view counter

Features (Creature Feature)

Calvert Marine Museum scientist helps solve the mystery of the ­plesiosaur’s teeth

       Saur, from the Greek, tells you it’s some kind of lizard, likely a dinosaur, as that’s this suffix’s common use. There’s little else familiar about this Plesiosaur — except its connection to Calvert Marine Museum.
     First, the introduction: Plesiosaurs are stout-bodied, long-necked lizards, from the age of dinosaurs that propelled themselves through their oceanic environment using four flippers.
     Then the connection: It’s not the ancient ocean that is now our Chesapeake. Rather it’s the Museum’s man on such ancient environments, paleontologist Dr. Stephen Godfrey. With an international team of paleontologists from Chile, Argentina and the United States, Godfrey found a plesiosaur from long ago Antarctica that was rather like a whale.
     Instead of a marine predator, like other plesiosaurs, this saur was a strainer feeder like baleen whales, creatures that did live in the Miocene Chesapeake.
     Teeth were the clue that tipped off the team led by F. Robin O’Keefe a globally recognized scientist specializing in Mesozoic marine reptiles. The tiny teeth in the fossil’s lower jaw pointed the wrong way. Nor did they meet tip to tip as in all other plesiosaurs, instead lying together in a battery that acted in straining food particles from the water. This feeding style is unknown in other marine reptiles.
     It may, the scientists concluded, be an evolution “linked to changes in ocean circulation brought on by the southward movement of Antarctica during the Late Cretaceous period.”
     Visitors to Calvert Marine Museum can see what this pivotal plesiosaur likely looked like.

Holly Lanzaron’s picture tells a whole story of a new family

Amid the ordinary, Holly Lanzaron chanced upon the extraordinary. In a shopping center parking lot in Deale, on the crushed stone, a mother killdeer sat hatching four speckled eggs.
    “We didn’t know that she was nesting right away,” said the Southern Middle-Schooler on Deale Elks Club’s sponsored photo safari with Muddy Creek Artists Guild mentor Bea Poulin and Hannah Dove. “At first we thought that the bird was wounded and could not fly.”
    Strange as the sight seemed, it’s not strange for killdeer. The mid-sized plover whose name imitates its cry loves open areas. You see these long-legged birds scampering across lawns, golf courses and, yes, parking lots. For nesting, they like the ground, dirt or rocks and belly out a little depression to which twigs might later be added, as you see in Holly’s photo.
    To protect her open-air nest, Mother Killdeer uses several strategies. Thus, as she noticed the approaching trio, Holly recalls, “she let out a really loud scream that hurt our ears.”
    Another strategy is the broken-wing feign, also displayed in Holly’s photo.
    “We did end up spooking her,” Holly says, “but she did not want to leave her eggs.”
    To photograph the brooding bird, Holly “shot from a distance and zoomed in really close.
    “It was one of my best photographs,” says the young shutterbug, “and I am proud of it. The bird has eggs under her, and this shows she is starting a family.”
    Look at Holly’s picture, and you’ll know exactly how killdeer look: red-rimmed eye, mottled brown head and wings, white breast, two distinctive black neck rings and unfeathered three-toed feet. You’ll also see her habitat and brooding behavior. It’s quite a story this picture tells.

Hannah Dove, Bea Poulin and Holly ­Lanzaron. While on the Deale Elks’ photo safari, Lanzaron photographed this mother killdeer in a parking lot.

It’s not all peanuts and mints for the Naval Academy’s Bill the Goat

The Naval Academy’s mascot is a fighting goat. That goat’s name is Bill, after a pet kept by the first president of the Naval Academy Athletic Association. The emblematic mascot is fashioned after the actual animal as embodied over the years by more than 37 goats. The first goat was only a skin, the remainder of a loved ship goat, and worn by naval officers as they danced for the crowd during halftime.
    Since 1893, Bill has been a living goat who embodies the fighting spirit and tenacity of the Navy. To find that mascot, the Naval Academy took out a newspaper ad reading “WANTED: The meanest and fiercest goat possible …”
    Today Bill is not one goat but three, all white Angoras that weigh about 200 pounds at maturity.
    The Bills’ whereabouts are kept secret because of repeated kidnappings, typically by the rivals at West Point.
    Even the identity of Bill the Goat’s caretakers — who “are chosen because of their great love for these animals,” says U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Walter E. ‘Ted’ Carter — is kept a secret as part of a great tradition.
    Yet I managed to get a glimpse into that mysterious world in an impromptu exclusive interview with a caretaker who’s name we’ve ommitted for the safety of all concerned.


Bay Weekly Which goat is the most trouble?

Bill Caretaker    The blue-eyed goat, No. 33, is the naughtiest.


Bay Weekly What is Bill’s typical lifespan?

Bill Caretaker    Twelve years.


Bay Weekly How did current goats, Nos. 33, 34, 36 and 37, come to the U.S. Naval Academy?

Bill Caretaker    Bills 33 and 34 were donated by a farm in Pennsylvania and are now retired. Bills 36 and 37 are gifts from the Texas family of an army helicopter pilot, who wished he’d gone to Navy. They are now the active Bills.


