How to become a botanist in 20 easy steps*!

So you want to be a botanist! Here’s how to do it in 20 easy steps*!

Step 1. Be a curious child. It’s helpful if you’re also raised in the country. Explore outside and be fascinated by nature.

Step 2. Love science. Love it madly and without reservation. Soak up everything you can and ask too many questions.

Step 3. Decide early on that you want to be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 4. Be told early on that you can’t actually be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 5. Reassess your life goals. Decide that science is still awesome and that you’ll decide on a career later.

Step 6. Take all of the science classes your high school offers and decide that you want to study something that people think is really hard, like brain surgery or rocket science.

Step 7. Graduate from high school and head to a really nice college.

Step 8. Major in environmental science and try to figure out what you really love.

Step 9. Have an eccentric geology professor who reminds you that you can actually be a paleontologist.

Step 10. Take an ecology class and realize that field work is one of your favorite things.

Step 11. Take a field botany course and realize that plants are pretty cool.

Step 12. Get a paleontology internship and be the only biologist among geologists. Extol the wonders of trees to them.

Step 13. Graduate from a really nice college and apply to graduate schools.

Step 14. Only get into one Master’s program. It’s your last choice but go anyway.

Step 15. Sit down with your advisor and be told that you’ll be doing paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 16. Start working on your thesis and really enjoy it.

Step 17. Finish up your thesis and start to hate it.

Step 18. Get another paleontology internship. Do more paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 19. Decide that you don’t hate your research anymore and apply to PhD programs.

Step 20. Visit a Pleistocene fossil site and realize that you’re more interested in the paleoecology and paleobotany than the mammoths.

Congratulations! You’re a botanist!

*Results may vary.

Baumgartner Florissant Intern


So Nice They Named It Twice: Gorilla and Bison

I have a fascination with scientific names that have an identical (or nearly identical) genus and species epithet. So nice they named it twice! Here are somebrief introductions to some of these plants and animals. If you know of any more, feel free to include them in the comments and I will add them to my list.

Gorilla gorilla

Cross River gorilla, Limbe Wildlife Centre, Cameroon. Photo by Arend de Haas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gorilla gorilla is commonly known as the Western gorilla and is divided into 2 subspecies: western lowland gorillas and Cross River gorillas. They are critically endangered great apes endemic to western Africa. After chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas are humans’ closest relatives. Unfortunately human activities including poaching, commercial logging, and civil wars are primarily to blame for the gorillas’ decline.

Gorillas live in groups of up to 20 individuals, with a dominant silverback male as well as several females and their offspring. Despite their immense size and fearsome teeth, their diet consists mainly of plant matter and invertebrates.

Bison bison

American bison. (Photos by Eadweard Muybridge, animation by Waugsberg)

There are only 2 living species of bison: the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (B. bonasus). Despite commonly being referred to as ‘buffalo’, bison are distantly related to buffalo. However, bison are very closely related to cattle and are sometimes bred and called ‘beefalo’. As recently as the Ice Age there were other species of bison (with very impressive horns) wandering the plains of North America and into Central Asia and Western Europe (B. antiquusB. latifronsB. occidentalisand B. priscus).

Until relatively recently, bison roamed across much of North America: from the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Oregon and from northern Mexico to Alaska. Unfortunately, as settlers spread across what would become the United States they took advantage of this abundant source of meat (as anyone who has played Oregon Trail knows). Today bison are restricted to isolated patches in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada.

So Nice They Named it Twice: Fire Salamander and Llama

I have a fascination with scientific names that have an identical (or nearly identical) genus and species epithet. So nice they named it twice! Here are some brief introductions to some of these plants and animals. If you know of any more, feel free to include them in the comments and I will add them to my list.

Salamandra salamandra

Salamandra salamandra by Marek Szczepanek (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Salamandra salamandra is also known as the fire salamander. Salamanders hide in moss and dead wood. If you set fire to wood that has a salamander in it, it’s going to come crawling out. People came to the incorrect conclusion that the salamanders came from the flames rather than the wood, hence the name fire salamander.

Fire salamanders live in the deciduous forests of central and southern Europe eating insects, worms, and slugs. Adults weigh about 40 grams and can be 15-25 cm long.

Lama glama

A llama (Lama glama) in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site, Peru by Alexandre Buisse. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lama glama, or llama, falls into the nearly identical category. Llamas are South American camelids and domesticated llamas are raised for meat and wool around the world. Like all camelids llamas’ ancestors originated in North America and spread into South America and the Old World, before going extinct in North America.

Llamas are native to the Andes mountains and are well adapted to high elevations and cold temperatures. They grow to about 1.8 m tall and weight 130-200 kg. Llamas live in herds and are very territorial; llama guards can be used to protect other livestock from predators.

Plants Aren’t Boring, You Are

I dislike the assumption that plants are boring. When I mention people that I am a paleobotanist, or that I was looking forward to taking a botany class, I’m frequently met with confusion and disinterest. “Why would you study plants? They’re so boring?” “They don’t even move. Who cares?” “My study organism eats your study organism!” I’ve heard it all.

I must admit, I haven’t always been enamored by plants. I have always been curious and plants often were included in the long list of things that caught my interest, but the fascination went no further. As I grew older, my interest in ecology and paleontology led me to taking botany classes and I changed my tune.

My first reaction to my college botany classes was anger. Why hadn’t anyone told me that plants were so cool? This anger turned to frustration. Why wasn’t everyone interested in botany?

Botany is given a bad rap. In my experience, everyone can find something interesting about botany. From middle and high school students to grad school friends to strangers on planes, I will teach anyone who will listen. And people love it! (My go-to fact is telling people that oranges, pumpkins, and cucumbers are all berries.) Students who claim to dislike science and say it’s boring will wave their hands in the air to ask questions. Why do coconuts have milk? Are blackberries berries? How does a cactus work? How big can a Venus flytrap grow? Why does the top of that pine tree look so weird? Here in Michigan we find ourselves surrounded by trees and plants, and we think nothing of them. But when given the chance to learn more, we jump at the opportunity.

Chestnut and beech

I wish that more people could meet botanists. Instead of refrains reminding us that plants don’t move, we could have conversations about the amazing adaptations plants have to survive in unforgiving habitats. Instead of talking about how plants are defenseless, we could talk about the complex and deadly defenses plants have to herbivory. Instead of dismissing plants as boring, we could marvel at the diversity of extinct and extant plants.

Plants are not boring. Everything is interesting if you look hard enough.

Don’t Squish the Turtles!

Here in Michigan, turtles can be seen crossing the roads in the spring and summer. These turtles are on a mission: to find a mate, to find nesting grounds, to find a place to hibernate. Turtles are amazing and ancient creatures. Sixteen states have at least one turtle species as a state symbol, and Florida has two! This obviously means we should be saving turtles, not squishing them.

So, how do you save a turtle? To put it simply, very carefully. It’s important that if you see a turtle  on the road that you take precautions for your own safety. Don’t put yourself in danger to rescue a turtle! This means pulling into a driveway or pulling completely off of the road to rescue the turtle. 

When moving a turtle off the road, be sure to move it in the direction it was headed. It might be tempting to turn the turtle around and take it to the closer side of the road, but that risks the turtle trying to cross the road again. Also, don’t try to relocate it. Turtles have a home range and might try to return home if you relocate them. 

When picking up the turtle to move it, grab it firmly on either side of the shell behind the front legs. Don’t pick it up too high off the ground just in case it falls. Even small turtles can be surprisingly strong when they want to escape and they can have very long, sharp nails. Don’t pick up turtles by their tails or legs because this could hurt them. 

Florida Redbelly Turtle (by Dr. Tibor Duliskovich)

Snapping turtles are a little more complicated. They have long tails, sharp claws and a mean bite. Don’t pick them up by their tails! If you have a something like a snow-shovel, use it to gently lift the turtle and scoot it off the road. 

When I drive anywhere I make sure that my passenger understands the drill: if there is a turtle in the road, they are expected to help it cross the road. Please do your part to save the turtles on the road and encourage others to do the same!


Lots o’ Links: Graduation and Moving Edition May 3-23 2014

Finally moved from my apartment in Tennessee to my temporary place in Colorado, with a quick stop in Michigan. Lots of driving, but I’ve successfully graduated!

Great explainer for the differences between similar animals.

Animal skulls are super diverse and very beautiful.

Biology is biased toward penises.

More from TwilightBeasts: Mr. Darwin’s lost sloth, The one with the sabretooth, The mouse-goat crocodile chimera, and Galloping across the steppes.

How to transport a rhino.

The real story of the jackalope.

The toilet sloth.

How cougars survived the Ice Age‘.

Whales v. dinosaurs: which ones were bigger?

Speaking of whales, dead ones are vital to science and for nature.

This should be obvious, but don’t pet strangers’ dogs.

How the birds survived.

Kiwis and elephant birds are closely related.

Another way to survive a mass extinction: get body armor and become marine.

Sorry Jurassic Park: that T. rex could probably see you really well.

We get too hyped about dinosaurs being the biggest.

Turtles are confusing: new evidence shows that they’re more similar to birds and crocodilians than to snakes and lizards.

The more snakes, the better.

However, Titanoboa was terrifying.

It might be time to rethink what it means to use tools: can fish use tools?

‘24 species of sharks that have killed fewer people than Jack Bauer on 24‘.

Why octopus arms don’t get tangled‘.

The case of the sleeping snail.

Insect pollinators are in trouble.

Have you ever seen an anemone eat a bird?

Thousands of years ago, a girl died in a cave and now she is helping science.

Whatever happened to Francis Crick?

You can thank dead horses for your morning shower.

What if we told kids the truth about sex?

Why humans recognize faces and constellations.

The science behind the 1 inch punch.

Your smartphone is covered with bacteria.

The discovery of element 117 has been confirmed!

See the Earth from space, live!

How to eavesdrop on aliens.

This Alaskan aurora is gorgeous.

Time-lapse of a supercell forming is scary, but cool.

California fires are unique and that’s bad.

May the Fourth was chock-full of Star Wars science. Here are 3: forcefields,  Han Solo and the Kessel Run, and Yoda’s advice was pretty terrible.

The important ring of Canadian engineers.

Correlation does not imply causation.

Should your robot car be able to sacrifice your life?

The Library of Congress wants to destroy your old cds (for science)‘.

Stop using products with microbeads.

The only water where the Coast Guard won’t save you.

Before Pantone: the original color book.

This is petrichor.

That’s okay, everyone draws eyes wrong.

Things I Found This Week: April 12-18 2014

La Brea’s megafauna attracts the visitors, but a fossil bee tells the real story of California’s past.

A grad student recreated a fossil plant and it’s beautiful.

And the debate continues: Commercialization of fossils.

Geological maps of Middle-Earth.

A map of the United States based on the nearest National Park.

A map of the places in the United States where no one lives.

Dying in a Living Room‘: the exotic pet trade is a dangerous thing.

How living walls save lions and cattle.

Another GoPro, this time a view from beneath a giraffe, and another inside a leopard’s mouth.

Stop calling hyenas disgusting.

Sleeping on the job: guard dogs mated with wolves.

Best job I’d never heard of: polar bear poop tracker.

Alligator snapping turtles turned out to be 3 different species, but either way they’re endangered.

What do golf courses have to do with salamanders?

Don’t worry, you don’t actually swallow spiders in your sleep!

The discovery of a new insect sex organ!

How ferns became masters of shadow.

The truth about the Gulf oil spill.

Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity‘.

How is Captain America like a Wood Frog?

Your cell phone can hear if you’re depressed.

Brazil is a dangerous place for environmentalists.

Clouds blocked my view, but did you get to see the lunar eclipse ‘Blood Moon’?

Really, you should watch Cosmos.

What do we know about ‘The Waters of Mars‘?

Saturn may have spawned a new moon.

Like 2048, but with chemistry.

The eastern United States might have been cold, but for the rest of the world, this winter was warm.

Ontario, Canada has stopped using coal to generate electricity.

What happens to a Peep in a vacuum?

A statistical analysis of paintings by Bob Ross.

People Like Their Music Served Medium Funky‘.

The best gif. Ever.

Alex Dainis finally has another Bite Sci-zed video!

This Week I Found: March 15- April 5 2014

I know that this covers more than a week, but I still wanted to share all the wonderful things that I found with you!


Things look very different in infrared and ultraviolet light.

Everything you ever wanted to know about black holes.

The face of the Big Bang, and here is another explanation, and another.

The planet Mercury is shrinking.

In 4 billion years, the Milky Way is going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy and it’s going to look amazing!

Want to be alerted when the ISS is passing overhead? There’s a device for that!

2/3 of Americans can’t see the Milky Way: get thee to a National Park!

Halley’s Comet will return in 2061!

Pro-tip: don’t stick your hand (or your head) in the Large Hadron Collider.

Can The Doppler Effect Help You Beat The Speed Camera?

The origin of the lights that come before earthquakes.

How Tardigrades Saved the Enterprise‘.

The Chernobyl fallout wreaked havoc on everything, including the microbes.

The evolutionary arms race between crops and pests.

Know your parasites.

Parasites, cat poop, and human culture.

How Animals See the World.’

Things look much different under a microscope.

What is a mass extinction and why should we care?

A comic about better sports mascots.

This winter’s cold could be bad for bees.

Just be glad that fleas today aren’t as large as their prehistoric relatives!

It should go without saying, but don’t ride sharks.

Frogs in pants helped to explain how sex works. Really.

Climate change is shrinking salamanders.

Iguanas Have Oldest Reptilian Sex Chromosome.

Poor sea snakes: even though they live in water, they’re always thirsty and dehydrated.

Homing pythons‘ slithered their way home.

The mating calls of some male tortoises.

Hummingbird songs sound surprisingly complicated when you slow them down.

What do we really know about the evolution of giant birds?

Cute comic about the calls of western American birds, and another about bird evolution.

If there were sabercats, there must have been saberkittens.”

Big cats really like the smell of Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men.

Cat domestication was complicated.

A bear tried to eat a GoPro Camera.

Pronghorns are weird and wonderful.

We might be getting closer to being able to clone a mammoth, but should we?

Learn about the extinction of Ice Age megafauna from the Oxford Megafauna Conference!

The return of the right whale.

Final Resting Place: Burials, Graves, and Funerary Rites.’

Where do geologists go when they die?

Why don’t Americans like IUDs?

Ancient Moss Revived After Ages on Ice‘.

In the past 39 years, the Rocky Mountain wildflower season has lengthened by a month.

It’s important to test science’s ‘just-so’ stories.

3D printing is revolutionizing paleontology.

A tornado made of fire and tumbleweeds.

Lake Michigan is beautiful in the winter.

How to dye the Chicago River green.

Check out this interactive map of all the wind turbines in the US.

Maps of earthquakes nicely outlines tectonic plates.

Light pollution can be bad for your health.

Statistically speaking, toilet seat covers aren’t worth it.

Scientifically measured speed idioms.

Lots ‘o’ Links: Thesis and Spring Break Edition February 7-March 14 2014

Genetics, Disease and Medicine

The Unique Merger That Made You (and Ewe, and Yew)

Your Genetic Privacy is Probably a Lost Cause‘.

Syphilis: A Love Story‘.

Did the Vitruvian Man have a hernia?

Everything You Need To Know About Uterus Transplants‘.

Are Men the Weaker Sex?

Electric heart socks‘ can teach us about heart attacks and heart disease.

Prosthetic arm for drummers.

Some of my favorite bone diseases: porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia.

How do the blind dream?

Genetic engineering could save the American chestnut.

Bye-bye banana.


You wouldn’t want to mess with Dimetrodon.

Dinosaur pee. Enough said.

Science art: Neanderthals probably didn’t look all that different from us.

My favorite use of Google Glass: follow a paleontologist into the field!

Canada has another vast Cambrian fossil bed.

So many cool fossil are found during construction: here’s a new tusk!

Notes from the 10th North American Paleontological Convention.

An ancient whale graveyard.


Mary Anning’s Revenge wraps up 14 Days of Genitals (NSFW): the baculum, marsupial reproduction, porcupine mating, hippo mating rituals, water strider mating, newt orgies, otters can be pretty scary.

What’s in John’s Freezer 7 Days of Freezermas (NSFW): mystery CT slice, ostrich dissection, a bag of cats, trim your hooves, pig feet are weird, ostrich x-rays, mystery dissection.

Keep up with the Mammal March Madness on Twitter (#2014MMM) and on Storify: wild card battle, round 1 of social mammals, marine mammals, weird mammals, fossil mammals.

New cat species found in Nepal.

Rewriting the death of a giraffe. Another. And another.

Why Stinky Animals Live Alone‘.

How do porcupines mate?

Three more marsupials with suicidal sex habits found in Australia.

Did you know you can count whales from space?

There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written‘.

How do you euthanize a whale?

Gnus are cool.

Hummingbird nests are alive?

The first kakapo chick in three years recently hatched.

New crocodilian species discovered in Africa.

Some crocodilians can climb trees.

Orange, cave-dwelling crocodiles!

New World crocodiles.

Monitor lizards are some of my favorites.

The frog with the spiky, stab-y mustache.

Photosynthetic salamanders!

Octopus can change both color and texture.

Apparently spiders aren’t out to get me.

A new beetle species named after Darwin and David Sedaris might already be extinct.

Jewel wasps make zombie cockroaches.

10 Facts about Giant-Skipper butterflies.


More from the Rising Star Expedition.

What happens to bodies after they have been donated to science?

What neck rings do to the body.

‘Making a Baby the Not-At-All Old-Fashioned Way: I had a stranger’s DNA injected into me‘.

A facial reconstruction of the Crystal Skull vodka bottle.

The Olympics

The National Science Foundation has 7 videos on the science of the Olympics.

This is the first Winter Olympics to include women’s ski jumping because it was thought that it would damage their uterus and ovaries.

Luge is hard, but fun.

Curling ice is different from normal ice.

Making artificial snow in Sochi.

Weather and Climate

What is the polar vortex?

Watch the Great Lakes freeze over. Ice cover was as high as 92%!

Here’s a time lapse of the Great Lakes freezing over.

Global warming has not paused.

This winter has had terrible storms and they look amazing from space.

Thundersnow and snownadoes.

Except for in the eastern United States, January was one of the warmest on record.

The drought in California is a very big deal.

The heatwave in Australia was too much for flying foxes.

How do plants deal with climate change?

Forests are edging out mountain meadows.

Louisiana’s Coastline Is Disappearing Too Quickly for Mappers to Keep Up‘.

Climate change and Genghis Khan.


Mars is going to mess up our bodies.

Have you heard of International Dark Sky Parks?

A review of the new Cosmos. (It was pretty great)

Geeky grab-bag

I Use Music to Make Better Spider Silk‘.

The Terminator time signature.

Overwintering Monarch Butterflies from Bug Bytes.

This Week I Found: January 18-31 2014

Woodpeckers think that emerald ash borers are delicious.

In a preview of ‘Your Inner Fish’, Holly Dunsworth and Neil Shubin talk about when human ancestors lost their tails.

Dear tv shows, consult osteologists before including skeletons.

Fungi sequester more carbon than leaf litter‘.

The story of Sue the T. rex is long and complicated.

Paleontologists are Speakers for the Dead and fossils are important.

A Vibrating Watch That Messes With Your Perception of Time‘.

Do we live in a simulation?

‘Why King Alfred’s remains are more exciting than Richard III’s‘.

Happy 8th birthday to the Tetrapod Zoology blog!

Britain might have a wild beaver for the first time in 500 years.

Moths may be the key to the reason why sloths come to the ground to poop.

Fewer trees, more syrup. Syrup production could become more commercial.

For people who bring smartphones into the wilderness: 14 apps you might enjoy.

Science Explains Why You Suck at Texting and Walking‘.

I learned about salps and the Taxonomy Fail Index.

Paleoclimatology offers a unique perspective on the drought in California.

Last week one of the closest supernovae in recent history was visible in the night sky, and it was discovered by students.

I like bones, and I especially enjoyed this post on segmental hypoplasia on the Veterinary Forensic Pathology blog.

And speaking of dental pathologies, see what pipe smoking can do to your teeth.

I love to listen to paleontology podcasts when I work in the lab and here is a great review of some of the best.

Sex does not equal gender.

Between the Northern Lights and these pillars of light, northern latitudes seem to have all of the cool lights in the sky!

Cows produce more milk for daughters than for sons.

I have a soft-spot for The Mammoth Site and loved this write-up about Dr. Agenbroad.

Climate change could have an impact on the Winter Olympics.

Alien Moths Are Coming for Your Nuts‘.

The physics of the Olympics: figure skating.

The connection between blood clots and birth control.

Did Sauron lose because he didn’t give his orcs vitamins?

Foot-Long, Sex-Crazed Snails That Pierce Tires and Devour Houses‘.

What’s it like to be the only female vulcanologist in North Korea?

Looking for a scientist memoir to read? Here’s a helpful list.

A nice, simple overview of why osteology is important.

The same species of rattlesnake has drastic variation in venom: one goes for the blood, one goes for the nerves.

If you like Emily Graslie, The Brain Scoop or museums, check out this interview.

Did sauropods like Brachiosaurus swim?

I Am Curious Yellow: Life With Synesthesia‘.

When moles move, they look like they’re swimming.

Check out this video of the global weather of 2013.

Having bedbugs might be terrible, but so is injuring yourself getting rid of them.

Thank Jurassic Park: ‘How Dilophosaurus Became a Rock Star‘.

Beelzebufo (the ‘Devil toad’) is one of my favorite scientific names. This frog was scary!

Don’t listen to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ while you’re driving.

First-person view of Felix Baumgartner’s Space Jump.

Kari Byron answers important questions, like how to blow things up while you’re pregnant.

The blog Mary Anning’s Revenge is writing up 14 days of animal genitalia.

Check out this video on the Yucca Giant-Skipper butterfly!