Happy 5th Birthday, RedNewt!

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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. ūüôā
  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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Pining for Carbon

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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

Playful Kittens

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Play. It’s well-documented in many mammals and birds. Fish have also been observed¬†leaping over sticks and batting around balls.¬† Frogs play-wrestle and tadpoles ride bubbles. Turtles play tug-of-war (1). Some invertebrates even play. Octopuses, and possibly spiders and wasps, have shown play behaviors too (2).

Welcome to our new playful kittens, adopted from SAFE Haven.

  1. Burghardt, G.M. 2015. Play in fishes, frogs, and reptiles. Current Biology. 25(1) R9-10
  2. Zylinski, S. 2015. Fun and play in invertebrates. Current Biology. 25(1) R10-11

 

Homegrown Squash

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These heirloom varieties of squash are the literal fruits of my springtime obsession with Cucurbits (the gourd family – almost 1000 species of zucchini, pumpkin, watermelon, cucumber, etc).

This obsession grew thanks to Dr. Lori Shapiro who knows the coolest facts about squash! For instance, before domestication, wild gourds contained bitter toxins. Only megafauna like mammoths could ingest and disperse the seeds of these protected fruits (1). In the Americas, early hunter-gatherers used dried gourds as floats for fishing nets and to hold food and water. They also used fresh wild gourds for the medicinal properties of the bitter compounds (2). The wild gourd (Cucurbita pepo) was the first plant domesticated in the Americas, and the first agriculturalists likely grew them for their nutritious seeds rather than the bitter flesh. Thanks, Lori!

  1. Kistler, L., L.A. Newson, T.M. Ryan, A.C. Clarke, B.D. Smith, G.H. Perry. 2015. Adaptive domestication in squashes and gourds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (49) 15107-15112.
  2. Hart, J.P., R.A. Daniels, C.J. Sheviak. 2004. Do Cucurbita pepo gourds float fishnets? American Antiquity. 69(1) 141-148.

 

Nuthatch & Friends

nuthatchLandin

The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has a lot of friends. It often teams up with chickadees and titmice. While larger flocks give greater protection from predators, more species diversity within the flock improves problem solving (1). Birds in diverse groups were able to get food from a new feeder faster.

  1. Freeberg, T.M., S.K. Eppert, K.E. Sieving, and J.R. Lucas. 2017. Diversity in mixed species groups improves success in a novel feeder test in a wild songbird community. Scientific Reports. Volume 7, Article number: 43014.

Protective Nests

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Birds nest in trees, on the ground, on water, among cliffs, and in caves. They build their nurseries from plant materials, mud, dung, saliva, spider silk, pebbles, and animal hair. Some nests have roofs or multiple rooms. Some are simple scraped depressions in the earth or natural cavities in trees.

Most songbirds construct cup-shaped nests which require about 1000 trips to bring in building materials (1). The birds use their feet to scrape, chests to push, and beaks to manipulate twigs and grasses as they rotate. Exhausting! Why go to such an extreme effort? Predators. Birds living on predator-free islands nest on the ground.

Some ground-nesting birds have other ways of avoiding predators… like teaming up with defenders. The red-breasted goose of Siberia nests next to peregrine falcons. The geese act as look-outs for foxes; the falcons attack. Some birds build their nests in ant or termite colonies to protect the eggs.

These sleeping bird babies, pictured, are cardinals. Their parents built this camouflaged nest in the crook of a pear tree. If dad hadn’t stopped by with some breakfast, I would have never realized they were there.

  1. Collias, N.E. 1964. The Evolution of Nests and Nest Building in Birds. American Zoologist. 4: 175-190.

An Apple a Day

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I grew up in the great apple-producing state of Michigan. If you haven’t been to an apple cider mill during October in the mitten state, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life.

Thousands of apple varieties grew in agricultural fields when nation’s founders declared independence. Today, 80% of that diversity is gone and with it, the genetic variation that can save apples from pests, weather, and disease.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequences of low crop diversity were felt during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s which caused the death or emigration of a quarter of Ireland’s citizens. A pathogen entered the potato fields and spread. Since the potatoes were genetically identical, a disease that affected one could infect them all.

Today, cost and transportation constraints benefit massive agricultural operations. The efficiency of monocultures, though, threatens our food and our health. To fight off disease in genetically-similar apples, we turn to pesticides. Apples are continually cited as worst offenders for chemical coatings (fyi, the American Chemical Society recommends a baking soda solution for washing). Today, about half of apples grown in the U.S. are Red Delicious (despite tasting like wood pulp).

Consider trying some local heritage apple varieties. Apple season starts in August!

P.S. An informative Smithsonian blog post about heritage varieties of apple includes a reference to an apple sleuth who lives just down the road from me!