Bug on my Bridge

Last night I was out for a walk and came across this impressive spider.

spider on bridge

It was on the side of a footbridge across the Saône river in Lyon, France. As I walked along, I saw more and more–dozens, probably. Many were in the supports beneath the handrail, like this one. But a few enterprising spiders had set up over the side, by the lights.

The lights are the reason the spiders are there. They’re just like biologists studying nocturnal bugs in the rainforest. The biologist lights a white sheet and checks back to see who’s landed on the sheet, drawn to the light. The spider spins a web next to a light and waits for flying bugs to get stuck.

spider by a lightJust leaning over to take this picture, I kept getting bugs flying into my face. Look how many insect fragments that spider has in its web. Clearly a good place for hunting.

photos: me

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Reindeer Pregnancy Test

looking for the right spotHow do you find out if a reindeer is pregnant? You could do a blood test, but that won’t tell you if the fetus is alive or dead. If you really want to know, you pin the reindeer on the snow, pop open your ultrasound machine, and hold the gel-covered wand up to the animal’s nipple.

Today for Slate I wrote about a reindeer pregnancy test that I observed a year ago in Svalbard.

At left, that’s Norwegian veterinarian Erik Ropstad, digging for the only spot of bare skin on a Svalbard reindeer.

How Can You Tell if a Reindeer is Pregnant?


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Bug on My Window: Vienna Edition

Bug on My Window Number One Fan Chelsea Wald submits this specimen, photographed on her window in Vienna, Austria:

bug on chelsea's window

I have no idea what it is. Seriously, can’t get any more specific than “insect.” Isn’t it pretty, though? Pretty bug, pretty buildings. Pretty Vienna.

If someone who does know something about bugs stops by, here it is, enlarged and overexposed, in case that provides any hints.


Photos: Chelsea Wald

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Life After Science Writing

Ever wondered if there could be life after science writing? This week for The Open Notebook, I got in touch with people who used to be science writers or non-science journalists to find out what they’re doing with their skills. I wrote about, among others, a nurse, a health policy nerd, and a coffee roaster. I also heard of former journalists who are now veterinarians, lawyers, graphic designers, and other useful jobs.

A lot of my science writing friends have Plan Bs. (Plans B?) I don’t–this was already my plan B. So, if you’re reading this, please keep giving me work.

#$%^* this: What else are my skills good for?

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Bug On My Window: First of 2014

This bug appeared on my window a couple of weeks ago, when it still seemed like there was a chance that spring might come to Washington this year.


I underestimated the polar vortex. Today those roofs that are blurrily visible in the bottom of this photo are covered in white and the air is thick with wet snow. Again. I thought we were done with winter two snowstorms ago.

The National Park Service is saying April 8-12 for the cherry blossom peak. April 8 is two weeks from today. Some years, it’s already uncomfortably hot when they bloom. Are we going to go straight from snow to summer?

Anyway. About this bug. One thing that may not be obvious: It’s on the inside. In theory, this might mean that I could get a better picture of its markings, but, well, that’s not how it worked out.

One of the friendly naturalists at Bugguide.net was able to identify it anyway: Anthocomus equestris, a beetle native to Eurasia that has found its way to the Eastern U.S. and Canada.

I don’t know how I missed this in person–the backlighting, I suppose–but it has nice bright red markings. I can actually make them out if I make the photo very, very bright on the computer, but they’re much more obvious in this illustration from an 1876 book with the delightful title Käferbuch – a natural history of the beetles of Europe, in German.


I have no idea what it was doing in my apartment.

Photo: Me. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons


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Penguins and Peepguins, Oh My!

sweaters for peepguins I’ve been on a bit of a knitting-sweaters-for-birds rampage this week. First I wrote about the call for penguin sweaters from a wildlife rescue organization in Australia. This call for sweaters spread like wildfire on social media, with a lighter trail of debunking following behind.

My friends Kate Ramsayer, Joanna Church, and I thought that knitting sweaters for penguins would be a perfect topic for the Washington Post’s Peeps Diorama Contest. My compatriots at LWON were kind enough to let me post an album of Peeps photos.

I credited myself in the album for “eccentric knitting”–I made the bunny hat with two ears, the tiny stuffed green bunny, the shawls, and the Easter egg. Kate almost didn’t let me do the Easter egg, because it was late on the day of the contest deadline and we were going to lose the light for taking photos, but I was so sure it needed to happen. Kate, who created this monster by teaching me how to knit five years ago, knitted the hats, the sweaters worn by all the bunnies, and the sweaters the bunnies are working on.

I’m delighted with Joanna’s artwork–I asked her to frame the original of the “Help the Peepguins” poster (the one behind the cashier) for me. She also used her exhibit construction skills–she works at a museum–to assemble the diorama and glue on the wallpaper and flooring. It’s good to have friends with skills.

photo: me

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Arctic Art

Culture DishesRight now at the AAAS headquarters in D.C. there’s an exhibit of art about the melting Arctic. I was invited to the opening because I’m vaguely acquainted with one of the artists via Twitter. I thought I was just going for the free wine and conversation, but I really liked the art, too.

The colors in the exhibit were so much like the colors I’ve seen in the Arctic and the Bering Sea – the ghostly blues and whites of water in its various phases, and the black of sediment that gets stuck in sea ice.

I recommend stopping by to see the show, if you find yourself near 12th and H NW. And, if you don’t, here’s my piece about the show for The Last Word on Nothing.

photo: flickr

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Reindeer in the Arctic

real live reindeer

See the reindeer? In a valley near Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

I’ve always wanted to go to Svalbard, a Norwegian territory in the High Arctic. Even before I read The Golden Compass, which takes place in a parallel universe in which Svalbard is the kingdom of the armored bears. If you haven’t heard of Svalbard, you might know the name of its main island, Spitsbergen. It was a stopover for whaling ships and a home to walrus hunters in the centuries before Norwegian trappers started overwintering there. Now it has a perfectly normal Norwegian town with kindergartens, a grocery store, and a lot of stuffed polar bears.

When I found out I was spending three months of last year in northern Sweden, I thought, well, that’s the Arctic, close enough, and pitched a story to Smithsonian about some scientists who study reindeer on Svalbard. They agreed to send me.

It turns out that northern Sweden is not exactly close to Svalbard. The most direct route is a three-hour train ride west to Narvik, Norway, then a four-hour bus ride to Tromsø, then a flight north for the last 600 miles. I chose the option with less of a chance of being ruined by train delays: flying the very long way around, from Kiruna south to Stockholm, then west to Oslo, then north to Longyearbyen. It took me three flights to cover the distance from D.C. to Memphis.

Anyway, my story is out now. Read about the adorable reindeer in the March issue of Smithsonian or online here. They used two of my photos, too–one of the scientists chasing a reindeer and one of a reindeer in a net.

Reindeer Games

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Stealth Artificial Sweeteners in Soda

Galco's Soda Pop Stop, Los Angeles

Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, Los Angeles

I have a thing against diet soda. I just think it’s creepy. And it tastes terrible. (Ok, I gather it’s an acquired taste, but not one I’ve ever taken the trouble to acquire.) The other day a can of soda took me by surprise–I thought it was regular, but some of the sugar was replaced with sucralose.

So I wrote about stealth sweeteners for The Last Word on Nothing.

I don’t drink much soda, but I really like it. Every time I go to Los Angeles I try to go on a pilgrimage to Galco’s Soda Pop Stop. They have a wonderful selection of sodas, with odd flavors like cucumber and espresso and chocolate; I bring home a dozen or two every time, and they last me a year or more. In fact, I’m just about out. I guess I’m due for another trip to LA….

Who Knows What Lurks in the Cans of Soda?

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Doing the Work, in 30 Minutes a Day

my little red work buddyOne of the hardest things about being a freelance writer is getting stuff done. Not so much the things with deadlines–missing a deadline would be completely humiliating. I mean the things that don’t really have to happen, like posts for this blog and other work I’m not getting paid for.

A year and a quarter ago, my friend Cameron Walker and I agreed to write for half an hour a day on unpaid work. Read about our agreement at the website of The Science Writers’ Handbook, which we both contributed to.

Get Writing Done With a Writing Contract

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