The Alcovy Conservation Center (part I)

June 22, 2019

We took my daughter to Atlanta for her birthday, so she could see a Braves game with her aunt and a friend.  I stayed in an air-conditioned hotel room with my wife and mother-in-law and watched the game on television.  The best way to attend a Braves game is to rent an hotel room in Battery Park and walk to the stadium because the traffic  and parking are a nightmare.  My wife is disabled and a sports stadium is just no place for a person in a wheelchair (think bathroom logistics).  That’s why we didn’t go ourselves.  We were hoping to have dinner with my daughter next to the stadium before the game, but the traffic was so bad we got separated (we were in 2 different cars) before I had a chance to give my daughter my camera.  Otherwise, this blog entry would have photos from inside Sun Trust Park. She did take photos with her phone but hasn’t figured out how to upload them to the computer yet.  I got stuck in Atlanta traffic.  Getting stuck in Atlanta traffic makes me feel like committing suicide.  This was vacation 2019 for us.  Actually, my idea of an ideal vacation is to get drunk and listen to music, then watch internet porn the following day to forget how shitty my hangover makes me feel.  Oh wait…that sounds like every Thursday night.

The original plan for the following day was to visit Fernbank Forest, but I learned online those bastards charge $18 to walk in their woods.  When I visited Fernbank Museum a few years ago their forest was closed for repairs and I couldn’t see it even after I paid their damn fee.  (Why does a natural forest need to be repaired?)  I guess I will never see it.  As an alternative, I chose to visit the Alcovy Conservation Center in Covington, Georgia.  It is maintained by the Georgia Wildlife Federation and it is free.  It’s mostly used for school field trips.  Visitors are supposed to check in but there was no one there, not even other visitors.  (The Fernbank Forest is notoriously crowded.)

Kiosk at Alcovy Conservation Center.  The land includes 115 acres of woodland, meadow, and wetland.

Big black oak.  There were a number of really big black oaks in this park.

Open woodland.

This is an old fencerow in an old pasture.  Birds and squirrels planted these trees.

I enjoyed my visit to the Alcovy Conservation Center.  I had time to see just half of it.  I didn’t even see what it is most famous for–a tupelo swamp.  This type of natural community is common in the coastal plain but uncommon in the piedmont where the conservation center is located.  There are just 4 other sites in the piedmont region with tupelo swamps.  I also didn’t see the canebrake and marsh.

I did see some enormous black oaks.  Other common plants I encountered were water oak, willow oak, river birch, sweetgum, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, hickory, pawpaw, dogwood, muscadine grape vine, and trumpet creeper.  This is the only site in Georgia where I have seen pawpaw growing in the wild.

Pawpaw tree.  I wonder if the pawpaws will be ripe when I visit again in late August.

I didn’t come at a good time to see wildlife–it was late morning and sultry.  There were many small drab birds, probably sparrows, but they wouldn’t stay still for identification.  I saw dark phase tiger swallowtail butterflies.  I didn’t know tiger swallowtails came in a dark phase until I searched my field guide for identification.  It too wouldn’t cooperate for my camera.  Charles Wharton, the late author of The Natural Communities of Georgia, wrote white tail deer grew larger along the Alcovy river bottoms than anywhere else in Georgia.  They were sensibly resting in the shade, while we slogged through the heat, and we didn’t see them.  The squirrels were also resting in the shade.  I walked on a path known as fox squirrel trail but saw no squirrels of any kind.  This site hosts a disjunct population of the bird-voiced tree frog, but it is probably past mating season for them.  However, on the plus side, I didn’t see a single fly or mosquito.

The Georgia Wildlife Federation encourages wildlife here.  There is a chimney swift tower, many bluebird boxes, and they even have at least 1 bat box.  I’ll be back to see the parts I missed.

Chimney swift tower.  Chimney swifts with their nestlings live in my home chimney.  I notice some people put caps on their chimneys to prevent birds from nesting there.  If you put a cap on your chimney to block chimney swifts, you can’t be my friend.

