Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 6, 2008

Hot Blooded Cabbages

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:58 pm

 Out there in those cold snowy woods, smelly cabbages are breaking the laws of normal life.  They are doing so with impungentcy,…er, I mean impunity. Animals, specifically mammals and birds, are supposed to be the only warm-blooded life forms on earth. That certainty is called into question by the very presence of a plant called the Skunk Cabbage. This is a non-sentient being that has the ability to generate heat and create its own weather systems. Come March time, it joins the hot-blooded ranks.

  Skunk cabbages grow in the marshy bottomlands adjacent to woodland streams throughout N.E. North America.  Under the cover of late winter snow this feisty plant takes control of the situation.  While regular plants have to wait months for the weather to break, the “skunk” proceeds to melt its way through the surrounding prison of snow and ice like a light saber through a metal door. Therefore, your first seasonal encounter with this plant will look like this (take a gander). You’ll see what looks like a purplish green speckled elf cap sticking up out of the frozen stuff.  This hood is called a spathe and it envelops a flowering spike within called the spadix (which you can see in this view).

  Beneath the mucky ground, a thick stem – or rhizome – supports the fleshy growth.  Through a process officially called “cyanide resistant cellular respiration” the starchy stem provides backup for its un-worldly flower in the form of heat generation. This un-plantlike behavior produces a core temperature around 60 degrees – a level typically 30 to 40 degrees above the air temperature.  Just in case you are wondering how this cyanide what-ever thermogenesis works, I looked it up and found out that it occurs through “uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation from the electron transport system.”  In other words, the thing heats up through some magical process whose explanation takes all the fun out of it (just like trying to explain how a fictional light saber works). Suffice it to say, these little cabbages begin to boil.

  The hot little flowers are then able to burn through the season and corner the extreme early season pollination market.  Believe it or not, there are some hardy flies, bees, and wasps that fly in late winter and they are lured to the promise of a hot meal.   But, all insect comers are left disappointed as they discover that the “rotten meat” is only a sweaty plant. One could say that skunk cabbages engage in the ultimate form of vertebrate mockery by imitating rotten animals.

   There is also evidence, however, that skunk cabbages may actually depend more on wind pollination than mis-guided insect pollination.  They create their own air currents as hot air rising out of the spathe is constantly replaced by a stream of cooler air.  This incoming air potentially contains pollen from nearby “skunks.”

  No matter how you look at them, Skunk Cabbages are not your run of the mill plants.   Despite both their common and scientific names (Symplocarpus foetidus –which means “stinky plant with the connected fruit”) they don’t really smell that bad on the outside. The leaves give off a pungent skunky odor when snapped and a patch of “skunks’ will emit a musty odor, but people do that too.  The leaves look like cabbage leaves, but are far from edible because they contain nasty vertebrate unfriendly crystals of calcium oxalate. 

    As if to defy all norms, skunk cabbages grow downward to boot.  Sure, they produce upward pointing flowers and a short-lived crop of large spring leaves, but the stem itself is pulled down into the muck by the roots.  The roots probe into the soil and contract, thus keeping all permanent parts of the plant below the surface.

   There is nothing really normal about this plant, but then again what is normal?

March 3, 2008

To Boldly Go…

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:14 pm

 Yesterday I walked down a snowy backwoods trail only to discover that I was not the first to pass this way.  The morning was still crisp and new, yet someone had beaten me to the spot and was waiting there for me. He was small, white, and scantily – yet appropriately – clad. He had no eyes or legs but stood there staring forward and posed slightly askew.  Though equipped with only frail buckthorn arms, the tiny snow-being employed them with great effect. “This way,” he declared with a certainty unusual for one so young and temporary, “this is the pathway you must follow.”  His left stick arm was held out at a right angle and showed no signs of tiring. Frozen deodorant no doubt aided in this endeavor, but the friendly mini-man was there to help and guide.

  I silently took his advice and continued down the path in the indicated direction. I arrived in a snowy clearing under a bright blue sky, but noticed nothing out of the ordinary at first. Soon, however, the wind carried the “Ook-a’leah” sound of a Red-wing Blackbird newly arrived from the south.  It carried the rich bubbly notes of a Carolina Wren, the “reality” call of a male cardinal, and the rain song of a Robin. In the distance a Killdeer repeated its name a few times and ceased.

  A bit further on, I spotted a sugar sickle – frozen sap dripping out of a slight break on a maple branch. Here was proof that the trees were starting to re-call their lifeblood from the roots below the ground.  Thousands of gallons were coursing through their veins and bringing liquid renewal to the buds above. This river of life would go un-noticed were it not for the wounds through which it leaked.

  Overhead flocks of crows were flying westward – an age-old sign to us humans that the syruping season has begun.  An overly fat Fox Squirrel, perched precariously on the maple twigs, was harvesting the freshly sweetened buds above.  He paid no heed to the flocks of passing black birds nor made any sound other than contented munching.  

  I tasted the mild sweetness captured in the sugar sickle and continued on my way. I fully intended to thank my little trailside snow elf for his direction.  After all, he had guided me to a world full of early spring indicators in a landscape still gripped in winter.  Here was a creature of ice pointing the way to a world that he could never live in. This was a noble act. He could have pointed back toward the frosty wood, but chose not to. Carelessly, I got caught up in the morning stroll and made my way back via a different trail and therefore missed the chance to express my appreciation.

  This morning, I rushed to the snow man spot in order to explain myself and apologize for my inconsiderate act of the day before. Overnight temperatures had soared and it was already reaching the upper 40’s by the time I reached my tiny guide. But, I was too late. His top two thirds had tumbled to the ground and his butt flesh was misshapen and pitted. The pointing arm was still in position but was now parallel to the ground and non-directional. His long stickish nose barely maintained position on the reduced eyeless face.  A large part of my friend had passed – from ice into water. 

  A slight feeling of remorse overcame me as I contemplated my insensitivity. I never even thanked him. This guilt feeling was quickly replaced by mild rage as I perceived numerous deer tracks about the location. It became shockingly obvious that some oaf of a deer had clutsed into my snow elf. One careless swipe of a hoof had prematurely ended my friend’s career by severing him in two. He might have survived another hour or two if that pin-headed hoof bearer hadn’t come along.

  Two nearby deer approached me with feigned innocence.  They no doubt were watching me and reveling at my reaction.  Deer will do that, you know. I re-formed the remaining stuff of my deceased pal and hurled it at them. They remained motionless and were un-moved both physically and mentally. Deer will do that, you know. I left them to their own as they mocked the icy humanity they had just snuffed.

  I regained my composure by the time I reached home. I realized that deer are just stupid children of the woods and that they have no real sense of esthetics. I also realized that snow men, just like the winters that spawn them, are not meant to last forever.  This winter is on the flip side and my friend boldly went where snowman had gone before.

March 1, 2008

The Eagle has Landed…Again

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 pm

When the Eagle landed on Tranquility Base so many years ago, the eyes of a nation were looking up. The 1969 Apollo 11 mission resulted in the first human footprints on the moon and the launching of a new era of spaceflight. “Eagle” was the name of the lunar module and the mission patch reflected that with an image of an adult Bald Eagle descending down to the moon surface (see here).

  America has always been proud of her earthbound eagles since the birth of the country, but as a human species we have admired eagles for thousands of years. These were the spirit beings able to touch the sun. In giving this honored name to the Apollo lander, NASA has allowed the bird to break the bounds of gravity and touch an extra-terrestrial body. The Bald Eagle is our chosen symbol and therefore an icon that tugs at our very soul. Anything bearing its name or image is held above the fray and human contact with the real bird has always been perceived as a nearly spiritual event. 

  Unfortunately, the uniqueness of such a contact here in the lower 48 has been the result of our own carelessness.  We tried to poison the real thing out of existence.  We tried to destroy the watery habitat required by the bird. We, unwittingly, tried as a society to make this bird only a symbol and not a reality.  Fortunately in this particular mission we failed. The Bald Eagle is back and it is landing daily, thank you very much.

