Sun-thing Strange: Fire in the Sky

Posted on May 19, 2023

Did you happen to notice any abnormally red, hazy sunrises or sunsets this week? What's going on? Why does Michigan suddenly look like a scene from Star Wars?

These eerie spectacles are the result of wildfire smoke drifting over from Canada. An unusual, early-season heatwave recently struck our northern neighbor, resulting in a string of wildfires in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. Over 90 fires were recorded in Alberta alone, with 27 of those fires categorized as “out of control.”

While Canada is relatively close as far as countries go, it’s not exactly walking distance … so, why is the smoke having such a dramatic effect on our view of the sun all the way down here?

Wildfires generate intense heat, driving smoke and very fine suspended particles and gases high up into the upper atmosphere. This smoke and the associated fine particles stay up there until they cool down and start to descend. If there are upper-level winds, that smoky-particle mix will be blown around, sometimes traveling a rather considerable distance.

Okay, but why does that make the sun look like it’s on fire? Basically, as the sun’s light passes through the smoky layer of air, the smoke particles filter out the shorter wavelengths of light (which appear blue, green, and violet) while longer wavelengths of light (which appear red and orange) still pass through. Under normal, non-smoky circumstances, tiny particles in the air scatter short wavelengths of light 10 – 15 times more than long wavelengths (this is known as “Rayleigh scattering” and helps answer the age-old question, “Why is the sky blue?”). During a wildfire, when the particles in the air are larger than they normally are, those short wavelengths are scattered less than usual, allowing the long wavelengths to become dominant.

There you have it! While the sun might look more fiery than usual this week, it's still just the same old giant ball of gas.

Plant Reprogramming 101

Posted on May 12, 2023

Have you ever been walking through the woods and noticed something that looks suspiciously sci-fi protruding from a plant? Fear not! Aliens have not invaded. You (probably) haven’t discovered the next threat to humanity. It is far more likely that you’ve stumbled upon galls.

What on earth are galls? They are abnormal plant growths caused by “gall makers”, which are most commonly mites or insects, such as aphids, gall midges, and gall wasps. Around 1500 insects in the United States alone can produce galls! Other gall makers include bacteria, fungi, or nematodes. Galls can take many different shapes—from swollen lumps to anatomically complex formations that can be really interesting to look at. Okay … but, how? And why do they look like … well, THAT?

Galls are formed when the gall-maker feeds on the plant and secretes saliva. This feeding stimulus causes plants to increase their production of normal growth hormones, thus increasing cell sizes / cell numbers (kind of like the plant was reprogrammed). As the gall-maker continues to feed and reproduce inside the gall, the gall continues to grow. Normally, galls form in late spring during the growth period of new leaves and flowers, so mature plants are usually not affected.

If that’s not wild enough for you, get this—while the type of gall formation itself is specific to the gall maker that caused it, sometimes, the living organism inside a gall might not be the original gall maker. This scenario happens if the original gall maker is interrupted or starved by another parasite, who then takes its place.

So, are galls good or bad? Do they hurt the plant? The answer to that isn’t exactly black and white. The general consensus is that galls usually do not cause the plant significant harm unless they occur in very large numbers, which does not tend to happen very often. For the most part, plants and gall makers have a balanced relationship. That being said, there are some gall makers that can cause substantial, irregular galls that have the potential to girdle and kill trees.

If you have the gall to read even more, check out this link. There’s even a gall-ery!

The Sound of (Definitely Not) Silence

Posted on April 7, 2023

For us, one of the most prevalent harbingers of spring is not the first robin sighting. It's this sound. At this time of year, you hear it emanating from every pond, creek, wetland, or plain old puddle you happen to be near. It's the sound of Spring Peepers, the teeny tiny frogs with the big, BIG voices.

What you are actually hearing are the male peepers, calling out to females to find a mate. And while they can be really loud (up to 104 decibels when calling in a group... which is comparable to a chainsaw!!), they are also really small- only about an inch long. This, and the fact that they are mostly active at night, makes them pretty difficult to spot. If you do see one, you can identify it by its brownish color and telltale "X" marking on its back.

There's a great article that methodically analyzed the Peepers' call, and determined that they consistently hit the same note... about 3,000 hz, which is equivalent to the the highest G on a piano. They make their distinctive sound by closing their mouths and nostrils, and forcing air from their lungs into their vocal sac, which is the bubble-like structure on their throats. It's the air rushing past the vocal chords and into the vocal sac, which acts as a resonator, that makes that seductive noise. Their call rate ranges from about 20-90 "peeps" per minute... and the faster the call, the better. Why? Because it takes a lot of energy to make all that noise, and a male that can chirp faster is advertising fitness and stamina to potential mates. 

Another fun fact? Spring Peepers have an amazing tolerance to cold. No, we mean REALLY amazing. Peepers spend the winter hibernating in leaf debris and dead logs. When the temperature drops below freezing, the frogs freeze too... mostly. They produce a sort of "antifreeze" that prevents cell damage even though most of their bodies are frozen and their hearts have stopped beating. When things warm up again, they defrost and wake up. Pretty cool! Except they can't do this for too long... they can typically only survive in their frozen state for a couple of days to a week. So why not overwinter by burying themselves in mud where it's warmer like other frog species? Because then they can emerge earlier in the spring and get to their breeding grounds before potential predators have gotten their bearings.

(Controlled) Burnin' For You

Posted on March 22, 2023

We all like a good fire, though we often think of it as a destructive element, difficult to control and consuming everything in its path. In other words, fire is great as long as it stays nicely contained in your firepit.

But fire can also be extremely beneficial—necessary, even—for a healthy ecosystem. It’s a common and very effective tool in the land management and restoration toolbox…and it’s one we just used this past week when we did a prescribed (or controlled) burn at Dayton Wet Prairie.

Why fire? Well, it’s a natural way to get rid of invasive plant species that have encroached on the ecosystem, and it also helps prevent the spread of diseases and pests that can be harmful to the native plants and animals. A fire rejuvenates the ground by recycling essential nutrients back into the soil, promoting healthy growth of native trees, grasses, and wildflowers. This in turn creates desirable habitat in which native wildlife can thrive. Finally, it reduces hazardous fuels that can build up in the ground over time, protecting surrounding human communities from destructive, uncontrolled fires.

Of course, there is a reason why these beneficial fires are called prescribed burns. A lot of planning and expertise is necessary to keep the fire under control, burning only what and where you want it to! A good burn plan considers lots of factors. Weather is a big one, for obvious reasons. How humid is it, how windy is it? Which direction is the wind blowing (we don’t want a big cloud of smoke hanging over I-94, for example)? We also will consider the level of moisture in the vegetation. It shouldn’t be bone-dry but we probably don’t want to do a burn when everything is fully leafed out and very green either. For this reason, spring and fall are typically good times of year to do a prescribed burn.

Other considerations include what kinds of fuel and ignition types will be used to light the fire? We want it to spread and be sustainable, but also to move slowly enough that we are able to manage it, and to allow any wildlife to get outta Dodge until it’s safely out. Also, what boundaries are we using to ensure it doesn’t spread somewhere we don’t want it to go (like a neighbor’s yard)? These are called control lines, and they can be natural, like a river, or man-made, like a road or a dug out trench line.

After the burn, native vegetation comes surging back surprisingly quickly! So while Dayton Wet Prairie might look kinda charred and ugly now, just give it a month or two… you’ll be amazed at the transformation!

Fungus Fun Facts: Green Elfcup

Posted on March 16, 2023

Have you ever been out hiking and noticed an outstanding greenish-blue stain on a decomposing log? It’s a pretty common sight, so maybe you didn’t think much of it, or maybe you thought it was an intentional, man-made marking. This sort of sci-fi staining is actually an indicator of a mythical-sounding fungus commonly referred to as green elfcup, or Chlorociboria aeruginascens

This type of wood staining is called “spalting”, which is defined as any form of wood coloration caused by fungi. In this case, the blue-green spalting is caused by a fungi-derived pigment called "xylindein", which is left by the Chlorociboria aeruginascens fungi. Chlorociboria-stained wood has been long-sought after by woodworkers and has been used to make wood inlays since the 14th century. 

While it’s not unusual to stumble upon this spalted teal wood, it’s less likely that you’ll actually find the fruiting bodies themselves, which look a lot like tiny, bright green, saucer-shaped mushrooms! These little cups flatten out over time, eventually falling off completely. Green elfcup fungi tend to grow on decomposing, bark-free hardwoods, like oak, ash, and beech. Though most sources say the best time to hunt for the rarer fruiting body is during the winter, the few iNaturalist-documented sightings in our immediate area have all been in October. You’ll need a serious stroke of luck to locate the actual fungi this time of year, but we encourage you to hit the trail and look out for the heavily pigmented wood— it’s all over the place. Now that you know what causes it, go forth and impress your friends!