Friday, September 30, 2011

I hate to be caught stealing but sometimes someone else says it better.  Bob Korpella (MN Class 2011) writes which always has interesting stories in its Nature section.  He has done it again with the two stories below.

The blog Nanoparticles in Trout Brains discusses some disturbing findings on the anatomic changes in trout fed nano particles like titanium oxide which is found in whitening agent found in paints, toothpaste, detergents.  Researchers found vacuoles (small holes) in the rainbow trout’s brains after these particles.  While the effects are unknown, I can't imagine anything good coming from it, unless it helps them distinguish between real and artificial flies.

A second story discusses why Gypsy Moth caterpillars climb high up on a tree to die from a viral infection.  Ordinarily they climb down the trees a night as protection from predators.  What causes this strange behavior?  Sorry, you will have to read his article.

The latest news on his nature page is always displayed in the lower corner of our blog page.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Monarch Update

Mass of Monarchs- Wikimed
It is shaping up to be a bad year for monarchs.  The Monarch Watch Blog is projecting very low numbers of migrating monarchs this year and an extremely low overwintering population in Mexico.

Their population is being hit by a double whammy.  First, the use of engineered crops of herbicide tolerant (HT) corn and soybeans is spreading each year.  These allow farmers to plant the corn closer together and spray glyphosate (Roundup, etc) over the crops to eliminate competing weeds.  Unfortunately, the milkweed necessary for monarchs to reproduce falls in that category.  You can imagine the corn fields as far as the eye can see with nary a milkweed in sight.

Second, the decreased monarchs that will be migrating will face some of the worst conditions in years.  Due to the drought in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico, they will be navigating over 1000 miles of parched fields with no remaining nectaring plants.  Even our local fields have lost most of their blooms.

Monarch Watch collects its data by volunteers who tag monarchs across the US.  Lisa Bakerlink will be demonstrating monarch tagging at the Butterfly House at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Gardens this Saturday at 2:00 PM.  She tells me she has lots of butterflies to tag.  The public is encouraged to visit and participate in a little bit of natural science.  Click on this site for more details.

More on the plight of Monarchs is available at the Monarch Watch Blog.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mast Survey

Red Oak Acorns
September is the time for completing a mast survey.  This does not refer to counting sailboats on Lake Stockton.  A mast survey means tromping through the woods assessing this year's production of walnuts, acorns and hickory nuts.

Armed with a clipboard and binoculars, the plan is to closely observe mature black walnuts, hickories, and red and white oaks, then grade their mast (nut) burden in four categories, ranging from heavy to few/none.  The binoculars are needed for the tall trees whose branches reach high above the understory.

Why should you care about mast?  Mast is necessary for the winter survival of deer, turkey, and squirrels.  The amount available helps predict population health and reproduction the following year.  This helps wildlife managers plan the next hunting season.  Hunters are interested as a predictor of how much game will be on the move.

Surveys are done by the Missouri Forestkeepers Network which mails out the recording sheets to members each fall.  There is also an annual tree assessment done by members in October.  Both of these reports can be done on your land or a nearby park or forest of your choosing.

Membership in the Missouri Forestkeepers Network is free to any interested individual, family or organization. You may report on your land or adopt any site you want.  It could have one tree on it or many trees.  Click here to download the enrollment.  Mast and tree assessments provide a great excuse to stroll through the forest with a purpose and the gifts don't hurt a bit.  You can even get some binoculars for the next hike.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cost of Clean Water

Bull Creek
David Casaletto has written an interesting piece in the Ozarks Water Watch newsletter.  Water Quality: How Clean and at What Cost? considers the cost of both cleaning water to higher standards and applying those standards to even more waters.  This especially applies to the recently passed House Bill 89.

Now I know that mentioning a bill passed by the legislature just caused your eyes to glaze over.  Me too.  That is why his commonsense discussion is so important to read.  The pursuit of environmental issues such as clean water and clean air will be all the more difficult in the coming decade.  Consider these factors:
  • There are more of us on the planet and we are expanding into new areas daily, areas that don't necessarily have available water, soil for septic systems and protection from water runoff pollutants such as fertilizer and chemicals.
  • Clean water and air standards increase as we find more pollutants such as increasing ozone, prescription drugs in the water, etc.
  • Tackling these issues will mean more regulation and /or more involvement by private citizens and industries.
  • All of this requires more money, this in an economy that is stretched beyond its limits.  We face some difficult choices and trade-offs.
 Now, wipe your eyes and read the very digestible Water Quality: How Clean and at What Cost?.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wood Beetle

While looking for fungi at the Missouri Mycological Society (MOMS) foray at Mingo, I turned over a log which disintegrated in my hands, exposing 20 plus large orange beetles.  After a quick perusal of Bugguide, I emailed Chris Barnhart to save time.  He pointed me to the Passalidae family.They looked familiar, resembling the Bess Beetles I wrote about last November
Mites under front legs
Those specimens were Horned Passalus - Odontotaenius disjunctus, also known as Bess Beetles and Patent Leather Beetles for their pitch black shiny body. These however were bright orange although they were packed together like the previous bess beetles.  The shape, size and parallel grooves down the wing covers were identical.  When I turned them over, there were the familiar mites almost invariably associated with their family of Passalids.  Information on the fascinating mite farming of many beetles can be found at the Macromite site.
Horn of horned passalus
A closeup side view showed the distinctive feature that gives them their other name, the horned passalus.  While holding it for pictures even I could hear its little soft squeaks as it struggled for freedom.

The puzzle of it color remained.  It took eight sites on Google to find the answer.  The Featured Creatures site of Florida University says:

Mature dark horned passalus

"These young adults lack the characteristic black shell of the species, and instead have a red coloration when they emerge from the pupal stage. This red color slowly darkens to black, at which point the insect is considered a mature adult (Schuster and Schuster 1985)."
Knowing this I dug around the bag of ground up wood and beetles I brought back and sure enough, there was an older sibling I hadn't seen before which was very close to black.  This proves once again that color can be deceptive when trying to identify species.

Both the last November blog and Featured Creatures have more detailed information on the interesting life cycle of these decomposers of wood.  They only eat dead wood and thanks to them, bacteria and fungi, they enrich the soil.  Without the decomposers, we would have dead logs hundreds of feet deep in our woods.  Bless their little orange and black bodies.

No Beetles were killed in producing this blog.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Swamp Rabbit

At the Missouri Mycological Society (MOMS) foray at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge this weekend, Barb learned about swamp rabbits from our new friends, Jack and Marty Toll.  Jack did his Master's thesis on these interesting bunnies and later managed the Mingo Refuge for a number of years.

Click to enlarge
The very next day she pointed out a swamp rabbit in the woods.  I was able to get a single telephoto picture of the south end of this north-bound rabbit before it disappeared into a thick mass of stinging nettle.  You may have to look carefully at the enlarged picture to find it.

A swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is described at MDC Online as a type of cottontail that is much larger than our more familiar variety.  It inhabits the wetlands of the south and Mingo in the Bootheel is perfect territory.  It eats reeds, sedges and other plants, switching to twigs and bark of shrubs in the winter.

Swamp Rabbit- MDC
Without the thickets which hide our native cottontails it would seem to be a sitting duck (pardon the expression) in the swamp.  Fear not- it has a trick up its fuzzy tail.  Swamp rabbits can not only run up to 45 mph, they can also swim and dive under the water, coming under roots and vegetation.  They sometimes will hide in shallow water with only their noses exposed.

A swamp rabbit in Georgia gained fame in 1979 while escaping from a pack of hounds.  It jumped into a pond and swam toward President Jimmie Carter who was paddling in a boat away from the protection of Secret Service.  The encounter could have caused an environmental incident had not the President fended off the vicious animal with a paddle.  The whole frightening incident is described in this Wikipedia story.

Presidential Attack!   Note rabbit wake to the right.
Lest you think that President Carter was overly cautious, recall that five years earlier he could have seen Monty Python's Holy Grail.  You can see that horrifying scene on Youtube.  Fortunately, Barb's fierce-some reputation with rabbits in our garden has spread to the southeastern lagomorphs and this poor creature ran away.  Lucky for it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Soldiers Are Mating

Mating Leatherwings- Click to enlarge
In the fall, a young beetle's fancy turn to thoughts of....... making more beetles.

