Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Decomposers

On Saturday we took a walk down the shore to look at a dead fish we were told was there, and it did not disappoint. Yes, we take walks specifically for dead things. Although, I know, it's a dead fish, it didn't have much to live up to really. Kids in general have such a fascination with dead stuff - it's a good way to get a close up look at some species we don't see often and also it's fun to poke stuff with a stick. And this fish was so dried out that Beans immediately asked if she could touch it with her hand, which being weird cool like that, of course I agreed to. And then Bunny couldn't be outdone so she petted it too.

Our dead fish turned out to be a Longnose Gar. A super cool prehistoric looking guy with armor-like scales and a looong mouth full of pointy little teeth. Had my camera (phone) not been both out of batteries and in the cabin I would have taken a picture, but it was both of those things, so here's a artists rendition of what our fish would have looked like alive. Now picture it with just bones for a head, dry, no insides and it's fins slightly nibbled.


This did bring the questions up of where did the insides go and who is doing the nibbling? You'd expect to see all the guts dried up inside and such but it was empty as a drum. We know this because Beans thought it was funny to tap on the scales like, well, a drum. So, because this is a shoreline decomposition the main answer is probably a combo of scavengers led by one of Bunny's favourite birds - Turkey Vulture - and one of mine - Herring Gull - and then a large variety of insects and some other microscopic things we'll lump together and call "the decomposers" for now. This would be different if it was back in a forest somewhere, which would still have the vultures (they are patrolling everywhere) and decomposers but also throw in some crows, ravens and a coyote or two and subtract the gulls. And also someone's dog will roll in it.
Decomposition begins almost immediatly at death and involves two processes: autolysis, which is the body's internal chemicals and enzymes breaking down it's own tissue, and putrefaction (awesome name eh?), which is breakdown of tissues by externabacteria. This tissue breakdown releases gas which is that unmistakable "something is dead here" smell. Like when the mouse died in our wall.
So let's start big. Turkey Vulture. Yes, it's a little weird that a seven-year-old has it as one of her favourite birds, but they are pretty cool, if not pretty. It has an incredible sense of smell, which is really rare among birds - many of which can't smell at all. They have no feathers on their head so as not to pick up bacteria when they stick their heads in a carcass (my apologies to anyone having a snack while reading this). They also have a well developed immune system, which is why they don't get the diseases we would from eating decomposing things (like salmonella, botulism, cholera...fun stuff like that). Stop eating now if you were. They like freshly dead stuff but sometimes have to wait for a bit of "softening" before they can pierce through the skin. They eat the soft bits first.

How can you not love this face?
By Mjobling (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or 
CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I used to work with Herring Gulls, so I've got a bit of a soft spot for them. Which incidentally is probably on my head from where they used to smack me while I was working. These are not to be confused with the smaller Ring-billed Gull, which is the one you find eating fries in the parking lot. Herring Gulls are, for the most part, seafood eaters. They also like insects, worms, eggs, chicks of other species and carrion (dead stuff) if the opportunity arises, particularly dead fish. So this guy is one of our likely suspects for eating the Gar, considering there is no shortage of them where we were.

What are you looking at? Dead fish are easy to catch.
© Laura Erickson, MN, Tettegouche State Park, June 2010

Then in come the insects. Flies and their larva (everyone's favourite - maggots!), worms, beetles - ain't no party like a dead fish party! By eating away at the fish they open it up to the microscopic stuff. Maggots are so good at this, and so specialized to eat only dead, rotting things that they are once again being used in medicine for treating non-healing wounds.

So now that the big parts have been eaten, who does the rest of the clean-up? The Decomposers. It really should be a title of a movie or something, I think something mafia-related or maybe a funny heist film. But what it's really referring to in this case is a variety of bacteria. Bacteria have a really useful purpose here by breaking down everything that didn't get eaten into simpler matter, turning our dead fish back into soil.

There are 5 stages of decompostion - Fresh, Bloat, Active, Advanced Decay and Dry/Remains. Our fish was in number five - just bones and scales. Fresh is where the scavengers come in, taking what they can for dinner. The Fresh stage is the one where the body changes colour (livor mortis), goes rigid for a bit (rigor mortis) and cools down (algor mortis) and as any good fan of CSI should know, these are key for finding out the time of death (which doesn't matter for our fish really), also you need cool in-the-air swipey computers and a bunch of random pipetting.

OK, so I debated whether or not to put this one in, but then I thought,
why not, it's only a decomposing pig.

By Hbreton19 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or
GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bloat is exactly what it sounds like - a build up of gases that cause the dead thing to puff up. Caution when poking things in the bloat stage with a stick, they can indeed pop. And that's not a fun kind of piƱata. This is when the insects move in too. Active Decay and Advanced Decay are the time when the decomposers are really in their element. It is basically the massive breakdown of tissue (active) and the end of that cycle (advanced) where the maggots have had their fill and move on to the couch for a nap (OK, actually they pupate) and the bacteria clean up and do the dishes. Dry/Remains is where our fish was - skin/scales, cartilage and bones - only non-edible stuff is left. The end of the food chain. The nutrients go back into the soil to be taken up into the plant roots and begin the cycle back up again. The ultimate recyclers, those decomposers. There are bacteria (and fungi and actinomycetes) to specialize in nearly everything - dead plants, dead animals, poop - it all gets broken down and reused.

It's quite a feat in teamwork. All these creatures work together to make the world a cleaner place. Now if I can just get a gull to do my laundry...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Clouds (Sky Sheep)

So, it took some convincing to get both girls to the point where they accept that clouds are indeed made of water and not of fluff (and most disappointingly not of cotton candy, which I was able to debunk by pointing out it's lack of pinkness). I can't take all the credit - the Cyberchase weather watcher episode on fog may have helped a bit, because that's just a cloud on the ground. This doesn't explain the variability of clouds though - different shapes, degree of fluffiness (which isn't, but should be, a cloud measurement scale) and what Bunny asked about - colour.

Now, while I am not in any way a weather expert, I am a sailor. Which means weather has always been an interest, because when you are in the middle of a lake with a large metal pole you might want to know when lightning is coming (especially while in charge of other people's children who also have metal poles). I know which shapes of clouds mean a lovely day of sailing and which ones means get your butt back to shore. But what's with all the different shapes and colours if they are all just made of water? Bunny is not the first to wonder this - the first International Cloud Atlas was first published in 1896 (not to be confused with that recent movie that really has nothing to do with clouds at all).

The colour thing is pretty simple actually - density. Because clouds are made of water or ice crystals they break up light on it's way through which combine to make white (all light colours together make white - which by the way doesn't work in paint or playdough, that makes weird grey-mud-brown). When the clouds get thick or piled up then the light doesn't go all the way through and it looks darker - so nothing really changed composition wise, there's just more of it. If you get a whole bunch of clouds together they can also shadow each other creating an even darker or variable look.

Cool Aside Thing: When the light doesn't make it all the way through the water droplets in the atmosphere and bounces around in them, it breaks up into individual colours and we get rainbows. The water acts like a prism (think Dark Side of the Moon album cover but with a water drop) and reflects the light back at us all pretty and happy.

Now, shapes. This has also to do with density and also where they are in the atmosphere. I have borrowed this handy kid-friendly cartoon chart for some shape basics:


See that tall puffy guy there on the right? He's the one that tells you to get your boat to harbour and make some popcorn for a light show. The other guys are pretty friendly. Now, before we get into any discussion about the above I'd like to put a disclaimer for any meteorologists reading this - I know there are sub-types and jargon and more classifications than this but we're not going to go there, ok? OK! There is an awesome cloud poster HERE from Environment Canada though if you want a bit more detail or just a cool ID poster for your wall to go next to your bird one.

A bunch of the names there are combos of each other which can't possibly be a coincidence, so here's why:
Cirro: curl, high
Strato: layer
Cumulo: heap
Alto: mid 
Nimbo: rain, precipitation    

So see - our cumulonimbus thunderbuddy there just means "heap of rain" cloud. Which is actually a pretty accurate descriptions of our last few weeks here, in which I sailed boats in my office parking lot. Today was very gray so it's a sky full of stratus, which decided to start raining right when soccer started, so I suppose if I look at my list below they were nimbostratus, but that's not fair because you haven't read that far ahead and now I'm cheating.

Quick overview of the main cloud types:

These are the flat gray clouds that often make up what we would just call a "gray day" - no sky visible at all. Like a sky fog - covers everything. Sometimes they drizzle.

Dark gray and rainy looking, and often are rainy and that's why they are nimbos - that continuous light or steady rain that lasts a while. This was soccer today - steady (and windy, but we're not doing wind).

Wispy clouds that get blown around like streamers. Way up high and these are happy nice weather clouds. If you've got these your picnic is A-OK.

Happy picnic clouds

Gray and poofy. They can mean thunderstorms are coming later, particularly in the summer.

Gray and cover the whole sky, but higher than the stratus ones. More rain forebearers.

Little puffballs, like someone flung a bunch of cotton swabs up there. Sometimes they look like fish scales in which case you can call it "mackerel sky". I have no idea why a mackerel, it does seem an odd fish to choose. I feel like for here we should use "trout sky" or "bass sky". Maybe "salmon sky".

Fishy sky

Really thin white clouds covering the entire sky.

These are your lying on your back looking at shapes clouds. Big, puffy and shaped like dragons, trains, and sheep (I really like sheep). The only bad thing about these guys is sometimes they get together and can turn into the next ones, which is awkward if you are doing your cloudwatching far from shelter.

Sky Sheep!

Thunderstorm! Big and tower or anvil shaped. The bottom is dark gray, and sometimes you can see the sheets of rain coming down (and towards you). The condensation of all that water produces energy and then we get lighting, thunder and tornadoes. If you see this one remember to put down your deck umbrella.


Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good thunderstorm in the right situation. That situation is not on a boat with a large metal pole or in a small tent that is falling over, because I've tried both of those and I don't recommend them. I prefer a cup of tea and being on the inside of a large window.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Itchy, itchy, scratchy, scratchy

It is middle of "bug season" here and we were outside the other day, enduring our weekend dose of biting, and we noticed that some of the mosquitoes were big, some were little, and some of the things biting us were actually flies.

So - who is actually biting us?

Biting insects are the source of a perverse sort of pride here in Ontario. While obviously they are a big, itchy, swarmy, bitey pain in the bum, there is a rite of passage to surviving the spring bug season and so year after year we sit at campfires and tents in the spring and early summer smacking ourselves and keeping the good people at Deep Woods and AfterBite in business.

While we joke about the mosquito being our provincial bird, we don't have that many species comparatively. We have about 80 species in all of Canada - and I know you are thinking that's a TON, but it's not. There are about 3000 species in the world, and with insects you have to say "about" when talking about numbers because there's no way we know them all and they have such minute differences that scientists constantly figure out what they though was one species is actually two or three or seven. Three of those 80 are exotic species, which means somewhere along the line mosquitoes decided that we didn't have enough and started hitching rides here (probably larvae in imported things with water). Ontario wins for most species out of the provinces with about 64, Quebec is runner up with 50 and BC next with 46. Go Ontario!

Mosquitoes have been around a LOOOOONG time. They show up in fossils around 89-99 million years ago. Yes, trapped in amber and no, so far they don't have cloneable dinosaur blood in them.

Crazy thing - not all northern mosquitoes eat blood. Some keep enough from their larval eating that they don't need to or they eat other things - Wyeomyia smithii breeds only in the water in the pitchers of Purple Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) and the larvae preys on the even smaller organisms right there in that water. And in those that do require a blood meal, it's only the females that bite (Girl Power?). Both males and females eat sugar (mmmmm sugar) usually from flowers, and then in some species the females are the blood suckers to gain extra nutrients for egg laying.

They are attracted to carbon dioxide, so unless we figure out a way to breathe that doesn't involve expelling that we're pretty much always going to be a target. So once they land on us the proboscis (long bitey bit) injects a special saliva which prevents clotting and that's what we react to. Bunny was quick to point out that butterflies also have a proboscis, but their is used for only for flowers (good) and not people (evil) and is seriously not impressed with the idea of bug saliva being injected into her and an impressive "ugh" face was made. Beans wasn't really paying attention as she was busy scratching the giant bite on her neck.

I'm not posting all 80 mosquito species - but here's a few (I have made all the pictures in this post small so as not to disturb people with giant insects in their face):

Ochlerotatus triseriatus
Eastern Treehole Mosquito
Copyright © 2009 Ilona L.

Culex pipiens
North American House Mosquito
photo credit
Anopheles walkeri 
 Permanent Marsh Mosquito
© Tom Murray

If you want to see more (and why wouldn't you want to see more!) check out - Family Culicidae - Mosquitoes

But the thing is here, with the biting and the buzzing and the hey hey, it's not just mosquitoes. The Blackfly is a famous Ontario resident, it's even got it's own song (link for the benefit of those who don't know about blackflies picking their bones in north Ontar-i-o-i-o, in north Ontar-i-o). There are 1250 species of blackfly worldwide (everywhere except Antarctica) and we proudly have 162 in Canada, in every single province - although BC tops the chart this time with 81. Nova Scotia is last, but I feel this means they win, with 13. Same deal - only females bite and everybody eats plant nectar.

Simulium sp.
Black Fly
© Tom Murray

And we're not done there. Here's some other stuff that bites, and still, only the females bite (it's an egg thing):
No See Um (Biting Midge) - these fit through screens, the little buggers
Copyright © 2011 tom murray

The scourge of canoers feet everywhere - DEER FLY
Copyright © 2010 Stephen Luk

Horse Fly - these tend to circle our heads while swimming causing much splashing and dunking
Copyright © 2012 tom murray
I know, it looks like a housefly right? WRONG - it BITES YOU and is a Stable Fly
Copyright © 2006 Stephen Luk

One that does not bite:

This guy I feel sorry for. He's a Crane Fly, but often gets mistaken for a giant mosquito and gets smacked anyway. He doesn't bite, he just wants to hang out and eat some nectar (and some crane fly larvae actually eat mosquito larvae!). New PSA slogan: Check before you Swat, he probably wouldn't even land on you but they do seem to like to hang out in doorways and on screens.

Please don't swat me!

Now, after all that discussion on how much it sucks that there are biting things out there when all we want to do is relax by the lake and have a marshmallow or six, it should really be pointed out that they all do serve a greater ecological purpose. They are a really important food source for a number of birds, dragonflies, bats, fish and assorted amphibians. I'm going to look at it as donating blood to a good cause.

More Mosquito Material: