Today’s batch comes from reader Rik Gern, who adds a bonus felid. His notes are indented; click on the pictures to make them larger.
I’ve been rummaging through my files to see if I could find some pictures for your Reader’s Wildlife Photos feature. It looks like my tank is also starting to run low; I think I’ve got about half a batch after this, and then I’ll have to start processing some more photos as well as taking more so that I have something to process.
This batch comes from some visits to see my mother in St. Germain, Wisconsin. As you drive farther north the trees get taller and taller, and the first two pictures are of Red Pine trees (Pinus resinosa) which are representative of the region
The woods are so full of interesting lichen, moss and wildflowers that it’s hard to walk a straight line from point a to point b since there’s always a fascinating distraction. I managed to get pictures of Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). The broad velvety leaves of the Mullein plant are reputed to have medicinal value, but Web MD tells us that more research is needed.
This part of the Northwoods is riddled with lakes, and I managed to spot some White Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata) pads on Alma Lake, but wasn’t fortunate enough to see the flowers in bloom. Maybe next time. No matter though; the pads have their own charm.
I risked life and limb to get the last photo of my mother’s ferocious companion Bella. The local humans think Bella is a house cat (Felus catus domesticus), but don’t tell her that; she’s convinced that she belongs to the genus Panthera!!!
Please send in your wildlife photos, as the tank is distressingly low.
Today we have two sets of photos from Joe Routon-one of ducks and one of plants. Ducks first, of course. Joe’s captions are indented; click photos to enlarge them.
A few years ago, when we were in India, we were surprised to see these ducks being herded down the river. Our guide explained that they were part of a duck farm.
This link, sent by Joe, tells about duck farming in India, which calls them “reasonably intellectual birds.”
The second batch:
On my daily social-distancing, mask-wearing walk, I always take my camera, in search of something beautiful to photograph. In this world of ugliness and unrest, I need something that makes me feel good.
Dead leaves are not the first things that come to mind when you think about beauty. But, in my search for things to photograph, I started noticing them. Here are a few of my photos of dead leaves as art.
It’s not a leaf—it’s a seedhead, but I’m including it because to me it’s art in its purest sense. It’s Clematis vitalba, also known as Old Man’s Beard.
Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), a moth in the Sphingidae (hawkmoth) family. They really do resemble hummingbirds at first glance and they’re hard to photograph because they don’t stop moving! Not for me, anyhow.
Common loon (Gavia immer) on a small lake in the southern Adirondacks this August:
White oak (Quercus alba) on the Appalachian Trail in Pawling, New York. This particular oak, known as the Dover Oak, is at least 300 years old and is thought to be the biggest oak (if not the biggest tree) on the entire 2,190-mile trail. I guess I AM an unabashed tree-hugger.
This black birch (Betula lenta) also known as a sweet birch or spice birch, is also on the AT in New York … and is clearly possessed by some kind of angry spirit. Consensus among hikers is that it was hit by a shotgun shell some years back (it’s still alive). I’d be angry too.
Smooth rock tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) on a boulder on the AT in New York, though I’ve seen it almost everywhere I’ve hiked in the northeastern US. [JAC: This is a lichen.] So-named because of its resemblance to tripe (cow’s stomach) it’s apparently edible as a last resort. (According to accounts, George Washington’s men ate it to keep from starving at Valley Forge.)
I don’t know if you’re still collecting photos of readers, but this is me (Homo sapiens) on the summit of Mount Mansfield, highest peak in Vermont, trying not to get blown over by the high winds (I think it was gusting around 30mph, maybe more). There wasn’t much of a view at the summit, but once I began my descent, the clouds dispersed and it got better. This was back in late September. When I’m not hiking, I’m a librarian at a university in Connecticut.
