Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.
Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.
In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.
Who hasn’t gone for a walk in the Adirondacks and been sputtered at by a small rodent up in a tree? This russet-colored animal, the red squirrel, is probably the most commonly seen (and heard) mammal within the Blue Line. In fact, even as I write this, a red squirrel is fussing outside the window. Is another squirrel encroaching on its perceived turf? Is it trying to scare the birds away from the mother load of sunflower seeds we placed on the platform feeders? Who knows? I sometimes think these squirrels cuss at the world simply because they can.
Here in the Adirondacks we have several members of the squirrel clan. Starting with the smallest and working our way upwards, we have the eastern chipmunk (small, striped, sleeps away the winter), the red squirrel (small, reddish year-round raider of birdfeeders), the flying squirrel (northern and southern species, both of which are nocturnal), the grey (and sometimes black) squirrel (larger, more often found in villages and urban areas, as well as forests dominated by hardwoods), and (drum roll please) the woodchuck (bet you didn’t know that this was a squirrel). But today I’m focusing on the red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, that feisty, surly, aggressive, and yet adorable rodent that calls the north woods home. » Continue Reading.
Every summer when I was little, my sister and I would spend two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Gloversville, where we would visit with cousins, run through sprinklers, ride our bicycles past beautiful old Victorian houses, feed the birds and squirrels, slide down banisters, and generally have the kind of summer vacation that creates the best memories. One of the evening events that sticks out in my mind, besides making and eating banana splits, was The Watching of the Primrose. My grandparents’ house (in which my great-grandparents also lived) was surrounded by gardens. All around the foundation, and along the edge of their property, flowers (and tomatoes) blossomed. Bleeding hearts, four o’clocks and foxgloves stand out in my memory, and there, next to the back corner, stood one tall stalk – an evening primrose. As the sun crept toward the horizon and the day came to a close, we’d go outside and stand around this stalk, which was nearly as tall as I, and watch.
Slowly, ever so slowly and then with gathering speed, pop! the bud would open and the yellow petals, all folded inside like a mini floral umbrella, would unfurl. It was a stop-motion film but there in real life. Today’s kids might not be held spellbound by this wonder of nature, but back in the ‘70s, it was still magic.
Do we wonder today why this flower would open when the sun goes down? Flowers exist to bring in pollinators, and in this part of the world most of those pollinators are insects or birds, and most of these pollinators are diurnal – they only come out during the day. What would be out at night to pollinate the primrose? Bats? If we lived in the Southwest, bats might be a consideration, but up here our bats are all insect-eaters. Birds? But the only nocturnal birds around here are owls, and they, being strict carnivores, shun plants except as perches and nest sites.
This leaves insects. Anyone who has been outside in the evening knows that there are some insects that love the night, like mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes, like owls, are seeking something warm-blooded for a meal (well, at least the females are). But if you are like me, and you sit up at night reading in bed with the glow of your lamp shining through the open windows, your reading is likely disturbed by the soft thuds of insects bouncing into the window screens as they attempt to reach that light. Moths.
Indeed, it is a moth that is responsible for the reproductive success of the evening primrose. In fact, there are many plants that depend on moths for night-time pollination, and they all have something in common: pale petals. Flowers with white or yellow petals show up pretty well at night, especially when the moon comes out. The creative gardener might plant a bed with naught but night-blooming flowers – what a delight to visit when sleep is held at bay by a restless mind.
The moth that visits the evening primrose is Schinia florida, the evening primrose moth. This moth has pink and white wings, and a furry white body. The reason for this pink coloration is not readily apparent. During the day the moth snoozes within the now-closed primrose flower. As the flower ages (each flower “lives” only a short time), its petals turn from yellow to pink, creating the perfect hideout for its pollinator.
I don’t know that I’ve never seen this moth, but I will certainly keep my eyes open for it now. I know where there are a few evening primroses, and it’s been many years since I’ve enjoyed their show. I think I will take some time over the next week or two to seek them out. Not only will I marvel as they open to greet the night, but I will perhaps peek inside the dying blooms during the day to see if anyone is sleeping inside.
I know what you’re thinking: Prohibition, rum runners, Uncle Frank and the still out back. In this case, however, Moonshine is merely another name for one of our late summer wildflowers: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).
A member of the aster family, as many of our late summer flowers seem to be, pearly everlasting can be found gracing the dry, sunny margins of our roads. Unlike the asters with which most of us are familiar, with their many-petaled flowers that resemble a wheel with many spokes, pearly everlasting looks more like it has small knobs at the ends of its stems. This is because the flowers are much more compact, almost button-like. Up close, they look like strawflowers, those perennial favorites of many a dried flower arrangement, and in fact, like strawflowers, they can be dried and used in decorations, lasting five months or more without any preservatives; hence the name everlasting. One of this plant’s traits that make it stand out among the roadside greenery is its lovely silvery coloration. Not only are the flowers a lovely white, with a yellow center developing as they mature, but the plant itself is nearly white. The long, slender leaves are pale green above, while below they are covered with small white hairs, which give the leaves a somewhat wooly look and feel. Maybe it is for this reason that people used to stuff this plant in mattresses and pillows. Or perhaps it was for the plant’s mild aroma.
Historically, pearly everlasting was an important part of the household pharmacopeia. Many Native American people used it to treat a variety of bumps, bruises, cuts, colds, and asthma. Since the plant is also found naturally in northeastern Asia, we can probably surmise that the ancestors of the inhabitants of those lands also made use of the astringent, pectoral, pain-killing and anti-inflammatory properties of pearly everlasting.
Because pearly everlasting is one of our native wildflowers, it has developed a close relationship with many native insects. One that comes to mind is the American lady butterfly, for whose larvae this plant is a host. Other butterflies make use of this plant, too, as a source for nectar.
For folks who are interested in creating native wildflower gardens, this is a great plant to add to the collection. Not only can it withstand some marginal soils and dry conditions, but it adds visual interest while also attracting butterflies and other insects. To top it all off, it can be harvested for autumnal decorations, provide some emergency medical care, and help one drift to sleep on a pillow in which it is stuffed. And when the sun goes down, it will shine in the moonlight, making your garden (or roadside) still attractive when all other lights have gone out.
Late summer is lobelia season, and the Adirondacks are a great place to find these beautiful flowers, the most stunning of which is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Most lobelias, however, are not red; they are various shades of blue. Here in New York we have seven species of lobelia (including cardinal flower), and today I want to introduce you to Lobelia inflata, commonly known as Indian tobacco.
I encountered Indian tobacco for the first time this summer. I was busy photographing some ladies tresses when I saw this lovely pale blue flower blooming nearby. I took a couple photos to identify later, and promptly returned to the orchids. When I looked at the photos the next day, I knew I had a lobelia, but was unsure which kind. As soon as I knew which species it was, I decided I needed to learn more. After all, a plant with the name “Indian tobacco” must surely have an interesting history. Into herbals and books on ethnobotany I delved. As it turns out, Indian tobacco has a rather long and well-documented history of medicinal uses among many of our native peoples. The most common uses involved remedies for a variety of respiratory ailments, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and coughs. I was surprised to learn that the plant was smoked to treat asthma. Coltsfoot is another plant that has traditionally been smoked for asthma and other bronchial disturbances. Is it just me, or does this seem counterintuitive? I mean, if one is having difficulty breathing, does it make sense to inhale smoke for a treatment? This is another example of “things that make you say ‘hm’.”
The plant was probably named “tobacco” because when broken it produces a scent similar to tobacco, and apparently it tastes like tobacco, too. Not having ever used tobacco, or sampled this lobelia, I can neither confirm nor deny these statements. However, the active chemical ingredient in the plant is lobeline, which has similar effects on the body as nicotine. In fact, some folks believed Indian tobacco could be used to help people quit smoking. Several products containing lobeline used to be available for just this purpose, but in 1993 the FDA determined that they were ineffective (the products, not the FDA) and prohibited their sale.
More recent studies, however, suggest that lobeline might be helpful in the treatment of persons with drug addictions. Medicinally, this is a plant to watch.
Many lobelias grow in damp, if not down right wet, conditions, but not Indian tobacco. This species prefers dry sites and is often found growing along roadsides. It’s actually a fairly common plant, most likely overlooked because its small flowers (one-quarter inch long) are not all that showy at a distance. Up close, however, they are quite attractive, with three petals pointing downward, and two sticking up, kind of like little blue ears above a wide blue beard.
When the seedpods develop, the reason for the species name inflata becomes apparent: they look like inflated bladders. In fact, for novice botanists this might be one of the best identifying traits to look for when trying to ID this plant.
As the summer draws out and the cicadas sing, it’s time to seek out the lobelias. Walk along roadsides, walk along lake shores. Look for pale blue or bright red flowers, with three petals hanging downward, and two pointing up. They are funny-looking flowers, but delightful to find.
I was recently on a road trip to and from the beautiful state of Maine. The trip took me across Lake Champlain, through the agricultural and ski lands of Vermont, zipping down the forest-lined highways of New Hampshire, and then into Maine itself, where I briefly visited the coast before heading upstate to Augusta. As beautiful as each of these states is, there was one thing they all had in common: purple loosestrife.
I know, you are thinking “we’ve got purple loosestrife here in New York, too – even in the Adirondacks,” and you would be correct in this thought. But let me tell you – the Adirondacks have nothing compared to these other states, where this elegant purple flower is thick as thieves in every body of water I passed – be it fresh or salt. I was bowled over by how far its reach had stretched, and how established it had become. » Continue Reading.
What child hasn’t read about carnivorous plants? Usually by the time we are in 4th or 5th grade, someone we know has discovered the Venus Fly Trap, that classic carnivore of the floral world. But one needn’t travel to the tropics, or even The South, to discover the joy of plant carnivory. Right here in the Adirondacks we have pitcher plants and sundews, two carnivores that are popular in their own right. But we also have bladderworts, smaller and less unusual (at least on the surface – they look like snapdragons), but no less deadly. These are plants worthy of our attention. New York is home to fourteen species of bladderworts, four of which are threatened and one that is endangered. Some species float in the water, while others are “rooted” in the soil at the water’s edge (bladderworts don’t technically have roots). Most sport bright yellow flowers that rival birdsfoot trefoil for brilliance, but two come in shades of pale purple, making them a delightful find.
Bladderwort – the name is bound to make one chuckle. It sounds funny and brings some funny images to mind. “Wort” comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, and it simply means “plant.” The “bladder” part of the name does not refer to an excretory system, however. If one pulls up a bladderwort, one will see all sorts of little pouches, or bladders, clinging to the plant. These bladders are the dangerous part of the plant.
