Category Archives: Nature

Articles on nature and the natural history of the Grand Traverse Region. From descriptions of geological strata or animals and plants of the Great Lakes states to nature walks and gardens of the region, this feature covers everything in the great outdoors.

A Handsome Animal That Does Not Milk Cows: the Milk Snake

Milk snakes do not milk cows, contrary to legend.  They do hang around barns and other structures–sometimes houses.  Someone I know shares her dwelling with occasional milk snake intruders which apparently enjoy living in the crevices of the foundation.  It does little good to let her know that they are only looking for rodents and other small varmints—she does not like them.  To her credit, they have become only an occasional nuisance, and are only evicted from the premises rather than summarily decapitated, a common response of humans.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

I saw one quite recently, three feet of torpid elegance stretched across a bike path near where I live.  Fearing for its life–since it nearly blocked the right-of-way of bicycles–I stamped on the ground to get its attention.  With apparent nonchalance, it moved to one side and then into the tall grasses beside the river, its tongue flicking out every few seconds as snakes do.

Indeed, why do they do that?  Reference books tell me that this is their sense of smell, but that statement is not quite accurate, since the actual organ of smell is inside their mouths.  The tongue only samples the air outside.  Since they don’t bring air directly past their olfactory membranes, then they can only smell whatever comes to them on the wind, a strange mechanism at least from our point of view, since we can sniff.  What smells would they be sensitive to?  Rodents, one might guess, and other milk snakes, females especially–if a male snake is the prime actor.

Milk snakes are harmless, but that does not mean they will not attempt to discourage those who would cause it irritation.  Like many of its relatives, it will coil, hiss, and strike to incite fear in the hearts of its perceived enemies.  It should be forgiven for that behavior, not beheaded.

These creatures are most commonly seen in spring and fall.  They go after their prey after nightfall, seeking out mice with their flicking tongues, ready to wrap themselves around them in an instant, squeezing them so they cannot breathe.  That is what constrictors do.

The triangle on the head of this eastern milk snake is very distinct. Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Milk snakes are given the name Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum, the “triangulum” element referring to a triangle or Y-shaped marking at the top of its head.  In larger snakes dull red bands decorate its body, but smaller ones will have brighter red stripes bordered with black, all set upon a creamy white background.

After your initial surprise at seeing one, you will have to admire this animal for its stunning appearance.  As so many snakes and reptiles are disappearing because of habitat disruption, they are to be treasured all the more.  Let us live in peace with them.

Want more on snakes? Check out these TADL books about snakes

  • Holman, J. Alan, Harding, James H., Hensley, Marvin M., and Dudderar, Glenn R., Michigan Snakes, Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 2006.
  • Holman, J. Alan, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

The Most Dreaded Wild Plant: Poison Ivy and Its Relatives

Poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak: the three poisons we have to take care not to touch.  The third doesn’t grow here, so we don’t need to worry about it.  Somewhat rare in Northern Michigan, Poison sumac is a tall shrub that grows in wet places—I have seen it in the Platt River valley, locally.  Ed Voss’s magnificent floral guide Michigan Flora shows a cluster of counties with the species: Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim.  It is much more common downstate.

Image courtesy Joshua Mayer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wackybadger/24016034905

Poison sumac will not be confused with other sumacs, the staghorn sumac, for example.  That plant has red berries and grows along fields and edges of hardwoods.  As a teacher, I sometimes had to quell students’ fears that they would break out from touching staghorn sumac.  Unlike that familiar shrub, poison sumac grows in places where you get your feet wet.  If it has berries at all, they are white.   The leaves have the shiny look of poison ivy, but have 7-11 leaflets.  Persons in search of pretty autumn color for their homes may be surprised to learn they brought it into the house.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is closely related to an Asian plant (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) which is used to make lacquer in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.  While serving in Japan, a dermatologist friend told me that patients came to him with a rash similar to that of poison ivy on the backs of their thighs.  The cause turned out to be toilet seats covered with the offending lacquer.

