Thursday, June 30, 2011

Disappearing River

Colorado River- Nat. Geographic
By now I am sure that we all are familiar with the effects of draw down on the Colorado river.  Much like the economy of Greece, the neighboring states are learning that you can't pull out 110% of the water in a river.

A new map on the National Geographic web page diagrams where the water goes in a dramatic fashion.  The map is worth a look.  Click on the Zoomable Map button in the right upper corner of the National Geographic page with the map.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Southern Caterpillar Visitor

Buck Moth Caterpillar
I received this interesting story from Dr. Tom Riley PhD. who is a retired Professor of Entomology from Louisiana State University.  This is posted in his very words.

"Last week I found this 2 1/2 inch-long caterpillar crawling across a path in Cedar Creek, Missouri.  At first I wasn’t sure what it was, however it looked familiar to me.  I knew it was the larva of a Saturniid or silk moth.  It looked similar to an Io Moth caterpillar in shape, size, and spine configuration but the color was totally different.  Then I realized I had seen many of these before in Louisiana and that it had to be the larva of the Buck Moth, Hemileuca maia.

When I lived in Baton Rouge Louisiana these were very common every spring.  I knew they occurred in the Missouri Ozarks, but have never seen any since moving here 8 years ago.

Male Buckmoth- wikimedia
This caterpillar/moth is an unusual find in Missouri, and it also has an unusual life cycle.  The black and white moths emerge in October and November and can be seen flying about on sunny days, even when there is frost on the ground and the temperature is around freezing!

The moths do not feed.  Their role is to mate and lay eggs.   They do this on oak trees, producing a mass of eggs that encircles a small twig.  The eggs are the over-wintering stage for the buck moth.   Once spring arrives, the warmer temperatures and increasing day length stimulate the eggs to hatch in synchrony with the growth of spring foliage on the oaks.  The larvae feed communally until they reach the third instar after which they disperse to feed as solitary caterpillars.   When full grown, the caterpillars crawl down from the tree and pupate in the soil and leaf litter.  This is how I found the caterpillar in my photos.  When I put it in a container with some soil, it immediately burrowed in and pupated.

I will have to wait and see if it survives until fall.  In Louisiana many of the caterpillars I tried to rear were parasitized by Tachinid Flies.

If you find one of these wandering, dark colored, spiny caterpillars, handle it with care as the small yellow-orange spines running down their back can give you a painful sting.  In Louisiana the caterpillars were common every spring and very well known as “Stinging caterpillars”.

I was told that the name Buck Moth came about from the moths being on the wing during deer = buck season. 

In the south the caterpillars eat the foliage of Live Oaks.  Here, according to the Heitzmans, in Butterflies and Moths of Missouri, they are associated with Scrub Oaks in the Ozarks region of Missouri." 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Anatomy of a Snake Bite

How to get bitten by a Copperhead

Copperhead- click to enlarge
We had a Copperhead bite incident on Bull Creek this weekend.  After watching a Northern Water Snake swimming round in our swimming hole many times over the years including several hours the day before, one of our guests felt comfortable with identifying it.

Just as they were leaving from a weekend visit today, a snake swam across the water and crawled out on the solid rock shelf near where they were standing.  Our guest decided to catch this "Water Snake" and grabbed it by the tail first.  The snake tried desperately to escape the grip including crawling between the man's legs and over his sneakers.

Fang puncture sites
Eventually he grabbed the snake two inches behind its head.  In a split second, the snake flipped its head around and bit him twice, one on the index finger's second knuckle and one on the web of the thumb.  He dropped the snake and immediately commented that it hurt a lot more than a "normal snake bite" (comparing it to past bites by a rat snake and garter snakes.)

Within a minute he was having severe throbbing pain in the hand which was swelling rapidly.  He wasn't able to ID the snake from pictures in Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri.*   His buddy then got the camera and showed me the picture above, an easy diagnosis.

In the Emergency Room, it took two shots of morphine to begin to touch the pain.  Within a few hours his arm was tightly swollen up to the shoulder.  After the administration of anti-venom, he was watched in the ICU overnight as anaphylactic type reactions to it are common and can be quite severe.  He is still requiring morphine 48 hours later.  You can see the snake bite in this Youtube video.

Venomous snakes do not want to waste their precious venom on large bipeds.  They probably want to reserve it for small mammals that will fit in their mouths after paralyzing them with their venom.  Like most animals, they bite larger mammals only in defense.

Studies have shown risk factors for snake bite include male gender, intentional snake handling and alcohol.  Virtually all snake bites occur from contacting a snake, either deliberately or by stepping on or near it.

New 2016 Study
This study in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine found that 68% of the 332 bites reported were found to be legitimate, meaning the victim was unaware of the snake's presence.

Missouri Conservationist, May 1999 issue had detailed information on copperheads. has general snake information. has information on first aid. 
Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri - Tom Johnson

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tale of a Tail

Juvenile Five-lined Skink
If you ever have tried to catch a five-lined skink, you probably have found that all you get is the tail.  Many of our native lizards have tails that break off easily and most will regenerate a tail, although seldom as long as the original.  

There must be  biological advantage to having a tail to justify the energy expended in regeneration.  It turns out that individuals with tails can run faster than those without tails. The lizards tail also stores fat at the base, a backup supply of energy.  Some lizards fight for dominance of their territory and may lose stature in their territory if they lose their tail.

The loss of the tail has no immediate impact on our common lizard's survival.  According to
Dr. Craig Guyer at, losing their tail is a defensive adaptation. 
"There are two ways that lizards lose their tails. In all lizards around Auburn, the tail bones have central regions that break easily when the tail is pulled. The muscles of the tail pull apart easily and the blood vessels constrict to stop the wounded tail from bleeding. So, if a predator attacks a local lizard, the tail is designed to separate from the body, allowing the lizard to escape while the predator eats the tail. 
In species like Broad-headed Skinks, the tail is brightly colored (blue in this case) and is frequently twitched by the lizard so that predators see and attack the tail but not the body. Lizards that lose their tails in this way can grow them back but the replacement tail is never as long as nor as colorful as the original one. Replacement tails grow back in as little as three months or as long as two years."
Large lizards lack this defensive adaptation and do not regenerate their tails if they are bitten off. To date, no one know how the regeneration occurs. Imagine the ramifications to treating human injuries if we understood this. One more reason why all "all God's creatures got a place in the choir."

An extended discussion of autotomy (self-amputation) is at

Monday, June 20, 2011


Watching its sibling break out
Big news on Bull Creek- twins!  Well not exactly but the two vulture eggs in May's blog have hatched 34 days after we found them with Chris and Deb Barnhart.  When we checked the eggs Sunday, one had hatched and was watching the other egg carefully as its "twin's" beak was just showing up in the crack.

Mom and chick
This morning they were hanging out together, looking like a couple of cotton balls with tiny black beaks.  This afternoon, they were nestled in beside mom.  (Click pictures to enlarge)

When we first found them, any approach to the barn stall alarmed the parent who would fly out to the corral railing, then take off.  Last week they would just sit on the railing and watch us.  Now mom didn't blink an eye as I took pictures through the slats of the stall, even when I used the flash.  Maybe we will be their godparents!

Play time
One of the chicks resembles Charley of Audubon fame, only with more hair (feathers).  We decided to name them Na and Megan in honor of our graduate student friends who were with us the day we found the eggs.

Proud Parents

A set of pictures is on this Picasa site.
More on black vultures from a previous blog.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Broad-headed Skink

Click to enlarge
Catching butterflies for the Butterfly House, I saw a bright orange spot in a pile of flood debris.  I expected a Great Spangled Fritillary but instead found a Broad-headed Skink, (Eumeces laticeps).

Like skinks in general, Broad-heads tend to sun themselves on logs, downed timber and dilapidated buildings.  They are the most arboreal (tree climbing) of lizards and may even sleep in trees at times.  They eat insects and spiders and in turn get eaten by snakes, hawks, skunks, larger lizards and even armadillo.

Juvenile Five-lined Skink
The Broad-head name comes from their large jaws which give their head a triangular shape.  Males are usually an olive brown color with smooth scales and minimal or no lines.  Females have five lines down their body and can be confused with five-lined skinks.  This is particularly true with juveniles as both species are striped and have bright blue tails.  These tails are thought to ward off attacks from aggressive males of the species and to entice predators to strike the disposable tail (more on this next week).

Why the orange head?  In breeding season, the males develop their bright orange color, presumably as a way of attracting females.  They fight other males aggressively for the attention of the largest females which tend to lay the most eggs.  Like all other species except a biped, it is all about creating the most progeny.

A series of pictures are at

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How Mosquitoes Smell You

Mosquitoes had been thriving on Bull Creek as frequent rains left lots of little breeding spots.  While they use their piercing mouths to obtain nectar and plant juices, the adult female needs just a little of blood before she can produce eggs.  Some species like my blood.

How do they find me up on the deck?  They use specialized maxillary palps near their mouths to sense carbon dioxide, then hone in on the source.  Since holding my breath outside isn't an option, we are left with chemical repellents.  Citronella candles are effective if you are close to their smoke.  A variety of folk remedies and natural compounds may help but aren't as effective as DEET.  Treating clothes with permethrin is effective and withstands multiple washings and some clothes come pretreated.

New research in the Journal Nature describes three types of new chemicals that can confuse those same sensory palps that are looking for carbon dioxide.  They were discovered while studying fruit flies which also seek out carbon dioxide, in this case produced by ripe fruit.  Some of these fruits have developed chemicals which block those receptors.  Studying these molecules with mosquitoes, Anandasankar Ray, of the University of California, Riverside, says  they seem to work three different ways.  Quoting from a story on,
  1. The first group works by binding to the mosquitoes' carbon dioxide receptors in the maxillary palps, stopping the mosquitoes from sending the signal indicating there's a mammal close by when they sense carbon dioxide.
  2. The second group of molecules acts to mimic carbon dioxide's effect on the mosquito they turn on the carbon dioxide sensing neurons and essentially overwhelm them.
  3. Another group of odor molecules essentially blinds the mosquito to any nearby blood-filled humans by disabling their carbon dioxide-detection machinery. Even a brief exposure to these molecules was enough to confuse the mosquitoes' carbon-dioxide detectors for minutes and severely reduced their sensitivity for minutes afterward.
They found the maximum effect was achieved by mixing the different chemicals.  With this mixture the mosquitoes couldn't find the carbon dioxide trail either in the lab or in the field.   Human studies are underway.  Someday we may not have to apply the oily DEET mixtures.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Our Hero

Jay Barber and friend
Much as I love to pick on our beloved leader, Jay Barber, "I have come to praise him, not to bury him" with the usual wisecracks.  MDC has given him the well deserved Outreach and Education Division Award of Excellence. 

While the award acknowledges his inspiration and dedication in growing our outstanding Springfield Plateau Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists, it also recognizes his many other achievements, accomplished when he isn't busy dragging us along to success.
  • Incorporated Discover Nature Schools in Springfield, involving 68 teachers in 34 schools leading to teaching Nature Unleashed to nearly 1,200 fourth grade students.
  • Worked with MSU to develop an emphasis educational program, instructing pre-service teachers in Discover Nature Schools with MDC staff becoming adjunct professors.
  • Helped develop the Hickory Hills School native plantings to accompany their LEED Certified building.
  • Led teacher training programs during the regional Environ-thons.
We appreciate Jay's efforts in developing the trunk education programs which we now take  to area classrooms as well as the inspiration he gives us all.  Given his contributions, it is only fitting that he was awarded the front half of the animal.  In recognition of his work and this award, I propose that we call a moratorium on wise cracks and jokes at his expense until the start of the June 20th meeting.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pink Katydid

Walking on Golden Prairie* with the "Fishin Magicians," Amy spotted this little guy, a first for us.  This isn't a product of Photoshop or spray paint.   This is actually an unusual color variant of a round-headed katydid.

This katydid, or bush-cricket, is also called the Oblong-Winged katydid (Amblycorypha oblongifolia).  The pink form of this typically lime green katydid was first described in 1887, and is said to occur in one out of every 500 individuals.  Even more rarely they may be tan or brown.  It is apparently a genetic variant as the New Orleans Audubon Insectarium bred a pink male and pink female, producing pink babies.  Because of their rarity, this isn't as likely to occur in the wild.

There are no other known abnormalities in pink katydids.  This condition, called erythrism, is similar to the recessive gene present in albino animals.  They are probably less likely to survive to adulthood, given their loss of camouflage.

Other Pink Insects

*We were at the Missouri Prairie Foundation's Bioblitz, a two day biological extravaganza with expert guides and teachers for each category.  Six chapters of Missouri Master Naturalists were represented.  Don't miss next year's event.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Polyphemus Moths

Polyphemus- Click to enlar
New life emerges daily at the Bill Roston Butterfly House.  My last three trips have included a Polyphemus Moth emerging from its cocoon, twice in front of a class of fifth graders, welcomed by a chorus of squeals of "COOL".  You can share their excitement as recorded by Kelly McGowan here.*
The Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) is one of the species of giant silk moths called Saturniidae.  When they emerge and start climbing up the stem of a plant they look like a furry bug.  Their small wing buds slowly inflate like an air mattress as they pump blood into the wing vessels.  Within minutes their wingspan is six inches.

Now you can see the prominent eye spots on the hind wings.  It is a tan colored moth, with an average wingspan of 15 cm (6 inches).  It takes its name from another giant, Polyphemus who in Greek legend had a single eye in his forehead.

Polyphemus Caterpillar Wikimedia
With no digestive system, the adult lives only to find a mate and lay eggs.  With only a week to live, they may fly for miles in their search for love, the males larger feathery antennae constantly sampling the air for a whiff of a female.

The female will lay her eggs on a wide variety of tree leaves.  This is fortunate as the caterpillars can eat up to 86,000 times its body weight as it goes through four molts (instars) before reaching up to four inches in length.  Not only does the caterpillar have to eat to grow, it has to eat to sustain the adult moth for up to a week before it dies.  On the other hand, the adult doesn't have to waste time eating.

*  To share in the excitement, visit our FOG partners Bill Roston Butterfly House

Friday, June 3, 2011

Toads in Love

Toad Amplexus- Click to enlarge
"In the spring, a young toad's fancy turns to thoughts of....." well you know.  -with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Barb slammed on the brakes as we drove down our country lane.  There was a slight movement of a pile of mud in a gravel filled puddle.  The "mud" turned out to be a pair of amorous Eastern American Toads locked in an embrace called amplexus. 

The American Toad (Bufo americanus) is a common sight on evening walks as it begins its nightly hunt for food.  Their diet includes insects, worms, slugs and other small invertebrates.  They are gentle and easily picked up if you can overlook their tendency to "develop a leak" in your hand.

Their "warty" appearance has given rise to the old wives tale that handling them can give you warts.  Their "warts" are raised skin bumps which can secrete bufotoxin, a substance that is a mild toxin with a foul taste.  Your dog isn't likely to eat two in its lifetime unless he is a beagle with a learning disorder.

According to Wikipedia, amplexus is a form of pseudocopulation.
"Pseudocopulation describes behaviors similar to copulation that serve a reproductive function for one or both participants but do not involve actual sexual union between the individuals.  Pseudocopulation is also used to describe close physical contact between mating animals which have their eggs externally fertilized.  Frogs and toads provide one such case, with the male releasing sperm as the female discharges her eggs, a process called amplexus."
Sadly, these toads picked the wrong spot to procreate.  Their eggs develop into tadpoles which take 30-40 days to develop into adults and become land based.  This puddle will dry up in a day or so and the wheels of vehicles pass through it many times a day.  They hopped off into a thicket, still locked in the throes of toady passion, before I could tell them this or move them into a more suitable place.   Love doesn't always conquer all.

A good resource on toads in your garden is at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mystery Caterpillars

Queen Butterfly Larva
It is not uncommon to get a picture of a caterpillar with questions about whether it is harmful and what it will become "when it grows up".  Every once in a while it leads to an exciting find.   Lisa Bakerink discovered this Queen butterfly larva in a field a half mile from her home butterfly garden.  The field has milkweed which attracted this jewel.  The first instar looked similar to a Monarch larva but its second instar revealed it wasn't going to be common.

The Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) is a rare visitor to the Ozarks.  According to one source it has only been reported in Missouri three times before.  It normally lives in the extreme southern United States although it may stray and sometime breed in the plains of southern Kansas.

Queen Butterfly- Wikipedia
It has coloration similar to a Monarch with the addition of white dots the upper and lower side of its wings.  It's host plant is the toxic milkweed just like its family member the Monarch (Danaus plexippus).

The Queen butterfly larva has pupated now and will be released in the Butterfly House eventually.  Chris Barnhart reported it to BAMONA.  Their website tracks butterflies and moths of North America: (  There are range maps for each species as well.

Queen chrysalis
The message here is that careful observation and curiosity can be rewarded with a rare find.  Keep looking!

The caterpillar formed this chrysalis a few days later.

* A photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region, Betsy Betros.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Io Moth

Io Moth
Io Moths (Automeris io) have returned to the Bill Roston Butterfly House at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park.  They were "delivered" by Dr. Chris Barnhart in the form of cocoons, lovingly raised by he and his wife Deb.

Adult moths rapidly emerge from their cocoons over a few minutes.  The moths then climb and hang on plants (or in this case, their protective tent) and inflate their wings by pumping hemolymph (i.e. their version of blood) into their vessels, holding them out until they dry over twenty minutes.

Io Moth freshly laid eggs- Chris Barnhart
These night-flying moths are members of the Saturniidae family, a group with no functioning intestinal tract.  The last meal of their life was a leaf as the final instar of their caterpillar existence.  After dark the female extends her scent gland, letting her perfume, a pheromone, waft away on the darkened breezes.  The male's nightly excursions are all about picking up chicks located by sensing their scent with his large feathery antennae.

Gregarious Io Cats- Click to enlarge
The eggs are beautiful little clusters of eyeballs, carefully glued to the underside of a wide variety of tree leaves.  After emerging and eating the egg shell, the larvae stay clustered throughout their five instars, frequently traveling in a long procession across the tree leaves. They come equipped with bright colors, their early orange turning to bright green.  The last instars have a haircut with an attitude- clusters of stinging spines with a venom that will burn the skin after even a light touch.

DON'T TOUCH ME! Florida University
Eventually they will pupate in a cocoon deposited on the forest floor.  You can see some of these steps at selected times at the Butterfly House.  Being very private, the Io's do not schedule their emergence so you will have to come often to see the event.  Just don't pet the hairy caterpillar.

More of Dr. Chris Barnhart's pictures are on this Picasa page.