Friday, December 18, 2009

The image of gnomes sat atop giant toadstools is part of popular mythology and grist to the mill of the bad garden ornaments industry. Something clearly excites some people about the idea of giant mushrooms – and we’re not just talking bored housewives and tripped out ’60s rejects or latter day Doors fans like the dude pictured here. When giant shroomarooms are the dish of the day, everyone’s appetites are whetted over the prospect of seeing these fleshy, spore-bearing monstrosities.
Mexicans seem to have a particular penchant for mammoth mushrooms, or perhaps just good growing conditions or good fortune when it comes to stumbling on – or should that be into – the blasted things. Found at a coffee farm in the Mexican state of Chiapas in June 2007, this next freak of nature is incredible. Heck at well over two feet long and weighing in at 44 pounds, it’s bigger than a boy! Gets you wondering whether maybe there was some secret nuke testing in the area we weren’t told about.
Unless the gods are real fun guys (geddit?) fond of bringing about unlikely coincidences, the mustachioed Mexican biologist Rene Andrade pictured here is holding aloft the very same mushroom. Sure enough, it too was found growing on a coffee farm in Mexico, so we have to conclude the baton had been passed onto him so to speak. Apparently bus loads of envious mushroom picking enthusiasts from the Czech Republic began planning expeditions to the Central American state in the wake of the find.
Fungi-philes on flickr have been having fun with this next pic, with comments of “huge omelette at yours then eh?” and “make a great risotto” posted underneath. “Dryad’s saddle Polyporus squamosus, I think,” conjectures one bespectacled mycologist – that’s a fungus to you and me.
We leave you with a stunning shot of some luminous fungi with aspirations of climbing to the very top, Mycena chlorophanos. The luminosity of this fungi is due to a biochemical reaction of the type that occurs in bacteria, fish and fireflies, but it’s dazzling brightness isn’t enough to deter the cool-named Giant Panda Snail, which gorges on the stuff all day. Normally found on fallen logs in the rainforests of Australia, perhaps this specimen of M chlorophanos was trying to get away from its slimy assailant.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Psychedelic Frogfish is not only funky looking (read: trippy) on the outside; its forward-facing eyes are extremely rare for fish, allowing it to have the same kind of depth perception that humans have. As well as this, its colourful, scaleless skin actually mimics the kind of coral it can be found around, reason for us to take a closer look at this anglerfish and its habitat.

Psychedelic ball – notice how all the stripes come together at the eyes:
The psychedelic frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) is a new species of 2009 – it was first described in the scientific journal Copeia by zoologists Ted Pietsch, Rachel Arnold, and David Hall. At 15 cm (6 cm), it is not small and must surely be striking. Frogfishes belong to the Antennariidae family and are a type of anglerfish. Unlike the latter, though, the psychedelic frogfish does not have the characteristic fleshy growth on the head, used for luring or angling prey.

Each fish has its own beautiful, unique pattern, like a fingerprint:
Like a typical frogfish, its skin is flabby, fleshy and scaleless. It may even be covered in protective mucus when swimming close to coral to avoid tearing. The fish’s skin pattern with its yellowish, brown and white stripes is – similar to a zebra’s – unique to each individual, a fact that allows scientists to identify different psychedelic frogfish in the wild quite easily. The pattern mimics the hard corals commonly found in its native habitat, the sea around Bali, Indonesia.

Fish or coral?

The turquoise dots in the fish’s face are actually not the eyes but brightly coloured patches around them, making the eyes look larger. This and the fact that the psychedelic frogfish can expand its head and extend its mouth forward, thus elongating the head to a shape more often seen in large fish, may indicate the fish’s strategy of looking larger and more impressive than it is, maybe to startle potential predators.

Hullo, did I startle you?
As mentioned earlier, the fish’s forward-facing eyes allow it to experience depth perception similar to that of humans, an unusual characteristic for most fish. This comes in handy given that, like most frogfish, the psychedelic frogfish doesn’t move very much but rather waits for prey to come to it, following it with its eyes and then sucking it in in just six milliseconds!

Don’t get too close to that mouth…
When it does move, though, a frogfish uses jet propulsion – that means walking on its pectoral fins over the seafloor rather than swimming. Plus, the fish takes on a ball shape and shoots water
through its gills to propel itself forward, making it look like, well, in the scientists’ words “an inflated rubber ball bouncing along the bottom.” An astonishing fish, we think, from whatever angle you look at it, and what a find!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

North America’s northwestern coast seems to be a whole treasure trove when it comes to trees as most of the world’s tallest (and oldest) can be found here. We’ve focused on the world’s tallest, measured from top to bottom, rather than the stoutest trees, measured by girth. Lord of the Rings fans who love the Ents will enjoy this post!
6. Giant Sequoia – 94.8 m (311 ft)

Our first candidate is a Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). These trees are also called Sierra redwoods or Wellingtonians and reach average heights of 50–85 m (165–280 ft). The oldest known Giant Sequoia is 3,500 years old and the tallest one grows at Redwood Mountain Grove in California’s King’s Canyon National Park.

A Giant Sequoia in California’s Mariposa Big Trees Park:
Giant sequoias regenerate through seeds and a large tree can be expected to have thousands of seeds at any given point in time – around 11,000 cones. Their natural distribution is limited to the western Sierra Nevada and their conservation status has been determined as vulnerable.
5. The Carmanah Giant and other Sitka Spruces – 96 m (315 ft)

The Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the third tallest conifer species in the world (after the Coast Redwood and Coast Douglas-fir), growing 50–70 m (165–231 ft) tall and occasionally up to 100 m tall. It is a native of North America’s west coast and can be found as far up north as Alaska’s Kodiak Island – its name pointing to these roots from the community of Sitka in Alaska.

