Face to face: Pulmonaria apennina

Pulmonaria apennina

Undergrowth in purple.

I’m BAAAAAACK! There are no excuses for such a long absence, but I have been a little busier than usual with the university – and I’ll be in the immediate future too! Recently, I’ve attended a course called “Ecosystemic Laboratory”, which includes a series of excursions in natural parks, and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the local flora. Here’s Pulmonaria apennina, a protected species that is not very common everywhere, but in some places can be very abundant. The flowers are pink at first, and then become purple, and the leaves present many white spots (the green parenchyma in those spots is reduced). The function of the spots, if they have any, is unknown (it could be for protection from insects, like some exotic plants in which the leaves look like they’ve already been infested, thus prompting the insect to search some other plant) but in the middle ages people believed that, since the spots vaguely looked like alveoli in a lung, the plant was a miraculous cure for respiratory problems. It isn’t, of course, but the trichomes (“hair”) of the leaves caused expectoration, reinforcing the belief. It’s a plant that grows in shadowy places, like the underwood, and flowers around march-april, and its main pollinators are bumblebees (genus: Bombus)

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Face to Face: Xylocopa violacea

Xylocopa violacea

It’s big and scary looking, but it’s mostly harmless.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my photos. This one was taken in the beautiful country of Croatia, and its protagonist is a carpenter bee, Xylocopa violacea (or a similar species), a big and beautiful Hymenoptera of the Apoidea. While the most widely known of the bee species, the honeybee, is eusocial, there are various species, including Xylocopa violacea, that are solitary. The carpenter bees can be easily seen in spring and summer in many european countries, in places where there are many flowers, and they’re often mistaken for the far more aggressive hornets (which are actually completely different, and part of the Vespoidea) by the common people, but, while they can sting, they won’t do it unless you try to do something stupid like catching them with your bare hands. Carpenter bees lay eggs in tunnels in wood; each egg is in a chambers separated by the others by a septum made of plant parts; each chambers also contains a littleball made of nectar and pollen, so the larva has something to eat after it hatches. When their development is complete, the insects will leave their chambers in the wood and start their lives as adults.

Face to face: Marmota marmota

Marmota marmota

Kings of the hill. Well, mountain, actually.

Happy New Year! Oh wait, it’s too late. Here, take this couple of Alpine marmots (Marmota marmota) photographed by my father a few years ago in the Friulan Dolomites Natural Park, as a gift for you, for no specific reason. I’ve recently read that in the Friulan Dolomites marmots are not indigenous, but were introduced, along with mouflons and ibexes. Now, I can understand introducing mouflons and ibexes, since they can be hunted for food and sport, but… why the heck marmots? Is it because people expects them to be part of the alpine environment and thus local people didn’t want to disappoint tourists? Is it because they whistle very well (a signal of alarm, actually, used to alert the others of a predator in sight)? Is there someone actually hunting and eating marmots (which wouldn’t be that weird)? I dunno. I don’t even know if and how the marmots have had a negative impact on this ecosystem. Since they’re rodents, one would think they do have some kind of negative impact, since rodents reproduce fast and eat a lot, and this particular rodents also dig burrows in the ground, an habit that has created problems in a completely different environment with a completely different burrowing rodent, the Coypu (Myocastor coypus) – more on that will be the subject of a future post.

Face to Face: Bdelloidea (Rotifera)

Bdelloidea

Somewhere in this grainy horrible picture there's a rotifer. Well, at least you can distinguish the foot, the trunk with the stomach full of unicellular algae and the head with the corona of cilia.

If you think the photo above is the most heinous example of bad microphotography on the web, you’re probably pretty close to the truth; don’t be too harsh, though: it’s pretty good, considering the circumstances. First, it was basically my first try at photographing something through the microscope; second, the microscope itself is a pretty old and not too great, and the camera was a normal, cheap digital camera; third (and most important), at the time I hadn’t any microscope slides, so I used some pieces of old transparent plastic I cut from who knows where. So, considering all of this, it’s not too bad, right?

I was tempted to take this photo even in those unfavorable conditions because the animal itself was pretty spectacular, and that was the first (and for now the only) time I had seen a living specimen of this kind of organisms – although they certainly aren’t hard to find at all: it was sufficient to leave a glass full of water and a handful of potting soil out of the window for a few days, and I created a perfect microhabitat for these creatures, along with various protozoa and algae.

It is a bdelloid rotifer (class Bdelloidea, phylum Rotifera): this particular class is completely parthenogenetic (they’re all females that give birth to other females without the need of males), and thus they’re studied by evolutionary biologists interested in the role of sexual reproduction in evolution. Rotifers (which are pseudocelomate and have a cuticle, just like nematodes) have a muscular foot with which they can attach to the substrate or “walk” on it, a usually roughly cilindrical body and two other features that sadly (they were the coolest to watch in action) aren’t visible in this blurry photo: a calcified masticatory organ called mastax, which I could see through the transparent pharynx of the animal, endlessly chewing the single-celled algae it was eating, and the corona, a ciliated structure on the head: the cilia are constantly moving to bring food particles to the mouth or to allow the animal to move through water, and they give the impression that the roughly round-shaped head of the rotifer is a constantly rotating wheel (the name “rotifer” basically means “thing that has a wheel”). Rotifers are an important piece of freshwater ecosystems all around the world, regulating the composition of phytoplankton and contributing to nutrient recycling – their proliferation, along with the proliferation of certain bacteria and protozoa, is even stimulated to purify wastewaters during the process of activated sludge.

Face to Face: Salamandrina terdigitata

Salamandrina terdigitata

Notice the yellow-brown spot between the eyes, that earns this animal the name of “Spectacled Salamander”, and the brightly red underside (here barely visible), which can be shown to predators as a deterrent.

Here we are again documenting my encounters with wild animals! This photo was taken some years ago in my region, Emilia Romagna (I don’t remember exactly where – sorry). It was in a beautiful natural landscape, a forest on the Appennines, with a crystal clear stream. In the water there were Common Toads (Bufo bufo) mating: a huge female had already laid a long string of eggs, and the smaller male on her was fertilizing the new ones coming out. And then I saw it: into the water, a Salamandrina terdigitata, the Spectacled Salamander, a small and extremely beautiful species endemic of Italy (it’s even the symbol of the Unione Zoologica Italiana); as many amphibian species, it’s becoming increasingly rare – that was the only occasion, to date, in which I’ve seen it, and there were at least three of them in the small pond in which the toads where mating! It was a further proof of that place’s uniqueness – S. terdigitata is, in fact, an important indicator of environmental health. It was unfortunate that the presence of a large field nearby, perfect for picnic, attracted a lot of people in the area, and putting the animals at risk of stress (some kids that were starting to harass the toads with a stick were promptly stopped by my father). Even more annoying was a friend of us, who threw unexpectedly and nonchalantly an used tissue into the stream, edvidently not aware of the value of that place. I can only hope that that small wildlife sanctuary is still safe, and so the toads and the beautiful spectacled salamanders.

Face to face: Himantopus himantopus

Himantopus himantopus

Double doubles.

So yeah, the long awaited bird content is just actually me kicking off a new section for the naturalistic photographs me and my father occasionally take on excursions. “What a HUGE let down” I hear you whine. Be patient, my friends, and also don’t expect too much, since we started this new hobby relatively recently (less than a year) and the pictures aren’t certainly of National Geographic quality. These guys are black-winged stilt, Himantopus himantopus, photographed in april 2011 in one of the many protected swamps in the territory around Bologna, the northern italian city where I live. They are very common in every period of the year here in Italy (their italian name, “Cavaliere d’Italia”, means “Knight of Italy”). They’re part of the Charadrii, usually small or medium sized birds with long legs and long beaks, both features useful to hunt small aquatic animals in the shallow waters of wetlands and shores. In H. himantopus, males have usually a more intense shade of black on their heads and wings than females, so in this photo the bird in the foreground is probably a male and the one in the background *might* be a female (you can never be too sure).