Insect of the Week: Skipper Butterflies

Adapted from page 55-58 of Butterfly Gardening:

Skippers are small, fast-flying butterflies that many people initially think are moths. Skippers have relatively thick bodies and short wings and their flight is often characterized as fast, darting, or jerky—obviously thought by some to be a “skipping” motion.

The vast majority of the skippers in the United States lack colorful scales and so tend to be orange, white, brown, black, or gray. Many skippers are smaller than the familiar and colorful garden visitors that initially come to mind when thinking “butterfly,” but once you notice skippers, you will appreciate the motion and activity they add to the garden.

A Common-Checkered Skipper in a typical spread-wing stance. Photo credit: Alan Schmierer.

Two subfamilies of skippers visit gardens in the United States: spreadwing skippers and grass-skippers. The spreadwing skippers generally perch with both forewings and hindwings open flat, while grass-skippers sit perkily with all wings closed or with the forewings open at a 45-degree angle to the flat hindwings. It is possible to get a peek at the open wings of a grass-skipper when it basks in the sun, a common behavior. Grass-skippers are also equipped with exceedingly long tongues, allowing them to nectar at many types of flowers.

Common Checkered-Skipper is likely the most widespread skipper in the United States, and its caterpillars feed on plants in the Mallow Family. This spreadwing skipper inhabits many different settings, from prairies and meadows to yards and pastures. Open, sunny, often disturbed places are what Common Checkered-Skippers prefer.

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

 

Bird Fact Friday: Gulpers & Mashers

Adapted from page 163 of The New Neotropical Companion:

Birds are selective about the size of the fruits they eat and how they consume them. Species such as toucans, aracaris, and toucanets pluck fruit, juggle it in the bill, and then often reject it by dropping it. Large fruits are particularly at risk of rejection and may be found scarred by bill marks. Nathaniel Wheelwright hypothesized that plants are under strong selection pressure to produce small to medium-size fruits, as larger ones are rejected by most bird species except those with the widest gapes. Thus large fruits will tend to be selected by large birds such as curassows and guans. Large fruits permit more energy to be stored in the seeds, an advantage once dispersal and germination have occurred.

This Grayish Saltator (Saltator coerulescens) is an obvious example of a masher. Photo by John Kricher.

Studies by various researchers in Costa Rica indicated two basic methods by which birds devour fruit. Anyone can observe these methods in the field. Some birds (mashers) mash up the fruit, dropping the seeds as they do, while others (gulpers) gulp the fruit whole, subsequently either regurgitating or defecating seeds. Mashers are mostly finches and tanagers, and gulpers are toucans, trogons, and manakins. Mashers appear more sensitive to taste than gulpers, showing a distinct preference for fruits rich in sugars. Gulpers swallow fruit whole and appear taste insensitive.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

 

 

 

Plants That Kill: Deadly nightshade, black henbane & witchcraft

Adapted from page 81 of Plants That Kill:

Deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) is a herbaceous perennial that dies back to a rootstock every year but can grow into a substantial plant during the summer. Attractive, juicy black berries follow its solitary bell-shaped purplish flowers, and conspicuous green sepals form a star at the base. Deadly nightshade grows naturally in Europe, west Asia and north Africa. In northern Europe it is particularly found on chalky soils and close to former abbeys and monasteries, where it was grown as a medicinal plant during the Middle Ages.

Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is native to much of Eurasia and is now widely distributed in temperate regions. Photo credit: A_lya, Shutterstock.

Deadly nightshade is just one of the tropane alkaloid-containing plants that are inextricably linked to tales of witchcraft. Together with mandrakes (Mandragora spp.) and henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.), it is said to have been an ingredient of an ointment used by witches to give them the sensation of flying, and is why witches are often depicted on broomsticks. 

One of the most recent deaths from deadly nightshade, of which there are actually very few, was of a modern-day witch who went by the name of Robert Cochrane. He lived in Slough, United Kingdom, where he started a coven known as the Clan of Tubal Cain, based on a combination of Celtic mysticism and village witchcraft philosophy (American branches are known as the ‘1734 tradition’). Cochrane died nine days after the eve of the summer solstice in 1966, seemingly after having ingested deadly nightshade leaves and sleeping tablets. The inquest into his death returned a verdict of suicide with deadly nightshade. In some witchcraft circles it is believed that Cochrane had appointed himself as a male sacrifice.

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 Great Spangled Fritillary

Adapted from pages 85 to 87 of Butterfly Gardening:

The Great Spangled Fritillary is a large, showy butterfly found throughout a large section of the United States from southern Canada down to northern California on the western half of the continent, with the range extending down across the country to North Carolina on the East Coast. Within its range, the Great Spangled Fritillary can be considered a common garden butterfly that is on the wing during the summer months and through the early fall.

Violets are the only plant that Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillars will eat. Great Spangled Fritillaries do not care whether the violet flowers are blue, yellow, or white, though it does matter to egg-laying butterflies that the violets are native. African “violets,” which are grown as houseplants, and pansies, which are sold at garden centers as outdoor bedding plants, are not suitable for Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillars. Since most violets spread enthusiastically, you may regard them as weeds or wildflowers, but native violets are the kind needed to feed Great Spangled Fritillaries as well as a number of other fritillary species that have smaller ranges.

A Great Sprangled Fritillary laying eggs near a violet. Photo credit: Jane Hurwitz

Butterflies bearing the common name “fritillary” can be confusing; since they all share a name, one could conclude that they all belong to the same genus, and therefore share similar characteristics. But things are not that tidy in the butterfly world, or in the gardening world either, and the fritillaries mentioned so far are actually all a bit different.

Great Spangled Fritillary belongs to the genus Speyeria. They have one brood per year and their caterpillars eat only violets. Hosting Great Spangled Fritillaries requires gardeners to hold off on vigorous flowerbed cleaning in the fall. By leaving leaf litter undisturbed surrounding violets, gardeners preserve caterpillar overwintering habitat, ensuring that any unseen caterpillars are able to remain near violets and complete their life cycle. Since Great Spangled Fritillary produces only one generation per year, if your yard is cleared each fall and spring by landscape crews, or by overenthusiastic family members sent outside on a fine fall day, the potential to lose overwintering caterpillars is high.

 

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

 

Mark Serreze: Becoming A Scientist

In honor of Earth Day, Princeton University Press will be highlighting the contributions that scientists make to our understanding of the world around us through a series of blog posts written by some of our notable Earth Science authors. Keep a look out for this series all month long.

Mark Serreze, investigating the pressure ridges in the Arctic.

What is it that leads someone to become a scientist? It varies, but from what I’ve seen, it’s often a combination of nature and nurture. Just as some people seem to have an inherent knack for writing making music, or cooking, I think that some of us are wired to become scientists. In turn, there is often someone we can look back to—parents or perhaps a teacher—that encouraged or inspired us to pursue a science career.

I had an interest in science from when I was very young, and I was always full of questions about the natural world. The first book I ever owned is “The Golden Book of Science” 1963 edition—featuring 1-2 page essays on everything from geology to insects to the weather. Each night, at my insistence, my mother would read one of them to me. To this day, I still own the book.

When I wasn’t reading, I could spend hours outside marveling at the organized industriousness of ants as they built their anthills, or looking at colorful rocks with a magnifying glass. I was enthralled with the burgeoning manned space flight program, and, sitting beside my mother and staring at the black TV while she ironed clothes, watched in awe at the Project Gemini rocket launches.   

As for the nurture part, I had an advantage in that both of my parents were chemists with Master’s degrees. This was at a time it was quite unusual for women to hold advanced degrees. They met in the laboratory. Mom was a whiz when it came to thermodynamics, and Dad apparently knew everything there was to know about acrylic plastics. Ours was indeed an odd household. While my siblings and I chafed under a rather strict Catholic upbringing, at the same time we were very much free-range kids, and scientific experimentation of all sorts was quite acceptable.  

At one point, after getting a chemistry set for Christmas, I thought I might become a chemist myself. These were not the boring, defanged chemistry sets of today – back then, they included chemicals that, when properly mixed, yielded career-inspiring reactions. I later got heavily into model rocketry, astronomy, and civil engineering, building small dams across the stream running past our house to improve the habitat for the frogs. Included among the more foolish (albeit highly educational) endeavors was a scientifically-based experiment on the feasibility of riding ice floes down the Kennebunk River. Then there was the time when an experiment in pyrotechnics gone wrong ended up with a frantic call to the fire department to douse a five-acre conflagration in the neighbor’s field.

Years before I ever got into college I knew I was going to be a research scientists of some type, for, through nature and nurture, the roots were already there. As I talk about in my book, Brave New Arctic, a number decisions and events came together – mixed with some blind, dumb luck – to eventually steer me towards a career in climate science. What I could never have foreseen is how, through these events and decisions, and then through 35 years of research, I’d find myself in the position to tell the story about the dramatic transformation of the North.

Climate scientists, like myself, have to deal with an added challenge that climate change is a highly polarized subject. There are the frequent questions from the media: Will there be a new record low in Arctic sea ice extent this year? Why does it matter? Why is the Arctic behaving so differently than the Antarctic? It can be overwhelming at times. Then there are the emails, phone calls and tweets from those who simply want to rant. While I get a lot of emails from people fully on board with the reality that humans are changing the climate and want to get straight answers about something they’ve heard or read about, I also have a growing folder in my inbox labeled “Hate Mail”. Some very unflattering things have been said about me on social media and across the web. I’ve had to grow a thick skin.  

Making a career as a research scientist is not for everyone. Science is not the sort of thing that is easy to put aside at the end of the day. It gnaws at you. The hours are long, and seldom lead to monetary riches. It can also be a frustrating occupation, such as when realizing that, after months of research pursuing a lead, you’ve hit a dead end.

We chose to be scientists because it’s what we love to do. We live for those “aha” moments when the hard work pays off, and we discover something new that advances our understanding.

In writing this book I was forced to dig deeply to understand my own evolution as a scientist, and to document insights from other scientists who, like me, were there at the beginning when the Arctic still looked like the Arctic of old. It’s been an adventure, and when I someday retire (which is a very hard thing for scientists to do,) I hope to be able to look back and say that that this book opened some eyes, and inspired others to follow their own path to becoming a scientist.

 

Mark Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Plants That Kill: Apocynaceae

Adapted from page 52 of Plants That Kill:

The dogbane family is one of the larger families of flowering plants, and is today considered to contain more than 5,000 species in 366 recognized genera, including those that have, at times, been placed in their own family, Asclepiadaceae. The almost globally distributed Apocynaceae (only northern regions lack native species) has adapted to almost all environments and contains a large diversity of plant forms. 

Species grow as herbs, climbers and lianas, succulents or trees. The flowers are often showy or conspicuous in form or smell, and many species have evolved special structures for pollen dispersal, such as pollinia, coherent masses of pollen grains that are transferred to the next plant by sticking to insect pollinators. These structures are especially elaborate in milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), waxflowers (Hoya spp.) and their relatives, constituting a feature that allows easy placement of these plants within the family (although deciding on the actual genus and species can be quite difficult).

Elephant vine (Strophanthus amboensis) is found from Zaire to Namibia and contains cardioactive steroids. The petals are fused to form a cup at the base and there are five spreading, elongated lobes.

The large number of species and wide geographical distribution of the dogbane family makes it easy to understand why so many plants are used by humans. The showy, waxy flowers of frangipani (Plumeria spp.) have found a place as a constituent in Polynesian lei garlands, the fibres from dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) have been used to make cloth and string, some species are used in religious rituals, and some genera, such as Landolphia, were briefly important as sources of rubber in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several plants in the family have been used as arrow poisons or in traditional medicinal systems, and the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is the source of an important cancer drug. 

It seems that most plants in the dogbane family are toxic to some degree, but the reason for this differs between groups of species. Some groups produce cardioactive steroids as the toxic principle, while others produce monoterpene indole alkaloids. Accordingly, the family presents several toxidromes, the combined picture of symptoms in poisonings, with some presenting as acute heart failure with arrhythmias and others giving signs of detrimental effects on the nervous system – for example, seizures, paralysis and hallucinations. As members of the dogbane family are widely distributed and many produce fatal intoxications, the use of these plants in suicides and poisonings is not uncommon in certain regions of the world.

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 May/June beetle

Adapted from pages 466-468 of Garden Insects of North America:

May/June Beetles (Phyllophaga spp.) are among the largest of the white grubs, typically about 3/4 inches to 1 inch long and stout-bodied. Adults are generally chocolate brown to nearly black. More than 200 species occur in North America, with about 25 reported to damage turfgrasses, garden plants, and field crops. The adults are active at night and may be seen careening around porch lights and bouncing off screens, often in late spring. The beetles feed on the foliage of various trees and shrubs, with oak a preferred host for many species, but this rarely results in any significant injuries. Much more significant damage results from the white grub larvae, which chew on plant roots. Grasses are most commonly damaged, but larvae can seriously injure roots of young trees and shrubs planted in grassy areas.

 In northern areas, May/June beetles often have an extended life cycle that requires 3 years to complete. With these species, eggs are laid in the soil in May or June, and a limited amount of feeding takes place by young larvae during the first season, before they migrate downward for winter. They return to feed on roots and grow rapidly during the second season, producing most damage at this time. In the third year there is some additional feeding before the insects pupate in a belowground chamber. They transform to adults in late summer and early fall, ready to emerge the following year.

An adult May/June beetle. Photo credit: David Shetlar

Variations of May/June beetle life cycles occur, and in the southern U.S. many species complete development in a single season. Phyllophaga crinita, an important species in Texas, and P. latifrons, found in most Gulf States, have this habit. They commonly damage St. Augustinegrass, bermudagrass, and buffalograss.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
Second Edition
By Whitney Cranshaw & David Shetlar

This second edition of Garden Insects of North America solidifies its place as the most comprehensive guide to the common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada. Featuring 3,300 full-color photos and concise, detailed text, this fully revised book covers the hundreds of species of insects and mites associated with fruits and vegetables, shade trees and shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants, and turfgrass—from aphids and bumble bees to leafhoppers and mealybugs to woollybears and yellowjacket wasps—and much more. This new edition also provides a greatly expanded treatment of common pollinators and flower visitors, the natural enemies of garden pests, and the earthworms, insects, and other arthropods that help with decomposing plant matter in the garden.

Designed to help you easily identify what you find in the garden, the book is organized by where insects are most likely to be seen—on leaves, shoots, flowers, roots, or soil. Photos are included throughout the book, next to detailed descriptions of the insects and their associated plants.

An indispensable guide to the natural microcosm in our backyards, Garden Insects of North America continues to be the definitive resource for amateur gardeners, insect lovers, and professional entomologists.

  • Revised and expanded edition covers most of the insects, mites, and other “bugs” one may find in yards or gardens in the United States and Canada—all in one handy volume
  • Features more than 3,300 full-color photos, more than twice the illustrations of the first edition
  • Concise, informative text organized to help you easily identify insects and the plant injuries that they may cause

 

Mark C. Serreze: Approaching the March Sea Ice Maximum

Author Mark C. Serreze standing next to a snow machine in the Arctic.

The floating sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean waxes and wanes with the seasons. The maximum extent typically occurs around the second week of March, at which time ice has historically covered an area a bit less than twice the size of the contiguous United States. The term “Arctic sea ice extent” is actually a bit of a misnomer, for at or near the seasonal maximum, sea ice is found well south of the Arctic Circle, covering all of Hudson Bay and parts of the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  With the start of spring, the ice cover begins to melt.  Initially, the growing warmth of spring slowly nibbles away at the southern edges of the ice pack.  The pace of melt picks up in May and June, and then gets underway in earnest in July.  As the sun gets lower in the sky in August, the melt slows.  The seasonal minimum in ice extent usually occurs in mid-September – at that time, the ice covers less than half of what it did in March, and ice is restricted to the Arctic Ocean proper.  As the sun then sets over the Arctic Ocean, the ice cover begins to grow again, renewing the cycle that has been going on for millions of years. 

But things are changing fast.  Earth observation satellites have been recording changes in Arctic sea ice extent since 1979.  These records show that sea ice extent is declining in all months, with the largest change in September, at the end of the melt season.  The downward trend for September is a whopping 13% per decade. The trends are by no means smooth – there are big ups and downs from month to month and year to year, but the pattern is clear. 

Scientists have long been at work to determine what sea ice conditions were like before the satellite era.  Data from shore observations, ship and aircraft reports, and before aviation, sources like logbook entries from whaling ships, extend the record back to 1850.  Paleoclimate reconstructions bring the record back a thousand years before today.  There is no evidence in any of these records for sea ice trends like we’ve seen over the past 40 years.  They are unprecedented.  The conclusion is inescapable – the Arctic Ocean is quickly losing its floating sea ice cover.  The summer ice cover may be gone 30 or 40 years from now.

At the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Center (NSIDC), where I’ve been the director since 2009, we track the Arctic sea ice cover on a daily basis.  Every August, we start to brace ourselves for the inevitable tidal wave of questions from the media and interested public about what September will bring.  Questions like: Will there be a new record low in sea ice extent this year?  When will the Arctic completely lose its summer sea ice cover?  What will this mean for the rest of the planet?  We also get our share of flak from the skeptics, eager to tell us that this is all some sort of natural climate cycle, or that nothing is happening at all; we’re making it up and fudging the records.  We shrug this off and diligently continue processing the satellite data and report on what is happening. The data does not lie.

Until a few years ago, the March sea ice maximum went relatively unnoticed.  By comparison to September, the changes being seen in winter weren’t especially spectacular, and for good reason – even in a warming Arctic, it still gets cold and dark in winter and sea ice forms and covers a big area.  The ice that grows in autumn and winter is thinner than it used to be, but to the satellite sensors that we use to determine ice extent, thin ice looks pretty much the same as thick ice.

Things changed in 2015, when sea ice extent at the March maximum set a new record low.  Then the winter of 2015-2016 saw a mind-boggling heat wave over the Arctic Ocean.   At the end of December 2015, there was a brief period when the surface temperature at the North Pole rose to the melting point. In all my years of studying the Arctic, I’d never seen anything like it. It stayed warm and on March 24, when Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal maximum extent, it had bested the low mark set in 2015.  The winter of 2016/2017 was in many respects a repeat.   At the winter solstice on Dec. 22, temperatures near the North Pole were up 20 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) above average.  When March 2017 rolled around, another new record low in extent had been set. The Arctic has gone crazy.

We’re still coming to grips with understanding these records lows in the winter ice cover. While the heat waves are clearly related to weather patterns bringing in warm air from the south, what’s the cause of these patterns?  While more ocean heat seems to be coming into the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific through the Bering Strait, why is this happening?  The inflow of ocean heat from the Atlantic has also changed in puzzling ways that inhibit winter ice formation in places like the Barents Sea.  

In short, while we know a great deal about what is happening to the Arctic and where it is headed, the emerging Brave New Arctic continues to challenge us.  Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised – after all, scientists have long known that, as the climate warms, the biggest changes would be seen the Arctic. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be amazed.

 

Mark C. Serreze is is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Bird Fact Friday – the Bald Eagle

Adapted from pages 94-95 of Wildlife of the Arctic

The Bald Eagle is a magnificent bird, the Nearctic equivalent of the White-tailed Eagle. Adults have a white head (the origin of the name) and white tail, but are otherwise dark brown, with a pattern of scalloping from pale feather tips. Sexes are similar. Juvenile eagles do not acquire the adult coloring until they are 3-5 years old. In early young immatures there is a significant amount of white in the plumage which aids distinguishing the birds from adult Golden Eagles. Northern birds are larger than their cousins of the souther US states, the two being considered sub-species.

This bird is piscivorous but an opportunistic feeder, taking both terrestrial and aquatic mammals (e.g. hares and muskrats) as well as birds (primarily waterfowl and gulls). They also feed on carrion and are not infrequent visitors to garbage dumps in Alaska. They hunt both by flying slowly over probable prey sites and from perches, and will pirate food from other Bald Eagles, as well as from Osprey and herons, both of which are, in general, better at fishing but cannot defend themselves against the eagles. They also makes piratical attacks on Peregrines and even on Sea Otters and Coyotes.

Bald eagles nest primarily in trees, and often re-uses nests which may actually be refurbished prior to the birds migrating as well as when they return to the breeding site. One nest known to have been used continuously over several decades grew to be almost 3m in diameter and over 3m high and weighed an estimated 2t: the tree then blew down in a storm. In areas where trees are absent, they will nest on cliffs or even on the ground provided the site is elevated to give the incubating bird good visibility. 1-3, but usually 2, eggs are laid. Asynchronous hatching means first chick hatched usually outcompetes later hatchlings which may die of starvation. 

An adult Bald Eagle at nest. Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

The Bald Eagle is the emblem of the United States, which made it even sadder when numbers declined sharply as a result of subsidised shooting and the widespread use of organochlorines in the continental US. In Alaska the use of pesticides was minimal, but a bounty on eagles set in 1917 – the result of lobbying by fishermen and fox trappers – was not lifted until 1953. Although the bounty led to ill-advised slaughter, the state remained a stronghold of the species and continues to do so. Once hunting and DDT were banned the population recovered quickly: in Alaska the population increased by about 70% between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia are the strongholds of the species with the population now probably close to the carrying capacity of the environment.

Bald Eagles breed in central and southern Alaska, including the Aleutians, and across North America, but rarely north of the timberline. In winter the birds move to the continental United States, though birds in southern Alaska are resident.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Plants That Kill: Aconite alkaloids

From hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco, poisonous plants have long been used in medicine, rituals, and even warfare. For the next few months, Princeton Nature will be taking a closer look at the evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry of the most toxic plants on Earth. Pulling from Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson’s new book, Plants That Kill, we hope to provide you with just a sample of the deadly and intriguing plants that can be found in this gorgeously illustrated book.

Adapted from page 48-49 of Plants That Kill:

Aconite alkaloids are mostly restricted to a small number of genera in the buttercup family, particularly the aconites (Aconitum spp.) and their close relatives the larkspurs (Delphinium spp.). The presence of the compounds seems to give these plants a strong evolutionary advantage, as the group constitutes about a third of all species within the family. Aconites and larkspurs produce these highly toxic compounds from a substance called geranylgeranyl diphosphate, which is an essential part of the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis. They can be grouped into three different ‘flavors’, called veatchine, atisine and aconitine alkaloids. The compounds in the last of these groups are the most toxic, which is thought to be due to their ability to pass through fat-containing barriers such as cell membranes and also the skin. This explains why gardeners and florists who, with bare hands, handle the cut stems or crushed material of aconite and larkspur plants in large amounts or for extended periods of time may experience mild symptoms of tingling or numbness.

There are around 250 species of aconite (Aconitum spp.) found in the wild in the northern hemisphere, but they are also widely grown in temperate gardens and sold as cut flowers.                              Photo credit: Alex Polo, Shutterstock

Species of aconite are used to treat joint pain in traditional Chinese herbal medicine in the form of bath additives, rubs and ointments. Their alkaloids can be absorbed through the skin, where they act as local anaesthetics. They may also be taken orally to treat asthma, gastroenteritis and various tumours, or as a supportive and revitalizing tonic. How is this possible, when these plants are very poisonous and small amounts can cause dangerous, or even lethal, effects on the heart and respiratory muscles? 

Before use, the raw material must be subjected to pao zhi (a detoxifying measure), which might include heating and/or soaking with the intention of ensuring maximal therapeutic efficacy with minimal adverse effects. During such processes, the toxic alkaloids are transformed into less harmful compounds, explaining why aconite use has persisted in spite of its high risk of poisoning. However, even though pao zhi is usually performed, a number of patients who take traditional Chinese aconite medicines are hospitalized each year due to poisoning. 

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 Emerald Ash Borer

Adapted from pages 434-435 of Garden Insects of North America

The larvae of the emerald ash borer develop under the bark of trees, creating zigzag tunnels through the cambium. Cumulative injuries cause a progressive dieback that initially involves upper limbs but ultimately moves into the trunks. Typically trees are killed within 5 years after they are first colonized.