A dead Sitka Spruce on Lake Quinault, still standing:
The tallest specimens are the Carmanah Giant at 96 m (315 ft) in Canada’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and two unnamed trees in California’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park that at 96.7 m (317.3 ft) are just a bit over 96 m tall.

The Carmanah Giant is Canada’s tallest tree:

3. Centurion Mountain Ash – 99.6 m (326.8 ft)

This Mountain Ash, also called Victorian Ash, Swamp or Stringy Gum, or Tasmanian Oak belongs to the Eucalyptus species (Eucalyptus regnans) native to southeastern Australia
and Tasmania
. With specimens reaching heights of over 90 m, this is one of the world’s tallest tree species. This particular tree named Centurion measures 99.6 m (326.8 ft) and grows south of Hobart in Tasmania. The tallest Eucalyptus specimens encountered by early European settlers in Tasmania have either been felled, fallen victim to bushfires or simply died of advanced age – their average life span being 400 years.

Tasmania’s El Grande, a 280-ft tall Eucalyptus regnans, was accidentally killed in 2002:

2. Stratosphere Giant – 112.83 m (370.5 ft)

This Coast Redwood in Humboldt
Redwoods State Park was at 112.83 m (370.5 ft) the world’s tallest until the discovery of No. 1. Though it is still growing, two trees in the same forest have been discovered since that are taller than the Stratosphere Giant. However, little is know about them and like the Stratosphere Giant and No. 1, their exact locations have not been disclosed for fear of damage through tourism.

Sequoia sempervirens reaching for the sky:

Coast Redwoods are native to a narrow strip of land only 750 km (470 miles) in length along the coast of California and southwestern Oregon. Sequoias belong to the subfamily of Sequoioideau in the cypress family of Cupressaceae and their conservation status is classified as vulnerable. They get their common name from the fact that their thick bark takes on a bright reddish brown colour when freshly exposed that becomes darker with weathering.

Tall giants at California’s Redwood National Park:

1. Hyperion Coast Redwood – 115.56 m (379.1 ft)

Finally, the world’s tallest tree: On September 8, 2006, this Sequoia or California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) was discovered in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a remote California forest. At 115.56 m (379.1 ft) and nine feet taller than its neighbour, the Stratosphere Giant, it was determined to be the world’s tallest tree. Hyperion is not only the world’s tallest tree but also the world’s tallest living thing. And it might also be one of the world’s oldest, given that redwoods live for up to 2,200 years – that’s older than our modern calculation of time.

Don’t miss this video of tree doctor Jim Spickler climbing the world’s tallest tree:

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Here’s a mind-boggling fact to close this post with: Did you know that fires do not kill sequoias but simply remove competing thin-barked species, therefore actually aiding sequoia regeneration? That’s one hell of a cool tree, literally!

Try burning that, sucker:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

To the inhabitants of Fort Bragg in California, it must have come as no small shock. On venturing down to the seashore, people aren’t prone to expect seeing a 72-feet long blue whale lying dead in the water, a gigantic gash in its flank from where the behemoth has been hit by a ship. Yet exactly such a tragedy took place last month on America’s west coast – demanding a massive clean-up operation for locals, mammal rescuers and others. Harrowing pictures accompany the story.
First sighted on October 19, 2009 after it had washed up on the rocks in Mendocino County, the gaping wound clearly visible in its side, the once majestic creature was estimated to weigh at least 50 tonnes. Students had to wait until low tide for the leviathan to reveal her lifeless form, before scrambling down the rock face to the water’s edge wielding cutting tools for collecting samples. Though sad, the whale’s death offered researchers a rare opportunity to learn more about the species at close quarters.
The whale – which had at some point given birth – perished after colliding with a ship contracted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just hours earlier, about seven miles offshore. The vessel had been mapping the ocean floor off the Californian coast to help choose future fish sanctuaries. Crew members reported feeling a shudder but not did not immediately realise what had happened until the whale later surfaced, blood gushing from its abdomen.
Controversy followed, with those opposed to the NOAA Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) the boat was collecting data for demanding an investigation into the death and an end to the NOAA’s activities there. Fishermen and Native Americans are among those it is said will lose out if the habitats the MLPA are studying are included in no-fishing zones. Some have also claimed the boat was negligent if there was no lookout on duty, but others maintain tracking whales at sea is very difficult.
Back at Fort Bragg, community members and scientists teamed up to take on the exhausting – and putrid – challenge of shifting the carcass of the blue whale – the largest animal ever to have existed. The effort involved removing body parts before cutting the whale into more portable pieces and hauling them up the cliff. The remains were taken away to be buried for several years where bugs and microbes will strip the flesh, preparing the skeleton to be reassembled and put on public display.
The blue whale was almost hunted to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century, and today the species is still endangered, with estimates placing the numbers in the world’s oceans at anywhere between 5,000 and 12,000. Although incidents of boats hitting whales are relatively rare, there are issues over whether sonar from ships can cause harm to baleen whales like the blue whale by disorientating them.

Whatever the case may be, the citizens of Fort Bragg got more than they bargained with the blue whale that washed up on their doorstep, and alas there was one less of the magnificent species on the planet.

With special thanks to Shannon Cusick, who sent us this idea. All photography by Larry Wagner.