Where Art & Biology go to Shop


Thanks to everyone who’s encouraged me to set up a shop for the illustrations found on this blog and on A-wing and A-way – it’s now OPEN!

Welcome to RedNewtGallery on Etsy!

p.s. If you see any artwork on either blog you’d like posted in the Shop, just comment below and I’ll add it ASAP. For instance, the illustration from my most popular blog post (Penis Bones) is not currently on the site. Hope you can see why! Haha!

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.

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: The Final Chapter (Horsenettle)

ATwildflowers_horsenettlePlants are masterful chemists when it comes to defending themselves. Turns out, some plants build fortifications too. And these armories may even store deadly microbes for use as biological weapons.

Major defensive structures of plants include thorns, spines and prickles. Did you know they’re different? Thorns, officially, grow from the stem or shoot of the plant. They’re like miniature, pointy branches. Hawthorns and lemon trees, for example, have thorns. Spines grow from leaf tissues. Some leaves develop spinous points; some leaves fully convert into spines (like on cacti). Prickles grow from the plant’s outer surface of cells (the epidermis). Since the epidermis is found all over a plant, prickles can pop out of anywhere. “Thorns” on roses are actually prickles. And the spikes growing all over the leaves of this horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) are… prickles.

horsenettleBut these defensive structures may be more prickly (or thorny?) than we ever imagined. Preliminary research indicates that harmful (even deadly) microorganisms inhabit thorns, spines or prickles and cause further injury to herbivores who dare to challenge the awesome power of plants (1).

  1. Halpern M, Raats D, Lev-Yadun S. The Potential Anti-Herbivory Role of Microorganisms on Plant Thorns. Plant Signaling & Behavior. 2007;2(6):503-504.

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.

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: Ast(er)ounding!

asters_ATlFavorite flower? Daisy (an Aster, like these).
Not only is it humble and cute, it’s a bargain. For each daisy you buy, you get hundreds of flowers. The disk part of each “flower” is actually a composite of scores of tiny flowers. Look close – you’ll see.

aster_closeAnd the “petals” of a daisy? Each one is actually a whole flower too! The single petal plucked for “loves me” or “loves me not” is actually 5 petals fused over evolutionary time. If you look at the tips, you can still see some divisions.

Here’s another example of an aster – purple coneflower!

Educational Activity: dissect an aster and see all the mini-flowers for yourself!

Wildflower Stories: Part 4 (Minty-fresh poop?)

ATwildflowers_mintBee Balm (Monarda sp.) is a member of the Mint Family – a group of aromatic plants that includes basil, lavender, rosemary, salvia and oregano.

How can you identify a Mint? Of course, the smell is a dead giveaway. That odor is actually a deterrent for herbivores. If a mouse eats a bit of mint, that mint scent will overpower the rodent’s sense of smell. So the mouse won’t be able to pick up a cat’s scent later on.

Some beetles have evolved to resist the essential oils of Bee Balm. When they eat the plant, oils condense in the beetles’ poop. They form the poop into a “shield”, waving it at any potential predators.mint_flower

Newts of Fire and Ice


Newts 101:

Red-Spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) are the coolest animals on the planet. I should know – I worked with over 10,000 of them for two years.

Newts have four different life stages – egg, larva, eft, adult. The eft stage is most unusual since it’s completely terrestrial (for up to 7+ years!) AND incredibly poisonous (you have to eat it though). People used to think that efts were born from fire. The red color may have contributed to this folktale, but it may also be their emergence from logs thrown on the fire. Newt skin secretions can protect them from flame for a short time. It’s the reason many firefighter companies have a newt in their logo. Asbestos was once called “salamander wool”.

Frozen Newt-sicle

I researched the Red-Spotted Newt for my Master’s Degree (and fell in love with them – hence, the name of this blog). Every week, I trapped newts and recorded their spot patterns to identify each one individually. Since Red-Spotted Newts are fairly common, I trapped, identified, and released over 10,000. The scientific relevance of this work turned out to be … well… lame. Reports indicated that this population was very unusual. Turns out (sigh) it wasn’t. But I did learn a couple random things that no one else has reported.

  1. Newts can freeze solid and survive. I know because I left one out too long while I was checking traps and it was a little newt-popsicle when I returned. I took it back to the lab to use as a dissection specimen, but thankfully she’d recovered.
  2. While most experts call Red-Spotted Newts aquatic as adults, I think my study population was terrestrial with a brief aquatic period for reproduction. Even in permanent pools of water, newts leave in the fall. Only a few females overwinter in the ponds.

Oak Scale – Sitting There Like a Tiny Bump on a Log

OakScaleSee that tiny bump on the branch? You’re looking at a mom protecting hundreds of babies. Well, actually, the mama Oak Scale insect (Parthenolecanium quercifex) is dead now, but her exoskeleton is still harboring those little eggs underneath. When those baby Scales hatch around the end of May, the tiny darlings will move out to the oak leaves and begin to SUCK THAT POOR TREE DRY. They sniff out the precious sugar-water flowing through veins in leaves, insert their straw-like mouth parts and drink up. As the year progresses, Scales grow and mate. Mama lays her eggs beneath her and dies, making way for next May’s new generation.
scaleEggs(These are the eggs… um, on my kitchen table. Didn’t realize they’d pop out like that when I lifted the mama Scale off. Oops.)

In the insect’s defense, healthy trees can resist Scale infestations. Some leaves and twigs may fall off – that’s all. But trees that are weakened (by physical damage, drought, chemicals, etc.) can be killed by the insects.

Cool Climate Change research recently found that densities of Oak Scale are up to 13x higher in warm urban areas! (1) Since things are getting toastier here on Earth, we may want to get more familiar with the life & times of the Oak Scale.

1. Meineke EK, Dunn RR, Sexton JO, Frank SD (2013) Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059687

Invasion of the House Finch


Once upon a time, House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) only lived west of the Rocky Mountains. Then, in 1940, a group of captive birds flew to freedom from their New York cages. Their numbers slowly grew until… BOOM… population explosion. Today, House Finches reside throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s a downside to dense populations though – disease. In the 1990s, a bacterium (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) started swirling among groups of House Finches. The infection causes conjunctivitis (like “pinkeye”) in the birds. If you’re a bird with swollen eyelids and crusty build up, you’re not going to be very good at flying or avoiding the neighbor’s cat.

Today, roughly half as many House Finches live in the East compared to 20 years ago.

If you’d like to learn more about House Finch diseases (with gross pictures), visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/hofi/abtdisease.html.

And if you’d like to see the growth and decline of House Finch populations in your state, check out www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBS/RawData/ (1)- fun with data!.

1. Pardieck, K.L., D.J. Ziolkowski Jr., M.-A.R. Hudson. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey Dataset 1966 – 2013, version 2013.0. U.S. Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.