Siskiyou wildflowers and butterflies

Our roadside botanizing was especially exciting today. First perhaps I should explain why we walk along forest service roads instead of hiking along trails. It has a lot to do with a single plant, although not one I would describe as a widlflower.

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Yes, it’s poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), seen above early in the spring before it has reached its full diabolical potential of thickets six feet tall, stretching branches out onto trails in search of sunshine in order to grow even more monstrously large. Poison oak could be an interesting plant: it occurs in various forms from semi-vines threading up tree trunks, to a low-growing ankle-ambusher, as well as the aforementioned woody thickets. But all parts contain a chemical that is—not poisonous—but an extremely powerful allergen, an oil called urushiol. Most people are allergic to it, and I am very very allergic, so once we get off of bare ground I spend most of my time looking down and around before every step in order to find it before it finds me. (Be warned: allergies can come and go, so a history of immunity doesn’t mean you’ll always be immune.)

Happily, there’s an abundance of things to see by walking along the road and making a few careful excursions. Today was a bonanza.

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There’s an audio recording of Lew Welch reading this, here.

I don’t think we saw anything that “nobody’s ever really seen”, although one must pay careful attention to Lew Welch’s language, that “really seen” part. But what we saw was marvelous. Here’s one sight:

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From a distance I thought the butterflies were gathered upon a damp patch improbably located in the middle of the hot dusty gravel road. In other such situations, I haven’t been able to approach very closely without scaring them off. I took some pictures, then moved a bit closer, closer still, and in the end I was kneeling right beside them without really disturbing them at all. And then I could see what it was that they were so attracted to.

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They were on the scat of some animal, not an uncommon territorial marker to find in the middle of these forest roads. Could be fox, raccoon, coyote. Undigested material including seeds and some woody bits (pine needles?) can be seen, and the scat is pretty dry. Unlikely to be a source of moisture. However, butterflies require minerals not found in nectar, and often get these by drinking from damp soil or applying their tongues to scat. I am curious how they get nutrients from dry materials, because their tongues are hollow tubes designed for drinking liquids.

I poured some water on a nearby area before we left in search of lilies. When we came back, all the butterflies were still on the scat.

There were two species there. One was Adelpha bredowii, California sister, shown here exploring my arm. Some photos (here, for example) show this species with blue rather than grey markings, but that may be local variation.

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What’s the “sister” about? It’s said to refer to the black and white markings (like a nun’s habit) on the other side of the wings, the dorsal side (looking down on the outspread wings and the insect’s back, from above).

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Photo source.

The other is Limenitis lorquinii, Lorquin’s admiral. There are several different butterfly species with “admiral” in their names, and the reference is not clear. Some say the names were originally “admirable” but I can find no support, just speculation. Lorquin was a Frenchman in California during the Gold Rush of 1850, who sent butterfly specimens back to France where they were described for the first time by eminent lepidopterist Jean Baptiste Alphonse Dechauffour de Boisduval.

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It is unbelievable to see these creatures in such detail. First, Limenitis lorquini.

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It is possible to see the wing-veins as the three-dimensional structures that they are. When we read that a new butterfly emerging from the chrysalis has to “pump up” its folded wrinkled wings, before they are strong enough to fly, these veins are the means. “The butterfly has to expand and dry [its wings] as soon as it emerges from the chrysalis. To do this, it uses its body as a pump and forces fluid through a series of tube-like veins. It’s a little like inflating a balloon — as the veins fill with fluid, they slowly stretch the surface of the wings.” Source.

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Adelpha bredowii, trailing its long tongue over my skin.

We went on to look at the Washington lilies described in my previous post. The blooms that were white and pink on June 24th,

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today were nearly bright pink and drooping.

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But another plant was in spectacular bloom.

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This is Philadelphus lewisii, commonly called mock orange for its fragrance. To me there was nothing citrus-y about the fragrance, but I’ve never smelled orange trees in bloom. (There are perhaps a dozen other plants also called mock orange, illustrating how treacherous common names can be.) Philadelphus lewisii is one of nearly 200 plants new to science which Lewis and Clark described. Indians used its straight stems in making arrows.