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The Human History of Sicily in 1345 Words

June 15, 2019

Humans first began colonizing Sicily about 14,000 years ago.  Historians aren’t sure where these people originated, but they probably came from what today is mainland Italy, Spain, and/or North Africa.  Different tribes roamed various parts of the island where they fished, hunted large mammals, and foraged in the forest for plant foods.  The oldest known culture is the Mycenaean, a people who established trade routes and flourished on the island from 1600 BC-1200 BC.  This culture died out, possibly following some natural disaster, such as an earthquake that weakened the stability of that society.  Greeks started colonizing the island in 734 BC, forcing the native tribes away from the coast and into the interior.  The Greeks were 1 of the dominant civilizations in the Western World during this time, but they weren’t a single country.  Instead they were made up of many different city states–some were democratic while others were ruled by autocratic kings.  The Greeks fought with the Carthaginians for control of Sicily, and the Greeks eventually forced them off the island.  The Carthaginians descend from the Phoenicians of the bible and were a sea-faring, trading civilization.  The Greek city states of Sparta and Athens then fought for control over the island, and the former were victorious.

Almost a century later Carthaginians invaded the island again. The first great king of Sicily, Gelon, led an army that defeated the Carthaginians in battle.  (The Carthaginains still controlled a small part of the island, but Gelon had most of it.)  Gelon also founded the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily where he established the capital of his state.  He forcibly moved the richest, best educated people he conquered to Syracuse, and the city became renowned for its high culture.

Gelon, the first great king of Sicily.

Sicily was ruled by a series of tyrant kings after Gelon’s death.  They all varied in their competence and cruelty.  Timoleon was the next great ruler of Sicily.  He drove the Carthaginians off the island after they had tried to regain control once again.  His sensible administration of the island led to it becoming the first great granary of the rising Roman empire.  Rome became the big world power during the 3rd century BC and after they defeated Carthage in 2 major wars, Sicily became part of the Roman empire, though most of the inhabitants spoke Greek instead of Latin.  Rome ruled Sicily for centuries and aside from several slave revolts Sicilian history was uneventful during this time period.

The Roman empire collapsed circa 500 AD and split into 2 kingdoms.  Western Rome, influenced by the pope, was Roman Catholic, while eastern Rome, ruled from Constantinople and known as the Byzantine Empre, was Greek Orthodox.  For a brief time the German Ostrogoth tribe conquered the western empire and ruled Sicily, but this didn’t last long.  The Byzantines took control of Sicily for about 200 years until Arabs invaded the island when they were spreading the Muslim religion across the Mediterranean at the point of a sword.  The Byzantines frequently tried to regain control of Sicily, but they could never beat the Arabs.  However, Arab kings, though they were brothers, were constantly fighting each other in a kind of Civil War that made them weak.  Meanwhile, the Normans, used as mercenaries to protect the western Roman empire, were becoming numerous and troublesome to the pope in southern Italy.  (Normans were Vikings that had conquered northern France and shortly after assimilated the French culture.) To get rid of them, the pope gave Sicily to King Robert of the Normans.  Sicily, of course, was ruled by Arab brothers and wasn’t the pope’s territory to give.  Nevertheless, Robert and his Viking army invaded Sicily and eventually defeated the Arabs.

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Illustration of Norman invasion of Sicily.

The Normans ruled Sicily for over an hundred years, until 1 of their kings married into German royalty and passed the torch onto them.  There was 1 great German King during this era by the name of Hohestaffer.  The Pope asked him to lead a Crusade to retake Jerusalem.  But instead of all out warfare, he managed to regain the city with a peace agreement.  This pissed the pope off because he hated Muslims and wanted bloodshed.  Worse yet, Hohestaffer was reportedly decent to the Muslim citizens who still lived on Sicily.  So the pope sent an army after Hohestaffer, but the German king defeated it, took his army to Rome, and made the pope surrender.

The Catholic church always hated this German line of kings, and several generations later they replaced this lineage with French Royalty.  The French kings never lived on the island and seldom even visited it.  Instead, they doled the land out to their buddies who served as absentee landlords that got rich from the poor laboring peasants.  Sicily was always kind of a backwater region controlled by distant royalty who gave their powerful friends vast estates.  This created enormous income inequality that persists today.  The Sicilians often rebelled, and during 1 rebellion King Ferdinand of Spain came to their rescue and established Spanish rule.  Spain owned Sicily for centuries, but again, the system of vast estates that enriched super rich land barons remained.  Most of the population consisted of poor peasants who never even had the chance to own land, despite the existence of large amounts of fallow acres on these huge estates.  Spain introduced the Inquisition to Sicily, explaining why it remained backwards for so long.  Many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Sicily during Spanish rule.  At this point in history Muslims were more civilized and scientifically advanced than Christians, and Jews were worldly merchants.  The Mafia probably originated during Spanish rule.  The land barons paid bandits protection money–in other words they paid them not to be robbed.  In return the bandits helped the land barons suppress peasant rebellions.

Spain ruled Sicily for about 400 years, but in a war against the Holy Roman Empire they lost it.  Austrians defeated the Spanish in a major battle on Sicily, and the Holy Roman Empire briefly owned it.  Another peace treaty granted the island to a king of the Piedmont province located in what today is Italy.  The next peace treaty granted the island to Austrian royalty who ruled Sicily from Naples.  The French under Napoleon’s brother ran the Austrian royalty out of Naples, but the British (at war with Napoleon) occupied Sicily and protected the royalty, until Napoleon’s eventual defeat.  Austrian royalty regained Naples after Napoleon lost.

Naples and Italy were controlled by Austrian royalty until Italian independence in 1861.

Unhappy peasants often rebelled in Sicily and Naples.  Royalty often were forced to flee, and they would agree to democratic reforms.  But as soon as the kings repressed the insurrections, they would tear up the newly written constitutions and re-establish autocratic rule.  Emmanuel II of the Piedmont kingdom in central Italy was different.  He supported democracy and wanted Italy to be united.  He invited the French to help him kick the Austrians out of a couple Italian provinces which were then united under his rule.  However, it was a mercenary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who liberated Sicily and Naples from Austrian rule.  Italy was born in 1861.  A decade later the French were forced to leave Rome after their defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, and the pope retreated inside the Vatican.  (The pope and the Catholic church always opposed democracy).  This established the modern day boundaries of Italy. Nevertheless, the peasants in Sicily were still oppressed, squeezed between land barons and the mafia.  Many left for a better life in the U.S. and South America.

Italy was democratic until 1922 when Benito Mussolini took over.  He suppressed the mafia on Sicily for 14 years, so they were glad to help U.S. troops, when along with the British, they kicked the Germans and the Italian army off the island in 1943. The loss of Sicily caused Mussolini to lose power.  Since World War II, Sicily and Italy been under a democratic socialist government, and the people are probably better off than at any other time in their history.

Reference:

Norwich, John

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

Random House 2015

Pleistocene Cuckoos (Coccyzus sp.)

June 8, 2019

I frequently hear yellow-billed cuckoos (C. americanus) during summer, but I almost never see them.  They spend most of their time perched in tree tops and they blend in well, so they are difficult to spot.  I’ve never even seen this species perched, but I have occasionally spotted them flying in front of me, while I’m jogging or driving.  They are long birds with reddish brown wings and a checkered tail.  I discovered this species lives in my neighborhood a few years ago when I was learning bird calls from the Cornell University ornithology website.  I searched for yellow-billed cuckoos on this site and was pleasantly surprised to recognize their distinctive call.  Here’s a link.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-billed_Cuckoo/sounds

Video of a perched cuckoo.  I’ve never seen one perched. Old timers called these birds rain crows because they will sometimes call in response to thunder.

Yellow-billed cuckoos spend summers in North America and winter in South America.  Caterpillars are the most important item in their diet, and they specialize in eating large spiny caterpillars that taste bad to most other species of birds.  They are so well-adapted to eating caterpillars that when their stomachs become clogged with spines, they vomit up their stomach lining and grow a new one.  They also feed on other large insects such as cicadas, locusts, and dragonflies.  Fruit balances out the rest of their diet.  They lay their eggs at intervals, and their nests often contain different aged nestlings.  The young are covered in porcupine like quills, and they are capable of climbing trees to avoid predators.  They leave the nest just 17 days after hatching.

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Yellow-billed cuckoo range map.

2 other species of cuckoos in the coccyzus genus live in North America–the black-billed cuckoo (C. erythropthalmus) and the mangrove cuckoo (C. minor).  Surprisingly, genetic evidence suggests the black-billed cuckoo is not a sister species of the yellow-billed cuckoo.  The black-billed cuckoo also summers in North America and winters in South America, but it breeds in more northerly locations.  These species independently evolved the habit of migrating north to find summer breeding ranges.  The pearly-breasted cuckoo (C. euleri), restricted to South America, is a sister species to the yellow-billed.  I looked at a photo of this species and I can’t tell the difference between the 2.  The mangrove cuckoo ranges from South Florida and the Bahamas to the coasts of Mexico and Central America.

Fossil evidence of cuckoos in the coccyzus genus has been excavated from sites in Florida, Virginia, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Bolivia.  They are a bird of deep forest and therefore the process of preservation is rare in their habitat, explaining why they are absent in much of the fossil record.  Coccyzus cuckoos likely increased in abundance during warmer wetter stages of climate.

Cuckoos belong to the Cucilidae family which includes 135-147 species, depending upon the taxonomist’s opinion.  All Eurasian species are parasitic–they lay their eggs in other birds nests.  (These are the species depicted in cuckoo clocks.)  Yellow-billed cuckoos are occasionally parasitic.  During times of plenty when there are outbreaks of fall webworms or tent caterpillars, they will lay an egg in the nests of other cuckoos, robins, catbirds, or woodthrushes.  The cuculidae family also includes anis of South America and Mexico, coucals of Melanesia and Australia, and New World ground cuckoos.  Roadrunners belong to the New World ground cuckoos.  Most other species of New World ground cuckoos are parasitic, and 1 species specializes in preying upon army ants.

References:

Forbush, Ed

A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America

Bramhall House 1955

Hughes, Janice

“Phylogeny of the Cuckoo Genus Coccyzus (Aves: Cuculidae): a test of monophyly”

Systematics and Biochemistry 2006

Cooking an Old Rooster

June 1, 2019

Not many people know this, but every single packaged chicken in chain grocery stores is a female.  Most male chickens are aborted upon hatching because they don’t lay eggs and fight each other all the time and accordingly are not economical to keep.  Before modern agriculture when most rural folks kept chickens, they ate their roosters.  The classic French dish, chicken coq au vin, is made by slow cooking an old tough rooster in wine.  On a recent visit to a new Vietnamese grocery store I found a rooster.  It costs 3 times more than most grocery store chickens, but I wanted to try making the classic French dish authentically, so I sprung for it.

Asian supermarkets sell birds with the head and feet attached.  The cock’s comb is edible according to some vintage cookbooks, but it looks like cartilage to me.  I gave it to the cats.

First I butchered the rooster into 10 pieces.  (I wrapped up the feet and put them in the freezer for future stock-making.)  Next, I dredged the chicken in seasoned flour and browned the pieces in bacon grease.  I placed the pieces in a casserole dish and sautéed mushrooms and onions in the pan I browned the chicken in.  I smothered the chicken with the onions and mushrooms and deglazed the other pan with red wine.  I used an inexpensive Merlot.  I poured the wine on the chicken and vegetables.  I happened to have parsley so I sprinkled chopped parsley over this.  I covered the casserole dish and put it inside the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour.  If I had to do it over again, I would go with 300 degrees for 2 hours.  The first temperature and time would be perfect for a grocery store broiling hen, but it didn’t tenderize the rooster as much as I would’ve liked.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed eating the rooster.  The flesh had a better texture than most grocery store chickens.  Almost all grocery store chickens are embalmed with a salt water solution, and in my opinion this gives the flesh a weird texture.  I’ve given up even looking for non-embalmed chickens.  Producers inject salt water in chickens because modern breeds have such large breasts, the white meat will dry out without the solution.  This dish is traditionally served with pearl onions, but I just used a regular chopped onion.  The wine gravy is delicious and really pairs well with the meat.

The finished product. Tastes like chicken.

 

Irksome Pundit Speak: That said at the End of the Day he Doubled Down and It is What It Is

May 26, 2019

I watch too many cable news shows.  News networks that strictly report news get killed in the ratings, so most are 50% news and 50% opinion.  News networks hire pundits who comment on the news of the day.  Most pundits are has-been politicians or former aides to has-been politicians.  Almost all use annoying clichés that drive me crazy.  They can use a whole string of clichés to complete a sentence that in essence is completely meaningless.  Pundits can have entire conversations with each other without saying anything.  Here are some of the clichés they use that are the most irksome.

That said. Pundits use “that said” after they make 1 point and want to address a counterpoint.  The phrase is extraneous.  It is unnecessary to say “that said” because they already said something, and the viewers know what they just said.  I’ve even come across this phrase in written editorials.  I want to tell them “you didn’t say it, you wrote it, you idiot.” Whatever happened to the good old fashioned “however” or “on the other hand.”

At the end of the day. Pundits use “at the end of the day” to conclude their point.  Again, this is a completely unnecessary phrase.  When a pundit is finished making their point all they need to do is shut up and let somebody else speak.  Besides there is never an end to a political argument–they go on forever, long past the “end of the day.”

He doubled down. Pundits use this to describe a politician who makes a terrible gaffe, but instead of apologizing or admitting they misspoke, they defend their idiotic statement.  For example a politician could claim there was such a thing as consensual rape. (A Missouri state senator actually said this a few weeks ago.  What is it about Missouri politicians and their absurd views about “legitimate”  and “consensual” rape?) Instead of apologizing or admitting he misspoke the politician might say “there is consensual rape and 15 year old girls should be drafted to serve as sex slaves for our patriotic soldiers.”  Politicians who refuse to admit they said something dumb are not doubling anything.  They are just stupid.

It is what it is. This is perhaps the most meaningless cliché of all.  It means absolutely nothing  I can’t even explain what people are saying when they use this phrase.  It was what it was and could if it could but it would what it would.  What? I suggest to anyone with the urge to say “it is what it is” to just shut the hell up.

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Hardball with Chris Matthews is my favorite cable news show.  He asks the tough questions.  Usually.

Sicily During the Late Pleistocene

May 19, 2019

Over the past few weeks I read The Sicilian by Mario Puzo, author of the famous Godfather series.  He also wrote the screenplays for The Godfather and Christopher Reeve Superman movies.  His early novels were critically acclaimed but didn’t sell, so a publisher suggested he write a novel that focused on the mafia.  In his earlier novels the mafia played just a small role.  He followed this advice only to see The Godfather rejected 20 times before he finally found a publisher.  The Sicilian is every bit as good, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been adapted for the cinema.  Mario Puzo doesn’t describe the nature of Sicily much in his novel.  He does describe the island as quite arid, and he frequently mentions the “red hawks” soaring in the sky.  As a supplement to enjoying this novel I engaged in a brief study of Sicily’s natural history.

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The “red hawks” referred to in his book were probably red kites (Milvus milvus), a threatened species.

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Location of Sicily.  

Sea level fluctuations during the Pleistocene led to intermittent land bridges connecting Sicily to mainland Europe and as a consequence Sicilian flora and fauna descend from species arriving from that continent.  The location of the island in the Mediterranean Sea moderated climate, and species that disappeared from most of Europe during severe Ice Ages found refuge on Sicily.  The region is now known for mild wet winters and hot dry summers.  Average annual temperatures were likely slightly cooler during stadials.  Myrtle, oak, and cork trees covered lower elevations, while oak-beech forests occupied higher elevations.  Volcanic mountains and abundant rivers vary the landscape.

Species of large animals living on Sicily during the late Pleistocene included bison, aurochs, horse, fallow deer, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, brown bear, cave lion, hyena, wolf, and giant tortoise.  2 unique species lived on the island then–a dwarf elephant (Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis) and the dwarf Sicilian hippo (Hippopotamus pentlandi).  The dwarf elephant was closely related to the extant Asian elephant.  It weighed just 3000 pounds, and the species also occurred on the nearby island of Malta.  Both the dwarf elephant and the Sicilian hippo became extinct shortly after man colonized Sicily about 14,000 years ago.

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Artist’s depiction of P. mnaidriensis along with a few swans.  I don’t believe it is drawn correctly to scale, unless this is the depiction of a juvenile.  Dwarf elephants were small but they weren’t this small.

People gradually eroded the quality and quantity of wildlife on Sicily, and they utterly destroyed the natural ecosystems.  Most of the island was deforested during Roman rule, leading to prolonged droughts, and the last wolves were  exterminated during the 1920s.  Though 150 species of birds live on the island, including flamingoes and several species of eagles, many are endangered.  However, the island is home to Nebrodi Mountains National Park where roe deer, wild boar, hares, Eurasian red squirrels, crested porcupines, wild cats, and foxes still roam.  Small towns founded during the Byzantine Empire are scattered throughout the park, and farmers keep rare breeds of horses and black pigs here.  The oldest chestnut tree in the world (more than 2000 years old) grows on Mt. Etna.

I’m going to read a book about the human history of Sicily next and will write a blog article about it when I’m finished.

Reference:

Bofiglo, L. et. al.

“Bio-chronology of Pleistocene Vertebrate Faunas of Sicily and Correlation of Vertebrate Bearing Deposits with Marine Deposits”

Il Quaternario 16 (1BIS) 2003

 

Did Pleistocene Tapirs Shit in the Woods?

May 12, 2019

The answer is not as obvious as it might seem.  A new study found extant lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) defecate more often in degraded woodlands than in deep forests.  They spend more time in disturbed forest openings that have been logged or burned because they feed upon young plants sprouting in the increased sunlight after canopy tree removal.  The study suggests tapirs facilitate forest regeneration by defecating viable seeds in their dung.  Scientists estimated the average tapir shits about 10,000 viable seeds per year in disturbed forests–3X more than in undisturbed forests.

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Lowland tapir standing near a forest edge.  They actually shit more next to the woods than in it.

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Mountain tapir (T. pinchaque).  This is the only species of extant tapir adapted to cooler climates.  The extinct species of tapir that formerly lived in southeastern North America was likely adapted to temperate climates, like this species.

The extinct Vero tapir (Tapirus veroensis) roamed across southeastern North America during the Pleistocene, and this species likely played an important role in forest regeneration then as well.  Herds of mammoths and mastodons stripped bark from trees, often killing them.  This was especially true during droughts when mammoths, normally grass-eaters, were forced to dine on the edible parts of trees.  Flocks of passenger pigeons also wiped out whole sections of forest.  Tornadoes and ice storms left large gaps in the forest canopy.  Tapirs attracted to these disturbed areas helped them regenerate.

Studies of extinct tapir bone chemistry indicate tapirs preferred to eat plants that occurred in deep forests.  However, they likely ate the young saplings that sprouted in gaps within forests.  Some of the plants tapirs may have consumed included pokeberry, persimmon, pawpaw, Osage orange, honey locust, wild squash, blueberry, composites, maple, and oak. These are plants that quickly colonize forest gaps.  And tapirs didn’t often shit in the woods.  Instead, they crapped on the edge of the woods or in open gaps within the woods.

Reference:

Paolucci, L.; C. Rattis, R. Pereira, and D. Silverio

“Lowland Tapirs Facilitate Seed Dispersal in Degraded Amazonian Forests”

Biotropica Feb. 2019

The Hoyo Negro Fossil Site Keeps Producing Surprises

May 5, 2019

I’ve already written about the Hoyo Negro fossil site located in Yucatan, Mexico twice (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/the-hoyo-negro-fossil-site-in-yucatan-mexico/ and https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/new-species-of-late-pleistocene-ground-sloth-and-peccary-discovered-on-yucatan-peninsula/ ), but new and interesting discoveries keep happening inside this underwater cave.  Scuba divers previously found a 13,000 year old human skeleton, the bones of 30 species of large mammals, and bat guano, containing valuable paleoecological evidence at this site.  Included among the mammal specimens were 3 extinct animals new to science–2 species of ground sloth (Xibalbaonyx oviceps and Nahochichak xibalbahakah) and 1 species of peccary (Mucknalia minimas).  Recently, scuba divers found another human skeleton here, this 1 dated to 12,000 years BP; and scientists identified the bones of 2 species of extinct carnivores previously thought to have been restricted to South America.

A team of paleontologists looking through bones excavated from Hoyo Negro realized 1 labeled as coyote had been misidentified.  The remains actually belonged to Protocyon troglodytes, an extinct wolf-like animal.  Subfossils of this species have been excavated from sites located in 6 South American countries, but this is the first time a specimen has ever been found in North America.  This team of paleontologists also recognized a bear skull misidentified as belonging to a spectacled bear was actually the skull of an Arctotherium wingei. This species of extinct bear was known from fossil sites in 3 South American countries, and this specimen is also a first from North America.  Photos of bear fossils from other sites in the Yucatan peninsula indicate these also are Arctotherium.  These discoveries extend the known northern range limits of these species by over 1200 miles.

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I think this photo is the Arctotherium skull found in the Hoyo Negro.  This specimen is preserved better than any previously known.

The Yucatan peninsula supported a unique fauna during the last Ice Age.  Paleontologists recently named a new species of extinct jaguar (Panthera balamoides) from a few bones found at another site in the region. This means there were 4 species of large mammals living on the Yucatan that may not have been found anywhere else.  Moreover,  both North and South American species had ranges that overlapped here and possibly nowhere else.  For example dire wolves co-existed here with protocyon, another predatory canid.  It seems likely a vast desert grassland isolated the Yucatan peninsula during Ice Ages.  However, the proximity of the Caribbean Sea allowed for more precipitation on the peninsula than farther inland.  This fostered the growth of jungles and wetlands that supported a greater variety of fauna, and new species that were different from populations on the other side of the desert evolved in this isolated paleoenvironment.

Reference:

Schubert, Blaine; et. al.

“Yucatan Carnivores Shed Light on Great Biotic Interchange”

Biology Letters May 2019

Pleistocene Mulberries (Morus sp.)

April 28, 2019

Ordering fruit trees from a catalogue or internet site is a dodgy endeavor.  The trees are overpriced with an added cost of shipping, and in my experience I’ve learned the trees produce poor quality fruit, if they even survive long enough to bear.  I’ve had much better luck transplanting trees from local nurseries.  I have 26 year old grape vines and blueberry bushes almost as old that I purchased from local nurseries, and I’d still probably have a great fig tree, if plumbers didn’t have to dig a new drain field for my septic tank.  Peach trees I’ve grown from seed are much stronger and produce much better fruit than any I ever purchased through the mail.  A mulberry tree growing by the side of my house is an example of mail order disappointment.  The tree is thriving and flowers every spring but it produces no fruit.  This puzzled me until I finally figured out why.  The tree died back the first year I bought it, but it regrew from the stump.  Nurseries sell mulberry trees with male and female branches.  (Male flowers produce no fruit.)  Unfortunately, the part that grew back on my tree is all male.

Male flower on my mulberry tree.  Female flowers have a more round shape.  All the flowers on my mulberry are male, much to my disappointment.  Click to enlarge the photo.

Mulberries belong to an ancient family that has existed since at least the mid-Cretaceous, and dinosaurs likely dispersed the seeds of the fruit from this family in their feces.  The Moraceae family includes mulberries, figs, Osage orange, jack fruit, and bread fruit.  The species of native mulberry common and widespread in eastern North America is Morus rubra.  The range map of this species shows some affinity in its northern limit with the ghost boundary of the Laurentide Glacier.  (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/the-ghost-boundary-of-the-last-glacial-maximum-ice-margin/ ) However, like many other species of trees M. rubra successfully recolonized some territory that became deglaciated following the last Ice Age.  It’s likely red mulberry grew in mixed forests all the way to the glacial boundary during Ice Ages but became much more common during warmer wetter interstadials and interglacials.  Mulberry trees prefer early to mid successional woodlands where they can get plenty of sunlight.  Hence, they are a pioneer species dispersed in bird droppings.  Disturbed plant communities caused by rapid climate change and megafauna foraging were common during the Pleistocene and so were mulberries, though their pollen is rarely detected in core samples.

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Range map of the red mulberry.  It has been widely transplanted outside its range.  Avian dispersal helped this species recolonize deglaciated regions following the end of the last Ice Age.

Birds love mulberries, and avian dispersal explains how mulberries recolonized deglaciated regions when so many other species did not.  A study of 1 backyard mulberry tree in Arkansas counted 32 species of birds feeding on the fruit.  Cedar waxwings and robins made up 77% of the individual birds visiting the tree.  Other birds feeding on the fruit from this tree included mockingbirds, finches, catbirds, eastern kingbirds, and warblers. The fruit appeals to bird species that normally prefer insects.

Mulberries were especially common around Indian villages during Colonial times and earlier.  William Bartram mentioned M. rubra  at least 20 times in his Travels. Mulberries ripen over a 3 week period during late May and early June and were an important earl summer fruit for the Indians.  They can be dried and dried mulberries are a staple in Afghanistan.  European settlers brought white mulberries (M. alba) to North America, hoping to start a silk industry.  For 4 thousand years the Chinese have been raising the silk worm moth (Bombyx mora), a species no longer found in the wild.  The silk worm moth larva feed upon mulberry leaves and produce silk for their cocoon.  The silk industry collapsed in North America long ago and now they grow wild, often hybridizing with native mulberries.

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Silkworm moth larva feeding on mulberry leaves.

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Red mulberry fruit.  Despite the name, they aren’t ripe until they turn black.

Mulberries are very sweet and nutritious.  They are high in Vitamin C and iron and also a good source of potassium, Vitamin K, Vitamin E, and fiber.  They are rich in cholesterol-reducing and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants.  They make good desserts as well, but they do have 1 drawback.  The stem grows well into the fruit and is difficult to remove.

Reference:

Jackson, J; and R. Kanin

“Avian Frugivory in a Fruiting Mulberry Tree (Morus rubra) in Arkansas”

Journal of Arkansas Academy of Science 2016

Paper Clowns

April 20, 2019

When I was in my mid-20s I was not an ambitious person.  I happened to be looking through the want ads 1 day and I thought I  found an ideal job.  A company would send me the material to construct paper clowns, and I would send them back, and they would pay me $5 for each clown I constructed.  I thought I could also save money by not having to drive to work everyday.  Better yet, it sounded like a job I could manage while high on pot.  I eagerly told my mother about this opportunity, but she was not enthused.  Instead, she gently insisted I get a real job with insurance benefits and paid vacations.  I did go out and get a real job and went on to meet my wife indirectly through work.  My mom was rewarded with a granddaughter, and I avoided the ignominy of being the kind of adult who lives in their parents’ basement and never really grows up.  There are many ways my mom influenced my life, but this incident always comes to mind when I think about them.

This is my mom with my father, my younger sisters, and me in 1967.

My mother, Audrey Gelbart, was born on  August 5th, 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was the product of a mixed marriage–her mother was a Yankee from New York and her father was a southerner from Georgia.  She grew up in Willoughby, Ohio with 2 brothers and a sister.  After graduating from high school she worked as a secretary in an hospital where she met my father who was a resident doctor there.  They married in 1961 and by 1966 they had 3 children.  She raised us while my father was busy working, and she always kept her house ultra clean.  She was a patient, sweet-tempered mother and grandmother, and a devoted wife.  She took good care of my father, especially during his many health crises, until his death in 2014.  My mom passed away on April 19th 2019.  We will miss her.