Special Places

Sacred places, special places, magical spots…as humans we have a tendency to identify specific or particular natural locations or sites with some sort of significance that sets these places apart from others.  I have a feeling that this is an essential human feature; part of our never ceasing endeavor to recognize patterns in the natural world.  Often these places touch or tweak something emotional, deep inside.  We feel a greater sense of connectedness and awareness when we are in these special places.  If Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis has merit then I suspect that we are simply recognizing specific areas with a high degree of biological importance to us humans–but I also think that personal memory and experience also contribute to create places that are so very special.  When you have memories, experiences and biological importance then I think you have something really special…..

As a kid growing up in central Kansas, one of my special places was a wash out downstream from a concrete bridge that held water only after a significant rain.   We called this pool the Tadpole Pond and I can guess that you have a good idea why.  After every spring and summer rain when there was water in the pool, several of us in the neighborhood would round up our seines, jars, nets, and coolers in preparation of the big event–catching tadpoles by the hundreds along with the occasional crawdad, treasured green sunfish, black bullhead or snake.  For me and my friends the Tadpole pond was our African Water Hole–we learned a lot of biology in the mud and muddy water.  Who would have thought that a concrete bridge could create such a special place.

I have a new but similar special place where I keep track of the Kansas Aquatic environment and it too seems at first to be an unlikely spot:


This is a low-water bridge for the lake outlet as it crosses one of the main trails in Johnson County’s Kill Creek Park.  Remarkably, unimpressive as a natural area isn’t it?  I started building my own personal memories here about 6 years ago when I would coax my son into playing hooky from his PhD studies and convince him to bring his new daughter, Emma out for nature hikes with Grandpa.  One mid-May day at this particular site, Scott heard an unusual call that he thought was a warbler of some type.  While Emma and I played  on the concrete bridge Scott tracked down the calling warbler which he knew all along was a Black-throated Blue–he just didn’t want to make a bad call.  For me this has always been the BTB crossing….

This spring I stopped by this crossing on three separate days about 2 weeks apart.  On a whim in April I stopped after a significant rain–not planning on stopping at the crossing but when I got there I realized that I had picked a good day.  As I sat down next to the outlet tubes I observed in the thin water good numbers of darters and minnows making their way upstream to spawn–just like the more famous salmon.  The orange-throated darters would congregate just below the concrete apron and heave themselves in a mad dash in the fast current.  Because the concrete was so level I was able to get good views of darters, creek chubs and stone rollers as they made there way upstream.

This may be a pimephlales minnow followed by a male orangethroated darter.


Male orange throated darter Etheostoma spectabile

Male OT darter


two females

I had a great time for the next couple of hours taking pictures and observing this early spring migration.

Later, in May I went back, the water was down and very clear.  I could see several green sunfish displaying to each other  in the pool, a black bullhead and a number of minnows.  Not thinking I’d see much else I was about to leave when I suddenly became aware (notice I didn’t say I observed them) of several Northern Water Snakes.  Once I was aware, I was astounded at the number of smallish water snakes that kept swimming upstream to this pool.  I never saw more than 6 at any one time but over the hour I was there, I estimate that I saw and average of a new snake every 1.5 to 2 minutes.  Most swam up the stream, to the pool and then tried to swim the concrete culvert–unsuccessfully.

water snake

This one decided not to swim…

water snake on a rock

I have no idea what the snakes were up to but it was another great day.  Actually, I do have an unproven hypothesis–I think the smaller snakes move upstream on these intermittent streams to access the new food resources that will be available  in the developing habitat and to exploit the pools as they dry up.

I returned two weeks later after another rain.  This time the water was cloudy and again I thought I really wouldn’t see anything but I was wrong.  While trying to get a picture of a young 5-lined skink on the same rock as the snake in the picture above, I happened to look down in the boiling muddy water in a small eddy just as a large common snapper (ever hear of a small one? 😉 lifted its head out of the water with an open gape just inches from my elbow–again I was too slow with the camera.   Each time I’ve visited the BTB crossing this spring, I’ve had an eventful day and like the darters I plan to return next spring for more of the show.


Flower ID challenge

Eric correctly identified the previous challenge photo as Black Medic–a small plant of lawns.  It’s been reported that Black Medic seeds were a special delicacy in ancient Rome.  It’d take a lot time to collect enough to make even one serving.  Now for an new challenge–maybe easier–maybe harder.  Try and identify this common flower:

Plant ID challenge 2

RNAi KATS Presentation

What is RNA interference. What is the mechanism for this cellular process and how can I use this as an instructional piece for an advance biology or a biotechnology class? If any of these questions are of interest to you, fear not, you are at a one-stop site for joining the movement started by Cold Spring Harbor to introduce high school students and under graduates to research centered around C. elegans (the nematode) and RNAi. I was fortunate to attend the Amgen Leadership Symposium in Human and Molecular Genetics and would like to share information from the symposium otherwise known as DNA Boot Camp. Here are some links that may be of interest to you.

Order Double Life of RNA from HHMI- It has the NOVA video and it is free. Click to order is on the left.

Or you can stream the video from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3210/02.html

Now that you have a somewhat better idea of the RNAi mechanism go to the web site for Dolan DNA Learning center at Cold Spring Harbor, NY.
Dolan DNA Learning

From the main page locate the Silencing the Genome pages. This is the link from DNALC for C. elegans and RNAi . The live materials will be sent to you free. Just spend some time with the recipes before you order. Any questions be sure to contact me for help. Have fun and the students will have an opportunity to do real science. http://silencinggenomes.org/
Silencing the Genome


Return to Ashfall

Despite nearly $4 a gallon gas and a 6-8 hour drive 16 KABTer’s and their families made the trip to the Morrill Museum in Lincoln, NE, Niobrara State Park and Ashfall State Park this past weekend. Harry, Charlotte, Brad, Carol, Randy, Josie, Tiffany, Brian Alex, Abbie, Julie, Charlotte, Jennifer, Kayla, Stan, and Janet all took a trip into the Cenozoic of Nebraska. Unlike the last trip north there was no weather issues to confront. Most of the party met up at 10:00 on Saturday morning at the Morrill Museum. This is a good place to get a handle on the diversity of Cenozoic mammal fossils that are found in Nebraska. Many don’t realize it but Nebraska is one of the best places to find a diversity fossil elephants like mammoths and mastodons. Here’s some shots from the Elephant hall in the museum:

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