03 August 2009

What do we have here?

Ah, they're back. One day, you're out in the yard and you see something peeking out from beneath the leaves:

To the right, ghostly forms pop up from the ground. You catch them uncurling:

Like a scene from a horror movie, you look around, and spy groups of these creatures rising up from the ground on all sides of you:

The wind through the dead trees seems to whisper, "Indian Pipes..." And that is what they are. I feel like there must be a comparatively large flurry of fingers typing out inquiries on Google each spring and summer as these flowers pop up out of the ground. That is precisely what I did last year when I first noticed them around the edge of our property. I'm sure a number of people initially think they must be a fungus of some sort. They sprout their fruiting bodies seemingly out of nowhere in soil growing little of anything. And most noticeably, they are stark white with flecks of black. No calming green. No bright flowers. Yet plants they are.

A quick aside about the name. I'm not sure how offensive it may or may not be to some people. Other names for Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are Ghost Plant or Corpse Plant. I like the spookiness of "ghost" and "corpse", but I also like the physical descriptor "Pipes". Maybe Ghost Pipes. It's too bad that Dead Man's Fingers is taken (by a few things apparently), that would be sweet. "Yeah, just pulled some Dead Man's Fingers out of my yard today. They keep coming back every year. Why am I cursed so!"

So anyway. Indian Pipes. Not fungus, plants. But intimate with fungus. Parasitizes fungus. Eats fungus (in a way). The fungus it grows on is itself tied intricately with the roots of trees, but not in a parasitic way. The fungus helps the tree get the phosphorus it needs and the tree provides the fungus with sugars from photosynthesis. The Indian Pipes take as much of everything the fungus has and so are considered epiparasites of the tree, since they cause it to work harder to support the fungus. Since they get their nutrients from the fungus, they have no need to produce chlorophyll, hence stark white with black flecks. I might try to mark where they're growing and dig a couple up to see what happens in the winter, when the flowery stalks in the pictures are long gone and I can see them in their ... true form. So there you go: non-invasive, parasitic, stark white ghoul flower that I'm excited to see every year now. You are STUCK with this knowledge.

Please also visit Tom Volk's excellent fungus website, where Indian Pipes made "Fungus" of the Month.

Plantae (Plants)
Angiospermae (Flowering Plants)
Ericales (Smaller group of Flowering Plants)
Ericaceae (Heathers)
Monotropa uniflora - Indian Pipes

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

26 July 2009

What do we have here?

It's a tick! Specifically it's an American Dog Tick, aka Wood Tick, Dermacentor variabilis. The one in the picture is the only tick I've found on myself all this year so far. There's one path in a conservation area I like to go to that must double as a deer path or something. The grasses have gotten to knee-height this spring, and as you're walking through you see every other stalk has three or four black spots hanging around at the top. They hang on with their bottom two pairs of legs and wave the other pairs around to latch on to you. I was always told that ticks are slow stupid creatures. I can't vouch for their intelligence, but they aren't that slow, and they have certainly found a niche to exploit. Sometimes I couldn't get the ticks to crawl onto my shoe when I touched them on their grass stalk. But when I could, they grabbed right on.

In researching how ticks operate, I realized that for as much as I've heard about them as vectors of diseases (Lyme disease by Deer Ticks, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia by American Dog Ticks), I didn't know much about their operation. First off, ticks are arachnids. Eight-legged, related to spiders and mites. Secondly, ADTs are 3-host ticks, meaning that in the course of their life they will feed on three different hosts. As larvae and nymphs they feed on smaller mammals (mice, maybe birds if they can?), before tackling the larger ones (dogs, me) as an adult.

Another myth I somehow had as a lad was that ticks had one chance to make it onto an animal. I also thought they dropped from tree limbs. They would spend days crawling up a tree, out onto a branch to do their best bombardiering onto a deer, dog or person. They do not, in fact, do that. Ticks are amazingly long-lived (IMO) for something so small, as I learned at this University of Florida website. They will try many times to land on an animal if they don't make it from their grass stalk. Adults can survive two years (!) without eating. And nymphs and larvae aren't slouches either! All told, ticks are patient, deliberate parasites.

Finally, my grandfather was wrong with his advice about how to remove a tick that's bitten you. He recommended either placing a match head that had just been ignited and put out on the tick's body to make it say "I gotta get outta here!" He also said, if you're out of matches, just slap some petroleum jelly on there and it won't be able to breathe. The reason you want to do either of these, he said, is that if you pull it out the tick's "head" (really just it's mouth) may remain underneath your skin where it will continue to infect you with disease, or at least make healing a pain. Actually, you do want to pull it out, just make sure you use tweezers and not your fingernails or something. Hold on to it tight, get as close to the bite as you can, and tug it out. It won't hurt and you won't bleed. Get it out as soon as you find it, because even though it can take many hours for any possible diseases to get transmitted into your bloodstream, if you leave it hanging there out of laziness then you've reached a new low.

Headed for the counter's edge, will the tick make it to freedom?

Almost there! A cliffhanger ending! (They're really kind of quick, I had to keep putting the camera down and corralling it just to get these lame photos.)

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Arachnida (Arachnids - spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites)
Ixodida (Ticks)
Ixodidae (Hard-bodied ticks)
Dermacentor variabilis - American Dog Tick

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

19 July 2009

What do we have here?

I believe this is an Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) sniffing my sock. And guess what? It's introduced! This species is often compared to the Japanese Beetle, another introduced defoliating pest. The Oriental Beetle seems to be overlooked both by its lack of flashy color as an adult, and the lack of damage done as an adult. One .pdf even says the adult doesn't eat! While I'm not going to come out and directly accuse it of the crime, there were two on our tomato plants this afternoon, on freshly chomped tomato leaves. Other references mention that the adult might eat rose blossoms.

Apparently the real damage is done while in larval form as a grub. The larva eats grass roots, causing brown patches in lawns. We don't have much of a lawn, but I'll have to note whether there are any brown patches. I'm starting to get the feeling that whatever I decide to investigate ends up being invasive, so maybe our grass is too! Wouldn't be surprised! I often hear of people who want to use "native grasses" in their landscaping, leading me to believe that lawns aren't native to the Northeast. Where would they be native? Well-kept lawns seem too homogenous and high-maintenance. Questions for another time I suppose.

Of course, the onus on any introduced/"invasive" species is on the introducer. Erk. I guess that would be us, the humans. I'm not one to go off the deep end and say everyone needs to live off the grid, or deny themselves modern necessities or anything, but does anyone really need a lawn? Honestly, I don't really go on my lawn except to mow it. So if a beetle crossed an ocean and a continent because someone wanted an ornamental lily and then it started taking advantage of the great swaths of maintained bluegrass that feuding neighbors were keeping up for the sake of appearance, I have to reserve judgment as to whether it truly qualifies as a pest. It sometimes seems as if people only deal with the consequences of what they need to do, not what they simply want to do. Apologies for the unfocused post.

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Insecta (Insects)
Coleoptera (Beetles)
Scarabaeidae (Scarabs)
Anomala orientalis - Oriental Beetle

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

12 July 2009

What do we have here?

Is this an introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)? or the native, vulnerable New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)?

What began with a simple photo of a rabbit in our yard as it worked its way over to our garden beds has turned into a question I didn't even know I should be asking. I find myself having to ask these questions more and more as I become interested in the natural history of where I live. For my entire life I've seen cottontails in yards, on school fields, and I've always considered them the same way that I do squirrels: ubiquitous, herbivorous background animals that occasionally rise to the level of pest. Now that I've begun documenting the life that brushes up against us (hat tip: Urban Pantheist) I thought a bunny would be a fairly innocuous way to begin. I wanted to begin with a mammal because they are not exotic, and there are not so many of them to narrow down. My expectations have, however, been confounded.

When I began my rabbit research, I learned that in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, there are two types of cottontail rabbit, the Eastern and the New England. In differentiating between the two, I frequently read how similar the two species are, and how field marks alone wouldn't definitively tell me which rabbit was in my yard. Percentages figure prominently on the Mass. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife's webpage. Based on the numbers, I decided to focus on the New England Cottontail. As I read more, my reactions to what I learned migrated from elation (this might be a rare rabbit!) to confusion (wait, why would someone introduce a rabbit somewhere?) to incredulity (another native species marginalized by an introduced species!) to guilt (why didn't I know any of this before?).

The New England Cottontail prefers dense thickets in early succession forests. It usually has a dark spot between its ears, a dark line on the front of its ears, and always lacks a white spot on its forehead (indicative of the Eastern). My rabbit had these features, and around my house are some dense thickets of briars, blueberry and small stands of white pine, and some surrounding lots are abandoned and grown over or woodlots. The Eastern Cottontail often has a rusty patch on its upper back, is more numerous than the NE, and is more comfortable in suburban areas feeding in the open. Based on behavior more than field marks, I believe the rabbit in my driveway is an Eastern Cottontail, although I won't rule out a New England.

From what I've read, conservation for the New England Cottontail is not concerted, but it is underway. New Hampshire bans cottontail hunting in areas where NEs have been sighted, but other states seem only to recognize that NEs need help. Federal aid for Maine and New Hampshire has been announced. To think that this conservation effort has been going on for a few years now by people dedicated to seeing it through, and that I only stumbled upon it because I wanted to know more about the bunny in my yard is proof that Pandora's box came in plain packaging.

Animalia (Animals)
Chordata (Vertebrates)
Mammalia (Mammals)
Lagomorpha (Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas)
Leporidae (Hares and Rabbits)
Sylvilagus floridanus - Eastern Cottontail

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

22 May 2009

Robert Hayden

A Plague of Starlings

(Fisk Campus)

Evenings I hear
the workmen fire
into the stiff
magnolia leaves,
routing the starlings
gathered noisy and
befouling there.

Their scissoring
terror like glass
coins spilling breaking
the birds explode
into mica sky
raggedly fall
to ground rigid
in clench of cold.

The spared return,
when the guns are through,
to the spoiled trees
like choiceless poor
to a dangerous
dwelling place,
chitter and quarrel
in the piercing dark
about the killed.

Morning, I pick
my was past death's
black droppings:
on campus lawns
and streets
the troublesome
frost-salted lie,
troublesome still.

And if not careful
I shall tread
upon carcasses
carcasses when I
go mornings now
to lecture on
what Socrates,
the hemlock hour nigh,
told sorrowing
Phaedo and the rest
about the migratory
habits of the soul.

photo taken from The Guardian
photo by Christian Hartmann/EPA