Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Night of the Hopping Amphibians!

I recently went out to my car after dark to retrieve a bag of pine-cones (for a later posting). On my way down the stairs, I heard a "churp" and saw a grey, patterned frog a few steps down. I politely stepped aside, then scooped it up. I set it down in a shallow puddle on one of the steps and continued to my car. When I opened the door, the light cast downwards onto a toad who was hiding flat-like against the gravel. I scooped it up too, then set it on a nearby wall where I would be able to find it in a minute or two. I retrieved the items from my car and quickly returned inside to grab my camera and a light source.

Hopper #1
On the way back down the stairs, I picked up the frog again and placed it on a vertical part of the railing. It took a few pictures before I got one I liked. What I thought was a very bright LED flashlight turned out to be just barely bright enough to get decent exposures with the lens I was using.

Hopper #2
The toad was hunkered down into a shallow spot on the wall. This was perfectly fine for taking its portrait, as it let me brace the camera against the very stable concrete. I picked the toad back up and placed it on the ground near the base of the wall.

Hopper #3
After finding the two critters, I took a walk around the house to see if I could find any more. I didn't immediately notice any, but I did notice I had left a pepper plant where deer would be able to get to it. I started to move the pepper to a more protected location when a little green frog came popping out.

Hopper #4
After another quick search, I headed back inside. As I came up the steps, I found the first frog was where I had left it. I also found a smaller grey frog about a foot further up the railing.

We've just had an intensely rainy day and the warm season is far enough along that there are plenty of bugs around. This was apparently the perfect night to go looking for amphibians.

The three frogs likely belong to the same species. They could be either the "Cope's Grey Treefrog" (Hyla chrysoscelis) or the "Grey Treefrog" (H. versiclor). Both species change color from a pale grey, to near black, to bright green depending on their emotional state and the surroundings they're trying to hide in. It can be difficult to be sure which species is in hand. They have slightly different patterns of coloration and different pitches to their calls. Biologically, the biggest difference between them is in how many chromosomes they have. H. chrysoscelis is diploid, while H. versicolor is tetraploid. I suspect the frogs in my yard are H. versicolor, based on the example photos I've found, but I'm really not certain.

The identification of the toad is much simpler because the "American Toad" (Anaxyrus americanus) is a distinct member of the few toad species known in Minnesota.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Botanizing in Alaska: Northern Bluebells

1. Mertensia paniculata.
Around the house we were staying at in central Alaska, the woods were full of this lovely blue-bell flower (fig 1). The name we knew for the plant was Comfrey (Symphytum officinale).

2. Symphytum officinale.
At the Fairbanks University botanical garden, we found a plant labeled as Comfrey (fig 2) that looked quite distinct from the plants in the woods. With its larger and more purple flowers, we thought it was strange. We interpreted the differences as being related to the plants being from different varieties. Many domesticated versions of flowers look distinct from their wild relatives, after all.

Looking through a list of Alaska native flowers, I found our blue flowered friend. It is named Mertensia paniculata ("Northern Bluebells" or "Chiming Bells") and grows as a woodland wildflower throughout central Alaska. The flowers and overall growth form of the two species are remarkably similar for not being in the same genus. The two genera are in in the same family, the Boraginaceae, so the similarities make some sense in the end.

I did succeed in collecting seeds for M. paniculata, so I might be able to get further pictures of the species later this season.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Botanizing in Alaska: Labrador Tea

Labrador Tea is the common name for a few related species in the Rhododendron genus. In central Alaska I found specimens of R. tomentosum growing through foot-thick moss growths high on a mountain near the tree-line. Like most species in the genus, it produces lovely flowers.

The plants produce a range of interesting phytochemicals that have long been used by native communities. The interesting ethnobotanical history of the plant (as well as personal descriptions of its use in a tea from my wife), made me interested in collecting seeds or a live specimen of the plant for a more detailed ongoing examination.

On this trip, I learned that what can look like a small herbaceous plant can really be the tip of one branch of a very wide- and low-growing shrub. This makes it much harder to collect a live specimen without disrupting a large area of other potentially delicate plants. I chose not to do this. I also learned that the summer solstice is not the appropriate time of year to collect seeds from this species. The plants weren't in flower or even developing flower buds yet.

My next trip to the area will have to be during the local berry season in late autumn. Berry season in central Alaska means lots of interesting and diverse berries to taste, as well as a straightforward means to collect seeds from the plants that produce them.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Making My Own Carrots 5

I've been thinking about what my plans are for the carrots I've been working with. Because it is a biennial crop, I can split the project into two distinct directions. Alternating, growing the seeds from one project and the other.

1. Blush carrots.
I really liked the purple-blushed roots (fig 1.) that turned up in my first generation population. By comparing to the parental types, these were obviously hybrids between "Cosmic Purple" (which have a thin layer of anthocyanin-purple skin over an orange core) and one of "Solar Yellow" or "Lunar White". I initially was sad that I wouldn't be able to stabilize this really pretty color combination because it was a hybrid. Today I realized there is a way to develop a [more or less] stable variety with this color scheme.

2. Production of F1.
The F1 (fig 1 & 2.) shows us the intensity of purple skin pigment is incompletely dominant. One copy of the allele gives the blush skin color and two gives the full purple skin color. (This gene acts like the "P1" mutation.) The F1 also shows us that the white flesh trait is dominant to the orange flesh trait. (Acting like one of the carotenoid inhibitors named with "Y".)

3. F2 population.
With these genes driving the colors, we can predict what the F2 population would look like (fig 3.). 25% of the population will have orange flesh; 75% will have white flesh. 25% will have dark-purple skin; 25% will have clear skin; 50% will have blush-purple skin. (Hopefully 25% will be sweeter, like "Cosmic Purple" was compared to "Lunar White". The F1 wasn't terribly sweet of a carrot.)

Over several generations of selecting roots with white-flesh and blush-purple skin, the proportion of the recessive orange-flesh trait will diminish slowly. If I use a small number of roots for each parent generation, the likelihood of losing the orange trait would be better. (I could use "Power Breeding" to help ensure the loss of the recessive trait.) Eventually, I would end up with a new "stable" variety that would consistently be 50% the blush-purple color I found so attractive. (If the blush-purple color were to look really nice on an orange carrot, I could easily stabilize that trait even faster since orange is the recessive trait.)

Thinking through the genetics like this is making me less annoyed that all the odd little hybrid roots I saved from last year ended up not surviving. The large orange/yellow hybrid root also rotted out, so my second generation parent population is already reduced to just the two blush-carrots in fig 1. These two roots are basically identical, so them crossing would essentially be the same as selfing a F1 hybrid. They're both growing new roots and greens, so I'm pretty confident I can keep them alive until they produce seeds.

While they're growing for seed production, I can also grow a whole new diverse population from saved first generation seed. Then I'll get to determine some other selection criteria for a second carrot variety. Oooh! I can even add in some of the lycopene-red "Atomic Red" carrots (the ones that didn't make it the first year) to this year's population. This would let me try again to get that lovely color in my alternate-year carrot variety.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Botanizing in Alaska: Bunchberry

This marks my 100th blog post. I started this blog to provide an outlet for my desire to write and share some of my photography and thoughts/observations about biology. It was intended to be an outlet that didn't come with the pressures of the academic work life I had then. I was a professional research biologist (with a heavy computational specialty) and for now am out of academia and living the life of an office grunt.

My day job doesn't really have much to do with the study/application of biology, but there is little that could keep me from considering myself a biologist. Often times, the biology think about relates to my garden, but I wouldn't consider this to be a gardening blog. It is more that I consider my garden to be part of my "research lab".

My garden allows me to do certain types of experiments. My microscope and other tools allow me to do other sorts of experiments. My computer allows me to do yet others. I consider all of these things to be parts of my research lab. Biology is a complicated and wide-ranging subject area that can be approached from many directions.

I expect I'll keep finding things to discuss on a weekly basis for quite some time. I also expect my thoughts will continue to cover a range of topics not always traditionally associated with biology.

I visited central Alaska around the summer solstice in 2015. I took a lot of photos of the city and in particular of the plants I came across. Though I've tapered off with this topic, I still have a series of posts that I'm still trying to find the motivation for.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, "Dwarf Dogwood") is the smallest species of a widely distributed genus of small-to-medium sized trees. This species grows over a broad swath of the northern edge of North America (Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, etc.).

Where I live in Minnesota is at the southern edge of the plant's range, where it only grows marginally. I find the occasional specimen growing in heavily shaded woodland sites in some local parks.

In central Alaska, the plant grows wildly. Large and dense patches were found growing along some exposed road-sides near the tree-line at high elevation. It was also growing widely in the shaded woods near where I was staying, just as more scattered populations than the ones at higher elevations.

Later in the season, the pollinated flower clusters develop into tightly-packed bunches (hence the name "Bunch"berry) of bright-red berries. The berries are technically edible, but they have a large seed and are pretty much tasteless. In general, I'd say they're not worth the effort to gather. However, I'd probably taste a sample of the berries if I came across a patch in the hopes of finding one that did taste good, because who knows, I might get lucky.