The Magic of Spring and the Desolation of Smaug

By Maria and Rob

Early spring is a wonderfully unique time of year to go for a walk in the woods. The landscape is still mostly draped in browns and grays, but here and then, little blushes of green glow from thickets and undergrowth while fat little buds tentatively wait to burst from the ends of tree branches. Last weekend, we went on such a walk at a nearby park, just to see the magic in progress, and we were not disappointed!

20190324_172859

It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green.

It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green. There were already plenty of birds flittering through the thickets. I can just imagine that they are all looking for the perfect place to build their nests–a little home hidden from the threat of predaators and surrounded by resources like food and water. Oh to think of baby birds!

Oh snap, wild garlic! Tastes…like onion. Members of the Allium family, which includes both wild and cultivated onions, garlics, leeks, scallions, and ramps. (Note, there are some non-edible/poisonous look-alikes out there. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t smell like an onion, it’s not an onion.)

We also saw deer tracks! Can’t escape those in Western Pa 😊

20190324_172938

We saw female scat nearby (less clumpy than male scat), so I would guess this was from a female as well. Where do you think she was going?

We saw plenty of lichen! Like Hagrid’s interestin’ creatures, lichens are an underappreciated weirdness of the wild world, in our humble opinion. Lichens are actually algae or bacteria and fungi living in a mutually beneficial relationship (a symbiotic relationship.) So a “single” lichen is almost like a little community.

20190324_173128

Quirky beauty.

Of course, the world may look drab, but under the surface, life is still stirring. Here we see the green of life just under the bark of a vine (don’t worry, this was an invasive vine – I wouldn’t purposely go around destroying a park). Did you know that many woody plants can perform photosynthesis in the first layer under the bark?

20190324_181900

But the dragon…

As our title notes, though, the spring does indeed bring magic, but human activity often leaves behind problems in a habitat. Smaug the Dragon of Tolkien fame was known for his greed and destruction – we don’t want to resemble that, now do we?

Dragon 1: Invasive Plants

This entire hillside is covered in an invasive vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata). As the name implies, the vine grows very quickly—possibly as much as six inches in a single day. It can take over habitats by growing over existing trees and shrubs and blocking out the sunlight from them. Originally from Asia, mile-a-minute was introduced to the US sometime around 1930, and in our environment, it lacks the natural checks and balances that would keep it from over-growing like this.

This particular park actually hosted Allegheny GoatScape this past summer in an effort to start getting the invasive plants under control. Allegheny GoatScape is a non-profit that uses goats to help manage landscapes that are difficult for humans to access (e.g., steep hillsides or rocky terrain) or contain an overgrowth of plants that are concerning for humans to manage (e.g. poison ivy.) A crew of goats is brought in, along with their guard donkey, and they are fenced in a large area to start eating away at the problematic plants! In the time they were here, the goats certainly made a dent, but they will have to come back to continue working on the problem.

Dragon 2: Litter

We saw plenty of litter left behind, which was disappointing. Can we all just take responsibility for our trash?

Well, ok, so this one was kind of interesting—someone lost a Tupperware container, but when we flipped it over, it must have been a mini greenhouse under there!

Dragon 3: When Should the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Come Back?

The silent concern on that walk in the woods was the impact of climate change. Scientists first began publishing on the notable changes in nature’s sense of timing (phenology) back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Phenology is the study of the timing of bird migrations, flowering times, pollinator emergence–all of those little things we take for granted. When humans are mindful and respectful of the natural world and its processes, it can continue to function as God created it to. When we act as though our actions have no consequence, though, we can disrupt things.

But in the end…

Nature brings out a sense of peace like few other things can. Designed by the Greatest of Artists, there is so much beauty, and yet so much power and wonder in every glimpse of a forest, a mountain, an ocean wave. Spending time away from the built environment is refreshing to the soul and just all-around good for well-being!

On the flipside, though, in the book of Genesis we humans were charged with the stewardship of this home. It’s not ours; it’s a loan. Do we want to act like dragons, or be responsible stewards and ensure that future generations have a chance to see the beauty and magic of an early spring walk? We vote beauty and magic! Every time.

20190324_174608

Yes, Maria does have sparkles next to her eyes. She had been dressed up like a princess for a toddler birthday party earlier in the day 🙂

P.S. we actually really like dragons…no offense to all the dragons out there.

