Field of Science


Friday Fabulous Flower

Ok, Ok, it's only thirsty, but the Phactor is being dragged across the country for the weekend, and with the formerly trusty laptop inoperative, it will be a vacation from email, blogging, and all the rest. So the only thing to do is post the Friday Fabulous Flower today. Our Missouri evening primrose began flowering yesterday, and it's among my favorite native species. They love sunny, exposed sites and deal with dry conditions quite well. It also is the largest flower in our garden, at least in length, some 25-26 cm long because of the hypanthium (The winged ovary is way on the left). Although formerly Oenothera missouriensis, it is now Oenothera macrocarpa, but that won't compute in the memory banks. Similarly students are filed in my memory by their maiden names; get married if you want, but don't expect me to remember you that way. Add Image

Everyone want to be a botanist

The Phactor operates with the idea that everyone wants to be a botanist, it just takes some people longer to figure that out than others. Quite a few people never figure it out. So it was a great pleasure to advise a student today that did figure it out, changing their major from medical information technology (that's a major?) to botany! This is a bit of a rare thing because the human biomedical tail constantly is wagging the biological dog in this country. In the great USA no one cares that botany is a greatly under-represented or ignored subdisipline, so much so that people in most other countries think our biology is greatly out of whack subject wise, and of course, they are right. A very Teutonic chair once said in exasperation, "Vhy you wouldn't be happy unless we hired botanists for half the faculty!" "That's right!" "Well, what would they teach?" "They'd teach cell biology, genetics, evolution, ecology, everything but zoology." And most of my colleagues would think such a thing just plain wrong, although it certainly is no problem having all those courses taught by animal biologists. And so it is quite refreshing to chat with a student who has come through many of those courses and still finds plants interesting. He mentioned that our introductory biology was terribly unbalanced (human biomedical approach) and that the instructors in cell biology seemed blissfully unaware of plants or what makes their cells different. This student was quite perceptive, and bright, and that does not surprise the Phactor because it takes a certain mental maturity and intellectual sophistication to appreciate things as subtle and surprising as plants. And when people finally reach that level, that's wthen they know they want to be a botanist. Don't agree? Don't understand? Oh, we do so understand why.

Lincolnland 47th – one of least corrupt states!!!

How can our dear state of Lincolnland be one of the least corrupt states in the USA? What an outrage! Our state has more politicians in prison than any other state, well, except maybe New Jersey. And we rank only 18th in racketeering and extortion! This state elevated racketeering to an art form! Does the name Capone ring a bell? Let's face it, this ranking can’t be true, so how did anyone decide Lincolnland was 46th in the nation in fraud, 50th in the nation in forgery and counterfeiting, and 51st, dead last, in embezzlement? 51st! How can you be 51st out of 50? What we beat out DC? No way DC beats Chicago at anything (especially hockey!)!! Did the citizens of Linconland give back their pay because they took long coffee breaks rather than steal money from their employers? Well, we won’t stand for this! Who do they think they’re dealing with!
It helps you understand this travesty if you see what they are using for data. These rankings are based on the number of arrests for forgery, racketeering, fraud, and embezzlement. Duh! 46 states have arrested more people for all these crimes over the last 10 years or so and so theose states are more corrupt? You must be kidding! All those crooks are still running around free here in Lincolnland you morons! No one arrested them! Apparently our state doesn't arrest anyone for embezzlement. These other states are cleaning house; our crooks are still cleaning up. You idiots have got the rankings exactly backwards! And when you realize that, it puts Lincolnland in 3d place just about where it belongs! After all, New Jersey has to have something to brag about.

