Category Archives: Hard Science

Glen Rose Interlude – 2

Want to know what you missed? Go back and catch up.


The main reason most people have for visiting Glen Rose, Texas is for dinosaur tracks. Whether it’s to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park or the oxymoronic Creation Evidence Museum up the road, it’s all about dinosaur tracks. Before one Roland T. Bird came into downtown Glen Rose for a glass of lemonade and found a dinosaur track incorporated into a WPA-built bandshell next to the courthouse, the town was one of a multitude of towns southwest of Fort Worth boasting scenic views and excellent diners, but nothing that would convince people to travel from the other side of the planet to visit. Now, Glen Rose has a plethora of antique stores and art galleries to give a reason to stay, just so long as you don’t spend so much time stomping around in the Paluxy River that you lose track of daylight.

Since the original plan to go slopping around in the Paluxy was capsized by the closest thing to white water that I’ve ever seen on it, this meant lots of daylight for other endeavors. The dinosaur trackways are on what used to be muddy beachfront, so they tended to catch lots of other items during regular rounds of sediment deposition. While I have yet to come across any reports of actual dinosaur bone preserved in Glen Rose, that mud preserved a lot more. In particular, the area is simply rotten with exquisitely petrified driftwood, most of which looks as if it came out of the surf last week instead of 120 million years ago.


Those familiar with the fossilized logs at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona might be a bit disappointed with Glen Rose petrified wood, or most of the stuff in Texas for that matter. The Glen Rose deposits rarely preserve whole logs: the vast majority of pieces resemble the chunks and bobs that wash up in the Gulf of Mexico today: the bark is gone, but the surf wasn’t strong enough to move big logs and stumps onto land, so most of what’s here are smaller pieces that were broken up elsewhere. However, it’s beautifully silicified, preserving knotholes and insect damage, and it’s considerably more forgiving of erosion than its mudstone matrix, so it once collected in large piles. A tough but workable stone, with obvious attractiveness and durability: when given that sort of resource for construction, of course the people Glen Rose put it to use.


Based on the buildings still extant incorporating local petrified wood, you’d think that the area would remain loaded with logs. Making a trip out to Glen Rose 15 years ago, I heard some of the backstory from the former mayor, who ran a now-defunct bookstore in the town square. According to her, most of the available logs and larger chunks that weren’t already incorporated into local buildings were picked up and sold for the rock shop trade in the 1950s, and the high quality of the wood meant that people were keeping a close eye on the buildings. She related how a gas station near the square, made almost completely out of local petrified wood, had shut down and the land purchased by a local church for possible expansion. According to her, the church was evenly split between those who wanted to restore the gas station as a piece of local history and those who wanted to sell the petrified wood to a wholesaler, and this was settled when the gas station “accidentally” came down in the middle of the night. The petrified wood was salvaged and sold, and half of the congregation hasn’t talked to the other half since.


Even acknowledging that (a) the story might be apocryphal and (b) I should have taken notes rather than depending upon memories from a decade-and-a-half ago, the gas station story is believable upon seeing the structures still standing. So long as Cretaceous rock remains in the Glen Rose area, additional petrified wood will eventually erode out and gradually migrate to the bottom of the valley, but all of the easy pickings have been gone since the Great Depression. With luck, though, enough will remain that some aspiring palaeobotanist should be able to identify and classify the local flora, and give as much of a view of the plant life of Creataceous Glen Rose as the trackways give of the fauna.

To be continued…

Hanging around with the Fangirls of Dallas

We’re in the last couple of weeks before everything hits the fan. The flytraps and Sarracenia both come out of dormancy by the middle of March; that is, unless we get another one of those oddball end-of-February snowstorms like the one that surprised us last year. We’ve already had a hailstorm at the end of January, so anything’s possible. (At times like these, I’m happier than ever for the new space: between the hailstorm and the subsequent heavy winds, the one-two hit literally degloved the greenhouse. This would have been a problem if I still had anything frost-intolerant in it: instead, it’s full of flytraps, seedling pitcher plants, and triggerplants just waiting for one last cold snap to encourage them to bloom this season.) This time next month, free time will be something I hear about from ne’er-do-well cohorts, but for now, it’s time for an interview with the Fangirls of Dallas, my favorite Dallas fan group. Please excuse the hair. And the voice. I’m not going to age well, am I?

More fun with UV lasers: The Aloe Edition

Aloe bloom

Let me state up front that I hate Nerine Dorman, the acclaimed South African horror writer. This isn’t a minor hate. I have plans for a vicious and vile repayment for everything she’s done to me and for me, and she’ll have earned every last bit. This was the woman who, along with her husband, introduced me to the fynbos, the smallest and most fecund floral kingdom on the planet. They’ve forgotten more about fynbos flora, particularly aloes and euphorbias, than I’ll ever learn, but that’s not why I plan to gain revenge.

Aloe nobilis

It all started this spring, when my aloes started blooming. At this time, I only have two species on hand, A. vera and A. nobilis, and last winter’s repeated Icepocalypses did wonders for all of my South African and Australian flora. Instead of burning off or freezing off permanently, the cold snaps not only encouraged sprouting and growth in Roridula seeds I’d given up on, but it caused a bloom explosion in the aloes.

Aloe blooms
(As an aside, I’m regularly asked at shows by cactus and succulent beginners about their plants’ blooming or lack thereof. While many require at least some cooling period to encourage blooming, the biggest factor is ambient light. With most barrel cacti, regular interference from streetlights, porch lights, security lamps, and other artificial illumination throws off their circadian rhythms, even if it’s only for a few days during their normal blooming periods. I’ve also noted this in such common succulents as jade plants (Crassula spp.), and it’s absolutely vital for aloes. Protect your aloes from light pollution in the spring, and watch them go nuts.)

Aloe blooms
Now, things got even more interesting when taking a closer look at the blooms themselves. They closely resemble the blooms of indigenous North American plants that depend upon either hummingbirds or hawkmoths for pollination, and the confirmation that they had a similar attraction came when a ruby-throat hummingbird proceeded to give me grief when mowing the grass by the aloe planters. There’s a very good reason why Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, was often portrayed as a hummingbird, as these little monsters have no fear of man, beast, or god, and this one took severe umbrage at my interrupting his feed. Most people would look at the wonder of being attacked by a dinosaur in this day and age and move on, but I needed to know what set off the sort of response more likely to be encountered when haranguing a hummingbird’s nest.

Well, that night, I dusted off the UV laser flashlight used to view fluorescence in carnivores, and tried it on the A. nobilis blooms. The petals fluoresce slightly under UV, but the tips? Those glow a brilliant cadmium yellow, like a black light poster. Considering similar enthusiastic responses from hummingbirds from bladderwort blooms with comparable yellow fluorescence, this suggests either that blooms of this sort offer trace elements in their nectar needed by hummingbirds, or some other factor makes hummingbirds associate this sort of UV glow, and remember that hummingbirds can see well into the UV spectrum, with particularly good food. Time for more research, or at least time to pass on the observations to botanists and ornithologists who can examine things further.

Aloe bloom spike junction

With that observation, I then asked Nerine, without any other familiarity with aloe pollinators, about which birds might be attracted to the blooms. That’s when she informed me of sunbirds (Nectariniidae), which are enthusiastic aloe pollinators. Two groups of birds separated by the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the same floral cues for the same reasons, and a group of plants able to be pollinated by a bird group from the other side of the planet for precisely that reason…so do the birds call the shots, or the flowers?

Aloe blooms
This is why I hate Nerine as much as I do, and why I’m not going to rest until I come out to her house and talk her to death. At the same time as all of this, I lucked into a copy of the absolutely incredible book Fynbos: South Africa’s Unique Floral Kingdom by Richard Cowling, Dave Richardson, and Colin Paterson-Jones, and now I know where my next trip outside of the US is going to be. As if I don’t have enough realms to research: now I’m addicted to studying fynbos flora, and I CAN’T STOP.

Introducing Myocastor coypus

Nutria

I love terrorizing my UK friend Dave Hutchinson with tales of the horrible, vicious wildlife in Dallas, because it’s like poking a Knox Block with a stick. He refers to Texas as “Australia Lite”, because he knows that unlike Australia, not every life form in my native land would try to kill him. No, most just want to knock him out, drag him back to their lairs, and lay their eggs in his chest. Worse, I have a passport now, so I just might come out to London, drag him onto a plane to Dallas, and sing to him the whole way back.

Anyway, so that Dave doesn’t soil his bedsheets every night, I wanted to show him something here that wouldn’t try to kill him, enslave him, or steal his wimminfolk. That can be a tough order, especially coming from a guy nearly taken out by his bicycle being hit by an armadillo in my back alley. (Not only can those little armored pigs run, but they JUMP, too.) It took an exotic intruder in one of the oddest places in the area, but I finally succeeded.

As mentioned a while back, I took a new Day Job out in the Las Colinas area of Irving, close to DFW Airport. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Las Colinas started out in the early Eighties as a tech hub, culminating with it becoming quite the symbol of dotcom excess about 15 years ago. All of that turned back into pumpkins and mice, but some of the oddities remain. First and foremost is the network of canals that run all through the eastern side of the area: apparently originally intended to make slightly hilly Dallas prairie a bit more tolerable, the canals had the side effect of attracting all sorts of wildlife. Egrets, herons, softshelled turtles the size of a garbage can lid, the occasional water snake, and the very occasional alligator all show up in the canals, but one of the biggest surprises here was a little guy I met on the daily commute from the train station to my office.

A few people here may know the story of the nutria, a South American water rodent that pretty much fills the niche there that the muskrat fills in the US and Canada. Nutria were first brought to the US as a possible source of cost-effective furs when beaver became endangered through the States: the market never took off, but nutria breeding numbers did, and they rapidly became a major pest in Louisiana. Part of this was due to their voracious feeding habits, and part was because nutria prefer to dig deep burrows into steep riverbanks. When said “riverbank” is a flood levee…well, you can imagine why they’re not exactly loved through the area.

Even fewer know that nutria are a rather common invasive animal in the Dallas area, but that’s because they’re incredibly shy and secretive. While I’ve seen the occasional burrow along creekbeds through the area, the only time I’d seen one before was when two ran out in front of me in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. They’re usually so secretive that one doesn’t even hear them slip into the water and swim off, which was why spotting “Gustavus” here in the morning light was an even bigger shock. His favorite lounging and feeding spot is a canal bank in the middle of a large park in the middle of Las Colinas, and he’s completely unafraid of the innumerable joggers and bicyclists who race right by his grazing area.

Nutria

That is, until one of those cyclists stops and tries to get his picture. Well, it’s not like he’s going anywhere soon: the three-foot alligator I spotted in another canal is a ways off, and Gustavus is big enough to be a major challenge for a gator that small. Which brings up the eternal question: in such a blatantly artificial and manufactured venue as Las Colinas, are introduced species residing therein really quite the menace they would be in more pristine areas? Or is this just giving them running room to spread out further? Either way, I suspect Gustavus is going to be here for a while.

Investigating UV fluorescence in carnivorous plants at grad student prices

Back in February, many of you may remember the distinctive paper in Plant Biology titled “Fluorescent prey traps in carnivorous plants” and the subsequent popular science reportage. As can be expected, this opened up a whole new series of questions as how carnivores attract insect prey, with the biggest limitation being the ability to study the phenomenon. The situation is aggravated by the wild variability of consumer-grade ultraviolet light sources, particularly ones that produce the correct frequency of UV to fluoresce carnivore structures. While many UV LED arrangements, such as the flashlights used for viewing UV ink stamps at nightclubs, will fluoresce these structures, they also tend to emit enough visible light to wash out the effect.

In trying to study this further, the problem lay with finding a UV source that produced the correct wavelength, cut back on the amount of visible light being emitted, and kept the cost of the final arrangement to a reasonable amount. The last immediately removed shortwave UV lamps, used for decades for viewing fluorescent minerals, from consideration, as these can run well outside of a typical underclass or grad student’s budget. Thankfully, it’s possible, with a little modification, to make a perfectly suitable and very effective arrangement that, while not necessarily precise, allows researchers to experience carnivorous plant fluorescence in the field.

AS&S violet laser

The core of this apparatus is a violet laser, which emits enough UV for any number of fluorescence effects. (As can be expected, violet lasers are now the go-to item at raves and music festivals for precisely this reason.) While available from many sources, this one came from American Science & Surplus. One limitation, due to US regulations, is that it uses a momentary switch to turn on and off, requiring the user to keep it held down in order to use it. Other than that, it has exceptional range, which means that it has enough power for more long-range field observation, such as seeking fluorescing carnivores at night.

DISCLAIMER: Since a violet laser produces a significant amount of UV, neither the Texas Triffid Ranch nor anyone involved with it takes any responsibility or accepts any liability for damages or injuries caused or abetted by the misuse of said laser. Keep this thing out of your eyes and the eyes of innocent bystanders, and wear protective eyewear when using it. Likewise, keep it away from exposed skin whenever possible.

Laser beam (unmodified)

The other limitation to using a violet laser is tied to the basic concept of a laser. Namely, it emits a beam of coherent light in a pinpoint. As the photo above shows, this means that the light from the laser scatters in air (the reason, by the way, why the visible lasers in science fiction movies and television are impossible, unless someone fires one into a cloud of gas or vapor), but not quite enough for our purposes. What’s needed is a coherent light that also spreads out laterally, just enough to cover a larger area and to view fluorescence effects without the visible light component washing it out. For that, we’re going to need an optical diffuser.

ThorLabs diffuser

Another thing to consider when working with UV is that standard glass absorbs UV: this is the phenomenon that allows people in glass greenhouses to work in full sun all day without suffering crippling sunburn. (Take this from an authority on “shedding like a monitor lizard all summer long”.) Because of that, standard glass diffusers intended for coherent and incoherent light won’t work. You’ll have to pay a bit more, but Thorlabs offers a series of fused silica diffusers designed for UV, in polishes from 120 grit to 1500 grit. Since I knew precious little of what I was doing, I bought one 120 and one 1500 to compare the effects, and then tested it with the laser back from the diffuser by about a centimeter.

Laser beam with diffusor

As the photo shows, the diffuser does an exemplary job of spreading the laser beam while still keeping it reasonably coherent. The only problem right now is with keeping the diffuser perpendicular to the laser and turning on the laser with one hand. In a very quick and dirty installation, this could be fixed with judicious application of the Time Lord’s secret weapon, but the more realistic plan involves constructing a clip for the laser that allows the diffuser to be adjusted for best effect. That’s in the future.

Sarracenia under visible light

Now the acid test. Since most of my previous experiments involved Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants, the first series of experiments involve going out into the middle of a collection of Sarracenia with the newly modified laser and viewing the effects. As important as using UV on the plants was recording their appearance under visible light, if only to see if the plant had any correlation between its markings under visible light and any fluorescence in UV. Hence, a quick photo of the pitcher is necessary before moving on.