 

Take a Peek into a Black Bear Den

By Rob

If you can’t handle the cuteness of little bear cubs – look out! The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a live-stream camera on a female black bear (called a sow) denning for the winter. This sow picked a spot under a house deck in Monroe County, PA as it’s cozy den to hibernate for the winter. We’ve been able to watch her and her new cub napping, nursing, and the mom just trying to keep the little one out of trouble. Continue reading

Can We Talk to a Gorilla? Revisited

By Maria

Most of the content below was from a post I originally shared in 2016. The gorilla in focus passed away earlier last year, and the foundation where she lived has been embroiled in legal battles over their remaining gorilla ever since. Those human squabbles have kept the gorillas in my mind, though, and I wanted to bring up these ideas again. We share this planet with these magnificent creatures, and we have so much power over what happens to them and their homes, we at least owe them this sheer wonder!

Continue reading

Backyard Wildlife: The Discovery!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we did indeed find wildlife on my trail camera! It was mostly deer, but I still think it’s a great way to visualize the natural world around even a suburban area.

I__00082

Nice young buck, velvet still on his antlers.

I__00078

Just a little fawn, still adorable with her spots 🙂

I__00080

Think she spotted the camera?

I__00084

Gettin in that Saturday morning jog!

I__00077

Bonus Footage: I think a train went by. Or did the neighbors leave their fire-breathing dragon out again?

I__00066

Bonus Footage: This must be from when I dropped the camera during the set-up process. Looks like swirly fun in an impressionistic dream kind of way.

I’m going to leave the camera out for a bit longer, and I can keep you updated if I find anything else exciting!

In the meanwhile, if you are interested in some hands-on field work, but with the help of naturalists and scientists, the National Park Service is holding a series of BioBlitzes across the country this year in honor of 100 years of parks. BioBlitzes are a citizen science effort of conducting biological surveys in a short period of time. They are a great way to go on a guided exploration of biodiversity, plus they can be a huge help to keeping inventory of all living things in the focus area–from animals to plants to fungi, everything! Many of the BioBlitzes occurred in May, but different parks around the country are hosting their events all the way until later in the year. The map on the NPS page will help you search for BioBlitzes near you.

Well, that’s it for today. Keep exploring!

Find the Frogs!

Over the weekend, the hubby and I had a few minutes to take a walk around my parents’ neighborhood in central Ohio. Though firmly rooted in the suburbs, we came across the tiny remainders of a wetland (presumably drained) at the edge of the neighborhood. Cattails grew on both sides of what had turned into something a drainage ditch, and duckweed and some sort of potamogeton floated here and there in the shallow water. What we enjoyed best though–frogs! It may have been a small space, but this little patch of habitat was crowded with green frogs. I only had my phone on me, but I snapped a few pictures that I thought would be fun to share. Can you find the frogs in the pictures below?

one frog_easy

One frog here…not too hard to find.

one frog_harder

A little tougher…

two frogs

Oh that camouflage…

Found the frogs? Excellent! Now, while I have the floor, I do want to highlight a few things about frogs that are super important.

  • Frogs, along with other amphibians, are invaluable as indicator species. If there is a problem with a habitat, frogs and salamanders are among the first kind of living things to struggle because of their thin semi-permeable or permeable skin. And this is very important: if there is a problem with a wetland or a waterway, it’s not just a problem for “nature.” It’s a problem for us as well.
  • Amphibian populations around the world are declining. There are a number of speculated causes, but high on the list are habitat loss and the spread of the chytrid fungus.
  • Why are frogs helpful for you? For one thing, their diet includes a number of pesty insects including (wait for it)…mosquitoes. So, if you’re not a fan of getting bitten by creepy crawlies, you like frogs.
  • Why else are frogs helpful for you? A looming medical disaster is the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Countless numbers of human lives have been saved over the past several decades through the use of antibiotics, but a shadow is falling over that triumph as bacteria have begun developing resistance to what used to be effective treatments. However, antimicrobial peptides from frogs’ skin secretions may be one of the hopes for the future of bacterial infection treatment. If we keep our frogs safe, we might also be safeguarding medicines for the next generation. (P.S. This is for another post, but I can’t help it: you can help slow the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. If you are prescribed an antibiotic, be sure you use the medication only as directed by your doctor. Please do not Google “Do I have to finish my antibiotics.” Your doctor examined you; a blogger with an opinion did not. That includes me! Also, be aware that antibiotics are useless against viral infections, so don’t pressure your doctor if they say you’ll just have to wait it out. Most importantly: never share medication. Now back to frogs!)
  • If you still don’t believe me about how crazy cool frogs are, trust the experts at the Smithsonian! If anyone has fun facts, they do 🙂

Snakey Superlatives

Oh, you lucky duck, you! Here’s your one-stop shopping for all your mind-blowing, legless Squamate factoids for the day! (Except legless lizards…those kind of creep me out. Eep.) I wasn’t feeling a hard-science post, but there’s always fun to be had in the biology world! As a disclaimer, there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to today’s spewing of info, I just had a lot of fun snake tidbits in mind that I wanted to share. So look at today’s thought-process grandeur as a snapshot of what it’s kind of like to be in my brain. Except my brain is more glittery.

snake

Credit: National Geographic

General Overview: Snakes are a group of long-bodied, legless* reptiles. (*I say “leg-less” with the quick caveat that some snakes do have teeny-tiny vestigial “leg” nubs.) As reptiles, they’re ectothermic, or “cold-blooded,” which means they can’t regulate their body temperature they way we can and instead rely on their environment and behavioral modifications (e.g., basking on a rock in the sun on a warm day.) Hand-in-hand with the energy conservation involved in their thermal regulation, snakes also have some amazing metabolic adaptations. Snakes can lower their metabolic rates, delaying the need for food. In fact, some snakes can go months without eating, and sea snakes can go up to seven months without drinking! (But don’t use that as an excuse not to feed/water your pet snake, please and thank you 🙂  In other snakey fast-facts, our vertically-challenged, slithery friends don’t have eyelids, but they do have protective brilles–a clear scale over each eye. Snakes also regularly undergo ecdysis–the shedding of their skin (including the brilles). Also, snake diets depend on the species but range from ants and termites to small rodents and reptiles to larger mammals, birds, and other snakes. How’s that for a carnivore?

Now the title of this post is “Snakey Superlatives”…so naturally, I have included some snakey superlatives. Ready?

 

Your Worst Nightmare Snake

Titanoboa cerrejonensis may be long-extinct, but it’s still a wonder to hear about. This monster could be as much as 40 feet long, weigh over a ton, and at its widest point, its body could be 3-4 feet high. The largest known snake in history, the species could probably send shivers up the spine of even today’s bravest herpetologist. Simultaneously awesome and terrifying.

titanoboa

 

The Biggest Extant Species of Snake

Kind of depends on what we count as biggest. The green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) typically goes down on record with the reticulated python (Python reticulates) as being the largest snake in the world, but it depends on whether length or mass is considered. Green anacondas are the most massive, weighing in at up 550 lbs when 20-30 feet long, but reticulated pythons can be longest with a record length of 32 feet and weighing ~350 lbs.

anaconda

Green Anaconda, credit Arkive

 

Smallest Snake in the World

Maybe the big boys aren’t quite your thing, so what about the smallest snake in the world? The Barbados threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae) grows to only about 10 cm long and it subsists on ants and termites. How cute is that?

Barbados threadsnake

Barbados Threadsnake, credit National Geographic

Prettiest Snake in the World

Perhaps a slightly subjective assessment, I’ll admit, but the emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus) is a gorgeous green to blend in its South American forest home.

emerald tree boa

Emerald Tree Boa, credit National Aquarium

 

World’s Largest Gathering of Snakes

Yeah, you’re just gonna have to watch this one.

While I have your attention, though, I think it would be best if I dispelled a few myths about snakes. Out of casual observation, I would say this group of animals gets the most undeserved fear of most taxa.

Myth: Snakes are highly aggressive and should always be “taken care of,” mob style

As a good rule of thumb, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. As predators, snakes are incredibly important members of their communities, and minimizing the disruption of food webs is a noteworthy goal on our part. That being said, if you do see a rattlesnake–please walk away and take your dog and small children with you. Big children, too, probably. (This safety page was directed at Florida residents, but it’s fairly reasonable for anyone–though I admit even I raised an eyebrow at the trash can method.)

Myth: Snakes unhinge their jaws to eat.

They’re not really unhinging their jaws. Snakes just have a much more kinetic skull than we do—they have a greater number of movable joints. If you feel your lower jaw, it’s one solid bone. When you were much younger, though, you used to have a “joint” down the midline of your jaw (think of an invisible line extending straight down from below your two middle front teeth). This was never a movable joint, though since we don’t particularly need a joint there, and the two halves of your jaw fused together as you progressed in development, forming the mandibular symphysis.

On the other hand, snakes have several kinetic points in their jaws that allow them to open their mouths multiple times as large as their head normally appears when resting. Since snakes don’t chew their food, they need to able to swallow their dinner whole.snake jaw

Myth: Snakes are poisonous.

Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope…wait for it…nope! (Ok, there is one genus of legitimately poisonous snakes in the world.) But copperheads, rattlesnakes, cobras, bushmasters, vipers, etc—not poisonous!

However, there are plenty of venomous snakes in the world.

What’s the difference you say? Well, poisons are secreted, generally somewhere on the surface of an animal’s body. Animals like toads and newts can be poisonous. If you try to eat them, you could get very sick, have a very “strange” evening, or both. A way to remember, poison is ingested, venom is injected.

So snakes are pretty awesome, are you convinced yet? If not, don’t worry, I can post lots more snakey things to change your mind.

Until next time,

Peace, love, and science!