Monday, November 29, 2010

Berry-Go-Round #34

Welcome to Berry-Go-Round #34. Here in Northern Utah we’ve just wrapped up an absolutely frigid Thanksgiving weekend. Wind, ice, crusty snow- who’s thinking about plants? Despite the Arctic Blast, the Watcher Family had an enjoyable and adventurous holiday (which I’ll post about later this week) but in truth my main thoughts these last few days were- as they generally are this time of year- oriented around staying warm, eating and drinking. If these same things are on your mind right about now, then this month’s edition has some great posts for you.

Plants You Wear

When the cold sets in, one of the first things I do is scramble around the closet, looking for where I hid all the warm winter clothing. This inevitably leads to the realization that I Have Too Many Damn T-Shirts, cotton1 because I am- as Awesome Wife is quick to point out-unable to throw any T-shirt away, ever.* Given how much cotton there is clogging up my closet, I was a bit chagrinned that I knew so little about where it comes from. Thankfully, JSK over at Anybody Seen My Focus?** has cured my ignorance, with a helpful 2-part series on cotton-harvesting,

*“But if I throw this one away, how will anyone ever know I ran the Boulder Bolder in 1992?...”

**Best Name for a Blog Ever. Seriously, I totally should have come up with that name.

Plants You Eat

Bog Cranberry  (Vaccinium oxycoccos) Thanksgiving is probably the only time I regularly consume cranberries (I don’t know why- they’re so good) and though in my long-ago youth I was carted out to a commercial bog as on a school field trip*, I never knew much about where they really came from in the wild. Matt, way up at Sitka Nature (Alaska) takes us along a cranberry foraging hike in the far North.

*All Boston-area school children are at one point or another taken on a cranberry bog field trip, usually somewhere on or near Cape Cod. I don’t know why this is. It’s not like cranberries are this huge part of Massachusetts history or the pillar of the Bay State economy or anything. And I don’t think any of my elementary school classmates actually grew up to be cranberry farmers. I could be wrong about that last part I guess- haven’t really kept in touch.

We did* turkey and lamb for the big feast this year, but the last few years we’ve been alternating between turkey and prime rib. Yes, Pond improvementI know red meat, tread-on-the-land, yada-yada. But it just tastes so good! Anyway, I was particularly pleased to see this submission on Promoting Wildlife in Your Cattle Pasture by Jake over at Texas Ranch Management. Jake posts about the importance of plant diversity on ranches, their role in fostering wildlife, and the resulting benefits to the rancher who’s in it for the long term. (Jake also utilizes one of my favorite blogging tools- the awesome graphic!) Good stuff.

*“did” in this instance means “went into a restaurant in Moab and ordered it...”


Plants You Drink (hic)

Speaking of good stuff, know what’s good with turkey or prime rib? Wine, that’s what. Darcy over at Of Winds and Water posts about making wine, and doing so from one of my favorite berries- Elderberries*. (I also like this post because she manages to make her mom do all the work, and get a post out of it. Nice, Darcy!)

*I’ve blogged about them here, here and here.

barley1 Not into wine? Maybe beer is more your thing, or something harder, like whiskey. Either way, you need Barley, whose fascinating 8,000 year history of cultivation is touched upon by Phil* over at A Digital Botanic Garden, as he makes his case for growing your own.

*Who is an actual, Real Life Botanist, and not just a seat-of-pants hack on the web who’s into plants…

gapfilling On a more serious note, before leaving the agri-sub-theme, Jeremy over at the Agricultural Diversity Weblog touches on some of the very real and tough challenges in “gap-filling” crop genebanks.

Blooming Things!

While it’s fun to think about how plants make possible the clothing, food and drink that get us through the winter, what I really miss this time of year is plants blooming. The really wonderful thing about a blog carnival is the chance to see what’s going on far, far away. This month the Phytophactor and Neotropical Savanna deliver.

beanflower The Phytophactor has produced a spectacular series of posts from his ongoing field work in Costa Rica, including not just lovely orchids, but flowers every bit as stunning from everything from the Coffee Family, to… wait for it… the Bean Family!

ntsmysterytree And down in Panama, Mary at A Neotropical Savanna has done one of my favorite kinds of plant posts: that mysterious tree in the back yard that turns out to have a Way Cool story. I won’t give it away, but it’ll change how you think about the Sunflower Family…

Your Opinion?

Tangent: While we’re on the topic of Central America- I welcome your input. I’m planning on attending a Spanish language school early next year in Central America, followed, ideally, by some backcountry hiking, botany and exploration. Right now I’m torn between Panama and Nicaragua. Nicaragua (toward which I’m slightly leaning) seems a bit less spoiled by development and tourism, and also is home to some fabulous volcanoes, cloud forests and lakes. Panama appears to have, if anything, even greater biodiversity, and perhaps beats(?) Nicaragua in terms of lowland tropical forest. Any opinions?

deptfordpink Before leaving wildflowers, a nice post from Keith over at Get Your Botany On about Deptford Pink. Keith’s post includes an actual 3-verse Limerick* about this lovely weed!

*I’m embarrassed to admit that for many years, the only limericks I knew were naughty ones. Even now, when someone points me to a limerick, I get a little nervous. Rest assured, Keith’s limerick is G-rated and delightful!

Plants That Make Us Think

willow1 I have a soft spot for willows; my very first post about a plant ever was about them at the very onset of spring. Now Dave over at Osage & Orange has a wonderful post about willows at end of autumn, that reminds us of something I’ve always loved about plants: sometimes we see a little of ourselves in them.

To conclude this month’s edition, I’ll point you to a wonderful stuffplantsdo3-part series over at my favorite blog, Foothill Fancies. Sally’s posts- Plants Die, Stuff Plants Do, and Do Sleeping Plants Dream?* - rejoice in the wonder, mystery and utter fantabulous-ness of plants, providing food for thoughts, dreams and hopes through the long winter ahead and planting seeds in our souls of the spring to come.

*BTW, I have a “theory” that I dream more, or rather remember more dreams, in winter. I think this is because I wake up, look outside and go back to sleep more often, and the interrupted morning sleep makes me remember more of my dreams. BTW, if you watch TV before bed, be careful what you watch. Two nights ago I learned that my freshman-year college dorm room would’ve have made a lousy anti-zombie safehouse. Dreams are weird.

That wraps it up for Berry-Go-Round #34. Thanks to all of you who submitted posts. Join us again for next month’s edition (#35), to be hosted at An Accidental Botanist. Stay warm, and think green.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Last Light Before the Night

Before I forget- don’t you forget to submit your plant post to the next edition of Berry-Go-Round, which I’ll be posting next week. So far submissions are scary-light. If things don’t pick I may have to fill it out with tangents and side notes about who knows what?

I was working on a meatier post this week, sort of a follow-on to the All About Heights post, about the evolution of ears and hearing, but it turned out to be more involved (and way, way cooler) than I anticipated, so it’ll have to wait till after the Thanksgiving holiday. So instead this week I’m going to sneak in one last quickie biking & shrubs post…

IMG_8108 Winter showed up for real this week, with a series of storms that blanketed the foothills, backed up by a bitter cold arctic air mass that’ll keep most of the state below well below freezing through thanksgiving. Knowing it was coming, I biked in the foothills every day last week. It was gray, overcast and windy*, but the trails were clean, tacky and un-crowded.

*Seriously, what is with this multi-day pre-storm winds? I’m fine with big storms, but the drama of these run-on little cold-desert hurricanes gets tedious… I feel another email to Dan Pope coming on...

I kept an eye out for more hybrid oaks, and made hike-a-bike detours up gullies and ridges I hadn’t checked out in years, hoping for another lucky green sighting before the snow covered everything, but no such luck. Everywhere I looked was gray and brown, a melancholy landscape practically crying out for snow.

Up close alongside the trail, there were the usual splotches of (ever)green, low mats of Oregon Grape now and again. But in the hills North and West of City Creek, I noticed something else tucked away down low, under the oaks and maples in the more protected, damper gullies, another evergreen shrub, but with smaller, narrower, shinier leaves than the Oregon Grape. I recognized it from higher up, and remembered it because it has probably the best common name of any plant ever: Mountain Lover.

Pmyrsinites caption It actually has a whole bunch of common names, including Stafftree, Burning-Bush, Oregon Boxwood an Oregon Boxleaf, but I don’t know how you could ever come up with something better than Mountain Lover. It’s one of those little plants that’s real easy to overlook, and I only recognized it higher up earlier in the fall as I’d been paying close attention to shrubs this past year. But I’d never noticed it so low (~5,500 ft) before, and probably wouldn’t have, hadn’t everything else around been so brown. I haven’t seen it so low in the foothills anywhere South of City Creek, but maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

Extra Detail: It’s common up above 7,000 feet, but it’s distribution in the Wasatch seems patchy. IMG_8105Some areas I see it all over, but in other similar-appearing areas it’s totally absent. It’s real common in the upper reaches of Mueller Park, alongside the trail to Rudy Flat. The foothills North and West of City Creek are really just the lower slopes of that same big hill, so I assume the plants in these photos are just low-lying outliers of that population, or maybe just remnants from when things were cooler and wetter and “mountain loving” shrubs ranged lower.

Once you recognize Mountain Lover, it’s easy to pick out. The leaf pairs alternate in direction along the stalks, the axis of each perpendicular to those above and below. In springtime it blooms teeny, easy-to-overlook reddish-brown 4-petaled flowers, whose cross-like appearance seems to mimic the alternating axes of the leaf pairs.

Leaf Axes Mountain Lover, Paxistima* myrsinites, is interesting in that it isn’t closely-related to anything else around for hundreds of miles. At a real high level, it’s part of the same group of Eudicots to which oaks, peas and roses belong, but the only other member of the genus is a fairly rare, though similar-looking, species, P. canbyi, that occurs back in the Appalachians. Paxistima belongs to Celastraceae, the Bittersweet family, which we haven’t looked at previously as it’s overwhelmingly tropical, with only a few genera (mainly staff vines) represented in North America.

*Like the common name, there are several variants of he generic name, including Pachistima and Pachystima.

After poking around a bit, I finally found a close relative that I’ve come across previously- Crucifixion Thorn, Canotia holacantha, which I mentioned in passing last winter when we were checking out various spiky/thorny things down in the Sonoran Desert. That’s it- it’s only close relative is 600+ miles away.

I was glad to notice one more “new” shrub in my back yard before Winter shuts down my riding for (likely) a few months. All alone, unlike anything else around it, it brightened up the gray surroundings a bit, like a last light before the long night.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Under My Nose, and Your Help

When we got out of Gooseberry, I checked my voicemail*, and was pleased to hear from Professor Chuck, saying that a friend had found a new Gambel-Turbinella oak hybrid that he wanted to show me.

*I don’t get cell service up on the mesa. Ironically, our old favorite campsite got taken out about in the last year when they put up a cell tower. But the tower is Verizon and my phone is AT&T**, which has miserable coverage in the Utah backcountry.

**Not my choice- my employer’s. Whenever my time with this company ends, my first stop will be the Verizon store.

[UNSET]Side Note/Background: Unless you’ve been following this blog a while, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. A few years ago I became interested in- and discovered an occurrence of- a type of hybrid oak that’s very rare in Northern Utah. Yeah, I know that sounds way geeky, but the ultra-super-way cool thing about these MPSG2hybrids is that they were formed thousands of years ago, when the other species of Oak- Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella, lived this far North alongside “normal” scrub oak, which are Gambel Oak, Q. gambelii. Which means that these stands are likely several thousand years old*.

*To be clear, many Gambel Oak hybrids are several thousand years old, and many Aspen clonal stands are likely much older. But with a Gambel-turbinella hybrid stand, one of the parent species hasn’t lived within 250 miles for probably 4,000 – 5,000 years.

I gave the background of these rare hybrids in this post, and since posted several more times about various hybrids I’ve discovered or visited. All hybrid oak posts in this blog are labeled- wait for it- “hybrid oak”, and nearly all of them date from the Falls of the past couple of years, because that’s when the hybrids become visible. Various Foliage[5]Because one of their parent species is evergreen (live oak), one of the characteristics of these hybrids is that their leaves stay green and on the tree later in the year than typical Gambel Oak, meaning that the best time to find them is between late October (when the Gambel Oaks lose their leaves) and early December (when the hybrids lose their leaves). The rest of the year, they’re pretty much invisible.

So the next (this past) weekend, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I met up with Professor Chuck and we drove over to one of the trailheads in the upper Avenues. You see, this hybrid wasn’t far away at all. It was right under my nose.

IMG_8051 By “under my nose” I mean that over the past 15 years I’ve passed within a couple hundred yards of this stand hundreds of times and never spotted it. In fairness most of the times I’ve passed it have been when the Gambels are leafed out, and its aspect is such that even when you pass within ~600-700 feet of it on the Shoreline trail, it’s still largely invisible. But there are actually a couple of spots from along the Bobsled trail where, if you stop and crank your head around just right*, you can spot it.

*Admittedly, the middle of the high-speed downhill Bobsled trail is about the last place where one would be incline to “stop and crank your head around…”

Side Note: I’m not giving the exact location in this post, not because the stand is in any imminent danger, but rather because I didn’t discover it. I don’t personally know the discoverer, other than his first name is “Blake” and he’s a biology student of some sort up at Weber State.

Stand Outline We walked an easy trail over to the bottom of the gully running up Perry’s Hollow, then up along the Bobsled trail for a bit before bushwhacking up the hillside through oak.

Tangent: After years and years of battling thickets of scrub oak on IMG_8009exploratory foothill hikes/scrambles, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t fight scrub oak and win; you have to have an almost Zen-like patience, persistence and a Moses-and-the-Red-Sea sort of faith that a path through will eventually reveal itself. And inevitably, it always does. But the more impatient I am in finding that path, the more scratched up, tired and pissed off I am when I ultimately make it through. You can’t find a path through scrub oak; the path has to find you.

Nested Tangent: I love posting these little nuggets of professed backcountry wisdom, because I imagine they make me come off like some kind of Wilderness Zen Master or something. In truth I am Mr. Zero-Patience and at least 9 out of 10 of my exploratory scrub oak scrambles end with me scratched-up, grumpy and cursing (and sometimes visiting my sewing-crush seamstress the next day.)

IMG_8011 Ideally one clearing will open into the next, but sometimes the oak presents a virtual wall. Fortunately the walls are often penetrated by game trails, which while not wide enough to simply march straight through (much less ride a mtn bike along) are just barely well-enough defined to allow a skinny adult to do a sort of slow-motion twisting side-step through- almost like a kind of interpretive dance. I always assumed that most of these game trails were the work of mule deer, because I see them so frequently in the foothills, but more recently I am coming Porcupine burrowto suspect that many are actually the work of porcupines*. Mule deer stott through/over a lot of thick brush, whereas a porcupine stays low to the ground. The well-defined break-through game trail that got me through the last “wall” on Sunday passed right by this burrow, with the porcupine’s tail still visible. I passed by quickly and carefully.

*Porcupines have my absolute favorite migration/evolution saga of any mammal I’ve posted about in this blog. I just love them. Go check it out.

IMG_8013 The Perry’s Hollow hybrid is a big one, consisting of several stands of a couple square hundred yards. The leaves, still present though yellowing in mid-November, clearly show the pointy-lobed-ness of their turbinella parentage (pic left). The leaves on one small sub-stand on the downhill side of the main stand looks extremely live-oak-ish (pic below, right), and Professor Chuck suspects that while the main stand may be an F1 hybrid, this sub-stand may be a turbinella back-cross.*

hybrid chart *I explained F1 hybrids, F2s and back-crosses in this post. Turbinella back-crosses are particularly interesting, because they hint at the holy grail of Wasatch hybrid-oak hunters: a modern-day living stand of pure Q. turbinella. Though unlikely, it’s not impossible such a stand exists this far North; planted turbinella seems to get along just fine along the Wasatch Front.

Walking in and through the hybrid stand and checking out the distinctive pointy-tipped IMG_8025leaves I marveled at something so cool and ancient having been smack in the middle of my regular stomping grounds all this time. And it got me wondering: what other hybrid stands are there close by that I’ve biked, hiked, run or driven by time and again without noticing? If I missed this one, there must be at least a dozen or so more tucked away in the foothills between Spanish Fork and Ogden.

Your Help

IMG_8016 So here’s the point- and yes there is one and I am getting to it- of this post: As best I can tell, there are at least a couple dozen regular readers of this blog who a) live along the Wasatch Front and b) bike, hike or run trails in the foothills regularly. So if you’re one of those readers, I’m asking you a favor. Over the next week or so, if you see a stand of scrub oak that still has (mostly) green leaves on it, and the lobes/tips of the leaves are at all pointy, would you drop me a line?

Hybrid leaves can take all sorts of forms, But they key thing is 1) they are oaks, 2) the leaves are still on the tree, and still mostly green, and 3) the leaves- whatever the shape- have pointy tips. There are several photos in this post and my earlier posts with the “hybrid oak” label. Here’s a comparison, using the hybrid I discovered 3 years ago in Maple Hollow.

Leaf Compare caption If you think you’ve found one, please comment or email to, removing the caps. (It would be Additionally Extra Fantabulous if you pocketed a leaf and then emailed me a photo of said leaf.) I know there are more hybrids out there. If you spot one you get a WatcherSTICKER and I write a flattering post about you*. Thanks!

*Really, this is better than it sounds. Not the sticker- the Flattering Post. It may not seem the case from this blog, but when I apply myself I can really lay it on thick. I’ve been making a living in sales for over 20 years; nobody can blow smoke up your backside like I can. Seriously, if I write a flattering post about you, you will be filled with a wonderful sense of confidence and self-worth that will last all Winter long.

Extra Detail: The Draper/Corner Canyon trail system in particular seems like a great spot. I’ve already found one on the North slope and Rudy Drobnik has found a several on the South/Utah County slope.

Yes, I know this is a total long-shot. But really, what do I have to lose?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

All About Heights

In comments to last week’s Desert Helmet-Cam Filler post, a couple of readers touched upon an aspect of the video clips that’s come up from time to time in this blog: exposure and fear of heights, or what I will refer to in this post as height intolerance.

Like most people, I’m certainly aware of exposed heights, and become uneasy if I feel I might fall. I’ve never skydived or bungee-jumped and haven’t considered myself to be any kind of “height-seeker.” But over recent years it’s become slowly apparent to me that some people- many people- are much, much more uneasy around exposed heights than I am. 3 examples stick in my mind*.

*Which I will now of course recount in painstaking detail, because- as longtime readers know- it always takes me forever to get to the point. Sometimes I wonder if this whole project isn’t just a big subconscious cover to go on and on about random stories and stuff. Which of course is the secret dream of all middle-aged men: we don’t really want power or wealth or anything. We just want an excuse to go on and on about stuff.

First Example

Rick Junction Butte captions Nearly a decade ago, OCRick and I completed a hike I’d wanted to do for several years in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. Parking at Grand View Point, we walked out along the Eastern rim toward the point until we came upon a break in the Wingate cliffs. Working our way down carefully to the gravelly slopes below, we crossed over to the base of Junction Butte, which we managed to scramble up for probably the best view either of us has ever enjoyed, after which we returned the same way.

Side Note: When you stand on Grand View Point, Junction Butte is the big, same-height mesa partially blocking the otherwise perfect view to the South. The view from its top is the best I’ve ever seen.

From Jctn Butte SW 3 29 01 The most hazardous part is getting down off Grand View Point, a non-Park-Service sanctioned route described (extremely poorly) by Michael Kelsey in one of his older guidebooks. I’ve heard anecdotally that hikers have become panicked and stranded on the descent, requiring rescue. A safer- albeit significantly more time-consuming and logistically challenging- way to ascend Junction Butte is to 4WD to a spot along the White Rim Trail near the base of the mesa, hike around to the North side and scramble up the obvious break in the Wingate cliffs.

The climb down off Grand View was a little hairy, with several spots where OCRick and I spotted each other and handed down packs with a short rope, and there was one section where a screw-up would’ve meant a 40 foot fall. We were cautious but not overly spooked, made it down in short order, and re-traced our route uneventfully on the return climb.

I was thrilled with our hike and couldn’t wait to return. A few months later a friend was visiting, a friend who is strong, athletic and has oodles of desert hiking/scrambling experience. After hearing my repeated raves about the hike, we rose before dawn one morning, and drove drown from Salt Lake to Grand View Point.

As we began the hike, we soon reached a minor exposed ramp where I chose to butt-sit/slide to minimize any balance issues. My friend stopped me. ‘Whoa,” he asked uneasily, “does it get any worse than this?” His tone was serious. He wasn’t kidding around.

I was confused. Of course it got way worse than this, because this wasn’t anything; the actual scary part was a ways ahead. He was nervous here? Why? What possible danger was there? We were just butt-shuffling down a short 30 degree ramp. I wasn’t sure what to say to assuage him, so I did what all cowardly friends do: I lied. “Oh no, not really… maybe just a bit, but it’s no big deal. I’ll coach you through it…”

10 minutes later we reached the crux move, the part with the 40-foot exposure. My friend froze.

FRIEND: “No way- I can’t do it.”

ME: “I know it looks scary, but it’s really no problem and I can go first and-“

FRIEND: “No. Absolutely not. I can’t do it. No way.”

I was stumped. This friend is one of the most agreeable, easy-going and yet adventurous and up-for-anything guys I know. The down-climb, while exposed, isn’t technical. I’m not a climber, but I’m pretty sure it was only class 4, maybe 5.1 or 5.2. Finally, bewildered and mildly exasperated, I down-climbed it solo, all the way to the base, then climbed back up, thinking to show him how not-a-big-deal it was. But he didn’t budge. He wouldn’t reason or negotiate with me. He was steadfast and determined; we weren’t going.

We climbed back up, drove to another trailhead and spent the day on another nice hike*. An hour or so later my friend apologized. I brushed it off; after all I was embarrassed to have tried to get him to do something he was obviously so uncomfortable with. As we talked, he asked, “Have you ever felt that way before? Just so absolutely terrified you couldn’t move? You just couldn’t do it?”

*Upheaval Dome, which has a fascinating and unsettled(?) geologic history.

Again, I was a bit stumped. I’m not particularly brave, but I’ve never been frightened- particularly by heights- to the point of paralysis. I didn’t want to say that of course, so I mealy-mouthed something like, “Oh sure, everybody gets spooked my different things…” or some such. The day turned out to be fun anyway, but the episode stuck with me. How could he have been so terrified by something that just really didn’t bother me (or OCRick) that much?

Second Example

A few years later, Fast Jimmy, I and another friend- let’s call him “Nurse Mike”- were doing an all day mtn bike ride in the same general area. The ride- which Fast Jimmy and I repeated last year- is right around 100 miles of mostly 4WD road. Close to the end of the loop, the road passes close by a rather high and exposed, but very wide and very flat, natural arch.

Now, for those of you who recognize where this is, and what the rider is doing in the video, you may possibly, depending on your viewpoint, be inclined to criticize. And that criticism may be based upon 1 of 2 different themes. The first is legality, and if this is the basis of your criticism, while I do not agree with you, I understand your criticism and acknowledge its validity. So go ahead and criticize if you like, and we’ll agree to disagree.

But the second possible theme of criticism is risk. You may feel- as at least one YouTube commenter has shared- that riding the arch is “stupid and dangerous”. And if that is your line of criticism, I must tell you that you are completely, flat-out wrong. The arch is at least 8 feet wide, with 5-6 of those feet providing a completely obstacle-free path. I’m pretty sure one could drive a small automobile- say a VW Bug or a Ford Focus- across the arch without incident. The margin for error is probably 3 or 4 times that of riding a bicycle along a suburban street in moderate traffic, where a single 2-foot swerve could kill you. It’s just not that dangerous.

Fast Jimmy and I walked and rode the arch several times, delighting in the scenery, MManP1exposure and uniqueness of the feature. But Nurse Mike sat down 50 feet away. Despite our assurances and encouragement, he wouldn’t even walk onto the arch, or even within 20 feet of either end of it. Nurse Mike isn’t a chicken; he’s an accomplished bike racer and backcountry skier, more skilled and confident in either sport than I am. But he absolutely would not approach the arch.

Third Example

Fast-forward to this past Spring. SkiBikeJunkie, Hunky Neighbor, KanyonKris and I were riding Gooseberry Mesa. At the point of the mesa, I rode out, did a little loop and returned. No one else did so, and SkiBikeJunkie wouldn’t even watch. The point-loop isn’t difficult or particularly hazardous. Watch the video.

With the single exception of the final wheel-lift over the last crack, I don’t think I’m ever closer than 2 ½ feet from the edge. Again, many of us routinely ride closer than this to moving cars, or to trees when we’re descending forested singletrack at 20-25 MPH.

Last weekend I rode the point-loop again. Out of our group of 10, no one else did. Why not? There was no other move which only I did, and several other (non-exposed) technical moves which others- in one case most of the others- did and yet I sat out. The wheeling, panoramic view is fantastic, the little wheel-lifts fun yet super-easy, the 360-end-of-world-falling-away-all-around-you sense is just incomparable, and honestly, it’s not scary (to me) at all. Rather it’s fun. It’s beautiful, it’s exhilarating. Why don’t other people feel the same way I do? How can different people feel so wildly differently about height exposure?

I was particularly perplexed by SkiBikeJunkie. He’s a far better skier than I am, and doesn’t strike me as particularly risk-averse or cowardly in any other aspect of his life. (In bike races together he’s made semi-risky moves I’ve tried to follow but flinched on.) Even when we drive to go skiing, he drives faster and more confidently on slippery roads than I do. I’m not braver than the guy. Why is he such a ninny* about heights?

*His word-choice, not mine.

Tangent: In fact, I am kind of a pussy about lots of things. I drive like an old lady in the snow, avoid technical mtn bike moves/jumps where I think I stand a good chance of falling, and am paranoid of backcountry skiing in open, avalanche-prone terrain. I mention this because this post may seem to be an excuse to go on about how brave I am about heights. It’s really not- I’m not brave about exposed heights- they just don’t seem to bother me as much as they do many other people, and that’s been somewhat of a head-scratcher for me for some time…

Nested Tangent: Fast Jimmy and I were recently chatting about a string of comments and disagreement over on another blog and FJ (who does not blog) said off-handedly, “.. and anyway all these bloggers have huge egos…” He quickly caught himself: “Not you of course, I mean other bloggers…” I wasn’t insulted; the point likely has merit, and got me thinking. Bloggers- myself included- probably do have bigger-than-average egos, and despite what we may claim, it’s almost inevitable that we use our blogs to promote our perspectives, peeves, current musical obsessions*, general worldview, and quite likely, the image we want to convey of ourselves.

*Avett Brothers. Clean Colin got me into them last weekend on the drive down South, and for the last few days I’ve been walking around humming “Talk on Indolence” and thinking about banjo lessons.

Fear Of Heights

And to answer that question, I guess we have to ask, why are people afraid of heights?

I know, I know, that’s the dumbest question I’ve ever asked in this blog, right? We’re afraid of heights because we don’t want to fall to our deaths- duh. But in the 3 examples I just gave, the height-fear wasn’t rational, and all 3 friends routinely do things- drive, road-bike, mtn bike through trees, cross city streets- entailing equal or greater levels of risk without flinching. Whatever is going on in SkiBikeJunkie’s head on Gooseberry Point, it is not conscious, rational analysis.

All About Balance

One of the most impressive things that nearly all of us- barring injury, infirmity or disability- do pretty much all the time is stand upright and walk around*. It’s not easy to figure out how, and human engineers haven’t come close to creating any kind of robot that can mimic human bipedal stability and gait. Our balance and posture challenges are more significant that those faced by the majority of terrestrial (quadrupedal) animals, and we handle them with a sophisticated and well-developed sense of balance, consisting of 3 primary components.

*I touched on this topic briefly in the running post I did last winter.

The first and most obvious is vision. Seeing what’s around us helps us to avoid falling down. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

vestibular system The second, which you’re probably also aware of, is our vestibular sense, what we usually call “sense of balance” provided by the fluid-filled canals in your inner ear* (diagram right, not mine). The third is our somatosensory sense, which consists of two subsystems: haptic and proprioceptive.

*BTW, before I forget. One of the things I don’t know, and mean to research one of these days, is how birds maintain balance. Birds have totally different ears than we do, and I don’t know what- if any- role the ears of birds play in their obviously stupendous sense of balance.

Side Note: All of these words are way loaded. The most frustrating part of researching this post was how different sources use these different terms. In many cases, “proprioceptive” is used in the same way I’m using “somatosensory”, and in other sources all somatosensory/ haptic/ proprioceptive components are all lumped together under vestibular. Then there’s the “kinesthetic” sense, which sometimes is meant as the same thing as “proprioceptive”, but sometimes not…

Haptic sense is the sense of external pressures. The pressure of the ground on your feet, the chair on your butt or your hand on a handrail all provide inputs that assist in you balance. To convince yourself of the role of the haptic sense in balance, try touching a handrail when you’re on an exposed balcony or stairwell looking down. Not grabbing the handrail, but just touching it, with even 1 finger. You’ll instantly feel a bit more stable. Touching a single finger to a stable surface can reduce postural sway- which we’ll get to in a moment- by up to 50%.

Your proprioceptive sense is your sense of where the various parts of your body are in relation to one another. It’s the reason you can close your eyes and tough your finger to your nose. You can’t see your nose, but you know where it is, right? Your proprioceptive sense allows to you eat a sandwich, rub your beard or pick your nose* while reading this post, and it’s how come you can drive a car without constantly looking to see where your hands and feet are in relation to the steering wheel, stick shift and pedals.

*Stop it. Get a tissue and then come back.

Infants don’t have much of a proprioceptive sense before about 7 – 9 months, and it’s one of the reasons they generally can’t walk before this age*. 1567201 It’s also why they often miss their mouths when first trying to learn to feed themselves baby food with a spoon. Your proprioceptive sense is impaired by alcohol, which is why the finger-to-nose test is a standard component of police-administered field-sobriety checks for driving under the influence (pic left, not mine and not me). Most healthy, unimpaired adults should be able to land the tip of their index finger within 2 cm of the tip of their nose.

*Interestingly, infants don’t really display much fear of heights before this age, either.

Side Note: Touching your nose with your eyes closed is actually a pretty easy proprioceptive exercise. In researching* this post I goofed around and tried several others. Here’s a trickier one: Extend both arms, with your index finger on each hand pointed outward.

HomePE1 Now, looking straight ahead and with out using a mirror**, raise both arms and bring them together over your head so that the points of your two index fingers touch.

HomePE2 Tricky, isn’t it? I usually miss by ~1-2cm.

HomePE3 *Yes that’s right, I do research for this project. Like my own highly technical real field research, right here in the Watcher Home Research Lab. Yeah, I spent about 15 minutes trying to touch various body parts with my eyes closed. This one’s even harder BTW if you try using your pinkies instead of your index fingers.

**Or your reflection in your office window, you big cheater.

All three of these systems work together in a zillion really cool ways we take for granted. Here’s one you can check out right now: Pick up a paper with some writing on it. Now nod your head up and down vigorously, rapidly and repeatedly while reading it. HomeCE1 No problem, right? Now keep your head still and bob the paper up and down with your hand while trying to read it.

HomeCE2 Way, way harder. In the second task you’re trying to consciously move your eyes to follow a target*; in the first task your vestibular and somatosensory senses were automatically and subconsciously keeping your eyes on track.

*The second task would probably be a bit easier if we had a higher flicker rate, which I explained in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything. Drink up!

This is what’s going on as you stand, walk, run or ride a bike. Your visual, vestibular and somatosensory systems are working together seamlessly and elegantly to keep balanced, upright and looking ahead. And it all works great, until we come to a cliff.

Let’s return to the visual sense. As you walk, run or bike- or even stand still- your head moves. While walking along a steady surface, or even while standing around, your body almost constantly moves in what’s called postural sway. While walking straight along a sidewalk your postural sway is minimal, maybe 2 cm side-to-side. Of course you don’t feel like you’re swaying because your vestibular and somatosensory senses are working together in your brain to align with the gently-swaying world-view coming from your eyes. In fact, your brain expects to see than swaying motion, not just from stuff you’re looking at straight ahead, but from stuff all around your peripheral field of vision, including the sidewalk/ground stretching out in front of you.

To detect motion, an image needs to move a distance of about 1/3 of one degree (20 minutes) across your retina. At modest distances, several feet ahead of you, this is no problem. 2 cm of postural sway easily equates to >1/3 of a degree and the whole system works fine.

OG1 But at distance of greater than 10 ft/3m or so, 2 cm is no longer enough to achieve 1/3 of a degree of visual arc, and so subconsciously, postural/head-sway increases ever so slightly.

As distance increases, subconscious head-sway increases. At distances of 50-65 feet (15-20m), 10 cm of head-sway is required to produce 20 minutes of retinal visual arc. 10 cm of head/postural sway is generally in excess of the body’s ability to stand still upright. So when you walk up to the edge of a 50 foot cliff, and the ground “in front of” you is now 50 feet away, your brain’s natural tendency is to make you sway more in excess of what your combined balance system is capable of handling, and you feel unbalanced and experience immediate fear of falling. In effect, your visual inputs are in conflict with your vestibular and somatosensory inputs, leading to the imbalance, vertigo and fear associated with heights.

OG2 Side Note: Your brain expects less postural sway when sitting or lying down, and that’s why it feels better to sit, rather than stand on the edge of a cliff.

But as we’ve already seen, different folks react to heights differently. What’s going on with height-tolerant individuals and how are they different from height-intolerant individuals?

Acrophobia is the fear of heights, and we incline to categorize individuals who are uneasy around heights as acrophobic, but in reality height-tolerance is a continual spectrum, with height-seeking and acrophobic individuals on the ends, and varying degrees of height tolerance or intolerance in between. Fewer than 10% of height-intolerant persons are truly acrophobic, as defined by the experience of real anxiety when just imagining exposed heights. In the old days, acrophobia was suspected- like some other phobias- to be the result of childhood/developmental trauma (i.e. getting tossed in the air or dropped as a baby) but that idea’s since pretty much fallen by the wayside. Instead it’s believed now that the brains of height-tolerant persons automatically rely less on visual input in height situations, and more on their vestibular and somatosensory senses. In essence they dynamically and subconsciously alter the “balance” or effective weighting between the 3 inputs to de-emphasize the conflicting visual inputs.

This makes sense. You don’t actually need 3 senses to stay upright. You can stand, walk or even ride a bike with your eyes closed, and there are plenty of blind skiers.

What appears to be happening in height-intolerant individuals is that their brains do not effectively de-emphasize or “de-couple” visual inputs in height situations, causing imbalance, vertigo and extreme fear at or near cliff edges. The only difference between my brain and SkiBikeJunkie’s is probably that my brain is better at “visual de-coupling” (my term) than his. I’m not braver than he is around heights, because I simply don’t experience anywhere near the same level of fear.

Tangent: But my brain’s only “better” than his with heights till I ride off a cliff. There’s a reason so many people are height intolerant- falling off cliffs is a bad thing. And, if over the next few thousand years, a dozen or so more of my descendants than SkiBikeJunkie’s ride their bikes off cliffs, then perhaps my “aberrant” tolerance will be kept in check throughout the greater population.

The good news is that for most folks, height-intolerance can be eased through habituation. Climbers, mountaineers and construction workers all routinely become more height-tolerant with experience and time. Strong corrective eyeglass-lenses or sunglasses that limit peripheral vision may exacerbate height intolerance. Touching a wall or other stationary surface seems to help, as can a walking stick or trekking pole.

But Why Are Heights Fun?

So maybe we’ve answered the initial question. But we haven’t answered the follow-on question: Why do I like riding exposed heights?

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the outright acrophobics are the height-seekers- people who actively seek out and enjoy exposed heights. This group includes skydivers, climbers, hard-core mountaineers, para-gliders and ski-jumpers. I’m nowhere near this group, but I do derive enjoyment out of riding exposed trail sections. Why?

The whole topic of risk- and specifically the evolutionary drivers behind risky behavior- is beyond the scope of this post, but we all know that some people actively seek it out. Many of us think of risk-takers as “adrenaline junkies” and tend to write them off with the same, “they’re just whacked…” attitude we assume when trying to understand UFO-enthusiasts or Sarah Palin supporters. But risk and risky-behavior is a far broader and more important topic than just base-jumping or bat-suits, and affects the lives of millions in everything from business to sex. Psychologists tend to break risk-takers into 2 groups: impulsive and contemplative. At first glance, you may equate “impulsive” with reckless, but it’s not always that simple. In business the impulsive risk-taker might well be the innovator with peaks and valleys of success and failure throughout his or her career, while the contemplative risk-taker may- or may not- enjoy a more measured career in which the successes overall outweigh the failures.

If I am a risk-taker of any kind, it’s definitely of the contemplative sort. I walked the arch and the point before I ever rode them, and my career and personal life, while rewarding, have been marked by a personal conservatism that has sometimes lead to moments of “what-if” reflection about opportunities or chances not taken. Perhaps some of my pleasure- if it can be called that- in height exposure, comes in part from understanding the true nature of the risk and mastering my own (admittedly mild) unease with it. I ride away from the point- or arch- with a feeling not just of greater confidence, but of greater awareness of myself and my place in the surrounding environment, and a hint, a whisper, of a greater, almost expanded proprioceptive sense that knows and binds my mind not only with my own limbs and form, but somehow with that of the greater world around me.

Note about sources: My most useful, concise source for this post was Love and Fear of Heights: The Pathophysiology and Psychology of Height Imbalance, John R. Salassa et al, which was based upon the work of Brandt, Bles, Arnold and Kapteyn. Other helpful sources include Visual ProPrioception: Its Role in Wariness of Heights, David C. Witherington et al, the site Dizziness Explained, Pennsylvania Neurological Associates, Sensation Seeking in Males Involved In Recreational High Risk Sports, M. Guszkowska et al, The Problems of Defining Risk: the Case of Mountaineering, Viviane Seigneur, and The Blackwell handbook of infant development, J. Gavin Bremner & Alan Fogel. Special thanks to Twins A&B for valuable research assistance, and to Fast Jimmy and KanyonKris for videography.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Desert Helmet-Cam Filler

I’m not going to get a real post up this week, so here’s some helmet-cam filler from last weekend. Several of us- Coryalis, Clean Colin, Young Ian, Vicente, KanyonKris, Fast Jimmy, Hunky Neighbor, Thorn*, Westy-Tom** and I- spent the weekend down on Gooseberry Mesa and had an awesome time. The weekend included perfect weather, stupendous riding (including 2 new fantastic trails), world-class star-gazing and Vicente’s out-of-this-world paella.

*That’s not a nickname- his name’s really “Thorn”. Or maybe it’s “Thorne”; I didn’t ask how to spell it. Anyway, his name was the subject of several painfully bad puns when he got an actual thorn*** stuck in his foot.

**Because he drives one of those VW “Westy” vans. Sorry, I am totally running out of clever nicknames.

***Actually, I’m pretty sure it was a spine and not a thorn. I explained the difference in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

It’s a shame I don’t have more time to post this week; I had 2 good post ideas from the trip: an All About Prickly Pear post, and/or an Exposure* post, and why some people- like me- absolutely love it. Maybe I’ll get to one or the other next week. Anyway, if you want a real post about Gooseberry, you can check out the previous posts I’ve done on the super-cool geology and fascinating botany of the mesa.

*To be clear, I am talking about this kind of exposure. Not the other kind.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Berry-Go-Round #33 Is Up!

cornflower Berry-Go-Round #33 is up over at 10,000 birds, with great links to everything from Pinedrops to Cornflowers* to British Soldier Lichens. Go check it out, especially if you’d like a boost of color and life on this gray Utah Fall day.

*Cornflowers are stunning. I saw these over the summer close to some yards up in Pinebrook, knew they were exotic, but didn’t know what they were till Mara’s post.

wwwlogo3b November’s Berry-Go-Round (#34) will be hosted right here at Watching the World Wake Up. I hosted BGR previously, back in January 2009, and it was a lot of fun, exposing both readers and me to a wide range of cool plant-related posts, as well introducing me to several great new (to me) blogs.

