Where to find "Wild Ideas"

Now in Rappahannock Media publications, including
Rappahannock News 

See more Wild Ideas at Pam Owen's blog: 

Funny, personal, based on science, and specific to Virginia, this nature column is written by native Virginian Pam Owen, a journalist and photojournalist, Virginia Master Naturalist, and lifelong conservationist. “Wild Ideas” focuses on nature outside our doors as it unfolds throughout the year. From backyards to public lands, the column reveals the complexities of our local ecosystems and the lives of the plants and animals that dwell in them..

A Taste of Wild Ideas

Get Along, Little Larvae

November 28, 2013
An ant watches over treehopper larvae (small and black), some of which have just morphed into adults that look like mottled-brown leaf fragments. Treehoppers lay their eggs communally, so the young in one nursery can be in various life stages. Photo by Pam Owen.   Most of us grow up thinking that animals either eat or ignore each other, but close observation reveals much more complex relationships, such as symbiosis, the long-term relationship of species that have evolved to live together.

Symbiosis can take several forms, depending on the costs and benefits for each species: With parasitism, one species benefits to the detriment of the other; with commensalism, one species benefits with no apparent benefit or detriment to the other; and with mutualism, both species benefit. These relationships can occur within or between kingdoms, such as between plants and animals, and some species can take on more than one symbiotic role in the course of their lives. 

A well-known — but not completely understood — example of symbiosis in humans is our relationship with the microbes in our intestines. We have a mutualistic relationship with some, which help us process our food; other microbes and larger organisms living there may benefit from the food we provide but make us sick. New research is showing that the kind of microbes we have in our guts can go way beyond breaking down food and actually affect brain function. One insect family — ants, of which there are more than 14,000 species — demonstrates all three forms of symbiosis. Leafcutter ants, for example, cut and process leaves that they bring to their nests to serve as a medium to grow fungus in “gardens.” New queens carry some residual fungus in a pocket in their bodies so they can start their own gardens.

In this mutualistic relationship, the ants help the fungus survive and spread, and the ants get nutrition from eating the resulting “crop.” This two-step farming strategy seems pretty complex for an insect with a decentralized nervous system, but somehow it got hard-wired into the genes of leafcutter ants millions of years ago.

Some ants grow insects that are to the ants what milk cows are to us. Aphids are the best example of these “livestock.” Instead of producing milk, they excrete a sugary substance known as honeydew through readily accessible tubes on their backs. The ants stroke the aphids to “milk” them for the honeydew. More...

Identifying the Fungus Among Us

November 10, 2011 

As much as I’ve always loved nature, I’ve managed to passively avoid whole chunks of natural history—fungi, for example, although I’ve been intrigued by mushrooms since I was a kid. 

I knew toads didn’t actually sit on toadstools (hookah-smoking caterpillars did that), but I did seem to find an awful lot of toadlets under mushrooms with the classic umbrella shape. Maybe they were feeding on invertebrates that were in turn feeding on the fungi, or maybe they were just getting shelter from weather or predators. I love amphibians, so mushrooms became intriguing—along with their funky look and smell and the fact that they loved dark, damp places.

Maybe my failure to learn more about mushrooms when, as an adult, I decided to devote more time to learning about nature can be chalked up to the fact that I’m somewhat indifferent about eating fungi. While I’ve had some incredible meals that involve mushrooms and I’ve have been lured into fruitless searches for merkels by obsessed friends, left to my own devices I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat any fungus. More...

Parasol Mushroom gills Parasol Mushroom top 

Parasol Mushroom button 
A Parasol Mushroom when it first emerges as a button (above right), the cap from underneath in maturity, showing its spore-carrying gills (above left), and the cap from above (below left). Photos by Pam Owen.

North American Raccoon: The Tactile Masked Bandit

February 3, 2011

Photo by Darkone..(Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.)

Sterling North, in his 1963 Newbery-award-winning book Rascal, humorously details his adventures with his eponymous pet raccoon in Wisconsin in 1918. When North was eleven, he raided a raccoon nest in a tree cavity, where raccoons usually have their young (kits). The kit North captured became his favorite companion, sharing adventures and sleeping in his bed.

The North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) is smart, curious, bold, omnivorous, and opportunistic—like a small bear in a mask. Our relationship with them has been a conflicted one. We’ve been captivated by the raccoon’s antics, confounded by some of its behavior and annoyed at its skillful thievery. Not only have we captured and kept them as pets, we’ve hunted them for their fur and meat, and for sport, and we’ve waged war against them because they eat our food, invade our homes, and share our susceptibility to rabies. More... 
Goatsucker in Flight on a Warm Spring Night: The Common Nighthawk

January 27, 2011

A recent question about the name of my company, Nighthawk Communications, brought to mind hot summer nights in Wyoming and one warm, damp spring evening here in Rappahannock County.

That evening in Rappahannock, as I was walking my dog through a meadow where I lived, I saw a vague silhouette careening through the sky in the twilight. Because of its size, I thought at first it was a small hawk. However, not only was it late in the day for those diurnal hunters, the flight pattern and wing outline were all wrong, too. The wings formed a crescent and, when the bird finally swooped over my head, I saw in the dying light a dim flash of white bars on the underside of the wings, which clinched the identification — a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).

I could hardly believe my eyes. After all these years of being away from the Northern Plains and leaving that life behind, I suddenly felt the two worlds were joined in the flight of this interesting bird. 

In the early 1980s, after I’d moved from Virginia to Montana and then Wyoming, I joined with a graphic artist to form a company that offered photography, graphics and writing. As my partner and I were both night creatures and offered quick turnaround to clients, often working all night, we wanted a name that would put that message across and also root us in Wyoming. More...

 Common Nighthawk in flight
Reproduction of a painting of the Common Nighthawk in flight. By Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service.