Wild Ideas: Pollen, hashtags and spies in the wild   

The approaching pollen season, a Twitter hashtag for actual living scientists and an amazing miniseries on PBS’ “Nature” attracted my attention recently.

Pollen on the way?

Pollen season is almost upon us and, thanks to the relatively warm winter, may arrive sooner than expected. The culprits spewing what, for some of us, is an annoying allergen are members of the juniper family. This is the only tree pollen I seem to be allergic to, and it creeps up on me most years, being the last thing on my mind when I stare out at the bare winter landscape.

Eastern red cedar is among the first tree species to pollinate, dispersing pollen by wind. By Pam Owen

Only three juniper species are native to Virginia. One, the common juniper (Juniperus communis), is indeed the most common juniper in the world. But the range of this cold-loving plant extends only down to just north of Rappahannock County, so not likely to be a problem for me at home. Another juniper, the Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), grows only in the southeast coastal area of Virginia, so also not a problem.

The junipers that do cause problems are the nonnative ones used extensively for landscaping, as in the Fairfax County suburbs I grew up in, and the third native one, eastern redcedar (Juniperus  virginiana). Ubiquitous throughout Virginia, it is one of the first woody plants to take hold in disturbed open land, such as fallow pastures, forest and road edges, and medians. I noticed a bumper crop in the median of Rt. 211 just west of Warrenton as I was driving the other day.

Rather than having flowers that produce pollen, the eastern redcedar has tiny cones. The female cone is only about a quarter inch long, at most, with a waxy, bluish outer coating that makes it resemble a berry. The male cone, which holds the pollen, is about half the size of the female’s. Males release their pollen into wind, which carries it to females, starting in mid- to late February. In relatively warm winters, such as this year’s (so far), they can begin sooner. Also carried on the wind during mild weather is leaf mold, mixing in to give me a double shot of allergens.

While I dread redcedar’s pollen season, enduring it is eased by knowing its “berries” give gin its characteristic flavor, and I do like martinis, and gin and tonics. And, as the Virginia Department of Forestry’s book “Common Native Trees of Virginia” notes, the redcedar’s berries are also a favorite food of many birds, including waxwings and bobwhite quail, and its dense foliage provides excellent roosting and nesting cover for birds. The foliage also serves as emergency winter food for deer.

An inspiring Twitter hashtag

On a happier note, I discovered a wonderful hashtag in my Twitter feed recently: #actuallylivingscientist. I usually don’t get into social media much, mainly because it can be a huge time suck, but with all that has been going on politically recently, I’ve dived back in to see where the country stands. This hashtag is refreshingly upbeat for anyone who enjoys and supports science and scientists. It provides a sort of “meet the scientist” meme, in 240 characters or less, often with accompanying photos or videos. With unsettling news creeping into even my nature feeds, I find just putting in the hashtag, as I did on Feb. 5, brings up a happy crop of tweets, such as from . . .

  • Katey Duffey ‏@UnciaKate: “I collect snow leopard scat for DNA & bacteria analysis, often while singing camp songs or something from The Hobbit #actuallivingscientist”
  • Christian Kammerer (‏@Synapsida): “Hello, I’m Christian, a paleontologist studying mass extinctions and the ancestors of mammals. #actuallivingscientist #fossils”
  • Amina Yonis (‏@IAmInAPlace): Hi, my name is Amina and I’m an #actuallivingscientist. I study the effect of cortical proteins on cell division & cancer. #DressLikeAWoman”
  • Anne Hilborn (‏@AnneWHilborn): “I am an #actuallivingscientist. I pick up cheetah poop. Sometimes I drop it on myself. #DressLikeAWoman #distractinglysexy”
  • Jaydeep Sidhaye ‏@jsidhaye: “I am Jaydeep, an #actuallivingscientist at @mpicbg. Using zebrafish, I am studying how organs form in the body. Here is a sneak peek. [includes a video]

“Spy in the Wild”

Another mental pick-me-up recently was the start of an amazing five-part miniseries, “Spy in the Wild” on PBS (Wednesdays, 8 p.m.), part of the long-running, always always-educational and entertaining “Nature” series. This new miniseries features footage from more than 30 animatronic spy cameras disguised as animals that were sent into mammal social groups to secretly record their behavior in the wild.

An orangutan in Borneo inspecting Spy Orangutan in program 2, “Intelligence,” of the “Spy in the Wild” miniseries on PBS. By Stephen J. Downer/© John Downer Productions

Other cameras were used to give full coverage of the animals, including recording their interaction with the “Spy Creatures.” Through the eyes of the animal spycams and the other cameras, we get an intimate look into the lives of the animals, from chimps to elephants and prairie dogs. They exhibit a range of emotions and behaviors that should be all too familiar to us Homo sapiens, from curiosity to empathy. In some cases, the animals treat the realistic Spy Creatures — which can move and broadcast actual recorded sounds of the species they infiltrate — as toys, pets or even members of their species. As the “Nature” website puts it, the Spy Creatures “explore the rarely seen emotions of animals,” revealing whether they are “as strong and complex as our own.” In one instance the animals seem to mourn one of the Spy Creatures when it “dies.”

When a protective crocodile mother being spied on by Spy Croc Hatchling carried her recently hatched young to water, she also brought along the spy cam, in program 1, “Love,” of the “Spy in the Wild” miniseries on PBS. By Stephen J. Downer/© John Downer Productions

The first show, on love, was inspiring and should convince anyone that animals have emotional lives. Other shows focus on intelligence, friendship and bad behavior. On Mar. 1, the series concludes with an episode on the “Spy Creatures” themselves, which include an animatronic orangutan, croc hatchling, meerkat, egret, tortoise, prairie dog, macaw, sloth, cobra, bushbaby, squirrel, adelie penguin and baby hippo.

A troop of langur monkeys in India looking at Spy Langur (on the log) in program 1, “Love,” of the “Spy in the Wild” miniseries on PBS. By Matthew Gordon/© John Downer Productions

All the episodes can be streamed from the Nature website after they have aired.





Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”