Category Archives: Botany

Video of Rare Ice Age Tree in Boulder

While learning about all things conservation in Boulder, I was told about a special type of tree that grows in one spot here. The paper birch is a species of tree that has grown here since the time of the last Ice Age. They are rare in the West. Boulder represents the southernmost population of the tree west of Nebraska.

Actually seeing them is like stumbling upon a secret. So I made this quick little video to show you what they look like and some of the cool things about them.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Video of Rare Ice Age Tree, posted with vodpod

What I’ve learned is that there are amazing things right in my backyard. I bet there are in yours too.

What’s special about your local nature?

Send in some photos, put up your YouTube clip or even send a few words, and I’d be happy to share it on Nature Files. I bet you won’t have to look very far.


For endangered butterfly, beavers make best friends

American Beaver, (Photo/Steve in Washington D.C., Wikipedia)

A St. Francis' satyr butterfly (Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bambi and Thumper best move over. There’s a new BFF dynamo in the animal kingdom – the ever-industrious beaver and a rare butterfly fluttering dangerously close to extinction. But the gig’s not up for the butterfly just yet if the beaver has anything to do with it.

St. Francis’ satyr butterfly is appallingly rare. Somewhere between 700 and 1,400 individuals exist in the wild, scattered in a few small pockets of wetland meadow around North Carolina. But new science reveals that the well-known engineering nature of the American beaver has the bonus application of creating food and habitat for the vulnerable butterfly. The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the combined benefits of an ecosystem engineer fostering biodiversity and abundance of plant species vital to the survival of a critically endangered species.

Lead-author of the study Rebecca A. Bartel, ecologist and post-doctoral student at the University of Georgia, looked at 48 sites on the Fort Bragg Military Reservation in south central North Carolina that ran the gamut of beaver occupation. She and her colleagues surveyed vegetation and butterflies between 2005 and 2006, and found that where beavers stirred things up with their beavering ways, plants species thrived, more than 180 species, several of which were imperative to the butterfly’s survival.

The relationship is not so cut and stacked, situations are optimum when habitat has a combination of different stages of beaver renovations. But Bartel’s results indicate that fostering native ecosystem engineers can not only improve species diversity, but help conserve habitat for critically endangered species. It’s a potentially powerful tool for conservation and managers.

At the very least, Bartel’s results spell a little bit of hope for St. Francis’ satyr butterfly, and another reason to up the awe factor of beavers and butterflies. And who doesn’t like that?

You can find the study in the journal Oikos.


Vegetarian spider also a smarty pants

Female Bagheera kiplingi

Adult female Bagheera kiplingi eats Beltian body harvested from ant-acacia Photo/R.L. Curry

For ages, ants have had a monopoly on the coveted acacia, protecting the plant from would-be predators in exchange for shelter and food, or so they thought. Skulking in the background, and recently discovered, is an unlikely competitor of the ant — a spider. And this is no ordinary arachnid. The Bagheera kiplingi also happens to be a vegetarian, and is the first of its kind known to science.

“This is really the first spider known to specifically ‘hunt’ plants,” said Christopher Meehan of Villanova University. “It is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source.”

The veggie-loving tendency of this jumping spider was first discovered in Central America back in 2001 by Eric Olson of Brandeis University. Since then he has teamed up with Meehan, who independently observed the jumping spider in 2007, to learn more about this unusual creature and the extent to which it likes plants. Not only is Bagheera kiplingi the only predominant vegetarian of 40,000 known spider species with plants making up more than 90 percent of its diet, but it’s showing scientists a complex side of arachnid biology and behavior that indicates the spider’s diet is just the beginning of this animal’s surprising life history.

Bagheera defense

Adult female Bagheera kiplingi defends her nest against acacia-ant worker. Photo/R.L. Curry

Ants are aggressive defenders of the acacia plant making life difficult for outsiders who attempt to encroach on their turf. After all, they want those yummy beltian bodies all to themselves. So how is the jumping spider managing to exploit the acacia for both food and shelter?

Science is still trying to figure that out, but preliminary research shows the spiders take advantage of the invertebrate equivalent of run-down real estate, setting up residence in less-than-desirable regions of the acacia. But their ingenuity doesn’t stop there. Bagheera kiplingi are outsmarting their ant foes, said Meehan, exploiting their intelligence and agility to get around the ants. “Individuals employ diverse, situation-specific strategies to evade ants, and the ants simply cannot catch them,” he said.

As if to add insult to co-evolution, the ants may not even know when spiders are in their midst. Bagheera kiplingi literally dupes the ant by baring young that look like carbon-copies of the ants, and Meehan has reason to suspect that the spiders actually wear a sort of insect perfume that makes them smell like their would-be attackers.

More research is forthcoming, including a look at the possibility that spider dad’s help raise the babies, a virtually unheard of behavior in spider biology. In the meantime, I hear Meehan and Olson’s methods included high-definition video of these smarty-pant vegetarian spiders. Now that would be some footage to see.

Meehan and Olson’s study is available in the October 12 issue of Current Biology.


Tea for the common beetle infestation

The terror of lodgepole pine forests across the west may face the ultimate KO thanks to a commonly used ingredient of herbal tea. As if to add the final insult, this anti-beetle ingredient originates from the offending mountain beetles themselves. When a beetle suspects too many of its kind moving into the neighborhood, it releases a chemical telling others to stay away. The message is so strong, beetle numbers dropped three-fold in treated areas. Now scientists have figured out how to apply the natural repellent over thousands of acres of infected forest by dropping chemically-laced flakes out of a plane.

Nancy Gillette, a Forest Service scientist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station, thought of the idea to release the flakes by air and has already used the method to treat two areas around in the West, Mount Shasta and portions of Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Where they dropped flakes, beetle infestations fell to 30 percent. Now her research team is looking into upping the environmental friendliness of the treatment by creating a biodegradable version.

Point one for naturopathic beetle treatments.


An upside to climate change?

They’re the five “dirty words” of the West — cheatgrass; spotted knapweed; yellow starthistle; tamarisk; and leafy spurge — but the battle against these pervasive troublemakers could receive a boost from an unlikely ally, climate change. Scientists from Princeton University have determined that climate change will very likely cause massive die-offs of these invasive plants across the West, creating unprecedented opportunities to restore millions of acres of infected wilderness to native vegetation.

The findings, released this month in the journal Global Change Biology, will help land managers develop long-term invasive plant recovery projects. The restorative potential comes at a price however, as the model used in the study also predicts that some populations of invasive plants may simply shift their ranges to new areas — yellow starthistle will likely move from its current range in California, Oregon and Washington to a new ranges in California and Nevada for example.

Either way, the study forecasts a new picture of the western landscape, and may help researchers treat or possibly prevent invasive plant infestations. Whether the prognosis is good or bad, this is potentially important news for land managers and residents.


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