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On the drive back to the main road we saw many more, all in synchrony of bloom. It’s a shrub that can reach 12 feet, so it offers a lot of flowers! We had remarked earlier on how many butterflies were about, in the air: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and others. Surely the Philadelphus extravaganza had something to do with the sudden abundance of butterflies, and we speculated on how insects and plants keep in step when the music of the dance—the temperature, rainfall, sunny or cloudy skies—can vary so drastically year to year. This long rainy spring was very atypical, yet after three sunny days here are the partners right in step.

Another unusual find will have to wait for my next post. It has something to do with this wild rose…

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Ah, Oregon!

Here in Elk Snout (the fictional small Oregon coastal town featured in the 1987 Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn movie Overboard), things are different, all right.

From an article in the Oregonian about use of fake urine in drug tests, this information from a county Dept. of Community Justice spokesperson:

The tampering includes people who dilute their own urine and tricksters who turn in a range of substitutes. “For example,” she said, “someone tried to pass off a sample of elk urine as their own.”

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”You want what?” Photo source.

Unclear on the basic concept: White House Press Secretary on Gulf oil spill

As President Obama made his tour of the Gulf region on Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One that BP would move forward in creating an escrow account to ensure, “that all the people who are affected by BP’s oil spill are made whole.”
from politicsdaily.com, June 14, 2010.

What kind of a disconnected nitwit can use the phrase “made whole” about this? Believe it or not, there are some things money can’t change. All the money in the world cannot turn back the clock and make the ocean clean, bring back to life the millions of dead creatures—the tiny ones we never see also suffered, also died, and from our myopic human standpoint they are important because they’re part of the web of life that makes shrimp for us to catch and eat.

This isn’t “just words”, this is a perversion of thinking that is at the root of our modern lostness. Minds so separated from the real “buzzing blooming confusion” of life, that they are hardly here in the same world with the oiled pelicans and the devastated fishermen. Yet like aliens from some distant galaxy they walk among us and their power is immense, to act in our world, control what we know, run our government like a puppet theatre.

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A dead jelly fish floats in oil in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

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Hermit crabs struggle to cross a patch of oil on a barrier island near East Grand Terre Island, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

A web furnished for concealment, Cyclosa conica

Yesterday’s forest walk, along an alarmingly narrow dirt road next to a hundred-foot drop, introduced us to Cyclosa conica

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a spider with an unusual tactic for concealment. On its web it makes a vertical strip of reinforced filaments, called a stabilimentum, to which it adds the husks of its prey. Females often place their egg sacs in the stabilimentum too. Then the spider hides itself at the center of this little visual interference area it has made, while it waits for insects to fly into the web.

The vertical strip of insect remains is clear in the photo above, and here’s a closer look at the arachnid itself.

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The stabilimentum is used in various forms by other orb-weaver spiders (family Araneidae, the builders of spiral wheel-shaped webs).

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Above, the “Writing or Signature Spider”, Argiope sp., photo taken in Singapore. Source.

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Above, stabilimenta of Argiope sp. take different shapes including circular and cross-shaped. Photo from Wikipedia.

What are the functions of the stabilimentum?

Various theories have been propounded as to the effect of the stabilimentum: strengthening the web, preserving the web by causing birds to avoid it, even attracting insects (although it would be natural to think that the more solid-looking stabilimentum might make the webs easier for insects to avoid). The spider we saw makes it into a “decorated” hiding place, but that is most likely an embellishment by this one species upon a structure originally serving other purposes.

In 1998 I-Min Tso, now a professor at Tunghai University in Taiwan, did a field study with Cyclosa conica (the spider we photographed) to find out whether “Stabilimentum-Decorated Webs Spun by Cyclosa Conica (Araneae, Araneidae) Trapped more Insects than Undecorated Webs”. He was able to make the comparison because where he worked (near Pellston, MI), the spiders sometimes omitted the stabilimentum (and 18 out of 24 webs with stabilimenta had no prey included in the “decoration”). This seems odd, as the stabilimentum with prey is cited as a characteristic of the genus Cyclosa, but maybe other observers have failed to notice instances of C. conica webs that lack the stabilimenta, or lack the wrapped prey within them. At any rate, Dr. Tso found that webs with stabilimenta caught more prey than plain webs even when the plain ones were larger. Similar results have been found for other species that add stabilimenta to their webs.

