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Tag Archive | "ranger steve"

Rogue River Butterfly Count 


By Ranger Steve Mueller

The European Skipper butterfly was in great abundance during this year’s Rogue River butterfly count.

The European Skipper butterfly was in great abundance during this year’s Rogue River butterfly count.

The weather was great with sunny skies and little wind. New participants enjoyed butterflies, learned identification and associations with nature niche habitats. We met at the Howard Christensen Nature Center for our 29th year at 9 a.m. The counting began at HCNC’s Welcome Center. The group car-pooled to various areas in the Rogue River State Game Area. We visited the highest elevation in Kent County at Fisk Knob where we anticipated “hill topping” Black Swallowtails.

Hill topping is a behavior where butterflies fly to the highest location in the area and increase their chance for finding a mate. Not all butterflies exhibit this behavior. During the day, butterfly behavior was observed and described to help make the count a wonderful experience. Larval host plants were inspected for caterpillars or eggs. Both Viceroy eggs and larva were found. Most time was spent looking for adults and counting individuals of each species. European Skippers were in greatest abundance.

The total number of species observed has varied over the 29 years from 18 to 43. Weather affects butterfly activity. Sunny days with little or no wind in the 70’s and 80’s is ideal. Adults often emerge from pupae following a soaking rain. Activity is closely linked with blooming of nectar sources. Consider joining in 2017. Watch the Nature Niche column for next year’s dates for the Allegan, Muskegon, and Rogue River State Game Area Counts as well as the Newaygo Count in the Manistee National Forest. Books and internet web sites help but most of us learn best by exploring the real world. Time outdoors is most enjoyable, healthy, provides family time and creates wonderful memories.

See Table 1 for this year’s Rogue River Count discoveries. Results for the other counts will be posted on the West Michigan Butterfly Association (WMBA) Web Site in August. Consider becoming a member of WMBA. Membership fee is $5/yr. A check can be sent to the treasurer’s address posted on the web site (http://www.graud.org/wmba.html). The date for the Muskegon count has been rescheduled to July 17 2016 from July 24. Visit the WMBA web site for location details.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is the last place we visited after diligently searching all day. I am always hopeful we will be able to find at least one species we have not discovered elsewhere. This year we saw three additional species. They were Eastern Comma, Eyed Brown, and Harvester. We work to enhance the greatest biodiversity possible at Ody Brook and the work is successful.

During count week (3 days before and after the count) we also added Common Wood Nymph and Silver-spotted Skipper that were not sighted on count day.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Participate in butterfly outing


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with those knowledgeable in butterfly identification. It is a great way to begin learning some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join some or all of the West Michigan Butterfly Association counts for fun and learning.

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is sent to NABA to create a publication that documents butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends. Scientists make good use of citizen science data. Become a citizen scientist. Between 17 and 22 different counts are held in Michigan annually. Your help spotting butterflies is desired.

To find species and count numbers, we carpool to various sites during the day in the designated circle with a 15-mile diameter. The purpose is to have a good time outdoors, learn to identify species, learn habitat associations, behavior, and nature niche needs. Come for part or stay all day. Consider joining our West Michigan butterflies Association—membership $5/year.

Bring a bag lunch, plenty to drink, snacks, and dress with lightweight long sleeves and pants to protect from any biting insects or raspberry thorns. We explore off trails when searching for butterflies.

Dates and meeting locations:

June 19, 2016 (Sun) 9:00 a.m. Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. 

  Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meet at the Fennville Allegan State Game Area headquarters, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville

odybrook@chartermi.net

June 21, 2016 (Tues) 9:00 a.m. Newaygo County Butterfly Count Newaygo Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meeting at Plum’s Grocery parking lot at

The corner of M82 & M 37 in Newaygo.

odybrook@chartermi.net

June 24, 2016 (Fri) 9:00 a.m. Rogue River Butterfly Count  – Kent Co.

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

(Kent, Newaygo, Montcalm Counties)

Meet at Howard Christensen Nature Center

Welcome Center 16160 Red Pine Dr. Kent City

odybrook@chartermi.net

July 24, 2016 (Sun) 9:00 a.m. Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co.

Leader: Dennis Dunlap 

Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east ofMuskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road.

dunlapmd@charter.net

Rain day alternates will be the next day.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Seeing with Kids Eyes


Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Walking through the big woods this week, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. It was exciting to experience wonder after wonder. It is a time when winter seems to linger and spring has not arrived but there is more occurring than the senses can grasp.

Song Sparrows are active at brush piles along the forest edge and in wetland shrubs. Just a couple weeks ago, I was seeing a dozen species of birds daily and now it is two dozen. Sandhill Cranes announce evening, Canada Geese fly over, and Wood Ducks are swimming in Little Cedar Creek.

An American Woodcock flew in for its evening dance, saw me, and kept going. The next night a Great Horned Owl was hooting from forest edge and probably kept the woodcock from showing itself. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared over the Big Woods and power line clearing by day.

A Turkey Vulture on clean-up duty has been soaring over the highway by Ody Brook’s entrance looking for the dead opossum and muskrat that I reported killed on the road last week. The carcasses are not obvious among the roadside vegetation but the vulture can smell them at great distance.

Two Pileated Woodpeckers feasted at an old ash tree stump. My friend, Greg, was coming to visit and I told him about the woodpeckers at the driveway’s edge. He arrived, stopped, and watched as one woodpecker worked. When the woodpecker left, we looked to see what was being eaten. Termites.

On a smaller scale, Skunk Cabbages are blooming on the floodplain. They have a hood covering minute flowers. The hood protects this first flowering plant of the year from freeze damage. The hood wraps around an inner spike that holds many flowers. The spike with flowers is called a spadix and the hood is called a spathe. Small flies and crawling insects move into this temporary shelter where they find protection from being frozen. The plant generates heat that keeps the temperature above freezing in the spathe. Heat protects plant tissues and the variety of creatures in the hood. The benefit to the plant for providing lodging is that insects pick up pollen and carry it to other Skunk Cabbage flowers.

Other flowering plants already blooming at Ody Brook by mid March are Silver Maple trees, Speckled Alder, and Whitlow-grass. Whitlow-grass, a mustard, has a small rosette of leaves found on exposed bare ground. It is only about one inch across the radiating ring of leaves. Small white mustard flowers about the size of a pinhead ensure reproduction. The plant and its flowers are so small that few people notice them but hundreds are currently in bloom.

It is good to carry a small magnifying hand lens to examine the near microscopic world of life in wetland, field, shrubland, and forest.

Bluebirds still have not arrived to inspect nest boxes cleaned and readied. They arrive before wrens to claim bird houses. When wrens arrive, they enter and kill bluebirds or destroy eggs to use the box themselves. If houses are kept in open areas away from shrubbery and forest edge, it is less likely wrens will invade.

I place two bird houses within 15 feet of another. Tree Swallows often claim one and keep other swallows from nesting that close. The swallows do not mind having bluebirds as neighbors. The bluebirds, so to speak, have a swallow guard that protects them from other swallows that try to take the second nest box.

Nature niches have a greater variety and abundance of wondrous special treats than candy in a candy shop.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Winter sleeping


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Chipmunks emerge from underground burrows in mid winter when conditions warm, the sun shines, water trickles, or warmth penetrates deep into their bodies.

During my naturalist career, we shared the best evidence-based scientific discoveries about hibernators, deep sleepers, and those that stay active all winter. Insects hibernate, diapause, or even stay active all winter but they are excluded from this discussion, as are birds that also have some hibernators. Those groups like reptiles and amphibians will merit their own nature niche adaptation stories.

Within the Class Mammalia, we taught Michigan has four groups with true hibernators, including some bats, the 13-lined ground squirrel, woodchuck, and jumping mice. Bears are deep sleepers but are not considered true hibernators. Chipmunks that periodically pop out of the ground during winter were reported as deep sleepers.

