Friday, June 28, 2013

Exploring a Glade

While most of the people at the Missouri Native Plant Society trips are looking for rare plants, sedges and grasses, some of us on the fringe are exploring for other species.  I joined Brian Edmond and his young assistant Julian in a search for herps and insects.

We found this creature under a rock while looking for scorpions.  Looking at its jaws, I was reluctant to make it mad.  I sent the picture to Chris Barnhart who got right back with the suggestion that it was a ground beetle larva, probably of the Carabidae family.  I sent the picture to and received a quick response the next morning that it was indeed in this family, and a member of the Calosoma genus.

Calosoma beetles are large ground beetles, also known as searchers or caterpillar hunters.  You may recall a past blog on the beautiful Fiery Searcher that was also a guest at our last MN chapter meeting.  Both the beetle and their larvae (grubs) climb trees in search of caterpillars, and one species was even imported in 1905 to hopefully attack Gypsy Moth larvae.  While I can't be sure, this looks just like the Fiery Searcher grub pictured eating a caterpillar on this site.  There is more about it in the 2011 blog.

Fiery Searcher beetle- Click to enlarge
Its fiery name comes from the dramatic colors.  At first glance it is just another green beetle, but on close inspection it shows its true colors.  I find it hard to capture all the iridescent colors of this beetle with a camera, especially the glowing red hues around the edge of its wing covers.  This dead beetle gives you some idea of the blue-green and orange highlights.

We did find some scorpions but no snakes or collared lizards.  Unlike the movies, these scorpions were very laid back, just wanting to be left alone.  Life on the glade is hard and they need their undisturbed rest.  We were careful to put the rocks back down where we found them, as hiding places on a glade are at a premium.

The highlight of the hike for Julian was the tarantula.  It again was found under a rock. What creature wants to be exposed to a human on a glade around high noon?  The spider, relatively small for its species, was docile and not bothered by gentle handling.  They don't look at humans as food and won't waste their precious venom on us unless they are threatened,

Tarantulas get a bad rap in the movies, but they won't kill you unless you find the ones that James Bond or Indiana Jones encountered.  When threatened, a tarantula gives a warning like other animals, in this case by rearing up on its back legs and baring its fangs.

Its bite can give you a nasty swelling like a bee sting and it can release urticating hairs which can sting and cause a rash.  I wouldn't advise handling one unless you are experienced, very calm, and keep the spider mellow.  If you yield to the temptation, some pointers are here.  For me, observation or a gentle pet on the back is enough.

Brian and his assistant Julian demonstrate safe handling in this video.

Most spider bites aren't spiders anyway.  See this site.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When it comes to glamorous butterflies, large swallowtails and fritillaries get all the attention.  It is easy to overlook some of the tiny species fluttering a few inches off the ground, nectaring on flowers almost too small to see.  On close examination, these have their own beauty.

Tiny brown butterflies were almost the only thing flying the other day, soil colored and hard to see in the tall grass.  Swinging the net through the weeds I came up with a mixture of grass seeds, gnats and ticks and one lone butterfly.

It was a Banded Hairstreak, Satyrium calanus, easy to ignore with a wingspan of only 1.5 inches.  Examined closely, it has two tiny tails on each hindwing, one long and one short.  There are several hairstreak butterflies with similar markings but the banded hairstreak has a pale blue spot on the hindwing tip which lacks an orange center spot.

The Banded Hairstreak can be found this time of year hanging out like this one on shrubs, waiting for females to fly by like college students sitting along the campus walks.  (I am probably dating myself with this analogy in the age of Facebook and Twitter).  Their eggs are laid on oaks, hickories and walnuts where their larvae will eat the leaves and catkins, then overwinter in the chrysalis before hatching next spring.

Walking a trail with an expert like Phil Koenig of BAMONA*, I am amazed with his ability to identify these tiny butterflies in flight on the basis of a distant glance, their habitat and flight patterns.  Much like birds, they have their distinct behavioral characteristics, but without the identifiable songs and calls.  (No help there - I can't identify bird calls either.)

Another species flying now is the Northern Pearly-eye, Enodia anthedon.
In addition to the distinctive eyespots with the central white "iris" which gives it its name, there is a black band just below the white tip of the antennae club.

