Category Archives: Nature

Field trip: Marine Mammal Center

Marine Mammal Center

The Marine Mammal Center, located in Sausalito, California, is an institution dedicated to the study and health of marine mammals, particularly seals, sea lions, otters, and whales. In their extensive veterinary programs, they rescue, rehabilitate and often release many of these animals, and work to identify causes of illness and injury.

Visitors to the center can see some of the healthier patients (not the ones in the ICU) in these outdoor hospital pens shaded by solar panels as well as the research labs and a great many exhibits about these creatures.

Marine Mammal Center

We were recently invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of the center to get a first hand look at some of the amazing equipment and machinery that is needed to run a hospital for these unique patients.

In what follows, we’ll show you some of the neat things that most visitors don’t get to see, from glowing purple plasma to Nike missile silo blast doors.

Continue reading Field trip: Marine Mammal Center

Gaunt and Glimmering Remains of Gastropods

1. Wetlands

Here at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, tall grasses and other slender plants thrive around the edges of our often-salty marshes.

2. Tall grass

Towards the end of every summer, as the grasses start to dry out, you’ll sometimes see a gleaming white jewel, shining from the top of a stem.

3. Mysterious shiny thing

And if you look closer, it becomes quite a puzzle what that might be. A chrysalis? A gall of some sort?

4. Isolated, white

But it turns out to be both simpler and stranger than that. The little jewels are actually the desiccated shells of brown garden snails, bleached by the summer sun.

5. Snails!

The common garden snail in this area is helix aspersa, the culinary snail of France, imported here in the gold-rush era by a Frenchman who intended to sell them as food. Normally, they are chestnut to ebony in color, with lighter striations.

4. At least eight

But the snails that we find in the grasses– I count at least eight in this picture –have dried up after their food sources, and have been left to sit in the sun for much longer than they would like. Seems clear enough that they climbed up the stem for a leafy snack while the plant was still green, but didn’t make it down in time.

9. Faded

7. Bleached

8. Anise

Depending how long it’s been, the shells may still be striped, faded, or fully bleached. In some cases the shell is long empty and backlit by sunlight. In others, the resident has only recently passed.

In some cases the surface luster weathers shiny like a jewel, catching your eye from a distance. And that’s how we end up with ornamented grasses, glittering with the gaunt remains of gallic gastropods.

Another use for used inner tubes

Tree staking 3

Even after one too many flats, a used bike inner tube has plenty of uses. One more to add to the list: it can be used as a cushion between a tree trunk and a staking wire.

Tree staking 1

Cut the valve section out and cut the tube in half. For extra padding, use a double layer of tubing by pulling a section of tube through itself.

Tree staking 2

One regular bike tube makes two generously sized padding pieces, even after doubling them over. You’re ready to thread your wire through and stake up your tree!

You can also trim off a few pieces to make bike tube rubber bands.

Another oddity of lotus roots

Lotus Rootlets 2

Nelumbo Nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus (amongst other names) is a magnificent oddity of a plant. It roots in the mud of shallow lakes and ponds, growing leaves that float on the surface as lily pads lily pads or rise up above the water on hard stalks. The lotus flower itself is the model of a classic and gracefulwater lily flower, where both the flower and resulting seed pod have a characteristic pattern of holes.


Lotus Rootlets 1   Lotus Rootlets 3one rootlet   Thin Section

The hole patterns continue throughout the plant, showing up in in the stalks and underground stems (rhizomes) of the lotus plant. The rhizomes, usually just referred to as “lotus root” are prepared as vegetable in many types of asian cuisine. Typically you’ll find them served as thin slices through the root (a couple of inches in diameter), showing the distinctive pattern and prepared in many different ways– I’m partial to tempura. (If you haven’t had them, the taste is a bit like a more substantial and nutty version of a water chestnut.)

Another way that you can sometimes find lotus root prepared is as pickled lotus rootlets, which are immature and more tender lotus roots in brine (pictured here). You might find these in a salad or Vietnamese sandwich— they are tasty like their bigger friends.

Appearances aside, the first bizarre thing about the Sacred Lotus is that it’s one of only a handful of known plants that displays “warm-blooded” behaviour: It actively regulates the temperature of its flower to be at a near-constant temperature, even as the ambient temperature varies by a much larger amount. (

The second thing, which I haven’t seen written about anywhere, has led me to ask: how can a lotus root be like a spider?

Continue reading Another oddity of lotus roots

The Ducklings go to the Pond

Wake up

While staying in Sydney last month, I spent a lot of time at the botanical gardens, and, since it was spring, there were ducklings. I watched one family go from sleeping under the tree to swimming in the pond one morning, and I took a lot of pictures.

What follows after the jump is an annotated photo essay in which one duckling is forced to answer the question, “If your siblings all jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”
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Just in time for halloween: Bats

bats hanging like fruit

The animals that everyone hears about from Australia are things like koalas, wallabies and platypuses. But the real stars, as far as I’m concerned, are the bats. We saw a few bats in the zoos we went to, including ghost bats and flying foxes. But just walking along in the afternoon in the botanical gardens in Sydney, we looked up and happened to notice that what was hanging from the trees wasn’t leaves or fruit – it was bats. Hundreds of flying foxes. They chattered at each other and flew from one roost to another. While the echidnas were awfully cute bumbling along at the zoo, and the cockatoos were fun to watch at the park, it was the bats in the garden that stole the show.

Video: Hummingbird preens like he means it.

We set up the camera pointing at the hummingbird feeder on our front porch to try and take pictures of the birdies as they perched. But, holy smokes were we surprised to see a bird perch on a nearby vine and begin its performance, going through his checklist and pre-flight maintenance routine.

Embedded above, watch on YouTube or download the high-resolution Quicktime Version (3 MB).

This isn’t a time-lapse movie, this is real time.
Continue reading Video: Hummingbird preens like he means it.

Cute baby animals

While we ponder the excellent selection of entries to the Supercapacitor Contest, it’s time that we do something far more important: look at pictures of baby animals. While we’re not Cute Overload, we do occasionally accumulate pictures of baby animals, and right now they’re burning holes in our proverbial pockets.

We might as well get this over with. Let’s start with the baby egrets:

Baby egrets!
Continue reading Cute baby animals