30 April 2009

A dictionary in my pocket


I started using Sharp's Electronic Dictionary about a month ago. Although it would easily fit into a pocket of my cargo pants, I carry it in my backpack actually. It is extremely useful when I am reading on the train and there is a word I don't know the meaning of. Before I had this thing, I would mark the page and look up the word later when I had access to the Internet or one of those massive tomes called dictionaries that one would never consider carrying on one's self. Now, I flip this thing open, turn it on, start typing the first few letters of the word and it starts listing all the possible words to pick from the New Oxford English Dictionary. It also gives the etymology of each word and has a thesaurus as well as a calculator. Cool.

29 April 2009

A Darwin paper from 1878

I went to the University of Maryland's McKeldin Library this afternoon to photograph a figure in a paper by Charles Darwin published in Nature in 1878*. I need the figure for a manuscript about Darwin's work with mollusks. Although Darwin's paper is available on The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, I wasn't satisfied with the quality of the figure extracted from the pdf version. So I decided to photograph the figure directly.

Luckily, the U of MD has a complete collection of Nature, although the 19th century volumes are not in the best state of preservation.


According to the stamp on the fist page, volume 18 once belonged to an O. V. Riley of Washington, D.C.


Here is the 2nd page of Darwin's paper and the figure I needed. Darwin was actually relaying a letter sent to him by a correspondent from Massachusetts.


*Darwin, C. 1878. Transplantation of shells. Nature 18:120-121.

28 April 2009

Let's do this to look like the spelling

While trying to translate some French sentences from 1757, I noticed that Google Translate had added Turkish to its répertoire. So, I decided to run some tests.

Türkçeyi İngilizceye Google kullanarak tercüme edebilirsiniz (You can translate Turkish into English using Google) was translated as: Turkish to English can be translated using Google. Not bad. But, the simple Yağmur bitince güneş açtı (The sun came out after the rain ended) became the completely unintelligible Rain, the sun was over. On the other hand, Dün geceden beri yağmur yağıyor (It's been raining since last night) became the acceptable It is raining since last night.

Complex sentences don't seem to have any chance, though. Google Translate turned Kedinin üzerine geldiğini gören fare duvardaki deliğe girdi (The mouse, when it saw the cat coming towards it, went into the hole in the wall) into another incomprehensible sentence: Cats are coming on top of that went into the mouse hole in the wall.

The title of this post is supposed to be the translation of Bakalım bu yazımı beğenecek misiniz (Let's see if you will like this writing of mine). Surprisingly, however, Bakalım sikimi beğenecek misiniz (Let's see if you will like my penis) returns Let's see you are gonna like my dick. Now we know what kind of sentences Google is good at translating.

Another short, but typically convoluted Turkish sentence Türkçe öğretemediklerimizden misiniz? (Are you one of those to whom we couldn’t teach Turkish?) turns into the pathetic Turkish are taught? Obviously, Google Translate is one of those.

27 April 2009

How to mark a snail shell - Part 3

The Triodopsis that I was notching and releasing last fall survived the winter (Part 1 and Part 2). At least some did. Last Thursday I collected 11 live adults and 3 empty shells. 5 of the live snails had notches in their lips.

I had notched the lip of this one and 3 others like it and released them on 10 November 2008.


The 5th live snail had a notch elsewhere in its lip that I have been able to date to 8 August 2008. That snail has been an adult for at least 8.5 months.

The 3 empty shells also had notched lips. One of those snail apparently died when something cracked its shell.

In part 2 of this series, I had the picture of a snail that had repaired the notch in its lip. Surprisingly, none of the live snails I collected this time had repaired their notches.

26 April 2009

Six-spotted tiger beetle


This appears to be a six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata).

They were very common on the sunny trail in the park near my house on Friday. They have good eyesight and are normally very skittish. The combination of those characteristics make it difficult to approach them. But every now and then, there will be one individual a bit "tamer" than the rest. This one was one of those.

Their tendency to stay in the bright sun and their highly reflective upper surfaces also make it difficult to get even lighting in the pictures.

24 April 2009

A well hidden tree frog


This algae-covered beech with a narrow cavity in its trunk is one of my slug trees in the park near my house. The cavity, which always has some water in it, is a favorite refuge of the arboreal slug Megapallifera mutabilis. From early spring until the beginning of winter usually at least one and often several slugs can be seen inside the cavity.