“I didn’t mean to climb it, but got excited and soon was at the top.” – John Muir
The first paper below is five years old, but I just read it yesterday because it’s a remarkable example of mimicry. In this case, seeds of a plant in South Africa have apparently evolved a size, shape, appearance AND smell that makes them resemble antelope droppings. Dung beetles, thinking that the seeds are fecal matter, roll them to a safe place and bury them, ensuring that the seeds are protected, dispersed a bit, and get planted. The paper, from Nature Plants, is below (click on screenshot), the pdf is here, and the reference is at the bottom. (If the article is paywalled, a judicious inquiry will yield it.)
This is one of the very few examples in which plant seeds have evolved to deceive animals, either physically or chemically, and in which the plant benefits but the animal loses. This is, in fact, the evolution of a plant that parasitizes an animal.
Here’s a later paper (2016) from the South African Journal of Science with a free pdf (click on screenshot):
The plant that’s evolved mimicry is Ceratocaryum argenteum, a shrubby plant that’s endemic to the Cape Province of South Africa:
Unlike seeds from other plants in the family Restionaceae—which are normally pretty flat, with a smooth, dark seed coat as well as elaiosomes (fleshy bits that are edible to ants, who carry the seeds to their nest, feed the elaiosomes to their larvae, and then discard the rest of the seed, which thereby gets dispersed)—C. argenteum has a “rough tuberculate and brown outer seed coat” which, to the authors’ noses, “has a pungent scent similar to herbivore faeces”.
Below: what the seed looks like (a-c) in contrast to other seeds in the area (h-j). (g) shows the dung of an antelope (a Bontebok). Note that the C. argenteum seeds are about the size and shape of the Bontebok dropping, and are round to facilitate rolling. Dung beetles roll balls of dung to a nearby location, bury them, and lay an egg with the dung so its larvae can feast on the feces. The beetle observed burying seeds was Epirinus flagellatus.
And the dung-maker, the small antelope most common in the area (80-100 cm or 31-39 inches at shoulder): the bontebok, Damaliscus pygargus pygargus.
The authors hypothesized that the size and smell of the C. argenteum seeds would facilitate them being buried, and so they put out seeds along with some camera traps. They observed four-striped grass mice (Rhabdomys pumilio) eating husked seeds but never burying them. In contrast, of 195 seeds put out after a rain (when dung beetles are active), at least 55 were buried (they used fluorescent threads to mark the seed paths).
In no case did the buried seeds have a dung beetle egg on them, so the beetles were first fooled, and then realized that something was wrong—but only after they had rolled away the seeds and buried them.
As I noted above, resembling dung to fool beetles is a good way to perpetuate your genes, as you get dispersed, protected by the soil from mice, and buried (planted). Further, C. argenteum plants can’t re-sprout after a fire, and thus the persistence of plant genes depends on a way to escape fire—by getting its seeds buried! For many reasons, then, selection might favor the seeds resembling dung, and because beetles detect dung by its odor, you’d want to smell like dung, too. The dung beetles are simply dupes, doing a lot of work and not getting anything out of it.
The authors also did gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to measure the amount of volatile compounds on seeds and dung, and found that the seeds had a significantly larger amount of volatiles than other seeds in the area, even when old and when corrected for surface area, and resembled the amount of volatiles in dung. Further, compounds in the seed volatiles were also identical to compounds in the volatiles of bontebok and eland dung (another antelope), with “various acids, the benzenoid compounds acetophenone, phenol, p-cresol and 4-ethyl-phenol, as well as the sulphur compound dimethyl sulphone.”
Here’s a two-dimensional plot showing the resemblance of the C. argenteum seed volatiles to dung volatiles; note that other seeds (green triangles) don’t have dung-like profile of volatiles:
In the second paper, the authors observed another dung beetle, Scarabaeus spretus, burying the seeds, flying rather than crawling to the piles of seeds put out. (It’s clear that odor rather than appearance is a major attractant, and one S. spretus flew directly into a paper bag of seeds!) This species moved seeds only about a quarter of a meter, while E. flagellatus could move them up to 2 meters away from the pile. (As you see, the dispersal is quite limited!) Here’s a figure showing beetles of both species rolling away the seeds and burying them:
Further, the bontebok eats different kids of grasses from the eland (Taurotragus oryx), a larger species shown below, and the different species of grass have different ratios of nitrogen and carbon isotopes. By looking at the isotope ratios in the beetles (whose juvenile stages eat the dung), and in the antelope dung itself, the authors found that the ratios of the dung beetles (green diamonds and purple triangles) resemble the dung of the eland (light blue triangles) more closely than the dung of bontebok (red circles), as shown in the diagram below.
Conclusion: the dung used by both species of beetles is likely to be from eland rather than from bontebok. But as the authors showed above, the volatiles of both antelope dung are pretty similar, and still resemble the volatiles of the seeds.
The one puzzle is that the size of C. argenteum seeds are more similar to that of bontebok droppings than to eland droppings. Being much bigger, elands have larger scat—about twice as big. But since dung beetles can form smaller balls out of larger droppings, and because it may be too onerous for the plant to produce a seed twice as large as it does, this may not be a problem.
So we have mimicry here that deceives the beetle, who comes to its senses only after it rolls away and buries a seed. In this case it doesn’t adhere to the Who’s dictum, “Won’t get fooled again.” It would be interesting, though, to do lab experiments with dung and seeds to determine if beetles eventually learn to avoid rolling and burying these mimetic seeds. It’s a lot of effort for nothing, and the beetle “knows” it since it doesn’t lay an egg on the seed.
Bring out your photos, please: I go through seven sets a week from generous readers, and I always need more. Thank you!
Today’s photos come from regular contributor Tony Eales, who hails from Queensland. His notes are indented.
Spring has really taken hold now and the colours of nature are showing. We just recently took a trip a few hundred kms to the north of my city of Brisbane to a lovely coastal spot. The nearby national park is mainly a dense coastal heathland called “Wallum” named after the dominant tree the Wallum Banksia (Banksia aemula). This is a very diverse habitat with much of the diversity on a tiny scale, which for me is perfect.
Many of these photos are from one misty evening when I went spot-lighting in the national park, and the subjects are covered in a fine layer of dew, as with this St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi) and the less common Argiope probata (second photo). These will look familiar but different to most people as the genus Argiope occurs on every continent except Antarctica and are common garden orb-weaving spiders.
If there is such a thing as a beautiful cockroach, it is these ones in the genus Balta. Their transparent edges and fine lined patterns are really worth seeing up close. They occur only in intact native habitats and don’t invade our homes like the introduced cockroaches.
The small shiny green scarabs of the genus Diphucephala appear in great numbers in spring time to feed on flower pollen and new growth. Some species are even commonly known as green spring beetles. I don’t think I’ve seen this particular species before. Its iridescence is more uniform—like metallic paint—than most of the ones I’ve seen.
The delicious coastal pigface (Carpobrotus sp.) were all in flower, attracting hundreds of small native sweat bees like this Lasioglossum (Homalictus) sp.
I finally managed to photograph the very fast and flighty beach tiger beetles (Hypaetha upsilon). I couldn’t get close enough to use the macro lens, and so had to take the photos with a cheap telephoto lens. This lost some detail, but they are beautifully iridescent and shine in the sun.
Speaking of beautifully iridescent beetles, I just had to show this one I found in a local park. It is a species of leaf beetle (Johannica gemellata). I’ve seen beautiful leaf beetles before, but this one takes the prize. I can’t find much info on these beetles. They appear to be endemic only to my little corner of the world with records from only a couple of hundred km north and south of my city. I wonder what use they have for those remarkable antennae?
Also from my night walk was this colourful and probably undescribed katydid (sp.). I actually found a number of remarkable orthopterans that night, which I’ll send in a separate email. This one was by far the most colourful.
And lastly the beach, with thousands of Greater Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii) roosting on sand bars waiting for the right tide to go hunting. The colours of the water here are so many shades of magical blue that I really didn’t want to go back to work.
The photo tank is inexorably draining, so please send in your good wildlife photos.
We have three contributors today, the first being John Crisp, who sent a video:
Here’s a short video of family interactions between gorillas I was fortunate enough to capture four years ago in the Rwandan highlands. Personally, I find the commentary by the guide a little irritating, because I don’t think it is correct, but I could be wrong.
