrance into my first ever Tetzoocon, called for obvious reasons this year: Tetzoomcon! (the event took place in December 2020, so yes it has taken me 8 months to write up the blogpost about it…)

The virtual meeting of zoology enthusiasts from across the globe (I believe there were almost 400 participants online) ran smoothly and was overseen by Darren Naish, John Conway (Paleoartist and co-host of the Tetzoo Podcast, see his art and other information here), and Sharon Hill (science writer and researcher from Pennsylvania, see her website here). After the introduction and explanation of how the Zoom platform would be used to host the zoological conference, we moved onto a series of talks produced by a varied list of presenters on a varied list of topics.

My Copy of Tetrapod Zoology Book One, a compilation of articles from Tetzoo’s first year of blogging.

The Presentations

The first presenter was Rebecca Wragg Sykes (website here), with her talk titled “Re-imagining Neanderthals: From Archaeology to Palaeoart”. I’m not particularly interested in Hominids because of their close similarity to Humans; I find the creatures more different from Humans to be generally more fascinating. The talk was quite interesting though, in that Rebecca investigated the changing perspectives on Neanderthals through history and in particular through the medium of artistic depictions. She demonstrated the racism that occurred when artists of the past portrayed Neanderthals as exaggerated racial stereotypes of specific races that were deemed “primitive”. After examining the fossil evidence of such a physical appearance, the portrayals were shown to be following a racial agenda rather than depicting Neanderthals as they would have appeared. (For a parallel perspective on the issue of racism in Paleoart, and an excellent overview of the topic, see this blogpost by Mark Witton).

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ recent book: Kindred.

Next up was Natalia Jagielska (website here) with her presentation: “The Rise & Demise of Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs”. Natalia’s enthusiasm and humorous slides (featuring her own wonderful illustrations which you really should check out) made this an incredibly engaging talk. She essentially went over the history of Pterosaur research (briefly) and dove into the history of Pterosaur groups through the Mesozoic.

RJ Palmer (website here) presented a talk called “Paleoart as Creature Design” which was filled with interesting visuals, including some of his own paleoart and graphics. His entire presentation was done in PhotoShop, which was pretty interesting. He moved from art-piece to art-piece as he described some of his methods of artistry. One of his projects I have encountered is the game Saurian. Saurian is a fascinating video game project, which seeks to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation as a virtual landscape. The Hell Creek Formation is a famous geological formation that includes a variety of creatures, including the most famous dinosaur of all: Tyrannosaurus rex. As a player, you tour the landscape as one of several species of playable dinosaurs. The game seeks to be as close to reality as possible, with paleontological data being incorporated into the game’s design.

There is a book for the game coming out (in October) detailing the Hell Creek formation, filled with concept art and paleoart (which are kind of the same thing in this instance?)… I want it…

After these first three presentations, there was an hour-long break which included breakout sessions for those who wished to participate. These breakout sessions were neat. The way it worked was that you were placed in a randomized chatroom with up to 9 other people. In my first chatroom it was me and one other person at first, and then later on Sharon Hill (who was one of the coordinators for the event) joined in for part of the time. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the other people who wanted to spend their Saturday in front of their computers to tune in to a Zoological conference. My username was “norfolknaturalist” and because Tetzoo is UK-based it was confused for Norfolk in the UK, which was fine. I explained that I actually lived in Ontario and we chatted about the sorts of creatures we encounter in our respective areas. The person other than Sharon Hill was from the UK and Sharon hailed from Pennsylvania. So between us, we covered a substantial distance around the globe. 

The second chatroom (the hour-long break was split in two randomized-participant chat sessions) was filled with aspiring paleoartists. It was neat to hear them talk about the various projects they were working on or species they were interested in (Spinosaurus came up a lot because of the papers which had come out recently shedding more and more light on the possible appearance of this mysterious carnivorous dinosaur). I didn’t have much to contribute (and there were more people in this one) but like I said it was interesting to tune in.

The next presentation after the breakout chat sessions was done by Anjali Goswami and was titled: “Digitising vertebrates: or how a mammalogist stopped being impressed by birds and learned to love salamanders.” Anjali’s presentation was very intense and data-driven. She basically explained how she and her team at The Goswami Lab had compiled digital models of many different vertebrate skulls, and how they compared across the tree of life. There were many intriguing graphs and charts depicting the various comparisons and datasets. I will admit I didn’t understand all of this presentation, but it was intriguing nonetheless and it was interesting to hear how the studies of skull shape led Anjali to appreciate the diversity of Salamanders (Caudata) (again, I didn’t understand this presentation perfectly, so I may be getting this wrong, but it seems that Salamanders change their skull shapes more readily than birds over evolutionary time).

The final presentation of the day was David Lindo’s “Missing: Without Action” which was about recently extinct (or not quite extinct) birds. David Lindo is known as The Urban Birder, as he is a writer and presenter with a focus on getting people to take note of the birds in cities. David’s presentation was emotional, because he told stories of bird species which have gone extinct because of human influence, and he conveyed well the tragedy of such events, the true sense of loss when an entire species disappears and will never return. He injected some hope into the discussion, by recounting stories of bird species that were thought extinct and were rediscovered through sporadic sightings. With this idea, he hinted at the possibility that not all “extinct” species are necessarily gone forever. There could be holdouts at the range edges, or in places that people have missed.

Big Cats in Britain

The Big Cats in Britain event was different in form to the other presentations. Most of the presentations were given in the form of single-person lectures with slideshows or variations (see my discussion of Rob’s Photoshop setup). The Big Cats in Britain event was set up as a conversation between several presenters with some pictures thrown up on the screen for discussion as well. I will admit to being not particularly interested in this subject, mostly because I don’t live in the UK. I thought that Darren’s introduction was nice, giving a broad overview of the subject and explaining how the Big Cat Sighting Phenomenon isn’t limited to the UK, and is an interesting subject worthy of exploration, whatever your views on the veracity of the claims are. Darren has taken this tack for Cryptozoology time and again, and reading through his various articles on the subject on the Tetrapod Zoology Blog certainly changed some of my own views on cryptids. Basically, the argument is that whether a cryptid is “real” or not, scientists can still learn a lot about the scientific method, observation bias, and human psychology from anecdotal (or other) evidence of cryptids. Furthermore, Darren has demonstrated in the past how “mainstream” zoologists have engaged in what might be termed Cryptozoology by seeking animals at the root of anecdotal stories or hearsay, which have turned out to be species new to science.

The Big Cats in Britain presentation proper just wasn’t that interesting to me however, but that’s one person’s opinion.

Paleoart Workshop

When first purchasing a ticket for TetzoomCon I was hesitant to join the Paleoart Workshop, mostly because… I’m not a Paleoartist, nor an artist of any kind. I was assured by Darren Naish on Twitter that the Paleoart workshop would be great for anyone interested in Paleoart and not just Paleoartists, so I went ahead and added that to my Tetzoomcon ticket. Boy am I glad I did. 

Basically the way the Paleoart workshop worked was that the attendees were split off into small groups (I think all were less than 10 people) and grouped with a Paleoartist. The list of artists that were leading the groups was a highlight reel of amazingly talented people, many of whom I recognized because of owning the two books Dinosaur Art I and II. (not a comprehensive list, but some names that I recognized before the event: Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Steve White, Gabriel Ugueto, and Luis V. Rey).

I was assigned to a group led by Luis Rey which turned out to be a perfect fit for me. Many of the sessions involved the artists working through the creation of an artpiece with the attendees creating alongside them. Luis Rey instead asked each person in turn why they were interested in Paleoart and went through relevant slides of a presentation and discussed the areas of interest of each of us. That was really neat. Luis Rey is a highly influential Paleoartist. His reconstructions are extreme, dynamic and colourful, to the point of being almost comic-book style. I believe this is because his style is reacting against the dumpy, dull reconstructions that had prevailed for so long in dinosaur art. He wanted to show that dinosaurs were vibrant and exciting creatures full of personality. My answer to his question: “Why are you interested in Paleoart?” was “I’m interested in seeing creatures and ecosystems that I can no longer see”. This is my draw to Paleoart, I’m not particularly drawn to the artistic side of reconstructions but rather the naturalistic portrayal of scenes from another time, creatures that used to live and walk on the Earth. I love being able to see visions of animals that no longer exist, animals I can’t observe with my own eyes, but that can be reconstructed from the latest science.

After the Paleoart Workshop, there was an afterparty where people could move around through various chatrooms to talk with people who had attended the event, including the presenters and Paleoartists. I was in a chatroom with Darren Naish himself, who was talking about some of the Paleoart pieces he had with him in his office. One of them was the painting of Attenborosaurus by Mark Witton. I awkwardly held up the mug I was drinking from because it features the very same painting. The art is done by Mark Witton (who is likely my favourite Paleoartist for his realistic portrayal of past natural history), and the species depicted is named after Sir David Attenborough… what’s not to love?

All in all, the event was great and I was so glad that I was able to attend despite being an ocean away from the UK. The next Tetzoomcon event is coming up soon, on September 3, 2021, and I’m hoping to tune in then too. Hopefully if I do, I will write up my thoughts and overview of the event faster than I did for the 2020 event…

For previous Tetzoo-related posts, see these two book reviews of books by Mark Witton:

Book Review: The Paleoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

Book Review: Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

And see these two posts focused on Tetrapods:

Natural Curiosities, Part 1: Emu Feathers

Swimming Squirrels

And for Nature Observations, Photos and Natural History facts, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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Life: What is it?

I’m going to do something a little bit different with this post. I’ve done a few “Species Profiles” in the past (the Introduced Pine Sawfly and the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly), and in those I’ve offered a brief overview of the groups those species belong to before focusing in on the species itself. In future, I’d like to zoom in on a species from a distance. Since all living things, from bacteria to Blue Whales, are part of one huge family tree (species have formed out of species) then all of life is related to a greater or lesser extent. So to start my scope as far out as I can, I’m going to begin with the broadest category of all: Life itself.

What are Living Things? You might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite complicated and difficult to draw lines around living and nonliving things. We can intuitively classify large animals (and by this I mean animals that can be seen without aid of a microscope) as living things. They eat, move and reproduce under their own power. Plants and Fungi are similarly easy to class as alive (though some life stages of Plants and Fungi lie on the border, such as seeds or spores). Although Plants and Fungi don’t behave in easily visible ways in our timescale, they still perform the same functions as Animals: reproducing, metabolizing and growing.

So maybe there isn’t a simple definition for life, but Living Things are still easily distinguishable because of a general sense. It’s just common sense that an Elephant is alive and a rock is not. If we bring the scale downward from the living organisms we can see with our own eyes into the rabbithole of microscopy we find that things are (as always) far more complicated. The simplest and perhaps most relevant example to bring confusion to our general sense of what is alive and what is not is… a virus.

I remember the first time I recognized the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection. The major difference from a patient’s point of view is that Bacteria can be treated (ie. killed) by anti-biotics. Anti-biotics literally means “anti-life”. Because Bacteria are alive they can be targeted by anti-biotic medicine. A viral infection is immune to anti-biotics. Viruses are not killed by “anti-life”. This is because they are supposedly not living. This is where the defining border of Life and not Life gets very very fuzzy.

Viruses come in many shapes and sizes and they affect animals and plants in a myriad of ways, but the reason they do any of that is because they exhibit behaviours which enable them to adapt and react to their surroundings in order to reproduce more of their kind. The description I just offered seems to suggest that Viruses are alive. It really depends on where you draw your lines. My Biology textbook from University states that “the characteristics of life that a virus possesses are based on its ability to infect living cells” (Russell et. al. 2010). So, no living cell, no life. A virus contains some portion of DNA or RNA (the information-coding substance that tells cells what proteins to make and how to make them), and sometimes a protein capsule or container. Again, from my Biology textbook: “They essentially highjack the machinery and metabolism of a living cell in order to reproduce. For this reason, most scientists do not consider a virus alive” (Russell et. al. 2010).

For an alternative view of viruses, here is a quote from a book dedicated to Viruses: “they [Viruses] are highly evolved biological entities with an organismal biology that is complex and interwoven with the biology of their hosting species”(Hurst 2000). In this book, Viral Ecology, the editor also recommends placing viruses within a fourth biological Domain of Life (the other three Domains are Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya). He proposes that this Domain be called Akamara which means roughly “without chamber”, describing the fact that organisms within this Domain are non-cellular.

I’m not sure where I sit on the issue of whether viruses should be considered Living or non-Living. The more I learn about them, the more complicated the questions and answers are. I think that intuitively I wouldn’t want to define Life by its components such as possessing a cell, but I also see the value in having strict definitions for labels even labels as amorphous as Life. The point I wanted to make with this diversion into Viruses is that Life is actually hard to define or describe and place within limits, even if on a larger scale it’s intuitively simple.

I don’t think I’ll really be delving into Viral Biology on my blog anyway as I personally prefer learning about organisms I can more easily observe, but it is a fascinating aspect and background for my interests in living things in general.

Next up… Animals, Plants, Fungi. They have to be easy to divide and define right?

References:

Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.

Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.

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Swimming Squirrels

We tend to think of animals as “set in their ways”, following the pattern of their species and not varying in their behaviour or ecology on an individual basis. In fact, every species is made up of individuals. And once you start to think about it, of course this is the case.

People are often surprised to hear of diet variation, when wild animals feed upon substances that seem to go against their “pattern”. Crocodiles and Alligators will consume fruit, and could even act as seed dispersal agents (Grigg and Kirshner, 2015). White-tailed deer will eat nestling birds if they happen upon them. Chickadees will feed on dead mammals.

A recent observation reported in The Canadian Field Naturalist journal represents another of these striking behaviours that stands out because it is atypical for the species as a whole. The species concerned is one that many people are very familiar with: the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). There are already accounts of various Squirrel species hunting and feeding on other vertebrate animals, including birds and even other Grey Squirrels (ie. Cannibalism) (Squirrels as Predators, Callahan 1993). Perhaps more surprising is the recent report of hunting an animal that is outside of its normal environment: namely, a fish. In Guelph, Ontario, a Squirrel was seen to dive from a branch headfirst into a shallow portion of a river. After being underwater for a few seconds “the squirrel swam back to the snag with a fish 3-5 cm long in its mouth” (Sutton et. al. 2020). After feeding on the fish briefly, the Squirrel moved out of view into the woods.

There is so much out there to explore, in your own backyard or neighborhood. Animals are individuals, doing individual things. They are not programmed automatons following rigid beahavioural patterns. Even an animal as familiar and commonplace as the Eastern Grey Squirrel can surprise us if we take the time to pay attention.

Eastern Grey Squirrel at Waterford Ponds, Ontario.

References:

Callahan, J. R. Squirrels as Predators. The Great Basin Naturalist, vol. 53, no. 2, 1993, pp. 137–144. 

Sutton, A. O., M. Fuirst, and K. Bill. 2020. Into the drink: observation of a novel hunting technique employed by an Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Canadian Field-Naturalist 134(1): 42-44.

Grigg, Gordon and Kirshner, David. Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians, 2015.

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Welcome to my new Nature Blog

If you’re interested in the living things that inhabit this world with us, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve always found it fascinating that there are so many different kinds of creatures, living out lives in different ways to us humans. In some cases, it’s difficult to believe that we share the same planet, let alone the same backyard. There are countless species that surprise and delight in your own neighbourhood, and there are many more around the world. I’d like to explore this diversity, and try to share my own excitement about these creatures, whether they are insects, fungi, plants, birds, mammals, or any of the other species that crawl, fly, swim, run or grow across the planet.

To do this, I’m planning on producing posts detailing a specific species or group of species to get a taste of what sort of creatures are out there. I will also occasionally post about my own observations (and photos) of species that I’ve encountered in my own travels in Southern Ontario. Another thing I’d like to do is review books that are relevant to learning about nature, as I have a personal library stocked with some great books about the diversity and wonder of life.

I hope that when you visit this blog you learn a little something, gain a greater appreciation for living things, and get inspired to pay a little more attention to the world of nature that’s all around us.