Incredible Corvids

We are blessed in the Northwest with some outstanding examples of birds in the corvid family.  Highly intelligent (they are among the most intelligent of all bird species) aggressive, and vociferous, you can’t help buy notice these avians. And corvids can always be depended on to put on a show. It might a glittering family of magpies, a crow catching a snake, ravens tying to wake up a brown bear, or a stellar jay annoying other birds at the feeder. These guys always steal the avian show. Stellar jays, like other blue birds, are not really blue, of course. That beautiful hue is actually a structural color – a trick of sunlight reflecting off the molecular composition of the feather’s cellular structure and keratin.


Lichens are actually fascinating organisms. Able to grow in the harshest environments on earth they are a source of food and nesting material for many animals, and have been used as food and medicine by humans for many years. They can live a long time, too. According to the National Audubon Society specimens 4,000 years old have been found. Here’s a few of our common Northwest species:

Lichens have been in the news lately. No they’ve not committed any acts of violence or terror but they have revealed an anatomical surprise – they are composed of two different fungal type and algae. Now that might not cause you to lay awake tonight but for lichen likers like myself it is a pretty big deal. I was taught, as were many biological student generations before me, that a lichen is composed of a fungi and an algae. The fungal part of the organism surrounds the algae, provides an anchor to the substrate, and absorption of water and necessary nutrients. Cyanobacteria, known as “blue-green algae” convert energy from the sun via photosynthesis. All this has been known for many years. For about 150 or so of those years, however, it was thought that just one fungal species existed in this symbiotic relationship – ascomycete. Now thanks to the persistence of a lifelong lichen lover named Toby Spribille, we know that there are actually two kinds of fungus – an ascomycete and a basidiomycete. Read the story here:

How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology

What having lived in a trailer park has anything to do with this I do not know. I lived in one for quite a while myself. But HOOAH for ya, Toby.

Lizard Surpises – Third Eyes and Molecular Mystery Toes

The peculiar clinging talent of geckos is an object of fascination for any observer. Watching them scamper along the walls and ceilings of my hootch in Saudi Arabia provided many hours of entertainment. Like most I considered this ability due to the unique mechanical construction of the underside of their clingy gecko feet. While part of that is true the real secret of gecko adhesion did not begin to emerge until the late 1960s and even now is an area of ongoing research. Basically it works like this: the toe pads are covered with tiny setae, microscopic hair like bristles. Each setae then blossoms into much tinier structures called spatulae. The result of all this hair splitting is a unique molecular interaction with the type of surface that the lizard happens to be tip toeing about on. Think about it. Cinging to a surface is very important to the lizard – but being able to instantly come loose is just as critical. Then we have this odd Third Eye business. Many lizards, and a number of other animal species, possess a kind of third eye on top of their head. This organ, the parietal eye is not a cyclopean organ designed to detect overhead prey or predators, although it does do this to an extent. Its primary function is to detect changes in light via bio chemical rather than a photo receptor mechanism as in a true eye.

For an incredibly detailed analysis of gecko toes take close look at this article in the Oxford Journals:

Mechanisms of Adhesions in Geckos by Kellar Autumn and Anne M. Peattie

For further insight into the parietal eye take a look here:

The role of the “third eye” in reptilian behavior. American Museum novitates ; no. 1870

Stebbins, Robert C. (Robert Cyril), 1915-; Eakin, Richard Marshall, 1910-

Prickly Side of Afghanistan

One of the most noticeable animals in the country is the Crested Porcupine. Rarely seen during the day this nocturnal prowler leaves signs of itself just about everywhere. Following a regular route in search of food these porcupines leave trails so well worn they are often mistaken for human trails. You’ll know you’ve found a crested porcupine den by the small collection of bones at the entrance. They aren’t predators, they chew on the bones for the calcium. Longer and more lean in build than our American variety these guys possess quills thick and sturdy enough to stab someone. The specimen above was photographed at the Portland, OR Zoo.

Despite their nearly exclusive nighttime activities hedgehogs or signs of their presence are something you are bound to see. Three different types of these tough little insectivores inhabit Afghanistan. The most common and most widespread in range is the Long-Eared Hedgehog. Found everywhere except the most mountainous regions. The Afghan Hedgehog is found primarily in the eastern part of the country. Brandt’s Hedgehog is a native of the desert regions. As cute as these creatures may appear, they are also incredibly tough and will tackle nearly anything in its quest for food to include venomous snakes. I found this little guy under my hooch; Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province as I recall.

The American Bullfrog


The American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) in all its glory:

What better way to celebrate the 4th of July weekend than with a salute to the American Bullfrog – the true El Hefe of North American frogs. In fact it is the third largest frog in the world. Only the goliath frog and the cane toad are bigger. But when you consider that there are about 4000 species of frogs and toads in the world number 3 is quite an accomplishment. Our American bullfrog tops out at about 8 inches in length and two pounds or so in weight. You have probably heard that big booming sound at some time in your life. That’s an adult advertising its presence. Younger ones often emit a loud squawk when startled. This odd vocalization often startles the human intruder just as much as the frog. Bullfrogs were introduced to the West Coast some time ago and have now pretty much blanketed any area with sufficient water to create the quiet ponds they love. 

Can You Say Anemone?

After barnacles, shore crabs, and sea stars our most noticeable and interesting species of Northwest wildlife are the anemones, pronounced ah-nemm-oh-nee. (Not to insult anyone’s intelligence, please. I’ve just heard a lot of people struggle with the word.) Anemones belong to the phylum of animals called Cnidarians, a group that includes hydras, jellyfish, and corals. Animals in this phylum possess radial symmetry. Cut one in half and you end up with two mirror images. Cnidarians also have a gut cavity which is used for digestion and circulation. Unlike their wandering and often dangerous cousins, the jellyfish, anemones are a static group preferring to spend their life clinging to a substrate of some sort, rarely if ever moving and are not dangerous to humans. They possess stinging cells called nematocysts but also have an additional adaptation called spirocysts, sort of a long adhesive thread that snarls around prey.


Here’s a few of our more familiar species:

The aggregating anemone gets its name from the groupings of them often seen which sometimes appear as a carpet on the ocean floor. These congregations are due to the asexual reproduction of the animal. They exhibit a distinct color difference when seen closer to shore in tide pools. Next up is a club-tipped anemone which is actually more of a coral than an anemone. Those silvery white tips contain the largest stinging cells of any anemone. One of our most beautiful species is the giant green anemone found in great profusion in the intertidal zone and deeper. Our largest, and just about the largest anemone in the world, is the frilled anemone. Also called a plumose anemone, their stalks often reach well over a foot in length. You’ll see them in brown or white color variations hanging off boat docks and pilings.

Sponges – the Soft Side of Northwest Wildlife

Hamilton Book

Sponges have been in the news lately thanks to the discovery of “Volkswagen” sized specimen discovered off the coast of Hawaii recently. Yep, that’s a lot of sponge alright but probably not all that uncommon. We have a fair number of species gracing our Northwest waters. With many thousands of sponge species living worldwide it is hardly surprising to find great so many in our own waters. Don’t try finding them in freshwater, however. Only a very small number have manged to master that environment. What is surprising is just how widespread and successful this very “simple” organism has become. They hardly move at all, have no mouth, and rely on flagella to transport food through tiny holes in their body. Yet there is one species of sponge that is actually carnivorous. Sponges are the oldest known fossils animals according to many resources.

One of the greatest places to find sponge fossils is – believe or not – Saudi Arabia, where I photographed these specimens. On the far left is a close up of the exterior of the animal clearly showing the tine holes through which food waters and waste is transported. Note, however, the more rectangular shape seen on the inside of the fossil.

Ocean Book

Three classes of Sponges represent the Phylum Porifera in the Northwest.  Below is a list of the more common:

Class Calcera – the Calcerous Sponges

Vase Sponge    Scypha compacta

Stalked Sponge    Leucilla nuttingi

Bristly Vase Sponge    Leucandra heathi

Tube Ball Sponge    Leucopoenia eleanor

Tube Sponge    Leucopoenia nautilia

Class Hexactinellida – the Glass Sponges

Goblet Sponge    Conelasma calyx

Cloud Sponge    Aphrocallistes vastus

Chimney Sponge (2 species)    Rhabdoclyptus dawsoni and Straurocalyptus dowlingi

Class Demospongiae – Most common North American Sponges

Yellow Boring Sponge    Cliona celata

Rough Scallop Sponge    Myxilla incrustans

Smooth Scallop Sponge    Mycale adhaerens

Hermit Crab Sponge    Suberities fiscus

Purple Encrusting Sponge Halicolona permollis

Bread Crumb Sponge    Halichondria spp

Velvety Red Sponge    Ophlitaspongia pennata

Yellow Encrusting Sponge    Myxilla lacusnosa

Red Volcano Sponge    Acarnus erithacus

Orange Ball Sponge    Tethya californiana

Tennis Ball Sponge    Craneilla villosa

Spiny Tennis Ball Sponge    Craniella spinosa

Glove Sponge    Neoesperiopsis digitata

Orange Finger Sponge    Neoesperiopsis  rigida

Trumpet Sponge    Stylissa stipitata

Aggregated Vase Sponge    Polymastica pacifica

Salt and Pepper Sponge    Penares cortius

Peach Ball Sponge    Suberites montiniger

Iophon sponge    Iophon chelifer

White Sponge    Adioca sp.

Chocolate Puffball Sponge    Latrunuclia sp.

For pictures of all of the above species I suggest “Whelks to Whales, Coastal Marine Life of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska” by Rick M. Harbo, Harbour Publishing, 1999, the reference I used to compile this list. For online reference I recommend: 

Sponges are a classic example of how the most simple of living organisms are surprisingly complex.  These most primitive of multicellular animals have neither true tissues or organs.  They are the “missing link” between single celled and multi celled organisms.  They are so simple in structure, in fact, that ancient scientists like Aristotle and Pliny considered them plants.  It was not until 1765 that sponges were finally deemed to belong to the animal kingdom.

    Of the 5,000 to 10,000 species of sponges on earth all inhabit water.  Of these thousands, however, all but a relative handful are marine dwellers.  There are currently only about 150 species of freshwater sponges.  Sponges are found in all the oceans of the world from boat docks to depths of 28,000 feet.  They can be anywhere from the size of a marble to the size of a cow.  Many display radial symmetry, but a large number have irregular shapes, tall column shapes, and a myriad of other forms.  Some are flat and some spread like lichens.  They encompass all the colors of the rainbow.

    So what then exactly is a sponge?  The sponges are perhaps best described as a group of single cells that all manage to work together.  To understand a sponge by examining a single one of its cells, even though most are practically identical, would do you no more good than studying the single cell of any other multicellular creature.  The organism must be studied as a whole.  Yet experiments have shown that if a sponge is strained through a silk mesh the separated individual cells will regenerate and form themselves into several new sponges.  That even beats the legendary powers of sea stars for regeneration.


    These drawings from my old college textbook, “Invertebrate Zoology,” by Dr. Robert D. Barnes offer a great representation of the inner workings of the different types of sponges.  The diagram on the left shows the common feature of all sponges – filter feeding by use of self generated water currents.  (Hence the name Porifera, “Hole Bearers.”)  Water flows through two layers of cells that are separated by a jelly like substance.  Larger sponges form more complex canals.  The water, together with tiny food particles flows into the atrium, and then out of the top of the sponge called the osculum.  The diagram on the right is a magnified view of the inner, flagellated cells of a sponge.  These flagella beat incessantly pulling water into the sponge and pushing it out of the organism.

Dedicated to the wildlife of the NW United States – and wildlife worldwide.