Category Archives: Natural History

20 Amazing True Facts About Introverts and Extroverts

Extroverts must swim constantly: if they stop, they will suffocate.

Introverts never have to drink water. They can get all the water they need from reading books.

According to the principles of aerodynamics, extroverts should be incapable of flight. However, no one ever told  extroverts this. Well actually they tried, but the extroverts didn’t listen.

What is commonly referred to as the introvert’s “second brain” is actually a walnut-sized cluster of neurons at the base of the spine. It exchanges information with the introvert’s true brain, but the neural impulses travel slowly. If you step on an introvert’s tail, it can take as long as half an hour before the introvert complains on Tumblr.

A group of extroverts is called a “parliament.”

No two introverts have the same markings.

Despite their reputation, extroverts will generally only bite if provoked.

As their teeth never stop growing, introverts must gnaw constantly to wear their dentition down to a functional length.

There are about 25 million extroverts for each introvert. Or at least it seems like it.

Introverts don’t really change color in order to blend in with the background. Their color changes actually relate more to their moods and their activities, as when fighting, fleeing, or attempting to mate.  

Despite the urban legend, eating uncooked rice does not cause an extrovert’s stomach to explode. 

Slowly closing your eyes and then opening them again means “I love you” in Introvert.

An extrovert’s quack does not echo.

Introvert hair is made of keratin, the same proteinaceous material that makes up your horn if you’re a rhino.

Extroverts can keep talking for as long as two hours after their heads are chopped off.

The common introvert can see in near-complete darkness if he or she can find the light switch.

An extrovert placed into a pot of boiling water will jump out immediately. However, if you place an extrovert in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the temperature until the water reaches the boiling point, he or she will just keep texting.

Reclusicanthropus giganticus, the largest known fossil introvert, had a couch 22 feet long.

Extroverts are native to all continents except Antarctica, but they’re starting to show up there too.

Introverts can slam their heads into solid wood at rates up to 20 times per second, but are protected from impact trauma by a sponge-filled, shock-absorbing sinus cavity… no wait, that’s woodpeckers. 

The coast redwood is endangered

Redwood forest in Oakland

tiny squeeworthy baby redwoods

You didn’t misread that title. In a groundbreaking reassessment of the world’s conifer species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, as Endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species. The redwood’s condition has thus been down-graded from its previous prognosis, “vulnerable,” which it was assigned in 2006.

That’s not the only bad news for California conifers in the IUCN’s conifer assessment. I wrote over at KCET today about another species that was added to the Endangered Species section of the Red List, the whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis. Also joining the list were the giant sequoia or big tree, Sequioadendron giganteum, similarly moved from “vulnerable” status, and the Monterey pine, Pinus radiata.

None of those other three were a huge surprise. Whitebark pines grow above 7,000 feet in an era of global warming. Big trees grow in a few scattered relict groves in the Sierra Nevada, and there aren’t enough young trees growing to replace the ancients as they slowly die off. Monterey pines may be the single most planted pine tree in the world, displacing native trees on tree farms in the Antipodes, but in its native range — a sliver of the California coast, and a couple islands off the Pacific coast of Baja California — the species is declining.

But redwoods? There are tens of millions of redwood trees in the world. Cut one down and a dozen new trees grow back from its stump like the hydra. In Oakland, the story famously goes, there were a pair of redwood trees in the hills so tall that mariners used them to align their ships 15 miles west to avoid the rocks in the Golden Gate. Sometime between 1850 and 1855 the Navigation Trees were cut down, and every other old-growth redwood tree in Oakland but one followed them in the next decades. (That one, in a steep canyon near Redwood Road, was too inaccessible for  loggers and still exists. It’s 500 years old and 26 feet wide at breast height.)

American settlers cut down the trees illegally in the 19th Century to build houses. Stump sprouts grew back, got to remarkable size in 30 or 40 years, and then were cut to rebuild cities after the 1906 quake and fire. We decided to protect them in 1934, and now the stump sprouts that grew after the second bout of logging are 150 feet tall or so. In Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, which now covers the site of much of that original forest, you can find good-sized trees growng in rings 25 feet in diameter. They are ghost assemblages of the massive tree from whose stump they sprouted.

Zeke and I used to walk among those ghosts, sit and nap among them.

Zeke is blurry

Zeke is blurry in the dappled redwood shade, with western sword fern

They were redwoods in training at best.

Entomologists have a term, imago, that technically means the last stage of the process of metamorphosis. The egg hatches into a caterpillar, the caterpillar pupates, the sexually mature adult — the imago — emerges from the pupa. Imago is, of course, Latin for “image.” The implication is that the final form into which the insect morphs is the proper image of the organism, that life stage that most fully represents what the organism really is.

The century-old redwoods in Oakland are already huge. Left to their own devices, they could reach a thousand years of age,  or two if they’re moderately lucky. Left to their own devices, they would spend at least 70 or 80 percent of their lives as old-growth redwoods. The scrawny saplings with trunks just two feet thick are but going through a phase. The redwoods you can still get your arms around are squee-worthy youngsters. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is 26 feet across at breast height. It has side-branches as thick as oak trees a hundred twenty feet up. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is so big it holds whole forests aloft on those branches, Sitka spruce and huckleberries that germinate in the moss and lichen, habitat for the marbled murrelets who lay their eggs in the moss atop those branches without fear they’ll ever roll off.

Three hundred years ago there were 2.1 million acres of that kind of redwood, the real redwood, the imago of the redwood, growing between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Chetco River. We used to say that five percent of it remained, but that was in the 1990s and there was an orgy of junk bond financed liquidation logging going on at the time. A quarter of the remaining old growth redwoods are unprotected: they could be cut at any time.

And yes, the sprouts grow back, and within a century they will start to have limbs big enough for salamanders and spotted owls to perch on, and they will start to call the rains out of passing fogs as their elders did before them. And then we will cut them down again. Logging once a century seems fair. It seems sustainable. The century-old redwoods get bigger than we are, and we are the only frame of reference that matters.

A fungus blight struck the American chestnut a century ago, and there are no more adult chestnuts in the forests of the East. Every now and then one will stump sprout, grow a spindly sapling a few feet high that puts out a few reluctant leaves, and that sapling does its best to become a tree for a couple of years. And then the fungus gets it, inexorably.

No one challenges the notion that the American chestnut is extinct, at least in an ecological sense.  Somewhere on the spectrum between 10 months and a hundred years, and somewhere on the spectrum between the fungus and the chainsaw, is the point at which our frame of reference betrays us.

Foresters will come and cut the sapling redwoods down as sure as fungus. They interplant Douglas fir among the redwoods, weakening the redwood stands. They try to suppress fires in the woods, saving those out-of-place Doug firs at the expense of the fire-tolerant redwoods. One by one the ancient redwoods in the private groves, the parks and the BLM snctuaries, will succumb. And like their cousins the Sierran big trees, there will be fewer and fewer worthy young saplings only 300 years old to replace them.

It is a stealth endangerment, to be sure, with all these young ephemeral redwoods a mere century old to mask it. But the coast redwood — the real coast redwood — is endangered, and its prognosis is getting worse, and it took the IUCN, a body relatively insulated from the politics of American resource extraction, to say so.

Deadman Creek

[Thinking of this piece because of something I wrote that will show up soon at KCET. I wrote this about 20 years ago about a day that happened before even that. It first appeared in Terrain, the now-defunct publication of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, in a Sierra Nevada theme issue. I’ve edited it lightly from its original form as I’ve learned a few things about words in the interim.]

It’s the Third of July, and we’re enjoying the traditional Third of July picnic. The campground, “improved” by the Forest Service so you can back your 34-foot RV right into your wilderness campsite, is surprisingly uncrowded. Maybe it’s the mile of washboard between here and 395, easy to drive but with a chilling effect on the pilots of $90,000 campers like those lined up outside Mammoth Lakes. Or maybe it’s the name of the campground, commemorating some forgotten 19th-Century miner double-crossed by his business partner. Whatever the reason this place is nearly abandoned, we’re glad to have it mostly to ourselves. We’re not looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Zeke, tied with my bearbag rope to one of the abundant Jeffrey pines, loudly regrets that he’s just out of reach of the barbecue. Becky tosses him a piece of watermelon rind, which he devours with gusto. Every few minutes he spies a chipmunk testing the borders of our territory and he forgets the rope is there, lunging for the critter. He reaches the end of the rope, and a loud twang like the E string on Paul Bunyan’s pedal steel fills the quiet air as he flips backward. He doesn’t seem to mind much, and is on his feet and wagging his tail before the dust settles. Matthew tosses yet another piece of melon. A fragment breaks off in midair, landing a few feet out of the dog’s reach. A chipmunk spies it and grabs her windfall snack. Twang.

