The cowbird has quite the interesting genus, but today I am going to write about one species in particular, Molothrus ater. Commonly known as the Brown-headed Cowbird, this life of this little winged bastard is quite the interesting and sordid tale of lies, deceit, and outright fratricide.
Now, as omnipresent as the changing of the color of leaves in the autumn is, I’ll bet that many people don’t know how and why this transformation takes place. Sure, you might have the general idea (It is getting colder, the leaves will freeze, etc..) but I’ll bet that you don’t know the whole story. The annual changing of the colors is something that just comes naturally to those of us who live far enough north to enjoy the yearly onset of deep reds and bright bursts of orange in the trees. We often take for granted the crispy leaves and that slight smell of decay that comes with the fall. I don’t want to give you the impression that you should know this information, because personally I didn’t know the answer to the question to “Why do leaves change color and fall off” until I had taken a botany course in college. I hadn’t really thought about the processes, systems, reasons, and mechanisms of the fall colors before, learning about it in class was a bit of a “Duh!” moment for me. To have something so huge and eye catching to a biologist as myself, and not know the answers was unfortunate. I hope that you, my readers, would concur. Fortunately for you, I did eventually learn the important details about this annual arboreal event. I am glad to share it with you. (I would like to apologize for the title of this article as well… I couldn’t help myself)
Lets start right at the beginning.
I thought it might be prudent to share one of the major inspirations for this website. While I was working this past spring, I began to listen to the WNYC Radio Lab podcasts. Very excellent show. They deal with all of the craziest science questions and mysteries in an enjoyable and understandable format. But, in between their regular episodes they had a short that they called “Tell Me a Story” where one of the shows hosts, Robert Krulwich, gives a commencement speech to the 2008 graduating class at Cal Tech. Needless to say, it made me feel a bit guilty. So, I figured I would do this. I can write reasonably well, I know a lot of stuff, and the world needs more people that can be the conduit between the science and the masses. I grew up with role models such as Bill Nye the science guy, and Steve Irwin. We need more people like them, people that can share the wonderful world of science and nature to the public. Science isn’t cool anymore like it was, we need to reach people. This is going to be one of the most important challenges of our lifetimes, and we need to rise to meet that challenge.
I took quite a particular interest in plant biology and the overall ecosystems of the forests of WI and the upper plains regions. In my later years in college I took courses in Botany and Dendrology, as well as a Human Issues Ecology course. One of my favorite things I learned about during my studies as a biologist is the origin, history, and physiology of my favorite tree, Gleditsia triacanthos.
One of my favorite areas of study in college was Dendrology, which is the study of trees. Trees are just cool. They are absolutely mammoth plants with an extremely delicate infrastructure. There will be an article on my favorite tree in the future, you can bet on that, but for now I am just going to talk about how trees come to be. Take for instance, the tree pictured at the start of the article, General Sherman. General Sherman is a giant sequoia, (Sequoiadendron giganteum) tree. This bad boy is over 275 feet tall, which is 20 feet short of the entire height of the Statue of Liberty in NY. General Sherman weighs over 6100 tons, and is 36.5 feet wide at the bottom, which, coincidentally, is larger than my meager apartment. How did this tree get to be so big? Time, is the real answer. General Sherman is estimated to be over 2300 years old. Think about that for a second. This tree was around before christianity even existed. This tree started its growth before the world was considered round, heck the civilized world didn’t even know that the Americas even existed at that point. This tree has seen everything from ancient history to world wars, to civil wars, and it has still weathered on. One of the often overlooked facts about trees is how they grow, and what makes them grow to be so big. General Sherman, which weighs 6100 tons, is made almost entirely up of air. (more…)
Summer time is here, and if you are anything like me, that means trips to the lake. Boating, swimming, fishing, or even just plain watching, lakes and state parks are a wonderful place to spend the weekend, so in the spirit of summer I will be explaining some of the things you might not know about your favorite summer vacation spot. Up here in Wisconsin we have ever so many lakes to choose from. These lakes come in all shapes and sizes and depths, but no matter what lake you decide to visit this summer there is one thing that they will all have in common. Algae. This article will answer the question as to why our favorite lakes can be that not-so-beautiful blue in the summer months. (more…)