Early February miscellany

World Wetlands Day

Yesterday (February 2nd) was World Wetlands Day; a lot more important than Groundhog day. So here are a few pictures of the wetlands around our home.  We live in Kawartha Lakes which, as the name hints, has many lakes. It is largely flat so the lakes and rivers have large borders of wetlands.

Wetlands are important for many reasons, but I’ll let them speak for themselves via this sign at Windy Ridge Conservation Area, about 20 km downstream from where the Pigeon River flows past our home.

Wetland sign
Wetland sign

Here’s two pictures of the Pigeon River at Windy Ridge, just before Fleetwood Creek joins it.

Pigeon River at Mount Horeb
Pigeon River at Mount Horeb
Pigeon River at Windy Ridge
Pigeon River at Windy Ridge

The next Windy Ridge picture is of one of the many duck nesting boxes along the river.

Windy Ridge Duck nesting box
Windy Ridge Duck nesting box

This is inside a conservation area. The smart ducks live here. Just downstream, there are more hides for hunters than there are nesting boxes in this part, so I don’t think ducks would be safe.

The next picture is of a stand of elms just by the river. I hope they are healthy. We have two healthy-looking elms on the edge of our garden but they’re not yet showing the classic elm shape, even though they’re 10m (30′) high. However, I’ve had to cut down most of them and burn them, because of dutch elm disease. I had to cut two this year.

Elms at Windy Ridge

About a kilometer upstream from us is where the Pigeon starts, in another wetland. I was surprised to find it still flowing, as further downstream it is frozen over (not solid). I suspect that the wetland is spring-fed with slightly warmer underground water as I don’t think the bog is big enough to contain enough water to feed that amount of flow all winter.

Pigeon River source
Pigeon River source

Back to our home

The frontage of our home, along the road, is edged by a small strip of bog, which has shrunk considerably since the council put culverts in. Still, I was lucky it was frozen as I had to walk across to retrieve garbage that had blown into the bushes.  I have also retrieved balloons from here and all over our 13 acres from time to time. It’s not just the people who wander over the land that leave them, but also airborne garbage that is cluttering up the countryside.

Garbage in tree
Garbage in tree

The very mild weather has left us with very little snow. Usually there is an extensive underground network of vole tunnels, but this year they are very exposed. No doubt our local hawks and owls are happy.

Vole tracks
Vole tracks

I expect the birds prefer warmer weather. The ground birds are particularly happy as there are more seeds to eat when the weeds are not covered with snow. But this downy woodpecker felt the need to fluff up and shelter on the south side of the tree from a bitter north wind.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Finally, as a warning, make sure you set alarms when multi-tasking with bread baking, so that this doesn’t happen. The bread turned out fine, maybe a slice less, but the cleanup was a nuisance.

Bread Bowl oops
Bread Bowl oops

Morecambe Bay Succulents – water, water, everywhere

Succulents are the friendlier version of cacti; they have swollen stems or leaves, but didn’t turn some of their leaves into spikes.  Unlike cacti, they are not all directly related (monophyletic), it is more a common ecological strategy to store water for future use than a genetic relationship.

You can see why this one might want to store water; the soil can’t do that for it, because there is almost no soil in the crack on this vertical rock:

Succulent on rock
Succulent on rock

But why this one? It is awash with water, living in mud for most of the time.

Succulents in mud
Succulents in mud

Well, on the one hand, the mud does occasionally dry up, but other plants nearby don’t seem to need the extreme strategy. I think it’s because of the tides. The mud is mostly salt water so it takes a lot of work for a seed plant to get fresh water from it. But it can get fresh water occasionally when the tide is out, from rainstorms. So the water it gets everyday is not useful water from the plant’s point of view – may as well be desert – and not all the rainwater can be used because the first part of the fall needs to wash away the salt water first, before the plant gets fresh water.
Well, that’s my “just so” story for the day, but it seems like reasonable speculation.

In case you didn’t get made to study it in school, the “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” allusion in the title is from Coleridge “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, still a great poem.

Snake in the Grass and Pond life

Here are a few pictures from a garden tour today. It finally warmed up to about 21ºC so the garter snakes were able to get around at reasonable speed.