Image courtesy of OldFarmersAlmanac.com, CC-BY-NC-SA

Poison ivy grows in a variety of plant communities: sand dunes, banks, shores, and along roadsides and railroad tracks.  In the north, it does not climb trees, but remains as a small shrub, scarcely growing taller than two feet.  Its shiny green leaves are, indeed, in threes (“leaves of three, let them be”), but that characteristic is not at all helpful since strawberry leaves come in threes, too.   In contrast to the shrub form, it frequently takes on the growth habit of a vine in Southern Michigan, climbing a variety of trees, often to great height.  Manistee county, according to Voss, is the farthest north this variety is to be found.

Image courtesy of BlueRidgeKitties/Foter.com/CC-BY-NC-SA

Are two such radically different varieties—one a shrub and the other a vine—really the same species?  In most characteristics—leaf position and shape, length of leaf stems, inflorescence (arrangement of flowers on the stem), number of flowers, fruit size—they are similar, but not identical.  The vine form has aerial rootlets to cling onto tree trunks, while the shrub form has none.  If they are the same species, they should form intermediate forms upon crossing the two.  Have they been crossed to see what the offspring look like?

Unfortunately, my source—William T. Gillis’s article in the Michigan Botanist, Vol. 1, 1962—talks only about one failed attempt.  An early frost killed the buds on the growing hybrids.  Gillis did attempt to bring the northern rydbergii form to southern Michigan to see if they would begin to take on southern characteristics.  They did not.

Let us leave the subject to say that poison ivy is a highly variable plant.  One characteristic that all forms have is that they possess urushiol, the offending substance that causes the skin reaction in some persons.  It is not volatile, so you cannot get the rash from merely standing close to plants: you must break the resin canals in the leaves in order to be exposed.  Once exposed, it may take one or two days to react, or—in some cases—only a few hours, depending on the sensitivity of the person afflicted.  Dogs and cats can carry the allergen on their fur, and smoke from burning leaves can cause serious trouble.  It can even be carried on water—at least in the case of poison sumac, the species that loves to grow with roots in the water.

Rash caused by contact with Poison ivy, image courtesy of WebMD, CC-BY-NA.

Not everyone is sensitive.  Some persons can handle leaves and fruit with impunity.  However, you cannot always count on previous insensitivity to avoid the rash.  Sensitivity can change over time, and in either direction.  Steroidal creams and lotions ease the suffering of those afflicted, and the itching and angry blisters will disappear over time.  Still, a person will not want to suffer this assault every year.  So much the better to learn these plants and avoid them.

Aquaculture, Properly Implemented, Improves Public Water Use for All

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette recently weighed in on aquaculture. His opinion is that aquaculture would subordinate public uses of open waters in favor of private control. 

The open waters of Lake Michigan have been used for commercial purposes in the past and are currently used for commercial purposes. Aquaculture is a commercial use, as are marinas and trap nets already in common usage by commercial fishermen. Trap nets are set in the Spring and often remain on the lake bottom until fall. They are checked regularly and the fish are sorted and the nets returned to the lake bottom. A net pen for aquaculture is similar and like a trap net would not interfere with public use of open waters. With proper siting, scale and monitoring, pollution is minimal. (1)

What tools do the architects of an ecosystem have? Add species, subtract species (as with the sea lamprey), improve habitat and change goals. Fishery departments know a lot about the limnology of the lakes. Using that knowledge, places favorable to aquaculture could be identified. Limited operation could be allowed in those places. 

A worthy goal is the local production of fish by Michigan citizens in Michigan waters. Just as enthusiastic farmers sell vegetables at local markets, small aquaculture operations could offer fresh local fish at market. Large corporate fish operations should not be the goal. The goal is a citizen-led entrepreneurial process that allows aquaculture on a local basis. 