Sarracenia under UV, first attempt

The first test of the newly modified laser was an unqualified success, at least to the naked eye. The beam stimulated fluorescence in most carnivores, including hints in sundews (particularly Drosera filliformis), as well as reddish chlorophyll fluorescence in Venus flytraps. In fact, the extreme fluorescence in Sarracenia of all species helps explain why Sarracenia seem to capture so many moths, and the next big project is to capture similar fluorescence, if any, in the genus’s relatives Darlingtonia and Heliamphora. The only limitation lay with the camera: working without a net, the fluorescence was barely visible in final photos, even if it was nearly blinding in person.

Sarracenia pitcher under UV

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the cover to the latest Hawkwind album. While the fluorescence can be seen in the throat of the pitcher (on the right) and the edges of the lid (left), it’s still not perfect. Time for more experimentation with shutter speed and light sensitivity.

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

One of the more interesting phenomena that was observed while working with the laser with Sarracenia were distinctive neon blue spots on either side of the lid interior, visible here on the upper left of the lid. Not all pitchers have these, but larger pitchers do, and they almost resemble fragments of Australian fire opal or blue ammolite to the naked eye. I have no idea if these work as additional lures to insect prey, but that’s yet another experiment for the near future.

Triggerplant blooms under UV

And as an additional treat for botanists, the laser apparatus also helps bring out UV colors and patterns in flowers as well. The hot pink blooms of the triggerplant Stylidium debile already stand out to human eyes, but under UV, they’re a brilliant neon pink. Combine that with known fluorescence in the blooms of other carnivores and protocarnivores (particularly Utricularia bisquamata, which has a spot that glows a brilliant DayGlo yellow under UV), and this laser arrangement could be used to study the attractiveness of flowers to insects without requiring special camera lenses or other equipment. If further tests with sticky trap carnivores such as Drosera and Byblis work out, it may also offer a way to search for possible attractants in protocarnivorous and potentially protocarnivorous plants as Probiscidea.

In summary, with the advent of inexpensive violet lasers, carnivorous plant researchers may now view fluorescent attractors in carnivores for the cost of dinner and a movie. I hope that this encourages further experimentation with UV on carnivores, particularly among college and high school students, as well as among layperson carnivore enthusiasts. As always, please feel free to ask questions or add commentary below, particularly concerning ways to improve upon the results.

Carnivorous plant fluorescence under UV vs. point-and-shoot

sarracenia_uv_1

While this may not look like much, the photo above is a scientific demonstration. Namely, what happens when you combine a large Sarracenia pitcher plant pitcher, a violet laser that throws off a lot of UV when properly scattered, and a camera whose owner needs further training for low-light operation. Alternately, it could be a demonstration of viewing the fluorescence of carnivorous plants under UV with less than $20 in equipment, because the glow is much more intense in person than in this terrible photo. Either way, new, better photos WILL follow.

On other developments, this marks the 700th post on this blog since it started two years ago tomorrow. Do I get a cookie for longevity?

In defense of ultraviolet

By now, a fair number of carnivorous plant enthusiasts know about the new paper on fluorescence of Nepenthes, Sarracenia, and Dionea traps under ultraviolet light. First and foremost, for all of you undergrad and postgrad students out there, take this as a warning not to procrastinate in finishing and submitting a scientific paper. I was about maybe a month away from submitting my own paper to the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter on the subject, and not only did the authors of this paper beat me to the punch, but they produced an exceptional paper that presented distinctive blue fluorescence spots that nobody else had caught before now. They did exceptional work, they deserve every last bit of publicity they’re receiving, and I just regret not having the proper gear for proper research.

That said, there’s a lot more to be done with fluorescence in carnivorous plants. I can state with authority that many other genera of carnivore fluoresce under UV, including at least two species of Heliamphora,Darlingtonia, and the two carnivorous bromeliads Catopsis and Brocchinia. In fact, Catopsis fluoresces brightly enough to hurt. There are other advantages to running around your carnivorous plant nursery with UV lights, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The whole strange experiment with carnivores and UV started about five years back. Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores noted about three years ago how brightly some species of Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, seemed to stand out under moonlight, and I noticed that myself when looking over Sarracenia propagation pools during a full moon. Likewise, after damage from sudden hailstorms, I took a good look at the trap contents of those particularly bright Sarracenia and noticed that a majority of the prey items consisted of moths. The moths didn’t have any particular interest in visible light color variations, and many would have no interest whatsoever in the nectar secreted along the rims and lids of the traps. So what attracted them?

Since I was the sort of kid who cracked most Encyclopedia Brown mysteries by the third-to-last page and who went digging to verify the plausibility or lack thereof of Danny Dunn novels, it wasn’t hard to recognize that the moths were seeing something that I couldn’t without assistance. The initial research was easy, but I’m again getting ahead of myself. The problem involved getting photos that verified observations. Almost anyone who studied any level of high-school botany or natural history remembers photos of flowers taken “with a UV filter” that allows UV-blind humans to see the patterns on seemingly boring flowers that draw in bees and sawflies. Just try to get a breakdown on how to do this, though, especially in the digital camera age. Half of the advice I received was completely worthless (hacking your camera to detect infrared does nothing, and just wasted my time), or it was tantalizingly vague as to how those photographers managed to pull it off. I even hired my adopted daughter Jenny to take photos of Nepenthes and Sarracenia while using a UV filter, but the results were inconclusive at best. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so impressed with the photos taken by the Plant Biology authors: they bypassed all of that by using low-light photography and controlling the exact wavelength of UV used.

In further developments, I’m still publishing, but only after quite a bit of revision. Among other things, it’s time to note the number of other carnivores that show similar fluorescence, and the variations therein. For instance, Darlingtonia, the cobra plant, fluoresces along its trap aperture, but it also has veins of fluorescence along the ala, or wing, that runs up the shaft of the trap, presumably to encourage insects up the ala to the aperture. Venus flytraps fluoresce, with varying patterns with different cultivars. Oh, and the greatest fluorescence among sundews is at the tips of its trapping hairs, with the dew at the tips absolutely shining under UV.

Now, there’s no reason why you can’t experiment with this as well. In fact, after running a few tests, I hope to present a regular shortwave and longwave UV display at plant shows comparable to fluorescent mineral displays in rock shows. This sort of equipment isn’t absolutely necessary, though, and most experiments in carnivore fluorescence can be done with a simple UV light.

Black light fluorescent fixture

To begin, don’t bother with standard “black light” fixtures, either fluorescent or incandescent. Not only do these put out relatively little UV, but they emit so much visible light that the plant fluorescence is nearly unnoticeable. These will still work with one exception, to be related later, but for most investigation, save the money for a better option. About the only fluorescence you’ll get off a carnivore with one of these comes from dying leaves, and if you can’t spot that under visible light, this won’t help.

UV LED flashlight

That better option is a good UV LED light, preferably a battery-powered one that can be used in the field. These days, with the drop in prices in UV-emitting LEDs, it’s possible to find plenty of good LED flashlights at affordable costs, with and without standard white LEDs for double duty. I picked up mine from American Science & Surplus for two reasons: it has six UV LEDs surrounded by white LEDs so I can use it as a standard flashlight, and the switch glows in the dark. You may laugh, but drop one of these in the dark, and that improves the odds of finding it.

Sonic screwdriver - closed

And then there’s the one I use for plant shows with lots of kids, because they completely lose it when I pull it out and turn it on. This, of course, is my scorpion detector, as it’s just as good at causing scorpions to fluoresce as carnivores. It has one good, powerful UV LED in the tip, which already makes it very handy for shows, and it has a pen attachment at the other end for leaving notes on business cards and stickers. The best thing about it, though?

Sonic screwdriver - open

It extends. Particularly when showing the bright patches at the back of the throat of a Nepenthes pitcher, that’s a lot less intrusive than manhandling a pitcher into place for a larger light source. It won’t work well in bright light, but it gets the job done.

Now, instructions for using LED lights. If at all possible, try to use your new lights in as dark a set of conditions as you can get. When working outside, try for a new moon and a minimum of street and porch lights for the best effect. Indoors, go for the darkest room you can get and let your eyes adjust to the darkness before lighting everything. Contrary to news reports on how these “glow in the dark”, the effect is going to be a bit subtle, much like using UV lights on a piece of opal. With proper precautions, though, the effect is not only obvious, but one of the LED flashlights mentioned above can detect carnivores from as much as three meters away. Go for a longwave UV lamp, such as those used for diamond prospecting, and have some real fun.

And for a last word, there’s one additional benefit in wandering through your carnivorous plant collection with a UV flashlight. My dear friend Ryan Kitko recently wrote about the bladderwort, Utricularia bisquamata, that was infesting his shield sundew. U. biquamata has quite the reputation as an aggressive pest in carnivore collections, but I have a soft spot for it. Firstly, it’s very easy to care for, and it makes an excellent starter plant for those who want to work with bladderworts but who don’t have the facilities to raise any of the true aquatic species. Give U. bisquamata soggy soil and lots of light in a standard terrarium, and it takes over, producing lots of white-pink slipper-like blooms with a pastel yellow spot on the top.

The other reason why I’m so fond of U. bisquamata? Get outside with a UV flashlight and find out for yourself. That yellow spot may be pastel under visible light, but under UV, it fluoresces like a black light poster. Considering how many birds are able to see into varying frequencies of UV, I now understand why both the migratory ruby-throat hummingbirds and their competing rufous hummingbirds won’t stay out of my greenhouse. I’ve had hummingbirds literally tapping on my office window to get at U. bisquamata and U. sandersonii blooms, and now I know exactly why.

Autumn serendipity

In the house, it may be spring cleaning, but the best time to clean out the greenhouse from stem to stern is in autumn. Well, it is in Texas, where we’re still seeing temperatures considered “balmy” in higher latitudes. It’s warm enough that I can clear out all of the tropical plants, check for spots that need to be clipped, and set them outside for a few hours , but it’s also cool enough that the usual pests are at a minimum. After this year’s horrible mosquito season, I enjoy any day where the smell of citronella tiki torch oil doesn’t get into my pores.

This sudden stripdown and rebuild was particularly important, as the greenhouse was underneath an aging and rapidly dying silverleaf maple, Silverleaf maples were a rather popular addition to many North Texas suburbs forty years ago, where they promised rapid growth and extensive shade. Well, both are true, but they also live about as long as our indigenous cottonwoods, and anybody in the area knows that you never want to encourage cottonwoods in your back yard. This silverleaf offered plenty of shade for the first two years we were here, but it was obvious that it was having problems after last year’s drought, where its companion planting didn’t make it. The tornadoes in April only compounded matters, and it’s now become a wreck. The tree’s heartwood is now nothing but punk wood and fungus, the dead branches produce a never-ending fall of sawdust from boring beetles, and the live ones threaten to fall if you look at them cross-eyed. I regret not being able to leave it alone, but either it comes down, or it takes the whole adjoining house with it, and possibly a neighbor’s house as well. Sic transit gloria.

In order for the tree to come down, the greenhouse had to come down and relocate, and that’s where the joy came in. Last summer, I learned exactly why nobody ever uses citrus wood when examining my Buddha’s Hand citron: one of the branches that died during the 2011 freeze had sprouted a single water shoot before it expired, and now the rather larger branch was hanging onto its roots by a sliver of tissue and a handful of dry rot. Pull out the rooting hormone, starter trays, and lots of rich potting mix, and start setting cuttings. Surprisingly, more cuttings survived than died, and if the state department of agriculture gives a full approval that these are disease-free, they might be up for sale within the state of Texas next year. Of course, that’s also dependent upon what sort of winter we have this year, so I’m not saying anything else.

No, the real surprise was getting ready to pitch a flat of presumably dead seeds and seeing a flash of green. Last spring, I purchased a set of seeds for Roridula gorgonias, a singular carnivorous plant from South Africa. Both species of Roridula look like gigantic sundews, but they can’t absorb nutrients directly from the insects and other animals they capture. Instead, in their native biomes, they depend upon a symbiotic relationship with an indigenous ambush bug, where the bug feeds on the prey, it defecates on the leaves, and the plant absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces via special channels in its leaves. I’d had suspicions that established plants would do very well in the Dallas area, but the problem was getting established plants. Repeated attempts with seeds, both in standard peat mixes for carnivores and in peat mixes exposed to smoke, did no good, and I was about ready to give up.

It turns out that I was just a bit premature. This latest batch hadn’t sprouted at all over the spring or summer, but it finally started germinating in November. The trick, apparently, is both to expose the seeds to high heat (daytime highs above 40 degrees C) and to let the soil mix dry out for a week. The seedlings, obviously, can’t handle complete dryness, but they apparently need much drier conditions than in a standard germination flat to get established. I’ll try some experiments this winter, but between this and the sudden cold front we had two weeks ago, something set off the little monsters.

In the meantime, I understand all too well why Chinese panda breeders refuse to name a baby panda until its eyes open, because the mortality rate among infant giant pandas is so high. Hence, no pictures until we get the first full set of true leaves. That may happen before we know it, but you won’t know if the seedlings suddenly succumb to fungus. If they take off, though…

Essential Viewing: Life From Light

When I tell people that I don’t watch that much television, it’s not that I’m snooty about what I’m watching. Honestly, a lot of it comes down to having the time: between the Day Job and working on the plants, I don’t have the time. Oh, I’ve tried, but setting up a laptop to view while repotting Sarracenia is more trouble than it’s worth. But when it involves a BBC Scotland documentary hosted by Professor Iain Stewart on the origins of plants? I’ll make the time.

EDIT: And while I’m at it, have I mentioned often enough how badly I wish BBC America would put Sir David Attenborough’s classic miniseries The Private Life of Plants on DVD?

Walking With Dinosaur Gardens

Time is running away, and there’s not that much time left until next weekend’s Reptile and Amphibian Day hosted by the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society, but there’s time for a subject currently near and dear to my heart. Namely, dinosaur gardens. This is what I get for dreaming last night about building a vivarium arrangement in tribute to the classic Lost Spider Pit scene from King Kong. I may even pull it off this weekend, and if I do, there WILL be photos.

To start, I could refer you to the single greatest tribute to Mesozoic Era flora I have yet to view, the Cretaceous Garden exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, but that wouldn’t be fair. It’s not fair because ongoing renovations mean you won’t be able to see it again until next year. When it reopens, though, it’ll probably be as glorious as it was when I visited it in 2006.

If you’re open to travel, and you can get out there before the end of the month, Trey Pitsenberger brought up Plantosaurus Rex, the current exhibition at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. The way my schedule runs right now, I have no chance of getting out there before it closes on October 21, but that shouldn’t stop anybody else.

A bit closer to home, we have permanent exhibitions in Austin, with the Hartman Prehistoric Garden set up to take advantage of dinosaur tracks and indigenous animal fossils. With the heat breaking in Austin, it’s actually safe and sane to go outdoors when the big yellow hurty thing is in the sky, and I speak from experience when I say that now is the time to head out that way. (Twenty years ago, I heartily looked forward to road trips to Austin for the Armadillocon science fiction convention held around this time in October, and I pretty much stopped going when Armadillocon moved to the end of August.) In fact, try to make a road trip of it and head down to the San Antonio Botanic Garden for its Dinosaur Stampede exhibition (PDF) while you’re at it.

Much closer to home this time of the year, the Heard Natural Science Museum in McKinney is hosting its annual Dinosaurs Live! exhibition, complete with a Halloween wander through the dinosaurs on October 20. I generally tell myself not even to consider events the weekend before a big show, but this might be worth hitting just as a break after repottings and trimmings.

The weekend after the Halloween at the Heard event, we have something peripherally related. Namely, the Dallas Palaeontological Society and the Palaeontological Society of Austin host the 30th annual Fossilmania in Glen Rose on the weekend of October 26. Speaking as a longtime attendee, this isn’t just an opportunity to view and purchase fossils, both plant and animal, but it’s an excuse to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park and view the famed Glen Rose dinosaur tracks. Again, because of the lack of crippling heat, wandering around and viewing the scenery, especially alongside the two 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs at the front of the park, gives a lot of inspiration for palaeo-based gardening.

Finally, no guarantees on this, but the Czarina and I have some personal good news involving upcoming museum events. Namely, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas just announced that it plans to open a month early, on December 1. Seeing as how we married under the Protostega skeleton in the old Dallas Museum of Natural History a decade ago next December, we’ve been contemplating having some sort of event for our tin anniversary at the Museum. Anybody interested in coming out on December 28 to celebrate?

Introducing Didelphis virginiana, a.k.a. “Harold”

Cat Found

For the last few years, friends have been posting a “Found Cat” flyer that continues to crack me up. I don’t know why, but the “I think he might be scared” comment gets me every time.

Well, I have great news. On my way to the Day Job, I found that kitty again. Yes, I think he might be scared.

Harold the Opossum

For folks outside of North America, this is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum. Besides being the only indigenous marsupial in the United States and Canada (which is why I nickname the resident opossum “Harold”, after the nephew of Canada’s answer to Doctor Who), opossums also qualify as one of the native mammals that I’m glad to see in the back yard. Between their personalities and their eating habits, raccoons are hipsters with fur. Armadillos are both dumb as posts and likely to jump at the slightest noise, and one nearly knocked out my front teeth the first time I encountered one. Skunks are best viewed from a distance, and that can be doubled for coyotes and bobcats. Comparatively, if I find a possum waddling across the back yard in the middle of the night, he’s comparatively welcome, even if he does look like a half-drowned rat.

Harold closeup

Sadly, all of the possums in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch are nicknamed “Harold”, and not just because they tend to look alike. The best natural lifespan for D. virginiana is about two years, with owls and early-rising hawks getting the ones that aren’t killed by cars, coyotes, or dogs. This little guy was apparently checking out the tree for edible fruit or flowers, found himself trapped by encroaching humanity, and figured that he’d just hold still until we all went away. After all, if the motto “Quando omni flunkus, moritati” worked for the fictional Harold, why shouldn’t it work for the real one?

Unnatural solutions for invasive problems

This time last summer, the drought still had the rest of the year to go, and I was forced to buy water to keep the carnivores alive. This year, the rainwater reserves are loaded to the gunwales, the Sarracenia are actually growing this early in the season because of the decreased temperatures, and the Nepenthes are going mad. In my case, I can’t remember a summer quite so insane and an August so drenched since 1987. That was quite a year: that was the August where I discovered that if the rainwater in the streets rides over the axles on your bicycle wheels, you should just give up and push. That was the summer where jokes about putting pontoons on my transport really weren’t jokes, and where I spent my 21st birthday trying to get dry after biking to work through what we charitably call a “gullywasher” in Texas and the rest of the planet calls “God letting you know what He REALLY thinks about you.” It hasn’t been that bad this year, but considering that our high temperature on Tuesday was the low this time a week ago? I’m not complaining.

GloFish

Because of the coolth and the surprising amount of rainfall, you may have read about our current situation with West Nile Virus, mosquitoes, and authorities in Dallas County spraying for both. Now, it would be remarkably easy to note that this was a self-inflicted issue, compounded by Highland Park and White Rock Lake residents who freak out every time they see a wayward bug. (True story: I received a call last year from a White Rock Lake gentleman who wanted to buy hundreds of Venus flytraps from me. He apparently saw a trail of ants at the end of his driveway, and wanted to build a killing hedge of flytraps around his house to eat them all. When I tried to explain that flytraps could actually attract bugs, and that they wouldn’t magically wipe out every arthropod in the timezone with intentions of coming near his house, he called me a liar. I truly wish that he was the only person with this idea, but I’ve had several others deciding that this is more “all-natural” than covering themselves with bulletproof plastic.) Instead, this started the beginnings of a Project.

Okay, to start, we’re going to need music. When dealing with evil experimentation of this sort, I highly recommend The Consortium of Genius. In fact, when it comes to projects that invoke both Doctor Who and The Red Green Show, I can’t think of anyone else.

Now, to start, consider the basic situation with the Triffid Ranch as a venue that raises carnivorous plants. Many if not most of these carnivores thrive in boggy conditions, which usually entails bodies of standing water. Standing water attracts mosquitoes, which lay eggs, which in turn become larvae. Said larvae grow to adulthood, bringing with them any number of diseases. The females collect many of these diseases when drinking blood in order to produce viable eggs, and spread them from host to host in the process. Keep the mosquitoes under control, and you control the diseases. This situation is aggravated by the fact that many of said carnivores depend upon mosquitoes as prey, and one, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea, actually depends upon a certain number of mosquito larvae in its traps to assist with breaking down trapped prey. I need to collect lots of rainwater, preferably clean enough to use in mister systems, while at the same time making sure that it remains mosquito-free for both my health and that of everyone around me.

Now, for those with an aversion to broad-spectrum insecticides, you have plenty of options. For small applications, such as the Triffid Ranch’s Sarracenia pools, mosquito dunks work remarkably well: they contain a natural toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and Bt is extremely effective on mosquitoes. The problem with mosquito dunks is that they’re effectively sawdust disks impregnated with Bt, and they have a tendency to break apart after a while. This isn’t a problem at all in most applications, such as with planters, old tires, or other places that regularly fill with water and then dry out. When being used in open water cisterns, though, they make a royal mess that can jam up pumps, filters, and mister systems.

Then there’s the biological controls. Traditionally, since Dallas is on a floodplain, using fish adapted to living in floodplain ponds, cattle tanks, and streams makes the most sense. The traditional introduced control is the western mosquitofish Gambusia affinis, but we also have plenty of indigenous minnows that might work. Some of them are also quite attractive, adding a benefit to using them in large rainwater tanks.

Those already familiar with using fish in rainbarrels and ponds to control mosquitoes might already be mumbling “What about goldfish, you moron?” That’s a fair question, and one that’s answered by asking you to look at last year’s heat wave in the Dallas area. Goldfish are great mosquito devourers, but they thrive best at temperatures around 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), and we’re lucky if we see that as an air temperature during the summer. Rainbarrels and yard ponds are particularly subject to the underside of the square-cube law, where you increase the available surface area of an item as you decrease its volume. A lake will heat up in the summer much more slowly than a typical rain barrel, and during a typical July, the water in a standard 150-gallon stock tank can get point-blank hot.

