Two new groundbreaking studies reveal unexpected insights into the evolution of plants and snakes.  Let’s start with the plants’ study first.

Crocus Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

The results of research conducted by a Stanford-led team suggest that plants did not evolve gradually over millions of years. (Many people, including me, assume that plants, animals, and even human beings change genetically in tiny increments over time.) Rather, major changes occurred millions of years apart in two condensed bursts of diversification.  The first burst resulted in the creation of seeds for reproduction.  The second burst occurred 250 million years later with the variation of flowers, including their parts, shapes, fragrances, and other features.  Note that the drivers of change are again the plant reproduction processes. 

One might think that the flowering parts evolved alongside pollinator insects.  However, the insects existed almost 200 million years before the flowers’ complexity emerged.  So, insects weren’t the catalysts.  The actual stimulus is still to be determined.

To learn more about the findings, check out this link:  https://earth.stanford.edu/news/plants-evolved-complexity-two-bursts-250-million-year-hiatus#gs.bzhs5f

 

Now, let’s consider the asteroid strike that doomed the dinosaurs. Evidence suggests that many creatures such as snakes were also negatively affected, at least initially. 

The research team involved in this study views this impact as a form of “creative destruction.”  In other words, the destruction eliminated many types of competitive snakes and dinosaurs.  Subsequently, the surviving snake population diversified into the niches formerly filled by the now-deceased species.  

Snake Image by sipa from Pixabay

The team suggests that these remaining snakes specialized and spread by experimenting with “new lifestyles and habitats.”  Many were successful. This one event triggered the evolutionary variety we find in snake species. Now, there are more than 400 types of snakes and they can be found in habitats ranging from deserts to saltwater marshes.

The team also suggests that the snake’s evolutionary diversification may be a model for what can happen in other environmental catastrophes.  Some species definitely emerge stronger.  

You can read more about this here at:  https://www.bath.ac.uk/announcements/modern-snakes-evolved-from-a-few-survivors-of-dino-killing-asteroid/

Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) evoke fearsome images in the minds of most people.  As apex predators, they have spread to most marine environments.  Further, separate killer whale populations have developed preferred local diets.  While these different populations may have some overlapping territory, they don’t mingle and they don’t inter-breed. 

Here is a brief summary of the primary killer whale populations.  They fall into three categories based on their social structure.  

      • Whales in the Resident group include males and females that tend to stay within their birth group.   They have a tight social structure.  They prefer to eat fish and squid.
      • Whales in the Transient or Bigg’s group roam along the coast.  They do not maintain a strong tie to their birth group.  They hunt marine mammals. 
      • Offshore whales are found out in deep water.  They feast on schooling fish.

Recently, studies in killer whales revealed that the females of this dominant species experience menopause.  Did you know that only humans and a few whale species go through this (difficult and uncomfortable, IMHO) phase of life?  

When menopause was discovered in the Resident group, the research team hypothesized that the social closeness of the Resident group triggered the end of reproduction in older females.  Perhaps it would not occur in the Bigg’s group.  However, despite the loose social structure, menopause happened.  So, it’s back to the drawing board.  No one knows for sure why menopause is a physical reality.  

To read more about this, check out this link:  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.7756

Orcas Image by djmboxsterman from Pixabay

Also reported in the news is the discovery of a new species of lizard found in central Peru.  Announced on the Pensoft blog, this is a new species of wood lizard and the male’s appearance is striking.   

Pictures can be seen here:  http://blog.pensoft.net/2021/09/01/new-beautiful-dragon-like-species-of-lizard-discovered-in-the-tropical-andes/

The researchers involved in this discovery needed to conduct their field study at night over seven years to formally describe their prized species.   That’s dedication!  Congratulations to all.

 

Many birds rely on keen eye-sight or exceptional hearing to find food and avoid predators.  A bird’s sense of smell seemed to have only minor value, until now.  

White Storks
Image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

A research team from the Max Planck Institute explored an idea that was intuitively known to local farmers.  When the farmers mowed their fields, the white storks (Ciconia ciconia) that lived downwind of the fields quickly appeared.  Mowing allowed the storks to more easily find the snails, frogs, and rodents they feed upon.  The storks were responding to the smell of the freshly cut grass.  

To ensure that the birds weren’t listening for the sound of the tractors, the team devised a few tests. For the first step, the research team included only observations of storks that arrived from a distance beyond the birds’ ability to hear the tractors. This suggested that they were relying on something other than hearing as the cue to come forage. 

