Friday, October 15, 2010

When monarchs get sick with a parasite that might hurt their offspring they go to the drugstore

Grabbing a Quick Snack at the Drugstore
Scientific American notes researchers are discovering humans aren't the only creatures which seek out plants for their medicinal qualities. There's a growing body of evidence showing that animals also do so.

The most recent example involves the monarch butterfly. Monarchs feed on milkweed and lay their eggs on the plants because milkweed contains a chemical that makes monarchs toxic to their predators. There are many species of milkweed, and they vary in their concentration of the chemical, which in higher concentrations has medicinal qualities for caterpillars infected by their mothers with a parasite that would otherwise be fatal. And monarchs seem to selectively seek out these milkweeds as egg-laying sites when they are infected.
Some milkweeds have a higher concentration of chemicals called cardenolides, which make the butterflies toxic to predators. Research had focused on whether the monarch’s chose different milkweeds to hurt their enemies.

But Emory University’s Jaap de Roode wondered if the choice might be related to a parasite that’s passed from mother to offspring, with fatal results: “What we do find is that the monarchs prefer to lay their eggs on the medicinal species when they are infected. However, when they are not infected with the parasite, they do not prefer this species over this one, they lay their eggs equally between these two species. So somehow they know that they’re infected and they know what to do about it.” The research was published in the journal Ecology Letters. [Thierry Lefèvre et al., "Evidence for trans-generational medication in nature"]
Amazing. And you can't help wondering how that works in practice. Does a monarch wake up feeling sick and fly off to the nearest milkweed pharmacy, like a human picking up some flu medication on the way home? Or is it a more unconscious process?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Happy National Fossil Day, Belatedly

Happy National Fossil Day, Belatedly
Life was good more than 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. The earth was warm and the seas teemed with life. That's when these fossilized shrimp lived in the primordial deep. Now they're on display in the UW-Madison's Geology Museum. (I don't know how I could possibly have missed it, but yesterday was National Fossil Day.)

You hardly know you're in the city of Madison when you walk the path in these colorful woods

Explosion of Seasonal Color
The nature walk along Lake Wingra behind the Edgewood College campus -- in the woods, and also ont he boardwalk through the marsh -- is at its best this time of year. The bugs are gone, the thinning foliage lets through lots of light, and you're surrounded by an explosion of seasonal color. You'd never guess you were in the heart of a major metropolitan area.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Annals of Hypocrisy: Meg Whitman on when it's OK to call someone a whore and when it's not

They were talking about the big issues in the California gubernatorial debate. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is quite a piece of work. She's against hiring undocumented workers, except when she's not. She's against calling people bad names, except when she's not.

What's the hurry about flying south when the weather's so nice here in Madison?

Who Needs to Fly South When the Weather's So Nice Here?
Is it just me, or are these guys sticking around longer this year? Great Blue Heron photographed with Nikon P7000 at Stricker's Pond, Madison/Middleton.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A glorious fall in this season of political discontent

A Glorious Autumn in This, Our Season of Political Discontent
It's been so beautiful this autumn, we've been getting out of Madison roaming around to see the fall colors. They're somewhat muted this year -- a "burnt umber autumn," M said -- but there are still patches of brighter color here and there. Sometimes they catch fire in the late afternoon sun, as in this view of the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitors Center on the Wisconsin River near Spring Green.

The natural world is so lovely and harmonious this fall. It would be great if things were equally harmonious among us humans, but the beauty of nature can be deeply deceptive. When World War I began, the "Guns of August" sounded when most of Europe was experiencing some of the most stunning weather in years. The World Trade Center towers fell on a perfect September day for most of the country. Similarly, this beautiful autumn masks deep partisan divisions in the American spirit. We're at odds with each other all over the country, and a right wing populist offensive has Democrats running scared everywhere.

"Madison is X Square Miles Surrounded by Reality"Judging from the yard signs in some parts of Madison, you'd think that Democrat Russ Feingold has it made in his run for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. You'd be wrong. Feingold is in the political fight of his life, trailing his political neophyte opponent, the Tea Party-friendly businessman Ron Johnson, in most polls.

Whatever its actual size in square miles, liberal Madison is not, as the phrase "x square miles surrounded by reality" suggests, very representative of the rest of the state, where unemployment is much higher and more people are hurting. They're angry, they want someone to blame, and so they're in an anti-incumbent mood. We saw evidence of this in our drives outside Madison recently. Feingold signs were few and far between. I was so startled to see one on a street corner in Sheboygan that I almost drove right through a stop sign. Whereas signs for Ron Johnson, who began his political career at a Joe the Plumber rally in Oshkosh in 2008, seemed to be everywhere.

Johnson and similar candidates around the country are capitalizing on an angry mood that's fueled by talk radio, Fox News, and millions of dollars worth of corporate money flooding into anonymously funded attack ads (thanks Supreme Court). People are angry and think the county is going to hell in a hand basket because they're being persuaded the country is going to hell in a hand basket by a well-oiled propaganda machine.

Remember how in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest numbered years were replaced by corporations buying namng rights to years, as in "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment"? Maybe we should stop talking about 2010 and just come out and call it "Year of Fox News."

Down at the Laurel, watching Brett Favre lead the Vikings in a battle against themselves and the Jets

When Brett Favre games aren't on broadcast TV, I usually wander down to my neighborhood watering hole, the Laurel Tavern, to catch at least part of the game, although last night, after the miserable first half in which the Vikings -- and Favre's fumbles -- spotted the Jets 9 points that could just as well have been 21, except for some dropped passes by the Jets, I almost didn't go. And when I got there I didn't find much company. Maybe people preferred staying home and competing to see who could write the dirtiest double entendre Tweets about the game and Favre's texting scandal. And when the game was over, the Laurel emptied out even faster than Favre left the field at New Meadowlands Stadium.

DSCN6222-FavreFavre did pull himself together in the second half, and you could make the case that he outplayed Mark Sanchez statistically, with an 85.9 QB ratings to Sanchez's 59.9. But when underperforming teams meet, the outcome usually isn't decided by statistics, and this was no exception. Favre set a couple more records: 500th career TD pass, one of them to Randy Moss. 70,000 career passing yards. But the only statistic that mattered was the score, Jets, 29; Vikings, 20. The game went down as one more in a series of big games in which Favre had a chance to pull out victory in the closing minutes but threw a pick instead. Age, a possible case of tendonitis, the lightning gods, texting scandal distractions and maybe just some plain old bad karma were just too much for Favre and he lost his magic, except for a few flashes that weren't enough.

Photo Note: Photographing people in low light watching TV is a problem, because the TV screen usually is vastly overexposed. This was photographed with Nikon P7000, f/3.5, 1/12, ISO 400, VR on. Shot in RAW, with file processed in camera to generate two different JPEGs, one exposed and color balanced for the interior, the other for the much brighter TV screens. Combined in Photoshop.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Fishing is a bit easier for humans, but this works, too. Great Egret, Stricker's Pond, Madison/Middleton.

An exquisite brunch of simple, subtle elegance

An Exquisite Brunch of Simple, Subtle Elegance
I'm not a food blogger, and my culinary skills are so modest as to be virtually nonexistent. But I love good food. And until the chef starts her own food blog, attention must be paid.

T tossed off this magnificent brunch treat today in just a few minutes: Melted cheese and tomato open-faced sandwishes. Yellow tomatoes from the Farmers' Market. Seeded sourdough bread from Trader Joe's. Shullsburg 4-year aged cheddar (top); New Zealand sharp cheddar from Trader Joe's (bottom). Basil and fennel from T's garden. Dijon Mustard with white wine from Trader Joe's. What bliss!

Photography Note: Nikon P7000 in food scene mode. Diffuse, indirect natural light from the windows. Very lightly tweaked in Photoshop, but the original looked great straight out of the camera, thanks to the food mode's on-screen white balance slider.