Category Archives: Wild Thing

Enjoying nature in Maryland this month

Guest post by Bryan MacKay

MackayWith a cautious nod to what seems to be (let’s hope) the arrival of Spring in Maryland, we offer the following April excerpt from Bryan MacKay’s A Year across Maryland, his week-by-week guide to enjoying the natural world in JHUP’s home state.

Rockfish (Striped Bass) Fishing Season Opens

Rockfish, that toothsome and combative gamefish, is now migrating down the Bay along the edges of the shipping channel, after spawning in the upper Bay and tributaries. Striped bass are anadromous fish: mature adults spend most of their time in the ocean but visit freshwater to spawn. About 70 to 90 percent of the entire Atlantic coastal striped bass spawn in Chesapeake Bay, especially in the upper tidal Potomac, the Choptank River, and the Susquehanna flats. The eggs and larvae are susceptible to certain environmental conditions and to pollution. Varying water temperatures cause significant mortality, as does acid rain runoff and trace concentrations of metal ions like aluminum, copper, and cadmium. Young rockfish spend the first three to seven years of their life in the Bay before entering the Atlantic, thereafter returning only to breed. This portion of the fishing season targets spawners returning to the ocean; younger fish must be released when caught. Striped bass can weigh up to 75 pounds; most fish over 30 pounds are female. Larger females are especially important to the survival of the species, as size correlates with egg production.

Where to find rockfish: It is possible to catch rockfish from land at Point Lookout State Park and other sites directly on the Bay, but most striped bass are taken from a boat in deep water. For a listing of charter boats, see  For a useful weekly blog about what’s being caught where in Chesapeake Bay, see

Lesser Celandine Flowering

MacKay April lesser celedineThe month of April brings the extensive flowering of this invasive non-native plant in alluvial floodplains and suburban lawns. Indeed, just before trees leaf out, lesser celandine seems to be everywhere, choking out native herbaceous vegetation, including the native wildflowers of April like spring beauty, bluebells, and bloodroot. Lesser celandine has kidney-shaped, thumbnail-sized shiny green leaves and brilliant, shiny, yellow flowers.  Emerging from many small bulbs, lesser celandine is almost impossible to eradicate. Only the fact that the leaves are above ground for only about two months, emerging in March and dying back by mid-May, keeps lesser celandine  from being considered our most troublesome invasive plant.

Where to see lesser celandine: Unfortunately, lesser celandine is extremely common, even ubiquitous, on the floodplain next to almost every river and stream in central Maryland. It is especially troublesome in Patapsco Valley, Gunpowder Falls, Susquehanna, and Seneca Creek State Parks and in Rock Creek Park and along the C&O Canal towpath.

American Robins Calling at Dusk

Mackay April robinPerhaps the ultimate bird of the suburbs, robins have adapted completely to humans and their developed landscapes. Robins will begin constructing nests as soon as the trees leaf out, and by mid-April, male robins are staking out their territories, singing to attract a mate, and chasing each other. Dusk seems to bring the most activity, and their alarm calls and song in the gloaming is a favorite sound of spring.

Where to see American robins: Listen for the calls of robins at dusk anywhere and everywhere in Maryland. The only places in Maryland where robins do not nest is on some small islands in Chesapeake Bay and possibly on Assateague Island.

Virginia Bluebells Flowering

MacKay April virginia-bluebellsWildflower enthusiasts may argue over what is our loveliest spring bloom, but certainly one finalist is Virginia bluebells. A plant common to alluvial floodplains, bluebells carpet the forest floor as far as the eye can see in some locations. Sky-blue trumpet-or bell-shaped flowers occur in hanging clusters above light green, fleshy leaves. Bluebells are pollinated by bees and butterflies. The flower buds are a gorgeous shade of pink, converting to blue upon full expansion. Albino flowers seem to occur in most populations. Virginia bluebells have a short season, blooming for only about two weeks in mid-April. Interestingly, while the flower is abundant in the floodplains of some Maryland rivers, such as the Potomac, Susquehanna, and Patuxent, it is missing entirely from others, like the Patapsco. Virginia bluebells form natural gardens covering many acres of alluvial floodplains at several locations in central Maryland.

Where to find Virginia bluebells: Extensive stands of bluebells occur at Susquehanna State Park, along the C&O Canal towpath, at Patuxent Research Refuge (North Tract), and at Bull Run Regional Park (Virginia).

Bryan MacKay is a senior lecturer emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region; Hiking, Cycling, and Canoeing in Maryland: A Family Guide; and Baltimore Trails: A Guide for Hikers and Mountain Bikers.

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Filed under Animals, Birds, Botany, Conservation, Life Science, Nature, Regional-Chesapeake Bay, Wild Thing

The Art of the Sea with Val Kells

by Amy S. Mercer
Marketing and Communications Manager, Gibbes Museum of Art

Thank you to the Gibbes Museum of Art for allowing us to re-publish this recent post. Please note information at the close of this article about Val Kells’ upcoming talk.

Marine Science Illustrator Val Kells is an ‘obsessive compulsive’ fisherman. A photo of Kells on her website shows her proudly displaying a permit that she caught off Cudjoe Key in 2011. “I take a photograph of every fish I catch before I release it,” she says.

Val Kells

Kells is a full-time, highly trained, freelance scientific illustrator with over 30 years of professional experience. She works closely with educational, design, and curatorial staff to produce accurate and aesthetic scientific and interpretive illustrations. She has created over 2,000 illustrations for a wide variety of clients including publishers, designers, master planners, museums, nature centers, and public aquariums and is the coauthor of A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes – from Maine to Texas. “This comprehensive guidebook to all of the fishes found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts should become an integral part of the library of any naturalist, angler, or fish enthusiast,” says Edward O. Murdy, National Science Foundation.

Val Kells Book Cover

She is currently working on the Pacific coast version which will include close to 800 species and will be published in the spring of 2016. These comprehensive books are used in classrooms, labs, and on boats by students, scientists, and nature lovers. “I love when people send me photographs of themselves on a boat with a fish in one hand and my book in another,” she says. Kells says her work is ongoing and she will unlikely run out of subjects to illustrate.

Kells’ research is meticulous and each illustration can take up to a full day to complete. She works from her studio in Virginia with the support of an extensive network of associates and colleagues across the country.  She begins with a preliminary pencil drawing to ‘work out the kinks’ paying close attention to the morphology of the species from the number of scales to the placement of fins. When she is satisfied, she transfers the drawing to watercolor paper and begins to paint. “I go into a Zen mode at this point. I turn on some Bruce Springsteen and paint until it’s done.”

Kells began drawing as a very young girl in Rye, New York, and studied art throughout high school. “I also had a deep love of the natural environment from the time I was young. And when my parents sent me to a summer camp in the Florida Keys, I decided that I wanted to be a marine biologist,” she adds. After studying Marine Biology at Boston University, she transferred to UC Santa Cruz in 1983 and ‘fell upon’ the (then) newly established Science Illustration Program where she was able to combine her two loves: art and science. One of her first clients was the Monterey Bay Aquarium and since then she has worked with over 25 aquariums and museums around the country including the Florida State, Long Beach, and North Carolina aquariums. Kells also worked for our own South Carolina Aquarium when it first opened.

One of the best compliments she received was when a woman mistook her paintings for photographs. Her illustrations are precisely detailed and she says, “The artwork I create cannot be produced by photographic or digital means.” She enjoys working with fishes that are unusual and mimic coral or those that have evolved in fascinating ways. “I also love painting iridescent fishes like Billfishes, Tunas, and Mackerels because they allow the watercolor to do what it does best.” The love of her work and the fishes she carefully constructs on paper is evident in each illustration.

During her upcoming discussion “Art of the Sea” at the South Carolina Aquarium, she will discuss the continuing value of original drawings and paintings in a visual world awash with digital photographs.  Join us for another fabulous Art With a Twist Event to hear Val Kells speak about her creative process on September 24 at 6:30 pm!

For more information about Val Kells visit:

When: Wednesday, September 24 at 6:30 pm

Where:  SC Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston, SC

Reception and Book Signing will follow.

$20 Members, $30 Non-Members

Publisher’s note: Kells is also the illustrator of Field Guide to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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Filed under Book talks, Coming Soon, Conservation, Fish, For Everyone, General Science, Illustration, Nature, Wild Thing

Wild Thing: Shark Tourism

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

Guest Post by Gene Helfman

One of the true and ongoing pleasures of writing a popular, science-based book about sharks is that it’s a great conversation starter. You continually meet people who say, “How cool! I love sharks.” And then you get to talk shark. Dispel myths. Drop facts. Correct misconceptions. And listen to stories. The fascination with sharks crosses all ages and sexes. Grandparents brag about how much their grandkids know about sharks, but invariably ask questions of their own.

I have just returned from two and half months in the Florida Keys and Belize, and these shark-related conversations happened everywhere. There was the German couple with a five-year-old daughter to whom I taught the German word for shark, haifisch. Now she says her name is Sophie Haifisch. I also met a Canadian couple with two teenage sons; one couldn’t hear enough about sharks, nor could his parents. The other son wants to be a corporate lawyer. Then there was the retired Senate staffer who wasn’t sure if whale sharks were sharks or whales—so many opportunities to educate.

Equally encouraging is the growing common knowledge that sharks are in trouble. People seem to be universally appalled at the Chinese shark fin trade and happy to hear progress is being made to curtail it, largely because of grassroots efforts by ordinary people. Everyone finds the recent upsurge in manta ray fishing to make gill plate soup, also for Chinese markets, horrifying. And we just learned, via the efforts of a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization called WildLifeRisk, that a factory in China’s southeastern Zhejiang Province is slaughtering over 600 whale sharks a year to produce shark oil for health supplements and fins for the shark fin soup market. The products are exported to the United States, Canada, and Italy, against international law (more info can be found here).