Garter snake
Garter snake

The sunset maple was in flower. They’re not as fancy as insect-pollinated flowers but a very attractive red all the same.

Sunset maple flowers
Sunset maple flowers
Sunset maple flowers 2
Sunset maple flowers 2

It’s possible that they may be partially insect pollinated. For willows, a study shows that the balance in some species between wind pollination and insect pollination depends on the weather.

Willow flowers
Willow flowers
Willow flowers 2
Willow flowers 2

The next plants are not pollinated at all, they are not seed plants but an ancient class of vascular plants that were around in the Carboniferous era and in those days some species grew to 10m (30 ft). (“Vascular” means they have tubes to carry water, like ferns and flowering plants). These are very persistent weeds in my dad’s garden. I’m sure he’ll be horrified at the thought of 10m plants. They reproduce by spores instead of seeds. The second picture is a close up, showing the sporophytes (spore-carrying bodies) in the strobilus which is the whole top part carrying the sporophytes.

Horsetail strobilus
Horsetail strobilus
Horsetail strobilus closeup
Horsetail strobilus closeup

Moving away from plants, here is a shot of the blue jays congregating at our feeder. They seem to be over the serious fights they were having a few weeks earlier.

Blue jay party
Blue jay party

In March, the males were having pitched battles resulting in serious injury. I’m not sure if the one on top in the second shot did actually peck the other bird’s eye, but it seemed to be trying hard.

Blue jay fight 1
Blue jay fight 1
Blue jay fight 2
Blue jay fight 2

Next is a few pictures from the pond. I couldn’t get the larger diving beetle. All of the different species were hiding under dead lily leaves and only coming up to grab a wingful of air before diving again. They are able to swim out from under the leaf, up to the surface, exchange the air they keep in a bubble under their elytra (outer wing cases, the hard shell that is a distinguishing feature of beetles) and then dive again, all in under a second.

Diving beetle
Diving beetle

The elytra (singular elytron) protect the inner flight wings which are folded up inside. That way, land beetles can burrow or hide in narrow crevices without damaging the delicate inner wings. So I find it interesting that water beetles were able to adapt them to life under water by turning the space under the wings into a sort of aqualung.

You can see some mosquito larvae in the picture, here are more, along with a pond skater.

Pond skaters are true bugs, so they have piercing mouthparts.  In this case, they are carnivorous and eat anything small enough that falls into the water, piercing and subduing them with the claws on their front legs, before sticking in their beak and sucking their prey dry.  Their long legs allow them to take advantage of surface tension and run around on top of the water. The legs are coated with water-repellent micro hairs. You can just make out the little dimples they make in the surface of the water.

Pond skater and mosquito larvae
Pond skater and mosquito larvae

If you look carefully just under the eyes, you can see the beak sticking down, angling to the left, into the water. It is easier to see in the reflection.

Pond skater
Pond skater

There were a few scarlet water mites in the pond but they were partly concealed by weeds. They look a lot like the land mites.  This one is also a carnivore, feeding on very small animals. It is only a couple of millimetres across, itself.

Red mite
Red mite

Canoe ride on Pigeon River

I decided to take a short canoe trip, about 10 miles downstream from our house, as the river is not navigable here.

Canoe ride prep
Canoe ride prep

The red bag is a handy waterproof bag that you can blow up so it floats, so that’s where my more expensive camera equipment went.  The pocket camera and my wallet go in ordinary plastic bags.  I had to get gas (petrol); the attendant was amused when I had to unwrap my wallet and then wrap it up again.  In the end, precautions were in vain as I didn’t tip, as I shouldn’t since it is a gentle ride, which is a corollary to Murphy’s Law.

My intent was to go upstream so as to have an easier ride back, but I ran into an obstacle within 50m so I went the other way, so it was a bit more tiring and exercised muscles I hadn’t used for a while, but not so much a hot bath wouldn’t fix it – no repercussions the next day.

