World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

It’s Not Easy Being a Spider

Two items I recently wrote for a children’s science and nature magazine:

Assassin bug vs. Spider!

When a leaf falls into a spider’s web, the spider can tell from the vibrations it hasn’t caught an insect. But when it feels fluttering insect wings, it knows dinner has arrived. It also knows to attack quickly, before its prey escapes. And when it feels vibrations from a weak insect, the spider moves in slowly. It knows its meal isn’t going anywhere.

Now, two scientists from Australia are studying how assassin bugs catch spiders using the spider’s own web. Anne Wignall and Phillip Taylor watched as an assassin bug used its legs to pluck the threads of a web. It didn’t vibrate the web like a leaf—then the spider wouldn’t come. And it didn’t vibrate it like an escaping insect—then the spider would attack too quickly. Instead, it shook the web as if it was a small, weak insect. The spider approached slowly, making it easy for the assassin bug to grab its prey.

Wolf spider vs. Sundew!

Different species of animals compete with each other—especially when they eat the same food. This usually happens with animals that are similar, like dolphins and tuna, or lizards and snakes. But now, a scientist from Florida has discovered an animal and a plant that compete for food. David Jennings studies wolf spiders and tiny plants called sundews. The sundew feeds itself by catching insects with its sticky spines. The wolf spider catches insects with its web.

Credit: Christopher V. Anderson, Univ. of South Florida

Jennings placed sundew plants in terrariums. Next, he put wolf spiders in with some of the sundews. Then he added insects. When a sundew had to share the food supply with spiders, the plant didn’t grow as well. And in the wild, he found that wolf spiders either built bigger webs when sundews were nearby—or they built their webs farther from their spiny competitors. It was as if they knew the sundew would “steal” some of their food!

Filed under: nature

Giving up the ghost bird?

In February, 2004, a lone kayaker paddling through an Arkansas swamp spotted a magnificent black and white bird. According to the kayaker, it was an Ivory-billed woodpecker, referred to as the “Lord God Bird” because that’s what everyone says when they see it: “Lord God!” The woodpecker had been considered extinct in the U.S. and the sighting was the first in decades. It triggered a fascinating and controversial quest to verify the existence of the ghostly species.

Scott Crocker, in his brilliant 2009 documentary film Ghost Bird, tells the compelling story of the reaction to the sighting and the controversial attempts to verify that the Ivory-bill had indeed returned. (I reviewed the film shortly after its screening at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May 2009.)

According to a February 10, 2010 report in Nature News, the sighting remains unconfirmed. “We don’t believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists” says Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Rohrbaugh headed the original search team. According to the report, “…after five years of fruitless searching, hopes of saving the species have faded.”

Filed under: nature,

The Cave Glow Worm

In dark rocky caverns, the cave glow worm catches insects the way an angler catches fish. The worm hangs dozens of silk threads from the cave ceiling like fishing lines from a boat. The threads can be up to 20 inches long, and are covered with droplets of the worm’s sticky mucous. When an insect flies too close, it’s caught by the line. The worm reels in its catch and enjoys its meal.

Like an angler, the cave worm attracts its prey with a lure. In an organ in its tail, a chemical reaction creates light that can easily be seen in the pitch darkness underground. Flies, mosquitoes and moths see the glow and fly toward it. In some caves, the light of thousands of worms makes the cave ceiling look like a starry night sky.

The cave glow worm (g. arachnocampa) is found mostly in New Zealand and Australia. The worm is actually the larva of a small, gnat-like fly. After nine months of catching prey and growing to over an inch in length, the larva becomes a pupa. Hanging by a strand of silk, the pupa wraps itself in a cocoon. Inside its silky hideaway, it magically transforms into an adult fly.

The female fly also glows, but she’s not trying to attract a meal. In fact, adult flies only live a day or two and don’t eat at all. The female adult uses light to attract a mate. Males wait patiently beside glowing cocoons until the female emerges. After the two flies mate, the female will lay her eggs–and the cycle begins again.

(From a recent project for young readers, about creatures that have evolved bioluminescence.)

Filed under: nature,

Ghost Bird – Hot Docs 2009

In February, 2004, a lone kayaker was paddling through a swamp in the Big Woods region of Arkansas when he spotted a magnificent black and white bird. It was an ivory-billed woodpecker, referred to as the “Lord God Bird” because that’s what everyone says when they see it: “Lord God!” The woodpecker was considered extinct in the U.S. and hadn’t been seen in decades.

The documentary, Ghost Bird, in the 2009 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, tells the story of that February day and the events that followed. The sighting was a big deal. For many birders and ornithologists, the woodpecker was the “Holy Grail” and seeing one would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. To the residents of Brinkley, Arkansas, it was a goldmine, as residents began advertising “Woodpecker Haircuts”, “Ivory-billed Burgers”, and woodpecker souvenir shops. It was a big funding deal, too, with millions of dollars of government money allocated to confirm the sighting and for habitat conservation. It was a major event for scientists claiming the veracity of the sighting; after all, how many animals come back from the dead? And it was a big deal for those experts whose skepticism threw the sighting into doubt and created controversy.

Woven through the story is one of the few pieces of tangible evidence of the bird’s existence: a video taken after the initial sighting, supposedly capturing the ivory-bill taking off from a tree and flying off into the swamp. It provides only an ephemeral, blurry glimpse. An audio recording of what might be an ivory-bill’s call is also tantalizing but equally inconclusive.

Ghost Bird, produced and directed by Scott Crocker, portrays the woodpecker as a symbol of what nature means to us and, equally, what we have done to nature. (The bird disappeared largely because of habitat loss.) The portraits of the story’s many characters are fascinating: the birders who debate the sighting after doubts surface and who so want the woodpecker to be real; the scientists who analyze the video frame by frame; the residents of Brinkley swept up by ivory-bill mania, each with their own reason for wanting the bird to be found.

But as the press kit for the film says, Ghost Bird is set in a “murky swamp of belief.” It has “less to say about extinct woodpeckers than about our yearning to look for and even see them, whether they are there or not.”

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Filed under: nature, pseudoscience, skepticism, UFOs, , , ,

About me

I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at, and follow me at


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