Monday, February 18, 2013

Scrub Jays, Seed Hoarders, Plant Propagators & All Round Forest Promoters

Western Scrub Jay or Pinyon Jay varieties of the same Species
Photo by Yale School of Forestry

The word/term Species is such a fuzzy word. It often gets muddled depending on the subject, the one using it and the context under which it is being used, the term could possibly have 16 different meanings. Why there is even this concept of terms in "Molecular Species". Who would have thought it. In some ways the subject of the great variety within the same species is what I touched on when I wrote the post, "Is it really "Taxonomic Exuberance" or "Phenotypic Plasticity" ?" In the science world there is a rush to find newer species and be forever immortalized as the discoverer. There is a lot of fame, glitter and glory for such on individual, but does all this pursuit of that precious prize cause a fudging of the truth at times ? That is often the subject of discussion and debate. Remember those infamous Finches that Darwin speculated about ? Who could forget. But even the Grants who researched them for 30 years on the Galapagos Islands generally found nothing more than mere oscillation in the epigenetic response to changes in the environment. More importantly for the average person is, what can we actually observe in the field minus all the assumptions and assertions which in reality are not explanations at all ? So what about Scrub Jays ? Are there really difference species ? There are many unique varieties, all of which have many of the same personality traits which characterize just who they are more than what they are. Yes there are different markings and shapes, but basically they all seem to come from the same mold. Much like the Florida Scrub Jay you can see below here. 

image: CSS Dynamic

Florida Scrub Jay
But this is also a continuation of sorts with an earlier post today I had on my most favourite Pinyon pine tree, the Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrafolia). I didn't want to corrupt that post by going off topic, but the Western Scrub Jays are as much an important factor in the life cycle of the Parry Pinyon habitat as are other Jays around the globe are to other ecosystems. Given the latest News Reports on scientific studies revealing that now most all Pinyons are having the inability to reproduce viable seed, such findings no doubt should lead many to conclude that entire ecosystems will disappear as we have known them. While the Pinyon Jay's diet has a great variety of seeds and acorns on it's menu from which to choose from, clearly their numbers will be drastically reduced given the disappearance of huge reduction in Pinyon/Juniper habitat.

Recently there was an article from the University of Cambridge in it's online Research News section dealing with the subject of Eurasian Jays. I never knew there was such a bird, but why not ? It's appearance of course is close to the common Western Scrub Jay I am use to seeing and it has all the same bad boy nonsense reputation of the Scrub Jays of North America. I joke about their reputation because of their bad habitat of raiding things and taking off with them link the Cat Food in my former Cat's food dish. I'd hear a commotion out on the front deck and run out there clapping my hands and shooing the Scrub Jay away. Hardly afraid of me, the bird would fly off to the end of the deck and land on the railing, then proceed to curse and swear at me in what seemed like the garbled sounds of a Grackle with a sore throat. I'd also blame them for raiding my garden after planting seed, but I'll get to that further on down the page. Back to this Eurasian Jay. This hoarder is an expert at strategies for preventing others from stealing off which food they have hoarded for future pantry usage. Below is the link to the entire article:

Photo by University of Cambridge

There is something else interesting about these birds which I would imagine most of the birds in this family possess. Remembering where their caches are after planting. But I've also wondered if they don't also choose a specific Chaparral species for planting specific types of seeds or nuts. That is intelligence of course, but also it's important that they don't remember where they have planted each seed or not, otherwise forests wouldn't be born. We often take for granted that though they are not created like us, they never the less possess an amazing amount of brilliance even though much of it may be contained within the frame work of encoded instinctive behavior. Still they are quite capable within this frame work at a sort of free will in choices and decision making. Take a long look at this video which is quite entertaining. It shows the Eurasian Jay in a pen and an experiment at planting nuts. There is no listed link, so here is the link address:

The Eurasian Jay in the above video is so funny. Did you notice he had the ability to remember each pot he planted the nut in ? He chose a newer fresh pot each time. Watching this video, I suddenly had a wicked idea come across my mind. If the gardening sales business times get rough for  Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery  or  Tree of Life Native Plant Nursery, they can simply lay the shade house workers off and hire cheaper labor who will work for peanuts like a couple of Western Scrub Jays to do essentially the same thing with seed flats. Okay, just a thought. Very kool video though, wish it was longer to see if the bird would fill up every single pot and remember which ones were left. Another interesting video is of a Western Scrub Jay actually pecking out the nuts from a Peanut shell. Peanut shells are easy to deal with, but I've always wondered how they manage harder pine nuts and oak acorn shells. Actually I have observed when they deal with them and I'll tell you, but first watch how they tackle the problem. 

animation: US Forest Service
I was always puzzled for a long time as to how the Western Scrub Jay uses it's food cache in the wintertime. How do they get such hard nuts out of their shells. Of course a peanut is easy, but they don't have the sane hardware for a beak as Sparrows, finches and other seed eating birds who crush and grind their food to open the casing and exposing the kernel or even a woodpecker who is champion of them all. I mean those other birds can do some damage easily to any hard shell. So how does a Scrub Jay accomplish it ? Well I started to say something about is here earlier today in this post about -  Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrafolia) - but I decided to create a newer post than meander off topic over there.  I got a first clue from planting various pine seeds my self by out planting them directly into the ground, as opposed to nursery pots or flats. Of course I had to create a wire mess to protect them not only from Scrubs Jays, but countless other ground foraging birds. I was specifically looking for exact timing of seed swelling, shell splitting and taproot emergence long before any above ground leaf appearance. I discovered that the actual pine seedling appeared in end of February, even the Torrey Pines, but actual root swelling and seed coat splitting with root tip emergence was early December. While continually inspecting this area, I noticed not only were Scrub Jays milling around and poking in and around their own caches, but so were Towhees and Thrashers along with other ground foraging birds. Quite often I'd find acorns and pine nuts with their shells and root left intact, but the nut inside completely gone. As the seed kernel inside swells from moisture and begins to split the hard shell, it's formerly complex proteins are broken down only to become less complex as a result of water's action in initiating the growth cycle.
 I realized it was only then that the birds could deal with it much more easily, but fortunately they don't get all of them, which is how forests progressively make headway. The hydrated action of the seed is a growth trigger for the softening of the seeds and swelling them making their nuts split and reveal a much softer tissue, reminded me of why we humans soak hard shell beans or peas over night, some of us like me allow it to run to the point of having the taproot stems emerge. This further lessens the complexity of certain protein molecules & if done properly, can eliminate the sugar-like compounds called oligosaccharides or Phytates which will prevent the beans from giving you *cough-cough* gas. Both human and animals have a difficult time digesting these complex compounds without the natural processes of hydrating (soaking), sprouting and fermenting components which make nutrients more readily available to all of us. I won't go any further on this here, but I'll create a specific post dealing with this in the future as it does explain how the bad science of Industrial agriculture mandating a strict grain fed diet in massive feedlot production of beef, pork and other animals is NOT advantageous and yet it does strongly contribute to greater methane emissions than would normally be found out in nature. Joel Salatin was right, herbivores need a mostly grass fed diet, not grains. But back to ALL Scrub Jays, the question is, how do they know this ? Or do they ? How do other birds who raid their seed and nut caches know this ? For the most part they don't, but what, how and why they do is mostly encoded into their DNA for their behavior pattern and how it got there is an entirely another subject, but nevertheless it's there. Still, it is interesting and should provide more incentive for further research and practical application in a wide variety of uses, even habitat restoration techniques. Every single component has to be respected and that includes the chaparral plant community which is known to be demonized and getting a bad rap. Okay, more later, I promise. Look for a future post -> "Fart-Hinder" (Swedes will know what this means - *smile*)

Purdue University
 Something happened in my garden that only then did I fully understood the other benefits of the seed or nut being left in the ground long enough, both oak and pine nuts swell and split which makes it easier. It clearly made sense, but something else very important confirmed later this to me and really drove home the point. When spring finally comes around in late April early May, I always had a garden on my property. Planting Sweet Corn was always a must and like always I pre-soaked the seed and inserted them evenly spaced apart down inside the furrow about a foot and a half apart. As a general rule I always got emergence around 7 or 8 days, but before I could see them pushing through, I noticed there were these little holes drilled into the ground right where I had planted each one, but it was odd because I had never seen a tip popping through or seen what was eating the seeds. My first blame game was the Western Scrub Jays, but I was wrong. Later just after putting another round of pre-soaked swollen seeds into the same barren rows, I spent a more keen eye at the end of day six to see what or who was doing the dirty work. Hidden behind a scrub oak for most of the morning, there he was , a California Towhee and even a Western Thrasher got into the game. They got a few seeds, but then I saw what exactly they were looking for. It was that first tiny yellowgreen spiraling spike of corn seedling pushing upwards through the soil level.  Never underestimate a Bird's Eye to see anything minute and tiny to us. Looking for such clues as seed germ emergence of the immature sprout by birds that there may be a juicy tasty morsel underground that is ready to be harvested. Incredibly most seeds or even animals and birds that hatch from eggs, there is either a nutritious yoke sac or seed kernel left over at the time of emergence which functions as food stores to the young organism until it can actually feed & fend for itself. But the birds (and no doubt squirrels) all some how know this too, although it's mostly instinctive. That's why they are always scratching around under the dander beneath a tree or shrub looking for goodies. Once I scratched around there trying to figure out what they were after, I found no real insects since many times it was still winter dormancy or hibernation for many. Suddenly I realized it was the early germinating seeds and nuts they were after. Kool!

See, there's still enough meat on the bone to satisfy any wild creature which that first sprout tip breaks the soil level.

Recent articles on the climate change effects on vegetation, especially pinyon pines has some disturbing negative trends which are breaking down these ecosystems. It could have dreadful effects on creatures that depend on them as this paragraph from the article from University of Colorado in Boulder relates. 
Source: Southwest regional warming likely cause of pinyon pine cone decline

"Wildlife biologists say pinyon-juniper woodlands are popular with scores of bird and mammal species ranging from black-chinned hummingbirds to black bears. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Northern Arizona estimate that 150 Clark's Nutcrackers cached roughly 5 million pinyon pine nuts in a single season, benefiting not only the birds themselves, but also the pines whose nuts were distributed more widely for possible germination."
Can you imagine the value of the industriousness of these Jay bird workhorses and the major contribution the offer any and all ecosystems around the globe ? If we just contemplate 5 plus million pine nuts harvested and planted, the majority of which feeds not only the Jays & Clark's Nutcrackers, but all other birds and animals with just enough of the seed germination and further culling out where simply a few become future mature pine nut producing adults. It's a perfect system when fully functional. Humans should be glad that such birds have an instinctive obsession with collecting things no matter what and for how long. The natural world (both plant and animal) is dependent on their greediness. But it's not really selfishness and greediness is it ? I think that those words should only associated with humans !!! 


Further Reference Reading:

Little Did I Know at the Time, Parry Pinyon was only the Beginning! 
Is it really "Taxonomic Exuberance" or "Phenotypic Plasticity" ?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Little Did I Know at the Time, Parry Pinyon was only the Beginning!

photo by Calphotos Berkeley
Many people living in the San Jacinto Mountains will recognize this beautiful blue-green dense foliage belonging to the Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrafolia) pine tree. The photo evidently being taken in the area known locally as Garner Valley where the iconic Big Silver Sagebrush and Jeffrey Pine are just in the background. In fact it is this sagebrush, Greasewood, Redshank and other chaparral that are selected as a nut hoarding stash by Scrub Jays which will provide all the early nursing  requirements for these delicate seedlings to reach their adolescent stage of independence. Every year during late August/September, the cones would ripen and Scrub Jays or Pinyon Jays as they are sometimes called, will harvest almost every one of the pinyon nuts they can possibly get their beaks on. Then they hoard them under there favourite chaparral cached location of which there will be many. Every Spring after the next seasons rainfall period is just finishing up, these seedlings will reveal themselves, often times pushing up through snow on the ground if it is present. 

