Category: Environment

18 Jun 2018

Parasitic Plants

The darkness of the forest seems quite alluring on these hot and humid days. The fresh growth of large green leaves brings welcomed relief from the beating sun. It’s here in the shaded area that you can find American Squawroot (Conopholis americana). Most plants along the forest floor are competing for limited sunlight in the slow motion battle of ‘who can grow faster towards the gap in the canopy’. However, rather than undergoing photosynthesis, this parasitic plant uses specialized roots (haustoria) to feed itself from the roots of oak trees. I know most of us hear “parasite” and think of leeches and ticks. Did you know that plants can suck the nutrients from other plants? Rather than using energy on chlorophyll, it surreptitiously absorbs nutrients underground for four years until it finally pushes its stems above ground. The odd looking scaled stems pop up in clusters above the plundered oak root. Because of its unique look, squawroot is often mistaken as a fungus in any of its above ground stages. Squawroot produces flowers in the spring, creating what looks like a cream-colored pine cone village for the local fairies (pic 1). Pollinators such as flies and bees feed from the flowers, forming a seed capsule with multiple seeds in each scale (pic 2). The plants become more and more brown with time, and if you find them in the winter, you would think the poor fairies’ village had been burnt to a crisp. Some squawroot will reseed themselves, while other seeds are dispersed to new locations by foraging deer and other mammals. Another parasitic plant found in the area is beechdrop (Epifagus virginiana). Like squawroot, it is in the Orobanchaceae family, but it parasitizes beech trees rather than oaks (pic here). Squawroot may steal energy from the oak trees it parasitizes, but is not considered to be detrimental. It could only cause serious harm if the oak had a preexisting disease or illness.  I encourage you to enjoy a hike in the forest shade and try to find these unique plants!

~Tracy

04 Apr 2018

A Worm Lizard

More times than not, when I lift a log with a group of kids, I hear, “A worm!” The next guess is usually, “No, it’s a lizard!” In their defense, salamanders are slimy, with four disproportionately small legs attached to a long, slender body. They even cohabitate in leaf litter or under rocks and logs, though the worms better be careful because they (and many other invertebrates) are part of a salamander’s diet. They’re actually amphibians, and unlike lizards and reptiles, salamanders lack claws, external ear holes, and scales. Eastern red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) are one of the most common salamander species found in Eastern North America. They can be found in two morphs: red-back (pic 1) has a bright reddish stripe down its back; while lead-back (pic 2) lack the stripe and are mostly grayish-black. All color variations have the mottled black and white belly.

Red-backs belong to the family Plethodontidae, also known as the lungless salamanders. Thus, like their amphibian relatives, they breathe through their skin. These sals possess a nasolabial groove, a slit between their nostril and upper lip. It helps with chemical cues involved with courtship, territory, and food. These unique woodland salamanders lack the common aquatic larval stage and lay their eggs in small clusters in cavities under rocks and logs in early summer. It’s a shame they skip this stage because gilled salamander larvae are adorable, but I suppose it’s a pretty nifty adaptation that has evolved in this group. The larvae develop in the egg (gills and all) and hatch in late summer.

Have you ever seen a reddish-brown, slimy creature wriggling frantically? No head, no eyes, no legs…not segmented like a worm…furiously flipping back and forth? A salamander can drop its tail in a last attempt to save itself from being eaten. The tail distracts predators while the rest of the salamander dives out of sight into the safety of shelter. When I encountered this ‘flee of survival’, a child was the curious “predator” trying to pick it up. We must be careful while handling our skin-breathing amphibian friends and also remember that humans often have harmful substances on our hands such as sunscreen, soap residue, or lotion. The red-backs are in full force right now because the warm spring weather is allowing them to emerge from their winter underground hideouts. I encourage you to take a hike and carefully lift a log or large piece of bark to find some of these little sals. Just remember to put the roof back on their home!

~Tracy

31 Jan 2018

Don’t Poke a Bear

A few weeks ago, the temperature had not risen above 25oF for a week. Thus, everything must be shut down for winter, right? Our big puffball hats and trendy boots will allow us to last outside for a couple of hours if we’re lucky, but let’s give some credit to the animals who have learned to survive our harsh winters! Some migrate to warmer areas (our Floridian snowbirds have learned from the best); very few animals hibernate; and most animals have adaptations to help them survive cold temperatures.

A pet peeve of mine, and many naturalists, is the misconception that most animals hibernate during the winter. One of the only true hibernators that you’ll find around Cincinnati is Punxsutawney Phil’s cousin, the groundhog. Almost all other mammals decrease their physiological activity for short periods of time, a process known as torpor. Both torpor and hibernation involve a reduced body temperature and metabolic rate, but torpor is associated with temperature and food, while hibernation is associated with day length (photoperiod) and hormones. Animals that go through torpor utilize warmer winter days to collect food for energy and would wake up if you poked them during their snooze. Some “research” even claims that true hibernators, like the ground squirrel, would stay sleeping even if you juggled them. Please don’t do that. And don’t poke a “hibernating” bear, because they actually are in torpor and would wake up!

The inactivity of reptiles and amphibians during winter is known as brumation. It’s not called torpor because there are different mechanisms for changing body temperature in cold blooded (ectothermic) animals. During extremely cold temperatures, some reptiles and amphibians use supercooling or freeze tolerance. Natural antifreeze is used to lower their body temperature below the freezing point of their body tissues (ice crystals in the body-wow!). One of my favorite adaptations is the ability of aquatic turtles to bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds or streams and breathe through their butts. Well technically it’s called their cloaca, but I’ll let you look up the details. Terrestrial reptiles and amphibians will find a hibernaculum such as rocks, bark, or leaf litter to bury underneath. Insects also have natural antifreeze and will use similar methods of surviving the cold, but you’re more likely to see them active on warmer winter days. Coyotes, foxes, and deer grow thick winter coats and are actively searching for food, even on some of the coldest days. Birds grow warm winter feathers and eat all day to store up enough energy to not freeze through the night. When they aren’t foraging for their buried nuts, squirrels are staying warm in their carefully crafted dreys and dens. And the list goes on and on.

Basically what I’m trying to say is quit using the excuse of hibernating animals to curl up in a blanket and sit on your couch binge-watching Netflix. Bundle up and go for a hike to look for evidence of these extraordinary overwintering techniques.

~Tracy

 

29 Nov 2017

Bust Out Your Dance Moves

Have you ever been hiking during the summer and come across what appears to be a thin layer of snow on some trees (pic 1)? Maybe it made you wonder where the expression ‘Christmas in July’ comes from. If you look closely, you’ll find tiny insects covering branches of our American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). These beech blight aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator) are also called woolly aphids because of the white waxy strings attached to their bodies (pic 2). In addition to appearing unappetizing to predators, groups of aphids wave their fuzzy posterior ends in the air at the same time to mimic herding behavior and confuse or intimidate predators (see video below). They did not trick me, however, but instead reminded me of a bunch of feather dusters from Beauty and the Beast singing and swaying to “Be Our Guest.”  It seems that I’m not the only one to interpret their bobbing and fanning as dance moves because they are also nicknamed the boogie woogie aphids. If these two defense mechanisms don’t work, the nymphs (juvenile aphids) will sting predators with their piercing mouthpart, called a stylet. More often they use their stylet for removing sap out of the twigs and leaves of beech trees, causing them to excrete a sugar-rich byproduct called honeydew.  A sooty mold fungus (Scorias spongiosa) grows exclusively on this beech honeydew. The thick, gooey, black fungus becomes golden and furry over time, growing on the branches and on the ground below the aphids. This leads to the misconception that woolly aphids hurt beech trees. Occasionally minor damage, such as a few branches dying, may result, but it does not harm the overall health of the tree. In fact, the sugary honeydew and sometimes the aphids themselves provide food for other insects such as wasps, flies, and ants. Some of the aphid offspring will develop wings and disperse to form new colonies. Upon finding a fresh beech tree, beech blight aphid females reproduce asexually, creating clones. In order to mix up their gene pool, some males are produced in the fall before overwintering. I encourage you to get outside, turn on your favorite jam, and bust out your best dance moves if you find these dancing insects during a summer or fall hike!

Check out our woolly aphid video (video credit to Kayla Martin)

~Tracy