Cute problems?

seal wide-angle close-up web

Ontario has bears. BC and Alberta have wolves. Atlantic Canada has seals.

All three groups of animals have cute offspring; charismatic megafauna, if you will. All three have advocates that don’t want any harm to become of the animals. All three have advocates that encourage culling their populations.

The contentiousness of the Ontario spring bear hunt is palpable. Some see firing a rifle at a bear that was lured to a pile of apples and other sugary treats a deplorable method of hunting. Others view the hunt as crucial to proper wildlife management and essential for protecting the public’s safety.

The wolf culls currently going on in BC and Alberta are equally controversial, if not more so than Ontario’s spring bear hunt. At play is a question of ethics. Accusations levied against the government include culling entire packs using a “Judas Wolf” (an individual fitted with a radio-collar that gives away the pack’s location), aerial culling using helicopters, and the use of animal carcasses laced with the poison strychnine. Proponents of the cull assert that it is necessary to save populations of woodland caribou that are close to extirpation. The caribou not only represent an important component of boreal ecosystems in BC and Alberta, but they represent an important facet of First Nations culture in the region. Those opposed assert that the cull is simply a public relations ploy, an effort aimed at showing the public that the government is at least trying to do something. They further state that the cull distracts from the real problem: increasing amounts of infrastructure (e.g., roads, pipelines) from natural resource extraction sites is facilitating movement of predators and destroying caribou habitats.

The biggest and most controversial wildlife-related topic here in Atlantic Canada is the seal harvest. Seals – harp, grey, and hooded – were culled as part of wildlife management operations for many years, as well as the target of commercial hunting endeavours. In remote northern Canadian communities, profits from seal harvests may represent a significant portion of yearly income. In recent years, questions have arisen as to the interaction between the growing grey seal populations and fish stocks, namely the Atlantic cod. Thus far, the Atlantic cod population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence has not recovered to expected levels, and a high population of grey seals (from 15,000 in the 60s to an estimated 505,000 in 2014)consuming larger spawning-sized individuals and a high number of fish aggregating at overwintering sites may at least be partially responsible for the failed recovery. Indeed, very few grey seals are harvested in Atlantic Canada; just 82 individuals in 2014.

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A white-coat Harp seal pup (not my photo). Google Images/Flickr Creative Commons

 

Over the years, seal harvesting has declined precipitously. The most plausible explanation for this is increasing pressure from animal rights advocacy groups to stop harvests. Here again, is the issue of ethics and methods of harvest. While some hunters favour rifles and shotguns, others employ more traditional methods such as clubs and a device called a hakapik. Video and photos of sealers using the latter two methods can only be described as “provocative” and almost certainly forms the basis for anti-sealing campaigns.

harp seal harvest

Harp seal harvest from 2002 to 2014. Data provided by DFO

During years of low ice formation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, adult seals may come ashore to give birth to their pups. While seals often need ice to give birth on, shore-based births may increase pup survival in years when ice formation is weak.

For photographers, seals coming ashore represents a fleeting opportunity to photograph these marine mammals from a close distance. Below is a collection of photographs from 2015 and 2016.

My thoughts on the seal harvest – as well as wolf cull and spring bear hunt – are complicated, and reflect my conflicting love of nature, sensitivity to animal welfare issues, understanding of wildlife management principles, and realization that certain groups of citizens require money for themselves and their families. This is a debate that will rage for decades, and may be something that will never be resolved. For now, I will continue to enjoy my brief photo sessions with these charismatic marine mammals.

(Click a photo from each set of three to scroll through each collection)

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American eel (Anguilla rostrata)

Slithering along the bottom of Prince Edward Island freshwater ponds, estuaries, and nearshore saltwater environs is a uniformly olive-colored, long, tubular creature called the American eel (Anguilla rostrata). The story of A. rostrata is one of conflict with man; they’re a case study in how man’s desires (needs?) often butt heads with the requirements of wildlife.

American eels are fish, though perhaps they don’t really appear like your traditional fish. They are a member of the Order Anguilliformes, which consists of some 791 species of eels including the moray eels (Muraenidae) that many of us are familiar with. Fish in this Order inhabit all sorts of habitats from deep seas to freshwater lakes and ponds.

