Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Wondrous whirligigs

We may call them whirligigs. Botanists know them as samaras. Whatever the name, the whirling fruits of the maple are another wonder of nature, so common at this time of year that we may overlook how cleverly made they are.

Their aim is simple: To carry a fairly heavy seed a good distance from the parent. After all, what good would it do to plant your offspring right next to your spreading, shady self where they would lack the sun and space to survive very long? The samaras wait for a good breeze, let go and can twirl through the air long enough to land far from “mom.”

Pick one up and examine its design. Each is finely formed in a way that makes it spin and hang in the air instead of plummeting to the ground. That a tree could develop such an aerodynamic technique for dispatching its seeds is yet another miracle of evolution. Joyce Kilmer may have marveled at trees, but even their tiny offspring are amazing.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Beauty and the beast

Nature is full of strange transformations. While the caterpillar to the butterfly is best known, another beauty and the beast scenario is perhaps more beneficial to humans.

Lurking in the bottom slime of ponds and slow brooks are creatures even Stephen King might find hard to imagine. These long, dark, six-legged creepers have huge retractable lower lips – sometimes a third the length of their bodies – designed to snare victims and feed them into their razor-sharp mandibles. Why, these monsters even breathe through gills protruding from their rectums.

Yet, they are just children. As adults, they are so elegant they’ve inspired the design of countless pieces of jewelry and even Tiffany lampshades.

Fortunately, perhaps, the nymph of the dragonfly stays out of sight in the muck while its handsome transfiguration flies about for us to enjoy. But in either form, dragonflies gobble up large numbers of mosquitoes, larval or winged, helping keep them under control.

Thus, beauty or beast, either is a friend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Clever caterpillars

In the late spring and early summer, many trees will shed some leaves just as dieting humans shed some pounds – to lose a little excess, unnecessary weight. But not all the leaves sent to the ground are the tree’s doing.

Trees are home to countless caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies that dine on leaves. And searching the leaves for caterpillars are scores of hungry birds. Many, like chickadees, will look for damaged leaves, sensing that where there are holes, there are caterpillars nearby.

As defenses against birds, some caterpillars taste bad, grow spines or hairs, or bear bright “warning” colors. But in one of the little miracles of evolution, many edible caterpillar species have developed a different defensive technique. When they finish munching on a leaf, they clip it off and let it fall to the ground so it won’t give away their location to a bird on the hunt.

They don’t cover their tracks, they drop them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Some people make a point of finding and learning words for special situations. If you’ve got such tendencies, behold “petrichor.”

Pronounced PET-ri-kuhr, the noun means the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. Two Australian geologists invented petrichor in 1964 after they discovered the scent’s source.

The word is a concoction of the Greek, petros, stone, and ichor, which is a blood that flowed in the veins of the gods and helped keep them immortal.

In this case, during dry spells, many kinds of vegetation give off oils, the ichor, that coat the soil and rocks, the petros, below. When water hits the ground, the oils exude that distinctive, earthy fragrance.

And so, thanks to these two Australians, we can get blood from a stone.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Parental labors

When sextuplets were born on Long Island a few years ago, someone calculated they’d need 70 diaper changes a day. A formidable task, to be sure. However, raising young is never easy and in nature, it can be astoundingly tedious.

For instance, scientists once observed a house wren provide 491 feedings to its nestlings in one day. Phoebes can feed the kids more than 800 times in a day. Titmice have been known to make up to 70 feeding trips an hour. While swifts may arrive only once an hour, that one feeding may contain 600 insects – a collecting average of one every six seconds.

What's more, hard-working bird parents raise broods without expectation of rewards. They can't hope for General Foods or Pampers to show up with help in exchange for product endorsements. They can't expect those baby beaks to give them even a small smile. Perhaps worse, they can't count on the kids’ taking care of them in their old age.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Night Life

The late spring nights should be all a-blink as “lightning bugs” in romantic flight flash for mates.

Fireflies are among the few kinds of insects that everyone loves. But they may be dwindling in numbers.

Theories abound. Development is certainly removing firefly habitats, and lights may drive them away. Pesticides and pollution may be killing them, and declining food supplies may be starving them -- larva of many species feed on invertebrates that pesticides kill.

Some people want to do for fireflies what lepidopteraphiles are doing for butterflies: Create habitats that attract and feed them. Since populating a yard with the right kinds of worms and snails is a lot tougher than planting flowers, they may have a challenge ahead of them. The best thing anyone can do, though, is maintain a natural yard that is pesticide free and that welcomes the diversity of nature.

Perhaps then, lightning bugs will shed more light on our Junes.

(For more on fireflies, visit the website of Attorney Donald Ray Burger of Houston, a lawyer who is waging a campaign to bring back the fireflies that have all but disappeared from his Texas city.)

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Bumper Lunch

New York City firemen know how -- and where -- to grab a good lunch, while keeping ready for a call. This is Arthur Avenue in the Bronx around noon on Friday, June 3, 2005, as the firefighters chat after a quick bite on the bumper. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

June air

June, as they sing in Carousel, is busting out all over, developing May’s lushness and adding the colors of roses and rhododendrons, and the brilliance of early field flowers like daisies and fleabanes. It is the month that moves us from the rebirth of spring to the verdure of summer.

June offers close to ideal weather, with an average high of 79 degrees and an average low of 56. At 71 and 47, May is just a tad too cool for those of us anxious to dive into summer’s warmth.

June’s name fools many people who think it commemorates a Roman god. In fact, June is short for a Junioribus, the lower or junior house of the old Roman legislature. May recalls the upper house, a Majoribus.

Perhaps the timing of the names involves an ancient political joke about lower-house oratory. June is the warmer month, after all, and offers more hot air than May. In modern Junes, we offer our own version of hot air: graduation speeches galore.

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