Bladderworts come in two basic varieties up here: free-floating aquatics and terrestrial. Despite the name, terrestrial species (which make up about 80% of the world’s bladderwort species) are actually not growing high and dry – they are found in saturated, water-logged soils. This is because bladderworts must have water in order to get their food.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works. The bladders, which look kind of like little helmets, are more or less flat when they are set. When they are set, they are in a state of negative osmotic pressure. Across the opening to the outside world, each bladder has what is essentially a lid. Attached to the lid are the trigger hairs. When a small creature brushes by the trigger, a lever-like action takes place. Where the hair attaches to the bladder, it levers an opening in the seal around the lid. Once this seal is broken, the vacuum is released, the lid flies open, and the surrounding water (and its contents) are sucked into the bladder. When the bladder is full, the lid closes and calmness is restored…at least in the water. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second.
Meanwhile, within the bladder, dire things are happening. Digestive enzymes and bacteria get to work on the prey. Prey items vary in size and species depending on the species of bladderwort involved. The free-floating bladderworts have larger bladders and can take on larger prey, sometimes capturing fish fry, mosquito larvae and even small tadpoles. More likely, however, they are eating things like water fleas and nematodes. The terrestrial species, with their smaller bladders, are consuming things like protozoans and rotifers, microscopic creatures swimming through the watery soil.
The rate of digestion depends on the size of the prey. Some food can be digested quickly, in a matter of minutes, while other items take hours, or even days, to be consumed. When the food had been completely reduced to soup, special cells extract the slurry, transporting it into the stem of the plant, once more creating a vacuum in the bladder. The trap is now reset and ready for its next victim.
While reading up on the digestive habits of these plants, I found myself grateful that they are so small. Can you imagine a bladderwort large enough to engulf a human? No body of water would be safe for swimmers! This could be the stuff of horror movies (giant bladderworts grow near nuclear reactors…swimmers and watercraft are warned to stay out of the water…)!
Science fiction aside, these are some pretty interesting, and highly sophisticated, plants. Bladderworts can be found in many of the Adirondack’s lakes, ponds, bogs, and even along streams and rivers. While they tend to prefer acidic water, some do very well in more alkaline conditions. If you are paddling along and see what look like bright yellow snapdragons sticking above the water’s surface, you have probably found a free-floating species. Reach in and lift out the leafy mass to see the bladders, but be sure to return it to its watery home when you are done.
The more I learn about bees, the more interesting they become. This morning I was out photographing the insects and flowers in our butterfly garden, and a large portion of the insects I saw were bumblebees, which were mobbing the globe thistles. When the bumbles are this plentiful, it makes studying them a bit easier, for space is at a premium. When they find a good spot to feed and collect pollen, they stay there until the resource is exhausted. So armed with my macro lens, I started stalking the bees. One busy little lady was well-laden with pollen, her pollen sacs bright orange bulges on her hind legs. This got me to wondering about pollen sacs. What exactly are they? Are they actually pockets in which the bees stuff pollen, or are they just sections of leg around which pollen is piled? I had to know more.
As it turns out, bumble bees have a very interesting system for storing pollen, which begins with pollen collection. Because they are extremely fuzzy animals, pollen sticks to them every time they visit flowers. It sticks to their antennae, their legs, their faces, their bodies. They become one giant pollen magnet.
One of the really neat things I learned about bumble bees (and apparently beetles and ants), is that they actually have a special structure just for cleaning their antennae. Located on their front legs is a special notch. The inside curve of this notch is lined with a fringe of hairs that work like a comb. Have you ever watched a beetle, ant or bee wash itself? It will draw its antennae through this notch, and the comb-like hairs brush off pollen and any other debris that might be there. Pretty nifty.
Meanwhile, the middle legs are also equipped with brush- (or comb-) like hairs. These are run over the body, scraping off the collected pollen. From here the pollen is transferred to the pollen presses located on the hind legs.
At this point we have to take a good look at those back legs. Just like us, the bee’s legs have a tibia, which is the lower leg (think of your calf). On bumble bees the tibia is flat, somewhat convex, shiny and surrounded by hairs, some of which are rather long and stiff. This forms what is called the pollen basket. Located at the lower end of the tibia (think of your ankle) is a comb-like structure, and on the metatarsus (think of your heel or foot) is the press. These two structures work together kind of like levers.
So, the pollen (which has been moistened with nectar to make it sticky) is transferred to the press and the bee manipulates the press and comb to press the pollen onto the bottom part of the flattened tibia. Each new batch of pollen is pressed onto the bottom of the basket, pushing the previous batches further up. When the basket is full, it will bulge with upwards of one million grains of pollen. The hairs that surround the tibia hold the pollen in place while the bee flies from place to place, either collecting more pollen, drinking nectar, or flying back home to stock the nest with this carefully gathered food, which is what her offspring will eat when they hatch.
Bee pollen is considered one of the all-time great foods. Of course, the information I found on the nutritional content of bee pollen is specifically for honey bee pollen, but bumble bee pollen is probably very similar. So, here are some statistics on honey bee pollen:
• It is a complete protein; • It is the only known food to contain all 22 amino acids that the human body needs but cannot produce for itself; • It contains more protein than any meat or fish; • It takes a honey bee about an hour to collect one pellet (basketful) of pollen; • A teaspoon of honey bee pollen contains about 1200 of these pellets.
(Honey bees, by the way, have crevices on the backs of their knees, and it is into these that the gathered pollen is stuffed.)
It is now clouding up and the bees have probably left the garden. I know, however, that the next sunny day we have, I will be out in the garden watching the bees. I want to see if I can actually witness a pollen press in action. Perhaps some of you will do the same. If you get to see a bee pressing pollen onto its pollen basket, I hope you will let me know.
Who among us hasn’t been enchanted by dewdrops on a spider’s web or raindrops clinging to the tips of fir needles? A garden after rain is filled with pools of quicksilver as droplets merge together on leaves and glisten in the sunlight. It’s magical, and it draws the eye of many a naturalist and photographer. The perfectly round shapes, clearer than the finest crystal, reflecting the world in perfect (if upside-down) miniature…what isn’t there to love? I’ve been thinking about raindrops recently, wondering why some are flattened blobs while others maintain their spherical figures. I was also wondering why they make such wonderful lenses, even if they reflect a topsy-turvy world. These are really very elementary questions, to which we all learned the answers back in high school physics, but sometimes these lessons are forgotten in the fog of time. Perhaps now, when rainy summer days provide us with ideal laboratories for study, is the time to revisit them.
First, why are some droplets round and others flat? Water is composed of molecules that have a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other. As we all know, opposites attract. This attraction means that the water molecules within a raindrop or a dewdrop cling tightly to each other. In the absence of any outside influences (gravity or a container), the droplet wants to assume the smallest possible shape with the least amount of surface tension, and that shape is a sphere. Spheres have the smallest amount of surface area for any given volume. A sphere is a conservative shape and the easiest shape to maintain.
Now, take your droplet, and put it on a flat surface, like a leaf or a tabletop. Depending on the texture and composition of the flat surface, your droplet is likely to lose its perfectly round shape (unless it is a very tiny droplet). Gravity is working against it, flattening it out, leaving something that resembles a dome more than a sphere. If your surface is something that produces great adhesion, like a paper towel, your droplet will disappear as gravity pulls it completely into the surface.
On the other hand, if your surface of choice is broken up (say, really bumpy or hairy), and if it has water repellant (hydrophobic) material on it (like waxes), your droplet will retain its shape. Lotus leaves are classic examples of perfectly waterproof surfaces; water droplets roll off them like so many ball bearings. This is because the surface of a lotus leaf, when seen beneath a powerful microscope, has more bumps than a sheet of sandpaper. These bumps are topped with waxes. The end result is that the water droplets are able to maintain their spherical shapes and just roll along the surface.
Water drops are extremely popular with photographers because they are tiny little lenses. Almost anyone with a camera has at one time or another taken a photograph of a droplet and noticed that inside the globe of water was a tiny upside-down world. This is a property of convex lenses, which is essentially what a droplet is. Whatever is behind it appears to be captured, upside-down within its sphere – almost like a snow globe. Some photographers stage their images, to capture a perfect rose within the droplet, or the surrounding landscape as though shot with a fisheye lens. It can be very dramatic. The trick, however, is to focus on the reflection, not on the droplet itself. This is sometimes more difficult to do than you would think.
The next time it rains, or we have a good and dewy morning, go outside as the sun rises and search for the perfect droplets. A wee crystal ball perched on a milkweed leaf; a spider web sparkling with watery beads. Knowing the science behind the magic will not diminish your experience; it should make it all the more marvelous. Now, if you see a perfect ball of water, you know to look closely at the leaf on which it is perched: is it hairy or lumpy? You might just need to use a hand lens to know for sure.
You’ve got to love Urban Legends. Some of them are just so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that people actually believe them. Others, however, are understandable because they are based on misinformation that could be true but simply isn’t. Take for example the lowly daddy-longlegs, or harvestman. To begin with, this animal, while it is an arachinid, is not a spider. I know, it looks like a spider, and spiders are arachnids, but so are scorpions, and they are not spiders either. In other words, not all arachnids are spiders.
So, how is a harvestman different from a spider? Let’s consider some spider basics. What do we usually associate with spiders? Webs! Most spiders have some sort of silk-spinning apparatus, even if they don’t spin those classic webs that immediately spring to mind. Harvestmen, however, do not. They have no spinnerettes; they have no silk glands.
How about biting? Spider bites are often attributed to any small bite-like thing that appears on arms and legs while one’s been asleep (most spiders are more likely to get squished when you roll over and are therefore not likely to bite you). Then there are spiders like black widows, brown recluses, and tarantulas—all seen as highly dangerous biters (in fact, tarantulas don’t even belong in this category, but that’s fodder for another blog). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that harvestmen have the most venomous bites, but because their mouths are too small, they can’t bite people. (Sound the buzzer here.) This is Urban Legend #2.
Harvestmen do not have venom! No venom means no venomous bites. This myth is further laid to rest when one takes a good close look at the mouthparts. Harvestmen do not have fangs, hollow or otherwise. Instead, their mouths look more like grasping claws, which is what they are, and they are too small and weak to damage our tough hides. Spiders need venom to immobilize their prey; harvestmen do not (see below).
Now, I don’t know if this next one is an Urban Legend or not, but it sure sounds like it should be. If detached from the body, a harvestman’s leg will continue to twitch. This is actually true, and it is a defensive mechanism. Harvestmen, like almost all critters in the world, have to constantly be on the lookout for predators. To avoid becoming someone else’s happy meal, these arachnids have a few strategies up their proverbial sleeves, one of which is to detach a leg and then dash away. The twitching, abandoned appendage often distracts the predator long enough to allow for a safe exit.
Other defensive actions include the secretion of foul-smelling liquid from scent glands, playing dead, or even, in some species, gluing debris to their bodies to serve as camouflage.
