Beech Bodies

beech

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.

Bee Bandits

bee

Flowers need bees. A bee’s job is to move pollen from one bloom to another; plants pay for the bee’s service with sweet nectar. Cunningly, some bees have found a way to get a paycheck without the work.

Carpenter bees (Xylocopa sp.) exhibit a behavior called “nectar theft.” Rather than reaching the base of the flower through its opening (and getting a pollen dusting in the process), robber bees bite a hole in the base of the flower to slurp up nectar, bypassing the pollen-yielding anthers entirely.

We can’t necessarily blame them though, as it may be the plant’s own darn fault. Flowers with long tube-like bases are more likely to get robbed since the brawny carpenter bees can’t reach the nectar any other way (1). This relationship may even keep the flower tubes shorter over evolutionary time, since short flowers are more likely to be pollinated (and less likely to be robbed).

In order to deter break-ins, some flowers have evolved thicker flower walls, new toxins, or even special relationships with animal “special forces.” Some tropical flowers produce extra nectar in a special chamber for ants, who act like police in stopping the robber bees (2).

P.S. The bees I watched for this sketch were upstanding citizens – no thievery going on here!

P.S.S. It’s a girl! This bee’s got a black face. Males have a large patch of white on their faces. (http://www.uark.edu/ua/arthmuse/carpbee.html)

  1. Navarro L and R Mendel. 2009. Relationship between floral tube length and nectar robbing in Duranta erecta L. (Verbenaceae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 96 (2) 392-398.
  2. Gerling D, HHW Velthuis, and A Hefetz. 1989. Bionomics of the Large Carpenter Bees of the Genus Xylocopa. Annual Review of Entomology. 34:163-190.

 

Ecology of “The Force”

OttersPond_850JML

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.

Ahh chooo! Pine Pollen and Climate Change

 

pine_malecones2 copy

The bane of many a Southerner’s existence is springtime pollen. All that yellow dust swirling on the breeze and coating your car, that’s pine tree sperm.

The male cones of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) look like a bunch of tiny bananas growing from twig tips. If you’re thinking, “wait, that’s not a cone,” the woody cone we use to hot glue decorative wreaths or smear with peanut butter for DIY bird feeders is the female cone. Its spirals of woody shingles (or bracts) protect the tree’s eggs and, after fertilization, the developing pine embryos inside.

Male cones are much smaller and shorter lived. They release pollen for a couple of weeks each spring. And it’s a LOT of pollen: 3-5 pounds per tree. Why so much? Pines transfer pollen from male to female cones by wind. It’s not a very efficient system. More pollen increases the chance of fertilization.

With Climate Change, pollen’s gonna get worse. Ladeau and Clark (2006) found that pines growing in an elevated CO2 environment produce more pollen cones, and more pollen, at younger ages.

p.s. If you ever wondered what a pine pollen grain looks like, it’s a microscopic Mickey Mouse logo!

Ladeau SL, Clark JS. 2006. Pollen production by Pinus taeda growing in elevated atmospheric CO2. Functional Ecology. 20(3) 541-547.

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).

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

G’night, Groundhog

groundhog

It may seem like an odd time for a post about groundhogs (Marmota monax) – a couple months early, right? But I think now is an even better time. Groundhogs (a.k.a. woodchucks or whistle-pigs) are considered one of the few true hibernators of winter.

What about bears? This is where we get into an issue of degrees (pun totally intended). Bears lower their metabolism and body temperature, and by doing so, conserve energy in winter when food supplies dwindle. Normally, bear body temperature is ~98.6⁰ F (37⁰ C), just like humans. In torpor (like a mild hibernation), their body temperatures drop to 86⁰ F (30⁰ C).

The groundhog, in comparison, can lower its body temperature from 99⁰F to 37⁰ F (5⁰ C)! That’s hibernation! It allows the rodent to decrease its energy use to 1% of normal.

Think of torpor and hibernation like changing the temperature settings in your house. In torpor, you drop the settings a couple of degrees while you’re at work. Hibernation is like shutting temps way down, just enough to keep the pipes from freezing, while you head to Florida for a month-long vacation.

Some scientists study how the groundhog accomplishes this marvelous feat. Figuring out those specifics could impact healthcare and space travel for humans.

p.s. Some animals hibernate in the summer, but this is called aestivation (est-eh-VAY-shun).

p.p.s. This watercolor is now available on RedNewtGallery’s Etsy site. (yay!)