Friday, December 27, 2019

Red Velvet Mites




Surrounded by snow and ice, I was warmed by looking back at these pictures from May.  I had been hiking through the riparian plantings and took some pictures of bedstraw or cleavers (Galium aparine).  Even if you don't know the name you have probably picked up some of it tromping through the fields or woods.  Unlike many annoying seeds, these are easily removed.


This weedy plant probably sets the record for the most common names of any organism, including cleavers, clivers, bedstraw, goosegrass, catchweed, stickyweed, sticky bob, stickybud, robin-run-the-hedge, sticky willy, sticky willow, stickyjack, stickeljack, grip grass and velcro plant.  It is used by some as a medicinal poltice, infusion or tea.  The tiny sticky hairs have been adapted to straining milk and create stable shaped mattress ticking.  The fruits can be dried and roasted as a substitute for coffee.

This cleaver above also served as a pedestal for a red velvet mite ( RVM}.  Mites are arachnids as are spiders, harvestmen, scorpions and the ever popular ticks.  Like ticks they have six legs in the first instar, then graduate to eight legs from then to adulthood.  RVMs are members of the Trombididiidae family of mites which gives us several thousand species to choose from.  The larvae of a few species are our familiar blood-sucking chiggers.

Most RVM are not chiggers and it is hard to find good reputable photographs of real chigger mites. There are several species with the blood-sucking habit, the most common being Trombicula alfreddugesi.  Their larva sticks its  proboscis into our skin and injects digestive juice which hardens into a tube called a stylosome, the source of the itching inflammation as described here by Missouri University.

The Bug Lady gives an interesting description of their love life as the male deposits his sperm on a leaf and leaves a silk trail to lead a female to his gift.


Adult RVMs are our friends, consuming insect eggs and small insects on our plants.  With so many different species to choose from, it is unlikely that our friend here is a chigger parent, but we will never know. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Fungus Beetle


Anyone who has hiked a few of our Ozark forests has likely seen these bracket fungi growing like shelves on dead or living trees.  They are called Trametes aesuli now, but the books still call them Trametes elegansThey are tough, leathery and hard to break off the tree.  These are hardened members of the polypore group of fungi.  We collect them for WOLF School students to paint on.

This is a great example of nature's recycling.  Trametes fungus species grow on trees which have some dead tissue, a process called sap rotFungi send enzymes out of their fine hyphal threads to break down the wood and digest the cellulose, a hard trick for anything that has legs.  Even termites depend on microorganisms in their gut to grind the cellulose into something they can turn into energy.  The hard fruiting bodies of these polypores have nutrition that few legged creatures can use.  This is where fungus beetles enter the picture.  These species are obligate fungivores (fungus-eaters), meaning that their specialized digestive systems can only digest fungi.  A prime example are the Neomida bicornis below.
Neomida bicornis found in bracket fungi - REK
I was recently surprised to discover that T. elegans is the main course in the diet of Neomida bicornis.  I stored several hard dried fungi in a sealed plastic bag for future artists and when I opened it six months later they were riddled with holes.  In the bottom of the bag there was lots of powder as well as over 100 little black dots.  On closer inspection they were fungus beetles that had eaten their fill before dying of dehydration and old age.

 

The WOLF School students made another discovery while examining the beetles under the microscope, a beetle larva that had been hidden in the frass.  It has been dried for months and I can only find these photographs of the larva in their living state, so I can only assume that it is also N. bicornis.

Neomida bicornis - REK
Neomida  are strictly fungivorous (fungi-eating) beetles of the Tenebrionidae family.  They bore into the hard conks of Polyporales hosts.  Zookeys states that there are approximately 50 species of Neomida beetles world wide.  For anything that is science you can find experts immersed in the chase. Here are some of their identifying features:
"Members of Neomida are diagnosed by the following features (taken from Triplehorn 1965): antennal club loose and with seven antennomeres; eyes emarginate anteriorly close to antennal insertions, forming a lower portion at least twice as long as the upper portion; head of males usually bearing horns or tubercles on frons or clypeus, or both; prosternal process convex; elytral punctation seriate; basal tarsomere of hind tarsi short." Zookeys
  Katja Schulz
The Neomida bicornis are cute by any 5th grade WOLF School definitionBicornis means (two-horns), referring to the male's head decoration.  Only they know what purpose they serve.  In the deep south they sport an orange pronotum, a trait that disappears as they are found further north.  The beetles are a metallic blue-green in life but our specimens are contracted by dehydration with their pigment broken down with age.  Left in nature they too would be recycled by bacteria and fungus, just like we all are, completing the circle of life.
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Even tiny 3mm beetles can carry smaller mites.  See this photo by Tom Murray!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fungus on Poop






I We don't usually feature a little blob of what a WOLF student would describe as poop, but this picture was sent to me by Mark Bower because of the tiny white filaments in the middle.  The tiny yellow dots are the mushroom-like fruiting bodies or sporangiophores of a pin mold named Phycomyces blakesleeanus, PB for our story.




Mark has taken me on macrophotographic journeys through his lens regularly, but this one is especially spectacular.  The sporangiophores appear perfectly round closeup.  The thin stalks are a different species of pin mold and the clear globules are droplets of dew.

I did not expect to find much additional information on a little pin mold but PB turns out to have a sizable scientific audience.  A 2018  New York Times article describes how it borrowed from ancient bacteria to defy gravity.  "It can respond to wind and touch, grow toward light and detect and navigate around objects placed above it. It senses gravity too — with crystals that move around inside single, but giant, elongated, spore-containing cells that resemble Truffula Trees."  Scientists say the fungus developed its well-known sensing abilities following an ancient genetic transfer between its ancestor and bacteria it encountered.

P blakesleeanus zygosporangia
The PB sporangiophores emit an "avoidance gas" that lets them expand and yet avoid solid objects without touching them.  The science behind this is described in this Wikipedia article and is too dense for me, but it does have this cool photograph of the PB's sexual structures called zygosporangia which resemble insects.


Starfish stinkhorn from Tasmania - Aseroe rubra

By now you may have detected a faint unintended theme of odors beginning with the poop above.  On a less scatological note, Mark has just put together a book of his photographs of the Fungi of Tasmania.  Even if you don't dig mushrooms I think you will be amazed at the photographs, such as this starfish stinkhorn.  There I go again!

You can download the PDF of his book here.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Grapefern



Hiking along the Mail Trace Road, Barb spotted a solitary green fern poking out of the drab floor of dried leaves.  It had what appeared to be green leaves spread out around the base and a 12" bright green stalk with light green bumps lining the underside of stems like little grapes.

When she touched the stalk there was a tiny cloud that drifted away.  The cloud of spores was released with each touch, as shown in this video.  We went back home to identify it.  What in the past would have been a nearly impossible task of thumbing through books became a one minute exercise with the photo above sent in to Inaturalist.

Wikipedia
This is a cutleaf grapefern, Sceptridium dissectum, a common fern, although easy to overlook when hiking as it is frequently found in overgrown disturbed areas.  It is a perennial but is easier to find this time of year because of its strange growing season. To grow it depends on a mycorrhizal fungus association in the soil.  Ferns are different from our common flowering plants and don't get as much respect, the Rodney Dangerfields of the plant world.  Stick with me as we muddle through this difference.

This grapefern produces a single frond (large, divided leaf) which spreads out at ground level, usually with lacy edges.  This often turns from green to a bronze color during the winter.  In fall, mature plants grow a single fertile section, which stands on a long stalk above the sterile part.  They are named for the round, clustered sporangium (spore cases) extending from the top of the stalk which have some resemblance to a bunch of grapes.  When we touched the stalk, the cloud you saw was the spores drifting away to the ground.

From here the fern life cycle gets very technical and hard to describe in simple terms.  Rather than confuse you further, I would suggest reading the best description I have found, here from UPenn.edu.

Resurrection fern during dry period
 Add water, no stirring required.
Another common fern species that can be overlooked is this resurrection fern, Pleopeltis polypodioides.   Gala Solari shared these photographs before and after a rain.  This is an epiphyte or air plant, meaning that it gets its nutrition and water from the air and the bark surface of a tree.  It is able to survive long dry periods and lose up to 97% of its water.  It does this by curling up its fronds, turning gray-brown and appearing dead.  Add rain and viola! it greens up.  It can survive drought for many years this way.  You can watch one revive in this time-lapse video.


From now on I will give a lot more respect to the ferns I encounter, even if I am still struggling to understand their strange life cycle.

You can read about the Christmas Fern in this month's Missouri Conservationist 
at this link.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Insect-loving Fungi


During a recent WOLF School field trip at Bull Creek, one of the fifth graders turned over a rotting log and discovered the grisly crime scene above.  By carefully excavating it, he exposed the remains of a lepidoptera pupa case, its contents consumed by a parasitoid fungus.

These white powdery structures are the fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungus, Cordyceps tenuipes. (Greek entomon=insect).  If one of its spores comes in contact with an unlucky moth or butterfly pupa or larva, it will germinate, penetrate the cuticle and then grow inside the host. This eventually leads to the death of the insect. Then the spore-bearing fruiting bodies emerge from the cadaver.  Remnants of the victim can be seen in this photo.

There are a great number and variety of entomopathogenic fungi. In fact, 5 of the 8 fungal phyla contain species which have evolved to feed on insects.  C. tenuipes and some other species have been studied for possible medical applications which are popular in China.

Cordyceps militaris in the soil - Mark Bower
Cordyceps militaris on a dead caterpillar - MB
A common Cordyceps species is C. militaris which Mark Bower shared with me.  Michael Kuo of Mushroomexpert.com describes it as "pretty much the coolest mushroom ever," but to identify it you need to dig a little deeper.  It parasitizes puffball mushrooms as well as insects, so simply plucking it from the ground leaves the underground origin a mystery.  In general it is always a good idea to dig down when collecting any mushroom because the substrate may help you identify it if only to know that it grows on wood.
 
Some species simply enter their host and devour it from the inside.  Incredibly, a few species can infect the creature’s brain and muscles and compel it to perform certain tasks.  For example, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and C. lloydii fungi may direct an infected ant to climb a tree to a specific height so that the fungal spores will rain down on the unsuspecting ants below.  In an example of familiarity breeding contempt, Kuo states:
"Some ants and termites that have evolved the ability to detect Cordyceps-infected compadres; sentry soldiers guarding the Queen kill the infected insects and take their bodies far from the nest before they can threaten the colony."
Spider succumbed to Torrubiella arachnophila -MB
Now for a specialist in action we have Torrubiella arachnophila.  The species name arachnophila comes from arachno, "spider," and phílos, dear, beloved."  I suspect this is a case of unrequited "love," more likely an abusive relationship, as the fungus gets all the affection.   According to Mushroom Observer its "deprecated synonym" is Gibellula leiopus (Vuill. ex Maubl.) Mains, a debate we will leave to the taxonomists.
Beauveria bassiana on a wasp - MB
A final fungus that Mark photographed is "Beauveria bassiana," a species found around the world growing in the soil and parasitizing insects.  It is being used as a biological insecticide.  Studies showed it was highly effective in controlling bed bugs.  If you get the itch to try it you can find it at your nearest Amazon link.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Dermestids in a Skull

Dermestid beetle larvae
So, reaching for a new height in the ridiculous pursuit of weird tiny insect life, I present you with dermestid beetle larvae found in a deer skull.  We have taken this skull to WOLF the last 3 years while it spent the rest of the time in a bag upstairs at the creek house.  When Barb took it out at WOLF some powder fell out of the base of the skull and a student noticed that something tiny was moving.  Magnification with a digital microscope showed cute fuzzy larvae.

Chris Barnhart identified the photograph as Dermestid beetle larvae.  There are over 500 species of beetles in the Dermestidae family with a variety of lifestyles.  Most of the larvae are scavengers, living on dry plant and animal matter, sometimes with very specific tastes.  Dermestid larvae are profoundly covered with varying lengths of hairs (setae) that gave them a distinctive appearance. The larvae are generally dark brown to black and go through complete metamorphosis.  Adults are less commonly found and feed on flowers and shrubs.

Ventral view of exuvia within their dried frass
Some dermestids are famous for their forensic connections, living on dead animals and giving clues of the time of death.  They are available on line to use in cleaning skulls and bones of animals in laboratories for the study of anatomy.  Our larvae had been surviving in a deer skull for several years.  Fortunately they like to eat dry dead stuff.

Home on the frass
Above you can see the results of life in a deer skull, lots of larvae moving around in their world of frass and molted skins (exuvia).  This prompted me to make  this video for a closer look.  For more information on the value and risks of using Dermestids to clean bones, watch this educational PBS video showing the beetles at work.
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More species are discussed at Bugwood.org/

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Yellowjacket Nest

Syrphid fly, Milesia virginiensis on my arm

I was chasing a tiny skink through the leaf litter six feet from our front door when I saw several yellow flying insects.  We have Syrphid or flower flies on our deck regularly, scaring visitors as they look like yellowjacket wasps but I wasn't fooled..... yet.  I got out my pocket camera to get some closeup videos, a big mistake.  Just then I saw five swarming around in the grass and then more hovering around a finger sized hole.  I thought "Do Syrphid flies nest communally?"  just 2 seconds before the first of several stings - "Yellowjackets!"


