Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vampire-Biking, 3 New Wildflowers, And Chrazy Chromosome Chounts

IMG_9303 So much is happening so fast all over- in the foothills, in the yard and at the office park. I’ll never keep up with everything, so let’s at least get caught up in the foothills.

3 new wildflowers came out last week. All are present right now along the Shoreline Trail, and all are pretty easy to recognize. But first updates on 2 flowers we’ve talked about before:

IMG_9304 Glacier Lilies are peaking right now, probably tailing off this coming week. As the temps have risen, they’ve rolled back their petals/sepals, better exposing their stigma and anthers.

And even more exciting is this: Arrowleaf Balsamroot leaves popping up all over the place. A number of the flowers are already up, but I’m betting that by this coming weekend they will EXPLODE, and for about the next 2 weeks after, the foothills will be carpeted in big yellow flowers. These coming weeks are when the Wasatch foothills are absolutely the most beautiful, so if you’re a mtn biker, hiker or trail runner, make sure to take advantage of the bloom.

Green Tufts Before moving on to the 3 newbies, I should mention that I’ve ridden this section of Shoreline twice since my last wildflower post- early AM last Thursday and early AM Monday/yesterday. This time of year, every ride- every day- there’s something different going on in the foothills.

Part Where I Define A New Verb And Lecture Readers About Biking In Mud

Speaking of riding, if you’ve been paying attention to the weather here, you might be wondering how I rode it yesterday morning. It rained and snowed here all weekend- wasn’t the trail a big, muddy mess?

Answer: I “vampired” it. “Vampiring” is a term I made up several years ago, and it means riding a frozen trail, on a day in which the temperatures will be above freezing, before- and this is the crucial part- before the sun hits the dirt. I’m going to say this again, because I see crazy, muddy ruts on Shoreline trail all the time. If you get up early, and the thermometer says any temp <30F, you can ride any trail, mud-free, and come home with a completely clean bike, so long as you are off the trail before the sun hits the dirt.

Vampire Correct I don’t know why hardly anyone gets this. I ride before work all the time, and hardly ever see anybody. Yet I know the trails are getting ridden mid-day, because I spend half my ride rolling over frozen tire-ruts. (And footprints, too- hikers/runners, this applies to you as well!) Yet this time of year vampiring is both easy and awesome. It’s easy because the foothills are largely blocked from the sun by the mountains for a good 90 minutes following sunrise. And it’s awesome, because frozen ground is one of the best riding surfaces ever...

Vampire Incorrect All About Frozen Ground

About ½ the land in the Northern hemisphere freezes seasonally; another ¼ is permanently frozen. When water freezes, its volume expands, and the water molecules get locked in a tight, super-strong crystalline structure.

IMG_9305 The weak point of ice of course is that it’s brittle, which is why- by and large- you can’t do much useful with it- no ice-knives, no ice-hydraulic presses, no ice bike-frames. But dirt is not brittle; it’s soft and loose and pliable. But when water freezes in dirt, it makes a substance I think of as a “dirt-ice alloy”: tough and hard like ice, but able to sustain Vampire Limitrepeated, hard impacts like dirt. As a riding surface, a frozen dirt trail is hard but smooth, like buffed slickrock. And it offers similar traction to slickrock; the crystalline ice-lattice locks the grains of dirt into place. There’s hardly ever lost traction, and no skidding, wash-outs, or dust.

To be sure, vampiring works better in late Fall/early Winter than in temporary Spring freezes, like Monday morning. NA_permafrostThis is because in the Wasatch foothills in Winter, the ground is frozen 2-3 feet deep, and so whatever thawing/mudding occurs is heated solely by the sun. But by late April, the ground has completely thawed, and an overnight freeze-layer probably only extends down between 1-4”. And that thin frozen layer is being heated not just from above by the sun, but from below by the soil, which retains the much of the heat it’s accumulated over the past month or so.

The Flowers, Already!

IMG_9256 OK, back to the 3 newbies. First up is this guy, Woolly Milkvetch, Astragalus purshii, (pic left, & below right) also known as Pursh’s Milkvetch. This is of course closely related to the Astragali I posted about last week- Utah Milkvetch and Deseret Millkvetch, and it looks, as first glance, a bit like the former, with pink, irregular, lady-slipper-style flowers. But it’s pretty obviously different; the blossoms are a bit smaller, less tubular and more delicate-looking, and the leaves small and woolly/hairy. It’s common now around 5,500 -6,000 feet.

So that’s 3 species of Milkvetch I’ve blogged about in a week. And as I mentioned in the Easter Bunny/Utah Milkvetch post, there are over 2,000 species of Astragalus. Why so many?

