Treasure Hunting

It happens every year.  Summoned by the calls of spring and other unknown cues, a treasure is unearthed.  I hear the cues too somehow; like a woman hears her biological clock ticking, and I know.  It’s time to go treasure hunting.

Treasure is defined as something hidden or kept in a safe place, and something valuable or special.  My treasure is all of these things.  It is hidden for most of the year.  It is kept in a safe place in that only a few (two?) people know about.  It is even buried, so to speak.  It is valuable.  Were I to sell it, I might get over $20.00 per pound.  I couldn’t get rich on my treasure, there’s never that much, but that’s not a concern.  While I do use the treasure every year, there’s something equally, or more important than the treasure itself.  I think it’s the hunt.

What is it about treasure hunting that drives some people to spend their lives in its pursuit?  Obviously fame and fortune come to mind.  But is the treasure hunter satisfied once his or her quest is through, or is there a hidden need bubbling below the surface to hunt again?  I can’t answer this because I am not seeking a fortune.

Perhaps, it is the thrill of the hunt?  To be the first to make a discovery or to search in secret or to dive in dangerous waters must motivate the thrill seeker as much as the goal.  I am not sure my hunt is thrilling though there is some danger.  I could fall prey to the tiny bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi if I were to be bitten by a deer tick.  While this is not an inconsequential risk, I have decided it cannot keep me from being in nature http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/04/22/tick-troubles/

I could also be viciously attacked by multiflora rose (Multiflora rosa).  This has happened despite my careful nature.  Many times I have left blood on their grabbing, clutching thorns – and I do fight back.  This isn’t thrilling, just painful.  Is it the thrill of the hunt for some? Again, I can’t relate.  I’m too old for thrill seeking.

For me the hunt is something else.  I find it hard to articulate.  If you climbed trees or boulders as a child you might have a sense of what I feel on the hunt.  If you’ve ever caved and had to wiggle through a small space on your belly, you might understand.  In my hunt, I have to cross a stream, often by jumping.  I scurry under branches and vines.  I scan the forest floor focusing on one sense – sight – yet somehow feel my other senses heighten.  The flexible maneuvering under branches helps me feel younger.  But there’s more.  As I get deeper into the woods, cueing on my sight image, which is a year old and fuzzy in my mind, I start to feel wild.  I follow a deer trail.  Why not?  Other animals would for ease of travel.  I start to forget my body and just move, step, squat, scurry, step, stop, look, listen, step.  Am I the deer browsing?  Am I the squirrel burying my own treasure for next year? Am I the blue jay that narrowly escaped? It doesn’t matter.  I just know I am not me right then.  My cells stir trying to recall a distant evolutionary past.  I get lost in this past, a past much more vague than childhood.  Is it possible to remember? Suddenly I know; this is really what I’m hunting.

Morchella, the edible morel mushroom, is my tangible treasure.  I didn’t find any on my hunt yesterday, or the last three times I went.  Perhaps our late spring has slowed its emergence.  Perhaps I won’t find any this year.  That’s ok.  The reason I am called to the hunt is a need for something I probably can’t actualize.  I know some treasures are intangible, yet I know I will keep hunting.

Other treasures I found:

Maybe some kind of beetle eggs?
Maybe some kind of beetle eggs?
One's man trash is . . . yes, I kept it.
One’s man trash is . . . yes, I kept it.
Spicebush flowers
Spicebush flowers
Blue Jay feathers
Blue Jay feathers

Late Winter Wanderings

Winter always tricks me into thinking I can wander carelessly through the fields and woods.  Especially when there is snow, I am lulled into the false pretense that I am indeed leaving only footprints.  A walk in early February proved me wrong, as usual.

Near the pond I was thinking warm thoughts of spring despite the 28-degree weather.  Why?  I had noticed some bright green grass and watercress growing right where a shallow spring enters the pond, a mini-estuary without the salt water.  And, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was peering over the snow!  Clearly I still had to be careful where I was walking.

Skunk Cabbage flower February 7, 2014
Skunk Cabbage flower February 7, 2014

This small section is the most primordial-seeming part of our property.  There is just something about Skunk Cabbage and the spring flowing in this spot that evokes a scene from The Land of the Lost – a silly TV show I liked as a kid where a family gets sucked into the distant past and must deal with dinosaurs.  Anywhere else I look on our property might cause me to ponder the 1800s, or perhaps earlier when Native Americans lived here, but this spot with the Skunk Cabbage takes me much further back.

My primordial spot looks so by mid-summer when the Skunk Cabbage leaves are 2-3 feet tall.
My primordial spot looks so by mid-summer when the Skunk Cabbage leaves are 2-3 feet tall.

Skunk Cabbage is an early sign of spring.  The plant sends up a flower before its leaves as early as January where I live.  It gets its name from the unpleasant odor it produces. I’ve never noticed anything unpleasant, but I’m also not willing to get on my hands and knees in a cold, wet spring in February to get a better whiff.  The odor attracts its pollinators, which include flies, stoneflies, and bees, but also butterflies and beetles.  The leaves are poisonous to humans and some mammals because of their oxalate content, but black bear and many bird species do eat the leaves and seeds.

How does Skunk Cabbage flower when snow is on the ground?  It is capable of thermogenesis.   It is able to raise the temperature 15-35°C (59-95°F) above the air temperature, thereby melting the snow and thawing the ground and pushing through the surface.  That’s pretty impressive.  All we can do is shiver a bit or run around and work up a sweat.  Otherwise, we need to harness a natural resource in order to produce that much heat.  The heat produced by the plant probably also plays a role in attracting early pollinators by helping the odor to dissipate and by providing a warm place to hang out.

Skunk Cabbage has another ability that I find even more amazing than thermogenesis.  From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symplocarpus_foetidus)

“Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.”

That is not what I learned in school!  I’m sure this happens slowly, but I’m having trouble getting an image out of my head of a sort of pulsing movement of roots contracting below ground and leaves getting sucked down.  If it were observable, it would be worth a few hours camped out in the cabbage patch taking notes.

Leaves of Skunk Cabbage after flowering. March 31, 2014. Only 4 inches tall now, they will grow to 3 feet.
Leaves of Skunk Cabbage after flowering. March 31, 2014. Only 4 inches tall now, they will grow to 3 feet.

So the Skunk Cabbage can provide its own heat and it’s firmly grounded.  That’s better than a lot of higher organisms can do.  But there’s more.  Skunk Cabbage also plans for the future, several years in advance.  I found the following from Craig Holdrege, an unabashed lover and studier of Skunk Cabbage (http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic4/skunkcabbage.htm)

“Most plants in any given population are well-established, with numerous years of development behind them. But they also prepare for the future. In the summer I dissected a skunk cabbage, peeling away leaf after leaf from the base of the stalk. What I found astounded me, even though, having done some reading before, I was somewhat prepared for it. At the base of one of the middle leaves there was the bud of a spathe that will grow out in the following spring. It was about 2 cm long and already deep wine-red in color. A few leaves further inward another spathe bud was visible—smaller and still white. This spathe would emerge in the spring after next. Another, even smaller spathe follows after a few more leaves; it would emerge two and a half years later! When I cut the rootstock lengthwise, I could see several more tiny spathe buds (the size of the tip of a ball-point pen) at the base of the shoot. Spathes are being prepared years ahead.

In this way skunk cabbage lays down its future course of development. What we normally perceive encompasses the development of the spathe and the rapid outer growth and decay of the leaves each year. At the other pole of the plant, the roots grow ever further and draw the plant downward. In these two poles the plant unfolds activity into and with its environment. But hidden in the inner core of the plant, protected from all direct contact with the elements, a sketch of things to come is continually developing.”

A plant I’ve admired since we moved to Halcyon has, from just an afternoon of research, awed me in its complexity.  As I learn more about the life on our property, I too hope my roots get pulled deeper and deeper into the soil.

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing with Nature

I was reading through some old North Carolina Wildlife magazines this past weekend and came across a personal story that resonated with me.  In it the author, who is severely allergic to wasps, tells of a summer watching bald-faced hornets build a nest from his kitchen window. He was unwilling initially to kill the fascinating life building it or later to destroy the nest itself.  Unfortunately the nest gets rather large and the author was stung, resulting in a hospital visit.  One could hardly begrudge him the act of murder he commits next, spraying the nest with a pyrethrin under the trademark name of the Enforcer.

He did not however experience a sweet revenge, but rather, “an unease that soon wore like a hollow victory.”  Eloquently he goes on . . .

“Each day from the kitchen window I looked upon the empty gray nest, silent and lifeless like a forgotten horn that no child ever blew.  I felt a certain sadness for all my established dominion.  After all, I was the intruder; in a scheme of things          grander than that which says a man must keep a tidy lawn, it was the bald-faced hornets that existed in the natural order.  They were only doing what a million years of instinct bid them.

So now a sense of loss replaced the fear I had when I stared out the kitchen window.  Having claimed such chemical sovereignty over my Raleigh abode, I felt a strange sort of detachment from the natural environment, a kink in a lifeline I had treasured and a relationship nurtured on a daily basis.  Was I so much high on the evolutionary ladder that I’d lost sight of the bottom rungs my own ancestors had climbed? “

I sense this very loss often when I read about loss of species habitat, endangered species, overfishing, and poisons in our air, water, and soil.  I wrestle with it emotionally when I flush a stinkbug down the toilet one minute and catch and release a spider to the outdoors in another.  It is why I write this blog.  It is my naïve hope that I will say something different than all the other ‘nature loss lamenters’ before me, and in doing so will change someone’s perspective from nature as separate, to nature as integral and essential.  It saddens me that many people who so quickly and easily destroy other life have no remorse and often feel that sweet revenge.

I had an epiphany reading Nickens’ words, mingling with all the articles I was clipping on natural diversity.  It struck me that life is a dance between all participants.  It occurs at the species level and at the individual level.  This is explained when we learn about food chains and food webs.  We exist because of a foundation of plant producers that supply most of the rest of life with food and oxygen.  Imbalances in food webs can screw up other species intricately tied to each other.  There is loss and renewal all the time.  It is a dance.  Or at least it was.  Humans have so altered natural systems and increasingly spend so much time separate from natural systems that I think we are losing something very important.  We are losing ourselves.  We are losing humility, compassion, and awe.

If we chose to merely watch from our window or destroy and isolate ourselves from the life around us, we are like spectators at the dance show.  We clap and admire perhaps.  Snap photos from afar.  This seems harmless, but we are outsiders.  We don’t know the dance.  We don’t feel the dance in our flesh as our muscles ebb and flow with those of another dancer’s.  We don’t understand that the dance is vital to our survival – much like I sense dancing is vital to the dancer’s wholeness.  Even worse, I sometimes feel as outsiders we expect more and more of the dancer: more energy, more acrobatics, and more stimulation for ‘me’ the outsider.  Why?  Because we’ve lost something.  Because we’re not participating.  For some of us, it may be something we don’t even understand we’ve lost.

How do we find it?  Start participating.  Start dancing.  Take walks outside.  Sit still and observe nature.  Lie on your stomach and watch what moves through the grass.  Plant a garden.  Spend time outside with children.  Let children show you the awesomeness of nature.  Don’t spray the hornets’ nest.

There is loss and renewal all the time.  Life is a dance.  Our time will come when we leave the scene, the web of life.  Perhaps we should dance while we are here instead of sitting on the inside looking out.

 

Nickens, T. Edward.  The Empty Nest.  Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine.  2007.

Scattered Thoughts on Gratitude

During the transition from an old year to a new year I like to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year and plan for the next year. Doing so brings out gratitude for all I have, a gratefulness that I sometimes must drag out of myself other times of the year.  Sure, I know I have everything I need when pressed to think about it, but I do not think daily about it as evidenced in grumpy comments such as, “Ugh, look at all the dishes in the sink.”  Instead I should be happy to have a sink and water running from a tap – both of which I have lived without.  It is hard to wash dishes in a bathtub.  And then, of course, I need to be grateful for the bathtub, which also was lacking at Halcyon for a good four years, and which millions of people in the world do not have.

There are times when I feel my kitchen is too small; I have to move things to work.  On gratitude-filled days I am thankful for my beautiful soapstone countertop, which is, not surprisingly, much more beautiful and easier to clean than the plywood countertop we had for several years while renovating the kitchen.  On days when I am filled with experiential wisdom, I also know that a larger kitchen can suffer from the same problem of seeming too small.

Kitchens, or whatever the little things we grump about, pale in comparison to things that really matter: health, family, shelter, livelihood, and chances to learn and grow every day.  When I set New Year’s goals, I am much more in tune with all these aspects in my life for which I have gratitude.

Believe it or not these thoughts led to my frequent ponderings on similarities and differences between human animals and other animals.  Can animals feel gratitude? I don’t remember when I first heard of or learned about evolution.  What I do remember is suddenly recalling every zoo trip I’d ever taken where I would stare at the gorillas and see humans.  I’d literally be reminded of, if not a particular person, at least the mannerisms and physical attributes that makes up the character of any one person.  It was easy for me to understand Darwin’s continuity theory.  Grossly simplified, continuity means that the differences between humans and other animals is one of degrees, not of kind.  We have since discovered animal intelligences, levels of consciousness, and similarities in the structure and functions of nervous systems in animals and humans – all in support of continuity.  So if we are more similar in structure and function with animals than we used to understand, what about gratitude?

Asking this question of course, begs the more general question of whether animals experience emotion.  There is much anecdotal evidence, but more importantly a growing body of scientific studies that show that some animals do indeed experience emotions.  Elephants and many other mammals show sadness at the loss of another member of their group.  Dogs certainly appear happy, fearful, or content in different situations.  While much of what animals do is instinctual, there are also enough observations of animal behavior to conclude there are emotions regulating some of their behavior.  I’ve included just a sampling of research found on the Internet at the end of this essay.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generally accepted idea of a hierarchy of animals based on brain size and intelligence – an intelligence defined by human experience.  I’ve always had a gut feeling (which by the way is also not such a whimsical notion given recent studies on the gut being our ‘second brain’) that there may be different ways of reacting to stimuli, of communicating, and of thinking compared to how humans engage with their environment, and that we just don’t yet have the means to observe it.  I’ve always likened my we just can’t see it notion to how Carl Sagan wrote about his belief in the presence of alien life in space in Pale Blue Dot:  He told us to imagine if we were looking at Earth but our technologies only allowed us the precision to see things the size of automobiles.  We might perceive that life existed on the planet and that that life (cars) used wheels instead of legs and lived in large rectangular dwellings (garages).  In other words, our technology is not yet good enough for us to see/know/discover all possibilities in space.

The same is true with our understanding of animal communication and intelligence.  I often recall this metaphor when I am wondering about other life at Halcyon, and when I read studies of animal intelligence and emotion.  I often stare across the garden or a field and wonder what is happening in a sort of parallel universe sense that I cannot perceive with my senses.  I see, but I can’t know it all.  We can’t forget about plants either.  There are people studying the intelligence or sensory abilities of plants.  I thoroughly enjoyed the recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollen, The Intelligent Plant.  I felt a kid-like excitement when I read this parallel to Sagan’s metaphor which a plant researcher claims inspired him as a child: a Star Trek episode called Wink of an Eye which portrayed an alien species from a radically increased time dimension that thought humans were immobile and hence inert, and used them as they saw fit.  Can we loosen our human-centered world-view in order to ‘see’ other ways of being?

If we can accept Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences for humans (http://infed.org/mobi/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-and-education/), is it such a stretch to imagine intelligences in other life?  After all it would be a difference in kind which we are used to understanding in humans – chemical chatter of plants versus vocal chatter of humans versus sonic frequencies of animals – and in degrees when we compare true neuronal signaling behavior between animals.   Intelligence, behavior, reactions, and emotions, they seem interrelated to me and integral to all life.  It is simply a matter of degrees and kinds.  It is all very exciting to me.

There is clearly a lot to learn, a lot to study, and a lot of growing to do on our part, for example, to reconcile different definitions of intelligence and consciousness.  Given the discord in the plant science community about this new idea of plant neurobiology, some of these ideas about intelligence and emotion in other life may take a long time to be accepted as scientific truth – if current studies indicating such intelligence are indeed valid and repeatable.   This journey may be considerably long given the shocking statistic I heard on National Public Radio recently that only 50% of the population knows that there is DNA in a tomato.  Really?  What population was this?

Freezing rain started while I was drafting this post.  Ugh.  I will have to go thaw the chickens’ water because I don’t have their water heater set up yet.  Actually, that’s not what I am thinking or feeling.   What I am feeling is gratitude that I have some chickens to take care of, that I live at Halcyon, and for a husband who supports my endeavors.  I am also feeling gratitude toward all the scientists working to enhance our understanding of the life with which we share the earth.

What I am thinking is:  Will my chickens be grateful?

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/humananimal-relationships_b_4439038.html

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/animal_instincts

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/12/23/131223fa_fact_pollan?currentPage=1

Chamovitz, Michael.  What a Plant Knows.  2012.  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York.

Sagan, Carl.  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.  1994.  Random House.

 

 

 

 

Dreys, Ophidariums, and Formicaries, Oh My!

As winter’s creep slowly changed my landscape from encroaching jungle to naked trees and brown vistas I found myself staring at dreys.  They are everywhere.  Well, that’s not true.  They are only in treetops.  What I mean is they are numerous.

If I stand between my house and the studio and make a 360° turn, I can count 8 dreys.  Nine, if you include the one that fell through the chimney into my dining room last month.  Thankfully, it was abandoned.  I made note of at least 5 more on my last walk.  Dreys are squirrel nests or homes.  A tight, waterproof nest of leaves that tends to look like a jumbled mess hurriedly constructed and thrown into the uppermost branches of trees.  Actually dreys are meticulously constructed with a layering of materials – coarse leaves on the outside and ever finer materials on the inside.  An entrance hole is made in the bottom, which functions to keep out rain.

Seeing these dreys in the naked trees, I realized that while I think of the other life forms at Halcyon, I don’t tend to think beyond the organism in a concrete manner.  Yes, I learn about their habits and niches.  And if I understand their niche, I clearly understand that they have a home.  My epiphany came when I realized that I never thought about all the homes that exist here at Halcyon.  I just think of my house.  I equate the word Halcyon with my home at the same time that I am happy to find other life about the property.

Thinking of all those dreys led me to wonder about all the homes needed to sustain life through the winter: soil burrows for rabbits, mice, and moles; mud burrows for frogs and turtles; ophidariums for snakes (I wonder how many are in my walls); formicaries for ants; hives for wasps and bees; tunnels for worms and beetles; nests for birds; brush for deer; lairs for fox; owlery for owls; and leaf litter for overwintering caterpillars.  Some terms are non-specific.  Others, like lair and den are used interchangeably.  All the terms are human constructs.  While many animals instinctively know when and what kind of home they need, we’ve no indication that they think of their homes with the same level of emotional connections in which humans do.  And I doubt they name them.

Ironically we tend to call animal shelters a home and people shelters a house, that is until the house becomes a home, and then we are referring to how we’ve made memories and enhanced our comfort within the walls of said house.  To us, a house is a structure to keep out wind and rain, and a home is so much more.  Dreys and lairs and dens are also structures designed for shelter, but I’ve only seen cozy chairs, tiny dishes, and fireplaces in animal dwellings in my childhood fantasies of animals and in depictions of animal homes in wonderful picture books.

But I digress from my epiphany, which was about numbers of homes, not their contents.  As I take my winter walks, I will take care to wonder and realize the number of dwellings at Halcyon.  Some are for a solitary organism, like a frog burrowed in the mud.  Others, like ant nests, hold hundreds or more individuals.  There is still a lot going on out there, in just a mere 14 acres, of which I am unaware.  What animals have built homes next to yours?

Three dreys
Three dreys

Anticipation

My chickens have been on strike since before the government shutdown and they’re still not back to work.  They’re not even willing to enter into negotiations; they want nothing to do with me right now.

They’re not upset about living conditions.  They’ve a lovely, two-story, maintenance-free condo with weekly changes of fresh bedding.  It’s not about the neighborhood.  They’ve got almost 1000 square feet (remember I’ve only three hens) to roam and find bugs and plants to add to their nutritionally-balanced meals and protein-rich treats.  I also do my best to keep predators out by having built a coop with two layers of fencing, closing their coop ramp every night, and installing an electric fence around the garden.  It can’t be about the hours either.  They get plenty of breaks to dust bathe.  They particularly love to rest under the raspberry canes.

So what’s their deal?  Why are they upset?  First you need to imagine being covered with feathers.  If you can do this, then imagine losing such feathers in large clumps, progressively, all over your body. Then imagine the pain or discomfort, not to mention the embarrassment, you might feel while those feathers are growing back. Wouldn’t you want nothing to do with your job for a while?  My girls are molting.

Pin feathers growing back on neck.
Pin feathers growing back on neck

Molting is an energy intensive process leaving no reserves, in the form of protein, to produce an egg.  Chickens undergo their first molt around 18 months of age and then yearly, usually beginning in late fall.  The natural process is stimulated by decreased length of day and subsequent light.  Some chickens undergo a milder molt – more like we shed our hair and skin –  and some continue to lay eggs, though not every day, and are back in production in three to four weeks.  Other birds go through a drastic molt, looking like a botched plucking job, which can take 12-16 weeks.  The Australorp breed is known to be good layers and so I hoped they might continue to produce sporadically while molting, but sadly this is not the case.

Molting, combined with shorter days, means many chickens may not lay an egg for a good four months.  Pretty good paid leave, until you remember that feeling of new feather production.  Feathers are 85% protein.  Chickens require a good diet to regrow them and to recharge the reproductive system.  Commercial operations with artificial lighting have a problem where chickens do not naturally molt.  In the absence of a molting period, chickens’ egg production and quality decline, and chickens become overweight.  Therefore many such operations in our country starve their chickens all at once in order to induce a simultaneous molt.  This practice is controversial and banned in the UK and most of Canada.  I see it as yet another case where operations of scale, though they might decrease costs and raise profits, have negative side effects that may not make sense.

Many chicken husbandry magazine articles encourage putting a light in the coop during the winter to stimulate the hobby farmer’s chickens to keep producing.  I think it best to let nature tell my girls when to lay and when to rest.

Notice no tail feathers on bird in back.  Bird in middle is farthest along in the molt process.
Notice no tail feathers on bird in back. Bird in middle is farthest along in the molt process.

Recently I cracked open a store-bought egg, my first since last January.  I caught myself wondering about the light in the coop idea.  That egg yolk was pale, bland, almost sickly looking.  I miss my eggs.  A lot.  Then I thought of the chickens that lay these store-bought eggs.  They are trapped indoors with no room to move, beaks often cut so they can’t hurt each other, and fed only an “all vegetarian” diet.  Chickens are omnivores.  I think that advertising is supposed to comfort me that no animal by-products have been added to these chickens’ feed, but the wording annoys me.  Plus, I’m pretty sure those chickens aren’t eating worms and grasshoppers.

I’ve decided I can wait for my girls’ natural rhythms to start producing eggs again.  There is something magical about finding an egg in the nest box that never became mundane despite it happening day after day.  A hiatus will just heighten the feeling.  The expectancy is a delicious feeling akin to childhood anticipations.  I’m looking forward to the magic starting once more.  I sure hope it’s soon!

Woolly Bear Predictions?

Fall is here.  My resident hummingbirds have vanished, preferring warmer parts where they can find nectar to sustain their high energy needs.  The leaves are dropping, carpeting my lawn, and providing a needed change to my exercise routine.  And, when I do still walk, the Woolly Bear caterpillar dots the roadways and trails, searching in earnest for places to hibernate for the winter.

Or so I thought.  The Woolly Bear caterpillar doesn’t actually hibernate.  It freezes solid!  Having been born in the fall, it’s not yet ready to pupate into an adult and complete its life cycle.  Somehow in its evolutionary journey, the process of cryoprotection was deemed more successful than, say, the monarch’s habit of flying hundreds of miles south to overwinter in a warmer climate as an adult butterfly.

All moth and butterfly species have evolved to survive the winter in one of the stages – egg, larva, pupa, or adult – of its life cycle.  The Eastern Tent caterpillar overwinters in the egg form.  The Monarch is a well-known example of a species that overwinters in the adult form.  The Woolly Bear has found success overwintering in its larval form.

It sounds like science fiction!  The Woolly Bear larva produces a cryoprotectant, which allows it to survive temperatures down to -90°F.  The little caterpillar’s heart stops beating, its guts and blood freeze solid, and then the rest of its body freezes. In the spring it warms up and continues its life cycle first eating some more, then pupating, emerging as an adult, mating, laying eggs and dying.  The busy adult stage only lasts a few days.

The Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) lives all over North America.  In the Arctic, short summers mean not enough feeding time to pass through each instar – the stages between each molt while a larva.  In this case a Woolly Bear larva might freeze and thaw up to 14 times –that means 14 winters – until it is big enough to pupate into an adult!  This is incredible!  I don’t like to be cold, and I can’t imagine freezing and thawing (if I could even survive the process) without pain.

So the truth really is stranger than fiction!  As a child I loved the folklore stating that one could predict the severity of the coming winter based on the amount of red-brown or black hairs on the caterpillar in late fall.  The lore asserts that a bigger red-brown section forecasts a mild winter.  Conversely, more dark hairs mean a more severe winter.  It’s cute.  I love winter, even though I hate to be cold, and as a child, I delighted in sighting a caterpillar with more dark hairs on its ends.  There are even Woolly Bear festivals that are the fall cousin to the groundhog that, for fun at least, predict spring in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  But this ability to predict the weather, which I don’t believe has any scientific basis, pales in comparison to being able to survive freezing!

Woolly Bear larva
Woolly Bear larva

No one has been able to prove the folklore about predicting winter weather, and people have tried.  That doesn’t stop some people from still believing it.  I guess they conveniently forget about their predictions when the results don’t pan out.  Or perhaps, they rationalize one severe storm as proof of their prediction for a harsh winter.  I have never found a fall season where all the Woolly Bears I see have the same or similar amount of red-brown and black hairs, a feature that would have to exist if this little larva was capable of predicting the weather.

It turns out that the hair coloration of the larvae is actually evaluative of the summer just ending rather than predictive of the coming weather.  This is because the red-brown middle section grows larger as the caterpillar ages, measured as number of instars.  More red-brown hairs indicate that a caterpillar has had longer to feed before the fall weather arrives.  In other words, it means it is older.  After the first frost, the caterpillar seeks a place to ‘freeze up’ for the winter.

I can’t imagine heading south as a human or a butterfly to avoid winter, but I really can’t imagine curling up under some bark and freezing solid for months . . . waiting, yet not conscious of when or what was next.  I have a new admiration for what the Woolly Bear tells me:  not that it can predict the winter, but that there are so many amazing, stranger than fiction, feats to discover in the animal world.  Humans seem so boring sometimes.

Leopard moth larva - also overwinters in larval stage.  I'm not sure if it freezes also.
Leopard moth larva – overwinters in larval stage. I’m not sure if it also freezes.
Leopard moth adult
Leopard moth adult