Friday, June 29, 2012

Dobson Flies

Eastern Dobsonfly-
The chance finding of a male and female Dobsonfly attracted to our porch light gave us the opportunity to compare their anatomy in real time.  First a reminder that Dobsonflies, fishflies, dragonflies, etc are not true flies (i.e. Diptera).  You can tell the difference in the name- true flies are named in two words, i.e. house fly, fruit fly, etc.

Diptera have one set of wings while their second set of would-have-been wings have evolved into small antennae-like balancing structures called halteres.  Dobsonflies are in the Megaloptera order which includes fishflies and alderflies. All of these have four wings although you wouldn't know it from the usual pictures as they generally have them tucked tightly on their back.
Male Dobsonfly

Female Dobsonfly

These are Eastern Dobsonflies, Corydalus cornutus.  The male is a fearsome looking beast with long threatening jaws nearly half the length of its body.  Their threatening appearance makes one shy away from picking it up.  Actually the jaws are rather weak, used only for clasping a willing female to stay with him a little longer.  Measuring 2.25" long, it has an almost prehistoric appearance.

Female's Jaws
The female is the same size but has much smaller jaws.  Because this provides her much more mechanical leverage, she is able to transmit a painful bite.  This is one more reason to be very careful when dealing with the female of some species.

Adults only live 7 days and do not eat.  They live several years in the aquatic larval stage called hellgrammites.  They are a favored bait for fishermen although with increasing pollution they are harder to find in recent years. 

Videos are available at and extensive scientific information is at

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Black Cohosh

Merrill and his Cohosh
During a tour of the Dubach's land deep in Swan Creek territory, we stopped to see a patch of Black Cohosh, its flowers almost through for the year.  It would have been easy to miss them as we drove by.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa).  previously called Cimicifuga racemosa is also called bugbane because of its insect repelling odor.  It tends to grow in richer soil in shaded areas, and is partial to small openings in the woods like Merrill's.

Cohosh flowers in the late spring to early summer with blooms atop tall spiked stems.  The flowers have no petals or sepals, just small white stamens surrounding a white stigma.  They do not attract butterflies in general, relying instead on their sweet fetid odor which attracts flies, gnats, and beetles to spread their pollen.

Tripinnate leaf- all one leaf
The large basal tripinnate leaves are interesting.  Tripinnate means "divided into pinnae that are subdivided into smaller, further subdivided leaflets or lobes." The picture shows a single leaf, divided into three leaflets which are again divided into subleaflets.  This one pinnate leaf can measure 3 feet long and wide are made up of three coarsely tooth pinnate leaflets.

In other words, what you see in this picture is all one big leaf.

Native Americans used the ground roots and rhizomes for the treatment of pain and inflammation.  Nineteenth century eclectic physicians used it for a wide variety of disorders.  Now there are serious studies in progress on its use in treating menopausal hot flashes, described in this NIH Fact Sheet.

Merrill's patch probably won't ever bring him out of retirement for a fourth time, although with his Master Gardener training, you never know what he will do next.  For now the Cohosh provide a pretty sight in the understory of his woods.

Good pictures and descriptions at,
and facts are at Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Joys of Country Living- Part IV

(Part IV Continued)

Parasa interermina- click to enlarge
I returned to the swing and started to read when I noticed some green and brown stuff on the upholstery.  I thought it had blown off the trees and brushed one off-  and it flew!  I collected several in an insect box and put one under magnification and realized it was a moth.

After a lot of web browsing, I came up with a fit, the Stinging Rose Moth, Parasa_indetermina.  It has a wingspan of an inch and even on close inspection I can't find evidence of a head.  Talk about camouflage- this moth should be a turkey hunter.

A Headless Wonder
These moths are wide spread in the Eastern US but are generally uncommon.  They fly in June and lay eggs in July.  The larval caterpillar hides under leaves as it feeds on a wide variety of trees including the rose family (Rosacae- apple and cherry), dogwood, hickory, maple, and oak.  They over winter in their cocoons.

If the moth is interesting, the caterpillar is spectacular.  In fact, I had a hard time finding identifying the moth as 80% of pictures are of the caterpillar.  "The head capsule is complete, but it is usually withdrawn and concealed in the prothorax,"* making it hard to see which end is the head if it isn't moving.

Stinging Rose Caterpillars- Wikimedia
The "stinging" in Stinging Rose caterpillar refers to the stinging hairs described at  Their urticating hairs, actually spines, have a poison gland at the base.  Touch them and the tip breaks off, leaving a stinging sensation like the notorious Saddle Back caterpillar.

While the moth depends on protective coloration, the cat practically screams at predators, "Come on, you want a piece of me?  Give me your best shot!"  The bright aposematic coloration warns predators "Don't even think about it Buster."

*The site has more details as well as drawing showing the structure of urticating spines.

This species was reported to BAMONA, the first documentation in Christian County.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Joys of Country Living, Part III

Red-tailed Specter Moth
After storing the Osage Orange Sphinx moth in a ziplock bag, I looked over the collection of small nondescript moths scattered over the siding and furniture around the deck light.  A number of tan moths had no distinguishing markings but one white moth stood out.  Dramatic brown stripes on the white wings revealed thin red-orange lines under close scrutiny.

I searched long and hard through BOMONA images, finally giving up after the 16th page.  I shot it off to Dr. Chris Barnhart who sent the identification 5 minutes later (I can't explain his long delay).  "An old friend - Species Euerythra phasma - Red-tailed Specter Moth - Hodges#8141."

by Ron Votaw at
The name Red-tailed Specter Moth was surprising until I spread its wings.  Sure enough, there were orange-red bands on the lower dorsal abdominal segments.  For such a distinctively colored moth, first described in 1876, there is surprisingly little information available.  I reviewed 90 Google hits without a hint of its life history or larval food plants.  This one will have to get by on its looks alone. 

Again in May, 2015

Check here for pictures of other members of the colorful Arctiidae family which includes the familiar Hairy Wooly Bear caterpillars.

This specimen was reported to BAMONA and confirmed, its first documentation in Christian County.
Continued in Part IV

Friday, June 22, 2012

Herding Cats

Ever have a friend ask if you will adopt a cat?  How about 170 cats?  And what if they are such good friends that you can't say no.

Promethea cats- late instar
Chris and Deb Barnhart raise a wide variety of butterfly and moth eggs for the Butterfly House and end up with lots of caterpillars, a.k.a. "cats" which voraciously feed on sacks of leaves.  Eventually they need to be farmed out to someone with more trees than sense.  That would be us.

We met at a local restaurant to make the exchange with Chris bringing them in a cooler.  Caterpillars are sensitive to drying out and the heat of a cooking car.  He had bags of Promethea, Polyphemus, and Luna silk moth cats.  Spoken in a restaurant, these words sound like new varieties of illegal "bath salts".  We received a lot of curious looks and left quickly with them before someone called the DEA.

Bull Mills bag lady
The technique of raising them from here on out is relatively simple.  Each of these moth caterpillar species has specific species of tree or bush that it feeds on.  We simply find one of the right size, cover a small tree or major branch with a fine mesh bag and add 5-10 cats, depending on their size.

They will live in the bag safe from predators, chomping the leaves until they pupate (form a cocoon).  We then come back after 2-4 weeks, remove the bag and collect the pupae.  These go the the Butterfly House at the Botanical Center where their emerging is a star attraction for visiting kids both young and old.

Promethea pictures by Chris Barnhart

  BAMONA  describes the interesting life cycle of these Promethea caterpillars:
"Males seek females in the afternoon and early evening, with most mating occurring from 4 PM to sunset. At night, females lay rows of 4-10 eggs on the upper side of host plant leaves. Young caterpillars feed together while older caterpillars are solitary. Older caterpillars do not eat the leaf midvein, but cut the leaf petiole at the base so it falls to the ground, perhaps a defensive measure eliminating visual or olfactory signs of feeding. A caterpillar ready to pupate strengthens a leaf petiole with silk and then spins its cocoon inside the curled leaf."
Today's bagging featured Promethea caterpillars* which feed on a variety of tree leaves including our spicebush and sassafras.  These will eventually emerge as a beautiful Promethea giant silk moth which lives only to breed and lay eggs for the next round of caterpillars.  It is so focused on reproduction that it doesn't eat- or even have a functioning intestinal tract!
* There were also Polyphemus to put on oaks and Luna for our walnuts.  The leaves will grow out again and no trees were significantly damaged in making this blog.

Joys of Country Living- Part II

After my breakfast encounter with the Reddish-brown Stag Beetle, I settled back in the deck swing to read in the last cool air of the morning.  I felt something flutter on the back of my neck and got up quickly.  (I have been killing lots of nesting red wasps and I had a guilty conscience, thinking they were coming to revenge their dead kin.)

Osage Orange Sphinx Moth
I had left the deck light on over night to attract moths and an Io moth had settled on  the swing.  It isn't too impressive when it is folded up, but a touch encouraged it to open its wings, revealing its eye spot.  It is one of the giant silk moths that live for less than a week without eating, cruising around to mate and lay eggs.  Although possibly hungry, you will never hear their stomach rumble- they don't have a digestive tract.

While up, I started looking at the siding under the light fixture.  It had been a busy night, with several Fishflies and Dobsonflies and a scattering of small, nondescript tan and brown moths.  Two Assassin Bugs were crawling around, looking innocent but definitely hungry.

High up was another large moth, subsequently identified as a Osage Orange Sphinx Moth, Ceratomia hageni.  It is found throughout the Midwest from Michigan and Nebraska to Texas, any where its obligate larval host plant, the Osage Orange is found.

I find this range particularly interesting.  The Osage Orange was native to Texas and Oklahoma.  Lewis and Clark first noted it and Pierre Chouteau of St. Louis fame sent specimens to President Thomas Jefferson.  The tough wood and thorns led to its planting as a living fence before barbed wire was available.  During the Dust Bowl it was spread throughout the Midwest in the WPA Great Plains Shelterbelt project.*

This is a moth whose larvae can only survive on Osage Orange.  Now it lives throughout the Midwest, another example of the adaptability of nature to the changes brought about by humans.  Just another reason to hope for the future.

* More on this at Wikipedia.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Joys of Country Living- Part I of 4

Male- dorsal view- click to enlarge
I was standing in my stocking feet on a throw rug in the Bull Mill's kitchen fixing breakfast when the first morning adventure began.  I lifted my foot and felt a pull on the sock and heard a velcro-like sound.  On closer inspection, there was a creature clinging to the toe of my sock and the rug at the same time.

My new friend was a male Reddish-brown Stag Beetle (Lucanus capreolus).  The prominent sickle shaped mandibles are used by males to fight for the females' favors.  Females have small mandibles which are hard to see.  The males also have antler-like antennae that are the source of the name capreolus, a Latin word translated "roe deer".

Male- ventral view
When I picked it up or moved it around, it raised its head and thorax in an aggressive pose.  They are also known as "pinching beetle" and their pincers are said to produce only a "little nip", a hypothesis I didn't test. 

The adult beetle is nocturnal and feeds on tree sap.   The larva feeds on the inner wood of old trees and stumps, living for 2 years before pupating in the soil.

As I was writing this, he appeared to be sleeping or dead in his box, but once I put him on a cutting board he woke up, possibly sensing what a "cutting board" is used for.  You can see his response to the touch of a pencil.   What he lacks in size, he makes up in attitude as you can see in the video below.

No beetles were harmed in making this blog- he is back in nature, minus my sock.

More pictures at and a fighting pose is at this link.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Urban Sweat Bees

Lipotriches sweat bee- Wikimedia
The term "sweat bee" generally refers to bees that are attracted to the salt in human sweat, especially those of the Halictidae family.  These small critters, generally measuring 4-8mm, are annoying when they not only slurp your sweat but frequently want to share your sweetened drink.  Humans are their preferred source because of our high concentration of salts in our perspiration.  (Note to self- cut back on salt.)

They only tend to sting when you slap or grab them and their sting ranks only as a one on the four point Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  If you are not familiar with this Michelin-like guide to insect stings and bites you might want to look it up here.

Schmidt describes the sweat bee sting as "Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm."  Compare this to a 3.0 paper wasp sting which is "Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut."  My red wasp sting experience last Sunday was more full bodied with the throb of a dense Merlot.  As my mother used to say ""Each to his own taste," said the woman as she kissed her cow."

Jason Gibbs- Cornell University
This all started with reading about a newly discovered sweat bee the size of a sesame seed.  We tend to think of the hunt for new species as requiring a pith helmet and an inconveniently located jungle.  For Jason Gibbs of Cornell University, it just required an insect net and a walk in the park.  He discovered this tiny creature in Brooklyn and the story was written up in this Wall Street Journal article.

We tend to think of New York City as a sterile urban environment with Central Park as an island of tamed wild life.  Certainly it has had Pale Male, the famous red-tailed hawk, and their park system works to protect their wildlife including deer, raccoon and the odd coyote.

