Blog

4

Examining Coyote Courting Behaviours : Tracking at Bell’s Lake

On Saturday we met up at Bell’s Lake Management Area in West Grey County to go tracking with the apprenticeship crew. Marcus and I pulled up I noted the trail along the middle of the road, between the tire tracks, where it looked like some sort of canid had been walking along. The folks who were already there had already noticed this trail and were exploring other trails as well. As everyone arrived we circled up and then decided to follow the trail into the woods and see what else we could figure out.

We had to check out the trail and the size of the tracks a couple of times before we could really confirm that this was an Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans) that we were following. The way we confirmed this was to measure the individual feet, and the stride length of the gaits. I have to be honest and say that I cannot remember the stride or trail width measurements, as I did not write them out, but I remember checking the foot measurements with the numbers from Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign. He notes that Coyote’s front tracks measure between 6.7 – 8.9 cm (2⅝ – 3½ in) L x 4.1 – 7.3 cm (1⅝ – 2⅞ in) W and the hinds come in around 6 – 8.3 cm (2⅜ – 3¼ in) L x 4.1 – 6 cm (1⅝ – 2⅜ in) W, while Red Foxes’ (Vulpes vulpes) measure between 4.8 – 7.3 cm (1⅞ – 2⅞ in) L x 3.5 – 5.4 cm (1⅜ – 2⅛ in) W and hind tracks will measure between 4.1 – 6.4 cm (1⅝ – 2½ in) L x 3.2 – 4.8 cm (1¼ – 1⅞ in) W. The front right foot was 6.5 cm L x 5 cm W, and the right hind was 6.3 cm L x 4.3 cm W, which could have landed on the larger end of the Red Fox, but then we noticed something else…There was another Coyote trail. This other trail had slightly longer strides, and definitely bigger feet (right front: 8.3 cm L x 6 cm W, and the right hind 6.7 L x 5.5 W). Not only was it cool to confirm Coyote, but this other sign added another layer of reasoning to the idea that not only was this two Coyotes, but possibly a larger male alongside a smaller female. This started to give us some ideas of what could be happening between these two.

Both the males and the females participate in courting behaviours during a physiological period known as proestrus, where the uterus enlarges and the vaginal canal distends. This proestrus period is similar in traits to domestic Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), in that this is when the vulva starts to swell and the blood or “sanguinous fluids” begin to be seen in the females urine. Male Coyotes are attracted to the females, but the females are not receptive during this period. The proestrus period begins for Coyotes around mid-December. Some courting behaviours can include:

  • playful wrestling and chases
  • scent marking together, which includes scrapes and males urinating atop the females urine or scat deposits
  • grooming each other
  • body bumps and hip pushes (“love shoves” as I call them)
  • sleeping curled up together
  • males sniffing or licking the females genitals

After the proestrus phase, the estrus period begins. This period only lasts for about 2-5 days and is marked by females being receptive to males and mating behaviours such as mounting and intercourse. After intercourse, the scent marking routine switches, with the males urinating first, followed by the females marking atop their deposits. Of course this wasn’t all happening in the tracks in front of us, but we started wondering aloud.

Just a short ways in along the trail we came across another beautiful sign. A scuffed up area where the snow had been scratched up into small narrow piles in the center. It was a scrape. Scrapes and other forms of scent marking are a big part of this proestrus period typified by courting behaviours. If we had missed the scrape, only a few meters from the road, I don’t think I would’ve felt as certain that they were courting, but the scrape in the snow really cemented it for me.

I had trailed a pair before on Christmas Day, 2020, and seen similar behaviours. What I saw at Bells Lake echoed what I had seen in 2020. It looked like the female had come along and scraped by a tree. Then the male came up afterwards and scraped atop of the females scrape. I have read that this behaviour often also includes urination by both female and the male before they each scrape, which I have seen before with Eastern Wolves (Canis lycaon) in Algonquin Park where a male was following a female and everywhere she scent marked, he did as well. While I could not detect any urine or scat in this particular Coyote scrape, mating Coyote pairs will scent mark in tandem as estrus approaches.

One website I was checking out mentions that not only do Coyote feet have glands which deposit scent, the act of scraping may help scatter and spread the scent of urine. The author also wonders, and I think this could make sense, if the Coyote steps in their urine, could the scent then be carried and deposited as the Coyote moves across the landscape, transferred to the ground from the pads and fur on their feet? Seems to make sense to me. In another paper I was checking out the researchers in Wyoming noted that ground scrapes were most common during the period of late-December to early-February, in what I would consider early to middle of the mating season, when mating pair bonds are being strengthened and reinforced. This scraping/double-scraping behaviour seems to be an essential part of the Coyote courting repertoire.

We followed the Coyotes for a while, encountering a smaller Shrew (Sorex spp.), Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus), Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) trails along the way. I remember there were times when the larger Coyote, again, likely a male, moved in direct register trot, the other Coyote, the female, moved in a side trot. The side trot is a faster gait than the slower direct register trot. This can be shown by the presence of the track of the hind foot landing ahead and to the side of the track of the front foot. With the hinds to the sides of the fronts, this allows them to travel a bit faster than the direct register trot without their feet hitting as they move.

It was interesting to note the habits of the Coyotes as they moved over the forested landscape. The two individuals would weave their way together and apart, together and then apart, their trails entwining and braiding across the snowy forest floor. The front feet would betray head turns when the Coyotes would look off into the forest behind them, perhaps looking for the other Coyote, or when they would look off to the side, perhaps picking up a distant scent on the wind. At one point the two took different trails, with the smaller female crossing the ice over a frozen pond, while the larger male went around the pond. Perhaps this was just chance, but I think it had more to do with the male understanding his own weight and the capacity of the ice to hold him or not.

Female Coyote tracks crossing the frozen pond

I can’t remember who saw it first, it definitely wasn’t me, but while I was face down in the snow measuring the female’s tracks in an overstep walk, up ahead of me everyone was at the edge of the forest admiring a snowless patch of White Pine (Pinus strobus) needles at the edge of a sunny field. The patch was nearly round and measured about 44 cm (17⅜ in) in diameter. On the other side of the Pine, others were investigating another patch free of snow, this time grassy, and more kidney bean shaped than circular. This second patch measured 57 cm x 44 cm (22½ in x 17⅜ in). These were Coyote beds! I have seen other canid beds including Eastern Wolf and Red Fox, but never Coyotes. This was an awesome find. It was already an exciting trailing experience but it just kept getting better. My first thought was that the larger bed belonged to the male, but the folks at that bed checked the track sizes and noted that it was in fact the female who had the larger bed, and the male who had the smaller, rounder bed. Someone had mentioned that the bed could be smaller as the male curled up tighter to stay warmer as they were positioned more in the forest, in the shade of the Pine, while the female was positioned closer to the field, in what could have been lots of sun. In the second edition of Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch and Casey McFarland, they write that Coyotes may choose bedding sites with a view of their surroundings, and places where “scents and sounds may carry. Otherwise they bed in thickets or other cover that provide protection”. These beds seemed to be the more awareness enhanced rather than protection enhanced. Curious if this is due to the lack of common predators in this part of the world? If there were more Wolves or Cougars (Puma concolor), would the Coyotes have different bedding strategies?

44 cm (17⅜ in) in diameter
57 cm long x 44 cm tall (22½ in x 17⅜ in)

In the paper “Reproductive Biology of the Coyote (Canis latrans): Integration of Mating Behavior, Reproductive Hormones, and Vaginal Cytology” by Eric Gese there is mention of Coyotes “sleeping curled against each other” but no mention of bedding adjacent to each other. I wonder if this sleeping separately is indicative of the the pair not demonstrating breeding behaviours, but instead, are still courting. I wonder if the beds slowly get closer as the breeding season gets closer and the female tolerates more intimate advances from the male?

Image of an overstep walk, a pretty chill gait

After the beds the Coyotes made their way across another small squishy wetland area, under some Cedars (Thuja occidentalis) and into and across a couple snowy fields. Another gait we noticed as the Coyotes were making their way across the field was an overstep walk, which is characterized by the hind foot landing ahead of the track of the front foot from the same side of the body. This is a more-chill pace than the side trot mentioned above, but still a bit faster than a walk as the hind feet are landing further ahead than the fronts did. The pattern of the footfall in the image to the right is, starting from the track closest to the camera, left front with the left hind landing slightly ahead, followed by the right front and then the right hind. This pattern of footfall, the width of the trail and the lack of significant breaks or spaces in the rhythm of the footfall all indicate a relaxed gait. The other Coyotes trail was just to the right of this one, less than a meter away.
A note to keep in mind when analyzing gaits is that, usually, the further ahead the hind feet are on the trail, the faster the animal is going. Here is a short video discussing three common Wolf gaits, which Coyotes also share.

We followed through the Cedars on the far edge of the field, sat down for lunch, and enjoyed the warmth of the Sun. When the group got up, I fell behind again to take a couple more measurements and only caught up when folks had found another great discovery.

In the shade of the Cedar grove, the Coyote trails led up to the base of a tree. There set on the snow like a ray of sunshine was a small spot of urine dotted with blood. This is the gift of the season, full of possibility and potentially translating to the future offspring of these two Coyotes.

In one paper I read this bloody discharge can begin in early December, which would correlate with with what we saw on January 14th. Males are very aware of the females during this period and appear to be ready to go, but the females won’t allow the males to mount. While this blood (or “sanguinous fluids” as the researchers sometimes call it) is very exciting, it is worth noting that it is only a small amount, and none was noticed in the bed, along the long snowy trail, or in the scrapes seen at the start of the day. This coulld indicate that the estrus period has not yet come into full swing and we were still observing signs of the proestrus courting behaviours. Remember, Coyotes are monoestrus, meaning they come into heat only once a year, usually for about a 10 day period. This mating period is preceded by a proestrus period, which is when the courting behaviour occurs. This courting period can last up to two months, and this I believe is what we were witnessing along these two trails.

Getting the chance to follow along and watch the intimate lives of other animals can feel a little awkward in the retelling. I don’t want to come across as voyeuristic but instead as being witness to the possibility of a litter of new life. Coyotes are often a maligned species, where the conversation surrounding them is often of management and control, loaded with tones of fear and frustration. But following these two highlights an individuation and animism we don’t afford Coyotes very often. I hope only to remind of the struggle to survive, adapt and thrive amidst the persecution they endure. Reflecting on the day, I feel like it’s a study in the mess of courtship which many of us can relate to, and it feels like the news I wish we saw more of: first kisses, late night dinner parties with old friends, meeting a newborn family member. It is the joy of being and relating to others in deep meaningful ways in a world which often separates and isolates, harms and hinders. It’s romantic as hell, and I love it. I am inspired by this trailing adventure and am eager for more. Deep gratitude for these two Coyotes and for the crew I got to track them with. Thank you thank you thank you.

To learn more :
Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch. Stackpole Books, 2001.
Behaviour of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
Tracking Journal from Dec 25, 2020
Precopulatory and Copulatory Behavior in Coyotes by Marc Bekoff, Judy Diamond
The Estrous Cycle of Coyotes by J.J. Kennelly and B.E. Johns
Reproductive Biology of the Coyote (Canis latrans): Integration of Mating Behavior, Reproductive Hormones, and Vaginal Cytology by Eric Gese
Breeding Season: Wanderin
g, Sniffing, Marking and Scraping from CoyoteYipps.com
An Observational Study of Scent-Marking in Coyotes, Canis latrans

4

What The Toes Show

Image of ungulate foot from Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign, 1st edition. Note that we are looking at the underside of the foot.

For the past four years there has been a bit of a conundrum at the tracking apprenticeship. There has been a theory passed around to be argued and analyzed, challenged and sustained. It has confronted, confused, and confounded many of us who have tried to scry a little more understanding from a couple of seemingly basic teachings, all from the hooves of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginiana).

Let’s get started by looking at some deer feet, as a better understanding of the foot structure will help as we go.

Deer, like all mammals, have a shared ancestral line going back to a source animal who had five digits on each foot. Some mammals have lost one or all toes, some have reduced in size, some have changed location on the boney structure that makes up the hand. Today, these toes are counted from the inside out, 1 to 5, beginning with toe 1, which are our thumbs, and 5 being the pinky. Deer have four toes all of which can be seen and counted on the image to the right. Again, toe 1, analogous to our thumb, is gone entirely, lost to evolution and specialization. For deer, toes 2 and 5, equivalent to our pointer and pinky, are called “dewclaws” and they reside further up the hand from toes 3 and 4. When the deer walks they walk on toe 3 and 4, but in some substrates, such as deeper snow or mud, the dewclaws, toes 2 and 5, can be seen in the tracks.

As with all things in the world, we can go deeper and deeper into the anatomy of the hooves of deer, but I want to get to the point of the research. The main questions I have are :

1) Can you tell front or hind (hinds are sometimes referred to as rears in this post) foot in a track based on the location of the dewclaws?
2) Do front or hind dewclaws reside in the same position on the foot or are they more laterally located on the leg depending on which leg it is we are examining?
3) Can you tell left or right foot from the length of the toes?

These three questions are useful when tracking. The information would be useful to know when attempting to identify partial or individual tracks when more details are missing.

