First Episode of Naturistic on Horsetails

My old friend Hamilton Boyce and I started a new YouTube series called Naturistic. We’ve been talking about making some fun, artistic, and educational video content for years. Last time I was in Seattle we decided to just start shooting and see what happened. We walked around the green space behind Hamilton’s house looking for something interesting to talk about. But of course when it comes to nature and biology every scene and organism you look at has interesting stories and science behind it, which is basically the theme of our series. We were drawn to horsetails, those weird ancient-looking plants that might be growing in your back yard. And true to our theme, we quickly found plenty of interesting facts about them. We shot some scenes in the field then Hamilton worked his magic editing it together which including making the musical bits you’ll hear. Amy Huber also made a huge contribution by making excellent line drawings to help illustrate some of what we talked about.

We will continue making videos about organisms that live around us everyday, but also nature, ecology, and science in general. We will also continue to work with artists to bring unique perspectives and interpretations to nature and science. If you have suggestions on topics, have any other feedback, or are an artist and want to collaborate please get in touch. And finally, please subscribe to our channel to keep up with our new videos!

Explaining Anomalies and Training Your Inner Naturalist


Patches of Earth with no plants are eye-catching. They stand out because the default, lucky for us, is that plants are everywhere, and if they’re absent it’s typically because of something obvious and dramatic. Perhaps a bolder, a concrete parking lot, a sand dune, or a riverbed. But if it’s not something like that, and you’re even somewhat intrigued with natural history and ecology, you will wonder what causes these plantless patches. Questions come to mind: is the soil different? Is there more or less water there? Some pollutant perhaps? Or maybe a busy animal of some sort is the cause?

So called Devil’s Gardens in the Amazon sparked these types of questions. These are patches in dense rainforest that lack large trees and other vegetation, except for one species of shrub. A monoculture in a place where you can sometimes find more tree species in one hectare (2.5 acres) than in all of North America. Supposedly the indigenous people in these region said these monocultures were caused by evil spirits, which is where the name comes from. Maybe that is a story they told, but I think it’s very unlikely that they didn’t have a sense of what was going on.

Devil’s Gardens are the work of ants. But not just ants, also a specialized plant (the single species of shrub) that gives food and shelter to the ants. The ants kill any other plants that come into contact with their favorite bed and breakfast. It works out great for the ants and the shrub and this partnership excludes all the other plants. Fairly recent research isolated the specific mechanisms (including that the ants use an herbicidal acid!) and eliminated alternative explanations with clever experiments. But I highly doubt that the indigenous naturalist didn’t know that ants were partially responsible. For the vast majority of human history humans were all great naturalists because careful observation and understanding of nature were necessary for survival. Humans that are not excellent naturalist are a modern phenomena.

I recently found a patch of plant-free ground near Prescott, Arizona (see the photo above). I initially did suspect ants but when I first looked around I didn’t see any. And I didn’t see any holes where they might gain access to underground lairs either. What else could it be? Maybe it’s a rocky outcropping caused by some bizarre geologic process? Or humans dumped a pile of gravel here, kind of the contemporary equivalent of a geologic mechanism? Or maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough? Maybe what felt like a warm morning to me (an endotherm warmed by burning up all the chips and salsa I’d been eating recently) might actually be pretty chilly for ants adapted to the hot summer Arizona sun?


With that line of thought I found my answer. There were holes in the patch of gravel, they were just smaller than expected. And there were ants, but only a few just peeking out of their holes, and moving very slowly. Lucky for me, slow-moving ants are much easier to photograph.


These are a species of seed-eating harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis to be specific (thanks to Alex Wild for the ID). Apparently it’s the upturned tooth at the base of the mandible that is the distinguishing characteristic for this species, and luckily enough I got a photo showing that specific detail. They are known to build giant mounds of gravel where they chew down all plants to the ground. Read more about them here.


There’s nothing more fundamental to human existence and survival than natural history. Thomas Fleischner describes natural history as “the oldest continuous human tradition“. But now because most of us as individuals don’t live and die based on our understanding of the non-human world around us, our skills at recognizing and explaining anomalies have atrophied. But they are not lost, and they must not be lost.

Collectively our ability to recognize patterns and oddities among organisms and landscapes, and then the motivation to devote the attention to detail and scientific rigor to explain those patterns in nature, is still fundamental to our survival. Climate change and a litany of other issues caused by overpopulation and growing resource demands make our collective well-being and survival increasingly tied to our understanding of biological phenomena and how they respond new environmental conditions. This is not so different from pre-industrial humans, except that we have the handicap that many of our natural history skills have diminished. This is why maintaining our curiosity and attentiveness to the non-human world is critical. Every time you step outside you can practice those skills. Look for anomalies and ask questions about why they exist. Then conjure up your innate naturalist to carefully observe and accurately explain what you see. We still need these skills to solve many of the most pressing issues threatening our survival.  Practice them, teach them.

Backyard Biocontrol

I’ve been noticing that one of the plants in my backyard here in Orlando is getting totally mauled by insects. I didn’t know what this vine with heart-shaped leaves was, but I thought it looked like a wild yam species. The level of herbivory damage is often intense.


Then Isa Betancourt (@isabetabug) on her bug-themed livestream challenged her viewers to find and observe an insect for 1 minute. Always a great activity and something I do all the time but it was a good motivation to get into my backyard to discover what was causing all the damage. Here’s what I found:

I knew the beetle I found was a leaf beetle (family Chrysomelidae) so I headed online and searched for wild yam + leaf beetle + Florida. And I quickly found an answer, this plant is called air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) which is an invasive plant introduced from China in the early 1900’s and is now swallowing up huge areas in South and Central Florida. They reproduce primarily by producing above-ground tubers (called bulbils) that look like little potatoes, which explains both the common and scientific names.


The air potato leaf beetle (Lilioceris cheni) is also an introduced species, but this one is not a nuisance, it’s beneficial. They were introduced specifically as a biocontrol of air potato in 2012, and from what I can see they’re kicking ass. Introducing new species on purpose can be risky, what if they start devouring a native plant species? The best biocontrol species are highly specialized and only feed on the pesky invasive plant, and studies on air potato beetles showed exactly that. They strongly prefer to eat air potato over other closely related plant species and there is no evidence that they can complete their lifecycle on any other species native to Florida. The perfect enemy of a noxious weed!

I’ve always liked herbivores and I think that leaf beetles may be my favorite group of animals. Unfortunately they have a bad reputation since a few of them are serious crop pests like the colorado potato beetle, cucumber beetles, and flea beetles. I’m excited that there is no reason not the celebrate the voracious appetites of these beautiful beetles and that they are working hard to reduce the outbreak of an invasive vine in my backyard and across the state. Here’s one in action:


Nature At Your Door

Shamrock and I are staying at some friends’ house in Orlando and this evening I saw Shamrock swatting at a long-winged insect fluttering outside the glass door. It erratically drifted up and down the glass attempting the reach the light inside and Shamrock tracked every move. Every now and then Shamrock shot a paw or two onto the glass and then gave the confused look of “I’m sure I would have caught it this time”. Well, now I was intrigued, so I stepped outside and gently scooped it up. I wasn’t sure what it was at first but I was confident it emerged from the nearby lake. It had the look of those aquatic insects that evolved early on, long before most of the common groups of insects that we see today. They have simple economical designs and no frilly colors. They live out of sight underwater most their lives, then for a brief period of the year they emerge for some sexy business. And we see them, big insects fluttering around, reminders of life that is always near but also almost always out of sight. I’m glad I took a closer because it can be difficult to appreciate any aspect of nature until you have a personal experience, until you see it up close.

With a few minutes of browsing on BugGuide I figured out this must be a dobsonfly or a fishfly, and based on the antennae I found out it’s spring fishfly (Chauliodes rastricornis), and specifically a male. The males have pectinate antennae (i.e. fingery) and females have serrate antennae (i.e. toothy).

As larvae they are omnivorous, probably feeding on whatever they can find and trying to avoid hungry fish. In the spring they shed their skin one last time to reveal a fresh set wings, and off into the skies to find a mate. But now they have new threats, birds, lizards, speeding cars, and yup, cats. After I was done photographing this one I took it back outside and tossed it off the porch, and as it started to fly a bat swooped down and snagged it right out of the air! One more threat I forgot about, it’s rough out there.

Nature does have a tendency to hide from us either because animals are trying to keep out of sight, away from predators, or because they live in places we’d rather not go. But even when nature emerges from the tangle and directly into our lives, we still have to stop to take a close look. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes, be it a friend who’s a natural history nerd or a frisky feline, can help you direct your attention toward nature you might otherwise overlook.

Shamrock now has her eyes locked on a gecko that is running across the ceiling…

Close Encounters with Toxic Grasshoppers

Eastern lubber grasshoppers (Romalea microptera) are ridiculously photogenic. A combination of huge size, bright colors, and calm behavior makes them easy to find and photograph. The common name lubber comes from the old English word “lobre” meaning lazy or clumsy. If you guessed, based on behavior and coloration, that these are poisonous animals, you are correct. They accumulate toxic chemicals from the plants they eat, which can cause puking and illness in mammals foolish enough to chomp on one. Most birds avoid them too, but apparently not shrikes. I wonder what’s going on there? If coloration doesn’t deter a predator then they will shoot toxic froth from their spiracles, tiny breathing holes in their abdomen. I handled several of them and never got frothed, I guess I wasn’t all that scary to them :)  I encourage you to read more about their natural history. These photos are from Everglades National Park:





Sumac Gall Aphids – Master Tricksters

I was walking around in a cemetery with a friend who spotted these strange balls on staghorn sumac leaves:

20160730-3I figured they were a galls, which are swellings in plants caused by parasitic fungi, bacteria, nematodes, or in most cases, insects and mites. It’s always fun to crack open galls to find out what is living inside. These turned out to be full of aphids! I wasn’t expecting that.


When I got home I found out that these are sumac gall aphids (Melaphis rhois). Like all galling parasites they have a very clever trick. Through some highly specialized chemical secretions or physical modification they force their host plant to grow their food and shelter for them. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the aphids. These galls start when a female aphid lays a single egg in a sumac leaf, when it hatches the gall starts forming and that single aphid reproduces asexually within the gall. So all the aphids within the gall are identical clones of one another.


But it gets trickier. Later in the year winged females fly off to start a new colony on moss. This radical host switching behavior has been happening for over 48 millions years and is one of the longest lasting plant-insect relationships ever documented. At some point the clonal colonies on moss produce males and females which mate and it’s these mated females that fly off to lay eggs in the spring.

As species have evolved and gone extinct and the continents have shifted, these aphids have been in an annual three-way dance with trees and mosses which gave them all the food and shelter they needed. Only recently a precocious bipedal primate showed up who found their own ways to get plants to produce food and housing for them. They’re pretty clever too but they have a tendency to destroy all their prefered habitats. We’ll see if they can keep it up for 48 millions years.


Colorful Symbioses

Lichen are a classic example of symbiosis. A fungus teams up with an algae or a cyanobacteria, the fungus use their digestive powers to extract nutrients from just about anything while also creating a nice home for the algae or cyanobacteria to turn sunlight into energy. They give and take, and together they can thrive in places where little else survives. Well, it turns out there is another player. Recent research shows that many lichens also contain a third symbiont, a unicellular yeast! The yeast produces an acid that may protect the whole threesome from attack by other microbes. (See this great article about how natural history observations led to this discovery). As much as we often focus on clashes in nature, the predator and prey, the host and parasite, the fierce competitors, it’s easy to forget that the origins of eukaryotic life (the group of organisms that contains all plants, animals, fungi) was made possible by a symbiosis between two different types of bacteria. And studies using new molecular tools are increasingly finding elaborate webs of microbial symbioses across the tree of life, and not a single bird, flower, or beetle could survive without these complex relationships. I honor of these new discoveries, here are some beautiful products of lichenous partnerships I’ve photographed in Michigan, Ontario, South Carolina, and Arizona:201312182015041220150524-320150524-220150528-220150528-320150528-4201508172014032820150528-520150311-220151008-5