Saturday, June 19, 2021

Ten Reasons Scorpions Are Super Cool


I had the opportunity to lead a couple scorpion walks last weekend at the Great Basin National Park 2021 Reptile BioBlitz. I had shown people scorpions before and knew a tiny about them, but decided it might be good to beef up what I could share. The more I learned, the more I was amazed. I can't wait to share some of these fun facts with you. 

10. Scorpions have been living on planet Earth for over 400 million years! That means scorpions were alive when the dinosaurs roamed. And they lived long before that. They have survived multiple major extinction events. They will probably be living long after the human species goes extinct.

9. Scorpions are arachnids. That means they have 8 legs. They don't have antennae or wings like insects. Other arachnid relatives are spiders, pseudoscorpions (literally false scorpions because they don't have a stinging tail), opilionids (aka daddy-long-legs), and solfugids (aka camel spiders, wind scorpions). 

8. Over 2,500 species of scorpions are found on the planet. They are found on every continent except Antarctica. Although most are found in deserts, they are also found in the tropics, on high mountains, in caves, and intertidal areas. You can find scorpions as far north as Canada, in some swampy areas like the Everglades, and even islands such as the Florida Keys. 

7. Scorpions are venomous. They deliver the venom via a stinger on their tail. Out of the 2,500 species, only about 35 can deliver a sting that's potentially fatal to humans. The sting delivered by many is dangerous to their prey, which includes flies (I got to see a scorpion capture a fly one night and it was so cool!), crickets, and centipedes. Some of their predators, like meerkats, grasshopper mice, and desert long-eared bats, are immune to their venom.

6. Scorpions are experts in survival. Some can deal with high radioactivity. Some can go a full year without a meal. Some can be submerged for 48 hours and still live. These creatures are tough.

5. There's even a scorpion in the sky! The Babylonians are said to have even put a scorpion in the sky, the constellation. It was later recognized by Ptolemy. The story goes that the mighty hunter Orion was boasting about being able to kill all the animals. Artemis was not pleased, so went to the earth goddess Gaia and asked her to do something. She sent a scorpion. Orion reportedly picked up his big club and bashed the scorpion, but before he did so, the scorpion managed to sting Orion. It was a fatal sting, and the mighty Orion fell to his death. They were both put up into the sky, but on opposite sides. Once Scorpius arises, Orion falls away, and when Orion is seen, Scorpius is absent. They are continually chasing each other around the night sky.

4. They have a mating dance. To mate, a male and female scorpion do a promenade à deux (French for "a walk for two"), where the scorpions grasp pincers and dance around. The male will deposit his spermatophore (sperm packet) on the ground, then help get the female positioned over it so it can be taken into her body. This process can last minutes to several hours.

3. Scorpions give live birth to their babies. The mama scorpion puts her pedipalps under her body and catches the little ones. Then she puts them up on her back and carries them around until their exoskeleton hardens and they get a little bigger. Scorpions can give birth to 3 to 100 babies, and they carry them on their backs from 5 to 25 days, depending on the species. (I really want to see a mama scorpion with babies on her back this summer!)

2. Scorpions usually live 6-10 years (if they survive the first year), but can live up to 25 years. They molt (crack open their exoskeleton and leave it behind and let a new one harden) about 6 times as they grow up. That puts a new twist on growth spurts. This covers a span of 6 months to 6 years, depending on the species. So you might say that some scorpions spend a long time in the "teenager/almost grown up" period!

1. Scorpions fluoresce under blacklight! A part of their exoskeleton makes them reflect the UV light, which makes them super easy to find at night. In fact, dozens of new species have been found in recent years because handheld blacklights have become so easy to obtain. If you've never gone out with a blacklight, I highly recommend it. It's like an Easter egg hunt looking for scorpions. And when you finally are ready to take a break from looking at the ground, look up into the sky and see if you can find Scorpius. 

p.s. I recommend adding your photos to iNaturalist. You'll get a possible identification and also be able to see what other scorpions have been seen in the area!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Exploring Northern Tule Valley, Utah

Are you ready to visit northern Tule Valley? Most likely you haven't even heard of it. Square miles: 940. Population: 0.  Paved roads: 1, Highway 6 & 50, through the southern end. It's located in both Millard and Juab Counties in the West Desert of Utah. You can find where Tule Valley is on this TopoZone topo map.

Tule Valley turns out to be a great place to go recreate responsibly. There's just no one there. And with a little common sense, your chance of getting injured is extremely low. So what can you do? We're going to focus on the northern section in this post. Southern Tule Valley is more well-known, and you can find past blog posts on Ibex Crags (bouldering and rock climbing) and Ibex Hardpan (bike riding, airplanes, and aliens).

In northern Tule Valley, on the east side, there are some tiny sand dunes, just right for kids and kids-at-heart.

I don't think they get more than 40 feet tall, but they show awesome patterns.

In the background you can see the pointy Tatow Knob. If you're into hiking, you can see bristlecone pines on the way to the House Range's tallest peak. The most popular peak to hike is Notch Peak, and the view of it from Tule Valley is amazing. We couldn't see it from where we were, but a bit farther south it is great. Painter Spring, with rock climbing and cool minerals is also farther south.

Rabbit tracks in the sand.

Tule Valley has the House Range to the east (photo below), the Confusion Range to the west, the Fish Springs Range and Great Salt Lake Desert to the north, and the Wah Wah Valley and Mountains to the south.

At night the stars are marvelous in Tule Valley.

We'll have to go back for more Milky Way photos. In May just after sunset, the galactic core hasn't risen yet.

One of the biggest features in northern Tule Valley is a huge dry lakebed. With only 8 inches average precip for the entire valley, there's not enough water to go anywhere. Plus, Tule Valley is in the hydrologic Great Basin, which has no external drainage. All the water that falls either enters the ground or evaporates. During really wet periods, water does accumulate on the playas. And from about 21,000 to 15,000 years ago, this area was under water when the massive Lake Bonneville extended down this far. Ancient shorelines can still be spotted (check out this video about how lake levels fluctuated). Sometimes it's fun to pretend that we're scuba diving and what creatures we would see in the lake with us.

Hardpans or playas are just so much fun. You can go where ever you want! I wrote a fun post about playas and their many uses in 2012.

I was attracted to the patterns on the playa.

Meanwhile, back on the dunes, Desert Boy was still sleeping.

So much of Tule Valley is dry. But in the middle of the valley, Tule Valley springs bubbles. The word "tule" means large bulrush.

It was fun walking around Tule Spring.

In Upper Tule Spring, not far from the corral, we even caught a Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris)! Even more reason to protect the scarce water out there. But you might not want to go for a swim--from researching this blog post, it looks like there might be leeches in the springs, too!
Those are a few things that make Tule Valley a special place. We still would like to check out the stromatolites on Chalk Knolls. Here's a video of someone going to the lowest spot in Millard County, which happens to be in Tule Valley, at 4,308 ft! Someone could hike from the lowest to the highest spot in Millard County and basically stay in Tule Valley. Do you know of any other cool things to see in Tule Valley? If so, please share!

Tule Valley isn't for everybody, and that's a good thing. It's quiet and isolated, remote and subtly beautiful, hot in the summer and freezing in winter. We look forward to visiting again.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

New Astronomy Amphitheater at Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park has been building a new astronomy amphitheater, and I recently got to experience it. I went to the very first program, on a Tuesday night near the end of May.

Ranger Charlie did a fantastic program, weaving together stories about the Forgotten Winchester rifle, the amazing dark sky, and what we can do to see into the distant worlds better.

Following the program, the rangers got the telescopes focused on objects. Because it was the first program of the year, this took a little while.

This gave me some time to walk around the amphitheater. It's lit with red lights to preserve your night vision. The lights are dimmable, so they can be brighter before and after the program and dimmer during.

The mountainous backdrop is gorgeous, and the amphitheater is situated so that you shouldn't see car headlights. Parking is at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, and then you walk down the road to the picnic area to the amphitheater. It's best to arrive 15 minutes before the program start time to allow for this. In addition, the capacity is 200, and the programs this past week had over 175 people, so it's possible that some people may have to be turned away in the future.

While we waited, Charlie pointed out some of the first things we were seeing appear in the night sky. It's fun to see the stars start off few and far in between, and then before you know it, they are dancing across the sky in a packed arena.

Two telescopes were being set up that night. It was also the night of a full moon, so the first place to look was the moon. If you've never gotten a close up view of the moon and its lava fields, it is an amazing sight.

It's also a bit blinding, as the moon is so bright!

With the telescopes situated, it was time to line up.

Everyone was really patient.

After each person got a view, they went to the back of the line. Once everyone saw the moon, it was on to the next night sky object.

The astronomy amphitheater is a great addition to the park, and I highly recommend attending a program. They are on Thursday and Saturday nights throughout summer. In June and July they are at 8:30 pm, and then starting in early August change to 8 pm. 

When it's time to go, you follow the red lights back to the parking lot. There are even stars on the road, what a nice touch!

Great Basin National Park is an International Dark Sky Park, and now there's an effort to make the gateway town of Baker into the first Dark Sky Community in Nevada. 

At the Farmer's Market on Saturdays (next to the church in Baker) there's a fundraiser to help with this effort. A local who has made a variety of beautiful glass has his entire collection being sold off.

The glass takes so many forms, some I had never even seen before.

Hopefully the exceptionally dark skies out in this remote part of the world can be saved. And here's hoping we can restore the dark to many other parts of our world. This is a solvable problem, and better lighting benefits us all. 
If you like astronomy, I hope you get a chance to visit the new astronomy amphitheater. For more on Great Basin National Park's Astronomy Program, check out their website

Friday, June 11, 2021

A Visit to the Swamp Cedars, White Pine County, Nevada


Located in Spring Valley in White Pine County, Nevada, the valley bottom is dotted with trees. Other nearby valleys are devoid of trees, as it is too dry for them to grow unless they are next to a creek. What's going on here?

Apparently a clay layer under the surface helps to retain water and allows Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopulorum), otherwise known as swamp cedars, to grow in the valley bottom. 

They are found both north and south of Highway 6 & 50, which bisects the valley. 

In addition to being of biological interest, the swamp cedars have a cultural and historical context. The local Shoshone tribes and their ancestors have inhabited the valley for thousands of years. Numerous springs made it an attractive spot, and the local tribes were known to have 16 villages in the area, according to a report by Julian Steward in 1938. 

 The people at the villages harvested pine nuts, held festivals, and traveled to visit relatives and friends in nearby villages. Starting in about 1859, hostilities began with the US cavalry and others, and at least one battle and/or massacre occurred in the swamp cedar area, with many Shoshone killed. 

Some Shoshone say that each swamp cedar represents a Shoshone who has died. This year, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution AJR4 to recommend to Congress that the area be made into a National Monument or be added to Great Basin National Park so that this story can be told. 

Time will tell what will happen to this Swamp Cedar Natural Area, most of which is currently on BLM-managed land.

We decided to take a visit to the swamp cedars. We see them from a distance when we drive across the valley on the highway, but we wanted to get close to them. We turned off the highway onto a gravel road and then onto a two-track road. We could see the swamp cedars in the distance as we traveled west.

In wet years, we would not be able to cross the valley here. The ruts showed where people had struggled before. But due to the drought, the ground was totally dry.

As we got closer, we were a little surprised by just how many swamp cedars we saw.

We stopped near a springhead to take a closer look. It was really cool to see the water bubbling out of the sand. A small weir had backed up water a little bit, making it more impressive.

The spring brook then flowed through the swamp cedars.

I spotted a variety of wildflowers in the vicinity.

The swamp cedars have some personalities.

The blue iris dotted wet places. It was a very cloudy day, which is unusual for the Great Basin.

I believe these are monitoring wells. 
The swamp cedars are a special place, and I definitely feel a desire to get to know them better. 

It will be interesting to see what happens with the swamp cedar area. Here are two articles that give a little more information about the area. 

 Nevada resolution to protect swamp cedars reverberates across Indian Country | Sierra Nevada Ally

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