Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fruita Halloween Tale Part 2: Creepy Spiders and the Divot of Human Flesh

Catching sight of our expressions in each other’s faces, Hunky Neighbor and I snapped to and got to work. We needed to a) cover/patch the hole in Vicente’s arm, and b) get him someplace where we could get it stitched/repaired/filled/whatever-it-is-they-do-for-missing-divots-of-human-flesh.

Tangent: I just love starting multi-part posts this way- right in the thick of the action, like after a cliff-hanger episode. But mostly I like it because I imagine someone who hasn’t read the blog in a week or so checking in and being like, “Huh? Who? What? Hole in Vicente’s arm? OMG!- What happened??”

The Long-Awaited (And So Worthwhile) Third Tip

And it is now that I will reveal the Third- and far and away most valuable- 1st aid kitTip: Ride with a 1st aid kit. I’m always amazed at how few mtn bikers do. Different riders have different philosophies as to what they carry when riding. Some prefer a minimalist approach, with just a couple of bottles and a CO2 cartridge in a jersey pocket. Others prefer a Camelbak with some tools, snacks, a pump, maybe a couple of spare parts and an extra layer of clothing. I won’t debate the merits of either approach here*, but both easily allow the inclusion of a minimalist 1st aid kit. Yes, minimalist, because when you get down to it, this is all you really need: Roll of Gauze, Tape**, and Something to Cut the Gauze With.*** My kit has a couple more odds & ends, the most useful of which has been a pair of tweezers.

*No, I won’t debate them here. But I am curious, if any other hydration pack-using mtn bikers are reading this: It seems that I am (very) frequently loaning/giving water, food, tubes, patches, cables, duct tape, bandages, etc. to bottle-only mtn bikers. It is just me or is this your experience as well?

**This doesn’t need to be medical/1st aid-type tape; I carry short lengths of duct tape and electrical tape, both wrapped around my hand-pump.

***I actually carry a small knife, but that’s primarily so that I look bad-ass. Most multi-tools have a small cutting blade.

OCRick and I both had 1st aid kits, but neither of us had ever bandaged anything like The Divot before. Hunky Neighbor* and I conferred, and quickly decided on the following: 1) a rolled-up ball of gauze inserted into the divot**, 2) the remainder of the gauze roll wrapped around the arm/wad/divot, and 3) a length of duct tape once around to keep thing in place.

*Not a doctor, but is married to one.

**Yes, this was the grossest part.

Bandage Schematic Vicente, remarkably, was calm and only in mild pain. We actively discouraged him from examining the wound, and I don’t believe he observed the structural/rotational aspect I described in the previous post. As we completed the bandage and re-packed our gear, something was bothering me. I snuck a furtive glance over my shoulder, casting a glance about for … something red. I looked again. No sign of it. We mounted up and started rolling back, taking a cut-off trail back toward the trailhead.

As we set out I admonished everyone to keep things mellow and to walk technical sections*. Pretty much everyone complied… except Vicente. He rolled 2 sections that made me hold my breath, including a rutted slope down into a gully that- I am not kidding- all the rest of us walked after him.

*So as not to encourage Vicente to ride them.

Hospital1We made it back to the trailhead in less than 30 minutes and were driving shortly after. Hunky Neighbor googled a hospital on his iPhone (yes, he’s one of them) and then phoned in for directions. We made it there in about 15 minutes.

Fruita’s hospital is small but brand-spanking new. The staff is prompt, cheerful and courteous, and the waiting room was empty. Vicente was admitted in about 2 minutes.

Hospital2 In the waiting room the 4 of us twiddled our thumbs about and made chit-chat. Then one of us- I think it was Young Ian- asked, “Did any of you guys see it?” It quickly turned out that we’d all looked for it- The Divot- while pretending not to- but none of us had spotted it.

“Where could it have gone?” we all asked. Everything within 30 feet was brown, olive or tan; you would think a 1” x 1.5” chunk of bloody red flesh would show up… But none of us had spotted it. We all sort of shrugged and mumbled a bit more, somehow resigned but uneasy that we’d left an actual piece of our comrade out in the desert.

Vicente emerged in about 45 minutes with bandaged arm, knee, a dozen or so staples (which we couldn’t see) and prescriptions for codeine and antibiotics. He was smiling and we all laughed and walked back outside and… into the rain.

Our standard Guys Trip Weekend Plan is to ride during the day Saturday and Sunday, and also night-ride Saturday night. This is particularly important in the Fall when daylight is limited, because otherwise you’re looking at a LONG time around the campfire… But night-riding in the rain is just too much of a downer. We hemmed and hawed a bit, went by the drugstore to fill Vicente’s prescriptions, and then killed more time eating dinner in town. After dinner it was still spitting a bit, so we decided to head on over to the Kokopelli trailhead and see if the weather would let up.

We arrived just as darkness was setting in and the lot was emptying out. There were some picnic tables under an awning nearby and we went over to kill some more time and take shelter from the rain. I walked over, my headlamp lighting the way on a dark, rainy, spooky night. I’m fairly tall, about 6’2”, and the edge of the awning was only about a foot or so above my head. As I approached the awning, at the very last minute, my headlamp lit up, about 8” in from of my face- this:

CFS Boo Spiders are way cool when you spot them walking around on the ground in broad daylight. When you practically bump your face into them on a rainy night, they can give you bit of a start.

