The meaning of rarity

I photographed a moth at my back porch light the other day which I assumed was a washed out Spotted Tussock (Lophocampa maculata) and posted it, as I do most of my moth photos, on iNaturalist.

I got a correction from Jim Johnson yesterday.  It is not what I thought it was.  It’s a Roseate Tussock (L. roseata), a rare-ish Pacific Northwest endemic (though there are a couple disjunct records from Colorado and Arizona).  This is only the second record for Oregon.  It is listed on the NatureServe watchlist as Critically Imperiled.

But what does critically imperiled mean? and who decides?

Assessing these sorts of things can be complicated.  Folks who live in the middle of a population might see a given organism as common, while folks who live outside that range may value it as rare.  Folks who have a vested interest in the places where an organism lives may be biased one way or the other about the legal issues that come with a tag like “critically imperiled”.  The Roseate Tussock is NOT listed as threatened or endangered by the USFWS.  Its official status in Washington State and British Columbia is, in fact, “species not ranked”.

NatureServe uses an objective, data driven approach to these assessments.  They have a formula which assesses rarity factors, population trend factors and habitat threat factors to score an organism’s risk of extinction.   The score an organism receives is an objective, numbers thing and the ranking is more or less automatic based on the calculated score.  Not much is known about the Roseate Tussock.  No one is sure what the larval host plants are or what the specific habitat needs might be.  It has a restricted range and hasn’t been seen by very many people.  The NatureServe calculator lists this species as critically imperiled precisely because we know so little about its true status.

And when you think about it, this is actually a good thing.  Endangered species protection over the last 50 or so years has been all about crisis management.  Waiting until we can say with certainty that a species is on the brink of extinction and then acting.  It strikes me that erring on the side of protection before a species is nearly gone is a more cost effective, long-term approach to these kinds of management issues, especially given that we know so little about so many things in nature…

Two Oddballs

I took a Fourth of July hike to Soapstone Lake yesterday.  It’s an easy walk along a well managed trail that begins from a trailhead on Hwy 53.  I was banking on more sun than I found, so didn’t see any of the hoped for dragonflies and butterflies, but I had a pleasant day, nevertheless.

2010704sm039If you get out your copy of Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Pojar and MacKinnon 1994 and there’s a newer version), you’ll find a section titled “Oddballs”.  This is the place were all the weird little families of plants have been grouped. Some of these plants have peculiar lifestyles.

One such oddball is the Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

Drosera rotundifolia - 7/4/2016

It is a carnivorous plant that lives in boggy, nutrient poor environments.  It supplements its nitrogen requirements by catching and digesting insects.  The insects are attracted to the shiny, sugar covered leaves and become trapped in the sticky goo on the tentacle-like hairs.  The plant extracts ammonia from the decaying corpses of the dead insects.

The second oddball, was a large patch of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

Monotropa uniflora - 7/4/2016

This plant has forsaken photosynthesis for a saprophytic lifestyle.  Ecological purists will tell you that there is no such thing as a saprophyte and that plants like the Indian Pipe are really just living off the hard work of micorrhizal fungi (technical term = Myco-heterotrophy).  Of course some people might also argue that the micorrhizal fungi are living off the hard work of the trees they have infiltrated, but nature is far more complicated.  There is a subtle and fascinating give and take going on between these organisms which is still being investigated and we would be wise not to judge…

My new favorite fuzzy caterpillar

Michelle and I were out doing a bit of nature photography at the Netul Trail of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park today.  We were trying to get some video of a robin that had a beak full of worms, when a second robin flew in and quite deliberately dropped a caterpillar at the feet of the first robin.  We thought we were going to get to see a food exchange between robin parents, but both then flew off leaving the caterpillar on the road.  We picked it up and moved it to a nearby maple.

Phyllodesma americana - 7/1/2016

It’s a satisfyingly large caterpillar, flat looking with a cool looking fuzzy fringe like a walking dust mop.  The references point to Phyllodesma americana, the American Lappet Moth, which just so happens to be one of my new favorite moths…

Phyllodesma americana - 5/5/2016

Does this mean I’m giving up on my other favorite fuzzy caterpillars in favor of this one?  Heck, no.  I have room in my heart for many fuzzy caterpillars.

That question…

One of the many perks of working with the North Coast Land Conservancy is that they let me do little personal projects on Conservancy property: a bit of bird banding, salamander surveys, photography projects.  Last Friday, I was able to put up some moth lights at Circle Creek and do a bit of non-lethal sampling…

Cattail Borer

The flip side of studying stuff on Conservancy property is communicating what I’ve discovered to others.  I am asked on a regular basis to help interpret the Natural History of these places on walks through the property.  Curious people ask me questions about things.  Some I can answer, some I cannot.  One of the questions I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to is: What good are mosquitoes?

We humans are social animals that communicate using a complex language that includes words and gestures and behaviors that all have meaning to other humans.  We create societies and culture and rules.  We create words to describe and assess members of our societies and folks from out of town.  Among the mechanisms we use for assessment are the twin concepts of good and bad.  These are value claims that often have different interpretations across human societies.  They have no meaning outside human cultures.

This makes any question about a given plant or animal problematic.  Mosquitoes are not good or bad, they simply are.  We define mosquitoes as bad because they vex us, but the mosquito isn’t being bad, it’s being a mosquito.  And any statement I might come up with to demonstrate the goodness of a mosquito has nothing to do with mosquitoes and everything to do with humans.  I am being asked to provide a value claim that will enable humans to justify the existence of mosquitoes.  If we insist that all organisms must have individually justifiable, human-defined reasons for being, I suspect that the  Great Anthropocene Extinction will continue apace.

scotchbroom

All of the language that we use to describe nature is created by us and most of our interactions with nature are anthropocentric.  Life on Earth got along without names and categories for millions of years.  The only things we can even remotely define as value claims made by nature are centered on ecological fitness and survival to reproduce.  Organisms demonstrate their fitness by continuing to be.  Mosquitoes demonstrate their fitness by continuing to be.  The Earth and the organisms that live on it have done just fine without us.  The planet doesn’t need us to sort things into piles and argue over what each pile should be called and whether they should be allowed to exist.  Natural Selection has already done this work.

But…

We humans, in order to communicate effectively with one another, do need to create these piles and we do need to create language that describes what each of these piles represents to us.  Part of the adaptive strategy of being human is to identify those things which are “good” for us and those things we deem “bad” and modify our environments accordingly.  We are as much a product of the selective mechanisms that have organized life on Earth as mosquitoes and it is in our natures to do what we do.

The meaning of good and bad are relative, however, and sometimes (perhaps too many times) our efforts to modify our surroundings fail to consider collateral damage or long term consequences.  We often make short sighted decisions that come back to haunt us later on.  Anthropocentrism as an adaptive strategy may, in the long term, prove to be the limiting factor to human survival.

So, when someone asks you: what good are mosquitoes?  maybe the least anthropocentric response would be: I don’t know, ask a mosquito.

Or maybe we can find some anthropocentric solace in the knowing that the mosquitoes that bite me today become the breakfast of swallows tomorrow.  Thanks to mosquitoes I can become part bird.

Aedes mosquito

Salt and Pepper

I was greeted this morning by this beauty under the back porch light…

Biston betularia - 6/3/2016

Note how well this moth blends in with the background.  That is the claim to fame for this species.  This is the storied Salt and Pepper Moth (Biston betularia) of biology texts.  Most modern moth references now refer to it simply as the Peppered Moth.

This species has been used as an example of Natural Selection happening in real time.  The 19th Century industrial revolution in Great Britain produced a great deal of soot which in turn changed the color of tree bark from pale gray to nearly black.  Most of the Peppered Moth population in Great Britain was pale to match pale tree bark, but a small subset was darker.  As the tree color changed, the color of the Pepper Moth population changed as well.  Pale moths were more easily seen on the soot covered trees by predators and were (naturally) selected for dinner.  Dark moths had gained the ecological advantage.

The original work on this phenomenon was done by Bernard Kettlewell in the 1950’s.  If you are product of BSCS science courses from the 60’s and 70’s, you probably learned about these moths.  Kettlewell’s work came under criticism in the 1980’s, with claims of poor experimental design and outright fraud mostly driven by those skeptical of evolutionary concepts.  In an epic 6-year study, Michael Majerus retested the tree color hypothesis, carefully addressing all of the concerns of critics and unequivocally vindicated Kettlewell and this example of Natural Selection in action.

Polyphemus

On Saturday, I found a Polyphemus Moth roosting in the rafters of the events building at Shively Park.  The day was kind of cold and damp, so I took a couple record shot without disturbing it and went home to clean the basement.

Antheraea polyphemus - 5/28/2016

Today, I stopped by Shively Park and found the moth again. This time I politely asked it to show itself off.  By gently tickling the hind wings, I was able to trigger the defense response…

Antheraea polyphemus - 5/30/2016

On my screen, this photo is pretty close to the actual size of the moth or just about 6 inches from wingtip to wingtip.

My wife, the literature specialist, tells me that Polyphemus was the name of Poseidon’s son. Polyphemus was binocularly challenged. He is most widely known for being a less than gracious host when Odysseus came to visit his island. It was (and still is) considered bad manners to eat you house guests.

My wife noted the moth shows 2 eye spots and asked the obvious question: why is it named after a mythical cyclops?

Polyphemus was also a giant.  This moth is one of the largest moths in North America.

Then again, lepidopterists are well known for naming bugs after Greek characters (both mythical and historical) just because the names sound cool.  Maybe it’s best not to read too much into the name…

 

contextual lesson #8467

One of these beetles is not like the others.

Three of these beetles belong together
Three of these beetles are kind of the same
But one of these beetles is doing its own thing
Now it’s time to play our game

It’s time to play our game

calmul20160524comp005I got a note on iNaturalist this morning from Boris Büche, one of the most dependable beetle guys on the site.  He spotted a couple differences in a Calligrapha beetle I posted from Dismal Nitch.  One of those differences is really important, the other is a field mark…

Can you spot the differences?

 

And now:

Calligrapha philidelphica - 5/24/2016

This is Calligrapha philidelphica, the Dogwood Calligrapha, on the leaves of an Osier Dogwood.  The other three are Calligrapha multipunctata, the Willow Calligrapha, on Hooker Willow.

The wonders and limitations of a brave new world

I live in a tourist town and I see lots of visitors. We used to joke about the guys stepping out of their Winnebagos with their video camera already up to their eye. Now days, thanks to smart phones, pretty much everyone is viewing their vacation in real time through the small screen a video camera.

20150816sm025

I wonder sometimes what folks are doing with all those photos they are snapping.

I fully understand the desire to photo-document one’s adventures and I share the attraction to shiny tools that allow me to do so. I have a camera.  I take plenty of pictures.  And I find myself leafing through catalogs looking at lens and accessories that might improve my photo-documentary results. I will routinely take 100 or 200 picture on a given walkabout. For me, those photos have replaced my sketchbook (though I still make sketches when I can’t get a photo).  Those photos have become part of my process for taking field notes. They are a way for me to quickly note something I don’t recognize; something interesting; something I might forget I saw.

Marbled Godwit - 4/17/2016I suspect that the need to document is an innate characteristic and one we’ve been practicing for a very long time. I’m pretty sure that the artist who produced this masterpiece was working from field notes and a sketchbook…

Altamira Painting

…and that’s kind of the point I want to make: field notes are a means to an end; they are rarely the end in themselves. Not every notation I make in the field will lead me somewhere. Not every field note I take will be shared with others.  And most of the stories I tell will come from the post-processing, collation and polishing of information I’ve gathered. My field notes are largely indigestible to others.  Most of the photos I take will be tossed.

Which brings me to field apps…

If you own a smart phone, you’re probably already running one or two apps and there are natural history related sites on the internet that supply apps that allow you to post what you find in the field directly to their site via an app.  eBird has an app.  iNaturalist has an app. I’m sure there are many others I don’t know about.

I’ve been spending a good deal of time at iNaturalist. It is great fun and (arguably) has been taking up too much of my time.  It is a site where one can post the results of a day in the field.  The material I post is evaluated by a community of amateur and professional biologist and much of that data can be immediately scooped up by folks doing data collection projects.

inat_page_pseregBut I don’t participate using an app.  I don’t own a smart phone.  I don’t plan on acquiring one any time soon.  I’m already far too distracted by gadgets.  And as I sift through the material posted to iNaturalist, I’ve come to the conclusion that real time posting of field notes on to the internet may not always be useful.  There is value in that post processing activity.  Not every data point is useful; not every photograph is identifiable.  The ability to post everything we see directly to a site on the internet removes an essential filter.  If you don’t know what I mean, spend a day going through the stuff being posted from the field.

My best app is a little yellow notebook.  My camera is my secondary means of notation.  And that gap between my field day and the field report helps me synthesize what I’ve experienced so that it can be communicated more clearly and concisely.

But all these apps ain’t goin’ away.  Maybe there’s a part 2 to this discussion…

Western Pine Elfin

If you get out your copy of Butterflies of Cascadia (Pyle 2002) and look up WESTERN PINE ELFIN, you’ll note that the range map does not include Clatsop or Tillamook Counties, but there is a mark for the Long Beach Peninsula in Pacific County.  Our understanding of the distribution of  pine elfins changed more or less by accident in 2009 when I found them at the DeLaura Beach end of Burma Rd while doing bird surveys for Camp Kiwanilong. Sometimes these gaps in distribution maps reflect a lack of effort in looking in the right place at the right time and that appears to be the case with this species.

The elfins are taking  advantage of the early spring sunshine and are flying this week.

Western Pine Elfin - 4/6/2016

I found plenty of them at Burma Rd on Wednesday.  I went down to Nehalem Bay State Park in Tillamook County on Thursday and found them there. David Lee Meyers has noted them at Nehalem Bay in previous years.

Western Pine Elfin - 4/7/2016

And yesterday I found them at a new location at Pinehurst in Gearhart on North Coast Land Conservancy managed property on purpose.

Western Pine Elfin - 4/7/2016

The Western Pine Elfin is a pine obligate species that is closely associated coastal shore pines (Pinus contorta contorta) and may favor younger trees.  The larvae eat young new-growth needle and catkins.  They do not occur at densities that present a threat to pines.

Butterflies of Cascadia is undergoing a major revision which will include changes in the distribution maps for pine elfins.

Another favorite

Over the years, I have regaled you all with claims about my favorite organisms: willows, fuzzy caterpillars, rodents, lichens…

Well today I had several close encounters with one of my favorite bee-like flies, Bombylius major.

Bombylius major - 3/29/2016

There are several local species within the genus Bombylius.  The Greater Bee-fly is the easiest to identify in the field because it has distinctive black markings on its wings.

Bombylius major - 3/29/2016

The bee-flies are one of many pollinating flies that mimic bees in their appearance.  Looking like a bee offers a certain amount of protection from predators and bee-flies suit up to look like bumblebees.

Bombus mixtus - 3/29/2016

The larvae of bee-flies are parasitoids that feed on the larvae of solitary bees which include mason bees, leafcutters and sweat bees.

Halictid bee - 4/9/2014

The adult casts eggs near bee nests where the larval bee-flies lie in wait for the host bee larvae to pupate.  It’s not pretty, but there are several bee and wasp species that do the same thing, often aiming at fly larvae.

Spring is here.  The sun will be shining for the rest of the week and the pollinators will be working the newly blooming kinnikinnick, huckleberries and red elder.  Enjoy…

Bombylius major - 3/29/2016