Journal archives for April 2022

April 01, 2022

A Note about Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Depending on whose classification you're looking at, Poison Ivy (T. radicans), Poison Oak (T. diversilobum), and Poison Sumac (T. vernix) are sometimes placed in their own genus (Toxicodendron, meaning "poison tree"). However, they are close relatives of the sumacs and have often shared a genus with them (Rhus).
I've included some Toxicodendron observations in this project both because it's well worth being able to recognize (and avoid) them, and because while they aren't favorites of humans, many birds and other types or organisms put them to good use.
The easiest way to tell these three Toxicodendron species from their more innocuous cousins is their fruit. The drupes (single-seeded, fleshy fruit) of the "poison" species are white, while the drupes of Rhus are red. Though white fruit may seem like an odd color to humans, they contrast well against foliage and are very visible to birds, which are their main dispersers. So, next time you spot a white-fruited, sumac-like plant, step away and leave it for the birds.

Posted on April 01, 2022 04:00 AM by m_whitson m_whitson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 02, 2022

Curvy-cool Pennate Diatoms in Genus Gyrosigma

Several of us saw lovely, large, s-curved diatoms in our Loch Norse water samples. These belong to the genus Gyrosigma, and are nice examples of pennate diatioms.

The handsome diatom pictured below is one of our own Loch Norse specimens.

The genus Gyrosigma (gyro = round and sigma = curved) belongs to the family Naviculaceae, which includes lots of species that we might see in our local ponds and rivers. Gyrosigma species are often found crawling along the surfaces of mud or sand, so ours may have come off some of the rocks along the bottom of Loch Norse. You can learn more about these diatoms and their relatives, and see more examples of pennate diatoms, at iNaturalists' Naviculaceae page.

Posted on April 02, 2022 02:50 AM by m_whitson m_whitson | 1 comment | Leave a comment

April 03, 2022

Sumac Fruiting Strategy: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

If you're a plant needing birds to disperse your seeds, it's a good strategy to ripen your fruit when there are the maximum number of birds around. In North America, the fall migration is a perfect opportunity: thousands of hungry birds traveling long distances, eager to refuel by snacking on succulent fruit. Competition is stiff, though. Lots of plants ripen fruit in the fall, so how do you stand out from the crowd?

Some plants offer high quality fruits: juicy, sweet, and irresistible. Most of these get gobbled up fast, though there are drawbacks. Fruit not eaten immediately can go bad, and are then unlikely to be dispersed.

Most of the eastern US sumacs (ex. Rhus copallinum, R. glabra, R. typhina) use a different strategy. They, too, fruit in the fall, but make lower quality fruit: rather dry and without a lot of flesh to them, not very sweet, but with some fat content for energy (11-26% of their weight, according to Stiles (1980)). Initially, birds mostly ignore these, but the fruit don't go bad, and continue to hang on the plants through the long, cold, hungry months of winter. In fact, many of these sumacs will still have much of the last year's fruit on them well into the spring and summer.

Overwintering birds can't be as picky as fall migrants with a wealth of fruit to choose from, so sumac fruit are a hit over winter. Over 300 species of songbirds are known to eat sumac fruit, as well as turkey, quail, pheasant, and grouse (USDA, 2002).

This drawn-out fruiting strategy makes sumacs doubly desirable as garden plants: the clusters of red fruit provide flashes of color in an otherwise dull winter landscape and provide a critical food source for overwintering birds. Win-win.

Winter Robins Eating Sumac
Winter Chicadee Eating Sumac
Winter Blue Jay With Sumac


Stiles, EW. 1980. Patterns of fruit presentation and seed dispersal in bird-disseminated woody plants in the eastern deciduous forest. The American Naturalist, 116(5): 670-88.

(USDA) United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Plant Fact Sheet: Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum). 2 pages.

Posted on April 03, 2022 07:58 PM by m_whitson m_whitson | 2 comments | Leave a comment

April 10, 2022

Our First iNaturalist Assignment: Virtual Fungi Scavenger Hunt

Our first iNaturalist assignment has two goals: to get everyone to explore the iNaturalist site a little more, and for you to find some good examples of fungi and lichens to help us practice recognizing these organisms.

Browse through iNaturalist's fungi and lichen observations, find the following (see below), and add them to our Bio 313 project. Adding someone else's observation to a project is easy. Open the observation, go to the right side of the screen, see "Projects" and click the drop-down in the search field (it says "Add to a Project"). You should see Bio 313L listed when you click. Select it and you're good to go. (Occasionally, you'll get a listing where the observer has asked that this not be allowed. In that case, you'll have to find a different observation to use.)

What you are looking for:

The coolest photo observation of a basidiomycete fungus that you can find.
The coolest photo observation of an ascomycete fungus that you can find.
The coolest photo observation of a crustose lichen that you can find.
The coolest photo observation of a foliose lichen that you can find.
The coolest photo observation of a fruticose lichen that you can find.

