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.

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!

Is Your Favorite Animal a WUG?

AnimDiversity_RNG

Think of your favorite animal. Is it warm and fuzzy? Or fine and feathered?

Many people think of “animals” as mammals, birds, or reptiles. Occasionally a fish, crustacean, or insect will creep in there. But, let’s face it, our view of animals is limited.

Children reflect this discrepancy when asked to draw a picture of a habitat. For instance, Snaddon et al. (2008) found that children drew ~75% mammals, birds, and reptiles in their portrayals of a rainforest. In reality, rainforest animals are 90% insects.

The rainforest isn’t unique. Most animals are insects (beetles, to be specific). It makes the Victorian hobby of beetle-collecting seem a little more understandable now.

And the Nematodes! Nematodes (roundworms) make up a surprisingly high percentage of animal species. Scoop up a trowel-full of soil from your yard, and you’re likely to have thousands upon thousands of nematodes in there.

If we can get children to understand that ecosystems, like rainforests, contain more animals than just vertebrates (and plants too!), the consequences include a better understanding of ecosystem functions and conservation issues.

So introduce yourself and your children to insects and worms (sometimes called “wugs” – worms and bugs). Attend insect-related events at a museum, make insect-face masks for play, visit natural environments, sow insect-promoting native plants (and keep careful track of all the worms in the ground), or tend an insect or worm as a pet for a couple days.

Maybe your new favorite animal won’t have fur or feathers.

 

Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579

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: Milkweed, Monarchs and Monsanto

ATwildflowers_milkweedlMonarch butterfly populations have declined an estimated 90% over the past 20 years. [1] What’s going on?! The answer involves genetic engineering, protozoans and herbicide.

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a member of the Dogbane family of plants, is closely associated with Monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed and assimilate the plant’s chemical defenses, providing the Monarchs protection over the rest of their lives.

Milkweed grows in disturbed soils, like those used in agriculture. The plant is often found between rows of corn or soybeans. However, genetic modification of corn and soybean allows herbicides (such as Monsanto’s RoundUp) to be more efficient at killing other plants, like milkweed. Fewer milkweeds, fewer Monarchs.

milkweed_flowers
So good-hearted people came to the rescue, planting Milkweed in their yards in an effort to help the butterflies. Unfortunately, many people planted the wrong species of Milkweed. Here in the U.S., native Milkweed dies back each year. This dieback limits the population of a Monarch parasite called OE (Ophryocystis electroscirrha). [2] However, the species of Milkweed people planted is evergreen, so the parasites keep proliferating and Monarchs get so sick they don’t survive their migration to Mexico and back.

If you’d like to find the right Milkweed for your neck of the woods, here’s a handy tool from Xerces.

  1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-monarch-butterfly-migration-threatened-plan/
  2. http://monarchparasites.uga.edu/whatisOE/

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.