Saturday, March 31, 2012

Snakes Alive

Lone Star Tick- Wikimedia
Following an extremely mild winter, the early arrival of animals and plants usually associated with mid-April shouldn't be surprising.  Common sense would suggest that the ticks that crawled over us all through this year's winter months would create a bumper crop in the spring.  Mike Penprase wrote about this in Thursday's News-Leader article How did area critters survive winter?.   He quotes entomologist Rob Lawrence, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s insect expert.
“The whole issue of insect and tick survival in the winter and predicting it is much more complex than we might think. That’s because a very cold winter doesn’t always guarantee that insect populations will be low once warm weather begins," he said.  "Cold weather causes insects to go dormant, and bugs that burrow into the soil or have other protection tend to survive. Continuous cold, in some cases, actually is better for insect survival. Insects that leave dormancy and become active during warm weather often don’t find food needed to survive."
Driving the lane along our glade at Bull Creek, I came across a 30" timber rattlesnake which we had apparently driven over the day before.  It had been taking advantage of the warm weather to head out hunting.  Basking in the sun would be common but I was surprised that it had roamed this early from the south facing rocky shelf rocks that its family normally calls home.

Find the rattle- click to enlarge
Timber rattlesnakes occur in small numbers in the Ozarks, but our land seems unusually blessed with them.  The terrain (wooded slopes with lots of shelf rock overhangs) and aspect (the southerly direction the rocky slopes face) is a description you might find the the real estate section of  While they are unwelcome around our house and garage, it is always exciting to get to see them in the wild along Bull Creek (see picture).  They are a beneficial species and an important strand in the web of life.

Another sign of early spring was the appearance of a black vulture on the corral fence of our old deserted barn.  They had nested in a stall there last year, entering through some missing boards in the wall.  We had the privilege of watching their chicks grow up into fine adults (picture).

 Allaboutbirds says this about black vulture nesting habits:
"Instead of building a nest, the Black Vulture lays its eggs on the bare ground of the chosen nest site. Parents incubate the young equally. The Black Vulture lays its eggs in isolated locations with little human disturbance. They find a dark recess in a cave, abandoned building, thicket, pile of rocks, or in a hollow log or tree. A pair of Black Vultures may assure themselves of the site’s isolation by perching nearby for a period of weeks before egg-laying."
Vulture chicks now grown
The fact that the vulture was undisturbed as we stopped within 10 feet to look at it raised the hope that it is considering using the same nursery this year.  We are going to avoid the barn for several weeks to avoid scaring off these potential renters.  Vultures are good citizens of Bull Creek,  serving our community in a mortuary capacity by disposing of the exposed remains of mammals.

Early or not, ticks or no, you gotta love spring.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

VWM Plant Survey

Trilllium sessile
Valley Water Mill is a park with a lot of history. There are scattered shards of flint testifying to the long use of the spring and stream by Native Americans. Early settlers valued its water and it became an early municipal water supply for the city of Springfield. This made it an obvious choice for locating the Watershed Center, an educational outreach of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.

Newly graduated Master Naturalists are expected to complete a capstone project, designed to get their feet wet (sometimes literally) in volunteer activities.   For Linda, a botanical illustrator and botanist, a plant survey at Valley Water Mill (VWM) was a logical choice.  She could involve others needing a capstone as well as teach a group some plant identification skills.

The trail around the lake at VWM is a gem, winding through wetlands, up through woodlands and along a ridge overlooking the lake. There are stops along the way to see the spring, a karst window and a bluff outlook. Bob R. generously shared his bug spray and suntan lotion as tick, chigger and sunburn season is here.  Alane supplied walking sticks and the No MO Trash bag.   Linda had a resource library in her head and left the heavy Steyermarks in the car for future reference.   Bob was assigned the position of recorder and pack mule and Mary became the specimen "bag lady."

All eyes began searching for something blooming. We spotted the first one along the curb- Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), an opportunistic, prolific of the mustard family (Brassicaceae).   Alane, Kathryn, Mary and Barb enthusiastically yanked them from the moist soil. An edible, Barb uses the leaves sparingly in rice dishes as the mustard tang is strong.

Plant specimens were placed in plastic bags for specific species keying out by Linda. The park trail has been disturbed and untended for many decades so invasives are abundant - Japanese and Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera of Asian kinds) and Winter Creeper (Euonymus hederaceus) as well as Reed Canary Grass in the wetlands.  Not blooming but very recognizable, rapidly growing Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) of the prolific carrot family (Apiaceae) also got yanked when solo plants were found.

Soon everyone was spotting the pink, purple and white flowers of exotic winter annual weeds - the Eurasian Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) of the mint family, Poor Man's Pepper (Lepidium) of the mustard family, Chickweeds, and Speedwell (Vernonica).   Although non-native, they add to the beauty of the woodland floor. This is their moment in the sun.

Looking for natives in the wetland, Linda pointed out the leaves of Elderberry.  Marlyss spotted some wild ginger and Barb lifted up the leaves to show everyone the brown-maroon flower underneath. Linda continued a non-stop flow of botanical erudition. Did you know that brown flowers, such as the small wild ginger blossom or our common Trillium_sessile (pictured above) do not have dedicated pollinators such as bees and butterflies?  They smell like rotting fruit, drawing flies and beetles which then spread their pollen to their neighbors.

In the glade the team found other natives -forbs commonly named Rue Anemone, False Rue Anemone, Violets, and Toothwort. There were flowering bushes and small trees: Fragrant Sumac, Viburnum, Bladder Nut trees (Staphylea trifolia), Red Bud, and Dogwood.  David pointed to the mottled leaves of Trout Lily; they had already bloomed and were developing seed. Bob R. found False Solomon's Seal foliage and a small pendular bird nest on a broken tree branch. Stephanie found the Mayapples whose most senior two leafed plants were forming flowers under the umbrella-like leaves. The smallest wildflower was found last, on the slope by the dam - a Johnny Jump Up. Along the lake the Wild Cherry was blooming.

We finished the afternoon in the shelter house with a high magnification lesson on identifying mints and mustards, the perfect spice on a great capstone, all in the name of science.

This is the first of a series of monthly surveys designed to create a plant database of the park. It builds on the species documented during an Audubon and Master Naturalist bioblitz from 2008.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lizard on the Fence

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Find the lizard- Click to enlarge
Warning-   Here comes a rant.

Fence lizards are a familiar sight on our deck at Bull Creek.  They scurry along, freezing when they think you see them to take advantage of their camouflage coloration.  On a tree or rock they can become practical invisible.  In the summer mating season, the males get the blues.

Male Fence Lizard-J.D.Wilson herpsofnc.o
According to the MDC, our common fence lizard has had its name changed recently, apparently without the lizard's permission.  Such changes are made by academics and don't involve field biologists or amateur naturalists.  The northern fence lizard,  (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) is now considered a distinct new species called the prairie lizard, (Sceloporus consobrinus).  Even  Wikipedia can't keep up with the changes.  This brings about a pet peeve of mine, changing the common names of plants and animals.

I understand the changes of genus and species when they are found to be described by an earlier source or altered by DNA or other evidence.  Credit where credit is due, even if the discoverer died 200 years ago.  It is annoying to me when they change some of the only Latin I know (except E pluribus unum which is stable for now).  I finally mastered the toothwort, logically named Dentaria, and then they changed it to Cardamine.  I wonder if this isn't a product of the Botanist Full Employment Act.

So back to the newly minted "prairie lizard."  According to the MDC reptiles site, "This is a common forest-dwelling species that often lives around country homes and rock gardens, split rail fences and stacks of firewood."  Does that sound like prairie to you?  Me neither.

Also it says "Prairie lizards live in the southern half and into the northeast corner of Missouri; absent from the northwestern portion."  Below on the left is the distribution map for the "prairie" lizard.  On the right is the distribution of prairies in Missouri. 
Prairie Lizard Range
Prairie Map- Schroeder

Now adding insult to injury, our precious black rat snake a.k.a. western rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) has been renamed the Texas rat snake.  They did not originate in Texas which doesn't seem to have any logical claim in their naming.  They can climb trees, arguably a wasted skill in Texas.  RATS!  At least they weren't downgraded to a mouse snake.
Adult Texas rat snakes aren't even black!

Texas rat snake range-
Naming is done by the SSAR- Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.  They can change the Latin all they want, but please put take our lizards out of the prairie and back on their "fence."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Scale of the Universe

Burj Khalifa- 2723 ft
In our everyday world we are exposed to the noteworthy extremes of scale.  News stories of the newest worlds tallest building, and the worlds smallest frog catch our attention.  The tower is 109,000 times longer than the frog, but this difference in scale pales in comparison to the scale of the Universe as we know it.

