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Life: What is it?

I’m going to do something a little bit different with this post. I’ve done a few “Species Profiles” in the past (the Introduced Pine Sawfly and the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly), and in those I’ve offered a brief overview of the groups those species belong to before focusing in on the species itself. In future, I’d like to zoom in on a species from a distance. Since all living things, from bacteria to Blue Whales, are part of one huge family tree (species have formed out of species) then all of life is related to a greater or lesser extent. So to start my scope as far out as I can, I’m going to begin with the broadest category of all: Life itself.

What are Living Things? You might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite complicated and difficult to draw lines around living and nonliving things. We can intuitively classify large animals (and by this I mean animals that can be seen without aid of a microscope) as living things. They eat, move and reproduce under their own power. Plants and Fungi are similarly easy to class as alive (though some life stages of Plants and Fungi lie on the border, such as seeds or spores). Although Plants and Fungi don’t behave in easily visible ways in our timescale, they still perform the same functions as Animals: reproducing, metabolizing and growing.

So maybe there isn’t a simple definition for life, but Living Things are still easily distinguishable because of a general sense. It’s just common sense that an Elephant is alive and a rock is not. If we bring the scale downward from the living organisms we can see with our own eyes into the rabbithole of microscopy we find that things are (as always) far more complicated. The simplest and perhaps most relevant example to bring confusion to our general sense of what is alive and what is not is… a virus.

I remember the first time I recognized the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection. The major difference from a patient’s point of view is that Bacteria can be treated (ie. killed) by anti-biotics. Anti-biotics literally means “anti-life”. Because Bacteria are alive they can be targeted by anti-biotic medicine. A viral infection is immune to anti-biotics. Viruses are not killed by “anti-life”. This is because they are supposedly not living. This is where the defining border of Life and not Life gets very very fuzzy.

Viruses come in many shapes and sizes and they affect animals and plants in a myriad of ways, but the reason they do any of that is because they exhibit behaviours which enable them to adapt and react to their surroundings in order to reproduce more of their kind. The description I just offered seems to suggest that Viruses are alive. It really depends on where you draw your lines. My Biology textbook from University states that “the characteristics of life that a virus possesses are based on its ability to infect living cells” (Russell et. al. 2010). So, no living cell, no life. A virus contains some portion of DNA or RNA (the information-coding substance that tells cells what proteins to make and how to make them), and sometimes a protein capsule or container. Again, from my Biology textbook: “They essentially highjack the machinery and metabolism of a living cell in order to reproduce. For this reason, most scientists do not consider a virus alive” (Russell et. al. 2010).

For an alternative view of viruses, here is a quote from a book dedicated to Viruses: “they [Viruses] are highly evolved biological entities with an organismal biology that is complex and interwoven with the biology of their hosting species”(Hurst 2000). In this book, Viral Ecology, the editor also recommends placing viruses within a fourth biological Domain of Life (the other three Domains are Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya). He proposes that this Domain be called Akamara which means roughly “without chamber”, describing the fact that organisms within this Domain are non-cellular.

I’m not sure where I sit on the issue of whether viruses should be considered Living or non-Living. The more I learn about them, the more complicated the questions and answers are. I think that intuitively I wouldn’t want to define Life by its components such as possessing a cell, but I also see the value in having strict definitions for labels even labels as amorphous as Life. The point I wanted to make with this diversion into Viruses is that Life is actually hard to define or describe and place within limits, even if on a larger scale it’s intuitively simple.

I don’t think I’ll really be delving into Viral Biology on my blog anyway as I personally prefer learning about organisms I can more easily observe, but it is a fascinating aspect and background for my interests in living things in general.

Next up… Animals, Plants, Fungi. They have to be easy to divide and define right?

References:

Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.

Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.

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Swimming Squirrels

We tend to think of animals as “set in their ways”, following the pattern of their species and not varying in their behaviour or ecology on an individual basis. In fact, every species is made up of individuals. And once you start to think about it, of course this is the case.

People are often surprised to hear of diet variation, when wild animals feed upon substances that seem to go against their “pattern”. Crocodiles and Alligators will consume fruit, and could even act as seed dispersal agents (Grigg and Kirshner, 2015). White-tailed deer will eat nestling birds if they happen upon them. Chickadees will feed on dead mammals.

A recent observation reported in The Canadian Field Naturalist journal represents another of these striking behaviours that stands out because it is atypical for the species as a whole. The species concerned is one that many people are very familiar with: the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). There are already accounts of various Squirrel species hunting and feeding on other vertebrate animals, including birds and even other Grey Squirrels (ie. Cannibalism) (Squirrels as Predators, Callahan 1993). Perhaps more surprising is the recent report of hunting an animal that is outside of its normal environment: namely, a fish. In Guelph, Ontario, a Squirrel was seen to dive from a branch headfirst into a shallow portion of a river. After being underwater for a few seconds “the squirrel swam back to the snag with a fish 3-5 cm long in its mouth” (Sutton et. al. 2020). After feeding on the fish briefly, the Squirrel moved out of view into the woods.

