Field of Science

Voley, Voley, Voley

Over a third of all living mammal species are rodents. In cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere, the rodent fauna is often dominated by the Microtinae, the group of mouse-like rodents including voles and lemmings. And in North America, the most widespread of all microtine species is the eastern meadow vole Microtus pennsylvanicus.

Eastern meadow vole Microtus pennsylvanicus, copyright Gilles Gonthier.

The eastern meadow vole is found over most of Canada and a large part of the northern and eastern United States, with the subspecies M. p. chihuahuensis known from Chihuahua in northern Mexico. This species is about the size of a small rat, being from 14 to 20 cm in length with about three to six centimentres of that length being tail (Reich 1981). They are generally yellowish-brown in colour with black tips on the hairs though individuals vary significantly in brightness and shade. Western populations are supposed to be lighter in coloration than eastern, and southern individuals tend to be larger than northern. As an indication of this species' variability, Reich (1981) recognised 28 recognised subspecies.

Eastern meadow voles are primarily inhabitants of grasslands, with a preference for damper habitats, though they may also be found in woodlands. They mostly live in burrows underground, emerging to the surface to forage for food. Eastern meadow voles are generalist feeders, browsing on most available forms of low vegetation: grasses, sedges and herbs. When populations reach their peak, they may cause significant damage to woody plants by ringbarking their trunks. Individuals may seemingly be active at just about any time of day.

Eastern meadow vole in a state of danger, copyright David Allen.

Like other small rodents, meadow voles are short-lived animals with estimates of average lifespan ranging from just two or three months to ten to fourteen months (Reich 1981). Studies of movement patterns indicate that mature females generally maintain distinct, non-overlapping ranges whereas males range further and with less concern for others (Madison 1980). Mating behaviour appears generally promiscuous: males will range over the territories of multiple females and litters with mixed paternity are not uncommon (Boonstra et al. 1993). Paternal behaviour has been observed among eastern meadow voles in laboratory populations but all indications are that wild males do not remain with females after mating. Males often bear wounds indicative of intra-species conflict. These may be the result of males fighting over access to females but Madison (1980) suggested a potential alternative. Less dominant males might be more likely to attempt to approach females earlier or later in their oestrus cycle as the females are more likely to be guarded by dominant males when at their peak. While avoiding attacks from their dominant brethren, these minor males might find themselves violently rebuffed by a female who is just not yet in the mood.

After mating, gestation lasts for about three weeks, usually resulting in a litter of four to six babies. Weaning then takes place after about two weeks. Females forage far less while lactating than at other times. It might seem counter-intuitive for a female to reduce feeding when her energy demands are presumably at their peak but again Madison (1980) suggests an explanation: perhaps her energy needs are such that she simply lacks the capacity for extensive wandering. Young may potentially remain with their mother for some time after weaning but eventually they will be forced out of the parental burrow, leaving to face the wide world on their own. And when you're the size of a vole, that's a very wide world indeed.


Boonstra, R., X. Xia & L. Pavone. 1993. Mating system of the meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Behavioral Ecology 4: 83–89.

Madison, D. M. 1980. Space use and social structure in meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 7: 65–71.

Reich, L. M. 1981. Microtus pennsylvanicus. Mammalian Species 159: 1–8.

Anchor Sponges

Sponges are, by their very nature, a challenging group taxonomically. At the macroscopic level, they are often amorphous and indeterminate in appearance. As one taxonomist complained in 1842 (as quoted in Hooper & Van Soest 2002): "there is so much that is in common to them, and each adapts itself so readily to circumstances and assumes a new mask, that it requires a tact, to be gained only by some experience, to recognize them under their guises; while we labour, perhaps in vain, to devise phrases which shall aptly portray to others the characteristics of objects that have no fixed shape, and whose distinctive peculiarities almost cheat the eye". Reliable identification typically requires the close examination of microscopic details, in particular the conformation and arrangement of the mineralised spicules that make up the skeleton of many sponges.

Myxilla incrustans, copyright B. E. Picton.

The Myxillidae are a family of marine sponges that, so far as we currently know, are most diverse in temperate and frigid waters. Like other members of the class Demospongiae, the most diverse of the recognised sponge classes, they have a skeleton of spicules constructed from silica. Different arrangements of spicules allow the body of the sponge to be divided into two layers. In the outer ectosoma, which can be thought of as the 'skin' of the sponge, elongate spicules are vertically radiating or placed in 'bouquet' arrangements with a palisade of vertical spicules surmounted by radiating clusters. These spicules generally have each end similar and may be smooth or spiky. In the inner choanosoma, within which are placed the feeding chambers of the sponge, elongate spicules are placed in a reticulate arrangement. These spicules generally have one end pointed and the other blunt.

Skeletal arrangements and individual spicules from various Myxillidae, from Hooper & Van Soest (2002).

Mixed in amongst these larger megasclere spicules are smaller microscleres that do not form part of the main structural skeleton, though presumably they do help hold the sponge body together. In myxillids, the microscleres generally take the form of anchorate chelae, small curved structures with incurved rounded prongs at each end. Members of the boreal genus Melonanchora have a mixture of chelae and a different type of microsclere shaped like a ribbed rugby ball (Santín et al. 2021). In the Indo-West Pacific genus Psammochela, growing sponges will also incorporate sand from the surrounding environment to supplement the microscleres (de Voogd 2012).

Growth habit of Myxillidae can vary from encrusting to massive to branching. The species Stelodoryx procera, found around the Azores, has a distinctive growth habit with a flattened main body at the end of an elongate stalk. On the whole, though individual species may be distinguished by growth habit, species within a single genus may differ greatly in form. For determining genera, examination of spicules is really the only way to go.


Hooper, J. N. A., & R. W. M. Van Soest. 2002. Systema Porifera: A guide to the classification of sponges vol. 1. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Santín, A., M.-J. Uriz, J. Cristobo, J. R. Xavier & P. Ríos. 2021. Unique spicules may confound species differentiation: taxonomy and biogeography of Melonanchora Carter, 1874 and two new related genera (Myxillidae: Poecilosclerida) from the Okhotsk Sea. PeerJ 9: e12515.

Voogd, N. J. de. 2012. On sand-bearing myxillid sponges, with a description of Psammochela tutiae sp. nov. (Poecilosclerida, Myxillina) from the northern Moluccas, Indonesia. Zootaxa 3155: 21–28.

Succulent Orchids

With over 1200 known species found in Asia and Australasia, Dendrobium is one of the largest currently recognised genera of orchids. As with other examples of such 'super-genera', the question of how to best handle such a monster has been fiercely debated. In 2003, Australian botanist M. Clements proposed dividing Dendrobium between numerous segregate genera, noting (among other reasons) that the genus as previously recognised was not monophyletic. However, Clements' system does not seem to have garnered widespread usage with other orchid systematists preferring to retain a broad concept of Dendrobium (excluding some of the more egregious outliers) that largely corresponds with its established usage (e.g. Schuiteman 2011). Nevertheless, many of the subdivisions promoted by Clements remain recognised as well delimited groups. One such cluster is the assemblage of species recognised as Dendrobium section Aporum.

Growth habit of Dendrobium sect. Aporum, copyright Tony Rodd.

Species of section Aporum are epiphytes found in lowland forests of south-east Asia, extending eastwards to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Members of this section have thin stems that are erect at first but tend to become pendulous as they lengthen. Leaves are fleshy and equitant: that is, they are folded longitudinally with what would otherwise be the two sides of the dorsal surface fused, except at the base where they overlap with opposing leaves. The stem may be more or less completely concealed by the leaf bases. Tips of the leaves end in a point. Flowers are borne singly or in clusters, arising laterally on the stem between leaf nodes or at the tip of the stem alongside a terminal scale. The flowers may be subtended by persistent chaffy bracts. They are generally small and fleshy and tend to be short-lived, wilting after just a few days.

Flowers of Dendrobium anceps, copyright Aqiao HQ.

The functional significance of the Aporum section's distinctive leaves remains uncertain. As noted by Carlsward et al. (1997), the fleshy leaves might be taken as an adaptation to water retention. However, though access to water is a consistent concern for epiphytes, the humid rainforests in which Aporum species are found hardly seem the driest of places. Conversely, the effective even distribution of stomata on both sides of leaf resulting from their equitant condition may make it easier for excess water to be released from the plant.

Dendrobium distichum, photographed by Ronny Boos.

Orchids in general are, of course, most often considered by people as ornamental plants. My impression is that the various Aporum species tend not to be among the most widely grown of species though their unusual growth habit might attract interest. This may be due to them not being the easiest of orchids to maintain; they appear to require high humidity and warm temperatures to thrive with a cooler, drier period in the non-growing season. Among the more popular species are Dendrobium anceps and D. keithii, both of which produce small greenish flowers. Those of D. anceps have been described as having a distinct "apple pie" fragrance. Of course, if you happen to be wandering through the jungles of south-east Asia, you might well discover these plants growing of their own accord.


Carlsward, B. S., W. L. Stern, W. S. Judd & T. W. Lucansky. 1997. Comparative leaf anatomy and systematics in Dendrobium, sections Aporum and Rhizobium (Orchidaceae). International Journal of Plant Sciences 158 (3): 332–342.

Clements, M. A. 2003. Molecular phylogenetic systematics in the Dendrobiinae (Orchidaceae), with emphasis on Dendrobium section Pedilonum. Telopea 10 (1): 247–298.

Schuiteman, A. 2011. Dendrobium (Orchidaceae): to split or not to split? Gardens' Bulletin Singapore 63 (1–2): 245–257.

The Huenellidae

Researchers who deal with the modern marine fauna are used to thinking of brachiopods as a marginal group, their diversity greatly overshadowed on a global scale by the superficially similar bivalves. However, modern brachiopods are but a shadow of their former selves; for much of the Palaeozoic era, their relationship with the bivalves was the inverse of today. Many are the brachiopod lineages that came and went over this time.

External views of ventral (left) and dorsal valves of Huenella triplicata, from Walcott (1924).

The Huenellidae were an assemblage of brachiopods that lived during the late Cambrian and early Ordovician (Amsden & Biernat 1965). They represent early representatives of the Pentamerida, a Palaeozoic order of fairly generalised-looking brachiopods. Within the Pentamerida, they fall within the suborder Syntrophiidina. Syntrophiidinans as a whole are rarely found in the fossil record and as a result remain poorly known. Members of the suborder share a distinctive shape with biconvex valves marked by a dorsal fold and ventral sulcus. That is, the midline of the shell is raised above either side with the ventral valve forming a 'valley' to match the raised 'hill' of the dorsal valve. What, if anything, was the purpose of this arrangement I wouldn't know but modern brachiopods often inhabit locations with a lot of organic silt and/or fine sediment. Perhaps the uneven level of the syntrophiidinan shell helped protect it from burial by a shifting substrate.

Interior view of ventral valve of Radkeina taylori, from Laurie (1997), with scoop-shaped spondylium at upper midline.

Families of Syntrophiidina may be distinguished based on the development of the spondylium, an internal projection at the base of the ventral valve that provided an attachment site for the shell muscles. Members of the Huenellidae possessed either a sessile spondylium or a pseudospondylium, a spondylium-type structure rising from the internal surface of the valve itself rather than from the hinge. Amsden & Biernat (1965) recognised a division of the huenellids between two subfamilies based on the development of the brachiophore plates, projections on the inside of the dorsal valve that would have supported the lophophore. Members of the Huenellinae possessed more developed brachiophores than members of the Mesonomiinae. Outer ornament of the huenellid shell varied from more or less smooth with weak concentric ridges to costate with distinct radiating ridges.

Phylogenetic relationships within the Syntrophiidina do not seem to have been established in detail but the early appearance in the fossil record of huenellids at least raises the question of whether they included the ancestors of later families. As well as other families of the Syntrophiidina, candidates for descent would include members of the suborder Pentameridina as well as of the related order Rhynchonellida. This latter order includes species which survive to the present day so the possibility exists that while the huenellids themselves may be long gone, their legacy may yet live on.


Amsden, T. W., & G. Biernat. 1965. Pentamerida. In: Moore, R. C. (ed.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt H. Brachiopoda vol. 2 pp. H523–H552. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas Press: Lawrence (Kansas).