Giving Thanks For Nature: A Meditation

solidago-550x764Despite the concrete, compelling realities of pine-cone gall aphids, winter buds, and migrating waterfowl, I head indoors as Thanksgiving approaches, trading adventures afield for the familiar comforts of food and friends. Chopping squash and garroting cabbage, I’m preoccupied with the wonders outside, even as I think about the purpose of this holiday—gratitude.

What do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? Family, of course. Not to mention food, football, and Black Friday shopping—maybe not quite precisely in that order. But something is missing for me, something that doesn’t neatly fit into that cozy human narrative. What else gives meaning to my life? Sunflowers and snow buntings, mourning cloak butterflies and polygonia orchids, mysterious fungi peeping from the trunks of trees. How can I bring them fully into the folds of my celebration? Where are they in all of this?

Across the waters of Lake Champlain, the Haudenosaunee people of upstate New York begin every gathering by thanking all of the beings of the world in a prayer they call “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” — literally,“The Words Before All Else.” Although it is often called “The Thanksgiving Address” in English, it was not limited to one day of the year. Sacred and holy, yet simultaneously woven into the fabric of everyday life, the words thanked everything in the universe for being exactly as it was and supporting life. The human folk, the earth, the sky, the winds, the animals, the food plants, medicinal herbs, trees, birds, the sun—the list seems exhaustive. Yet, at the end, anything still left unnamed is incorporated into the fold. Even the mysterious and unknown is worthy of honor and recognition. And every section ends the same way:Now our minds are one.”

So it can be done. We can bring all of the wonders outside into our kitchens if we want them there, whenever we want, by naming them and appreciating them as they are. But it’s not enough for me to see the world and appreciate it on my own; I want to share it with others and hear their own words in turn. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that level of connection every day, but on Thanksgiving, of all days, it feels more doable. We’re already gathered together, already here. Why not venture a few steps further in the outdoors and make the connection with a wider, marvelous universe?

But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start by expressing our gratitude for the natural world on this day of all days, for just one day. Let’s eat our turkey and pumpkin pie, and head outside for a walk. Or even a glance out of the window. There’s so much to see. The naked silhouette of sugar maples against the morning sky. The full moon on fallow fields burned by the frost. The rabbit skittering into the bushes, the chipmunk that skirts our path, the red-tailed hawk on the telephone wire. Look around. Try it out. See how it feels. Speak out, to family and friends on this one day, about all the things we experience and value in the natural world throughout the whole year. And maybe from those experiences will come new traditions—not dictated by some outside authority but welling up organically inside our own hearts.

Whether you’re spending Thanksgiving ensconced in the kitchen, up to your elbows in entrails, counting down the hours until Black Friday, or wandering afar in fields foreign or familiar, I hope your day is a joyous one. Wherever you are, find a way to stay connected to what truly moves you. The world is so big and rich when we take the time to stop for a moment and see it as it is. And complete the circle by sharing what you see with others and seeing the world through their own eyes in turn. Our minds may not be one, but we’ll be closer to being on the same page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Evergreen and Everlasting: The Long March of the Lycophytes

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

In the murky, humid forests of the Carboniferous Period, organisms grew to remarkable size. Dragonflies as big as Cooper’s hawks ruled the air and three-foot-long scorpions prowled the earth. The swampy water concealed beasts like the dawn tadpole, a predatory amphibian as long as a pickup truck. The canopy showcased elegant tree precursors: spore-bearing lycophytes a hundred feet tall.

Today, dragonflies are rarely any bigger than a clothespin. Tadpoles are tiny and harmless, and scorpions could fit in your palm (not that you’d want them there). This widespread diminution may be related to a dramatic decrease in atmospheric oxygen concentration since the Carboniferous. Even the lycophytes have had to shrink to survive. Yet three hundred million years after their age of supremacy, lycophytes persist in forests from the poles to the tropics. We call them clubmosses. They are usually less than four inches tall.

In early November, clubmosses leap into view on the forest floor, bright green runners in a matrix of brown. These evergreen plants are not actually mosses, but true vascular plants more similar to ferns and horsetails. At first glance they are easily mistaken for conifer seedlings; hence the common names ground pine and ground cedar. Lateral stems called rhizomes carry them across the ground. Periodically they send up vertical shoots, which emerge out of the leaf litter to capture sunlight. Having evolved before the seed, clubmosses disperse by means of spores, which most species carry in tiny kidney-shaped pouches packed together on a club-like appendage called a strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Wind-borne clubmoss spores are easily dispersed, but they have a long road and two life phases ahead of them. After germination, spores develop into tiny, often subterranean organisms called gametophytes. The gametophyte phase is responsible for the production of sex cells, which join at fertilization to form embryos. The embryos develop into the second life phase: sporophytes, charged with the production of new spores. This is the more familiar life phase we see above ground. Note, however, that not every clubmoss has a club: years may pass before sporophytes are capable of manufacturing new spores. Development from the gametophyte to the mature, strobilus-endowed sporophyte can take between six and fifteen years.

Clubmoss spores ripen in the fall, when a light tap to the strobilus is enough to release them. If you stroll through a miniature forest of lycophytes at this time of year your feet will stir up a cloud of gold. This fine powder has been put to use in a litany of applications: as a wood-filler in violins and guitars, a lubricant on condoms and surgical gloves, a hydrophobic coating for pills, and a homeopathic remedy for intestinal disorders. Crime scene investigators once used the spores to dust for fingerprints. The powder is highly flammable; early flash photography relied on the ignition of clubmoss spores. We have incorporated the spores into fireworks and magic tricks, theatrical productions and military operations. For more routine combustion, we turn back to the clubmoss’s progenitors: the giant lycophytes that ruled the swamps of the Carboniferous are burned today as coal.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Vermont’s woods can seem a little dull this time of year. Perhaps it will enliven your walk if you pause to remember that you are in the presence of prehistory. The tiny clubmosses at your feet have thrived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. With every step you are releasing spores that could have sealed a violin or cured a stomachache or solved a crime. Instead, because of you, they’ll go on to form a new generation of this enduring lineage.

Information gathered from Cathy Paris, Bernd Heinrich’s The Trees in My Forest, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious, Encyclopaedia Britannica (retrieved from, and Biology of Plants by Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn.

Julia Runcie is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning program.

Measuring Sense of Place

Looking west toward Hunger Mountain - a popular hiking destination. Recreation, as well as many other activities, increases the amount of time we spend in a particular place, which may lead to stronger environmental concern.

Looking west toward Hunger Mountain – a popular hiking destination. Recreation and other activities increase the amount of time we spend in a particular place, which may lead to stronger environmental concern.

Take a moment and think of the place in which you find yourself right now. No matter the location, there are seemingly infinite ways to develop a connection to a particular place. For example, you may depend on your surroundings to provide basic needs, or maybe the connection has developed from an emotional attachment or your identity. It seems reasonable to assume that if you’ve developed a strong connection to a place, you’d be more concerned about environmental issues specific to that area, and more willing to act on that concern. But how can we quantify something that is as complex and contextual as “sense of place”?

Researcher Asim Zia from the University of Vermont and his team of colleagues set out to answer that question with a grant funded by National Science Foundation. Their study focused on potential relationships between strong sense of place, environmental concern, and citizen action.

Measuring sense of place can be approached objectively or subjectively. Zia and his colleagues point out that pure objectivity and pure subjectivity lie on either end of a continuum. There’s no clear answer as to which approach would more closely represent an accurate measurement of sense of place (see table below for an example of a simplified framework describing these two approaches). They set out to find an integrative approach that falls along this continuum and is based on measurable reports of observable phenomena.


To better understand a person’s environmental concern, the research team used a conceptualized version of ambit. Ambit represents an individual’s periphery of their movements measurable over a period of time in relation to a home place. For example, over the course of a week, a UVM graduate student’s ambit may be focused mostly around their apartment in Burlington, then emphasis is given to school campus, favorite coffee shop, Lake Champlain, City Market, a friend’s house, etc. The particular places outside of the home can be quantified in terms of distance, weighted with time spent and frequency of trips.

In an attempt to measure ambit, the researchers surveyed 74 residents of Silicon Valley in California.  The survey aimed at eliciting respondent’s memory of trips taken over the course of a year. The resulting data suggested 5.07% less time spent for every 10 miles distance away from home. Even though respondents spent more time closer to home, the amount of time per distance from home varied greatly. This led to the rejection that concern is an objective function of weighted distance alone. Therefore, it is also inherently subjective, for example, through long distance trips to visit family or coral reefs.

Survey respondents also reported on their level of activism and attendance at community meetings. Zia used this information to explore the relationship between ambit-based measure of sense of place and community action. The data suggested respondents who spend a higher weighted average of time closer to home (i.e. higher sense of place) are more likely to participate in community action. The researchers point out that these findings are not necessarily generalizable, however future empirical research could shed more light on ambit-based sense of place. For example, GPS data or agent-based modeling – in addition to surveys – would provide a more robust set of data regarding individual movement between particular places, and shifting environmental concern as a function of such mobility.

Zia and his colleagues provide clear insight into the importance of proxies, such as their proposed ambit-based, sense of place theory: “As we work to develop new formal and informal institutions for dealing with problems that both exist in places and cross the boundaries of established spaces, it will be increasingly important to know something about people’s contours of meaningful place attachments as experienced on the ground.”

Sam Talbot is a second year student in the Ecological Planning Program. 


Zia, Asim, et al. “Spatial discounting, place attachment, and environmental concern: Toward an ambit-based theory of sense of place.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 40 (2014): 283-295.

Predicting Fall’s First Snowstorm

Here in Vermont, the passage of fall foliage marks the arrival of stick season. For a smaller group of birding enthusiasts, it also marks the triumphant return of the snow geese. Every year, thousands of snow geese descend upon the Dead Creek Wildlife Refuge in Addison, seeking respite and fuel on their journey south from the Canadian arctic to the mid-Atlantic coast. This year, though, things might look a bit different.


Snow geese erupt in flight over Lake Champlain in 2013

Since the mid 1960s, the raucous arrival of thousands of honking snow geese (Chen caerulescens) through the gray October clouds has been a spectacle worthy of a field day. The geese descend from their 2000-foot cruising altitude in smooth uniformity, applying the brakes dramatically in “falling leaf” formation as they approach Dead Creek below. Landing en masse on the shore and in the creek, the air fills with a cacophony of what seem to be triumphant shouts: “Glad we made it!”

As celebrated as their arrival is in Vermont, snow geese are anything but rare. In fact, they have the distinction of being one of the most abundant waterfowl in North America[i]. Once they arrive here in Vermont, they’ll chow voraciously on the region’s finest assortment of grass and sedge roots. Or, at least they used to. Murmurs in the birding community suggest snow geese dietary preferences are changing, and their migratory patterns are changing to follow their taste buds.

This change in forage is purely out of necessity. Populations have increased dramatically over the last one hundred years, the result of a hunting ban imposed in 1916 to allow a dwindling population to rebound[ii]. And rebound they did. Although hunting reopened in 1975, snow geese are now so plentiful that food is proving hard to come by; they must find food, or they’ll starve. So, what’s on the menu? Agricultural plant remains – the most abundant food around. Some geese have become so reliant on agricultural fields for food that they are now adjusting their migratory routes to stopover in prime farmland.

Despite plentiful agriculture in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, our forage is proving inferior to that in New York. Here, nearby farmers typically harvest their corn for cow silage, which leaves little waste material left for munching. Across the lake in New York, farmers often harvest corn as a commodity, leaving the stalks behind[iii]. As a result, the number of geese visiting Dead Creek each year has declined dramatically. In 2005, ten thousand snow geese stopped over; in 2006, that number dropped to five thousand[iv]. Since then, number have held steady at three to five thousand each year, with around two thousand geese already reported for this fall[v].

A Ross's goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

A Ross’s goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

Is the geese’s absence necessarily concerning? If you’re one of the many visitors who make the annual trip to Dead Creek adorned with binoculars, puffy coats and neck warmers, their absence may make you feel as empty as Thanksgiving spent without the chattering, bickering, well-loved guests. And, if you’re a wildlife biologist, keeping the wildlife management area an attractive stopover spot for geese helps minimize damage to neighbors’ crops, increases public interest in wildlife and increases the potential for hunting (another solution to limit population growth). There is incentive to keep the birds close.

Snow goose biologists have planned for just this scenario[vi]. What to do if the snow geese disappear: plant crops to lure them back to Addison. Vermont officials have already converted upland portions of Dead Creek to agricultural fields featuring a rotating crop of corn and hay, although the geese have yet to find it[vii]. It’s a crop artillery race against New York, and the winner is by no means fixed.