For you plant-bloggers out there, if you have a recent or upcoming post you’d like included in the next BGR, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a long-time plant-blogger, participation is an excellent venue through which to let old and new readers alike know what you’ve been up to. If you’re a new plant-blogger, it’s a great way to introduce new readers to your blog. Email submissions to me at (preferred), or you can use the BGR submission form.

All plant-related submissions are welcome, but of particular interest might be what plants are up to this time of year. November is a time of year when we- well, those of us in cold Northern climes where human beings were never actually meant to live year-round, anyway- usually sort of forget about plants. The leaves have all turned and fallen, we rake ‘em up, bag ‘em and hope it snows soon to cover our ugly brown yards so that we can get down to the serious business of shopping and overeating for the holidays. 5 or so months from now, when green things start popping up again, we’ll be like, Oh hey there are plants here…, but of course they’ve been there all along, and it’s amazing that these creatures that totally dominate the world can be so dormant and out-of-mind for so long across such huge expanses of it.

StickerPen Special Submission Incentive: First 15* post-submitters (whose posts I include**) also will get a Fabulous WatcherSTICKER!

*Because I think that’s about all I have left…

**Because it needs to be at least nominally plant-related. See here for details.

For regular readers, if you’re not familiar with Berry-Go-Round, I’ve re-posted and updated the FAQ I used last time:

Berry-Go-Round FAQ (v1.1)

Q: What’s Berry-Go-Round?

A: BGR is a blog carnival devoted to highlighting recent posts about plant life.

Q: What’s a Blog Carnival?

A: A Blog Carnival is a recurring showcase/grouping of a number of different posts related to a common theme or topic. There are carnivals about all kinds of things- birds, geology, music, astronomy, business, writing- there’s even a carnival about kidney stones! Every month the carnival is hosted by a different blog, and that blogger links to a number of participating blogs. So it’s like a dozen or so posts in one.

Q: Why should I care?

A: Two reasons: First, you’ll get a nice, convenient pointer to a whole bunch of interesting plant-related posts. Second, you’ll learn about a number of blogs you’ve probably never heard of before, some of which might be interesting enough that you want to become a regular reader of them.

Q: What if I don’t care about plants?

A: Here’s what’s going to happen when you die. You’re going to be buried in the ground. Eventually the coffin, urn or cereal box* containing your remains will fall apart and you’ll be mixed in with the soil. Eventually some plant will use organic nutrients- your stuff- from that soil to grow. So you are going to be a plant. Maybe you should learn something about them, so you know, you don’t come off as a total rookie plant in your next life.

*I’m updating my will to be cremated, and the ashes buried in a Peanut butter Cap’n Crunch box. Man, I love that stuff.

Q: But then won’t the plants be eaten by animals, like Moose and Pigeons and Porcupines and Pronghorns and Termites and Squirrels and Horned Lizards and Woodlice and Box Elder Bugs? And then won’t those things be eaten by things like Cougars and Magpies and Spiders and Yellowjackets and Bears and Bats and Bobcats and Dragonflies and Coyotes and Rattlesnakes? Won’t my stuff be part of those things too?

A: Yup, and I’ve blogged about all those things too.

Q: Wow, that’s awesome. This blog is way cool. I am totally checking out the next edition of Berry-Go-Round right here at Watching the World Wake Up.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bug Rescue Part 2: Dragonflies are Way Cool

After my ride I showered, dressed and drove into the office. At about noontime I walked out the back door of our building, by theIMG_7891 overhang and the bench where the smokers hang out, to run some errands. On the walkway about 10 feet from the door was this dragonfly, just sitting there. It was cool out, but not cold, so I wasn’t clear why it was sitting there. I picked it up while it flapped feebly (Dragonflies really can’t walk, as we’ll see in a moment) and placed it on the grass, thinking at least to get it out of the way of foot traffic. I sprinted back up the back stairs for my camera, returned to find her still in place, and snapped these photos.

Tangent: Right by the back door of my office building is, as I mentioned, a little overhang with a bench where smokers hang out. Two of my coworkers- let’s call them “Aaron” and “Jimmy”*- are smokers, and I’ll frequently stop to say hi to one or the other on my way in or out of the building. Sometimes they’ll be chatting with other smokers, and other times just taking a break alone, quietly looking out across the creek, or toward the mountains in the background. And, I have to admit that deep down, I am a teeny bit envious. Smoking gives them an excuse to go outside, sit on a bench on a nice day and, for a few minutes, do nothing. Oh, I get that smokers also have to huddle outside on freezing days, but here in Utah it seems that there are, on the balance, more nice than bad days to pass a few minutes out-of-doors.

*Not to be confused with “Fast Jimmy”, who does not smoke, and is not a coworker.

Of course we non-smokers can also take mini-breaks, but since we don’t have an “excuse”, we’re more furtive about them, and spend them staring at our screens, pretending to work, while we read blogs or Dear Prudence* or whatever.

*I always thought I’d make a great advice columnist. How do I get that job?

Office smokers also tap into a little social network that we non-smokers are largely cut off from. There are probably a dozen other companies represented in our building; I don’t know a soul from any of them*. But Jimmy and Aaron are often chatting easily with smokers from several other companies, and so, oddly, smoking has expanded their world.

*Except that crazy older woman with the spiky red hair who always tries to start up a conversation with me in the elevator. Or did, anyway. Now I always take the stairs.

Nested Tangent: It’s probably expanded the world of Aaron- who is single- even more, as several of the smokers over the years have been attractive young women. For a while I teased Aaron about this, as I often came across him smoking/chatting with 2 particularly striking young women who worked at the multi-level-marketing company downstairs*, and whom I referred to- in what I always felt was a particularly inspired bit of double-entendre- as “the Smoking Hotties.”

*Special Footnote for Non-Utah Readers: Every office building in Utah contains a multi-level marketing company. The products touted are almost always health/wellness-related, which is kind of ironic in that most of the people who actually work at these companies, uh, don’t look all that healthy.

Yes, I know that Aaron and Jimmy will likely pay for their pleasant downtime-breaks and expanded social world by, well, you know, dying horrible premature deaths and what-not, but that’s not the point. The point is- and I do have one- why do you need an excuse to go hang outside for 5 minutes in the middle of the day? If I just went out and sat on the bench and a coworker passed and saw me doing nothing, they’d probably think it a bit odd. But if I were smoking, well then that would be totally fine…

The order Odonata, which includes both dragonflies and damselflies, includes some 5,500 species across all continents except Antarctica. The big obvious difference between dragon and damselflies BTW is the resting position of the wings. If it folds them back when at rest, it’s a damselfly; if it keeps them out at 90 degrees to the body, it’s a dragonfly.

Extra Detail #1: They also exhibit different mating flight patterns. Dragonflies generally mate while flying. Damselflies spend more of their mating time perched, but often fly- while connected- for short distances from perch to perch.

Tangent: Every once in a while, you’ll see or hear about an animal doing something that looks really fun- jumping out of the water, swinging between tree limbs, flying rapidly through the air. I just want to point out that mating while flying sounds like about the funnest thing imaginable.

Extra Detail #2: Odonata appears to be monophyletic, meaning the group includes all of the descendants form a common ancestor. Dragonflies (infraorder Anisoptera) also appear to monophyletic. But damselflies (Infraorder Zygoptera) appear to be paraphyletic, in that one big genus (Lestes) turns out to be more closely-related to dragonflies than to any other damselflies.

Odonata Phylogeny This sounds kind of geeky, but it means that “Damselfly-ness”, specifically the hinged-wing mechanism, has to have evolved at least twice among the odonates, a cool example of convergent evolution.

*I explained monophyly and paraphyly in this post.

The dragonfly I rescued is one of the most common species in North America, and if you’ve ever paid attention to Dragonflies you’ve almost certainly noticed it. It’s the Common Green Darner, Anax Junius, and its distinctive green color is a quick identifier, as is the apparent “bulls-eye” atop it’s forehead/“nose” when viewed from above.

GD sideview caption This one was most likely female, because the main part of the eyes are brown-hued. The long abdomen, consisting of 10 segments, is brown or dull/dark purplish in females, but often a bright blue in males. While we’re on the topic of gender, this is probably a good time to talk about the lifecycle of Dragonflies.

If you know anything about dragonflies, you probably have heard that they develop through an aquatic “nymph” stage (pic right, not mine) Dragon Nymph before emerging from the water and developing fully into flying adults. I’ve known this for a long time, and always thought of dragonflies, and other insects with an aquatic nymph stage, as sort of “amphibious bugs”; they spend a little time in a “child” stage in a pond, before getting on with, you know, their “real” life. But when I started learning about them, what really surprised me about dragonflies was how much of their lives- the vast majority in fact- is spent in the nymph stage. Green Darners commonly live as nymphs for up to 2 years, and other species live as nymphs for as long as 5 or 6 years.

But an adult darner lives only for a couple of months. Think about how weird this is. We think of animals developing like mammals and birds and reptiles generally do- we’re born, we grow up quickly, and spend the majority of our lives in sexually mature adult form. But what if you were born, grew to about the size of an 8 or 9 year old, and then stayed that way for like 60 years? Then, right around when you collected your first social security check, you suddenly hit puberty, grew armpit hair and got interested in the opposite sex. But you had to hustle, because you only had a few years or so to marry and have kids before you dropped dead! That’s pretty much what the lifecycle of dragonflies (and many other insects) is like…

A dragonfly’s life, therefore, is mainly a nymph’s life, which most of us never see. Dragonfly nymphs are fearsome aquatic predators. How fearsome? Did you ever see any of the Alien Movies?*

*I love the original Alien. The various sequels never worked for me. But I loved the original. I’ve seen it like 10 times, and every time where it gets to the part where Sigourney Weaver goes back for that cat, I’m always yelling at the TV, “Screw the cat! Just get out of there!”

The super-scary alien-predator in the Alien movies had several fearsome weapons- spiked tail, Alien inner jawslong claws, acid blood, etc. But the most terrifying was its extendable jaw. Remember that? It would get real close to you, open its wide jaws menacingly, all fangs and drool, and then all of sudden, another set of jaws would jump out from inside its mouth and like rip your head off! Wasn’t that scary? Well that, more or less, is exactly the deal with a dragonfly nymph!

dragonflyNymph The extending jaw of a dragonfly nymph isn’t positioned like the Alien jaws (i.e. it’s not inside the mouth) but rather the lower jaw, the labium (diagram left, not mine, and below, not mine either) is hinged and extendable. As the nymph closes on its prey, the labium jets out lightning fast, clamps down on the prey, and yanks it backward into its maw. I’d think that if you’re a mosquito larva or a small tadpole, it’s about the scariest thing imaginable.

mask2 Nymphs molt between 6 and 15 times before climbing up the stem of an emergent plant* above the surface of the water, where they molt a final time, emerging at last as a winged adult. This final molt, BTW, which is followed by a wing-drying period, is one of the most vulnerable times of a dragonfly’s life. Although they’re fearsome hunters, they’re also regularly preyed upon by everything from birds to frogs.

*I explained emergent plants in this post. Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

As aerial predators, dragonflies feed upon all sorts of mosquitoes, midges, gnats, flies and other insects. Their 6 spiked legs, held in a basket-like formation as they fly, are used to scoop up prey toward the mouth.

GD spikes antennae In fact, scooping and perching are more or less the only things a dragonfly can do with its legs; they can’t really walk, and so if unable to fly are pretty much immobilized.

Male Green Darners, like most male dragonflies, are territorial, and patrol their territory getting into tussles with interlopers, and looking for females. The male produces a sperm packet from the tip/10th segment of his abdomen, and then curls his abdomen under itself to deposit the packet in a small depression on the underside of his 2nd abdominal segment.

DFMs1 cut He then flies out and grabs the head of a female in mid-air, with the clasping genital tip of his 10th segment. Then, connected tip-to-head, the two fly around together for a while, in the dragonfly version of foreplay. Usually the male does the flying and just pulls the female along for the ride, but every once in a while the female might flap a for a bit while the male rests.

DFMs2 uncut After some period of time, the female bends her abdomen below her and up under the male’s abdomen to pick up the sperm packet with her genital opening. They fly around in this “wheel” position together for up to 15 minutes.

DFMs3 After copulation, different species do different things. A female Twelve-Spotted Skimmer, for example, promptly disengages from the male and speeds off on her own to lay eggs on the surface of a nearby body of water. But Green Darners remain connected and fly to the water’s surface together, repeatedly, to lay eggs in multiple locations.

Extra Detail: Dragonflies use the same XX/X0 chromosomal system of sex determination used by Fruit Flies, which I described in last year’s Housefly series*. I had a hell of a time BTW determining the chromosome # of A. junius. I believe the diploid # is 27 (male)/28 (female) but this could be wrong.

*Man, was that an awesome series or what?

Damselflies, BTW, remain connected for egg-laying, but take it a step further. The pair lands on an emergent plant stem, then crawls down together- still connected- beneath the water’s surface where the female deposits the eggs into the stem of the plant. It’s suspected that the pair may do this together because the female requires the added strength/mass of the male to break the surface tension of the water and re-emerge into the air.

One of the reasons dragonflies fascinate me is that, like sharks or scorpions, it’s a really old design that’s held up amazingly well. Think about it. GD eyes closeup caption Tool-using hominids have been floundering along for maybe a couple of million years and already are in the midst of a wacky population explosion/environment-world-alteration that’s anybody’s bet as to whether they’ll survive it. Dragonflies have been around for at least 325 million years, and were not only one of the first types of insects to evolve flight, but were part of the teeny fraction of living creatures to survive the Permian extinction. And here they are today, thriving all over the world, with largely the same structure and hardware.

Apposition Graphic[4] One great example is the eye, which I won’t cover in detail here, because we covered it in the run-down of compound eye types I posted about in the Housefly series. You can check out that post for details, but the key take-away is that the eye of the Dragonfly, an apposition compound eye, is the simplest and most ancient compound eye “design” there is. Compared to the eye of a housefly, moth or lobster, it’s downright primitive. Yet dragonflies are stunningly successful visual hunters.

Dragonfly Field Vision[5] Another example, one that also contrasts with the housefly, is wings. The wings of a housefly are highly-advanced, with the 2 rear ones having evolved into sophisticated tiny flight stabilizers called halteres. A dragonfly by contrast is equipped with the same primitive 4-independent-wing system common to the earliest flying insects.

Side Note: I should mention that the whole topic of the evolution of wings and flight in insects is one of the big stumpers in evolution. There are lots of ideas, but still no consensus. With something like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, even if we can’t figure out exactly how it evolved flight, it’s pretty obvious where the wings came from- the forelimbs. But there’s not an equally obvious wing-precursor-limb in insects. One thing that does seem apparent is that insects don’t seem to have been particularly successful or abundant before evolving flight…

Yet dragonflies are awesome fliers. They’re fast and maneuverable, rapidly changing direction and accelerating on a dime to speeds of >60MPH. They can also fly backwards (though at only around 3% their maximum forward speed), and hover in place for up to a minute.

Extra Detail: Know why they can’t hover longer? Because they overheat, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Dragonflies do most of their flying at significant speeds, experiencing fast, cooling airflow. In the absence of that airflow, they run hot. Plus, their tracheal respiratory system- to which we will return momentarily- is more efficient in strong airflow.

Dragonfly wings, though ancient in form, turn out to be remarkably sophisticated. They consist of largely clear membranes held in place by a network of veins. All dragonfly and damselfly wings have 5 primary veins. Some veins are darker and thicker than others, and these support portions of the wing that experience greater stress during flight. The wing has a notch/vein-junction on the forward edge called the nodus, that is critical to the strength and structural stability of the wing.

GD features The wing does not form a smooth surface; if you run your fingertips across the surface of the wing*, it feels corrugated. But these corrugations aren’t random; their pattern optimizes airflow in a way that combines the advantages of a flat surface with an airfoil. Dragonfly wings cut through the air with minimal drag, making odonates some of the relatively few insects that are excellent gliders. Yet the wing, despite having no real curvature**, exhibits awesome lift properties. Human engineers haven’t developed anything like the dragonfly wing.

*Only do this with an already-dead dragonfly. Man-handling the wings of a live dragonfly will likely mean its early demise.

**I should say “consistent curvature”. It could be argued that the wings exhibit a type of cumulative effective curvature. See sources for more details.

GD Wing features Another cool feature of dragonfly wings is the teeny-weeny little opaque/colored patch on the front edge of the wing by the tip. I’d noticed these patches in the past and assumed they were simply decorative. But the patches, called pterostigmae, are highly functional. The pterostigma is a region of much denser cells that increases the mass of that portion of the wing and adds significant gliding stability. Gliding with a long, light wing is apparently more stressful than you might think, and the presence of these weighted patches is estimated to improve gliding efficiency by some 10-25%.

Side Note: While we’re on the topic of wings, it’s worth noting that these structures and characteristics carboniferous-swamp-71129148-gaof Dragonfly wings have been around for a very, very long time, even back in the Carboniferous period (300 – 360 MYA) (artsy conception right, not mine), when dragonflies grew far larger than they do today, with wingspans of up to 28 inches. That implies that these huge dragonflies were still incredibly agile fliers, which would’ve been awesome to see, though probably a bit un-nerving were one to buzz close by…

The presumed reason for large size was the greater concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere in the Carboniferous, likely over 30%*. The increased O2 levels would have made the tracheal respiratory system of insects** more efficient, allowing them to grow- and fly- at much larger mass.

*Which is higher than the concentration necessary for wet wood to burn, and makes you wonder about the forest fires in those times…

**Which I touched upon in this post.

What’s interesting about oxygen and bugs in the Carboniferous though is that although many other bugs grew much larger than they did today, not all of them did. Cockroaches for example, which also were around at that time, did not grow particularly large. In fact, I believe(?) that the largest cockroaches that have ever lived are around today. In recent experiments researchers have raised dragonflies*, roaches and other bugs under hyperoxic (high oxygen level) conditions, and found that while dragonflies, and most other insects, grew bigger and faster than they do at normal O2 levels, the roaches grew at roughly half the rate the do otherwise, and their tracheal tubes were abnormally small.

*Dragonflies are apparently a real bitch to raise in captivity. Feeding them is the problematic part…

So what was my lady dragonfly doing just laying around on the sidewalk? Maybe she was old and about to check out. Maybe she was out hunting and nightfall caught her out and about. Or maybe, just maybe, she’d spent the night in unfamiliar country, in the middle of a migration.

IMG_7893 Out of thousands of dragonfly species, only a few dozen are known to be migratory. The Green Darner is one of those, but much about its migration behavior is still unknown. And in some respects, the more that becomes known, the more confusing the species and its behavior becomes.

In the Eastern and central US, Green Darners are known to form huge swarms, numbering up to over a million, migrating South in the Fall. Their paths and destinations are not completely known, but swarms have also been reported in Central America, suggesting crossings of the Gulf of Mexico. Such crossings, if they do occur, are certainly possible. Although the maximum fat-reserve slight time of a Green Darner is thought to be only about 8 ½ hours, migrating dragonflies often feed while on long-distance journey, taking sustenance from what is known as “aerial plankton”, including tiny aphids, midges and spiderlings aloft in the sky.

Extra Detail: The ~8 hour estimate comes from analysis of dragonfly body fat, which can account for up to 30% of body mass. Whoda thunk?

Dragonfly migration, like that of monarch butterflies, is multi-generational; the dragonflies who fly South in the Fall are not the same individuals who fly North in the Spring. Long-distance migration is always awesomely impressive, but multi-generational long-distance migration even more so. How on Earth do they do it? Does every dragonfly have a built in instinctive geographic map and awareness of the world? Do they crawl up out of the swamp, do a final molt, and think, “Oh hey, looks like I’m in Belize. Guess I better start flying to Ontario…”? That’s hard to swallow. Insect brains are teeny-weeny-tiny, and in dragonflies, something like 80% of that teeny brain is believed to be devoted to visual processing. It seems unlikely that they could possess anywhere near that level of geographic self-awareness,

To try and better understand dragonfly migration, researchers in the Fall of 2005 captured 14 Green Darners (1/2 male, ½ female), equipped them radio transmitters, and then monitored their positions for an average of 6 days each. What they found was that migratory flight appeared to follow simple, predictable rules. For example, the dragonflies migrated Southward roughly every 3 days. A Southward-flying day always occurred when the previous night was colder than the night before. Migration days tended to occur on days with lower windspeeds, and no dragonfly was observed migrating on any day where the winds gusted to over 16 mph. Winds were most often Northerly on migration days. Many of these behaviors are remarkably similar to migrating songbirds, who regularly mix up migrating and “stop-over” days over the course of their annual migrations.

In other words, the behavior suggested that a dragonfly brain follows simple, almost Boolean, rules in migration and navigation, which might explain how something so small-brained might accomplish such impressive long-distance navigation and migration.

Tangent: There’s a wonderful analogy here that I can’t resist. Remember the Life Reference Architecture tangent from the Triangle Man post? It’s like the Dragonfly brain contains a “Migration Decision Point”, a set of Boolean, context-driven rules, which guide its decisions in that part of its life. I wouldn’t be surprised if dragonfly behaviors in other areas- hunting, mating, predator-evasion- could be similarly encapsulated in Boolean format. Maybe the Reference Architecture is an effective analogy for how an insect brain works- a set of Decision Points that, in simple form, drive apparently complex context-based decisions.

Green Darners don’t always migrate in swarms (and to my knowledge swarms don’t occur in the Western US). Sometimes they migrate solo, though again, it’s not clear how far or where. But fascinatingly, many Green Darners don’t migrate. Instead they over-winter, and do so in really cold places all over the US and Southern Canada. They over-winter not as adults, but as nymphs, in sort of a diapause, or delayed developmental state, under the ice in frozen ponds, wetlands, etc.

So if Green Darners can over-winter in cold climes, why migrate? IMG_7890A decade ago dragonfly researcher Philip Corbet suggested that maybe the migrants and non-migrants represented 2 distinct subspecies of Green Darner. Such an explanation would make sense. Maybe the non-migrants were Darners who had figured out how to survive the Northern winters, and were on their way to forming a new species of dragonfly. But subsequent research seems to have debunked the subspecies hypothesis. DNA analysis of nearly 100 Green Darners, both migrants and non-migrants, collected across North America revealed several distinct genetic lineages.

Side Note: This kind of lineage-analysis has been done with lots of creatures, including humans. You’ve probably heard of the “Mitochondrial Eve”, the presumed most recent common female ancestor of all people alive today. Subsequent research has suggested all sorts of more recent maternal and paternal lineages all over the world. A fascinating example is described in Brian Sykes’ Seven Daughters of Eve*, which details research around the seven maternal lines from which the vast majority of Europeans appear to be descended within the last ~55,000 years or so.

*The concept and research of the book is fascinating. The fictional what-if chapters were a little less compelling for me.

What researchers found was that both migrants and non-migrants existed in multiple separate Green Darner lineages, meaning that non-migratory (and/or migratory) behaviors had apparently come about repeatedly and independently, suggesting a significant degree of “plasticity” in migratory tendencies across the species.

By now you’re probably getting an idea of why I characterized Green Darner migration as confusing. I don’t know where my lady dragonfly came from, or how she wound up on the walkway by the smoker’s hang-out. But I’m glad I stopped to check her out. Second bug rescued.

Note About Sources: I had awesome sources for this one. Thanks to friend and fellow nature-blogger KB for her help in accessing materials. General info on dragonflies came from National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America, the Insects of West Virgina website,, and the Tree of Life web project. Info on dragonfly wings and aerodynamic properties came from Aerodynamic Characteristics of Dragonfly Wing Sections Compared with Technical Aerofoils, Antonia B. Kesel. Info on Green Darner migration swarms, behavior and genetics came from Simple rules guide dragonfly migration, Martin Wikelski et al, Massive Swarm Migrations of Dragonflies (Odonata) in Eastern North America, Robert Russell et al, Genetic diversity and widespread haplotypes in a migratory dragonfly, the common green darner Anax Junius, Joanna R. Freeland et al and Phylogeny of the Dragonfly and Damselfly Order Odonata as Inferred by Mitchondrial 12S Ribosomal RNA Sqeuences, Corrie Saux et al. Additional swarming info came from The Dragonfly Woman, the blog of entomologist Christine Goforth, which I recommend for anyone interested in dragonflies.