Happy American Wetlands Month!

To kick off this year’s American Wetlands Month, I am reposting something I posted three years ago. I have updated the links and added a few more resources. In celebration, all Awkward Botany posts in May will have something to do with wetlands. An underlying goal of American Wetlands Month is to encourage people to get out and visit wetlands in their area and find out what they can do to help conserve them. Hopefully this series of posts helps to further that aim.

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“May is American Wetlands Month! No matter where you live, chances are there’s a wetland nearby that provides important environmental benefits to your community. Wetlands support diverse fish and wildlife species, filter pollutants from rain water runoff, help recharge groundwater supplies, prevent flooding and enhance property values.” – Earth Gauge (A program of the National Environmental Education Foundation)

Wetlands are ecosystems that are characterized by their vegetation (aquatic plants), their soils (formed during anaerobic conditions caused by being flooded or saturated with standing water), and, of course, their state of being largely saturated with water either seasonally or permanently. Examples of natural wetlands include bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps. Wetlands can also be constructed by humans for the purpose of collecting storm water runoff from urban areas in efforts to reduce the risk of flooding and avoid overwhelming municipal sewer systems during large rainstorms.

Wetlands are the most threatened type of ecosystem on earth, and we are losing them at a steady clip. Major threats to wetlands include land development, pollution (agricultural, commercial, residential, etc.), and the introduction of invasive species. Considering the benefits we receive from having wetlands around, it is imperative that we protect them. Earth Gauge offers some suggestions on how to do so.

wetland benefits

Speaking of wetlands, one of my favorite wetland plant species is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). It is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. I became familiar with this plant when I was volunteering at a wetland in Edwardsville, IL. Perhaps you’ve seen it growing near you.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) - Photo taken at Idaho Botanical Garden.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) – Photo taken at Idaho Botanical Garden.

Additional Resources

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Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.

Year of Pollination: Mosquitoes as Pollinators

It is difficult to have positive feelings about mosquitoes, especially during summer months when they are out in droves and our exposed skin – soft, supple, and largely hair-free – is irresistible to them. We are viewed as walking blood meals by female mosquitoes who are simply trying to produce young – to perpetuate their species just like any other species endeavors to do. Unfortunately, we are left with small, annoying bumps in our skin – red, itchy, and painful – risking the possibility that the mosquitoes that just drew our blood may have passed along any number of mosquito-borne diseases, some (such as malaria) that potentially kill millions of people every year. For this, it is okay to hate mosquitoes and to long for the day of their complete eradication from the planet. However, their ecological roles (and yes, they do have some) are also worth considering.

There are more than 3,500 species of mosquito. Luckily, only 200 or so consume human blood. Mosquitoes go back at least 100 million years and have co-evolved with species of plants and animals found in diverse habitats around the world. Adult mosquitoes and their larvae (which live in standing water) provide food for a wide variety of creatures including birds, bats, insects, spiders, fish, frogs, lizards, and salamanders. Mosquito larvae also help break down organic matter in the bodies of water they inhabit. They even play an important role in the food webs found inside the pitchers of northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.). Interestingly enough, Arctic mosquitoes influence the migration patterns of caribou. They emerge in swarms so big and so voracious that they have been said to kill caribou through either blood loss or asphyxiation.

However, blood is not the main food source of mosquitoes; flower nectar is. Males don’t consume blood at all, and females only consume it when they are producing eggs. Any insect that visits flowers for nectar has the potential to unwittingly collect pollen and transfer it to a nearby flower, thereby aiding in pollination. Mosquitoes are no exception. They have been observed acting as pollinators for a handful of species, and could be acting as pollinators for many more.

Bluntleaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata) is pollinated by mosquitoes. phot credit: wikimedia commons

Bluntleaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata) is pollinated by mosquitoes. photo credit: wikimedia commons

The scientific literature describes the pollination by mosquitoes of at least two plant species: Platanthera obtusata (syn. Habenaria obtusata) and Silene otites. P. obtusata – bluntleaved orchid – is found in cold, wet regions in North America and northern Eurasia. It is pollinated by mosquitoes from multiple genera including several species in the genus Aedes. Mosquitoes visit the flowers to feed on the nectar and, subsequently, pollinia (clusters of pollen) become attached to their eyes and are moved from flower to flower. This scenario likely plays out in other species of Arctic orchids as well*.

S. otites – Spanish catchfly – is a European species that is pollinated by mosquitoes and moths. Researches have been studying the floral odors of S. otites that attract mosquitoes, suggesting that determining the compounds involved in these odors “might lead to the development of new means of pest control and mosquito attractants and repellents.”

Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) - one of the species of mosquitoes that has been observed pollinating Silene otitis. photo credit: www.eol.org

Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) – one of the species of mosquitoes that has been observed pollinating Silene otites. photo credit: www.eol.org

Despite the list of functions that mosquitoes serve in their varied habitats, an article that appeared in Nature back in 2010 argues for wiping mosquitoes off the Earth, stating that “the ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as the niche was filled by other organisms.” And even though “thousands of plant species would lose a group of pollinators,” mosquitoes are not important pollinators of the “crops on which humans depend,” nor do they appear to be the sole pollinator of any single plant species [the species mentioned above are pollinated by other insects as well]. Eliminating mosquitoes, however, is more of a pipe dream than a realistic possibility as our “best efforts can’t seriously threaten an insect with few redeeming features.”

*Speaking of orchids and pollination, endless posts could be written about this incredibly fascinating and diverse group of plants and their equally fascinating and complex mechanisms surrounding pollination. There will be more to come on such topics. Meanwhile, it should be noted that orchids are also a notoriously threatened group of plants. To learn more about orchids and orchid conservation in North America, visit North American Orchid Conservation Center.

Read more about mosquito pollination here.

And now for your listening pleasure:

Kudzu Ate the South…Now Looks North

In 1876, an Asian vine was introduced to the people of the United States at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a fairly benign looking vine, with its leaves of three and its cluster of sweet pea like flowers, but its exotic appeal must have been quite enticing, because it took off…and not just in popularity.

The plant that caught the eye of these early Americans was called kudzu (or kuzu in Japanese). It is a plant in the genus Pueraria in the family Fabaceae (the pea family). The plants first introduced to the U.S. were likely to have consisted of more than a single species such as P. montana, P. lobata, P. edulis, and others, or were hybrids of these species. They were initially lauded for their ornamental value but soon after were recognized for their potential as animal feed. By the 1930’s, when soil erosion had become a major issue, kudzu was deployed by the U.S. government to combat it. At least 85 million government-funded kudzu seedlings later, and the southeastern portion of the United States had secured a future dominated by this relentless and unforgiving vine.

Innocent and harmless is how kudzu must have first appeared, especially to those looking for a fast growing, large-leaved, vining plant to provide quick shade for porches, offering relief from the sun during those sweltering southern summers. Little did they know, however, if left unchecked, that prized vine could engulf homes and outbuildings, cover and pull down trees and utility poles, and choke out crops and pastures in the matter of a single growing season.

(photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Kudzu was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997, long after it had established itself throughout the southeastern U.S. It now covers more than 3 million hectares, spreading at a pace of about 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) per year. It is said that a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day or about 60 feet in a growing season. It is a twining vine, wrapping itself around any upright structure it can access and relying on that support in order to advance upwards. This gives it the advantage of using more resources for growth and expansion of both roots and shoots rather than on the resource demanding task of producing woody stems. Like other members of the pea family, it gets much of its nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen fixation. Because of this, kudzu can thrive in nutrient poor soils. Kudzu is also drought-tolerant, has leaves that follow the sun throughout the day in order to maximize photosynthesis, reproduces clonally by layering (stems in contact with the ground grow roots and detach from the parent plant), and (in North America) is free from the pests and diseases commonly associated with it in its native habitat. For these reasons and others, kudzu has become one of the most notorious, pervasive, and ecologically harmful weeds in the U.S., costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages every year.

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

kudzu foliage and flowers

Foliage and flowers of kudzu (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

One glance at what kudzu has done in the southeastern states, and it is obvious that it is some kind of superweed. I saw firsthand just how overwhelming it can be as I drove through Mississippi several years ago. I didn’t even have to stop the car to investigate. It was easily apparent that it was the dominant species, enveloping every tree for miles alongside the highway. Currently, kudzu can be found in every county in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But kudzu has a limitation; it doesn’t care much for freezing temperatures. Even though it has been present in parts of northern states – like Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware – for a while now, it has generally been limited to milder locations, and it certainly doesn’t thrive in the same way that it does in the subtropical climates of the southern states. But that is changing, because the climate is changing.

Average global temperatures increased by about 1.53° F between 1880 and 2012, and this gradual increase is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Biologists and ecologists are monitoring changes in climate closely in order to observe and predict changes in the biology and ecology of our planet. Invasive species are high on the list of concerns, as climate is often a major limitation to their spread. Now that kudzu has been found in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, the fear of kudzu climbing north is becoming a reality.