Image -
Interestingly, I done many experiments with numerous pine seeds, including Torrey Pines on my property in Anza CA. I was interested in just when seedlings would push up through the ground. Clearly during the frigid months, one would naturally expect some sort of dormancy period. I would out plant them in the the ground in late October, right as the rainy season started up in the mountains. To protect them from any predators, I'd use chicken wire screening and actually mark where each seed was placed. For me it wasn't a matter of waiting for actual breaking of the soil crust emergence of the seedling, but rather I wanted to see the exact timing of when the taproot growth broke through the nut shell. So periodically I would gently brush away soil and view the nut. Most of the actual soil breaking like the above photo and emergence of the the first immature needles would actually happen around early February, but the actual cracking open of the pine nut at it's seam with taproot tip beginning to protrude truthfully took place close to the middle of December. 

Photo courtesy Jeffry Mitton. University of Colorado
A decline in the reproduction of pinyon pine nuts in the Southwest in recent decades could effect a number of different bird and mammal species, including the Crossbill seen here feeding on a pinyon pine nut.
This was true of all the various pine species nuts I planted in the ground, including the Torrey Pines. If you ponder it for a moment, it's actually a great strategy. Seedlings have to contend with soil pathogens and allelopathic chemical properties of a shrub's dander or mulch underneath the plant selected by the Scrub Jay. For the most part, even these microbes are dormant, so the emerging root has a chance to develop a healthy networked infrastructure interconnected hopefully to the mycorrhizal fungal grid which will provide a healthy antibiotics against pathogens before the actual green needles part of the plant actually pops up through the soil into the light and before soil becomes warmer favouring the awoken activity of long dormant pathogens. I discovered that the soil temperature didn't require warmth for germination, much like I discovered with my Tecate Seed germination project , which I performed in the refrigerator on a bottom shelf basically in the dark for three months, at which time the seed germ produced the swelling of the white taproot bursting through it's membrane. But each year I always had an abundant supply of newer Parry Pinyon seedlings popping up all over my almost three acres. Funny thing was, I had no mature Parry Pinyons on my actual property. But a few surrounding properties did have some bigger older nut producing trees. Scrub Jays had brought them from very far away. It truly illustrates how a habitat can spread and in the case of these heavy nuts incapable of promoting themselves in ever expanding landscapes, the Scrub Jay gets the credit. I'll have more photos of Western Scrub Jay roles in and around Chaparral when I come back there for a couple of months. I'll have another post associated with this on Western Scrub Jays later. 

Image - Penniless Parenting

Now getting to the point of this post, not everything is a rosy picture for not only the Parry Pinyon. Same with most all Pinyons and most likely other southwestern pine species. From 1999 to 2003 I tried to go out at the right time and collect Parry Pinyon pine nut seeds for Mike Evans of Tree of Life Nursery. During that four year period I could fine no viable pine nut. There were thousands of cones on all the trees combined and they were loaded with the pine nuts. But the nuts were hollow and empty inside like the photo you see above. This was odd and Mike said it was common that trees wouldn't produce cones if not enough rain or drought. But that didn't make any sense. These trees actually produced hundreds of cones and have always thrived in drought dry type environments anyway. Something else caused this as yet unknown phenomena. Furthermore, this was not a drought type situation where trees were holding back through an adaptation strategy called  'Phenotypic Plasticity'  responding to environmental cues by not producing any cones to conserve the health of the rest of the tree. At Burnt Valley in Anza California there were thousands of them and all with empty hollow pine nut shells. Of course this doesn't mean that somewhere on the San Jacinto Mountains there weren't any cones with viable nuts. But I went to over a dozen key areas and sampled everything around and found nothing. Thing only thing I received is hands full of pitch. All pinyon cones collectors will know what I mean. But this was also year after year for four years in a row before leaving to come here to Sweden. Going to the Forestry office and other individuals with supposedly expert background produced nothing. So I forgot about it. Well, until now. Now the news lately for Pinyon Pine & Juniper Woodland ecosystems isn't looking good and to be honest, I don't see a way out for them any longer. At least under the present System as it's headed. 

Image - Craig Allen - USGS
USGS: "Tree Mortality Patterns and Processes"
Dead ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Jemez Mts, NM. November, 2013. But why even address this news when you can further read about it here if you've got the patience and interest:
And a study from 2005 from the University of Arizona which previous mentioned the massive die offs and underlying causes.
But now from the University of Colorado Boulder, comes news of Pinyon Pines being no longer able to reproduce as a result of severe climate change. If high Desert ecosystems like this can't make it then something is clearly wrong and yet there are still millions of deniers with their collective heads in the sand on this one still. And this isn't even from the evil climate scientists. Here's the link with a few important quotes below.
Southwest regional warming likely cause of pinyon pine cone decline, says CU study
"Creeping climate change in the Southwest appears to be having a negative effect on pinyon pine reproduction, a finding with implications for wildlife species sharing the same woodland ecosystems, says a University of Colorado Boulder-led study."
"The new study showed that pinyon pine seed cone production declined by an average of about 40 percent at nine study sites in New Mexico and northwestern Oklahoma over the past four decades, said CU-Boulder doctoral student Miranda Redmond, who led the study. The biggest declines in pinyon pine seed cone reproduction were at the higher elevation research sites experiencing more dramatic warming relative to lower elevations, said Redmond of CU’s ecology and evolutionary biology department."
"The cones in which the pinyon seeds are produced are initiated two years prior to seed maturity, and research suggests the environmental stimulus for cone initiation is unseasonably low temperatures during the late summer, said Redmond. Between 1969 and 2009, unseasonably low temperatures in late summer decreased in the study areas, likely inhibiting cone initiation and development."
"The study is one of the first to examine the impact of climate change on tree species like pinyon pines that, instead of reproducing annually, shed vast quantities of cones every few years during synchronous, episodic occurrences known as “masting” events. Redmond said such masting in the pinyon pine appears to occur every three to seven years, resulting in massive “bumper crops” of cones covering the ground." 
Then of course there is the ever present domino effect on all other organisms like the Crossbill (even scrub jays) feeding off the pinyon nuts in the picture towards the top of this post.
"Wildlife biologists say pinyon-juniper woodlands are popular with scores of bird and mammal species ranging from black-chinned hummingbirds to black bears. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Northern Arizona estimated that 150 Clark’s Nutcrackers cached roughly 5 million pinyon pine nuts in a single season, benefiting not only the birds themselves but also the pines whose nuts were distributed more widely for possible germination." 
"Since each year in the life of a pinyon pine tree is marked by a “whorl” -- a single circle of branches extending around a tree trunk -- the researchers were able to bracket pinyon pine reproductive activity in the nine study areas for the 1969-1978 decade and 2003-2012 decade, which were then compared."
"Pinyon pines take three growing seasons, or about 26 months, to produce mature cones from the time of cone initiation.  Low elevation conifers including pinyon pines grow in water-limited environments and have been shown to have higher cone output during cool and/or wet summers, said Redmond. In addition to the climate-warming trend under way in the Southwest, the 2002-03 drought caused significant mortality in pinyon pine forests", Redmond said. 
So even wildlife like Scrub Jays dependent on the Nut production of Pinyons will suffer. No argument there. But so will other organisms dependent on their busy work load and hoarding instinctiveness for which they are known for. It's almost depressing to think I will come over and photograph & document everything that's going wrong and point out clues to what that ecosystem once was. I truly don't even know if there is anything positive to detect & report on. One thing is for certain, the Spring will not tell me if their is a good crop of Parry Pinyon nuts last season, but what will tell me is if there are numerous young Parry Pinyon pine seedlings throughout the region as was always the case. On my own small property alone there was always close to a little over 100 new seedlings and keep in mind I had no mature cone bearing Parry Pinyon on my land. I  know because I meticulously combed the area and counted. So come April/May I'll be looking for examples as in the pictures below. If you are in tune with nature and know what to look for, you'll find those little blue-grey seedlings everywhere. One of the other comments from the article was this description here - "Since each year in the life of a pinyon pine tree is marked by a 'whorl' -- a single circle of branches extending around a tree trunk" -- This is true, but not always. Depending on rainfall events during the rainy season or during times of prolonged drought, I personally observed many Pinyon Pines not putting on newer growth some years, but remaining in a type of neutral maintenance stasis mode. New growth takes valuable resources and energy. If drought is severe and dryness continues, they will stay stuck in neutral for some time, or depending on their geological location in the landscape which dictates how much moisture they obtain or not. In a way, it's an amazing survival strategy when all other ecosystems are functioning properly.

young Parry Pinyon

Credit: Mojave Desert Reserve
In all of the above Pinyon seedlings examples will be common under most chaparral plant community site locations, you will see in the springtime where fully mature Parry Pinyon or Single-Leaf Pinyon pines are present and "IF" producing cones with viable seed, but you may also find later on in late spring or early summer scenes like this below in the photo.

It is also a common occurrence to see dead seedlings brought on by something called Fusarium Root Rot which is a pathogen which causes what it called damping off in nursery germination flats if sterile conditions have not been met to rid the area of this and other similar pests. But again, it is perfectly natural in the wild and necessary for forest health. If every seedling succeeded, trees would never attain old growth majesty, they'd rather be weedy and create an unproductive ecosystem. There is also something else I want to address on this before closing and that was something that appeared in the Riverside County Press Enterprise newspaper back in 2009. I'm not certain, but I may have mentioned this somewhere before. The article was  Volunteers pitch in to save special pinyon pines  and it payed tribute to some well meaning nature lovers, but sometimes that love of nature can be misplaced if there is a lack or absence of important knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with habitat & ecosystem mechanism functions. I'm referring to the ignorant old school myth that chaparral brush clearance is actually viewed as helping nature in tree (even if they are decades old) establishment and this is totally untrue. Chaparral presence is  actually the first stage infrastructure by which a healthy desired forest comes into a reality. Chaparral have much deeper roots than pines and pines will tap into the mycorrhizal grid under the ground and be fed nutritionally and hydrated regularly. Let me first show a couple of pictures from the article, repeat what was said and quoted from the article. 

credit: Press Enterprise
Daniel McCarthy, tribal relations program manager for the San Bernardino National Forest, left, and volunteer Bob Sieski clear brush from a Parry Pinyon pine in Anza. The trees are important to the Cahuilla and Serrano bands.
image: Press Enterprise
In addition to saving Pinyon Pines in the area, McCarthy oversees an effort to plant new ones.
Now, here are some important relevant quotes and please keep in mind I'm not demonizing or vilifying Daniel McCarthy, Bob Sieski or any other volunteer who participated in this well intentioned habitat improvement projects, but the science they were using to justify this project is totally wrong. But this isn't the first time things like this have been done. Government funded programs with  supposedly top of the line biologists have done exactly this. Here is the first quote:
Special Section: Inland Wildfires
"Volunteers are clearing brush from beneath small outcroppings of pinyon pine trees in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains to help them survive wildfires."
Well right from the start, this article has a negative misdirected subtitled which is going to attempt to associate Chaparral plant community as being responsible for Wildfires which in turn will destroy the more desirable vegetation like pines and other conifers. To put a sarcastic slant on it, "It must be the Chaparral plant's "Selfish Genes" attempt at making fire happen so that it can further spread it's own DNA over the landscape and cause the extinction of better looking species for which it is both envious and jealous." Okay okay, I'm being silly, but often times to get a point across, you sometimes need to illustrate absurdity with more absurdity. Read it again:
"Volunteers are clearing brush from beneath small outcroppings of pinyon pine trees in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains to help them survive wildfires."
Image - Craig Allen - USGS
Absolutely & totally untrue. Doing this will save nothing. At best it is done for person idea of aesthetic value and eye candy appeal and nothing more. Quickly now, take a quick glance and view the 1000s of acres of dead Pinyon Pines again in the photo at the left. These photos show the massive die-off of pinyon pines that occurred during the recent drought. Pinyons, normally evergreen, have reddish-brown foliage in October 2002 (left). By May 2004, the dead pinyons have lost all their needles, exposing gray trunks. The photos were taken from the same vantage point in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, N.M. Photo credit: Craig D. Allen, U.S. Geological Survey. These Pinyons were NOT killed by fire, these were killed by a variety of Climate Change anomalies. Fire had zero to do with it. However, Control and Prescribed burns quite often targeted in the middle of nowhere will actually remove vital vegetative rainfall mechanisms which would otherwise be hydrating and sheltering the young of these pines and oaks only to self-sacrifice them later on several decades later as the succession plants take over creating that ultimate end game desired forest look. 
"Over the past three years, Daniel McCarthy, anarchaeologist and tribal relations program manager for the San Bernardino National Forest, has plotted small populations of these pinyon pines and organized volunteer work parties to clear tinder-dry brush from around the base of the trees."

This is amazing. The chaparral up there is no more tinder dry than the pines they are symbiotically trying to survive with. In fact, the chaparral is far more deeper rooted and likely drawing up moisture from deep sub-soils through a mechanism called hydraulic life and redistribution. However, if the ongoing drought and climate change continues to persist, then even these mechanisms will breakdown. The Chaparral is the ONLY reason those Parry Pinyons exist up there in the first place. Of course, the next quote below is ridiculous too. Brush cleared 15 feet away from the trees will save nothing. If a mega fire comes through these mountains, everything will go up in smoke. I can tell you that from personally having been up and around where they did some of this before, is they provided a perfect environment for non-native Foxtail grasses and other weeds to move in. The ground in a pure chaparral environment is mycorrhizal and provides almost a sterile setting between all plants which generally makes it unfriendly to most weeds and non-native grasses. The other thing chaparral plant community does is provide a water transport from deeper subsoil layers of the earth and by means of hydraulic life and redistribution it are these engineering marvels which actually hydrate and protect these pinyons to maturity.  

"During three recent weekends, volunteers ventured into the mountain chaparral to clear brush."
"We clear about 10 to 15 feet away from the tree," said Scott Findlay, 68, of Orange, who wore gloves and used a handsaw and other tools to hack away at the undergrowth around a pinyon on the Ramona reservation.
"It's the fuel ladder. You have got to clear out the lower rung of the ladder, so hopefully the fire doesn't climb up this tree," said Dorothy Degennaro, 65, of Yucca Valley.What Findlay cuts, she drags some distance away from the pinyon pine. The pines thrive under protective filtered light of a larger "Mother Tree." 

The last part is clearly misunderstood & inaccurate, is to suggest is that only a large old mature Parry Pinyon qualifies to be labeled as a "Mother Trees" I've never once observed in all my 24 years up there (not that it couldn't be possible) any mature Parry Pinyon being an actual mother tree to any offspring. Unless of course mother tree here is being referred to as a large older mature tree producing cones and viable seed. Most all Chaparral plants have the potential to be a "Mother Tree" to not only Parry Pinyons, but even other more desirable trees like a great variety of Oaks (especially Palmer Scrub Oak) and believe it or not, the biggest most popular mother chaparral trees (or Nurse Tree/Plant) in this Parry Pinyon habitat is Chamise or Greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum) AND it's cousin Redshank or Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium). I'll prove it when I come out there utilizing photography. But of course nothing like photos and first hand eye witness accounts will mean anything when it comes to evidence. Especially when a deep ingrained ideology employing religious affirmations of FAITH in "Fuel Management" as the 'final solution' against the mythical onslaught of Chaparral.  dogmatically defended without facts.

Photo by Cal Flora
Cal-Flora - "Adenostoma fasciculatum Hook. & Arn. var. fasciculatum Chamise Rosaceae (Rose Family)"
This shrub is probably the single biggest 'Nurse Plant' or "Mother Tree" to Parry Pinyon that I can remember. Why no one, nor any study has ever pointed this out previously is beyond me. Yet in ignorance, this species of chaparral and others are being removed as evil invaders which hinder the creation of beautiful forests. Far from this misguided viewpoint, these plants are the underground & above ground networked foundations for the establishment & eventual self-sacrifice of themselves for any beautiful old growth forested system in the southwestern landscape. 
To be fair though, perhaps most of this misinformation comes from the Press Enterprise reporters who are always looking for a controversial slant against Chaparral ecosystems. At least in a report from Daniel McCarthy himself through the U.S. Forest Service website, he at least does acknowledge some importance of Redshank chaparral and other species as Nurse Trees.
Perry Pinyon Pines Protection Project - by - Daniel McCarthy
I'll do a couple of posts separately on both Redshank and Chamise. In that region between the Anza Valley floor and Thomas Mountain ridge running all the way to the Hwy jct 74 & 371 at Paradise Corners, I'll photograph several very steep dry southern facing slopes with nothing but Chamise or Greasewood and hundreds of 3', 4' & 5',6' foot tall Parry Pinyon pines. The seeds didn't blow there, that's impossible. They were deliberately planted there by Western Scrub Jays during seed & nut hoarding season along with Palmer Oak acorns. Although normally, I've only found Palmer Oak mostly under Redshank. This has always led me to ponder weather or not Scrub Jays specifically pick and choose different species of Nurse Plants for specific seed collected. No matter, it should be fun.
Photo by J. E.(Jed) and Bonnie McClellan
This Chaparral Species above is likewise often vilified and demonized as impeding the growth of forests, when in fact it is a true 'Mother Tree' or otherwise known as 'Nurse Plant'. It has been complete ignorance of this that has actually hindered and doomed many a well meaning forest restoration program. 
Oh, and all is not finished when it comes to Parry Pinyon or any other Pinyon for that matter and Juniper trailing not far behind. Incredibly, they have more worth as mere raw biomass materials for Bio-Diesel Ventures. They are actually considered invasive and impede Cattle Operations and removal is essential for the land to be productive once again. This article below is about the issues of Nevada, but Arizona is not far behind. As stated at the outset, for me personally, the problems for Parry Pinyon were just the beginning of what has gone wrong with scientific progress when shackled and motivated by both political and big business interests.
By Ken Cole Wildlife News
Pinyon and Juniper trees, demonized by ranchers, miners and water mining entities, are being eyed by Chinese "biomass" companies with backing of political leaders like Harry Reid who's supposedly part of the Green Party gang. This is yet another removal of weather system mechanisms by human agents for profit.
Update on Anza's Parry Pinyon (Prophecy fulfilled)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is it really "Taxonomic Exuberance" or "Phenotypic Plasticity" ?

Credit: Charley Murphy"Charlie Murphy’s glass sculptures 
delicate ‘stamen’ series celebrates
the extraordinarily expressive
features of plant life"
Back in January of 2013 (last month), there was an article in the online publication - - "How the Tree Frog has redefined our view of Biology". It's an interesting and fascinating look at these Tree Frog's Egg responses to environmental changes. This is actually known as 'phenotypic plasticity' which is merely the ability of any living organism to modify it's behavior or shape in response to changes in the environment. Now in the past, this is where Researchers took liberties at what is called "taxonomic exuberance" (a rush to label something a new species) , when in reality, it was nothing more than "phenotypic plasticty" for no other reason than, "Well it looks different from the rest of it's other companions in other geographical locations". While referring to this article, I'm not so much pointing to the amazing ability of this organism to change behavior as I'm blown away by quotes in the article like, " . . redefined our view of biology" and  " . . a phenomena that is transforming biology" or even hailing this as " . . a revolutionary new concept". Seriously ? Are they kidding ? Anyone who has ever had an interest and love for studying or growing plants has always known about this unique fascinating phenomena. This really isn't rocket science. This has actually been around for a very long time now. There is no real surprise here that evolutionary biologists are astonished and amazed about the "revolutionary concept" called "phenotypic plasticity". Many are motivated by the fame, glitter and glory associated with new species discoveries which can often muddled the truth of the actual findings. I highly doubt many of today's University Professors and/or their graduate students spend much time outdoors anymore as they use to view how nature really worked years ago. Why should they, electronic gadgetry, the Internet and Computer Models in Labs have made all of that old archaic way of accomplishing things totally unnecessary. Taking only a few field trips outdoors to make it look legit. But nobody seems to live in the outdoors anymore when it comes to research like the old days. 

Photo by Sanguin-lupus

Horticulturalists, Botanists, Foresters, Landscapers, Gardeners all have an incredible amount of hands-on outdoor experience when it comes to understanding a plants ability to respond to different environmental variables. I've written about this here before. Grow a pine tree within the context of other pines and shrubs where  competition for light is much greater and they will grow straight and tall. Even deciduous trees growing within a forest canopy will have bigger leaves inside and smaller ones on the outer layers of the tree canopy. The question is why ? What happens within a garden or an urban landscape when the desired result is to have tall slender trees ? The gardener has to artificially perform the pruning task that Nature would have done in the wild in a more cramped competitive scenario. This is also what we see with your typical industrial forestry plantation which is actually what they are looking and selecting for. 

photo: Mine (2013)
However, grow the same exact species of pine tree out in the open in full sunlight and they will in the beginning exhibit more shrubby branching characteristics than the ones grown in the shade. The tree simply takes full advantage of the sun's energy and produces more branches and needles which act a major factory for photosynthesis. However, they often times won't stretch as high towards the sky as those within a forest tree canopy. These three trees in the photo above left are Jeffrey and one Coulter Pine. Before I sold my land in in 2002, there were among Chaparral shrubs called Redshank or Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium) for which I established them by means of a Nurse Plant relationship. Also the deep rooted chaparral acted as a means of hydraulic life and redistribution of underground water during drier months. Out in the open on cleared land, they would have required irrigation and this is a major reason many US Forest Service transplanted on vegetation stripped land has ended in failure in this region. But I also was interested in the phenotypc plasticity influence from which the old growth chaparral would have helped develop these trees for a more slender lower trunk with later branching outgrowth higher up the trunk as they pushed through the Elfin-Forest canopy. But the new property owners back then, like most people, mistakenly believe that the chaparral was competition and strangling the poor trees. This was untrue. Nevertheless they were shaped into more of an open bush-like structural pattern. Their continued survival now is facilitated by the several species of mycorrhizal fungal spores I injected though inoculation into the soil around the feeder root regions. Still, the environmental features & the reasons behind them are what have shaped these trees as you see them presently when I photographed this in Spring 2013 in the above photograph.

You should see my Prickly Pear Cactus which I took from the chaparral plant community of Tenerife in the Canary Islands for which I've previously written about here on these blogs before. The beavertail cutting I took was placed in a pot last spring. Through this past summer 2012, it grew another beavertail on top of that older one. Of course I left it outside & the Spanish Slugs tore holes in that new growth, but it had healed and survived. I finally brought it indoors and placed it on our dining room in late October when the first frosts were present outside. Two weeks later it started to put on newer growth even though technically it wasn't even close to Springtime or in it's home range. Though I have two huge picture windows next to the dining room table, it's is mostly darkness here outside in Swedish winter. After the new year, we start to get 10 minutes of sun shining on that Cactus, then 15, 20 and so on over the next weeks. But the growth is not beavertail-like, it's more like one of those holiday Christmas Cactus sold at stores. Now, could I technically call this seemingly evolving Cactus a brand new species ? Of course not, it's still the same cactus responding to an odd environmental circumstance. Trust me I know. And yet, for years many an ambitious researcher has employed "taxonomic exuberance" by observing just this same thing with other organisms. Admittedly, this phenomena of "phenotypic plasticity" makes it a challenge in data collection for many field researchers, but a good plant specialist will understand the difference. 

So simple, even a Child gets this!
Yesterday this same subject came up when I wrote about the native Tule Elk of California. In comparing Tule Elk with Roosevelt Elk or even Rocky Mountain Elk, it was noted that these later two are much more larger than the California Tule Elk, and yet someone did transport some California Tule Elk to an area of northern Oregon which environmental conditions are exacting for the much large Roosevelt elk and the Tule Elk bulls grew close to the same size and weight as the Roosevelt bulls. Clearly they are the same species of animal, just a variation depending on environmental cues. On this subject of "taxonomic exuberance" I found this term in a book called "Mammals of the National Parks" by John H. Burde & George A. Feldhamer, where they specifically address the issue and question of what constitutes a species (a word whose definition is often fuzzy and muddled) and what the subspecies were with regards Grizzly Bears. Here's a paragraph quote from page 167:
"Biologists in the early 1900s had a difficult time determining the number of species and sub-species of Grizzly Bears. Resulting 'taxonomic exuberance' produced over a hundred named taxa. Some confusion remains today regarding common names. Grizzly, Brown and Kodiak bears are all the same species, although there are noticeable size differences associated with location, habitat and diet of different populations. Biologists now recognize five distinct genetic groups (clades) of Grizzly Bears throughout the world, but again, only one species." 
image: Resilient Earth
Related to this subject, when I was writing my post on the weather phenomena of  'lake effect rain' which has implications in climate influences hundreds of miles away, I was mostly interested in the subject of the ancient Lake Cahuilla which it today is a mere puddle when we compare it to the present Salton Sea. It was anything but salty, mostly freshwater, or at worst it was brackish water. Nevertheless, in the Cahuilla Indian Fish Traps found along the ancient shoreline around La Quinta, they have found the bones of fish known to be native only to the Colorado River which once flowed into this ancient sea basin. The fish of the Colorado that were found there are Bonytail Chubs and Razorback or Humpback Sucker. These fish of the Colorado have a unique body design for very swift river life where massive flooding periods are common. But I wonder what the same species of fish looked like in the fresh waters of ancient Lake Cahuilla (today's Salton Sea) ? Interestingly, the physical change features are noted in other fish species native to rivers and when they suddenly find themselves trapped in isolated still waters of lakes. Take a look at the example I've placed in this paragraph above here what happened to fish in swift rivers and those trapped in Lagoons. One has to wonder what changes occurred to river populations once trapped inside this vast Lake Cahuilla as compared to those still in the Colorado River ? 

Another very interesting and actually surprising usage of this terminology called "taxonomic exuberance" came from a source I never ever expected. On February 4th, 2013, Current Biology released a paper written by Tim White of UC Berkeley who works in the department of Human Evolution Research Center. This part of science has never been my favourite for no other reason than the fables, myths and stories created by the embellishments and exaggerations of the fossil findings and Anthropologist. Tim White agrees. Here is a link to this paper which was originally behind a pay-wall and now published on a PDF. Very interesting read and I'll post some pertinent quotes from this paper below this link:
UC Berkeley, Tim White: Paleoanthropology: Five’s a Crowd in Our Family Tree
Veteran Researcher, Tim White, reveals through a kind of critical sarcasm the problems within his specific scientific field which he considers unregulated, undisciplined and where most of his fellow  Paleoanthropologists are bent on self-promotion, where making things up as they go along are common place. In so many fields of scientific discipline, there is a rush to fame, glitter or glory and that has the tendency to colour research results. Interesting paper and very bold in it's criticism for which many in this field can find themselves losing a job or black balled in other ways in exposing errors or flaws in such an often ideologically driven subject as Tim White did.
"The unilineal depiction of human evolution popularized by the familiar iconography of an evolutionary ‘march to modern man’ has been proven wrong for more than 60 years. However, the cartoon continues to provide a popular straw man for scientists, writers and editors alike." 
What Tim White is referring to are the religious iconography still found in many of the scientific textbooks which are still in use today. And he condemns this use of such depictions which are continually used in those school boy biology textbooks which have yet to be corrected, no doubt for ideological reasons. There's no denying it, we've all seen it and it's provided great creativity fodder for Hollywood's Sci-Fi motion pictures. Unfortunately the depiction's end result is always the same. A big studly white man leads the pack. Somewhere between the Chimp and that white man, there are any number of countless mythical [half Ape - half Human] beast species and this is what Tim White was condemning. Categorizing today's human races as different species by some over exuberant researchers is yet another nail in the coffin of humankind ever coming together in unity. For you who may disagree with me, put yourself in the position of someone of African heritage on the outside looking in and you'll understand what I mean.      

"Do most of these species labels reflect real, biologically distinct lineages? Or have the alleged species proliferated merely as a result of 'taxonomic exuberance' misapplied to within-species variation (idiosyncratic, geographic, sexual, and/or ontogenetic)? The sequence of prominent paleoanthropological publications across the last decades reveals a pattern of diversity promotion."  
Paleoanthropology’s ecosystem of publishing, access, fundraising, career advancement, media promotion and celebrity seems squarely aligned against the field’s ability to self regulate, a condition exacerbated by the limited fossil resources available. There is ample and obvious motivation for authors to generate ‘new’ species names in this environment. Readers should, therefore, beware of attendant species diversity claims. Illegitimate names have become part and parcel of the symbiosis itself. 
Furthermore, ‘chronospecies’ are merely artificial segments of evolving species lineages, rather than truly separate species. Such assertions of biological species diversity via taxonomic hyperbole are questionable representations of the real paleobiology of our ancestors and their few close, now extinct biological relatives."

Image - Rob Horne -
These very problems and issues Tim White himself has been criticized from within his own unregulated field of research as he put it, but I find this to be a common problem within many areas of modern science, not just his. I often find this rewriting of history when it comes to  plant identification which I find very annoying. For example, how many times does the Cuyamaca Cypress of San Diego County have to be scientifically renamed ? Look up all the named references lately in the past couple of years, I think there have been five changes or attempts at change by private individuals looking for acknowledgement. And I have to tell you, I love this last sentence in the quote of Tim White's article. He said, "Despite the branch waving, our family tree still looks like a Saguaro Cactus more  than a Creosote Bush" - Tim WhiteIf nothing else, I'm a desert rat by heart and can relate to this very illustrative and beautifully expressed conclusion he made here.

So, "taxonomic exuberance", "phenotypic plasticity", "species" ? These words/terms are quite often muddled and murky depending on the circumstance used, person using them and the ideological concerns motivating such usage. I've truly never found a topic more fuzzied than this one often gets into. Sometimes by accident and other times more deliberate depending on the researcher's philosophical religious priory. I can understand natural excitement of finding something not seen before, as I also have to admit, that when I've been out in the field looking for specific plants, that just perhaps I would stumble upon some as yet unknown species or at least variation of plant I'm searching for. So much so because I quite often will be deliberately looking for something in a location geographically which I already know will have or hold specific traits engineered into it's genetic code for survival within this specific area for which may have practical value in the urban landscape. That's why when collecting seed for native plant nurseries, I was ever so careful to list details on where the seed source was located. It's this "phenotypic plasticity" which many foresters are looking for in seed source collection to replant within a specific region destroyed by fire and in need of replanting. I could care less about self-promotion or public recognition for anything I may stumble upon. My personal view is, if I have something that I've found to be important, I share it with others, then that knowledge becomes their property to share as well. But our world is defined by promoting self and this hinders any type of unity which in turn stifles any goal of true peace and security. Many people today are indoctrinated into trusting anything and everything that spews from a Scientists mouth or dripping ink of his/her pen. We often forget they are also human beings just like us with the same faults and flaws common to imperfect human beings. Look at the mess our natural world is in and it's this world's failed leadership or authority which got us here. Evolutionary Biologist, Austin L. Hughes from the University of South Carolina wrote a great piece in the online journal, "The New Atlantis" called The Folly of Scientism . It's a great well written article, not slamming science, but rather the modern day practice of blindly giving it's researchers a passing grade even when they fail horribly. He also wrote a couple of years ago in 2011, something incredible about this very same subject I'm writing about with "phenotypic plasticity" which was published in PNAS and called  The origin of adaptive phenotypes . Take a long look at some important quotes of Austin Hughes.
“Thousands of papers are published every year claiming evidence of adaptive evolution on the basis of computational analyses alone, with no evidence whatsoever regarding the phenotypic effects of allegedly adaptive mutations.”
“Contrary to a widespread impression, natural selection does not leave any unambiguous “signature” on the genome, certainly not one that is still detectable after tens or hundreds of millions of years. To biologists schooled in Neo-Darwinian thought processes, it is virtually axiomatic that any adaptive change must have been fixed as a result of natural selection.  But it is important to remember that reality can be more complicated than simplistic textbook scenarios.”
“In recent years the literature of evolutionary biology has been glutted with extravagant claims of positive selection on the basis of computational analyses alone, including both codon-based methods and other questionable methods such as the McDonald-Kreitman test.  This vast outpouring of pseudo-Darwinian hype has been genuinely harmful to the credibility of evolutionary biology as a science.” 

Austin's observations, comments, and reflections almost mirror what the Berkeley Paleoanthropologist Tim White said in his article about his colleagues rush to label supposedly new fossil finds as a new found species. Nature behaves far differently in the field than what many of the outdated textbooks in a university lab say. Not everything out there can be attributed to Darwinian mechanisms as Austin Hughes mentions. An organism's encoded information & sophisticated communication systems within it's DNA and the nano-machinery they control & operate along with a plethora of Switches and Sensors in what we know as epigenetics can accomplish whatever it takes for adaptability within reasonable environmental changes. [Pay very close attention to this new field of Epigenetics, it too is going to outrage the present Scientific Orthodoxy, I kid you not] Otherwise if organisms cannot adapt, then they completely fail. And that right now is what scares me. Lately science has come out with a series studies which are showing that our natural world may not be capable of repairing itself and certainly has reached the limits of it's adaptability despite the painting of rosy pictures by some researchers on climate change adaptability in hopes in allaying people's fears and panic. In other words, lulling them to sleep to prevent panic. Well, they should be panicked. Some of the content and subject matter of the papers almost make me sick because I don't really see any so-called eco-green innovations way out of any of this mess. Things I've seen for decades working in nature are no longer doing so in many areas I am familiar with. Things I've seen over a decade ago and warned about to friends are just now being revealed as truth in research papers. Most of my personal experiences were local to the Anza, California area, but now even more widespread, even globally.

What people should do is think before you blindly except or put faith in something stated from a self-appointed Authority. I'm not talking about some Hollywood cliche from X-Files like "Trust no one agent Mulder". There's enough of those conspiracies theories running rampant around the globe as it is. But you should find out and test out a statement when it's authors promote it as an irrefutable fact. It may turn out to be actually Factoidal as opposed to an actual FACT. Get yourself outdoors into the field, learn how nature really works. Drag your kids along too, they desperately need it if you're going to cure them of their "Nature Deficit Disorder". Do it for their own good. It's an education that becomes etched and burned into memories and not easily lost or forgotten. Now is it "taxonomic exuberance" or "phenotypic plasticity" ? Teach them the real difference between something being a different species or a variety of the same species. Armed with this new knowledge, you decide! There is a great old Proverb which even those claiming to be religious among mankind don't even take to heart.
Proverbs 14:15
"Only a simpleton believes everything he’s told! A prudent man understands the need for proof."
I hope you at least found this subject very interesting as I did and take it to heart the real reasons for the differences in many things in the normally orderly well arranged natural world around us. Please also understand that this world and it's long historical well ordered complexity are breaking down and disintegrating as a result of human ignorance. Generally by the very leadership who insist they are the leading intellectuals in the field. Take this post for how it was originally purposed, to instill deep appreciation for Nature. There is far more to this story than the few tidbits I've given here. There is growing science of Epigenetics which is revealing actual sophisticated complex mechanisms within the genetic code called Epigenetics which allow for multiple change and variation, but in a controlled manner. This is specific science discipline with the study of Genetics is proving to be a refreshing departure from an old outdated Victorian Era belief in random mutations (copying errors) which are firther chosen by a blind unguided mystic force no one can accurately explain other than a default term called, "Natural Selection." I'll continue to provide updates down here as time progresses. Stay Tuned.
Update - April 19, 2016
Just a post on the subject of Random Mutations so happily wedded to it's buddy Natural Selection in mutating life by accident. The problem with such dogma is that it has held actual viable scientific understanding of our natural world and therefore our working with it sustainably with regards to technological innovation. 
Random Mutations-Natural Selection & it's Copying Errors Legacy Illustrated
Update - April 26, 2016
This is a post continuing down the line of illustrating hidden mechanisms of changes gene expession not by dumb luck or guided forces, but of sophisticated epigenetic mechanisms influenced by varying changes from outside Environmental Cues which trigger 'on' or 'off' various 'switches' (think punctuation within a paragraph) within a gene which works within the context of other genes which in turn cause a different reading of the same informational content of an organism's DNA. This is what gives our natural world such beauty in variety and interest.  
Epigenetic Mechanisms Defined & Illustrated
Update - September 7, 2016
This is a beautiful article written about the incredible epigenetic mechanisms which allow for great variety in adaptation and variation within the same kind of organism. These are things we can actualy grab onto and hold, taste, smell and feel. As opposed to the mystic forces of random mutatio & natural selection which cannot accurate account for anything but the ignorance of past intellectuals from the Victorian Era. Here is one beautiful quote from the author:
“Many of the key players orchestrating DNA methylation had previously been characterized, but what we didn’t fully realize before this study is that they all work together in an elegant way,” said Scott Rothbart, Ph.D.,
This is a far cry from the promotion of "evolution is messy" dogma. Seriously, without going further here with this, google "evolution is messy" for yourself. Enjoy the article.
Van Andel Institute: "The whole of epigenetic regulation may be greater than the sum of its parts"