These photos are from John Egloff:
My wife, Cindy, and I live in Carmel, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis. We are both attorneys – Cindy works for the state of Indiana and I am a business lawyer in private practice.
We have been long-time fans and have both of your books. Cindy even got you to autograph her copy of “Why Evolution is True” (along with a cat drawing) when she traveled to Purdue University several years ago to attend your lecture there. We read your website religiously (pun intended) and I often post comments under the name “JohnE”.
Cindy and I are also big fans of our national parks, and over a two-week period early last fall we visited Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks. I’ve attached several of the wildlife photos we took at Zion (I hope the total size of the files isn’t too big for the email). The photos are labeled with my best guess as to the scientific names of the various critters. The photos of the condor and her chick (which include a photo of the mother feeding the chick) were taken at quite a distance, so they are a bit grainy.
Don’t forget to send in your good wildlife photos. I bet many of you have been putting it off, but I’ll need them as the holidays approach and nobody feels like sending anything.
Today, Joe Routon is back with some “street photography”, which today is really diverse. I’ve indented his captions.
Here is a potpourri of some of my photo interests. This first is one that I made of a cataract surgery. The instrument in the ophthalmologist’s right hand is a phacoemulsifier, used to send ultrasonic vibrations that emulsify the cataract, allowing the particles to be vacuumed out through the instrument. The phaco, as it’s affectionately called, then inserts a new and clear lens. The procedure, which is 99% effective, usually lasts about 20 minutes and produces spectacular results, in most cases.
This is my macro photograph of an Eupatorium perfoliatum, a wildflower commonly known as the Common Boneset. This entire bundle of exquisite flowers is smaller than an M&M. Each blossom is about a millimeter across.
My favorite subject for photography is the human face, especially when it’s combined with my passion for travel. I photographed this young lady on a street in Tokyo.
What would a photographic sampling in WEIT be without the ubiquitous duck? This is eine Ente in Deutschland.
On my daily social-distancing walk I photograph flowers in the neighborhood. I think this is Clematis vitalba, also known as “Old Man’s Beard.” I’m not a botanist, so I expect that my identification will be challenged by others on the list.
I enjoy the fun of manipulating images. For example, here’s what you get when you crossbreed a sweet gum seed pod and a potato. It appears that the bloodshot eye might be the result of the potato’s early fermenting into vodka.
My final photo is of one of the main gems in Philadelphia. In the Curtis Building, across from Independence Hall, is a magnificent work of art that few seem to know about. “The Dream Garden,” a mural made of 100,000 pieces of hand blown glass, was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, based on a landscape by Maxfield Parrish. It’s 15 feet tall and 49 feet wide, and is breathtakingly beautiful!
If humans harvest an animal or plant, especially if they harvest it heavily, the species often evolves to make itself less “harvestable”. For example, commerical fisheries that take the larger fish in the sea have led to the evolution of individuals that mature earlier at a smaller size, for it is the small reproducing fish who don’t get caught. Elephants harvested for their ivory have, in some populations, evolved smaller tusks or even tusklessness, for it’s the tuskless elephants who leave more offspring. (The condition for all such evolution, of course, is that the evolved conditions have at least a partial genetic basis.)
Finally, there’s a similar phenomenon called “Vavilovian mimicry”—named after the great Russian geneticist and botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who was imprisoned by the Soviets and died in the gulag because he dared to embrace Western genetics and science against the teachings of the charlatan Lysenko.
In Vavilovian mimicry, weeds are selected among agricultural crops with which they grow to get themselves in the next generation of the crop. Farmers have mechanical ways to sort out the weed seeds during harvesting, and this imposes selection on the weeds to produce seeds of the same size and shape as the crop; it’s those mutant weed seeds that get replanted the next year.
