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!

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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.

 

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.

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

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