If government is making a determination on how many fish can be raised in the Great Lakes, it would be informative to know what the historic population of fish was. It is clear to anyone reading historic accounts of fishing in the Great Lakes that the population of fish was, in the past, much greater than it is now. In 1872, 39 million pounds of fish was taken. The total fish population was more than twice the present populations. (2) That alone puts to rest the argument against the resiliency of the Lakes. 

Additionally, other technical problems of aquaculture can be solved in Michigan as they are being solved in the rest of the world. (3) The State of Michigan has learned a lot about how to operate aquaculture in places like Platte River. That hatchery was once a big polluter of Platte Lake but they cleaned it up and now raise millions of fish pollution free. 

Another local success story concerns Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC, on the AuSable River, which has operated for five years without incident. The Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for the farm that holds the operators to high standards which “requires weekly monitoring for phosphorus, which cannot, on a seasonal average basis, exceed 15 parts-per-billion in the 8.64 million gallons-per-day”. (4)

Ecosystems are complex. In recent history, marketing the experience of catching fish, and sport fishing in general, has subordinated any other possible use of the Lakes, including aquaculture. Both have a place in the Lakes. The Waters held in “public trust” are held for all the “public,” not just sports fishermen.

S.A. McFerran
B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University
Platte River, Michigan

(1) Diana, Jim, quoted from personal correspondence with the author, February 2017. Dr. Jim Diana is Director for Michigan Sea Grant, and is involved in leading the statewide program in its research, education and outreach efforts on critical Great Lakes issues, such as sustainable coastal development and fisheries.  When asked about pollution issues, specifically if Aquaculture pens can be operated without polluting the Lakes, his response was: “Absolutely. There are 11 licensed operations in Lake Huron on the Canadian side, and no damages have been determined from them as of recently. There was a problem in one area, with nutrient addition causing some algal blooms, but they moved to another location and all has been fine since.”

(2) Bogue, M.L. Fishing the Great Lakes – An Environmental History. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

(3) “On January 11, NOAA published a final rule implementing our nation’s first regional regulatory program for offshore aquaculture in federal waters. In doing so, NOAA is expanding opportunities for U.S. seafood farming in the open ocean. NOAA and our partners are working to advance and expand U.S. aquaculture.” NOAA Fisheries. “NOAA Expands Opportunities for U.S. Aquaculture.” Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2016/01/offshore_aq_rule.html

(4) Ellison, Garret. “In battle over Holy Waters, anglers put Michigan fish farming on trial.” M-Live. Accessed February 04, 2016. http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/02/ausable_fish_farm_grayling_hat.html

Aquaculture in the Great Lakes? Not a Good Idea

by Charlie Weaver

Is aquaculture—growing lots of healthy eating fish inexpensively through fish farming—a great idea?  NO!  The basic problem with raising many animals in a small space is poop.  Large net-pens (fish cages) producing hundreds of thousands of fish will generate untreated fecal waste in huge amounts.  This is essentially the same problem with other CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)–too many fertilizing agents headed downstream which wind up producing massive toxic algae in larger bodies of water.   The Lake Erie and Toledo, OH water pollution disaster of 2014, is a perfect example.

Some have argued in support of aquaculture that the waters of the Great Lakes are a public trust, but that argument, to me, is precisely why aquaculture should not be permitted to pollute these waters.  According to Jim Olson, attorney with For Love of Water (FLOW), the waters of the Great Lakes are “a shared public commons for the benefit of citizens for navigation, boating, fishing, health, and sustenance.”

And, according to Dr. Howard Tanner, former Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries director, “…one net-pen operation can produce the equivalent of phosphate emissions from a sewer plant for 10,000 people.  This fish sewage will create filamentous algae, which will wash up on nearby beaches and rot and stink.”

Only in self-contained aquaculture facilities can the waste products of the fish be controlled and kept out of the people’s waters downstream.