The Waldorf-Astoria New York hotel now has its own resident beekeeper who harvests honey from roof top hives in an effort to be greener than the competition.  These are European honeybees which likely adds panache to a ritzy hotel menu.  The city also has bees, more than 250 documented species of native bees in its sidewalk cracks, median strips and apartment planters, pollinating away.
"As an urban wilderness, New York City continues to surprise field biologists. Not so long ago, museum bug hunters discovered a new genus of centipedes—perhaps the world's smallest—under the fallen leaves in Central Park. In 2009, a new species of cockroach turned up in a West Side supermarket. Earlier this year, researchers at Rutgers University and the University of California identified a previously unknown species of leopard frog whose natural range centers on Yankee Stadium." ( WSJ).
So what does this have to do with Missouri?  As humans continue to impact the earth's ecology, it is comforting to know that nature adapts, even in what we might assume is a hostile, big city environment.  We may be anxious on the dark streets of New York City at night but the tiny Lasioglossum gotham isn't.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Big Muddy Mud

Jameson Island Chute, Missouri River.
If you are digging mud out of a river bottom, you would certainly want to spread it out on the land, wouldn't you?  Above all you wouldn't want to dump it back into the water,  especially if it was from the "Big Muddy", e.g. the Missouri River.  The answer isn't as simple as it seems.  Experts on both sides are debating what to do with the dirt as they build a mile-long shallow water habitat chute in Jameson Island located in Arrow Rock bottoms on the Missouri River. 

David Casaletto, the Executive Director of Ozarks Water Watch discusses this problem in this week's Ozark Waters. The Corps of Engineers face a conflict between the Endangered Species Act versus the Clean Water Act. Recent studies have shown that dumping soil in the river did not increase hypoxia as expected. Further, "the Missouri River carries only 20 percent of the sediment load it once did, causing loss of habitat for native fish and bird species, including the pallid sturgeon and least tern."

Read about the debate which has "muddied the waters" of this project at Ozark Waters.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hawkmoths See Humidity

Hawk moths of the Sphingidae family tend to feed nocturnally, a strategy which may protect them from daytime predators but which makes finding nectar sources more challenging.  They have the unique ability among nectar feeding insects, shared with hover flies, of being able to hover in place for a few seconds before heading off to the next flower.  Most hawk moths are nocturnal or crepuscular feeders (i.e. active feeders in twilight at dawn and dusk).

Hyles lineata by Chris Barnhart
The nocturnal hunt for nectar sources can be chancy if the moth spends more energy in the search than it gets from its food sources.  Hovering flight is expensive in fuel consumption as the hummingbird moth wings hover at 85 beats per second.  You can imagine that each stop to check out a flower for a few seconds is like idling your car at multiple stop lights while your gas gauge says empty.  Since they only live as adults for a week, efficient shopping is critical.

This raises the question of how they find their food sources.  They tend as a group to prefer long tubular white flowers and are "suckers" (brazen pun intended) for sweet smelling flowers with rich nectar that they can find at a distance. 

A new study reported in suggests that they improve their odds by sensing minute differences in the humidity of flowers.  The moisture around the opening of the blossom relates directly to the amount of nectar available and drops off if an insect has depleted the nectar pool.  The researchers at the University of Arizona further demonstrated that the white lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) would preferentially hover and try to feed on artificial flowers if the humidity of the "blossom" was raised as little as 4% from the ambient air, the gradient found on their normal nectar sources in nature.
“The metabolic cost of hovering in hawkmoths is more than 100 times that of a moth at rest,” said Goggy Davidowitz, the study’s co-author and a UA professor. “This is the most costly mode of locomotion ever measured. An individual hawkmoth may spend 5-10 seconds evaluating whether a flower has nectar, multiply that by hundreds of flowers visited a night, and the moth is expending a huge amount of energy searching for nectar that may not be there. The energy saved by avoiding such behavior can go into making more eggs. For a moth that lives only about a week, that is a very big deal.”
“The metabolic cost of hovering in hawkmoths is more than 100 times that of a moth at rest,” said Goggy Davidowitz, the study’s co-author and a UA professor. “This is the most costly mode of locomotion ever measured. An individual hawkmoth may spend 5-10 seconds evaluating whether a flower has nectar, multiply that by hundreds of flowers visited a night, and the moth is expending a huge amount of energy searching for nectar that may not be there. The energy saved by avoiding such behavior can go into making more eggs. For a moth that lives only about a week, that is a very big deal.”
Snowberry Clearwing- Roy Thompson
While most hawk moths feed at night, clearwing moths such as our common snowberry clearwing can be seen hovering all day long, hovering like a hummingbird but colored like a bee. Most of the scales which produce wing color are shed early after emerging from the pupal stage by its rapid wing beats.