Daddy-longlegs are actually rather beneficial animals to have around. For one thing, they help keep the world tidy. Most species are omnivores, consuming small insects and plant material, including fungi. Other species are scavengers and as such they clean up after other things have died or pooped. It may not be the food of choice for you or me, but we should be grateful that there are animals out there that like this stuff; otherwise, we’d be up to our eyeballs in, well, corpses and scat.
This brings up another difference between spiders and harvestmen. Spiders liquefy all their meals and slurp them up. Harvestmen, however, are capable of eating chunks of food. Remember those grasping claws they have for mouthparts? Thanks to these claws, they are able to exploit a whole realm of food that spiders, which are strictly predators (although one herbivorous species was recently discovered), can not.
Do you need further convincing that harvestmen are not spiders? Then take a look at the bodies of these two animals. Let’s back up for a moment and start with insects. How many body parts do insects have? Three: head, thorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a spider have? Two: cephalothorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a harvestman have? Two—but they look like one. This is because on the harvestman the joint between the cephalothorax (head) and the abdomen is so broad that the two body pieces look like a single, oval-shaped part.
If you want to get really technical, you can look at the structures these animals use for breathing. You and I have lungs. Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, rather complicated structures that involve alternating layers of air pockets and tissues filled with hemolymph, which is the equivalent of blood. Harvestmen, on the other hand, breathe through spiracles located near their legs, and the air is transported through trachea into the body for gas exchange. This system is much like that found on insects, like grasshoppers.
Most daddy-longlegs are nocturnal, and their drab coloration reflects this. Some, however, are brightly colored and decorated with striking patterns. These individuals are active during the day, and perhaps these colors serve to communicate their presence to prospective mates, or to warn predators away.
So, the next time you see a daddy-longlegs, resist the urge to squash it, or to call it a spider. Instead, take a good look at it. Watch what it does. Is it patrolling your garden for tasty morsels? What color is it? Is it out during the day or night? It’s kind of nice to get to know your neighbors, and knowing your garden neighbors is equally pleasing. And like any good neighbor, these arachnids help look after your property for you. Give them a silent thanks and let them live to see another day.
Nature is full of little tricks. Just when you think you know something, it turns out that the one you are looking at is something else. It’s enough to drive a naturalist nutty, but it’s also the driving influence that will force a naturalist to hone his/her observation skills.
Back in my undergraduate days, we had a professor who described the whole look-at-only-one-characteristic-and-draw-a-conclusion scenario as Speckled Alder Syndrome, stated with one’s hand open, palm facing one’s face about an inch from one’s nose. In other words, you are only seeing one thing and ignoring everything else that will help you make a correct identification.
I admit it: I suffer from Speckled Alder Syndrome. In all fairness, however, Mother Nature does conspire against us. And by “us” I mean all living things in general. From plants to reptiles, butterflies to parasites, the world is full of mimicry – living things that copy the looks of other living things all in an effort to deceive.
Mimicry comes in a variety of flavors: Batesian, Mullerian, Emsleyan, Wasmannina, Gilbertian, Browerian…and more. Most of us learn the basics of mimicry in high school biology, and usually by graduation we’ve forgotten all of it, except perhaps some of the examples, like monarch and viceroy butterflies.
What American child hasn’t grown up knowing about monarch butterflies? These large orange and black flappers are easy to identify and are the stuff of many an elementary school lesson on metamorphosis. Almost any child can recognize a monarch caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly at a hundred paces. Well, maybe ten paces, but you get the idea.
Enter the viceroy. This is the butterfly we all learn about in biology as the one that mimics the monarch. There are a few differences that the trained eye can pick up, such as the smaller size, the extra black line across the hind wings, and the row of white spots that dot the black border band of those hind wings.
To the untrained eye, however, they look the same. This is mimicry at its best. Up until only a few years ago (the 1990s), everyone believed that the viceroy, thought to be a tasty morsel, was mimicking the monarch. We knew that monarch caterpillars ate milkweed, and that the sap from the milkweed made them taste bad. As adults, the bright orange and black coloration served to warn predators to leave them alone or suffer an upset stomach, or maybe even death.
What tasty morsel wouldn’t want to copy this? Why, if I taste good to predators, I’d want to make them think I taste bad so they would leave me alone. What better way to do so than to copy something that tastes bad? This is known as Batesian mimicry: something harmless mimicking something harmful.
As it turns out, however, viceroys also taste bad! As larvae, they feed on trees in the willow family (willows, poplars, cottonwoods). These trees contain salicylic acid, the stuff from which aspirin is made. Birds, or other predators, that eat a viceroy get the same reaction that some people get when taking regular aspirin: it tastes bitter and can cause an upset stomach. There are no buffered viceroys out there. One taste, and the predator will never again eat something that is orange and black. Mission accomplished.
This kind of mimicry, where you have two harmful species that look similar, is called Mullerian mimicry.
The viceroy’s mimicry doesn’t end here, though. As a caterpillar, and as a pupa, it takes on the appearance of a bird dropping. That’s right. The caterpillars are green and white, while the pupae are brown and white. What bird is going to snack on the previously digested remains of some other bird?
Then you have Emsleyan mimicry, where something deadly looks like something that is slightly less harmful. How can we be sure this isn’t just another case of Batesian, where something harmless looks like something dangerous? It all comes down to learning. If I eat something deadly and thus perish, how will I ever learn not to eat that thing? On the other hand, if I eat something that only makes me sick, I am likely to avoid anything that looks like the offending food. Therefore, by mimicking something less harmful, the deadly species increases its chance of being left alone.
