Angry spiders, Animal Minds, and a Slime Mold called Harry

(This was originally posted last summer)

Have you ever been glared at by a spider?

Usually, they scurry away as fast as their eight little legs can go, but this one stood her ground, pulling herself up tall with body held stiffly, head cocked to the side and a look on her face of pure indignation. She was furious.



Okay, maybe I’m projecting a little. How does anyone know what goes on in animal minds, let alone an arthropod, a simple creature with a brain the size of a…well, let’s just say, really, really small. There can’t be much going on in there, right?

But the vibes coming off this spider told me different. I just knew she was mad, and a little devastated, too. I was stealing her dinner.

I didn’t mean to do it. Normally, I would never get between a predator and its prey—it’s bad form. It goes against the natural order. But when I saw the giant crane fly struggling in the corner of my studio, I thought it had simply gotten tangled in a bit of cobweb. Why should an innocent creature suffer death just because of my lousy housekeeping?












Crane flies are like the supermodels of the fly family, with long, delicate legs, intricately designed wings, and big globe-shaped eyes. So there I was, down on my knees, scissors in hand, working like a surgeon to extract the fragile creature, when suddenly I got the feeling I was being watched. A few inches away, a long-legged pholcid spider stood, body language shouting, “how dare you!”

Hmmm, what to do? The spider had won the fly fair and square—who was I to interfere? But the crane fly was looking at me with those beautiful eyes…she obviously wasn’t looking forward to having her innards sucked out.

In the end, I freed the fly and released her to the garden, but I felt a little uneasy about favoring one species over another. Plus, now I was going to have to share my studio with an angry spider.



Projecting human emotions onto animal behavior, or anthropomorphism, has been a tricky issue for scientists who study animals for hundreds of years. It can interfere with scientific method—clouding judgment and obscuring truth. Be objective—that was Rule One for a long time. And a scientist that gets too close to her research subjects—who develops a relationship with them—may be coloring her results by sending unconscious signals that the animal responds to. At one point Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, was even criticized for giving the chimpanzees she studied human-sounding names rather than numbers.

But, it seems to me the more science reveals about other species, the more we learn they are a lot smarter and more complex, you might even say, more human, than we ever knew.



Slime mold, scientifically known as myxomycetes, is one of the most peculiar life-forms on earth. It is essentially an amoeba-like mass of protoplasm, with no brain, no nervous system, no eyes or ears or legs. It is common in forests and other moist environments, and is very unusual in that unlike plants, it actually moves, sending out tendrils of its slimy self over the forest floor, creeping slowly along as it hunts for food. Like a fungus, when it is ready to reproduce, it sends up fruiting bodies that release spores.


I found this gorgeous slime mold in an old-growth forest in Oregon, near Mt. Hood. The tendrils of slime along the edges are like its “feet”, enabling it to move through the forest. The bright yellow part is the fruiting body, similar to a mushroom.


Amazingly, it can also solve maze puzzles that would be tricky even for humans to solve! Scientists have concluded that slime mold can ‘compute’ even though it doesn’t have a single brain cell. Does this mean you don’t need a brain to be smart? (insert joke about your least favorite politician here).

I am an interpreter, not a scientist. I try to draw connections between nature and personal experience as a way of appreciating the beauty and diversity of life on this planet—between what’s out there in the wild and what’s inside of you and me. Sometimes, this involves a little anthropomorphism.

But while I’m walking around with my head in the clouds, arguing with spiders and contemplating slime, somewhere in a laboratory a white-coated scientist labors through the hard work of gathering data, making conclusions, proving and disproving, all the while resisting the urge to get friendly with a blob of slime. It’s the natural order.



For more cool stuff:

Awesome videos of slime mold:

In case you’re skeptical about the slime-mold-maze-thing:

Leave it to Beavers

Two beavers are standing at Hoover Dam, and one says to the other, “I didn’t build it, but it’s based on my design.”

That old joke isn’t far from the truth. Before human settlement, beavers were responsible for transforming huge areas of North America, literally creating much of the wetland habitat.

