A Deadly Drink

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Photo by Jessie Griffen

An insect death trap resides in our local wetlands. It’s a grisly tale of plant versus animal, with an unusual twist. Using a modified leaf to create a snare, the Northern Pitcher Plant is one of Vermont’s most unusual and sinister herbs.

Pitcher plants live in wetlands where the peat soil is low in nitrogen. Instead of using extensive root systems or relationships with nitrogen gathering fungi, pitcher plants have evolved to lure, catch, and digest insects to meet their nutritional needs.

From inside its columnar leaf, the pitcher plant emits a sweet smell that attracts insects. Curious bugs fly into the leaf, where they realize that there is no delicious nectar awaiting. When they try to fly out, downward pointing hairs impede their escape. In the pitcher, the insect eventually drowns in a pool of digestive enzymes, insect larvae, flesh flies, and bacteria. This slurry of creatures and chemicals break apart the insect, allowing the pitcher plant to absorbs the precious nutrients that the body contained.

So head on out to your local bog and watch the saga unfold. Witness the demise of a moth or a gnat. You might even see something unusual, like a salamander in a pitcher (photo below), that will make you leave with some new questions and a wild story.

 

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At the bog. Photo by Jessie Griffen

A salamander in a pitcher plant!

A salamander in a pitcher plant. Look for the tail. Photo by Jessie Griffen

 

 

Emma Stuhl is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program. She is glad that meat eating plants are generally quite small.

Zombie Aspen Leaves

populusleaves-550x410By Bryan Pfeiffer

Rotting and fallen to earth, they might appear dead. But they are not quite dead. They are the undead: zombie aspen leaves.

Find them as you walk the brown autumn paths – yellow leaves with a patch of green tissue radiating from the base of the midrib. Here in Vermont, these are mostly quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), but I also find the green on big-toothed aspen (P. grandidentata) and, rarely, eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides).

When a friend and I first encountered these some years ago, I collected a few and queried a handful of smart botanists for answers. Many had theories; none had an explanation. It wasn’t until I put a leaf under a dissecting microscope that I found the explanation to be less zombie than something from the film “Alien.” The beast lies within.

populus-caterpillar-moth-550Residing in a tiny pocket of tissue near the base of the green patch is a translucent caterpillar not much more than 2 millimeters in length. It’s feeding in there; I could see the frass (caterpillar poop). With help from Dave Wagner, the renowned entomologist at the University of Connecticut, our critter turns out to be a moth in the family Nepticulidae, probably Ectoedemia argyropeza or most certainly a member of that genus.

“The really cool thing is that the larva secretes an anti-senescent substance that keeps part of the leaf alive – probably a cytokinin,” Dave wrote in an email. Cytokinins are plant hormones that promote cell division. In this case, it seems, the caterpillar keeps part of a leaf alive so that it can keep eating.

This moth is also parthenogenetic; females can produce fertile eggs without help from males, which, as it turns out, are quite rare.

For now, however, the caterpillar will continue to dine in the verdant patch of an otherwise dead leaf. It will pupate for winter. And the tiny adult will emerge to fly in spring. Many species in this genus are black and white with orange scales around the head. But don’t expect to find one. Your best bet for discovering this animal is to watch the trail for patterns in poplar leaves this fall.

And if you’re raking them up, please note that some of those leaves, well, they could be saying, “I’m not dead.”

Making Time for the Leaves

 

The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

I was afraid that this year, like so many others, I would lose track of time.  I was afraid I’d spend all of the fall foliage season behind a computer or buried in a book.  I was afraid that in grad school I would have too much homework to do to be able to spend much time outside. But I promised myself: this year I’ll make time. This year I won’t let the seasons change without admiring the gradient between them.  This year will be different.

As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  This year everything is different.  In the Field Naturalist program the brilliantly colored trees form the walls of my classroom, the shimmering late summer sky its ceiling.  We bask in the changing seasons, taking advantage of days warm enough to slog barefoot through a bog and roll up our pants to wade in the cool lake.  We catch salamanders, admire worm holes, and request the name of every plant we come across.  Oh, and everywhere we go we dig a hole.

Our days meander beautifully through each place we go, carefully choreographed to tell a story.  We learn how bedrock affects plant communities, how soils here are different from those in the tropics, and how deep the peat is in Chickering Bog (23 feet!).  This kind of learning is new to me; learning in which we immerse ourselves in our subject matter completely.  I go home each night somehow exhausted and energized at the same time, filling my notebooks with lists of things to investigate further.

As I promised myself, I do make time to go out and enjoy the changing of the seasons outside of class.  I take long rambling walks through the woods with my dog every morning and some evenings.  The only difference is that now I get to justify it as studying.

Shelby is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  She enjoys catching toads and salamanders, admiring bugs, climbing talus, and all other explorations of nature.  

Seeking The Witches

witch-hazelBy Kat Deely

As the maples put on the fireworks above, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) buds are ready to pop open their spindly, yellow flowers. Given a basic understanding of seasonal growth, it is curious that this plant is flowering in the fall.  Is this some invasive plant, out of sync with this ecosystem?

Witch-hazel is where it belongs, but has an unusual adaptation to attract pollinators.  To avoid competition spring ephemeral plants go through their complete reproductive cycle before leaf out, and witch-hazel has taken a similar approach.  While the ephemerals jump the gun and offer food to the early emerging insects, witch-hazel in the forest until the asters and the goldenrods have said their piece, and then puts on a show for the pollinators.  By this time the availability of nectar is limited and moths are only too happy to oblige.  Witch-hazel is a more southerly species, so up in New England you find it beneath canopy trees of a similar heritage.  These oaks and hickories warm themselves on south-facing mountain slopes, in sheltered coves, and along temperate valleys.

This shrub offers qualities beyond its fragrant bloom that explain the origin of its name.  Traditionally used for locating water beneath the ground by Native Americans, witch-hazel diving rods were even exported to Europe.  “Wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend”.

As autumn emerges around us, admire the brilliant hues our hardwoods showcase, but remember to drop your gaze to mid canopy and seek the spindly celebration of fall around you.

 

Kat is a second year Ecological Planning student constantly seeking answers to the mysteries found within the natural world.  Being an FNEP student has exponentially increased  her number of questions, and actually answered a handful of them.

Graphite Terrarium

By Ben Lemmond

“Be not concerned,” Dr. Cathy Paris advises us, in a soft, lilting voice that could outsparkle Glinda the Good Witch: the twenty-page packet on graminoids that she’s just handed us is “mostly diagrams.” In it we see the somewhat archaically-classified “tribes” of grasses. One can imagine them roving across the land in waves, heads nodding in some ancient agreement (“May our lemmas always be longer than the lowest glume…” “Yes, yes, it is so.”) Every Wednesday, which is Field Botany day in my world, my cohort and I spend a full, 9-5 day with Cathy Paris and Liz Thompson addressing the nuances of the botanical world with direct, unabashedly precise language, squinting along as we’re steered from spikelet to achene to tubercle in an ever-zooming lens of detail.

This is the class that feels most like learning a foreign language. Specifically, there’s an overload of new terminology with no real-life reference points: words you simply have to memorize, because they only attach to one, very specific meaning that exists nowhere else except deep inside the maze of plant anatomy. To actually retain this language requires a little reinforcement, a task that I’m sure we’ve all approached differently. I’ve taken to drawing everything in class because it’s the only way to add dimension to the detail, to take its foreignness and make it familiar. I tried to do that in a different class, our Friday “Field Practicum” class, where we visit sites and decipher the whole story – and it just didn’t work to turn into images. The puzzles of the sites we visit may be bigger in scope, but the way we solve them somehow doesn’t necessitate the translation of a sketch. Perhaps it’s because patching together narratives from imperfect fragments is what social creatures like ourselves are expertly designed to do. At any rate: a few images of class and sketches from my botany notebook, a world I’ve made for myself to remember:

Walking

Four days after surgery, on the porch.

Four days after surgery, on the porch.

By Mike Blouin

Last June I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball.  While playing one-on-one with my friend Chris, who is not exactly Michael Jordan, I jumped to take a shot and heard a POP.   Next came searing pain and lots of swear words, and the slow realization that my left leg wasn’t working properly.  That evening, my sister Julie and I went on a very expensive field trip to the emergency room.

Ten days later a surgeon sewed the tendon back together.  After the operation I spent two weeks in a spare room in Julie’s Boston apartment.  The room contained only a few items: a wooden chair, three pink plastic containers stacked against a wall, a rolled-up rug, and a lumpy mattress in the corner.  Its walls were white and bare, and the only window was a skylight.  It had the aura of a dreary whitewashed cave.

For the first three days, I couldn’t leave the room except for short, painful expeditions to the bathroom across the hall.    Splint propped on a mountain of pillows, I attempted to entertain myself.  I watched obscene amounts of Netflix.  I called my parents and friends, read books and blogs, and patrolled Facebook like a cop on a beat.  I stared at the ceiling.  At turns, I felt restless, bored, and sorry for myself.

Trapped in this little room, I read Thoreau’s essay, Walking, on my laptop  Henry extolled to me the benefits of exploring the outdoors on foot, writing, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Henry really knew how to rub it in.

On day four, I made it down a set of stairs and out onto my sister’s back porch.  I spent hours out there, listening to thumping music and squabbling neighbors, watching birds and squirrels, sweating profusely in the early-summer humidity.  It was heaven.  For the next week, as I continued to heal, I made the pilgrimage daily.

About a month after my injury, when I was still on crutches, I was in the midst of organizing a community-centered event for the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.  There were to be activities for every type of nature lover: moth collecting, bird watching, tracking, sketching, a plants walk, even a pond exploration.  A few days before the event I got a call from a man named Don.  He wanted to join us for the day, and was looking for activities that were wheelchair accessible.  I wasn’t sure what to tell him – most of the events required long hikes on rough, steep trails.   Eventually Don and I determined we could make it work if he wanted to join the tracking or sketching activities.  He called the next day and said, no, he had decided against it.   But he promised he would keep an eye out for future events.

“I won’t give up,” he said. “I’ll keep trying.”

Talking to Don was like a punch in the stomach.  My disability would fade; Don’s never would.  I had often wallowed in self-pity during my temporary isolation from nature; he faced permanent challenges with optimism and dignity.  Of course, Don’s situation is not uncommon:  many face physical, economic, geographic, or cultural barriers that make it difficult to explore the outdoors.  But it had been easier, simpler, not to think too hard about this.

Now, nearly three months later, I’m back outside.  I can’t run or jump yet, but I can walk.  Last week I found a wasp nest hidden beside a footbridge I cross daily.  I watched the wasps for a while, trying to find patterns in their routes to and from the nest.   Later I found copious globs of nectar hidden under the leaves of a fruiting basswood – but only on one tree.  I collected a few leaves, caught a glimpse of three cardinals involved in an apparent love triangle, and walked home, full of questions, feeling tingly and alive.

I’m starting to forget how it felt to be unable to walk, and I don’t think about Don all that often anymore.   I worry that the way I came to see my relationship with nature – as fragile, precious, and privileged – will fade away with my injury.   It well might.  But I’ll try to keep coming back to what I felt and learned these past three months, and try to act with these lessons in mind.   I can’t promise success.  I can only promise I won’t give up.  I’ll keep trying.

Mike Blouin is a 2nd-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  He spends lots of time thinking about people in nature, and the nature of people. 

The Nuclear Option for Dragonflies

By Bryan Pfeiffer

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A Common Green Darner (Anax junius) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

On a crisp, sunny day in September, after what was probably a typical summer for a dragonfly (which involves flying around, killing things and having sex beside a pond), a Common Green Darner took off and began to migrate south. As it cruised past the summit of Vermonts Mt. Philo, with Lake Champlain below and the Adirondacks off in the distance, the dragonfly crossed paths with a Merlin.

The Merlin, a falcon that kills in flight, swerved, plucked the dragonfly from the sky with its talons and began to eat on the wing. As the falcon and its prey continued southbound, all that remained in their wake was a single detached dragonfly wing, falling like an autumn leaf toward fields at the base of Mt. Philo.

Eagles, hawks, falcons and Monarch butterflies aren’t the only migrants moving south past mountains this fall. Joining them are dragonflies. Although biologists know plenty about the fall raptor and Monarch migrations, we are only beginning to discover, with some creative chemistry, where these dragonflies go and how migration figures in their conservation.

Fly or Die

Most dragonfly species do not migrate. In fact, most are now dead, having already mated during the summer season, leaving behind eggs or larvae to survive the winter. The killing frost will finish off much of what’s still on the wing. But some survivors will leave.

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Among the 460 or so dragonfly and damselfly species native to North America, at least five are classic migrants: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), Spot-winged Glider (Pantala hymenaea) and Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). Each species is on the move this fall.

Dragonflies migrate for the same reasons other animals migrate: to avoid inhospitable conditions, in this case habitats that freeze or become too cold for the dragonflies themselves or their insect prey. Monarchs go to Mexico. Broad-winged Hawks leave for wintering grounds stretching from southern Mexico into South America. Dragonflies head south to who knows where.

Having studied birds for two centuries, biologists know well their breeding and wintering distributions , even to the point of learning the destination of a particular warbler or sparrow after it leaves us in the fall. Ornithologists catch lots of songbirds in nets and place around one leg a tiny silver bracelet embossed with a unique number – an avian social security number – and then release the birds to the winds. A small percentage of them, still sporting their bracelets, are later recaptured while in migration or on wintering grounds thousands of miles away. Better yet, we’re putting small electronic transmitters on large birds, such as Bar-tailed Godwits and American Woodcocks, and tracking their movements real-time with satellites.

On of my tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

A tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

We can even track the movement of a single butterfly. I myself have placed little stickers, each bearing a unique alpha-numerical code, on the hind wings of more than 1,000 Monarchs here in Vermont and elsewhere in North America, and then set each one free to fly toward Mexico, where many are later encountered by conservationists searching for the buttterflies once they arrive in Mexico. With each recovery, we learn more about Monarchs and how they migrate.

The “Heavy” Hydrogen

Dragonflies aren’t so obliging. For one thing, we’re clueless about where they go. Monarchs concentrate each winter in stands of Oyamel Fir in mountains west of Mexico City. So we know where to find them and how to protect them. Tagging or somehow marking a dragonfly would be like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. Actually, I suspect we’d find the bottle before the dragonfly.

Yet it turns out that we need not tag or otherwise mark these migratory dragonflies because they themselves carry clues about where they have been. If the Merlin doesn’t get it first, we can catch any migrating dragonfly, analyze trace elements in its tissue and determine roughly how far it has flown.

Our marker is water, more to the point the two hydrogen atoms in water. Recall from high school chemistry that hydrogen nucleus normally contains a single proton and no neutron. But a tiny fraction of hydrogen atoms around the world carry one proton and one neutron. We call it “heavy hydrogen,” or deuterium. And unlike other such atomic variations among elements (which can be radioactive), deuterium is stable in the environment – a “stable isotope”– and stable in the wing of a dragonfly.

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Credit: Migratory Dragonfly Partnership

The amount of deuterium in water varies somewhat predictably in North America. You can map it. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in water falling as rain or snow changes on a gradient corresponding roughly with latitude. Water in Alberta, for example, carries a different deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio than water in Alabama.

Because dragonflies grow up as nymphs in water, they incorporate the local deuterium ratio into their tissue. It’s like a dialect or an accent that a dragonfly bears for life – whether as a nymph in water or a free-flying adult in migration. A Common Green Darner on the wing over Mt. Philo or Miami unwittingly carries a particular deuterium ratio, a birth certificate that tells us generally where it grew up. You are what you eat – or drink.

This science isn’t perfect. We can’t pinpoint a dragonfly’s natal waters in the way we know where a banded bird hatched or a tagged Monarch emerged. But stable isotopes are helping us track the range of migrating dragonflies. It’s “better living through chemistry.” After all, we can’t really know a bird or butterfly or a dragonfly – and what it might need in the way of conservation – until we know all the places it lives or wanders.

By the way, you need not be a chemist to help track dragonfly migration. We’re counting dragonflies in the same way we count migrating raptors during hawkwatches each fall. Learn how to do it and report what you find with help from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

And while we’re out there counting, if a Merlin happens to catch a dragonfly first, we can still make a difference … by catching one of those dragonfly wings floating toward Earth.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a writer and field naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He teaches writing in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Programs.

The Paradox of Sugaring

By Laura Yayac

saptap (1)It flavors creemees, cotton candy, and liqueurs. It’s poured over pancakes and snow, and is used in countless recipes. And right now, the raw sap is running from trees into buckets and webs of tubing then onto sugarhouses, where it’s boiled into maple syrup in all its amber glory.

Sap runs when the nights are cold and the days warm, but something about this does not make sense.

Before I get to that, though, a bit of history. European settlers learned about maple sugaring from native tribes, who in turn have a variety of legends as to how they discovered that maple sap could be boiled into a liquid sugar. Written accounts of maple tapping date from the 1550s, and it isn’t just people who love maple syrup. One of the explanations for human discovery of syrup is watching red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). These critters have been documented using their teeth to cut into sugar maples, then returning over the next few days, after much of the water has evaporated, to lick the sweet blobs that are left behind. Continue reading

Before It’s Gone, A Primer on Snow

By Maddy Morgan

Any skier or snowboarder knows that snow does not come in just one form.  Snowpacks are as variable as the snowflakes that form them.  We have all heard the claim that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow (actually, I discovered, just more flexibility in how root words are modified), but what about our terms for snow?  Skiers talk about corduroy and corn snow, but the variation in snow types extends beyond the ski slopes. 

601124_677097335993_631112764_nHere is your late-in-the-season glossary of snow.  Maybe your optimism tells you that the snow won’t be with us much longer, but it might be in your best interest to brush up, just in case.

Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing.  In certain conditions, it is even possible for snow to reach the ground when the ground temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  Freezing atmospheric temperatures, combined with moisture in the air, forms snow crystals.  Snow crystals exist in four forms: snowflakes, hoarfrost, graupel, and polycrystals.

  • Snowflakes, which we are all familiar with, are clusters of ice crystals that fall from clouds.  Their shape is dependent on the conditions in which they are formed and through which they fall.
  • Hoarfrost is our name for ice crystals that form on small surfaces that are open to the air.  When a surface’s temperature is lower than the frost point of the surrounding air, moisture transforms directly from vapor to solid, forming delicate laces of surficial ice.
  • Graupel is the round, pellet-like snow that resembles a softer hail.  When ice crystals fall through super-cooled cloud droplets (which remain liquid although they are below freezing temperatures), the droplets freeze to the crystals, forming a clump.
  • Polycrystals are flakes made up of many individual crystals.

Continue reading

Winter Blooms

By Matt Pierle

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Cabin fever have you ready to see flowers again? If so, you’ve got options: Brazil and Bali are nice this time of year. Or seek out plants at a world-class botanical conservatory in, say, Montreal, London or San Francisco.

If you’re short on time or prefer shoestring travel though, you could do what I did over spring (technically late winter) break and book a $26 ticket on the Megabus from Burlington to Boston. From South Station Boston walk north to Chinatown, through Boston Common, past the frozen Frog Pond, to the Longfellow Bridge, over the Charles River to Cambridge and kick it up Broadway to Harvard Street. Continue north all the way to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In bloom you’ll find the extensive Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants created by Czech born Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. Most people simply call the collection “The Glass Flowers.” You read that right. This collection is not of flowers under glass, it is of flowers made of glass.

These life-size and larger-than-life specimens are more than impressionistic representations of garden blossoms; they are über-accurate botanical sculptures of a diversity of wild and cultivated plants. The pieces will challenge your powers to believe that something so realistic could be made from inert, colored sand. Continue reading