Archive for the ‘Insights and Visions on the State of the Earth’ Category

Mad for Orchids

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

    Who knew that orchids are the world’s largest plant family?  Ten percent of all plant species are orchids!  

    I had always thought of orchids as exotic, even rare plants.  Until recently, that is, when my friend Laura invited me to watch a fascinating nature show with her, PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY.  What a title!  How can a plant behave badly? 

     Well, according to David Attenborough, the show’s host and one of my heroes, the title alludes to tricks some orchid species employ to lure the pollinators they need.  Certain conniving orchids draw in their pollinating insects with a promise of sex or food, and then fail to deliver.  

     A plant that promises sex?  

     Attenborough introduces us to the bee orchid flower.  The flower structure of this orchid greatly resembles a female bee.  So when male bees emerge from the ground after hibernation, eager to mate, many of them think they’ve spotted what they’re looking for in the orchids nearby.  

     Clasping the flower in a passionate embrace, the male bee is disappointed when he realizes that this is not a female bee after all.  When one or two more attempts to mate with flowers on the same plant result in failure, he flies off to try his luck with another orchid plant nearby.  

     So the bee’s disappointment is the orchid’s success.   When the bee gives up on an individual orchid plant and tries other orchid plants nearby, he spreads pollen more widely, a practice known as cross-pollination.  Cross-pollinations makes for greater genetic diversity   than does self-pollination, where the pollen remains on the same plant.  That clever orchid!

     And false promises of food?  Unlike most orchid species, which draw pollinators by producing nectar that they love, some orchids only appear to offer nectar.  Certain orchid species have evolved shape and coloring that strongly resemble the shape and coloring of orchid species that do offer nectar.   These trickster orchids fool insects into thinking they have found a source of nectar.  

     Not finding any nectar in the orchid flower, the insects quickly move on to another nearby plant.  This orchid strategy of disappointment again results in success for the plant!  It has tricked the insect into cross-pollinating.  What a trick to play on unsuspecting insects.

     While about a third of orchid species practice some form of deception to bend pollinators to their will, says Attenborough, most orchid species do deliver the nectar (but maybe not the sex) their pollinators are after. These thousands of orchid species have developed a vast range of features that include hairs, tails, horns, fans, crests, even teeth and warts–that are very attractive to the particular pollinators who have evolved with them.

     Perhaps the most astonishing orchid-pollinator match known, Attenborough tells us, has quite a history:  In 1862, Charles Darwin was sent an orchid from Madagascar.  Called Angraecum sesquipedale, this beautiful, star-shaped orchid had a nectary a foot long!  (The nectary is a tube, at the bottom of which is the nectar the pollinator wants, along with pollen the orchid wants the pollinator to take).

     Darwin was incredulous!  What insect could possibly have a proboscis long enough to pollinate such an orchid! Darwin surmised that there must be a moth that does have such an absurdly long proboscis.  But he never found the orchid’s pollinator. 

     Twenty years after Darwin’s death, in 1907, a moth was discovered in Madagascar that had a proboscis about as long as the Angraecum sesquipedale‘s nectary!  But it was not until 1992, 85 years later, that this moth, Xanthopan marginii praedicta was actually observed pollinating the orchid.  Attenborough treats us to thrilling night-time footage of the giant moth unfurling its incredibly long proboscis and inserting it into the orchid’s foot-long nectary!  Also wonderful, we see the photographer, the first to catch the action on film, dancing in joy!–April Moore


Stink Bugs 101

Friday, July 28th, 2017


     It’s summer now.  But fall will be here soon, and with it the dreaded annual stink bug invasion.  

     Not very many years ago I had no idea what a brown marmorated stink bug was.  Now I am all too familiar with these hard-shelled, shield-shaped, repulsive little critters.

     I believe it was 2010 or 2011 when I first heard of stink bugs, of their voracious attacks on fruit and vegetable crops, of their intrusion into homes in our mid-Atlantic region.  And not long after that my husband and I began to experience for ourselves these bugs’ noisy buzzing, noxious odor, and the stains they left on curtains and lamp shades.  Gross.

     I decided recently to find out more about our unwanted, ugly little house guests.  Why do stink bugs show up every fall now, when they were unknown before?  How serious a problem are they, and will we have to put up with them forever?  

     I found that the brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia.  It was first observed in the U.S. in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998.  The bug had apparently entered our country accidentally in packing material or machinery that had been shipped to the U.S. from Asia.

     While the U.S. is home to more than 250 stink bug species, these natives have never posed much of a problem because predators have evolved as well, and those predators keep native stink bugs’ numbers in check.  Likewise, the brown marmorated stink bug is not a problem in Asia, thanks to predatory wasps that have evolved there to eat stink bugs’ eggs.

     But the unwelcome Asian stowaway has no predators at all in the U.S.  So once introduced, the bug spread rapidly.  By 2009 the brown marmorated stink bug could be found throughout Pennsylvania, and had also reached Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.  By 2012, brown marmorated stink bugs could be found in 40 states.  And that year, there were 60% more of these invasive stink bugs in the U.S. than there had been in 2011, just one year earlier! 

     While my own experience with the stink bug is at the level of annoyance, the major impact of the stink bug’s  rapid spread and huge population growth is on agriculture.  Especially in the eastern U.S., stink bugs are going after a wide range of crops.  They start eating in the late spring, and proceed to feast on  peaches, apples, green beans, soybeans, cherries, raspberries, pears, and many more fruits and vegetables.  They are also very fond of ornamental trees and shrubs.

     The stink bug possesses mouth parts that enable it to pierce plant parts and suck out the juice.  The loss of plant fluid leads to deformed or destroyed seeds, destruction of fruiting structures, delayed plant maturation, and increased vulnerability to plant pathogens.  

     For good reason, stink bug control has become a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) priority.  But the brown marmorated stink bug is a formidable foe.  Not only does the lack of predators allow the bugs to spread and multiply, but they are very mobile.  A new generation of stink bugs can fly in after a resident population has been killed, making permanent removal almost impossible.

     And, unfortunately, the United States is proving an ideal environment for the brown marmorated stink bug.  There is no part of the U.S. where this stink bug cannot produce at least one new generation a year.  And in  warmer states like California, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, these bugs can produce as many as six generations in a single year! With overall temperatures rising as a result of climate change, reproductive conditions are becoming increasingly favorable throughout the country.  And the stink bug can survive long periods of cold as well as heat.

     Efforts to combat the brown marmorated stink bug have included the use of pesticides, but they have proven ineffective.  Scientists have looked at importing the stink bug’s natural predators from Asia as a way to keep their numbers in check here.  But introducing these wasps might result in yet another infestation.  Scientists hope that birds and other animals will eventually begin preying on stink bugs.

     Sadly, there is currently no known way to stem the increase of the brown marmorated stink bug in the U.S.  

     But at least there are steps we individuals can take to keep these bugs out of our homes in the fall, when the weather cools and the bugs are looking for a warm place to overwinter.

     Since insecticides have proven ineffective against the bugs, and may be harmful to humans besides, scientists recommend prevention.  Before fall arrives, cracks in walls, holes in screens, and spaces around air conditioners and utility boxes should be sealed.

     Despite one’s best efforts, some stink bugs will make it into the house.  And during a warm, sunny patch of winter, those who got into the house in the fall may awaken and start buzzing around.  ’Catch and release’ works okay, although if the bug is squad  a smelly emission can result.       

     Like many people, I throw stink bugs into the toilet.  That approach is less than satisfactory, since stink bugs are good swimmers, and some can make it to the side of the toilet bowl, where they crawl up to the rim.  Some people recommend keeping a bucket of soapy water at the ready and throwing bugs in.  I have not yet tried that approach.

     Sometimes during stink bug season, when I am reading on the couch in the evening, I keep a bowl of water, covered by a plate, on the end table beside me.  When I hear a loud buzz or spot one of those ugly critters on the lamp shade next to me, I grab it (not too tightly), lift the plate, plunge the bug into the water, and put the plate back on top.  The plate protects me from having to look at the bugs in the water, and it also ensures they can’t escape.  The next morning, without looking too closely at my catch, I toss the water and the dead bugs outside.


  • The brown marmorated stink bug can be distinguished from other, noninvasive, stink bugs by dark and light bands on their antennae and by dark and light bands on the top outer edges of their abdomens. 
  • Between May and August, female stink bugs lay 20-30 eggs at a time under a leaf or on a plant stem.  
  • The bug’s stink glands are located on the bug’s underside, between the first and second pair of legs.
  • Adult stink bugs live from several months to a year.
  • While stink bugs are more annoying than harmful to humans, the odor can produce an allergic reaction in some individuals who are sensitive to the odors of cockroaches and ladybugs.  If a stink bug is smashed against exposed skin, dermatitis may result at the point of contact.–April Moore





The Strange History of Birds

Saturday, January 17th, 2015


     A dramatic expansion in genetics research capacity has enabled scientists to learn some surprising things about birds and their evolutionary history.

     Using new DNA research techniques, scientists have gained knowledge that turns traditional groupings of bird species upside down.  For example, field guides typically grouped bird species by observable similarities like size, color, and habitat.  But the new research shows that living bird species may be far more genetically similar to birds that seem very different than they are to species that seem similar.

     Recent research reveals that falcons, for instance, are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks, even though they look much more like hawks.  And flamingoes, it turns out, are more closely related to pigeons than they are to almost all other waterbirds!

     The new bird research, according to Science News, was conducted by a consortium of 200 scientists from around the world and funded by the Chinese genetics institute BGI and other sources.  Findings suggest that many bird species that appear closely related are not examples of close ancestral relationships after all.  

     Instead, such bird species’ similarity is the result of convergence over time.  These different species evolved in different parts of the world.  But they developed in some of the same ways because they occupied a similar environmental niche.  With similar environmental forces operating in these species’ distant niches, birds in far distant areas developed some of the same characteristics, even though they are not related genetically.

     Sorting out which modern bird species are truly related to one another and which are not had long posed a problem for researchers, explains ornithologist Shannon Hackett of the Field Museum of Chicago.  An avian ‘big bang,’ she explains, took place around the time dinosaurs went extinct and sent many lineages ‘flying’ off in different directions.  

     Before current genetic research techniques became available, it had been hard to figure out which fossils belonged with which emerging group, Hackett explains.  In fact, many scientists believed it would never be possible to sort out which birds were truly most related to which other species.

     One fascinating aspect of this new research is that parrots, songbirds, and humans, for that matter, have converged on very similar genes involved in vocal learning.  In fact, birds may prove to be a useful species for further insights into human speech disorders.  The usual medical research species–monkeys and mice–don’t learn sounds as birds and humans do.–April Moore 





Amazing Rocks!

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

On a recent hike in the Shenandoah National Park with my friend Kathy, we saw some rocks that were truly amazing!  They were unlike any I’d ever seen.

A sign along the main trail directed us to a side trail that would lead us to an unusual rock formation called columnar jointing.  We took this side trail down a steep hill, past a massive rock.  It was only when we turned to look back up at that rock that we suddenly understood why these rocks were not to be missed!

The downhill side of the giant rock face looked like a bundle of hexagonal columns, all sliced crosswise to similar but not identical lengths.  The hexagonal shape of each column was so distinct that these rocks looked like crystal formations.  Here is a photo I took of the rocks:

columnar jointing

Like many hikers before us, no doubt, Kathy and I were intrigued by these rocks and wondered how they had been formed.  So a few days later, I did a little research.

Apparently, these rocks are well-preserved cooling columns from major lava flows that occurred some 570 million years ago.  At that time, two tectonic plates began to spread apart along a system of rifts thousands of miles long.  Molten basalt from deep inside the earth rose through these rifts, spilling out onto the earth’s surface in vast quantities that eventually covered more than 4,000 square miles.

As the liquid basalt cooled, it solidified, forming very angular, polygonal cracks similar to those found in drying mud.  Under the right conditions, these cracks can extend many tens of feet and produce a structure that looks like long, polygonal columns of rock, which geologists call columnar jointing.–April Moore


The Magnificent–and Elusive–Snow Leopard

Friday, October 10th, 2014


Briefs_Castner2-300x210 copy

     When the great writer/naturalist Peter Matthiessen died earlier this year, I read a tribute to him that piqued my interest.  Having noticed his book THE SNOW LEOPARD on numerous friends’  bookshelves over several decades, I  decided now was the time to read it.

     What an extraordinary book!  Published in 1978, the book chronicles Matthiessen’s trek along the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas a few years earlier, along with conservation biologist George Schaller.  While Schaller was on a mission to learn more about the mating habits of bharal sheep, Matthiessen’s journey was personal and spiritual.  Both men longed to catch a glimpse of the snow leopard, a predator of the bharal that had been spotted by westerners only twice in the preceding 25 years.

     While neither Matthiessen nor Schaller did see a snow leopard during the two months they walked the rugged Himalayas, they did come across prints and scat left by the animal.  Indeed, it would have been next to impossible actually to see the snow leopard.  

     Below is a beautifully written description of the extremely elusive animal from Matthiessen’s book:  

“By firelight, we talk about the snow leopard.  Not only is it rare. . . but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it.  Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise:  most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking. . . .

“The snow leopard is usually found above 5000 feet and occurs as high as 18,000 feet.  Though nowhere common, it has a wide range in the mountains of Central Asia, from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan eastward along the Himalaya and across Tibet into southern China, and also northward in the mountains of the USSR and west China to the Sayan Range, on the Siberian border of Mongolia. . . 

“The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur.  An adult rarely weighs more than a hundred pounds or exceeds six feet in length, including the remarkable long tail, thick to the tip, used presumably for balance and for warmth, but it kills creatures three times its own size without much difficulty.  It has enormous paws and a short-faced heraldic head, like a leopard of myth;  it is bold and agile in the hunt, and capable of terrific leaps;  and although its usual prey is the blue sheep, it occasionally takes livestock, including young yak of several hundred pounds.  This means that man would be fair game as well, although no attack on a human being has ever been reported.

“The snow leopard is the most mysterious of the great cats;  of its social system, there is nothing known.  Almost always it is seen alone;  it may meet over a kill, as tigers do, or it may be unsociable and solitary, like the true leopard.” 


The book left me wondering how snow leopards are doing today, 40 years after Matthiessen’s trek.

I did a little research and learned that yes, the snow leopard is endangered.  Fewer than 7,000 are believed to exist in the wild.  Despite the remoteness of their range, these animals have been threatened by poaching and by the overhunting of the animals on which they prey.  But perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the snow leopard, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is global warming, which could result in a loss of  30% of the snow leopards in the Himalayas.  

But there is good news too.  Protective efforts by international conservation organizations, like the WWF and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, together with governments and local communities in the snow leopard’s range have been effective.

For example, conservation groups facilitated a joint effort among Central Asian nations to create a large protected area for snow leopards that spans parts of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.  And China and Pakistan are cooperatively managing adjacent natural reserves in their two countries. 

Also, with international help, 55 villages in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains and 65 villages in northern Pakistan have recently formed committees to protect snow leopards and safeguard other natural resources.  These committees have deployed almost 200 volunteer rangers who monitor snow leopards and their prey and enforce anti-poaching regulations.
Even the monks of remote Buddhist monasteries in the snow leopard’s range are getting into the act.  They are preventing poaching by patrolling the forests near their monasteries. – April Moore







Putting Population in Perspective

Thursday, August 28th, 2014


I remember the late 1960s and early 70s, when the issue of overpopulation first gained widespread attention.  Paul Ehrlich sounded the alarm with his popular book THE POPULATION BOMB;  environmentalists and others warned that the human population was simply growing too large to be sustainable.  Well, since that time, the earth’s human population has more than doubled! We are now past seven billion and climbing.

It seems clear to me that our inability to keep our human numbers in check threatens human health and well-being, not to mention the very survival of many other species with whom we share the planet.

I am posting here today a link to an accessible, informative research graphic called The Effect of Overpopulation on Public Health   

This vivid, easy-to-understand presentation was sent to me by Earth Connection reader Emily Maynard, who helped prepare it for MPHonline, a website that provides information on Master’s degree programs in Public Health.–April Moore



World Population Day

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

       I recently read a statistic that I could hardly believe.  Every day, the world’s population increases by 227,000 people!  

     227,000!  That’s like adding a mid-sized city every single day.  And this 227,000 figure is not the number of births each day;  it’s the number of births minus the number of deaths, or the net increase.  

     I am thinking about world population because tomorrow, Friday, July 11, is World Population Day.  This annual observance was established by the United Nations in 1989 as a vehicle to build awareness of population issues and the impact they have on the environment and on development.  The United Nations Population Fund encourages governments, non-governmental organizations, institutions, and individuals to organize educational activities to mark the annual event.

     Why July 11?  That was the day in, 1987, when the global human population first reached five billion.  The Day of Five Billion attracted so much interest all around the world that the UN and population educators joined together to create an annual occasion to focus the world’s attention on the challenges posed by population growth.

Global population growth is truly a fascinating phenomenon.  Long, long ago, when humans lived in bands of hunters and gatherers, the population was small and stable.  Then, with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, more food became available and the human population began to grow.  Then came the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s.  With expanded agriculture and life-saving medical advances, the human population started to increase exponentially.

Consider the following:

  • About 8,000 BC when farming began, the global population was about 5 million.
  • By about 1 AD, 8,000 years later, the population was about 200 million.
  • About 1800 years later, by 1800 AD, the human population reached its first billion.
  • By 1930, just 130 years later, the population crossed the 2 billion mark.
  • By 1959, a mere 29 years later, the population had grown to 3 billion.
  • By 1974, only 15 years later, the world population reached 4 billion.
  • In 1987, 13 years later, there were 5 billion of us.
  • The 20th century began with 1.6 billion people and ended with 6.1 billion.  
  • Most of the population growth throughout history took place in a single century!
  • Today, the global population is 7.2 billion.  

Population growth rates are falling throughout the world.  But because of rapid population increases in past decades, the number of people in their childbearing years is very high.  Thus, even with a low birth rate, the actual number of people will continue to grow for several decades.  Demographers call this phenomenon ‘demographic momentum.’

Demographers predict that population could grow to 9 billion by 2050 and then stabilize.–April Moore


The Magnificent Catalpa Tree

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


photo by Gary Fewless

I am happy to repost here a piece my friend Elizabeth Cottrell wrote recently about a majestic catalpa tree she has been getting to know.  I too have been interested in this tree with its giant leaves and foot-long seed pods.  In her light, informative article, complete with photos, Elizabeth has helped me to feel that I too now know this large, graceful tree better.

I invite you to read Elizabeth’s piece at her website, Heartspoken, by clicking here: The Lovely Catalpa Tree
 April Moore


It’s Spring–The Shadbush Is Blooming!

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

For the last week or so, my forest walks have yielded a special delight.

Here and there, against the still-winter grey of the forest, is a full, rounded, bright spot of white.  It’s the serviceberry, or ‘shadbush,’ in bloom.  This slender little tree signals that spring has indeed come to the forest, and soon other trees–the dogwood and the redbud–will follow along with blooms of their own.  But the serviceberry is first.

I have long heard that the reason the serviceberry is also called ‘shadbush’ is that the tree blooms just when the shad are spawning.  I like the folklorish sound of that and decided to learn a little more.

As it turns out, ‘shadbush’ is just one of many names for the serviceberry, or, in Latin, amelanchier.  And yes, in olden times, people along the eastern seaboard noticed that these Atlantic Ocean-dwelling fish entered the rivers and streams that flow into the Atlantic, and swam up these waterways to spawn in the early spring, just when these delicate woodland trees were blooming.  Hence the name ‘shadbush,’ and also ‘shadblow’ and ‘shadwood.’

But the serviceberry has another name, ‘ juneberry,’ for its dark, blueberry-looking berries that ripen in early summer.  These berries are a big hit with many birds–bluebirds, cedar waxwings, robins, ruffed grouse, and pheasants, to name a few, and also with foxes, bears, and other mammals.

The name serviceberry has its own folk history.  All three possibilities I’ve heard for the name’s origin have to do with church services.  One is that the blooming serviceberry in Appalachian forests meant that mountain roads had become passable again after the winter snows, and that church services would resume, since the circuit-riding preacher could now make it to the small country churches.

Another church-related explanation is that the blooming of the serviceberry coincided with Easter services.  And the third, that with the blooming of the serviceberry and the passability of the roads, funeral services could now be held for those who had died during the winter.

In learning about some of the serviceberry’s other names, I inadvertently solved a small mystery that had arisen for me many years ago.  I just learned that a name for a western variety of serviceberry is ‘saskatoon.’  Many years ago, on a family trip in Montana, we encountered saskatoon berries.  I had never heard of them and wondered where they grew.  No one I asked seem to know, but I assumed they grew on some shrubs in that area.  Now I know that saskatoon berries are from a type of serviceberry tree that grows in the mountain west.  So not just animals enjoy the fruit of the serviceberry;  we humans do as well.  

Indeed, there are more than a dozen varieties of serviceberry tree throughout the U.S. and Canada.–April Moore 


Juncoes and Winter

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Something about juncoes has long puzzled me.  So I decided to look into it. . . . 

     Since moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than 20 years ago, I have come to look forward to our annual winter visitors, the  juncoes.  When the weather starts to turn cold, these plump little grey and white birds appear.  All winter, I enjoy their soft murmurs and cheeps, emanating from the bushes.  And I love watching these little birds do their forward-and-back ‘dance’ on the cold ground as they try to stir up something to eat.  When spring comes, the juncoes disappear.  

     I have read that juncoes spend the summer months in Canada.  Then when the weather up there starts to turn cold, they fly south, fanning out across much of the United States for the winter months.

     This migratory pattern has puzzled me.  I can well understand why juncoes would want to head south as the cold Canadian winter gets underway.  But why do many of them choose Virginia as their winter destination?  Why wouldn’t they keep right on flying until they reach a much warmer place like Florida or Mexico, as many other bird species do?  After all, our winters here in the Shenandoah Valley are cold, and the forests where the juncoes flit about are often snowy.  Surviving a Virginia winter looks like work to me, especially for such small birds.

     So I consulted an ornithologist.  He explained to me that, unlike some birds that spend every winter in the same precise location, juncoes have a large geographic range.  When they fly south to escape the Canadian winter, there are many areas in the U.S. where they can find enough food and shelter to survive the winter.  Virginia is one such place.

     From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that perhaps juncoes have developed an effective survival strategy.  Since they have proved capable of surviving fairly cold winters, they do not need to fly farther south as some other species do.  By halting  their migratory flight here in Virginia, they don’t face a lot of competition for food and shelter.  There simply aren’t that many birds around here during the winter months.   If juncoes were to fly much farther south, say to Central America, where many, many bird species spend their winters, the competition for food and shelter would be great.  

     Besides, a very long migratory flight to a winter home is arduous.  Thus, it can be advantageous to birds not to have to fly such a long distance.  If juncoes can find what they need to survive closer to their summer breeding grounds, they opt for it.  And it seems to work.–April Moore


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