Tag Archives: nature

Teddy Bear Cholla

Sometimes, names are abject liars, and something that sounds harmless, or actually cute can be horrible. Probably the mascot of all things so much worse than they sound is the downright adorably-named Teddy Bear Cholla ( Cylindropuntia bigelovii ). Even the scientific name of this vegetable horror sounds cute: bigelovii. D’awwww.

Here’s a patch of them:

a patch of teddy bear cholla looking chubby and cute.

By Homer Edward Price (Teddy-Bear-Chollas-c Uploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I mean, they even look sort of cute. Nubby and chubby and maybe plush and fuzzy. But it’s not fuzz. It gets worse.

It’s wicked sharp needles.

Closeup of teddy bear cholla needles. Sharp.

Stan Shebs [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ouch. But wait, it gets even worse. The needles have tiny serrated edges, so that like a harpoon head, once they stick, they’re hard to pull out. By which I mean an entire chunk of cactus is now stuck to you by its spines. Cholla segments are very weakly attached to the rest of the cactus and they break off at the slightest touch.

Teddy Bear Chollas reproduce primarily through this process of harpooning and hitching rides on unfortunate animals, who transport the chunks to new locations until they can finally work the spines out. The cactus chunks can take root where they land, and a new Teddy Bear Cholla is born. They also flower and produce fruit with seeds in it though.

cup-shaped teddy bear cholla blooms.

Quite pretty flowers, actually.

Teddy Bear Chollas, like many plants, can reproduce either sexually (with flowers and pollination) or asexually (cloning via pieces of the plant taking root). Cloning is much faster and more effective, but all the plants that root from pieces of a mother plant are genetically the same, and so all of them share the same vulnerabilities. That’s why genetic diversity in a species is so important. The more different versions of genes are available, the more chances there are to resist any one disease or other threat.

Like So:

A drawing of a patch of cholla, where most are one type, but there's two that don't match the rest.

A Wild Cholla Patch Appears! Most are clones of the mother plant, but a few are from seeds, and have other genes mixed in.

the mother and clones are killed, leaving the different two cholla.

Although the parasite kills the mother plant and the clones, which were vulnerable to it, it doesn’t get the others.

Cholla patch with a mix of the two surviving cholla plants.

And the cholla keep on spreading mostly by cloning, but sometimes by seeds.

Teddy Bear Cholla are very good at spearing and spreading.

Cholla patch spreading out into the far distance.

By Jack Dykinga [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a (mostly) clone army, stretching out to the far horizon. They feel no remorse or compassion. They know no mercy. Their numberless children are bred on blood and agony… Dang.

Teddy Bear Cholla are METAL.

Fortunately, we live outside their natural range. But, anyway, if you go to the desert Southwest of North America, keep an eye on the Cholla.

Look at the Sky

Seriously, look up once in a while. The sky can tell you all about what the weather is doing, or even WILL do, later that day or tomorrow. Here’s some tips!

Clear Blue Sky (No Haze or Clouds)

Is really rare in Louisville, KY. We swelter in a humid continental climate, on a large river. Enjoy this nice picture of a cloudless desert landscape, instead.

A teddy bear cholla patch. And now you have a hint at an upcoming post!

By Ciar (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A totally clear sky like this means that there’s so little moisture in the atmosphere that clouds can’t form. It probably won’t rain for a while, since water vapor has to move in before that can happen.


Cirrus Clouds

Indicate that a mass of moist air is moving back in, and rain or snow might be possible soon.

Wispy thin cirrus clouds.

By Ron Clausen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61703893

Remember: “Mare’s tails and mackerel scales mean rain in three days.”



City haze on main street, Louisville, KY.

There we go. That’s weather we’re all familiar with.

When it’s hazy, it means that there’s a layer of warmer air trapping air pollution and humidity close to the ground. If this inversion is strong, it will prevent clouds from developing. If clouds manage to punch through it, storms could be strong. If you see haze, it probably won’t rain, but if it does, it will storm.


Fair Weather Cumulus

Fair weather cumulus clouds - fluffy and flattened, as if confined by invisible panes of glass on top and bottom.

By Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA (Prairie Walk (2)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These clouds in an otherwise clear sky mean that there’s convection going on, and enough water vapor in the air to form clouds. However, the air pressure is too high, or the convection too weak to really build up. If you see these early in the morning, it might rain later, but if they’re about in the afternoon, it’s going to continue to be nice for a while.


Cumulus Congestus

And now the clouds are starting to pile up.

Big, intimidating cumulus congestus clouds, towering above the trees.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101225

If you see these before noon, someone’s in for a soggy evening.


Thunderstorm (Cumulonimbus)

A big thunderstorm cloud with a characteristic flat anvil-like top.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100357

A column of convection so strong that it piles up high enough to splash flat against into layer of hot stable air of the stratosphere is certainly a thunderstorm. Always be aware of clouds like this with flat “anvil” tops: they’re the towering monsters of the sky, multiple times bigger than other cumulus clouds, and capable of producing severe weather like hail, tornadoes, and flooding.

And now you know some of what the sky can tell you about the upcoming weather. Keep an eye out, and it might just come in handy!


Weird and Rare Clouds

Although the following clouds are unusual or rare where we live, they are really cool, and that’s worth something by itself.


Fallstreak Hole

Fallstreak hole in a cloud with ice crystals raining out.

By Pfranson – Taken by Paul Franson in Warr Acres, Oklahoma with a Casio EZ-Z1050 Previously published: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfranson365/4238892215/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27741283

This can happen when clouds made of water vapor are just on the point of freezing into ice crystals. When some of the water vapor freezes and clumps together, it snows out of the cloud layer, leaving a hole in the cloud.


Lenticular Clouds

When air pressure drops abruptly (as when wind flows around mountains), layered, lens-shaped clouds like these can form.

Lenticular clouds looking like a stack of pancakes over a mountain range.

By Alpsdake – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16399555


Roll Clouds

Are clouds that occur when a wave propagates in otherwise still air on the verge of being able to make clouds. The low-pressure pocket travels through the air, made visible as a cloud that seems to slowly roll through the air. Gliders and birds can “surf” the atmospheric wave for long distances. There’s a very reliable roll cloud called the Morning Glory that propagates on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia. No pictures, because pictures really don’t do it justice.

3 of the Coolest Names on Earth

Beyoncé’s Horsefly

Beyonce's horsefly specimen.

By Erick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name – Scaptia beyonceae – is an excellent example of how species can be discovered after lurking in archives or museum collections for decades or even centuries. Although it was collected in 1981, this Australian horsefly specimen was discovered in 2012 on closer inspection to be unique enough to warrant its own brand new species, and the researcher decided to honor pop icon Beyoncé with the name of this shiny gold diva among horseflies. After some media buzz, the rare fly is now famous enough to bear her name as a common name as well: Beyoncé’s Horsefly.


The Destroying Angel

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Anything whose name has a “The” before it has got to be pretty boss, and this mushroom has just about the most intimidating name of any living thing – and with good reason. If you’ve ever been told (and you ARE being told right now) to NEVER eat wild mushrooms, the Destroying Angel and its relatives are the reason why. Insidiously, at some stages of growth, they are look-alikes for perfectly edible mushrooms. Even worse, if you eat them, symptoms don’t show up for hours afterwards, and then you might feel better the next day – only to die from liver failure. The only hope is prompt medical treatment, which can involve a liver transplant. Even so, most people poisoned by the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) and its relatives die of it. Read these case summaries of a poisoning outbreak in California in 2016. And that’s successful treatment. Yikes. (By the way, if you’re struggling with medical jargon, “cerebral edema and permanent neurological impairment” means “skull filled up with fluid squeezing the brain so hard it caused permanent damage.”) For safety’s sake, leave wild mushrooms alone.

Javan Chevrotain

Javan Chevrotain, or mouse deer, male with fangs.

By Sakurai Midori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a much lighter note, this is one of my favorite creatures, purely because its name is so much fun to say. Chevrotain. Shev-ro-tayn. Shev-ro-tayn.  Javan Chevrotain. Sssheeeeevrotayn. It’s the best thing. Chevrotains are also known as mouse-deer, although they’re not mice at all, and are much closer to very small deer, like the size of your cat. None of them have horns or antlers. Oh, and some of them have fangs. Mouse-deer also have some of the best names in general. The Javan Chevrotain’s scientific name is Tragulus javanicus, which sounds like a spell in Harry Potter, but is actual latin. Chevrotains comprise the Family Tragulidae, and are artiodactyl (even-numbered-hooves on each foot) ungulates (mammals with hooves).

The Javan Chevrotain, Tragulus javanicus, an artiodactyl ungulate in the Family Tragulinae. Here’s one browsing in the forest, competing with quail, and at least one junglefowl: the ancestor of chickens. Tiny, fanged jungle deer.

Duck Duck Goose

The ducks and geese have paired up for the spring, and you know that this means! Goose attacks are going to be pretty likely. Don’t get Tyrannosaurus rek’d by a goose. They can be very aggressive, especially when nesting.


If you can see these, the parents aren’t far behind…

An adult goose can weigh 15 lbs, so be careful.

As for the ducks, here’s a fun experiment to try. Go look at some mallard ducks. You can find them in parks with ponds, or other places near water. Usually, the males have green heads. Compare the number of males (drakes) to the females (ducks). Notice anything unusual? I’ll hide what you’ll probably find out in this bracket, in white text. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal the spoilers. [ There will probably be more drakes than ducks, by a pretty large margin. ] Weird, huh. Why do you think that is? Click and drag for the answer.

[ Females sit on the nest and are more vulnerable to predators, which probably leads to to the sex imbalance. Birds have a similar sex determination system to us mammals, so you can assume that there’s an even number of male and female ducklings hatched. ]

And that’s not all the duck weirdness going on. If you saw the ducks at just the right time, in mid-summer, you might not have noticed any drakes at all. Ducks moult completely, losing all their feathers, and, while they grow back in, they’re flightless, and very shy. Right after this, and before growing in their breeding plumage for the fall, the drakes’ feathers come in looking just like a duck. This brief, non-breeding plumage is called eclipse plumage. The only way to tell while the males are in eclipse is that male mallard ducks’ bills are yellowy or olive, not orange-y black.

drake/duck pair

This is a drake/duck pair of ducks. The drake is the one with the green head.

drake in eclipse

This is actually a drake mallard, disguised as a ladytypes duck, which are supposed to be camouflaged against predators anyway.

If you want to take your bird-observing to the next level, check out the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, check out a handy, portable, and comprehensive identification key from the library. Ducks are really odd, actually. If you want to do more than dabble in a different sort of dabblers, read this book for a deep dive into the wood ducks, the most fabulous of all ducks. Ducks and geese hatch ready to follow the parents around, and start life out with a leap from the nest. Watch hooded merganser ducklings take the plunge.

Happy duck-watching!