An oddity from the Orton Museum! Freak of the Week #34

Freak of the Week #34
Freak of the Week #34

Well, here’s a weird one for you! This comes to us from Dale Gnidovec at the Orton Geological Museum at OSU. When he told me about this specimen, I thought “No, that can’t be real” but here it is! It’s not from Ohio, but is just too freaky not to use in this series! More than likely you have never seen one of these, but what does it look most like to you that is from Ohio!? The object is fairly small, only about an inch across. Thanks to Kellie Locke-Rogers for the photos.

Oblique view of object
Oblique view of object
Exterior view
Exterior view

Upcoming event: “Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse”

Photo by Michael Graziano
Photo by Michael Graziano

Here’s an upcoming not-to-be-missed event! The Environmental Professionals Network, part of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State, presents: “Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse – Saving America’s Salamanders”. This program will be part of their monthly breakfast series, billed as “An EPN Buffet Breakfast, Networking and Presentation Event”.

It will be held Thursday, April 9, 2015 – 7:15am – 9:20am at the Agricultural Administration Auditorium 2120 Fyffe Rd. Columbus, OH 43210.
Agenda:
7:15 – Doors open; coffee, tea, juice; networking
7:40 – Warm buffet breakfast
8:10 – Presentation and Q & A discussion
9:20 – Adjourn and networking

Presenters:
Joseph Mendelson, PhD, Director of Research, Zoo Atlanta
Joe Greathouse, Director of Conservation Science, the Wilds

Moderator:
Barbara Wolfe, PhD, DVM, Chief Science Officer, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Wilds; Clinical Associate Professor, OSU Veterinary Preventive Medicine and SENR

A warm breakfast, an important topic, and nationally-known speakers…and all for only $10! For more information and to register, click here. Note that the deadline to register is Tues. April 7 at noon.

Keep St. Patrick’s Day Green

Happy Feast of Saint Patrick! Are you looking for a way to celebrate Ireland’s foremost patron saint AND benefit climate change awareness?

The Sierra Club Ohio Chapter and the National Wildlife Federation are joining forces at Brothers Drake Meadery TONIGHT for a celebration of all things green and efforts to keep our world that way. There will free music, food, and fun activities to support climate action here in central Ohio, and, of course, Brothers Drake signature mead!

WHAT: Free concert, food, and celebration
WHEN: Tuesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, 6:00 PM – 9:30 PM
WHERE: Brothers Drake Meadery, 26 E 5th Ave, Columbus, OH 43201 [Map]

Don’t forget to invite your friends and RSVP!

 

Pileated People Magic

Here’s an interesting article that Bob Glotzhober wrote for the recent edition of “The Columbus Naturalist”, the newsletter of the Columbus Natural History Society. Enjoy!

Pileated Woodpeckers, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
Pileated Woodpeckers, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
Magic is all around us in the natural world. It takes many forms. Sometimes it requires hard work or even sophisticated scientific knowledge to grasp what is happening. Therefore, sometimes we fail to see the magic. At other times, we are just too distracted by modern life to pay attention and see the magic. Sometimes serendipitous magical situations jump out in front of us and practically assault us, forcing us to see them. One such event forced itself upon me and a group of third graders, quite a few years past. The normal hyperactive and short attention spans of typical third graders were momentarily erased, as I watched them in what might have been a group hypnotic trance. Only I too was caught in that same hypnotic trance.

I was leading a group of third graders along a nature trail near Vienna, Virginia. For a couple of weeks, I had observed a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers excavating a nesting hole in a large tulip poplar right on the edge of our trail. In the last few days, I had heard the high-pitched peeps or squeaks of hatchlings coming from inside the hole, which was at least 20 feet up in the tree. On this morning I stopped the group near the tree and pointed out the nesting hole. I explained to the kids what these crow-sized woodpeckers looked like and how shy they were. I suggested that if we could all be still and very quiet, we might catch a look at one of the adults coming to the nest or at least hear the peeping of chicks, which I assumed were still in the nest hole.

