Thursday, March 30, 2017

Splendid Tiger Beetle

Barb spotted this bug on the floorboard of her Ranger and it held still just long enough for me to get the camera for a quick shot before flying away.  The iridescent green was typical of a tiger beetle, Cicindela sp.

Barb's beetle is a Splendid Tiger Beetle, Cicindela splendida.  While several tiger beetles have brick coloration on their elytra (hard wing covers), coloration can be variable.  The Splendid has small distinctive white bands on the middle edge and the apical lunula.  Males can be identified by the dense hairs around their front legs.

These little beetles average 11-14mm in length but make up for their size by their speed and large mandibles.  They can run up to 5 mph or 120 body lengths a second.  Usain Bolt would have to run 450 mph to achieve that ratio. This speed  blurs their vision so they frequently overrun their small invertebrate prey (or the lady they were pursuing) and have to stop to refocus before racing again.

Mating Splendids - Note color variation and the hairy male on top - Dr. Mathew Brust
Racing to find the female, a guy could be forgiven if it happens to be the wrong species.  Not to worry, slight anatomical variations save the day.  Bug Eric describes the pronotum (top of the thorax) of the female which has specific indentation for her species.  These "notches and dents" are a perfect fit only for the male of her species who will hang on to mate and then protect his sperm investment by clinging to her to prevent competition.

Small and hard to find unless they are running, they are most active in the fall and then emerge in the spring to feed, mate, lay eggs and then hide again.They tend to be in clay and gravel areas with sparse vegetation frequently on gravel roads like where Barb found it.  It stalks, races to the prey and pounces just like..... a near-sighted tiger!

The West Virginia DNR has a comprehensive publication on tiger beetles.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Cedar Quince Rust

Well shut my mouth! When Jane Troup sent me a picture of her "alien invasion," I confidently diagnosed it and sent her this link to our cedar apple rust blog.  She responded, "It's weird though, no gall, just the rust." But I still didn't catch on.  Only when Linda Ellis sent another email to me and mentioned she had "never seen this erupting along the branches instead of just in galls" did the great light dawn.

Eruption on a cedar (Juniperus virginiana) branch - Dr. Dailey O'Brien,
Cedar-quince rust doesn't produce the galls of the other cedar rusts.  Instead, the twigs and branches swell from infection.  Later they become elongated and the bark begins to peel.  Symptoms on junipers are described on the Missouri Botanical Garden site:
"Perennial, elongated swellings on the tips of twigs and branches, which may crack and form cankers, are symptoms of cedar quince rust on red cedars and other junipers. In damp spring weather, cushion-shaped, orange, gelatinous blisters burst through the bark where the branches are swollen. Cedar-quince rust disease damages the ornamental value of susceptible cedars and junipers, killing young branches and weakening plants when cankers occur on the main trunk."
Infected hawthorn fruit - MO Bot Garden
Much like cedar apple rust,which alternates with apples, this alternates annually between junipers and deciduous host trees.  In this case however it infects 480+ species of the Rosaceae family including serviceberry (Amelanchier), chokeberry (Aronia), hawthorn (Crataegus), and apple/crabapple.

My lesson from this is to listen closely to my botanical betters when they send me clues, instead of shooting from the hip directly into my foot.

* This University of Minnesota site,  describes the four varieties of cedar rusts.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bristletail in the Moss

We spent several hours on Tuesday exploring the mosses of Bull Creek with Nels Holmberg, a bryophytologist, but more on that in the next blog.  Identifying moss, or in my case acting like you might be able to, requires a lot of close ups with a magnifier or a macro lens.  As I was leaning into a cliff face covered with moss, I saw something less than an inch long crawling among it.  I got one picture of it before it disappeared into the microscopic forest.

Back home, I enlarged the picture and was facing a relic of ancient times.  After a search, I tentatively called it a bristletail and sent it off to Chris Barnhart who identified it as a Rock Bristletail (RB), Meinertellidae.  This is a small family of primitive insects belonging to the order Archaeognatha.  The Archaeognatha ("ancient jaw") are among the most ancient living insects, appearing in the early Devonian period 400 million years ago long before plants produced seeds and reptiles evolved.

RB anatomy has a lot of interesting features.  Its segmented body has a distinctive arch on the back of the thorax.  The head is flattened side to side and is equipped with a flexible jaw that can rotate and twist around.  It eats primarily algae, but also lichens, decaying organic material and of course moss.

 Rock bristletail on rock - Bruce Marlin CC
The most interesting feature is its three tail-like appendages.  It has a long epiproct between two smaller cerci.  Using this handy accessory it can spring up to 12 inches into the air to escape a predator, or presumably just for the fun of it after a boring day in the moss.  My favorite Bug Lady describes how it can use its epiproct as a rudder to direct its landing, much like a flying squirrel uses its tail.  Dr. Stephan Yanoviak studied this by dusting bristletails with orange fluorescent power to track their movement.

At the time I was disappointed that I couldn't catch it to study closer.  Thinking about it now, it is nice to have this primitive creature remain somewhat mysterious, maybe for another 400 million years.

The Bug Lady's Bug of the Week is as entertaining as it is educational, a must read.
Thanks to Dr. Chris Barnhart for the ID.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Opossum Freeloader

Today we had a first, an opossum at our bird feeder.  We have a constant battle of wits with gray squirrels (last count, squirrels-8, Bob-0) and an occasional raccoon grazing the sunflower seed that falls on the deck.  Now we have an opossum that has figured out how to get into the suet feeder.

We first saw it last week, waddling along the deck and into the leaf litter below.  I didn't mind cleanup efforts on the deck but I was startled to see it clinging awkwardly to the tree while using its claws to dig into the wire lattice holding the last block of suet of the winter.  After getting some pictures I walked out, expecting to startle it, only to find myself in a stare-down from two feet away.

Up close and personal - two feet from the camera
For a slow moving, passive mammal that evolved as the last of the dinosaurs were going extinct, it is amazing that it is still around.  They look like they were designed by a committee that couldn't decide between a rat and a pig and so combined them.  Their appearance and their defensive hissing hasn't won them many fans, but we find them the most fascinating of mammals.

Climbing a swinging suet feeder didn't work.
They are the only marsupial in the Northern Hemisphere, having crossed the newly formed volcanic Panama land bridge from South America somewhere between 3-10 million years ago.  With only a primitive placenta at birth, the newborn possum must make the trip from the birth canal up the abdomen and into the marsupium (pouch) alive (not all do) and hope there is an open teat.  With up to 20 newborns and only 13 teats, some will likely starve.

Their lifespan is very brief, averaging 2-4 years.  During that time they are total omnivores and it is estimated that they will consume 5,000 ticks that collect on their body in their lifetime.  She is the ultimate single mother, carrying the young in a pouch that can be sealed water tight when she swims while later the young will all cling to her back as she climbs around.

Their defense is rather tenuous, a combination of fierce and harmless hissing and as a last resort "playing possum."  Their lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams drools around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid may be secreted from the anal glands.  This is enough to make many predators think that the animal is sick and therefore inedible.  The opossum isn't "playing" but rather a state of shock where the involuntary response may last minutes to four hours.  This maybe a good reflex when faced by an animal predator.....a car on the highway, not so much.

The opossum is not without its fans.  If the facts above make you one, check out the Opossum Society of the US.  If you are not that "rabid" a fan* just give them wide berth on the highway.  They may not be dead but just "playing possum."

Our opossum's struggles on the tree can be seen in this video.
* Opossums rabies is extremely rare, probably due to their low body temperature.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Missouri Gooseberry

Toothed leaves of MF - Illinoiswildflowers
There is not much new to see while hiking in the valley and what there is shows little color.  I saw a few small stems with green leaves, a rarity this time of year and expected to find some invasive multiflora rose (MF) or Japanese Honeysuckle that had escaped Barb's herbicide and clippers but this was different.  The thorns were thin and straight rather than recurved like the prickles* that MF produces that dig in deeper into your clothes and flesh when you pull away from them.  A closer look at the leaves showed a distinct difference with rounded lobes rather that the toothed margins of our MF enemy.

Gooseberry stem - llinoiswildflowers
Barb identified the pictures as Missouri Gooseberry, Ribes missouriense.   The most valuable source for plants in our area is illinoiswildflowers which paid off again.  Their photographs are detailed as is their description.  Unlike the hated MF, this is a great plant with lots of benefits for nature.  

The nectar and pollen attracts bees, flies,  butterflies and even hummingbird moths.  It is a host plant for the gray comma butterfly. The fruit is eaten by birds as well as fox, skunk, squirrel and raccoons.  

The Illinois Wildflower insect table is particularly valuable in finding the gooseberry's value in nature as measured by what eats it.  There are diverse species listed including my favorite the sumac flea beetle.  "Value" is a rather artificial concept we bipeds define, trying to quantify the complex interrelation of plants and animals.

"We" arrived on the continent 9,000+ years ago, making some minor modifications.  Then the second wave of "us" from Europe in the 1500s brought the Columbian Exchange, upsetting a balance of nature that was doing quite well without our interference.  While many species were brought for food or comfort, others like multiflora rose were an attempt to add beauty.

Multiflora rose berries and prickles
Multiflora rose was one of those beautifying mistakes.  Brought here from Asia in 1866 as root stock for other roses, it was promoted in the 1930s as living fence and for erosion control, another example of what seemed like a good idea at the time.  It later was planted in highway median strips as a crash barrier, a role that continues on our ATV trails.  Our bad!

*  We discussed thorns vs. prickles in a 2013 blog and nothing has changed since then.  The short answer is that armature describes a sharp pointed appendage and includes thorns, spines and prickles.
  • Thorns - a sharp pointed modified stem.
  • Spine - a sharp pointed structure that is a modified leaf or stipule (outgrowth on the side of a leaf stalk (petiole).
  • Prickle - a sharp outgrowth of the epidermis or bark.
Whats in a name?  (3-17-2017)
Our friend Amy raised the question of why the "goose" in gooseberry.  It appears that no one knows but there are lots of speculation about the corruption of foreign words in this wide spread fruit, including several "saucy" possibilities mentioned in Wikipedia.

Kentucky University publication describes the thorns, spines and prickles.
llinoiswildflowers has good information on gooseberry as well as virtually any plant in Missouri.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

They're Baaack!

Black Vulture eggs
For the 7th year in a row the black vultures have chosen to raise a family in our barn along Bull Creek.  Barb had seen them hanging around for several days and on Saturday I confirmed that they had laid two eggs in the barn stall.  We have had 11 birds fledge (one egg never hatched and it disappeared a month later),

A common question we get is  are these the same parents each year.  We can't be sure as they all look alike.  The male and female sexually monomorphic (look identical unless you see their sex organs) but fortunately they appear to tell the difference.
Warming in the sun
The one thing I am confident of is that they are the same family, whether the same parents or the young coming back to their birth place.  The first year they were skittish, flying out every time we approached the barn.  Over the years they got use to us, to the point that they frequently won't get off the eggs until we stand there with camera in hand and they finally get up for the photo-op so we will go away.  Last year I was able to walk withing 10 feet to get the picture of one as it warmed up in the sun.
Chicks in a hollow tree- 2013
Since 2013 we have had a pair of chicks raised every year in a hollow tree half a mile away in the forest.  The trunk is now paper thin and I was surprised to see it standing.  I will wait a few weeks to check it again but I suspect they will have found better quarters.

Friday, March 3, 2017


Back in November, Chris Barnhart send me pictures of a large patch of liverwort that he had been watching.  Initially it was a dull mass, seen below, but the morning after a rain it blossomed into the bright green you see above.  I sent it to Nels Holmberg who identified it as Asterella tenella, sending it on to John Atwood for confirmation.  They added that "I have never seen such a thick pad of this species. Usually it is spread out 1 plant deep."

Dry liverwort - Christ Barnhart
My initial search for Asterella tenella brought up only limited listings with no details.  One titillating title caught my eye, Laboratory Induction of Sexuality in Asterella tenella, but as usual in scientific literature it was only describing the short days and low temperatures required for the induction of sex organs in this species.

A. tenella is a thaloid liverwort, which I am sure most of you recognized but was Greek to me (actually Latin, but never mind).  I did finally find this definition of the genus.
"Asterella is a liverwort, a type of simple, non-vascular plant, akin to mosses. Like mosses, liverworts are restricted to moist habitats or moist times of the year. ......Astrella is found widely around CSUCI, but only in well-shaded habitats (such as the shadiest parts of north facing slopes). It is active (green) only in the days or weeks immediately following rainfall. When dry and inactive, it is black and crusty" Cal. State U Channel Islands
Our Master Naturalist program in March is on the Bryophytes by Nels Holmberg.  They are the "lower half" of the plant kingdom, seedless non-vascular plants, made up of mosses, liverworts and hornworts.  The other "half" are all the flowering vascular plants we are familiar with.  For me it is easier to talk about what bryophytes aren't, comparing them against flowering, seed forming trees, forbs and grasses that are familiar in their lifestyle and reproduction.

Asterella tenella  closeup - Chris Barnhart
One thing I can start to understand is that since they aren't "vascular," there are no vessels for fluid transport.  What would appear to my untrained eye as a "root" is called a protonema, branching filaments that spread out and form shoots and leaves.  With no vessels to carry water, "Water and mineral nutrients required for the moss to grow are absorbed, not by the rhizoids, but rather by the thin leaves of the plant as rain water washes through the moss cushion."*

Brachythecium species of moss
At that point I begin drowning in a sea of terminology about asexual reproduction and structures.   I would suggest that you take a deep breath, relax and pick up a hand lens to look at the beautiful macroscopic structure above.  If you are one of our Master Naturalists, come to the next meeting with an open mind.  If not but still curious about nature, maybe you should consider looking into a Master Naturalist or like-minded organization near you.  Warning, it can be addictive!

* /

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

What the Rain Brings

The report on the Resurrection Fern on the last blog got me to thinking about other examples of overnight resuscitation after a little rain.  The most common example that comes to mind is another lower life form that I associate with rain after a dry spell, our beloved fungi.  Many edible species such as morels and oysters spring to life after rain.

We had a pair of logs that Mark Bower introduced me to where Oyster Mushrooms would bloom after a rain.  After a nice fall shower two years ago, I trekked up the little wet-weather creek filled with anticipation and found a large blossoming of mushrooms.  Cutting them off, one fell over the edge of the log and I reached down to retrieve it, stopping just short.  A very patient copperhead waited without moving while I grabbed my camera for a shot of a lifetime.

Mark Bower and I came across nostoc along the rocky glade trail Saturday.  The barren rocks look like they couldn't support any life but add a little rain (in this case just a sprinkle) and in the words of Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “Life just wants to be; but it doesn't want to be much.”

As we discussed in a earlier blog, this cyanobacteria produces a rather disgusting mass, looking like a rotting plant on its way out rather than a new growth.

Another example of overnight greening after a rain will be featured in the next blog.