Microfrog- Christopher Austin- LSU
An interactive web sit The Scale of the Universe 2 dramatically demonstrates this.  As you slide the bar at the bottom, you expand and contract your vision.  Anywhere along the way, you can pause and click on an object to find its interesting details.  Try clicking on the sunflower to the left of the human figure as you move to the right.

Moving to the right makes you realize how small we are in the Universe as a whole.  On the other hand, if you think you have put on too much weight, you may find it comforting.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bloodroot is Blooming

Bloodroot- leaf spread out
Last Saturday was the day for one of the most ephemeral of the "spring ephemerals."  These are defined as plants with short life cycles, usually six to eight weeks long.  The bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, was only a few days ahead of schedule according to Barb's annual wildflower log.  It blooms for only a day or two before leaving its distinctive leaves as its only evidence through early-summer, so you have to be lucky as well as observant.

Bloodroot has an interesting reproductive strategy.  Some plants spread their seeds by the wind (maples, dandelions, goatsbeard, etc.) and others depend on birds and mammals to transport their seeds (robins for cedar, squirrels for nut species and oaks).  For bloodroot it is the ant.  As described in Wikipedia:

"Bloodroot is one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants, a process called myrmecochory. The seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds to their nest, where they eat the elaiosomes, and put the seeds in their nest debris, where they are protected until they germinate. They also get the added bonus of growing in a medium made richer by the ant nest debris."
Bloodroot tends to grow in the patchy shade of open woods and prefers moist acidic soil which we have plenty of in our Ozark valleys.  Its distinctive single leaf is wrapped around the stalk as the flower blooms, unfurling prior to the the blossom falling away.  It may double in height before the leaf dies off in the mid-summer.  During this time it is vulnerable to human hunters for its historic medicinal properties.

Early Bloodroot- leaf wrapped
Like many plants, it has a long folk medicine history.  It was used by Native Americans as an war paint, dye, emetic and even a "love charm."  (Don't ask me about wooing a bride with an emetic.)  In later colonial times it was used as a wart remover.  Like many native plants, it has been touted by some companies as a cancer "cure" and is listed on the FDA's Fake Cancer Cures site.  There have been deaths recorded from ingestion of large amounts of bloodroot extracts as documented in Wikipedia.

In some states they are listed as "at risk" or "exploitably vulnerable" due to vigorous over-harvesting as a folk or herbal remedy.  It is important that it should not be taken by mouth, can irritate the skin and its emetic properties may turn off your love life.

Extensive information is at this site.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Red-Tailed Hawk Web Cam

Red-tailed Hawk- Wikimedia
LIVE: Red-tailed Hawk Nest from Cornell Lab

A new nest camera high above a Cornell University athletic field is streaming crystal-clear views of a Red-tailed Hawk nest via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website. The new camera stream puts viewers 80 feet off the ground and right beside the nest, where they can watch the hawks arrive, see them taking turns incubating the eggs, and compare notes on the two birds—the male has a more golden-tawny face and is slightly smaller than the female, who has been nicknamed "Big Red" for her alma mater.

Click here during daylight hours to follow the action.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Early Redbuds- Click to enlarge
Everyone is commenting on the wildflowers which have bloomed earlier than usual due to the high temperatures.  Tana Pulles has introduced me to the word of the day, phenology- the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions.  According to University of Wisconsin, Green Bay:
"Phenological records help alert us about the events of nature and provide interesting comparisons between years and among different geographic regions. If recorded carefully and consistently, these records also have scientific value for understanding the interactions between organisms and their environment and for assessing the impacts of climate change."
This is certainly the banner year for the phenologist.  With the record warm temperatures most every species is ahead of schedule.  We have been finding ticks crawling on us occasionally all winter, but now they are out in force.  Butterflies are out in profusion, ignoring the calendar.  Spicebush has been coloring the woods for several weeks now.  Even the tadpoles seem to be ahead of schedule.

Ohio Buckeye
Buckeyes are the first trees to leaf out and they have all ready expanded their leaves and are well on their way toward blossoming.  By August they will have produced the beautiful nut which any true Ozarker knows will bring good luck when carried in your pocket.

