Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Travel Tuesday: Phoenix Herpetological Society

For this Travel Tuesday, please enjoy a writeup that on the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which appears in this month's issue of Times Publications. (I could have just summed it up with "We got to touch Galapagos tortoises, saw endangered crocodiles, and OMG so many cool snakes!" But I guess a full writeup is a little more informative.)

EDIT: I just discovered that PHS lost their beloved alligator Tuesday on July 15, 2012. She was an awesome ambassador (over 300,000 kids got to met her!) and will be missed. I'm so sorry for the loss. You can read tributes to Tuesday on her memorial page, and add your own if you have something to share.


Have you ever wanted to see a snake disarticulate its jaw? Think you can figure out what a ball python weighs? Haven’t you ever wanted to see a crocodile up close? Get trampled by a bunch of hungry tortoises?

If you’re an adult like me (by which I mean an adult who is still mostly a child), the answer to all of  these questions is a resounding yes. The Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS), located in Scottsdale, can provide all this and more. This is even better news if you have a few excuses to go -- I mean, if you have children of your own.

The PHS was founded in 2000 to rescue and rehabilitate native and non-native reptiles, displaying some for education and releasing or giving homes to reptiles when possible.. Since then it has expanded, and now houses over 1,400 reptiles; including the recent addition of some extremely rare crocodilians, an entire room devoted to venomous snakes, and a veritable stampede of African tortoises. And they give tours.

During a tour lasting about two hours, a worker at the sanctuary gives visitors -- kids and adults alike -- an overview of the facility’s reptilian residents. Quick: What's your favorite reptile? I all but guarantee you PHS has one, and knows more about it than you do.

After a brief introduction to the PHS’s mission, our small group visited the facility’s tortoises.

In a lowered, shaded area near the entrance, three Galapagos tortoises and some Aldabra giant tortoises (similarly-sized relatives from a different island) basked in cool mud. Kneeling beside the giants, outweighed by hundreds of pounds, my son was enthralled.

Next, we visited a pen with about sixty African spurred tortoises. It was feeding time, and we got to help. Turning over crates of fruits and vegetables, our guide, Daniel Marchand, invited visitors to climb in and help feed the tortoises. The large, eager tortoises moved surprisingly quickly, climbing over one another to follow anyone with a celery stalk.

From there we toured “lizard alley,” and got to watch the lizards (some rare and endangered) slurping up flowers or, in the case of an erstwhile Asian water monitor, attempt to mate.

At the iguanas, Daniel advised us why the lizards, while gorgeous, don’t make great pets.

“There comes a time where a male iguana is only looking for one thing. If you’re not a female iguana, he’s going to get unhappy and maybe aggressive,” he said. Many of PHS’s reptiles are rescues after previous owners couldn’t care for the exotic animals.

Next our group visited the crocodilian residents of PHS. Endangered and extremely rare species; including a New Guinea crocodile, Nile crocodile, Yacare caiman, and African slender-snouted crocodile, which PHS is helping to conserve; stared at us from cool pools.

Next we toured the snakes of the “venom room,” the largest collection of venomous snakes in the state, and one of the largest in the western United States. It’s the best (and safest) up-close view you could hope for of an incredible variety of snakes, including several different rattlesnake species; spitting cobras; a black mamba; and the New Guinea taipan, which is, drop for drop, the most venomous terrestrial snake in the world. It uses a big dose of venom in each bite, sometimes enough to kill fifteen human adults. These were all facts enthusiastically repeated to my husband as soon as my son walked through the door.

In the last room, Daniel showed us a photo of a rattlesnake bite, in case anyone needed the “snakes aren't toys” point driven home, and we toured enclosures of pythons, boas, and other non-venomous snakes and lizards, as well as some tiny hatchlings that I was surprised to discover were the same species as the huge African tortoises we’d fed earlier in the tour. The tortoises were just beginning to emerge from their eggs, some just barely peeking through cracks in the shells. Daniel explained that it’s important not to disturb the eggs (the tortoise inside can drown), and showed us the “belly buttons” the hatchlings still have until they’re a bit older. My son had to be dragged away.

The PHS focuses year-round on education, including special holiday-season tours, summer camps, and outreach efforts. Last year they reached more than 109,000 people, mostly kids, with their educational programs.

My family has always had an affinity for exotic animals. The creepier, crawlier, scalier, and weirder; the better.
The PHS is fantastic if you feel the same way, but it might be even better if you don’t. What better place to be exposed to these amazing creatures than a sanctuary devoted to preserving and respecting them?

My son and I were thrilled to see a sincere love for reptiles that surpassed even our enthusiasm. Crocodiles rock, and so does the Phoenix Herpetological Society.

Tours are $20 for adults, $15 for kids (ages 3 and under are free). Visit PHS at www.phoenixherp.com or call to book a tour at 480-513-4377 (HERP).


And, because I have absolutely no self-control, please enjoy a bunch of additional images from the Phoenix Herpetological Society. Seriously, you should give them a call.

African spurred/sulcata tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) hatchlings

Jojo, a Cuban "jumping" crocodile, can jump 6 feet forward and 4 feet high with her long, strong legs. (Our guide helpfully put it: "They can get you at chest level from six feet away." Oh, and they've been observed to possibly hunt in packs. Like many of the crocodiles at PHS, its species is endangered.
Yes, another sulcata tortoise hatchling. Come on. You wouldn't have been able to resist either.

Last sulcata; promise. The grown-up version this time.

A Nile crocodile, a little over nine feet long. Seriously, look at those eyes.
A West African gaboon viper. His name is Tank.

A Western diamondback rattlesnake in the venom room.

A Urocoan rattlesnake. I don't even know how I'd ever spot this snake in the wild. So gorgeous.

A prairie rattlesnake, showing off an impressive rattle.

OK, one more of the Western diamondback. Couldn't help myself here either.

Last but not least, an insanely gorgeous canebrake rattlesnake. And there are about 200 more venomous snakes where these beauties came from.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Spider Sunday 7-15-12

A few spidery links today:

Brown widows replacing my favorite spiders: A link to one of many stories. Here's another. As I said the other week, yes, I've heard the news. Incidentally, I think I may have been, um, using the facilities beneath some brown widow egg sacs the other day at the lake. For now, it's still black widows at home.

What really happens when a spider bites you: Sorry, Spider-Man. Radioactive or no, you're not getting superpowers. (You will notice that I spelled and hyphenated the name correctly, though! None of this "Spiderman" nonsense.) A brief rundown on a few notorious spiders and the effects of their bites. The upshot: Be careful, and you'll probably be fine. Bonus points for nerdy comic book/movie tie-in. Points off for use of "poisonous" instead of "venomous."

Man decides "kill it with fire" is a good idea; it goes about how you would expect: A man decided blasting cobwebs with fire was the best course of action. Some brush ignited and spread a fire to the attic. Firefighters responded promptly and no one was hurt (unless you count massive damage to the family's home), but suffice it to say, maybe you should reach for a broom instead of a blowtorch if you want to clear out cobwebs.

OMG FLYING SPIDERS!!: The words "flying spiders" appear in a few articles, and everyone panics. Sigh. The Hilton Magnificent Miles Suites hotel in Chicago provided free nightmare fuel with turn-down service warned guests to avoid the "annual influx of flying spiders spinning mini-masterpieces as high as 95 stories." The note did specify that it's natural behavior, and ballooning rather than soaring and diving, but I think all people saw was "flying" and spiders. Spiders balloon all the time. The air currents this time of year seem to make these particular spiders a local phenomenon (to some, anyway; several Chicagoans seem to never heard of it) -- but come on. Keep your windows shut tight "to avoid the annual migration of high rise flying spiders?" Surely the hotel was trolling folks. Remember those cute, gently floating spiders at the end of the animated Charlotte's Web? That's what they do. They're not attacking high rises.

Treating muscular dystrophy with spider venom: A story of a grandfather's love, the Internet's ability to connect people, some really interesting medical research, and spider venom. Scientists from University at Buffalo think that the complex molecules in the venom of Chilean rose tarantulas may help reinforce cellular structures in patients with muscular dystrophy. Stockbroker Jeff Harvey, whose son has the disease was looking for some way to support research. The scientists needed funding. A Google search later, everyone came together. It's not a cure, but it might be a treatment. And the tarantulas aren't even radioactive. More, and much better explained, at the link.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Spider Sunday 6-10-12

Today, some beautiful videos.
World's Biggest Spider: A new video on the Goliath tarantula (Theraphosa blondi) describes its fierceness but is refreshingly un-scaremongery: "Perhaps knowing the facts about these ancient predators can help turn human fear into fascination." I hope so too, narrator. (P.S. Does that narrator sound like Terri Irwin to anyone else?)

Ogre-Faced Spider vs. Soldier Ant: A fairly recent "Monster Bug Wars" video from The Science Channel's channel on YouTube. Other awesome ones include their video on the redback spider (a relative of Arizona's black widows), the one on the green jumping spider, or most any on that channel. They're a little silly and a lot dramatic, but they're pretty darn cool. And if you really want to see a poor spider really get it, you can always watch this poor huntsman get taken down.

Here, a slightly happier huntsman on my patio. I fed it a cricket.

Spider mom: A cellar spider lays some eggs. Totally not new, but totally, amazingly beautiful. Freaking amazing videography.

A few more spider news items:

To study vampire spiders, build Frankenstein mosquitoes: The jumping spider Evarcha culicivora has a very specific diet -- it feeds on blood, but only by hunting mosquitoes that have recently filled their bellies with mammalian blood. But wait -- how do you check the guts of mosquitoes before attacking them? And what's more, only females feed on blood -- I remember my son and I putting our hands into nets filled with male mosquitoes, and getting covered in insects but not bites. (Which leads me to another question: How do you go about sexing that many mosquitoes? Entomologists are dedicated.) Do the spiders seek out blood-engorged bellies above all else, or do they know to look for females, which have less feathery and elaborate antennae than males? To see how the spiders make the distinction, scientists built Frankensquitoes. Naturally.

Can jumping spiders kill in space? Student's experiment set for orbit: A little bit of an update on the teenage winner of the YouTube Spacelab competition. It's a nice little profile on Amr Mohamed, who shares my spider love but definitely beats me in the initiative department.

Happy Spider Sunday! As always, check out the shots on Spider Sunday on Google+!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My day in a few multitasking sentences

I found myself lecturing my son yesterday about the underpants-covered state of the entire house -- everywhere, in fact, except the laundry room.

Later, I found myself delivering the underpants lecture -- to my husband.

Sometimes I call my son the cats' names. Or call the cats "David!" at the top of my lungs.

I don't think I'm that scatter-brained. I think it's just that I have a handful of multitasking phrases that I recycle to get through each day. They might have different connotations depending on which person/animal I'm addressing, but these are most of the things I say in a day, in one form or another.


  • I don't care. Just take off your clothes. Right now!
  • You don't understand the Marvel comic universe at all. You can't go by the freaking cartoons.
  • Put the $%#@ garbage in the $%#@ garbage can!
  • You know what? Fine! If you want to wear your holey underwear from three years ago that doesn't even fit you anymore, just keep putting your laundry wherever you want.
  • It's simple. If I'm on the couch with you, talk to me. If I'm writing, leave me alone.
  • Hey, can you hold up this thing over here so I can take a picture? No, like this. No, in the light! No; now you're in the light! Seriously, do you even WANT me to be able to take pictures? Fine. I'll do it myself. What? Why are you upset?
  • Trust me; you find your penis much more interesting than anyone else does.
  • Quit throwing a football in the house!
  • Quit throwing a Frisbee in the house!
  • Quit throwing a... what is that even? A giant branch? A small log?
  • No. I totally meant to turn the wrong way five times on my way to Phoenix. Now shut up.
  • Seriously? Did you come in here just to fart?
  • Fine. You can use the computer. Just leave my stuff alone.
  • No, as a matter of fact, I don't think Phantom Menace was better than Return of the Jedi. What are you; nuts?
  • I love you.


  • Did you just barf on the rug?!
  • Your food is just fine. And I just filled your water. And stop crying.
  • I need to cut your nails, and squirming like this is only going to make it worse.
  • It's just a vacuum, not the end of the world.
  • We really don't need you to announce every time you go to poop.
  • Quit licking me.
  • Don't climb on the shelf.
  • I really don't understand your obsession with butts.


  • Honestly, are you snoring or starting a lawnmower in your throat?
  • Are you going to sleep all day?
  • Get you paw off my boob.
  • You're adorable.


  • What a funny coincidence! That thing you called to check on, because it's so late? I was just doing it/sending it over!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Spider Sunday 5-6-12

It's Sunday, so it must be time for spiders! Here are a few updates from the world of the coolest arthropods there are:

Just in case you thought your size protected you

Snake-eating spiders! A few weeks ago, we had the orb weaver in Cairns eating an unlucky brown tree snake, and now, here's a redback spider from Port Hedland in Western Australia enjoying a similar meal. It's not just in Australia, either! A while ago we had one locally, at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where a black widow made a slow but gluttonous meal out of an unfortunate coral snake. And those are just the ones we know about. Snakes beware.

Speaking of black widows...

I did a Friday 5 post on the beauties, and why they're my favorite spiders. It's just my own measly blog, but it is my blog, so I can promote my own stuff if I want to. Go check it out if you're so inclined and tell me about your favorite spiders!

I, for one, welcome our new robot spider overlords

Don't worry, it's not really a spider. More like a giant ... robot ... arm ... thing. At an MIT Media Lab, scientists are teaching a robot to weave webs, based on preset structures. One day, they hope to make the process autonomous. I already said I welcome them, right?

Peter Parker's web shooters can't be far away

Scientists , including Jeffery Yarger from my alma mater, Arizona State University, are using high-energy X-rays to study spiders' dragline silk (the webbing they let out to dangle in front of your face). Ultimately, they'd like to produce artificial spider silk that makes use of the same amazing mechanical and elastic properties.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday 5: Black widows, the actual best spiders

I said some time ago that I was going to write a response to The Dragonfly Woman's post, Why Jumping Spiders Will Always Be My Favorite Spiders. Sure, they're cute. And hilarious dancers. And ridiculously photogenic. She picked a good family. However, my loyalties lie elsewhere. I'm sure you already know what's coming.

Five reasons black widows are actually the best spiders

You have to seek them out

Black widows won't come after you. This might be good news if you're, well, normal, but if you're a spider lover -- or just that rare breed of bug-loving, camera-toting nut that really isn't so rare in this crowd -- it might be vexing. Black widows aren't out during the day. They build webs in corners. They vanish into little hidey holes when they sense the slightest movement, and then they won't come out for hours, sometimes. (I know. I've waited.)

Somehow, this hard-to-get routine makes them that much more appealing. Like those CDs that used to be so hard to open, or a dish that takes a while to cook. (I assume. I spend more time with the spiders than in the kitchen.) I've spent more hours than I should probably admit, poised by the corner of our patio or next to the broken pipe that houses a big female every year. I genuinely get excited when those first legs tiptoe out of the gloom. 

You have to look closely

Gimme a kiss!
Not everyone I run into knows or has looked carefully enough to note the shape of the red or orange abdomen marking on a black widow (it's an hourglass, sometimes two disconnected triangles). But there's much more; and unlike some big-eyed, fancy-dancing, well-coiffed spiders who shall remain nameless; black widows play it a bit closer to the chest (or cephalothorax). Have you ever really seen a black widow's eyes? They're smaller than a jumping spider's, but kind of endearingly buggy. Do you know the exact sheen on an adult female's abdomen, and the dimples that invariably form? Have you ever caught the pinprick glisten on a widow's fangs as she eats a moth? Either most people are missing out, or I really need a life. OK, it's probably a little of both.

They're sexy

Come on. Even if you don't think the two terms belong within a mile of each other, think "spider" and "sexy." What's the general shape in your mind? It's a black widow, isn't it?

Apparently, Google agrees. Over the course of the past few years, I've had reason to search for "black widow" and "black widow female" several times. Here's what usually happens:

Now, there's plenty to be annoyed about -- the feminist in me and the "No, I meant the spider!" in me both take issue with the results. But you've got to admit, this is a spider with presence. A spider people want to be. Just imagine people trying to emulate any other spider. Try to imagine a Marvel hero named "Salticidae" or "Orb weaver." (OK, so there are a few "Tarantulas" in Marvel and DC, but they're all super lame.) The jet-black color, the curves, the long, slender legs. And yes, the venom and (mostly apocryphal) mate eating. The black widow spider is iconic. If jumping spiders are great ambassadors because they're adorable puppy-dog "gateway" spiders, then black widows are the conversation starters. They're the quintessential spider spiders.

Their webs are awesome

I know, there are prettier webs, larger webs, and a few stronger webs. But black widow webs remain my favorites. The thread is shockingly strong. And although the web looks like a disorganized mess, it functions like a three-dimensional pulley system and sensory grid. It's a machine. And it's fascinating to watch the operators at work. Black widows are a little like penguins or seals in one way -- on the ground, they're awkward and clumsy, toddling and wobbling about, but in their environment (their web, rather than water), they're full of sinuous, remarkable, swift grace. They run through the web instinctively, throwing silk loops around prey moments after it becomes entangled.

No one expects it

For black widows to be my favorite, that is. (Also, the Spanish Inquisition.)

They're venomous! I have pets and a kid! They traumatized me! And they're venomous! I know a friend of a friend of a friend of etc. that could have died once from what was almost kind of certainly maybe a black widow bite!

First, they're not as dangerous as all that. Yes, they have potent venom; but they bite people so rarely, and only when directly threatened, and even then the person is usually fine; as to make actively fearing them make about as much sense as fearing cars. (Actually, you're in much more danger around a car, probably.) Just be careful. And let the venom and danger prompt you to learn more. Also, I love adorable jumping spiders and their ability to bring more people into the spider loving fold. But if we can love these spiders too -- the most venomous spiders around, the ones who get such a bad rap for mate eating, the ones with freaking danger signs on their abdomens -- then maybe we can love them all. And by extension, all critters. Look closely. Be amazed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spider Sunday 4-15-12

I'm a little late getting this week's Spider Sunday up, but I did have a very spidery Sunday! Black widows in my backyard and garage (pics later, though hopefully no shirtless episodes), jumping spiders on our nature walk, and a spider lowering itself onto my head as I drove (I hope you parachuted to safety, car spider). To top it all off, on the way to the jumping spider hike, my son reached the point in his current book where the main character gets attacked by thousands of robot ... spider ... things. He wishes fervently they were real, and ours.

As always, check out the gorgeous images at Spider Sunday on G+, and here are some more spidery goings-on!

Spiders in Borneo
If you're into spiders, or biology, or evolution, or super-cool stories, you need to read this blog series at Scientific American. Wayne Maddison is a spider guy. Scratch that. He's kind of like the Indiana Jones of jumping spider scientists. He treks about in off-the-map jungles, finding jumping spiders no one knows about yet. In other words, he does my absolute dream job, only fittingly, and unlike me, he's supremely qualified for the task. Start at the introduction and read through to his latest post, cataloging the specimens after some of the coolest field work ever.

I'm sure how you use it matters too

It's a crucial organ. Hardness, stiffness, shape, and ability to penetrate are all of utmost importance.

I'm talking about spider fangs, of course. What did it sound like I was talking about?

If you're a spider, fangs are pretty important, for defense as well as hunting. Many spiders subsist mainly on insects, whose exoskeletons are made of chitin, roughly the same material that makes up spider fangs. So how do the spiders penetrate the chemically similar exoskeletons of their prey? By injecting venom with fangs made of composite material, basically chitin layered with a fancy protein matrix, and tipped not with chitin, but with high amounts of zinc and chlorine. Explained with a higher knowledge of biomaterials and also a higher level of eloquence here. (Notice use of the word "venom" rather than "poison." Please, please notice this, any newspeople who fire off an article on the study.)

Spider venom for the cure?

I've been withholding judgment on the handful of articles I've seen recently about using spider venom to fight breast cancer, mainly because I didn't have time to really read up on it and both spiders and cancer are rife with silly claims. However, this study at James Cook University seems to be legitimate, and we'll see where it goes. Heck, certain fish have been studied for kidney disease and skin cancer research and Gila monsters have given saliva for diabetes research, so why not? (However, word to the wise: Don't search online too long about animal-derived cures unless you have an abnormally high tolerance for bullshit, fake medicine, and animal cruelty.)

Can I just use them for fun?

One possible use for Google Glasses? Spiders everywhere!

This augmented reality application is supposed to be a next-gen treatment for arachnophobes. Check out the video at the bottom. My favorite part: The spiders' personalities are programmable. So we really are one step closer to artificial arachnid intelligence. My son will be thrilled.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spider Sunday 4-8-12

I have a hard time curating the Spider Sunday theme each week on Google+.

It's not that I don't love it -- quite the opposite. The problem is that first, I have to resist the urge to find every last person (though they are extremely few and far between) who makes a point to find spider shots and then type something like "Ewwwww! I hate spiders," or "These insects [yes, a few people really say that] are so gross," or "Kill it with fire!" so I can insult and/or correct them. And second, and even more of a difficulty, is the fact that I tend to just ogle the shots instead of sharing, plussing, or commenting at first. It's like when I'm asked to edit something really good. I forget the task and just bask in it. Eventually I get around to responding coherently, but first, I just stare. I mean, how can I help but stare at shots like this, this, this, or this, or a ton of others? Follow these people on Sunday, everyone. I guarantee you'll love spiders in a few weeks.

Also, check out some other bloggers' stuff on spiders -- my friend Chris of The Dragonfly Woman shared some saltie fabulousness on her Friday 5: Why Jumping Spiders Will Always Be My Favorite Spiders, and you should totally check it out (though I might have to write a competing Friday 5 about black widows).

Oh, and happy Easter, everyone! I made an Easter card for you:

The rest of today's images are from a few long-jawed orb weavers I spent time with, who preferred to leave off the bunny ears.

A few spider tidbits for this week:

National "Be Kind to Spiders" Week
April 1 to 7 was National "Be Kind to Spiders" Week! I observed it, but then, I observe spider kindness every week.

Forget snakes on a plane; we've got spiders on a space station!
In the very first YouTube SpaceLab contest, students ages 14 to 18 from around the world were invited to pitch science experiments to be conducted in space. One of the winners -- 18-year-old Amr Mohamed of Egypt, who proposed sending jumping spiders into space to see if they could adapt the way they jump and hunt. Since they can adjust their trajectories on Earth, he reasoned, it's worth checking what they'll do in zero gravity. It'll be, like Mohamed said, "the first time in history for an animal to change its way of hunting to zero-gravity environments." Like any good scientist he has a hypothesis -- he thinks they won't be able to catch their prey -- but who knows? I love that I never would have even though to do something like this. His experiment is being prepared, and will ride to the International Space Station on a cargo ship. Check out his video here, and watch all the videos if you get a chance. One of the greatest things about both young people and scientists is the spirit of drive, optimism, cooperation and just sheer geeky, curious camaraderie. Good stuff. And spiders in space! How cool is that?

Amateurs discover new (super pretty) jumping spider
A naturalist, but not a spider expert or even professional photographer, takes a photo of a spider and shares it. A possible new species is discovered. The Flickr community. Citizen science. An outrageously gorgeous spider. Is there anything not to like about this story?

Someone make me one of these
I've had scissors confiscated at the airport. If I had known this was where they were going, I'd have brought a bunch to donate. I love this sculpture.

That's it for now! I hope everyone had a great Easter. Our chocolate bunnies are already earless and one of our empty candy containers holds a jumping spider. So, you know, business as usual.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why my son isn't special, and yours isn't either

Someone sent me a link to the (no longer airing) television show Psychic Kids the other day.

My son, the person contends, might be like these kids. Not socially maladjusted, probably, and not with these abilities, but he's got a special something. He's not like most kids. Check this show out.

I'd never watched it. I had a feeling it would just rile me up, and I was right. I felt dirty watching it. It really seems to border on child abuse. These smart, sensitive, fascinating kids were getting all the wrong messages; their parents were getting all the wrong messages; and no one was being helped. The kids want validation, guidance, understanding; and they can't get it except through exploitation and fakery.

But here's the thing: I kind of, sort of, understand where the parents are coming from.

No, not like that. I'm still me, after all. Rational, skeptical, wholly anti-woo. What I understand is the parents' urge to have their kids be special. Unique. Like really, really unique. Their talents are different from everyone else's talents, so of course their problems are different from everyone else's problems.

And they're right. The kids' talents and problems are unique, and difficult, and nuanced. Just like everyone's problems. Their kids are hard to reach, and their problems are hard to address. Just like all kids.

I see it in Arizona all the time, these two extremes. At one end, you have the hard, grizzled "I ain't buyin' this 'Everyone's a special snowflake' bullshit; now pull yourself up by your bootstraps!" guys. Think ranchers, cowboys, farmers. Everything is black and white. Every problem is easily addressed, and there's one -- and usually only one -- common-sense solution. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a namby-pamby idiot. At the other end, you have the froofy, kooky "We're just the universe getting to mystically know itself" crowd. Think UFOlogists, Sedona vortex seekers, and the folks who love to talk about the Phoenix Lights while showing you their crystal collection. (I actually had someone do this.) Now I truly love the grizzled Arizona frontiersman, and I love me some dreamy Sedona artists, but this is silly. Truth and validation are not magical, but neither are they simple. It's not always either "Here's your problem. I fixed it!" or "There is no answer on this physical realm." That's what I'm talking about with Psychic Kids.

It's entirely possible that these kids have more -- maybe much more -- talent and difficulty in some areas. The kids have mental issues and aptitudes that their peers won't understand. It's necessary to grant them this validation. However, it's just as likely, and just as necessary to express to the kids, that other children have issues and aptitudes that they don't have and won't understand. You don't get to be the star of the world. You don't even get to be the star of your own world. You're a spectator and participant, and it's infinitely better and more interesting that way.

Maybe these kids' talents and problems lie along more difficult-to-discern, difficult-to-deal-with lines. Maybe the parents decided they don't understand what their kids are going through -- which is fine; but then decided that it must be incomprehensible to anyone, paranormal -- which is not fine. You don't need to resort to magic for your kid to be special. Magic isn't real. Your kid's specialness is. Your kids problems are.

Am I one of those hippie parents who thinks everyone's a winner? Yeah. I guess I am.

But here's the difference: I'm not saying your (or your kid's) special beauty lies in some unable-to-be-grasped magical aura. I'm specifically saying it does not. It's real. You might not be able to grasp it, but it's graspable. It's concrete. You're special, and there are ways to find out how. You have problems, and there are ways to pin them down and address them. Same for your kid. Everyone is special. Everyone's a winner. This doesn't diminish the words "special" and "winner," because we all win at different categories. And we all suck royal donkey balls at several categories as well. Same for your kid.

Apparently (according to the original link sender), this makes me a closed-minded wet blanket. I don't see why. The choices aren't "My kid has black and white talents and foibles that I can readily describe" or "My kid is a magical starchild." Do you really think every kid but a select few is less complex, less nuanced, less worthy of wonder and consideration; than psychic kids, savants, "Indigo" children, "Crystal" children, kids with an affinity for animals, or whatever specialty your kid has? How is that better than "My football player can kick your honor student's ass?"

Of course I think my kid is the most special kid in the world. And it doesn't feel like an opinion. But it is an opinion, and none less valid for being one. He's the most special because of his unmatched (in my limited experience) imagination and way with animals, because of his intelligence and insight, because of his kindness, and yes, because of his flaws. (His ability to focus, for example, is so miniscule that while we were ice skating the other day he stopped, simply because he forgot to keep moving his legs. I'm relieved that breathing is involuntary.) His specialness is born from his specific set of characteristics as well as those of everyone he encounters. His shared experiences and private thoughts write a specific story that's his, and to a much lesser extent, mine and my husband's. His story is staggeringly beautiful. It is mind-searingly tiresome. It is heart-breakingly, uniquely painful. It is heart-meltingly amazing. I'm proud, touched, annoyed, exasperated, and amazed every moment that I'm with him. I try, from time to time, to share some of that with you. But here's the thing -- I share the qualities of it. I share the universal -- or near universal -- parts, including the universal happiness we all feel from witnessing someone's distinct footprint on the world. I share the details to show the beauty. I don't expect the details themselves to impress anyone, because I know they're not objectively special, at least not in the sense that they're unique to us. And they don't need to be. The whole package is special. Isn't that enough?

Which brings me back to what I suspect some of the Psychic Kids parents are doing. Their kids have talents, sensitivities, and problems that happen to be hard to put a finger on. Fine. So spend time with your kids. Validate them, even if your answer is "I believe you, but I don't know what is happening. There is a real answer out there. Let's find it together." Even if it takes a lifetime to find, even if you never find the answer. Because you'll make your own answer along the way, and it will be built of a million real things. Early morning cuddling and dinnertime fights. Walks through meadows in the golden hour and homework nagging. Sleepovers and playground fights. Snapshots by road signs and sinks full of dishes. Board games and cats and dogs and backyards and cookies and toys and baseball games and school dances and a million other things that won't be special to anyone on the planet but you and your kid. And that's fine. Think of the world you'll discover together. Think of the people he'll meet, who'll get to know him in return. He will grow up with volumes of special experiences. What's more, the understanding that it's the big picture that makes who we are, that no one's concerned about his mundane trivialities -- but only because each one of them is carrying a whole universe of their own, waiting to be explored -- I think he'll be infinitely better for it than if you told him he has magical powers and sent him to a spooky house with some wacko.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spider Sunday 3-18-12

Another reason to geek out on 3/14
If you're a dork (and if you're reading this you probably are), you know March 14 was Pi Day. What you probably didn't know -- I didn't until yesterday -- is that it was also National Save a Spider Day! Credit goes to my aunt, Heather, for passing on this reminder from Heloise. I guess it's only fitting, now that I've got spider pictures coming at me from across the country and even world, that I get my family and friends in on it too. You guys "celebrate" spider day weekly and sometimes daily on my Facebook wall on and in my inbox. You're all weird and wonderful. I shall become the spider queen and you will all be my spider-rescuing, spider-info-hoarding minions. Mwahaha!

I can't believe I didn't share this earlier
I'm not too big into Tumblr, but you all must follow this site, FACT: Spiders are Adorable, as long as they're posting content. Spider humor, spider fact tidbits, spider photos, spider macros (of both the close-up photography and humorous-text-having varieties), and all forms of spider love. Go see it.

Brown(ie) points: Brown recluse in the news
The brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa, has been featured quite a bit in the news lately -- from the apparent spread of their territory and research to better define our understanding of their range, to recent cases like college student Nikki Perez, who was almost blinded due to a brown recluse bite. It's a medically significant spider, with unique and potentially quite harmful venom, and climate change could be affecting its range, so this is important stuff. Of course, there's quite a bit of difference between the predicted "possible migration of the spider by 2020" to new areas, and the melodramatic headlines ("America in Danger!") that I began seeing this week. This is what a brown recluse looks like, with a coin for scale. Its range is the Southeast to the Midwest. And if you have a giant brown spider on your wall, it's still probably not a brown recluse. Just, you know, be smart. Most people are never bitten by any spider, so don't start worrying about inevitable blindness/ear rotting/body-part-loss/general doom just yet.

Spider sensitivity training
I love this! The American Museum of Natural History is preparing to open an interactive exhibit, "Spiders Alive!" starting in July. Sensitive to the needs of the spiders, reaching out to the humans ... everyone wins. And we get to learn more about these amazing arthropods. I'm quite fond of Norman I. Platnick, the museum’s curator of spiders (although I'm also quite jealous of his profession). A few quotes:
Of the new exhibit, (Mr. Platnick said), “I’ve always argued that it would draw as many people as the dinosaurs, if not more.”
Mr. Platnick, who has been at the museum since 1973, had long lobbied for a permanent hall devoted to spiders, insects and other arthropods. Not having one, he said, “is a major gap for a major natural history museum.”
I'm glad to see arachnids have such an awesome advocate. Now who wants to pay for me to go to the exhibit in July?

Spiders look bigger to arachnophobes
Yes, I saw the recent article. My husband agrees wholeheartedly, and feels vindicated for the many incidents in which I may have implied he's a big baby for being afraid of something half the size of his pinky fingernail. I don't know, though. I see a sea of emerald sparkles in a jumping spider's eyes, and a veritable forest of hair on its back. Maybe it's just fixation that makes the spiders appear massive.

My husband doesn't particularly care why. They're huge, according to him.

Oh, well. I've seen him watching them and photographing them when he thinks I'm not looking. And he does know there's not an army of invading brown recluses. It's a start.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spider Sunday 3-11-12

Forgive me if this one is up a little bit late. This Spider Sunday is also my son's tenth (!) birthday. The festivities started Saturday with an all-day amusement park trip, and I am already exhausted.

But onto the spiders (and a few of their relations, in this edition)!

Are Daddy Long legs Spiders?
If you're still confused about the daddy long legs issue, this video is pretty good, and it's a great mini-lesson on taxonomy in general. It illustrates why I never use the term. My only nitpick: he should say "venom glands," not "poison glands." (Two pedantic spider points in one item! I win!)

Are camel spiders from overseas invading Phoenix?
Short answer: No. Longer answer: Are you serious? No. And word to the wise (and also reporters): They're not actually spiders; and they're certainly not insects.

Speaking of camel spiders
OK, I know they're not real spiders, but more than a few people sent me blips about this film, which reaffirms all the myths we've heard (but unlike squeamish reporters, know are false) about camel spiders. Like Arachnophobia, only nowhere near as good. Still, campy fun. Starring the guy who played Leo on Charmed, apparently.

Spider silk = super substance
Dumbledore might have discovered the twelve uses of dragon blood, but I'm pretty sure we've already topped twelve uses for spider silk, besides getting in our faces and catching dinner for spiders. There's the fantastic cape from a little while ago. It might have applications for wound healing. And this week we've got violin strings from spun spider silk, and the discovery that spider silk conducts heat as well as metals, and hundreds of times better than any other organic material. Spider silk: Is there anything it can't do?

It can freak people out, that's for sure
As the farm town of Wagga Wagga, Australia faced rising floods, the people moved out and the wolf spiders moved in -- and it snowed spider silk.

OK. Now I'm really sorry for the lateness of the post. Apologies for the parting mental image. Sleep well!


Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday 5: Things I learned teaching nature photography to kids

I've been a little busy lately (I know; haven't we all), but I'm actually trying to build up a buffer so I can really write polished posts again -- funny stuff, poignant stuff, all that crap. I miss that. I'm also streamlining how I handle my blog and my various other time-sucks, so I can get to know more of you. (Find me on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook; we can waste time together!)

But I have been doing stuff! Story pitches. Research. And sometimes, I even get out of the house. I taught a kids' photography workshop at the Chandler Environmental Education Center. After some first-timer fumbling, I do hope I taught them a thing or two and we all had a good time, in the classroom, but mostly in the field. It's all stuff that's old-hat to my photographer friends, and even many who've read some posts here, so I'll go a different route. Here are five lessons they taught me.

1. Streams must always be crossed. Repeatedly. Here's how to tell which side of the stream is best: It's not where you are at the moment.

Make sure you choose the mossiest, most slippery rocks when crossing. If you feel like you're slipping, fling your camera around a few times for balance. Especially if it's holding the instructor's telephoto lens.

2. You might have to go through the mud. Scratch that. You'll always have to go through the mud. Don't worry; you can take your shoes off and leave them behind for the instructor! Also, try to spread yourselves out as widely as possible, especially if there's only one adult watching you all. If she looks worried about keeping an eye on the two of you at the stream, the one by the cactus and the rest stalking the egret, don't worry. She's savoring the challenge.

3. The best place to hold a photograph is with your thumb pressed firmly into the front of the print. The best way to hold pricey camera equipment is however the hell you want. If it's your turn to borrow the telephoto lens and you notice the instructor's eyes bugging as she appears to be using the force to stop the lens from careening into stuff, don't worry. It's just another challenge! See how the game works?

4. Teachers love when you take surreptitious pictures of them. Seriously. They don't mind at all that you're clicking and giggling away in the middle of a lecture. And they especially love the up-the-nostril angle you capture from your seat.

5. Bugs are beautiful. Pooping is funny. That orange rust-colored stuff in the water is really a plant. It doesn't matter if you don't know what you're doing; just start doing it and it'll come. Smelly feathers are still worth saving. Make sure you pick up stray fishing line. Surreptitiously remove the bread from the ducks after the old couple walks away; supply cracked corn instead. Protect the birds' nests. Cormorants look like they're stuck up. Kids are freaking wonderful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I was a teenage troll, or how I came to accept evolution

Today is both Valentine's Day and my state's 100th anniversary! Happy day! Before that, though, Darwin Day was on Sunday, and I thought I'd share a post on an Arizona teacher I only later came to love. I didn't name names -- I don't know if he'd have wanted me to -- but those who had the same teacher will recognize him, and perhaps there are more like him. Love of science is appropriate for today, anyway, as is Arizonan stubbornness.

My high school years were unremarkable. I didn’t hate them, but they certainly weren’t my glory days. Still, everyone has standout memories from high school. Some of mine -- crashing a school dance, cliques, that one class you take because the teacher lets you ditch -- are fairly universal. Others -- rattlesnake awareness days, meeting friends at a desert lake at the end of a precipitous dirt-road drive or at a restaurant called “The Feedbag,” cowboy fights breaking out at lunch -- might be more local, but folks from my school will recognize them.

The ones I remember the most are a little more unique. The Time I Forgot to Wear Pants. The Pavlov Drooling Experiment in Math Class. The Time My Science Teacher Gave me the Silent Treatment, Forcing me to Accept Evolution and Reality.

Because yesterday was Darwin Day, We’ll focus on that last one today. Sorry if you wanted to hear the pants story.

This may come as a shock to anyone who has experienced one of my diatribes against science haters of all stripes -- but in high school, I went through a brief, extremely enthusiastic, and very embarrassing creationist phase.

Our biology teacher probably wouldn’t survive in today’s school system, at least not with the recent revival of creationist fervor. This was a guy who focused pointedly and heavily on biological evolution, a guy who made it known to anyone who asked that he was an atheist, a guy who drew Darwin fish in everyone’s yearbooks. When a student in class sneezed, he didn’t just refrain from the mildly religious “God bless you.” He said “Go to Hell.” He was an anti-theist, before I knew that there was such a thing.

His class was revered and reviled in equal measure. His worksheets were legendary. The labs were long and difficult, but invariably fascinating. He had a seemingly endless collection of formaldehyde-preserved animals -- hag fish, worms, bony fish, sea urchins, snakes, a shark. When a handful of us saw Peter Benchley’s Beast on television and pestered him about squid the next day, he broke out the squid-in-a-jar so we could see that squid did, in fact, have small curved claws on some of their suckers.

And he was weird. During our fetal pig lab, he offered (seriously, it seemed) “five bucks to anyone who can suck on their pig’s nose till the head caves in.” When my lab partner needed to refill a chemical at our station, he sent her to the refrigerator. She had to reach behind what appeared to be giant fleshy grapefruits. They turned out to be immense ram testicles. In his fridge, for some reason. I think his lunch was in there too.

On test days, he wore all black. He liked to talk about “masticating” whenever he got the chance, knowing what we all mistook that word for. He looked like Satan.

I’m serious. He had salt-and-pepper hair when we knew him, and wore plaid shirts (except for test days) and glasses, but even then we thought he looked like a particularly mischievous Devil, with the goatee perfectly trimmed for the effect. When we found an old faculty photo with all-black hair and goatee, we wondered why the writeup didn’t include “soul contracts signed this year.”

Still, I thought he was an eccentric genius -- until I got it into my head that this “EVILution” stuff was bullshit, and took it upon myself to write a ridiculously lengthy report to that effect. I titled it “A Fairy Tale for Adults,” because originality wasn’t my strong suit at the time. While normal teenagers avoided even the assigned homework, I threw in a 20-page, footnoted, completely unnecessary and not-requested report. Because I was a really devoted little shit.

I handed it to another biology teacher (so I was a chicken shit too), who generously read it and (even more generously) added gentle notes throughout. They were all things like “No Kim. This isn’t true,” and “Your sources have not done their research.” I ignored it all. I knew I had The Answer.

I spent the rest of the semester doing dickish things like filling out the worksheets with caveats (Question: Give examples of both parallel and convergent evolution. My answer: SOME SCIENTISTS BELIEVE that the eyes of different animals show convergent evolution…) I asked; while thinking I already had the answers; about complexity, the second law of thermodynamics, and mathematical odds. Basically, I was a troll.

I tried to provoke my teacher. I dropped hints about the “studies” I’d cited in my paper. I knew the teacher I handed the report to had let him read a copy. I knew he had read it. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.

And … I never got one.

He had corrected me on every error I’d ever made. Every slight error on a worksheet, or lab, or exam. Every stupid offhand comment I made once I started my creationist kick. He had a portrait of Darwin behind his desk, for crying out loud. But now, nothing.

I finally asked him about it after classes had wrapped up for the year. He responded by referring to his own initials: B.S. He added, “I think you know better," and that was it.

Then he ignored me. He didn’t speak to me for the entire next year. I didn’t have him that year, but we passed. If I was in a group of people, he’d make a point of saying “Hi, John. Hi, Sarah. Hi, Chris … Well, I’ll see you all later.”

I thought, Wow. He’s mad! I got him good.

But really, it was just that he’d said all he could. That’s it. I was the troll, and he didn’t feed me. And, after a while, it worked. Eventually, I went back to reading real science books, and I abandoned the very appealing feeling of having The Answer™. Real life turned out to be less about membership in a secret, in-the-know club; and more about, well, real life. It was so much more beautiful that way.

That teacher is a big reason I came to accept evolution by natural selection once more. But more than that, he let me -- forced me -- to think for myself. By not rising to my ridiculous bait, by not responding except to indicate that it wasn't worth a scientific response, and by not doing the thinking for me except to present information and model how to think; he forced me to change my mind, because I was wrong. I didn’t see it for years, but that was huge.

My teacher really was weird. And maybe he really did hate me. But I don’t think so. I think he thought quite highly of me. And not just me, but all of us. He knew we were better than this. He knew we were capable of thinking for ourselves, of taking the world both seriously and with a healthy dose of dark humor, of reaping the consequences for saying and doing stupid shit. And by all that was holy (which was nothing in his view, but still), we were going to do so. We were going to be challenged.

He died several years ago, and I never had a chance to go back and thank him. It’s sad that he’d probably be in hot water today. I hope Arizona gets its act together about science education. I hope in high school, my son has "jerk" teachers who push critical thinking and love for the natural world. I guess I can probably fill in until that happens.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spider Sunday 2-12-12

Another Spider Sunday! Also, happy Darwin Day! Go appreciate some biological diversity today.

Scientists discover "most stretchable" spider silk in Italy
Researchers have identified the most stretchable egg sac ever tested. I'd say I felt like my egg sac was stretched when I was pregnant, but I've been informed that comparing parts of my own anatomy to those of arachnids "really isn't sexy, and you should stop doing it. Seriously. Stop it." Hmph. Anyway, super cool discovery not only because of the spider, but for potential nanomaterials design.

Spiders to remain kings of the castle during restoration work
Clan MacDougall, medieval kings ... and cave spiders! They're restoring an old Scottish castle, and saving the spiders that nest in its wall! Awesome squared.

Le sigh, headline and lede writers
A cobweb-like substance has been found on spent uranium rods at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. Cue the Spider-Man references, "mutant spider worries," and headline writers generally losing all desire for accuracy or self control. The substance hasn't even been positively identified, though it does seem to be biological. Even if it was made by a mutated spider, "mutated" to a scientist isn't always what the public imagines when they hear "mutant." No superpower-granting arachnids here, sadly.

In honor of Darwin Day:
A spider found by Darwin 180 years ago, and promptly lost. It was found again.
A spider that was named in honor of Charles Darwin, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Also, it spins huge webs from silk that's stronger than Kevlar.

An accessory that might actually capture my interest
Maybe a more flowery example of spider-silk milking to match last week's black widow story -- I've heard of this guy, Simon Peers, a few years ago when he created a scarf with wild-caught orb weavers. Now he's made a golden spider-embroidered cape. Apparently, he was inspired by mid 17th and 19th century accounts of the enormously time-consuming technique. They release all the spiders, too!

That's it for now. More spiders next week. (Or earlier, probably.)