Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A special Christmas ecosystem

Today, with it being Christmas and all, instead of profiling a plant in my blog I figured I would profile an entire ecosystem. This ecosystem is incredibly rare, only occurring in one tiny pocket in the world, and I've been lucky enough to visit it yearly. It's a hidden gem; I can guarantee that none of you have ever seen it before, although many of you will have experienced something similar. Unfortunately, it's a transient ecosystem and is best experienced at this time of year. It's also almost like it has a timer; almost every year on New Year's Day it disappears for another 11 months. Strange! I'm not going to tell you where this ecosystem is since I like to keep SOME secrets (and my mom is mad enough about her stuffing recipe!). So enjoy the photo collage with explanations! :)

Species name: Abies navidadea

Common name: artificial Christmas tree

Location: secret!

The first species I'll profile from this ecosystem is known commonly as the "artificial Christmas tree". I'm not sure how the common name came about; it's either going to be a Christmas tree or it's not. But we'll go with it for now! This species grows incredibly quickly but never achieves its full height, rarely growing above 5 feet tall. It has intimate associations with other species, which I'll talk a bit about as we come to them. Unfortunately, the wood of this species is incredibly tough; it can be compared to solid steel. This makes it incredibly impractical for any use other than ornamental use.

Species name: Bacillus fibreopticaleus

Common name: fibre optics

One of the reasons why this ecosystem is so endangered is because of the poaching of trees that occurs for the symbionts that live within the trees themselves. Commonly these are called "fibre optics", a species of bioluminescent bacteria that live within the branches and on the surface of the needles. Why these species exist on and in the tree no one is quite sure; it might act as a way of attracting insect pollinators. The cones that grow on this tree in the spring (usually when the ecosystem is hidden away for the year) are incredibly unusual as far as gymnosperm cones go; the pollen isn't wind dispersed like other pollen cones. It is hypothesized that there were once insects that had co-evolved with these trees, attracted by the bioluminescent bacteria, that once pollinated them. It is also hypothesized that these insects have long since gone extinct or are hunted to near extinction by the ever-dominant Homo sapiens.

Species name: Gymnosporangium navidadea

Common name: Christmas ornaments

Unfortunately, the artificial Christmas tree is often attacked by a very unusual species of fungus, one that has a complex morphology like the cedar apple rust (and so it is placed in the same genus; no DNA analysis has been done on this species so we are unsure of its correct placement within the fungi). The morphology of this species is very similar microscopically to a pipecleaner with a very rigid interior and a fluffy, polyester-like exterior. The six arm-like projections are thought to mimic snowflakes, but we are unsure whether or not this has any kind of biological relevance. A very unusual species, indeed!

Species name: Sphagnum treeskirtii

Common name: Tree skirt

This species of Sphagnum grows almost exclusively with artificial Christmas trees, although it can occasionally grow with other species used as Christmas trees in captivity. It has an incredibly soft, fur-like texture that is sometimes pressed into large sheets of fabric and sewn to make seasonal clothing; it is believed that Santa Claus wears a suit made of this botanical fabric (but no one has ever seen it to confirm this idea). Other uses for this type of moss is unclear; it is rumoured to have a role in animal bedding in captivity.

Species name: Ursus noelae

Common name: Christmas bear

As an incredibly unusual step for my blog, I figured I can't possibly ignore the last integral part of this special ecosystem even though it happens to be an animal. This bear is very unusual, not just because it's one of the only bears to have ever worn clothing on a regular occasion. The main reason for why it is so unusual is because of its size; it's barely 4 inches tall! Another unusual characteristic about this bear, the only one that has this characteristic in the genus, is that it is a herbivore. It grazes on the needles and bark of the tree, rarely leaving the tree that it also uses as shelter (it is rumoured to build a nest in the tree like birds do; I have never seen this phenomenon in action so I can't speak to the validity of this rumour). Unfortunately, this is the most popular prey of a very large cat-like creature, commonly known as Storm The Cat (Latin name Felis catus). This cat subspecies (it is believed to be the only one left) is a ruthless predator when it comes to the Christmas bear, tearing it from its tree and throwing it to the ground. It does almost seem to be a game, however, as rarely does the cat do anything to the bear after this. Nevertheless, the bears are often so scared that they have heart attacks, leading to their population numbers suffering needlessly as a result of this "game" played by the cat. She is discouraged, but likes to hunt at night when no one is watching. We have considered erecting a fence to protect this fragile ecosystem...

Merry Christmas, everyone!