Suomen Luonto
English summaries 9/2000

The russet - our plant kingdom’s autumnal fireworks display
By Seppo Vuokko

p. 4-9

Preparations made by woody stemmed plants for autumn are spread over a series of stages lasting several weeks. Getting ready for autumn commences as early as during the midsummer period, when plants begin storing up nutrients in their roots or stems. Growth ceases in August and soon afterwards photosynthesis also comes to a stop. Chlorophyll disappears, its constituents being transferred to stores in the plant. Leaf starch is changed into sugar which is then stored in stems and buds. When chlorophyll is broken down, the other pigments of the leaf, the yellow carotenoids and the red and purple anthocyanins, are exposed to view. These contribute towards the autumn fireworks display, known as the autumn russet (the Finnish “ruska”), put on by plants.

Cold resistance was a character that had to evolve in plants to ensure their survival. Warmer periods in the Earth’s past became cooler, or even gave way to Ice Ages. In such circumstances, plants able to withstand the cold were able to survive and reproduce in regions where others were unable to maintain colonies. Cells in forest trees of the boreal zone can withstand a temperature of as low as -60°C without actually freezing.

The russet is at its most spectacular in the sub-arctic zone, where there are dozens of different birch, willow and heath plants, in addition to a wide variety of herbaceous plants, which contribute their own colours to the autumn scenery. This phenomenon is also breathtaking in the broadleaf woods of the temperature zone. These woods contain bird cherry, maples and sycamores, nut-bearing trees and shrubs, and other species which turn lovely colours as the weather grows colder.

Let’s see the Saimaa ringed seal!
By Helena Tengvall

p. 16-20

At long last, we are able to give some positive news about the Saimaa ringed seal - its population is expanding. In the 2000 summer, there were 230-240 adult ringed seals and pups born the previous winter. A total of 57 pups were born but some of them have since died.

Population growth is a consequence of conservation efforts contributed to by voluntary organisations, authorities, residents and summer house owners in the seals’ vicinity. The WWF arranged an excursion to the waters of Linnansaari National Park for “adoptive parents”, i.e. people who regularly contribute sums of money towards seal conservation. People attending the excursion included ringed seal researchers, a wildlife photographer specialising in this species, and a boatman from the national park. Expert guides, together with persistent monitoring of the scene through telescopes and binoculars, brought their just rewards. As many as three seals were seen, which was cause for celebration, as many of the people dwelling round Lake Saimaa never glimpse a single seal throughout their lives.

Ringed seals have been tagged with radio collars and then tracked. In this way, new data has come to light on their circadian (daily) rhythm, diving frequency, and general movements. It has been discovered that the animals travel up to dozens of kilometres away from the places in which they have been tagged. In the winter, one individual swam under the ice for a distance of 16 km, taking in air at small holes in the ice.

Saimaa ringed seals behave in a different manner to the ringed seals of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga (Russia). This is because the conditions in the three locations differ.

Catchers after thermals
By Jari Kontiokorpi

p. 22-26

The southerly migration of birds of prey is in full swing in August, reaching a peak in September. The last species to leave Finland do not depart until wintry December.

Only a few birds of prey overwinter here; these are the Gyrfalcon, golden eagle and adult goshawks. Some of Finland’s best locations for viewing migrating birds of prey are the coast of the Gulf of Finland at the country’s southeasternmost corner, southwesternmost tip, and the Åland islands. Over the past few years, Finnish ornithologists have been able to watch the vigorous migration of birds of prey on the Karelian Isthmus, in Russia and on the south-western side of Lake Ladoga. Europe’s best places for observations of this kind include the Straits of Gibraltar and Istanbul. Eilat in Israel is even better, while the world’s most celebrated locations for this kind of bird watching are in Central America. In the latter country as many as 4 million birds of prey can be seen on their autumn migration.

A migrating bird of this kind may be an active or a passive flier. Active fliers beat their wings, glide and then beat their wings again. They maintain a constant altitude as they progress along their chosen line of flight. Migrants of this kind include the hobby, merlin and peregrine, all of which have relatively sharp-tipped wings.

By contrast, passive fliers seek ascending air currents (thermals) forming above places that are warmer than their surroundings. These include fields and large areas of rock with no tree cover. Having found a thermal, the bird begins to glide around its edges, where it rises higher and higher in a spiral.

After reaching a suitable altitude, the bird glides away from the thermal on its migration course, where it gradually loses height. The gliding ratio of a bird of prey may reach 30:1; in other words it is able to glide for 30 kilometres, while losing only one kilometre in height. Among the passive fliers are the honey, common, and rough-legged buzzards.

Poisonous mushrooms shrouded in legend
By Erkki Makkonen

p. 28-32

Among the most famous of poisonous fungi are the agarics (Amanita), and especially the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). Some Amanita species are non-toxic, and even taste delicious, whereas a small quantity of others, if ingested, is sufficient to kill. The fly agaric lies somewhere between these two extremes; it is not very poisonous. The species contains narcotic and hallucinogenic substances which many shamans have made use of in the past to put them into a different world. It has been averred that the Vikings soaked fly agarics in their beer to render them berserk during a battle, but this has never been substantiated. The name “fly agaric” (“Red fly toadstool” in Finnish) is difficult to explain. One theory has it that house flies were killed by crushing a fly agaric toadstool into a saucer and mixing it with milk and sugar. Flies would drink the resulting liquid and become intoxicated or even die.

According to a second theory, insects and especially flies were associated thousands of years ago with the gods, intoxication and lunacy. When the old gods turned into Satan and his minions, flies also became the Devil’s assistants. The name Beelzebub comes from the Hebrew Ba'al Zeuv, Lord of the Flies.

The Finno-Ugric peoples have long traditions in making use of fly agaric fungi. Some of the most important facts that have been unearthed on this subject come from the so-called fungus songs of the Mansi (Voguls) of the 19th century. Their shamans and witches used fly agaric in order to achieve a trance-like state, to work magic and to seek answers to problems of both individuals and the society at large. The toadstool was also an important form of medicine.

Fly agaric was also used purely as a drug; it constituted the only drug known to Nordic peoples right up to the arrival of the Russian traders. For instance, the Chukchee, Samoyeds and Khanty (Ostyaks) were still using fly agaric as a narcotic at the beginning of the 20th century. Fungi were dried before use, so that most of the toxin evaporated, but enough of it remained to give the taker a good lift. Tribes using fly agaric also had a custom of drinking the urine from a person who had been on a fly agaric “high”. The effect was as pronounced as eating the fungus straight, but the initial unpleasant effects were avoided. Fly agarics were also obviously used in Central Europe as well. This is evidenced by the Hungarian and German names for the fungus, both of which mean “crazy fungus”.

The most well-known fly agaric-based religion was the so-called Soma Cult of India, which the Aryans brought with them when migrating from present-day Afghanistan south to the Indus valley 3,500 years ago. The god of the sun, wind and solar radiation was Soma, but soma was also a plant and a drink made from it, with the aid of which one could commune with the gods. It was also called ambrosia. Researchers were for long stumped by the true identify of the plant, but in 1967 ethnomycologists realised that all the properties of the mysterious plant were those of the well-known fly agaric toadstool.

Many animals eat fly agarics without being poisoned and obviously without getting “high”. Among the mammals, these include the wild forest reindeer and the domesticated variety. Slugs are very partial to a meal of fly agaric, but they also consume the completely white species Amanita virosa, which is deadly poisonous to us A.virosa is known in English as the Destroying Angel, but in Finnish simply as the “White fly toadstool”. Fortunately, A.virosa (which can be confused with the ordinary mushroom!) is fairly well known in Finland. Nowadays doctors are able to save most of the people who have accidentally consumed it, but not so long ago 80% of its victims died.

Recognition for the forests of southern Finland
By Juho Rahkonen

p. 38-41

Most of the forests of southern Finland have been converted into agricultural land or building land, while most of the remaining ones are being used for industrial timber production. These are the regimented so-called “tree fields”. Here and there, however, one finds snippets of original forest which ought to be conserved. Otherwise the harvesters will soon move in and the forest will become just one more example of a “one-time forest”.

Most of Finland’s protected forests lie in the northern and eastern parts of the country. This distorts protection, the aim of which is to conserve different kinds of Finnish forests. If adequate amounts of protected forests do not remain in southern Finland, many plant and animal species will vanish from here forever.

An attempt is being made to repeat the same operation as in the north in 1996. In that year a research report appeared reporting the loss of 4000 jobs in northern Finland as a consequence of the planned forest protection programme. In reality, following the actual implementation of protection, harvesting in areas outside the reserves has increased and no jobs at all have been lost. Now it is being said that the legalising of the protection programme for southern Finland would cost the State far too much in compensation. This is simply not true. Behind the contention we find the familiar lack of desire on the part of industry and forest officials to see the forest as anything more than a “field full of wood pulp”.

New arrivals
By Kauri Mikkola

p. 42-43

Climate warming, habitat changes, tourism and foodstuff transportation are constantly bringing new insect species into Finland. Some of these survive, reproduce and take up residence here, although a large number succumb to the harsh conditions.

The larger Lepidoptera are best known. In the 1990s, over 20 new species arrived here, among them some butterflies. The large copper (Lycaena dispar) was found for the first time in 1972, and the map butterfly (Araschnia levana) in 1973. Both are now breeding naturally in Finland.

Several new species of Coleoptera have also arrived. These include the rhinoceros beetle Oryctes nasicornis, Tachirus basalis, Lordithin exoletus, Ips amitinus, Lilioceris lili and the chafer Oxythyrea funesta.

A few Diptera have also firmly established themselves here. Now common, the Elk ked (Lipoptena cervi) is a nuisance; it was first observed in Finland as recently ago as in 1960. The trypetid Urophora cardui has spread swiftly over southern Finland since 1981.

Teksti: Leigh Plester