It’s not just the issue with hot water denaturing brain proteins, either, although this is a concern. Anyone who stayed awake in high school biology or chemistry remembers that the higher the water temperature, the lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in that water. That’s a major factor with higher temperatures being lethal to goldfish, as they simply can’t pull enough oxygen out of the available water to survive. Many fish have options to absorb oxygen from the atmosphere in these situations: bettas and lungfish are two famous options, and anybody around a stagnant section of the Trinity River in summer (and in summer, the whole of the Trinity is stagnant) can watch both spotted and alligator gar rise to the surface to catch a quick breath of air. Mosquitofish have that ability as well, which explains their continued popularity.

Another point to consider here is that future plans at the Triffid Ranch include growing both Aldrovanda and aquatic bladderworts, both of which need very acidic, very clean water. Out here, to get that, rainwater is about the only option. Aldrovanda plants can and will catch mosquito larvae, but only bladderwort species with the largest traps could handle something as large as a larva, and most consume water fleas and other prey considerably smaller than a baby mosquito. They also need a lot of light, meaning that any tank keeping them will either have to be in full sun or exposed to a pretty impressive bank of artificial lights. They’ll need a biological control that can both handle summer water temperatures and the lower temperatures seen in spring and autumn.

GloFish

Years back, a friend told me about using zebra danios (Danio rerio) in rain barrels because of their exceptional hardiness. They thrive in temperature extremes that kill most tropical fish and goldfish, and they’re particularly undiscerning about their water conditions. They breed readily, they eat like horses, and they can be brought into indoor tanks when things get cold. Since they’re most assuredly NOT going to be released into the wild at the end of a growing season, danios are already a great choice, but let’s jam the weirdness dial to “11,” shall we?

GloFish

If you’ve been around a pet shop with a decent fish selection in the last five years, you’ve probably seen GloFish in one. Originally developed as a sideproject in efforts to genetically engineer a fish that glowed in response to pollutants, GloFish are gengineered zebra danios with a jellyfish gene added to its genome. Because of this, they are luminous in five colors, with the colors particularly popping in ultraviolet light. Now, that’s interesting enough for our purposes, but apparently the gene that controls the GloFish fluorescence also imparts additional temperature extreme resistance. I saw this myself about five years ago, when a malfunctioning heater in my personal aquarium left the water inside literally steaming when I woke up one morning. All but five fish died due to the temperature, and four of those were GloFish.

So, let’s recap. Heat tolerance. A firm appetite for mosquitoes. Improved opportunities for filtration and maintenance on aquatic carnivores. Designer colors. It’s too late to run a full series of experiments on their viability this summer, but I’m already making plans for next year to go along with a new 150-gallon stock tank for bladderworts. Dr. Pinkerton, could you give us an appropriate theme for the science party?

Uncle Sam’s On Mars

Back at the end of the Nineties, my obsession with the European colonization of New Zealand, particularly with the Acclimatisation Societies, led to my putting together a discussion on the subject of importing fauna and flora to Mars for the late, lamented online magazine Event Horizon. In the intervening 13 years, I’ve continued to research the whys and wherefores of growing food items in space habitats, as well as the potential controls for previously innocuous organisms becoming major pests in lunar or Martian greenhouses. Naturally, you can understand why I’m thrilled to discover that NASA is also looking at the issue of feeding a 30-month Mars mission. Admittedly, I’m also fully expecting that the first serious exports from a permanent Mars installation probably won’t be hot peppers. And so it goes.

With that said, I’m actually more intrigued by the idea of some enterprising soul producing the solar system’s hottest peppers on Mars, either via hydroponics or with the use of suitably augmented Martian soil. Testing the effects of Martian gravity on pepper plants may be problematic, but it’s definitely possible to test the soil viability with Martian and lunar soil simulants in a greenhouse environment. This may be a very public experiment for this winter, when I’ll be starting up pepper and tomato seedlings anyway. Best of all, I could see the interest in Martian explorers taking such a Capsicum plant and shaping it into the first-ever Martian bonsai.

Ain’t no cure for the antlion blues

Ant lion pits

All things considered, I’m not sure this is really summer. The summer so far has been the wettest we’ve seen since 2007, and it’s certainly the wettest July we’ve seen since 1982. Yesterday and today, we’ve had general temperatures more often seen at the end of April than the middle of July, not that anyone’s complaining. Is it really summer, or did I get into real trouble by oversleeping and waking up in October?

Well, the surefire way to tell involves looking at any covered area with reasonably loose soil. such as this spot beneath a local bridge. Look for the antlions (Myrmeleon sp.), because around here, you won’t see them at any other time.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

A little while back, thanks to the wonders of the Internets, I got back in touch with Cyndy, an old friend from high school. The intervening 28 years since we sat across from each other on the school newspaper staff have been rather good for and to her: she has a great husband, great kids, a good career, and all sorts of joys. I looked at her back then as the little sister I always wanted (even though *cough* I was the youngest member of my class, usually having my birthday fall on the first day of school every year), and I keep up that tradition today. There’s no reason to scare her too much as to what an, erm, well-rounded person I’ve become in the intervening decades…except for the entertainment value. Picture Doris Day and Hunter S. Thompson on a weekend road trip, and that pretty much describes our relationship these days.

Since a lot has happened since those high school days, we’ve been catching up on what the other has done in our adult lives. I’m trying not to bring up too much strangeness, but it’s hard not for some of it to seep out, especially when I’m waving a marlin spike around and yelling about reptiles. She swears that she didn’t write “I should have killed you when I had the chance” in my yearbook, and I just want to make sure.

Anywhoo, due to various considerations, she discovered yesterday that I have a tattoo. I keep forgetting that she isn’t part of my usual circles, where they’ve gotten a bit used to it. The fact is, I joined Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium twenty years ago last January, and that’s something that even messes with my tattooed freak friends.

Anomalocaris tattoo

To explain, I have to go into some of the background. Twenty years ago, I was living in Exposition Park, a small collection of lofts and shops directly across the road from the north entrance of Dallas’s Fair Park. By the beginning of 1992, I was already known as the local reference librarian for the Expo Park area thanks to my science library. Neighbors on my floor would ask for confirmation of one fact or another, but the folks in the old Skin & Bones tattoo parlor immediately downstairs from me were the ones who needed, in those pre-Internet days, a particular photo or drawing to take care of customers. I was awakened from a dead sleep several times because one of the artists downstairs had a customer who HAD to have a tat of some obscure beast, they didn’t have any ready art, and they knew I’d find the right reference. I still wonder about the absolutely stunning redhead who kissed me for finding a life-sized photo of a charging blue-ringed octopus that was going between her shoulder blades.

This was just during the beginning of the big tattoo rush of the early Nineties, and while I could appreciate the work, I couldn’t afford it. Besides, I swore, as many do, that I’d only get ink if I could find something that truly spoke to me. I’d already seen too many impulse trips to the competing tattoo parlor down the way that turned into impulse trips to the ER for antibiotics, so I also knew that I’d have to take care of it, and care for it well, while it healed.

Finally, it struck. I was writing for a now-long-forgotten magazine called Science Fiction Eye, and just saw the latest issue come out with a big article I’d written on the fossils of the Burgess Shale. Meanwhile, Chuck Jones, one of the artists at Skin & Bones, was desperately trying to wheedle a book I owned on how to cast stop-action models. I joked “Well, I’ll trade you a tat for the book.” I had NO IDEA he was going to take me seriously.

When faced with that sort of offer, your mind clears and you make your choice right then. I looked at my Burgess Shale article and flipped a coin between two of the most impressive oddballs from the Middle Cambrian: Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia. You can imagine my relief upon going for an Anomalocaris tat and discovering, literally the next week, that all of the existing interpretations of Hallucigenia‘s fossils were wrong and it had been restored upside down. I wasn’t just pushing the edge of tattoo work: I was scientifically accurate, too.

Well, that was then: Chuck did a beautiful job, and I paid honor to his work by babying that tat during its first few months. Even 20 years later, it’s still crisp and recognizable because of that effort. Since then, it’s made the rounds of presentation to quite a few palaeontologists (including one former member of the Dallas Palaeontological Society who literally became ill upon seeing it), musicians, writers, and other fascinating folks, and they all agree. Having skin art of a two-meter-long top predator with compound eyes on stalks, cuttlefish-like propulsion, feeding appendages originally mistaken for the tail of a crustacean (the name “Anomalocaris” roughly translates to “strange shrimp”), and a mouth that irised open and shut like a steel vegetable steamer just suits me.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities for more skin art, but have passed up the opportunity, even though the guys at Hold Fast Tattoo in Dallas are THE people who’d be trusted to do so. (Seriously: they’re customers as well as friends, so if you’re in the Dallas area and thinking of any augumentation, head over there and ask to see their Cape sundew.) That may happen one day, and it may not. If it does, then it’s a clump of Darlingtonia on the left shoulder.

That said, I truly look forward to the day Cyndy can meet the Czarina after Cyndy reads this. I imagine they’ll compare notes, look at me, and decide that my days need to be ended by being beaten with rolled-up magazines by two women yelling “What the HELL is WRONG with you, huh?” I’ve had worse deaths.

Revving up your sense of wonder

Unknown mantid

For various reasons, I thoroughly enjoy my day job. It’s not just because it pays for my various carnivorous plant fixes. It’s close enough to the house that I can bicycle to work without the trip being an ordeal. We’re located near enough Texas wilderness that I literally have no way to tell what I’ll encounter on the morning ride. I’ve passed bobcats, coyotes, Texas ratsnakes, red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, vultures and buzzards, armadillos, a bounty of songbirds ranging from scissortails to mockingbirds, at least three species of hummingbird, ox beetles, katydids, and even the occasional roadrunner. That’s not even counting the opossum curled up in a redbud tree right by the bike rack one morning two years ago, hoping that I hadn’t noticed 10 kilos of fatbutt in a tree far too small for it.

Another reason why I enjoy the Day Job comes from the daily conversations. I’m lucky enough to work with a crew of exceptional minds, and a lot of them have very different interests away from the job. When everyone stops in the morning, realizing that we’ve been staring at monitor screens for so long that the words start to run together, that’s when the real fun begins.

And so it happened last Friday, when my boss and I were discussing the upcoming Mars Curiosity rover landing in August. (His background is in fine arts, but he dabbles in quantum physics, and I’ve been a terrible influence on introducing him to the grand tradition of palaeontological art. As I said, it’s an interesting crew out here.) He looked over at a window, stopped for a second, and asked “What the hell is that bug?” Clinging to the window was what appeared at first to be a lacewing, but the more we viewed it, the stranger it was.

Firstly, as can be told, it’s definitely a mantis of some sort. However, with the four species generally found in the North Texas area, only nymphs are this small, and the wings confirm that this was an adult. (In the photo above, the little symbol is the recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic bowl, left in to give a sense of scale.) The whole insect was only 1.5 centimeters long, with a shriveled abdomen that suggested that it was a female that had just laid its egg case. As it was, it was already dying when we found it, and it expired maybe an hour after its capture.

Taking a view of the corpse through a dissecting microscope just brought up more questions. I’ve seen similar grasping arms on other mantid species, but ones that got much, MUCH larger than this one. Only when cleaning up this photo did the second pair of wings present themselves, and with two pairs of wings being a diagnostic for all members of the order Mantodea, I was wondering at first if it were a mantis after all until I saw the second pair. At this size, I could see it being an aggressive predator of ants, aphids, and other small insects, but that’s a bit hard to test with a deceased specimen.

To make things even stranger, no mantid of this sort shows up in Texas bug references, which makes me wonder if it were one blown in via winds off the Gulf of Mexico last week. The big question now is “Is this a lost traveler who was extremely far from home when she died, or is this a representative of a new species that somehow slid past the determined and dedicated crew at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology?” More research is in order, because I’m hoping that this one wasn’t the last of her kind.

EDIT: With friends like Michael Cook, you’d think I’d have the brains to ask someone like him, who practically knows every member of the Phylum Arthropoda on a first-name basis, for a positive ID. It turns out our friend was a mantisfly, a rather rare group of insects more closely related to ant lions and lacewings than true mantids. Many thanks to Michael for passing on that information, and for widening my horizons that much more. I may never see another mantisfly again, but at least I can say that I’ve seen at least one.

Introducing Anolis carolinensis

Last weekend was a time to get busy at the Triffid Ranch. We haven’t truly moved into traditional Texas summer weather yet, and man, beast, and plant understood this, because we were all going a bit nuts. I spent Saturday and Sunday making a new raised bed edge for the Czarina’s tomato garden, pruning and trimming various bushes on the property, clearing clover out of the Sarracenia pots, clearing clover seeded from the Sarracenia pots out of the horsecrippler cactus, repotting Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion peppers for the next big show in September, deadheading orchids, and watering the flytraps. By Saturday evening, by the time the Czarina got home, my usual lament about not having access to the 57-hour day was coming off my lips with the raging froth at the clover. At least I didn’t have to deal with the squirrels digging up the Sarracenia, at least since a big female Harris’s hawk started using the rooftop as a dining room table and my greenhouse as a commode. (With the hawk, the only beef is with bluejay feathers blowing off the roof. Other than that, “Shayera Hol” is welcome here for as long as she wants to stay. I don’t even mind her sitting on the greenhouse, staring at the cats through the window.)

Around the Triffid Ranch, taking the time to smell the roses was secondary to taking the time to watch the critters, and it was a day for critter-watching. Moving a brick in the tomato bed dislodged a rough earth snake (Virginia striatula), a snake so sweet-tempered and inoffensive that even serious ophidiophobes tend to soften a bit upon seeing one. Lots of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus)hid among the bricks as well, waiting for nightfall. And then, as I was moving a batch of dragonfruit cactus pots, this little gentleman moved just enough to let me know he was there.

Sunbathing Carolina anole

The first common misconception about the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is that, because of its common nickname “American chameleon,” it can change color with the range and definition of Old World chameleons. While A. carolinensis can switch between various shades of green and brown, it has nothing on true chameleons. However, true chameleons don’t have the brilliant scarlet dewlap, which looks as if the lizard were brushed with powdered rubies, that male anoles flash to signal territorial claims. This fellow wasn’t worried about other anoles trying to take his space, but he also wasn’t taking an eye off me.

Carolina anole closeup

The other assumption about Carolina anoles, at least in North Texas, is that they’re escapees from captivity that went feral. Although a lot of anoles may have been released in the wild in the Dallas area from the days when they were inexplicably popular offerings in pet shops, this is actually native habitat for A. carolinensis, and they range south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Arkansas before moving east all the way to the Atlantic. They don’t get as large in Dallas as they do in Tallahassee, but considering some of the gigantic anoles (not to be mistaken for the introduced Cuban anoles in the area) I used to catch in Tally, I’m actually a bit happy. This one was about as long as my hand, which suggested that he was getting both plenty of insects and plenty of drinking water. Anoles will not drink still water, and prefer to drink dew from plants, so I suspect the mister system in the greenhouse may have made his life a bit easier last summer.

"I'm ready for my closeup now, Mr. deMille."

When I was a kid in Michigan, I dreamed of one day keeping an anole as a pet, and would camp out at the pet sections in department stores to stare at the lizards. I know today that the vast majority didn’t survive more than a few weeks of that treatment, and many more died due to substandard care with their future owners, but lizards were a rarity up there and color-changing ones nonexistent. I became enough of an insufferable know-it-all on the subject that when showing my little brother a cage full of them at a K-Mart, I related “Look: Carolina anoles.” This peeved the toad overseeing the pet section, and he proceeded to correct me: “They’re chameleons.”

“No, they’re anoles. Anolis carolinensis. They’re native to the East Coast.”

He pulled out a cheap booklet entitled “All About Chameleons” from a shelf, and promptly showed me pictures of anoles, and then flashed the cover again, emphasizing the word “chameleon.” I then asked if I could see the book, and promptly read to him the first several paragraphs about anole habits and scientific nomenclature. He grabbed the book back, sneered “You’re just making it up,” told us to get out before he called the head manager, and went back to the dreams of a K-Mart pet shop manager. Probably involving how, when someone finally gave him command of a Constitution-class starship, he’d get into pissing matches with seven-year-olds and win.

Well, that was then. Now, I figure the lizards are happier and healthier in the yard than they’d ever be in captivity, and I encourage moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) to give the anoles and geckos more cover. This fellow sat atop that fence top with a very catlike demeanor, and when he was done watching me, he skittered off to do whatever anoles do in their off time. He’s always welcome to come back, and bring his harem with him, too.

Better Than Brawndo

Now, I’m sharing a rather intriguing paper in the Annals of Botany on digestive mutualism between several species of bromeliad and the bromeliad-living spider Psecas chapoda for several reasons. It’s not just because P. chapoda is just one of several species of spider adapted to living within bromeliads, with their feces and food scraps contributing toward the bromeliad’s nitrogen needs. It’s not just because further investigation may help develop new insights into why carnivory developed in so many flowering plants, as well as how the carnivorous bromeliad genera Brocchinia and Catopsis got their starts. It’s not just that this sort of digestive mutualism exists in many protocarnivorous and carnivorous-by-proxy plants, such as the South African genus Roridula. It’s not even because with enough true carnivorous plants that take advantage of assistance from animal predigestion of prey, such as frogs in Sarracenia, Nepenthes, and Heliamphora pitcher plants, this discovery may suggest that other plants are only protocarnivorous during the times of year when the spiders move in. On a personal note, it means I need to do more to encourage the indigenous jumping spiders in the area to move in among my Nepenthes and Catopsis.

No, the real reason I want to share is because in the course of a long and eventful life, I have a lot of very sick and sordid friends. In fact, I can see at least one of them making up a tiny outhouse for the pitcher of my Catopsis, or at least a little sign reading “Flush Twice: It’s A Long Way To The School Cafeteria”. I expect at least one to go electronic, and fit the Nepenthes racks with a motion sensor and a sound chip that chirps “DUDE! Light a match, will you?” I may be 45 going on 12, but my friends are even worse.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, Datura will walk the earth.”

Early last year, I wrote an article about the angel trumpet, Datura stramonium, and was inordinately proud of being probably the only garden writer alive who could name-drop “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. Since then, it’s hard not to notice Datura in the wild, as it were: it grows inordinately well in poor soils, of which the Dallas area has in abundance, and it’s tough enough to survive the worst of our summers once it has a well-established rootball. Oh, and other than caterpillars, anything dumb enough to eat it is going to have one hell of a surprise.

Datura bloom

All of the recognized species of Datura have nicknames along the lines of “angel trumpet”, for two reasons. Firstly, the long and lush blooms are evocative of the trumpets traditionally carried by angels in Renaissance art, particularly in paintings depicting the fall of Lucifer and his covenant into Hell. That’s particularly appropriate when discussing Datura, because the odds are very good that anyone eating any part of the plant will be hearing angels, or seeing dark angels, before too long. The reason why Datura is one of the only hallucinogenic plants that’s completely free and legal to own and raise in the United States is because the effects aren’t relatively benign, as with peyote. To hear drug travelers describe it, there’s no such thing as a good trip on peyote, and it takes a particular sort of personality to look at Datura experiences as a positive thing. Besides, most Datura enthusiasts don’t remain so for long: every last part of the plant is exceedingly toxic, and what might be a suitable dose from one plant may be lethal from another.

(Mind you, as a disclaimer, anybody ingesting Datura, for any reason, is on his or her own, and neither this writer or the Texas Triffid Ranch take any responsibility for anyone using or abusing Datura under any circumstances. Even if I had any interest in mind-altering substances, I’d smack anyone I knew who was doing this in the head, in the hopes of rattling a few brain cells free.)

Datura bloom, unfurling

Considering its rather wild history, from Bangalore to Jamestown, one might wonder, understandably, who in their right mind would want to raise this in a garden. Well, so long as it’s not ingested, Datura makes a very attractive and low-maintenance addition. As the kind folks at the International Brugmansia and Datura Society will tell you, D. stramonium grows in small bushes, thriving outdoors through most of the year before dying off in the first hard frost. In warmer climes, it readily resprouts from seeds deposited the previous season, and if protected from freezing, the whole plant comes back every year from a rather tuberous-looking stem. The scent is almost literally intoxicating, and aside from tomato hornworms, it seems to be resistant to most pests. Keep children and pets away from it, and Datura makes quite the charming cover for otherwise dead spaces in backyard gardens.

As mentioned before, Datura does rather well in the Dallas area. Both D. stramonium and its close African cousin D. metel readily grow in front-yard gardens throughout the city and its suburbs, and I’ve been surprised on several occasions by Datura perfume on quiet nights along the “M streets” intersecting Greenville Avenue. (I’ll say that it’s a welcome change from the smell of skunk weed grow houses near Hillcrest and Forest Lane, let me tell you. Some of those are so pungent that the stench nearly knocked me off my bike one evening as I was traveling home from work.) I just wasn’t expecting it to be a herald, as this plant was.

Datura clump on Knox Avenue

To give context, this beast of a plant is located at Knox Avenue in Dallas, right at the corner where Knox travels over Central Expressway. To the left is Central. To the right is the entrance of Highland Park, the neighborhood that is to Dallas what Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles. Completely surrounded by the larger city, Highland Park is its own enclave, complete with its own schools and police force.

Datura bloom bud

I couldn’t identify it for certain, but I suspect that this monster is classic D. stramonium based on the shape of the bloom buds and the leaves. The clincher, of course, is viewing the seed pods, known as “thorn apples”, as each species has a distinctive pod shape and size. Since the plant had just dealt with a torrential rain the night before, most of the upright blooms had filled with rainwater and collapsed, but the newly unfurling buds were white with just the barest kiss of purple on the edges. Give it another couple of days, and it would go back to flashing ten to twenty blooms at a time, all summer long.

Datura bloom, unfurling

Of course, half of the fun for me was in the locale. I’ve joked for years that the best documentary about life in Dallas is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and here was the plant attributed with the creation of real zombies. In that context, finding it outside Highland Park was just too appropriate.

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.