Though it’s a beautiful day, and we’re nearly alone here, I’m not in the best of moods. Tomorrow Matthew and I leave for a week of backpacking along the John Muir Trail. Perverse beast that I am, I dwell not on the wonders in store for us along the route, but rather on how much I’ll miss Becky while we’re gone. I’ll be out of touch for a week, there are very few phones in the high country, and anything could happen while I’m gone. What if a meteor hits Oakland? Matthew is amused but tolerant of my sentimental foolishness, and quietly makes himself scarce as Becky unties Zeke and we stroll up the pumice slope into the forest.

This is the largest Jeffrey pine forest in the world, stretching from near the Nevada line to just below the crest of the Sierra, from Long Valley to the shores of Mono Lake. It lies leeward of one of the lowest parts of the Sierra crest, the environs of Mammoth Mountain. While the tall peaks elsewhere in the Sierra catch most of the moisture blowing off the Pacific, here wet winds are funneled through the range to dampen the excellently-drained pumice soils. Though the humidity is similar to that of the west slope, the temperatures resemble that of Bishop or Reno. The result is an ideal nursery for Jeffrey pine. It’s no accident that the largest ski resort in the Eastern Sierra is nearby. The moisture that quenches Jeffrey’s thirst falls partly as fat white flakes. Mammoth gets more snow than most other places on the East Side. It is this convergence of soil and weather that makes the forest possible, here in the rainshadow of the Sierra.

Place a huge, healthy old-growth forest in a region of plains and low hills with mining and ranching nearby, and you find some of the trees will disappear, made into fenceposts, houses, flumes, and charcoal for smelters. Run a railroad and then an all-weather highway through the woods, and the timber companies show up to send the trees to exotic locales like Los Angeles. The forest here has been logged and logged again, enough that it’s likely the collapse of the old-growth ecosystem here cannot be prevented. It may have already collapsed, for all we know; ecological axioms that hold true in forests of the Pacific Slope may not hold for East Side forests. Where the ecology of the Redwood Forest is abundantly researched, from marbled murrelet above to mycorrhizae below, most of what we know about the East Side is how to grow a nice straight Jeffrey Pine. We know what birds you can find here, but we don’t know whether they depend on being here.

Unfortunately for this forest Timber Harvest Plans make no provision for untested ecological hypotheses. The burden of proof is on the forest dwellers; if they can’t prove sufficient harm, they get evicted. And so the logging continues to this day, carving the heart out of this queen of the Jeffrey Pine forests.

The trees here, though, are as yet unmolested, and they give welcome shade as we follow Deadman Creek, a fork of the Owens River, upstream. The banks are lined with wild rose and an incongruous hedge of Artemisia tridentata, Big Basin sagebrush, which I’ve never before seen near fresh water. The creek is narrow — Zeke can easily put two feet on either side — but the water is filled with 8-inch rainbow trout. We’re without tackle, so my thoughts of fish steamed in bitter Artemisia go unrealized. The fish are hatchery stock, planted in season by the Department of Fish and Game. The DF&G truck plops thousands of fish into the creek here each year. Being hatchery trout, they’re much stupider than wild trout, and all of them tend to stay pretty much where they’re planted. Of course, even stupid trout are smart compared to fish in general; while catching these guys may be, literally, a picnic, it isn’t exactly easy.

