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Raptor in residence

10 Dec

I don’t like birds. They creep me out. Sparrows and chickadees and all those tiny birds that peck around when you’re eating your lunch outside. From a distance I don’t mind them — in fact, I think birds can be quite majestic creatures.

However, raptors are a completely different story. I love them. They totally fascinate me; I could watch them for hours. I know that raptors are birds (“birds of prey,” in fact), but somehow they seem like a different species* to me.

Red-tailed Hawk hanging out in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tailed Hawk in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

So you can imagine my delight when a red-tailed hawk visited our office building the other day. The juvenile hawk perched in a tree just outside of our second-floor office windows. She was beautiful! And hunting. (Sidenote: It was unclear whether our feathered friend was male or female, and so for ease of reading our hawk will be a lady.) She hung out in the tree for a long while, surveying the parking lot full of construction workers’ trailers, the sidewalk, and the ivy. And maybe us.

Eventually our visitor hopped to some lower branches toward the ground, where we could no longer see her. Of course, several of us felt the need to go find out what she was doing. And we found her in the ivy, between our building and the sidewalk, devouring a squirrel. It was pretty awesome and gruesome at the same time.

The next day she returned to her tree, and eventually snagged a squirrel again — this time eating him while perched on the 8-foot fence next to the sidewalk. It was so gross I couldn’t stop watching. From my office window, that is.

Red-tail with squirrel in ivy. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tail with a squirrel in ivy behind Ritenour. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

One of my coworkers refused to be excited about the appearance of the hawk. “What is happening to our world?” he exclaimed. “The hawks shouldn’t be this close to humans.”

Which led me to ponder why indeed the hawk was here on campus — our building is close to the HUB — the student union building — and we are very much in the midst of human traffic. Turns out this is not unusual behavior for a red-tail at all.

I spoke with Doug Steigerwalt, director of the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, who confirmed that our hawk friend was indeed an immature red-tailed hawk. Red-tails are what Steigerwalt called generalists, because you can find them all across North America — they are possibly the most common hawk on the continent.

Steigerwalt also told me that red-tails do well around people because we tend to create a good habitat for them to hunt. And he pointed out that there are a few known red-tails who reside in New York City — one of whom hatched in 1990 and is still living and breeding on a 5th Avenue building.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Back to our resident raptor, Steigerwalt said that she could easily have flown in from elsewhere in the country. Red-tails are partial migrants — they can spend winters in the same area that they breed in, which is not true of all birds.

This is our hawk friend’s first winter, said Steigerwalt, so she doesn’t have a pattern yet. If she survives this winter, she’ll be in good shape. Winter is basically the make-or-break period for red-tails. Many don’t make it through the winter, but those who do are likely to be able to survive many winters afterward.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a hawk outside your window, you can visit the Raptor Center where Steigerwalt works. There are two red-tails in residence there — a male and a female. They aren’t housed together, because they would compete for food and such, so they are separated. But interestingly, (to me, at least) one hawk bunks with a turkey vulture.

We haven’t seen our hawk in a while now, so she has probably moved on to a different area to hunt. I probably would have moved away from the clamor of campus as soon as possible if I were her, too. Although she certainly had many fat squirrels to feast on while she was here — if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about squirrels.

*Addendum, Dec. 16: My uncle (who read my post — hurrah!) kindly pointed out to me that raptors are a different species — “several in fact,” he says. He is right, and shame on me for not catching this. In terms of scientific classifications, a species is as specific as you can get.

As many of us were taught in general biology class, there are 7 major classifications, remembered by a mnemonic device such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species. All birds are in fact in the same class (Aves), not the same species. Thank you, Uncle Erich, for keeping it real!

I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

6 Nov

I am so glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the folks at the University of Florida did a great job at hosting the National Association of Science Writers annual conference, which started last week. The University of Florida, which I toured, is doing some impressive research and I enjoyed touring the Florida Innovation Hub.

And the people of Florida are incredibly nice.

But, man, do they have critter problems.

Professor of Wildlife, Frank Mazzotti,

Professor of Wildlife Frank Mazzotti and friend.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was attending “lunch with a scientist.” I picked to have a sandwich with Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who specializes in alligators, crocodiles and, more recently, Burmese pythons. Why more recently? Well, Burmese pythons are one of the many invasive species that are threatening southern Florida, particularly the Everglades. But there are other invaders, according to Mazzotti, like puff adders and Nile Monitor Lizards.