Late evening light penetrates through the semi-clear waters at Tracadie Beach, PEI illuminating a good sized eel.

Late evening light penetrates through the semi-clear waters at Tracadie Beach, PEI illuminating a good sized eel.

Anguilliformes swim with a whole-body, undulating motion, a style named after the Order itself. The only other fishes to swim like this are lampreys (Petromyzontiformes) and hagfishes (Myxiniformes). A propulsive waves runs backward down the body of the fish, generated by the snaking S-shaped body movements. The propulsive wave gets progressively larger as it moves down the body until finally the forces are transferred to the water at the tail fin, displacing water and moving the fish forward. Undulating the entire body, though, causes water to be displaced side-to-side and wastes energy. Normally, these reactive forces might slow the body down, but because the bends are so large the lateral forces cancel out. Still, eels are relatively slow swimmers with moderate swimming efficiencies (tunas, mackerels, billfishes, and lamnid sharks like makos and great whites are the most efficient).

An eel bursts away from me. Their whole-body undulations propel themselves through the water like a snake.

An eel bursts away from me. Their whole-body undulations propel themselves through the water like a snake.

Here you can see how the body curls into an S-shape.

Here you can see how the body curls into an S-shape.

American eels feed on a variety of things. The adults are omnivorous, feeding on everything from plants to fish. They are benthic dwellers that ply the bottom for whatever they can find.

An American eel probes the bottom looking for food.

An American eel probes the bottom looking for food.

Still looking for food.

Still looking for food.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of American eels is their life history strategy. A. rostrata begin life at sea, specifically in the Sargasso Sea, and spend much of their early developmental stages drifting in currents. These currents will eventually push them toward the coast as little transparent, “glass” eels. As they continue to develop into what’s termed elvers they move farther into freshwater. An interesting little factoid is that the juvenile elvers can move up and over rocks and other obstructions by using surface tension to adhere they bodies to surfaces and climb over things. Once in ponds, lakes, or inland rivers they will develop into adults (known as yellow eels). Eventually, the adults will out-migrate from August to December (usually at night) back to the ocean to spawn. This life history strategy is known as catadromy, and is the opposite strategy to anadromy that Pacific and Atlantic salmon use.

One caveat to their life history strategy is that they don’t necessarily have to go into freshwater to develop into adults. The coastal waters around Prince Edward Island is a perfect example of this. My limited excursions with a mask and snorkel have yielded a surprising number of eel sightings. This is encouraging because American eels are a threatened species…

An eel slithers along the bottom as an incoming tide brings bits of seagrass in with it.

An eel slithers along the bottom as an incoming tide brings bits of seagrass in with it.

Eels are threatened because humans have a voracious appetite for them. Stewed, barbecued, baked, or pan fried, the sweet, white flesh of American eels is considered a delicacy to many. Our desire (again, need?) to dam rivers and prevent them from reaching upstream feeding areas has created a powerful double-whammy that has led to population declines across their range. There are still fisheries for them, including here on PEI, but these are tightly managed. Conditions at sea and little or missing information on recruitment dynamics makes them difficult to manage.

These fish are fascinating to watch underwater and I had the great pleasure of doing so in a relatively open environment late yesterday evening. I’m looking forward to more time spent with these creatures!

Governor’s Island, Prince Edward Island: A Land (Seemingly) Before Time

Oh my, I just realized that it’s been exactly six months since my last post. A lot has happened since then, namely winter in general when time spent photographing things drops significantly, but also my PhD comprehensive exam and uber-busy field season. The latter has consumed the last three or so months, but like a light switch that someone flipped off, my business has come to an end. So, that’s opened up more opportunities to get out with my camera. YAY!

This past December I dropped our local Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) representative an email asking if they needed photo support for any of their projects, current or future. They indicated that photographs of their properties, field work, and volunteer events would be greatly appreciated and as someone that is sympathetic to their cause, I was more than happy to oblige.

Tuesday June 30th marked the first day I was able to get out and help the NCC with some field work. Actually, other than take  photos I didn’t really help at all; I just tagged along. Nevertheless, we met at a boat ramp near Charlottetown and headed out mid-morning.

It was the craziest boat ride I’ve ever been on. But that’s a story over beers…

After nearly breaking my fingers gripping the gunwale so hard, we finally made it to Governor’s Island. GI sits near the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour, within sight of Stratford and a few other communities on the South Shore. It’s accessible only by boat (yeah…island… duh, Sean) and really only by motor boat unless you get great conditions and are experienced sea kayakers.

As we approached the low elevation chunk of land, you could make out small shapes on the shoreline. Their size increased as we approached land and it was apparent we were looking at close to 100 seals, mostly of the grey variety. One of Governor Island’s claims to fame is a colony of seals, thought to number around 300, that calls this piece of terre “Home”.

Speaking of Governor’s Island factoids, here are a few more

  • The first offshore oil well in North America was drilled near GI
  • GI was one of the first pieces of Canadian land owned by a woman
  • The island was proposed as a religious retreat for followers of American evangelist, Billy Graham
  • To follow with the last bullet point, an air strip was constructed and trailers brought to the island
  • GI has very old geology reminiscent of mainland Nova Scotia rather than the younger stone of PEI… together this suggests that PEI was once connected to the mainland
  • It is home to a large colony of double-crested cormorants and great blue herons and it’s a stop-over point for migratory songbirds and waterfowl

I won’t bore you with a ton of text. What follows are the Editor’s Choice from a most-enjoyable 4-hours in a place with a decidedly prehistoric feel (save the airstrip remains and the old trailer). And you can click on each photo to make them BIGGER

Dead trees, killed most likely by the acidic poop of the cormorants sitting in them, provide the backdrop for vibrant green shrubs.

Dead trees, killed most likely by the acidic poop of the cormorants sitting in them, provide the backdrop for vibrant green shrubs.

A juvenile bald eagle hops off its perch above a family of double-crested cormorants, who are clearly protesting its presence. There were several eagles flying about and perching around, and I assume the eagles are picking off cormorant and heron chicks... Mmm, yummy.

A juvenile bald eagle hops off its perch above a family of double-crested cormorants, who are clearly protesting its presence. There were several eagles flying about and perching around, and I assume the eagles are picking off cormorant and heron chicks… Mmm, yummy.

Governor's Island was once proposed as the site for a religious retreat for followers of American evangelist, Billy Graham.

Governor’s Island was once proposed as the site for a religious retreat for followers of American evangelist, Billy Graham.

Two cormorant chicks await the return of their parents... and their next meal.

Two cormorant chicks await the return of their parents… and their next meal.

In addition to a major nesting site for double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, Governor's Island is also a stopover for migratory song birds like this common yellowthroat.

In addition to a major nesting site for double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, Governor’s Island is also a stopover for migratory song birds like this common yellowthroat.

Cormorants aka shags in flight.

Cormorants in flight.

A gathering of cormorants in a stand of dead spruce. The acidic cormorant poop has killed and bleached the trees.

A gathering of cormorants in a stand of dead spruce. The acidic cormorant poop has killed and bleached the trees.

NCC biologist, Mitchell MacMillan, walks along the shoreline of Governor's Island. Notice the grey boulders scattered about. These rocks are old, much older than most of the rock on PEI, and are of similar composition to rocks found on mainland Nova Scotia. This is evidence that Governor's Island - and by extension PEI - was once connected to the mainland, but broke off eons ago.

NCC biologist, Mitchell MacMillan, walks along the shoreline of Governor’s Island. Notice the grey boulders scattered about. These rocks are old, much older than most of the rock on PEI, and are of similar composition to rocks found on mainland Nova Scotia. This is evidence that Governor’s Island – and by extension PEI – was once connected to the mainland, but broke off eons ago.

Walking through Governor's Island felt very surreal. Contrasting scenes like this with fresh, live vegetation and dead trees inhabited by smelly, squawking cormorants were very common during our trip.

Walking through Governor’s Island felt very surreal. Contrasting scenes like this with fresh, live vegetation and dead trees inhabited by smelly, squawking cormorants were very common during our trip.

