Saturday, July 31, 2010

Arachnophobes, Stop reading Now!

Rambo in the shower- click to enlarge
This is the story of Rambo, our resident Wolf Spider.  A healthy four inch leg span means that he generally shows up before we step on him.  He spent several days in the shower recently, close enough to the outlet handle that we had to reach down slowly to avoid scaring him.
As Joel Vance says in the Missouri Conservationist article Spider! Spider!,
"I also like wolf spiders, gray and ominous. They are predators, stalking and killing other insects, and I like to believe that some of the insects they kill are ones I don't want around, maybe even brown recluses."
When I started the article, we kept Rambo around to hold down brown recluse.  It turns out that there is no evidence to support this.
Brown Recluse- click to enlarge
Some sources mention that a small wolf spider can resemble a brown recluse.  A brown recluse is generally less that 3/4 of an inch.  One site suggests that you can tell the difference by the fact that the brown recluse has only 6 eyes.  While true, if you can count the eyes on a spider that small, you are way too close!   Even finding the "fiddle" on the top of the cephalothorax is a challenge if the spider is alive and not in a container.
Missouri Wolf Spider**
If you ever look into Rambo's eyes with a magnifier you can see that he is a soulful spider.  There are 8 eyes, as in the picture, and the upper two large ones showing how sensitive he is.  The two brown hairy structures below are the chelicerae, used for grasping its victims.  These are hollow in spiders and eject venom through the black fangs visible on the inner tips.   
I use the term "he" advisably, as Rambo could be Rambette.  I have never been able to see the palps clearly.  Larger club palps are a male feature, necessary to transfer sperm into the specialized female opening.
Speaking of Rambette, there is interesting research which shows that a female wolf spider (Schizocosa uetzi) can recall information three weeks later.  The males have distinctive patterns on different individuals legs which they wave around to entice females.  Researchers painted different colors on the legs of males and exposed immature females to different color-legged males.  Three weeks later when the females reached ssexual maturity, they selected males of the specific color they had seen three weeks before.  and they tended to eat males of the with the other color legs rather than mate with them. * And you thought your teenage years were dangerous.
Unfortunately there isn't any direct evidence that wolf spiders eat brown recluse but since Rambo spends a lot of time in our bathroom and closets, I am sure that he runs into them frequently.  On the other hand, recent research from the University of Kansas shows that brown recluse spiders prefer dead stuff over killing their own dinner.  Zoogoer*
"New research by Jamel Sandidge, a biologist at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, shows that brown recluse spiders scavenge rather than hunt if given a choice. It's the first time a spider has been shown to prefer scavenging over predation.
Brown recluse spider
There can be as many as 2,000 brown recluse spiders in one house.
Sandidge didn't set out to study the hunting and eating habits of brown recluses—his study was focused on the relative population densities in houses of brown recluses, other spiders, and insects. As the study progressed, however, Sandidge made several unexpected observations about brown recluse behavior. In houses, he saw them eating insects that had obviously been dead for a long time. He also saw them running away from insects. He has even watched a brown recluse remain motionless while a potential prey insect walked over it. In the lab, Sandidge says, "I was feeding them yellow mealworm larvae and the problem was that the mealworms were eating the spiders." Sandidge began killing the worms before putting them in the enclosures with the spiders, and the spiders readily ate them.
Sandidge's curiosity was piqued. He set up new experiments, offering the spiders dead prey and live prey. More than 80 percent of the time, the spiders chose the dead prey. 'Brown recluses are very fragile and very weak,' Sandidge says. They often lose legs or even their lives in encounters with live insects, which may explain why they prefer to avoid them."  from the Smithsonian Zoogoer

If you search"brown recluse" in Google you will get lots of fear mongering sites created by exterminators.  If you see an ad, move on.  Brown recluse bites occur rarely and many "spider bites" are something else.  There is good information at the Wikipedia page or here.
Even if they don't actively eat brown recluse, wolf spiders hunt lots of other insects we don't want in our house.  Rambo (or Rambette for Ann) has a secure future in our creek house.

* These stories and a lot more interesting spider facts are at this highly recommended Smithsonian Zoogoer site.  For instance, did you know that:
  • One species of Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) dies spontaneously as soon as he inserts his second palp in a female to deliver his sperm, even if he does it mistakenly.  
  • A type of jumping spider called Portia is able to learn about its spider prey's preferences.  It plays "music" by setting up vibrations in its spider prey's web.  Trying different "tunes" until it gets a response, it then learns that tune and stays with it until the prey comes toward it.  Portia is also able to strategize, even taking an hour or two to sneak around a tree or object to approach its prey from the back side.  That is a lot of memory time for a spider, (or even an older Master Naturalist.)
** Picture by Dan Johnson
Editors Note:  Sadly, we must report the demise of Rambo, or a wolf spider that looks like him, found dead Monday night in the downstairs bathroom.  There were no signs of trauma (i.e. boot marks or compression injury) and we assume that he died in the line of duty, keeping the shower safe from crickets, beetles and possibly brown recluse.  Thanks for the memories.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Caterpillars with Attitude

Mourning Cloak- Linda Ellis
What could be more benign and peaceful than a caterpillar on a leaf.  After all, they are just eating machines which come out of an egg and fatten up constantly, out growing their skin in three or four molts.  After that, they get down to serious business, the remarkable conversion into a flying and sexually active butterfly or moth. 

Don't Touch My Babies
There is much more to the picture than that.  Many wasps lay their eggs on caterpillars.  Their larvae live in the cat, eventually emerging to form a pupa from which will emerge the adult wasp.  We previously showed a caterpillar parasitized by a wasp.  The video showed dramatically the emergence of larvae from the caterpillar's body with the caterpillar surviving the experience, at least temporarily.
It turns out in some cases that caterpillars even protect their tormentors.  A healthy passive caterpillar can turn into a raging maniac when it has been infested by larvae.  Unknown biological mechanisms may cause it to protect its new "offspring".  This well known phenomenon is shown in a video as a caterpillar actually defends the newborn wasps from a beetle.  It must think the little guys are its own. 

Back Off, Buddy
It also turns out that territorial caterpillars can send a message to the competition.  Some caterpillars can make sounds from hair-like structures on their legs.  This BBC story explains the mechanisms, a strategy not unlike a bull pawing the ground.  The video shows a cat starting a head-butting contest, then sending the scratching message, "Hey you!  Get off of my leaf!" and the competitor scrams.  Could this be the start of the evolution of road rage?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Big Beaks are Cool

Bird beaks can tell us a lot about the eating strategies of a bird.  Beaks have evolved to accommodate the foods of preference as seen at Wikipedia.  The beak is technically the keratinized tissue on the outer part of the mouth (think hard lips), while the whole mouth structure is referred to as the bill.  A good discussion of bill development is at
It turns out that beaks may also play a role in controlling some bird's temperature.  Toucans, the Jimmy Durante* of the bird world, were shown in a 2009 study to use their huge beaks for temperature regulation.  The scientists used infrared thermal imaging to measure the surface temperature of the bill of toucans which were in a wide range of ambient temperatures.
“By altering blood flow to the bill's surface, toucans can conserve body heat when it is cold or cope with heat stress by increasing blood flow.  Essentially, the large surface area of the bill, and the fact it is not insulated, means that the blood flowing through is able to release heat into the bill, thus cooling the bird.  This blood-derived heat in the bill is then dissipated into the air,” the scientist adds.  Previous studies have determined that the beak is laced with an intricate network of blood vessels that have the ability to control the amount of blood reaching it.

“Bird bills are not 'dead tissues,' incapable of playing a role in heat balance, but are active contributors to thermoregulation.  Birds do not sweat, so must cope with other mechanisms to deal with elevated temperatures.
Now new studies by the same scientists suggest that bird beak size has evolved to adapt to the temperature of their habitat.  According to Science Daily, Dr Glenn Tattersall and associates examined 214 species across a broad range of beak types and climates.
"By examining bill sizes of a diverse range of bird species around the world, researchers have found that birds with larger bills tend to be found in hot environments, whilst birds in colder environments have evolved smaller bills.
Across all species, there were strong links between bill length and both latitude, altitude and environmental temperature," Dr Matt Symonds says. "Species that have to deal with colder temperatures have smaller bills."
Arctic Tern- Wikipedia
One theory is that larger bills evolve for shedding more heat in warm latitudes.  These investigators feel it is more likely that big heat shedding beaks are a liability in cold climes.  In other words, you are not likely to find hot "lips" in the arctic. 

* Too young for Jimmy Durante? click here to see him.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

When Flowers Bloom

Crab Spider Salad- Click to enlarge
Ever wonder how flowers decide it is time to flower?  Me neither, but now that I mention it, that is an interesting question.  Blossom time is critical in both pollination and the timing of seeds which are distributed by wind, insects or other animals.  Further on the food chain, butterfly emergence is important in flower's pollination and predators may be awaiting that time as well, as seen with the crab spider picture from MDC.
It turns out that the flowering season of plants is a response to the length of the day, a process known as photoperiodismTry dropping that one in your next conversation.  And how do they remember when it is best for them to flower?  Part of the answer lies in their genes.
A study of a flowering mutant of Arabidopsis, which had an altered response to photoperiod, was used in a study led by Dr Stephen Jackson, as reported in Science Daily.  He and coworkers discovered a mutant gene which altered the blooming time.  "They then cloned a working version of the gene, known as DAY NEUTRAL FLOWERING (DNF), from a normal Arabidopsis plant and introduced it into the mutant plant to restore its normal flowering response to day length."
Scientists can override complex pathways that control flowering by artificially inducing or inhibiting key flowering genes such as DNF and CONSTANS. This can already be done in the laboratory by spraying an 'inducing agent' onto plants, stimulating them to flower early.
This could be used to extend the length of the harvesting season or to co-ordinate flowering or fruit production to a specific time. Growers already regulate the flowering of a few plants such as Chrysanthemum and Poinsettia, the latter specifically for Christmas and Easter.
Imagine the confusion if Spring Cress started blooming in the fall or Deciduous Holly berries appeared in the spring.  I am always concerned when we mess with Mother Nature, but I might forgive scientists if they could get Sericea Lespedeza to forget about blooming.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Caterpillar Motion and Memory

Tobacco Hornworm
The tobacco hawkmoth caterpillar, also known as a tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) is commonly studied by scientists.  It is large, easily dissected, has a short life cycle and its nervous system is easily accessible for study.  It also can be fed simply on wheat germ.  Good news for science although not always so hot for the caterpillar.

Caterpillars on the Move
 The current Science Daily has some remarkable findings about the hornworm's locomotion.  They discovered that the caterpillar uses its gut independently to move.
"The Tufts-led team reported that the gut of the crawling tobacco hawkmoth caterpillar (Manduca sexta) moves forward independently of and in advance of the surrounding body wall and legs, rather than moving along with them.
Anyone who has ever observed caterpillars knows that they crawl from back to front in waves. But advanced imaging reveals a surprising picture of what goes on inside.
The researchers used synchronized x-ray and visible light microscopy and videos to study the relative timing of movements of the crawling caterpillar's gut body wall and prolegs (unjointed leg-like structures on the mid-body that grip.)
They found that the gut -- essentially a tube suspended at the rear and head of the caterpillar and decoupled from the body wall -- moved nearly a full step in advance of the surrounding structures. In contrast, gut movement was "in step" with motion of the head and rear.
Furthermore, points within the gut moved at different rates, suggesting that the gut was effectively shortening and lengthening during each crawl cycle."
You could say that this gives a whole new meaning to the term "bowel movement".

Moths Remember Early Caterpillar Lessons
Back in 2008,  Science Daily reported a study on the same species. Scientists showed that a caterpillar can learn lessons that its moth will remember after completing metamorphosis.
"The Georgetown researchers found that tobacco hornworm caterpillars could be trained to avoid particular odors delivered in association with a mild shock. When adult moths emerged from the pupae of trained caterpillars, they also avoided the odors, showing that they retained their larval memory. The Georgetown University study is the first to demonstrate conclusively that associative memory can survive metamorphosis in Lepidoptera.
The brain and nervous system of caterpillars is dramatically reorganized during the pupal stage and it has not been clear whether memory could survive such drastic changes.
The findings of the Georgetown researchers suggest the retention of memory is dependent on the maturity of the developing caterpillar's brains. Caterpillars younger than three weeks of age learned to avoid an odor, but could not recall the information as adults, whereas older caterpillars, conditioned in the final larval stage before pupation, learned to avoid the odor and recalled the information as adults.
The results have both ecological and evolutionary implications, as retention of memory through metamorphosis could allow a female butterfly or other insect to lay her eggs on the type of host plant that she herself had fed on as a larva, a behavior that could shape habitat selection and eventually lead to development of a new species."
Tomato Hornworm
Manduca sexta is closely related but separate from the familiar tomato hornworm as described in the  Missouri Extension website.  The tobacco hornworm has a red hook on its tail while the tomato hornworm's hook is black.  Both species feed on tobacco (good!) and tomato (not so good.)
Wasp Larva on Caterpillar
There is some natural biological help available for the tomato hornworm. A brachonid wasp  lays its eggs on the caterpillar.  The larvae hatch and live inside the caterpillar, killing their host naturally.  If you find these infected worms or cocoons in your garden, leave them there.  These infected caterpillars will create the adult wasps to attack the next generation of caterpillars.   This means sacrificing some of your tomatoes.  One strategy is to plant a few tomatoes away from your crop plants and moving the caterpillars to those sacrificial plants.
Sphinx Moth- tomato hornworm
A common question we get at the Bill Roston Butterfly House is "What does the sphinx moth of the tomato hornworm look like?"  Well here it is.  More on the tomato hornworm is on Wikipedia.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Damsels in Distress

Damselfly- Click to enlarge
Last weekend this beautiful pale damselfly insistently returned to one spot on a branch, giving me a chance to run after my camera and take a portrait.  From here, I will take you on the brief tour of how you could tentatively identify this beauty.
Click on the picture to enlarge it and you will notice the long thin transparent wings, held parallel to the body above the back, a characteristic of damselflies.
Dragonflies hold their wings straight out, familiar to Master Naturalists as our emblem.  I will cover them in a future post.
Looking up damselflies on Bugguide brings up this page.  The bright blue damselfly in the middle was suggestive in shape with the wrong pattern.  It is a bluette, with wider bands of color, so I backed up to the broader category of narrow-winged damselflies or the pond damselflies.  The next to the last picture was a blue-ringed dancer, but the top of the thorax was too dark to match our friend.
Convinced I was close, I searched the site for "argia" and came up with over a hundred pictures.  The picture that jumped out was the male dusky dancer, Argia translata.  Notice the discussion below the picture with the input of experts and a link to the beautiful dusky dancer pictures by Greg Lasley.
Ebony Jewelwing
The most commonly encountered damselfly at Bull Mills is the
ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata.  Pictured here by Dr. Joe Motto, it is found along the edges of the creek, fluttering deceptively in the shadows like a dark butterfly.  They are strictly predators, feeding on a wide variety of insects including -happily-  mosquitoes and gnats.
Females lay their eggs on water plants and the eggs hatch into larva (naiads) which then live on small aquatic insects. They go through incomplete metamorphosis, resembling small wingless adults.  When the naiads are fully grown, they emerge from the water, molt, and fly off to reproduce.

Information on damselflies in general is at,
Incredible variety of dragonflies and damselflies pictures are at Greg Lasley's web site.
Ebony jewelwing picture courtesy of Dr. Joe Motto.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Amphibians and Reptiles

Tomorrow night is the training session on Amphibians and Reptiles and I decided to "get a jump on it" by sending out this National Geographic video showing how frogs jump so far.   Researchers have recently shown that frogs have the ability to stretch their muscles before actually jumping, essentially making them temporarily longer and more powerful.  This enables some bullfrogs to jump 7 feet, over 10 times their length.
In another National Geographic video there is evidence that male frogs intimidate the competing males by shaking their bootie at them.  While entertaining to us, it apparently is either frightening or disgusting to their opponent, encouraging them to use those stretched muscles to get away.
While it is too hot and sultry now to sit out in the early evening and hear the chorus, you can hear their chorus in air conditioning at this MDC site.

Lizard Lessons

Lizards are the focus of Francis Skalicky's Thursday column in the News-Leader. Missouri has 13 varieties of lizards, most of which move silently, unseen around us in the woods.   They tend to move in quick darts, then freeze to take advantage of their camouflage.  For the most part, if they don't move, we don't see them.
Five-lined skink juvenile- tail tip gone
One notable exception is the juvenile five-lined skink, whose irridescent blue tail begs for your attention.*  It may be a way of advertising to adults that "I am one of yours, so don't eat me."  If you happen to catch one by the tail, that is usually all you end up with.  Like some other lizards, this skink's tail can break off while special muscles act as a tourniquet to prevent blood loss.  Their tail gradually grows back, though not with its prior beautiful color. 
Male five-lined skink
Like young men, many male lizards show themselves to females in colorful ways.  The five-lined skink has more than his lines to display.  When mating season arrives he develops a bright red nose and face, the W.C. Fields of the lizard family.  Their territory is more ground based and they escape under logs and leaf litter when threatened.*
Fence Lizard at Bull Mills
A fence lizard will frequently watch you from a post or other raised area, escaping to the far side of a tree like a squirrel when threatened.  When sunning themselves on our deck, they will frequently allow me to photograph them up close.
Fence lizard- mating season

There is something about them that cries out to young boys "Catch me if you can!"  If you catch a male during mating season, you might be able to see the bright blue chin he uses to advertise his masculine prowess.*

Predator and Prey from MDC says:

"All of our lizards eat insects (grasshoppers, ants, crickets and beetles) and spiders. They are valuable as a natural control of destructive species, such as termites. Skinks and fence lizards are known to eat the winged life stage of termites (called "alates") as they emerge from underground in mid-spring. And, the eastern collared lizard is an important predator of other lizards!
King snakes and racers will eat lizards at every opportunity. The roadrunner, a bird that lives on glades in southwest Missouri, is a primary lizard eater. Hawks are important lizard predators. Skunks and badgers dig up lizard eggs. Unfortunately, house cats have proven to be a primary predator of all species of lizards."
Wikipedia has good information on lizards.
*Pictures from

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hummingbirds Hows

How does a bird weighing 3-4 grams (1/10 of an ounce) manage to fly across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year in an 18-20 hour trip and still live 9 years or more?  Who knows?  That is just one of the many "how" questions associated with hummers.
They make their spring trip in late February to early March, and arrive in St. Louis by April 20th, somewhat slower but more predictable than Amtrak.  Needless to say, they are famished.  Refueling at feeders is helpful at that time as many flowers are not yet in bloom.  Feeders should be cleaned and refilled every 3-5 days (4 parts water, 1 part sugar.)  Having multiple feeders will reduce the combative competition of these territorial tigers who will even drive away their babies after a few weeks.
Next comes family matters.  How do they mate?  Wikipedia describes courtship like this.
Males court females that enter their territory by performing courtship displays. They perform a “dive display” rising 8–10 feet above and 5–6 feet to each side of the female. If the female perches, the male begins flying in very rapid horizontal arcs less than 0.5 m in front of her. The male's wings may beat up to 200 times per second during these displays. (The normal speed is 55-75 beats per second).
If the female is receptive to the male, she may give a call and assume a solicitous posture with her tail feathers cocked and her wings drooped. Preceding copulation, male and female face each other, alternately ascend about 10 feet and descend, eventually dropping to the ground and copulating.[4]
We have sometimes witnessed a male afterward doing a short encore of his arcing display, possibly saying "Thanks for the memories."  But then he is out of her life.  Soon there are two eggs which she will incubate by herself for 12-16 days, then babies to feed every 1 to 3 hours.  They require insects for protein, meaning she must catch them on the fly, even stealing some bugs from spider nests.  She continues to feed her chicks for 10 days after they fledge.  It is no wonder that while the chicks may now weigh up to 4.5 grams, she drops to 2.5 grams!
And she raises 2-3 broods a year.  You would think she would say "Not today, I have a headache."
How can a hummingbird possibly fly backwards?  According to
A hummingbird can rotate each of its wings in a circle, allowing them to be the only bird which can fly forwards, backwards, up, down, sideways or sit in sheer space. To hover, hummingbirds move their wings forward and backward in a repeated figure eight, much like the arms of a swimmer treading water. Hummingbirds can move instantaneously in any direction, start from its perch at full speed, and doesn't necessarily slow up to land. Hummingbirds can even fly short distances upside down, a trick rollover they employ when being attacked by another bird.
Fantastic Facts:
  • Wings beat 55-75 beats /second
  • Average speed 30 mph, dives up to 63 mph
  • Heart rate 250/min resting, 1200/min while feeding
  • Eat like a bird?  If you eat like a hummingbird, you would take in 30,000 calories a day.
Even hummingbirds have predators.  Hawks, frogs and spiders are a few of the natural ones.  Humans have contributed with feral cats and praying mantis.  While our native mantids are smaller, the large Chinese mantid, (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) that have been imported by some gardeners to deal with other pests are quite capable of capturing and eating hummingbirds.*  There are videos like this which show it graphically.

At the Bill Roston Butterfly House, visitors will get excited watching a "tiny little hummingbird."  Then they may notice the black antennae.  Whoops!  This is the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth, as shown in a photograph by my friend Dr. Joe Motto.  They indeed hover like a hummingbird while feeding on nectar and can also fly backward as seen in this video of a clearwing hummingbird moth feeding.
Other animals that can fly hover and fly backwards are dragonflies, other sphinx moths, bee flies, and flower flies. 
* Picture from Stan Taylor Blog.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gay Animals

Although homosexuality has existed far back in time, it was thought that same sex sexual activity was exclusively human.  It turns out that we weren't watching carefully.  This story is continued in
"Despite a popular perception that male-female pairings are the only "natural" way, the animal kingdom is actually full of examples of same-sex couples. Penguins, dolphins, bison, swans, giraffes and chimpanzees are just a few of the many species that sometimes pair up with same-sex partners."
They go on to describe the frequent sexual activities between male giraffes.  This goes beyond simply necking and includes mounting behavior.  Sessions can go on for up to an hour and one in twenty observed episodes of giraffe sexual activity is between males.  Whether this has some biological herd advantage or is just for fun hasn't been determined.
Sometimes the activity is prolonged and seems quite purposeful.  Scientific American described a pair of male chin strap penguins- Roy and Silo- who not only mated but built a nest, rolled in a rock and sat on it.  The zoo keepers eventually substituted the egg of another pair of penguins who were having trouble hatching it.  The guys successfully hatched it and fed the chick with regurgitated fish just like mama used to do.
An even wider set of behaviors are described in Wikipedia.
For a highly entertaining and encyclopedic review in the form of an advice column, try Olivia Judson's book, Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation.  We will have to be satisfied with it for some time.  She is taking a one year sabbatical from her New York Times Blog.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Armadillo- The Quattro Mom

During a drizzly morning my lovely editor read me a passage on armadillos from About Mammals and How they Live by Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz.*  Their birthing habits led me to read more about this recent Missouri intruder.
We are all familiar with these strange creatures, also known as Dasypus novemcinctus or Texas Speed-bumps.  They have an adaptive defensive strategy of jumping straight up when startled, helping them avoid the first lunge of a predator. This served them well until they encountered the automobile.  Try to avoid hitting one by straddling it and it will likely jump straight up into the bumper. Scitech/mysteries
Armadillos appear to have been created by a mammalian design committee with a majority of herpetologists and paleontologists.  There are 20 species, all native to the Western Hemisphere.  The largest is the cleverly named Giant Armadillo which can reach five feet in length and 130 pounds.  Their nearest kin are the sloths and anteaters.  In spite of their appearance, they have proven resilient and have adapted to climatic change better than many humans.
Technically,  nine-banded armadillos are not an invasive species.  They are not native to Missouri and cause economic damage to lawns and golf courses.  They avoid the "invasive" label because they arrived here on their own four legs, rather than being brought here by humans.
The passage that caught Barb's attention was this.
"Although armadillo young are well-developed at birth, the mother still prepares a nest for them in an enlarged room at the end of her tunnel.  Here her babies are born.  In the mammal world, armadillos are unusual because there are always four youngsters at a time, and they are identical in every respect, including sex.  Truly quadruplets!  The skin coat of the young is still soft as leather; its armorlike  texture does not completely harden until the young are fully grown." **
Though relatively new to the state, they are considered part of Missouri's wildlife and should not be killed wantonly. If you trap or shoot an armadillo, Missouri's Wildlife Code requires you to report the action to a state conservation agent within 24 hours.
Though some armadillos carry the bacterium that causes leprosy, the risk to humans is very small. Few cases of leprosy in the United States have been linked to contact with armadillos, and those instances involved prolonged exposure according to John Miller, a naturalist supervisor at MDC's Shepherd Hills Conservation Center.
A more likely danger, Miller said, is standing or leaning over an unsuspecting armadillo. When startled, armadillos can jump several feet straight up. (This may be one reason armadillos often end up as road kill.) Weighing up to 20 pounds and equipped with armor plates, an armadillo can pack an unintentional wallop when alarmed. Missouri Extension
With the warming trend or recent years, it seems safe to say that armadillos are with us for the long haul.  We can expect to occasionally run into their nose shaped holes as they dig out grubs and insects.  If only they would specialize in Japanese beetles.  As for the golf course problem you may soon be saying,  "Hey, you want to go shoot 40 holes today?"
(editor's note:  Ironically yesterday while I was standing near the creek, I was briefly foot to foot with one.  It ran up to me, both of us were surprised, neither of us jumped, then it charged down the stream bed.)

There is a comprehensive article from the 1997 Missouri Conservationist on line at this site.

*Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz wrote The Wild Mammals of Missouri, a beautifully illustrated encyclopedic work.  Charles was the original illustrator of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac.
**   All About Mammals and How They Live, Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz, 1993 was written as a companion to Wild Mammals of Missouri.  It looks at all mammals in terms of where they live, how they get their food, care for their young, defend themselves, etc.  It is a great way to  understand mammals adaptations.
Picture from

Monday, July 12, 2010

Right Handed Snails

If you want to dig deeper into the snail shell, try this in Pubmed.  Most species are composed entirely of individuals that are one or the other type.  In exceptional cases, populations may differ in their handedness, or chirality, but within a single population, all individuals tend to be alike.  The mechanisms are spelled out in Pubmed.

* NPR story on Southpaw Snails 'Dodge' Right-Handed Crabs
You can get into counting snails with your local stream by joining a Stream Team.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bald Birds, etc.

I keep a close eye on the MDC Blog, and today this one jumped out at me, probably for something I have in common with an occasional bird.  Bald birds brings to mind turkey vultures and eagles, but other birds show their pate occasionally. 
The June 24th entry showed a bald cardinal on a feeder and it was one ugly bird.  It looks like a cross between a cardinal and a vulture.  Fortunately, baldness doesn't have the same effect in humans- I hope.  Tim Smith discusses how it happens.
The condition arises during the bird’s molting period, when old feathers are being replaced with a new set. In the few bald individuals, the feathers on the head are lost simultaneously. During the normal molting, with sequential replacement of feathers, the birds are never without their feathery covering. A contributing factor in the bald birds may be the birds’ rubbing their heads on objects during molting, due to itching from lice. The bald condition is temporary, as new feathers will later emerge to recover the bird’s head. It’s probably a good thing that most bird feeders don’t contain mirrors."
In Invaders at the Door on June 18th, Tim gives a nice succinct description of the life cycle of the Japanese beetle that is back plaguing the Ozarks.
 Adult beetles feed for about two months after emerging from the soil in late June. During July they mate and the females lay 40 to 60 eggs in the soil. Larvae, or grubs, emerge from the eggs in about two weeks and will feed on plant roots and decaying vegetation before overwintering in the soil and emerging as adults the next spring. The grubs can damage lawns by feeding on grass roots, leaving plants more susceptible to summer drought damage. The adults feed on the foliage, flowers and fruit of hundreds of different host plants, including fruit and ornamental trees and shrubs and agricultural plants such as corn and soybeans. When feeding on leaves, they eat the tissue between the veins, leaving mere skeletons of the former leaf.
Finally, the July 9th blog describes the two brand new publications from MDC.  Show-Me Herps covers turtles and snakes in a guide similar to the popular Show-Me Bugs.
Missouri Wild Mushrooms is a guide to 102 common mushrooms found in Missouri.  This is designed to educate without being encyclopedic.  It also has 24 recipes, which is why I am getting it for Barb for our anniversary.  An added incentive is the offer to Master Naturalists which Jay sent earlier.  Don't tell Barb it was a bargain- I want her to think I splurged for her. (editor's note: How could you think you could get away with that Bob?)

You may want to save a link to the MDC Fresh Afield blog on your browser, as we all will find something different to learn there.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Following the Jordan Under Springfield

If you were downtown Tuesday night you would have seen an interesting sight as 15 Master Naturalists armed with flashlights and boots descended into Jordan Creek at Main Street.  Our expedition was led by Mike Kromrey of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.
Those who have participated in Stream Team activities are used to accessing stream health by studying flow, oxygenation, and counting macroinvertebrates living in the gravel.  Today's mission- explore the 3/4 mile of Jordan Creek under downtown Springfield which was covered over in 1928 to control flooding.
Loring Bullard's booklet, Jordan Creek- Story of an Urban Stream is a fascinating description of Springfield's history, focusing on the creek through its heart and the famous "natural well of wonderful depth" which was a factor in John Polk Campbell's decision to settle here.   
This "well" was actually an 18 inch by eight foot karst window, a surface opening into a cave below, accessing an underground stream.  This was located just across from Founders Park.  The well and the nearby springs were seminal in Springfield's development.  In addition to drinking water for humans and horses, they provided water for industry and daily activities.  Civil War soldiers washing their clothes at Fulbright Spring contaminated the downtown well with soap suds three-quarters of a mile away.  Colored water from a woolen mill on the creek in 1876  was the first locally reported chemical contamination.  By 1884 the well itself,  just south of Water Street, was covered by concrete.
Frequently wading through one to four inches of flowing water in the center channel, we could survey the drainage from the impervious surfaces of downtown Springfield.  Most street and sidewalk trash is flushed rapidly downstream by rains.  It hadn't rained in over a week but still scattered cigarette butts line the stream edge as occasional small pieces of plastic drift down stream.  White particles flushed off a newly installed nearby roof can be seen in Jordan Creek and later above on the sidewalk and street gutter.  
Our flashlights reveal scattered graffiti, drains from the street, and the old stone arches of the Campbell Avenue bridge overhead, a silent tribute to Springfield's founder.
You might expect it to be lifeless in this pitch black environment, but as Bill Bryson says, "Life just wants to be."  Flashlights reveal a few crayfish under loose rocks, then occasional  Southern Red Belly Dace swim against the current as stone rollers cling to the bottom while awaiting upstream snacks.  Later we found a green sunfish, a new species to this stream section.  Further upstream we find three six-inch Yellow Bullheads, clustered in an eddy formed by a larger rock.  All of these species survive because they are tolerant of pollution and low oxygen levels of an urban underground stream. 
Mammals occasionally pass through as evidenced by footprints left by a raccoon or opossum in some soft moist sand.   Overhead in the expansion joints of this concrete cave we find occasional big brown bats clinging the the walls and ceilings, most sleeping but this one eying us with suspicion. Click pictures to enlarge.
This grotto is a good example of the impact of dense populations on a small urban stream.  It also shows why studying stream quality is important.  The water here is headed downstream and, after all, we all live downstream.

For more on Stream Teams go to
Original source material on Springfield Water springs and wells is at Fairbanks and Tucks History.
The history of Jordan Creek booklet, a must for those interested in Springfield history is available for purchase at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, 320 North Main Avenue Springfield, MO 65806-1208

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Black Bears

Seeing a black bear is Missouri is still an exciting event to most of us.  These encounters are occurring more frequently each year as the bear population is expanding north of Arkansas.  Rural and forested areas are increasingly subdivided into smaller residential plots.  A female black bear's normal range is 1 to 15 miles, while a male will cover 8 to 60 miles, looking for food and love.  As this range is increasingly broken up by human habitation, human-bear encounters are inevitable.
This week the first attack of a bear on a human was recorded in Kentucky. Western states have lots of precautions including training for hikers and bear-proof trash and food containers, and we will be seeing more of these in Missouri.
The story of their resurgence is covered in The Bear Truth.   I use the term "resurgence" because bears were once very common in Missouri.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft described frequent bear encounters and commercial hunting of bears regularly in the Journal of his trip through Southern Missouri in 1818.
MDC Online has a good resource called Controlling Nuisance Bears, and Conservation magazine has had several good articles this year including the May issue with Be Bearwise in Missouri.
Any wild animal can become used to human presence.  The normally shy coyote is no exception.  Last week a coyote attacked young girls on two separate occasions in suburban Rye, New York. (New York Times)
The April 29th blog, Turkeys Gone Wild, discussed turkey gobbler attacks on humans.  With the peak year our rabbits are having, I expect any day to be surrounded by bunnies nibbling at my boots.  As we  expand our living space into nature, altering habitat and fragmenting animals range, we prove that the old saying is true.  Familiarity does breed contempt.

There is a lot more information on black bears at 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Skulls and Furs

We just finished a training by Jay Barber on Skulls and Furs.  This focuses on teaching how to use these materials to show kids and adults in how mammals live, their habitats and eating strategies.  Our goal is to develop a team of Master Naturalist teachers that can take these lessons out to schools and the community.
Furs give people a way of relating to mammals tactically,  feeling and observing a pelt while learning the life cycle of a wide variety of Missouri mammals.  In addition to identifying pelts and the habits of their prior owners, Jay had some fur jackets and mink stoles as examples of how pelts have been used by women in our society in recent years. 
The Wild Mammals of Missouri from University of Missouri Press has extensive information about  skulls, jaws and other bony structures of mammals.  (See picture)  While quite detailed, it has taken me a lot of time to try to identify an individual skeleton.
The Skulls portion  gave us the opportunity to quickly categorize Missouri mammals by their jaw and skull structures.  The shape and placement of teeth can reveal what an animal eats and how it hunts.  Long prominent canine teeth suggests a carnivore while flattened human-like molars are typical of a herbivore.  There are many more features that can separate individual species.

The prominence of bony structures on top of the skull suggests the presence of powerful the jaws capable of crushing a prey rather than carefully chewing vegetation.  Auditory and nasal structures suggest the importance of hearing and smell in individual species.

Doris presented a lesson plan and lots of practical advice on how to structure the presentations to various grade levels.  For instance, 5th grade students can be taught the specialized adaptations of individual species.  On the other hand, first and second grade students (and some of us senior Master Naturalists) have limited attention spans and require short and simple lessons.
Plan to attend Jay's trainings on Birds (July 13) and Amphibians and Reptiles (July 21).

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture site has a good demonstration of the difference between carnivore and herbivore jaws. has a pictorial guide to skulls.
There is a Skull Key pdf paper at

Mammals Teaching Group 
Doris Ewing will serve as coordinator for scheduling.  The initial group includes Ann Morris, Kristin Riggs, Bob & Barbara Kipfer, Larry Maggard, Caryn Fox, Connie Johnson, Charlie Stewart, Merrill Dubach,  Charley Burwick, Vicki Sears, Rose Atchley, Sherryl Walker, and Sue Jeffery.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Project WILD !!!

What were ten supposed adults doing running around the lawn of the MDC Regional Office?  Getting WILD- that is Project WILD.

Project WILD is one of the most widely used conservation and environmental education programs among educators of students in kindergarten through high school. It is based on the premise that young people and educators have a vital interest in learning about our natural world.  A national network of State Wildlife Agency Sponsors ensures that Project WILD is available nationwide --training educators in the many facets of the program.

 Our class of ten included teachers, MDC personnel from the Conservation Nature Center, city employees, college students and Master Naturalists.  It was taught by Jay Barber of MDC and Carl and Janet Haworth (facilitators from Master Naturalists).

We were introduced to the large number of teaching exercises by experiencing some of them as well as hands on teaching of each other.  It turns out that this group is not a lot different than 6th graders, just slower and a lot more wise cracks.

A morning exercise was to observe nature outside and write a poem in five minutes based on what we saw.  One format option was a cinquain, five lines of defined length and content.  There were lots of beautiful results.

Colorful river
Purple, green, over, under
Swaying and blowing, sleeping and running
Comfort, joy, strength and weakness below and above
Beautiful sight.
-Kim White

Tall yellow bright
Is gracefully moving
Searching, seeking, longing, hoping
For sun.
-Janet Haworth
Then there were those driven by the experience of the day, not so much beautiful as...well, you judge.
Little deadly
irritating, distracting, annoying, bloated
Blood sucking opportunist sucker diptera
Smacking squashing falling dying dead
-Liz Schroeder

Another exercise divided the class into Predator and Prey, 10 rabbits and 2 coyotes (in orange).  The coyotes are to tag the rabbits while they run from their safe homes between shelter (towels) to pick up food tokens and get back to their home base.  The goal is to introduce the experience of leaving shelter to get food and freezing when a predator is seen, much like a rabbit.  The rabbit has to get enough food to live while avoiding capture while the coyote will starve if it doesn't catch an occasional rabbit.  This leads to a discussion of strategies of predator and prey.