Pleistocene Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)

December 7, 2019

When I was attending 3rd grade during the 1970/1971 school year, Perry Harvey came home with me everyday after school.  On occasion he could be reckless.  One unfortunate day he swung a baseball bat at an oak tree, and the bat rebounded, struck him in the head, and knocked him out cold; taking the old cliché “knock yourself out” to a literal reality.  Another day he made the mistake of picking up a baby blue jay that had fallen out of its nest.  Every blue jay in the neighborhood screeched and dive-bombed us.  He put the blue jay down, and the birds chased us into the house in a scene reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds. Like some other species of birds, blue jays practice communal defense.

YouTube video of a blue jay attacking a gardener.

Blue jays are intelligent birds from the corvid family which also includes crows and magpies.  They are well adapted for living in the temperate deciduous woods of eastern North America and have probably occupied that habitat for many millions of years.  However, I have been unable to find any studies of blue jay genetics, and I don’t know how long they have existed as a distinct species.  It seems likely they diverged from the common ancestor of the gray, Florida scrub, and Stellar’s jays before the beginning of the Pliocene over 5 million years ago.  Fossil remains of blue jays dating to the Pleistocene have been found at 3 sites in Florida, 1 site in Georgia, 1 site in Alabama, 1 site in Tennessee, and 3 sites in Virginia.

Blue jays played an important role in the spread of oak, beech, and chestnut trees north following the ends of Ice Ages.  Nuts and acorns are a major part of a blue jay’s diet, and they often carry excess food to distant locations where they hide them for later use.  A scientific study concluded blue jays were the sole reason oaks, beech, and chestnut were able to colonize deglaciated territory so rapidly after the end of the last Ice Age.  Squirrels invariably bury acorns and nuts so near the roots of the parent tree that they could not have been the agent of dispersal.  But blue jays carry nuts as much as an half a mile away.  Without blue jays there would be no oak or beech trees in eastern Canada and northern New England today.

Reference:

Johnson and Webb

“The Role of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in the Post Glacial Dispersal of Fagaceous Trees in Eastern North America”

Journal of Biogeography 16 1989

Adding a Loggerhead Shrike to my Bird Photo Checklist

November 30, 2019

I’ve made several unsuccessful excursions to look for loggerhead shrikes because they are an uncommon species.  They prefer cow pastures with plenty of short trees–a landscape that is being replaced by expanding suburban development.  My sister and her husband recently moved to a gated community in south Florida that was formerly a cattle ranch but has been converted to an housing development built around a golf course.  Abundant wildlife still occurs in the neighborhood, and on my first visit I was able to get a nice photograph of a large bobcat.  I visited my sister on Thanksgiving and was able to get several photographs of a loggerhead shrike–a species I had only seen 3 times prior to this occasion.  I never thought I would get a good look at this bird, let alone get a photo of it.

Loggerhead shrike in Bradenton, Florida.  Click to enlarge.

I’ve written a blog entry about shrikes previously.  See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/pleistocene-pastures-and-loggerhead-shrikes-lanius-ludovicianus/

I took a walk around the golf course on Thanksgiving.  It is a maritime forest consisting of live oak, loblolly pine, saw palmetto, Carolina palmetto, red maple, grape vine,  a non-native flower related to evening primrose, and sedge.  The water traps host anhingas, herons, cormorants, coots, and many other birds.  I saw red dragonflies and azure butterflies.

This is a non-native plant related to evening primrose.  It is very common in this woodlot.

At the hotel I saw the same species of birds as I did last Thanksgiving.  A flock of white ibis must live there year round.

The same flock of white ibis I saw last year along with a great egret.

Thanksgiving Special: Eating Rabbits and Pigeons

November 23, 2019

The expansion of temperate climate environments following the end of the Ice Age led to the extinction of many species of megafauna because it resulted in an increase in the population of humans.  Oak woodlands and forests provided acorns, nuts, and fruits that could sustain humans when they overhunted and extirpated big game within their range.  Most predators are not common enough to consume all of their prey…otherwise they would starve and become extinct.  But humans are so adaptable, they can survive on other sources of food.  Wiping out megafauna had no impact on human populations because they could switch to hunting smaller animals and also rely on plant foods for survival.  Resource rich environments meant more humans which in turn meant more hunting pressure on large, slow reproducing species such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths.  Fish and small rapidly reproducing species such as rabbits, squirrels, and pigeons easily replaced the sources of protein lost when larger animals became scarce or extinct.

I visited a Vietnamese grocery store recently and found some items that were commonly eaten in the U.S. until the 1940s when American diets became more homogenized with the rise of mechanized farming and chain supermarkets.  Today’s grocery store meat departments sell beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and occasionally lamb; but rarely any other kind of meat.  Modern kids grow up on a diet of hamburgers and chicken nuggets.  I get bored with this monotonous fare.  So when I saw pigeon and rabbit at the Vietnamese store I snatched them up.

A baby pigeon, also known as squab.  They are expensive.

Broiled pigeon is delicious comparable to duck.

The pigeon came uneviscerated. I was afraid this would be a problem, but I learned eviscerating poultry is even easier than cleaning a fish.  Simply chop off the head and cut a slit near the bird’s anus.  Pull the front and the back apart until the keel bone breaks.  Then just pull the intestines and organs out.  I fed the intestines and gizzard to the cats, and they enjoyed eating them.  I ate the heart and the liver myself.  I decided to cook the pigeon just like I prepare quail.  I seasoned it with lemon juice, salt, and black pepper; and stuck it under a 375 degree broiler for 20 minutes.  Pigeon meat is very good.  It is a rich, dark meat, similar to duck, and it also has crispy skin and delicious fat.  Pigeons are built for endurance flying, and they have an high amount of hemoglobin, explaining why the meat is so dark.  The juice that came out when I was pulling the bird apart and eating it was black.  The main drawback to eating pigeon is the small birds just don’t have a lot of meat on them.

Pot-roasted rabbit.

Rabbit meat is just the opposite of pigeon meat.  Pigeon muscles are almost entirely slow-twitch, and therefore dark.  Rabbit muscles are fast-twitch and built for speed, not endurance.  Rabbit meat is all white and has very little fat.  I’ve made rabbit 6 or 7 times, so I’m more familiar with it.  It is good stewing meat.  Most people fry rabbit meat, and it is ok that way, but it is rather dry because it is so lean.  I chose to pot roast the rabbit, using a recipe I often use for a beef roast.  I put the whole rabbit in a casserole dish, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and smothered it with ketchup, celery and onion.  I poured a bottle of good beer in the casserole dish, and baked it, covered, in a 300 degree oven for 3 hours, until the meat was falling off the bone.

 

Why the Western Hebrides are Mostly Treeless

November 16, 2019

During fall of 1773 Samuel Johnson and James Boswell traveled together on the western islands of Scotland, also known as the Hebrides.  They wrote separate accounts about this journey, and both are included in  a volume I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks.  Samuel Johnson frequently noted and joked about the scarcity of trees in the region.  I wondered why a temperate locality with plenty of precipitation was mostly treeless, so I researched the natural history of western Scotland and learned there is a fascinating and complex ecological explanation.

Map courtesy of www.calmac.co.uk

Map of the Western Hebrides.  Johnson and Boswell traveled on the inner islands.

Scottish peat bog and heather.  These are also known as moors.

The first explanation I found on google seemed implausible and I was right.  Some claimed the Vikings stripped the island of trees to prevent rivals from using the wood to build boats.  This is an unlikely explanation because a people who lived by pillaging would not be keen on all the labor required in felling and removing all that lumber.  Moreover, trees would grow back within a generation.  I dug deeper and found a better, more scientifically sound explanation.

During the Ice Age glaciers completely covered Scotland, and there were no trees.  11,400 years ago, the glaciers retreated and a scrub forest of birch, willow, hazel, and rowan advanced over the tundra.  These scrub forests co-existed with peat bogs.  By 8500 years ago, oak, elm, and Scotch pine began to grow as well but were uncommon and local in distribution on the Hebrides.  From 9300 years BP-7900 years BP open woodlands of birch, willow, aspen, and hazel with plenty of grassy meadows between the trees prevailed.  But then, peat bogs began to expand while areas consisting of woodlands contracted so that by 2500 years ago peat bogs were the dominant environment on the Western Hebrides.  This predates the Viking invasion by 1500 years.  Instead, natural disturbance and soil chemistry shaped the landscape of the region.

Severe storm events about 8000 years ago felled the trees.  Without trees drinking up the water, the water table rose.  Tree deaths caused a positive feedback loop for peat bog expansion at the expense of woodlands.  The cool moist climate slows down evaporation, and the water just sits on impervious bed rock.  Water dissolves acids in the rock, further helping the growth of acid-loving sphagnum peat and heath but reducing the fertility in the soil required by trees. Peat bogs are dominated by sphagnum peat, sedges, and carnivorous plants, while heath grows on the better drained sites.  Trees just can’t grow in these conditions.

About 400 years ago humans cleared the remaining woodlands on the islands and converted them to agricultural use.  Now, an organization known as the Hebridean Ark hopes to re-establish at least some forests on the islands.  They’ve planted 100,000 trees including rowan, birch, willow, hazel, juniper, and aspen.  According to Johnson and Boswell, attempts to plant trees on the islands during the 18th century mostly failed.  Modern scientists may have a better idea of what they are doing, however.

References:

Fossitt

“Late Quaternary Vegetation History of the Western Isles of Scotland”

New Phytologist 132 1996

Johnson, S. and James Boswell

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

Penguin Classics 1984

Leopardus amnicola and More Additional Specimens of Cenozoic Fauna from South Carolina

November 9, 2019

The Florida Museum of Natural History just published an exciting new bulletin.  The paper describes every Cenozoic fossil specimen found in South Carolina and examined by scientists for the last 17 years–since the late Al Sanders published  Additions to the Pleistocene Mammal Faunas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. A link to this new bulletin is at the bottom of this blog entry.

Several new specimens of Pleistocene age are notable.  Fossil hunters found the partial tooth of an extinct species of margay cat ( Leopardus amnicola) from the Ashley River phosphate beds–a first for the state of South Carolina.  A close relative of this species ( L. weidii  ) still occurs in tropical Central and South America.   L. amnicola remains have been found at 12 sites in Florida, 3 in Mississippi, 2 in Georgia, and 1 in Alabama.  Apparently, it was a widespread species occupying forests of southeastern North America.  It likely became extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum when environmental conditions changed to more open landscapes.

A margay cat.  An extinct relative of this species formerly occurred across southeastern North America. 

The most remarkable find was the limb bone (a tibia) of a pseudo-cheetah found on Edisto Beach. Scientists tentatively assiged it to  Miracinonyx ? trumani–a species previously unknown east of the Mississippi.  However, assignment was based on the age (late Pleistocene).   M. inexpectus, a species of pseudo-cheetah common from the Pliocene-mid Pleistocene, is rarely, if uncertainly known from the late Pleistocene.  I’m not convinced the limb belonged to a pseud-cheetah.  Pleistocene cougars ( Puma concolor) grew larger than modern day cougars, and I don’t believe scientists can discern with certainty the difference between pseudo-cheetahs and cougars without examining a skull or teeth.  Pseudo-cheetahs grew larger than cougars, but large Pleistocene cougars overlapped in size with small pseudo-cheetahs.  I covered this topic on a previous blog entry.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2018/05/28/an-anatomical-comparison-between-the-extinct-north-american-cheetahs-miracynonyx-sp-and-the-late-pleistocene-holocene-cougar-puma-concolor/ ) Edisto Beach abounds with subfossil remains of big cats including saber-tooths, giant lions, jaguars, cougars, bobcats, and now possibly pseudo-cheetahs.

More bones of helmeted musk-ox, caribou, and walrus have been found in South Carolina over the past 17 years.  Most people think of these species as beasts of the far north, so it’s curious to realized how far south they occurred before man disrupted the ecosystem.

caribou, Bob Stevens, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Caribou ranged into the middle-south during cooler climate phases.

This is the first paper I’ve read that identified giant beavers from the mid-south as  Casteroides dilophidus.   Recently, paleontologists recognized that extinct giant beavers of the mid-west ( C. ohioensis) were not the same species as giant beavers from the southeast.

Giant Beaver Size Comparison

There were 2 species of giant beavers. C. ohioensis and C. dilophidus.

Several other first specimens found in South Carolina are interesting enough to note here.  The remains of the giant armadillo (Holmesina floridanus) were discovered in Clapp Creek, Williamsburg County.  It dates to the early Pleistocene.  Imagine a 300 pound armadillo.  There is also the first record of a Pleistocene coyote (Canis latrans) from in state.  Pre-Pleistocene first South Carolina finds include fossils of the bone-eating dog ( Borophagus hilli), dating to the Miocene, and hell pig (an entelodont), dating to the Oligocene.

The below linked paper really has some nice tables of South Carolina Pleistocene-aged fossil sites and all the species found at each. Although specimens of 13-lined ground squirrels were already known, I was surprised to learn just how common and widespread they were.  This species prefers open habitats and is absent from the region today.  Its presence suggests more prairie habitats during Ice Ages.

Reference:

Albright III, L. et. al.

“Cenozoic Vertebrate Biostratigraphy of South Carolina, USA and Additions to the Fauna”

Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History  57 (2) October 2019

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/35/2019/10/Vol57No2archival.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peanut Soup

November 2, 2019

The modern peanut (Arachis hypogaea) originated in the region encompassing northwestern Argentina and southeastern Bolivia.  Peanuts are a sun-loving legume that thrives on the open grassy pampas and in fire adapted woodlands. Remains of peanuts were excavated from an archaeological site dated to 7600 years BP, and it seems likely humans were eating wild peanuts thousands of years earlier than this date.  The modern peanut is an hybrid species resulting from a cross between 2 species of peanut still found in the wild–A. duranensis and A. iapensis.  Cultivation of the peanut spread rapidly across South America, and during European colonization it was introduced to Africa where it mostly replaced the native goober nut (a distant relative) in popularity.   There are 5 groups of peanut cultivars including thousands of varieties.  Cultivars include Spanish, Virginia, runner, Valencia, and Tennessee red and white.  Oily Spanish peanuts are my favorite snack.  In addition to human consumption peanuts are used as animal feed and in hundreds of various industrial products.  Surprisingly, the U.S. ranks 4th in worldwide production behind China, India and Nigeria.  Sudan, a desert nation, almost grows as many peanuts as the U.S.

The peanut is not actually a nut, but instead is a legume related to beans and peas.  I grew peanuts in my garden 1 summer.  The plant flowers on a stem.  Following pollination, the stem grows into the ground, and the peanut shell forms at the end of the stem underground.  They are easy to grow in climates with long summers, and they don’t require much fertilization.

During Colonial times peanuts were mostly used as animal feed, but Inns did serve peanut soup.  I went through 3 pages of peanut soup recipes on a google search and discovered that none of them were the original peanut soup recipe served in Colonial era Inns.  The following is the correct recipe for peanut soup.  All other recipes on the internet are wrong, unless they follow this recipe.

Peanut soup made the way it is supposed to be made.

Fry 6 strips of bacon.  Cut up 4 stalks of celery and 1 onion.  Remove the bacon from the pan and add the celery and onion to the bacon grease.  (Celery really pairs well with peanut butter.  The crisp texture of the celery contrasts with the creamy fat of the peanut butter.)  Sautee the vegetables until just tender and add 1/3rd cup of flour.  Add the vegetables and flour to a quart of low sodium chicken broth along with a cup of peanut butter and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Stir and heat until the peanut butter is mixed well with the chicken broth and there are no lumps.  Serve with crumbled bacon and/or chopped peanuts on top.

This recipe must include celery and bacon.

Jiff is by far the best brand of peanut butter on the market.

The original recipe includes 2 cups of milk with 3 cups of chicken broth instead of just a quart of chicken broth.  I never add milk to mine.

The original recipe also uses white pepper.  I prefer cayenne.  I never use white pepper because it literally smells like crap.

Reference:

Tullie’s Receipts

The Kitchen Guild of the Atlanta Historical Society

Atlanta Historical Society 1976

Halloween Double Feature: The Lowenmensch and Brain-Eating Amoeba

October 26, 2019

I like to watch horror movie double features on Halloween.  My favorites are the movies made by Hammer Productions, a British company that produced horror movies from 1958-1976.  Turner Classic Movies often airs these every October.  For my annual Halloween blog article I am offering a scary double feature.

The Lowenmensch is a 1 foot tall figurine found in Hohlenstein-Stedelgre Cave, Germany during 1939.  Lowenmensch means Lion-Man in German, and the sculpture depicts a half-man, half lion.  The artifact is estimated to be between 35,000 years-40,000 years old.  Archeologists attempted to reproduce it, and they discovered that it took 370 hours to sculpt.  The artist could have spent 1 hour a day for about a year to make it.  Archeologists suggest this means other people were taking care of him, while he worked on this object because life during the Stone Age consisted of constant subsistence hunting and gathering.  I disagree with this notion.  People didn’t hunt and gather at night when they might be in danger from unseen predators.  Instead, I believe they likely hung around the campfire where there was more security within a crowd of other humans.  The artist probably made this sculpture at night by the light of the campfire.

The Lowenmensch.  Just imagine a beast that was half-man, half lion…a kind of werelion instead of a werewolf 

Who knows what this object symbolizes?  Lions (Panthera spelaea) were a common species that co-existed with humans in Europe 35,000 years ago,  and humans infrequently interacted with them.  The 2 species likely avoided each other most of the time.  Apparently, humans anthropomorphized animals tens of thousands of years before Disney and Warner-Robins.

The 2nd part of this double feature is scarier because it is real.  There is a species of amoeba that eats human brains.

Computer-generated representation of the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which causes deadly brain infections.

The brain-eating amoeba (Naeglerea fowleri).

The brain-eating amoeba lives in the bottom sediment of warm freshwater lakes and ponds.  Normally, they eat bacteria.  But if a swimmer gets amoeba-filled water in their nose, the amoeba enter the olfactory nerves and penetrate the brain.  The amoeba can’t find bacteria in the brain, so they begin eating brain cells instead, and in response the human immune system fights the invasion, causing the brain to swell.  Symptoms of amoeba meningoencephalitis include headache, fever, nausea, stiff neck, disorientation, and hallucination.  The brain swelling stops the brain’s signals to the spinal cord.   The symptoms mimic bacterial and viral meningitis, often delaying the diagnosis.  The disease has a 97% mortality rate.  There is no sure known cure, but use of an experimental drug known as miltefosine saved 1 girl’s life.  Fortunately, this disease is extremely rare.  Just 146 cases have been recorded since 1962.

The crew of the U.S. Enterprise battled a giant space amoeba in 1 of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek.

 

The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals by Ross Barnett

October 19, 2019

Ross's book The Missing Lynx.

Ross Barnett’s new book.

Ross Barnett is a British paleontologist who specializes in analyzing DNA from subfossil specimens of extinct species of cats.  I have referenced his work in at least 4 of my blog articles.  He just published a book about some of the megafauna that roamed Great Britain during the Pleistocene.  His book includes chapters about hyenas, saber-tooths, lions, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, Irish elk, bison, aurochs, bears, wolves, Eurasian beavers, and lynx.  I’m familiar with this subject matter but was looking forward to learning something new, and I did.  I learned the most from his chapter on the bovids–the aurochs and bison.  I didn’t know the aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) was twice the size of a modern cow. Cave paintings show males were black and females were red–this is something I may have known but had forgotten.  Genetically, the European bison, also known as the wisent, is surprisingly different from the American bison, though they are closely related.  Scientists puzzled over this for a long time.  Cave paintings also suggest differences in the wisent’s appearance over time.  Some are long-horned and robust, while others are shorter-horned and skinnier.  Scientists discovered the modern wisent is actually an hybrid between the bison and the aurochs.  Before 50,000 years ago and after 34,000 years ago European bison appeared more bison-like, but between those dates they were more aurochs-like.  This is recorded in cave paintings as well as genetics.  I think this is the most interesting fact I found in this book.

Ross Barnett explains an ingenious technique scientists use with the tiny bits of DNA they extract from very old subfossils. They add an enzyme from a species of bacteria to the tiny bit of DNA they can extract from a subfossil, and this causes a polymerase chain reaction (polymerase is an enzyme that replicates DNA in cells). This increases the amount of DNA they can analyze.  He was able to analyze the DNA from a 30,000 year old subfossil bone of a saber-tooth cat known as Homotherium latidens.  He determined the 2 lineages of saber-tooths (Homotherium and Smilodon) diverged from the rest of the cats about 20 million years ago.  However, Homotherium and Smilodon were not that closely related to each other.  They diverged 18 million years ago.  But Homotheriums from Great Britain were genetically similar to Homotheriums from the Yukon, and he proposes there was just 1 species in this genus during the late Pleistocene.  Saber-tooths sit on the evolutionary tree between cats and hyenas but are closer to the former.

Ross Barnett strongly leans toward the school of thought that thinks man is responsible for the extinction of most of the megafauna.  This is the only explanation that makes sense to me.  He does favor introducing some species of animals back to Great Britain.  The lynx has been extinct on the island since the 7th century AD.  (Something else I learned in this book–there are 2 species of European lynx: the northern and the Iberian.  At times during pre-history their ranges have overlapped but they haven’t interbred.)  He thinks lynx could be re-introduced with few problems.  They don’t attack people, and farmers could be reimbursed for livestock they might lose.  Lynx would help control the overpopulation of deer in Great Britain.  Apparently, there aren’t enough deer hunters in England.

I discovered just 2 errors in this book.  Dr. Barnett writes bison didn’t colonize North America until 130,000 years BP.  Bison bones excavated from the 10 mile bone bed in South Carolina come from sediment estimated to be from 200,000-240,000 years old.  The presence of bison in North America marks the beginning of the Rancholabrean land mammal age which is thought to have begun about 300,000 years ago.  Bison were in North America prior to his stated date.  He is also unaware that a new species of giant beaver has been named.  Dr. Barnett states Casteroides ohioensis lived in North America from Canada to Florida.  However, the species that lived in Florida and perhaps the mid-south was Casteroides dilophidus.

For people interested in Pleistocene mammals this book is a must read.  Every chapter has nice maps, showing the locations of fossil sites where specimens of each species were found.  The research is up to date but the information is passed on to the reader in a style that is very easy for a layman to understand.

 

Operation Sea Lion

October 12, 2019

Germany could have won World War II and were closer to winning than most people realize.  If instead of invading Russia during the summer of 1941, Hitler had followed the advice of his admirals and diverted more resources to North Africa, the German army would have easily swept aside the British and captured all the oil in the Middle East.  Then, he could have ordered the invasion of southern Russia and captured all of their oil supplies, and it would have been game over for the allies because the Germans would have controlled most of the available worldwide oil.  Another scenario that could have led to German victory was a successful invasion of Great Britain following the surrender of France.  Germany’s plan for this invasion was code named Operation Sea Lion.  If Germany defeated Great Britain, the allies would not have been able to supply the Soviet Union with war materials, and Germany could have gone on to conquer Russia.

Initial German plan; subsequently much changed

The German plan to invade England in 1940.  The Germans were unable to achieve complete air superiority, so Hitler canceled the operation.

By August 1940 the Germans seemed invincible.  Germany crushed the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in 2 months and had 300,000 British troops trapped at Dunkirk along the northern coast of France.  An incredible effort using hundreds of civilian boats rescued these troops and brought them back to England (as depicted in a recent motion picture).  However, the British were forced to leave all their heavy equipment and ammunition behind.  They were a naked army without tanks or artillery.  The British were so desperate for arms the U.S. gave them 300,000 surplus WWI rifles.  At this point of the war the British army was no match for the German Wehrmacht.  3 obstacles stood in the German’s way: the English Channel, the British navy, and the Royal Air Force.  The Germans knew it was critical to destroy the Royal Air Force as an effective fighting force before they could bring their troops across the English Channel on barges.  Otherwise, British bombers and warships would sink the barges and kill thousands of German troops before they even landed in England.  If on the other hand, the German Luftwaffe had complete air superiority, they could sink British ships attempting to interdict the barges.  Operation Sea Lion included a plan to create an alley for the barges using mines and submarines that would also stop British war ships from interfering with the landings.

Germany was winning the air war against England also known as the Battle of Britain.  Herman Goering, Chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered massed bomber formations protected by fighter escorts to attack British airfields.  Though they shot down more German fighters than they lost, England had fewer planes and could not afford the loss in attrition.  England was soon losing more planes and pilots than they could replace.  One day, Churchill, the prime minister of England, ordered a bombing raid on Berlin.  This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered a change in strategy.  Instead of continuing the winning strategy of attacking British air bases, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb civilian targets.  With the aid of newfangled radar and coastal spotters British fighter pilots were able to down lots of German bombers without losing as many planes as they had during the previous phase of the battle.  Meanwhile, British bombers sank many German barges that were moving into position to ferry German troops across the English Channel.  Hitler kept delaying Operation Sea Lion until he finally canceled it during October 1940.  The Germans were just too afraid of losing too many troops in the English Channel.

Military strategists have long wondered what would’ve happened, if Operation Sea Lion had been launched.  Most simulated war games have England winning the campaign.  In the simulations Germans were able to land the 1st echelon of troops but 2nd and 3rd waves were stopped by the British navy, leaving German troops stranded.  However, some simulated war games do have Germany winning the campaign.  In any case it would have been a brutal battle.  Churchill writes they would have used poison gas and were prepared to fight a prolonged guerilla war.  The Germans had a list of prominent British intellectuals and Jews they were planning on arresting immediately.

Hitler didn’t hate the British because he saw them as fellow Aryans.  He just wanted them to surrender and let him conquer the Slavs in Russia who he considered a subhuman slave race.  Perhaps this is why he was so eager to turn his attention to Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) the following summer.

Reference:

Churchill, Winston

Memoirs of the Second World War

Houghton Mifflin 1959

Bald Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are Marvelous Engineers

October 5, 2019

Humans were not the first species to manufacture paper.  Wasps were building paper nests millions of years before  Homo sapiens  evolved.  The bald faced hornet builds the largest, most spectacular nest of any species of wasp, and I always love finding these in the woods.

Bald Faced Hornet

Bald faced hornet’s nest.

A mature bald faced hornet’s nest holds 400-700 workers.  A pregnant queen emerges during spring and begins building the nest but she is soon aided by workers she births. The hornets make the paper by chewing wood.  The workers are all sterile females, and sterile males also live in the nest.  Meanwhile, the queen keeps laying eggs.  By late fall these eggs become future queens and drones (fertile males).  The queens and drones leave the nest, and the latter impregnates the former.  The pregnant queens than overwinter under cover to emerge the following spring.  Bald faced hornets are carnivorous, feeding upon soft-bodied invertebrates and carrion.  They attack caterpillars, fly larva, and spiders that they then feed to their larva.  The adults get their energy from flower nectar and fruit.  People picking fruit need to be careful not to pick up a piece of fruit being enjoyed by a bald faced hornet.  They love my scuppernong grapes.  Plums are another favorite.

The bald faced hornet is not a true hornet but rather a yellow jacket wasp.  All hornets are wasps, but only some species of wasps are hornets.  Hornets are generally larger in size and less colorful than other species of wasps.  Hornets build paper nests, while most wasps build nests suspended in the air, on the ground, or underground.  But to add to the confusion, bald faced hornets do build paper nests though they are not true hornets.  The difference between true hornets and wasps involves technical anatomical differences that I am not going to cover here.

Bald faced hornet.

Bald faced hornets are widespread and adaptable.  This species expanded throughout deglaciated Canada in less than 10,000 years following the last Ice Age.

Bald faced hornet range map.  Note how they occur in the geographic region that used to be covered by glacial ice.  They’ve colonized territory all the way to central Alaska.  Amazing.

As far as I can determine, there is no Pleistocene-aged fossil evidence of bald faced hornets or their nests.  Insects are rarely preserved, and of course paper nests deteriorate rapidly when exposed to the elements.  I’m sure they were just as common during the Pleistocene as they are today.