Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Regal Moth and the Devil

The pictures above were sent to me by a dear friend who shall remain anonymous except to say that she is a real Trouper.  In case you missed school on the day there was sex education, this was X-rated in my day but is now probably only PG-13.  

The stars of the show are Regal Moths, aka. Royal Walnut Moths, Citheronia regalis, the largest moth by mass in North America.  Like other saturniids such as the Luna and Cecropia Moths it lacks a digestive system.  They fly for up to a week, males searching for the fairer sex with their feathery antennae.  After mating and laying eggs they pass on to the great walnut tree in the sky.

Hickory Horned Devil - Click to enlarge

I was excited (not that way) to see these pictures as this is a Most Wanted species for the Butterfly Festival.  The photographer was able to find them hours later and put them in a large paper bag.  The female will lay her eggs on the walls of the bag and the caterpillars will be raised safe from predators and parasites. The final instar is the Hickory Horned Devil which we hope will come of age in time for the Caterpillar Petting Zoo.

This is the largest caterpillar in the US, measuring up to 6 inches long, and also one of the coolest.  The prominent horns on its head rounds out its fearsome appearance but it is really harmless unless you happen to be a tree.*  Pity the poor sweetgum in this time-lapse video.  Although their horns are not sharp, they can defend themselves with some devilish dance moves as seen in this  Youtube video.
First instar with egg **
Third instar - Delaware Nature Society
Late instar - Jon Rapp
Like many other Lepidoptera, there is a considerable difference in color and appearance between the first caterpillar instar out of the egg and the subsequent four instars.  The final instar turns from a bright green to turquoise over a day.  It finally crawls down to the ground and burrows a chamber five to six inches deep.  There it forms a pupa without spinning a cocoon.

 Be sure to save the date of June 24th to see the devil up close at the Butterfly Festival at the Springfield Botanical Gardens.

Video by Dr. Chris Barnhart
* These caterpillars feed on several trees and shrubs including walnuts, hickories, buttonbush, persimmon, sumac, and sweet gum as well as (good news!) invasive bush honeysuckle.
** Imageshack.us/photo

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lone Star Tick Revenge

Lone Star Tick on tape
Memorial Day Special for those who have encountered ticks this weekend.

Ticks are thriving at Bull Mills.  I have even encountered my first tick of the day on arrival, hanging on the lock on the front gate.  They climb all over the UTV, probably sensing the CO2 from the exhaust, a definite tick turn-on.  In spite of a liberal dosing of DEET and treating our clothing liberally with permethrin we commonly find them crawling on our clothes and bodies when we return home.

We have learned to keep transparent tape around the house and truck to remove them when ever they are crawling around.  Mashing tape on one is a satisfying feeling but if I want real revenge, I touch it lightly, attaching it to the scutum (hard shell back on the thorax) only, leaving the legs free to struggle like a turtle on its back.  The result on this Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum) can be seen in this video.

Dog Tick - Lander.edu
Spider anatomy - Lander.edu
To help you figure out some of the moving parts you can use diagrams of the ventral view of a dog tick from Landers University in South Carolina. Spiders and ticks are arachnids, generally eight-legged and with some anatomical features in common.  Consider a spider which has chelicera, fangs and pedipalps which you can see in a good macro photograph.  These structures are all packed away in the little tick gnathosoma, the curved proboscis-like device flailing up and down in the video, wondering where I went.

The gnathosoma is the business end of a tick from my perspective, the thing that penetrates the skin. For some of you this may be what my kids used to call "way too much information."  The pedipalps grasp a fold of skin and hang on while the chelicerae cut through the epidermis.  The hypostome penetrates the wound and its teeth anchors it, the part that is hanging on when your skin tents up as you pull on the tick with tweezers.  The pedipalps also anchor it as it feeds.

So what is the tick left with when you pull up its "anchor"?  Assuming you get all of the tick, it may still have some of your debris.  This from the lab's instructions*:
"If your (tick) specimen was torn abruptly from its host there is likely to be host skin still caught in the gnathosoma and it must be removed. Use fine forceps to extract it. As you will soon see, the gnathosoma is equipped with recurved (posteriorly pointing) teeth designed specifically to prevent what you are attempting to do, i.e. separate the tick from the host's skin. Remember that the teeth face posteriorly and move the skin in that direction to unhook it from the teeth. Then pull the skin anteriorly to remove it. Repeat the process as often as necessary to free the skin."
Once you have removed the tick with tweezers you can crush it by squeezing with both hands, roast it over a burning match or candle, or even flush it down the toilet.  Or you can save the water like we do and just stick it on a piece of tape and leave it on the edge of the sink with all the other pieces of tick tape as a way of keeping score.

--- Lone Star Tick details

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Yesterday I hooked up the brush hog to the tractor and drove about 6 feet, then looked back to check its elevation and glimpsed something in the bare shaded ground beneath where it had rested.  I had been walking around the mower in the grass just seconds before.

The timber rattlesnake was tightly curled and from a distance I couldn't see the head.  I raced back to the the house to get my camera and it hadn't moved.  I shot pictures with a telephoto and determined it was facing me.  It was perfectly still and maybe dead so I finally touched it with a long stick and it moved its head slightly, just enough to determine that it was alive.

When I got down low to get the face shot above, I could tell that it was grumpy.  I think its lethargy was due to the 65 degree cloudless day.  This time of day the snakes we see are usually basking in the sun.  Another possibility was that it was shedding which temporarily effects its vision and vulnerability.  Either way I could tell that it just wanted to be left alone.

We are not amused.
When I returned an hour later it was gone.  This was in the field with Barb's garden so I mowed the grass in the field short.....real short!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Blackberry Seed Gall

5-sided stem

At a scouting camp out Saturday, Dave Shanholtzer gave me this gall puzzle.  It was a dried stem with tiny sharp thorns.  Those thorns and its ribbed five-sided stem were typical of a blackberry cane but what was the gall?

Blackberry knot gall - Natureblog.org
Blackberry knot gall - Nancy Kent

Google "blackberry stem gall" and you get a wide variety of different shaped galls.  A dedicated amateur gall hunter can search for a long time and find little information and then come on a treasure trove such as this natureblog.org posting on blackberry knot galls.  It shows the entire life cycle, unusual in its completeness.

I found Dave's gall in a naturalist's bible, Eiseman's Tracks and Signs.  It is a blackberry seed gall caused by a cynipid gall wasp Diastrophus cuscutae-formis.  Unlike many of the lumpy distortions created by many gall makers, this one is a work of art when it is young.  The Missouri Botanical Garden specimen to the right bears little resemblance to the gnarly gall in hand, once the tiny wasps leave home.

Rope dodder fruit - Minnesota Wildflowers
The Linnaean* classification system of genus and species is difficult for many of us.  A search for  D. cuscutae-formis  was complicated by the spelling with the superfluous hyphen, ignored by many sources.  I wasn't able to come up with the derivation of Diastrophus but the cuscutae-formis refers to the gall's resemblance to a cluster of dodder (Cuscuta) fruits which wrap around the host plant.  In this case, each "seed" contains the larva of a tiny wasp, providing shelter, humidity and food.  Eventually the tiny grub-like creature becomes a wasp that chews its way out, and can fly into the world.

A while back, Brandon Butler of the Conservation Federation of Missouri** asked if I hunt.  My first response was "No, I don't any more."  Then I realized that I hunt every day, just different game.  Some times we eat what I find (mushrooms) but more often it is for galls or "catch and release" insects to study.  Now I am off to our blackberry patch to look for my own blackberry seed gall.

*   Linnaeus and his classification system is discussed in this recent New York Times travel story.
** Join us at Explore the Outdoors Springfield with a sneak preview of the WOW museum on June 17th. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Trees on the Move

Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane, I cannot taint with fear. -  Macbeth- William Shakespeare

Not since Shakespeare has there been talk about forests moving until now.  I received this Science Alert news article from Mike Chiles MN, highlighting research showing the "migration" of tree species over 30 years.  The trend is for northern migration of conifer species and westward movement of deciduous (broad-leaf) species.  It gives a good explanation of the factors of temperature trends and changing precipitation patterns as well as humans' land use.

One statement in the article puzzled me, that the "young trees were more likely to have made this migration than the older ones."What was meant by "young trees?"  The actual scientific article refers to "saplings" and gives a good explanation.
"It is not surprising that saplings have experienced a higher proportion and faster rate in poleward and westward shifts than adult trees, because new recruitments (that is, young trees) are expected to respond to climate change more quickly (23, 24). The observed differential shift rates could also be due to the fact that saplings are more sensitive to droughts in terms of survival than adult trees (25), as substantial drought was observed in the southeastern region of the study area during the study period. The differential shift rates among subpopulations in the four cardinal quadrants further confirmed that the observed range shift is primarily due to the changes in the leading edges of species distribution ranges, which agreed with early findings by Woodall et al. (23) of significant poleward shifts of seedlings for most of the northern species in the eastern United States."
"You can't teach old dogs new tricks."
It probably isn't so much a matter of teaching an old tree as it is young trees having more time to adapt.  The younger trees have a longer time to let natural selection occur.

After the last ice age, Missouri went through a long period of boreal reforestation before our oak-hickory forest developed.  We don't know the time frame of that shift but it is likely that humans had some influence with their use of fire.  Now we are at it again.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Swamp Darner

Female Swamp Darner*  - Tonya Smith
From Tonya Smith, MN
As our group of wildflower enthusiasts were identifying native flowers in the vicinity of Bull Creek, Kevin Firth and his daughter were collecting specimens for Springfield Botanical Center's Butterfly House. He netted this impressive dragonfly which caught all of our attention. As I observed this extremely large dragonfly close up, Steve Irwin's voice echoed in my head, "Isn't it a beauty!" Meet Swamp Darner ... this dragonfly has brilliant blue eyes, complimentary bright green thoracic strips and abdominal rings on a brown abdomen and four powerful wings.
  Dorsal View - T Smith
Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) is one of the largest dragonflies in the US measuring between 3 and 4 inches in total length with a wingspan that can reach just under 5 inches. Their range is eastern North America extending west to Oklahoma and Texas. Swamp Darners are one of approximately 15 species of dragonflies (out of about 400) that migrate. They move down the Atlantic Coast in large numbers, sometimes as far as Mexico and the Bahamas. Speaking of migration, the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) have learned timing, intensity and relative species composition of dragonfly migration varies annually even among species known to be regular migrants. MDP is relatively young being established in 2011.

Swamp Darners prefer plant filled water in shaded woodlands, but it also expands its feeding to habitats that are not tied to water. Sometimes it will fly into a building through an open window perhaps seeking out it's naturally shaded haunts. It will feed both high in the air and at ground level. These very large dragonflies will also dine on species of dragonflies smaller than themselves. Swamp Darners are often seen feeding in swarms on flying insects at dusk. With the use of their magnificent compound eyes they can easily grab prey out of the air. The Darners (Aeshnidae) claim to fame is having the most complex compound eyes in the insect world.

Blue eyed male - Delmarva Dragonflies
The tail like appendages are long in both sexes. The male appendages are complex and distinctly hairy. The female appendages are flattened appearing stalk like. Apparently, the male Swamp Darners don't have any interest in defending or patrolling territories. The female's egg laying apparatus is called an ovipositor. It includes two pairs of blades that she uses to penetrate wood or plant stems.

Ovipositing Swamp Darner - Walter Sanford
The female Swamp Darners lay their eggs in damp and dry locations such as in mud, in trunks or soggy bark of standing and fallen trees, in stems, and at drying ponds.  A lot more detail about the process is in this annotated version of Walter Sanfords photograph above.

Some dragonfly tidbits worthy of mentioning:
Dragonflies have been used as tools to assess the biological health of aquatic habitats and to detect levels of heavy metals such as mercury. They are also considered model organisms to assess the effects of global climate change.

Is there an endangered dragonfly? Yes! Hine's Emerald Dragonfly (Somatochlora Hineana) was listed January 26, 1995. It's range is in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and in our wonderfully diverse and beautiful state of Missouri. It's survival depends on spring-fed shallow water to breed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a recovery plan that describes and prioritizes actions needed to help the dragonfly survive.

Even though I have never observed this behavior, I would assume with six legs (like any other insect) a dragonfly could walk. Wrong!  Dragonflies have been in existence for over 300 million years. Long before the dinosaurs walked the earth, Griffenflies were their prehistoric ancestors. The largest dragonfly fossil found had a wingspan of 2 ½ feet.

If you're planning a dragonfly hunt, be sure to download the Dragonfly and Damselfly Field Guide and ID App by Birds in Hand, LLC.  To manage habitat for dragonflies you can go to the Xerces.org site.

* The female Swamp Darner has darker blue-brown eyes, a thicker abdomen and no epiproct.

Other Dragonfly sources:
Buglady at Uwm.edu/field-station
See Swamp Darner ovipositing in action in this Youtube video.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Beetles in Chicken Mushroom

Mark Bower called to give me with directions to this beautiful sulfur Chicken of the Woods mushroom.  These are large, firm and delicious with an almost meaty texture and can be used in chicken recipes such as chicken and dumplings.  Barb tells me never to wash the mushrooms as they absorb water.  We brush them off carefully, and look in any folds as there are lots of critters that can hide there.

P. grossa  - Stephen Luk

In harvesting the chicken I found a number of these little beetles crawling out from under the shelves.  There are a number of fungivore beetle species and I  thought identification would be a problem but I got an answer from Buggide.net rapidly, Phenolia grossaIt is in the superfamily Cucujoidea (Sap, Bark and Fungus Beetles) which also contains the common lady beetles (aka ladybugs).

P. grossa larva - Stephen Luk

P. grossa is 6-8.5mm and has a cute ball-like knob on its antennae.  They are commonly found on fungi or under bark where they are thought to feed on fungi as well.  Stephen Luk photographed this larval form found in "a crumbly, stinky mushroom. Several were found in association with adult P. grossa."

This Chicken of the Woods mushroom is Laetiporus sulphureus is commonly referred to as a Sulfur Chicken.  Mark had found another chicken mushroom earlier, the white L. cincinnatus earlier and he prepared both for a taste test.  There was very little discernible difference except in the color.  In the field there is a significant difference including their DNA.  L. cincinnatus causes a "brown rot of the butt and the roots" (try to find that on a menu) that occurs at the base of the tree while sulfur chicken is found on the trunk.

Sulfur on the right
Hot chick find - REK
Both are good finds and a reason to celebrate.  They can be prepared a number of ways including with pasta, wild rice and on pizza.  With beetles.....not so much.

And from the other Bower, Linda's video on an eclosing Giant Swallowtail.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

1,000 Year Floods

Our ford crossing above the swimming hole
The April flood set a record at the Bull Creek USGS gauge at Walnut Shade and wrecked havoc along our section of creek.  It ate away well over 30 feet of bank, transporting six rows of trees planted with MN help in 2014 to Lake Taneycomo.

Bank before 2015 (red line) and now - REK
Water levels vary up and down the creek with each flood.  Our personal record was with the 2008 rains following Hurricane Ike.  The recent flood left debris 5 feet up on the trees at our road crossing the creek, far short of the 2008 record of 8' feet.  Large logs and uprooted trees littered the fields and new channels appeared below our house.  Road grading is a given.

