BUGS

Throughout my life I generally haven’t been a fan of bugs. I don’t dislike them. I have just never been all that interested in them. However, a series of events over the past few months have led me to become a BIG fan. I want to start by defining the word “bug.” First of all the terms bug and insect are often used interchangeably, which is not entirely correct. Let’s start with insects – they are invertebrates. They are critters with an exoskeleton, three body parts, compound eyes, two antennae, and six legs. Insects are part of a larger group of arthropods, which also  includes arachnids (so spiders are not insects), crustaceans (like roly polies!), and myriapods (like centipedes and millipedes). Now, to make life more confusing, within the insect family there is an order of “true bugs” which have mouths shaped like straw or needle (such as bed bugs, cicadas, aphids, and water bugs). Commonly, though, people use the word bug to describe insects as well as other terrestrial arthropods. Perhaps the best way to describe bug-bugs then (insects and other arthropods), which is not at all scientific, is little creepy crawly critters.

My interests in the creepy crawlies began with E.O. Wilson (a famed US biologist and naturalist). He wrote an article titled, “The Little Things That Run the World (the Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates)” in the 60s, and I recently came across it. As you can garner from the title, the article detailed the importance of invertebrates, as well as their sheer volume in the world. Conservation tends to focus on vertebrates – wolves, beavers, rhinos, etc. And while protecting these species is inherently valuable, the real work should focus on conserving invertebrates because they, well, run the world. People also overlook the fact that while invertebrates don’t need us for survival (and would likely be better off without us), we very definitely need them. I won’t go into details, but without these little critters to run the world, biodiversity would all but disappear.

Since the E.O. Wilson article, I’ve read a few books including Buzzkill: A Wild Wander Through the Weird and Threatened World of Bugs (by Brenna Maloney) and Nature’s Best Hope: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (by Doug Tallamy). I highly recommend both. Now I can’t stop thinking about bugs. In fact, I am so interested that I am off to build a bug hotel in my backyard. Really. Stay tuned…

Sweat Like a Pig

The idiom “sweat like a pig” has been around for a long time. But, as it turns out, pigs don’t sweat. In fact, very few animals do sweat like people do. Other animals that sweat include, not surprisingly, primates, but also horses and hippos. Instead, animals have other ways to release heat, including panting. Some species of storks and vultures have more interesting way to cool down – they poop. On their own legs. Elephants and rabbits use their large ears to regulate heat. Elephants flap. In rabbits’ ears, the blood vessels dilate, which dissipates heat.

But back to the pigs…they cool down by rolling in the mud. This mimics sweating. As the mud dries and the water evaporates, it draws heat away the body. Wallowing in mud is preferred to a dip in water because the water in the mud evaporates slowly which allows pigs to stay cooler longer. Not only that, being covered in mud helps protect pigs’ skin from the harsh rays of the sun. It also smothers parasites on the skin.

So the idiom, “sweat like a pig,” has nothing to do with pigs at all. Instead it is a reference to pig iron. During the smelting process hot iron was shaped into molds, which to some looked like a sow and piglets. This thus the term “pig iron.” As for the idiom, when the iron cools, it reaches its dew point and condensation forms on the surface of the iron – it sweats. When the iron sweats, that means it’s cool enough to handle. So to cool down like a real pig, you’d have to take a wallow in the mud.

Surviving the Cold

Photo credit – Lorie Shaull

As we endure a week of unusually cold weather, below zero for days at a time, I find myself wondering how the animals survive. The yard has been very quiet. Animals have several strategies to survive the cold. One is migration. Check – those animals migrated months ago, some moving thousands of miles, while others moved to lower elevations or more protected habitats. Another strategy is hibernation. Check – the fat bear in the yard in October is hopefully blissfully unaware of this cold snap. Marmots at higher elevations actually hibernate about 200 days a year! There are other animals that enter a temporary state of torpor during extreme cold. They are not true hibernators, but when temperatures fall, their internal temperature drops and their metabolism slows to conserve energy. Animals that utilize this strategy include bats, songbirds, and rodents. Other adaptations include burrowing, huddling in groups, curling into a ball, and denning. Other animals grow thicker fur or denser feathers, while others build fat reserves. Some, especially birds and bees, shiver to stay warm.

There are also a few unusual animal adaptations. One is that of the wood frog in Alaska. They just freeze solid. It’s true. They have a special anti-freeze proteins in their blood that allows them to freeze without harm to cells and organs. Brrrrr.

Some insects possess this anti-freeze too, including the snow fly. But the snow fly has one other trick: if it senses crystals forming in a limb, they will self-amputate before the crystals can reach vital organs! It’s extreme, for sure, but it allows them to survive. On another note, the snow fly is one of the only insects that stays active throughout cold, snowy months.

While not as extreme, but equally interesting, some animals shrink their brain to save energy survive the cold. This is a response to the cold and food scarcity seen only in a few animals including the European mole, weasels, and the Etruscan shrew. The brain regrows when conditions are more favorable. Research suggests, though, that during the time when their brain is smaller they are operating on reduced mental capacity and tend to wander shorter distances in search of food.

It all makes me extremely grateful for my blankets, sweaters, hats, sox, thermals, gloves, and hot chocolate!

European Starlings

Photo Credit – Mick Thompson

There are people out there who are not big fans of starlings because they tend to travel in large flocks and they are raucous. I happen to love them. I especially love them in winter when much of the world is quiet and so many birds have migrated. There’s nothing better than passing by a tree that sings to you as dozens of roosting starlings call to each other. In addition to their calls and songs, European starlings are great mimics. In fact, they can mimic the calls of close to 20 other bird species including meadowlarks, red-tailed hawks, robins, and more.

European starlings, as the name suggests, are not native to North America. However, today they are found across the continent in all kinds of habitats. They are hardy, adaptable, and quite intelligent. During the fall and winter, they gather in the large flocks that make trees sing. The flocks disband in the spring for mating. The males are the ones who build the nest in a cavity of some kind, which also includes home vents, traffic light supports, and other human-made structures (thus another reason why some people are not big starling fans). The females only take part in nest building to oversee the final touches and make sure everything is to her standards. Both the male and female take part in incubating the eggs (usually 3-6).

When the flocks are together, they often fly together in huge numbers (think thousands) as one. Their swirling, turning, twisting, diving, synchronized flight is called a murmuration. In some places the number of birds in a murmuration is so large and dense they block the sun. While the research about their acrobatic flight is still ongoing, one theory about a murmuration is not only are the birds all safer from predators when they are in large groups, but the constantly shifting movements is also a deterrent. No matter the reason it is a sight to behold.

Rats

The latest addition to our backyard wildlife is a rat. We’ve only seen one, but we also know if there’s one, there are surely others. My first reaction was revulsion. That thought was immediately followed with the question, why do we love rabbits and hate rats? Blame centuries of western culture associating rats with disease and death. And while they do carry pathogens that can be transferred to humans, recent research has revealed that rats do not harbor any more infectious diseases than other mammals. They are also not likely to be the source of the next pandemic. In other words, our feelings about rats are prejudiced.

So while I watched my new neighbor from the window, I set aside my bias and decided it was kind of cute (though I’m still partial to the rabbits). Then I did a little research. Worldwide there are close to 60 different species of rats, including my brown rat. They live in a variety of habitats on every continent except Antarctica. Clearly they are adaptable. Rats are also both social and intelligent. Some species have been trained to sniff out diseases like tuberculosis in humans, and to find explosives. They’ve also been used to fight illegal wildlife trafficking. Rats can even be taught many of the same tricks we teach dogs. A group of rats is aptly named a mischief.

Those cute whiskers on a rat’s face are more sensitive than our fingertips. Rats use them for balance and to get a sense of their environment. Rats also have an excellent sense of smell, and their sense of hearing allows them to hear high-pitched sounds that humans cannot. Those ears also turn pink when they are happy. Like cats, rats lick themselves frequently to stay clean. In fact, they do not like being dirty. Research has also revealed that rats love to be tickled, and when they are, they giggle!

Not convinced? In Chinese culture rats are seen as symbols of wisdom and prosperity. Armed with a little science and a little perspective, I have a new appreciation for rats. I will say, though, I will not get close to it, and I am really hoping it stays outside.