The first month on Cat Ba Island – getting my bearings

My apologies for the long gap between posts, life has been a bit busy.

I recently began a new position in Vietnam, on Cat Ba Island to be specific.  My first impressions are that this is a damp and precipitous landscape.  I have not seen the sun since I arrived in Vietnam on March 4th.  For Cat Ba Island this means a riotous profusion of greenery tempered by the steep terrain and lack of soil.

Where the northern end of the road terminates

Where the northern end of the road terminates

This is a land where Ymir’s bones lie close to the surface, broken and weathered, their calcium leaking back into the waters from which these precipitous cliffs rise.  The geology is the first thing that strikes you here.  The cliffs have been weathered by millions of years of rain, the ever-so-slightly acid rainwater eating into the ancient limestone creating a mature karst landscape.  Like bones, coral, and seashells, limestone is primarily made up of calcium carbonate, which in other forms makes marble and dolomite.  This is probably one of the reasons this is a place where snail diversity is immense, ranging from tiny frilled creatures more akin to limpets to giant land snails, many of which are still unknown to science.  Snails need lots of calcium to make their shells.

Unknown frill terrestrial snail

Unknown frilly terrestrial snail

Land snail shells collected around the office - and a wasp nest

Land snail shells collected around the office – and a wasp nest

The banded limestone found here is a relic of abundant diatom (a type of plankton) skeletons laid down five hundred million yeas ago and subjected to the vagaries of time.  Limestone, while soft to the chisel and hammer, is a remarkably durable stone at the macro-scale, one of the reasons climbers like it, but at a chemical level it is easily weathered.  We are often told that water has a pH of 7, that is it neutral.  Natural rainwater, we then assume, should also have a pH of 7, but it is closer to 5.6 due to the dissolution of carbon dioxide into the water making carbonic acid.  A pH of 5.6 is about as acidic as a cucumber or an onion for comparison.  Of course, other environmental factors can reduce this tremendously, leading to extremely acidic rain.  Rain falling on the limestone erodes small channels in the rock that look like thumbprints in wet clay.

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Eventually these concentrate water flow, carving small holes in the stone reducing it to a swiss-cheese like structure with an extremely jagged and sharp exposed surface.  These little caves connect into larger caves.  In these protected, damp environments bacteria grow, exuding waste products and creating hydrogen sulfide that mixes with the water and makes a weak sulfuric acid, increasing the chemical weathering.  This cycle persists, eventually leading to enormous caves.

The airflow in these caves evaporates the mineral rich water tricking through the now porous stone and the calcium carbonate re-solidifies into stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, and any number of strangely beautiful and complex cave structures.

Caves often form in weak portions of the stone and, eventually, gravity takes its toll and the weakened rocks collapse leaving behind steep spires and fields of slowly eroding boulders.

Limestone spi

Limestone spire in the north end of Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay are examples of a drowned karst landscape, a mature karst landscape that has been flooded by rising waters.  What little soil does form is washed down into the many bays, coves, and channels of the region, leaving little for plants to sink roots into.  In the shallow waters of the bays mangroves find nutrients, in abundance.  Here mangroves are near the northern margin of their range, their numbers restricted and the trees short, making low dense forests.

Gray mangroves on the south western side of the island

Gray mangroves (Avicennia marina) on the south western side of the island

As in many places, the mangroves are in trouble here, often cut down to make shrimp farms.  This leads to reduction in local fisheries, increased erosion, and lack of protection from storm surges and tsunamis.  The local government is taking steps to protect what remains and to, potentially, restore some of the previous mangrove forests.  In the rich mud of the mangrove regions there are numerous animals, among them one of my favorites, mudskippers, amphibious fish that hop about in the mud protecting their little territories.

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

On the cliffs however there are few nutrients and plants grow in what cracks and declivities they can find.  As per many islands there are a number of endemic species, here one of the most commonly seen ones is the Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), an ancient type of gymnosperm that looks like a cross between a fern and a palm tree.

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400km square area, globally rare, locally abundant

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400 square km area, globally rare, locally abundant

The season here is shifting into spring and some of the trees have begun blooming, among them the hoa gạo or Cotton Tree (Bombax ceiba), so named for the kapok-like fibers that are found in the seed pod.

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English.  The Vietnamese name translates to "Rice Flower"

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English. The Vietnamese name translates to “Rice Flower”

 

I still have not seen the little primates I came here to work with, they are few in number and they clamber about on the vertical cliffs like, well, monkeys.

Soon though.

Chaparral Yucca Seeds, and a Guest

My last post was about Chaparral Yucca, which is blooming in the Santa Monica Mountains right now.  A  few days after writing the post I was exploring Red Rocks Park in Topanga.  This park takes its name from the sculpted sandstone outcrops that rise from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Wind and water sculpted sandstone ledges

Wind and water sculpted sandstone ledges

Like most of the Santa Monica Mountains, this is a dry area, but it is relatively low elevation and nestled in a canyon, the bottom of which has an infrequently running stream and some lovely oak and sycamore trees.

The side slopes are home to the usual assortment of coastal chaparral plants, but the relatively low elevation, slightly greater water supply, and marginally cooler temperatures means that the plants are on an ever-so-slightly different flowering cycle.

Down here some of the Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is still blooming, but other plants are well into the seed setting stage.

Chaparral Yucca seed pods slowly ripening

Chaparral Yucca seed pods slowly ripening

Each of the thorn-like stubs on the branches was a flower.  As you can seen a small percent of the flowers survive to form seed pods.  This year, this is a good crop, in other, wetter, years more might make to this stage.

The pods look like the offspring of a pickle and a ping-pong ball.  Green and slightly warty, divided into three chambers and about the size of a comfortable throwing stone.

Chaparral Yucca seed pod close-up

Chaparral Yucca seed pod close-up

As with the flowers, reaching them is a bit tricky because the basal rosette is composed of lance-shaped leaves crowned with needle tips.  Tips that only seem more aggressive and more prone to break off in your legs as the leaves dry in the increasingly hot summer sun.

Gathering these seed pods was an important activity for many of the coastal tribes as the seeds are edible and nutritious, and unlike the flowers and stalk, the dried seeds can be stored for a long time either whole or ground into flour.

At the moment the seeds are not-yet dried, but are still edible and tasty.

Chaparral Yucca seedpod cross-section

Chaparral Yucca seedpod cross-section

The seeds are flat and black or dark brown, and the capsules look very much like iris or lily seed capsules.  When fully ripe and dry the capsule splits open, disgorging the disk-like winged seeds that flutter to the ground in the frequent coastal breeze.

The green portion of the pod is extremely bitter, so it is best to separate the seeds from the pods for consumption.

The remains of the pods can last for several years in the dry climate.  They look a little like small loofahs hanging on to the dessicated flower stalks.

Chaparral Yucca dried seed pod

Chaparral Yucca dried seed pod

Chaparral Yucca grows in exposed areas in defiance of the sun and shallow soils.  This year even these hardy plants have few blooms and many of the other flowering plants here either didn’t bloom or did so quickly and finished quickly.  Despite the harsh conditions of this year, in some of the darker, damper areas a few plants still show their flowers.

In a little gully, well off the trails, I came across several blooming Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) plants.

Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) still blooming in a shady spot

Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) still blooming in a shady spot

Chaparral Yucca, Spanish Bayonet – the many named Hesperoyucca whipplei

Despite the cool breeze blowing off the Pacific visible 1300 feet below (400 meters) and four and a half miles away (7 kilometers), it is hot.  Blisteringly so.  The sun beats down on me heating my skin like the bank of coals left over from a bonfire.  Across the valleys the slopes of the Santa Monica mountains waver in my vision as the rising heat warps the air, changing its density and bending the light.  At my feet what looks like heat shadows dance, but upon closer investigation I realize that it is a 6 inch (15cm) layer of extremely fine alkaline dust blowing over the trail like a Martian sandstorm seen from orbit.

This is one of the most diverse areas of California for birds, but all I hear is a single crow cawing as it glides over the ridge and falls into the canyon to the west of me.  Dressed all in black, even the crows must be broiling.  Here and there fence lizards and side blotch lizards scurry abruptly across patches of orangey dust leaving sharp trails in the fine powder that flies up from beneath their feet and whip-lashing tails.

Only the flies and ants are active; green bottle flies, landing to steal a lick of sweat from my arms before I shoe them away and inexhaustible armies of red ants collecting seeds to add to their larders.

It is the middle of the day, the time when the Chumash sun god grows weary of carrying the heavy bark torch he carries across the sky and stoops under its weight, allowing the flame to fall close the the planet’s surface.

Here and there on the drably greenish slopes pillars of bright white stand proud, like blowtorches, clearly visible for great distances in the bright sunlight.

Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) 3/4 of a mile away through a 300mm lens, uncropped.

Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) 3/4 of a mile away through a 300mm lens (8.5 zoom equivalent), uncropped.

These 9+ foot (3+ meter) beacons are the  inflorescences of an iconic coastal chaparral plant and the reason why I am walking in heat that even the lizards are avoiding.

This plant has a number of common names and has recently been reclassified and renamed in the academic literature.  The most common name is simply “yucca”, with the “y” portion pronounced as in “ya-all” rather than “you”.  This is not to be confused with “yuca” (pronounced with the “you” sound), the cassava root, a common food found through much of the tropics.

This particular species of yucca is also known as Chaparral Yucca, Common Yucca, Foothill Yucca, Our Lord’s Candle, Quixote Yucca, and, perhaps the most telling, Spanish Bayonet.  I find the latter name to be particularity evocative as the long, lance-like leaves are crowned with a needle-like point that easily penetrates clothing, only to break off under your skin, leaving a mark that itches for days to weeks as your body works the barb back out.

Like many organisms, this plant has been classified and reclassified, the scientific name changing back and forth as new information comes to light.  It is currently known as Hesperoyucca whipplei, a name coined in 1892 by Georg Engelmann, but it spent many years happily living under the name Yucca whipplei, when it was thought to be more closely related to Joshua Trees than recent genetic analysis indicates that it is.  Perhaps I am lazy, but I have always referred to it as yucca, and will continue to do so, relying on context to clarify which of several I mean.

The inflorescence of Chaparral Yucca is a mighty affair, that stands high above the landscape in defiance of herbivorous predators, protected by its height and the spiky ball of needle-tipped blades below.

Unopened buds at the opt ad a yucca flower stalk

Flowers and unopened buds at the top of a yucca flower stalk

A senescent yucca with a 4 foot (3+ meter) ball of blades dying after blooming)

A senescent yucca with a 4 or 5 foot (1-2 meter) ball of blades dying after blooming)

For many years these yuccas, which are monocots (having simple leaves with no branch-like structures in them) were though to be in the lily family (Liliaceae) on the basis of their flower construction which closely mirrors the multiple sets of 3  and superior ovaries that are a characteristic of lilies.  Now the yuccas have been moved into the Asparagaceae family which includes asparagus, orchids, hyacinths, Lily-of-the-Valley, and the close relative agave, known to most people in its cooked, fermented, and distilled form, Tequila.

Superior ovaries and the parts in sets of 3 and 6

Superior ovaries and the parts in sets of 3 and 6 – this flower had fallen onto a different plant

When you look at the flowers of a plant you are looking at its genitals, a thought that should give one pause the next time you buy flowers for your partner.  Unlike animals, plants cannot wander about to seek their mates and thus many must rely upon intermediaries for reproduction.  The various colors, shapes, scents, and sizes of flowers are meant to attract very specific sexual intermediaries.  Brightly colored flowers are often attractants for birds, butterflies, and bees that are active during the day, long tube-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds and insects with long tongues, flowers with fetid scents often attract flies and beetles.  The yucca has relatively large bright white flowers with a slightly sweet, nutty smell.

Bright white yucca flowers - white flowers often attract night flying animals such as moths and bats

Bright white yucca flowers – white flowers often attract night flying animals such as moths and bats

These highly scented, bright white flowers, so visible during the day, are meant to attract night flying creatures.  In this case a very specific moth, the California Yucca Moth (Tegeticula maculata).  The relationship between the Yucca Moth and the yucca plant is one of mutual dependence; despite all the other insects that come to steal nectar, only the yucca moth pollinates the plant.  As it does so, it deposits its eggs in the developing seed pods, where the larvae grow, eating some of the seeds as they grow.  These moths only lay eggs in the yucca seed capsules.  In return for pollination (sex) the plant sacrifices some of its seeds.  At this point, neither the plant, nor the moth can survive without the other.  The specificity of the relationship suggest that it is an old one.

The yucca plant is incredibly useful.  The long leaves are tough and full of strong fibers.  The whole leaves were woven into mats and sandals.  The fibers were separated and twisted into extremely strong cord; numerous time I have done this quickly in the field when I need a length of twine and do not want to cut the cord I carry in my pocket.  The flower stalk is full of water and sugar, the flowers themselves are edible, more than edible, they are delicious with a delicate nut-like flavor with a touch of bitterness, a little like cashew blended with bitter almond topped with a dash of gardenia scent.  The unripe seeds are edible raw or roasted, and the dried seeds can be ground into flour.

It is not only humans that find the plants useful and delicious, deer, rats and birds all like to eat the tasty bits, many getting water in addition to nutrients.

Yucca inflorescence being browsed on by a hungry animal

Yucca inflorescence after being browsed on by a hungry animal

It takes a yucca plant 4-6 years to reach flowering stage, then, like a century plant, it dies shortly after flowering.  Even while it is flowering the leaves begin turning color.

Yucca basal rosette with leaves dying after plant flowers

Yucca basal rosette with leaves dying after plant flowers

New plants grow from runners and dispersed seeds.

The old flower stalks can remain standing for another year or two before collapsing, often with the shredded remains of the seed pods still attached.

Fallen flower stalk with empty seed pods attached

Fallen flower stalk with empty seed pods attached

This is one of the iconic plants of the coastal chaparral environment, one which I admire, but treat with the utmost respect, having spent far too much time digging leaf-spikes out of my legs and arms over the years.

Things that Gall – plants and parasites

The word “galling” is particularly evocative.  In its most simple form something that galls is merely annoying or vexing, but the true definition connotes annoyance taken to an extreme level.  The sort of thing that will do you no harm but rankles tremendously; much like being forced to pay taxes to support actions you object to.

For us these annoyances are mental and emotional, for plants these galls are physical but are often merely annoyances for them as well.

Dried oak apple gall  on Scrub oak in California

Dried oak apple gall on Scrub oak in California

Many plants suffer from galls and the galls are so singular in form that they can be reliably used to identify individual parasite species.  A fantastic book on identifying plant galls for the California region is the Field Guide to Plant Galls of California and Other Western States.

Oak trees seem to be particularly susceptible to parasites of all sorts and a common manifestation is the Oak Apple Gall, most often seen as a hard, woody ball dangling from a twig.  These galls are created by the Oak Apple Gall Wasp, a common name for a variety of small wasps that inject their eggs into the midrib of a developing leaf and chemically trick the tree into growing a protective shell for the developing larvae.  Despite appearing woody when dried, this type of gall is actually a modified leaf.  The delicacy of these galls is more easily seen when they are still green.

Fresh Oak Apple Gall - Virginia

Fresh Oak Apple Gall – Virginia

The developing wasps browse on the oak tissue and are often preyed upon or parasitized by other animals, including birds, raccoons, and a whole host of insects, other wasps included.  Some insects use the gall for their own protection, sharing the space with the wasp larvae.

Oak Apple Gall with non-wasp larva inside next to a Twig Gall - California

Oak Apple Gall with non-wasp larva inside next to a Twig Gall – California

Certain Oak Apple Galls, the Iron Galls,  in Europe were collected to make ink.  For 1500 years ink make from the iron gall was the primary source of writing quality ink in the Western Hemisphere.  For anyone interested Evan Lindquest provides detailed instructions on how to make your own iron gall ink.

Like may things we have a long history with there is a great body of mythology and folk-lore that has accumulated around these galls.

Many galls are hard and woody, there is a Twig Gall I sliced in half in the photo above.  It appears to be empty, but a dark brown patch filled with frass (insect excrement) can be seen winding its way though the bloated tissue.

Oak Apple Galls often fall from the tree, but Twig Galls are a more permanent fixture of the tree.

Twig Gall on a scrub oak branch flowering from the tip - California

Twig Gall on a scrub oak branch flowering from the tip – California

Right now the Scrub Oak is blooming along the coastal mountains in Southern California.  The twig galls are uniformly clustered near the tips of the branches, with many of them crowned by small clusters of flowers.  This provides a bit of insight into the formation of these and other galls.

The gall must be grown, and while the living plant cells are constantly dividing, the true growth of a woody plant takes place at the tips of the branches and roots, or at the apical meristem of each limb.  The cells in the apical meristem are undifferentiated,having the potential to become a wide variety of plant organs, much like stem cells in animals.  The parasite, be it a wasp, bacteria, or virus, co-opts these “stem” cells and gives them new instructions.  In a way the galls are akin to a tightly controlled cancer initiated by the parasite organism.

The Twig Galls I was looking at today were insect formed and, as such, the insect needs to escape the protective structure once it is mature.  Many of the galls had little holes in them showing where the little wasps has crawled out.

Exit holes in a Twig Gall - California

Exit holes in a Twig Gall – California

The variation in galls is astounding.  I have seen leaf galls on wild roses that look like tiny sea-urchins dipped in vermillion.  There are galls that not only force the plant to grow a protective structure around it, but that trick the plant into producing nectar to attract ants which in turn protect the growing larvae from predators.  Many are extremely colorful and the shapes are widely varied.

Colorful leaf galls on a Sugar Maple leaf - Vermont

Colorful leaf galls on a Sugar Maple leaf – Vermont

The common theme is that the galls are all formed in developing tissue, leaves, new twigs, flowers, roots, or fruit.

A gall on Shadbush fruit - Vermont

A gall on Shadbush fruit – Vermont

Some of the Ichneumonidae wasps that make so many of the galls we see have developed a biological metallurgy, evolving zinc and manganese coated ovipositors which they use to inject chemicals and hormones into the plants they co-opt.

The specificity and regularity of the galls and the relationships between the plants and the gall formers speaks to a lengthy and complicated evolutionary history.

We pride ourselves (or are horrified by) our newly found ability to genetically manipulate plants and animals.  In truth, we have a long way to go before we catch up to what we often mistakenly call the “humble” insects.

Spring comes to Madrid

Spring is lurching its way through the Northern Hemisphere.  In Madrid this year this means more rain than has fallen since the 1940s, usually in a soft drizzle, occasionally spiced with small hail, bouts of hard rain, and periods of epic cloudscapes accompanied by bright sun.  It is familiar weather, reminding me of the part of California I grew up in.

In the countryside the effects of all this water are obvious, the land turns green.  This is likely to be a good year for farmers and wildflowers, though the former have a globally recognized habit of finding something to complain about no matter the weather.  For the wild plants this may mean bountiful seeds next year and the possibility of mast fruiting for woody plants that do that sort of thing (oak trees, I’m looking at you).

Within the boundaries of Madrid, where I have been living recently, the setting is considerably more urban.

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

In this landscape of stone, cement, and brick the effects of spring are more subtle and easy to overlook; they are most clearly seen in the length and material of coats worn by pedestrians.  Long black wool overcoats are being replaced by short black wool overcoats, leather jackets are replacing down, and on the few warmer days some of the women wear skirts with tights and accompanied by peculiar choices in footwear.

Nature-wise the heralds of spring are the street trees which are beginning to leaf out (especially the elms); ornamental cherries, plums, and almonds have been blooming, and, most interestingly to me, the little plants that have adapted to city life are beginning to show signs of life.

Leaves of an elm seedling

Leaves of an elm seedling

On the patio there is a planter box that has been left to what wild nature resides in the city.  A small elm has taken root and shows nice bonsai potential.  Accompanying the elm are, moss, English Ivy (planted), a few tender oxalis plants, and a small climbing vine with miniscule, but lovely, flowers; purple and white, kissed with egg-yolk yellow.

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant - the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant – the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

This plant starts out in a tight cluster and flowers prolifically when conditions are right.

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

This little plant, Ivy-leaved Toadfax (Cymbalaria muralis) is evergreen and originally native to the Mediterranean region, now found nearly globally, having been introduced both intentionally and inadvertently. The flowers betray the family association; snapdragons or Scrophulariaceae.

Cymbalaria muralis does not suffer from a lack of names, Coliseum-Ivy , Kenilworth-Ivy, Wandering-Sailor, Mother-Of-Thousands, Oxford-Ivy, Pennywort, and Ivy-leaved Toadflax being just a few of its common names.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax prefers calcareous soils and often grows directly from cliffs and older walls.  Here in Spain it is a native plant and is as much in balance with its environment as any other plant is in a land so heavily used by humans for so long as the Iberian Peninsula has been.  Elsewhere this small plant becomes aggressively invasive and can rapidly form a dense blanket of vegetation over trees, cliffs, and buildings.  It is a popular plant for rock gardens.

If a plant could be described as being clever, this plant might qualify for the compliment.  It sends runners out in all directions, with most of the ones I have seen pointing upwards.

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

On a healthy plant these runners can be nearly a meter long and have a fleshy, almost succulent aspect.  The leaves and the vines are slightly waxy and smooth to the touch, helping to limit water loss.  As it grows, Ivy-leaved Toadflax builds up a dense, nearly light impenetrable, layer of overlapping leaves.  Like a forest, this little clump of shade helps to trap both moisture and organic matter.  This little reservoir of nutrients feeds the ever growing plant.

The most interesting aspect of this plant is its behavior when it flowers and sets seed.  The flowers are pollinated primarily by bees and must be placed where the bees can find and land on them.  To ensure this the young flowerbuds are positively phototrophic; they actively seek out the brightest light.

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Bees can see into the ultraviolet and to them flowers look very different than to us.  I am very curious how these flowers look to the bees.

Once the flower has been pollinated a change takes place and the forming seedpods become negatively phototrophic actively avoiding light.  The change can be quite dramatic and rapid

A fertilized bud running from the light

A fertilized bud moving away from the light

Avoidance of light sends the forming seeds into the darkest places within reach, places where it is more likely to find a safe, damp spot for the small seeds to be deposited.

Light and dark seeking stems

Light and dark seeking stems

This clever approach to seed distribution combined with rooting from runners and re-rooting from broken clumps serve the Ivy-leaved Toadflax well.  This change in light preference is not unique to Ivy-leaved Toadflax, the common houseplant Monstera deliciosa (aka Swiss Cheese Plant, Window Leaf, Mexican Breafdruit, and many more names) begins life avoiding light, then, when it finds a tree trunk its preference turns towards light as it climbs to the near canopy.

We don’t often talk about the behavior of plants, we usually use more neutral terms such as survival strategy.  To us plants are fixed in the landscape with their changes slow.  Plants lack of a brain makes discussion of behavior problematic.  We often fail to have an appreciation for the senses plants posses and they way their response to stimulus drives their growth and adaptability.  We have a prejudice for organisms with a central nervous system, or at least some form of mobility, because they are more similar to ourselves and we find them easier to empathize with.

The little Cymbalaria muralis is far from the only plant in flower right now in Madrid.  In the parks Common Fumitory (aka. Earth Smoke), Fumaria officinalis, is blooming.

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory is in the Bleeding Heart family, related to Corydalis, Bleeding Hearts, and Squirrel Corn.  Often this pretty little plant is lumped into a sub-family of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae).

In some places small fields of Red Campion (Silene dioica) dance in the breeze, making rippling patches of purple-tinged pink.

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

In the countryside ground dwelling orchids are beginning to bloom, but I have not seen those yet.

Perhaps soon.

Hummingbirds – miracles of evolution

Of all birds hummingbirds are one of the most fun to watch.  They are fast, colorful, and tiny, the smallest ones roughly the same size as a large moth or butterfly.  They are probably best known for their maneuverability.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) coming in for a landing. Note the small tail, the curve of the body, and the large wing muscles.

These birds are compact and extremely well muscled.  Their tails are short and flexible, notice how the tail of the Anna’s Hummingbird in the above photo is curved to the side and folded to cup the air to assist in guiding the bird in to its landing spot.  Their wings are short with thick muscles covering the limbs and have a range of motion far greater than that of other birds.

The name Hummingbird comes from the noise of their wings beating at 25 beats per second, about 1500 beats per minute. This high wing-beat and the extraordinary wing flexibility allows hummingbirds to hover far more effectively and energy efficiently than any other bird.

To hover they flap their wings in a figure-8 pattern, generating lift on both the down and upstroke.  Approximately 75% of the life of generated on the down-stroke with the remainder on the up-stroke.  The University of Texas has some nice graphs and charts providing more detailed information on how this works.

Anna’s Hummingbird hovering in front of Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca) flowers

In to achieve this maneuverability hummingbirds give up the ability to glide.  In effect they have no low energy flight, they are always running at near full speed.  A 170 pound person would need to eat (and metabolize) 130 pounds of bread a day to keep up with energy output of a hummingbird.  Their energy output is so great that they enter torpor at night, a sort of hibernation.  If they did not do this the hummingbird would starve to death during the night.

Hummingbird flight characteristics are very nearly a blend of bird and insect methods of achieving lift.

Hummingbirds are generally extremely colorful, especially the males.  Like many birds this color is not pigment generated, but is the result of highly specialized feathers light refracting feathers.  Think of oil on water, that rainbow sheen that you see when light reflects from it.  Birds use the same technique, but in a far more specialized way.  Rather than an undifferentiated rainbow of colors the micro-structure of the feathers refracts only specific colors.  The natural color of the feathers is a dark brown, almost black.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a non-native Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca)

I know I’ve used this photo before, but it illustrates the refraction vs pigment issue well.  The bold purple-pink behind the bird’s eyes is the color we associate with the male Anna’s Hummingbird’s head and gorget (the throat portion).  The dark, almost black, feathers are at the wrong angle to reflect the light and show the natural dark color of their pigment.

The tree in these photos is a Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca), not native to North America, but native to South America, a place where there is a stunning variety of hummingbirds.  This tree and hummingbirds have a long relationship and have mutually evolved to reinforce that relationship.  Hummingbirds and may other birds and insects (and not a few mammals and reptiles as it turns out) drink nectar from flowers.  Not everyone who drinks the nectar will pollinate the plant, thus special relationships evolve.  Plants with long tube-like flowers (penstemon, humming-bird sage, tobacco, monkey flowers, heliconia, etc) are specialized to provide nectar for animals with long tongues that can reach the nectar.

Hummingbird tongue

Hummingbirds not only have long, narrow beaks, they have long, feathery tongues with which to lap up nectar hidden deep inside the tube-like flowers.  As they drink the plant deposits pollen on the beak and sometimes the bird’s head (two photos up you can see the pollen discoloring the hummingbird’s beak).  The next flower the bird visits gets a little pollen from the previous flower and the plant is happy.

A quick look at the shape and color of flowers will often give you a good sense of what type of animal the plant relies on for pollination.

Hummingbird catching insects under a Coast Live Oak

Hummingbirds need protein as well.  Some, such as the Anna’s Hummingbird, catch insects in flight, many others raid spiderwebs for insects.  Here in North America this is a relatively safe prospect, but in parts of South America there are spiders that will happily catch and eat a hummingbird and spin webs more than strong enough to trap the birds.

Hummingbirds have such a need for vast quantities of high energy foods that they are often extremely territorial, engaging in vicious fights and high speed chases.  Like most animals they would rather warn opponents off than waste energy fighting them.  Different species have various methods of letting others know how tough they are.

Anna’s Hummingbird staking out its territory

The little fellow above is marking out territory by fluffing out his head feathers.

One of the most amazing things about hummingbirds to me is that they migrate long distance, some species crossing the Gulf of Mexico in one long flight with no food.  At the shortest distance this is a flight of 480 miles, many birds fly closer to 600 miles to make this open water trip.  For a bird that only weights several ounces, cannot glide, and needs to eat constantly this is a truly remarkable voyage.

On a final note, hummingbirds are far more intelligent than most people realize.  Their memories are phenomenal, allowing them to keep track of individual flowers within their territories and when they were last visited for nectar.  They have the largest brain-to-body size of any bird.

Dr. Seuss in Ecuador: the Frailejón, a strange Asteraceae

A number of years ago I spent some time working in South America.  I started in Ecuador and slowly made my way down to Bolivia, participating in a variety of interesting projects in remote areas, interspersed with travels between projects.  When my project in Ecuador was completed I and my then girlfriend headed up to a northern town high in the Andes called El Angel where an unusual plant was said to grow in the páramo, the high elevation grassland of the Andes.

We had heard that the frailejón were rare and only grew in a few limited places in Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela.  We didn’t know what to expect and I recall saying, “I hope we get to see one,” thinking that, like many rare plants, we would have to hunt for them.

Frailejón (Espeletia grandiflora) high in the mountains

We need not have worried.  These large, palm tree-like asters are what would would be called globally rare, locally abundant.

Everywhere we looked the land was stippled with these strange plants, many of them in bloom.

We were above the cloud (or fog) forest, the bosque nebuloso, and well into the páramo, a place that is sometimes described as tropical alpine tundra.  A land of grasses, cool weather, harsh sun and winds, clouds, and occasional freezing temperatures despite being in the middle of the tropics.  As such, plants here have developed a variety of environmental coping mechanisms to deal with the particular stresses they endure.

Frailejón leaf cluster

The thick, fleshy leaves are covered in dense, pale fur that retains moisture, reflects sunlight, and insulates from the cold.  The thick mat of fur creates a boundary layer of still air, acting much like the downy feathers of a bird or the thick fur of a beaver.  The closely spaced leaves have a similar effect, the larger outer leaves protecting the younger and more sensitive inner leaves.

Frailejón are in the Asteraceae family (aka. Compositae), as such they are related to an enormous variety of flowers we are familiar with; sunflowers, daisies, dandelions, artichokes, marigolds, chrysanthemum, coneflowers, fleabane, and about 23,000 other species.  All of these plants share a similar flower structure, and a look at the flowers of the frailejón clearly reveals this family association.

Frailejón flowers close-up

Like many grasslands the páramo is a fire prone region and plants must be able to cope with this stress as well.  The grasses in the páramo tend to be bunch-grasses, perennial clumping grasses with long-lived root-masses.  The nubby texture they give to the landscape must be very like what California looked like before the Columbian Exchange led to the replacement of perennial grasses with annual ones.  In the Andes the bunch-grasses remain, perhaps in part because the local people still practice fire based land management.  The tops of the bunch-grasses burn off, leaving the roots intact to resprout.

Frailejóns take a different approach to fire protection.  They grow above it, raising themselves up on tall stalks, appearing like shrubby palm trees.

Frailejón field with person for scale

The largest I saw was close to 4 meters tall.  The stalks are a straight cylinder, the same diameter no matter the height, and the leafy heads are also the same size no matter how tall the plant is.  Old leaves dangle down, insulating the base of the active growing head from the fire below.  The dead leaves felt a bit spongy, they may gather moisture from the fog as added protection.

The Andean spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), which usually eats bamboo pith, has been known to tear down frailejóns to eat the interior of the stalk.

Frailejóns and bunch-grasses are not the only interesting plants in this region.  Large agave relatives with narrow, sharply toothed leaves and tall flower spikes infrequently dot the landscape.

Spiky agave relative with an immature inflorescence

Tough cycad-like ferns grow in mossy areas where the grasses do not.

Tough cycad-like fern

The landscape is… different.  Not exactly alien, but unfamiliar.  It is a little like walking through a dream or a Dr. Suess landscape.

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These photos were taken with a Canon AE-1 older than I am with a Canon 50mm f1.4 lens, developed and printed in Ecuador, mailed back to the US, eventually to be scanned on an Epson (I forget the make) all-in-one printer.