Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nevermore... Will you mistake a Raven from a Crow!

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my... ceiling?

If you've ever studied next to the windows on the higher floors of Geisel (or tried to take a mid-day nap while pretending to study), you may have heard scuttling above or below you. Look out the window. See anything unusual?

A raven's nest on an upper floor of Geisel, as viewed from below.
UCSD's citizens of the sky include a variety of birds including gulls, wrens, sparrows, ravens and most infamously of all the blackbird. (Come springtime, if you don't already know what I mean by "infamous", you will-- Price Center bird will have it's revenge!). But then there are those larger black birds that you often hear cawing from lamp posts and oddly enough, the ledges of Geisel. Are they crows or ravens? There's an easy way to distinguish and identify between the two if you have some patience and a good eye. Binoculars are always a plus.

"I see you. You're totally on Facebook right now."

Here is a chart with key differences between ravens and crows and features you can look out for when trying to identify your big black birds
Wingspan3.5-4 feet on average2.5 feet on average
Body size24-27 inches from head to tail
Approximately 40 ounces in weight
17 inches from head to tail, on average
Approximately 20 ounces in weight
ColorationHighly glossed plumage showing iridescent greens, blues, and purplesFeathers with iridescent purple and blue, but with less sheen than the raven
Tail shapeTail tapers off to a point, much like a diamond.Tail is wider and more fan-shaped
Call soundLower in tone, more gutteral "Awk!"Higher pitched, "Caw!"
* Research cited from the University of Washington

These physical features are especially easy to distinguish during flight when the wings are extended away from the body and the tail is being used for steering and balance. Ravens also are capable of aerial somersaults while in flight!

A raven outside of the Geisel Library dock.

Here's a video of a raven calling from a tree in Marshall College:

Until next time... "The wilderness must be explored! CAW CAW! RAWR!" :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Adventures of Bug Girl

Last spring, Nicole and I took Ecology Lab (BIEB 121-- now being offered Spring, Summer, and Fall 2011!) with Dr. Heather Henter. Part of the course involved creating an insect collection with different orders of insects that we can find locally. At first, I was a bit squeamish about the whole process-- chasing, catching, terminating, preserving and pinning BUGS... not my idea of a good time spent in Sunny San Diego. But by the end of the quarter, I really began to appreciate the complexities of such tiny organisms that we swat away idly every day. This last summer I had the opportunity to go to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico with Dr. Therese Markow for an advanced field ecology lab and was further wowed by the biodiversity that exists in the insect world.

Finally, in the fall, I took Insect Ecology with Dr. David Holway. More insects, more cool and fascinating life histories, more insect collecting-- but this time it was all in digital. Here I present to you my findings from fall quarter-- all found around UCSD.

Grasshopper (Nymph)
Order: Orthoptera
Common name: Grasshopper (top), Katydid (bottom)
How do I know if something I find is an orthoptera?
  • Large, strong hindlegs for jumping
  • Acoustic communication
This order is often nocturnal and are known for their "singing" as a way to attract mates and establish territory. Other well-known members of this order are locusts and crickets.
Order: Hemiptera
Common name: Harlequin Bug
How do I know if something I find is a hemiptera?
  • Piercing, needle-like mouthparts
  • Wings create an X-shape when folded across the back
This order has an exceptionally diverse number of individual species. Other well-known members of this order are also aphids, mealy bugs, cochineal, and cicadas.
Order: Lepidoptera
Common name: Moth
How do I know that something I find is a lepidoptera?
  • Scale-like setae on the wings (looks kind of like dust or fine glitter)
  • Long, curled mouth part called a proboscis
This order is comprised only of butterflies and moths, who are often either diurnal (butterflies) or nocturnal (moths).
Order: Blattodea termitoidae
Common name: Termite
How do I know that something I find is a blattodea?

  • Hard, sclerotrized plate extending from abdomen past the base of the head
The order was recently created as a combination of the previous isoptera and blattodea orders after researchers found that termites were very closely related to wood-eating cockroaches. Other well-known members of this order are cockroaches.

Order: Phthriaptera
Common name: Thrip
How do I know that something I find is a phthriptera?

  • 3-component mouthparts designed for biting and sucking
Almost every flower contains thrips. Just gently shake a flower over a piece of paper to dislodge the thrips and watch carefully. :)

There are many, many, MANY more insects to be found around the UCSD campus and its natural reserves-- this is just a small sampling of some particularly common orders and individuals. Happy Hunting!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The One and Only Torrey Pine

Around campus, every other street is named either 'blah-dah-blah La Jolla' or 'something-or-other Torrey Pine'. Torrey Pines is also a famous golf course, a State Reserve, a high school, a research institute, a bank, etc. Why are all these places named Torrey Pine?! The Torrey Pine is the rarest pine in the United States and the only location it can be found naturally (on the mainland) is a small area in Del Mar and La Jolla. It is also found on one of the Channel Islands, Santa Rosa, off the coast of Santa Barbara. The Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana) has two varieties. Pinus torreyana var. torreyana our local Torrey Pine and Pinus torreyana var. insularis is the scientific name for the island Torrey Pine.

If you look around campus now, you will notice many trees at entrances of colleges and the university itself have yellow blossoms that look like the picture to the right. Torrey Pines bloom in late January and early February. The yellow buds are the male 'strobili', the fancy name for flower, sheds a mist of yellow pollen. The pollen coats the female strobili, which looks like a miniature red cone. The mature version is pictured above to the left. These specific pine cones take three years to fully grow, unlike most other pines whose cones develop in two years. Yes, that means that the cones that you see on Torrey Pines are three years old. Even though pine cones are still fun to play soccer with on the way to class, keep in mind that these beauties did not form overnight.
An easy way to identify a Torrey Pine when it is not blossoming is to count the needles in each cluster. The Torrey Pine is the only native tree in the area with five needles. Other pines with five clusters are White Pines, Pinus strobus, native to the east coast. The closest native five needled tree to La Jolla is the False White Pine, pinus pseudostrobus, endemic to Mexico.
All pine nuts are edible, although many are extremely hard. The Torrey Pine's nut was an important source of food for the Kumeyaay tribe, the original inhabitants of this area.
One last note about Torrey Pines. Torrey Pines State Reserve is located on the cliffs. The soil in these areas is sandy and often times rocks cover the area in which these pines grow. How are Torrey Pines able to survive here? They have amazing root systems. By the time it is forty feet high, the root system extends five times that! Roots travel through tiny cracks in bedrock and find the little amount of nutrients it can. Although these roots usually prevent landslide, erosion has occurred from Torrey Pines. If roots are at the edge of a cliff, growing roots' movement over time can cause a minor landslide. If you see trees hanging upside-down, you now know how this happened!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Story Book Tree

In my opinion, this is the trippiest and coolest tree on campus. It looks like it came right out of a Dr. Seuss book doesn’t it? This tree is a Bunya Pine, or Araucaria bidwillii, but it is a bit of a misnomer as the tree is not actually a pine. Take a look at the leaves. They alternate and are compound and waxy with an entire margin and a sharp spiny tip. (All pines have needles in clusters.) Is there anything on the waxy leaves? If you see specs, these are whitefly larvae (pictured on the left). So, yes, if you rubbed the leaves and have specs on your fingers–Congrats- you have found the larvae. The leaves contain juices that the whitefly larvae consume.
Most of the trees on campus have trunk bark in a vertical formation, but this tree has rough, horizontal (and sappy!) bark. You have probably noticed the extremely sharp cone (see photo on the right). This is the male cone. Female cones are produced every three years. These cones are some of the largest of conifers, growing around twelve inches long and weighing around eight pounds! UCSD Facillity Management actually has to put yellow caution tape around the tree when these babies are produced! The large cones contain edible nuts, which was actually an important food source for those indigenous of Queensland, Australian, who harvested the nuts every few years and buried them in mud.
Next time you wander by the new Student Servies Complex, take a look at this unusual tree.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Color Me Carmine!

Happy February, everyone! We've entered the month of Groundhog Day, the Lunar New Year (which is right now, for those that didn't know), the Superbowl and that dastardly day of Hallmark Holidays, Valentine's Day. Now, as far as traditional garb for Groundhog Day goes, I'm unsure of what one wears for those festivities. Superbowl fans sometimes paint their faces and wear team jerseys and colors. (What do I know about football? Hardly anything, to be honest.)

Nevertheless, I do know for sure that concerning the Lunar New Year and Valentine's Day, the color red plays a very prominent role in both holidays. In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, the color red represents good luck and good fortune. Western cultures associate red with passion, love, and romance-- and on Valentine's Day, plenty of red and pink can be found. Additionally, in many historic cultures the world over, red garments were reserved for royals and the wealthy upper classes that could afford this lavish color.

The Scarlet Mantle of King Ferdinand I of Austria.
(Those royals really knew how to class up an affair!)
Why so much emphasis on the color red? What made it so valuable that it became a symbol of wealth, power, and luxury? The answer lies in the tiny bodies of some very interesting insects called cochineal.

The white fuzz that you see is a protective web-like coating that cochineal produce.
Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) are members of the hemiptera order of insects-- the same order as mealy bugs and aphids. Like other members of the hemipteran order, they possess piercing mouthparts designed to suck liquids from the plants that they infest. In the case of cochineal, the plants of choice are specific varieties of prickly-pear cactus that native to Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, the Canary Islands, and Peru. Above, you see a pad from a prickly-pear cactus that we found in the UCSD Ecological Reserve, located just north of the Geisel Library.

A cluster of female cochineal. Male cochineal, which are winged, do not exhibit the same morphism or even life cycle.
Female cochineal live fairly sessile lives with their needle-like mouthparts constantly inserted into the fleshy surfaces of cacti, feeding and waiting to be mated with. Male cochineal, on the other hand, have a very different lifecycle from the females. Like many members of the insect class, cochineal develop overtime in stages of growth and molting. In the final phase of development, they develop functioning sexual organs and in the case of the males, wings. The newly developed adult males then fly from female to female, trying to mate with as many as possible before they die, a week after this final molt. Even food does not distract them from this mission, as in their final stage of life, the males no longer have mouthparts. A doomed, yet genetically productive adulthood, indeed!

(But it gets the point across.)

Really, we would have avoided this if we could. But all in the name of science...
In ancient times, the indigenous tribes of these regions would cultivate the insects on the cacti and collect, dry, and harvest them for carminic acid, a deep red internal secretion that makes up almost a quarter of a dried cochineal's body weight.

"Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail" from Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana
Once the Europeans set foot in the Americas and saw that the natives had an efficient way of procuring red pigments for clothing and other accessories-- most importantly, one that did not fade over time-- the Europeans (especially the Spaniards) tried to bring pricky-pear back to Europe for cochineal cultivation. In the temperate climates of Europe, however, it was difficult to grow pricky-pear and a the development of a successful business in carmine dye eluded the Europeans for three centuries. Reliant on trade from the New World, carmine dye became a valuable commodity and thus, only the wealthy and royal could afford to have their clothes dyed this deep, rare color. 

Ok. So, historically, rich people, kings, and indigenous folks got their scarlet garb by squishing bugs and using their insides. Gross and awesome. But why is this relevant now in an age of synthetic dyes? Well believe it or not, we still use cochineal-derived dyes today! Next time you buy clothes, make-up, and even some food items, look for these names in the ingredients:
  • Cochineal
  • Crimson Lake
  • Natural Red #40
  • C.I. 75470
  • E120
So, next time you're walking past Geisel Library towards Hopkins Parking and you spot some pricky-pear on the side of the road with suspicious white fuzz growing on the surface... proceed with caution and mindfulness. :)

What? You expect me to endorse the needless squishing of really awesome bugs? No way!

Happy Groundhog Day, Happy New Year, Happy Superbowl, and Happy Valentine's Day!