Friday, March 27, 2020

Lichen


Hiking is a good way to treat the separation doldrums, even on a cold rainy day.  Between showers we were back on the Nature Center trail when I saw this weird lettuce clinging to a dead branch.  I sent the photographs off to Nancy Schanda, our chapter's lichenologist and she quickly responded, "Ramalinas are a Genus in the thallus growth form fruiticose. Lichens are really showing off with all this rain."



Next I tried a mycological viewpoint and Mark Bower responded, "I have found that lichen ID is a nightmare. They really are just fungi which have captured a photobiont. The algae or cyanobacteria don’t get much in return other than a place to stay - sort of like being in prison for a life sentence.

I thought this assessment was somewhat harsh until I read about Kerry Knudson, one of the foremost lichenologists in the Atlantic magazine.  To quote him, "“The algae is trapped.  It has a lot of tubes going into it. It’s controlled by chemical signals … The first time I saw it under the microscope, I wanted to join the Algae Liberation Front. I mean, it looked bad.”
"Alice Algae and Freddy Fungus took a Lichen to each other.  They got married and ever since then their relationship has been on the rocks - and other substances."  Ok, so it isn't Keats, but it does help the non-naturalist recall a basic fact.
To be fair, the fungus allows the algae to inhabit bark surfaces and rocks that otherwise would be bare.  The retention of moisture and chemicals from the fungus can slowly break down the rock, converting it to a component of soil in a matter of years.  This isn't a glamorous task but it occasionally lets the fungus and algae swell with pride after a rain.  Now back to Nancy for a more sympathetic description.

"Lichens are unique organisms. They are a composite formed by a fungus plus a unicellular green alga and/or a cynanobacterium. Lichens can be classified by growth form to help with identification. This lichen, Ramalina sp. is an example of a fruticose lichen that attaches to the substrate at the base. Ramalina found in Missouri share several characteristics. They have many flattened, forked branches that usually taper toward the end. The outer surface is usually wrinkled and pitted and vary from greenish-gray to a pale yellow-gray."

Fun facts:
  • Many lichen are sensitive to pollution and large amounts of lichen suggests good air quality.
  • They are a pioneer species, among the first to return after disasters and major ecological shifts.
  • They can survive long periods of dehydration and even the vacuum of space with its widely fluctuating temperatures and cosmic radiation.
  • The world's oldest living organism is an Arctic map lichen dating 8,600 years.
So where do you start with learning about lichen?  Online resources are divided between a simple explanation and dense taxonomy.  Here are the best places I have found and I would be open to any other suggestions.
  • The Forest Service wildflowers site has good color photographs of the three main growth forms: foliose, fruticose and crustose.  At the bottom of each page there is a link that leads you on to habitat and collection and identification.
  • Washington University has Lichens of Missouri, a brief overview.
  • Wikipedia Lichen has the most complete information for us neophytes.  Clicking on the highlights in common groupings shows examples.
Swamped by the world of lichen, wildflowers are starting to open their blossoms.

Study a nearby rue anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides, it won't mind, and it might sway in the wind, quite unlike most lichen.







Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Winter Ants


On a hike along the Little Sac River with the the WOLF School, the students photographed this finding on the rain dampened rocks.  On closer inspection it was a former earthworm being recycled by an army of ants. I couldn't tell much about them from this single photo but with a trained eye, myrmecologist (ant specialist) James Trager gave me the answer.
"This is a fairly common sight for those who go out with their eyes to the ground in these cooler months. The ant is the winter ant - Prenolepis imparis."


Looking closer, this turns out to be a very interesting ant species.  P. imparis (PI) is mainly active in cooler weather when it isn't in competition with other ants.  They are most active at temperatures between 45° and 60°F and can occasionally be found foraging at near freezing temperatures.


Tschinkel and PI nest

During warm weather they seal their nests entrances and stay deep underground.  Myrmecologist Walter Tschinkel used molten aluminum to create casts of their nests.  While this PI cast to the right is from Florida, nests in Missouri and Ohio are "only" one third that depth.*  This is attributed to the softer Florida sands and I can only imagine our PI using picks and dynamite to excavate the Ozark rocky clay.




Winter Ant - Antwiki
Their colonies usually contain a few thousand workers and some of the colonies last 7-9 years.  Young adult workers eclose from their pupae and spend 10 months inside the colony.  Older adults forage outside the nest, returning to the nest to pass food to the younger workers by mouth-to-mouth regurgitation (word of the day - stomodeal trophallaxis).

"Young workers have softer, more flexible cuticles and their gasters can swell and distend to accommodate large amounts of liquid food. " This is stored as lipids in hypertrophied fat bodies. These 'corpulents' store more than twice their body weight in fats and nutrients. Once a corpulent worker has exhausted its food stores it becomes a forager during the next active season. This indicates that workers may live for up to two years, serving as a corpulent for the first and a forager during the second." **

Argentine Ant - Alex Wild, myrmecos.net
In addition to cold tolerance, these are tough little soldiers when faced with competitors.  Once they find a food source they aggressively defend it.  The invasive Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, tends to spread out in large colonies, out competing and displacing many other antsOur little PI is not only aggressive to the Argentine invader but it produces abdominal secretions that are lethal to it.

All this, and more to follow, came from a "little" 4.5 mile hike with the WOLFs.

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There are more details at *Antwiki and **University of Florida Entomology.

Thanks for the patience and knowledge of James Trager.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Spring Ephemerals and Their Ants


As usual, the tiny harbinger of spring, Erigenia bulbosa, was the first wildflower we saw this spring, this year at the end of February.  It's name reflects the fact that it's one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the Midwest.  It is also known as "salt and pepper" because of its white petals and dark reddish anthers.  Because it frequently grows on the forest floor, it adapts to the otherwise shady environment by blooming as early as mid February, before the trees leaf out and block the sunlight.

Many woodland flowers adopt this early blooming strategy.  The term spring ephemeral describes plants which quickly grow stems, leaves and flowers, then bloom, go to seed and the die back early, all before the start of summer.  The remainder of the year their surface features disappear, leaving roots and rhizomes underground for the rest of the year.  These plants tend to be found in forested areas. 

The following spring ephemerals are commonly found in our Southern Ozarks:
A. rudis with S. canadensis seed - Eva Colberg
Some of our spring ephemerals starred above (*) have conned ants into planting their seeds.  Each seed is capped with a little high energy packet of lipid and protein called an elaiosome.  Many species of ants will seek out the seed and haul it off to their underground nest, a process called myrmecochory.  After munching on their treat the seed ends up in their garbage, loosely packed in moist ant waste in what could be called plant heaven.

Elaiosomes occur on the seeds of over at least 11,000 species of plants worldwide.  It is estimated that this relationship has evolved separately over 100 times in 55 families of flowering plants over millions of years. One question from a WOLF student remained - "Will all ants carry seeds like this?"  I received this answer below from Eva Colberg at UMSL.

"It's a good question—there definitely is variation in who is attracted to the elaiosomes, as well as in who can actually carry and disperse the seeds. But the variation is more fine-tuned than even sub-family—genus and species are much better predictors of who takes the seeds and where they end up. It seems like most elaiosomes are chemically pretty similar to dead insects, so ants that are searching for insect carcasses will also be attracted to elaiosomes. Aphaenogaster rudis is the ant species I've seen (and other studies back this up) taking the seeds most often, although there's some evidence that they actually bring the seeds back up out of their nest once they've removed the elaiosomes."

This mutualism between ants and plants is just one dramatic example of the many relationships that go on under our radar or are unknown at present.  This is one more reason to preserve nature and share the wonders with others.
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Some of the spring ephemerals are already out and preparing to bloom along the trail west of the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.  You can download a list of some of these and their photographs at this link.
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The subject of the relationship between ants and plants is huge!  More than you could ever swallow is in the Symbioses between Ants and Plants but it is a fascinating read.
Special thanks to Eva Colberg, PhD candidate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Shelton Stream Mayflies


I spent a recent afternoon with Dr. Deb Finn and a pack of aquatic entomology students hiking up a small intermittent stream to study the Glossosomatidae caddisfly larvae we wrote about recently.  We were soon distracted by mayfly larvae, called nymphs or naiads, swarming in the riffles.  Once collected in my bug box, one stood out from the rest with its thicker stripped cerci (tail).

Ameletus lineatus mayfly
This one Cameron Cheri identified as Ameletus lineatus, the striped comb minnow mayfly.  It is a member of the Ameletidae family, the combmouthed minnow mayflies.

When I dig in the internet for the information on an insect, frequently the most complete resources are sites about killing them.  In the case of the mayflies however, it was more about who tries to catch what eats them.  Troutnut.com had some information on Ameletus sp., a genus known also as brown duns.  As you might expect, this site focuses on the aquatic phase where they spend 99% of their life as nymphs.  Adults of most mayfly species live only two hours to three days, some less than 90 minutes!
"Ameletus nymphs are very fast swimmers. They are occasionally mistaken (especially in early instars) for some species in the Baetidae family, having roughly similar body shape and coloration. They are easily separated under close inspection based on gill coloration and prominent mouth parts. As mature nymphs their large size and intense maculation (spotting) make them much easier to differentiate from others."  Troutnut.com
Leptophlebia sp. mayfly


These nymphs were speedy and required the fast hands of a student.  They only caught one Ameletus sp specimen while all the rest of the mayfly nymphs flitting around in the flowing water were Leptophlebia sp.  The latter were distinguished by their long thin tails (cerci) and feathery gills along the abdomen.

Mayfly naiad - MDC



Mayfly nymphs are important lower rungs in the food chain of a healthy stream.  Even in rapid water there is slower flow in the very bottom where detritus collects, particles of "dead stuff."  This and diatoms or micro algae are grazed and digested into energy and growth by the six instars of nymphs as they crawl through the stream bottom on their way to a brief adult life.  They will they emerge from the water as a subimago, able to fly but sexually immature until after another molt.
Mayfly molting - Wikimedia
"When ready to emerge, several different strategies are used. In some species, the transformation of the nymph occurs underwater and the subimago swims to the surface and launches itself into the air. In other species, the nymph rises to the surface, bursts out of its skin, remains quiescent for a minute or two resting on the exuviae (cast skin) and then flies upwards, and in some, the nymph climbs out of the water before transforming." Wikipedia


Mayfly adult - MDC
While these adult mayflies may not look like much to the average human, they look more like filet mignon to a trout.  Although referring to British mayflies, this 4 minute video is a beautiful synopsis of their lifecycle including the final stage ending in a trout.
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More details on mayflies in general at this Wikipedia link.
Thanks to Cameron Cheri for wisdom and the Missouri State University stream ecologists for letting me tag along.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Moth Wing Ant


During the summer we frequently leave the deck light on over the creek to photograph porchlight moths.  Many of the moths are near the end of their brief lives and occasionally end up on the deck.  This year I started to notice occasional ants collecting wings of dead moths and hauling them off.

Lifting the wing over the gap
The trip across our rustic deck isn't easy.  Between the gaps in the boards and the scattering of cedar leaves, the ants march with determination, driven by an unknown plan.  This video shows the arduous journey of one ant.  It is carrying a wing in its mouth that is 5 times the length of its body.  Most of the time it is out in front and frequently it uses the wing almost like a bridge across gaps in the deck flooring.


I needed some closeup pictures for ant identification but these busy critters never stood still for a second.  I put out peanut butter for bait and they bit.  Soon they were hauling mouthfuls larger than their heads back to their nest as seen in this video.  I sent the pictures to my favorite myrmecologist, Dr. James Trager, who identified them as Aphanogaster lamellidens, or AL to us.

"An easy way to recognize this ant, in addition to their woodland habitat and distinctive color pattern, is the complete lack of standing bristles on the mesosoma (thorax), especially well seen in your first photo." (below) James Trager

AL hauls off a peanut butter lunch
Antwiki.org  has great closeup photographs and more details on their life style.  Click these to enlarge the views.

Antwiki.org
Antwiki.org
"Aphaenogaster lamellidens is a common woodland species found in eastern North America, from New York south and west to Texas. They form large colonies (several thousand workers) and are ground nesting in open areas, under rocks or in or under rotten wood. Workers are general predators and scavengers, feeding on a range of living and dead insects and other arthropods."  Antwiki.org
Since this is a woodland species, we are at the western edge of their territory.   Like most ant species it is not a household pest although it might show up at your picnic, especially if you are serving peanut butter!  It is mostly found in oak hickory forests which fits with our location.  Antweb.org lists peanut butter as one method of collecting specimens.
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For another ant story check out this Smithsonian Daily on rodeo ants, from Texas of course.  These are ants that ride on the backs of another ant species' queen into the queen's nest where "they pilfer food from their perches and trick them into babysitting the rider’s eggs." 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Life in an Empty Walnut

Late winter is the season for Nature Mobiles at the WOLF School.  The students hang various found items from nature on threads and hang them from a stick to balance them. They then relate these elements to their role in nature, all of them signs of life.

Sweetgum balls and other seed pods can represent the source of new life, unlike on our lawn where they are @#$% to our bare feet and rakes.  Small found rocks with holes can be the remains of crinoid fossils, a sign of life millions of years ago when Missouri was covered by oceans.  Feathers can represent birds soaring for food and love while buckeyes are said to bring good luck.

 “Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself.” - Henry Beston

Pyralidae moth in the lower cavity
Last summer we collected walnut half-shells to be incorporated into nature mobiles this winter. They were already split open, dried and apparently empty when we put them in a ziplock bag. Now opening them we found brown grains and silk webbing filling the cavities.  As we stood over the kitchen sink picking out the detritis we found further unexpected evidence of life.


Under magnification the most common find was these 6mm (1/4") Pyralidae moths.  According to Bug Lady "Pyralidae (snout moths), is one of the largest moth families in the order Lepidoptera with 1,100 mainly plant-loving species in North America north of the Rio Grande."  Many species in the family that are familiar guests in our homes are called meal moths, found in our kitchens as we discussed in this blog.




Empty pupa case

In addition to lots of dead and dried moths there were the silk wrapped pupa cases from which they had emerged.  These were dusted with frass from the larvae before their pupation.  As we stood together happily cleaning the shells out at the kitchen sink, I knew I had married the perfect woman.  On the other hand we now have friends reading this who will never again come to dinner at our house.

Dermestid beetle larva -4mm

One final find was this little dermestid beetle larva.  Although I tend to associate them with the flesh consuming varieties that clean skulls for us, many species will eat their (dead) veggies including grain and even nuts.

All of this serves to remind me that there is a lot more life around us daily than we know or even care to think about.  Meal worms living in our flour and cereal were here long before we emerged from caves to create kitchens.

These little creatures live in a world of even smaller creatures, long before we get to bacteria.  These thoughts led me back to viewing the Chaos of Delight photographs of 0.1mm to 2mm mesofauna that live in the soil, a colorful subterranean safari for a cold dark winter day.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Compost Critters


My editor was turning our compost in the backyard bin when she discovered it was full of squiggly creatures.  She identified them as black fly larvae, Hermetia illucens.  While this was a new species to us, it is apparently a very common finding in compost piles that aren't turned frequently.  Not only are they our friends, in many countries they are an industry.


Mating occurs two days after the flies emerge.  The males will have a lekking site where they gather similar to prairie chickens and may attack competing males.  They then fly up to grasp a passing female for copulation.
Home "sweet" home
"The female black soldier fly deposits a mass of about 500 eggs in cracks and crevices near or in decaying matter such as dung, carrion, garbage, and other organic waste. The eggs hatch into larvae in about four days. Each oval shaped egg is about 1 mm in length." UFL Entomology
Final instar 22 mm - head on the left and "you know what" emerging on the right.
Small head with chewing mouthparts
The larva is a pale off white color with a small projecting head equipped with efficient chewing mouth parts.  The larva will gorge constantly over two weeks, splitting out of its skin six times.  The final instar is up to an inch long. When ready to pupate, it will climb out of the moist pile of  manure or decaying matter to find a dry surface.  There the skin (exoskeleton) darkens and a pupa develops within.  Inside it transforms into the fly over two weeks before emerging to repeat the cycle.

Pupa case









Another happy customer!
A very low tech operation can raise livestock food as well as convert animal and vegetation waste into a usable resource.  This 4 minute video shows the full process as done in Malaysia, producing both compost and livestock food seen at the right. One ton of organic waste is converted into over 400 pounds of compost plus 400 pounds of larvae for poultry.  Now that is a lot of chicken food!


This University of Florida Entomology website has a very thorough description of the fly and its life cycle as well as photos of the stages.