'Tis the Season!

What festival(s) do you celebrate this time of the year? Are there examples of symbiotic relationships associated with them? We'd love to hear all about it.
This month's BIOTA newsletter is all about winter festivities and their connections to symbiosis.

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In This Issue....

  • The winter count, and the many mutualisms of bison
  • Meet some of the members of the BIOTA crew
  • The most romantic parasite?

New Instagram artwork by Jackie Benitez, highlighting the microbial diversity and ecosystems within our digestive systems. 

The winter count, and the many mutualisms of the bison

With winter now in full swing, we wanted to explore the ways different festivals and traditions relate to symbiosis. One custom, known as the winter count, was commonly practiced amongst the Lakota and Dakota peoples of the Great Plains. Traditionally, a member of the community records a defining moment from the past year on the skin of an American Bison (the Lakota word is Tatanka; the scientific name for the plains subspecies is Bison bison bison).

(Photo Credit to State Historical Society of North Dakota)

The winter count pictured above was made by High Dog, a Lakota man who lived in Standing Rock approximately 100 years ago. The events depicted on his winter count date back to the late 1700s, including a famous Leonid meteor shower that took place in 1833. As we write this winter newsletter for you, though different from High Dog, we hope to honor this form of winter storytelling shared across cultures.  

Although Native peoples had been hunting Great Plain bison to help meet their food, clothing, and other needs for thousands of years, white sport hunters brought in by railroads in the mid- to late 1800s quickly hunted bison to the brink of extinction. As Native peoples living in the Great Plains had strong cultural ties to bison, this changed their way of life drastically. Traditional Tatanka skin winter counts by historians such as High Dog became scarce as the population dropped from over 25 million to two thousand or fewer. In addition to their direct cultural significance, bison also played a dominant role in shaping the prairie vegetation (i.e., they were a keystone species) for tens of thousands of years. Bison and prairie dogs (another keystone species of the Great Plains) share a loose mutualistic relationship with each other. Grazing herds of bison are drawn to prairie dog towns because of the dirt left by burrows. The bison roll around in the dirt to rid themselves of ticks. In turn, bison fertilize the soil with their manure and graze on the grasses, which encourages new growth more palatable and nutritious for the prairie dogs.

One of BIOTA’s mission is to provide our audience with information about different types of symbiotic interactions. Symbiotic interactions can be fascinating to learn about for their own sake, but can also help illuminate ways in which an ecosystem can unravel if the wrong thread is tugged. The severe reduction of the bison population led to many consequences for the Great Plains ecosystems, including the well-being of the humans living there. The societal and ecological challenges faced by High Dog and his contemporaries at Standing Rock continue to reverberate in the lives of his descendants who live there today.

Further reading
- A digital winter count exhibit
- An article on Lakota cultural ties to bison
- Recent history of bison hunting
- More information on prairie ecology

Meet some of the members of the BIOTA crew! 
BIOTA Vlogs: Bryan Rangel
Meet Bryan Rangel, one of our interns, working in the Marketing division of BIOTA!
BIOTA Vlogs: Tristan Yang
Check out Tristan Yang, one of our undergraduate Interns, and his experience on the Science and Research Team
Brenda Yu is one of our undergraduate Interns and our Facebook Lead of our Social Media team.
BIOTA Vlogs: Alondra Romero
Meet Alondra Romero, one of our interns! She is a member of our Art and Film Crew!
Mistletoe growing on a Palo Verde tree in Arizona

The most romantic parasite?

You’ve probably heard of mistletoe, but not many people know that mistletoe plants have fascinating natural and cultural histories that transcend their utility in acquiring smooches.

There are more than 1,000 mistletoe species distributed globally. These hemiparasites infect multiple tree species, and different animals (including us) have found an array of uses for them. Indigenous Northern Europeans presumably noticed the funny little bunches of green twigs and leaves remained throughout the winter on trees that were otherwise deciduous, and speculated there must be something special about the plant. The Norse told a story of an arrow made of mistletoe killing the god Baldr, and the Greeks believed mortals could safely enter the underworld if they took along a branch of the stuff. In traditional Chinese medicine, a different type of mistletoe is used to treat aching joints, whereas (in what is now Texas and Oklahoma) the Tonkawa people used a poisonous species of mistletoe to make their arrows more deadly. In western medicine, a Eurasian species of mistletoe may serve as a possible anti-tumor treatment, among other potential medicinal uses.
(Above photo credit to: $1LENCE D00600D) 

Further reading
- Smithsonian Magazine article
- A feature in National Geographic  

(The Australian Mistletoe Bird has a mutualistic relationship with some of the mistletoe species in Australia; it eats the berries, and the mistletoe plants benefit from having their seeds dispersed. Photo Credit to Keith Lightbody)

This newsletter is brought to you by Helen Cheng and Jesse Czekanski-Moir, with courteous recommendations from Courtney Leonard
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