More Darwin (less cowbell)

CompetitionNice day out there, so it’s time to go see if there’s anything to be captured in mid-February, with the added incentive that it’s Charles Darwin’s birthday and I should illustrate natural selection. Hmmmm.

Okay, let’s start with the tiny winter flowers that can be found here in North Carolina, in corners and areas that see little traffic. With some poking around, I managed to capture three in the same macro frame (which means less than 4cm.) The blue one at the bottom is bird’s eye speedwell or winter speedwell (Veronica persica,) apparently an imported species; the white one in the middle is star chickweed (Stellaria pubera,) while the purple one at top is the unfortunately named red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) – I’m guessing it somehow pissed off a botanist to receive that name. All of these were growing from the same bed, often so close together to make it difficult to differentiate the plants. While I see the red dead-nettle plants more often, this is at least partially because they’re bigger, yet all three seem to do fairly well in the yard – it just takes a close look to see the others, which have flowers roughly 4mm across.

The common belief is that the larger species are the ‘strongest’ or ‘fittest,’ which just says we need to work harder to get the basics of this theory across to people. Biggest does not translate to best, and in fact there is no best in natural selection. The smaller flowers, seemingly at a disadvantage, may reproduce faster, do better in deep shade, or handle the spring saturation much better, and because they’re found in such close proximity, they likely even pull different nutrients from the soil. This would mean that they’re not in competition at all, but complementary, fitting within their own little niches. Also remember that we humans, as big and advanced as we are, remain in constant battles with insignificant little bacteria.

AlmondLast spring while preparing the mulch pile for use in the garden, I spotted a small sapling that had erupted from the rich soil, and in removing it I found it was actually an almond tree (Prunus amygdalus.) I have no idea when we tossed out an almond – they’re popular enough around the house that they get eaten quickly, unless they’re in questionable condition – but I tried transplanting it into the yard anyway. This isn’t really the climate for almonds, so I wasn’t expecting much, but what the hey. It grew about three times its height over the summer, never really appearing to thrive, and in the fall some visiting deer stripped all of the leaves from it. Yet today there appear to be new buds, so we’ll have to see what happens. It’s already weathered several days of sub-freezing temperatures, a light snowfall, and a freezing rain storm, plus last summer’s heat wave, so it’s not likely to see worse. The biggest challenge might be that under ten centimeters of topsoil sits Carolina orange clay, and if almonds don’t like that kind of substrate it’s not going to get very big.

AgainstI was surprised to see a caterpillar on the rosemary plant (Rosmarinus officinalis) – it was too big to have hatched this year, so it would have come through the winter. After a few pics, however, I nudged it to try and get it into a better position, and it simply collapsed and discharged a copious amount of brown goo. Ah. I guess it didn’t come through the winter after all. Whether a late hatching or an unlucky forager, my photo subject here failed to pupate in a reasonable time frame and probably got caught in one of the cold spells.

I was also lucky enough to find two of my good buddies, American five-lined skinks (Eumeces fasciatus,) sometimes considered blue-tailed skinks for reasons that will become obvious. But this is the issue with common names, since it is shared with at least two species in North America and one in Australia, and I think one in Africa – that’s part of the reason I always try to give the scientific names, which required a bit of web-fu to provide those flower names up top. Many different reptiles have the ability to quickly detach their tails if danger threatens, and since the tail is often brightly-colored and reflexively thrashes about, it draws the attention of the predator while the reptile scampers to safety. And like many species that can lose limbs to escape predation, the tails can grow back relatively quickly, within a few months in this case. I managed not to provoke this behavior while capturing this one, possibly because I had unearthed it under a plastic ground cover and it was still sluggish, not yet ready for the warmer seasons. This allowed me to photograph it in my palm, giving some sense of scale.
This is a juvenile; the adults will lose most of the tail coloration (though not the ability to drop it) and will start displaying the sexual variation in coloring. Thus, the same species is often considered a red-headed skink once it’s larger, if it’s a male. And then, there is an overlap in range with the southeastern five-lined skink (Eumeces inexpectatus) which is almost identical, so actually knowing just what the hell you’ve captured is tricky. If someone corrects me, I’ll go with their expertise, which is the cue for anyone to come along and just start messing with my head.

Actually, it would appear that I’m celebrating Linnaeus day too…

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