Thursday, December 25, 2014


Mistletoe in the wild -
If you are looking at the blog on Christmas, you should have some reward so here it is.  A modern Christmas means, among other things, delayed flights, lost luggage and late bedtimes.  In our case it means all three, so our visiting family got to bed at 1:00 AM and are still blissfully asleep.

In lieu of writing something original, I am referring you to The Hemiparasite Season in today's New York Times.  The Times may not be your usual source for arcane biology, but trust me, this one is good, written by Olivia Judson*.  It is about tradition, 1300 species of mistletoe growing high in trees and how they live.  Eventually it gets back to scat.

Money doesn't grow on trees, but mistletoe does, so Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings or what ever rings your chimes.

*  Olivia Judson, author of  Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation

Monday, December 22, 2014

Beetles in an Oyster

Crazy oyster log
It has been a good year for oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, a common and much loved edible species.  Through the generosity of Mark Bower sharing his finds, we had so many that Barb groaned when I brought home another batch.  It turns out that we aren't the only ones that eat them.
Underside of an oyster shows it gills
Oysters do not live just to please our palates.  They are important saprophytes like many other mushrooms, their fungal rhizomes digesting dying or dead wood.  When a big log breaks apart as you lift it up or step on it, you can thank a fungus.  Imagine how deep the logs would be in our forests without fungi.

Deer, chipmunks, squirrels, box turtles and banana slugs and snails are said to eat oysters but fortunately none of our finds have been chewed up.  What we have seen frequently are tiny 2-3 mm black dots in the gills which on close inspection turn out to be beetles.  This is especially true in older specimens where we will find them in cavities in the stalks as well.

I was curious about the identity of this beetle and tried to find "it."  It turns out there are a lot of beetles that find a home in oysters.  The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms description of oyster mushrooms states "specimens collected for the table should be inspected carefully for shiny black beetles which lay their eggs on the gills and beetle larvae, which tunnel into the mushroom flesh."  This isn't to say that the larvae are from the beetles as lots of insects are found in mushrooms, either to eat, eat the eaters, raise babies or because it is just a good place to hang out.

A detailed study of beetles associated with Pleurotus ostreatus described 30 beetle families with 136 species.  Of these, 60% were obligatory mycetobionts, i.e. they require the fungi for food, although not all are limited to P. ostreatus, Some may live and breed entirely within the fungi to complete their life cycle.  Other species are predatory on mycetobionts, some even feeding only on them so that they too are dependent on the mushroom.

P. ostreatus occurs throughout the year in the midwestern United States, allowing the mycetobionts to complete their lifecycle on a sporocarp (fruiting body=mushroom).  Some species seem to specialize in spring or fall oysters.

Decaying oyster mushroom with larvae of tiny flies (Diptera)  REK
Diptera larva- 3mm long
Several families of Diptera (flies) raise their larvae (maggots) on sporocarp flesh.  Some species are even obligatory, requiring the fungus to complete their life cycle.  Again, where there are larvae, there are likely predaceous beetles, eating the larvae while a living in the folds of the sporocarp.

One of the most commonly found beetles are the Erotylidae family, called the  pleasing fungus beetles.  They lay their eggs on the mushroom and their larvae feed on the fruiting bodies of fungus and thus don't cause visible damage to the oysters we picked.  A simple washing will displace them in fresh oysters - sort of.
A pleasing fungus beetle, Triplax thoracica- John Maxwell
Our beetle unknown
Although most pleasing fungus beetles are black with a reddish-orange color pattern, some are totally brown or black.  Unfortunately, our specimens are black and their antennae and legs are tightly tucked in so consulting Bugguide couldn't identify it.  Ours may be in the  Tritomini family, possibly Triplax sp which specialize in Pleurotus fungi species. Until I get a more cooperative subject and a better camera, this will remain unknown.
The gills extend down along the stalk, an identifying hallmark
Oyster mushrooms can be readily identified by the gills which extend down the short stalk.  There are no lookalikes in Missouri that are poisonous, but as always, you should never eat a mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of the identification.  Even then, occasionally individuals will have an allergic reaction, so it is best to eat only a little bit the first time.

Pleasing Fungus Beetles, Triplax thoracica, is one of four Triplax spp. with the orange-red pronotum.  Eorytlidae of Nebraska, p.59 reports that of the over 1000 specimens reported nation wide, 98% were on Oyster mushrooms, the only fungus that the beetles have been reported to have been raised on.
P.S. 9-10-2017

* Detailed research on the beetles found in oyster mushrooms is found in this paper.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Glade Restoration

Overgrown glade before mulching
We have just started Plan B in our restoration of a 12 acre "cedar glade." We began the project with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) in 2006 with the cutting of the cedars, selling those that were of commercial value.  Prescribed fire was the next step but it wasn't to be between schedules and unfavorable weather, alternately too hot and dry or too humid and damp.  As nature abhors a vacuum, it filled in with lots of mixed trees and shrubs, soon reaching 15 feet high and too dense to burn.

Edge of the mulching
Plan B consists of calling in a mulching machine to grind down the dense thicket and let it grow up a year before scheduling the burn.  The machinery is impressive, a tracked vehicle with a giant grinder with titanium wheels that shreds all the thicket down to the ground.  This isn't pretty, but neither was the impenetrable mass that had taken over the hillside.

Mulched glade - 180 degree panorama
Until sometime in the last 150 years glades were common in this part of Missouri.  Those familiar with the lake country (itself an artificial construct created by damming the White River) have heard the term "balds" as in Dewey Bald, which described glades on hilltops without trees.  With suppression of fire and the birds' transportation of cedar berries (actually tiny cones), these balds have become quite hirsute, a dense mound of perpetual green.

When Henry Rowe Schoolcraft made his historic trek through Ozarks, he rarely mentioned cedars in his detailed descriptions of the country.  Writings of Civil War soldiers from Kansas and Iowa described the impressive oak-hickory forests but still not cedars.  Cedars were certainly present  The oldest reported cedar, 795 years old, was reported here in Missouri.*

Cedars are fire intolerant and their low lying branches provide a ladder for fire to engulf the entire tree.  The removal of Native American tribes in 1830 ended their periodic burning which cleared new growth trees and shrubs that hampered hunting and also stimulated fresh grass for feeding game animals.  This and the later suppression of fire allowed cedars to take over these desert-like south and west facing slopes, adding the word cedar to the glades, the cedar glades that cover the southern Missouri Ozarks today.  Our eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) are actually in the juniper family.

Cedars are not all bad, just growing too densely in the wrong places.  Fallow fields are rapidly seeded.  Robins love a good batch of cedar berries before hopping all over the exposed ground, planting as they go.  Cedar berries also feed other birds such as cedar waxwings, and the dense foliage provides winter wind protection for birds as well.  Branson had a major pencil factory in 1908 until the commercially available cedar timber was gone in the area.  There is still a market for eastern red cedar wood products although the western species is preferred for many uses.

Glades of Christian and Taney County (dark green) - Click to enlarge
So what are glades and why go to all this trouble to restore them? gives a good description which I will quote in full.
"On steep, south and west facing slopes where soils are very thin and bedrock erupts at or near the surface we find prairie glades.  Unlike prairies, glades were always natural island communities, usually surrounded by woods.  Glade communities are determined by the type of rock below, such as limestone, sandstone, shale or chert.  Although their foundations vary, all types of glades have extremely shallow soil–a maximum of 15 inches and usually much less–frequently disrupted by frost upheavals. Often the bedrock itself is exposed. Dry conditions prevail throughout much of the growing season, although the ground may be saturated in spring, winter and fall.  Some glades even boast seasonal or permanent spring seeps. 
Glades are far more complex than they appear–and more fragile.  Many glade inhabitants, both plants and animals, are dependent on this special habitat. The beautiful spring wildflower hoary puccoon and the six-lined racerunner lizard are two such species. Wildflowers are abundant in prairie glades, and the species in bloom change constantly throughout the growing season. Glade life sometimes seems almost incongruous. Lichens are abundant, including reindeer moss, the same plant upon which the tundra caribou depend. Yet thriving nearby is prickly pear cactus, a settler from the Southwest." 
Our glade restoration at Bull Mills is on a typical southwest facing limestone hillside.  It has two wet weather seeps but is "dry as a bone" all summer long with the sun beating down on it.  Our original survey done by the MDC showed tiny remnants of glade plants struggling to survive in the cedar duff that covered the ground.  Based on a previous restoration we did 12 years ago, they will spring back to life within a few months after a spring burn.

Bull Mills glade project - note the south and west location of all the glades
Washington University in St. Louis has a large-scale experiment involving the restoration of 32 glades under three different management models.  I like their succinct description.  "Missouri glades, which ecologists sometimes call sunlit islands in a forested sea, are areas of exposed bedrock in the Ozark woodlands that create their own hot, dry, desert-like microclimates and have their own unique mixture of species, including tarantulas, scorpions, and prickly pear cactus."  These may not seem like the kind of neighbors you want next door, but we enjoy diversity which is all the part of a healthy ecosystem.

Jess at Landbeaver LLC uses a Takeuchi TL 150 Skid Steer with Fecon Mower which you can see in action on this video.

Wikipedia describes its role as an early succession plant and prairie invader. has folklore, history and other information on cedars. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Admirals of Winter

Red admiral - Wikimedia
A recent article in the News-Leader described the adventurous life of the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta).  It serves as a reminder of many ways butterflies, these seemingly delicate creatures, survive the winter.  Many of our common butterfly species overwinter as eggs, larvae (caterpillars) or pupae (chrysalis).

The red admiral will migrate north in the spring but not all migrate back south.  Some will hang around, taking their chances on surviving a mild winter.  Like the mourning cloaks and other species living over winter as adults, they don't depend on nectar for their food source.  Instead they primarily consume tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion and animal dung.  They commonly land on humans, presumably attracted to sweat - if one lands on you try not to think about what it ate last.

Dorsal view - Wikimedia
A few other species* such as goat weed leaf wings and mourning cloaks always tough it out as adults, hiding under the bark of trees or other shelters, emerging on rare warm days to stretch their wings and grab a bite before hiding again.  They tend to have drab ventral wing surfaces which blend with the tree bark while resting.  While the red admiral dorsal wing surface is vividly colored, when the wings are folded up, the under wings provide good camouflage.

Camouflaged red admiral Vanessa atalanta roosting on larch trunk © Adrian Hoskins
Some butterfly species migrate as cold weather comes on and their food sources dwindle.  The monarch butterflies famously have several broods as they move north, the last hatch returning all the way to Mexico.  Other migrating butterfly species travel shorter distances, heading north a few hundred miles in the warm months, then returning to the mild weather of the southern states in late fall.  In England, in addition to migrating, there is evidence that the red admiral can occasionally lay eggs in the autumn with adults emerging in the spring.

Yes, England!  They are found in temperate Europe, Asia, and North Africa.  The British love their butterflies and are particularly fond of red admirals.  Some of their population migrates from Southern Europe while recent studies have shown that some survive the winter as adults in southern England.  Southern European residents will migrate to Scandinavia while some North African butterflies will cross to Southern Europe.

Green eggs laid on spiky nettle leaf rather than ham.  Wikimedia
Leaf-wrapped chrysalis -Wikimedia
Eggs are generally laid on nettle leaves in the spring, with a second batch in late summer.  The caterpillars roll leaves around their body as protection until they eat their shelter and move on and wrap up in another leaf.  The hairs of stinging nettles probably provide protection from some predators.  Unlike most leaf rolling larvae which tend to pupate on the ground, the red admiral pupates within the rolled up leaf.

* Missouri species that overwinter as adults include the American lady, anglewings (commas and question marks), goat weed leaf wing and mourning cloaks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Frass Flinging Caterpillars

Silver-spotted skipper caterpillar with brown head - Chris Barnhart
As I am a retired gastroenterologist, Chris Barnhart knew he could hook me with this video of his showing a caterpillar shooting out its frass. Many animals have special ways of eliminating their fecal matter, called frass when produced by insects, to reduce disease or avoid predators.  Epargyreus caterpillars simply go ballistic.
Silver-spotted skipper - Wikimedia
The common Epargyreus species we see in Missouri is the silver-spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus. They are regularly found throughout the warm months nectaring on a wide variety of flowers. Its caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants in the pea family, ranging from the beggar's ticks (tick trefoil) that cling to your clothes to the black locust tree that can exceed 100 feet tall.

Cocked and ready to fire
Our silver-spotted skipper can use its anal comb to shoot its frass "faster than a scat out of hell," to quote Chris. It can fly up to an astounding 38 body lengths away. (Yes, some one actually has measured its record launch - and you thought filming it was odd). It is not alone in long-range bombing. There are videos on line of frass-flinging Asian caterpillars like these of Mycalesis mineus, Ypthima pandocus and.....oh well, you get the picture. 

Frass flinging is commonly found among caterpillars that live in leaf nests. Why do they bother? This is felt to be a defensive mechanism to eliminate the smell in the nest which would be a clue to predators, specifically the northern paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus as described in this study.

More stories of scat disposal and frass chain building caterpillars in future blogs.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mobiles from Nature

Everyone is a nature artist
Fall is a good time to create nature mobiles.  We first tried this activity on our favorite guinea pigs, the WOLF School.  This turned out to be a great 5th grade activity which combines nature and the study of mechanics.

We began by having the students comb the fields and yards, looking for colorful nature finds such as nuts, seeds, berries and leaves for elements to hang on their mobiles.  It can also include fishing lures (no hooks!), shotgun shells, rocks with fossils or holes, etc.  The nature hunt is half the fun.

The classroom session begins with a brief lesson in the mechanics of levers, including fulcrum, load and effort.  We use a broom with a sliding rope fulcrum to demonstrate the principles of balance.  The goal is for each one of them to create a balanced mobile and learn how to adjust it and add on more elements at home.

Finished! Click to enlarge
The beam of the mobile to the right is made from a box elder branch but almost any stick will do.  Some students used sticks covered with thick  lichen, an indicator of the clean air of the area they found it.  A thread tied to the middle of the beam with a slip knot allows adjustment of the 'fulcrum' - a word they are asked to repeat.  They make their own elements which can be tied with a thread or attached with a hot glue gun.  This student included elements like acorns and their caps, a sweet gum seed ball, pieces of turkey tail fungus, buck brush berries and a turkey feather.

As they build their mobiles, we ask them about food chain relationships such as  "What eats the acorns?"  Answer: deer, turkey, weevils, etc.  We had lots of honey locust seed pods with holes in them where the honeylocust bean weevil larvae had crawled out.  "What eats the larvae?"  Answer: spiders, beetles, birds etc.  " Is that good or bad?"  Answer: it depends on whether you are a tree, a bird or the larva.

The choice of elements is limited only by  imagination.  Hook-less fishing lures, empty shotgun shells, snail shells and fossil rocks, everything is fair game.  Next year we are going to add colorful card elements where they can write the answers above to include on their mobiles, or even a picture or photograph.