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On the Trails: Where curiosity can lead ...

Posted: April 12, 2013 - 12:02am
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Male midges have plumose antennae loaded with sense organs, so they can find females and mating opportunities. In contrast, female midges have simple, slender antennae.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Male midges have plumose antennae loaded with sense organs, so they can find females and mating opportunities. In contrast, female midges have simple, slender antennae.

Remember Kipling’ story about the Elephant Child and how his ‘satiable curiosity kept getting him into trouble with other animals? The Child asked so many questions, of so many different animals, and the impatient adult animals would just spank him. But the Child persisted, eventually asking a crocodile what it had for dinner. Invited to come closer, the Child got his nose grabbed by the crocodile. When the Bicoloured Python Rock Snake helped pull the Child to safety and the crocodile finally let go, the Child’s nose was “badly out of shape!” When the Child protested about his new, long nose, the Bicoloured Python Rock Snake told him that “some people don’t know what is good for them.” And that’s how the elephant got its trunk!

For better or for worse, some humans share the Elephant Child’s ‘satiable curiosity. Readers of these On the Trails essays often ask me where the ideas for the essays come from. Well, there are several sources: sometimes something I’ve read, or something someone observed, or something I’ve dredged up out of my past research. And sometimes, the idea starts with a simple observation that leads to more observations, some literature searching, and eventually there is a chain of curiosity-driven questions and, if I’m lucky, answers.

Here is a simple, recent example:

Swans were back in the Mendenhall River by late March. They were feeding in the shallows, pulling up great gobbets of vegetation. Curious about what that vegetation might be, the observer took a sample to a local expert on algae, who opined that it was a filamentous green alga and gave it a name. Having a name allowed us to do a little digging on the internet and in the literature. What would have been most useful would be information on nutritional value, who else eats it, season of availability, and so on. Alas, in this case, we couldn’t find much that was useful for present purposes. So that lead petered out.

However, among the algal filaments were tiny insect larvae that looked like midges. So a local expert on aquatic insects was invited to take a look. On the edges of the ice were hundreds of cast-off “skins” of midge larvae. That told us that some of the midge larvae had been transforming into flying adults and emerged from the water into the air to look for mates.

Searching the surface of the snow, we found a number of crumpled, dead midges. There was no way to tell if they had completed their reproductive mission or died before they could mate. Eventually, we spotted a living female with thin antennae, crawling slowly over the snow. Shortly thereafter, we found a male, with fluffy, plumose antennae full of sense organs for finding females.

Having the adults in hand, it became possible to get more specific identifications. So a photo of an adult midge was sent to a national midge expert. Getting specific IDs of insects very often depends on microscopic examination of tiny body parts and the distribution of minute hairs, so from a photo alone we couldn’t expect to get a species’ name. We did, however, learn the name of the group to which these midges belong, and that allowed us to dig up a little information about them.

They are non-biting midges, occurring in many aquatic habitats around the world. The aquatic larvae of most of the species in this group eat decaying leaves that fall into streams or pools. They can be important decomposers of vegetation, thus contributing to nutrients available in the stream. A study on a small rainforest stream in British Columbia found that the midges decomposed alder leaves faster than cedar leaves, and that cedar was decomposed faster when alder leaves were also present.

While wading in the shallows for another algae sample, we noted that the mud was covered with duck footprints, probably made by mallards. The mallards may have been feeding on the algae, but it was likely that they were also preying on midges, which were struggling out of their larval skins at the time.

Thus, starting with swans, the chain of curiosity-driven inquiry led to algae, thence to midges and their role in stream ecology, and to mallard foraging. And that’s how it goes; one thing leads to another. No doubt the chain could be extended still further! Sometimes our own ‘satiable curiosity may get us into trouble, like the Elephant’s Child, but most of the time we can have a lot of fun (without getting our noses pulled out of shape!).

Sometimes, we may even know what is good for us …

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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