The Littlest Aviators: Monarch Butterflies

Every fall I look forward to the current of Monarch Butterflies coursing their way across our local roads and beaches in Panama City Beach, FL, searching for one last refueling stop before heading out across the Gulf of Mexico to overseas destinations. They know where they are going en masse, so casually it seems, not in the least concerned about the doubtful safety of single engine flight over vast stretches of unforgiving water.

While over land, most fly low, at human shoulder height, perhaps looking for food. It makes for an almost magical walk outside — continuously being passed by little animated flying machines. When crossing roads, most of the migrating butterflies, but not all, climb to safer altitudes, and increase their speed.  I like to think that strategy is deliberate, but it could in fact be nothing more than the effects of buffeting by the wake of passing cars. Nevertheless, their success rate at crossing roads seems to be better than that of squirrels, which are arguably larger-brained animals. But then squirrels are dare-devils, not aviators.

I have walked to the water’s edge, watching how the little aviators behave as they approach the beginning of their long leg over water. They do not hesitate, but fling themselves forward into whatever awaits them.

Whenever I witness this sight I want to cheer them on, like Americans must have cheered Lindbergh as he set off across the Atlantic for the first time. It seems like folly for them to attempt such a journey, but amazingly, millions of them make that transit every year.

Image Credit Flickr User Texas Eagle

The scene during their return in the spring is even more emotional. Walking on the beach at that time, you see the surf washing in the numerous bodies of those aviators who almost made it, reminiscent of the beaches at Normandy. And like the scenes of war, dragonflies lie in wait at the water’s edge attacking the weakened Monarchs soon as they cross over the relative safety of land.

I have been so infuriated at the sight of such wanton attacks that once I chased a heavily laden dragonfly with a Monarch in its grasp, and caused the little Messerschmitt to release its prey.

The Monarch I saved did not thank-me by landing on my shoulder to take a breather. It was too dangerous to stop, and it had places to go, places far away from the sea, driven by a genetic memory of fields of milkweed.

Oddly enough, experts seem unsure as to whether there is actually a migratory flyway from the Panama City area to Mexico, the over-wintering grounds for most Monarchs. To me the answer is obvious; even though the flight of roughly 800 miles over water with no place to feed is almost unimaginable. The little aviators make that trip, spring and fall, as proven by the millions of orange and black-rayed butterflies crossing the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the surf-washed bodies of those brave aviators who died in the attempt.

Migration map from Queen's University Dept of Psychology

A Frog Drowned in My Pool

Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). Photo credit: Bill Sutton

The little fellow was fast, and wily.

I was chasing him around the pool with a skimmer net, trying to herd him to the side of the pool where I had some chance of scooping him up with my hands. As the net approached he would kick to the eight foot deep bottom and then gracefully glide, legs in trail, along the contour of the bottom and sidewalls up to the edge of the pool. In dark water that tactic worked beautifully because his enemies could not see where he was going. But since he was in clear pool water I could see exactly where he was headed.

I’d sneak around the pool edge, out of his sight, and then grab for him as he floated at the surface. But he’d invariably see me in time to flip over and kick to the bottom again.

I had to admire his strength, speed and agility. He was clearly in his element. And besides that, he could breathe through his skin, absorbing oxygen from the water. Neat trick I thought, as I remembered various attempts by engineers to create artificial gills for humans — attempts that have all failed — so far.

Tadpoles have gills, but those gills are lost as the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs. Instead, frogs use a combination of lung breathing and skin breathing, called cutaneous respiration. Breathing through their skin allows them to remain underwater for months during the winter, when they are hibernating. However, when frogs are actively swimming, their oxygen demands are quite high, as you would expect. As the chase continued I had no idea how much or how little oxygen he could extract from the pool water.

For cutaneous respiration to work, frog skin has to stay moist, hence their desire to be close to water. But this frog was in the wrong water. I was about to pour chlorine into the pool, and if he didn’t get out of the pool, he wouldn’t survive. The chase was really in his best interest, but he didn’t know that of course; he was simply trying to avoid becoming my lunch.

So basically he never had time to take a breather. I figured at some point he’d grow tired from all the exercise and would allow me to catch him in the net and lift him out of the pool.

I was wrong. Before he quit swimming he apparently ran out of oxygen, in spite of the fact that he was getting oxygen from the water through his skin. But he wasn’t getting enough; he passed out.

