Hole-y Eggs

eastereggs

The hard shell of an egg may seem like a thin yet impenetrable fortress. At the microscopic level, though, it’s more like a colander. Thousands of pores allow oxygen into the egg (and carbon dioxide out) so the developing embryo won’t suffocate.

Those pores could potentially allow bacteria into the egg. In most birds, though, a thin layer of protein called the cuticle (or bloom) is added to the outside of the shell just before it’s laid. That layer blocks bacteria from moving inside the egg. Considering that eggs and waste products all pass through the same opening in birds, that cuticle can be extremely valuable. If you’re looking for the cuticle on eggs you bought at the grocery store, you won’t find it. Eggs here in the U.S. are washed before heading to market. The process is surprisingly complex since washing eggs improperly can cause bacteria to enter through those pores. It’s also the reason you’ll find eggs in the refrigerated section. In Europe, the cuticle stays on and eggs are sold at room temperature.

Our understanding of eggshell microstructure impacts Canada Goose populations. The process of “addling” by wildlife management professionals controls the population size of the birds. A thin layer of oil is rubbed on the outside of the eggshell, cutting off the oxygen supply for developing goose. The parents, who see a whole nest full of eggs, stop laying more. But only the un-oiled offspring will survive to hatch. [FYI: it is illegal to do this without a permit – see the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.]

Dinosaur eggs had pores too, and the structure and placement of those pores tell paleontologists a thing or two about how dinosaurs lived. For instance, some dinosaurs laid eggs in an exposed nest while some buried their eggs. Exposed eggs generally have fewer pores than the buried ones since gas exchange proves more difficult underground. Fewer pores are also found in eggs laid in dry environments to limit water loss. The Museum of Paleontology at Berkley has an excellent site with more information about dinosaur eggs.

Springtime Symbiosis: Trout Lilies and Superhero Ants

troutlily_webJML

Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) pop up from the forest floor, tiny harbingers of warm weather to come. This little lily is a spring ephemeral – a flowering plant that takes advantage of that tiny window of time between the last frozen days of winter and the heyday of spring, when the forest canopy selfishly soaks up all the sun’s rays. During those few weeks, the Trout Lily breaks through a ceiling of dead leaves, and slurps up sun and nutrients to store for the rest of the year in its underground bulb. If that’s not enough, that brief time is also used to flower, produce seeds, and make sure the next generation is safely on its way. No wonder this little plant needs a rest for the remainder of the year!

Given the time limitation, the Trout Lily can’t mess around with seed distribution. It has to be done right and done quickly. Call in the ants.

Many spring ephemerals, like the Trout Lily, produce an incentive for ants to take their seeds, move them a distance away, and plant them in a safe, nutrient-rich location. Each seed has a dollop of yumminess on its outer surface, like icing on a seed-shaped cupcake (officially the “icing” is called an elaiosome, a mixture of fats and protein). Ants carry the seeds back to their nests, feed the yumminess to their larvae, and dispose of the seeds in a waste area which just happens to be a wonderfully fertile location for young seedlings to begin their lives.

Not only do ants spread seeds to new locations and give them a fertile spot to grow, they also protect the seeds from predators like mice. Ruhren and Dudash (1) placed seeds in four scenarios on the forest floor: (a) accessible to both ants and mice, (b & c) accessible to either mice or ants, and (d) inaccessible to mice and ants. The researchers found that ants secured the seeds before the mice, saving the little plants’ lives. In locales where these superhero ants have vanished, spring ephemeral populations drop 70% (2).

Want to learn more about the superhero ants (a.k.a. winnow ants)? Visit School of Ants.

  1. Ruhren, S. and M. R. Dudash. 1996. Consequences of the Timing of seed release of Erythronium americanum (Liliaceae), a deciduous forest myrmecochore. American Journal of Botany 83(5):633-640.
  2. Rodriguez-Cabal, M., K.L. Stuble, B. Guenard, R.R. Dunn, N.J. Sanders. 2012. Disruption of ant-seed dispersal mutualisms by the invasive Asian needle and (Pachycondyla chinensis). Biol. Invasions 14:557-565.

Phoenecia: Land of Purple… Snail Dye

phoeneciashellmurex

“One of the costliest substances ever produced by man” was actually produced by sea snails (Hexaplex and Haustellum sp.). The Phoenicians (in modern-day Lebanon and Syria) harvested whelks and manufactured a reddish-purple dye called Tyrian Purple. Processing just one pound of the dye required millions of snails and cost almost $100,000 in today’s dollar. The color was prized by the Romans, who used the rare and expensive cloth to designate nobility. Romans named the land that produced the dye “Land of Purple,” or Phoenicia. (1)

As you can probably imagine, destroying millions of whelks for one pound of dye is pretty unsustainable. Over time, populations of the Mediterranean snail declined and were eventually extirpated from the region. The dye industry also collapsed. Even though other sources of purple dyes were found, they paled in comparison to Tyrian purple – literally, since Tyrian purple doesn’t fade in sunlight.

Today, many more species in the Mediterranean are facing extirpation. Almost every sea resource (like snails and other mollusks, turtles, crustaceans) in the area has plummeted to less than half its past population size. (2)

Nature can be an amazing provider, if respectfully and responsibly utilized. Populations of plants and animals produce more than could ever survive, so harvesting a certain number of individuals can actually help many species. But that “certain number” is important. Harvest too much, and the populations we rely upon decline. In harming other species, we ultimately harm our own – a lesson we could learn from the Phoenicians and the snails.

  1. McCord, C.P. 1969. The Lowly Whelk and the Lofty Royal Purple Dye. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 18(3) 379-385.
  2. Lotze, H.K., M. Coll, and J.A. Dunne. 2011. Historical Changes in Marine Resources, Food-web Structure and Ecosystem Functioning in the Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean. Ecosystems. 14(2): 198-222.

Beech Bodies

beech

Take a walk in a winter forest and you can’t help but notice beech trees. Silky smooth bark and sand-colored dry leaves stick out like Christmas lights against a dull and gloomy background. While every other leaf drifted to the forest floor months ago, beech leaves hold tight like cat hair on a sweater.

It’s called marcescence – these leaves that just won’t drop – and it’s common in oak and beech (the trees are close relatives). But why keep the leaves? Are these trees just photosynthetic versions of hoarders?

One possible reason may be to protect that bud, the thin tapered structure often described as “cigar-shaped.” Inside the scaly covering are the beginnings of the new year’s growth. Hungry deer can ruin a tree’s plans for spring. But with beech trees, deer tend to get a mouthful of dry leaves whenever aiming for a yummy bud. (1)

What about attacks from smaller enemies? Insects seem to prefer infesting trees with leaves hanging on over winter.  R. Karban decided to yank all the leaves off a few dozen small oaks and compare infestation levels of a tree-noshing wasp. (2) His numbers indicate that wasps prefer leaf-hoarding trees three-to-one compared to his denuded ones.

I believe Nature is constantly sending messages of wisdom if we’ll just listen. In this case, perhaps she’s saying “every action has an upside and downside, but with diversity, there’s always hope for a better future.”

  1. Svendsen, Claus R. 2001. Effects of marcescent leaves on winter browsing by large herbivores in northern temperate deciduous forests. Alces 37(2): 475-482.
  2. Karban, R. 2007. Deciduous leaf drop reduces insect herbivory. Oecologia. 153: 81-88.

A Poinsettia by any other name… the cuetlaxochitl

poinsettias_jml

Politics was different in the early 1800s. You didn’t even have to run for office to be elected. Joel Poinsett’s friends nominated him to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and he won. By that time, he’d already completed years of travel through Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and South America where he’d met with foreign ministers, consuls, an empress, and many other political figures.

Within a few years, Poinsett became a U.S. congressman and then the first foreign minister in Mexico. That’s where he saw that plant that would later carry his name. He sent cuttings back to his greenhouses in Charleston and introduced the United States to a beautiful Mexican plant. Unfortunately, Poinsett got in a bit of trouble over his political views in Mexico (the word “poinsettismo” was coined as a result of his intrusive meddling) and was recalled from his post. Poinsett went on to cofound the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, later known as the Smithsonian Institution.(1)

Of course, the Poinsettia was well-known in Mexico long before Joel Poinsett. The plant is called cuetlaxochitl (pronounce), and grows as a shrub in Mexico City. The blood-red bracts are symbolic of sacrifices and creation.(2)

  1. To learn more about Joel Poinsett, read “Joel R. Poinsett: Versatile American” by J. F. Rippy
  2. Lots of interesting information about Poinsettias can be found at http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/

Real Monsters – The Cockatrice

cockatrice_jlweb

In medieval bestiaries, entries portrayed the cockatrice as a rooster with the tail of a snake. It’s said to hatch from the egg of a cockerel that’s been brooded by a snake or toad. Often interchanged with the basilisk, only a weasel (or Harry Potter) can kill it.

cockatrice_manuscript

Wow. Crazy, right?  Maybe not so much.

Could poultry grow a snake-ish tail? Considering the evolutionary history of birds and embryonic development, yes. Birds are the last surviving descendants of dinosaurs, and early birds (evolutionarily speaking, not the worm-getting kind) had long tails. Over time, shorter-tailed members of the group prevailed as they flew unimpeded, and with better control, among brush and between branches. Vertebrae that once grew, fused as random genetic mutations delivered more successful flight. Genetically, just a few genes (possibly just one), activated early in development, control vertebral growth and tail elongation (1). So if you can stop that gene from turning on, you might just get a tail.

The second aspect of the cockatrice/basilisk story involved being born from a rooster’s egg. Now, that can’t be true – only hens lay eggs. Well, just like in humans, sex can be confusing. Primary sexual characteristics include sexual organs. In order to lay an egg, the bird would need an ovary. But most people identify hens and roosters by secondary sexual characteristics like coloration, size, and the presence of a comb and wattle. These traits develop because of hormones. If a female bird receives a dose of male hormone, she can produce rooster-like traits. This situation is actually not so rare. Because birds only use one gonad, a disease on the ovary would cause the other to develop. Since testes and ovaries develop from the same structure, the hen could get a dose of male hormone, producing rooster-like traits, and still lay an egg (2).

Brooding by a snake or toad wouldn’t help a chicken egg hatch. However, it’s not unusual to find a snake in a nest. Snakes of course eat eggs, and some birds even use snakes as partners to protect their nests from parasites or rodents.

As for death-by-weasel, the cockatrice/basilisk story is probably getting mixed with a cobra (3). The mongoose, which looks similar to a weasel, has an amazing cellular adaptation that makes them resistant to cobra venom. Many Greek and Egyptian stories (as well as the modern tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) glorify the snake-killing abilities of the mongoose.

So next time you hear of a mystical beast that couldn’t possibly be real, give it a chance. And if you’d like to read more about the cockatrice and its devilish ties, visit awingandaway.

 

  1. Rashid DJ, Chapman SC, Larsson HCE, Organ CL, Bebin A-G, Merzdorf CS, Bradley R, and Horner JR 2014. From dinosaurs to birds: a tail of evolution. EvoDevo 2(25)
  2. Jacob J and Mather FB. 2000. Sex reversal in chickens. UFL-IFAS. FactSheet PS-53. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003037/00001
  3. Alexander, RM 1963. The evolution of the basilisk. Greece & Rome. 10(2) 170-181.