Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, March 29, 2007


I started a birding life list when I was about twelve, and added my last entry to it about a week later. I've never had the discipline to effectively catalog what I've seen in the world, so I'm an unlikely candidate for the project that Jeremy at The Voltage Gate has hatched. Inspired by the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watch, Jeremy's plan, the Blogger Bioblitz is timed to coincide with National Wildlife Week, April 21-29. Participants will select a parcel of land and a period of time, and catalog the various species they find on that parcel, during that period. The format has been designed to give each participant a lot of leeway to tailor their own study: some may restrict their count to birds or angiosperms. Others will do their best to tally as much of the total flora and fauna as they can. Hopefully, there will be those with the fortitude to break out a microscope. Although we've established that I'm poorly fit for this kind of work, I don't intend to let that stop me. I'll devote the better part of a day that week to recording the flora and fauna in and around a small pond that I've visited every year since I was very young. I'll include ten meters beyond the pond's perimeter, and will identify as many organisms as accurately as I can. I'll restrict myself to the macroscopic; that will provide trouble enough. When the day comes, I expect to be surprised by a number of problems I didn't anticipate. Here are a couple I've already considered: We're being asked not only to tally species, but to count individuals per species. How does one census numerous, moving creatures, like mayflies or mosquito larvae? The best I'll be able to do is estimate the number in a subset of the parcel and multiply. Very active creatures, like dragonflies, will be even more hopeless--and what about ants emerging from a subterranean colony? Flying creatures that I identify without their actually coming directly over my parcel will probably be counted. I'll continue to fine-tune my methods as the time approaches.
If this project sounds like something you'd enjoy, please click on the button above (designed by Jen of Invasive Species Weblog), and sign up. Even if you're not a blogger, Jeremy has set up a Flickr group where you can post photos.
The Bioblitz originated on May 31-June1, 1996, in Washington D.C.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

RICHARD SLOAN 1935 - 2007

Yesterday, Richard Sloan, the "Dean of Rainforest Painters," was found dead in his home at age 71. Dick began his career as an illustrator for the Lincoln Park Zoo, in his native Chicago. I first became aware of him in the early 1970s, through his beautiful paintings of predatory birds, and I was probably representative of his fan base at that time. His career as a raptor painter culminated in the beautiful Raptors Of Arizona, published in 1998, which featured 42 Sloan illustrations. A 1969 trip to (then) British Guiana changed Dick's life forever, and he returned obsessed with tropical biology. He made numerous trips to the tropics (including one in 1995 to the Iquitos region of Peru, that I was privileged to join him on) and began to focus on rainforest subjects in his art. For several years he found it difficult to garner the attention for his rainforest work that his raptor paintings had enjoyed, but he persisted, and eventually developed a strong following, carving a path for those of us who would follow his footsteps. In 1994, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum named him a "Master Wildlife Artist," one of the greatest honors a wildlife painter can achieve. He was also twice bestowed the Society of Animal Artists' highest honor, the "Award of Excellence." After the death of his wife, Dick moved to Florida, and in the last decade of his life discovered scuba diving, which he relished, expanding his artistic endeavors to depicting the world beneath the ocean's surface. While walking on the beach about two years ago, he stepped on a piece of glass, sustaining a cut and recalcitrant infection that brought him a great deal of undeserved misery, and recently he had been plagued with severe back pain, for which he was scheduled to undergo surgery in two days.
I first met Dick in the early '90s, and we soon found we had a lot in common, becoming very good friends. He was extremely generous, and was an ardent champion of my own work. My career would have been far less successful without him in my corner, and I'll always be grateful to him for that, and for the many jungle hikes, canoe trips, drunken card games and dirty email jokes by which I'll remember him. Above is my favorite Richard Sloan painting, "A Little Romance," depicting a pair of courting Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis). This painting, and a number of others, is part of the Art of the Rainforest exhibition currently installed at the exhibit hall of the Detroit Zoo.
On a happier note, another distinguished artist is 45 years old today. Happy birthday to my brother Mark!!

Friday, March 23, 2007


Merlins (Falco columbarius) are powerful little falcons that are found throughout the holarctic region. In North America, their recorded breeding range extends a bit south of the Canada/U.S. Border. Along the Pacific Coast, they nest as far south as Northern California. Only slightly larger than the better-known American Kestrel (F. sparverius), they appear very different from those common falcons in the air. Their wings are broader and their tails shorter. Their flight is much more powerful and direct—in every aspect they are more like a tiny Gyrfalcon. Where the kestrel feeds mostly on rodents and insects, the Merlin's diet consists almost exclusively of birds. Because of this, they're never found in the kind of numbers that kestrels can reach, but by no means are they rare birds. Here in Utah, they are rather common winter visitors, and seem especially fond of agricultural areas. It's not unusual to see them in Salt Lake City, and this past winter, I had one fly within inches of my head as I rode my bicycle down the busiest street in the state.

One old record exists of a Merlin nest in northern Utah, but as far as I know, none have been found here in the past 80 years. I've suspected for a long time that this fact is not representative of the species' true breeding status. In the 1970s, I observed a pair during several summers in the mouth of Parley's Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City, and in recent years, I've seen a pair in the mouth of nearby Red Butte Canyon. Despite all the effort I could muster, I never found these birds' nests, nor did I ever see fledglings, but I believe they probably existed. Unlike most falcon species, Merlins don't have a typical nesting modus operandi. They'll use the abandoned nest of a magpie, hawk or squirrel, a tree cavity, or a cliff niche. There are even numerous records of them nesting on the ground. Add to this fact the hyperactive manner and small size of the species, and the difficulty of discovering a nest site becomes obvious.

For the past couple of days, a Merlin has been hanging around a residential area in Salt Lake City. Normally, migrant Merlins leave the state by mid-February, so this bird has me excited. I spent the better part of yesterday trying to see and photograph her, but my efforts would be best described as “loitering.” I did manage to snap her silhouette twice. Whether I get the chance to photograph her again remains to be seen. A single bird in March is a far cry from a nesting pair in May, but I plan to spend a lot of time in this neighborhood, and expect to be on a first-name basis with every cop on the beat by the end of April. I'd be interested to hear from anyone with Merlin insights to share.
upper: WORKING THE FLOCK -- MERLIN & STARLINGS (1990) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: Bad Merlin photographs taken by CPBvK in Salt Lake City 3-22-'07


On August 23, 1976, researchers in a cloud forest in the Andes of Northern Peru mist-netted a tiny owl with naked legs and extremely long facial whiskers. The bird was unlike anything they had seen, and within a few months it was assigned to its own genus: Xenoglaux, or “strange owlet.” Over the next two decades, two more of these birds were trapped in the same area, but next to nothing was known about their natural history. I became fascinated with the Long-whiskered Owlet (X. loweryi), as the species became known, and traveled to the region in 1997, hoping to catch a glimpse it, or, more likely, hear its call. I experienced neither, but “La Lechucita Bigotona” retained its grip on my consciousness. The cloud forests of the northern Peruvian Yunga are very humid. Because of the altitude, the gnarled trees are not particularly dense or tall, so despite the rich growth of moss everywhere, there is a look of harshness about the place. Long-whiskered Owlets don't appear to be powerful fliers, and are thought to prefer clambering among the branches in search of insect prey. In 1999 I painted the above piece, based upon descriptions of study skins, showing X. loweryi scrambling beneath a towering Brassia orchid.

In the past few years, a bit more has been learned about Long-whiskered Owlets. The 1,500 ha Reserva Privada de Abra Patricia, in the Peruvian province of Bongara, was set aside two years ago to protect their imperiled and interesting ecosystem, and last month, David Geale and Juvenal Ccahuana, who have been monitoring the reserve, observed the birds in the wild for the first time. On three different occasions, the two encountered them during the day, and they've managed to record their calls many times. Geale and Ccahuana mist-netted the above individual, and took several good photographs of it. Judging from these photos, the eyes on my painting are not nearly red enough, the feet should be pinker, and the bill a bit longer. Aside from that, I feel okay about the piece. Hopefully, more information on the bird's behavior will be forthcoming. (Hat-tip: Suzanne Grow)
(UPDATE:) Filipe has a great post about Xenoglaux on Cais de Gaia, including excerpts (translated into Portuguese) from the original 1977 Auk paper by O'Neill & Graves. You may have trouble reading the Portuguese (as I did), but check out the B&W photos and the John O'Neill watercolor!
upper: LONG-WHISKERED OWLET (1999) acrylic 13" x 5"
lower: Photo of Xenoglaux loweryi by Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Last week I lost a couple of friends—not close friends, but talented ones.

