Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The embattled beaver

Pity the poor beaver. Although touted in countless film documentaries, the beaver’s industriousness is always getting the rodent into trouble.
To establish ponded homesteads, beavers kill trees to build dams. The dams often flood roads, lawns, septic systems, parking lots, basements, and other trappings of suburbia, angering the human neighbors.
It wasn’t always so. Driven from much of the East Coast by farmers who chopped down most of the trees, beavers had vanished in many areas by the 19th Century. With the return of woodlands in the 20th Century, various reintroduction efforts were successful – so successful in Connecticut that some 8,000 beaver live in that small state today.
Adult beavers have no natural enemies – except man. They are among the few creatures legally hunted with what are called “kill traps.” Amazingly, kill traps are the only legal way to catch them in Connecticut; it is illegal to live trap a beaver to relocate it. The official state explanation: There are so many beavers in Connecticut that moving them would only exacerbate problems elsewhere.
Being industrious and a movie star doesn’t always pay.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Hitchhiking hummers

Nature inspires much lore. Dragonflies sew up your mouth. Toads give you warts. Bats land in your hair.

But a magazine, not children or backwoods naturalists, dreamed up a tale about hummingbirds, those hovering micro-birds that just now getting ready to return to Central America. In the 1880s, a writer proposed that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which weigh only an eighth of an ounce, couldn't possibly fly non-stop across the Caribbean on their way to and from North America. Without any evidence in hand, he theorized they hitchhiked on the backs of such larger birds as Canada Geese.

Today, we know this is not true, yet the speculation has been told and retold till many consider it fact. But as is often the case in nature, fact is more amazing than fiction. Rather than hitchhike, this miniature creature, wings whizzing at 80 beats per second, zips non-stop across 1,000 miles of open sea at up to 40 miles per hour, twice a year.

Even more amazing is its metabolism. If you weighed 170 pounds and lived like a hummingbird, you'd burn 150,000 calories a day and produce 100 pounds of sweat. And if you ran out of water, your skin temperature would surpass the melting point of lead and you'd probably catch fire.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer's ghosts

Coming across a cluster of Indian Pipes is an eerie, almost shocking experience. Ghostly and pale in the dark of a midsummer woods, the plant’s freakish white flesh makes it look more like an oddly formed fungus than the wildflower it is.

Indians Pipes are not only strange-looking but strange acting. Botanists are not certain how they survive. At first, they were thought to be parasitic – living directly off other live plants. Then they were deemed saprophytic – living off dead plants. The latest thinking, however, is that they are “epiparasite” – a parasite that forms a relationship with another parasite to get food from a host. In this case, a fungus connects the roots of the Indian Pipe to a nearby plant, transmitting essential nutrients.

That’s why the pipe is white and leafless. It doesn’t need chlorophyll for photosynthesis, and it doesn’t need leaves, the food factories for most plants.

And that’s also why, when most of summer’s flowers are aglow in the fields, you’ll find Indian Pipe hiding in the shadows, deep in the woods.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Crawling mysteries

Those who’ve grown up in suburbia don’t usually think of it as mysterious. Yet even our backyards are filled with mystery.
Take the caterpillar, for example. Stroll in your yard and you could quickly spot half a dozen kinds. Spend a little time, and you might find dozens.
But discovering caterpillars is a lot easier than naming them – or knowing what butterfly they become. And in a world that offers field guides to bird nests, mammal scat, and even roadkill, it’s surprising to learn that someone – in our backyard, almost – has recently written the first caterpillar field guide. UConn Professor David Wagner and his book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, were profiled in the Aug. 8 New York Times.
Backyard caterpillar study has its advantages. The creatures can’t run or fly away, and you can, with little effort, raise most into their adult forms. You might even contribute to science since, as Dr. Wagner points out, there are moths – including well-known ones – whose caterpillars have never been discovered. It’s great fare for a natural history detective.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Queen’s mystery

Each August, a blizzard of white covers many fields and roadsides as Queen Anne’s Lace opens its flowers, and offers its annual mystery.

Look at the cluster of hundreds of tiny white florets. Right around the middle, you’re apt to spot one little purple flower. Why is there a single, colored floret in a sea of white? No one knows for sure, except the folklorist. Long ago, the story was told to children that Queen Anne pricked her finger as she was stitching some lace, and the purple flower is her bloodstain passed down the centuries.

Less mysterious is the plant’s ties with man. Pull one up and smell the root. Its scent is a clear give-away. Called by the scientist Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s Lace is an ancestor of our garden carrot. In its native England, where the wounded Queen Anne lived, it is known simply as Wild Carrot.