Plants That Kill: Neem Tree

Adapted from page 217 of Plants That Kill:

Neem, also known as Indian neem, is grown across the tropics and subtropics as a shade tree, for reforestation programmes and in plantations for production of azadirachtin, but is considered invasive in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Australia, where it has become naturalized. The seeds of Philippine neem (Azadirachta excelsa), which is native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, and has naturalized in Singapore and Thailand, are also a source of neem insecticides. However, even though neem-based pesticides are a good biological alternative to synthetic compounds, accidental ingestion of neem products or seeds has resulted in a number of deaths, especially in children.

While the effectiveness of neem insecticides is directly associated with azadirachtin content, the biological activity of many of the other compounds present in the neem tree (most of which are also triterpenoids of the limonoid group) add to its effect. Used in their natural combination, they may be helpful in mitigating the development of pesticide resistance.

The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) can reach 10–20 m (30–65 ft) in height. It has compound leaves with several pairs of leaflets and heads of 150–250 small white flowers. Photo credit: QpicImages, Alamy Stock Photos

The antifeedant activity of azadirachtin and some of the other neem compounds is through their stimulation of specific ‘deterrent’ cells on the insect mouthparts, while blocking other receptor cells that normally stimulate feeding, resulting in starvation and death of the insect. Insects vary considerably in their behavioural responses to azadirachtin. Studies on the desert locust have shown that it has a particularly high sensitivity to azadirachtin as an antifeedant, being deterred from feeding at concentrations of 0.04 parts per million. Interestingly, North American grasshoppers, including the American grasshopper (Schistocerca americana), which is in the same genus as the desert locust, are insensitive to azadirachtin at such low concentrations. 

Insects that are not deterred from feeding on azadirachtin do not die immediately, but soon stop eating due to the action of the compound on a number of physiological pathways. It interferes with moulting and growth, for example, by blocking production and release of moulting hormones, causing moulting defects, and it disrupts reproduction by reducing the number of viable eggs and live progeny. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: Synchronous Symphonies

Among all the glamorous mating rituals that have been shaped by evolution, the displays performed by certain synchronously flashing fireflies might rank as the most spectacular. For reasons we don’t yet understand, only a few lightningbugs show a remarkable behavior: thousands of male fireflies will match up their rhythms to flash together in unison. Two distinct types of synchronous flash behavior have been observed: one type involves stationary males, while the other takes place among roving (flying) fireflies.

In southeast Asia, certain Pteroptyxmale fireflies sit in communal display trees along tidal rivers, where each night they spend hours flashing together in perfect synchrony. Females fly to these stationary aggregations, known as leks, where mating occurs.

Writing in the journal Science in 1935, Hugh Smith, a naturalist living in Thailand, described these dazzling displays:

Photo credit: Radim Schreiber

Imagine a tree thirty-five to forty feet high thickly covered with small ovate leaves, apparently with a firefly on every leaf and all the fireflies flashing in perfect unison at the rate of about three times in two seconds, the tree being in complete darkness between the flashes. Imagine a dozen such trees standing close together along the river’s edge with synchronously flashing fireflies on every leaf. Imagine a tenth of a mile of riverfront with an unbroken line of Sonneratia[mangrove] trees with fireflies on every leaf flashing in synchronism, the insects on the trees at the ends of the line acting in perfect unison with those between.

 

Because fireflies congregrate so predictably in the same trees, night after night for months, native boatmen once navigated among the twisting waterways using firefly display trees as landmarks.

But stationary flash synchrony doesn’t happen in any North American fireflies. Instead, several of our lightningbug species show a kind of wave synchrony, where flashes are synchronized locally among males flying within line-of-sight of each other. In the southern Appalachians, the synchronous symphony of Photinus carolinusattracts thousands of visitors to admire these flying males as they coordinate their six-pulsed courtship flashes with those of nearby males. These fireflies create waves of synchronous flashing that moves through the forest in the Allegheny National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Similar displays of wave synchrony among roving males can be seen in mating displays of Photuris frontalis in Congaree National Park, South Carolina, Photinus knulli in Arizona, and Macrolampis palaciosi in Tlaxcala, Mexico. When they’re in a dense population, males of other fireflies will sometimes synchronize their flashes for a short time.

Wherever you find them, synchronous fireflies make an indelible impression – they are certainly one of Earth’s great natural treasures!

 

Learn more about firefly synchrony in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, and on the author’s firefly blog.

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Bird Fact Friday — The Ducks of Chile

Adapted from pages 42-44 of Birds of Chile:

The Crested Duck is widespread throughout Chile, and fairly common in the North Andes, and from Aysén to the Tierra del Fuego. They are less common from the Central Andes to Los Lagos. These ducks frequently inhabit lakes, marshes, rivers, inshore coastal water, and bogs. Males give hoarse whistles, while female make low quacks. Juvenilles have a short crest and duller eyes than adults. Interestingly, adults in the North Andes typically have orange eyes; adults in the South have reddish eyes.

Steamer Ducks, meanwhile, have had their names derived from their habit of flapping and splashing rapidly (‘steaming’) across the water. Males give trilled and whistled quacks, while females grunt. They frequently exist in pairs or small groups, with flocks typically numbering in 10s. More specifically, Flying Steamer-Ducks are mainly located in South Chile, commonly along the coasts and lowland lakes from Cape Horn to Aysén. Males have whitish heads and necks in the summer; females are smaller and browner than the males. Juveniles typically have dark gray bills, and attain adult color during their first year. Their bills are never solidly bright orange, but male bills can look plain orange at a distance.

An adult Flying Steamer-Duck – note its stout bill and rudimentary wings.

Torrent Ducks are found in the fast-flowing Andean streams and rivers, and are fairly common but often local in Arica. They are typically found in pairs or family groups, and often stand on rocks. Both sexes give rough, quacking hisses. Males found in Central or Southern Chile have orange bellies; in North Chile, they are solidly black below or with pale, grayish streaking. Females are similar throughout the range. Juvenilles have whitish faces and underparts, gray-barred flanks, and dark bills.

To see more photos of ducks from Chile, follow us on Instagram.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

Plants That Kill: Ephedera

Adapted from page 214 of Plants That Kill:

The drug ma huang has been one of the most important in the Chinese materia medica for millennia, having been first recorded in Shen-nung Pen-ts’ao Ching (Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica), the earliest extant Chinese pharmacopoeia (c. ad 25–200). Today, it is sourced from four species of ephedra (Ephedra spp.), including E. sinica, which is native to northeast China, Mongolia and parts of Russia. In fact, at least two-thirds of Ephedra species from across the globe are used medicinally, and are the source of useful compounds in the fight against cold and flu symptoms. Unfortunately, however, they are also subject to abuse.

Chinese ephedra (Ephedra sinica) is a gymnosperm and close relative of conifers, including yews (Taxus spp.). The stems are photosynthetic and the fruit are fleshy cone bracts. Photo credit: WILDLIFE, Alamy Stock Photos

The small genus of Ephedra contains around 54 species within its own family, Ephedraceae, distributed in northern temperate regions of the world as well as in western South America. There is evidence that ephedra may be one of the first plants that was used medicinally, as pollen of medicinal plants, including high-climbing jointfir (E. altissima), was found in the grave of a male Neanderthal buried in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, in around 60,000 bc. Some scientists dispute the interpretation that flowers had been placed deliberately in the grave, however, as the pollen may have been introduced by burrowing rodents. 

Indisputable recorded uses of ephedra in traditional medicine systems include the treatment of asthma, hay fever and other allergies, as well as respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, and colds and influenza. The effectiveness of ephedra in treating many of these conditions is not in doubt, but abuse of the active compounds has required their use today to be controlled. 

Ephedra species contain several alkaloids: ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norephedrine, norpseudoephedrine (cathine), methylephedrine and methylpseudoephedrine. Levels vary tremendously between the species (the North American species Nevada ephedra (E. nevadensis) is apparently devoid of them) and also between plant parts, with the alkaloids concentrated in green stems and leaves, while fruits and roots have virtually none. 

Ephedrine and related alkaloids stimulate the nervous system by mimicking the effects of compounds naturally produced by the body that bind to and activate receptors (endogenous agonists). They are potent stimulators of receptors that are targets for adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephine), and responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response. The effects of these drugs include constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction), raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, expansion of bronchial tubes (bronchodilation), which makes breathing easier, and increase in energy expenditure (thermogenesis). 