While a visit to Dead Creek this fall may not yield the same giddying barrage of honking that it has in past years, that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. If you’re in need of a weekend excursion, hop in your car, drive down to Route 17 in Addison, and train your eyes to the sky. Bring a snow-globe for good luck – perhaps a good shake will prompt a flock of one thousand geese to flutter through the clouds in the first big snowstorm of fall.

Hannah Phillips is a first year student in the Ecological Planning Program.

[i] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012). “Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens).” The Birds of North America, No. 514 (A. Poole, Ed.). Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York:

[ii] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012).

[iii] Alfieri, A. Personal Communication, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. (2015, October 26).

[iv] Alfieri, A. (2015, October 26).

[v] Pfeiffer, B. (2015, October 25). “The 2015 Snow Goose Scoop.” Retrieved from

[vi] Snowgoose, Swan, and Brant Committee of the Atlantic Flyway Gamebird Technical Section. (2009). “Management Plan for Greater Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway.” Retrieved from

[vii] Alfierio, A. (2015, October 26).


A Grisly Meal

"Feed Me" by Renee Silverman. Image licensed under creative commons.

“Feed Me” by Renee Silverman. Image licensed under creative commons by

From grizzlies to wolves to the people-eating plant in The Little Shop of Horrors, carnivores capture our imaginations, and sometimes send shivers down our spines. So, imagine my astonishment and wonder when I recently learned that below the ground, at a microscopic scale, there are fungi that hunt and eat live animals. Fungi. Hunting. This astounding news took my understanding of the weirdness and wildness of fungal diversity to new heights.

I knew that some fungi kill our plant crops, such as the wheat rust that Ben described in his post last month. I also knew that some fungi are top-tier recyclers that break down 85 billion tons of carbon each year as they transform dead material into soil and food for their growing bodies. But I had never heard that some fungi snare, trap, and devour nematodes, amoebas, and bacteria in the soil. Images of a microscopic fungal safari began to flit through my mind, prompting me to spread the word—in classes, at dinner parties, and while blogging.

A fungus of the genus Arthrobotrys, showing adhesive nets which it uses to trap nematodes. Numbered ticks are 122 µm apart. "20100828 005957 Fungus" by Bob Blaylock. Image licensed under creative commons by

A fungus of the genus Arthrobotrys, showing adhesive nets which it uses to trap nematodes. 
“20100828 005957 Fungus” by Bob Blaylock. Image licensed under creative commons by

One such story starts with the large fungal spore of Arthrobotrys anchonia, our first creature-in-profile. Fungal spores are minute reproductive structures that help spread the relatively immobile creatures across the land. This particular spore is packed with enough energy to sprout a hypha, a root-shaped structure that is the main body of the fungus. As the hypha develops, it also grows circular, pressure-sensitive snares. Once these traps are set, the fungus waits, living on stored energy until a nematode inadvertently wanders into one of the rings. As soon as the snare senses a touch, the triggered cells rapidly expand and the loop tightens around the nematode. Fungi don’t have mouths, so the fungus penetrates and grows into the nematode’s body to consume the meal. This first food is critical to the life of the fungus; if it doesn’t capture prey before it uses up its stored energy, it withers and dies.

“Oyster Mushroom” photograph by Aaron Sherman. Image licensed under creative commons by

“Oyster Mushroom” photograph by Aaron Sherman. Image licensed under creative commons by

Even the more familiar oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, is a well-equipped hunter. The fungus’ hyphae exude droplets of a paralyzing toxin into the soil. When nematodes unwittingly bump into these stupefying droplets, the fungus grows into the immobile prey and digests the quarry. Bacteria suffer a similar fate when they encounter this deadly trapper.

Fungi never cease to amaze. So next time life seems mundane, investigate one of these mysterious creatures. Scientists estimate that only 10% of all fungal species have been described. It is truly a frontier waiting to be explored.

Emma Stuhl is a second-year student in the Field Naturalist Program. Much thanks to Terry Delaney’s Plant Pathology course for inspiration and species information.

A [Local] Monster Mash

Here in Vermont you can hardly go outside without seeing signs about buying local.  Local foods are labeled in grocery stores, restaurants proudly display maps of Vermont with pins pointing out where they source their ingredients, and everybody who’s anybody seems to have a CSA share. But for some reason every year around this time even the most devout locavores import their Halloween monsters from far away.  Mummies more at home in Egypt smile out at you from windows, tarantulas usually found in tropical regions crawl all the way into candy bowls in Vermont, and vampires hop planes from Transylvania to lurk on residential porches for a few weeks every October.  Enough!  I say it’s time to put an end to the madness of imported creepies and crawlies, and to get to know a few of our own.  And so, I present to you a Halloween line-up of locally and sustainably sourced (and not-so-scary) monsters:

The Stigmata Mummy-Wasp (Aleiodes stigmator)

Mummified Acronicta Caterpillar with exit-holes of Stigmata Mummy-Wasp, photo by Bryan Pfeiffer

Mummified Acronicta Caterpillar with exit-holes of Stigmata Mummy-Wasp (Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer)

Here’s the good news: the stigmata mummy-wasp didn’t make the monster list for having a painful sting. In fact, these wasps are small and don’t have stingers.  In place of a stinger on their hind end, these wasps sport an ovipositor, which they use to inject their eggs under the skin of an innocent and unsuspecting host caterpillar.  After the eggs hatch the wasp larvae chew a hole in the underside of the caterpillar, causing it to leak fluids that dry and essentially glue the caterpillar to a plant.  Next the larvae mummify the caterpillar by eating the soft innards and lining the empty body with silk.  Inside the hollow caterpillar husk the wasp larvae spin their own cocoons and pupate into adults.  When they emerge from their cocoons they chew their way out, leaving behind the dry husk of a caterpillar that looks like it has been sprayed with buckshot.

Even though this may sound straight out of science fiction, stigmata mummy-wasps are native to Vermont where they generally inhabit wetlands and floodplains.  Though the wasps themselves are small and hard to find, the mummified caterpillars are not.  Their riddled mummies can be found clinging to sticks year round, and if you find one in late fall you might want to watch it closely – you might be lucky enough to spot one of these little monsters emerging.

The Oleander Aphid (Aphis nerii)

Oleander Aphids on a stalk of Swamp Milkweed

Oleander Aphids on a stalk of Swamp Milkweed

There are many types of aphids, but while I was researching for this list one variety stood out: Oleander aphids.  These little orange and black bugs grab onto a stalk of milkweed (or any of several other plant hosts) with specialized sucking mouthparts and drink it dry.  Their story only gets weirder from there.  Oleander aphids develop from unfertilized embryos and all adults are female; males do not occur in nature.  Adult females can be winged or wingless, the former usually showing up when the host plant is overcrowded or dying so that they can fly off to infest a new host.  Both the winged and wingless adults excrete live nymphs instead of eggs, and a colony can grow quickly.  The nymphs develop through five different phases before becoming adults, but nearly all phases look the same and vary only in size.

If an army of jack-o-lantern colored female clones sucking the life out of a plant isn’t Halloween enough for you, I should also point out that oleander aphids have their own mummifying parasitoid wasp.  The aphidiid wasp (Lysiphlebus testaceipes) lays a single egg inside an aphid nymph or adult.  When the egg hatches the wasp larva consumes the aphid from the inside, so that it develops into a brown papery husk of its former self.  Much like stigmata mummy-wasp larvae, the wasp larva then spins a cocoon inside this mummified aphid, pupates, and chews its way out, leaving behind a bloated brown aphid mummy with a hole in it.  When a dense colony of oleander aphids is heavily parasitized, half or more of the aphids in the colony may eventually be only mummified remains while their sisters slurp placidly beside them.  How bewitching.

Horsehair Worms (Paragordius varius)

Resembling an animated, wiry strand of hair, horsehair worms are often spotted writhing in the bottom of woodland streams and pools. As charming as that may sound, their mating behavior is less than romantic.   When a female indicates a willingness to mate, the male releases a cloud of sperm in her general vicinity, and then swiftly dies.  The sperm forms a glob, which finds its way to the appropriate receptacle on the female within the next 24 hours.  A fertilized female goes on  to lay as many as 6 million eggs, and then she too perishes.  As It turns out this is the least offensive part of their life cycle.

Horsehair Worm (on top of leaf) found in a stream in Bristol, VT

The eggs mature, and in 2-3 weeks millions of tiny worm larvae are hunting for hosts in the pool or brook.  They infect many different kinds of aquatic phase insects, including mosquito larvae, and when the infected larva matures into its adult phase, the worm larva comes along for the ride.  Eventually this intermediate host insect is consumed by the host the worm is really looking for: crickets and their relatives.  Once inside this final host the worm begins to absorb nutrients through its skin from the host’s body.  Having no mouth or digestive system of its own, the worm requires an environment where food comes pre-digested.

While growing inside its host, a process that takes 2-3 months, the worm is also practicing mind-control.  An infected cricket will not chirp at all as chirping uses up precious energy and can attract unwanted attention to the worm’s comfortable home. Once the horsehair worm has fully developed inside of its cricket host (reaching lengths of four inches or more), it releases a chemical that drives the host to seek out water.  Meanwhile the worm has carved a hole in its host’s side, and shortly after the host hits the water the worm will emerge in its free swimming adult phase to mate, leaving its injured but still living host behind to begin the cycle again.

From the mummified remains of caterpillars, to the mind games of a parasitic worm, our Vermont backyards boast a roster of Halloween monsters rivaling those of the silver screen.  So this Halloween, when you find yourself telling scary stories with friends, borrow a tale right from your own backyard…and sustainably source your monsters.

Shelby Perry is a second year student in the Field Naturalist Program.  She would like to acknowledge Field Naturalist Graduate, Charley Eiseman, for his help fact-checking sections of this post, and his wonderful book Tracks and Sign of Insects and other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species.  

Cryptic Croakers

Northern leopard frog among fallen maple leaves.

Northern leopard frog spot on with a fallen maple leaf

Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

Imagine that you are the size of a Reese’s cup and, to many animals, equally delicious. You occupy a precarious position in the food chain; you are a danger to many, and safe from few. You dine on insects, slugs, snails and even the occasional small bird. Predators that hover above include herons, hawks, and waterfowl. Raccoons, foxes and snakes lurk behind stumps on the ground, awaiting your misstep. Water, your true home, swarms with otter, mink and bullfrogs, each hungry for their main course delicacy. How do you, a northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), survive such an onslaught?

Many of us may think that we witness a frog’s primary defense as it jumps away. But this erratic hopping demonstrates a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Before he leaps for his life, stillness keeps him hidden among the leaves; camouflage is his best friend. Numerous amphibians employ camouflage to protect themselves from potential predators, but few excel in this department as well as the northern leopard frog. Under the cloak of camo, this frog gains the opportunity to find dinner without always becoming it.

The waning months of summer in Vermont bring about new dangers for these cryptic croakers, as they venture from the water’s edge into meadows to forage for food. Luckily, hues of green and brown underlie rounded black spots that decorate the skin in a pattern that serves function over fashion. These colors blend in inconspicuously to the fields of forbs, grasses, and goldenrods in a cloak of camouflage. This crypsis is termed background matching.

The use of background matching is not uncommon elsewhere in the animal kingdom. A white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) resting on the forest floor, an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) waiting motionless in the hollow of a tree, or a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) hiding amongst the autumn leaves are all able to avoid detection with their special camouflage. Whether feather, fur or frog, these animals are a rare treat if your eye can pick them out of the patchwork.

With the warmer portion of fall still upon us, spend a Saturday in the meadows of the Champlain Valley and try to catch a glimpse of a leopard frog during its feeding forays. Vermont winters hit hard for these amphibians. Soon, they’ll head for the trenches with the northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Both of these cold-blooded critters move to well-oxygenated waters to escape the brutal winter winds and hunker down into hibernation. They begin to tuck themselves in by late October to early November, and won’t fully emerge until February or March. By then, it will be time to fatten up, find a mate, and blend into their surroundings once more.

Gabe is a first-year Field Naturalist student at UVM

Mushrooms in our Midst

They rose up from the ground like golden fingers, grasping the earth of the Northern White Cedar Swamp. Once aware of their presence, I began seeing their relatives everywhere. Black tongues sprouting from stumps, miniature sheets of rolling parchment across a log, raisin-like swellings on branches, delicate feathers and elegant goblets along fallen trees, a smear of blue paint on a stick, a white parasol shading decaying leaves.

How are they alike? They are all mushrooms. Around this time of year, especially after rain, you see them bursting forth from the leaf litter and colonizing fallen logs.

Golden Spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis)

Golden Spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis)

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies present in some fungi—like the apples of a tree. The fruiting bodies contain spores that produce new fungi, similar to the seeds in fruit. The rest of the fungus, called the mycelium, is often underground.  It’s made up of a network of fine filaments, also known as hyphae. These filaments resemble the roots of plants, but unlike roots, hyphae actively digest their surroundings. The mycelium portion of fungus can be massive.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

In a single cubic inch of soil, there can be more than eight miles of these cells – around 300 miles of mycelium to a footprint. In fact, the largest living organism is a fungus – a single individual that has colonized an area roughly 2,400 acres in eastern Oregon. That’s 1,665 football fields. Fungi are also powerful; the mushrooms of one fungus, Coprinus comatus, develops with such ferocity that it has been known to break through asphalt. Another fungus, Pilobolus, blasts its spores at a force of 20,000g—more than double the acceleration of a bullet from a vintage rifle.

Crowded Parchment (Stereum rameale)`

Crowded Parchment (Stereum rameale)`

Fungi aren’t plants – they’re actually more closely related to animals as their cell walls have chitin (a tough substance also found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans). Fungi are decomposers, breaking down plant tissue and other materials. However, many fungi get an extra boost of nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with a host plant. In exchange for a renewable food source, the fungi provide mineral nutrients and water taken up by their incredible surface area. 95% of examined plants obtain nutrients and water through a relationship with fungi. Some fungi are saprophytic, feeding on dead or decaying organic matter in the soil and making room for new growth. Some are parasitic, feeding off of living tissue.

Humans have appreciated mushrooms throughout history. A 5,300 year-old Tyrolean Ice Man, Otzi, was discovered frozen in ice with a satchel of Tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius), along with Birch polypore (Piptopurus betulinus). Perhaps they were used as a fire starter, or maybe for its antibacterial properties, or possibly to ward off insects or evil spirits.

Black-footed Polypore (Polyporus badius)

Black-footed Polypore (Polyporus badius)

Today, fungi have a wide range of uses– decomposable packaging, insect extermination, antibiotic production, and contaminant mitigation. In addition, mushroom burial suits have been developed to facilitate the process of human decomposition while cleansing the body of accumulated toxins

Even if you don’t want to be buried with a suit embroidered with spores, there are plenty ways to appreciate fungi. Go out this autumn and relish the myriad of mushroom forms. Contemplate the vastness of mycelium under your feet and how it supports the life growing over your head.

Ellen is a first year student in the Field Naturalist Program. 

Blast it all

Of all the wilts, blasts, declines, spots, blights (early and late), smuts, fires, and other types of plant maladies that I’ve gotten to tour this semester as a TA for Plant Pathology, it’s the rusts – as boring and creaky as they sound – that have captured my heart. They’re everything you want in a fungus: edgy, shape-shifting, clever, misbehaved, and mysterious. They’re also some of our most important plant pathogens, culturally and economically. It was the coffee rust Hemileia vastatrix and its devastation of coffee plantations in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in the 1870s that pushed the Brits to acquire a taste for tea. A wheat rust, Puccinia graminis, has evaded our best efforts at breeding resistant varieties of wheat, and creeps ever closer to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Here in the Northeast, Cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperis-virginae) sprouts bright orange horns and adorns cedar and juniper trees with unmistakeable alien blobs. Do some googling – you won’t be disappointed.

So what makes a rust a rust? Many of them do indeed create a blistery, red, orange or brown spore-producing growth that coats the host plant. Wheat rust, for example, would be hard to describe with any other word.

Licensed under Public Domain via Common

Wheat stem rust, Puccinia graminis. Photo licensed under Public Domain.

But part of what makes the whole group of “rusts” so sinister is that most have two separate plant hosts. The organism hops from host to alternate host seasonally and under the guise of five different spore types – making them very hard to pin down.

Why five spore types? For the rust fungi, it’s a matter of movement: something that most fungi lack in any obvious sense. So instead of wings or legs or even flagellae to carry these fungi across from host to host, these fungi delegate these tasks to a number of specialized spores. Each spore performs a different type of movement or storage: there’s genetic movement, of course, which happens in two different spore types (one spore to split the genes up, another to recombine them); but also there’s a spore for waiting/overwintering, a spore to hop from primary to alternate host, a different spore to hop back from the alternate host to the primary host, and yet another spore to re-infect the same primary host plant over and over again. It’s this last spore, called a uredia, that often causes the “rust” effect on the host plants.


Teliospores of Puccinia graminis, viewed at 200x. Photo by the author.

Something that will never get old for me is the ability of microscopes to make a flake of a leaf or a speck of carpet dust into a visual Versailles under magnification. As a TA for the Plant Pathology lab, most of what we do is look at structures under high power – needless to say, I’m one happy clam. So today, as my fellow TA Emma and I were conducting the chaos of 40 students trying to trace out the steps of the life cycles of wheat–barberry rust and white pine–currant rust, I took a moment just to view a particularly lovely slide of teliospores – they’re the red blobs, roughly diamond-shaped, with a lateral cross-wall pictured at left– as they emerged from a telium on a wheat plant.

Maybe you don’t have a microscope, but you can still appreciate these creatures in many ways. An easy challenge to you all: go to any nearby apple tree (crabapple will do), and start looking at leaves with blotchy brown spots on them: turn the leaves upside down, and see what you see. If you find yourself starting suddenly at what looks like a mole sprouting thick tufts of wiry hairs – which I bet you will find if you look – you, my friend, are in the dear company of cedar-apple rust aecia. Who cares what exactly that means: you’re a guest in their world, so take a hand lens, get curious, and enjoy the alien beauty of these fungi.

Monarchs Head South Toward an Uncertain Future

MonarchMontage-BryanPfeifferIf I went outside right now, hopped in the car, and started driving, it would take me 45 hours to reach the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico, some 2,823 miles away. Though I badly want to see the groves of sacred firs (Abies religiosa) quivering and dripping with orange and black wings, I’m not leaving today. For now, I am content to have witnessed one of this year’s migrants emerge from its chrysalis. The process was one of biology and of magic.

When I first saw the chrysalis I thought the tiny, metallic gold markings seemed suspiciously intricate for a mere caterpillar’s changing room, and peered at them as if they might instead be explained by sci-fi alien manufacture. It turns out that these spots allow oxygen to reach the developing structures and organs of the enclosed butterfly.

The next morning, in the span of about 15 minutes, this female butterfly inched downward out of her chrysalis, re-distributed fluids from her distended abdomen to unfurling wings, and washed her face in preparation for what was to come. Her autumn journey to the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico— if she can complete it—will take two months. To put this voyage in perspective, it is around seven times the distance traveled by caribou as they migrate from summer habitat to winter haunts. Caribou are billed as the land mammal with the longest migration in North America, whereas the Monarch is a butterfly whose flight has been described as “slow and sailing.”

monarch-1280x920The spring migration of Monarchs to New England is carried out by five different generations, each pushing north at distances more commensurate with their two-to-four-week lifespan and the floating nature of their flight. Monarchs hatched in late summer are among the generation that will live for several months to travel an incredible distance by putting their reproductive tendencies on pause, or rather, on diapause.

Diapause for the Monarch is a sort of flying hibernation that allows the butterfly to extend its lifetime, endure migration, and make it through the winter. Unlike hibernation, however, only specific environmental conditions can induce an organism to enter or exit diapause. In the case of a Monarch, when the days are long enough and the temperatures are just right, the overwintering butterfly shakes herself reproductively awake, mates, and then travels a few hundred miles north to lay her eggs on milkweed before dying.

Sadly, the odds for our particular young Monarch and her progeny are dismal. She faces habitat loss, changing environmental cues, invasive species and car windshields along the many miles of her journey. The population of Monarchs east of the Rockies is estimated to have declined by 90% since its level in 1995.

Nevertheless, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and concerned citizens are mobilizing to try to prevent the migratory Monarch’s extirpation. As with many environmental issues, large-scale actions such as policy change will be crucial. However, because the plight of the Monarch also plays out in our backyards, opportunities to help are close to home. You can plant native milkweeds to benefit individual butterflies. You can join other citizen scientists in supplying data to strengthen and inform the measures we take to protect Monarchs; check out

The first, beautiful moments of a young female Monarch reawakened my awe and concern for this species. Instead of being crushed by the terrible thought that, if Monarchs were to go extinct, this mystical experience might become a mythical one, I am spurred to share the urgency of the situation. Urgency is more powerful when it is underpinned by wonder. And though this combination might seem like a fragile set of wings with which to entrust the fate of a species, I take comfort in the thought of Monarchs fluttering south towards Mexico, unfazed.

Anya Tyson is a first-year Field Naturalist student