Photo Credit – NPS, Jacob W. Frank
I’ve lived in Colorado for a long time now and had never seen a snowshoe hare. This summer I saw two. At first glance they look a lot like the cottontails in my yard. Except the snowshoe hares were much stockier, and of course had much larger feet. And though rabbits and hares are cousins, they are quite different species. Snowshoe hares are born with a full fur coat and with their eyes open; leverets (baby hares!) are ready to start hopping around on their own within hours of birth. Baby rabbits, called kits, are born naked, blind, and helpless. Snowshoe hares also tend to be loners, while most rabbits live in underground warrens in groups.
One thing that made think of the snowshoe hares today is the season’s first snowfall. When I saw the snowshoe hares in the summer, their coats were the color of the rocks and sticks. But unlike rabbits, the hares change coats for the season. They are a little like changing leaves in this way! In the summer, the long, sunny days trigger the production of melatonin; that’s what creates their brownish fur and the camouflage for the summer season. But when the days get shorter and there is less sunlight, the production of melatonin is no longer triggered (side note: this transformation takes approximately 70 days). Thus without the color, their fur returns to white. Hopefully they are totally white now to help them stay camouflaged. And of course those huge broad feet will help them move around easily on the snow.
The combination of an unusually wet spring and an extended summer have produced a grasshopper boom in Colorado. Right now the trails and sidewalks are literally hopping with grasshoppers. Apparently we can blame climate change.
The abundance of grasshoppers still enjoying the fall with the rest of us made me wonder what happens to them in the winter. As it turns out, all those grasshoppers are currently enjoying their “golden years.” Like katydids, the adults will not survive the cold winter. They have, however, laid eggs. In late summer, female grasshoppers deposit their eggs in leaf litter or soil. She covers them in a sticky substance that sets and forms an egg pod. Females may lay as many as 25 pods depending on species. Each pod contains dozens of rice-shaped eggs and is resistant to moisture and cold that will survive the winter.
When the eggs do hatch in the spring, after about 10 months, they emerge as nymphs which look like mini versions of the adults. The difference at this point is that they lack wings and reproductive organs. Over the coming weeks the nymphs will molt several times ultimately developing into full-fledged adults looking for a mate to start the whole process all over again.
There are more than 10,000 known species of grasshoppers in the world, living on every continent except Antarctica. They are also among the oldest insects on Earth, having evolved more than 200 million years ago.
Fall colors are way more complicated than I ever knew. The truth about orange and yellow leaves is that those pigments are always present in the leaves. It’s in their DNA. However, during the spring and summer months they are so flooded with chlorophyll (which helps them convert sunlight into energy) they appear green. In other words, chlorophyll masks the true colors. Then in the fall, when the days are shorter and cooler (sigh), trees stop producing chlorophyll. That’s when the leaves’ true colors are revealed.
Red leaves are a different story. That pigment is not there throughout spring and summer. Instead, as sugars get trapped in the leaves as a result of the changing season, a chemical changes occur and produce the new red pigments (called anthocyanins for those wanting a new word today).
Another factor that affects leaf color and how long we get to enjoy the fall colors, is weather. The short version is that optimal weather produces optimal colors for a longer period of time. Picture your perfect fall day: warm and sunny, followed by a crisp, cool (but not freezing) night. That’s optimal. The reason is because low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, thus allowing leaves’ colors to shine. Bright sunshine also apparently breaks down chlorophyll. During the summer chlorophyll breaks down and is regenerated continuously in tree leaves. But in the fall, nights grow longer and chlorophyll production slows; eventually not enough chlorophyll is produced to replace that broken down by the sun, again allowing the color to come through.
The bottom line is that there are a variety of factors that effect leaf color. But, a warm and wet spring followed by moderate summer weather and then warm fall days and cool night, produce the most brilliant colors.
Today I learned from firsthand experience that turkeys are quite curious and are attracted to shiny things. And by “attracted” I mean they peck at shiny things. I met the small rafter of pecking offenders (yes, a group of turkeys is referred to as a rafter, gaggle, or flock) today at a small animal sanctuary near me. These animals are rescues that cannot be released into the wild, but are living their best life on the farm.
Turkey bird, animal photography. Free public domain CC0 image.
Pecking aside, I was immediately interested in their flapping wattles and an array of red fleshy bumps on their heads and necks. Those bumps are called caruncles (new word!). And technically speaking, the wattle is also a type of caruncle. Both play a role in helping turkeys stay cool since they do not have sweat glands. In addition, the wattle is important in mating – a brighter red wattle on males attracts more attention from females. And just to add to our turkey vocabulary, the fleshy appendage that hangs over the beak of turkeys is called a snood.
My dive into turkey research also revealed that turkeys can run (up to 18 mph!), fly, and swim. And not only do turkeys gobble, they also purr, yelp, and cluck. The gobbler turkeys (adult males) mate with multiple females then return to his own bachelor rafter and leave the chick-rearing to the females. Those chicks? They hatch fully feathered with their eyes open. Within hours of hatching they can chase after mom. Okay, one more word – a young turkey is called a poult.