The two major alkaloids found in Ephedra species, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, have been used in decongestant medicines to treat coughs, colds and sinusitis. However, these alkaloids are structurally similar to synthetic amphetamines, with ephedrine differing from methamphetamine only in a hydroxyl group, leading to the use of these medicines in the illicit manufacture of amphetamines. In response, restrictions are generally in place on the sale of products containing the alkaloids. In the United Kingdom, for example, they can legally be sold only at pharmacies, by or under the supervision of a pharmacist, with permitted levels of the alkaloids kept to a minimum if sold without a prescription. 

Restrictions also apply to the sale of the herbal ephedra drug ma huang and others, which have been marketed as ‘herbal ecstasy’. Despite these legal restrictions, the raw herb and products containing ephedra and its alkaloids are still openly sold over the Internet, posing a potential risk to consumers who are unaware of the extremely dangerous side effects.

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Bird Fact Friday – Hillstars

Adapted from page 157 of Birds of Chile:

The Andean Hilstar is found in the North Andes, and is a common resident south of Tarapacá. They frequently populate scrubby valleys, villages, and rocky slopes with scattered shrubs. They often cling to flowers when feeding, but have also been known to feed on the ground. They have bulky nests (often made of alpaca wool), which are placed under the eaves of buildings, bridges, or rock faces. Their call is a high, slurred tswic, often made in a short series. They are distinctive in their range, with a flashy white tail. Males have an emerald gorget; females are dull overall. 

A male Andean Hillstar (Oreotrochilus estella)

A male White-sided Hillstar (Oreotrochilus leucopleurus)

White-sided Hillstars are found in the central Andes, and are a fairly common breed south of Aysén. In the winter, however, they are known to move downslope to southern Antogagasta. They frequently inhabit rocky slopes, scrubby valleys, or bogs. Their habits and voices are similar to Andean Hillstars, but their range has little, if any, overlap. Males are recognizable by their broad, inky blue-black belly stripe. Females have a dark, subterminal tail band, extending across their outer feathers. 

For more photos of the Hillstars, follow Princeton Nature on Instagram

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Plants That Kill: White Snakeroot

Adapted from page 191 of Plants That Kill:

When Europeans started to settle in the Midwest region of the United States in the 1800s, they and their livestock began to fall ill. The animals developed violent trembling when they were forced to move or became agitated, and the disease became known as trembles. People who drank the milk of affected animals developed so-called milk sickness, and it is estimated that in some areas of Indiana and Ohio 25–50 per cent of the deaths of early settlers were caused by this condition. One casualty in 1818 was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whose son, nine years old at the time, would become President Abraham Lincoln. 

Nowadays, human poisoning by white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is rare due to industrial milk production, but it is an historically interesting killer plant. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Wiert nieuman

It took some time to identify white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, syn. Eupatorium rugosum) as the cause of trembles. Although the plant was initially suggested as the culprit in the 1830s, this was only confirmed in the early 1900s. This member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) grows in moist, shaded areas, such as along stream beds and near tree lines. Animals do not show any signs of being poisoned until they have been eating white snakeroot for one to three weeks, and symptoms finally progress to chronic degeneration of the skeletal muscles. Benzofuran ketones, including tremetone, are at least partly responsible for the toxicity of white snakeroot, and they are also found in another member of the daisy family, the rayless goldenrod (Isocoma pluriflora, syn. Haplopappus heterophyllus), which causes a similar disease in grazing animals. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Bird Fact Friday: the Caracaras of Chile

Adapted from page 136 of Birds of Chile:

Caracas are primal falcons of the New World that walk and run confidently, and are often social and noisy. The Chimango Caracara is common in Central Chile, and lives in open, lightly wooded country, farmland, towns and dumps. They often live in groups– sometime these groups will consist of 100s of falcons. These birds typically perch on trees and posts, but rarely on wires. They are agile and aerobatic while flying. Their calls are varied screeches, screams, and mewing noises, often in a series. Juvenile falcons lack broad, dark tail band. 

A Chimango Caracara.

Mountain Caracaras live in Northern and Central Chile, and, as their name suggests, are frequently found in the mountains. But they also inhabit bogs, lakeshore, cliffs, and even around buildings. They live in small groups, but can also be found on their own. Their flight is strong and aerobatic, at times tumbling in updrafts. Their call is a rough, bleating rattle with hissing shrieks, heard infrequently. 

Next, there is the White-throated Caracara, found in South Chile. They are uncommon in the Andes of Magallanes, north of Aysén. They inhabit lightly wooded areas and farmland. Their call is a rough, rasping rrowh and a bleating mehr, made slightly or in series. The juveniles’ call is shrieker, like a miehr

Finally, the Southern Crested Caracara is fairly common in the Tierra del Fuego, which is north of Los Lagos. They are scarce in Central Chile, and become more numerous northward, along the coast of Coquimbo. They typically live in open country, from the desert to farmland, and inhabit forest edge and clearings. They typically stay in pairs, small groups, or even on their own. They fly with  steady, strong wind-beats and short glides. They are quiet– when interacting, they make low rattles or growls. 

To see photos of all these caracaras, head to our Instagram.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Plants That Kill: Cycads

Adapted from pages 188-189 of Plants That Kill:

The cycads are a group of slow-growing tropical and subtropical palm-like trees that have barely changed since before the time of the dinosaurs – cycad fossils date back to the Late Palaeozoic era, 290–265 million years ago. Their resistance to hurricanes and droughts is part of the reason for their continued survival to the present day. Over the centuries, humans have used cycads for food and medicine, but the toxins they contain mean they have to be processed before they are consumed. Even then, there can be long-term consequences.

Crown of the sago cycad (Cycas revoluta), with a head of developing seeds attached to small leaf-like structures, and surrounded by rigid palm-like leaves up to 1.5 m (5 ft) long. Photo credit: Shutterstock, JT888.

The sago cycad (Cycas revoluta), a member of one of the two families of cycad (Cycadaceae, the other one being Zamiaceae), is often called the ‘sago palm’ but should not be confused with the true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) in the palm family (Arecaceae). Native to Japan, it is probably the most widely cultivated cycad. Various parts of this and other cycads are eaten by humans, usually when other crops have been destroyed by natural disasters or as a stop-gap during seasonal shortages, but also as a staple part of the traditional diet in many regions. The young leaves may be eaten as a vegetable, but it is the seeds and also the stem pith that are most often used as they, after a long detoxification process, provide a flour with a high starch content.

When Europeans first encountered cycads during their voyages of discovery, they were unaware of their toxicity. During Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770, the botanist Joseph Banks noticed that several crew members became violently ill after eating nuts from Cycas media, and General Jan Smuts and his troops fell foul of the breadpalm (Encephalartos longifolius, Zamiaceae) during the Boer War. In Honduras, it has been documented that the roots of camotillo (Zamia furfuracea, Zamiaceae) were used in unlawful poisonings. Improper processing of cycad plants before consumption, either as a food or traditional remedy, leaves the azoxymethanol glycosides they contain at toxic levels and is now the usual cause of acute poisoning. A second toxin, beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), which is particularly concentrated in the seeds and root nodules, is not removed by the processing, but only takes effect if the plant is eaten on repeated occasions. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

Bird Fact Friday– Screaming & Shiny Cowbirds

Adapted from page 228 of Birds of Chile:

Shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) are fairly common in Central Chile, north of Atacama and south of Los Lagos; they are uncommon in Arica, and rare in east Aysén. They inhabit farmland, matorral, open woodland, villages, towns, and are often near livestock. They mainly live in small groups; in winter, locally in flocks of 100s. They feed on ground and lay eggs in nests of other species. Their song is a high, slightly sweet to tinny and buzzy warble, made from perch or in short flight around female. The male call has high thin seeíh, the female call is a bubbling rattle. Juveniles have a variable streaking on underparts.

Young cowbirds are raised by ‘host’ species; in this case a male Yellow-winged Blackbird feeds a juvenile Shiny Cowbird.