Well, that sure made it easy to scoop him up.

Once I got him in my hands, I started frog CPR. No, I did not give him mouth to mouth ventilation. But I did give his little chest tiny squeezes, thinking that would do him some good. Apparently it didn’t; he never regained consciousness.

I buried him in my garden with all the solemnity due a frog, and vowed over his little green body that I’d do better with keeping the chlorine levels up so future frogs would not be attracted to the pool. Of course that was for my benefit as well, because where frogs are, water moccasins are not far behind.

I think it’s tough being a frog.

I mostly kept to my promise, but inevitably, another leopard frog or two attempted to take up residence in my concrete lined pond.

Being a scientist, I decided to conduct an experiment. I repeated my earlier, potentially deadly chases, but this time I reacted instantly when the frogs passed out. Soon as they went limp I scooped them up with my net and laid them in the grass. Before long they recovered and started frog-hopping away. Speed was of the essence in their rescue, and quick reactions on my part worked to keep the frogs alive.

So yes, frogs can breathe through their skin, absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, but only enough to support resting needs. When they are active, they must supplement gas exchange by gulping air into their lungs. Now I know.

(The loss of the first frog was an accident, not animal cruelty! Do not repeat this in the name of science, because it also is not science.)

I’ve since learned that I’m not the only person with frog-in-pool problems, and conveniently, small animal escape devices are available. Here’s a video of one that allows frogs to self-rescue without being dependent on any near-death escapes foisted upon them by me. (I’m not associated with the manufacturers or dealers in any way.)











Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death…

Photo credit: Bob Hammitt

It is true; sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

At a time before virtually all light aircraft had GPS navigation and on-board weather, an instrument-rated pilot would spend lots of time studying the printed station weather reports and forecasts across his route of flight, and then, if things looked reasonably good, pilots would launch into the unknown, with fingers crossed. However, even with the best planning, a pilot can find that weather has changed dramatically in flight.

One of my most memorable flights was from Waycross, Georgia to Gainesville, FL. The flight was in N3879T, a Piper Arrow not too different from the Arrow I’m flying now.  The 94 nautical mile flight would take roughly 45 minutes.

I was lucky since Waycross had a weather radar station on the field; I visited the station to study the radar screens to see what weather systems were active that Sunday afternoon. I had to be back to work on Monday, and it looked like there would be nothing to prevent that.

When I became airborne the weather was ideal; not a cloud in the sky and at least ten miles visibility. The aircraft did not have an autopilot, but I was proficient flying by instruments so I wasn’t concerned when I started entering summer puffy clouds. Eventually the clouds grew closer together, and I was spending more time in the clouds than out.

And then the rain started. Without on-board weather radar, I was very much flying blind.

Flying through rain in Florida is not unusual, but after awhile the rain became more intense, and the diffuse light in front of the airplane became darker.

When I say the rain became more intense, let me put “intense” into perspective. Most airplanes are made of thin sheets of aluminum suspended on aluminum spars. So rain hitting it sounds like banging on metal drums. The resulting din reverberated through every space in the aircraft.

Funny, I thought. None of this was showing on radar when I took off, and there was no forecast of it.  Fortunately, the air was smooth, and I had no problem controlling the aircraft even in spite of seeing nothing out of the windscreen. But I did wonder at one point how the engine could deal with so much water. I don’t know if it did well because of fuel injection or not, but the engine never hiccuped.

At one point, the view out front looked menacingly dark, but off to the left side the light seemed a little brighter. Instinctively I wanted to head where it was lighter. I keyed the microphone to call Air Traffic Control (ATC) and requested a 20 degree deviation to the east, and that was approved. Unfortunately, at that time ground radar which was used to control aircraft was not as good as it is now for showing weather, in particular rainfall intensity. Thus, ATC could not offer a preferred direction for me to fly to escape the worst weather, but at least they assured me that I wouldn’t run into other aircraft. Thank-goodness for that at least.

And then it occurred to me — am I the only idiot flying in this weather?

But even after the course change, the crescendo of rain and noise became almost deafening. After a few minutes of unrelenting watery pounding of the aircraft, ATC called back, but due to the ambient noise level I had a hard time understanding them.

“Say again please?” I asked.

