Wings, Stings, and Things!

(Credit for the clever title of this post goes to my always wonderful friend, coworker, and fellow cat lady, Sarah!)

It’s bee season! And bird season! And I am so excited. Do you realize – right here on the Pacific coast, in Humboldt County – we are smack in the middle of a gigantic and amazing bird migration route?! It’s true. It’s called the Pacific Flyway, and it is one of four large migration routes in North America. The others are the Central, Mississippi, and the Atlantic, with the Mississippi flyway being the largest of the 4. I’m not sure about you, but spring for me is most certainly marked not only by the arrival of blossoming flowers, but of spring migrants as well. Hundreds of thousands of birds are moving north to their breeding grounds that have thawed and warmed up enough for feeding, breeding, and being merry.

     One of the most exciting parts of birding is the seasonality of it. When I started birding, it seemed so random, and I paid little attention to the range maps including “summer”, “migration”, and “winter” localities. Every time I went out felt like a gamble, and I had little expectations of what I would see aside from those reliable year-round residents (here’s lookin at you, chickadee). Since living behind the redwood curtain for a couple years, I’ve watched birds come and go from one of my favorite birding spots here – the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. Going to the same spot many times throughout the course of a year will give you a good insight into the phenology of a region. Phenology refers to the seasonal changes and cycles of plants and animals.

Let me tell you, I was so excited to learn there was a word for this.

Seasonality is so interesting and vital to everything we do.  It’s not just an abstract idea of environmental changes that control when a bear should hibernate or when a flower should bloom; it’s directly related to our own lives. These changes and cycles are important for the growth of our food, the flow of our water, and the livelihood of people around the world. Furthermore, it isn’t even just about a flower blooming; for few flowers can procreate themselves. Pollination is perhaps one of the most important and beautiful seasonal relationships that the natural world has to offer. Just as a human being longs for the touch of another, flowers open themselves to the embrace of their pollinators; humbly and graciously giving a gift if only for the promise of transport of their potential offspring. Pollination is the transport of pollen in order to facilitate fertilization, and it’s all about the birds and the bees…

Few plants are able to pollinate without animal assistance, and those that do usually use wind or water as a vessel for doing so.

Bees are fuzzy and birds are feathery. This makes them perfect transporters for little pollen grains! A bunch of other critters aid in pollination as well including flies, beetles, butterflies, other insects, and even mammals like bats and some rodents. With the sweet smell of nectar on the air and the enticing colors of petals all around, these pollinators are drawn to blooms for a snack, and inadvertently transport pollen grains among plants. If the pollen introduced to a different flower is of the same species, it will fertilize the flower, and the goal of pollination has been accomplished. Without the help of these nectar-loving animals, plants would be few in number and woefully invariable. Pollination has allowed for the grand array and great number of angiosperm, or flowering plant, species. With different pollinators in all different habitats, plants have created mechanisms, colors, scents, lures, and shapes of almost infinite sorts to attract their pollinators. Some like to reach a wide audience, and are built to accommodate anyone who might stop by. Others – such as orchids – have a single species of pollinator for nearly every species of flower, with each species of orchid carefully tailoring its design to appeal to the fancy of its particular visitor. Some have even gone as far as to mimic a female bee that the male bee pollinator then “mates” with, and gets covered in pollen during the process! Clever flowers…

Nature is so cool. I think I say this in every post. But here, in this discussion, it is not just neat.
It is necessary.
We heavily depend on pollinators. Our main food sources are only possible because of them!

     Think of a large farm, producing some sort of fruit to sell to a large region. Now think of thousands and thousands of plants. Picture the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of flowers among those plants. Now imagine you have to pollinate those flowers, armed only with your own self and maybe some Q-tips. Swabbing pollen from one flower, taking a couple steps, and swabbing another flower to transfer the pollen. With each flower you pollinate, you create a fruit, so it is vital that you pollinate as many flowers as possible. It’s a daunting task, isn’t it?

     Believe it or not, this is happening more and more as pollinator populations are declining from continual climatic changes in our world, and the pollution and destruction of their habitats. I’m not here to stand on a soap box and lecture you about climate change. I am here to put a little buzz in your ear about bees, and other pollinators that are so very important for all of us! There are many little (fun!) things you can do to help bees, and the first is to not be scared of them! I hope you realize how important they are for the life of the beautiful plants around us, and how the health of ecosystems around the world are reliant upon them. Bees are not angry, mean, yucky insects that are out to get you; to the contrary, they would rather not sting you. Most bees die after they sting you. It is a sacrifice they will make only as a last resort. Once you are comfortable with them, consider housing them, or simply feeding them in your backyard! The earth will thank you. Find more tips here, and check out the lovely documentary, Queen of the Sun:

Until next time friends. Go outside and look at a bee! Or make some cool bee art, like this print that I carved and printed myself! Buzz.



