Saving the Corpse Flower… and its friends

corpseflower_fruits_animals

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.

Losing our Plants

ATwildflowers_allPlants love CO2. They suck it in to build their bodies and power their lives. The millions of tons of CO2 we spew into the atmosphere each year should make a plant feel like partying. Yet 70% of plants are at risk of extinction (1).

Beautiful Diversity

The image above represents the diversity of wildflowers I saw while hiking on the Appalachian Trail this summer. I’ve researched their historical medical uses (and wartime uses), pigmentation, symbiotic relationships, chemical and physical defenses, anatomy, and impact on insects. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these plants as much as I have!

Climate Change and Habitat Alteration

Climate Change brings shifting temperatures and water patterns, introduced pathogens and competitors. Since many plants have such close relationships with insects and fungi, evolutionary change grows in complexity. Most plants can’t keep up.

One of the biggest threats to plants (and everything else) is Habitat Alteration. We change the flow of rivers, turn forests into concrete deserts, build islands and literally move mountains. Geologic shifts like these used to take place over millennia. They now happen in months.

Loss of Plants, Loss of Knowledge

We change habitats to create more space for ourselves – building homes and grocery stores, retrieving fuels for our electronics and cars, and creating a lake-side view where there was none. But as we focus more and more on ourselves, we lose our awareness of everything else.

How many of us can identify the plants in our own backyards? How much medical and agricultural knowledge have we lost because “plants are boring”? When we lived within the landscape (rather than changing the landscape to suit our needs), we were forced to understand the lifeforms around us. We learned which plants to cultivate and which to avoid. We appreciated the benefits and perils of every plant.

Appreciate a Plant Today

Plants supply almost all our food and 1/2 our oxygen (thank you, algae, for the other half). Plants secure our soils and could help us battle Climate Change. Plants make beautiful flowers and support every ecosystem.

Let’s vow to get to know them better. Pick a plant in your yard and ID it. Visit an arboretum or botanical garden. Take a local botany class. And don’t forget to take some time to smell the roses.

  1. http://www.iucn.org/media/news_releases/?81/Extinction-crisis-escalates-Red-List-shows-apes-corals-vultures-dolphins-all-in-danger

Wildflower Stories: Part 3 (Red Clover Symbiosis)

ATwildflowers_cloverImagine the extreme thirst of being stranded at sea, encircled by water you cannot drink.  Air is like that. Our bodies need nitrogen desperately to survive – and we’re surrounded by air full of Nitrogen (N2). But it’s all unusable. N2 needs to be converted to NO2 for us to use. Only bacteria can do that.

So what do bacteria and nitrogen have to do with this unassuming little plant? Red Clover (Trifolium pretense) is a member of the Legume Family of plants. Legumes cooperate with soil bacteria, giving them sugars and, in return, receiving “fixed nitrogen” (NO2). This fixed nitrogen inserts itself into all the living structures of the plant and, when eaten, passes the usable nitrogen on to animals.

clover_bee

Until the early 1900s, the only way we could get nitrogen in our bodies was through this route. Then, the Haber-Bosch process was developed. Not only did it save us from mass starvation (yay!), it served as a resource for making bombs (hiss!) and ultimately intensifying World War II.

For an AWESOME read about the Haber-Bosch process, read “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager. Now if someone would just write an exciting, gut-wrenching saga about legumes and soil bacteria.

Wildflower Stories: Part 1

ATwildflowers_agrimonyThe wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail impressed the heck out of me during a recent hike. My inner biologist began counting the number of plant families represented. The artist inside distracted my count with constant “ooo, pretty!” comments. This drawing highlights just a few of the flowers from the trip – and launches the first of a host of posts.

 AGRIMONY (Agrimonia sp.)

Once upon a time, Agrimony was a go-to herb for the local physician. It was reported* to cure or alleviate eye and liver problems, intestinal troubles, back pain, gunshot wounds, snakebites, sore feet, pimples and coughs. The most horrifying treatment combined Agrimony with “a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal haemorrhages.”1

We’ve come a long way (thank you, Scientific Method). While Agrimony may contain compounds beneficial to our health, rigorous controlled studies are lacking or do not show the benefits claimed above. Still, Agrimony is sold today as an herbal remedy.agrimony_flower_close

A lack of data doesn’t mean Agrimony won’t help ailments – it doesn’t mean it will either. As a member of the Rose family (the flowers’ many stamens clued me into its familial origins), Agrimony shares traits with apples, lemons, nectarines, almonds, and of course roses. So it’s in good company with a lot of wonderful foods that offer beneficial properties and nutrients.

*This blog does not endorse the use of Agrimony to treat any of these ailments.

1. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. 1971. Dover Publications, New York.

Animal Dads

seahorse

The animal kingdom has its share of great dads. In some species of birds and fish, males watch over a nest full of eggs and protect their young after hatching. Some insect- and frog-fathers carry offspring on their backs or in their mouths. But my award for best animal dad goes to seahorses (Hippocampus spp.). Male seahorses endure pregnancy and, after a few weeks of gestation, experience contractions when giving birth … to over 100 babies.

Currently, around 50 species of seahorses live in the world. They’re endangered though, due to over-collecting for the pet trade, souvenirs and traditional medicine.