This week I rediscovered good resolutions for the New Year in an interview I gave on The Allegheny Front in the summer of 2009(*).
Go outdoors, look around, look up. You’ll get a view of things that are bigger than yourself. … I find it very calming to see that life goes on despite whatever is going on in my head. Nature is still rolling.
Notes on the interview(*) A lot has changed in 12 years. In the interview I said that I work at WQED (No. I retired in 2014), that my blog is on WQED’s website (No. It’s been at birdsoutsidemywindow.org since 2015), that I hike alone (No. Now that I’m retired and due to COVID restrictions, hiking/birding is my one opportunity to see friends). And I’m older now with a lot more wrinkles under that mask. 😉
Have you ever been near a power tower whose lines are hissing? We can hear the electrical discharge but we can’t see where it’s coming from. Reindeer can see it!
You’ve probably experienced hissing power lines and wondered about the source of that noise. Sometimes the sound is so bad that it makes us worry. I remember hiking through a power line cut in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands(*) where the lines were crackling. The sound was so spooky that I practically ran to the other side of that clearing!
The hissing is a corona discharge, the ionization of the air surrounding the high voltage conductor (wire). As electricity leaks into the air it creates hissing and crackling sounds and flashes in a spectrum we cannot see.
In 1995 the fossil of a chicken-sized dinosaur was found in a gypsum (chalk-like) formation in northeastern Brazil. Twenty-five years later the dinosaur got a name — Ubirajara jubatus or “Lord of the Spear” — after x-rays revealed four long filaments on its shoulders and a feathery mane (jubatus) on its back. Ubirajara is the first feathered dinosaur found in the Southern Hemisphere.
What were the feather spears used for? Did this dinosaur raise his mane?
A modern bird, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise (Pteridophora alberti), gives us a good idea what this fancy “equipment” was used for.
p.s. The announcement of Ubirajara brought the fossil to the attention of the Brazilian government. The fossil was exported to Germany in 1995 but it has been illegal to export fossils from Brazil since 1990. Brazilian fossils can be loaned but not owned overseas. Read about the controversy here.
(illustration from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
As we approach the shortest day(*) of the northern year we can take heart that our days are as long as they are. 70 million years ago, in the age of the dinosaurs, the Earth spun faster than it does today. Rather than having 86,400 seconds per day to get things done, dinosaur days were half an hour shorter.
The lasers were precise enough to identify four to five data points within each day cycle and see that …
The composition of the shell changed more over the course of a day than over seasons, or with the cycles of ocean tides. The fine-scale resolution of the daily layers shows the shell grew much faster during the day than at night.
Thus “the growth rings allowed the researchers to determine the number of days in a year and more accurately calculate the length of a day 70 million years ago.” They also discovered information on the Moon’s formation and proximity. — agu.org
The Earth, like all of us, is slowing down with age. Every day is infinitesimally longer than the last. (It sure has felt that way during the COVID-19 pandemic!) On the bright side, even when we feel rushed we can be glad we have that daily half hour the dinosaurs missed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ranged from difficult to devastating for every public venue in the U.S. including the National Aviary. The Aviary relies on visitors for much of its income but visitors are few and far between during the pandemic and sometimes — as is happening now until January 4 — the Aviary must close because of COVID-19 restrictions. They care for their birds even while money is tight. The streaming falconcam feels like a luxury.
Now is the perfect time to make your gift because an anonymous donor is matching every dollar donated through January 2021, up to $100,000! Your donation will be doubled!
Put a smile on Morela’s face.
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[Replace] Giraffa camelopardalis with four new ones: the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in scattered groups in the central and eastern parts of the continent. The one remaining subspecies is the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis) of Ethiopia and South Sudan. It is a distinct subspecies of the northern giraffe.
This year a DNA study on gentoo penguins revealed that they should be split in four species, too.
Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) breed on Antarctica and islands in the southern hemisphere reaching as far as the Falklands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Island. Two populations are considered subspecies; they don’t intermingle. In 2012 the subspecies map looked like this:
The proposed split elevates both subspecies and adds two more!
The researchers suggest the two subspecies [P. p. ellsworthi and P. p. papua.] should be raised to species level and two new species created.
The four species we propose live in quite different latitudes – for example P. ellsworthi lives on the Antarctic continent whereas P. poncetii, P. taeniata, and P. papua live further north, where conditions are milder, and so it’s not that surprising that they have evolved to adapt to their different habitats.
West Nile Virus arrived in North America more than 20 years ago and spread across the continent in just five years, killing native raptors and songbirds in its wake. When it struck Pittsburgh’s bird community in 2002 it was fairly common to find dead crows. That was a long time ago and I don’t see dead crows anymore so I thought birds were now able to survive the virus. Instead a 2015 study found that West Nile Virus is still wiping out birds in North America. It affects each species differently.
Some such as wild turkeys, chickens and house sparrows had a die-off when the virus arrived and then recovered with apparent immunity. Others never developed that resilience. The virus ravages their bodies so quickly that they die without reproducing.
The birds in the slideshow above are some of WNV’s most devastated victims. Every year their populations decline in a downward spiral. Greater sage-grouse and yellow-billed magpies have such restricted ranges that WNV may push them to extinction. This explains why I haven’t seen so many warbling vireos, purple finches and American goldfinches as I did a decade ago.
In 2016 the PA Game Commission studied the plight of the ruffed grouse and found that birds never exposed to WNV had only a 10% survival rate. This 9-minute video tells the whole story.
When COVID-19 surged in Allegheny County in late June I wrote about the coronavirus as one very, very difficult forest fire. That surge ended and summer was good. We were able to eat together outdoors. We became complacent. Yet the fire still smouldered waiting to erupt. And now it has.
“There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding, broad community spread across the country reaching most counties, with no evidence of improvement, but rather deterioration. Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”
Allegheny County saw a record-setting surge in the last 5 days and is now under a stay-at-home advisory. If we can’t turn the tide in Pennsylvania we’re in danger of running out of ICU beds all at the same time.
The cladogram below shows how mammals and reptiles had a common “stem reptile” ancestor. However, during the Carboniferous period mammals diverged from the rest of reptiles and became very different (left branch).
During the Permian, Turtles diverged from the rest of the reptiles. Later the Archosaurs did, too (far right branch). Some of the Archosaurs resembled crocodiles.
Crocodiles didn’t change much in the past 80 million years.
How do paleontologists find fossils? Better yet, how do they find small bits such as tiny dinosaur teeth?
In Wyoming they get help from ants.
In the video below Australian paleontologist Mikael Siversson (“Birds are dinosaurs”) describes a trip he and a colleague made to Wyoming dinosaur country in the late 1990s. The video starts with a picture of the Badlands as he begins to tell the story. Watch for four minutes — or longer if you want to learn about dinosaur teeth. It involves bathtubs.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from video; click on the captions to see the originals)
p.s. The toothy mouth pictured at top is the reconstructed skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod ancestor of birds. Did birds have teeth? You bet!