Next, they spread freshly mowed clippings from a distant site onto the field, and again the storks appeared.   

In the last test, the team sprayed a field with a chemical mixture of green leaf scents that smell like cut grass.  The storks showed up again.  

The team concluded that the storks followed their noses.  This is not completely surprising as storks have an oversized olfactory section in the brain which also have many scent receptors.  The sense of smell deserves a bit more respect!

You can read more about the study here:  https://www.mpg.de/17069936/storks-smell

 

A new study out of the University of Central Florida reveals that nesting loggerheads and green sea turtles are smaller today than they were in the past.  Why this is, is unclear.

Loggerhead Turtle
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

About one-third of all green turtles and many loggerheads nest along Central Florida’s Atlantic coastline.  It is a critical breeding ground. 

Consequently, the shrinking size of the average nesting turtle is concerning.  

There are at least two reasons, one positive and one definitely not.  On the upside, it is possible that conservation efforts are succeeding and there are now more younger turtles coming to nest. If there is a significant population increase of these younger and smaller turtles, it will impact the average size measured by the teams that research and protect them. 

On the other hand, it may not be about an increased volume of new turtles.  Instead, young turtles could be growing more slowly because food sources are more scarce due to habitat degradation or competition.

More research is needed.  I’m hoping the teams will discover a turtle population boom. 

The related University press release is available here:  https://www.ucf.edu/news/ucf-study-finds-smaller-turtles-are-nesting-on-florida-beaches/

I never expect to see a snake.  When I do, it’s momentarily alarming (yes, I still have a tad bit of residual herpetological fear) and then unexpectedly delightful.  Recently, I spied a Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis) hanging out in the grassy border of a local rail trail.

This small green to light brown snake with the creamy-colored underside is native to the Nearctic region ranging from Canada to

Smooth Green Snake
Photo by Sgbrown56 on Dreamstime

the highlands of central Mexico.  They are best known for their group-living arrangements, called hibernacula.  These are groups of 100 to 150 individual snakes cohabitating.  Hibernacula have been found in Minnesota and Manitoba.  They may exist elsewhere too but this isn’t well-documented.  (Ok, I’m kind of creeped out again.)

In Maine, Smooth Green Snakes are a secure, or relatively abundant, species. They are found in the meadows, wetlands, marshes, bogs, farmlands, and the abandoned fields that comprise a fair amount of the state.  With this kind of habitat adaptability, I would have thought that they were a prevalent and secure species everywhere.  Wrong again.  

Next door, in New Hampshire, they are listed as vulnerable. In the northwest corner of Indiana, the only place where they are found in the state, they are in decline.  Similarly, they are considered imperiled in Ohio, Montana, and Wyoming.  They are most likely gone from Missouri.  Surprisingly, a quick check of the IUCN Red List reports that they are of least concern globally. 

This is curious.  Does local extirpation signal a declining ecosystem?  Sometimes yes, but sometimes there are other reasons.

We know that extirpation results when the local environmental conditions can no longer the species.  Some of it is driven by human activities but not all.  Heat waves, glaciation, and even volcanic activity can result in such dramatic changes in the ecology.  

While habitat loss and pesticides are often cited as the reason for the snake’s population decline, there may be other factors at play.  Little research seems to be done on this species, as it neither threatens humanity nor offers great benefits other than eating some pests.   Sadly, it may just disappear before we know much more about it.  And we may never know why.

Source:

An excellent resource to learn more about species’ status – https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.103123/Opheodrys_vernalis

 

Lately, much of the mass media science news has been about discoveries in physics and astronomy.  The news is interesting but it is so speculative that it is likely to be obsolete next week. Alternatively, a few earth-based stories caught my eye.  This information has relevant and immediate application.  

The first report is from the Frontiers in Marine Science.  The paper announced a small victory for Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) that use the Cayman Islands as nesting sites.  

A research team from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Loggerhead Turtlethe University of Exeter and the Marine Resources Unit in the Grand Cayman worked together to review data collected during 22 years of nest monitoring.  By comparing the most recent 5 year period to the earliest 5 year period, they found an increase in green turtle nests from 82 to1,005 nests.  Similarly, loggerhead nests increased from 10 to 290.  

These numbers demonstrate a strong recovery for two species that were on the verge of local extinction. 

