Literature Review: Fungal Evolution

by Carl Strang

Fungi work behind the scenes for the most part, but they have played, and continue to play, essential roles in Earth’s ecosystems. That important work began a long time ago.

We most often notice fungi at the brief times when they grow spore-dispersing structures.

We most often notice fungi at the brief times when they grow spore-dispersing structures.

Floudas, Dimitrios, et al. 2012. The Paleozoic origin of enzymatic lignin decomposition reconstructed from 31 fungal genomes. Science 336:1715-1719.

Comparative genomic and molecular clock analyses in fungi “suggest that the origin of lignin degradation might have coincided with the sharp decrease in the rate of organic carbon burial around the end of the Carboniferous Period.” In other words, the immense volumes of Paleozoic coal accumulated because fungi had not yet evolved the ability to decompose wood down into its nutritious chemical components. After they did so, much less wood survived to become coal.

Wolfe BE, Tulloss RE, Pringle A (2012) The Irreversible Loss of a Decomposition Pathway Marks the Single Origin of an Ectomycorrhizal Symbiosis. PLoS ONE 7(7): e39597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039597

They looked at the genetics of nutrition in Amanita fungi, and found that their mutualistic partnerships with vascular plants are obligate. The fungi have lost two genes that once allowed them to decompose organic matter in the soil, so that they now depend upon their mutualistic partners for carbon. This study refers to another very important ecological role many fungi play. They form partnerships with many green plants, channeling in soil minerals in exchange for other goodies. As the authors point out, this trade no longer is an option: the partners can’t survive without it.

Lessons from Travels: Kansas Prairies

by Carl Strang

I had heard that Kansas was the state with the best mix of high quality prairie sites, so I spent a few days touring there in June, 1999. Eastern Kansas gets enough rainfall to support tallgrass prairie, and the Flint Hills region has some good examples.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, part of the National Park system, is one such area. It still was being developed when I visited.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

Access then was by guided tour only. I remember being struck by nighthawks roosting on the ground.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Another site worth visiting is the Konza Prairie, a preserve and research station operated by Kansas State University.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

The Horsethief Canyon area provided some interesting topographic relief, along with an example of midgrass prairie on the upland plain.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

Finally, Cimarron National Grassland provided an excellent example of desert prairie.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

I was impressed by the diversity of plant species, and by how subtle differences in topography and erosion made large differences in vegetation. Higher, drained areas were more desert-like, with more yuccas, sagebrush and pincushion cacti, and the plants were more widely spaced. Lower areas had more grasses and prickly pear cacti, and less bare soil.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This was paradise for orchard orioles and both eastern and western kingbirds, which nested in the trees and foraged in the prairie.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Speaking of plants, here is one example.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

I certainly can recommend this state to anyone who wishes to get a good feel for the North American prairie biome in all its variations.

Bull Thistle and Whorled Milkweed in Winter

by Carl Strang

Today’s winter botany focus is on one plant that is very conspicuous and another that is much less so. The conspicuous one is the bull thistle.

The dense, spiny leaves all remain attached, intimidating in winter as in summer.

The dense, spiny leaves all remain attached, intimidating in winter as in summer.

The heads bend to become oriented in various directions.

This is a weed with visual interest, but not what I would call cuddly.

This is a weed with visual interest, but not what I would call cuddly.

Some insects, however, find this plant very approachable when it is blooming.

A tiger swallowtail fills its tank at a bull thistle flower head.

A tiger swallowtail fills its tank at a bull thistle flower head.

For contrast, let’s look at what becomes of whorled milkweed.

Not a very tall plant, whorled milkweed’s narrow leaves further diminish its visual impact even when it is green. Only the flowers grab the eye.

Not a very tall plant, whorled milkweed’s narrow leaves further diminish its visual impact even when it is green. Only the flowers grab the eye.

In winter the leaves fall away.

The foot-tall stems may remain upright or tilted.

The foot-tall stems may remain upright or tilted.

Some of the opened seed pods may remain attached.

The pod’s shape and mottled color pattern on the relatively diminutive stem help with identification.

The pod’s shape and mottled color pattern on the relatively diminutive stem help with identification.

Fortunately this is a plant that tends to grow in colonies, so even if some individuals have lost all their pods and seeds, a few should remain.

Prairie Dock in Winter

by Carl Strang

One of the larger prairie plants is prairie dock, a member of the diverse genus Silphium.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

In winter the fruiting stalks remain strong and tall.

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

Curiously, the leaves abscise, though they remain close to the base of the stalk.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

Cutting off the leaves is not universal in this genus. The leaves remain attached in compass plant.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

I wonder if the broad leaves might catch the wind and tip the stalk, limiting seed dispersal, if the prairie dock held onto them. The cut leaves of compass plant would not pose this problem.

The most surprising and beautiful feature of prairie dock in winter, to my eye, is the core of the fruiting structure.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

Literature Review: Two Mammal Studies

by Carl Strang

Our common animals are familiar enough that we may think we know all about them. There always is something new to learn, however, and this week I share two examples from recent publications.

Raccoons are not as solitary as we thought.

Raccoons are not as solitary as we thought.

Prange, Suzanne, Stanley D. Gehrt, and Stephanie Hauver. 2011. Frequency and duration of contacts between free-ranging raccoons: uncovering a hidden social system. J. Mammal. 92:1331-1342.

They used radio collars to track social associations. Though raccoons are solitary most of the time, males form long-term social groups by maintaining regular contacts, each female associates with one such group, and female-female contacts are short term. This is referred to as a fission-fusion social system.

The second study looked at the genetic geography of skunks.

The second study looked at the genetic geography of skunks.

Barton, Heather D., and Samantha M. Wisely. 2012. Phylogeography of striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) in North America: Pleistocene dispersal and contemporary population structure. J. Mammal. 93:38-51.

They looked at mitochondrial genetics of North American skunks in relation to glacial refuge history. Today’s skunks show 4 main groups apparently isolated by glaciers and subsequently spreading. Illinois skunks show the greatest measured mix, about half from east coast-Southeast sources, a little over a quarter from the central South (Arizona to Louisiana), and the rest from the Intermountain West (no representation from the fourth, west coast group).

Lessons from Travels: Isle Royale Spring Peepers

by Carl Strang

One of my favorite adventures was a solo sea kayak circumnavigation of Isle Royale in 1996. Islands have relatively few species, and this helped me to solve a puzzle that had bothered me for several years. I had been hearing a strange animal sound in late summers into autumns, a high-pitched intermittent call that sounded vaguely cricket- or frog-like. I hadn’t heard it in DuPage County, but in a variety of locations in the eastern U.S. I patiently had stalked these mystery animals several times without success. Then I found I was hearing the calls on Isle Royale. I also was seeing numbers of spring peepers.

Spring peeper on Isle Royale. The bunchberry is an indicator of the northern Lake Superior location.

Spring peeper on Isle Royale. The bunchberry is an indicator of the northern Lake Superior location.

Finally my brain made a testable connection. I knew a couple peeper locations in DuPage, and realized I had not gone into them late in the season. When I went there after returning from Isle Royale I heard the sounds. So that was the source of the sound, but I still have not figured out nor have I found an enlightening reference, which would explain why a spring peeper would peep in the autumn.

Moist Prairie Winter Plants

by Carl Strang

Today we return to winter botany, staying in a moist-soil prairie at Mayslake Forest Preserve and turning to representatives from a mix of families. I will start with a species I call the plant from Mars: rattlesnake master, a member of the carrot family.

To use a language analogy, rattlesnake master is a cognate. The fruiting clusters are very reminiscent of the flower clusters.

To use a language analogy, rattlesnake master is a cognate. The fruiting clusters are very reminiscent of the flower clusters.

One of the heads in bloom.

One of the heads in bloom.

The yucca-like leaves likewise remain recognizable.

The yucca-like leaves likewise remain recognizable.

Blue vervain, though not what I would call a cognate, is very distinctive and beautiful in its winter form.

The arrangement is very candelabra-like.

The arrangement is very candelabra-like.

Here is a top early in its flowering period.

Here is a top early in its flowering period.

Now we turn to species that are progressively more different from their flowering forms. Yellowish gentian is one of my favorite flowers.

Here is yellowish gentian in bloom.

Here is yellowish gentian in bloom.

In winter the plant seems to shrink and collapse, but if you squint you can see the connection.

The flowers retain much of their shape, but become the same color as the leaves and so are less distinctive.

The flowers retain much of their shape, but become the same color as the leaves and so are less distinctive.

Finally we turn to cardinal flower. In bloom, it’s a knockout:

With flowers like this, it’s understandable that we might not pay much attention to the rest of the plant in bloom, let alone in winter.

With flowers like this, it’s understandable that we might not pay much attention to the rest of the plant in bloom, let alone in winter.

Here I acknowledge help from restoration guru Conrad Fialkowski, who helped me find some winter plants.

The cardinal flower plant seems to shrink, collapse and turn yellow, not supporting itself very well and losing many of its leaves.

The cardinal flower plant seems to shrink, collapse and turn yellow, not supporting itself very well and losing many of its leaves.

The flowers produce round capsules which erode from the sides, releasing their tiny brown seeds.

The flowers produce round capsules which erode from the sides, releasing their tiny brown seeds.

Assorted points and projections from the capsule tips vaguely recall the lobular flower structure. Many more species remain to be photographed and highlighted before this winter is done.

Some Winter Composites

by Carl Strang

I was biding my time until we had some snow to provide a backdrop for photographing winter plants, but then learned that I can adjust the aperture on my Olympus point and shoot camera, and use that to blur the background. Today’s resulting focus is on four species of composites. Beginning in the damp portion of the south stream corridor prairie at Mayslake Forest Preserve, I was struck by the superficial similarity of wild quinine fruiting stems to those of the mountain mints.

The terminal clusters are similar in size, gray color, and roundness of their components to those mints.

The terminal clusters are similar in size, gray color, and roundness of their components to those mints.

Up close, they look much different with their layered seeds (you can see here how varying numbers of seeds have dropped out at this point in the season.

Up close, they look much different with their layered seeds (you can see here how varying numbers of seeds have dropped out at this point in the season.

Of course, the big rough triangular basal leaves of wild quinine also are a give-away.

Of course, the big rough triangular basal leaves of wild quinine also are a give-away.

Here is wild quinine in bloom.

The round flowers presage the round seed clusters.

The round flowers presage the round seed clusters.

The Missouri ironweed is much more clearly a composite.

The seeds are mostly gone, leaving the star-like receptacles.

The seeds are mostly gone, leaving the star-like receptacles.

The stems are tall and strong.

The stems are tall and strong.

This is the winter product of those distinctive purple blooms of late summer.

Missouri ironweed in flower.

Missouri ironweed in flower.

The winter form of grass-leaved goldenrod is much more delicate and unobtrusive.

The shape of the flat-topped flower cluster is retained.

The shape of the flat-topped flower cluster is retained.

The narrow leaves persist, helping to confirm the identification.

The narrow leaves persist, helping to confirm the identification.

The plant is much more conspicuous, and more clearly a goldenrod, when blooming.

The plant is much more conspicuous, and more clearly a goldenrod, when blooming.

We’ll return to the prairie later. Today’s final species is wingstem, a tall composite of moist woodlands.

The wings are present, but much shrunken and not nearly as obvious as in the green plant.

The wings are present, but much shrunken and not nearly as obvious as in the green plant.

The seed head shape is intricate and interesting.

The seed head shape is intricate and interesting.

And here is how the flowers appeared.

And here is how the flowers appeared.

Noting the locations of individual plants when they are blooming and easy to identify is a huge help when seeking them later to learn their winter forms.

Singing Insect Guide Available

by Carl Strang

The latest update of my guide to the singing insects of the Chicago region is ready to be sent out to those who want it. Yesterday I forwarded it to those already on the mailing list. If you want a copy of this free 2-3meg pdf file, simply send a request to me at my work address, cstrang@dupageforest.com. The guide is quite a bit different from last year’s version. I have added a number of photos, added several species pages, and added range maps.

Here is an example page from the guide, for the snowy tree cricket.

Here is an example page from the guide, for the snowy tree cricket.

I wasn’t going to add the maps this year, but decided that they are an incomplete component of an incomplete guide, so why not? The number of species with pages in the main text now is up to 66. The hypotheticals section has information on an additional 12 species.

I am also sending out my draft protocol for singing insects monitoring to those who request the guide.

Coyote Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I’ve been sharing smaller dossiers in recent weeks. Here is a somewhat longer one. This is a rare instance in which nearly all of my experience with a species came as an adult, in DuPage County.

Coyote

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

When I came to DuPage County in the early 1980’s, coyotes were known to live at Waterfall Glen and the West Chicago Prairie area. My first experiences were footprints at the Tracker Farm in New Jersey, and then a bed at the far end of a private (now destroyed) marsh in Glendale Heights, Illinois. I saw one briefly in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

30JA88. Hartz Lake area, near Monterey, Indiana. A coyote slow-loped across a dune. Front foot 2×2 inches, hind foot 2 long by 1.5 wide. The coyote loped with its body held at an angle so the front feet were on one side, hind feet on the other.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

29JE89. Coyote at McKee Marsh. It stopped briefly as it came around a bend in the mowed trail and saw me coming toward it. Big ears, light build and size gave it away immediately. It held still only a couple seconds, then turned and ran. After I got around the bend I got a glimpse of movement to the right as it leaped through a tall grass meadow and ran into the forest.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in the half inch of snow that fell last night on the McKee Marsh area. The coyotes’ activity was mainly on and around the frozen ponds. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks were absent from the wide area I walked in north Blackwell. Foxes were common there before; have coyotes driven them off? Trot the most common gait, in the diagonal position. Diagonal walk frequent, lope occasional. Prints’ actual size 2.25 long x 2 wide, 22-24 inches between corresponding track in each pair. A coyote picked up an old, small dead snake and played with it. Rolled in small amount of its urine on ice of marsh. Stopped and removed 2 burdock burs (some hairs still were attached). Coyote diagonal walk on ice 19-21.5 inches between steps. Lots of activity possibly by one individual, with lots of coming and going (small loops out and back), centering on a rotten goose egg, frozen in ice and apparently opened last night.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

13DE89. Probable coyote scat, 3/4 x 3.5 inches, Hartz Lake.

16DE89. Both red foxes and coyotes present, yet, at McDowell Forest Preserve. Former about 12-16 inches between steps in walk, latter 15-20 inches.

20JA91. I saw two coyotes working together at McDowell. When first spotted they were about 20 yards apart, walking single file. I was able to approach within 60 yards on the path, then they detected me and bolted. They had been investigating a brushy area near a bridge over a small stream, they ran back north and east when escaping.

26JA92. Tracks of a coyote in woods at Hidden Lake, in an area also visited some nights by red fox. Strides were 20-inch steps compared to the fox’s 16 inches. Coyote followed deer trails sometimes.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

28JA99. Cottontails this winter are not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out, or perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10FE99. A fresh coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail near the marsh contained both hairs and feathers, the latter from a bird in the cardinal to mourning dove size range.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

25FE99. Willowbrook. Fresh snow fell yesterday evening, and reveals that 2 coyotes covered the entire preserve thoroughly last night, and more, going out into surrounding residential areas. Sometimes the coyotes were on the same route, sometimes they separated. Once they bedded down within 2 feet of one another in a dense brushy area roughly equidistant from the nature trail and residences, impossible to see by anyone more than 50 feet away.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

26FE99. A coyote made a remarkable vertical 4-foot jump out of the creek at Willowbrook, having crossed to the point where the Safari Trail meets the stream at the high bank.

MR99. During the 90’s, coyotes have become much more abundant in the western suburbs. Tracks frequently encountered on the preserves, and in absence usually of fox sign until the past couple of years. One appeared at Willowbrook frequently around 1994-96, after the fox there was gone. Then the coyote vanished, after it was seen several times apparently weakened by mange. A red fox came in that winter, lasted a year, then it left. At that time coyote sign returned and have been frequent for more than two years, now. The common pattern has been for signs to be abundant for several weeks, then absent for several weeks, in alternation through the warm months, with 2 coyotes taking up steady residence on the preserve through the winter. I saw two different individuals one morning in winter of 1997-98, one missing all but a stub of its tail and so easy to recognize. They often deposit feces in the center of the nature trail, occasionally in other clear areas or smaller trails. Hair the most common dominant food remains in the scats, occasionally feathers or skins of fruits dominate. I saw a coyote crossing Kirk Road in Kane County at dusk one summer evening. Their howling, which I have heard at Pratts Wayne Woods, Hidden Lake, Lincoln Marsh and Fermilab, is extremely high-pitched and wailing in quality, and I have heard several animals howling together or howling back and forth in contact call style but not a single individual howling alone. During a night hike in September 1996 at Hidden Lake, a siren set off a probable family group of 4 individuals, and for the rest of the evening the scattered coyotes howled at regular intervals, producing the contact call effect.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out to the nest island. No other predator tracks.

25JE99. I heard a coyote barking at a neighbor walking dogs at Willowbrook.

30AU99. Coyote scats at Willowbrook have been rich in fruit. This remained the case for weeks, with fruit appearing to be the dominant food.

5OC99. A heavy red fabric strip, 10 inches long, possibly a collar, in a coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail. Fruit remains dominant food in scats.

1NO99. Hair becoming more common, fruit less, in scats at Willowbrook.

2NO99. A coyote scat at Willowbrook had a bit of candy wrapper in it (shortly after Halloween).

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

1999-2013. It has become clear that coyotes are everywhere in the Chicago area, with even centers of towns being parts of territories. The coyotes, unless someone feeds them, are very good at staying out of sight. Reports from neighbors suggest that the pair at Willowbrook had a home range that extended from the East Branch of the DuPage River to the Village Links Golf Course, and so they were absent from the preserve for weeks at a time, but in some seasons centered their activity on the preserve (they never denned there, however).

At Fullersburg Woods, the pair was active year-round in the more open northern part of the preserve and presumably extended into adjacent areas off the preserve. In winter, the pair regularly wandered into the forested southern part of the preserve, usually hunting apart but joining up as they returned to their northern center of activity. I never found a den on that preserve.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

At Mayslake the pair had a den in the former friary garden area, but the den was destroyed as an incidental consequence of the friary demolition. Until then the coyotes were a constant presence on the preserve, but now they are there regularly but somewhat intermittently. They have been healthy and strong when I have seen them, and had pups most years. One odd observation was that one chewed up and swallowed a tennis ball discarded near the off-leash dog area. The fragmented ball passed completely through the coyote. Rabbits and voles are the more typical contents of scats.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

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