A True Desert Rose — Purshia stansburyana


Stansbury’s Cliff-Rose (Purshia stansburyana) spotted at park headquarters at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This scrappy-looking plant puts forth fragrant and attractive blooms from April to June.  Image credit: Curious Sengi.

A sweet fragrance drifts in the hot afternoon air.  The scent comes from pale yellow flowers set against tough, stubby evergreen leaves.

This is Stansbury’s Cliff-Rose (Purshia stansburyana), a true rose in the family Rosaceae and a common native plant through the desert lands of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, southern California, and northern Mexico.  This plant grows as a shrub or small tree, usually 1 – 6 feet (0.3 – 1.8 m) tall.  Reports of plants nearly 70 years old have been made, but they are more likely to live up to 40 years.  During the long life of Stansbury’s Cliff-Rose, it provides an important source of browse for domestic cattle and sheep, as well as mule deer, elk, pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, and many bird species.  Rodents feed on the seeds.  Native peoples have made good use of the plant as well:  the inner bark was made into ropes, clothing, sandals, and baskets; the wood was rendered into arrow shafts; and the leaves were medicinally used as both an emetic and a wound wash.  Modern pharmaceutical studies seem to indicate that triterpenoids extracted from the plant might have some inhibitory effects on viruses such as HIV and Epstein-Barr (which causes mono and is associated with specific forms of cancer).


As the flowers fertilize and come into fruit, long feathery plumes erupt from the center.  They are derived from female portions of the flower, called the style, which persist as these remarkable extensions up to 2 inches in length.  These plumes can catch the wind or hitch a ride with passing animals to help disperse the seeds.  Image credit: Curious Sengi.

Members of the genus Purshia form a large species complex capable of easy cross-fertilization and hybridization.  This tendency towards hybridization has raised some conservation concerns that the ubiquitous P. stansburyana will swamp out rarer speciesespecially with the breakdown of natural ecological barriers through climate change and road construction.  Despite these concerns, Stansbury’s Cliff-Rose continues to define the landscape of the high desert cliffs and rocky hillsides, providing food and shelter for wildlife and fixing nitrogen in the soil.  The plant is recommended for seeding in areas in need of habitat restoration from disruptive human activities such as mining.

Howard Stansbury

Howard Stansbury.  Image credit: Tiehm 1987.

P. stansburyana was named for Captain Howard Stansbury (1806 – 1863) of the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the U.S. Army, who led a surveying expedition to the Great Salt Lake in 1849 – 1850.  His party brought back specimens that were later described and named by New York botanist John Torrey (1796 – 1873).  In handing over the collected plants, Stansbury had to make apologies to Torrey due to the sudden disappearence of the expedition’s naturalist, who “. . . .being violently attacked with the California fever, unceremoniously abandoned his post and walked off to the mines, leaving me to shift for myself.  Consequently the collection was made by persons but little acquainted with botany, and I fear you will not find it of any great value (quoted from Tiehm 1987).”  Stansbury seems to have lost a number of men to the new California gold rush, but the expedition was a major success and Stansbury remains honored in the name of this lovely desert rose.


This charming native plant is becoming increasingly popular as a drought-resistant ornamental plant for gardens.  Image credit: Curious Sengi.



Baggs, Joanne E. & J. Maschinski.  2000.  “The Threat of Increasing Hybridization of an Endangered Plant Species, Purshia subintegrata, in the Verde Valley, Arizona.”  Southwestern Rare and Endangered Plants:  Proceedings of the Third Conference.  PP. 25 – 28.

Howard, Janet L.  1995.  “Purshia mexicana var. stansburiana.”  Fire Effects Information System.  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Library.  Accessed 29 June 2016.

Pendleton, R.L. & E.D. McArthur.  1995.  “Reproductive Biology of Bitterbrush:  Interaccessional Hybridization of Plants Grown in a Common Garden.”  Proceedings — Ecology and management of annual rangelands. General Technical Report INT-GTR-313, USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, UT.  Pp. 266 – 270.

Stubbendieck, James, Stephan L. Hatch, & L.M. Landholt.  2003.  North American Wildland Plants:  A Field Guide.  Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press.

Tiehm, Arnold.  1987.  “Index to Plants Collected on Howard Stansbury’s Expedition to the Great Salt Lake, 1849 – 1850.”  Brittonia 39 (1):  86 – 95.



More to Come!


Enjoying a view of the Painted Desert. Image credit: Curious Sengi.

Curious Sengi has been out in the middle of the Arizona desert, snurfling around for stories of natural history to share with you.  Be sure to stick around for more to come!

Part & Counterpart


Two halves of a split rock show two sides of the same fossil — the part and counterpart — of Diplurus newarki, a Late Triassic coelacanth fish from New Jersey. This fossil represents a number of different individuals. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



The tail of one Diplurus arching towards the left. The faint impression of scales are also present. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



An even closer detail of the tail fin shows the individual little bones that make up the fin rays. Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.



Detail of the trunk skeleton shows, among other things, distinctive “Y” shaped bones. These are either neural or haemal arches.  The neural cord (in neural arches) or the major blood vessels running the length of the body (in haemal arches) thread through this protective arcade of bone like a thread through a needle’s eye.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

Figures: Summer Fashions by Mr. Punch’s Designs After Nature

A la Peacock_Punch 21 December 1867

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (21 December 1867).

Peacock Headdress_Punch 1 April 1871

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (1 April 1871).

Bird Dress_Punch_23 April 1870

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (23 April 1870).

A la Porcupine_Punch 12 October 1867

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (12 October 1867).

Butterfly Dress_Punch 17 June 1871

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (17 June 1871).

Grasshopper Dress_Punch 23 September 1876

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (23 September 1876).

Beetle Dress_Punch 29 September 1877

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (29 September 1877).

Seaside Dress_Punch 5 September 1868

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (5 September 1868).

Snail Dress_Punch_20 August 1870

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (20 August 1870).

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (16 October 1869).

Butterfly Collar_Punch 30 September 1871

Image credit: Punch, or the London Charivari (30 September 1871).

About These Images

These cartoons were drawn by illustrator and photographer Edward Linley Sambourne (1844 – 1910), who worked for the popular London news and satirical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari.  With the image of ‘Miss Swellington’ promenading in a peacock’s train dress, Sambourne began a series of some 20 images between 1867 and 1876 on the theme “Designs After Nature.”

These fanciful depictions of women have drawn the attention of a few feminist scholars who have interpreted them in light of the Darwinian ideas that recently exploded in the public imagination.  Bernstein (2007) sees these cartoons playing with the line separating humans from other animals, which paralleled morphing views of women in society:  “. . . .an ambigously humorous angle on femininity in flux.”  Likewise, the slow but steady expansion of feminine identity in the 19th century was satirized as more radical gender role reversal.  Cohen (2010) identified images of women in bird plumes as perfect exemplars of Darwin’s observation in The Descent of Man that in humans, women are the more ornamental sex and they fulfill their desire for ornamentation by taking the beautiful feathers of male birds for themselves.

Observation and interpretation of Nature by Darwin and his contemporaries revealed a world not necessarily filled with “all things bright and beautiful.”  The new Darwinian world was one of constant change, which found an apt metaphor in the fickleness of women’s fashions.  Though undeniably still living under tight social constraints and blatant inequalities, Sambourne’s cartoons begin to show that women were not just the domestic angels of the Victorian household, but cunning females employing stratagems from Nature.  Extravagant avian costumes are an inversion of the usual mode of sexual selection, where it is now the female competing to capture male attention and stand out amongst rivals.  The prickles of a porcupine, the snail’s shell bustle, and the wasp outfit advertise the danger of tampering with a woman’s defenses.  There is protective mimicry of the veiled lady masquerading as a group of butterflies.  There is perhaps even unfair advantage to the woman coopting grasshopper leg mechanics in a game of lawn tennis (which is remarkably prescient of modern technological efforts to create powered exoskeleton suits).

In this parade of fashionable ladies (be sure to check back for more featured images!), biologically-inspired men’s attire is rare indeed.  What we do find is the sole image of a man with a butterfly for a collar, directly facing the viewer, though his eyes are squinted with suspicion.  In his gaze he is rather brutish and we sense his indifference in the unapologetic way his cigar ashes fall on the beautiful wings of the butterfly, sparing his dark, dour suit underneath.



Bernstein, Susan David.  2007.  “Chapter 4:  Designs after Nature:  Evolutionary Fashions, Animals, & Gender.”  In Victorian Animal Dreams:  Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture.  D.D. Morse & M.A. Danahay, editors.  Ashgate Publishing Limited.  Pp. 65 – 79.

Cohen, Claudine.  2010.  “Darwin on woman.”  Comptes Rendus Biologies 333 (2):  157 – 165.

Roberts, Mary Ann.  1993.  “Edward Linley Sambourne (1844 – 1910).”  History of Photography 17 (2):  207 – 213.

On the Wings of Worm Tubes


Box full of Cretaceous polychaete worm tubes.  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

A tidy white archival cardboard box is filled with what looks rather like tiny stone churros, barely a few centimeters long.  These are fossilized tubes that once housed marine polychaete worms.  Also amongst this gathering are elegantly curved tubes with distinctive thin flanges or wings.

