Sunday, March 28, 2010

How Fungi Can Save The World

A must for anyone who wants to understand the natural world is the TED lecture by Paul Stamets  entitled “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World."   It is 18 minutes that will change your view of the world beneath your feet.
Fungi don't get much attention unless your bread gets moldy or you get out and hike around in nature.  It is easy to forget that they occur all around us, and that the mushrooms we see are just the fruiting bodies of an extensive hidden network of hyphae making a quiet living while decomposing dead plant material.  The broad range of fungi's ability to decompose waste is under-appreciated by most of us.

After watching Stamets' lecture, you will want to check out his 6-minute video on this Youtube site.  He further expounds on the appetite of fungi for pollutants.  They are able to feed on oil, PCB's, dioxin and nasty toxins, reducing them to natural elements which are recycled into nature.  His short video lecture can be found at this .  It it, he demonstrates the conversion of toxic petroleum-soaked dirt into healthy soil, with the production of giant mushrooms as an intermediary step.
This should not be news to us.  Fungi are part of the reason that our forests are not littered with the trunks of the trees that have died over the last hundreds of years.  They are important for the health of many trees which could barely survive.   The association of fungi with plant roots, called Mycorrhizae, occurs in 90 % of plant species.  This symbiotic relationship means the trees can supply carbohydrates to the fungus.  In trade, the fungus makes otherwise unavailable demineralized phosphate ions available to the plants through their roots.
With encouragement, fungi may become more symbiotic with humans, cleaning up some of our man-made messes.   Take the time to watch Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.  It will lift your spirits.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Prairie Bioblitz

Penn-Sylvania Prairie BioBlitz, Picnic and Campout is scheduled for Saturday, May 29, 2010.  It is open to the public and is sponsored by the Missouri Prairie Foundation, our partnering organization.
So what is a BioBlitz? In the words of National Geographic, 
A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible. 
A BioBlitz gives adults, kids, and teens the opportunity to join biologists in the field and participate in bona fide research expeditions. It's a fun and exciting way to learn about the biological diversity of local parks and to better understand how to protect them.
Take part in intensive nature study with experts on mammals, amphibians, reptiles, bees, butterflies, moths, plants, soils, snails and more, and help inventory species on this 160-acre prairie owned by MPF in Dade County. The event begins at 2 p.m. and lasts until the next morning for some species. After a potluck picnic dinner, amateur astronomer Dan Zarlenga will set up his telescope and interpret the night sky. Great for families, teachers and nature lovers of all ages!
RSVP to or call 1-888-843-6739. To learn more about MPF, visit 90 minutes West of Springfield.  Take Hwy. 160 West to Hwy 97, North approx. 9 miles, then West on Hwy E 2 miles and left on a dirt road 1/2 mile.
All the details are at this Missouri Master Naturalist site.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Worlds Strongest Insect

Here is the answer to a question that has been concerning me for years.  Just what is the strongest animal in the world?  For the insect world at least, you will be happy to know the answer is Onthophagus taurus.  Still not sure what that is?  This bug works out by pushing dung- its a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.  The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, as reported by
The beetle, called Onthophagus taurus, was found to be able to pull a whopping 1,141 times its own body weight, which is the equivalent of a 150-pound (70 kilogram) person lifting six full double-decker buses. While the study researcher knows of a mite that can take on a hair more, that organism is an arachnid, not an insect.
The beetles aren't the dung-ball-carrying variety, and instead the females bury most of the fecal material (with a little help from males) from, say, cow droppings.
The females build little tunnels where they use the dung to lay their eggs in. It's in this tunnel where mating, and the pre-mating fights between waiting males, takes place. But not all males are equipped for battle, with some sporting horns and others hornless. The no-horn beetles instead wait at the tunnel's entrance, sometimes hiding out in self-built side tunnels, and sneak in to mate before getting caught by a horned male. The horned males, on the other hand, duke it out head-to-head.
"Their horns kind of meet on the shoulders, and they push each other backward and forward, and the guy being pushed will brace when pushed in the tunnel," Rob Knell from Queen Mary, University of London told LiveScience. Obviously, a story like this is crying for a Youtube video, so here it is in the PG-13 version.

So how do you test an insect's strength.  Bench pressing and push-ups are pretty much out of the question.  One method is determining the load it can pull.
In the study, Knell and Leigh Simmons from the University of Western Australia set up a similar fighting scenario. But first they fed the horned beetles a good diet, poor diet or no food at all.
To test strength, the researchers attached a cotton thread to the rear of each beetle participant, before letting the insect walk into a tiny tunnel created in the lab. Once in the tunnel, the beetle got a tug from the researchers pulling on its little leash. The pulling caused the beetle to brace its legs against the tunnel in a manner similar to that used when fighting.
The beetles with horns, also called major males, that were fed good food got much stronger when fed compared with those not fed. The hornless males on a good-food diet, however, grew much more massive testes without showing the surge in strength.
Here's the likely reason: "The little males don't fight at all, but when they get to mate with a female, they only get to mate with her once," Knell said. "She's also mating with one of the guard males [that guards the tunnel]. So the small male has to invest in testes mass so he can inseminate the female with as much sperm as possible."
The results of this study have implications for the understanding of evolution.  This and more can be found at this link.  There is good evidence that a strong population of dung beetles burying cattle dung produces richer soil than other methods without requiring a much fertilizer.  They not only bury the dung in the soil but by tunneling down, they aerate the soil.  To dig deeper in the story (sorry) read this fascinating article.
Finally, this story has implications here in Missouri, as described in the Missouri Conservationist.
Tumble bugs, or dung beetles, do appear to have declined in Missouri and elsewhere. There are several likely causes for the decline. These include the use of fly and intestinal parasite control chemicals on cattle, which pass through their system and can make their dung toxic to insects. The popularity today of cool-season grass pastures can lead to drier and more compacted soils that are less hospitable to digging insects (dung beetles bury their dung balls to provide food for their young). As we manage more native prairies using grazing cattle, dung beetles are becoming more common on those sites. They provide many benefits, such as controlling insect pests, nutrient recycling and improving soil structure. For more information, visit:

There are now chemical companies producing products to protect cows from flies without harming the dung beetle population.  The Beatles- "We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Land Snail

 Like Rodney Dangerfield, the snail underfoot gets no respect.  Its mollusk cousin,  the octopus, has an interesting life, can morph into calamari in your pasta and lives in salt water.  Its brother mollusk, the slug, is generally reviled and doesn't do well with salt at all.  Snails- when we think of them at all- are usually as escargot in an expensive restaurant.  
James gave the huffle of a snail in danger,
And nobody heard him at all.
                                           --A.A. Milne
The "huffle of a snail in danger" has always been a favorite in our family, used to describe the frustration and impotence we feel with many political and environmental issues.  But what would cause a snail to huffle?  The environment, for one.
As pointed out in today's News-Leader MDC article, "Most snails feed mainly on dead plant matter and fungi. A few species feed on live plant material, and one is a carnivore that feeds on other snails. Gastropods have a rasping tongue, called a radula, that is coated with small teeth-like protrusions. The in-and-out motions of the radula help the snail scrape food into their mouths."
The rasping tongue scrapes food off solid surfaces such as rocks and- significantly- pavement.  This habit has been used in European environmental studies because the snails store up heavy metals such as cadmium.  By putting caged snails at various locations for defined periods, researchers can collect comparative data on heavy metal levels on roads and thus compare surface pollution rates.  Unfortunately, this same feeding strategy has lead to a decline in snail populations from pollution of their natural habitats.
The article goes on to point out their interesting sex life.
Most Missouri land snails are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both male and female components. Some species participate in a unique mating process that includes each snail shooting a dart-like spike (R-rated article) into its mate. Some believe this unusual behavior, which was documented as early as the time of the ancient Greeks, led to the creation of the myth of Cupid — the small cherub who creates love by shooting arrows into people's hearts. Each snail will lay up to 100 eggs in the top level of the soil. The eggs hatch in two to four weeks of favorable weather. Snails may lay eggs as often as once a month throughout the summer. Snails go into periods of dormancy in winter and can also become dormant during dry periods in the summer.
 For more on what eats snails and what snails eat, go to Land Snail Ecology or Wikipedia.  And to improve your mind, read this classic, Four Friends by A. A. Milne.
Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
  Leonard was a lion with a six-foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
       And James was a very small snail.

