Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 8, 2007

Mr. Sparklebottom’s Night Club

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:41 am

  There’s nothing quite like the resulting action when Mr. Sparkle Bottom stimulates Acetyl Choline to open up with a jazzy lick. This encourages Pyro Phosphate to pull the normally inhibited Luciferase out onto the dance floor which prompts Luciferin to “cut the rug” with Oxygen. When the Lucifers hit the ground the whole place lights up and things get real cool.  Yeah man, cool. By the time Miss Sparkle Bottom gets involved, there ain’t no turning back.

  The Torchbearer Night Club begins to swing at sun down and things don’t slow down until dawn’s early light. It’s safe to say that the energy level at this joint is nothing short of 98% efficient.  Don’t bother Googling this Night Spot. You won’t need directions. It’s right around the corner, across the street, or even in your own back yard – wherever the Sparkle Bottoms hang out.  Although known as the “Sparkles” to their fellow folk, they are better known to you and me as the Fireflies.

  Fireflies, or Lightening Bugs, are such a common feature of the summer night around these parts that we could easily take them for granted. Their glowing abilities are so remarkably complex that scientists are still trying to figure out exactly what happens.  I described it as best I could in the first few paragraphs, but the essence of the process involves a chemical called Luciferin, mixed with a catalyst called Luciferase, to produce a burst of cool light.

  Lucifer himself can’t do what the chemicals named after him can. When the horn man makes fire, there’s a whole lot of heat produced.  Heat is a wasteful byproduct of light production. Even when we humans make light with an incandescent bulb, 90% goes to heat and only 10% to light. Firefly light, on the other hand, is produced using an extremely efficient process which wastes but a few percentage points on heat. 

  Needless to say, the whole process is of great human and firefly interest. Luciferin and its catalyst are widely used in the medical research world as tracer tools for gene research. Cool light is essential to firefly bioluminescence because without it they would burn their butt off every time they lit up!

 To get Luciferin and ‘ase, one needs to juice up a few thousand Photonis pyralis – the Common Firefly.  There are 125 species of Lightening Bugs (Lampyridae – “torchbearers” in Latin) in North America, but this familiar species is the one you’ll encounter at your backyard night club.  Take a look here at a top view.  The most notable feature of this view angle is that the head is shielded by a thorax shield. While you are at it, get a load of those neat little feet equipped with dual deer like toes. Examining the underside (see here –thanks to this Christopher Hawkins photo. ) will reveal the buggy eyed head and light organ are visible.

 You’ll notice that the last few segments of the abdomen are pale, waxy smooth, and yellow. This is the light organ area.  Just underneath a clear outer layer is a layer of yellow photocytes where the magic mix takes place. Behind them is a reflective layer which bounces the light outward (like the silver backing on a headlight or flashlight). Since oxygen drives the process, there are two easily seen pores on each segment to control air intake.

  During the day, one Lightening Bug pretty muck looks like another.  The pattern and length of nighttime flashing is what separates species and gets like species together. It is the lot of the males to do most of the flashing. They flash and wait for an appropriate response from a female. He flies while flashing – she stays on the ground while answering.

  Some fireflies perform a single flash every few seconds, while others do a burst of six pulses every five seconds.  Each female displays a bit of feminine coquetry by delaying her response before flashing back an acceptance blink.  How long that delay is depends on the species. We reap the benefits of this Morse Code romance by enjoying the light show. 

  I followed the antics of a few fireflies last night just to see if I could confirm that my backyard fireworks is courtesy of the Common Lightening Bugs of pyralis fame. These common torchbearers are said to flash for one half a second every 5-7 seconds while performing an upward flight sweep.  

  At 9:00 pm it was still light enough to follow the flight path of individual fireflies.  I timed and measured the antics of several and found them engaged in a very consistent flight pattern.  Fireflies fly with their abdomen dangling down and their light organs facing forward.  These guys were flying about 12 inches off the ground for about four seconds before dropping down to within a few inches of the grass and releasing a half second flash of greenish yellow light. During the brief duration of the flash, they would suddenly dart upward to create a “J” shaped light signature (you know, like writing your name with sparklers during the Fourth of July).  The whole effect was a series of J’s executed like clockwork every 6 seconds.

 There was little doubt that these were pyralis fireflies.

  It didn’t take long before I spotted a solitary answer flash from the grass from a pyralis female. She’d respond a few seconds after the male finished his flash.  After a few more give and take messages, the particular male I was watching landed next to the lady and bought her a drink.

   Things were just heating up – or is it cooling down? – at the Torchbearers Night Club.

July 5, 2007

Lost in Translation

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:14 pm

  The Milkweed is a plant with a story to tell.  Like an excited professor, it can offer up a dizzying diatribe of facts delivered during a heavily accented stream of consciousness. Occasionally it shifts tone and beckons you with a mysterious, but equally perplexing, purr. It pulls you up to the table over a hard drink and drops references to a shady past and lapses into a few dead languages.  It takes a bit of translation to decipher the story, but it is well worth it.

  To attempt comprehension of the entire tale at one time and in one place isn’t recommended, but we can pull out a few tidbits from the narrative. The scientific name of the Common Milkweed is a good place to start.

  The Latin designation of Asclepius syriaca is a reference to both godliness and humanness. Asclepius or Askelpios was an ancient Greek doctor who took his powers of healing one step further than the local Gods saw fit. “Skep,” as we’ll call him, discovered the secrets of bringing dead patients back to life. In a fit of jealousy, Hades directed Zeus to lay a lightning bolt on him and thus the doctor was fried. No sooner had the smoke cleared, however, than the other Gods took pity on the poor physician and they placed him in the starry night sky and hired him as the “God of Healing.” (Zeus was steamed. He was quoted in the Temple Times as telling “Skep” to “Go to Hades”).

  Although the white milky sap of the milkweed contains alkaloid poisons (and the reason for the common name) it can provide a cure for warts – thus the healing reference. The relationship between Milkweed and the Monarch Butterfly is due to this magical sap, but that is a well known story.  Let’s stick to the obscure for now.

  The “syriaca” part of the name is, to put it bluntly, a mistake. Originally the plant was believed to be a native of Syria.  Later it was discovered that it is a native of North America and that the Syrian plants were transplanted there as alien imports. The name was never changed (some say due to the backhanded influences of Hades who wished the misnomer to remain attached to “that pseudo God Asklepios”). 

  In a straight forward, one could say Godlike, fashion the Milkweed offers up a selection of explosive flower clusters this time of year.  There is no need for translation. The deep pink pom poms emitting their heady perfume are nothing short of fantastic (see here). Close examination of the individual flowers (see here) reveals a stunning little ringlet of cuplike hoods.  Each hood has a horn sticking out of its center.  The collective hoods, called the crown, are backed with reclining petals.

  Milkweed flowers offer a high sugar nectar which insects find irresistible. They are attracted to it in droves.  Insect activity results in pollination and pollination should result in seed development. It is odd, then, that the milkweed begins to mumble a bit when discussing this part of its life. Given all those customers, it is strange that only one or two flowers are actually pollinated and result in a seed pod. The problem is that the milkweed demands a bit too much of its visitors.

  The milkweed flower is an insect trap. In the narrow space between each hood is a pair of pollen sacs arranged like a saddlebag or an upside-down “Y.” A dark sticky gland, called the translator, joins them at the center. (You can see this gland as a dark spot between the hoods if you go back to the detail picture). When an insect steps onto the flower, the smooth hoods cause them to slip about and their hairy little feet end up getting wedged in those narrow slits.  As the insect struggles to eradicate itself, the translator and its pair of pollen sacs hitch on for a ride. Take a look at this incredible photo of a pollen sac pair – the translator gland is the vicious looking thing in the middle that hooks onto the leg.

  Gifted with a short-term memory (and a nectar induced stupor), the insect forgives the trauma and continues to feed and get trapped.  Take close look at this photo and you’ll see a pollen bag attached to the foot of a large fly (look dead center at the extended leg). When a foot with a pollen sac already in tow slips down into a slit, it has the potential to leave this old sac in place while picking up a new one. Each time this takes place, the insect is presented with a risk to life and limb. Sometimes the leg is held so firmly that the appendage is ripped off in the ensuing struggle. Small weak insects are often unable to break free and die in place. 

  The odd thing about this whole scenario is that the pollen sacs rarely find their final mark. Only a few are plunged deep enough into a flower to stay and contact the tiny female pore within.  The milkweed has set up a cascading succession of demanding events to produce its seed pods. It is a complicated plant which depends on a translator to communicate.

July 3, 2007

Hairbreadth Escape

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:48 pm

  It is the sacred duty of every prey species to make the predator’s job as difficult as possible. To achieve this, there is no honor bound code of ethics – use what works and use it as often as it takes. Aggressive defense is not an option for an ephemeral creature such as a butterfly or moth.  They do not have jaws, but instead are equipped with party favor straws for lapping up nectar. Their wings are papery works of design and their bodies are delicately made, so any contact with a predator can be akin to a Chinese lantern resisting the swipe of a sword. Their anti-predator options, then, are narrowed down to speed, poison, avoidance, and visual trickery.

  The lepidopteron world (the scale-winged set) is full of fascinating examples of all the above tactics, from special bat sensitive ears and false sonar to leaf mimicry and poisonous flesh. Some tricks are so subtle that their simplicity borders on the remarkable. I came upon just such an example while observing a cluster of milkweed flowers the other day.

  Banded Hairstreaks are common milkweed imbibers. On this particular sunny afternoon, several individuals were darting about from bloom to bloom.  The crowds tend to get thick at such a popular eatery, so my little Hairstreaks were competing with a jumbling host of flies, bees, bumblebees, longhorn beetles and the like.