Last Saturday, Larry Chandler died suddenly of pneumonia at age 55. Larry was a skilled wildlife artist, who was probably best known for his conservation stamp design of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, titled Elusive Ivory(above, right). He also designed a license plate commemorating the bird. He worked closely with famed woodpecker hunter Bobby Harrison, of Alabama's Oakwood College, for many months, developing quickly into an obsessive and knowledgeable Ivorybill enthusiast. He was one of the first people to view David Luneau's Arkansas woodpecker videotape, and I'm grateful to him for spilling the beans in my direction several months before news about the footage was released. He was an ardent defender of the video until the end. In addition to his painting skills, Larry was a very solid drummer. I had a great time playing in an impromptu blues band with him at the 2000 ArtLink convention in Orlando, Florida. Larry and his wife Donna lost their daughter Lara in a car crash last September.

One week before Larry's death, 49-year-old comedian Richard Jeni died in Hollywood, an apparent suicide. I worked with Richard on his 1992 HBO Special Platypus Man, designing an animated platypus character. He was great fun to work with: considerate, interesting, and always extremely funny. Being unhappy while in his company was impossible. How ironic. His 1990 Showtime special, The Boy from New York City is required viewing. Standup comedy doesn't get any better. Sad as it is to have lost these two talented men, their legacies live on in strong bodies of work. We should all be so lucky.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


The 75th edition of Tangled Bank, the blog carnival of the life sciences, is now up at Living the Scientific Life. Drop on over there for a sampling of the best blogging about science, nature and medicine.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Here in Utah, we're celebrating International Rock Day today. Well, at least I am. On this date, 30 years ago, I was involved in a freak climbing accident; that is to say, an accident that occurred while climbing with a freak. My friend Kim and I, a couple of foolish 18-year-olds, were driving home from nearby Park City, when I pointed out the cliff nest of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) on the hillside. He suggested we climb to it, and I agreed to take him. We had no gear, but that was of little consequence; I'd grown up free climbing on rocks, and was so far uninitiated to its perils. The plan was ill-conceived on multiple levels; although there was little chance of disturbing an incubating bird this early in the year, the adult eagles could well have been hanging around the nest site already, and been put off by our intrusion. Kim pulled his truck off the road, and we hiked, dauntless and clueless, to the base of the cliff. The rock face was sheer, but a route of footholes made scaling it quite feasible. Kim began his ascent before I had a chance to suggest otherwise, so I followed, giving him directions from below. The nest itself rested on a ledge about 100 feet from the base. As Kim approached it, he lost his nerve, and began to make his way back down. Resting against a balanced boulder, he accidentally pushed it from its place, and it fell some 25 feet onto my hand. My descent was suddenly made more complicated with but one functional hand. Kim climbed down past me, to get to his truck and enlist help, but he couldn't find one of the footholes. I peered down from my position and tried to give him directions, but his grip gave out, and he fell. I watched him plummet like Wile E. Coyote, saucer-eyed, spread-eagled, and ever smaller and smaller. Falling in that air-resistant posture, his acceleration was minimal, and when his heels finally hit a steep slope of fine scree, they bounced, sending him rolling wildly all the way down the hill, absorbing his speed gradually, and leaving him draped among the tops of the Gambel's Oaks (Quercus gambelii) that lay beyond the scree. Kim couldn't have asked to come out of an 80-foot free-fall any nicer than he did. He broke his arm and big toe, and was released from the hospital in time for dinner. For me the experience could have been much worse, as well. Had it hit my head, the rock would have been damaged far worse. Shock actually made my first hour on the cliff rather pleasurable, and my recovery was quick free of complications. Festivities will begin at the original Rock Day site, and will involve massive quantities of champagne and tequila. Sorry, Kim, but the event is by invitation only.

Friday, March 09, 2007


I'm not even sure where Mentor, Ohio is, but if it's in your neighborhood, you may want to drop by the opening festivities for this year's Masterworks In Miniature show, probably the biggest annual sale of miniature paintings and sculpture, with works from 140 of today's most popular artists.