We are seeing swarms of Soldier Beetles that we described in a past blog. Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) would normally feed on the nectar of Goldenrod and Thoroughwart (Eupatorium) that bloom from August through October. These members of the daisy family have been struggling with the heat and drought.

The leatherwings are now swarming on the nearest relative, the White Crownbeard (Verbesina virginica) that grows wild along our driveway and the undisturbed field edges. Since we had a second hay cutting last week, they are crowded on this only available food source, with 8-10 beetles on a flower cluster. Walking through these edges put us at risk of insect inhalation.

White Crownbeard proliferates on the untended edges. Its winged stalks grow up to 7 feet tall, dwarfing the modest flower heads which resemble Queen Anne's Lace. However, it produces our favorite flower in the first hard frosts of winter. Thin ribbons of ice are extruded from the dried Frostweed stems, producing a wide variety of "frost flower" shapes in a season otherwise devoid of blossoms.
Frost floweer

Speaking of proliferation, you will notice that most of the beetles are actively mating with three pair or more on each flower head. They are excellent pollinators, crawling over the small florets before moving on to the next one. This helps insure another crop of frost flowers and ice ribbons this winter. As long as they are pollinating the future frost flowers, I don't mind having them fly in my face for a few weeks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Trogus Wasps In Black Swallowtail Chrysalides

Life is like a box of chrysalis- you just don't know what you're going to get.
                - Forest Gump If he had studied entomology

Found in the Bill Roston Butterfly House- two Black Swallowtail caterpillars that had formed their pupa (chrysalis in butterflies, cocoons in moths) and something was wrong.  Dr. Chris Barnhart sent these pictures with the following note.
Black Swallowtail chrysalis
"Found a pretty dramatic parasite in the Bill Roston Butterfly House yesterday.  Two black swallowtail chrysalides didn’t look right so I opened them up- here are pictures:
WARNING some viewers may find these disturbing…."
Note long Ovipositors!
One of the predators that cause the most problems for caterpillars are wasps.  Many wasp species, particular of the superfamily Ichneumonidae (ick-new-MON-ni-dee), lay their eggs in larva (grubs, caterpillars, etc of all types), usually a particular species for each type of wasp.  

Immature wasp larva
Ichneumonids have a long ovipositor which looks like a formidable stinger.  Some species can use them to bore through several centimeters of wood straight into a grub.  This scary appearing appendage is of no danger to you unless you happen to be its favorite caterpillar.

Once imbedded in the caterpillar, grub or other larval host, the parasite larva eats the host's non-vital organs such as fat.  It needs its host to stay alive until it is ready to emerge, chewing its way out of the caterpillar which usually dies afterward.

Trogus Wasp adult emerged
This particular wasp is a Trogus species, likely Trogus pennator.  Like all the other Ichneumonids, it has no common name.  It attacks swallowtail caterpillars except for the Pipevine Swallowtail Battus philenor.  Pipevine contains aristolochic acid which the caterpillar and the adult butterfly retains, causing it to be toxic to attacking predators.  

Researcher Karen Sime discovered that Trogus wasps which sampled Pipevine caterpillars with their antennae flew off without depositing eggs.  They had the same response to their normal prey caterpillars when they were painted with aristolochic acid.

If you haven't had your full dose of ICK! see this National Geographic Video
 but remember, we warned you!

The Cost of Extinction

Last year we wrote about The Sixth Extinction?, the name given to the dramatically increased rate of extinction in recent years.  Considering the cost of preserving threatened species, we have to ask "What is the cost in losing a species?" I read about a memorable example in a 1982 Gastroenterology journal.

Gastric-brooding frog- Wikimedia
The first Gastric-brooding frog was found in 1973, the last specimen was found in 1981 and the last laboratory specimen died in 1983.  Except for a lucky timing, the gastric-brooding frog might have escaped detection.

The Southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) was an unimpressive looking amphibian which was found in wet forested areas in a small area of southeastern Queensland, Australia.  They were 2-3 inches long and were rare when first described.  Their ability to raise their young in their stomach brought them to medical attention.

The female would eat the eggs it laid, hold them in her stomach as the tadpoles emerged and developed, carrying them for 6 weeks before regurgitating the young frogs.  Studies showed that the stomach was normal prior to ingesting the eggs and after "delivery."  During the time she carried the developing eggs and tadpoles acid production and gastric motility ceased.  The female frog didn't eat during that six weeks and remained active as the stomach got progressively larger until it comprised most of her body volume.

At the time, the mechanism for the acid inhibition was unknown.  Due to laboratory studies done on specimens in the few years before they became extinct, we know now.  The jelly around each egg contains prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), a substance which was able to turn off gastric secretion and motility.  The tadpoles in turn also produced PGE2 in the mucus secreted from their gills, keeping their gastric womb dormant until they are vomited up as frogs.

Consider how many other species hold secrets of medical value, secrets that may follow them into extinction.

See Wikipedia for more details.

4-11-2013  Interesting that R. silus is now being cloned, with embryos living for several days.  Stay tuned for de-extinction.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Feral Hogs

There has been a lot written about the feral hog problem in the the plains states, especially the southwest where hog hunting is popular.  Texas in particular has a huge problem with an estimated two million feral hogs tearing up the soil and transmitting disease to domestic pigs.  Still, it was a surprise to read about the problem occurring in central New York State.  While the population is relatively small it points out the potential problem in the northeast.  As reported in an Associated Press story:

"Feral swine multiply rapidly, with sows producing several litters a year of four to six piglets, so as with any invasive species, it's crucial to mount aggressive eradication efforts before the population is widely established, Batcheller said. They're also wily and secretive, and become even more so when people try to shoot or trap them."
Hog and raccoons
Pigs are smart, and they learn to avoid areas where their kin have met sudden death.  I recently discussed the feral hog problem in a January blog.  At that time, the Missouri Department of Conservation had trapped and killed a record 25 hogs on my neighbor's property.  Unfortunately, it isn't that easy now.

We have been working with the USDA to trap hogs running wild on  adjoining Mark Twain National Forest land.  For two months we have been putting out bait corn on the edge of a field where pigs had been seen.  Initially we saw 5 hogs on the game camera but after a few days, only a single big boar showed up and he has been a regular visitor.  Boars are known to kill and eat piglets and he may be scaring away the females with young.

Over time our corn has developed quite a following.  Our game camera that initially captured a single raccoon now pictures up to eight at a time.  On a recent night, as I poured corn out, young raccoons came out of the woods to eat at my feet.  They looked offended when I threw sticks at them but waited patiently10 feet away until I left.  A nighttime inspection with a powerful flashlight makes the nearest tree look like Christmas with all the little eyes glowing back.

Turkey are regular daytime visitors, pecking at the individual kernels left by the mammals.  Deer come in from time to time and occasionally we have a United Nations gathering of three species at once.  We even have a daytime picture of an unknown trespasser carrying a rifle.

The last few days there have been multiple sightings of a bear wearing an MDC radio collar.  It isn't surprising that he came by to get his portrait at our game camera.   He even went into the newly placed hog trap to look around.  Fortunately he didn't set it off as we would have had a challenge getting it out of the trap safely.

Collared bear- click to enlarge

To paraphrase Forest Gump, "Hog trappin" is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to find.

Late Breaking News
Russian Boar- Click to enlarge
Last night we finally caught the Russian Boar that had been hanging around for a month.  Unlike the escaped pigs living and reproducing in the wild, this is a wild boar.  Their body is relatively compact and their snout is long and somewhat pointed.  The males have tusks and are capable of inflicting severe damage when they attack.  This element of danger makes them a popular game animal in the Southwest.
They were first introduced by Columbus who brought eight to the new world.  Cortes, de Soto, and La Salle contributed and more were introduced for sport hunting in the early 20th century.  They are celebrated at the University of Arkansas as their razorback.  Our specimen lived up to his reputation, charging at us in his trap until the last.

Shooting Owls to Save Owls

Spotted Owl from Wikimedia
Peter Kareiva * recently wrote, "A famous person once observed that the signature of a civilized mind is the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time."  A thought provoking editorial in the Wall Street Journal will test this premise for those of us who are environmentally concerned.

Environmentalist Wisdom: Shoot One Owl to Save The Other takes a look at the spotted owl debate from the business side.  Even with a firmly held opinion, it is always worthwhile to understand the other side of any controversial subject. 

To quote the core issue:
"The final Revised Recovery Plan, issued on June 30, calls for expanding protections for owls beyond the nearly six million acres currently set aside. Ironically, it also calls for the "removal"—i.e., shooting—of hundreds of barred owls, a larger and more adaptable rival of the spotted owl that competes for prey and nesting sites, and sometimes breeds with the spotted owl."
The editorial highlights the costs, in both the implementation of protection and the revenue lost in protecting the timbered habitat.  The spotted owl debate is a closeup view of a larger conundrum, how much to spend protecting species that may eventually be a lost cause.  Another example would be trying to restore the prairie chicken to the small disconnected patches of residual prairie in Missouri.

I would suggest that you take a deep breath and read Environmentalist Wisdom: Shoot One Owl to Save The Other with an open mind, then put it on the other side of the "environmental scale of thought" and hold both thoughts for a few minutes. It will only cause a small headache.

* Peter Kareiva is chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, writing in the blog at
Extensive information on the spotted owl is at Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hurricane Migrant

Chinquapin- from Georgia DNR
Charlie Burwick sent me  this story about a whimbrel named Chinquapin which survived a migration from Southampton Island through Hurricane Irene and arrived safely at the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil.  It made this incredible journey of 4,000 kilometers (roughly 2,500 miles) in spite of flying through 175 kilometer per hour winds and never lost its bearings.  On last year's migration it managed to fly around Tropical Storm Colin.

Chinquapin got its name when it was fitted with a tiny radio transmitter the bird has carried since May of 2010.  This allowed nervous researchers record its flight through the Northeast section of the hurricane.

The Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus is a shore bird, a type of curlew.  Its breeding range is across North America, Asia and Europe.  Their range map for the Western Hemisphere is here.  Their primary food is crab although they eat berries and blue butterflies in season.  Their curved beak is perfect for extracting fiddler crabs from their burrows.  They can wash the mud off their dinner and even remove the claws and legs before swallowing it.

This doesn't directly relate to Missouri wildlife until you think about the many species of our birds that make equally long migrations through storms.  In the words of Bill Bryson, "Life just wants to be."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Climate Is A Changin'

Climate change is debatable in many political circles but many animal species are apparently convinced or at least preparing for the possibility.  By now you have probably encountered the study from the journal Science as reported by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

Chris Thomas and colleagues analyzed recent studies from around the globe that measured the movement of species into new territory.  Species are always on the move but the rate of movement is suddenly much greater.  A 2003 study that found species moving north at a rate of just more than a third of a mile per year and up mountains at a rate of 2 feet a year.  About 2,000 species examined this decade in Thomas's study "are moving away from the equator at an average rate of more than 15 feet per day, about a mile per year."  That is 45 times faster than the previous decade!

Species also move up mountains to escape the heat.  The previous rate was 2 feet a year but they are now averaging about 4 feet a year.

What ever the cause, there is no doubt that the last decade was the hottest on record.  We can all probably agree that there are climate changes throughout history including droughts, ice ages, etc.  With instant news outlets and unavoidable media  across TV and computer screens, we are probably more aware of these changes than in the past.  I doubt most of us would have been aware of the current conditions in Texas in the world that existed in 1950.

The conflict comes when we begin to assign blame to human behavior.  Many cities are setting the blame game aside and preparing for possible scenarios if predictions of---Global Warming--- (there, I had to say it) should happen to be true.  Kinda like the animals.

We have all ready noticed that armadillos are increasingly more common in the Ozarks.  It is difficult to ascribe this to warming temperatures alone, however similar findings across the continent are hard to ignore.

The Wall Street Journal recently had coverage of communities such as Chicago and San Francisco which are making long term plans to deal with climate change.  This includes the possibility of rising sea levels in coastal areas and increased flooding in Chicago from the changing patterns of Midwest storms.

Some of this is simply common sense applied to current problems such as building in flood plains and areas inundated by high tides.  I can recall a recent trip along the Mississippi.  There was a large sign advertising a industrial development along the river with "Flood Plain" in its name.  A short way down the road there was a billboard opposing the development, simply saying "They Call it a Flood Plain for a Reason!"

The study by Chris Thomas and colleagues from the University of York was reported in the journal Science.  The abstract and study methods are available at this link.