Tall Boneset in Winter

by Carl Strang

It’s time to look at another Eupatorium in winter. This genus of herbaceous plants in the sunflower or aster family is relatively rich in our area, including the joe-pye weeds, white snakeroot, and a few species referred to as bonesets. Tall boneset can be found in savannas as well as prairies and meadows.

Here’s one in bloom. Most members of this genus have white flowers, though a few have pink or even blue ones.

Here’s one in bloom. Most members of this genus have white flowers, though a few have pink or even blue ones.

In winter the calyces are relatively large, and persist for a while.

Tall boneset winter top. The seeds have dispersed.

Tall boneset winter top. The seeds have dispersed.

The leaves, with their few teeth concentrated in the ends, likewise hang on for a time.

It also remains clear that the leaves do not have distinct petioles, the blades narrowing down to where the leaf joins the stem.

It also remains clear that the leaves do not have distinct petioles, the blades narrowing down to where the leaf joins the stem.

I am especially struck by those large, few-lobed calyces that make this plant stand out in a winter botany array.

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Literature Review: The Mesozoic Era

by Carl Strang

This week’s literature notes focus on selected papers from last year on the Mesozoic Era. These papers covered assorted topics; there were enough studies of early birds and feathered dinosaurs that I will treat them separately.

Some of this fellow’s relatives had cock’s comb-like head structures. See below.

Some of this fellow’s relatives had cock’s comb-like head structures. See below.

Jones, Marc EH, et al. 2013. Integration of molecules and new fossils supports a Triassic origin for Lepidosauria (lizards, snakes, and tuatara). BMC Evolutionary Biology 13 (1): 208 DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-13-208  From a ScienceDaily article. Fossil jaws from the Middle Triassic show that reptiles representing the common ancestor of lizards, snakes and the tuatara were among the new groups to emerge in the wake of the end-Permian mass extinction.

Peter A. Hochuli and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt. 2013. Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland). Frontiers in Plant Science, DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2013.00344  From a ScienceDaily article. This pollen, which appears to belong to an insect- (probably beetle-) pollinated plant, comes from a time 100 million years before the previous accepted evolution of flowering plants. It provides a fossil anchor for the earlier end of the range of molecular clock pointers from other studies.

Varricchio, David J., Frankie D. Jackson, Robert A. Jackson, Darla K. Zelenitsky. 2013. Porosity and water vapor conductance of two Troodon formosus eggs: an assessment of incubation strategy in a maniraptoran dinosaur. Paleobiology 39 (2): 278 DOI: 10.1666/11042  They found that this small carnivorous dinosaur incubated partly buried eggs, not burying them completely like crocodiles. This conclusion is drawn in part because of egg-in-nest fossils, and largely because the fossils’ relatively few, small eggshell pores that limit moisture loss are like those of incubated eggs and unlike buried ones.

Blackburn, Terrence J., et al. 2013. Zircon U-Pb Geochronology Links the End-Triassic Extinction with the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Science 340:941-945.  They have dated basalt samples around the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, looked at the rock just above and below those layers, and have connected the mass extinction that marked the end of the Triassic Period with a series of massive lava flows triggered by the rift that opened the Pangaea supercontinent and began to create the Atlantic Ocean as North America, South America and Africa split apart. They date the extinction at 201,564,000 years ago. The eruptions consisted of 2.5 million cubic miles of lava, in 4 major flows. Three of the flows occurred within 13,000 years, at the same time as the extinctions, which can be dated within 20,000 years at this point.

Bonnan, MF, et al. 2013. What lies beneath: sub-articular long bone shape scaling in eutherian mammals and saurischian dinosaurs suggests different locomotor adaptations for gigantism. PLoS ONE 8(10): e75216. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075216  Gigantic sizes were achieved more often in dinosaurs than in mammals. This study found that dinosaurs had relatively thick cartilage pads in load-bearing joints, making gigantism more frequently workable.

Bell, Phil R., Federico Fanti, Philip J. Currie, Victoria M. Arbour. 2013. A mummified duck-billed dinosaur with a soft-tissue cock’s comb. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.008  From a ScienceDaily article. They describe a mummified fossil Edmontosaurus regalis with a previously unknowable soft-tissue “cock’s comb” structure on the top of its head.

Maiorino, L, A.A. Farke, T. Kotsakis, P. Piras. 2013. Is Torosaurus Triceratops? Geometric morphometric evidence of Late Maastrichtian ceratopsid dinosaurs. PLoS ONE 8(11): e81608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081608  They did a comparative developmental study of fossils originally named Torosaurus and two species of Triceratops. Their measurements indicate different developmental trajectories for the two genera, and they reject the recent suggestion that Torosaurus is simply a more mature Triceratops.

Sound Ideas: Trilling Tree Crickets

by Carl Strang

Today I wish to share recordings of 4 species of our tree crickets, which have in common songs that are continuous (rather than interrupted) trills. I will order them along a typical habitat gradient, from grasses to mixed grasses and forbs to mixed forbs and shrubs to trees (specifically, conifers).

The four-spotted tree cricket seems to prefer to sing from grass stems.

Four-spotted tree crickets are pale.

Four-spotted tree crickets are pale.

The song is a continuous clear trill:

Very abundant late in the season, Forbes’s tree cricket prefers forbs or vines.

Forbes’s tree cricket is highly variable, but usually has some dark markings.

Forbes’s tree cricket is highly variable, but usually has some dark markings.

Here is a recording from last year:

There is an interesting issue surrounding these first two songs, in my mind. I know of other singing insect students who, like me, at least sometimes can distinguish the songs of four-spotted and Forbes’s tree crickets, but we describe them with different language. To me, the four-spotted’s song has more of a clear, tone-like quality, while the Forbes’s song has a discordant tone that others apparently don’t hear. Others point to the difference in pulse rate (much faster in Forbes’s, but I need a computer analysis of a recording to tell that difference). This is the best example I have found of how describing insect songs in words can be difficult, and may in some cases be impossible.

Woodland shrubby understories to masses of forbs in open places near wooded edges are habitat for our third species, the broad-winged tree cricket. Here is its song:

Broad-winged tree crickets are distinguished by the wide wings and the raspberry coloration on the head and antenna bases.

Broad-winged tree crickets are distinguished by the wide wings and the raspberry coloration on the head and antenna bases.

To my ear, this song has a richer tone, and usually is lower in pitch than other trilling tree crickets at the same temperature.

I’ll close with the pine tree cricket, perhaps the most beautiful of the four.

The red-browns and pale greens provide good camouflage in a habitat of coniferous trees.

The red-browns and pale greens provide good camouflage in a habitat of coniferous trees.

The following recording was made indoors, from a caged male (you can hear the splashing of the aquarium pump in the background):

Again the trill is continuous and similar to the others, especially the four-spotted tree cricket, but the source of the sound in a pine, spruce or cedar (usually in a grove of them) is a dead give-away.

White Wild Indigo Senescent

by Carl Strang

Most prairie plants are readily found in winter. After all, where is a prairie plant going to go? Well, there are exceptions, and the white wild indigo is one of them. By mid-January their tops are gone from where they grew, the result of an active abscission process that releases them from the persistent roots.

Here is white wild indigo in bloom.

Here is white wild indigo in bloom.

Those flowers produce seed pods which remain attached, and it is thought that when the plant top comes loose it can be blown over the ground and scatter seeds from the split pods. As the plant senesces in autumn, it becomes an unusual blue-gray color.

Senescent top. White wild indigo also grows in savannas.

Senescent top. White wild indigo also grows in savannas.

The color change is progressive, the leaves first turning a peculiar shade of green.

Here is a branch in mid-change.

Here is a branch in mid-change.

White wild indigo is a most unusual and remarkable legume.

Literature Review: The Paleozoic Era

by Carl Strang

Last week I shared notes on some published papers from last year which cast light on the early Earth, when life first appeared. The Paleozoic Era was marked by the sudden appearance of abundant, diverse new fossils. What has become increasingly clear is that readily fossilized shells were the major new development, making the “Cambrian explosion” possible (the Cambrian Period is the opening chapter of that era).

Smith, M. Paul, and David A.T. Harper. 2013. Causes of the Cambrian explosion. Science 341:1355-1356. They reviewed major themes that have emerged from research in this area. Some important components are the rising sea/sinking continents which released high mineral concentrations into the oceans (providing material for constructing shells), along with the huge increase in shallow sea habitat (providing much area in which ecological interactions could take place, including predator-prey interactions which would drive the evolution of shells for prey protection and improved predator effectiveness), and growing evidence that earlier, Proterozoic organisms in fact were ancestors of Cambrian groups, which includes molecular clock estimates as well as fossil connections.

Diverse marine invertebrates appeared in the early Paleozoic.

Diverse marine invertebrates appeared in the early Paleozoic.

Jie Yang, Javier Ortega-Hernández, Nicholas J. Butterfield, Xi-guang Zhang. Specialized appendages in fuxianhuiids and the head organization of early euarthropods. Nature, 2013; 494 (7438): 468 DOI: 10.1038/nature11874  From a ScienceDaily article. They described fossils of an early-Cambrian-explosion arthropod, Chenjiangocaris kunmingensis, in which the anterior-most limbs are modified for feeding, apparently for shoveling sediment into the mouth. It was generally soft-bodied, but had a carapace. This is also the earliest known species with a central nervous system extending back from the head. It came from a new site in south China called Xiaoshiba which promises to provide many additional insights into the earliest evolution of animals.

The appearance of shells in the Cambrian, probably resulting from predator-prey interactions, made abundant fossils from that time a possibility.

The appearance of shells in the Cambrian, probably resulting from predator-prey interactions, made abundant fossils from that time a possibility.

Tanaka,Gengo, et al. 2013. Chelicerate neural ground pattern in a Cambrian great appendage arthropod. Nature 502 (7471): 364 DOI: 10.1038/nature12520  From a ScienceDaily article. They described a new species whose central nervous system is preserved well enough to show that it was a chelicerate arthropod, and thus that chelicerates split from mandibulates more than 520 million years ago. Alalcomenaeus belonged to an extinct group of large-clawed arthropods, the megacheirans, that previously had been difficult to place. It had two pairs of large eyes at the front of the head. Earlier, a similar analysis of another Chinese fossil from this deposit, Fuxianhuia, revealed a nervous system that connected it to the crustaceans, which are mandibulates (chelicerate and mandibulate arthropods are the two major groups, the former today including spiders and scorpions, the latter insects and crabs, among others).

Jean-Bernard Caron, Simon Conway Morris, Christopher B. Cameron. Tubicolous enteropneusts from the Cambrian period. Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12017  As reported in ScienceDaily. They described an acorn worm or hemichordate, Spartobranchus tenuis from the Burgess Shale, which is the oldest of its group by 200 million years. Its group is one of the two main groups of hemichordates, and this fossil ties the two together, as well as having connections to echinoderms and chordates. They were extremely abundant in places, and may have been important marine sediment dwellers, their function similar to terrestrial earthworms today.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. 2013. Eating was tough for early tetrapods. Science 339:390. This news article covered recent research on early terrestrial vertebrates (from much later in the Paleozoic than the species mentioned above) that looked at the challenge posed by swallowing prey on land rather than in the water. Developing that capability may have taken 80 million years, with early ones feeding in the water or carrying captured prey into the water where they could have swallowed it along with gulps of water. At some point, tongues evolved that could assist.

Linda A. Tsuji, Christian A. Sidor, J.- Sébastien Steyer, Roger M. H. Smith, Neil J. Tabor, Oumarou Ide. The vertebrate fauna of the Upper Permian of Niger—VII. Cranial anatomy and relationships of Bunostegos akokanensis (Pareiasauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2013; 33 (4): 747 DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2013.739537  As described in a ScienceDaily article. This pareiasaur was endemic to the center of Pangaea, which has been established geologically as a desert region (the continents fused together in the late Paleozoic, and the resulting supercontinent of Pangaea had an interior far from any sea). Apparently that region was so distinct from surrounding more moderate biomes that the boundary served as an isolating barricade for species on either side. This one was a cow-sized herbivore.

Sound Ideas: Pied Butcherbird

by Carl Strang

When I traveled to Australia at the end of 2000, I was just getting into the recording of sounds of nature. One morning in camp in the central desert, I got the opportunity to record the song of a pied butcherbird.

This bird is well named, both for its piebald color pattern and its shrike-like predatory habits.

This bird is well named, both for its piebald color pattern and its shrike-like predatory habits.

The song is not what one would expect from such a predator:

The melody of this song inspired a composition
(“Butcherbird” by Carl Strang, copyright ©2001):

Everything was painstakingly hunt-and-pecked into the sequencer except for the soprano recorder. My playing was reedy sounding and not as beautiful as the original that inspired it, but I was pleased with the composition.

Sneezeweed in Winter

by Carl Strang

Sneezeweed is one of many yellow-flowered composites that bloom in late summer into autumn.

The ray flowers have interesting, 3-parted tips and are shorter in proportion to the bulbous disk than many similar species.

The ray flowers have interesting, 3-parted tips and are shorter in proportion to the bulbous disk than many similar species.

The name implies a traditional use as a cold remedy, but I have not run across a confirmation of this. Sneezeweed grows in wet to mesic prairies and wetland edges.

By mid-October the plant’s top has begun to senesce.

By mid-October the plant’s top has begun to senesce.

The rays drop off, the yellow centers become brown as seeds ripen.

By late November, seeds have begun to fall off, leaving the white buttons of their bases.

By late November, seeds have begun to fall off, leaving the white buttons of their bases.

The simple leaves curl and brown, collapsing against the stem.

The stem itself becomes strongly ridged.

The stem itself becomes strongly ridged.

And another winter botany chapter is complete.

Literature Review: Early Earth

by Carl Strang

A number of studies came out last year addressing the conditions of early Earth, and how life might have gotten started. That latter subject certainly is not suffering from a lack of ideas. The opposite in fact is true, and there is a confusing array of possibilities that need to be tested and sorted out. The following notes are from studies or reports of studies that caught my eye.

Life in all its complexity had a simple start, perhaps in the sea.

Life in all its complexity had a simple start, perhaps in the sea.

Hadean Eon

Clery, Daniel. 2013. Impact theory gets whacked. Science 342:183-185. This news article reviewed the history of the giant-impact moon formation theory and its discussion at a recent meeting. The model, first proposed in 1975 by William Hartman and Donald Davis, has become the consensus understanding of how the moon formed, but there have been problems. Computer simulations have indicated that the impact as understood would leave the moon formed “almost exclusively” from material in the impactor rather than the Earth. Moon rocks have shown clearly, however, that much of the moon is made of Earth material. Several new modifications have been offered. In one the impactor is much smaller than the Mars-sized body of the original model, but the Earth is spinning much faster. In another, the impactor is closer to the Earth in size. Both require some further process to set up the system we see today. The problem could be resolved if the impactor were similar to Earth in composition, i.e. if the inner planets are not as different in composition as comparisons of Earth and Mars suggest. If rocks can be obtained from Venus, and these prove to be Earth-like, a return to the original simpler giant impact model could take place.

Archean Eon

Zaleski, Daniel P., et al. Detection of e-cyanomethanimine toward Sagittarius B2(N) in the Green Bank Telescope Primos survey. The Astrophysical Journal, 2013; 765 (1): L10 DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/765/1/L10  They found a precursor to one of the building blocks of DNA, and another for an amino acid, in an interstellar cloud. The materials apparently assembled on ice particles.

L. M. Longo, J. Lee, M. Blaber. 2013. Simplified protein design biased for prebiotic amino acids yields a foldable, halophilic protein. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (6): 2135 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1219530110  From a ScienceDaily article. As an alternative to the RNA-first idea, and to the possibility of Earth life first appearing around hydrothermic vents, they have developed evidence supporting the possibility of a protein-first idea in a salt-rich environment. The amino acids thought to have been present at the time prove capable not only of forming chains under such conditions, but also of having the critical quality of folding properly in the presence of the salts.

Wordsworth, Robin, and Raymond Pierrehumbert. 2013. Hydrogen-nitrogen greenhouse warming in Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 339:64-67. There also is an interpretive article in this issue. Collisions between the nitrogen and hydrogen atoms, common in the Archean atmosphere, would have resulted in structural changes, as the atoms in each molecule bounced back and forth, that would give them greenhouse gas properties. The authors argue that this was an important factor keeping water liquid at a time when the sun was dim. As methane-metabolizing microorganisms became abundant that gas would have increased, but the authors argue that this would have cooled the Earth, possibly resulting in ice ages in those early times.

Bryant, David E., et al. 2013. Hydrothermal modification of the Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite under low pH geothermal environments. A plausibly prebiotic route to activated phosphorus on the early Earth. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 109: 90 DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2012.12.043  Their study focuses on the importance of phosphorus and ATP in cellular energetics, and supports the possibility that phosphorus-bearing meteorites landing in hot acidic pools around volcanos could have been a step between inorganic chemistry and organic life.

University of Washington (2013, July 29). Natural affinities — unrecognized until now — may have set stage for life to ignite. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2013/07/130729161514.htm  This ScienceDaily article describes findings that may shed light on the origin of life. Researchers at the University of Washington have found that certain fatty acids, in combination with the components of RNA, coalesce to form mutually protective structures, the fatty acids in a bag that brings together the nucleic acids, potentially making it easier for the latter to combine into RNA molecules. The nucleic acids reduce the disruptive effects of salt water on the fatty acid bags.

Crowe, Sean A., et al. 2013. Atmospheric oxygenation three billion years ago. Nature 501 (7468): 535 DOI: 10.1038/nature12426  From a ScienceDaily article. Study of fossil soils indicates that oxygen appeared in small amounts in the atmosphere 3 billion years ago, rather than 2.3, suggesting that photosynthesis began that much earlier.

Proterozoic Eon

Johnson, J. E., et al. 2013. Manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis before the rise of cyanobacteria. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305530110  From a ScienceDaily article. They studied marine deposits in South Africa from the beginning of the Proterozoic, before cyanobacteria had developed chlorophyll-based photosynthesis. They found concentrations of oxidized manganese, which apparently had been formed by earlier microorganisms acquiring electrons from dissolved manganese in a chemical process that could have been the precursor of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria.

B. A. Killingsworth, J. A. Hayles, C. Zhou, H. Bao. 2013. Sedimentary constraints on the duration of the Marinoan Oxygen-17 Depletion (MOSD) event. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1213154110  Oxygen isotope ratios point to a large and rapid buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide as being responsible for the end of the Snowball Earth glaciation in the Proterozoic. The ice blocked off potential sinks, especially in the oceans, so the greenhouse gas simply built (the ScienceDaily article describing the study didn’t mention the source of the gas, but volcanos would have continued to be active).

Wacey, David, et al. 2013. Nanoscale analysis of pyritized microfossils reveals differential heterotrophic consumption in the 1.9-Ga Gunflint chert. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221965110  They found evidence of preferential bacterial consumption of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) by bacteria, the earliest evidence of one kind of organism eating another. The consumers were apparently not so interested in another bacteria species. The process would have released sulfur dioxide, adding a rotten eggs odor to the atmosphere.

Bernhard, Joan M., et al. 2013. Insights into foraminiferal influences on microfabrics of microbialites at Highborne Cay, Bahamas. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221721110  They conducted experiments that supported the idea that the extinction of most stromatolites 1 billion years ago was caused by foraminifera which appeared at that time and disturbed the layered stromatolite structure (stromatolites were the abundant, layered structures formed by cyanobacteria, responsible for the early oxygenation of the atmosphere). A similar group of structures, called thrombolites, also appeared about this time with a clumped rather than layered structure. These coexist with foraminifera today.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. 2013. Nervous system may have evolved twice. Science 339:391. This news article described two genomic studies of ctenophores (comb jellies, sea animals that superficially resemble jellyfish but belong to another phylum entirely) that point to their evolving nervous systems independently of, and earlier than, all other animals. The authors of one of the studies conclude that these animals may have preceded even sponges, possibly supporting the notion that ctenophores were tied to the Ediacaran biota of the late Proterozoic.

Sound Ideas: An Odd Trio

by Carl Strang

Today’s chapter in the Sound Ideas winter series is a recording from the evening of September 4 last year. I made it in the Miller Woods portion of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Three very different singing insects can be heard distinctly throughout:

The principal target of this recording produced the annoying, continuous buzzing sound. If you had been there, you would have remarked at how loud this insect was. It was a robust conehead.

Male robust conehead, singing posture

Male robust conehead, singing posture

This katydid has a sibling species, creatively named the false robust conehead (Neoconocephalus bivocatus). I haven’t documented bivocatus in the Chicago region, but there are a couple old possible records, so occasionally I record an individual and check the pulse rate and pattern. So far, all have been good old Neoconocephalus robustus.

The other two members of that night’s trio both produced regular, brief chirps: one higher pitched and very regular in its rhythm, the other much lower and a little less regular. The higher pitched singer is famous for the way its chirping rate varies with temperature: count the chirps in 13 seconds, and add 40 to get the degrees Fahrenheit. We know this singer as the snowy tree cricket.

Snowy tree cricket male, taking a break from singing to snack on skin.

Snowy tree cricket male, taking a break from singing to snack on skin.

That leaves the bass section. The lower pitched continuo is the product of a northern mole cricket. This swale area of Miller Woods is one of only 3 locations where I have found this species to date. I don’t have a photo to show you. True to his name, the mole cricket sings from within his tunnel, and I haven’t yet had a photo op with the critter.

Ah, yes. I see an insistent hand upraised in the back of the class. Yes? Ah, very good. Yes, there is a fourth, more intermittent performer here. Those few added chirps are a fall field cricket’s, practically ubiquitous at this point in the season, and determined to insert himself into any ensemble.

Updated Singing Insects Guide Available

by Carl Strang

Singing Insects of the Chicago Region, the guide that summarizes my survey work on this subject, now is available in its newly updated version.

Singing Insect Guide 2014 cover

This edition is pushing 90 pages, with several added species pages, an expanded section on hypotheticals (mainly grasshoppers), over 300 new county records for the covered 22 counties in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, and an expanded introductory section with topics such as conservation concerns, dispersal ability, and range extension.

This guide is available for free as a 3-meg PDF document. If you are on the mailing list you already should have received it. If you wish to be added to the mailing list (which is used for no other purpose than to forward annual updates of the guide), send a request to my work e-mail address: cstrang@dupageforest.com

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