While snowshoeing high, high in the mountains, on top of snow measured in feet, we came across what we thought was a spider. Instantly puzzled, we wondered what the heck a spider was doing walking across the snow on a not-at-all-warm day. Had we taken the time to count its legs, we would have known that it wasn’t a spider at all. Luckily I took pictures.
And because I geek-out over this kind of stuff, I had to figure out what it was. Drum roll, please…it was a snow fly. A snow fly? Who has ever heard of such a thing? Clearly not me. And in all the time I’ve spent in the mountains in winter I’ve never come across one.
Apparently these wingless flies are present in montane environments across North America, Asia, and Europe. They spend most of their adult lives in the subnivean* environment (new word alert!) making good use of mammal burrows and cavities in the snow created by rocks, fallen logs, and vegetation. The little research done on these flies reveals that adults most likely don’t eat at all, and only drink water from melted snow. What do the larvae eat? They are coprophagous** (new word alert #2!).
Aside from their winter strolls on the snow, high in the mountains, snow flies are different from most insects in other ways. Opposite from most other insects, snow fly larvae grow in the summer and pupate in the fall. The adults mate in the winter, which, scientists believe is one of the reasons they leave the relative “warmth” of the subnivean zone and go for a stroll. They are looking for a mate.
* the area between the surface of the ground and bottom of the snow
**feeding on the feces of other animals
Greenland shark at the floe edge of the Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut (Hemming1952)
Last week I had the honor of reading one of my picture books to a group of second graders (hello Dry Creek Elementary 2nd grade!). Afterwards they asked what I like to write about, and I explained how much I geek out over cool nature and science facts (like the velvet worm). Then, the very next morning a friend sent me a link to an article about Greenland sharks. I geeked out.
The first thing that caught my attention is that they are ENORMOUS yet we know very, very little about them. How is that possible? What we do know is that these elusive sharks can be over 20 feet long (comparable to a great white) and the surface of the skin is covered in denticles – toothlike projections. Greenland sharks love cold, very deep water around Greenland and Iceland, which is probably why they are seen so rarely. Down in the depths they blend into the murky darkness, moving ever so slowly. Their average speed? Less than 2 miles per hour. In addition, they are practically blind. That brings up the question, how do they catch anything to eat? The answer is, first of all, that they are not picky. They will eat just about anything, alive or dead (Arctic seals, reindeer, polar bears, beluga whales, fish, crustaceans), that ends up in the sea. They are scavengers for sure, but they are also ambush predators.
Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about the Greenland shark is how long they live: over 200 years. That is not a typo. And I checked multiple sources. Teams of scientists have used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of captured sharks. One female was approximately 400 years old. That means she was alive at the same time as Galileo, when the Taj Mahal was completed, and while Newton pondered gravity. Truly hard to comprehend, but fun to geek out over.
Robins are a common site across North America. They are so common that we often don’t give them much thought. Yet in the past months I’ve come to appreciate the common birds that populate my yard and visit my feeder, and I find them every bit as fascinating as more extravagant birds.
Photo by Joe Cosentino
First of all, robins can be found year-round in the contiguous states. Though some do migrate (especially those living in the northern part of the continent), most simply move into the woods in the winter where there are trees and shrubs with berries, and they roost in the trees. That’s why we don’t see them as often in the winter. When warm weather arrives, we will see them in parks and yards pulling up worms after a rainstorm. To find the worms, robins stand motionless, staring at the ground with their head tilted sideways. The search for worms will happen most often in the morning because robins stick to a routine menu: worms in the morning, berries in the afternoon.
If you do see a robin in the wintertime, you are most likely in the company of many more than one. These roosts, as they’re called, can include up to a quarter million birds! Surely I look forward to the days when they’re pulling up worms again, but I’m happy to see one any time.
Recently I came across a bird I’d never seen – the common goldeneye. They are members of the family of water birds (ducks, geese, etc.) and have apparently come to Colorado for the winter. Personally I would’ve kept flying south, but I suppose it’s downright balmy here compared to Canada.
I like ducks of all varieties, but this one caught my eye because of its striking black and white markings. It also provided a measure of amusement as it dove down and disappeared in the creek. Where would it reappear? There? There? No, there! Endless entertainment. It even dove under sheets of ice, then popped back up on the other side (they can apparently dive for up to a minute).
A little more investigation also revealed that, during breeding season further north, the females will lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests when sites are scarce (and it can be any duck nest – doesn’t have to be another goldeneye nest). As it turns out other ducks do this, so it seems as though a goldeneye might end up raising a very diverse group (this diverse brood is called a crèche)! The eggs are then incubated by some feathered mom for about 30 days. After hatching the common goldeneye young are ready to leave the nest in only 1-2 days! Gets even better…goldeneyes nest in the boreal forests of Canada in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. That means the chicks must jump to the ground where their mother (either biological or foster) waits and calls. Then they are led to the water.
Unlike many people, I am not one to celebrate the arrival of winter. I DO, however, celebrate the solstice. HOORAY, we made it! At last, the amount of darkness will wane. The amount of daylight will begin to increase once again. The sun will climb a little higher into the sky each day. Ahhhhh.
In the northern hemisphere, the solstice marks the beginning of winter and the day on which our side of the planet is tilted furthest from the sun. On that day, my region will receive only 9 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. Not enough! From this point, though, the Northern Hemisphere will see more and more sunlight each day. And while the tilt of the earth does change slightly, its axis always points in the same direction, and is not the reason for our different seasons. What changes is earth’s position in its orbit around the sun.
So, today at noon stand outside and cast your longest midday shadow of the year and celebrate the return of sunlight.
Copyright Gunnar Ries
Among the other excellent election day news, Coloradoans voted in favor of a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves in the state. It’s been 80 years since Colorado has had an established population. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as European expansion and settlement in the West increased, wolves were poisoned and hunted to the point of extirpation (local extinction).
The vote to bring them back was close, just about split down the middle between rural and urban areas. Voters in urban areas were the ones in favor, rural voters were against. Ranchers are concerned that wolves will kill livestock. This is certainly a reality. However, ranchers do get compensation when wolves kill their livestock.
Yet as the Yellowstone wolves have clearly shown, they are a vital part of the ecosystem. More importantly, reintroducing the wolves to their native habitat is a step toward repairing the damage we’ve done; if they hadn’t been hunted to extinction, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t need to vote on it. But we did need to vote, and the first wolves will be back in Western Colorado in 2022.
Yes, I know it is not wildflower season right now. However, I’m in the process of developing a book about the adaptations of alpine wildflowers with a publisher. One of featured flowers will be elephant heads. For starters, they are amazing. Look closely. Each tiny flower actually looks like a mini pink-purple elephant head.
I’ve also learned that these flowers are hemi-parasitic. That means this beautiful, delicate flower is a thief. Deep underground, elephant heads attach their roots to the roots of other plants to obtain some of their nutrients and water.
Yet the absolute best geek-out fact I learned is about how they pollinate. Look at the “trunk” of an elephant head flower. When an insect lands on this trunk, there’s a spring-like mechanism that causes the stamen to shoot out. In doing so, it slaps the insect with pollen. It’s brilliant! I’ll never look at an elephant head the same again.
Today I wanted to write about Steller’s jays because they are outside my office window squawking for attention – screeching really. Those birds certainly cause a ruckus. And every time I look out the window to see what’s going on, there’s nothing going on. Except the cacophony of Steller’s jays. Don’t get me wrong, I love the noise. I like to think they are just yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” In truth, they are communicating to one another about what’s going on and potential threats.
Photo by Noel Reynolds, 2013
Steller’s jays are beautiful too. From afar they appear blue and black; but up close, as in right through the window, I can see the white markings around their eyes, like a painted decoration. Their blue feathers are also shimmery in the sun.
I learned a few other things about these birds. They are highly intelligent and social, most always traveling in groups (thus amplifying the noise!). Considered foragers (including stealing from other birds’ nests), Steller’s jays will also cache food. And about that ruckus? Apparently these birds are masters at mimicking – they can imitate other birds, squirrels, dogs, cats, and even some mechanical noises. I’m going to start listening more closely!
Treehoppers – they are not birds nor are they primates, they are insects. Very. Strange. Insects. There are over 3000 species of treehoppers (with possibly many more waiting for classification or discovery) and they all sport some weird headgear. Some have helicopter-like protrusions while others have funky horns, barbs, or spires. They are disguises, adaptations to make them look not-very-tasty or to help them blend in with their surroundings.
These insects, which live all over the world (except Antarctica) are about the size of a dime. Despite their diminutive size, they communicate by shaking and jerking their bodies which sends signals through the plants on which they rest. While inaudible to humans, scientists have used special microphones to record treehoppers’ calls, clicks, songs, and chirps. This communication helps them defend their young. While most insects lay eggs and leave, treehoppers are good mothers. They stick around to guard their young until nymphs mature and fly away. Of course all of that is interesting, but really, go find more pictures of these strange insects – they’re beautiful!
Wombats are cute, stout, short-legged, waddling, marsupials. And they have bums of steel. When chased, often by a Tasmanian devil or a dingo, a wombat will dive headfirst into its burrow, blocking it with its rump of tough, extra-thick skin and almost no tail. A bite from predator on that end isn’t a big deal. They can also deliver a powerful kick.
Their bums of steel aren’t the only interesting thing about wombats. Though they may look pudgy and slow, they can actually sprint up to 25 miles per hour. They are also built for digging, with wide, strong feet and long claws to dig their own burrows – a network of tunnels and rooms. Female wombats even have a backward-facing pouch for their joey, so it doesn’t fill with dirt as she digs. And if that isn’t enough, wombats have square poop. True enough. They have special bones in their nether region that squeeze the poop pellets into cubes