There is some evidence of tree-cutting here, though it may be due only to the efforts of campfire-builders. Becky runs to a four-foot-wide Jeff pine, sticking her nose between the plates of bark, and savors the vanilla smell of the tree’s resins: her favorite East Side pastime. Zeke finds a baseball-bat sized branch and worries it, tossing it in the air, raising a big cloud of pumice dust. His coyote-colored fur makes him look like he belongs here. I lean against a downed tree and gaze toward the crest, at the line where the grey-green of Jeffrey pine gives way to the darker shade of red fir. If I were one of the fish in Deadman Creek, I’d forsake my fellow hatchery graduates and swim upstream to the Owens River headwaters. There, under the protective gaze of Two Teats and San Joaquin Peak I’d eat the small, drab fir seed moths as they emerge from the red fir cones and flutter onto the dark cool forest waters. Let the other fish fall for Velveeta and Power Bait.

That red fir forest, in the San Joaquin Roadless area, is little-traveled considering its location. Next to Reno-Tahoe, this is the most crowded spot on the East Slope, but people tend to stick to the roads and well-known trails. The red firs are seen mostly by chickarees, also known as Douglas squirrels, who eat the scales of the cones and heap sciurid calumny on the few passersby. There are pine martens there too. They feed on the more unwary portion of the chickaree population. Porcupines eat the bark of the few western white pines scattered through the forest. Fishers eat the porcupines. Until recently, only a few humans have hiked off-trail into the forest. The approach is too steep for logging trucks, and red fir isn’t the most valuable of timber. Campers tend to avoid red fir forests too. Red firs are prone to branch dieback, and dead branches will plummet to earth at the slightest wind. I’ve seen the falling branches described both as “windowmakers” and as “widowmakers”, depending, I guess, on whether or not one sleeps in a tent.

Lately, though, more humans have been visiting. The local Sierra Club chapter has led groups of hikers into the Roadless Area, so that people can gain a more intimate knowledge of this special place. Surveyors have been here, too, plotting the layout of a proposed Alpine ski resort, which is why the Sierra Club has become interested in publicizing the charms of the area in its pristine state. The resort, with its roads, clear-cut runs, garbage, and loud groups of skiers, would disrupt the forest and disturb the reclusive furbearing animals. But local environmentalists are hampered by the reluctance of their West Side counterparts to notice the problem. It’s as if activists in the Golden Gate drainage had arbitrarily decided that Tuolumne Meadows lay on the edge of the world. Drop down behind the “Sierra Curtain” and you cease to exist.

Night falls; it’s time to plan for our strenuous day tomorrow. There are sleeping bags to fluff, water to drink, carbos to load. Coyotes yip from the Inyo Craters a mile to the south; Zeke bristles and stares into the blackness. Matthew tends the fire, which reflects in Becky’s dark eyes. The excitement of the pending hike builds in me. After a century of abuse the World’s Largest Stand of Jeffrey Pines is still a beautiful place.

This is what our life was like every day, once


Update: Kenn Kaufmann, whose little finger knows more about birds than I do in my entire body, has this reaction:

“A golden eagle tries to snatch a baby in Montreal,” and the video goes viral. But it’s faked. Golden Eagle is a scarce visitor in the Montreal area, but the bird in the video is not a Golden Eagle, nor anything else that occurs in the wild in North America. This was clearly a setup: using a falconer’s bird, and probably a fake toddler for the distant scene. With all the ignorance about nature that’s out there already, the last thing we need is this kind of stupid garbage.


Salmon? In Berkeley?

Chinook Salmon (adult) Photo Credit: Roger Tabor (USFWS)

Not Codornices Creek, but you get the idea.

This is happy news, though someone needs to tell the salmon it’s the wrong size for the creek:

First Chinook salmon reported in Codornices Creek

Codornices Creek is a little creek, mainly year-round, that flows off the Berkeley Hills and through the Hills’ populated alluvial fan to the east shore of San Francisco Bay. It’s pretty much the same as any of thousands of small creeks in Urban California, except for one thing: it’s in Berkeley, and so there have been people working to restore it for a generation.

Chinooks are more usually associated with large main-stem rivers like the Sacramento: little coastal streams like Codornices Creek are more suited to smaller coho salmon, and steelhead for that matter, which have in fact been seen in the creek for some time, though apparently not in a self-sustaining spawning population.

Then again, the fish set the rules, not us, and the Codornices Chinook’s more likely destination in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed has been, as the fisheries biologists would put it in technical terms, massively fucked. This chinook was probably born in a hatchery instead of a leafy rill with a nice cobble bottom; all but one of the Sacramento and San Joaquin’s major tributaries have been plugged with giant concrete dams, cutting off access to something like 99.9999996 percent of the watershed’s spawning habitat. Agricultural runoff of pesticide-laden silt and silt-laden pesticide fills the water along the way to the dams.

