Field of Science


Berry-Go-Round #34

OK the Phactor doesn't like to complain, but the month of December is not here yet and already the November Berry-Go-Round #34 is up over northern Utah at Watching the World Wake Up. It was especially nice to be included in the round up of plant blogs because while field tripping in the rainforest the end of the month snuck up and nothing got submitted. This is pretty timely because the field trip is wrapping up and all that remains is the travel misery of going home. Remember when traveling, especially air travel, was fun? Many younger people might not believe that at one time airlines vied for your business by being good; now they rely on being a necessity. But the trip home begins tomorrow at 6 AM, yes, with or without college students who do not know what those single digit numbers are used for in mornings.

Rainforest Field Trip - Lianas

The Phactor is taking a break from packing up our field gear to enjoy his cocktail hour because today is our last day at the field station. The trek back to the December realities of the Northern Temperate zone will begin tomorrow, and the sudden 50 degree F shift in temperature and decompressing from nearly 100% humidity to cold, dry air is a shock to the system as is the absence of the earthy vegetational odor that permeates this place. So time to post one more rainforest biology blog then on the road again.
Another feature of rainforest communities are life forms uncommon in the temperate zone. Here in the rainforest epiphytes and lianas, woody vines, festoon the forest in great profusion. Some of these lianas reach considerable size and their load can sometimes overwhelm the tree breaking their support. Further lianas commonly survive the fall of their support tree and start over again climbing another tree. Often only fallen fruits, seeds, and flowers are the only clue to vines far above in the canopy. Virtually every woody stem that can be seen in this image are lianas. Lastly lianas are a life form not a taxonomic group, and many different organisms in many different plant families grow as lianas. In fact one of the lianas in this view is the broad-leafed gymnosperm Gnetum.

Rainforest Field Trip - Unrelenting Green

Rainforest is next to impossible to envision unless you have experienced it personally. Every now and again you locate a rare spot where a photograph captures some small sense of the rampant diversity, the density of the vegetation, and the sheer unrelenting green of a wet tropical forest. Understand that this is not maudlin sentimentality; pausing long enough to get a camera out of its water-tight case and take a picture attracted a cloud of mosquitos large enough that the Phactor wondered if they would obscure the image, and it took some control to hold still while being drained of blood. Usually a professional field biologist like myself keeps nice juicy students nearby to act as bait.

Rainforest Field Trip - Canopy Trees & Digital Photography

Rain forest canopy trees have to be seen to be understood, and they have proven damned impossible to photograph using ordinary equipment speaking from considerable experience. Time was the Phactor was quite proficient in the dark room and while the digital revolution has rendered these skills quite irrelevant, the dark room and its chemicals are not something that stirs much nostaglia. One of the Phactor's problems with the digital revolution is not having the time or interest to completely explore what can be done with modern cameras and software. Having espied an interesting canopy tree, one where removal of herbaceous understory and a newly created forest edge helped expose the entire tree to view, old habits compelled the Phactor to take three carefully overlapped pictures for no particular reason at the time, but then when reviewing the days images on his trusty laptop, a new button was noticed: panorama. So after rotating all three tree pictures onto their side the program stitched them together to into a whole, and for a very first attempt this seems quite satisfactory. In the rain forest canopy trees are tall and slender often with light colored bark. When young they grow like aspiring to be telephone poles with the result that the crown branches far above ground. The base of the trunk becomes buttressed forming fins that stabilize the tree like rocket ships of the 1950s . A fair number of lianas (woody vines) hang down from the canopy.

Rainforest Field Trip - Death March 2010

A front moved in last night bringing steady rain with it. While frequent rain is expected it can make doing field research challenging to nigh on impossible, and of course that is what the students are expected to be doing, field research. As the end of this field trip nears they should be putting the finishing touches on their projects, getting more data, trying new manipulations to figure out even more, or just trying to get something to work, pleeease! But the rain is interfering with many projects, so what to do? Why, Death March 2010, of course! The field station is a pretty big place and relatively few people ever hike all the way to the "back", and the reasons are simple, it's quite a ways, the trails get progressively more primitive as you go further, and the relief gets greater, more ups and downs. So my esteemed colleague, a younger and foolishly energetic fellow takes our students on his death march hike to see these more remote areas. In all the hike will cover about some 16-18 km, 10-12 mi over tropical hill and dale, stream and swamp. Not really so far a distance, but has anyone ever explained about tropical clay? Something about the aluminum silicates and micell structure (little flat crystal-like plates) makes them slide about at a microscopic level very easily, and the practical take home message is that tropical clays like these are extremely slippery. So now combine the rubber boots, the primitive up-and-down trails, and the tropical clays well lubricated by a night of rain and you have a perfect formula for a thrilling hike. So what is the Phactor doing you may ask? Why someone must survive to chronicle these adventures; someone must hose them down enough to recognize the individual bodies. Someone smart enough to know about tropical clays and the trails back there. Someone who thinks these distant realms have probably not changed very much since his last visit about a decade and a half ago. My colleague does have an ulterior motive; this will be a pretty quiet Saturday night!

Rainforest Field Trip - Luscious Lips

On many occasions the Phactor has tried to illustrate the problem plants have in dispersal of their pollen and seeds. The basic rule is pretty simple: attracting dispersers requires a display, and the bigger the display the better the dispersal. Another problem is that flowers are often either too small or too ephemeral to make a large, long-lasting display, so very often bracts, modified leaves associated with flowers, are used to produce larger, long-lasting displays for many plants. Some of these displays last long enough to also serve in seed dispersal, and this pair of red bracts belonging to Psychotria poeppigiana in the coffee family, looking quite like a pair of luscious lips, lasts long enough that after attracting pollinators to the rather small white flowers, they attract seed-dispersers to the blue fruits. With only 1 fruit remaining, their job is about done, and the lips aren't looking so kissable.

Rainforest Field Trip - Friday Fabulous Flower - Angelic Orchid

You would think nothing could be easier than finding a candidate for the Friday fabulous flower when you're in the rain forest, but the actual fact is that a lot of flowers are pretty small although interesting in their own right. Big and gaudy is rather unusual, but a few flowers do make a pretty good impact on their own. Another thing about rain forests is that the only bright place is on top of the canopy, and this particular primate doesn't do high well, although it is actually the sudden descent and abrupt stop that worries the Phactor, so some flowers have a display well adapted to the dim light of the forest understory. Here is an angelic orchid (Epidendrum eburneum) that seems to be whiter than white. The plants do not produce many flowers and they last many days unless pollinated where upon they wilt almost immediately. The actual pollinator is unknown to me, perhaps a hawkmoth, which means is might operate in the very dim light of dawn and dusk, or even those nights when there is a bit of moonlight, otherwise it's very, very dark out there.

Rainforest Field Trip - Thanksgiving in the Tropics

Thanksgiving is of course only a holiday in the USA. Here in Costa Rica at the field station they have begun putting up Christmas decorations and shops have decorations and gifts prominently displayed, so the Christmas calendar creep is not just a North American thing. Some of our students have never been away from home on a major holiday before, and the field station in deference to all the gringos makes us a pretty fancy Thanksgiving dinner. It was a hot sunny day this morning, now cooled off by some afternoon downpours; at home a wintery mix is falling, and nothing can explain this to our tropical hosts. How could it actually be that cold? The Phactor, thinking well ahead, brought cranberry jelly/sauce, a true North American contribution to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Amusingly, the Costa Ricans are as suspicious of the cranberry sauce as our students are of new Costa Rican foods. Unfortunately some things just don't translate very well; some how salsa de pavo just doesn't seem the same as gravy, but what else are you going to call it? And what will the Phactor miss the most? Well, that's so easy it isn't even a contest; Mrs. Phactor is a world class pie maker and the most difficult choice you will ever have is pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Readers, care to chime in?

Rainforest Field Trip - Hats off to Cyclanths

Panama hats are one of the Phactor's few vices, at least in his own opinion. And of course everyone knows where Panama hats come from, right? That's right, Ecuador! Panama hats are woven from a structural fiber, which are monocot leaf vascular bundles, from the aptly named Panama hat plant, a terribly uniformative common name, so that does not conjure up a plant image for most of you. Even when you first see the Panama hat plant you will probably overlook it and simply place it in the non-descript, to be ignored category of "palms". A lot of tropical plants get so lumped, and many like the cycads, most inappropriately so. This is certainly true for our students most of whom suffer from a bit of plant blindness, so the plant screening their cabina, and refugee camp clutter, from general view simply has not registered with them at all. As the image shows Carludovica sulcata does look very palmy, but this is a member of the Cyclanth family, not the palm family, and actually this is not the Panama hat species (C. palmata), but people do so like common names. The flowers and fruits really give it away that this is not a palm.

Rainforest Field Trip - The Understory

The hardest thing to record in the rainforest is the rainforest itself. It's too big and too dark to effectively photograph, especially under a closed canopy and the many forest layers. Every now and again you find a place where you can get a decent photograph of the unrelenting green lushness that is the rainforest, and generally those places are where you get just a bit more light down into the forest, like streams. So to some extent this image of the rainforest understory is not representative of the forest at all, but it's still very pretty. Enjoy.

Rainforest Field Trip - Picky Eaters

This post could go several different ways and maybe you're expecting specialist herbivores or specialist carnivores, but actually it's about a much more mundane group of picky eaters that in particular are found in the great 'Merican midwest, our students. One thing about field trips is that you spend a lot more time with your students than usual, and on most levels this is a good thing. Students find out we are more or less normal, approachable people, and not quite as intimidating as they thought. On the other hand we often find out more about students than we would like. So here is an observation and a big of advice that arises from our 3-meals a day experiences at a tropical field station, which by all reasonable accounts does a very good job of providing decent interesting food, and besides for a few days you can stand to eat more rice and beans than you would like.
Mothers don’t let your children grow up to be picky eaters. To some extent that's tolerable, but the fact that they are not just choosy mind you, but down right crazy, loony, nothing new or different will cross these lips picky, is your fault as a parent. Who was in charge when your child was young? You don’t let a fox watch the hen house and you don’t let 5-year olds dictate the menu. You are not doing them any favors especially if they ever plan to venture beyond the great Midwest, and oh,they have, so put quite simply being irrationally picky is not a characteristic that one associates with being smart, educated, sophisticated, professional, or accomplished. Now certainly the human brain is quite capable of maintaining a considerable disconnect between its rational thought on some issues and its irrational leanings about others, but it’s a sign of growing up when you put the rational part of your brain in charge and put the childish irrational brain to bed for good. With few exceptions food is not going to kill you, so when someone simply refuses to try a new food, for ridiculous reasons, what other people observe is an indulged little kid who is still engaging in very childish behavior. Granted in my tropical wanderings there have been a few times when something new was really was not very good, something that did not at all appeal to me, but nothing so terrible, ugly, or foul it could not be tried and survived. So do your kid a favor, do yourself a favor, feed them adult food, teach them about food as an adventure, and do not cave in to their childish likes and dislikes, and if they are this way because you are this way, well, what can be said because this message will only elicit indignant responses, and anyways by the age of 20-something, it’s too late for most of them now anyways, so the Phactor hopes the world is kind enough to let them live comfortably in some little Midwestern town. Is the Phactor being too harsh?

Rainforest Field Trip - Forest Decor

Rainforest is a high diversity ecosystem; there's a lot of green out there and most of the plants have the same problem of making your presence known. Since individuals plants are at a low density, the plant must have a means of signaling their presence to pollen dispersers who must then move to the next individual of the same species if pollination is to be achieved. Plants whose flowers are small have to find ways to advertising and one strategy employed by quite a few is to group small flowers together and put something big, gaudy, and colorful right next to them, usually a modified leaf, a bract. This plant (Warszewiczia coccinea) is called the wild poinsettia but it is a member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) not the euphorb family of the true poinsettia, which is another neotropical plant. That's the trouble with common names; you just can't trust them. But they do both use this mechanism of placing a bright red bract next to a cluster of small rather nondescript flowers, so you don't miss this one out in the forest.

Rainforest Field Trip - It's not nice to fool mother nature.

To study animal behavior sometimes requires some subterfuge. The reason for this is simple; organisms don't wish to cooperate with biologists, especially when we want them to hold still and wait for a predator. Now you might take the Jessica Lang/King Kong approach, but biologists are not cruel, generally, and besides if you took the wings off, it doesn't send the right signal. Another approach is to make a model, and digital photography and color printing make this easier than ever. Shortly after this model was deployed by one of our students, a group of tourists were seen clicking away, so at some level, she can be pretty sure the model works, but then again, are you more observant than a bird?

Rainforest Field Trip - When is a flower open?

Generally speaking just about any 5th grader could tell you when a flower is open, but as some of my students learned, that isn't always so easy. Here's a member of the Annonaceae, the custard apple family, Guatteria diospyroides, that demonstrates my point. Don't most of these flowers look open? And the circled ones look closed, but these closed flowers looked just like the open ones just a couple of days ato. The flower buds get bigger and then the perianth parts open, 3 whorls of 3 tepals, of which you can readily see the inner two whorls. The open tepals expose a "button" that consists of a large number of flat, "leafy" stamens closely appressed to each other and tightly surrounding a cluster of pistils. This takes a couple of days and the flower sure does look open, but there is no fragrance, the pistils are not receptive, and no pollen is being shed. After another couple of days the inner whorl of tepals begins closing again until they are pressed up against each other leaving a small opening in the center (two circled flowers). Now this flower is "open" in the sense that it now emits an odor, a tropical fruity smell plus nail polish remover, and the pistils are glistening and receptive. At the end of that day the perianth opening completely closes, and no one enters or leaves for another day at which time the stamens finally shed their pollen and shatter falling into the perianth chamber. Flowering is now over and the inner two whorls of perianth are shed leaving only the sepaloid outer whorl and the pistils; this releases any pollinator held within. It takes a lot of marking and observation to figure this out, but it gets even more complicated when you notice that all the "open" flowers on the tree are in sync, either pollen accepting or pollen dispersing, tick-tock, every other day. Trees that are ticking get pollinated by trees that are tocking, back and forth, day after day throughout the flowering season, as beetles move from tree to tree seeking a food reward. If these trees are like some of their relatives in SE Asia then all the trees that are ticking or tocking will be the same year after year. Bet that will take my students a long time to figure out, but right now some of them like the idea of staying here.

Into each forest some rain must fall

Students in an intellectual sense know that rain forest means a forest community of high rainfall, but until they experience rain in the tropics they will not have an true understanding of what we speak. Following a mini-drought of six rainless days a system has moved in from the Caribbean, bumped into the central cordillera and the rain began to fall. It's a medium high overcast and it produces a very steady rain, about a 2.5 out of 10 on the tropical rainfall scale, but after a couple of hours out in the forest, you are quite wet, except for your head and shoulders tucked under you umbrella. This is also when students learn that a good pair of tall rubber boots are their best friends, and when a mud hole trys to steal one, you'd better help pull your friend free. Still is was a productive morning for my ducklings splashing along behind me. The Phactor managed to help them find several ant plants, plants that interact in a mutualistic manner with ants: balsawood and cercropia saplings, a piper, and a melastom. Found a place where fruit-eating fish could be fed fruit. This is an important part of doing field research: if you cannot find your research organism say in a week or two, some die-hards would give it a month, then you'd better find something else to study. The Phactor has always found his plants; they've just refused to cooperate by flowering whenever he was present, but the nice thing about the tropics is that some other interesting thing is just right over there. The low rumbling from the east would suggest that the Aztec weather gods do not think students have learned this lesson yet, and as this is being typed, the rain has gone up another notch to about a 3. Still there is little chance this will set any records for us; a field trip back in the 1990s recorded 474 mm in 8 days. That's why they call it rain forest.

Rainforest Field Trip - Corkscrew Flower

This largish, coiled flower (3") reminds many people of a seashell, but this ones smells pretty good. Most of my students guess this is some type of orchid, but the coiled shape fools everyone pretty well and even though most of you would think you knew the family pretty well, you might not figure out that this is a legume, a bean. Now the standard faboid bean flower has 5 petals: an upright standard, a pair of laterals, and two lower petals forming a keel within which the 10 anthers and pistil are located. In many cases a pollinator's weight causes the keel to shift downward so that the stamens or stigma make contact with the pollinator's body. Actually this tropical bean flower (Vigna) works the same way, sort of. The standard petal makes the coil (to the left), and the "laterals" are skewed to the top and bottom (lavendar ones), and the keel within is a long narrow coil. The bottom lateral petal forms the landing pad and weight upon this petal shifts the corolla such that long, coiled style and stigma within the keel push pollen out of the tip of the long, coiled keel, or once the pollen is depleted, just the stigma itself emerges several mm. One of the problems in a diverse ecosystem like a rain forest is having enough pollinators to go around, so to use the same pollinator without getting incompatible pollen clogging your stigma some flowers apply pollen to the top and some to the bottom of a pollinator allowing two different plants to share the same pollinator. Coiled flowers like this legume go one step further in dealing with the dorso-ventral biology of animals. This flower is asymmetrical forcing the pollinator to enter the flower from just one side and the pollen is delivered to and picked up from the left side of the pollinator. If you know how you can make this flower work by just pushing down gently on the landing pad petal. Go ahead, try it!

Rainforest Field Trip - BE CAREFUL OUT THERE PEOPLE!

In the opinion of virtually all field workers, the dangers of working in a rain forest are far less than the dangers of visiting a big city. Mostly you learn what to look out for and you behave very very carefully. But when you have so many rookies you do worry that one of them will make a mistake, and the university frowns upon coming home with fewer students than you took. Actually once we came home with one additional one, but that's another story. The big problem is that some things are just plain hard to see, but every now and then, for reasons that are not at all well understood, some organisms stand out a bit more than others. Of the about 50 species of snakes at this field station, only 7 are poisonous, 5 pit vipers and 2 coral snakes. For the most part the pit vipers are quite well camouflaged and at times nigh on invisible. It makes you nervous to know a snake is there (marked with flagging) and still be unable to see the critter against its background. The eye lash viper is an exception. It comes in two natural color patterns, a green & brown pattern that is quite invisible against it barky background, this being a somewhat arboreal snake. How nice, right there at eye level. But it also comes in a very bright yellow or gold form that seems quite conspicuous in comparison, so it doesn't quite make biological sense. The trouble is that the number of yellow vipers you see tells you how many of the camouflaged ones you don't see. This handsome fellow was pretty small, maybe 25-30 cm long. A couple of scales over each eye make the lashes. Rule 7: no messing with poisonous snakes. Students who ignore this rule are on their last field trip, if you know what I mean.

Rainforest Field Trip - Oh, Toto, we aren't in Lincolnland anymore.

One of the great joys and best reasons for organizing an overseas field trip, not to be confused with a tours, a tour group, and a tour guide, is the surprise, awe, joy, and excitement of students when first they encounter the rain forest. Everywhere they look is something new and interesting, and simply the things observed during a 3.5 hour hike with a Costa Rican naturalist would fill this blog for several weeks. So today is a day they will remember for a good long time, and the Phactor is quite happy that he is in no small way responsible for providing this experience. Providing such educational opportunities is after all my job. Here are some students from Lincolnland trying to decide if this is any different from being afield in the maize and soybean desert. As this picture was being taken a flock of oropendula flew over and they got to hear their unmistakable gargling call. However the effects of the short night and the sudden switch to heat and humidity, and hiking in tall rubber boots, has taken its toll and they will be a quiet bunch tonight, mostly.

Two buses, two planes, and 16 hours - In the rain forest

It takes a bit of travel, more or less, 4 3-hour stints by coach and plane, to get to rain forest. As you might expect it's hot and humid, although a bit dry (no rain for 5 days). Right now the Phactor needs food and sleep for a complete recovery, and will stop before incomprehensible babbling takes over. Already saw a pair of green macaws, one of less that 100 pairs that exist in Costa Rica.

On the Road Again - Rain Forest Ecology Field Trip

Today, tonight, tomorrow, all night, all day, that is starting about midnight the travel begins and with luck 18 hours later the Phactor with a bunch of students in tow will arrive at a field station in Costa Rica to study rain forest biology for the next 2 weeks. The wi-fi connections out there in the rain forest have always been a bit dodgy, but every attempt will be made to do a series of blogs directly from the rain forest. Weather has not been good in Costa Rica lately, but the heavy rains and land slides have been more of a problem on the Pacific side than the Atlantic side where the field station is located, which is always pretty wet. The record for one of our field trips was 18" of rain fall in 8 full days at the field station. As one of the students remarked, "Well, it is RAIN forest." Travel with students, overseas, is terribly stressful and demanding, even with the NO WHINING RULE in force, and it would not be worth the effort if the outcomes were not so educationally rewarding for both parties (both students in the picture are smiling!). And of course after the field trip the Phactor shall bestow prestigious awards upon outstanding members of his class: the monsoon mud monkey award to the person most at one with mud, the atad award for the student most confused by their own data (one awardee never got the joke!), the cryptic researcher award for the student who most resembles or acts like their research organism, the teflon award for that particular student that just never seems to get dirty, the closest encounter of a dangerous kind award to the student who has the nearest miss with disaster and giving their instructor more gray hair or causing more of it to fall out (those pit vipers are so well canouflaged, crocs have moved into the swimming hole, and so on it goes). Truly winners all.