Helfman_Carib Reef SharkMuch of our time in both Florida and Belize was spent in the water, fish watching. At Looe Key sanctuary in the Florida Keys, we were treated to a short visit by a five- or six-foot long Caribbean reef shark that stayed around long enough to have its picture taken. In Belize, we spent a week at Glover’s Reef Atoll, about forty miles off the coast. The funky resort, complete with cabanas over the water, sits in a marine reserve and abounds with sharks and rays. The locals fish daily outside the reserve and then clean the fish at the dock. This brings in a regular parade of nurse sharks, lemon sharks, spotted eagle rays, and southern stingrays. Many of the latter were missing their tails, purportedly from encounters with hammerhead sharks, their chief predator. The nurse sharks were big and oblivious. They almost posed for pictures.

Helfman_Nurse SharksWe fortunately had a long layover on our return and got to visit the many curio shops in the Belize City International Airport. Shark stuff was everywhere. It included the usual collection of tasteless junk manufactured in southeast Asian daycare facilities. But some of the locally produced, carved wood products were among the best, most realistic shark and ray replicas I’ve seen anywhere. I couldn’t resist taking home an anatomically-correct spotted eagle ray. I just hope the wood was sustainably harvested.

Helfman_Eagle Ray

Helfman_SharksGene Helfman, coauthor, with George H. Burgess, of  Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide, is professor emeritus in the Odum School of Ecology’s Program in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development, University of Georgia. He lives on Lopez Island in northwest Washington State.



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Filed under Conservation, Fish, General Science, Life Science, Wild Thing

Spring Returns to Washington (Really!)

Guest post by Howard Youth

April is a month when there’s no denying winter’s retreat. Even if the thermometer dips below freezing, it rarely stays there for long. Days stretch longer, too. For local plants and animals and the wildlife enthusiasts who observe them, it’s a very busy time.

Washington, D.C. is a capital city not only in the geopolitical sense, but also in a much more animated way. Its location, chosen by George Washington as the best place for a seat of government and commercial hub, also serves the naturalist very well. Washington hosts a staggering array of living creatures thanks to this happy combination of factors: it sits between north and south, at the confluence of two rivers, and along the fall line where piedmont meets coastal plain. Grab a backpack, a pair of binoculars, and a handy field guide (may I recommend my book?), and you will see what I mean. Let’s start with some famous flowering trees.

Youth-cherry-treeMost tourists hope to visit Washington, D.C. in spring. It’s always a gamble planning ahead and trying to be in town when the cherry blossom trees bloom. Here are some insider tips for cherry blossom watching this time of year. First, keep an eye on the National Park Service web page, where you can find updates on predicted bloom dates. Of particular interest is the predicted date for peak bloom, when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry tree blossoms (pictured above) are open. Top spots for viewing include the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. But you also want to visit East Potomac Park, where you find not only the Yoshinos but also the later-blooming Kwanzan and other ornamental cherry varieties. All of these locations are detailed in the Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C. Following the ferocious winter, this year, the cherry tree experts predict the Yoshinos’ peak bloom will fall between April 8 and 12. Last year’s peak hit within this window, on April 9. The year before was an early March 20.

But when it comes to wildlife—and I’m not talking the bar scene here—Washington, D.C. is so much more than Yoshino blooms. Below are just a few highlights. All locations mentioned here are detailed in the field guide, including visiting tips and key wildlife-watching locations, as well as identification tips.

As you walk around the capital city, watch for these sure signs of spring:

  • Millions of tulips and daffodils blooming in various parks, including along the George Washington Memorial Parkway (Lady Bird Johnson Park in particular) and at the National Arboretum, Dumbarton Oaks, the National Zoo, and many other places.
  • Walk the C&O Canal tow path and keep your eyes open and your ears ready for abundant bird song. Early this month, the adjacent Potomac River provides a corridor for migrating waterfowl and hawks. After the third week of April, neotropical migrants arrive, stake claim to territories, and begin building their nests. These birds include Baltimore and orchard orioles, warbling vireos, yellow-billed cuckoos, great crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers. Barn, tree, and northern rough-winged swallows arrive shortly before these species.
  • For other creatures, the business of raising young is well underway. During April, many birds fledge their young, including five woodpecker species, American robins, blue jays, European starlings, Carolina chickadees, and common grackles. Young eastern gray squirrels frisk about. Rare sights in winter, eastern chipmunks and woodchucks (or groundhogs) become familiar sights again in Rock Creek Park, Fort Dupont Park, and other green spaces.
  • Temperature also plays a role. Temperatures above 60 degrees mean dragonflies will be active and bats will be wheeling around at dusk. Above, say, 50 degrees, you may hear tiny frogs called spring peepers “beeping” in low, wet areas, or hear the long trill of breeding American toads. Warm, sunny days draw out the local reptiles, including eastern painted turtles, common water snakes, and striped lizards called five-lined skinks.
  • April also heralds the widespread return of insects. Eastern tent caterpillars’ gauzy nests appear in the crotches of cherry and other trees. Nesting and migrating birds such as cuckoos and orioles feast on this easy protein source, while tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers gather some of the caterpillar nest silk for their own cup nests.
  • Spring ephemeral wildflowers accent floodplain forests this month. These include mayapple, Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, and spring beauty.

But April is just a great head start for anyone interested in Washington, D.C.’s varied wildlife. At any season, there is much to see here. At the National Arboretum, for example, you will find something in bloom most months. Even in the dead of winter, sparrows, woodpeckers, hawks, and ducks liven up the landscape.

For those who care to look, every day in Washington, D.C. is a celebration of nature. It’s easy to escape the grind by retreating to the city’s many parks. Any naturalist knows that, when it comes to wildlife, Washington is truly a city that never sleeps.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C.  He is a freelance natural history writer and former associate editor and communications manager for the Friends of the National Zoo. His work has been published in Audubon magazine, National Wildlife, and the Washington Post.  The book’s illustrator, Mark A. Klingler, is a natural history artist in residence at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and illustrator of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, also published by Johns Hopkins. The book’s photographer, Robert E. Mumford, Jr., is a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in Birder’s World, Smithsonian Zoogoer (the National Zoo’s magazine), and the New York Times.


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Filed under Animals, Botany, Conservation, D.C., For Everyone, Regional-Chesapeake Bay, Travel, Washington, Wild Thing

It’s black and white: penguins threatened by climate change

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.

Guest post by Gerald L. Kooyman

According to Dee Boersma and Ginger Rebstock’s recent article in the open access online journal PLOS-one, the population of the world’s largest Magellanic penguin colony, located in Punta Tombo, Argentina, declined by 20% between 1983 and 2010. Boersma and Rebstock noted that most chick deaths result from starvation and predation during the first twenty days of age after hatching. The effect of cold rain storms are another factor contributing to chick mortality; chicks are still covered in down, their main insulation, which lacks the waterproofing protection of a feather coat.

In this rare long-term study, up to 213 chicks were followed per season and checked daily during the research window of October–February. A total of 3,500 chicks were studied over the course of the twenty-seven-year-long investigation. This is the first report to document the type of weather conditions that has a strong negative effect on non-Antarctic species living in cold-temperate waters—in this case, off the Argentine coast. Climate modelers predict that storms will become more frequent and severe. If their models are correct, then—like many of the northern species of penguins, most of which are classified by conservation organizations such as the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as either endangered or vulnerable—the future does not look bright for the Magellanic penguins of this colony. In addition to the serious storm-induced problems, offshore oil pollution  and the penguins’ inevitable competition with commercial fisheries will place the health and safety of the birds of Punta Tombo in further jeopardy.

This paper is especially important because of the long-term duration of the study and the elegant way the investigators have connected the future colony’s prospects to climate change models. There are few such studies, and the Boersma/Rebstock report will be frequently referenced in the discourse of climate change effects on wildlife and humankind.

Adult Magellanic penguin showing the distinct lateral stripe. Photo: Wayne Lynch

Adult Magellanic penguin showing the distinct lateral stripe. Photo: Wayne Lynch

Magellanic penguin at the edge of the very large colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina.  Photo by Wayne Lynch.

Magellanic penguin at the edge of the very large colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina. Photo by Wayne Lynch.

kooymanTo read about these flightless birds and to see more wonderful photographs, check out Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide by naturalist Gerald L. Kooyman and photographer Wayne Lynch.

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Wild Thing: Of Crazy Ants, Kudzu, and West Nile Virus

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

guest post by Russell F. Reidinger, Jr.

racoonRaccoons work hard to get into attics, sometimes destroying siding or roofing materials along the way. Once inside, raccoons may damage electrical boxes, wiring, or plumbing vents, or spread disease. Most raccoons strongly resist eviction, especially if they have young. Trying to get raccoons out, especially whole families, can take planning, resilience, and work. And, even with success, raccoons may try aggressively to get back in. Given that raccoons can bite and scratch, and the uncertainty of diseases, the better strategy might be to get professional help.

In retrospect, most homeowners have who experienced raccoon invasions would probably agree that preventing access to their homes would have been preferable to removing the raccoons. Regardless, raccoons in attics are mental images that often come to mind when thinking of wildlife damage. So are images of squirrels in attics or skunks under porches or deer jumping in front of cars.

But images of some animals—the crazy ant, for example—do not typically pop up when we think of wildlife damage. Yet crazy ants cause extensive damage to island ecosystems. Called “crazy” because of their erratic movement, the ants can form colonies in tree canopies and tolerate multiple queens. Supercolonies with 300 queens have been discovered. The ants are voracious omnivores that eat grains, seeds, and detritus. They “farm” scale insects and aphids. So, where is the problem? The ants spray red land crabs with lethal amounts of formic acid, then eat the protein-laden crab carcasses. Crazy ants have killed 15 to 20 million crabs since the late 1980s on Christmas Island alone. The absence of the crab, formerly a keystone species for the Islands, has caused dramatic changes in litter cover and species richness, along with a concomitant decline in some endemic species.