Earlier today when I searched the cavity with my flash light, I thought I saw 2 slugs, one above the water across from one entrance and the other sequestered in the 2nd and narrower entrance. A closer look, however, revealed that the thing in the narrow entrance was not a slug but a little froggie partially hidden behind the dried-out corpse of what appears to be a cricket.


If I am not mistaken this is one of the 2 similar tree frogs of eastern North America: gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor) or Cope's gray treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis). First, I thought it was a juvenile, because I estimated its length to be only about 3 cm long, but now I just learned that these frogs don't grow much larger than that; according to White & White (Amphibians and reptiles of Delmarva, 2002), the usual adult size of either species is 3.3 to 5.1 cm.

This is the 1st time I have seen a tree frog in this park and I hope it won't be the last one.

23 April 2009

The biggest fan of Snail's Tales


One day while we were in Florida earlier this month, my son and I got locked out of the in-laws' house where we were staying. To pass the time, we started driving on nearby back roads. If you are not familiar with an area, this isn't as wasteful an activity as it sounds, because you don't know where the roads will lead to and what you may end up discovering.

One road we were on ended at this junk yard "For Lease".


22 April 2009

Indian shell tools from Florida

If you are ever in the town of Safety Harbor west of Tampa, Florida, visit the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History. It is likely that there will be no other visitors and you will get personalized attention from the 2 friendly museum attendants. Although the museum consists only of 2 large rooms, you may end up spending a few hours going thru them.

One room displays artifacts about the city's past, including old photographs, typewriters, household tools, while the other room displays older artifacts from Florida's past, including items related to various Spanish explorers, American Indians and even fossils.

Among the items that attracted my attention were several sea shells recovered during excavations of local Indian sites. For example, these bivalve shells, probably arks (Arcidae), each had a hole thru its umbo. Were they used as pendants?


Here is a large gastropod shell that was cut open. Its label, "Chief's Cup", implies that it was used as a drinking vessel. According to another label, the cup was used for a "strong, black beverage made from the leaves [of a plant] from the holly family" during a type of council meeting called the "black tea ceremony".


And then there were these reconstructed "tools".


The accompanying labels says "One of the principal uses of the adz was in hollowing out dug-out canoes." I find it hard to believe that such a flimsy contraption could have been used to dig a canoe out of a tree trunk. I need a bit more supporting evidence before I can take that claim seriously. It seems to me that it would have been easier just to hold the shell, if it was indeed a tool, in one's hand to do the carving.


Part 2 of this series is here.

21 April 2009

An intertidal pseudoscorpion


This pseudoscorpion lives along the Gulf coast of Florida under piles of seaweed stranded at the high tide line. Its habitat gets covered by the tide twice a day and, obviously, the pseudoscorpion survives immersion in sea water for a few hours everyday.

The associated fauna include the snails Assiminea succinea, 2 species of Truncatella, small ellobiids and also small isopods, amphipods and a few other tiny arthropods.


If you can identify it, please post its name in a comment.

20 April 2009

Clustering of the intertidal snail Batillaria minima

While in Florida 2 weeks ago, I spent quite some time collecting data on the intertidal snail Batillaria minima. In the 2 beaches where I was studying them, the distributions of these snails were often patchy: there would be areas 2-3 meters wide where I would see none of them and then there would be a cluster of 50 or 100 snails.

I kept some snails in captivity for a few days. I noticed that captive snails also had a tendency to aggregate. I carried out some simple, preliminary experiments by piling the snails up in the centers of containers and then monitoring their behavior over time.

Here are the photographic records of one such experiment. Initially, there were 40 snails around the center of a box whose bottom measured approximately 11x12 cm.


7 minutes later:


24 minutes later a large aggregate had formed against the top wall:


56 minutes later, the aggregate along the top wall was still there; in addition, there were 2 smaller clusters (or 1 diffuse cluster) along the left wall:


I think the clusters were fluid in that snails continuously moved in and out of them, but because the individual snails were not marked in these experiments, I don't have data to support that claim. I saved that experiment for a future trip to Florida.

19 April 2009

An afternoon with Rrose Sélavy

Yesterday afternoon I was at the National Portrait Gallery's ongoing exhibition Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), whose name appeared on this blog before, was one of the founders of the Dadaist movement early in the 20th century.


The exhibition consisted primarily of portraits of Duchamp from the 1910s until a few years ago. Below is Mark Tansey's The Enunciation (1992). Marcel Duchamp and his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy are facing each other from passing trains.

Here is a poster Duchamp himself created in 1923.


This is one is Proposition for a posthumous portrait by Douglas Gordon (2004). The star in the back of the skull is in reference to a peculiar comet-shaped haircut Duchamp had in 1919 (photo).

Duchamp stopped producing public art in the 1920s, but remained an influential figure among artists. At the same, during the last 2 decades of his life he worked secretly on his final work, Étant donnés, that was unveiled only after his death.

More info on Duchamp and his work is available here and here.

17 April 2009

Final report of the 2006 Potomac Gorge BioBlitz

In this post from a long time ago, I briefly chronicled the activities, during the Potomac Gorge BioBlitz, of the land snail survey team, of which I was a proud member. The final species counts and brief reports of the findings of each survey team have been published in No. 32 of Banisteria, the journal of the Virginia Natural History Society. Although the date of the issue is given as 2008 on the cover, apparently it has just been published.

According to the announcing e-mail, "for a limited time" the No. 32 of Banisteria is available to download in 5 parts from this address.

On p. 2 of part 1, there is a group photo of the participants. Yours truly, wearing a yellow T-shirt, is all the way on the right standing next to Butch Norden in the green T-shirt, while Tim Pearce is sitting in front of me and Megan Paustian is sitting immediately behind and to the right of me. We were the core of the land snail survey team.

The report reports that we found 35 species of land snails (part 3). Actually, there was one more, Novosuccinea cf. ovalis. Unfortunately, it got left out of the final list inadvertently. Let my picture of that snail in my original post (link above) be the record of its presence along the Potomac River.

16 April 2009

The messenger of the Bosphorus


My sister, who has been in Turkey since September, continues to send almost daily news about happenings noteworthy or otherwise, often accompanied with photos. This picture of a pigeon that had entered the bedroom of their condo thru an ajar window came yesterday.

In the background is the Channel of Constantinople.

15 April 2009

How many heads did John the Baptist have?

In The First Crusade, Thomas Asbridge writes about the relics that were said to have been present in Constantinople near the end of the 11th century (p. 108):

A visitor to Constantinople might see Christ’s crown of thorns and pieces of the cross upon which he was crucified; the Virgin Mary’s robe and locks of hair; at least two heads of John the Baptist; and the bones of virtually all the apostles.
Either he was a multiple-headed alien from outer space or all of those relics were hoaxes.

14 April 2009

The hermit crab escapes


I was delighted by this large shell of Melongena corona that I had found while exploring a sandy beach during a low tide last week in Florida. I peered deep into the body whorl and even smelled it. "It is empty and clean", I declared to myself. Then I put it in a box and took it home.

I should have known better. Soon after I placed it on the bathroom counter—my vacation lab—hairy legs and a pair of antennas appeared in the aperture. The resident hermit crab, the rightful owner of the shell, was getting ready to explore its new and unexpected surroundings.


So I put it in a small container of seawater. Their skittishness notwithstanding, hermit crabs are difficult to confine to tight spaces: they must get going as soon as they think the coast is clear.

This one made more than one attempt to escape from its pool until I resorted to putting a lid on it. It ended up spending an unhappy night in its confinement.


I did return it unharmed to its beach the next day. I placed it on the sand and a few minutes later it had disappeared in the receding tide.

Another post on the hermit crabs of Florida is here.

Can you spare $2.70 please?

My work week, after an 11-day break, had a rocky start this morning. While in the commuter train, I realized the card I needed to ride the subway (Metro) during the 2nd leg of my commute was in my wallet, which I had forgotten at home. I had no cash on me either. When I got off the train I was too far to walk either back home or to work. I don’t even know which way I would have to go to get to work from the station, because I’ve never done it.

My only immediate hope was a coworker who once or twice a week rides the same train. So I stood at the entrance to the subway hoping he or someone else from the office would show up and save me. It was raining too. But I was lucky. My coworker appeared only a couple of minutes later. I stepped in front of him boldly, blocking his way and at the same time startling him: “Good morning. I need a favor!” He kindly lend me $3 to cover the $2.70 fare.

Later in the office, I borrowed the $2.40 for the return trip from my always helpful friend Jannavi. She is even going to bring me some homemade curry powder tomorrow. I just have to make sure I’ll show up with my wallet to pay off my debts.

13 April 2009

Between the Gulf of Mexico tides

I grew up along the Aegean coasts of the Mediterranean where tides are imperceptible. I had only read about tides, but not experienced them until about 20 years ago during a vacation in Florida when I first noticed the rising and the receding of the sea at a beach. Last week at the west coast of Florida I spent many hours watching, photographing, collecting, examining and measuring intertidal snails and also performing simple experiments with them à la Darwin.

Here is the north shore of the Dunedin Causeway at high tide. The causeway connects the Honeymoon Island to the mainland.


And the same coast at low tide.


Only now am I finally beginning to grasp the significance of the daily tides in the lives of the intertidal animals in general and snails in particular. Reading the books like the classic Between Pacific Tides of Ricketts et al. certainly helps, but mostly in an abstract sense; one needs to be at a coast right at the edge of the sea during both high and low tides and to pay attention to the creatures both during immersion and emersion to begin to acquire a slight understanding of how the intertidal ecosystems may have evolved and how they continue to function.


Of course, it is not just the tides that rule the lives of the coastal species. Also important are the microtopography, insolation, wave exposure, availability of food, and the presence predators, parasites and competitors. I will probably think of more factors to add to this list later.

12 April 2009

Holy chocolate!

Jesus & Mo

10 April 2009

A hole in a tree: who dunit?


I saw this peculiar tree hole last week. It was quite large, about 15 cm long. The relatively smooth edges and the roughly hexagonal shape made me think it was opened by a person. But I can't think of a function for such a hole.


You can see from the pictures that there was already a large cavity within the trunk of the tree. Now that there is an entrance, some animal will probably move in soon.

08 April 2009

Small snails have small feces


This is an adult Vertigo pygmaea from the backyard. Their shells grow to be about 1.8 mm long. These snails have appeared in several previous posts (for example, here and here). I always find them on rocks. I had been suspecting that they grazed on the thin films of green algae that grow on those rocks.

I collected about a dozen of them last week. After I measured their shells, I put the little snails on a little piece of tree bark inside a little cup and then sprayed a little bit of water on them. The bark was covered with green algae. I have noticed over the years that the captive individuals of this species don't remain active for very long even when their surroundings remain wet. Sure enough, about a day later, all the snails in the cup had become dormant by attaching themselves to the bark or to the piece of toilet paper underneath, which was still damp.

That little stringy thing next to the snail is a clump of snail feces. Its dark green color indicates that the snail had fed on the algae on the bark. There were several other similar clumps. Now I know that at least the captive Vertigo pygmaea eats algae.

06 April 2009

An exercise in concise writing

In December of last year I submitted a short manuscript, a "communication" that was merely 4 double-spaced pages long, to the Journal of Conchology. It went thru the usual peer review and got accepted, but on the condition that I would shorten it even further. The editor noted in his e-mail that communications usually had 1000 words, while mine had 1287 words.

So I revised the manuscript and, with a little help from Deniz, was able to bring it down to 1045 words, which subsequently satisfied the editor. I got rid of 242 words without taking any of the essential data out. Some of the methodological details did get the axe, but anyone familiar with the subject matter should be able to deduce how I may have done certain things. It’s amazing how economical one can get with words when one needs to!

Here are some sentences from the original and the revised manuscripts.

During periods when rains are infrequent, fog interception and dew formation may become the main sources of water in the environment.

When rains are infrequent, fog interception and dew formation may become the only sources of water. (5 words shorter.)

The substrata with which a terrestrial gastropod is in contact must be sufficiently wet, the air humidity adequately high, and perhaps its food of a high enough water content so that the animal’s daily activity does not result in a negative water balance.

The surface a gastropod is on must be sufficiently wet, the air humidity adequately high, and its food of a high enough water content so that daily activity doesn’t result in a negative water balance. (8 words shorter.)

The microscopic examinations of the feces of both species indicated that they consisted mainly of brownish plant fragments and smaller fractions of microscopic fungal hyphae.

The feces of both species consisted mainly of brownish plant fragments and some microscopic fungal hyphae. (9 words shorter.)

The interesting thing is that the original version looked fine to me before I submitted it the first time. But now the revised version looks even better and I am wondering why I had so many extra words to begin with.

So now, I have a new rule for the present and future manuscripts: the last thing I do before I send a manuscript out is to try to delete at least 4 words from each full page.

Note added 6 April 2010: This manuscript has come out recently. See this post for details.

05 April 2009

Packing a lab for Florida

This afternoon we are taking Amtrak's Auto train to Florida. When I'm down there I spent most of my time collecting data and photographing snails. That's my idea of a vacation, believe it or not. I enjoy it a lot and I guess that's what matters.

But if I am going to do research during my vacation, I have to bring everything I need with me. The nice thing about taking the Auto Train, as opposed to taking a plane, is that we can pack the car up to the ceiling. That means I can practically take a lab with me.


The red box in the back has an old dissecting scope and the large plastic box leaning on it is for sorting seaweed (for the tiny Truncatella and the tinier Assiminea, of course). The cardboard box has my old scale and a bunch of containers of all sizes for samples and for use as temporary aquaria for intertidal snails. The box with the green lid on the right has notebooks, fieldbooks and papers and books to read on the train. The red and blue tool box has all the small but essential equipment: thermometers, calipers, forceps, marking pens, magnifying glasses, various small vials, GPS receiver, a little bit of alcohol, a little bit of glycerol, tape measures, etc., etc. The green bag holds the camera, lenses, flash, spare batteries and all the other photography paraphernalia. The small box on the left is holding the must-have clamps and stands mostly for positioning lights and things. And then there is Marissa the cat, but she is staying behind.

In addition, there will be a small suitcase for clothing and probably another box for some food items. Why be away from favorite snacks, right?

Actually, I am all in favor of traveling light.

I will be gone until the afternoon of Monday the 13th. But don't despair; I have 4 posts scheduled to appear every other day during next week. And regular postings will resume probably in the evening of the 13th. Until then, take care.

03 April 2009

A brief essay on the general attitude of common folks towards the natural world inspired by a passage in a book by Charles Darwin, Esq.

The following is from Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Darwin was in Chile at that point.

My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos?—why some springs were hot and others cold?—why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.
It is probably not an exaggeration to proclaim that the general attitude of the common folks towards the natural world hasn't changed much since then. Darwin's comments reminded me of a conversation I had during a yachting trip along the southwestern shores of Turkey about 11 years ago. One day we wanted to explore the hills behind the coast where we were anchored. We asked a young peasant in his late teens who was working at a nearby makeshift restaurant if he knew of any interesting places to visit. His response was "İnsan yapısı mı, Allah yapısı mı?", human-made or God-made? To him, the ruins of ancient cities on hilltops, rather common in those parts of Turkey, were human-made, while everything else, including the limestone cliffs that were full of snails, were "God-made". Obviously, the poor fellow couldn't comprehend that there were objects around him that originated, developed or evolved without any intervention whatsoever from humans or supernatural beings.

02 April 2009

An intertidal snail increases in size since the early 20th century

Fisher, J., Rhile, E., Liu, H., & Petraitis, P. (2009). An intertidal snail shows a dramatic size increase over the past century Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106: 5209-5212 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812137106

Nucella lapillus is an intertidal snail commonly found on the rocky coasts of the North Atlantic. In North America, it lives along the east coast north of Long Island.

Fisher et al. have discovered that between 1915-1922 and 2007, the shell length of N. lapillus at 19 sites around Mount Desert Island, Maine increased by an average of 22.6%.

Fisher etalFig1
Comparison of shell sizes of N. lapillus from 19 sites. The 1:1 line is the line about which the points would scatter if there had been no change in shell sizes. Fig.1 from Fisher et al.

Shell sizes of this species are significantly influenced by exposure: snails living in areas exposed to waves are in general smaller than those living in sheltered areas, because it is easier for larger snails to get dislodged by waves. The data in this paper (see the figure above) show that the increase in shell length was greatest at the wave-sheltered sites and smallest at the wave-exposed sites.

The reasons for the size increase of these snails are not known at the present. The possible factors include predation by the crab Carcinus maenas, increase in sea water temperatures and a long-term increase in nutrients.

The 1915-1922 collections were done by Harold S. Colton and are currently kept at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The present study demonstrates the value of properly collected (with locality data) and curated specimens in research that may sometimes take place decades after the collections were done.

01 April 2009

Multifarious gallimaufry of odds and ends - 2

Over at Updates from the Vertebrate Paleontology Lab, there is an account, with pictures, of the unbelievable Pseudoserpente canuckistanensis, a legless mammal. What will evolution create next?

During last Sunday's local elections, Turkey's ruling Islamist party AKP received only 40% of the votes; in other words, 60% of the population doesn't support them. In comparison, 4 opposition parties with the highest percentages of votes had among themselves the backing of almost 53% of the population. If there was one decent opposition party, instead of a gazillion of them, it could easily kick AKP's ass.

In other news from last weekend, the tiny island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean voted to become "a French department". Not only do they have to start eating more French fries now, but they also have to chose between polygamy and French kisses.

The previous multifarious gallimaufry of odds and ends was here.