Category Archives: I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Glen Rose Interlude – 1

As can be told from the last year, managing the gallery means a dearth of posts. This is a shame on one level, because it means that an ever-expanding collection of photos builds up on backup drives, just waiting for a few minutes between plant maintenance, enclosure design and construction, ARTwalk setup and teardown, home maintenance, relationship maintenance, Day Job essentials, laundry, mowing the lawn, and the regular nervous breakdown every third Friday. If I had the time to find a definitive and permanent vaccine for sleep, I’d be all set.

With that said, with things cooling down and the temperate carnivores going to bed for the winter, it’s time to start updating and revising. Let’s start with a little palaeobotany trip down to Glen Rose, Texas, best known for its dinosaur trackways but full of all sorts of other surprises.

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The original idea, such as it was, was to get out of Dallas for a day during Memorial Day weekend and hit someplace that presumably hadn’t been flooded with May’s torrential rains. This time, it meant hitting Glen Rose, almost directly due south of Fort Worth, and stopping by Dinosaur Valley State Park. Neither of us had been out that way for a decade, but the idea of nature trails, antique stores, and possibly finding some of the Paluxy River’s famed Cretaceous petrified wood. The wood could wait: the dinosaurs couldn’t.

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Besides the draw of Dinosaur Valley State Park’s hiking and biking trails and campgrounds, there’s the real reason why people travel from all over the planet: its famed dinosaur trackways. Back in the 1930s, the fossil prospector Roland T. Bird rode into Glen Rose on a hot summer day on his Indian motorcycle and stopped for a drink of lemonade. While cooling off, he inspected a recently constructed bandshell next to the county courthouse, which was constructed of local stone. Among the huge chunks of gypsum and petrified wood was a fossil track of a predatory dinosaur, and inquiry by Bird led locals to show him the river bottom, which was literally paved with dinosaur tracks and trackways. Not only were the first scientifically described sauropod tracks found in the river, but they kept coming across tracks on multiple planes of what used to be muddy beach: one of the great surprises was of a whole trackway, most likely of the big predator Acrocanthosaurus and the sauropod Paluxysaurus, as the former chased the latter across mudflats. Those trackways were cut out and archived decades ago, but the river bottom still had other tracks to see, right?

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Well, as luck would have it, the Paluxy probably had plenty of new tracks visible to the naked eye…if the bearer of that eye also had gills. The river was as high as I’ve ever seen it, and about as clear and attractive as week-old coffee. It was also as close to white water as it could come, so taking a boat on it, even if that were allowed, was a remarkably bad idea. That didn’t stop innumerable innertubers on the nearby Brazos, but if the idea was to view geology instead of lining the banks with beer bottles, this was a bust.

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Maybe not a complete bust: on the far shore was a smooth softshelled turtle (Trionyx spp.) taking advantage of a lack of humans to get in a good bask. It stayed on the bank for about ten minutes, long enough to get photos, but it didn’t take well to spectators. Enough people collected on the near shore that the noise or the motion spooked it, and it slid off the sandbank and disappeared into the roiling river. Considering that the genus Trionyx is at least 45 million years old, and probably a lot older, it may not have been a dinosaur contemporary, but at least it added some ambiance. Besides, softshelled turtles are famously cantankerous, and since this one was the same diameter as a garbage can lid, anybody stupid enough to catch it would learn soon enough exactly how hard it could bite.

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Not far from the river were two old friends: the Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus statues from the 1962 World’s Fair, where they joined other life-sized dinosaurs in an outdoor exhibition sponsored by Sinclair Oil. These days, they’re in exceptional condition: when I first viewed them in the fall of 1980, they’d been neglected for decades since they were donated to Dinosaur Valley State Park. The Brontosaurus had been constructed in segments in order to make it easier to ship by boat to the New York World’s Fairgrounds, and the sparkle used to cover the seams had fallen out, giving it a strange checkerboard look. Meanwhile, the Tyrannosaurus had suffered from the loving attentions of the residents of Glen Rose: in 1980, it had all of two teeth left. Apparently, having a fake dinosaur tooth was a status symbol among Glen Rose teenagers, so the rest had been shot out with .22 rifles and picked up. That changed in the late Eighties with a big restoration and location change, though, and they look today as if they could go for a walk.

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(thick northern Australian accent) “Now, this is a mature tyrannosaur! He’s about fifteen meters; that’s about 50 feet! Now, I’m gonna sneak up behind and jam my thumb up his butthole! That’ll really piss him orf!”

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Incidentally, there’s a very good reason why this tyrannosaur has a trapdoor for a cloaca. By 1962 standards, the World’s Fair dinosaurs were marvels of animatronics, and this trapdoor allowed access to the mechanism that opened and closed the tyrannosaur’s lower jaw. I’d known for years that other dinosaurs had similar mechanisms (the Triceratops had a head that moved back and forth, and the Ankylosaurus had a tail club that wagged), but I’d been told for years that the Brontosaurus was completely immobile. Imagine my surprise at Caroline spotting guide at the front of the corral that described the brontosaur’s neck moving from side to side. Nearly 55 years later, and you still learn something new.

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Another drastic change from late 1980: in a strange way, this was a more accurate locale for a big sauropod than anybody thought. In 1980, the scientific consensus still held that the big sauropods were swamp-dwellers that used water to buoy their massive bulks. The Paluxy dinosaur tracks seemed to confirm this: although plenty of sauropod front and hind footprints showed up in the river, not a single tail dragmark showed, up, supposedly confirming that the tracks were made under enough water to float the tails out of the way. What’s understood now is that sauropods held their tails out of reach of a wayward herdmate’s foot, and that most sauropods actively avoided swamps in favor of well-drained floodplains. Ironically, while the conditions most favored by tyrannosaurs are best represented today by southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle, most of the big Jurassic sauropods would have been most at home in plains like the ones around Dallas and Fort Worth. If they could deal with the drastic changes in vegetation, that is.

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And on the subject of Texas climate, the seeming dead-fish eye on the Brontosaurus has a slightly disturbing story. This is the third head on this statue: when the big restoration project on both statues started in the mid-1980s, an effort was made to put a new, scientifically accurate head on the Brontosaurus, when “Brontosaurus” became a nomen dubiam for the previously described Apatosaurus. Unfortunately, as is often the case with a lot of science art, the proponents of accurate sauropods ran right into proponents of preserving art in its original form, even if it’s wildly inaccurate. Ultimately, molds were found of the original head, and this fiberglass replacement was made from those mold and reattached. The eyes, though, were made of clear resin, which has fogged and crazed from just a few years of Texas’s wildly high levels of ultraviolet light. Texas cars very rarely rust out due to our climate removing any need for salting roads in the winter, but the tradeoff is cracking car dashboards from heat and auto paint that turns into watercolors in ten years.

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Surprisingly for the whole foofarol about redoing the bronto’s head, nobody talks about redoing the tyrannosaur to match current theories. Namely, covering it with feathers. Here, I argue that this statue needs to be left alone to illustrate how dinosaurs were portrayed in the Twentieth Century…and put in a new accurate one just down the road a ways. You have to admit that seeing a “Roadrunner From Hell” tyrannosaur once you enter the park is a great way to make lasting impressions on first-time park visitors, right?

To be continued…

Information, Even If You Don’t Want It: Integrated Pest Management

One of the issues with which we struggle at the Triffid Ranch is a bit of a logical leap in what carnivorous plants can do. Based on phone calls, emails, letters, and incessant queries at shows and events, the logic starts with the given “Carnivorous plants attract, capture, and digest insect and other animal prey” and veers Immediately into “carnivorous plants will take care of my bug problem.” This leads to calls and queries. “My house abuts a stream, and the stream attracts mosquitoes. I need a pitcher plant to eat all of the mosquitoes.”  “My kids leave the door open all day, and we need a Venus flytrap to eat all of the flies they let in.” “My roommate won’t take out the garbage, so I need a flytrap to eat the flies on the garbage.” Sometimes this goes to extremes: “I saw ants at the end of the driveway, and I want to build a berm around my house and cover it with flytraps to get the ants.” Or my personal favorite and a reason why I refuse to return to one show at which I displayed plants in 2013, “Cool! Got anything that will eat bedbugs?”

To all of these, I try to explain, over and over, that while you can get great satisfaction in watching a Cape sundew digest mosquitoes, and even add Battle Boy sound effects to liven things up, one plant or even a thousand won’t get rid of every insect in your time zone. It’s not even a matter of picking wildly inappropriate plants, such as the people who ask repeatedly about using Venus flytraps to control fleas. (The simple answer: they won’t. Even sticky-trap carnivores such as sundews and butterworts may catch fleas, but they won’t break the life cycle.)  Besides, as entomologist and brilliant bug blogger Gwen Pearson notes, you’ll never bug-proof. your house. We lost the war against bugs, spiders, and other exoskeletal creepies about 400 million years ago, and barring a mass extinction that wipes out every arthropod (up to and including the millions of skin mites that eat dead skin cells on your body), we stand no chance of changing that.

That said, while wiping out pests is a lost cause, it’s possible to keep their depredations down to a dull roar. That’s the basic idea behind the concept of integrated pest management, which attempts to minimize horticultural chemical use by understand that complete annihilation is impossible, but cutting populations down to a dull roar isn’t. 

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“You are Number Six.”


For example, one of the more pernicious pests in most households this time of the year is a recent invader, having only been documented in large numbers since 2004. Since then, the shelf elf has been found in living rooms and bedrooms across the United States and Canada, never appearing in the same place twice during the holiday season, and resisting all attempts at capture or restraint. Not only will they return each year, but they have a propensity for breeding out of control, and all efforts at spaying and neutering have been complete failures. They also have a distinctive hive mind, reporting back to a central dominant individual known as a sinterklaas, thereby making efforts to collapse the hive structure nearly impossible. Recent reports suggest that they’re able to communicate with the sinterklaas from considerable distances, but whether this is by telepathy, by Extra Low Frequency vibrations through earth and water, or by pheromones or other vaporous output is unknown. What IS known is that they seem to be especially astute at viewing and modifying the behavior of children, merely by watching and waiting, and the intimation of a reward in exchange for those behavioral changes. Also unknown is the reason for initiating the behavior changes, but research suggests a model comparable to that of the pathogen Toxoplasma.

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“It’s an ugly planet, an Elf planet, a planet hostile to life as we know it!”

Thankfully, there are ways to deal with this menace using IPM, so let’s fire up the appropriate soundtrack and get going,.

The first and most obvious control, chemical, is problematic for multiple reasons. In fact, that problematic nature is why integrated pest management was founded in the first place, because the overuse of pesticides was becoming a significant issue in both farmlands and in residential areas. As a last resort, chemical repellents and poisons have their place, but be warned that most of the effective options for invasive elves also have negative effects on the human population. Butyric acid in aromatherapy bottles works sporadically as a repellent, but the enterprising and cost-conscious homeowner should consider making a custom mix of 75 percent potassium nitrate, 15 percent sulfur, and 10 percent charcoal, or an equal weight of gasoline and polystyrene foam. When ignited, both have an effect on local elf populations: when mixed up in sufficiently large quantities, the effects may be seen from low Earth orbit.

The second control, mechanical, applies to most traps, grinders, zappers, or pitfalls. Repeated vivisections of shelf elves reveals no vital organs or internal structure particularly susceptible to anything other than overwhelming force, and documented sightings exist of shelf elves recovering and attacking immediately after crushing or flattening that would kill most Earthly life. With this in mind, further research continues with finding all-inclusive mechanical controls that can anticipate and neutralize shelf elves before the sinterklaas can give them new orders. The choice of mechanical control is up to the one applying it: from personal experience, while American, Chinese, and Australian controls are have their advantages, Russian controls are low-maintenance, exceeingly durable in multiple environments, and extremely effective.

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“Elbow rocket…NOW!”

This leaves the obvious and logical choice: biological controls. Since shelf elf study really only started a decade ago, many “facts” about their behavior, reproduction, natural history, and evolutionary history are little more than assumptions, and are forcefully disputed. One of the most disputed involves predators in their original environment before coming in contact with humans. Due to their lack of internal structure, which leads some palaeontologists to make comparisons to the extinct Ediacara faunas of the Vendian Era (Crusher, Franklin, & Shaw, 2010), nothing other than highly contentious fragments exist in the fossil record, and genome sequencing has been stymied by a complete lack of sequenceable DNA (Banner, 2011; Richards, 2012; Hoshi, 2012). One thing is certain, though: in multiple tests in captivity, a wide variety of predators actively attract, capture, consume, and digest shelf elves (Logan, West, & Furter, 2015). No widespread field tests on predator selection have been done to date, and the understandable concern is that any effective introduced predator may itself become an invasive species, as demonstrated with the introduction of the cane toad (Bufo marinus) in Australia (Benway, 1959; Duke, 1971).

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One very promising avenue of biological control involves the use of exoparasites, which utilize host organisms during stages of their life cycle. Again, the largest concern involves whether the exoparasite stays with one host or utilizes multiple host species. An equally vital concern, based on recent studies, is whether shelf elves will evolve changes in structure or behavior to bypass parasitism, causing the exoparasite to seek out new host species or become extinct. Using cicadas as a model, extreme predation or parasitism may cause shelf elves to spread out infestations over multiple years, in an attempt to keep parasites from depending upon them every holiday season. Alternately, shelf elf emergence may start earlier in the year: reports of shelf elves being spotted as early as July may be examples of this new behavior.

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“It has a funny habit of shedding its cells and replacing them with polarized silicon.”

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“I could lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”

Due to the challenge of the shelf elf life cycle, with large populations accumulating only in the month of December, the secret may be in finding a combination parasite/predator. A predator that subsists through the rest of the year either in hibernation or on the occasional early emergence, only to reproduce during the height of the shelf elf cycle, may be the only effective way to get populations into something approximating control.

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“Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

In some cases, while biological controls may seem to be the best option, the available biological controls may be organisms that may themselves become pests under the right conditions: for instance, Asian ladybugs becoming pests in vineyards when they feed on ripening grapes and taint the resultant wine. Sometimes the best option is to use several types of control organisms, especially when needing to ensure that one species doesn’t become a threat with increased numbers.

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Finally, one remaining option is now available due to advances in technology. A possible alternative to wiping out the shelf elf may involve introducing organisms that outcompete it for available resources, such as food or nesting sites. In many areas, the beneficial Bench Mensch has made inroads into shelf elf habitat, but future control may involve a combination of mechanical and biological controls. A competitor that can remain in hibernation for years or even centuries between shelf elf infestations, with an active resistance to retaliation, and a built-in weakness should it become a pest: the future is here.

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“Shiny and chrome!”

Have a Great Weekend

Have a Great Weekend

For my beloved, whose birthday is tomorrow:

Gallery

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2016 – 8

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Driving with the top down

Okay, so the best adjective to describe the last few months is “hectic”. The news this month about the mall coming down led to the start of a search for a new location. The bad news is that thanks to the current hipster explosion in the Oak Cliff area, gallery space is available, if $18 per square foot and up is “affordable”. The good news is that thanks to the expansion of available technology, the huge office parks built throughout the Dallas area at the beginning of the century, in anticipation of a huge sustained dotcom boom dead for fifteen years, are increasingly affordable and open to new uses. We don’t know what the rest of the year is going to bring us, but the plan right now is to stay at Midtown for as long as we can: it’s a central locale, we have great neighbors, and people now come by solely to see what’s in the window this week. (And before you ask, photos will follow soon enough.)

The only problem with the mall involves people being able to find the space. As with most malls, corridor junctions have those huge “You are here” directories: unfortunately, since the mall’s coming down soon enough, the owners can’t justify spending money to update those directory maps as galleries and businesses move in and out. Since those directories list the previous gallery in our location, customers and visitors come in, check out the gallery, don’t see our name, and get confused. The obvious solution was to add signage that gave directions and intrigued passersby. But considering how easily we as a society blank out on incessant advertising, is it possible to make signage that might draw people in merely by its presence, even if it’s for a few rounds of “What the hell is that?


The medium made itself accessible soon enough: an Internet radio station getting situated further down the mall pulled these huge Styrofoam blanks from alcoves in their walls and set them aside. This being an art gallery community, most disappeared as soon as they were offered, propped up on one end, and used as temporary print and photo displays. Thankfully, one remained, and after a few weeks of shaping with heat guns, painting, and augmentation, the new Triffid Ranch sign went up on the main mall floor, within view of the escalator leading to the movie theater. It’s not to the level of a Jay Sherman book promotion cutout, but what is?

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So there you have it. Combined with dispensers for promotional postcards, it not only brings in interested bystanders, but it fits in with the general theme and intention. Now let’s see if I can find another foam core in order to put another sign directly in front of the space.

Have a Great Canada Day

We’re now halfway through the year, and now is as good a time to take stock of where to go from here. That applies on a personal level: as far as the gallery is concerned, we now have a much better idea of the plan for the existing mall and the new outdoor mall that will be replacing it. While the new space is intriguing, it won’t be ready for at least another 2 1/2 years, so it’s time to find something in the interim. Details will follow, but rest assured that we’re staying here until the end of the year, with one last big gathering at the ARTwalk on December 21. After that, we’re moving, with the idea of being set up and ready to go by the time show season gets going in March and April.

Anyway, hitting that midpoint means celebrating a very important day at the Triffid Ranch: Canada Day. This isn’t just to celebrate my people’s answer to Doctor Who, but also the man who led directly to popularizing one of the most famed genera of carnivorous plant in the world: Michel Sarrazin. He may not have been the first human to see the first examples of the plant later named after him, but he definitely helped bring it to its current high level of popularity. Even today, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador is just as fascinating as it was when Nineteenth-Century naturalists confirmed that it could capture and digest insect prey, and it all started because Sarrazin had a keen curiosity for the fauna and flora of his adopted home. We all should be so lucky as this.