31 October 2008

Down among the corpse eaters


On this fine Halloween day let us follow Dr. Motter* into the forbidding recesses of ominous crypts to learn about the "fauna of the grave" or the creatures that feed on the dead, the undead and the human brains that won't decompose.

Our first stop is a mummy covered with silverfish (Thysanura).


Next, we visit a "fairly alive" corpse, definitely one of the undead.


Here is a piece of information from Motter that would have been of interest to Dr. Frankenstein.
The brain I have found a still recognizable grayish mass, lying within the skull after all the other soft tissues had disappeared and the skeleton had been completely disarticulated. Indeed, I have found it, after eighteen years and two months (No. 136), lying on the occipital bone after the skull itself had fallen apart.
Motter collected more than 70 species of arthropods, including one isopod (Armadillidium vulgare) from the graves he opened. However, it wasn’t just the insects and the like that were partaking of rotting human flesh; Motter also found 4 species of snails that were in on the devouring of the cadaverous victuals.


Helicodiscus lineatus is now called Helicodiscus parallelus, Zonitoides minusculus is Hawaiia minuscula and Vitrea electrina is Nesovitrea electrina, while Zonitoides arboreus is still known by the same name. It is surprising that some of these snails were found rather deep in the soil. The next time I go to a cemetery to collect snails, I am definitely taking a shovel with me.

May we all one day become food for the fauna of our graves.

Happy Halloween!

*Motter M.G. 1898. A contribution to the study of the Fauna of the grave. A study of on hundred and fifty disinterments, with some additional experimental observations. Journal of New York Entomological Society 6:201-233. Available on Google Books.

30 October 2008

Theory of evolution on its way out...since 1904

A familiar and tiresome claim of creationists is that the theory of evolution is defunct and is about to be replaced by some sort of necessarily religion-based doctrine of nonexplanation. Unfortunately, the relentless badgerings of the Biblical and the intelligent design creationists are likely to trick the laypeople into believing that there have been recent breakthroughs in the field of "creation science" that are indeed undermining the foundations of evolutionary biology and leading to its imminent demise.

The fact is when it comes to creationism, nothing is new under the sun.

William Albert Locy* wrote this in 1915:

It is known, for illustration, that controversies are current among scientific workers regarding Darwinism and certain phases of evolution, and from this circumstance it is assumed that the doctrine of organic evolution as a whole is losing ground. The discussions of De Vries and others-all believers in organic evolution-at the Scientific Congress in St. Louis in 1904, led to the statement in the public press that the scientific world was haggling over the evolution-theory, and that it was beginning to surrender it.
Had the biologists indeed abandoned the evolutionary theory at the turn of the 20th century, evolutionary explanations of biological phenomena would by now be an almost-forgotten chapter in the annals of biology. The very fact that the creationists are still repeating the same old pathetic and baseless claims of the death of the evolutionary theory more than 100 years later shows that their target is still standing strong. It is even much higher now than they can reach with their pebbles.

Locy’s succint response sums it up:
Such statements are misleading and tend to perpetuate the confusion regarding the present status of the evolution theory. Never before was the doctrine of organic evolution so thoroughly entrenched in the mind of the scientific world.
In contrast, creationism, including the intelligent design variety, will never amount to anything more than a pseudo-intellectual nuisance in the history of science.

*William Albert Locy. 1915. Biology and Its Makers: With Portraits and Other Illustrations. Available from Google Books. The cited quotes are from pp. 348-9.

29 October 2008

Cats of Istanbul - Part 1


It would be very unusual if you walked a short distance, say, about 50 m, in an ordinary neighborhood of Istanbul and didn't see any cats. The normal state of affairs in Istanbul, in fact, in any Turkish city, is frequent encounters with cats.

Cats of all sorts.


If you are a cat lover who also likes to photograph cats, a stroll thru a residential Istanbul neighborhood will provide countless opportunities to appreciate the beauty of felines and to practice your skills with the camera.


Most Turkish "stray" cats are actually, and surprisingly, well-fed. It seems that there are enough cat lovers looking after all the felines that are loosely attached to numerous households. Even the occasional tailless or blind-in-one-eye specimens otherwise appear to be in good condition.

This survivor missing its tail and one eye was demanding attention from Deniz.

And here I am behind the camera (picture by Deniz).


More to come.

28 October 2008

A snail of cities: Eobania vermiculata

One of the most common land snails one encounters in urban areas of western Turkey is Eobania vermiculata, a relatively large, edible species. Presumably, the specific name refers to the vermiculated shell.


It is probably not native to Turkey, but originates from another Mediterranean country. It is so widespread now—as a result of intentional and unintentional introductions by humans—that it is difficult to determine its original range.

In Turkey, Eobania vermiculata is often found with another edible alien, Helix aspersa (or Cantareus aspersus, etc.). One may often see them stuck right next to each other on walls. Obviously, each species has a high tolerance for the other one.

The snail on top is Cantareus aspersus and the one below is Eobania vermiculata. Photo by Deniz.

To the uninitiated, the 2 species may be difficult to tell apart. Here are some pointers to help distinguish them.

Here is a subadult Eobania vermiculata that hasn't yet formed the reflected lip of adult shells.


27 October 2008

Hooded crows in Istanbul


These birds were quite common in an urban park near where we were staying in Istanbul. I hadn't taken my bird books to Turkey, so while we were there I couldn't put a name on them—other than calling them crows. They turned out to be hooded crows. Under the name Corvus corone cornix, they had long been considered a subspecies of carrion crows, but were recently elevated to species level as Corvus cornix.

Deniz took the next picture.


26 October 2008

How to search for micro snails


Here I am looking for snails under the rocks on the Ilgaz Mountains near Kastamonu, Turkey. This was about a week ago.

There was a surprising diversity of tiny snails under the rocks dotting the forest floor. One of them was what I have tentatively identified as Euconulus fulvus. The shell of this particular individual was about 2.3 mm in diameter.


All the while, and unbeknown to me, I was being photographed and filmed by the onlookers. Deniz has put up a video clip of me here.

Yes, if you drop one of those micros, it is very difficult to find it again. I gave up and went to another rock.

Today's good word: invertebratology

"Ed [Ricketts'] reading was very broad. Of course he read greatly in his own field of marine invertebratology. But he read hugely otherwise."
John Steinbeck, About Ed Ricketts, 1951, in The log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck & Ricketts, 1941.
I enjoyed reading The log from the Sea of Cortez during my long flights to and from Turkey. Mine is a worn 1971 paperback I bought cheaply at the used bookstore a few years ago. It credits Steinbeck as the sole author, although many of the biological arguments and biophilosophical ruminations were probably Ed Ricketts' brainchildren. In fact, Chapter 14, March 24, Easter Sunday was an unpublished essay Ricketts had written and which I discussed here.

Invertebratology is the study of invertebrates. Steinbeck used it twice in his essay on Ricketts, but he probably wasn't the one who coined it. Otherwise, the word is not in common use; a Google search returned only 40 hits. Its unpopularity may be due to its length. "Invertebrate zoology" is also more descriptive.

By derivation, a person studying invertebrates would be an Invertebratologist.

Note added 27 October 2008: Deniz informed me that invertebratology is not in the Oxford English Dictionary.

24 October 2008

A wall of marine mollusks in the middle of Istanbul

Concrete is made by mixing cement with sand and water. Construction companies in Turkey often get their sand from beaches; it may be illegal to do so, but it also costs probably much less than it would if they purchased good, clean sand from somewhere else.

One can often tell if uncleaned beach sand was used in a construction by looking at the walls surrounding new buildings, especially exclusive residential compounds.

The sidewalk along a busy street not too far from where my mother lives in Istanbul is bordered by long and tall walls that were built not too long ago from large rock fragments held together by concrete. During several walks along those walls during my recent stay in Istanbul, I had opportunities to photograph some of the members of the mollusk fauna of the beach the sand had come from.

This one seems to be one of the common cardiid shells (Cardiidae).


Here is a small scallop shell, a member of the Pectinidae, probably.


This one is complete with both valves still attached. I can't put a name on it, though.


I got the impression that, for whatever reason, bivalve shells were more common than snail shells. More careful looking, however, did reveal occasional gastropod shells.


And here is another snail, perhaps a trochid (Trochidae).


I hope the future paleontologists will be smart enough to tell that what they are looking at is artificial concrete not some unusual conglomerate fossil formation.

23 October 2008

False memory of Salvador Dalí on the Fecr-i Saadet

Photo by Deniz

On Tuesday, our last full day in Istanbul, Deniz and I went to the exhibition Salvador Dalí: A Surrealist in Istanbul at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan, a district of the city along the Bosphorus.