Suddenly the wildflowers were popping out overnight and you could almost hear the trees' buds bursting out.  But not all regional climate is the same so budding varies from place to place.  There is a micro-climate along out deep Bull Creek valley where the trees are behind Springfield a few days.  While Redbuds were fully budded out in town last week,  they were in their early stages in the valley. 

False Rue Anemone
Dutchman's Breeches
Wildflowers are now popping up everywhere, False rue anemone is covering thinly wooded slopes, joined by a few Dutchman's breeches, named for their resemblance to upside-down pantaloon trousers.  (OK, I was just looking for an excuse to post my latest wildflower pictures.)  Anyway, phenology is a good excuse as well for justifying the time you spend journaling your findings.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Intelligence of Plants.

Grapevine tendril- Wikimedia
We tend to think of intelligence as being limited to animals, creating a hierarchy with humans at the top.  Allowing the exceptions of some examples from political debates and selected aspects of pop culture, human's standing at the top of the pyramid seems reasonable.  But what about plants?

I would suggest you begin with this video by Professor Stefano Mancuso from Florence, Italy.  It is 14 minutes long (if you skip the cartoon at the end).  It is a very interesting introduction to his concept of the intelligence of plants.  Plants are able to move, grow in specific directions, and communicate with animals.  They even create electrical action potentials, as do animal nerve cells.

The grapevine pictured here was able to extend a tendril upward and find a structure to cling on to, a tendril that has no purpose except support.  Even if it reached out randomly, it had to sense that this was something to cling to, then begin to wrap around the structure.  Amazing when you stop to think about it.

Although technology has been developed to "let your plants talk to you," it is based on sensors that measure the moisture of the soil.  The plants actually have nothing to do with it, even though the Scotch moss plant in this example "speaks" with a Scottish burr.

Now it seems unlikely that any current plant will write a blog, make a political speech or (heaven forbid!) create a reality TV show, but Professor Mancuso's International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology is studying some interesting plant actions.
"In addition to studies on the effects of music on vineyards, the center's researchers have also published papers on gravity sensing, plant synapses and long-distance signal transmission in trees. One important offshoot of the research activity is an international symposium on plant neurobiology. Next year's meeting will be held in Japan."
I don't know where to draw the line between chemical reactions that evolved over millions of years and "intelligence", whatever that is.  If you are now as curious as I was, you can delve further into the subject in Wikipedia  and read more about Professor Mancuso's studies at  I think you will find it interesting at the least and without the threat of brain damage from an hour of watching Jersey Shore.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Callery Pears Spreading

Last year we posted a blog story warning about the invasion of Callery pear trees, escaped Bradford pears which supposedly are sterile but still manage to engage in hanky-panky.  The resultant wild Callery pears can grow anywhere and frequently revert to their thorned variety.

Callery Pear- Click to Enlarge
Barb now not only moans as we pass Walmart and shopping centers, thick with the domestic trees but points out the proliferating trees found in fields and disturbed roadsides within sight of our urban house.  I am afraid that it is just the beginning of a wave of white, capable of displacing some of our native species.

Susan Farrington, a Missouri Department of Conservation Natural History Biologist - Ozark Region, sent out the reminder and some suggestions for action which are below.

"Callery pears are in full bloom in southern and mid MO right now (and perhaps further north even). If you aren’t already aware of the threat these trees present, I would be happy to forward you information about their very invasive tendencies. They are creating a white haze all around West Plains right now, and are invading our conservation areas.

To help you readily identify them, download this PDF file  I put together of photos of callery pear, Mahaleb  cherry (an exotic look-alike to the pear, also invasive), and two good natives (serviceberry and native plum) they might be confused with.  “(Some of these photos are my own, but most were taken from the web and in my haste to distribute this in a timely manner, I did not list all the photo credits.)”  Hopefully this will allow you to id them even from a distance as you drive through our conservation areas.

If we can catch the invasion of these trees early on, we can save a lot of time and trouble in the future, so if you see just a few scattered on a conservation area, please flag them and note their location. As long as we can return and kill them by mid summer or so, we’ll stop them from forming ripe fruit. They are MUCH harder to find once all the other trees leaf out, so flagging them now is important.