Bay Weekly Tell us an interesting fact about the goats’ home life.

Bill Caretaker    The Bills are kind of like dogs. Because we get them so young, they like to follow you around and love attention. The Bills also enjoy snacking on peanuts and mints.


Learn more about Bill at the new exhibit in the Naval Academy Visitor Center, established in honor of all the past Bills but in particular the late Bill 35 whose blanket is framed and on display.

Keep an eye out for this nasty pest

It all started with the best intentions. Kudzu, a plant native to Japan, was imported to the southern United States in the 1800s to enrich soil depleted by tobacco. It then came to Calvert County to prevent erosion, stabilizing the Calvert Cliffs. Wherever it came, the woody vine with distinct three-lobed leaves brought problems.
    It’s for good reason that kudzu is known as the vine that ate the South, for it can grow up to a foot a day in temperate climes with mild winters, a category that Maryland falls into.
    Now, we get to worry about the kudzu bug. Megacopta cribraria, an oblong olive-greenish bug with brown freckles, has made its way from Japan to our shores. How it came is a mystery; what it’s doing is not.
    The bug is partial to the kudzu plant but its appetite extends to other relatives like wisteria (an invasive that ought to be eaten) and legumes like soybeans.
    “The soybean is most closely related to the kudzu, as can be seen in the leaves of both plants, which is why the bug potentially poses a big threat,” says Bill Lamp, University of Maryland entomology professor.
    The kudzu bug is a relative of the stinkbug, releasing a similarly unpleasant odor when disturbed. Worse, they also leave a stain and can cause skin irritation. The kudzu bug likes to seek shelter in the siding of homes over winter. In the South, they’ve been reported to have swarmed whole communities.
    If you see a kudzu bug, report it to the Maryland Department of Agriculture Plant Protection and Weed Management hotline: 410-841-5920; extension.umd. edu/learn/ask-gardening.

Those talons are sharp!

As an aide at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Nature Center in Calvert County for almost nine years, one of my duties was to feed the barred owl. The owl was blind, or nearly so, due to a collision with a car. Each morning I would take a couple of mice out of the freezer and put them on a plastic plate to thaw. Before closing I would take the now-thawed mice out back, enter the walk-in cage and touch the plate to the owl’s chin. The owl gobbled down the mice, whole, of course. I accomplished this simple task hundreds of times.
    If there were visitors, I invited them to join me for owl feeding. Among them was a group of excited Cub Scouts who packed, nose to wire, around the cage.
    That day the owl changed our routine. As I lifted the plate, he flapped right onto my head, gripping hard with those wonderfully adapted talons.
    I am nearly bald and I take blood-thinners. You can imagine the scene, including the bulging eyes and wide-open mouths of 15 gasping Cub Scouts.
    The bird promptly returned to his perch. I’m not sure if I gave him some help or not.
    The repair at the emergency room was simple. Some antiseptic, a few band aides and a couple of shots.
    That is my only claim to fame: An owl landed on my head.

Citizen scientists join the search for other life forms

With summer comes longing for adventure. Motivated to engage with nature and be a part of something bigger, I signed up to study the parasite Loxo and mud crabs at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Small by any standard, the white-fingered mud crab, aka Atlantic mud crab, is “small as a flea” or large as an inch, according to Smithsonian scientist Alison Cawood. This small crustacean plays a large part in our Bay’s ecosystem. A key indicator species, it preys on oysters, barnacles and worms, at the same time serving as a snack for birds, fish and other critters.
    It is also the unwilling host of a “bodysnatching parasite,” an invasive species called Loxothylacus panopaei. A pointy headed member of the barnacle family, Cawood explains, Loxo burrows into the mud crab during its molt, when it’s most vulnerable, and hijacks its body. It does this dastardly deed by injecting fewer than 200 cells into the crab’s nervous system. Once in, these cells take over. The crab becomes “a barnacle in a crab suit.” Loxo even uses the crab to carry its offspring, parasitic larvae, in its external sack.
    With a five-minute instructional how-to and tiny forceps, our group of 12 pull mud crabs out of small milk crates filled with mud and oyster shells, all gathered from sample sites on the Rhodes River. The result of our intricate game of I Spy is a jar full of lively crabs to be further studied for zombification by scientists and lab-certified volunteers.
    Our final task is to check another team’s milk crate remains for missed mud crabs. These crabs would be not only examined for the virus but also cataloged by number and size for another ongoing study.
    We volunteers were the subject of that second study, our accuracy factored with age, time spent, educational level and previous field study experience. This is important for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which depends on some 6,000 hours annually of volunteer research in its ongoing studies.
    If you take the time to get scientific this summer, you will learn odd things and find it rewarding. For upcoming opportunities for citizen scientists, check Bay Weekly’s 8 Days a Week.

