Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 16, 2009

Mother Nature Fooled?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:46 pm

Humans like to categorize natural events into “earlier than” and “later than” normal time slots. If there is anything we should have learned by now is that there is really is no such thing as “normal.”  There certainly are “average” and “typical”  times for events to happen (such as flowering dates, nesting times, etc.), but even these will change over a long period of time. Nature is always experimenting and pushing environmental limits while asking (more like insisting) that the living world play along. She does these things on  a time schedule far different than our individual life spans so it is difficult to see what’s actually going on. It is safe to say that the only normal thing about nature is that she will never settle for normalcy. We know it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but we continue to try it. But, there are circumstances when she appears to fool herself and there is cause to wonder if she will exact self-punishment? I believe the answer is yes.

In the seasonal cycle of things there are two times of year when temperatures are cool and daylight time equals nighttime. The natural events surrounding the Spring and Fall equinoxes couldn’t be more opposite. One signals the awakening time and the other marks the season for closing down shop. Every year, however, plants and animals are tricked by these identical conditions and they start to think spring/summer in the fall. Chorus Frogs and Peepers will chime out a few hesitant croaks as if it were March and Redbuds will re-bloom.  A classic example of this scenario is the scene depicted in the photo above. In this case, a Red-Panicled Dogwood shrub contained flower clusters and berry clusters on the same plant in mid-October. It is “normally” impossible to get such a picture  without Photoshop trickery.

Granted, this type of dogwood is “normally” a late bloomer among the ‘dogs. Unlike their showy early spring cousins, they “usually” show flower in July and by mid-August are  “typically” well into setting up their fruit. The October shrubs “always” exhibit  purple leaves and clusters of white berries. Here  again, however, there is no normal or typical. Mother nature will deal harshly with this apparent error. There are only a few weeks left before the leaves must fall and this plant has wasted some valuable energy. The flowers will shrivel and die and the plant will be left to deal with the coming winter using depleted reserves. Only the Witch Hazels are allowed to do their blooming at this time. It’s in the contract, Doggy – read the fine print.

Another situation, which definitely defies the season, was an active  Monarch Caterpillar (see one of them above). I took this picture last week as morning temperatures were slowly climbing into the upper thirties.  The previous night had dipped into freezing range yet this beast was still crunching away at the remaining milkweed leaves. There were three caterpillars in a stand of about a dozen milkweed plants – probably all laid by the same procrastinating female. Based on the age of the ‘pillers, who looked to be in their 5th instar and around 2 weeks of age, this means their mother would have laid her eggs sometime during the last week of September!

In short, this Monarch mom goofed. “Normally,” all late summer Monarchs turn off  their reproductive desires and begin to head south. The big flight begins in late August and reaches a peak around mid-September.  The last migrant has “usually” gone south by early October. All this haste is necessary because the flight will take the migrants all the way to the mountains of Central Mexico. In other words, our caterpillars were still egglings when the rest of the local monarchs were practicing their Spanish.

It takes a month to complete development from egg to larvae to adult. Even if our caterpillars survive the coming week and make it to chrysalis stage, they would not emerge until Halloween week. Now that’s scary. I can confidently predict that they will not get that far. They will shrivel and die just like those dogwood flowers.

Ahh, but let’s not loose hope. This is a part of Nature’s plan. If, by some chance, this November turns out to be balmy and December follows suite, then these caterpillars and that dogwood would be the first in line to reap the benefits!  In the end, these aberrations are simply natural experiments – shock absorbers to deal with the constant changes that occur over time. No fooling.

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