The old handwritten label identifies the contents as “Hamulus onyx” (now recognized under the name Pyrgopolon onyx), which applies to the churro-like tubes with their longitudinal grooves.  The winged tubes most likely belonged to a closely related species, H. squamosus.  The label indicates the fossils were found in Cretaceous age deposits along the Tombigbee River that straddles the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Hamulus is a genus of serpulid polychaete worms.  Being soft-bodied, worms seldom leave a trace in the fossil record; however, some polychaetes build tubes of mucous, chiton, calcium carbonate, or agglomerated sand/random particles of stuff.  Serpulid worms specialize in secreting protective hard calcium carbonate tubes around them, which are then more likely to survive the fossilization process even if the worms themselves vanish.  As a result, we know that this is an extremely ancient group of animals, with the first unequivocal fossils dating from the Middle Triassic, about 244 million years ago.  Serpulids still exist today, encrusting hard substrates at all depths in the world’s oceans.

While we may think of worms of the earth as force of decomposition, the serpulids are builders that have contributed to the construction of mounds and reefs for millions of years.  But like other marine animals that biomineralize calcium carbonate, the serpulids’ stony shelters are in danger from the dissolving effects of ocean acidification caused by global carbon emissions.  Though many species of serpulids remain abundant and are even deemed biofouling agents that encrust human-made structures, scientific studies show increased levels of dissolved carbon dioxide weakens the structure of worm tubes.  What we learn from these little creatures informs us about the impacts we have on other organisms.  And all organisms — even worms — deserve to have safe, strong homes.

Yoke-bearing calcareous tube worm Crucigera zygophora

A beautiful living serpulid polychaete worm, Crucigera zygophora found off the waters of British Columbia, Canada.  The calcium carbonate tube is like a sheath and houses the body of the worm without being physically attached to the animal.  These worms, including the fossil species, have a little trap-door operculum to block off the open end when the creature is fully retracted into the tube.  The colorful, feathery tentacular crown indicates this animal is a suspension feeder, capturing minute organic particles floating by.  Image credit: Merry via diver.net.



Brusca, Richard C. & Gary J. Brusca.  2003.  Invertebrates, 2nd edition.  Sinauer Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Chan, Vera Bin San et al.  2012.  “CO2-Driven Ocean Acidification Alters and Weakens Integrity of the Calcareous Tubes Produced by the Serpulid Tubeworm, Hydroides elegans.”  PLoS ONE 7 (8): e42718. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042718.

Fossil Invertebrates.  1987.  R.S. Boardman, A.H. Cheetham, & A.J. Rowell, editors.  Blackwell Science.

Ippolitov, Alexei P., Olev Vinn, Elena K. Kupriyanova, & Manfred Jäger.  2014.  “Written in stone:  history of serpulid polychaetes through time.”  Memoirs of Museum Victoria 71:  123 – 159.

ten Hove, H. (2009). Hamulus onyx Morton, 1834 †. In: Read, G. & K. Fauchald, editors (2015).  World Polychaeta Database. Accessed on 31 May 2016.

Wade, Bruce.  1922.  “The Fossil Annelid Genus Hamulus Morton, an Operculate Serpula.”  Proceedings of the United States National Museum 59:  41 – 46.

Figures: Smiling Sengi


The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine, Vol. IV.  1800.  Image credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr.

Oh gawd — do I really look like that when I smile?!?

About this image

For whatever reason, elephant shrews — or sengis — have long suffered from poor static representation.  This figure comes from a rather charming compendium called The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine that was published in 7 volumes from 1798 to 1802.  The illustration itself was an embellished copy from an earlier work, Thomas Pennant’s (1726 – 1798) History of Quadrupeds, which featured two sengis.


Figure of the “Elephant Shrew” from Pennant’s 3rd edition of History of Quadrupeds (1793).  Pennant’s description of the animal is sparse, noting that the animal is “with a very long, slender and little nose:  the whole animal of a deep brown color.”  The editors of The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine opted not reproduce the top image, which looks rather like a juvenile individual.  Super cute!  Image credit:  Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine says of the sengi:

Of this curious Shrew Mouse very little is known; and, till lately, it does not appear to have been noticed by naturalists. . . . One of the figures engraved by Pennant represents the animal with it’s snout turned upwards, the other is that which we have adopted. . . . If this Shrew has the faculty of dropping as well as elevating its snout, of which we have some doubt; it would, perhaps, have been best figured in that action, as most resembling the Elephant’s proboscis, from which it is named.

Though not as flexible as the elephant’s trunk, we now know that the sengi’s snoot is quite capable of wiggling!


Where are your doubts now?  Image source: BBC Nature.  Gif from gifs.tastefullyoffensive.com via Giphy.


Image Source

The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine; or, Compleat Cabinet of the Curiosities and Beauties of Nature.  Vol. IV.  1800.  Printed for Harrison, Cluse, and Co. by W. Justins, London.