Lessons from field research

After a long week that which was lost is found, and lessons are learned. Let’s be honest, it just doesn’t sound professional to admit you can’t find your study plots even if events outside of your control rendered them nearly invisible in a tangled mass of prairie vegetation. This picture shows how easy the tags are to find when they have a big PVC pipe standing next to them after a burn. Now take away the PVC, let the vegetation grow for 40 days, then put it all under a bale of hay. Not so easy is it?
With a big investment in time, an average of 6 minutes per plot, all 108 plots have been found via a combination of luck, precision, persistence, and technology. And all of your outpouring of concern in the comments of my previous field research blog touched me greatly. But the field has a way of teaching you lessons about life. Nature isn’t there to do your bidding. Nature never cooperates, and if anything can go wrong, it will, so be prepared. All field researchers know these things, but if you actually told students the truth they never would elect to do field research. And then somebody questions you marginally significant data. The git! With all the noise out there, any reaction to your treatments at all is significant! The biggest lesson is that our best efforts to map plot locations are barely adequate and sometimes a bit of wandering in a favorable vicinity (Wasn't there a plot just about here?) and luck, aided by acute observations, provided a starting point to serve as an initial frame of reference. Even when you found a corner of a one meter square plot, it could be difficult to find the SW corner’s spike that actually provides the fixed reference point. So finding the next plot some 10 to 60 meters away remains quite a challenge. That’s the trouble with prairies, no obvious land marks. One the plus side, another lesson is that linear distances recorded in prior years were quite accurate, far more so than compass bearings, so if we had distances from two “found” plots to a missing plot it could be located sometimes to within an inch, or 8. Don’t know what that says about the Phactor’s low tech skill set, but if you want to know the distance from A to B, Robotape is a great device, sort of a laser tag with precision. How some things happen remains a mystery. Some plot tags had dug themselves in, buried beneath the soil, and without a metal detector they never would have been found, fire or not. And who knew so much lose change would be laying around a prairie just waiting to be found? Not! But the beeping kept us alert. Some plot tags had "crawled away", which made the corner spike even harder to find, but at least the spikes never wandered. Now on to the treatments which had to wait until the plots were found, and of all of these eradication is the worst.

Identify Friday's Fabulous Flower

This tree in flower isn’t particularly gaudy, but it takes lots of people by surprise, including a couple of my plant taxonomy students. So have a look, and then decide what pretty common and well known plant family does this plant belong in? It’s a bit hard to see, but there are 10 stamens. You get extra credit for getting the name of the plant. Give me your answer before you read on.

This one catches many people by surprise because it really doesn’t look much like a member of the bean family (Fabaceae). In its broadest concept the bean family consists of three big subfamilies, the faboids with the typical bean flower, the mimosoids with flowers in powder puff inflorescences, and the caesalpinioids, which being largely tropical are less familiar to residents of temperate climates. And this species has none of the floral flamboyance of Delonix regia, the royal Poinciana. Most people even fail to notice this tree is in flower, but it has the handsome broad spreading crown of its tropical relative. And several of my students correctly identified this as Gymnocladus dioica, the Kentucky coffee tree (but they were using a plant ID manual).

Botanical Quiz

Here's are two botanical items that go together in an interesting way. What do we have here? Let's see if anyone out there can identify the plants, which means they know what this is and what it is for. What do you say sports fans?

Joys of Field Work - the most recent chapter

Fire is part of the ecology of grasslands although most residents of the prairie state do not know this because most of the prairie has been converted into the maize and soybean desert. For those of us who study some of the little patches of remaining prairie, fire is an important management tool because it keeps many invasive species, particularly woody plants, in check. So why the hell was my prairie not burned? The excuse was economics and personnel, not enough money, so not enough people to manage the burn. However, since the burning was scheduled the PVC posts that provide an early season marker for locating my study plots were removed leaving only an iron spike driven into the ground and an aluminum ID tag. Because of the particular experimental design these plots, 108 of them across a 6 acre area, were not laid out in a regular grid, but in random groupings of 9. Generally speaking after the fire these tags are not too difficult to find, and after locating 7 or 8 in each group, the remaining ones’ location(s) can then be triangulated. But the prairie was not burned so now all these tags are out there at ground level somewhere in a tangle of last year’s vegetation that easily reached 9-10 feet tall and this year’s new aerial shoots. Finding all the plots is proving next to impossible even with the help of a metal detector and maps of the groups. And metal detectors designed to find a cufflink on a fairway are not so easily used in the jungle of vegetation down there. Think this isn't costing some money and personnel time? Miss by an inch and you won’t see the tag. Oh, yes, the temptation to drop a match and blame it on a passing smoker was very strong.

Human genome tests intelligent design

During my 40 years in the biology business, creationism has gone through several different guises the latest of which is intelligent design (ID) a molecular recasting of the old classic “argument by design”. ID posits that “various molecular apparatuses within cells are “irreducibly complex” and therefore could only have been designed purposefully by a higher intelligence.” As an explanation ID is just as useless as uncomplicated old religious creationism in that the explanation is always the same“that is the way it was designed/created.” Such an explanation is useless for doing science, but this matters little to ID/creationist proponents who don’t want to do science but rather want their particular religious beliefs to be on an equal footing with science in our classrooms.
Science functions by putting ideas to nature, which basically means comparing what is expected based on a particular explanation to what is actually observed in nature. In other words, biologists use data to settle arguments. So in the case of ID do you find purposefully designed organization in the basic genetic material of humans? John Avise’s recent publication argues you find no such design or organization, and instead you find lots of junk, lots of disorganization, lots of things consistent with the idea that the human genome is the product of a nonsentient process, evolution, working with the only raw material on hand, accumulated variations in the genetic material. The article is quite readable although you may not understand the specifics of the diverse genomic details described. Finding this out won’t affect ID/creationists who have never let data alter their thinking.

PETA – Prevent Ediotic Tree Abuse

Eddie is a pretty good neighbor as neighbors go, nice enough fellow and all. And then one day, just a few weeks after he moved in you hear a sickening sound, WHACK, WHACK, WHACK, with that particular tone of a living organism being savagely dismembered. And sure enough some ediot is whacking at tree branches with a hatchet. Now if my memory serves me the only time you need a hatchet is if you belong to the boy scouts where they are used to split open knees and cans of beans because the always prepared forgot a can opener. Hatchets are NEVER used on trees. Why do you think boy scouts wear shorts? You don’t want to ruin a good pair of pants every time you get out your hatchet. Trees are pruned using a pruning saw which is why they are called pruning saws. Pruning hatchets don’t exist, so get the right tool for the job. And right now is not the time to discuss proper pruning because you don’t have a saw yet. So why do people who obviously care about the proper care and feeding of their house, cars, and kids, act like complete ediots when it comes to the plants on their property? What excuse is there for flagrant tree abuse? You learn about these things the same why you learn about water heaters, fuel filters, and raising kids. You learn from someone who knows about more about these things than you do, or in the particular case of kids, you make a lot of mistakes, and yes, like your trees they end up scarred for life. But they get over it, or not. And now we get to the crux of the problem. People like Eddie don’t know how ignorant they are about this facet of their public face, and while he would be chagrined if people saw water leaking from his house, or car, or kid, because this would demonstrate his complete ineptitude for owning a house or car, or parenting a kid, it never occurs to such ediots that seeing whacked up branch stubs sticking out from scarred tree trunks leaves the more sophisticated among us tsking about this fellow’s obvious short-comings. Hmm, you have to pass a test and get a license before you can drive a car, and why buy one and keep it from leaking otherwise? What if you had to pass a test and get a license before purchasing a house, fathering a child, or planting a tree? Hey, if it’s just cutting grass, mow away Eddie. But put down the hatchet slowly and back away from the tree; leave pruning to people who have passed the test and know how to use a pruning saw.

Ludicrous Flower Friday

TGIFF - Yes, nothing can lift spirits more than another wonderful flower to ponder and appreciate. One of the great things about teaching rain forest ecology are the field trips, and today's flower grows in Costa Rica. Like many tropical trees, this species is cauliflorous, the flowers sprout right out of the tree trunk, rather like a overly gaudy baubles. And of course it helps to be conspicuous in the dim light of the rain forest understory. This flower can also take you a bit of time to figure out because there seem to be more parts than typical flowers and they are arranged rather differently than typical flowers. And that's where the fun is! This is a wild species of Theobroma, literally the "drink of the gods", and the domesticated species T. cacao is our source of cocoa, chocolate. Got that? C-A-C-A-O is the plant, C-O-C-O-A is the product.

Not a rock, not a rose

Who needs a rationalization for planting all kinds of different plants? Let the Phytophactor admit to being a plant junkie, to having a certain penchant for strange but wonderful plants. And so while our estate is home to many native species, many exotics grace our gardens as well. Lately the cause of much interest among passersby is a low growing mound of an evergreen shrub covered with cheerful, colorful flowers, and it’s probably just about the only one around as our climate is a bit too cold, so it needs mulching and snow cover to survive our coldest temperatures. So far its luck is holding. This is a member of the rock rose family (Cistaceae), a smallish group more common around Mediterranean climates. This particular shrub is called Helianthemum, which means sunflower, so even scientific names can be a bit confusing and misleading (Helianthus is the other sunflower), but this isn’t one of our native species. Here the name refers to the plant’s habit of only opening its flowers when the sun is shining. Now think how much fun it is when you’ve got a class of plant taxonomy students who are thinking, Cistaceae, no way that shows up on a family ID quiz. Zingo!

Lawn care and OCB

The Phactor has lectured you at length about the terrible things that happen when the object of your desires is a monoculture of grass. Indeed, it appears that one of the foibles of grass-only lawn care is the development of a full-blown obsessive-compulsive behavior. And that starts with B which rhymes with G and that stands for GUN, and what is the use of having one if you don’t use it? Can we not at least agree that shooting a neighbor because their dog urinated on your lawn is improper if not uncivil lawn care? At least the dog was not shot, blameless as it was for doing what was expected when out on a walk, and when you got to go, you go. So the lesson here is obvious. Do not walk your dog past properties where the lawn is perfect because the owner is likely a mental case and should your shadow fall upon a blade causing an asymmetry it might ruin the whole boring aesthetic. And out here in Lincolnland that is a hanging offense, but since that might break a perfect branch out of your carefully nurtured Bradford pear, not the strongest tree to begin with, shooting is the best thing of your landscape. Hope you are all looking forward to that next seminar on lawn care to be held down at the Cook County jail.

Another fine semester shot to hell

As they say about flying, any landing you can walk away from was successful, so this was a successful semester. There will still be a few loose ends: a senior who wants to use all too familiar excuses in lieu of accomplishments. The day or two following a semester can be eerie on a college campus; the quiet, the emptiness. A quad that was bustling with people just a day ago is totally deserted, and if you don’t have some gizmo stuck in your ear or buzzing in your pocket, the quiet provides you with an opportunity for reflective thought, a dying art in an era of short attention spans, mobile distractions, and jingoism discourse. Where are thoughtful young people going to come from? Even in the university thought seems at a premium, and so my thoughts turned to a student commentator who opined that student evaluations of “teachers” were a sham because no matter how “bad” the evaluation the faculty never got fired. Indeed, what of student evaluations in this day and age? Speaking from a great deal of experience, you learn a lot about what students like and don’t like, but very little about what was effective teaching. After all, what do students know of teaching or learning? Do we ask students what was effective some 5 or 10 years post graduation? No, let’s get an opinion right now while those labor-intensive assignments are still fresh in their minds and they have yet to see what success in the real world is all about. And if you are one of those reviled professors, was it because you made them think, and it was hard, like really, really hard? Many moons ago my fate was intertwined with a senior colleague in a team-taught course, and his pandering, his lite-weight coverage of the subject, and his easy exams were shocking , and his teaching evaluations were sky high while mine languished at merely average. And he taught what seemed to be the behavior of baby zoo animals while genetics and evolution were left for me. Cute vs. dihybrid crosses, easy vs. hard, fluff vs. basic biology; clearly a no win situation when the scale is based on student likes and dislikes. In subsequent years, when partnered with another member of the faculty, my teaching evaluations instantly jumped over 1.5 points on a 5 point scale without changing a thing except the basis for comparison. So what do really high teaching evaluations tell you? And thus my expectations for teaching accolades are modest, and the grand thing is that they do not matter at all at this time of year when quiet reigns.

Extinction is forever

A news article about the rarest tree on Earth caught my eye about a month ago, and since it is still living, it is worthy of some attention. Life is a process that generates genetic and biological diversity, and also destroys it. The ultimate fate of all species is extinction, but some species have a longer run than others and the Phactor has commented about the reigning king of longevity, the cinnamon fern, before. Many species are close to extinction, and human activities are way too commonly the cause.
A couple of rare trees provide some examples of how close to extinction you can get. Pennantia baylisiana is a species of tree that has consisted of a single individual at least for the past 65 years, which grows on one of the Three Kings Islands off the coast of New Zealand. Introduced herbivores in the form of goats may be the reason only one big tree remains, but it has a sex problem. Like many other plants, it cannot pollinate itself, so while you can make cuttings and root them, they are all genetically the same individual. But there may be an out; sex determination in plants is complicated, and occasionally a female produces some male flowers or flower parts and hand pollinations have yielded some seeds (and surely you understand that designations of male and female are totally inaccurate because the flowering plants with which we are familiar are the asexual spore-producing generation). With a bit of human assistance seedlings may be produced to help repopulate the island, however, they would all be siblings, so genetic diversity would be reduced, and this is a problem for any rare species.
Another contestant for the down-but-not-out extinction sweepstakes is the King’s Lomatia a tree that grows on the southern end of Tasmannia. About 500 trees exist, but this is a clone and again one genetic individual that has survived by asexual reproducing itself for 50,000 to 150,000 years. And because it has 3 sets of chromosomes, it may be the result of a hybridization that produced a sterile “mule” that has persisted by growing as a clone. Not much hope this species will “recover” unless it undergoes a spontaneous chromosome doubling to restore fertility. Although you may be unfamiliar with it, hybridization followed by polyploidy may be one of the most common types of speciation in plants.
Clearly both trees are in the running as the rarest organisms on Earth, each reduced to a single genetic individual.

Ludicrous Flower Friday

Difficult it is to describe my mood. The semester is over except for posting of the grades. The many student achievements please me, and the missed opportunities sadden me. Relief is certainly a prominent reaction. So what better to improve my mood than to provide you with a cool flower to ogle, a hybrid with a rather interesting geographic background. Quite a number of plant genera are disjunct between eastern China and eastern North America, and although the two parents bear different generic names, Calycanthus and Sinocalycanthus, they are so very similar they are now often considered a single genus. Like other magnoliids of which the Phactor is so fond, all the floral parts are numerous, spirally arranged, and gradually shift from green sepal-like parts, to petals, to stamens, to pistils. Fully open the flowers are a bit over 3 inches in diameter and so make for a quite a display. The fragrance is a fermented fruity odor. Our native species, C. florida Carolina allspice, has dark purple flowers; the Asian parent white flowers.

Passing on the National Day of Prayer

Yours truly is going to pass on the national day of prayer. This is not because of any particular anti-religious fervor on my part, but it is based on a practical conviction that prayer alone just won’t do any good. When my students conducted a well constructed experiment, prayer couldn’t even help beans grow better, so I doubt it’s going to help with the national debt. Asking for gods’ continued guidance (Here use of the plural is deliberate so as not to offend any believers, e.g., in gods we trust.) does not strike me as particularly sound course of action because of late this hasn’t resulted in very impressive leadership given our unwise military actions, unwise business practices, and our policies reflecting considerable religiously rationalized bigotry. Perhaps messages are mixed, coming as they are from so many different deities, after all President Obama did invite “all people of faith” to join in, so maybe the one true God (mostly likely Odin) is pissed to hear so many prayers so wrongly directed, so the guidance delivered may be deliberately poor. And lastly prayer just strikes me as a bit childish and naïve, a rather poor substitute for hard-nosed pragmatic thinking, a most uncommon national practice.

Global warming is messing with me

April here in Lincolnland has been a warm one, in fact apparently the warmest since records have been kept. The average temperature for the month was 6.2 degrees above normal, but it's hard to know what that means because while you can average the weather here in the great midwest, you never get average weather. It's either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, too windy or deadly still, and then somebody averages these numbers, but the averages are not normal.
After you have taught plant taxonomy and plant identification for a number of years, experience tells you when, where, and what will be in bloom, but this year such a warm April has pushed the flowering season for many things so far forward that some of my favorite subjects to use as unknown specimens for students to identify have come and gone already. Finding enough good replacements is a pain, so now this climate change thing is getting personal. Unfortunately climate change is also going to get personal with agriculture, and we're all down stream in some sense.

Dragged into boobquake

After posting a picture of a scantily clade young woman sporting a botanical tattoo a couple of months ago, the Phactor decided that posting any kind of comment about “boobquake” would be a bad idea because it might give people the wrong idea about the kind of person writing this blog. But circumstances at my local coffee shop this morning force me to comment for the sake of science correcting a misconception arising from popular news accounts of the event.
Now the basic premise was to test whether “indecently” clad women were the cause of earthquakes, and the less said about that, and the less worn by the experimenters, the better (?). OK, that certainly did not come out right, which shows what dangerous shoals are being sailed.
So right to the main point. A barista was displaying a bit more cleavage than usual and someone said, “Are you trying to cause an earthquake?” The barista's response hinted strongly that she thought the idea, and the comment maker, absurd, not unreasonable positions. However the follow up comment was that there was an earthquake in Taiwan on the “boobquake test” day.
My reaction: BFD – big deal! The earthquake in Taiwan proved nothing. On average the Earth experiences just a tad over 4 earthquakes per day of magnitude 5 or higher. To determine if cleavage had any possible relationship to earthquake frequency you would have to compare the number of earthquakes actually observed (1) with the expected number of earthquakes (4) using a statistical test like Chi Square. To get a significant result, one where you are more than 95% certain of a relationship, the number of earthquakes observed on boobquake day would have had to have been greater than 4, and somebody mathematically inclined can work out how many more would make for a statistically significant result. Clearly having fewer major earthquakes than expected disproves the boobquake hypothesis. This is how scientists think about such things, and why nearly everyone in the media reporting on this sounded like the basic science requirement for their communications degree was insufficient. Of course a good scientist would have run more than one trial, and we’d all have something to look forward to.

Garden flowering log – April

OK, someone did comment that keeping a garden flowering log seemed like a lot of work, and the Phactor chided them for a lack of commitment. To be honest, who knew how big of a project this would be, and the log data has been kept to the minimum by only recording the 1st date of flowering. So the results for the month of April were a bit of a surprise. To recap, 17 different plants flowered in our gardens during March; 113 plants flowered during April! Not every variety was counted as a different plant especially if they co-flowered, so at the variety level the total would be much greater. Here’s the list by date:
April 1 – a species tulip (no fooling!), late daffodils
Apr. 2 – Korean azalea, Nanking cherry, star magnolia
Apr. 3 – spring beauty, celandine poppy, species tulip(2nd), marsh marigold, Labrador violet, common violet, grape hyacinth, variegated sedge
Apr. 4 – rue anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, yellow upright ginger (Saruma henryi), Japanese maples
Apr. 5 – anise magnolia (M. salicifolia), Brunnera, bellwort, white trout lily
Apr. 6 - rhododendron (“PJM”), prairie trillium, sugar maple, hackberry, flowering quince, tulip magnolia, creeping Charlie
Apr. 7 – bleeding heart, red bud, june berry
Apr. 8 – Mukdenia, golden corydalis
Apr. 9 – red barrenwort, nodding trillium (T. flexipes)
Apr. 10 – species tulip (3d), wild ginger
Apr. 11 – apples, red trillium (T. erectum), blue cohosh, rhododendron “Ramapo”, Burkwood viburnum, saucer magnolia, Ohio buckeye, yellow archangel (deadnettle)
Apr. 13 – fothergilla, fragrant sumac, Carolina silver bells, flowering crabapples, Mazus reptans, species tulip (4th), giant bugle (Ajuga reptans), Siberian bush pea
Apr. 14 – blueberry, pin & burr oaks, lilac, yellow barrenwort, magnolia vine (Schisandra chinensis), red buckeye
Apr. 15 – jack in the pulpit, Solomon’s seal, orange-flowered avens, prairie smoke, strawberry, small bugle, late tulips, spicy lights & blue gem rhododendron, lily of the valley
Apr. 16 – Flowering dogwood, fern-leafed peony, Herbert rhododendron
Apr. 17 – dwarf Iris
Apr. 18 - bird’s foot violet
Apr. 19 - crested Iris
Apr. 20 – Jacob’s ladder, star of Bethlehem, wild Geranium, tree peonies (white & diverse shades of pink)
Apr. 21 – wild columbine, large-flowered speedwell, American holly, cult. columbine, red choke berry
Apr. 22 – spring cult. anemone, wild hyacinth
Apr. 24 – miterwort, mulberry
Apr. 25 – large white trillium, soapwort, may apple, early deutzia, poet’s narcissus
Apr. 27 – smoke bush, bridal wreath spirea, golden lights & rosebud rhododendrons
Apr. 29 – false Solomon’s seal
Apr. 30 – yellow tree peony, large-leafed rhododendrons, sun rose (Helianthemum), black walnut, pussytoes, cat mint, ragwort, Carolina spicebush, sweet cicely, black raspberry, cult. geraniums, Tartarian honeysuckle, euonymus