The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) belongs to an ancient lineage of turtles. If you could take a time machine back 80 million years ago you would recognize their ancient ancestors as nearly identical to the modern form. Snapping turtles have filled the same ecological niche since they first diverged from other turtles millions of years ago. They are the garbage disposals of freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands. They are opportunistic feeders, eating anything plant or animal, dead or alive. I have watched them pluck mallard ducklings from the surface of the water and had them rob a full stringer of fish. They are good at what they do. It is this opportunistic nature that has allowed their continued success over the last 100 million years or so. They survived the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and most other complex life. The slow metabolism and opportunistic feeding habits of snapping turtles surely allowed them to survive the apocalypse at the end of the cretaceous.
Snapping turtles get their name from their aggressive nature when on land. Unlike most turtles, snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shell for protection. The bottom of their shell, the plastron, is little more than a skid-plate offering no refuge for limbs, tail or head. To overcome this lack of protection the snapping turtle has an enlarged head and very powerful bite. Alligator snapping turtles have been measured with over 1500lbs per square inch in bite force. That is more than enough pressure to sever digits or inflict severe lacerations.
Instead of hiding in their shells they simply sit and wait for the fight to come to them. A threatened turtle on land will position itself head toward the threat, raising the rear of its shell of the ground. Get too close and SNAP!
Watching a snapping turtle walk it is easy to image them strolling across a beach covered in dinosaur footprints. There is something primeval about their gait and swagger that airs a confidence that even bipedal apes can appreciate.
Despite their legendary bite and temperament, snapping turtles are quite docile when handled. After a couple of snaps and wiggles, a turtle in hand simply hangs on for the ride. I have helped dozens of snapping turtle (and other species) cross the road. The safest way to pick up a snapping turtle is to grab the carapace (top half of the shell) just behind the hind legs. Get a firm grip and expect some claws to try to scratch you off. This grip will be out of range of the bite despite the turtles best efforts.
Snapping turtles have changed very little from the time of the dinosaurs. There have not been any significant environmental pressures to affect change and they keep on doing what they’re doing. They serve an important role in the freshwater ecosystems of the Eastern United States. Provided compassionate and educated humans can help them across the road and give them a place to live I’m sure they will continue to thrive for millions of years to come.
Deer. To a “country” person they are the competition; eating crops, flowers and anything else that might be tasty. To a “city” person they are novel animal to be admired with wonder and curiosity. Where I live, on the edge of suburbia, we have members of both camps. We have the gardeners who support the multi-million dollar industry of deer repellents and the hunters who see a nice cut of venison. I have seen people who live just houses away oggle at the deer as if they are some sort of rarity when they are in their yards nearly every day.
This seeming lack of awareness of the natural world is a by-product of our increasing need for convenience and the false sense of the world that comes with it. When the world is hyper-organized down to the minute and instant gratification controls our brains we lose the ability to stop and listen, to be aware of the world around. Many times I have watched as three or four deer stand within 25 feet of a person walking on the road, completely oblivious to the deer. They are too preoccupied with their phone, music or simply putting one foot in front of the other. Undoubtedly, this same person is the one who is amazed when they see DEER in the neighborhood. Awareness requires the ability to break the cycle of convenience and realize that the world is the way it is, not for our convenience, but for itself.
I am privileged to live in a house with about 4 acres of land surrounded by suburban sprawl. My property is an oasis for the local wildlife. Our land has become an ideal location for the local deer herd to raise their fawns. We have two resident does, one with twins and one with a single fawn. We get to watch these fawns as they grow from wobbly legged infants to fool-hardy adolescents to sub-adults getting kicked out of the home range by their moms. We regularly watch as they run laps around our yard, chasing each other as they practice the manuvers to evade predators.
When playing the does seem just as apathetic as moms at the park on their cell phones. They are there but don’t really seem to care what the kids are up to as long as there isn’t any screaming or crying.
Together these fawns grow up in a very different world than some of their relatives. They live in an artificial world where a car is their primary predator, where food is abundant and the snow doesnt stay deep in the winter. These deer are well fed and tolerant of humans and their habits.
There is a never ending battle with the deer to grow any kind of flower or vegetable. This summer has been the first time in three years we actually have hostas on our property. The previous two year the deer have mowed them down to the ground. They have broken our fence around the vegetable garden and decimated a crop of tomatoes, swash and broccoli. Even with all these negative I must realize that they, like me, are just trying to survive. I have the luxury of growing food more for recreation than neccesity while the deer, on the other hand, have winter to prepare for.
The more I watch the deer the more I am reminded of just how good we humans have it. How priviledge we are to take the very basic needs of life for granted. We can complain about trivial things and never have to think about more than “what we want for dinner”. By taking the very needs of life for granted we have lost our awareness of their importance. We don’t think about where our water or food comes from as long as it comes. We don’t question the strength of the wi-fi or the temperature on the thermostat as long as it’s there. Our conviences have numbed us to the reality of the natural world. I envy the deer and other animals for they must take nothing for granted and must have gratitude for every sunrise they get to see.
Today is hot and humid and the last thing most people are thinking about is snow and ice. Plants, however, operate on a different timeline. Even though it is simply uncomfortable to be outside many of the flowers that are blooming now will continue to bloom right through to the first frosts of fall. There aren’t going to be the explosions of flowers like we had in May and April, instead many of the final flowers of the season are in full bloom for as long as the weather will permit.
Those flowers who do not bloom until the frost will go to seed and supply enough energy for the seed to produce the next generation the following summer. As we sweat through the day just waiting for the heat to lift the plants all around us are already preparing for next year, thinking well beyond their own lives to ensure the perpetuation of their species. Perhaps we have quite a bit to learn from the humble flowers that bring us so much joy and beauty.
In an effort to keep up with the flowers exploding on my property. Here is a quick update of some blooms from July.
When I hear the word “flower” it brings to mind the day lilies, tulips, cone flowers and the other traditional flowers. We tend to think of flowers as objects of beauty rather than the functional sex organs that they are. We look out the window speeding past millions of sex organs, plain as day, in the ditches throughout the world. We even consume the immature sex organs of many different plants (your broccoli will never look the same).
My point is, flowers may seem intricately beautiful as if place here only for our pleasure, when in reality, they serve only to perpetuate the plant species in the most efficient manner possible.
So here are some of those sex organs that we see baring it all on the highway and others who want to get intimately close to you. Enjoy!
Curly dock has these very simple flower head that will turn into a heavy head of dark brown seeds that look almost like tobacco. I see these all over the roads here in Minnesota but have never known exactly what it was.
On the road of life, there are hitchhikers. Seeds will do best when they can get away from their parents. This leads to the samaras, or helicopters, on the maples, the light fluff of a dandelion or even the buoyant nature of a coconut. Other plants have a different strategy. The White Avens, pictured above, produces hook like seeds that will attach themselves to any passerby. I found this plant on a well-traveled deer trail in my backyard, quite literally a highway.
Here is the king of all the plant hitchhikers, the burdock. The little-hooked barbs of the seed are already formed on the flower. These aggressive seeds will create large mats of hair in any mammal unlucky enough to get snagged. I once found coyote tracks on my ice covered pond and you could clearly see where it had stopped and wiggled to remove 6 burdocks from its hindquarters, leaving only the seeds and a little hair behind. An annoyance for the coyote was free transportation for the burdock.
This small flower is another hitchhiker with the surname of stickseed (you know it means business). The seeds produced by the stickseed are small sticky burrs. The stem branches are nearly perpendicular to the ground and each branch is covered with tiny sticky seeds ready to hitch a free ride.
Not all plants we commonly see on the side of the road are hitchhikers, some simply take advantage of the good sun and reduce competition from habitual mowing.
Here are two examples of flowers in my yard that are common on roadsides as well. Unlike the hitchhikers these two thrive in the semi-maintained ditches across the Midwest because they offer the right light and reduced competition.
To finish here are a couple more pictures that don’t necessarily fit this theme but still need to be documented for my Year in my Yard project to document all the flowers on my property. Enjoy!
Sometimes a photo opportunity may come when you are not expecting it or when it is not convenient. I was out taking some photos of flowers for my other project and realized that the local insects had other things on their mind.
A pair of platysomatid flies (Genus Rivellia) were performing a courtship dance on my left ring finger. These odd looking flies are often confused for fruit flies but are their own distinct genus. The description in my Kaufman’s Guide to Insects of North America says their “biology and life histories are essentially unknown”. Well, I can vouch for a bit of their courtship behavior.
The female fly leads the dance with the male fly mirroring her every step in a close formation directly behind her. Both flies will flip their wings as the dance zigs and zags across the dancefloor, in this case, my finger.
As the dance progresses the male closes the gap making the dance more and more intimate until…
the female pauses for a brief moment allowing the male to mount the female and transfer sperm. (I’m just glad my cuticles look as good as they do!)
The actual even of mating lasted only a couple of seconds before the male released his grasp.
As soon as the act was finished the dance picked up again and the male quickly jumped back into the rhythm of the females lead. I can only assume the mating continued after they flew away from the voyeuristic primate with a camera pointed at them.
Take not of the little things and relish the small beauties and wonders that are, sometimes, literally on your fingertip.
Summer has set in and the heat and humidity are making it known. The flurry of flowers between spring and early summer have come and gone while the familiar faces of summer are settling in for their turn.
As I am identifying the flowers on my property I am beginning to learn the history of the land. What I am finding is a story of disturbance and inconsistency. Many of the flowers I have photographed outside my manicured (used in the slighted use of the word) are either foreign invaders or natives that thrive with disturbance. These first two flowers are examples of each. The motherwort is a native that thrives and forest edges. In a natural setting, this would be in blowdowns, fires or other places the forest has opened up. Here I found it where my lawn meets the forest. The Canada Thistle is a foreign invader from our neighbors to the north. It also thrives and proliferates in disturbed soils, so much so that I have attempted to remove as many of the flowers, before they go to seed, as possible. This is a tough decision to make as the flowers serve as a valuable food source for pollinators.
June 21: Common Elderberry
Here is another native that thrives with disturbance. Each of these flowers will become a very edible berry after it is pollinated. The berries are good to eat provided you can beat the birds to them!
June 21-26: Echinacea
Here is one of the masters of the native plants, echinacea, the mighty cone flower. This flower and its allies dominated the native prairies, grasslands and savannahs for thousands of years before the plow. The pictures above are all of the same individual flower, taken over several days. The petals expand and fill with color as they mature. The bees, flies, butterflies and moths were eagerly awaiting the production of nectar, “testing” the flower from the moment it emerged.
June 21: Stinging Nettles
Here is a great example of different strategies flowers use to reproduce. Some flowers like the lily, pictured above, produce one large flower with a large reservoir of nectar and pollen. This single flower can produce multiple seeds. The Gaillardia, also pictured above, is a composite flower meaning that it is actually hundreds of tiny flowers pushed together. Each of these tiny flowers can only produce one seed each, but because they are numerous, one flower head can produce hundreds of tiny seeds. Yet another adaptation is exemplified by the stinging nettles. It too produces a plethora of small flowers but in less organized groups. Each small flower will produce a single seed.
This has to be the smallest flower I have seen all year. Each tiny bloom is only a couple of millimeters in diameter. These flowers must surely be pollinated by small flies as anything larger wouldn’t be able to land on the stem let alone access the nectar at the bottom of the flower.Cats as pollinators?? Think about that for a while….
Catnip is in the mint family. The flowers are clustered radially around the square stem. I have other members of the mint family coming in a future post so make a note to compare the flower shape, color, and patterns!
Is there another flower in this post that’s in the mint family? Go back and see if you can figure it out!!
Tis the season of love all around us. Birds, insects, mammals and especially amphibians are all trying to pass on their genes to the next generation. Male frogs call in the hopes of attracting a female to mate with, being selected based on the volume a frequency of his call. Males will call almost continuously through the peak of the mating season, day and night. I have seen dead frogs in ponds that, I can only assume, have literally called themselves to death.
The Northern Leopard Frog is amongst the first frogs to begin calling in the spring. They will call at he surface or just below making a call that is very difficult to describe in words.
The green frog is a large frog, second only to the bull frog in Minnesota. The green frog is a late season caller and wraps up the mating season for amphibians around my house. Their call sounds like plucking an out of tune banjo. Their tadpoles will spend the entire next year underwater before emerging as young adults the following summer.
Frogs, and other amphibians, are an important of the environment, serving as predator and prey for many other species. Unfortunately their global populations are falling as human influences to environment continue to marginalized their habitats and other needs for life. Amphibians are an indicator species of overall health of an ecosystem. If global populations are decreasing what does that mean for the overall health of the planet??
Photos taken on my iPhone 4S.
Here are some more blooms from my yard for the month of June. No story or commentary, just pictures.
June 18: Foxglove Beardtongue
An adaptation is any trait or behavior that improves survival and ultimately reproductive success of an individual. Adaptations are found in all living things and define how each species came to be and will change in response to its environment. Flowers have adapted to suit the needs of their pollinators while expending as little energy as possible. Flower color, shape, scent and time of blooming are adaptations to target the pollinators.
This post will illustrate some different adaptations found in flowers in my yard.
The wild geranium comes in pink. Through selective breeding, humans have created different breeds that have exploited the subtle variation existing in that wild populations (see above). Just like every person looks a little different every individual plant has slightly different characteristics. Humans have exploited those slight difference to create the variety of domestic plants and animals we see every day.
June 1: Baptista
In the natural world, those slight variations give slight reproductive advantages to individuals. The Baptista has a unique flower shape that forces the bee to open the petals to access the nectar. This prevents any free-loading insects from getting a free meal without pollinating. Those flowers that hold the door too tight don’t get pollinated, those who don’t hold it tight enough waste energy producing nectar without getting pollinated. Those flowers that are “just right” produce the most offspring.
Other flowers have a different approach. They have an all access policy that invites opportunistic pollinators. The picture above is the flower of legendary nightshade. The picture is a bit out of focus, I had my toddler hanging off my arm and couldn’t keep it steady.
The many different shapes, colors, sizes and scents of flowers are a direct result of 70 million years of relationships between plant and pollinator. The variation has increased throughout the generations leading to the variety flowers we see today.
Up Next: Patterns