Archive | November, 2014

Fungi vs Moss

Moss

Moss

Moss

Believed to have evolved from green algae, mosses are a primitive form of plant, also considered a microflora. They’re characterized by small root structures, along with stems and leaves so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them. Some only grow to a millimeter in height.

Mosses are found in almost every area of the world, especially California, surviving very extreme climates. This is because their simple structure and low nutrient requirements make it easy for mosses to thrive in places where other plants can’t grow. However, mosses are also extremely sensitive to changes in the environment because of pollutants.

Mosses are a tremendous benefit to the ecosystem because they enrich the soil they grow in, holding many times their own weight in water. Moss on the forest floor can be home to many small creatures, including mites, springtails and rotifers. A seabird called the marbled murrelet uses moss mats for its nests.

Although largely harmless, moss does have a tendency to collect on rooftops, retaining enough water to prevent a roof from drying out. This dampness will lift and curl shingles until the moss is removed. Also, although it looks pretty, when moss begins to grow in your planters at home, it can affect the health of the plant. As moss covers the top layer of soil, it doesn’t allow your soil to breathe. It also creates a home for insects that can harm your plants.

Fungi

Artist's Fungus

Artist’s Fungus

Fungi are neither plants nor animals and belong to their own kingdom. Unable to produce food through photosynthesis, they absorb nutrients from living and dead animals and plants. For the most part, fungi are hidden inside a food source, revealing their location only when they develop mushrooms or other fruiting bodies. With the Artist’s fungus, for example, such fruiting bodies take the form of reddish-brown brackets.

Without realizing it, most of us use fungi every day. The obvious source is mushrooms, but some fungi are also used to create soy sauce and miso as well as other flavorings. Yeast we use to make bread rise, beer, wine and the antibiotic penicillin are also products of fungi. A fungus like acidophilus helps promote healthy digestion while bifidobacteria has anti-tumor qualities used in cancer treatments.

Cumberland Rockshield

Cumberland Rockshield

Fungi are an important part of the nutrient recycling process, breaking down dead organic matter and plant debris to allow the ecosystem to reabsorb nutrients. Without fungi to supply essential nutrients, some plants like pine trees and orchids wouldn’t grow. The fungi can also produce protective chemicals to help a plant repel bacteria.

Fungi also have a dark side, causing plant disease that results in billions of dollars of crop damage a year. Some fungi also produce toxins (mycotoxins) that can be fatal if eaten through contaminated foods. Some fungi cause minor skin infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, while others, like the Candida albicans and Aspergillus species can even cause life-threatening infections. With fungi, we take the good with the bad. While some fungal parasites can actually help kill insects that damage crops, other fungi can cause considerable damage to crops as well. Overall, fungi does more good, being used as a source of food, medicine and also decomposers of dead material.

Moss and Fungi might be everywhere, but are easily overlooked. Taking the time to observe these unique forms of life can offer fascinating insight into the diversity of life itself.   

Overpopulation

In a recent blog on vultures we discussed the importance of their existence and how it has a positive impact on the ecosystem. We also discussed the fact that there are many vultures on the endangered species list and how their extinction could drastically affect the environment and well-being of other species. Although wildlife management typically concerns itself with the protection of wildlife, an important area to look at is overpopulation. An over population of a species can have just as big of an impact as not having enough, which is why balance is so important.

Overpopulation tends to occur when an ecosystem is unable to support existing wildlife. Animals wander into unnatural habitats in search of food, often dying of starvation or killed on roads and highways. The loss of carnivores, for example, might undermine the balance achieved by the predator-prey relationship, increasing herbivore populations which compete over diminishing plant life. According to the Humane Society the overpopulation of deer, not only causes tens of thousands of vehicle collisions every year, but is also destroying forests by hindering the diversity of species. This is similar to the situation that occurred with the overpopulation of elk in the Yellowstone National Forrest.

rabbitWhen animals leave one habitat for another, the non-native animals have advantages over native ones because predators ignore them. The lack of natural predators or abundant resources causes a population boom that destroys the environment. This happened in Australia when rabbits, introduced by Europeans, quickly bred out of control and damaged crops.

Sometimes when overpopulation occurs, other animals have been introduced by humans with hopes to correct the imbalance. But on many occasions, the introduction of a non-native species has done more harm than good. Asian Carps were imported to the Mississippi River to skim algae from aquaculture ponds, but they quickly migrated throughout the river, depleting plankton and driving out other species. The Asian Mongoose was introduced in Hawaii to help control the rat population but quickly drove the native bird population to the verge of extinction. 

799px-Small_asian_mongooseAlthough coyotes are native to North America, human habitats have proved inviting, causing millions in loss of livestock, especially sheep and lambs. Despite efforts to control the coyote population, increased land development means increased human interaction.

As you can see, balance plays an important role in the development of habitats. Too much or too little of a species can tip the scales in every direction and disrupt the ecosystem. If you’d like to read more about other species and their impact on nature, look at some of our other blogs like The Ripple Effect, Vultures and many others.

Invertebrates

An estimated 97% of all species on Earth are invertebrates, which means they don’t have bones. Some you might be familiar with echinoderms such as starfish and sea urchins, or cnidarians such as corals, sea anemone and jellyfish. Some not so common invertebrates are sponges, mollusks and arthropods, some crustaceans and over 60,000 species of arachnids.

The first animals on the planet were invertebrates, evolving from single-celled microorganisms that worked together to form multicellular organisms. The oldest fossils of invertebrates date back 600 million years.

Although invertebrates have no bones, structural support comes from exoskeletons, as with insects, or from the balance of fluid pressure, as with slugs and jellyfish. The structures of many invertebrates are able to change form as their grow, a process called metamorphosis.

The simplest invertebrates are sponges, which feed by siphoning water through their bodies and filtering out food particles. More complex invertebrates like spiders, snare prey with webs. Most parasites are invertebrates, living on or inside the digestive tract of hosts.

Here are some intriguing invertebrates local to California:

Purple Sea Urchin

Purple Sea UrchinThe purple sea urchin is an echinoderm and a member of the kelp forest community, used for food by the indigenous people of California.  It has the ability to sense its environment, a unique trait for an animal lacking a head structure.

Ochre Sea Star

Ochre Sea Star

The ochre sea star is a common starfish found in the waters of the Pacific, considered a keystone species used to assess the health of intertidal regions. The loss of even a few sea stars has a profound effect on nearby mussel bed populations.

Hermit Crab

Hermit Crab

The hermit crab is a crustacean that can elude predators by retracting into abandoned seashells it carries around; although it must find larger shells as it grows. The habit of living in second-hand shells gave rise to its name.

Rose Anemone

Rose Anemone

The rose anemone is a species of sea anemone found in the Pacific coast of North America at depths of around 15 feet. Large anemones offer protection to fish like the painted greenling, providing a safe environment to feed on small invertebrates.

Helmet Urchins

Helmet  Urchins

Helmet urchins are a species of Echinoderm with a remarkable ability to live in inhospitable wave-battered shorelines.

Two-spotted Octopus

Two Spotted Octopus

The two-spotted octopus is an octopus species found off the coast of California, identified by a circular blue spot under each eye. Because of their friendly temperament, they are considered to make the best pet octopus.

Sea Lemon Nudibranch

Sea Lemon Nudibranch

A sea lemon is a sea slugs, or nudibranch, whose name comes from the animal’s visual similarity to a lemon, due to its oval shape and pale yellow coloration.

Invertebrates form a rich topic of study, their high numbers and diversity of forms providing remarkable insight into the full breadth of biodiversity on our planet.

Bloodthirsty Plants: The Stationary Carnivores – Part 2

6041967669_44c6cb528c_zI hope everyone enjoyed reading last week’s article and learning about snap, pitfall and flypaper traps. This week we will be taking a look at the rest of the different types of carnivorous plants, which are lobster pot traps, bladder traps, and borderline carnivorous plants. Now then lets begin with lobster pot traps which are essentially deadly Chinese finger traps.

Carnivorous plants that utilize lobster pot traps are probably the laziest of all the carnivorous plants and are usually aquatic. This may seem like an odd way to describe a plant but, unlike the other carnivorous plants the lobster pot trap doesn’t even have to move to catch its prey. The prey simply has to accidentally wander inside and suddenly its trapped and can’t escape. This happens because lobster pot trap plant entrances are one way only. They manage to do this in a few different ways. The main way it does this is by having leafy projections pointing inward to facilitate travel inside the plant but block escape. Some traps curve inward while others use modified leaves with spiky projections to prevent escape. The movement of water through the trap also provides a current that pushes the prey inside and helps prevent escape. The next type of plant, the bladder plant, takes the final method of the lobster pot trap to an extreme level to capture its prey.

carnivorousplants3Bladder trap plants are aquatic carnivorous plants that utilize pressure to capture their prey, they are also my favorite type of carnivorous plant. In order to do this they take major advantage of the fact that they are underwater. First the bladder plant pumps all of the water out of its bladder chambers which are basically little plant bulbs. Once all the water is pumped out there is a vast difference in pressure between the outside that is filled with water and the waterless bulb. This happens because the water wants to fill the bulb that is currently filled with air. The plant takes advantage of this pressure difference by opening a bulb when prey is nearby. This causes the water to quickly get sucked into the bulb and if the prey was in that portion of water it also will get sucked into the bulb. Once inside it seals itself and there is no escape.

