Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

DSCF3015

Welcome sign photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Located in southwestern Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves one of the most impressive, remote, and dangerous areas of the Sonoran Desert. Covering 517 square miles (1338 square km) along the Mexican border, the park and its people protect a variety of unique and interesting landscapes and species including the namesake organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi, Cactaceae).

DSCF2594

Saguaro and organ pipe cactuses photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Each organ pipe cactus generates multiple stems from a short trunk and can reach 26 feet (8 m) in height. They’re slow-growing and don’t reach maturity until around 150 years in age. Flowers appear from April until June and are creamy white and about 3″ (8 cm) across. They close during the day and open at night and are pollinated predominantly by bats. The resulting fruit fall and disperse the seeds, and in the harsh desert environment they face an uphill battle to germinate and grow. New plants require a great deal of shade from a “nurse tree” for the first several years until their roots reach sufficient depth for water uptake.

DSCF2622

Organ pipe cactus photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Organ pipe cacti are extremely sensitive to frost and can only be found within the United States in this narrow sliver of extreme southern Arizona. They are however much more abundant in the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California Sur.

Another similar large cactus can also be found in greater numbers across a wider range in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. The saguaro (pronounced “suh-HWAR-oh”) (Carnegiea gigantea, Cactaceae) shares a similar life history to the organ pipe, with a number of physical differences. These cacti begin life as a single stem (or “spear”) and only begin to generate side arms at around 100 years of age.

DSCF2620

Saguaro cactuses and chollas of the Sonoran Desert. Photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

As with organ pipes, saguaro flowers are large and creamy white and open at night. Saguaro flowers remain open longer into the day, however, and as a result honey bees play a larger role in their pollination. Saguaro fruit is said to be sweet like watermelon, and they sometimes split open in the heat to reveal their red flesh. If you’re tempted to taste one, however, it should be noted that harming a saguaro in any way is prohibited in the state of Arizona.

DSCF2606

Saguaro fruit photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

This park is more than just large cacti, however. Many plant species conspire to create a surprisingly lush array of foliage in this hot, dry desert. Other cacti like chollas, hedgehogs, prickly pears, and Arizona barrels dot the parched landscape along with trees and shrubs like the cottonwood, ironwood, ocotillo, mesquite and creosote. Animals include mountain lions, desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, coyotes, javelinas, jackrabbits, and numerous birds and reptiles including Gila monsters and several species of rattlesnakes. Although some may think of deserts as barren, lifeless wastelands, places like this demonstrate otherwise. Every view is filled with plants, insects, and even larger animals lurking just out of sight.

DSCF2617

Unknown bird hiding in the shade of the abundant foliage. Photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

In this expansive wilderness other things can move just out of sight, including drug smugglers, human traffickers and worse moving north out of Mexico. Controlling the flow of contraband and crime is the responsibility, in part, of the National Park Service rangers that patrol this park. In August of 2002 ranger Kris Eggle was pursuing cartel members fleeing from Mexico after they committed a string of murders. During their encounter he was slain in the line of duty.

DSCF2595

Memorial to NPS ranger Kris Eggle who was killed in the line of duty in 2002. Photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

In the wake of the cartel violence most of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was closed to the public for the next eleven years, and it became known as “America’s most dangerous national park.” An increased presence of law enforcement officers, more frequent patrols, and more arrests and prosecutions eventually stemmed the tide of illegal activity and violence and lead to the park being fully reopened in September of 2014. In the intervening years a monument was erected to remember Kris Eggle’s sacrifice for the people, places, and principles of the United States, and the visitor center was renamed in his honor.

DSCF2593

Kris Eggle Visitor Center photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Dark days like these should serve as a reminder that these remote outposts on the American frontier are not only full of wonder and beauty, but potential peril as well. From our cozy homes with climate control and WiFi it’s easy to forget that within our borders are harsh environments filled with the threats of environmental exposure, dehydration, dangerous wildlife, and even more dangerous people. Every day people like Kris Eggle work to make these places safe for visitation and bring us all closer to the most remote and fascinating places our country has to offer.

DSCF2597

Flora of the Sonoran Desert. Photographed 06/11/2015 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

In spite of such rare and tragic events parks like these remain mostly harmless thanks to the dedicated work of the NPS and other law enforcement officers. Today visitors to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are more threatened by dehydration than cross-border violence. If you decide to venture to this edge of America bring extra water and enjoy the scenery, the plants, and the wildlife, and thank your local NPS ranger, border patrol agent, or other law enforcement officer for making it all possible.

Posted in Botany, Culture, Ecology, General, National Parks | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Tidepooling in the Gulf of California

DSCF2921

Looking out over the Gulf of California from the Sonoran Spa Resort. Photographed 06/11/2015 in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

The Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez) is one of the most biologically diverse marine environments on earth and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known to some as “the world’s aquarium,” this sea is home to a wide variety of plants, invertebrates, fish, sea turtles, and large mammals like dolphins, whales, and the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

DSCF2675

Tidepool along the Gulf of California at low tide. Photographed 06/11/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to spend some time tidepooling along the Gulf of California this past weekend. We were staying near Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico for Circus Mexicus but had a lot of free time throughout the day to get a taste of what “the world’s aquarium” had to offer. The tides here can vary by as much as 15 to 25 feet (4.6 – 7.6 meters), creating a wide tidal zone that is ripe for exploration.

DSCF2692

Hermit crab and snail shells along the beach. Photographed 06/11/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Although I lack much experience in marine zoology, I thought some of the organisms we encountered were really cool and I wanted to share photos of them here. The first animal we encountered was a young hermit crab making a home out of a small gastropod shell.

DSCF2884

Hermit crab in a snail shell. Photographed 06/11/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Next was the test (shell) of a particular sea urchin commonly known as a sand dollar

DSCF2672

Sand dollar shell photographed 06/11/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Then there was this tiny white crab among a number of vacant snail shells…

DSCF2685

Tiny crab and snail shells in a tide pool. Photographed 06/11/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Even this humble green beach worm seemed to leave its mark among the abundant worm tracks…

DSCF2898

Beach worm photographed 06/12/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Some bivalve mollusc shells were more photogenic than others…

DSCF2799

Bivalve mollusc shell photographed 06/12/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

This one seemed even prettier…

DSCF2809

Bivalve mollusc shell photographed 06/12/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

And we also came across many larvae of this particular species of shrimp or lobster…

DSCF2805

Larva of a shrimp or lobster. Photographed 06/12/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

The beaches here were really amazing, not only for their appearance and comfort but for the amazing organisms they harbored. While we didn’t get to see some of the large animals that call these waters home, the humble invertebrates and gorgeous views alone made this location a worthwhile destination.

DSCF2755

Sunset view of the beach along the Gulf of California. Photographed 06/12/2015 near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

Posted in Ecology, Environment, Invertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

I lichen this to a human skull

skulllichen

Lichens that happen to look like a skull. Photographed 05/23/2015 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Lichens are common composite organisms that can be found in many diverse areas, including the most inhospitable environments on earth. The approximately 15,000 described species inhabit everything from lush forests to deserts to arctic tundra, exploiting resources wherever possible. Lichens are not a single organism, but rather an association between a particular species of fungi and a particular species of algae or cyanobacteria. They usually form symbiotic relationships, with the fungi providing a safe, moist substrate of hyphae while the algae/cyanobacteria provide a source of food via photosynthesis.

skulllichen2

Lichens that happen to look like a skull. Photographed 05/23/2015 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Many different fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria can be combined in numerous ways, resulting in many different associations and growth forms. Once in a while you may look at a lichen and experience pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon where a random object appears to resemble something significant. The lichens in these photos seemed to resemble a human skull. A find made up of pure chance, to be sure, but amusing nonetheless.

Posted in Culture, Ecology, Fungi, General, Organism Interactions | Tagged | 1 Comment

Random Insect: Fishfly

fishfly

Fishfly (Megaloptera: Corydalidae: Chauliodes sp.) photographed 05/25/2015 near Palmyra, MI.

Fishflies (Megaloptera: Corydalidae: Chauliodes sp.) can be found throughout eastern North America wherever there are slow-moving rivers and floodplains. Their juvenile aquatic nymphs are omnivores, feeding on the decaying plant matter and small arthropods that litter these waters. After fattening up the nymphs pupate in rotting bark or logs, emerging only about ten days later as adults.

fishfly2

Fishfly (Megaloptera: Corydalidae: Chauliodes sp.) photographed 05/25/2015 near Palmyra, MI.

Mature fishflies can reach nearly two inches (5 cm) in length, and although they look a bit frightening most never eat or even bite. They live for only a week or less, spending their limited lives as adults trying to mate rather than feed. Once females have been impregnated, they lay their eggs near the waters from which they emerged and then die, leaving the calm waters to their offspring.

fishfly3

Fishfly (Megaloptera: Corydalidae: Chauliodes sp.) photographed 05/25/2015 near Palmyra, MI.

Posted in Ecology, Entomology, Random Insect | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Random Plant: Western skunk cabbage

westernskunkcabbage2

Yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, Araceae) near Heart O’ the Hills. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Native to North America, western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, Araceae) can be found from Alaska to northern California and as far east as Montana. This species loves water and shade and appropriately inhabits swamps, marshes, stream banks, wet forests, and other moisture-rich areas throughout its range. This plant is very conspicuous thanks to its large yellow spathe and long, prominent spadix. These structures emerge from February to April, and are only later followed by broad waxy leaves.

westernskunkcabbage3

Yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, Araceae) in the Hoh Rainforest. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The brightly-colored spathe isn’t a flower, but a specialized type of leaf known as a bract. Like the petals of a flower, it can serve to attract pollinating insects to the flowers located within. The long, narrow spadix inside the spathe holds the actual flowers in a cluster, and each flower is rather small. In addition to the bold appearance, skunk cabbage also exudes an unpleasant odor that happens to attract flies and beetles. While the insects get a bit of food from the plant, they in turn unwittingly pollinate the flowers in the process.

westernskunkcabbage

Yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, Araceae) near Heart O’ the Hills. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Western skunk cabbage sounds comparable to eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, Araceae), and while the two share some similarities they also have some differences. They’re in the same family, occupy similar environments, superficially resemble each other, and both stink. At the same time they are in entirely different genera, have very different coloration, and occupy widely separated geographic areas. As a result, a plant simply called “skunk cabbage” can be one of two distinct species depending on where you are.

Posted in Botany, Ecology, National Parks, Organism Interactions, Random Plant | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Random Insect: Ichneumon wasp

vulgichneumon2

Ichneumon wasp (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Vulgichneumon brevicinctor) photographed 05/17/2015 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, OH.

It’s estimated that there are 60,000 to 100,000 species of Ichneumon wasps worldwide, with approximately 5,000 to 8,000 inhabiting North America. They make up what may be the largest family of animals on the planet, and as a result they’re abundant in many areas. One of the more common North American species (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Vulgichneumon brevicinctor) can be seen here, resting on a fern in a forested area of northwest Ohio. These wasps can be found across most of the United States and southern Canada.

vulgichneumon

Ichneumon wasp (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Vulgichneumon brevicinctor) photographed 05/17/2015 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, OH.

Ichneumon wasps are endoparasitic. Adult females use their sharp, slender ovipositors to insert eggs into living host insects. Their eggs hatch and devour the hosts from the inside, eventually killing them before emerging. Many of these wasps prey upon hosts that also happen to be crop pests, and likely provide an invaluable service to agriculture. The species shown here, in particular, is known to attack cabbage looper moths (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae: Trichoplusia ni), European corn borers (Lepidoptera: Crambidae: Ostrinia nubilalis), and fall webworm moths (Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Hyphantria cunea).

Posted in Ecology, Entomology, Organism Interactions, Random Insect | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Common Mergansers

DSCF1883

Common Mergansers (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Mergus merganser) along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Although Common Mergansers (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Mergus merganser) inhabit much of North America, their range shifts with the seasons. They overwinter across a wide swath of the United States, then spend their summers breeding in forests from the northern United States through Canada. They nest in cavities in large trees, and unlike many birds the parents do not feed their young. The tiny, flightless chicks tumble from their nests within a day of hatching and immediately start to hunt for insects on their own. Wherever they roam through life these diving ducks are usually found on lakes and rivers where they feed mostly on small fish, frogs, and invertebrates.

DSCF1889

Common Merganser female (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Mergus merganser) along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Adult males of this species have white bodies and dark green, iridescent heads. Females are colored quite differently, having bodies with more gray and crested rust-colored heads. Both sexes have long, serrated orange-red bills.

DSCF1905

Common Mergansers (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Mergus merganser) along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Populations of these large ducks have been relatively stable across North America for decades, but they have experienced a decline in some areas. Pollution from pesticides and heavy metals can reduce the abundance of their prey and adversely affect the development of their young. In spite of these threats they’ve managed to thrive across most of their range, at least for now.

Posted in Ecology, Environment, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments