JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

May 18, 2006

LONG-TAILED SALAMANDERS IN THE SPRING HOUSE
Just below the old farmhouse in which I'm staying there's a wonderful spring that most of the time runs the whole year. A small, cinderblock building constructed over the spring protects a pool of crystalline water about three feet deep. A powerful pump sends the water to this house and two others a few hundred feet away. Overflow from the pool drains to a large cinderblock trough a bit farther below where cattle must have drunk in the past, but where now various kinds of frogs cavort and call on warm mornings, and birds come to dip their beaks. The trough is surrounded by leg-tall mint, which I gather every other day for my steamy teas. We hope to plant trees in this area so that someday it can be a gorgeous meditation spot.

The Spring House's cold water is home to at least six Long-tailed Salamanders, EURYCEA LONGICAUDA. The species grows to nearly eight inches long (20 cm), is uncommonly long and slender, and is brightly reddish orange with black spots. It's very similar to the more famous but less widely distributed Cave Salamander, which also is found in this region. I had to spend some time figuring out which species I had. You can see a Long-tailed Salamander at http://www.ianadamsphotography.com/store/page135.html.

You can compare that with the Cave Salamander at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/salacave.jpg.

It's often like that. You think you've found a species so spectacular and unique that surely it'll be easy to identify, but then you check out what's in the area and there's another species looking almost the same. I don't know the story behind our look-alike Long-tailed and Cave Salamanders, but I can imagine a scenario.

Maybe preceding one of the past ice ages there was only one species, the species from which both our Long-tailed and Cave Salamanders arose. Then the glacier came down from the north stopping not far from here, just the other side of the Ohio River. Conditions here were so harsh that many of that original species went underground -- we have lots of sinkholes and caves around here -- while others migrated southward following the southward-drifting band of moderate environment they'd evolved in.

Millions of years passed, the great glacier withdrew, and the band of moderate environment hosting the original species drifted back north. However, by then the cave-dwelling salamanders had evolved adaptations making them perfectly comfortable in caves -- even as the ones who'd moved south hadn't changed much at all. The result was that now two very similar-looking species existed, yet they were different enough from one another that they could no longer interbreed.

In North America we have seven salamander families, with the Long-tailed and Cave Salamanders belonging to the Lungless Salamander Family. Salamanders in this family really don't have lungs. They breathe through their thin, moist skin. If you watch these salamanders for a while you'll discover one of their adaptations: They move so little that they don't need much food to begin with. They are, then, pretty undemanding creatures, at least in terms of air and food.

No North American salamander, except for the big one known as a Hellbender, has a penis. Courtship in our Long-tailed one, for example, consists of a good deal of rubbing and prodding, which gets the female excited. The male then deposits a small "sperm case," or spermatophore, which the female maneuvers up into her body.

So, what's the difference between a salamander and a lizard?

There are profound differences, because salamanders are amphibians, like frogs and toads, while lizards are reptiles, like snakes and turtles. One major difference is that salamanders don't have scales while lizards do.

You might like to review my "Reptiles in General" page where I highlight certain features that amphibians such as salamanders don't have (because amphibians arose before certain innovations such as penises evolved), and how the later-evolved reptiles overcame those problems. That page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/reptiles.htm

*****

SLEUTHING THE LYCHNIS ALBA
One of the most conspicuous flowering plants along my jogging road is the white-flowered weed you can see at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whiteopp/Lychnis_alba_page.html.

That page identifies the plant as LYCHNIS ALBA of the Pink Family, the Caryophyllaceae, and describes it as, among other things, "fistulose." Well, that word "fistulose" isn't even in my dictionary, but my old Gray's Manual defines it as meaning "hollow and cylindrical." It's referring to Lychnis alba's tubelike stem.

I'd never seen Lychnis albas before so I was surprised that when they first started flowering all their blossoms bore well developed, pollen-producing stamens, but no female parts -- no ovaries! In fact, all the hundreds of Lychnis albas along my jogging road produced only male flowers. I jogged many miles cogitating on why any species would want to get along producing strictly male plants!

That was about three weeks ago. Now I'm finding plants with male flowers and plants with female ones, and I've developed a theory explaining the previous lack of female plants: Early-flowering males accustom pollinators to visiting an area, then when the females start flowering the pollinators already are there. Over the long run, then, this strategy may increase pollination efficiency for the female flowers.

Whatever the case, Lychnis alba is an invasive species from Europe. It must be well known over there because it has arrived with several English names. In books and on the Web I find it known as White Campion, Evening Lychnis, White Cockle, and Bladder Campion. Moreover, even its scientific name has been bounced around more than usual. In fact, the page linked to above is a bit out of date because now Lychnis alba is known as SILENE LATIFOLIA ssp. ALBA.

"White Campion" seems to be the most frequently used English name.

*****

WHITE FLOWERS IN THE PINK FAMILY
How come the White Campion, a member of the Pink Family, has white flowers?

It's because the word "Pink" in "Pink Family" isn't referring to the color pink, but rather to another meaning of "pink," seen in the term "pinking shears." When you notch something, you pink it. One feature of many members of the Pink Family, the Caryophyllaceae, is that the species' flower petals are notched, or "pinked" -- they're Y-shaped.

You might want to return to that Lychnis alba page at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whiteopp/Lychnis_alba_page.html and notice the flowers' pinked petals.

*****

KEEPING YOUR LATIN NAMES UP TO DATE
If you have a Latin name that you want to make sure is still current -- hasn't been changed the way Lychnis alba was changed to Silene latifolia ssp. alba, what do you do?

The easiest way I've found is to use the "NCBI Taxonomy Browser" at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Taxonomy/Browser/wwwtax.cgi.

Just type a Latin name into the "search for" box, hit enter, and if your name is out of date the new one will appear.

Another good place to do this with PLANT names is the USDA Plants Profile page, with a similar search box at http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile.

*****

INDIAN STRAWBERRIES FRUITING
I'm still weeding Ruth's flower gardens, and still eating plenty of violet-leaf greens. After the violets, one of the most common "weeds" being encountered is the Indian Strawberry, DUCHESNEA INDICA. Many of the plants bear pea-size, bright red, strawberrylike fruits. You can see pictures of flowers, fruits and leaves at http://www.missouriplants.com/Yellowalt/Duchesnea_indica_page.html.

Though in the past I've often popped Indian Strawberry fruits into my mouth, I'm not collecting them now, for they look much more appetizing than they are. They are dry and almost tasteless. The only good thing about eating them is the simple esthetic pleasure of taking something that red and good looking into your own body.

Unlike garden strawberry plants, which produce white flowers, Indian Strawberries bear yellow flowers of the cinquefoil and buttercup kind. However, the Indian Strawberry's compound leaves are similar to those of garden strawberries, and the fruits are structured very similarly. In fact, Indian Strawberries are closely related to garden strawberries, both belonging to the botanical "tribe" the Potentilleae of the Rose Family. The Indian Strawberry's genus name, Duchesnea, honors Antoine Duchesne, born in 1747, who was a famous strawberry expert. Garden strawberries are in the genus Fragaria. The technical differences between the two genera are so modest that I wouldn't be surprised if someday they are lumped.

Indian Strawberries are Asian invasives, but now do weed service in much of the eastern US.

*****

A ROLY-POLY FOX-SQUIRREL
The other day I looked out the kitchen window and saw an Eastern Fox Squirrel, SCIURUS NIGER, rolling on the ground beneath the big elm tree. He was uncommonly rusty red and so fat and glossy his skin rippled when he moved. His face was so round that I suspected his cheeks were crammed with food, but after a while I decided that he just had fat cheeks. When he looked toward the house, his face seen head-on reminded me of a walrus's. You can see an Eastern Fox Squirrel at http://www.chicagowilderness.org/images/photos/d4n025.jpg.

While planting some hostas at the base of the elm I'd scalped away turf and left plugs of grass lying around. Now the grassy plugs had dried out so that they looked like brown, bristly sea-urchins. The funny thing was that this fox squirrel was irresistibly attracted to the plugs.

One brown, stubbly plug after another this squirrel would sniff, rub his face against, and finally wrap his flabby body entirely around, making a ball of himself, and then he and the plug would roll downslope for a couple of feet. That squirrel was clearly enjoying a sensuous experience with the dried-out, dead-grass clods, but I couldn't figure out whether he was just playing, or doing something kinky. The more I watched, one plug after another, the more I began thinking that maybe he was making love to those things.

I can't explain what I saw. Eventually, after visiting all the clods, he loped unhurriedly across the lawn and disappeared into the hayfield.

When I see something like that I realize how little about plants and animals I really know. I just can't say whether in watching that squirrel I've seen a fellow mammal spontaneously and innovatingly playing, or rather a fellow mammal so enslaved to the tyranny of his hormones that when he came across a furry clod where a female earlier had rested leaving her scent, he just had to make love, no matter how ugly and unresponsive his partner was.

I'd like to know the answer to that question because as I look back on my own life I'm not really sure to what extent I myself have been spontaneously innovative, or hormonally enslaved. The more I think about my most spontaneous moments, the more they seem the urgings of hormones. But the more I think about my most kinky exploits, the more delightfully unrestrained and free I remember myself as being. There seems to be a kind of paradox here summed up in the squirrel's head-on, walrus-like facial expression.

I guess the only thing certain about both of us is that we probably looked pretty funny while we were rolling around doing whatever it was we were doing.

*****

COLD CROW OVER WINDY GRASS
Sometimes it's as if everything in a landscape chimes in with the same voice. In a concentrated, harmonizing instant lasting less than a second the voice sums up everything around you. You never know when such moments might crop up. At the end of life, maybe all that'll stick with us will be the echoes of such vividly alive moments.

I experienced such a moment the other day biking to the mailbox. We're on a ridge here so we're open to the wind. A coldfront was blowing in and that day the wind made whole trees heave and twist, showing the silvery bottoms of their leaves and sounding like waterfalls. On our ridge the sky is wide open so clouds say a lot. That day everything said was dark, ragged and cold. Most upland here is in hayfields and pastures, so fast-moving, almost violent waves of grass rampaged across too-green hayfields.

It was hard keeping my balance on the bike, less because of the wind than because with dramatic, fast- changing clouds like that, it's hard to keep from looking at them. You want to know if that dark gray downpouring just to the west is about to soak you, and you want to see how that cloud curling upon itself so ominously will turn out. Looking up, you start falling to the side. Even the hayfields disorient with their inconstant, heaving borders. The coldness makes everything sharp, everything you feel, see, smell and hear is sharp, sharpness and raw greenness roaring and heaving and you're right there inside it all.

A crow launched from a big Black-Cherry tree, or maybe it was blown from it, for it looked out of control, flying sideways and dipping and cawing. Seven black birds, maybe grackles, but my eyes were too teary to focus well, and those black birds erupted from the hayfield's boiling grass and went after the crow. At a time like this, they went chasing a crow!

In that half second of black birds converging on the crow alone in the terrible sky I saw it all and understood it all, how even at a time like this seven black birds can feel such rage that they'll leave cozy pockets down in the grass to go screaming and swooping in a gyrating senseless world. I understood it all in that half second, laughed at it all in a fast, convulsive way almost like inhaling a mosquito, and then it was all gone, all gone and everything not a millionth as meaningful and intense as it'd been just a second earlier.

I rode on, got the mail, and peddled back home, things still cold and windy, but now things not meaning much more than what they really were.

Still, that day, I had that half second of vividness, and in that half second the whole thing had managed to get itself inside me OK. Henceforward, all cold, windy things will have an element of crow-in-the-sky for me. All heaving, bubbling reality will be black birds crazily exploding out of ocean-grass, I know that for sure, and I'm going to remember just how cold-green that ocean-grass was.

In fact, when you meet me next time, that look in my face will be wind in a blustery, curdly sky, me trying to remember just how that curling black cloud resolved itself, and how that crow ever did get away.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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