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Biome Earth

globe-for-web-110110When I was little, I watched the Mickey Mouse Club on my family’s black-and-white TV. For the Mouseketeers — and for me — every Tuesday was “guest star day.” I was glued to the tube then, eager to see the special guest.

But I usually wasn’t much of a TV watcher. I spent more time in the cherry blossom tree in my backyard, or wandering on the beach near my house, or exploring the mini-forest in my backyard. Nature nurtured me then—and still does.

In 2011, just for fun, I focused every Tuesday on a plant or animal as my week’s “guest star” from biome Earth. Those stars were not the kind of special guest that appeared on the Mickey Mouse Club, but the kind that still intrigues me. Here are the results. Enjoy!

This will be the final Tuesday page of the year and the last Tuesday page I will post for a while. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year of guest stars and hope you have as well. To end the year, and these weekly entries, I bring you a three-kingdoms-in-one superstar: Lobaria pulmonaria. Lung lichen. Lichens are compound organisms in which a fungus (Fungikingdom) establishes a symbiotic relationship with algae (Protista kingdom) or cyanobacteria (Monera kingdom), or, in some cases, with both. Lung lichen is one of those cases. It usually is found in old-growth forests, where it lives on rocks and trees—hence another common name: oak lungs. Like real lungs, lung lichens are particularly sensitive to air pollution. The more gunk we put in the air, the fewer of these lichens will survive. Many lichens live in much more inhospitable places on Earth and provide sustenance for caribou and other creatures. No matter where they are found, lichens remind me of those carefully balanced and deeply satisfying partnerships across and within species that model life at its best.

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I have been known to grouse. I whine, I complain. And I know about grouse, those birds whose plural, as with mouse or louse, ought to be “grice” in my book. But I admit that today was the first time I encountered Hazel Grouse, the common name for Tetrastes bonasia or bonasa bonasia, depending on whom you choose to ask. Being a writer, I choose to use Hazel Grouse. What a perfect name for a fussy character! Like the real bird, she’d be shy and mostly a vegetarian. And she would be found in abundance in the Northern Hemisphere. Rather than calling ti-ti-ti or teh-teh-teh, however, she’d say tut-tut-tut. She would dress in black, browns, and grays, with a white accent, and she’d be apt to cast a disapproving eye. Oh, Hazel, where’s your holiday spirit? I promise I won’t serve you for dinner.

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There used to be a story about a Native American chief and his son, Red Fox. They communicated by drum. “Where is Red Fox,” the father would drum. “Here I am,” the boy would drum back. The story has faded from my mind, but not my love of little red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). They’ve spread throughout much of the northern hemisphere, and are now in Australia. Foxes been portrayed as shy, sly, and deceitful in tales that have survived centuries. They are, however, just foxes. They are adaptable, usually nocturnal hunters that will eat almost anything to survive (small rodents are a favorite). They stalk prey the way cats do. While their main predator these days is man, red foxes still thrive. And they have begun to live closer to humans. It’s possible that the urban fox might evolve into a different creature than its wild counterpart. Where is Red Fox? Seemingly everywhere.

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I can guarantee that I will hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sung at least once this month. Which is fine. I like reindeer. And caribou, which is what these undomesticated, elk-like animals are sometimes called in North America. It’s likely that caribou and reindeer belong to the same species (Rangifer tarandus). They live in large herds in tundra and taiga areas of the far north, and migrate, often a thousand miles or more each year. In the winter in particular, huge caribou survive by eating lichen, that tiny, unique bit of life which will be the last guest star of 2011. Do you have any suggestions for Tuesday, December 13 and Tuesday, December 20?  Let me know through the contact page on this site.

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My Thanksgiving Day would not be complete without the traditional consumption of cranberries. The North American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), which is likely what I ate, is the fruit of a vine that thrives in bogs in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere. Think the “Pine Barrens” of New Jersey. Really. Cranberries destined for juice and sauce are usually “wet harvested.” Farmers flood the cranberry beds, shake the vines, and collect the floating berries. Harvesting fresh berries requires a dry approach, picking the fruit directly from the vine. Native Americans used wild cranberries for food and dye, and, yes, they probably did introduce cranberries to the Europeans who arrived on their shores. For that I am grateful.

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I do have reluctant respect for the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). Fossil records show that cockroaches (of which there are now thousands of species worldwide) have been around at least 300 million years. They’ve evolved into highly successful organisms. They are the fastest of all land insects and can run 50 times their body length in one second (no wonder it’s hard to catch them). These creatures also seem to be able to manufacture their own beta-carotene (for eye health and other functions); we don’t yet know of any other animals with this ability. Yes, they do spread disease, usually causing digestive illness. American cockroaches are not native to America. It is likely that they came to the American colonies from Africa. On slave ships? I wouldn’t be surprised.

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Today’s guest star balances the foggy, gray weather in Portland this morning. This sunflower (Helianthus annus) is actually composed of many smaller flowers joined in a single base. The pattern and placement of these florets yield  Fibonacci numbersand produce a compact cluster of sunflower seeds (yum!). Sunflowers are native to the Americas, but are now grown elsewhere, where they are used for food, cooking oil, fodder, and as a way to extract uranium, arsenic, and lead from the soil.Check out the National Sunflower Association for a ton of information on these beauties. Sunflowers. What’s not to like?

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Gulls swooped and soared, flapped and screeched, and demanded my attention during a recent retreat on the Oregon coast. But what really got my attention was the absence of my favorite shorebird, the western sandpiper (Calidris mauri). There are millions of these little birds along the coast of Western North America—and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, too—eating their fill of insects, small crustaceans, and marine worms. Western sandpipers migrate to Alaska to breed on the tundra, where the male makes potential nests and the female chooses the nest she prefers. The flock that flies away will return—so here’s to another time at the beach when I’ll see my favorite shorebird again.

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Today is 11111, which reminds me of millipedes, those many-legged arthropods that look like armored worms. “Millipede” does come from Latin meaning “one thousand feet,” but the 10,000 or so species of millipedes have between 36 and 750 legs. They thrive in a moist environment, often burrow under damp earth, and usually eat decaying plant matter. Millipedes don’t bite or sting us. They don’t carry disease. They don’t infest our food or clothing, although they do sometimes wander into our houses. You can get up close and personal with a millipede. They’ve been around relatively unchanged for at least 420 million years. Sweet!

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Spending decades in the Washington, D.C., area, I saw kudzu draped over trees and telephone lines, and invading my backyard. Kudzu to me was the Frankenstein’s monster of the pea family, a vine that seemed to grow an inch every second. I had nothing good to say about kudzu, which is native to Japan and parts of China. But there’s more to kudzu than I thought. We use kudzu to treat alcoholism, migraines, vertigo, and other ailments. It’s been used as fodder, in soil conservation, and basketry. It’s brewed as a tea and made into jelly. And whose fault is it that kudzu has taken over so much of the southeastern U.S? Don’t blame the plant.

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Green bottle flies (Phaenicia sericata or Lucilia sericata) both eat and lay their eggs in decomposing animal matter. Their larvae—or maggots—grow to full size in 2-10 days, then drop into the soil before pupating into adult flies. But some maggots of this fly have helped to save lives, because they can eat dead tissue without harm to living tissue. Hence MDT—maggot debridement therapy. In some places, including hospitals in the U.S., doctors use maggots to separate out and eat the necrotic (dead) tissue in a wound, decreasing the chances of infection and allowing healthy tissue to form more easily. Sound disgusting? Well, yes. But MDT can be an effective way to treat wounds that don’t respond to more conventional methods. Thank you, maggots.

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This Tuesday’s guest star is late, late, late for a very important date. He’s overdue. He’s really in a stew. Really? Let’s let him tell you himself—onYouTube. That rabbit is Disney’s version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. The one pictured here is an illustration in Alice and was modeled after the grey-brown European rabbit introduced to England from southern Europe during the Middle Ages. The rabbit was quickly domesticated as a pet and for food. An invasive species, it bred like, well, a rabbit. European rabbits dig networks of burrows (warrens), where they spend much of their time—whether they are late or not.

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These past few days have been mournful ones for a friend and her family whose pony, Peanut, died suddenly. The bond between people and ponies has been a strong and honored one for generations, a bond that, at its best, can help both species to thrive. It’s also a bond that, in the harsh conditions of Scotland’s Shetland Islands a hundred years ago, helped both species to survive. The death of beloved pony is hard to bear. May Peanut’s memory be for a blessing.

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Cranes of the erector set variety are common in my neck of the woods. Not so the Sarus Crane (Grus antigone), which is the tallest flying bird in the world. This picture shows one bent in half, feeding next to her chick. According to savingcranes.org, Sarus Cranes can be nearly six feet tall, with an eight-foot wingspan. There are only about 15,000-20,000 left in the wild, most of them in the wetlands of India. They “dance,” by flapping their wings, running, bowing, and tossing sticks in the air. Mated pairs often coordinate complex calls, usually with their beaks arched toward the sky. Piling up reeds and other materials, they build nests six feet wide and nearly three feet high. They can’t erect a six-story building. Still, they are  definitely my kind of crane.

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I am posting this Tuesday page early, which reminds me of the old English adage: “The early bird catches (originally “catcheth”) the worm.” When I think of early birds and worms, I often think of robins, like the fellow in this picture. The American Robin (Turdus migratorius), of which there are at least 300 million, is one of the earliest of bird species to lay its eggs in the spring. It feeds its nestlings on soft-bodied creatures, including worms. And it hunts for worms in the morning. However, about 60% of a robin’s diet usually consists of fruits and berries, which the birds hunt for later in the day. One favorite berry is intoxicating. So I’m wondering: Does the late bird catch a headache?

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Locomotion doesn’t mean “crazy way to move,” but isn’t kangaroo locomotion a “loco” way to get from one place to another? Not so for the red kangaroo (Macropus rufus), the world’s largest surviving marsupial. When walking, red kangaroos use their forelegs and tail to balance themselves while they swing their hind legs forward. But they are built to hop, with their hind legs spring-loaded with tendons and calf muscles, and 80 percent of their total muscle massed around their pelvis. Unlike other species of kangaroo, red kangaroos head toward the open plain, rather than a forested area, and depend on speed (up to about 35 mph) to avoid predators. They don’t expend as much energy moving this fast as other animals their size would. Way to go, kangas!

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In the TV sitcom series, Leave It to Beaver, which first aired in 1957, leaving it to Beaver meant discovering what sort of trouble seven-year-old Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver got into. Beaver the kid then weighed about as much as a large adult North American beaver (Castor canadensis), the third largest rodent in the world. Left alone to build their lodges, beavers cut down trees and dam streams to form ponds and wetlands. Yes, beavers can be pests when they cause flooding in areas people would rather not have flooded. But they are also a keystone species, meaning that they increase the biodiversity in the areas that they inhabit, including, in the long run, more trees.

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My dog and I relish our walks under the elm trees in our neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. One of these stately beauties won’t be with us much longer. I suppose it’s a victim of Dutch Elm Disease (DED), which likely started in Europe about a hundred years ago and took hold in the U.S. in the 1930s. The disease comes from a fungus (Ophiostoma ulmi) that hitches a ride on beetles and prevents water from traveling up the tree. The beetles first crossed the Atlantic, we think, on a load of furniture logs from France. DED has wiped out millions of American elms. There is no cure. But Portland’s Save Our Elmsorganization is doing its best to inoculate hundreds of trees to resist DED.

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Lupines cropped up in a draft I’m reading of a fantasy for middle-school readers, and I got curious. These plants (their genus isLupinus and there are about 300 species) grow wild in many parts of the world and were first cultivated at least 2,000 years old in the Mediterranean/Middle East region. Lupines are legumes (like lentils and peas) that produce a seed high in protein. Some of the species also have high levels of alkaloids that cause lupin seeds to be toxic, especially to grazing sheep and cattle. Still, it’s a beautiful plant—perfect to fill a meadow with fantasy.

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Caenorhabditis elegans is a roundworm that is only about one millimeter long but has given us miles of data.It’s transparent, easy to study, and one of the simplest organisms with a nervous system. The C. elegans brain is composed of many of the same types of neurons and transmitters as the human brain. Scientists have sequenced the worm’s genome and collected an enormous amount of information, which you can access on WormBase. These worms even survived the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. With a life cycle of about a week to 10 days, the worms that were recovered were likely the great-great grandchildren of those who took off in the shuttle. C. elegans. What’s not to like?

 

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When Washington State’s Mount St. Helens volcano blew her top in 1980, she killed the Roosevelt elk that grazed on her flanks. But the elk population soon returned, foraging on re-sprouting vegetation. Twenty years later the Mount St. Helens herd had an estimated 13,000 animals. Why Roosevelt? In 1897 naturalist C. Merriam Hart studied what he thought was a new subspecies of elk in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. He named them for his friend Theodore Roosevelt. In 1909 President Roosevelt created Mount Olympus National Monument to protect these elk. Three years later he ran for the presidency under a new political party nicknamed the Bull Moose Party. The story goes that Roosevelt said he was “as fit as a bull moose.” Why he didn’t say “bull elk,” I’ll never know.

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American lobsters (Homarus americanus) give new meaning to the phrase “mind your Ps and Qs.” Male lobsters pee at each other during fights. The losing lobster remembers the chemical signals in the urine of the winning lobster and will likely not challenge the winner any time soon. Female lobsters are attracted to the winning lobster and they, too, send a urinary signal. This one means, “I’m yours.” Once she senses that he got the message, the female enters the den of her chosen male. She molts her hard outer shell. They mate carefully. She stays sheltered with him for about a week while the new shell hardens.  This behavior is also true for European lobsters (Homarus gammarus) and perhaps for all of losterkind. This kind of peeing contest does not seem limited to lobsters, however. Enough said.

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Jonah has the right idea, and not just about the loriope that lives in his yard. Without plants, there would probably be no life on Earth. Plants once filled our atmosphere with oxygen and sustain us oxygen-breathers to this day. Plants provide nearly all the food on this planet. Plants keep the soil in place and help maintain water quality. Plants provide us with shelter, clothing, medicines, and more. Plants contribute to our sense of wellbeing. Plants are….  Wait, I have to go pat my palm tree. There. I feel better now. Plants. Jonah, thanks for reminding me.

[Photo by Ben Feldman]

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The New York Botanical Garden is a home-away-from-home for wild blueberries that researchers call an “extreme superfruit.” These berries are native to remote tropical regions in Mexico and Central and South America. Two of the five species tested—Cavendishia grandifolia and Anthopterus wardii—contain huge amounts of antioxidants, lots more than their healthful and delicious “highbush” blueberry cousins that are sold commercially in the U.S. The details are available in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and through PubMed. Antioxidants help the human body ward off cancers, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Blueberries prevent oatmeal from being boring. Hail to thee (with spoon raised), blue superfruit!

[Photo by Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa]

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The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) has been cultivated for thousands of years and is still used as a food source. The ripe seedpod tastes sweet and sort of like chocolate. Is carat (or karat), the unit of weight for gemstones, based on an ancient system of weighing gems against carob seeds? The standard carat is now 200mg. In a recent test, the average weight of a carob seed from female trees is 200.5mg. Here’s the catch: Carob seeds vary in weight as much as seeds from other members of the legume family. Why use carob seeds? The test also showed that people can discriminate tiny differences in carob seed weight by sight and can easily collect seeds of essentially the same weight. Carob seeds were readily available the Mediterranean and Middle East and a convenient size for the one-carat diamonds that were likely traded in ancient times.

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In honor of July Fourth, here’s Haliaeetus leucocephalus—the baldeagle, which is not bald. The name comes from a word meaning “white.” Before the Continental Congress adjourned on July 4, 1776, it assigned Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson the task of creating “a device for a seal for the United States of America.” Congress wanted to show the world that we were a sovereign nation. It took six more years and several committees (Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson gave up on the task) before the Great Seal of the United States was approved on June 20, 1782. For a ton of detail on the story, read The Eagle and the Shield by Richard S. Patterson. The Great Seal is still used on official government documents 2,000-3,000 times a year. And the bald eagle, once reduced to a few hundred mating pairs in the U.S., is now thriving.

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Pygmy marmosets (Callithrix pygmaea) in 125 words or less. Here goes. Adults are about 5 inches long and weigh about 4 ounces, making pygmy marmosets the smallest true monkey. They live in the forests of the Upper Amazon basin east of the Andes. They run like squirrels, roost in trees at night, often give birth to twins, and have claw-like nails. Using their sharp upper and lower teeth, they gnaw on trees and eat the sappy gum the tree exudes. Grasshoppers are a favorite delicacy. They use grooming as a way to bond with other group members, and they mate for life. They mark territory with scent glands and communicate with high-pitched sounds. And they are cute!

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It’s warm. It’s wet. It’s black fly time. These little critters (also called gnats) swarm around people and animals, and bite, bite, bite. Only the adult females go for blood. The adult males stick with nectar. Black flies stretch and cut your skin, then feed on blood from ruptured capillaries. Their bites itch like crazy! Black flies swarm mostly around dusk and dawn, and are attracted to dark clothing and the carbon dioxide in your breath. So don’t breathe. Home remedies for black fly bites include witch hazel, aloe vera, and sliced onion. While you’re trying not to scratch, watch this animated video set to a 1949 song about the annual black fly plague.

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Hagfish aren’t fish. They are long and wormlike, but they aren’t eels. They have a skull, but no vertebrae. They’ve been around in our oceans about 550 million years, and they do one thing exceptionally well. They slime. When attacked or under stress, hagfish secrete a mucus-and-fiber goo that mixes with water to form an elastic gunk capable of clogging the gills of predator fish. A tablespoon of hagfish goo turns into a quart of hagfish gunk. After the threat is gone, the hagfish contorts itself into a knot and slides the gunk off its body. Researchers at Canada’s University of Guelph are studying the amazing properties of hagfish slime. They think it might be as strong as spider silk. This video gives you the basics.

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In 1910 there were about 500,000 white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the U.S., which had about 92 million residents. In 2010 there were more than 20 million deer for about 281 million residents. Quick (semi-accurate) math: back then, one deer for every 184 residents; now, one deer for every 14 residents. Deer seem to be everywhere, eating gardens and ending up as roadkill. Bad for deer and bad for us, particularly as people fall ill to Lyme Disease from deer ticks. What to do? When a white-tailed doe is alarmed, she often raises her tail as she flees, making it easier for her fawns to follow the white underside. But we have to come up with a better solution for the deer-people imbalance. “High-tailing” isn’t an option.

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Here’s a shout out to Harry T., an LA guy who used to adore ancient Egypt. Harry knows the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) was venerated as a symbol of the Egyptian god, Thoth. Does he know ibises still save us from disease?

The sacred ibis eats freshwater snails that carry a parasitic worm causing schistosomiasis (also called bilharzia). This disease infects more than 200 million people. Here’s how. The worm leaves its snail host and penetrates human skin in contact with water contaminated by human urine and feces. The worm then lays eggs that damage the person’s liver, lungs, intestines, and bladder. When if the waste from these people reaches freshwater sources again, the eggs can enter the snails. It’s a vicious cycle that the ibis does its best to stop. Thanks!

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Three paragraphs into writing my latest book, I discovered that my character had tended his “sturdy jade plant” for fifty years. Lucky guy. A jade plant (Crassula ovata) can live at least that long. It’s a hardy succulent that thrives in a sunny spot, well-drained soil (let the soil dry out between waterings), and moderate temperatures. Jades are easy to propagate, are popular as bonsai, and will reward careful tending with small white or pink flowers. Even if your jade never blooms, you can enjoy it for decades. My imaginary character does. So does my real family.

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Those fierce fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) that have invaded the U.S. can survive floods unlike any other ants we know and in a way that keeps every member of the colony safe. As waters rise, thousands of them gather their eggs and link together every which way, forming a waterproof raft. Tiny hairs on each ant trap a bubble of air and repel water—the Cassie-Baxter law of wetting. Push those bubbles together and you’ve got a flexible, nearly indestructible flotation device. The ants act communally, turning into a super-organism with no individual in charge. These ants have a nasty bite. Admire them from afar. Or watch this excellent video (after the @&^%$* commercial!).

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Illustrator/author Robin Koontz recently took this picture near her Oregon home. Some call this critter a Pacific tree frog (Hyla regilla); others say it’s a Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla). Everyone agrees that it’s the frog with the quintessential “ribbit” you hear live and in many Hollywood films. These tiny frogs (two inches or less) inhabit the Pacific Coast from Baja California to British Columbia, from sea level to 10,000 feet, from redwood forests to deserts. They have a black “mask” and can change colors to grays, browns, or greens like this frog blending into the grass. During breeding season, males “ribbit” like crazy, inflating a throat sac that can be three times bigger than their heads. They make quite a racket. Endearing? Ask Robin.

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A three-toed sloth might have a hundred moths living in its fur. These coprophagous moths hitch a ride down to the ground about once a week when the sloth digs a hole to defecate. They lay eggs in the dung and return to their  life support system. When the moth eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the dung, grow to adulthood, and find a sloth of their own. Meanwhile, moths in the sloth find protection from predators and nourishment, we think, from the secretions in the sloth’s skin and from algae living in the sloth’s fur. To learn lots more, sing! Check out Harold Kaplan’s sloth-and-moth song, and many others, on his Web site. Click HERE for fun!

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Sloths—the world’s slowest mammals—hang out in Central and South American rainforests. They spend most of their lives head down in the trees, where they eat (slowly), sleep (lots), mate, and give birth. About once a week, they crawl to the forest floor to defecate. Their fur is home to cyanobacteria (algae) that camouflage the sloth with a greenish cast and that nourish insects living in the fur, including next week’s guest star—sloth moths.

Sloths eat the leaves, fruits, and tender shoots of the trees they inhabit. Which reminds me to thank the comma. “Eats shoots and leaves”—that’s the sloth. Then there’s: “Eats shoots, and leaves”—a wandering panda? And: “Eats, shoots, and leaves”—the dinner guest I’d avoid!

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Vulnerable? These “top dogs” of the sea? These finely tuned hunters that can detect the electrical pulse emitted by your heart? Yup. The International Union of Conservation of Nature classifies them as vulnerable—likely to become endangered unless circumstances threatening survival and reproduction improve. Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) start life swimming away from their mother so she doesn’t eat them. Many don’t survive to adulthood. Those that aren’t eaten by other marine creatures are in danger of being caught by humans especially for their jaws or fins. They get tangled in longlines and nets of commercial fisheries. Slow to reproduce and naturally scarce, great white sharks are more in danger from us than we are from them.

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Stop for a while on a warm, sunny day in almost any coniferous forest in North America, and you’re apt to see this creature.Neotamias minimus, or “least chipmunk,” is the smallest chipmunk on the continent. A mature member of this species weighs only about 2.5 ounces. The least chipmunk retreats to an underground burrow in the fall and goes into semi-hibernation. By mid-March or so, it moves into summer quarters above ground and is fully active. The International Union for Conservation of Nature puts least chipmunks in the Least Concern category, meaning that they don’t seem to be at any risk of extinction. That makes me happy…to say the least!

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Humans have taken such a strong liking to tulips that, at one point in Dutch history, a single tulip bulb was worth about as much as a mansion. These highly prized flowers likely arrived in the Netherlands in the late 1500s from the Ottoman Empire, where tulips were also very popular. Starting with about a hundred native species from arid regions of Asia, Africa, and southern Europe, there are now more than three thousand cultivated varieties (cultivars). Tulips are perennial, bulb-based angiosperms, meaning that they reproduce sexually, using pollination (pollen=sperm). This can result in a great variety of offspring. Tulip growing is a huge industry, particularly in the Netherlands, with about three billion tulip bulbs produced each year. What is it with tulips? Click HERE to read about “the botany of desire.”

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There’s a parasite that makes grasshoppers and crickets jump into the water and likely drown. I kid you not, even if it’s nearly April’s Fools Day. The doomed insect probably drinks water infested with the microscopic larvae of a certain hairworm Spindochordodes tellinii.The hairworm grows inside, eating and eating, until it’s several times longer than its host. When the hairworm is mature and ready to mate, it releases proteins that alter signals in the insect’s brain. Instead of avoiding water, the insect hops in. The hairworm exits through the insect’s rear and swims off to find a mate—one more phase in the lifecycle of the parasite, the end of the road for its host. It’s a hair(worm)-raising story.

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Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) are trying to understand how hatchling loggerhead sea turtles(Caretta caretta) know which way to swim to reach the Sargasso Sea where they can feed, hide out, and grow. These turtles seem to rely at least in part on the Earth’s magnetic field. Like many other marine animals, they can detect latitude—the north-south directions measuring how close they are to the poles. Recent findings seem to show that these turtles can also detect longitude—where they are in an east-west direction. Click HERE for pictures, maps, and easy-to-read turtle info from UNC.

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…a four-leaf clover that I overlooked before. It’s easy to overlook this four-leaf variation of three-leaved (trifoliate) white clover (the clover’s flower is mostly white) or trifolium repens. According to estimates, you’d find one four-leafer for every 10,000 three-leaf clovers growing naturally. This rare find is supposed to bring you good luck. Scientists at the University of Georgia have identified a gene that controls the number of leaves white clover will have, so who knows where that will lead us one day. White clover is one of several varieties designated as a shamrock (a word that comes from the Irish for “little clover”), and has been introduced as a highly nutritious pasture crop in most parts of the globe. That’s lucky enough for me.

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This week’s guest star is brought to you by an oceanography fan from El Cerrito, California. He sent me a picture of a marine hatchetfish. Thanks! Hatchetfish are very thin and really do look like tiny axes. These fish create their own light through organs called photophores. The species shown here—Atlantic silver hatchetfish or Argyropelecus aculeatus—has most of its photophores along its bottom. Their light shines downward and varies in intensity to match the light coming through the water above the fish. This makes the fish nearly invisible to predators swimming from below.

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If you snooze you lose? Not so with American black bears (Ursus americanus), many of which aren’t black at all, but brown or cream-colored. While “sleeping” away winter, nearly immobile for months, they maintain muscle mass and bone density. We’d like to know how. A new study shows that these bears slow their heart rate and breathing a lot. But body temperature remains within about 12 degrees F. of summer levels. Is this a clue? ClickHERE for details.

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In honor of George Washington’s birth—probably on this day—in 1732, our guest star isPrunus avium, the sweet cherry. The story goes that little George destroyed his father’s prized cherry tree and then owned up to his mistake. People have been eating wild cherries since the Bronze Age and cultivating cherry trees for more than 2,000 years. The fruit of a cherry tree is edible—and how!—but the leaves, stems, and seeds (inside the cherry “stone”) are toxic.

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Let’s celebrate the day after Valentine’s Day with praise to the Theobroma cacao tree, from which we get chocolate. Theobroma means “food of the gods”—no surprise to chocolate lovers. These trees are native to Mexico, and to Central and South America. They’ve been cultivated for about 3,000 years. Cacao beans are bitter and have to be fermented for a sweeter flavor. Click HERE for unusual recipes. Cacao has medicinal purposes, too, but the theobromine in chocolate is harmful to cats and dogs.

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Some fish in the coldest parts of planet Earth survive in seawater that is below the freezing point of their blood. Like this Antarctic icefish, they have “antifreeze” glycoproteins in their bloodstream. The compound binds to the surface of ice crystals and inhibits their potentially fatal growth. I won’t pretend to understand how this works. I’ll put on a sweater and admire from afar.

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Some deep-sea sponges turn themselves into “fiber-optic lamps.” They attract light-emitting organisms and then transmit that light through hairlike glass fibers. There’s a ton about this creature in cyberspace. My Animal Angles column, plus more, is on the Web courtesy of Cricket Connections. Scientist Joanna Aizenberg studies glass sponges and similar animals, and her research is all over the Web. For some amazing pictures, see her Web site at Harvard University.

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These pups from the Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo are dingoes. They are considered a subspecies of wolves and are found in the wild in Australia and Southeast Asia. Dingoes howl and sort of purr. They can move their heads in almost a complete circle and have a distinctive skull. Dingoes can breed with dogs, but produce only one litter a year. European settlers tried to keep dingoes from pasturelands in Australia by erecting a fence over 3,000 miles long. Success? That’s up for debate. In any case, wild dingoes are now classified as vulnerable.

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This beetle detects forest fires through microscopic infrared sensors in the “armpits” of its middle pair of six legs. The beetle (Melanophila acuminata) makes a beeline for the fire to lay eggs in a scorched but still-alive tree, the ideal place for its larvae to thrive. We humans are trying to devise a similar infrared sensor, although not for laying eggs.

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East African chimpanzees turn to this Aspilia plant (a relative of sunflowers) when they are feeling ill. They roll up the leaves and swallow them whole. The hairy leaves trap parasitic worms in the chimp’s guts and the worms are then expelled in dung. This plant also contains a compound (thiarubrine-A) that fights infection.

Chimps aren’t the only ones who use Aspilia to treat ailments. People do, too.

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Our first guest stars this year are two damselflies, close cousins of dragonflies. My son, Ben, snapped this picture at sunset along Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River near Washington, DC. These damselflies landed on the wheel of his boat to form a mating wheel of their own (with the male above, female below).

Probably everything you would ever want to know about dragonflies and damselflies can be found inDragonflies: Behavior and Ecology of Odonata, by Philip S. Corbet. A good place to start on the Web is with the Odonata Information Network. Enjoy!

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