Here and there in August

meadows high and low, a snacking porcupine, and odd bear scat

Early in the month, a female mallard arrived on my pond with her late brood of three good-sized young ones, still wearing lots of down. A week later, they were well-feathered except for a distinguishing fuzzy patch of down on the rumps of the ‘kids’. At the end of the month, the kids were no longer fuzzy at all, but they still hung out with mom.

A trip with friends up to Cropley Lake in mid-August was a muddy one. But the meadows were studded with the flowers of swamp gentian and asters. Fish were rising in the lake; Dolly Varden are recorded to be resident in the lake, although a few might wash out downstream at high water. On the far side of the lake, we looked for the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian and found them on a gentle slope. The relatively rare yellow fireweed crowded a small drainage gully, a habitat it seems to like.

Broad-petaled gentian. Photo by David Bergeson

The next day, I cruised around Amalga Meadows near the Eagle Valley Center. The parking area was crammed with cars, but all the people from those cars were either up on the horse tram trail or at the new cabin. So I had the meadow to myself. The grasses were so tall that walking was not easy, except where a bear(?) had stomped through. Nagoon berries were ripe, hidden down in the tall grass, but bog cranberries were still green. The seeds of cotton grass were dispersing in long streamers from the seed-heads. Sweetgrass was seeding well. In part of the meadow, I had to watch my feet closely, so as not to step on the many tiny toadlets that scuttled to safety as they dispersed from their natal ponds.

Porcupine’s lunch. Photo by David Bergeson

Not long after that, I perched on a hillside on the way to Hilda meadows at Eaglecrest. There I watched a tiny red mite, not even a millimeter long, wander up and down over the petals of a swamp gentian, exploring the depths of the flower. From the perspective of such a wee beastie, even those small flowers have depth! Eventually it settled briefly in the deepest part of the flower, perhaps finding something usable there (?).

A walk up the Salmon Creek road with friends found that the some of the many self-heal plants, seen in bloom on a previous walk, were setting seed. By the side of the road, we found several quite handsome, large beetles with reddish-brown carapaces (I think I used to know a name for them). On the way up, we all simultaneously spotted a porcupine trundling along the side of the road ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it. Moving away from us at first, it turned around and began snacking on some roadside greenery. We tried to slither by, but it scuttled into the brush, just a little way, where it sat watching us and shaking its wet fur. We went on, and it came right back to its green lunch. As we came back down the road later, it was still there and made a repeat performance. That must have been a particularly nice meal, not to be abandoned. Near the water tower, we spotted two deer, looking smooth and sleek; one of them stayed to watch us pass by, ears up like flags.

The next day, I went with a friend to the junction of Eagle and Herbert rivers, a spot that has been fun to visit in other years. This time, however, the sketchy little trail was greatly overgrown—only suitable for those less than three feet high at the shoulder, and sometimes it disappeared entirely. On a spruce tree ahead of us, the trunk looked like it had lots of dark spots the size of a fifty-cent piece (remember those?); close-up, those spots turned out to be places where busy woodpeckers had flaked off bits of the scaly bark. Out at the point, otters had romped in the sand. Two ravens spotted us immediately but were too shy to come in for the (obviously expected) offerings we tossed out onto a sandy ledge. On the way back, we found several bear scats full of blueberry remnants and three strange, yellowish deposits composed of short chunks of plant stem and a few devils club seeds. These had presumably been deposited with a lot of fluid, because they were spread thinly and flat on the ground. I’d sure like to know what plant had been eaten and what occasioned those deposits.

Small things

…that live on leaves

Photo by Mary Willson

In early August, on the trail that starts near the end of the North Douglas Highway, I found a funny looking thing on the underside of an alder leaf. There was a long, thin, stick-like form underneath a transparent, plate-like covering. A photo was sent off for help with ID; the word came back that it is the typical cocoon of a moth in the genus Caloptilia. There are many species in this genus, and we don’t know which one this is. But, in general, the larvae are leaf miners at first, and later on they become leaf rollers, rolling up a leaf edge into a cone-shaped tube. The adult moths are very small, with a wingspan of about a centimeter. Judging from online images, the wings are very strange (at least in some species): the hindwing is totally fringed, and the rear border of the forewing is likewise fringed. Despite that unusual wing feature, apparently they can fly fairly well.

