Category Archives: Entomology

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.

The students arrived set to journey through wilderness, the classic romanticized remote landscape, and a wilderness of their mind, body and souls. Students often do not realize that they will travel through a type of land designated by law as Wilderness.

The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 designates lands that are separated from roads and motorized use. The act is the federal government’s strictest land preservation law. In 2014 the country celebrated the Act’s 50th Anniversary. The question remains open and often debated by private property activists, business, economists, environmentalists, and others: “Does wilderness still matter?”

Yes. Wilderness is more relevant and timely than ever. Wilderness preserves pockets of ancient ecosystems — from coasts, to endangered grassland prairies, to piedmonts and fragile alpine systems. They remain largely intact. Nearby human communities receive a boost in tourism, and recreational users travel to these wild places for respite. Lyndon B. Johnson said upon signing the bill into law:

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

In 1964, there were 54 Wilderness designations in 13 states totaling 9 million acres. The first Wilderness Area designations included the Gila in New Mexico. The original bill laid the foundation for many other Wilderness bills, some of which were passed into law.

Today there are more than 750 Wilderness Areas from coast to coast. These wild landscapes exist in this country because of the forethought and persistence of conservation leaders.

The Wilderness movement is one of the few times in history in which we as a society designated places set aside for what they are and set at a distance from the human species ability to dominate, take and destroy the very things that help us survive. Wilderness lands are dedicated to preserve havens for clean-water, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Wilderness areas provide the headwaters habitat for clean water sources that reach many of our country’s largest cities: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York, to name a few. The roadless nature of these areas also makes them valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The law allows regions of our country’s landscape to remain inhabitable by large predators and serve as an example and testament of biodiversity and ecological processes. These wild places include home to grizzly bears, elk, and wolves, and watersheds where native salmon and trout maintain their genetic integrity.

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon ©Levi Old

Wilderness draws humans in for many reasons. They arrive to separate from their everyday existences. To vision quest. To challenge comfort zones. To rejuvenate.

The students on these wilderness courses often look to escape the symptoms that follow hours spent in front of a screen, or those times when the hand drives itself to the cell phone on its own. Many seek to separate from the trauma of war or family troubles. For others the symptoms may arise in traffic jams, or walking on concrete so often that the body forgets the intricate features of wild, naked earth.

There are others who are content with the notion that wilderness solely exists:

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” said writer and Wilderness advocate, Wallace Stegner. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Wilderness is a victory in this country’s heritage and an Act and idea that deserves and needs to be defended. Even within the environmental movement itself, the debate continues as to whether these places exclude humans too much. There is a belief among many that we should intermingle in the environment and not feel as though we need to separate ourselves from it and that the concept of Wilderness separates humans further from nature.

Mending Old and New Practices

The leap into the 21st Century passed. The country is in a continuous war for resources. Our earth’s population is over 7 billion and predicted to grow towards as many as 10 billion in 2050 (the elephant in the room). Today’s movement towards ecological peace or “the environmental movement” has deepened the longstanding discussion on the value of setting aside preserved lands. The environmental movement, once driven by large policy and conservation of public lands, now has a new, or at least more diverse presence.

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

The neo-environmentalists have treaded bravely into new territories. More young farmers stake claims each year to grow local food, tend soils, and use sustainable agriculture. Urban planners are improving public transportation to offset carbon use and cut down on pollution. River restoration groups remove dams so that salmon can once again swim to their native birth grounds and reestablish themselves as staples of cultural tradition and food sovereignty (a role they held for thousands of years).

Universities and Walmarts employ sustainability coordinators who wash shades of green into their operations. Even permaculture, a regenerative way of living, commonly appears in the national press.

Each of these steps forward is part of a story’s thread — the story of a battle upstream for humanity and earth’s natural systems. They’re not separate, yet woven like an orb weaver’s web — like the web each student will navigate throughout life.

The modern environmental movement’s new approaches should make any longtime fighter in this work proud. However, it should not allow us to sit still or dismiss victories of the past and their value in the present. At the closing of the Act’s 50th year, we celebrated the role of Wilderness in our country’s past and future. In 2015 and beyond, however, our work must continue. The managed landscape cannot be mistaken for unmanaged country.

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana    © Levi Old

One loss in the walls of Washington, and this Act could be stripped of its foundations, making wild lands exposed to numerous threats. Direct attacks on the law take place each year in our nation’s capitol.

One bill (H.R. 4089), for example, pushed by the extractive industries and disguised as pro-hunting legislation would have allowed motorized use and other development in protected Wilderness areas. It passed the U. S. House, but died in the Senate. These bills have the ability to destroy the hard work and value of these unmanaged landscapes.

We should not be fooled that Wilderness areas are completely devoid of human impact. Not only are humans visitors to Wilderness areas, the interconnectedness of ecological systems makes non-native species, climate change and air pollution among the many threats to these lands. These landscapes are delicately chosen because they are like no other areas — for their values to humans and ecological processes.

Named after the famous conservationist, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in the Everglades National Park represents the woman who fought hard to protect this ecosystem of cypress marshes and mangrove forests. She secured a future for Miami’s water source and a haven for biodiversity. She stated at the beginning of her book, The River of Grass:

“There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Everglades National Park, home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Everglades National Park — home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Will we let these special places be exploited for short-term benefit, or will we fight to maintain and protect more? The younger generation and new breed of environmentalists can step up and lead the charge, mending new conservation techniques with foundations like the Wilderness Act.

Fracking and Fire

On the expedition’s final night we sat around telling stories, and Ben reflected on the gratitude he felt for the places set aside from our own species ability to fragment and destroy. He said he appreciated the lack of roads or drill rigs in the Wilderness areas we traveled throughout the course. He told a story about his home in eastern Wyoming, where drills checkered the landscape and trucks carried water to natural gas fracking operations.

The boom really changed the sagebrush steppe landscape where he grew up. He spoke about how the land’s value to human needs will outlast the natural gas extraction, and he hoped it would not ruin his hunting and fishing grounds, or his family’s water source.

Out here we know that there are wild landscapes protected by the Wilderness Act, which we learned about on course, he explained. “What forethought went into the protection of these places,” Ben said. “Those advocates were wise and planning for future generations. I would like to be one of those people.”

That night we sat in a cliff-side cave overlooking an arroyo. After weeks of challenging herself with primitive fire techniques, Lily started the fire we sat around. She also canoed, backpacked, wrestled with group leadership, communication, cooking, and a fear of heights — all under the guidance of Wilderness.

Each night Ben, Lily and our expedition crew stargazed far from city lights. As an educator, Wilderness provides me the finest of classrooms, a wild place that doubles as a wise mentor. That evening, I sensed we all knew that Wilderness can be harsh, often unforgiving, yet rewarding beyond the best author’s and the best speaker’s words.

As we went to bed, coyotes yipped into a light covering of cirrus clouds.

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank - Church River of No Return Wilderness

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank – Church River of No Return Wilderness ©Levi Old

Douglas, M.S. (1947). The Everglades: River of Grass. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.

Govtrack.us. (n.d.). H.R. 4089 (112th): Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4089

The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). General Format. Retrieved from http://wilderness.org/article/wilderness-act

 

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.”

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.

isoscape

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.

A Prayer for Monarchs

milkweed-600

By Rob Rich

The flaring wings or the breezy wisps of aspen and birch are few today. Gone are the flights of spring, but at Mobbs Farm in Jericho autumn is in flight. Apples and acorns plunk down with minimal elegance, but the swirling leaves trade the birds for brightness in the distant wood. And across the rusty meadow, others waft down lightly before winter. This is a day for milkweed, hinting at flurries to come.

They glide with a powdery lift by a pappus – the Greek for “old man” – providing cottony parachutes for each kernel. Soft, green pods once held them moist and tight, but now they are freed as they crack in the crisp, dry wind. The pods tear apart, opening for each white pappus to glisten like eyes in the gaze of the sun. They lift with a grace that seems to laugh at gravity. But failing to plant in the sky, they finally fall. I wantonly tear at some unopened pods, eager to help the silky strands find a resting place on earth.

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Petri Dish Pathos

Diradops-bethunei-860

By Matt Cahill

I spent the afternoon sorting a tangle of dead bodies.  Their legs were all snarled in a heap.  I had to pry each little corpse apart, delicately, one at a time.  Down the barrel of my microscope the petri dish was filled with yellow stripes and cellophane wings, stray heads and dispossessed parts.  How lovely, I thought, to see nature up close.

Then in the middle of the pile, underneath the furry abdomen of a bee, a set of small black legs began to wiggle.  These insects had been stewing for two weeks, ever since I had swept them up in my net from the late-summer goldenrod and dumped their squirming bodies into a calm bath of ethanol.  They should have been very much dead.

But the legs kept wiggling.  Pushing the bee aside, a small wasp head emerged, yellow-painted with large black eyes, quivering.  The tiny wasp crawled up on the pile of bodies like a shipwrecked sailor on a sandy shore.  I shook the dish to knock it back under.

“Savage! What gives you the right to kill?” the small wasp yelled when it surfaced again. Continue reading