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Posts Tagged ‘Ornithology

“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability”*…

Black Metaltail Hummingbird (Metallura phoebe), Peru

High in the Andes, thousands of meters above sea level, speedy hummingbirds defy near-freezing temperatures. These tiny flyers endure the cold with a counterintuitive trick: They lower their body temperature—sometimes as much as 33°C [over 90°F] —for hours at a time, new research suggests…

Among vertebrates, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism for their size. With a metabolic rate roughly 77 times that of an average human, they need to feed nearly continuously. But when it gets too cold or dark to forage, maintaining a normal body temperature is energetically draining. Instead, the small animals can cool their internal temperature by 10°C to 30°C. This slows their metabolism by as much as 95% and protects them from starvation, says Blair Wolf, a physiological ecologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

In this state, called torpor, a bird is motionless and unresponsive. “You wouldn’t even know it was alive if you picked it up,” Wolf says. But when the morning comes and it’s time to feed, he says, the birds quickly warm themselves back up again. “It’s like hibernation but regulated on an even tighter schedule.”…

One of Nature’s (many) marvelous tricks: “To survive frigid nights, hummingbirds cool themselves to record-low temperatures.”

* Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

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As we admire adaptation, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek; he was born on this date in 1632. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as “the Father of Microbiology“, and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists (he discovered bacteria, protists, sperm cells, blood cells, and numerous structures in animal and plant tissues). A central figure in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology, his letters to the Royal Society were widely read and richly influential… which is fair dues, as it’s widely believed that van Leeuwenhoek was inspired by illustrations in  Robert Hooke’s earlier book, Micrographia [and here].

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“Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”*…

 

census

 

The census is an essential part of American democracy. The United States counts its population every ten years to determine how many seats each state should have in Congress. Census data have also been used to levy taxes and distribute funds, estimate the country’s military strength, assess needs for social programs, measure population density, conduct statistical analysis of longitudinal trends, and make business planning decisions.

We looked at every question on every census from 1790 to 2020. The questions—over 600 in total—tell us a lot about the country’s priorities, norms, and biases in each decade. They depict an evolving country: a modernizing economy, a diversifying population, an imperfect but expanding set of civil and human rights, and a growing list of armed conflicts in its memory…

From our friends at The Pudding (@puddingviz), a graphic history of the questions asked in the U.S. Census. What changes each decade, what stays the same, and what do the questions say about American culture and society? “The Evolution of the American Census.”

For a look at how the pandemic is impacting this year’s census, see “It’s the Official Start to the 2020 Census. But No One Counted On a Pandemic.” and “Coronavirus could exacerbate the US census’ undercount of people of color.”

* Article 1, Section 2, of the the Constitution of the United States of America, directing the creation and conducting of a regular census; Congress first met in 1789, and the first national census was held in 1790.

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As we answer faithfully, we might send illustratively enumerating birthday greetings to John James Audubon; he was born on this date in 1785.  An ornithologist, naturalist, and artist, Audubon documented all types of American birds with detailed illustrations depicting the birds in their natural habitats.  His The Birds of America (1827–1839), in which he identified 25 new species, is considered one of the most important– and finest– ornithological works ever completed.

Book plate featuring Audubon’s print of the Greater Prairie Chicken

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Written by LW

April 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“It is a good day to study lichens”*…

 

lichen

Wolf lichen

Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” And he should know, because no group of organisms better exemplifies this principle than the one Spribille is obsessed with: lichens.

Lichens can be found growing on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; as coralline branches, tiny cups, or leaflike fronds. They look like plants or fungi, and for the longest time, biologists thought that they were. But 150 years ago, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener suggested the radical hypothesis that lichens are composite organisms—fungi, living together with microscopic algae.

It was the right hypothesis at the wrong time. The very notion of different organisms living so closely with—or within—each other was unheard of. That they should coexist to their mutual benefit was more ludicrous still. This was a mere decade after Charles Darwin had published his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, and many biologists were gripped by the idea of nature as a gladiatorial arena, shaped by conflict. Against this zeitgeist, the concept of cohabiting, cooperative organisms found little purchase. Lichenologists spent decades rejecting and ridiculing Schwendener’s “dual hypothesis.” And he himself wrongly argued that the fungus enslaved or imprisoned the alga, robbing it of nutrients. As others later showed, that’s not the case: Both partners provide nutrients to each other…

Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature– and our way of studying it.  Learn more at: “The Overlooked Organisms That Keep Challenging Our Assumptions About Life.”

* Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851

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As we contemplate cooperation, we might spare a thought for John James Audubon; he died on this date in 1851.  An ornithologist, naturalist, and artist, Audubon documented all types of American birds with detailed illustrations depicting the birds in their natural habitats.  His The Birds of America (1827–1839), in which he identified 25 new species, is considered one of the most important– and finest– ornithological works ever completed.

Book plate featuring Audubon’s print of the Greater Prairie Chicken

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Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!

Written by LW

January 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”*…

 

Several years ago we considered the “Antikythera mechanism” (“A Connecticut Yankee in King Agamemnon’s Court?…” and again in “Leggo My Lego…”), an ancient Greek device considered then to be 1,500 years ahead of its time.

In June of 2016, an international team of experts revealed new information derived from tiny inscriptions on the devices parts in ancient Greek that had been too tiny to read—some of its characters are just 1/20th of an inch wide—until cutting-edge imaging technology allowed it to be more clearly seen. They’ve now read about 35,00 characters explaining the device…

The full story at “An Ancient Device Too Advanced to Be Real Gives Up Its Secrets at Last.”

* Ken Kesey

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As we re-gauge our sense of history, we might spare a thought for Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily; he died on this date in 1250.  Frederick considered himself a direct successor to the Roman Emperors; he battled with the papacy, but otherwise practiced religious tolerance, and interacted with learned Jews, Muslims, and Christians.)

A multilingual man of learning, he corresponded with and patronized scholars.  His interests spanned the sciences, but were especially acute in natural history. He kept a menagerie which at various times had not only monkeys and camels, but also a giraffe and an elephant.  His notable contribution to scientific ornithology was with a six-volume work, De arte venandi cum avibus (c.1244-48).  In addition to some treatment of falconry, he presented his own observations (rather than perpetuating accepted hearsay knowledge) with remarks on hundreds of kinds of birds, with generalizations on their behavior, anatomy and physiology.

Frederick II and his falcon. From his book De arte venandi cum avibus

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Written by LW

December 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

The Art of Drawing Science…

Horse Anatomy
From: Anatomia del cavallo, infermità e suoi rimedi by Carlo Ruini, Published in Venice, 1618.

Many more lovely lessons at Scientific Illustration.

As we sharpen our pencils, we might wish a feathery farewell to zoologist Alfred Newton; he died on this date in 1907.  One of the foremost ornithologists of his day, he was appointed (in 1866) the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University. Though he suffered from injured hip joints and walked with the aid of two sticks, he traveled throughout Lapland, Iceland, the West Indies, and North America 1854-63.  During these expeditions he became particularly interested in the great auk– and was instrumental in having the first Acts of Parliament passed for the protection of birds.  He wrote extensively, including a four-volume Dictionary of Birds, and the articles on Ornithology in several 19th century editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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