February 1, 2008

One thing leads to another in this universe...

So. I thought we had the gall mystery all solved nice and tidy, but after returning to the scene of the crime today to secure the convicting evidence, I noticed some clues to what seemed to be a brand new mystery...
The galls were growing on some willow switches down near the marsh, on a hummock of frozen peaty-looking soil. I don't like to take things away from natural areas, but I felt that what with being a naturalist with a lot to learn and with numerous other examples of pine cone willow galls there available for public appreciation, this gave me a certain small excuse to take one home for further study and of course for inclusion into my Diorama of Weird Natural Things (DWNT, photo forthcoming.) After carefully ripping one free, I noticed one of the larger willows was somewhat fricaseed, but without the white sauce, in this manner:Strange, says I. This willow trunk has been cut with a blade in a most peculiar manner. I'm asking myself why would you cut it like this? It looks like either it was snapped off and the shards were cut after breaking, or the blade was stuck or chopped into the trunk and pulled up numerous times to splay the thing purposely (?). My first instinct was: this may be the handicraft of Nick the Naturalist. Nick is a quiet guy that stalks around Springbrook tracking animals, staying motionless for hours on end, tanning pelts, and making bows and arrows by hand. Willow can serve some of these purposes, and he is a good bet, as this looks like the work of one of his sharp tools. Then while scratching my head over that, I almost tripped over some hairy scat (speaking figuratively, it wasn't that big) and being a naturalist at heart I went, "Wow, hairy scat!" and being a naturalist with a lot to learn I separated it out with my boot to see what they were eating, if at all possible. That is probably more than you wanted to know about that, but next to the scat, lay what could be the smoking gun, both literally and figuratively: a stubbed out ciggy butt. A ciggy that looked as tho it was stubbed axially as if by fingers, rather than radially, as if flattened by foot. Who would stub a butt right next to a scat if indeed the scat was there when the butt was stubbed? Nick knows the Native American powers of the tobacco plant. I've seen him ponder in the woods over a smoke. But which came first, the scat or the butt? What animal would be so decadent as to scat by a butt? Was it Nick's brand?
Join us the next time I see Nick for what could be the exciting conclusion...
Ahh, the marsh. It's a lot nicer when you can't see those big highline towers so distinctly or hear the freight trains rumble by a quarter mile away.
Still, there are lots of deer prints, raccoon tracks, vole holes, bird wing brush marks. This is where I saw the shrike yesterday. And off in the distance are those few beautiful tall trees that survived the massive tornado in 1986 that flattened most of the park. At the time I was floating down the Apple River in an innertube with some friends from school when we had just drifted by a barn with the radio blaring loudly, "A large funnel cloud has just been sighted at Stillwater moving due west, you are advised to take shelter immed..." silence. Our hearts stuck in our throats. We looked at each other desperately. We still had a quarter mile of the river to float. What to do? We did the only logical thing available to us at the time: paddled hard so we could do the rapids a couple of extra times before the shuttle bus got there!
You can see where the waters receeded from the summer cattails, when not that long ago I was showing kids how to scoop invertebrates for pond study and sweating like a popsicle in a sauna. Cattails and Dogwoods. See, they can coexist. Can't we all just get along? I hope that the people in charge can see how important these areas are, for the animals, for the lunch hour walkers, for the hand-holding couples, for the budding naturalists, for the inner city shut-in kids.

Well, I'll be gall-durned

Yesterday's mystery plant was kind of a corker.

Youngchick2000 wrote me saying she thought it was a "Swamp Willow"... she was halfway there.

It is actually a type of "gall" or growth on willows called, a “Pine-cone willow gall” and is caused by a gall midge, (of course, hits forehead with heel of hand) Rhabdophaga strobiloides. (Which is kinda fun to say)
This dipteran (related to flies and mosquitoes) deposits an egg in the developing terminal leaf buds of the willow in early spring. The larva releases a chemical which interferes with the typical leaf and branch development of the willow, instead causing the formation of this cone-like structure. The adult dipteran emerges the following spring, after having spent the winter in the gall. (Spring, Summer, Winter, & Gall)
The thing that threw me especially was that it grows on the tip of the stems, and I've always had this vision in my head of galls being a side or hanging growth sort of thing. Leave it to nature to always sneak a curve ball in there.
Check out a few more photographs of pine-cone willow gall via the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium or read more about galls courtesy of the Michigan Entomological Society.

Whew! I can sleep tonight!