Monday, November 17, 2014

of buckwheats and butterflies

Eriogonum parvifolium (var. parvifolium)

edited 11/25/14 -  I've made a public fool of myself.  And, I'm okay with that.  Sharing my journey may help someone else learn something new about themselves, or about the world around them.  Sincere apologies to those who have read through my numerous emotional incarnations of pure drivel as I worked all of this out in a very public space.  I do thank you for your time.

The embarrassing kicker is that my experience could be the perfect demonstration, p-e-r-f-e-c-t, of the perils of ID based on observable traits.  Art Shapiro kindly pointed out to me, "Your essay is no surprise to me. Laypeople often think taxonomy is just naming and identifying distinct entities in Nature (for the religious, add "as created by God"). Well, it ain't. DNA sequencing has underscored that! I've been teaching students since 1972 that "if species weren't messy, we'd have no reason to believe in evolution." Subspecies are even worse. In the heyday of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, taxonomic subspecies were viewed as species in statu nascendi. Some folks understood way back then that being recognizable to a taxonomist had no necessary implications regarding genomic differentiation. Now we KNOW that. Do you want me to go on?!"

I read this last night, and it made absolutely no sense to me.  Then, it hit me how I've been understanding all along that Art's got some bugs in his 40+ year transects that look nearly identical, but are not the sameI know this.  He also sent me one of Jim Reveal's old papers about the amazing sequential evolution between butterflies and their host plants...  Oh, my God!  How could I have been so blind?  It's fascinating to look at my own deep-seated beliefs compared to what I think I know intellectually.  They don't match!  It's crazy making.  I was at a point of complete frustration, and I'm glad Art spoke up in such a direct way.  Maybe other people have been telling me all along, and I just haven't been listening?

I can't believe I never saw this before, because I'm fairly self-reflective.  I've always considered myself firmly in the evolution camp ever since my junior year of high school (1987-1988), and a handful of us asked our Mormon AP biology teacher for his opinions of evolution vs. creationism (now disguised as intelligent design), which had been the topic of a recent US Supreme Court ruling (Edwards v. Aguillard).  To be honest, I hadn't given this much thought since then, even though my college degree is in the sciences.  You'd think I'd know better.  However, I was raised in a conservative Christian family (the 700 Club, laying of hands, speaking in tongues, no drinking alcohol, no secular music in the house, no reading LOTR, etc.).  I'm definitely not that way today, but it's funny how the cultural beliefs of the people I've been around have seeped into my subconscious.  It's ironic for a blog titled Nature ID, as in identification, not intelligent design.  Have I been subtextually promoting intelligent design?  This was never my intention.  I need to reevaluate.

Art sent me a follow-up e-mail that explains things pretty well for me.  I've edited it for brevity. He says, "...we have learned in the era of "barcoding" (if you're unfamiliar with it, search the term) that the number of apparent genetic species is often larger than the number of taxonomic species, because cryptic or "sibling" species are often concealed by one phenotype. That is, the phenotype has been constant while the genome overall has changed a LOT. Surprise! Here's a bird example--a bird!  ...The whole thing started with butterflies, but it has now expanded to everything (my naming usage follows the genetics for herps). On the other hand, taxonomic subspecies may be dramatically different in phenotype, but virtually identical genomically, because those conspicuous differences are caused by just a few genes under strong selection, superimposed on a constant genetic background..."  Wow.  Just wow.  My mind is blown as to how I knew about this, yet haven't actually applied it to my hobby cum citizen science project turned hopeful serious science project that can be peer-reviewed and funded.

So, does anyone know who is currently doing the DNA on buckwheats in CA?  Is this buckwheat genetically different than the one Smith's needs, even though its superficial physical characteristics match what's found right along the coast?  I'm still curious to see if the buckwheat(s) that Smith's actually uses (or can use in situ, with potential drawbacks) is the one that's being planted for mitigation as it's currently practiced.  I owe the two CNPS authors an apology for making such a fuss (but not for pointing out their error - I wish I could be more diplomatic).  I'll have to ask around if anyone has already tested this idea, because I'm not sure the authors know themselves.  Otherwise, wouldn't they have just pointed that out, instead of hanging their hat on the amount of hairiness?  Does anyone know?

With this kind of potential discrepancy, how can we use physical features and observations in the field and for what purpose?  How do we separate what we see with what we know is continually changing and evolving?  How do we assign names to each defined entity for the sole purpose of clear communication?  Have we lost the original definitions and intent of common names vs. scientific names in the age of digital photographs, online sharing, and public outreach in the form of organized counts and BioBlitzs?  Are field guides (and all their online incarnations) really just a 1950's era hobby that have little to no basis in science as we understand it today?  Do they keep the layperson lay?  Eh, maybe some of these questions are too much of an exaggeration, but is there truth in there as well?

As humans, I think we have an instinctive need to identify things, although our ability to do so is not always intuitive.  What are you?  It's in our nature.  Maybe I want to stay lay, because I've been having so much fun tacking on names to everything?  It's like a game.  Heavy, heavy sigh. I'm going to leave my post below as I had last edited it (including the incidental original religious references and the late ps) as a true testament to the perils of ID from a layperson who got led astray by her own righteous beliefs as she tried to find her way back to science on her own.  Ha!

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Seacliff buckwheat was my very first buckwheat ID on Nature ID.  I've come a long way since then in learning about the local nature.  As you know, I rely on photographs rather than keys for most of my IDs.  I believe my process and methodologies have served me well in the 5 1/2 years I've been doing this blog, specifically designed to be my personal learning tool.  I've been able to quickly recognize seacliff buckwheat ever since this spring with my numerous casual trips down the coast, looking to learn the local buckwheats and butterflies.  It's a common native plant around here.  And, it has caused me more headache than you can possibly imagine. 

To me, this shrub's leaves have a distinctive cobwebbiness to the topside (adaxial - with a 'd', as in dorsal) that can sometimes look like it's been partially rubbed off to a shoeshine, and underneath (abaxial - with a 'b', as in belly) there's a thick cottony felting that can sometimes be so thick it extends down the woody stem.  It just has a look that is much easier to recognize than it is to describe in words.  Granted, there are at least two forms I recognize around here, this one shown here with the narrow-arrow leaves (Mortuary Beach) and another one with really fat/wide round leaves mainly from online photos and a vague recollection of having seen it adjacent to the ocean (Point Lobos, Asilomar, gardens?).  If I were to assign a common name to each form, this narrow-arrow one I would call seacliff buckwheat (I find it really does grow on steep hillsides that have any hint of marine influence, i.e. right up from the water to extending inland at least 12 miles or more), and the round one I would call dune buckwheat.  Neither shrub form should be confused with the similarly-and-confusingly-named perennial herb coast buckwheat, aka seaside buckwheat (E. latifolium), a common mistake that I've noticed online. This is all fine and good that I can recognize these by sight.  However...

Through a series of communications for my research permit application as required as part of my agreement with my Monterey Co. butterfly site (not Garland Ranch), it's come to my attention that the local CNPS folks believe this is CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and more specifically, var. foliolosum.  Nope.  I went back and checked their local field guide, their CNPS-endorsed website, and a draft that was sent to me of the Monterey Co. wildflower bible revision that one of them is updating.  They are correct in recognizing the rounder form as dune, which is fine.  But, I can clearly see they have the mistaken impression this narrow-arrow form of seacliff buckwheat (E. parvifolium) is CA buckwheat (E. fasiculatum), two different species.

