Fall Color, Superpowers, & Chemistry

My work here in Vermont is drawing to a close and the time is coming to make a transition.  Serendipitously, this is synchronized with one of the more dramatic and beautiful changes that takes place in New England.  Fall Color, the time when the trees reveal their hidden secrets for a brief time before dropping their leaves in expectation of a prolonged period of time when photosynthesis is impractical.

Mt Elmore, Vermont – early fall color

The color is easy to capture at the level of an individual leaf, but surprisingly difficult to capture at a landscape level.   The problem is, like so many things, one of chemistry and individuality.  Not only does each species of tree respond differently to the seasonal changes, each individual tree responds differently, indeed each individual leaf responds differently.  The soil and the weather over the past year have their own influences as well.  This time of year Vermont makes quite a bit of money from tourists, “leaf peepers” they’re called locally.  As with anything that generates money there are numerous conflicting opinions as to what the best conditions are for a good fall color.  The conversations have the flavor of farmers talking about the weather or arguing over the best shape for the bottom of a fence post.

Big Toothed Aspen (Populus grandidentata) leaf against Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) bark

There are several aspects of fall color I find particular interesting.  The first is that some of the color you see is always there, it is just hidden from view within the leaf by the photosynthesizing portions for much of the year.  I mentioned chemistry.  This is not because I am a chemist, or even particularly knowledgeable about chemistry, but because it is important for understanding much of the world around us.  Chemistry and physics.

Sunlight comes in all colors and some colors (wavelengths) carry more energy than others.  A plant needs to harvest that energy to produce sugars for growth and metabolism.  One of the difficulties the plant experiences is that energy comes in discrete packages, called quantum (quanta plural), and cannot be divided.  I realize that at this point some people will bring up the wave/particle duality issue; very loosely speaking color can be though of as wavelength and quantum can be thought of as the energy each particle carries.

In any event, plants store energy by breaking phosphorous bonds and recombining the atoms in new combinations, especially as ATP.  ATP, adenosine triphosphate, is the battery plants run upon.  Breaking apart molecular bonds takes a specific amount of energy and phosphorous is a particularly energy intensive fuel to use.  This also means that it can store a lot of energy, hence the plant’s use of it.  The degradation of ATP to ADP releases some of that stored energy and powers the plant.  The tricky part is that the light energy the plant has available to it, in the form of discrete quantum packets, does not line up exactly with the energy required to break apart and recombine phosphorus.  And, as previously mentioned, this process takes a lot of energy.

Remember, wavelength is color.  Shorter wavelengths carry more energy, quanta, and longer wavelengths carry less energy (incidentally, measuring this is one of the ways we tell if a star is moving towards or away from us).  Think of a rainbow for a minute…

Summer thunderstorms bring evening rainbows

The red light is low energy, the blue light high energy. Evolution is generally smart and not wasteful, within the limits of the resources it has to work with.  The phosphorous bonds cannot be broken down directly, the plant must convert CO2 and H2O into glucose sugars, metabolize those, and use that energy to create ATP.  All this costs energy, and plants harvest it all from the sun, using much of the red and blue light, and most of the rest of the spectrum except for green (with a few exceptions – purple leaved plants for example use green light).  Blue light causes something of a problem, it is extremely high energy, more than the plant can actually use in most cases.  Excess energy becomes heat, fine if you are in a cold climate, but the bane of existence if you are already in a hot climate.  Too much heat and plants close their stomata to avoid water loss, this also limits the plant’s ability to metabolize or photosynthesize.  One idea of why plants reflect the green light, also high energy, is to avoid overheating.  Green leaves may be a safety mechanism.

Glucose, the initial fuel and energy storage system of the plant, is a relatively relatively simple sugar and sweet to our taste buds.  During fall the plant pulls the important and complex chlorophyll compounds back into the main body, abandoning the leaf, sealing it off with brittle cork-like cells so that the leaf dies and drops away.  As the green chlorophyll leaves carotenoids in the leaves reveal some of the previously obscured color, but something else happens as well.  The glucose remaining in the leaf suffers damage from the sunlight and chemically changes, becoming anthocyanins.  The colors of anthocyanins are influenced by a complex host of factors, but the end result is that they produce fall color.

The second thing I find fascinating about fall color is due to the complexity of factors influencing anthocyanin production and the resultant colors.  Below is an ugly selection of the first Mt Elmore photo I’ve extracted and over-saturated to demonstrate this second interesting aspect of fall.

Note the distinct bands of color

The distribution and pattern of colors reveal soil types and moisture content.  Notice how the colors are not randomly distributed, there are definite bands and patterns?  Color hits first and most intensively where there is some sort of environmental stress.  The two micro-habitats I see changing color first in Vermont are wetlands and well-drained, dry soils.  The upper band of color, below the rock outcrop, is on a slight ledge with extremely shallow soil, land that stays dry and goes through more moisture fluctuations than the land surrounding it.  Each of those patches of color tells you something about the environmental conditions of that area, both seasonally and geologically.

This, to me, is fascinating, it is as though for a short time I have been granted superpowers and have Landsat-like multi-spectral vision.

This time of year in new England is magical.  The nights are cool and the days can be warm, fog rises and the colors are bright.  In the right place mornings feel like something from a fantasy novel, mysterious and beautiful, a place where knights, dragons, elves, or gods might be just around a corner.

Misty lake waters in a New England fall

As the seasons change so does my future.  I have accepted a position in Borneo and will be learning a whole new ecology, a new cycle of seasons, and a new set of environmental cues to pick-up on.  As I make the transition my posts may be a bit rocky and infrequent, and, once at my post, I will be relying on a patchy satellite up-link for a few years, but please bear with me.  Borneo is a rapidly changing place not many people have the opportunity to spend any time in and I intend to share the experience with those who are interested.

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Loons – the clumsy birds

If you’ve spent time on an undeveloped lake in northern North America or Europe you’ve probably seen or heard loons.  Their calls are loud and eerie, ringing out over still water and carrying far before fading amongst the trees.

Here in Vermont the Common Loons (Gavia immer) have finished nesting, the young have hatched, and the adults are teaching their young how to survive.  Over the past few months they’ve flown in from their winter grounds, found nesting spots, defended them, reproduced, and will stay until the first ice begins to cover the lakes.  The adults carry immature young on their backs.

Kevin T. Karlson photography – common loon with chicks

When the time comes for over-wintering loons fly to the oceans.  In the US there is an excellent loon tracking program that allows you to watch the movements of individual loons over the seasons.

Loons are large waterfowl with a distinct black and white pattern, reminiscent of Penguins, Auks, Razorbills, Puffins, Terns, the questionably named Imperial Shag, and a host of others.  These birds are patterned white on the belly and black on the back for the same reason that Orca and other aquatic predators are; from below the white blends into the sky, and from the above the black blends into the water (or ground), providing camouflage from both prey and predators.

Loons are excellent fliers with long, surprisingly narrow wings

Loons are excellent flyer and fantastic swimmers, but have difficulty on the ground.  Their large bodies are front heavy and they cannot stand upright, as a result they push themselves along the ground, sliding on their bellies. The name Loon derives from Scandinavian names for lame or clumsy, “lúinn” in Icelandic and “lam” in Swedish.

Their inability to walk means that their nests must be close to the water and that the nests must be in well protected places, usually islands or extremely wet peninsulas.  As more and more lake sides are developed there is less and less nesting habitat for loons.  In addition a pair of loons needs 5-20 hectares (12-50 acres) of clear undisturbed water on a lake with many small bays and nooks and a healthy fish population.  Boats and swimmers can easily disturb nesting loons and studies indicate large reductions in nesting success in areas where people come into close contact with nesting loons.

There are few places that meet the nesting requirements and loons are highly territorial during nesting season.

Most of the time loons are heard, not seen, and when seen it is usually from at least a mild distance.  Several weeks ago I came across a freshly dead loon on the shore of a small pond.  Finding dead animals is always interesting as you have an opportunity to look at them up close and discover things you wouldn’t otherwise know.

The background of this particular loon is that it was an undersized male, blind in one eye, that (according to the banding codes) was new to the area.  It fought with the male of an established nesting pair and lost the fight.  A fellow from the Vermont Center for Ecosystem Studies moved the loon to a nearby lake where it stayed for several days, seemingly falling into poorer and poorer health until I found it on the beach.  Upon request I collected the loon so that it could be sent to one of the research labs and an autopsy done on it.

Small male loon found dead

Small male loon found dead

The first thing that caught my eye was the sleek iridescence of the feathers, tending towards a blue-purple on the neck and with an oily sheen on the black back feathers, but it was the legs that fascinated me.  Chicken, duck, and most other familiar birds have round legs.  This makes sense, these birds must support their weight while walking, or waddling in some cases.  Loons don’t walk so their legs don’t need to be especially strong side-to side.  They do need to cut smoothly through the water however, and as such they are blade-like in shape presenting a narrow front to reduce drag.

The white neck feathers stand proud from the black feathers

The white feathers that ring the neck stand proud, rising 2-3mm above a background of short, fine, dense black feathers.  Loons are cold weather birds and, like all water birds, they have dense feathers.  I did not realize just how dense those feathers are though.  Loon feathers feel like rich fur, not feathers, almost felt-like in texture and density.

White speckled back feathers

The white speckles on the loon’s back remind me of an Escher print.

Here in Vermont loons are popular animals and there has been some good work done to protect loon habitat.  As a result, loon breeding success is higher in this state than the national average.  Bans on lead sinkers for fishing have helped the loon population as well as fewer individuals are swallowing the lead and getting poisoned from the metal.

Birds, but especially Warblers

Birds occupy a place in our imagination like few other animals.  They are colorful, have beautiful songs, and they can fly!  Who doesn’t wish they could fly?

Young Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) before the tail turns red

We eat them, decorate our bodies with their feathers, listen to their songs, and keep them as pets.  In westerns the high-pitched keening cry of the Red-tailed Hawk symbolizes the openness and loneliness of the range, setting the mood and implying that the rugged, lone gunman is as comfortable on the dusty range as the hawk is in the air.

Traditional societies have based dances on the mating dances of birds, clothing has been influenced by the color and patterns of birds, and we assign symbolism to specific birds; doves for peace, hawks for aggression, eagles for freedom, the unfortunate dodo as a dead-end in stupidity, and many more.

Here in the US the we chose the Bald Eagle to symbolize our nation, choosing a bird that is at least as much of a scavenger as it is a hunter, over the objections of Benjamin Franklin.  Make of that what you will.

Some birds live only a few years, others like parrots and albatrosses live as long as a healthy human.  Many birds can “fly” under water as well as in the air, the Water Ouzel of the American West, Loons, Cormorants, and Gannets that plunge into the water like falling rockets, diving many meters down to chase fish.  Some birds have given up the air entirely, Penguins retain their flight in the water, but the Ratities, an ancient lineage including Rheas in South America, Ostriches in Africa, Emus in Australia, and the extinct new Zealand Moa returned to their dinosaur origins, running at high speed on the ground, forgoing the air forever.

Corvids, crows and jays, Parrots, and Cockatoos are renowned for their intelligence, problem solving, and in the case of Corvids, tool use.  These birds rival small children and chimpanzees in their mental abilities.

Birds also can tell us about changes in climate and the environment.  Banding them allows for long-term identification of individuals.  Feathers can be analyzed for isotope ratios, telling what the birds have eaten and where.  Populations can be tracked to see how they respond to changes in environmental conditions.

Vermont Center for Ecosystem Studies employee banding a bird on Mt. Mansfield

I am not an ornithologist, I find birds to be largely mystifying.  I don’t seem to have the ear necessary to distinguish species based on their calls, a vital component of birding.  Despite this, I do greatly appreciate birds and try to photograph them when I can, in part to help me learn, in part because they are pretty, and in part because birds are often easier to see and are more prolific than many other animals.

Birding is a popular activity.  Of all groups involved in conservation and outdoor activities, birders have the highest average income, and companies that make the high quality spotting scopes and binoculars necessary for this activity adjust their prices accordingly.  Many of the most interesting and colorful birds are tiny and fast, necessitating patience and luck, or good equipment, or, most often, a combination of the two.

Warblers are popular birds to watch in New England.  New World Warblers are an often colorful group of small passerines, commonly called “perching birds”.  The name derives from their sparrow-like appearance.  Many of the New World Warblers over-winter in the neo-tropics, flying up to New England as the weather warms and food becomes available here.  Most of the ones I see are in the Septophaga genus, meaning “moth-eating”, though this is sometimes misreported as meaning “fly-eating”.  Others fall into the Cardellina and Geothlypis genera.  I am not sure what the origin of Cardellina is.  Several of the birds in this genus are reddish or pink, and others have a lovely song, it may be a comment on a loose similarity to Cardinals.  Geothlypis roughly means “earth warbler”, perhaps reflecting the essential silliness of many scientific names.

Over the last few years I have managed to take photos of a small number of them:

Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis)

This lovely little Canada Warbler was on the ridge-line of Shenandoah National Park and didn’t care that I was nearby.  I heard the song and had to hunt a little bit to find him.

Common Yellow Throat (Geothlypis trichas)

This Common Yellow Throat followed me through the woods as I waded through ferns and sedges in a wet wooded meadow near my house.  It didn’t seem afraid of me at all, more curious than anything.  It kept the caterpillars in its beak, suggesting that there was a nest with young close by.

Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)

A few months back I heard a soft but rapid twittering in the woods on my morning walk.  Over my head a flock of 5 or so little birds flitted back and forth faster than I could follow.  One of them briefly touched down and held still for just long enough to snap this photo.  From there I was able to figure out that they were Black-throated Green Warblers.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)

On our bird-banding day on Mt. Mansfield this little Black-throated Blue Warbler was found in the mist net.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) western subspecies on the sunflower stalk, eastern subspecies held in hands

The Yellow-rumped Warblers may be the easiest of the warblers to see.  They range from California to New England and have been divided into several sub-species that are nearly indistinguishable to my eye.  The eastern variant is known as the Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata) and the western variant as Audubon’s Warbler (Setophaga coronata auduboni), but they are both Yellow-rumped Warblers to me.

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)

Finally this small Yellow Warbler was in an apple tree in deep shade.  It sat and watched me for several minutes, then flitted away.

Learning these birds has given me a greater appreciation for them, although I must admit that the task of learning these little guys would have been much more difficult if I couldn’t take photos of them and take the time to look closely at their details.

Away Dog! Apocynaceae, the Dogbane family

Near my house, next to the road the ground is sandy with a scattering of pebbles in the mix.  Like much of Vermont what is not bedrock is ground up glacial debris deposited when the vast continental glaciers melted away.  The ground is sandier than most places at my house because I am perched on the southern slope of a small rock outcrop, a place where the downward pressure of the glacier was lighter, water flowed under the ice, and fine sediment was deposited.

In that sandy ground there are wild strawberries, mosses, dandelions, fleabane, hay scented ferns, a few coneflowers, some potentillas, Allegheny blackberry, a little bracken fern, and a small stand of dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) with delicate pink flowers.

Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)

Before moving to Vermont my only experience with this plant was via books.  I always wondered why it was called Dogbane.  Was it like negative catnip for dogs?  Or was it simply toxic to dogs?  Apparently it is a toxin, and not just to dogs.  Ingestion of any portion can induce cardiac arrest and both the family and genus name literally translate to, “Away Dog!”  Apocynum cannabinum has, thick, milky sap, much like a milkweed, indeed Milkweeds (Asclepiadoideae) are now considered to be a subfamily of the Dogbanes (Apocynaceae).  Other members of the Dogbane family include two of my least favorite plants, Oleander and Vinca, both from the Mediterranean and common in California where they were introduced as ornamentals.  Oleander can be seen in any urban environment in Southern California, most often as a highway divider plant.  The sap is extremely toxic, raising painful rashes, and the smoke can be lethal if inhaled.  Vinca, more commonly known as periwinkle, is  common in Northern California where it invades riparian areas, covering both ground and small trees in a dense, vining mat of glossy green leaves studded with pretty blue flowers.  It is nearly impossibly to eradicate once in place.

