Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Knowing Your Trees

Lois Zerrer reviews Knowing the Trees: Discover the Forest From Seed to Snag by Ken Keffer.

I happened upon this book while perusing the “new arrivals” section of the Springfield Greene County Library. Being a self-proclaimed tree groupie, the title caught my eye. Thumbing through the book, it appeared to contain engaging information that might add to my knowledge of our trees.

After a brief introduction to the life cycle of the tree, the chapters are organized along the growth cycle of the tree – from seed and cone to the woody debris left behind at the end. Each chapter highlights interesting information comparing and contrasting different aspects of the life stage. For example, distinctions between types of seed, the purpose of cones, or how a stage supports wildlife are included. Also, anecdotes with unusual facts or stories are included to keep the reading light and entertaining. 

This is neither a scholarly work nor a primer. The author has done a good job of combining scientific substance with a style making it accessible to the lay reader. Along with scientific importance and ecological benefits, the author includes cultural references and some facts and details that “tree groupies” might not know. Some terminology that was new to me: 

  •  “doghair stands” – successional forests after old growth has been removed 
  • “krummholz” - the natural pruning process that occurs in the area between the subalpine and alpine zones which results in shrubby tree forms and branches that grow in the direction of the prevailing winds. 
  • “long leaf grass” - the seedlings of long leaf pine during their fire resistant growth phase 
  • Last but not least, the New York Stock Exchange was formed by an agreement signed under a sycamore tree in 1792. The Buttonwood Agreement was so called because the wood of sycamores was used at that time to make buttons. Author Ken Keffer is a naturalist and environmental educator. 

Knowing the Trees: Discover the Forest From Seed to Snag by Ken Keffer Illustrations by Emily Walker Copyright 2023 Mountaineers Books 

Editor's note:  It is available at the Library Center in Springfield.....after I return it.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Ode to a Hat-throwing Fungus

Pilobolus crystallinus

A special guest blog from our favorite mycologist, Dr. Mark Bower. But first read his poem, a paen in the Poop  to a fungus among-us.

 Fun with Da Dung Fungus

Searching for mushrooms is such a strain
As I sat for a while
To relieve the pain
I spot a brown pile

Lumpy it was and also quite stinky
Into the mass I stuck my pinky
As it happens, I shouldn’t have done that 
For I quickly found out it was a pile of scat

Mycelia feeding
But it’s had its fill
Time to throw hats
With the spores, if you will

Pow, pow, pow!
The sporangia explode! 

 Up to ten feet   
 The hats will be throw'd
 Out towards the sun 
 Soaring like a bird
 Hoping to land
 On another deer turd

Back to Mark's story:

I am always on the lookout for fuzzy poop, and was lucky to come upon this example at Bull Creek in September. I didn’t have my good camera with me, so the photos are of poor quality. Nevertheless, here is the story:
Pilobolus crystallinus, the hat-throwing fungus or dung cannon (seen in action here) is a decomposer of the dung of various mammals, in this particular case, whitetail deer. Its mycelium feeds on fresh dung. When the nutrients are depleted, or if conditions otherwise dictate, the fungus forms its spore-containing fruiting bodies (sporangia).

These sporangia consist of a fluid-filled globular structure sitting on a stalk. At the apex of the sporangium sits a black “hat” which encases the spores.

Sporangium- click to enlarge
Somehow, the fungal spores must find fresh dung in which to germinate. It has devised an ingenious method of doing so. The sporangium builds up hydrostatic pressure until it finally explodes, and “throws” the black "hat" spore case as far as ten feet. After landing on a blade of grass or a fresh leaf, it may possibly be devoured by a passing deer. If so, the spores will pass through the digestive tract of the deer, then be deposited in a fresh pile of scat. Spore germination occurs, and the cycle is complete.

But why does the hat-thrower go to such lengths to eject its spores? The reason for this is the following: deer, cattle and most mammals don’t like to browse near poop. By ejecting the spores far away, the probability of ingestion is increased. For the same reason, the fungal sporangia are phototropic, that is, the stalks orient themselves towards the sun. They only shoot their spores in the morning and evening when the sun is at an angle, which maximizes the distance they can achieve.

