How cicadas became immortal


A moulted cicada shell left on my neighbor’s fence

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

It’s cicada season here in Illinois. Hidden in the trees, they start buzzing every evening around dinnertime. During the day I spot their empty skins clinging to fences and mailboxes.

Cicadas are harmless, but the way they screech unseen and then disappear the rest of the year makes them sort of creepy, like ghost bugs. Of courses, the same individuals don’t some come out every year (or two to 17 years, depending on the species). The whole reason they emerge is to call to mates and produce the next generation.

But through the years, human saw this behavior and decided maybe cicadas have some supernatural power. Continue reading

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Winston Churchill’s platypus obsession

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

“Duck Billed Platypus Schnabeltier” by Heinrich Harder (now in public domain)

Who knew that sex between two platypi could mean hope for the British Empire? In 1943, as bombs fell on London and German submarines lurked in the Atlantic, Churchill sent the Australian prime minister an odd request: bring me six platypi.

I’m not joking. As Cambridge University scholar Natalie Lawrence writes, “The timing of Churchill’s request and the symbolic nature of the platypus had political importance, and played a part in mending the broken relations between Australia and Britain.”  Continue reading

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The story of a worm

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Here’s how I know I’m weird: my ears perk up when I hear the word “nematode.” See, I worked in a nematology lab for most of college, and my time with this group of roundworms has left me ruined for normal society.

For example, I saw this lovely, abstract art vase at Pier One Imports:

Photo credit: Me

And I immediately thought of how female nematodes curl up:

Photo credit: University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Back in freshman year of college, my mom was a little worried about me working with worms. Would they infect me? But the nematodes in our lab were harmless to humans. The tiny roundworms infected either insect larvae or plant roots. Fascinated with our little research subjects, I forgot about their dangerous cousins. Continue reading

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Behind the scenes with condors!

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

In March, I wrote a post about why researchers and conservationists want to protect the California condor. My friend Corinne Ross, an intern with the Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery Program, explained the odd process of condor sex.

But in that post, I didn’t really go into how conservationists keep the condor population going. Turns out their conservation methods are as strange as the bulgy-headed condors themselves.

Condors eat carrion, and that’s a problem in some areas because some carrion is left by hunters using lead ammunition. If condors eat lead, it can damage their bodies and hurt their chicks.

So the Fish and Wildlife Service gives condor a safer option: dead calves. Ross and her colleagues make regular trips to dairy farms where they can pick up stillborn calves. The calves are already dead, but Ross still has to do some food-prep.     Continue reading

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How condors do (and don’t do) it


A California condor. They might not be attractive birds, but condors play an important role in the ecosystem. Photo by Michael Woodbridge, Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

On a recent Saturday night, I was sitting on my sofa, watching tv, when I got a call about condor sex.

“They are getting frisky right now,” said my friend, Corinne Ross.

Ross was perched on a rock, watching a pair of California condors get busy.

She described the how the male wooed the female.

“Condors don’t actually vocalize, so they use body language a lot,” Ross said.

The male raised his wings “like a really big shoulder shrug” and waddled toward the female. Oh, but he was rejected.

“The female was just like ‘not now dear,’” Ross said.

Ross isn’t some weird bird-sex voyeur. She’s an intern right now with the Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery Program. She’s spent the last few months monitoring the wild condor population—a population that really needs some help.

I lived in California for 22 years, but I don’t think I ever saw a California condor. I think I would remember if I had. Condors are a strange combination of grand and grotesque. Their sleek black wings can span nine feet, but their heads look like someone glued a beak to rotten squash.         Continue reading

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No time for love…

I actually like Valentine's Day, but this photo is still the stuff of nightmares

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

To quote nearly every tv sitcom cynic in nearly every Valentine’s Day episode: “What’s sooooo special about one day in February?! Ugh!”

And while that sitcom character goes on to learn the value of love, I’m going to argue that the anti-Valentine’s gripe has a biological basis.

You see, humans breed (and fall in love, I guess) year ’round. Though studies show humans have slightly more sex in the winter (being stuck indoors and all that), we’re technically “continuous breeders.” This continous drive to breed makes it unnatural to focus all romance on just one day a year.

The once-a-year concept would make more biological sense if humans were “seasonal breeders.” Species that are “seasonal breeders” don’t have sex on just one day, but they do wait for a specific time of year.

Continue reading

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I’m featured on!

Woo! Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Jennifer Rohn’s brilliant site has featured my essay “An entomologist’s guide to dating.” It’s all about the trickiness of answering the date question “So what do you do?” when what you do is dissect insect larva (my old job).

A note to ex-boyfriends: Don’t worry, it’s not you I’m calling an “larva anus” in the essay.

Read it here

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