Pumpkin Day

National Pumpkin Day in 2020/2021 - When, Where, Why, How is Celebrated?Happy pumpkin day! Yes, there seems to be a day to celebrate just about everything – pumpkins included. Let’s start at the very beginning. The word itself has its roots in the Greek word that means “large melon.” Yes, large indeed. Pumpkins, however, are part of the squash family. They are native to the Americas and evidence of its use date back more than 5,000 years.

While we may refer to pumpkins as vegetable, they are actually fruit according to botanists (it has to do with the fact that pumpkins grow from the seed-bearing structure of flowering plants). Yet no matter the classification, pumpkins are good for you. They are a good source of beta-carotene, fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. Plus, they are filling, which is perhaps one of the reasons they were a staple food for ancient people.

The natural question now is, why do we carve them? Blame the Irish. The story dates back to the 1500s and a myth about a man named Stingy Jack. According to the story, Jack played tricks on everyone, including the devil. Ultimately, he was denied entry into both heaven and hell as a result of his antics, and was left to roam the world as a ghost. He was given a lump of coal from the devil, which he placed inside a carved turnip and used as a lantern. The Irish then carved turnips, beets, and potatoes (with burning lumps of coal inside them to add light) to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. When Irish and Scottish immigrants came to the New World, they found that pumpkins were perfect for carving.

Aside from Jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins also make good pies, stews, and even smoothies (seriously). Of course, you can roast the seeds too. But if you don’t want to use your old pumpkin yourself, you can donate it to zoos, animal shelters, farms, or community gardens. Or, leave it in the yard for the wildlife!

International Sloth Day

Tuesday October 20 is international sloth day, a day to celebrate and learn more about these strange but wonderful creatures. I’ve seen one in the wild, fairly up close and personal. And while they are slow they aren’t that slow. I looked away from the sloth in a nearby tree for a minute, and when I looked back it was gone! It took me a few minutes to find it again. I wonder, if a sloth and a turtle raced, who would win?

Three-toed sloth - Bradypodidae - Luiaard | Panama, rondreis… | FlickrCompared to other animals, sloths do move slowly. So slowly, in fact, that algae grow on their fur. This pace of life is good for two reasons. One, since they don’t move much, it’s hard for predators to spot them. Two, the algae help camouflage sloths in the jungle. The reason they move so slowly and sleep up to 18 hours a day is because of their low-energy diet of leaves and the occasional piece of fruit. Even their digestive system is slow – it can take a month to digest some foods.

Sloths spend almost their entire living upside-down in a tree – eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth. They do go down to the ground to poop, about once a week. And, when the rainforests in which they live flood (in Central and South America), they will use the opportunity to swim to a new tree; in fact, they are good swimmers (see for yourself here). That’s all for now…happy sloth day!

The Mystery of Fruit Flies

These itty-bitty bugs (a mere 1/8 inch) are a nuisance. They arrive seemingly out of nowhere when the weather warms, at which point my fruit bowl and compost bins are relegated to the garage for the summer. It is now October and there ONE fruit fly that apparently didn’t get the memo. It really likes to fly around my face.

Now, a little bit of research reveals that fruit flies have a very short lifespan. So, in truth, it’s probably not been the same fruit fly that won’t leave me alone. But it begs the question, where are all the others? They apparently lay up to 500 eggs in their lifetime so just a little elementary math suggests that the one irksome fruit fly should be accompanied by its entire swarming family. Is my one fruit fly the Lone Ranger of fruit flies? And why does it like me best?

All of my irritation aside, fruit flies, as it turns out, are fascinating. First, have you ever looked one in the eyes? Of course not – they always seem to be moving. But were you able to actually see their eyes, you’d find they are bright red! Their wings beat an unbelievable 220 times per second. In addition, though they may be small, they have big brains. And if all of that hasn’t grabbed your attention, scientists performing genetic research use fruit flies because their short lifespan allows for the quick study of genetic evolution over generations. Not only that, humans share 75% of the genes that cause disease with fruit flies.

I still wish my fly would go away. But, during the aforementioned research, I also learned that the cold weather doesn’t actually get rid of them indoors. It just stunts the development of new generation. Which means that all my fly’s relatives will be waiting come spring.

Stick Bugs

I have been prompted to investigate stick bugs because a friend of mine in Minnesota found one the other day. Without even researching further, this is interesting for two reasons. One, stick bugs are most often found in tropical and subtropical climates. Minnesota is neither. But apparently like hardy humans, there are hardy stick bugs in the state. The other interesting thing is that stick bugs are mostly nocturnal; the one my friend found apparently didn’t get the memo.

As you probably know, stick bugs are masters at camouflage. Depending on where they live, the approximately 3,000 species of these insects blend in with their environment perfectly. They can be brown, green, or black, or some variation in between. Some even have markings that mimic scars you might see on a tree.

While this adaptation helps them hide in plain sight, if stick bugs do happen to find one of their limbs in the grips of a hungry predator (birds, bats, reptiles, spiders, and other small mammals), they will shed that limb. Not to worry…it will regrow! One species emits a foul odor when attacked, much like a skunk, while another can fight off an attacker with their spine-covered legs. Others play dead. And some can fly from danger.

Yet perhaps the most interesting thing is that among some species of stick bugs, the females do not need males to reproduce. This process is known as parthenogenesis. Females produce eggs that mature into more female stick bugs without any male involvement. In fact, there are species of stick bugs out there among which scientists have never found a single male. Now that’s girl power!

Mission Blue

I saw a documentary this week that was both difficult to watch at times while inspiring at others. It was called Mission Blue, featuring the legendary American marine biologists Dr. Sylvia Earl. She has spent decades (she is now 85 and still diving!) exploring the ocean and advancing our knowledge of its importance.

400+ Free Reef-Fish & Fish Images - PixabayHer research and experience have put her on a mission to save the ocean. Earl understands the devastating effect humans are having on our oceans and founded Mission Blue in an effort to raise awareness and increase the number of marine protected areas around the world. These protected areas are called Hope Spots. These spots are identified as ecosystems that are critical to the overall health of the ocean. Today only 6% of the ocean is protected (compared to 12% of land in the form of parks and reserves).

She also cautions us that everything is connected, including us. The ocean is the heart of the earth. She recently tweeted:

“The bottom-line answer to the question about why biodiversity matters is fairly simple: the rest of the living world can get along without us, but we can’t get along without them.”

In the documentary Earl shares the ocean’s beauty, reveals the ugly truth about what is happening to it, and yet offers hope. Together, we can create a network of marine protected areas that is large enough to save and restore the ocean.

Black-Capped Chickadees

For a while now I’ve been thinking about chickadees (long story). Then one flew into the house the other day…yep, right into the living room and up to the skylight. I managed to get the poor thing back outside without much ado, but took its visit as a sign to do a little investigative research.

Chickadees are often overlooked in the shadow of other remarkable, vibrant birds. They are common, so not considered extraordinary. Oh, but they are. These hardy little birds live across the northern half of North America. Thankfully, too, they don’t migrate, enlivening the quiet and stillness of the winter months. So how do they survive harsh winter temperatures? Controlled hypothermia. More scientifically, chickadees go into a state of torpor on very cold nights. They find a sheltered place, such as the hollow of a tree, fluff their feathers, and slow down their metabolism which lowers their body temperature by 10-20° F and conserves energy. In the morning they warm themselves up to go back to feeding. In addition, they gather and store food to help them through the winter. It gets better…the chickadee brain actually increases in size in the fall so they can remember where they stored the food!

Chickadees also have that signature cheery call, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. That’s not the only one, though. They have many other songs and calls. Apparently the language of chickadees is quite complex. Scientists studying them have identified well over a dozen different vocalizations that vary in pitch and length. As with all birds, the vocalizations are a means to communicate – to stay in touch with a mate, fend off a predator, or announce a food source. These calls communicate danger, too. With black-capped chickadees, their calls also communicate the level of danger. If you hear a chickadee call out chick-a-dee, followed by one or two more “dees” the danger level is low. But chickadees will add over 20 “dees” to their call if the threat level is high. I think I’m going to invest in a new bird feeder for winter and see what else I can learn.

Sunflowers

It is sunflower season! They are brilliant, amazing flowers, especially if you are lucky enough to come across a whole field of them…a sea of color.

But if you look closer, closer, and closer still, you can appreciate the delicate complexity of these flowers. And in fact, each one is not actually a single flower, but 1000-2000 tiny individual flowers joined at the base. It’s almost as if each “single” flower is a microscopic garden itself. I also learned a new word as I delved deeper into the wonder of sunflowers – heliotropism. If you’ve ever noticed sunflowers, especially a field of them, you’ve probably noted that they are always facing the sun. The heads actually track the sun’s movement, known as heliotropism.

How to Make a Sunflower Bird Feeder - CREATIVE CAIN CABIN | Bird feeders, Sunflower head, Sunflower

Unlike so many flowers we see in gardens today, sunflowers are native to the Americas. They were domesticated as early as 1000 BC, because they are a great food source; each “one” has thousands of seeds. Today the main use of sunflowers, though, is for oil. Another use I discovered? A bird feeder! Enjoy them while they are blooming, then harvest them for the birds.

Behold the Dragonfly

A dragonfly visited me the other day, just outside my window. It was still in the garden when I went out for a better view. I moved closer, and closer, and closer. Minutes went by as I watched. Then I zoomed in for pictures. It was almost as if it turned to look me square in the eye and pose. Thank you, dragonfly.

These insects that have roamed the earth for over 300 million years and today there are more than 5,000 different species of them. They are symbols of joy, transformation, and adaptability, yet dragonflies are actually ferocious predators with sharp, teeth-like mandibles! Not only that, but they will nab unsuspecting prey right out of the air with the precision of a fighter jet. They catch their prey with their feet, rip off their wings with their sharp jaws so it can’t escape, and eat, all in mid-air. Needless to say, dragonflies have mad flying skills – they can fly forward, backward, and sideways, and can even hover like a hummingbird. Their hunting and flying skills are facilitated by their eyes, which seem to take up most of their head. Yet these aren’t just bug eyes; each one of their two compound eyes has 30,000 lenses. Because of this they have almost-360° vision (with the only exception being directly behind them). I already thought dragonflies were amazing, but of course, better understanding leads to greater respect.

Flatworms

Flatworms are generally unseen, un-celebrated critters. But there are more than 20,000 species of them and they are found just about everywhere there’s water. However, they can be hard to find because much of their life cycle is spent inside a host organism. That’s the yuck-factor (think tape-worm). Still, they are pretty fascinating.

The whoa-factor about flatworms was described to me by a young friend who shares my love of the natural world, especially the weirdly wonderful aspects of it. One evening this summer as we marveled at fireflies, she told me that most flatworms only have one opening in their body. Wait, what? It is true. These simple organisms only have a mouth. They eat with that mouth. Then their food moves through the simple digestive system. So…what happens to the stuff that isn’t digested? Well, it has to come out the mouth. Back to yuck. Other materials are also excreted through special cells called flame cells. Tapeworms, by the way, do not have a digestive system at all – they simply absorb the nutrients they need from their host.

Another interesting aspect of flatworms? Some species are actually quite pretty. Nonetheless, I think I still rather not be a host.

Animal Flatulence

I recently came across a video called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Animal Farts.” Of course, I had to watch it. This is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about before, but I was immediately intrigued. I suppose I just assumed that all animals fart. Guess what? Not all animals do!

Does It Fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence ...Big fact I learned: birds don’t fart! What??? The reason is that they do not have the bacteria in their guts that produces gas and food passes through their bodies quickly enough that gas doesn’t build up. Whoa! Octopuses don’t fart either. Nor do sea cucumbers. Some fish do fart, others don’t. Sloths don’t fart either, making them possibly the only mammal that doesn’t. The only other possible no-farting-mammals are bats; but scientists just don’t have a definitive answer to date.

I also learned that farts are used in a variety of ways, not just to pass gas. One species of lacewing, for example, actually stuns and kills its prey (termites) by farting on them! The Sonoran coral snake, on the other hand, uses its farts (more scientifically, cloacal pops) to scare away predators when threatened. Manatees use farts to control buoyancy. And the list of amazing fart facts goes on. See? Intrigued!

The zoologist referenced in the video, Dani Rabaiotti, also co-authored a book titled Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence. Yes, I checked it out of the library. And so should you.