Thursday, August 30, 2012


Because some folks (including me) find that the "prove you're not a computer" verification bit of these blogs is becoming increasingly frustrating to fill out ("Is that a 'c' or an 'e'?"  "Are those numbers or letters?"), I have removed it from my comment box. 

I hope this enhances our interactions!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

From Bat Conservation International

August 2012, Volume 10, Number 8

Living Inside a Deadly Trap

The "pitcher" of pitcher plants is a death trap for insects and other small invertebrates. These vine-like plants of the genus Nepenthes grow in the nutrient-poor soils of peat-swamp forests. To compensate for the lack of nutrients, the plants developed trapping structures shaped like pitchers and partly filled with liquid. When small creatures fall into the trap, they drown in the liquid and are digested by enzymes produced by the plant. So what are bats doing roosting roost in these lethal pitchers?

A Hardwicke’s woolly bat settles into a pitcher plant. Photo by Michael Schöner
Professor Ulmar Grafe at the University of Würzburg in Germany discovered that Hardwicke's woolly bats were regularly roosting in pitcher plants in Brunei (on the tropical island of Borneo). Grafe wanted to investigate that peculiar relationship and invited students Caroline and Michael Schöner to join his team.

The researchers traveled to Brunei and quickly found Hardwicke's woolly bats roosting in pitchers. They attached miniature radio-tracking transmitters to the backs of all captured bats and followed each bat for up to 12 days through the dense, swampy jungle. The Schöners said they were astonished to find that all the woolly bats in the study area roosted only in pitchers of Nepenthes hemsleyana plants. Each bat was settled in, head first, above the digestive fluid in a well-defined region – a girdle-like structure below which the pitcher tapers significantly. The bats fit so perfectly that they don't even use their feet to hold on the pitchers' walls.

Unlike other Nepenthes species, the digestive fluid inside the Nepenthes hemsleyana pitchers is limited to the lowest part of the cone, so the bats never contact it. Normally these bats roost alone, but some pitchers provide enough space for a mother with its pup.

While roosting in the pitchers, bats can hardly be seen from the outside, the students report. Thus, the pitchers provide a secure roost that helps bats avoid detection by predators. All things considered, pitcher plants seem well adapted for the bats. But what's in it for the plant?

Previous studies had found that Nepenthes hemsleyana captures seven times less prey than other, closely related species. Perhaps bat feces serves as a kind of fertilizer that compensates for the lack of nutrients. To test this hypothesis, the team collected tissue samples of plants that had been occupied by bats and compared their nitrogen content to pitcher plants that did not host bats. They found that plants used by bats gained more than 33 percent of their nitrogen from bat droppings. "We now have strong evidence that the relationship between pitcher plants and woolly bats demonstrates a mutualism that benefits both partner species," the Schöners said.

The research continues as the Schöners work toward doctoral degrees at the University of Greifswald. "We hope to learn whether Hardwicke's woolly bats and N. hemsleyana plants have co-evolutionary adaptations for one another, and exactly what each partner gains from this relationship – and what price each pays for it," they said.

BCI Members can read the full story of this unusual relationship between bats and plants in the Fall 2012 issue of BATS magazine.

How cool is that!  Once more:  "Nature never ceases to amaze!"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lotus Position

What a beautiful day we had on Sunday - another in a serious of glorious days.  Possible rain was in the forecast, but it never materialized, which was terrific because I had a paddle planned with GREAT, the Grand River Environmental Action Team.  Every month from April through October they sponsor a paddle on one of the waterways in south central Michigan.  Sunday's trip was to Kent Lake, a man-made lake north of Ann Arbor, where the Huron River was dammed.  The lake is located in a very popular county park:  Kensington Park.  And the big draw...well, you'll see it in a moment.

Over 20 boats set out from the boat launch - canoes and kayaks both.  Other water vessels on the lake included sailboats, motor boats, pontoon boats and paddle boards, but the lake is big enough (1200 ac) that we were not crowded.

Are those vultures in the tree?

Nope - they are cormorants.  Apparently this is their place - every year these birds hang out on this tiny island, perched in this dead tree and on other branches around the back side of the island.  They were fairly oblivious to our group, eying us on occasion, but mostly getting on with their preening and sunbathing.

In the far distance you can see our destination:  that low band of light green.

Not the swan...

but the lotuses!  American lotus - a rare plant in Michigan, it is much more common further south.  This patch appeared suddenly in this lake about seven or eight years ago.  No one knows for sure how the first plants arrived, but it could've been via people or wildlife, people, of course, being the most likely route.

Just how big are the flowers?  Take a look below!

The large leaves stand upwards of two feet above the water, and the colony is quite dense.

The lotus was once an important food plant to the native peoples, who ate both the seeds and the roots.

You might recognize the center of the flower, and the dried pod below, from dried flower arrangements. 

I shook out some seeds and will chuck 'em in the pod at work to see if they will grow.

I managed to paddle through the pads and get up close to many of the flowers.  They are just spectacular.

One of the really amazing things about the lotus is the leaves.  The surface of the leaf has microscopic structures that work to repel water.  It is so efficient at this that scientists are studying these structures to see how they can be copied for creating clothing that repels water.  I tried to shoot some video of the water rolling around on the leaf - not easy to do in a boat, holding the camera in one hand and manipulating the water on the leaf with the other, without tipping over.  It looks like mercury!  Remember those days when we were kids and someone would get a hold of a dollop of mercury and you'd watch it roll around on your hand or desk?  Water on a lotus leaf is much safer.

By the time I finished photographing the lotuses, the rest of the group had paddled on.  So, I took my time to tour the various coves around the islands.  I saw a number of turtles out sunning on the logs.  Most were map turtles - a new turtle species in the wild for me.

Typical of most turtles, they didn't hang around very long once they were aware of the approaching boat.

Three turtles and a duck.  Can you see all three turtles?  I only saw the big map turtle when I took the photo.  It promptly dove into the water, and then I saw the soft shelled turtle on the back end of the log.  The third turtle, which is in the middle and has its tail facing the camera - I didn't even see until I looked at the photos later that evening.

And this poor little green heron (or green backed heron, depending on your field guide)!  I saw him first in the shadows of one island and followed him for 15 or more minutes, drifting ever closer to get a photo.  He finally flew across the shallow water to another log, this time in the sunshine.  If you zoom in on the photo, you can see he's caught a damselfly.

And here he is swallowing it. Gulp! 

Shortly thereafter he turned his back and walked down the submerged log - just to get away from me.  I let him go.

All too soon it was time to head back.  The folks from GREAT had loaded most of the borrower boats back on the trailers and were ready to go.  We bid them all farewell and thanked them for the opportunity to come out to Kent Lake and see the lotuses in bloom.

There were lots of buds on the plants, so if you'd like to go out and see them for yourself, there is plenty of time to do so.  It's well worth the trip to see these glorious flowers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Olden Times

My folks were visiting for a day this weekend, so we took advantage of the break between rain storms Sunday to visit the Waterloo Farm Museum which was having an antique tractor and engine "show."  It was glorious weather to be out at a "fair."

They had a number of old engines there, sputtering and phutting along,either just making noise, running a fan, or pumping water, as seen here. 

They had a gentleman doing flint napping - and for a small fee folks could try to make their own points.  I was very tempted, but in the end just settled for a couple photographs.

The woman with the antique sock-knitting machine was also there - I saw here here last winter when I was out for the Victorian Christmas festival they had.  It was much easier to see the machine in action out in the daylight under a tent, rather than in a small dark room in the house.

It's a fascinating machine, and if she wasn't having to talk to folks who were full of questions about her contraption, she could probably whip up a sock in less than half an hour.  It really does zip right along.

Part of the museum grounds feature a small garden with the "three sisters" growing:  corn, beans and squash.

In this case much of the squash was actually gourds.  I may give gourds a try next year - they seem like fun things to grow.

Sadly, they didn't have as many of the buildings open (like the spring house), and the old cabin, instead of having interpreters inside showing how life was lived back 150 years ago, featured two young boys and their guitars.  Not quite the same thing.

A very popular exhibit was Steve Hopkins and his wood turning machine.

For a very modest fee ($5), Steve would turn a wooden mallet or rolling pin for you.  Of course, I simply had to have one, and dear ol' Dad thought it was proper as well, so he commissioned this mallet with the walnut head.

It took Steve about 15-20 minutes go from a couple blocks of wood to a finished mallet.  Here he's coating a finished mallet with linseed oil.

Et voila. 

I just love the idea of being able to make a tool with what is around in just a short amount of time.  Unlike me...if I need a hammer and I can't find one, I'm inclined to go find a rock to use.  A bit more primitive than turning on a machine and making a mallet from scraps of wood that are lying around, but equally effective.

There were also some pretty neat old tractors on hand, like this steam-engine model.  They fired this one up later in the afternoon, and with a roar and a belch of smelly black smoke, it was up and running.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend part of a day.  Michigan has a rich agricultural history, and it's great to see how things used to be done "in the old days." 

The (local) World Gasps on Relief


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tamed Natives

Along two sides of the veg garden I have planted a variety of native prairie plants.  Things are starting to come into bloom, which, considering the heat and drought, is a small miracle this year.  Last night I took the camera out to capture a few blossoms.

Slightly flattened, either due to wind or the weight of the plant itself, is the hoary vervain.  This (usually) tall, slender plant with its tufts of purple flowers has been blooming for most of July.  You can see how the flower heads have bent upwards now that the plant is lying down.

Both Culver's roots are in bloom.  Normally this prairie native stands over four feet tall.  This summer, thanks to the drought, it finally put out blossoms while still under two feet in height.  I guess it decided to forgo height in  favor of just getting some seeds made.  

The first of the green-headed coneflowers opened this week.

And just a short distance away the purple coneflowers are in full, glorious color.  Like the Culver's roots, these garden perennials are rather short this year.

The rose mallow, which seems to struggle in the garden, has one blossom already blown, and one bud waiting to burst.  

Horsemint has always been a favorite of mine.  The petals are described in Newcomb's as being yellowish with purple spots.  I've seen them with so many spots that the petals seem purple or pink in their own right.  These are definitely tending more toward the "yellowish," with colorful spots being few and far between.

I knew a girl once who told me this plant was called dragon's tears - that's what her mom called it.  So for years, this was dragon's tears to me as well.  Now I know it is actually called obedient plant - a much less dramatic name.  I was also surprised to learn it is a native wildflower - it always struck me as a genuine garden plant - one of those that folks plant because natives are "boring."  Ah...if only they knew!

This gorgeous rose-bud-ish  flower is actually giant St. Johnswort.  I have two of these plants in the garden and this is the first bud I've seen.  I can't wait for it to blossom.  

Liatris is another fairly common garden flower, but I'll bet you've rarely seen one that looks like this!  This is rough blazing star - another member of the Liatris clan, but a native of the harsh, dry prairie.  The buds are only just starting to get some color - should be starting to bloom this weekend I imagine.

And even if this flower never had any more color than it does now, I think it is just beautiful!  However, this is the flower head and it's still only sporting tight buds.  The plant is the giant yellow hyssop, and already it is approaching 3.5 feet in height.  I am looking forward to seeing the flowers.

I planted this perennial because I love the name:  compass plant.  It is supposed to get quite tall, with these large, deeply cut leaves.  The flower, when it finally produces one, is yellow, looking much like the yellow coneflowers, the tickseeds, and the rudbekias that populate the plains.  It's a Silphium, a name which I also like.  This makes it a relative of my beloved cup-plant, which is also native out here and not considered an invasive like it was in NY.  The cup-plant I planted last year is still quite small - no flowers this year, but I'm sure in a couple years it will tower over the garden.  And, just because I love factoids like this, there used to be an enormous Silphium in northern Africa that was THE plant to use for birth control back in the days of the Greeks and the Romans.  It was so popular that it was wiped out - harvested to the point that it could not keep up with demand and today it is extinct.

Meanwhile, the field that is part of my property sports not a single native wildflower (well, no, that's not quite true - there are a few small clusters of milkweed).  I hope to eventually convert it into native plants - when budgeting allows.  As it is, the native bees (and hummingbirds and moths and butterflies) are highly dependent on gardens around here - there's hardly a native flower to be seen for miles around.