  These tiny butterflies (see here) enjoy only a brief late June to early August flight season so don’t have much time to fool around. Not flashy when compared to other butterflies, hairstreaks have brown upper wing surfaces and nicely patterned under wing surfaces. Since they perch with their wings up, this underside pattern is the part we can appreciate. Of special note is the tiny tail – the “hair” in hairstreak – projecting out from the lower wing.  There are a few powder blue and orange patches prominently placed ahead of this feature. 

  One of the individuals that landed in front of my lens was missing the entire back half of her wings (see here).  The hair tails and color patches had been ripped away, but there was plenty of wing surface left for normal flight.  The important part about this observation is that, while the butterfly was tattered, it was still in possession of its life. She had played her cards against a predator and won the game. Her tail feature was the ace in the deck.

  The tails are meant to imitate antennae and the colors to draw attention to them.  Together they function as a false head. When perched, the Hairstreak rubs its wings slowly up and down in order to put these pseudo antennae into motion. While the real head and antennae are busy with life at one end, the fake head is serving the role as decoy.  You could say that the Hairstreak is a much more practical version of Dr. Doolittle’s “Push-me-pull-you.”

  When a predator, such as a Kingbird, launches a surprise attack, it has a 50/50 chance of grabbing the right end.  A hit on the right end will result in a bird meal. A hit on the wrong end will harmlessly tear the wing and allow the butterfly to hairstreak away. By adding a dash of make-up to the false head, the chances are tipped in the butterflies favor since the attacker is prompted into a strike at the bright spot.

  Many large and showy butterflies, most notably the Swallowtails, employ this same tactic, but my little damaged Hairstreak provides us with an alternate interpretation of the notion of beauty. Compare the photos of the whole Hairstreak with the damaged one and you’ll appreciate the “tale” of an assault gone awry and the beauty of simplicity.

July 1, 2007

Justice to Chicory

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:29 am

  The flower of the Chicory is truly a fleeting thing – firm and resplendent in the morning and a limp dirty rag by late afternoon. Sunrise calls forth a sparse assortment of stunning baby blue blooms from this common roadside plant (see here). A circular array of toothed petals surrounds a cluster of deep blue floral parts.  These center parts are the actual flowers themselves – the “petals” are simply window dressing to attract pollinating insects to the nectary heart. 

  By mid day, the color begins to drain from the flowers (see here) and their intensity is diminished. Things are pretty well done by late afternoon as the petals take on the appearance of used paper towels.  In a world of transitory flowers, the Chicory’s transition is the most dramatic. Take a look at a side by side comparison photo I took this morning, showing a new flower next to the remains of yesterday’s effort. The reality of the Chicory is that the blossoms are the only delicate thing about this plant.

  Chicories are legal immigrants which arrived on our shore centuries ago.  Here in the New World, it found wild roothold in the harsh conditions offered by our roadsides and parking lots – hard packed, sun baked ground. The plant itself is barely more than a cluster of relatively bare thickened stems with very few leaves, so is not especially attractive. The leaves that are present look very much like those of a dandelion and serve to remind us of the family relationship with that plant.

  Such a conservative approach to growth above the ground is countered by an exceptionally robust taproot below.  This white root gathers in what little moisture is available and the sparse leaves keep that water from evaporating off. Even the bloom schedule is right wing, since it invests a small daily dose of excitement in the form of those terrific little flowers.  

   The hardscrabble way of life exhibited by this hardy plant has an Oliver Twist type of flare, and so it seems appropriate that Charles Dickens himself once wrote about the Chicory.  He approached the subject not on a fictional basis, but instead as an article in his “Household Words: A Weekly Journal” published in 1853.  In an article entitled “Justice to Chicory,” Dickens writes: “Because we do not like to receive chicory under the name of coffee, it by no means follows that we object to receive chicory in it’s own name, or that we consider it wrong to marry chicory and coffee to each other…only let it not be a secret.”  So, what in the Dickens is he talking about?  Well, he’s referring to the primary use of the Chicory as a coffee additive and the shady practice of using it as filler or labeling it as pure coffee.

  As “Poor Man’s Coffee”, or “Coffeeweed,” the chicory has long been grown for its beverage potential. This is probably why it made it “over the pond” in the first place.  The root is ground and roasted to make an infusion or drink. Such a drink can stand on its own merit, but ground chicory is usually added to coffee as a flavor enhancer. Dickens goes on to say that, “by combining of a little chicory with coffee, the flavour of the coffee is not destroyed, but there is added to the infusion a richness of flavour, and a depth of colour – a body which renders it…much more welcome as a beverage.” In other words, it makes coffee taste gooder (but how can you improve on Dicken’s prose.)

  Our scraggly escapee bears little resemblance to the cultivated plant – of which there are several varieties.  While our wild plant can be rendered into “coffee,” the result may leave you wanting for a rich foster parent who can afford the real thing.  

« Newer Posts

Powered by WordPress