Tuesday, September 11, 2012


There are many strange creatures in Junonia, the underground world beneath Florida in Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus.  None are weirder than the giant tardigrades. Several readers have attempted to draw tardigrades based on their reading of the book.


Whatever they imagine, there is no doubt that giant tardigrades are ruthless predators. Their toothless mouths and giant clear bodies prowl the tunnels and vast underground lakes of Junonia looking for echinoids to swallow whole.
Many readers are surprised to learn that tardigrades are actually real animals and they are even weirder in real life than they are in the book!
Tardigrades are tiny, no more than a millimeter in length. They have eight legs, eight feet with claws, a head, and a body that makes them look like tiny bears.  This is why they are often called water bears. They are unlike any other animal that we know!  They can survive in extreme conditions, even in outer space, which has caused some to speculate that they arrived on Earth by riding asteroids from another planet.
Even better, there are almost certainly tardigrades in your backyard. There are still countless discoveries to be made about tardigrades and you can be a part of it!

Here is a picture of an actual tardigrade. He's upside down! Can you see his face?

For a fascinating video on the subject, please watch Smithsonian Video on Tardigrades

Green Hover Fly (Ornidia obesa)

The spanish needle (Bidens pilosa) and passion vine (Passiflora incarnata) are taking over the yard lately. Butterflies are everywhere. Tiny long-legged flies and halictid bees flash their bright colors. But nothing matches the metallic grandeur of the green hover fly (Ornidia obesa,) in size and polish. You can almost see yourself reflected.  These large flies seem to love the spanish needle more than any other flower.
Green hover fly

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Story of Cheeto

No character in Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus receives more questions and fan mail than Aunt and Uncle Milligan's dachshund Cheeto. "How did you think of that name?" "Is Cheeto based on a real dog?" "Will Cheeto be in book number two?"  Some perceptive readers notice that I reference Cheeto in the book's dedication:

To Melissa for setting love aloft.
To Cheeto for fierce loyalty.
To my father for quiet fire.
To the bears in the woods
just beyond the highway lights.
So, who exactly is Cheeto? Well, Cheeto is indeed my dog. He was one of five puppies born in rural Florida outside of Thonotosassa in the year 2000. A millennial puppy. Cheeto's dad was a hero. He gave his life protecting the family from a rattlesnake. When I first met Cheeto, he was clearly the ring leader in the family, leading his brothers and sisters on raucous escapades at breakneck speeds. He didn't seem to be a troublemaker at all. He just wanted to have fun!

Cheeto was a red short-haired dachshund. Most dachshunds have a black nose. Not Cheeto. He had a red nose. We named him Cheeto because he was long and red. What a good boy he was! He always wanted to sit on our laps. He loved naps in the sun. And he was always, always ready for adventure.

Here is Cheeto on a mountain adventure. He couldn't wait to walk around in the snow!

Here is Cheeto with his best friend Buttercup on a boat trip!
Cheeto loved Buttercup

The real Cheeto was exactly like the Cheeto in Olivia Brophie. He was very suspicious of people, even people that he knew well. He would spend hours growling under his breath to people he knew for years. But once he opened up to you, he gave you his whole heart.
Cheeto was ever-vigilant. Any unusual sound would be thoroughly investigated. Any doubts would be met with suspicious and persistent barking. Once he supervised me checking out the scene, I would give him the "all clear" and he would go back to relaxing. He was our protector.
At the age of eight, Cheeto developed a rare disease called Chylothorax. Chylothorax is the loss of structural integrity in the membranes surrounding the lungs. The space around the lungs fills with lymphatic fluid causing great difficulty in breathing.  We had to insert long needles into his chest and draw out the lymphatic fluid every couple of days. It was obvious that those needles really hurt Cheeto. The veterinarians said there was nothing we could do, that Cheeto was going to die. But we didn't listen.  We did everything we could to help Cheeto. We found some specialists that have has some success treating Chylothorax and Cheeto went into surgery immediately. They opened his tiny chest and did their best to repair the damage. The surgeons said that his membranes were like "swiss cheese."
Eventually Cheeto came home from the surgery. He was a different dog. He clung to our side. He still kept an eye open for trouble, but he was far less likely to investigate. He only wanted kisses.
Cheeto never fully recovered from the Chylothorax. The damage was just to great. Five month after we found out about his disease, he died in our arms.
Buttercup is still with us. In fact, she is taking a nap next to me as I write this. She is very healthy and the sweetest dog who ever lived.
So, Cheeto now lives on in Olivia Brophie. Doing what he always did. Investigating strangers and going on bold adventures.
If you have any more questions about Cheeto, please email me! I love to answer reader's questions.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cassius Blue Butterfly (Leptotes cassius)

The tiny Cassius blue butterfly (Leptotes cassius) is a common butterfly in Florida, but if you don't pay attention you may not see one. Their larva feed on a very common landscaping plant, the plumbago. Plumbago comes in two colors, blue and white. It seems to me that the Cassius blue prefers the white, but they still love the blue which is much easier to find. Grow this sprawling shrub in your yard, and by mid-summer it will be swarming with tiny blue butterflies!
They don't sit still for long, but thankfully this little Cassius blue posed for the camera


Monday, September 3, 2012

Two Spiders

It was a day of spiders. Spider #1 is a female regal jumping spider (Phidippus regius,) the largest jumping spider in the eastern United States.

Spider #2 is a wolf spider