  Seeing a Bald Eagle is now a regular event in S.E. Michigan and such a thing is no longer unusual. Nationwide the species has been de-listed from both the endangered and the threatened species list and is returning to haunts vacated a lifetime ago. Take a trip to Lake Erie Metropark and you will see eagles – lots of them. This winter alone, for instance, there are at least 49 eagles wintering along the lower Detroit River. This resurgence means that we can now go beyond the fawning hero worship stage and appreciate them for what they are.

  It is o.k. to admit that the birds are kleptoparasites – which is a nice way to say that they are thieves.  This is how they make their living as real animals and, despite what Ben Franklin says,   this has nothing to do with their symbolic nature. The over wintering birds gather at the river mouth to feed on the abundant duck and fish life and will obtain them by any means possible.

  Earlier in the winter, an observer spotted an immature Baldie swooping down to make a catch.  It hoisted its sizable prey up out of the water and was immediately attacked by another immature bird (so immature!).  The second bird forced the first to drop the fish and retrieved it as its own.  No sooner had the second bird made head way towards the shoreline than an adult eagle entered the scene and harassed the second bird.  You guessed it; the second thief yielded to the persuasions of the third and was forced to drop its ill-gotten fish onto the ice.  The adult bird circled back and dipped down to pick up the newly won meal. This bird had the final say in this energy transfer and ended up eating the fish.

  The major difference between an immature and an adult bird is not size. We are not talking about a big bully bird picking on a meek little weakling.  Immature eagles are fully as large and powerful as the adults, but are classified as such if they are under five years old. A first year bird is dark brown all over, with a sprinkling of white.  A second or third year eagle has a progressively higher concentration of white speckling (especially on the belly), but still no white head or tail. By the time the fourth winter rolls around, the sub-adult is endowed with a dirty white head and tail that almost makes it look like an adult.  These white areas will clarify into the classic pattern upon obtaining the fifth year of plumage.

 Take a look at this shot, and you’ll see a picture of a four year old making off with a large fish (My friend Rodney Laura took the picture through a high power telephoto).  Note the line running through the eye of the bird and the brownish tinge to the “bald” head. Even from this distance it is apparent that it is carting away a large Gizzard Shad. 

  Please don’t call me un-American if I say that getting a shad is not a great feat of aerial fishing. Shad are weak mouthed filter feeders that are highly susceptible to late winter ice and temperature changes. If you re-examine the picture, you’ll see that the silvery fish is blotched with red – this is not blood incurred from the predatory attack but skin hemorrhaging resulting from its weakened state.  In other words, the fish was floundering, or already dead, before the eagle took it for lunch.

  You see, it doesn’t matter that our eagles are less than pure red-blooded honorable predators. Oh sure, they do their share of clean dead-aim fishing, but not all the time. They are living up to their own species doctrine and have no need to meet our artificial human standards. Theft and scavenging are honorable in the eyes of an eagle.

  Last week, I had my own eagle encounter as I watched a two year bird engage in a series of low lazy spirals over a field. This behavior caught my attention because it looked like it was going to land on the open ground – an unusual behavior.  Sure enough, it came to a halt out in the middle of a windswept open space.  I glassed it through my binoculars, expecting to see a dead animal or dropped fish at the location, but there was no such thing (not even the promise of a meadow vole). The bird started to take an awkward stroll over the grass and occasionally looked down at its feet. It frequently stopped to look skyward as if slightly embarrassed.

  After walking about ten feet the bird looked skyward and fixed his gaze on another young eagle that passed overhead. This prompted the walker to launch back into the air and the two sailed off toward the river.

  The question as to why this eagle chose to land and walk remains unanswered, but I have a theory. Here was an individual that was venturing onto an exploratory mission of discovery.  It seemed to have given in to an innate curiosity regarding the feel of this piece of strange terra-firma. It broke the bounds of airspace and came to earth strictly because it could. Once on the spot, it walked in the manner of other two legged critters before launching back into the realm of the sun. It was an awkward endeavor, but could be defined as “one small step for an eagle, and one giant step for eaglekind.” 

  Sorry, for that.  It looks like I got caught up in that mystic eaglespeak again.

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