Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Loss for Words

from Wikimedia
A beautiful little posting on the blog Tuesdays in the Tallgrass began with this startling statement which should awaken us all to the current state of nature awareness.
"What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior (Illustrated) Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things. Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world."
Acorn!  Willow!  Say it ain't so!  An article in the New Yorker pointed out their passing to make room for "broadband" and "MP3 player".  Nothing new here,  The 2008 version deleted "moss" and "fern".  The changing of entries to accommodate new words has occurred throughout the history of dictionaries, eliminating archaic words no longer in use, a necessity in all but the most encyclopedic of dictionaries.

BUT, the choice of the words that a child might look up says something to me about our current generation of parents and children.  More important, the target audience for this dictionary are 7 year old kids and presumably the parents who are reading with them.  Are they really going to look up "MP3 player----REALLY?"  And what is more likely to become archaic in the next generation of dictionary, MP3 or acorn?  Can you say "8-track player?"
An acorn, struggling for life - REK
My concern is not with the dictionary itself but in the implications of the changes.  This is a formal recognition by editors that acorns and moss are no longer words a child might encounter!  When our kids lose an awareness of nature, we are all in trouble.  After all,  "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow."

Postscript December 23, 2016
Lisa Berger responded with a followup link which lists more deleted words of nature, but with a charming addition of new (to us) words from the British Isles.   Consider "Crizzle: Northamptonshire dialect verb for the freezing of water that evokes the sound of a natural activity too slow for human hearing to detect."

I think you will find this an uplifting listing during our current trying times.  Check out  24 profoundly beautiful words that describe nature and landscapes,

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

One Tough Fly

As we prepare to survive the Ozark winter, I came across this incredible midge living in semi-arid regions of Central Africa.  Polypedilum vanderplanki is a true survivor.  It lives in tiny transient mud puddles in a region where the dry season may go 8 months without a drop of rain.  Its larvae can survive complete dehydration at high temperatures for months, then revive within an hour to its normal activity.  Its eggs, pupae and adults die in those same circumstances.

Once fully dehydrated, it can survive a whole string of tortures designed by fiendish (or well intentioned scientists) determining the limits to its life.  In a fully dehydrated state it can survive to reproduce in the following Olympic events for durability.
  • 17 years of complete dehydration
  • boiling for 3 hours at 106⁰ C
  • bathing in 100% ethanol for 17 hours
  • freezing at -190ºC for 77 hours.
Recently a cell line from the larva has been preserved after dehydration to 6% of residual moisture and kept for 251 days at room temperature.  When rehydrated it was able to resume swimming and proliferation, while its eggs, pupae and adults die in those same circumstances.

The secret to its success is a sugar called trehalose, as explained in this story in far more detail than I would even attempt.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Corn is for Popping

Squirrel at a feeder - hors d'oeuvres before hitting the bird feeder - REK
Winter is the time for popcorn and hot cornbread with butter and syrup. Some might even like a sip of a good distilled corn mash. Maybe even a bowl of corn flakes. But most important, corn isn't for wildlife, although a racoon in your fresh corn field might disagree.
Let's start with deer.  In Feeding corn to deer could be death sentence, a deer biologist and a veterinarian explain the problem.  For one thing, a deer's digestive tract is not designed to handle high carbohydrate loads.  In winter especially its bacteria and enzymes are tuned to a diet of woody vegetation and a load of corn in the gut acidifies it, killing off its normal bacteria and can lead to acidosis and death.

Winter time feeding isn't even necessary.  Jerry Feaser, a deer biologist, explains:
“By late fall, deer instinctively reduce their food intake and continue to do so through most of the winter,” Feaser says. “During that time deer rely heavily on fat reserves and their ability to conserve energy.  In fact, a 1984 Pennsylvania study found that deer could survive a least a month with no food at all. During winter, deer lose 20 percent or more of their body weight by burning fat reserves. They are well adapted to survive the many stresses that winter presents."

