Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Subnivean Space

Can you guess what happened here?

The Winter World has a wealth of hidden wonders.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Freeze Tolerance

 One snowy January day I was driving in Clearfield county when I saw a fence row of old wooden fence posts with barbed wire, so I stopped for this rural winter scenery shot.  Of course, it was the "weeds" that really caught my eye.

 Now, old fence posts and barbed wire are "cool", but golden rod galls are "way past cool".  In fact, this time of year they are frozen.

  The goldenrod gall fly larvae are freeze tolerant. In this bitter cold weather they are frozen solid.  If you drop a pea-sized larva on a hard surface, it "plinks".  But, warm one up, and soon it is moving around.  That is a very different winter survival strategy than the willow pine cone gall larvae.  Notice the larva's escape tunnel that it excavated in preparation for spring, when it will be a fly without a means of chewing out of its home.

 Chickadees and woodpeckers peck holes in the galls to feed on the larvae.

Fence rows are fascinating.

John Eastman gives more details about the goldenrod in the Book of Field and Roadside

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Willow Pine Cone Gall

Looks like a pine cone doesn't it?

Willow Pine Cone Galls
If you notice these "pine cones", the incongruity of seeing them on bushes, without pine needles, will surely pique your curiosity, as it did mine.  These are Willow Pine Cone Galls caused by gall midge larvae (Rabdophaga strobiloides).  Not only is the gall's appearance a curiosity, but so is the gall maker's ability to manipulate the willow to grow such a unique abode.  Equally fascinating is the larva's overwintering strategy.

These little orange larvae survive the winter by freeze avoidance, or supercooling.
Basically its juiced up with antifreeze.

Here is one snug in the base of the center groove, under the white semi-transparent sheath.
Last night in the sub-zero temperatures even the river froze.  But not the larvae of the Willow Pine Cone Gall Midge and many other insects.

  For an overview of winter survival strategies see Bernd Heinrich's book ,

 I would also recommend another resource that covers the wide-ranging signs of invertebrates.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cattail Castle

 This weather beaten cattail seed spike doesn't look very well-kept.  But the fluff is actually kept in place by silken threads of cattail moth caterpillars.

 The caterpillars clever fluff fastening secures a fine habitation for winter's cold siege.  Not only weatherproof, but also well stocked with foodstuffs.  Those stores are the thousands of seeds.

 These pics show the cattail moth caterpillar (Limnaecia phragmitella) crawling around on a cold January day. 

 The cozy cattail castle's contents may liven up one of your cold, drab, and lifeless winter days.  Also, reading the cattail section of John Eastman's book, The Book of Swamp and Bog, should contribute to your understanding of the lively cattail community that once animated those now seemingly lifeless dried stalks.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Towering Pines

 Some of our eastern white pines are beginning to tower above the surrounding hardwoods.
 The pines are winning the race toward the sun.
 The winners are very apparent on the ridge lines.
 Go giants!
Yes, just in case you haven't noticed, the "giants are growing".

"Giants are growing" is my favorite quote from the book, Giants in the Land, by Diana Appelbaum.  This is a superbly illustrated children's book about the history of the New England white pines.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Teaberry puts some color in an otherwise drab looking winter woods.

 Teaberry, or Wintergreen, brightens a winter day with memories of Teaberry ice cream at The Ice Shack, or the thought that mints, mouthwash, and muscle rubs are man's making use of wintergreen's chemical defenses. The flavor of wintergreen is from the oil of wintergreen, or methyl salicylate, which is a VOC that the plant uses as a chemical defense.

Pause there in the woods and ponder herbivore-induced volatile organic compound defences.  Or if you are at home, just do an internet search for "herbivore induced plant volatiles" and you'll forget that its cold and dark and snowy outside.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bullets and Exit Holes

I rounded the white oak tree, and there they were at eye level.  Bullet exit holes.

 I was walking through the woods along Eagleton Road enjoying the winter scenery and exploring some 1860's mining history when I had this surprise encounter with Round Bullet Galls.  What a thrill to be taking in the wide world and suddenly be face to face with a fascinating story that transpired on just one square inch.

 The pea sized galls fed and sheltered the larvae of a tiny wasp ( Disholcaspis quercusglobulus ?).  Once the larvae were mature they exited to lay eggs on another twig and other white oaks were given instructions to grow Round Bullet Galls. Note the scar on the twig where a gall detached. 

This cut-away view shows the home/pantry the wasp induced the oak to grow for it.
 We humans think we are so intelligent.  I wonder why we couldn't practice a bit of biomimicry and inject an oak tree with the some concoction. Then the tree would grow us a house and while we are comfortably sheltered, feed us.  Yes, galls are fascinating, and exit holes leave me wondering.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Roadside Marvel

 Most likely you have seen Teasel growing in waste places along the road.  Teasel are a year-round roadside attraction for me, especially in the winter, when they are capped with snow.  If you stop to closely examine teasel, you will find yourself in a thorny situation, but you will also find that teasel has some marvelous design features.

Those barbed spines are protecting the seeds until they fall out.  Shake out some seeds into a bowl of water and  you will see those seeds are designed to float as teasel's seed dispersal system.

 All the thorns,barbs,spines and prickles effectively protect the plant from herbivory.
The seed heads were once used for carding wool.
Teasel leaves form a little area around the stem that holds water.  Therein thrives a little ecosystem for us to examine some summer day.

Well, that's plenty to think about as you pass teasel along the road, and plenty of content for today's post.  If you would like more details on teasel,  The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman covers the subject nicely.