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Parting Words

Sex Changes, Beheadings and Resurrection If you look carefully, you can see just about anything while walking across campus. t only takes me a few minutes to walk to my office in Anderson Biological Labs from Baker College, where I live as a resident associate. Although I make this walk every day, on occasion I like to take my time and appreciate the natural side of campus. Take this morning, for instance. It’s early February, and yesterday’s steady rain has left the morning air feeling refreshingly warm and moist. Around the new wing of Baker College, I notice that the azaleas were starting to bloom. The unusually mild temperatures we’ve been experiencing have tricked these plants into thinking spring is here. Although a pretty sight, it’s hard for me to fully enjoy. Early blooming can be devastating to a plant if the insects that pollinate them don’t appear until later. Beneath the shrubs is a colorful mosaic of fallen flowers. A jet-black roly-poly emerges from the moist soil and walks across a pink petal. I gently pick it up and flip it onto its back, exposing seven pairs of tiny legs that wiggle in protest. It’s large enough to see the white scales that form a straight line down the middle of its belly, identifying it as a female. Or, is it? This species is host to bacteria called Wolbachia that cause males to develop into females. This is not a coincidence — the bacteria can only be passed from females to their offspring, so from the bacteria’s perspective, males are useless. A male that turns into a female, on the other hand, is an opportunity for the bacteria to spread. Crossing the Inner Loop, I notice that fire ant mounds are popping up in the grass, another result of yesterday’s rain. I cut across the grass to take a closer look at one of the mounds, where someone recently stepped. The worker ants are running about, releasing an invisible alarm pheromone to warn their nestmates of the intrusion. This pheromone has attracted an unexpected visitor — a tiny fly, hovering menacingly above the ants. This particular fly, a phorid, lays its eggs inside the bodies of worker ants, where they develop and grow until eventually emerging and decapitating the ant. These flies were brought from Argentina to control the spread of fire ants, an invasive species also from Argentina. The tiny fly darts between two ants, then suddenly descends and taps one of them. That ant’s days are now numbered. Continuing north, I pass the hedges that surround the Brochstein

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Pavilion. The thin, erect stalks have been neatly trimmed, but they are still recognizable as horsetails, one of the few living species from an ancient group of plants that dominated the planet 300 million years ago. The extinct cousins of these modest plants were massive trees that died, decomposed, and became coal and oil — the “fossil” part of fossil fuels. To my right, I see the Chinese elm trees in front of Fondren Library have lost their leaves for winter, but one tree has a few clumps of bright green in its crown. I wonder if the couple sitting at the table beneath it realize that it’s mistletoe. More than just a holiday decoration, mistletoe is actually a parasite. It grows on trees, penetrating their branches and taking up nutrients — not very romantic when you think about it. Crossing the Inner Loop once again, I notice that the canopy formed by the beautiful live oak trees literally turned green overnight. Their branches are covered with resurrection ferns, whose fronds were brown and withered just yesterday. When the rains come, this remarkable plant quickly absorbs the moisture and springs back to life. Unlike the mistletoe, resurrection ferns don’t damage the trees they grow on. Neither do the clumps of ball moss that are everywhere on these trees. They make good hiding places for insects, which is probably why, as I approach my office door, I notice a blue jay picking so intently through one that has fallen to the ground. Blue jays are yearround campus residents, but many new birds will soon be arriving on campus, stopping briefly along their long spring migration north from the tropics. It will be fun to keep an eye out in the next few months for unusual sightings. The blue jay is quickly chased away by a gray squirrel, probably defending its food cache. Given the blanket of acorns covering the ground, it’s hard to imagine that the squirrels are short on food this year. They are what remain of a massive pulse of acorn production last year, known as a mast. The exact cause is somewhat of a mystery, though some suggest it is the oak trees’ response to a negative change in local conditions — in this case, severe drought. The drought is predicted to continue, but this morning the campus trees and wildlife seem to be enjoying the rain. I don’t mind having to wipe a little mud off my shoes before stepping into my office. It’s a small price to pay for having a nature walk along my morning commute. —Scott Solomon

Rice Magazine - Spring 2013  

The Magazine of Rice University

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