The Screaming Cowbird (Molothrus rufoaxillaris) was recently discovered (2010) in Central Chile. They are uncommon but apparently spreading in O’Higgins, with sightings also in Santiago. They are frequently found in farmland and matorral with hedges and trees, often in rural areas, gardens. Juvenile cowbirds travel with Austral Blackbirds, which appear to be their ‘host’ species in Chile. Their songs are variably disyllabic, and sound like an abrupt, whistled seeih! Calls are a low clucking chk and varied wet buzzes. Juvenile birds are buffy gray overall and have bright rusty wings. Immature birds have messy black patches.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

 

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Fabrice Schmitt on Birds of Chile

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

Who is this book intended for – seasoned bird watchers, novices, or both?
Both! The idea is to have a book that’s useful to anyone interested in the identification of Chilean birds, regardless of skill level. To help beginners, there is a pictorial table of contents, which will help them quickly find the group of birds that they’re looking for. We also group together species with similar behaviours or that are found in similar habitats (for ex. swallows together with swifts) in order to help readers find the birds in the book. Finally, we did not cover rare species that are unlikely to be seen in Chile. Meanwhile, experienced birders will enjoy the book because of the images of species in their habitats, which are helpful when seeking them out, along with key ID features highlighted in pale yellow text boxes.

Can you offer some tips for identifying different kinds of birds?
Perhaps the two key questions to ask are, “What is the bird doing?” and, “Where is its  habitat?” That’s why, in our book, we decided not to present the birds in an arbitrary taxonomic order. Instead, we chose to present them in groups such as, “Walking Waterbirds” and “Aerial Landbirds.” Once you find the right group, just scan the photos for the closest match to what you have seen.

Why do you think Chile is becoming a popular destination for birders?
Chile is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country, with stunning mountains and volcanos, extensive desert and a sublime, temperate forest— the landscapes alone justify a trip! And obviously, you can find some fantastic bird species. If you want to see the charismatic Moustached Turca running between cacti, the beautiful Magellanic Woodpecker in the Patagonian forest, the sublime Diademed Sandpiper-Plover breeding in high Andean bogs, or the endangered and superb Chilean Woodstar in an oasis of the Atacama Desert, then you should plan a trip to Chile! Also, since their bird habitats are mostly open or semi-open, birding is easy there, making it a wonderful destination for birders traveling to South America for the first time.

How have your experiences as a bird tour leader with WINGS prepared you to write a field guide like this?
Bird identification is a challenging hobby, and leading birding groups helped me to realize how field guides could make it easier. For example, most field guides still present the birds following the taxonomic order, which is generally useless in the field. In our guide we preferred to place the grebes together with the ducks and coots because they are all “Swimming Waterbirds,” and not between flamingos and pigeons according to the actual (and ever-changing) taxonomy. Also, we really wanted to present the birds in their habitat so readers realize what they must look for. Leading tours to Chile for many years has also given me a good sense of the most common miss-identified species; hopefully this guide will help to make it easier!

What is your favorite bird in all of Chile, and why do you like it?
Mmm, that’s a hard one! I really like all the large tapaculos found in Chile, so let’s choose one of them: the Black-throated Huet-huet. That species lives in the beautiful Nothofagusforest in the South of Chile. As they are found in dense understory especially with bamboo, they are usually hard to see but fairly common by voice. When agitated, they call their name ‘huet-huet’ (pronounce wet-wet), and another of their vocalisation is a loud Wook! wook wook wook, wook, wook, … it sounds like they are laughing at you because you can’t see them! But with some patience (or luck), you can cross path with one of these fantastic birds!

Fabrice Schmitt is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a lecturer on Ponant Antarctic cruises. He lived in Chile from 2005 to 2015, founded the online birding magazine La Chiricoca, and helped develop the eBird online birding tool for Chile and the rest of South America. His co-writer, Steve N. G. Howell, is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and Point Blue Conservation Science. 

Plants That Kill: Ackee

Adapted from pages 158-159 of Plants That Kill:

Although it has also been introduced to the other Caribbean islands, Central America and Florida, ackee is widely eaten only on Jamaica. In fact, it is Jamaica’s national fruit, and ackee and saltfish is the national dish. The leathery fruit are 7.5–10 cm (3–4 in) long, bright red or yellow-orange when ripe, and split open into three sections to expose three shiny black seeds, each surrounded by a large yellow or whitish aril. Only arils from ripe fruit that have naturally split open are eaten. To remove any residual toxicity, they are cleaned of all red fibre (the aril membrane) and boiled, and the water they are boiled in is discarded. Cooking unripe arils does not destroy their toxicity.

The ackee tree (Blighia sapida) has pairs of glossy leaves. Its fruit ripen to red and, when they split open, the cream arils within can be eaten after cooking.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, twiggyjamaica

Before the toxicity of ackee was understood, eating unripe arils frequently caused poisoning known as Jamaican vomiting sickness, which occurred as an annual epidemic. Symptoms included vomiting, convulsions and, frequently, also coma and death, with mortalities being more common in children, particularly those already suffering from malnutrition. The underlying cause was eventually linked to the consumption of unripe ackee arils. This results in low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) through a blockade of the liver’s ability to synthesize glucose and a reduction in fatty acid metabolism (both normal routes for increasing levels of blood sugar), as well as depletion of the liver’s carbohydrate reserves. 

Poisoning is due to the presence of an amino acid derivative, hypoglycin A (2-amino-3-(methylenecyclopropyl)- propionic acid), which is also found in other plants of the soapberry family, such as lychee (Litchi chinensis). In ackee, the concentration of hypoglycin A is high in unripe arils and reduces significantly as they ripen, although low levels remain in the aril membrane. The seeds also contain the less toxic hypoglycin B (the gamma-glutamyl conjugate of hypoglycin A), with concentrations significantly increasing as the seeds ripen. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: the American Lady

Adapted from page 49 of Butterfly Gardening:

Some American Ladies overwinter as adults in northern climates, so sightings of this wide-ranging butterfly often begin early in spring. The actual northern limit of American Lady overwintering has not been firmly established, and questions persist regarding the life stage in which they overwinter. Some reports suggest that only adults overwinter, while others indicate that both adults and chrysalides overwinter. Additionally, American Ladies are migrants, so as the weather warms each spring, butterflies from the south move northward, laying eggs as they progress. However, one fact is clear; American Ladies are widespread and common in gardens!

This patch of Parlin’s pussytoes had only recently been planted before an American Lady stopped by to lay eggs.
Photo credit: Jan Dixon.

To the nascent butterfly watcher, American Ladies look quite similar to Painted Ladies, or in the western United States, to West Coast Ladies as well. Painted Lady, with more than 100 recorded host plants, needs no special planting plans, and West Coast Lady caterpillars accept a variety of plant, some of which are weeds, but if you wish to watch the life cycle of American Lady, you will need to provide its caterpillar food plants. These are native plants that are lovely to include in gardens—western pearly everlasting, some of the species of pussytoes, and the similar but rather unattractively named cudweed.

Pussytoes are a group of plants that are easy to incorporate into gardens or wild plantings—their cultural needs are not great, and in fact they can be used as a ground cover in dry areas with poor soil. Approximately 40 different species of pussytoes are native in the United States, although many are not commonly for sale. Native-plant nurseries usually carry at least one species, with shale barren pussytoes, rosy pussytoes, and the oddly named woman’s tobacco being fairly common.

Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide
By Jane Hurwitz

Butterfly gardening creates habitats that support butterflies, connecting us with some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world and bringing new levels of excitement and joy to gardening. In this engaging and accessible guide, lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color photographs and maps, accomplished butterfly gardener Jane Hurwitz presents essential information on how to choose and cultivate plants that will attract a range of butterflies to your garden and help sustain all the stages of their life cycles.

An indispensable resource for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners alike, Butterfly Gardening is the most gardener-friendly source on the subject, covering all the practical details needed to create a vibrant garden habitat that fosters butterflies. It tells you which plants support which butterflies, depending on where you live; it describes what different butterflies require in the garden over the course of their lives; and it shows you how to become a butterfly watcher as well as a butterfly gardener.

While predominantly recommending regionally native plants, the book includes information on non-native plants. It also features informative interviews with experienced butterfly gardeners from across the United States. These gardeners share a wealth of information on plants and practices to draw butterflies to all kinds of gardens–from small suburban gardens to community plots and larger expanses.

Whether you are a gardener who wants to see more butterflies in your garden, a butterfly enthusiast who wants to bring that passion to the garden, or someone who simply wants to make their garden or yard friendlier to Monarchs or other butterflies, this is a must-have guide.

  • An essential guide for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners
  • Encourages readers to rethink gardening choices to support butterflies and other pollinators in their gardens and communities
  • Introduces gardeners to butterfly watching
  • Includes regional lists of plant species that are time-proven to help sustain butterflies and their caterpillars
  • Features informative interviews with expert butterfly gardeners from across the United States