Springtime Symbiosis: Trout Lilies and Superhero Ants

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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.
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Phoenecia: Land of Purple… Snail Dye

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“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.

Ecology of “The Force”

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As Obi-Wan Kenobi explained, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” These sage words constituted my first exposure to an ecological idea: Energy.

Jedi are no fools. Every drop of energy we use (and rely upon) comes from outer space. Solar energy reacts with carbon dioxide and water inside those wondrous Earthly chemists, plants, to build the most amazing molecule of all – sugar. Sugars combine to form building blocks of plant bodies and, when eaten by an animal, these components break apart to release energy. We use this energy to power our bodies.

Life forms even store energy by combining sugars into fats or oils. The oil saved up by an unfathomable number of plants, buried millions of years ago, power our machines today. We call these ancient plant oils “fossil fuels.” Breaking apart those molecules releases the energy (and carbon dioxide) made long, long ago.

In a sense, that energy does surround and penetrate us; it flows through us.

May the Fourth (be with you) is Star Wars Day. Enjoy it by appreciating the energy of all living things that bind us together.

Going Nuts for Blue Jays

bluejaysWatch out, squirrel. You’ve got competition this autumn.

Acorn gathering and burying is often considered a squirrel hobby. Turns out, Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are pretty good at it too. Okay, really good.

Blue Jays have a pouch in their throat they can use to hold acorns (up to 5!). When they reach a caching site, the birds will spit up the acorns and bury them one at a time under leaves or in the dirt.

One study showed that Blue Jays were responsible for relocating more than half the acorns in a forested plot. (1) That’s over 130,000 acorns! And yes, the birds usually remember where they’re hidden. They’ll often place the morsels near “beacons” like rocks or fences.

Another study suggested that the birds were the most likely culprit in the spread of oaks after the last Ice Age (2). Most trees with heavy seeds returned slowly to the barren lands left when the glaciers retreated. But the oaks came back quickly. Squirrels couldn’t do that, but Blue Jays could.

  1. Darley-Hill S and Johnson WC. 1981. Acorn dispersal by the blue jay. Oecologia. 50(2) 231-232.
  2. Carter JW and Adkisson CS. 1986. Airlifting the oaks. Natural History. 95(10) 40-48.

By the way, Lego(R) came out with a bird series this year – and it includes the blue jay. They should add a small Lego acorn to go along with it.

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.