Category Archives: Mammals

Coyote pack howling in a Tennessee mountain cove.

A pack reunion on a warm afternoon. The coyotes are calling from a jumble of sandstone boulders on a south-facing slope near Sewanee:


At this time of year the pack comprises a pair — expecting pups any day — and last year’s offspring, perhaps with a few other kin hanging about. Not being multilingual my ears didn’t catch the cause of the howling. The return of a pack member with a fang-snared squirrel? Rabbit stew or kimchi?

On the same slope, sun-warmed Eastern comma and spring azure butterflies were in flight. Billows of winged queen ants emerged from the ground. One queen landed on a tree trunk at human eye level, revealing the tiny male attached to her abdomen. He’ll be discarded within hours, his life’s telos complete, hers just starting.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles northeast, braying of an ugly kind continues in Washington. Here’s the list of senators who voted to put lead in our drinking water, soot in our lungs, and willful ignorance in the seat of power. You might discern a pattern in the voting records.

Having set in motion the destruction of the EPA, the mob has now set its sights on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please consider signing the PEN America petition opposing the proposal to kill these programs. From the petition: “Funding for the NEA and NEH each constitute only .003% of federal spending, an investment that supports some of the world’s greatest literature, art, and cultural institutions. Eliminating these vital agencies would lessen America’s stature as a haven for free thinkers and a global leader in humanity’s shared quest for knowledge.”

Classroom scene: Ain’t no-one looking at the prof.

Major pedagogical milestone reached: a class in which every single person in the room was looking at a phone.


I especially like the multiple head angles here, none of them directed professorward or, indeed, anywhere within the room itself. Many are in the “Virtual Reality” (VR) world, abetted by Google Cardboard headsets. For about ten bucks you can get a device that lets you swim with dolphins, play a game, or visit a refugee camp, all while sitting in class.

Eh? What’s going on? Well, I could not teach a class in nonfiction writing without a short experiment in VR. The last two years have seen an explosion of VR designed to be viewed on phones via simple headsets. Many of the developments in the field have been driven by journalists (e.g., New York Times), so any student considering a career in writing needs to have a sense of what’s happening in the very real world of “virtual” storytelling. And so, on with the headsets and: boom! we’re in a 3D world that moves with your head, giving you an uncanny sense of immersion and connection.

When we read a “traditional” printed page, the author’s words activate our imagination and we move our consciousness from its current location. In VR, the images, sound, and kinetics of the experience grab our senses and, again, move our consciousness to another place. In the former case, the imagination is activated and we move under the power of our minds. In the latter, our senses pull our minds with them and imagination follows.

VR is known as an “empathy machine” for the depth of its effects on our emotions. A well-written book does the same, through other means. Now imagine a storyteller who can combine both approaches. The possibilities for good (reportage, art, education) and ill (manipulation and even torture of the human mind — Google Cardboard Guantanamo edition?) are many.

And, let’s face it, there is no way that I can compete with dolphins in the classroom. (The Google-Best Buy alliance knows this well — they’re already marketing more expensive VR to classrooms for younger kids.)

And now, back to the carboardless classroom to discuss the meaning of allegory.

“The fox also shall dwell with the armadillo…”

A few weeks ago, I saw a fox saunter through the woods, then slip into a hole that, judging from the earth piled at its entrance is at least several feet deep. I set up a camera to see what was shaking. Surprise: most of the comings and goings were of armadillos snuffling their way in and out of the pit.

The Xenarthans were not alone, though. A fox was also a regular visitor, always alone. My hopes for gamboling pups have not yet been realized. This may be a temporary canine interloper in a armadillo-dug chamber.

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What I think is a coyote also came by, no doubt looking for ‘dillo snacks or hot-dogs. The larger size, longer legs, proportionately shorter tail, and stout-shaped face all suggest coyote to me. I’d welcome other ideas.

coy_queryNo cockatrices, yet, in this den. Isaiah says they’re down there, though.

Skunk babies on the move

What comes here? A writhing ball of hair on twenty feet. (With apologies for the window-blurred photos.)

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 002A mother striped skunk with her brood. The youngsters huddled around her, keeping their flanks pressed to one another. The whole mass trundled as one. When mother stopped to nose-poke the ground, the whole crew flowed forward to see what she’d found. Then, onward.

One of the four youngsters has a black tail. The others are white-striped on tail and face, like their mom.

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 0052015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 006And off they go, tails aloft. The young stay with their mother for two or three months, so these ones I guesstimate at 6-8 weeks. For a species whose adulthood is mostly solitary (the breeding season is a squall of screams and sprays, so little do they enjoy company), skunks start their lives with an intense cuddling-huddle-bustle bond with their families. Then hormones kick in, I suppose, with a burgeoning taste for perfume.

2015-06-24 Skunk and skunk babies 014

Collective noun: A charm of skunks.


Meet Twofer and Leftie, the exponential bunny orphans. Born at 30 grams, under the care of the miracle-working Queen of Cudzoo Farm they’ve now shot up to 240+ grams, and growing…



MrLeftieLeftie a few weeks ago, still in his short-eared stage, enjoying a brush:


Log walkers

I’ve had an infrared-triggered camera set up in Shakerag Hollow for the last few months. The camera takes photos of animals as they climb along or walk around the fallen ash tree. The camera takes color pictures during the day, then at night uses an infrared flash that is invisible to animals.

The huge log is quite a highway. Squirrels are by far the most abundant creatures, but others also make appearances.