Do not cut them down unless you have herbicide at hand: they will just re-sprout with a vengeance."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cedar- Past and Present

Cedar cones
Eastern red cedar can be a pain in the neck... or the nose.  These misnamed trees (actually a juniper) were uncommon early in the history of the Ozarks.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's extensive daily journal from 1818 only documents them 4 times compared to the daily mention of oak and hickory, and other records echo this finding.

Deforestation by the timber industry at the turn of the century and the suppression of fire gave cedars a head start.  Cleared "balds" and fallow fields provided ample space for robins and other birds to deliver their used cedar berries without a lot of growth competition.  By 1900, cedars were becoming well established as a predominate tree.

Cedar Berries- MDC
The clouds of cedar pollen this time of year create a challenge for those of us who have allergies.  Francis Skalicky covered this subject in the News-Leader recently.  Cedars are dioecious, meaning that there are male and female trees.  For the females to produce the berries, they need to receive pollen from the male trees.  The pollen comes from the tiny cones at the end of the needles which are actually leaves.

Cedar pollen is distributed by the wind and doesn't seem to care if it lands on a receptive female branch or a human nostril.  When on a cedar it develops into a berry over months.  When it hits our noses, the reaction is rapid and produces symptoms over several days.

Abandoned fields and glades now are covered with cedars, creating an expense of clearing them to the landowner.  There is still a market for cedar, but a large number of mature trees are needed to make the harvest worthwhile.  There was a time around 1908 when the pencil industry developed an appetite for cedar as told in another News-Leader article.

"Ozarkers had other uses for their timber, though. In 1908 the American Pencil Company of New York built a pencil factory in Branson. The pencils were made from cedar logs. Cedar was another locally abundant tree. Thousands of cedar logs were cut into rectangular slats measuring 3" x 3" x 8". The slats were then shipped across the country to factories to be made into pencils. Eventually, the supply of cedar trees was exhausted and the American Pencil Company Factory was moved to California."
American Pencil Company- George E.Hall

The timber industry was virtually wiped out by deforestation and the Depression, but American Pencil Company continued to operate in Branson well into the 1930s.  With the rollerball pens, email and Facebook, a comeback seems unlikely.  Too bad, as I have a few cedars I would gladly give someone.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eager Beavers

Beaver Pond- Wikimedia
I don't know what the world's worst invasive species is, but the North American beaver certainly has to be in the running for the title.  While most of our problems come across the ocean from the east or west, the invasive beavers are located about as far south as you can go on land.

Twenty-five pairs of our common beavers, Castor canadensis, were brought to Tierra Del Fuego Island at the tip of South America in 1946.  Like most foreign species introductions, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  The idea was to create a commercial fur industry in an area with lots of trees and water and no significant beaver predators.  That should have been the first clue.

The beaver took a liking to their new surroundings and the southern beech, Nothofagus pumilio, forests.  They then expanded on to the steppes and finally crossed over to the Chilean mainland by 1990.  They had found their idea of heaven and reproduced like eager beavers will.

They have taken over 15-30% of stream length and occupy vast areas of the landscape.  The riparian areas are now virtually leveled and the possibility of completely eradicating the beaver population are the same as we face in eliminating kudzu.

A map of the area is available at this National Geographic site.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Peregrine Falcon Webcam

John James Audubon- Wikimedia
Discover nature with peregrine falcon webcam
MDC, Ameren Missouri and World Bird Sanctuary partner on video feeds of falcons nesting.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Through a cooperative effort among the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Ameren Missouri and the World Bird Sanctuary (WBS), the public can get a bird’s-eye view of peregrine falcons raising chicks in a nest box at Ameren’s Sioux Energy Center in St. Louis. A camera near the birds’ nest box provides video feeds to each organization’s website. MDC and WBS staff are providing commentary on what is happening.

The nest can be viewed on MDC’s website at, on Ameren’s website, or on the WBS website at worldbirdsanctuary.org The camera is live for viewing from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. (CDT) seven days a week.

“This peregrine project will help Missourians discover nature right in the nest of these amazing raptors,” said MDC Director Bob Ziehmer. “The project illustrates the power of partnerships between private and public sector organizations to help conserve native wildlife.”

Ameren staff installed the webcam at the nest site in early January. Peregrine falcons have been seen at Sioux Energy center since early 2011, with this year’s nesting activities first spotted in the beginning of February. MDC and WBS researchers have been observing the birds’ activities and are posting observations on the websites as updates warrant.

According to WBS Director Jeff Meshach, the female peregrine falcon laid her first egg on Monday, March 12. She is expected to lay a total clutch of four to five eggs, with an additional egg laid every two to three days. The eggs are expected to hatch around April 12. The male falcon will bring food to the female and take his turns incubating the eggs so the female can feed and preen her feathers.

Meshach added that the peregrine falcon has made an incredible comeback from the brink of extinction.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Return of the Tree Lobster

Dryococelus australis
I came across the back story of the "rarest insect in the world" on NPR, described by Robert Krulwich as only he can.  It is a fascinating story: the largest flightless stick insect in the world, is found only on Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific.  Rats escape from a ship wreck and wipe out the insects which are considered extinct for 80+ years. 

Then in an unlikely twist, a tiny colony of 24 insects is found on Ball's Pyramid, an 1,800 foot rocky spike of an island in the Pacific.  Two pair are brought to the lab and the last remaining female is starting to lay eggs when she sickens and nears death.  She is saved by an experimental meal of calcium and nectar and Jane Goodall reports in 2008 that there are now over 700 in captivity.

I would highly recommend the NPR story, described by Robert Krulwich as only he can.  It has mystery, violence, romance, sex and a happy ending.  The more mundane details of the Lord Howe Island stick insect, a.k.a. tree lobster, Dryococelus australis are found in Wikipedia


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Giant Fleas

by D. Huang
 Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, 
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. 
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on; While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
                       -Augustus De Morgan

It only makes sense that even dinosaurs had "little bugs that bite em," although they would likely have required industrial strength mouth parts.  It turns out that they did.

The Washington Post reports the discovery in China of two ancient species of fleas that were up to 10 times larger than our current variety.  The largest of these were up to an inch long and came equipped with a very elongated mouth including a very sharp "siphon," likely able to penetrate the thick hide of a dinosaur or anything else of interest.

Castrocardia- Mark A. Klingler/CMNH)
Although mammals did exist 125 to 165 million years ago, they were small and presumably not too numerous.  The largest identified so far is the Castrocardia, an evolutionary dead end, that was like a beaver-otter weighing in at 1-2 pounds.  It seems likely that the giant flea's structure would be overkill on this little guy.  Just think of having a chihuahua hanging on your leg and you get the idea.

If you want a fact to remember out of this post to impress your friends, we have this biological pearl of knowledge from Dr. Chris Barnhart. 
"The difference between a dinosaur and a flea?   A dinosaur can have fleas, but a flea can't have dinosaurs."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sprummer is Coming

Frost Flower #38- March 3, 2012
Every year the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes out with a list of new entries based on current frequency of usage.  "Sprummer" is defined as "Spring-summer confusion caused by cold one day and heat the next."  I would suggest we need one for winter-spring.

Saturday on Bull Creek started with a 20 degree morning.  The frost flowers appeared again, the 38th "blooming" we have recorded this season.  Granted that now they are much smaller and less dramatic but considering these same stems started in October, they get points for perseverance.

By noon we were seeing mourning cloak butterflies out for an afternoon stroll.  They seemed to be enjoying themselves but were hanging around home, ready to slip back under the bark when it turned cold at sundown.  A late afternoon goatweed leafwing butterfly, bright orange against the dead grass, was sunning itself by the wet drainage.

Spice bush
Up on the hill side, a large cluster of spice bush were starting to bloom.  They are taking advantage of openings in the woods created by trees that were uprooted by the first winds of the devastating May 2009 derecho.  It first touched down in Christian County before picking up full strength in the middle of the state, causing 48 million dollars damage.   While uprooting more than 80 of our trees of greater than 12 inch diameter, it also created  openings for young trees and wildlife to enjoy.

While taking spice bush pictures I startled an American woodcock which was too shy to stay for a picture.  Probably it is still embarrassed by its alternate name of "timberdoodle."  A shorebird that is frequently found in moist woodlands, it will probably find its worm hunting hard in our rock and clay uplands.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Industrial Strength Natural Selection

White-bodied Pepper Moth
A new study confirms what has been long suspected, that natural selection favors dark pepper moths* (Biston betularia) where the environment is sooty.  If you happen to be a beautiful white-bodied pepper moth minding your own business while clinging to a dark sooty surface of a tree, you stand out like a giraffe on the Branson strip.  A hungry bird is more likely to turn you rather than your darker cousin into breakfast .

The dark version of the pepper moth, called melanism, was first noticed in industrial Manchester England in 1848 and by 1895, 98% of the local pepper moths were dark.  More evidence of natural selection appeared when clean air regulations cleared the air and the dark form frequency declined.
Black-bodied Pepper Moth

Some authors have challenged these studies based on their methodology.  In the new study reviewed in, Michael Majerus carried out six years of rsearch in the relatively unpolluted area in Cambridge where he lived.  Every spring and summer day he climbed a ladder and placed both varieties of pepper moth on his backyard trees and then watched as predatory birds grabbed them.  He showed that the dark forms had only a 91% survival rate compared to the white forms.

While this doesn't necessarily indicate "evolution" with a capital "E" over 50 years, it does show how rapidly populations can change coloration in response to environmental change.  From there it is only a short step in time to the development of a new species.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Antibiotic Resistance in the Wild

Galapagos Land Iguana- Wikimedia
Our current agricultural methods include giving antibiotics to cattle, a practice that has created a source of antibiotic resistant bacteria that they can pass back to us.  Animals living in close proximity to humans have been shown to carry some of our bacteria in their guts.   Just how close they have to be to us has been a matter of debate and two new papers look at the problem.

A new study reported in went to the heartland of evolution theory, the Galapagos Islands.  No one is allowed to stay on most of the islands, and contact with the animals is strictly controlled, although some islands are more frequently visited than others.

This study showed that "land and marine iguanas and giant tortoises living close to human settlement or tourist sites in the Galapagos Islands were more likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria than those living in more remote or protected sites on the islands."  Though not the only study to show that wild animals can pick up antibiotic-resistant organisms from tourists and human contact in the wild, it is dramatic when found in such a "pristine" setting.

from Wikimedia
In Are the bugs in wild animals resistant to antibiotics? reported in the, Norwegian researchers went a step further, studying polar bears on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.  These animals not only had no human contact but neither did their food sources.  Since some antibiotic chemicals are derived from nature we might expect some evidence of antibiotic resistance in the wild.

The problem is how to get stool specimens from wild polar bears.  Following them across the ice while waiting for the big event is both time consuming and potentially dangerous.  The researcher's answer doesn't seem much less dangerous.  They flew around over the ice in a helicopter and then shot the bear with a tranquilizer gun.  Then they landed and obtained the stool sample with a digital rectal exam.  (Being highly intelligent scientists, I suspect this is where the graduate student came in.)

They tested for blaTEM genes, which are known to encode resistance to a commonly used class of antibiotics that includes penicillins and cephalosporins.  They found only 4 different strains carrying the genes, compared to 13 in domestic cattle and 40 in humans.  They concluded that there are some antibiotic-resistant organisms in nature but they are relatively uncommon.  And I suspect that a graduate student concluded that switching to investment banking would be a good career move.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dangerous Deer

Deer attacks dog
What is the most deadly animal in the United States?  Well of course, deer - after all that is the title of this article.  I suspect we all know someone who has hit a deer with a vehicle.  Most of the time this is just a traumatic and expensive occurrence but since 1998, over 140 people a year have died in deer-vehicle collisions.  This number is climbing; up to 223 in 2007.*  Deer versus vehicle accidents kill more people yearly than all other animal related deaths, including insect stings, snake bites, dogs and crocodiles.** 

A less appreciated side to deer danger is the rare "deer attack"  as reported occasionally in the news, such as in USA Today a few years back.  Although uncommon, attacks are not unheard of and have occurred when people were walking their dogs or occasionally totally unprovoked.  Other attacks, like some snake bites and other injuries from wild life, could be called justifiable assault, showing that not all of the "dumb animals" have four legs.  This dramatic video shows such a provoked "deer attack."

As humans increasingly encroach into the wild, and deer populations swell due to lack of predators, we can expect more hostile encounters in the future.  Here are some thoughts to help you maintain peace with Bambi.
  • Do not feed deer.  They are healthier with their natural foods and they may become defensive if they become habituated to a food source.
  • Don't approach deer, especially mothers with fawns.  You never know just what it is thinking but it probably isn't saying "Awww, isn't he/she cute" like you are.  Observe them from a distance.
  • Just like being in a biker bar, avoid bucks in rut.  Testosterone can be dangerous to your health.
**Animal Related Fatalities, 1991-2001 PDF