“How’s the ride?”

I reflected for just a moment on the important information before responding, then in as professional a tone as I could muster, “Wet but smooth.”  What I felt like saying was, “It’s like freaking Niagra Falls up here!”

Considering the three words I actually said, the word  “smooth” was what was critical. Severe turbulence can cause a pilot to lose control in the clouds. If you’re flying by instruments alone, and the instruments start varying wildly because the aircraft is being bounced to and fro, then it takes a very skillful pilot to maintain safe flight. Unskilled pilots have pulled the wings off their aircraft by over-controlling in responce to a turbulence-induced upset.

Nexrad image of a squall line. How bad it looks from the cockpit before entry depends on which way you’re flying – from right to left or left to right.

Then it stopped. I flew from deafening, pounding rain, into perfectly clear air. The transition occured literally in a split second. Before me lay only a few small summer cumulus clouds. Out of curiosity I looked behind me — and almost lost my cool. What I saw was a solid wall of black clouds and rain reaching from the ground to far above me. It looked like a cliff, like the smooth edge of a giant black skyscraper, except it was one that stretched in a perfect line from as far as I could see to the east and west.

It was a frightening looking squall line, and had I been flying in the opposite direction there was no way I would have penetrated that wall of certain death. But approaching it from the benign-looking side of the squall line, lulled by innocent looking summer clouds, I had stumbled unawares into a potentially lethal trap.

But somehow it had not claimed me; it had been smooth during the entire flight. I had encountered no hail, no lightning, and no severe up and down drafts. Assuredly, the odds against that outcome were extremely small. Had I not made a 20° turn toward the light, so to speak, the outcome might have been much different. Of course I’ll never know for sure what would have happened, but the statistics say it would not have turned out well. I was lucky.

Yes, I’ll take good luck any day, but as the title of this post suggests, it may have been much more than luck that directed me safely to the other side of the squall line. I had, after all, been praying.






Introducing Our Galaxy to a Child

A clear night with our Milky Way galaxy seeming to glow iridescently is unforgettable. I remember seeing it once as a child, looking up from a field in the darkness of rural Texas, once from the deck of a rolling ship in the tropics, once from my aircraft on a beautiful night flight headed home, and once on the deck of a beach house on Cape San Blas, Florida. In each instance the conditions were ideal; no clouds, no moon, with very little obscuring moisture in the atmosphere.

The most thrilling time was the last time, when I left the bed where a three-year old was snuggled next to me, and joined my wife and our 11-year old granddaughter on the deck. It was late, and I was surprised to see them up, but when I looked up into the night sky I saw why they remained.

“Isn’t that the Milky Way?” my wife asked.

The eleven-year old had never seen the bright swath of starry light that is the interior of our galaxy. She was puzzled. “If we’re in it, how can we see it?”

The Milky Way and comet McNaught Druckmuller (Image credit: Miloslav Druckmuller.)

I was thrilled to have the chance to explain, best I could, how on just such rare nights we could see in the direction of the galactic center, but yet we can’t see the actual center because of obscuring dust. I further explained that lurking in the center of the billions of stars in the galactic center is a massive black hole.

Our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy

I know she had seen pictures of galaxies, like M31, Andromeda. She knew how galaxies should look, and what she saw did not match the photographs. She had never thought about how a galaxy, our galaxy, appears from the inside.

When our children were still young I drove the family from the Washington suburbs to the Blue Ridge Mountains to go star-gazing with binoculars and a telescope. But I think the most wondrous experience for them was what they saw unaided, the vast panorama of visible stars relatively bright and close to our planet. At the time, my preteen daughter, then about the age of our present eleven-year old granddaughter, was sleepy and complaining about the cold. Now that she’s an educated adult she  recognizes what a special experience that was.

One of the benefits of keeping children up past their bed times, at least on occasion, is the chance to see the stars. It will have a lasting effect on them; at least it did for me. Before my first night of star-gazing, my world had ended a few feet ahead of me, and a few hours ahead in time. My concerns, like those of most children, were immediate. But after that one starry night experience, my perspective stretched to the stars.

That is a wonderful experience to share with children of an appropriate age, lest they forever close their visual boundaries to all things lying beyond our Earth’s horizon.

[Milky Way in the desert photo (top) by Jurvetson (flickr)]

If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …