Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Big Scramble, Another Hybrid Oak And A Dog

I’m down in St. George and was going to stay offline all weekend, but wanted to cover this while still fresh in my mind.

OQHYB2 Topo Caption Wednesday afternoon (Thanksgiving Eve) after the business world shut down I headed on over to the Lakeview exit off I-80, at the North end of the Oquirrhs. (Non-Utah Readers: The Oquirrhs are the range on the West side of the Salt Lake Valley. Nice mountains, but largely ignored, due to their proximity to the much more impressive Wasatch Range on the East side of the valley.) Rudy located (and hiked to) a hybrid oak clone way up high on the ridge back in the 50’s (but didn’t include it in his thesis. Pic below right.) We wanted to get an accurate GPS location and sample leaves, and since it’s an almost 2,000 ft, steep, trail-less scramble up, and since I’m the only member of this hybrid-oak-hunting threesome under the age of 75, I felt somewhat obligated to scramble up there, and I wanted to squeeze it in before the incoming winter storm front made a mess out of the slope.

IMG_7482I have conflicted feelings about steep off-trail scrambles. On the plus side, they’re a great way to get to some of the coolest, most remote places anywhere in the Intermountain West. (See this post for a great example.) But on the other hand I do them so infrequently, that even though I’m generally in decent shape, I don’t use the “scrambling muscles” very often, which means that for the 3 or 4 days following I can barely hobble down a flight of stairs.

I’ve been hesitant to post exact locations for hybrids I didn’t find myself, and in one recent case removed a post that gave a fair amount of beta regarding a newly-found one down in Alpine. (My apologies to the UNPS oak-enthusiasts; I intend to re-post that entry when the land ownership and protection issues cool down a bit.) But this hybrid, which I’m calling “Oquirrh2”, is in no imminent (or really even conceivable) danger, and is in such a pain-in-the-ass location to access, that I have no qualms about posting its location. Below is satellite photo with actual hybrid clone visible in red circle. Just work your way as close to the RR tracks as possible, park, and knock yourself out.

OQHYB2 Sat Caption The hike, though tedious, is a good one, as it’s all on open mountainside, and passes two major Lake Bonneville shorelines very clearly. (If you don’t know about Lake Bonneville, which was like the Coolest Thing Ever, see this post.) After about 700 feet of climbing, you reach the Bonneville shoreline, which represents the level of the lake for the longest continuous period of its existence. 10-15 minutes later you climb past the equally well-defined Provo shoreline, which at 1,100 feet above the current level of the Great Salt Lake indicates the maximum depth of Lake Bonneville, and the level of the lake when Red Rock Pass finally gave way in a catastrophic flood.

OQHYB2 from below What was cool about this hike was that there was a fairly mean inversion going on, and its top coincided nicely with the Provo shoreline, which means if you look at the photo I snapped below, and imagine water in place of the visible fog/smog/gunk, you get a pretty good idea of what Lake Bonneville looked like around 16,000 years ago.

OQ Inversion 11 26 08 Tangent: Everybody living on the Wasatch Front hates inversions, and with good reason. But inversions actually have some really cool ramifications on plant life across the Great Basin, which I intend to do a post on this winter (probably during an unbelievably gross inversion.)

IMG_7472The Oquirrh2 hybrid is a bitch to get to, but worth it. It’s a nice-sized stand, maybe 20’ x 30’, with plenty of green foliage remaining at the end of November. IMG_7471What’s particularly interesting is that the leaf morphology (fancy science word for “shape”) seems to vary significantly in different parts of the stand, and this suggests that it’s not a single clone, but multiple independent hybrids. (Pics left & right. This is just me going off here, so who knows. I sent a bunch of leaves over to Professor Chuck; we’ll see what he says.)

Going down was tedious. My ankle, which I rolled in Prague last month, gives me no trouble at all, except when hiking downhill. Go figure.

The Part About Dogs

IMG_7466 But possibly the nicest part of this hike was that I had company, up and down. Not human company- this one was a bit much for PChuck and Rudy, and I can never talk any of my same-generation friends into these hare-brained scrambles to check out trees- but canine company. When I parked, this dog ran up from the nearby ranch house. Obviously friendly, he hung out while I got my stuff together, and then followed me as I set off. But amazingly, he followed me all the way up to the hybrid, repeatedly scouting ahead and returning, covering probably 2-3X the distance I did. At the hybrid we shared my water bottle, then he explored some more while I poked around and collected leaves. We hiked together all the way down, and then finally, when I pulled away, he chased my car down the road for between ½ and ¾ mile at 30+mph.

It was obvious this dog had a great time out with me. And it was also obvious- at the risk of tooting my own horn here- that this dog needs an owner like me. Someone who goes off on long, aimless adventures and rambles into the middle of nowhere, someone who love to be outside, to explore, to poke around behind and under things. And as I drove down the road back toward I-80, I had a crazy thought come into my head: that I should just turn around, drive back to the ranch house, knock at the door and explain that no offense, but it’s obvious that your dog wants to live with me, to go on adventures and road trips and climb mountains, so how about I take him home with me?

