Skunk cabbages blooming in the snow

For fans of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), here are a several photographs of from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. You can see the spadix (an inflorescence) peeking out from inside the warm cavity formed by the spathe (a modified leaf). The spathes are a bit frost damaged because they emerged in early December this year, and their thermogenic capabilities weren’t sufficient to fully weather the cold.

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowering in snow

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowering in snow

Here are some that emerged too soon and were damaged by freezing temperatures. There might be fully viable flowers within but I didn’t want to disturb them.

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) with frost damage

Finally, here is a photograph from a prior year to show what they look like when they are not damaged by frost. They look like porcelain replicas of rotting beef tongues.

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) spathes

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Snow fly

If you’re out on a nature walk today, keep your eyes peeled for snow flies. These are essentially wingless crane flies loaded with antifreeze. This one is a male Chionea scita, I believe. Not much is known about these insects, although there is speculation that at least some members of the genus hang out in rodent burrows eating feces. (Don’t judge.) Please see “The crane fly genus Chionea in North America” (Byers 1983) for more details.

You might note that it has halteres, which is interesting because these are organs used in flight (they are modified wings … which is why flies only have one pair of wings). Would be fun to figure out whether snow fly halteres still work, though that would have to be inferred by anatomy and maybe some electrophysiological tricks. Or perhaps they serve a new function. To see photographs of some flies that have lost their halteres, check out the Braulidae (bee parasites) or Hippoboscidae ovinus (sheep ked). I love wingless flies. Did a presentation on them when I took entomology during high school … and have been creeped out and impressed by them ever since.

Colin Purrington Photography: Insects &emdash; snow-fly

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Creepy blob of resin on a tree

While searching for yellow brain fungus on a hot day in December, I stumbled across this twisted little blob of gunk nestled in a bark crevice. At first I was all excited that it might be some sort of snow fungus (e.g., Tremella fuciformis) that was past its prime, but I’m pretty sure it’s just resin, gum, or sap — not sure which. But I’ve never seen resin with little spheres blebbing out, and nothing with a white membrane. It’s creepy. If you have more information or have wild speculation, please send me a note or leave a comment. Approximately 1″ long. Photographed at Lake Mohonk, New Paltz, New York.

I really had wanted this to be a slime mold … perhaps an immature Trichia or Stemonitis. If you’re a slime mold fan, please weigh in.

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; Gum blob on bark

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Mountain laurel flowering in December

I stumbled upon a solitary mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) flower yesterday while walking around Lake Mohonk in New Paltz. It isn’t the prettiest mountain laurel flower, but it was DECEMBER 27th, approximately six (!) months before one would expect a mountain laurel flower in this area. This December has been the warmest on record for the area, I think, and Christmas Eve was almost 70 °F (!!). Crazy, and really, really sad. This flower isn’t alone, apparently — the New York Times has a compilation of strange phenology across the country.

Colin Purrington Photography: Plants &emdash; winter-mountain-laurel

If you’d like to see photographs of prettier mountain laurel at Mohonk, here are photographs I took a few summers ago.

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Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t mislead people into thinking the drug can work against viruses and other microorganisms. The problem with “antibiotic” is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that they can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. Part of this confusion is from the word itself (it sounds like it should work against all types of microorganisms). In addition to it sounding like it should be broad drug that can kill all things living, many dictionaries actually suggest exactly that, and that’s actually what the word used to mean. Unfortunately (and this seems to be the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think “antibiotic” is at all confusing to lay people.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. Similarly, disinfectants and pills can contain antivirals. Or antifungals. And if there really was a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. Regardless, some scientists and physicians are already using “antibacterial” as synonym for antibiotic, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent; it’s just too rare that they are doing so.

The issue is more that it’s hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for their entire life. Good examples are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only fully die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the mental power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients or when designing outreach graphics. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics. Even if using “antibacterial” would only reduce overprescription by 5%, the change would be worth doing.

I’m not suggesting that we stop using the word, “antibiotic”. The word is totally fine for conferences, publications, and situations where the context is clear or when there is plenty of time to clarify that they are antibacterials. The word is also invaluable when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested. If you conduct “science literacy” polls, you should read them. The reason is that asking something like, “Will antibiotics treat colds?” is a terrible question. You should be asking, “Do antibacterials kill viruses”. That will assess the science literacy more directly. Sticking with the old question just demonstrates that pollsters are unfamiliar with what “antibiotic” actually means.

You keep using the word antibiotic

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