How Do You See Nature Winners and Runners-Up

We were thrilled to see over 150 entries to the photo contest, and we thank all of those who shared their photographs with us.   Three winners were chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.  

Winners:

We’re also happy to honor six runners-up.  Christina Catanese and Anna Lehr Mueser comment on the runner-up photographs below.

Runners-up:

From Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art:
Lea Gooneratne-Riedi

Lea Gooneratne-Riedi

In the winter woods, we can often find evidence of animals in the landscape even when we can’t see them, and I love that this photo shows an example of that.  It implies a story – a bird, or many birds, going about their day in the snow.  The movement patterns are traceable to a certain degree, but are mixed and not linear, leaving us to wonder about the details of the story.  The framing of the picture doesn’t draw your eye to one focal point, but rather creates an intricate texture that it’s easy to get lost in viewing.  Seeing nature often means finding the unexpected in a landscape when you take a closer look, as in this case, the patterns unintentionally generated by feathered friends.
Judith Krasinski

Judith Krasinski

This scene induces a feeling of deep quiet, and the soft quality of the background gives the impression of freshly fallen snow.  The solitary figure, small in the landscape, makes me imagine myself in her position – being alone in the snowy woods, which is one of my favorite parts of winter.  Compositionally, the photo is also impressive.  The uniform colors and textures of the background offset the woman in the landscape; the brightness of the red coat and even the woman’s skin stand out against the white, branching woods.
Ann Kent

Ann Kent

The stark contrast of color in this photo – the deep blue and the bright white – and the sharp, clean lines seem to reference the harsher side of winter.  Winter isn’t always kind, especially to animals (and, indeed, people) that don’t have places to warm up in or readily available food.  There is also a feeling of unsettling displacement in this landscape.  It makes you wonder: what is the scale here, and where was this taken?  Still, I like the uncertainty about it, and its feeling of total emptiness – not even a footprint in sight – evokes beauty even in its bleakness.
From Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager:
Eric Smith

Eric Smith

The soft glow of this photograph draws us into the moment, emphasizing both the beauty of the winter and the deep cold of this season.  The photographer seems to have surprised the swan in this moment, capturing it as it withdraws one foot into warm feathers.  The bright white of the swan and the glowing orange of its beak are in stark contrast to the dull grey of ice.  Everything about this photograph speaks of the cold and of endurance, showing us what winter means.

 

Mitch Berger

Mitch Berger

The contrast of warm light and the soft colors of sunset pair beautifully in this photo with the cool blues of the snow and the dark lines of trees and stream.  Mitch Berger’s photo reminds me of the joy of discovering something unexpected and beautiful.  The sunlight lighting on the trees transforms the scene from beautiful to stunning, each detail vivid and alive, despite quite stillness of the image.

Gretel DeRuiter

Gretel DeRuiter

This remarkable photograph is at first hard to understand – the ice and frost are striking, the colors incredible, capturing the chilling cold of the season, yet one is at first thrown off by the image.  Where is this?  What is this?  When it becomes apparent that we are looking at a windshield, this image seems to resolve itself and we see the true brilliance of it.  This is not only how the photographer sees, pictures, photographs nature, this, ice on the car, is the nature all of us have lived with every day this winter.  I loved this photo because it perfectly located us within our environment and brought nature, even cold frosty nature, into the every day.

What does the toad say?

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer and Garden Coordinator, Gift Shop Manager

Pretty soon, we’ll be hearing a lot of what the toad says!  In early to mid- March we will start to hear the sound of the American Toad, Bufo Americanus, with its high pitched trill calling for a mate, as they do each spring.  Here in Roxborough, at the Schuylkill Center, we’ll be watching and listening during those early spring evenings.  When the evening temperature rises to 50 degrees and the ground is moist, the American Toads start to make their journey out of the woods of the Center and towards the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve.

It’s almost magical to see all these toads emerging from the woods.  They don’t usually travel until after the sun sets, when there may be fewer predators, and mostly on damp and rainy nights.  But when the toads do start to move, there are usually hundreds at a time.

What is it the toads see in this old abandoned reservoir, built in the late 1800’s?  Now known as the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, the site served for many years as a holding basin for drinking water for Philadelphia.  As times changed and engineering improved, the reservoir outlived its usefulness, at least as a storage area for drinking water.  It serves another very important function: a habitat for wildlife.  The shallowness of the basin is the perfect place for toads to come to find a mate and produce offspring!  After courtship, the adult toads return to the woods.  The steep, brick-lined walls of the reservoir are not an easy path for these small, but determined toads, but their instincts tell them that they must make this journey in order to survive.

It is a difficult journey from the woods across the street, dodging cars and moving up the steep slope to the reservoir, and then down the other side of the reservoir.  All this to reach the shallow waters where they will lay their eggs for the next generation of toads.

It will be 6 weeks or so before the tiny “toadlets”, as we affectionately call these creatures the size of your thumbnail, make their way across the road to a permanent home in the woods.  In the woods, they serve a very special function in keeping mosquitoes under control for humans!

The Toad Detour project started six years ago when a citizen noted that toads were getting squashed as they crossed back and forth via Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street on their way to and from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve.  This group of dedicated citizens applied for a permit from the Department of Streets to close the roads on evenings when there was significant movement of the toads.  The Schuylkill Center has taken over this volunteer project for the past three years.  On evenings from March through June, children and adults come out with flashlights to count toads and watch this phenomenon.   We place barricades so motorists will take a short detour around the other side of the reservoir, protecting this special toad population

So, what does the toad say?  Thank you very much for saving my life!

How does your community see nature?

These are just some of the many great photos submitted to the How Do You See Nature contest so far.

There is still time to share yours!  Send us a photo by February 27th.  Details are here.

How do you see nature? Schuylkill Center photo contest 2014

birch in snowIn celebration of the opening of Frost in the Environmental Art Gallery, the Schuylkill Center invites community members to send photos to our Winter 2014 Photo Contest.

Submit your winter photos by February 27!

More about Frost:

It is safe to say, this has been a winter of surprises, with temperatures plummeting well below what we usually expect for this region and snowfall far above.  This cold is actually at the heart of our upcoming exhibition, Frost.  We’re thrilled to welcome two Philadelphia artists to take on winter with a show that runs from February 15 – April 18.  Amie Potsic and Nancy Agati delve into the meaning of winter through a mixture of photography, sculpture, and drawing.  An opening reception on March 1 at 4 pm offers a chance for the public to see the artwork and meet the artists.

In winter, patterns emerge from the harsh relief of cold temperatures and heavy snow which illuminate the relationship between us and the changing environment we live in.  Potsic explains, “I find winter to be particularly seductive as it simultaneously highlights the stark beauty of our environment’s dormant cycle while hinting at the potential growth of spring.”  Agati’s work, exploring the ephemeral through use of natural materials, emphasizes the cyclical patterns of the natural world.  Agati writes eloquently about the details that are highlighted by winter: “Working in the studio while the snow falls – again. Linear patterns are further defined as I notice the stark contrast of branches against a pallid backdrop.”

Now, it’s your turn to be a part of it: Take your camera outdoors and capture this remarkable winter!

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Come out to the Opening Reception for Frost, on March 1 at 4 pm, to see photos submitted to the contest.  The three photo contest winners will each receive a special handmade Schuylkill Center mug.

Guidelines

The rules are simple:

      • The photo must have been taken this winter
      • The photo must be taken in the Philadelphia area
      • The photo must be outdoors or feature the outdoors
      • The photo must be your own creation and its publication may not violate the rights of any third party
      • Photos must be submitted by 5pm on February 27.

Please note:

  • No explicit or offensive photos.  The Schuylkill Center reserves the right to determine whether a photo is explicit or offensive.
  • By submitting a photo, you grant the Schuylkill Center non-exclusive rights to reproduce your image.  You maintain copyright and you will be credited.
  • Winners will be chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.

How to Submit a Photo:

We look forward to finding out how you see nature – submit a photo now!

Winter in the Forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Image

Winter provides a simplified, yet inspiring version of the forest we know so well in other seasons.  I welcome its cool, calm colors after many weeks of the unrelenting holiday glitz and chaotic pace.  In many ways, it is so much easier to proverbially, “see the forest for the trees” in this season.  Uncovering the beauty and details of this place during winter is magical.  Especially after a snow, the silence paired with the subdued greys and whites removes the sensory overload that can distract in other seasons.  Texture, pattern, and form come alive and draw us into the intricacy of our forest.

To me, winter presents a perfect time for observation and curiosity:  Many of our wildlife friends have retired or relocated for the season, although evidence suggests that a few remain nearby.  I am delighted by spotting tracks on new snow, pondering where they were headed and who they met along the way.  Winter birds flitter from one shrub to another to gossip and look for their next meal.

ImageThe complex bark patterns and stoic silhouettes of leafless trees stand out against the muted background.  Crooked, twisting, and bending lines of Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) create a mysterious landscape, as if they were pulled from the Wizard of Oz forest. Beech and oak trees (Fagus grandifolia, Quercus spp.) are easily identified too as they are the ones still holding on to their persistent leaves.  Branches creak and groan and scrape against each other in the wind – sometimes at a startling volume.  Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) slyly vines its way around trees, displaying its showy red berries while quietly choking and adding unwelcome weight to its host.  Brown, dead remains of Mile-a-Minute (Persicaria perfoliata) covering shrubs in open fields remind me of our future springtime battles.  One of the few plants providing green color through the winter, the distinctive American Holly (Ilex opaca), seems to be thriving in our forest, as I spot many new seedlings and young trees along the trails.

ImageThe last of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) fruit, a cone or cup-shaped collection of samaras, are a delicate discovery resting on the snow.   As we welcome the New Year, consider donning a few more layers and exploring the underappreciated winter landscape.  I guarantee moments of peacefulness and wonder.

Of Sassafras & Spirits

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

SassafrasBeer, wine, scotch, tequila, even sake all have at least this in common: they come from plants.  In her wonderful book The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explores the dizzying array of flowers, trees, and fungi that we have transformed into alcohol over the centuries.

Join us at the Schuylkill Center on Thursday, January 16 at 7:30 p.m. for a special chat-and-sip event. We’ll talk about and read from the book, and Olivia Carb from Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that extraordinary Philadelphia distiller, shares their drinks like Root, Snap, and Rhubarb Tea, all from plants.  Snap, for example, comes from at least six plants: sugarcane, clove, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, and tea.

Sassafras Grove3

And Root, inspired by old birch beer and sarsaparilla soda recipes, includes almost a dozen different plants, including lemons, oranges, allspice, anise, cloves, mints, and nutmeg. But no sassafras—and we’ll tell you why in a moment.

Sassafras grows in abundance here, its snake-like trunks wiggling through the understory.  About sassafras, Amy Stewart writes, “Imagine the situation that European colonists found themselves in when they arrived in North America.  They brought what food and medicine they could, but much of it was already consumed, or spoiled, by the time they came ashore.  They encountered plants and animals they’d never seen before and had no choice but to find out what they could eat or drink. Any berry, leaf, or root could either save them or kill them.

“One such plant was sassafras,” she continues, “a small and highly aromatic tree… The leaves and root bark were put to use as a medical remedy right away… to promote perspiration, to attenuate thick and viscous humours, to remove obstructions, (and) to cure the gout and palsy.”

Old-time sarsaparilla, a precursor of root beer, was made with sassafras, birch bark and other flavors.  But in 1960, after discovering that a major ingredient of the plant was carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, sassafras was banned.  That’s why there’s no sassafras in Root, but tons of other good stuff.

Come and enjoy a spirited conversation about drinking plants—while sipping the fruits of the harvest.

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food.  And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.turkey

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors.  Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff.  That’s not how turkeys appear in November.  Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males.  During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner.  To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together.  They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females.  The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love.  And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving.  But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places.  You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like Pennypack up in Huntingdon Valley.

Oh, one more turkey story. If you do go to somewhere like Pennypack searching for turkeys, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, with the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana.  While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future.  Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys.  Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters.  Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relic populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat.  Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat.  As their habitat returned, so did they.  Today, turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back.

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

Goldenrod and Asters in the Last Chance Cafe

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

monarch1-goldenrod

Autumn is notable for so many things: crisp weather, colorful trees, birds and butterflies migrating south, and my favorite sign of the season, fields overflowing with goldenrod and aster.

Yes, goldenrod, scourge of those hay fever commercials, the ones with some poor sneezing schmuck standing shoulder-deep in a field of stunning yellow goldenrod, waving the white flag of surrender.  Trouble is, goldenrod doesn’t give you hay fever.  Its pollen is too heavy, dense, sticky—we don’t breathe it.

But goldenrod unfortunately blooms at the same time as ragweed, a wind-pollinated nightmare that pumps trillions of pollen spores into the sky, praying one lands on another ragweed. Instead, it lands in your nose, and ACHOO!  So ragweed is the culprit, its nondescript flowers allowing it to float under the radar screen—and goldenrod gets the bad press.

It’s a shame, because goldenrod just happens to be one of the most important plants of the seasonal year.  As the growing season begins to wind down, insect life is at its peak—butterflies and bees, aphids and ants, the creatures that literally hold up ecosystems as the base of food chains, have had the entire spring and summer to go through multiple generations.  Just as they are at their population’s peak, summer wildflowers begin winding down, and these insects need food for their last hurrah before winter.

Enter goldenrod.  Like the wild version of the crocus evolved to be the sole source of nectar and pollen for Eurasian insects in the first moments of spring, goldenrod has evolved to take up the rear of the floral parade, among the very last wildflowers to bloom.  So when you enter a goldenrod field in early fall, you will see the flowers literally abuzz with activity.  Butterflies of all kinds will be nectaring on the flowers, including Monarchs heading south to Mexico.  On a stop at Morris Arboretum in September to check out the goldenrod meadow, at least six butterfly species could be seen nectaring at one time, including two different kinds of swallowtails.  A hummingbird moth, a beautiful butterfly cousin—a day-active moth that hovers over flowers like a hummingbird—trolled one corner of the meadow.  Many beetles were crawling all over the floral heads to nibble on pollen grains, a great source of protein.  Honeybees, bumblebees, flies of all kinds were working the blooms; spiders and praying mantises were stalking the other insects.  Dragonflies cruised above the field, picking off any of the flying insects they could.  Sparrows worked the field for seeds; kingbirds patrolled the edge for flying insects.

This is a goldenrod field at this time of year: a critical feeding station for literally thousands of species.

But it’s also the last chance café.  Goldenrods and their other fall collaborators like asters and ironweeds will bloom deep into the autumn—and then the flower season is over.  No more pollen; no more nectar.  Oh, there will be seeds available for seedeaters in a meadow throughout the winter, and there are no shortage of seed-eating critters, but for butterflies and bees, this is it, their golden moment in the sun.

Goldenrods and their kin are especially adapted for this season.  Insects are intensely cold-blooded (listen, for example, to katydids calling their name loudly at night in big three-syllable chirps; the frequency of their song is directly correlated to the temperature).  As the days cool down, it becomes harder and harder for big-bodied bumblebees to work the field searching for pollen and nectar.  So the goldenrods have compensated by evolving clustered floral bouquets, bunching their flowers closely together into groups, giving bees a target-rich energy-efficient pollen-collecting experience—a bee simply walks along a goldenrod stalk and encounters dozens and dozens of flowers.   In turn, the bees oblige the goldenrod by making sure they are happily pollinated to produce next year’s seeds—a great exchange for both.

There’s even a fly that lays its egg in the stem of the goldenrod, chemicals in its ovipositor causing the stem to swell and grow an almost cancer-like ball.  The fly’s larva sits inside that stem’s swelling ball, hiding during the cold winter while eating the walls of its home.  But chickadees and downy woodpeckers have discovered this secret, and peck open goldenrod ball galls to get at the little maggot hiding inside.

There are six million stories in the goldenrod city.  And none involve hay fever.

Happily, goldenrod has begun to rise in public opinion: I’ve seen it included in fall bouquets at flowers shops, and garden centers often include cultivars in their native plant sections.  In your garden, it can be tall and it can take over, but it does extend your blooming season as late as Thanksgiving—not a bad run.  And it is one critically life-saving plant in the fall season.

Just ask the nearest honeybee.

Mike leads a goldenrod workshop and field trip for Morris Arboretum on Saturday, October 19; visit morrisarboretum.org for more information.  A version of this essay originally appeared in The Main Line Times. 

A Silent Fall: Vanishing Monarchs

DSC_0766

A Monarch dries its wings after emerging from its chrysalis in our front garden. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The new fall season brings a chain of wonderful events: trees turning color, birds migrating south, goldenrod fields bursting in bloom. But one of my favorite fall phenomena is sadly and strangely absent this year.

There are almost no Monarch butterflies afoot these days.  All summer, I’ve seen only three at the Schuylkill Center.  And my compatriots at other centers like Bowman’s Hill in New Hope and Peace Valley in Doylestown report the same horrific drop.

You know Monarchs, those large orange and black butterflies. Every fall, every Monarch east of the Rocky Mountains begins an extraordinary migration south, one of the strangest in the animal kingdom.  All Monarchs, whether hatching here in Roxborough or up in Nova Scotia, fly slowly to a couple of small, secluded mountain valleys not far from Mexico City.  Somehow encoded in the  pinhead-sized brains of these creatures is a road map to Mexican forests.  (West Coast Monarchs, by contrast, head downslope to multiple small locations along the Pacific coast.)

Arriving in Mexico around All Soul’s Day—folk tradition there says these are the returning souls of Aztec warriors—the butterflies cluster in large groups, clinging to each other, coating fir trees with their bodies.  Nicknamed the Methuselah generation because they live for many months, this group stays in their mountain cluster until the spring.  Then they fly north again, search for  the first growths of milkweed plants, (the host plant for their caterpillars), lay their eggs on the milkweed, and die of exhaustion.

PopulationEstimate

Graphic by Journey North

When the next generation matures, it pushes north again—and Monarchs ultimately arrive back in Philadelphia in early summer.  Only to head back to Mexico two months later.

Last winter was the worst year on record for the size of the Monarch cluster—their group covered only three acres of forest, down 59% from the previous year, and down 94% from their 1994 high.  Think about it: most of North America’s Monarchs clinging to only three acres of trees.

So the drop this year was expected.  But it does have biologists wondering about the possibility of losing this utterly unique phenomenon.  And all eyes will be on Mexico this year to see how many butterflies return to their winter home.

DSC_0771

A Monarch chrysalis hangs from a milkweed stem. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

Why the drop?  Scientists expect many culprits, but highest on the list is the use of Roundup-ready crops through much of the Midwest.  Grown to be immune to this herbicide, the plants allow farmers to pour the chemical on fields for weed control, and take out all the milkweed that once supported populations of Monarchs.  Pennsylvania’s Monarchs can’t get through the Farm Belt, so few arrive to reproduce here; few in turn migrate back.

At the Schuylkill Center, we’ll watch the butterfly carefully, plant lots of milkweed to support the creature, and report back to you information as researchers discover it.  We can’t afford to lose this high-flying beauty from our fields.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Learn more at:

“Bring Back the Monarchs,” Monarch Watch: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/campaign/the-details

“Tracking the Causes of Sharp  Decline of the Monarch Butterfly,” Yale Environment 360: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/tracking_the_causes_of_sharp__decline_of_the_monarch_butterfly/2634/

US Forest Service, Celebrating Wildflowers: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/monarchbutterfly/migration/

On Valentine’s Day, a Dive into the Weird World of Animal Sex

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

It’s Valentine’s Day, and while we’re canceling our scheduled evening program, I thought I’d share the strange tales of amorous animals.  Nature is incredibly wonderful, but also incredibly weird. 

Take the clownfish, for example, so famously depicted in Finding Nemo, that sweet name abducted by last week’s horrific storm.  All clownfish are born male—not a girl in the bunch.  They live in and around anemones, stinging relatives of corals and jellyfish; plantlike but actually animals, anemones are unable to move anywhere.  So clownfish don’t go very far either.  (And sadly, rarely go on any adventures of any kind.)  Clownfish, immune from anemone stings, groom their host to remove dead and dying “branches,” and in exchange dine on dead fish left behind from the anemone’s handiwork. 

A large female clownfish rules the anemone, a colony of males of a variety of ages and sizes hanging out with her, competing to mate, the largest using winning.  But when the female dies, the next-in-size clownfish, the largest male, simply changes sex, and becomes the colony’s official female, establishing a whole new pecking order.  (So in the movie, when Nemo’s mom disappears, the dad simply becomes the mom.)  And it turns out this sequential hermaphrodism is not too rare in the wide, wide world—lots of species do it. 

Fireflies are cool.  A flashing field of fireflies is a huge stag party, acres of males flying the friendly skies.  The females—bigger, abdomens overloaded with eggs—cannot fly, but sit watching the signals, as males flash their codes to potential mates, each firefly species using species-specific signals to seduce mates.  When the female sees the right kind of male fly by, she gives him the correctly coded answer—and mating ensues.

Except one species knows the correct answer to a second species of firefly—she’s cracked his code.  When she’s hungry and sees one of these hapless guys flashing by, she gives him the answer he’s looking for.  He lands—and she devours him, using his protein to create her eggs. 

Which reminds me of the honeybee.  A hive is almost completely female, thousands of female workers grooming and caring for one supersized queen, the egg-layer of the group, the workers moving through life tackling a sequence of jobs, beginning as, say, a funeral bee carrying dead bees out of the hive, and ending as a field worker collecting nectar and pollen. 

There are male bees, drones, creatures unable to perform any useful jobs, existing for one purpose: their sperm.  Drones of many hives hang out in designated areas—like teenage boys in front of the Wawa—waiting for a potential queen to fly by. 

When a queenless hive raises a new ruler, she takes a maiden voyage into that drone cloud, and ostensibly the fastest, strongest drone succeeds.  Tragically, he dies upon ejaculation, most of his innards flying out with the sperm packet to form a plug that prevents the queen from ever mating again.  Yup, it’s one and done for both.

And when autumn comes, drones become a liability, unable to work or feed, not needed during the long, cold winter.  Drones tap the antennae of workers for food, but the workers walk away, refusing the request.  In late autumn, funeral bees spend a fair amount of time dumping the bodies of starved, dead drones outside the hive’s doors.

Speaking of all females, you’ve likely seen photos of anglerfish, a chunky deep sea fish named for the projection on its head that it dangles in front of prey, using a little worm-like lump on this appendage to lure unsuspecting fish into its jaws. Scientists were once intrigued that all anglerfish were female—and that all seemed to have a small parasitic creature stuck to its body.

Turns out the parasite is a male.  Its mate.  Anglerfish inhabit the deep ocean bottom, where it’s bleak and black and speed-dating doesn’t occur.  Males hatch as very small versions of the female, but without a stomach.  Once born, they immediately seek out mates; when they find her, male bites into female and releases an enzyme that digests their skin.  He fuses onto the side of her body, wasting away to become this odd lump literally glued to her side.  And when the female is ready to spawn, he is there, releasing the sperm she needs to fertilize her eggs.

Let’s stay in the ocean one more time. Male octopuses and squid have a breakaway arm that holds his sperm packet.  In mating, the male uses this arm to reach into the female’s body cavity, placing the package carefully inside, whereupon it breaks off.  Like the anglerfish, early naturalists thought female octopi all had parasitic worms in them, and actually gave the male arms formal scientific names.

But the argonaut, a small cousin in this clan, takes this strategy on strange step further.  His mating arm is kept tucked in a pocket below his eye.  When he spies a suitable mate, he approaches her tenderly, and if she is receptive, the mating arm suddenly explodes out of his body, killing him instantly, the detachable arm taking on a life of its own, swimming to the female, clinging to her, and worming its way into her insides.  Some female argonauts have actually been found with multiple arms in her cavity, her collection of conquests.  But a free-swimming penis-like structure is, let’s face it, the stuff of science fiction.

Last example: red-sided garter snakes.  A female awakens from a long winter’s nap, and begins giving off a pheromone that males find irresistible.  Quickly, a mating ball of hundreds of writhing snakes forms, the female surrounded by scores of hopeful males—put THAT in the next Indiana Jones movie. 

And so it goes through the animal kingdom. If you’d like to continue researching this, er, “fertile” field, check out the following: banana slugs (the most highly endowed animal of all), flatworms and their penis jousting, the male frigate bird’s display, and perhaps the horniest animal of all time, our cousin the chimp-like bonobo. 

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia, tweets at @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.