I enjoy featuring animals that show up in my novels. In Diffusion, there is a scene where Samual shows Quentin one of the huge orb-weaving spiders that produce the silk the Papuan natives use to make incredibly strong rope. As it turns out, the spider in my story is not as exaggerated as you might think. Today's awesome animal is the orb-weaving spider, especially the giant golden orb-weaver.
So what the heck is an Orb-Weaving Spider?
Orb-weavers are a large family of spiders that include over 3,100 species. These are the spiders that typically build large, spiral webs in your garden. Their webs are typically wheel-shaped, and that's how they got the name of orb-weavers (orb general means circular).
I am going to focus mainly on the golden orb-weavers (spiders of the genus Nephila). Why? Because they are some of the largest and most beautiful spiders. Below is a photo of a golden orb weaver Trish and I encountered on a hike in Costa Rica:
Amazing facts about Orb-Weaving Spiders
Some orb-weavers are quite large. The females of the giant golden orb-weaver can have a body length of up to 3 inches (75 mm), and with the long legs included, a entire length of 6 inches (150 mm).
But the most striking thing about their size is that the females are HUGE compared to the males. When the male and female of a species are different from each other, it is called sexual dimorphism. But orb-weaving spiders have taken the concept of sexual dimorphism to the extreme. The females can be up to TEN times longer than the males. And this means the male weighs less than 5% of the weight of the female. Wow! Just for kicks, let's convert that to human terms. Let's say there is a 140-pound woman. Her mate would be a man who weighs less than SEVEN pounds. Okay, that's just a little weird to think about.
Check out this video of a male and a female golden orb-weaver.
There are two main theories for why they are so different in size:
Theory #1: In many spiders, once the male mates with the female, he inserts a "mating plug" in the female, which prevents other males from mating with her (I am not making this up!). By doing this, the male can be sure he is the father of all the offspring of that female. But in giant orb-weavers, these plugs do not seem to work. And so the theory is that the females of these species have evolved to be very large so that they can be too large for the plugs to work, thus ensuring that they can produce young from more than one male (more diverse offspring, which is a good thing from the female's perpective).
Theory #2: In giant orb-weavers, the males that find and mate with a specific female first will fertilize more of her eggs than males that find her later. And smaller males are faster, so they can scramble around through the vegetation and find females faster than larger males. And thus the males have evolved to have a smaller size.
Again, I'm not making this stuff up. See the male and female in the photo below.
Well, as you can imagine, for a tiny male orb-weaver, mating with a giant female is risky business. The females have a habit of eating the males after the "job" is complete. But some male orb-weavers have a special strategy to avoid this. It's called mate-binding. To make the females more receptive (and less likely to cannibalize them), the males spread silk over the female's back, in a motion that looks very much like he is giving her a massage. Research shows that this massaging motion makes the female relax, and therefore she is less likely to eat the male. Here is a video of mate binding in orb weavers.
Although most orb-weavers are fairly docile, they can certainly bite. But they are not dangerous to humans. They inject neurotoxin, like a black widow spider, but it is much less toxic.
As I mentioned earlier, in my Diffusion novels orb-weaver silk is used to make very strong rope. This is actually possible, assuming there is a good way to harvest lots of spider silk, because orb-weaver silk is strong! In fact, it's the strongest biological material we know of. It is more than ten times stronger than a strand of Kevlar of the same diameter. The recently-discovered Darwin's Bark Spider, a type of orb-weaver, has the strongest silk of any spider. They create webs that are more than 80 feet (25 meters) wide! The actual circular part of the web (the part that catches insects and other small animals) can be a meter in diameter. See the Darwin's bark spider web below.
In Diffusion, Samuel Inwood made his vest from orb-weaver silk. Actually, few people have been able to do this, as spider silk is not easy to collect in large amounts. In 2012, a textile designer and an entrepreneur collected golden orb-weavers from the wild and managed to get enough silk to create a beautiful cape, which was put on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see photo below). It took over three years to make!
So, the orb-weaving spider deserves a place in the H.S.A.H.O.F. (Heart-Stopping Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first-known use of the phrase heart-stopping was in 1888. It is possible that it started as a reference to the (incorrect) assumption people used to have that one's heart would stop when sneezing. Today it refers to anything that is so frightening or emotionally gripping as to make one's heart seem to stop beating. I like to use it in a positive way, though, to describe something amazing or exciting. So it is another way to say awesome.
I enjoy featuring animals that show up in my novels. Today's Awesome Animal appears in Infusion. Haven't read Infusion yet? Hmm... you know, there's a painless and reliable cure for that unfortunate condition. Anyway, there is a scene where Bobby asks the Lamotelokokhai to prove to him that it has detailed knowledge of every living creature it has ever encountered in the past. The result of this request is rather shocking. I'll just say it involves creating a Cuscus, an unusual and extremely adorable creature.
So what the heck is a Cuscus?
Pronounced "cuss-cuss." Like many of the mammals of Australia, New Guinea, and the surrounding islands, cuscuses are marsupials (their young develop outside the mother's body in a pouch). Generally, they are considered possums, and there are four genera and about 23 species (although since they live high in the canopy of remote tropical forests, it wouldn't surprise me if a few more species were eventually discovered).
Okay, before I go on to the amazing facts, just take a moment to look at the photo above. The naked prehensile tail might make a few people say "Ewww." But look beyond that and check out that face! I think I need to nominate the cuscus as the animal most likely to be mistaken for a cartoon character.
Amazing facts about Cuscuses
I mentioned above that it is possible new cuscus species could be found. This is because they live in some of the most inaccessible forests in the world. In fact, a new species was discovered in 2009, in the forest that covers an inactive volcano in Papua New Guinea called Mount Bosavi. It was named the Bosavi Silky Cuscus. See image below. And check out this video of the discovery of the Silky Cuscus in 2009.
Most cuscuses are about the size of a housecat (body length about 18 inches with a tail about the same length). They have round heads with small ears that are usually hidden by fur, which makes that tennis ball-like head seem even more spherical. But one of the most amazing things about their appearance is their colors. They can be black, brown, gray, and sometimes lighter colors such as tan, white, or cream. In fact, they can even be a mix of these colors, with a spotted or mottled appearance. Because of this, they are perhaps the most colorful of all marsupials. The females and males often have different colors, allowing us to distinguish between genders. And their colors often change as they mature. Check out the spotted cuscus featured on this Papua New Guinea stamp:
Cuscuses spend almost their entire lives in trees. To help them climb, they have some interesting adaptations. For example, they have prehensile tails that look almost like very long fingers. These tails can grip so hard that it is difficult for a person to loosen them if the cuscus is determined to hold on. They also have opposable digits, like a human's opposable thumb, only cuscuses also have opposable toes.
The biggest danger to cuscuses is the loss of tropical forest habitat. And their main predator of is humans. They are widely hunted for food and their fur, especially in New Guinea. Other than humans, they are sometimes eaten by pythons and birds of prey.
Cuscuses usually sleep on branches in the open, with their heads tucked between their legs. To help with camouflage, they sometimes pull leaves and branches over their bodies. However, there are some species (like the Ground Cuscus, pictured below) that live in burrows and move to the trees at night to feed.
Cuscuses are marsupials, so they give birth to young after a very short gestation period, typically only a couple weeks. But then the babies crawl to the mother's pouch, where they continue to develop for six to seven months. Oddly enough, although two to four are usually born, only ONE will survive and emerge from the pouch to live on its own.
Okay, I think I've decided what it is about the appearance of these creatures that intrigues me so much. It's their eyes! Obviously, cuscus eyes are adapted for seeing at night. But the way they are arranged on the face for looking forward and the bulging roundness of them gives these creatures an appearance unlike any other mammal. Below is the Sulawesi Bear Cuscus.
So, the cuscus deserves a place in the M.B.A.H.O.F. (Mind-Blowing Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The term mind-blowing originated in the 1960s drug counterculture. Its original meaning was producing hallucinatory effects. But it has gradually evolved to have a more general meaning: something that is so shocking, surprising, unexpected or wonderful that your brain cannot comprehend it. So it is another way to say awesome.
Recently I've tossed out some hints regarding my next book, Bridgers. Here's a bit more.
Let's say the remarkable concept of infinite parallel universes has been proven to be true, and humans have constructed a device that can send you to another version of Earth for 36 hours. One of the interesting aspects of this device, though, is that you can "dial back" to any point of divergence you want.
