Or The Joys of Nature
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
I have lost a number of shoes while out collecting, not to mention a rubber boot or two, the odd sock, several dip nets and two pocket knives. Virtually all of these losses were the consequence of stepping into a spongy, swampy, muddy, mucky and/or sulfurous-smelling mire during the frenzied pursuit of micro-beasties. And, I must admit that, on more than one occasion, I dragged myself home, soaking wet, muddy, reeking and out of sorts.
One man’s swamp is another man’s fen and the sort of bogs that I have experience with are modest indeed and nothing like the Okefenokee. I have learned well and vividly over the years that I would not have made a good explorer. I like neither inconvenience nor discomfort (although I think I have experienced my share.) I suspect this is a consequence of my contemplative, philosophical temperament and that I would rather sit in my over stuffed armchair, smoking my pipe, and read about some poor fellow who fell into a lake and was attacked by muskrats, than experience it myself.
Adventurers have written extensively about the adversities which they have suffered while trying to conquer mountains or explore jungles or reach the North or South Pole. (Why isn’t there an East or West Pole?) However, my questions are: 1) Why would anyone want to climb Mount Everest or K-2, unless there were wonderful pools full of rare algae to be discovered? 2) Why would anyone want to traipse through the rain forest of the Congo, unless there were new species of Carchesium lurking in hidden pools on the forest floor? 3) Finally, there are no tide pools, no vegetation, no ponds at the poles themselves, so who cares about visiting (risking life and limb) a place of interest only because of its geo-magnetic location? Ah well—Chacun a son gout!, which, as you know, means: “My son, Chacun suffers from gout.”
The situation is, of course, entirely different if one is absorbed in the pursuit of an elusive species of the ciliate Frontonia, which is found only in Death Valley and which has blue crystals in its vacuoles, or if looking for jellyfish or suctorians in Lake Baikal—these are activities which make eminently good sense to any self-respecting, slightly mad naturalist. I recall going on a collecting trip one summer in the company of one of my graduate students; a very large, strong, hardy young man, who loved to hike and camp and climb mountains. We were at a lovely, large pond favored by ducks—a pond with large snails, small fish, dragonfly, damselfly, and caddis fly nymphs and adults, a pond full of cyclops, daphnia, algae, rotifers, and—LEECHES!!! My student’s mother must have watched The African Queen while she was pregnant with him, transmitting her revulsion and fears to him while watching the infamous scene when Humphrey Bogart emerges from the swamp covered with leeches. Now, you need to understand that this particular leech was quite small, under 2 inches when fully extended, and safely isolated in one of my collecting jars. However, none of that made any difference—one glimpse and this Paul Bunyanesque man backed away, quickly climbed the hill to my truck where he sat and waited for me to finish collecting. He later became a lawyer, and I am glad to report, never sued me for harassment with live leeches. I have always been rather intrigued by leeches and this one was actually a very pretty little creature—almost completely transparent and with a magnifier, one could see the internal structure beautifully laid out. When I was a boy, my parents would take me and my younger sister up to Minnesota’s lake country to go fishing for a week during the summer. I liked to catch the fish and I liked to eat them, but waiting for them to allow themselves to be caught was quite boring, and I didn’t much like cleaning and filleting them, but I learned to do it. However, even way back then, the real fun for me was the pond life—the invertebrates, the algae, and the pondweed covered with micro-beasties. By comparison, a Northern Pike was just a tasty and rather bony meal. And one of my delights on these trips was finding large, brown leeches—the medicinal sort—6 to 8 inches long attached to the sides of the boat. I thought these were splendid creatures; my parents and sister were, however, of quite a different opinion.
Over the years, I have learned that people’s phobias, and their strong likes and dislikes, are not something to make light of and if you persist in teasing them about such matters, they tend to hit you. My late sister-in-law was terrified of spiders—if a visible arachnid appeared—no matter that it was harmless and only ¼ of an inch in diameter—it was panic time. My wife has a similar response to lizards and snakes, but is otherwise remarkably tolerant of the creatures which I collect, as long as they’re either microscopic or preserved.
Sometimes we forget that Nature doesn’t design habitats with our welfare or interests in mind, and bogs, swampy areas, and marshes can indeed seem like forbidding fortresses, even on a very small scale, not to mention a vast maze like the Everglades. So, if you don’t like leeches, stay away from bogs and marshes. There are also sometimes water snakes, but these are mostly small, quite harmless, and lovely to observe as they undulate along in the grass or water. There is one major exception in terms of aquatic snakes in the U.S., and that is the Water Moccasin or Cottonmouth, which is poisonous and of considerable size.
As for swamps with crocodiles, snapping turtles, or alligators, my advice is—stay home! If you simply must have some of the moss from the backs of one of these creatures in order to look for diatoms, desmids, or suctorians, then hire a professional alligator wrestler to collect the samples for you.
So, let’s go back to our more familiar local bogs and marshes. There are a number of perspectives which one can take. The Romantics and the Victorians were inclined to regard Nature as a series of magnificently beautiful expressions of a benign, creative deity. Being a realist, I will present you with the worst-case scenario. My first suggestion is that you should think of Mother Nature as being more like Pandora than Mother Mary. It’s a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky (severe sunburn which later blisters and peels; skin damage; possible activator of skin cancer). Often there is wind, but today everything is calm and still (hordes of mosquitos rise up as you approach the water and you desperately apply more of the repellent to which you are mildly allergic. The high pitched whine which you hear as the mosquitos withdraw and regroup into a “V” formation, is, in reality, mosquito laughter as they prepare to inject you with Yellow Fever and malaria.) The next to arrive are the beautifully iridescent deer flies which are either a vivid blue or electric green. These are among the most fanatically persistent and annoying creatures that nature has ever produced and they inflict a nasty, painful bite. They hover and dive and, as you swat at them, dodge away only to launch their assault again from the other side. The trick is to wait for one to land on your sleeve and then smash it with a healthy whack before it can bite. This is an immensely satisfying experience.
I want to back up and modify a statement I made a minute ago. I spoke of the fanatical persistence of the deer fly, but there is another pest that rivals it and that is the ground nesting bee. Early one summer, I was out quietly turning over the soil for our vegetable garden, when one of these creatures made a kamikaze attack on me. I was ducking and bobbing, waving my arms and generally behaving like a lunatic, when this manic little monster nailed me just above my right eye and, so looking even more like a madman, I slapped myself and also, incidentally, the bee, which is now mounted in a small plastic box in my cabinet of curiosities. Not that there was pleasure in it, since the next morning the whole right side of my face had ballooned up and my right eye was swollen shut. The doctor gave me a steroid injection and a prescription; my wife took several photographs for posterity, and I sprayed the nest with wasp and hornet killer (it works on bees too).
All of this is by way of introducing yet another potential hazard to the collector, nay, a whole series: wasps, bees, hornets and bumblebees. There you are out breathing the fresh air scented with pine, exulting in the warmth of the sun, when suddenly the sky darkens with these biological robots bent on your destruction. One of my graduate students—another one, not the one terrified of leeches—risked going out on collecting trips with me occasionally, and he always headed back to the truck with alacrity at the slightest hint of bee, wasp, or hornet. The last time he had been stung, he had such a severe reaction that he ended up in the hospital, but that was not on one of my collecting expeditions.
