Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good News

The Official Mike
Mike Kromrey has been named as the Executive Director of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, Inc.  We know Mike as an outstanding water educator, a virtual Pied Piper when it comes to teaching kids both big and little.

Mike will bring the same passion to the organization that Loring Bullard instilled over his 22 years as Executive Director.  Hopefully he will have time to still harass-a-bass in occasional free moments.

The Real Mike- Click to enlarge
Mike has been with the organization for the past six years as the Education/Outreach Coordinator. In addition, Kromrey has been the Co-Chair of the Natural Environment Committee for the City of Springfield's Strategic Plan and has also served on the Springfield/Greene County Environmental Advisory Board.

Spider Brain

Filmy Dome Spider - MDC
Ever wonder how a tiny spider's brain can perform the same tasks as a much larger spider species?  Our common Filmy Dome Spider for instance creates a complex snare web which looks like an upside-down silk bowl.

Part of their secret may be where to keep a big brain too big to fit in their heads.  Eurekalert.org describes research by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama which found that the smaller the spider the bigger their brain is in proportion to their body.  When the brain is too big for the head it is stored in body cavities.  In the smallest spiders, the brain filled 80% of the body cavity with 25% of it in their legs.

There is only so much miniaturization that neural tissue can stand.  Neurons and axons cannot be shrunk and still carry the signal.  Therefore, the spider has to devote more body space to their nervous system.

The study was done in Panama and Costa Rica where a tremendous diversity of spiders allowed for a broad range of comparisons.  The giant spider Nephilia  clavipes weighs 400,000 times as much as the smallest spider in their study.

There is Haller's rule which states that as body size decreases, the proportional mass of the brain goes up.  In a human the brain is only 2-3% of our body mass compared to 15% in ants and even a greater proportion in spiders.  Now if I could just figure out how to use more of it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Winter Tree Identification

Virginia Tech
As Francis Skalicky wrote in the Thursday News-Leader article, identifying trees in the winter can be a challenge.  I set out this year to learn to identify bark, which is possible on many big mature trees, but the saplings and small trees remain a challenge.  Dr. Michelle Bowe, a botanist from Missouri State University gave us a great session on winter twig identification at the Missouri Native Plant Society meeting this week.*

To many of us, even the names of twig structures are new.  The US Forest Service drawing will help.  A basic description is at this Virginia Tech site.  Once you look carefully at a few twigs, you will be amazed at the differences you can find in buds and scars.

US Forest Service-TAMU

There are a couple of ways you can approach this subject.
  1. The Springfield Conservation Nature Center’s “Nature Journaling – Winter Tree Identification” program will be held from 10 a.m. to noon this Saturday.  Participants should dress for a short time outdoors. To register for this program or to find out about other Nature Center events, call 417-888-4237.
  2. There is a good key to get you started at VTree ID Twig Key.  A list of twig characteristics is available at this MDC link.  These will help with common native trees but to learn more including the smaller trees you will need a good resource such as Frances Main's Fifty Common Trees of Missouri, available at some MDC offices.

    * Dr. Bowe will be presenting twig ID at the January 2013 Master Naturalist meeting.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Ode to Caterpillars

Red Spotted Purple caterpillar
As a cold morning melts into the sunny 40's, a walk in the woods, albeit with a chainsaw, reminds us that spring will eventually be here with the reawakening of the insects that are in hiding.  As a further reminder, Kevin Firth of Friends of the Garden sent me an Ode to Caterpillars.

This NPR Living on Earth interview with Dave Wagner mentions several critical roles that caterpillars play in addition to their final stage as a butterfly or moth that provides beauty to our world and pollination of our plants.  By laying hundreds of eggs, lepidoptera are preparing a smorgasbord.  These eggs and the resultant caterpillars are an important food source for many birds, bats, and other animals.

Less obvious is the caterpillar's indirect contribution to medicine.  As Wagner explains:
"There’s another important role that caterpillars have played. Because plants can’t run away from caterpillars, they’ve evolved a battery of chemicals to protect themselves. Wagner says these secondary chemicals are the basis for drugs and medicines—like opium in poppies and salicylic acid in willows that’s used in aspirin."
It won't be long before we will start to see caterpillars emerge.  When you see the first one, you might want to tell it "thanks".

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grading Our Streams

Ozarks Water Watch's newsletter this week features an article, How's The Water?, that shows the grades of our streams draining into the White River system.  Just like school there are some bright spots and some failures.

One of the most asked questions at local water meetings is "what happens to our stream team data?"  This is frustrating to many who diligently wade the streams and kick gravel into nets to capture the macroinvertebrates to be counted but never get to see the big picture.

Click to Enlarge

Past reports have been based on data from MSU, University of Arkansas,  and the US Geological Survey.  Ozarks Water Watch is going to be incorporating more data from the extensive stream team network in the future.

The scorecard to the left is just an overview of the data.  Click on it to see how your favorite stream rates.  There are several detailed papers describing the process and results which are available through links in the How's The Water? article.

If you haven't had a chance to kick gravel and count critters, now would be a good time to visit the Missouri Stream Team web page and see how you can get involved.  There is a nearby stream awaiting your visit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Bald Eagle- MDC Gallery
We are all aware of the decline in eagle populations in the mid-century and the dramatic recovery of our American emblem.  I usually think of their return from near extinction as a product of the banning of DDT which was used to poison many animals in the food chain.  Eagles accumulated DDT predominately from eating carrion of poisoned animals, and the toxin weakened their egg shells.  Francis Skalicky reminds us in Thursday's News-Leader story that humans had an even more direct hand in the threat to eagles in the first half of the century.
"The eagle is a curse to the rest of the animal kingdom and the sooner it is exterminated, the better off the game will be."  -Valdez Miner newspaper, Alaska, 1920 
From 1913 through 1953 Alaska actually had a bounty on eagles which some thought were destroying the salmon fishing industry.  In a two year period alone they paid bounties on 27,843 eagles.  Subsequent studies showed eagles had little effect on salmon fishing.

Meanwhile, in western states they were blamed for the deaths of young lambs.  Their main diet is fish and carrion and being found eating a dead lamb was considered evidence of their guilt.  Seven hundred dead bald eagles were found on a Wyoming sheep ranch, the victims of poison and shooting from a helicopter.  It is now well accepted that they don't significantly prey on lambs.

We have come a long way in conserving wildlife since then, although local debates still occur over restoration of predators such as wolf and otter.  At least we are now having the conversations.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Birth of Missouri Conservation

I came across an interesting video on conservation in Missouri.  In 1950, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) produced a film which described the birth of the Department.  It has the nostalgia of the old newsreels with dramatic music and stilted camera shots of events.  I expected to see a Superman serial to start up at any moment.

Missouri's good old days had some bad old moments.  Like much of the United States, the early twentieth century in Missouri was a time of growth.  Much of the forests had been cut to supply lumber for the expanding railroads and the booming Midwest population.  The deforested hills were plowed for crops, creating erosion.  Deer, turkey and bass populations were depleted due to uncontrolled hunting and fishing.

These unintended consequences of growth led to the creation of the Missouri Conservation Commission which evolved into the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Now MDC has posted the film as an 18 minute Youtube video.  Butter up the popcorn and turn it on.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

New Bee Insecticide Risk

European Honey Bee- Wikimedia
New research reported at purdue.edu describes yet another risk to honey bees as well as possibly other insect pollinators.  Bees found dead in the vicinity of hives in Indiana showed the presence of neonicotinoid insecticides.

The investigation by scientists at Purdue University began with reports of bee deaths during planting season in hives near the fields.  Screening the bees for pesticides, they found neonicotinoid insecticide present in all the affected bees.  Other bees in the hives were suffering from tremors and convulsions, typical effects of these pesticides.

Neonicotinoid insecticide is coated on all the corn seeds and about half of the soybean seeds planted in the vicinity.  The compound remains in the soil for years, protecting the roots but also taken up by the plant.  Small amounts in the pollen can be picked up by bees and other pollinators without immediate toxic effects.

Unfortunately the coated seeds are sticky so talc is added to them to keep the seeds flowing smoothly in the planters.  The talc picks up the insecticide in concentrations up to 700,000 times the lethal dose for a bee.  The light talc particles are easily spread by wind during planting and equipment cleaning, coating the plant surfaces visited by foraging bees who take it back to the hive.

The immediate answer would be to avoid the use of talc to reduce the lethal levels.  The long term effects of low dose exposure from plants transporting it from the seed to flowers and pollen are currently unknown.  In a world facing the need to increase food production to feed the growing population, we are likely to hear of more problems like this in the future.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hibernating Bear Cubs

Measuring Baby Bear- RMR
We have reported on the Missouri Department of Conservation's bear tagging study several times.  This report from Canada is both amusing and full of "ahhhh" moments usually reserved for seeing your first grand baby.  They set about locating collared bears, measuring them and their cubs and changing their collar batteries.  Without any internet hot spots, presumably the collars only send signals.  I promise you will enjoy this cold but heart warming video.

It doesn't get cold enough for long enough for Missouri bears to enter hibernation.  They spend the winter like a lot of us senior citizens- waking up at night and going for a snack or a bathroom break.  Since MDC hasn't found anyone willing to change the battery of an awake bear, the bear collar lasts one year and then automatically drops off where it can be located and retrieved.  More on the Missouri studies by Mississippi State is at fwrc.msstate.edu.

And for the same Canadian commentator's view on carbon emissions, try this site.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Albino Hummingbirds

Albino Hummingbird- Marlin Shank
Its not often that I find a great nature story on Snopes.com.   Photographer Joe Motto sent me an email that I just had to check out.  A fifteen year old photographer named Marlin Shank took a series of dramatic pictures of an oxymoron, an all white ruby-throated hummingbird.  He was billed as "fortunate" but it really was also good planning as described in detail at Snopes.
"They read a post on a birder mailing list indicating that an albino hummingbird was regularly visiting feeders in the backyard of a home about thirty miles away from their area.  Kevin and his sons made the drive out, set up their cameras and waited for the opportunity."
Albinism is a rare visual treat for us in any animal.  It likely increases the risk to the creature, whether by losing protective coloration from predators or loss of visual acuity by absence of filtering iris pigments.  Also coloration is an important factor in attracting a mate, so they are probably less likely to pass this gene on.

What resulted was a beautiful set of pictures of an albino hummingbird which either was aware of its beauty or simply hungry.  Which ever, it is a chance to lean back and enjoy this beautiful anomaly of nature.  The whole picture set is at this web site.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Snake strangling falcon- Utahbirds.org
It didn't happen in Missouri but it could have.  Charlie Burwick shared this story of a falcon and snake battle with me.  It occurred appropriately enough on the Lower Snake River.  The moral of the story is that the predator doesn't always win.  See this posting from utahbirds.org.

It has a happy ending for both although the dazed falcon was still hungry.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Good Prairie Fires

Linda Ellis- News-Leader
An article in today's News-Leader* describes a prescribed fire conducted by the Ozarks Regional Land Trust on Chesapeake Prairie.  The charred ground exposes remnants of prairie plants that would otherwise be smothered by brush and invasive species within a few years.   The article pictures our own Master Naturalist Linda Ellis checking out the winter remnants on an adjacent unburned prairie patch.  She found seed pods of rattlesnake master, spurge and other prairie species.

Rattlesnake Master - Wikimedia

Prairies dominated much of the Southwestern Missouri landscape prior to the arrival of European settlers.  Native Americans set fire to the prairies to stimulate new grass growth and suppress the growth of shrubs and trees which complicated hunting.  Now we use prescribed fire to maintain those precious patches of prairie that remain.  Francis Skalicky describes the use of prescribed fire at greater lengths in an accompanying News-Leader article.

The arrival of the plow, followed by cattle raising and the monoculture of fescue replaced most of these native prairies and their unique species.  A few unplowed remnants of prairies remain and organizations such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation and the Ozark Regional Land Trust are dedicated to preserving them.  Both sites have information on how you can help.

Pink round headed katydid
I think of these precious patches as a combination park and zoo, preserved for future generations to appreciate.  With January snow on the ground, it is a good time to make a resolution to take a summer prairie stroll.**  Prairie maps and locations are at this Missouri Prairie foundation site.  You may be rewarded by species that you aren't likely to see elsewhere like rattlesnake master and even pink katydids.

More on rattlesnake master at Wikipedia.
*   Picture and story by Mike Penprase, Springfield News-Leader.
** Tours of Woods Prairie are available- contact ORLT at 314-401-6218.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Winter Reflection

A snowy day contribution from Jennifer Ailor*
Photo by Jennifer Ailor - Click to enlarge

A Winter’s Walk in the Dark
The white-ribboned track snakes through the black bones of the woods.
 Ice pellets fall from the dark,
Pressing cold night to ping on the frozen earth.
My boots crunch through the crust.
My breath clouds the cold.
The track rounds a bend, and now a soft glow
 Lights the sleet, warms the night,
 Promises refuge from the storm.

 --Jennifer Ailor, February 3, 2009, walking from the barn down the lane to the house.

* Jennifer is President of Springfield Master Naturalists

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Man Made Earthquakes

San Andreas fault- Wikimedia
The recent concern about the potential of inducing earthquakes by fracking (hydraulic fracturing in the mining of natural gas) shouldn't come as a surprise.  A story on npr.org explains that earthquakes have been tied to human activities for years.

According to Wikipedia, "Earthquakes are caused mostly by rupture of geological faults, but also by other events such as volcanic activity, landslides, mine blasts, and nuclear tests."  These even have their own name, induced seismicity.

Most of these induced seismic events are relatively small.  A major exception comes from the creation of large reservoirs with dams in excess of 300 feet tall.  The mass of water where there was none before is compounded by water which is forced into rock fissures, essentially lubricating the fault so it slides easier.  

The 6.3 magnitude Koynangar earthquake in India killed 180 people.  The epicenter, fore and aftershocks all were located around the Koyna Dam reservoir.  Another example is the seismic shocks recorded during the initial water filling behind the Vajont Dam in Italy in 1963.  A subsequent landslide almost filled the reservoir and massive flooding caused around 2000 deaths.  After the reservoir was drained, the seismic activity essentially quit.

Although both the extraction of fossil fuel and hydraulic fracturing on natural gas wells have triggered earthquakes, the scale has been small thus far.  The experience with dams has taught us the importance of geologic studies to assess the risk.

The USGS Earthquake Hazards page has up to date information on earthquakes around the US.  You can even get real-time earthquake reports by iGoogle and Twitter.  These reports may not match your average tweets from Charlie Sheen but they will be more earthshaking.

On a happier note, the eurekalert.org reports that the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin found no evidence of ground water contamination related to hydraulic fracking.  All contamination has been due to faulty equipment and procedures common to all drilling for oil, natural gas, etc. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Bee Parasite and Colony Collapse

European honey bee- Wikimedia
As if honey bees didn't have enough problems with Colony Collapse Disorder, a story on  NPR discusses a newly discovered parasitic challenge they face.

The European honey bee, Apis mellifera, was brought to the Western Hemisphere shortly after Columbus arrived.  It spread slowly across the continent and Native Americans viewed its arrival as an indicator that European settlers were about to appear on their land.

Until recently the honey bee had few parasites, possibly because they didn't bring their familiar coevolved species with them to the new continent.  Studies at San Francisco State University have shown recent parasitism by a phlorid fly, Apocephalus borealis, which previously was only known to infect bumblebees.

The eggs and larvae in the bee's body apparently changes its behavior dramatically.  By some mechanism, the fly alters the bee's circadian rhythm or its sensitivity to light.  Affected bees abandon their hives at night and tend to congregate around street lights, usually dying the next day.  This behavior could be a direct effect of the fly larva or possibly the expulsion of sick bees to protect the health of the hive. 

Adult phlorid flies carry pathogens as well and their role in spreading them into hives is unknown.  The full study at PLOS covers many of the implications and the unanswered questions, as well as other examples of parasite induced behaviors.