What are we missing?

House Fire

A house on Edgewood Avenue (I think) north of Baltimore in 2009. A found story for a community newspaper reporter. More often than not, however, science writing offers few “found” news stories.

I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:

While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.

When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.

Read the rest of this entry »


Is biking in cities good for you?

Life presents us all with certain problems, one of them being how to move ourselves from place to place. I submit that if you live in a compact, congested city, there’s really only one sane solution: ride a bicycle. Biking is carbon-neutral, it’s efficient, it’s outdoors, it’s exercise, it’s free, it’s fun. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.

But as I’m dodging morning traffic on my way to work in Washington, DC, I do find myself wondering, am I just fucking crazy? Could the health benefits from bike commuting possibly outweigh the risk of getting flattened by some latte-swilling, texting SUV driver? And even if I avoid that fate, what about the longer-term effects of the exhaust fumes I’m sucking in with every breath?

Morning traffic into DC

Morning traffic into DC

Since I am a science writer, I feel compelled to try to answer such questions with data. So it was troubling to find that one of the few sources providing data on the risks of different modes of transport puts biking near the top in deaths per journeys, miles traveled, or time spent in transit (apparently based on a 15-year old British survey). Only motorcycling, which is essentially bicycling at the speed of car traffic, proved more dangerous. U.S. data from a similar time period and cited in this paper tell a similar story.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Ecologist Takes on an Invader

An Ecologist’s Battle

Invasive plants are the ones that don’t play well with others. They steal their neighbors’ food and water, and they refuse to share. And you’ll see them all around the Baltimore area: vines smothering stream banks and blanketing entire trees; the brambles tangling and choking the understory; the annuals carpeting the forest floor. They’re the botanical version of an alien invasion.

Or, they can make nice additions to our gardens. Vanessa Beauchamp, an invasive plant ecologist, tells me about a hiker who came upon her research team in a park outside Baltimore. “She asked us what we’re doing, and we explained we’re studying this invasive grass that we think is a really big problem, and we’re trying to understand more about its ecology. And she says, ‘Oh my gosh that stuff is so pretty, I dug up a bunch and planted it in my yard.’”


A wavyleaf basketgrass carpet

The plant was wavyleaf basketgrass, a native of Europe and Asia. It sounds innocent enough, like a prairie grass that might rustle softly in a summer breeze. And it’s pretty enough, too, with intensely green leaves that unfurl on either side of a central shoot, and a head of spiky seeds that sticks up a foot or so above the ground. The seeds are the problem, though—they hitch rides on pant legs, animals, basically anything that comes by—and disperse to new locations that way. The plant can grow just fine even in the deep shade of a mature forest. In Patapsco Valley State Park, where it was discovered in the mid-1990s, it now carpets acres of forest floor. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources launched a war on it but lost, due to lack of funding. Now the plant has spread to other parks in the area, and experts like Beauchamp fear there may be no containing it.


A seed head

But if it’s green and pretty, what’s the worry? Beauchamp says it’s all about the community of life in the forest. Exotic plants like basketgrass are newcomers to this community, so nothing has evolved to eat them—a lesson Beauchamp has learned firsthand. “When we worked on wavyleaf basketgrass, we literally spent the summer crawling around on the forest floor. I figured we would just be tick city,” she says. Instead, of the half dozen people on her crew, “We got one tick between all of us. I mean, that’s insane.”

Few of us would be sad to see the ticks disappear. But without the thousands of insects, worms, mites, and spiders that make their living in the forest understory, the woods would be a vastly different—and less lively—place. “Nobody’s looked at how insects are able to use this grass…We see very little insect damage on the grass at all. We see no deer damage,” says Beauchamp. “If there’s no insects eating them, there’s no birds eating those insects, and up and up and up.”

A wavyleaf basketgrass army

Beauchamp moved to Towson University in Baltimore from Arizona five years ago. For an invasive species expert, the move meant more than packing and unpacking boxes—it meant abandoning one biome and learning a new one. Luckily for Beauchamp, Maryland has no shortage of invasive plants, and it didn’t take her long to find one she could claim as her own. “I came across this wavyleaf basketgrass that nobody knew anything about, and I said ‘All right. That’s mine.’”

One of the questions Beauchamp is asking is how aggressive the grass actually is. Many writers on the Web claim it crowds out other plant species, but Beauchamp wonders whether it might just take advantage of openings on the forest floor, especially those created by Maryland’s massive plant-munching deer population. To test how competitive wavyleaf basketgrass is, her research team is growing the grass in a greenhouse alongside other native and invasive grasses, and seeing which puts on the most weight. They hope to have results soon.


Beauchamp’s dog, with seeds

Beauchamp is also trying to figure out how the seeds disperse. And she thinks she’s found a suspect: pet dogs. When hikers let their dogs run through a basketgrass patch, they “come out looking like a chia pet,” says Beauchamp. Fore more precision, she had her students count the number of seeds sticking to a dog. “We found that a single dog going through this grass for 30 seconds can get over 2000 seeds on it,” she says.

Dogs may not be the only culprit, though; Beauchamp also has her eye on deer. She and her team tested this hypothesis in a rather macabre way: they got severed deer legs from a meat processor, and “walked” the legs through a basketgrass patch. Again, the legs came out covered in seeds.

But Beauchamp admits she can’t answer the most important questions: how much wavyleaf basketgrass is there, and where? “I have absolutely no number to tell you in terms of how many acres this grass covers in Maryland,” she say. “None.” Unfortunately, when she wrote a grant to fund a project that would get at such a number, she got caught in a chicken-and-egg situation: the review panel rejected the proposal, saying Beauchamp and colleagues hadn’t demonstrated how much of a threat the grass poses. “But if I don’t have any money to study it, how can I demonstrate that?” she asks.


“Walking” the deer legs

So like any good scientist, she’s gotten creative. She mustered a “wavyleaf basketgrass army” of undergraduates and high school teachers to go out and count plants in different locations. She’s also teaming with a Catonsville Community College professor who’s developing a smartphone app that will allow anybody to report a basketgrass sighting, along with GPS coordinates. Beauchamp is hoping the data her team and concerned citizens collect will convince funders and policymakers that the grass is worth studying on a larger scale.

Beauchamp vs. basketgrass

Beauchamp versus basketgrass is the latest chapter in a long saga of human battles against invasive plants. And so far the invaders have scored most of the victories. Here in Maryland, English ivy, Japanese stilt-grass, mile-a-minute weed (an Asian species known as “kudzu of the north”), and other exotics have become far more familiar sights in our parks and forests than most of our native plants. Will wavyleaf basketgrass join this list of dubious characters, or could this be the time we outsmart the weed?

(All photos courtesy of Vanessa Beauchamp)

A Snake! (and other animals that cross my path)

No, that crooked black line is not a crack in a tree trunk. It’s a snake climbing up a tree across the street from my apartment building. I may be a mediocre photographer, but I carry a camera just about everywhere and I try to get better all the time. When I’m on a plane, I use a zoom lens to photograph other planes flying nearby, or clouds, or sunlight reflecting in river tributaries that look like a sunset-colored octopus. When I walk to the university, I carry a camera just in case one of the local hawks puts on a show. I bring my camera so I can show my friends the things I see, but also because I will always need more practice. In that way, photography and writing are similar. Both are crafts that require a lifetime of regular, attentive exercise and application, resulting each month or each year in “better” photos and sentences rather than “great” ones. But that’s the idea behind a craft.

That said, I recently finished my thesis, and before I get back to practicing the craft of writing, I thought I’d give my other craft a little fresh air by sharing a few photos of creatures I’ve happened upon in the last few years. Minimal research. Just a few pretty things to give the mind a rest, starting with the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo.

Across from my apartment building is the lovely Wyman Park. It’s 20 or 30 acres of woodland that serves as the backyard of Johns Hopkins University. The park is a narrow but lush oasis of green where people from Baltimore’s Hampden and Charles Village neighborhoods run, bike, sit on rocks by the stream, and walk their dogs. Basically, Wyman Park is your typical city park — not a wilderness, but still home to some surprising creatures.

