VALENTINE'S DAY IS BEGINNING OF A NEW YEAR

by Whit Gibbons

February 14, 2016

Happy New Year! No, I haven't confused Valentine's Day with Jan. 1. I'm referring to the ecological New Year, the time of rebirth and rejuvenation for much of the natural world.

A new year heralds new beginnings. But deciding when the new year begins depends on who's doing the deciding. Jan. 1 opens the door for standard calendars, whereas the U.S. government fiscal calendar begins on Oct. 1. For many universities, the New Year begins on July 1, to accord somewhat with the artificial academic year. Throughout history, various cultures have defined the year's beginning and end by dates related to seasonal celestial changes.

For plants and animals, various activities associated with courtship, mating and countless other vital functions determine when the New Year begins for particular species. Last Valentine's I wrote of how certain lizards, birds and turtles respond to the approach of spring with mating patterns and other behaviors. Following are questions I have been asked about the spring-related activities of a couple of other animals.

Q: When is alligator mating season?

A: The mating season in most parts of the American alligator's native range usually starts in early spring with males displaying territorial behavior toward other males and courtship behavior toward females. The females lay eggs in early summer in a large nest made from mud and vegetation that they build on shore. The babies hatch out in late summer or early fall. When the babies begin to hatch, they sometimes make little grunting sounds and the mother will come out of the water and dig open the nest. I have watched a mother alligator pick up eggs in her mouth, crack them open so the babies can get out and then carry as many as three babies at a time down to the water until all were there. An awesome spectacle. The female is protective of her young for a year or more.

Q: I have heard that small freshwater fish called darters change color during the springtime. If this is true, why do they do so? Where do darters live? My daddy went fishing all the time when I was a little girl in Tuscaloosa, and I never heard him mention a darter.

A: Darters live in small sandy or rocky streams throughout the eastern United States, especially in the Southeast. They go mostly unseen because of their small size and tendency to stay near the bottom, which may be why your father never noticed them. The greatest biodiversity of darters is in Alabama, where more than 50 species are found, more than in any other state. Many are found nowhere else, a statistic Alabamians should appreciate.

Some darters are similar to birds in displaying color differences seasonally and between the sexes. Males may display spectacular color displays during the breeding season, but like birds, female darters are generally drabber in appearance. The color change is part of the male's effort to attract a mate. Presumably, the more impressive the color display, the more attractive a suitor looks to the female.

The vibrant color patterns that many male darters take on in the spring can include combinations of red, blue, green, yellow and orange that rival those of the most stunning tropical birds. The male Christmas darter of Georgia and South Carolina displays bright red and green bars. Males of the redband darter of Tennessee sport bright blue and orange on their fins and body. Valentine pink does not seem to be a popular color among the dazzling darters, but many of them begin their breeding rituals in February.

We will still have some wintertime left, but before long the sights and sounds in the natural environment should have us all agreeing that a great new year has begun. Why not observe Valentine's Day with more than candy and a card? This year, take a walk outside and celebrate this seasonal landmark.

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