Tar Pits, Dung Beetles, and Megafauna

Today Los Angeles is a city with a reputation for excess, dominated by cars and actors, and there is a reason for this.  Money.  Money in the form of oil.  The combination of oil and money led to the nascent fossil fuel industry teaming up with the budding car industry in the early 20th century to sabotage the successful street and rail car industry in the Los Angeles basin.  Money led to loose laws which led to crime, gambling, and guerrilla movie studios moving into the LA area, searching for places that were outside the influence of the film establishment of the times.  All of these things are interesting, but without the oil it is unlikely Los Angeles would have taken the trajectory it did.

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914 – source: National Geographic archives

Oil is usually found deep under ground, but the greater Los Angeles area up through the Santa Barbara area is one of a few places in the world where oil is not just close to the surface, it is on the surface, bubbling in cold pits of bitumen, also known as asphalt and tar.  This asphaltum has been important to humans for as long as they have lived in the region.  In the past it was primarily used to waterproof boats, water carriers, and cooking vessels or as an adhesive.  Now, of course we use it to make a whole range of products from gasoline to Vaseline, rubber, plastics, pantyhose, parachutes, paint, detergents, antifreeze, golf balls, and more.

Bitumen occurs where vast amounts of living material (plankton, diatoms, or plant material usually) were deposited in a quiet anaerobic environment, such as a lake or sea floor, and left alone for a long, long time.  In essence, it is liquid coal.  Coal beds are sometimes repositories for incredible collections of fossils.  These ancient remains and offer a window into the deep past, but for a window into the more recent past we need something a little different from coal.  Bitumen provides one of the best preserving agents for more recent remains.

Near Hollywood there is a famous bitumen pit redundantly named the La Brea Tar Pits (literally “The Tar Tar Pits”).  Between approximately 38,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago the La Brea Tar Pits were very active.  An enormous variety of animals and insects were lured to the waters of what appeared to be a rich wetland and were trapped by the sticky tar that lay beneath the shallow layer of water.  A few posts back I brought up the fact that condors are representatives of an extinct assemblage of fauna.  The La Brea tar Pits provide a window into that now extinct assemblage.  Los Angeles was a land of giant bears and jaguars, pygmy pronghorn antelope, camels, mammoths, dire-wolves, great birds of prey, giant ground sloths, and numerous other animals.  

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Animals trapped by the sticky tar aroused the interest of predators and scavengers which were themselves trapped by the tar.  Herbivores, carnivores, mammals, birds, and insects all fell prey to the tar pits and many of them have been preserved in astoundingly good condition.

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Along with the large animals is one of the best collections of preserved insects in the world.  Most people know that insects are important in a sort of general way.  In recent years honeybees have been in the news quite a bit and their importance in maintaining our food supply has reached the mainstream audience.  I’ve mentioned the importance of both ladybugs and dragonflies, but these are iconic and popular insects, very much in the public eye.  There are many other insects that have an importance far beyond what their diminutive size would indicate.  One of these is the dung beetle (Scarabaeinae).

Until recently much of the planet was home to a wide range of large animals, grouped into the catch-all term “megafauna”.  This is a generic term for any animal massing more than 45-100 kg (100-220lbs).  Most of the recent megafauna of each continent (with the exception of Africa) went extinct shortly after humans reached the respective region.  Here in North America we had great mammoths, elephant relatives, standing 4 meters (13 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighing 9 metric tons (10 short tons).  You can walk under the tusks of the mammoth skeleton in the La Brea Tar Pits, reach your hand up as high as you can, and the tusks are still out of reach.

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Numerous types of ground sloth roamed the area, including both the Shasta and Harlan’s Sloths.  Harlan’s Ground Sloth was not the largest and even it stood 3 meters (10 feet) tall and weighed more than a ton.

Harlan's Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

Harlan’s Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

The Antique Bison, some 15-25% larger than modern bison roamed the region,

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

And there were, or course predators of all sorts.  Dire Wolves are particularly well represented in the La Brea Tar Pit fossils.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls.  One panel of a 3-panel display.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls. One panel of a 3-panel display.