But at least it’s a small, one-fish vote of confidence in the good work my former neighbors have done trying to keep Codornices Creek alive, and until we can engineer precisely targeted earthquakes at the bases of the big dams, that’ll have to do.

(Special homechild points if you heard this post’s title in Mel Blanc’s voice.)

Devil’s Hole pupfish losing struggle for survival – News –

A depressing take on the Devils Hole pupfish by Henry Brean in the Las Vegas Review Journal:

Ted Koch, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said this week he doesn’t know whether the tiny fish can be saved.

“I’m worried it may be an emergency,” said Koch, “and I don’t know whether there are enough of them left to still be viable. We’re definitely very concerned.”

I wrote a bit of the background of this piece a couple weeks ago at Pharyngula. Sad all around.

Rabbit fight


Got the last couple of things from the Palm Springs apartment Sunday morning: the bed platform, the step stool, a handful of cleaning supplies. Spackled the few holes we made hanging artwork and bolting bookcases, vacuumed up the dust from making a couple of the holes bigger so I could spackle them properly, Tetrissed everything into the car. Walking out for the last time I looked back and tried to summon up some gratitude for the place, the way I usually do when I move out of a house. It didn’t quite work. So I left.

There’s a high, thin cover of cloud blowing in from the southeast, from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf. We’re going to get some rain in the next couple of days. Some parts of the desert will likely get a whole lot. I have my fingers crossed for flash floods cutting through a couple of solar projects under construction.

Our new neighbor moved away—was it something we said?—and as she fed the local cottontails and quail, I decided I’d better take up a bit of the slack until they got used to it. I picked up a bird seed bell at the supermarket. It’s not cracked corn and sunflower seeds, which would be better for the quail. But it’s something. The quail never got to it: the bell was discovered within seconds by the local scrub jay, and then fifteen minutes later the jay had been elbowed aside by the Boss rabbit.

It was an interesting glimpse into rabbit interactions. I’ve only ever had one rabbit at a time before, and though I did watch him boss around a dog and a cat, and a few humans, I never saw him with one of his own species. Subordinate bun was hungry and curious, and crept up toward the seed bell. When he’d get too close Boss Rabbit would charge, and each time Sub Bun would avoid the boss by leaping directly into the air. Three, four times in a minute and a half this happened. Then Boss wandered off and fell over in the shade of the peach tree, and Sub Bun carefully went over, tried a nibble of seed bell, then a mouthful, then eight mouthfulls, digging in with his bottom incisors to pry off great chunks.

He worked at this for five minutes or so, then Boss Rabbit came back. He took Sub Bun by surprise, but there wasn’t a fight at first. S.B. made a submissive display without moving away: He stretched his head out low to the ground, and Boss Rabbit came over and nuzzled him for a moment, then they both ate. For five more minutes. The Boss Rabbit changed his mind and chased Sub Bun away again.

At length the boss wandered off to find someone else to dominate, and a covey of about 15 very noisy quail—including one quite small youngster—wandered into the yard, eating everything but the seed I’d bought for them. Sub Bun took out a bit of his frustration by chasing the quail, barreling into groups of six or seven birds and busting them up. I don’t have the patience to watch the Olympics, but why should I when I have world class quail bowling going on right here?

Though tomorrow’s bout may well be rained out.


north ridge of Teutonia Peak

It is raining, a little. The wind off the little storm front brings the temperature down to a positively comfortable level. It’s almost cool. Not even 80°, and the scent of wet juniper and rock hangs in the air.

How long has it been since I’d climbed Teutonia Peak? Probably that day I was here with Matthew in the wake of the Hackberry Fire, which would put it at the last few days of July in 2005. More than three years. It was eleven years ago I first made this little hike, three miles out and back at most unless you bushwhack around the west face of Teutonia the way I did that first day, and I don’t remember even once noticing, hiking back down from the saddle beneath the summit, how just utterly beautiful the north ridge is. Perhaps it’s the slanting, cloud-filtered light, or the temperate air after an oven summer. Maybe it’s that juniper tang in my nostrils or the slow ebb of the heartbreak that’s preoccupied me these last months. Maybe I’ve noticed it before and just forgot.

Whatever it is, the sight is a fixative. I am suddenly embedded in the moment, a fly in desert amber. The clichéd sensation déjà vu has a lesser-known complement, jamais vu, the sudden feeling that one has never before seen the thing beheld. The sundered rock before me seems wholly unfamiliar, a spectacular surround entirely new.

And of course I recall earlier visits, hiking down into the rocks there with Sharon eleven years ago, clambering over fall after dry fall, marveling at the coffee ferns and lush moss in a desolate desert canyon. Alone a few years later, I dropped down into one of those little defiles before me there between the boulders and found a stripe of wet sand. There was a bighorn sheep hoofprint in the middle of the sand. I watched it fill with seeping wet, my hair standing on end: the print could not have been more than a few minutes old. I do remember being here, and yet I am wholly certain I have never been here before. I am split in two, two selves momentarily occupying the same space.

There is Ephedra growing here, and Echinocereus. The ground is covered in bright quartz gravel. I walk along the little trail, picking my way down the slope. My heart is full and I am content and yet I know this feeling will pass, will become one more memory of past happiness. I regret that for a moment. It is one more ache in an uncountable string of aches, this desire to take this spasmodic stroke of beauty and preserve it in some metaphorical solvent, to fold myself somehow into the landscape and never leave.

Pinyon jays raise a tumult in the Joshua trees. I watch a small flock of them work their way south along the base of the hill. I have no idea what they’re looking for. The closest piñon pines I know of are a dozen miles away, in the Mid-Hills. And are they even there anymore? I took a quick look last year, my first visit to the Hackberry burn since the fire went out, and I couldn’t look closely enough to tell whether any of the pines I’d known had survived. There were a few stands of juniper still living, islands in a charcoal sea.

There was a day I had wanted to become that landscape too, to forever grasp the moment and the smell of sagebrush, the tail of the fat coyote trotting across the rutted dirt of Wild Horse Canyon Road, the loud jays in the piñons and the long view north toward Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, and of all those things I longed to become that day the view still remains. A wall of fire took all the rest, turned sagebrush to smoke and coyote to calcinated ash. Though the jays were likely among the few animals that could outrun the front — at its worst, on June 26, 2005, it advanced five miles in an hour and a half — the trees they fed on were somewhat less able to run away. An animal may escape, but an animal is nothing without the habitat that feeds it, houses it, envelops it as a fossil cast contains its mold. There are piñons in the New York Mountains, the Clark Range, in the McCulloughs; settlement camps for Mid-Hills refugee jays.

Had I become that landscape, my heart would be char and smoke today. Instead I watched from 400 miles away, heart breaking by increment with each bit of bad news, a week that is, in the clear light of retrospect, the commencement of that long slide that culminated in the dissolution of my home and family. Distinct from the incinerated landscape, I survived with no visible scars.

That separation saved my skin, but that separation was as inevitable as breathing. By its very nature self-awareness implies a separation between self and not-self.  Beauty, a transaction between the perceiver and the perceived, could not exist without that separation. It is the obverse of longing’s coin.

Mastamho, the Mojave culture hero, after he summoned Coyote to bring fire for his father’s funeral pyre, after he created the Colorado River, after he apportioned the land and sent the various peoples — the Yavapai, Hualapai and Havasupai, the Chemehuevi, the Kumeyaay and Quechan and Ahamakav — each to their own places, after all his labors, he was tired. He became a fish eagle, according to the story, and now flies back and forth above the river he freed from the sand with his staff. In the process he relinquished his memory, his identity. One cannot merge with the landscape without making a similar though certainly far more prosaic sacrifice.

What would be the point? All is as it should be. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself, these walls as natural as the chollas’ gloriole of spines. We long the way coyotes howl and ravens quark and datura blossoms clasp themselves closed until the night arrives. And this mountain too will burn, and preventably so. One beloved landscape after another will be lost, and we mourn, and we resolve to fight the next looming loss as inevitably, and as inevitably we will long for the staggering chaotic beauty that replaces them.