Monday, November 27, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Well, Florabot suggested a specific EUT which fits the bill well. However, with going to the Columbus Zoo1 on Saturday and getting ready Sunday for a three-week long trip to the Gal├ípagos Islands2, I’m a little late putting up a post about a wonderfully misunderstood animal. I don’t think it’s ugly, but I know most people can’t stand snakes.

Image from Dad
Image by Dan Yaussy

The scientific name of the timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) is not as bad a moniker as I had originally thought. Crotalus refers to the rattle of the rattlesnake, and horridus, which seems to imply a terrifying animal, just refers to its raised stalking pose. Its bite is venomous, but apparently not as deadly to people as other rattlesnakes. According to a Minnesota herpetology site, the last lethal timber rattler bite in Minnesota was in the 1800’s.

Timber rattlesnakes are a middling size snake, somewhere between 3 and 4 feet long, and they have amazing camouflage for lying in wait among the leaf litter in the forests they call home. They ambush small mammals by positioning themselves conveniently in the paths the rodents run along. The females give birth (yes, birth. Not egg-laying) only every three years, and it takes her about five years to get to maturity. Even with their 20-year lifespan, that only leads to about six litters.

I’m sure no one will be surprised when I say that development, cars, and wanton killing are the leading threats to the timber rattlesnake. In fact, the wanton killing leads to an interesting example of selection at work. For the last 200 years, if a snake struck at a person, it got killed. If a snake even rattled at a person, it got killed. This leads, fairly quickly, to quiet, generally non-aggressive snakes. Which can be a problem, since they only rattle to let you know to not step on them. A friend and co-worker of my dad’s apparently walked along a line in a forest in southern Ohio multiple times, only to look down once and see a timber rattler, silently sitting right on the line.

On the site where the Ohio Department of Natural Resources asks people to help report sightings of timber rattlers, it is actively denied that the snakes are being released in Ohio. Why would a department of natural resources have to actively deny a conservation effort? The reason lies around a myth; a myth surrounding timber rattlesnake conservation that is far more exciting than any real conservation efforts would ever strive to be. According to this myth, ODNR uses black helicopters at night to drop rattlesnakes into potential habitats. That’s right, black helicopters. At night. This myth neglects to take several factors into account: A) Do you really think ODNR has the funding to buy several black helicopters? and B) If they really wanted to surreptitiously release rattlesnakes, wouldn’t three guys, a pillowcase full of snakes, and an ATV make more sense, both economically and logistically?

Oh well, myths will be myths.

1Tried to get a good timber rattler picture. Didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.
2This is a warning to any die-hard readers (yes, both of you): I’m going to be on a small boat in the Pacific for three weeks. My parents and girlfriend might not get a phone call. Don’t expect a post.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

It’s not easy being green. Each animal represented in this blog, despite its purported “ugliness,” has one distinct advantage over its endangered plant counterparts: it is an animal. This is arguably an advantage because animals tend to attract human attention and garner our sympathies in ways that plants generally do not. I think this probably stems from a natural tendency to anthropomorphize, and therefore identify with animals in ways that just don’t come as easily when considering plants. It’s rather difficult for us to imagine how a plant might “feel” or “think.”

But as Garfman has pointed out, this blog was created in the spirit of equal-opportunity representation. Finding a suitably “ugly” species for the first plant profile proved challenging for me, however. For one thing, plants are held to different standards of beauty than animals. For another, as a botanist, I felt reluctant to assign a derisive label to any species from my chosen kingdom of study. Even though I have been known to curse while clawing my way through dense, thorny undergrowth, grumble about garden weeds, and despise invasive plant infestations, the source my vexation is only contextual. I was hard-pressed to think of a plant I would call flat-out ugly, because my fascination tends to override my aesthetic sensibilities.

It was after much deliberation that I chose the plant featured as this week’s endangered ugly thing: Rafflesia arnoldii. This species (and in fact the whole genus) is highly unusual in many regards.

The genus Rafflesia is native to tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, and all members of the genus are either threatened or endangered. At least two species are probably already extinct.

These plants are commonly known as “stinking corpse lilies.” In case the name wasn’t enough of a clue, they produce malodorous blossoms that smell like decomposing flesh or feces. The reason? Well, just as we’ve seen that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the sort of bouquet that attracts one pollinator differs from the sort that attracts another. If you hadn’t guessed, R. arnoldii and the rest of the species in its genus are pollinated by carrion flies. To learn more about flowers that share this method of pollination, this site at Wayne’s Word is on of the most informative (and humorous) I have encountered.

The flower itself is also a sight to behold. R. arnoldii has the distinction of producing the world’s largest flower. (Amorphophallus titanum, the Titan Arum, loses this contest on a technicality, as its huge flowering structure is actually composed of many smaller flowers). R. arnoldii’s flower buds are the size of cabbage heads, and when these finally open, the blossom can be reach up to 3 feet in diameter and weigh up to 25 pounds. Looking like something reminiscent of a Mario Bros. videogame, its five sepals are leathery, usually red or orange in color, and spotted with light-colored “warts.”

Image from Southern Illinois University
Image from Southern Illinois University

Additionally, the genus Rafflesia is atypical because all of its members are endoparasitic; that is, they live entirely within another plant (in this case, plants of the genus Tetrastigma, which are related to grape vines) and lack chlorophyll necessary to produce their own food. They are without stems, roots, or leaves. In a sense, they are tapeworms of the plant world. The only time Rafflesia are visible, in fact, is when they are at their reproductive stage; otherwise they exist within the Tetrastigma host vine as threadlike strands of tissue.

So picture this: an enormous flower bursting out of a vine on the floor of a lush tropical rainforest, emitting a rotten stench which is attracting flies. Hardly compares to a sunny field of daisies or a garden of roses, does it? Therefore I feel no qualms in calling R. arnoldii an “ugly” plant. “Weirdly intriguing,” yes. Conventionally “pretty,” no. In any case, probably not something your sweetheart would be thrilled to receive on a special occasion.

According to a 1988 article published in the American Journal of Botany (full text can be found here if you have access to JSTOR), the primary threat is habitat destruction, a theme we’ve encountered over and over again. There is a twist, however, which has to do with the plants’ method of reproduction. Rafflesia plants are dioecious, a fancy term which biologists use to denote that male and female sexes occur in separate organisms. This means that the flowers of a Rafflesia plant either have male sex organs or female sex organs, but not both, as is the case with many plants. In order for fertilization (and thus successful reproduction) to occur, both male and female plants must be present and flowering at the same time. As this source lucidly explains, this situation does not always occur. Rafflesia flowers take a long time (9-10 months) to develop, and there is a high mortality rate. Once open, they last for only a brief window of time (3-5 days). With habitat fragmentation, the chance of a male and female flower being in bloom at the same time while in close proximity to each other is greatly diminished. The situation is further complicated by the fact that even when successful fertilization takes place, the resultant seeds must find their way to a host vine to propagate.

Little is known about Rafflesia because its very nature, in addition to its rarity, makes it difficult to study. As I see it, however, the source of hope for saving these plants is that because of their uniqueness they have managed to draw much interest from both the scientific and lay communities. Efforts have been made to protect them, but as long as the rainforest habitat they occupy continues to disappear, so will they.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Devil Went Down to Sussex

The name of this blog is Endangered Ugly Things. No specific mention of animals. So today, in the interest of fairness, I’m adding a fungus to the annals of EUT. Though, when I looked at the US Endangered Species List, there aren’t any fungi listed. The United Kingdom, however, has a ton(ne), or rather twenty-eight fungus species of concern. So, for all you mycologists crying out for your part in the EUT, here you go. Then go put some fungi on the US list; I’m sure there are some endangered ones out there.

Image from UK Biodiversity Action Plan
Image from UK Biodiversity Action Plan

The Devil’s Bolete, or Satan’s Mushroom (Boletus satanas1) is a poisonous fungus found in southern England, and has been extirpated (probably2) from Northern Ireland. It forms a symbiotic relationship (ectomycorrhizal, but I had to look up what that meant) with broad-leafed trees, such as birch, oak, and sweet chestnut. The fungus gains a carbon source, and the tree gains increased nutrient intake.

In terms of looks, it’s a short, stocky, with a light colo(u)red cap and reddish yellowish stem. The devilish part comes from its smell. The Northern Ireland site claims that “the taste is unpleasant…” There’s only one issue I’ve got with this statement. It’s poisonous, so “unpleasant” might be putting it lightly. In fact, the most recent record of Satan’s Mushroom in Ireland is due to a poisoning incident.

The major cause of endangerment is deforestation, limiting the number of broad-leafed symbiotes to go around for the Devil’s Bolete. Also, a 1987 hurricane, which resulted in even fewer trees, didn’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any specific program(me) in place to save this devilish fungus. On the bright side, they’ve got a list for fungus. C’mon US, there have to be some American fungi that need our help.

Next week, stay tuned for another non-animal post, because Florabot, my summer roommate who suggested the whole thing (EUT), will teach us about an Endangered Ugly Plant. If there are any botanists out there complaining about underrepresentaion of plants on this blog, consider this my affirmative action.

1Sound like a good heavy metal album name? These guys thought so.
2Fungi have this terrible habit of disappearing from view and existing solely as hyphae underground. That, and they aren’t exactly conspicuous. Which might be why there aren’t any on the US list.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Like a Sturgeon

Last week, I showed my blog to my cousin, who just turned 20 (geez, we’re getting old). This was apparently a good move, since he sent me an e-mail earlier this week saying, “I think the lake sturgeon is endangered, but it’s kind of an older book.” A web search turns up threatened in New York, species of concern in Minnesota, and endangered in Ohio. And it’s plenty ugly, so good call there.

Image from Tennessee Aquarium
Image from Tennessee Aquarium

Think the 3-foot long lungfish with a 100-year lifespan isn’t enough? Howzabout the Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), right here in the Midwest, which, during its life of 150 years, can grow to 8 feet long. It has gigantic bony plates on its body, which grow smoother as it ages, because small spiky fish aren’t as digestible. The name “sturgeon” means “the stirrer” in various European languages (and, its scientific name means “reddish-yellow sturgeon” in Latin), which refers to its bottom-feeding habits. The “whiskers” (more technically barbules, which translates from Latin to… uh… whiskers) on their snout allow them to feel food items, such as crustaceans and small fish that are hiding under the substrate, which they suction up with their protruding mouth. Sound familiar?

As stated in the lungfish and tuatara posts, long life means one thing in the animal kingdom: slow to reproduce. Sturgeons take just as long to go through puberty as we do, reaching sexual maturity at 15 to 25 years of age, though they probably don’t have to worry about strange hair and cracking voices, what with being fish and all. Slow to reproduce means that this big fish is still getting over being used for meat, caviar, and isinglass (whatever that is). Pollution, damming, and the normal ol’ endangering factors still come into play.

Since this big bony fish has become protected in pretty much all of its range, the population has stabilized, even bumping it off the IUCN Redlist. It’s very much on its way to become one of those “Conservation Success Stories” like the bald eagle, but hopefully, when it’s pulled of the state endangered species lists, it gets some media attention too.