Mammalia

Here at Windgrove, Peter has created the Gaia Walk – a 1.2 km trail that winds through land and time, each meter representing 500,000 years of evolutionary history. There are markers showing significant events, along with plaques depicting life in that era. His objective is to help walkers of the trail feel time unfolding, to embody the distance that has brought life to the present. If you walk the trail backwards from the present, humans show up almost immediately, after only 3-4 meters.  The first mammals are a good distance beyond that, in the Triassic period. Peter’s Forest Bench is a good place to contemplate where we mammals sit in this span of time.moosebench

Tasmania offers a unique window into evolutionary time, and what it has meant for mammals and their divergence. When this mammal takes a morning walk down the Gaia trail to the beach, I invariably startle large creatures who thump loudly and then vanish with a quick rustle into the brush.Usually this happens before they are even visible, but face-to-face encounters with wallabies and pademelons (a smaller version of a wallaby) have the same result. The thump is akin to a deer’s warning stomp or snort. With the exception of their hindquarters and tail, wallabies look, act, and eat very much like deer, pruning shrubs into topiary shapes and grazing grasses down to a few millimeters, leaving scat everywhere. Wombats show up at times too, looking like a cross between an overgrown groundhog and a bear cub with a cute koala nose. They dig huge burrows and tunnels that would be the envy of any groundhog, and when they spot you, they scoot away with a funny hopping gait. “A wombat eats, roots, and leaves” is true with or without punctuation. Brush-tailed possums are an abundant nocturnal marsupial, with thick fur and a winsome expression. They are also the scourge of Peter’s gardens, being acrobatic and incredibly persistent, necessitating multiple layers of fencing and baffles to keep them at bay.

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pademelon

 

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red-necked wallaby

 

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wombat

 

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brush-tailed possum

I finally managed to see Tasmanian devils, also marsupials, by visiting a sanctuary down the road (the “Unzoo”). It acts as a rehabilitation center for animals afflicted with or at risk of contracting the viral cancer that has caused recent decline in their population. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I have yet to see most of the other marsupials that live here, like bandicoot, betong, potoroo, or quoll. The names alone are intriguing, but I am also fascinated by the evolutionary divergence of marsupials from placental mammals. Here, the only native placental mammals are rodents, bats, and sea mammals.  How did North America end up with so many placental mammals but just one marsupial – the opossum? What made it so successful to give birth to tiny, undeveloped young and then nurture them in a pouch, as opposed to keeping them inside and attached to the mother’s body until they have more equipment, yet are still fully dependent on milk and protection? It’s easy for those of us more familiar with the latter mode of child-rearing to consider marsupials a strange and less significant sidetrack of evolution, but it’s hard to argue with their obvious success here.

 

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juvenile Tasmanian devils

 

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adult Tasmanian devil

 

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Australian fur seals

 

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common dolphin

 

And then of course there are what seem the ultimate bizarre mammals: the monotremes, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna, which split off the mammal trunk well before marsupials and placental mammals diverged. They produce young in soft-shelled eggs and feed them milk when they hatch by way of specialized mammary tissue. I’m still hoping to see a platypus when we travel north next week, but echidnas live at Windgrove. We’ve come upon these spiny anteaters a few times now, lumbering along poking their long, snorkel-like noses into loose dirt, under sticks, anywhere that their tongues can snag a few insects with sticky saliva. They have poor eyesight but keen hearing, so the click of my camera shutter usually makes them freeze and tuck themselves into a ball of quills. One alarmed echidna scooted over to a patch of tall grass and immediately began digging itself in at the base of the plant. With backwards facing hind feet and strong front claws, it was able to excavate a deep pit in no time, and soon only its prickly back was exposed. I was not tempted to dislodge it. If the quills weren’t deterrent enough, the males also have a venomous claw on each hind leg.

 

 

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short-beaked echidna

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There is another group of mammals – the ones like rabbits and feral cats introduced by humans – that has had a profound and often devastating effect on Australian ecosystems, but I will save discussing them for another time. Meanwhile, even though I know it’s futile, I can’t help hoping that I will round a corner on the trail one day to discover a dog-like marsupial with a striped back and wide jaws devouring a rabbit. It’s been officially extinct for almost a century now, but there are those who believe that the Thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, still roams in wild places here. Windgrove seems like a perfect spot for it.

