Ring species (#Inktober2019 has begun)

ring_sp_JMLandin_webA ring species includes a series of populations set around a large barrier. Each population is a little different from its neighbors, but those differences add up as the distance increases. So, as the populations meet each other on the other side of the barrier, they’ve built up so many differences that they no longer breed. It’s a wonderful example of evolution (parapatric speciation, if you’re interested).

This cutie is the Ensatina salamander which surrounds the San Joaquin valley of California.

The Greenhouse

greenhouse1_web

This map project (for the corpse flower bloom event) has fertilized my love of greenhouses and my admiration for the people who make them blossom.

Greenhouses remind me of libraries – and I adore libraries. If you’ve read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, you understand that a library is like a wise, old, introverted friend. Not a know-it-all braggart, out to prove something. But someone who willingly helps answer any question you have, as long as you ask and take the time to listen to the answer.

Greenhouses also hold and conserve vast amounts of knowledge. They’re quiet, helpful, and friendly – like the people who work there. There’s even a couple of books about them, though not nearly as popular as The Library Book.

In 1980, an expert in greenhouse history (van den Muijzenberg) estimated that greenhouses enclosed 75,000 acres (~30,000 hectares). A quarter of those greenhouses stood in the Netherlands. The earliest documented “greenhouse” used oiled cloth, rather than glass, to keep cucumber plants growing year-round in Rome.

I think I’ll have a cucumber salad to celebrate.

The Citrus-Primate Connection

greenhouse_citrus_webAround 5000 species of mammals inhabit the Earth today, and almost all make their own Vitamin C from simple sugar. Your dog doesn’t need orange juice to live a scurvy-free life.

Human ancestors, and most other primates, lost the genetic ability to perform this impressive biochemical feat around 61 million years ago [1]. How did they/we survive?

Short answer – don’t know (yet).  It’s accepted that these primate ancestors were insectivores. Insects, in general, do not contain high levels of Vitamin C [2]. But, insects do like hanging around flowers, fruits, and leaves. An insect could be noshing on some C-rich fruit (insects do require Vitamin C for development and reproduction) when the primate ate it. Or the primate could accidentally eat plant material while aiming for the insect.

What about other Vitamin C deficient mammals – Guinea pigs and bats? Guinea pigs… and fruit bats… certainly get plenty of Vitamin C in their diet. What about insect-eating bats? Well, maybe they aren’t as Vitamin C inept as we thought [3]. And, we deficients may be able to survive on less Vitamin C and/or recycle the little we do ingest [4].

 

  1.  Lachapelle M.Y. and G. Drouin. 2011. Inactivation dates of the human and guinea pig vitamin C genes. Genetica 139:199–207. 
  2. Kourimska L. and A. Adamkova. 2016. Nutritional and sensory quality of edible insects. NSF Journal. 4:22-26.
  3. Troadec, M. and J. Kaplan. 2018. Some vertebrates go with the GLO. Cell. 132(6)921-922.

The Sedum, the Finch, and the Corpse Flower

greenhouse_sedum_web

For over a year, my drawing has been sidelined by a misbehaving carpel tunnel. But I’m picking up a pen again for a fun little project (on a deadline set by a plant).

Lupin, the corpse flower at NC State, is growing another flower set to bloom about a week from now. The amazing greenhouse staff is preparing to host thousands of visitors who want to experience the olfactory disgust. I’m helping with outreach – stickers and coloring pages for younger visitors, and a map of the greenhouses to show off all the other non-corpse plants.

I’ve just finished this first small section of the map, the Sedum bed, and I am LOVING this. Since my hand needs a break, I thought I’d share the (very slow and laborious) process.

Sedum, or stonecrops, are succulants with thick, water-storing leaves. The ones in my yard are easily identified by adorable beak-bites taken out of them. Entire families of house finches settle onto the Sedum and clip mouthfuls of leaf, presumably for the water. I tried to research this behavior in the scientific literature to no avail. I found one lonely reference to an Oriole Finch in Tanzania eating Sedum leaves. That’s it. The behavior must be common since online message boards are full of complaints and advice on keeping the birds away from beloved Sedum in yards.

Seems like a great citizen-science opportunity to me!

Happy 5th Birthday, RedNewt!

newt

Five years ago, this blog was born. In 2013, I wrote a grand total of two posts and received 21 visitors – not stellar for promoting conservation and an appreciation of biodiversity. But the number of posts and visitors have grown over the years… this site has now been viewed over 15,000 times! I can’t thank you enough.
Here’s a brief look back at the “top” posts:

  1. First post: “Carapace Cornucopia” (one of my favorite paintings)
  2. Most-viewed post: “Penis Bone – No Joke” … yes, that is the top-performing post. 🙂
  3. Month with highest number of views: September 2015 (2.5k) thanks to Scientific American blog, Symbiartic, and my students’ amazing work
  4. Thanks, Philippines! Visitors from the #2 country of origin like the folktale of the Firefly and the Apes.
  5.  My favorite post: Springtime Symbiosis
  6.  Most enjoyable science paper to read: Signs of Spring
  7. Cutest model (tie): Who’s in My House? and Purring Predators
  8. Smelliest model: Corpse Flower Opens – And Stinks

Thanks for visiting, and for all the encouragement and positive comments!

Pining for Carbon

Conifers_landin

The boreal forest, or taiga, extends across Canada and Russia. Conifers dominate this cold ecosystem. The evergreen needles allow the trees to photosynthesize all year.

While conifers grow well in the frigid taiga, they don’t decompose very quickly when a tree falls. In other habitats, trees that die release their carbon as they decay. The pines, firs, spruce, and larches of the taiga soak in carbon from the atmosphere, add that carbon to their mass, and hold it in their bodies even after they die. One study suggests that the boreal forest sequesters twice as much carbon as tropical forests and six times the amount held in temperate forests (1).

For now, the taiga is helping us combat climate change. As temperatures warm, though, stored carbon can break down and release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, exacerbating the issue. The more we limit carbon emissions now, the more the boreal forest can help us into the future.

  1. https://www.borealbirds.org/sites/default/files/pubs/report-execsummary.pdf