Living in America: Part 3, The Fruited Plain

[Apologies, readers, for once again enduring an exceptionally long, drawn-out absence in the middle of multiple post series. This is nothing new for SYDKAB, and it’s perhaps not all that surprising considering since 2012, I’ve moved to Hawai`i, started grad school, came to terms with going a different route within grad school, finished grad school, moved BACK to the mainland, gotten engaged, attempted to kick off a freelance career, and settled in a location to prepare for the birth of my first child. Here’s hoping things are a little more stable from this point out.]

This entry is Part 3 in a three-part series on organisms found in the United States in celebration of the country’s 240th birthday. Part 1, which featured some of the U.S.’s less widely-familiar vertebrate inhabitants, can be found here. Part 2 addressed a number of invertebrate species, which can be read here. This entry will go over some of the non-animal organisms that call the U.S. home, in particular, fungi and plants.

Not every life form in the USA bellows, sprints, or slinks its way across the landscape. Animals are great and all, but there is an entire world of organisms that silently spend their lives growing up from their anchored position in our sweet, sanctimonious soil, and they are no less important to the American wilderness. I’m of course talking about those multicellular cousins of the animal kingdom: fungi and plants. These organisms are far more than just idyllic backdrops for the charismatic, ambulatory stars of America’s natural history pageant, and the intricacies of their biology and diversity exceed the scope of existing in “amber waves”, or simply playing a part as filling for an insufferably Yankee Doodle dessert.

The United States is gifted with an exceptionally diverse set of biomes and ecosystems, meaning that within its borders, there are a remarkable number of species of flora….a great of them endemic to tiny, ultra-specific locations. An example of one of these local homebodies is pictured at the very top of this post. That sea of flaxen gorgeousness is made up of common monolopia (Monolopia lanceolata), a flower found in a variety of habitats from California’s Bay Area, south to the San Diego/Riverside part of the state. There are actually several species of Monolopia, and all of them are endemic to the Golden State. Appropriately enough, Monolopia is somewhat closely related to the greenswords and silverswords of Hawai`i, another set of unique plants endemic to the United States (and a remarkable example of what happens on isolated islands when evolution is given the “solitary confinement” treatment). These unassuming, attractive, yellow flowers are just the tip of the iceberg of the U.S.’s floral diversity, and included below is a small sampling of some particularly interesting stationary denizens:

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Living in America: Part 2, Boneless Locals

This entry is Part 2 in a three-part series on organisms found in the United States in celebration of the country’s 240th birthday. Part 1, which featured some of the U.S.’s less widely-familiar vertebrate inhabitants, can be found here. This entry will go over some of the invertebrate fauna (bugs, slugs, and the like) that call the U.S. home.

There is plenty of biodiversity to celebrate in the U.S.A. that doesn’t come with an internal skeleton. Vertebrates, a single subsection of a single phylum (Chordata), represent a infinitesimal sliver of total animal diversity. How tiny? Really damn tiny. Like less than 3% of all animal species tiny. The vast majority of animal species in the U.S.A. and elsewhere are of the creepy-crawly, backbone-bereft, squiggly-wiggly variety, yet they are collectively ignored as much as anything David Faustino did after Married with Children. A bizarre and attractive example of this American mini-fauna is the eastern ox beetle (Dynastes tityus) (photo above), a type of rhinoceros beetle (Dynastinae) endemic to the eastern U.S., from Texas north to New York. Males, like the one above, have intimidating horns that they use in dominance bouts with other burly dude beetles…like tiny, six-legged bull elk…all in the aim of landing access to a mate. A close relative of this species, the Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules), found in Central and South America, is among the largest beetles (and insects) in the world, with some males reaching the size of a Big Mac, starting off their lives as grubs that look like an albino bratwurst from Hell.

Now that we here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. have just finished the star-spangled clusterfuck that is our quadrennial duo of major political party conventions (and the 2016 Summer Olympics have started up) it seems like as good a time as any to continue to the next part of this Ameri-centric post series. I will also refrain from making any tired “spineless invertebrates” jokes in regards to politicians, tempting as it may be. Take a gander below at a selection of the underappreciated boneless beasties that make their home in the States.

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Living in America: Part 1, Vertebrate Fauna from Sea to Shining Sea

At this very moment, much of the United States (my home country) is winding down from celebrating the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Out here where I live (Hawai’i), it’s still technically the Fourth of July. Americans seem to celebrate the intellectual founding of the country by falling somewhere on a spectrum that runs from quiet, appreciative reverence of the historical significance of today’s date on one end, to a booze-fired, red, white, and blue, testosterone-seeped fuckstorm of vociferous anthems, carbon emissions, and an arsenal of fireworks large enough to torch every forest in the tri-state area on the other. Personally, I decided to follow up on mowing down on charred, ketchup-lubed hotdogs (on this holiday, I call them “freedom weiners”) and update this blog with a series of posts through the coming couple of weeks as a means of celebration; a celebration of the lifeforms that make their home within the borders of the U.S. Below, I kick off addressing the first set of a total of twenty broad groupings of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms, selecting a representative member of each group that 1) can be found in the United States, and 2) preferentially, is ONLY found in the wild in the U.S. (is entirely endemic). An example of a critter that satisfies both criteria is featured at the top of this blog post; that adorable heap of blubber and sunshine-powered bliss is the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinlandsi), which is found only in the insanely remote Hawaiian Archipelago (especially the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).

Why do this? America has a fantastic assemblage of biodiversity worth celebrating and protecting for future generations…and much of this biodiversity includes species that are NOT American symbols of wilderness like bald eagles, buffalo, and black bears. These organisms are typically secretive, rare, bizarre, and generally poorly understood by both science and the public. Acknowledging what we share our wild spaces with is fundamental for conservation, and too often, we neglect to appreciate the majority of organisms that aren’t charismatic, or marketable.

The twenty groupings (broken into three separate blog posts) are, admittedly, heavily biased towards vertebrates, more so towards animals in general, and even more so towards non-microscopic organisms. The groupings also are only partially rooted in taxonomic accuracy, and some are lumped in a seemingly arbitrary fashion for ease (for example, saltwater and freshwater fish separately, “reptiles” as a group). Some representatives are truly endemic to the United States. Others have geographic ranges that bleed over into other North American nations. Some groups of organisms, like fungi, almost never have restricted distributions in North America, so compromises were made when listing these kinds of representative lifeforms. Bacteria and other unicellular organisms were skipped entirely, due to their general tendency toward a global presence. So, yeah, I don’t have time for that cosmopolitan distribution shit.

With that out of the way, let’s get to meeting some of these illustrious Americans, starting with a modest sampling of vertebrates:

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Easter Island: Ecoregion at the Edge of the World

The popular religious holiday that occurs near the northern spring equinox goes by a number of names. Easter. Resurrection Sunday. Pasch. Whatever it is called, the majority of the world’s 2 billion or so Christians observe this holiday with regional variations of religious activities, customary foods, and symbols. Common traditional proceedings include parades and religious services, but much of the fun is directed at the youngest attendees. For small children, the holiday is the most egg-focused spectacle they’ll see until they reach adolescence and discover the decorative inspiration of Halloween. Kids spend the day giving eggs food coloring swirlies, embarking on crazed, egg-based scavenger hunts, and, for some reason, palling around with a vaguely leporid husk filled with fear-sweat and the voiceless madness that reaches out from the Void. For godless heathens such as myself, Easter mostly functions as an annual excuse to wear a classy-as-shit collared shirt, get together with fine folks, inhale brunch and booze, enthusiastically and inefficiently stagger around the grounds in a quest for plastic eggs, and to catapult my pancreas into sputtering death-fits after shamelessly replacing much of the liquid in my body with a Marshmallow Peep-derived sugar slurry.


Re-enactment: Easter Sunday 2016

The only other association I have with Easter….outside of that day of the year when I thoroughly test every major organ system in my body through the gross irresponsibility of facilitating a gastrointestinal nuclear holocaust….is a place, not an event. And because I’m a HUGE nerd, I’m obviously talking about a small island in the southeast Pacific known as Easter Island. To the Chileans, who currently have political jurisdiction over the island and categorize it as a special territory, it is “Isla de Pascua.” The original Polynesian inhabitants of the island were the first to name it, and while there is considerable debate about what exactly the island was called long before Europeans ever set foot on it, for the last century and a half, the Polynesian name for the island has been “Rapa Nui,” a term that has also come to denominate the native inhabitants of the island, and the language originally spoken there.

The South Pacific is sprinkled with a multitude of small volcanic islands and coral atolls that spread eastward from Indonesia and Australia; Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, the Society Islands, the Gambier Archipelago, the list goes on. The expanses of open ocean between many of these islands and island chains are not insignificant, but nowhere is the level of isolation as extreme as in Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui sits in the subtropical zone, some 27 degrees south of the Equator. It is located at the most southeasterly point of the vast, triangular Polynesian cultural region, representing the furthest eastward extent (that we know of) of Polynesian diaspora and colonization, much like how Hawai`i and New Zealand sit at the northern and southern extremes of the region, respectively.

The nearest large landmass (South America; northern Chile, specifically) is 2,300 miles (3,700 km) directly east from there, and the nearest inhabited island of any kind is Pitcairn Island…more than 1,200 miles (about 2,000 km) to the west….an island that is only about two miles across, and was perhaps only sporadically inhabited up until a few hundred years ago, when it became wholly deserted. The closest bit of land of any kind is Isla Salas y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva), about 250 miles (400 km) to the northeast, but this tiny fleck of exposed, volcanic rock only covers about 37 acres…which means it’s only one third as expansive as the Mall of America. Thus, Rapa Nui’s closest neighbors are even more diminutive than it is, which doesn’t exactly assist with the whole extreme isolation thing. The situation reminds me of when I lived in rural, central Idaho as a child. The tiny, high-desert town I lived in (Challis) only contained about 900 rugged souls, all of which grunted out a living 150 miles away from the nearest hospital, movie theater, or fast-food franchise. However, there were towns that existed out in the Great Brown Nothing between my town and the nearest semblance of civilization. But they were puny, the barely-discernible petechiae blemishing the pale, wrinkly, boundless expanse of septuagenarian back skin that is the State of Idaho. Our closest neighbor, a hour’s track away on lonely Highway 93, was the community of Mackay…..half the size of our own town. Good ol’ Challis, Idaho wasn’t much, but it was the biggest hub by far for many, many, many miles….much like Rapa Nui.

So yes, Rapa Nui sits way out in the ass end of nowhere, atop a seamount that has formed via the Easter hotspot, an upwelling of magma below the oceanic crust that has generated a range of undersea mountains (the Nazca Ridge) as the Nazca Plate drifted above it….nothing around it for many blue, featureless miles. However, this extreme isolation wasn’t enough to keep humans away, at least not for forever.

Rapa Nui was first colonized by Polynesian settlers (probably from Mangareva (in the Gambier Archipelago) to the west, or the Marquesas in the northwest) sometime around 1200 AD or so, making it nearly the last place in the Pacific to be discovered and settled by Polynesian peoples (New Zealand was more recently settled, around 1300 AD). It was the Rapa Nui society that persisted on the island completely solo until the 1720s, when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen stumbled across the place (as one does) on Easter Sunday…giving it the name “Paasch-Eyland”, Dutch for “Easter Island.” The Rapa Nui people are of course quite famous for their proclivity for carving impressively massive, stern-faced statues out of the compressed volcanic ash found on one of the island’s main volcanoes.


You know, these fellas.

Nearly 900 of these figures (called “moai”) are known to exist in modern times either on the island (or in museum collections), and can consist of nothing but the regularly referenced “Easter Island heads” or heads and bodies that are complete down to the waist or thighs. Moai are so enigmatic and stark against their often open, rolling backdrops that they’ve managed to lend inspiration (with varying levels of cultural sensitivity) to various elements of modern popular culture, from Pokemon to major settings in early Mario videogames to Spongebob’s buzzkill of a neighbor’s house.

If you’re looking at the empty, treeless plains that cover the island and thinking “how in the everloving fuck did the Rapa Nui craft and move these things around? There’s not a trace of raw materials necessary for pushing, pulling, or carving jack shit!” you and decades of archaeological pondering have something in common. The thing is, when the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui, the island was covered in thick, subtropical forests. Within a few hundred years, around the time Europeans first saw the island, nearly every single tree was gone. Various explanations have been thrown around as to how and why Rapa Nui’s forests vanished; the most popular of which has been that this is a story of environmental degradation on a micro-scale precipitated by human overpopulation, limited resources, and eventual societal collapse (although more recently, it’s been suggested that European-introduced disease and slavery may have been the driving factor for societal and population decline, while the rats that were stowaways with the Polynesian settlers’ canoes did short work of the island’s vegetation). Whatever the cause, the native forests of Rapa Nui are kaput, which is a damned shame considering that Rapa Nui’s extreme geographic isolation means that much of the island’s native flora and fauna were (and are, for those that haven’t yet become extinct) unique, in an ecological and evolutionary sense.

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Eucalyptus regnans, Tallest Tree in the South

I like really tall trees.

I suppose the possession of this adoration of our planet’s living, heaven-raking spires comes as a kind of birthright. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, an area not only richly coated with swaths of the densest temperate rainforests in the world, but also the tallest forests in the world. I came of age spending a great deal of time hiking and navigating forests largely consisting of several tree species that are among the world’s tallest. Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are all found in the lush coastal forests of Oregon and far Northern California where I spent many long, summer days of my youth; each of them generally regarded as being within the top five tallest tree species on the planet, based on the consistency and frequency of superlatively monstrous individuals within each. Even the “smaller” trees in the region seem to reach uniformly towering heights. Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) can top out at 200 feet (61 m) or more above the soft, spongy soil of the dark, coastal woods of Washington and Oregon. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a very common sight in the Pacific Coast Ranges, can easily grow to some 250 feet (76 m) at its droopy crown. The bottom levels of the canopy in a Pacific Northwestern old-growth rainforest can potentially be no less than 150 feet (46 m) high, which is a value not often matched in any other forested region on Earth.

A shaggier version of myself standing with the Quinault Lake Redcedar, the largest western redcedar in the world, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in June 2011 (Photo credit: Werner G. Buehler)

It’s no wonder that growing up immersed in this place has left me with a love for these great trees; old-growth forests full of venerable, enormous trees are incomparably majestic places. The sense of perspective and scale that these trees provide is invariably humbling. It’s difficult not to walk alongside them in a kind of hushed reverence, as if you were traversing the floor of an ancient and solemn temple or cathedral, one crafted from humongous, gnarled pillars of wood and moss, rounded with smoothed with deep time and dark silence. The temperate rainforest springs to life in intense bursts of emerald from wherever these trees have embedded their water-ravenous feet, with lithe lances of ferns and the ghostly baubles of root-associating mushrooms erupting wherever soil space is available. These dampest and darkest of woods, blanketed from the sun a football field’s length upwards, have been described as primordial, as a place of senescence and decay, but I think this is a misplaced conceptualization. The sites where the greatest of these trees grow is positively choked with life; life that clings to and parasitizes other life, life that reaches achingly skywards in even the weakest, most diluted sunbeam to touch down on the forest floor. In my mind, these are places of as much birth and flourishing as they are museums.

This aesthetically spell-binding quality, mixed with these forests’ complex ecology and somewhat unique, insular propensity to harbor endemic species…creatures found nowhere else in the world…is what persistently attracts me back to them time and time again (and also inspires me to write about themmultiple times…because I’m a little insufferable).

It is these types of places, misty, verdant groves of titanic conifers, that come to the mind of most when they envision the world’s tallest trees…granted they call the Northern Hemisphere home. It’s somewhat widely known that California’s coast redwoods are the world’s tallest species, and across the North American continent the sheer size of Pacific Northwest forest trees is no secret…especially when compared against the far more “compact” deciduous trees that are common on the Eastern Seaboard. But a very close contender for the title of the most gravity-taunting plant in the world comes from a location not often associated with impenetrable forests. One of the tallest organisms on Earth is an altogether different kind of plant than the behemoth redwoods, and it hails from the opposite side of the globe from the dewy haunts of Cascadia…a place far more associated with rust-colored, alien deserts, blinding heat, and a faunal assemblage that constitutes the world’s largest bucket of shorts-soiling “hell fucking no.”

I’m of course talking about Australia.

Yes, Australia is a place of extremes…where the venom flows like water, the coral reefs are supersized, and summer turns the landmass into a not-so-metaphoric broiling pan of unending solar-powered punishment  (one that keeps getting hotter). From a biological perspective, Australia is a continent perpetually locked in rebellious teenager mode, deviating from the rest of the world’s biota and letting its freak flag fly proudly for millions of years in a parade of pouches, flightless birds, weird plants, fangs, spikes, and scales. It is therefore quite fitting that one of the tallest trees in the world, the only one in the top five that is not a conifer, in pure contrarian style, is Australia’s Eucalyptus regnans…the “mountain ash” or “swamp gum.”

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The Klamath Bioregion

When I actually get around to updating this blog I have going here, I typically spend my time talking about specific biological phenomena, or species, that go relatively underappreciated by the non-biologist public. After all, the name of this project is Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology, is it not? However, as someone with a background in evolutionary biology, as well as ecology, I can attest to the significance of communities of organisms and large scale patterning over landscapes. Our planet can be broken up into distinct ‘bioregions’ or ‘ecoregions’, which contain geographically distinct groups of communities of species, and these regions tend to be unique to other defined regions. Think of them as neighborhoods of sorts, each one defined by a specific combination of factors from local geology, geography, climate, and recent biogeography (or, the local distribution of organisms in that region; for example, you aren’t going to find tigers in the grasslands of Brazil, or sloths in the jungles of Central Africa, since a combination of evolutionary history, lineage migration, and plate tectonics has influenced the biogeography of these critters). The one I’ve chosen to talk about sits in an isolated and generally unfamiliar corner of the United States. This bioregion is very dear to me, because I spent more than three years of my life living there in high school, and although I was not there long, I was continually impressed by how special of a location it is. It is known as the Klamath Mountains ecoregion, as those mountains are a dominant feature in the region; the region, more generally, is also referred to as the Klamath Uplift, the Klamath Knot, and the Klamath-Siskiyou area. From a historical and political perspective, the region is effectively the coastal two-thirds of the proposed U.S. state of ‘Jefferson’, which straddles the current border between Oregon and California.

The map above shows some formal boundaries of designated ecoregions in the Pacific Northwest, and 78 is generally accepted as the Klamath Mountains zone. I’ve circled a slightly differently oriented area in red as to show the areas with which I’m most familiar, and additionally, because the presence of the Klamath Uplift itself influences the climate and resulting biodiversity of coastal zones (zone 1 on the map), so that the coasts of far southern Oregon and far northern California are very different from rest of the coastlines from their respective states. In blue, where the Klamath ecoregion, and its associated uplands, come closest to the Pacific, is where I went to high school; Brookings, OR. The 150 sq miles surrounding this small town, down the coast and inland, are unique even within this special ecoregion due to this close juxtaposition of these ecological entities. I feel as though this region needs some devoted attention not only because of its one-of-a-kind attributes, but because it is an almost undiscovered place. This is true of both outsiders to the Northwest (or as I like to call them, the Those That are Seriously Missing Out), as well as people that have lived in the Northwest, even within Oregon, their entire lives. Part of the reason for this is because this area is sparsely populated; the nearest large cities, like Portland and San Francisco, are hundreds of miles north and south, along narrow, ill-maintained, rain-beaten coastal roads. Simply getting there is an arduous endeavor that involves transversing harsh, forested terrain, cutting through largely uninhabited river canyons, and putt-putting down Hwy 101 on the coast, trying not to drive off a cliff in the face of Biblical-style rainstorms with violent winds. It is largely because of this lack of habitation that this area has remained so pristine and the unique biodiversity has kept intact. The coastline does attract a modest seasonal tourist population every year, because the area has a more amiable climate than areas north and south of there, and the natural beauty of the place is unparalleled and untainted by the suffocation of human influence. It is this natural beauty and ever-present access to undistilled wilderness that many that I knew that grew up there to say ‘yeah, I guess it’s pretty special.’ But this doesn’t go far enough. The Klamath ecoregion is more than special for being pretty to live, work, and recreate in. This region of the world has among one of the highest levels of species endemism on the Pacific Coast; species endemism refers to species that are found in only one, distinct geographic area and that area only, often evolved to conditions in that special little micro-range. By this definition, it is exceptionally unique, ecologically, and this distinction, I believe, is more impactful than aesthetics.

Due to its warmer climate, which has more in common with California than Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, it has been described as a ‘chunk’ of California brought up north and transplanted across the border. But this isn’t an accurate description either. The climate and geology-fueled Klamath ecoregion is wholly unlike anything found in Oregon, in California, or technically anywhere else in the world.

This region is a rugged paradise wilderness existing within the larger relative wilds of the Pacific Northwest, if that can be imagined. A land of lush forests, pristine waters, bright, hot sunshine, and the overwhelming silence of isolation from humans and their business, the Klamath bioregion is an unrecognized gem in the U.S.’s crown. The region is possibly the most enigmatic and enchantingly beautiful natural space I have ever known. And to it, the following entry will serve as my love song…

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Odd Gymnosperms

Conifers.

Most of us living in North America and Europe know these as the “Christmas tree” trees. Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest know them as every single goddamn tree in sight. Towering, evergreen, and ubiquitous in environments ranging from temperate rainforest, to rocky mountaintops, to high desert and salty seashore barrens. Many of us with some life science background in high school learned that these are what are called “gymnosperms” (meaning ‘naked seed’), and are not quite like other land plants, in that they do not produce flowers, and reproduce using things like cones and copious amounts of wind-driven pollen. Due to the visibility and familiarity of conifers in our lives, and their vast economic and ecological importance (beyond the scope of being fabulous living room decorations one month of the year), cone-bearing trees like pines, firs, yews, spruces, and cypresses are the only gymnosperms that come to mind for those of us lucky enough to have a rudimentary background in the exciting field of evolutionary botany.

The reality is that a vast range of gymnosperms exist out there. Beyond the tree farm, beyond the city park, beyond the ornamental cedar in the front yard…is an entire world of alien plants that share that prehistoric, familial association with the relatively primitive conifers we all know and love.

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