The Wonderful World of Frogs

     It was hard deciding on my second post topic… I have too many topics I want to share with you, and definitely not enough time to do them! All in good time though. As a warning, you may be getting an inordinate amount of information on reptiles and amphibians because I’m (finally!) taking Herpetology this semester! And no, non-science friends, herpetology has nothing to do with herpes. So let me give you a crash course on what it is and what it means.

     Modern herpetology includes the study of reptiles and amphibians. The Greek word herpeton literally translates to “crawling thing”. So herpetology translates to the study of crawling things…. anti-climactic, I know. But in the young, golden age of discovery and biology there was a very simplistic grouping of vertebrates: birds fly, fish swim, mammals are fuzzy, and everything else is a nasty, slimy, despicable creepy-crawly (seriously, read some of the things Linnaeus had to say about amphibians. Boy was he rude. And wrong.) This means amphibians and reptiles were incorrectly grouped together.

Yup. Incorrectly. The closest relatives that reptiles and amphibians share are tetrapods – which are simply the first group of animals to develop 4 legs to walk on land. It just so happens that tetrapods also gave rise to mammals and birds…. both of which are more closely related to reptiles than any of them are to amphibians. And that’s as far into the fossil record I’ll go. Let’s get into the exciting stuff!

     Most of you who have known me for any great amount of time will recall that my first love – of any wild, living thing – was frogs. I don’t recall any precise moment of realization, or specific capture that instilled this fascination. It was just always there, waiting to be fed information so it could grow. And grow it has. I have always known this group of creatures was awesome. I read everything I could about them growing up, watched every nature show, and captured countless frogs of different species and varieties. But formal education has taught me things that I never came across in independent studies.

Guys, frogs can HEAR THROUGH THEIR LEGS. And make COCOONS. And brood eggs INSIDE THEIR THROATS. I’ll be damned if those aren’t the three coolest things you’ve heard all day.

     Haven’t you always wondered why frogs know exactly when to stop croaking when you walk by so you don’t find them? I’ve always wondered that. Because I’ve always been frustrated by it. Part of the reason is because they can feel-hear you (just invented a term. yay!). Next time you see or catch a frog, notice that their front legs are strikingly close to their tympanum – that round disc behind the eye, which acts sort of like an external eardrum. A frog’s (and salamanders!) front legs and inner ear are actually sort of connected through muscle and middle ear structures, and they have a special inner ear sensory area called the papilla amphibiorum which receives low-frequency sounds that travel up from the ground through the forelimbs. They feel-hear you!! I can feel-hear your amazement.

     So the cocoon thing. This was stunning. Like, I made an audible gasp of amazement in class, stunning. Frogs have thin, permeable skin, which means water and salts and things can easily pass in and out of their bodies. This makes it easy for them to breathe through their skin and make the most of moist environments. But if you’ve been paying any attention to the world, you’ve probably noticed that not all amphibians live in moist environments. There are frogs living in deserts around the world, so how do they not dry up into little froggy crisps?? Well first off, they don’t come out during the heat of the day. Most desert animals don’t come out during the heat of the day basically because it sucks. But especially amphibians, because their skin needs to stay moist for them to survive. During dry periods in these areas (which is most of the time…) frogs will burrow underground, where soil stays fairly moist. This was not new information for me and probably not for you either. What I didn’t know was that before burrowing, some frogs are already hard at work creating a cocoon.
     To understand how a frog makes a cocoon, you need to know that amphibians shed their very top layer of skin, sort of how reptiles do too. I think most people don’t know this because it isn’t quite as dramatic an effect, as it is with reptiles. Frogs and other amphibians eat their skin as it’s peeling off their bodies, or immediately after, and the skin is so thin that this event is hardly noticeable – and the frog just looks like it’s gulping a lot. Anyways, this is a regular occurrence to keep their skin nice and permeable. But frogs that are getting ready to retreat underground will halt this shedding process, and let their skin build up many layers, to be nice and thick. When the frog goes underground, he will sometimes have up to 40 layers of skin built up. These layers keep water from evaporating out of his body because of heat! Extra skin secretions keep these layers sticking together and sort of seal him in his cocoon for the dry season. Water retention is of the utmost importance in desert environments, and frogs have taken these extreme measures to retain every drop. When rains come, frogs will wiggle and bust out of their cocoons, and continue with their lives til they next have to retreat underground again.

     Ok for this last one I’ll admit that I did know about frogs that brood their eggs in their throats. I just wanted a nice group of weird facts to throw at you in the beginning! Brooding is taking care of developing eggs, and frogs do this in so many different ways! But throat brooding is funny, because of its end result. Darwin’s frogs (Rhinoderma darwinii) in South America will initially breed like normal frogs. But after the eggs are laid, the male will engulf the eggs! He isn’t eating them, but rather gently storing them in his vocal sac. Think of a frog croaking, and that large bubble on his throat that extends when he takes in air; that stretchy sac is where he is putting the eggs to develop. What safer place than in the mouth of your parent? Unless the frog is eaten, very little can happen to the eggs. The eggs develop, hatch, and metamorphose in his throat, AND THEN DAD BURPS THEM UP INTO THE WORLD:

I really hope you learned something.

Til next time, friends!

Flighty Beginnings

In the winter, the alarm goes off at 6am; in the summer at 5. It’s hard getting up. It kind of sucks. I look around and it’s still dark, and sometimes cold, and I think there’s no way I’m getting up now. Bed is so cozy, blankets so warm… the wind is playing in the trees outside, rain sometimes gracing the earth and showering its inhabitants. 

Its inhabitants.

I remember why the alarm went off. Why the roar of the wind now sounds like a purr, enticing and intriguing and pulling me out of bed. I’m up for the birds. Their songs are already floating through the windows and echoing around the street as I pack up and head out, binoculars in hand. 

Currently I’m looking for someone specific. I’m looking for a chatty and energetic little bird called a yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata, Family Parulidae), common throughout Humboldt county this time of year. Officially, I’m gathering warbler data for my senior thesis; unofficially I’m looking at all the other birds, recording bird vocalizations, taking pictures and looking for frogs because why the hell not. But while I’m on the subject, let me give you the lowdown on my project (because it’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself): “Foraging resource partitioning of 2 subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary”. 

Wuuuuuuut. Big words. Science words (yay!). Let’s break it down. 

Foraging is the act of finding food. All animals forage in some form, whether they dig for bugs, fly around looking for nectar, stalk a wildebeest… if you’re looking for food, you’re foraging. The behaviors exhibited while foraging can vary, depending on the species, the environment, and the food being searched for. 
Resources supply things to us. In the case of my project, I am focusing on those resources that are supplying food to my warblers, that is, the trees and shrubs in which they are foraging.
Partitioning can occur when different species divide resources among themselves somehow, to reduce competition for these needed resources.

     Now here’s the cool part: the species yellow-rumped warbler contains 4 subspecies (subspecies can be genetically or physically distinct populations of a single species, although the true definition of subspecies isn’t quite that simple). There are two non-migratory subspecies in central America, and two migratory ones here. These migratory populations are the ones that I am interested in, as their ranges often overlap, which gives me the opportunity to observe them in the same spaces. We have the Myrtle warbler (Dendroica coronata coronata) and the Audubon’s warbler (Dendroica coronata auduboni). The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at their throat: Myrtles have white throats, Audubon’s have yellow throats. Otherwise they are practically identical birds, with beautiful black and gray pattering on their backs and striking yellow rump and armpit patches. 
     A good many years ago, a guy named Robert MacArthur thought that warblers were pretty cool too. He was one of the first biologists to look into resource partitioning of songbirds, and his studies revealed some neat things. He found that multiple species of warblers foraged in different parts of trees to avoid competing with each other for food resources. Certain warblers were more likely to forage at the very tops of trees, while others would forage lower. Some preferred the outer branches, and some stayed nearer to the trunk. 

Nature! You are so cool! These birds have shown that they know how to share their space while they are feeding in the same habitat, thereby maximizing the food that they can acquire without engaging in conflicts with other birds. Now, this does not mean that all birds do this, or that this is a universal rule among animals sharing space; in fact, many animals just chase competitors away from their resources. We can’t know how certain species interact with each other until we take a critical look at them. Which is why I am excited for my project, because I am doing just that! My goal is to see if subspecies of warblers divide themselves among shared resources, as many warblers have been shown to do. When I go out on my birding trips and I see yellow-rumped warblers, I record their position on the tree, and the behavior they are showing as well (as different birds will forage in different ways). I hope to be done with data collection by the end of the month, and once the stats are run, I’ll let you know the findings. 

Maybe you weren’t expecting a wildlife biology lesson today, but in any case, I hoped you learned. And I hope you come back to learn more! Because the wonderful world of wildlife is always displaying new and beautiful things, evolving to a changing world, and giving us the opportunity to share fascination with each other. My goal here is to entertain and educate, and take you on this journey with me through the natural world around us. There is so much to see and discover! And I hope you can appreciate that I want to share this passion with you, friends.

Now go outside and look at a bird!