Saturday, February 26, 2011


I have been reading about slime recently.  The very word slime brings images of Ghost Busters and teenage awards shows, a material which is gross, disgusting, and yucky, in other words downright "slimy". This slime isn't from slugs and fish scales but the slime that made possible life as we know it.
Bacterial Mat- Yellowstone  Wikimedia

The migration of life from water to land 350 million years ago was only made possible by the development of surfaces for plants to grow upon. Without plants there was no reason for animals to come ashore. The question is how how did the rocks develop into soil, and the answer appears to be slime, also known as Biofilm.

In The Slime that Saves the Planet, Eric Sorensen describes current research into slime. "Biofilm forms a super-thin layer gluing the roots of plants to mineral surfaces and serves as a reactor in which a plant can break down the rock for vital nutrients." Plants absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide, it forms carbonic acid which dissolves minerals, forming the carbonates which form calcium carbonate and other compounds as well as creating habitat and nutrients for the animals which followed them ashore.

Biofilm is an important factor in the conversion of rock to life and visa-versa that we wrote about in a  previous blog.  Research is now attempting to understand how biofilms both build and store nutrients.  These lessons could be the basis for agriculture requiring far fewer of the current fertilizers whose production requires so much of fossil fuel.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Endangered Species for Sale

Decurrent False Aster $3.00 online
NPR ran a story on the availability of endangered plant species for sale on the web.  A study in the journal Nature reported that 10% of the plants advertised online were endangered species.  Many were even offering to ship the plants between states without a permit, a violation of federal law. 

In a strange quirk in our legal codes, it is illegal to sell endangered animals, but not plants.  This is because of English common law which held that you owned what was on your land but the animals belonged to the King.

Initially the idea of buying these plants might seem like a good idea.  The risks occur when they are moved to another area where they may transmit unique plant diseases.  There is even the possibility that they would thrive in a new environment and become invasive with time.

Decurrent False Aster is an endangered plant which inhabits wetlands.  Previously wide spread in Missouri wetlands, it is only known to occur in St. Charles County now.*  "Decurrent false aster is closely related to Boltonia asteroides var. recognita, which is a common weedy species of false aster."  You can buy 2000 seeds for $3.00 at Amazon.

Life only gets more complex with time.  Editor's note- I wonder what percent of plants offered online are invasive species.

* Missouri Department of Conservation
Thanks to Marlyss Simmons for the story.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Romantic Skunks

Striped Skunk- Wikimedia
I would nominate the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) as the symbol of Valentine's Day.  The MDC nature calendar always warns us that they will be out looking for mates around that time.  Either the changes of weather drive them or they look at the MDC calendar for instructions.

We saw nine skunks who had given their all for love along the roadsides on the way back from Bull Creek with three along one mile alone.  Francis Skalicky's article in the News-Leader on February 16th mentions that they are also looking for dens to raise their young so it is no wonder that they are traveling the roadsides.
Setting aside their tendency to raise a stink, they are beneficial over all.
"In addition to grubs, one of their favorite foods, skunks also consume large numbers of mice, rats, moles, shrews and other small mammals that can be problems for people. A dietary evaluation of a skunk's feeding habits shows about 68 percent of its diet is beneficial to humans, 27 percent is neutral and only about five percent is harmful."
Skunks give plenty of warning when they get riled up, stamping their feet, clicking their teeth and raising their tail.  I had always heard that you were safe if they were facing you, but Francis says that they can spray to either side and even in front.  Also, be warned that they have a range of up to 16 feet and a repeater, good for 5-6 rounds. *
Perfume manufacturers no longer use skunk oil to enhance the time their odor lingers (and a thousand skunks sigh in relief).

* Wikipedia
mephitis is Latin for ‘noxious exhalation.’  Mephitis mephitis must mean doubly noxious.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cardinals are Red, Right?

Click to Enlarge
It would be much easier to Photoshop a cardinal yellow that to wait for the chance to see and photograph one.  That is why these pictures  are so remarkable.

These pictures were taken by David and Marilyn Gourley who feed birds in their backyard but are not birders.  A posting from the Kentucky Ornithological Society describes the pictures taken in Boyle County, KY in January.

Geoff Hill of Auburn University has published a paper, available in PDF,  based on a yellow Northern Cardinal which is in the collection at LSU.  Their specimen "lacked all four of the typical red pigments, and produced alternate unique pigments.  This mutation apparently occurs randomly and is extremely rare."

Hill says, "The mutation is associated with fitness costs so it doesn't spread in areas."  You might also wonder if the cardinal is able to find a mate, with all the females saying "are you going to wear that to the feeder tonight?"

Sent to me by George Deatz of Friends of the Garden.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spring, Briefly

Spring was here - really!  We had guaranteed signs Friday on the trails above Bull Creek.  The snow had melted and we were out in short sleeved shirts enjoying the sun, but more important was the awakening of spring creatures. 

First there was the fluttering dark brown butterfly with yellow outlining its trailing wing edges.  The Mourning Cloak butterflies were out, scouting for food and love, not necessarily in that order.  They have been nestled under the bark of trees all winter, dreaming of the spring.  It doesn't sound cozy to us, but it seems to work for them.

Like Goatweed Leafwings and anglewings (Commas and Questionmarks), they are driven by genetic forces beyond their control to spend the winter as adults, hiding under the loose bark of trees.  The call of the first warm day was irresistible and they flew frenetically, seldom bothering to land. Today we awakened to find the sky overcast and the winds blustery, forcing them to seek shelter again.  We can snuggle up to the fire but they are back in their lonely solitude until the next warm spell.

Several more curves in the trail led us to the pond that was covered in ice four days ago.  Now we could hear the insistent chirping of Spring Peepers.  There were only a few voices now, awaiting the recruitment of the chorus we will hear in a few weeks.  This pond is on a rocky hillside a hundred feet above the creek with no other source of water except runoff from the rocky slopes.  How they got here originally remains a mystery but they seem to enjoy the solitude, away from the ravenous bullfrogs of the valley.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Japanese Honeysuckle

Japanese Honeysuckle
Winter is a great time to be attacking Japanese Honeysuckle.  This invasive vine seems to be all over the Ozarks, more common in this area than the Bush Honeysuckle which covers the roadsides along Eastern Missouri.

Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is a vine with fragrant two-lipped flowers and some very bad habits.  In addition to its aggressive spread, it shades out its competitors by getting an early start in the spring and holding its leaves throughout the year.  It twists tightly around vertical branches of trees and bushes, digging in tightly to create deep grooves in the bark, killing the plant by cutting off the flow of vital fluids.  Given time, it produces a dense blanket, stifling growth of native shrubs and trees.

Brought to North America in 1806 for its fragrance, flowers, and erosion control, it is now found in 26 states in the eastern half of the US.  Its only geographic limits are the severe winters to the north and dryness and drought of the west.

It has no significant competitors or predators in the US.  The good news is that birds eat the seeds.  The bad news is this allows for its distant spread by their defecating the seeds.  It expands vigorously,  sending out underground stems (rhizomes) to spread from the parent plant in insidious mats.  Runners along the surface of the ground,  can develop roots and new plants where the  stem and leaf junctions come in contact with moist ground (stolon).

Missouri Plants has good pictures to help with identification.  As the leaves remain green all winter unlike most other vines it's easy to spot at a distance.  The bark is distinctive, thin and somewhat loose and can be peeled away to show smooth tan to pale green wood underneath.  Another characteristic is the tight choking vines which can cause deep grooves in the wood of its victims.  Its only other good trait is that the peeled smooth vine wood has interesting twisting patterns and can be used for crafts.

Winter is the best time to identify and cut it down.  Be sure to treat the cut stems with 20% glyphosate or other stump treatment to kill the plant.  The Missouri Department of Conservation has good concise information on control measures 

A good source of information is in the PDF file from IPSAWG.
Encyclopedic information on control measures can be found at this site.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Armadillo in Winter

This last weekend we have been following an unusual creature across the snow.  A rather fat and prosperous armadillo has been patrolling our Bull Creek valley, digging through the snow in search of food.  The first day it escaped into the woods but the next day we caught up with it in the middle of the field.  It tried to hide in the melted grass beside a hay bale and let us come within 3 feet, acting as though we wouldn't see it if it stayed perfectly still.

Googling "armadillo winter" the very first hit turned out to be a story from about Dr. Lynn Robbins who was working the then SMS university field station in Taney County.  This undated article described his surprise in finding armadillos out and about after a severe winter.  We were also surprised, as the last winter armadillo we had found was frozen to death, its snout sticking two inches into the ground as if it was trying to dig its burrow too late.

Click to Enlarge
The Biogeography of the Nine-Banded Armadillo, coming from - of all places - San Francisco State University gave detailed information from 1999 on the migration of the nine-banded armadillo, including the attached map.  Its range was from Argentina to just across the border of Missouri.  The first US sighting was in 1849 but since then they seem to be steadily progressing northward, possibly due to the progressive warming over the last 50 years.

Armadillos are not designed for cold or dry climates.  They need moist soil to dig in for insects.  With their shell, heat means no sweat.  They control their temperature by circulating blood into their legs for evaporation to cool their body.  This circulation leaves them little protection from the winter cold.  The last two days of melting snow and sunshine was probably our friend's first chance to dig for food in a week and explained its willingness to ignore us.

Several things you might not know about armadillos:
  • They can "get across a body of water by two methods. The first method is the ability to float across by gulping air into their stomachs and intestines, and secondly, if the body of water is shallow enough, the nine-banded armadillo is able to walk across the bottom by holding its breath for up to five minutes." *
  • Females produce one fertilized egg which then divides into exactly four identical babies.  Implantation of their egg may be delayed as long as 4 months in unfavorable conditions.**
  • When startled, they can jump 3-4 feet in the air.  A good survival tool when facing a predator, this is a dangerous trait when encountering a car with a driver trying to avoid running over it.
  • They are as primitive as they look.  Related to sloths and anteaters, the first ones evolved 50 million years ago in South America.  When the submerged Panamanian strip of land emerged from the sea 2.5 million years ago, they were able to start toward what would become North America. *
Armadillo were occasionally seen in Missouri in 1995.  With our warming winters (hard to believe earlier this week), their high reproductive rate, and lack of natural predators except automobiles, they are now established in Missouri and are found as far north as Nebraska and Indiana.  Who knows, with a good pair of Carhartts they might eventually reach Minnesota.

Winter pictures on Bull Creek are at
*   The Biogeography of the Nine-Banded Armadillo
**  Wikipedia

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Noisy Caterpillars

Image via Live Science video
When the Huffington Post writes about caterpillars, you know the story "has legs".  It turns out that caterpillars can be noisy - we just hadn't been listening closely.

Initially reported online in the Journal of Experimental Biology by Jayne Yack and Veronica Bura,  Live Science describes research on Walnut Sphinx caterpillar's ability to whistle.  Unlike a wolf whistle which is used to attract mates, these creatures use their whistle to ward off predators.

The Walnut Sphinx Moth is "highly common across Missouri with limited appearances in certain portions of other states east of the Rocky Mountains.  Like some other moths, the adults do not feed, living only long enough to breed.
Walnut Sphinx Moth- Wikimedia

How does a caterpillar whistle when it doesn't have lungs?  They use their spiracles, small holes in their sides where they get their air.  By applying latex to each pair of spiracles, researchers found that the eighth pair are the noisy ones.

Some silk-moth caterpillars make a clicking sound by snapping their mandibles together, warning off predators.  Suspecting a similar motive in the whistles, Yack and Bura put walnut sphinx caterpillars in cages with birds which eat them.  When the birds approached, the caterpillars whistled and the birds backed off.  No caterpillars were harmed in these experiments (besides scaring the whistle out of them.)

Other caterpillars defend their territory by scraping their rear ends (called "anal oars") against leaves, making a sound to announce their territory.  (I am not going there.)

The recording in this LiveScience video probably won't make the Grammys, but it does prove that the walnut sphinx caterpillars aren't just whistling Dixie.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Conserving Water or Marriage

"Will Lick for Food"
When writing about dishwashers, I am entering a foreign land ruled by my wife Barb.  On Bull Creek with no dishwasher, we do hand-to-hand combat with dried egg yolk and remnants of spaghetti sauce.  There is an even easier way but Barb won't allow it.

David Casaletto wrote an interesting article about the effect of mandated changes in detergents in the February 7th issue of Ozark Waters newsletter.  
"Last year 16 states decided to ban phosphates so the manufacturers figured it would be easier and cheaper to just have one formula nationwide. The change happened on July 1, 2010 and caught many consumers by surprise when their dishwashers no longer performed at previous levels."
He goes on to describe studies, both personal and scientific, on efficacy of low phosphate detergents.  So why address this in a newsletter on Ozark water resources?  Two reasons come to mind: water quality and water waste.
He points out the problem of phosphates in our streams and lakes.  These come not only from detergents but from excessive use of fertilizer and subsequent runoff into our watershed.
Phosphates "get into natural water bodies and act as fertilizer, accelerating plant and algae growth. When the plants and algae die, a feeding frenzy of bacteria consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, creating an environment inhospitable to fish and other aquatic life. These oxygen-devoid "dead zones" can occur in freshwater or in the ocean. In fact, two of the world's largest dead zones are in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the result of fertilizers running off of farmland."
There is lots of evidence that dishwashers use less water than washing dishes by hand. reviews some of the evidence.  They quote a study showing dishwashers used 3-4.25 gallons of water, while washing dishes by hand used as much as 16.5 gallons.  A University of Bonn (PDF) study of people washing 12 place settings (PDF) showed that "All in all, the dishwashers got the dishes cleaner, in less human time, using less water and energy."

Last year, a major leak in our kitchen sink at Bull Creek provided the opportunity to study our personal water use in washing dishes.  I proposed simply catching the water in buckets which might have led to an interesting scientific study.  Barb's counter-proposal:  "Fix the sink, now!"  Barb-1, Science-0.

*Ozark Waters is the newsletter of Ozarks Water Watch.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Watershed Festival

For those who haven't faced waves of 5th graders flowing off school buses to learn about our watershed, you have really missed a thrill.  (Many reading this are familiar with the Watershed Festival - if so, read no further.)

From the JRBP
 The James River Basin Partnership (JRBP) is hosting the annual Christian County Watershed Festivals at Nixa Community Center on February 8th, 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th.  This is part of an effort to provide educational activities about watersheds to fifth-grade students in Christian, Stone, Taney, and Barry.

Over 2,000 fifth-grade students will attend festivals in participating counties.  Funding for the Christian County festivals is being provided through the Nixa Community Foundation Grant program that was awarded to the JRBP in February of 2011 and through a 319 Nonpoint Source Implementation Grant from the Department of Natural Resources.

The Christian County Watershed Festival will run from 9:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will provide educational activities to over 1,000 students.

The watershed festivals are designed to teach students about a wide range of water-related topics through the use of five different topical stations.  Students will rotate through learning stations led by volunteer environmental professionals from many local agencies and organizations.  During their trip through the stations students will be introduced to concepts such as the limited amount of fresh water, groundwater flow, the impacts of human activity in watersheds, life in a stream and stream dynamics.

When students have completed all five stations they will assemble for a test to determine if they understand the concepts taught throughout the day.  After the test a fun, magical and comical performance is given by the Fishin’ Magicians who re-enforce key concepts the students have learned throughout the day. Christian County Festivals are hosted by JRBP.  Other partners include City of Ozark, City of Nixa, Christian County Soil & Water Conservation District, University of Missouri Extension, Missouri Department of Conservation, Project Wet, Master Naturalists and local volunteers.

More information on the James River Basin Partnership is available at

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Smokey "the" Bear

The current issue of Missouri Conservationist mentions the change in Smokey Bear's message, changing his traditional "Forest Fires" message to "Remember...Only You Can Prevent Wildfires".  The reason for the change is the increasing recognition of the importance of prescribed fire for the management of woodlands, prairies and glades.  The Conservationist article, Prescribed Fire: A Management Tool, is a good overview on its uses and techniques.

Smokey was created as part of a WWII "homeland security" effort.  Early in 1942, the Japanese made multiple attempts to set fires in the Oregon forests using float planes with incendiary bombs launched from submarines.  In 1944 they released up to 9,000 fire balloons into the newly discovered jet stream with around 10% reaching the US. There was no significant fire damage although a teacher and 5 children died when they found a device and were tampering with it, the only war casualties to occur on US soil.  (Wikipedia)

With the lack of available manpower to fight fires due to the war effort, there was a push for increased public awareness of forest fire dangers.  The Forest Service had Smokey Bear created for the purpose, with the first poster above.  Smokey the Bear came along a few years later in a popular song, "the" being added for rhythm purposes.  The "e" in Smokey was a deliberate addition.  The "the" has never been in his official name although the Forest Service have never been able to erase it from the mind of the public.

The lesson today is that fire is a legitimate tool in forest management but must be used with care.  The article in Missouri Conservationist emphasizes safety through prescribed fire training which is available through MDC.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fungi for Fun and Food

Auricularia auricula 
Sunday afternoon was the organizational meeting of a new Springfield Chapter of the Missouri Mycological Society, (MOMS).  After an enthusiastic presentation by Michael Baird, all 15 attendees signed up as members.

MOMS is an "organization of individuals and families dedicated to the study and enjoyment of mushrooms. There are regular forays, meetings, and education focused on mushrooms."  The founding group includes individuals interested in collecting and cooking, growing, identifying, or photographing mushrooms as well as some just looking for another reason to walk around in the woods.  The skill levels range from very knowledgeable to rank amateurs.

We plan on chapter meetings every two months with education programs and (somewhat) organized group hunts in the woods (called forays).  Since we have selected the initial officers, it is now safe to attend a meeting without being recruited into an office.  If you are not yet a member but are interested in getting on the email list for meeting notifications, send me an email titled MOMS? at

Our next meeting will be at 6:00 PM on Friday, March 18th at the Springfield Nature Center before Maxine Stone's program at 7:00 PM.  Maxine is very active in MOMS in St. Louis and is the author of Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, a great new book on mushrooms and their recipes.  Her book will be available for purchase and autographing.

This night will be a great way to be introduced to "Fungi for Fun and Food."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Butterfly Art

Peter Sutovsky- MU
Many people create beautiful art by painting or photographing butterflies.  Associate professor Peter Sutovsky of MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' Division of Animal Sciences takes a different approach.
His research in fertilization uses an epifluorescence microscope that adjusts the specific wavelength of light illuminating sperm and egg specimens to show technical details that otherwise could not be observed.  When he turned it to focus on butterfly wings, he created  unique pictures of nature.
A collection of his pictures and a full description is available at the Mizzouwire.

Thanks to Deb and Dr. Chris Barnhart of MSU for the lead.

Missouri Has Eagles?

Click to enlarge
In spite of Eagle Days announcements on radio and news media, I have had three different people say "You mean there are eagles in Missouri?"  In case you have encountered this question as well, this is a place you can refer them to.
Jeff Cantrell, the conservation education consultant with the MDC in Joplin sent these pictures from the last week Eagle Days at Stella.  Like events at Schell Osage & Springfield, they have plenty of eagles to see in January.  Although it might be a little late to get there now, you might check these spots next January even if you can't make it on the designated Eagle Days.
"Depending on the weather, the area holds 200 - 400 eagles  in the watersheds of Shoal, Indian Creek, Elk and Big Sugar Rivers.  Some great photo opportunities are at Capps Creek Conservation Area and the HWY along Big Sugar State Park (east of Pineville) where you might be at eye level with our national symbol.  The extended area between Neosho and Exeter (HWY 86) / Stella and Wheaton (HWY A) provides excellent opportunities.  Sunday, alone, I had 23 eagles just west of the city limits of Exeter, Capps Creek held several and the sycamores along Indian Creek were loaded."
Click to enlarge
As described in MDC Agent Notes, there were no longer nesting eagles in the state until we started raising and releasing them in the 1980s.  There are now almost 150 nesting pairs. "In addition to the nesting birds, Missouri commonly hosts more wintering bald eagles than any other state. These are birds that migrate south to find open water as winter progresses. The birds need open water so they have access to their main source of food, which is fish. Waterfowl also comprise a portion of their diets."
Yes, Virginia (and all the other states), there are eagles in Missouri. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Mink Invade Scotland

We tend to think of invasive species as a one way trip into the US.  It actually works both ways.

American Mink- Click to enlarge-Wikimedia
A story on the BBC tells of the efforts to eliminate North American mink from the waterways of Scotland.  They were brought to the UK in the 1950's to be farmed for their fur.  They either were released or escaped into the waterways.  There they did what mink do best -  eat voraciously and make babies.  There are "now tens of thousands throughout the UK."

There are two varieties of mink, the American mink (Neovison vison) and the European mink (Mustela lutreola).  The European mink always has a large white patch on its upper lip, a variable feature on the American mink.

The American mink is larger and more adaptable than the European mink according to Wikipedia, and is out-competing its cousin. In addition, the American mink will breed with female European mink before their own males are ready to breed.  There are no offspring from the mating, but the females won't breed again that season, contributing to population decline.
These "predators have had a devastating impact on local river wildlife, affecting birds such as moorhens, coots, widgeon and teal, fish and most markedly water voles, which have declined by more than 95% over the last 50 years.  Conservationists say they are left with a stark choice: either leave the mink alone and allow the UK's native wildlife to continue to decline, or begin the colossal effort to remove them, however difficult this may be."  BBC
Since mink live along water,  authorities have developed an innovative method of trapping and eliminating them.  They use a small raft with a clay plate inside a box on the raft to record foot prints of the curious mink.  Once they have identified footprints, they place a live trap in the box to capture and then eliminate the mink.  The video shows the methodology which is being used by 186 volunteers.

Another BBC story outlines some of their other invasive species.  These include not only our shared threats such as zebra mussels, but also introduced gray squirrels which threaten their native red squirrel populations, and a giant Asian hogweed that has become widespread across the UK and can cause skin burns and blisters if its sap comes into contact with skin.

Another study has shown the "delayed legacy of invasive species."  Most of the invasive species that we confront today were introduced around or before 1900.  Given this time to develop and spread, you can only imagine what the side effects of our current globalized markets and burgeoning imports will have in 2111.