A cool and famous example is how the common vetch (Vicia sativa), a weed, has evolved in crop areas so that its seeds come to closely resemble that of the edible lentil (Lens culinaris), a crop that the weed infests. Because lentil seeds, which are what’s eaten, are tasty but vetch seeds are bitter, farmers have used mechanical and visual sorting to discard the wild vetch seeds. Over time, the vetch seeds have undergone what’s called “unnatural selection” (for Vavlovian mimicry) to have the same size, color, and shape (flattened) as the lentil seeds. Here’s a diagram showing the cultivated lentils (A) along with the wild vetch seeds growing on their own (B), and the seeds of the same vetch, but which have grown in lentil fields. Look at the big evolutionary change in the vetch seeds!:
Today we have another example of plants mimicking other things—in this case the environment—to hide themselves from being harvested. Fritillaria delavay, is a perennial alpine Asian plant that grows from a bulb, living about five years. The bulbs, particularly the small ones, are very prized in Chinese medicine, especially for treating tuberculosis, fetching up to nearly $500 per kilogram. (Since they’re small, it takes about 3,500 bulbs to make a kilogram.) They are picked visually, with harvesters looking for the bright green leaves and flowers of the plant that stand out against their rocky background.
Since harvesting is heavy, you can guess how the plant evolved. That evolution is documented in this new paper in Current Biology (click on screenshot below, or go here to get the pdf, both of which are free). If you want a journalistic summary, there’s one in the Times and another in the Guardian.
In short, the plant has undergone evolution of both leaf and flower color to make it more inconspicuous and thus harder to find and harvest (harvesting, since it takes the bulb, kills the plant). You’re more likely to reproduce if you’re not seen, and in harvested areas those plants with mutations making them match the background better are those that survive. Herbivores apparently aren’t involved in this system, as nothing has been observed to eat the plant, which is full of alkaloids and toxic.
Here are pictures F. dlavayi in an unharvested area (left) and one in an area heavily harvested (right). You can guess which is which. Note the difference in the color of both leaves and flowers. In fact, the green color can evolve to either reddish, brownish, or grayish colors depending on the color of the background.
In the paper, the authors collected plants from eight populations in southwest China, and found significant divergence of color among the populations using a special “vision model” to measure the colors and luminescence seen by humans. Here’s a plot of the variation among the eight populations (each dot has a color that is related to the plant color, with each color representing a single population):
Are the plants camouflaged in their local area, and is the degree of the camouflage correlated with how heavily the plants are harvested? The authors derived a measure of how camouflaged a plant was by comparing leaf and flower color with the color of the soil or rock background (also measured using the human-vision algorithm). Collection intensity was assessed by questioning the locals and deriving an estimate of intensity = [amount of bulbs collected]/[relative abundance of the plant in the area]. The higher this fraction, the heavier the collection effort (i.e., the proportion of the population that gets taken by collectors).
As you see from the plot below, the higher the collection intensity in a population (position to the right), the better the mimicry (lower values on the Y axis). The relationship is highly statistically significant (p < 0.001). Clearly, the prediction that the color evolved in response to human harvesting is supported.
Finally, the authors looked at an ancillary relationship: that between the difficulty of digging up bulbs (some are hidden under dirt and rock piles) and the degree of camouflage of the population. The relationship they found is shown below. One predicts that the easier it is to dig up a bulb, the more camouflaged the population would be, for easier digging makes for heavier harvesting and thus stronger “unnatural selection”. The relationship below affirms the prediction, though they left out one population where collection is easy but the plant is green—yet collection isn’t heavy in this population. (This sounds like post-facto discarding of data, but could be kosher.)
Whether each dot is statistically independent of the others, which seems to be the assumption when doing the nonparametric correlations, is dubious, since plants in a given area are related to one another, and each plant didn’t evolve its color independently—the population as a whole evolved its color as a gene pool.
Leaving that possible quibble aside, the authors finally did a computer experiment on target slides showing plants matching their background to various degrees. They found, as expected, that the locals took longer to detect a plant when it matched the background, confirming that your chance of escaping “predation” is likely higher when you’re better camouflaged.
Here’s one more photo from the paper showing the cryptic nature of the plant in brown and gray backgrounds (C and D), and how readily the bright green plants stands out against a scree background (A and B; this is clearly a low-harvest area).
