Thirty years ago, I was working in Silicon Valley for ROLM Corporation, one of the pioneers in voicemail telecommunications. But recently, I learned that insects have been communicating with their version of “voicemail” for much longer than 30 years - more like millions of years.
To leave a voicemail, you first need a telephone. In 2008, researchers from Netherlands Institute of Ecology discovered  that insects use a “green phone”, to communicate with other insect species. They found that  “soil-dwelling and above-ground-dwelling insects are able to communicate with each other using the plant as a telephone. Insects eating plant roots change the chemical composition of the leaves, causing the plant to release volatile signals into the air.” This encourages “above-ground insects to select another food plant in order to avoid competition and to escape from poisonous defense compounds in the plant.”
In 2012, researchers found that insects used their “green telephone” to leave a “voicemail” message in the soil, a message that influences the next generation of plants and insects. Working in a greenhouse setting, researchers  exposed ragwort ((Jacobaea vulgaris) to “leaf-eating caterpillars or root-feeding beetle larvae”. Next, they grew new ragwort plants in the same soil and again exposed them to caterpillars and beetles larvae. They found that plants grown in soil that previously contained plants eaten by root-feeding beetle larvae again repelled the caterpillars. In other words, the first generation left a message that influenced the second generation. How did that happen?
The researchers took a closer look at the soil and found that the composition of soil fungi changed, depending on which insect the plant was exposed to. Soil fungi served as the voicemail platform; the voicemail message told the next generation of ragwort “whether the former one was suffering from leaf-eating caterpillars or from root-eating insects.”
Who’d a thunk it? Thirty years ago I thought I was working for a “cutting edge” technology company. And now I discover that insects used “telecommunications equipment” long before humans did.
Free Birding App. For those of you who are looking for a good birding app for your Apple cellphone or iPad, the Cornell Lab of Ornitholgy is offering a free app. Click here  for more information.
Upcoming Outdoor Events:
Saturday, March 15, 8-10 am. Winter Flyers. Are there ways we can be more “friendly” to the birds around us? Learn about our region’s birds and how our behavior can sometimes affect theirs. Beginning birders are welcome. Binoculars optional. Meet at Towsley Canyon’s front parking lot. Click here  for map and directions.
Trail Maintenance Schedule. Come join our volunteers as they help maintain our trails. Contact Steve at email@example.com  for time and place.
Wednesday mornings, February 5, 12, 19, & 26.
Saturday mornings, January 15.
New trail maps available. If you’d like to explore a bit on your own, the City of Santa Clarita has a website with trail maps  of our local open spaces.
There’s also a new website for bicycle riders .
Ask Dr. Norm : Do you have questions about the flora, fauna, animals, rocks, etc. in our Santa Clarita Valley? Here’s a place for you to ask your questions. Dr. Norman Herr, Ph.D., is a professor of science and computer education at California State University, Northridge.
Tell Us About Your Hike : Here’s a new website where you can post pictures, provide feedback and make suggestions about the City of Santa Clarita’s trails and open spaces.
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on "The SCV Outdoor Report", brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
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