As if that isn’t weird enough:
Lungworms are parasites of various animals, and are commonly found in the lungs of deer. The adults can be as long as 3 inches. When the lungworms are ready to reproduce, they lay eggs in the lungs. When they hatch, the larvae infect the trachea and bronchi of the deer, causing a form of bronchitis. The deer cough up gobs of larva-containing phlegm and inevitably swallow some of it. The larvae are deposited in fresh dung where they feed and thrive. If the larvae are fortunate, the sporangia of Pilobolus will also be present in the dung. The larvae crawl up the stalk of the sporangium and curl up on the black spore case, awaiting lift off. As the spore case is ejected, the larvae get a free ride away from the dung pile. They are then ingested by a deer and enter the blood stream and lymphatics through the wall of the intestines. They then travel through the blood to be deposited in the lungs, to mature into the adult worms. These lungworms rely on Pilobolus to complete their life cycle. The fungus does not benefit and is not harmed by the association.

If you are ready for some more fungal-culture I would highly recommend this poem by Tom Volk.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Parasite of a Parasite

Honey mushroom

Mark Bower sent me these photos and facts which I have judiciously edited.

This honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea) can be found fruiting in large numbers at the base of hardwood trees in the Ozarks, exclusively in the fall (see photo). It is a parasite which attacks the roots and butt of the unfortunate tree. It also can spread under the bark of said tree or from tree to tree using rhizomorphs which look like tangled bootlaces.

Entoloma abortivum
Honey mushrooms aren’t the only parasites in the woods, however. The rather homely appearing mushroom to the right is called Entoloma abortivum. It ordinarily is a decomposing fungus of leaf litter. However, its mycelium are capable of parasitizing the honey mushroom, parasitizing another parasite. When it invades the honey mushroom, it grows into a distorted mess called shrimp of the woods (see photo).

"Shrimp of the woods"

Unbelievably, shrimp of the woods is considered a choice edible. Seriously? In addition to its homely appearance, it needs to be carefully identified to avoid poisoning by other lookalikes (as if there are others that are a less appalling / more appealing species.) As my mother used to say back in the 1940's, "There is no accounting for taste" said the woman as she kissed her cow!"

So now we have chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, shrimp of the woods and lobster mushrooms. What’s next? Mark has just identified this new species, the pig of the woods, Swinus silvae-bowerii.

Pig of the woods - Swinus arboritus bowerii

Editor's note: Actually, this is not a Missouri fungus.  Mark tells me this actually was Fistulina hepatica, the ox tongue fungus which he photographed in Tasmania. It was a young specimen and he added the features, like lipstick on a pig!

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Losing a Neighbor

This year's big windstorm took down several large trees in our subdivision.  I was saddened to lose this neighbor as it has provided oak acorns with acorn weevils to show WOLF students.  They are a good example of another small lifecycle that goes on around us unnoticed.

These Curculio sp. live out of sight.  When our Master Naturalist Buck Keagy was collecting acorns to plant hundreds of oaks in the past, he would dump them in a bucket of water and plant only those that sank, knowing that the floaters had weevils or were otherwise damaged. I do the opposite, throwing out the sinkers to find acorns likely housing weevils. You can read about their life cycle and the weevil wasp Cerceris halone that depends on them in this blog.

Estimating the tree's age based on its diameter at breast height, most tree sites would have called it around 110 years old.*  In this case, by tree ring count it was 90 years old. The difference is that urban trees that are watered regularly and in open sun grow large faster.

This giant broke off at the roots about 16" underground. Oaks in nature spend more of their energy in the first few years creating deep roots before t.heir growth spurt to height and diameter later.  My forester professor Jim Gulden supported my theory that its shallow root system likely came from frequent urban lawn watering.  If gets all that free water, why bother with deeper roots?

The only good news is that the trunk will be making someone good furniture. 

* Estimating a standing trees age is explained at this web site.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Dining Out


We recently looked out our patio sliding glass door and saw this juvenile Cooper's hawk sitting on our bench 6 feet from us.  It wasn't bothered by us, more intent on our bird feeders which had been hosting a bunch of English sparrows.

Cooper selecting dinner

With Barb's 90+ species of native plants in 1/10th of an acre backyard, we have a wide variety of food choices for birds. In addition to the seeds of flowers and shrubs, there are all the pollinators, butterflies, bees, beetles and other insect species climbing on the flower heads. This and our bird-feeders provides a cafeteria for birds ranging from hummers to bluejays and mockingbirds.  There are also chipmunks and skinks scurrying along the ground to catch the eye of our diligent hawk.

Cooper's are model fathers, building the nest, feeding the female while nesting and then bringing baby food for the nestlings before they fledge the next month. What is not to love about a daddy like that!

