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Spooky Ecology 2017: The Weird and Wonderful


Halloween is the best. The clear, superior holiday to all others. Head and shoulders above the rest. Why not celebrate with a little extra spooky ecology, eh? Last year we brought you a lesson in basic ecology using the ghouls and ghosts, but this year we are looking to the natural world for some nightmare fuel. I present to you a round-up of some of the things that I have personally found interesting and spooky in their own right. The world is such an odd and wonderful place, filled with strange and weird things if you look. Let’s have some fun as we terrify ourselves!

 

The Tree That Bleeds!

The Socotra dragon tree, or dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), is native to the Socotra archipelago of Yemen and is rather infamous of its brightly colored red sap. But it isn’t just the color of the sap, it’s what happens when you cut into this tree . . .

 

But apart from bleeding when cut, the tree is quite interesting in other ways. It thrives, or at least survives, in a hot, dry area of the world in part due to its tightly clustered canopy. Leaves grow only at the very end of the youngest, newest branches, resulting in a densely packed canopy almost similar to an umbrella. The blood-red sap has been used as a cosmetic, a dye, and as a varnish for violins. Some applications have been less practical, though, including use alchemy, ritual magic, and as a cure-all. The dragon blood tree is facing increasing pressure from livestock, which feed on the flowers and fruit of the tree. Research has shown that regeneration rates have been threatened by human pressures.

 

The Socotra dragon tree, a truly remarkable and odd inhabitant of our planet.

 

Though it may not treat your bought of dysentery, a bleeding tree is a delightfully spooky Halloween find.

*See also the Pterocarpus angloeniss, or wild teak. Another “bleeding tree”.

 

Buried Alive!

At first glance, Physocephala tibialis looks like a typical, run of the mill black wasp (a conopid wasp, technically). You may not want to hang out and grab a coffee with the little bugger, but you would be hard-pressed to imagine the horror and carnage this wasp leaves in its wake.

Physocephala tibialis, quite the looker.

 

This species of conopid wasp targets the humble bumblebee and infects it, specifically parasitizing it by injecting its larva into the bee. The parasite then “forces” the bee to dig its own grave.  This is hugely beneficial to the larva, as it now gets a comfortable winter home deep in the soil, with all the energy it needs to grow as it feasts on what is left of the zombie bee.

The brilliant Ed Yong has a great piece from 2014 on conopids and the zombie bees they help make that highlights the equally brilliant Dr. Rosemary Malfi’s research.

*Don’t laugh it off too quickly, there is a chance if you have a cat they are plotting your demise in a not-so-dissimilar fashion.

 

It Glows! It Glows! It Glows!

You are walking through a forest, alone. The clouds move slowly and cover the moon. Darkness descends. And then you see it. A greenish-yellowish glow, faint, but ever-present across the forest floor. What is this ghastly and eerie sight? This “cold fire” that entranced both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder?

 

 

 

Scientifically, the glow you are seeing is an oxidative enzyme, luciferase, found in bioluminescent fungi believed to attract certain insects. Termed “foxfire” or “fairy fire,” the faint glow emitted by these fungi can be bright enough to even read by.  Perhaps the most famous of these fungi, is the appropriately named, Jack-O-Lantern Mushroom.

 

The Jack-O-Lantern mushroom is orange in color, but its bioluminescence is a blue-green color, typically found in fresh specimens, under low light. Only the gills light up.

 

*Like weird fungi? You should. They are super spooky. If you want to see everything from a brains to dead man’s fingers, check this piece from Ben Gazur on Listverse. It’s your standard internet listicle, but packed with some absolutely stunning visuals.

 

Madness! Madness I Tell You!

What if I told you the common thread between the defeat of a Roman legion in 67 B.C.E., a strange new foodie craze, 18th century Turkish traders, and my own personal research was understated, yet spectacularly robust evergreen shrub?

 

Decidedly “un-mad” shrubs along a peaceful mountain stream. Photo credit me.

There are 1,024 species of Rhododendron in the world, primarily in across Asia and North American. I am particularly fond of the Rhododendron maximum you can find in the Appalachians and Alleghenies of West Virginia. But while this robust, ericaceous, woody shrub thrives on cool, northerly slopes and creates its own microclimates, one thing I was amazed to learn was that a couple of species of Rhododendron create a neurotoxin in their nectar—grayanotoxin—which when collected by bees, can be found in their honey. These species of Rhododendron thrives in Turkey, near the Black Sea. The levels of neurotoxin found in the honey from this nectar, can be so high, that eating the honey can result in nausa, lowered-heart rate, fainting, hallucinations, and even death.

 

Emma Bryce’s wonderful article “The Strange History of ‘Mad Honey’” in the Modern Farmer is an absolute must-read on the subject, and one of my favorite pieces of writing.

 

*Want to buy some ‘mad honey’? Go for it, you can. There are probably weirder things you could eat.

 

Too Spooky, Too Scary

So while this is not an exhaustive list of all the wonderful creepy ecology-related fun, it’s a good start. Got a creepy, spooky favorite? I would love to hear it and I can throw it on here if you let me know soon!

  • I also want to give a nod to some work from a favorite artist of mine (and my 10 year old), Chris Schweizer, who for October has created a wonderful art based around Appalachian folk monsters. Really cool and worth checking out! The stories and myths we create as we try to understand the natural world can be as fascinating.
  • The pumpkins from Stranger Things 2 . . . I got nothing on that, but boy is it spooky!

 

 

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