Category Archives: Nature

Here’s Harvey.

Golden retriever mix Otis in survival mode, carrying a bag of dog food in Corpus Christi after Hurricane Harvey
Golden retriever mix Otis in survival mode, carrying a bag of dog food in Corpus Christi after Hurricane Harvey

Otis, a golden retriever mix, was apparently in survival mode yesterday morning in Corpus Christi, after hurricane Harvey tore through the city, when he was seen carrying a large bag of dog food down the street.

“Must be a Texas dog, cause he can survive without help,” one commenter wrote. I’m not sure who the commenter was, but he must not have been a Texan. Even in Texas, the home of the Lone Ranger, this is not the lesson to be learned. Texans do what we can for ourselves, as Otis is doing; but we also help each other, as plenty of other Texans are doing.

The La Quinta Inn in Victoria, for example, sheltered about 70 people plus a collection of dogs, cats, and at least one rabbit Saturday afternoon, after the storm hit the city with winds of over 100 mph. That’s what Texans really do. Even the Lone Ranger had to depend on Tonto sometimes.

It’s not over yet by any means. “It’s going to last four to five days,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who urged drivers to stay off the road. “This is Day One.” That was yesterday.

Take care of yourself, and remember to help somebody. And don’t forget the animals.



Tomorow’s solar eclipse

“It was truly a life-changing experience! Just mind bogglingly beautiful and awe inspiring!”

That’s how science journalist David Barron describes it. He’s talking, of course, about the solar eclipse he watched in Aruba in 1998.

The last total solar eclipse seen in the contiguous United States was on February 26, 1979; but it was visible only across the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota. The one coming up tomorrow will angle across the whole country from northwest to southeast and coast to coast.

If you’re lucky enough to be in its path, it’ll reach totality between 10:30 am and 3:30 pm, depending on your location. Use this Solar Eclipse Map to see exactly when to expect it.

Total solar eclipses occur roughly once or twice a year somewhere on Earth, always at the time of a new moon. But it’s a big planet, and 70% of it is covered by water. The Arctic and Antarctic take up a lot ofthe rest of it. So  getting a total solar eclipse visible over a large populated area is less common, and one specifically over the United States is actually fairly rare.

Total solar eclipses are said to be one of the most magnficent sights in all of nature. The moon overtakes and slowly covers the Sun, taking nearly 90 minutes to do so. In the last seconds before the Sun is totally covered, the sky grows dark, the air cools, and birds stop singing. Then totality lasts just a few seconds or minutes. But everybody who sees one agrees it was worth the wait.

State capitals in the path of the total solar eclipse: Salem, OR; Lincoln, NE; Jefferson City, MO; Nashville, TN; and Columbia, SC. The optimal local viewing time is given for each. The rust-colored path marks the area where a total eclipse will appear, also called the path of totality. Map developed by CICS-NC in cooperation with NOAA NCEI, Deborah Riddle
State capitals in the path of the total solar eclipse: Salem, OR; Lincoln, NE; Jefferson City, MO; Nashville, TN; and Columbia, SC. The optimal local viewing time is given for each. The rust-colored path marks the area where a total eclipse will appear, also called the path of totality. Map developed by CICS-NC in cooperation with NOAA NCEI, Deborah Riddle

While the strip of totality is only about 70 miles wide and each location will see it for just a few seconds or a couple of minutes, the partial eclipse—when the moon covers just part of the sun—will be visible all over North and Central America plus the northern half of South America. It’ll cover a lot of ocean, and you’ll even be able to see it from Hawaii, if you happen to be there. Unfortunately for the rest of you, this is primarily an American eclipse!

Moments before totality in the 2012 Australian eclipse, just a small part of the Sun is still visible, creating a “diamond ring” effect
Moments before totality in the 2012 Australian eclipse, just a small part of the Sun is still visible, creating a “diamond ring” effect.

The moon’s shadow will race eastward across the nation at the speed of the moon’s orbit around the planet minus earth’s speed of rotation. Roughly 600 mph (combined). This particular eclipse starts in the morning on the west coast, and ends in the afternoon on the east coast. Those lucky enough to actually find themselves in the narrow path of totality–or who have made preparations in advance to be there–will see something similar to the picture above, plus or minus the clouds. It’ll be visible for just a very short time in each location.

And notice, this is a color picture; in the middle of the day, even though it looks like midnight. What you’ll actually see will vary depending on weather conditions, both here and on the sun! If you really fortunate, you may see the sun’s corona writhing for several sun diameters out around the sun itself. And all in glorious color, as you’ll see in some of the videos!

On the center line of totality, you’ll get two or three minutes of it; but along the edge, just 35 miles on either side of the middle line, you’ll only see a few seconds of totality. Outside of the narrow strip, you’ll see just a partial eclipse. No totality. But “just a partial eclipse” is still a thing of wonder!

From North Texas we’ll watch the moon crawl across the top of the sun, covering most of it eventually, and then passing on across. It’ll start at 10:02 am and end at 4:14 pm CDT, with peak at 1:07 pm CDT. I’ll be out there, rolling around in my power chair, enjoying it all.

Use eclipse glasses–available everywhere, cheap, If you’re not too late–or a pinhole camera to see the “bite” out of the sun, and watch how it changes over time. Or stand under a tree and watch the pinholes of light filtering through the leaves, each one showing a picture of the sun with a chunk cut out of it. It’s awesome!

NEVER look directly at the unshielded sun, even during partial eclipse, without proper eye protection! Doing so can easily cause permanent damage to your eyes, up to and including blindness. Sunglasses aren’t enough. Only when you are in the path of totality, and during totality, when the sun’s disk is completely covered right after the Diamond Ring fades, can you safely take off eye protection and look directly at the corona, Baily’s Beads, and other phenomena during the eclipse.

As magnificent as a solar eclipse is, it is purely a natural phenomenon that occurs at predictable times and places dictated by the orbits of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun. It is not a “magnificent harold of end time events,” as one wannabe prophet proclaims, “Signs in the sky” of the end times, as a few Christians think, or even a “time of darkness and evil,” as some Muslims say.

It is indeed a glorious wonder in the sky, but it is not a sign of evil or things to come. A solar eclipse is just something that happens when the earth, the moon, and the sun all come into their proper positions with respect to each other. It’s something to enjoy, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place. There is absolutely nothing about it to fear. And that’s the truth.

Watch the videos to learn more. They’re fantastic! And check out NASA’s National and State Maps to learn what you can see from your location and when you can see it.

Or watch it live here on NASA TV (Below), between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm CST, if the channel works. (But it appears to be overloaded already by 9:35 am CST Monday morning. Bill)



Clearly Confused Kitty

My late wife, Betty, and I used to wonder whether or not our four dogs and our old cat, John, could see the television shows we watched. We didn’t expect them to understand the shows. We just wondered if they could even see the pictures. After all, we understood there were really no pictures on the screen. There were just repeating lines of dark and light and color, changing 30 times a second, that our eyes registered and our brains interpreted as moving pictures.

Would the eyes and brains of our pets recognize the same pictures we saw, we wondered?

We saw little indication at the time that our animals were aware anything was happening. They almost never noticed the sounds from the set, either. There was only one exception that we were aware of to that. One time, we noticed our long-haired, silver bitch’s ears perk up when a dog on television barked; but her interest was gone in an instant. Lady, Sheila, Taka, and John didn’t seem to hear it.

Since then I have become aware that not all animals are as insensitive to television as ours were. I still don’t know why ours never seemed to notice anything on the screen.

Well, it doesn’t matter. This video shows a computer monitor; not a television screen. I realize the details are different, but the principle is the same.

In this short video, the cat appears to recognize a toy ball on the screen. She paws the screen as if to play with it, not recognizing the picture of her younger self playing with the ball in real life.

When she can’t touch the ball, but the kitten on the screen tosses it around, she quickly looks up as if to ask, “What’s going on here? Are you playing tricks on me?” Then she examines the back of the screen, apparently trying to find the ball.

I believe it was Aristotle (Or was it Socrates? No, Aristotle, I think.) who wrote that animals are like automatons, moving in a fog, and having no thought of what is actually happening around them. For almost the next 2000 years, philosophers and naturalists accepted this is as fact, just because Aristotle said so. Thankfully, modern scientists don’t do that. They make observations and they experiment to find out the truth. They have finally begun to realize what animal lovers knew long-ago — that mammals, birds, and at least some other animals are indeed intelligent and aware.

Nevertheless, their brains are not the same as ours, and their intelligence and awareness are not the same as ours. It is very difficult to understand their minds without anthropomorphizing them. That is, assuming that they are like our own.

Videos like this show us some of the similarities and some of the differences between their minds and ours.

Aiden: Future Zoologist

This young man’s name is Aiden. I don’t know anything else about him except the very little I was able to glean from Yotube and Go Fund Me. I just found the video on Youtube a few hours ago.

According to his Go  Fund Me page, his older sister is accepting contributions for his college fund. I cannot vouch for this. I have no  idea whether or not it is legitimate. For what it’s worth, here’s the text from there.

Aiden has a passion for animals and nature and dreams of being a zoologist in the future. I noticed all the support and love he’s getting from the video, so I decided to start a college fund for him early so that he can be set in the future and choose from whatever college he dreams of attending! This is a college fund for Aiden being raised by his older sister, donors are those he has inspired with his nature videos on YouTube and Twitter.

It mentions Miramar, Florida,  so I assume that’s where he lives.

Aiden’s knowledge of backyard wildlife is phenomenal, as well as his language skills and vocabulary and the ease with which he shows us the things most of us always missed in our own backyards.

He wants to be a zoologist. He might be the Richard Dawkins of his generation. In fact, now that I think of it. Dawkins says he wasn’t even unusually Interested in nature until he was in college, so this young man has a big head start on him.

With George Bush’s awesome sounding No Child Left Behind Program, we’ve spent so many resources trying to educate kids that will wear diapers all their lives and never learn to read–kids who perhaps should indeed have been left behind–that we have little left for  kids like Aiden. Our public school system can’t even begin to meet their educational needs. (And now our President and his Education Secretary want to gut the system instead of improving it. But that’s another story for another day.)

I hope, for the future of humanity, that Aiden is able to get the education he needs. It is young people like him who will build our tomorrows.



“God is watching over us.” Really?

Devastation from Saturday's tornado in and near DallasViolent storms ripped through the North Texas area late Saturday, spawning tornadoes that killed 11 people, damaged more than 100 homes, and destroyed at least 39 others. Destruction was widespread and terrible in Dallas, GarlandRowlett, and nearby areas.

I found this post on Facebook, and it expresses my thoughts perfectly.

Joyce Rutter quote from Facebook

I couldn’t find the quote, but I have no doubt somebody said it. It’s the kind of stupid thing somebody always says.

Tornado damage Decembr 27, 2015 in Rowlett, TXGod gets thanks but not blame?

A tornado kills people and wrecks homes and property and God gets thanks because it wasn’t worse. People forget God is reputedly the One Who sent the tornado in the first place.

If He gets credit for the good, why doesn’t He get blame for the devastation He apparently sent?
Heavily damaged area in Rowlett, TX December 2, 2015If God was “watching over” somebody, it must not have been those eleven people who died. Or the many more who were injured. Or those who lost their homes.

An all-powerful god who could help a few people could just as easily have saved everybody, if He wanted to. So the question has to become, “Why didn’t He want to?”Debris of homes after tornado in Garland, TX December 27, 2015

Why did God only “watch over” some people?

Isn’t He supposed to be a god of love? Well, do loving people let other people suffer and die when they could easily prevent it?

And that’s not all.

Heavily damaged residence is seen December 27, 2015 in the aftermath of a tornado in Rowlett, TX

Days of violent storms caused chaos on highways across the South and raised the death toll to at least a total of 28.

Yeah, God was watching over us, all right.

If a loving, all-powerful god had been watching out for us, there would have been no tornado. Any 8-year-old ought to understand that.

Car in a flooded drainage ditch after Saturday's tornado in Rowlett, TX, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015

Yet leaders and followers alike feel their faith has been strengthened after every disaster. Why? Because THEY didn’t die. So they “know” their Imaginary Friend was looking out for them.

Just them, and nobody else? Well, them and whoever else was lucky enough to have survived.

Damaged mobile home park after Saturday's tornado in Garland, TX, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015

Most of us were just lucky. That’s all.

Why can’t people just realize they were lucky? Lots of people were lucky, but others suffered and died. No loving God watched over North Texas Saturday night.

In fact, there is not the slightest shred of convincing evidence that any god even exists.



Chiton: The Animal with Hundreds of Teeny, Tiny Eyes in It’s Armor

Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata
Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata

The brightly colored sea creature above is a Tonicella lineata chiton, commonly known as a “lined chiton.” The picture was taken at about 50 feet depth on the west side of Whidbey Island, Washington. (Wikipedia)

The lined chiton is one of about 940 known extant species and 430 fossil species of the class Polyplacophora. This particular species grows to about two inches (5 cm) in length and has hundreds of tiny eyes, each less than a tenth of a millimeter across, embedded in the shell on its back. Each eye contains a lens, a light-sensitive retina, and a layer of pigment, just as your eyes and mine do. But they are much smaller, and they are scattered around the shell in all directions. No other armor in nature is known to be like this.

Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes
Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes

To imagine how very small these eyes are, first imagine the length of an inch. It’s very roughly the size of your second finger bone, just behind the tip. It takes 25 millimeters to make an inch, and each of this animal’s eyes is only a tenth of a millimeter wide. So you could fit 250 of them or so in a very thin line along your finger between the joints. I’d say those are tiny eyes! You could fit maybe a couple of hundred of them on the head of a straight pin, but they wouldn’t dance like angels are said to do.

The lenses are made from a mineral called aragonite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate or limestone, which dissolves easily in acid. It is, in fact, the same mineral that pearls and abalone shells are made of. These animals literally peer at the world through lenses made of rock that erode as the animals age and have to be continuously replaced like shark’s teeth.

Armadillidium vulgare pill bug
Crustacean wood louse

Chitons are mollusks, related to snails, clams, and octopuses; but their oval bodies are covered by hard shells, each consisting of eight overlapping plates that give some of them the general appearance of wood lice.

Wood lice, also known as ball bugs, pill bugs, or roly-polies, are interesting in their own right, since they are the only group of crustaceans — think shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and barnacles — to have left the water and colonized the continents. It’s fascinating to me that this group of molluscs look so much like that group of crustaceans that we usually think of as filthy “bugs.”

But I digress. In fact, I’m often prone to digression. You may have noticed. Things are just so incredibly, wonderfully, marvelously fascinating it’s hard to stay focused on just one thing!

And people think science is dull? And boooring?!? Don’t ever believe it!

Two individuals of Acanthopleura granulata chitons on a rock at high tide level in Guadeloupe
Two less colorful mollusc chitons

Anyway, chitons live in salt water pretty much worldwide, but mostly in the tropics. The valves, or plates, of different species are variously colored, patterned, smooth, or sculptured; so some have been given colorful names like “sea cradles” and “coat-of-mail shells.”

Most chiton species live on hard surfaces, on or under rocks, or in rock crevices, in intertidal or subtidal zones. Some species actually live quite high in the intertidal zone and are exposed to air and light for long periods. Only a few species live in the deep ocean. Some of  the larger species can grow up to 13 inches (33 cm) long.

Daniel Speiser, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dissected the lenses from the eyes of a West Indian fuzzy chiton, and dunked them into an acid bath to clean them. But they didn’t get clean. They just disappeared. That’s when he discovered they were mineral instead of organic, and had simply dissolved in his acid.

The underside of the gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, showing the foot in the center, surrounded by the gills and mantle- The mouth is visible to the left in this image.
Underside of gumboot chiton

He later teamed up with Ling Li and Matthew Connors, two graduate students from MIT, who tested the individual eyes to see if they could actually form images. They can, but not very clear ones. Because each eye is too small to have very many photosensitive cells, they form blurry, heavily pixellated images; but each eye is capable of detecting the shape of an 8 inch (20 cm) fish from a few yards away. This should be good enough to help with predator avoidance. (Though just how the slow-moving animals can use the information to avoid predation is still in question.)

Chitons have a dorsal shell — i.e., a shell on their back — which is composed of eight separate plates. These plates overlap a little at the front and back edges, but articulate well. Because of this, although the plates provide good protection for impacts from above, they still permit the chiton to flex upward to move over uneven surfaces. They also allow the animal to curl up into a ball, like the “ball bug” mentioned above.

Many species are edible and are enjoyed by various peoples around the world. (However, don’t try eating the ball bugs some of them look like.)