Archive for March, 2007

condor_crag.jpgMy completely anonymous housemate was out climbing at Pinnacles National Monument a few weeks ago. The place is an intriguing jumble of rock pillars southeast of Monterey, California. But with pictures like this one, where giant vultures dangle their scruffy necks above approaching rock climbers, it might just as well be the Karakoram.

But these are California condors, reintroduced to Pinnacles just two years ago as the 20-year-old captive breeding program continues to expand its horizons (the public can attend another condor release here April 21st).

In the mid-80s, scientists captured the entire world’s population – all 22 of ’em – and started a last-ditch breeding effort. Surviving against all odds, the grizzled adults and their hand-puppet-raised offspring grew to nearly three hundred in number, and 138 now fly over the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Pinnacles, and Baja California – wild once more, give or take the occasional large-mammal carcass and annual lead checkups biologists provide. Next time you find a California quarter in your pocket, look for the condor on the tails side, soaring over Half Dome.

Our alert climber/photographer zoomed in on the top-left bird (above), snapping this closeup. Against the white underwings you can see the bird’s patagial ID marker, which also carries an antenna for radio-tracking.

condor_wingspread.jpgThese birds are immense. The partial wingspan you see here is casting enough shade to keep most of us cool during a nap – add what’s out of view and we’re talking nine feet. Bigger than your front door.

I like this last picture – a bird soaring against a hillside – for its sense of massiveness and the way you can feel the wind shearing through the upturned primary (wingtip) feathers. We’re talking about 20 pounds of bird cruising through the sky with all deliberate speed. The pic is a little grainy, but let’s cut the photographer some slack: he was dangling from a belay, camera in hand, a hundred feet up. And the condors were getting closer.


(all photos: the completely anonymous housemate)

(more Pinnacles condors here, on the Condor Cam)

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The cuttlefish is sort of a fashion disaster combining a master of disguise and a used car salesman. It’s stripey; it’s spotty; it’s monotone. It can shuffle patterns, blink them off and on, make them go all swirly, or hide them completely. It’s equally good at vanishing into the coral shrubberies or popping out in scintillating technicolor when a prospective mate jets past. (Got 30 seconds? Here’s YouTube evidence for swirliness; camouflage)

You could be forgiven for assuming that all this neon tomfoolery would be useless after nightfall. But Roger Hanlon, of the Marine Biological Laboratory, and colleagues make a compelling case that cuttlefish pay attention to their appearance even in the dark. They cease broadcasting to the opposite sex when they curl up for the night, but they take care to adopt a camouflaged skin pattern.

In what has to be a cool entry on their resumes, researchers followed cuttlefish using an 18-inch remote-controlled sub outfitted to record video in near darkness. The squidlike creatures paid attention to the background, altering their skin tone to blend in with nearby rocks, algae, or coral – or adopting a disruptive pattern to break up their outline. The behavior implies keen night vision in both cuttlefish and their predators, the authors note in American Naturalist; otherwise you’d expect to see less variability in their choice of sleepwear.

Most owls stay awake all night, so they tend to size each other up by sound, not sight, according to research in the same journal. Researchers Loic Hardouin, David Reby, and colleagues found that male scops owls can judge how big a rival is by how deep a hoot it can manage.

When the researchers digitally altered the pitch of recorded hoots, they found that males were more keen to swoop in and rough up shriller-sounding hooters (i.e., punier owls) than the same call pitched a little lower. Even better – when researchers lowered the pitches of the calls they played, they noticed that nearby owls tried to deepen their own voices, giving the impression they were burlier than they really were. Sort of the midnight version of puffing out your chest.

(thanks to the Nuthatch for the tip)

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The ocean-advocacy group Shifting Baselines aims to jazz up conservation by enlisting Hollywood, and their new crop of video shorts looks promising.

The only serious one is also the best of the lot. It starts with voiceover from Pat O’Connell, the eternally stoked young ripper in Endless Summer II (see above and below, left).

pat-o_wingnut.jpgHe does a pretty good job of not sounding like he’s reading (“I woke up this morning bummed out…”) and he nails the phenomenon the group founded itself to confront: the way we gradually become satisfied with environmental conditions that would have horrified our predecessors.

Marine biologist/filmmaker Randy Olson takes over and offers some vivid examples, many drawn from SoCal water-quality problems, which are deeply gnarly. In San Diego, if you want to surf for your high school, you have to get an annual hepatitis A shot. One city bragged about its water quality, saying 90 percent of its beaches were clean enough for swimming last summer. (Is there some reason why that target shouldn’t be 100 percent?)

Other PSAs include Jack Black conducting a symphony of dissonance and a pretty funny bit with one of the Reno 911 guys.There’s a short documentary where inner-city black San Diegans demonstrate that ocean issues really don’t register on their political agenda. (The site notes that you could get similar levels of cluelessness nearly anywhere outside of a marine science department.) Once again, in a field currently directed at old, educated white males, science and conservation needs to break some new ground.

The Groundlings comedy troupe seem to have found one approach, working a gratuitous Cher joke into a funny skit about the catch of the day at an upscale restaurant. Check’em out.

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