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.

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Appalachian Trail Overlook

travelsketch_frombarn800The most amazing aspect of the human species (Homo sapiens) is our power to change our environment. Using this capacity, we’ve created societies in almost every corner of the Earth. We construct islands, create inlets and waterways, and move dunes to secure a coastal view. We cut tremendous forests and construct remarkable dams. And we eliminate entire mountains in our search for ores and coal. We even change the temperature and weather patterns of our planet.

This may sound bleak, but I don’t see it that way. With so much influence and ingenuity, we can protect our planet. We have the power to reduce and repair environmental impacts. It all begins with awareness, resolve, creativity… and responsibility.

Mind the wisdom of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

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

Hemlock or Hemlock??

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I have never poisoned anyone. I’ve just learned that if I were to try, I would be very bad at it. The hemlock I thought was poisonous turns out to just have an unfortunate common name. And rather than brewing up a batch of tainted tonic, I would apparently make my intended victim an aromatic cup of tea loaded in Vitamin C.

While hiking around the Appalachians this weekend, I spied tons of hemlock trees. “What a great post for October… Hemlock!” I thought and pulled out my sketchbook.

Sketch done, I hopped online to find out just how the poisoner killed Socrates. Uh oh, wait… it’s a different Hemlock?

Evidently, the poisonous hemlock is a small plant related to a carrot. Not THIS hemlock (the Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis) which is a tree known for its wonderful aroma – a sweet, fruity pine-like scent. Oils from the leaves and twigs are condensed and sold for home sprays, perfumes and some homeopathic uses (often listed under a non-Hemlock name though).

Perhaps the Eastern Hemlock would benefit if it produced a little poison though. Small insects called Wooly Adelgids are munching their way through every Eastern Hemlock in the southern Appalachians. Researchers are concerned that, if a solution is not found, most of the Eastern Hemlocks in this region could be gone in the next decade.

Warts & All

American Toad (Bufo americanus)Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Shakespeare’s witches open Macbeth by tossing a toad into their cauldron, along with parts of snakes, newts, bats and other dejected, unfortunate creatures. Why such a bad rap? After all, people LOVE frogs – they turn into princes, they have good tasting legs, and some cultures consider them lucky. But toads? Feared, reviled. What’s the big difference?

Toads tend to live in drier environments than frogs. In the frog’s aquatic environment, escape is just a hop away. For toads, though, warts are the key to survival. The two large “warts” on a toad, just behind the head, are glands that secrete a substance toxic to the toad’s predators.

Ay, there’s the rub – Toads are associated with poison. They actually produce three kinds of toxins: two affect the heart and one can produce hallucinations. Some cultures have used these chemicals for medical purposes. Perhaps those Shakespearean hags were just brewing up a treatment for edema.

Protect toads! While the American Toad is not threatened or endangered, many other populations of amphibians are experiencing sharp declines.

Learn more about the American Toad (Bufo americanus) and hear it call at http://www.herpsofnc.org/herps_of_NC/anurans/Bufame/Buf_ame.html

Pitch In – Help the Pitcher Plants

pitcherplantsCarnivorous plants have turned the tables on food webs. Rather than insects munching on plants, these plants chow down on insects.

The “traps” of pitcher plants are actually modified leaves. The flap (or operculum) prevents rain from entering the pitcher. The opening to the pitcher lures insects with nectar, but any bug that reaps the sweet reward will find a very slippery surface. Plop!! Into the digestive fluids at the bottom of the trap.

Many carnivorous plants are threatened or endangered. They live in marshy lands, the kind of places humans drain to build subdivisions and shopping centers. And since marshy areas are low spots in the terrain, chemicals like herbicides can wash from higher ground. People also love carnivorous plants to death – millions of pitcher plants have been dug up and sold to collectors.

What can you do to help the pitcher plants?
1) Support wetlands protection
2) Buy daisies, not carnivorous plants. Even if you buy the plants from a reputable source, it increases demand for these plants.

Pikas!!!

pikas

These incredibly cute animals (Ochotona princeps) are short-eared, mini-rabbits. They live at high elevations in rocky outcrops, spending their days gathering plants for winter. They’re quick, hopping along and zipping from rock to rock. Not only do pikas look like dog toys, they sound like them too (David Attenborough will be happy to show you – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sifk9uphr2Q).

Wonder what the next 100 years will bring for the pika? As temperatures climb, many species survive by shifting their range up mountains. But the pika is already at the top – where will they go?

Recycle! Ride your bike! Save the pika!