It's a bird-eat-bird world out there as seen in our neighbor Cyrus Taylor's backyard video of the Cooper's dining alfresco, munching and spitting out the feathers of an unknown bird.

We humans are the apex predator on our planet. Now we are faced with picking winners among the smaller species.  By taking down our bird feeder we may slightly lessen songbird mortality.  On the other hand, there are still the chipmunks and baby rabbits. A Cooper has a family to feed, hopefully choosing English sparrows. In the long run, it is still a bird-eat-bird world. 

More on Cooper's Hawks at this MDC Field Guide link.


An interesting side note, the name Cooper's Hawk is part of a debate in the birding world.  As described here, the American Ornithological Society is changing the names of several birds because the name is associated with Confederate officers and/or slave owners of the Civil War period.  Who was Cooper?

"He was an American naturalist born in 1798 and one of the original officers of The New York Academy of Sciences. He was a man of “exceeding modesty,” according to a written history of the academy. “Over cautious in naming new species, he generously permitted others to use his material and sometimes to gain the credit that might have been his.”

As one  member says, “I just find it a little bit excessive. It’s one thing to take down statues of Southern Civil War generals and outright racists,” he said.

It gets even more complicated.  The Audubon Society is named for John James Audubon, a well-known early American birdwatcher and a wildlife artist during the 1800s who created “The Birds of America,” a collection of 435 life-size prints of various bird species.  

"He also was a slave owner who opposed emancipation and was accused of academic fraud and plagiarism, stealing human remains and sending human skulls to “a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites,” according to the National Audubon Society." Sun Times

This is all part of a slippery slope, acknowledging our past society sins without totally ignoring the achievements of the "sinners".  To me, it raises the obvious question, "who is next?"

Monday, October 9, 2023

Pollinator Island

Sitting in our backyard reading, my mind wandered off to the aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) along the patio edge.  Watching it closely over 5 minutes I counted over 25 species of pollinators flitting from flower to flower, gathering food in an urban desert. These range from a bumblebee and several butterflies to assorted skippers, syrphid (flower) flies, and unidentifiable others down to 3-5 mm long.  This video shows only a few in action.

We are in a subdivision with close cropped lawns of turf grass and non-native plantings.  As I watch the show there is the roar of a lawn service next door running a commercial lawnmower larger that a small car trimming the neighbors turf grass lawn to a smooth 2" putting green with no insects surviving.

My wife, Barb, has planted over 90 species of native plants on our 0.10 acre backyard. Over several years we have watched a variety of new creatures move in, ranging from skinks, lizards and box turtles to baby rabbits, chipmunks and birds. Caterpillars and other insects also draw in excited neighborhood children.

Our backyard opens onto a street, prompting lots of stares and occasional visitors wanting information. You can sample it in this drone view.  There are lots of resources available to expand native plants in your yard. Springfield Yard Ethic has resources including advise, rebates and signage helping to explain your yard to neighbors and draw in two-legged visitors.

We would encourage you to consider native plants which are both beautiful, non-invasive and ecologically friendly.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Yellow Log

By our resident (amateur) mycologist, Mark Bower.

Click to enlarge

While hiking in the Bull Creek area I noticed a bright yellow log in the distance. I first thought it was a reflection of sunlight, but as I got closer, it was indeed yellow. I then thought that it may have been painted, but as I got closer, it was clear that this was a massive spore deposit.

My suspicion was confirmed when I poked it with my hiking stick and a strip of bark fell off. Underneath the bark were the telltale structures of Xanthoporia andersonii, the canker rot of oak.

This fungus is a polypore which is a pathogen of oaks and sometimes hickories. Its spores enter a living tree through an injury of a branch stub or sometimes the trunk. The spores germinate and form the fungal hyphae, which grow into and infect the heartwood, causing white rot (i.e., preferentially digests lignin). As the infection progresses, it extends outward and eventually reaches the cambium and kills the tree, sort of a natural girdling. It then forms its tubular fruiting bodies and the yellow spores are shed.

Interestingly, peg-like fungal outgrowths are formed, which push out against the bark, causing it to detach from the tree, allowing the spores to escape. The display is brief as this fungus is short-lived, quickly turning dark brown, then black, leaving a log which appears to have been burned.

This is just one more example of the tiny creatures that are all around us in nature when native species are allowed to pursue their own life cycles.