Sugar maple is in bloom, shaking its anthers in the breeze. This species is supposedly wind-pollinated, but looking closely at the male flowers I saw thousands of bees, wasps, beetles, and even a butterfly working at the blooms. I estimated about thirty thousand insects on the tree’s flowers at any one time. Some were gathering pollen, but many had their heads buried in the bells from which the filaments and anthers hung. Could there be nectar or sugary exudate up there? Why else would a spring azure butterfly systematically work its way across the tree’s flowers? I can find no reference to sugary lures in any of the sources that I’ve read. I’d welcome other observations or insights…
Cassia delivered healthy quadruplets, an astonishing feat for a goat doe, but one that claimed her life. Cassia had the sweetest personality, was a doting mother to her many kids, and was a strong elder, respected by all in the barn. Fare well, Cassia.
The four orphan kids are thriving under Sarah’s care, with assistance from Junebug on the post-milkbottle clean-up:
For the Year of the Goat, cloven hooves on granular snow, with accents by chicken. I believe the Cudzoo Goat Girls may be drawing poems about the eight 八 noble paths to enlightenment (a state of mind usually to be found by ruminating on alfalfa hay). Curiously, their hoofwork and voices converge.
When the temperature dropped below forty degrees, the frogs shut up. A few hours later, we hit the twenties, the pond was ice and the rocks from which the frogs had called were snow-covered.
The only sound was the creak of a Virginia pine’s knotty entrails, twisted by the weight of ice on its needles and branches. (Like other sounds on this blog, you’ll need to be on the website not the email summary, to hear.)
How do these crazy little frogs survive such temperature swings? Surely they’re all frozen to death by now?
A thermometer inserted just below the crust of snow and ice suggests the peepers’ first strategy. It is ten degrees warmer just an inch under the soil. By creeping into holes, bark crevices, and cracks in rocks the frogs find microclimates that, if not toasty, are more temperate.
The peepers’ other defense is not so obvious. Their livers gush glucose into the blood, flooding their organs with sugary antifreeze. The bodies of these candied frogs can freeze without damage to their cells. Peepers can move in and out of this sugar-high within hours, making them well-adapted to the ill temper of the spring weather goddesses in eastern North America. After the last ice age, they were one of the first frog species to hop up north.
(For those wondering after my last post how a “spring pepper” might differ from a spring peeper, see here. Apologies for my many typos…)
Rain + warmth = Pseudacris crucifer. The spring peeper.
Spring? Seriously? Appearing for one night only at a backyard pond in Tennessee. Tomorrow: the freeze returns.
Zoom in on the spectrogram (below) and we can see two call types: short upward sweeps and longer trilling sweeps. The short, untrilled sounds are the males calling to females; the zipped calls are aggressive signals to other males. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. You can clearly hear each call type on the recording, minus Armstrong’s horn.
About fifteen years ago, the local electrical company hired a crew of subcontractors to cut and trim any trees that were deemed a threat to powerlines. The crew gave the sugar maple in our front garden a lop-sided haircut, slicing away all the branches on the south side. Regrettably, the equipment they used must have carried spores from a diseased tree: fungus swarmed over the cut branches, then killed the whole maple.
The dead tree stood next to the house, so its upper trunks had to be cut down. We left the lower ten feet standing, though. This part, even if it fell, presented no danger to the house. Ever since, the stump has gradually rotted away, occasionally calving chunks of bark, but mostly turning slowly, slowly to punk and duff.
The birds love to perch atop the tall stump, as have two generations of housecats. Woodpeckers also include the rotting maple on their rounds and this week a pileated woodpecker made a stop. I poked a microphone out of the cat-flap and recorded the bird’s hammering and the powerful sound of its thirty inch wingspan as it took flight.
As you listen, imagine the slamming impact of beak on wood. Human brains are concussed by forces ten times weaker than those that pileated woodpeckers experience. They’d make a fine mascot for a football team. The woodpeckers’ heads attain speeds of 6-7 meters per second before impact, they then hit the trunk and decelerate at 13,000 meters/second^2 or 1000 g (see Wikipedia for interesting comparative examples of “g”). The birds tolerate this pounding because their multi-million dollar contracts specify that they must. And because they are protected by the angle of beak to brain, the shock-absorbing design of the skull, the tightness of the brain in its case, and the elasticity of muscles.
Snow scribing. Here are the plants at work, from last year.
I recently had a run-in with some bacterial cousins, courtesy of a small post-surgical wound. The bacteria were winning, so I spent a few days in the hospital where attentive medical staff mainlined antibiotics into my arm. The treatment worked, I’m all healed up, and the hospital guards set me free.
There were some interesting lessons in the wheeled tree of bags and bottles that was my shadow, my daemon, my constant umbilical companion.
The molecules flowing into me were labeled and bar-coded. As was I. Both patient and bag were laser-scanned with every fresh dose of fluid. Just like the supermarket checkout: Beep-beep. And thereby, errors avoided, we hope.
But the names and numbers hid a deeper history. Each one of the antibiotics that I received was a synthetic derivative of a drug derived from a living organism. In other words, scientists took an antibiotic produced by a bacteria or fungus, then synthesized a new molecule that was modeled on the original chemical structure but with some extra added molecular tails and loops. Why bother with the modifications? Sometimes the synthetic version is more potent; sometimes it is a replacement for the original, a replacement necessitated by the evolution of antibiotic resistance in the pathogenic bacteria.
These drugs therefore belong to the second generation of antibiotics. The first generation were derived from other species, mostly from soil bacteria. These eventually lost their effectiveness as evolution did its work. The second generation of antibiotics take the original “scaffolds” or shapes, then tweak them to develop chemicals that are new, but not very different from the originals. This usually means that these second generation antibiotics have a limited lifetime of medical utility. The pathogenic bacteria, having found ways to dodge the first versions take little time to develop resistance to these new, rather similar synthetic versions. For drug companies working to make a profit, this is a bad investment strategy: why invest money and time developing products that will be useless, or nearly so, in the short or medium term? There is much more money to be made in convincing men that they need more testosterone. (The idea that the world might be better with a little less testosterone is unprofitable, it seems.) For the rest of us, none of this is good news. Bacterial evolution threatens to outpace the rate of development of new antibiotics.
I had the latest copy of Nature to keep me entertained during my stay and, by coincidence, it had a great article about a new avenue in drug development, an avenue that also promises to give us some fabulous insights into soil biology. Rather than move further down the path of synthetics, Ling et al., the paper’s authors, returned to the soil. Science’s initial foray into soil antibiotics was able to examine only one percent of the organisms that dwell in the soil. The other ninety nine percent died when brought into the lab. The first generation of antibiotics, in other words, was built on a tiny fraction of the soil’s potential pharmacopeia.
Instead of bringing soil to the lab, Ling’s team brought the lab to the soil. They buried a small “iChip,” a rectangular device filled with tiny bore holes, in the soil. The chip had previously been soaked in a diluted sample of soil. Bacteria colonized the holes and, because they were returned to their habitat in the soil, many of them thrived. Instead of one percent, the researchers managed to culture fifty percent of the soil microbes. Kaboom: That’s one small borehole for a bacteria, one giant leap for humankind.
Once the bacteria colonized and grew in the chip, they were presented with pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) or Mycobacterium tuberculosis (“TB”). Using this method, Ling’s group discovered a new antibiotic that they named teixobactin. Importantly, this chemical is not structurally similar to existing antibiotics and the researchers have so far been unable to find any bacteria that can resist its attack. No doubt the same method will yield more drugs as we learn to converse with the mysteries of the soil. Excellent news indeed.
Surely it is time to honor the soil bacteria with little drawings of their habitats alongside the barcodes?
Nature News has an interesting commentary by Heidi Ledford, with photos, interviews, links, and technical details.
A sports team of ambiguous nomenclature and symbolism takes the field today. The seahawk logo matches the appearance of no Seattle bird that I know of. The logo design itself appears not to be a hawk, but an eagle, a design taken from the Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask of the Coastal Indians. Even though the NFL knows all about property rights and branding, no Indian got any royalties, to my knowledge.
The captive bird that flies out before games is an Augur hawk from Africa, a distant relative of the red-tailed hawk, in the Buteo genus. It is not a seabird, but feeds in mountains and grasslands. Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine for that interesting tidbit. This captive needed some serious training to prepare it to face the whooping Seattle fans.
“Seahawk” might refer to either an osprey (not a hawk, but a bird in its own family, a relative of hawks and eagles) or a skua (a fierce cousins of gulls). The osprey has a bold eyestripe, not a two-tone head, so the color match with the sports team logo is imperfect, as is the size of the beak. Ospreys feed by swooping down on fish with great skill and elegance. Skuas, our other contender for “seahawk,” look nothing like the logo. They feed by robbing other birds, eating the afterbirth of marine mammals, preying on the eggs and young of other seabirds, scavenging dead meat, and generally scraping the barrel of respectable behavior. We’ll see how the game goes, then decide which bird is the better fit.
Tens of thousands of cranes gather at Hiwassee. Gruuu gruuu: sound resonates within the trachea coiled within their sternum. Horn section of the avian band. An ancient sound; Sandhill Cranes have flown across North America for at least ten million years.
In this recording, made on my phone, you’ll hear the cranes overhead, and the ack-ack artillery of photographers shooting their pixel flak skyward:
“…so stears the prudent Crane/Her annual Voiage, born on Windes;/the Aire
Floats, as they pass, fann’d with unnumber’d plumes…” John Milton, Paradise Lost
“The crane’s legs/have gotten shorter/in the spring rain” Basho (Matsuo Kinsaku)