A grey seal swims just offshore of Governor's Island. In the background lie homes near Stratford, PEI.

A grey seal swims just offshore of Governor’s Island. In the background lie homes near Stratford, PEI.

A wide-angle shot showcasing the landscape of Governor's Island. Note the several cormorants flying overhead.

A wide-angle shot showcasing the landscape of Governor’s Island. Note the several cormorants flying overhead.

An NCC staffer takes note of several cormorant nests in a dead tree.

An NCC staffer takes note of several cormorant nests in a dead tree.

A composite of the same double-crested cormorant taking flight from its nest.

A composite of the same double-crested cormorant taking flight from its nest.

A cormorant chick peers at me from the edge of its nest.

A cormorant chick peers at me from the edge of its nest.

An NCC forestry expert pauses to take a snapshot on his cell phone of a dead tree and cormorant nest in the middle of Governor's Island.

An NCC forestry expert pauses to take a snapshot on his cell phone of a dead tree and cormorant nest in the middle of Governor’s Island.

Sunfish Special

I remember a rock.  It was large and grayish, pretty standard by all accounts.  Nearby was a small river and above it was a bridge with wooden planks.

I don’t even remember actually catching the fish.

With photo in hand, though, I can tell you that I was pretty damn enthralled by that little fish.

Let's talk about those chartreuse shorts, though.

Let’s talk about those chartreuse shorts, though.

That first fish, caught when I was all of four years old, created a monster.  Soon I was memorizing all the fishing lures in the Bass Pro Shops catalogs.  My book shelves filled with fishing books.  Testing out new rods and reels gifted during Christmas had to happen immediately, never mind the nearly freezing temps and snow on the ground.  I begged my dad to take me fishing constantly, a request he always granted and always with a smile on his face (and a request Mom always supported).  When other kids tossed a ball around on the street in front of their homes (I did this, too), this guy practiced his double-haul technique, getting weird glances from neighbors and passing cars.  Boring old Summer Camp became exciting go-fishing-for-a-week-three-times-a-day Summer Camp (I tried to find the website for the camp, but sadly they seem to have shut it down).  And, eventually, that fish led to my interest in fisheries science.

The sunfish family (Centrarchidae) is composed of several very cool fishes.  For my readers in Prince Edward Island, you won’t find any of these here, but you can over in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (e.g., smallmouth bass).  With the exception of the Far North, pretty much every other corner of North America has a centrarchid of some sort.  You’ll also find them in Latin America, South Africa, and Japan just to name a few non-North American locales.

The front end of a bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus).  YOU MUST CLICK THIS IMAGE OR ELSE!  Really have to see it BIG to appreciate some of the details, right down to the individual chromatophores!

The front end of a bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). I’ve uploaded this as a large file for you to explore.  YOU MUST CLICK THIS IMAGE OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES! Really have to see it BIG to appreciate some of the details, right down to the individual chromatophores (pigment producing cells)!

Bull-headed and broad-shouldered, green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) are a common fish found in many lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams throughout the United States.

Bull-headed and broad-shouldered, green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) are a common fish found in many lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams throughout the United States.

Some of the more famous sunfishes are the various bass species (not to be confused with striped bass, which are “true” black bass in the family Moronidae… hehe call your boss that the next time he’s being a jerk) like largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass.  The former species, aka Bucketmouths or Big Mouth Bass, receives the most attention from anglers, especially those in the United States.  They are the focal species of a MASSIVE freshwater fishing industry, which is currently undergoing a revolution as the sport (feel free to debate that term in the comments) sees interest gaining rapidly in a young fan-base, particularly at the college level.  At one time I had aspirations of becoming a professional bass angler.  Though I shed that dream by my mid-teens, I still participated in bass fishing tournaments and was lucky enough to bring home the Big 10 Championship one year with several of my friends in the Fighting Illini Bass Club.  Yet, there are plenty of other sunfishes that are awesome in their own right.

A couple of my favorites include the bluegill and green sunfish.  The former is my home state’s state fish and the latter is just a hard-fighting, aggressive little creature with a tenacious appetite.  I had the chance while home over the holidays to photograph these two species using a field studio/tank setup.  If you’ve ever had your photo taken professionally in a studio you might remember standing/sitting on some sort of sheet – maybe black, white, brown, grey, or blue – with big flash units going off around you.  It’s the same premise here, but everything is smaller and sometimes the sheet is replaced with a white reflector or piece of plexiglass/acrylic… and there’s a fish tank involved when working with anything aquatic.  Same concept though of getting a seamless background to keep the viewer’s eyes focused on the subject.  I meant to grab a behind-the-scenes shot of the setup during my last shoot, but simply forgot.

With a quick swipe of its tail, my subject zoomed out of frame, but not before I could snap this image.

With a quick swipe of its tail, my subject zoomed out of frame, but not before I could snap this image.

The yellowish fins of a green sunfish.

The yellowish fins of a green sunfish.

An identifying characteristics of the bluegills is a black dot posterior on the dorsal fin.

An identifying characteristics of the bluegill is a black dot posterior on the dorsal fin.

Taking this studio technique into the field has been done by various photographers, but an initiative begun several years ago has reinvigorated the style again for many people.  The Meet Your Neighbors initiative seeks to photo document global biodiversity (using the aforementioned methods), particularly the things that live around your home area.  The goal is to get the public more aware of what lives around them, in hopes of generating interest and appreciation for conserving our natural world.  I love the idea and am hoping to become part of the effort in the near future.

A composite image of two bluegills.  Notice the large, spiny dorsal fins that are used for both maneuvering as well as defense against predation.

A composite image of two bluegills. Notice the large, spiny dorsal fins that are used for both maneuvering as well as defense against predation.

The colorful cheek and dark eye of a green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus).

The colorful cheek and dark eye of a green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus).

Top 10 of 2014

I needed to take a walk this evening on my last day visiting family in the Midwest.  I wandered the cold, but muddy cornfields across the street and watched vibrant, pink color saturate the clouds overhead.  The empty cornfields and cold temps made for a lonely walk, but I took the quiet time to do a little reflection over the last year. In a nutshell, 2014 was exciting.  I built a great friendship with Vincent of Art 146 in downtown Charlottetown and I’m super thankful for the man behind the prints, Adam Kavanagh at Newfoundland Canvas, for all his guidance and top notch customer service.  I hope our paths cross at some point in the future.  Working with the folks at Saltscapes was great fun and made for a great first experience publishing something in a magazine.  My girlfriend and I celebrated five years together and traveled to Newfoundland for the first time (and hopefully not last). Nevertheless, I still have lots to work on.

One issue I encountered in 2014 was a somewhat frequent battle waging in my own mind that caused me to lose my creative drive and revert instead to what was comfortable.  I think this is in part because photography, when pursued seriously, can be quite a lonely endeavor.  I’m also finding my professional/career desires changing, which has had an impact on a variety of things in my life. Nevertheless, I’m eagerly anticipating what 2015 brings to the table.  I have some personal projects that I would like to work on and a couple partnerships in the works.  Ultimately, I’m hoping to change how I use my camera. Anywho, you probably didn’t come here to read the above text.  So if you’re still here, thanks!  Below are my top 10 of 2014, plus a bonus.  These are also in no particular order.  Any of these can be printed or licensed via my website www.seanlandsmanphotography.com

M'lady, Sarah, on a rock outcrop overlooking the Green Gardens Trail in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.

1.  M’lady, Sarah, on a rock outcrop overlooking the Green Gardens Trail in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.

2.  A fleeting Northern Lights show in September with a fantastic rising full moon.  Capturing rare light conditions is what landscape photography is all about.

2. A fleeting Northern Lights show in September with a fantastic rising full moon. Capturing rare light conditions is what landscape photography is all about.

3.  This image serves as a reminder that getting off the land and into the water can pay big dividends.  My chest waders were essential in creating this image.

3. This image serves as a reminder that getting off the land and into the water can pay big dividends. My chest waders were essential in creating this image.

5.  The conditions aligned nicely for this image with a bit of fog, a nice arrangement of flowers, and a little rain to coat everything.  I like the simplicity of this a lot.

5. The conditions aligned nicely for this image with a bit of fog, a nice arrangement of flowers, and a little rain to coat everything. I like the simplicity of this a lot.

5.  Luck led to this image and indeed supports the old saying, "It's better to be lucky than good!"

5. Luck led to this image and indeed supports the old saying, “It’s better to be lucky than good!”

Fog shrouds a forest of mixed hard and softwoods in east central Prince Edward Island.

6.  Fog shrouds a forest of mixed hard and softwoods in east central Prince Edward Island.

7.  A gorgeous mid-autumn scene along a brook in Fundy National Park.

7. A gorgeous mid-autumn scene along a brook in Fundy National Park.

8.  A cheeky fella that makes me smile each time I view this image.

8. A cheeky fella that makes me smile each time I view this image.

9.  A rainbow smelt jumps over a small falls in the middle of one of the study sites I use for my research.

9. A rainbow smelt jumps over a small falls in the middle of one of the study sites I use for my research.

10.  Coming from the Midwestern US, it's not every day that you get to see ice bergs.  So understandably, I was really excited when Charlottetown Harbour, which is visible from my living room, was full of these giant ice blocks.  There is a small duck just behind the large iceberg in the foreground that sort of gives a sense of scale.

10. Coming from the Midwestern US, it’s not every day that you get to see ice bergs. So understandably, I was really excited when Charlottetown Harbour, which is visible from my living room, was full of these giant ice blocks. There is a small duck just behind the large iceberg in the foreground that sort of gives a sense of scale.

14.  I grew up catching bluegills so they have a special place in my heart.  I'm very excited to do more of this type of photography in 2015.

Bonus. I grew up catching bluegills so they have a special place in my heart. I’m very excited to do more of this type of photography in 2015.

Murder (of Crows)

Many animals engage in “diel” behaviours.  ‘Diel’ is a science-y term that refers to a cyclic 24-hour pattern of behavior usually related to day and night patterns (can also include twilight periods).  Owls are a good example of a group of species that exhibit diel behaviours, typically sleeping/inactive during the day and foraging at night.  Jaguars and other big cats are more examples.  Sardines will migrate vertically in the water column to forage, going deep during the day and rising toward the surface in response to zooplankton movements.

The latter sardine example illustrates both diel behavior and a migration.  We often think of migrations as being for reproduction (e.g., Pacific salmon), but a migration can be any directed movement between at least two discrete habitats.  So, for sardines, moving from the deep ocean toward the surface would be considered a migration.  Ducks escaping frigid north latitude temperatures and moving long distances to warmer locales would also qualify.

Here in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, we have eastern crows that migrate every day from their roosts to their territories and back again.  They fly the exact same pathways into and out of the city, leaving at dawn and returning at dusk.  A lot of crows on PEI (clearly not all, but certainly several thousand… a “murder of crows” if you will) roost in Victoria Park, one of Charlottetown’s biggest attractions for locals and tourists alike.  At night, they roost in the trees IN TOTAL SILENCE.  Creepy doesn’t even begin to describe what it feels like walking underneath a giant tree with hundreds of sleeping crows 50 feet above your head.  Then, in the morning they disperse to their colonies, forage during the day, and fly back to their roost at night.

crows vic park web-2

I went for a walk yesterday evening originally to photograph the landscape around Charlottetown, but when the light was uncooperative I turned my focus to the crow migration happening over my head.  Some hate crows, but I find them fascinating creatures.  We once had a bag of compost that we set out overnight on our deck.  In the morning we woke to find chicken bones, which were buried half-way down in the bag, scattered about the deck.  Upon closer inspection of the bag, the crows had pinpointed the location of the chicken bones, poked holes just barely large enough for their beaks to fit through, and carefully extracted their prizes.  Indeed, crows are creepy smart.  If you don’t believe me, just watch this video of crows using tools.

crows vic park web-1

crows vic park web-3

Ole Jack and His Paint Brush

The only panorama that I've ever been really satisfied with showing a wondering array of colors beside a small lake.

