A Thing With Feathers

Feather by Heather HinamEven if you can somehow go through your entire life without ever seeing a bird, chances are very good that you will still have some experience with feathers. Whether displayed in a  hatband, stuffed into a pillow or quilt or tied together at the end of a duster, feathers are a fairly ubiquitous part of the world around us and certainly the defining characteristic of the group of flying vertebrates we know today as birds.

But, have you ever given much thought to where they came from?

As it turns out, feathers have been around a lot longer than most people realize. As paleontologists find more fossils every year to slot into the puzzle that is the evolution of life on this planet, the picture becomes clearer and stories start to make sense.

When it comes to the story of the evolution of feathers, the first thing you have to remember is that birds are modern dinosaurs, having evolved from the lineage known as Theropods, whose ranks include those Jurassic Park villains Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus rex.  However, what didn’t make it into the movies was the fact that, at the very least, Velociraptor was not only ferocious, but fluffy. At first, this detail was inferred from the discovery that many of its ancestors were feathered and some, like the bizarre, bi-plane like creature Microraptor gui, could fly. Then, a discovery of quill nobs, a trait seen in modern birds, on the forearm bones of one specimen confirmed it. Now an accurate representation of Velociraptor is something like a sleek, predatory ostrich.

Even more recent discoveries have put the assumption of a scaly hide in Tyrannosaurus rex into doubt. While they haven’t found specimens of this iconic dinosaur with feathers yet, a cousin from about 125 million years old China, named Yutyrannus most definitely was feathered. About the size of a bus, these are the largest feathered dinosaurs known to date.

So how far back do feathers go? In time, we can trace their existence at least 160 million years to chicken-like dinosaurs called Anchiornis, but these critters already had the highly complex barbed feathers we see in modern birds today.  Most evolutionary biologists agree that feathers likely started out as single, hollow,  hair-like filaments that became branched and barbed as needed over time. These have been found in many species, most notably, Sciurumimus, a dinosaur found very near the base of the Theropod branch. Described for the first time just last year, this species shows a spectacularly preserved coat of dense, filamentous plumes. Finding feathers like these near the base of the branch suggests that maybe more advanced Theropods, including T-rex had some kind of plumage. Still, we don’t know just how far back down the tree they go.

The point of origin keeps getting pushed closer and closer to the root of at least the dinosaur’s evolutionary tree thanks to feather filaments being found in some Ornisthischian dinosaurs, like the Triceratops cousin, Psittacosaurus, who are about as far removed from Theropods and modern birds as a dinosaur can be. Actually, they’re starting to find feathers all over the dinosaur family tree, leaving us to wonder if they predate the group altogether. In fact, the genes responsible for taking an undifferentiated plate of keratin and turning it into a feather has been found in crocodilians, who although they are birds’ closest living relatives, branched off from the group well over 250 million years ago.

So what did these prehistoric feathers look like? Structurally, early feathers started out as simple, hollow strands, growing out from a plate of keratin embedded in the skin. More advanced feathers split into barbs, looking like fluffy ostrich plumes. Eventually, those barbs developed tiny barbules that allowed their wearers to ‘zip them up’, turning them into strong, but flexible sheets that eventually were co-opted into airfoils. This same evolutionary progression can be seen today in the growth of every bird embryo.

Most fascinating, however is the fact that paleontologists now know what colour some of these plumes were. Recent work with Anchiornis turned up microscopic pockets of pigment called melanozomes. By comparing these ancient structures to those known today, they managed to work out that not only was Anchiornis about the size of a chicken, it actually kind of looked like one, a bright tableau of shiny black and white spangles with a flash of red on a crest. Who knows, maybe in time, we’ll see our very own field guide to dinosaur plumage. Either way, you can’t help but marvel at these remarkable, ancient, ingenious  and unarguably beautiful innovations of evolution.

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Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.

 

Living on the Edge

Ecotone - a zone of transition, of overlapOur world is in a constant state of transition, both in time and space. Most of us are more aware of the former, noting the passing of minutes, days and years. However, for many species, it’s changes in habitat across space that have a significant impact on their survival.

Life needs edges, places where the shadows of the forest recede in the face of the sun, where waves of grasses dip their roots in murky waters, where ripples lap incessantly at a rock face, etching away the sand of the future. Edges create variety and when it comes to ecology, variety is truly the spice of life, at least in terms of its diversity.

The technical term for a transition zone between two types of habitat is ecotone. It’s a place where two communities meet, knitting together elements of each other, often bringing the best of both worlds.

Some ecotones are abrupt, like the striking boundary between forest edge and farmer’s field, a change so sudden, it can easily be seen from the air. Others are more gradual, such as the subtle gradation of shades from soft, sunny aspen leaves to the dark mossy needles of the boreal forest as one moves pole-ward throughout much of the northern hemisphere.  Some edges we we can’t even see, like the lines between distinct communities layered on top of each other in the depths of a lake. It’s all a matter of perspective. What might seem like a continuum to us, may be a stark contract to another species.  It all depends on the resources you value.

Regardless of how they’re defined, edges are important places. They’re interfaces, areas where two distinct worlds can influence each other for better or worse. Edge-effects can be positive or negative, depending on the organism whose point of view you are looking from and what type of edge it is.

Naturally occurring ecotones, like a reed bed bordering a lake shore, are hugely important areas, a bridge between the land and watery worlds, creating an interface where a greater number of species can thrive than would otherwise exist without these marshes. Whether they’re lines of trees along a winding stream, offering a windbreak in an otherwise open field, or a wet meadow cutting its way through a thick forest, edges can also provide natural thoroughfares, ancient pathways followed by generations of animals.

However, that same linear accessibility can also become a problem when the edge is not natural. Clear-cuts slicing into an normally intact forest, seismic lines cross-crossing though arctic tundra or farmland pushing into what’s left of tall-grass prairie can create novel and unnatural ecotones, opening corridors for predators and invasive species, irrevocably changing the landscape. In contrast, what may be right-of-ways for some organisms may also be barriers for others, with human-caused edges limiting normally wider-ranging movements of many habitat-sensitive species, such as songbirds and woodland caribou.

Anyway you cut it, the world is full of edges, both dividing and uniting this remarkable patchwork of landscapes in all three dimensions. Understanding the depth of that complexity and our impacts on it has kept biologists busy for decades and will continue to do so for many more to come. I, for one, welcome the chance to continue the exploration.

Restless Heart

Zugunruhe - migratory restlessnessTo regular readers of this blog, my love of obscure words is not a new thing. Over the last few years, I’ve been creating these ‘definition images’ as my way of bringing life to some of the wonders of nature and the words used to describe them.

Looking back over them all, I realized, much to my surprise, that I’ve crafted more than 70 of them, covering just about every letter of the alphabet. That discovery has led me to challenge myself to visualize words starting with more uncommon letters, like  X, Qand Z. Kind of like an artistic variation on Scrabble.

Autumn has given me the perfect opportunity to address one of my favourite Z words.  It’s another one of those terms that comes up only in the discussion of natural history and animal behaviour and it never fails to raise a few eyebrows if you manage to slip it into regular conversation.

The word is Zugunruhe.

Zugunruhe is a combination of two German words = Zug, meaning to move or migrate and Unruhe, meaning restlessness and it together, the sum is really the combination of the parts: migratory restlessness. For a behavioural ecologist, it’s a word that tends to conjure up thoughts of autumn, or more specifically, late summer.

As the earth lumbers along its orbital path and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere find ourselves canting away from the sun’s warmth, many creatures get antsy. Birds especially are seized by a sudden disquiet and activity levels skyrocket. Sleep patterns change and if the individuals are kept in a cage, they start orienting their activity in the direction they should be migrating in. Most species go through a period of excessive feeding, needing to pack away as much energy as aerodynamics will allow for the journey that inevitably lay ahead. We see it all around us in the clouds of blackbirds roiling through the air or flocks of geese descending on a recently-harvested field. This period of restlessness is referred to as Zugunruhe by biologists who study animal behaviour and it’s a phenomenon observed both in the spring and in the fall, just prior to the mass migrations that move millions of birds along north-south flyways over the continent.

Here, in the boreal forest, it’s a phenomenon that usually starts in August. Our summers are relatively short and as soon as breeding is over, the preparation of the twice-yearly journey gets underway, especially in songbirds, who have to travel thousands of kilometres to Central and South America. With their time here so fleeting and the journey so long and fraught with danger, you can’t help but wonder, why go through all the trouble?

Why not stay in the tropics, where the weather is favourable and save all of the energy and risk associated with long-distance travel? The answer to that question likely varies to a certain degree between species; but evidence suggests that food, or rather the lack of it, was likely the driver behind the evolution of long-distance migration in many birds.

Most of today’s migratory species likely evolved near the equator, enjoying consistently tolerable weather and relatively abundant food. However, as populations started to grow and segment into different species, the pressure on food sources grew to a point where the survival of some depended on searching out new resources. The only place to go was away, into the temperate zones north and south of the tropics. Those that did, discovered abundant resources, millions of insects, and a glut of fruit and vegetation. The problem was it only lasts for a short period of time, forcing those explorers to retreat back to the warm haven to the south during the winter months.

Over millenia, these paths have been extended and entrenched by generations of birds winging their way along now well-established routes.  As those paths have become increasingly ensconced in the collective memories of each species, so has the irrepressible need to travel those routes that spurs everything from hummingbirds to harriers on their way twice a year.

With migration in full swing here in Manitoba, the period of zugunruhe is actually over; but once balance of night and day swings back into the favour of the light, the millions of birds enjoying the warmth of their winter homes will feel the inexorable pull once again, the restlessness building until one day, they’ll have no choice but to take to the air and find their way back to us.

Flying with Dinosaurs

Canada goose and dinosaurSince the beginning of January, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a second-year Chordate Zoology course at the University of Winnipeg. Having taken it at a different school as an undergrad and having taught the labs several years ago, the material isn’t exactly new. However, it’s been a wonderful way to rediscover the fascinating story that is the evolution of vertebrates.

First and foremost, it’s reminded me that we see dinosaurs just about everyday, flitting through the trees, soaring high overhead and gliding across a glassy pond. They’re all around us, bringing colour and music to our world.

Because of my grounding in zoology, the concept that birds are dinosaurs is not new to me, nor is it difficult to understand. However, I imagine for many people it’s a bit of a challenge to make the mental leap from a chickadee flitting among the leaves to a giant Tyrannosaurus rex thundering along a Cretaceous plain.  Still, whether you can see the resemblance or not, the genetic relationship is undeniable. A spectacularly rare discovery in 2007 of intact collagen protein in the fossil leg bone of a T-Rex allowed researchers to compare the amino acid chains within with a database of species we already have sequences for. It turned out that of all the possibilities, from mammals to reptiles, the sequence was most closely related to the collagen sequence of a chicken. This discovery probably would’ve left good ol’ Colonel Sanders with nightmares!

Even without the molecular connection, you can still see the family resemblance. Birds are descended from a lineage of dinosaurs known as Theropods, swift, bipedal predators, like Velociraptor, Deinonychus (pictured above) and the aforementioned T. Rex. While the ones most people are familiar with, thanks to Jurassic Park, are the large, ferocious creatures, most of this lineage were rather small, adapted for running and pouncing on their prey. These adaptations for speed and agility can still be seen in the skeletons of the last remaining dinosaurs, the birds.

They walked on two legs, their limbs swinging back and forth on the fulcrum of a pelvis that looked like part of a bicycle. Over time, that pelvis shifted, the individual bones fusing and getting stonger to withstand the strain brought by high speeds while maintaining its light weight. In fact, weight reduction was the order of the day in the evolution of birds from their theropod ancestors. Bones, overall, got smaller, lighter, hollowing out into tubes that were, and still are, reinforced by thin struts called trabeculae. The pectoral girdle got both smaller and in some ways, more rigid. Where the scapulae were freed up to allow the arms to swing out like flapping wings, the clavicles fused, forming the furcula (wishbone) and the sternum developed a deep keel, giving more space for what eventually became flight muscles to attach.

Still, the most striking feature these dinosaurs had in common with the ones we see today was feathers. That’s right, Creighton missed that little detail. Many theropods, Velociraptor included, had feathers. They started out as long, thin fibers that offered the minimum of insulation, gradually developing into the differentiated flight, covert and down feathers we know now. They appeared at least 160 million years ago, long before Archaeopterix (the first official bird) and even non-avian theropods like Velociraptor and Deinonychus. Paleontologists have found them in numerous species, including a small chicken-like theropod (the whole protein thing is making sense now) named Anchiornis. They’ve even managed to determine the colour of the feathers by examining the shape of the melanosomes (tiny pockets of pigment) preserved in the fossilized remains.

As more and more of these characteristics are teased from the fossil record, I can’t help but hope that one day my field guide to birds includes a section on the species that paved the genetic way for the spectacular diversity we see today.

The Edge of Darkness

Owl SilhouetteAs I’ve mentioned before, I have always had a love for obscure words, especially those that find everyday use in the lexicon of certain specialties.

Crespuscular is one of those words.

I use it all the time, but it’s definitely not common knowledge, something that’s become increasingly obvious over the many years that I’ve been a nature interpreter. I’ll throw it out there, along with other natural history terms, like ‘nocturnal’ or ‘carnivore’. While my charges usually nod sagely in understanding at these other adjectives, ‘crespuscular’ usually elicits furrowed brows and working tongues as they try to wrap their mouths around the syllables, eyes rolled up towards their brains, as though watching it try to divine the word’s meaning.

It’s too bad, because it’s a good word. It’s also a great way to be. A crepuscular animal is one that is most active at twilight, straddling the line between night and day in the muted light of either dawn or dusk. It certainly my favourite time to be out and about, probably because I’m in such good company.

Many animals are crepuscular in their habits; the most notable of which,  for me, are the owls. Species, like the Great Gray Owl, are at their best at this hazy time of day, making use of their enormous eyes and highly-tuned hearing to pick up the slightest rustle of prey along the forest floor. Owls, however, are not the only birds that enjoy this shoulder time. Common Nighthawks and Wilson Snipe also come alive in the dusk, the former swooping and diving through the gloom, scooping up millions of flying insects that have taken to the air after the heat of the day before the cool night temperatures slows their metabolisms and forces them back to earth. Most songbirds reserve their choruses for the crepuscular hours; Olive-sided Flycatchers announcing the dawn and Hermit Thrushes heralding the dusk, their refrains rounded out by the harmonies of breeding frogs.

Most boreal mammals are also crepuscular in their habits. The dull grey winter coat of the white-tailed deer is at its most invisible in the murky hours of twilight, especially to the mostly colour-blind vision of their carnivorous predators. Bats join the nighthawks in their aerial quest for a meal and rabbits emerge from the shadows, taking advantage of the low light to grab a quick nibble before complete darkness makes it difficult to spot approaching danger.

In reality, the busiest time of day, in whatever habitat you might live, is twilight. So, whether you are an early bird, who rises before the dawn, or a night owl, like me, who takes comfort in the release of the day as the sun slips below the horizon, get outside at these tenuous moments and discover the beauty and wonder of becoming crepuscular in your habits.

Sounds of Silence

White-tailed deerWalking through the winter woods I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of closeness with the world around me. Snow is nature’s greatest silencer, muting the world as it bathes it in white and it’s this silence that breeds a feeling of intimacy with my forest brethren. Shrouded by heavy bows and intermittent shadows, I feel my senses stretch through the quiet, reaching out for any sign that I’m not alone in my wanderings.

As I make my silent progress, I find myself wondering how the other inhabitants of the forest perceive this winter world. Whenever I get into one of these moods, my mind usually strays to the white-tailed deer, a species I’m fortunate to meet often on my woodland rambles.

We’re about the same size, a doe and I, and their soft, forward-facing eyes and expressive faces make them easy to relate to.

Though I know she could easily outrun me (especially since I’m a rather slow runner, even for a human), we have a bit more in common than we might first realize. White-tailed deer and humans perceive the world in much the same way. Deer, for the most part, are just a lot better at it.  They have to be. When you live you life under the constant threat of predation, it’s in your best interest to develop a sophisticated arsenal of early-warning systems and deer have plenty.

In deer, the nose knows everything that’s going on around them. With over 290 million olfactory receptors, deer can detect the faintest whiff of danger, even more accurately than their canine pursuers (who only have about 220 million). Both, however, seriously outstrip humans, with our rather paltry 5 million. Where do they put them all? The nasal region of both cervid and canine skulls is actually quite long and full of thin bones in a delicate scroll-work called nasal turbinates. In the living creature, these bones are covered with olfactory epithelium (skin with scent receptors) that picks up the tiniest of molecules. When actively sniffing, they fill their nasal cavities with as much air as possible, giving scent molecules a better chance of being picked up.

To further improve things, deer have a small, fluid-filled sack lying just on top of the palette called the vomeronasal organ (or Jacobson’s organ). This seems to function in a very specific type of scent detection – pheromones, something most mammals use in abundance and deer are no exception.  Whether we have such a functioning organ too is still being debated, but there is evidence that suggests it might play a subtle role in our lives.

Whenever I come face-to-face with a deer, I’m always drawn in by those liquid doe-eyes and this is one place where we have a bit of an edge over our four-legged friend, at least when it comes to how we see our world. Most people will tell you that mammals, especially ones that are active in the dark, don’t see colour. That’s not entirely true. The retina of deer eyes do have cones (colour receptors); they just can’t quite distinguish the same spectrum. A deer’s world is tinted in blues and greens, which makes sense, considering their main concern is picking out the right plants to eat. Still, don’t think you’re invisible to them as you walk through the woods in a blaze-orange vest. Recent work has found that they can pick out at least a hint of these longer wavelengths and with a visual range of 300 degrees while standing still and eyes that are highly sensitive to the slightest movement, a deer will notice you long before you even know you’re not alone.

Besides, if the eyes fail them, the ears wont. No matter how carefully I tread, I know that somewhere, the crunch of my footsteps is being collected by the large, rotating pinna of a deer’s ear. Their range of hearing is considerably better than ours, picking out much higher frequencies than we could ever hope to detect. The wide placement of the ears on the head and their ability to rotate them independently also make it possible for a deer to triangulate the source of a sound, much like an owl.

I know that I will never experience the world on the same level as any of my fellow forest inhabitants, but on a silent, snowy afternoon, I can’t help but want to try.