How might this work? At least one species, Argiope argentata (one of the Argiope spp. known as the “Writing Spider”), is said to spin special UV-reflecting silk for the stabilimentum. Theoretically this makes it more visible to insects, like the UV patterns on flowers, which tend to be “bull’s-eyes” surrounding the center where pollination takes place. In a laboratory where the light could be manipulated to contain UV radiation or not, fewer fruit flies flew to webs when the UV light was not present (webs were those of juvenile Argiope versicolor).

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Seen in UV, these flowers have a wide black “target”. Photo by Tom Blegalski/TTBphoto, from geneticarchaeology.com.

Under that theory, insects would fly toward the attractive UV center of the web (the stabilimentum) and not see the less-visible “this is a spider web!” part until too late. The theory fits the Writing spider, which prefers open sunny areas, better than our C. conica, which lives in sun-and-shade forests.

But the theory may be too good to be true, given that we don’t actually know enough about insect vision and behavior, and there is even disagreement regarding how UV-reflective spider silk is. In the real world, light conditions vary from place to place and moment to moment, even as a breeze changes the orientation of a web slightly, making it difficult to assign easy labels like more visible/less visible. And the visual systems of insects vary, with many being (I venture to say) unknown. The Australian spider Argiope aetherea was found to adjust “the quantity of silk decoration… adding more silk decoration when the web was located in dim light rather than bright light.” The authors of this study cite their findings as evidence that is “[c}onsistent with the prey-attracting function”, but of course it would also be consistent with any other function that involved visual perception even without UV involvement, e.g. signaling birds to avoid the web.

As a non-scientist, I’ve probably taken this topic far enough; the visibility and function of web decorations have been argued over for a hundred years, and modern technology seems merely to guarantee that each investigator with a spectrophotometer reaches a different conclusion from the others. One article (1), in 2005, summarizes areas of difference and ambiguity, ending with a possible redirection of emphasis: “The contrast of web decorations is consistent between families and different decoration patterns, raising the exciting possibility that their shape rather than spectral properties might explain variation in receiver response.” But there’s a review of the evidence in a long article not available online (2, abstract only), and now that my curiosity is up, I’m seeking a reprint of it.

1. Bruce, Matthew J, and Astrid M Heiling and Marie E Herberstein. 2005. Spider signals: are web decorations visible to birds and bees? Biology Letters 22 September 2005. 1 (3): 299-302.

2. Herberstein, M. E. , C. L. Craig, J. A. Coddington and M. A. Elgar. 2000. The functional significance of silk decorations of orb-web spiders: a critical review of the empirical evidence. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. 75 : 649-669. [abstract]

More photos and information about Cyclosa conica

eurospiders – good photos including extreme closeups of body parts

Range map

Cyclosa is derived from the Greek “kyclos” meaning “round” possibly with reference to its orb-web. Conica refers to the conical shape of the abdomen.

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Some penguins to be listed under Endangered Species Act

from the Penguin News site,

4 June 2010

Legal settlement will protect seven penguin species at risk from global warming and fisheries (USA)

A federal judge has approved a settlement that requires the US federal government to finalise protections for seven penguin species under the Endangered Species Act. The court-ordered settlement results from a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network challenging the Obama administration’s failure to finalise its determination that these penguins warrant Endangered Species Act protection due to threats from climate change and commercial fisheries.
Read Center for Biological Diversity press release

While this is a justified action, it’s not clear what the practical results might be. The polar bear was listed under the ESA in May 2008 because of habitat loss from global warming. Yet Bush’s Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne “made clear several times during a press conference announcing the department’s decision that, despite his acknowledgement that the polar bear’s sea ice habitat is melting due to global warming, the ESA will not be used as a tool for trying to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for creating climate change.” For the bears, listing could have potential benefits of changed regulations governing activities in US territory (such as oil drilling) but action would be based on the direct impact on the ground, not the contribution of oil and drilling to climate change.