I ran backward swatting them off and the attack stopped as the swelling started under three stings.  We love nature but occasionally nature gets too close and our house qualifies as unnatural.  After applying ice to the stings with unimpressive results, I got a can of "kills on contact" wasp spray and soaked the hole from a distance several times.  I returned 20 minutes later with my telephoto camera. (Note to self - video wasp nest = telephoto).
 

In spite of the insecticide, the hole was busy with wasps coming and going for the next 8 hours.  Many of the outward bound were carrying something in their mouths.  They were moving too fast to see what they were carrying.  It looked like they were panicked and evacuating the hole.  So much for the "kills on contact" on the spray can.  Apparently Ozark yellowjackets can't read.


YJ with a mouth full of rock - REK
After converting the video to 8x slower playback* it became obvious that they were not planning on leaving.  They were actually carrying out small pebbles, enlarging their quarters, carrying on like nothing had happened.  I had a lot to learn about yellowjackets.  This intriguing Youtube video by Bret Davis, aka Hornet King** was a great introduction to the subterranean world of yellowjackets.

Outer bottom layer with side holes - B. Davis
YJ usually build their paper nests underground, starting in a small hole created by a mouse or something similar.  As they create the cells for the offspring of their queen, they work around the outside edges of the paper nest, excavating rocks and soil to enlarge the nest.  As the colony grows they create several side holes (starting at 20:30), slowly digging a larger hole which will be filled with new layers of the nest.

Seven layer yellowjacket nest -  Hornet King, B. Davis
So how big do they get?  This one was removed from a 14" X 9" hole fully excavated by the wasps themselves!  I don't know about records but Bret's weighed an estimated 10 pounds.  (Taking a nest with scattered yellowjackets on it to the bathroom scale in the name of science probably isn't a good idea.)  His nest was seven layers deep.

Weaving a cap -Click to enlarge  (HK)
His video is 27 minutes long but well worth the time.  Unlike many videos focusing on the excitement and danger of stings, Hornet King vividly shows the process of nest building.  Here for instance he shows the larvae beginning to weave a silk cap to to paper homes where they will pupate.

As I nursed the swelling over the next 5 days, I identified my new neighbors as eastern yellowjackets, Vespula maculifrons.  Baldfaced hornets (Dolichovespula Maculata) are yellowjackets with a pale makeup.  Both are colonial nesters but hornets nest above ground while YJ are usually below ground or in enclosed spaces like the soffit of a house.  We have that problem with our red Polistes wasps, but at least they aren't quite as irritable.

Additional thoughts from Hornet King:
There are many subspecies of wasps in the Dolichovespula grouping. Another of the Aerial nest builders is the Dolichovespula Arenaria, which look very similar to the subterranean YJ (Southern Yellow Jacket - Vespula Squamosa) species. This subject is always a area of confusion for my many of my viewers as they think "Yellow Jacket" is a term only given to yellow and black wasps. However, there is more to the classification than just its yellow body (Bald faced hornet being a prime example)

 Promachus hinei with YJ

I did have some slight consolation as I sat on the porch swing balancing ice on my stings.  A loud and coarse buzz announced the arrival of a robber fly, Promachus hinei, on the swing chain.  It was holding a yellowjacket in its jaws and seemed to be showing off its catch.  I photographed it and watched it fly away.  It pierces the body of its victim and sucks out the insides, appropriate justice in this case.

Slow motion video of yellowjackets rock excavation
**  The Hornet King Youtube channel has many more detailed explanations of the nests of other colonial nest builder wasp species.
Yellowjackets on Bugguide.
Yellowjackets and Hornets on University of Florida.edu

Monday, November 4, 2019

Frost Flowers Revisited

Early frost Flowers - Mark Bower
We are at the beginning of frost flower season although few botanists will ever see them.  The "blooms" extrude around the lower stems of Verbesina virginica on nights where the temperature drops well below freezing and they fade after a few minutes of direct sun or as the temperature reaches the mid thirties. 

The delicate sheets of ice split the stem's epidermis lengthwise, thin enough that you can see your finger print through them.  Early in the season they may extend 12 to 24 inches up from the base but as the winter rolls on they become shorter and eventually somewhat thicker.  A hard freeze for several days which freezes the roots will end the season prematurely.  Our personal record was 40 nightime blooms over a winter.

The mechanism of FF is the ability of water to "supercool," that is to drop below 32 degrees without crystallizing.  This is what allows clouds to hold liquid water in the colder atmosphere.  When supercooled water is shaken or encounters a foreign particle it freezes rapidly, accounting for the icing on aircraft wings when they fly through cumulus clouds.  This also accounts for the large accumulation of ice on trees and powerlines in ice storms that are so memorable to those of us in the Ozarks.

This is what happens when the supercooled water extrudes from a V. virginica  and contacts the outer stem's epidermis.  You can see the dramatic ice crystalization of supercooled water in this demonstration on Youtube.


Mark Bower
FF asks a question - Mark Bower
As frost flower season progresses the "blossoms" are lower to the ground and take on many extraordinary shapes.  Stems may be damaged or horizontal but the ice marches on.  Cups, curls and spirals are created, demonstrating nature's varied designs and sometimes a sense of humor.


















White crownbeard - MDC
This is the time of year to be watching for frost flowers along the weedy edges of fields and roadsides.  These most commonly occur along the stems of Verbesina virginica, a plant with small white flowers on 3-5 foot stems that are winged along the edges.  It has a confusing list of common names including frostweed, white crownbeard, iceplant, iceweed, and wing stem.
Frost flowers on dittany
FF also can be found around the base of Cunila origanoides, whose common names include dittany, wild oregano, stone mint, and frost mint, and Pluchea camphorate. also known as stinkweed.  These are smaller plants that are common in Missouri but less likely to cover a field edges.*


You can see some of the exquisite shapes that Mark Bower photographed before this last Friday's WOLF School field trip in this Flickr album.
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* Reports of FF on yellow crownbeard (Verbesina alternafolia) are probably due to confusion with Verbesina virginica as they frequently grow together and are hard to separate in winter time when the flowers are off.  We have been monitoring tagged yellow crownbeard for years and have never seen FF on them.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Leopard Slug


This story is from Alee Huerta who has returned to the MN fold after an absence while pursuing her education.

This past weekend we had a Leopard Slug crawl across our porch. My 1st thought was to grab the salt... and I did.  But as my 7 year old buddy and I plopped down with the salt, my inner Naturalist was like.... "hold up."  I'm glad I took the time for education because I found out that these slugs don't actually destroy living plants, a common misconception.  Leopard Slugs (Limax maximus) eat fungi, rotting plants and even other slugs. They need to keep their bodies damp in order to breathe, so are usually found in dark, damp places, particularly among rotting logs.

Mating Slugs - Wikipedia
All slugs are hermaphrodites, meaning that each slug has both male and female sexual organs. They still need to mate with another individual though and LS have quite a spectacular way of doing this. The two slugs climb a tree or other structure, then hang from a branch on a thick strand of mucus, intertwined with one another.   Their sex organs protrude from their heads and intertwine to exchange sperm.  These are bluish colored shown in the photograph.  Editor's note:  This is a family blog but we will recommend this graphic BBC video as it is narrated by the very proper Richard Attenborough.



After mating, each slug lays clutches of transparent, round eggs in damp places.  As slug babies, they are a primary food source for lightning bugs! I love lightning bugs, so the way I see it, to love any one certain thing you need to respect everything that one certain thing needs.  They reach sexual maturity in 2 years and can live for 3 years.


Limax maximus, literally biggest slug, originally were native to Europe and Mediterranean countries of Africa and were first found in Philadelphia in 1867.  In spite of their top speed of 6" per minute they really get around and are now found around the globe! They are almost always found near human habitation — usually in lawns, gardens, cellars, outbuildings or in other damp areas.

LS is generally a nocturnal slug that feeds mostly on rotting plant matter and fungi as well as other slugs. In Texas and Oregon it can sometimes be a pest of gardens, greenhouses, cellars, and mushroom beds.  On the other hand, by eating dead and rotting plants, as well as fungi, Leopard Slugs recycle nutrients and fertilize the soil.
 
Our LS like many other slug species have a small disc of shell inside their body. Slugs evolved from snails and this disc is a remnant of what used to be the snail’s shell.  They can come in a wide range of shades although these leopards never change their spots.

Finally, research by Christie Sahley and colleagues have demonstrated associative learning in LS by aversion therapy.  Carrot and potato juice normally attracts them.  After they have been exposed to them flavored with an additional bitter dose of quinine sulfate, these attractants subsequently lose their gustatory charm.  Yes, it appears you can teach old slugs new tricks.
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Dr. Chris Barnhart and MDC have just published Land Snails and Slugs of Missouri, available in many different formats at this Archive link.  You can download it as a PDF or Kindle document.