|Each week we will add another wild word to work into our everyday conversations.|
Week 45: Subnivean (adjective): Situated or occurring under the snow. The subnivean zone is the area under the snowpack where many animals survive thanks to the insulating and protective properties of snow. Once the snow depth is at least 15 cm, the subnivean zone maintains a temperature close to 0 degrees celsius despite colder air temperatures above the snow.
Subnivean fauna in High Park includes many insects, mice and meadow voles. Foxes and owls can sometimes hear their prey in the subnivean tunnels and will pounce from above, collapse the tunnels and find their trapped prey.
Learn more about the fascinating wintery underworld of subnivean spaces: here.
The word subnivean comes from Latin for “under” (sub) and “snow” (nives).
Week 44: Nictitating Membrane (noun): a translucent or whitish inner eyelid present in many animals including reptiles, birds and some mammals. This “third eyelid” provides protection and moistens the eye while maintaining vision. The nictitating membrane moves across the eyeball horizontally. Many mammals (including humans!) have “vestigal” portions of nictitating membranes in the inner corners of their eyes. The word nictitate comes from the Latin word “nictare” meaning “to blink”.
Example: “While closely observing a Hairy Woodpecker busily pecking at a dead ash tree, I noticed its nictitating membrane closing quickly with every impact”.
Week 43: Zygodactyl (adjective): having the toes of each foot arranged in pairs, with two toes in front and two behind. The vast majority of birds are anisodactyl, meaning they have 3 toes facing forward and 1 toe facing backward. Woodpeckers are the most obvious example of zygodactyls but cukoos, many owls, parrots and osprey also have 2 toes facing the back. For woodpeckers, being zygodactyls helps them hold onto the bark while they peck into trees.
The word zygodactyl comes from the Greek word for “even”.
Week 42: Gloaming (noun): the time after sunset but before dark (ie. twilight or dusk). Popularized by the song Fire’s Burning, the word gloaming is perfect for the beginning of winter since the gloaming is at its earliest today at 4:42 pm. After Winter Solstice, sunset will be later every day. By Summer Solstice the gloaming will not begin until 9:03 pm.
Week 41: Symbiosis (noun): The interaction between multiple organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
A great example of symbiosis is lichen. A lichen is actually three organisms that live together – a fungus, an algae and yeast. The fungal strands absorb water and nutrients while the algae provides food for the fungus and the yeast is thought to ward of predators and repel microbes. The three parts benefit each other. *The discovery of yeast as a symbiotic partner in lichens is very new and fascinating!*
We were reminded of symbiosis this week as so many people generously donated to us on Giving Tuesday. We are grateful for the many ways we as an organization are helped by volunteers, program participants, our partners and donors. We couldn’t be the vibrant learning hub that we are without our many supporters. Thank you!
Week 40: Moonglade (noun): the bright reflection of the moon’s light on an expanse of water.
Example: “Do you know what happened to the Youngest Twin Sailor once? He was sailing and he sailed right into a moonglade.” by Lucy Maud Montgomery in “A Soul That Was Not at Home,” Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories, 1909 to 1922
The word “glade” means an open space in a forest.
Week 39: Torpor (noun): a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal that involves a reduced body temperature and metabolic rate. Torpor is usually considered short-term (ie. days or weeks) and hibernation is an extended period of torpor. Torpor enables animals to survive periods of reduced food availability.
Bats, some rodents, Black-capped Chickadees and even Hummingbirds use torpor to survive especially cold periods. Chipmunks are famous for their torpid ways!
What is happening in a chipmunk burrow during late fall and winter? Scientists aren’t completely sure, but “one view is that they immediately go into a torpid state. (In this state, the body temperature, rate of breathing, and rate of heartbeat drop to very low levels, reducing the amount of energy required to maintain the chipmunk.) Periods of torpor last from one to eight days, and perhaps longer. Between periods of torpor, chipmunks wake up and consume part of their food supply. They have occasionally been seen above ground on warm winter days.” (source: here)
Week 38: Carotenoids (noun): the pigments that give plants their yellow and orange colours. Once the green chlorophyll starts breaking down and is not replaced, the green colour of leaves fade and the yellow and orange carotenoid pigments that were there all summer shine through!
At this point in the year many people are in High Park taking pictures of all the very beautiful trees that are starting to show their carotenoid hues.
Bonus nature words: Xanthophyll gives the leaves a yellow colour. The red pigments are from anthocyanins and they are a result of the breakdown of sugars in the leaf. Browns are from tannins in the leaf.
Week 37: Pappus (noun): a ring of fine, feathery hairs or bristles attached to a seed that helps in wind dispersal by functioning like a parachute. The seeds of asters, dandelions, thistles and milkweeds all use a pappus to help them travel further.
Have you ever thought that a pappus looks like a white beard? Interestingly, the word pappus derives from the Greek word pappos meaning grandfather.
Week 36: Scurfy (adjective): covered with flaky or scaly matter. In botany, scurf is considered to be scales or scale-like hairs that many plants have when observed closely. The underside of black oak and black cherry leaves can be scurfy along the midrib. Scurfiness can be a useful trait to look for in identifying plants. The word is also used to describe scaly mammal skin (ie. dandruff).
Week 35: Kettle (verb): wheeling and circling in the air as a group of raptors does. This term is mostly used to describe raptors such as Turkey Vultures, Hawks or Eagles as they circle tightly while riding thermal updrafts. It looks as if they were boiling in a kettle or cauldron. Before migration Turkey Vultures often kettle in the hundreds. Kettling up on thermals before gliding allows raptors to travel more efficiently using less energy.
The Hawk Watchers in High Park get to see raptors throughout the fall migration – many of them kettling. As of October 5 they have witnessed 1206 raptors migrating south in 2016. For the past 22 years, these dedicated citizen scientists have reported their findings at the Hawk Migration Association of North America website.
Example: “While chatting with the Hawk Watchers and learning all sorts of things about raptor migration, I watched at least a dozen Turkey Vultures kettle”.
Week 34: Lenticel (noun): a pore on the stem of a woody plant that allows for the exchange of gasses between the plant and the exterior. Lenticels appear as raised circular or elongated areas. Lenticels are also on the skin of some fruits such as apples and pears. Birch bark has the most prominent lenticels. The shape of lenticels can be one characteristic used to identify tree species.
Example: “Lenticels are usually most noticeable on the smooth bark of young trees. Cherry and birch bark have very prominent lenticels”.
Week 33: Stridulate (verb): to make a creaking or chirping noise by rubbing together special bodily structures as certain insects do. Crickets, grasshoppers and katydids are excellent stridulators. Some species of fish, snakes and spiders can stridulate as well. The purpose of stridulation can be territorial, aggression, defense or most often amorous!
Pronunciation: “strij-uh-leyt” or hear it here.
Week 32: Psithurism (noun): the sound of wind through the trees. This word comes from the Ancient Greek word “psithurízo”, which means “I whisper”. Psithurízo comes from the word “psíthuros”, meaning “whispering” or “slanderous” according to Wiktionary.
Example: “A gentle late-summer breeze in the black oak savannah led to a relaxing psithurism this afternoon”
Week 31: Mast (noun): the fruit of forest trees such as acorns and other nuts (ie. beech or hickory nuts).
It is alternatively defined as “a heap of nuts”. The word comes from the old English word ”mæst”, which refers to the nuts of forest trees accumulated on the ground used as food for fattening pigs. A “mast year” is one in which more nuts are produced than usual. Mast years happen at certain intervals (ie. about every 4 years). It is believed that these periodic mast years are a useful strategy for a tree to ensure the survival of some of its seeds since the supply of seed overwhelms the consumption by seed predators.
Week 30: Carapace (noun): a hard shell on the back of some animals (such as turtles and crabs). The carapace of turtles is mostly made of bone and includes the ribs. The top layer of the carapace is comprised of scutes (scales) made of keratin. Human hair and fingernails are also made of keratin.
The bottom part of a turtle’s shell is called a “plastron”.
Week 29: Melittology (noun): the scientific study of bees.
There are well over 20,000 species of bees in the world and at least 364 species in the Toronto area alone! Melittologists often study wild bees – both social and solitary. The science of particularly studying honey bees is called “apiology”.
Melittologists may study bee life cycles, ecological relationships, bee conservation, bee taxonomy, human impacts on bees or many other interesting areas of research. Melittologists are discovering many new species of bees every year!
To get you started on melittology, we recommend picking up Bees of Toronto, one of the latest booklets in the City of Toronto Biodiversity Series. You can find these incredible booklets at Toronto Public Library branches.
Week 28: Burl (noun): a hard, woody outgrowth on a tree.
Burls are a result of a tree undergoing stress. The stress could be caused by a physical injury (ie. an insect), a fungus, or even a virus.
The wood of burls is made up of small knots from dormant buds. Although burls are a result of stress to the tree, they are a normal part of a tree’s defense strategies and must therefore remain on the tree. A tree with many burls can still live many hundreds of years.
Example: “After listening to a few Burl Ives records, I was in the mood for a hike to Grenadier Pond. Along the shore I saw many willow trees with large burls growing on them.”
Week 27: Dabble (verb): to feed at the water’s surface by submerging one’s bill and/or entire head. Dabbling ducks often upend while feeding. Ducks are categorized by those that dabble and those that dive.
Week 26: Tympanum (noun): an external hearing structure in animals such as frogs, toads, insects, and mammals. The tympanum is the outer surface of the eardrum. Humans have tympana as well, but ours are hidden inside the ear canal. Frogs have the most obvious tympana. Grasshoppers have tympana too, but theirs aren’t on their heads, they are on their abdomens. The word descends from the Greek word “tympanon” meaning drum. In fact, the word timpani is still used for drums.
Example: “On the way home from the orchestral rehearsal, I decided to take a shortcut through High Park. My timpani was heavy, but I was rewarded by the sound of green frogs calling. I even saw one! I could tell it was a male because his tympanum was larger than his eye.”
Week 25: Exuviae (plural noun): the remains of exoskeletons and related structures that are left after insects, crustaceans or arachnids have moulted.
Translated from Latin, the word means “that which is stripped from a body”. The singular form of the word is exuvia.
The most common exuviae we have been finding have been those of cicadas (commonly known as “cicada shells”). Cicadas in Ontario live as nymphs underground for about 2-5 years (the lifespan depends on the species) feeding on the sap in tree roots. After maturing underground, nymphs emerge to climb tree trunks and molt into winged adults. The exuviae are left behind and give you a glimpse of what the silent nymphs looked like. Periodical cicadas in the U.S. have lifespans of 13 or 17 years.
Pronunciation: “ig-zoo-vee-ee” or listen here
Week 24: Petrichor (noun): A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. “Petra” is Greek for stone and “ichor” is the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.
“The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian CSIRO researchers, Isabel Joy Bear and Richard G. Thomas, for an article in the journal Nature. In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain Actinobacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent; ozone may also be present if there is lightning.” (Wikipedia article)
Week 23: Gall (noun): a swelling of plant tissue caused by another organism. The galls we usually see are caused by insects and are often used as shelters through parts of its life cycle, but plant galls can be caused by mites, parasites, fungi or bacteria. The most famous galls are the ones found on goldenrod stems caused by the goldenrod gall fly but there is a rich diversity of gall forms, shapes and colours.
Example: “While investigating the underside of the oak leaf, we found 3 hedgehog galls. One of our summer campers had the gall to suggest we cut it open. We left it intact so the insect living inside could complete it’s life cycle”.
Week 22: Sepal (noun): one of the modified leaves at the base of a flower. Collectively, the sepals are called the calyx. The sepals protect the flower when in bud and support the petals when in bloom. After flowering, most sepals wither away, but sometimes they persist. An example of sepals on a fruit is the green leafy sepals that are at the base of a strawberry.
Example: “Sepals don’t get as much attention as the showy petals, but they can be helpful in wildflower identification.”
Week 21: Estivate (verb): to spend the summer in a dormant state (also spelled aestivate).
If the dry heat of summer is too much for you, you can always estivate! Estivation helps some animals avoid drying up or overheating. Animals that estivate seem to be in a light state of dromancy and can “wake up” quickly. Some examples of animals that estivate include: slugs, worms, lady beetles, mosquitoes and mourning cloak butterflies.
Example: “On a 30 degree hike, we found some snails on our hike but they were estivating and had sealed up the entrance to their shell with a dried mucous epiphragm. We got pretty tired and decided to estivate as well.”
Week 20: Gorget (noun): a patch of color on the throat of a bird or other animal, especially a hummingbird.
We have been noticing lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in High Park this year. If you see a Ruby-throated Hummingbird you can tell if it is a male by its bright red gorget. But look carefully, the bright gorget looks dark if it isn’t in bright light. The female’s throat is white.
Example: “As the Hummingbird hovered near the jewelweed flower looking for nectar, I spotted its ruby-red gorget and knew that it was a male.”
Week 19: Frass (noun): debris or excrement produced by insects.
Poop left behind by caterpillars, the tiny wood pellets created by carpenter ants or the fine sawdust produced by bark beetles are all examples of “frass”
The word frass is borrowed from German and is the past-tense of the word fressen,which means to gobble up or eat as an animal might.
Example: ”As we searched for bats on a warm June night, we heard frass falling from the trees as thousands of cankerworms munched on oak leaves.”
Week 18: Forb (noun): an herbaceous, flowering plant that is not a grass, rush or sedge. For instance, a dandelion is a forb but big blue stem grass is not. Wild blue lupines are forbs but Virginia creeper is not because it has a woody stem.
Example: “On Saturday and Sunday we were planting hundreds of forbs in OURSpace to restore a black oak savannah plant community. Forbs included sky blue aster, butterfly-weed and silverrod. Non-forbs included grasses such as Sorghastrum nutans.”
Week 17: Samara (noun): a winged, dry fruit containing one seed. Samaras are most famously produced by maples and are also called keys, wingnuts, helicopters, whirlybirds, whirligigs and (in the north of England) spinning Jennie’s due to their ability to spin in the wind. This spinning slows their fall and drift helps the samara fall further from their parent tree. Other trees that produce samaras include elm and ash.
Samara has been used since at least 1577 and translates in Latin to “seed of the elm”.
Example: “My friend Samara from the city of Samara was visiting High Park and managed to catch a falling samara. Samara mentioned that in Samara they also have samras except that the samaras are slightly different in Samara.”
Week 16: Altricial (adjective): an animal that is born helpless and depends on parental care for a period of time. The word altricial comes from the Latin verb “alere”, which means to “nurse, to rear, or to nourish”.
Many birds are altricial including robins and most other songbirds, owls, woodpeckers, hawks and herons. Altricial mammals include foxes, coyotes, squirrels, mice and especially humans!
The oposite of altricial is precocial. Ducks and turkeys are examples of precocial birds who are ready to leave the nest in only a few days. Deer and moose are precocial.
Example: “Watch the altricial Red-Tailed Hawk chicks on the nest cam set up in Ithaca, NY. Altricial young really take a lot of work but they sure are cute!!” Nestcam: here
Week 15: Ecotone (noun): a transition area between two habitats.
An ecotone can be a sharp edge (ie. such as the edge of a forest and cleared land) or it can be a more gradual merging (ie. a wetland gently merges the pond to the forest). Ecotones often have rich diversity of species because species from both biological communities meet.
Example: “This Saturday morning at 5 AM we will be listening to the dawn chorus at an ecotone between forest and black oak savannah”.
Week 14: Hallux (noun): the backward-directed digit in birds.
Did you know that mammals have halluces (plural of hallux) as well? For humans and other primates, the hallux is the first or innermost digit of each foot. Can you find your hallux? (Hint: it is your big toe!)
Example: “As I peered through my binoculars to see the Hermit Thrush’s hallux, I stubbed my own hallux on a protruding root!”
Week 13: Proboscis (noun): an elongated appendage from the head of an animal. For invertebrates, usually a tubular mouthpart used for feeding and sucking (ie. a butterfly’s mouth). For vertebrates, usually an elongated nose or snout (ie. an elephant’s trunk)
Example: “If you look carefully enough, you will see the proboscis of the eastern comma butterfly all curled up”.
“Stop picking your proboscis!”
Week 12: Frondescence (noun): the condition or period of producing leaves.
As spring unfolds, so do leaves! The timing of frondescence can be different depending on the species of plant. The first shrubs we notice growing leaves are the non-native honeysuckles. This spring, you may want to record the order of each species’ frondescence.
Example: “Despite the invasive tendencies of non-native tartarian and bell’s honeysuckles, their early frondescence is a welcome sign of spring and a nod to the coming greens of summer.”
Week 11: Frore (adjective): frozen or frosty
First used in the 13th century, frore comes from the middle English word “froren”. Next time you are trying to describe how cold something is, try calling it “frore”.
Example: “The precocious flowers that bloomed over the past two weeks are suffering the frore conditions.” or “Despite some moments of apricity today, it still felt quite frore!”
Week 10: Precocious (adjective): flowers appearing before leaves (botanical definition)
Although the word precocious is most often used to describe children who are unusually advanced, the word is also used in botany to describe plants that produce flowers before the emergence of leaves. Some examples of precocious plants in High Park include maple trees, coltsfoot and beaked hazel. Can you find some precocious plants in your neighbourhood?
Example: “On a cool March morning, I noticed some tiny, pink tufts on a woodland shrub. Upon referencing a field guide, I discovered they were flowers of the precocious beaked hazel” (Corylus cornuta).
Week 9: Crepuscular (adjective): active during twilight.
Some examples of animals that are most active at twilight (dusk and dawn) are: rabbits, deer, mice, Common Nighthawks and many species of moths, beetles and other insects.
Example: “In August, we witnessed the crepuscular activity of Common Nighthawks as they migrated south. Those same Nighthawks have yet to return from their South American wintering grounds. We look forward to seeing them soon. This August, be sure to attend the annual Nighthawk Count!”
Week 8: Vernal (adjective): of, relating to, or occurring in the spring. Although the word “vernal” is most commonly used in referring to the spring equinox, it can be used to describe anything relating to spring! Vernal mud, vernal pools of water, vernal flowers or even that fresh vernal smell as the mud thaws.
Example: “Sunday, March 20 is the vernal equinox. This Sunday, day and night will be of approximately the same duration all over the earth!”
Example: “On the Family Nature Walk this weekend, we witnessed the vernal blooms of silver maple trees and heard the vernal “conk-a-ree” of newly returned male Red-winged Blackbirds.”
Week 7: Epaulet (noun): something that ornaments or protects the shoulder. Male Red-winged Blackbirds’ bright red shoulder patches with a border of yellow are known as “epaulets”. Bright epaulets help a male Red-Winged Blackbird get noticed by females and defend his territory.
Example: “A few Red-Winged Blackbirds have already been spotted (and heard!) along the shores of Grenadier Pond since late February. As the weather warms up keep an eye out for those crimson epaulets as the male Red-Winged Blackbirds return.”
When humans have epaulets it is most commonly as an ornamental fringed shoulder pad worn as part of a military uniform.
Much can be learned of Red-winged Blackbird behaviour through interpreting their epaulets.
Week 6: Caruncle (noun): a small, fleshy outgrowth that is a normal part of an animal’s anatomy. Turkeys have lots of caruncles!
Example: “The Wild Turkeys down near Grenadier Pond are females. One way to tell is that they have less-pronounced caruncles and snoods.”
Week 5: Apricity (noun): the warmth of the sun in winter.
This word is underused in modern times, but it is a rather useful name for that wonderful moment in which you are warmed by the sun even though the temperature is cold.
Example: “Despite the frigid air temperatures the squirrels were enjoying the apricity while perched upon a branch.”
Week 4: Hibernaculum (noun): a shelter used during the winter by a dormant animal. The plural form is hibernacula. Some examples of a hibernaculum are a groundhog’s burrow, a log sheltering a dormant salamander or a pit used by snakes.
Click here for pronunciation.
Example: “As I traversed the snowy woodland trails I imagined the garter snakes tucked away in a hibernaculum on this brumal day.”
Week 3: Chionophile (noun): an organism that loves snow! Chionophiles can be animals, plants or fungi who actually thrive in winter conditions. This is a combination of two Greek words: chion (meaning “snow”) & phile (meaning “lover of”). Snowy Owls and snowshoe hares are examples of chionophiles. Mice who use snow as shelter from predators could be considered chionophiles.
Click here for pronunciation.
Example: “Will it be a happy Valentine’s Day for chionophiles? Only if the temperature drops and we get a thick layer of snow!”
Week 2: Marcescent (adjective): withering but remaining attached to the stem (of leaves or fronds).
Click here for pronunciation.
Example: ”While walking through the black oak savannah in High Park I noticed that many of the young oaks had marcescent leaves. In the woodlands I found many marcescent beech leaves.”
Week 1: Brumal (adjective): of or relating to winter, wintry
Example: “On a brumal January day, the Mallards had congregated on some open water at the north end of Grenadier Pond.”