An authoritative book I depend on is Michigan Mammals by William Burt (1957). It referred to chipmunks as hibernators. Despite the rigorous scientific scrutiny used in making the text accurate, questions were raised regarding chipmunks’ winter behavior in regards to sleeping or hibernating. I was not greatly concerned with the issue and referred to the small striped mammals as deep sleepers.

I should have pursued the issue with more vigor but information seemed conflicting and I had other scientific controversies to address that seemed more pertinent and meaningful for society’s welfare. Things like climate change or animal species origins related to Earth’s biodiversity, for ecological sustainable conditions that people need, took precedence.

Recently my naturalist friend, Greg, spoke about chipmunk hibernation and I challenged the idea. It stimulated me to examine peer-reviewed research. New technology developments during recent decades make it easier to study winter sleep for various species. Small monitoring devices can be implanted in animals to monitor breathing, heart rate, and temperature on a 24-hour basis.

Studies supported chipmunks are true hibernators but there are still unknowns. Hibernators’ breathing and heart rate become extremely slow and body temperature drops to near freezing. Bears do not experience such dramatic reduction and are considered deep sleepers. Bear body temperature only drops from about 100 to 90 F. Respiration and heart rate slow but are not so reduced that it is difficult to arouse the bear.

Chipmunk heart rate slows from 350 beats per minute to about 4, temperature drops from 94 F to 40 F, and respiration changes from 60 to about 20 breaths per minute. It is difficult to arouse them. The adaptations merit the designation of true hibernation but other factors are not consistent with what is normally considered true hibernation.

Chipmunks awake periodically instead of remaining in deep torpor for months. The triggers causing them to periodically waken are unknown. They become active, eat cached food in burrows or even venture outside. Other true hibernators do not defecate or urinate for months, but chipmunks do.

I learned long ago that it is not either/or in nature. Most everything is on a gradation from one end of a continuum to another. It is not either hibernate or not hibernate. Different species demonstrate behaviors and adaptations along a continuum. Most might show a particular adaptation, such as hibernation, but all are experimenting through the process of natural selection and evolution for survival.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Exciting Discoveries


By Ranger Steve Mueller

The next time a thundershower approaches, listen for the American Robin’s rain song. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Donna Dewhurst.

The next time a thundershower approaches, listen for the American Robin’s rain song. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Donna Dewhurst.

Anyone spending time outdoors has most likely made exciting observations worth sharing. Some might be new discoveries or are experiences new to others. One time a man told me he had an experience I would not believe. He said he was walking in a stream and killed a trout by stepping on it. I replied, I believed him because the same thing happened to me.

I was wading in Calf Creek in Utah, when a trout tried to swim past me as I was stepping down. It was caught between foot and rock. I tried to shift my weight quickly to the other foot but it was too late. The fish began to roll downstream. I held it for several minutes in the water hoping it would recover. Sadly, it did not survive.

A new discovery occurred in the 1970’s while I was observing birds. As a thundershower approached, I noticed an American Robin began singing an altered song. Four minutes later, the sky opened with rain. I listened to other robins shortly before thundershowers and repeatedly they gave me a four-minute rain warning.

When camping with a group of fellow college students in the Manti LaSal Mountains of Utah, the sky was overcast but appeared unchanging. Suddenly, I heard the robin rain song and told others we had four minutes to get into tents. They did not believe me. I entered my tent and they were caught in the rain four minutes later. The storm came and went. Later another rain song was heard under an unchanging sky and I gave warning. Others did not enter tents and got wet. A third time when I heard the rain song, fellow campers went to their tents and it began raining four minutes later.

When a gentle rain arrives, robins have not provided warning but when it was a thundershower they did. I presume a greater barometric pressure change occurs when a thundershower approaches and stimulates their rain song. An ornithology professor told me he never noticed the four-minute warning.

Another time I was sketching a rock formation at Capitol Reef National Park, when I heard a Black-headed Grosbeak provide a song I thought might be a rain song. I looked at my watch and immediately headed for my campsite a half mile away. Seven minutes later it began to rain. Since then, I have referred to the grosbeak as the seven-minute bird.

Each of us can make original discoveries when we pay close attention to occurrences in nature niches. I have not prepared research experiments to prove robins or grosbeaks sing a unique song before the rains begin. Someone else will need to do that but I have warned others based on my discovery.

I made an unexpected discovery at Bryce Canyon National Park when I watched a parasitoid Sphecid wasp with prey. The wasp was dragging a grasshopper to a burial hole it dug. It had stung and paralyzed the grasshopper. This behavior is known. The wasp lays an egg on the grasshopper and the larva hatches to eat the prey. The wasp larval grows, pupates, emerges as an adult, and is a natural control for grasshopper populations. I did not identify the species of grasshopper or wasp.

Then something more significant occurred. While the wasp was pulling the grasshopper into the hole, a fly appeared at the entrance and began shooting eggs into the hole. The fly eggs would hatch and either feed on the grasshopper or developing wasp. I did not have collecting equipment so the discovery details and fly species will need to be investigated by someone else.

By spending time in the yard observing, you will likely make new discoveries to share with family, friends, or scientists. An exciting, unknown, natural world awaits your discovery.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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First bull experience


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A visit to Uncle Al’s farm when I was seven gave me a first close encounter with a bull. Uncle Al was actually my dad’s uncle. While my dad and he visited or did whatever adults do, we were sent to a harvested cornfield to salvage corn the machine missed. Following that chore, we headed to the barn to put hay in cow feeding troughs. When our work was finished we got to play.

We decided to jump from the loft into a large pile of hay. That all sounded simple but I had a big, fearful challenge. When we entered the barn, it was necessary to walk past the cows to get to the hayloft ladder. In the first stall was a bull with a metal ring in its nose. I was ok walking past cows but I feared the bull would kick me for sure. He was looking over his shoulder at me.

He was surely planning how to take me out if I tried to walk past him. My older brothers and other great-nephews passed without incident. It was still too frightening for me. When I heard others having fun, I needed to build courage to risk my life by racing past the bull to join the others.

I had seen matadors on TV with a bull attacking and one matador was gored. Bulls are to be feared. My brothers and the others survived passing the bull so I darted past without incident.  My fear was unfounded. With more farm experience by age 7, I would not have hesitated walking past the bull.

As director at Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC), I greeted student groups. Some groups came with wild nature experience. Others came from the city and had no experience in the woods. Some students had parents and grandparent that took them to parks, national forests, or wild natural areas.

For those that had never been exposed to wild nature niches there was great fear. I was asked if they would be attacked by tigers. Their knowledge of Michigan wild animals was a misconception. They only knew nature from TV. Like my farm experience, their visit to a nature center provided a new and unknown experience.

I did not fear going to a farm and the trip was filled with wonderful excitement until I encountered a bull. I wonder if students that had never been in wild areas were sick with fear as the bus traveled from school to nature center. The bus left the city, traveled to the north woods through the Rogue River State Game Area and finally stopped in the desolate wooded parking area at HCNC.

Unfounded fears are real and we all have them. I am comfortable backpacking in remote wilderness areas where mountain lions and wolves are present. I know elk are more dangerous and kill more people. I have greater fear for unsavory people in large cities than I do for large predators in the wild.

Our daughter used to pick up stones and fill her cheeks like a chipmunk when she was two. When we noticed bulging checks on our hikes, we would say give mommy or daddy the stones and she would spit out a mouthful. We figured stones in the mouth would build her immune system. Others feared disease or choking but gumballs were ok for their kids. We just called her our little geologist.

As adults, it is important that we provide diverse experiences for coming generations. Wild areas are shrinking and becoming more foreign to youth. Knowledge is often dominated by TV exposure and it often shows risky, dangerous encounters instead of normal reality.

Take kids to the Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16190 Red Pine Drive, Kent City, MI 49330 for a wonderful positive nature encounter. Leave your own fears behind.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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World heroes


Ancestral perennial corn.

Ancestral perennial corn.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Honey Bees and native insect pollinators keep food on our tables. Our society would crumble without insect pollinators that keep flowering plants thriving. Pollinators are real heroes that we should honor, respect, and care for by how we treat yards, farms, forest, and fields. If you ask people who they owe their health, wealth, and security to, I expect most would not reply “insects.”

Perhaps this is because the importance of ecological sustainability is not integrated into child upbringing by parents and is marginalized in school education by political forces and narrow subject focus. Ecological literacy is integral for maintaining sustainable economic, industrial, and societal community success. That was my focus as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center’s cross curriculum instruction. Our survival is dependent on keeping essential workers like insects on the job.

As nice as it is to recognize the work of people we depend on, other life forms are equal or more essential. To help develop appreciation for life in our neighborhoods, Nature Niche articles highlight creatures with whom we share Earth. However, this week I would like to recognize a human world hero with whom I have had limited personal experience.

I met with Dr. Hugh Iltis at the University of Wisconsin when I was deciding a career path for graduate school. I was considering botanical studies with him as my advisor. Hugh had recently become aware of a perennial corn in Mexico, and he and his colleagues named the ancestral perennial corn Zea diploperennis.

What makes Dr. Iltis a world hero is his recognition for the importance of an unknown plant that is restricted to a few square miles on planet Earth and his efforts to preserve it. It is a true grass related to Zea mays, our domestic edible corn. Mexican and Nicaraguan governments have taken action to preserve these plants. Why?

It has potential for use in breeding insect resistance, perennialism, and flood tolerance into domestic corn. Can you imagine if farmers no longer needed to plant corn annually because it sprouted annually on it own? If we can breed domestic corn or genetically modify it to become perennial, it would have significant impacts for agricultural economics.

What if we could breed it or genetically splice insect resistance from ancestral corn back into corn that was lost during domestication 10,000 years ago? We could perhaps reduce human dependence on insecticides that pose dangerous health concerns for our families and other life forms.

The tolerance of Zea diploperennis to floods could possibly increase domestic corn survival if its genes were incorporated to help it survive when corn fields flood and soils become water logged.

Wild corn was thought extinct at the time this ancestral corn was discovered. Many people and perhaps most on Earth do not recognize the importance and need to preserve species in our neighborhoods. Their importance and value will be lost to us and future generations if we do not honor, respect, and care for the health, wealth, and security that other species provide in ecosystems that support us.

I did not take the road to study plants under Dr. Iltis’s direction. Instead, I chose graduate study in entomology and ecology, with a subsequent career in environmental education. I focused energies toward environmental stewardship essential for sustaining society and life on Earth, by following Dr. Iltis’ lead and that of other heroes that help sustain society. Hail Hero to Dr. Iltis, who is now 90.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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American Chestnut


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Benefits of the American chestnut tree were important for building United States society but a disease, unknowingly imported across the ocean, has mostly eliminated benefits. This happened to elm trees when Dutch elm disease was imported. Recently this occurred when the Emerald Ash Borer beetle was imported in 2002. Our livelihoods, economy, and landscape ecosystem functions are dependent on preventing exotic species from becoming established in native nature niches.

The rapidly growing chestnut was highly valued as a durable wood. Important uses included tool handles, furniture, doors, plywood, poles, fencing, railroad tires, and tannin. It had little shrinkage, minimal warping and good gluing qualities. The tree provided fruit that was roasted and sold in markets.

American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) were a co-dominant species in the oak-hickory-chestnut forest that extended from Maine to Alabama and from the Atlantic Ocean to Michigan. Now the forest is referred to as oak-hickory. Southeast Michigan was the western range limit for the chestnut. Individuals at the edge of their range are considered ecologically important because they seem to offer more hope for adaptive genetic change. Fringe individuals might be better able to survive in new and changing environments. Their DNA might provide what is necessary to help the species survive in a changing world provided the living conditions do not change too rapidly.

Introducing new diseases that a species has never experienced is often devastating. It is a major reason Native American populations died when diseases like small pox were introduced by Europeans to America. Disease introduction to the American chestnut caused it to disappear from most of the landscape and ceased its function as an important ecological contributor in the eastern deciduous forest.

Fortunately, there were individuals that survived for some reason in outlying areas of the species range. The reason for survival has not been clearly determined. One factor could be fringe range individuals might have genetically variability that helps survival. Natural abundance ended in southeast Michigan but individuals lived farther west and north in Michigan. I have seen American chestnuts in Saginaw, Grand Traverse, and Kent Counties as well as many other counties. It is especially considered a rare sighting to find a large chestnut because few survive the disease to reach large size.

A fungus blight (Endothia parasitica) introduced from eastern Asia in the early 1900’s arrived in imported exotic chestnut tree species and devastated the ecosystem. The blight affected countless species beside humans that used the American chestnut trees for survival. We worry about diseases like Ebola and a variety of diseases that might challenge human survival. Diseases that challenge the survival of chestnuts, elms, and ashes also have great ecological significance on biodiversity. Other species like Purple Loosestrife, Garlic Mustard, and Phragmites crowd native species and eliminate them from healthy nature niche communities.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is home to a large reproducing American chestnut that has a diameter of three feet. Hope continues that a disease resistant variety might be able to help the species reclaim its place the Eastern Deciduous Forest.

Help species survive by planting native species to help them and associated animals thrive where you live. Remove invasive exotic species. Encourage landscape nurseries to avoid selling species that crowd out native species when they escape the garden or yard. There are non-native species suitable for the garden and yard that are not invasive. Invasive species are harmful to society’s economy, livelihood, and functional ecosystems. Nurseries sell products to make a profit and choose stock that customers purchase. You determine the biodiversity we pass on the future generations by what you purchase and plant and whether your yard is maintained to encourage native species.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

 

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Human Health and Insect Surveys


 

OUT-Nature-niche-Swamp-milkweed-monarchSome people might wonder why the Monarch butterfly is currently proposed for Federal Endangered Species status. Monarch numbers have declined significantly during this new millennium and there are several contributing factors. One concern is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO). GMO crops have been genetically altered to be herbicide resistant so more chemicals can be used on crops, allowing higher yield to support our growing human population.

It is difficult for farmers to purchase seeds that are not genetically modified. The increased use of chemicals in farm fields has eliminated many of the milkweeds that Monarch butterflies require to successfully migrate from Mexico to Michigan.

Lincoln Brower conducted studies in the 1960’s to gain understanding about how Monarchs acquire chemicals from milkweeds that protect them from bird predators. Milkweeds developed chemical protections through natural selection that protected them from most insects trying to feed on them. Most insects cannot feed on milkweeds because of the plant’s poisons. Monarchs, milkweeds bugs, milkweed longhorned beetles and some others have developed the ability to feed on the plant and have developed ways to isolate the poisons without being killed.

Brower fed Monarchs to blue jays and the birds became ill, vomited, and had an irregular heartbeat. The birds learned to not eat Monarchs or other orange insects.

Later other scientists studied cardiac glucocides ingested by monarch’s from the milkweeds to learn how they affect the heart. It was discovered that if a person has an irregular heartbeat, the chemical could be used to help correct the heartbeat. After learning its medical value, the chemical has been manufactured in the laboratory and used to save human lives.

If monarchs were allowed to become extinct before the study, we might never have made the life saving discovery. Many, if not most, medicines first come from studying plants, fungi, and other organisms to understand their role in nature niches. Scientists do not just throw chemicals together and test them to see how they might be useful. They look to the natural world.

Butterfly and other insect surveys conducted by citizen scientists aid in monitoring the abundance and distribution of insects. Similar surveys for birds, mammals, and plants help us understand trends for various species populations. Most species have not been studied for their value to humans. The value of many has been lost to extinction and will never reveal their life saving secrets. What if the chemical in milkweeds and Monarchs was lost before the life saving use was discovered?

The recent local butterfly survey conducted by citizens like you has value for fun and learning about local nature niche relationships. It also is important in tracking population changes. The information can be used to preserve species that save human lives. Some people require a known human use before they are willing to support saving a species from extinction. It is impossible to know the value of each species. It is estimated that between five and fifteen million species live on Earth and possibly 30 million. We have named about 1.5 million so far and, for most of those, we know little about their value for us.

Insects that live in your yard might be human life saving organisms provided we do not eliminate them with pesticide and herbicide use. You have life saving control that is important for future generations. If we eliminate species, their value disappears with them. Encourage people to live in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net, or mail Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319. 616-696-1753.

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Sunscreen in plants


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A red pigment called anthocyanin has been considered a sunscreen that protects plants from becoming sunburned, much like the sunscreens we use to protect us, from ultraviolet radiation (UV).

Look at newly emerging leaves from buds and notice the red color of the delicate tissues that have not yet “hardened.” When leaves expand from the bud, they are somewhat like a water balloon. They fill with water but the plant cannot build the necessary support tissues that rapidly. Feel newly expanded leaves to notice how delicate they are. The cellular tissues remain thin for days.

The leaves of trees and shrubs expand rapidly but it takes much longer to reinforce cells with cellulose and other strengthening tissues. The first line of defense to protect delicate tissues from UV radiation would reasonably be found in the protective outer cell layer called the epidermis. This layer lacks the green chlorophylls that make leaves green and it also has a low concentration of anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is more abundant deeper in leaf tissues called palisade cells, where vertical rows of cells stand next to each other and circulate green chloroplasts to capture sun energy. It also is more abundant in photosynthetic cells beneath the palisade cells know as spongy mesophyll cells. Studies are trying to understand the mystery UV protection.

Think of the palisade cells like a series of farm silos packed closely together to fill a checkerboard. They are tall and slim. Imagine each silo filled with water and beach balls. The balls represent the chloroplasts that form a moving loop inside silo like an internal Ferris wheel. The chloroplasts are like seats on the Ferris wheel following others as they rise to the top and circulate back down to bottom. The spongy mesophyll cells below the palisade cells are more globular in water filled spaces between cells.

UV can cause damage to DNA in the cells of the two layers, just like damage can cause cancer in our skin tissues. Anthocyanin filters radiation to varying degrees and helps protect plants. Melanin in our skin serves that function and is built when our skin is exposed to UV and makes us tan.

Shade tolerant plants in the understory of forests are protected from intense sun radiation by the forest canopy. When trees are clear cut, the ground plants are suddenly exposed to UV and respond. They produce large quantities of anthocyanin and become intensely red. Unfortunately, it is not adequate to save them and most succumb to sunburn. Plants adapted to tolerate open sunny nature niches colonize the new sunny habitat. When you see a clear-cut forest, stop to notice how red the ground plants become when exposed.

Explore with family members to notice new growth on dogwood shrubs, maples, sassafras, oaks, and cherries. Choose any tree or shrub and feel how soft and delicate new tissues are and that they are pigmented red until they harden and feel sturdy. It is universal that the new tissues concentrate anthocyanin. The water-soluble pigment has other functions also but it plays a role as protective sunscreen. Phenolic acids in corn and other crops are UV-absorbing compounds so anthocyanin is not the only sunscreen. More mysteries are waiting discovery.

Declining levels of ozone in the upper atmosphere have generated concern because more UV radiation is entering the lower atmosphere where we live. In our latitudes, UV has risen by 3 to 5 percent in recent decades. Closer to the poles it has risen 6 to 8 percent. Increased skin cancer in people is occurring. People are not the only species impacted by UV radiation but we tend to think we are isolated from nature niches. That is not now nature works. What happens to plants happens to people. We do not live alone and sustainable care for other life is essential for our own health. Food and forest productivity depend on how we care for ozone layers.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

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