The Shark and the Jellyfish
More Stories in Natural History
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Vanderbilt University Press
Table of Contents
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So many readers of Threads from the Web of Life—students, parents, science teachers, naturalists, and wildlife conservationists—have reacted to its stories with stories from their own experiences, that I decided to put together a sequel, a new set of adventures in the ecology of the natural world. I title the new book The Shark and the Jellyfish, after one of the twenty-six...
Part 1. Field and Stream
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Dark branches spread against the predawn sky. Among them larger silhouettes—osprey—perch in silence. Their heads swivel now and then—when something flies above the distant cliffs, or a ripple disturbs the lake surface below. These fish hawks have felt a subtle seasonal cue, and now their eyes pounce on every detail. There is a particular softness in the air...
The Essence of Survival
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A myriad of scents are borne to the rabbit—the spices of the foliage and perfumes of the blooms, the musks of the animals, the ferments of the soil. They describe the landscape in detail more intimate than is available through any of his other senses. Those aromas fade and evolve while they travel on the air. Their characteristic flavors depend on their concentrations...
March of the Oaks
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Tracks—rattlesnake, roadrunner—meander undisturbed beneath the branches, here on the chaparral ridge. The silence is punctuated only by occasional silverbush lupine seed heads exploding in the heat. Spring wildflowers promised by those seeds will wait buried in the dust for months to come...
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A brook cascades over the pile of branches in its path, following the steepest course in its race downstream. The sound of a lively spillway carries the promise of water aplenty for spring growth—and prosperity for the forest. For the beaver, however, it is a warning that his dam has suffered a breach. He is driven to stop what he was doing and staunch that sound wherever...
Where Nothing Grows
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In the midst of the humid low forest of eastern North America, gaps open out among the trees—places where, in contrast to the rank foliage all around, nothing grows. At the edges of these gaps, grasses and forbs compete for the space, backing up into the trees. But sunlight falling on the bare patches of wet soil in the open energizes no green leaves—the ground...
Part 2. Air
Eye of the Needle
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The streamside trail flattens. The water quiets and opens onto a still, shallow pond. You leave the ferns and the salamanders to their deep shade and find a seat on a log among the reeds and sunflowers by the shore. If you are quiet, the calm will return and you will be accepted into the scene. Finally, you extend your finger, as if pointing at the far side, and you...
Spider on the Fly
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Though spiders are walkers, nimble afoot and wingless, they are not shy about taking to the sky. They spend much of their time suspended weightless and are always ready to take off. They may patrol gravity bound across acres of trackless foliage, but if their course leads them to a precipice so steep their tiny eyes cannot see the bottom, they step over the edge and off...
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The margay walked just above the ground, on a low branch so thin it quavered with her every step. Her legs flexed and her long tail switched from side to side to counter the swaying; she compensated so well that her head glided as steadily along as if she were on solid ground. She was an acrobat, lithe and sure, as accomplished a hunter in the trees as on land. She could hang from one back foot like a monkey as she negotiated the scaffolds of...
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In some cases, the symbiosis between just a few organisms holds an entire ecosystem together. Such is the case in the environment at Lost Lake—a bright pool of crystal-cold snowmelt set behind a precipice high in the western mountains. On this day its surface mirrors the ridgeline beyond the canyon to the south—ranks of distant peaks that seem close enough to touch through the thin air. Their frosted crowns are reminders of the cold...
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There were no thermal updrafts rising from sun-warmed flats today. Instead, squalls of rain divided the sky, hiding the plains horizon behind their dark skirts. But a steady southerly breeze coursed under the low cloud ceiling at twenty miles an hour—a river of humid air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico, adding its speed to his own. Even though the ride was bumpy, he could handle it—and the tailwind doubled his cruising...
Part 3. Sea and Shore
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Over the course of a year, the sanderling was constantly on the move—in pursuit of an endless summer. She flew north along the coast ranges of the Pacific Northwest in the spring, then south along the Atlantic seaboard in the fall. She cut across the Isthmus of Panama in October and headed for an austral summer to be spent on the beaches of the west coast of South...
