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 Comet Fire Report   Image Pages:  Page 1   Page 2   Page 3   Page 4   Page 5   Page 6   Page 7   Page 8   Page 9 
 Highlights From Comet Fire Image Pages 1 - 9:      Most Noteworthy Plant & Animal Images 
Ashes To Wildflowers: Image Page 1
Post-Burn Plant Succession Following Comet Fire East Of Palomar College,
Including Remarkable Leaf-Litter Ant, Other Insects, Spiders & Rattlesnakes
Compiled by W.P. Armstrong During Winter & Spring Months Of 2021
Cameras Used: Nikon D-90Nikon D-3200Sony HX-50 & HX-60Sony T-10
Plant names follow Checklist Of The Vascular Plants Of San Diego County by
Jon Rebman & Michael Simpson, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2006.

Grumman S-2T, formerly U.S. Navy carrier-based, anti-submarine plane.
On 14 Jan. 2021 a wildfire of unknown origin swept across hillsides east of campus. The fire's path was mostly confined to native coastal sage scrub along the eastern border of the San Marcos campus and south of the Edwin & Frances Hunter Arboretum. This fire could have been much worse without quick action by fire crews from CDF and fire departments from San Marcos & neighboring cities. The red fire retardant (Phos-Check) dropped from Cal Fire air tankers and helicopter water drops helped enormously to extinguish the blaze and stop the spread of this potentially disastrous wildfire.

Note: As I work on this project, it is becoming a photo essay about interesting native plant species that are regenerating in the burned coastal sage scrub. I am also including noteworthy insects and other invertebrates that fall into my pitfall traps. In order to speed up the loading time, I must limit the image pages to 18 image files per page. My images are large (910 pixels in width); however, they project well on large monitors, TV screens and classroom LCD projectors. I made them this size for lecture presentations. I also included some personal anecdotal stories because I actually majored in fire ecology at Calif. State Univ. L.A. under Dr. Richard J. Vogl, a dear friend, author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, and famous fire ecologist.

  In Memory Of Dr. Richard J. Vogl  

Friday 26 February 2021

The fast-burning Comet Fire cut a path of about 40 acres across Palomar College property in the direction of a housing tract on east side of campus. In the distance is Owens Peak, one of the neighboring higher mountains surrounding San Marcos. It is composed of very hard, erosion-resistant, Santiago Peak metavolcanic rock. The vine in foreground is wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), a interesting caudiciform member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). It sprouts from a large subterranean caudex and appears within weeks following fire.

Large, woody caudex and spiny seed capsules of wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), a common caudiciform vine in the coastal sage scrub and chaparral of southern California. The entire caudex was about 2 feet (0.6 m) long and weighed approximately 40 pounds (18 kg). I have seen other specimens in the wild that were three times this size. In addition to surviving prolonged periods of drought, the large caudex resprouts readily after brush fires. In fact, it is one of the first plants to appear on ash-covered slopes in early spring. Unlike edible fruits of the gourd family, called pepos, the wild cucumber is a capsule that splits open at one end.
A Wild Cucumber Caudex That Is Not Resprouting After The Comet Fire

An enormous woody caudex of wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), a common caudiciform vine in the coastal sage scrub and chaparral of southern California. This entire caudex was over 2 feet across and probably weighed over 60 pounds. As I stated on my image caption for this remarkable fire follower on Image Page 1: In addition to surviving prolonged periods of drought, the large caudex resprouts readily after brush fires. In fact, it is one of the first plants to appear on ash-covered slopes in early spring. Unfortunately, this huge caudex will propably never sprout because it is was killed by the intense heat of the fire. White ash is evidence of an extremely hot fire, too hot for even the wild cucumber!

Exfoliation on charred, granite boulders (previously reported as tonalite). Geologists Steve Spear of Palomar College and Mike Walawender of San Diego State University mapped this bedrock as monzogranite (personal communication, 2007). The ashy soil around granitic boulders in post-burn areas is often littered with flakes that split off of large boulders--proof of the intense heat of the flames. Like peeling off the layers of an onion skin, fire is a major source of exfoliation, rock shapes and DG soil in southern California. There were audible popping sounds soon after the fire. Some of these areas have been obscured by dense shrubs for decades. In fact, I found a corroded pistol in one area. See following image.

California peony (Paeonia californica): Truly a perfect example of the title of my old Desert Magazine article "Ashes To Wildflowers." This is a native perennial wildflower that resprouts after fire. It is endemic to California. The flowers are turned downward (drooping), so you must turn the stem up to see the beautiful petals. In fact, if I ever restored another old classic car (like my 48 Ford) I would paint it this color!

  Zoom Lecture: Go To Comet Fire Highlights  


When I first saw this pistol partially covered by ashes, I thought it was an old military issue Colt 45! Actually, this popular air gun was manufactured in Torrance after 1958. Unfortunately, it is not a valuable collector's item.

  A Pristine Marksman Repeater On eBay  


Monday 1 March 2021

Scarlet larkspur (Delphinium cardinale), another native perennial wildflower. Like peonies, larkspurs have many showy, cultivated hybrids. Unlike the native California peony, scarlet larkspurs bloom in late spring with flower stalks over 8 feet tall.

California Goosefoot: Chenopodium californicum
This is a native perennial with a large taproot. There were resprouts of this species throughout the burned slopes following the Comet Fire. Chenopodium includes many naturalized weedy species, such as the edible "lamb's quarters" (C. album). They are also known by the common name "goosefoot," presumedly by the appearance of their characteristic leaves. They are members of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), along with saltbush (Atriplex), beets (Beta), pickleweed (Salicornia), and Russian thistle or tumbleweed (Salsola). Some references include goosefoots in the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae). The taproot contains saponins that foam in water. Like native soap lilies (Chlorogalum) that occur in the local hills, ground up taproots of goosefoot were used for soap by early California settlers.