Warning - Crazy Explanation: Infinite universes really does mean INFINITE. There is another universe for every possible combination of atoms. So there are universes nearly identical to ours and those that are vastly different.
The device mentioned above allows you to choose how far back your destination world diverged from our own. Let's say you choose to visit a world that diverged from ours ten minutes ago. This means the world was identical to ours in every way up until ten minutes ago. But for the last ten minutes, events on that world have been independent of our world. Not much can happen in ten minutes, so that world would be very similar to ours, including all the people (except for those who died in that ten minutes on one world but not on the other).
If you choose a world that diverged ten years ago, it would still be similar. But a lot can happen in ten years. Elections could have resulted in different leaders, for example, resulting in somewhat different social landscapes.
What about a world that diverged 100 years ago? None of the same people would exist, except those who are more than 100 years old.
What about 1,000 years ago? That world could look quite different, right? Different languages, different political boundaries. Maybe even the extinction of life on Earth due to imprudent use of nuclear weapons.
What about a world that diverged 10,000 years ago? Or 100,000? or 100 million?
Boggles the mind, doesn't it?
Keep in mind this isn't time travel. If you leave this world on December 12, it will be December 12 on the alternate version of Earth you visit. But you get to choose how far back the world diverged from ours.
So here is a question for you:
If you had the opportunity to visit an alternate version of Earth, how far back would you want the divergence point?
I would love to hear your opinion on this.
I invite you to Comment to this post and give me your thoughts.
I am almost done writing my new book, Bridgers!
Did you know the concept of infinite parallel universes is more than just fodder for science fiction stories? The concept has actually long been considered by physicists to be a real possibility.
It is important to point out that multiple universes is not a theory. Scientists did not suddenly come up with the idea using their imaginations. Instead, the concept is a mathematical consequence of our current theories in physics, particularly quantum mechanics and string theory. What this means, essentially, is that even those physicists who are skeptical of the idea must examine it as a real possibility (even if they do so reluctantly).
I have an academic background in biology. Fortunately for me, my father and one of my brothers are physicists, and sometimes I can run my wild ideas by them for feedback.
For my new upcoming series, I have placed the infinite universes concept into a framework of adrenaline-fueled wilderness survival. If you have enjoyed the fantastic creatures, danger, narrow escapes, and interesting characters of my Diffusion series, you are going to love my new books.
I'm going to reveal the title of the first book: Bridgers
What are bridgers, you ask? They are people hired to protect "tourists" paying large sums of money to bridge to an alternate version of Earth. Bridgers have specialized skills. They are experts at wilderness survival, making primitive weapons from available materials, and most of all, hand-to-hand fighting.
Why? Because bridging to an alternate world strips away all nonliving matter from your body.
Thirty-six hours. No weapons, no clothing, no knowledge of your destination environment.
It's the ultimate adventure excursion.
I'll share more details soon. I'm hyper-excited about it!
I enjoy featuring awesome animals that show up in my novels. Today's Awesome Animal appears in Diffusion and Savage (and maybe others?).
So what the heck is a Cockatoo?
Cockatoos are parrots. There are about 21 species of cockatoos, making up the family of birds known as Cacatuidae. Perhaps the most recognizable thing about cockatoos is their spectacular crest, a group of feathers on top of their heads that they can raise and lower when circumstances require it. They are also typically less colorful than some of the other parrots. Most cockatoos are white, but some are pink, gray, and a few are black. Cockatoos live in Australia, New Guinea, and many islands of the Malay Archipelago. Below is a sulfur-crested cockatoo.
Amazing facts about Cockatoos
Cockatoos are loud! Their screeches and squawks can make your ears ring, and they can be heard a mile away. BUT... I must add that many reports of their volume are exaggerated. It is common to read that they are louder than a 747 jet. Cockatoos (particularly the Molluccan cockatoo, which is one of the loudest) can put out 135 dB of volume. Let's assume that was measured at about 3 meters away, which is what you would hear if you were in the same room. A jet engine puts out about 150 dB at 30 meters. Without getting into the math to prove it, this roughly means that at 170 meters away, the jet engine would be about as loud as the cockatoo at 3 meters away. So the claim that cockatoos are louder than a jet engine are not entirely accurate (calculations with the numbers provided above reveal that the jet engine puts out about 3000 times more sound energy than the cockatoo). But regardless, these birds are insanely LOUD. You would not want to have a pet cockatoo in an apartment building.
Check out this video of a loud Umbrella Cockatoo.
Cockatoos can bite hard! Most parrrots can bite hard because they feed on nuts and fruits that are very difficult to tear into or crack open (not to mention they use their beaks to help them climb). But unlike other parrots, cockatoos' lower mandibles have two prongs. Along with the curved single point of their upper jaw, this gives them what is called a three-way bite. So they can do more damage than other birds their size. Reports of jaw strength of parrots vary widely, but it appears that the large macaws can bite with a force of about 400 psi (pounds per square inch), and the larger cockatoos can bite at about 350 psi. Youch! In fact, wild cockatoos are known to cause considerable damage to houses and anything else made of wood.
Not all cockatoos are white. Although we typically see several of the white species in pet shops, other species of cockatoos can be a variety of beautiful colors. Below (from left to right) is the Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo, the Black Palm Cockatoo, and the Pink Cockatoo (also called the Major Mitchell's Cockatoo).
Cockatoos live a long time. The smallest of the cockatoos, the cockatiel (a very common pet bird) lives 10 - 14 years. But most of the larger cockatoos live 40 - 50 years. Keep in mind, though, that this is their lifespan in captivity, where they tend to live much longer than in the wild. The White Cockatoo has an average life span of 40 - 60 years. Supposedly, the longest-lived cockatoo ever was Cocky Bennett. Cocky was a sulfur-crested cockatoo that lived at the Sea Breeze Hotel at Tom Uglys Point, Blakehurst (New South Wales, Australia). Cocky was known for his "patter." He died in 1916 at the age of 120 years! See photo below.
Whether you consider this a good thing or a bad thing, what really boosted the popularity of cockatoos as pets was a 1970s crime show on television. When I was a teenager, I used to watch Baretta, a refreshigly (for its time) gritty cop show about the detective, Tony Baretta (played by Robert Blake). Tony was kind of a loner, but he took comfort in talking to his pet sulfur-crested cockatoo, Fred.
Cockatoos are actually wild animals. I know, this seems obvious, but almost all of the available information on cockatoos has something to do with keeping them as pets. But if you read the information above, there are very good reasons to NOT keep them as pets. They are LOUD. They BITE hard. And they can OUTLIVE their owner. So let's not forget that cockatoos are amazing wild birds that are worth understanding better. I have been fortunate enough to travel to Australia only once, back in 1995 (although Trish and I are planning to go again in 2018!!). I remember the first time I saw cockatoos in the wild. We visited Fitzroy Island, and they were common there, chattering and feeding in the trees. I was so enthralled by them! So, as a reminder that cockatoos are not just popular pets, check out this video on the wild parrots and cockatoos of Australia.
So, the cockatoo deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F. (Brilliant Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word brilliant originated in about 1680, as the french word, brillant, meaning shining. It has always, and still does, mean sparkling or shining brightly. But it has also evolved (especially in British English) to mean splendid or magnificent, which is a perfect fit for cockatoos. In other words, it is another way to say awesome.
If you haven't noticed from my previous emails, I have been featuring many of the creatures that make appearances in my novel Profusion, the third novel in the Diffusion series. Today's Awesome Animal is also in Profusion, making a brief but frightening appearance.
So what the heck is a Kaprosuchus?
Kaprosuchus (pronounced Kap-roe-soo-kuss) is an extinct crocodile that lived in the late Cretaceous period, about 95 to 100 million years ago. You probably know most dinosaurs became extinct soon after a large asteroid impact about 66 million years ago (except for those that evolved into birds). So Kaprosuchus lived alongside some of the dinosaurs (and probably ate them). But it was a crocodile, like our modern crocodiles, and therefore was not a dinosaur.
Amazing facts about Kaprosuchus
One of the most striking features of this crocodile is that it had three pairs of enormous tusk-like teeth. Which is how it got its common name, the BoarCroc. The long teeth resemble those of a wild boar. These teeth are longer than any other crocodilre teeth known. They are so long that this creature couldn't possibly have closed its mouth if it didn't have grooves in the jaws for the teeth to slide into. See the skull below:
And speaking of the skull in the photo above. The ony reason we are aware this species ever existed is that this one single fossil skull has been found. It was discovered in 2009 in Niger (Africa). Everything we know about Kaprosuchus is based upon this one skull. But this skull is unique among crocodile skulls, and it can tell us quite a bit.
Even though this Kaprosuchus skull was found only recently, the unusual features of this species have captured the imaginations of people worldwide, and the Kaprosuchus is featured in many illustrations, video games, and movies. You can even buy a toy Kaprosuchus, like the one below:
Based on the structure of the creature's skull, it had eyes that were arranged to look forward. Most crocodiles (including all living ones today) have eyes high on the head so that they are above water when most of the rest of the body is hiding beneath the surface. Also, most crocodiles' eyes look to either side rather than ahead. Because of this forward-looking arrangement, it is assumed the Kaprosuchus had depth perception and therefore could run after prey on land. That's why most illustrations of Kaprosuchus include unusually long legs, especially the back legs. This is based on the size of the legs of other fossil crocodiles that we believe hunted on land.
Even the short-legged crocodiles living today are much faster and more agile than many people realize. They can run and even jump (see the image below of a Nile crocodile being fed). This is how the Nile crocodile can catch and kill creatures like the wildebeest. So if today's short-legged, mostly-aquatic crocodiles are that fast, imagine the speed of the longer-legged terrestrial species of the past!
Check out this video animation of the inferred behavior of some of the recently-discovered crocodile species (the Kaprosuchus segment starts at about two minutes).
So, I believe the Kaprosuchus deserves a place in the F.A.H.O.F. (Fantasmagorical Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Fantasmagorical is no doubt derived from phantasmagoric, which means having a macabre or deceptive appearance. But this new version is more a combination of fantastic, amazing, and magical. And therefore I think the word itself is fantasmagorical! Regardless, it is another way to say awesome.
Have you read my novel Profusion? In two recent posts, I featured two awesome animals (the no-see-um and the sailfish) that Bobby uses to try to stop a planet-threatening outbreak of creatures. Well, Bobby's plan also involves one more awesome animal, the dragonfly. He chooses the dragonfly because he knows it is one of the fastest flying insects. So the dragonfly is today's awesome animal.
So why all the fuss about dragonflies?
As you probably know, dragonflies are insects. They are in an insect order called Odonata. There are a whopping 7,000 living species of dragonflies that we know of. And many more existed in the past. Actually, to be honest, for an order of insects, 7,000 really isn't that many. The order, Coleoptera, which is the beetles, has about 400,000 different species!
Dragonflies are predators. They dart around at high speeds snarfing up smaller insects like flies and mosquitoes. When Trish and I are on our annual canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, we love having dragonflies buzzing around us, because we know they are eating the mosquitoes. And northern Minnesota has a lot of mosquitoes.
Amazing facts about Dragonflies
Dragonflies have been around for a long time! An extinct order of insects called Meganisoptera are thought to be dragonfly ancesters, and there are fossils of them that are 325 million years old. These ancient creatures were the largest insects to have ever lived, as far as we know. Some of them had wingspans of almost 30 inches (75 cm). Check out this reconstruction of one:
Dragonflies are amazing fliers. They have four wings, with attached muscles that allow them to control each wing separately. This allows them to not only hover in place but also to fly in any direction--up, down, sideways, even backward.
They are not only agile flyers, they are crazy-fast. Some of them can fly 18 miles per hour (29 kph). That may not seem really fast to us but think about their size. If a dragonfly were my size (5' 11"), that would be the equivalent of 324 miles per hour!
Because of their speed and agility, they are astoundingly good hunters. Dragonflies fly around like skilled fighter pilots, snatching small insects on the wing. Their highly-adapted eyes and nervous system allow them to adjust the speed, angle, and distance of flying prey and intercept them in midair. While hunting, they have up to a 95% success rate.
Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article:
One research team has determined that the nervous system of a dragonfly displays an almost human capacity for selective attention, able to focus on a single prey as it flies amid a cloud of similarly fluttering insects, just as a guest at a party can attend to a friend’s words while ignoring the background chatter.
Check out this amazing BBC video on the highly advanced visual and nervous system of dragonflies.
Dragonflies have incredible eyes! If you look closely at a dragonfly's head, you'll see it is mostly just eyes. That's because their eyes are made up of more than 30,000 facets (tiny individual light sensors). Because of the spherical shape of their eyes, they can see almost 360 degrees of their surroundings, except for a small blind spot directly behind them. These huge eyes are a major factor in their ability to catch prey as effectively as they do.
And finally... even baby dragonflies are fierce predators. Most of a dragonfly's life is actually spent as a nymph, living underwater (as long as five years in some of the larger species). And these nymphs are awesome predators in their own right. They feed on aquatic insects (like mosquito larvae), and even larger things like tadpoles and small fish!
So, the Dragonfly deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F. (Bodacious Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Bodacious originated in the 1800s. At that time it meant something like complete or thorough. But in the 1970s it caught on in American slang. In the 1990s it came to also mean sexually attractive. But in this instance, I am simply using it as another way to say awesome (because dragonflies are only sexually attractive to other dragonflies, right?).
Have you read my novel Profusion? In my last bi-weekly email, I featured the no-see-um, a tiny insect that Bobby uses to try to stop a planet-threatening outbreak of terrifying creatures. Well, Bobby's plan also involves an aquatic animal, the sailfish. He chooses the sailfish because he knows it is one of the fastest swimming fish. So the sailfish is today's awesome animal.
But what the heck is a sailfish.
Sailfish are members of the billfish family (Istiophoridae), which also includes marlins. There are two subspecies (or separate species, depending on the source), the Atlantic Sailfish and the Indo-Pacific Sailfish. The sailfish's most striking features are the long, sharp bill (actually the upper jaw) and the tall, flat dorsal fin that stretches most of the length of the body. This dorsal fin is how the fish got its name, sailfish.
Amazing facts about Sailfish
Sailfish are fast! These are probably the fastest swimming fish on the planet, and many sources say they have been reliably clocked at about 68 miles per hour (110 kilometers per hour). However, some sources say more recent studies indicate they may only swim half that speed. Regardless, that's pretty darn fast when you consider they are moving through a dense liquid (water).
Sailfish grow up to eleven feet long and weigh as much as 220 pounds. And they grow very fast, often reaching 4-5 feet in their first year. They are highly valued as game fish. But since their meat is tough and undesirable, they are almost always released alive after being caught. In fact, many places give out release certificates to fisherman who catch and release them.
It is thought that the main purpose of the huge sail-like dorsal fin is to help "herd" schools of fish (or squid) during the sailfish's elaborate feeding strategy. Normally, these fins are held flat againt the fish's back and are hardly visible. Amazingly, sailfish cooperate with each other (sometimes dozens or even a hundred or more) to feed on schools of smaller "baitfish." They repeatedly swim around the school of baitfish, using their large fin to herd them into a tight ball, and then the sailfish take turns rushing into the ball of baitfish to slash at them with their long bills. This kills or stuns some of the baitfish and then the sailfish swallow them. This goes on and on until they get their fill. Check out this video of their feeding behavior.
When they get excited or stressed, their skin flashes different iridescent colors. In fact, it is thought that they use these color flashes as they feed in cooperative groups. With numerous sailfish darting into the midst of a tight ball of baitfish to feed, it is possible another sailfish could get injured or killed by the attacker's sharp bill. But since they get excited just before dashing into the ball of fish, their skin changes color, warning the other sailfish to get out of the way.
Sailfish are very widely distributed, and they are not currently endangered or threatened. The map below shows their overall range (although they are certainly more abundant in some of those areas).
When spawning, a large female sailfish will release up to 4,500,000 eggs. Yeesh! Several males will follow her around as she spawns, releasing sperm into the water to fertilize the eggs. Check out this baby sailfish:
So, the Sailfish deserves a place in the J.A.H.O.F. (Jake Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: Jake is thought to have originated in North America in the early 1900s. It basically means satisfactory, as in "everything was jake again." It is also used in Australia, with variations such as jakealoo and jakerloo.
So, in other words, jake is another way to say awesome.
My new novella, Parthenium's Year, is now available, and for a limited time you can grab it for 99¢ (the price will go up on November 10). It is also in Kindle Unlimited if you have access to that.
I have to take a moment to tell you how excited I am about Parthenium's Year. This is the first book I have published that is not part of the Diffusion series, and I had a great time writing it.
Parthenium's Year is a story of love. But as you probably know, I cannot write a book without some strange things happening. My stories are about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. In Parthenium's Year, Spencer meets someone who changes his life. But she comes from a very unusual family.
I live in Missouri, a state in the Midwest US that encompasses much of the area known as the Ozarks, where there is a rich history of fascinating traditions, folklore, art, and music. And in my own special way, Parthenium's Year expresses my love for this area.
You can get Parthenium's Year on Amazon.
As we get into the cooler weather of the fall, I start spending more time in Missouri's forests. Well, there's good and bad to that. If you've read any of my posts, you know I love being outdoors. But our forests here are not without hazards: ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and my nemesis, poison ivy. If you don't have poison ivy where you live, consider yourself lucky. Yes, I know in some areas there are also venomous snakes, crocodiles, and large predators, but I don't fear those because they can be avoided with common-sense precautions. It's the little things that are more of a threat to me, the things that are much harder to avoid. For example, here's what my arm looks like right now, due to a recent encounter with poison ivy:
I know, I know, you're tempted to say I can avoid such things by simply staying out of the woods. But that's not an option, because I feel a deep connection to nature and spending time in the woods (or in the water, or on the prairie, etc.) is essential to my peaceful and contented state of mind.
And so this leads to today's Awesome Animal... the no-see-um.
Have you read Profusion yet? If so, you know that the entire world is threatened by a profusion of horrifying creatures. Bobby makes a plan to try to stop it, and ironically his plan involves the smallest flying insect he can think of... the no-see-um.
But what the heck is a no-see-um?
No-see-ums are called different names in different parts of the world. They are actually a type of fly (the order Diptera), but they are much smaller than many other flies such as mosquitoes or deer flies. In fact, some of them are so small you simply cannot see them without a magnifier. So you don't know they are on your skin until you feel them biting you. That's how they got their name, no-see-um.
Amazing facts about No-See-Ums
Most of the insects people call no-see-ums are in a family of flies referred to as biting midges. Depending on where you're from, you may have heard them called midgies, knotts, moose flies, sand flies, punkies, or biting gnats. some of these names, though, like gnats and sand flies, are ambiguous because they are used for a number of other insect groups. Amazingly, there are 4,000 to 5,000 species of no-see-ums (biting midges) that we know of, and they live in almost every part of the world. They've even been found on Mount Everest!
No-see-ums are so small they can fly right through typical screens on windows and doors. Whenever I purchase a tent, I make sure the windows are made of "no-see-um netting," a special type of netting with very small holes. In order to block no-see-ums, the netting must have mesh size of at least 4,900 holes per square inch! They also make head nets with the stuff:
No-see-ums can drive a person crazy, because they bite! Like with mosquitoes, it is the females that bite. The females have a needle-like sucker along with a separate injector tube. The sucker is obviously for sucking up blood. The injector tube is used to inject a small amount of anticoagulant, to keep the blood from clotting so it will flow freely up the sucker tube. It is actually our body's allergic reaction to this anticoagulant that causes the itch. Some people are more allergic to it than others. Fortunately for me, the itch only lasts about 20 minutes, but for some people it can go on for several days or even weeks.
Female no-see-ums seek out blood for the same reason female mosquitoes do--to get nourishment for the development of their eggs. Once she gets a blood meal, the female will lay her eggs on water or wet mud or sand (water is necessary for the larvae). For most species, the larvae feed for about 28 days before becoming adult no-see-ums (although it can take up to a year in some cold climates).
A female can lay 400 or more eggs at a time, and she can breed 5-7 times in her adult life. No wonder these things can be so abundant!
No-see-ums (along with gull midges) are the only pollinators of the cacao tree. So without them, we would have no chocolate.
No-see-ums are drawn to mammals (including humans) by the odor of carbon dioxide (which we exhale) and the odor of lactic acid (which is made in our muscles and red blood cells). So this means that CO2 mosquito traps are also effective for no-see-ums.
The real question is, if you can't see them, do they exist?
So, the No-See-Um deserves a place in the V.G.A.H.O.F. (V.G. Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: V.G. is an initialism for Very Good. Surprisingly, this abbreviation has been part of the English language since the 1860s. It showed up then in the Oxford English Dictionary, in a quote about a prison guard: “[he] was not in their [i.e. the prisoners’] opinion sufficiently liberal with his V.G.’s (‘Very Good,’ as marked in the accounts.)”
So, in other words, V.G. is another way to say awesome.
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