December 13 – Point It Out

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:
http://www.fws.gov/invasives/volunteersTrainingModule/index.html

October 29 – Zombee Jamboree

Today’s Factismal: Bees and ants really can turn into into zombies.

If you think that zombies are just found in the movies, then think again. There are real live zombies out there, and they may be in your neighborhood. But what is a zombie, really? And how did it get that way?

Put simply, to a biologist a zombie is any animal that no longer acts under its own control but is instead controlled by a parasite. The best known example of this in the animal kingdom is the poor leafcutter ant. In forests across Brazil, Thailand, and Africa, leafcutter ants are regularly attacked by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“Single fruiting body poking out of the head”, which describes how it reproduces). This disease primarily preys on leafcutter ants that make their homes in masses of bound together leaves, far above the ground.

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it (Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it
(Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

As soon as an ant has this disease, it begins to twitch and thrash until it either falls out of the nest or is thrown by colony members who don’t want to catch it themselves. The infected ant finds a leaf, grabs on with its mandibles, and has its brain eaten by the fungus. As soon as the fungus has nibbled all of the goodies to be found in this ant, it then cracks open the ant’s head and grows a stalk with a fruiting body on the tip. The fruiting body releases spores and the whole cycle starts all over again.

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane (Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane
(Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

And it isn’t just funguses that can cause this behavior. There are bacteria, wasps, and even flies that do this. Most ominous of those is the fly Apocephalus borealis, which turns honeybees into zombies. This “scuttle fly” is much smaller than a honeybee, but is capable of infecting dozens of honeybees with its eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae that then eat their way to the bee’s brain and drive it insane. (Bwah-hah-hah!) The bee then does stupid things, like flying at night or in the rain, which spreads the larvae further than they could go on their own. The larvae finally finish off the bee and eat their way out of the poor, dead, bee.

This is a severe problem for people because we rely on honeybees to fertilize many of the crops that we eat. Without honeybees, we’d be very hungry indeed. If you’d like to help spot zombees and track the spread of the zombee apocalypse, then join the ZombeeWatch:
https://www.zombeewatch.org/

August 29 – Something to Wine About

Today’s factismal: If a ladybug gets into the grapes when you make wine, it can make your Riesling taste like a Sauvignon blanc.

Ah, ladybugs! One of the joys of youth (“lady bug, lady bug, fly away home!”) and the joy of gardeners everywhere (at least until the gardener realizes that the lady bug is eating the plants and not the aphids), these amazing little critters never cease to amaze. They are full of contradictions and confusions, as you might expect for a group of beetles that includes more than 6,000 species spread over six continents.

A nine-spotted ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A nine-spotted ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

For example, their name. In England, they are lady bird beetles, named for Mary (“Our lady”) due to their red color which resembles the red cape that Mary is often depicted wearing. In Germany, the name is “Mary’s beetle” (marienkäfer). In Eastern Europe, they are called lady flies. In Scandinavia, they are lady cows (that last sounds a bit disrespectful). And in America, they are called ladybugs. But to a biologist, they are coccinellidae (“red backed beetles”).

And then there is what they eat. Though most species of ladybug feast on spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests that feed on plants, there are several species such as the Mexican bean beetle and the large leaf-eating ladybird that prefer to skip the middle-bug and eat the plant themselves! And even the ladybugs that prefer to gnaw on other insects can turn into pests once the aphids have run out; they have even been known to nibble on humans! (No word on if SyFy will turn this into a TV movie – “Ladybugtopus”.)

And then there is the ladybug’s color. Though most ladybugs are red with black spots, some are yellow or orange with black spots and a few are even black with orange spots. But in all cases, the purpose of the color remains the same; it is a warning to other critters not to eat them because they taste nasty. And that nasty taste can sometimes affect people, too. When grape pickers annoy the ladybugs, the beetles release chemicals to scare them off. If those chemicals don’t get washed off before the grapes are pressed they can make the juice bitter and like ammonia; this effect, which can make a sweet wine taste like a dry one, is known as ladybird taint.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A multicolored Asian ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

But the most confusing thing about ladybugs is how they respond to changes in their environment. In addition to the shifts in temperature and moisture caused by changes in climate, the ladybug is being stressed by (believe it or not) the ladybug! During the early part of the last century, many organic farmers introduced non-native ladybugs in an attempt to control aphids and other plant pests. Unfortunately, the non-native ladybugs had few predators and so soon started crowding out the native ladybugs. As a result, many ladybugs are becoming rarer. But biologists don’t know how rare they are.

A transverse ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A transverse ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

And that’s where you come in! The next time you are outside, look around for ladybugs. If you see one, report it at the Lost Lady Bug Project. Your garden will thank you!
http://www.lostladybug.org/index.php

June 13 – How Doth The Little Crocodile

Today’s factismal: Nile crocodiles have been spotted in the Everglades.

When Alice  was In Wonderland, she recited a poem about the Nile crocodile:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

A crocodile waiting for the little fishes (My camera)

A crocodile waiting for the little fishes
(My camera)

The poem was a gentle satire on Victorian “children’s poetry” that described a creature that most children in Victorian England would never see, the Nile crocodile. This walking handbag is one of nature’s most perfect predators. Lurking just under the water, it waits until a wildebeest or tourist wanders too close and then – SNAP! – lunges up with jaws agape to bite, twist, kill, and eat its victim. Fortunately, until recently, this fearsome beast has lived in the southern part of Africa and been no trouble to the rest of the world. Until recently.

An American alligator waiting for its prey (My camera)

An American alligator waiting for its prey
(My camera)

In the past few years, Nile crocodiles have been seen in the Florida Everglades. Three different Nile crocodiles have been captured there, indicating that there may be many, many more. And that’s bad. That’s bad because in the absence of things that prey on it, the Nile crocodile can easily take over the area, driving out (or eating) the resident predators and devastating the resident prey. What are the resident predators? In the Everglades, there are two critters that fill the niche that the Nile crocodile is attempting to usurp: the American alligator and the American crocodile.

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn't he? (My camera)

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn’t he?
(My camera)

The American alligator is well-known to people who visit zoos. Large and lazy, these beasts are an important part of the wetland system thanks to the holes that they dig and the prey that they eat. These lumbering behemoths can reach15 ft long and 1,000 lbs heavy; they range from the tip of Texas to the edge of North Carolina, with stops in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana (where they are often called “Cajun yard dogs”). And the American alligator is notable for another reason, too. In 1967, the species had been hunted to near-extinction and was placed on the endangered species list. Thanks to the efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it recovered quickly and was removed from the list in 1983. Today, it is considered to be a species of least concern.

An American Crocodile with gently spread jaws (Image courtesy USFWS)

An American Crocodile with gently spread jaws
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Less well-known is the American crocodile. Smaller and more sensitive to colder temperatures than its big cousin, the American crocodile is confined in the US to the tip of Florida and Puerto Rico (though some people have reported seeing it in Louisiana); it can also be found on the Pacific coast of Mexico and throughout the northern coast of South America. Unlike the freshwater-loving American alligator, the American crocodile prefers brackish water and does best in estuaries and small ponds near the sea. And thanks to rising seawaters and shrinking estuaries, not to mention invasions by Nile crocodiles and Burmese pythons, the American crocodile is becoming a threatened species.

If you’d like to help spot invasive species and keep the American crocodile off of the Endangered Species list then why not join the Introduced Reptile Early Detection and Documentation program? The swamp you save may be your own!
http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/reddy.shtml

 

May 27 – The Beautiful Ones

Today’s Factismal: The Friendship Oak in Long Beach, Mississippi, is 500 years old.

Everyone knows that oaks live for a long time. But what many do not realize is how long that time might be. One extreme example of this is the Friendship Oak, located on the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park Campus, which was a sapling when Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage and has grown into a 59 foot tall giant that shades more than 16,000 square feet with its foliage. But century-old oaks are so common that they even have their own society with more than 7,000 members!

This live oak may live to be 500 years or even older!

This live oak may live to be 500 years or even older!
(My camera)

But those members may be in trouble. In 1995, a new scourge appeared in California and quickly spread to other states. Known as Phytophthora ramorum, this invasive fungus attacks oaks, causing them to drop leaves, weep sap, and eventually die from “Sudden Oak Death”. Because of its sudden appearance and rapid spread, most botanists think that P. ramorum is an invasive species, possibly brought in as a hitchhiker on some visitor’s plants. But that rapid spread threatens to do to oaks what chestnut blight has done to chestnuts.

Live oaks are as much a part of the American South as mint juleps and drawls.

Live oaks are as much a part of the American South as mint juleps and drawls.
(My camera)

Fortunately, there are some oaks that appear to be immune to P. ramorum. Even better, their sap and leaves can be used to create a vaccine for the pathogen in much the same way that getting the measles vaccine will keep a child from getting measles. But in order to identify these immune trees and to track the spread of the disease, botanists need your help identifying infected oaks. If you’d like to help, then head on over to the OakMapper website and see how you can get involved in the fight to save the oak!
http://www.oakmapper.org/

February 10 – We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Ocean

Today’s factismal: Sharks killed 6 people in 2015. People killed 100,000,000 sharks in 2015.

If you read the papers, then there’s what appears to be bad news. In 2015, there were a record number of shark attacks; 98 to be exact.(The official score-keepers count all incidents in a single area and time as a single attack, so if a group of sharks chomps on a bus full of lawyers, that’s still just one attack.) And six of those attacks were deadly. But looking at shark attacks over time, that really isn’t that bad. In 2000, there were 88 attacks. And on average, sharks kill 17 people each year.

For a little more perspective, consider what people do to sharks. Every year, there are millions of people attacks on sharks. And, on average, people kill 100 million sharks each year.

For the sharks, the encounters are rarely deliberate. It is just that from below the average swimming human looks a lot like the average swimming seal. And where we don’t taste all that nice to a shark, seals taste delicious! So the shark will swim up, thinking it is about to chow down on some yummy seal and then spits out the nasty human it accidentally eats!

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

But for people, the attacks are deliberate. We hunt sharks hunted for food and their skins are used for leather or sandpaper while their livers are turned into popular medicines and their teeth are made into necklaces with whatever is left over being turned into food for aquarium fishes. As a result, sharks are killed at a rate of some 100 million each year. Put another way, if sharks attacked people at the rate that people attacked sharks, it would take just four years for the sharks to kill off every man, woman, and child in the USA (assuming you could find a land shark).

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

Our voracious appetite for all things shark is having a definite effect. Nearly 30% of all shark species are now endangered or on the brink of going extinct and the number of sharks in the Mediterranean has dropped by 97% in the time since America was founded. In short, sharks need our help. And they really need the help of citizen scientists who also happen to like to swim! If you are in an area and see a shark, then please report it to Shark Savers. They’ll use your report to help create a census of the sharks and other species in the oceans and that information can help us to discover how many fish can be harvested without driving the species into extinction. To make a report, head over to:
https://www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/sharkscount/

December 15 – Pointers and Settias

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:
http://www.fws.gov/invasives/volunteersTrainingModule/index.html