There is so much out there to explore, in your own backyard or neighborhood. Animals are individuals, doing individual things. They are not programmed automatons following rigid beahavioural patterns. Even an animal as familiar and commonplace as the Eastern Grey Squirrel can surprise us if we take the time to pay attention.

Eastern Grey Squirrel at Waterford Ponds, Ontario.

References:

Callahan, J. R. Squirrels as Predators. The Great Basin Naturalist, vol. 53, no. 2, 1993, pp. 137–144. 

Sutton, A. O., M. Fuirst, and K. Bill. 2020. Into the drink: observation of a novel hunting technique employed by an Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Canadian Field-Naturalist 134(1): 42-44.

Grigg, Gordon and Kirshner, David. Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians, 2015.

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Happy Birthday, Norfolk Naturalist!

Inspired by one of my favourite blogs on the internet, Tetrapod Zoology, or TetZoo (http://tetzoo.com/), I’d like to create a birthday article every year- not for the day I was born, but for the anniversary of my blog’s creation. In this post, I’ll summarize the past year of my blog, as well as the story of Norfolk Naturalist leading up to the blog’s creation. So here we go…

My first Tumblr Blogpost featured this twig-mimicking Geometrid Caterpillar, spotted on the Lynn Valley Trail in Simcoe, Ontario.

NorfolkNaturalist Version 1

I’ve tried to start creating blog content many times over the years, but it would usually fall to the wayside of my routine. A few years ago, I created a Tumblr blog in which I wanted to post articles about my own nature observations: norfolknaturalist.tumblr.com. My first post was about Cryptic Caterpillars, and I went on to explore various nature topics through the creatures I had observed myself (usually attempting to do so within a timely manner). Sometimes they were focused on a specific aspect of nature, or a specific animal or plant, and other times they were set up as a slideshow of my trip to a Provincial Park (such as MacGregor Point or Algonquin), giving brief comments about the creatures I observed on my trips. My first tumblr post, Cryptic Caterpillars, was published in March 2018, and it was only a month later that I would acquire my most exciting new tool for nature exploration: a Macro Lens. Up to that point, my nature photos were taken with a telephoto lens, and for insects that meant standing far away and cropping the picture later. Sometimes these pictures hold up, especially for insects like Dragonflies and Butterflies, but my dreams became reality when I was able to photograph Springtails dwarfed by the head of a screw. I had also become a member of iNaturalist at the beginning of 2018. So the ability to photograph the smaller creatures I was so fascinated with, combined with the support and community identification of the amazing iNaturalist website, expanded my horizons as an amateur naturalist.

One of my greatest passions has been learning about the animals and plants and fungi in my own surroundings, and these tools allowed me to do so. My tumblr allowed me to share this passion and interest with others of like mind, and I was excited to be sharing my wonder at the nature that is everywhere.

After a year of posting once or twice a month, I stopped for a while, until in November 2019 I began this current blog as a new platform for sharing my interests and observations. Before we look at Norfolk Naturalist in its current form, let’s take a little detour to Instagram.

One of my most exciting finds ever: a Megarhyssa parasitoid wasp on the Lynn Valley Trail, Simcoe, Ontario. I will have to write a blogpost about this amazing creature sometime.

Observations of the Day

In late 2018 I began to post “Observation of the Day” pictures on Instagram under the profile “norfolknaturalist” (for my Instagram account go here: https://www.instagram.com/norfolknaturalist/). These pictures very quickly became “Observation of the Week” as I really wasn’t that fast at finding interesting creatures to photograph, taking pictures, editing the pictures and transferring them to Instagram. Especially since a lot of my identifications were awaiting confirmation on iNaturalist. These first few pictures (which were titled with their species name and location observed) were then superseded by pictures from my archive of nature photos taken over the years. These photos were posted with a fact about the organisms involved, which grew into my new formula for Instagram: picture of a creature, and a paragraph of interesting information about them. It was really at the beginning of 2020 that I started to post regularly on Instagram, and it was exciting to be doing so. I had accumulated over the years a variety of photos of interesting creatures from local trails in Simcoe, Ontario, as well as various Provincial Parks during camping trips. Reviewing these photos and learning more about the creatures portrayed within them, then sharing that information was quite fun, and I’m really glad I started doing this, and I’m thankful for all the support and interest I’ve received.

A Moose photographed in Algonquin Provincial Park this year. It’s just a nice picture I took of a charismatic animal.

The Current Blog (norfolknaturalist.ca)

I created and posted my first page on this blog, norfolknaturalist.ca, on November 30, 2019. (Welcome to my New Nature Blog) The first post was simply a quick overview of my interests, ideas, and goals with the website: namely, sharing my passion and interest in the amazing animals and plants that provide me with neverending fascination.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is gather together as much fascinating information about an organism as I can into a post (sort of a mini-review of that creature). I’ve done this twice this past year, once with the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly (Ocyptamus fascipennis), and another on the Introduced Pine Sawfly (Diprion similis).

In December 2019, I visited Pinery Provincial Park and had some excellent encounters with some of the beautiful winter birds.

Besides Nature Observations and Species Profiles, I want to share my love of reading Nature books, and so I’ve published a few book reviews on my site as well. First was a Book Review of The Flora of MiddleEarth. Many of the books I read are textbook-ish and I’ve found it difficult to find reviews of some of them online because they aren’t designed to be read for pleasure. Sharing my experience diving into some of these books, and some of the fascinating information within is one of my goals with this site, and since that first Book Review, I’ve written two more: one for Pterosaurs by Mark Witton, and one for The Social Biology of Wasps, edited by Kenneth G. Ross and Robert W. Matthews.

And that brings us to the sum total of 7 posts in a whole year. Not very prolific at all. But there’s one very good reason for that.

In April of this year, my son was born. I haven’t been writing as regularly as I might be otherwise, distracted in the best possible way.

My goal for next year’s Birthday Article is that I’ll be able to summarize more than 7 posts, because I hope to write on my blog a little more regularly.

I hope you enjoyed my small tour through Norfolk Naturalist history and I hope you can return soon for some new content! I’ve got a few things in the works: Savvy Squirrels, Sand Wasps, and maybe even Salamanders!

Here’s an Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) that I found this year under a log on the Lynn Valley Trail, in Simcoe, Ontario.
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Nature Observations: Pinery, Winter 2019

Pinery Provincial Park is a great place to visit any time of the year, and Winter is the season when you can get closest to a few of the bird species that make their home there.

We always bring along bird-seed to Pinery when we go in the Winter, because there are a number of birds that will come very close when presented with a nutritious food supply. Some (Black-capped chickadees and White-breasted nuthatches) can be induced fairly quickly to landing on your hand and feeding from it. This year, we were a bit early in the season and most of the birds except a few brave chickadees were too wary to feed from our hands. Despite this, we were able to feed many birds by leaving out a pile of seeds on the railing on our site (we were staying in one of the yurts they have there). If you’re planning to do this yourself, remember to not leave the birdseed out overnight. During the day, you will attract small foraging songbirds but at night, you’ll most likely be feeding raccoons, who can devastate snapping turtle populations in the park, if they overpopulate themselves.

The first birds we attracted to our food supply were the bold chickadees, ever-eager to exploit any opportunity available.

A perched Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecilie atricapillus)

Next came the nuthatches, with their impressive ‘talons’ which they use to grip bark as they scale down tree-trunks to pry out insect food.

White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Tufted titmice were quite abundant as well. I’ve never been able to feed one from my hand, but they were quite content to fling seeds about in the pile, picking out the ones they desired.

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

The final visitor to our railing was a downy woodpecker. Downys are the smallest woodpeckers in Canada, at approximately 15-17 cm (Backhouse, 2005). Still jabbing as though he were piercing bark, the woodpecker walked awkwardly along the railing. It truly appeared strange to be perched and moving horizontally, as they are so superbly adapted for their vertical orientation on tree trunks.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

Although only a few landed on our hands to pick at seeds, we were pleased to see these little birds foraging nearby, bringing cheer to the wintry woods of Pinery Provincial Park.

The view of the seed pile being visited by the winter birds.

References:

Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.

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Welcome to my new Nature Blog

If you’re interested in the living things that inhabit this world with us, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve always found it fascinating that there are so many different kinds of creatures, living out lives in different ways to us humans. In some cases, it’s difficult to believe that we share the same planet, let alone the same backyard. There are countless species that surprise and delight in your own neighbourhood, and there are many more around the world. I’d like to explore this diversity, and try to share my own excitement about these creatures, whether they are insects, fungi, plants, birds, mammals, or any of the other species that crawl, fly, swim, run or grow across the planet.

To do this, I’m planning on producing posts detailing a specific species or group of species to get a taste of what sort of creatures are out there. I will also occasionally post about my own observations (and photos) of species that I’ve encountered in my own travels in Southern Ontario. Another thing I’d like to do is review books that are relevant to learning about nature, as I have a personal library stocked with some great books about the diversity and wonder of life.

I hope that when you visit this blog you learn a little something, gain a greater appreciation for living things, and get inspired to pay a little more attention to the world of nature that’s all around us.