Kudzu_field_horz1Kudzu, also called “the vine that ate the South,” is another example of wildlife that causes damage. Brought to the United States from Japan for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the vine was planted widely in the eastern United States for erosion control. Kudzu is now prominent in many southern landscapes, where its vines can cover entire canopies, telephone poles, or abandoned houses. The covered landscape provides a green, ghostly appearance from a vantage over the canopy, but suffocated native vegetation lies underneath. Kudzu carries soybean rust fungus. While efforts have been made to use kudzu for products such as soaps and jellies, and it has even been the subject of poems, kudzu remains a serious southern ecosystem problem.

Hailing from the West Nile Province of Uganda, West Nile virus was first identified in 1937. It appeared in New York City in 1999. The disease, transmitted by mosquitoes,  infects many vertebrate species, but most are asymptotic. The movement of the virus in the United States tracked closely that of some migratory birds. Species such as blue jays seem particularly sensitive and serve as indicators of the disease. While many people infected with the virus show no symptoms, a few will get meningitis or encephalitis. In the United States from 2009—2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported about 1,700 human cases, with 69 fatalities.

One can question whether problems such as these are part of wildlife damage management. Are the species domesticated or wild? Do they affront humans or their interests? The answers can be complex. In fact, it is the principles and concepts underlying answers to broad questions such as these that are part of the real substance of Wildlife Damage Management. If you are looking for a step-by-step manual on how to remove raccoons from an attic, this book is not for you. If, however, you want to understand the biological, ecological, and human dimensional concepts underlying wildlife damage management as it is currently practiced (and, we believe, how it will be practiced into the foreseeable future), this is the book for you. We review characteristics of damaging plant and animal species in North America and around the globe; summarize physical, pesticidal and biological control methods; and emphasize traditional vertebrate pests with abundant examples. But we take the position that today’s wildlife damage management also includes invasive plants and animals and wildlife diseases and zoonoses. And we include some speculation on how wildlife damage started anyway, beginning with Australopithecus afarensis, a preman who served more as prey than predator. I encourage you read our book.

reidingerRussell F. Reidinger, Jr., is a former director, National Wildlife Research Center, USDA APHIS / Wildlife Services, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and in the School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri, Columbia. With James E. Miller he is coauthor of Wildlife Damage Management, published by JHU Press.


Filed under Biology, Conservation, Wild Thing

Wild Thing: Discovering the hybrid world of penguins

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.

Guest post by Gerald L. Kooyman

penguins_1My association with penguins began with a singular encounter of three emperor penguins in the early austral spring of 1961. It was a moment that I continue to remember vividly, and I have told or written about the experience  numerous times. I was on the north shore of Cape Royds, within a snowball’s throw of Ernest Shackleton’s expeditionary hut, which was built in 1907 to serve as his base for launching the second attempt by any party to reach the south pole. The hut seemed as if it were built the year before, in almost new condition, preserved in this continent-sized freezer. I did not pay much attention to these auspicious surroundings because my attention was drawn to a strange and haunting call  two hundred feet offshore. It was the contact call, one that I have heard thousands of times since, but never have I been more aware of it than I was then. The three birds had broken through the thin ice and came sliding and tobogganing to the shore, up the slope and to rest with a few feet from me. It was as if they were taking in the sweeping view of the Victoria Land Mountains as I had been doing before their arrival. Their spell was cast on me, and continues to this day.

Not until 1969 was I able to pursue a simple experiment with the birds. I had discovered an ideal place and moment to determine to what depth the birds were diving while foraging offshore from Cape Crozier. This is another place full of history where members of the Robert F. Scott Discovery Expedition of 1901 to 1904 discovered the first emperor penguin colony in 1902. During that expedition Scott and two companions, one of whom was Ernest Shackleton, made the first attempt ever to trek to the South Pole. The Cape Crozier colony was the seed for Edward Wilson to organize a traverse from McMurdo Sound to the Cape during the winter of 1908 with two companions. One of those companions was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the famous book Worst Journey in the World. This took place during Scott’s second expedition from 1910 to 1913. Under the cliffs of Cape Crozier we performed a successful experiment and learned that the birds were diving to at least 265 m (870 ft). That record remained as the world record for diving birds until the mid-1980’s when I was finally able to devote several entire expeditions to the study of king and emperor penguins.

Since then I have led or collaborated on many studies of king and emperor penguins, so my perspective, as I embarked on writing Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide, had a large penguin species orientation. There is not a species of penguin, past or present, that I have not enjoyed reading and writing and learning about. I would not have guessed, for example, that this remarkable group’s beginnings may reach as far back as the dinosaurs. If their success as a group, the Sphenisciformes, is measured in terms of longevity (and consider there are many more extinct penguins than those species that currently exist) and also in terms of the abundance of individual species, then penguins are one of the most successful air-breathing vertebrate groups. They were, that is, until the hand of man placed a heavy burden on them. There are now four endangered species among the seventeen currently described species. Some of the others are sliding down the slippery slope of survival in the face of humankind’s expanding habitat and resource needs. I respond to several related conservation questions in the book.

penguin plunge 4More exciting and uplifting are the numerous answers to questions about how remarkable the penguin is. It courts, breeds, and raises its chicks in a terrestrial world and has adaptations in order to do this well. The group hunts, catches prey, and travels great distances in an aquatic world. This, also, it does well. In fact, some of the diving adaptations and other abilities of penguins are sensational. Many areas of research are dynamic and our knowledge of penguins is growing on a regular basis. We are truly blessed to be able to observe and learn about such a hybrid group that lives at the interface of land and sea.

kooymanGerald L. Kooyman is a professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is the world’s foremost expert on emperor penguins. Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide is available from JHU Press.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, For Everyone, General Science, Wild Thing

Wild Thing: Q&A with the authors of “Field Guide to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay”

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

murdyThe past spring, JHU Press published Field Guide to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay. We sat down with this book’s authors, Edward O. Murdy and John A. (Jack) Musick, and its illustrator, Val Kells, to learn more about the aquatic life of the Chesapeake Bay.

JHUP: Val, because Chesapeake Bay fish are less colorful than tropical fish, are they harder to illustrate?

Val Kells (VK): No. Close up, fishes of the Chesapeake Bay are quite colorful, and as iridescent as tropical fishes. At a distance the iridescence isn’t so apparent. That said, their lack of apparent color does’t make them any less challenging to accurately illustrate. Some made me nuts! Each fish is a puzzle (no matter where it comes from). Once I figure out the puzzle, I spend as much time as needed to properly illustrate.

JHUP: Val, which was the hardest fish to paint and why?

VK: The most difficult subjects to illustrate are those that are rarely encountered or rarely documented. When this happens, I may spend as much time doing research as actual painting.  I first turn to my huge library. Then, to the internet—including YouTube. I also dig into Biodiversity Heritage Library, which stores a huge database of species descriptions.  If I’m still not confident with the reference I’ve gathered, I send queries to my large network of associates and post to Facebook, blogs, and forums. Armed with enough visual and written information I ‘Frankenstein’ the fish together and take great care to stay as true-to-life as possible.

JHUP: Ed, do fish migrate?


Yellow Perch, by Val Kells (c) 2013

Edward O. Murdy (EOM): Depending on their feeding and spawning requirements, fishes may migrate between shallow and deep waters or between fresh and salt waters throughout the year. The Chesapeake Bay has examples of fishes that migrate between freshwater and saltwater (or vice versa) in order to reproduce. Anadromous fishes such as shads and herrings spend most of their adult lives at sea but migrate to freshwater to spawn. In the reverse direction, catadromous fishes such as the freshwater eel spend most of their adult lives in freshwater but migrate to the ocean to spawn. Most common Bay fishes are migratory. Only 15% are year-round residents, and some of these exhibit seasonal migrations within the Bay system.

JHUP: Are there eels in Chesapeake Bay?

EOM: Three different families of eels are reported from the Chesapeake Bay. The most common eel is the American eel, Anguilla rostrata, which is the only catadromous (i.e., migrates from freshwater to the sea to reproduce) fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

JHUP: What’s the smallest fish found in the Bay?

EOM: There are many small fishes in the Bay, such as killifishes, blennies, and gobies. The smallest may be the green goby (Microgobius thalassinus), which grows only to a little more than 1 1/2 inches.

JHUP: What are the most common fish found in the Bay?

EOM: The bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli) is the most abundant fish in the Chesapeake Bay. During the summer months, it can be found in many habitats from shallow to deep waters. The bay anchovy is a very important part of the diet of larger fishes such as flounder, bluefish, and striped bass. Fish-eating birds also prey upon the bay anchovy.

JHUP: Your editor, Vince Burke, has asked why people should care about Gobies.

EOM: This worldwide family of predominantly small fishes inhabits many different habitats, from mountain streams to estuaries to coral reefs to ocean depths exceeding 1,000 meters. There are more than 1,500 species of gobies, making it one of the largest families of fishes. Ichthyologists are still trying to understand why this fish family is so successful at adapting to a multitude of environmental conditions.

JHUP: What’s the largest fish found in our Bay?

John A. Musick (JAM): The Basking Shark, which attains lengths of 30-45 feet.

JHUP: Jack, tell us more about sharks in the Bay.

JAM: Several species of sharks have been reported from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but their distribution is restricted  by salinity. Three species—the Smooth Dogfish, Sand Tiger, and Sandbar Shark—occur commonly in the lower Bay but are generally restricted to salinities > 20  parts per thousand (usually south of the Pautuxent River). The Bay serves as the principle nursery and pupping area for the Sandbar Shark, the most important species in the Atlantic Large Coastal Shark Fishery. On rare occasions, the bullshark may penetrate into the upper Bay’s fresh water.

JHUP: Is there any fish in the Chesapeake that is on the rebound?

JAM: Several previously over-fished species are on the rebound because of new fishery management laws and better management by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These species include but are not restricted to Summer Flounder, Black Seabass, and Spiny Dogfish.

JHUP: Which fish are in the most trouble?


Harvestfish, by Val Kells (c) 2013

JAM: Sandbar sharks underwent a severe decline because of over-fishing in the 1980s and 1990s, but have only partially recovered despite ever more stringent management measures by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Also, the Atlantic Sturgeon was recently listed as Endangered by NMFS, because of coast-wide population collapses caused by historical over-fishing. Once spawning in large tributaries throughout the Bay, the species now has a spawning population only in the James River, where it recently has shown signs of recovery.

JHUP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about these fish while working on Field Guide to the Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay?

VK: Hmmm. After the fact, I found that some folks are freaked out about the Snakehead, and others don’t think it’s a big deal.

EOM: Sadly, after more than three decades and billions of dollars spent on clean-up efforts, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay has not improved significantly since restoration efforts began. The Chesapeake Bay watershed continues to suffer from excess nutrients and sediment that enters its water as runoff from agricultural and residential lands and municipal discharges. As long as the Bay continues to have poor water quality and degraded habitats, the populations of many fish species will not return to historical levels.

Thursday, Sept. 26th, at 7:00 pm, Val Kells will speak at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Kells will give a behind-the-scenes talk about illustrating fishes that are both beautiful and scientifically accurate.  Kells will sign her two books, Field Guide to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay and A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes, following the talk. VIMS emeritus professor Jack Musick , co-author of Field Guide to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay,  will also be on hand to sign. Click here for further details and info.

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Wild Thing: Q&A from Geckos: The Animal Answer Guide

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.

Today in Wild Thing, take a glimpse into the fascinating world of geckos with a Q&A from Geckos: The Animal Answer Guide, by Aaron M. Bauer.

Green-eyed Gecko (Gekkonidae: Gekko smithii); Southeast Asia. Courtesy of L. Lee Grismer.

Green-eyed Gecko (Gekkonidae: Gekko smithii); Southeast Asia. Courtesy of L. Lee Grismer.

Q. Why do geckos have big eyes?
A. Geckos have large eyes, on average larger than any other group of lizards. This is related to their nocturnal history as a group, because larger eyes are advantageous for night vision. The size of the orbits in the skulls of some fossil gekkotans reveals that this was a feature of even the earliest members of the group. Eye size is greatest among terrestrial species of nocturnal geckos. Israeli herpetologist Yehudah Werner hypothesized that this may be to compensate for the ground-dwellers’ more limited field of vision. Incidentally, he also proposed that the elevated posture that many ground geckos adopt is also related to increasing the field of vision. Diurnal geckos typically have smaller eyes than their night-active relative, but these are still larger than those of lizards in ancestrally diurnal relatives.

Q. How strong is a gecko’s grip?
A. Geckos are theoretically able to hold on with a force that greatly exceeds that necessary to support their own body mass. Different studies have indicated that this amount is from several hundredfold to four-thousand-fold or, for a 1.75 ounce (50 gram) Tokay Gecko, sufficient to support the weight of about three 150 pound (70 kilogram) adult humans! This overdesign is probably because the natural surfaces that they move on are really quite uneven and rough at the scale of the setal tips. This means that only a small proportion of the gecko’s possible points of attachment will really be used as it climbs on a particular surface and that even this fraction of adhesive

Tokay Gecko (Gekkonidae: Gekko gecko); Tropical East and Southeast Asia. Courtesy of L. Lee Grismer.

Tokay Gecko (Gekkonidae: Gekko gecko); Tropical East and Southeast Asia. Courtesy of L. Lee Grismer.

surface must be capable of supporting the entire animal. Further, at times in the gecko’s stride only one foot, or even one toe, may be supporting the entire body. The amazing capacity of the gecko’s grip has inspired humans to search for new and better artificial adhesives.

Q. Can geckos change color?

A. Although they are not as accomplished as chameleons and none can change to match their background exactly, some geckos do change color. Most geckos can at least lighten and darken in response to temperature, light, and “emotional” state. Warm geckos, in the dark, that are not stressed are usually pale. Cold animals, in light, or in a disturbed or stressed state tend to be darker. This change can happen over a period of minutes (or seconds in some cases) to hours. Some geckos appear whitish, pale pinkish, or almost transparent in their palest state. In many others, the full complexity of their patterns can only be seen in this paler state, whereas the darker phase obscures pattern elements and can make even a brightly colored gecko appear drab. An extreme occurs in Pachydactylus bicolor, a gecko from Namibia. In its dark phase, it is a chocolate brown with small yellowish or brownish flecks, but when it lightens a complex pattern of bands and blotches emerges. Males of at least some sexually dichromatic Gonatodes, like G. humeralis, rapidly change color from drab to brightly colored in the presence of rival males, however, the females remain drab all the time and are incapable of color change. These changes can be triggered by hormones or by signals from the nervous system. Change in state of health can also change color; for example, a heavy parasite load can dull the colors of normally bright males.

Q. Do geckos play?
A. Probably not, but it is hard to know for certain. Play behavior is well documented in birds and mammals, but in reptiles it has been tentatively identified in only a few species, mostly turtles, under captive conditions. Even in these cases, it was difficult to distinguish play from other types of exploratory behavior. Scientists generally believe that factors such as high metabolic rate, endothermy (the ability to generate heat internally), and extensive parental care, which provide animals with surplus resources are usually necessary for play to evolve. Geckos explore their environment and may be “curious” about unfamiliar objects or organisms. However, most of this curiosity is almost certainly related to basic life functions. In other words, geckos want to know things like “Can I eat it?” “Will it try to eat me?” or “Can I mate with it?” Or, in the case of inanimate objects “Can it help or hinder me from eating, mating, or hiding?” Although there is a tendency for some people to interpret the behavior of their pet geckos as play, other more practical explanations probably apply.

Q. Are any geckos cannibals?
A. Like other lizards, many geckos will take advantage of smaller individuals of their own species as food sources. In the wild some geckos, such as the Indian Hemidactylus prashadi, may segregate microhabitat by age class
in order to prevent juveniles from coming in contact with hungry adults until they reach larger sizes. Cannibalism in geckos is rarely documented in the wild, except for easily observed house geckos, but it undoubtedly
occurs, with its likelihood increasing in times of food shortages and under crowded conditions. The cramped conditions of captivity increase the risk of cannibalism. It has been recorded in at least ten species of geckos,
including some that are otherwise unknown to take vertebrate prey. With few exceptions, it is generally safest to keep hatchling and juvenile geckos separate from adults, as even parents will devour their own offspring.

bauerInterested in learning more about these fascinating creatures? This Q&A was excerpted from Geckos: The Animal Answer Guideby Aaron M. Bauer.


Filed under Animals, Biology, For Everyone, Uncategorized, Wild Thing

Wild Thing: “Fact: The survival of the Earth depends on frogs.”

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

Guest post by C. Kenneth Dodd Jr.

I cannot say when I saw my first frog, but I must have been very young. I grew up in northern Virginia surrounded by fields and forests that have since been paved over by asphalt and concrete. This semi-rural environment provided me with a wealth of habitats to explore. I remember listening to singing American Toads and catching Southern Leopard Frogs along the creek near my house. I always knew I wanted to study zoology.

I attended the University of Kentucky to learn about cave biology, but in my vertebrate zoology and herpetology classes I was introduced to the amphibian world. What fascinating animals these were that sometimes lived so secretively among us: the diversity, the color, and the intriguing life histories—so much to learn! By the time I started graduate school, I was ready to immerse myself in the science surrounding these creatures, not with an initial intent to conduct basic research, but simply to know more about them. After graduation, a short teaching stint, and years with the U.S. Endangered Species Program as staff herpetologist, I moved to a research position in Florida and was again able to chase frogs under the guise of making a living. In retrospect, my career has been a fortunate one, for despite occasional setbacks and aggravation, I have been able to pursue natural history and spend much time in unique places doing interesting research with insightful colleagues who became friends. Through herpetology, I have tried to make sense of how even a small portion of nature works.

Early rambles through the creeks and woodlands started me on a long journey that has taken me to six continents, fifty states, three Canadian provinces, and many Caribbean islands. At every turn I have found frogs, and each place has left its own special memories: listening to Bird-voiced Treefrogs in a Mississippi swamp with fireflies arching through the tree canopy, trying to photograph a large aquatic frog  in Kenya and suddenly and emphatically realizing I was lying on an ant mound, searching unsuccessfully for gastric-brooding frogs in Australia’s tropical rainforest, finding rare frogs in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean under a starry sky with fruit bats squawking in the trees, finding Scutiger (a Himalayan frog) tadpoles at 5,000 m. in Tibet and foam-nesting Rhacophorus (an Asian treefrog) in Taiwan, and seeing my first dart-poison frogs hopping through the leaf litter in Costa Rica. I still get a thrill from seeing a Barking Treefrog or hearing the soft chirping of Greenhouse Frogs around my natural yard in Florida.

Frogs are truly gentle animals. As my New Zealand colleagues have inscribed on their t-shirts, “Fact: The survival of the Earth depends on frogs.” Today, frogs are at a greater peril worldwide from human activity than at any time in recent geologic history. I hope that Frogs of the United States and Canada stimulates an interest in and appreciation of frogs, along with a desire to study and conserve them before many of these species disappear from our land- and soundscapes.

doddvols1&2C. Kenneth Dodd Jr. is an associate professor (courtesy) in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, and is a former president of the Herpetologists’ League. He is the author of Frogs of the United States and Canada, published by JHU Press.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Conservation, Wild Thing