The kids were really good as we stood there for a few minutes quietly waiting to see or hear something. Patience was beginning to wear thin when a small movement off to our side caught my attention. There partway up the side of a huge oak tree, not ten yards away, was the adult male. He was propped up almost motionless on the side of the oak tree perhaps fifteen feet off the ground. He sat there clinging to the bark as if on display only for us! What a magnificent bird with its nearly black wing and tail feathers contrasting with the white streaks on its head and neck, topped with a bright red pointed crest. The small red “moustache” streaking out from the rear edge of the beak declared to us this was a male. I pointed out to the group its large beak, and explained how the bird can prop its stiff, pointed tail feathers against the trunk, giving it a strong tripod from which to strike powerful blows against the wood to chisel out holes in search of carpenter ants or other insects to eat. I also explained how woodpeckers’ tongues curl around the top of their head and can stretch out longer than the beak. The birds use their long tongue to follow ant tunnels in the wood and snag dinner with the sticky, barbed tip. We sat spellbound for nearly five minutes watching this huge, normally shy bird.

Then the Pileated male took a couple of short hops on the trunk, and we noticed something we had not yet seen. There was a huge black rat snake, probably about five-foot long, that had climbed up the tree and had been temporarily frozen into a motionless position just below the woodpecker. Woodpecker and snake seemed to be at a standoff. Black rat snakes are good tree climbers, and are known to eat eggs or the young of birds or even adult birds and squirrels, if it can surprise them in the tree tops. While the snake was in an oak more than ten yards from the woodpecker’s nest tree, this woodpecker apparently felt that was still too close of a threat to its nest and young.

Pileated Woodpecker, photo by Andrew Brownsword.
Pileated Woodpecker, photo by Andrew Brownsword.
As we watched, the activity of the woodpecker and the snake slowly escalated. The Pileated took a couple of more hops, closer to the snake. Then the woodpecker struck at the tree trunk, perhaps something like an angry man pounding on a desk top. The snake was big enough to eat the woodpecker if it could find an opening to attack, and it moved its head more toward the bird. Suddenly the woodpecker acted first, flitting over onto the snake’s back and striking the snake’s body repeatedly with its inch-long chisel-like beak. The snake dropped from the tree as the woodpecker followed it down and hit it a couple of more times on the ground. At this, the snake sought escape, zooming in a straight line path just inches past some of the kids in the group. Snakes can travel in a number of different ways. Normally, we think of their curving serpentine movement, as that is what we most commonly see. This snake, however, zipped past us like a long, almost straight stick! I couldn’t calculate its speed, but it probably set an Olympic record for black rat snakes.

The snake was gone, disappeared into the underbrush. The woodpecker must have finally decided that with its nest hole now safe, it did not need to spend any more time around this group of twenty spectators. Especially since the spectators were no longer quiet! Reverting to its more typical shyness the woodpecker disappeared too.

The magic hypnotic spell was broken. Or was it? I still get a tingle every time I think of the event. It took place in 1976. Those third graders are now in their late forties. I doubt any of them remember me and probably not much of what I told them that day. But I’ll bet none of them have ever forgotten that magic moment!

By Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History

It’s slag! Answer to FoW #33

Slag from Hope Furnace, Vinton Co., Ohio.
Slag from Hope Furnace, Vinton Co., Ohio.

Several of you recognized this hard shiny material as slag. Though it can look like the mineral obsidian, slag is actually the by-product of the smelting process to obtain metal from raw ore. Metals such as iron, lead, copper and others are found in nature in their impure states, called ores. When the ore is heated at high temperatures in blast furnaces, the impurities (metal oxides and silicon dioxide) separate out from the molten metal and eventually cool into glass-like chunks of slag. Slag from the old iron furnaces of southeast Ohio often got scattered in the surrounding area and can still be found today. They are sometimes confused with obsidian or even meteorites.

Hope Furnace. Photo by Jaknouse.
Hope Furnace. Photo by Jaknouse.
Both of the pieces of slag in the upper photo were collected from the old Hope Furnace in Vinton Co., Ohio. Built in 1854, part of the original Hope Furnace still stands today. And not far from Hope Furnace in nearby Jackson Co. is Buckeye Furnace, an historic site of the Ohio History Connection. Here you can see the best example of a fully restored iron blast furnace, with an original stack. Also on-site is a reconstructed company store.

Many people don’t realize it, but southern Ohio was once one of the largest iron-producing regions in the nation. This area, known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region (HRIR), stretched from northern Kentucky up through Jackson, Vinton, and Hocking counties of Ohio. By the time of the Civil War, Ohio had established 69 iron blast furnaces and produced more than 100,000 tons of iron each year. The iron from Ohio was important for the manufacture of cannons and ammunition for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Close-up view of slag.
Close-up view of slag.
It’s hard to imagine that in the vicinity of these old furnaces, where today we see thick second-growth forests, the hillsides were almost completely stripped of their trees. The furnaces required massive amounts of lumber; for charcoal, which was added to the combination of ore and limestone (used as a flux) to produce the raw iron, and for the fires that often kept the furnaces working 24 hours a day. The furnaces employed hundreds of people, working the furnace, cutting the timber, and hauling ore and lumber to the furnaces with oxen and horses. But by 1900 almost all of the furnaces in Ohio had closed. Some of the land that was once completely stripped of trees and where the air was acrid with smoke is now beautiful second-growth forest of oak and hickory. The area around Hope Furnace is now made up of Lake Hope State Park and Zaleski State Forest, and there are two nature trails to enjoy in the forests around OHC’s Buckeye Furnace. Keep your eyes out for the glass-like pieces of slag on the forest floor, a reminder of Ohio’s prominence as an iron-producer in the 19th Century.

Meteorites!? Freak of the Week #33

Freak of the Week #33
Freak of the Week #33
Closer view of FoW #33
Closer view of FoW #33

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you came across these objects, what would you think!? They were found in southeast Ohio, are heavy, have a smooth texture, and sharp edges. The scale is 6 inches, so these are fairly large but they can be much smaller. Who would you call to get them identified? An archaeologist, geologist, or…? Put your best guess as to what they are in the Reply box below and we’ll give the answer in a few days.

Iron in the Teeth! More on FoW#32

Reddish-purple teeth of the Short-tailed Shrew.
Reddish-purple teeth of the Short-tailed Shrew.
Occlusal view of the skull. Photo by Phil Myers, Univ. of Michigan.
Occlusal view of the skull. Photo by Phil Myers, Univ. of Michigan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve already talked a bit about the weird world of shrews in the last Freak of the Week blog post, and noted how they eat approximately their entire body weight in food every single day. Shrews have such a high metabolism that they need to eat almost constantly. Most will starve to death if denied food for even half a day! The heart rate of one species, the Masked Shrew, has been recorded at 800 beats a minute, faster than that of the hummingbird.

Anyway, like most mammals shrews have two sets of teeth during their life, a deciduous set (often called “baby teeth”) which are replaced by a permanent set of teeth. However shrews, being the oddballs that they are, lose their deciduous teeth while still in utero and thus are born with a full set of permanent teeth! So not only are they voracious eaters but they only have one set of useable teeth for their entire eating life. If their teeth wear down to the point of being inefficient for chewing, they would then starve to death. So the shrews’ solution to this problem is make the teeth as strong as possible, and they do this by incorporating iron into the cusps of the teeth. This is seen in the dark reddish coloration on the teeth.

Mandible of the Short-tailed Shrew. Photo by Phil Myers.
Mandible of the Short-tailed Shrew. Photo by Phil Myers.
Surprisingly, studies have shown that the pigmented enamel on shrew’s teeth is not really harder than the non-pigmented enamel, but it is more wear-resistant. Also, the non-pigmented enamel will also wear down more quickly than the enamel with iron in it, thus sharp edges are created where the two meet. This is also seen in rodent incisors, where the pigmented enamel on the front of the incisors wears less quickly then the softer dentine behind it resulting in a sharp chisel-like tooth. Remember that one species of rodent, the beaver, can cut down trees with it’s incisors! The studies on shrews show that the iron density is the highest on the teeth, and parts of teeth, that are the most prone to fracture and excessive wear.

Reference: “Elemental analysis of Soricine enamel: pigmentation variation and distribution in molars of Blarina brevicauda. S.G. Strait & S. Smith, Jour. of Mammalogy, 87(4):700-705, 2006.

It’s a shrew! Answer to Freak of the Week #32

Reddish-purple teeth of the Short-tailed Shrew.
Reddish-purple teeth of the Short-tailed Shrew.

Several people knew that these stained teeth belonged to a shrew. This is one of those things in nature that once you’ve seen it, you never forget it! This is especially true for Rochelle. When we worked together in Montana she single-handedly cataloged thousands of shrew specimens. She’d probably like to forget shrews but probably never will!

Short-tailed Shrew. Photo by Jamie McCarthy.
Short-tailed Shrew. Photo by Jamie McCarthy.
White-footed Mouse. Photo by Phil Myers.
White-footed Mouse. Photo by Phil Myers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what is a shrew? Some people see this small mammal and assume it’s a rodent, but it’s actually quite different. Shrews are in the mammal Order Soricomorpha, formerly part of the old Order Insectivora, but are still commonly known as “insectivores”. Their diet does indeed include a lot of insects, but they also eat worms, snails, seeds, fungi and even other small vertebrates. They have a voracious appetite and will eat close to their own body weight in food every day. I’ve talked to researchers who have live-trapped shrews but find that the one surviving shrew in the trap has consumed the other individuals! Compare our common Short-tailed Shrew to the beautiful native mouse, the White-footed Mouse (photos). Mice are in the mammal Order Rodentia.

The Short-tailed Shrew is unusual, even in the freaky world of shrews, because it is one of the few mammals that is venomous! It’s salivary glands produce a toxin which the shrew uses to help subdue prey species such as worms and small vertebrates! The toxin can kill small animals and can deliver a painful bite to humans who try to handle the animal. The toxin flows along a groove formed by the lower incisors and is injected into the prey when bitten.

Why is a venomous mammal even more interesting today!? Because tomorrow is the annual Open House at the Museum of Biological Diversity at OSU, and the theme this year is “Venoms, poisons, and the organisms that make them!” Click here to see my blog post about the Open House.

Why do some shrews have stained looking teeth? Tune in early next week for the answer! See you at the Open House tomorrow!

Which is more popular, sports or museums!?

Even bears like museums! A black bear checks visiting hours at the Ohio History Center.
Even bears like museums! A black bear checks visiting hours at the Ohio History Center.
That seems like a silly question doesn’t it!? In the aftermath of the Super Bowl which was watched by 114.4 million people in the United States and the overall of popularity of sports in America, it’s pretty obvious that sports are way more popular than museums. But not so fast, let’s look at the statistics! If we count the attendance for ALL major league sporting events AND throw in attendance at theme parks for one year we get a figure of 483 million (in 2011). In comparison, there are about 850 million visits each year to American museums! This is almost twice as many visits to museums as to sporting events, and is more than 2.5 visits to museums by every single person in the United States! This shows the enormous popularity of museums to the American public.

Here’s a few other interesting stats regarding the impact of museums, from the American Alliance of Museums:
•Museums employ more than 400,000 Americans.
•Museums directly contribute $21 billion to the U.S. economy each year. They generate billions more through indirect spending by their visitors.
•78% of all U.S. leisure travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities. These travelers—including visitors to museums—spend 63% more on average than other leisure travelers.
•Museums serve every community; about 17% of museums are located in rural areas with fewer than 20,000 residents. Other museums reach these communities with traveling vans, portable exhibits and robust online resources.
•Only a small (and shrinking) percentage of America’s museums receive federal funding of any kind.

So continue to enjoy, learn from, and support our museums!

Who has purple teeth, and why!? Freak of the Week #32

Reddish-purple teeth - Freak of the Week #32
Reddish-purple teeth – Freak of the Week #32
The other day Erin Cashion and I were looking at the skull of this small critter and Erin said “You know, this would make a good Freak of the Week”. So here it is! The photo below shows the toothrows of the skull. The scale in this photo is in millimeters, and thus the total length of the skull of this species is less than one inch. This is not some exotic animal from far away but it lives right here in Ohio! So what animal is this and why does it have stained teeth!? Put your best answer in the Reply box below.
Occlusal view of the skull. Photo by Phil Myers, Univ. of Michigan.
Occlusal view of the skull. Photo by Phil Myers, Univ. of Michigan.