Who, me?



For most of American history, beavers were either hunted for their fur, or exterminated as pests. But now, beavers are welcomed back into arid landscapes. After all, an animal that can build dams and create wetlands has certain advantages.

I recently finished an interpretive signage project in Spokane County, at Liberty Lake Regional Park. The land was once a ranch, but is now a park with a lake, forested trails, old growth trees and a waterfall.

When local park visitors noticed a stand of dying Ponderosa pines, they became concerned. Why were the trees dying? Can’t we do something?

As it turned out, the trees were dying for a very good reason. Beavers had returned to the landscape and were re-creating a wetland.

Eco-restoration, beaver-style.

Here are the signs I wrote, illustrated and designed for the project. The finished size is 2 x 3 feet.

DDahn1  DDahn2 DDahn2detail


Nature lives

The more you pay attention to the natural world, the more fascinating it becomes.

This week, a friend’s blog post reminded me about the importance of reveling in the complexity and beauty of life on this planet. Too often we get caught up in the big issues, the big problems, and the awful feeling that we’re headed for doom. It’s an unpleasant side-effect of paying attention to the environment.

But, in order to have a future we really want—one that is bursting with life, with nature—we have to be able to envision it. And, we can’t do that if we don’t even see and appreciate what’s out there under our noses.

Once in while, try simply noticing. Just notice.

If necessary, put on some rose-colored glasses.


Even earthworms are pretty cool. Did you know they’re non-native? They arrived via boat like most of the rest of us. Still, I like them.  I did this watercolor illustration for my Nevada Wildlife Project. It shows a slice of wet meadow habitat in the Steptoe Valley of Nevada.



Check out the blog post by Trileigh Tucker:

Natural Presence











Mythical Sea Creatures and Puget Sound Marine Mammals

Last summer I wrote a post about a mysterious creature I saw one day in Puget Sound. At that time, my researching led me to conclude it was a group of porpoises—most likely Dall’s porpoises since they were the most common. The only other likely suspect, the harbor porpoise was thought to have long-since disappeared from Puget Sound, killed off by industrial pollution or entanglement in fishermens’ gill nets.

Since then, new information has revealed that harbor porpoises have made an extraordinary comeback in Puget Sound. Amazingly, they are now considered the most common marine mammal in the great Salish Sea!

So, I’m revising my conclusion: the mystery creature was most likely a group of three harbor porpoises.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure. It could have been a group of Dall’s porpoises out for a lazy swim off the shore of West Seattle. Or, maybe it really was a magical sea creature after all.

I’m not ruling anything out.



(The following is a re-posting of my very first blog post)


Sometimes I let my imagination run wild. Maybe I watched too many sci-fi thrillers when I was young, or maybe I just want to sprinkle a little artistic license on the ordinary world, but sometimes…I daydream up weird stuff. Just for the fun of it.

Once, I casually remarked to my husband as we walked on the beach, “Just imagine—right now—a giant mutant octopus emerging up out of Puget Sound! Wouldn’t that be awesome?



I should have known better than to say such a thing to a marine biologist!

But one day I actually saw something that seemed impossible. It was on the beach in West Seattle’s Lincoln Park—one of those typical Seattle days, with the water and the sky one solid slab of gray. No wind at all…the water smooth as glass. Not a soul in sight…no people, no boats, no ferries.

I had been walking along in the gray, thinking how nice it would be if water had no reflective surface. We already know what the sky looks like…why should the water mirror it for us? Wouldn’t it be better if Puget Sound was transparent from every angle, so we could see all the way to the bottom…see every bit of marine life in there?

Then a giant sea-serpent swam by right in front of me. Something straight out of Norse mythology. It had the familiar three-hump shape and the graceful rolling motion of a snake in the water. All that was missing was the arched head and the lashing tongue.