Kudzu is incredibly difficult to control. It does not respond to many herbicides, and the herbicides that do affect it must be applied repeatedly over a long time period. It is an excellent forage plant, so utilizing grazing animals to keep it in check can be effective. Those who have succumbed to kudzu, acknowledging that it is here to stay, have found uses for it, including making baskets, paper, biofuel, and various food items. A compound extracted from the kudzu root is also being studied as a possible treatment for alcoholism. Kudzu has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses in Asia, so it is no surprise that uses would be found for it in North America. However, North Americans who embrace kudzu are taking a defeatist approach. That is, “if we can’t get rid of it, we may as well find a use for it.” This, however, should not negate nor distract from the damage it has caused and continues to cause local ecosystems and the ecological threat that it poses to areas where it is just now being introduced or may soon be introduced due to our warming climate.

Millions of dollars are spent every year to address the effects kudzu has on utility poles (phot credi: eol.org)

Millions of dollars are spent every year to remove kudzu from utility poles and replace poles pulled down by kudzu (photo credit: eol.org)

References:

Encyclopedia of Life: Pueraria Montana

Wikipedia: Kudzu in the United States

Max Shores: The Amazing Story of Kudzu

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Conservation in a Changing Climate

NASA Earth Observatory: How Much More Will the Earth Warm?

Bloomberg: Kudzu That Ate U.S. South Heads North as Climate Changes

Documentary: Know Your Mushrooms

Earlier this month, the 33rd annual Telluride Mushroom Festival took place in Telluride, Colorado. This is an event that draws in hundreds (thousands, perhaps?) of fungi enthusiasts. As a budding fungi enthusiast myself, I get excited when I hear tale of gatherings such as these, and while I did not make it out this year, the Telluride Mushroom Festival is high on my list of things to attend sometime in the years to come.

My fascination with fungi started shortly before I headed to graduate school in Illinois in 2009. I had just read about mycoremediation in a book called Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, and that, along with what I had learned about soil fungi in my college soils courses, had me very curious about the world of mycology. I have yet to spend the kind of time that I would like to on this subject, but it remains of great interest to me.

A couple years ago I was writing weekly recommendations on my previous blog, the juniper bends as if it were listening. One of my weekly recommendation posts was about a documentary film called, Know Your Mushrooms. I am reposting that review  here in honor of this month’s mushroom festival in Telluride, and because I think it’s a film worth watching. No, it is not about plants per se, but it is about a kingdom of living things that regularly interacts with plants. Not only that, but it’s about a major player in the ecology of practically every ecosystem on earth. Bottom line: if you are at all interested in the natural world, you will be interested in this film.

know your mushrooms

Mushrooms freaks, fungiphiles, and myco-fanatics alike are all probably well aware of this fantastic documentary film by Ron Mann entitled, Know Your Mushrooms, but for uninitiated folks and novices like myself, this is a great introduction. This film will acquaint you with a peculiar crowd of mushroom lovers and fungus aficionados, where you will marvel in their uniqueness and their vast knowledge concerning the fascinating world of mycology. Mann bases his film around his visit to the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, where mushroom fans have gathered annually for many years now to celebrate and revel in the fungal world. Mann converses with several mushroom experts and enthusiasts, but spends most of his time with self-proclaimed guru, Larry Evans. Alongside Evans, Mann explores numerous mycological topics, including mushroom hunting, mushroom cooking, poisonous mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, mushroom folklore, mushroom health benefits, and the ecological and environmental benefits of fungi (mycoremediation!). This is a very well-produced and well-directed film, maintaining the interest and attention of the viewer as it transitions from one aspect of mushroom culture to another, simultaneously providing education and entertainment throughout. If your viewing experience is anything like mine, by the time this film is over, you will be wishing that you were as knowledgeable about mushrooms as the folks featured in this film. As a result of watching Mann’s documentary, I have vowed to redouble my efforts and commit myself to the study of mycology so that one day I can join fellow fungus freaks in a celebration of this magnitude. Perhaps you will join us…

Morels harvested on the forest floors of Illinois

Morels harvested on the forest floor of Illinois

Flood Irrigation and Migrating Waterfowl

It’s American Wetlands Month. Last year around this time, I wrote a brief post describing the importance of wetlands and why they are a conservation concern. This year I thought I would write a little about an issue surrounding wetlands that has recently come to my attention: flood irrigated agricultural land and its benefit to migrating waterfowl.

The term “waterfowl” refers to birds that live on or around freshwater, such as ducks, geese, and swans. Like many other birds, they are migratory, typically flying north in the spring to breed and spend the summer raising their young, and then flying back south in the fall to overwinter. There are four major flyways (or migratory flight paths) in the United States: Pacific, Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic. Along these flyways, migrating birds need places to rest and feed in order to maintain the strength to make it to their seasonal homes. As wetlands have disappeared across the country (and the world), essential areas of respite have become few and far between, threatening the survival of this important group of birds.

Dunlins - Calidris alpina (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Dunlins – Calidris alpina (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Historically, wetlands have largely been diminished and degraded due to human settlement on the floodplains of major rivers. Floodplains are examples of temporary or seasonal wetlands, flooded in the spring when snow in the mountains is melting and during periods of heavy rains but otherwise dry throughout most of the year. These areas appealed to early settlers because they were flat, had great soil for agriculture, and were near a water source. The only downside was the flooding, so levees and dams were built, diversions were made, and eventually these great rivers were tamed, virtually eliminating their status as seasonal wetlands and the important ecological functions that go along with that.

This has spelled disaster for migrating waterfowl who rely on floodplains to be flooded in the spring, providing them with staging habitat on their journey north. Biologists have recognized this issue and have made efforts to protect and restore wetlands in order to provide this essential habitat. But restoring wetlands is a major feat. Rivers that supply both temporary and permanent wetlands aren’t what they used to be. There are myriad diversions and modifications, and with a continually growing human population, too many uses for the water. So that’s where farmers and ranchers come in.

In the spring, many farmers and ranchers flood their fields in order to irrigate crops. Migrating waterfowl take advantage of these flooded fields, stopping to rest and feed. Recognizing the role that flood irrigation has on the survival of these birds, biologists are working with farmers and ranchers along flyways to ensure that their land will remain in agriculture and that land owners will continue to flood irrigate (rather than switching to overhead irrigation). In California for example, rice farmers are being paid by the Nature Conservancy to flood their fields in conjunction with spring and fall migrations in order to ensure that birds will have staging habitat along the way. So, despite humans playing a major role in reducing habitat that migrating waterfowl require for survival, we are finding ways to make up for it. This is just one example of how we can help protect and improve biodiversity in our human-dominated landscapes.

Read more about protecting migrating waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway here.

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Celebrate American Wetlands Month by learning more about them. Here are some links to get you started:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Association of State Wetland Managers

Defenders of Wildlife

 

Wise Management of Invaded Plant Communities

Late last year the journal Nature published an article by Katherine Suding called “A Leak in the Loop,” which discussed the findings from long-term observations of an invaded plant community in Hawai’i. (A report authored by the researchers can be found in the same issue of Nature.) Once introduced, exotic species can become invasive by modifying their surroundings in such a way that ensures their survival and spread. Examples include modifications to fire and disturbance regimes, nutrient cycles, hydrology, and soil microbe communities. This self-reinforcement strategy is called a positive feedback loop. However, positive feedback loops are not eternally stable and can at some point be interrupted by negative feedback. In the case of invasive species, these “leaks in the loop” can result in population declines  and opportunities for restoration.

Back in the 1960’s, woodlands in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that were traditionally dominated by Metrosideros polymorpha, a flowering evergreen tree in the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), were invaded by a perennial grass from Africa commonly known as molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora). Molasses grass was successful because its presence increased the frequency and size of fires which reduced populations of native plant species without negatively affecting itself. Additionally, accelerated nitrogen cycling rates resulted due to the presence of the exotic grass, which benefited the invader. But now things have changed.

Returning to these sites 50 years later, researches have discovered that nitrogen cycling rates have returned to pre-invasion levels. Since molasses grass requires high levels of nitrogen, it is now on the decline. What exactly caused this reduction in nitrogen availability is unclear. It could be because winter rains flush nitrogen from the soil, making it unavailable when the grass begins to actively grow again in the spring. Several years of reduced growth resulting from reduced nitrogen availability diminishes the grass’s initial contribution to accelerated nitrogen cycling, hence a breakdown in the positive feedback loop.

With the invader on the decline, the woodlands should be able to restore themselves. Ideally, anyway. Instead what the researchers observed is that another invader, Morella faya – a nitrogen fixing evergreen shrub from Europe, is moving in. Acacia koa, a native nitrogen fixing tree, is the ideal candidate for restoring these woodlands, however its seeds are heavy and don’t spread easily. Seeds of M. faya are bird-dispersed, and so they find their way into these sites first. In order to restore these sites and avoid further invasions, land managers must recognize when and where molasses grass is declining and start planting Acacia koa trees in large numbers, getting them established before M. faya arrives.

acacia koa

Acacia koa (photo credit: eol.org)

This research is important for anyone in the business of managing invaded plant communities. As Suding concludes in her article, “this new perspective will inform where and when we might best intervene in systems to capitalize on their changing dynamics.” Millions of dollars are spent each year in an attempt to reduce and ultimately eradicate invasive plant species. Long-term studies of invaded plant communities can help us recognize when the best times to employ restoration strategies might be. When we find a leak in the loop, we should take advantage of it, otherwise we may just be wasting resources.

Related Post:

Invasivore: One Who Consumes Invasive Species