The first North American detection of emerald ash borer was in 2002 in Detroit. By 2016 this insect was found in most states east of the Mississippi, two Canadian provinces, and two western states (Colorado, Texas). The rapid spread of this insect over wide areas has been largely through the human-assisted movement of infested ash firewood. Once introduced into a location, local dispersal occurs from the flight of adults during late spring and early summer. Adults are metallic green beetles, approximately 1/2 inch long. The larvae are flatheaded borers that make meandering tunnels through the cambium, under the bark. Adults emerge from trees through D-shaped exit holes in the bark.

An emerald ash borer with wings open (Agrilus planipennis).                            Photo credit: David Shetlar.

Winter is spent as a larva within tunnels under the bark and pupation occurs in mid-spring. Adults can be expected to begin to emerge in late May, about the time black locust (Robinia) is in full bloom. Initially they feed on the foliage and, about 2 weeks later, after mating, females begin to lay eggs on the surface of trunks and branches. About 100 eggs may be laid on the trunk or larger limbs, usually at points of rough bark and in cracks of the bark, with most egg laying completed by early July. 

Eggs hatch about 2 weeks after being laid, and the larvae bore into the plant where they feed on the sapwood. As they feed and develop the larvae extend their mines under the bark, the size of the tunnels gradually widening as the insect grows. Fine sawdust frass packs these galleries. Larval feeding continues until the larva is mature or until weather becomes too cold for development. Growth is resumed in spring when they complete their development. Normally, one generation is produced annually. Development may be slowed in more vigorous trees in early stages of infestation and in cooler areas some larvae that develop from eggs laid late in the season have been observed to require a second season to mature.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
Second Edition
By Whitney Cranshaw & David Shetlar

This second edition of Garden Insects of North America solidifies its place as the most comprehensive guide to the common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada. Featuring 3,300 full-color photos and concise, detailed text, this fully revised book covers the hundreds of species of insects and mites associated with fruits and vegetables, shade trees and shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants, and turfgrass—from aphids and bumble bees to leafhoppers and mealybugs to woollybears and yellowjacket wasps—and much more. This new edition also provides a greatly expanded treatment of common pollinators and flower visitors, the natural enemies of garden pests, and the earthworms, insects, and other arthropods that help with decomposing plant matter in the garden.

Designed to help you easily identify what you find in the garden, the book is organized by where insects are most likely to be seen—on leaves, shoots, flowers, roots, or soil. Photos are included throughout the book, next to detailed descriptions of the insects and their associated plants.

An indispensable guide to the natural microcosm in our backyards, Garden Insects of North America continues to be the definitive resource for amateur gardeners, insect lovers, and professional entomologists.

  • Revised and expanded edition covers most of the insects, mites, and other “bugs” one may find in yards or gardens in the United States and Canada—all in one handy volume
  • Features more than 3,300 full-color photos, more than twice the illustrations of the first edition
  • Concise, informative text organized to help you easily identify insects and the plant injuries that they may cause

Bird Fact Friday – the Black Scoter

Adapted from pages 84-85 of Wildlife of the Arctic:

Formerly considered conspecific with the Common Scoter, the American Ornithologists’ Union divided the two into separate species on the basis of the drake’s bill pattern and shape, and also on differences in the mating calls (each produces a single note, that of the Black Scoter being longer). The plumage of male Black Scoters is essentially identical to that of male Commons, but the bill differs markedly. The base protuberance of breeding adults is entirely yellow-orange and is much less knob-like, being significantly flatter. The coloration of the remaining bill is similar in extent. The bill of Black Scoters (male and female) is slightly more hooked than that of Common Scoters. Female plumage is essentially identical to that of female Common Scoters.

A male Black Scoter (Melanitta americana). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

Black Scoters breed in Asiatic Russia east of the Lena delta (but not to the north coast) and on Kamchatka. They also breed in west and south Alaska, and in southern Quebec and Labrador. Both species are found in the lower Lena valley but there appears to be no overlap of ranges and no evidence of hybridisation. In winter the birds move to the Bering Sea and coasts of Japan. According to the IUCN, their status is nearly threatened, due to a decline in their population. 

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens