Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Copperhead Clusters

Copperheads x 4 -Click to enlarge
I received a call from our good friend Sheila describing an invasion of copperheads around her walk between her front door and her parked car.  She had been forced to kill 14 over three days.  Her neighbor a quarter mile away has killed 12 copperheads in her front yard as well. She shares our love of nature in the wild and called me for absolution of her sin.

She first encountered the copperheads when getting out of her car shortly after dark.  There were four within a circle of her flashlight.  This was on the way to the front door 30 feet away, the path her dog and cat use for their nightly duties.  For this reason she was forced to kill them.  This was the first of several sightings of multiple copperheads in the same area over the next week

The next night she was out watering her trees next to the car when she saw a copperhead 8 feet up in the tree.  It was slowly patrolling the trunk not disturbed by her flashlight beam.  You can see it had no difficulty traveling around the trunk.  She took this movie and these pictures.  She has continued to find copperheads in this 100 foot radius from her front door including another one staring at her from a low branch of her redbud tree.

Sheila's house is up on the ridge above Bull Creek, a pretty spot with a view down a valley out the back and a level front yard with mature trees and mowed grass.  There are several piles of wood and downed branches gathered away from the house which would provide harborage both for snakes and their rodent prey.

A famous gathering of snakes, predominately copperheads, occurred just five miles from us at Pine Ridge Church in 1965, leading to Chadwick becoming the "Copperhead Capitol," the subject of the next blog.

Reports of mid-summer clusters or irruptions of copperheads are not just from Bull Creek.  A mid-summer 2005 gathering of 100 copperheads under a cedar tree in Marion County, Arkansas was investigated by an Arkansas State University zoologist with no apparent cause found.   Recent accounts tell of gatherings occurring in Southwest Missouri and Texas.  In summer of 2011 a man in Georgia reported 30 copperheads in his yard.

Back to Bull Creek
This irruptions would be expected in fall when copperheads gather together for hibernation. I have contacted Dr. Stan Trauth,  Professor of Zoology at Arkansas State University who has been studying this common phenomona of mid-summer copperhead gatherings for years.  He confirms that no one knows the reasons these occur.

As you might guess there is no shortage of theories.  In 1965, the Pine Ridge Church irruption of copperheads was explained as "Imps of Satan, sent by the Devil to disrupt the services of the Lord."*  Another source links the 2005 event in Northwest Arkansas to religious reasons also, as it was near Mount Nebo, and Magazine Mountain "which is the possible resting-place of the Ark of the Covenant."

Copperheads are very heat tolerant and usually forage at night during the summer.  Factors commonly mentioned in reports of mid-summer copperhead clusters are heat and dryness.  These reports are from around human dwellings where watering occurs.  Moisture could serve as a draw for insects and mammals, creating a magnet for copperheads.  Rural dwellings frequently have woodpiles and piles of yard waste and limbs, offering harborage for rodents and copperheads.  Another theory comes from a very detailed scientific website, herpsofarkansas.com.
"Human encounters with this snake become more commonplace during the very hottest part of the summer for two primary reasons. One reason is that this is the mating season and males are moving around much more in search of females. The second reason is that it appears this is a time of year when copperheads become increasingly more active in their pursuit of prey. In fact, they may even congregate in areas where large numbers of cicadas are emerging; even pursuing them into trees! Dusk and dawn seems to be when these snakes are on the move the most."  Article link
July cicada
Sheila's yard of mowed grass and mature native trees is a perfect place for cicadas to live out their larval period. She has been seeing cicada clinging to her tree trunks.  They present a juicy treat for a copperhead, even if it has to climb to find them.

What to do?
Killing a snake would be my last resort unless it is around a dwelling where it is a threat to life and property.  However sometimes there is only one letter difference between "loving" and "living" when it comes to rural living.  We are moving into animals' territories as some of them (deer) are moving into our cities.

There is a gradient in what we can tolerate.  At our house on Bull Creek we catch spiders and move them out side... except for brown recluse which die suddenly as do red wasps.  Wood rats are fine in nature but in the house, not so much.  The risk to me in catching and transporting a copperhead out of my yard far outweighs the benefit to nature.

Prevention is the best answer.  Making your space less hospitable to rodents and other food sources will decrease the likelihood of finding copperheads next year.
  • Remove trash, yard waste piles and other harborage
  • Keep large firewood piles away from the house
  • Avoid leaving potential food sources for rodents such as pet food
  • Eliminate standing water around the yard
  • Seal crawl spaces and access to outbuildings
  • Trap rodents to eliminate a food source
  • Trim back tall grass and bushes that could hide snakes
This corner of Missouri and Arkansas seems to be blessed with high numbers of copperheads and Ozark natives have always had a close if not always welcomed relationship with snakes.  Silas Turnbo collected Ozark stories around the turn of the century including many revolving around snakes.  The preeminent historian on Ozark folk lore, Vance Randolph, collected many Ozark superstitions about snakes which I have compiled at this site.

2017 Update:
Quote from John Miller of the Missouri Department of Conservation:
""They eat mostly rodents, but copperheads also love to eat cicadas when they just emerge from the ground," Miller said. "Sometimes a property owner might see several copperheads at one time, but they're there to eat the cicadas, which we like to call the 'M&Ms of the insect world.'"
Now play the video of the copperhead in the tree again and listen to the cicada chorus!  That likely explains at least this cluster.

* See the Pine Ridge Church story on next blog.
Here is a Copperhead Safety lesson.

Note:  If you follow the blog and read the "Tree Frog" entry, click on this to see corrections thanks to Dr. Trauth, an expert on Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tussock Moth Meets Mate

Kevin Firth is one of our Butterfly House wranglers and a skilled amateur entomologist, by which I mean he knows a whole lot more about insects that I do but still has a day job to pay for his hobby.  He shares some of his finds with us and I am passing this one on.  

White-Marked Tussock larva
Back on June 30 I collected a couple of Orgyia leucostigma (White-Marked Tussock) larvae on a trip to Bois D'Arc CA.  One of those larvae now resides in the house after spending time at the Caterpillar Petting Zoo on Saturday's Butterfly Festival.  The other one had already pupated.  

Wingless female tussock moth
Tussocks utilize the hairs that cover the larvae as part of the cocoon, which might help to deter predators that don't want hair in their meal (you can see them in the photos).  As I was getting ready to go to bed last night, I checked the cage that the cocoon was in and noticed something sitting on the cocoon.  Sure enough, the adult Tussock had eclosed.  It was a female, and in this species, the females are wingless.  Not the prettiest of moths--in fact, the female is essentially a sack full of eggs.

Male Tussock found his mate
I knew from prior experience with this species that if I put her outside, she would call in some males by releasing a pheromone.  So I found a piece of wood and placed her (and the cocoon) in the bark and went to bed.  Sure enough, when I got up and checked on her this morning, a male had found her.

When I got home from work, the male was ready to move on, so I released him.  The female, meantime, had laid her eggs on the cocoon (that's why I left her with the cocoon) and covered them with a foam-like substance(the white stuff at the bottom of the cocoon).
Female below cocoon
Small brown thing is mom!



You'll notice that she is considerably smaller in these pictures (you would be too after delivering several centa-tuplets!). So now we'll wait for the eggs to hatch, and then we'll have a bunch of larvae for the house.

The Moth Madness photo exhibit by Dr. Chris Barnhart will be at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center on August 1.  Fifty spectacular artistic photographs and your Master Naturalist logowear (or any other type of clothing) gets you in free.  What a deal!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fledging Time

It is fledging time on Bull Creek.  The century old barn is functioning as a pediatric ward full of barn swallows as well as the black vulture chicks.  There are at least 7 swallow nests glued to the beams, each brimming with chicks warming their engines for takeoff.  Every time we entered the barn in June there was a mass of zooming parents darting in and out and chirping hysterically.  By now they don't pay much attention, having become accustomed to our coming and going just like the vultures have.

Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica, are a common sight around our land, swooping over our garden and patrolling up and down the creek, dining on a rich source of flying insects.  They dart gracefully at low levels, sometimes just skimming the water.  Their distinctive pointed V-shaped tails and flight pattern cannot be mistaken for any other bird.

These swallows have made a successful adaptation to the presence of humans, so much so that their nesting is almost exclusively limited to man-made structures.  Their numbers increased dramatically as we spread barns and farm structures across North America and they found the perfect place to next.

Baby seals??
Now that the chicks are close to taking off, they have become curious about our visits.  Peering over the nest, they don't make a sound.  Looking at them head on so you can't see their pointed beaks they almost look like baby seals.

Driving down pond trail with Mike Kromrey's parents, his mother, Sandy, spotted some "big birds."  Sneaking up on them with camera in hand, I got some good pictures of a pair of black vultures sitting on the top edge of a hollow tree, half a mile from our barn with its vulture chicks.  These look to be the same age as ours.  When I got too close, they dropped back into the tree with a drum-like thump.

Hollow tree nest
Even after they have fledged, the young hang around for several weeks, still being fed by their parents.  I guess if you are going to eat rotting meat for the rest of your life, it doesn't make much difference if it is "fresh" or secondhand. 
Note down traces- Click to enlarge
Our barn vultures the same day

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Luna Cocoon

Luna caterpillar spinning cocoon- Wikimedia
We have been collecting the Luna moth cocoons from the bags on our walnut trees.  Most of their brown cocoons are wrapped up in several leaves hanging from a branch but occasionally we find one laying out without the wrapping.  Sometimes holding them by the tip with a little pressure will cause them to twist about like they are trying to escape your grip.

I filmed a cocoon that was the Baryshnikov of cocoons.  When we laid it on a room temperature surface it started twisting around and continued its dance for over three minutes.  It produced its own accompanying rhythm like a tap dancer, clicking against the bottom of the cooler over the background kitchen sounds.  After finishing the filming I was concerned it would use all its stored energy.  After covering it with a tissue, it finally settled down for a well deserved rest.  See this video.

If you can make it to the Butterfly House, you will see lots of cats and may get to see other cocoons do the twist.  More information at Friends of the Garden.

Friday, July 20, 2012

New "Native" Species

"What's Up Doc"-Click to enlarge
Driving down the Mail Trace Road at Bull Mills you are likely to see a small armadillo run in front of you every few hundred feet.  This one was busy browsing through the leaf litter for insects.  When I approached, it scampered over to a hole, disappeared, and then became curious and emerged for a picture.

Our little critters look like clones, and indeed they are.  Armadillo females will have one fertilized egg which then divides twice to produce four genetically identical embryos.  These grow into identical quadruplets, cute, slightly fuzzy and only lacking their own reality TV show.

It is time that we show some respect for our newest Missouri mammal.  They weren't here in any numbers back when the Wildlife Code of Missouri was created but had they been, they would likely have been included among the protected species.  They began moving north from South and Central America with the receding glaciers 10,000 years ago, first to Mexico, then to Texas and Oklahoma.  In recent years there are growing numbers in Missouri, now extending up above Missouri river.*

How did the Nine-banded_armadillo manage to get across our rivers?  They either walked or swam.  They can inflate their intestine and bob along the surface of the water or sink to the bottom and walk across!  They are able to hold their breath for up to six minutes, a handy adaptation if you spend long periods of time with your nose pressed underground searching for grubs.

They are generally harmless aside from occasional damage to plant roots.  Burrowing their snouts into the soil and leaves, they dig up insects, worms and grubs, eating an occasional small reptile or amphibian.  Their sense of smell allows them to find prey as deep as 8 inches down in the soil.  They are also talented excavators, digging holes for shelter which later provide a home for skunks, burrowing owls and snakes.

Armadillo basket- Nebraskahistory.com
At the turn of the century there was a fad of armadillo sewing baskets.  They were created by cleaning out the shell and attaching the mouth to the tail, creating a handle.  Line the shell with silk and you were done.  I understand you can still buy these in Mexican gift shops, now painted all different colors.

I asked if they should be included in the Wildlife Code of Missouri. (See answer below**)  Even in the wild, there is something about them that makes people want to shoot them.  Certainly this is reasonable if they are destroying your garden or lawn, but out in nature we should be learning to live with them.  They are our newest native species and arrived under their own power rather than having been imported by humans.

In Texas, they hold armadillo races on 40 foot tracks.  Maybe that is the answer - create an armadillo race track around Branson.  You could create a tourist attraction and wouldn't have the erosion and noise pollution problems of the NASCAR track.

Response from Tim E. Smith, Missouri Department of Conservation Ombudsman

*"Armadillos are becoming more common north of the Missouri River and have been sighted in Iowa as well. They seem to have found ways to survive the cold winters at higher latitudes, although there have been documented winter die-offs during times when snow or ice remains on the ground for extended periods."

** "It is not necessary to add any text to the Missouri Wildlife Code regarding armadillos to afford them protection. There is currently no open season on armadillos and they may not be legally killed except by landowners or their agents when causing property damage. People shooting them indiscriminately in the wild are already in violation of the Wildlife Code and are subject to citation by a conservation agent. If you are aware of such activity, please call your local conservation agent to report the offense."
More on armadillo from Texas at this Texas Tech site.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

All or Mothing

Saturday night we held All or Mothing, a moth identification event at Bull Mills.  We gathered a group of butterfly wranglers and docents from the Bill Roston Butterfly House in preparation for the Butterfly Festival coming up on July 21.  The Mothing was organized by Chris and Deb Barnhart.  What started as a "bring your own food" turned into a fancy potluck after George Deatz volunteered to bring the burgers and brats.
Kevin and Steve bait a tree

With the hot and dry conditions of the last month the moths have been scarce around the porch so we went high tech under the guidance of Dr.  Barnhart.  Step one was to try sugaring for moths.  We painted trees with a sticky paste of rotten bananas, brown sugar, molasses and beer which had been fermenting for 4 days.  This is designed to attract moths that are drawn to tree sap.  It was a rousing success if your goal was to see a variety of ant species and the occasional bald faced hornet.  Moths- not so much.

Next Chris set up a mercury vapor lamp and white reflective sheets to draw moths into the field.  Insects see the world differently than we do and are drawn to black light and mercury vapor lamps which put out a different spectrum of light.  The lamp created an eerie greenish glow, perfect for a Zombie party or an insect festival.

Soldier bug on leaf hopper
Once it was totally dark, we gathered around to study and photograph moths which gathered on the sheets.  In addition to small moths there were a variety of other insects including a large click beetle, a Sexton or burying beetle, an owlfly, and some little leaf and planthoppers.  A soldier bug speared one of the leaf hoppers in front of us while other leafhoppers looked on.

To me a highlight was the diversity of flying creatures drawn to the light.  I wasn't the only one, as at least one bat circled overhead, holding a collecting event of its own.

While we didn't draw in any of the giant silk moths like those we are raising for the Butterfly House, the variety of sizes of moths was surprising.  In addition to the small moths, the sheet was soon speckled with tiny "gnats" gathering like dust specks.  Under Dr. Barnhart's macro lens these turned out to be tiny colorful moths.

Below you will see a Spiny Oak Slug moth that is only 2/5ths of an inch long.  Unseen with the naked eye, the macro lens shows a colorful speck at its hind foot.  Enlarged on the right you can see a tiny banded insect, a tenth of an inch long, possibly a Three-banded leafhopper, Erythroneura tricincta.

Spiny Oak Slug Moth- Click to enlarge
Three-banded leafhopper ?
We collected a number of species that have not been reported to BAMONA from Christian County before.  The insect pictures above by Dr. Chris Barnhart are only a smattering of those on his Google picture site.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Grapevine Beetle

My guilty conscience gave me a good scare last week.  Coming in from the deck at night after spraying the remaining wasps that were nesting under our eaves, I felt something crawling up my bare leg.  I panicked, thinking that it was one of the Polistes paper wasps coming to avenge its dead relatives. Fortunately I looked before swatting and found this big beetle, probably trying to figure what this hairy surface was.

The Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata, is a common resident of Missouri although this was the first one I had found - or rather that had found me.  It is large, up to 1 1/4 inches long, and relatively heavy, especially when clinging on a bare leg in the dark. Slow moving and rather calm, it was in no hurry to walk away.  They are described as rapid fliers with a curving flight pattern but this one stayed for pictures.

Also known as the Spotted June Beetle, Wikipedia says they occur as far south as Northwest Missouri.  Apparently this one hadn't checked Wikipedia lately.  Adults eat the fruit and leaves of grapevine although not usually enough to become a pest.  They can vary in appearance enough that in 1915 there were 10 separate species and subspecies which eventually all were lumped into P. punctata.

Kudzu-like Winter Grape
Our woods are full of grapevine, predominately Winter Grape.  In places where there was timber downed by the derecho storm of 2009,  the vines have spread densely over the woods, resembling kudzu of the south.  As far as I am concerned they are free to eat all the grapevine they want.

More pictures at this site.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Oakworm Moth

A. senatoria female
I have been hanging up a bed sheet on the deck and turning on a light to attract moths.  This is usually while I am at the creek overnight by myself.  Good news for guests- it is an old sheet, not off the guest beds.

As the deck is located on a small bluff over Bull Creek valley with woods and open fields, the variety of moths we attract is quite diverse.  Many of the small tan moths are beyond my abilities to identify, while others are distinctive and even beautiful.

Gregarious Oakworm Moth Cats- Wikimedia
I found this beauty one morning last week.  Using a combination of resources listed below I identified it as Orange-tipped oakworm moth, Anisota senatoriaThey are members of the Saturniidae family which includes the large silk moths such as the Luna.  This family doesn't have a functioning digestive tract and therefore do not eat as adults.  They emerge this time of year, seeking out mates, breeding and laying their eggs on oaks.

A. senatoria male- Barnhart
This is a female with a georgous yellow-orange color.  The A. senatoria moth exhibits sexual dimorphism, a different appearance between the male and the  female.  BAMONA describes it like this.
"Females can be twice as large as males. Upperside of female is yellow-orange to yellow-brown; forewing has a white cell spot and varying amounts of scattered black specks. Upperside of male is reddish orange to brownish orange; forewing is narrow with a small white cell spot."

Their larvae are gregarious, clustering on branches while chowing down like a college football training table.  They may consume large numbers of leaves on selected trees.  This generally doesn't harm the trees as they are eating them during August and September when the trees have already stored up most of their energy for the year.

Stealing from Chris Barnhart's pictures as usual I found these great pictures of the other three stages of A. senatoria's life cycle.  Like many smaller caterpillars, it is really quite beautiful under magnification, a welcome sight unless you happen to be an oak tree.

*Bugguide, BAMONA and Moth Photographers Group

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Giant Puffball

57# puffball- Global Post
It is not uncommon to find a puffball mushroom in our field.  Usually the size of a softball, they occasionally will be soccerball size.  A Canadian gentleman out looking for edibles found one that leaves the others in the dust.

The Global Post reports that Christian Therrien, 62, found this 57 pound puffball in a field.  After taking it home to weigh, he returned it to the field so that its spores can give it a chance to reproduce.

That is what I call catch and release.  Fellow MOMS* members, eat your heart out!
* Missouri Mycological Society

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dancing Caterpillars

Saddleback caterpillar- Patrick Coin
A soft and juicy caterpillar is a delicacy enjoyed by some other insects and many birds.  Some have evolved defensive measures such as stinging hairs to deter predators.  These can cause a burning sensation on the skin if you touch them, especially when the skin is thin.  The Saddleback caterpillar is an excellent example.  The coloration which attracts us serves as a deterrent to many predators, saying "touch at your own risk."

Black Swallowtail osmeteria- biology.clc.uc.edu

Swallowtail caterpillars can raise a stink with glands called osmeteria.  These are located on the head and only appear when they are disturbed.  They fill up like a circus balloon and leave a faint bad odor when smelled up close.  Touching the back of one of these caterpillars can cause it to rear back with its osmeteria distended, trying to reach you.  No threat to a human but effective if you are small and close up.

A major threat to caterpillars, or cats as we Butterfly House wranglers refer to them, are parasitic wasps.  Many tiny wasps lay their eggs on caterpillars.  Their larvae then enter the cats, changing their metabolism or even their behavior.  After developing inside the cat, they emerge and the wounded cat fails to pupate.

Some caterpillars rare back and toss their heads around when touched, attempting to drive off the predator.  Gregarious caterpillars such as those in the video below feed in clusters on the same plant.  They may use this head tossing as a group defensive maneuver.   In Dr. Chris Barnhart's words:
"Gregarious caterpillars may get some defense from parasitoid wasps by flinging their heads around when disturbed. The parasitoids have to get close to lay their eggs and can be knocked away. Being surrounded by others, all flinching at once, probably makes this a more effective defense."
Roy Thompson of our Butterfly House wranglers has recently advanced the science when he noticed that Mourning Cloak caterpillars would also toss their heads around to sudden sound.  He has now connected with them through music- he has them responding to rap! Watch their heads carefully as they dance to Roy's Cat Rap below.

Music and vocal by Roy Thompson
Filmed and directed by Dr. Chris Barnhart
Produced and edited by SpringfieldMN.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Eggs of Summer

Even though it is summer and the turkey chicks are now able to fly 30 feet, we are still getting reports of eggs.

On June 20th, Matt Boehner sent me this report to go with the picture above:
"Stumbled upon a turkey nest near my wireless internet receiver yesterday. We have seen the female walking alone in the mornings and late afternoons, and my neighbor suspected she had a nest nearby. I was a little shocked to find it so close to the road, maybe 15 feet away in some thick brush. 12 eggs, no defined or protected nest, just enough space for her."
I suspect that this was a second or third attempt by a hen who lost a previous nest.  The turkey eggs in this picture were in a six foot tall patch of elderberry.  They were being brooded the first week of May.  We found the nest disturbed with broken eggs the following week.  Late in May, a hen had returned to the same patch with another batch of eggs.  We don't know the outcome as we made the area "off limits" but we have subsequently seen a flock of chicks with a hen in that field.

Then on June 30th, we had a report of a batch of large tan eggs under the ninebark thicket across our swimming hole, laying on a pile of wood from a previous flood.  It was inaccessible by foot, so I had to swim across without a camera to see them.  Sure enough there they were, scattered over a two foot diameter area. 

With no sign of feathers or surface disturbance around I decided to pick one up.  It was hard shelled and extremely light.  While most were pure tan like Matt's picture above, a few had dark brown patches like Black Vulture eggs and were a comparable size.  There was one other characteristic on two of them which allowed me to identify them.

Very few eggs have a stem, a feature that only Buck could dream up.  These eggs would never hatch- they are gourds!  I have collected similar gourds from our field every fall after the hay is cut.  They are a native wild gourd species.  They have been found by farmers to have a use beyond decoration.
"The small egg-shaped and egg-sized fruits of this heirloom gourd provide decorative value now but once served an important purpose on the family farm. If the farmer removes all the eggs from a hen's nest, the hen finds a safer place to lay. A nest egg gourd left behind keeps the hen coming back to add eggs to the clutch." ehow.com
Baker Creek Seeds describes these as "(Curcurbita pepo var. ovifera). Highly popular in the 1800's, the gourds are the size and shape of a hen's egg, and are white in color. They are used as nest eggs; often found growing wild here in the Ozarks."  Just don't try to make an omelet with them.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Junior Naturalist

Taylor- Butterfly Hunter
If you want outdoor excitement, take an insect net and a 2nd grader outdoors and let her go.  My niece Taylor has collected butterflies for the Butterfly House for three years, the first year as a spotter and now as a bundle of energy and enthusiasm armed with her own net.  This year she caught 24 while I was netting six.  It was like fishing with a kid and baiting the hooks- I kept busy trying to keep ahead of her by packaging her catches.

The last two weeks I have rarely seen a swallowtail, but we caught lots of "big orange ones," Great Spangled Fritillaries.  Her real specialty turns out to be catching tiny hairstreaks that I couldn't even see, netting them off of the dried weeds.

A 7 year old sees everything through a different set of eyes and most of it is "COOL."  Thanks to her dad's pocket camera, I can share her view of the creek with this photo album.

A highlight was a rock found while chasing toads, frogs, tadpoles, fish and crawdads.  Taylor presented it to me for identification... way out of my league.  I sent it to my favorite Rockdoc, Dr. James Miller, who took the time to identify it for her. 

"Your niece has found a not common but well known fossil from the local limestone, although this one is preserved as a mold in chert.  It looks like a starfish, but it has the wrong number of rays (6 instead of 5).  It is a member of the phylum Bryozoa (Google it), which is a phylum of colonial marine invertebrates made of tiny individuals.  The phylum goes back to the Ordovician Period of Earth history, and it is still alive today.  This genus is Evactinopora, and we do find these from time to time in the local strata and in loose pieces of chert weathered out of the strata.  It extends down into the rock for some distance."
As Rockdoc points out the structure is made up of free-living organisms which form a star-shaped colony as seen at this site.  The same organisms may make structures with 4 to 9 rays, a variation  almost suggesting they have architectural talent.  The genus must not be too common as it wasn't listed in any of three field guides or The Fossil Book.  That what friends are for.  Thanks, Rockdoc!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fatal Copperhead Bite

Copperhead- Wikimedia
The recent tragic death of a man from a copperhead bite while camping on the Current River raised a lot of questions.  Death from a copperhead bite is extremely uncommon, having occurred in Missouri only once in 50 years, that being in 1965.

According to the Southeast Missourian story:
"Terry Brown of Ellsinore, Mo., was camped in the area of the Current River known as the Clubhouse on Saturday, his 50th birthday, when he was bitten on the thumb while trying to remove a young copperhead from a tent around 10 p.m., according to Carter County deputy coroner Eric McSpadden. The Clubhouse area is about two miles south of Big Spring."
Within 15 minutes of the bite he was unconscious, recovered consciousness in the ambulance and died 9 hours later in the hospital.  This raises several questions.  The sudden loss of consciousness suggests some other factor such as preexisting heart disease.  Another possible factor is allergic reaction to the venom.  According to the CDC "Although rare, some workers with a severe allergy to snake venom may be at risk of death if bitten."

The snake was reported to be a "young copperhead," decreasing the likelihood that he would have received a large amount of venom.  Copperhead venom is one the least toxic of the five venomous snakes of Missouri.*  In general, bites on distal extremities tend to be the least serious, presumably due to a slower transmission of venom to the body.

None of this is to say that snake bites are not serious events to be respected.  Hopefully this news won't lead to a rash of snake killings, many of which would involve nonvenomous species.  While their removal from home and garden is justified, they are a legitimate part of nature in the wild.

The MDC's Fresh Afield blog has a good discussion of snake bites in general including their treatment.  Jeff Brigger, the herpetologist from MDC commented on the story for CBS in this story.

* The order of toxicity, timber rattler, cottonmouth, pygmy rattler, massasauga and copperhead. MDC

Friday, July 6, 2012

Know Thine Enemy

"Know thine enemy"
---Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I have been fighting red wasps for years over the ownership of our deck overlooking Bull Creek.  This year their numbers were down but they developed anger management issues, stinging me twice.  This was without provocation unless you count walking out the front door.  In addition to attacking the problem again, I decided it was time to get to know my enemy better.

First I needed to identify it.  I knew from last year's experience that it was a paper wasp of the genus Polistes.  Searching Bugguide.net images for Polistes I found this picture of Polistes metricus, a perfect match for the thorax markings except the abdomen is usually dark.  It turned out that this specimen was a color variant as others had the typical dark abdomen.

Like other paper wasps of the Polistes genus, in nature P. Metricus hangs its paper nest from branches but they have learned that buildings provide a convenient opportunity, especially openings in roof soffit, the underside of the roof overhangs.  They build their nests out of old wood fibers glued together to make an umbrella-like structure with individual cells for their eggs. 

Sterile worker wasps can be found on flowers, especially goldenrod.  They collect caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae for the egg chambers before sealing it up, feeding the larvae until they emerge as adults.  They also build and maintain the nest and protect it from invaders and external sources of danger.

Polistes nest with newborns
Only the female can sting as the stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg laying structure) not present on males.  They are not naturally aggressive but will defend the nest and that is where we come come in conflict. In spite of years of caulking, they still manage to find a way into our eaves.  Once they set up their home, sealing the openings simply causes them to escape into the house.

Caught early in a bluebird house, knocking off the nest with a stick discourages them and they frequently don't come back.  Once established in the eaves, the queen has to be killed before the colony can be eliminated.  We have been having success by using a homemade gizmo made from a plastic detergent bottle and tubing to blow Sevin insecticide powder into all the openings.  The wasps track it back to the nest and eventually it reaches the queen (we hope).