The event, as always, is at Gallery One, 7003 Center Street. Tonight's reception is from 7 until 9pm, and the show will be up through March 24th. To see the entire show online, file an intent-to-purchase, or (most importantly) vote for my painting, Panther Chameleon Portrait (above) for the "People's Choice Award," click here.
illustration: PANTHER CHAMELEON PORTRAIT (2007) acrylic 10" x 8"

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Utah's paucity of turtles is a subject I've complained about at length, on this blog and elsewhere, but I take solace in knowing that among the three species that barely make it into this state, we can claim the magnificent Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera). The three softshells I've seen in southwestern Utah probably descended from New Mexican turtles that were introduced into the Lower Colorado River around 1900. They took well to that famous Arizona air, and dispersed throughout the Gila River drainage, and up the Colorado into Glen Canyon and the Virgin River drainage, and west to the Salton Sea and San Diego county. The native distribution of this species runs from Northwestern Vermont and southern Ontario through most of the eastern U.S., to eastern Colorado, and south to southern Taumalipas. Another introduced population is doing well in the Maurice River system in southern New Jersey. Disjunct populations in the Ottawa River, Lake Champlain, and the upper Missouri in Montana are surely relicts from an earlier, more expansive range. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis remarked at the number of softshells at the confluence of the Missouri and what he named “Turtle Creek,” presently known as Bullwhacker Creek, northwest of Bozeman. In 1960, my pal John Legler found an isolated population of very dark softshells in the Cuatro Ciénegas basin in Coahuila, Mexico, which he and R. G. Webb christened Trionyx = Apalone ater. Since that time, drainage canals were dug into the basin, bringing in outside water and Texas Softshells (A. spinifera emoryi), which hybridized with the A. ater, which is generally no longer considered a distinct species.

The Spiny Softshell is a pretty typical member of the family Trionychidae, which boasts 14 modern genera and some 22 species found in North America, Africa, Asia and the Indo-Australian region. The family has been around since at least the late Jurassic, and was distributed nearly worldwide by the end of the Mesozoic. Only two related, monotypic families, represented today by the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) and the Fly River Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) [above] of New Guinea and Australia, are more adapted to freshwater living than the softshells. The smooth, scuteless shell with flexible rims which gives these reptiles their names affords a profile that is both hydrodynamic and stable. Softshells enjoy burying themselves in sandy river bottoms, and can do so with astonishing speed, shuffling into the substrate with their carapace edges. From this position their long necks allow them to snap at close-passing prey or bring their nozzle-like snouts to the surface for a breath of air. A softshell can stay submerged for very long periods, absorbing enough oxygen through its pharynx, cloaca and skin to maintain a resting metabolic level. A few species enter brackish water, and the Nile Softshell (Trionyx triunguis) [top illustration] has been found in the open sea. Presumably, this African reptile managed to colonize parts of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel by crossing the Mediterranean. Several Asian species have dispersed across the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos.

All softshells are primarily carnivorous, but most species also eat some amount of vegetable matter. Females of the three American softshell species (Apalone spp.) are much bigger than the males, and prey mostly on fish, while their mates dine more on crayfish and other invertebrates. When not ambushing prey, the swift and shifty softshells are capable active hunters. Recent observations have shown the Nile Softshell to spend over half of its waking time engaged in play behavior. When not hunting, playing, or laying buried, most softshell species habitually bask on snags and sandbars, pointed toward deep water and ready to lurch into it at the slightest provocation. Fast, intelligent, and hard to hang on to, these turtles are virtually impossible for a human to catch without tools. Once caught, they are well equipped to defend themselves with sharp and powerful claws and beaks. Soon after emerging from hibernation in the spring, mating takes place in the water. A couple of months later, the female hauls up onto land and digs a nest in the sand, usually depositing from four to two dozen eggs, depending on her size. Large Nile Softshells have been recorded laying clutches of over 100. The incubation period varies from species to species; that of the Spiny Softshell is about 60 days.

Modern softshells are placed into two subfamilies. The typical softshells (Trionychinae) comprise 11 genera, Trionyx, Apalone, Dogania, Palea, Pelodiscus, Rafetus, Aspideretes, Nilssonia, Amyda, Pelochelys and Chitra. The three remaining softshell genera contain the flapshell turtles (Cyclanorbinae), remnants of an ancient and poorly-understood group most easily distinguished by plastron flaps that can hide the hind legs. The monotypic Lissemys punctata haunts sluggish waters in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The African Genera Cycloderma and Cyclanorbis contain two species apiece, and are distributed across most of Tropical Africa. Very little is known of these turtles' natural history, particularly the West African Cyclanorbis senegalensis (above).

The Trionychids include the biggest freshwater turtles. An 18-inch female Spiny Softshell looks like a discarded trash-can lid basking on river detritus, but she's far from the largest member of her clan. The Nile Softshell can exceed a yard in shell length, while the Narrow-headed Softshell (Chitra indica) of South Asia has been measured at 44 inches, and the Asian Giant Softshell (Pelochelys bibroni)has been measured at 50 inches.

A particularly big softshell resides in Hoan Kiem Lake, in downtown Hanoi. This lake is remarkable for its place in Vietnamese legend. It is said that after defeating the occupying Chinese army in the 15th century with a divine sword that a farmer had pulled from the water, the emperor Lê Loi was boating on this lake, when Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, swam up to him, snatched the sword from his hand, and returned it to the depths. Over the past five centuries, sightings of giant turtles in the lake have been rumored, and in 1967, during the height of the war, the Hanoi Food Company pulled a 400 lb. whopper from the lake. While government and company officials argued about what to do with the reptile, it died, and its mounted remains are on display at the Ngoc Son Temple, on an island in the lake. Around this time, two smaller members of the species were killed, and over the past couple of decades a very large individual with a recognizable white spot on its head has been seen and photographed numerous times (above). In 2000, Hà Dinh Dúc, of Hanoi National University, named the species Rafetus leloii, but this name and two others, Pelochelys hoguomensis (S.A., 1999) and Rafetus hoankiemensis (Devaux, 2001) were rejected by the herpetological community. Professor Dúc maintains that the turtle belongs to a distinct species (he also maintains that it's over 500 years old, and is the very individual that took the sword from Lê Loi), but it is generally agreed that it probably belongs to the species Rafetus swinhoei, an extremely rare Chinese species that was considered extinct until 1988. If so, the known range of the species extends further south than previously thought. Rumors of R. swinhoei in southern Viet Nam have yet to be substantiated, in fact, the species has not been confirmed in the wild since 1972, when one was caught and transferred to the Shanghai Zoo. It is feared that this animal, the one in Hoan Kiem, and three other Chinese captives are the last remnants of the species (one died at the Beijing Zoo in 2005). Unfortunately, most good nesting beaches on Hoan Kiem Lake have been cemented over, and breeding prospects are poor, assuming more than one individual exists there. Eggs from several Hoan Kiem softshell nests have been taken and hatched in the lab, but so far they have all yielded the more common Pelodiscus sinensis. A photograph taken in November 2005 shows the turtle to have sustained a severe shell injury (above right).

If captivity can save R. swinhoei, it won't be the first softshell species to enjoy the experience. The Black Softshell (Aspideretes nigricans) [left] died out in the wild before it was described to science in 1875. The 200 or so surviving individuals live in a man-made pond in Nasirabad, near Chittagong, Bangladesh. These reptiles are said to be descended from sinners turned into turtles by Sultan al-Arefin Hazrat Bayazid Bostami, an 18th century Islamic saint. The large turtle pond is connected to a shrine devoted to Saint Bostami, and the worshippers protect the turtles, which are extremely tame.
upper: HIPPOPOTAMUS & NILE SOFTSHELLS (1995) acrylic 20" x 30"
second: FLY RIVER TURTLE (2004) acrylic 18" x 24"
third: SPINY SOFTSHELL TURTLE & TIGER SALAMANDER LARVA (1988) watercolor 16" x 13"
fourth: Photograph of Cyclanorbis senegalensis taken by CPBvK at Village des Tortues, Rufisque, Senegal 2001
fifth: Photographs of Rafetus swinhoei by Hà Dinh Dúc; VietNamNet
lower: Photograph of Aspideretes nigricans ETI World Biodiversity Database