The passenger boat that took us from Arnavutköy up the Bosphorus to Emirgan was curiously named Fecr-i Saadet. In Ottoman Turkish* it means "the dawn of happiness". It was a nice 30-minute boat ride that gave us an opportunity to watch and photograph the forts and the old houses along the water front.

Deniz searching the skies for the approach of happiness.

The exhibition included not only many original works of Dalí , but also letters, photographs and even clips of films that Dalí worked on. We spent about 2 hours there. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, we had to skip most of the introductory text on Dalí's life, but we did learn quite a bit from the captions of the photographs. Overall, it was a good introduction to Dalí's life and art.

An original Dalí ink drawing at the exhibition: False memory of a cloud of smoke resembling a human face perceived during a walk in the country with my father (ca. 1939-1941).

*Actually, 2 Arabic words combined as they would be in Persian.

21 October 2008

Carrion beetle Nicrophorus tomentosus on dead shrew


I encountered this dead shrew and the beetle that may have been trying to bury it near the beginning of September. Whenever I come upon a scene like this that has a live animal in it, I try to take one picture right away before making any adjustments to the camera or even getting closer to the subject so that if the animal flees I will have at least one picture that may end up being a usable one. In this case, this was one of the 2 pictures I took; the other one is more or less the same. And then I tried to turn the shrew over to get a better shot of the beetle—because it kept crawling under the shrew—but I guess it didn't like the disturbance and disappeared among the grass.

After I posted this picture on BugGuide.net, the beetle got identified as Nicrophorus tomentosus. Apparently, these beetles bury the small dead animals they found and lay eggs on them. If I hadn't interfered, perhaps I would have had a chance to watch it happen.

19 October 2008

Daddy long-legs eating a snail

Back in September, I was finding snails on sidewalks. I wrote about the ones near my office in this post. On one occasion, while picking up the live snails, I also saw this daddy long-legs feasting on a luckless snail that had been crushed to death.


After I took pictures, I picked up the remains of the snail for a closer look. The daddy long-legs remained in the general area and started making short moves in different directions, as if it was searching for its vanished meal. When I put the snail back in front of it, it moved to it and started eating it again.

Some daddy long-legs, also called harvestmen, (order Opiliones) are scavengers feeding on dead animals, including snails and slugs. In addition, one European species, Ischyropsalis hellwigi, is a specialized gastropod predator (Nyffeler & Symondson, 2001).

In this instance, however, we definitely had a case of scavenging. Here is a closer look.


I posted this picture also on BugGuide.net, but it wasn't identified at the time of the writing of this post (7 October).

Nyffeler, M. & Symondson, W.O.C. 2001. Spiders and harvestmen as gastropod predators. Ecological Entomology, 26:617-628.

17 October 2008

Flattened fauna of sidewalks - Part 3

In this installment, I have a series of arthropods seen dead on sidewalks, but not necessarily flattened. When I am out taking a walk, I tend to keep my eyes on the ground lest I miss something interesting; now it's becoming an obsession to search for dead animals on the sidewalks.

We start off with a daddy long-legs spider.


The next victim looks like a bee of some sort.


Followed by a grasshopper that may have gotten hit by something, a car perhaps.


Today's last victim is a squished bug that I photographed about a month ago. It was probably a casualty of human indifference to or dislike of things that crawl under our feet.


There were many similar looking live bugs running around on the sidewalk. I photographed one and posted its picture on BugGuide.net.


It got identified as Boisea trivittata (Eastern Boxelder Bug). It is indeed a true bug (Heteroptera).

Part 1

Part 2

To be continued...

15 October 2008

Steel and slime


This steel bridge, about 15 m long, spans across Little Seneca Creek not too far from my house. One rainy afternoon in late September I was walking across it when I spotted a slug crawling on the railing at about the middle of the bridge. It was one of the native slugs that are common around here, a Megapallifera, possibly M. mutabilis.


I couldn't quite figure out how the slug might have gotten to where it was. There are woods at each end of the bridge. So it is possible that the slug simply got on the bridge at one end and kept crawling until it got to the middle. A less likely possibility is that it fell from the overhanging canopy (they do climb trees), which is about 10 m high. Although, I am not sure if it would have survived a fall from that high onto steel.

After taking its pictures, I moved to slug to a beech tree in the nearby woods.

