Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar eclipse

(photo of 2007 lunar eclipse in Australia from Peter Campbell via Wikipedia)

There's a total lunar eclipse tonight! The awesome folks from the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers are going to be hanging out at the Randall Museum tonight to watch the event and chat about all things lunar.

From their website:

Partial eclipse begins at sundown - telescopes available to public.
Total eclipse begins at 7:00 pm
Total eclipse ends at 7:51 pm
Public lecture on "Moonology" at 8:00 pm
Partial eclipse ends at 9:09 pm

Bad weather cancels the viewing, but the lecture (inside) will go on regardless of conditions outside.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Starlings in Winter

(Sturnus vulgaris photo from Wikimedia commons)

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver

(That's all for me today.)

Friday, February 8, 2008


So, we've had some ants in our house lately. I find ants fascinating little creatures, but I'm not so jazzed about them showing up in my kitchen. In an attempt to make lemonade out of these little lemons on my counter, I've been doing some reading about ants in the bay area.

A few years ago, the California Academy of Sciences started the Bay Area Ant Survey to try to figure out the diversity of ants in the San Francisco bay area. They enlisted the public, asking folks to collect ants and send them in to be identified. If you go to their website, you can look up your part of the bay and see what's there. So far, the project has identified more than 100 ant species. Wow!

The ants in my kitchen are most likely Argentine ants (Linepithema humile). These ants are native to northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, and have probably been introduced to the United States multiple times. These ants come inside when it's hot looking for water and when it's wet to get out of the rain. Argentine ants live in colonies, like honeybees and termites, with non-reproductive female workers serving reproductive queens. Unlike honeybees, Argentine ant colonies have multiple queens at the same time (which also makes the colonies hard to get rid of once they've moved in).

There is an ongoing debate among ant researchers about the existence on Argentine ant supercolonies. In 2000, the Tsutsui lab at University of California-San Diego published a paper suggesting that California Argentine ants are less genetically diverse than populations in their native Argentina, and used this evidence to explain the lack of aggression between California populations. The Gordon lab at Stanford has refuted the supercolony idea, suggesting that there are indeed breaks in this colony and that these breaks are evident in the genes of different populations if you look at the right genes. As an aside, I saw Deborah Gordon speak at an Ask the Scientist event a few years ago and she was fantastic. She's a super-engaging speaker who's honestly thrilled by her organism and wants to teach other people about it. If you get a chance to hear her talk I'd highly recommend going.

Gordon Lab at Stanford
Tsutsui Lab at Berkeley