Note that iNaturalist puts the lichens under the type of fungus involved in the mutualism, but don't choose lichens as your ascomycete and basidiomycete examples.

After adding your choices to our Bio 313 iNaturalist site, submit a list to Canvas of which species you chose, what group each one is an example of, and which iNaturalist user made the original observation. First come, first serve, so if someone has already added a species to our site, you can't add another example of the same one.

Happy hunting!

Posted on April 10, 2022 12:47 PM by m_whitson m_whitson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 17, 2022

The NKU Bio-Alumni Birds & Blooms Hike Returns

Saturday, April 16, 10:00 am

After being scotched by COVID restrictions in 2021 and being rained/snowed/sleeted out last Saturday, intrepid alumni of Northern Kentucky University's Biology Department and various NKU faculty met at Boone County's spectcular Middle Creek Park to see what we could see. We joked that it should be Birds, Blooms, & Boulders this year, since we had someone with geology background (Dr. Cooper-- former NKU student & current NKU faculty) join our normal compliment of botanist and ornithologist.

Finding a site that has both good bird-watching potential and diverse wildflowers to admire can be tricky, as birding opportunities peak here in May and the birds are easiest to see in open areas, while the wildflower show peaks in late April and is best under huge trees. Nonetheless, we pulled it off today.

Dr. Walters, our bird expert, had a list of over 30 species of birds encountered by the time we finished our 2 hour amble out along Middle Creek. We heard more than we saw, as we were under a canopy of giant sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and poplars (Populus deltoides). The trees were alive with birdsong and woodpeckers drumming, everyone busily defending their territories. We heard Northern Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Redwing Blackbirds, and several distant hawk cries. We got a lovely closeup view of a male Northern Parula, saw a pair of Louisiana Waterthrushes and a kingfisher along the creek, spotted an American Kestrel drifting down to land in a treetop, and got a good look at a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker as it zipped over a clearing on its way to more large trees. We even startled up an astoundingly huge Great Blue Heron when we strayed too close to the creek.

Cute Northern Parula
A Red-eyed Male Towhee

We've had a cool spring, and the wildflowers weren't at their peak yet, but there was still color everywhere. The Blue Eyed Marys (Collinsia verna) were just beginning to tint the forest floor with sky blue. We spotted one white-flowered individual among all the blue and white bicolors. Both species of native Dicentra were in profuse bloom-- Dutchman's Breeches (D. culcullaria) and Squirrel Corn (D. canadensis) -- and they were joined by their pretty little yellow-flowered relative, the Pale Corydalis (C. flavula). The reddish-flowered toadshades (a sessile Trillium) were abundant, as was Mayapple (Podophyllum) and white-splashed waterleaf (Hydrophyllum) foliage. We saw blooming Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Paw-paw (Asimina triloba) branches covered in knobby brown bloom buds. The Woodland Phlox (P. divaricara) provided splashes of blue, lavender, and pinkish, and at least three species of violets (Viola spp.) added white, yellow, and purple punctuation. There were even a few Virginia Bluebells (Meternsia virginica), and of course plenty of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Lovely Woodland Phlox
Virginia Bluebells Just Starting
Squirrel Corn Showing Off

The temperatures were cool but very pleasant, but combined with a mostly gray morning, they kept the insect activity muted. We saw a rusty orange butterfly (perhaps a Questionmark) and a little Spring Azure. We saw a fuzzy big bumblebee checking out some violets, and a tiny bee visiting chickweed flowers. Along the creek, there was one large dragonfly zipping around and one mayfly fluttering by.

On the banks of the creek, we admired 400+ million-year-old bryzoan fossils, rounded quartz pebbles and other smoothed rocks dropped off by glaciers, and what was perhaps a fossilized chunk of deer skull (coffee brown with age). In rocky stretches, you could see interesting little caddisfly larvae stuck to the flat stones, including some that made amazing little spiral shells that could pass for snails. The water was a little too cloudy today to easily spot darters, but I'm sure they were out there.

Strange Spiral Caddisflies

Overall, a great hike, and fun organisms to suit everyone's fancies.

Even Fungi

Posted on April 17, 2022 03:09 AM by m_whitson m_whitson | 7 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 29, 2022

Common Flowering Plant Families in Northern Kentucky

Here are the promised notes on the seven plant families we're learning to recognize.

Asteraceae (formerly Compositae): the composites. Dandelions, chicory, asters, sunflowers, goldenrod, chrysanthemums, coneflowers, various daisies, and lettuce are all in this family. This is a cosmopolitan family, found worldwide both in temperate and tropical areas. These plants make a unique inflorescence type called a head (picture a daisy) where what looks like one flower is really made up many smaller, bilaterally symmetric (the "petals" or rays) and radially symmetric (in the disc) flowers. Our species are mostly summer and fall blooming, but a few show off in the spring, including:
Packera (Groundsel)
Erigeron (Fleabane daisy)
Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion): Europe.

Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae): the crucifers. Cabbage, mustard, turnips, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and brussel sprouts all belong to this family. These dicots contain strong smelling mustard oils to help repel herbivores. The odd combination of four petals and six stamens in the flowers makes them easy to recognize in bloom. The four-petaled, cross-shaped flowers gave the family its old name, the Cruciferae (like cross or crucifix). This family prefers the temperate zones and is most diverse in Europe, temperate Asia, and North America. Most of ours are spring bloomers, with white, yellow, or occasionally purple flowers. Common examples include:
Alliaria petiolata (Garlic mustard): Invasive. Europe.
Cardamine (Toothworts): Includes native spring-ephemerals.
Brassica nigra (Black mustard): Europe.

Fabaceae (formerly Leguminosae): the legumes. This is a large, cosmopolitan family, including peas, beans, lentils, clover, vetch, alfalfa, sensitive plants, locust trees, mimosas, redbuds, and the Kentucky coffeetree, to name just a few. Most of them have a mutualistic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria, which live in their root nodules and fix nitrogen. They often have compound leaves. The bilaterally-symmetric flowers (loved by bees) have five petals, 10 stamens, and one superior carpel (leading to the typical bean-like, or "legume" fruit). Most of ours are summer to fall bloomers, but redbud is one of our most obvious flowering trees in the spring:
Cercis canadensis (redbud)
Trifolium (Clover)
Coronilla/Securigera varia (Crown vetch): Mediterranean.

Lamiaceae (formerly Labitae): the mint family. Peppermint, spearmint, chia, bee-balm, henbit, ground ivy, and salvia are all members of this large and cosmopolitan family. The opposite, simple leaves, square stems, and aromatic foliage (volatile oils) make this an easy family to recognize. The bilaterally symmetric flowers (loved by bees) have five fused sepals, five fused petals, four stamens, and two carpels. You'll see them blooming spring to fall, mostly because some of our most common lawn-weeds bloom almost continually:
Lamium (Henbit): Eurasia.
Ajuga reptans (Carpet bugleweed): Eurasia.
Glechoma hederacea (Ground ivy): Europe.
Monarda (Bee balm): Several natives. Mostly summer blooming.

Poaceae (formerly Graminae): the grasses (you'll hear "graminoid" for grass-like, too). A huge, cosmopolitan family of wind-pollinated monocots. Major food source for humans (and pandas!), including rice, wheat, oats, corn, and barley, but also bamboo, our native cane (Arundinaria), and Kentucky bluegrass (which isn't native to Kentucky). Parallel-veined leaves in two ranks along round or oval stems.
Poa praetensis (Bluegrass): Europe & NE US.
Arundinaria gigantea (Cane)
Zea mays (Corn)

Ranunculaceae: the buttercup family. This family is most diverse in the temperate zones (cooler climates). It includes buttercups (Ranunculus), clematis vines, columbine, Delphinium, and hellebores, among others. Most of ours are bee-pollinated. The flowers often have primitive floral traits (radial symmetry, many parts, parts free/unfused, superior ovary), though Delphinium is bilaterally symmetric, and both it and columbine have nectar spurs. Helleborus also has interesting nectaries in the flowers. Most of ours are spring blooming, though we have a couple of clematis that are fall bloomers:
Ficaria verna (Lesser celandine): Invasive. Europe.
Ranunculus (Buttercup): Native and introduced species.
Thalictrum (Meadow rue): Includes spring-ephemerals.
Clematis: Native, invasive, and cultivated species here.
Delphinium: Includes a spring-ephemeral.

Rosaceae: the rose family. This is a cosmopolitan family with some preference for cooler climates (so, not common in the tropical rainforest). We rely on this family for fruit (blackberries, strawberries, apples, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, nectarines), almonds, and flowers (roses, crabapple trees, hawthorns). We also have invasive species here, like Japanese multiflora rose and callery pear. The flowers have an unseal floral cup structure (hypanthium) at the base, which the flower parts connect around. The radially symmetric flowers have a hypanthium and five sepals, five petals, many stamens, 1 to 5 superior carpels. This flower setup is easy to recognize with a little practice, as it doesn't vary much across our species (unless you encounter a double-double domesticated flower). Apples and their relatives make a unique fruiting structure called a pome, which is a fleshy hypanthium expanded around a papery core (the core of an apple is its carpels, so botanically-speaking, that's actually the fruit). Many of our spring-blooming trees belong to this family, as well as smaller, summer-blooming herbs.

Rosa (Roses): Native species & an invasive from Asia.
Potentilla indica (Mock strawberry): Asia.
Malus (Apples & crabapples)
Rubus (Blackberries & raspberries)

Posted on April 29, 2022 03:41 PM by m_whitson m_whitson | 1 comment | Leave a comment


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