Purring Predators

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As agriculture took hold in Middle Eastern societies about 10,000 years ago, archeological evidence of cat domestication appears. When humans began storing grain, any rodent-killing animal was a benefit. But the presence of cats didn’t spread along with agriculture. Egyptians may have revered cats, but other civilizations used weasels or snakes to limit mice. In the painting “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, the weasel may symbolize purity or the young woman’s last name (similar to the Greek word for ermine). With all due respect, however, I think the animal may have just been the lady’s pet; weasels were more common pets than cats at that time.

ermine

Cats may have been popular in Egypt during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but Greeks and Romans kept weasels as their rodent-killing pets. Cats joined European families around the fourth century but were relatively uncommon until the 1600s (1).

Nowadays, of course, cats are popular pets and internet memes. Their omnipresence is also a major cause of concern to ecologists and bird lovers. In a 2013 research article, Loss et al. estimated our purring pets (and their feral cousins) kill about 2.5 billion birds and 12 billion rodents each year in the U.S. alone (2).

P.s. The adorable cat who posed for this painting is our own 18-year old feline princess, Flea. She’s killed exactly one bird in her life, a fledgling finch who accidentally flew into her mouth. Flea didn’t even bite down; the little bird panicked to death.

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life. G.L. Campbell. 2014. Oxford University Press.
  2. Loss, S.R. et al. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4:1396.

The Firefly and the Apes

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An old Philippine folktale pits a firefly against a troop of apes. One day, an ape asks the firefly why he carries a lantern. The firefly replies that he uses the light to see mosquitoes and defend himself. The ape laughs and calls the firefly a coward. Insulted, the insect challenges the ape (and all his friends) to a fight. The next day, the firefly faces 1000 apes with large clubs, all lined up against him. The firefly lands on the first ape’s nose and the second ape swings his club to squash the insect. But the lightning bug flits away and the ape’s blow kills his companion instead. Then the firefly alights on the second ape’s nose. A club is swung and the second ape is dead. On and on until the firefly reaches the last ape, who piteously surrenders. The folktale ends, “Since that time, the apes have been in mortal terror of the fireflies.” (1)

Despite folktales consistently portraying apes as fools, we all know they’re actually pretty smart. The Philippine tale is one account of why apes avoid fireflies. But could there be a biological reason for this aversion? Maybe it’s because fireflies are noxious.

One firefly can kill a bearded dragon (Pogona sp.), a fairly large lizard that can grow up to 2 feet long (2). For mammals like apes, well, they probably just taste really bad. Most animals that eat fireflies spit them out or throw them up.

Fireflies do try to warn their would-be attackers through their coloration. Light and dark stripes and red markings are examples of aposematic coloration – both are found on this lightning bug. Don’t say he didn’t warn you!

 

  1. Millington, WH and BL Maxfield. 1907. Visayan Folk-Tales. Journal of American Folklore. 20(79) 311-318.
  2. Knight, M et al. 1999. Firefly Toxicosis in Lizards. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 25(9)

A Raspberry’s Worst Nightmare

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With all the beautiful berries available now, I’ve been seeing more fruit flies hanging around the kitchen. Annoying? Yes. Ruining my strawberries? Nope. Fruit flies lay their eggs on damaged or rotting fruit. So they’re only interested in the pieces that are going bad. I’m ok with that.

But consider a fruit fly who lays her eggs on fresh fruit. She’d have the agricultural community freaking out. Just imagine the risk to berry crops. Actually, you don’t have to imagine because scientists have already done the calculations for you: it’s potentially $2.6 billion of risk (1).

Evolution has already dealt this stunning set of cards to Drosophila suzukii, the spotted-wing drosophila (2). The females have an ovipositor (the anatomical structure that deposits eggs) that looks like a serrated knife. Unlike the common fruit fly in your house, this species’ egg-laying parts can cut through the skins of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and grapes.

Want to learn more about the spotted-wing drosophila? IFAS at the University of Florida has a great info page on the little beastie (with horrifically gorgeous pictures, by Martin Hauser, of that ovipositor – if you haven’t seen fruit fly genitalia yet, you are missing out).

p.s. Thanks to Dr. Nadia Singh for introducing me to Drosophila suzukii.

  1. Walsh, Douglas, M. Bolda, R. Goodhue, A. Dreves, J. Lee, D. Bruck, V. Walton, S. O’Neal, F. Zalom. 2011. Drosophila suzukii (Diptera: Drosophilidae): Invasive Pest of Ripening Soft Fruit Expanding its Geographic Range and Damage Potential. Journal of Integrated Pest Management. 2(1): G1-7.
  1. Atallah, L. Teixeira, R. Salazar, G. Zaragoza, A. Kopp. 2014. The making of a pest: the evolution of a fruit-penetrating ovipositor in Drosophila suzukii and related species. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281 (1781)

Bee Bandits

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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.

 

Ecology of “The Force”

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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.

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.

Signs of Spring: Robins and Lawn Mowers

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Two robins (Turdus migratorius) hopped through the yard this week – spring is on its way. The sound of lawn mowers now drift through the air, confirming the avian prediction. Shockingly, these two very distinct signs of warming weather are actually related, according to a backyard research study conducted in 1979.

