Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Skunk Cabbage: A Year Later

Last year I found my first skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) during an adventure I documented here. It's definitely one of my favorite plants, and its smell is not to be missed. Plus, the fact that it's one of the first flowers to bloom as spring approaches makes it a welcome sight after the dreariness of winter.

After seeing it last year, I wondered when it would bloom again. This year's winter hasn't been as wonky as last year's was; we've had a few snowfalls and it has been colder, which is good. Of course, there are always some warm snaps, and two weeks ago one greeted us. I took advantage of it to see if the skunk cabbage was blooming yet, and it was definitely there.

Shy skunk cabbage

 My foray was on January 19, a little more than a month before last year's adventure. The skunk cabbage wasn't in full bloom as it was back then, but perhaps in another week or two it will be. You can see in the above picture that the spathe is just starting to emerge, but isn't exposing the spadix (the ball that contains the flowers) quite yet.


The red and yellow thing there is the spathe, which protects the spadix. It's a fleshy bract (modified leaf), and releases the skunk cabbage's pungent odor which damaged. All the spathes I saw are smaller than last year's, since it's earlier in the season.


The area was dotted with these gnome-like eruptions from the ground, and the dead leaves could not stop their growth. It's always a challenge to avoid stepping on the plants due to their sheer numbers, so I damaged a few of them, though not fatally.

There's still more than enough time in the season to find skunk cabbage, so if you're in the eastern US and have some free time in the coming weeks, go check out places near you that are damp throughout the year. Wetlands are great skunk cabbage habitat, so start there! Bring a portable thermometer with you in case you find them for a neat experiment. Skunk cabbage produces its own heat through cellular respiration, which melts nearby snow and allows it to bloom so early. Try putting the thermometer inside the spathe to see if it's warmer than the ambient temperature around you!


As a side note, all the pictures taken for this post are from my Droid X phone. Not as good as my regular camera, but they sure do get the point across!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Grad School Preparations: The Journey

Other than my Hildreth Project, my time has recently been spent finishing a graduate school application. Everything came together quite nicely, and I sent that sucker in last week.

The next stage: the visit. I'll be flying to Arkansas on Thursday and staying for a few days to check out the campus, meet the Entomology department, and see how I'd fit in. It will be an exciting weekend and I'm looking forward to it. Perhaps soon I'll know for sure what I'm going to be doing in the coming years!

I'm aiming to get a few more blog posts up before the end of January; there will definitely be at least one. Possibly about skunk cabbage, since it's that time of year again...

Symplocarpus foetidus

Until then, wish me luck in Arkansas!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Dr. Hildreth and his cicadas

I've always had an interest in history and still enjoy it, though my main focus has shifted to natural history. Over the past few years I've discovered the richness of southeast Ohio's history. There's a rock etched with George Washington's initials in my hometown, mounds built by Native Americans are scattered throughout the area, and the first towns established in the Northwest Territory are in southeast Ohio--the first was Marietta in 1788.

It was during this research that I came across a true Renaissance Man: Samuel Prescott Hildreth. He was a doctor that lived in Marietta during the 1800s, but he also dabbled in history, politics, geology, natural history, and more. I've previously written about Hildreth here after finding a notebook of insect notes he wrote (with illustrations), and it's his writings on natural history that interest me most.

Hildreth's natural history research was particularly helpful to researchers of North America's periodical cicadas, which are classified in the genus Magicicada. His observations of the 1812 and 1829 periodical cicada emergence events were the first detailed and accurate reports of the cicadas' 17 year life cycle. Those reports, along with his verification of the 1795 emergence, provided the documentation to confirm the periodical cicadas' unique habit of emerging en masse every 17 years.

A snapshot of a more recent emergence: a 4-year acceleration of Brood V in Marietta, OH; May 2012.

I first learned about Dr. Hildreth's work in Dr. Gene Kritsky's book: In Ohio's Backyard: Periodical Cicadas, published by the Ohio Biological Survey in 1999 and available for order here. The book is a great resource and has an extensive bibliography, which has aided my research on Hildreth considerably. The last time Dr. Hildreth published a scientific paper was during the 1800s, so his papers aren't exactly easy to find. Thankfully, today we have the Internet and libraries that digitize their collections.

As I conducted research over the past few weeks (by both searching online and visiting libraries), I came across four papers published by Dr. Hildreth about periodical cicadas. I could have missed a few, as I wasn't able to find those published in German or French publications, but the ones I found seem to be the main four which are referenced in other publications. In these, he writes about the life cycle of the cicadas and their effects on the area's wildlife (including humans). 

His first paper, Notes on certain parts of the state of Ohio, published in 1826, details the periodical cicada emergence of 1812 with the notes he wrote in his journal at the time. His journal notes describe the cicada emergence in late May until the cicadas are gone, by the end of June. He confirms the 1795 emergence in this paper.

Hildreth's next publication came out in 1830, entitled Notices and observations on the American  cicada, or locust. This was his first paper focused solely on the periodical cicada Magicicada septendecim, known then as Cicada septemdecim. This is the most eye-catching publication of the batch, as it opens with a plate of illustrated cicadas. 
Hildreth's cicada plate from Notices and observations on the American  cicada, or locust, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts, 1830. Notice the watermark--Google Books helped me out here.

Hildreth begins his five page paper with a bold (and very true!) statement:
"No part of natural history more abounds in wonderful and extraordinary productions, than that portion of it embraced in the study of Entomology."
The paper goes on to cover the 1829 emergence that occurred during the previous summer and gives an overview of the periodical cicada's natural history. Hildreth mentions a "smaller form" of cicada in this paper--the first account of the species Magicicada cassini, formally described by J.C. Fisher in 1851.

Hildreth regales the reader with stories of how the local wildlife responds to the sudden buffet: by taking advantage of it like there's no tomorrow. Hogs, birds, squirrels, etc. "fatten on them," and birds are so focused on the cicadas that they don't even bother to eat the cherries in Hildreth's garden! Interestingly enough, some people even used the cicadas to make soap, taking advantage of the fact that the cicadas are "plump and full of oily juices." Maybe that was a kind of revenge against the creatures, as the males could be heard singing from morning until night and be heard from a mile away. I personally love the sounds they make, but not everyone feels that way. If you've never heard them before, skip to 1:39 in the video embedded below and Sir David Attenborough will help you out.


In 1847, Hildreth published two more papers: one included topics other than cicadas, such as a meteorological journal he kept in Marietta during 1846. The second article was a shorter reprint of the first, including only the pages about the periodical cicada. These articles document the periodical cicada emergence of 1846, making it the fourth emergence Dr. Hildreth wrote about: not too shabby!

Adult Magicicada septendecim

After spending many hours looking for old references just to learn about a bug, I appreciate historians a bit more now. I also have even more love for libraries. The Marietta College Legacy Library's Special Collections department in particular was very helpful during my search, and is the reason I found Hildreth's A Portfolio of Insects that I wrote about previously. Washington County's Local History and Genealogy Archives was also a great resource. Since neither of those libraries had these papers by Hildreth, I sent them copies for their collections, just in case anyone else in the area wants to learn more about Hildreth's work. There's no sense in keeping them locked up in my computer, after all.

You can expect more posts about Dr. Hildreth in the future--he wrote about much more than just periodical cicadas. I'm finding out more and more about his life; he was a very interesting guy.

I encourage you to do some research into your local history as well! You never know what you'll find. Maybe there was a person similar to Dr. Hildreth in your town.

For those of you who don't live near Marietta, Ohio, I've uploaded all four documents to Google Drive and they can be downloaded at this link. They're a great look into the scientific writing of the past, and Hildreth's writing is surprisingly readable.

References:
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1826. Notes on certain parts of the state of Ohio. American Journal of Science and Arts. 10: 152-162; 319-331.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1830. Notices and observations on the American cicada, or locust. American Journal of Science and Arts. 18: 46-50.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1847. Abstract of a Meteorological Journal, for the year 1846, kept at Marietta, Ohio,  Lat. 39° 25' N., and Long. 4° 28' W. of Washington City. American Journal of Science and Arts. 3: 212-222.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1847. On the habits of Cicada septendecim. Annals and Magazine of Natural History. 20: 136-141.
Kritsky, Gene. 1999. In Ohio's Backyard: Periodical Cicadas. Ohio Biological Survey Backyard Series No. 2. Columbus, Ohio. vi + 83 pp. [ISBN: 0-86727-132-9]

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Great Spangled Fritillary

Happy New Year everyone! I'm ringing in 2013 by contracting a cold, so I have not been in much of a writing mood. I've tried to be a little productive, so I've been looking through my old photos to find ones I like and want to use at some point in the future.

I found a photo I originally featured in this post about clover and took it into Adobe Lightroom to fix the color and a few other things.


It's a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), a beautiful butterfly that I see pretty often in Ohio. I saw this one outside of Sugar Grove, Ohio in June of 2010, soon after I became interested in macro photography of insects. The butterfly is centered in the photo, sure, but I'm still happy with it. It looks less "hazy" than the original, which is what I was trying to do with it. I'm a bit annoyed at the piece of plant covering the clover flower on the left, but it gives the photo a "natural" look I suppose.

I'm thinking of putting this photo on the back of a post card soon, it's a nice snapshot of Ohio wildlife.