Another problem with fish farms is the antibiotics used to control disease.  Again, the leftovers get flushed down the river or are mixed in with the lake waters and are then consumed by you and me.

Economics are another part of the big picture.  Lake Michigan sport and commercial fishing is a billion dollar industry.  Aquaculture can’t compare to that in generating jobs or money.

Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette is on the side of protecting the environment.  He has ruled that fish farming does not improve the public trust for the uses listed above, and would necessarily interfere with or impair them.  Thus, it is illegal in his opinion.  He says that fish farming in the Great Lakes does not fall within the definition of “aquaculture facility” under the state aquaculture law, because the definition only allows fish farms in privately controlled waters.  Under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act as well, it is illegal to “occupy” public waters for primarily private purposes such as fish farming.

So my suggestion is to NOT purchase Rainbow Trout in the supermarket or order it in the restaurant.  That is the species usually raised in commercial fish farms.   Instead, go fishing in a nearby lake or stream in which trout swim and grow naturally and where it is legal to keep them.  Try to catch one or two, yourself.  It’s quite enjoyable and they are good for you, too.

About Charlie Weaver

Charlie Weaver is a retired fly fishing river guide on the Au Sable, Manistee, and Pere Marquette rivers.  He serves as a board member on the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and belongs to the Anglers of the Au Sable (Adams Chapter of Trout Unlimited) and to the Clearwater Conservation Committee of the Sierra Club.

PO Box 1308
Kalkaska, MI 49646
ctejedor AT copper.net

Why Do Some Trees Leaf Out Sooner Than Others?

Why are some trees species eager to leaf out early in spring while others stay dormant until much later?  Poplars and maples break dormancy quite early, sometimes before the last frost, while black locust, oaks, and catalpa bide their time, often waiting until late May.  Certainly, as with most things in nature, many factors explain the difference, but here I would like to concentrate on one of them: the kind of wood trees make.

Longitudinal view of tracheid cells in wood.

Wood is the water-conducting tissue of a plant.  Under the microscope it appears to be made up of long, torpedo-shaped cells liberally sprinkled with holes to let water pass through.  Wood is mostly made of these cells–called tracheids.  Pine trees have no other specialized cells to carry water up the tree, but broadleaf trees do, vessels.

Vessels are not torpedo-shaped at all, but resemble soda straws.  You need a microscope to see them, but they are quite large as cells go, and that size can be a drawback.  If air bubbles form inside them or ice crystals form in a late spring frost, they can be damaged so that no water goes up to service the expanding leaves.

Trees with large vessels are especially at risk.  Just when buds need water from the roots, none is forthcoming.  The solution, for such trees as black locust and oaks, is to manufacture a ring of vessels early in spring to carry the water up.  The trouble is, it takes time to do so, time which the tree yields to other species that do not have to form a fresh layer of vessels, maples and poplars.  That means those species get the jump on those working to make new vessels.  Trees that make vessels lose out for a time in the battle for sunlight.

Cross-section of ring-porous wood. The large cells are vessels. The lines represent boundaries of growth rings.

For all that, they are quite successful.  Black locusts are “weed trees,” growing rapidly like weeds, whole groves of them joined together with underground rhizomes.  A white oak takes a different pathway, putting its energy into growing a single individual.  Both trees have a ring of vessels laid down in early spring, a ring clearly visible in the wood’s annual growth rings.  They will serve as the major plumbing system until dormancy in the fall. 

However, some ring porous trees leaf out early.  The explanation, according to one researcher, is evolution: they simply evolved in a warmer climate, spreading later to the North.  Science is never straightforward in the answers to questions it provides.

Shrubs leaf out early for a different reason.  They need to get as much sun as possible before the large trees expand a dense canopy of leaves above.  This year, see if that is not so: Do smaller native shrubs leaf out before the trees of the canopy overhead?

Image taken from the educational materials at Budburst.org

The time of leafing out—budburst some call it—varies according to the year, the habitat, the species, and the weather.  Naturally, a warm spring hastens the process, while days of frost inhibit it.  In these days of climate change, trees spread their canopies earlier on average than they used to.  They flower sooner, too, and they change color later in the fall.  In recent decades southern species do better than before in northern climates: Will pecans enjoy the newly changed winters of Northern Michigan?

One project —budburst—seeks to enlist amateur scientists in charting the leaf-out times for different tree species.  If readers wish to join this year’s study, they can sign up this year at budburst.org

All plates taken from; Mauseth, James D. “Plant Anatomy.” Benjamin/Cumming Publishing Company, Inc.: Menlo Park, California, 1988.

AQUACULTURE:  A Recipe for Economic Growth or Environmental Disaster?

In the broadest sense, aquaculture means growing water plants and animals for food, but in the Great Lakes area, it refers mostly to fish farming, raising fish in ponds or within nets in a defined area.  The practice is controversial with entrepreneurs claiming it can be done without harming the environment and environmentalists countering that it can threaten important ecosystems.  Whether it should be done in Lake Michigan or Lake Huron raises still more questions.  In this feature, two of our contributors, Stewart McFerran and Charles Weaver, take up the issue, each supporting opposing sides.

McFerran argues for aquaculture in his piece, Aquaculture, Properly Implemented, Improves Public Water Use for All

Weaver argues against fish farming in Aquaculture in the Great Lakes? Not a Good Idea

Enjoy the discussion!

Common Mergansers and the Itch

Swimmer’s Itch plagues many Michigan lakes.  Children are especially affected as itchy red bumps appear on legs and torso, soon after swimming.  Little can be done to alleviate the itching—the old remedy of baking soda is probably as good as any.  In a few days it disappears on its own, anyway.

This historic 1942 photomicrograph revealed some of the morphologic details displayed by a schistosomal cercaria, which is the larval stage of a parasite that causes “swimmer’s itch”, and was magnified approximately 150x. This was one of a series of instructional images used by the Minnesota Board of Health to train its state public health workers. The purpose of the images and the accompanying training was focused on protecting potable water supplies from contaminants including toxins, and pathogenic organisms, such as the parasite pictured here. This material was obtained from Professor William A. Riley, of the University of Minnesota. The sample itself was taken from Lake Owasso, Minnesota.
Image made available on Wikimedia Commons by the CDC/ Minnesota Department of Health, R.N. Barr Library; Librarians Melissa Rethlefsen and Marie Jones, Prof. William A. Riley. This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #8556.

The cause of the itch has been known for many years: a tiny parasite inhabits snails of the lake, shedding them into the water on warm summer days.  These cercariae are neither bacteria nor viruses, but a member of the flatworm phylum.  In short, they are worms.  Many years ago, at the University of Michigan Biological Station, I remember seeing them emerge from snails confined to a watchglass under a low-power microscope.  Compared to other such water creatures, they weren’t that small.  You could see them with your eyes if you cared to look.

After leaving the snails, apparently tired of the pace of life there, they swim around looking for a secondary host, frequently diving ducks such as the Common Merganser.  Finding one, they bore through its skin, somehow finding one another in the circulatory system to mate (I believe the animals are bisexual).  Afterwards, they migrate to the digestive tract where they produce eggs ready to be shed into the water with the duck’s feces.  Gaining the freedom of open water, they locate snails to infect, thereby completing the cycle.

An eruption of cercarial dermatitis on the lower legs after having spent a day getting in and out of canoes in the shallows of a lake, 21 September 2007, en.wikipedia. Image courtesy of User:Cornellier

We humans should be bystanders to this unwholesome series of events, but for one thing: the cercariae mistake us for ducks.  Only after entering the outermost layer of skin do they realize their awful mistake, but it is too late for them: our body’s immune system reacts to kill them off, that response leading to an angry, itching bump, swimmer’s itch.

Various methods have been used to control the pest.  At least two of them have been tried locally: copper sulfate and removing duck populations.  Copper sulfate kills snails, one of the hosts, but that method has been largely abandoned because it is not particularly effective in the long run and because it has harmful effects on other life.

Getting rid of ducks is easier said than done.  You can’t shoot them all—after all, there are game laws and many of us (including me) like them.  One technique is pyrotechnics.  At first I thought this had to do with firecrackers and bombs to drive away flocks, but that is not exactly so.  As applied to duck control, pyrotechnics has to do with firing a variety of noisemakers including propane cannons, thunderboom sticks, and bird bangers.  A loud noise sends flocks flying, no matter what the source.

Glen Lake has tried this method for several years with inconclusive results.  The Glen Lake Association on its website reports the itch still is bothersome, but not as bad as at Higgins Lake, where no such control has been attempted.  For some persons, the intermittent detonations may prove as annoying as the itch.

A friend whose family owns a cottage at Glen Lake for many years tells me that the lake has always had a swimmer’s itch problem.  The red, itching bumps were a rite of summer.  Usually, they do not discourage children to the point they will not go in the water.  Swimming and splashing in the water are just too much fun.

Female Common Merganser, Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park, Scotland Neck, North Carolina, January 2011. Image provided by DickDaniels through Wikimedia Commons.

There are some things you can do to avoid swimmer’s itch (aside from scaring ducks and poisoning snails).  There is some evidence that the cercariae are to be found more often on sunny, warm days, especially close to shore.  Onshore winds drive them close to beaches where children are likely to play.  Shorter swimming sessions might make infection less likely, too.  Unfairly, suntan lotions often contain compounds that attract the itch organisms.  Parents cannot catch a break—they must protect their children from the sun and from annoying creatures in the water.  Apparently you cannot do both at the same time.

Common Merganser (male). Image taken in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, February 2007. Image made available through Wikimedia Commons.

My reaction is that we will probably have to use these common sense measures of control—at least for now.  As a duck lover, I hate to see flocks constantly chased off lakes by loud noises.  Besides, how long will it take for them to get used to booms and pops?  After all, the sounds of traffic in New York City used to be so quiet that they were ignored in 1850.  Now, in 2017, it is no different, only we accept 70-decibel noise as normal.  Wouldn’t the ducks do the same as we did—learn to ignore the noise?

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?

“Why” questions in science often find ready answers.  Why do we have night and day?  The Earth turns on its axis.  Why do we have seasons?  The tilt of the Earth in its path around the sun.  What makes the wind blow?  Solar warming of the atmosphere.  The physics and chemistry of a situation provides us with answers.

Sometimes “why” questions are more difficult.  Why are oranges orange and apples red?  Why do birds migrate? Why do leaves change color in the fall?  Those questions do not depend directly on physics at all.  Do they even have answers?

In the case of leaves changing color, there actually is an answer based on physics and chemistry.  As the days shorten, plant hormones cause a layer to form in the leaf stem (an abscission layer) that cuts off water supply to the leaf.  Leaf cells with chlorophyll die off, that green pigment rapidly degrading.  What is left are more resilient pigments, the yellow carotenes and the red anthocyanins.   Trees turn red and orange and yellow and, Presto!  We have explained why leaves change color.

But another “why” question remains: of what advantage is it to the tree that leaves change color?  Here evolutionary biologists wage pitched battles.  Is color change somehow “adaptive?”  That is, does it have something to do with the tree’s survival and reproduction?  Or is it just something that happens, unrelated to those things?

Though relatively ignorant about these matters, I tend to cling to the belief that some things “just happen.”  They have nothing to do with enhanced survival and reproduction of species.  The question “why” is only an expression of our human intelligence, ever demanding explanations for phenomena that have none.

I could be wrong about it—and sometimes I wonder how anyone could ever prove conclusively certain traits are adaptive.  Is that because my own nature causes me to lean one way or the other?  Is that very quality adaptive?  Understandably, those concerned with such questions are prone to headaches.  I hope you are not so afflicted.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

The Last Plants to Bloom

Goldenrod, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Goldenrod, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Which native plant is the last to bloom before the onset of winter?  Everyone knows Chrysanthemums, but they aren’t native to Northern Michigan.   Certainly, goldenrod blooms late, as do asters.  Mostly goldenrod has finished by the time our most elegant aster, the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) begins to bloom.

newenglandasterIt can be found growing in moist places in the sun, its hairy leaves clasping the stem giving away its identity even before the flowers appear.  When they do open, they present a glorious purple, sometimes almost a deep red.  They do bloom late, sometimes as late as mid-October, but they are not the last to flower.

Jerusalem Artichokes, flowering, CC0.
Jerusalem Artichokes, flowering, CC0.

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), a native sunflower, show their bright yellow flowers at about the same time as New England Asters.  Standing as tall as seven feet, they prefer open fields, forming dense thickets of flowers as they spread from underground rhizomes—which make a fine food if the preparer has enough time and energy to clean and cook them.  Jerusalem artichokes grow tall, but will not be confused with the more common sunflower used for seeds enjoyed by humans and birds alike.   Jerusalem artichokes, (sometimes called ‘sunchokes,’ brighten our lives at a time the days grow shorter and shorter, but they aren’t the last to bloom.

Witchhazel, image courtesy of the author, October 2016.
Witchhazel, image courtesy of the author, October 2016.

The last to bloom is witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a small tree that grows at the edge of the forest or as an understory tree.  Its leaves are distinctive with wavy margins, never toothed as most leaves are.  Its flowers become most apparent just after its leaves have turned yellow and fallen off.  Four thin yellow petals can be seen hanging from twigs sometimes as late as November.  They aren’t as spectacular as the New England aster or the Jerusalem artichoke, but they give us joy that a plant has the fortitude—or foolishness?–to brave days of 45 degrees at a time when pollinators are all dead or sleeping.

Witchhazel Blossom, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Witchhazel Blossom, image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Witchhazel not only cheers us up at the end days of autumn, but it presents itself as a useful and interesting plant–useful, because its extract gives us an important astringent used in folk medicine, a treatment useful wherever swelling is a problem—and interesting because it can explosively shoot out its seeds from their capsules.  Earlier in autumn they do just that.  At such times it might be a good idea to wear safety glasses when walking in a grove of witchhazel because seed missiles can fly 30 feet in the air, certainly with enough force to put out an eye!  (I hope readers know me well enough to suspect foolery).

Let us take joy in the last flowers of autumn.  It will be many months before the crocuses send up their bold stalks in March.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Freshwater Jellyfish: Cute, and They Don’t Sting

Students frequently confront teachers of biology with a variety of organisms: snakes captured under porches, wild birds rescued and nurtured at home, preying mantises temporarily housed in glass jars, occasional pet hamsters brought to school in their wire cages, and—occasionally—creatures one doesn’t see regularly.  That was the case when a boy lugged a large bucket of water into the classroom one September day.  His question was the kind I welcome the most: What are these?

highlake
Location of High Lake, East Bay Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Image courtesy of Google Maps, September 2016.

I looked inside the bucket, at first not seeing a thing as I focused on the bottom of the bucket.   Then I saw them, swimming in the water column, tens of white, almost transparent disks, each one the size of a penny, swimming—is that too strong a word?—keeping themselves from sinking to the bottom.  Astounded because I had never seen them before, I croaked out, “Do you know what you’ve found?  Freshwater jellyfish!  They’re rare…where did you get them?   The boy, proud of his accomplishment, replied, High Lake.  High Lake!  High Lake had freshwater jellyfish! I wondered if I should report this finding to the University of Michigan.

Since that time much has been learned about freshwater jellyfish.  The source I had used concerning these organisms, Pennak’s Freshwater Invertebrates of the United States (1953) was outdated even at the time my classroom adventure occurred.  The book emphasized how rare the animals were, having been found at only fifty locations throughout the country.  As I read about them today I get a different impression about their origin, frequency and distribution across the lower 48 states.

Craspedacusta sowerbyi, a freshwater jellyfish native to China that is now a world-wide invasive species. Image courtesy of OpenCage (opencage.info) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Craspedacusta sowerbii, a freshwater jellyfish native to China that is now a world-wide invasive species. Image courtesy of OpenCage (opencage.info) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
They are not native to North America, having gotten here from China most likely with shipments of tropical fish and aquarium plants.  Fifteen years ago High Lake was one of the earliest lakes affected by that introduction.  They are not rare:  freshwater jellyfish are found in bodies of water in almost all of the states east of the Mississippi River as well as many more out west.  Outside of the United States they are now found in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand, almost always in temperate locations.  Alas, my excitement at finding rare fauna has cooled considerably.

Another invasive species!  I anxiously turned to Wikipedia to read about its effects on local ecosystems: What foul deeds is it performing on our freshwater lakes?  At present it is not clear what harm they are doing.  They do not seem to disrupt the major feeding relationships among the animals we care about, the fish, birds, and mammals.  Certainly they feed upon near-microscopic members of the zooplankton–the animals that feed small fish–and occasionally upon minnows themselves, but their presence seems benign—at least so far.

The development of Jellyfish. This image is taken from the book "Das Meer" (The Sea), by Matthias Jacob Schleiden. Top are medusae, or jellyfish; bottom are polyps. In the middle polyps strobilate (divide horizontally) to form medusae. Image courtesy of Matthias Jacob Schleiden (1804-1881) - Schleiden M. J. "Die Entwicklung der Meduse". In: "Das Meer". Verlag und Druck A. Sacco Nachf., Berlin, 1869.NOAA photo library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2051
The development of Jellyfish. This image is taken from the book “Das Meer” (The Sea), by Matthias Jacob Schleiden. Top are medusae, or jellyfish; bottom are polyps. In the middle polyps strobilate (divide horizontally) to form medusae. Image courtesy of Matthias Jacob Schleiden (1804-1881) – Schleiden M. J. “Die Entwicklung der Meduse”. In: “Das Meer”. Verlag und Druck A. Sacco Nachf., Berlin, 1869.NOAA photo library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2051

The fluttering disks I saw in the bucket represented the medusa stage of the jellyfish, the sexual stage in the life cycle, the stage that produces eggs and sperms.  However, the creature usually prefers the ease of asexual reproduction—a statement supported by the observation that all of the medusae in a lake might be male or else female, never a mixture of the two genders.

Students of Greek mythology might remember the word “medusa”, a monster with a hideous female face surrounded by venomous snakes, its visage so terrible that humans would be turned to stone upon beholding it.  The jellyfish medusa, thankfully, does not possess that power.  It is named after the many tentacles that hang from its margin, a reminder of the monster’s snakes.  Indeed, like the snakes,  it does possess venom—in tiny darts called “nematocysts”—but these are not robust enough to penetrate our skin.  They cannot “sting” us like their relatives, the Portuguese Man of War.

How does the jellyfish reproduce without sex?  It spends much of its life under water in the form of a polyp, a tiny but not microscopic form without tentacles that pinches off the little caps that become the medusa.  Sometimes it does not even bother with that, simply budding off a new polyp from its side.  Boaters and swimmers may not even see medusae in the water for years at a time.  The animal produces them when he/she is ready.

That bucket of water from High Lake did open my eyes to something I did not know existed, even if it proved not to be the rarity I had imagined.  It made me aware of another living form I had never heard of.  Does stimulating my curiosity add to the value of an organism?  If so, I have come to value the freshwater jellyfish.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.