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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