Friday, April 30, 2010

Kew Gardens Plant Map

Check out this map from the Kew Gardens' GIS (geographic information systems) unit: Interactive Family and Genus Map

Further reason for all of us naturalists to take GIS classes!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (14 April 2010)

Myosotis alpestris - Alpine Forget-Me-Not
Last member of the Boraginaceae for awhile, I promise. 

Myosotis is most diverse in Western Eurasia (around 60 species occur there), but is also quite speciose in New Zealand's alpine habitats (with a not-too-shabby 35 species). Phylogenetic analysis (Winkworth 2002) and palynology (Raven (1973) both support a Eurasian origin for the genus, with isolated long-distance dispersal events to New Zealand.

The color and shape of these flowers are very typical for species in the genus Myosotis (meaning mouse-ear, in reference to the shape of the leaves).

California has one (or two) native Myosotis, depending on which reference you're using:  M. laxa, and M. verna according to the Jepson Manual. However, California also hosts up to 7 other species of Myosotis, the most common and conspicous being M. latifolia, the broadleaf Forget-Me-Not.

I took the above and following photos of M. alpestris in August 2009 along the Eigergletscher Trail, near Alpiglen (a very small town in Switzerland's mountainous Canton of Bern).                                                    
I found M. alpestris (and many other fascinating wildflowers) inhabiting the very upper reaches of the alpine zone, along the edge of steep scree:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (13 April 2010)

Contumyces rosella - Contu's Rosy Hymenochaete
If that common name sounds awkward, it's all my fault. I made it up thirty seconds ago. As far as fungi go, unless you are one of the deadly, gourmet, or extremely unusual varieties, you almost certainly don't have a common name. 

What's special about these little mushrooms? Well, first of all, I do mean LITTLE: the caps on the smallest specimens here are about 5 mm across, the largest about 10 mm. Second of all, they aren't closely related to most of the other fungi that they do look like, and they don't look like most of the fungi that they are related to. Here is a sampling of other members of the Order Hymenochaetales, to which Contumyces belongs:

Furthermore, this species is "bryophilous" which means that the occurrence of this species is tightly linked to bryophytes (moss, in this case). Whether the interaction is parasitic, mutualistic (or something stranger and more complicated) remains to be seen.

This fungus wasn't thought to be particularly common in California until one of the core members of MushroomObserver (Darvin DeShazer) started posting photos of this species from his yard. Then, it seems, people started finding it all over (because we started looking for IT, and we started looking in APPROPRIATE PLACES). This goes to show how important and useful "citizen-science" initiatives like MushroomObserver can be (check it out).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (12 April 2010)

Borago officinalis - Starflower, Borage
My first encounter with these lovely flowers was culinary: they were sprinkled through a salad made solely from home-garden plants. As it turns out, the mild, slightly sweet flavor of these flavors has also led to their use on cakes, and even as a traditional ravioli filling in the Liguria region of Italy.
If you plan on using these flowers as ingredients, be sure to avoid the hairy sepals - they sting a bit on the tongue.

This species is native to Syria, but has been transplanted widely as companion species to tomatoes (it attracts pollinators to tomatoes when intercropped with them). A member of the Boraginaceae, starflower brings the current ToD tally of species in this family to four. But check out the striking superficial similarity of borage flowers to those of Dodecatheon, a member of the Primulaceae (Primrose family):
Photo Catherine Munro
Dodecatheon flowers apparently need to be pollinated by vigorously-buzzing pollinators for successful fruit set, and I have noticed that European Honeybees prefer the Borage in my backyard over the nearby Sage (which attracts native bumblebees).
The starflower photos are from my backyard garden in Santa Cruz, where the plants attain heights of over one meter:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Urban Plant Survey

Hi folks.

On Friday morning, I walked a 4-block section of residential neighborhood in Santa Cruz, and tallied the number of plant species I could see in each yard.

Of course I didn't know scientific or common names for more than 10% of the plants, so I gave them field names to help me remember them, like: Dog Poo Lily, Globehead Spurge, Dani's Magnolia, Giant Red Alien, etc.

It's been indicated that relatively unskilled parataxonomists can often generate reasonable species richness estimates by (roughly) this method. However, Krell (Biodiversity and Conservation, 2004) outlines a number of problems with the Recognizable Taxonomic Units method (he proposes that it often overestimates species richness). In my survey, I guess that I actually underestimated diversity for many yards.

Anyways, I separated the counts by yard, entered the data into Excel, and for analysis, I exported it to R, the latest and greatest (and free) statistical computing environment. Click here for more information on R.

Using the tools in the vegan and MASS packages in R, I made a number of graphs for you to consider:
Figure 1. The number of plants per yard ranged from a low of 2 (the concrete- and asphalt- tolerant weeds in front of the stores bordering busy, noxious Mission street), to a high of 35 species (in a overgrown, but obviously-attended yard on Laurel).

Figure 2. The number of yards in which any given species occurred followed a pattern commonly seen in natural systems (although perhaps more steeply): There are few common species (occurring in >12 yards), and many species that occurred in only one or two yards.

Figure 3. The Shannon-Wiener Diversity indices (H') for each yard. I'm not sure whether or not I should be surprised that the distribution is fairly close to normal.

Figure 4. The species accumulation curve (random collection, 1000 permutations) doesn't appear to level off, suggesting that (at least for awhile), the more yards I survey, the more species I'll add to the total.

Future directions for analysis include: 1) trying to saturate the accumulation curve (ie. how many more yards will I have to survey before I reach a number close to all the species that occur in urban settings in Santa Cruz?), and 2) ordination of the yards with reference to some spatial measure (ie. do neighboring yards share more plant species than yards separated by many blocks?).

I encourage you to download and experiment with the R software, and attempt to do some of this kind of analysis for your home communities. Send me an e-mail, and I will send you the R code for doing these analyses.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (9 April 2010)

Toxostoma redivivum - California Thrasher

A relative of the familiar mockingbird, this species is an equally impressive singer. The latin name means "poisonous opening that has come back to life". I have no idea what the first part refers to (actually, I have an idea, but it is both crude and unlikely). The second part refers to Gambel's rediscovery of the bird, more than half a century after it was originally encountered by a Frenchman by the name of La Perouse.

Thrashers are in the Family Mimidae, along with mockingbirds, catbirds, thrashers, and tremblers. The mimids are strictly a new world family, and are well known for their vocal abilities. To hear a recording of the California Thrasher, click here

It turns out that the California Thrasher is the largest of the mimids. Despite their size, they are commonly claimed to be sulky and difficult to see. Perhaps this is because their preferred habitat (chapparal) tends to be rather low and dense. However, in my limited experience, I have found them to be fairly easy to see, and sometimes downright cooperative. The above photo was taken in January, just south of the Griffith Observatory, near Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.

No Taxon of the Day for weekends, I decided. But! You will get a chewy morsel of biodiversity/ecology investigation that I have been working on.
Have a nice Friday, my friends.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (8 April 2010)

Layia platyglossa - Tidy Tips
Lovely! This little aster (short for Asteraceae, the sunflower Family) is one of the Carrizo's most famous denizens.

For those who don't know, the "flowers" produced by many members of the Asteraceae (including sunflowers, chrysanthemums, dahlias, and gerberas) are actually made up of many smaller flowers. In the above photo, each tiny star-shaped part in the center is a flower in itself (the disc flowers), and each petal around the outside is of a second, highly asymmetrical type (the ray flowers). The composite nature of the inflorescence inspired an earlier name for the Asteraceae - the Compositae. To this day, many older taxonomists refer to them collectively as 'composites'.                                                        
The family contains a staggering number of species worldwide (23,000 according to the Kew Botanical Gardens), representing succulents, trees, shrubs, annuals, and many commercially important and familiar species (artichokes, thistles, and dandelions in addition to the ones already mentioned).

Layia is named in honor of George Tradescant Lay, a sailor and doctor/scientist on (fittingly) the HMS Blossom. On his 1841 trip to China, Lay wrote this about opium addicts:

"This great metropolis has a choice of wretched and degraded sights, but nothing that I ever see reminds me of an opium-smoker. His lank and shrivelled limbs, tottering gait, sallow visage, feeble voice, and the death-boding glance of his eye, are so superlative in their degree, and so closely blended in their union, that they at once bespeak him to be the most forlorn creature that treads upon the ground."

All of that, the fallout from fiddling with the milky secretions of another attractive wildflower in the Papaveraceae (poppy family): Papaver somniferum.

Tidy tips form really nice pale-yellow blotches on the landscape that can be difficult to pick out from the seas of darker yellow Goldfields (Lasthenia, another Aster) around them:                                               

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The hegemony of oxygen falters...

Complexity freed from the Tyrannical Free Radical!

Taxon of the Day! (7 April 2010)

Amphispiza belli - Sage Sparrow
Although seen here perched in the scaly needles of Juniperus californica, the distribution of Sage Sparrows is tightly linked to the occurrence of their namesake plant: sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).

Consequently, the best place to find Sage Sparrows is in the arid strip of land passing through the Great Basin, west of the Rockies and east of the Cascades, all the way down to northern Mexico.

There is some fear that Sage Sparrow populations will suffer as native sagebrush habitat is cleared and/or degraded. However, they are still listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN.

This species is named after John Graham Bell, an American taxodermist... and spoon collector. My best efforts to find any of his spoons for sale have been rebuffed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wow! New mega-macrovertebrate discovered.

It's a  Frugivorous Tree-Dragon in the genus Varanus, from Luzon, the Phillipines.

Taxon of the Day! (6 April 2010)

Castilleja exserta (formerly Orthocarpus purpurascens)  Owl's Clover
This pretty plant is not a true clover at all, but rather a member of the Scrophulariaceae (Figwort Family). It's named for the somewhat owlish appearance of the pale flowers with dark "eyes" (one is clearly visible in the above photo). The surrounding pinkish/magenta appendages are bracts, not flowers.

A number of folks have told me that upon seeing fully-flowered plants while in various states of mental alteration, they've been deeply creeped out by what appeared to them to be masses of tiny, perpetually staring owls swaying in the wind. 

Perhaps my favorite natural history tidbit regarding this species has to do with its nutritional strategy. This is no ordinary plant, my friends. No, this is a hemiparasite. Which is to say, C. exserta steals resources from nearby plants by producing haustoria (long appendages that penetrate deeply into other roots, and serve as surfaces for nutrient uptake). Fungi also produce haustoria, as do Rafflesia plants.

And to think! They just sit there, looking pretty and innocent on the landscape:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (5 April 2010)

Amsinckia menziesii     "Fiddlenecks"
This Western North American member of (you guessed it) the Boraginaceae, is named after the shape of its inflorescence (the collection of flowers). This photo illustrates it nicely: scorpioid cyme

But it turns out that many, many members of the Boraginaceae share this same delightful scorpion-tail arrangement, which in botanical nomenclature is called a scorpioid cyme (or cincinnus). 'Cymes' are a kind of inflorescence that don't continue to grow flowers indefinitely (thus, they are determinate). Scorpioid refers to the rather photogenic coiling of the inflorescence (like a scorpion's tail). 

For the longest time, taxonomists couldn't decide whether to call these helicoid or scorpioid cymes (meanwhile, life went on), but in a 2003 article, Matt Buys and Hartmut Hilger came to the rescue and decided that they're all scorpioid (maybe they're just 80s-metal fans).

At the Carrizo Plain two weekends ago, Amsinckia menziesii was very common on the landscape, forming colonies of moderate density that showed up as dull orange patches (the foliage is fairly dark green). It struck me that plants ranged from near a meter tall to just a few inches high, apparently depending on the growing conditions. Perhaps this ability to tolerate a wide variety of environmental conditions has facilitated their invasion of eastern Australia.  Here is a relatively isolated clump of tallish fiddlenecks:
The species epithet refers to Archibald Menzies, Scottish naturalist extraordinare. 

Fiddleneck seeds provide an important food source to the indisputably attractive Lawrence's Goldfinch. I saw four of these handsome little devils during my brief stay, foraging a small patch of none other than... Amsinckia menziesii.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Taxon of the Day! (4 April 2010)

Phacelia tanacetifolia  "Lacy Phacelia"
Another member of the Boraginaceae, this spiny but beautiful Phacelia packs multiple tightly curled scorpioid inflorescences into a semi-globular head. Last weekend at the Carrizo Plain, this species was less frequent than the Lacy Phacelia (a darker purple congener), instead appearing in dense, contiguous, rather local colonies at the Carrizo Plain. 
Like many Phacelia, the spines can cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. I didn't have any problems touching it. Does anyone know if spines in the Boraginaceae are purely mechanical irritants, or if they are filled with serotonin and histamines like in some Urticaceae (nettles)?

There is some interest in using this species as a companion species for tomatoes, because it attracts lots of pollinators, primarily bumble- and honey- bees, as well as syrphid flies. 

Here's a great shot of the seeds, from Steve Hurst at the USDA PLANTS database:
Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Trifold Sneak Peek!

Taxon of the Day! (3 April 2010)

Nemophila menziesii     "Baby Blue-Eyes"

This is one of the most famous wildflowers of the Carrizo Plain (where I spent a glorious day and night last weekend). This flower is in the Boraginaceae (the Forge-Me-Not family), members of which commonly show that particular blue, but unlike many other members of the family, N. menziesii has only a single flower per inflorescence.

Apparently, it is also therapeutic if you grew up without a strong father figure (who knew).

Three species of 
Andrena bees are oligolectic (exclusive pollinators, or nearly so) on N. menziesii. This has been hypothesized to aid in pollination of this strongly protandrous (anthers first, stigma next) species. See: Cruden, 1972, Evolution.

The next week or so will be dedicated to taxa that I photographed at the Carrizo Plain. The wildflowers were the stars of the show, but I saw a few pretty insects and some lifer birds. The Boraginaceae (Forget-Me-Not Family) seemed over-represented among the ranks of blooming annuals.

The Carrizo Plain is a truly fantastic place to visit, with astonishingly extensive wildflower blooms on the vast landscape, native tule elk and pronghorn antelope populations, and was officially declared a National Monument by none other than the Honorable Bill Clinton:
 Thanks, Bill!