Lincoln Park


I watched it swim for at least ten minutes…three perfect dark humps rising smoothly in synchronized movements…one after the other. It went slowly, in playful figure-eights, spiraling out further and further off shore. And each time a hump rose and fell, it sprayed off a neat little fountain of water.

Daydreamer shifted into Naturalist. It must be three separate animals. Baby orca? Orcas are not unusual in Puget Sound—I’ve seen pods quite a few times. But no, orcas are lots bigger, and this was three creatures of similar size, not a baby with adults.

I ran through the list of common Puget Sound marine mammals: sea lions, harbor seals…no, they move differently. They swim for a while, then stop and poke their noses up and look around. Usually, they look right at you. Same with river otters. And I’ve never seem them swim synchronized like that.

I figured there had to be something I was forgetting, and of course there was: Dall’s porpoise. Dall’s porpoises are rare in Puget Sound, and I’ve never seen them here before. Plus, I’ve always thought of porpoises as swimming fast, darting through the water, not lazy like these were. And I didn’t remember seeing any dorsal fins. But they best fit the description, right down to the distinctive “rooster-tail” splashes they make.

dalls porpoises2



I feel a little silly about the whole sea-serpent thing. But it does make me feel better that my husband didn’t think of porpoises either. “Gosh, Dee,” he said when I described what I had seen and asked what he thought, “maybe it was a magical sea creature.”

I’ll never live down the ‘mutant octopus’ remark.

So now when I walk the beach, I look for porpoises. And I think about all the living things out there in Puget Sound. But I still wish water didn’t have a mirrored surface. Maybe then it would seem like more than just a body of water…maybe it would seem more like a place where actual creatures are trying to live. Maybe then, we would care more about protecting it.




Moon Madness

It’s almost the summer solstice, and almost time for our annual Supermoon (Sunday, June 23). This seems like a good time to re-run this post…originally published last fall.

(I’ll be back soon with new posts. I’m buried in deadlines right now.)



The night had been dead quiet, but as soon as the full moon rose, so did the noise level. I was sleeping under the stars on a crisp summer night in the Eastern Cascades–or at least I had been sleeping, until the din of what seemed like thousands of chattering creatures woke me up.  I lay curled in my sleeping bag for hours, listening to the echoing chorus and watching the silvery moonlight play across the meadow.

From: Moon Madness

A watercolor sketch I did of Camas Meadows, in the eastern Cascades.


I tried to identify the animals I was hearing, but it was all a-jumble. If I had to guess I would say frogs, toads, crickets, coyotes, and owls. Possibly others, but who knows?

It was a crazy sound—hooting, yelping, buzzing—animals driven into a frenzy by the glare of the moonlight. Were they glad to have the light…or frustrated by it?

The moon dropped slowly behind the snowy peaks and the sky grew darker. Then, the instant the moon disappeared, everything fell silent—as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch. No moon, no chattering.

I stayed awake for a few more minutes marveling at the lunar effect on animal life. It made me think of wolves—an animal I’ve yet to hear—or see—in the wild. I’ve read that wolves howling is unlike any other sound…soulful, magical and frighteningly beautiful.

I wondered if there were wolves mixed into that chorus of wildsong. It’s not impossible…they’ve started to come back into these lands they once inhabited. Slowly. Tentatively. Carefully. Not without casualties.

I’ve been thinking about wolves lately—they’ve been in the news a lot recently. Last year, California got its first wolf in nearly a century—a lone wolf from the Imnaha pack in Oregon; in Washington, an entire pack was recently killed by the state for depredation of livestock; several western states and most recently Wisconsin and Minnesota now allow wolf hunting and trapping.

Wolves are symbolic in many ways—of struggle to survive, of decline or recovery of natural systems, and of difficulties we have as Americans to understand each other and to live together in an increasingly “hot, flat and crowded” world.

These days, it seems like everybody is mad about something. Maybe we’re not unlike the creatures of the night—mad at the moon for making it too hard to be nocturnal. Maybe if we quieted down and listened for a change—to each other and to Nature and what it’s trying to tell us…we’d all have a better chance of survival.



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