Alaska, animals

Denali National Park

chart showing reports of animals sensing earthquakes
animals, science

Nonsystematic and Collected from Many Sources

I love this chart, from a 1981 review paper on whether animals can anticipate earthquakes.

It plots instances of odd behavior, for a multitude of species, based on time before a quake and distance from the epicenter. To me, it’s like a data-based graphic equivalent to herding cats. The caption:

Fig. 1. Distribution of animal behavior incidents according to the distance from the epicenter and the time before the main shock of 36 different earthquakes in Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Symbols indicate reports on the following animals: catfish, eels, other fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, sea birds, chickens, other birds, dogs, cats, deer, horses, cows, rats, and mice. Data are nonsystematic and collected from many sources. [Kilian, 1964; von Hentig, 1923; Simon, 1975; Lee et al, 1976; Academia Sinica, 1977a, b; Shaw, 1977; Rikitake, 1978a, b; Tributsch, 1978]

A little while back, I wrote about research into whether animals can somehow predict earthquakes. It’s a great subject!

For years people have wrestled with the question of whether a link can be found, whether animals can somehow act as a warning system that will tell us to seek shelter before an earthquake. But one of the challenges, whether in terms of first identifying the behavior or of later monitoring your warning-animal, is consistency and knowing that you’ve made a robust observation. And one phrase in that caption pretty much nails the problem for drawing broader conclusions: “data are nonsystematic and collected from many sources”.

Which leads us to ask, what would be systematic data? Hard to say. As I wrote in that Beast article, most of us can’t sit around staring at Rover, taking careful notes, just in case an earthquake strikes. And yet that might be what it takes. As one researcher wrote more than 30 years ago:

Should we find that our animals indeed do sense impending earthquakes so much the better. If we do not, however, there is danger of extrapolating our results to the statement that no animal anticipates seismic events and that further studies are not warranted. I don’t know how to deal with this paradox except to urge the USGS to lobby for sufficient funds to allow installation of a greater diversity of species in seismically active areas. An important part of the lobby would be a plea for patience and understanding of the gamble and costs incurred as one simply maintains the experiments and waits for an earthquake to happen.

That was written by a UCLA biologist who’d spent a couple years observing pocket mice and kangaroo rats near Palm Springs. The rodents seemed to run on their wheels and dart through passages more often just before earthquakes.


Seeing leaf-cutter ants in the wild is the sort of thing that makes you want to spend all day crawling on the ground following them around. These are charismatic microfauna

Here, a few seconds of footage I took while playing around with a GoPro near Jaco, Costa Rica, last December.

They don’t eat the leaves, petals, and other bits of foliage they bring back to the colony, but use them to cultivate gardens of fungus that act as a food source. 

After stumbling across a circle of white-rumped shama enthusiasts while writing an earlier piece, one of my favorite reads from their ranks is Alan Pang’s post explaining why he lost interest in traditional shama competitions. The standard Singaporean competition, he writes, last as much as two hours:

Personally, i only enjoy active, swift n nice display and long melodies song type of shama. I prefer them to go around the cage flicking and flashing their tails plus some wings display at the same time. Not the stand singing type. What i meant by stand singer is flick tail once or twice sing two three notes and stay in one position all the time. This is no fun to watch for many of us but don’t forget this are the the birds that is able to last for hours! Haha…! So for those birds that showed us wonderful display, swift cage play, stretching all muscle to give us the best posture and bursting at the top of their voice with beautiful songs would be drain out by then. Then how? How about the next one hour? Frankly, i do not think Shama is by nature create to show that kind of aggression in the wild for such prolonged hours. Did we extend the competition time for human satisfaction? Haha…

Sing it, brother.

And in the video above, you can see one of Mr Pang’s shamas “singing like crazy till sorethroat,” which has accumulated a whopping 276,133 views on YouTube.


Pursuit of the White-Rumped Shama

Here’s a little recording I made in Kauai in April 2012:

I later learned it was a white-rumped shama. The shama is popular for its song—we heard this bird well before we saw it—and inspires a quite devoted following in some quarters.

Copsychus malabaricus is a type of thrush native to south and southeast Asia. It was first introduced to Kauai by Alexander Isenberg in 1931 (presumably this is the son of beloved sugar baron Paul Isenberg). The particular subspecies on the islands is C.m. indicus, found from east India and Nepal to northwest Burma.

In Asia, there are whole groups devoted to the bird. Singapore, especially, has an active set of shama enthusiasts raising them, sometimes catching them in the wild, and entering birdsong competitions with them.

To see what a shama looks like, the photo below (posted on Flickr by Chris Thomas), gives a better view of one of these birds than the less-than-stellar iPhone snap I filed with that audio clip.

bird on the trail


My Leap Day Sound

The sound designer Tim Prebble has a nice post from his recent recording trip to Papua New Guinea. If you’re having as busy a day as I have had, his field recordings, of buzzing insects, rainfall, birds, provide a nice, dreamlike, and all too brief break from the madness. So this is what I’m listening to today.

Here, the birdsound:

photo of horse and hill
animals, music, photography, really?

Lonely Horse

Remember that song from the ’80s by Yes? “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” When I heard that as a kid, I misheard the lyrics. I was convinced they were singing about the “owner of the lonely horse.” (I also thought Starship “milked this city.” I was wrong.) It was not until I was nearly out of high school, while standing in a grocery store in Fairbanks, Alaska, that I realized this was not, in fact, the case.

For years I felt bad about that horse.

[Photo above taken outside of Olema. Point Reyes, CA. October 2005.]

animals, anticipation, food

The Mendocino County Crab

Some time back in the summer of 2008, I joined my friend Mark Sung for a short trip to the Mendocino coast. We meant to go camping, but the tent spots were full and we ended up fishing until about 4 a.m., anyway. Actually, we weren’t fishing for fish, but crabbing for crab.

Mendocino’s a pretty spot. Here, for example, are some nicely situated homes.
mendocino houses

But there isn’t any shortage of pretty spots north of San Francisco. Less than a quarter mile from those houses, we ran into the Pacific Ocean.

mendocino coast

Those are brown pelicans flying past. They plunge bill-first into the water at 40 miles an hour.

Mark is a great cook, and like some cooks, he’s happy to procure the ingredients himself. The fisherman’s lament (one lament, anyway), is that he never gets out as much as he wants. And the same goes for crabbing.

Mark used a regular fishing rod, and he lent me an extra one. He tied wire cages to the lines, and we crammed pieces of half-frozen squid into the cages, which we secured with thick rubber bands. Along the perimeter of each cage were about a half dozen loops of blue line. With a quick flick of the fishing rod and some luck, the loops close around a crab claw or leg as it pulls the squid from the wire cage. Then reel in.

Mark caught two crabs worth keeping. I caught one. Here’s one of them, which Mark cooked later that morning in its shell with nothing but boiling water and served unadorned. Good eating.


animals, science

Cats: Genetically Robust, Geographically Interesting, Occasionally Mislabeled

mosaic.jpgThe Post is running an article in the A section about divining the origins of the domestic cat.

They come from the Fertile Crescent, their domestication coincides with the rise of agriculture, and they can be divided into four geo-genetic groups: Europe, Mediterranean, East Africa, Asia. (Why not West Africa? How did they get specific on that, especially in comparison to Asia?) The Persian is apparently not Persian; the Japanese bobtail probably isn’t Japanese. Also, cat breeds aren’t so terribly inbred as certain dog breeds.

In India last January, I saw plenty of dogs, but no cats (or none that I recall). Some rats, which makes me wonder what happened to the cat rung in the animal hierarchy. In China, a few cats, mostly pets. Here in San Francisco, I rarely see cats on the street, though the SPCA is overflowing with them.

I don’t come from cat people, but my girlfriend is one, so I live with a cat (pictured here). My girlfriend’s expert guess is that Mosaic is some blend of calico and tortoiseshell. Which seems reasonable enough. We got her at the SPCA, origins unknown.

Alaska, animals, anticipation, environment, food, geography, life

Spotted: Whale Hunting

The Whale Hunt is worth a look. It’s a high-production slideshow (come on, that’s what it is) created by Jonathan Harris, who is a mere 10 days younger than me. He spent a week on the northern shore of Alaska, photographing a group of natives. Some of the photos are really great, others are just pictures–the conceit was that he took a photo ever five minutes. The whole thing is an impressive construction.