Friday, December 16, 2011

Kindred souls in Costa Rica

"BRUUURP....  BRUUURP....             BROH-UHRP!"  
A tall, dark-haired 40-something Tico farmer creeps into foliage, listening.

"BRUUURP....  BRUUURP....             BROH-UHRP," he calls again for a creature of the night, waiting.  He whispers to me while gazing into the foliage, "He's close...."

Suddenly, a brave little "broh-uhrp" chirps back from behind some banana leaves.  Our farmer, who doubles as a wildlife guide, moves swiftly.  My travel buddy and I peer into the thick green.  Where did he go?  We've only just met this man, with whom we'd organized a nighttime nature walk after arriving tired to our hostel in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.  In the less than ten minutes we've known him, we've lost him in some overgrown bushes aside a soccer field.  We were feeling worried, apprehensive, and skeptical of this guy, our arms crossed and our eyes peering into the leaves, when he appeared behind us.

A startled Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas)
"Here, get a picture," our guide said, as a Red-Eyed Tree Frog, Agalychnis callidryas, crawled off a held stick and onto a banana leaf.  We were stunned.  And then my camera shutter started clicking.  The stare from this beautiful Central American endemic, a popular and immediately recognizable symbol for rainforest conservation, dredged up childhood memories of rainforest dreaming.  Bright, orange feet, blue flanks and legs, and red eyes dazzled us, which is what they're meant to do.  See, the frog covers all these colors up when sitting on a leaf; it sits on its orange feet, it pulls its legs against its body, and it closes green eyelids.  When resting, it appears to be a green blob.  Should a predator investigate the green blob, the non-poisonous frog resorts to its "startle coloration" for defense - the frog opens its eyes, flashing the enemy with color before making an escape.  This potentially freaks out their predators.  Of course, that means great photos for us crazy nature tourists!  Sure, flash me, frog - better for the camera!  They can live to 5 years, and will vocalize to attract mates or warn off other males (competition is intense - males get a free ride on the female's back during mating).  It was one of these brave males that fell for our guide's deception, countering with its own defiant "broh-uhrp."  It was the defiant "broh-uhrp" rebuttal that solidified Geovani Bogarín's legitimacy as a fantastic wildlife guide that night.

A terebellid flatworm navigates the fungal forest under a log
You can learn about Sr.  Bogarín's 20 year history as a wildlife guide in La Fortuna from the New York Times article written about him in 2008.  I'd rather share what the article glossed over - his respect for all species.  You see, a person doesn't "memorize" 850 species of birds, as the Times author wrote - or 50 species of frogs, or hundreds of species of trees, orchids, and mosses - in the same way that you don't "memorize" the names of your family and friends.  You know their names because they play a role in your life; you see them and interact with them, laugh and cry with them, perhaps share a meal with them.  I understand this, too; from all my time underwater in the Red Sea I have "memorized" hundreds of fish, crab, snail, slug, and worm species that were part of my life then.  Geovani knows these birds, lizards, frogs, ants, and bats because he lives in the forest and pays attention to it.  His "house" is just a wooden deck supported ten feet off the forest floor by large posts.  Corrugated steel acts as a roof to keep out the rainforest's eponymous weather.  A propane camping stove rests on a table in one corner - the kitchen.  A hammock is stretched between two supporting posts on the other end - the bedroom.  He leaves bananas out for the raccoons that like to visit sometimes.  And at night, he rocks in his hammock and listens.

Blue-jeans frogs Oophaga pumilio secrete unpalatable toxins
For the past 10 years, Geovani has been developing a trail through that parcel of jungle right off the main street in La Fortuna.  Here he challenges his ecotourists, "make a list; what species do you want to see?"  He's calling it the "Parque Natural Los Niños," and 20 years of wildlife guiding means he knows what we want to see, and that he can find it among these trees.  "So many people come here and they don't see what they're looking for - I heard about some German girls a few days ago who paid $65 for a wildlife hike and they didn't even get to see a sloth," Geovani said, shaking his head.  (The sloth, "oso perezoso," literally translated to "lazy bear," is one of the most well-known residents of Costa Rican forest life - just look high up in the Cecropia trees and you'll see one sooner or later!)  Of course, Geovani's observation can be interpreted a few ways - the larger, federally-sponsored national parks where most wildlife tours are conducted have high standards, more land to maintain, and more stakeholders to please, services which all must be paid for.  And you can't guarantee wildlife sightings, right?

A large brown spider (Sparassidae?) camping out on bananas
But with his comment, I see Geovani shares my lament - while many have become acquainted with nature, few understand it.  With understanding comes guarantees for cool creature spotting.  Nature is a system; except for modern humans, all life obeys rhythms.  The annual shift in the angle of the sun's rays on Earth lead to weather (wind, evaporation, rain) and seasonality, which control the abundance of various plants.  These factors act with others, like the phases of the moon, to trigger significant events in the lives of animals and support their growth.  When frogs give birth, for example.  Or when dragonflies take flight.  Or how many larval instars of huntsman spiders will survive until adulthood.  Or if the mot-mots or oropendulos will decide there is enough food or absent predators to justify leaving for the annual migration to a low-valley avocado tree instead of a high fern in the cloud forest.  When we lived in nature, as a human species, we noticed such cycles and made decisions using them as well - they told us about our surroundings, about the weather, about our food.  Sure, today Geovani's understanding of the call of a lusty frog or the location of a mother sloth with child brings him direct monetary income - and indeed perhaps the only way to understand so deeply is to make it your full-time job - but in the past these things would have been the pulse of our friend, the forest, the land we live on.

Polydesmid millipedes may excrete cyanide to deter predators!
As Geovani and I discussed these truths, as we lamented modern society's ignorance or apathy towards the one "philosophy" that has the power to support humanity because it provides food and shelter just by existing, my travel buddy watched the fireflies blink on and off in haphazard loops, merely awaiting the moment when the hippie talk would end and the newfound camaraderie would be celebrated with beer.  After all, our modern society runs on lawyers and iPhones and barbie dolls and Burger King, and we are products of our upbringing - beer was surely forthcoming (for those of age)!  But it is these rare glimmers of mutual understanding I occasionally find in random others that remind and confirm to me that I am a member of the human species, a creature with a role and a long history in this system.

An insect undeterred by millipede defenses!
If you go to La Fortuna and want to hang with Geovani Bogarín, try calling him at 86269348, or just ask any of the locals.  They all know him, and really seem to like him, too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering Malta

The beautful, highly-developed Maltese coastline
The country of Malta, where I lived during the summer of 2011, was a crowded place.  On an area a bit smaller than the Massachusetts islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket combined lived 417,000 citizens, speaking their own language and with their own fierce culture.  I lived in the hugely overdeveloped tourist district, the town of San Giljan (St. Julian's).  Road ran directly along the perimeter of this whole northeastern coast, with hotels and "lidos" (beach clubs) every block, all more or less attached to each other the whole way.  And lapping at the limestone just below the road or sometimes the tiny adjacent bedrock seashore was the blue, blue Mediterannean.

Can you spot the goby amid the diverse algal forest?
No rivers flow into the sea here, nor is the tiny island close enough to any continent for there to be significant coastal pollution.  You can see into the water for perhaps 30 meters when you are not in a major population area, like where I was living, but even then you could see 10 meters deep!  To celebrate the fact that our apartment was a mere hundred feet from the sea, which, as a marine biologist, I love, I jumped in every day.  I would go for a run to get my exercise and really overheat myself so that I could stay in the sea longer.  I carried my snorkeling gear in a bag on my back, and ran in my bathing suit!  After the run, I'd walk down to my beach of choice (anywhere I hadn't yet explored along the coastal stretch), take off my shoes, put on my mask and snorkel, and jump in holding my house key!  The water was warm in summer, 27 C / 80 F, so with the added heat of the run I could stay under comfortably for hours.

Calmella cavolini, a Mediterranean aeolid nudibranch
The benthic (i.e. bottom) habitat of the Mediterranean has no coral, but rather a forest of hundreds of different species of marine algae.  These wild red, green, and brown multi-textured growths are kept neat and trim by dozens of species of herbivorous creatures, particularly sea breams, that snack on the algae every day.  The resulting short, trimmed, underwater bonsai forests are thus the perfect habitats for me to hunt for the minute sea creatures that often bring so much wonder - nudibranchs, tectibranchs, pycnogonids, caprellids, harpacticoids, isopods, turbellarians!  I'd search through them with glee, and occasionally find a creature I'd never spotted before.  I'd run home to look it up, or bring it with me for a photo - giggling like a schoolgirl all the way, sometimes skipping dinner.  (Although I would always return the creature where I found it.)