IMG_9254 One factor driving speciation in Milkvetches appears to be seed predation by insect larvae, the 2 most common Weevil larvae and Pyralid larvae. Weevils we’ve already talked about, and with 50,000+ species, it’s like there’s a Weevil for everything! The Pyralids are a superfamily (Pyralidoiae) of more than 16,000 species of moths, most (but not all) of whose larvae feed on living plants. There are Pyralid larvae that specialize in eating leaves, roots and seeds. The Pyralids include some pretty major agricultural pests, the Corn Borer being a good example:

Tangent: Another example of a Pyralid I mentioned recently was Wax Moths, whose larvae, “waxworms”, are a common pest of beehives.

All Astragali suffer from larval seed predation, but some species suffer more or less than others do from a specific larva, and so Milkvetches with seeds that are less appealing/palatable to a specific local larva will tend to lead to strains, and eventually species, that display those lessened appeal/palatability characteristics. Of course the moths and weevils adapt as well, which is probably why there are so many moth and weevil species…

IMG_9248 The 2nd newbie I’ve just seen so far in a single draw at ~5,800 feet. (As you travel Shoreline trail from Dry Creek to City Cree, it’s the draw just above “Heart Attack Hill” and just below the high point of this section of trail.) It’s the first blue wildflower of the year, and looks like some type of Forget-Me-Not (genus = Myosotis) (Thanks Sally!) (pic left) but I’m having trouble with the species ID. I’m getting tripped up on 2 things- the leaf form, and the lack of any yellow in the “eye” of the flower. Forget-me-nots have 5 “salviform” petals, which are united at the base.

IMG_9259 The 3rd new flower is another yellow one, the Mountain Dandelion, Agoseris glauca, (pic right & below, left)also known as False Dandelion. A. glauca comes in several varieties, some of which have more orange-colored flowers. I suspect this one is A. glauca lacata, but that’s a guess. It’s present now in several spots along Shoreline at the 5,800 – 6,000 foot level, between the top of Heart Attack Hill and the top of Bobsled (old entrance, at the 5-way intersection.)

Mountain Dandelions aren’t all that closely-related to “regular” Dandelions. IMG_9264 They both belong to Asteraceae, or Sunflower Family, the largest family of flowering plants, which includes the various Balsamroots and Mules Ears that will shortly be blooming all over the place. Asteraceae are composite flowers, meaning each “flower” is actually dozens, or even hundreds, of little mini-flowers, or florets. Composite flowers were a huge step forward in angiosperm evolution, and are thought to have evolved sometime in the last ~100 million years (though fossil evidence only shows up in the last ~30 million) on my favorite super-continent, Gondwanaland. Dandelions and Mountain Dandelions both belong to a “tribe” within Asteraceae called Cichorieae, which includes about 1,600 species, many (most?) of which have Ray-Only Flowers.

Dandelion3 Speaking of Dandelions, they of course have been all over the place for several weeks now, and if you think they’re just an annoying weed, I am here to tell you that they are in fact Way Cool. If you weren’t reading this blog a year ago (and I already know you weren’t, because no one was) I recommend going back and reading the (appropriately-titled) Dandelions Are Way Cool series, for an overview of the structure, genetics, natural history and distributions of Dandelions, all of which are- yes, that’s right- Way Cool.

There’s another Cichorieae which I haven’t seen yet, and doesn’t grow in the Wasatch, but does grow down in Southwestern Utah, which I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next time I’m down South, which may be, oh I don’t know- how about tomorrow? Yes, that’s right! Tonight, KanyonKris and I are driving down South to Hurricane after work and playing hooky tomorrow to do some peak-wildflower mtn biking. How cool is that?

Slender Goldenweed OK, so anyway, I’m sure we’ll see a ton of cool desert wildflowers, but the one I’m thinking about is this guy, Slender Goldenweed, Machaeranthera gracilis, (pic left)also known as Spiny Daisy. It’s a rather unremarkable-looking daisy-ish flower, but there’s something really amazing and unique about it: It has only 4 chromosomes, the lowest known chromosome number of any angiosperm.

I’ve talked about chromosome numbers several times in this blog. Most plants have diploid chromosome numbers of, oh say, 38 (Balsamroot), 16 (Dandelion), or 26 (Creosote)- almost always double digits. And many polyploid plants we’ve looked at have far more. Cutleaf Balsamroot, which will soon be covering the higher foothills up towards Big Mountain Pass, Jeremy Ranch and on through East Canyon toward Henifer and Morgan, has 102 chromosomes. (And many plants have even more. The current known chromosomal champion is tropical genus Ophioglossum, with up to 1,400 chromosomes.)

IMG_5511 A Cutleaf Balsamroot (pic right) doesn’t appear to be any more complex or advanced than a Slender Goldenweed. It’s just amazing to me that one needs 102 chromosomes and the other only 4. But it only seems amazing because I’m thinking in terms of a “design” when of course living things aren’t designed at all. They have whatever number of chromosomes that best carried and expressed the genes that best enabled their ancestors to make copies of themselves, given whatever circumstances, environments and selection pressures those ancestors faced. And that’s the coolest thing about weird- or really all- chromosome counts: each genome tells a story, whether or not we know yet how to read it.

Moose1 The same non-correlation between chromosome count and complexity holds in the animal world as well. Moose (70), Horses (64), Cows (60) and Sheep (54) all have more chromosomes than we do (46) but nobody argues that they’re more evolutionarily sophisticated than we are. In fact, there’s a cool and relatively recent development in our own evolution related to chromosome count: Chimps5 Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutans all have 48 chromosomes, yet we have only 46. It turns out that our chromosome #2 is really a combination of Chimpanzee chromosomes #12 and #13. This merging happened sometime in the last 5-7 million years, and may well have marked a no-turning-back point from which our ancestors could no longer interbreed with the ancestors of modern Chimpanzees.

Yeah, so back down South tonight. Supposed to be sunny and 80’sF. Ooh, that sounds nice. Probably won’t post again till Friday.


Sally said...

I've been poking around in the Borages, but no good candidates without more info--or maybe this one's a question for the Collector! Habitat? Elevation? Size? And did you look through Eritrichium?

Good job on the MB education. This spring we've seen a few MBs come down the hogback before dawn, watching the headlights all the way from I-70.

Kevin Vigor said...

Regarding your "dirt-ice alloy", you're describing "Pykrete". There was a fantastic plan to build aircraft carriers from the stuff during WWII.

I love lateral thinkers. It's too bad this one never came to fruition.

PS: how on earth do you motivate yourself to get up at oh-dark-thirty and go out in the freezing weather? I admire yet cannot emulate.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I hope you realize you've changed my riding habits. In Moab over the weekend, I stopped along the trail to look at the leaves of a juniper or piney looking thing (don't remember what it was--not that I could identify it to begin with). I'm absorbing maybe .01% of what I read, but it still leads to more enjoyment of the natural world when I ride.

Have fun with Kris this week.

Watcher said...

Sally- I tried Eritrichium first, but didn’t find a good match. It’s on the floor beneath Gambel Oak, in a relatively well-watered draw at 5,800 ft, Southern aspect. The flowers are ½” across max. To make things more confusing, I picked a sample yesterday, and this morning (after posting, but just before leaving the house for work) I checked out the sample under brighter light, and now I think there *might* be a titch of yellow in the eye… I need a hands lens…

Kevin- never heard of Pykrete, read the whole Wikipedia article. That’s an amazing story, never would’ve believed it. Thx. Re: waking/riding at o-dark-thirty, all I can say is you have to break on through the mental block of “it’s too early/cold.” Once you do it’s like a whole new world opens up, of quiet, of soft, dim colors, of unhurried, no-hassle “you-time.” After you get in the habit, you wonder how you just slept through this whole cool part of your life for decades.

SBJ- I read your and Kris’ RAWROD reports; the wind sounded brutal- nice work banging that out. If you were looking at a tree up on top of the mesa, it was either Colorado Pinon or Utah Juniper. If it was down on the WR, it was the latter. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the trees. As summer comes up and you start riding up on high, don’t forget my super-useful Wasatch Tree ID graphics!

Anonymous said...


funny graphic. i hate those who ride on muddy trails leaving the ruts to confound loser riders like me.

anyway, those blue flowers are some sort of blue bell, mertensia something or other. brevistylus? i think that's it. i'm pretty darn sure it's not a hackelia or a true forget me not. they've been out for a week or two in different spots!

have you seen the phacelias yet?

love the flowers!

Watcher said...

Anonymous- thanks for your help. I think you got it! I initially discounted Bluebells, because, well, they always hand down, don’t they? But I see from the photo here that M. brevistyla sometimes doesn’t. And the “eye” is a good match. Even more compelling is the leaf match, and specifically the hairs, as described here.

No I haven’t seen the Phacelia here in Northern UT yet- whereabouts have you seen it? But I saw a real interesting Mystery-Phacelia yesterday down in the desert that I’m having a bear of a time IDing. I plan to include it in a desert wildflower post tomorrow; if you could take a look and share any thoughts, I’d appreciate it- thanks!

Desert Survivor said...

Looks like your wildflowers are a bit ahead of what we're seeing. I'm working on educating myself about the wildflowers (sometimes it takes hours to get a good guess on just one!) at http://aplantaday.blogspot.com