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

May 25, 2006

A MOUSE'S TAIL
The other day I swept from beneath the old farmhouse's kitchen sink a dried-up, mummified mouse. He'd been dead so long he didn't stink at all. He was light as a feather, nothing but parchment and fur. So, what kind of mouse was this?

Certainly it wasn't a House Mouse, one of those dark-gray-all-over, squinty-eyed little creatures introduced from Europe and found wherever humans make messes. My mummified friend bore patches of rich, golden brown fur, his bottom parts including his legs where white, and his eye sockets seemed to have once accommodated big, black eyes. This was a pretty native species, one much more interesting and desirable than a mere House Mouse.

In fact, there's a whole world of fascinating mice out there. On my "Backyard Rats, Mice & Voles" page at http://www.backyardnature.net/rats.htm you can see that North America is home to 98 or so species of mousy, ratty critters, including 16 basic mouse species, 21 species of pocket mouse, 5 harvest mice, and many others. Certain of those species are exquisitely adapted to narrow ecological niches, and are very limited in distribution. For example, the Merriam Mouse is restricted strictly to mesquite and scattered brush in low elevation deserts. The Bushy- tail Wood Rat sticks to high mountains where it lives among rock slides, pines, and at the edges of cliffs. The California Vole specializes in marshy ground.

Those of you who have been with me for a long time may recall the epic battles I had in the Mississippi Woods with White-footed Mice. My mummy mouse looked like one of those. However, North America is home to dozens of species of white-bottomed, big-eyed mice. However, my mammal fieldguide's distribution maps show that most of those are found out west. In central Kentucky we have only four or five golden-topped, white-bottomed mouse species.

It came down to this: Did my mouse have a two-toned tail? In other words, was the long, slender, hairy tail as it lay on the ground dark above and pale below? I looked at the tail with my handlens and, sure enough, hairs on the tail's top were black while those on the bottom were white. This meant that I had a Deer Mouse, PEROMYSCUS MANICULATUS. You can see a picture of a Deer Mouse and its distribution map here.  

My fieldguide says that Deer Mice nest in burrows in the ground, in trees, stumps and buildings. They feed on seeds, nuts, acorns and insects, and they store their food. They have a home range of a half to three acres or more. They rarely live more than two years in the wild, five to eight in captivity.

Deer Mice are very closely related to my Mississippi friends the White-footed Mice, PEROMYSCUS LEUCOPUS. In fact, my fieldguide says that often they are hard to distinguish in the field. Moreover, both are found in central Kentucky.

However, in the field you don't often have a mummified mouse in your hand whose tail you can look at with a handlens to see if the top has black hairs and the bottom white ones.

Knowing that Deer Mice find my old farmhouse congenial makes me feel much more at home here.

*****

A BIG RAT SNAKE
If there are rodents about, then there must be predators to keep their numbers down. The day after I swept out the mummified mouse I was biking back from my morning's work and almost ran over a six-ft-long Rat Snake, ELAPHE OBSOLETA. Rat Snakes get over 8-1/3 feet long (2.56 m), so this was a big one, but not a giant.

He lay on the one-lane asphalt path, his weakly keeled scales glistening in bright sunlight. His colors and patterning were different from what I knew from western Kentucky and Mississippi, and different from what my Audubon fieldguide describes for this area. He was blotched with black rectangles, the scales between blotches colored brown, red, yellow and gray. In North America there are several Rat-Snake subspecies. There's a map showing where each subspecies is found, and drawings illustrating the types found there, at http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/Rat_Snake_subspecies.htm.

Identifying snakes has become a lot easier now that I'm farther north than I have been in recent years. Snakes are reptiles, thus cold blooded, and simply have problems with cold weather. In general, the colder the climate, the fewer reptile species to be found in an area.

When I move into a new area, one thing I do to get a handle on which reptiles, amphibians and mammals are to be looked for is to thumb through my fieldguides' distribution maps and write down all the names of species indicated as found there. The snake list I came up with when I lived near Natchez, Mississippi is at http://www.backyardnature.net/snaklist.htm.

Once you have such a list for your own local area, you might further organize it according to the following artificial groupings:

Check first to see if the species is venomous. You can review my page on venomous snake identification at http://www.backyardnature.net/snakvenm.htm.

Once I grouped central Kentucky's snakes according to the above categories I saw that I had only eight "patterned" species. Once I eliminated the species I knew my big, road-lying snake was NOT (not a hognose because no hog nose, not a watersnake because its scales weren't strongly keeled, etc.), I had only two or three species to consider, and of those it was easy to use the fieldguide to confirm that I had a Rat Snake.

*****

YELLOWWOOD FLOWERING
I'm currently living inside the big, almost-closed loop of the Kentucky River shown on the aerial photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/map_loop.jpg.

I've told you how the Kentucky River is "entrenched" within a narrow valley with very steep to vertical sides. At the point where the entry road into our peninsula comes close to the valley the road's elevation is 890 feet. The river's surface below lies at around 510 feet. So far I've not descended the 380- ft slope, mainly because of its steepness. One good slip and a fellow would slide a long way.

Last Sunday I got about halfway down, however. At the lowest point I hung on to a tree trunk while with binoculars I scanned the slopes below me.

That day I saw something unexpected. Here and there good-sized trees were heavy with what could have been large, drooping inflorescences of white Wisteria blossoms. At first I thought that maybe I was being tricked by super-large Black Locust flowers, but then I saw that the trees' leaves weren't locust-like. They were like those of an ash tree, except that they were alternate on the stem, not opposite.

Finally it occurred to me: Now I'm within the limited distribution of the American Yellowwood tree, CLADRASTIS LUTEA, a member of the Bean Family. Here I was seeing a rare tree specially adapted to deep, forested valleys and mountain slopes, and I was seeing it at its peak flowering time. You can admire the tree's ash-like leaves and large, white flowers at http://www.treecanada.ca/trees/photo_info.php?photo_id=445&lang=en.

At http://www.treetrail.net/american_yellowwood.html about halfway down the page there's a detailed map showing the Yellowwood's very spotty distribution. That page also provides interesting conservation and life-history notes.

You just wonder what makes this tree so uncommon. Part of it may be that it has a certain affinity for limestone bedrock. However, tree nurseries occasionally market the species as appropriate lawn trees, so apparently they are somewhat robust.

Still, as I hung from the tree trunk viewing the pale glowing of the Yellowwoods' emergent tops heavy with white blossoms in the valley below, they struck me as so shy and subdued as to be tragically frail.

I felt as if I were seeing an imperiled, very lovely species at bay in its final refuge.

*****

MULLEIN ROSETTES
Among plants, annuals are those living for a year, biennials live for two years, and those living for more than two years are perennials. Many annuals are herbaceous, perennials are usually woody, and biennials often form resting stages between their first and second years. The resting stage of the common roadside weed from Europe known as Mullein, VERBASCUM THAPSUS, is a fuzzy rosette, and we have plenty of them along the road leading into Polly's Bend. You can see one I jog by each morning at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/mullein.jpg.

The word "rosette" is from French and means "little rose." In English the word can be applied to anything resembling a rose. In Botany it's described as "an arrangement of leaves radiating from a crown or center and usually close to the ground." Dandelion leaves form nice rosettes.

I took the picture at the above link about five days ago. Since then we've had some warm afternoons and now most of our Mullein rosettes are bolting -- stems are shooting up fast from the rosettes' centers. Sometime in June these flowering spikes will be adorned with attractive yellow blossoms, then in the fall and winter the elevated seedpods will be visited by birds who love eating the seeds.

You might wonder what advantage there is for a plant to be a biennial forming rosettes. Basically the idea is for the plant in its first year to store energy in its taproot and leaves in the form of carbohydrate. Then at the beginning of the second year the growing flower stem can draw upon the stored energy as it overtops the stalks of slower-growing annuals around it, who must photosynthesize their energy as they grow. The biennial with stored energy also can make its stem strong enough to hold more flowers and fruits than mere annuals.

*****

A VIOLET'S CLEISTOGAMOUS FLOWERS
I'm still eating violets. Their pretty, purple flowers are long gone but their fruiting capsules are now disseminating seeds from atop peduncles extending above the plant's deep green, heart-shaped leaves.

An interesting thing about violets -- members of the genus VIOLA -- is that most species, after producing regular blossoms, produce cleistogamous flowers, or "cleistogenes." That word "cleistogamous" is rooted in the ancient Greek "kleistos," meaning "closed," so cleistogamous flowers are closed flowers. They don't open up. They remain as closed buds. Consequently, pollinators such as bees never can get to the flowers' sexual parts, and the flowers are obliged to fertilize themselves with their own pollen. Often cleistogamous flowers are produced on sprawling peduncles or stolons that grow through the leaf litter or even underground.

One morning this week as I was collecting leaves from the Common Purple Violet, VIOLA SORORIA, for the next day's breakfast, I found a plant beautifully showing not only two cleistogamous flowers but also a fruiting capsule held above its leaves. I scanned it and you can see the resulting image at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/cleistog.jpg.

In that picture the two white, horizontal things are hook-necked peduncles that had been buried in the leaf litter. The cleistogamous flowers are the budlike things at the ends of the hooks. A fruiting capsule rises above the plant's leaves.

Of course, self-fertilizing like this, there is no mingling of genetic information from two different parents. However, this was accomplished with the regular flowers produced earlier in the season. These violets are telling us, then: That there's nothing sacred about always mixing genes. Sometimes a little kinkiness gets the job done as well.

In fact, fruit capsules developed from cleistogamous flowers typically produce lots of perfectly fertile seeds.

*****

METAL
When I'm prying the violets from Ruth's flowerbeds I use a hunting knife with a steel blade. After some time of monotonous but pleasant work my mind starts floating and my senses habituate and empathize with the moist, crumbly soil and the yielding nature of plant tissue. In this organic mood it soon becomes vividly clear that the knife in my hand is absolutely an alien thing. Not even the limestone rocks that the blade sometimes scrapes against matches the knife's stiff, cold hardness. This thing stabbing into the ground so unfeelingly and slicing what refuses to yield is fundamentally otherworldly, and almost miraculous.

Our species, Homo sapiens, arose about half a million years ago. The Bronze Age arising from the Stone Age, in that context, occurred just recently, only about 4000 years ago. Since humans have been making and using metal only for less than 1% of our existence, you can say that for nearly humanity's entire existence we had no metal, had to skin animals with flaked flint, and grub roots with sticks and sharp rocks. Then someone discovered how to alloy copper and tin to make bronze, and in a relative wink of an eye this technological leap evolved into the world we have today.

As I work, it occurs to me that in the context of recent cogitations, this knife is contributing its own thought. It is reminding me that technology evolves at one rate, while biological and human social evolution proceed at much, much slower rates. We can see what a profoundly dangerous dynamic this is when we remember that today too often high-technology destructive power resides in the hands of people whose minds are grounded in belief systems thousands of years old.

Specifically and most troublingly, a two-thousand-year-old religion may go into great detail about matters such as sexual politics and the rites to be celebrated on this or that occasion, but it won't say a word about what to do when the Earth becomes overpopulated with people, is faced with global warming and the oceans have become polluted and overfished.

Exodus 35:2 very clearly and without qualification informs fundamentalist Christians that a person who works on the Sabbath must be murdered. Isn't this exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from a tribal elder in the Middle East 2000 years ago? But is it an appropriate message for today, right now?

I have heard people who distrust religions say that they put up with them because without them there'd be nothing to believe in, no guide for ordering society, and no compass for establishing goals in one's life.

My steel knife blade shining in sunlight as it works the moist, crumbly soil suggests that it is a beautiful and powerful thing if you can pass through the fire of becoming something new, of evolving, evolving, evolving...

To anyone needing something to believe in, I suggest that it is enough to believe in universal paradigms easily discernible in Nature -- such as the desirability of diversity, the necessity of frugal living and recycling of resources, and the beauty of simplicity.

Anyone wondering how to order society might consider the notion that it be ordered according to rational decisions made by well-informed, public-spirited people who have proven that they learn from what they see and experience. Most certainly society should not be based on a literature developed 2000 and more years ago and tinkered with by generations of clerics isolated from real life.

And if someone is looking for goals in life, then my opinion is that one's goal in life should be to struggle as hard as possible to see and understand the surrounding world, to reflect with a clear and penetrating mind on what is beheld, and to cultivate the sensitivities needed in order to exquisitely feel every moment in every day.

Finally, my opinion is that if there is any such thing as sin, then sin is voluntarily closing down one's mind.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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