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Mammal fest

We’ll get to weighty matters shortly, but first some photos of gratuitously cute mammals from my trip to Colorado. One of the more zoologically startling features of the western U. S. is the number of mammals wandering in plain view. The furry-faced, doe-eyed, jaunty-eared denizens of Tennessee tend to stay out of sight in the thick woodland, so mammalogists must be content with scat and sketchy tracks (not counting the white-tailed deer on the porch). Not so in the wilder parts of Colorado.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel. Mueller State Park, Colorado.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel. Mueller State Park, Colorado.

Richardson's Ground Squirrel. Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Colorado Chipmunk. Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Colorado Chipmunk. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Mule Deer. Mueller State Park.

Mule Deer. Mueller State Park.

Bobcat. Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Bobcat. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Trespass being considered by Cottontail rabbit (either Mountain or Eastern Cottontail, the bobcat would know for sure). Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Trespass being considered by Cottontail rabbit (either Mountain or Eastern Cottontail, the bobcat would know for sure). Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

After a few days wandering among these animals and flipping through the field guide, a question emerges: Why so many squirrely creatures in the west? The Field Guide to the Mammals has twenty four pages of ground squirrels, almost all from the west. The one eastern species, the eastern chipmunk, has twenty two cousin species in the west. A rodent biodiversity bomb has flung fat-cheeked squeakers into every grassy glade, forest edge and rock pile west of the Mississippi.

A recent paper by Ge et al, evolutionary biologists working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, helps us to understand what happened. The ground squirrels (Xerinae, a subfamily comprising the chipmunk, marmots and other ground squirrels within the rodent family, the Sciuridae) originated in Europe about thirty five million years ago. From there the animals spread to Africa and North America. The group’s explosive diversification happened later, about sixteen million years ago, and seems to have been triggered by climatic changes.

The same cooling drying climate that separated the American and Asian forests created a grand opportunity for ground squirrels. As forests retreated, open meadows, grassy plains and sparsely vegetated mountainsides took over, especially in the arid west. This change, combined with the highly variegated landscape (not too many other places in the world have such a complex mix of mountains, plains, deserts), caused the ground squirrels to speciate into the many species we see today. Some of these then colonized other parts of the world, probably after they moved west over the Bering land bridge. For the marmots, chipmunks and ground squirrels, Manifest Destiny did not end at the Pacific Ocean. They kept going and colonized Siberia, Asia and Europe: the far, far, Wild West.

We hear in this story echoes of our own. Homo sapiens is also a creature of the grasslands, brought into being by forests in retreat from a cool, dry climate.

Note how the ground squirrels survey their homes: on two legs.

Note their social systems: they often live in close-knit groups in stable villages.

We’re lucky that their thumbs are not quite as agile as our own and that their food didn’t take quite as much brainwork to catch.

Arboreal bear

Todd Crabtree, a naturalist extraordinaire and botanist at Tennessee’s Division of Natural Areas, sent me the following photos as a follow-up to my discussion of bear corn. Todd was leading a hike above Abrams Creek during the annual Smoky Mountain Wildflower Pilgrimage and saw this bear high in an ash tree. The photos are taken from a ridge looking down into the tree tops. The bear appeared to be nipping at the ash flowers.


Photo Credits: Todd Crabtree, 2013.

Although this is a startling sight (how do the branches hold that weight?) studies of black bears report this kind of behavior across the species’ range. In some places, the bears’ hunger for tree flowers is a significant source of damage for many trees. In southeast Alaska, for example, bears like to climb cottonwoods, staying close to the trunk then breaking off branches to munch on catkins.

Omnivore defined.

Fifty Shades of Grey: Woodland Edition

Sitting in the woods with my class last week, I was struck by how grays had come to dominate. The light environment is transformed. Of course, a “fifty shades” wisecrack had to work its way into my impromptu lesson on the visual aesthetics of the forest. The witticism turned into a small project for my walks of the last week: pay attention and find these shades. So here they are, fifty photographs of variations on the theme.

Gray is the most egalitarian of hues. Indeed, its essence is that is not a single color. Instead, gray gives us a muted echo of all the light spectrum, a moody version of white. Contrast this with the bias of other pigments — reds, blues, yellows — that reflect just a tiny slice of the light available to them.

Gray is an unassuming mirror of the world and a quiet companion for its more assertive kin. It absorbs metaphors with ease, having combined light and dark: ash, silver, lead, pepper. A suitable tone, then, for winter reflections.

Happy Solstice, fellow ramblers.

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Trash whale

As Homo plasticus shambles its clumsy way through the world, pieces of junk slough off its body. Much of this exfoliated detritus finds its way to water. The sea is now comprised of water, plastic, and life, in that order.

A collaboration among scientists, artists, and engineers at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, holds these facts before us in a striking way. A three-month-old gray whale hangs in the gallery, its body made from plastic bags woven into the surface of a welded armature. The baby whale swims through a room strewn with one month’s worth of rubbish collected from the shoreline along a small sampling area in Puget Sound. Toys, tags, wrappers, cups, pieces of Styrofoam, bits of houses, syringes, bottles: the downstream remnants of our appetite for indestructible plastic stuff.

The whale reminds us that many parts of our oceans contain as many bits of floating plastic as plankton. Seabird guts are choked with these fragments. Dissections of the stomachs of beached gray whales show that they also ingest large quantities of plastic. Because they feed, in part, by scooping at the sea floor, their guts get populated not just by the floating plastic, but by heavy sunken objects. And here we find a surprise: golf balls, sitting like modern Jonahs in the guts of whales. Immediately I was transported out of the gallery, away from the coast and across the continent: back to the Tennessee woods, gazing at plastic globes in a mountain forest in Sewanee.

There is no escape, it seems, from the products of our re-creation.

[Special thanks to Susan Digby, geography professor at Olympic College, one of the whale’s creators, for opening the gallery after hours to give me and my friend Peter Wimberger a tour. You can read more about the project on the gallery’s website.]

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