This is one of the two species of soap lilies native to the local hills that sprouts readily after fire. It has leaves with undulate (wavy) margins. Its bulb was not covered with hairs so it must be Chlorogalum parviflorum.

Two species of soap lilies (Chlorogalum): C. pomeridianum has large, fibrous bulbs and blooms at night. C. parviflorum has smaller flowers, nonfibrous bulbs and blooms during the daytime. The bulbs were eagerly sought after by native Americans who inhabited this region. Surprisingly enough, DNA botanists have moved these interesting lilies into the agave family (Agavaceae).


Ant Caught In Pitfall Trap: A New Genus For
Owens Peak & Twin Oaks Valley Species List

An uncommon (or seldom encountered) ant of the genus Stenamma was caught in my pitfall trap on my second visit to the burned area. This is a genus of cryptic ants that live in leaf litter and apparently feed on soil microinvertebrates. They inhabit moderately humid to wet forest habitats throughout the Holarctic region (northern continents), and Middle America (Mexico, Central America and Caribbean), and part of northwestern South America (Colombia and Ecuador). I have only caught one other Stenamma at Daley Ranch in the leaf litter under a coast live oak.

  A Stenamma Found At Daley Ranch  

A Google search reveals numerous research articles about these remarkable ants. According to Phil Ward at the University of Calif., Davis (personal communication, March 2021): "This is a Stenamma worker. The species-level taxonomy of the North American Stenamma species remains somewhat unsatisfactory, especially for those occurring in California. I would say that this is close to the species that Branstetter (2012) calls Stenamma mgb101." Dr. Ward also referred me to detailed taxonomic reference about the genus Stenamma in Systematic Entomology by Michael G. Branstetter (2012). Two species of Stenamma (S. californicum and S. diecki) were reported by Krista H. Pease and Robert N. Fisher (2001): "Report on Pitfall Trapping of Ants at the Biospecies Sites in the Nature Reserve of Orange County California." U.S. Geological Survey, San Diego Field Station. Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) were also caught in my pitfall traps.

Michael G. Branstetter (2012). "Origin and Diversification of the Cryptic Ant Genus Stenamma Westwood (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), Inferred From Multilocus Molecular Data, Biogeography and Natural History." Systematic Entomology Vol. 37 (3): 478-496.

The origin of the taxa Stenamma mgb101 is explained in Michael Branstetter's scholarly 2012 article containing cladistical phylogenetic trees based on DNA sequencing: " ... Similarly, S. mgb101, which is nested inside of the ‘debile’ clade, was thought originally to be a dark form of the widespread North American species S. diecki, but the molecular data clearly show that S. diecki Emery collected from near the type locality (Yale, British Columbia), belongs to the ‘brevicorne’ clade." Stenamma californicum also belongs to the ‘brevicorne’ clade and is closely related to S. diecki.

According to Michael Branstetter (2012): Stenamma is monophyletic and tentatively is sister to a group of New World species placed currently in the genus Aphaenogaster ….Divergence dating and biogeographic reconstruction show that Stenamma is most likely to have originated in the Nearctic (North America--including Greenland) at the Eocene–Oligocene boundary (35 million years ago) and diversified into 2 isolated monophyletic groups, the Holarctic Clade (HOC) and Middle American Clade (MAC). Potential environmental factors affecting the evolution of Stenamma include the intense global cooling of the late Eocene combined with aridification and mountain building.

An exceptional characteristic of Stenamma is that many species seem to be well adapted to cool, wet environments. Also, it has been found that Stenamma can be the most common ant genus in leaf-litter samples collected from very wet and cool, cloud forest localities. These ecological traits are in contrast to the pattern seen in ants generally, in which diversity and abundance decrease with elevation. Biogeographic results indicate that Stenamma originated in the Nearctic, potentially preadapting it to thrive in cool montane forest environments (Branstetter 2012).

Most Stenamma species have very cryptic habits. Nests are usually small, and workers are slow moving, often becoming immobile upon disturbance. Consequently, Stenamma is rarely found by the casual observer and most collections are made by sifting leaf-litter from the forest floor. This fact has given Stenamma its stereotype as a “leaf-litter ant genus.” Despite being common in moist forest habitats, the small colonies of this genus are not often encountered except through specialized collecting techniques. Considering the above observations, finding Stenamma in the dry coastal sage scrub near Palomar College is especially noteworthy.

  A 2nd Stenamma Found In Burned Site  


View into one of several ant pitfall traps placed in burned area. Large darkling beetles are common in the coastal sage scrub and venture onto burned slopes soon after the fire. Many insects fall into the traps, including ants, beetles, flower bees, etc. They are released after I have recorded them. I am primarily interested in identifying the ant species, especially new species that are not on my Owens Peak and Twin Oaks Valley species lists.

  Ant Species documented For Owens Peak  
Ants Documented For Twin Oaks Valley


Rare Bottleworts Were Not Observed On This Survey

The path of Comet Fire was south of the March 2000 bottlewort (Sphaerocarpos drewiae) discovery. I was not able to spot them along dirt road at my original GPS location. It was just too dry and probably too late in the year. These minute bryophytes are difficult to spot even when they are green, and almost impossible to see when they have dried up and turned black. They are probably the rarest native "plant" (bryophyte) discovery on Palomar College property.

The bottlewort clumps are less than 10 mm across. The U.S. penny is 19 mm in diameter. You really need to get down on your knees to observe these plants.

An ordinary straight pin is used for a size relationship. The upright bottle-shaped structures are involucres containing female sex organs called archegonia. In fact, bottleworts are dioecious with separate male and female plants.
  The Rare & Endangered Bottlewort In Coastal Sage Scrub  

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