Monday, July 30, 2012

Rhamnus cathartica (buckthorn) in Ireland - the definitive sighting

A few posts back I had excitedly wondered if I had found common buckthorn in Muckross Abbey in Killarney. I was determined to find this shrub which is a relative rarity in Ireland but has become a dominant woody invasive plants in the US Midwest.  With the help of Helana Twomey in Killarney we worked out that the plant I found was not buckthorn and was spindle (Euonymus europeaus) which keys out quite close in Irish floras.  I am not inclined to easily give up and I proceeded with my search.

Working on a tip from Dr Declan Little of Woodlands of Ireland, I made my way up to Clonbur Woods on the Galway/Mayo border.  Despite being  festooned by a small plagues of flies we found buckthorn close to the lake (Lough Mask) and growing on the limestone. The population is reasonably large.  Though not dominant is certain is prevalent enough.  Unlike the situation in Chicago where this species can be a virtual monoculture, buckthorn in Ireland seems to be more generously inclined towards its neigbours.

Connemara - some proposed sites for the DePaul Study Abroad trip 2012

1. Roadside vegetation, 2 Angler near Ashleigh falls, 3. Galway hookers coming in to Roundstone, 4. Boats on Inisnee, 5 The road less traveled, 6. Inishnee in the evening, 7. View from Diamond Hill (Connemara National Park)>.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Some potential Wicklow sites for DePaul Study Abroad Trip 2013

1. Buckroney dunes; 2. Orchid, Kilmacurra Arboretum 3. Poulanass waterfall 4 High tower, Glendalough, 5. Near Upper Lake Glendalough, 6. Panorama, Glendalough

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Rhamnus cathartica sighting in Killarney, Co Kerry? Turns out to be spindle!

Euonymus europaeus
Quite unexpectedly after my first morning botanizing in Killarney National Park I found, I believe, a nice specimen of common buckthorn [update: turned out to be spindle (Euonymus europaeus), see below].  I found it right beside Mucross Abbey, a deserted monastic site in the national park.  It is known to be a calcicole species here (though it can be found on quite acidic soils in the US Midwest) so it is not surprising to find it in the limestone region of the park..
Euonymus europaeus

The species is an old friend.  Because it is a problematic species from a management perspective in the US, it is hunted down and controlled (cut, poisoned and burned!) when it interferes with conservation plans for a preserve.  And rightly so, I would say.  However, it is attractive, hardy, and a great success in the US - my relationship with it has always been that of pupil and master, or perhaps merely envy on my part.  For whatever reason, I have spent the better part of a decade interested in this shrub, though truthfully we still don't know enough about it.

Those of you who know this plant well take a look a see if you agree with me that it is, in fact, buckthorn.  If it is not, I will be back in the field in the coming days.  The finely toothed leaves are almost opposite.  Though it is not fruiting yet the fruits are developing in clusters.  Also the bark is much grayer than I am used to seeing in the Midwest.

UPDATE 22nd July 2012: - There were enough differences between this specimen and R cathartica I am used to seeing in the midwest that I spend a little time working on it with some keys later that day.  With the assistance of old pals Helena Twomey and Bill Quirke (of Conservation Services) it was a much better fit for  spindle (Euonymus europaeus).  Fortunately I found buckthorn a few days later in Co Mayo.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Rhamnus cathartica in Ireland

A very helpful note from Dr Daniel Kelly from the Botany Department at Trinity College on the location of R cathartica in Ireland.  This otherwise very attractive shrub/small tree is a management nuisance in the Midwest, especially prevalent in the Chicago Wilderness region.

Dr Kelly reports from the 'Flora of Connemara & the Burren': "Woods, scrub, river-banks, rocky lake-shores and the margins of turloughs. Locally frequent on the limestone; very rare elsewhere..." "... Very frequent ... from near Oughterard to 3 km N. of Galway ... Locally abundant by the S. shore of L. Mask. Sparingly on the shore of L. Corrib in the grounds of Ashford Castle, and frequent on several of the islands."

It will be nice to see this plant in circumstances that do not provoke indignation and death-threats!

Ireland 2012 in preparation for Ireland 2013

Many of the posts for the coming weeks will be about the National Parks and environs of Killarney, Connemara, and Wicklow.  I will travelling there in preparation for a study abroad trip scheduled there for DePaul students.  The program is co-directed by me and Randall Honold, a colleague at DePaul.  Randall's training is in philosophy, mine is in ecology: what could possibly go wrong. For more information on the trip see here.

I will be rereading and commenting on Robert Lloyd Praeger’s book The Way That I Went as I go.  Another book that will travel the circuit with me is Tim Robinson’s Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin Ireland, 2011), the third in his trilogy of Connemara books.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Spat out of Nature by Nature: Konrad Lorenz and the Rise and Fall of Ethology

Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), widespread crows throughout Ireland, make delightful pets.  A school friend of mine in Dublin, Sean Farrell, kept one for a few months back in the late 1970s when we were both in our early teens.  The bird had broken its wing and Sean nursed it back to health.  The jackdaw was a noisy fellow and had his species' penchant for shiny things.  Sometime later I was happy to read that Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), the Austrian ethologist, published a behavioral study of a colony of Jackdaws that he maintained and included an account of the birds in his charming book King Solomon’s Ring.  King Solomon’s Ring, (the title is taken from the legend that Solomon had a ring that allowed him to talk to the animals), was a popularization of the emerging science of ethology, that is, the biological study of behaviour, and was perhaps the first book that confirmed to me that there was a to make a living out of what I happened to like to do.

I progressed from the lighter but nonetheless delightful accounts of animal behavior in King Solomon’s Ring and in Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists to the greater heft of Lorenz’s classic On Aggression (1966) which I read as a zoology undergrad at University College Dublin in the 1980s.  In this book, published later in his career when he was in his sixties, Lorenz shared his mature analysis of how insights from the study of the instinctual behaviour of animals can be helpful in thinking about the human condition.  As we shall see, as a good Darwinian he regarded human conduct as revealing much about our essentially animal nature, but unlike other animals we posses, he argued, a characteristic of being able to overcome this legacy.  In fact, he deemed it critical to our species survival that we simultaneously evaluate the evolution of aggressiveness in a clear-headed way while we find cultural solutions to discharging these unavoidable tendencies in a harmless way.  More harmless than war, that is.  Lorenz had lived through a war and he was committed to helping humanity avoid another one on that scale.

Before looking at the details of Lorenz’s analysis of human nature (in the post to follow this one) a word or two about the science of ethology which emerged as biological subdiscipline in the 20th Century under Lorenz’s and Tinbergen’s influence.  Together with Karl von Frisch, who worked out the details on the so-called “waggle-dance” of honeybees that allowed the hive to share information on the location of a food source, Lorenz and Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize (in medicine) in 1973.  A primary task of ethology was to place questions about the behaviour of animals in an evolutionary context.  How does the behavior function to increase the success of the animal; what are the triggers for the expression of that behavior, how does the behavior develop in the life of that individual; and, finally, what was the pattern in the evolutionary development of the behavior?[1],[2]  Some regarded it as a strength of the discipline that it simultaneously asked questions about the adaptive nature of the behavior, the mechanism by which the behavior is displayed, and how functions in the ecology of the organism. Critics, however, saw in this the danger that teleological thinking could creep into the analysis: the assumption that behavior developed to the point of ever increasing perfection as the behavior reached a preordained goal.