Thursday, September 22, 2011

am I doing the right thing with this blog?

best guess unknown goosefoot
best guess Chenopodium sp.
Amaranthaceae (formerly Chenopodiaceae)

posted 10/02/11 - I featured this plant 06/30/11 when it was just beginning to flower. While doing a search not too long ago for another plant, I found a similar looking plant to this one, and it was not an amaranth. Unfortunately, I failed to make a note of it and can't find it again. Can you ID?

I hope I'm reasonably clear when I am uncertain about an ID. I've added a new label * best guesses for those items which I'm really not sure of the ID. For some posts that I assume I already know, I don't do much research. For other posts, I spend way too much time searching and checking to make sure my ID is correct. It's a challenge to convey how much I do know and how much I'm making my best guess based on the information available to me. Now I always include embedded links to outside sources and better information in the IDs under the pictures.

Yes, my blog is titled Nature ID (and recently re-subtitled "from Monterey Bay and CA areas beyond" to better reflect the locations presented here). I've expressed concern the mere name may lead people to believe I know way more than I do. I seem to experience a constant IDentity crisis. I can't tell you how many e-mails I get from people wanting me to ID their pictures from places I have never been (please don't, btw). I do try to state clearly in my welcome! section in the sidebar that I am not an expert.

With that said, I believe I have a natural visual talent to distinguish shapes and details. I have refrained from talking too much about my education or work here, because I'm afraid readers will make assumptions and judgements about me and this hobby blog. However, for the record, I graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in Entomology, only after also variously majoring and minoring in fine arts, dance, liberal arts, chemistry, and biology. Through fortune and misfortune, I was a professional entomologist and headed the Invertebrate Zoology Department (which included malacology) at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I've had a handful of peer-reviewed research papers published, but I do not consider myself a scientist. I have also worked in the publishing industry as a science content editor at CTB/McGraw-Hill and as an intellectual property manager (rights, permissions, copyrights, and trademarks) for what became National Geographic School Publishing. What's that saying, "Jack of all trades, master of none, though often times better than master of one"? Once again I am wanting to do something different and meaningful in my life. Thanks to doing Nature ID, I'm considering going to graduate school to study salamanders. Still, I am not sure I would make a suitable graduate student or a respectable "real" scientist.

I prefer approaching nature without any preconceived notions and with a "what can I learn?" attitude. Since I don't attempt to ID until I get home and look at my pictures, I try to observe all that I can while out hiking. There are benefits and drawbacks to this practice. It's been fascinating to watch my own learning process. What may stump me one year is perfectly obvious the next year after I have looked up hundreds of other IDs. I do like details, and I try to be as accurate as possible. However, in nature and what we know about it, accuracy is often a relative term.

For over two years I've searched extensively online for local IDs of everything from plants to herps, and I feel I'm slightly more knowledgeable and thorough than some other blogs/sites which sometimes post completely inaccurate information. Considering it irks me how much misinformation is online, I sometimes try to gently correct them (e.g., John Game claims he will change his incorrect Wikipedia photo for Pipera yadonii, which has been reviewed on CalPhotos as likely P. elegans; and the most dangerous site is Plants of California, where they talk about how you can eat soap plant and then picture death camas as their example! Yet, I would not stake my life on the fidelity of the 850+ IDs I have made on Nature ID.

Sigh... the reason why I'm even bringing this topic up is due to the numerous correspondence I received this past week about my blog. Some were lovely e-mails that made me smile and grateful that I am an active blogger (you know who you are, and thank you!). I enjoy blogging and am proud of what I have created here on Nature ID.

I also received a permissions request from a journalist at Pour la Science to use photos of my CA horn snails (I've added a postscript to that post with more information). I was very excited. I've received permissions requests before but never from such a big publication. She found my pictures through an online image search and liked mine. However, when I made clear to her that I am not a professional malacologist, she seemed under deadline stress and declined use of my pictures since she didn't have the time to have my ID checked. Big bummer. I took it to heart.

This virtual experience makes me wonder once again if my blog is adding to the same online misinformation that I so detest, because I do make mistakes! Since I include both common names and scientific names in all my ID posts, my blog is often found through internet searches. For those not familiar with my blog format or translating from another language, it can be difficult to know what information can be trusted. I guess that's true with any site found online. I have considered stopping this blog and not having it available for public consumption. Nature ID really is my personal learning tool, and, at times, I don't think I'm adding much quality to the blogosphere. After all, I don't particularly like taking photos, and I struggle with writing. And, there are much better nature blogs out there, although very few local ones. For the time being, I will continue as I have... learning something new every day.

Here are relevant links:
The Skeptical Moth has a series of media mistakes titled "Genius of the Press".
Deep-Sea News has a field guide to distinguish between scientists and journalists.
Deep-Sea News has a recent blog post about the gap between scientists and journalists.
The Biology Refugia has an excellent discussion about mass media and science.
Culturing Science talks about young or inexperienced science bloggers (with great links).
Nature of a Man does a much better job explaining his IDs and providing references.

ps - As with any post that naval-gazes this much, I will likely continue to edit it for a few days.

pss 10/04/11 - I edited this post a couple times now and made an ID correction. I originally posted this as best guess Amaranthus sp. Thanks to Cindy's comment of the flower buds looking like an Atriplex sp. but with different leaves, I went on a wild goose chase... er, goosefoot hunt. The leaves look like spinach, and after this picture was taken the seeds are starting to look exactly like quinoa. I've corrected my best guess above to a possible Chenopodium sp. Also, I'd like to tell everyone that the journalist I mentioned above sent me a very nice e-mail about how she truly enjoys my blog and nature, and she was simply making a journalistic choice to not publish one of my pictures due to lack of time to check them. I appreciated hearing back from her again.

cabbage white ~ 09/22/11 ~ at home

chrysalis of cabbage white
Pieris rapae

I've viewed so many blog posts of monarch butterfly chrysalises in the past month that I thought I'd show something different and perhaps just as common, the European cabbage butterfly, simply aka cabbage white. Thanks to growing new plants on my balcony this year, like nasturtiums and tomatoes, I've been visited by a whole host of typical garden "pests." This cabbage white was feeding on my nasturtiums, and I collected it as the caterpillar started wandering, a behavior I've noticed several Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) do before they pupate. Does anyone know why they wander?

I think chrysalis structures are quite impressive regardless of the species of butterfly. The white fuzzy clump seen in the first pic above, towards the tail-end of the pupa, is the cast caterpillar exoskeleton. I can't explain why it's fuzzy and white considering the larva was a smooth bright green. The part that is away from the leaf is the ventral surface (your belly side if we were to compare to human anatomy) of what will become the adult butterfly. By the time I got around to taking pictures, this chrysalis was developed enough that I could clearly recognize the proboscis, eyes, and wings. If you click to enlarge the second picture, you can see the silken lasso around the midsection of the chrysalis attaching it to the leaf, kinda like how I've seen many swallowtail butterflies attach themselves while pupating. This chrysalis almost reminds me of a miniature hummingbird in profile.