Some forms of mimicry apply only to plants, some apply only within a single species. It’s enough to make the mind whirl.
I am learning not to take everything at face value. Most of the time I am not in such a hurry that I cannot take the time to take a second glance. Good observation skills are worth their weight in gold. You never know – you might just discover something new, even if it is only new to you.
Monday I was walking along the shores of the Hudson River in search of a particular orchid. The sun was out, the wind was blowing, and lots of flowers were in bloom. A few frogs hopped away from the clumsy thud of my boots, and damselflies darted here and there. There was a sudden rustle in the vegetation and something slithered across my path. I watched as the tail disappeared into the greenery, only to reappear on the other side as the snake slid into the waters of the Hudson: a northern watersnake, Nerodia sipedon. This is a serpent that, as its name suggests, is equally at home in the water and on land. A rather robust animal, it is described in the literature as being “relatively large and heavy bodied.” In other words, this is no slender slitherer like our common garter snakes, nor is it cute in its tininess, like the red-bellied, brown or green snakes.
Northern watersnakes, to the untrained eye, might make one think immediately of water moccasins, or cottonmouths, both common names for the same venomous snake found in more southerly states. But we live in the Adirondacks where the only aquatic snake we have can be startling, can give a memorable bite, but is completely non-venomous.
Most of the snakes found in the Adirondacks are small to moderate in size, but the northern watersnake can grow upwards of four and a half feet long. Color can vary, but in general these reptiles are brown, or tan, with brown or reddish-brown bands or blotches. The animal I saw had a coloration very much like a milksnake, lighter in shade than I am used to seeing on these animals, although that could have partly been thanks to the water in which it was submerged when I took its photo. The older the animal, the darker its coloration. This is attributed to the tannins of the water in which they reside, which darken their scales over time. Perhaps my snake was fairly young, despite its size.
According to the authors of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, many New York specimens have red stripes on their faces. Sadly, I wasn’t close enough to this one’s face to see any such markings.
Found in almost any body of freshwater, northern watersnakes tend to prefer habitats that have some good vegetative cover nearby, like cattails or wet meadows. This explains why it made a run for the water as I blundered along the shoreline looking for my orchid (which I never did find). The Ice Meadows are quite verdant now that high summer is in full swing; between the heat and the rain of recent weeks, the vegetation has become quite lush – perfect for hiding cunning hunters.
Because they are excellent swimmers, it is not surprising to learn that these snakes commonly catch and eat fish and frogs. I remember watching one choke down a rather large sunfish along the banks of the Passaic River down in the Great Swamp in New Jersey. It was an impressive feat, considering the size of the fish, but down it went, leaving a fish-like bulge in the snake’s throat as it slid back into the water to avoid our curious stares.
The rest of this reptile’s diet is filled with birds, small mammals, young turtles, and even insects. In other words, if the snake can catch it and get its mouth around it, anything is fair game; this includes carrion, which occasionally makes it into the diet.
When I was a youngster and just learning about animal classification (back in ’72 it was), we were told that the only animals that gave birth to live young were mammals – it was part of what set us apart from the rest of the critters. Then I learned that there are mammals that lay eggs! And later on, I learned that some snakes have live birth. The world was not as simple as I had been led to believe.
As it turns out, there are quite a few snakes that give birth to live young, and the northern watersnake is among them. While gestating, the female will often bask in the sun, warming up her internal offspring to make them develop faster. When the time comes, she gives birth to 15 to 30 babies. Better her than me!
I hadn’t given it much thought, since northern watersnakes have been a regular part of my outdoor experiences, but it seems that while once commonly found throughout New York State, this hefty reptile has disappeared from part of the St. Lawrence River Valley and from much of the Adirondacks. Southern slopes in the southeastern part of the park (Lakes Champlain and George) seem to be where they hang out these days. Warrensburg fits into this geographical range, so it’s not too surprising that I found this specimen.
Like many a child, I’m not averse to picking up the occasional snake that crosses my path, but I do limit my snake handling to small and more docile species. I’d never attempt to grab a northern watersnake. For one thing, it will put up quite a fight. While striking and biting, it will also release copious amounts of various bodily substances, like feces and musky secretions. All of this stuff smells as bad as it sounds. And even though it is a non-venomous snake, the bite can be nasty. Not only will it hurt when the animal sinks in its teeth, but the wound will bleed like a son-of-a-gun because the animal’s saliva is laced with anticoagulants – all the better to subdue its prey with, eh? In other words, this is a snake better left alone and admired from afar.
So, if you see a northern watersnake on your journeys through or around some of the Park’s wetlands, rest assured that it won’t harm you if left alone. Watch it for a while. Who knows, maybe, like the one I spotted, it will turn its head and watch you back. Interesting animals, snakes are, and well-worth the time to get to know.
The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.
When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say. Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.
Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.
A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.
But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.
The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.
Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.
Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.
Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.
This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
The big news item this week is the heat. Hazy, hot and humid days envelop us in their muggy warmth, driving most of us indoors to sit by fans or luxuriate in the cool blasts from air conditioners. How fortunate we are to live where these options exist. Still, I needed fodder for today’s column, so I grabbed the camera and went stalking subject matter in the butterfly garden. I lucked out with a close encounter with a sweat bee. Not much was moving in the garden – even the wildlife seemed to be seeking shelter from the heat. But one bright metallic green bee was busily foraging on a milkweed flower and I was able to capture her image.
Many nature photographers are drawn to metallic-colored insects: they are just so photogenic. And, as odd as it seems, there are a lot of them. Bees, flies, beetles – it seems that almost every major group of insects has at least one metallic representative.
My little find turned out to be Augochlora pura, one of the Halicids, or sweat bees. Sweat bees get their name from the fact that they are attracted to sweaty people – they crave the salt that is on our damp skin. But we should exhibit caution around them, for they also pack a powerful sting.
One theory for the existence of the metallic coloration is that it serves as a warning that these insects are dangerous, at least in the case of these bees. When the sun hits their bodies, they glitter and sparkle with greens, blues and coppers. For most insects, the metallic coloration is a result of structure. The hard exoskeleton is made of chitin, a colorless substance that gives the insect support, kind of like a corset. Cracks, fissures, scales or hairs on the chitin refract any light hitting it, bouncing it back in a spectrum of colors.
Usually found along wooded edges, A. pura is noted for its choice of nesting material. Most Halicids nest in the ground, but A. pura prefers soft, decaying wood for building her nest cells.
A typical day for A. pura goes something like this: morning arrives and it is time to forage for pollen. Pollen collecting continues until the afternoon, when the female bundles the pollen into a ball and places it in a nest cell. She lays her egg and caps the cell. During the night, she excavates another cell for tomorrow’s egg and awaits the dawn, when it is time to forage once more.
During the course of a summer, two or three generations of A. pura emerge into the world. Come fall, however, things change. Females that were lucky enough to mate crawl into wooden chambers in the base of decaying logs and there they wait for spring. The males die off. In the spring, the females lay their eggs, and the cycle begins again.
Augochlora pura is a solitary bee, and one of our important native pollinators. I’ve mentioned the plight of wild pollinators before, but it never hurts to repeat an important subject. As more and more land is converted from its natural wild state into monocultures of self-pollinating crops (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans), monocultures called lawns, or just plain pavement and buildings, our native bees find less and less food, and thus produce fewer and fewer young.
With the decline in honey bee populations, it is really in our own selfish best interest to do what we can to encourage native bee populations. Without them, the foods that we eat that are not self-pollinating (most fruits and vegetables) will no longer be available.
I encourage everyone to take the time to get to know some of our native bees, and to make the back yard a more bee-friendly place. This can be done by letting parts of our lawns “go wild,” eliminating local ordinances that require all lawns to be cut and managed to within an inch of their lives, and planting native vegetation before we plant non-natives. It doesn’t take much, but it can make a world of difference to our small flighted brethren.
Lately I’ve been enjoying a close, personal relationship with a plant we all know by reputation if not from direct experience. It is the plant version of the skunk – the name alone conjures reactions that may or may not be deserved. It is reviled and feared. And yet, it fills a vital link in the ecosystems around us. Today, I give you poison ivy, Toxicodenron radicans.
Even if they’ve never seen it, children can describe poison ivy: it has three red leaves! As we all know, reputations, while usually founded on some morsel of truth, often become wildly exaggerated and the truth left behind in the dust. So, let’s start off on the right foot with a correct description of this plant. First, its leaves are composed of three leaflets. A leaflet can look like a full-fledged leaf to the untrained eye. The key is that a leaf has a stem (petiole) that attaches directly to the twig of the tree/shrub/plant. Think of your fingers. Together they make up a hand, but you wouldn’t call each finger a hand, would you?
When these leaflets first emerge, they might have a reddish tinge to them, and in the fall they can turn red, too. But to claim that year-round they are red would be misleading. Look for green, for this is the dominant color. You also want to look for teeth (jagged edges). And bilateral symmetry. Bilateral what? Bilateral symmetry means that if you were to hold a poison ivy leaf (with its three leaflets all intact) in front of you, with the center leaflet pointing upwards, you could fold it right in half, down the middle of that middle leaflet, so that the left leaflet lies right on top of the right leaflet, and it would match up almost perfectly. The left side is a mirror image of the right side.
Poison ivy is a native plant. It likes wooded understories, but also does well in rocky, disturbed areas. This is not a plant that seems to be too choosy about where it puts down roots. Sometimes it grows as a dense ground cover. Other times it grows as a vine, using hairy rootlets to attach itself a tree or fence post. Where it becomes established, it can be difficult to eradicate.
In the spring, PI blossoms right along with other early bloomers. Its flowers are white, grow in clusters, and are probably missed by most passersby since they are neither large nor showy. As summer progresses, the flowers that were successfully fertilized become white berries, which are an important food source, especially in winter, for lots of wildlife, namely birds.
And here is where the men are separated from the boys. Or the wildlife from the humans. Y’see, most wildlife, be they birds or mammals, are immune to the effects of urushiol, the oil that is the cause of all the problems we associate with this plant.
Urushiol can be dreadful stuff if you are allergic to it, and most of us have some level of sensitivity. All parts of the plant (the leaves, stem, flowers, fruit, bark, roots) contain this oil. Sometimes just brushing against the plant is enough contact to cause distress, while other times one needs to really crush it to get a reaction. I don’t recommend the latter.
I always prided myself on not being sensitive to PI, but I also kept in mind that this could be simply because I know what the plant looks like and have done well to avoid contact. Until recently.
Some of my readers may recall that about three weeks ago I was down at the Ice Meadows and simply had to try and photograph the flowering partridge berries. They were, of course, nestled down below a robust growth of PI. Throwing caution to the wind, I lay down on the very narrow herdpath and snapped away with the camera. I never got a good shot of the flowers, but about a week later the itching began.
At first I thought it was a bug bite – I’d been gardening and the ants have been known to crawl up my pant legs and nip away. A few days later, the “bite” had turned into three or four bites, and they really were beginning to itch. Then the area was the size of a quarter. By the time it became palm-sized, I was beginning to think “um, these aren’t ant bites…I think I have poison ivy.”
Sure enough, the local medical staff confirmed that I had a healthy rash going on my leg. Calamine lotion wasn’t helping much, so I invested in an industrial strength version, and started taking Prednisone and Benedryl. Another week has passed and I think the worst is over, although random individual blisters are appearing in other locations.
Here are some PI facts:
• Urushiol is water resistant. In other words, it doesn’t just rinse away. Soap and water, these are important. Wash well as soon as you come into contact. Get that stuff off as fast as you can.
• Once you have removed the oil, it cannot spread.
• The blisters, when they form, are filled with your own body’s fluids – not more urushiol. If they burst or ooze, the liquid is not going to spread the rash.
• If the rash seems to be spreading, there are a couple rational explanations. One, you are getting more of the oil on you from a source (like your pants, or boots, or the dog, or the furniture you sat on while wearing your contaminated clothes). Two, the newer eruptions are occurring on parts of your skin that are either less sensitive or received a smaller dose of the oil and simply took longer to react.
• The oil can linger for years. I read on one website that people got reactions from contaminated artifacts that had been in a museum for over a hundred years.
When I teach people to go out and enjoy the outdoors, one of the things that I cover right up front is “know your local hazards.” This may seem like common sense, but as a society we have become so disassociated from the outdoors that we often need these reminders. The “wild” can be dangerous, but if you know what to look for, it is no more dangerous than your basement. Hazards can be cliffs, raging waters, nests of bees. They can also be the weather, plants and animals. Learn to identify what’s in your neighborhood, and you won’t have to worry so much about unplanned encounters.
That said, wild clematis and box elder are often confused with poison ivy. These are harmless native plants that grow around much of the Adirondack Park. Knowing how to tell them apart from PI is useful. If in doubt, however, treat the unknown as unfriendly and don’t risk unnecessary contact. Better safe than sorry, eh?
As the flowers in our gardens burst into their summer display, the critters that crave nectar descend upon them, each intent on sipping its share. From birds to bees, they are all there, and if you aren’t careful, you can mistake one for another. Take for example, the clearwing moths, which for us are most likely the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) or the snowberry clearwing (H. diffinis). These noisy insects look like a cross between a hummingbird and a bumblebee. Like a hummer, they hover before each flower (bumble bees land) as they uncurl their long proboscises (think tongues) to probes the flower’s nectaries for food. Like a bumble bee, these moths are furry: the snowberry clearwing has black and yellow bands, while the hummingbird clearwing tends more towards dark red and black. All three animals (bird, bee, and moth) have wings that hum and buzz while the animals are in flight. It’s enough to give a gardener pause.
I found the snowberry clearwing pictured above this spring as it supped at the tubular flowers of a native honeysuckle. Honeysuckles are one of the favored plants of both the adults and the larvae. Other plants where you might find the adults hovering include orange hawkweed, thistles, and lilacs. I often see them flitting in and out of my patches of bee balm, along with the hummingbirds.
In the spring adult clearwings emerge from the ground where they have spent the winter sleeping snugly in silken cocoons spun the previous fall beneath the leaf litter. Upon emergence, the “fresh” moths have solidly-colored wings: nearly black in appearance. Their first flight, however, with wings flapping to beat the band, causes most of the scales to fall off, especially near the center of each wing. The end result is wings that are nearly scale-less and therefore look clear.
The first flights begin, and soon the female is sending out a pheromone from a gland located near the tip of her abdomen to signal to any available male that she is ready to mate. Once the deed is accomplished, she lays her newly fertilized pale green eggs singly beneath the leaves of a host plant.
Host plants are those that are favored food items of caterpillars. In the case of the snowberry clearwing, several plants will do. Many are in the honeysuckle family, including snowberry (hence the name), but others include cherry, plum, dogbane and the viburnums.
Summer rolls along and the eggs hatch. Miniscule green caterpillars begin to eat, growing a little more each day. They go through five instars, or growth spurts. As it grows, the larva’s patterns begin to emerge: pale green color with black spots along the sides. These spots are called spiracular circles, for they form around the spiracles, or breathing holes (insects do not have lungs and noses like us for breathing – they breathe through holes in their sides). Additionally, the caterpillar sports a spike, or horn, on its rear end. When it reaches its final instar, this spike is blue-black over most of its length, with white and yellow at its base. Some larvae, however, opt for a more subtle coloration and are various shades of brown. Still, the spiked tail and spiracular circles are good clues for ID.
When the final instar is reached, and the larva has eaten its fill, it drops to the ground, crawls under some leaves and spins a silken cocoon in which it will spend the winter. If nothing squashes or eats it, come spring a new adult will emerge and the cycle will begin again.
Another of the common names for these insects is sphinx moth. This name came about from the habit the caterpillars have of rearing up (and looking sphinx-like) when threatened.
Clearwing moths are insects that almost anyone with a flower garden should encounter, for not only are they fairly common, but they are denizens of open areas, like streamsides, fields, and the ‘burbs. Therefore, it should be fairly easy to find one or more. Here’s my suggestion: the next sunny day, grab a lawn chair (or your Adirondack chair) and kick back in front of your flowers. Have a cool drink handy, and a wide-brimmed hat. Keep your eyes open – you just never know what will fly by.
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