Hawk moths have the longest tongues in the insect world, up to 14 inches long.  Darwin described a deep star orchid of Madagascar with a tubular flower that was 11 inches long with only an inch of nectar at the bottom.  He faced ridicule when he suggested that a hawk moth must exist with a long tongue which specialized in pollinating the orchid.  Years after his death he was vindicated.  This BBC video demonstrates this form of mutualism by a day feeding hummingbird moth.

More information on hawkmoths in general is at  Wikipedia and this US Forest Service site

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Red-bellied Beggars

Red-bellied Takeout and Delivery
For some years now we have been treated to the sight of a red-bellied woodpecker taking seeds from the feeder to share with another bird.  Being an anthropomorphic minded romantic I would say "Oh, isn't that sweet," and I would think about taking Barb out to dinner some day.

What we didn't notice was the fact that the mottled recipient had no red markings.  Males have a red crown and nape while females have half a crown, the red not extending forward to the bill.  It was not the female but a juvenile woodpecker.  

The fledglings follow the parents around for food.  They are old enough to borrow the car but are unable to get their own food.  The beggar would hang around on a nearby branch and wait for the parent to bring sunflower seeds either into its mouth or laid on a branch between them.

Male and Juvenile
Surprisingly none of the online authoritative sources or many bird books we have mention this behavior.  Confirmation only came through a long Googling session.   This Youtube video shows a patient father feeding junior who is hanging on to the same feeder tray, easily able to reach the food.  Whether it hasn't figured out how to use its beak or is just lazy is up for debate.

As the young fly further from the nest, they continue to stay near the parents, getting fed for up to ten weeks.  Eventually the parents have to drive them away to fend for themselves.  This may sound familiar to some of you parents.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rainbow Darter

Rainbow darter female
Jeff Barrow of Missouri River Relief braved the waters of Bull Creek on Monday and came up with this monster of the deep, some type of darter.  My initial efforts to identify it on the web failed and I appealed to a higher power, Mike Kromrey who pointed me to rainbow and orange throat darters.

I went through lots of pictures before I found a match, the common rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum.  I should have figured the problem out sooner.  I had looked at both species on the web with no matches. It so happens that most web pages show only showed the colorful males while the females get no respect, as Barb has told me for years.

Orange throat darter female
Rainbow darters are one of the most common small species in our Ozark streams.  They prefer small to middle sized flowing streams, collecting in riffles with gravel.  A previous study of Bull Creek populations showed that rainbow darters were much more common than orange throat darters.

The rainbow and orange throat females look similar with a few distinguishing features.  The rainbow has more prominent vertical bars on the rear half which extend to the top.  They also have an orange tint to their anal fin.
Rainbow darter- male
Orange throat darter- male

"Breeding takes place in riffles from mid April to mid May. Females deposit three to seven eggs in the gravel and the male fertilizes them. This can be repeated many times over several days during their breeding season. A single female can lay about 800 eggs in a single breeding season." *
This brings a question to mind.  The bright coloration of males in many species of birds and butterflies is thought to improve the males success in breeding, identifying the species and serving as an advertisement saying "Look how pretty I am.  Don't you want some of my genes?"  This tactic comes at a cost, the loss of camouflage and thus increased exposure to predators.   With the male darter seeking out and fertilizing eggs deposited in the gravel, what advantage does the bright coloration have to them?  Only the darter knows.

*  The Ohio DNR website is listed under resources as a good site for the identification of many Missouri fish species. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Kiss to Avoid

Conenose bug- MObugs- Shelly Cox
Merrill Dubach sent me a picture of a smashed bug which had bitten his granddaughter's leg.  He suspected the bug, now dead, was a "kissing bug" and asked if it could infect her.  The pictures he sent weren't enough to identify the bug, but it certainly was in the Reduviid family as are kissing bugs.  If you Google "kissing bug disease" you quickly find more than enough to scare you about Chagas disease, but understanding the meaning to us in Missouri takes a little more time.

Kissing bugs are members of the Reduviid family of insects, commonly known as assassin bugs.  Most assassin bugs shove their proboscis into insects, inject their digestive juices and then suck up their predigested dinner.  When handled they may use these this as a weapon of self defense, but they otherwise aren't interested in mammals.

One species of kissing bug- Wikimedia
The "kissing bugs" belong to the same family but the Triatominae subfamily live by sucking mammal's blood.  They get their name from the habit of biting sleeping victims around the lips and eyes.  Their reputation is greatly enhanced by the transmission of Chagas disease.  This is a very common disease in rural areas of Central and South America.  After initial symptoms, it remains dormant in most patients, providing a pool of the parasite for other kissing bugs to feed on and spread it further.  A portion of the infected people go on to develop fatal complications.

Scary stuff, but not a big concern in the United States so far.  There have only been seven documented cases of Chagas disease acquired within our borders.  It is most common in the southern states, but according to new research it may become a greater problem in the future.  A study recently reported by the National Science Foundation suggests that climate change may increase our exposure to the parasite.
"A new study finds that 38 percent of kissing bugs collected in Arizona and California contained human blood, and that more than 50 percent of the bugs also carried the parasite that causes this life-threatening disease. This upends the view that U.S. kissing bug species don't regularly feed on people and suggests that Chagas could spread, driven north by climate change."
The risk of increasing Chagas disease exposure could come from a northern movement of kissing bug populations.  As they infect more vectors, i.e. humans and other mammals, that then provides an expanding pool of the parasites for the next generation for kissing bugs to feed upon.  We don't have a large population of people sleeping in jungle huts that are exposed to nighttime feeding bugs so the frequency is unlikely to reach high levels.

The odds of increased cases of Chagas disease in the US are unknown at the present.  The risks from an individual kissing bug bite in Missouri are relatively low, but just as your momma said, be careful who you kiss.

You can see pictures of some of the many species of Triatominae at
See also this MOBugs link.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prairie Expedition

Prairie Guide- Click to enlarge
Recently Barb, I and a backpack sprayer made our annual trek to hunt Sericea and other invasive species on La Petite Gemme Prairie.  The weather was perfect, 70 degrees at 8:00 in the morning.  We were joined initially by a neighboring dog that volunteered to guide us.  We headed up the hill, the highest one of the original three that led to the name Three Mound Prairie.

Looking to the east you can see suburban housing of Bolivar.  On the western border, cyclists cruise quietly along the Frisco Highline Trail, developed by Ozark Greenways.  With a squint of your eyes and mind, you can almost hear the Frisco train which took Harry Truman back and forth between Springfield and Bolivar in 1948 as he practiced for what would be his famous whistle stop campaign for president.

While the world has changed, scattered remnants of prairie remain, thanks to organizations such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) which purchased the land in 1974.  Under the joint management of MPF and the Missouri Department of Conservation, the prairie remains intact.  Surrounded by farm land and lawns, it has so far avoided both the plow, urbanization and fescue monoculture.

This is not to say that it is pristine.  Introduced invasive species such as Sericea lespedeza and Japanese honeysuckle constantly crop up, threatening to take over.  Without active management including spot spraying herbicides and the use of prescribed fire, exotic invasives and early succession native shrubs and trees such as sassafras and wooly buckthorn would eventually take over.  This year we even found some scattered asparagus which had migrated from a neighboring garden.

Walking through the thick knee high vegetation, we didn't have time to look for the copious animal life which was beneath our feet.  Beautiful golden dragonflies flitted around us.  One landed on a stem, tantalizing me while avoiding the screen of my pocket camera.  Only one shot pictured it partially, preserving the memory but not enough for identification.  I sent it to Tana Pulles who identified it as a Widow Skimmer.  Without a view of the underside of its abdomen, its sex will remain unknown.

The prairie was covered with familiar species such as purple cone flower, rattlesnake master, spiderwort and last week's favorite, sensitive plant.  Prairie mimosa Desmanthus illinoensis was a new species to us, with leaves similar to sensitive plant but no briar-like spine or cute folding leaf tricks.  Prairie roses were in full bloom, attracting the first of the Japanese beetle scouts.
Lead plant was common on the hillside, quite distinctive against the darker green background.  Its pale gray hairy leaves look like they were dusted with lead powder.   Many mammals eat this nutritious plant as do a diverse range of insects.  These in turn feed insectivores, an important ingredient of the food chain.  Later this summer it will also produce a stalk of tiny beautiful blossoms, hosting a wide variety of bees.

Blackberries were underfoot everywhere, a blessing this week but a curse for a prairie the rest of the year.  They will take over if not controlled, but today they fueled our mission as we consumed a handful whenever we spotted the juicy berries.  They also taught me a lesson in greed.  Without any other container, we used my hat to collect a supply for home.  Unfortunately, the stain of blackberries is resistant to soap and bleach.  From now on, they shall know me by my (red-stained) hat.

Like most true gems, prairies like La Petite Gemme are rare, 99.9% having been converted to other habitat.  Preserving what we have is like maintaining a museum or zoo, a place to savor a diverse ecosystem that once covered much of the midwest.  Like a museum or zoo, a prairie requires our constant maintenance.  Consider supporting the Missouri Prairie Foundation.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Climate Change & Homeless Mammals

Squirrel Monkey- Wikimedia
Regardless of what or who is to blame or what we can do about it, there can no longer be any doubt that we are in a period of significant warming of our planet.  An article in summarizes the dramatic temperature data and some of its effects from across the nation.