In the past some Apocynaceae species were used to make a poor quality rubber, others for toxin to apply to arrows.  Some species produce edible fruit and others edible flowers.  We extract heart drugs from a few of them as well.

The dogbane in my yard, Apocynum cannabinum, is a traditional North American source for extremely strong fiber, hence the “cannabinum ” species name, referring to the hemp-like characteristic of the plant.  Common names run from simply Dogbane, to Indian Hemp, Wild Cotton, and Hemp Dogbane.  The fibers are stripped from the stalk in late fall and can be twisted into a fine, strong cord.  Cords made from dogbane were prized for their great strength and used for sewing, fishing lines, and other work requiring fine cordage.

The Hemp Dogbane ranges from calf high to chest high.  The ones in my yard top out at waist high.  The have an odd branching structure, perhaps best described as irregular opposite.  The main stalk continually divides in a binary fashion, with one side acting as a dominate leader, this pattern is often repeated on the side branches, but in some cases buds on both side of the stem will form side branches instead.  The result is a roughly Y shaped plant that rapidly spreads as it grows.

Apocynum cannabinum whole plant.

The leaves are opposite and the undersides are covered with a fine pubescence.  I expect that the hairy leaves are an adaptation to help cope with moisture stress.  Plants often evolve this trait to create a boundary layer of trapped, still air that aids in preventing moisture from being blown away.  The upper leaf surfaces have a matte waxy texture, a little like nasturtium leaves.  Water beads and runs off of them rapidly.

Apocynum cannabinum leaf hairs

The seeds are held in long, horn-like pods.  This time of year few of the seed pods have developed, but a couple of plants are a little further along in the cycle than others.

Apocynum cannabinum seed pods, not fully developed

Few of the leaves have any insect damage, but the flowers are popular with a number of insect species.  I’ve seen ants, flies, bees, and moths going to them.  Hidden amongst the flowers are predators as well.  The Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) seems fond of my dogbane.

Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) playing parlor games with a fly

Goldenrod Crab Spiders are so called because they often hide amongst the bright yellow flowers of goldenrod, a common meadow plant in New England.  The spiders change color from white to yellow and back again based on input from their eyes.  The yellow color seeps up to stain their carapace, providing camouflage.  When they move to a pale flower the production of this pigment stops and the spiders slowly turn white once more.  Experiments show that the spider will not change color if it cannot see what color plant it is on.

These are not web building spiders, they are ambush hunters, grabbing unsuspecting prey in their wide arms.

The smell of the flowers is odd and difficult to describe, incorporating many scents including a dusty sweetness and a faint rankness like dried meat on the edge of going bad, but they are pretty.

Club-Mosses on the mountain

A few days ago I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker on an alpine botany field trip for a class a friend of mine is teaching.  The highest and largest alpine environment in Vermont is atop Mt. Mansfield, two hundred acres of exposed rock, lichens, and a delicate assortment of tiny plants bordered by dense krummholz forest housing several rare bird species.

Mt Mansfield ridge trail

This areas is one of only three tiny regions of Vermont where alpine tundra environments exist, and part of a very small handful of places on the East Coast.  These places are relicts from the end of the last ice age, extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, home to plants that are usually found much further north.  The growing season is short, nutrients are in short supply, and wind stresses are high, all of which result in slow growing, long lived plants that do not colonize open areas well.  Visitors are encouraged to walk only on the rocky areas, keeping off of the easily damaged vegetation.

I had been eager to visit the peak of Mt. Mansfield for some time because it is one of the only places in Vermont that a certain small clubmoss lives.  I mentioned this to the botany students and during a rest break one of them got my attention and asked if the little plant he was pointing to was the one I had mentioned.

Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia appalachiana)

It was one of the smallest examples of Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia appalachiana) that I had seen anywhere, but it was indeed the plant I was looking for.

Clubmosses are really cool and predate flowering plants by an embarrassingly large span of time.  They are not really moss of any type, though they bear a superficial resemblance to the true mosses.  Mosses themselves are not true plants, having no vascular tissue, the plant equivalent of our circulatory system.  Mosses rely on diffusion to distribute water and nutrients and this imposes strict limits on their size.  Clubmosses are more akin to ferns and conifers: they have simple hair-like roots (true mosses have no roots), they have vascular tissue, and, at one point in the extremely distant past (300+ million years ago), their close cousins were the dominant large vegetation reaching one hundred feet above the ground.  Now most clubmosses are small, only a few inches tall, although in the Amazon I did encounter one waist high clubmoss near an overgrown pond.

Unknown Peruvian clubmoss. It grew to just above my waist.

I was interested in the Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss, Huperzia appalachiana, because several years ago I spent a summer in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, climbing about on steep cliffs looking for this plant and trying to figure out how to measure any change populations might experience as the climate changes.  It likes acidic, well drained soils over igneous (or highly metamorphic) bedrock that receive frequent moisture, and, unusual for a clubmoss, direct sunlight.  It hybridizes easily with several other clubmosses, Shining Clubmoss (Huperzia lucidula), Northern Fir-Clubmoss (Huperzia selago), and Huperzia appressa, which some people do not distinguish from Huperzia appalachiana, making the identification question particularly vexing where the ranges overlap.

The Huperzia genus was recently split from the Lycopodium genus, which is where many of the more familiar clubmosses reside.  Like many of the Huperzia, the Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss grows from a dense basal cluster and, unlike many of the Lycopodium, it does not creep about over the ground.

Huperzia appalachiana – note the bands of white spore capsules

No-one is certain how long Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss lives.  The best answer I could get from a sharp fellow at Miami University in Ohio was, “At least seventeen years.”  Not a very satisfying answer, and he knew it.

One way to estimate the age is to count the bands of spore capsules on the stalk, those little white bits that looks like tiny eggs or pale ticks in the image above.  Each band correlates to roughly one year of growth.  Unfortunately, no-one knows how old the plant has to be before it starts producing those, and they don’t always produce them each year.  With some Huperzia species you can count the rings of gemmae, odd little cup-shaped brackets the plant produces that contain a tiny asexually produced plant that is dropped onto the ground in place of a spore when conditions are good.  The gemmae look very different from the microphylls, which is what clubmoss leaves are called.

Huperzia appalachiana
The gemmae are the little 3-part flanges near the top of the plant – further down the empty brackets are visible

Another way to judge the age is to count the bands of vegetation where the microphylls are pressed up close to the stem and where they spread out.  Each spreading ring indicates spring growth.

All that is good in theory, unfortunately Appalachian Fir-Clubmoss produces gemmae in a haphazard fashion and, unlike the photo above, often does not have those nice alternating bands of growth.  Hence the, “At least seventeen years,” answer to my question.

Clubmosses grow in a variety of forms and have been used for some rather unlikely purposes in the past.  The spores they produce are tiny and highly flammable, so much so that they were used as flash powder in old time photography.  Condoms were dusted with clubmoss spores to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, and diapers are sometimes dusted with the spores to prevent rashes.  Today, we mainly use living clubmosses in garlands and ancient clubmosses in our coal burning power-plants.

One of the great things about living in New England is the wonderful variety of local clubmosses.  They are delightfully archaic.  Deceptively so, considering that they have been living for well over 300 million years and are still common in many places world-wide.

Tree Ground-Pine (Lycopodium dendroideum)

Rock Harlequin – what is a fire adapted species doing in Vermont?

A few days ago I bumped into a plant I rarely see in Vermont.  It goes by a number of names, The USDA plant database lists it as Rock Harlequin, various other sources call it Tall, Pink, or Pale Corydalis, and the scientific community has settled on Corydalis sempervirens, although it used to be called Capnoides sempervirens.  Rock Harlequin ranges from Alaska to the northern Pacific Northwest, across Canada, and down most of the East Coast.

I don’t see Rock Harlequin in Vermont very often, so it’s a bit exciting when I do find it.   Here it grows on well drained, dry, rocky, south or west facing slopes, often in the company of Shad Bush, Red Maple, Hop Hornbeam, and/or Red, White, and Chestnut Oak.  It is a pretty little plant with yellow-tipped pink flowers of a peculiar shape and long, green bean-like seed pods.

Corydalis sempervirens with aphids and spiders

The Corydalis genus is wide spread, with most of its members living in China.  It is in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) via the intermediary of the bleeding heart sub-family (Fumariaceae).  When I first saw this plant I was really confused.  I grew up in California where the California Poppy and the Pacific Bleeding Heart are common.  The Rock Harlequin looked like some strange cross between these plants, with oddly asymmetrical flowers.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it.

The other branch of the Fumariaceae is the Dicentra genus, most commonly represented in Vermont by Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches.  These plants have extremely symmetrical flowers.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

The leaves are similar and, if you squint, you can see a bit of similarity between the flowers.  Dutchman’s Breeches tends to grow in rocky, but damp places, producing lush vegetation.  Like Dutchman’s Breeches the Rock Harlequin initially grows all it’s leaves from a basal rosette, but, unlike Dutchman’s Breeches, when it produces a flower stalk there are little leaflets on the stalk as well.

Rock Harlequin is spare, lean, and tough.  Its blue-tinged leaves have a leathery feel to them and the flower stalks are wiry, resistant to wind and sun.  It is a fire adapted species, which may be why it is unusual to find it in Vermont.  The land here is damp, like a sponge left in the sink, fires do not take easily and burns remain small when they do ignite.  The patch of flowers I found was growing directly from cracks in the exposed bedrock near small trees that had lived a hard life.  All the trees nearby were chest-height or shorter, broken by wind and ice, lightning struck, and starved of water and nutrients.  A perfect place for Ericaceae plants, the family that contains blueberries and huckleberries.

Rock Harlequin against dwarf blue-berries

Sure enough, the larger Rock Harlequin were growing right on the edge of patches of dwarf blueberries.  I tried to get a back-lit photo showing a little of the internal structure of the flower.  There is a darker line running through the pink of the flower body which terminates in a spiky yellow rosette.  The flower begins growing as a tiny yellow nub which expands, turning pink as it does so.  Once the flowers are pollinated, by wind and by ants (how cool is that, ant pollination), long bean-like seedpods grow, containing tough, easily germinated seeds.  The seeds need either heat or scarification to germinate, but have extremely high success rates.

In the past Native People managed the land with fire, burning frequently with small, low temperature fires that kept the forest understory clear and promoted the growth of a number of plants.  I can’t help but wonder if this plant was more common in the past.

Rock Harlequin with seed pods

The Mighty Dragonfly

Of all insects there are few that capture our attention and interest the way dragonflies do.  They have, perhaps, the coolest, most evocative name of any group of insects: Dragonfly.  In English there are a great number of other common categorical names: Devil’s Darning Needle, Snake Doctor, and Ear Cutter among others.  Many of these names come from the mystifying apparent fear of nature that crops up over and over in European views of the world.  Many European cultures viewed dragonflies as sinister creatures, servants of the devil, in league with other evils such as snakes and bats.

Other cultures, often more agrarian ones, had a far more benign view of dragonflies, based, perhaps, on the recognition of their fundamental role in controlling populations of pest insects of all sorts.  An archaic name for the Japanese Islands is Akitsushima (秋津島), the Dragonfly Islands, where dragonflies symbolized courage, strength, and happiness.  For some native American tribes dragonflies symbolized clean, pure water, swiftness, and agility.  In the modern world dragonflies are good indicators of environmental heath, indicating a robustly functioning ecosystem.

Libellula quadrimaculata – Four Spotted Skimmer
The Alaskan State Insect

Dragonflies and their close relatives, Damselflies, come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns, ranging in size from less than  an inch long up to the South American Megaloprepus caerulatus with a wingspan of over 7 inches.  The largest dragonfly we know of is from the 300 million year old fossil Meganeura that had a wingspan of over 2 feet.

Dragonflies are powerful hunters, both in their nymph and adult stages.  Dragonfly nymphs are aquatic and prey on any animal or insect they can grab with their claws or their extendible jaws.  Insects, small fish, tadpoles, and small amphibians are all food for these voracious predators.  The nymphs are large, and, in turn, are prey for a wide range of other animals, insects, birds, and fish.  Elva Paulson has some wonderful watercolors of a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage.  Humans are included as predators, many Asian cultures eating both dragonfly nymphs and adult dragonflies as delicacies.  One of the most tasty things I’ve eaten (from a long list of foods most people would consider to be unusual) was a plate of deep fried dragonfly larvae.  Absolutely delicious.  In Beijing I would sometimes find adult dragonflies candied in liquid sugar, their wings crispy with the hardened sugar.

Unknown green dragonfly – note the barbs on the forelegs for catching prey

The adult phase of a dragonfly’s life is short, in temperate climates only the length of the summer.  This is their mating stage and it takes them between 2 months and 6 years living under water to reach this stage.  Dragonflies are extremely active during this mating phase and must eat often.  They have enormous eyes giving nearly 360 vision, incredibly swift reactions, fast, powerful flight, and wicked barbs on their legs to assist capturing insects in flight.  The inset above shows these barbs.

Libellula exusta – White Corporal (I think)
eating its prey

The common names of dragonflies often reflect their speed or their abilities as hunters.  Meadow-hawk is one of my favorite names, and watching one dart away to catch an insect and return to its roost to devour it definitely brings hawks to mind.

Libellula quadrimaculata – Four Spotted Skimmer
note the different wing heights

Dragonflies are powerful fliers.  They have been clocked at over 35 miles an hour, fast enough to get a speeding ticket in a school zone, and, like hummingbirds, can fly forwards, backwards, sideways, up and down, and hover.  Their backs are sloped where their wings anchor, placing each pair at different heights, allowing for tremendous wing mobility.  Some species of dragonfly migrate, but the scale of some of those migrations has only recently been realized.  One dragonfly species in particular, the Globe Skimmer (Pantala flavescens) flies from India to Africa and back, island hopping cross the Indian Ocean, making open water crossings of nearly 1000km (620 miles) between island stops.  The only places they can breed are at the Indian and African ends of the migration, many of the islands they use as stopover points do not have sufficient freshwater for dragonflies to breed.  This is a stunning feat of flying for an insect and may be a behavior that evolved as a result of plate tectonics splitting India and Africa apart, eventually thrusting India into Asia.  If so, this migration could have begun 135 millions years ago.  Unfortunately, we have no reliable way of telling if this is the case.

Last year was a good year for dragonflies in Vermont, and this year looks like it is shaping up to be a good one as well.  The ecologist in me cannot help wondering why and one idea is that it may be linked to the calamitous drop in bat populations as a result of white-nose disease, a fungus that infects hibernating bats, weakening and eventually killing them.  It may be that adult dragonflies have more to eat with fewer bats and a greater percentage of them are surviving through the summer.  There is a historical precedent for this sort of boom in insect populations.  During the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao promoted a policy of killing off all things he thought were eating grain, birds amongst these.  With the crash in bird populations in China the insect population exploded.

Unidentified dragonfly – maybe a Darner of some sort

I am happy to see the dragonflies here.  Their presence means that the water is clean, we will have fewer mosquitoes, midges, and black-flies, and they are extraordinarily beautiful creatures.

Three-hundred twenty-five millions years old and going strong.  They have it figured out!