Sunday, July 31, 2011

End of the Month Science Music Video: The Flaming Lips (Race for the prize)

This month's End of the Month Science Music video is Race for the Prize, by The Flaming Lips, about two scientists racing, for the good of all mankind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A modest proposal for DC's official crustacean

Rock Creek, Washington DC. Photo by M Vinces.

The other day I was in the National Zoo in Washington DC and  I walked into the Small Mammal House since it was an especially sleepy day at the zoo and most of the critters were resting and hiding away and I was in the mood for furry cuteness.  The Small Mammal House seemed like a good bet.  I wasn't disappointed.  I saw quite a few sengis, aka "elephant shrews" (a misnomer, since they are not true shrews, but interestingly are actually more closely related to elephants and manatees than to true shrews).  They were weird and adorable which is just what I wanted.

On one of the notes outside the glass enclosure containing some rare golden lion tamarins was a box describing the importance of habitat protection for saving threatened species, in which they used as an example, the importance of closing certain trails in the nearby Rock Creek Park, because these areas are the sole habitat of an endangered "shrimp-like species".  Intrigued by the notion that this urban park was the unique habitat of a rare species that existed no where else on the planet, I looked around the Small Mammal House for more information about this mysterious "shrimp-like creature".  I didn't find any, so I got on the Google and found out the little rascal is called Hay's Spring Amphipod and it lives no where else but for a few springs in in the zoo and in the adjacent Rock Creek Park.  Surely the Invertebrates Exhibit will have a special section on this species that exists no where else in the Universe but for a few creeks in the District of Columbia (and possibly Maryland)! But no. Lots of cool animals with no backbones: giant land crab, charismatic cuttlefish, ephemeral jellyfish, but no mention of DC's own very special and endangered crustacean. How could this be? Why isn't this little critter on the State District emblem?

Not Hay's Spring Amphipod, but a close relative (Pizzini's Amphipod, Stygobromus pizzini). Photo by Brent Steury, National Park Service.

Perhaps because it is a lowly, pale and blind amphipod that lives in mud and water?  Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing may have said it best when he wrote in 1899 of the lowly amphipods:
No panegyrist of the Amphipoda has yet been able to evoke anything like popular enthusiasm in their favour. To the generality of observers they are only not repelled because the glance which falls upon them is unarrested, ignores them, is unconscious of their presence.
And indeed, Hay's Spring Amphipod (Stygobromus hayi) spends its life in groundwater near natural springs, so it's not likely something we'd see during a walk in the park.  It's also not furry or doe-eyed.  In fact it's pale and blind, feeds on rotting organic matter and is less than an inch long.  But with a little bit of marketing, perhaps we could make this the DC mascot! An underdog creature for an underdog State Federal Disctrict!  A tiny survivor holding its own in the middle of a tough city.

But more seriously, I think the little amphipod would be an excellent reminder of how we humans have endangered life of all kinds, great and small, and that endangered species are everywhere, not just in exotic far-off places, but sometimes in our own backyards.
Some of my own ideas for the DC official crustacean mascot.