Progress was supported by several conservation efforts including a captive breeding program for the green turtles, some changes to artificial lighting usage, and changes to the turtle fishery regulations which introduced restrictions for legal capture.  Since 2008, there have not been any legal captures of turtles by the fishing community.

The Caymans historically have one of the world’s largest sea turtle nesting populations.  While not discussed in the research paper, perhaps the Caymans’ environmental leaders leverage the goodwill and appeal of these turtles to attract volunteers for nesting site education and protection.  Sea turtles also capture the attention of many tourists.  I can attest to the success of such programs in Florida and Trinidad.  People will protect what they appreciate.

You can read more about the efforts here:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.663856/full

@doecayman @UniofExeter @BrendanGodley

 

Do you know which pollinator species are helping out in your vegetable garden?  Moths, butterflies, and bees, plus some wind, help corn plants exchange pollen.  But do we know which types of bees, for example?  What if the specific bee or butterfly species was at risk for extinction and we didn’t even realize their role in pollinating one of our most critical food crops?  One research team has been thinking along these lines concerning the cocoa plant pollinators.

Cocoa PlantA few years ago, there were articles in the press about the pending extinction of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) plants that would spell the end of chocolate.  Climate change, fungal diseases, and other threats prophesized chocolate’s demise within 50 years.  

Subsequently, an international team led by the University of Gottingen initiated a study of specific pollinators for cocoa grown in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Indonesia was the third-largest cocoa-producing country in 2020.  

The team focused on flower visitations and the factors that influence the visitations.  These include the habitats for the potential pollinators, such as the amount of leaf litter present, the canopy coverage and distance to the surrounding forest, and the abundance of cocoa flowers.

The study showed that ants and flies (Diptera) were directly and indirectly involved in pollination.   However, the ceratopogonid midges (you might know them as no-see-ums) were conspicuously absent.  They did not play their predicted role.

The team used some cool techniques to gather their data. For example, they added glue to more than 15,000 flowers in more than 500 trees over eight months. That is some serious dedication!

One significant finding showed that the forest proximity and the abundance of leaf litter increased the number of pollinators.  The presence of shade trees and the encouragement of other biodiversity enhance the future sustainability of this precious crop.  This information could have a long-term impact on this type of agroforest management.

To read more about this, see:  https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/3240.html?id=6246 

The scientific synopsis is available here:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320721001580

@MToledoMX

Every year, right about this time, I start getting excited about the prospects of exploring vernal pools.  I hope you do too.

What’s a vernal pool?  These are the fairly shallow, temporary pools of water you find during the spring season, usually in forested areas. The pool returns each year, varying in size, depending on the quantity of snowmelt and rainfall.  During droughts, they may not return at all — and that’s a problem.  

What makes vernal pools special is that they are the breeding ground for certain species, including some that have no alternative options.  These include certain types of wood frogs, salamanders, and, my favorite, fairy shrimp, to name just a few. 

Why don’t these species chose to breed in permanent sites such as ponds and streams?  There are some positive trade-offs to what seems like a precarious location.  For example, vernal pools are safer than other bodies of water because there are no fish to eat the eggs or larvae.  Also, there may be specific plants growing close by to where the pools form, providing food and cover from predators.

What shall I look for in the ponds?  First, look for the sunny patch on the pond.  Then see if you can spot some tiny (about 1 inch long) lobster-like creature.  In some cases, they may be seen swimming on their backs, with their legs up toward the sun.  You’ll want to find these guys early in the season because they cannot survive water temperatures above 70℉.  Interestingly, however, their eggs can and will survive the heat.  On the other hand, the eggs will survive the drying out of the pond and will hatch the next time conditions seem right.

In mid to late spring, you will find egg masses in the pond. By late spring and early summer, you may find larval salamanders and tadpole frogs.  You may also discover turtles (including some rare species), snakes, interesting plants, and possibly even some birds that are specifically attracted to the area.

Can I find a vernal pond where I live?  Vernal pools occur in many states, including Missouri, Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Jersey, and in all the New England states.  

For more information, check with your local Department of Environmental Protection or Audobon group.  They are likely to have additional details about the specifics of vernal pools in your state.   

Here are two sources that are particularly good:  https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/abstracts/ecology/Vernal_Pool.pdf

https://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/nongame/documents/vernal-pool-manual.pdf