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,
  Ernest had a manger, and its walls were thick,
George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,
       And James sat down on a brick.

Ernest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,
  Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,
James gave the huffle of a snail in danger
       And nobody heard him at all.

Ernest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,
  Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,
James went a journey with the goat's new compass
       And he reached the end of his brick.

Ernest was an elephant and very well-intentioned
  Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,
George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,
       But James was only a snail.

Bad News for Bees

The ongoing story of colony collapse of bees isn't getting any better.  According to a CBS News story, a federal survey indicates a heavy bee die-off this winter.  Two federal agencies along with regulators in California and Canada are scrambling to figure out what is behind this relatively recent threat, ordering new research on pesticides used in fields and orchards. Federal courts are even weighing in this month, ruling that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overlooked a requirement when allowing a pesticide on the market.
Although bees have been declining over decades from various causes. But in 2006 a new concern, "colony collapse disorder," was blamed for large, inexplicable die-offs. The disorder, which causes adult bees to abandon their hives and fly off to die, is likely a combination of many causes, including parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition and pesticides, experts say.
This year bees seem to be in bigger trouble than normal after a bad winter, according to an informal survey of commercial bee brokers cited in an internal USDA document. One-third of those surveyed had trouble finding enough hives to pollinate California's blossoming nut trees, which grow the bulk of the world's almonds. A more formal survey will be done in April.
A scientific study which you can read at, the online scientific journal  of the PLOS (Public Library of Science) found about three out of every five pollen and wax samples from 23 states had at least one systemic pesticide - a chemical designed to spread throughout all parts of a plant.
Although there is no known risk of eating the honey, this indicates the scope of the problem a hive of bees faces in surviving and successfully pollinating our plants.  None of the chemicals themselves were at high enough levels to kill bees, but it was the combination and variety of them that is worrisome.
It is important to remember that one-third of the foods we eat are dependent on pollination by honeybees, spanning the gamut "from apples to zucchini."  While it is easy to blame pesticide manufacturers, it is important to understand that much of the productivity of farmers and orchard keepers depends on controlling pests which damage crops.  Certainly any of us who have watched Japanese beetles attack a garden can become overwhelmed with pesticidal urges.
There is more information on the pesticide debate in the CBS News story.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Earth Hour March 27th

On Saturday, March 27, at 8:30 p.m., hundreds of millions of people around the world will turn off their lights for one hour – Earth Hour. State and local governments, schools, organizations, businesses and individuals will unite by turning out the lights on pollution and climate change. In the United States , Earth Hour will send a message that by working together we can create a cleaner, safer, and more secure future.
Twenty-three Official Earth Hour States will be participating including Missouri.  Governors’ residences and state capitol buildings will go dark as state governments make a statement to fight pollution and climate change during Earth Hour. Official Earth Hour States will show they care about our country, our planet, and our future.
Participating Landmarks
• Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco , CA

• Empire State Building – New York , NY

• Mount Rushmore – Keystone, SD

• Space Needle – Seattle , WA

• National Cathedral – Washington , DC

• Gateway Arch – St. Louis , MO

• The Las Vegas Strip – Las Vegas , NV

• Duluth Aerial Bridge - Duluth , MN

Watch this video to experience the magnitude of Earth Hour.
You can also visit and contact EarthHourStates@ for state participation and authorization.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Searching the Woods

We have a great new challenge for those of you who want to explore for a rare plant.  A new shrub has been described in Missouri and Susan Farrington, Plant Community Ecologist for MDC needs you!
The shrub is closely related to our common leatherwood (Dirca palustris), which is scattered throughout much of Missouri, but is not particularly common anywhere. It is usually found in low woods along creeks and streams. The new species of leatherwood, Dirca decipiens, may also be found in these habitats, but is thought to occur more on higher north-facing bluffs overlooking creeks and rivers.  Leatherwood is one of the first shrubs to bloom (along with spicebush), and should be starting this week in the southern part of the state, and within the next 2 weeks further north.
The two are not that easy to tell apart: to see photos and descriptions of both, Download this PDF.
What you can do:
  1. Keep an eye out for ANY leatherwood.  Record the location (GPS if possible), the habitat, the date.
  2. If you are on MDC land, without an MDC employee, you should just note the location and hopefully take some good pictures of the flower. 
  3. If you are on private land and have the landowners permission, collect a small (6” or so) twig with flowers or fruit.  Press the twig in newspapers under heavy books, or in a big phone book. Record the location (GPS if possible), the habitat, the date, and please get the specimens to Malissa Underwood or your local botanist or natural history biologist or George Yatskievych at the Missouri Botanical Garden (NHB’s: please forward specimens to Malissa or George Y).
If  you  are on private land, you need the landowner’s permission to collect a specimen.  If you are on MDC land, without an MDC employee, you should just note the location and hopefully take some good pictures of the flower.  Then contact Malissa Underwood, MDC State Botanist,, or the area manager, and if a voucher specimen is needed, an employee can collect it. 
What a great way to get out of doors in the sun, rain sleet, etc.!

White-Nose Syndrome Fungus

Lots more details and pictures are at if you click on the Geomyces destructans button.

Tom Volk’s Fungi is an academic web site with information on many advanced aspects of mycology.  Not all is heavy science and I, and maybe you, can lose a lot of time browsing it.  I will be posting his writings on Holiday Fungi as the seasons come around.  Robert Anderson describes the site in further detail in Natural History Magazine.  To quote him:
His entry for April of 2008, Profollias downhoki, is billed as the missing link between fungi and plants. Surprisingly, this fungus, the first known to photosynthesize, was discovered in the moist pouches of kangaroos. 
Volk himself is a direct beneficiary of a fungus: having had a heart transplant, he has been protected from rejection of the new organ by cyclosporine. That is an immunosuppressant derived from the from the Cordyceps subsessilis, which is the June 2006 fungus of the month.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Internet Threatens Endangered Species

The rapid exchange of ideas and information on the Internet has become an important tool in communicating the threats to nature by modern society.  Now we are faced with a harmful side-effect.  Yahoo News
reports the following from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES meeting in Qatar.
The Internet has emerged as one of the greatest threats to rare species, fueling the illegal wildlife trade and making it easier to buy everything from live baby lions to wine made from tiger bones, conservationists said Sunday.
The Web's impact was made clear at the meeting of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. Delegates voted overwhelmingly Sunday to ban the trade of the Kaiser's spotted newt, which the World Wildlife Fund says has been devastated by the Internet trade.
A proposal from the United States and Sweden to regulate the trade in red and pink coral — which is crafted into expensive jewelry and sold extensively on the Web — was defeated. Delegates voted the idea down mostly over concerns the increased regulations might impact poor fishing communities.
The newt is a textbook example of what can happen to one species through trade on the web. According to a study by the WWF, the black and brown salamander with white spots is coveted in the pet trade. Number only around 1,000, about 200 annually are being traded over the years, mostly through a web site that was operated out Ukraine.
"The Internet itself isn't the threat, but it's another way to market the product," said Ernie Cooper, who spearhead the investigation into the newt for TRAFFIC Canada. "The Kaiser's spotted newt, for example, is expensive and most people are not willing to pay $300 for a salamander. But through the power of the Internet, tapping into global market, you can find buyers."
The whole story is at Yahoo News.

Getting the Kids to Leave Home

The successful propagation of any species requires dispersal- getting the kids to settle away from home, preferably a long way away.  The closer they live to you, the more food, drink and living space you have to share.  Your own success-think retirement-can be jeopardized if you run out of these resources.
Animals that nurture their young eventually encourage their young to move away to find their own food sources, dens, etc.  The boys have to travel to find a mate. In some insect species, hanging around too long may get you eaten by mom.
Plants have kids that can't move, once they have rooted, but they have evolved a number of ways to disperse their seeds long before they become teenagers.  Seeds may be spread by the wind (dandelion, winged maple seeds) or animals which eat the fruit and spread the seeds in their waste.  Plants such as the touch-me-not have even developed a catapult system for tossing their seeds away from the parent plant.  (see the February 8, 2010 entry)
The ferns and fungi seldom have these options.  Their spores require the wind to spread them over distant and hopefully fertile territory.  Once airborne, fungal spores infinitesimally small weight allows them to travel at high altitudes, possibly circumnavigating the globe before settling down to establish a new home.  However, leaving their mom (indelicately referred to as a "fruiting body") usually means a short fall from the gills under the mushroom to the ground under the cap, not an atmosphere known for breezes.
A field mushroom improves its odds by manic seeding, producing 16 billion spores that are released at a rate of 100 million an hour.  Some fungi have evolved methods to disperse spores a few inches higher, improving their odds of picking up a favorable breeze.   Puffball mushrooms launch their spores upward into the air when the fruiting body is pressed by a raindrop or the foot of an animal.  (See picture- Note cloud from Earth Star).  Recent research has identified ways some plants have developed to launch their spores.  Gibberella zeae, a fungal pathogen of wheat is currently the reigning champion in acceleration.  By producing chemicals that create high osmotic pressure in the cells, it is able to accelerate the spores to 870,000 times the acceleration of gravity, reaching 80 miles per hour.  This translates to traveling 2,000,000 spore lengths per second.  They are shot into the air to an amazing altitude of -are you ready for this?- quarter of an inch.  (Remember, they are infinitesimally light weight and therefore are rapidly stopped by the air pressure.)
There is a lot more detail available in this Natural History Magazine article.  However, none of it will help you to get the kids to move out on their own.

Native Tree Give-away

On Saturday, March 20, Springfield Plateau Master Naturalists Darrell and Pat Blech, Karolyn Holdren, Buck Keagy, Allan Keller, Larry Maggard, and Bob Ranney worked with MDC's Urban Forester Cindy Garner and Battlefield City Manager Rick Hess at Battlefield's Native Tree Give-away.

In about four hours, the group packaged and gave Battlefield residents about 120 native plants.  Recipients chose between Redbud, Dogwood, Washington Hawthorn and River Birch trees and Ozark Witch Hazel, Aromatic Sumac, Deciduous Holly and Ninebark shrubs.

The goal was to provide Ozark native plants to neighborhoods pretty much devoid of vegetation other than grass, and it appears to be an initial success.  Recipients received information from Cindy as to how and where to plant their new trees and all seemed very pleased with the whole process.

Mr. Hess was happy, too, and at the end of the day was busy making plans for future native plant events - one of which will be to offer free trees to people who attend the opening night of this year's Battlefield farmer's market on the city hall parking lot.  That will be the first Friday in May.  Come join us.  Check out the market and help yourself to free native trees and shrubs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Earlier Butterfly Emergence

Common Brown butterfly (Heteronympha merope). (Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Researchers in Melbourne, Australia have evidence linking earlier butterfly emergence to climate change. The report in Science daily linked observational data with laboratory data on the Common Brown butterfly (Heteronympha merope).
"Butterflies are emerging in spring over 10 days earlier than they did 65 years ago, a shift that has been linked to regional human-induced climate change in a University of Melbourne- led study. The work reveals, for the first time, a causal link between increasing greenhouse gases, regional warming and the change in timing of a natural event".
"The team raised caterpillars of the Common Brown Butterfly in the laboratory to measure the physiological impact of temperature on its rate of development. They used this information to model the effect of observed historical climate trends in Melbourne on the speed of the butterfly's development. They combined this with global climate model outputs for the Melbourne area over the same period to examine whether natural climate variability or human influence on climate was more likely to have caused the air temperature change seen in Melbourne."
You can read the whole story at Science Daily.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Persistance Pays

Sandy Nelson's Ozark Naturalist's Journal has several examples of the value of persistence.  She describes finding an egg case and bringing it into the house to observe.  I can speak from experience that the odds of being there at the time of delivery are very long, much greater than those of it starting to smell and my wife eventually pitching it out.  Not only was Sandy there, but she was able to record the event with her video camera.
If you check her story Persistence and Procrastination, you will be able to see the story yourself.  Click on "Persistence", then again on "Persistence" on the reply page it opens.  Your persistence will be rewarded with the birthing of a praying mantis from an egg case similar to the one Buck brought to the MN meeting Monday.  You will want to reach into the video to give the little bugger a hand!

The story below that one demonstrates another form of persistence, that which is required to identify an unfamiliar bug.  Rolling over a log, she found and photographed (see below) a beautiful (in the eyes of its mother?) Augochlora Green Metallic Bee.  Now I am sure that some of you would have recognized it immediately, but it would have taken me a long time to even identify what family to put it in.  She describes her search, rewarded by noticing its hairy legs.  For more information on her search, head to her blog at
 This bee belongs to the family Halictidae in the order Hymenoptera, a group that are commonly called "sweat bees", as they are attracted to our- guess what?- soft drinks on the deck.  (I guess we better change brands if they think it smells like perspiration.)   There is a lot more to learn about these bees, including some of the Halictidae family's tendency toward  cleptoparasitism at this Wikipedia article.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Shrub Transfer Survivors

A group of Master Naturalists just survived the annual transfer of native shrubs for area schools.  This is traditionally scheduled on the most cold and blustery day of "Spring", and Jay really outdid himself this time.  Note the blue lips and frostbitten noses.
Shrubs are provided annually to area schools for outdoor classroom shrub gardens.  Students learn about native shrubs as well how to plant and care for them.  The gardens also create habitat for insects and birds, another opportunity to learn about nature. 
After 575 shrubs, the survivors gathered for a group picture.  The brave souls pictured below are not smiling- their teeth are chattering too much for that.  They include Buck Keagy (leaning on the shovel as usual), Carl Haworth, Jay Barber, Bob Ranney, Mort Shurtz, Nancy and Hammons Schanda, Pat and Darrel Blech, and Barbara and Bob Kipfer.
And, a big Master Naturalist congratulations for Jim Barber's induction to the National Honor Society.  Jay and Judy must had done something right as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fruit of the Mastodons

Mike Skinner of Missouri Department of Conservation sent me an interesting article by Whit Bronaugh from American Forests magazine.  It reviews the possible answer to burning questions you  have frequently asked yourself.  "Why did honey locust trees develop thorns and why are Osage Orange fruit (hedge apples)  so large?"
Up until the end of the last ice age, megafauna roamed North America down to Central America.  These included the 9 ton Columbian Mammoth, 6 ton mastidons, 600 pound armadillos, and ground sloths weighing up to 3 tons.  The last of these disappeared from the fossil record just 13,000 years ago, an instant in the life of the earth.
Their extinction has been attributed to over hunting, climate change and loss of food.  The American Forest article points out that they had a bad habit of disappearing around the time of human arrival, be it West Indies about 6,000 years ago or Australia 50,000 years ago. We know that humans hunted them.  The first evidence of this was finding a Clovis point in mastodon bones at Mastodon State Park south of St. Louis.
Thorn trees such as honey locust and hawthorn presumably had a good reason to expend the energy to produce these protective spikes.  Likewise Osage Orange grow large fruit which is shunned by most animals.  It would be of no value in spreading the species unless something large ate it and spread the seeds in fecal deposits.  The current theory is that megafauna were the answer.  If this is true, why haven't the thorns and hedge apples disappeared, since they would no longer be of value. The answer in the words of Whit Bronaugh:
It’s true that such adaptations are now anachronistic; they have lost their relevance. But the trees have been slow to catch on; a natural consequence of the pace of evolution. For a tree that lives, say, 250 years, 13,000 years represents only 52 generations.  In an evolutionary sense, the trees don’t yet realize that the megafauna are gone.
The first Americans could not have known they were causing extinctions, and they could not have understood the implications. But we no longer have such an excuse. As Aldo Leopold has advised, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.” We have tinkered, lost some of the most important pieces, and tried to put many where they don’t belong. That we will continue to tinker there is no doubt. Everything will depend on how intelligently we do it. And that will depend, in part, on our ability to see the ghosts that haunt our trees.
All this and much more can be found at this The Trees that Miss the Mammoths link.  For more on megafauna of Missouri try this MDC site.

Are Grasses Sexy?

Grasses, as viewed from a modern perspective, are not very sexy.  Their value increases when they are viewed in a monoculture, appear lush and green, and are consistently cut to a smooth surface. The desire to trim acres of grass around a dwelling is known in our family as OCMD (Obsessive Compulsive Mowing Disorder).
Wildlife in general doesn't thrive in the monotony we call a well trimmed lawn.  Certainly there are exceptions.  Grubs seem to thrive there, and are followed by moles and sporadically by an invasive armored mammal known as Texas speed bumps or armadillos.  Some flowers have the audacity to expand in the sunlight exposed by mowing, thriving until attacked. These are addressed with the derisive term of dandelions.
Birds such as robins enjoy the easy foot travel over the smooth surface.  The development of lawns and their close kin, golf courses, have encouraged cowbirds to expand their range to the entire continental United States, no longer tied to the fate of the buffalo and its replacement, cattle.  Cowbird's spread exposed a wide range of birds to their predatory nesting habits.  All this will be saved for a future rant.
So why has Olivia Judson in the New York Times nominated them for plant of the month?  Well we wouldn't be "us" if it weren't for grasses.  Considering the following.
More than fifty percent of our diet comes directly from grasses such as wheat, rye, maize, sugar cane and barley.  And we haven't even talked about meat.  As a carnivore in Missouri, I am dependent on grass burners such as cows and chickens.  I would never make it on catfish and tilapia alone.
It is unlikely that we would have ever developed a civilization (such as it is) without grass.  Until we domesticated grass, we were dependent on hunting and gathering which required constant movement.  Planting and harvesting grasses allowed us to develop cities, a way of life that evolved into lawn mowers and golf!
Judson's article Evolution by the Grassroots should be  required reading to understand the evolution of grass, and as a byproduct, humans.  I will save my cowbird rant for later.  Remember, no grasses means no bread or beer.  Maybe they are sexy after all.
Olivia Judson writes a column in the New York Times.  She is the author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of SEX, which is quite sexy if you are a bird or insect, but is a great read for humans.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chronic Wasting Disease in Deer

A frequent question that comes up to those of us who eat venison is "What about that disease?"  They are referring to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) which has been reported in a dozen states and two Canadian provinces.  Somewhat similar to a bovine spongiform encephalopathy, sometimes called “mad cow disease", it has recently been found in a captive deer at a Linn County farm, the first case in Missouri.
“With the assistance of hunters, the Missouri Department of Conservation has tested more than 24,000 free-ranging deer for CWD from all portions of the state since 2002 with no cases found,” said Bob Pierce, University of Missouri Extension wildlife specialist.  "There has been no evidence of CWD transmission to humans or livestock."
  To be extra cautious, hunters should not harvest sick appearing animals and avoid cutting through bone and not handle the brain or spinal tissues.  Only muscle tissues should be eaten, avoiding brain, eyes, spleen and lymphnodes and other selected organs.  Details are available at

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Biologging in the Oceans

This from Science Daily on developments in the field of Biologging.
Biologging -- the use of miniaturized electronic tags to track animals in the wild -- has revealed previously unknown and suprising behaviors, movements, physiology and environmental preferences of a wide variety of ocean animals. For instance, biologgers have recorded 5,000 foot (1,550 m) dives by Atlantic bluefin tuna, followed journeys of elephant seals halfway across the Pacific from their breeding beaches, and observed annual 40,000 mile migrations of sooty shearwaters -- the longest recorded for any animal. Biologging science is showing researchers how animals work in the furthest reaches of the ocean environs and is advancing both basic and applied research.
The technique is being used in new and exciting ways to determine marine and bird behavior.  Three-dimensional tags can be used to identify mating events in free-living nurse sharks as well as study the beak movements of loggerhead turtles.  Other techniques allow the measurement of vital signs such as body temperature, oxygen utilization and heart rate.
Another use is referred to as "Animals as ocean sensors."  "Elephant seals, for example, can sample the water column up to 60 times per day, reaching depths of 1000 m or more under their own power, across broad expanses of the ocean that are difficult to reach by ship or other conventional means."
The whole report is available at Science Daily.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bear Sightings

In the Spring, a young bears fancy turn to thoughts of ... FOOD!  Having gorged last fall to fatten up for winter dormancy, they haven't eaten since, except some snacking on occasional warm winter days. Now they are coming out for their spring banquet.
Females involved in hanky-panky last May and June may have forgotten about it when they crawled into their winter den.  Eggs fertilized at that time remained dormant until the start of hibernation when they are finally implanted in the uterus and start to grow.  The fetus is still less than an inch long in December and at birth cubs are nine inches long. 
In northern climes, birth may occur during the sows sleep.  It is interesting to speculate about their reaction, awakening to find newborn cubs beside them, born toothless and blind.
They require lots of mothering in the first few months including protecting them from danger.  Wild Mammals of Missouri cites an example of a mother moving her den over two miles, carrying each cub in her mouth.  It is no wonder that a mother bear can become a danger to humans when we come too near to the cubs. 
Bear encounters are becoming more common in the Ozarks.  Ten years ago a bear sighting was big news.  Last year, a few miles from Bull Creek, one neighbor identified nine different bears in a season.  The population seems to be growing as campers leave food remains in their campfire and people even feed the bears to get pictures.
This really represents the return of bears to their native territory.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft toured southern Missouri in 1818 and his journal is full of references to bear sightings.  Schoolcraft's complete journal is available on line and regularly describes bear hunting, eating bear bacon and the high regard hunters held for bears as trade goods.   Francis Skalicky's News-Leader article discusses the decline in Missouri bear population to near extinction in the 19th century and its recent recovery.
There is a lot of good information on preventing bear nuisance problems at this MDC web site.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Butting Bees say "Stop"

 You may be aware of the dance that honey bees do in the hive to tell their friends about a new food source.  What if there is bad news, such as a predator hanging around?  How about a good head butt!
The bee's distinctive waggle dance transmits information about food resources to hive mates.  It was previously observed that a peculiar "stop" signal would end the dance for recruitment of food.  New research shows the sign is a vibrating signal of a tenth of a second, delivered by the sender by butting her head against another bee or sometimes mounting it.
James Nieh of the University of California at San Diego found that found that the signal could be triggered by an attack from competitors or simulated predators.  The greater the danger, the more stop signals the bee would transmit.  Indeed, when researchers pinched the bees legs, the bee stop signals increased 88 fold over a simple threat of competition. 
Honey bee colonies are referred to as "Superorganisms", as defined in Wikipedia.
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labor is highly specialized and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time.  Ants are the best-known example of such a superorganism
Nieh says, "This is only the second example of a negative feedback signal ever found in a superorganism and is perhaps the most sophisticated example known to date".  The research is published in the journal Current Biology, and the story with pictures is available at this National Geographic link.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Many Polluters Escape Prosecution

Thanks to Allan Keller for sending out the following "bad news".  According to the New York Times, E.P.A. lawyers are having to shut down clean Water programs in some states.

Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators.
The court rulings causing these problems focused on language in the Clean Water Act that limited it to “the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters” of the United States. For decades, “navigable waters” was broadly interpreted by regulators to include many large wetlands and streams that connected to major rivers.
But the two decisions suggested that waterways that are entirely within one state, creeks that sometimes go dry, and lakes unconnected to larger water systems may not be “navigable waters” and are therefore not covered by the act — even though pollution from such waterways can make its way into sources of drinking water.
 The whole story is at This New York Times site.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Corpse Plant

For those of you who don't get the News-Leader, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity coming up any day.  The rare Amorphophallus titanum -- commonly known as the corpse plant for its horrible stench when blooming -- is now on display at the Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park.  It has reached a height of 53 inches and 27.5 inches in diameter.  There are only a few of these in the United States and they only bloom for 48 hours every 10 years or so. 
 It is available daily for viewing, and when it blooms its single gigantic flower you will have only a brief time to view it.  Seeing it is a must but bring your own clothes pins.  All the information is at this link.

Guide to Bird Names

Kevin McGowan has written a very entertaining article on how to pronounce certain bird names.  If you are like me and are frequently being corrected by Charley Burwick (not to be confused with Bewick of wren/swan fame), this article is for you.  Who knew that Robin isn't pronounced row-bin outside of Christian County.
Below is an extract from his article Dr. Language Person's Guide to Bird Name Pronunciation, which is written with apologies to Dave Barry.

If you're a beginning birder, you might be afraid of embarrassing yourself in front of other, more experienced birders by choosing the wrong pronunciation. Well you should be; we birders are a pretty snotty lot, never afraid to snigger at a novice's mistakes. No, that's not true. Actually, we're very nice and helpful. But, never fear, Dr. Language Person is here to set you straight about these nagging doubts. I will give you the definitive pronunciations of the most commonly mispronounced birds, as well as some others that you never thought about mispronouncing, just to make you self-conscious so that you'll make more mistakes, HAH-HAH! No, wait. In keeping with the scholarly tone of this fine publication, I will give you the information as I see it, and then you can make your own decisions.
The rest of the fun is at this website.