Feeding deer is never a good idea and in New York it is actually illegal.  It is actually banned in 29 Missouri counties.  Unlike putting out food plots where the deer are spread out browsing, a feeder concentrates individuals in close proximity which can increase the spread of disease like CWD and blue tongue as described by Jim Low of MDC.  You may also do Bambi a disservice in our area when hunters gather outside your gate, waiting to take their pick as deer movement becomes predictable.

What about squirrels?  We have fed squirrels corn in the past to keep them away from our bird feeders.  Yeah, like that is going to happen!  It turns out that field corn is not only not a good food for them but it can have a toxic mold.  Unless they are eating the siding of your house and your feeding them corn has ulterior motive, best not to do it.
Bears at the feeder -

Finally, deer feeders are rarely marked plainly enough to keep near-sighted bears away.  Most corn feeders are around your house so you can see visiting wildlife.  Encouraging a bear to come in for a free meal may be thrilling the first time but once they get addicted, the thrill is gone.  "A fed bear is a dead bear," is still true and you don't want the blood on your hands.

It is time to stop feeding wildlife which has managed to get along without us for hundred of thousands of years.  Birds, OK, when it doesn't attract bears in the wild.  I like seeing wildlife up close as much as you do.  But it just isn't worth the price. 

* Hunters will want to read this from Field and Stream.
Good News- Suburban living may reduce the risks of cancer and lung disease

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Green Bottle Flies

Bottle fly on the deck  - REK
I saw this green bottle fly on our deck last summer, not where I would usually expect to see it.  It is more commonly found on dead animals, sometimes swarming in an egg laying frenzy.  It is one of many species in the Calliphoridae family, known as blow flies, a term dating back to Shakespeare.  While not exactly warm and fuzzy insects, they play an important role in nature.

A few hours after laying out a dead rat - REK
They will arrive rapidly, usually the first insect to find a corpse.  Their association with dead animals is linked to anautogeny, the requirement of the female to feed on a particular meal before her eggs will become fertile, much as the female mosquito that feeds on us.  In the case of the blowfly, she gets the protein load needed to produce viable eggs and will begin laying eggs within two days.  This is convenient one-stop shopping as she then is able to place the eggs directly on the carcass that will feed her young larvae.
L. sericata on a dead wood rat - note larva behind wing-  REK
After emerging from the egg in 8 to 24 hours, the larvae will go through 3 instars in a predictable fashion.   The speed of growth and instar progression is temperature dependent.  As the maggot mass together, their salivary digestive enzymes break down tissue and the temperature in their vicinity can reach over 100⁰ F.   The predictable  progression of instars is a tool used by forensic entomologists to determine length of time a body has been dead.  In addition, in a closed crime scene, finding blow flies suggests that the body has been moved.

Life is not easy for a young maggot.  The competition for a dead body can be fierce.  When the larva isn't providing extra protein for scavengers such as vultures and coyotes, it is vulnerable to mites that are carried to the body by carrion beetles, thus eliminating competition to the beetles' larvae.  If it survives through the third instar, it will then crawl off into the soil to pupate.  I assume that if it is in a closed room with a tile floor it is out of luck.

Green Bottle Fly on a toothpick - REK
They have more than one role in nature.  Adults take nectar and have been used as pollinators of onions, cabbages, broccoli, kale, and also other Brassicaceae where they are more efficient that bees.  (Mothers, this is probably more science that you want to share with your children while getting them to eat their vegetables.)

L. sericata larvae  - Joseph Berger CC
Finally, the bottle fly larvae (medical maggots) were used in the Civil War to debride tissue from wounds and are still used occasionally today.  Since they only feed on dead tissue, medical maggots raised in a sterile environment can clean out inaccessible necrotic tissue, avoiding damage of opening a deep wound.  Their enzymes digest the dead tissue and stimulate granulation tissue for healing.

So what is not to love about Green Bottle Flies?  They return dead animals to the soil,  clean wounds and pollinate our vegetables.  Just forget what I said about kale.

More Green Bottle Fly details are here.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Beautiful Scat

Mark Bower sent me these pictures of a small piece of scat (poop for our 5th grade audience) that he found on a dead log about five feet above the ground. If you look closely you will understand why a mycological photographer would focus on this unusual subject. Like much of the world, if you move slowly and look closely, there is a lot of hidden beauty. The tiny hairs with yellow dots arising from the scat are pin molds (Mucorales), possibly Phycomyces blakesleeanus.

 Sporangiosphores of Phycomyces -  Mark Bower
The fungus genus Phycomyces is noted for its phototropism characteristics.  Phototropism refers to the growth of an organism in response to light.  This is best known in sunflowers whose stems and blossoms grow to face the sun.  The spore-bearing sporangiophores of Phycomyces are very sensitive to different environmental signals including light, gravity, wind, chemicals and adjacent objects. One of the most intriguing is its growth avoidance of solid objects.
"Phycomyces also exhibits an avoidance response, in which the growing sporangiophore avoids solid objects in its path, bending away from them without touching them, and then continuing to grow upward again. This is believed to result from an unidentified "avoidance gas" that is emitted by the growing zone of the sporangiophore. This gas would concentrate in the airspace between the Phycomyces and the object. This higher concentration would be detected by the side of the sporangiophore's growing zone, which would grow faster, causing the sporangiophore to bend away." Wikipedia
Mark explained: "I took the pictures on site at VWM. When I looked at them on the computer I was amazed. Went back this afternoon with a spatula and Tupperware to retrieve the poo. However, the water droplets were gone and the home photos were disappointing. Now I have unidentified poop in our kitchen." (Jan, like my wife is a very understanding woman. She would never be upset that he couldn't identify the species of the poo bearing creature.)  

Seed in scat - Bower
As a true scientist he broke it apart to learn more about the culprit which left the gift. The scat was three inches in diameter, dry and firm, and contained small seeds and a tiny piece of gravel inside.
  The only other clue was its placement on top of a stump or raised area.  This is a habit commonly seen with raccoons who apparently are as proud of their poo as our dog is, carefully placing it in a special place for reasons known only to it.  

Raccoons will frequently create a "latrine" where there is scat of various ages.  Whether this is for sanitation, territory marking or just pride is unknown.  If the chosen site for the gifts is around humans, careful cleaning is required.  Raccoons can carry a round worm (Baylisascaris procyonis) which can infect humans if they accidentally ingest the eggs.  The MU Extension has information on managing problem raccoons.

Looking for some light reading?  Try The Hidden Dangers of Botany, suggested by Christine Chiu.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Finding EAB in Winter

Stripping of ash bark by woodpeckers while seeking emerald ash borer larvae; this foraging damage is called “blonding.” Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth,MDAR
The Missouri Department of Conservation is looking for help from birdwatchers, hunters and others of us out in the woods in watching for signs of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB).  EAB kills ash trees in the genus Fraxinus, which includes the commonly planted green ash and white ash.  It has been reported in 30 Missouri counties but none reported in Southwest Missouri so far.

You may have seen photographs of the typical small D-shaped hole the insect produces.  More dramatic are the tracks under the bark after the tree is dead.  Since EAB usually starts high up in the tree, these finds are hard to see.  Robbie Doerhoff, Forest Entomologist with MDC shared some more signs for bird watchers and other of us out in the woods to be looking for including "bark blonding," a new finding to me.  To quote Robbie:
"So, what is bark blonding? Woodpeckers searching for insect larvae inside trees often pop off the outer bark (see EAB website). On ash trees, this feeding activity reveals a white inner bark that is highly noticeable. Ash trees with bark blonding may not have EAB, but it is certainly worth reporting these trees for a closer look by trained foresters."

Ash bark blonding (L)

Woodpecker damage with blonding (R)

Ash bark - click to enlarge
However, first you need to be able to identify an ash tree, a little harder with the leaves off this time of year.  Look for gray to brown bark with interlacing corky ridges forming obvious diamonds.  Another clue, useful when looking for morels in the spring, is looking for trunks that split into two main branches10-20 feet above the ground.  Finally, look at the branches.  Ash tree branches are opposite like maple trees but with this more distinctive bark.

The Birdwatcher's Guide to Holes in Trees has more pictures and information.  If you find suspicious signs on an ash tree, report the tree locations using the online form at They are most interested in reports from new counties where EAB has not yet been found as shown on the map below.