Cambrian Explosion

Zacanthoides grabaui
From the Spence Shale
in the Wellsville Mountains
Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Paul Jamison

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

A remarkable period in Earth’s history took place about 525 to 545 million years ago. We know about it, because essentially all the basic body plans of all the major animal phyla suddenly appear in the fossil record. We see brachiopods, trilobites, mollusks, echinoderms and many other hard shell creatures for the first time. We also see the appearance and diversification of different types of soft-bodied creatures. This bio-geologic period is called the “Cambrian Explosion.”

Occurring over the course of 20 million years, it wasn’t exactly an explosion in the sense that the Big Bang was an explosion. But, never before, and never since, has there been such a dramatic emergence of animal diversity and diverse animal phyla. It’s the single most significant evolutionary transition period seen in the fossil record.

To pay homage to this early flowering of complex life forms, you can visit a site near Burgess Pass in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park. The rock here, known as Burgess Shale, contains one of the most diverse and well-preserved fossil records ever found of the Cambrian Period. The dominant fossils are arthropods but others are also found in great abundance such as worms, crinoids, sea cucumbers , and chordates. The Burgess shale contains fossils of soft bodied animals as well as those with hard parts. Soft bodied fossils are extremely rare. When an organism is completely soft, the body usually rots away before it can become fossilized. It is likely that the Burgess animals were buried quickly by a mudslide and their soft parts immediately preserved in oxygen-free conditions.

Another famous site where evidence of the Explosion is clearly seen is in the Yunning Province of China. The Chengjiang Fossils also provide stunning evidence of the Cambrian explosion. The hard and soft body fossils here are even 5 to 10 million years younger than the Burgess Shale.

In all there are about 40 other sites around the world with fossils as well-preserved as the Burgess shale. And three of these sites are in Utah. In Millard County, Wheeler Shale and the overlying Marjum Formation, are exposed throughout the House Range and nearby mountain ranges west of the town of Delta, Utah. Certain layers of the Wheeler Shale contain abundant trilobites and other shelly fossils. The Wheeler Shale and Marjum Formation also contain a diverse collection of soft-bodied fossils, including many of the same taxa found in the famous Burgess Shale.

Other sites with Burgess shale type preservation include the Weeks formation also in the House Range and Spence Shale in the Wellsville Mountains west of Logan.

Utah’s Cambrian fossils can be found in museums around the world. For information on where to see them in Utah, check our website, wildaboututah.org.

Thanks to Paul Jamison and Val Gunther for providing expertise on Utah Cambrian fossils.
And thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development for today’s program.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Paul Jamison

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

How to see Utah Cambrian fossils:

In Utah

University of Utah, College of Mines and Earth Sciences
135 South, 1460 East, Rm. 209, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112
Phone (801) 581-7209; Fax (801) 581-5560

Museum of Natural History in Brigham City (call 435.723.6420 for an appointment)
Thanksgiving Point The North American Museum of Ancient Life http://thanksgivingpoint.org/experience/museum-of-ancient-life/

On the web

University of Kansas Natural History Museum http://www.kumip.ku.edu/cambrianlife/Utah-Online-Fossil-Exhibits&Collections.html

The Virtual Fossil Museum
http://www.fossilmuseum.net/Fossil_Sites/House-Range.htm

University of Utah, College of Mines and Earth Sciences Fossil page
http://www.mines.utah.edu/geo/utahfossil/

Sources & Additional Reading

Hagadorn, J.W., 2002, Burgess Shale-type localities: The global picture, in Bottjer, D.J., et al., eds.,Exceptional Fossil Preservation: A Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life: Columbia University Press, New York, p. 91-116.

Marshall, Charles R. 2006. Explaining the Cambrian “Explosion” of Animals. Annual Review Earth Planet Science. Vol 34: 355-384,

Interesting Reading:

Paul Jamison ’82 Collects Fossils on behalf of Art and Science, Utah State Magazine, Summer 2006, Vol 12 No.2,
http://www.utahstate.usu.edu/issues/summer06/jamison1.htm

Snow Fleas

Snow Fleas, Bridgerland Audubon Amalga Barrens Sanctuary
Copyright © 2008 & Courtesy: Jim Cane
Bridgerland Audubon Society

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Now, in the waning days of winter, you can see Nature’s winter flea circus perform. Look for warm snow surfaces that are peppered by tiny black flecks that resemble a parenthesis on your 1040 form. Bend down to regard these flecks carefully, or scoop some up. If they move, then you are likely eye to eye with snow fleas.

Fear not, for they aren’t really fleas at all. They aren’t even insects! Snowfleas belong to the order Collembola, the springtails, closest relatives to the insects. Springtails are so named for a fork-shaped appendage, the furcula, folded beneath the abdomen. The animal can snap its furcula open like a barrette clasp, catapulting the wee creature several inches forward through the air.

Springtails are rarely noticed, but it’s worth seeing their miniscule acrobatics. It helps to have something white against which to view them. The white warmed surface of the late-winter snowpack provides one opportunity. Or you can often see springtails by placing a white card on the needle duff of a conifer forest floor, where springtails help decompose fallen needles.

Atop the snow, snowfleas apparently graze for algae and fungal spores, but really, how would anyone know? In turn, are there wee predators from which snowfleas must, well, “flee” in this chilly habitat?

Snowfleas aren’t social, but they sure can be numerous. Last March, the manager of Bridgerland Audubon’s Barrens Sanctuary estimated a population of some 8 billion snowfleas springing about just within the confines of their 140 acre reserve.

With those kinds of numbers, pets and Utahns everywhere can be grateful that snowfleas really aren’t true fleas, leaving us to enjoy the pleasure of tromping around on a sunny winter’s day.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Jim Cane

Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

Edible antifreeze promises perfect ice cream, Tom Simonite, 11 January 2008, New Scientist
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13178

Beneficial/Neutral Insects, University of Minnesota Extension Service, http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/EntWeb/Galleries/outdoor/beneficial/snowflea.html

Snow Flea, Study of Northern Virginia Ecology, Island Creek Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/snow_flea.htm

Boxelder Bug Poetry

Boxelder Bugs
Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Bill Holm, author, poet and essayist from Minnesota, died last week. He wrote and taught in the English department at Southwest Minnesota State University for 27 years. Why I do I mention this on a program about Utah nature? Because through his writing, he helped me come to terms with one aspect of Utah nature that I found troublesome at first —the ubiquitous and abundant boxelder bug.

“My boxelder bugs have odd preferences,” Holm wrote “They love radio dials, phonograph speakers, amplifiers, pianos, and harpsichords. Some would argue that this is because of the warmth and vibrations, but I prefer to think it is because of their taste for Bach and Vivaldi.”

The red and white bugs are essentially harmless. They might stain walls or carpets if you squish them. However, they are annoying primarily because they enter homes and other buildings in large numbers. Once in, they’ll find their way into your personal effects. Like your hair or your toothbrush or the glass of water you keep on the bedside table.

After hearing me go on a boxelder bug rant, a friend gave me Holm’s book Boxelder Bug Variations: A meditation of an idea in language and music. It changed my attitude toward with household invaders, as now I think of them as poetic. Maybe if I read a few verses, you will feel the same:
First, a boxelder bug prayer:

I want so little
For so little time
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny,
Forgive me only
For being so many.

In this one, Holm describes a method for disposing boxelder bugs:

Take two bricks.
Creep deliberately up
Behind the boxelder bug,
Being careful not to sing—
This will alert him.
In a graceful flowing gesture,
Something like a golf swing
Or reaching for your lover in the dark,
Gather up the boxelder bug
On the surface of the left brick
Bringing the right brick
At the same time firmly down
Together with the left brick.
There will be a loud crashing,
Like broken cymbals,
Maybe a breaking of brick, and
If you are not careful,
Your own voice rising.
When the brick dust has settled
And you have examined your own hands,
Carefully,
You will not see the boxelder bug,
There is a small hole in the brick
And he is exploring it,
Calmly, like a millionaire
In an antique shop.

And finally, three boxelder bug haiku:

(1) Careful if you kill him!
There may be an afterlife
For both of you.
(2) Those black spots in your lamp?
Only bugs who didn’t make it
Into the next world.

And finally…

(3) The piano string stops trembling
But boxelder bugs
Keep dancing.

Thanks to Jen Levy for introducing me to boxelder bug poetry, and to Milkweed Editions for permission to reproduce Bill Holm’s work.

The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation supports research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music, Holm, Bill, 1985, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions http://www.milkweed.org/

Boxelder Bugs Fact Sheet, Erin Hodgson, Alan H. Roe, USU Cooperative Extension:
http://extension.usu.edu/files/factsheets/boxelder.pdf

Men’s Hair and the Male House Finch

Male House Finch

Male House Finch

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

A man’s vanity is nowhere more apparent than for the hair atop his head. As men age, their hair may whiten, thin or disappear. As a remedy, some men use dyes or hair growth potions.

But imagine this: What if the right food alone could restore the virile dark hair of youth?

There is a common songbird at your birdfeeder this winter that can do just this. It is the male house finch.

[House Finch Call – #3 Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

As with many songbirds, the female house finch is drab compared to the brightly colored male. He sports a showy brow and bib in colors that range from tomato red to orange to straw yellow. Like the tomato and carrot, these colors come from pigments called carotenoids. All birds with red feathers get these carotenoid pigments from their diet, ultimately from the plants that can produce them.

What does the red feather color mean for the house finch?

The ornathologist Geof Hill of Auburn University experimentally altered head feather colors of male house finches. To make red-headed males into carrot tops, Jeff used peroxide. Red hair die achieved the opposite transformation. He then let the guys compete for the attentions of females.

Jeff’s experiments demonstrated that plumage does make the male. The redder the male’s head, the higher his place in the pecking order. And the more females that he could attract. Conversely, redheads lost rank after bleaching. Among male house finches, blondes really don’t have more fun.

So now you can predict the likely winners and losers in the mating game from just a glance at the male house finches at your seed feeder. As is common in science, this discovery leads to new questions: What food makes the male’s head feathers red? Is it some red fruit or berry? Why do some males manage to get more carotenoid pigments than others? Do they instinctively know the right seed or fruit to eat? We humans must get our carotenoids from plant sources too, such as the carotine that we transform into Vitamin A for night vision. The produce aisle at the grocery store might be a much different place though if the right fruit or vegetable could transform our hair color too.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

House Finch, Utah Bird Profile, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/HouseFinch.htm

A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch , Dr. Geoffrey, E. Hill, Oxford University Press, September 2002
ISBN-13: 9780195148480, http://search.barnesandnoble.com/BookSearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=l88eD6dCpP&isbn=0195148487&itm=2