One place where I sometimes go collecting is a federal game refuge and, yes, I did check with the authorities to get permission to collect water samples. On one occasion at the height of summer, I hiked down to a highly alkaline lake to get a few samples. To get into this area at all, one needs a high-profile 4-wheel drive vehicle and it is imperative to drive slowly and be alert, since there is a very large prairie dog colony out there and if one goes too fast and hits a hole at the wrong angle, you can knock a wheel out of alignment, ruin a tire, or even break an axle. So, I drive slowly, enjoying the view of snow-capped mountains in the background and follow the trail to a point above the lake which looks to be a promising spot to collect. These very alkaline lakes in the refuge are largely fed by melt-off from the mountain snows and, by midsummer, the evaporation has created miniature sculpture gardens along the edges. If the spring runoff has been heavy, accompanied by rain, the water levels will cover the sagebrush growing at the edges. As the water recedes as the summer progresses, heavy mats of algae, such as Spirogyra will drape and web the branches of sage brush and the branches and the algal mats will be covered with a layer of white alkaline deposits ¼ to ½ inch thick. It is an extraordinary sight and is rarely disturbed, because so few people venture out to this area. The lakes are located along a major migratory path and, because the animals are protected and the refuge is fairly remote, it is possible to observe a rather wide variety of animals during a single visit. I already mentioned the prairie dogs, but one may see hawks and even the occasional eagle as well. In the spring, there are Canadian geese, pelicans, and blue heron which one may chance across. It is a remarkable experience to watch a pelican lift off the lake, circle, and then fly just a few feet over your head as it departs; it gives one a sense of just how large these incredible creatures are. The blue herons are mildly amusing to me. They tend to cluster in small groups, moving slowly and rather stiffly, and these motions along with their dark plumage, always remind me of a gathering of funeral directors (or of some of my more pompous colleagues, although they are usually less well dressed).
Another entertaining inhabitant here is a sandpiper-type bird known as the American avocet. It is a charming little creature, its plumage forming a very pleasing combination of beige, black, white, and brown patterns. It has a slightly curved beak with which it probes, with surgical precision, into the mud and sand along the edges of the water. These wonderful little creatures are always very busy and focussed and move quickly on their stilt-like legs. I look forward to encounters with these avocets, as they inevitably make me smile and that’s a rare talent which I wish human beings could master.
Occasionally, here, one can also get a glimpse of a muskrat and there is, as well, a rich variety of insect life. If you don’t mind a bit of scatology, perhaps even a bit of eschatology—since, if one reflects on natural processes, one is compelled to think about beginnings and ends—you can find some interesting denizens under dried dung piles; in fact, sacred scarab beetles—so, certainly the ancient Egyptians must have thought that there was a connection between eschatology and dung. On one visit, I noticed as I walked down towards the lake, some unfamiliar vegetation about 3 to 4 feet in height and, on it, some extraordinary iridescent beetles about 1½ inches long.
Now, I’ll admit that I’m a real pushover when it comes to beetles, but these caused me to stop and gape at their shimmering green, purple, and gold carapaces. At last, you’re thinking, he’s stopped grousing about the vicissitudes of collecting. Well, not quite. As it turns out, these colorful creatures are blister beetles and when disturbed, spray a nasty and highly irritating chemical from their posterior ends. Ah, yes, the joys of nature. I did manage, however, to collect several specimens and preserve them and they are handsome additions to my cabinet of curiosities. A number of different types of beetles have developed chemical warfare, including one type which sprays a cyanide compound.
A number of caterpillars have also developed chemical defenses which are quite offensive, that is, I mean to say that these mechanisms are defensive, not offensive, but are nonetheless quite offensive. One summer I planted a small ash tree and the following year, by midsummer, I noticed some of the leaves had significant chunks missing from them. On investigating, I discovered two quite sizeable green caterpillars (about 2½ inches long) obliviously grazing on the leaves of my ash tree. I went into the house and got a specimen jar and a probe. On my return, I gave these despoilers of vegetation a solid push, hoping to dislodge them into the jar. Any of you who have examined the curious podal appendages of caterpillars are aware, that many types have strong grasping cup-like feet, that clasp firmly to their substrate making them difficult to pry loose. Also, any such disturbance gives them a second or two to deploy their arsenal. In this instance, the posterior end produced an appendage with two orange horn-like projections which exuded an awful stench, powerful enough to make me back away quickly. Some caterpillars are beautifully ornamented with spikes and hairs of bright color and these should be a warning to us as well.., since many of them are walking advertisements telling us and predators—watch out, I’m armed!
Back to the lake. I often collect quantities of the dried algal mat and then, from time to time, add water and nutrients to see what will emerge from this alkaline soup. One of the most intriguing organisms to appear has been Raphidophrys, a fascinating ameoboid protist with filopodia (long needle-like, flexible pseudopodia). The fascinating thing about these organisms is that they can form temporary groups with the filopodia forming protoplasmic bridges connecting them. This, in effect, creates a net-like apparatus which enhances the possibility of capturing prey and might, I suppose, serve some sort of reproductive purpose as well. These liaisons are temporary and they later go on about their lives singly. Perhaps, this remarkable phenomenon is a precursor to the development of colonial organisms.
In one of the channels connecting two of the lakes, I regularly find small orange-red copepods and they occur in such large numbers that when I pull up my dip net, it appears to have been dyed orange. This experience always reminds me of several high lakes in the mountains which I can see to the west of the refuge. One of my favorite lakes up there is very shallow and, to my knowledge, is unnamed. There are a number of reasons why I am fond of that particular place. First of all, it is easily accessible, but not readily visible, from the road, which means that tourists generally drive right on past it. Secondly, it’s the spot where I first saw a porcupine—a large, formidable-looking male. The other three reasons have to do with aquatic organisms. I walk down (or, in my usual bear-like fashion, more likely lumber and stumble down) through the trees and through a small meadow filled with wildflowers. At this altitude, even in mid-July, it can be spring. In places, there are still snow drifts, and, at the edge of them, just where the snow is melting, one can sometimes find snow lilies in bloom. At the edge of this lake and extending into it are dense growths of sphagnum moss. The water is crystal clear and reasonably warm because of its relative shallowness. The lake probably has a name, but as I said, I don’t know it; so I have given it a name of my own, a long name in the tradition of the Indians, who originally named most things around here. I call it Lake Soaking-Wet-Sneakers. I almost always forget to take along a pair of rubber boots and I usually wear an old beat up pair of sneakers and I almost always see something that drives me to wade out into the lake with my net. And, no wonder: this is an aquatic Eden. There are elegant fairy shrimp, sometimes up to 2 inches long, performing their extraordinary underwater ballet, swimming upside down, their gills looking like rows of delicate beige silk fans, propelling them in a stately dance through this liquid world. Along the shoreline are small green, glassy beads of the filamentous alga, Nostoc. But a bit further out, I see ones that are nearly 2 inches in diameter and it becomes wet sneaker time. These gelatinous masses of algal filaments are truly remarkable and, every year, I collect and preserve a few with the promise to myself that I will study them in detail. Well, next year! The third remarkable creature in Lake Soaking-Wet-Sneakers is an unusual form of cyclops, a copepod that reaches a length of over ½ inch and is a deep burgundy red in color. These are truly beautiful organisms!
Further up the road is Hourglass Lake and it too can only be glimpsed from the road. One has to climb up a bit and then rather sharply downward to get to the edge. The meadows up here are rich with wildflowers and one can find various types of mallows, bistort, lupine, monkshood, elephant’s head, and jutting out from the rocks, stunning clumps of large blue and white columbine. During moist years when there has been a heavy snowpack followed by spring rain and snow showers, the meadows are an explosion of color. And yes, it can snow up there even in the summer. Years ago when my wife’s parents and grandmother were visiting, we drove up into these aptly-named mountains, The Snowy Range, and as we neared the top, we were treated to a brief snowstorm on the 26th of July.
Hourglass lake is also aptly named as it consists of two lobes which connect at a shallow junction which is only 10 to 20 feet across depending on how far the summer has progressed. Here, too, one will find wonderful spheres of Nostoc and a variety of smaller algae and microfauna. Whenever I find sphagnum moss, I collect small samples from the water, as they are rich in all kinds of protists and other micro-critters—shelled amoebae, rotifers, desmids, diatoms, and tardigrades, to mention a few.
As one continues up the road, you reach a high point which then descends about 100 feet into a valley with a lovely chain of several lakes which sit at an elevation of 11,000 feet—1,000 feet below the peaks looming behind them. This is an area of which I am especially fond—with the exception of two major pests—mosquitos and tourists. I am not talking ordinary mosquitos here—these are approximately the size of Apache helicopters and have similar armaments. (O.K., so I exaggerate a little—a little, but not much. These beasts raise welts the size of a quarter.) Nor am I talking ordinary tourists. These are people who are driving “recreational vehicles” that are about half the size of Windsor Castle and they navigate these monsters up and down narrow 2-lane roads with sharp curves. Their maximum speed going up is about 7 miles an hour with a gasoline consumption of 5 gallons to the mile and, downhill, they gather momentum like roller coasters. These vehicles cost more than many people pay for homes. I think that some entrepreneur should create a “theme park” in a remote part of the Sahara for people who want to navigate these obscenities. (I would further suggest that snowmobiles be replaced by sandmobiles and be housed in a neighboring “theme park”.)
But back to my little chain of lakes. These lakes are very, very deep and ice cold even on the hottest summer days. My favorite is one which is surrounded by boggy areas with masses of sphagnum growing along the edges of streamlets that channel the runoff from the melting snow down into the lake. The snow on these high peaks almost never completely melts. This location is also my favorite for collecting sphagnum, for here in these waters and mosses, is a splendid array of small aquatic flatworms—some are green, some purple, some brown, some orange, and some are transparent and look as though they were made out of blown glass, all of their internal organs clearly visible. I am sure that there are species here which no one has described before, so perhaps I’ll add that prospect to my list of 7,343 other things to do when I retire. The 50 minute drive down the mountains and back across the high plains is exhilarating, but, by the time I arrive and unpack the samples, I feel pleasantly tired and slightly drowsy from all the fresh air and the lower oxygen of the high altitudes.
There are times when I feel like a short collecting trip at ponds nearby and fortunately, there are a number of such places and I usually head for some of the river ponds. A group I especially like are formed by overflow from the river in late spring and are temporary, but, in good years, will last for about 2 months. The ones very close to the river are boggy and one has to watch where one steps or you may find yourself knee-deep in mire. Here, a key attraction is water mites. The most usual type which one encounters is brilliant scarlet in color and they must be efficient predators because, in spite of their constant frenetic activity, they always seem fat and well-rounded. Under a stereo dissecting microscope, you will see that their apparently smooth bodies are covered with tiny hairs. In addition to the scarlet mites, there are yellow and black ones, rather plain brown ones, green and yellow ones, and orange ones. Some of my friends don’t like these creatures, because they remind them of miniature ticks but, they are, in fact, quite harmless and very interesting little organisms to study. They are quite hardy and can be kept in small aquarium bowls for considerable periods.
Ticks are also one of nature’s nastier jokes, but I’ll save them for another article.
There is a wide variety of mites and some are not so pleasant companions as the water mites. Some burrow under the skin and cause considerable irritation both to humans and animals. Others are plant pests and can wreak havoc on both your indoor and outdoor plants. However, many mites are innocuous little creatures just trying to earn a living like the rest of us. Last autumn, I bought 3 small pots of ferns. I quite like ferns and wanted to spend some time studying them, and I also thought that they would brighten things up a bit in my lab over the winter. And, all of that’s true, but to tell the whole truth, I have to admit that in the soil around the base of the ferns, were liverworts, and liverworts really intrigue me, because I know almost nothing about them. All of these plants like to be kept quite most and so I created a sort of miniature swamp environment for them and my wife also liked this little arrangement. One day I took some samples of part of the ferns liverworts and the soil as well, and discovered almost immediately, at least 5 species of little mites lumbering around, so it turned out that our little bog was indeed mitey.All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
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