At least 40% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, according to the USDA’s website.  Many of these have been used to treat common ailments for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.  Examples include willow bark which contains aspirin’s active ingredient and emetine from ipecacuanha which is used to induce vomiting when someone accidentally ingests a poison.  You may more readily recognize it as Ipecac syrup.  These and similar ailments have bothered humans for as long as we’ve existed.  But can plants defeat illnesses associated with modern lifestyles?

The answer is probably yes.  A research team from the University of South Florida Health found preliminary evidence that Basil (Ocimum) may help protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.    

Basil Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Basil plants have an abundant natural compound called fenchol.  You may already be familiar with this compound even if you don’t know its name.  Fenchol contributes to basil’s delicious smell.  Additionally, in preclinical studies conducted in non-human disease models, fenchol affects two critical brain chemistry processes.  As a result, the fenchol reduces neurotoxicity in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s.

Once again, possible answers to our most perplexing problems lie within our environment.  This time, it may be an ingredient in your dinner!

To read more about this research:  https://hscweb3.hsc.usf.edu/blog/2021/10/05/natural-compound-in-basil-may-protect-against-alzheimers-disease-pathology/

To read more about plant-derived medicines, check out:  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/index.shtml

 

Can you guess how far a dragonfly that weighs 1/100th of an ounce will migrate?  How about 1250 miles, including flying over open seas.

Photo 62479615 / Pantala Flavescens © Aryut Tantisoontornchai | Dreamstime.com

A team lead by researchers from Lund University in Sweden discovered that the Globe Skimmer Dragonflies (Pantala flavescens) migrate from India to East Africa each spring.  Approximately 15% of them survive the lengthy journey.  About 40% manage to make the return trip in the autumn.  

These dragonflies cannot travel this distance solely based on the fuel from their fat stores.   They are simply too small.  Instead, they must gauge the wind currents to push them along the way.  We’ve seen this in birds as well. 

This type of research is often derided as wasteful.  Who cares how far this dragonfly travels?  In response, the team notes that this type of research increases knowledge of how migratory animals, including insects, may inadvertently spread disease.  As wind patterns shift due to climate change, this information will be invaluable to predicting illness breakouts in new locations.

You can read more about this work at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2021.698128/full

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK have again made an intriguing discovery.  This time, the team studied silkworm moths to uncover their ability to throw hungry predator bats off their trail.

Silkmoth
Photo 140237557 / Silkmoth © Tom Meaker | Dreamstime.com

An acoustic decoy mechanism involving elongated hindwings on some silkmoths is well known among the folks who know about such things.  (I am not part of that esteemed group, by the way.)  The twisted shape of these wings creates strong echoes, consequently misdirecting the bats.  However, not all silkmoths have these structural features. 

The team wanted to understand if there were other acoustic mechanisms at work.  Using specialized tools, they recorded and analyzed thousands of echoes that were created by bouncing sound waves off of the moths at different angles.  The analysis revealed that some moths have a forewing reflector that also acts as an acoustic decoy.   This is a newly described mechanism.  The team also believes that no species have both types of decoys. 

The team’s next step will be to study the relative advantages that each type of decoy offers the moths.

To learn more about this research, reference the press release here:  https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2021/september/moth-wingtips.html

@drtomneil  @BristolBioSci

 

D 204656644 © Gerald D. Tang | Dreamstime.com

If you live along the West Coast of North America, you may have seen a common wildflower called the Western False Asphodel (Triantha occidentalis).  This plant was originally described in the late 1870s.  Given its considerable distribution and how long people have known about the plant, it’s surprising that until recently, it still harbored a secret. 

Botanists from the University of British Columbia discovered that this plant is carnivorous.  One feature that makes this plant unique is that it traps insects near its insect-pollinated flowers.  

This is the first carnivorous plant to be identified in 20 years. 

You can read more about the science behind this discovery here:  https://news.ubc.ca/2021/08/09/insects-beware-this-west-coast-plant-wants-to-eat-you/

@ubcnews

Summer months usually portend a dip in research paper publications.  Despite a reduction in volume, there doesn’t seem to be a lack of intriguing findings.  Here is a sample from the recent announcements.

Spectacled Bear
Spectacled Bear Image by Jake Heckey from Pixabay

News from Peru about the Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) appears to be promising.  A team of researchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, and Stony Brook University studied the population of this endangered species.  Using facial recognition tools, they determined that the population of these incredibly shy bears may be larger than originally estimated.  Good news, indeed.

The report then introduced a second surprise.  While conducting their fieldwork, some of the team spotted the first “golden” bear.  This bear’s fur was blonde, in contrast to the typically black fur of the spectacled bear.  The golden bear has been dubbed Paddington Bear, based on its resemblance to the children’s book character.  

You can see a picture of the golden bear here:  https://pressemitteilungen.pr.uni-halle.de/index.php?modus=pmanzeige&pm_id=5278

To learn more about the spectacled bear population research, check out this paper: https://bioone.org/journals/ursus/volume-2021/issue-32e12/URSUS-D-20-00005.3/An-Andean-bear-population-hotspot-in-Northern-Peru/10.2192/URSUS-D-20-00005.3.short

Remember seeing (or having) an ant farm when you were young?  Those ants tunneled into the medium to create and connect their chambers.  

Scientists from four international universities have taken their fascination with ant farms to a whole new level.  The team wanted to understand how the ants knew where to dig and what areas to leave alone.  The researchers compared the ants’ method to playing the game Jenga.   

Ants
Ants Image © Carmen Craig | Dreamstime.com

If you haven’t played, the idea is to remove a block from a precarious stack of wood without causing the entire structure to fall.  Experienced players know to test various blocks to see if they are loose and therefore not load-bearing before removing them.  

The team hypothesized that the ants were doing something similar with the soil they were choosing to move.  Keep in mind that these ant structures can extend many feet down and you will begin to realize that they are an engineering marvel. 

Researchers discovered some ant-building principles.  First, ants like to build in straight lines.  That makes sense since it is the shortest distance between two points.  Next, they prefer to dig at the steepest angle possible and still maintain the stability of loose material, also known as the angle of repose.   

Finally, the ants’ progress takes advantage of force chains.  Wiki describes force chains as “…a set of particles within a compressed granular material that are held together and jammed into place by a network of mutual compressive forces.”  In other words, the ants have an understanding of the physics of their surroundings and the dynamics of their building material.   

CalTech has a reader-friendly overview here:  https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/the-science-of-underground-kingdoms

If you want to get into the scientific details of this fascinating 3-D modeling, check out the PNAS paper here: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/36/e2102267118

Nature’s complexity must be infinite.  It’s certainly unpredictable. I am in awe of the nature lessons I learn every week.   

This time, let’s explore some of the latest information about animal cooperation behaviors that were once thought to only be the purview of humans.  Here are a couple of examples.

Giraffe Family
Giraffe Family Image by Savannah Morgan from Pixabay

Most folks are aware of the family, community relationships, and cooperative behaviors of elephants.  You may also recognize similar behaviors among some species of whales.  Now, researchers have discovered that giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis), once thought to experience only casual relationships, actually have strong family-centric behaviors.  Most interesting is the role of the post-reproductive females, also known as the post-menopausal non-mothers. The unexpected finding revealed that these older giraffes are essential to help raise the young that are born within their matrilineal line.   

This behavior doesn’t surprise me. However, it seems to be big news in the scientific community.  I’ll bet if research teams did closer observations of deer behavior, similar family and helper dynamics would be identified.  I’m sure I’ve witnessed this intergenerational support among those deer that share our land. 

To learn more about giraffe social behavior — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mam.12268

 

When you think about bees, do you picture a busy hive, active with hundreds of buzzing worker bees?  I do.  I was surprised to learn that social bees such as honeybees (Apis spp.) or bumblebees (Bombus spp.) make up less than 10 percent of all bee species worldwide.  The remaining 90 percent are comprised of solitary bees.  

Female solitary bees prepare their nests in cracks and crevices, often in the ground.  I’ve seen these nests. You probably have as well. Although, I didn’t realize that this was the behavior of most bee species.  

Sweat Bee
Sweat Bee/Solitary Bee Image by Gwen M from Pixabay

Seemingly in contradiction to their single lifestyle, some solitary species do aggregate their living quarters.  As an analogy, these bees have a studio in an apartment complex.  Compare that to the commune living of honeybees and bumblebees.

Just because they are solitary bees doesn’t mean that they can’t help each other.  Like the giraffes, females of certain solitary bee species will cooperate in nest building and offspring-rearing.  Apparently, bees can have strong communities and still respect individuality.  

There is so much to learn.

A comprehensive resource about Solitary Bees is Bryan N. Danforth’s book, The Solitary Bees: Biology, Evolution, Conservation.

During mid-summer, dragonflies emerge to dance and dart in the heat of the late afternoon.  When the sun is streaming in through my back windows, I can watch a dizzying display of at least a dozen Twelve-Spotted Skimmers (Libellula pulchella) flying in spiraling patterns.  

Dragonfly
Image by Diana Roberts from Pixabay

These large dragonflies are found in all 48 contiguous United States and southern Canada. They frequent wetlands and surrounding areas of vegetation near ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams. 

I recently learned that the spots on the wings are used to attract mates. Further, the dark spots have another important function.  Those dark spots help dragonflies stay warm in cooler locations.  The spots absorb sunlight and can heat the wings by up to 2℃ or about 3.6℉. 

This adaptation permits the dragonflies to expand their habitat. Unfortunately, with climate change, some dragonflies seem to be reducing the size or color of their spots, and this is confusing their potential mates.  Researchers fear that some females may not be able to recognize their own species.

Interestingly, female wing spots don’t heat up as much as males.   Perhaps this is because they tend to stay in the shade more frequently. 

Maybe this is why I’ve seen fewer of the spotted species this year.  How about you?  What are you noticing?

To learn more about this spotty dilemma, you can read the paper here:  https://www.pnas.org/content/118/28/e2101458118

Beetles abound.  Four out of five animal species are beetles!  There are at least 400,000 different types and discoveries are made every year.  (If I ever have a chance to discover a new species, I bet that it will be a beetle.)

Beetle
Image by simisi1 from Pixabay

Here are a few fun facts to illustrate the diversity of these creatures:

  • The smallest known beetle, Scydosella musawasensis, has a body length of 0.325 mm or 0.01inches.  It was discovered using a scanning electron microscope.
  • A firefly or lightning bug (Lampyridae) is a type of beetle.
  • The Diabolical Ironclad Beetle (Phloeodes diabolicus) lives up to its name and can withstand being run over by a car.   A research team from Purdue University and the University of California, Irvine, discovered that during compression experiments, the beetle could withstand pressures around 39,000 times its body weight.
  • Fire Chaser Beetles (Melanophila) move towards forest fires with purpose.  They lay their eggs in freshly burnt, sometimes still-smoldering, wood.  These beetles use their sensory organs to detect heat via infrared receptors to find the fires.  One study suggests that they will travel upwards of 80 miles to lay those eggs.  That’s dedication!
  • The Palmetto Beetle (Eurycotis floridana) is a much nicer name for the American Cockroach.  
  • The Bombardier Beetle (Carabidae) is one of the smelliest animals on the planet. Try not to annoy it. The beetle mixes two chemicals that are stored in its body as a defense. The hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone combination achieve a boiling point, exploding into a stinky and sticky mass that is toxic to other insects.  

What kinds of beetles have you seen today?  

Firefly
Image by Heather Griesbach from Pixabay

Sources:

Smallest Beetle — http://www.sci-news.com/biology/science-scydosella-musawasensis-smallest-beetle-03324.html

More about Diabolical Ironclad Beetle – https://www.sciencenews.org/article/diabolical-ironclad-beetle-exoskeleton-armor-impossible-squish

More about Fire Chasers — https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/news-posts/fire-chaser-beetles-sense-heat-from-miles-away

Bombardier Beetle — https://www.mtpr.org/arts-culture/2019-05-07/bug-bytes-bombardier-beetle

Today’s post is going to be a bit shorter than usual.  As you are well aware, sometimes life interferes with your plans but nature still provides a calming balm.  Hopefully, a beetle challenge is calming!

Throughout the next few days, look around as you go about your activities, on a hike, near the lake, or wherever you are.  You are looking for beetles.  See how many different types you can find. You don’t need to know what they are called.  Instead, note some distinguishing features and in what kind of environment you found them.  Keep a tally. 

Beetle Collection
Image by Frantic00 at Dreamstime.com

Beetles are the largest order of insects.  There is extraordinary diversity in this order, with more than 400,000 species. They make up about 40% of all types of insects and 25% of all types of animals.  

While they are very diverse, they all have a head, thorax, abdomen, and six legs.  Look for these as your first clues.  Its body may also appear as a hard shell, but it just looks that way.  Beetles exist in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Finally, if in doubt, beetles have sharp mandibles (chewing mouthparts). You’ll be able to identify them if you flip the beetle on its back.

During a recent walk, I found at least a dozen different varieties and that was with very little effort.  I’ll bet you can beat this easily with a little diligence.  Good luck!  And more about the natural history of beetles next week. 

This challenge is rated as easy.

I have always been a nervous flier despite having flown hundreds of thousands of miles over several decades.  (Yes, I’m THAT old.)  Turbulence, among other things, unsettles me.  I know I am not alone in this fear though I never considered the impact of turbulence on birds. 

As we know, turbulence means the airflow is changing direction, much like currents in the water.    It can scale from tiny swirls to hurricane winds and features eddies and vortices.  They occur because of weather patterns, geographic features such as mountains, or simply when warm and cooler air collide. 

Using this information, a group from Cornell University studied the

Golden Eagle
Photo by Kevinsphotos on Pixabay.com

impact of turbulence on birds.   A captured golden eagle fitted with a solar-powered GPS tracker served as their inflight data source.  

Dr. Gregory Bewley, an assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, interpreted the eagle’s reactions to turbulence.  He noted that the bird likely anticipated the disturbances and adjusted its flight behaviors in synchronization with the changing airflow.  This synchronization appears to result in greater flight efficiency, including increasing acceleration with little effort. 

Dr. Bewley noted that if this principle applies to this large bird, it will most likely apply to smaller birds as well. 

A bird’s superior understanding of one of the earth’s dynamics is on display once again. 

For more information check out the press release from Cornell – https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2021/06/turbulence-gets-eagles-speed

Here is the PNAS paper – https://www.pnas.org/content/118/23/e2102588118

@CornellEng   @CornellNews

 

While we are airborne so to speak, let’s talk about a case of mistaken identity. 

Identifying a new species must be a thrilling experience but confirming the novelty isn’t always a certainty.  

In the 1870s, a rare bee specimen was uncovered in Nevada.  Since then, it was known as the rarest bee in North America.  Only one was ever found, until now. 

Photo by Katharina Notarianni on Dreamstime.com

A team from Canada, examining the specimen, realized that that one bee was an aberrant example of a much more widespread species known as the California digger-cuckoo bee (Brachymelecta californica).  

The unique individual had different colored hairs and wing features.  No wonder folks thought it was a different species.   Alas, it was not. 

To read more about this, check out the release from the Canadian Museum of Nature – https://nature.ca/en/about-us/museum-news/news/press-releases/case-mistaken-identity-solved-rarest-bee-genus-north-americ

@MuseumofNature

As a child, catching grasshoppers filled many of my afternoons. I lived in a city.  The house had a sparse backyard and few tall blades of grass yet grasshoppers abound.  Those were the days.

Sadly, last summer, the University of Oklahoma published a study showing that grasshopper populations in a Kansas grassland preserve have declined over 30% during the past two decades.  The report states that nutrient dilution is the cause.   Plants are lacking in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sodium.  Carbon dioxide is linked to this decline.  

Excess carbon dioxide, scrubbed from the atmosphere, is a good thing.  Further, it encourages plant growth.  However, as the plant grows if there isn’t enough nutrition in the soil, each “bite” has less total nutritional value.  Consequently, the grasshoppers that feed on the plants get less benefit and are eating relatively empty calories.  

So for today’s challenge, go and look in at least a couple of places where there is some tall grass.  See if you can find a grasshopper.  

Here are a few more facts to make the challenge more enjoyable:

  • Grasshoppers appeared more than 250 million years ago.  That’s before the dinosaurs.
  • When a grasshopper jumps, its peak acceleration approaches 20G of force.  By comparison, astronauts reach about 3-6Gs upon takeoff and reentry. 
  • They can both fly and jump.  They reach speeds of up to 8 mph when flying and can jump more than 10x their body length.  

Good luck trying to catch one.  Please remember to release it.  We don’t want to reduce their numbers any further.

This challenge is rated moderate given the insects’ relative scarcity.

Sources:

More about the nutrition study – https://phys.org/news/2020-03-reveals-grasshopper-declines-quality-prairie.html

Other grasshopper facts – http://tonsoffacts.com/28-interesting-weird-facts-grasshoppers/

The bees are back!  Just about everything in my yard is blooming right now and the bees are doing their part.  

As you may know, bees are keystone organisms.  This means that they are so vital to the ecosystem that without them the ecosystem may not survive.  One of their key roles is flower pollination.

So, for today’s challenge, find a bee and see if you can spot its pollen ball.  If you are following a honey bee or a bumblebee, note that they have a structure on their hind legs called a pollen basket.  They place the pollen grains in the basket.  For real.  Other bees have structures too but not as well-defined. 

Here are a few tips about finding the bees.  First, bee coloration is not just shades of Bee with pollen basketyellow and orange.  In Maine, we have some that have brown or black striped sections to their bodies.  We also have one that is a bright green and some that appear as shades of blue.  Check out what kinds of bees you have in your area.

Next, note that bees have four wings.  (So do wasps, by the way.)  If you see a two-winged insect hovering over a flower, that is something else.  I like to check out dandelions, apple blossoms, and other native flowering plants.  This is where the bees will be collecting their pollen.

Finally, you will have better luck on a sunny, warm, and calm day.   Bees struggle to fly in windy conditions.

One more thought:  Did you know that bees must visit approximately 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey?  Additionally, each bee contributes only about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during its entire lifetime.  

As always, please take care not to aggravate the bees (nor the wasps) as you observe. 

This challenge is rated as medium. 

Source:

More honeybee facts at — http://www.goldenblossomhoney.com/education_bees.php