Why is biodiversity so important? The case of the Tortrix, Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at the curious case of a webworm infestation of one unlucky American plum on our campus.

Here was the poor tree on May 26:

Certainly a blow to the tree. I had a couple people asked me what I planned to do, and I said, “Let’s wait and see.”

Here it was on July 12, less than 7 weeks later:

A few thin patches, but not too bad, considering that it was completely defoliated. Often the best prescription for ecological issues is patience.

What you can’t see in the above photo is the flowering dogwood tree in the back. On May 26, the plum was devastated, but this particular species of webworm wasn’t interested in the dogwood tree at all.

This highlights a very important theme in the plant/herbivore relationship. Plants want to grow and not be eaten. Herbivores want to eat plants. We have a recipe for an evolutionary arms race.

Plants wear thorns. Giraffes evolve long tongues. Other plants are tough and sandpapery. Cows evolves thick, tough tongues.

In addition to physical barriers, most every plant species has also evolved a chemical cocktail that herbivorous insects (or birds, mammals, etc) find unpalatable, indigestible, or outright poisonous. Here the herbivores are faced with a fork in the road: either eat just a little bit of every kind of plant, or specialize on just a few plants and evolve resistance to those particular chemical compounds. Renaissance man (insect) or highly specialized expert.

Since there are thousands of plants with different chemical signatures, it’s “easier” for any given insect species to pick one small group of plants and specialize, evolving defenses only for that chemical compound. It appears that the majority of insects have chosen to specialize rather than generalize. The monarch butterfly is perhaps the most famous of example, with it’s preference for milkweed. It can feed on several milkweed species in the Asclepias genus. It has evolved the ability to withstand the milkweeds’ sticky, toxic sap as it chews, as has the milkweed beetle, milkweed bug, and the milkweed tiger moth.

Sticky sap from Common Milkweed, repelling most (but not all) hungry critters. (http://kentuckyforager.com)


Back to our Tortrix moths (or webworm, or leafrollers). At the risk of demolishing my own argument, it appears that most moths in the subfamily Tortricidae are actually polyphagous (that is, they eat several different plants). But I was struck by the fact that only our single American plum, surrounded by several other plant species, was chosen for this moth buffet.


This has implications for our management of natural areas, and of more landscaped settings.

#1: The more biodiverse our flora (plants), the more biodiverse our fauna (animals). If each plant species can host several new insect species, the more players we have in the game. These of course form the base of the food chain. As populations ebb and flow, higher predators (like birds, mammals… and humans!) have options to fall back when circumstances inevitably change.

Following from #1…

#2: Biodiverse communities are resilient communities. The emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, Hemlock woolly adelgid, Chestnut blight… each of these insects or pathogens were introduced to the U.S. and devastated populations of native trees that had not co-evolved defenses with the alien newcomers. Beautiful neighborhoods with row after row of only mature ash trees were reduced to tree-less lawns. Squirrels had nowhere to nest, shade was non-existent, baby birds have now leaf-eating caterpillars to eat. Having a large cast of players ensures that if one is down for the count (due to a disease outbreak, drought, etc), another species can fill in for it. Ripple effects of such a trophic cascade are minimized.

This is precisely what I was thinking when I first saw our campus. I saw lots of mature silver maples and only a few other species, and only a few young trees. We made the difficult decision to selectively remove some large silver maples that were posing a danger to people or property and replaced them dozens of new trees comprised of over 20 species. We should be better positioned for the next unforeseen outbreak.

Following from #2…

#3: Each species has a role, and we are ignorant not only of what those roles are, but even how many or which members are around. Most of the species have been evolving for thousands or millions of years to get where they are today. We are dabbling with mysteries that we are only vaguely aware of.

On our campus, we have plenty of migratory and resident birds that fill the air with song and flashy displays of aerial stunts. Undoubtedly, some of them rely on moth caterpillars, cocoons, or flying adults. To varying degrees, they depend on the life cycles of various insects.

Following from #3…

#4: The above principles suggest that we should default to the precautionary principle. That is, before we do anything, let’s do no harm.

I’ll stop the train of thought there, but that’s a part of the process of beginning to “think ecologically,” not just with the surficial concerns that are immediately obvious.


John Muir put it another way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Solarize Indiana deadline quickly approaching

From WNDU:

The economics of installing a solar system in Indiana will change substantially at the end of this year.

Anyone looking to beat that deadline will have plenty of help from a new group of community volunteers called Solarize South Bend.

If you are a homeowner or business owner in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko, or Marshall counties, you may be able to get in on this solar group-buy. In addition to a more affordable and easier purchase process, you can lock in 30 years of favorable utility connection terms (net metering)… but only if you make a commitment by Sep. 30.

See here for the complete details >> http://www.solarizeni.org/southbend.html

We are looking into solar energy solutions for The Center At Donaldson as well. Nothing yet to report… but we’re on the way!

Why is biodiversity so important? The case of the Tortrix, Part 1

As the on-call ecologist at The Center at Donaldson, I get pulled aside to see a lot of things. Dead birds, turtle eggs, strange insects, and albino squirrels, for example. Sometimes there is an unsolvable mystery. Other times, important clues that fill in the gaps to working hypotheses and ponderings.

“Adam, have you seen the tree in front of Lindenwood?”

On May 26th, I responded to another call and found that our beautiful American Plum tree had been taken over:

Think of your friend who is most grossed out by bugs, all things creeping and crawling. Imagine their worst nightmare. This would probably be it.

How about a close up?

I was naturally intrigued, so I stood underneath the tree and looked closely. Strings of worms several feet long were rappelling down off the bare branches on their own slime-ropes. There were so many that I could actually hear them chewing on the leaves. As several of the ropes started dropping around me, I figured it best to move out from under the tree. (I like insects a lot, but even I don’t want them crawling all over my scalp).

Ignore my comment about “bag worms,” which they were not… it was just the only vocabulary I had at the time.

Given that the tree was already 99% defoliated (and it was 4 pm on a Friday) there was really nothing to be done, other than try to ID the worm at hand.

I failed to grab and preserve a specimen (my first mistake!) but I posted the above photos and notes to a Facebook group dedicated to Insect Identification. These types of groups are a bit of a mixed bag. There are plenty of “know-it-alls” who are pretty misinformed, but I also personally know taxonomic experts who frequent these sites (often obsessively) and offer great scientific insight and identification. The internet has allowed “citizen scientists” to play an increasing role in making observations about the natural world, as well as allowing scientists to interact with a broader audience. We just have to be mindful about quality.

Someone in the group suggested that it was probably a Tortrid or Tortrix moth (from the insect family Tortricinae). They are commonly referred to as leafrollers. They further suggested it was of the Sparganothis genus.

Morphological differences between insect species can be so subtle that even experts cannot make a definitive identification of some without a microscope, sometimes not even without dissection. Unless it’s a scientific study or an intervention is planned, it is often enough to call something a “leafroller” and be done with it.

But… that won’t stop us from an educated guess!

I clicked through the Sparganothis species list on Wikipedia, looking for those who had populations in the Midwestern. From the Wikipedia citations I was directed to the Tortrix food plant database, which detailed many published observations on Tortrix moths. I wanted to see which species might be found of American plum.

There was an observation of Sparganothis directana feeding on a wild cherry tree (Prunus virginiana),  which is a close relative of American plum (P. americana). There were also are a few observations of other Sparganothis species feeding on Prunus species (S. reticulantana, S. directana, S. umbrana, and S. diluticostana). The first two species’ range includes Indiana. But that would be as close as I could get without professional help.

The moth “worms” that we saw were larva. They would then go on to the cocoon stage. I didn’t notice any cocoons in the tree, but then again, I didn’t look closely. Cocoons can also be made under the leaves, or even underground. The cocoon hatches and then moths emerge, fly around, mate, and die or get eaten. A few moth species overwinter as adults in the leaf litter. I don’t know about Tortrix, but some moth species (like butterflies) even migrate!

But back to our “outbreak.” We had one tree that was “taken over.” It was a “complete plague.” I was asked what I could do to fix this “problem.”

There is a lot of human culture hidden behind the language that we use.

As an agricultural species dependent on green growing plants, we humans have developed an inherently negative reaction to insects, which feed largely on green growing plants. It’s not surprising that we see any insect eating any plant (even if not a food crop necessary for our survival) as a “problem.”

Leaf roller moths, and many other insects, can be serious pests on agricultural crops. In order to provide food for ourselves, we need to think carefully about how and when to manage pest populations on our food crops. The tools used may be mechanical, biological, or chemical.

The new imperative of the Anthropocene is to look harder and longer at the web of connections around us, to consider the many ripple effects of our decisions.

Below is a chart detailing the phenology (seasonal timing) of a Tortrix moth that was observed in an outbreak in Michigan in the 1960’s (Wilson, 1972). I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our Tortrix had a roughly similar life history. Wilson’s publication is pretty short and it’s an interesting read.This species covered hundreds of thousands of acres, primarily targeting red oaks. The initial boom started in 1965 and lasted until a population collapse in 1970. In some areas, “considerable dieback and tree mortality occurred.” A similar outbreak occurred in the region from 1956-1958.

I found these note interesting (emphasis mine):

Mature larvae exhibit typical torticid behavior when disturbed. They retreat rapidly in reverse and drop down on their silk threads. Those dropping over water attract trout and other fish. Some fishermen who noticed the activity of this “greeny-worm”, as they called them, tied trout flies to imitate them during the outbreak…

In urban areas such as in and  near the town of Mio, which relies heavily on tourism, the insect denuded and killed many of the predominant shade trees. Dead oaks along roadsides were aesthetically unpleasing to residents and tourists alike.”

Even in scientific journals, the issue of aesthetics cannot be avoided!

It is beyond the scope of the paper, but the many ripple effects of these outbreaks were not measured. Sun-loving, savanna plant species in these forests probably flourished after this outbreak, produced lots of pollen and nectar, and laid down seeds in the soil to wait for the next outbreak. Oaks temporarily on the decline left room for beech, maple, and pine trees to grow. Innumerable insect species flourished in the dead wood of the trees, as well as fungi to slowly decompose the trees and recycle their nutrients back into the biosphere. Woodcock, wood peckers, and other birds that relied on open habitat and dead trees probably flocked to the region and had several years of good reproduction, feasting on the insect buffet.

To the natural world, an outbreak at this scale wasn’t “bad,” it was just different. This difference in habitat availability at a regional scale lead to a more biodiverse web of life. Rather than a single blanket of mature oak trees, there was a patchwork buffet of many species and stages of growth, each variation attracting a different cast of characters.

Our own moth worm outbreak is a naturally occurring phenomenon, just like the huge population booms and busts of many insect species. So was it a “problem” to be “solved?”

Stay tuned for Part 2!

What does the fox say?

Thanks to a grant from Arrowhead County RC&D, Earthworks was able to install high-quality wildlife cameras at The Center at Donaldson, whose campus includes a 37 acre kettle lake, prairie restorations, pastures, forests, and landscaped areas. Wildlife is abundant, and includes bald eagles, osprey, sandhill cranes, bobolinks, deer, red foxes, monarch butterflies, several turtle species, and red-headed woodpeckers, to name only a few. We have at least 3 of the Chicago Wilderness’ 12 Priority Species, and possibly more.

This year, each week-long Earthwork’s day camp (kids ages 6-10) follows a theme of either Soil, Water, or Air. Integral to each of these systems is wildlife. As rural areas depopulate and children spend more time indoors, they are increasingly unfamiliar with the cast of characters that we share space with. Often, they know more about elephants, lions, and giraffes than about their own native foxes, turtles, and birds.

We first take the kids into the woods and show them the cameras, let them wave and leave funny faces. Then we teach them about animals signs, habitat, and viewing the landscape through their eyes. At the end of the week, we retrieve the storage cards and let them see who is out there!

I knew from walking the woods that a den was located not far outside our camp building. I wasn’t sure which animal it belonged to, but given that we had reports of a new fox family nearby, I figured that was it.

We set up the camera in front of the den and let it run for a week. One of the cameras even has an integrated solar panel and internal battery, with AA batteries providing back-ups (so far, the solar panel appears to be providing all the power necessary). It would take audio and video both day and night, triggered by motion sensors.

Boxing foxes!

Foxes there indeed were! What a treat to see.

We left the cameras rolling…

Did I mention that these cameras take videos too? (Note: You might not see videos if you’re reading this inside your e-mail… you’ll have to click the blog post and open in a web browser)

And at night!

We expected foxes. And, of course, deer. But we were pleasantly surprised to find other critters as well.

This groundhog seemed a bit wary. Maybe he originally dug the burrow, or was scoping out a possible conquest, or perhaps just admiring the architecture and front lawn.

We upload these photos and videos to our social media accounts to build  excitement about making the wildlife around us more visible to the campers.

Our cameras do capture audio, but aside from some birdsong, we haven’t heard much of anything yet. We still don’t know what the fox says! We’ll keep listening.

Welcome to Ecological Relationships!

This blog will highlight the ecological work at The Center at Donaldson (TCAD), a village of ministries sponsored by The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) in rural northern Indiana. The Poor Handmaids are a community of women religious in the Catholic tradition, originally established in Germany in 1851. PHJC now has ministries of compassion throughout the world, driven by their core values.

In 2016, after a long history of work around sustainability, ecology, and earth education, the PHJC community created a full-time position to coordinate these efforts. I (Adam) came to TCAD as Director of Ecological Relationships. I previously held positions with non-profits in Indiana and Bolivia, as well as working as a consulting botanist in the private sector.

Our burn crew after burning off leaf litter in a small oak savanna, March 2017.

I work with a diverse, multi-disciplinary team. We explore our “ecological relationships” by deepening our commitment to sustainability, using science to educate and inquire, and being open to what the Spirit might be saying in the day-to-day rhythms of Creation.
In this blog, we’ll get (literally) into the weeds, down to the smallest wildflower. We are also concerned with our broader social-political relationship, and may examine how social movements and legislation affect our common home. Scaling up, we’ll try to consider the cosmic scale of our ecological relationships as well.

Besides being pleasing to the eye, flowers and their pollinators play an important ecological role in our landscape. This swallowtail was found nectaring on an Ironweed in our cattle pasture in 2016.

I hope to update weekly… and at a minimum of 3 times each month. Some posts will be heavily footnoted and referenced, others will be more casual observations.

To get us started, scroll down to see some writings from the last year, or click below:
*Don’t farm naked! (on cover crops)

*You sow what you reap (on prairie restoration)

*Do you “C” what I “C?” (on plant monitoring)

Please share, comment, critique, collaborate, and instigate… that’s why we’re here!

Adam Thada, Director of Ecological Relationships