I didn’t do it of course. As I’ve mentioned previously, we’re a pet-free household, and part of the reason Awesome Wife puts up with my backcountry adventures, bike racing and wannabe-botanist hijnx is that I don’t do wacky unpredictable stuff like gamble away the kids’ 529 plans, invite old college roommates to live in our basement, or bring home random animals. But that dog has stuck in my head since, in part because he reminds me of Raleigh.

I’m fairly emotionally-neutral about dogs; I can take or leave them, and generally have little desire to possess, or “own” one. I never had a dog growing up, and the closest I’ve ever come since was a 4-month period in early 1995, when I dog-sat the dog- a golden retriever named “Raleigh”- of my then-friend- let’s call him “Tim”. This was way back when I lived in Colorado, before Awesome Wife, before Utah, before the Trifecta, in the period of my life I think of as “Life 1.0.” (This present, Utah-based life being Life 2.0.) Tim and his family were moving from Denver to Florida, and I watched Raleigh as a favor, to help make the move go more smoothly.

At first watching Raleigh was a bit of a chore; when I tried to take him along running, mtn biking or XC skiing, he sprinted for the first 30 minutes or so, then practically limped home. But over a couple of months 2 things gradually happened. First, Raleigh shaped up, to the level where he could comfortably canter along with me on a 15-20 mile mountain bike ride at 12-15 mph. And second, we got in tune with one another. We figured out how to ride a trail together such that we didn’t run into, or get in the way of, or outpace one another. This period, the final few months of Life 1.0, was a sort of sad, and a little bit lonely, time in my life and I was glad for the companionship of someone who so obviously loved the backcountry and outdoors in the same way I did.

Raleigh Me When Tim and his family were ready for me to send Raleigh on, I made a strong pitch to keep him. I pitched Tim’s wife first, pointing out how badly Raleigh needed open space, adventure and an active, out-of-doors “owner”. I talked about his thick golden coat, and speculated aloud on how terribly he’d suffer in the Miami heat. Even back then I was a great salesguy, and Tim’s wife crumbled quickly. But then Tim called me back, and he wasn’t budging. I tried charm, I tried FUD, I tried begging, but he wanted his dog back. So a few days later I drugged up Raleigh, put him in a cage, and shipped him to Miami.

About 2 months later, on a hot, humid Miami summer day, Tim’s wife was running with Raleigh when he collapsed. He was dead the day after.

The Raleigh episode still bugs me because it defies easy categorization. Generally, when we think about past events we’re sad about, we mentally file them into 1 of 2 categories. In the first category are things that turned out sad, but looking back, we wouldn’t have done anything differently. The second category is those things where we wish we’d done different, where we wish chose the second option, or taken the other path. When I look back at Life 1.0, all the events of that time fall into those 2 categories, with the exception of the Raleigh episode.

Raleigh Timeline If I went back in time to June 1995, I’m still not sure what I’d do. If I’d told Tim “no forget it, I’m keeping him”, I’d be a lousy friend, a traitor and a dog-napper, all pretty scummy things to be. But over the years, Tim and I have long since fallen out of touch, and look at where we wound up: Raleigh’s dead. Tim didn’t get his dog, I didn’t get mine, and Tim and I aren’t really friends anymore. If I’d kept Raleigh, Tim still wouldn’t have had his dog, Tim and still I wouldn’t be friends anymore, but I would’ve gotten my dog, and more importantly, Raleigh would’ve had a another 7-9 years of life and adventure with me.

I know I’ve made a few snide and snotty comments about pets and especially the whole “owning” dogs thing in this blog this year. But what I’m really down on isn’t people having dogs; it’s couch-potato/non-adventurers having dogs, or people having dogs, doting on them, and then pretty much forgetting about them after they have kids. I’m the last guy to pretend to be an expert on dogs, but pretty much every dog I’ve known likes to be outdoors, to explore, to check out, investigate and figure out things. Or in other words, all the things I like to do. I wish when people thought about “getting a puppy”, they thought about that first.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Have Lens Envy

Quick Pre-Post Note to Salt-Lake Area Night-Riders: Last night my buddy Fast Jimmy and I rode the Glenwild/Flying Dog/24/7 loop up in PC. Frozen, fast, fantastic. 24/7 especially when frozen is the fastest, smoothest, best-traction singletrack you’ll ever experience in Northern Utah. With the change in weather coming, you just might (if the snow holds off long enough) have one last chance to ride it this year- tonight, Wednesday 11/26/08. Do it. (But only at night- it’d be a mud-bath by day…)

Chuck Rudy OQ1 So last Saturday I was out poking around the Oquirrhs with Professor Chuck and Rudy Drobnick, taking some measurements on a new hybrid oak clone Rudy found (circled yellow in photo to right of Rudy), and trying to relocate another he found 50 years ago but since “lost.” And while we were scanning hillsides, Rudy loaned me his binoculars (circled red in photo) for a moment. The binoculars were these (below left), the Zeiss 10x40, and within 10 seconds of using them I was struck with a level of object-lust I haven’t experienced since the 80’s, when I was really into motorcycles.

Zeiss1040b I’ve had several sets of half-decent binoculars over the years, but none of them were anything like this. The view through these was amazing: crisp, clear and steady. It was like the way binoculars work in James Bond movies, where 007 picks up a pair and watches the bad guy program the detonator codes from a mile away. Or like the way I imagine foveal vision works in birds. Foveal vision in birds is one of those ultra-cool things in the natural world that I need to get around to doing a post about sometime. Oh hell, let’s just do it now-

All About Foveae

The fovea is a teeny central patch about a millimeter across in the center of the retina of your eye. In the fovea, rods and cones are packed way more densely together than over the rest of the retina. (This close-packing is achieved in part by making the rods & cones smaller.)

Human Foveal The increased density of receptors allows for the formation of a sharper image. It’s always the focus of our vision, which is the reason why things are always clearest when we center our field of vision on them.

An Experiment

Tangent: Here’s a simple experiment to convince yourself that human eyes have foveas. It’s both easy and a great time-killer at work, so try it.

OK, wait until nightfall, break into a morgue, then- haha! Just kidding. No, put 2 pens, each with legible brand names on them- like “Sharpie”- on a table, 1.5” apart. Position your eyes 18” above the table and pens.

Profile Step 1 With your eyes focused on one of the pens, you’ll still be able to clearly read the brand name on the other pen.

Down Step 1 Now position the pens 6” apart. Position your eyes 18” above the table…

Profile Step 2 …and with your eyes focused on the first pen, try to read the brand name on the 2nd. You can’t do it.

Down Step 2 Now you may think, well hey that’s just because I’m not looking at it. But you are looking at it. You can see how long it is, how wide it is, and how far it is from the 1st pen; you just can’t read the writing on it, and that’s because although the pen is in your field (specifically in your binocular field) of vision, it is not in your foveal field of vision. Cool, huh?

Disclaimer: OK, so this isn’t like a “real” experiment I found in a book or on Wikipedia or anything. It’s just something lame thing I cooked up screwing around at work while on a conference call. So if it doesn’t work for you then hey go buy a real science book or something.

3 Cool Things About Foveae

So here are 3 really cool things about foveae.

Tangent: Ever notice how I always enumerate when I’m making a point or explaining something? I do that in real life, too, and in fact sometimes my coworkers make fun of me for it. I wonder why that is… (I can think of 3 possible reasons…)

First, of all the mammals, only primates have them. And specifically only Simian primates, which means just monkeys and apes. So just like we have better color vision than pretty much all other mammals (“we” in this case being us and our ape/monkey cousins) we also have the only foveal vision among the mammals.

Second, just as birds blow us away in color vision, they similarly trounce us in foveal vision. Birds (and many reptiles) do have foveae, and the foveae of birds are packed way more densely with cones and rods than are human foveae, Our foveae have about 200,000 receptors per square millimeter. A hawk’s foveae have around 1,500,000 receptors per square millimeter.

Bird Vision Field And third, our entire field of foveal vision is within our binocular field of vision. But lots of birds’ eyes have a second fovea, positioned to provide foveal vision outside of the forward-facing binocular field. This is monocular foveal vision and it greatly helps birds such as hawks and eagles identify motion and prey in their peripheral field of vision as well as judge speed and distance- both their own and that of things they’re watching/chasing.

Rudy doesn’t strike one as a man of expensive tastes. He’s the last guy you’d think of to wear a Rolex, drive a Lexus or even drink Starbucks. But these binoculars run $900. Wow, that’s a lot of money. But the view was sooo good… What to do…. what to do… I will be stewing on this one for a while…

PS: I’ll probably be offline for most/all of the long weekend. Awesome Wife, the Trifecta and I are headed down South. But as always, I should come back with some good material. Have a great Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How Night-Riding Is Like Hotel Sex

Quick Note About Another Post: I’m the guest-poster today over at Fat Cyclist. If you’re not familiar with Fat Cyclist, you really ought to check it out. Even if you’re not a cyclist, the writing and humor alone make it a great, regular read. In addition, Fatty’s blog is one of the very few out there that effectively bridges discussion between a fun, recreation-related topic and a real tough personal issue on the personal and family front, namely cancer. I actually work with Fatty. He’s at least, if not more, likeable and good-hearted in person as he comes across in his blog. And the thing is, he’s like not even fat.

Quick Note About THIS Post: Despite the somewhat risqué theme of this post, there’s really nothing in this one that should cause prudish concern. I usually avoid adult topics in the blog, but this analogy is so good I just had to make an exception. (And besides, only about 5 people read this blog anyway, and I think they’re all over 30… Except maybe Kristin. Hey Kristin: why don’t you skip this one and go read the post about Moss instead?)

So many of the things I blog about here, from hybrid oaks to moose to birds, I see on a mountain bike. And several times this year I’ve made references to mountain biking at night- which I will hereafter refer to as “night-riding”- and even hinted at doing a post about it from time to time. So now I’m doing it.

Night Trail2 Night-riding is one of those things non-mountain bikers totally do not get. And what’s more, the vast majority of mountain bikers don’t seem to get it either. They may have tried a night-ride or two, or even participated in a 24-hour team event, but almost always seem to have quickly retreated to the light of day. Of the mountain bikers I know, fewer than 5% (way fewer, like maybe 1%) night-ride regularly. And this just amazes me, because night-riding is so utterly, unbelievably awesome.

But when I try to explain to other mountain bikers why night-riding is so great, I get blank, you-seem-weird looks in return. They just can’t seem to get mentally past the whole dark-and-cold thing. So for a while, I’ve desperately sought an analogy that could somehow impart the complete and utter coolness of night-riding. And finally I think I’ve found it: Night-Riding is like Hotel Sex.

Hotel Sex

So here’s the deal: if you have, or have had, small children, you will totally and immediately get this analogy, and if you don’t, or haven’t, had small children, you will totally not get it.

HolidayInnCrownePlazaBangkokHotelRoom When you grow up and get married and have a baby or two, there comes a time when you and your spouse finally get away from the kid(s) for a night or a weekend. It may be for weekend away, or to go a wedding, or a reunion, and it may be anywhere from 6 months to a few years after the birth of your most recent child. And you leave your kid(s) with your family or friends or whatever, and you spend the night- just you and your spouse- in a hotel. And when that happens, and while at the hotel you and your spouse do you-know-what, even though it’s pretty much just like doing you-know-what back home, it’s like somehow totally, way different, better, newer and somehow feels a bit naughty. That’s Hotel Sex, and that feeling, that experience, is exactly the feeling and experience of night-riding: the same, but different. Somehow familiar, new and naughty all at the same time, like you’re somehow getting away with something.

bike-night When my friends and I first began night-riding, during the winter of 1995/96, our lights were so lame and weak that we night-rode at a snail’s pace, riding as much by “trail-braille” as by vision. When we were fortunate enough to ride during a full moon, we killed the lights and rode by moonlight, which was easier and less disorienting. But over the years, as light technology and our willingness to invest in serious lights) has improved, we’ve amped it up to the point where we now night-ride at daytime speeds, and the thrill of descending a fast singletrack at 25+ mph in the dark is a fantastic high.

Tangent: My friend Rainbow-Spirit-Paul long ago pointed out the “arms-race” aspect of bike lights. When we began night-riding, we all had crappy lights and poked along slowly and happily. Then in 1996 or 1997, our friend Louis bought a “real” light- a 10 watt headlamp. Suddenly Louis was the alpha-male of our pack; every descent he dropped us like a bus full of old ladies on the way to Wendover. After a year or so, one by one, our masculinity was finally irked enough to start buying “real” lights, and the process has continued since. The most dramatic “escalation” of this race since was the 2004-2006 period, where most of us upgraded to HID lighting systems.

A couple of posts ago I mused over what it must be like to see the world through the eyes of a bird or other creature (or tetrachromatic woman.) In a way, night-riding is that experience; it’s the exact same world/trail, but the view is totally different. Colors are gone, dimensions are altered (see tangent below) and perspective is funneled to a cone running 40-50 feet ahead. The world around sinks back from the lighted cone-of-reality into an all-enveloping cocoon of inky darkness, which is at first un-nerving, but later becomes strangely soothing. Riding fast at night is to constantly and continuously emerge from darkness into light, like somehow being born again and again.

nightrider1 Tangent: One of the most initially disturbing aspects of riding fast at night is the strange perception of dimensions, and apparent “flatness” of the view ahead. This is at least partially mitigated by the use of 2 lights- a bright, flood-type light mounted on the handlebars, and a more focused “spot”-type light mounted on the helmet. The combination of the 2 helps soften the harshness of the light/shadow boundaries in the view-field ahead, and partially restore a 3-dimensional perspective to the rider.

A head-mounted light is also exceedingly helpful in twisty switchbacks, where a bar-mounted light can’t “look ahead”…

Night Trail3 On our Fall/Winter Gooseberry Mesa trips, the guys and I have started doing a night ride, after a short late-afternoon siesta, to make better use of the long dark evenings. This past trip Clean-Colin and I extended the night-ride on our own, along the Hurricane Rim trail. As we descended into China Wash we crossed the Mojave zone transition boundary, and the familiar smell of Creosote filled the dark around us. After we climbed the other side of the draw we realized we were ahead of our pick-up schedule and stopped, killed the lights, ate cookies and watched meteors for about 20 minutes (it was during the Leonid shower) before continuing.

