By WILL RICHARDSON | Moonshine Ink
While nature can be enjoyed and appreciated at any time of year, summer is when much of Tahoe’s spectacular diversity becomes most readily accessible and conspicuous. And what terrific diversity it is! Let Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) be your guide.
Tahoe’s most common lizard, the Western Fence Lizard, may be helping to reduce Lyme disease in western North America. Within the lizards’ blood is a protein that actually kills the bacteria which causes the disease, so when a tick takes a blood meal from the lizard, this bacteria within the tick’s gut die, and the tick is effectively inoculated from the disease.
Western Rattlesnakes have been documented within the Tahoe Basin in recent years, and now are regularly encountered near the Sierra Crest. Find solace in the fact that they are excellent rodent control — good news in an area where hantavirus and bubonic plague are legitimate health concerns. Nevertheless, watch your step and keep your ears open for their courtesy warning.
We have boa constrictors in Tahoe. Spending much of their lives underground, the Rubber Boa seeks out mouse nests to curl up in and uses its tail as a decoy head to distract the female mouse while preying on its young. But the boa has a friendlier disposition toward humans, seeming to enjoy the warmth of bare hands. If there is a sweetheart among reptiles, surely it is this boa.
From Super Mario Brothers and The Smurfs to countless artistic depictions dating back centuries, the Fly Agaric, which can be found under Tahoe’s lodgepole pines, is surely the most iconic and widely recognized toadstool in the world. Strong evidence says it may be the main influencer of several Christmastime traditions, including decorating trees, Santa Claus’ suit, and perhaps even flying reindeer.
Mushrooms share more DNA with us than with plants. Edible varieties are human favorites, especially Morels (pictured), found widely in Tahoe during the spring, associated with white fir. One can also find prized species of Boletes, best foraged during a wet fall. As mushrooms are merely the fruiting body, harvesting does not adversely affect the fungus itself. It is much like picking an apple from a tree.
Some of Tahoe’s fungi are more bizarre than others. We have a few that faintly glow in the dark — the aptly-named Dog Vomit Slime Mold and the ubiquitous Shaggy Manes (pictured). Shaggy Mane mushrooms are quite charismatic and edible, but for an astonishingly brief time. Within hours of reaching maturity, they begin to self-digest, and the mushroom turns into a black inky goo as it releases its spores.
THREATENED AND ENDANGERED
Tahoe is home to many species of conservation concern. The Swainson’s Thrush, formerly widespread and common through the Sierra, is now virtually impossible to find breeding in the region. It seemed their greatest challenge was winter, so TINS set out to find out where Tahoe’s went for the cold season using tiny data loggers. The answer: northern Colombia and Venezuela!
Tahoe has several endemics, species, or subspecies found nowhere else on Earth. Most of these are small, obscure, and live in hard-to-reach places (e.g. arthropods that live 200 to 300 feet deep in Lake Tahoe). Tahoe Yellow Cress, however, lives on beaches around the lake, putting it in harm’s way. When the lake level is high, as it is now, habitat is greatly reduced and beach use is concentrated; please respect any exclosures so you do not trample these special plants.
The majority of Tahoe’s Bald Eagles are only here for the winter. Populations have rebounded dramatically in the decades since protection measures were first put in place. However, very few pairs attempt to breed in the area. By contrast, 20 to 30 individual eagles may share Tahoe’s shoreline during winter months, attracted by the ample prey — mostly coots, grebes, and wintering ducks — that benefit from the fact that Lake Tahoe’s surface does not freeze over.
Many of our most colorful flowers have evolved specialized traits and very close relationships with animal pollinators. For example, bees cannot see the color red, so Tahoe’s red flowers typically are tube shaped, structured to attract and be pollinated by hummingbirds. Local examples include Crimson Columbine (pictured), Scarlet Gilia, and several Indian Paintbrush species.
Seed dispersal can be just as specialized. Whitebark pine grows on the highest peaks and ridges. In late summer, Clark’s Nutcracker uses its woodpecker-like bill to pry open the cones and collect seeds. It then flies off and buries the seeds as hundreds of small caches. These stores sustain the birds through the winter, and the tree is dispersed on the landscape, invariably growing in clusters, having been planted there by the nutcrackers.
Often mistaken for weeds, Tahoe is home to several native thistles, including Anderson’s Thistle (pictured), Elk Thistle, and Cobwebby Thistle. Native thistles are important sources of food for bees, hummingbirds, and finches, and they are the larval hostplant for the rare and local California Crescent butterfly. The TINS Tahoe Wildflower Big Year is a great way to learn thistle identification and prevent accidental “weeding” of these important native plants.
~ Will Richardson is the executive director of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, which is all about connecting people to Tahoe’s fascinating natural history. TINS has a goal of bringing a world-class interpretive nature center to the region. To learn more about membership, nature camps for kids, or many free nature outings, visit tinsweb.org.