Last year the Scientific American blog stated the effects of ESA listing for these species of penguin:

Why protect penguins under the ESA if they don’t live in the U.S. or its territories? “Listing of penguins under the ESA would make import or export of the species illegal without an ESA permit,” Ward says [US Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist Tamara Ward]. “Such permits are issued only if an activity has a conservation benefit and it is hoped listing may help focus international attention on the species conservation needs.” In addition, according to the CBD [Center for Biological Diversity], listing would also require federal agencies to ensure that any action carried out, authorized or funded by the U.S. government would not jeopardize the continued existence of the protected species.

Major threats to penguin species include overfishing and climate change. The latter causes loss of ice on which some species nest, and changes in currents which move fish and other prey to new areas of the sea—sometimes so far offshore that penguin parents are hampered in bringing back fish to feed the young. Oilspills and introduced terrestrial predators (rats, dogs, feral cats) can have devastating local effects.

Realistically, I think it will take a much greater disaster than the Gulf Oil spill to provide the political will for effective action on climate change and the overfishing/pollution of the oceans. Piecemeal wildlife protection is sometimes valuable, and ESA listing has symbolic importance (perhaps little else in this case), but where, where, is the “place to stand” for moving the world on these huge issues?

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African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus) oiled in a spill off the South African coast. Photo by Cape Times, Cape Town South Africa, from Penguin Conservation vol. 7(2).

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Little Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), at entrance to a nest burrow on Phillip Island, Australia. Photo by M. Kuhn, Creative Commons license.

What matters most to BP

This’ll fix things:

As for BP, it has taken steps to beef up its PR operation, in an attempt to limit the damage to its reputation. The company has recruited as head of the firm’s US media relations Anne Womack-Kolton, the former press secretary to Dick Cheney.

from this morning’s UK Guardian

True, the company’s public relations since the explosion have been terrible: suppressing and lying about things that will become known eventually anyway, and ridiculous efforts to play down the seriousness of the oil spill. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, “told Fox News sister network Sky News on Tuesday [May 18] that he is largely unconcerned:

I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest. It is impossible to say and we will mount, as part of the aftermath, a very detailed environmental assessment as we go forward. We’re going to do that with some of the science institutions in the U.S. But everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.

After BP has squandered any potential public credibility, the most silver-tongued revolving-door lobbyist-cum-government appointee (such as Ms. Womack-Kolton) will be hard pressed to reverse the tide. We all know which tide they really truly care most about, when it comes to the tide of financial-world and public opinion, vs. the tide of oil.

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Young heron dying in oil-soaked marsh. Photo by GERALD HERBERT / AP. Copyright by photographer and AP, not used with permission.

Fox vs. dog, no contest

We were walking down a gravel road when, perhaps a hundred yards ahead of us, a grey fox crossed the road at a dead run, from a brushy area on the left of the road to a wooded area on the right side. The wooded area wasn’t very big; at its edge a long open grassy stretch began and continued to where we stood, and beyond.

Our mastiff Jack was off down the road instantly, turning into the woods where the fox had gone. Like us, he thought the fox would prefer the cover of the forest, or perhaps keep going away from the road, through the wooded area and up the steep brushy slope at the back.

Not so: while Jack remained in the woods sniffing around, here came the fox out of the trees and down the long open strip paralleling the road. He was completely exposed, and heading right toward us. Maybe he’d zigged and zagged a bit after entering the woods, to give Jack some scent to follow, but very soon he’d made a hard right to leave the confined area for a place where he could gain a lot of yardage on his pursuer.

By the time Jack followed his nose and reached the grassy area, the fox was long gone past us and out of sight; our exhilarated dog ran after him quite a ways before giving up. Then he came back to the woods to snuff up that interesting smell some more. I can imagine his satisfaction: finally, he had a visual sighting to go with one of the mysterious smells he’s found on our walks. And the fox, well, he proved his legendary cleverness once again.

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Photo by dbriz