L.A. Eiserer conducted a series of scientific (well, somewhat) studies examining the impacts of lawn mowing on robin-hunting behaviors. Robins spend more time foraging when grass is short, especially just after it has been mowed.

So is it the mowing or the height of the grass that impacts robin behavior? Eiserer mowed his lawn to two different heights, 2.5 and 4.5 inches. (I wonder if his neighbors complained.) The robins spent 10x as much time in the shorter patch. Apparently, the birds eat different foods when exposed to different heights of grasses. In short grass, robins go for worms; in longer grass, they pluck small insects off the blades. The short-grassed hunting grounds may just be more efficient for finding a heartier meal.

But that doesn’t discount the act of mowing. Observations over the same time of day show the birds prefer hunting in a freshly mowed yard rather than the day after. No difference in grass height, but perhaps the act of mowing disturbs invertebrates, allowing for a more successful hunt.

Overall, I miss the days when a researcher could sit on a suburban porch and time how long a couple of robins spend looking for food. As I struggle to teach my students how to think like scientists, reading a study like this makes me long for the good old days.

 

Eiserer, L.A. 1980. Effects of Grass Length and Mowing on Foraging Behavior of the American Robin. The Auk. 97(3) 576-580.

Happy Darwin Day!!!

barnacle

Barnacles. Not that appealing, right? Charles Darwin probably would have agreed… until he ran into a small problem. He found a new species of barnacle on his trip around the world and couldn’t place it into a taxonomic category. So, Darwin ended up examining, dissecting and analyzing every known species of barnacle, re-ordering the entire crustacean sub-class to figure out where his little guy fit.

It took 8 years… of barnacles… and microscopes. Turns out that Darwin’s newly discovered species (which he politely called “Mr. Arthrobalanus”) was the smallest barnacle in the world. With close and careful observation, Darwin also realized that some species of barnacle, thought to consist only of females, actually housed minuscule males inside small compartments of the feminine form. However, the most influential aspect of such this detailed study was the realization that immense variation occurs within and among species (variation being a key component in natural selection). Those barnacles changed not just biology, but our understanding of the world.

February 12, 2016 is Darwin’s 207th Birthday. Enjoy some cake (and maybe even send some love to Mr. Arthrobalanus)!

 

Interested in learning more about Darwin? I recommend three books: The Autobiography of Charles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle, and Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin (although all of Darwin’s letters can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).

Snowbird Shape-shifters

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Those small slate-and-white sparrows hopping across the frozen ground are true snowbirds. They spend summer in Canada and move south to the U.S. during the winter. Some, like their human counterparts, even migrate to Florida.

In the late 1800s, R.W. Shufeldt wrote of two birds called “snowbirds.” One medium-sized bird, the Snow Bunting, became known as the “snowflake.” The smaller bird, the Dark-eyed Junco, was unequivocally called the “snowbird.” Shufeldt expressed his displeasure at the bird’s new moniker “junco” – he tried to determine, unsuccessfully, the etymology of the word (it means “reeds or rushes”) since the Dark-eyed Junco does not live among reeds or rushes.

Shufeldt’s article also referenced Alexander Wilson’s description of Junco folklore. New Englanders told Wilson that Dark-eyed Juncos change their plumage to become the Chipping Sparrows of summer. Before you laugh (or after you’re through), many birds significantly alter their plumage during the breeding season… although the Dark-eyed Junco does not. These two birds are both sparrows, trill similar songs, and feed on the ground.

While Dark-eyed Juncos do not morph into Chipping Sparrows, they have their own form of transmutation. Those round balls of bird aren’t fat, they’re fluffy. Feathers trap air, an excellent insulator. The birds puff up their feathers, a downy winter coat, keeping them toasty warm.

p.s. Red and the Peanut wrote a great post about the name “snowbird.” I recommend it!

G’night, Groundhog

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It may seem like an odd time for a post about groundhogs (Marmota monax) – a couple months early, right? But I think now is an even better time. Groundhogs (a.k.a. woodchucks or whistle-pigs) are considered one of the few true hibernators of winter.

What about bears? This is where we get into an issue of degrees (pun totally intended). Bears lower their metabolism and body temperature, and by doing so, conserve energy in winter when food supplies dwindle. Normally, bear body temperature is ~98.6⁰ F (37⁰ C), just like humans. In torpor (like a mild hibernation), their body temperatures drop to 86⁰ F (30⁰ C).

The groundhog, in comparison, can lower its body temperature from 99⁰F to 37⁰ F (5⁰ C)! That’s hibernation! It allows the rodent to decrease its energy use to 1% of normal.

Think of torpor and hibernation like changing the temperature settings in your house. In torpor, you drop the settings a couple of degrees while you’re at work. Hibernation is like shutting temps way down, just enough to keep the pipes from freezing, while you head to Florida for a month-long vacation.

Some scientists study how the groundhog accomplishes this marvelous feat. Figuring out those specifics could impact healthcare and space travel for humans.

p.s. Some animals hibernate in the summer, but this is called aestivation (est-eh-VAY-shun).

p.p.s. This watercolor is now available on RedNewtGallery’s Etsy site. (yay!)