Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


According to popular lore, the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what could be learned of God by studying nature, to which he quipped, "He seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles." The truth matches the tale's essence, but falls short of its satisfying details, and I see no reason to wreck a good story.
Beetles certainly are a successful group, with roughly the same number of species as all other insects combined. Most of them are tiny and dull, but many of them are beautiful and spectacular. The African Goliath beetles (Goliathus spp.) are often said to be the largest beetles, though the South American Titanus giganteus greatly exceeds them in length, and probably in weight, as well. Even so, they are immense and wonderful creatures, and far more beautifully marked than any of their competitors in the hugeness competition. Surprisingly for such cumbersome things, the ones I've seen in nature have been arboreal, and seem to rarely come to the ground. During the brief tropical dusk, though, they fly about the canopy from one nectar-rich flowering tree to the next. It's hard to describe the flight of a beetle with a seven-inch wingspan, because it's really so improbable. It's like being buzzed by a winged box turtle. Of course they make a real racket--you can't miss one when it flies helicopter-like overhead, evoking strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

Across much of Latin America, the Hercules Beetle (Dynastes hercules) is the most common very large beetle. Smaller than a Goliath, the pair of antler-like horns on the thorax and head of the male roughly double his length to around seven inches. At La Selva biological station I once took a night hike with several young biologists. One of these was a rather obnoxious lad whose personal boat was all too often commandeered by his bellicose ego. On this evening, the presence of a beautiful and charming female biologist was incentive enough for such a mutiny, and we were all subjected to great bluster and boasting for most of the evening. Suddenly a large Hercules Beetle, attracted to our flashlights, came flying toward us from two o’clock. Passing us by, it continued into the jungle on our opposite flank. A moment later it was back, and on the third pass it landed directly on the groin of our swashbuckling biologist. When a beetle of this size lands, any sudden perceived attack will instantly provoke it to grasp its substrate with all the might of its six strong legs, each one tipped with a pair of needle-like tarsi, and that is precisely what this one did upon the first effort to brush it away. The dance our companion then executed was very much like the ones I imagine leprechauns must engage in: sort of a hornpipe, with much leaping through the forest from one foot to the next, hysterically swatting his own crotch. We maintained him in our flashlight beams until he disappeared into the jungle. A few moments later he emerged...alone, and a better man, if only for that evening.
This summer, residents of Utah's Wasatch Mountains have been treated to an unusually high number of our largest native beetle, the Giant Root Borer (Prionus californicus).
Reaching three inches in length, this rufous behemoth really is spectacular, and ordinarily rare enough (an average summer sees no more than one or two) to make catching one an event. So far, 2007 has yielded seven. Immediately upon their capture they effect a very loud and charming scraping sound, which is common to many big beetles, although the exact mechanics of it I’ve never been able to divine. A pair of powerful mandibles mandates some degree of care in their handling. As the name implies, the grubs fed on the root crowns of Gambel’s Oak (Quercus gambelii). In some parts of the American West these grubs were said to be an important food for certain Indian communities, although I can't imagine how they located them. I'm equally puzzled by the number I've seen this year. Does it reflect the decline of an important predator? A beneficial environmental change? Or a statistical anomaly? Perhaps further observations will yield some answers, but for now I'm all questions.
upper: STILL LIFE WITH BEETLES (2000) acrylic 20" x 26" The large beetle with maroon elytra in front of the book's spine is a Great Goliath Beetle (G. goliatus). Directly above the tip of its snout, a Giant Root Borer comes in for a landing. In the loser right corner is a Hercules Beetle.
lower: Photo of a road-killed Giant Root Borer taken by CPBvK July 26, 2007

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


FilmTreks is a local venture that offers Filmmaking workshops. Last summer they taught a speed-filming course, where pairs of students produced a finished, short documentary in four days. Two of those students, Dave Kurz and Pat McMurtry, took me to Emigration Canyon, where I grew up. As we hiked around, they asked me questions and pointed cameras at me, resulting a couple of days later, in this film. The title, "Slithering Towards Gomorrah," they lifted from the reptile chapter of my book, Rigor Vitae. Despite their limited time constraints, I think they did a remarkable job of capturing my rambling, incoherent style of communicating.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


from the archives:
Oh sure, we celebrated the 4th of July here in Salt Lake City--fireworks, parades...the whole deal. But it was little more than a warm-up for the real event: today, the twenty-fourth of July. On this date, in 1847, Brigham Young and his followers entered the Salt Lake Valley, ending a migration across most of the continent that lasted some dozen years. The church was founded in 1830, in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith, who claimed that God spoke to him, ordering him to restore the true gospel to Earth. Peculiar cults, especially ones that engaged in illegal activities like polygamy, were no more popular then than they are today, and Joseph and his followers soon found themselves moving west, stopping along the way just long enough to remove the tar and feathers—first to Ohio, then Missouri, than Illinois, where a number of church members were jailed. A mob was allowed to enter the facility and Smith and several others were murdered. The mantle of leadership was taken up by Brigham Young, a brilliant and authoritarian ruler, who led the group from Nauvoo, Illinois west. One hundred sixty years ago today, the Mormons rolled out of my childhood home of Emigration Canyon. At the canyon's mouth, they gazed upon a wide flat plain of rabbitbrush, and Brigham was said to utter the phrase, “This is the place.”

Salt Lake is a city like no other. How a ratty little nineteenth century Jonestown before the invention of Kool-Aid was able to survive and eventually thrive into the modern day is hard to fathom. The odds were certainly against them. The settlers' first planting was attacked by a plague of terrestrial katydids, and even out in the middle of the desert plain, the U.S. Government continued to persecute them. John Williams Gunnison, whose name graces rivers, cities, counties, islands, rodents and birds throughout this region, came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1849 with the U.S. Corp of Topographical Engineers. His group, the Stansbury party, was ostensibly here to survey the land, but there was surely an element of espionage expected of them, too. While snowed in that winter, Gunnison began documenting the Mormon culture, and eventually wrote a fine book on the subject, The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition. Gunnison saw Brigham Young as little more than a shyster, and as much as said so in his book. Still, he suggested to President Fillmore that he leave the Mormons be. Persecuting them, he said, would only increase Young's power. If only contemporary presidents got such lucid advice. In 1853, Gunnison and his men were massacred near the Utah/Colorado border. The attack was officially blamed on Paiute Indians, but there is still some suspicion that this was one of several church-sanctioned hit-jobs.

Relations between the Mormons and the U.S. Government continued to be tense for some time. Young offered the occasional obsequious gesture. The state capital was named Filmore, and its county Millard. In 1862, the U.S. Army built Fort Douglas on the east side of the valley. It's my understanding that it's the only fort in the U.S. that was built with its guns trained on the city, not away from it. The Mormons have always been pragmatists in the end, though, and in 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation that God didn't want Mormons to practice polygamy, after all. These sort of counter-revelations have appeared to subsequent prophets. Church doctrine always held that blacks were descendants of Cain, and therefore couldn't hold full membership, until a 1978 revelation cleared that little misunderstanding up. Today the church is a powerful force in the U.S. Government--Mike Leavitt, Mitt Romney, the Udall family...the list of high-profile Mormons is impressive. Over 12 million Mormons walk the Earth, more than half of them outside the U.S. I've never been to the capital of any country, from Ndjamena to Antananarivo, without spying immediately recognizable pairs of Mormon missionaries.

A popular pastime of us Salt Lake gentiles is sitting around carping about how much sway the Mormons hold around here, but I, for one, would find it really sad if this town got to the point where you couldn't tell that its very existence is the result of an amazing story. I'm happy to see them continue to run things around here; the Mormons certainly aren't all bad; they still have a great sense of community, and despite the fact that most of their members are staunch conservatives, Mormonism is fundamentally a Socialist organization, with a number of very good social programs. Sadly, though, they still pressure their members very hard to reproduce like insects. Back in 1847, when they settled in the harsh Salt Lake desert, with enemies on all sides, that policy was essential to their survival as a culture. You Mormons were told to be fruitful, and you were. You've succeeded as a culture. Look around you. It's time for another counter-revelation.
illustration: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Inspired by last April's Blogger Bioblitz, I tried my own variation last Sunday, July 14, in eastern Utah. Riding from the town of Naples, east to the Green River on Interstate 40, I turned south down Route 2776 then back up north along State Highway 45 to return to Naples. The trip of about 40 miles wandered through agricultural land, arid sagebrush steppe, riparian woods and a Pinyon-Juniper community. I tallied all identifiable roadkills that lay to the right of the center lane, and here's the final tally:

Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) [1]
Grasshopper (Trimerotropus sp.) [1]
Unidentified Spider Wasp (family Pompilidae) [1]
Painted Lady Butterfly (Cynthia sp.) [1]

Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalus) [1]
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) [2]
Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) [1]
Robin (Turdus migratorius) [2]
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) [1]
Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) [1]

Mexican Woodrat (Neotoma mexicana) [1]
Richardson's Groundsquirrel (Spermophilus richardsonii) [5]
White-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys leucurus) [1]
Mink (Mustela vison) [1]
Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) [4]
Racoon (Procyon lotor) [4]
Domestic Cat (Felis cattus) [1]
Coyote (Canis latrans) [1]
Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) [4]

No reptiles or amphibians were found, and large, slowly decomposing creatures were over-represented. Keen observers will notice the absence of any Rock Squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus) on the list, even though there's one in the photo at the top. Okay, okay, I set that photograph up after the event.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Where we humans alter the face of the earth, it becomes more difficult for most other organisms to thrive. Quite a number, though, manage to exploit those changes and to benefit. These species often end up as human commensals, living in a state of dependence just a bit south of parasitism. During the second millenium CE, the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and later, the Norway Rat (R. norvegicus) followed humans around the world, as the House Mouse (Mus musculus) did centuries earlier. A hundred years ago, lost African Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) established themselves in the Guianas, and, exploiting the newly created habitat of pastureland, began to spread from there. By 1940 they were breeding in Florida. Utah's first record came in 1963, and by 1980 it was a common breeder here. Today the species thrives throughout the Western Hemisphere. More often than not, a newly introduced species that achieves such a degree of success does so as a human commensal. Otherwise, it generally does it by out-competing established natives.

Currently, the most impressive case of tetrapod invasion is probably the Eurasian Ring-necked Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). Originally native to southeastern Europe, central Asia and Japan, its range began to expand in the 1930s, eventually stretching west to Ireland and Iceland, and north to Norway.
In the 1970s, introduced Eurasian Collared Doves established themselves in the Bahamas, and over the next decade they spread into Florida, from where they've been dispersing across the continent. At this point, little is known of their impact on native species. The general consensus is that they exploit a niche between that of the native Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) and the old-timer invasive Rock Dove (Columba livia). Some have suggested that it is taking over to some extent the ecological function of Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius). Over the past three years, they've established healthy populations in several towns in Colorado, Idaho and Montana, and many of them have been recorded in my own state. I spent a good part of last week touring around eastern Utah, where I saw quite a few of them, always close to agricultural areas, in a band running from the town of Roosevelt, east nearly to the Green River. It's not surprising that these birds are expected to behave as ecological intermediates between Mourning and Rock Doves. In size they fall between those two species, and they seem more social than the Mourning, and less so than the Rock. The fact struck me, though, that I never saw those other species in any sort of proximity to Collareds, despite what appears to be a wide overlap in habitat preference. In fact, a sizable Collared colony exists on the west end of Jensen, ten miles east of Vernal. Locals informed me that the birds appeared two years ago. Native Mourning Doves have been relegated to the eastern part of town, and the two species appear to me to live in absolute segregation.
Erasian Collared Dove photo taken by CPBvK in Jensen, Utah July 14, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


...despite Starbucks' inane attempt to revive it.