Friday, October 28, 2016

Brown Recluse Spiderling

I was recently given a very worn specimen of the spiderlings that are infesting our friend's house.  It measured 1/10th of an inch and had been dead on an alcohol pad for several days.  The parent hasn't been seen and their concern was are these Brown Recluse?  If this was our house on the creek I would say 90% likely but she needed better odds. 

Compare fiddle below
The Brown Recluse (Loxosceles  reclusa) is in the Sicariidae Family.  The genus Loxosceles, known as the Brown Spiders, has 11 species that includes the Brown Recluse.  There are several diagnostic features of this family.  First, the legs and abdomen have a uniform color with no spots or stripes.  Second this family has only 6 eyes, unique among all other spiders which have 8.  These eyes are arranged in a "U" " shaped configuration.

  Clay Nichols CC
The most well known feature of the Recluse is the fiddle on the thorax.  The fiddle is more prominent and the fiddle neck is thinner in most photographs so this bothered me.  There are several possible explanations.
  1. This specimen had been dead several days and may have lost some color.
  2. It might have been preparing to molt with some separation of its cuticle.
The coloration and the arrangement of the 6 eyes puts it in the Loxosceles genus.  According to the site, only L. reclusa occurs in the Midwest with the remainder isolated along the Mexican border so this is as close to a full ID as I can get.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Phoresy and the Carrion Beetles

Gold-necked Carrion Beetle
After emerging from the miasmic swamp of news about the toxic Presidential campaign I felt the need to study something that was relatively pleasant and clean by comparison.  I immediately thought of carrion beetles and the mites that infest them.  I had been clearing my mind of political news by collecting some Gold-necked Carrion Beetles crawling around a long dead rat and noticed the orange mites clinging on them like campaign advisers.  (Arrrgh..... must get out in nature more often!)

Tomentose hairs on thorax, mites clinging to the neck - Click to enlarge
Gold-necked carrion beetle is named because of the patches of golden yellow hairs (setae) on the pronotum.  Its formal name is Nicrophorus ("Death carrier" L.) tomentosus ("cushion stuffing" L.), the latter referring to the flattened matted hairs on the pronotum.

Phoresy in the title refers not to the lead singer of a hard rock band but the act of hitching a ride on a larger animal of a different species as transport from place to place.  This  relationship excludes parasitism where the transporting animal  is harmed.  In general there are three factors in common in phoresy.  (1) The mite actively seeks the host.  (2) It doesn't feed or develop while on the host.  (3) It departs at a food source to mature and reproduce.  Obviously carrying around a load of mites is expensive in energy so why has the relationship evolved?   Jim McClarin explained their mutualistic relationship this way in Bugguide.
"The mites benefit the beetle. They eat the eggs and freshly-hatched maggots of carrion flies that would both compete for food and poison the food with their high-ammonia waste products. The mites help the beetle's larvae to survive, giving their own young a new generation of beetles to ride to the next carcass. It's a beautiful relationship that stinks to high heaven :-)"
Mites lack the wings to seek out dead animals which are their source of food.  Fortunately they have become good neighbors with carrion beetles, in this case Nicrophorus tomentosus.  Different species of mites tend to ride on beetles in the same genus and some species seem to prefer either N. tomentosus or the closely related N. orbicollis.*  Nicophorus sp. support at least 14 species of mites in 4 different families.  One of the most studied and largest at 1mm is Poecilochirus carabi.*

Poecilochirus nymphs - Steve Nanz
There are at least 14 Poecilochirus species of mites.  They generally have a symbiotic relationship with the beetles, protecting the beetle larvae and their food supply from fly larvae.  As you might guess, they are not a very popular topic on the Internet and most available sources come from previous books.

Mites on the elytra - Tom Murray CC
Jim McClarin again explains.  "Their position atop the beetle's wingcovers (elytra) signifies that this beetle has just flown and/or is about to fly. Normally, unless the beetle is super-loaded with mites, they cling to the beetle's underside. However, when the beetle is about to fly, the mites climb up on top, all facing forward. They are protected in this position because the beetle rotates its elytra up and toward the center, forming a tent-like enclosure with the mites inside:" 

"All aboard!" - REK
When the Nicrophorus beetle arrives at a new carcass, the mite nymph climbs off and molts into an adult within 24-48 hours.  They mate and their next generation of nymphs may (1) attach to an adult Nicrphorus to head to the next carcass when this one is consumed, (2) follow the beetle offspring into a pupal chamber or (3) attach to another vector leaving the carcass.  Most chose #1 and are off to another carcass.  Messy yes, but hey, its a living! 

Mites: Ecological and Evolutionary Analyses of Life-history Patterns
More on mite phoresy at

Monday, October 24, 2016

Poking Puffballs

If you have never punched a puffball, you are in for a treat.  We were hiking along Peter's Branch of Swan Creek and came across two long dead logs covered with little fingertip-sized puffball fungi.  After taking a few pictures we got lost in the joy of poking them and watching the cloud of spores.

White Spots say "Push Here"
This was an incredible collection of a common mushroom, Lycoperdon pyriforme,  although I didn't recall the name at the time.  (Also, don't ask me the name next year, I am not Mark Bower or Michael Kuo.)  Speaking of Kuo, here is what he says about them in
"Morganella (Lycoperdon) pyriformis is one of only a few puffballs that grow on wood, which makes it fairly easy to identify. Other distinguishing features include the fact that it is only finely spiny, with spines that usually wear off; and the long white mycelial strings attached to its stem, which is often pinched off at the base."
Mark explained to me that the current name is Lycoperdon.   Morganella is an older “deprecated synonym” i.e., it can be used but is discouraged.  In addition to being scientifically correct, I like this name Lycoperdon better. It translates from the Latin as “lyco” (wolf)and “perdon” (to break wind.  What is not to love about humble mushrooms covering a log whose name is "Wolf fart."

L. pyriformis newly emerged - Mark Bower
After years spent spreading their tiny mycelial threads through the dead log extracting nutrients, a rain prompts the fungi to reproduce.  I think of the mushrooms as the flowers of the fungus, springing up to broadcast their offspring into the world.  While many fungi do this by dropping their spores from gills or pores underneath a "toadstool" cap, puffballs store their spores in the ball, prepare a little escape hatch and wait for us or some other creature or even a rainstorm to push their spores out in a little brown cloud.

Volcano by Mark Bower

Where else in nature can you wantonly punch at a living thing and do it a favor, spreading its spore into the wind?   Pressure of a finger or even a raindrop pushes the spores out the little volcano-like opening at the top, increasing their dispersal.  The skin of this mushroom is surprisingly tough and and the mushrooms can survive the winter on occasion.  Keep your eyes on the forest floor and you too may be able to have fun as we did in this video.

Mark Bower will soon be featured on the blog discussing other puffballs including the spiky beauty below .

Spiky cousin of Lycoperdon pyriforme - Mark Bower

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Life on a Burned Prairie

 Becky Swearingen shared her photographs and this story of a newly burned prairie.

I. Freshly Burned Prairie
On September 18th I decided to visit around the Lockwood area and ended the day at Niawathe Prairie. This was the day the Master Naturalists had intended to visit so it seemed appropriate. Ends up the north side of the prairie was recently burned and while I always find it sad to see a burned prairie, I know it is best for the prairie’s health.

The advantage for a photographer is that it allows one to see things that would normally be hidden in the prairie’s lush growth.  I saw several snake skins, one of which I think actually was not a skin but a snake that was a victim of the fire.

Shed snake skin
Victim of the fire? Hard to tell, but there seemed to be flesh.
This crispy critter was definitely a fire victim.

But there was life among the ashes.  This larval Glowworm Beetle came wandering through. I would have never seen it if there had not been fire.

There were lots and lots of grasshoppers.  Hopefully they like their grass well done.  This Differential Grasshopper stood out against the burned prairie floor.

And several varieties of moths.  This one is probably a webworm moth of some variety.

A Chorus Frog came hopping by, unconcerned by the blackened dry prairie floor.  It was  camouflaged with its black stripes matching the burned grass stalks.

Life is returning to the scorched ground already.

Next spring a healthier prairie will come back to life.  The seed head below, pale and delicate yet somehow surviving the conflagration and is ready to create new plants.

And as I left the prairie that evening I saw one of the beneficiaries of a healthy prairie, a Northern Bobwhite, looking for a home for the winter. The quail chicks will be the size of a fingernail and start hunting insects on day one.  The open spaces between the bunches of fresh prairie grass are necessary for their survival, one more reason to burn.

II. Burned Prairie Redux 

Redux means “brought back” and that is what is happening at Niawathe a week after I first visited the burned out prairie. Already there is lots of green and even a few early flowers.

Among the new life, I did find signs of the old. Most interestingly, I found these tiny skeletal remains. A result of the fire? I don’t know.

I also found an egg. This one has been there for a while I believe as it had dirt on the inside.

This millipede was going about its business. It is too young to identify the specific variety. It was a little perturbed with me when I moved it to the ground to get a better picture but soon continued on its way.

There was a small group of Horned Larks that were flying around and feeding among the new grass shoots.  They prefer open ground with short grass.  Herds of bison provided this but freshly burned prairie is a good substitute.

The katydids are very visible against the blackened earth.

I think my favorite find was this Spider Wasp (Psorthaspis). Its bright orange stripes stood out quite boldly against the dark earth.

Less boldly colored was this Common Checkered Skipper - Pyrgus communis.

From its behavior it appeared to be laying eggs.

This lively cricket blended in with the blackened soil.  Its natural color provides good camouflage against the burned prairie.

I moved back to the road after walking through the burned area for an hour or so, finding this beautiful and tiny Pencil Flower.

And then saw a gleam of white. As I examined it I found a Meadow Katydid on the remains of a small animal’s vertebra.  Even after a burn some green survives, both in plants and animals.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oak Bullet Galls

Maturing gall - REK

This is the time of year when we find Oak Stem Bullet Galls.  They will be changing from yellow orange to brown and woody over the next month.  The bright color looks tender but it is a hard shell, derived from the woody twig tissue.  These galls house the larva of the Round Bullet Gall Wasp - Disholcaspis quercusglobulus.

When you cut through one there is the larva  tucked into its little cavity.  Somehow they manage to avoid injury, dodging to the side of the razor blade.  With a little prodding the larva will come out and wiggle around.

The adults are said to emerge in late October although I haven't yet collected one.  At least I am in good company as Charley Eiseman says all he has collected thus far are parasitoids. According to Charley the adults have been observed to oviposit on white oak twigs immediately after emerging and the resulting spring gall isn't known.

  Joshua Stuart Rose

  Joshua Stuart Rose

Joshua Stuart Rose was able to collect one from a gall and photograph the specimen that had become attached to tape and shared these pictures with me.

According to this OSU publication Oak Bullet Galls have nectaries, plant organs that produce sugary nectar.
"The sugary treat exuded from the nectaries serves as a “bribe” to entice ants and stinging insects that offer protection to the immature gall-maker. A predator or parasitoid intent upon targeting the helpless wasp larva within the gall would need to run a gauntlet of stinging and biting insects fueled by sugar! The down-side is that heavily galled trees may literally buzz with stinging insects, presenting a serious challenge if the tree is located near a home."
So far, I haven't observed this effect and haven't felt the sticky surface found on some other extrafloral nectary producing galls.   I have however found other inhabitants using galls as a home.  Something had chewed a larger opening in this bullet gall.  I could see a tiny spider under magnification but never convinced it to come out for a picture.