Northern Pearly-eye
After hanging in the bushes looking for ladies, they mate and the eggs are laid on a variety of grasses.  After three moults (see the last blog) the final instar of the caterpillar overwinters before forming a chrysalis and emerging as an adult.  Surviving the winter as a fragile caterpillar seems a bit risky but they apparently know what they are doing, as there are a lot of them flying right now.

Like some other butterflies and some notorious celebrities, Pearly-eyes are beautiful but lacking in good taste.  Instead of seeking out delicious sweet nectar, they feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion.  This sounds like a story in "People Magazine," doesn't it?

If you have never used BAMONA, I would encourage you to try it.  In addition to identification information, you can send in your pictures and even submit data to record species not previously identified in your county.  It is like bird watching with nets.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Shedding Snakes

Like a fish picture, it probably isn't that long.
We commonly find snake skin sheds in and around our Bull Creek house, usually contributed by the resident black rat snakes.  These are dry and crinkly like tissue paper and are frequently chewed up in fragments.  This week was different.

Shed wrapped around the foundation
Barb was behind the house when she saw a black rat snake snuggled in close to the foundation at the corner.  It was in the act of shedding and it wiggled through an impossibly small hole in the well house wall to escape, undoubtedly embarrassed by its state of undress.

The skin was remarkable when fresh, more like the consistency of damp Saran Wrap.  All the external features of the snake were preserved including the eyes and nostrils.

The process of moulting includes the shedding of skin by amphibians, reptiles or the exoskeleton by insects and arachnids.  The exercise requires energy and leaves the animal vulnerable to predators but is necessary for the animal to grow into a larger covering.

The snake starts the process of moulting by rubbing the tight skin against a hard object until it splits.  The first rents commonly occur around the lips.  It generally sheds its skin in one continuous piece, peeling it off inside out like removing a sock.  This leaves all the features including their ocular scale (called a brille), a snake's version of our cornea, attached. 

Shed with the old ocular scale intact
A few days prior to shedding, a snake's vision is impaired, possibly to the point of blindness.  A layer of air separates the old and newly developed  layers of scale, clouding its vision.  Snakes tend to hide and not hunt during this pre-moulting period.

Barb saw the snake the next day and said it wasn't as long as we had thought.  She was right again.  The nearly transparent shed had folds from the overlapping scales, and when stretched out as it is peeled off, it is about a third longer than the snake itself.  Rattlesnakes are the exception as the shed ends at the rattle and the remaining skin adds thickness and segments to the hard rattles.

Left to nature (or in our closet) the skin is chewed by insects, moths and probably rodents as animals and plants leave little to be wasted in nature.  Humans seem to be a striking exception to this rule.

Life is short but snakes are long has information on identifying snakes by their sheds.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Vultures In The Tree

The last three years we have been posting stories following the progress of black vultures which nest in a stall in our century old barn.  Perhaps "nest" is too strong a word as they simply lay their two eggs on the bare ground in thickets, rock piles or caves.  In this story, they chose a hollow tree.

Young Vulture- 2012
Last year we were cruising along pond trail when our friend spotted a pair of immature vultures sitting on a broken upright tree trunk.  As we slowly walked closer, they dropped down inside the hollow trunk with a deep "thump."  Over the next few weeks we watched as they shed the few remaining white down feathers from their necks and then they were gone.  The tree was only a thin rim of wood with several holes and I didn't expect it to last the winter.

Yesterday as I drove the pond trail, I stopped to check out the old tree.  The hollow trunk is a little shorter now, just over 6 feet tall, a thin barrel of wood with cracks in the sides.  I tapped it lightly with my knuckle and it resonated with a deep pitch.  Then I heard a soft low-pitched hiss, the distinctive sound of a vulture chick warning me to get away.

Vulture Tree Base
The current digital boom has provided many wonders, such as the pocket camera.  I found a small opening in the base of the tree made by wood slowly being digested into soil.  With my camera in movie mode, I lowered it blindly into the opening to record the sound.  Each light tap on the trunk brought forth another hiss.

Although I couldn't see the screen on my camera, I decided to try taking some pictures blindly.  Each flash of the camera brought on another warning hiss.  To my surprise I managed to get several decent portraits of the chicks.

"HISS- I'm big and I'm BAAD!"
In addition to capturing the sound with the video, I actually got some pictures inside their decaying tree house.  They will be there for several months, fed digested dead flesh by their parents until they are strong enough to go up through the hollow trunk to the top.  Meanwhile, you can get a glimpse of life in a tree trunk with this video.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tale of a Skink

Male five-lined skink- Patrick Coin
This time of year, five-lined skinks, Eumeces fasciatus, run daily around on our deck.  Most sources say they prefer moist rocky areas and forests.  On Bull Creek they seem to specialize in our house deck, rock garden and occasionally the interior of the house.  The males vigorously defend their portion of the deck against other males.

Adult females are dark brown with five yellow lines along their bodies while the males are more tan to light brown.  In mating season the males' throats and jaws turn a bright orange, advertising their availability.  They begin chasing the females as spring first arrives, grabbing their necks with their jaws; a real love bite.

Egg laying occurs from April through June with the female brooding the 8-12 eggs.  If she detects a defective egg, she bites the end, sucks out the contents and then eats the shell.  Soon the black colored babies are running around, flashing their long bright blue tails.  Some think the blue tails protect them from the larger aggressive males.  I wonder if this doesn't also serve as an advantage to young vulnerable skinks avoiding predators.

The bright blue tail also may be an advantage in escaping predators.  It might attract them to a non-essential feature they can afford to lose.  Skinks, like some lizards, have an interesting way of escaping predators.  When caught by the tail, they simply self amputate it, a process called autotomy.  The blood vessels immediately clamp down and the body seems none the worse for wear. When this occurs, the tail continues to twitch, hopefully distracting or satisfying the predator while the victim runs for cover.

When they are spotted by a predator, young five-lined skinks will sometime twitch their tails enticingly, a distracting invitation to lunch for the attacker, allowing them to live to grow a new one.  This regrowth requires a lot of energy and the tail is never as long or as decorated as the original, the the animal doesn't seem to miss the original.

Last week I netted an adult female as she ran by.  Planning to photograph her, I was holding her by the body and used my finger to straighten out her tail for a picture.  Without any pressure, the entire tail fell off onto the deck.  This has been occasionally reported to occur even when the skink presses its tail against something solid.  The skink was still laying calmly in my hand as the tail danced on the deck.  I switched to video and watched the tail twitch just like any other predator would.  You can see the tail twitch on this video.

Once I put the skink on the deck it skittered off to grow a new tail.  No skinks were injured in making this video, although one was shortened temporarily,

Addendum, 5-10-2015:
A question was raised about the difference between a lizard and a skink.  

Encyclopedia Britannica give a worldly view.
"Skinks are morphologically distinct from other lizards in their almost cylindrical body with no marked neck, long tail, short or even absent limbs, and scales that are smooth, semicircular and imbricated (overlapping)."
 More practical from our mid-western point of view, our resident herpetologist Brian Edmond gave me this description. 
"A skink is the common name for a successful family of lizards (Scincidae) that is worldwide in distribution. They are distinguished in Missouri from other lizards by having smooth, shiny, scales. This probably doesn't serve to physically distinguish skinks from other groups everywhere in the world."
"All skinks are lizards, but not all lizards are skinks."  That, I can remember.
Thanks to Patrick Coin for use of his photographs.  More are at this site.
More pictures are at

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dog Vomit

A while back Gala Solari sent me the picture above, asking what it is.  Her description:
"Goopy mushroom thingy. Grows on the mulch. Size ranges from 3" to 18" with irregular shapes. In this pic, it's drying out, when new it's smooth on top, with kind of a skin and goopy inside. When dried out, it's dusty and black-ish. Something eats it. What is it?!"
The consensus of George Lantz and soon to be Master Naturalist Mark Bower was that it is a slime mold, mostly likely Fuligo septica - better  known as dog vomit slime mold or scrambled egg slimeInteresting juxtaposition of names, eh?   George had this further comment.
"You say that something is eating it? Believe it or not, Fuligo septica is edible. Native people in parts of Mexico gather and scramble similar to eggs. I would not gather and try it myself."
As in Gala's case, it is commonly found on wood mulch after watering or a rain. It is typically 1 to 8 inches in diameter and up to an inch thick.

Slime molds aren't fungi although they have some similarities.  Unlike most fungi whose spores drop down from the forming structures, F. septica's spores are produced on or in aerial sporangia and are spread by wind.  Gardening sites are peppered by questions about how to prevent them from recurring and many people try to hose them off.  Guess what? That just spreads their spores all over the mulch.  Tom Volk suggests learning to love them or paving over your garden.

F. septica has several interesting talents.  For one, it is able to absorb massive amounts of zinc that would be toxic to any other living thing.  It does this by producing fuligorubin A, a yellow pigment which chelates metals into an inactive form.  This has some potential for detoxifying soil.

Mark Bower is a good source of slime mold stuff.  His email prompted a slime mold blog in 2011 and he just did it again with this Scientific American article.  This further describes the ability of the mold to negotiate complex mazes.  Maybe some day we will have a self propelled soil detoxifier.  I have the perfect name... the blob!

Tom Volk has an interesting article on Fuligo septica including the fact that it was the inspiration for the classic 1958 SciFi thriller The Blob staring Steve McQueen.  I am waiting for a morel spinoff.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mason Bees

Hornfaced bee Osmia cornifrons- from Wikimedia
      -By Jennifer Ailor, Springfield Master Naturalist

Mason Bee "house"
This spring I purchased two mason bee “houses” from Gardeners Supply Co. and check them nearly every day for activity. You’ve no doubt seen their nests of mud inside hollow reeds or holes in wood. The bees are terrific pollinators and may visit as many as 1,000 blooms a day or 20 times more than a honeybee. I placed one of the bee houses on the southwest corner of my barn near the garden and another at the house, where I have lots of flowers and flowering shrubs.

According to Wikipedia's article on the subject and other sources, mason bees are in the genus Osmia of the Megachilidae family. There are more than 130 species in North America alone, active in temperate zones from spring through late summer. Mason bees are solitary. Every female is fertile and makes her own nest in a hollow cavity created by a wood-boring insect or bird or in hollow reeds. They don’t produce honey or beeswax.

Males hatch first and then hang around potential nests waiting to mate. Once that’s occurred, the female backs into the hole and lays an egg on the top of a mass of pollen/nectar she’s collected. She then creates a mud partition, which fills in the back of the cavity. She’ll continue laying eggs until the cavity is filled, then plug the entrance to the tube and seek another nest location.

By summer, the larva has consumed all of its provisions and begins spinning a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage. The adult matures in the fall or winter, hibernating inside its cocoon until it emerges in the spring.

If you’d like to order a house, Gardeners Supply has them for $18.95 each. You also can build your own. Here are two links to sites that have lots of information about building nests and about mason bees in general: and

Editor's Note:
We have a large supply of various bamboo-like reed grass which are cut annually from the beautiful Grass Garden at Close Memorial Park.  They are perfect for the job and if you are interested in making your own mason bee house and are in the Springfield area, I will be glad to supply you some.  It just takes some reed segments and a can.
I Bee-live in Pollinators- Quick and cheap


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Burying the Beetles- II

Ready for the hole- Click pictures to enlarge
We discussed the endangered American Burying Beetle (ABB) in the last blog.  The St. Louis Zoo's Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation has an extensive program which propagates beetles, each individually identified by parents, generation, etc. The eventual goal is to reintroduce them into the wild and hopefully reestablish breeding self-sustaining populations.  Now it is time to get down and dirty.

Ben and friend
So how do we get the endangered American Burying Beetle (ABB) back into the wild?  By burying them!  You may remember in the last chapter we mentioned the importance of having a dead animal of the right size.  This is where the quail comes in.   Our job was to bury a mating (we hope) pair of ABB with a nice fresh...well more like slightly stinky... farm raised quail carcass.  Phew to us but home cooking to the beetle.  Ben Alleger, our young team member with experience in reintroducing ABB last year will lead us through the project in pictures.

We formed up in three teams, each headed by a member of the St. Louis Zoo team.  Each team would be responsible for 100 beetle pairs, each separately boxed and banded together.  Our leader gave out detailed, explicit instructions repeatedly, preventing any mistakes.  After all, these are federally endangered species and none of us wanted to end up in the pen!  Each step included another of his inspections, like a kinder and gentler drill sergeant without the expletives. 

Hole with quail in side chamber
The first task was digging 100 holes, evenly spaced along a straight line.  The hole had to be the right size and depth with a carefully removed lid of prairie turf, to be replaced when we were done.  Next a side chamber was dug out of the hole, all pointing to the same side so they could be found later.  (Editor's note- no volunteers were injured in this project)

Now came the fun- sort of.  A ripe quail was placed in each side chamber, being careful that it didn't stick out into the main hole.  We had to wear rubber gloves to handle the beetles.  Packing in the dead quail ensured that no one complained about wearing the gloves.
Male and female- separate quarters

For our burying project the beetles were carefully paired up, making sure that they were from separate families, no cousins or siblings allowed.  They were packaged in a pair of separate boxes.  They won't meet until the last minute when they get together on the quail.

The highlight was placing the beetles in the hole.  After determining that each pair was alive, we put them individually in the hole, herding them into the side chamber with the quail.  It is important to be sure that none of the valuable critters escapes for they have work to do.

Placing the beetles in their chambers, one at a time.
Release into the chamber

Aside from one which, after smelling the quail, was apparently considering becoming a vegetarian, they all scurried into the side chamber without encouragement, never to be seen again.  We were told that they might make audible squeaks as they mate, something that can take place almost immediately.  Since this was a family venture with pure of heart and mind MDC folks, we didn't watch.  What happens in quail chambers, stays in the chambers.

ABB male climbing over the quail into the chamber, looking for love.
Replacing the turf lid
Now back to work.  As soon as they were in the side chamber, we put the lid of turf back over the hole, using loose dirt to fill in the edges.  Once that was complete for 100 holes, we stretched chicken wire over the strip and tacked it down tight to prevent  marauding mammals from digging out the quail.

With three teams, we buried 302 pair of ABB in three separate plots.  Now it is up to the beetles.  What happens next is described on the St. Louis Zoo website.
"Pairs bury the carrion cooperatively. The female beetle lays her eggs near the preserved carcass. Within four days, the eggs hatch into larvae. Both parents feed their offspring by eating some of the dead flesh and regurgitating it into the larvae's mouths. This goes on for about 6 to 12 days, until the larvae begin their next stage of development, pupation. After 45 to 60 days, the new generation of beetles emerges from the carcass cavity. This process is repeated during the beetles’ one-year life span."
ABB Larvae- St. Louis Zoo
In ten days, the St. Louis Zoo team will return and assess one-third of the holes, carefully opening them to see if the larvae are present.  By this time they should be functioning and the male may have all ready escaped.  After last year's project, 1/3 of the beetle pairs were checked and found to have produced 395 offspring.  Future assessments will include looking for new adults on the prairie.  They have already seen one adult beetle from last year's class. 

The beetles we released have been notched, that is, marked by notching the elytra, the hard, modified forewings that encase the thin hind wings used in flight. The notch distinguishes captive-bred and wild beetles, and beetles are notched based on release location.

Rectangular notch on  right tip
If you look closely at the back tip of the elytra of the beetle on the right, you will see a tiny rectangular notch cut out.  This allows the team to determine if it is one we put in the ground or a member of the next graduating class.

More information on the project is at the St. Louis Zoo website.  A slide show from last year's reintroduction is here.

Team 2- we happy few   Click to enlarge

Friday, June 7, 2013

Prairie Bioblitz

We just returned from the Missouri Prairie Foundation's Prairie Bioblitz.  This year we explored Lattner and Denison Prairies located 10 miles south of Nevada, Missouri.  We had a choice of subjects below* to explore, each group led by an expert in the field.  With the deluge 24 hours before, the fields were somewhat soggy but the enthusiasm wasn't dampened.

Barb joined Justin Thomas to identify vascular plants of the prairie.  The fields were in full bloom, covered with species not normally found in forest and fields that have been altered by human activities.  Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, was everywhere, its distinctive long-haired leaves preparing the way for blooming, while lush grasses and forbs were knee high in clumps with occasional mammal trails coursing through them.  Sensitive briar, Mimosa nuttallii, its tiny flowers forming delicate globes tipped with yellow delighted the eye while watching its leaves fold up when touched entertained kids both young and old.

Sensitive briar
Rattlesnake master- Click pictures to enlarge

Only one percent of prairies remain, the rest either plowed for crops or converted to fescue.  They are one of the remaining natural homes of a variety of milkweeds.  Some require specialized soils like the sand milkweed, Asclepias amplexicaulis, found on these prairies.  These plants have a toxic milky sap which can pose a danger to livestock, but the leaves are essential food for developing Monarch butterfly larvae.  With the loss of milkweeds over large areas, Monarchs have to fly much further to lay their eggs and their numbers are in significant decline.

An aunt chasing ants
Finding and identifying ants in a thick prairie seems like a hopeless task but James Trager of the Missouri Botanical Gardens led us to 5 of the 6 common prairie ant species.  The trick is to lure them in with... tuna?  Don't laugh, it works.  He held the ants by their hind legs (yes, it can be done!) as he demonstrated their identifying features.  He was able to identify them from a distance when I couldn't even find them.  Since I have trouble handling a fork, I left picking them up to him.  We were able to see distinguishing anatomical structures with a hand lens.

Jamie with painted turtle
You might not expect to find amphibians on a prairie, but the thick vegetation is criss-crossed with small streams.  First order streams are dry except when rain runs off, but there are also puddles and ponds where the water remains full time.  The moist soil is home to many frogs, toads and turtles as well as tons of crayfish, some unique to prairies.  Many of the species were found by our dedicated staff of kids, like this prize painted turtle.

Patient painted turtle before swimming away
Yes, he is right side up.
Naturalist Madalyn and friend
Our herpetologist guide, John Miller from MDC, gets just excited as the kids.  He demonstrated frog calls as well as identifying them in the field.  Soon everyone was bent over, trying to catch the tiny cricket frogs in the tall grass.  Holding them by a front and hind leg on one side, we could carefully inspect them without harm.  Not all the adults were as anxious to hold them as the kids were.

Our Springfield Plateau Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists partners with Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) in preserving and expanding our prairie resources.

You can help by joining the MPF at,  and enjoying the warm feeling of preserving nature and maybe even coming out for next years' Bioblitz.

* This years topics
Vascular plants - Justin Thomas of the Institute for Botanical Training
Butterflies - lepidopterist Phil Koenig
Bees with Mike Arduser, insect heritage biologist with MDC
Fish and other aquatics _ Tom Priesendorf and Kara Tvedt, fisheries biologists with MDC
Planthoppers - Dr. Stephen Wilson, entomologist, University of Central Missouri, 
Small mammal - Dr. Vicki Jackson of the University of Central Missouri
Ants - Dr. James Trager of Shaw Nature Reserve 
Insect coloration - entomologist Richard Thoma
Bat talk followed by hike to detect bats
Moths with Phil Koenig
Nocturnal Insect Black Light Station
Star Gazing - Dan Johnson with the Astronomical Society of Kansas City
Bird mist netting with Dana Ripper and Ethan Duke of the Missouri River Bird Observatory, Bird walk with Bruce Schuette, MPF'
Bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, hornworts) -bryologist Nels Holmberg, no max
Amphibians and reptiles - John Miller MDC.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Small World of Moths

Most of us instinctively focus on color when trying to identify a bug.  In this case, it led me down the wrong path.  Janet Haworth sent me this picture she took on the upper trail at Clifty Creek CA, Maries County, MO.  Coincidentally, I found an identical specimen along our road at Bull Mills the same day.

Net-winged beetle- Wikimedia

My first guess was it was a moth.  I tried for a quick and easy answer in Kaufman's Field Guide and it showed a net-winged beetle, Calopteron terminale, with a similar color and shape.  They are found on plants and may utilize sap while other sources say they are predaceous.  Their bright color advertises their bad taste and potential toxicity.

Notice the ridges in the soft wing cover.  On close inspection, the antennae had distinctive structures which also differed from our specimens. 

 Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth*
One of the sites mentioned the resemblance between the new-winged beetle and the black and yellow lichen moth, Lycomorpha pholus, so named because its caterpillar looks like lichen. It looked close in Peterson's Field Guide to Moths, but there was more black on the wings and the boundary was angled at 45 degrees rather than straight across. More important, pictures on showed tapered antennae with small notched segments.

The picture I chose was by Charles Schurch Lewallen and I was startled to see it was taken in Okmulgee, OK where my mother was born in 1903.  Small world!

One site mentioned it could be confused with the orange-patched smoky moth, Pyromorpha dimidiataI looked it up on and the first picture I looked at - another small world - was by a friend and fellow mycology nut, Jon Rapp who in his spare time has contributed 890 pictures to Bugguide.  His picture plainly shows the distinctive antennae seen on Janet's specimen.  Diagnosis made!

Orange-patched Smoky Moth- Jon Rapp
However, as Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till its over."  This moth has only been confirmed once in Missouri, up in Pulaski County.  This doesn't mean it is rare, just that no one else has reported it in our area.  I have sent this in to BAMONA for official confirmation and Phil Koenig, the Missouri reviewer has certified the identification.  If you have an interest in lepidoptera, I would encourage you to get out in the field with camera or net, or at least turn on your porch light and then head to BAMONA at

* Charles Schurch Lewallen has extensive animal and botanical photograph pages.

Monday, June 3, 2013

New Garter Snake in the Ozarks

Sometime back I was complaining in a past blog about the name change of the black rat snake to the Texas rat snake.  I just discovered that the Texans are invading our border again.

Snake in the bush- Valley Water Mill trail
On the Master Naturalist plant survey at Valley Water Mill, I was trailing along with Linda Ellis and the rest of the botanical crew,* telling them that I would be looking for snakes.  While I was scanning the ground, Linda found this beauty on the branches of an invasive honeysuckle two feet off the ground.  It is a garter snake and her first impression was it might be a red-sided garter snake.

When we got back home I started to look it up.  There are 5 sub-species of garter snakes in Missouri according to the books, with 3 found on the prairies.  We would expect to find the Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, across southern Missouri and the red-sided species Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis in the southwest part of the state. Looking at the pictures I couldn't make an ID.  Like most things, it is a little more complicated than just the color.

Eastern garter snake-
I sent the picture to my snake master, Brian Edmond who came up with an unexpected answer.  These two species have enough color variation that you can't ID them by color.  Even Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri lumps them together.  Its key goes into the details of counting scales, details that only a dedicated herpetologist could love.

But it is even more complicated.  Our snake is a Texas garter snake.  While the books say it doesn't live here, Brian's research paper cited below** reports that it is found in the White River Hills ecoregion and is a common "town snake" in Springfield, Missouri!

Although I complain about the name changes and all the Latin, this is more than just recognizing who first saw the species.  With more people looking at nature and reporting it, we are rewriting the books on many species.  The small differences in sub-species frequently means studying details that I wouldn't notice.  As I have proven so often on this blog when trying to identify a species of anything, it isn't just what you know but who you know.

Brian sent me some additional comments worth repeating here.
"The concept of subspecies is problematic for many species, including Thamnophis sirtalis. While there are definite regional patterns if you go far enough--this species is apparently always a good "red-sided" in Kansas--they seem to be a confusing mess in Missouri. Johnson shows an "intergradation zone" between the two subspecies across much of the state, but I've seen animals well outside of this zone that exhibit the patterns of the other "subspecies".  Like other wide-ranging species, I believe Thamnophis sirtalis is due for a DNA study, with the result being a splitting off of several new species. I wouldn't be surprised to find that we have 2 or 3 (or more!) new garter snakes in Missouri." 

*   Debbie Lewis, Mary McCarthy,  David Ketchum, Barb and I.
** Brian's paper with interesting details is at page 25-26.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Forest Tent Caterpillar

Preston's favorite caterpillar
During the nature hike with Troop 200, several scouts found this caterpillar on small maples or other trees as well as wandering along on the ground.  One of them clung to a twig for the entire hike and made it back to the house for identification.

Troop 200 forest tent caterpillar- click to enlarge
Side View- Charles Lewallen
This is the forest tent caterpillar  (Malacosoma disstria) which becomes a moth of the same name.  In addition to the distinctive round spots along the back it has beautiful turquoise stripes running along each side.

Troop 200 cocoon
When you spot a caterpillar on the ground, it usually has either dropped to escape a predator or is wandering around looking for a safe place to pupate (make its cocoon or chrysalis).  After identifying this cat, I put it and another one I found on the ground into a ziplock with some leaves.  Two days later, violĂ , I now had two fuzzy cocoons.

When the moths emerge, they mate and the female lays masses of up to 300 eggs.  These are glued to branches with a substance that also protects them from freezing over the winter.  The larvae emerge in the spring and immediately start feeding.  In the Ozarks they are especially fond of oaks and maples.
In spite of their name, they do not make tents like the eastern tent caterpillars that are common on Prunus species.  They are social, traveling and feeding in masses and during large outbreaks they may strip an individual tree of its leaves.  This isn't usually a significant problem in a forest but can cause consternation to an affected homeowner.  Outbreaks tend to occur for several years in a row, especially after seasons of harsh climate or heavy predation.  After last year's drought, we may be seeing lots of these moths in the next few years.

Our official Troop 200 M. disstria  should eclose (emerge from the cocoon) within the week.  I will attach its picture to this blog.  Until then, the one above will have to do.

A comprehensive resource on forest tent caterpillars is at