Wild Ideas: Chestnut restoration, dog origins and more

With the return of rain this weekend, I decided to spend some time inside catching up on the nature news that has been landing in my email inbox for the last couple of weeks. The stories that caught my eye were about chestnut restoration, the origin of domestic dogs and a mantis named for a justice of the Supreme Court, along with some nature walks in our area.

Saving the American chestnut

The May issue of “Broad Run Lifestyle Magazine” has an article about the efforts of the American Chestnut Foundation to restore the iconic American chestnut tree after a blight all but wiped out mature trees almost a century ago. Although the roots have some resistance to the blight, the blight causes cankers that girdle trunks and stems, keeping the tree from thriving and reproducing in most cases.

Restoration has focused on crossing the American tree with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts to produce a hybrid that is only one-sixteenth of the latter. This extensive volunteer effort entails, among other activities, planting test stands of chestnuts and hand pollinating trees. The article features Hume lawyer and passionate volunteer conservationist Cathy Mayes, who is the president of the Virginia Chapter of TACF and has served on the boards of other nonprofit conservation organizations.

From ‘Science’ magazine

When and where did wolves become domesticated into being our canine companions?Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
When and where did wolves become domesticated into being our canine companions?

Science” is one of the best known and most respected science journals. Fortunately, for those of us without a PhD in biology, on its website it also provides well-written translations of the often-arcane research papers published in the journal and elsewhere. The subjects of some of the articles recently have made their way into the popular media, especially those on the effects of cell-phone radiation on their users and the discovery of a bacterial “superbug.” But I found a couple of interesting ones published online on June 3 that may have slipped under most people’s radar.

Domesticating canines: It’s well documented that our canine pals descended from wolves, but where did the domestication occur and when? According to one of the articles, researchers studying dogs’ genes found that domestication occurred at different times and locations.

To determine the origin of Canus familiarus, more than two dozen researchers generated genetic sequences from 59 ancient dogs and a complete genome of a late Neolithic dog from Ireland — the first study to be published that includes the genome of such an ancient dog. The genes of the dogs tested indicated that humans domesticated dogs in Asia more than 14,000 years ago, and that a small subset of these animals eventually migrated west through Eurasia, “probably with people.”

This implies that all modern dogs, as well as the Neolithic dog, can trace their ancestry back to Asia, according to the article. The European branch of the domestic canine’s family tree apparently hit a genetic dead end, and “has mostly vanished from today’s dogs.” Though not conclusive, the study’s findings “could resolve a rift that has roiled the canine origins community.”

Llomantis ginsburgae, is a newly identified species of leaf-dwelling praying mantis named after US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRick Wherley/Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Llomantis ginsburgae, is a newly identified species of leaf-dwelling praying mantis named after US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Insect taxonomy breaks the gender barrier: I was really intrigued by the title of the other “Science” article: “Mantis named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg may usher in new way to classify insects.” Scientists have traditionally used the genitalia of male insects to classify their species because the males’ is “wider and more easily observed,” according to the article. (I’m sure the fact that the system was mostly developed by male humans has nothing to do with this.)

But now, finally, gender equality may have come to insect taxonomy. Referring to a study in the journal “Insect Systematics & Evolution,” the article says a new species of praying mantis has been identified, for the first time, on the basis of female genitalia. This leaf-dwelling mantis from Madagascar has been dubbed Ilomantis ginsburgae in honor of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “a strong supporter of gender equality and a regular wearer of jabot collars, which resemble the neck plate of the insect,” according to the article. “The scientists hope that this new identification will help make species classification easier by increasing the number of possible ways to differentiate bugs.”

© 2016 Pam Owen

Upcoming nature events

“Get Your Kids Hiking” (June 18 and July 16, 11-noon): The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and what better way to honor our parks than to introduce the next generation to the natural treasure at our doorsteps:. Shenandoah National Park. The park and the Shenandoah National Park Association host Jeff Alt, author of “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep It Fun” for a program “that will inspire families to enjoy and care for nature and the outdoors,” according to the park’s website.

Alt teams up with rangers to lead kids and accompanying adults on a short hike “loaded with hands-on family hiking tips and ways to explore the outdoors.” The program starts at the Byrd Visitor Center; the park entrance fee applies. For more information, go online to tinyurl.com/wi-kidhike or call Tim Taglauer at 540-999-3500, ext. 3488. Shenandoah also offers daily ranger-led programs throughout the park through Sept. 6. For more information on park programs, go to nps.gov/shen and click on “Plan Your Visit.”

PEC pollinator walk at Jones Nature Preserve (June 23, 2-4:30 p.m.): The Piedmont Environmental Council hosts the second in a series of three walks on the types of plants and habitat needed to support pollinators, common and imperiled insect pollinators and their life histories, and current issues in pollinator conservation. “The series aims to highlight the importance of providing habitat throughout pollinator species’ entire life cycles,” according to PEC’s website. The event, at Jones Nature Preserve, near the town of Washington, is free, but registration is required. For more information or to register, go to the website.

“Gardening for Birds” (July 12, 6 p.m.): Learn about the essentials for attracting birds to your garden — food, water, shelter and a place to nest — from extension master gardener and master naturalist Peggy Schochet, and master naturalist Peggy Kenney. Find out what plants will feed and shelter birds as well as the best garden layout to attract them. At Rady Park (725 Fauquier Road, Warrenton). Free. RSVP to the Fauquier County Master Gardener help desk at 540-341-7950 ext. 1 or email helpdesk@fc-mg.org.

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