How to write a science news article

Oh, this is so absolutely spot on it's hard to stand. The template provided is widely used. And of course because real news is "even-handed" you always have to find a science crank to offer a dataless alternate opinion so that politicians can then say the matter has yet to be decided. HT to Angelo.

Real Life Fruit Quiz

Mrs. Phactor purchased a box of clementines the other day, but they didn't look quite right. First off they were quite round with a protruding nob on the stem end. Second the rind could be peeled away but it was quite tight. Third the network of veins around the sections wasn't evident and the sections did separate, they did not do so readily. Fourth the flesh, composed of juicy hairs, was yellow-orange, and tasted quite tart and more of orange than tangerine. Fifth most of the fruit's segments had seeds. Clementines are a hybrid and one parent is the mardarin orange/tangerine, but their fruit is flattened top to bottom with an easily removed orange rind, they have reticulate veins around the sections that are easy to remove, the sections separate easily, the flesh is orange with a sweet tangerine taste, and, as the label says, they're seedless, or nearly so. All of this leads the Phactor to think a smallish variety of tangelo, also a hybrid with a mardarin orange parent, were mislabelled (?) clementines and are giving them a bad name as they are not nearly as good. This citrus, whatever it is, has arrived only lately in several of our local midwestern markets. Have you any other opinions or ideas?
The decision was made to return them and the impertinent clerk, who had no idea who he was dealing with, wanted to know how anyone would know they weren't clementines? There are times one dusts off the PhD and pulls rank.

Symbioses and the Origin of Life on Land

At least two of the biggest events in the history of life involve symbioses, which are intimate interactions of two organisms literally “living together”. One would be the symbiosis between the eukaryote host cell and the two organisms that became mitochondria and chloroplasts, and the other would be the symbiosis between fungi and liverworts, the most ancient lineage of land plants. The invasion of land by green aquatic organisms was certainly a major event without which our familiar environs would never have appeared. Liverworts are simple bodied land plants, although the one shown here (Conocephalum) is more sophisticated internally than most people would suppose, but they lack roots and leaves although the plant body itself might be considered "leafy" in the sense that it is way broader than deep. The so-called higher fungi appear at about the time life invaded land, and their filamentous bodies invade intercellular spaces and the body cells of modern liverworts functioning much like the mycorrhizal fungi so familiar in association with flowering plants. A recent study has demonstrated that such fungi associated with liverworts can enhance the uptake of critical mineral nutrients, thus providing one of the functions of a root system, especially under conditions where such nutrients are hard to come by. This enhances the photosynthetic output of the liverwort even after “paying off” its debt to the fungus. Such experimental work demonstrates the value of this symbiosis, which would is even more important under harsh terrestrial conditions, and 500 million years ago terrestrial conditions were very harsh because without its familiar mantle of plants and soil, the environmental extremes and weather would have been quite severe.

Holiday Gift Idea for Botanists & Gardeners - Wear Your Produce

Uh oh, the Phactor has been caught only thinking about himself again, so best to correct that situation right away with a really amazing gift idea for HER. Why not wear your garden produce year around helping to solve that perennial problem of what to do with too many zucchini? Artist Margaret Dorfman makes some amazing jewelry out of zucchini, star fruit, beets (r-l), and watermelon radish, as well as decorator bowls out of potatoes. They hardly sound elegant and you cannot imagine how such mundane items become attractive decor, but thin slices are turned into parchment, and this is not so weird when you remember that cell walls are cellulose, the stuff of paper. At some location now lost in memory a book was on display whose pages were parchment made from slices of watermelon. One can imagine the juicy story those pages could bear, and it was so strange to not grasp what you were looking at until someone told you, and then it was quite clear, but ever so nifty. And yes, people will ask about these striking objects.

Holiday Gift Idea for Botanists & Gardeners - PlantCam

No question about it, The Phactor is a hard dude to buy presents for, especially according to Mrs. Phactor and the F1 (Hmm, actually no one else buys me presents.), but he appreciates their persistence. How anyone has managed to live this long without owning a time lapse PlantCam is beyond me! And it has other applications like finding out which of two totally innocent looking who me felines broke that lamp or chewed on that plant while you were out. If someone out there has used the PlantCam, let us know about how you liked it. In keeping with his independent approach to blogging, and the fact that no one has offered a kickback for my endorsements, no vendor is being provided, but if you shop it around the web, you should be able to find a PlantCam for under $80. This link goes to a U-tube video sales pitch. This would be so cool for student use on tropical field trips where we would find out if it's really water-proof or just sort of. Surely some generous donor wants to enhance the educational experience of a budding botany student.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Thanksgiving Cactus

The extreme seasonality of north central Lincolnland produces three months of tropical weather, three months of arctic weather, and two 3 month periods of very changeable transition. Long ago the Phactor discovered that his tropical plants performed very well if they were quartered outside, hanging from arbors and tree limbs, mostly in light shade, with short sunny periods for the warmer months, usually from late May until September, or like this year, October. Once the nights start getting cold they get unhappy. The shorter days and cooler weather of early fall are quite good at promoting flowering, and people who complain about their house plants not flowering invariably leave them inside year around, and keeping them in well-lit rooms (long nights stimulate flowering). So a month after moving back inside, right on cue, the Thanksgiving cactus (probably Schlumberger truncata, or a similar species, or even a hybrid of this species) began flowering. This particular group of cacti is native to tropical forests of Brazil where they grow as epiphytes. As adaptions to this habitat of frequent rain and rapid drying, tropical or so-called orchid cacti lack the thick spiny stems that most people think are characteristic of cacti and have flattened, leaf-like stems. Certainly the flower is quite spectacular and clearly adapted for hummingbird pollination. You can see how a hummingbird flying in to prob this flower for a nectar reward will upon arrival have its head and neck contact the exerted stigma (red nob)and stamens, both delivering and picking up pollen in that order. Unfortunately this cactus never flowers early enough to interact with our native ruby-throated hummingbirds before one migrates south and the other moves indoors.

Failed Experiment in Web Searches

Someone thought it would be a nifty idea to cram a bunch of "hot" keywords into a blog title (Naked truth about sex, gardening, religion, and politics in American government) and then poll people to see which word would be the hottest, get the most hits, and then compare that to the actual keyword data. Part of the rationale was to just try doing a poll. Well, like a number of the Phactor's research projects over the years, this one was an abject failure. In the opinion of 56% of the poll takers, "naked" would be the hottest keyword, but while that sounds impressive, only 9 people took the poll. But then the keyword data could not be recovered from any of the freebe stat counters in use, so the whole thing really was disappointing. Even the number of page views for the "Naked Truth" failed to deviate from the Phactor's average. But you do learn some things from even failed experiments, and some of them are pretty scary. Ever since its posting just over 2 years ago, a blog about whether an artichoke was a fruit or a vegetable has gotten on average the most page views, week after week, and keyword phrases including the term artichoke, even with misspellings, account for over 50% of the subject web searches that end up at on the Phytophactor's blog! That is pretty disturbing. Who knew so many people were so concerned, so curious, about a big old thistle? So do they want to know a cucumber is a fruit?

Fall Color - Bayberry

If you have the space for it, they tend to spread, bayberry (Myrica gale) is a very interesting ornamental shrub because the "female" plants (a dioecious, which means "two houses", plant) produce an unusual fall fruit display consisting of clusters of globose fruits with a gray-blue wax covering. The whole plant, especially the leaves and fruit, are fragrant, and the wax melts around 75 C and can be collected by simmering the fruit in hot water, but based upon efforts of my students in their gums, resins, latexes, oils, and waxes lab, you would need one heck of a lot of shrubs to make even one small candle. The extracted wax is a gray-green color and the candle would smell great when burned. As a native of the deep south my Mother was quite enamored with the bayberry that grew wild near my rural upstate New York childhood home and she wanted some for her garden, and while doing her bidding both Father and son got the worst case of poison ivy. In my defense, this was 5-6 years prior to my first botany course ever, and it was well after frost had removed the tell tale poison ivy leaves. This was a botanical mistake the Phactor would never make now; you must use students to wade in and do the collecting.

Garden Gift Ideas

What with the holiday season approaching, many of you are probably wondering what to buy for the Phactor, so here's a garden gift idea. While searching through image files this nifty item turned up and once again was moved onto the "things of beauty and a joy forever" list of potential acquisitions. To explain, things of beauty and joys forever must fundamentally be big and heavy, and ideally found rather than purchased, but since this is unlikely, let's forego that stipulation. Such items figure into a personal gardening philosophy which is that people wandering through our gardens should find delightful things, surprises, hidden away to be discovered, like our 200 lb sleeping sow garden bench. So yes, the Phactor really, really wants an elephant downspout, maybe two.

Loopy Leaf Research

The Phactor has spent a lot of time looking at the patterns veins, vascular bundles, make in leaves. The earliest leafy organs of land lacked vascular tissue completely. The earliest land plants were leafless. Then the clubmosses developed leaves with a single vascular bundle down the middle, which limited the width of the blade to the distance water could diffuse from cell to cell. The ancestors of ferns and seed plants developed leaves from modified branches and the venation, the pattern of vascular bundles formed a spreading dichotomy as each bundle branched and branched again right out to the edge of the leaf allowing for a broad leaf, but such veins are not interconnected like the leaves of flowering plants. Ginkgo, a lot of ferns, and cycads have open dichotomous venation still. But the flowering plants have a wholly different pattern, one of looping interconnected veins, so what is their advantage? The answer makes sense; if a vein gets damaged, a looping interconnected network allows materials to be conducted around the obstruction. The leaf shown here shows how translocation continues around the the leaf even after the midvein is injured (dark green dot). Now if only interstate engineers could figure out something similar. Actually some of that pattern does remind me of the Dan Ryan what with obstructions and then suddenly losing a lane! Scary.

Indiana Jones of Ginger

Just a couple of blogs ago, an article featured a long-time botanical friend of mine from the New York Botanical Garden, now here's a broadcast featuring John Kress, Curator of Botany at the Smithsonian, as the "Indiana Jones of Ginger". Man, the Phactor needs a better PR person because no way my old buddy John wears a fedora anywhere near as well as the Phactor. But John has spent a career studying the ginger family and its close relatives, and they are a fascinating group of plants. Here's the "weeping goldsmith", not a flower but an inflorescence, that John is talking about, and he's written a book of the same name about his field research in Myanmar. Dang, the Phactor also has to finish his book because if it's published posthumously you don't get as many interviews.

Really really green animals

This demonstrates what happens when you try to catch up on your science reading; you discover all the neat things that scientists have figured out recently, and this is really the neatest thing about being part of science, there are always new things to learn, figure out, and understand. The previous blog mentioned green sea slugs, a organism introduced to me decades ago by a former colleague who went West. Sea slugs eat algae, harvest the chloroplasts and keep them in body cavities where they continue to photosynthesize providing food to the slug. Now it turns out this symbiosis has been going on so long the slug has acquired enough of the chloroplast genes that it can synthesize chlorophyll! Apparently this replenishes the chlorophyll in the captured chloroplasts so that they can function longer. While chloroplasts used to be independent organisms, they long ago lost some genes to the host cell nucleus that were necessary for synthesizing chlorophyll, which makes the symbiosis permanent, except for green sea slugs. Evolution is pretty nifty because biological weirdness makes no sense otherwise. The other thing to note is that green sea slugs actually look sort of leaf-like, now they almost are; they just need a bit of cellulose.

Really green animals

Generally organisms are green for one of two reasons: they use chlorophyll for photosynthesis, what the Phactor calls "really green", or they have a green-pigmented camouflage, which produces a pretty clear dichotomy between plants and animals. Down deep in the animal clade where you begin to get close to the never never land of unicellular organisms where distinctions like plant and animal do not work, you find some exceptions: green hydra, green clams, green sea slugs, green corals, and all of these harbor symbiotic algae in their bodies, but not in their cells. So of course once you get used to making such pronoucements, an exception pops up and forces you to go find the bloody thing in your book manuscript and add a dinged dang endnote! Algae are known to live within amphibian eggs in the "gell" surrounding the embryo, which might be considered intracellular, but maybe the Phactor misremembers something about amphibian eggs. The algal cells take up nitrogenous waste and get a nice wet habitat. But now the algal cells have been found inside a salamander embryo itself, the first truly cholophyll green vertebrate, although still lacking vertebrae at that stage of development. Does the embryo gain some benefit from the algal symbiont in addition to the removal of nitrogenous wastes? Does the algae share its photosyntetic products with the salamander? Maybe this will get those darned vertebrate physiologists to learn something about photosynthesis.

Fall Color - Winterberry

Most fall color comes from foliage, but a few plants produce colorful displays of fruit. Sometime back the Phactor featured the azure beauty berry, a terrific shade-loving, low care shrub. Another shrub that does well in the difficult continental climate of Lincolnland is winterberry, a deciduous holly (Ilex verticilliata), and since it drops its leaves, the display of bright scarlet fruits is all the more dramatic. Like all hollies, winter berry is also dioecious (di – two, oecious–housed), so you have to plant one pollen producer for every several female shrubs if you want fruit. And of course, the birds love such fruits, so expect your attractive display to disappear by way of helping them along on their migrations.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Japanese Anemone

Another late fall bloomer, the Japanese Anemone (Anemone x hybrida 'Prince Henry') is still hanging on in the garden because there hasn't been enough of a frost to damage it yet. Anemones are another member of the Buttercup family, which favors either spring or fall flowering and all seem quite tolerant of cold. Like many other members of the family, there is only a single perianth whorl of many petalloid sepals, or for those of us who shy away from commitment, tepals, surrounging many stamens and a domed receptacle bearing many pistils. Yes, that should just scream, "I'm a member of the Ranunculaceae to all students of plant taxonomy." The name anemone comes from the Greek root for wind, and thus their common name windflower, but this gets confused with Pulsatilla, which uses the same common name. In both genera as well as Clematis, each pistil becomes an achene and each bears a persistent style that becomes a fluffy appendage to aid in wind dispersal. So either the radiating perianth or the "writhing" mass of styles were thought similar to the radiating arms of the sea anemone because why else name a sessile marine animal after the wind?

Out of your gourd!

Fruits can best be defined as flowers at the stage of seed dispersal, and they all function to both protect and/or disperse seeds, more of one and less of the other depending upon the specific type of fruit. One of the ways in which humans have changed domesticated plants has been to select for bigger fruits. Natural selection would prevent plants from putting excess energy into rewarding fruits because of diminishing returns meaning that more fruit flesh would not disperse more seeds further, but since they are domestic and depending upon human intervention to reproduce, such wasted energy from the plant perspective is just what we want. And this is the time of year when human efforts to increase the size of fruits become very evident because pumpkins/squash, which are basically the same thing, have been selected to produce the largest fruits of all. This picture shows the Phactor admiring a 901 pound beast on display last year at the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur here in Lincolnland. But the all time grand champion was grown pumpkin, grown this year and on display at the New York Botanical Garden, is over twice as big at 1800+ pounds. The biggest one the Phactor has ever grown was a mere 150 lbs, and it was quite impressive; this year even zucchini didn’t grow well! Such huge pepos, the type of fruit, become flattened and deformed under their own weight, and naturally, well, naturally to an inquiring botanical mind, someone had to figure out how they managed not to simply burst open when they got so big. But why didn't they figure out how many pies this beast would make?

Plant Respiration Question

Dear Phytophactor,
My fiance and i have recently gotten into a debate about plant respiration.
She is worried about the amount of CO2 that plants may be giving off at night and prefers that we do not have them in the bedroom where we sleep.
I love plants....but i love her more.
So, the question is, what is the ratio of O2 to CO2 that plants give off? How much CO2 can a single medium size house plant give off in one night? How much CO2 is being produced if I have a bedroom full of plants? (five or six)?
I have searched the internet, and many sites agree that plants give off CO2 at night when they are in the process of respiration, but no one seems to provide any information about the exact amount of CO2 that plants actually produce.
Thank you!

The Phytophactor responds:
Dear Matthew,
You make the Phactor feel like the Car Talk guys when you send me a question like this. The basic idea is correct; plants respire and give off CO2, all the time, and at night the respiration is not off set by photosynthesis, but here's the critical thing to understand. Plants respire at a much, much lower rate than a nice warm-blooded mammal. So if your fiance is worried about oxygen depletion and CO2 buildup at night, guess who ends up in another bedroom? Alternatively you could keep your bedroom really cool at night which will slow down plant respiration even more, while at the same time providing a good reason for keeping your warm carbon dioxide producing body around. Since your plants do grow, your plants are capturing more CO2 during the day than they release via respiration all day. The two cats sleeping on my bed respire a lot more than a whole roomful of plants. So plant respiration just isn't a problem, and here the Phactor stops short of saying a silly concern although it is, but I did hear this concern once with respect to giving plants to hospital patients. Even if plants gushed carbon dioxide at night hospital rooms and your bedroom are not sealed boxes, so gases can easily diffuse to equilibrate any tiny differences that might occur. So sleep well, the plants and their respiration aren't a problem; if they were we'd have be careful about entering my greenhouse or the rainforest at night, and both of them have far greater mass of plants respiring than your bedroom. Hope this helps you sleep in restful assurance, providing you do not handle being on the winning side of this debate with a certain air of superiority and condescension (And depending upon the particular nature of your fiance, please recall the scene in the 1st Star Wars movie where the R2D2 is beating Chewbacca at a chess-like game. Let the Wookie win may be very good pre-maritaladvice.).

A truffle trifle?

This is another one of those news reports that leaves me wondering about science reporting, and the use of PR to make your research seem more important. The truffle is an Ascomycete fungus and their sexual reproduction has long been known. Ascomycetes like this have mating types, so think + or -and it takes two mycelia (the filamentous “plant” body) to mate, one of each mating type. The result of such a fusion does not result in a diploid nucleus, but a dikaryon cell with two nuclei, one + and one -, and together with the + and – mycelia, they produce a fruiting structure, in this case the divine ascocarp called a truffle. So why is this worthy of news; it's been known for decades? Maybe it wasn’t known that each oak tree harbored only one individual mycelium of a single mating type and that’s why sexual reproduction is a bit rare, requiring a bit of “outreach” to find a mate. In case you did not know truffles are a symbiotic fungus that grow in association with oak tree roots, and the fruiting bodies are inconveniently produced under ground. Pigs have long been used to sniff them out, but then you have to hold the beast back and fight them for the prize; now dogs are more commonly used because they can smell truffles but don’t want to eat them. Basidiomycetes like your common grocery store mushroom persist in the dikaryon condition, although that takes some interesting gymnastics during cell division to maintain two and exactly two nuclei, one of each type, and therefore these dikaryon fungi are relatively easy to culture.

Herbal Remedies and Supplements – Do you get what you pay for?

A great many of alternative, complementary, integrative, holistic, homeopathic, or naturopathic remedies or health products involve herbs. Herb has three distinctly different definitions: (1) any non-woody plant, (2) a savory seed or leaf mostly of Mediterranean origin (many are members of the mint or parsley families), (3) the guy who wears a Cubs hat and mows your lawn. Adherents of herbal remedies rely upon folk lore, personal experience, and testimonials from others’ personal experiences as evidence of efficaciousness, all of which are confounded by the placebo effect and other uncontrolled variables (dosage, plant material, storage, etc.). When these are taken into account, many popular herbal remedies, e.g., Echinacea, fail to provide any more benefit than a placebo.
But at a more basic level, when you buy some herbal health products, what are you getting? When you buy a bottle labeled GINKGO BILOBA, you have this crazy idea that ginkgo is what is inside, but maybe not. The Phactor has been asked to identify crumbled up, dried, green, plant material on more than one occasion, and quite frankly from an anatomical perspective, you cannot find out too much. New molecular methods can provide an alternative via DNA fingerprints that look at characteristic components of the genome as a means of determining if a particular plant is present or not. Unfortunately while such testing is positive when something is absent, you still may not have a positive identification unless the DNA fingerprint profile matches another plant you have a profile for.
So how’s it going out there in herbal health supplement land? Not well, if the DNA fingerprint testing conducted at the New York Botanical Garden is any indication of the quality of herbal health products. Many herbal teas are so diluted by a cheaper/tastier filler that an effective dosage seems unlikely, so you certainly are not getting very much of what you are paying for. Only one in 4 samples that were supposed to have ginkgo had the DNA fingerprint of ginkgo, and since ginkgo is an extremely common tree in cultivation and extremely easy to identify, even for amateurs, its absence from herbal supplements must be considered deliberate. Or maybe they just forgot. Although the testing is still dealing with smallish sample sizes, if the materials tested are representative at all, then the vast majority of the herbal supplement industry would seem to be a fraud on more than one level. Lastly the botanist in this interview, Dennis Stevenson, is one of my long-time professional friends.