The hidden damage comes from the invasive species seeds the floods bring down from upstream sources.  Every deluge brings a new wave of seeds to the flood plain.  Barb's self-imposed role as the Sisyphus of Bull Creek will face a new "flood" of garlic mustard and other dastardly plants, insuring that her chosen role of Invader Crusader will continue.
If it seems that "500 year floods" are occurring more frequently, you are not crazy.  The record of Bull Creek peaks doesn't show the data from the devastating 1993 floods that occurred before the monitoring gauge was established.   Metstat from Colorado State University has documented the rain patterns in Missouri between the events in 2015 and 2017.  Much of the local effects comes from variation in locally concentrated rainfall.
NOAA Map - Click to enlarge
-->"Extreme precipitation is a classic signal of climate change. There has been dramatic increase in extreme and record-breaking precipitation world-wide, a trend in which the fingerprint of climate change has been firmly identified. That global trend in mirrored by the continental trend across the U.S. and in particular in Missouri that sits in the bull’s-eye of increasing extreme precipitation in the U.S. Extreme precipitation in Missouri has increased 50 percent since 1950." Climatenexus.org/There is no question in my mind that the term "500 year flood" is now obsolete.  This is probably due to a combination of climate change (yes I said it) and the spread of invasive species, namely humans.  As we move out into rural areas with homes and commerce, more acres of roofs, pavement and non absorptive surface can be expected to increase runoff into streams.  Combine that with rainfall data above from the last few decades and it may be time to inquire about financing a new Ark.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Predaceous Predator of the Pond

Larva of the Predaceous Diving Beetle - REK
Linda Bower sent this story and video of a Predaceous Diving Beetle larva living up to its name.  It brought back painful memories of my first encounter when I grabbed something slithering around in a net full of pond sludge and came up with the final instar larva above, clinging to my finger while trying to digest it through its fangs.  In less that a minute my finger was swollen up to my palm with the pain of a wasp sting and it took an hour for the swelling to go down.

Predaceous Diving Beetle - REK
Linda's story
The larval Predaceous Diving Beetles are such voracious predators, they have earned the nickname "Water Tigers." In addition to feeding on its own kind, the attacker in this video ate a Waterflea, two Ostracods, a Copepod, and unsuccessfully attempted to catch a tadpole several times, all in under 2 hours.

The Dytiscid family is estimated to include about 4,000 species in over 160 genera. According to Beetles of Eastern North America by Arthur Evans (2014):
"Much remains to be learned about larval Dytiscids (several genera remain undescribed as larvae). Adult Dytiscids are among the most commonly encountered aquatic beetles. They can be found in almost any aquatic habitat, from rain puddles and birdbaths, springs, seeps, swamps, ditches, ponds and lakes to streams and rivers. They are notably absent from deep water." 

The larvae in this video are probably in their 1st instar because they are so tiny. The larger ones can inflict a painful bite. It was filmed in a farm pond with a digital microscope on May 12, 2017 in the Missouri Ozarks, USA. 

2021 Update  Smithsonian has a good video feature on Giant Diving Beetles.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Baby Snapping Turtle

We were walking around Lake Drummond at the Botanical Center after the big rains.  There was occasional small debris on the sidewalk, including this indistinct brown patch which a sharp eyed friend noticed was a baby turtle.  I picked it up and since it didn't move we pronounced it dead.  I put it in my shirt pocket to take to the WOLF class.

Back at home Barb put the body on a counter top so our dog wouldn't get it. The next morning she found it on the living room carpet 25 feet away and saw some motion in its tail.  We revised its prognosis and moved it to a makeshift aquarium that previously contained margarine.

This is a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), likely a hatchling from last fall although on rare occasions they won't exit their ping pong ball size shell until spring.  A newborn averages one inch long and ours is 1.3 inches.  The carapace (top shell) has rough ridges in a young turtle that will become smooth over several years. 

The head is relatively large and triangular with a pointed nose.  From the side you can appreciate the curved parrot beak.  It has no teeth but doesn't need them as the wide jaws and bony beak have lots of clamping power.  The ventral view of the carapace below shows its rough surface that will become smooth with age as it drags if over the ground.

Ventral view of plastron and triangular head
Snapping turtles are omnivores, eating mostly animal matter in the winter and switching to aquatic vegetation when the waters warm up.  We are trying this one on leaf spinach until we get some meal worms tomorrow.  Meanwhile, under a desk lamp for warmth, it is now stretching out and relaxing.

We only picked the turtle up in the park because it was "dead." After its visit to the WOLF school it will be back in the wild this weekend, hopefully basking in the sun.

Past adult snapping turtle blog