Last year, I observed 2 bat species while on a night hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists (for more about this hike, go here). The 2 bat species I observed were Eastern Red Bats and Big Brown Bats. I’d like to explore their biology and natural history, specifically within Ontario. This first post will be focused on the Big Brown Bat and another will focus on the Eastern Red Bat. I will be pulling most of my information from The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (2012), by Donna Naughton, unless otherwise indicated.
Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus):
Meaning Behind the Name: Eptesicus is from Greek which means “I fly” and “house” because Big Brown Bats like to roost in houses, and the species name fuscus is Latin for “dusk” (Etymologia 2005).
Biology and Natural History:
At 13 cm long and with a wingspan of up to 39 cm, this is Ontario’s second largest bat (the largest being the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), and is fairly common in southern Ontario. Their global range extends all the way south to South America, and at the northern end there are scattered reports from Alaska. With such a wide range, there are differences in their habits across it. For example, Big Brown Bats in Ontario hibernate through the winter in “caves, mines, and deep rock crevices, as well as heated buildings” (Naughton 2012), but in more southern regions with plentiful insect food throughout the winter, they are active year-round. The list above of hibernation sites are specific permanent locations bats will find to spend the winter. During the day, however, Big Brown Bats will use a variety of roost locations, including tree hollows and beneath bark*.
*A curious note describes a surprising discovery of a male Big Brown Bat that had been roosting beneath loose bark in a Michigan wetland. While the author of the note was interacting with a data logger in the wetland, “a strip of bark about 1 m in length fell from one of the trees and crashed into the water about 3 m away from me. Mixed in with the bark fragments and covered with duckweed (Lemna sp.) was a half-submerged bat that I eventually identified as an adult male big brown bat.” (Kurta 1994). I was glad to read that the bat was “torpid but unharmed” and after warming up “the bat flew away” (Kurta 1994).
Big Brown Bats are generalist insectivores, consuming basically any insects they can catch. Their diet of hard-bodied insects wears down their large teeth but apparently worn teeth don’t affect their feeding habits. They feed at night, if conditions are favourable (such as not rainy, and sufficiently warm night temperatures). On cooler nights, some bats will undergo torpor (a sort of mini-hibernation state) to save energy and forgo foraging. When they are out hunting, Big Brown Bats use echolocation to find insect prey. Although we think of echolocation calls as strictly for feeding, they inevitably function as signals, sometimes unintentionally. It has been demonstrated that Big Brown Bats are attracted to the echolocation calls of another species of bat (the Little Brown Bat, Myotis lucifugus) and the other species is attracted to Big Brown Bat calls as well (Barclay 1982). This is likely because echolocating bats represent an area with foraging opportunities or food sources.
Pups are born in June-July in Canada, and begin flying at 21 days or later. In Eastern North America, most Big Brown Bats give birth to twins, while single pups are most often born in Western regions. Although the pups’ wings are the same size as adults, their weight is much smaller, providing them with an advantage while learning to forage. After about a month, the young are able to hunt for themselves (ie. are no longer dependent on nursing from their mothers), but will stick with their mothers for their first few hunts. Some male Big Brown Bats have lived more than 20 years (the demand on females of pregnant foraging and nursing is high and reduces their maximum lifespan).
Big Brown Bats are fascinating, and I was happy to hear and observe them last year. Next up will be the Eastern Red Bat!
Barclay, R. M. R. 1982. “Interindividual use of echolocation calls: eavesdropping by bats.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 10: 271-275. cited in: Altringham, John and Fenton, M. Brock, 2003. “Sensory Ecology and Communication in the Chiroptera” in: Kunz, Thomas and Fenton, M. Brock (eds.). 2003. Bat Ecology. University of Chicago Press.
Last year, in August, I had the privilege of going for my first ever night-time hike. The hike itself was extremely short and straightforward but the goal wasn’t distance or challenge. The goal was to see and hear some of the flying and screeching mammals that come out at night: Bats.
To see these creatures, you need to go out at twilight, which is what myself and members of the Norfolk Field Naturalists did in August 2022. The night sky was beautifully clear, and as stars began to appear so too did small flying creatures seeking insect prey with high-frequency calls. I think everyone knows that bats use echolocation to locate prey in the darkness, but something else everyone “knows” is that bats are blind… but this isn’t true at all. Bats can see about as well as we can, which is to say that they can’t see amazingly at night. To compensate for this, bats create extremely high-frequency calls that are beyond the range of human hearing, and interpret the reflections of these calls, discerning objects (ie. Flying insects) that break up the soundwaves they create before the soundwaves return to the bats’ extremely sensitive ears.
Despite what I said earlier about most of their echolocation calls being too high-frequency for human hearing, I was able to listen in on their hunting cries with the aid of technology, an amazing experience. I used a bat detector which works by bringing any frequency sound down 100 Hz so that high-frequency sounds are emitted within human hearing range. This meant a bit of fiddling with the dials to hit the right frequency that the bats were calling at.
Once I got the hang of it, I was able to listen in on bats hunting in the night. The input was directional, so I had to aim my detector at where I thought a bat was flying which became increasingly difficult as the sky darkened. This obscurity was rewarding when I would happen upon a bat that I could not see by just scanning the dark sky with the detector. There were a few side effects of detecting high-frequency sounds and transmitting them loudly to my headphones. One was that on a certain frequency I could hear very distinctly a loud jangling and clinking sound every time that a fellow Field Naturalist put their hand into their pocket and bumped their keys. Another was that if I tuned into another frequency, the already-audible calls of many katydids in the woods became deafeningly loud in my ears. Whenever I caught the bats’ channel of calling and honed in on a hunting bat, any drawbacks were instantly alleviated.
Which kinds of bats were we observing? According to the website batnames.org (an online taxonomic tool tracking bat diversity) there are 1456 bat species named worldwide (Simmons and Ciranello 2022). Within Mammals, the order Chiroptera is second only in species diversity to the incredibly diverse order Rodentia (with approximately 2635 named species (Mammal Diversity Database)). Within Canada, there are just 20 species of bats, all belonging to the Family Vespertillionidae (Naughton 2012). Within Ontario, there are only 8 species of bats*, so we really only have the tip of a very massive iceberg of bat diversity worldwide. Our hike was led by Liv Monck-Webb of Nature Conservancy Canada and she identified the bats we heard and saw as likely belonging to just 2 species: Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) and Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis).
*Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Eastern Small-footed Myotis (Myotis leibii), Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) are the regularly occurring 8 species of bats in Ontario. Apparently there has been a single specimen of the Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) found in Ontario on Point Pelee in 1911 (Naughton 2012). Naughton (2012) goes on to say that this species could appear more frequently in Ontario in the future with warmer average temperatures.
I would like to talk about the two bat species we observed in more detail in future blogposts, so stay tuned for that!
Being able to listen in on bats hunting was an incredible experience, and unlocked one more piece of local ecology. If you have the opportunity to do the same, I would highly recommend it!
Simmons, N.B. and A.L. Cirranello. 2022B. Bat Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic database. Accessed on 12/29/2022.
Last year, as part of the Norfolk Field Naturalists, I was able to present 20 of my photos and discuss them. That was what prompted my still-ongoing “Top 20 Nature photos 2013-2020” series (Links to Introduction, 1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta, 2. Moose (Alces alces) Family , 3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) , 4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) , 5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant ). This year, I am able to present another 20 photos. I’ve decided this time to keep the range of selection and the range of discussion much more condensed and to form it around my blogging year and my blog’s namesake locality: Norfolk County, Ontario. By keeping the time constrained to a single year, representing each month at least once and the location constrained to a single county in Southern Ontario, I think it can give a sense of the turning of the seasons, something I’ve always been fascinated by. One further restriction is I tried to avoid photos/organisms that have already featured on my blog this year. Introduction complete, here come the photos of my blogging year in review:
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Port Rowan, December 2021:
These beautiful birds are a sight to see in the winter, snow falling around their dancing forms. Their resonant trumpeting calls, and their acrobatics in the white fields are breathtaking.
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) in Simcoe, January 2022:
I’m always pleased to find a species near to home, which I associate with farther away. I first encountered Hooded Mergansers in Algonquin Provincial Park, so I think of them as something from the wild north rather than my own county, but this past January, I took some photos of a female swimming through a park in downtown Simcoe.
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) in my backyard, February 2022:
While reading through nature books and articles, I have read often of Pine Siskins moving through my area during the Winter in some years, and I had always hoped to see them. This year was the first time I saw them, and while my photographs are not very high quality (taken through my back windowpane), I was very excited to see and document this species at my backyard bird-feeder.
Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in my backyard, March 2022:
Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials in Canada, part of a diverse group of mammals that are distinct from the placentals which make up the rest of the Canadian mammals. People often shorten the name to “possum” but this is technically incorrect for these animals. Pouched mammals in the New World (ie. North and South America) are known as ‘opossums’ while those in the Old World (Mostly Australasia for this group) are called ‘possums’.
American Winter Ant (Prenolepis imparis) in my backyard, March 2022:
These common ants are active early in the Spring and late in the Fall, which is how they acquired their association with Winter (Ellison et. al. 2012). Some workers of this species can store excess amounts of food in their abdomens and become living storage canisters, much like the more well-known honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus in North American deserts, or Camponotus inflatus and Melophorus bagoti in Australian deserts) (Ellison et. al, 2012).
Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on my Parents’ Farm, April 2022:
The first members of this species were seen in Ontario in the 1860s. Prior to European colonization and agriculture (which opened up preferred habitat for them) these adaptable mammals were located further south in the United States and Mexico (Naughton 2012).
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in my backyard, May 2022:
Similar to my Hooded Merganser observation above, my first encounter with these amazing ground-foraging woodpeckers has coloured my appreciation for them as unique and surprising. I first saw Northern Flickers when driving through MacGregor Provincial Park in the early morning. Their speckled pattern was striking but even more distinctive was the way they move, like woodpeckers hopping up a tree trunk but horizontally on the ground surface rather than clinging to bark. Seeing a Northern Flicker in my own backyard was an exciting experience (it’s happened a few years now) and adds to my appreciation of the diversity all around me.
European Woolcarder Bee (Anthidium maniculatum) in my backyard, June 2022:
These solitary bees scrape the hairs off of leaves to line their nests (usually in a preexisting cavity in wood or plant stems). As the common name indicates, this particular bee species is introduced from Europe, and is the species you are likely to see in mid-summer (the native Anthidium species are active earlier in Spring) (Wilson and Carril 2016).
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) in Long Point, June 2022:
Migratory Warblers are always a treat to see in the Spring and Summer, and this colourful bird singing its heart out is one of my favourites. This species is widespread across North America and northern South America. In the more southern regions of its range, it may breed in mangrove swamps, while in Canada it can be found breeding in windswept tundra.
Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis) in my backyard, July 2022:
Just as Cuckoos lay their eggs within another bird’s nest in order to benefit from the original inhabitant’s parental provisioning, so does the Cuckoo wasp benefit from another insect’s parental provisioning. In the case of this Genus, Chrysis, the female wasp lays her eggs inside the nest of other solitary wasps where the cuckoo wasp larva either feeds on the growing host wasp larva or the host larva’s food supply, placed in the nest by the host wasp parent (O’Neill 2001). The adult cuckoo wasp is well-armoured and can roll into a ball like an armadillo to present this tough shell as a defense against its hosts (Marshall 2006).
Marsh Snipe Fly (Rhagio tringarius) in my backyard, July 2022:
The larvae of Rhagio snipe flies are predators of invertebrates that dwell within the soil, but the adult diet (if they do eat anything) is unknown (Marshall 2012). This species, R. tringarius is introduced from Europe and is possibly replacing the similar native species, R. hirtus (Marshall 2012).
Eastern Cicada-killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) on my Parents’ Farm, July 2022:
Cicada-killer wasps are an example of a species that I had encountered significantly in print before encountering in the wild. I had read of their enormous size and strength, so when I spotted giant robust wasps on a visit to my parents’ farm I had my guess that these were the fabled hunters. These are impressive insects, but despite their large size and the males’ territoriality (the males will occasionally dive-bomb humans), they are not actually dangerous to people and should be tolerated and admired, rather than feared. The female can remove up to 1000 times her weight of soil to create her multi-celled nest which she provisions with adult cicadas (all of which used to be included within the genus Tibicen but which have now been moved to several genera (see Hill et. al. 2015 for a recent taxonomic review of the Cicada genus Tibicen)). Each larva is given 1-4 cicadas to feed on, males are given only 1 and female larvae more because females are sometimes 2.5 times larger than males (Evans and O’Neill 2007). The reason for this size disparity is that females do the digging and carry the giant prey items. The cicada-killers cannot carry paralyzed cicadas in flight unless they first drag them to a height and drop, which they will do occasionally in order to transport their large prey (Evans and O’Neill 2007).
Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
This very large grasshopper can be up to 4.4 cm long and feeds on a variety of plants and crops (Marshall 2006).
Prionyx atratus in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
Prionyx atratus is a solitary wasp which hunts late-instar* or adult grasshoppers, like the one photographed on the same day in the same garden above. The wasps sting the grasshoppers on the head or thorax, and then construct a burrow in soil for their single prey item. Once the nest is constructed they will place the paralyzed grasshopper inside with an egg attached and close off the nest. While working on the nest, the female hunter will sometimes cache the grasshopper prey nearby (O’Neill 2001). Researching this species led to a rather alarming observation noted in O’Neill 2001: “I have seen the cached grasshopper prey of Prionyx species devoured by other grasshoppers”. It seems that grasshoppers are not always only plant-pests but will consume each other if given the opportunity.
*instar refers to any larval stage between moults, so a late-instar means a larval stage that is close to being an adult.
Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates in Long Point, September 2022:
One foggy morning in September, I was out taking photos in Long Point. The main thing I was looking for was birds, but every step I took along the wetland trail was punctuated by the sound and motion of leaping frogs. Taking a closer look at the path, I managed to crouch down and capture some closeups of this Northern Leopard Frog, helpfully sitting very still.
Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax) in my backyard, October 2022:
There comes a time in the year when insect populations begin to go into hiding or die off as Autumn and Winter creep upon the land. Every buzzing, whirring, crawling invertebrate at this time of year gains my attention all the more because I am conscious of the seasons’ turnings that will soon cover the flowers with snow and a hush will fall upon the local pollinators. So in October, I was quite excited to find a small gathering of pollinators right by my back step where an Aster was growing. This photo shows one such late-Fall insect: a Drone Fly.
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) on my Parents’ Farm, October 2022:
Yet another late-flying insect caught my eye in October, this time a butterfly: an Orange Sulphur. This species of butterfly may or may not overwinter in Ontario. The adult individuals that we see in the Spring are likely migrants from its southern range (which includes Central America and the United States) (Hall et. al. 2014). I’m guessing this means that this individual spotted in the Fall was possibly on its way South to warmer climes.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in my backyard, November 2022:
As I prepared to choose at least one photo from every month of the past year, I realized that I didn’t have any photos taken in November. So I rushed outside in my backyard to take some photos of the backyard birds at our feeders. My favourite picture was this of a Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are familiar and common backyard birds, though they prefer to feed from the ground, rather than directly from the hanging feeders. I feel like this is a perfect species to end with: very common and familiar, found in my own backyard, yet I still find it exciting to see and observe these amazing creatures. I’m looking forward to next year, and can’t wait to see what other species I will wonder at and learn about through 2023.
Ellison, Aaron, Gotelli, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, adn Alpert, Gary. 2012. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. Yale University Press.
Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Harvard University Press.
Hall, Peter, Jones, Colin, Guidotti, Antonia, and Hubley, Brad. 2014. The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.
In June I went to see Jurassic World: Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Saga. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but I did really enjoy it, especially with the theatre experience. I wrote a blogpost about my personal interactions with the Jurassic books/films/videogames and some paleontological things because they were on my mind a lot at the time. You will see that some of the books I read over the blogging year (overviewed below) were also inspired by my dinosaur obsession which comes and goes quite often.
Some of my most exciting observations this year were of birds that I encountered in Long Point. And some of the most exciting birds were members of the Heron Family (Ardeidae). Usually I see and take photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) which is great but it was amazing to encounter several other members of this charismatic group of birds this year. My close encounter with a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so striking that I wrote it up into a blogpost: A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows.
Two other blogposts feature some of my Long Point observations. One is sort of a tour through a variety of observations I made during March 2022: Bullfrogs and Buffleheads. Another is more like the Green Heron post mentioned above, as it focuses on a specific bird that caught my attention. In this case, it was the Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis): The Teal Tale Teale Told.
During August, we took a trip to one of my favourite places: Algonquin Provincial Park. While there, I made some nature observations and took some photos, sharing them in my blogpost here: Algonquin in August.
And that wraps up my writing this year. Below, we will take a tour through the books I read this past year (that are nature/science related) and discuss them briefly.
Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario, by Drew Monkman:
Although the book is not directly focused on my local area (Norfolk County falls outside of the books focal range), the close proximity of the areas documented mean that many of the natural phenomena described within are of relevance to the seasons around me as well. I really appreciated the layout of the book. Each month is divided into sections based on organism type: “Plants and Fungi”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, “Mammals” and so on. Beneath each of these sub-headings, interesting happenings are described, some in point-form and others in detail (full page or two). It was great to witness the natural events mentioned in the book, to read along as each month progressed as I did in 2021. Reading the book through the year prepares your mind to see the natural events it describes. An advantage of the layout is that it also works well as a reference because you can flip to a certain month and type of organism to see what notable species or events are occurring.
Biodiversity in Dead Wood, edited by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson:
A new favourite book of mine, this volume opened up the mysterious biome of decaying wood and explored the diversity of life within, from bacteria to birds. The interactions of organisms with each other and their environment is the heart of ecology and it’s clear from my reading that species are interconnected in fascinating and complex ways.
Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance, edited by Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner:
The title of this book drew me to it as I am always fascinated by animal behaviour and Spiders seem to me unlikely subjects of a volume dedicated to communication. Reading the book offers a new perspective on spider interactions with each other through their silk and body movements and even acoustics! They also communicate with predators and prey,
Hedgehog (Collins New Naturalist), by Pat Morris:
I didn’t really know anything about Hedgehogs before reading this book. And there was no need, as this volume summarizes in entertaining fashion most anything anyone would want to know about British Hedgehogs.
The Encyclopedia of Animals: A Complete Visual Guide, edited by George Mckay:
I read through this book slowly, as it is not really meant to be read straight through. This book serves best as a flip-through book, showcasing the diversity of animals around the world. The illustrations are at times a bit strange (I believe many are stock illustrations) and don’t seem to match with the animal they depict, but others are quite beautiful and the diversity they portray is fun to look at. The text is very cursory as would be expected with a popular “flip-through” tome like this. My major gripe with this book is something I used to harp on about all the time growing up as an insect enthusiast: Invertebrates are barely represented. Mammals get the majority of pages devoted to them, and Birds are close behind. Mammals and Birds are fascinating, and far more diverse than one would assume if you have only watched nature documentaries (which focus on the same set of species rather than showcasing the variety that are actually out there). Even still, they are a fraction of the diversity of the animal kingdom, which is more appropriately ruled in species numbers by the Arthropods or Mollusks. Despite this (a very common problem in overview books) I really had fun slowly reading through this book, taking in a page or so of variety a day. I wouldn’t say it is the best or most comprehensive of animal encyclopedias, but it serves as a good introduction as long as one is well aware of the classic hairy or feathered vertebrate bias.
British Tits (Collins New Naturalist), by Christopher M. Perrins:
British Tits have always struck me as beautiful chickadees, which indeed they are. I was always jealous of Britain having the wonderful cheery birds I know from my backyard, but with more vibrant colour. Tits are fascinating birds, with life histories and behaviour to match their beautiful exteriors. This book was an excellent overview of the species of Parulidae that occur in the British Isles.
Dinopedia, by Darren Naish:
A compact and great little book filled with tidbits about the history of dinosaur research, some of the paleontologists who conducted said research or influenced the field of dinosaur study, and brief summaries on dinosaur groups. My personal tastes lie with this last group of entries, but each entry was interesting in its own way, supplying concise facts and summaries and highlighting areas of interest within the world of dinosaur research. I greatly enjoyed the illustrations by the author which really enhance the book.
Reef Life: A Guide to Tropical Marine Life, by Brandon Cole and Scott Michael:
A delightful photo-focused tour through the world of coral reefs and tropical sea life. The focus is on fishes, while smaller sections describe and display some representative invertebrates. Styled something like a field guide, but with plenty of ecological and biological information throughout, this book gives a taste of the diversity of coral reefs and the interconnected lives of the species that create and depend on them.
Bat Ecology, edited by Thomas H. Kunz and M. Brock Fenton:
Bats are fascinating, and I learned a lot about them from this book. Because of the book’s focus on Ecology, there was no real overview of Bats as a group which would have been nice for myself to have some sort of general idea before diving into specifics. Not a fault of the book, just something to note if you’re unfamiliar with bats from a scientific point of view. The chapters are each written by different authors and cover a wide range of topics, and as such there were excellent and enjoyable chapters (for myself the chapter on Roosting sites and the chapter on Pollination were particularly fascinating) and some chapters that were less so. Not a fault of the book, but my personal point of view and knowledge base left me struggling through the chapters on Sperm Competition and Patterns of Range Size. Those two chapters in particular felt like specific scientific studies rather than reviews of a subject area which the other chapters felt like. So, while mixed, the interest I have in Bats has certainly been increased and I have certainly learned a lot about some of the diverse ecologies that bats have around the world, while still wanting more.
This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, by Wendell Berry:
In the preface, Wendell Berry remarks that the poems should be read outside in similar circumstances to when they were written. And I originally envisioned doing so. When I began to read them in very different circumstances, I found that instead of diminishing the power of the poetry by contrast, the poetry brought the beauty and wonder of nature into my less-than-ideal setting (usually indoors in winter or at work).
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Protect the World’s Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght:
Although I will always want a book like this to have more focus on the animals themselves (in this case Blakiston’s Fish Owls) I thought this was a very interesting listen (I had the audiobook). Lots of adventures and misadventures in the Russian wilderness, as well as strange and intriguing people that the author encounters. And there was quite a bit about how the field research actually worked and the sorts of things I really was looking for: info and descriptions of the wildlife encounters including the focal species. Overall, a good read about an animal I didn’t know much about before and the efforts to research and protect it.
Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, by Michael J. Benton:
I picked up this book from the library, inspired by my recent viewing of Jurassic World: Dominion, and found this book to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the stories behind discoveries or changes in perspective on dinosaurs and their world… but I found other such stories to be irrelevant or out of place. In general, the flow of the book was a bit haphazard. The information within sated my appetite for dinosaurian (and some non-dinosaur) biology and ecology temporarily and I enjoyed the illustrations and figures.
Ant Ecology, edited by Lori Lach, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott:
Because this is an edited multiauthored volume, it becomes difficult to review the whole, as chapters are written with different topics and by different people. Overall, this was an interesting look at more recent ant research (20 years more recent than my other source for ant knowledge: The Ants by E. O. Wilson, written in 1990). There is a heavy conservation and practical (invasive ecology) focus to the book which may attract workers in these fields.
The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar Jr. and Roberta Poinar:
Fascinating gallery of ancient organisms preserved in amber of a particular age and location. Mostly insects and other arthropods which is fine by me, I enjoyed the overview of insect relationships and such that were covered alongside the representatives of the different groups found in amber. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to, I feel like there could have been a better way to present the images and the text but I don’t know, felt a little awkward flipping back and forth throughout reading. All in all, very interesting especially if you like insects and fossils.
A Naturalist At Large, by Bernd Heinrich:
A fun tour through various natural history topics. Bernd Heinrich is curious about the nature he observes and doesn’t take things for granted and by doing so, he discovers by bits and pieces, fascinating natural history stories. I especially liked the chapters focused on birds or insects, perhaps due to my own interests and knowledge but I think perhaps it is because those were Bernd Heinrich’s research focuses as well and his insight there was thus enhanced.
Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by D. W. Macdonald and C. Sillero-Zubiri:
A great review of Canid Conservation around the world. The case studies were interesting snapshots of species under investigation from Grey Wolves of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to the Blanford’s Fox in the deserts of the Middle East. While not comprehensive on the biology/ecology of canids (some species didn’t even get a case study chapter such as Bush Dogs), this was an excellent primer on the diversity of species and challenges in the canid research world.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal:
A book aimed at tearing down the division between human and “animal” cognition. Presents a wide array of anecdotes and experiments that demonstrate that human thinking is a matter of degree and not a separate category altogether from the millions of other species on this planet. I was a bit disappointed that the author focused mainly on chimpanzee research (his own specialty) but this served to really break down the idea that human thinking is a different sort from other species as chimpanzees display many of our ways of thinking that humans previously considered unique to our species. I would have loved to read more about cognition in diverse species and phyla, the one section on invertebrates was intriguing but all too short, but all in all the book presents its arguments well, and discusses the history of thinking about animal thinking in an interesting and thought-provoking way.
That concludes my writing and reading overview for the past blogging year! Stay tuned for more nature sightings, observations, photos and natural history!
*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.
Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.
Date: July 2013.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.
The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).
Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).
Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.
My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…
Last August, I went on a hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to identify and photograph fungi. For the first two parts of the observations I made during the hike, see Part 1 and Part 2. My two previous posts covered all of the fungi (and several interesting non-fungi including wood frogs and fungus weevils) that I photographed and described some of their interesting biologies and ecologies. This final post is a roundup of the non-fungi observations I made during the hike.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this next observation also represented the fruiting body of a fungus. Instead, this drooping white organism is actually a plant without chlorophyll (and thus without the colour green and without the ability to capture light from the sun and turn it into sugar). Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are parasitic plants, which feed indirectly on the roots of their host trees via underground fungi that attach to the roots in a mycorrhizal relationship (Runtz 2020). The flower heads droop, and give this strange flower its name of “pipe” but when they are pollinated (by bees usually) they will raise their flowers straight upward (Runtz 2020).
Some more traditional plants (you know, ones that are green and perform the magic of photosynthesis) were also spotted along the trails. I learned that the bright red clusters of berries were the ripened fruits of George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand (Arisaema triphyllum)*. Besides the red berry clusters, we also saw representatives with green berries that hadn’t ripened yet. Although they may look edible, these red berries contain high levels of oxalic acid and cause painful burning in people that eat them… although apparently white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes will eat them and be fine (Holland 2016).
*more traditionally, the common name is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and most people probably know it by this name, but I couldn’t resist using the new common name proposed by The Field Guides Podcast (for my review of the Field Guides Podcast go here)
Another red-berried plant was a new one for me: Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). These red berries are edible, but apparently tasteless. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and as the name suggests the berries are consumed by ground-birds (such as grouse and turkeys), but also by skunks and white-footed mice (Hayden 2012). You would think that partridges would eat these berries… but we don’t have any partridges in North America, and this species only grows here… so here we have a very useless common name.
Two other wildflowers added colour and beauty to our hike: Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Spotted Jewelweed is pollinated mainly by hummingbirds and bees, while the Great Blue Lobelia is pollinated mostly by bumblebee (Eastman 1995). I unknowingly captured this interaction between Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Spotted Jewelweed in the past, so I’ve included a picture here.
A few interesting arthropod encounters also enhanced the hike. An American Giant Millipede (of the Narceus americanus complex)* was found in curled defensive posture.
*the complex refers to the fact that this “species” is actually made up of many species that may be extremely difficult to distinguish
On the way out of Backus Woods, I spotted some speedy insects scurrying across the sands and gravels of the path, those predatory jewels known as Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). The two species that I spotted and photographed were the Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) and the Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa).
I hope you enjoyed this tour through Backus Woods with a focus on Fungi. I know I learned a lot and am excited for future outings with the Norfolk Field Naturalists!
Eastman, John. 1995. The Book of Swamp and Bog.
Hayden, W. John. 2012. “2012 Wildflower of the Year: Partridge Berry, Mitchella Repens.” Virginia Native Plant Society Brochure, 2012, 1-3.
Holland, Mary. 2016. Naturally Curious Day by Day.
Runtz, Michael. 2020. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For more Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
Back in August, I went for a hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to search for Fungi to photograph (see Part 1). Along the way, I encountered many organisms both fungal and not-so-fungal.
One non-fungus was photographed perched atop some fungi on a log. The creature was a Marbled Fungus Weevil (Euparius marmoreus), which feeds on polypore fungi (Marshall 2018).
The next observation brings us back to the focus of the hike: Fungi. This strange spherical object covered in a lacework pattern is the fruiting body of an Earthball (Scleroderma). These fungi actually interconnect with tree roots to form mycorrhizal associations, benefitting the trees and the fungus (Stephenson 2010).
Another spherical object caught our eye while hiking through the woods: an Oak apple gall. This particular one was caused by Amphibolips cookii, a Gall Wasp feeding within the bud of a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). The bud developed into this spherical gall, while the larva fed within and then this “oak apple” detached and fell to the forest floor, and I guess the adult wasp has already left this gall behind? I don’t know, it was very difficult to find any information about this species or gall wasps (Cynipidae) in general despite them being fascinating insects (what I did find was a website that contains some information: gallformers.org, a site worth checking out if interested). I have a particular fondness for galls caused by insects… they’re plant growths that create particular species-specific patterns for the insects that inhabit them… what’s not to like?
Further down the trails, we encountered some classically shaped mushrooms unlike the more bizarre (in my opinion) Earthballs (Scleroderma). A member of the genus Oudemansiella and a member of the genus Russula.
Russula fungi are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that their underground mycelia (the major part of the fungal body) connect with roots of trees and other plants to transfer and exchange nutrients (Stephenson 2010).
Some of the most common fungi that we spotted were associated (as many fungi are) with dead or dying wood. Fungi that feed on dead or decaying material are known as saprotrophs. Orange Mycena (Mycena leaiana) were spotted multiple times throughout our excursion and I have to say they might be my favourite fungi that we found simply for aesthetic reasons. The beautiful colour of their fruiting bodies really brighten up the dead logs and fallen trees in the forest.
Another wood-feeding saprotroph we found often is known as the “Oyster Mushroom” (Pleurotus), apparently because of its fishy smell (which I couldn’t detect, perhaps it needs to be cooking?). These are very commonly collected for humans to eat. As mentioned above, the Oyster Mushrooms feed on decaying and dead wood, but they also feed on microscopic creatures called nematodes. The details of the interaction are incredible. The Pleurotus fungi has special cells among its hyphae (the underground components of the fungal mycelium) which produce a toxin that paralyzes nematodes. After contact, the nematodes continue moving (usually much slowed, and erratically) for 30 seconds to several minutes before succumbing to the paralyzing toxin. The immobilized nematodes are then attractive to fungal growth from the Pleurotus mycelium, which produces hyphae that thread through the material (usually dead wood or soil) to reach the nematodes and enter their bodies. These fungal threads break the nematode down, consuming it while it is still alive but paralyzed. If you’re interested in more of these details, you can read the full paper where it’s described (Barron and Thorn 1987) here: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/b87-103.
There were a couple of other saprotrophic fungi found feeding on logs during the hike. Resinous Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) has a strange texture that was unexpected, though appearing like tougher shelf fungi it was actually quite soft and pliable. Our guide likened it to the feel of a donut and I can attest that this assessment is bizarrely valid.
Not all fungi grow on logs however, and there are several interesting groups that are very easy to miss. One colorful but tiny fungus is the Red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) which grows singly or in clumps and is connected to the root systems of trees in yet another mycorrhizal relationship.
Two representatives of a more bizarre ground-sprouting group would have been easily missed. This group is known as the “Earth-tongues” (Family Geoglossaceae). You can (perhaps unfortunately) see their resemblance to strange tiny tongues protruding from the soil. Our guide was quite excited to have spotted the dark Earth-tongues (identified via iNaturalist as Trichoglossum because of the tiny hairs) because they would be very easy to miss.
That brings us to the end of the fascinating fungi that I spotted on our hike! It is not the end however of the non-fungal sightings. A few more of those to review in the final part of this ‘series’.
G. L. Barron and R. G. Thorn, 1987. Destruction of nematodes by species of Pleurotus. Canadian Journal of Botany. 65(4): 774-778. https://doi.org/10.1139/b87-103
Marshall, Stephen. 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
For other Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
I recently joined a local group of nature enthusiasts known as the Norfolk Field Naturalists. My very first outing with the Norfolk Field Naturalists was a hike through the Backus Woods Conservation Area with a local Fungi expert Leanne Lemaich. The hike was rewarding for the opportunity to meet up with others who share my passion for learning about the nature around us, and I learned a lot about the various fungi in the area. I used my camera extensively, capturing fungi and non-fungi (some new ones for me!) as you’ll see below. All in all, it was a great experience despite feeling as though I singlehandedly sponsored the next generation of mosquitoes with most of my blood supply…
Let’s begin with a brief primer on Fungi, because that’s how our hike began as well. Despite being classified so often with plants, fungi are actually more closely related to animals, but in any case they are neither. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own energy, ie. they don’t contain chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green and captures energy from the sun to create sugars/carbons (the incredible process known as photosynthesis). Instead, fungi feed on other organisms just like all animals do. Many fungi feed on dead organisms (termed saprophytic, or saprotrophic), but there are also many that feed on or within living organisms and still others form symbiotic relationships (which can grade into parasitism… the difference between symbiosis and parasitism is actually very grey-shaded). Although most of a fungus is composed of tiny threads that grow and proliferate out of sight, there are extraordinary structures that appear for reproductive purposes and these are collectively called “mushrooms”. I like to think of mushrooms as the equivalent of flowers, because they’re the visible part that facilitates reproduction just like the flowers in plants (via insects/other organisms/wind/rain/other weather processes in both instances). Now that we have a (very) basic idea of what fungi are, we can move onto some of the particular ones I observed and photographed on this hike, as well as many non-fungi spotted along the way!
Our first fungal find was a Bolete (Family Boletaceae), and the first incredible fact that I learned was that this mushroom couldn’t be identified without a… taste test. We hear so often about the dangers of foraging for mushrooms, because there are poisonous lookalikes to edible species and such, that I was very intrigued to learn that some mushrooms are identified by taste. Of course, I will reiterate the warning you will hear literally everywhere mushroom foraging is mentioned (and for good reason): DON’T EAT MUSHROOMS IF YOU’RE UNSURE OF THEIR ID.
Next up was a familiar species even to me, a comparative novice when it comes to fungal identification: Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor). This common species feeds on dead wood, and contains enzymes able to break down cellulose and lignin at the same time (Stephenson 2010). These are the two main components of plant cell walls, and are notoriously difficult for animals to digest.
Several times during the hike, we came upon Coral fungi, which unsurprisingly resemble underwater corals in their branching structures. Our guide identified some of these as possible Ramaria species, but she also pointed out a false coral (Sebacina schweinitzii).
This next unassuming organism isn’t a fungus, but rather a strange living thing called a slime mould, specifically the Dog-vomit Slime Mould (Fuligo septica). The Dog-vomit Slime Mould is part of a group known as the plasmodial slime moulds, the Myxomycetes. Myxomycetes have a complicated and confusing life cycle. They have two feeding stages: the first consists of single cells which move and feed within their environment like amoebae (Stephenson 2010). These single cells reproduce and form a plasmodium, which is still a mass of what might be termed a single cell because it doesn’t have any cell walls, but it contains many nuclei (Stephenson 2010). In both of these stages, myxomycetes usually feed on bacteria or fungi that they encounter. I believe the Dog-vomit slime mould that I encountered was in this plasmodium stage, possibly preparing for its ‘final form’ which would be the production of fruiting bodies which would disperse tiny spores to start the process all over again (Stephenson 2010). Bizarre organisms… aliens of the forest floor.
We encountered one other species of slime mould during the hike which was much more aesthetically pleasing than the one named after dog-vomit… the Red Raspberry Slime Mould (Tubifera ferruginosa).
While stepping through the undergrowth to approach some fungi, I disturbed some hopping amphibians at my feet. At first glance, we thought they were regular toads (ie. Eastern American Toads: Anaxyrus americanus) and some of them were, but one stood out as something distinctively different. This frog was one that I had never seen before, though I had heard its strange “quacking” calls during hikes in the past: a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Part of the reason I haven’t seen them is their superb camouflage, which consists of not only a generalized leaf-litter brown pattern. Wood Frogs also exhibit background matching: changing their skin to match their surroundings. While in breeding ponds in the Spring they are darker (and thus match the water more closely), and assume a lighter coloration when among the generally lighter leaf litter of their environment for the rest of the year (Wells 2007).
One of the facts that always comes to the fore of my mind when I think of Wood Frogs is not their strange call, or their camouflage, but the fact that they can tolerate being frozen. Wood Frogs, at the onset of winter, have physiological mechanisms that promote ice formation between their cells, and prevent ice formation within their cells. What this response amounts to is well described by Bernd Heinrich in Winter World: “the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” (Heinrich 2003, p 174). The incredible part of the story is that the Wood Frog is not dead, but rather will await the arrival of spring beneath the leaf litter and revive during warmer temperatures. They can in fact revive from frozen to active within a single day (Harding and Mifsud 2017). As Heinrich says, Wood Frogs are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our beliefs of what seems possible.” (Heinrich 2003 p 175).
As I mentioned above, Wood Frogs weren’t the only anurans (frogs and toads) spotted during our hike. On several occasions, we observed American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) on the forest floor. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about toads right now, besides that they are amazing to look at if you take the time. Below are pictures of a particularly large toad (about the size of my fist) and a smaller toad, which was captured from an unusual angle. The angle really makes me reassess toads in general but maybe that’s just me.
For no particular reason, I’m going to pause here for Part 1! Keep an eye out for future parts, because during this hike I spotted many more fungi, and some more non-fungi as well.
Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition.
Heinrich, Bernd. 2003. Winter World.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
Wells, Kentwood. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians.
For similar Nature Observations in Norfolk County see:
In my backyard, I usually see a lot of Flies of various species, many of which I find difficult to identify. Flies don’t have the obvious characters or colours that other Insect groups have such as Butterflies and Beetles. There are two broad divisions of the Order Diptera (that is, the True Flies) which can be fairly easily distinguished. Nematocera roughly translates as “long-horned”, referring to their relatively long antennae and includes the Midges, Mosquitoes, Fungus Gnats and many others. Brachycera means “short-horned” and includes the House Flies, Carrion Flies, Fruit Flies, and dozens of other massive groups. As I mentioned in my post about observations at my Parents’ house, I’m reading through Flies by Stephen Marshall and it’s only reinforcing the bewildering diversity of Flies and Insects in general.
Incidentally, a Fly that I can’t identify landed on the book Flies as I was reading it in my house. There is a Family of Flies called the Ironic Flies (Family Ironomyiidae), but unfortunately this definitely isn’t one of them. That would have just been too perfect. My best guess for this Fly is a Fungus Gnat or a related Family (Sciaroidea).
All that being said, there are some Flies that I can now identify on sight such as this Common Picture-Winged Fly (Delphinia picta):
Others easy to identify (to Genus) are the Condylostylus flies which hunt small prey and display on leaves worldwide.
Another group of Flies that I’ve become familiar with have one of the most unsettling Family names ever: the Flesh Flies (Sarcophagidae). The three black stripes on the thorax distinguish them from similar-looking Flies (Marshall, 2012). To make them even more unappealing than their name, many of these Flies lay eggs that hatch immediately after they leave the female, or they simply lay larvae that have already hatched. There are about 3000 species in the Family Sarcophagidae, and the ones I see in my backyard are likely in the Genus Sarcophaga. Within the Genus Sarcophaga there are 800 species, so they are very difficult to generalize about, with some of their larvae feeding on or within other insects, consuming dead vertebrates, or specialist parasitoids of spider or grasshopper eggs (Marshall, 2012).
Another Fly observed within my own house is likely a member of the aptly named Window Fly Family (Scenopinidae), as I photographed it on the interior of my back door window. Although this Family of about 350 species is associated with various habits and habitats, they are named for the handful of species that are predators of human-habitat insects such as Carpet Beetles (Dermestidae), which is likely what my Window Fly was.
The most eye-opening Fly observation of the month has more to do with the fate of the Flies, rather than the Flies themselves. I found two Flies in my garden in a bizarre position, one at the very end of May and one on the 1st of June. I’m unable to identify either species of Fly beyond the fact that they’re both Brachycerans. Each fly was positioned at the end of a leaf, clutching it with its legs and they were covered with what looked like white dewdrops bursting out of their bodies on tiny filaments. The filaments emerging from the fly bodies (the Flies were also quite dead or at least incredibly still and unresponsive) must have belonged to a type of Fungi.
Many readers may be familiar with the incredible footage in BBC’s Planet Earth of the Cordyceps fungus infecting ant workers and forcing them to climb into the tree canopy in order to release the fungal spores upon death. What might surprise you is that similar insect-infecting fungi are found not only in tropical rainforests but around the globe, even in my own backyard in Simcoe, Ontario. In fact, Cordyceps itself occurs in parts of North America (into the Southern United States), where it infects insects and causes similar scenarios to the one depicted in Planet Earth (Eiseman and Charney, 2010). There is an entire order of fungi, Entomophtorales, in which most species infect insects and other arthropods. If you’re interested in similar observations, there’s a Bugguide page devoted to this sort of thing. I have no idea which species infected these Flies in my backyard, but it’s fascinating to know that these sorts of complex interactions are occurring right where I live.
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?
Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.
Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.