I met a member of Wyman Park’s wildlife community this Tuesday around 4 p.m. That would be the snake you saw in the above photo. My car was parked along a mowed field, the doorstep to Wyman Park. I was digging through my trunk for a quart of oil or something when a lady walked up and warned me that there was a huge snake under the car parked two ahead of mine. Just in case I were to walk that direction she wanted me to be aware. A HUGE snake? Yes, in fact. It was the longest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. By the time she warned me about it, the snake had already mounted the curb and was halfway hidden in the grass of the park. It reached a four-foot-diameter tree and began to climb. Steadily, the snake moved upward — a funny thing to watch since a snake has no familiar limbs, claws, tentacles, or anything visible to propel it forward, let alone straight up. Yet it climbed without slipping once. Only a few minutes passed before the snake silently slithered into a hole in the lowest branch. The hollow space must have been small because the snake ended up bunched up and folded over a few times. You can see its midsection kinked like a two-inch hose in the shadow behind its head if you click on the photo to enlarge.

After scanning the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website and elsewhere, my best guess is it’s an eastern rat snake (a.k.a. black rat snake). Maryland’s biggest snake, the eastern rat snake often grows to six feet long (the DNR says the official record is 8 feet 5 inches). The one in my photo is probably five feet long at most.

Snakes are charming, but I’m more of a bird guy. In April 2011, I visited a Catholic high school in Baltimore County to write a story about the school’s plan to provide iPads to all of their students the following school year. In the parking lot near the school’s athletic field, however, I stopped to capture an aerial battle. Something small and furry was dead, innards exposed, at the edge of the grass, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a wooden fence post a few feet away. A couple of American crows or fish crows were also interested in the meal, but neither the hawk nor the crows could get more than a nibble of meat at a time before the other species attacked to fight for the meal.

Here the crows frantically chase the hawk:

Then one of the crows looks like it makes contact:

I don’t know how the fight ended because I had to go cover the iPad thing, but a few months later I got a far richer taste of wildlife when my girlfriend and I visited friends in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve lived in or visited probably 20 states in the U.S., but I’ve never seen another place as richly green as the woodland around Portland. Florida is lovely too, but it’s a different kind of green — low palms of light green, tall Australian pines with segmented needles, and lots of sand, sunshine and heat. Oregon, however, is on the opposite corner of the U.S. and is ruled by towering pines, cool damp air, and moss on everything.

From our visit to Multnomah Falls in Oregon.

Moss grows on trees, rocks, and probably even on other moss. In the thick parkland, sunlight filters through the dark green vegetation and causes the moss below to glow. The natural beauty is so intense that it looks almost handmade, as if every moss-covered tree and stone were part of a movie set, a caricature of life at its most vibrant. During our visit, we went on a couple of walks through the wet green wonderland. On one walk, one of my dear friends spotted a slug, a relatively common one for the region, but still gargantuan, and yellow. I’m pretty sure it was a Pacific banana slug. I took a few photos, of course, and here’s the slug with its body contracted:

Now here’s the same slug a minute later, now six or seven inches long and zooming along the forest floor at hundreds of millimeters per hour:

But, in case you’re about to eat something, I’ll try to supplant the image of the slug with something slime-less. Last year I was in Chincoteague, Virginia, and I took scores of photographs, but rather than overload you with all of my favorite animals from that trip, I’ll offer just one. Unless I’m mistaken, this is a laughing gull:

See? It’s “laughing.”

My girlfriend and I found this noisy guy while sitting at an outdoor bar and restaurant on the waterfront. The laughing gull sat on a dock-post about 10 feet from our table. All while we drank and ate, he remained on the post. Whenever another gull approached the perch, our gull would call and flap and fight to keep the spot. We soon learned why.

When I failed to eat all of my dinner (I know we’re not supposed to do this and I’m ashamed of myself) I decided to feed the gull. Apparently, he recognized my body language from experience with other people. After I tore a piece of bread from my plate, I turned back toward the gull. Before I knew what was happening, he had perched on the windowsill next to me, taken the bread from my hand, and returned to the dock post to eat it. He knew! He knew what I was doing before I’d done it! Animals. What the heck.

An interesting little tidbit from the laughing gull experience was something about his beak. I didn’t notice until looking at my photos later, but you can see straight through his beak via his nares (nostrils).

That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed one or some of the animals. And to any other students or instructors out there, Happy End of the Semester!

If I incorrectly identified any of the animals above, please let me know. Thanks!