Cryptic Croakers

Northern leopard frog among fallen maple leaves.

Northern leopard frog spot on with a fallen maple leaf

Imagine that you are about the size of a Reese’s cup, and to many animals, equally delicious. Your place in the food web lies somewhere near the middle, part predator, part prey. You dine on insects, slugs, snails, and even the occasional small bird. You are a northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) and dangers abound. Predators lurking above include herons, hawks, and waterfowl. On the other side of a stump, raccoons, foxes, and snakes await your misstep. Water, your true home, swarms with otter, mink, and bullfrogs anticipating a particular main course. How do you survive such an onslaught?

Many of us may think that we witness a frog’s primary defense as it jumps away. But his erratic hopping demonstrates his 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 them from potential predators, but few excel in this department as well as the northern leopard frog.

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 or brown and rounded black spots decorate their skin. These colors blend in inconspicuously to the fields of forbs, grasses, and goldenrods in a cloak of camouflage called background matching. Types of deception abound in the animal kingdom. Think of the challenge of spotting 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 among the autumn leaves, and you have background matching. Whether feather, fur or frog, these animals blend in beautifully with their environment.

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. However, leopard frogs have a trick up their sleeves that they share with the northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Both of these cold-blooded critters head 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.

Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

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.

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

Hardy Kiwi: Delicious, Decorative, Destructive

Hardy kiwi vines on forest trees.

Hardy kiwi vines on forest trees.

By Jessie Griffen

While living and working at a yoga retreat center in western Massachusetts for the summer, I learned to meditate during exercise. In early August, with the end of the field season in sight and too much left to do, I jogged trails that I still needed to map. As I ran, my mind noted small observations about the forest: a patch of partridge-berry here, huge hemlocks there. Instead of focusing on these thoughts, I tried to only notice them and let them pass by. But as I turned a corner on a trail through hardwoods, downed branches and trees startled me into active observation.

A mat of green vines with distinctively red petioles blanketed the understory, and wound ominously up trunks. Stunned by the scene, I halted. A group of walkers noticed me staring. They asked jokingly if I was searching for bears. I mentioned the vines, but didn’t want to explain what I had found: hardy kiwi. Continue reading

Field Notes 2015: Human Nature and The End of Nature

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 2.31.05 PMNature is in peril. Biodiversity is plummeting. Species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than normal. How many times have you read an introduction beginning that way? It’s depressing because it’s true. The ensuing article or book usually offers plenty of advice on what actions we must take to stem the tide of extinction and climate change and how to convince the uninformed public to care about it. But what about us — conservationists who already care about the deterioration of the natural world as we know it and who struggle with it emotionally? How can we find solace?

The current issue of Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs, reflects on how we can continue to delight in nature even as we stare these sobering environmental issues in the face.

Read or download the issue »

The Musicality of Birdsong

From Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, 2005.

From Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

By Joanne Garton

Formal study of birdsong has long been fascinated with the who, how, and why of some of our most ubiquitous outdoor sounds. Many guides encourage new birders to learn their species by ear, listening for bird presence rather than relying on sight alone. Researchers have examined everything from a songbird’s syrinx (the bird equivalent of a larynx) to its wing morphology to determine how a bird makes its song. Ecologists have monitored bird behavior to suggest why they sing and why birdsong makes us feel happy and safe. (For further thoughts on birdsong as a cultural ecosystem service, take a look at my research proposal on the valuation of birdsong in education.)

As a student of an Applied Wildlife Management course and an avid musician and fiddler, and a complete beginner when it comes to birds, I decided to examine the what of birdsong. More specifically, I was curious about the musical what, the pieces and patterns of sound that make up a spring morning or summer evening. Do birds sing in pitches and tones like we do? Do they prefer certain keys? Do they take a breath with each phrase? And how hard could it be to learn to reproduce birdsongs? (Quite hard, it turns out). Click on the bird names that look like this to hear my renditions of some of these birds’ songs. Continue reading

A Blackpoll Warbler’s Daring Trans-Atlantic Flight


By Bryan Pfeiffer

Two wings and a prayer carry a Blackpoll Warbler on a remarkable journey to South America each autumn. Well, actually, two wings and the audacity to pull off one of the most amazing feats of migration on the planet: a non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight lasting up to three days.

With most of us only speculating for decades about this amazing journey, my colleagues at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) today announced proof. Blackpoll Warblers fitted with miniature tracking devices took off from points in either Nova Scotia or the northeastern U.S. and flew south over the Atlantic, with no safe place to land, until reaching Caribbean islands roughly 1,600 miles away.

“This is one of the most ambitious migrations of any bird on earth,” said VCE’s Executive Director, Chris Rimmer, co-author of a research paper published today on the warbler flights. “We’ve also documented one of the longest nonstop, overwater flights ever recorded for a songbird.” Continue reading

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

Shadows and Sex


Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffe

By Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents are beginning a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds errupting into song on sunny mornings. Continue reading