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

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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.

Saving the Corpse Flower… and its friends

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Deep inside the corpse flower are its developing fruits (painted in the sketch above). After 6-9 months, they’ll look like a column full of beautiful ripe tomatoes, tempting birds to eat them and distribute the seeds inside.

Unfortunately, both the corpse flower (Amorphophalus titanium) and its major seed distributor, the rhinoceros hornbill, are threatened by deforestation. Populations of the rhinoceros hornbill bird (Buceros rhinoceros) have declined by 72%. Other species, such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, are also suffering from this habitat loss.

What’s driving the deforestation? Many old growth forests in Sumatra have been cut to make way for palm oil plantations. Are the Sumatrans really eating that much palm oil? Nope. It’s you and me. So check your food labels – sometimes palm oil is listed under “vegetable oil” (if so, it must describe which plants). Look up eateries and food brands by using the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Palm Oil Scorecard – thankfully, Ben & Jerry’s has a good score!

Happy Darwin Day!!!

barnacle

Barnacles. Not that appealing, right? Charles Darwin probably would have agreed… until he ran into a small problem. He found a new species of barnacle on his trip around the world and couldn’t place it into a taxonomic category. So, Darwin ended up examining, dissecting and analyzing every known species of barnacle, re-ordering the entire crustacean sub-class to figure out where his little guy fit.

It took 8 years… of barnacles… and microscopes. Turns out that Darwin’s newly discovered species (which he politely called “Mr. Arthrobalanus”) was the smallest barnacle in the world. With close and careful observation, Darwin also realized that some species of barnacle, thought to consist only of females, actually housed minuscule males inside small compartments of the feminine form. However, the most influential aspect of such this detailed study was the realization that immense variation occurs within and among species (variation being a key component in natural selection). Those barnacles changed not just biology, but our understanding of the world.

February 12, 2016 is Darwin’s 207th Birthday. Enjoy some cake (and maybe even send some love to Mr. Arthrobalanus)!

 

Interested in learning more about Darwin? I recommend three books: The Autobiography of Charles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle, and Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin (although all of Darwin’s letters can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).

Of Leaves & Worms

leavesEvery autumn, vibrant leaves float down from the tree tops to stitch a patchwork quilt resting on the forest floor.

Over time, leaves are broken down by fungi, bacteria and other detrivores (organisms that eat dead stuff) like earthworms. The superpower of the earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) is its ability to compost vegetation and return vital nutrients to the soil.

Charles Darwin was fascinated by earthworms, conducting wonderful experiments to determine how much soil they moved and whether worms preferred to collect leaves from the broad end or pointed end. Worms pull leaves into their burrows (narrow end first) to plug the opening and protect themselves from ‘early birds’.

In much of North America, earthworms were killed off in the last ice age (~10,000 years ago). The worms you see now in Michigan, Maine and Minnesota are all invaders. Sounds great, right? More nutrients in the soil? Unfortunately, the northern hardwood forest ecosystem is adapted to a thicker leaf litter layer and slower release of nutrients. So now, the introduction of the earthworm changes which seeds can germinate (and which trees will continue to survive), nutrient run-off, and which animals live in the new, de-littered forest. (1)

If you’re interested in appreciating the awesome recycling power of the worm, check out a delightful little book by Amy Stewart – “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms”.

Want to read more specifics about leaf-earthworm experiments? Natural History Magazine has an entertaining write-up.

  1. Hale CM et al. 2008. Exotic earthworm effects on hardword forest floor, nutrient availability and native plants a mesochosm study. Oecologia. 155:509-518.

Five Reasons Why This Beetle Should Win the Best Insect Award

patentleatherI recently ran across this gorgeous beetle while hanging out with writer Scott Huler on his ambitious Lawson Trek. I didn’t know what species it was, but figured it would be pretty easy to ID when I got home (it was). As I began researching this insect, I quickly realized that the Patent-Leather Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus) should be nominated for a Best Insect Award.
Here’s why:

1. Great Personality
This very large beetle with scary looking mouthparts won’t hurt you. It rarely flies and it’s a pretty slow walker… so no sudden movements and no buzzing around your head. I like that in an insect. And those horrifying chompers? They’re used to chew through logs, not people. Thank you, evolution.

2. Cool Appearance
Ooo, shiny! Plus, it’s a terrific insect for anatomy practice. First, no microscope needed. Second, that clear-cut case of head, thorax, abdomen? Not so fast. The abdomen-looking structure is actually a grooved set of hardened wings called elytra. And that thorax-looking structure? Well, it is PART of the thorax. The other section is underneath those elytra. Way to keep things interesting!

3. No Sexism
Both males and females contribute to rearing their young and keeping the home safe and tidy. This social structure is not common among beetles (see another post about equality-minded beetles).

4. Ecological Service
Patent-leather beetles don’t just raise their family in logs. They also eat and decompose the wood, recycling nutrients back to the forest floor.

5. Kiss Language
These beetles communicate with each other through a number of different calls. Many calls sound like the noise you make when blowing someone a kiss. Larval patent-leather beetles even have a modified third set of legs that create noises to communicate with parents (“Ma, I’m hungry!” “Watch me, Dad!”)

Want to learn more about the awesome Patent-leather beetles (and hear their kiss-calls)? Here’s a great resource from the University of Florida.