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Thylacine

Biennial

O10669154_743124215765079_3058852150826401368_one late October I was hiking at Soldiers Delight, enjoying the remnants of fall leaf color, but missing the flowers and pollinators of late summer.  I paused by a stream to search for lingering invertebrates among the rocks, and my eye caught a flash of blue on the bank.  A clump of tall, slender plants stood just before me; most bore brown seed capsules but a few waved showy blue-purple petals edged in delicate fringe, revealing their identity: Gentianopsis crinita, fringed gentian.

They were stunning in their audacity.  This is a serpentine barrens, rocky and sparse, with soil uninviting except to the most tenacious species.  And yet, it hosts several of the rarest plants in the state and even region, which appear to thrive in these deprived conditions. The fringed gentian is an endangered rarity that is only found here, and in one other spot in Maryland.  In mid-summer, it is not uncommon to find the rare sand plain gerardia blooming unconcernedly and abundantly along the path.  This lovely pink fuzzy wonder, too, always brings me to my knees.gentian1

Ever since that first encounter with the fringed gentian, I look forward to meeting it again.  This plant is a biennial, its seeds not widely dispersed unless they are carried away by the stream. There is an official information sign posted directly beside some exposed clumps along the stream on on a lesser-used trail, but I enjoy trying to find the patch that I first met by chance downstream. I bend down to the water, just as I did then, let my attention rove the gold-green substrate, to be grabbed by those beckoning blue fingers.

Monkeybrains, buckeyes, and turtleheads

A flurry of activity filled the woods at Jemicy this week.  During the first month of school, kids wshirtload of buckeyesould stare up at the bright green monkey brains hanging heavily from the lone Osage orange tree, waiting impatiently for them to fall.  Some middle school students using bamboo poles were able to knock a few buckeyes loose for instant wealth.  Finally, the weather cooled, the fruit ripened, and children squealed and scurried up and down the steep hill, filling their shirts with buckeyes and clutching monkey brains under their arms.

I stopped a few kids to photograph their bounty, and to video the trading of goods. Several older students were advertising “Monkey brain sales – today only!”holding the fruit high in the air as they ran down the trails.  A younger child stopped one of them to ask about the exchange rate. “One monkey brain for two buckeyes!” they answered.  After some consideration (“How old is this monkey brain?” “Fresh today!”), the trade was made, and the new monkey brain owner headed off to stash his prize in his fort.

christopherThis is the sort of transaction that I have been documenting in the Jemicy woods for many years.  The value of certain items waxes and wanes, often depending on relative abundance, but also on the experience and perspective of a particular year and group of kids.  Some years, monkey brains are hoarded jealously, heated arguments erupt over supposed thievery, and only when the fruit has become intolerably rotten is it dumped out of a fort.  This year, I overheard an older student dismissively say, “Why would anyone want monkey brains?  They just rot. You should just hunt for buckeyes.” Such value judgments also apply to collectibles such as garnets and quartzite, bamboo and other particular types of sticks. What merits attention and possession is not always apparent to me, but as soon as just one person finds value in something, that value seems to expand rapidly and inhere in every similar object throughout the woods, year after year.

While I was watching the kids go about their collecting aturtleheadnd trading, one girl paused beside me, and said, “Hey, there’s a flower!” I looked where she was pointing, just beside my foot, and gasped, “What?! White turtlehead?” As soon as the kids saw my reaction to the flower, a crowd gathered.  I showed them the signature white flowers, explained that this plant is rare here, that it is the host of the also rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and that it was amazing the deer hadn’t already eaten this to the ground.”We should protect it with a flag,” one boy suggested, and so we attached a fort flag to a stick, and stuck that in the ground to guard the plant. Every day after that, a few kids would go to check on the plant.  They were alarmed when the flowers began to fall off, but were reassured when I showed them the developing seed capsules left on the plant. “Well, that’s good,” said a girl. “So there will be more next year, right?” And with those hopeful words, I could feel the burgeoning value of that single small plant.

Emerging

“Where are the bees and butterflies?”

This is a question that has come up in August for at least the past couple of years. It comes from friends and colleagues who spend time outdoors, especially those who garden. It used to be that we would discuss the overabundance of pests – explosions of brown marmorated stinkbugs, flea beetles, and aphids. Those may still be problems, but now they seem overshadowed by the absence of pollinators, specifically honeybees and monarchs. The question catches me off guard every time, and I find myself quickly riffling through a mental catalog of recent images to see if bees and butterflies really have declined there. I realize as I do this that my catalog – my awareness of this particular sector of biodiversity – probably does not give an accurate reckoning. Just looking at the photographs I’ve taken confirms it. I love photographing pollinators, but honeybees account for a tiny proportion of my images. Instead, there are other types of bees, syrphid flies, ichneumon wasps, moths, ants, and myriad other bugs. Butterflies are certainly a favorite focus, but among these prevail the tiny hairstreaks and blues, the buckeyes and fritillaries. Honeybees and monarchs do get their share of attention, but only in certain quintessential moments: the first honeybee with loaded pollen sacs, delving into the first spring blossoms, the striped monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed, its black antennae waving wildly, or an adult’s orange wings a bold beacon flashing among meadow grasses.

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People who study pollinators will tell you that honeybees and monarch butterflies are not the most critical for sustaining the biodiversity of flowering plants. But as commonly cultivated species, they have become charismatic pollinator poster children. This fall, a family that raises butterflies at their home brought in several monarch caterpillars in a rearing chamber so that students could watch their metamorphosis. They performed beautifully, eating their milkweed and then climbing to the top of the chamber to affix themselves into dangling J-shapes before almost instantly transforming into lovely jade-green chrysalises. A week or so later, again in the blink of an eye, they popped out of those cases to pump and spread their wings. It is a privileged and wondrous moment to behold. Watching the faces of children who witness this transformation, who let the butterfly step onto their finger and feel that nearly weightless being lift into first flight, is to see an indelible impression being made.

Is the captive rearing of species such as honeybees and monarchs a best practice for sustaining biodiversity? Is it any different from celebrating the recent birth of a giant panda in the National Zoo? To me, the question is less about the well-being of these species, and more about whether the attention they receive detracts from others that are permonarch0730151haps less appealing, but are vital pieces of a larger puzzle whose full picture is still being described. What about the striking saddleback caterpillar with venomous spines that we watch out for in the woods? What about the plump orange milkweed bug nymphs huddling on the milkweed leaves?

When the last of the donated monarch butterflies had emerged and flown, the parent who had loaned us the rearing setup came to retrieve it. She saw that one chrysalis still hung there, mostly green, but with one dark blotch. “Oh, that one will produce a parasitic grub,” she said. “You should just destroy it.” I thanked her and asked to keep it a few days longer. That puzzle isn’t finished quite yet.

Artifact

TDSC_0036his week, my JE classes are looking for artifacts, to try and piece together the mystery of Jemicy’s history.  An artifact, I told them, is something made by hand.  Maybe a piece of pottery, a chunk of metal or glass, or a stone shaped for a purpose. Jemicy’s wooded hillside leading down to the smattfeatherstream is loaded with artifacts, having been backfilled with the construction refuse of prior tenants, including a dairy farm and another small school. We headed out with collecting bags to search the woods.  Immediately, old bricks and chunks of clay drainage pipe were discovered.  Pieces of thick, oddly shaped glass surfaced, and large slabs of concrete protruded from a half century’s collection of forest detritus.  It seemed impossible to account for all the pieces of human activity strewn around us. We spent an hour hunting, spreading out through the woods, and when we finally gathered to share our finds, “artifact” had expanded its meaning.  Here, among the scattered clay and glass shards, were spherical garnets and chunks of sparkling mica schist, jagged pieces of quartzite, a handful of scarlet spicebush berries, some wild apples, a black crow’s feather, and a red-tailed hawk’s red tail feather. In these woods so altered by humans, many of the most attractive artifacts are those that are not shaped by hands.  They are the collectible bits of evidence that other animals have been here, fruits announcing ripeness, and the gleaming, perfectly pocket-sized rocks that weather and time have revealed.