In addition to the immediate effects we are seeing in plant growing seasons and insect responses, there are the long term effects on mammal populations which remain unknown. reports on a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concerning the effect of climate change on mammal survival.

They estimate that 9 percent of mammals in the Western Hemisphere could become "climate refugees" within the century.  Earlier studies have looked at whether there would be suitable climate niches for mammals.  This study looks at whether they would be able to make the move into those areas.  They evaluated how far different species could move to establish new territories with the appropriate climate.

Most mammals move only when they are preparing to breed.  They identified 493 mammal species which could not move quickly enough.  Limitations included size (imagine the time moles and mice would require to move significant distances) as well as age of fertility and frequency of breeding.  Breeding rates are especially important in squirrel monkeys.  Sixty one percent of species are all ready threatened and 80% are "unlikely to keep pace with climate change."

Mountain dwelling species are at special risk.  Their only strategy is to move up the mountain to higher/cooler altitudes.  Unfortunately, as you go up a mountain (think of a pyramid) the area becomes smaller until you hit the peak. *

None of this migration takes into account whether the new territory would have suitable flora as these areas would be in flux because of climate change as well.  They also might find that the neighborhood is all ready populated by competing species and more efficient predators.

The planet is constantly changing- weather, habitat and species interactions.  Twelve thousand years ago as the glaciers retreated north of the Missouri River, Springfield was part of a boreal forest with megafauna such as giant sloths, short faced bears and wooly mammoths.  The one certainty is that 14,012 will look a lot different- to someone or something.

The abstract and full text are available at this site.

* This description comes from a newly published book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris.  I would highly recommend it for a great overview of the possible strategies in dealing with our current ecological challenges.  Her overview is here on Youtube.

Another example is found in this article at

Monday, June 4, 2012

Thigmonasty Isn't Nasty

Sensitive Briar- Click to enlarge
As a kid running around a dry rocky field in Kansas, I was delighted in finding sensitive briar.  The idea that a plant could respond quickly to touch was exciting - and still is.  I was busy watching the leaves and didn't notice the tiny thorns or beautiful flowers at that time.

Sensitive Briar, Mimosa nuttallii (a.k.a. Cat's Claw, Nuttall's Sensitive Briar, Bashful Briar, Shame-boy, Devil's Shoestrings) is a common plant on some prairies and glades and can be found on disturbed soils.  While some gardeners are ambivalent about its spreading nature, cattle love it and its seeds are high in protein.

Sensitive briar was named the 2010 Wildflower of the Year in Kansas.  A Missouri University cynic might snidely say that Kansas didn't have much to choose from, but for my money it was really cool.  The part that excited me was the closing of the leaves to touch.  Well OK, there weren't a lot of exciting things to do in Kansas back then and I wasn't the swiftest kid on the block, but it could keep me busy for a while.  By the time I was done, there wouldn't be an open leaf in 50 feet.

Before touch
After touch
 As a kid I was excited by its thigmonasty, even though I had never heard of it.  Thigmonasty is the mechanism which closes the briar's leaves as though they had little muscle cells.  The "nasty" part refers to nastic movements of plants which are non-directional responses to stimuli (e.g. temperature, humidity, light, and touch).  Another good example is the closing of Venus Fly Trap.

Pulvinus shrink at bottom
So how do the plant leaves manage to flex shut so quickly?  Thigmonasty in Wikipedia provides the details but a simplified answer is that touch (finger, rain, etc) stimulates some of the pulvinus cells at the base of the leaflet to extrude water from the long cells on one side, making them shrink.  The cells on the other side remain full,  creating more pressure on the outside of the curve, causing the leaflet vase to flex.

Redvine- Wikimedia
Thigmotropism is another type of plant response to pressure.  In this case it is directional rather than non-directional.  "Positive thigmotropism" refers to the plant moving in the direction of the pressure and is responsible for the wrapping of tendrils of vines around a stem or stalk.

There is also "negative thigmotropism" causing roots pressing against one of our Ozark rocks to turn away in another direction.  Now if we could incorporate that into an Ozark shovel, botanical science could be a money maker.

More on plant responses from Natural History magazine is at Do Plants Have Brains

Moth Identification

This pretty little moth followed me into the house.  At first glance it was like most tan moths, but looking closer it had a beautiful design, almost like the grain of wood.  Moths are usually hard to identify, but I found this in Butterflies and Moths of Missouri.  It is a Common Lytrosis- Lytrosis unitaria

The caterpillars of the Geometridae family includes loopers, inchworms and spanworms.  Their "looping" gait is recognized by every kid who has had any exposure to woods or trees.  I can remember as a child, measuring various species, looking for the ones that were actual "inch" worms.

Look at one of these caterpillars and you will note that there are legs in front and back but none in the middle.  The front prolegs, usually one pair but occasionally 2-3 pair, grasp a surface when they are extended.  They then bring up the rear pair and attach so the front end is free to explore for a new foothold.
Caterpillar- Tom Murray
Geometrids are common in woodlands where they are a staple in the diet of birds of the forest.  Because of this, most of these caterpillars and moths have evolved many effective forms of crypsis, disguised as twigs or green leaf petioles.  I don't know about a bird, but this one would really challenge me.
Lepidoptera can present you with a great opportunity for "citizen science."  After identifying this moth, I looked it up on Butterflies and Moths of North America and found that, although common, it hadn't been reported previously in Christian County.  The process of reporting is simple.  Go to "Identify".  After registering (free) you can submit a picture and information about your location.   An expert will confirm the ID and your find will then be registered on their map.

In this case, they reviewed the pictures and location, confirmed the identification, and registered the site on the map for the Common Lytrosis.  The report is now at this BAMONA site.  Click on the map and zoom in to see where other regional sightings have been confirmed.

Why bother?  Because there aren't enough professional trained entomologists to keep up with all the species of Lepidoptera.  Amateur naturalists like us provide more eyes and can survey a much greater territory than academics alone.  This information has become even more important in measuring the effects of climate change.

British Argus-
In a report from the journal Science, the British Argus butterfly from Great Britain demonstrates the movement of an indicator species.  Once rare, it has gradually moved North with climate change, and there found "a veritable banquet" awaiting it.  Its move to avoid the heat has doubled its range and protected it from threatened status.  It is now a common sight in fields.
"Biologists expect climate change to create winners and losers in species. Stanford University biologist Terry Root, who was not part of this study, estimated that for every winner like the brown Argus there are three loser species, like the cuckoo bird in Europe. Hill agreed that it is probably a three-to-one ratio of climate change losers to winners."
If you see a butterfly or moth that is unfamiliar to you, take the time to look it up and then report it if it is unreported.  BAMONA is waiting for you.

* Picture is by Tom Murray, contributing Editor at  Another view by Sam Jaffe is at

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Chickadee Nest

Any information you read about bluebird boxes will stress the need to check them frequently and remove the nests and eggs of sparrows and other small cavity nesters who have the gall to raise their family in your box.  Sorry, but I just don't have the heart for it.

We have 15 boxes on our bluebird trail and each year we will have one or two nestings of "undesirable" birds such as these chickadees this spring.  I don't understand how you could throw out the very birds that you entertain at your bird feeders.  We therefore run an equal opportunity nesting organization.

Part of the entertainment in bluebird box maintenance is guessing the bird species by the eggs.  This used to be difficult, but now a site at makes it quick and easier.  (This is listed on the resources page along with our other favorite links.)  These speckled eggs could be chickadee or nuthatch.

These little chickadee chicks on day one looked even more naked and vulnerable that the usual nest of day old bluebirds.  They were so scrawny and still that I thought they were dead, but by the next day, their mouths were open, begging for food like I was their mama.

Last Tuesday I filmed this video of newly hatched bluebird chicks just a few hours out of the egg.  They look identical but they were much more active.  You will see one of them confusing its siblings neck for food with the fifth baby's beak just cracking out of the egg.

Chickadee Nest-
One thing I didn't appreciate until now was how distinctive the nests are with different species.  I am used to the dry grass nests of bluebirds but hadn't noticed that the green nesting material occasionally found the boxes was typical of chickadees.  The web site shows the nest pictures and the chickadee nest is quite different from the nuthatch nest.

You will notice these chickadee chicks the day before they fledged are tightly nestled down in soft moss, not the dry scratchy stuff of bluebirds.  Once again they didn't even bother to look up at me.

When you remove the empty chickadee nest the soft spongy feel is quite distinctive.  To quote, "The nest has a moss base and a cup made of grass, plant down, and feathers. The female lines the nest with finer materials such as fine grass, fur, and hair."  In fact it feels just like the deep moss beds I look for when I catch a nap while I am supposed to be cutting firewood in the winter.  Don't tell Barb.