Thanks to last week’s tarantula encounter out in the Oquirrhs, we already know a bit about spiders and their anatomy. But one of the things we didn’t talk about is the incredible diversity of spiders. CFS Prey There are something like 40,000 species worldwide, and what’s cool about this spider is that when compared and contrasted last week’s tarantula it really showcases the diversity and breadth across the order Araneae. This gal- a Cat-Faced Spider, Araneus gemmoides*, hasn’t shared a common ancestor with a tarantula in over 200 million years- longer ago than when we last shared a common ancestor with kangaroos! It’s called “Cat-Faced” BTW, because the design on the top of the abdomen is thought to resemble the face of a cat. It’s sometimes also known as a “Jewel Spider.”

*Special thanks to Andrew over at BugGuide.Net for his help on the ID. What a wonderful site.

A tarantula is in many ways considered a “primitive” spider, in that it exhibits many of the supposed characteristics of very ancient spiders. Its fangs for example, move up and down, and its only webs are those lining its burrows or those used by the males to deposit sperm packets upon*. Since then, spiders have evolved the sideways-moving fangs common to most of the world’s spiders, and the ability to spin a variety of sophisticated web types, including Funnel webs, Dome webs, Sheet webs, Tubular webs, Tangle webs, and the type of web most of us think of when we think, “Spiderweb”, the Orb web. The Cat-Faced Spider is an Orb-Weaver, with sideways-moving fangs.

*Actually called “sperm-mats.” Yes, really. That’s what they’re called.


At least once a month in this project, I stumble across a topic where, once I get into it, I suddenly think, “Wow! I could do a whole blog on this!” spiders_webs Spiderwebs is one of those “wow” topics. Overwhelmingly, a given species of spider spins a specific type of web. Traditionally spiderwebs have been viewed in terms of 5 stages of complexity and sophistication, with stage 1 basically a trip-line or two in front of a hole, while stage 5 is a full-blown orb web. It was generally thought that each of these stages evolved from the previous stage, which in turn led to all sorts of fascinating examples of very distantly-related spiders having evolved very similar web designs. But now some researchers believe that orb webs have been around far longer than originally thought, and that other, apparently “less sophisticated” web designs may have evolved from orb webs. In this “monophyletic” view of orb-weaving, orb webs may signal an ancient and common ancestry between distantly-related species. The whole topic is unsettled, complicated and absolutely fascinating.

Side Note: Part of the problem is that neither spiders nor spiderwebs fossilize particularly well.

Arachno-Tangent #1: Just to give you a taste of the amazing variety of web-types, here’s the Coolest Spiderweb Ever. New Guinean spiders of the genus Pasilobus build triangular webs. The triangle is bisected by a single strand, called the mid-line. Then the mid-line is joined to the sides of the triangle by between 4 and 11 pairs of lines. These “catch-lines” are the only sticky strands in the web.

Pasilobus Web3 Now these catch-lines- and here’s the cool part- are connected to the mid-line by very strong bonds, but to the sides of the triangle by very weak bonds. So when a fly hits the catch-line, it breaks off on the outside, and then the fly is left hanging from the broken-off catch-line.

Pasilobus Web2 The spider then scoots down the mid-line to where it connects with the broken-off catch-line, reels in the catch-line and bites the fly. How cool is that?

All About Orb Webs

Regardless of how orb webs evolved, they work very well. Like nearly all spiderwebs, they’re generally vertical. Vertical webs are likelier to catch a flying insect (insects spend most flight time moving horizontally) and retain struggling insects (if an insect frees itself from a given strand, it tends to fall down.) Orb webs utilize 2 very different types of threads. The first are strong, non-sticky threads which provide the overall strength and structure of the web, and along which the spider can move rapidly. In most orb webs these are the radial threads, or the “spokes”. The second type are the sticky threads between the spokes, which ensnare passing insects through adhesion or entanglement.

Due to the spoke-like nature of the radial threads, the spacing between sticky lines becomes greater the further one gets from the center.

Nephila WebArachno-Tangent #2: Spiders of the genus Nephila have evolved a neat solution to this problem. As they spin the web outwards from the center, they periodically “re-spoke” the wheel of the web to increase the density of radial lines as seen in this graphic (not mine*.)

*BTW, if you’re interested, the paper from which I pulled this graphic makes a strong (and very readable) case for the polyphyletic view, that orb webs have evolved independently multiple times.

Now, here’s the really cool thing: I came across this tidbit while researching spiderwebs for this post. And I thought, “Nephila… Nephila…. Where have I come across that before?” And then I remembered: The Golden Orb Spider that we saw back in March down in Costa Rica and about which I posted in the Creepy Crawly Post.

So I went back and checked my old photos, and sure enough, you can make out the “re-spoking” in the web. Wow.

respoke nclavipes Moral of the tangent: save your vacation pics!

Most orb webs are asymmetrical, rather than a perfect circle, and the “stretched”/bigger part of the web is almost always the lower half. The reason for this is that once an insect has hit the web, the spider needs to reach and bite it quickly before it escapes, and spiders can move down across a web much more quickly than they can move up it.

Orb Web1 There’s another common reason for web asymmetry; the logical place for an orb-weaving spider to hang out- in terms of access to all parts of the web- is in the center. But center placement can make the spider visible to passing insects, and in fact this is why many spiders only hang out in the web-center at night. During the day many spiders stay in a “retreat” off the periphery of the web, which is connected to the web-center by a “trip-line.” But since the spider must travel first from its retreat to the web-center before proceeding to the prey location along the nearest radial line, it makes sense to place the center as closely as possible to the retreat.

The Cat-Faced Spider is the largest orb-weaver in the Western US. The irony with spiders in general of course is that size in no way corresponds to danger to humans, and this is absolutely the case with A. gemmoides. CFS Parts It avoids people, hardly ever bites them, and when it does is about as bad as a bee or wasp sting. The big ones you see in the webs are always females (males are much smaller) and you almost always see them in late Summer or early Fall. The reason for this is the same reason you don’t notice Sunflowers until late summer- they’re “annuals”. They hatch in the Spring, grow throughout the summer, and mate in the Fall. Females lay a single egg-case, and then die a few days later. Cat-Faced Spiders never encounter either their parents or their offspring. This in contrast, BTW, to tarantulas, which live for years or even decades.

IMG_3034 The spiderlings scatter by “ballooning”, and the few that survive often take up residence by awnings and eaves in and around human habitation. A. gemmoides- lie pigeons, dandelions and brown-headed cowbirds- is one of those creatures that has benefitted from human settlement, and in fact they appear to have adapted to human habitation to the extent that they favor web-sites near lights, as they attract passing insects in the evening.

So scary-looking as they may be, Cat-Faced Spiders are pretty much harmless and eat lots of bugs. Leave them alone when you find them.

We killed time, with some minor bike maintenance until it was fully dark and the rain petered out. It hadn’t been enough to soak the trails and so we ventured out for our night-ride. IMG_3036We rode Rustler Trail, a beginner loop by day, but a thrilling, smooth, fast, twisty roller-coaster of a ride on a cloudy, moonless night. We liked it so much we did a second lap, which Vicente sat out, as his anesthetic was wearing off. (Video kind of lame, but none of the night-ride photos turned out. No really, here’s what they all looked like, right.)

Following the ride we returned to Rabbit Valley to camp for a 2nd night. The sky was dark and forbidding, but the rain held off. Tired from a long day, we sat by the fire or a bit and called it a night.

Later, much later, I awoke. The sky was still partly cloudy, with just a few stars peeking out in Perseus and Cassiopeia. Something was nagging me. My mind wandered for a bit before locking onto it: Somewhere out in the desert right now, a small nocturnal rodent had found a delectable meaty morsel. Seizing it hungrily in her jaws, she scuttled back to her burrow to share the treasure with her brood, and together they feasted… feasted on a divot of human flesh!

Happy Halloween!

Post-script: On a serious note, I wish this were the end of the Halloween tale, but it’s not. Returning to Salt Lake, Vicente’s wound became infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On Tuesday a surgeon reopened the wound to clean it and remove additional debris, and in so doing had to make 2 additional incisions, each 3+ inches in length. He left the wound open for a couple of days and put Vicente on stronger, intravenous antibiotics. Today Vicente returns to the surgeon, hopefully to close the wound. He’s scheduled to fly to Brazil tomorrow for a conference; he’ll know today if that’s still the plan. Wish him luck.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fruita Halloween Tale Part 1: Tumbleweeds, Blood & Gore, and the Caloric Gradiometer

In this 2-part post I will give you, the reader, 3 valuable tips. The 1st tip will be specifically for readers who do not have small children. The 2nd and 3rd tips will be specifically for mountain bikers.

Trick-or-treat-Orlando-735256 First Tip. Halloween is Saturday. You need to go buy some candy. OK, that was a lame tip. You probably already knew Halloween was this Saturday, and you probably already bought candy*. I promise the next 2 tips will be way, way better. But to make this first (lame) tip just a titch more valuable for non-breeder readers, let me follow if up with this Special Bonus Tip.

*No, none of those kids in the photo are mine. I couldn’t locate any Halloween pics of the Trifecta any more recent than 2006, so I just googled this one. Man, I am a lame dad.

**Special Bonus Tip**: Give candy to trick-or-treaters. Only candy. Do not- I repeat, do not- give toothbrushes or fruit, or Jehovah’s Witness literature or anything else. Just candy. You will think you’re clever, or like some great public servant or an “out-of-the-box”, big high-ho kind of guy or whatever by giving floss or what-not, but my kids will not think you are cool; they’ll just think you’re a pompous jerk. My kids’ teeth aren’t your problem- they’re mine. Just give them some candy, already.

For those of us with small children, Halloween is already of course top-of-mind. And one of the fun things to do with young kids this week is to tell them spooky Halloween stories. Unfortunately, I never seem to be able to come up with any good ones. But this year, I have a great one. And though it’s not appropriate for small children, it’s a great one for nature-loving mtn bikers. It includes a spooky plant, a terrifying spider, and creepy tale of human flesh.

The Tale

IMG_3058 Friday night Vicente, OC Rick, Hunky Neighbor, Young Ian (pic left) and I headed down to Fruita, Colorado for a weekend of mountain biking and camping. We generally do 2 of these “Guy Trips” per year, usually down to the Hurricane/St. George area in Southwest Utah, but we decided this year to try something different.

Tangent: Way back in Life 1.0, in the early 90’s when I lived along the Colorado Front Range, I used to visit Grand Junction/Fruita fairly often. Back then it was a little-known, lightly-visited area with few other visitors. Excepting a quick pit-stop-ride when passing through in 2003, I hadn’t been back since 1995. I was shocked at the change.

IMG_3061Fruita’s proximity to the Colorado Front Range, with its higher (relative to the Wasatch Front) population base, has fueled growth and visitation that has “Moab-ized” the formerly sleepy farm town, lending it a similar Disney-esque atmosphere, full of bike shops and bike-toting SUVs, invariably with Colorado tags beginning with the letter “M*”

*Boulder County.

Nested Tangent: In fairness, part of the problem is that a much greater proportion of Coloradans than Utahns are into (non-motorized) outdoor sports. No, I have absolutely no data to support this, but I’ve lived in both places, and I’m telling you, it’s a fact.

This factor- proportion of outdoorheads- is something other outdoorheads so often fail to think about when targeting places to live. Yes, Boulder has wonderful recreational opportunities for outdoorheads, but it also has about a zillion other people just like you who also moved there for the recreational opportunities. On the other hand, consider Las Vegas. Don’t laugh. Las Vegas has some of the best backcountry- and probably the best national park- access of any major metro area in the US. It has outstanding hiking and mountain biking within minutes of The Strip. But trailheads 15 minutes outside of Vegas are practically never crowded, because Vegas doesn’t attract outdoorheads.

WatcherLions caption It’s still a fun, beautiful place to visit and ride, but it reminds me of how great we have it here in Utah. We had a great time, but our next Guys Trip will take us back to Southwest Utah, and the un-crowded trails and easy camping of Washington County.

We camped the first night in Rabbit Valley, just inside the Colorado border, driving around till we found a site and setting up in the dark. We set up camp and had a beer or two around the campfire.

Tangent: Actually, we had several beers. When family guys go camping without their families/wives, this is not unusual. And like guys camping everywhere, we might’ve had just a beer or two more than we would have had, had our wives/families been with us. Which made us feel very happy and boisterous and self-confident and even creative. When this happens, guys are prone to come up with all sorts of Great Ideas. The vast majority of the time we forget these Great Ideas before the following morning, and on those rare occasions we do remember them, we invariably realize, in the light of day, that our ideas in fact sucked. But my reason for going on about this is that I actually remembered one of my ideas, and it is Awesome. And even better, I’m going to share it with you right now.

My Best Idea Ever

Like most guys, I would like to be very rich. But, again like most guys, I’m too disorganized and innately slacker-ish to actually do the hard work of getting rich. So, again like most guys, I secretly wish that I would come up with some amazing idea to get rich quickly with little or no real effort. In other parts of the country this often involves coming up with a brilliant idea for some new technology or what-not, but here in Utah, it almost always involves either a Ponzi scheme or a nutritional/dietary supplement. Lately we’ve had a rash of Ponzi-schemers getting busted here in Utah, so I’m more oriented toward the latter. Utah is full of companies marketing various nutritional/dietary/health products- juices, bars, gels, what-not- and because they’re not required to seek any kind of FDA approval for any health or nutritional claims they make*, they can tout whatever dietary benefits they want, with absolutely no corroborating science! To be sure, each one of these products has a “scientific” explanation for how it works, but it’s kind of like the “science” behind the Transporter or the Warp Drive in Star Trek in that it sounds really scientific to an eighth-grader, but it doesn’t actually… uh… do anything.

*Thank you, Senator-For-Life Hatch.

So we have lots of companies making all sorts of harmless, tasty and overpriced treats here in Utah, but I have one that will beat them all: Calorically-Gradiated Snack-Foods.

Yummy treats- like cookies for instance- have lots of calories. So sometimes people will eat just half a cookie* in an effort to avoid consuming so many calories. This may work to a point, but it means enjoying only half the pleasure of the cookie. What if- instead of eating 50% of the cookie and intaking 50% of the calories, you could eat 90% of the cookie and intake just 10% of the calories? With my new line of Calorically-Gradiated Snack-Foods, that dream will now become a reality.

*I was inspired in this by my coworkers who take half a donut during Friday donut hour and then put the other half back in the box. Yes, I know some of you read this blog, and I have 2 things to say to you. 1) Commit. Eat the donut or don’t eat it; don’t be the Hamlet of donut hour. 2) If you insist on eating just half, throw the other half away. I am not interested in in eating your fondled-then-rejected donut half.

CCookie1 In regular cookies, the calories are evenly spread throughout the cookie. But my cookies will be baked in a special thermo-convection oven which utilizes my new company’s proprietary technology device- the Caloric Gradiometer- to concentrate the calories in one small (dime-sized) spot on the cookie. We mark this spot- the Caloric Activation Nucleus- with red food coloring, and you just eat the entire cookie, except for the little red part. Isn’t that an awesome idea?!

Back to the Tale

Man, I better get on with this post. OK so we woke up this next morning and the desert looked open and sunny and beautiful. And as I walked around a bit I noticed- as I always do- the vegetation. There was a lot of the standard stuff- Juniper, Bitterbrush- but mostly what there was, was Tumbleweeds. Big, free-rolling tumbleweeds were piled up in draws and against trees and rocks, and little growing, live tumbleweeds were growing all over the place. In fact you couldn’t walk 3 feet around our campsite without shoes for fear of getting stabbed. Ah well, what’s more “Western” than Tumbleweeds, right? Only…

Sutherland-body-snatcher Remember that scene at the very end of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version), that lady who has somehow managed not to fall asleep and get pod-ified for like a week is sitting all hollow-eyed on a park bench and Donald Sutherland walks by, and she’s like “Psst- hey Donald*, it’s me!” cause he was like the other last-surviving human. Only he’s not, and he turns to her and points and opens his mouth and makes that horrible shrieking noise and then all the other people around turn and start pointing and shrieking and no one is really human because they’ve all been pod-ified and you realize how awful it is and the movie ends…

*I can’t remember his character’s name in the film.

TWeeds1 OK, that’s exactly the deal with Tumbleweeds. When Columbus landed in the New World, there wasn’t a single tumbleweed anywhere in North America. When Lewis and Clark trekked to the Pacific, they never saw a single tumbleweed. When the Golden Spike was hammered in, completing the first transcontinental railway, not one of the men who built it had ever seen a tumbleweed*. Tumbleweeds are just that- weeds- and yet they’re such phenomenally, amazingly and ubiquitously successful weeds that the vast majority of us just assume they’re part of the “Real West.”

*After typing that, I realized that might possibly not be true. Many of the railway workers were Chinese immigrants, and I suppose it’s possible one of them saw a tumbleweed in Western China. Although probably most were from Eastern/coastal areas. I’m way over-thinking this.


All About Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweed, or Prickly Russian Thistle* (PRT), Salsola tragus, is native to Eurasia. Salsola is part of the Amaranth family, and so far as I can remember not closely-related to anything we’ve covered in this blog. If you’re not familiar with amaranth, the most closely-related things to it with which you may be familiar are probably spinach, beets and carnations. IMG_3053S. tragus is a weedy shrub which after maturing and pollinating, dries up and breaks off at the stem. In this blog we’ve looked at all kinds of seed-dispersal mechanisms. We’ve seen seeds that get blown away by wind or by water; we’ve seen seeds that get collected and buried by birds and squirrels; we’ve even seen seeds that hitch rides on passing dogs and mtn bikers. But S. tragus disperses seeds by rolling. The broken-off plants are blown for miles, rolling across the open countryside, shaking and spilling off seeds as they go. The seeds typically germinate the following Spring in loose soil and require little moisture. As you might imagine, Salsola does well in dry, windy**, open landscapes- like the American West.

*The name ”Russian Thistle” gets bandied about for several other weeds, including at times one we’ve looked at previously, Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans. But this is the real “Prickly Russian Thistle.” Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations.

**Oh, and unsurprisingly, they're wind-pollinated.

PRT Seedling In 1874 a shipment of Russian flax seed arrived in South Dakota which was contaminated with PRT seed. If you haven’t been to South Dakota, here’s the best one-word description of the place I can give: Windy. Within a few decades, tumbleweeds were ubiquitous throughout the West, piling up against fences, filling arroyos, and (later) snagging mtn bike drive-trains.

leafhopper PRT tumbleweeds aren’t just annoying; they serve as a ready host for the Beet Leafhopper, Circulifer tenellus, (pic right, not mine) which is the primary transmission vector for Curly Top Disease, a major (viral) plant disease that attacks everything from melons to spinach to beets to tobacco. As tumbleweeds roll across croplands, they spread these virus-loaded insects to new hosts.

IMG_3053 PRT has been nearly impossible to control. The species has huge genetic and morphological diversity, continually adapts to local conditions, and has evolved resistance to common pesticides. Possible biological controls include a weevil (Lixus salolae) a mite (Aceria salsoli) a moth (Gymnancella sp.) and a fungus (Uromyces salsolae) but none have yet progressed past the research stage.

IMG_3055 It gets worse. A handful of other Salsola species have been similarly (accidentally) introduced to North America from the Old World and one of these, possibly from Africa, S. kali, has apparently hybridized with S. tragus to create a new, polyploid species in Southern California, thus adding to the fearsome diversity and adaptability of these weeds. Prickly Russian Thistle is the ultimate Western Horror Plant.

After a leisurely breakfast*, we decided to start off the day with a ride on one of the Rabbit Valley trails, which BreakfastOCRick had ridden before and assured us was great. But as we embarked on the ride, one of OCRick’s less endearing qualities began to manifest itself, and it is this: The further away from a place he is, the surer OCRick is of that place’s geography. Right now you could call OCRick on the phone and ask him about a trail he hiked in New Zealand 5 years ago, and he’d be able to give you step-by-step directions with details such as fallen logs and where the best shade-trees were.

*Why does it take 5 men camping until 10AM to eat breakfast and pack up? Oh right, cause we were up so late designing the Caloric Gradiometer…

OCRabbit But the closer OCRick actually gets to any given place, the more his memory of the geography of that place fades, until, a mile into the trail, he is completely and utterly lost.*

*Then, when you finally figure out where you are and get him to the next junction, he’ll say, “Oh that’s right, I remember this!”

But fortunately, we had a map. Not because any of us had brought a map, but because there was one at the trailhead, and this leads me to the Second Tip: Always photograph maps at the trailhead. (pic below, right)

IMG_3015 Think about it. You stare at the map at the trailhead like crazy, trying to memorize it. Then you go ride it, and 30 minutes later you get to an intersection and you rack your brain trying to pull the picture in your mind. But if you’re riding with a camera- or even a camera-phone- why not take a photo of the trailhead map that you can refer to over the course of the ride?

The ride was one sand-trap after another, so we cut the loop short and drove over to the 18 street trails North of Fruita, IMG_3022a network of rolling singletrack spread out below the book cliffs. We climbed Prime Cut over to Chutes & Ladders and started working our way East, up and down over successive alluvial fans. The trails were fun, the weather overcast but pleasant, and we were having a good time. At a junction we paused to re-group and I kidded Vicente how this was one of the first rides we’d done together where he hadn’t crashed. Yes, I really said that. Yes, you know what’s going to happen next, right?

The Blood & Gore Part

After a stiff climb, we rolled down a fast, twisting descent, Vicente in the lead, me right behind. On a fast, dusty, left turn, his front wheel washed out and he went down.

Vicente- as I have mentioned previously- crashes often. So I wasn’t too concerned when we slowly got up and picked up his bike. But he was a bit rattled, and carelessly plopped his front wheel down in a stand of Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.) I grabbed the bike from him, and while Vicente groaned and took stock of himself, Hunky Neighbor and I spent the next 5 minutes pulling needles out of his tire, hoping to avoid a flat. Vicente complained that his shoulder hurt, and after a moment I looked up. I was crouched by his tire, and he was standing next to me. And as I looked at his arm, I noticed something was missing: a 1” wide by 1.5” long by 5/8” deep hunk of flesh. A veritable divot was missing from Vicente’s forearm. And as he turned his wrist, I saw the underlying sinewy layer of flesh- muscle? tendon? I’m still not sure- rotate inside the arm, independently of the surrounding skin and subcutaneous fat.

Now, I don’t have a close-up photo, and if I did I probably wouldn’t post it. But I am telling you now, it was really, really gross, like something out of a zombie movie. In fact, if you read SkiBikeJunkie’s blog, you probably saw the horrifying recent photo of his forearm injury. This was worse- not because it was bigger (it wasn’t)- but because a chunk of flesh was missing.

But right after the accident, before any of us realized the extent of the injury, Ian snapped this shot of Vicente checking his tire, and you can see the location (but not the detail) of the divot.

Divot Mountain biking as I have for many years, I’ve seen my fair share of injuries, and my standard for a “Bad” injury is simple: If, after seeing the injury, I know more about human anatomy than I did before the injury, then it’s a bad one. This met the standard.

I turned to Hunky Neighbor, also crouched by the tire. The look on his face- a look of trying-to-look-cool-while-suddenly-horrified- told me he’d just seen the divot as well. And his stare told me that he was seeing the exact same look on my face.

Our ride-plan had just changed.

Next Up: Night-Time Horrors, and the Divot of Human Flesh...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hike. Tree. Spider!

ChuckRudy thumb Sunday morning* I met up with my 2 favorite Botany-Heroes, Professor Chuck and Rudy Drobnick (pic left from last Fall- Rudy left, Chuck right.) Longtime readers may remember the series I did last Fall on rare hybrid oak clones in the Wasatch following my discovery of such a clone, which in turn introduced me to Professor Chuck and later to Rudy. You can refer back to that post and the next for background on that discovery and the significance of these hybrids in Northern Utah, which is nothing short of amazing**.

*Yes, I am just blogging about what I did last Sunday now. I am always behind in this project…

**The series included my subsequent discoveries of 2 more such hybrids, which I posted about here and here, as well as my introduction to Rudy, which I posted about here. I later posted here about my scramble to probably the most dramatically-situated of the hybrids, which Rudy initially discovered over 50 years ago.

Late last Fall, Rudy and Professor Chuck re-discovered another such hybrid, which Rudy had discovered in the late 1950s, but subsequently “lost” and omitted from his thesis. Sunday we returned so that I could get a GPS reading and some sample leaves.


Accessing the hybrid required an easy 4 mile round-trip hike along the old Bonneville shoreline-bench on the West slope of the Oquirrhs. Rudy waited at the car while Professor Chuck and I made the hike.

PChuck Hybrid It was wonderfully warm Indian Summer morning, the foliage was beautiful, and it would’ve been a wonderful hike (or run) even without the hybrid.

IMG_2928 Tangent: The lower west slope of the Oquirrhs has some absolutely beautiful stretches. It’s a lot like what I imagine the Wasatch foothills were like 50+ years ago, before they were cluttered with homes, hospitals and natural history museums- open golden, grassy slopes, broken by intermittent stands of scrub oak and maple, the vegetation growing more dens as one ascends the slope. It’s not a “destination” really, but well worth visiting for an easy hike in the Spring or Fall.


IMG_2878 Rudy described the hybrid’s location for us, assuring us we couldn’t miss it. And indeed we couldn’t. Amongst the fading browns, oranges and yellows carpeting the slope, the hybrid stands out like a bright green jewel. Its live oak (Quercus turbinella) parentage gives the leaves a strong late-season persistence un-matched by any “regular” scrub oak (Q. gambelii) around. Sheltered by a large boulder, and consisting of several trunks, it’s a magnificent little stand.

IMG_2886 Check out the leaves- bright green in mid-October, and clearly intermediate in form between the scrub Oak all over the place up here, and the little, shrubby, holly-like live oak you get down around Gooseberry Mesa. Professor Chuck thinks the clone is probably an F1 hybrid, formed sometime between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago, during the Altithermal. I think that’s what I love most about finding these hybrids- each one is like this little living time capsule from when the world- our world, right here in the Wasatch- was different. And yet hardly anyone is aware of them. They just go on cloning and growing, without any signs or plaques or fences proclaiming their coolness.

Various Foliage Tangent: And if I can be forgiven for waxing poetic for a moment, this, right here, is what I love about living in Utah. The state has a thousand little mysteries- mysteries of flora and geology and topography and hydrology and archeology and so much more, and no matter how long you live here and how much you explore, there are always a thousand more mysteries, waiting to be explored. It’s like living in the middle of a giant, continuous, never-ending adventure*.

*Yes, I realize this is exactly the kind of over-the-top boosterism I was poo-pooing in Wednesday’s post, but damnit it’s true. As Stegner wrote, “It is a land that breeds the impossible.”

IMG_2909 October and November are the best times to spot such hybrids. Eventually, in late November or December, their leaves will turn, wither and fall.

We walked back, chatting about plants and moss and range condition* and the day grew warmer. A gopher snake slithered across the old 2-track we were following, and then a moment later I saw it- a nice, big Tarantula.

IMG_2880*Moss on the ground in open grassy areas is an indicator of good range condition. Mosses like these (pic right) don’t survive long on heavily grazed/trampled soil.


Utah certainly has many animals I never saw in the wild growing up in New England. Mountain Lions, Elk, Coyotes, Bobcats, Golden Eagles, Magpies, Pronghorns, Buffalo- I never saw any of them in the wild before I moved out West. But of all the wild animals I’ve seen since moving here, I don’t think any freaks me out more than a tarantula.

IMG_2922 By “freaked out”, I don’t mean “scared”; I just mean “freaked out.” A “bug” just shouldn’t be that big. Tarantulas here in Utah primarily eat other invertebrates, such as crickets and beetles, but occasionally a tarantula here will eat a mouse. A “bug” eating a mammal? That’s just wrong.

250px-Haeckel_Arachnida Tarantulas are of course spiders, and spiders are, as everyone knows, arachnids. But people tend to use the words “arachnid” and “spider” interchangeably, which isn’t the case. Arachnids are a huge class of invertebrates that include not only spiders, but also things like ticks, mites, vinegarroons*, pseudoscorpions**, windscorpions***, “daddy longlegs****” and much more. All arachnids have eight legs, but evolution has changed the form and function of some of these legs in some species so that they no longer look or function like legs. Arachnids also have a couple of other appendages: chelicerae, which are mouthparts used to grasp food, and are different from the mouthparts of insects (which are mandibles), and pedipalps, which are used from everything from feeding to movement to moving packets of sperm around during mating. Confusingly, the pedipalps of some arachnids have practically evolved into “legs”; a windscorpion for example appears to have 10 legs, but the front pair is actually modified pedipalps.

*These are also called whipscorpions, but I get a kick out of “vinegaroon.” Sounds like some weird kind of cookie.

** These are not the same as scorpions. Completely different kind of critter.

*** Nope. Not scorpions either.

****Called “Harvestmen” in much of the non-US English-speaking world. BTW, these are (I believe) the subject of Christopher’s studies over at CoO.

Arachnids have a distinctive two-chunk body-form: the cephalothorax, which is a combo head and thorax and to which the legs are attached, and the abdomen.

cscrpion Extra Details: There are still lots of unresolved issues in arachnid evolution and phylogeny. One example is scorpions, which you’ll find included in lots of lists of arachnids, but which are now thought by many researcher to have evolved instead from Eurypterids, an ancient and varied and now-extinct group of (sometimes) monster-sized sea-dwelling creepie-crawlies (OK invertebrates) which included the largest arthropods that ever lived. (I googled for a Eurypterid pic, and this was my absolute favorite. I’m pretty sure that’s “Dwayne” from One Day At A Time.)

Detail Tangent: This is a good time to talk about why “bugs” don’t usually get all that big. An exoskeleton is a very efficient support structure for very small animals, and offers protection against both predators and dessication (drying out.) But it’s got a big disadvantage: as the animal gets bigger, the exoskeleton required to support it and house the increased musculature needed to move it, becomes too heavy and cumbersome*.

*Yet another disadvantage to exoskeletons is the whole molting-hassle.

With an internal skeleton, this isn’t nearly as much of a problem. grasshop_tracheaeConsider the thick, trunk-like legs of an elephant compare to those of a deer. Certainly an elephant’s skeleton is much more massive, and its leg bones thicker, but the weight of that skeleton is nothing what a suit of elephant-sized armor capable of supporting an elephant would weigh. BTW, this is a bigger problem on land than in the water, which is one reason why you get crabs and lobsters bigger than any tarantula or cockroach.

So skeletal mass and bulk is a size-limiter for “bugs”. But interestingly, the more important limiter- in that it becomes a problem sooner as a “bug” gets bigger- may be respiration. Insects don’t have lungs as we think of them. lung250 They use trachea (diagram above left, not mine), a network of tubes which carry air directly to the tissues that need it. Spiders have a different mechanism, called a book lung (diagram right, not mine either*)which is a gill-like structure in the abdomen full of hemolymph**-filled flaps. Both of these airflow mechanisms work fine for a small body, but terribly ineffective at getting oxygen to tissues in a larger one. And speaking of breathing…

*What, you think I have all day to sit around and draw pictures?

**Bug-blood. Confusingly, many other arachnids, like mites and Daddy-Longlegs, have trachea instead of book lungs.

Another unresolved issue is how many times arachnids evolved from water to land. Do all land-based arachnids* share a common terrestrial pioneer ancestor, which accounts for some of their common features, such as book lungs? Or did things like books lungs evolve multiple times independently in different pioneer-ancestors**?

*Aquatic spiders BTW are descended from land-based spiders that returned to the water, analogous to whales or seals.

**In which case these features would be analogous to Old/New World Vultures, C4 and CAM photosynthesis, isoprene emission in plants and about a zillion other things we’ve looked at in this blog. Isn’t it cool how the same or similar features keep evolving over and over again?

arach anat Spiders, the order Araneae, are air-breathing arachnids in which the chelicerae have evolved into hollow venom-injecting fangs. Nearly all spiders are predators, but are incapable of eating solid food, and so liquefy their prey by injecting it with digestive enzymes*.

*Although some spiders, including tarantulas, also do a bit of tearing and chewing with their fangs, and also grinding-up of food with their pedipalps.

Tangent: This is a good point to get back to the whole bug-eats-mammal, thing, because Bird Whisperer and I just saw this darn near happen last week, when we watched Return Of The King. shelob You know, the part when Shelob the Giant Evil Spider paralyzes Frodo and wraps him up in her web? Yeah, that part is so bogus and here’s why… OK, OK, I know the whole movie is make-believe and there’s no such thing as wizards or orcs or hobbits (gay, straight or otherwise) or elves or whatever. But besides all that I mean. I mean the part that’s anatomically bogus: Shelob has a stinger. Spiders don’t have stingers- that’s what bees and wasps have. Spiders always inject venom through their fangs*.

*Oh yeah, and she’s way too big, too; she couldn’t breathe or walk, though maybe she’s just powered by some kind of physics-defying Magic Malice or something…

There are at least 40,000 known species of spider, some 900 of which are tarantulas, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. Most live in underground burrows and wait for prey to pass by. Many surround the burrow with a “welcome mat” of silk threads that alert it to passing prey.

TParts Here in Utah, the common species- and the only one I’ve ever seen- is Aphonopelma iodius. Females rarely stray far from the lair; if you see a tarantula walking about, it’s almost always a male. I’ve seen tarantulas here in Utah about a dozen times, and except for 2 of them, every single sighting has been in the month of October, always crossing a trail or a road.

It’s thought that in the Fall males go wandering in search of mates. I’ve mostly seen them down in the foothills, around 5,000 feet, but I spotted one a few years back up by Jeremy Ranch, at nearly 7,000 feet. (The only place I’ve seen a tarantula twice around here is crossing the “paved” road of Mill Creek Canyon, about 100 feet below the entry-fee station, both times- that’s right- in October.)

Side Note: Speaking of males on the prowl, tarantula mating is pretty weird. The male spins a web and deposits a sperm packet on the surface. He then picks up the sperm with his pedipalps and attempts to insert it into the female genital opening. Successful or no, he runs a decent chance of getting eaten by the female.

Tarantulas have few natural enemies; a notable exception is the Tarantula Hawk, Pepsis sp. a wasp which stings, paralyzes and then lays its eggs within the spider’s body. The eggs hatch and consume the still-living-but-paralyzed spider from the inside-out. Interestingly, though I’ve seen Tarantula Hawks many times in Southern Utah and even in Costa Rica, I’ve never seen one in Northern Utah.

Fangs are the tarantula’s offensive weapon, and they’re used defensively as well. The fangs, BTW, move up and down, unlike most spiders, whose move side-to side. But a tarantula’s bite, though painful*, isn’t all that dangerous; there’s no record I could find of anyone dying from a bite.

*But nowhere near as painful as the sting of a Tarantula Hawk, which is apparently out-of-this-world-awful.

But the primary defensive weapon of New World Tarantulas, including A. iodius, isn’t venom; it’s hair.

All New World Tarantulas have what are called urticating hairs*, which are specialized barbed hairs that rub off easily and can embed in the skin or eyes of other animals. When embedded in skin, they can cause significant irritations; when embedded in eyes or mucous membranes* they can cause extreme irritation, and even death in small animals through edema. The level of irritation varies across species. The urticating hairs of the South American Goliath Birdeater, Theraposa blondi, cause a rash that supposedly feels like “shards of fiberglass.” But the only firsthand description I could find of the irritation caused by A. iodius hairs described it as “15 minutes of minor irritation.” There also seems to be a range in severity of the reaction depending on the individual afflicted, and it now seems as though the irritation may have a chemical component in addition to the mechanical one.

*A number of caterpillars also have urticating hairs, which they of course evolved completely independently. That’s right- yet another example of convergent evolution!

**The hairs can get in the lungs of small mammals, though there’s no known case of this occurring with humans.

Most hairs on a tarantula are not urticating; they’re just body hairs*. Urticating hairs on most species, including A. iodius, grow only on the top of the abdomen.

*It’s not clear what purpose the body hairs serve.

There are 2 really cool things about urticating hairs, each of which relates to another animal we’ve looked at previously.

Last month when we looked at porcupines, I noted that porcupines don’t actually “throw” their quills. But tarantulas do. When threatened, a tarantula will spin around to face its attacker, and then use its 2 rear legs to brush urticating hairs off its abdomen in the direction of its attacker!

TDefense You can often ID a tarantula that has recently employed this maneuver because it’ll have an actual bald spot atop its abdomen, and in fact you can see such a bald spot on the one we saw Sunday.

UHairs Reader “Enel” BTW was kind enough to send me some tarantula shots from where he lives (down in Central Arizona) and in this shot you can also see a bald spot.

Enel TTire They also seem to spread the hairs liberally around their lairs, on and around their egg sacs, and apparently, to mark territory. Urticating hairs BTW, don’t grow back until the tarantula’s next molt.

The second cool thing relates back to Black Widows, which I blogged about way, way back when, long before anyone ever read this blog*. You can go check out that post if you like, but the Readers Digest version is this: black widow venom contains at least 7 different toxins, specifically targeted towards different kinds of prey and/or predators- 5 for arthropods, 1 for vertebrates ( and 1 for crustaceans (i.e. woodlice.)

*I’m serious. Like no one read it back then.

urticating_hairs_1Similarly, there appear to be at least 6 types of urticating hairs, called types 1 through 6, which serve different functions and appear to target different creatures, although the full “target list” for each type is not yet clear. The analogy isn’t perfect; no tarantula has all 6 types. But like the toxins, the array of hairs and their forms and specificity is simply dazzling. Tarantulas are yet another thing that seem pretty cool at first, but then when you learn a little bit about them, turn out to be way, way cool.

Side Note: I had a really tough time determining for this post how many urticating hair types a given species has. Best as I can tell, the minimum is 1, the maximum may be as high as 4.

Type 3 and 4 hairs appear to be most irritating to mammals, and type 3 appears to be effective against both vertebrates (you, your dog, your ex-spouse) and invertebrates (bugs). The urticating hairs on A. iodius are Type 3. So while you don’t need run away from a Tarantula in the Wasatch or the Oquirrhs, I don’t know that I’d go picking it up.

Professor Chuck patiently waited while I examined poked, prodded, filmed (but didn’t touch!) A. iodius. After a bit, we finished the hike back, rejoined Rudy, and drove back home, passing and noting 3 other (previously-visited) hybrids en route. October’s a great time to spot both hybrid oaks and tarantulas in Northern Utah. Keep your eyes open.