Bird Fact Friday: Seedeaters

Adapted from pages 220-221 of Birds of Chile:

The Chestnut-throated Seedeater is fairly common in the oasis valleys of Arica, as well as Northern lowlands. These birds – which are typically 10.5-11cm in length – flock in agricultural areas with brushy hedgerows and weedy fields. They can often be found singing on phone wires, with a song that is squeaky and slightly tinny. This song’s tempo varies from leisurely to rapid and bubbly; at times it’s prolonged. Their call is either a nasal cheh or a slightly smacking tchip. Males can be identified with their gray head and back in breeding plumage; females have faint streaking on their breast and a big, pinkish bill. Male juveniles resemble females, but are buffer.

A female Chestnut-throated Seedeater (Sporophila telasco).

A male Band-tailed Seedeater (Catamenia analis).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Band-tailed Seedeater is found in the North Andes, and is fairly common in the precordillera of Arica. They can be seen in shrubby slopes and agricultural areas or villages, while they frequently feed in bushes and on the ground, often with other seed-eating birds in recently cut alfalfa fields. Their song is varied short buzzes and buzzy, ringing trills; at times it becomes a high, chipping twitter. Their call is a high, slightly buzzy tzzip or tzzip-zzip. Both sexes have stubby, yellowish bills, a rusty vent, and a white band at the base of their tail best seen in flight.

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: 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

 

Insect of the Week: How to Make Your Yard More Firefly-Friendly

silent sparksYour neighborhood might have hundreds of fireflies, or maybe you have just a few. Perhaps you have none at all. No matter which, here are some simple things that will help make any yard more attractive to local fireflies.

Create an inviting habitat:
Fireflies need moisture during all of their life stages (that is, eggs, larvae, pupae and the adult).

  • Let the grass grow longer in parts of your lawn to help the soil hold more moisture.
  • Juvenile fireflies spend up to two years living underground, where they feed on earthworms and snails. If you leave some leaf litter and woody debris in the corners of your yard, this will help larval fireflies—and their prey—to thrive.
  • Female fireflies lay their eggs in moist, mossy places, so preserve any wetlands, streams, or ponds in your neighborhood.

Bring back the night:
Fireflies court using bioluminenscent flashes, so artificial lights that are too bright can interfere with their ability to find mates.

  • When installing or re-thinking your outdoor lighting, use only what you need to get the job done.
  • Use shielded lighting fixtures recommended by the International Dark-Sky Association; these direct light downward, where it’s most useful. Use bulbs as low-wattage as possible to provide just the light you need for safety and security.
  • Try turning off your outdoorlights, or put them on timers, particularly during firefly season.

Reduce pesticide use:
Because juveniles fireflies spend months living underground, they will come into contact with any insecticides spread on lawns and gardens. Broad-spectrum insecticides like malathion and diazinon will kill whatever insects they contact, including fireflies.

  • Consider using organic or least-toxic practices and products on your lawn and garden. Avoid broad-spectrum insecticides – use horticultural oils or insecticidal bacteria like Bt designed to target specific pests.
  • Apply pesticides to treat specific pest problems, never routinely.
  • Don’t use Weed & Feed or similar products that contain 2,4-D, which has been shown to be toxic to earthworms and beetles like ladybugs.

As I describe in Silent Sparks, our scientific understanding of firefly biology and habitat requirements has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Such knowledge now provides a powerful tool for protecting fireflies. And of course, we can all work to preserve and restore the wild places where fireflies thrive – their fields and forests, their mangoves and meadows. We all dream about the kind of world we want our children to inherit. Let’s make certain the magical sparkle of fireflies will continue to be part of their world.

Silent 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 – 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

 

Insect of the Week: Five Myths About Fireflies

silent sparksMyth #1. Fireflies are flies, and lightningbugs are bugs

Truth: They have two different nicknames, but both refer to the same group of insects. Throughout much of the southern United States they’re called lightning bugs, while in the north and east they’re more often known as fireflies. Yet these insects are neither flies nor bugs – they’re actually beetles! What makes them beetles? Their hard wing covers that fold down to protect the delicate flight wings when the insect is resting.

Myth #2. If you’ve seen one firefly, you’ve seen them all

Truth: The firefly family, known as Lampyridae, includes more than 2000 described species worldwide. Here in North America, we have more than 200 different firefly species. These include the lightningbug fireflies, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. These are mainly found east of the Mississippi River. But more common in the western U.S. are the glow-worm fireflies, which have glowing, wingless females, as well as dark fireflies, whose adults don’t light up at all.

Myth #3. Fireflies only light up for sex

Truth: In every species within the firefly family, the larval stage is capable of producing light. Because larvae are too young to reproduce, their bioluminescence appears to serve as an anti-predator warning. Fireflies contain chemicals that are toxic to many vertebrate predators. For these nocturnal larvae, bioluminescence is similar to the bright coloration used by monarch butterflies: it shouts out “I’m toxic – stay away!”

 Myth #4. Fireflies mean summertime

Truth: The spectacular summer lightshows produced by adult lightningbugs are just the tip of the firefly life cycle. Adult fireflies fly for merely a few weeks, but can spend nearly two years living underground during their larval stage. Juvenile fireflies spend months feasting on earthworms, snails, and other soft-bodied creatures. Ferocious carnivores, firefly larvae inject victims with paralyzing neurotoxins, then secrete digestive enzymes to liquify and ingest their prey.

Myth #5. There are so many fireflies, they don’t need protection

Truth: Certain firefly species, like the Big Dipper firefly Photinus pyralis, are abundant and occur in many habitats across a wide geographic range. But others are restricted to small, isolated populations or are habitat specialists, and these are in greater need of protection. Worldwide, many firefly populations are under threat from habitat loss, light pollution, and altered rainfall patterns due to climate disruption. In addition, firefly ecotourism is gaining popularity, and increasing numbers of visitors can impact both adult and larval habitats. Within the past century, fireflies in the U.S., Japan, and China have also been commercially harvested from wild populations.

 

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.


Silent 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 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

Insect of the Week: the Darkest Fireflies

Bioluminescence lights up the larval stage in every member of this beetle family (Lampyridae), but adult fireflies have evolved remarkably diverse ways to find mates. Summertime icons that fill the night with their flashy courtship displays, the lightning bug fireflies might be the most spectacular. Yet many fireflies lose their bioluminescent spark once they become adults. These dark fireflies are active during the daytime, and females emit chemical signals to attract males. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the common ancestor of all fireflies also had nonluminous adults. Though they are often overlooked, today these dark fireflies can be found coast-to-coast across the United States and Canada. Two groups of dark fireflies are particularly common. Once you learn to recognize them, you will see them everywhere!

A Lucidota atra firefly. Photo credit: Molly Jacobsen

Ellychnia includes a dozen or so different species with nonluminous adults. These dark fireflies are close cousins to the Photinus lightning bugs, but they have evolved a radically different lifestyle. Sometimes called Winter Fireflies, the adults spend the winter wedged down into grooves on tree trunks. They prefer trees with deeply furrowed bark, and dozens are often seen congregating on a single tree. After hunkering down for several months, surviving snow and freezing temperatures, Ellychnia adults are among the first insects to become active in the spring. Mating takes place in late March and April, when these hardy beetles can be seen flying slowly through wooded areas. Mating pairs, attached tail-to-tail, are commonly seen on tree trunks, where they remain coupled for 12 hours or more. It has been proposed that Ellychnia, which evolved from a nocturnal, Photinus-like ancestor, shifted to become day-active to escape night-time hunters like the predatory Photuris fireflies.

Lucidota atra is another day-flying, non-luminous firefly, and these adults are simply stunning. They are also easy to identify with their jet black wing covers, brightly colored head shield and flattened, saw-toothed antennae. These dark fireflies are commonly seen in early summer as they fly slowly, just a few feet above the ground, across lawns, fields, and forests. Experiments done by Jim Lloyd in the 1970s revealed that Lucidota females release pheromones that are carried on the wind, creating an invisible plume. Males seek out females by flying slowly back and forth until they encounter a plume, then fly upwind until they reach the female. The chemical nature of the female pheromone remains unknown.

 

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.

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.