So, now, Florida is starting to sound a little like Jurassic Park to me. I was shocked that T-Rex hadn’t made a comeback in the Sunshine State.

The researcher said that one of the problems was that these invasive species can threaten native species. For instance, Mazzotti explained a little too matter-of-factly, pythons may kill alligators.

Let me repeat that. The pythons may kill alligators. Now, all of the sudden, I’m not in Jurassic Park, I am in the middle of a Japanese monster movie.

There have also been instances when these invasive snakes have crawled into houses through laundry chutes and up toilets. Luckily, I finished my roast beef sandwich, or I would have most certainly lost my appetite.

People in Florida should feel fortunate that they have researchers like Mazzotti, however. He, among other researchers and animal control officials, are coming up with creative solutions to the problems of invasive species. Since most of these creatures are being brought in as pets and and then released by their owners, the state has introduced a pet amnesty program. You bring in your snake, or lizard, or killer flying vampire turtle, whatever, and the program finds a new home for it. They’re also hiring expert snake-catchers to find and capture some of the species causing the most harm.

Mazzotti, perhaps after years of watching slithering creatures trying to escape, noticed my discomfort at the conversation. Full-body shivers will get you noticed, after all. Once he found out where I was from — the surprisingly monster-free state of Pennsylvania — he asked if I knew what animal was responsible for the most deaths in the United States. I didn’t know, but I naturally assumed it was crawling under the floorboards of some Florida home.

But, I guessed: bears? sharks? texting Kardashians?


The deadliest creature statistically is the white-tailed deer.

I got the last word in though. I replied, “That may be so, but I’ve never heard of a deer crawl up a toilet.”

Cool Images, Big Potential: Startup Uses Lasers to Create 3D Imagery

16 Oct

A laser that creates a three-dimensional picture of a bee’s head may sound like an experiment being conducted in Dr. Evil’s super-secret volcano base, but this technology is blossoming right here at Penn State — and it has real-world applications for research in agriculture and horticulture.

The head of a yellow jacket

The head of a yellow jacket

At a recent talk at the Millennium Science Complex, Benjamin Hall, an undergraduate student in energy engineering working part-time in the laser lab of the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, discussed the technique — and showed images and videos that rival most Hollywood special effects. By placing an object, such as a plant root, on a moveable platform that passes under a laser, researchers can vaporize the sample section by section. The technique creates a series of surface images, which Hall then processes with a software program to create three-dimensional interior and exterior — and unbelievably cool — images of the sample.

Besides the cool effect, Hall said the imagery has real value. Researchers will be able to use the enhanced, high-contrast images to examine slight differences in samples. The process works faster, and is less labor intensive and possibly less expensive than current solutions on the market.

The root system of a Maize plant.

The root system of a Maize plant.

In a release sent out by Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, Hall said:

“This is a tomography technique, and there are others out there.  But x-ray tomography basically works by mapping the density of a substance, which is great unless the specimen has different materials of similar density. That can make it hard to differentiate structures, so it can be difficult to quantify measurements. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we’re not even competing with. Those machines are so big and complex, and so expensive to operate compared to our system.”

Penn State has applied for a patent on the process. Meanwhile, Hall and his business partner Brian Reinhardt, a former Penn State graduate student, have created a startup, Lasers for Innovative Solutions (L4IS), to help companies, particularly agribusinesses, with high throughput phenotyping of their new products.

This is also a great example of a total team effort in preparing Penn State technology for market.

From the release:

“Included on the patent are Hall and his Penn State advisers, Jonathan Lynch and Ted Reutzel. Hall is currently working with Lynch on a paper describing their method. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania provided funding and business assistance to start the company, and the Ben Franklin TechCelerator @ State College provided valuable entrepreneurial training.”

Check out this technology in action with some of the videos at the L4IS Youtube site.

Eternal Life on Earth and in the Universe

3 Oct

I’m pretty sure I’ll never write my autobiography and I’m almost just as sure no one will write my biography unless I’m missing something.  I’ve written thousands of stories in 38 years as a science writer so I’ll remain on the web forever.  Doesn’t bother me.

Roland Winkler, Leibnitz Institution of Astrophysics, Potsdam

Some people, without autobiographies or biographies, still end up memorialized in books, which is what recently happened to some Penn State faculty members from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Another science writer, Lee Billings, wrote a book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” which is about looking for other living, sentient beings in the universe.  This book ended up on my desk because I get sent this type of book from time to time.  I thought wow, I wonder if Jim Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, was in the book.  Looked in the index and sure enough he was, as was his twin brother, wife and children.

Not only was he in the book, but nearly an entire chapter, “Out of Equilibrium” was about his work, very cool.

But I was actually sent the book because another faculty member, Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences, former department head and co-director of SolitudeCover2the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, was in the book.  That’s what the letter that came with the book said.  His chapter is “The Big Picture.”  I was puzzled.  Arthur is a sedimentary geologist.  He studies how rocks are formed, so I wasn’t quite sure how he fit into this book.  And the chapter talks about black shale, the Marcellus shale gas producing area and other petroleum and natural gas stuff.  In fact, another Penn State faculty member mentioned is Terry Engelder, professor of geoscience, who initially estimated how much gas was in the Marcellus.  I know, because I wrote that story.  But then I read on and realized that Arthur was using the Marcellus shale, the last shale oil/gas deposit to show no terrestrial plant inclusions — it was formed before life moved to land — as an example of the evolution of intelligent life.  And so the story moved from sea to land to animals of all kinds and finally to humans.  Intelligent life one presumes.  Although Lee refers to it as the sixth major extinction event, suggesting that humans in their agrarian onslaught homogenized the planet and wiped out myriad species.  So the history of the Earth leads to the search for intelligent life in the universe.

Frank Lewecke

Kasting is known for his work on figuring out where, in the orbits around suns, habitable planets can exist.  These planets must be at a distance from their suns so that throughout the time it takes for life to evolve to intelligent beings, water remains liquid — at least most of the time.  So no totally frozen planets and no planets too hot for liquid water.  This becomes complicated because suns change their power through times.  Kasting also does work on the “faint young sun” paradox, which explains that the sun was weaker when young and grew stronger.  This moves the habitable zone further out as a sun ages.

So Kasting and Arthur are memorialized in this book. One, for looking far into the universe and future, and one for looking far into the past and beneath the earth.  Both trying to understand how we got where we are and how some other intelligent being might get there too.

There’s Fame, and then There’s Fame

17 Sep

The goal of most university faculty is to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal. This brings notice among their peers, sometimes fame and sometimes just a nod. Rarely, in the complex science, technology and engineering world of today, does a journal paper elicit much notice outside of the specific academic discipline.

Michael MannEven when I write a news story about a published paper, fame is usually very brief, no more than three to five days and the researcher goes back to the lab and ongoing work. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is usually spot on.

But sometimes, for good or bad, a paper has a more sizeable impact. No one knows this more than Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and director, Earth System Science Center here at Penn State. Long, long ago, on April 23, 1998, Mann and Raymond S. Bradley, University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, and Malcolm Hughes, Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, University ofArizona, published “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” in Nature, the foremost British science journal. I’m sure none of these men thought it was that unusual a paper. But it was.

Out of that paper came more than a decade of discussion, anti-global warming warfare and personal attacks as well as the certainly recognizable “hockey stick graph.”

Hockey_StickThe hijacking of e-mails written by Mann and others in the climate field by still unknown hackers, heated up attacks and brought the general public, advocacy groups on both sides and anti-global warming anti-science groups out in force.

Lofty bodies as diverse as the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Senate and Penn State among others investigated Mann, his research and in every case agreed that the research was solid. Not that this served to end the attacks.  Because Mann once worked at a Virginia university, Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, began a witch hunt against climate scientists and specifically against Mann.

The travails of anti-climate science attacks are chronicled in Mann’s book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines,” (Columbia University Press, 2012).

So, Michael Mann became famous, gave testimony before Congress, interviews to myriad print publications and appeared on TV. He also had YouTube video animations that made fun of him and was called every name in the book. Through all this, he continued to do research on global warming and climate change, publishing papers in Nature, Nature Geoscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for example. In 2013, the University named him a Distinguished Professor.

This month, Bloomberg News announced it’s top 50 most influential people. They divide the 50 into Bankers, Money Managers, Policy Makers, Power Brokers and Thinkers. Bloomberg is a business oriented new organization so it is no surprise these are the categories or that 48 of the 50 are either business people, economists or money managers of some kind. The 49th is a U.S. Attorney suing people for insider trading.

Even in the Thinker category, while many are academics, all but one are economists. Only Michael Mann does not fit this description, but he is one of the ten Thinkers, and cited for responding “to climate change deniers on his RealClimate blog.”

So, there’s fame, and then there is fame. Not all publicity is good publicity, but if one is willing to slog through the stinking marshes, maybe, just maybe you can come out the other side smelling like a rose.

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