The only panorama that I’ve ever been really satisfied with showing a wondering array of colors beside a small lake.

[Before I begin, I’d like to disclose that I am NOT a plant biologist.  My training is related to fish.  I do, however, have plenty of research-related experience so I know a thing or two about condensing a ton of info into something manageable.  This blog post is intended to be informative and accessible to anyone no matter their education level.] To non-biology folk, the reasoning behind leaves turning colors in the fall is because Jack Frost makes a visit on the first frigid night and paints them that way.  For the less creative, I suspect a popular response would be “magic”.  And while I love the thought of both of these (there’s an air of mysteriousness associated with them), there’s actually a very scientific reason for it.

The last rays of daylight kiss the top of this colorful hill and light the sky a soft, but vivid red/pink.

The last rays of daylight kiss the top of this colorful hill and light the sky a soft, but vivid red/pink.

First, we need to understand that there’s a lot of yummy goodness in leaves such as starches (which are just lots and lots of sugar or glucose molecules strung together), proteins, and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  The plant requires these things to live.

A multitude of colors ranging from dark green conifers to bright orange maples.  The foreground is a blueberry field.

A multitude of colors ranging from dark green conifers to bright orange maples. The foreground is a blueberry field.

“But wait.  Umm.  Don’t trees lose their leaves?” “Yes,” I say to you.  “Then if they lose their leaves, and there’s a bunch of tasty stuff in them, isn’t the plant screwed?” Fortunately, no it’s not.  The combination of shorter day lengths and lower temperatures triggers a change in trees, specifically the expression of certain hormones.  The trees begin resorbing nutrients and breaking down large complicated macromolecules in the leaves like starch and proteins into their smaller subunits of sugars and amino acids.  All of these things are stored within the plant and used throughout the winter and again in the spring when new leaf production occurs and trees begin growing again.  Eventually, the cell walls are weakened by “Wall-Degrading Enzymes” and the petiole severs from the stem.

I used to hate fall.  How was that even possible?

I used to hate fall. How was that even possible?

“And what about the colors?” I’ll address that question in a second, but let’s take a moment to reflect back on a random day in July.  What color were the leaves at that time?  Green, right?  The green comes from chlorophyll (“More like borophyll!”  You get extra credit if you can correctly name that movie in the comments) that reflects green wavelengths of light, absorbing everything else.  As daylight shrinks and temperatures get cooler, less and less chlorophyll is produced, so the green fades away.  In turn, other colors associated with different pigments become visible.

At this point, all the chlorophyll in this maple is gone, leaving behind just orange carotenoids for our viewing pleasure.

At this point, all the chlorophyll in this maple is gone, leaving behind just orange carotenoids for our viewing pleasure.

And that’s it in a nutshell.

Conifers have needles (modified leaves) that can photosynthesize all year, but they are not as efficient as broad leaves on deciduous trees.  Here a broad-leafed poplar tree stands out from a crowd of conifers (likely spruces).

Conifers have needles (modified leaves) that can photosynthesize all year, but they are not as efficient as broad leaves on deciduous trees. Here a broad-leafed poplar tree stands out from a crowd of conifers (likely spruces).

So to summarize, 1) changing weather starts physiological changes that eventually lead to leaf loss and 2) less (green) chlorophyll is produced allowing other colored pigments to become visible.  You know, I could have just written this one paragraph and it would have been much more efficient, but where’s the fun in that?  🙂 For more information, check out this link by a professor at my Alma Mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Dr. Jeff Dawson Autumn Leaf Article.  And to see more info related to the differences between conifers and deciduous trees, check out this great blog post from The Roaming Naturalist, whose site I found while doing a little research for this post. And if I’ve missed something or you feel like you want to expand further, leave a comment!

Here chlorophyll is still being produced in good quantities.  Maybe I will try to go back to this spot over the weekend and take another photo... that is if the hurricane-force winds (literally) we had today didn't blow all the color away!

Here chlorophyll is still being produced in good quantities. Maybe I will try to go back to this spot over the weekend and take another photo… that is if the hurricane-force winds (literally) we had today didn’t blow all the color away!