This year, the winged swimmers are protected

One sunny afternoon with no breeze and the air hot and sticky, fishing was becoming a drag. We were ready to pack it in when the line zinged. With a leap of excitement, I grabbed the reel and began the labor of dragging the catch in. This would be no easy feat as the line doubled over.
    We were both tired when I lifted up my prize: a tiny baby cownose ray.
    This majestic giant of the Chesapeake is near and dear to my heart. As a girl, I have fond memories of watching their tips break a still surface of the morning water, like dancers. These schooling brown rays make our backyard their home when they arrive in early spring to mate and eat, through fall. Bottom feeders, rays do eat clams and oysters but not to the extent once believed.
    Because they were thought to be hungry hazards to some of our favorite resources on the Chesapeake, including crabs, rays were targeted for hunting and harvesting. Bow-fishing for rays became a niche sport.
    Now these creatures are protected by a moratorium through July 2019, passed unanimously by Maryland senators. The moratorium is timed to allow scientific observation and study of the species to see what effects these rays actually have on the aquatic ecosystem.
    When you’re out on the water this summer, catch a look at their effortless glides. If you happen to hook one, enjoy the fight, then carefully release it. Rays are strong and slippery with whip-like tails.

Firefighters save Lassie look-alike Siri

Anne Arundel County Firefighter Brian Doyle and his team were out on the water training when they got the call. A dog trapped down a hole near Edgewater needed rescuing.
    His Special Operations Confined Space Rescue Team jumped into action, splitting up so that some could get their special rescue rig from the Jones Station firehouse while the rest headed to the scene.
    In what appeared to be a collapsed well, Siri was trapped. At eight feet, the hole was too deep for the collie mix, a Lassie look-alike, to crawl out. Complicating the special operation, the rain-drenched soil was too soft to hold weight directly. To rescue Siri, they would have to get creative.
    First, they cleared brush. Then, avoiding power lines, the team strung a ladder over the hole at about a 45-degree angle. In a harness and rigging line, Doyle was lowered into the hole.

    “It was a tight fit going down,” said the broad-shouldered fireman. The bottom was cavernous, so Doyle had to scan the dark hole to locate the dog. Even stuck in the mud, Siri happily wagged her tail. Good thing, for Doyle had to secure her in webbing, then hold her in a big bear hug while the pair were hoisted to the surface.
    “The owner was smart to call in professionals,” Doyle said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
    For their effort, the team was honored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which rewarded them with a plaque, The Engine 2 Diet vegetarian cookbook and a tin of vegan cookies.

He’s keeping the species alive

It’s a dark and stormy night, the moon is shaded by clouds. The only light streams from our headlamps and the revolving beam of a nearby lighthouse. The rain is pelting sideways, and the water is above our ankles. Tired and cold but hopeful, our trio trudges down a Calvert County beach at 3am, scanning the turbulent water for a prehistoric monster.
    Suddenly in the surf, someone spots a dark silhouette, like a rock … we draw closer, anxious with excitement. It is indeed what we’ve been searching for: a horseshoe crab. Park ranger Chelcey Nordstrom removes the sand around the base of the male, revealing a second larger female crab buried beneath.
    “Horseshoe crabs on shore should be left alone unless they need help being flipped back over. This is true especially when they are stacked on top of each other, which can sometimes be hard to see.”
    A species more than 300 million years old, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, seeks out the beaches of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay to mate, lay their eggs and raise young in these shallow and protected waters. Horseshoe crabs can live 20 years or longer and can travel up and down the east coast. But the species is in trouble, due in part to predation and overharvesting. They are also used actively in medical testing because of their copper-based blood. However, little is known as to why they choose our beaches, where or why they travel or many other habits.
    Data gathered from our Anne Arundel Community College’s science class findings will be used in an ongoing study by college professor Paul Bushman to shed light on these unanswered questions. Last year’s student study group attached radio tags to crabs found, and hopefully collection of those same tagged crabs this year will reveal where they went, how far they traveled, how long they stayed in each location and other curiosities about these ancient creatures. Armed with this new information, advances can be made to further preserve this unique species.

Soon these pullets will be laying eggs

Right about now spring chickens are no longer the cute, fuzzy bundles they were just five weeks ago. Just like human children, they have begun maturing — at first by bits. Now they look like mini adult chickens.
    So it’s a good thing most chick purchases are not for cuddly cuteness but for modern homesteading.
    For now, new chicks are still dependents, requiring extra attention food, shelter and water. Chicks must maintain a body temperature of at least 90 degrees when brought home, with diminishing temperatures after that. They are pullets, the proper name for hens of this transitioning age, no longer chicks but not yet laying.
    Novice chicken farmer Susan Nolan of Lothian has six chickens in her developing flock, two Barred Rock, two Red Stars, one Andalusian Blue and one New Hampshire Red.
    From now until early fall, she gives them two heaping scoops of feed a day. Just like the kids at home, the chicks are messy eaters, leaving more on the ground than in their bellies.
    By early June, they can leave the shelter of Nolan’s home to live in their own residence, the coop.
    Around September, they’ll be feeding Nolan and her family approximately three to five eggs a week per chicken.
    Read more on raising egg hens at:
www.bayweekly.com/node/17991.