In my experience, that multi-toned pink, tight pom-pom shape they show in their "CA buckwheat" photos is distinctive of the mature summer season's seacliff buckwheat, and I have never seen that flower head on CA buckwheat, which tends to be looser in shape (ex. of comparable summer season CA buckwheat).  I asked around and have been informed by people who have grown buckwheats for decades that these two species do not hybridize.  I specifically went to Terrace Trail at Garland Ranch's Garzas Creek access on 11/17/14 just to take these diagnostic photos (see also at the bottom of this post), because this is the location I was told by one of the CNPS authors where he's found CA buckwheat.   I was fully prepared to find CA buckwheat (and actually hoping!), but I didn't.  I found this narrow-arrow seacliff buckwheat, instead.

The Garland Ranch wildflower field guide has been very useful to me as I learn the local plants.  I make no qualms that it's well-designed and one of the best ones available for our area.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in local wildflowers.  With that said, I do think the authors' mistake makes it impossible for anyone to ID the local buckwheats by using their guides.  What I've seen of the wildflower bible revision draft, which is a CNPS publication, is misleading and could be improved.  I hope they get that fixed, but not likely.  I tried my best to explain and provide evidence as to why I think their ID isn't right, but they maintain they're correct in calling it "CA buckwheat".

Here's the thing, I have been staring at real CA buckwheat at Pinnacles every single week going on 8 months now and looking at thousands of my own pictures and others' online of CA buckwheat from all over the place.  While I still may not always be able to distinguish Pinnacles' var. foliolosum (the local CNPS ID, btw) against var. polifolium, I know CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) to species, in person and in photographs, through the seasons.

I've also consulted with photo-documentarians for the Eriogonum Society, the National Park Service, and CalPhotos.  Even if they're unfamiliar with seacliff, they have confirmed it is not likely CA buckwheat, which is more common and familiar in SoCal.  I've been utterly amazed at how many people don't actually know how to distinguish buckwheats (or are not willing to say on record). Hey, I don't know all of them either, but a handful of the larger local buckwheats are really obvious to me now that I made it my mission to learn the local buckwheats this year.

Given the continuing disagreement over this ID, I had to seriously consider the possibility that the local CNPS authors could be correct in their determination, especially considering one is revising the local wildflower bible and many people defer to their opinions, including the folks at my Monterey Co. butterfly site.  Their insistence made me question my own observations, because I know I make mistakes, too.  For my own peace of mind, I needed to double-check what I felt I already intuitively knew, so I took the time to research the keys and figure out the dizzying array of taxonomic terms.

Basically, it boils down to leaf shape.  Simple as that.  When keying to species (not variety) between the two, forget what you hear about amount of fasciculation or hairiness/tomentoseness (remember, hard to describe in words).  The Jepson eFlora keys out E. fasciculatum at 60/60' with "Leaf blades narrowly linear to oblanceolate".  Additionally, eFloras of North America keys out similarly at 20/+ with an additional statement under the species description for E. parvifolium, "blade lanceolate to round".  Linear and round are pretty obvious, and the above is neither.  Now, google images or take a look at this exaggerated graphic between lanceolate and oblanceolate.  The leaf shown above is clearly lanceolate (aka narrow-arrow), therefore E. parvifolium.

I also reached out to Jim Reveal, the author of Eriogonum.  For additional reference, here are his original descriptions, from which I believe most every key depends for EriogonumE. fasciculatum and E. parvifolium E. parvifolium has not been keyed out into varieties, and Jim told me he doesn't officially recognize them.  With that said, there were certain forms or phases he did recognize in the past, until he was shown examples that completely graded with each other.  For my own edification, here's how I understand it: var. parvifolium ("thickened leaf blades" and "compact clusters of involucres containing white to rose flowers", this is the narrow-arrow form I find common around here in the wild), var. crassifolium ("compact and dense mat-forming", is this a round one found in the sand? I don't know), var. lucidum ("yellow flowers" with round leaves, also found here with a white phase, too, according to Jim), and var. paynei ("white-flowered inflorescences", and "more graceful habit", found down in Ventura Co. and is supposed to be large).  I'm guessing this elegant white phase shown here on Terrace Trail at Garland Ranch may just be how "var. parvifolium" grows in protected, shadier places, because it has the same leaf shape as the shrubbier pinker one I find on exposed sunny hillsides that Jim confirmed the ID for me via my photos.  Again, seacliff buckwheat varieties are not formally recognized.

So, why is this plant such a big, huge, deal for me to go to all this trouble?  

Six words: the federally endangered Smith's blue butterfly.  The seacliff buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) is its host plant.  There is only one person in the entire country who has ever been granted a permit to study this butterfly and in essence even be around seacliff buckwheat for research purposes (I may be exaggerating slightly, but you get the picture).  While I'm sure he's done a lot of good, he's also made quite a tidy business over his legally-mandated monopoly.

The fact of the matter is, there are very few people who could see a blue butterfly and know it is or is not Smith's.  I believe I could eventually tell, only if I could be allowed to get close enough and take enough photographs as absolute substitutes for physical specimens.  It's worked for me with buckwheats, why can't it work for me for butterflies?  Gotta start somewhere for baseline info.  Let someone else do a specific collection to work out the genitalia and genetics if anything unusual is seen.  I've heard that merely taking photographs of this endangered butterfly can be considered as "take" by the USFWS, a strict no-no.  Sigh.  It sure seems silly that the very laws created to protect an animal keep us from learning more about it.  Something is seriously broken in the system.

Hey, I'm not even particularly interested in Smith's, but I discovered seacliff buckwheat is the dominant native nectar source for butterflies at my Monterey Co. site (again, not Garland Ranch).  I can't study the other butterflies without getting near Smith's listed host plant, and if they are there, either in flight or potentially trampling over delicate pupae around the buckwheat bushes.  I wonder if we might even have one of the square-spotted blues (Euphilotes battoides) in the area, which isn't reported for anywhere near here, but that may be because no one admits to looking close enough over fear of Smith's restrictions.  They do look a lot alike.  The selfish solution for me is to see Smith's delisted, but it's all entangled with political and financial motives. 

The federal permitting process for Smith's is essentially non-existent and shrouded with stories of how impossible it is to jump through the hoops to meet their requirements.  They require experience to get the permit, but no one can get the experience without the permit or threat of jail and financial ruin.  Catch 22.  From several people, I've heard hushed horror stories about closet lepidopterists who live in fear and flatly refuse to cooperate with other researchers over concerns of being raided by federal agents.  I have no way of knowing if any of these stories are actually true.

These stories not only hamper research to learn more about this rare butterfly, they may also hamper the information made available about its host plant.  I figure there must be some antiquated law about not being able to update listings based on new findings.  Gordon Pratt believes the listed species (Euphilotes enoptes smithi) is not the one that's actually rare, but he told me he was talked out of delisting by the USFWS.  Smith's close relative (Euphilotes enoptes arenacola), which he helped describe, that feeds on coast buckwheat (E. latifolium) in a small sandy area in Marina is the one that he believes is truly endangered, and Smith's law protects it, too.  Likewise, I wonder if there was pressure on Jim Reveal to not reveal (pun!) his buckwheat variety designations, because it would further complicate the listed identity of several endangered butterfly host plants.  I asked him directly, but his answer shed little light on the question.  The reason why I came to this conclusion is because Jim goes into such mind-boggling detail for the various buckwheats and their varieties (case in point, sulphur buckwheat/E. umbellatum has 45 keyed varieties as of 2002), and yet for the seaclifff (E. parvifolium) and coast (E. latifolium), nothing, nada.  They are as they are, no variety designations, even though there's obviously different forms.  You'll notice that both of these buckwheats are host plants for endangered butterflies (real or listed).  Or, maybe even he can't get a research permit to study the plants that the endangered butterflies need?  I don't know, but there's gotta be more to the story.  I believe this lack of variety designations for seacliff, when there are so many for other buckwheats, confuses a lot of good plant people who may only be familiar with the round dune version. 

So, maybe Smith's blue is a common butterfly around here, who's to truly say?  Without hardly trying, I have twice found the earliest seasonal record for Smith's blue, once in 2003 and again this year 2014, the only two years I've gone down the coast with the specific purpose to look for various butterflies (hey, I've been busy pursuing other interests in the intervening 10 years).  I personally suspect Smith's is way more common than anyone realizes considering the locally recognized "CA buckwheat" is actually seacliff buckwheat.  Maybe people haven't been looking in the right places for the butterfly?  In any case, I imagine there might be some wealthy landowners out there who were relieved to find out they had "CA buckwheat" and not seacliff buckwheat on their property when it came time to do their EIRs before they developed.  Eh-hem.

On the flip side, I have a hunch CA buckwheat (E. fasciculatum) in Monterey Co. is not as common as is reported by the local CNPS chapter, unless it's found along the highway where it's been planted by Caltrans and maybe further south towards SLO.  eFloras also cautions that var. foliolosum is, "a potentially aggressive weedy shrub, efforts should be made to curtail its introduction into areas outside its native range."  I worry that good-intentioned native gardeners, seeing it listed as occurring here, will plant the not-native to this area weedy CA buckwheat, where it could easily escape and compete with the locally native seacliff buckwheat.

Most importantly, the narrow-arrow form that is mistaken in our local books for "CA buckwheat" is, in fact, the seacliff buckwheat form that I have personally seen Smith's blue on and is in all the photographs I can find online where the butterfly is actually on the plant.  Yet, when E. parvifolium is shown without the butterfly for illustrative purposes of the reported host plant, the round shape is chosen to be used.  Peculiar and possibly misleading.  I'm thinking that's because the round dune form is the one people first think of for E. parvifolium, very likely due to the famous El Segundo blue's round dune use down south, which had a spectacular CA buckwheat fail.  I worry folks are planting the round dune up here as part of mitigation based on the El Segundo experience, when really the narrow-arrow is what Smith's uses.  And, that's not to imply all narrow-arrows are used by Smith's. So, if anyone needed to do restoration or mitigation work as required by law, they'd be pulling out the narrow-arrow seacliff buckwheat fully believing it's the weedy "CA buckwheat" and planting the round dune form, which could possibly be the wrong seacliff buckwheat form for Smith's.  I'll admit, I don't actually know if this happens here with Smith's, but who does?  

It would have worked in my favor if this really had been CA buckwheat.  Despite my desire to be correct, I was actually hoping I was wrong, because then I'd have no need to apply for a federal permit for my butterfly site.  Problem solved.  But, I'm not okay continuing to call it "CA buckwheat" just because other people say so.  That's just bad research.  If I had only kept quiet, I might have been able to make nice-nice with the local CNPS folks.  Although, at this point, with the way they dismissed all my research and documentation, I don't feel they have earned, nor deserved, my trust.  I'll admit, I made a bit of a fuss as I was attempting to get them to see reason.  I can be very pushy in getting things correct, and it does not do me any favors in winning over people.  I've pretty much burned that bridge.  Erm... torched?  

Such as it is, imagine for a minute, the ripple effect this simple ID error has... 

Their expert plant advice (books, online, in person) is probably followed by many environmental consultants who do EIRs and restoration-type work (if you believe they know better, I have a burnt bridge to sell you), who then also mistake this buckwheat ID, which ends up determining the fate of the land all based on a plant name, potentially costing millions of dollars (or making others billions of dollars), and all to the detriment of the very butterfly we're trying to save from extinction.   

This is important!  Does any of this make any sense to anyone besides me?

I sincerely thought I was helping by pointing out a simple correction, like I do all the time when I look up stuff for Nature ID (most people are appreciative).  However, it does beg the question why these old guys, who are no more botanists than I am (they're two fellows with a lot of money who moved here from far away places for retirement), are so adamant that I'm wrong with barely an explanation.  This is not a fight I'm up for.  I wish I could continue with my butterfly studies at my Monterey Co. butterfly site, even if I avoided the seacliff buckwheat like the plague and went searching the brambles for Nymphalids (don't think I haven't thought of this), unfortunately, by doing so, I would not be able to honor the spirit and intent of my private land access agreement. 

As it is, I may have to completely abandon my grand plan to have a companion Monterey Co. butterfly research site in conjunction with my Pinnacles one in San Benito Co., two sites on roughly the same latitude and with similar elevation changes, with similar historical and current cattle land usage, with two native butterfly-pleasing shrubby buckwheats, one cool coastal and one hot, hot, hot, to monitor as the climate changes for the next 20+ years, the rest of my life. Wouldn't that be an incredible data set!?!  

Unfortunately, I'm facing the reality that I will not likely be granted a federal permit anytime soon.  Even if I did manage to get one by some miracle, I would still have to fight the local transplants.  Quite frankly, I feel utterly defeated over this issue and how complicated it got rather quickly.  This has significant personal implications for me, far beyond a simple plant ID or a couple rare butterflies. Have I been overly dramatic?  Sure.  Sob.  At the very least, this hullabaloo has made me rethink my plans and scale down, way down.

Terrace Trail - Garland Ranch - Garzas Creek

Again, I specifically went to Terrace Trail, because this is the location I was told by one of the CNPS authors where he's found CA buckwheat for his field guide.  This is the only type of buckwheat I found on the hillside.  Eh, there might have been an herbaceous buckwheat tucked in there, but remember, I went looking for shrubs.

The photographs below were taken as part of my ongoing effort to better document plants without the need to clip a specimen, bag it, press it, store it for perpetuity who knows where. And, at the point we're taking photographs of dried, dead specimens, wouldn't photos of the living work just as well, or even better?  I feel the same about butterflies, too, and had hoped my method could have been a possible avenue to get federal permit approval.  With the quality of macro-photography these days, I think we need to evolve past collecting things to be hidden away in closets (or for those wary of dermestids and moth balls, in freezers).  Plus, photos are so much easier to share and get feedback.

it's November, so the flower selection is sparse

Does anyone know the name of the stringy brown nest-looking stuff found at the base of the bundled perianths on older buckwheat flower heads (last photo here)?

variety of leaf shapes, from roundish to narrow-arrow to superficially linear 
(must look at individual leaf to really make that determination)

contrary to what the local bible says, I believe seacliff is often fasciculate

one last look at overall form and appearance
(note V-shaped cyme with flower clusters half-way up)

ps - For the evolutionary biologists out there who have a valid criticism that I'm focusing too much on names (man-made construct), when speciation (natural) is in constant flux, I'll concede this post does read like that.  Funnily enough, the names are in flux, too.  Like I've said before, I don't really have the writing skill or vocabulary to describe what I'm seeing, hence, why my photos have served me well. For once on Nature ID, the point of this post is decidedly not about the names in of themselves. Rather, it's precisely because of the confusion over those names that the issue described here becomes real in practical application.

To put it another way, it may be best to substitute species names and varieties (and all the baggage that entails) and simply label each entity as a snapshot in time.  BugX feeds on PlantA.  BugX does not feed on PlantB, nor on PlantC.  Human1 groups PlantA and PlantB together and calls it Plant AB.  Human2 sees PlantB, and calls it PlantAB.  Human2 also sees plant A, does not know Human1 includes it in PlantAB, and then calls it PlantC, for lack of a better alternative.  Human3 wants to save BugX.  Human3 reads that BugX feeds on PlantAB and to remove competing PlantC.  Human3 uses Human2's labels.  Human3 plants more H2's PlantAB (PlantB) and removes H2's plantC (PlantA).  PlantB and PlantC thrive.  BugX no longer has PlantA to feed on.  BugX is not saved.

Does this help explain?  As a repeat reference that helped get me thinking along these lines:
"On the Perils of Ecological Restoration: Lessons from the El Segundo Blue Butterfly".