Some of my favorite creatures were the octopods.  Yes, that is the plural of octopus.  The octopus is more common in the Mediterranean than any other sea I'd been in.  I can guarantee you an octopus while snorkeling right off the tourist beach.  In tiny holes, cracks, and crevices, they occur every hundred feet or so underwater, watching the world.  I used to love to interact with them.  They all had unique personalities!  I usually carry a single wooden chopstick with me to move around algae without having to use my fingers.  The first time I came across an octopus while snorkeling after a run, it reached out of its cave and wrapped its tentacles around my chopstick!  Surprisingly strong, the octopus wrestled the chopstick from my hands and I had to fight to get it back!  Curious whether or not this was a common behavior, I approached an octopus I saw on another day with my chopstick, only to have it flee from its cave squirting ink at me as it jettisoned away!  Yet another octopus lazily aimed its siphon at my hand and tried to blow the chopstick away from its lair with the jets of water pulsed out of its mantle.

Of course in every place where people live near the sea, there are people that love the sea.  Some of my time in Malta was spent volunteering with a non-profit shark conservation organization, SharkLab Malta, a subsidiary of a UK group.  With them I helped to lead snorkeling tours and collect data about sharks at the local fish market (at 3 am, an early business worldwide).  As a trained PADI Rescue Diver with lots of research diving experience, I also joined in on coastal dive surveys to, well, look for unrecorded species around the island.  We would go wherever we figured we'd find unique habitats, taking a tiny boat and SCUBA gear to sand patches, dropoffs, Posidonia seagrass meadows, and submerged limestone caves.  Among our many discoveries - which is what we call a trained mind attaching more importance to something than other observers - was the Bull Ray (Pteromyleus bovinus), swimming in 20 feet of water over a sandy bottom off a popular beach.  Though a Mediterranean species, it wasn't known from Maltese waters.  Malta is an isolated island, so finding species there known from elsewhere in the Mediterranean still means a lot; it means they had to get there somehow, at some point in their ancestral history.

I met many good people in Malta, made many good friends, had a lot of adventures, made a lot of memories.  The dives I have done there were magnificent.  If you want to see Mediterranean marine life, stop by  Malta.  It's a magical little country!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Fisher (Martes pennanti)

Seeing my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts, USA as more than just my youthful stomping ground has been difficult.  I grew up in this area; every street and landmark has some connotation to me that no visitor would see.  It is funny that while traveling I desperately seek that "local" feeling to truly understand a place, while at home I wish to discard the "local" feeling and look at my surroundings with unbiased eyes!  But I'm finding that these "local" connotations skew my knowledge of what Grafton, even Massachusetts, has to offer.  Today I stepped outside my "local" knowledge by exploring one of the Grafton Land Trust's properties, the Hassanamesit Woods.  Despite the fact that the entrance to this excellent conservation land is only two miles from my front door, I had never visited in my life!  Here was a new location to view Massachusetts wilderness objectively.  Despite the fact that it's November, and most of the leaves (and even branches!) of the trees have fallen due to an early snowstorm, it was still a beautiful afternoon walk.  Meandering around from 2-4 PM, the last thing I expected to see was a giant, black-furred mammalian predator on the prowl!  But that's what appeared in front of me - perhaps a hundred feet away down a long stretch of trail among the white pine forest, what I at first thought was a black dog turned and peered back at me - probably because I shouted "WHOA, WHAT IS THAT?!"

The missing link!  ...Or just a startled fisher.
I know, I know - my picture looks as legitimate as the photographs of the Loch Ness Monster.  But a friend put me on the right path with her guess - a fisher!  These amazing creatures, which live for a maximum of 7-10 years in the wild, are one of the largest representatives of the Mustelid family (the taxonomic order containing skunks, weasels, otters, ferrets, etc.).  They can get to three feet long and weigh up to 12 pounds.  They are endemic to North America, and more common in the northern part of their range (Canada).  They actually were pushed to local extinction in the late 1800's to early 1900's due to excessive hunting (for their fur) and intensive logging activity that destroyed the dense pine forest habitat they need to survive.  Thanks to a reduction in logging and a moratorium on hunting in the 1930's, the fisher population began to recover and expand their range.  Now fishers are known throughout Massachusetts, and even a bit further south into Connecticut.  Hunting activities resumed in the 1950's, though heavily regulated.  In fact, this is the middle of the Massachusetts fisher season - trappers can catch them (with licenses) from November 1st to November 22nd!  (Don't worry, they're not endangered.)

Young fisher kits!
Fishers are more famously known for their terrifying but fascinating screams, which sound like a person being attacked!  If you're near a large, heavily-wooded pine forest, you might hear one calling for a mate on a cool April evening.  Although fisher copulation (which can last for 7 hours, how about that) results in fertilized embryos in April, the female fisher doesn't actually implant the embryos in her uterus until the following February - 10 months later!  (This fact confounded fur farmers that thought they could grow this species just like other furbearing mammals - the impatient farmers couldn't figure out why the females didn't seem to get pregnant!)  After a gestation period of 50 days, the female finds a nice hole in a tree to give birth and raise her 1-4 "kits."  After about 5 months, she kicks them out and the young fishers must begin their solitary lives.

"Pekan" is an indigenous name; don't try to make pie with one.
Another awesome fisher fact - they are the prime enemy of porcupines!  Apparently other predatory mammals in the region are too "tall" to attack a porcupine - getting only a mouthful of quills!  But fishers are low enough to the ground to coordinate an attack to the face of the porcupine.  And what an attack!  It may take half an hour for a fisher to kill a porcupine this way - circling the porcupine and repeatedly biting at the face!  Afterwards, they dodge the quill problem by flipping the dead porcupine over and dining on the soft underbelly.  These warm-blooded carnivores are active all year round - no hibernation - and need to eat the equivalent of 1-2 squirrels per day to keep their energy up!  (They also eat snowshoe hares, mice, shrews, and carrion of larger animals).

Outside the mating season, fishers are solitary creatures that establish habitats of about eight square miles, with little overlap for individuals of the same sex.  This means that in the whole Hassanamesit Woods area of Grafton, you might only see a single male and a single female!  See if your local New England pine forest has fishers around.  They spend most of their time on the ground (NOT in trees) and are most active during the "crepuscular" hours - sunrise and sunset.  To learn more cool facts about fishers, check out the "Mammalian Species" journal article that I got most of my information from and an info pamphlet on fishers from the Massachusetts government.  Of course, Google and YouTube have great stuff too!

What a great day in the woods.  Maybe I'll go again soon, wait with coffee and an MP3 player, and try to get better photos.  The experience just goes to show how close new experiences are to your own home!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Misadventures with the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)

I thought I was going to die today, but rest easy for I will not.  I received no comfort from Messrs. Alden and Paulson, harumph!  But I am getting ahead of myself.  See, it all started weeks ago on my edible wild foods walk at the Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary in Attleboro, Massachusetts.  Russ Cohen, author of Wild plants I have known... and eaten and our guide for the walk, was sharing useful beginner's wisdom about wild foods.  "If it tastes bad, don't eat it," he offered helpfully.  I oversimplified what he shared with us that day because this was the most useful statement I heard.  Russ did helpfully add, "that's not to say you should go around tasting everything," but I had already begun finding the hidden fruits of the forest and begun tasting them with reckless abandon.  If the suspected "food" wasn't delicious, I spit it out.  It didn't bother me that I spit out nearly everything I had never seen in a supermarket before; trying these forest fruits made feel hip and dangerous.  I survived the nature walk that day.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.) - Pretty, but mildly poisonous!
Now I'm in Seattle, visiting a friend.  While walking in Lincoln Park, a beautiful stretch along the Puget Sound in southwest Seattle, I realized there were wild blackberries everywhere.  Joy!  I happily leaped for the tall berries others couldn't reach.  While chewing, I remembered the wild foods walk I had survived weeks ago in Massachusetts, and decided to resume my "taste first, ask questions later" approach to Pacific Northwest plants.  The next time I saw a strange plant, I popped a few of its snow-white berries into my mouth and chewed.  Disappointed at the complete lack of flavor, I spit them out.  I took a photo (see picture), and we later identified them as snowberries (Symphoricarpos), which are mildly toxic; you'd have to eat a lot to get sick.  This approach to wild berries made me a mini-hero to my friend, a computer geek who is always surprised to see trees outside of the zoo.  Now I felt like Survivor-man, and thus began my wild food foraging in the great wilderness of Seattle's parks and suburbs.  I should have reminded myself that my foraging experience was limited to a single lecture about Atlantic Coast plants, and that none of what I'd yet found was actually food...

Nevertheless, this is how I found myself chewing on a small red berry (or aril, in technical terms) that I'd plucked from a needly evergreen shrub next to a Seattle bus stop.  The fruit had a slight sweetness over the snowberry.  So I had a decision to make.  I could spit it out like I did with the snowberry, which was neutral on the is-it-bad-or-good scale, and was only mildly poisonous anyway - or I could swallow it and see what happened.  Because I thought it was funny, I decided to eat only half of the berry.  

The Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia)
When I got back to my friend's house I reached for the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest, by Mr Peter Alden and Mr Dennis Paulson, to look up the strange red berry.  (I had bought him this book as a way of getting him to discover what nature Seattle had to offer beyond the bugs in his programming code.)  To my delight, I found the berry on page 102.  This is what the authors wrote about the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia):
"Shrub or tree with broad crown.  Bark brown, purple, and red; smooth, flaky.  Needles soft, flat, in 2 rows.  Fruit (aril) tiny, red, cup-shaped, berry-like, juicy.  CAUTION: Fruit deadly poisonous."

Excuse me?
I began to sweat.  
Nervously, I checked my mental and physical state.  
How many berries does it take to kill a man?  
In a mild panic, I turned to Google.

According to a document I found, the yew berry (or aril, as I corrected myself while awaiting possible death) "contains toxic amounts of the cardiotoxic alkaloidal fraction named 'taxine.'  'Taxine' causes death from asphyxia due to cardiac and respiratory failure."
Was I having trouble breathing?!  I read on.
" The Pacific Northwest of the United States has actually only been ‘civilized’ and ‘settled’ for a little over 100 years.  Most of the people that ‘settled’ this country were of European or Asian decent.  They recognized the yews when they got here..."
Hm, so I was going to die because my ancestors immigrated to the Atlantic Coast, found no yews, and didn't think it would make a useful tradition to pass this knowledge on through the generations in case the shrubs should be found elsewhere on the new continent.  I was particularly worried, and ready to start dialing the local Poison Control Center.  But I really like to read, so I kept going, still scared I might die:
"...and mistakenly assumed they were poisonous like the yews in their homelands."

Excuse me again?
I realized my throat wasn't tight.  Continuing with the text:
"The Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) got a bad rap due to guilt-by-association and that is why many websites, encyclopedias and botanical publications list Taxus brevifolia as poisonous.  There are no documented instances of poisoning in humans or animals with Taxus brevifolia."  

"#$%^&*!," I shouted to the authors of my Audubon guide, with a sigh of relief.  I do not feel like I am dying.  But I wished they had checked their facts!  Still, it is my fault for mis-interpreting advice from a wild foods forager.  In today's information age, where positive identification can be made in mere minutes, it is irresponsible to taste anything in the wild you don't recognize.  But it did add some thrill to my afternoon!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fish that use tools!

Jane Goodall shocked the world in the 1960's when she reported the use of tools - that is, the manipulation of an inanimate object to more efficiently alter the position or shape of another object - among chimpanzees.  The belief that this was an exclusively human behavior had been debunked.  Since then, reports of animals that use tools come from all over the animal kingdom - though usually among the more highly-evolved species in each group.

Orange-spotted tuskfish, Choerodon anchorago
In September, an article in the scholarly journal Coral Reefs caught my eye.  Dr. Giacomo Bernardi of the University of California' Long Marine Lab was on a trip to Palau when he noticed and filmed an orange-spotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) smashing a clam against a rock to break it open (video link).  To the eyes of a trained ecologist, that rock was an 'anvil,' a tool being used by the wrasse which would otherwise have a very hard time getting a large bivalve shell open.  It is not the first report of tool use among fishes - indeed a report from the Florida Keys describes the same behavior in a yellowhead wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti) as early as 1995.  In addition, the use of a stationary rock as an 'anvil' may be stretching what is classically considered tool use, since the fish doesn't manipulate the tool.  But Dr. Stéphan Reebs of the Université de Moncton points out that there are a couple other interesting examples of "tools" manipulated by fishes - such as a damselfish species (Stegastes leucoris) that cleans algae off a rock for egglaying by spitting sand at it, and a freshwater cichlid (Bujurquina vittata) that lays its eggs on a leaf and will carry the leaf with it when fleeing a potential predator.  Studies of tool use are important because the behavior may indicate a higher form of intelligence - a somewhat subjective biological concept - and thus give us clues to the evolutionary history of cognition.

Of course, your heroic author had also seen this behavior in the wild.  On one of my last trips in the Red Sea before graduating with a Master's degree, I was diving about 30 feet deep on a beautiful sandy patch of reef.  I was helping to fence off a clean, square sand patch for an experiment and had to move a rock out of the way.  As soon as I moved the rock, a scallop darted away.  (Scallops do have eyes, and they can close their shell in rapid succession to effectively jettison themselves backwards, away from potential predators.)  Of course, a tiny red scallop swimming over a white sandy bottom instantly signaled a feeding opportunity to motion-wary fishes nearby, always hungry on the coral reef.  Perhaps wrongly, I decided to sacrifice the scallop for science to see what behaviors it would elicit among the diverse community of fish species waiting to attack.  Much to my surprise, a checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus) immediately darted in for the meal - despite the fact that it was far too large for this fish's tiny mouth!  To my further surprise, it swam around with the scallop in its mouth and began striking it against various rocks, likely to break it and make it smaller to eat.  Lucky for me, I caught it on video (watch it full screen to catch the anvil use)!

When I saw Dr. Bernardi's article, I wrote him and discovered that this was potentially the first observation of this behavior for this Red Sea wrasse.  These wrasses do not regularly feed on scallops, yet this individual was behaviorally prepared to accept the challenge.  Would it need to learn this technique?  Clearly it made the choice to do something about the large size of the scallop instead of just rejecting it outright.  And if smashing food on an anvil is not a regularly used behavior, when would the fish have learned how to do it?  It is amazingly difficult for scientists to record these rare behaviors since air supply and funding limit our underwater observations to mere snapshots of time in the lives of these wild creatures.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Finding Nature Around You: The Hickory Tussock Moth

Moving back in with your parents to work from home means that there are always domestic projects they can find for you, the perceived new help.  Today I had to change the lawnmower blade and cut the grass.  I had just removed the blade from our electric mower and was walking back into the basement with it when a white and black fuzzy furry caterpillar started wriggling across the path in front of me - right by my basement door!  It seemed on a mission - it was moving very quickly for a caterpillar.  Fascinated, I dropped to my knees and coaxed it to crawl on the mower blade I was carrying (so I wouldn't lose sight of it - it was moving ever so fast for a caterpillar).  I then ran into the house to find my camera, cautiously watching the caterpillar to avoid dropping it.  (I also did not want to touch it - the setae of caterpillars, marine worms, and other "furry" invertebrates tend to break off in skin and itch, like fiberglass.)  This was a very interesting situation for my mother, who was entertaining a house guest.  I am curious to know what they must have talked about when I asked her to hold the lawnmower blade and watch the caterpillar while I ran upstairs for my camera!

With camera in hand, I returned the caterpillar to where I found it on the ground outside my basement door.  I then flopped down on my stomach and started shooting.  I purchased my camera for the purpose of photographing wildlife, mostly for identification but also to try to capture some unique and emotive shots.  But unique and emotive are not always at your control, especially if you've decided to not manipulate your subject.  I didn't think it right to capture this creature; it clearly had somewhere to be!  So I did the best I could as it crawled towards me, pattered through the garden, and trudged through a miniature forest of grass.

This little caterpillar is not afraid of my hand!
After it had crawled off into the bushes and I lost sight of it, I ran inside to identify the beast.  This can be a very tricky task, requiring your memory, photographs, the internet, field guides, or a biologist with local expertise.  Google is my first starting point - not because it is the best, but because I am impatient.  Lucky for me, the first (non-advertisement) link Google returned for "caterpillar identification guide Massachusetts" took me to an excellent caterpillar guide on, where I could search for caterpillars that had certain identifiable attributes.  Noting that this caterpillar was "yellow/white" in main body color and had "hair pencils" or "lashes" of hair (tight groups of longer setae that look like eyelashes), I cut down the pool of potential species to a few and by looking at pictures quickly identified the beast as a hickory tussock moth caterpillar, or Lophocampa caryae.  

The adult moth.
Using the scientific name like a key for unlocking a wealth of knowledge, I re-searched Google (ah, so that's where "research" comes from?).  The species is named after its preferred food - hickory tree leaves - and its hairy groups of setae, or "tussocks."  It is also known to feed on walnut and butternut trees, as well as beech and oak.  These fascinating creatures complete their life cycle in a single year!  Adult moths take wing, mate, and lay eggs from May to July.  The developing caterpillars are out and about from July to late October, when they start looking for a place to "coccon" overwinter and metamorphose in the spring.  And perhaps statistical probability explains why I had the fortune to come across one, for this year appears to be a boom year for this species.  Indeed the paradox of nature is that it is in constant fluctuation - wars waged between predators and prey means species may be rare some years or decades but common the next.  What a system all the non-human species must still contend with!

For those of you that think you don't have time for nature or that you could never see such creatures that I run into, I maintain that the majority of times I see these wonders when I am least trying to find them.  After all, the hickory tussock moth caterpillar wasn't a yard from my door!  This does not make me special or unique - what wonders lie in front of your door?  Instead, discovering the nature around you is more like playing a musical instrument, where practice makes perfect.  One skill involved in this is noticing subtle movements.  Generally, if some object is moving of its own free will, it might be alive.  So once you've gone looking for lots of wildlife and start getting used to spotting moving creatures, those same subtle movements will catch your eye when you are not looking but are still in the right place.  We all share the ancestral tradition of hunting, we have just forgotten how.  Re-awakening your spotter instincts brings with it a very fulfilling sense of belonging to your wilderness, even if you only noticed a caterpillar that wouldn't make a good meal!  ;)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wild edibles of New England

Today I visited the Oak Knoll Wildlife Refuge in Attleboro, Massachusetts for a combination talk plus walk about edible wild foods.  Finding food in the wild, or 'foraging,' is an activity many Americans do, though it is easily overlooked.  If it sounds strange, consider that hunting and fishing are really just foraging for animals - and that all of our farmed foods were once exclusively wild.  (And we once exclusively foraged.)

Russ Cohen sharing wild food knowledge
Russ Cohen, author of Wild Foods I Have Known... and Eaten guided our three hour adventure.  He brought along with him some fruit "leather," an all-natural snack he makes by simply mashing the berries of the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and drying the pulp in thin (1/4") sheets in the oven.  No other ingredients needed! And you can feel good about eating them to extinction - they are an invasive species!

Sheep sorrell (Rumex acetosella), a lemony salad green!
Russ introduced us to many other wild edibles that day, including boletes, chanterelles, and sulfur shelf mushrooms, sheep sorrell (excellent tangy salad greens), black walnuts, hickory nuts, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes...  It was hard for me not to start tasting everything at random!  There are plenty of wild plants that do not make good foods so I would suggest getting a guide to foraging in your area, like Russ' book, before cooking up some lethal mushrooms.  Although the talk cost me $18, it all went towards wildlife conservation and I had a great time!

Some beautiful but INEDIBLE wild mushrooms

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Finding Nature Around You: The Praying Mantis

I was late for work so I was running out the door and down the steps of my Grafton home's back porch.  And I nearly smushed a beautiful praying mantis, a winged insect of the family Mantidae.  Unlike their closest relatives - grasshoppers - the mantids are exclusively carnivorous, actually "preying" on other insects.  (Although the "praying" name comes from the way they hold their forelegs in an almost reverent position.)  Did you know that the female mantis will often devour the male after - or even during - copulation?  Yep, apparently a beheaded male can still get the job done.  Despite their formidable looking clawed forelegs, these creatures are harmless to humans.  I picked this one up for some photographs, which was probably exhausted from the torrents of water ripping through its habitat from a rainstorm the previous day.  After the pictures, I put it back in some tall grass under some trees, hoping to hide it from hungry birds.  Truly a beautiful creature!