There are no new principles demonstrated in this paper, but the results are still fascinating, and show a mixture of artificial and natural selection that’s called “unnatural selection.” That is, the color isn’t a deliberate product of the breeder, like the grotesquely long bodies and minuscule limbs of wiener dogs, but is an inadvertent result of “artificial” selection. (I’m not even sure I’d call this artificial selection, for humans are part of nature and are gathering something they need.) And, like natural selection, all this process requires is differential reproduction of individuals that have different genetic variants.
If you want to read more about “unnatural selection” and how it’s affected many species, click on the screenshot below.
Today is odds-and-ends day, with photos from readers who sent in only one or a few pictures. Their captions and IDs are indented.
First, an astronomy photo from reader Terry Platt, who lives in Binfield, UK:
Here is an image of the ‘Tulip nebula’ in Cygnus, taken with a hydrogen alpha filter and CCD camera. A special feature of this area is the presence of the X ray source ‘Cygnus X1’ (indicated). This is now known to be a black hole in mutual orbit with a blue giant star. The hole is stealing material from the blue star and this emits X rays as it falls through the intense gravitational field of the hole. The hole has a mass of 14.8 times that of the Sun, and the pair are about 6070 light years from Earth.
Ivy (or Virginia creeper; you tell me) in Hyde Park; photo by Team Duck member Dr. Jean Greenberg:
We have two entries in the “backyard wildlife” category. First, reader Grania Devine saw American black bears (Ursus americanus) at her house:
I live in rural southeastern BC and the pictures were taken with my phone through our living room window.
Late in the afternoon a couple of days ago, I looked out the window to see a black bear mama and subadult cub. We have an old cedar stump in the yard which has a small mountain ash tree growing through it. The female hopped onto the stump and then bent the mountain ash down to the ground. She held it there while the two of them pretty much stripped it of berries.
In the first photo, she’s just finished bending the tree. Unfortunately, the cub is just a dark shape, hidden by the foliage. In the second picture, she’s just released the tree and the last one shows the two of them ambling off into the woods.
And reader Christopher Moss saw a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on November 6:
Today, standing in the kitchen assembling fishcakes, I saw this character sitting the driveway having a scratch. Apologies for wretched iPhone photos through a shamefully dirty kitchen window. Much healthier looking than the last fox I saw in the garden, which looked rather mangy. Maybe the diet of rodents I leave out for them is helping (although I understand you don’t want to hear about where they come from!)
Posting may be light today as I’m driving to Costco to stock up on stuff (not toilet paper or stuff to hoard, but things like aged Tilamook cheddar and organic extra virgin olive oil). Besides, there’s nothing much to write about and the pandemic is getting to me.
But the wildlife goes on! Please send in your good photos. Today we have two contributors. The first is Marilee Lovit, with some lovely water plants. Her notes, as with all contributors, are indented.
Nuphar variegata, photographed in early July in a lake in northern Maine. Common names for this species include yellow pond lily and spatterdock. This plant occurs in ponds and slow-moving streams across Canada and the northeastern United States.
Joe Routon usually sends “street” photography, but today he has birds.
If you run low on bird photos, here are a few of mine. I’m not an authority on Aves nomenclature, so I’m sure your more astute readers will correct me. I took this photo in Europe of a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).
Here’s a turkey vulture (or buzzard) – (Cathartes aura) I spotted him or her (the sexes are similar, I’m told) as I was driving to the store in New Jersey. He waited for me to stop, retrieve my camera, and snap this photo before he flew away.
Here’s one of many photos I made of one of several wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) that take a short cut through my yard every morning. I believe this is a young tom.
Looking out my front window I happened to see this young red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched on the fence. I grabbed my camera and headed out the front door. About 30 feet away I snapped a picture. He didn’t move, so I slowly walked to about 20 feet for another photo—he started watching me, but he didn’t move, so I closed the gap to about 6 feet and snapped this photo. When I turned to leave, he flew away.