Study of a Tree

Georges Michel (French, 1763-1843)Georges Michel (1763-1843)

 

by Hope Jahren

A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting.
What each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince the seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.
. . . .
When you go into a forest … you probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die.
. . . When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

A coconut is a seed as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with a shoot and a root already formed.
When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago.
. . . .
After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell.


With gratitude to Nicolas Silver for presenting me with the book from which this incomplete excerpt is lifted.
“Lab Girl” is a 2016 memoir by American geochemist, geobiologist, and professor Hope Jahren.

 

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Fish Emerge From the Ice

pineconeattrib. LWR Wenckebach (1860-1937)

 

In ancient times the Japanese divided their year into 24 periods based on classical Chinese sources. The natural world comes to life in the even more vividly named 72 subdivisions of the traditional Japanese calendar.
The 24 divisions are each split again into three, for a total of 72  that last around five days each. The original Chinese names did not always match up well with the local climate, so in Japan they were eventually rewritten, in 1685, by the court astronomer, Shibukawa Shunkai.

(The dates in the following table are approximate and may vary by one day depending on the year. [My own fear is that climate change will have distorted seasons everywhere, and so the dates may vary more widely. –s.g.]
There are no standard readings in Japanese for the kanji names of the 72 , so other sources may give different readings.)

 

Risshun (Beginning of spring)
February 4–8: East wind melts the ice
February 9–13: Bush warblers start singing in the mountains
February 14–18: Fish emerge from the ice

Usui (Rainwater)
February 19–23: Rain moistens the soil
February 24–28: Mist starts to linger
March 1–5: Grass sprouts, trees bud

Keichitsu (Insects awaken)
March 6–10: Hibernating insects surface
March 11–15: First peach blossoms
March 16–20: Caterpillars become butterflies

Shunbun (Spring equinox)
March 21–25: Sparrows start to nest
March 26–30: First cherry blossoms
March 31–April: Distant thunder

Seimei (Pure and clear)
April 5–9: Swallows return
April 10–14: Wild geese fly north
April 15–19: First rainbows

Kokuu (Grain rains)
April 20–24: First reeds sprout
April 25–29: Last frost, rice seedlings grow
April 30–May 4: Peonies bloom

Rikka (Beginning of summer)
May 5–9: Frogs start singing
May 10–14: Worms surface
May 15–20: Bamboo shoots sprout

Shōman (Lesser ripening)
May 21–25: Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves
May 26–30: Safflowers bloom
May 31–June 5: Wheat ripens and is harvested

Bōshu (Grain beards and seeds)
June 6–10: Praying mantises hatch
June 11–15: Rotten grass becomes fireflies
June 16–20: Plums turn yellow

Geshi (Summer solstice)
June 21–26: Self-heal withers
June 27–July 1: Irises bloom
July 2–6: Crow-dipper sprouts

Shōsho (Lesser heat)
July 7–11: Warm winds blow
July 12–16: First lotus blossoms
July 17–22: Hawks learn to fly

Taisho (Greater heat)
July 23–28: Paulownia trees produce seeds
July 29–August 2: Earth is damp, air is humid
August 3–7: Great rains sometimes fall

Risshū (Beginning of autumn)
August 8–12: Cool winds blow. The mountains begin to color.
August 13–17: Evening cicadas sing
August 18–22: Thick fog descends

Shosho (Manageable heat)
August 23–27: Cotton flowers bloom
August 28–September 1: Heat starts to die down
September 2–7: Rice ripens

Hakuro (White dew)
September 8–12: Dew glistens white on grass
September 13–17: Wagtails sing
September 18–22: Swallows leave

Shūbun (Autumn equinox)
September 23–27: Thunder ceases
September 28–October 2: Insects hole up underground
October 3–7: Farmers drain fields

Kanro (Cold dew)
October 8–12: Wild geese return
October 13–17: Chrysanthemums bloom
October 18–22: Crickets chirp around the door

Sōkō (Frost falls)
October 23–27: First frost
October 28–November 1: Light rains sometimes fall
November 2–6: Maple leaves and ivy turn yellow

Rittō (Beginning of winter)
November 7–11: Camellias bloom
November 12–16: Land starts to freeze
November 17–21: Daffodils bloom

Shōsetsu (Lesser snow)
November 22–26: Rainbows hide
November 27–December 1: North wind blows the leaves from the trees
December 2–6: Citrus tree leaves start to turn yellow

Taisetsu (Greater snow)
December 7–11: Cold sets in, winter begins
December 12–16: Bears start hibernating in their dens
December 17–21: Salmons gather and swim upstream

Tōji (Winter solstice)
December 22–26: Self-heal sprouts
December 27–31: Deer shed antlers
January 1–4: Wheat sprouts under snow

Shōkan (Lesser cold)
January 5–9: Parsley flourishes
January 10–14: Springs thaw
January 15–19: Pheasants start to call

Daikan (Greater cold)
January 20–24: Butterburs bud
January 25–29: Ice thickens on streams
January 30–February 3: Hens start laying eggs

 

https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00124/

 

In Our Hands Forests Sleep

lynx-la-balsaminaProbably from the botanical manuscripts of Federico Angelo Cesi (1585 – 1630), founder of the Accademia dei Lincei

 
Protea montana
 is a threatened species from the very highest peaks of the Western Cape of South Africa.
A fluffy seed coat allows it to be blown – after a fire has released it from the prison of a dead flower head – to a site where the same fluff allows it to corkscrew into the shallow soil and wait for winter rain.

For a thing so small, a seed bears a heavy burden: the future existence of its species.
If things go wrong for the seed, it could mean potential extinction.

Each plant species produces its own unique and beautiful seeds.
Beyond that beauty and uniqueness are the processes that place them into dormancy until the conditions are just right, distribute them, bring them out of their stasis and cause them to germinate.
Then each has its  pollination process allowing it to produce more seeds.

Mimetes stokoei
, the mace pagoda, has been declared extinct twice because there were no actual plants of this species growing anywhere on Earth.
What wasn’t considered at the time was that the mace pagoda had placed its entire future security as a species
on seed buried just under the surface of the soil, and was waiting for the right kind of fire to trigger germination.

Hope, so inextricably tied up in seeds, has led to them being one of our most important backup plans for the planet, and so humanity.
There are people out there all over the world busily collecting and storing seed; guardians of our future.
The wild relatives of our crops, endangered species, and culturally important varieties, are all important to seed-bankers.
In some countries, it’s the only way to preserve the sheer levels of genetic diversity there now.

We don’t really know what the future holds, so we must cover all bases.
On the day when we need to put endangered species back into restored habitats, or bring back genetic diversity to our crops, we will have all that potential locked away in the form of a seed.

Ecosystem restoration projects across the globe depend entirely on seed, along with the people collecting them and those who know how to grow them.
With some forethought, often on the part of enlightened governments, people are coming together to make sure the possibilities of seeds are realised.
In Thailand, rainforest is being restored using seed bombs dropped from army planes.
In the USA the Native Seed Network and the Plant Conservation Alliance are bringing together a united force of native seed collectors, growers, and landscape restoration experts in an attempt, fostered by the Obama government through its National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, to make sure all degraded habitats are restored using seed of local provenance as a matter of utmost urgency.

 

Robbie Blackhall-Miles is a plantsman and conservationist. He tweets as @fossilplants.
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2017/jan/13/seeds-little-time-capsules-that-could-secure-our-future?CMP=share_btn_tw#comment-91392416

https://secretgardening.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/the-seed-shop/

 

Baby Tortoise

juvenile-ornate-slider-illustrated-by-james-de-carle-sowerbyJames De Carle Sowerby (1787–1871)

 


Baby Tortoise

 

You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from
the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would
never open
Like some iron door;
To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base
And reach your skinny neck
And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,
Alone, small insect,
Tiny bright-eye,
Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite
And move on your slow, solitary hunt.
Your bright, dark little eye,
Your eye of a dark disturbed night,
Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,
So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little
wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.
Whither away, small bird?
Rather like a baby working its limbs,
Except that you make slow, ageless progress
And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly
gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head
in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?
Or is sleep coming over you again,
The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?
Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the
first life
Looking round
And slowly pitching itself against the inertia
Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,
And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,
Challenger.

Nay, tiny shell-bird.
What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row
against,
What an incalculable inertia.

Challenger,
Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
No bigger than my thumb-nail,
Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,
Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.
The ponderous, preponderate,
Inanimate universe;
And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled
sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,
Resting your head half out of your wimple
In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.
Alone, with no sense of being alone,
And hence six times more solitary;
Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through
immemorial ages
Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,
Small bird,
Over the edge of all things.

Traveller,
With your tail tucked a little on one side
Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,
Invincible fore-runner

 

D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

Pediculus cervi

fauna_germanica_diptera_1793_vol-1_p10_pediculus_cervi_fabrJacob Sturm (1771–1848)
Faunae insectorum germanicae initia Sturm

The Journeys of Birds

migration19th Century
Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi

At least 4,000 species of bird are known to be regular migrants, which is about 40 percent of the total number of birds in the world.
(Although this number will likely increase as we learn more about the habits of birds in tropical regions.)

Birds can reach great heights as they migrate.
Bar-headed Geese are the highest-flying migratory birds, regularly reaching altitudes of up to five and a half miles above sea level while flying over the Himalayas in India.
But the bird with the record for the highest altitude ever is the Ruppel’s Griffon Vulture.

The Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird in the world. They can fly more than 49,700 miles in a year, making a round trip between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where they spend their winters.
Over a lifespan of more than 30 years, the flights can add up to the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.

The Northern Wheatear travels up to 9,000 miles each way between the Arctic and Africa, giving it one of the largest ranges of any songbird.
What makes this an especially amazing feat is that the tiny bird weighs less than an ounce.

The Bar-tailed Godwit has the longest recorded non-stop flight, flying for nearly 7,000 miles, over eight days, without food or rest.

To prepare for the extremely taxing effort of migration, birds enter a state called hyperphagia, where they bulk up on food in the preceding weeks to store fat, which they’ll later use for energy on their long journeys.
Some, like the Blackpoll Warbler, almost double their body weight before flying 2,300 miles for 86 hours without stopping.

Even birds that don’t fly migrate.
Emus, the large Australian birds, often travel for miles on foot to find food, and many populations of Penguins migrate by swimming.

Migration can be terribly dangerous for birds, and they often don’t make it back to their starting point.
Sometimes natural occurrences like harsh weather play a role, but human activities are the cause of many deaths.
In the United States alone, up to one billion birds die each year from window collisions,
seven million from striking TV and radio towers.

http://www.audubon.org/birds
http://www.audubon.org/conservation

A Gossamer World

spider-webAugust Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759)
Insecten-Belustigung

Two years ago, a research team led by the University of Oxford revealed that, when plucked like a guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, carrying information about prey, mates and even the structural integrity of a web.
Now, a new collaboration between Oxford and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has confirmed that spider webs are superbly tuned instruments for vibration transmission.

Web-dwelling spiders have poor vision and rely almost exclusively on web vibrations for their ‘view’ of the world.
The musical patterns coming from their tuned webs provide them with crucial information on the type of prey caught in the web and of predators approaching, as well as the quality of prospective mates.
Spiders carefully engineer their webs out of a range of silks to control web architecture, tension and stiffness, analogous to constructing and tuning a musical instrument.

High-powered lasers were able to experimentally measure the ultra-small vibrations, which allowed the team to generate and test computer models using mathematical finite element analysis.

Professor Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford Silk Group, added: ‘It is down to the interaction of the web materials, a range of bespoke web silks, and the spider with its highly tuned behaviour and armoury of sensors that allows this virtually blind animal to operate in a gossamer world of its own making, without vision and only relying on feeling. Perhaps the web spider can teach us something new about virtual vision.’

 

‘Tuning the instrument: sonic properties in the spider’s web’ is published in Journal of the Royal Society http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-07-tuning-instrument-spider-webs-vibration-transmission-structures#

 

A Marmoset Taking Sweets on a Painted Commode

marmoset-teacupLouis Tessier (c.1719 – 1781)

 

“Virtually every ‘uniquely human’ characteristic has turned out not to be so”, Matthew Cobb, The Guardian


by

It used to happen every day at the London Zoo: Out came the dainty table and chairs, the china cups and saucers — ­afternoon tea, set out for the inhabitants of the ape enclosure to throw and smash. It was supposed to be amusing — a ­comic, reckless collision of beasts and high ­culture. But, as Frans de Waal explains in “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”,  apes are actually innovative, agile tool-users.
Not surprisingly — to de Waal, at least — the apes in London quickly mastered the teacups and teapot too. They sat there civilly, having tea.
“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” de Waal writes. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout,” and so on.
The animals had to be taught to be as stupid as we assumed they were. But, of course, the fact that they could be taught to be stupid is only more perverse evidence of their intelligence.

For centuries, our understanding of animal intelligence has been obscured in just this kind of cloud of false assumptions and human egotism.
De Waal painstakingly untangles the confusion, then walks us through research revealing what a wide range of animal species are actually capable of.
Tool use, cooperation, awareness of individual identity, theory of mind, planning, metacognition and perceptions of time — we now know that all these archetypically human, cognitive feats are performed by some animals as well.
And not just primates: By the middle of ­Chapter 6, we’re reading about cooperation among leopard coral trout.

There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth.
They’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.)
They’ve performed the ­famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror.
Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.

We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls “neo-creationist” thinking: We accept evolution but assume “evolution stopped at the human head” — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions.
But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of “cognitive ripples”:
We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous, it looks the most like our intelligence.
“After the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.”

 

 

It Could Take a Century to Recover

elephant5Portrait of an Elephant, Indian, c.1620-30

Study finds extremely slow reproduction rate unable to keep pace with deaths

African forest elephants have experienced serious poaching, driving an estimated population decline of 65% between 2002 and 2013.
Their low birth rates mean that it will take forest elephants at least 90 years to recover from these losses, according to researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project, Colorado State University, and Save the Elephants.

These findings are from the first-ever study of forest elephant demography just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

“Female forest elephants in the Dzanga population typically breed for the first time after 23 years of age, a markedly late age of maturity relative to other mammals. In contrast, savannah elephants typically begin breeding at age 12.
In addition, breeding female forest elephants only produced a calf once every five to six years, relative to the three to four-year interval found for savannah elephants.”
Andrea Turkalo, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, collected the detailed data on the elephants over several decades, in spite of tough logistical challenges and political instability.
“This work provides another critical piece of understanding regarding the dire conservation status of forest elephants.”

George Wittemyer, a professor in Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University said, “Legislation regarding ivory trade must consider the collateral effects on forest elephants and the difficulties of protecting them. Trade in ivory in one nation can influence the pressures on elephants in other nations.”
And the forest elephant is particularly susceptible to poaching.

Forest elephants also have critical ecological roles in Central African forests, and many tree species rely on the elephants to disperse their seeds.
Those forests are vitally important for absorbing climate change gases.


http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=b35ddb671faf4a16c0ce32406&id=8dfd2ac2f4&e=d327cdd2ca

Evolution

kinyuHistoire naturelle des dorades de la Chine, Edme Billardon-Sauvigny (1736 – 1812), gravées par F.N. Martinet accompagnée d’observations et d’anecdotes relatives aux usages, aux moeurs et au gouvernement de cet empire par m. de Sauvigny

 

“Because fishes inhabit vast, obscure habitats, science has only begun to explore below the surface of their private lives. They are not instinct-driven or machinelike. Their minds respond flexibly to different situations. They are not just things; they are sentient beings.”

In his new book, What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins, Jonathan Balcombe presents evidence that fish have a conscious awareness that allows them to experience pain, recognize individual humans and have memory.
“Thanks to the breakthroughs in ethology, sociobiology, neurobiology and ecology, we can now better understand what the world looks like to fish,” Balcombe says.

“They are the product of over 400 million years of evolution so the perceptions and sensory abilities of fish” . . . whether strange to us or very familiar, are wonderfully developed.
“One is a sense of water pressure or movement in the water that’s very acute. Some fishes, including sharks, can detect electrical signals from other organisms.
Some can create electric organ discharges, and they use those as communication signals. They will change their own frequency if they’re swimming by another fish with a similar frequency, so they don’t jam and confuse each other. They also show deference by shutting off their EODs when they’re passing the fish who holds that territory.

At low tide, frillfin gobies hide in rocky tide pools. If danger lurks — a hungry octopus, say — the goby will jump to a neighboring tide pool, with remarkable accuracy. How do they avoid ending up stranded on the rocks?
A series of captive experiments dating from the 1940s found something remarkable. They memorize the tide pool layout while swimming over it at high tide. They can do it in one try, and remember it 40 days later. So much for a fish’s mythic three-second memory.

On reefs, collaborative hunting has developed an astonishing degree of sophistication. A grouper has been observed inviting a moray eel to join in a foray, communicating by a head-shaking gesture or a full body shimmy. The two fishes probably know each other, for individual recognition is the norm in fish societies.
If the grouper chases a fish into a reef crevice, it uses its body to point to the hidden prey until the slender eel goes after it; if the hapless quarry escapes to open water, the grouper is waiting.

In a study of striated surgeon-fishes collected from the Great Barrier Reef, researchers stressed their subjects by placing them, one at a time, for 30 minutes in a bucket with just enough water to cover them.
When given the chance, the frazzled surgeon-fishes repeatedly sidled up to a realistic mechanical model of a cleaner-fish that was rigged to deliver gentle strokes. Their stress levels — measured as cortisol taken by blood sample — plummeted.
One study showed individual recognition of human faces by fishes–so they probably do recognize individual divers–and they come up to be stroked.

If temporary confinement to a small bucket traumatizes a fish, think what it feels like to be caught. Every year, an estimated half trillion fishes are hauled up from their habitat.
They die by suffocation and crushing in order to provide food for us, our pets and livestock, and even for the fishes we farm. That, or we toss them back, usually dead or dying, as unwanted by-catch.

Some of the methods to catch fish for acquariums are pretty awful: Cyanide poisoning, which often kills many of the fishes being targeted– or ones not being targeted– and explosive devices are sometimes used.
And then you have the vicissitudes of transport, where they’re shipped over continents and the mortality rates are high.
So we are campaigning actively to try to discourage people from buying these fishes, because when you purchase a product, you tell the manufacturer to do it again, and we don’t really want that happening

The simplest way to help is to reduce our consumption of fish and to source what we do eat from suppliers that adhere to animal welfare standards.
As innovative research reveals new facets of the private lives of fishes, I’m hopeful that perceptions will change and we’ll show them more mercy.”

 


N.Y. Times 5/15/2016

Fresh Air 6/20/2016