Photo by Mary Willson

Along that same short stretch of trail, many small spruces had obvious damage on the new growth. This turned out to be spruce needle rust (a fungus). It infects only the new needles and seldom kills the tree, although it may reduce growth of the tree because the new needles are a better source of photosynthesized carbohydrates than are old needles. Outbreaks of infection occur periodically, but seldom erupt in the same place for more than a year or two. Outbreaks are triggered by cool, wet weather in spring, when spore spread from the alternate host, Labrador tea, to spruce needles. Then in summer, different spores disperse from needles back to Labrador tea, and yet another kind of spore then spreads to more Labrador tea plants. The following spring, it’s back to spruce again. This part of the trail would seem to be ideally suited to this life cycle, because some of the area is muskeg, with Labrador tea shrubs, and spruces are colonizing the edges of the muskeg.

Some of the alders in the same area had small fuzzy, white caterpillars on the leaves. These were the larvae of the woolly alder sawfly. The fuzzy, woolly look is produced by a waxy secretion that is shed before the larva pupates. An adult female is about 7 millimeters long; she inserts eggs into alder leaves, usually those that are relatively young and low on the tree. The larvae feed first on the upper leaf surface, later moving to the underside. Their feeding activity can skeletonize leaves, leaving only the veins. When the larvae are fully developed, they drop to the ground and make a cocoon in the leaf litter. Thought to originate in Europe, this species may be largely parthenogenetic, since males are reported to be absent in North America and quite rare in Europe.

Photo by Mary Willson

Not far away, there were lots of galls on some willow leaves, mostly near the veins. Pointed underneath and reddish on top, they might be the temporary homes of larval gall midges (possibly an Iteomyia species). These seem to be better studied in Europe than in North America, but I found no details of the biology and life history. In general, the tiny female fly lays eggs on the leaf; when mature, the larva drops to the ground to pupate for the winter.

Thanks to Charley Eiseman for long-distance consultation and Elizabeth E. Graham of FSL for local consultation.

Sticky asphodel

a plant with many surprises

A pretty little perennial plant (Triantha glutinosa) grows in many of our muskegs. It’s sometimes called sticky asphodel, after the flowers that were said to grow in the Elysian Fields where the souls of the dead resided. The basis for this name-transfer from the myth to a tangible organism is not clear; I presume the original name-giver had not actually visited those mythical fields…

It bears white flowers on a sticky stem that often catches small insects. Sometimes ten or twenty tiny insects are stuck to a stem, all of them less than two millimeters long and most of them less than one millimeter long. This observation led to questions: is this plant maybe insectivorous, like the sundews, or do the sticky hairs somehow protect the flowering stem from herbivores? My colleague and I sometimes observed geometrid moth caterpillars on these plants, where they eat the seeds out of the seed capsules. But the caterpillars are not deterred by the sticky hairs; when experimentally placed on a sticky stem, they usually marched right up to the seed capsules. So those hairs did not defend against that herbivore, at least. https //vimeo.com/588147192.

Moth larvae on seed capsules

Could the sticky hairs perhaps digest the captured insects and thus gain nutrition for the plants? We labelled some fruit flies with an isotope of nitrogen and, in 2007, placed them on the stems while the plants were flowering. Weeks later, when the seeds matured, we looked for that isotope label in the seeds and in the roots—two places where nitrogen might be stored, either for the offspring or for future growth. But no isotope marker showed up there. In contrast, sundews happily took up the extra nitrogen from our fruit flies. We then, for various reasons, abandoned the project.

However, just recently (2021), there came a fascinating published report that a closely related species (T. occidentalis) is indeed insectivorous. This species is so closely related to our local T. glutinosa, that it is likely that the findings of this study would apply here as well.

The researchers in that study applied isotopically labelled fruit flies to the flowering stems. Sampling the developing fruits, leaves, and stems a week or two later, they found the isotope marker in all those plant parts, indicating that nitrogen had been transferred from insect to plant. This resulted in an increase of nitrogen concentration, particularly in fruits and stems, but that increase was temporary. Apparently that nitrogen had been translocated, perhaps to roots (for future growth) or possibly to maturation of additional fruits that year. These possibilities were not measured, at least in this report.

However, as noted above, our little study did not find the marker isotope in roots or seeds. So we can hope that further research will resolve this issue.

Nevertheless, the new research clearly shows that, assuming our species is like the other, we have another local member of the insectivorous-plant clan, along with two species of sundew, bladderwort, and butterwort. I’m sure that more will be discovered, if we would just look!

p.s. Back in the 1980s, one of my PhD students showed that labelled nitrogen was taken up in sticky traps on the inflorescences of Penstemon digitalis and Cirsium discolor. In P. digitalis, sticky hairs occur on the flower itself and its stem; in C. discolor, the traps are on the outer involucral bracts just below the flowering head. The pollinators of penstemon (bees) are too big to get stuck on the traps, and the assorted pollinators of Cirsium approach the flowers from above, and so do not encounter the traps. No defensive function of those traps was found. Instead, the sticky traps had digestive enzymes and provided extra nitrogen and phosphorus to the plants, and this resulted in increased numbers of seeds by both species. Unlike most species that are known to be insectivorous, these two do not inhabit very nutrient-poor habitats such as bogs.

Reflections on plant names

misnomers and misrepresentations

Photo by Kerry Howard

I marvel at some of the English common names that our local plants have acquired. Some are fanciful (and a bit silly), such as mist-maiden and shy maiden. At least one is totally misleading: skunk cabbage is not very cabbage-y and not at all skunky; in fact, we enjoy its lovely sweet smell that wafts over some of the swampy trails. A misnomer on all counts.

Other misnomers include several species whose English name included the word ‘grass’, none of which is a true grass or even related to true grasses. There’s cotton-grass, so common in many bogs, and arrow-grass, a much rarer type in wetlands. At least both of those have narrow leaves with parallel veins—characteristics shared with grasses—so the misnomer is not too wild. That’s not the case, however, for scurvy grass, a little member of the mustard family that’s very common in saline meadows; it has no grass-like features. And then there’s so-called grass-of-Parnassus; its taxonomic classification may be debated but never comes close to real grasses. This is an ancient misnomer based on a plant growing on Mt Parnassus in Greece, but the mistaken name has apparently petrified in place.  Interesting…how long old mistakes stay with us!

Perhaps the English names that most annoy me are those that are ‘false’. Here are a few of them:

–false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum). This plant does not resemble the real lily of the valley of our gardens. The leaves have a different shape and the tiny flowers are borne on an upright stalk, not dangling like little bells under the curved leaves. Sometimes this species is called ‘deer heart’, from the shape of the leaves, or mayflower, which is a translation of the genus name; either alterative is an improvement over ‘false’ anything.

–false hellebore (Veratrum viride). This is a goofy name for this member of the lily family on two counts. It looks quite unlike the original hellebore (Helleborus) of Eurasia, which has showy flowers, a different growth form, a different leaf shape and venation, and is not even in the same taxonomic family. So, to apply that name is inappropriate in the first place. Then to call it ‘false’ is a double insult. One field guide suggests an alternative name of corn lily, and the tasseled inflorescence vaguely recalls the tops of corn stalks. Is that better?

–false huckleberry (Menziesia ferruginea). Sometimes it’s also called false azalea or fool’s huckleberry. I have no idea what the imagined resemblance to azalea may have been; I see none. The plant does share with real huckleberry two features: both are shrubs and the flower shape is similar. And they are classified in the same family. But the flower color is different (orange vs pinkish), the leaves are quite different, and the fruit of this species is a dry capsule rather than a succulent berry. One field guide simply calls it ‘rusty Menziesia’, a translation of its Latin name, which at least avoids falsity and foolishness.

–Cooley’s false buttercup (Kumlienia cooleyae). Formerly, this plant was classified with the ‘true’ buttercups (Ranunculus), but taxonomists decided it deserved its own genus. OK. But that doesn’t make it ‘false’ in any way; it’s just a different kind of buttercup. One might argue that it was ‘false’ when it was still in the genus Ranunculus, just because it was somewhat different, but now that it’s in its own genus, it is surely not false. Why not simply Cooley’s buttercup?

–sticky false asphodel (Triantha glutinosa).  This North American species was formerly classified in the genus Tofieldia, which occurs in Eurasia as well as North America.  The original asphodel was a flower of the mythical Elysian Fields (thought to be inhabited by the souls of the dead); just how and why the name was applied to this species is not clear. Again, while our species was classified as Tofieldia, it was perceived as different and arguably ‘false’ (from a taxonomist’s perspective). But now it is its own thing, it’s not false at all. In any case, an alternative, more suitable name might be sticky bog asphodel or just sticky asphodel.

–false toadflax (Geocaulon lividum). It is unrelated to the plant called yellow toadflax (sometimes called butter-and-eggs) and looks nothing at all like that. So it is not ‘false’ in any sense. One of its several alternative names, such as timberberry, might be suitable.

The epithet of ‘false’ turns up occasionally among the mosses and fungi too, for supposed look-alikes. There, it serves as a warning, of sorts, I suppose…’Don’t confuse this with that.’ Couldn’t there be a better way to make the distinctions?

Taxonomists often transfer a species from one genus to a new genus (as happened in examples above), or move a species from one genus to another established one, sometimes eliminating one genus altogether when all of its species are transferred elsewhere. But somehow, the English names seem to be locked in, even when they are misleading.

We all have heard the expression: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’  It seems to me that these persistent cases of poor English names similarly reflect (among other possibilities) the inadequate observation ability of the individual who first applied the name. But the continued use of ridiculously inappropriate names is hard to explain.

Crane flies

under the soil, in the water, and in the air

In early August I had reports of crane flies in large numbers gathering on the sides of buildings or clambering about in the grass. There are thousands of species of crane fly in the world and I don’t know what species we have here in Juneau. Crane flies are sometimes called mosquito hawks, but the adults cannot eat mosquitos or anything else, although they may sip a bit of water or nectar—they do not have the mouthparts for biting. Crane fly is a more appropriate name, because these flies have very long legs (Why??). (Parenthetically: crane flies are called daddy longlegs in the U.K., but that nickname is just confusing here, because we use it for spider relatives that are also known as harvestmen.)

The flying adults are interested in just one thing—mating https://vimeo.com/586063905. They only live for a week or two, so males and females have a short time in which to find each other. Females have pointed abdomens for depositing eggs, while males have clasping pincers at the end of the abdomen. Females already have mature eggs when they emerge from their pupal case, so they are ready to go. Once mating is accomplished, females go off to lay their eggs and then die. In the meantime, the adults are food for birds and other animals (including a cat that apparently finds them delicious).

Crane fly larvae are sometimes called leatherjackets, because they have a tough outer skin. Hatching from eggs laid in the soil, the larvae eat plant roots, decomposing organic material, and algae; they may occasionally emerge to feed above ground. Each larva spends a long time in the soil, eating and growing to a length of one to one-and-a-half inches or so. It may spend several winters there, often three years or more (four in Arctic tundra). In some arid parts of the U.S. they become dormant during drought times and resume eating only when a good rain wets the soil, so their larval time is even longer.

Photo by Ginger Hudson

When it is ready, the larva pupates while it transforms into the adult. At least in some species, the pupa is oriented vertically in the soil, with the head very near the surface, so the adult can crawl out, dry its wings, and fly off to find a mate.

Birds know about these larvae and pupae in the shallow, damp soils. Robins and starlings poke around in the grass, and we often see crows and ravens doing that too—sometimes many of them in a field. I wonder how the birds find these tasty morsels! Do they see them, smell them, hear the larvae munching or the adult working its way out of the pupa, or ??. And I wonder if bears ever go after them, as they do for other insects.

Some species have aquatic larvae, usually living on the bottom, where they feed on fallen leaves and organic detritus, but a few are predaceous. Most of them breathe air by coming to the surface and hanging there, while spiracles at the end of the abdomen take in air. The legless larvae may gain some traction for moving about on bottom substrates by means of stout hairs on the abdomen. These elongate, soft bodies are good food for Dolly Varden, grayling, and—no doubt—dippers too.

Starry flounder

learning about an often-overlooked fish

Photo by Bob Armstrong

I usually write about some observation that sparked my interest along the trails. This time, the connections between the observation and the writing is more indirect. I went to Steep Creek to check on the sockeye spawning run and found that the run seems to be quite small this year (so far, anyway). That simple observation led to one of those quick-time thought-chains that our brains do when we are not looking. In this case, it led to Who eats sockeye (bears, otters, eagles), particularly the eggs and juveniles (mergansers, Dolly Varden, dippers); from there to dippers eating fish of other types, including little starry flounders. I have seen dippers catching very small starry flounders in Sheep Creek delta and in Switzer Creek.

Then my ignorance asserted itself and announced that I know next to nothing about starry flounders and perhaps I should learn a bit about their life history. So here goes:

Starry flounders live in the North Pacific, Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean along the north coast of Alaska and western Canada. They are near-shore fish, living in relatively shallow salt water (but sometimes over 300 meters deep) as well as brackish water. Sometimes, however, they (especially the juveniles) are also found in fresh water, even many kilometers from the sea.

Starry flounders may live seven or eight years (or up to twenty-four years, according to some sources), spawning once a year. They spawn in salt water, seasonally. Other flatfish have a very brief courtship; then male and female swim together while the eggs and sperm are extruded.  Presumably starry flounders behave similarly (I have not found a direct account).

A female flounder can produce millions of floating eggs each season. After the eggs are fertilized, larvae develop, hatching in three to five days; development time varies with water temperature—faster at warm temperatures. When a larva hatches, it’s about two millimeters long. This tiny fish thrashes its way out of the egg and begins to swim. Its bulging yolk sac feeds the larva for four or five days while its mouth and jaws become functional. At five days old, the yolk is used up and a larva can start feeding on plankton.

When a larva reaches about seven millimeters in length (not counting the tail), the magical metamorphosis begins. The larva transforms from a typical, rounded, streamlined fish to a flat fish. The young fish tilts more and more to one side (either right or left in this species). One eye migrates to the other side of the head. The dorsal and anal fins now are on the sides of the flat form. The body becomes dark on top and pale below. By the time the fish is about fifteen millimeters long, the eyes have finished migration and the body is flat. The process may take about a month, going more rapidly at warmer temperatures. The scales on the upper side of the body now begin to acquire their unusual shape; by the time the young fish is about 250 millimeters long, they are no longer smooth but are lumpy and stellate (star-shaped—giving the fish its common English name), so the fish is rough to the touch.  (That makes me wonder about possible advantages of these special scales…).

When at rest, the now-flat fish often stands on the two big fins (dorsal and anal) on the edges of the body, keeping the body off the substrate. The fish can change color and pattern to match a dark or light substrate and flutter its fins to cover the body with sand when it wants to hide. Swimming is accomplished by a sort of rowing/rippling motion of the big fins. https://vimeo.com/266794567

Starry flounders aren’t very large but can be almost a meter long. Female starry flounders grow a bit faster and tend to be larger than males of similar age. Females mature at age three, but males mature at age two years and a length of roughly thirty five centimeters. As the fish grew and matured, the jaws and teeth became better developed and the diet then can include more hard-bodied prey. Flounders can crunch up clams, bite off the siphons of bigger clams, and pull worms from their burrows. Big flounders also eat fish, brittle stars, and crabs.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

This species is no doubt prey for various marine fish-eaters, as well as dippers, river otters, and humans.

Thanks to Bob Armstrong for the video.

Summer flowers

lesser lights shine just as bright

Most of us have favorites among the very showy flowers, such as the fireweeds, or white bog orchids, or columbine, or wild iris, or we look for uncommon species, such as frog orchids. These may be the stars of the show, but we may neglect some ‘lesser lights’ that are interesting in their own right. I’ve picked out just few of these here, simply because I’ve seen them recently on July walks.

In one of the meadows on the way up to Spaulding Meadow, the density of sundews is remarkable—there’s almost a carpet of round-leaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) over the mosses, and long-leaf sundew (a.k.a. great sundew, D. anglica) grows mostly on the muddy edges of pools. Sundews are insectivorous, supplementing what they can draw from their nutrient-poor habitat by digesting insects captured on the leaves (and they may have ways to avoid capturing potential pollinating insects). I noticed that very few of the sundews had produced flower buds at this time. Because flower (and eventually seed) production costs energy and nutrients, I wondered if these sundews were not capturing many insects to help fuel flower production. Was there a seasonal low in insect availability or maybe just not enough bugs to feed so many sundews or possibly (as found in one study) too much competition from spiders that want bugs too?  Or something else….??

Self-heal showing fringed lip and hood. Photo by Mary Willson

Along the road to the Salmon Creek powerhouse, the hiking group found common harebells and lots of a small, purple-flowered perennial plant called self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). It’s native across the northern hemisphere and introduced everywhere else. There are multiple flowers in each inflorescence. The flower has a fringed lower lip and an upper hood over the stamens and pistil, but in some cases the pistil extends out in front. Flowers with the pistil inside the hood tend to have bigger and fewer flowers, less pollen, less nectar, and lower visitation rates—and apparently less male function. Although the flowers may self-fertilize if few pollinators are available, they are primarily bee-pollinated.  I watched a bumblebee unsystematically visit nearly every flower on one inflorescence, poking its head deeply into some of them to get the nectar and passing quickly over others (perhaps the nectar had already been taken). 

Self-heal with bumblebee. Photo by Deana Barajas

Studies of self-heal in Japan have shown that the size of the flower in different ecological settings varies with average tongue length of the bumblebees in those settings: bigger flowers in areas with long-tongues bees. In other words, there are local adaptations of flower size to the abilities of the available bees. Other factors, such as altitude or robustness of the plant, did not account for the observed correlation. The size-match of tongue length and flower size affects both male (pollen removal) and female reproductive success (pollen receipt and seed set).

I’ve noticed a small goldenrod on the East Glacier trail near the cliff that sports purple mountain saxifrage in spring and offers a lookout toward what’s left of the glacier. Called northern goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata), it tends to favor rather dry areas in meadows, on rocky ridges, or gravel bars. The yellow flower heads occur in more or less flattened clusters. This plant is much shorter than the Canada goldenrod, which likes disturbed areas and bears its many flowers in large, tapered inflorescences. The small flowers of goldenrods are visited by butterflies, bees, and many other insects, but which ones are the good pollinators and which are just thieves?

Near that same cliff, I saw several common harebells (a.k.a. bluebells of Scotland; Campanula rotundifolia). Found in open areas, rocky or grassy, this perennial is seen in many places around Juneau. The flowers are purple-to-blue, borne singly on each branch, but some plants have several branches on their wiry stems and may have several flowers.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Common harebell has a broad geographic range over Europe, where it originated, and North America. It survived the advances of the glaciers, which temporarily isolated populations in different areas. Harebells in many of these populations became polyploid, having two or more complete set of chromosomes, which is likely to affect many floral traits, perhaps in different ways in different populations (as found for other species), but this question has not been investigated for this species (as far as I have found). Despite its species’ name (rotundifolia), the round basal leaves disappear early, often before flowering, and the stem leaves are not round.

Harebells are pollinated mainly by bees. The flower is protandrous, meaning that when the flowers first open, they are male, with pollen ready to disperse. Later, when the receptive stigma is mature, the flowers are mostly female. The flowers are self-compatible (as found in experiments), at least in some populations, but self-pollination results in fewer seeds than cross-pollination; in the wild, protandry prevents most self-pollination. Bees collect only pollen from male-phase flowers, but they collect both pollen and nectar from female-phase flowers. Flower size can vary from place to place, and so would the size of the main pollinating insects.

Common harebells (and probably other harebells too) form mycorrhizal associations with several species of fungi. One study found that this association had no effect on seed size or number but led (unexpectedly) to decreased growth and flower production. However, the seedlings of mycorrhizal harebells grew better than those from parents that were experimentally prevented from having that association. So the advantage of the fungal connection appeared in the next generation. Interesting!

Perceptive readers may well generate lots of follow-up questions from these brief notes!