Unseen Masters of the Sea
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The shark cruised steadily, just below the surface. She could see individual stars wavering through the water and kept them in place to the left and right, guiding her navigation to the west. She was so strong and so long—and yet so sleek that the laziest of ripples back and forth along her spine sped her onward at a pace she maintained...
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When she first left the island of her birth, the petrel found herself lost on a wild and trackless sea. With no idea how to find her way to her next meal, she set off chasing the other petrels out over the open ocean. They taught her how to survive, and then she taught herself how to prosper—as she learned the subtleties of her world...
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The sturgeon had lived a great, long life. She was one hundred years old, yet she showed no signs of her age, other than her size—she was twenty-five feet long, and out of the water would weigh a ton. She had lived long enough to see the effects of geologic processes that move so gradually as to go unnoticed by creatures of lesser longevity. She was now witnessing such...
Life in the Sky
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The sea is tinted green with plankton, streaked vermilion with floating krill, crossed beneath the surface with silver flashes of herring, and shot through with the plunging forms of blue-footed boobies—a feeding frenzy is churning the surface. Above it all, currents of warm air rise off the tropical ocean...
Part 4. Forest
The Bitter Taste of Success
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A blister beetle has blundered into a spiderweb, and now it waits, suspended in silk, for the spider to come and release it. The beetle dangles upside down, its bulbous wing covers hanging inverted. Their red and black chevrons announce that this insect dares to fly in the face of danger and survive...
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The yellow warbler found light enough to start her day before dawn—when the branches around her first appeared in silhouette. The early glow was weak, but brighter than the starlight she traveled by in the dead of night across some terrains. She was rested and ready to keep moving—through the land of late summer drought around her. So she dove from her...
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The world’s predominant green province darkens broad reaches of the northern half of the northern hemisphere. A great forest there covers nearly twice the land area that the tropical forests cover in the lower latitudes. Northern conifers blanket much of Eurasia in Scots pine, Siberian spruce, and larches, while across the Bering Strait in North America, black...
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Two birds approach each other along the chill, shaded bole of a great old Douglas fir—one walking straight up, one walking straight down. The white-breasted nuthatch grapples noisily with the bark, arresting his head-long plunge with every step down the cylindrical surface. His talons and upturned bill dislodge a small shower of duff and bark chips as he goes. He...
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Posed on the rock beside a dry wash, the fly is dead still, impassive, oblivious to its surroundings. Its wings are held at an exaggerated angle as though poised for flight, but even though the morning has warmed, the insect has not moved for long minutes. It is no longer a free being—its actions have been redirected to purposes not its own. Its body is now...
Part 5. Earth and Stars
The Light Fantastic
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We live beneath a special sky—a compromise between extremes. Our atmosphere is unique in the solar system, neither an oppressive overcast (like that of Venus or Titan) nor a tenuous near vacuum (like the deep space close upon the surfaces of Mars or Europa). The layer of air that covers our Earth is substantial enough to shield us from the lethal winds of...
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The gold nugget rests in your hand, still wet. Its lustrous surface reflects a world unique among the stars—your world, a place that has the power to produce this glittering gem from base rock. That alchemy requires enormous pressures and temperatures, millions of years to carry out, and a special setting as well—as far as we know, it could only happen here...
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Incandescent Falls cascades from the bluffs on the south shore of Hawaii Isle, tumbling directly into the waters of the tropical Pacific. It is a constant presence on this midocean archipelago, though it alters its flow and position from conforming to the ever-changing islandscape around it...
Window on the Sky
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The flattened crystal facets of a free-falling snowflake form a hexagonal window. That window looks out over a panorama of unparalleled depth. If you could tumble across the sky beside a snowflake, hovering just above its surface and looking through, the vista you would see filling the frame would be breathtaking...
A Dangerous Place
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These days, we are passing through an exceptional diorama. Just now, our ride on the Earth—along the track the sun follows through space—is taking us across one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. Those arms are the namesake features of grand spiral galaxies, such as our own Milky Way...
Follow the Threads on the Web
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The Web sites in the lists that follow contain information on natural history, including material that describes and expands upon many of the topics covered in this volume. Any of these well-produced resources will take as long to appreciate as a good book takes to read. Many present animations, videos, and even live videocams, as well as further links. These sites...
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Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2009