11 October 2008

Fish food for snails

Food for aquarium fish is also quite suitable for feeding land snails and slugs. This was already mentioned in my chapter on raising snails in the book The Mollusks, edited by Sturm, Pearce and Valdés.

Here is a juvenile Triodopsis eating a piece of goldfish flake. The white stuff on the flakes and on the snail's shell is powdered limestone that I also give to my snails.


And here is a closer look. The snail's mouth is at the front of its head towards the bottom. You can see a strip of flake disappearing in its mouth.


Probably any brand of food for aquarium fish would be satisfactory for snails. The one I use is for goldfish. The first 3 ingredients in it are wheat flour, fish meal and brewers yeast, all of which are suitable for feeding to terrestrial mollusks. Most of them don't normally encounter dead fish in their habitats, but many appear to be omnivorous and eat dead animals as well as animal byproducts.

09 October 2008

Trip to Asia Minor

Map by Pierre du Val, 1664. From European Cartographers and the Ottoman World, 1500–1750: Maps from the Collection of O. J. Sopranos by Ian Manners, 2007.

I am leaving for Turkey this afternoon for 2 weeks. Unlike the previous trips that were mostly for snail collecting, this one is going to be primarily for sight and people seeing. I am meeting up with my nieces Deniz and Simla at the JFK this afternoon and we are flying together to Istanbul later in the afternoon. My sister and her husband are already there. We are getting together with them and some other relatives and going on a week-long trip to north-central Anatolie. I've got the map ready (see above).

Needless to say, I will be collecting and studying snails (and isopods) at every opportunity.

I have scheduled blog posts for every other day while I am gone. So continue to enjoy the blog. I'll return on the 22nd of October with stories and pictures of my larger than life adventures. Regular postings will resume thereafter.

Hoşçakalın for now :)

08 October 2008

Scientist's dilemma

"The research worker is sometimes a difficult person because he has no great confidence in his opinions, yet he also is sceptical of others’ views. This characteristic can be inconvenient in everyday life."

W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation, 1957

One accepted, one submitted

Almost a year ago I had a post about the mating of the land snail Rumina saharica. The pictures and data that had prompted that post had actually been collected about 7 years earlier. Last winter I finally put everything together and wrote a short paper, which recently got accepted for publication in the Zoology in the Middle East. It will probably come out next year.

I have also had several posts on another land snail Oxyloma retusa (for example, here). In addition, I presented my data at the land snail symposium at the AMS meeting in Carbondale last summer. I was subsequently invited to submit a manuscript for inclusion in the symposium proceedings to be published in the American Malacological Bulletin. That was a good thing, because otherwise I would have postponed publishing the Oxyloma data also for many years. But because the editor gave me sort of a deadline ("early October"), I dropped working on more or less everything else and finished the manuscript yesterday. I e-mailed it this morning. Let's hope it'll please the peer reviewers.

Now I deserve a break. I am leaving for Turkey for a 2-week trip tomorrow. More details tomorrow morning.

07 October 2008

Graffiti poetry


I came upon this poem, decorated with empty beer cans that may have been left behind by the poets, under a road bridge in Germantown back in July. Here is my transcription of it. I have retained the original spellings but added apostrophes where they were missing.
Sometimes you don't know what to do
But you have to deal with what life throws you
You walk along trying to figure things out
But you will never really know what life is about
You run around feeling so low
Wondering which way to go
People say you're speacial [sic]
But you can't believe it's true
If you were so special someone
would love you
You go through love in life
Then you're stuck with hatered [sic] and strife
You always want to disapear [sic]
Then you remember those who are dear
You're expected to be a saint
A life like that is enough to make you faint
You put up a facaide [sic]
Making you look like a god
Then you go home and cry
and sit and wonder why
You think it all over and
believe it's all you can do
So you say to hell with
life and that's the end of you!


06 October 2008

Black walnut experience


This is the fruit of the black walnut tree (Juglans nigra). I picked it up last weekend while cycling with Tim Pearce and his wife Alice Doolittle. We passed by many of them on the ground. I had never eaten one and Tim was quite enthusiastic about its flavor and gave me directions on how to get the kernel out. So I decided to give it a try. I took this one and a walnut that Tim got out of the fruit by crushing it under his shoe.

