Fragments of Life

MabeesSalamander_web

When zookeepers discovered that flamingos need a large flock in order to breed, it led to all kinds of crazy approaches to fool the birds – mirrors, plastic yard ornaments, speakers playing bird-crowd sounds (now, zoos generally just keep more birds). I think of habitat loss and fragmentation like a flock of flamingos. There’s a certain amount required for the habitat to function properly. If the size is too small or divided, it will fail.

The Atlantic Longleaf Pine Ecosystem (a.k.a. pine barrens – a deceptive name considering the high amount of biodiversity) spanned over 35 million hectares (about the size of Germany) around the year 1500; today, only ~1 million hectares of pocket forests remain. (1)

Good news though! If habitat is restored, amphibians (including our friend, Mabee’s salamander), among many other species, come back too. (2)

 

  1. D.H. Van Lear et al. 2005. History and restoration of the longleaf pine-grassland
    ecosystem. Forest Ecology and Management 211:150–165
  2. J. C. Mitchell. 2016. Restored Wetlands in Mid-Atlantic Agricultural Landscapes Enhance Species Richness of Amphibian Assemblages. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management. 7(2) 490-498

Misfit? Or totally Fit?

sloth

The term “fitness” congers images of six-pack abs, yoga poses, and 90’s spandex leotards (for me, anyway).  But those images can be misleading when it comes to understanding evolutionary fitness.

Good “fitness” in evolution means “a good fit.” Organisms that fit well in their environmental niche spend less energy just trying to survive; they have more energy left over for reproduction. So fitness is often measured by the number of offspring produced.

A sloth is well camouflaged with its slo-mo movement. Many predators detect prey by movement (if we stick with the 90’s imagery, remember the T.rex in Jurassic Park “can’t see us if we don’t move”). Low metabolism in sloths means very low food requirements. One study measured sloth metabolic rate at 174 kJ (kilajoules) per day. (1) Just for comparison, an average human requires 6000-7000 kJ per day.

  1. Nagy, KA and GG Montgomery. 1980. Field metabolic rate, water flux, and food consumption in three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus). Journal of Mammalogy 61(3)465-472

Ring species (#Inktober2019 has begun)

ring_sp_JMLandin_webA ring species includes a series of populations set around a large barrier. Each population is a little different from its neighbors, but those differences add up as the distance increases. So, as the populations meet each other on the other side of the barrier, they’ve built up so many differences that they no longer breed. It’s a wonderful example of evolution (parapatric speciation, if you’re interested).

This cutie is the Ensatina salamander which surrounds the San Joaquin valley of California.

Playful Kittens

3kittens_Landin

Play. It’s well-documented in many mammals and birds. Fish have also been observed leaping over sticks and batting around balls.  Frogs play-wrestle and tadpoles ride bubbles. Turtles play tug-of-war (1). Some invertebrates even play. Octopuses, and possibly spiders and wasps, have shown play behaviors too (2).

Welcome to our new playful kittens, adopted from SAFE Haven.

  1. Burghardt, G.M. 2015. Play in fishes, frogs, and reptiles. Current Biology. 25(1) R9-10
  2. Zylinski, S. 2015. Fun and play in invertebrates. Current Biology. 25(1) R10-11

 

Nuthatch & Friends

nuthatchLandin

The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has a lot of friends. It often teams up with chickadees and titmice. While larger flocks give greater protection from predators, more species diversity within the flock improves problem solving (1). Birds in diverse groups were able to get food from a new feeder faster.

  1. Freeberg, T.M., S.K. Eppert, K.E. Sieving, and J.R. Lucas. 2017. Diversity in mixed species groups improves success in a novel feeder test in a wild songbird community. Scientific Reports. Volume 7, Article number: 43014.

An Apple a Day

Landin_apples_web

I grew up in the great apple-producing state of Michigan. If you haven’t been to an apple cider mill during October in the mitten state, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life.

Thousands of apple varieties grew in agricultural fields when nation’s founders declared independence. Today, 80% of that diversity is gone and with it, the genetic variation that can save apples from pests, weather, and disease.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequences of low crop diversity were felt during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s which caused the death or emigration of a quarter of Ireland’s citizens. A pathogen entered the potato fields and spread. Since the potatoes were genetically identical, a disease that affected one could infect them all.

Today, cost and transportation constraints benefit massive agricultural operations. The efficiency of monocultures, though, threatens our food and our health. To fight off disease in genetically-similar apples, we turn to pesticides. Apples are continually cited as worst offenders for chemical coatings (fyi, the American Chemical Society recommends a baking soda solution for washing). Today, about half of apples grown in the U.S. are Red Delicious (despite tasting like wood pulp).

Consider trying some local heritage apple varieties. Apple season starts in August!

P.S. An informative Smithsonian blog post about heritage varieties of apple includes a reference to an apple sleuth who lives just down the road from me!

Chirpless: Camel Crickets

camelcricket

Camel crickets (Ceuthophilus sp.) enjoy hanging out with humans. Perhaps you provide shelter to some in your garage or basement. These insects lack one major cricket trait though – chirping. Sound production should allow camel crickets to find each other in a dark cave or crawlspace. So, why no chirps?

A Chirp Mystery

One possible reason for the lack of chirps is a high risk of predation. In other species of crickets, those who call more or longer often end up as a snack. 1, 2 While I would hope camel crickets are relatively safe from bats and birds in your basement, spiders and mice are the crickets’ major predators. Both possess a solid sense of hearing.

Many crickets have parasites who also seek hosts by sound. Chirps attract female crickets, but they also draw mama parasites searching for a cozy spot to lay eggs. The developing parasitic larvae eat the cricket from the inside, exploding out of its body as they grow. Crickets in areas with these parasites quickly evolve “chirplessness.” Do camel crickets need to worry about these “Alien” chest-bursting scenes? While they do have a doozy of a parasite (an intestinal parasite that weakens the cricket enough to ensure predation), the infections are not related to sound production.

Perhaps camel crickets simply lost their physical ability to chirp. Most crickets produce sound by rubbing their wings together. Camel crickets, though, don’t have wings. In a basement, flying is probably not the most effective means of transportation.

The Scent of a Cricket

So, how do camel crickets find each other without sound? One word: pheromones.

Pheromones are used by many cricket species to indicate dominance, reproductive readiness, and location. Camel crickets release a scent that causes them to congregate. Researchers determined the pheromone is unrelated to reproduction since juveniles move toward the scent too. Nagel and Cade3 think the pheromone prevents camel crickets from drying out. We do know the antennae detect these pheromones. In a rather disturbing experiment, researchers found that camel crickets don’t aggregate when their antennae are lopped off.

 

  1. Baily, W.J. & Haythornthwaite, S. (1998). Risks of calling by the field cricket Teleogryllus oceanicus: potential predation by Australian long-eared bats. Journal of Zoology. 244(4) 505-513.
  2. Hedrick, A.V. (2000). Crickets with extravagant mating songs compensate for predation risk with extra caution. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 267(1444) 671-675.
  3. Nagel, M.G. & Cade, W.H. (1983). On the role of pheromones in aggregation formation in camel crickets, Ceuthophilus secretus (Orthopter: Gryllacrididae). Canadian Journal of Zoology 61(1).