Spring at Last

by Carl Strang

My own idiosyncratic reckoning gives us 6 seasons in the Chicago area: spring, summer, fall, early winter, mid-winter and late winter. Subjectively, at least, winter seems to take up half the year, and that was truer this year than most. Late winter begins March 1, but its length varies greatly from year to year. My equally subjective designation of the first day of spring is when I see the first native wildflower blooming away from buildings. This year, as it happens, that date was my birthday, April 17, and was marked by two of the 3 usual species.

I saw spring beauties first. For once, the delicate pink of the flower is not overexposed in this image.

I saw spring beauties first. For once, the delicate pink of the flower is not overexposed in this image.

Some common blue violets were intermixed with the spring beauties.

Some common blue violets were intermixed with the spring beauties.

Though many individuals had open flowers that day, cold weather had held them back from opening sooner. The third species, which sometimes blooms first, is the white trout lily. Though abundant leaves were up by the 17th, I did not see flowers until Monday of this week.

Literature Review: Arthropod Evolution

by Carl Strang

If you’re a bug nerd you’ll enjoy the following notes on research from 2013. Especially significant were studies of butterflies and moths, and an eye-opening paper on periodical cicadas. This concludes my literature review until next winter.

Butterflies and moths had their origin in the Triassic Period according to recent studies, though the first ones were more like caddis flies than like this red-spotted purple.

Butterflies and moths had their origin in the Triassic Period according to recent studies, though the first ones were more like caddis flies than like this red-spotted purple.

Zhang, W, et al. 2013. New fossil Lepidoptera (Insecta: Amphiesmenoptera) from the Middle Jurassic Jiulongshan Formation of northeastern China. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079500  They found 15 species of early moths representing at least 3 families in Chinese deposits, and details of wing venation led to the conclusion that the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) diverged from the Trichoptera (caddis flies) by the early Jurassic Period.

Wahlberg, N, CW Wheat, C Peña 2013. Timing and patterns in the taxonomic diversification of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). PLoS ONE 8(11): e80875. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080875  They estimated timings of major episodes of speciation in the major groups of butterflies and moths. Their results point to a Triassic origin of Lepidoptera, around 215 million years ago. The timing of diversification episodes at least in some cases corresponds to times when plants were diversifying, and also after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Coevolution of lepidoptera with their larval food plants appears to be an important theme. They give origin ages for major Lepidoptera groups (in millions of years ago): Gracillarioidea 120, Yponomeutoidea 117, Glechioidea 106 (these first three are small moths, many of them leaf miners), Papilionoidea 104 (butterflies), Pyraloidea (including many local pyralid moths) 93, Bombycoidea (including sphinx moths) 84, Geometroidea (including inchworm moths) 83, Noctuoidea (the enormous owlet moth group) 82, Tortricoidea (including leaf-folding caterpillars) 68. All these groups are represented by local species.

The Chicago region’s 17-year periodical cicadas: Magicicada septendecim, left, and M. cassini.

The Chicago region’s 17-year periodical cicadas: Magicicada septendecim, left, and M. cassini.

Sota, Teiji, Satoshi Yamamoto, John R. Cooley, Kathy B.R. Hill, Chris Simon, and Jin Yoshimura. 2013. Independent divergence of 13- and 17-y life cycles among three periodical cicada lineages. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 110:6919-6924. They sequenced a number of genes from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from all known species and broods, and estimated divergence times based on general research that has been done on insect mitochondria. There are three species groups (referred to as Decim, Cassini, and Decula), each of which contains northern 17-year species and southern 13-year species. In any location, the species in the different groups emerge at the same time. The results clearly separated the three groups, and tied together the species within each group (e.g., 13-year Decim are more closely related to 17-year Decim than to 13-year Cassini). Furthermore, each species group is divided into eastern, central and western genetic clusters (this pattern has been documented in other organisms as well; for the most part, Illinois cicadas are in western clusters, Indiana ones in central clusters). Each cluster contains both 13- and 17-year species, “suggesting that life cycle divergence occurred independently in the three regions.” Analyses estimated that the western Cassini divergence of 13-year and 17-year species took place 23,000 years ago, 10,000 years for Decim. Population sizes for both Decim and Cassini groups appear to have been small during the last glacial period, but expanded greatly starting 10,000 years ago. The sequence appears to have been allopatric speciation of the 3 ancestral species, with the species later becoming sympatric and independently splitting into 13- and 17-year cicadas. “Surprisingly, however, the divergence of 13- and 17-y cicadas was asynchronous among the species groups and occurred repeatedly even within a species group.” The implication is “that the three Magicicada groups shared multiple refugia during the last glacial maximum.” The 13-/17-year splits occurred after the last glacial maximum, within the last 23,000 years, “suggesting that the life cycle divergence in Magicicada is closely associated with global climatic fluctuations and shorter growing seasons in the north versus the south.” However, the species groups themselves separated in the Pliocene, and their shared long lives suggest that this did not originate because of glacial climate influences. This shifting between 13- and 17-year life cycles suggests a common genetic basis among the species, and indicates a somewhat plastic nature of this trait. The coordination among species at a given location seems best explained by the selective advantage of low numbers of an invading species into the range of another, surviving best when sheltered by the established species’ numbers.

Zhao, Z, et al. 2013. The mitochondrial genome of Elodia flavipalpis Aldrich (Diptera: Tachinidae) and the evolutionary timescale of tachinid flies. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61814. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061814  Their genomic study traced the evolutionary relationships of the parasitic fly family Tachinidae, and molecular clock analysis calibrated to the fossil record points to the middle Eocene as the time of the family’s origin.

Brewer, MS, and JE Bond. 2013. Ordinal-level phylogenomics of the arthropod class Diplopoda (millipedes) based on an analysis of 221 nuclear protein-coding loci generated using next-generation sequence analyses. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79935. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079935  They place the ancestral millipedes at 510mya (million years ago), with major groupings established by 200mya.

Lucky, A, MD Trautwein, BS Guénard, MD Weiser, RR Dunn. 2013. Tracing the rise of ants – out of the ground. PLoS ONE 8(12): e84012. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084012     A phylogenetic analysis points to soil rather than leaf litter as the nesting habitat for the earliest ant species.

Sound Ideas: Greenstriped Grasshopper

by Carl Strang

With the arrival of spring it is time to conclude this winter series. Plenty of sound recordings remain to be shared, so I’ll resume Sound Ideas in November or December. The appropriate finale is a recording of the first singing insect we hear each year in the Chicago region, the greenstriped grasshopper. Given the late spring, I am not expecting the first of these before mid-May. I have not found a recording of this species elsewhere:


Male greenstriped grasshopper

Male greenstriped grasshopper

The buzzing sound is the rattling of the male’s wings (crepitation) during short display flights. If you have the volume turned up you may get the impression that this is a loud sound, but it is not. Though it is easy enough to hear, you may well miss it if you are not paying attention to the sounds around you. This common grasshopper occurs wherever there are abundant tall grasses, including open wooded areas, though the greatest densities are in meadows and prairies.

The female gives the species its name, though I have read that occasional brown females or green males have been observed.

The female gives the species its name, though I have read that occasional brown females or green males have been observed.

This is our earliest singer because it overwinters as a nymph, and so can complete its maturation early in the season.

River Bulrush in Winter

by Carl Strang

Today I have one final winter botany chapter to shake out of the bag. River bulrush has had two years of good growth in the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Many stems protrude through the ice in this winter scene.

Many stems protrude through the ice in this winter scene.

This is a curious rush, as it mainly grows vegetatively. I have not yet seen it flowering. In winter the thick but soft, triangular stems are strong enough to remain standing.

The snow did not drive them down.

The snow did not drive them down.

Here a single stem retains some leaf bases.

Here a single stem retains some leaf bases.

That marsh filled with water over the winter, and to the extent that it retains that water, the river bulrush will be inhibited from a similar amount of growth this year.

Literature Review: Brain Function

by Carl Strang

Some of these notes pertain to the Winter Campfire series of a few years ago.

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Alexander, David M., et al. 2013. Traveling waves and trial averaging: The nature of single-trial and averaged brain responses in large-scale cortical signals. NeuroImage 73: 95 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.01.016 They find that brain function is better understood as wave activity that involves the entire organ, rather than separate bits of the brain specializing in separate activities. The wave is modified as different specific actions take place, and the focus of each modification may involve certain anatomical areas, but functionally these are not properly understood as isolated from one another.

Gross, J., et al. 2013. Speech rhythms and multiplexed oscillatory sensory coding in the human brain. PLoS Biol 11(12): e1001752. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001752 Brain cortical cells fire in patterns that produce brain waves of different frequencies (slowest delta waves, slow theta waves and fast gamma waves). Spoken sentences also are made up of components that change at different rates (slowest prosody, such as intonation and other meaning conveying elements; slow syllable utterance; and fast phoneme production, the individual sounds that make up speech). This study found a correlation between the two that allows parallel processing of different speech components. The slower, meaning conveying components of speech are entrained with slower brain waves in the right hemisphere, while the faster phonemes are in synch with gamma waves in the left hemisphere. When speech is interrupted then resumes, the waves re-align with the new rhythm.

Healy, Kevin, et al. 2013. Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information. Animal Behaviour, DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.06.018 Different animal species perceive time at different rates that vary according to the pace of their lives and other needs. Fast-moving animals with high metabolic rates, like birds, collect more information per unit time than we do, for instance. From the ScienceDaily article describing the study: “This time perception ability can be shown to vary across all animals, using a phenomenon called the critical flicker fusion frequency. The phenomenon, based on the maximum speed of flashes of light an individual can see before the light source is perceived as constant, is the principle behind the illusion of non-flashing television, computer and cinema screens. This is also the reason pet dogs see flickering televisions, as their eyes have a refresh rate higher than the screen of the TV.”

Xie, Lulu, et al. 2013. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science 342: 373-377. A study of mice revealed that brain tissues shrink and a significant increase of cerebrospinal fluid takes place around them during sleep, suggesting that a function of sleep is to flush out accumulated metabolites.

Gabel, Harrison W., and Michael E. Greenberg. 2013. The maturing brain methylome. Science 341:626-627. This is a review-interpretive article outlining the significance of a study published on-line by Science of the developing brain and its function. During development, neurons (but not other kinds of cells) in different parts of the brain acquire different patterns of methylation, epigenetic changes through chemical attachments that suppress the expression of certain genes. This appears to control patterns of synapse development, and thus is fundamental to brain function. Upon maturation, this methylation levels off.

Western Chorus Frog Dossier

by Carl Strang

An early sign of spring’s arrival is the sound of massed chorus frogs. Here are my limited specific observations of them.

Western chorus frog

Western chorus frog

Frog, Western Chorus Known in my experience mainly from DuPage County, IL, and the Culver, Indiana, area. In early spring they sing in large numbers, in crickety sounding calls, in temporary ponds. I saw one in the back yard of the house we rented in Glendale Heights. Small and striped, crawling in the grass. Closest pond where they sang was at least 200m away.

7MR87. Singing at West Chicago Prairie.

22MR87. Singing at Fish Hatchery, Culver, in first partial pond west of ditches.

12MR88. Brief song from one at McDowell Forest Preserve.

26MR88. Singing just west of Hartz Lake property.

27MR89. First song of year heard at McKee Marsh.

23AP89. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. I water-stalked a singing frog, close enough to see it, or at least the movement caused by its singing. It was in or just above the water, which vibrated with the song. It was in a place where broken-down cattails created a small (almost completely covering) shelter. They sing in alternation: pairs, high and low. High starts. If a few calls do not involve a nearby frog in a duet, the first stops.

10MR97. Heard one singing while I ran on Prairie Path near Rt. 59.

20MR99. First chorus frogs of spring heard in 2 places.

30OC99. 1-2 (same one found twice?) found on an extensive mudflat at Fermilab.

5MR00. A few singing at Lake Law, Fermilab, in an area of shallow water and dense dead stems of cattails and grasses.

2MY00. A couple still singing.

24SE00. A few individuals singing weakly in the tall, goldenrod-dominated upland vegetation between the large lakes at Fermilab.

14OC00. Occasional song, still, at Fermilab. Much like spring peeper’s pattern of fall singing.

21MR01. First of year, a couple only, heard near Prairie Path east of Warrenville. A cold, lingering winter.

15AP01. Quite a few singing near the McKee Marsh outlet. 12SE01. I heard single brief song beside the prairie path north of Butterfield and west of Fermilab in late afternoon.

12OC02. A few weakly singing individuals at Fermilab, in low spots.

21MR05. One singer at the Hartz Lake property.

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Chorus frogs and American toads have resumed singing after heavy recent rains have raised water levels, here and at Fermilab for chorus frogs, and here and at Fullersburg for toads.

5AP10. Mayslake. A jump in chorus frog numbers from last year. Last year they were at the stream corridor marsh only, and the maximum male count was 12. This year, up to 22. Furthermore, there were satellite groups in the parking lot marsh (3) and the reed-canary-grass pool east of the dog fence (5).

25OC10. Mayslake. Chorus frogs calling, three individuals in three places: one on top of a wooded hill; one in the middle of the meadow west of the dog area, and one a short distance south of the stream corridor marsh.

27OC10. Mayslake. A western chorus frog called from on or right beside the path N of the stream corridor marsh. No hibernaculum candidate there.

17MR11. Mayslake. First singers of the season, in stream corridor and parking lot marshes.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

29SE11. Mayslake. At least 3 chorus frogs calling in close proximity in a reed canary grass area. Another in the main meadow W of dog fence.

Spring 2013. Mayslake. Hardly any chorus frog activity this spring, in the wake of last year’s drought, despite the re-filling of the marshes.

Sound Ideas: Yellow Jackets

by Charlene and Carl Strang

Mom contributed a lot of humor to our family life. One illustration of this is a poem she wrote shortly after she and Dad got married. A few years ago I set it to music and titled it “Yellow Jackets” (she simply had headed it with the year, 1949):


Only fox squirrels live in the Culver area, no grays

Only fox squirrels live in the Culver area, no grays

In the fall, before the snow, in quest of squirrel we did go.

Ted – “The Hunter” – took his gun and I went along just for the fun.

To spot a squirrel was my desire and tell the man so he could fire.

We walked around the woods a bit ‘til Ted decided we should sit.

“You sit there, right near those trees,” said he, “And I’ll stay here.”

Before I sat, I heard some bees a-buzzing in my ear.

Around and ’round my head they flew

And Ted called out, “What’s wrong with you?”

I told him what the trouble was, said he, “Come over here.”

I did, and one bee followed me, and stung him in the ear.

One nice bee was friendly and got up my trouser leg.

A few more stings, and I’d have walked as limpy as ol’ Peg!

We ran real fast and lost them then, and went to hunt elsewhere.

I hope we don’t meet bees again, they just get in my hair.

Charlene Strang, 1926-2014

by Carl Strang

Blog posts were irregular in recent days as I commuted between Culver, Indiana, where my father resides, and Memorial Hospital in South Bend, where my mother was fighting for her life. She passed away on April 4 with my father at her side, having fulfilled her wish to be taken back to Culver to go into hospice care there. It fell to me to write her obituary, which follows.

Baby portrait

Baby portrait

The happy teenager

The happy teenager

Charlene Strang of Culver concluded her loving, giving life on April 4 at the age of 87. She was given the name Charlene by her father, who was certain it could never be converted to a nickname. Naturally she later became “Chuckie” to the many who were enriched by knowing her as wife, mother, friend, and significant contributor to the Culver community. Born in Chicago to a family founded by her German immigrant grandparents, Charlene spent enjoyable childhood summers at the family’s second home at Bass Lake. There as a teenager she met the Culver youngster, Ted Strang, who was to become her husband after his World War II service ended. Their marriage over the subsequent decades was a model of love and dedication. She is survived by Ted, by two sons (Carl of Warrenville, Illinois, and Gary with wife Lisa of Easton, Maryland), and by Gary and Lisa’s three sons (Greg Strang of Cambridge, Maryland; Captain Derek Strang who is an Air Force pilot in Mountain Home, Idaho; and Lt. Brice Strang, U.S. Army Reserve, of Easton, Maryland).

On her wedding day

On her wedding day

Holding me at 6 weeks

Holding me at 6 weeks

With grandsons Greg and Derek, Thanksgiving 1988

With grandsons Greg and Derek, Thanksgiving 1988

Chuckie became a pillar of the Culver community. She was in fact the face of the town to newcomers when she served as Culver’s Welcome Wagon Lady for many years. Others first knew her at a much younger age, when she worked as a preschool teacher at the Wesley United Methodist Church. To this day many graduates of that school, now adults, remember her with fondness. A profoundly devout Christian, at various other times she served in that church’s office and was a regular worker at its Thrift Shop. Equal in importance to Chuckie, and to Ted, was their association with Culver’s VFW Post 6919. She was a life member and past president of its auxiliary, and for many years its treasurer. She also volunteered for the American Red Cross in blood drives, and was active in the Culver City Club, a locally focused service organization. All of this service was recognized in 1992 when Chuckie was selected the Grand Marshall of the Lakefest Parade.

The Grand Marshall

The Grand Marshall

Elderberry in Winter

by Carl Strang

American elder, or elderberry, is a shrub with a fairly broad ecological range, though it usually wants its feet somewhat wet.

The large flower clusters produce many small black berries.

The large flower clusters produce many small black berries.

In winter it often takes the form of a cluster of stems.

The overall profile often is vase-like, vaguely reminiscent of ocotillo.

The overall profile often is vase-like, vaguely reminiscent of ocotillo.

The stems have unimpressive tips.

The stems have unimpressive tips.

The thick twigs are covered in lenticels. The paired buds will produce compound leaves. ]

The thick twigs are covered in lenticels. The paired buds will produce compound leaves. ]

Sound Ideas: The Edge

by Carl Strang

This recording is my narration of a true story, perhaps the most profound experience of my graduate study seasons in western Alaska. Fair warning, it goes more than 15 minutes, but many have told me it is worth it.


The bluffs, summer

The bluffs, summer

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tent frame, our field home

Tent frame, our field home

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