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.

A World Without Bunnies

rabbitsI hate to break it to you, but there’s really no such thing as a bunny.

Among rabbit-like animals, we have “rabbits”, “hares”, and “pikas” (by the way, NONE of these animals are rodents – rabbits and rodents diverged fifty million years ago).

Rabbits are generally smaller than hares – slightly shorter ears too. The big difference, though, occurs at birth. Rabbit young are born after a much shorter pregnancy (30 days rather than 42 days) and the babies are less developed. Just-born rabbits (“kittens”) haven’t grown any hair yet, whereas the hare babies (“leverets”) are furry.

Rabbits also enjoy a cozier household than hares. Rabbits live in underground burrows, called warrens (check out this concrete cast of a rabbit warren).  Only the Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) stays above ground like hares.

If you’re wondering how those poor Cottontails deal with cold winter weather, see this neat Urban Wildlife study by the Lincoln Park Zoo.  And while we’re on the subject of urban rabbits, read how city-rabbits are trading their sprawling suburban homes for compact city flat.

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: Part 3 (Red Clover Symbiosis)

ATwildflowers_cloverImagine the extreme thirst of being stranded at sea, encircled by water you cannot drink.  Air is like that. Our bodies need nitrogen desperately to survive – and we’re surrounded by air full of Nitrogen (N2). But it’s all unusable. N2 needs to be converted to NO2 for us to use. Only bacteria can do that.

So what do bacteria and nitrogen have to do with this unassuming little plant? Red Clover (Trifolium pretense) is a member of the Legume Family of plants. Legumes cooperate with soil bacteria, giving them sugars and, in return, receiving “fixed nitrogen” (NO2). This fixed nitrogen inserts itself into all the living structures of the plant and, when eaten, passes the usable nitrogen on to animals.

clover_bee

Until the early 1900s, the only way we could get nitrogen in our bodies was through this route. Then, the Haber-Bosch process was developed. Not only did it save us from mass starvation (yay!), it served as a resource for making bombs (hiss!) and ultimately intensifying World War II.

For an AWESOME read about the Haber-Bosch process, read “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager. Now if someone would just write an exciting, gut-wrenching saga about legumes and soil bacteria.

Wildflower Stories: Part 2 (Tall Bluebell)

Bluebell_ATwildflowerslSee that Tall Bluebell (Campanulastrum americanum) flower? Is it red or is it blue?

Believe it or not, it’s kind of both!

The color pigment in plants that makes red is called anthocyanin. The pigment normally reflects red light waves. But if you raise the pH and add a couple metal atoms to anthocyanin, it changes the light waves reflected – and poof – blue!

bluebell_flower

Turns out, blue is a pretty rare color in nature. Dr. David Lee wrote a whole book about how colors in nature come to be, including the fairly complex steps to making blue in “Nature’s Palette: The Science of Plant Color”.

If you’d like to check out the color pigments in the flowers around your home, visit Scientific American for an easy, do-it-yourself pigment experiment.

Wildflower Stories: Part 1

ATwildflowers_agrimonyThe wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail impressed the heck out of me during a recent hike. My inner biologist began counting the number of plant families represented. The artist inside distracted my count with constant “ooo, pretty!” comments. This drawing highlights just a few of the flowers from the trip – and launches the first of a host of posts.

 AGRIMONY (Agrimonia sp.)

Once upon a time, Agrimony was a go-to herb for the local physician. It was reported* to cure or alleviate eye and liver problems, intestinal troubles, back pain, gunshot wounds, snakebites, sore feet, pimples and coughs. The most horrifying treatment combined Agrimony with “a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal haemorrhages.”1

We’ve come a long way (thank you, Scientific Method). While Agrimony may contain compounds beneficial to our health, rigorous controlled studies are lacking or do not show the benefits claimed above. Still, Agrimony is sold today as an herbal remedy.agrimony_flower_close

A lack of data doesn’t mean Agrimony won’t help ailments – it doesn’t mean it will either. As a member of the Rose family (the flowers’ many stamens clued me into its familial origins), Agrimony shares traits with apples, lemons, nectarines, almonds, and of course roses. So it’s in good company with a lot of wonderful foods that offer beneficial properties and nutrients.

*This blog does not endorse the use of Agrimony to treat any of these ailments.

1. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. 1971. Dover Publications, New York.

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.”

Animal Dads

seahorse

The animal kingdom has its share of great dads. In some species of birds and fish, males watch over a nest full of eggs and protect their young after hatching. Some insect- and frog-fathers carry offspring on their backs or in their mouths. But my award for best animal dad goes to seahorses (Hippocampus spp.). Male seahorses endure pregnancy and, after a few weeks of gestation, experience contractions when giving birth … to over 100 babies.

Currently, around 50 species of seahorses live in the world. They’re endangered though, due to over-collecting for the pet trade, souvenirs and traditional medicine.