Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Bit of Drama on the Tuolumne River...

Every visit to the wilds holds the possibility of the unexpected surprise. There is the "usual" sense of discovery when one finds a new bird species, or some otters playing in the water, and then there is the just plain weird. I don't see snakes very often, as there are a fair number of people on the trail and the snakes wisely stay out of sight. In fact, the only snake I'd ever seen before today was dead.

But today was something. I was on a low bluff over the river gravels, and I happened to look down to see what looked like a huge snake (of course every snake looks really big at first). I realized it was a California Kingsnake (corrections welcome), and it was big, maybe three feet, but not huge. I got the camera out and got a few shots before it disappeared into the brush.
But then the weird part: it was being followed by a California Quail. I couldn't tell if it was chasing or harassing the snake or carefully monitoring the snake. I have to think that in some way it had to do with the defense of a nest, but I have no real basis for the speculation. Maybe it was just curious...

Monday, April 27, 2020

Can You Find the Nest? A Near-future Killdeer Family on the Tuolumne River

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) is a sneaky little bird that hides in plain sight. That sounds like some kind of negative judgment, but really I admire these little Plovers. I wonder sometimes how the species survives, given their habit of building nests right out in the open on stony ground, within easy reach of all manner of predators. And yet somehow they persist.

We watched a nest last year at the Great Valley Museum's Outdoor Nature Lab. This year, the Killdeer nest I "found" is along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, but not so much on the trail as on the grounds of the Waterford water treatment plant. They have gravel roads around the aeration ponds, and that's where the Killdeer put its nest. Luckily a city worker noticed and put up a traffic cone to protect the nest from being run over.

If a threat presents itself, the Killdeer will make a lot of distracting noises and actions. The Killdeer are famous for their broken-wing act by which they draw a predator away from the nest. And as you can see from the picture above, the eggs themselves are well-protected by camouflaged coloration.

I found myself wondering how the eggs avoid being fried by the sun in their rocky nest out in the open, but if you look at mama Killdeer watching her nest, you'll notice she is shading her eggs, not sitting on them.

I missed the hatching last year, but if the stars align I might get to see the babies this year, seeing as how my summer field classes got cancelled, and we are still on a shelter-in-place order. We'll see.

A final note...if you are wondering if I was invading the personal space of the bird in this picture, I was actually on a bluff around a hundred yards away. I love the zoom lens on my camera!

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Day on the California Prairie: Finding the Precious Places Near Home

Yosemite National Park is closed. The coastline is closed. The state parks are closed. Am I complaining? Not in the least. We are facing an unprecedented threat, so we must curtail our freedoms a bit until the scientists and the doctors (and all of their heroic support staff from nurses to foodworkers to custodians) can do their work protecting us. And we must continue to do our part, isolating ourselves from each other, and from the virus itself. I pray that you are able to stay healthy and safe, and if tragedy strikes, that you find peace in some way.
In the meantime, there are a few legal ways to maintain sanity. Exercising in isolation from others near home is one way. If the city parks are crowded, find a deserted road on the edge of town to walk along. It is a way that we can find the precious and undiscovered treasures that have always been just outside our towns. As it turns out, some treasures are ephemeral, lasting only a few weeks.
My town lies on the edge on one of the few remaining largely untouched prairies left in California. These prairies used to extend across the entire Great Valley, but agricultural development has displaced 95% of the grasslands. There are a series of wildlife refuges up and down the valley that protect some of the remaining wildlands or rehabilitated farmlands. The rest of the prairie tends to be found on the margins, in the foothills of the surrounding mountains where the soils are too thin to support agricultural development.
The rainfall this year has been perilously low, with not a drop in the entire month of February. But March and April saw a resurgence in precipitation and the drying sprouts reawakened, and flowers have appeared in abundance throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills.
We took a drive through the prairie that remains between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers, and were treated with an explosion of color. I'd love to say I was an expert botanist and tell you all the species, but beyond lupines and poppies, my knowledge of flowers is sadly lacking. What I enjoyed today was the profusion of color.
We are living in one of the most challenging times many of us will ever experience short of all-out war. Natural disasters horribly affect particular regions, but there is always help from elsewhere, and there are places of retreat and refuge if an earthquake or hurricane strikes. But this one is a worldwide viral attack, and all we can do is shelter in place until it passes. It's scary, it's dangerous, and many are suffering. I hope there are a few moments of peace and serenity to be found here in these little treasures close to home.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Punctuated Equilibrium and the New Academic World That We Live In (along with the rest of society)


Three weeks ago I was lecturing and running labs like a regular professor. I had never gotten around to learning Canvas or Blackboard, because my Excel program was working just fine for recording and posting grades. I never had use for Zoom, since all my classes were face-to-face in a physical classroom. Things were fine and there didn't seem to be any compelling reasons to spend weeks in training for something I wasn't planning on using.

I knew about online courses of course, and two decades ago I even taught some, after a fashion. At the time they were called telecourses, and they left me suspicious of the academic value of online instruction. In essence the students watched canned videos on geology, and needed to learn the geology for themselves by reading the textbook and answering review questions. It was very low-tech, and most students didn't retain much information in the particular learning environment. There were innovative people on our campus who were working hard to improve the process, but before the innovations could really improve that particular form of instruction, the recession put an end to all of the telecourses and I never really looked back. In the end, classes had met a need for certain students with special needs, such as lack of day-care, or medical issues that prevented them from coming on campus. But it didn't really help most of them.
Something doesn't feel right here...

Two weeks ago everything changed. As part of our state effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic we went remote. In an instant. I had my entire load, five classes and three labs, switched over to online  instruction. It's now what I do, using Canvas, Blackboard, and Zoom after a steep learning curve over the course of just a few days. I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm grateful to be working. I just can't believe how completely life changed, how the academic landscape was suddenly transformed. I'm functioning and the classes are continuing, but it wasn't a pretty process. There are lots of glitches, but it is happening.

Something about the process made me think about life. Not my life, or the lives of those around me, but the whole adventure of life on our planet. There was something familiar in the way events unfolded around me. And then it hit me: we had just survived a punctuated equilibrium evolutionary catastrophe. And I'm sure that requires a bit of explanation.

One of the greatest advances in biology and paleontology was the result of research by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace into evolutionary processes. Darwin is better known for describing the theory of natural selection, but Wallace had come to much the same conclusions from his independent research in Indonesia, and it is proper that both men be given equal credit. One of the expectations of the model is that evolution was a gradual process, and that eventually the fossil record would fill with all kinds of transitional species. This has come to be called phyletic gradualism. The problem is that as the decades rolled on, transitional species were found but not in the large numbers predicted by the theory. Most species just simply appear in the rocks as fully-formed separate species. It bothered many paleontologists.
Alfred Wallace (1823-1913)
In 1972, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould proposed an alternative hypothesis that could explain the 'sudden' appearance of new species in the fossil record. Termed punctuated equilibrium, the model suggested that evolved species did not change much as long as the environment they inhabited didn't change either (stasis). But in the event of a catastrophe like an asteroid impact, or unusually intense period of volcanism, or the onset of an ice age, the environment would be severely impacted, and the species would have to change as well, or go extinct. This could involve a higher rate of evolution, but it could also involve long-term changes in peripheral isolates, organisms living at the edge of their environmental tolerances.

Think of coyotes, a widespread species across North America. Most live somewhere in the 'average' climate of the region, not too hot or cold, not too dry or humid. But to the north, there would be populations living in very cold environments at the edge of their tolerances. Over time natural selection would produce individuals with heavier coats of fur, and perhaps the ability to store more energy in the form of fat stores. They might not be numerous, and it would be unlikely that many of them would ever become part of the fossil record. But they could be considered a different species, especially if their range no longer merged with the average coyote. They are the fat furry coyotes.

But then a series of intense volcanic eruptions blocks out sunlight for several decades, and a climate feedback loop causes an ice age. In the suddenly cold conditions, the 'average' coyotes can't adapt, and they disappear. The fat furry coyotes from the far north are able to thrive and spread quickly into the former range of the 'average' coyotes. Much later on, the fossil record would then be filled with 'average' coyotes through many feet of sediments, but then they would appear to have been suddenly replaced by a new species, the fat, furry coyote. But in reality the fat-furrys were 'pre-adapted'.

So what happened to us?
It's the old pre-catastrophe environment! The Paleozoic classroom.

We've been in a period of stasis for a long time. Professors professed. Classes passively took notes. There have been gradual transitions in teaching style; slide projectors have been replaced by PowerPoint presentations. Passive listening has often been replaced by group problem-solving. Note-taking has been replaced by voice-recording. But by and large, students work in the presence of a professor, and no one had any reason to think it would ever really change.

But out there in the periphery, some changes were taking place. Some teachers and administrators thought the technology had brought us to a place where teachers didn't have to be in the physical presence of their students. They trained for and taught courses remotely. Most acknowledged that remotely-taught courses provided valuable benefits for some students, but only a few underwent the rather rigorous training required to teach remote classes in an effective manner.

But then the catastrophe occurred. We've had catastrophes before on our campus. We shut down for two weeks a year or two ago because our wildfires had polluted the air far, far beyond healthy levels. But we didn't change anything. When the air cleared, we went back to our old ways. But almost no one was thinking of the possibility of a world-wide catastrophe that would require that nearly all human beings would need to isolate themselves for weeks and months at a time. It was inconceivable.

But it happened. And in the new academic environment, conditions dictated that the only form of instruction left to us was remote online education. In this new environment, the pre-adapted, the online instructors, thrived and flourished. The rest of us learned something else. Evolution is chaotic and imperfect.

Most species have organs and structural features that they don't really need or use. Humans have a tail. Many whale species have useless femurs embedded deep within their bodies. Embryonic birds often have teeth that disappear before hatching. They are deeply imperfect organisms, but they have enough adaptations in their genetic make-up that they are able to survive. This produces cobbled-together organisms with quirks and modifications that give them just enough of an edge to survive in their habitat. And sometimes those useless bits and pieces end up being an adaptation that allows survival after all. It gives us Duck-billed Platypuses, animals with a 'bird'-like beak which lay eggs like a reptile, but have hair like a mammal. And they get by.
Source: World Wildlife Fund
That's me right now. A duck-billed platypus. I have just enough of a skill in understanding computer key-boards that I was able to cobble together enough presentations and online quizzes and labs that we only lost a week or so instruction. And I'm learning to comb my hair and put on pants before sitting down for a zoom session with my students. And in a week I am taking 17 students to Yosemite National virtual reality.

It's been upsetting, and has required long hours to achieve any kind of success. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear. But we ARE adapting to the new normal that has been imposed on us, and I have to say I am really proud of my students. They are a bit more pre-adapted than I am to this learning style, and they have stepped up admirably to the new reality.

And I am an old platypus learning to fly...

To all my teaching friends: take care of your students, they're depending on you, but care of yourselves too. And to all the students: hang in there. We'll get through all this together. Stay healthy and safe. And to those who face true catastrophe in the coming weeks and months because of the corona virus, may you find hope and peace in tragedy.