Hind feet on the left and front feet on the right of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Recently on a zoom call Alexis reiterated that in his experience the dewclaws, toes 2 and 5, on the front feet of the deer will be closer to toes 3 and 4, and on the back feet, dewclaws will be set further back. He backed up this claim by showing the image above. Alexis had butchered the deer whom these feet came from and he knew which legs were which. This is helpful because sometimes the legs can get mixed up. In the image the hind hooves are on the left side, and the front hooves on the right. When it was noted that the rear hooves look longer than the fronts, Alexis agreed and made the plan to measure them later. Here are his measurements :
Front Foot – 7.62 x 3.97 cm (3″ x 1 9/16″ in)
Rear Foot – 7.3 x 3.81 cm (2 7/8″ x 1 1/2″ in)

From looking at this image it would appear that the dewclaws are set further back on the hinds, and are closer to the front on the fronts. This appeared to confirm what I understood to be true as well. This also upholds my mnemonic on the topic, “back is back”, implying that the dewclaws on the back feet are also set further back from toes 3 and 4.

A great thing about a prolonged problem where for multiple years we as tracking apprentices have been trying to work together to figure something out is that many people will be approaching the same problem. Another multiple year apprentice Alastair had also been researching this same issue on his own accord, having asked a neighbour if he could have the legs from any deer the neighbour had hunted that season. Alastair then compared the legs and offered his findings over the Zoom call.

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On our Slack channel Alastair later posted some photos of his work letting us know his neighbour had kindly marked the feet as fronts and rears/lefts and rights and which individual deer they came from. He wrote “I wanted to look at the three questions shown on the first photo relating to the dewclaws and the lengths of the two parts of the hoof. This information can be used to help understand which foot a particular track was made by.”

His three questions are very similar, or the same as what I am asking above. Which dewclaws are furthest from the hoof (fronts or rears)? Which dewclaws are most angled away from hoof cleave (the space between the toes)? And finally, which part of the hoof is the longest, the inside or outside? Of course they are phrased differently but I believe we’re after the same answers.

Alastairs findings agree with the first findings mentioned above, that the dewclaws sit further back on the hind feet, and that they are closer to the hooves on the front feet.

To back this up a third time, Mark Elbroch’s 2nd edition of Mammal Tracks and Sign states that “the dewclaws are higher on the hind legs than the fronts” in the entry on Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus). It is hard to differentiate between these two species and the White-tails by reading their tracks alone as they are all very similar. I will then assume, in light of our own research and this statement, that this also applies to the White-tailed Deer.

1) Can you tell front or hind (or rear as later described) foot in a track based on the location of the dewclaws? Yes. Dewclaws are set back further on the hinds, and closer on the fronts. “Back is back.”


According to Alastair’s study, the dewclaws on the front feet appear to be set more laterally than the rears. This runs counter to what I am seeing in the image taken and shared by Alexis, and this I love. I really appreciate when folks come up with different answers to the same question because it often means the answer isn’t always the same! Bodies can be different across an individual species. We see it with Humans (Homo sapiens) all the time! When it comes to my books, there is no mention of the lateral/medial position of the dewclaws to differentiate between fronts and rears, but Elbroch does write that when the dewclaws on the front feet register “they create oval impressions perpendicular to the cleaves, whereas when the dewclaws on the hind feet register, they create oval impressions in line with the cleaves.” I think inferences can be made from this that would agree with Alastair’s study, but I am not sure if it would hold up. I would need to hold a deer foot and feel the flexion and try to stamp tracks in a sandpit or snow to see what happens, or better yet, watch a very slow motion close up of the toes to watch a deer foot moving as they would on their own. So…

2) Do front or hind dewclaws reside in the same position on the foot or are they more laterally located on the leg depending on which leg it is we are examining? Dewclaws do not appear to have consistent positions based on front or hind feet.


As for the third question, can you tell left or right foot from the length of the toes, or as Alastair more clearly phrased it, which part of the hoof is the longest, the inside or outside? According to Alastair’s study, this errs towards the outside toes, but this isn’t always the case. Of 12 legs he examined, 9 of the legs demonstrated that the outside toe was longer, while the inside toe was longer for two legs, and on one left foot, the toe lengths were even. To corroborate this, in Mammal Tracks and Sign (again, 2nd edition) Elbroch notes that “toe 3 is often slightly smaller than toe 4, but not always” for both the fronts and hinds.

The results of Alastair’s study, and Elbroch’s notes are great to read about for this question because it agrees with my own ongoing study. Here is a short video I made of two incidents of finding rear legs of deer and comparing the toe length to see if the outside toe is larger, and then confirming the position of the leg to the body by looking at the ball socket which would have articulated with the pelvis.

3) Can you tell left or right foot from the length of the toes? Most of the time the outside toe, toe 4, is longer.


The anatomy and morphology of animals reveal so much of the natural history of the animal, from the skull to the toes, we can see their lives written in their bodies. By taking the time to better understand other animal bodies we can come to understand more from their trails as we track them. We can come to know the animal better both physically as well as ethologically, and to know someone better helps create stronger relationships, stronger bonds of connection. These stronger bonds hopefully turn into more care and consideration of the lives of others. I have found over and over in my life that when I am in better relationship with someone I want to do more to honour them and find it much harder to disregard their feelings or ways of being in the world. They are no longer a stranger but instead an acquaintance, a neighbour, kith, and I am motivated to come with respect, consideration and care.

Big thanks to the deer, to Alexis and Alastair for helping to teach me more.

1

Boyne River Carol

On the first weekend of December, the Boyne River shared with me…

A campfire to warm cold hands

Two steep hills (in beautiful deciduous forests)

Three porcupine dens

Four deer bones

Five deer scrapes

Six Pileated Woodpecker Scats

Seven beaver chews

Eight frozen apples

Nine cedars browsed by deer

Ten ageing porcupine scats

Eleven trackers tracking

Twelve cold raindrops (turning into snow)

What a fun day with everyone! Happy Solstice and Holidays!

2

Deerly Beloved…

Tracking in the Kinghurst Forest

Imagine donating more than 300 acres to Ontario Nature for land preservation. Well, the Krug brothers Howard and Bruce Krug did just that. Kinghurst forest in Grey county is 370 hectares. It is an ANSI forest (Area of Natural and Scientific Interest) and includes a maple beech forest and 250–350-year-old trees. The Krug brothers also gave a stewardship endowment to help manage the property in perpetuity. They were awarded an Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Conservation Award of Distinction in 2003.

Timberdoodle Feets

The sound of kinglets could be heard from the trees as we gathered in the parking area. After an opening circle of gratitude, byron invited everyone to investigate a nearby feeding site. We observed a bird wing and three (!) feet. Some of the feathers looked a bit matted with saliva. The identity of the bird was later thought to be an American Woodcock (a.k.a. Timberdoodle). Further into the forest, Marcus discovered the remains of a Canada Goose. Perhaps it had been a tasty meal for a coyote.

Trailing Deer

The theme of this weekend’s tracking outing was “deer” in celebration of deer mating season or the “Rut”. Alexis spoke to everyone about moving quietly through the forest in hopes of maybe seeing or trailing deer. We followed a fresh deer trail into the Kinghurst Forest, pausing to observe antler rubs on trees, feeding sign on Alternate Leaved Dogwood and ground scrapes. The tips of raspberry plants also showed evidence of deer browse. Leigh noticed an interesting gall on a raspberry plant. iNaturalist indicates that it was built by a species of gall wasp called Diastrophus turgidus. These wasps are parasitoid wasps that induce superficial growths (galls) on plants, inside which their larvae develop and feed.

Raspberry Gall

Mountainous Midden with Bones Strewn About

Soon, Amina discovered a mammal scapula near a red squirrel cache. The red squirrel had created a mountain of pine cones, shed scales from the cones and leftover seeds from feeding. It was a mountainous midden! Leigh found some cached cones in unusual places, like inside a pileated woodpecker hole and another one tucked in behind a funnel web spider’s lair. More bones turned up at the base of nearby pine trees. Closer inspection showed the red squirrel had been chewing on them as a source of calcium. Calcium can be tricky to find in the natural world so bones are a precious treasure to a red squirrel and others… (read to the end to find out who…)

Fellowship of the Wetland

Fellowship of the Wetland

A live sighting of a porcupine brightened our day as we enjoyed lunch in the forest. After lunch, Alexis expertly guided everyone to a nearby wetland and we marvelled at tracks in the mud. There were 5 toed mink tracks, raccoon, deer and even a fisher track! Alexis spotted a buck-sized deer bed near the wetland. Kaya found a Northern Watersnake and Tamara excitedly pointed to a nearby Ribbon Snake slithering on a rock wall. A diversity of fungi, spring peepers, leopard frogs and green frogs also graced us with their presence throughout the day.

Northern Watersnake

Deer Skeleton

Near the end of our wander, we entered a pine plantation. Alistair saw a dark, raccoon-sized mammal “rocket” headfirst down a pine tree. We all froze, hoping to see the mysterious creature. However, it had vanished. After learning that the group had tracked fishers in that exact location last year, I was kicking myself a bit for not paying more attention. Alistair might have seen a fisher!  To wrap up the day, deer bones were discovered. Stephanie soon found a deer head with antlers attached. The skull had been chewed by a porcupine(s). We investigated the bones, observed the marrow and imagined deer locomotion. As we looked at the bones of its legs, we considered a deer’s gift of being able to jump 6 feet from a standing position. Amazing. It was a great day 😊

byron sharing his passion for skulls

4

How To Clean A Skull

This past weekend with the Earth Tracks Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship I got to host a mini-workshop all about skulls. It was a chance to share some of my enthusiasm about the wonderful ecologies of a boney structure which hold, protect, support and enables our lives. Why not be in love with skulls?

One thing I wished I could have touched on more clearly and more eloquently for everyone was how to clean a skull, which is a question that comes up every time I bring out skulls in any of my programs. So in light of that questions, and my glossing over it in the interest of time this weekend, I decided to explain some of how I clean the skulls I find. Sadly I have not taken any photos of the process over the years as I never thought anyone would be interested, and I havn’t had to deep clean a skull for a while so even when folks were interested, there was never a chance. I hope to photograph all of the steps for the next skull I clean.

Let’s begin.

While there are many options to clean skulls detailed in various books, papers, websites, videos online, I have been cleaning my skulls through a process called “water maceration” which at first seemed like a pretty intimidating process, but once broken down I came to see as a method that required very little work, didn’t harm the environment, and maintained the integrity of the bone and teeth of the skull for years to come.

Water maceration pretty much just means soak the skull in a bucket and let the bacteria do the work. Sometimes it takes a short time, sometimes a longer time, depending on the amount of flesh still on the skull, the size of the skull, and the temperature of the water. Warm water is best, but let’s get into the details.

Oppossum (Didelphis virginiana) skull found at Preservation Park in Guelph, 2018.05.04

Skin It

First step, take the skin off. This can be tricky, especially with smaller skulls, but do your best. If you’re using a knife make sure you are careful. I havn’t done all my research but it seems like if there are bacteria on the skull trying to break down flesh, you do not want to cut yourself with a knife with that bacteria all over it. I would suggest being present and mindful, not rushing and maybe just put on some cut-resistant gloves. I have given myself minor cuts while fleshing an animal in the past and I washed my hands thoroughly after I was done, and nothing happened, but just because nothing happened those couple of times, doesn’t mean something nasty can’t happen in the future. Take care while fleshing the skull. Get as much of the skin and hair off of the skull as possible. If the eyes and brain and tongue are still present, don’t worry about it. The bacteria will break them down as well.

Get a bucket

Next you’ll need a container that suits the size of the skull. The largest skulls I have cleaned are skulls of larger Does (Odocoileus virginianus). I used a 4 gallon bucket for larger skulls, and smaller 750 ml yogurt containers for smaller ones like Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis). Use the size of container that suits size of the skull.

Once a container is acquired, place the skull in the container and fill it with dechlorinated tap water. I would suggest leaving out the water in a vessel for 24 hours with a cloth overtop before pouring it in the bucket with the skull. This allows the chlorine in the tap water to evaporate. Why do we want that? Chlorine kills all the bacteria in tap water that might be present in the water supply. It is really good at killing bacteria so that is why municipalities use it. But in this case, we want to encourage bacterial growth, not diminish it. Let the water stand for 24 hours and it will be fine for use in cleaning your skull.

Make sure enough water is added to ensure that the skull is covered. No need to weigh the skull down with anything. In fact that may damage the skull in the process so just leave it be, and put a lid on it. Move the container to a warm spot, maybe a warm garage, shed, basement, deck, or you can be a daredevil like me and just keep it on the vent in the backroom and hope no one knocks the lid off. The vent keeps the water warm in the colder months and ensures that no backyard critters will be trying to get at the rotting flesh inside. I like to put a labelled piece of tape on the lid detailing when I put the skull in, and when I should check on it.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinis) skull, found at Mono Tract, 2022.10.29

Let it be

Cleaning the skull by just using bacteria can be a slow process. The bacteria needs time to break things down. The flesh seems to melt and the brain dissolves. Gums disappear, and the teeth start to get loose and fall out. But this is all going to take a while. I usually wait about three weeks before checking on the skull and sometimes longer if the skull had a lot of flesh on it.

The only times when I don’t wait too long is if the skull is from a smaller animal, or a younger animal. Smaller and younger animals seem to have less dense skulls. The bone just doesn’t seem to be as strong. I have only once had a skull break down in the water, but I did wait too long before checking on it. Perhaps it was already damaged and the flesh was holding it together? Perhaps it got damaged in the process of cleaning it? All could be, but my advice is to check maybe after a week if the skull is smaller than an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus).

When the time has come to check on the skull, I bring the container outside. I don’t care how ventilated your shed is, bring it outside. Open the lid and stand back. Sometimes there is barely a scent, but often, especially in warm seasons, and with skulls with lots of flesh remaining at the time of immersion, the smell can be off-putting. Grab a stick or tool which you can very carefully pull the skull out of the water for a closer inspection. While examining the skull, keep it over the container. Things may fall which you do not want to lose, like teeth, or may not want to have to clean up, like brains. Shake the skull with the foramen magnum (the big hole at the back or base of the skull) facing down so any brain material can fall back into the bucket.

If the skull doesn’t look too clean, you can use an old tooth brush, or dental pick to remove some of the flesh or fatty bits. I also tend to rinse the skull a couple of times in running water from an outdoor faucet, running water into the foramen magnum to help clean out the brain case. If need be, you can replace the skull and put the lid back on and wait another week or so. If the water is very cloudy, you may want to drain 2/3rds of it, pouring the water off over a sieve or screen to catch any teeth which may have fallen, and then fill it up again with clean dechlorinated water (I like to drain the water over my fruit trees in the yard so as to give a nutrient boost to the trees). This allows the bacteria remaining in the bottom 1/3rd a chance to colonize the skull and the newly added water. Put that lid back on and put the container back for a little longer.

If the skull is starting to look pretty clean, return the skull to the container full of water and then pour the contents out over a sieve or wire screen so as to not lose small bones or teeth which have fallen out of the skull. Rinse thoroughly, with patience and care. This is when pieces seem to get lost. Be patient and do it slowly. Once finished rinsing a few times, move on to the next step.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) skull, 2022.09.16

Let the Sun in

A lot of folks love bright white skulls with no discolouration, but sometimes skulls do have some yellow spots due to oils in and adjascent to the bone. Sometimes this discolouration is called “corpse wax” which was a term I heard a lot before I knew what it was. I really don’t mind this yellowing in spots as long as it doesn’t smell, which I have not encountered, but others have mentioned this. There are ways to be rid of this discolouration and of any remaining smells. The easiest way is to let the Sun at the skull. Place the skull in a safe place, inaccessible to wildlife, which allows access to full Sun. I am unsure of the mechanics of it, but the Sun dries the skull, kills any remaining bacteria, greatly diminishes odours, and seems to dissipate some of the corpse wax. The Sun also begins breaking down the bones in it’s own way as well, but that takes a lot longer than the water does, so it should be safe for a few days.

My kind of puzzles

Growing up, my mum used to sit in the living room putting puzzles together at the coffee table while I watched t.v. I never understood the appeal. But now I spend a ton of time sorting through the teeth and loose bones figuring out which sockets belong with which teeth and glueing them all in. Look in some books or photographs online of the skull of your animal and find images of the dentition. Seeing what it is supposed to look like really helps, just like the lid of the puzzle box my mum would reference. Once you’ve decided where the teeth should go and tried fitting the teeth in their appropriate sockets get out the glue. For gluing the teeth in, I use Elmers White Glue like I used for craft projects at school. This works really well for the teeth. Make a small puddle of glue on a non porous surface and run the root of the tooth through the puddle picking up some glue with it, and fit the tooth into the socket. White glue takes time to dry so there is opportunity to relax and not have to rush through this process. Once the tooth is placed, wipe off any remaining glue which has been displaced and overflowing from the socket. Sometimes you’ll find that some of the teeth are missing, no matter how careful you were in the rinsing process. I think this is where the Tooth Fairy gets most of her business, stealing teeth from the skulls I am trying to clean. If this happens, don’t worry. You can always go back to the spot where you drained your vessel, or just accept the loss and move on. I don’t worry too much about losing smaller teeth like incisors on a Raccoon (Procyon lotor), but I do get sad about losing premolars and molars. It is hard to lose canine teeth as they are often larger, but if I cannot find them I try and complete the skull anyhow and try to do better at not losing teeth next time.

The hardest part, in my opinion of skull cleaning is not the skinning, the smells, the bucket, the rinsing, the goo, getting the teeth in or any of that. The hardest part are getting the mandibles together. Throughout the cleaning process the tissues which hold the mandibles together can dissolve leaving the jaw in two pieces. This is normal, but annoying. When gluing them back together you need to make sure they fit, and make sure they are the appropriate width to articulate well with the cranium. White glue is not strong enough to attach these bones permanently so I use Crazy Glue or Plastic Cement. These are often noxious chemicals which are terrible for the planet, but they are the only thing I know which works. Someone at the apprenticeship mentioned using Elmers White Glue for the mandibles. I have not found this to work yet, but you bet I’ll be trying it next time. Water-soluble, biodegradable adhesives are much better than toxic gasoline based adhesives that are permanently stuck on.

Make sure all of your incisor teeth are glued in to their appropriate sockets before trying to glue the mandibles together. Next, practice putting the mandibles together as if they were glued, but without actually applying any. This helps because with these stickier, faster drying, more permanent glues, you may not get another chance after putting things together. This is also a chance to make sure the bones still fit together as the maceration/cleaning process may have worn down or broken of the small pieces which enable attachment. If not, you may need to use more glue or sculpting putty to build the bone back so that it does fit. Luckily, I have never had to do this, but I have read some posts online where folks have had this experience. Sounds annoying. While practicing putting the mandibles together, fit them to the cranium. Take note of the angles of the mandibles and how they articulate with the skull. You’ll need to maintain this angle while the glue is drying.

Get out the glue and glue your mandibles together. Some folks use clothespins or elastic bands or delicate little vices to hold the bones together while they set, but I tend to just sit there pinching the mandibles with one hand while maintaining the proper spacing of the mandibles with the other. After about 5 minutes I stop pinching the mandibles and see how they set. Usually this works, but sometimes it doesn’t and I’ll peel off whatever glue I can and then try again. I have failed a couple of times at gluing the manidles together and have ditched them, saving the canines for other projects, but most of the time it has worked. It is just tedius compared to the other stages of cleaning the skull.

Once the skull is cleaned and dried, and teeth are set, the mandibles are glued, you can set the cranium on the jaws and admire the work of evolution. How amazing that these skulls bring so many insights into the lives of the animals we study. How fortunate that we are still alive to admire the remains of the dead. How awesome that we have one of these boney structures protecting all the soft and delicate bits of our heads as well. Damn, it’s cool.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) skull found in Grey County, 2019.11.17

Honour the dead, inspire the living

In a basic sense, the first law of thermodynamics says energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only altered in form. While I don’t know how all of thermodynamics play out, I take this as inspiration when I consider a skull. The energy an animal put into creating the skull of their offspring, and the energy that an animal went into maintaining their skull, and perhaps any energy, physical or not, that surrounds the skull, should be acknowledged and honoured. We can do this acknowledgement and honouring in all sorts of ways. By giving thanks for the animal and the skull which we have learned from, by telling the story of the animal and the skull which you found, by investing in learning about the animals who’se skulls you have, by teaching others how to appreciate these more-than-human neighbours of ours, and by working to ensure the survival of all species and habitats these animals require to live their lives in a good way. I really believe that there are many ways to honour our skulls, it really only depends on our creativity. All I suggest is that we do not leave the skulls alone, to gather dust, hidden away in cob webby corners of the room. I would never do this with anything else I care about, so why would I with a skull?

Thanks to everyone at the apprenticeship this weekend. It was a lot of fun.

To learn more :

Animal Skulls by Mark Elbroch, Stackpole Books, 2006.

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Plants as baskets, rope, fire-making tools and more!

On a weekend in late September, we gathered together as part of the Plants Apprenticeship 2022 to explore what some call the “utilitarian” side of these awesome beings. Starting as always, with some sharing of gratitude and life updates and a little time to sit and arrive on the land – we had a beautiful sunny Saturday! In that moment, we didn’t need fire or rope and it was too early to dig roots (not quite Fall yet), but we were excited to spend the time working with our hands, and carving tools and needles to make plants into a wide variety of useful and beautiful objects.

First up – it was time to carve (after a little safety orientation!) and we made a stylus for peeling bark and also, a smooth angled digging stick for upcoming root digging adventures. With the time to saw saplings, and work around the tough spots that knots can be, it was a different type of intimacy and relationship building with the Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) material.

Then, we had some time to work on carving with a much softer wood – Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). After a skillful demonstration from Alexis, we were each shown the different components in a bow-drill friction fire kit – the hearth, the handhold, the spindle and the bow. Using hand tools to split up dry cedar into various pieces and sawing some hardwood handholds, many of us were able to make pieces of our own kits – lots of smoke and dust building and baby fires to come!

We spent the latter part of Saturday peeling fresh White Pine (Pinus strobus) bark from rounds of wood so that we could fashion the fresh bark into baskets – a container that can be sewed along the joining edges and harden to create a place to gather berries, art supplies or any number of small items that might need to be contained. The stylus was a helpful tool in keeping the bark under pressure to peel, while not splitting it with the sharp edge of a knife, so that we could have bigger sheets to work with. We used upholsteyr needles and waxed twine or hemp to finish the edges.

On Sunday, we had a chance to continue working on friction fire skills by using and adjusting our kits – we also peeling cordage fibers from Milkweed and Stinging Nettle plants and used some corn husks for an introductory lesson on the reverse wrap cordage method – rope! A highly useful part of any camp set up! We also made some plant dye preparations, opened up the projects of coal burnt spoons and made a recipe for pitch – a glue that dries hard – made from tree resins and ashes. There are so many things to do with plants and so many ways to get connected to the everyday items that fill our lives.

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Absolutely Gorges!

Alexis pointing to the “Tower”, Mono Cliffs P.P.

A walk through Mono Cliffs and Hockley Valley is a walk through time. What a beautiful place to reflect on this weekend’s theme of landscape tracking. In his book Nature Observation and Tracking, Tom Brown Jr. says,

“To an experienced tracker, every disturbance and irregularity on the landscape is a track.  Every mark is the signature of an animal, plant, mineral, or some atmospheric, geologic or mechanical force. A glacial valley is as much a track as the footprint of a fox” 

Tom Brown Jr.

One of the conversations that came up this weekend is the tracker’s ability to look for patterns and read the signs of nature. I think that trackers also see the anomalies – the subtle change or variation of patterns that cause us to look further. Through that investigation, we deepen our relationship with the natural world, find meaning, mystery and a comforting sense of belonging in our rich uniqueness.

What captivated our attention this weekend? Here are a few sweet tracks, sign and live sightings to marvel at…

Praying Mantis, where do your ancestors come from?

Pretty Praying Mantis Photo by Leigh

A wildflower-rich meadow sparked curiosity only a few metres from the vehicles. We knelt down to inspect a deer bed. As I looked for deer hairs, a bright green praying mantis crawled up my shin.  We scooped it up and enjoyed her company in the warm sunshine. Upon further research, I learned that there are three species of praying mantids in Canada. One species is native, the ground mantid (Litaneutriaminor) and lives in southern British Columbia. The other two species, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the Chinese mantid (Tenodera aridifolia) are introduced. Our visitor that morning was a European mantis with an identifying black-ringed white spot on the inside of her front legs. Male and female mantids in Ontario can be green or brown or a mix of both.

Oh gentle horse with orange fruit…

Deer browsed Orange-Fruited Horse Gentian

While wandering in a rich, deciduous forest we encountered this beautiful plant! A deer had browsed the top of an Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum). Further research describes this plant as “rare or uncommon”. One source suggests that it can be used as external medicine for sore feet. I encourage you to read an excellent blog entry about Orange-Fruited Horse Gentian by fellow tracker and radio broadcaster extraordinaire, byron: https://www.toknowtheland.com/blog/whosthisplant

Communal Dust Baths for Turkeys

At the base of a tree stump, there were several wild turkey dust baths. Dust bathing helps distribute oil from the preening gland, keeping feathers conditioned, shiny and healthy. It may also help reduce parasites. Alexis gave an awesome wild turkey performance at the dust baths, as described by Mark Elbroch in Bird Tracks and Sign page 271-272.

Coyote Urine Art

Butterfly artwork by Wiley Coyote

Along the top edge of Mono Cliffs, we followed deer, coyote and wild turkey trails. Animal beds and scrapes overlooked scenic views under a shelter of maple, beech and cedar trees.  Marcus pointed out this possible coyote urine mark at the base of a cedar tree. I smile as I picture a butterfly silhouette in the dried-out moss (perhaps affected by acidic coyote urine).  

Carrot Seed Moth. Tastes like Carrot? Ask Hugh…

Green or brown, wolf it down…

The meadow beckoned more discoveries. Hugh’s passion for eating bugs led us to the Queen Anne’s Lace plant and a chance to see the Carrot Seed Moth caterpillar (Sitochroa palealis). Though the caterpillar was not green or brown, Hugh did wolf it down. We are waiting for a report on his sampling of this species. I have noticed this caterpillar weaving itself into a silky “sleeping bag” inside the ageing flower head. I often find lots of caterpillar frass mixed with wild carrot seeds in the winter months but no sign of the caterpillar. I wonder when it transforms into a cocoon and where does the cocoon go? Does anyone other than Hugh eat them? When do they transform into an adult moth?

A few more stars…

Ribbed Pine Borer (or is it a “ripped” pine borer? HeHe) Photo by Kathleen

A Long Horned Beetle (Ribbed Pine Borer) and Bark Beetle galleries captured our attention on both days. Theses insects left trails, tracks, stories and pyramids of pine dust to explore. A bright orange midge larva (Schizomyia impatientis) in a Jewelweed gall was also interesting to see as were woolly aphids on a sumac tree. So many discoveries!

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Oak Apple Galls at Lake of Bays

Have you ever gone to a party and you recognized someone who walks in, and you know their name, but not really know anything about them? I’ve been in these situations before, where I see someone interesting and I get curious as to who they are, who they know at the party and what their story is. In these situations, I tend to go about my business but I am also aware of their interactions if they are close by, I note who they might be talking to, what songs they like and what makes them laugh. If they seem like a jerk, I tend to steer clear, but if they seem cool I might go introduce myself. This sort of observation, consideration of relationships and how a form of life makes their way in the world is similar to how I approach the non-human world as well. When I see something interesting or new to me, I get curious. I try and pay attention to where the phenomena took place, and who is affected by it. Who does this life consume? Who in turn consumes them? What conditions are best suited for something to grow? Are they harming something or is there a mutualistic relationship happening? My observations in the field can only go so far, so I then turn to research. This is the story of that research.

Oak Apple Gall found at Lake of Bays, 2022.08.13
Oak Apple Gall found at Backus Woods, 2021.08.25

Someone in our tracking crew had found a small, pale brown, hollow papery orb with spots on the surface with a couple of holes in it. I recognized it as an Oak Apple Gall, which my partner and I had found last year at Backus Woods.
It wasn’t a green one, but it must be the same thing, right?

Last year, I may have looked up a bit on the Oak Apple Gall, but I no longer remember much. It’s like meeting someone again, but not remembering much of the details of your previous conversation. I had to ask some questions again, and here is some of what I have learned.

Oak Apple Galls are, like other galls, abnormal growths or swelling induced by the interaction of an aggravating life form with the plant. Those life forms could be an insect, a mite, a fungi, bacterium, nematode, or even a virus. The plant releases growth hormones and chemicals to quickly form thick tissue growth around the animal, fungi, or bacteria which is interacting with the plant. While galls can sometimes be harmful for the plant host, they aren’t always. Some are benign, some may even be beneficial.

There are a couple of Oak Apple Galls caused by a few different species across many genera. The particular gall we found was large, empty, green with purply spots, around 3 cm (1¼ in) in diameter and was made by Amphibolips quercusinanis, which is another species of wasp found in the Gall Wasps, or Cynipidae family. This particular gall is called the Empty Oak Apple Gall (I love when life forms get simple names that describe them well), and they grow along the midrib or middle vein on the underside of Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves, and in the case of the forest we were in, it was full of Red Oaks. The leaves are often deformed or aborted.

The adult Amphibolips quercusianis lays an egg on the leaf bud in the Spring. Then, as the leaves unfold, the egg hatches and larva burrows their way into the midrib of the leaf, and there, through either chemical interaction, or the irritant of the egg or the burrowing larva, the leaf reacts by isolating the larva within the gall.

There are also Oak Apple Galls with a soft juicy tissue filling the inside except for a small cell in the middle where the developing larva hang out. These are called Spongy Oak Apple Galls, and are created by the wasp Amphibolips confluenta. I have yet to encounter this kind of gall.

The Cynipidae family of wasps is all about the galls. There are about 1,000 species worldwide and they all make a gall specific to their species. Not only that, but some Cynipidae family members have alternating generations of only female offspring which make a specific kind of gall, and then a generation of both male and female offspring, which make a different kind of gall! Some members of the Gall Wasp family don’t even make their own galls, but instead find another gall made by another Gall Wasp and move in, feeding on the gall tissues. These Gall Wasps are awesome.

A couple of pages from “Fifty Common Plant Galls of the Chicago Area” by Carl F. Gronemann (Field Museum of Natural History, 1930).

In Doug Tallamy’s book “The Nature of Oaks”, he asks the question as to why the Oaks would allow, over millennia of co-evolution and natural selection, the Gall Wasps to continue to infest the trees, while the Oak does all the work for the larvae, making shelter and food? Why isn’t the Oak looking out for itself? Turns out Doug has a theory:

Cynipids are herbivores that feed within plant tissues. Let’s imagine for a moment that galls did not form around cynipid eggs and larvae. In that case, the larvae would not concentrate all their feeding in one location as they do within a gall; instead, they would tunnel through leaves or stems over a much wider area, very likely damaging oak vascular tissues as they went. With no physical constraints on their feeding, selection might have favored large individuals, larger than what can be achieved within galls, which would have, in turn, led to even more tissue damage to oaks from cynipids. Rather than thinking of galls as one-sided adaptations that favor only cynipids, we might more accurately view them as an evolutionary compromise that confines cynipid herbivory to one tiny site, minimizing damage from cynipid herbivores, and constraining the size of these oak parasites, while galls simultaneously allow cynipids to complete their development within the relative safety of a gall.

Image from Cynipid galls of the eastern United States by LH Weld (1959)

In a video online, Tom Wessels, a terrestrial ecologist who I am a very big fanboy of, describes how coevolved species tend to start to work together if given a long enough time span. Energy efficiency seems to win out in the natural world and he relates this idea to the Oak Apple Gall as well. He was wondering, like Doug Tallamy above, why the Oak creates these large galls on the leaves when the formation of the gall is using up so much energy? It would seem counter intuitive if we remember that nature does not appreciate the wasting of energy. Tom suggests in the video that the plant tissue which makes up the gall is still photosynthesizing while also protecting the larva living safely within. This energy production is equal to or more so than the amount of energy that is embedded within the gall. He then suggests that if the energy production is greater than what the intact Oak leaf would have produced without the gall, then the gall, with increased energy production capacities could actually benefit to the tree. So it seems that two biologists are seeing these galls as potential boons for the trees as opposed to simply parasitic relationships which have been suggested in the past.

So now that we know a little bit more about the Amphibolips quercusianis Gall Wasps, the gall structure and the energy output/input, why does the gall we found look different from the ones in the pictures on the internet? All the Empty Oak Apple Galls on the internet show a thin walled green orb with purplish spots on the outside, with long filamentous strings supporting a small chamber in the middle where the larva live. When Tamara cracked ours open, the one we found was mostly hollow.

IMG_5390-min.JPG
IMG_5397-min.JPG
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Why does the gall we found look different? Why papery and brown? Why no filamentous strings? No larval chamber? And what’s with the brown stuff? My research is teaching me that as the larva matures, they depart from the gall and then the gall changes colour from green to the caramel brown, and the gall becomes dry and brittle. What I am curious about is that the gall we found didn’t have the radiating filamentous strings, yet there are photos online of mature brown galls with the strings still intact (1)(2). I have also read (but without sources) that the Gall Wasp larvae do not defecate while growing in the gall, yet the gall we found appears to have frass (insect poop) within it.
Adding these clues together, no filament + presence of poop, I get to wondering if another insect may have preyed upon the wasp larva within the gall? I read in one paper, that they observed two Earwigs in the genus Forficula (our common Earwig in Ontario is Forficula auricularia) emerging from the galls of Amphibolips quercusinanis a few days after they collected the gall. They suggested that since the Earwigs are nocturnal, they may have only been using the large, mostly-hollow A. quercusinanis galls to chill during the day. Did they poop in the empty gall? Did someone else? Regardless of whomever left the frass inside the Empty Oak Apple Gall there are records of other species inhabiting the galls alongside Amphibolips quercusinanis, so now I just need to find out any recorded predators of the A. quercusinanis and see if a predator is why the gall was truly emptied or if someone else came along after the A. quercusinanis matured and departed, and just spent the night and left behind some scat when they left? So many questions, but sometimes you’ve got to stop writing before they all are answered.

I have written this before but I appreciate that when I take the time to focus in on a subject more and more questions develop and emerge, and my research could go on and on and on. I understand more why different scientists get so specialized in their fields. The desire to know and to develop a depth in the relationship is very real. It’s not like there isn’t a desire for mystery and that unknowns are bad because that’s not what I want to imply. Rather, it is similar to when you’ve got a crush on someone and you spend a lot of time thinking about them, wondering about the possibilities and falling into deep curiosities. There is a lot of time in a relationship spent asking questions and getting to know each other, and I guess this is where I am in my getting to know you phase with the Oak Apple Galls.


To learn more :
Insects : Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall (Firefly Books, 2006).
Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (Stackpole Books, 2010).
Gallformers.org
The Nature of Oaks by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2021)
Interview with Doug Tallamy about the book “The Nature of Oaks”
Cynipid galls of the eastern United States by LH Weld (1959)
Cynipid Gall Wasps article from Current Biology 28, R1365–R1381, December 17, 2018
The Population Biology of Oak Gall Wasps
Tom Wessels video on “The Ecology of Coevolved Species”
Interview with Tom Wessels about his work
Apples Don’t Fall Far From The Oak Tree by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University Extension
The arthropod associates of 155 North American cynipid oak galls

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Lobelias of the Krug Forest

I have always loved wetlands, be they swamps, bogs, marshes or the shoreline of a favorite river or lake. The Lobelia family are some of my favourite flowers to encounter in wetland habitats. During the July Wild Plants apprenticeship weekend we were fortunate to meet two beautiful Lobelias on our trip to the Krug Forest.

In a low, moist, open area on the sunny edge of the forest, we found an abundance of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) growing in a lush tangle of grasses alongside water hemlock (Cicuta maculata).

Cardinal flower immediately stands out for its shocking red colour– so red that my camera lens can’t seem to capture its depth and vibrancy. Cardinal flower is notable as a food source for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This scarlet red colour is not common in nature, yet, according to the Audubon Society, hummingbirds’ eyes are especially sensitive to colours in the red to yellow range. 

While being sources of food for both Hummingbirds and Swallowtails, the Cardinal Flowers are not abundant enough to provide any significant food for birds or mammals according to John Eastman, author of The Book of Swamp and Bog. So intertwined are L. cardinalis and the Ruby-throated friends that John Eastman writes, “Cardinal flower abundance not only depends upon hummingbirds but also reflects, to some extent, their own abundance.”

L. cardinalis’s long tubular flower exhibits an exciting characteristic called protandry, in which the flower seems to “change sex” from male to female. First, the flower displays pollen-bearing “male” stamens. When the pollen is dispersed, the stamens decline, and pistils (the “female” part) extend, ready to receive pollen from another flower still in the staminate stage. This sex-sequential behaviour stands in contrast to most other flowers, whose staminate and/or pistillate parts remain static over the course of the plant’s life.

We saw Kalm’s lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) growing along the moist, sunny edges of a swampy wetland. The delicate stalks of this tiny plant would be easy to miss if it were not for its blue-violet flowers. Kalm’s lobelia prefers calcium-rich soils like fens. 

Despite looking this plant up in my wild plant books, and browsing reputable wildflower websites, I wasn’t able to find many answers to my questions about Kalm’s Lobelia: what insects pollinate this plant? Do any herbivores browse on it? It seems that science doesn’t have much to say about this diminutive wildflower. 

All members of the genus Lobelia contain the alkaloids lobeline and lobelamine in various quantities. Lobelia inflata in particular is used in western herbalism for smoking cessation, among other applications, and the usefulness of this plant is attributed to these alkaloids. But take caution: as we often see in herbalism, the most potent medicines can be harmful in large doses. If you were to consume a bowlful of Lobelias, their alkaloids could cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and convulsion. Plants are powerful!

I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet these two Lobelias again!

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Lake of Bays Tracking

It was a Friday evening after the August full moon – the Sturgeon Super Moon. This moon is named after giant fish that were traditionally caught in the Great Lakes at this time of year. A wolf howled twice in the night. Its low, longing call was deep and compelling. I woke and then dreamt of wolves circling my tent.

Wolf Howl Season

August is wolf howl season. Why? According to Algonquin naturalist Michael Runtz, the air is cool, calm and the sound carries well. Wolf packs have “rendezvous sites” where pups play and rest while the adults go on hunting forays. The adults and pups use howls to communicate over long distances. Howls also vocalize territory boundaries and communicate location and affection for other pack members. On Saturday morning, we adventured up the nearby forested hillside, tracking our way through hemlocks, hobble bush and pines.

Bark Sloughing

Black-backed woodpecker “bark sloughing”
Beak marks from a black-backed woodpecker

We observed “bark sloughing” sign from a black-backed woodpecker on the hemlock trees. Woodpeckers search for wood-boring beetle larvae by removing the bark from trees. To do this, the woodpecker repeatedly slips its pointed beak under loose bark and pries it off the tree. The exposed insects are then slurped up by the woodpecker’s long, barb-tipped tongue.

Sprinkles on a Marsh Cupcake

Vole scat on a marsh mound

Our route took us to a wetland with two deer beds in the soft sphagnum moss. We followed a bear trail and found an ant mound in a decaying stump. Vole scat decorated the top of the mound, like sprinkles on a duffy cupcake.

Marsh St. John’s Wort and a spittle bug!

I met a new wetland wonder – Marsh St. John’s Wort!

My curiosity was sparked and lo and behold – it had a spittle bug on its stem! I thought that the spittle bugs had turned into frog hoppers back in June but what a sweet surprise to find an August one. Yay!

Back in the forest, we embarked on a tricky challenge next – debris tracking in leaf litter with a myriad of deer tracks. We became lost in a maze of indentations. Fortunately, Alexis and magic tracking sticks helped us out. A woodland jumping mouse brought smiles while my group was pleasantly distracted by wild turkey feeding sign on Jack in the Pulpit bulbs. 

Red-backed vole cache

Red-backed vole (?) cache of Orange Mycena mushrooms and a caterpillar too?

While wandering back along a ridge, we discovered a cache of orange mycena mushrooms inside a log. The mushrooms had tiny incisor marks on them. I had just recently returned from a canoe trip in Algonquin Park where I had observed a red-backed vole near a cache of mushrooms. The sign was so similar that I wondered if it was the red-backed vole again. After doing some reading, I learned that these forest dwelling voles are omnivores rather than herbivores (like the meadow vole) and will eat a diet of seeds, berries, leaves, shoots, roots, lichens, fungi and insects. During my research, I learned that the orange mycena mushroom has antibiotic properties.

Pretty mystery plant

Kathleen drew my attention to a gorgeous flower with a star-shaped seed arrangement. Maybe a wild lettuce? After carefully tracking our way down the ridge, we were greeted by a raccoon in a tree, seemingly welcoming us back to cozy cottage time and a swim at the beach😊. Thank you, Michelle, for hosting us!

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