Last are the borderline carnivorous plants. These are plants that do not directly absorb the amino acids and proteins of their prey, instead they have an intermediate that breaks the prey down and then gives the plant its food source. I briefly wrote about a borderline carnivorous pitcher plant last week that wasn’t filled with digestive enzymes but instead is filled with bacteria. The bacteria are the ones that actually break down the prey and the plant then eats the bacterias byproducts. The plant genus Roridula is also a borderline carnivorous plant and has developed a symbiotic relationship with a species of assassin bug. Roridula utilizes the same trap as a sundew but without the digestive enzymes or the ability to curl up its leaves. Instead assassin bugs will come and eat the stuck insects and the plant gains nutrition from its excrement.

I hope everyone enjoyed reading about some of the lesser known plants in the world and learning that just because something can’t move around doesn’t mean it can’t still be a predator. Carnivorous plants also demonstrate that even if there is an area that seems like it isn’t possible for life to exist somehow nature always finds a way. A little off topic but the best example of this I know is a fish that literally lives in sulfuric acid. The fish lives in a place where no other organism would be able to survive. In a way this applies to everyday human life as well. Even if someone feels alone, or like they can’t find their place in society or in life, just remember that nature finds a way to survive no matter the scenario and since you are a product of nature that means you can as well.

 

Bloodthirsty Plants: The Stationary Carnivores – Part 1

Venus Fly Trap

Venus Fly Trap

Plants surround us in our daily lives providing beautification and shade for weary people. In actuality though plants do much more then we can imagine. By far, the most important thing a plant does is produce oxygen which is a requirement for most life to survive. In addition in order to produce oxygen, they break down carbon dioxide, which we all produce as a byproduct of breathing. This oxygen producing process is called photosynthesis and it provides the plant with its energy requirements. Besides energy, plants also need nutrients to survive, the most important of which being nitrogen. Most plants obtain this nitrogen from the soil but a very special group of plants have found a new source for their nitrogen and that source is other organisms.

Carnivorous plants usually take up residence in areas with very poor soil nutrients. This is an advantageous position to be in as very few plants are capable of surviving in such low nutrient soil conditions so competition is low. In order to capture prey, these plants have developed a variety of mechanisms. The first and most commonly known is the snap trap showed most famously by the Venus Flytrap. This trap works off a simple mechanism. The mouth of the trap has small hairs randomly strewn across it. If an insect triggers two of these hairs within a very short span of time, the jaws slam shut and begin filling with digestive fluids to consume the prey.

Venus Fly Trap

Pitcher Plant

Next are the Pitfall traps, which are very abundant and widespread. The main and most known pitfall trap plant is the Pitcher Plant. The Pitcher Plant looks like its namesake and is usually filled with a series of digestive compounds. The way it catches its prey is to attract them with a scent. Then once they land on the lip of the pitcher its only a matter of time before they simply slip into the digestive fluids. This is because the rim of the pitcher is incredibly slippery. There are other types of pitcher plants that utilize bacteria and protists instead of digestive fluids to breakdown the prey that falls in. The Pitcher Plants that contain the bacteria and protists simply consumes their byproducts instead of directly consuming the prey. Usually small prey are the Pitcher Plants choice but, there is a type of Pitcher Plant from the Philippines that has evolved big enough to consume prey as large as rats.

Flypaper Trap

Flypaper Trap

The third and last carnivorous plant trap type is the flypaper trap. This one may be quite self explanatory but some carnivorous plants add a little flair to their flypaper traps. My personal favorite plant with this type of trap is the Sundew. The Sundew looks alot like a succulent, except on each of its leaves it has numerous amounts of pink tendrils. Each tendril ends in a sticky substance to trap prey. When an insect lands on the sundew it will inevitably touch one of these tendrils. When it does it will try to retreat which will only lead it into more sticky tendrils. Now is where the sundew starts to do a bit of work. The leaf or arm that has captured the insect will begin to fold onto itself very slowly until it has crushed and consumed its prey. The arm then unravels to await the next visitor.