There were large numbers of these animals and, like all animals, they had to eat.  The larger the animal, the more it eats.  Modern African elephants eat 100-300kg (220-660lbs) of food per day, so it is reasonable to expect that the Colombian mammoth would eat at least that much per day, if not more.  Then, just on the herbivore side of things, there were the giant ground sloths, horses, camelids, bison, elk, antelope, peccaries, deer, and numerous other species.  Additionally there all the predators; giant jaguars, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves, American cheetahs, bears of all sorts, including the giant short-faced bear, and more besides them.

All animals must eat, and everything they eat must come out eventually.  This is something we don’t really think much about: what happens to all the animal dung?  How much of it was there?

We don’t really have any good idea just what the animal numbers were like in the past, but we do have a very good idea of the numbers of another kind of modern megafauna.  Cows.  The numbers of cows in the US probably only represent a middling-small portion of the total amount of large megafauna in the US portion of North America, but they give some insight into the kinds of numbers we are talking about when it comes to dung quantities.

The 2006 article by Losey and Vaughan provides some insight to those numbers.  Each cow can produce approximately 21 cubic meters of waste per year, that’s a volume roughly equivalent to 1.3 VW buses worth of dung per year per cow.  In 2004 there were nearly 100 million head of cattle in the US, that means more than 2 billion cubic meters of poop per year, just from cows… I’ll let that image settle in.  For comparison that’s enough to cover  Manhattan to a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters) or Disney World to about 60 feet (18 meters) in cow manure every year (in other news: Disney World is larger than Manhattan).  That’s just from the cows and just the ones in the US.

What happens to all that crap?  Enter the humble dung beetle.  For the portion of cattle that are fortunate enough to be in fields, dung beetles take care of the waste.  According to Losey and Vaughan each year dung beetles save ranchers $380 million dollars in clean-up costs.  A 2001 article by Michelle Thomas indicates that without dung beetles each year we would find 5-10% of each cattle acre unusable due to dung pile-up.  Dung beetles are so important that foreign species of dung beetles have been imported to the US and elsewhere for use in areas that experience heavy livestock use.

Dung beetles range in size from just a few millimeters to several inches in length.  Their size is dependent on the size of the dung they have to deal with.  Currently Africa has the largest land animals and the largest dung beetles.  North America used to have an enormous range of very large animals with correspondingly large droppings.  As you might expect there were some very large dung beetles living here to take care of those droppings.  The large beetle on the left is an extinct giant water beetle similar in size the the large, extinct dung beetles.   This beetle is about 2 inches (5 cm) long.

Different species of dung beetles found in the tar pits.  The large one is extinct.

Different species of small dung beetles found in the tar pits and an extinct giant water beetle that is about the size of the large extinct dung beetles.

Ecosystems are delicate things, subject to trophic cascades, as I have previously mentioned, full of unexpected consequences and side effects.  Most of the great predators in North America died out when the large herbivorous megafauna became extinct.  Scavengers also suffered, amongst them the dung beetles.  All the large dung beetles in North America swiftly followed the rest of the megafauna into extinction.  Currently in North America the dung beetles are small, more like the insects to the right in the image above than the large tan one (you can check out photos of them here).

For many people the response to this is a shrug of the shoulders, but the effects of these beetles going missing had a tremendous effect on the ecosystem, in particular on plant growth and distribution.  We don’t know, and probably will never know how great an effect their absence had.  Dung beetles, the Scarabaeinae, are extremely important ecosystem engineers, gathering fresh dung and burying it as a food source for their developing young.  By doing so they fertilize and aerate the soil, speeding up the cycle of nutrient return by putting the nutrients in a safe place where the plant roots can get to them and where they are less likely to be washed away by rain or desiccated by the sun and blown away.  In addition, dung beetles are important in limiting the spread of diseases and parasites by removing fly and pest breeding sites.

Understanding the details of the world, the interactions, the interconnectedness, the causality of it is difficult.  When we look at the present we have the fine resolution, but lack a context.  When we look at the past we establish a context, but lack the fine scale resolution.  When we look to the future, as we must, we need to be able to combine the insights of the past and the present to predict the consequences of our actions.

Hopefully we are getting better at this, but I cannot help but look at connections like that between the mammoth, dung beetle, the dire wolf, the distribution of plants, and the radiating effects of that interleaving and wonder what vital link, or set of links, we are failing to see right now and what what will mean for our future.

The Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

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Apologies for the multiple posting.  I made an edit using the WordPress App on my iPad and it deleted the original post.  I had to restore it and repost.

Tides, Why Tide Charts Don’t Average to Zero, and Agendas

Tides are an important part of life on earth. Earthly tides are primarily governed by the moon, a result of Lunar gravity tugging on the planet as the Earth spins along side of our over-sized neighbor.

A few days after the 2013 "supermoon"

A few days after the 2013 “supermoon”

Tides affect both the earth’s crust (raising it enough so that large particle accelerators must be designed with the geo-tide in mind) and, more familiarly, the oceans. Technically speaking, all bodies of water are affected by the tides, but the large tides experienced by coastal dwellers is a result not only of the Earth-Moon-Sun gravitational dynamic but of resonance, coastline shape, and of characteristics of the ocean floor.

Resonance is simply the self-reinforcing effect of synchronization. The most familiar form of resonance for most people may be pumping your legs on a swing. If your timing is right the small amount of energy added to the pendulum motion by pumping your legs will lift you higher and higher. If your timing is off you can kill your speed and come to a stop. You can do the same with your hand and a basin of water, a small amount of hand motion will quickly wind up sloshing water out of a bathtub. Swings, tides, and lasers work on this principle of resonance.

The shape of the coastline and the depth of the ocean floor can concentrate or diffuse tides as well, focusing or dispersing the vast energies at play. This is why the tides in places with fjords like British Columbia and Norway can be so dangerous.

I grew up near the ocean and spent a lot of time watching the ocean and exploring tidepools and the rocky beaches of the California coast.

Mussels anchored on exposed rocks in the intertidal zone.

Mussels anchored on exposed rocks in the intertidal zone.

The interesting part of the coast was not the sandy beaches, but the craggy high surface areas that trapped pools of water. All sorts of creatures live in these pools. Strange and wonderful creatures like the Gumboot Chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, large molluscs that crawl out of the water at low tide to feed on exposed seaweed.

Cryptochiton stelleri, or Stellars's Hidden Chiton, so named because the characteristic eight bony plates are hidden under rugose red skin

Cryptochiton stelleri, or Stellars’s Hidden Chiton, so named because the characteristic eight bony plates are hidden under rugose red skin

In tidepools I have found and caught octopus, eels, and fish, but two of the most common residents are Shore Crabs

Shore Crab, a common California coast resident

Shore Crab missing an arm, a common California coast resident

and anemones, both hovering between the scavenger and hunter niches.

Anemones: close-up of arms

Anemone: close-up of arms

These and many other creatures live in what is known as the intertidal zone, the region of the coast that is above low tide and below high tide. This is an area of tremendous free energy. Energy is a two edged sword as any scientist or engineer can attest to. Energy makes all things possible, and most things can be broken down into either growth or destruction. Creatures that live in the intertidal zone reap the benefit of straddling two environments, feasting on the windfall of both, but the fierce waves and tides also expose them to the dangers of being left to suffocate in water, desiccate in the sun, be torn from holdfasts, and fall prey to other adaptable creatures. Excellent potential for great growth or swift destruction.

In the intertidal zone there are bands of life that roughly conform to the amount of time spent out of water. Mussels and barnacles occupy the upper reaches and are the most familiar.

Mussels and Gooseneck Barnacles on exposed rocks.  Both are tasty to eat.  Mussels are commonly eaten in the US and Gooseneck Barnacles fetch high prices in Spain, where people risk their lives to collect them.

Mussels and Gooseneck Barnacles on exposed rocks. Both are tasty to eat. Mussels are commonly eaten in the US and Gooseneck Barnacles fetch high prices in Spain, where people risk their lives to collect them.

Lower down, in some places, Sea Palm grows in dense stands, often damaged by the waves.

Sea Palm (Postelsia palmaeformis), the only species of this kelp and one of the few that can live for extended times out of water

Sea Palm (Postelsia palmaeformis), the only species of this kelp and one of the few that can live for extended times out of water

At each level a different selection of species dominates creating a many-layered composite of ecotones, much like a mountain in miniature. The vertical ranges for these species collections is so narrow that it can be used to track sea level changes.

If you want to see nudibranchs, octopus, and sandcastle worm, then when do you go to the coast?

sandcastle worm (Phragmatopoma californica) colony

Sandcastle Worm (Phragmatopoma californica) colony

Clearly you go at low tide… but what does this mean?

One of the things that bothered me about tide-charts (like the one below) is that if you average the high and low tides you do not get zero.

Graphical tide chart made with the TideTrac app

Graphical tide chart made with the TideTrac app

I went out a while back to experiment with day-time long exposure photos. This is the tide chart for the day. Notice that the lowest tide of the day is still +0.4 feet (12cm)? The average tide for the day is +2.9 feet, nearly a meter. What is that all about?

The answer is that tide charts were designed for sailors, not tide-poolers or surfers. Tide charts are set by a datum, one of 17 potential datums, that all are based off of the LOWEST tides, not the average tide. For a sailor who wants his boat to stay in the water and not be slammed against rocks, this is important.

Even a small bump carries a lot of energy

Even a small bump carries a lot of energy

For the rest of us, it is a little non-intuitive. We have picked the lowest tide as the datum because that is what was important to the people making the charts at the time. If it had been house contractors instead, the datum would have been the highest tides. Tide-poolers would probably have picked the average tide as the datum, making it easy to determine when the most species would be exposed at any given moment.

There is a lesson here; be wary of maps and charts. Maps and charts are made to tell a specific story, a story with a perspective, a message, and an agenda. Like an advertisement on TV or a political speech, it is important to be aware of both the audience and the proponents of the product. And in truth, there is little that is more political than maps and charts.

Oh, the long exposure photos turned out great.

Ten seconds of waves washing in and out during the day

Ten seconds of waves washing in and out during the day

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Note: for those of you who look at the full-sized photos, several of these have been pulled from my archives and were taken with my first digital camera; a Canon ELPH from the early 2000s. A great little camera, but of a disappointingly low resolution.

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.

Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.

How Does the Acorn Get from Here to There? – Scrub Jays and Oak Trees

With a few exceptions trees in the Oak genus (Quercus) are easily, if not immediately, recognizable.  There are approximately 600 species in the genus divided into two sub-genera.  Oaks are found in North and South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.  The oaks in Asia are in the sub-genera, the Ring-Cupped Oaks (Cyclobalanopsis), whereas oaks in the rest of the world are members of the Quercus sub-genera.

Oaks have complicated relationships with a number of other species ranging from symbiotic fungus to parasitic wasps to humans.  Oaks feature in our mythology, we use the bark of Quercus suber, Cork Oak, to make stoppers for wine and for soft flooring, we make furniture and barrels from some species of oak, we made cart and early car axles from particularity strong species, they make excellent firewood, and they are fun to climb.

Climbing a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) when I was little

Oaks also make acorns.  Sometimes, particularly when mast fruiting, oaks produce enormous quantities of acorns.  Most of these acorns are eaten by animals; insects, humans, pigs, squirrels, birds, and a host of other animals.  The survival and reseeding rate for acorns is low, but oak trees tend to be long-lived, some reaching ages of 500 years or more.  In the absence of other factors this low seedling success rate is not an issue as the tree produces thousands of acorns each year for hundreds of years.  Some seeds are bound to survive and turn into new trees.

Oaks have a particular problem.  Their seeds (acorns) are large.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorns

By themselves the trees can only drop the acorns under their own drip-line, in the shade where they will not sprout.  How does the tree send its seeds to a new place where they can sprout and are not left in a dense mat of easily found and eaten food?

Plants, being clever and manipulative in their slow vegetative manner, have all manner of methods for getting animals to carry their seeds far and wide.  Oaks harness many species to do this work, bribing them with the highly nutritious seeds they produce.  Across much of North America scrub and blue jays are put to work distributing acorns across the landscape.

Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) in the Santa Monica Mountains – possibly Belding’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica obscura)

Meet the Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), also known as the California Scrub Jay, and sometimes known as, “That damned bird!”  It is a mid-sized bird, perhaps a foot long including tail, loud, strong, clever, and imperious.  Like all jays it is in the Crow family (Corvidae), one of, if not the, smartest of bird types.  Corvids are renowned for their problem solving abilities and feats of memorization.  Scrub jays are no exception.

When the acorns are ripe jays congregate on the trees, grab as many acorns as they can, and fly off to stash them for future use.

Scrub Jay carrying acorns to hide for lean times

Each bird seems able to carry 3 or 4 acorns at a time, in the picture above there are two in the jay’s beak and at least one more in its crop.

Jays will carry acorns up to a mile and a half, hiding them in widely distributed caches of 1-3 acorns per cache.  The bird memorizes the locations of each cache, that of any other caches it sees other birds store, and will move its own caches if it knows it has been observed making its own cache.  Some of these caches will be forgotten and in some of those the seeds will sprout.

One bird doesn’t seem like it would make much of an impact, but one must recognize both the diligence of each bird and the number of birds engaged in this activity.

Scrub Jays harvesting acorns (@ 40 photographs taken over @ 10 minutes)

The photo above is a compilation of about 40 photographs taken over roughly 10 minutes.  This level of activity has been constant on this tree throughout the day over the past 2 or 3 weeks.  The scale of the endeavor starts to become apparent.  Beneath the tree ground squirrels and gray squirrels gather seeds from the ground to add to their own larders as well.

The oak tree has effectively expanded its dispersal distance from a few feet to over a mile.  Not only that, the oak tree has found a way to have its seeds hidden in safe locations and planted in the ground.  Only a small proportion of the acorns will survive to make new trees, but over the 350 year expected life-span of this particular tree it is not unreasonable that several hundred acorns will survive to produce trees that will live long enough to produce seeds of their own.

Scrub Jay enjoying the sun

+++ Cathy commented that any discussion of oak trees in California is incomplete if Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) are not included.  They don’t live where I am at the moment, but last week I was up in my old stomping grounds and visited one of my favorite grainery trees.  Grainery trees are where these communal woodpeckers store and dry their collected acorns.  This particular tree is an ancient, wind-blasted Douglas Fir atop Mt Tamalpais, has a nearly 4 foot diameter, has been lightening struck numerous times, and sits amidst a copse of large moss enshrouded oak trees.

Old grainery trees will be used by many generations of these little woodpeckers and the trees look like an art project .

In any event, here is a photo of part of a grainery.+++

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) use all surfaces of a tree to make their larders. They will use fence-posts and the sides of barns as well.

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As a final note, in many areas, but in California in particular, oaks of all species are severely imperiled.  Oak woodlands are often considered to be the most important ecosystem in the region, but they have been subject to a number of stresses.  Oaks have been extensively cleared for orchards, vineyards, farmland, and urban use.  Saplings are eaten by cattle in range-lands, non-native feral pigs sniff out and eat all the acorns they can find, sometimes damaging tree roots in the process, and an ill-considered introduction of turkeys to the state by Fish & Wildlife to raise hunting revenue has led to even more acorns consumed by these overly prolific birds.

On top of all this, Phytophthora ramorum, a pathogen in the fungus-like family of water-molds, was accidentally introduced to the state via exotic ornamental plants and is causing wide-spread devastation.  This is commonly called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome and foresters strongly recommend not transporting oak firewood and washing cutting tools and boots when moving between oak growing regions.

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch