Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Black Swallowtail Paint Job

Black Swallowtail - Chris Barnhart
Amy Tyndall brought this beauty into the Butterfly House for identification.  It probably is familiar to some of you Butterfly House docents and lepidopterophiles but just looks a little off.  Chris Barnhart identified it as an aberrant Black Swallowtail (BS), Papilio polyxenes asterius.  It looks like an chemically impaired painter did the markings.  Lets compare them to the normal BS (pardon the abbreviation.)

Aberrant Male BS- dorsal view
Male Black Swallowtail - Donald Hall

All of the yellow decorations on the male on the left are blurry on the upper medial portion and frankly smeared into lines along the trailing edges.

Aberrant ventral view -CB
Normal ventral - Donald Hall

The ventral view above shows that the genetic painter hadn't sobered up yet when it turned the butterfly over.  Notice again that the discrete orange decorations are smeared as well as the white decorations on the wing and even the swallow tail.

Aberrant butterflies can occur with extreme stress or nonlethal damage within the chrysalis.  Consistent color changes in a small isolated breeding population can lead to distinctive "forms" as a result of persistent inbreeding.

The Monarch page of has pictures of aberrant Monarchs found in the breeding stock at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm.  The mating of a normal and an aberrant produced a few aberrants.  Two aberrants monarchs breeding produced all aberrants.  This fun fact serves to illustrate just one of the dangers of inbreeding in commercially raised populations.  For this reason we discourage the release of commercially propagated butterflies by well-meaning people at the Roston Butterfly House.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Soil Centipede

No insect is safe from capture now that the WOLF School is back in session.  At our first meeting today there were cicada, bagworms and this tiny centipede which McKenna brought in from a recess hunt.  It was 3" long and very delicate.

It moved slowly like a millipede but without the wavelike motion of the legs.  Without magnification I couldn't tell if there was one or two pair of legs per segment.  We talked about the difference between millipedes (two pair of legs per segment) and centipedes (one pair of legs per segment.)  This is a soil centipede in the order Geophilomorpha.  There are 1,100 species identified world wide.

Geophilomorpha (GM) are extremely skinny, an important trait for a centipede hunting through narrow spaces in the ground substrate.  This order has species with 27 to 191 pairs of legs - our specimen has 56 pairs.  Unlike other centipedes that are built for speed, they move slowly through the soil by their legs and their ability to contract and elongate the body like the earthworms they hunt.

Fangs and antennae with 14 segments - REK
Back legs are antennae!
Like all other centipedes they are predators, eating earthworms, snails and small arthropods.  They lack eyes which would be worthless underground anyway.  They "see" the world through their antennae which are in 14 segments.  Their back legs are modified into antennae as well.

Earthworms are GM's specialty, captured with their fangs that inject venom.  They chew them up with small mandibles which have ducts secreting digestive juices, its enzymes digesting the food before taking it in.  If that sounds disgusting, recall that they are eating a worm.

Dorsal view of eyeless head
Their underground courtship begins with mutual tapping of antennae.  The female guards her eggs in the soil until the miniature GMs appear, looking just like the adults that they will become after several morphs.

 More details are at

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cloudless Sulfur Migration

Cloudless Sulfur - Bob Moul
In recent weeks we have been seeing a sulfur butterfly, larger than the usual varieties of small yellow sulfur butterflies flitting around our plantings.  This is the Cloudless Sulfur, a visitor that migrates to Missouri and neighboring states from the south in late summer.

When it comes to insect migration, we think of the dramatic Monarch migration, one of the wonders of nature.  Dragonflies like the Green Darner can sometimes be seen migrating in dramatic numbers.  There are however a lot of other smaller scale migrations that are so subtle they are often overlooked.  Most migrations of insects are noted by the appearance of seasonal increases in a regional population.

The Cloudless breed continuously in the tropics and twice a year in the southern US.  Some migrate north as far as Canada in middle summer where they find the warmth they need.  They feed on woody and herbaceous legumes which span from alfalfa and soybeans to the leaves of black locust.  Whether they are driven to migrate north by host plant availability or by temperature gradient is known only by the butterflies and they aren't talking.

The migration of Monarchs tends to occur at higher altitudes while the Cloudless travel in a zone from within 10 feet of ground level.  When they encounter a house or some other obstacle they tend to fly over it rather than temporarily change direction.* 

Cloudless survive the winter as adults and they don't tolerate cold.  In the fall, large numbers move south in response to cooling temperatures.  Those that chose not to go or take off too late will mostly perish.

The Cloudless sulfur, Phoebis sennae, looks superficially like other sulfur butterflies in its usual wing folded position.  The underside of the wings is between a yellow to pale green color with two small silver spots and a black rim on the hind wing which defy the naked eye when they are resting.

Dogface Sulfur - REK
Clouded Sulfur - Wikimedia

The upper wing surface is easier to identify but virtually impossible to photograph without capturing the insect.  The above chilled and released Southern Dogface shows its namesake and the Clouded Sulfur has "clouds" on the dorsal wing edges.  The Cloudless shows the clouds are gone.
 Cloudless Sulfur - ColtonEnto
The caterpillars are usually light green with a yellow stripe on the sides.  If they feed on a host plant's yellow flowers they are yellow with transverse black bands in later instars.

  Terry Schiff CC
  Sue Carnahan CC

Many other lepidoptera migrate including the Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, American Lady and the colorful Alianthus Webworm Moth.

* More details of Cloudless Sulfurs and their migration is at this University of Florida Entomology site.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dog Bane

Silvery Checkerspot on early dogbane blossoms - REK
There are scattered patches of dogbane in our grassland, a species that most true farmers would consider a weed and try to kill but we save it for fiber.  Its scientific name is Apocynum cannabinum, the Apocynum meaning "poisonous to dogs," hence the bane of dogs.  It can also be toxic to cattle so we hay around the patches.

Milky latex
Its reddish stems ooze a white milky latex which can cause skin blisters. It is described as bitter tasting (there is always someone to try tasting) and contains cardiotoxic glycosides, the same family of chemicals as digitalis.  The roots had been used therapeutically in the past to treat heart failure.  With its bad taste, only a desperate horse or cow would continue eating it, but 15-30 grams of dried leaves reportedly will kill one.

Dogbane grows freely in fields and open areas, prefers moisture but is thriving on our upper hayfield.  The "cannabinum" might stir excitement in a lawman's heart but it comes from Cannabis as a fiber plant like hemp, and fiber is one reason why we protect it, but more on that later.

Spittlebug home - REK
There are a lot of insect associations with dogbane which add diversity to our otherwise boring fescue and Johnsongrass fields.  In spite of its toxicity, spittle bugs seem to love dogbane.

During the early summer most of the dark red stems have a little bit of drool concealing a tiny green bug, butt up in the air, blowing froth of dilute digested xylem out its rectum.  If you set aside the yuck factor and wipe away the bubbles, the little guys are actually cute!  These are the nymphs of froghoppers, little athletes capable of hopping 2 feet in the air.  They are well worth the blog focused on them alone.

Spittlebug exposed - REK

The broad head of flowers attracts a wide variety of pollinators including bees, flower flies, wasps, butterflies and moths.  The USDA/ NRCS ranks its value to pollinators as "very high."  Pennsylvania leatherwings (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) are attracted to their pollen and their larvae attack many other insects.  Tachinid flies visit the flowers and lay their eggs on stinkbugs, Japanese beetles and other pests where their larvae grow up eating inside them until they die or at least don't reproduce.  Birds even use the fibrous fluff of the seeds for nesting material.

Milkweed is in the dogbane family (Apocynaceae), and a variety of "milkweed" insects visit ogbane as well.  Small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii) are attracted to them.  Dogbane is a host plant for several caterpillars including our beloved snowberry clearwing moths that mimic hummingbirds, nectaring without touching down.  Monarchs nectar on the flowers but their caterpillars can't survive by feeding on the plant.
Dogbane Beetle
I have left out one of the best for last, the dogbane beetle.  This gem literally changes color depending on the angle of the light, its metallic green sheen blending into gold and all shades in between.  According to Illinois State Museum:
"Chrysochus auratus iridescence "changes color because of stacks of tiny slanting plates, under which is a pigment.  Some light rays reflect from the surface of the plates, and other light rays reflect from the pigment underneath. At different angles, the light reflects at different speeds, causing interference and resulting in our seeing different colors that shine."
The eggs are laid in the soil or on the plant and the larvae tunnel in the soil to feed on dogbane or milkweed roots.  The adults are able to defend themselves by giving off a foul odor like many other beetles.  The best approach to them is to photograph them and enjoy them at a distance.

Colors we can't reproduce -  Nature Web
Dogbane cordage - REK
Ah yes, the fiber!  Hemp dogbane has been used for cordage by Native Americans for at least several thousand years.  The individual fibers that are found under the dry bark in the fall are stronger than cotton of the same size and found multiple uses from bowstrings to sandal soles.  Primitive skills instructors demonstrate the process at the Nature Center each year and you can learn to make your own cordage at this site.  We will be harvesting the dogbane this fall for the Wonders of Wildlife classes.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Thread-waist Wasp

Thread-waist wasp - Eremnophila aureonotata - REK
Silver-white shoulder patches
I watched this dainty insect flying slowly around at knee height for some time.  Finally it got tired of looking around and landed on the deck to rest. The long thin stalked abdomen put it in the Sphecidae family of Thread-waist wasps.  The silver-white patches on the side of the thorax is diagnostic of the genus Eremnophilia. and Eremnophila aureonotata is the only species north of Mexico.

Satellite fly - Patrick Coin
This species is commonly found in old fields near woodlands.  Adults feed on nectar while the larvae are fed moth and skipper caterpillars.  The female digs a burrow, places an egg in it and delivers a large caterpillar, a long term provision.  Some satellite flies commonly follow them, sneaking in to lay their eggs on the caterpillar.

Capturing a Notodontidae Moth caterpillar - Benny Mazur CC
I was fortunate this specimen landed on our deck for pictures.  Many of the online photographs are of mating couples on large flower heads such as Queen Anne's Lace, both slowing them down and getting them at camera height.  Rather than nibbling on her ear, the male grasps the female's neck with his mandibles and hangs on.

"This won't hurt much" - Grasping the female's neck -  Tam Stewart

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fuzzy Orange Galls

Callirhytis furva - R. Curtis
I found a few of these galls on a bur oak leaf.  A photograph online identified them as Spiny Oak galls and said they were caused by a Cynipid wasp, Acraspis prinoides,but nothing else was available on itAnother white oak leaf gall that might be confused with it is produced by Callirhytis furva, but this one is more hairy than spiky.

 Acraspis erinacei - Charley Eiseman
I would have described them as hedgehog galls so on a whim I searched that name and hit the jackpot.  Charley Eiseman, who has literally written the book on galls and other signs* as usual had  described my gall on Bugguide.   He identified the Hedgehog Gall Wasp as Acraspis erinacei and even had a photograph of the wasp.

The life cycle is a bit complicated.  The process begins when a fertilized female lays eggs on an oak leaf.  The hatchlings cause some damage and the leaf responds by creating the gall around them. The gall contains three to five larval cells, each holding a female that will emerge in the fall and lay eggs on leaf buds without mating.  After being exposed all winter, the larvae stimulate other galls, and adult males and females will emerge to mate and start the cycle over again.

The gall looks delicate but don't let that fool you.  Cutting through one with a razor blade requires a lot of pressure.  What you see is below.
Opened gall- REK

Gall larva with toothpick - REK

Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Red-spotted Purple

RSP - Belle
My 10 year old naturalist friend Belle sent me this photograph of a Red-spotted Purple (RSP) butterfly that reminded me of a past exploration into the caterpillars.  The RSP, Limenitis arthemis astyanax, is a forest butterfly that is well adapted to suburban areas with trees.  In flight it resembles Pipevine and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies, a protective coloration called Batesian mimicry as a bird having tasted one of those toxic species is likely to leave the RSP alone.

Viceroy - Wikipedia
The RSP has an unusual trait of occasionally mating with the closely related Viceroy butterfly Limenitis archippus, usually in the lab but occasionally in the wild.  One definition of a species is their ability to breed so once again the definition of species is challenging.
RSP or Viceroy? - REK
Since the two species are close enough that they occasionally interbreed, it probably should not be a surprise us that their larvae can look similar.   They are the only bird dropping mimic caterpillars that have horns. The RSP is less spiny than the Viceroy.  I photographed the caterpillar above from many angles and yet we were never able to decide which species it was.  Only the mother knows for sure.

Southern Viceroy - Mark Fox
RSP - Carmen Champagne CC

Bird dropping mimic with horns - REK

The RSP rarely feeds on nectar from flowers, preferring fermenting fruit that is "spoiling" for us but tasty for it, tree sap and even animal dung.  They also will drink from moist gravel and mud puddles, acquiring the minerals they need for reproduction.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ganoderma On Our Roots

I generally like to see various fungi on the ground but this is not one of them, especially when it is in our front yard.  We had a large native thorn-less honeylocust tree when we moved into our new house in 1973.  Over the years it has provided shade and served as a perch for many different birds.  Now these are appearing on the exposed roots.

Mark Bower confirmed that this is Ganoderma sessile, a parasitic fungus on hardwoods.  Species names get dicey as they frequently change or get reassigned by DNA.  As some have suggested, naming a new species is frequently making a species hypothesis.  In this case a related species Ganoderma curtisii looks somewhat like it.

Ganoderma fungi are white-rot saprophytes living on dead organic material in the soil.  They produce enzymes that digest lignin and cellulose that provide the structural strength of wood.  When it encounters cut or damaged roots it can parasitize the living tree, its hyphae spreading through the roots.  When it gains a sufficient spread it is ready to reproduce, creating its "flower," the mushroom that will produce spores, its method of spreading to other areas.

Our tree has been struggling in its urban setting for years  It was growing on a thin layer of soil before we came, its roots extending well beyond the diameter of the crown.  First the street and then our house and driveway construction constrained the root expansion.  Next a sweetgum was planted to the south that slowly encroached on its sun.  It grew anyway, loyally providing afternoon shade to the house.

Ganoderma - Mole's eye view
The thin layer of added topsoil supported a lawn but provided no depth for growth of the feeder roots.  They reached the surface 20 years ago where they were occasionally scarred by lawnmowers.  This likely provided the entrance wounds for Ganoderma to attack the roots.

Shallow soil, uprooted trees
In recent years the tree started to lose branches.  Ganoderma will also spread into the structural roots that hold the tree upright.  Our locust tree is plagued with rocks and shallow, poorly drained clay soil that prevents deep root penetration any way, increasing the risk of uprooting in a storm.  Now our arborist, Chris, has delivered the "last rites."

The tree shaded us for over 40 years, reducing air conditioning bills and providing a refuge for squirrels.  Now with the tree gone, Ganoderma will continue its role of saprophyte, converting the remaining roots into soil nutrients to feed the tree we will be planting soon.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Trapdoor Spider

I found this beauty walking slowly across the leaves on the forest floor at Bull Mills.  It paid no attention to me until I put the camera on the ground 3" away and even then it only backed up an inch and posed.  I tried to get better pictures of its eyes but failed.  I decided to leave it rather than take it home for photographs.

This was identified as a Ummidia species, one of the Cork-lid trapdoor spiders (Ctenizidae).  Their diagnostic feature is the saddle-like depression in the outer surface of the tibia on their third leg.  Identifying the species would require an expert looking at other anatomical features.

They get their "trapdoor" name from the construction of their residence as described in Bugguide.
"Trapdoor spiders" because they make their homes in tubelike burrows completely lined with silk. They cut a lid which is attached on one side, like a hinged trapdoor. The top of the lid is camouflaged with debris. When they feel the vibration of prey, they rush out to capture it, then return to the burrow. Females rarely leave their burrows, but males may be found wandering in search of prey.
Note the two thick chelicerae which point down - REK
Ummidia sp were named for a famous Roman woman, Ummidia Quadratilla who unfortunately died 1900 years before she could learn of the honor.  These species are in the infraorder Mygalomorph, a group of stout bodied spiders that includes tarantulas.  Mygalomorphs have long stout chelicerae that point straight down.  Their chelicerae or jaws as they are referred to frequently are strong and  contain venom glands capable of killing fish and small mammals.  The only species that is a threat to humans resides in Australia.

There is only one species of tarantula that resides in Missouri, Aphonopelma hentzi.  In spite of their reputation in the popular literature, they pose no danger by biting and are frequently kept and handled as pets.  They do have urticating hairs that can cause irritation to sensitive eye and nasal tissue, so don't touch your eyes after handling them and never ever inhale a tarantula.

This video of petting a Missouri tarantula is not for arachnophobes. 
Trapdoor spiders 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sunflowers' Headturning

Sunflowers - Wikipedia
A story in yesterday's NY Times describes sunflowers' daily cycle of facing the sun.  This heliotropism (helio-sun, trop-turn toward) is well known in a few other plants as well but these studies tell us more about how and possibly why.

The Cliff Notes version is that young flowers face the sun in its daily east-west arc across the sky, growing larger than flowers in a lab with a fixed "sun."  When those lab flowers are treated with an artificial "sun" which moves, they follow it and grow bigger.  In their natural setting, incredibly, they then reset overnight, facing the east to get an early start on the day.  When they get old, they stop moving (I can relate) and just face the east.

New studies shed more light (sorry!)* on the mechanism.  During the day, the east side of the stems grow, slowly bending the heads west, then overnight the west sides grow, pushing them back facing east, ready for the rising sun.  Meanwhile older flowers facing east all day heat up faster in the morning and attract more pollinators than west facing flowers.  Apply heat to the west facing flowers and more pollinators arrive.

There is much more to the story and I highly recommend reading the NY Times story and the heliotropism link to get a better understanding of this fascinating piece of nature.

*Editor's note: Oh no, he's not.
Thanks to Amy and Steve of the Fishin' Magicians for sending the story.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Skinky Little Eggs


Barb was re-potting a yucca on the deck at the creek house when she found these little eggs just under the surface.  They were small and soft like reptile eggs and the pot was too high for a turtle to reach so that left the skinks and fence lizards that race around the deck.

These turned out to be Five-lined Skinks, Eumeces fasciatusMother skinks will hang around to defend their eggs* but we had to move them rather than leaving them exposed to marauding wood rats and squirrels as well as our resident Black Rat Snake.  We decided to adopt them and nestled them into potting soil in a plastic aquarium where they could live on the deck safe from predators.

Lizard eggs are thin and membranous and as such can absorb or lose water.  Soil moisture is important and more moisture tends to produce larger eggs and hatchlings.  A mother skink will cover the eggs with her body in low humidity to keep up moisture content, sometimes even urinating on the eggs.  I didn't go that far but did check the soil moisture and sprinkle it with water.

Thirty days later we found two little skinks crawling around the surface.  Once we released them, we dug into the soil and more blue tail flickered as they dug deeper to escape.  We had a total of 9 skinks out of ten eggs with no evidence of egg fragments or the missing egg. Mother skinks will eat a dead egg but she had no access to the container so its fate will remain a mystery.

Interesting research in Australia showed that at least one species of skink can deliver itself early when it senses a threat.  It was known that signals of predators sometimes prompt early hatching in frog embryos.  As reported in Science Magazine:
"Talk about hatching an escape plan. Unborn lizards can erupt from their eggs days early if vibrations hint at a threat from a hungry predator, new research shows. The premature hatchlings literally "hit the ground running—they hatch and launch into a sprint at the same time," says behavioral ecologist J. Sean Doody, who is now at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville."
Skinks are said to survive in an aquarium with adequate care for 5-10 years.  Ours are free to roam and wave their little blue tails as a thank you until they get over the blues as adults.

* Although the aquarium was moved some distance away next to a wall, we found an adult skink hiding by it several times.  Coincidence, probably as skinks run around the deck regularly, but I like to think it was mom come to visit the eggs.

Lisa Berger asked if other skinks have blue tails.  The answer is yes, all other immature skinks like the Broadhead Skink have blue tails.  Females and juveniles of these two species are hard to tell apart.  The Broadhead's upper lip has 5 scales, the Five-lined only 4.  We have had Five-lined on the deck in the past and I didn't traumatize these wiggling babies by trying to get a closeup side view.
Broadhead Skink- Count the 5 scales on the upper lip.
More information on skinks and the tale of their self-amputating tail is in this previous blog.