Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pandora Sphinx Moth

  Photo by Drew Albert
Drew Albert of our Master Naturalist chapter found this beauty hanging out in a tower of the National Weather Service where he works.  This was a restricted area and it wasn't wearing an ID, but he turned a blind eye and a camera onto the trespasser.

This is a Pandora or Pandorus sphinx moth, Eumorpha pandorusIt seems appropriate that it was hanging out at the airport as it resembles a stealth bomber that is painted in jungle camo, like Mother Nature had been watching too many Rambo movies that day.  They fly predominately at dusk on green to brown wings that can span 4.5 inches.  Their wing shape looks a lot like the somewhat smaller hog sphinx moth.

Hog sphinx, Darapsa myron - Chris Barnhart
Pandorus Sphinx Moth Pupa - Eumorpha pandorus
  Janice Stiefel
The larvae are just as impressive as the adult.  They grow up to 4 inches long by feeding on grape species (Vitis) as well as Virginia creeper.  There is considerable variation in the colors of their various instars.  The last instar climbs down to the ground and burrows into the loose soil.  There it will pupate in the fall, forming the cocoon that will be its home until it emerges next year as a beautiful moth.

caterpillar - Eumorpha pandorus
  Fifth instar - gkmarsh
The caterpillars will go through five molts, called instars.  Early instars have a horn like most sphinx moths, for example the familiar tomato horn worm.  Unlike their cousins, the Pandora's horn has a cute little curl.  This disappears in the fourth instar, replaced by a little eye mark.

Pandorus Sphinx - Eumorpha pandorus
Early instar - Erik Blosser

Pandorus Sphinx Moth Larva - Eumorpha pandorus
 Head tuck - Janice Stiefel*
Like many other caterpillars, their prolegs have special hooks which allow them to feed upside down, clinging to the underside of a leaf to hide from predators.  At times they will tuck their two front segments into the third, giving the otherwise some what pointed head a blunt appearance.  When they are threatened they use a vulture-like defense, vomiting up a sticky substance.

Pandorus Sphinx with parasites and wasp - Eumorpha pandorus

Pandora sphinx with parasites and wasp emerging - Jo Ann Poe-McGavin
It doesn't always turn out well for caterpillars.  In addition to their contributions to the food chain for birds, insects and even snakes, there are various parasites that utilize them as a nursery for their young.  The specimen above is still alive, but just barely.  It was infested by the eggs of a parasitic wasp whose young have just pupated and emerged.  The parasites preserve all the caterpillar's vital functions until the last minute to maintain their food source.  You can see a little wasp at the bottom, presumably newly emerged from the pupa.
 *  The late Jan Stiefel had submitted 779 photographs to and over 129 Door County, Wisconsin moth records, which are documented with the state. She had served as editor of the "Wisconsin Entomological Society Newsletter" since 1999.

There is more information at the website.

Volcano Cam

Iceland Volcano Blasts Back to Life
Photo - University of Iceland, Armann Hoskuldsson
This is not what you expect on a Missouri Master Naturalist page, but a few of you have asked about our recent trip to Iceland.  This question runs the risk of forcing a 30 minute presentation on you.  You can relax for now.

Bardabunga volcano has been in the news the last few days for an eruption that is occurring essentially under its crowning glacier, creating the risk of flooding from the melting glacier.  Then today, it burst out of its icy sheath, thus far not a massive eruption but colorful none the less.  Live Science describes it spewing forth lava nearly 200 feet (60 meters) into the air.

This is located in the south central part of the country, not where we went nor is it a roadside sight.  Because of the volcanic studies that are ongoing in Iceland, we have a lot more information on this active volcano.  They haven't so far developed a way for you to feel the heat on your computer, but you can watch it 24 hours a day at here or from closer up at this link.

Lots more details are at Live Science.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bats on Radar

Grey Bat - Wikimedia
Bats on radar - click to enlarge
Drew Albert of our Master Naturalist chapter has been involved in discovering a new and previously unknown colony of grey bats.  And he did it from work at the National Weather Service.  As reported on KSMU, forecasters at the National Weather Service Office in Springfield noticed a mysterious radar signal over Dallas county every evening beginning in June of last year.  This lasted all summer, and then recurred again this year.

Being a naturalist, he thought biologically of birds and bats as they are known to show up on radar in some circumstances.  "We made some assumptions initially.  We do know that National Weather Service radar can pick up what we call biological scatterers, and that can include birds, insects and of course bats, and it was assumed they were bats just because of the time of day," he told KSMU.

High-flying Mexican free-tail bats show up on Texas radar because of their large numbers and high flight patterns.  Missouri bats fly lower and in smaller numbers, under the radar.  He explained these signals were much closer to the ground, showing up on radar because of our weather conditions.
"During the evening, the beam does get bent downward a little bit towards the ground as what meteorologists call a night time temperature emergence sets up, and that inversion sets up as the ground cools, so the beam does get bent downward just a little bit, and also the beam will spread out with distance from the radar, too."
The echoes were 20 to 30 miles from the radar.  What do you do in our modern technological world to find the answers.  Facebook!  They sent out the following posting.
"We think there might be bats flying out of these two locations in Dallas County... and near Windyville.  Notice the two echo radar sampling something near these two locations.   Radar has been sampling this over the last several evenings.  We suspected it is bats... but wanted to see if any local Dallas County folks could confirm that.  Let us know if you have information.  Thanks!

After they posted their findings on social media, they were connected with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  The signals were found to be coming from an endangered species, gray bats emerging at night to eat insects.  Tony Elliot, a bat biologist with MDC was excited to discover a colony of the grey bats that wasn't known.  There are only three main hibernation caves for gray bats known in Missouri, "but in the summer they disperse to a larger number of what are called maternity and bachelor caves. "

Missouri grey bat in a cave - MDC
There are an estimated 700,000 gray bats in Missouri, so how can they possibly be endangered?  The answer is that they are clustered in only a few populations which all huddle together over the winter.  Like humans who are pushed together in large numbers, the bats' close proximity to one another increases the risk of the spread of an infectious disease.  In this case, the disease is White Nose Syndrome that has killed over 5 million bats in the US.

An additional risk to the bat population is us.  Humans have used caves over hundreds of thousands of years, first for shelter, and now as an interesting place to explore.  In addition to the risk of spreading disease, we disturb their summer "nests" causing the young who are just "hanging around" to drop to the ground.  Further more, in their winter hibernation they have just enough energy stored to make it until spring.  Waking up and moving around because of human activity requires the use of stored energy and they may run out fuel before their spring wake-up occurs.

Needless to say, the site is being protected by the local landowner in conjunction with the MDC.  Like any other endangered species, the location is confidential to protect it from the curious public, i.e. you and me.

Meanwhile, Drew Albert's Master Naturalist juices are still flowing.  "My loose plan is to maybe more systematically follow these signatures with time to see maybe how the populations are shifting around, how things are changing with time." Who knows, he may even find another populations of bats.  Citizen Science strikes again!

Learn more about radar's use in monitoring bird, bats and insects in this Youtube video and this from Science Magazine
Bats of Missouri discussed here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bumelia Borer

The star of this year's Insectorama at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center was undoubtedly the bumelia borer, a magnificent longhorn beetle found by Kim Banner in her garden.  Almost everyone had never seen one before, an insect you would be unlikely to forget.

Adult beetle, green color form - Photograph by Ted C. MacRae
While common names of insects can be confusing, it is unlikely that many of us will use the bumelia borer's official title, Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens.  (Say that 10 times and you will still forget it.)  It has several color forms ranging from bright blue through irridescent green to bronze.  Its femora are consistently reddish-orange with black tibia.  At 1.5 inches in length, it is hard to miss.

Larva of Bumelia borer - Photograph by Ted C. MacRae
Its larvae develop in the trunks and roots of gum bumelia, water tupelo and mulberry.  In Missouri it has been associated with gum bumelia, (aka gum bully or woolly buckthorn), a plant adapted to xeric (dry) glades typical of southwest Missouri.  The adults are active from May through summer where they feed on the sap of host plants and hickory.

Rhea Blackthorne
Sandra McKennon-Volk

Dr. Tom Riley shared this additional information:
" Males will sit head-down at the base of the trees, waiting for females to emerge. They also come to the flowers. In a good year they can be quite abundant with 5-6 beetles on each flowering tree. Once you take a swing at them they put out a really low vapor-pressure alarm pheromone and suddenly, like in the rest of the genus, all the beetles in the area disappear. The beetles either live or continue to emerge for a long time. We collected them from July until October."
"Make my day!"  Head on photograph by Dr. Tom Riley
They are found across the southern U.S. from Florida and Georgia west to New Mexico and Arizona.  None of us had ever seen this creature of the glades and it was a lucky find especially in an urban garden.  A good idea of how hard these are to find when you are searching for them is documented in this long Beetles in the Bush post.  There are several lessons for us neophytes.
  1. You have to know your host plants, looking at every one to find a specimen... maybe.
  2. When you find a specimen, catch it in case you don't find another one.  The second one you can try to photograph in the wild.
  3. Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.
Beetles in the Bush has dramatic closeup pictures and information on how he gets his pictures.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hercules Beetle

Hercules at Insectorama- REK

A nose for beetles - REK
The Insectorama last Friday at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center was a success as usual.  One of our crew, Adam Lakey, was particularly "bugged" at the end.  After showing the kids and parents a shiny eastern Hercules beetle, he put it on his nose and wore it for close to an hour.  There is no better way to get the attention of kids.

Chris and friend - REK
The eastern Hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus, is said to be North America’s largest, most written about, and most photographed beetle.*  Most pictures are of males because of the dramatic horns which the females lack.  This beetle was certainly eye-catching, even to a seasoned biologist who has seen lots of them close up.  The picture is payback for the hundreds of similar pictures he has taken of kids with insects.

Female Hercules beetle finally gets some respect - REK
D. tityus is a creature of the forest, closely connected to the life and death of trees.  They are generally found from June to August when they are actively reproducing.  Eggs are laid in the summer and the grubs (larvae) live in the rotting heartwood of logs, depending on other insects and fungi to prepare their nursery over several years.  Pupation occurs in late summer with adults hibernating in pupal cells in decaying logs.  The finding of exceptionally large larvae suggests that some live two years before pupation.

Larva - M.J. Raupp
Buck's latest MN pin
One of the most interesting features of their life cycle is the males which battle for mating rights.  They will lock horns to contest mating sites, occasionally so preoccupied that a third guy sneaks in to set up house and watch the fight.  Science Friday explains this phenomena, using an Asian relative with a similar habit.

Adult Hercules beetles feed by scraping away tender bark to create flowing sap.  They are easy to keep as pets and available commercially, although I am not a fan of this practice which frequently results in a monoclonal population rather than natural breeding that produces a healthier, genetically diverse population.  If you are fortunate enough to catch one in the wild, you can keep it in captivity for a while, but then consider releasing it to multiply and continue its role in the food chain.**
Photo by Dr. Tom Riley
*    See the article from Beetles in the Bush.
**  See Bug of the Week for instructions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Road Hog

Answer to "What is it?"

Driving down our lane, I encountered an obstruction.  A three foot timber rattlesnake was basking in the 85 degree heat and showed no inclination to move.  When I got out of the truck and approached, it assumed a defensive position rather than escaping into the thickets on either side of the road.

Defensive coil - Click to enlarge
If you click on the picture above, you will notice that its head is tucked, even hidden directly below the rattling tail.  The rattle serves as a warning to those of us who know (or should know) better than to pick up a snake.  It is likely that this developed as a way to lure a curious animal such as a rat that is then dinner, a technique called caudal luring.  Having its head right by the rattling tail allows it to strike the target quickly as well as expose its least vulnerable part while protecting its head.  Another example of caudal luring is the bright yellow tail of a young copperhead, although one study suggested that tail color didn't affect the success in pygmy rattlesnakes. 

Young copperhead - note yellow tail lure
The problem now was it was hogging the road between the two wheel paths.  I was afraid if I tried to straddle it with the truck it would try to escape and be run over.  It had now settled down, still coiled but with its tail upright and motionless.  I tried pushing it to the side with a long stick (let me emphasize long) and merely succeeded in annoying it as seen in this video.

I finally used a long watering tool as a modified snake hook and lifted it to the side and it slithered off in annoyance.  This rattler was smaller than the ones we occasionally see in the same area of the road so I suspect that they have been breeding successfully on the glade.  As long as they stay there and not at the garage and house, we will peacefully coexist.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Butterfly Aggression

Monarch interrupting tiger swallowtails mating - CB
What could be more peaceful and serene than butterflies fluttering around in the Butterfly House at Close Park?  Like a reality show named Real Butterflies of Springfield, there is a lot more going on if you watch closely.

Chris Barnhart has videos of lepidoptera lust and mayhem posted on Youtube.  The first one pictured above was a monarch persistently interrupting a pair of mating tiger swallowtails.  The monarch continued in the interspecies "menage a trois" until Chris physically removed it, as seen in this video.  You try explaining what the butterflies were doing to a group of little kids!

Male monarchs wrestling on the gravel floor- CB
I don't think of butterflies as aggressive but they can be very territorial as well as competitive in breeding.  Red admiral butterflies are notorious for defending their nectaring territory.  Chris tells me that monarchs are also aggressive, an important trait if you have to fly 2,500 miles to find a branch to land on in a crowded forest.  The two male monarchs pictured above can be seen in this video doing their impression of W.W.F. contestants.  The cause of their altercation is unknown.

It is an insect eats insect world in nature and this continues in the house.  Although we try to control loss at all monarch stages, there are lots of predators in every stage in their growth.  When the caterpillar hatches it eats its egg before starting on the milkweed host.  At times the caterpillar will come across another egg and eat it.  This fratricide increases the survival odds by ensuring a better food supply. 
Rat nibbling on a black swallowtail caterpillar - CB
There has been an unusual predator in the house recently.  This rodent above, possibly a cotton rat, was seen munching on a black swallowtail caterpillar.  While this is part of the balance of nature, it is considered rude in the Butterfly House.  It is facing deportation soon and will be available to the first caller.

Coming next, but what are they?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Algae Bloom on Steroids

David Casaletto wrote an interesting issue of Ozark Waters newsletter
discussing the Toledo water crisis and its Ozarks implications.  The pictures are striking.  I had read about the devastating algae bloom on Lake Erie that caused a shutdown of all potable water in Toledo, Ohio for two days.  We are used to the occasional boil order in small towns, but this was 400,000 people!  And no boiling solutions as boiling would only concentrate the toxin.

Lake Erie from satellite - NASA

Lake Erie water sample
What was striking in the article was the photographs. You couldn't make this worse with Photoshop. The ecological impact came from a combination of farm fertilizer runoff, septic systems around the heavily developed lake shore and global warming.

This blue-green algae problem isn't just limited to Lake Erie.  It has been reported to cause sickness in many Wisconsin communities.  The algae is common and can occur in our Ozark waters, but so far not in toxic concentrations.  As we have more warm weather and pack people closer together, the algae risks climb.  We have no control of the weather, but we can limit runoff of fertilizers and animal waste into our streams. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Glue traps

Rat snake on a glue trap.
Wood rats and mice are all part of country living and so are glue traps and rat snakes.  Unfortunately occasionally a glue trap and a snake become intimately acquainted.  If the snake is found within a few days, it can usually be released without harm.

Our first experience was with a five foot rat snake curled tightly on two glue traps.  Freeing it required 15 minutes of careful peeling (tail first) while inserting little pieces of newspaper to keep it from sticking again.  Once it was free, the belly was very sticky so we powdered it with flour.  It was probably certain it was headed to the frying pan.  It didn't learn anything from this as 2 weeks later it had climbed back into the second story crawl space of our house.

Red-bellied snake- note thin collar ring
We now know a better method of freeing a snake.  This weekend we had two snakes on our glue traps.  The first was a red-bellied snake, a small snake with an impressive name, Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata.   We discussed this snake and its hot lips in a previous blog.  There was a thin ring around this specimen's neck, made up of three unconnected segments, unlike the thicker collar of a ring-neck snake.

Note the stretched skin of the neck
Three days later Barb found a black rat snake stuck to another glue trap.  It has been renamed a Texas rat snake (don't get me started on renaming) and we commonly find their skin sheds around the upstairs or in the well house of the creek house.  Their intact skin is very stretchy as you can see in the picture above.  When I picked up the trap he gaped his mouth impressively, closing it just before I got the camera focused.

The method for releasing an animal from a glue trap is quite simple.  Lay the trap on a flat surface out of doors and pour vegetable oil on the trap.  It slowly dissolves the glue as seen in this video, and the snake pulls itself off.  Ours got free before I could get the camera on it again and took off, probably expecting the flour to come next before a hot skillet.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Bobcat Babies

Bobcat family- Linda Bower
One of my favorite technologies is the game camera.  As the field has advanced, the capacity to take videos opens up new opportunities to the naturalist.  Linda Bower MN (Master Naturalist), has a Youtube channel full of observations from her land east of Springfield.  Her pond and trails are a virtual zoo of activity, as seen in this bobcat video.

Turkey family - Linda Bower
We see lots of turkeys and their poults this time of year, the young-ens now the size of Cornish hens.  While we find them scrambling to escape, Linda's game camera has filmed a video of this charming family scene.

Raccoon at play before eating tomatoes - REK
As we survey the half eaten tomatoes in our fenced raised garden, I have to remind myself that raccoons can be as cute as they are destructive.  They consider the five foot mesh fence a handy ladder, built for their convenience and the live trap for packrats a toy.  They turn them on the side before teasing out the veggie bait.  Linda's raccoon video shows their cute side.

You can see more at Linda's Youtube Channel.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Aphid Cornicles

When Mark Bower sent the first pictures of the oleander aphids shown in the previous blog, the picture above stood out with its little brown spheres on the "tail pipes" on one aphid.  Mark researched this for me and came up with the description of aphid "cornicles".

Nymph with dry cornicles
Cornicles are structures unique to aphids.  They are little tubes extending from the last dorsal abdominal segment like exhaust pipes on the cab of a semi.  They are normally empty and short, easily overlooked on the nymphs.  In this voiceless creature, they are a way of shouting out a warning of danger.

When muscles at the base of the tubes contract, these hollow tubes secrete droplets of fluid.  Originally this was thought to be honeydew, but we now know that the honeydew beloved of ants is actually a digestive byproduct released from the digestive tract.

Aphid cornicles in action - Wikimedia
The cornicles secrete a mixture of hemolymph, lipids and an alarm pheromone called E-β-farnesene (for you chemistry geeks).  It can be detected by other aphids on this plant and in the surrounding area, sending the message "I am dying, run away."

As described by Ira Flatow at Science Friday,
"An aphid only produces E-β-farnesene after it’s been attacked. Once the alarm pheromone is released, any aphid within detection distance will stop feeding and walk or fall off the leaf it’s on. In species with long cornicles, the aphids will flex their abdomens and smear the pheromone onto the predator in the moments before death. This action ensures that wherever the predator goes on the plant, the other aphids know before it even arrives!  It’s totally sneaky. This behavior allows the other aphids in the cluster more time to escape predation."
The adult aphid is far less likely to release the hormone than the nymphs.  The adult has methods of escaping and may not be programed to waste as much energy producing the fluid.  Nymphs on the other hand are lined up in a virtual smorgasbord for predators, and the ability to escape in mass helps perpetuate the aphid species.

A lot more detail is at this link.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Milkweed Aphid

 Mark Bower sent me the picture above, a critter on a milkweed.  It looked like an aphid and so with a brilliant piece of detective work I Googled "milkweed aphid" and came up with the identification, the milkweed aphid, Aphis nerii.  

Like many organisms, when you dive deep enough, it has some interesting characteristics.  This aphid is an omnivorous plant sucker, feeding on sap of plants in the dogbane family such as milkweed, vinca and oleander.  It will even cross over for dessert on crassulaceae (succulents such as jade plant) and solanaceae (nightshade family).

All oleander aphids are female as males do not occur in the wild.  They are parthenogenetic (reproduce without male fertilization) and viviparous, giving birth to live nymphs instead of laying eggs.  The nymphs go through five stages all looking similar to the adult.  Some adults will develop wings when there is overcrowding or the plants are dying off, allowing the aphid to establish a new distant colony.
 Winged A. nerii - Ken Schneider
Reproducing in large numbers usually means an insect is a problem to some plants (and growers) but dinner for others.  This aphid sequesters toxic cardioglycosides from the plant sap of milkweed, making it distasteful to many species, just like the monarch butterfly.  In addition they make distasteful secretions on their cornicles (coming up next week).  When this secretion is applied to a spider's mouth parts, it will retreat and wipe its mouth (and presumably make a terrible face!)  This shows that the secretion is effective and that some entomologists have way too much time on their hands.

So what does eat these aphids?  Hover or flower flies, lacewings and lady beetles have no problem with their secretions.  A prominent source of predation are the aphid wasps such as Lysiphlebus testaceipes.   They lay their eggs on the aphid nymphs and the resulting larva enters the aphid which mummifies while the larva matures inside.

The oleander aphid can become a garden pest, injuring young shoots and producing a sticky honeydew which can develop a black sooty mold on it, not what you want on your garden flowers.  The aphids can be removed by hand and are vulnerable to insecticidal soaps and oil.  Gardeners should avoid other insecticides as they are also toxic to butterflies and other pollinators.
Large Milkweed Bug-  Mark Bower
Photo- Mark Bower
I was initially confused by pictures of another bug on the same plant, a deeper orange but co-existing with the aphids.  Kevin Firth cleared up the confusion by identifying it as a nymph of a Oncopeltus fasciatus, the Large Milkweed Bug. Seen below with the adult, it is a minor enemy of milkweed but a friend to science. It is easy to grow and to dissect, making it an ideal insect to study in the lab.

Large Milkweed Bug adult and nymphs-  Photo by Greg Hume
Like the aphids, they suck the juices of milkweed and accumulate toxic glycosides in their bodies.  This and their bright orange aposematic color serves to warn off many predators.
Details on the aphid are found at this University of Florida website.