Flight of Dragons

Dragonfly portrait by Heather HinamAlthough growing up, I was very much a tomboy, climbing trees and mucking around in the bush and ditches near my house, my relationship with insects was more typical of most city girls. I didn’t like them.  I thought nothing of swatting a house fly and I’m sad to say that I’ve run, screaming, away from a pursuing horsefly or the longhorn beetles that show up around August at the cottage.

However, as I’ve aged, my impression of insects has evolved quite a bit.  As I’ve grown to appreciate the amazing beauty and complexity of our natural world, I find myself drawn more often to those things that used to frighten or disgust me to re-examine them with my new perspective on life. I’m pleased to report that I’ve developed a new appreciation for longhorn beetles.

However, the one group of insects has always fascinated me, even as a child, is the dragonflies. I have a vivid memory of canoeing with my father down the La Salle River, south of Winnipeg, when a dragonfly landed on my knee.  I was rapt as I carefully held my lower half as still as I could while paddling to ensure my visitor a smooth ride, wanting to keep it with me as long as possible.

I’m not the only one with this fascination. There’s just something about these bejewelled predators that captures the imagination. I see representations of dragonflies everywhere, on t-shirts, in wind chimes and other household decorations, on jewellery and even fridge magnets. I think most people simply find them attractive, with their iridescent colours and delicate wings. They’re also ‘benevolent bugs’ from the human standpoint, voraciously devouring our ‘undesirables’ like mosquitoes and black flies.

Even with all of this goodwill, I don’t think the average person really knows all that much about them.  Dragonflies, and damselflies belong to the order Odonata (toothed ones), which contains some of the most ancient and largest insects ever known. There are over 5,900 living species, with nearly 100 of them found in Manitoba.

They’ve been around a long time, with the earliest fossil Protodonata (pre-dragonflies) dating to around 325 million years ago.  They were also a lot larger then, with wingspans reaching nearly a metre. I’m not sure we would’ve been so fond of them if they were still that size. When these insects first took to the air, they were the monarchs of the skies, feeding on whatever flew into their path. Vertebrates were only just crawling out of the water and so dragonflies had little competition and few predators. The benefits of being big, however, only lasted until dinosaurs started coming into their own.

Although they’ve become much smaller over time, the overall structure of a dragonfly hasn’t really changed all that much in 250 million years. These bugs are built to hunt on the wing. Their compound eyes are enormous relative to the size of their body and over 80% of their brain function is devoted to analyzing the visual input from the up to 30,000 ommatidia (facets) that make up each eye.  Having eyes made up of independent facets results in an incredible ability to detect movement because they can see in just about all directions at once.

This hyped-up visual centre can also detect parts of the colour spectrum that we can’t. Human eyes have three types of opsins, light-sensitive proteins that detect red, green and blue light. Diurnal dragonflies have four or five types of opsins arranged very specifically throughout each compound eye, with blue and UV receptors pointed up and longer wavelength receptors pointed down, likely to maximize their efficiency.

With amazing visual acuity, the ability to focus on one prey item at the expense of all else, almost all of their limbs facing towards the head and prehensile labia (mouthparts), they can snatch their prey out of the air with about a 95% success rate.

The last part of this deadly equation is their stunning aerial ability. We’ve all seen them dive and weave, hover and back-up, all while reaching speeds of nearly 50 km/h.  Dragonfly flight is actually very complicated, probably the most complex process of all flying organisms.  With four wings that can move independently of each other and dynamic airfoils that can flex around several angles, things can get complicated and scientists are still trying to sort it all out with the help of high-speed film.

They can make use of the classical lift that keeps planes in the air and a back and forth figure-eight stroke much like hummingbirds as well as take advantage of the vortices they create.  Some can turn 360 degrees around the axis of their bodies with the wings on one side stroking forward and the other side stroking back in one coordinated movement.  All of it is driven by a circuit of 16 neurons hard-wiring the brain to the highly developed motor muscles in the thorax.

So, the next time you catch the flash of a dragonfly as it zips along, take a moment to marvel at these truly ancient wonders of the natural world.

Advertisements

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.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Insulation - chickadee warming its feetIt was minus 40 Celsius with the wind chill the other morning. The bite of the air stung any carelessly exposed skin and the snow squeaked like Styrofoam underfoot. Wrapped up in my shearling coat, I couldn’t help but watch in fascination as a nearby mountain ash came alive with foraging Pine Grosbeaks and the cheerful chirps of chickadees and nuthatches filled the frosty air, reminding me just how incredible these tiny winter residents really are.

Chickadees, for example, weigh not much more than 10 g, about the same as two nickles. Yet, they can survive quite comfortably in temperatures that would leave us frostbitten and shivering.

Winter birds accomplish this seemingly unfathomable feat in a number of different ways. Firstly, they’re wearing a down coat. Those of you who own one know just how warm they can be and for birds, that insulation is part of the standard package. Feathers are a remarkable insulator. Comprising only about 5 – 7 % of a bird’s body weight (that’s half a gram on a chickadee), the air trapped within them makes up 95% of that weight’s volume, creating a thick layer of dead air that traps heat generated by the body, preventing much of its loss even on the coldest of days. Many winter residents grow a thicker winter coat, much like mammals, augmenting their feather count by up to 50 %. Fluffing feathers increases their insulation factor even further (about 30%), making them a very efficient way to keep warm in the winter, so efficient, in fact, some birds, like Great Gray Owl can actually overheat in the summer.

While some species, like Ruffed Grouse and many owls, grow feathers, along their legs and feet, like fluffy winter boots,  most songbirds’ legs are bare, thin sticks of sinew, blood and bone exposed to the elements. Although birds can tuck these delicate structures up into the warm cover of down when temperatures really plummet, most of the time they’re out in the open. So, why don’t they freeze and why isn’t all of a bird’s body heat lost through these naked limbs? Bird legs are marvels of biological efficiency, having been streamlined by millennia of evolution into sleek structures with very little muscle and few nerves, using instead pulley systems of tendons and bone to accomplish movement. These tissues, along with their scaly coverings have very little moisture and are less likely to freeze than flesh and skin.

Birds also have cold feet. Using a common natural system called a countercurrent heat exchange, our feathered friends keep their feet upwards of ten to twenty degrees colder than their core body temperature. Countercurrent Heat Exchange System in a bird's leg. by Heather HinamWarm arterial blood on its way to the feet pass right next to colder blood coming back towards the body through the veins. Heat wants to reach a point of equilibrium, so warmth from the arteries passes into the veins which carries it back into the body. Because the flows are running opposite to each other, it’s impossible for the heat balance to ever reach equilibrium, so by the time the blood gets to the feet, it’s much cooler than when it entered the leg and all that precious body heat has been kept where it needs to be, in the core.

However, as most of us who have experienced a true northern winter know, a coat alone isn’t always enough. There has to be heat to trap in order for insulation to work over the long term. To generate that heat, many winter birds shiver constantly when they’re not moving. Ravens, whose feather count isn’t as high as some of its more fluffy distant cousins, actually shiver constantly, even when flying, the repeated contractions of their massive pectoral muscles acting like a furnace. Powering that furnace takes energy and cold-weather specialists meet those needs by upping their metabolic rate, in some species, to several times their normal levels. As a result, food is always a going concern in winter.

Many winter residents can only forage for food during the day, so keeping the internal fires burning at night can be a challenge.  Finding a warm place to settle in for the night reduces those metabolic needs.  Densely-packed spruce boughs or old tree cavities are perfect nighttime microclimates and many birds use them. Chickadees will often take it a step further, piling as many fluffy little birds as possible into an old woodpecker hole to share body heat, which may just be too much cuteness in one place. Ruffed Grouse take advantage of the insulative capacity of snow in a somewhat comical way. One cold nights, the birds dive head first into a drift and tunnel deeper into the snow, creating a cave known as a kieppi. Temperatures inside the kieppi can hover just around the freezing mark, even when it’s minus thirty outside.

So as we close in on the shortest day of the year and sink deeper into the cold clutches of winter, take a moment, now and then, to marvel at those tiny survivalists outside your window. Much of the technology that keeps us from succumbing to winter’s icy grip was adapted from them. Nature truly is our greatest teacher.

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.

 

Flying Away on a Wing and Prayer

Migrating geeseFor weeks now, the air has been full of motion, full of flapping wings and rhythmic calls.  Fall has been rolling over us like an endless wave, washing down from the north along ancient streams with millions of birds at its crest.

We’re deep into migration season here in the north woods. Actually, I’m sad to say that we’re getting close to the end. When it starts in mid-August, it’s a subtle change, a gentle trickle, as species begin to disappear like lights blinking out on a Christmas tree. It begins with the little guys, warblers, shorebirds and hummingbirds that have to make the long trek to Central and South America. One of the first of the larger species to go are the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), their warbling calls ringing so high up in the sky that you often can’t see them against the clouds.

By mid-September, most of the songbirds are gone and we’re knee-deep in waterfowl, thousands of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and assorted ducks darken the skies and fill the farmers’ fields on their way to the southern United States. Now, in late October, the last of the waterfowl are heading off and Bald Eagles are following in their wake, on their way to places where the water bodies don’t free solid.

In Manitoba, about 85% of our birds migrate, but how do they know when it’s time to leave?

Just like the leaves on a tree and pretty much every other living organism on earth, birds are tuned into rhythms of time, the waxing and waning of day length. As the days get shorter, it triggers a response in their hypothalamus that cascades from the brain through the endocrine system, changing the cocktail of hormones coursing through their veins, resulting in an itch to move that just won’t go away. Biologists call that itch ‘migratory restlessness’ or zughenruhe.

During this period, birds get antsy, staying up well past their normal bedtimes and eating like it’s going out of style. There’s a point to this sudden change in behaviour. Most birds migrate at night and it’s important that they store as much energy as possible for their long flights. In fact, migrants will increase their fat loads to anywhere between 15 and 50% of their body weight, depending on the length of their trip.

Many have a very long way to go, some travelling thousands of kilometres to their wintering grounds. Getting there takes a good sense of direction and birds make use of a lot of different tools. Like the explorers of old, the sun and the stars play a big role in keeping birds on migratory routes that have been passed down for thousands of generation. Because many birds migrate at night, the setting sun offers a quick and easy compass to use for orienting their take-offs. Scientists have confirmed this by studying captive birds and using bring lights as a substitute celestial body. Whenever they moved the light, birds would change their take-off orientation accordingly, ensuring they were headed in the proper direction.

It’s not always possible to see the sun or the stars and once you’re in the air, they become less useful. In many cases, large landmarks, like rivers and mountain ranges serve as highways, guiding the flocks on their journey. However, when all visual cues fail, they still have one more fallback. Deposits of the mineral magnetite in their brains have been found to operate as a built-in compass, allowing individuals to pick up the earth’s magnetic field and orient themselves appropriately.

Studies are still trying to sort out how this all works from a biological level, but there’s no question of its usefulness. Work with homing pigeons have shown that messing up the electrical fields around the birds’ heads made it impossible for them to navigate accurately by scrambling their magnetic reception.

So as you watch a V of geese winging their way overhead, just take a moment to watch them. What you’re seeing is an amazing confluence of adaptations and millenia of evolution that have resulted in one of the most astonishing natural phenomena on earth that can be witnessed just about anywhere by anyone.

Size Really does Matter

Autumn is a magical time, full of the fresh scent of fallen leaves, crisp, blue skies and the plaintive grunts of horny ungulates.

Yes, folks, it’s mating season in the boreal forest, known in the deer world as the rut. As the days get shorter, hormones start running rampant. Lean, muscular bodies have reached peak condition after a summer’s diet of green, leafy vegetation. Pheromones are being produced in vast quantities to be splashed onto every available surface. But, for deer and moose, it’s really all about the antlers, which have now been scrubbed clean of their protective velvet layer to gleam in the warm autumn light like a warriors sword.

Unlike what us human females like to tell our potential mates, size, in cervids, truly does matter. It’s all about who has the biggest rack.  Think about it, ladies, which would you be most attracted to: the young, scrawny male with little knobs that just barely make it past his ears, or the magnificent bull with antlers stretching over a meter from tip to tip? In female ungulates, the choice is ingrained: bigger is better because she’s not just seeing an impressive display, she’s seeing good genes.

Those antlers are what behaviourists call ‘honest signals’. Only males healthy enough to carry around all that weight can display them. Take moose (Alces alces), for example. Antlers of a large bull can span up to 5 ft (1.5 m) across and weigh 60 – 85 lbs (27 – 39 kg).  Male moose spend 25% of their energy in the summer just growing them, using more resources than females put into gestating young.  Antlers grow fast, starting to form in mid-summer and reaching full size by September. In fact, moose antler is the fastest growing bone tissue known. Growing it is one thing; then they have to carry them around for another few months.

It’s for that reason, that antlers are such a reliable signal of male health and why they are so attractive to females. If the male is strong and healthy enough to carry around 70 lbs on his head just to look good, he should father some healthy calves.

Another theory explaining why females choose males with larger antlers and other ornaments is known as the ‘sexy sons hypothesis’. The idea is that females choose males with the largest antlers, longest tail or brightest colours because they figure they will father sons who are equally attractive, ensuring they will pass on their genes to future generations. Either way you look at it, it has resulted in some pretty amazing looking animals.

These racks aren’t only for show. While in most cases, it can easy to determine a winner when two competing males cross paths, sometimes the match-up is too close to call on sight alone. In those situations, a fight usually breaks out. Like two hockey players, they launch at each other and lock heads, pushing and grunting until one eventually gives up. Although death is rare, fights can be dangerous. You can get cut, or gouged or, like the one pair of bull elk I watched, one can push the other into oncoming traffic.

For this reason, male ungulates spend a lot of time sizing each other up before engaging in any combat and they’ve evolved some more sophisticated ways to do that besides standing around comparing sizes. Those pheromones they splash about contain a lot of information on each individual’s  health and status. Many species, like white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), create pheromone markers all over their territory by scraping bark of small trees and rubbing scent glands at the base of their antlers onto the exposed wood, leaving their calling card. This allows other males entering the territory to decide if its worth taking this guy on without having to see him.

As the days grow shorter still, the furor eventually comes to an end. The females are with calf and the hormone levels in males peter out, leaving them exhausted, but hopefully satisfied. Having served their purpose, the antlers drop off, likely affording a great deal of relief, but it’s only a few short months before the next rack starts growing and the cycle starts again.

And I see your True Colours Shining Through

My favourite season tends to depend on my mood, but most often, my answer is autumn. It’s refreshing, a cool breeze washing away the heavy haze of summer. Paradoxically, it also feels warm, like shrugging into your favourite coat as you catch a whiff of someone’s wood stove in the crisp morning air.

I think it’s the colours of fall that give the days their warmth. The cool greens slowly fade into yellows, golds, russets and umbers. The forests are suddenly ablaze with a riot of hues.

In the boreal mixedwood forest where I live, the dominant colour is yellow. The poplars and birches sparkle with it against the sapphire September sky. Still, if you look closer to the ground, you can find a little more variety. The dogwoods (Corylus stolonifera) go purple, their leaves a lovely compliment to their reddish branches. The mountain maple (Acer spicatum), like the one pictured above, show quite a bit of variation, ranging from a pale yellow in individuals that are growing in the shade to brilliant orange and deep red for those lucky shrubs that are exposed to full sun.

But, where do these colours come from?

To a certain degree, they’re always there, hiding just below the surface, waiting for their curtain call. New, functioning leaves are full of chlorophyll, a brilliant green pigment that is packed into structures within the cell appropriately known as chloroplasts.  These are the food factories for the tree, working throughout the growing season to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into nourishing sugars via photosynthesis that are then funnelled into the rest of the tree. During this period, chlorophyll is constantly being degraded and replaced, keeping the leaves a brilliant green, overshadowing any other colours lurking within.

However, as the days become shorter and the sun’s intensity begins to wane, these factories shut down, using up their last stores of chlorophyll until there’s nothing left. Once the green is gone, the veil is pulled back giving other the hues a chance to shine. Carotenoids, a pigment that also plays a role in photosynthesis, remains, painting the trees with bright yellows and oranges. Some leaves also contain pigments known as anthocyanins, a watery dye that stains leaves with intense washes of reds and purples.

Just how bright and varied the fall palette is depends a lot of the weather. Warm, sunny days, followed by cool, but not frosty nights gives the leaves a chance to build up a lot of sugars and trap them within their cells. High sugar levels often results in greater amounts of anthocyanin, yielding more reds and purples, adding to the variety in the forest.

This year’s fall in the north woods has been just the kind we need for a spectacular display and the trees have not disappointed. Every day for the last few weeks, I’ve watched in awe as more and more of the canopy sparkles with colour, filling in the autumn landscape, a spectacular display against the clear blue skies.

Still, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the nights get too cold and the days too short, signalling to the tree that it’s time to lock down for winter. The veins bringing moisture to the leaves close up and the branches seal over, cutting off the leaf’s lifelife. The late October winds howling off the lake will tear the foliage from their bases, sending them fluttering to the forest floor and returning their nutrients back into the soil to feed next year’s crop. However, those days are a little ways away, and in the meantime I plan enjoy nature’s yearly blaze of glory for as long as I can.