Fireflies

Fireflies are one of the many magical parts of summer – the polka-dots of light blinking in the darkness on a warm night. There are approximately 2,000 species of fireflies around the world (150 of them in North America). Some do not even light up at all, but of those that do, each has their own unique pattern of blinking; it is a form of communication. The light helps the fireflies find potential mates. The ones we see flying around are usually males looking for a female. The females wait in the grass or bushes until they see something they like; then they will flash back…like, “Hey, I’m over here!” The two will continue flashing at one another until the male locates the female and they mate. Scientists also theorize that the light may be a warning to predators that they don’t taste very good.

Interestingly fireflies, also called “lightning bugs,” are not flies nor are they bugs. They are beetles… bioluminescent beetles. How do they do that, you wonder? It’s a chemical reaction. Fireflies have light organs under their abdomens that contain an organic compound called luciferin. When a firefly takes in oxygen it combines with the luciferin and creates the glow. The firefly can even regulate how much air they take in to create their lightning pattern!

Caddis Flies

Caddisfly - WikiwandFisherman probably already know how cool caddis fly larvae are, but I didn’t! At an amazing high mountain lake the other day, I saw strange critters moving around on the rocks in the clear water. I hung out over the lake for a closer look. They looked like part mollusk (with an cylindrical shell) and part beetle, and their “shell” (which I’ve now learned is called a case) was quite colorful, with greens, yellows, and some reds. Their bodies were in the cases, and their heads and thoraxes stuck out as they moved.

Northern Case Maker caddisfly | Caddis flies, Fly fishing, Insects

I spotted an empty case and fished it out of the with a stick. It was made of plant material!

I have since learned that these cases are made by many species of caddis flies in the larval stage. They are ornate and very intricate (including the one I found). Better still, the larvae will use whatever material is handy to construct these protective cases and uses silk that it excretes from salivary glands to bond the material together. The variety, materials, and construction are marvelous works of art.

The Ornate Protective Cases of Caddisfly Larvae «TwistedSifterOnce the caddis fly goes through metamorphosis, they leave the case behind. Who knew? Seriously, Google caddis flies. You’ll be amazed too.

 

Marmots

Yellow-bellied marmot on a rockThere is a lot to see and do in Colorado’s high country and for that I am eternally grateful. One of my all-time personal favorites is a hike to an alpine lake in the summertime. On those lucky days, I keep my eyes out for marmots at higher elevations. They can often be found sunning themselves atop a rock, “chirping” at the entrance to their burrow (as a warning to others), or feeding. There’s something completely endearing about them and I’m always happy to see one, especially because they spend more than half their lives hibernating.

Yes, more than half their lives – about 200 days! They spend the warmer months, roughly April/May to September/October, mating, raising pups, and fattening up again on grass, flowers, insects, and even bird eggs. Once the days shorten and the air chills, they go into their burrows. These social creatures live in colonies of 10-20 individuals and spend the coldest months huddled together in rooms insulated with hay. All the feeding they did before hibernating provides them with fat stores that they use as energy. But most interesting of all is that their body temperature drops to as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit and their heart rate slows to only 30 beats per minute (whereas their active heart rate is 180-200 beats per minute).

Sometimes I wish I could sleep away the winter like that!

 

Cicadas

Cicadas – they are loud, and this year in many Atlantic states, there will be a lot of them (up to 1.5 million in an acre!). They spend most of their lives underground and when they do emerge, they must find a mate before they die. And so, the males call out – a sound that can reach 100 decibels. By comparison, a motorcycle, jack-hammer, and a trash truck also reach the same decibel level. When there are millions of them emerging and singing at the same time, it’s a bit like a rock concert.

Not even COVID-19 can stop the cicadas that are coming to Fayette ...So how do these insects make such a racket? They have tymbals on each side of their abdomen. The tymbals are ribbed, vibrating membranes that produce sound. Cicadas contract and release their tymbals up to 400 times per second. Yes, 400 times per second. Not only that, the abdomen of a cicada is hollow like the body of a guitar, which amplifies the sound. Once the cicadas mate, and the females lay eggs, they die. The eggs will hatch in a few weeks, the nymphs will drop to the ground, burrow in, and the cycle begins again. And for those cicadas emerging en masse this year, they are among the seven of approximately 3,000 cicadas species that emerge only once every 13-17 years.

 

World Oceans Day

Today is world oceans day – a day to pause, to celebrate Earth’s oceans, and remember how important it is to protect them.  A few facts:

  • Life on Earth began in the ocean.
  • The oceans cover 70% of the planet.
  • 97% of all water on Earth is in the ocean.
  • The oceans regulate our weather and climate.
  • Microorganisms in the ocean produce over 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere.
  • Many medicines have their origins in the ocean.
  • The oceans provide billions of pounds of food every year.

Not only that, the biodiversity in the ocean is incredible and it is all connected. From dolphins to coral reefs, and blue whales to anglerfish, each species plays an important role.

   Even the strange, yet adorable dumbo octopus is important.

And the red-lipped batfish. 

   And the pygmy seahorse

And Christmas tree worms.

  And vent snails that live in extreme environments near hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.

So take a moment today (or any day) to celebrate the ocean and its biodiversity…and maybe explore the oceans a little more.

The Wood Wide Web

Did you know that trees in a healthy forest are all connected? They are! Below the forest floor lies an extensive, complex network of hair-like fungus threads called mycelium that connects trees. Fungus! The millions of pathways in this fungal network between trees works in much the same way as the internet; thus, it is often referred to as the “wood wide web.”

Tree Chatter by Justin. H – Riverside Center for Imaginative Learning Trees use the network to share resources. Older trees (sometimes called hub or mother trees) will pass sugars to saplings for photosynthesis, especially needed when small trees are shaded by their taller neighbors. They also pull up water for young trees in times of drought. Trees also share information through the network. If one tree is attacked by insects or disease, it sends distress signals to other trees, allowing them time to bolster their defenses. And when old trees are dying, they dump all of their resources back into the network.

The mycorrhizal network is connected to the root tips of trees. This relationship between trees and fungi is a symbiotic one. The fungi receive sugars and carbon from the trees; in exchange, the fungi release nutrients and water to the trees and provide the trees a communication network. Ultimately, this interconnected network assures the overall health of the forest.

So the next time you walk through a healthy forest, think about what lies below every step you take and how the trees are talking to and helping each other.

Fungi

When you hear the word “fungi” you probably think “mushrooms.” Yet it also includes molds, yeasts, and toadstools – any number of spore-producing organisms that feed on organic matter of which there are approximately 1.5 million different species. They are decomposers. And no matter your opinion about them (mushrooms in particular!), fungi are the foundation of life on Earth. Without fungi, dead plant life would choke the planet.

Beyond Psilocybin: Mushrooms Have Lots of Cool Compounds ...Yet the genius of fungi runs far deeper than just that of decomposer. To begin, the trees in forest communicate using an intricate underground network of fine fungus threads called mycelium. Underneath every footstep there are trillions of these threads connecting the trees. Some experts call this the wood wide web (more on this in another post). In addition, studies have shown that mushrooms could help clean up oil spills. They are used as wastewater filtration systems, as a pesticide, and to aid reforestation. Perhaps one day they will also be the main ingredient in biofuels because they grow rapidly and require far less soil and resources than other crops. In the medical field, the antibacterial and antiviral compounds in mushrooms are used to cure diseases and as an immune system booster. Not only that, fungi can help regenerated nerves and have shown great promise in activating neural pathways in people with dementia.

Oh yes, you can also eat them if you so choose (of course paying attention to the toxic ones you shouldn’t eat). Or use yeast to make baked goods. Love ‘em or not, fungi are important to the overall health of the planet as well as humans.

This post was inspired by the 2019 documentary, Fantastic Fungi. I highly recommend it!

Biodiversity Day

This Friday is the International Day for Biological Diversity. It is a day to celebrate the amazing diversity of life on Earth. It is also a day to raise awareness of biodiversity loss, as scientists estimate that 25% of plants and animals face extinction. It a day to chart a course of action.

Life on Earth is an unbelievably complex, interconnected, magical network of life. It includes bioluminescent mushrooms…yes, mushrooms that glow in the dark. There are also extremophiles that live in Lake Vostok which locked underneath more than 2 miles of ice in eastern Antarctica; the water in this lake has been trapped underneath the ice for more than 15 million years. There are weaverbirds that build these incredible, and sometimes quite large, nests of material intricately woven together. And let us not forget about mustache toads (more scientifically known as the Emei mustache toad); the males grow a spikey mustache made of keratin to fight rivals for the best nesting sites. Mustache fight! There are also carnivorous plants; an arachnid appropriately called a peacock spider; and the strange and wonderful platypus that is part otter, beaver, and duck (and if that’s not enough males have sharp, venomous spurs on both ankles).

Let us all take the time to learn and appreciate the biodiversity all around us. For, as Jane Goodall said: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Happy Biodiversity Day!

Woodpeckers

Red-bellied Woodpecker Identification, All About Birds, Cornell ...We usually hear woodpeckers before we see them – the rapid peck, peck, pecking on a tree or utility pole or house. Lately I’ve heard a lot of woodpeckers (ah, spring!) and I always stop to see if I can spot the bird behind the sound. And then I marvel at all the adaptations that allow them to live a life of  wood pecking.

Woodpecker beaks and skulls are specially designed to not only bore into wood as the birds look for food, but also to protect their brains from the shock of the boring. Their beaks are strong and sturdy, with a tip like a chisel. They are also designed to absorb and dissipate energy, so the force generated by the pecking is reduced before it reaches the skull. Woodpeckers’ skulls, though, are also unique – they are thick and spongy and fit tightly around the birds’ brains to prevent brain damage. Even the eyes of woodpeckers are suited to a life of pecking wood; they have special clear membranes that protect the eyes from flying debris, like goggles. And if all that cool stuff wasn’t enough, woodpeckers also have amazing tongues. They are long and sticky and have a barbed tip, perfect for plucking insects from inside the holes they drill. And one last woodpecker nugget – there are approximately 300 species throughout the world, with close to two dozen of them living in North America.

Dandelions

‘Tis the season: the birds are singing, the days are longer and warmer, and flowers bloom. Tulips, daffodils, and crocuses get most of the attention, but I happen to favor dandelions. They are like the underdog of the flower world.

Dandelions have a long and interesting history. The earliest records about dandelions date back to the Romans, though the flower was likely carried by humans from place to place long before that. This flower has been used throughout history for medicinal purposes and to eat. Apparently you can also make wine from dandelions. Who knew? Dandelions are also an excellent early source of pollen and nectar for bees. And we need bees!

Best of all, dandelions don’t need to be planted. Or watered. Or tended to. They will just grow. Anywhere. They are much hardier than your average flower. And if you look closely, they are every bit as amazing.