The river was narrow at the start

Pigeon River 1
Pigeon River 1

but it soon widened out

Wider stretch
Wider stretch

This was due to a beaver dam:

Beaver Dam
Beaver Dam

I had to get my feet wet here, dragging the canoe over.  The pattern repeated, although the second one had a gap I could squeeze through in both directions.

The banks changed a lot, from thick bush to Joe-Pye weed meadows

Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed

Amongst the Joe Pye weed were lots of other wildflowers.

Wild Cucumber
Wild Cucumber

Wild Cucumber are very bitter; I tried one once.  It’s amazing that people thought to domesticate it, though now it is too bland for me.  I wonder if I could cross a wild one with a domesticated one?

Cardinal flower
Cardinal flower
Fringed Loosestrife
Fringed Loosestrife
Wild Clematis
Wild Clematis and more Loosestrife

The wild clematis are more spectacular in fruit, when they are known as Old Man’s Beard.  I’ll go back and look later.  We have some growing up birch trees in our drive way, but there are many more here.

I was surprised not to be pestered by mosquitoes, but I think these black-winged damselflies had a lot to do with it.  There are a few where the river goes through our land, but they are usually hard to photograph as they take off at the slightest movement, but there were lots here and one even landed on my hand.  If you look carefully, you can see the combs on their legs with which they trap their prey.

Black-Winged Damselfly
Black-Winged Damselfly

There was one spot where there were about 20 on a little raft of leaves but the picture didn’t come out – I used my pocket camera and don’t know how to get it off auto-focus.

Here they are making more damselflies:

Black-Winged Damselfly mating
Black-Winged Damselfly mating

They are very bright in the sun, with their shiny bodies.  The next one wasn’t so shiny.

Purple damselfly
Purple damselfly

All-in-all, it was a fun trip.  Next time, I hope I have more time.

Darwin Day – what it means to me

In which I celebrate Darwin Day in my own rambling fashion.

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  It was certainly true for me and it shows the flaw in the early biology education I received.
Although I was very interested in nature and biology when in the fifth form (aged 15) in grammar school and Ma Hazelwood, my biology teacher, was an incredible advocate for the natural world, including her efforts on conservation and her early work on amphibians as canaries in the global coalmine, I switched to math and physics in the sixth form instead of specialising in biology.  Why? Because we didn’t learn evolution and so biology didn’t make sense to me as a science.  I don’t know why, maybe that didn’t come until the sixth form, but I needed reasons for things in those days, as I do now.

It was only a decade later after a detour through philosophy, a change of country and a spell as a social worker that I went back to studying biology as an amateur, with the intention of returning to University to study it.  Biology, it appeared, had become a “real science”. OK, it had done so in the 1950s but it takes a while to filter through to schools and textbooks.   But since then, I started paying attention.  Somehow I collected (and read, cover-to-cover) a lot of books on the subject.

Darwin day 2014 collection
Darwin day 2014 collection

On the right of the stack of books are (top to bottom)

  • a microscope (and there are binoculars on the left)
  • a King James Bible
  • a stack of Science and Nature journals

In the journals, I read quite a lot of the articles and many are about evolution.  The ones in the pile are just my backlog of unread or with little stickies in for “need to reread and think some more”.  They go on to multiple people after me.

The Bible I’ve read 1.5 times.  There is an alternative theory described, but the evidence is a little thin.

The microscope and binoculars just amplify the vision a bit for the real evidence that is just outside the window.  A bit more “fossilized” than I’d like these days as it’s a bit nippy outside.  Thanks to the woodpecker for representing the dinosaur clade.

Evolution Books
Evolution Books

I added the books again in a bit higher resolution in case anyone wants to see the titles. I was going to give a bit of a review of each as I thought I just had a few but the task became a bit more daunting when I started piling them up.  I mention a few below.

Once I understood evolution, everything changed.  Although I had always learned that all life descended from the same common ancestors, understanding the details was like getting my first microscope; it was all so much clearer that the connections were so much more than common ancestry. Now I could see the outlines of how and why organisms in ecosystems fit so well together. Life is a whole in so many other ways than just common descent.

When I first saw the Grand Canyon, I was spell-bound in wonder.  When I look at the natural world with that extra lens in place, it can be like that.  A day in the woods with a few lenses for eye and camera can be all too short.

My wife and I often watch the BBC nature shows.  She thinks they are amazing, too, but I think that I see more in them, just as she sees more than I do in works of art because she has studied them more and paints herself.

I still read the good popular books on evolution because somehow they manage to teach me something I didn’t know.  There are some really good ones.  If you don’t know much at all about evolution, do yourself a favour and read at least one.  It is like having a guide book when you go to an art gallery, you will see so much more when you watch what Richard Dawkins called “The Greatest Show on Earth”: life itself.

That Dawkins book is as good a place as any to start, but I also like “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin and it might appeal to others because it looks at it from the point of view of the human body, easy to read and with touches of humour.

If you get through one of those and want more, try Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” which is a great introduction to EvoDevo, the idea that you can’t fully understand how evolution works until you understand how the genetic program drives the development of the organism and can’t understand why development goes the way it does until you understand how it evolved.  Remember that the embryo is just as much the organism as the adult.  I found it so interesting I bought and read several textbooks on development.

For those with more knowledge of biology, I can also recommend two books I’m still working through, that celebrate the 150 years since Origin by giving an in-depth look at what we have learned since then.  Although I read Nature and Science as much as I can find time for each week, it is good to have these kind of reports organized in a way that lets you see how they hang together to advance our understanding.  The books are:

  • Evolution Since Darwin, edited by Bell, Futuyma, Eanes and Levinton.
  • Evolution – The Extended Sythesis edited by Pigliucci and Müller

Both of these are the output of symposia rather than collections of articles from primary journals and as such bring a little more coherence to the discussion.  Hard to choose between them but you will need roughly the equivalent of an undergraduate degree to follow either of them.

For philosophers and indeed thinkers of any discipline, you can also find how Darwin’s Law can guide your thinking in anything where complexity arises from simple beginnings without the need for a creator.  The place to read that is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett.  You’ll find quite a bit of biology in the book, but it is not a biology book.  I’m a theory guy myself so I don’t know if any laboratory scientists will like it, but you will certainly get a new perspective on the power of Darwin’s thinking.

On Darwin himself, I must admit that although I enjoyed The Voyage of the Beagle as a very accessible scientific adventure, a kind of biologist’s “Indiana Jones” (with less fighting), it took me a long time to get far with the Origin until the 150th anniversary, when the Illustrated Edition came out, edited by David Quammen, which showed that my inner child still needs a picture book for the hard stuff.  With a few distractions to give the opportunity to come up for air from the vast amount of detail that Darwin needed to provide convincing argument for the theory that was to rock the world, I was able to get through the whole text and emerge with a new respect for the power of his thinking.

If you read any of these, you will also learn a lot about the biology of current and past organisms, as well as that wondrous process that produced it.  The reverse of Dobzhansky is also true: “Nothing in evolution makes sense until you learn a lot of biology”.  Even though the basic laws of evolution are every bit as simple as Newton’s laws, the implications are so much more powerful that you really need the weight of all that evidence both to be convinced it is true and to appreciate its vast powers of explanation.

I can’t resist mentioning the article in New Scientist that I read a few minutes ago.  The Borneo Hills diet: Pitcher plants’ strange prey.  Unfortunately you’ll need a subscription to read the whole article but it explains another of nature’s weird tricks.  These plants get mountain tree shrews to poop in them and get their nitrogen from there rather than the usual trick of trapping insects.  Indeed the plant has quite a resemblance to a western porcelain toilet. A creationist god must have quite the sense of humour.   You can see a picture on Ch’ien C. Lee’s web site.

Finally, you can find evolution in music.  I really enjoy The Darwin Song Project.  Some of the UK’s best folk musicians.  Definitely worth listening too.  I’ve played it lots because the words and music are both excellent.

I only mentioned a few of the books I showed, but I will certainly find time to read more so if you have favourites of your own, please tell me in the comments below.  Comments are moderated.  I usually only reject spam, but I know that this topic can provoke a lot of vehement opposition so please don’t be rude or too lengthy.  If you are, I will reject.