Ondatra zibethicus

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Between our beach and the one attached to the cottage next door is a shrubby bank that slides steeply down to the water, where fallen logs, overhanging branches, and trapped driftwood create a small warren for another, mostly unseen neighbor. Occasionally I’ve spotted a small dark head plowing through the water, and the glean of a wet back, or a quick splash as the muskrat slips off a log into the lake. Fortunately, this Rat doesn’t seem to like messing about in boats; our sailboat is pulled ashore just next to this little wooded area, and it would be an interesting experience to find a stowaway half-way out into the lake.

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This fall, while I walking on the beach (with a dauntless dog that quite enjoyed the cold water), I found something besides seaglass or shells – a matched set of jawbone halves washed up on the shore. They were washed clean, and clearly rodent, with large pointed front teeth and the flat molars of an herbivore. The large separation between the front incisors and the cheek teeth is called a “diastema;” the remaining incisor has the characteristic orange tint of rodents. Given the size of the bones and the location, they are likely from a muskrat; a squirrel or rat would be smaller, a beaver larger. I hope it isn’t our neighbor; I’ll be keeping a look out in the spring. In the meantime, Ondatra makes for excellent sketchbook fodder.

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Drawing Bones and Mapping Worlds

Title aside, this post has nothing to do with the summers I spent designing tombstones; instead, it’s about how 2 of my favorite things come together: drawing and science. I don’t think it surprises anyone to say that art and science can go hand in hand; scientific illustration and imagery is often the easiest way for the public to engage with new research – think how exciting new images from Hubble are, or pictures from the latest deep sea dive of new species that look like they came from the Black Lagoon. The field of scientific illustration allows access to concepts otherwise unobservable, from microscopic to macroscopic. Physical and natural sciences like botany, biology, etc all rely on a long tradition of illustrators providing precise diagrams and figures, which communicate in a more universal language than any text. In the case of geology and archaeology, something that has always delighted me is how vital bringing together artistic skills with field research could be, from sketching artifacts and mapping outcrops, even to planning geophysical surveys.

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Finback whale

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