I left both in a plastic bag on a table out on my deck Friday night. Saturday morning, the bag was on the floor and the intact fruit pictured above was gone. The possible suspects were: a. A neighbor; b. A neighborhood cat; c. A neighborhood squirrel. Need I give the correct answer? I scoured the backyard for remnants of the fruit, but found none.

Luckily the walnut, which had been deep inside the bag, was not taken. First, I scraped off some of the black stuff around it.


Then I cracked it open with a hammer. Tim had warned me that the shell was hard. It indeed was much harder than the shell of the commercial walnut (Juglans regia).


The kernel appeared "juicier" (actually oilier) than that of the commercial walnut. It also had a stronger aroma that was surprisingly familiar. Then I remembered why. Some years ago I used to use make a pudding flavored with imitation black walnut extract. I still have the bottle.

The flavoring ingredients are listed as "Ethyl valerate and other esters. Oil valerian and other essential oils". I don't know if any of those are actually found in the real black walnut.

I enjoyed the black walnut and will probably eat it again.

05 October 2008

Mollusk book wins an award

mollusksbookThe Mollusks: A Guide to Their Study, Collection, and Preservation edited by C. F. Sturm, T. A. Pearce, and A. Valdés has won the "Best Adult Nonfiction" award for 2008 given by the Florida Publishers Association. The news was sent around yesterday by Charlie Sturm, the principal editor of the book.

My review of the book is here.

Charlie also indicated that he expects that the sales of the book will reach 1000 copies in December. He is already planning a revised edition, but not until 2016! So, if you haven't bought your copy of the current edition or recommended it for your institution library, this is a good time to do so. Remember, this is a not-for-profit publication (the editors and the contributing authors only got a free copy each for their efforts); the proceeds from the sale support the scientific programs of the American Malacological Society. The table of contents and ordering information are available here.

I will, however, also note that the 2 chapters I contributed to the book are available freely for downloading. The links are in this post.

03 October 2008

Mr. Jarboe's store is no more

Back in May in this post, I wrote about the ruin of a building at the entrance to the location of Edwards Ferry along the C&O Canal. That was the general store operated by Eugene E. Jarboe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The National Park Service took down the remaining walls of the store today. I was taken by surprise when I saw the demolition as I happened to be passing by the area on my trike this afternoon.


As I was taking photographs, an NPS employee who was overseeing the operation came over and struck up a conversation with me. He explained that the building had become unstable and dangerous and one of its walls had collapsed on its own during the summer. Therefore, they decided to remove the remaining walls. The foundation walls will, however, be retained and restored.

The same employee also told me that the roof of the building was in place until the early 1970s. If the building had been repaired back then, it would be in a much better condition today. But, I was explained that because this building was a secondary structure associated with the Canal, the primary structures being the Canal itself and the locks, etc., its maintenance had lower priority.

02 October 2008

Sidewalk snails

Yesterday and today I witnessed a peculiar phenomenon near my office building in College Park, Maryland: live and dead (crushed) land snails on sidewalks. What makes this unusual is that these are the sidewalks that I have been walking on for about 3.5 years, but I had never seen snails on them before. If I had seen one or two snails, I wouldn't have thought it significant, but today at one location, over approximately 20 m I found 16 live and several crushed snails. Luckily, that particular sidewalk doesn't get much foot traffic; otherwise the casualties would have been much higher.

Here are some of the snails.


There were 3 species: Mesodon thyroidus, Ventridens ligera and an unidentified Triodopsis.

This is what the location looks like.


I am assuming the snails came out of the grassy area or the wooded lot behind it. But why were they on the sidewalk? Besides,. The snails are probably coming out at night, although the night time temperatures have been low lately, and then getting stranded on the sidewalks after the sun comes out.

The other 2 locations where I also found snails on the sidewalks are within about 200 m of the above location and more or less similar in habitat characteristics: a sidewalk separated by a wide grassy strip from forested areas. We hadn't had rain for about 2 weeks, but the past 2 days have been rainy. It is possible that when the rains came, the snails suddenly became active, but that wasn't the 1st time we had experienced a dry period followed by rain. If this was something the snails often did, I think I would have noticed it before. Did all 3 species experience a population explosion over the summer?

Here is a newly adult Mesodon thyroidus that I found in the middle of the sidewalk at one of the other locations. Moments later a couple of men, one of whom was pulling a bag on rollers passed over the spot where the snail had been. I had come to its rescue right on time.


I moved all the live snails I could find to the tall grass.