Ultimately the most wonderful thing about night-riding is that it gives you back time. When you get down to it, the only thing we’re really given in life is time, and if your preferred way of spending time is out-of-doors, then the limited daylight of the winter months represents a huge loss of time and, therefore, loss of life. Night-riding gets you outside, doing something wonderful, in the dark. It recovers time, and in the end, recovered time = recovered life. If you want to extend your life, get a light, set your alarm, and get out.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The One Really Green Thing

Sometimes, right before bed, I find all of a sudden that I’m really thirsty. Somehow over the last couple of hours I suddenly realize that I haven’t drunk anything in a while. But when I drink water, it doesn’t seem to slake my thirst, and no matter how much I drink, I still feel thirsty until I drink something sweet, like orange juice or a glass of Gatorade.

That’s sort of the same feeling I get this time of year when I go a few days without seeing something green. Not dark, almost black PLT-green, not dull olive green of Mountain Mahogany, and not the fading drab remnants of the few yet-to-shed leafy trees of the valley. I miss real, green. Bright, living, photosynthesizing green, and no matter how many pretty mountains or hills I look at, I’m still left thirsty for color.

The Mossy Wall

IMG_7435 There’s one spot of color in the foothills that I visit several times a Fall/Winter. It’s 4.2 miles from my house by mtn bike, and I call it- imaginative fellow that I am- The Mossy Wall.

Since starting this blog, I must’ve blogged about, or at least mentioned, more than 100 different plants, both here in Utah, and in my travels further afield. And what all of them have had in common, the pines, the PLTs, the Redwoods, the Oaks and Maples and Bitterbrush and Creosote and Cycads, and Gingko and Mormon Tea and all the rest, is this: they are all Tracheophytes, or vascular plants.

IMG_7422 The evolution of a vascular system, of xylem and phloem, was probably the 3rd-most significant evolutionary step in the history of plants (the 1st being chlorophyll, the 2nd being the symbiotic evolution of chloroplasts and cyanobacteria.) It made trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and fruits all possible. But to watch through world through only vascular plants is to ignore the other 3 great divisions of land plants: the liverworts, hornworts and mosses. Of these, the mosses are the most common and numerous, with an estimated 20,000 species, making them second only to angiosperms in diversity.

Tangent: In a lot of “plant family tree” charts, liverworts, hornworts and mosses are lumped together, apart from the Tracheophytes. This isn’t quite accurate, as there’s not really any evidence that the 3 comprise a monophyletic group, or are more closely related to each other than any one of the 3 is related to the Tracheophytes.

Mosses, or Bryophytes, are divided into 6 classes. One of those classes, Sphagnipsoda, includes just 2 genera, one of which is Sphagnum, or Peat Moss. The Mossy Wall moss is peat moss. There are a couple hundred species of peat moss worldwide, and unless you’re a bryologist, well… forget about IDing the species. Mosses are notoriously hard to ID, and many can’t even be identified by a bryologist (yes, there are people who apparently make a living study mosses. How do I get that job?) using a hand lens! So I’ll settle for the genus.

IMG_7421 Mosses have no xylem, no phloem, and no roots. They attach to rock, soil or other surfaces via gripping structures called rhizoids, which look like little roots, but don’t do any of the water or nutrient transport things that real roots do. They just grab and hold on, that’s it. Mosses don’t store water; they just live off of whatever water’s around at the time- rain, dew or snowmelt.

IMG_7418 The peat moss of the mossy wall is a wonderful lush luxuriant green year-round. It lies on a North-facing wall in a canyon bottom at 5,700 feet. The canyon-bed is ride-able (though technical) and as you pedal or hike your way up, you wind around one gray/brown leafless bend after another, until- BAM- you get hit with a blast of color, a mat of green that seems so weirdly, wonderfully out of season, and your eyes finally find the drink they’ve been thirsting for.

IMG_7426 I can never resist removing a glove and laying a hand on the soft carpet- the only natural, soft thing in the dead of winter for miles around. The touch and the sight warm my heart against the color-less cold of a Wasatch winter.

Dry Creek Map Caption Tangent- Location: The Mossy Wall is located in the bottom of Dry Creek Canyon, but ½ mile above where the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (BST) turns way to the West and climbs out of the canyon bottom. Though not an official trail, it gets ridden and hiked for close to a mile up pretty regularly. This “trail” as it were, became somewhat better known after the 2003 rescue of Elizabeth Smart as it leads to the primary initial campsite of her abductors. Many locals know it as the “Elizabeth Smart Trail.”

I mentioned this route in a previous post, when describing the location of my favorite Bigtooth Maple Grove, which lies 1.5 miles up-canyon from the BST junction. Alas, when I last attempted the uppermost ½ mile in the Fall of 2007, I found it hopelessly overgrown for a mountain bike.

The First Cool Thing About Moss

So why does moss stay green all winter long when everything else around is brown? The answer is their simplified architecture. Most flowering plants can only perform photosynthesis with a net gain in energy at temperatures down to around 50F. Much below 50F, and the demands of producing and moving the sugars around inside burn more energy than is produced by photosynthesis, and this is the reason why most flowering plants stay dormant in the winter.

Tangent: There are a number of early-blooming wildflowers, such as Glacier Lilies, that grow and bloom even before the snowmelt, but these plants are using stored energy reserves from the previous year. Even conifers, such as PLTs, don’t photosynthesize during most of the winter, though their evergreen needles allow them to do so opportunistically during warm spells.

IMG_7425 But without a complex vascular system to support and modulate, mosses can photosynthesize with a net energy gain at temperatures down to just above freezing, and that’s why it maintains its lush green color throughout the winter.

The Second Cool Thing About Moss

But the really weird thing about Moss is its genetics and reproductive strategy, which is way, way different from that of tracheophytes or anything else we’ve looked at.

Mosses exhibit a characteristic called Haploid Dominance, which means that in its “dominant” state, or the way we most often encounter it, it is haploid, having just 1 set of chromosomes. But it reproduces via alternating haploid and fully diploid generations, meaning that a haploid parent produces a diploid offspring, which in turn produces haploid offspring and so on and so on… So in other words, when you look at moss, here’s what’s going on:

The peat moss on the Mossy Wall is haploid, meaning that each cell contains only 1 set of chromosomes, which in Sphagnum is 19 chromosomes. The haploid generation is called the Gametophyte generation, and it is this generation that performs photosynthesis. Mosses in the haploid state can either be male, female, or both. The male organs, called antheridia, occur on different stems (yes moss has zillions of little stems) from the female organs, which are called archegonia.

Moss Repro1 Mosses never evolved pollen; they reproduce via sperm and eggs. Each sperm or egg cell is also haploid, and therefore each one contains all 19 chromosomes of the moss producing it. Pollen was another wonderful evolutionary step in tracheophytes; it enabled the dispersal of genetic material for many miles from the parent. But moss-sperm travel the old-fashioned way: they swim (like animal sperm) and this means that mosses can only mate with very close/adjacent mosses and they can only do so when wet.

Moss Repro2 When egg and sperm do successfully meet up they unite to create a single, fully diploid (38 chromosomes), cell which grows into a fully diploid moss called a Sporophyte. A sporophyte doesn’t expand or photosynthesize, and in fact it lives its whole life attached parasitically to its “mother”. Sporophytes do one thing, which is to create (via meiosis) and disperse haploid spores. The spores are borne at the end of tall (relative to moss that is) stalks and carried away by the wind. Ideally some of the spores land in suitable locations for moss growth and then develop into an new, haploid, gametophyte generation. Mosses also reproduce clonally, or vegetatively, like so many other plants, and such reproduction represents simply a continuation of the haploid gametophyte.

IMG_7417 Mosses are way more common in wetter climes. I used to see them all over the place in New England and of course they’re everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. But this relative rarity of extensive mossy areas here in the Intermountain West somehow makes them more amazing and wonderful- isolated patches of soft, living, breathing green in the midst of the cold, dead desert winter. Over the years I’ve come to think of the Mossy Wall as an old friend that helps to focus and encourage me, reminding me of the living year to come.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mountain Biking, Moonlight, Color Vision & Tetrachromatic Women

OK, so this post covers a lot of ground and gets a bit technical, but it all connects and it’s got a great ending, so stick with it.

Watcher on JEMThe weekend was a blast. The point of the weekend was of course mountain biking, so let’s talk about that first. The pic of me here is on JEM trail, a fast desert singletrack on the bench below Gooseberry Mesa. It was taken right around Sunset Saturday; we completed the ride as a night ride, using lights, which-like pretty much all night-rides- was fantabulous.

During the day we rode on Little Creek and Gooseberry Mesas. If you’ve never ridden there, these videos will give you a quick flavor (all on YouTube, clink on the links):

Action Videos!

Video 1: Me climbing a ramp. The slickrock provides excellent traction, allowing you to ride up inclines you couldn’t clean on a dirt trail.

Video 2: Colin doing a nice wheelie-lift. Here’s a nice little video of ”Clean Colin” cleaning a tricky section on Gooseberry called, “Wheelie World”.

Video 3: Here’s Organic-Chemistry-Rick (guy who never reads my blog) cleaning a section called The Staircase.

Human Candy Cane The trip was a success, both mechanical and injury-free for all 4 of us, and I returned home without so much as even a sunburn. (Unlike my last trip back in April, where I forgot sunscreen and wound up looking like The Human Candy Cane- pic right. And yes, that is a Thomas the Tank Engine Towel I’m wearing, immediately following a sunshower. When you have small children, their past obsessions inevitably make their way into your camping gear-box.)

But although mountain biking is the primary goal of a trip to Hurricane, there’s so much to love about the place I’d have had a great time even if I’d never swung a leg over the bike. First is the botany, which I blogged about several times back in the spring. IMG_7359 Our rides took us through everything from Creosote in China Wash to the relic Ponderosas on Little Creek, and seeing so many of these trees and shrubs for the first time in more than 6 months felt a little like a reunion with old friends. Second was the landscape; the topography of this part of Utah is fantastic (pic left = Rainbow-Sprit Paul riding on Little Creek, with relic Ponderosas in near background and Zion NP in distant background), and something I hope to go on about in a future post. But what I’m going to talk about in this post is color.

Color in Moonlight

I have a favorite campsite on Little Creek Mountain It sits off a side road/track at about 5,600 feet on the rim of a side canyon, set in an open woodland of Singleleaf Pinon and Utah Juniper. Directly across from the campsite, to the West is the slickrock area with the Relic Ponderosas, and in the mornings I can sit up in my sleeping bag and watch the dawn sun light up the rock and scattered trees.

Tangent: I almost never camp in a tent. I always prefer to sleep under the stars. If rain is an issue, I use this. If bugs are the problem, I use this. And if wind is the problem, I know of windproof overhangs at several of the campsites I frequent.

About 3:00 in the morning Saturday morning I briefly woke and sat up to look around. It was the night after the full moon, and the moonlight was incredibly, almost annoyingly bright. People have different benchmarks for a “really bright” moon. Some will say it’s bright if you can hike or even ski without a flashlight. Some will say it’s bright if you can read by the moonlight. For me, a “really bright” moon means this: you can see color. And when I sat up in my bag, the first thing I noticed was the bag itself, bright red in the moonlight.

Camper Moonlight Color Most of us who know anything about how the eye works know that we usually can’t see colors at night because there are 2 types of light-receptive cells on the retinas of our eyes: cones and rods. Cones allow us to see in color, but require lots of light. Rods require less light, and allow us to see when it’s dim or dark out, but they don’t pick up color. Only a really bright moon will bring out a bright color, like red, at night.

rodcone When we compare our color vision to that of other animals, people tend to sound a little proud. Many of us have heard that dogs, for example, are “colorblind”, as are lots and lots of other animals, to greater or lesser degree. But comparing ourselves to other mammals is really giving ourselves a pretty big handicap, because here’s the stark truth: Compared to most other animals, and especially reptiles and birds, the color vision of mammals sucks.

Color Vision in Humans - Lame

Humans have 3 types of cone cells, commonly referred to as “Red”, “Green” and “Blue”, each of which is optimized to receive light of a specific wavelength. The strength of the relative signals coming from each type of cone cells is combined by the brain to produce the color images that we see.

Human Eye Cones Side note: This is a misnomer. The “Red” cones in our eyes are actually optimized to receive greenish-yellow light, and the other 2 types are optimized for higher frequencies. So it’s more accurate to designate the 3 types of cone cells as L (for Long wavelengths), M (for Medium wavelengths) and S (for Short wavelengths.) But the principle is the same, so I’ll stick with “Red”, “Green” and “Blue” for simplicity.

Most mammals have only 1 or 2 types of cone cells, and are therefore monochromats or dichromats, as opposed to humans and Old World primates, which are trichromats.

Color Vision in Birds - Rocks

But virtually all reptiles and birds are either tri- or tetrachromats, and some birds, such as the pigeon, and possibly the Black-Capped Chickadee, are even pentachromatic, with 5 different types of cone cells. In other words, reptiles and birds are seeing colors we can’t see, or maybe even imagine.

Bird Eye Cones But the color vision of birds doesn’t just beat ours by virtue of more cone cell types; the eyes of birds are engineered to a level completely beyond ours through the production and utilization of specialized oil droplets.

The retinas of birds have a tiny oil droplets sitting atop of many/most of the cone cells, and these oil droplets are colored, typically some shade of red, orange or yellow. The colored droplets effectively shift the frequency of light reaching the underlying cone cells, and in working in tandem with those cells, act to create effective cone receptors optimized for yet additional frequencies.

Bird Eye Cones Droplets So while a pigeon may have but 5 actual cone cell types, it may have say, 3 more cone-droplet pair-types, for a total of 8 effective types of receptors, each tuned for a different optimal frequency. In other words, many birds may well be seeing a world with 2 or 3 times as many colors as the world we see.

Tangent: Guess what the coloring “agents” are in the little oil droplets? Carotenoids. That’s right, the same type of pigment-chemicals we looked at when talking about how leaves changed color are at work in the eyeballs of birds. Scientists have identified at least 5 distinct carotenoids at work in the eyes of birds (though how many are in a specific bird, such as a pigeon, I don’t know.)

velociraptor So why is mammal vision so sucky? The prevailing theory is focused on our nocturnal origins. A couple of hundred million years ago, when mammals first started showing up, the world was dominated by reptiles (dinosaurs.) For more than a hundred million years, the mammals that lived and thrived were mainly small, shrew1rat or shrew-sized critters, and these critters- like rats and shrews today- made their living largely by staying out of the way of big predators, and that probably meant being nocturnal. Presumably we mammals lost our reptilian-ancestral color vision during this long dark night of our evolution.

After the extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals rapidly evolved into all sorts of biological niches formerly dominated by reptiles. And for some of these, diurnal, niches, color vision was an asset. fruit One example was Old World primates, who lived largely in trees, eating fruit. Finding fruit is much easier if you can distinguish colors. And so Old World primates re-evolved color vision, but using different genes and a different part of the brain for visual processing.

Tangent: You may have noticed that I keep saying “Old World Primates”. The evolution of color vision in New World Primates appears to be a separate, and utterly fantastic story, but unfortunately way out of the scope of this post. I recommend Richard Dawkins’ “The Ancestor’s Tale” for a wonderful telling of the tale.

The Part About Women

So wonderful as seeing in color is, we really see just a faint echo of the rainbows seen by birds. But I’ve saved the best part of the story for last, and that part is about women.

Pretty much everybody knows that not all people see the colors the same way because we all probably know someone who is “colorblind”. “Colorblind” is actually a really broad, vague and overused term. Some people really are “blind” to color- they don’t see any colors. But most people whom we call “colorblind” are dichromatic, lacking the ability to synthesize either the critical protein for “Red” cone cells, a condition called Pronatopia, or the critical protein for “Green” cone cells, a condition called Deuteranopia. And the overwhelming majority of these dichromatic humans are males.

I mentioned a moment ago that when Old World primates re-evolved color vision, they used different genes to do so. And 2 of those critical genes- that for the “Red”-cone-protein and that for the Green-cone-protein- lie on the “X” chromosome, one of the 2 mammalian sex-determining chromosomes. Males have 1 “X” and 1 “Y” chromosome; females have 2 “X”s and no “Y”s. If there’s a defect or mutation in the critical “Red” or “Green” cone-making protein in a man’s X chromosome, he’ll be a dichromat. But if that same defect is present on a woman’s “X” chromosome, her other “X” has a copy that will provide the correct instructions. Only if the cone-making gene on both of her X chromosomes is messed up- a very unlikely scenario- will the woman be “colorblind”, and that’s why colorblindness is so much rarer in women.

But here’s where things get weird. It turns out that there are 2 different proteins which can be synthesized to make “Red” cones work. Some “X” chromosomes carry a gene that makes the first protein, and some carry a gene that makes the second protein. And while both of these proteins work, it appears that they don’t work exactly the same, meaning that some colors may appear slightly different to the possessor of one protein/”Red” cone cell vs. the other. hzygous femaleAnd where it gets really weird is that some women carry both genes, 1 on each of their 2 “X” chromosomes, and that some portion of these women have 2 types of “Red” cone cells- one with each protein- giving them 4 cone cell types total, making them tetrachromatic. And these women may see colors we don’t.

IMG_5837 Tangent: This concept is way super-hard to get one’s head around, because of course you can’t visualize a color you’ve never seen. I think about it like this: suppose you’d never seen anything red in your whole life, and then one day you were walking and came across a big red flower, or a woman walked past in a bright red dress. And of course for millions of dichromatic men, this is of course exactly what would happen if they could somehow take a pill or protein supplement that suddenly made their “Red” cone cells functional…

gilligan_wideweb__430x313Nested Tangent: The closest I came to this experience was watching Gilligan’s Island reruns on a black & white TV as a kid in the 1970’s. Back then I always assumed Gilligan’s shirt was green. When I finally came across an episode a decade or so later on a color TV, I was blown away to learn his shirt was red.

gilligan colorThis isn’t just conjecture; there’s some fairly significant research to support this. Think about it: some proportion of human women are seeing more colors than you are. (unless you’re one of those lucky women.)

fem eye The obvious question is what portion of women are tetrachromatic, to which the answer is we just don’t know. In my own research I’ve found estimates that anywhere between 2% to possibly as many as 50% of women may carry both protein-making genes, but even if a women carries both genes, it doesn’t mean they’ll both be expressed, and she may well make only one or the other.

Tangent: There’s decent evidence to support this. In one study, gene analysis was done on the X chromosomes of a bunch of women that identified a portion as being genetically tetrachromatic. Then color-perception tests were run on both the genetically tetrachromatic and the genetically trichromatic women.

Nested Tangent: What was the test? (This is a reasonable question, since virtually all "standard" color tests are designed by trichromats to test trichromatic vision.) The women looked at a spectrum of light- basically an artificial rainbow- and were asked to count the number of distinct color bands they saw. Tetrachromats see more bands than trichromats, who in turn see more bands than dichromats…

Some portion of the genetically tetrachromatic women saw significantly more color bands than the trichromatic women, while the rest tested like trichromats. So presumably the genetic tetrachromats who saw decidedly more color bands were phenotypically tetrachromatic, meaning both protein-making genes were expressed, while the others were expressing just one gene or the other, making them phenotypically trichromatic.

woman street1 So let’s be conservative and say that 1 out of maybe every 50 women is phenotypically (and therefore functionally) tetrachromatic. Think about that the next time you walk down the street. Look at the women passing by. Out of every 50, 1 of them is seeing a world of color you’re not, and from where she’s seeing things, you might as well be watching the world through a black & white TV set.