Saturday, December 28, 2013

Declining Turkey Population

Gobbler display- MDC
From the number of turkeys we see along Bull Creek, you would never guess that their overall numbers in the nation are declining. A new article in Audubon magazine discusses the problem in great detail.

The restoration of turkey populations after they were nearly decimated in the two centuries following  the arrival of European settlers is one of the great comeback stories of conservation. By 1920 the US population was about 30,000 birds and they had been extirpated from 18 of their original 38 states.  "In the 1950s, wild turkey populations in the state were at an all-time low of fewer than 2,500 birds in 31 counties" according to MDC.  State conservation departments in cooperation with the National Turkey Federation eventually trapped and moved 200,000 birds between states, reestablishing their native communities. 

In recent years there has been a mysterious decline in turkey populations in many of the southern states. Decreases of 40 to 65 percent of been recorded in Georgia and Arkansas. Missouri's statewide turkey flock decreased by 30% in 10 years with some regions recording a 50% drop.

There are a number of factors proposed as reasons for the declining populations. One is the rapid increase in birds introduced to new areas. Populations could be expected to expand rapidly before settling in to an equilibrium depending on the predator population, available cover and food supplies. In other words, part of the decline might be expected.

With a sudden increase in the availability of delicious turkeys, an increase in predators could almost be predicted. Coyotes are expanding into states where they never occurred before, possibly due to the loss of wolves as the top predators in the past two centuries. Increasing populations of omnivorous raccoons, associated with the decrease in commercial trapping, could be another factor. Invasive species such as fire ants and feral hogs could also affect populations.

Another interesting theory is the recent increase in cool wet springs, creating what has been called the "wet hen hypothesis."  Damp air holds smells close to the ground, increasing the time it takes for me to take our schnauzers on a walk on rainy days. It is suspected that damp feathers of nesting hens make them easier for predators to find.

Habitat loss is an ongoing problem for turkeys as it is for quail, prairie chicken, and most other wildlife species. Large forest tracts that had been maintained sustainably with frequent burning are now being managed by timber management investment companies with fewer ecological concerns.

Benjamin Franklin did not propose the wild turkey as a national symbol and the first Thanksgiving participants probably were served goose rather than turkey. Read the Audubon article for this and much more information.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Indian Pipe

Indian pipe- RKipfer
 One of the joys of mushroom forays are the "by-catch" of the forest floor including insects, wilfdlowers and orchids.  The plant above is frequently mistaken for another mushroom, and indeed it does have its roots in mycology.

Mature Indian pipe- Chris Wagner
This is Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, sometimes referred to as the ghost or corpse plant, an uncommon plant of the forest floor.  The scale like leaves are visible along the stalk as is the single flower head, thus uniflora.  The Monotropa family has five species of herbaceous perennial plants, (herbaceous= lose their leaves and stems to ground lever each growing season, perennial= live for two or more seasons).  The flowers remain pure white until they are fertilized when they turn pale pink.  As it matures it will stop drooping and stand straight up.*

Pink variant-Mark Bower
It is usually pure white but may be a light pink with black spots.  Since it is totally lacking in chlorophyll and has no need for sunlight, it is usually found in deeply shaded leaf litter.  Its nutrition comes from parasitism of mycorrhizal fungi that are associated with the roots of trees.  These fungi contribute moisture and minerals to tree roots in trade for its energy of photosynthesis, so the Indian pipe is indirectly dependent on the plants themselves.

Russula sp.
Lactarius maculatipes- Mark Bower

Indian pipe only grows on fungi rhizomes of the Russulaceae family.  For the budding mycologists, these have chalk-like stems that break like a soft carrot.  The two common genera are the Russula and the Lactarius.  The Russula  are distinctive enough that even I can usually identify them by their large, brightly colored caps, frequently red, and their white free gills that are brittle.  Lactarius, as the name suggests, have a milky sap along their broken gills.

Tom Volk has a good discussion of mycoheterotrophc plants (lack chlorophyll and depend on their mycorrhizal fungus for carbon and nutrient supply).

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snake Lips and Snails

Northern red-bellied snake -  Ryan Thies
I never thought of snake lips until I came across some studies while researching for the blog about slugs.  It turns out that when a few species come across a snail, they are real kissers.

Northern red-bellied snakes,  Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata, eat slugs, snails and worms.  These soft bodied creatures are slippery prey.  To get a grip, they flare their lips which also may help them control the slime.  You could say they are real suckers for snails.  (Yeah, my editor groaned too.)

Ryan Thies
Midland brown snake - Ryan Thies
More studies have been done on the midland brown snake, Storeria dekayiwrightorum.
They feed primarily on earthworms, snails, slugs and soft bodied insects.  One study found that their diet was 75% slugs and 25% earthworms.  Needless to say, their preferred territory is marshes, swamps, floodplains and forests.

I find eating snails in a fancy restaurant to be a daunting task, associated with lots of red sauce on my shirt.  Remember, a snail is essentially a slug with a shell. Slugs have flexible slimy bodies, allowing them to escape predators.  They can squeeze through incredibly small holes in the ground and tiny crevices in tree bark.  The snail's defense is withdrawal into its shell, sometimes even having a little trap door to pull shut.  On the other hand, with its bulky shell, running away is not an option so anything with molars that can crunch them will have a tasty meal with their daily requirement of calcium roughage thrown in. 

Now snakes don't come equipped with molars, so how do red-bellied and brown snakes eat snails?  Tom Johnson describes in Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri":

"Their flat head and elongated teeth enable them to grasp the soft part of a snail beyond its shell and hang on.  By pulling continuously and twisting its head and body, the snail eventually becomes fatigued and is extracted from its shell."
I will never think of snake's lips, not to be confused with the bluegrass song of the same name, the same way again.

Thanks to Ryan Theis for the pictures.  His extensive collection of Missouri herp photographs is at Ryan's Complete Herp Lifelist Page.

A list of some other snail predators is at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Infernal Flame

An article in the News-Leader describes an "Eternal Flame" coming from the ground at Springfield's Jordan Valley Park.  It could just a well be called an infernal flame as it is fueled by methane coming up from the ground at the old reclaimed quarry.  If you lived in Springfield in the 1970s this will start to sound familiar.

Lime Quarry, Springfield, MO-
The story, as described at, begins with an old limestone quarry at the corner of National and St. Louis.  It was created in 1884 with kilns to produce lime, conveniently located along the railroad.  This was a major industry providing work for many men during the depression.  Ash Grove Lime and later the Portland Cement Company operated in this location until the quarry was closed in 1963.  From that time until 1972 it functioned as a dump for "trade wastes."

In 1973 it caught fire and the carbon monoxide produced killed a night watchman.  The heavy noxious smoke affected local businesses for several weeks.  Plumes of smoke reached 200 degrees, nearby businesses closed and Barbara Lucks, then a new college graduate, was nearly driven out of her apartment.  Heavy equipment, large cranes and relocated water mains finally snuffed it out until it recurred briefly in 1976.  The quarry contained green water until 2001 when it was drained and subsequently filled in.  Parts of the landfill are still settling to this day.*

Quarry 2007- News-Leader
While the industrial wastes may have been the source of the fire, the methane production is a different story.  In the 1960s, Dutch elm disease hit Springfield, killing hundreds of majestic trees along National and around the city.  In what seemed to be a good idea at the time, these were dumped into the giant quarry, to be subsequently covered with surface water and then landfill.

While the trees weren't burned which would have released large amounts of carbon dioxide, they also didn't undergo the normal slow surface decomposition by fungi and bacteria.  This slow recycling normally allows nature to incorporate carbon into soil, then plants and eventually animals, our beloved carbon cycle.

Unfortunately, when wood is buried and damp, decomposition occurs from anaerobic bacteria in an oxygen-free mileu.  Anaerobic bacteria produce methane just like they do in a cow's gut.  Methane is produced directly from the carbon that is no longer sequestered in the soil.  The same process occurs in dense piles of un-aereated wood chips used for power plants.  "Forest debris left in the woods will produce very minor amounts of methane, if any, unless it is squashed into a swamp or buried in a stump dump."**  Sound like the quarry?  Again describing large pulpwood piles:
"This is why the piles often spontaneously catch fire, the piles get very hot while they are generating flammable breakdown products like methane, alcohols, and other gasses or volatile compounds that have a low flash point. These are produced under anaerobic conditions and high temperature, something that does not typically occur in upland forests." **
There has been a lot of debate over the last decade about whether trees can produce methane or merely transmit it from the soil.  Studies in 2006 concluded that living plants produced methane, a dramatic finding at the time.  More research in 2009 described in Science magazine suggested that they are merely transporting it. "Instead, plants appear to merely be passing gas, so to speak, originally made by soil microbes."

Now a study from has shown that living trees do produce methane.  This occurs when trees which appear healthy on the outside are hollowed out inside by common fungal infections.  This supports the growth of anaerobic methane-producing microorganisms called methanogens.  A tree in this condition can produce methane concentrations 80,000 times higher than the ambient ground level atmospheric levels.

Does this mean that cows gets a pass on their gas as the source of atmospheric methane?  It is a significant greenhouse gas, 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide.  Actually ruminants such as cows and goats produce much more methane than trees, contributing two-thirds of the atmospheric levels through their belching and to a lesser extent flatus.  It is hard to picture a way to burn off their methane but ongoing studies on how to reduce their methane will be fuel for another blog. 

* The fascinating history of the industry and fighting the fire is summarized in this 2007 News-Leader story.

**  The Myths of Dangerous Methane Emissions from Forests, and Cutting Trees to Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions (PDF) 

Monday, December 9, 2013


Remember back last summer when you could see soil, insects and other forms of warm life?  I saved this just to warm us up on a cold day.  This summer, Kim Christensen called me over to look at some mysterious holes in her raised bed gardens.  As we looked at the conical depressions, a small beetle slid down the side of one and bits of sand started flying upward.  Check out this video before reading on.

Out of a dark recess in my aged brain the term "antlion" emerged.  These creatures tend to live in warmer regions where there is sandy soil so our exposure is most likely from National Geographic* or the nature shows on TV.  Kim's imported garden soil was unusually sandy, a rarity in our rock covered Ozark hills.

Adult antlion - Click to enlarge -  Marshal Hedin- Wikimedia
Antlions are the larval stage of a very fragile looking winged insect which looks like a cross between a lace wing and a slow moving damselfly.   One key to differentiating them from the others are their clubbed antennae.  The adults are short lived, focused on reproduction and many species don't eat.  They may occasionally be found around lights at night.

Although some species have larvae that hide in wood or rocks to hunt by ambush, our common species use sand traps.  After they mate, the female lays her eggs in sandy soil.  Once the eggs hatch, the larvae become little eating machines.  By selecting fine grained sand to lay their eggs, the mother insures that her babies will have the perfect place to feed for up to three years of their larvalhood.

The consistency of the sand is critical.  The antlion will dig out a crater, hiding in the sand at the bottom.  The slope has to have a steep enough angle of repose so that anything on it automatically starts a little sand slide.  Once the prey slides to the bottom of the funnel, it is in deep trouble.  As it tries to climb out, the antlion tosses up the fine grains like a demented golfer in a sand trap.  The sand you see flying up as the victim tries to climb out both creates a small avalanche and loosens the footing underneath so that it continually slides down to the base.  Eventually the antlion grabs its prey and drags it under the sand.

The antlion larva is equipped with impressive hollow jaws with tubes that inject venom into the prey, digesting their body before sucking out the juicy predigested soup.  Although ants are frequent victims, they will take on any arthropod that wanders into their trap.  The larva may persist for 2-3 years before pupating, possibly a mechanism to compensate for its variability of food supply as it depends entirely on "who" drops in for dinner.

Our antlion larva
I recall a grade-school joke about the meanest animal in the world, the two-headed Wuwu.  And how did it poop?  It didn't, that was what made it so mean.  Badump bump!  This may be a factor in the antlion's ferocity.  It lacks an anus and stores all its solid waste from the larval stage until it is eventually passed as meconium near the end of its pupal stage.  This helps it retain fluid in its dry surroundings, even if it doesn't contribute to its temperament.

Sand coated pupa

The larva pupates by spinning a coating of silk with sand glued to it, a great camouflage.  The antlion holds the record for the greatest disparity of a small larva to a large adult among the insects undergoing complete metamorphosis.  This is primarily due to the long, thin frail exoskeleton of the adult.  Since it only needs to fly to find a mate, it doesn't require the heavier body of an insect that eats and survives for a longer time, the ultimate in reproductive efficiency. 

Citizen science doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment.  I would urge you to read the blog by Atmeeya Nayak, an observant student in India.  He provided the two pictures above as well as reporting on some very interesting personal experiments.

After the first beetle in Kim's garden quit struggling, a second larger beetle slid into the funnel shown above.  Twelve seconds into this video you can see the antlion jump out and try to subdue the larger beetle.

* Here is National Geographic's antlion video from Africa - loads slow but "a little" better quality than ours.
The antlion has a long history in literature, at first as mythical beasts until they were described by Albertus Magnus in his Opus Naturarum of 1255-1270.  See Antlion Pit.
As always, waynesword has a lot of information and pictures.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Aldo Leopold in Missouri

Tina sent me a link to a speech made in Columbia, Missouri by Aldo Leopold on April 26, 1938.  Before you read the text, let us put it into perspective.  The whole concept of conservation as a social responsibility was just beginning.  Missouri was at the forefront of the conservation movement and has remained there ever since.  Let's review the history.
"The Missouri Department of Conservation was conceived at the low point of U.S. conservation history. Unregulated hunting, fishing and trapping and the abuse of forests had decimated the state’s natural resources. Missouri sportsmen devised a solution that was as simple as it was revolutionary. They drafted a constitutional amendment creating a non-political conservation agency. Voters approved the amendment in 1936 by a margin of 71 to 29 percent, one of the largest margins by which any amendment to the state constitution has ever passed. It gave Missouri the world's first non-political, science-based conservation agency with exclusive authority over forests, fish and wildlife."   MDC
Conservationist 1938- Click to enlarge
The first issue of Conservationist was published three months after the speech in July, 1938.  Its front page article was titled
"Conservation Commission Announces its Program as Second Year Starts."  The Missouri Conservation Commission, the predecessor of the Missouri Department of Conservation was formed in 1937, right after the enabling legislation.

Leopold's speech, "Whither Missouri", both congratulated the steps taken and warned of the challenge of getting landowners to take responsibility for their land.  This should all sound familiar.  He emphasizes the need for erosion control, soil conservation, and many of the issues we continue to face today.  In some ways, he seems to have had a crystal ball set for 2013.  Consider these quotes:
  • Conservation agencies future ownership of land.  "I would call it an optimistic guess to say one-fifth of Missouri, that is to say, the combined area of national forests, state forests, parks, refuges, etc., can hardly, even in the remote future exceed a fifth of the area of the state."  Currently 85% of forest lands are privately owned.
  • Prairie chicken population.  "Until the majority of our farmers are as proud of having a flock of prairie chickens as of owning a new car, we shall not have the chickens."  
Starker Leopold
Soon his son Starker Leopold would be working for MDC at the newly acquired Caney Mountain Conservation Area where he prepared the first wildlife management plan.  It was purchased as a turkey refuge and 30 deer were released in 1940.  "This area then provided both deer and turkeys to restore populations in the rest of the state." Starker worked here from 1939 to 1943, early steps in what became an illustrious career of his own.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December Phenology

Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

Red squirrel drey
When winter weather is cold and wet with icy winds, squirrels will gather in their leafy dreys nestled high in tree forks; this is to conserve energy. Yet late December brings mating season when males can be seen chasing females, as well as chasing off other suitors. This ritual of chasing, occurs through the trees at top speed, performing some of the most breathtaking acrobatics imaginable.

Christmas Fern is the largest of the evergreen ferns in our region.  Snow may flatten its fronds to the ground, but once the snow melts, the Christmas Fern will reappear in all its green glory.


Barred Owl- Wikimedia

Barred Owls call "Who - Who cooks for you - who cooks for you all?"
Courtship begins in early December and although owls are more elusive to see at this time, their courtship “hoots” can be heard.  Two to four eggs will be laid in hollow trees or hawk nests in February or March.

Great Horned Owl- Greg Hume

Great Horned Owls courtship "hoots" can also be heard beginning in early December.  Listen for 
"Hoo   Hoo-hoo    Hoo-hoo." After mating they will adopt an unused hawk or eagle nest and lay one to six eggs in January or February.

Shelf or Bracket Fungi that grows on trees, stumps and fallen logs are very much part of the winter scene as they are very obvious and attractive when the foliage is off deciduous plants.  Look for the various colors of tan, brown, pink and rust found on the top surfaces.
White crowned sparrow- Wikipedia
Dark-eyed Junco MDC

Don't forget to stock up on bird food.  Winter is when the insects and fruits get scarce and nutrition is important for overwintering species.  All the usual suspects will show up at the feeder but be on the lookout for some winter species.  Dark-eyed juncos return, not dramatic in color but they make it up in "cuteness." You might also spot a white throated sparrow, visiting for a Christmas vacation.  They breed in Canada and come to "snowbird" in Missouri.

Thanks to Tana Pulles for putting together the December Phenology

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pity the Slug

If ever there was a creature needing a better press agent, it is the slug.  From the mother who calls her late rising child a slug to the kids sprinkling salt on one to watch it shrivel up, slugs don't get a break.  They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the animal world.  There are slugs that live on land, in saltwater and freshwater, but lets stick to the land slugs.

On a recent field trip, we found this slug on the forest floor, minding its own business by crawling through the new leaf litter.  And just what is its business?  How about a major link in the food chain?

Dorsal view
Slugs and their armor covered cousins, the snails, inhabit the ground.  The name slug usually refers to an "apparently shell-less mollusc," a phrase referring to the fact that a few have internal or incomplete shells.  Those with a shell too small to retract into are called semi-slug, raising the question of why it bothers hauling around that apparently worthless shell.  It turns out that this is a way of storing calcium for future use.

Since the slug's body is mostly water, dehydration is a major problem (especially if a 6 year old is sprinkling salt on you in a precocious experiment of osmosis.)  This is the reason they prefer damp places like under rotting logs and leaf litter.  They also produce slime which helps to reduce evaporation.  One type of slime on their backs may make them harder for predators to grasp.  The slime they lay down as they travel is helpful to males seeking a mate as well as predatory snails looking for lunch.  Sex is a risky business - just ask a turkey gobbler responding to a hunter's call.

Even if it escapes predators and successfully mates, it may not be out of trouble.  In some species the male sexual organ can become irreversibly entangled with its mate. When that occurs it can only be separated by one of the partners in a process called apophallation .  Apo is Greek for "away from or separate, phallus is, well you know.  The details of the chewing process doesn't belong in this family blog but can be read about on Wikipedia under reproduction.

Underside (ventral surface) shamelessly exposed
Slugs are generally generalists, eating lots of veggies and other plants as well as lichen, fungi and even carrion.  Some are predatory, eating worms, snails and other slugs.  While gardeners are familiar with those feeding on flowers, herbs and vegetables, many are fungus specialists living under rotting logs and leaf litter. such as our friend above.

Now back to their role in the food chain.  Lots of things eat slugs, including birds, ground hogs, ground beetles, frogs, shrews, centipedes, moles, mice and even other slugs.  Red-bellied and brown snakes eat slugs and snails as a major part of their diet (coming soon to a blog near you on Snake Lips.)  And we haven't even touched on the other insects and parasites.

I would guess that you never have tried to identify a slug species.  Neither had I, but there are tools out there for that purpose.  One is which has information on slug anatomy and dissection, keying slugs and fact sheets on the various species.  It also has an interesting photo gallery although it loads very slowly.  (What did you expect, after all they are pictures of slugs!)

So slugs are important in the food cycle.  They may be the Rodney Dangerfields of the animal world, but hey, at least they get a lot of invitations to lunch .