Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ephemeral Mayfly

We were standing near the creek when my wife, Barb, started giving me a strange look.  I get a lot of those looks from her but in this case she said, "There is an interesting bug on your hat."  We then did what any Master Naturalists would do, she held my hat while I photographed it.

This was our first mayfly of the season.  There are 6,000 species of them worldwide which make up the order Ephemeroptera.  Surprisingly their closest relatives are dragonflies.  The "ephemer" comes from the Greek "living a day" and that pretty much sums up the life span of the adult, a trait noted as far back as Aristotle.

They come out suddenly in large numbers and tend to occur in swarms just above the water after emerging.  With such a short lifespan they don't waste time eating or drinking but get right to business in the mating game.  It is described like this in Wikipedia.
"Each insect has a characteristic up-and-down pattern of movement; strong wingbeats propel it upwards and forwards with the tail sloping down; when it stops moving its wings, it falls passively with the abdomen tilted upwards. Females fly into these swarms, and mating takes place in the air. A rising male clasps the thorax of a female from below using his front legs bent upwards, and inseminates her. Copulation may last just a few seconds, but occasionally a pair remains in tandem and flutters to the ground."
Mayfly nymph - Tom Murray
The female will then lay 400 to 3,000 eggs on the surface of the water.  After anywhere from a few days to a year, the larvae, called nymphs, will emerge and begin a series of 10-50 moults, more than almost any other order of insects.  It is these critters that we count in our stream team surveys.  The next step toward adulthood gets very interesting.  I will yield to UC Berkeley to describe it.
When it comes time for the last nymph stage to molt into a subimago (the first flying stage), the guts empty out and the mid-gut section fills with air. Often, many nymphs will then simultaneously let go of their hold on their anchor in the water and float up to the top. Once they reach the air, the cuticle splits open on the thorax and the wings come out. This is the time of greatest vulnerability in their lives as they float on the water before they are strong enough to fly. The subimago has short hairs on the wings and on the body; the wings are dull and pigmented.
Once it gains some strength, it flies from the water to some form of shelter such as a tree, long grass, or the underside of a bridge and molts again within 24 to 48 hours. This additional molt to an adult called an imago allows the legs and tails of the insect to grow more. Longer tails give more stability in flight, and longer legs make it easier for the male to grasp the female in mating."
The adult on my hat took off, either headed back to the creek to look for love or else ready to give it up.  The species depends on high volume reproduction for survival as the eggs and larvae are an important link in the food chain.  The eggs are eaten by aquatic snails and caddisfly larvae and the nymphs feed flies, water beetles, fish, frogs, and birds, as well as fly fishing fanatics who will spend more time tying the perfect imitation mayfly than the original does mating.

Prong-gilled mayfly - Linda Bower
Rhithrogena germanica subimago on Equisetum hyemale.jpg
 Equisetum - Richard Bartz CC
Linda Bower MN has this video of a Prong-gilled Mayfly (Leptophlebia intermedia) larva feeding and, of course, her trademark  "pooping."

I am including this March brown mayfly resting on a rough horsetail, Equisetum hyemale, stem, because it is resting on a scouring rush, a plant species coming soon to a blog near you.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Microblog Volvox

Our micro-videographer Linda Bower is producing fantastic videos with her microscope at a rate I will never be able to keep up with.  We will start posting her videos with her comments and a listing of their length under the title Microblog.  I plan to write on topics such as cladocera and water bears when I "get around to it."  And don't bother sending me one, I will have to find the time on my own.

 Volvox birthing 3:50

This Volvox mother colony was found in farm pond water located in the Missouri Ozarks, USA. Guest appearances by Cladocera and a variety of plankton.

New to Volvox? No Linda, Barb and I talk about them every day at breakfast!

Volvox is a genus of some 20 species of freshwater green algae (division Chlorophyta) found worldwide. Volvox form spherical or oval hollow colonies that contain some 500 to 60,000 cells embedded in a gelatinous wall and are often just visible with the naked eye.  Read more here: at's Volvox entry.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Soused Mouse

Chardonnay de mus

A friend who shall remain unnamed had a half full wine bottle left open on his kitchen cabinet in his cabin for a week.  When he returned he found a mouse floating in the chardonnay quite glassy-eyed.  How he got in there is the big mystery.  Yes it was a male," Barb said, "What else did you expect, probably did it to impress a buddy."

The internal diameter of the bottle neck is 3/4" which looks like a tight fit.  Schwartz's Wild Mammals of Missouri says that a House Mouse,
Mus musculus, can fit through an opening 1/2" in diameter.  The real question I have is how did it climb up the slick glass bottle?  It must have had a powerful thirst!

Unlike the other 12 mouse species listed for Missouri, the House Mouse is an invasive species.  Mus domesticus, western European house mice, and Mus castaneus, southeastern Asian house mice are two of the seven different strains that have adapted quite well to life with humans.  As a group they tend to breed year around, leading to high numbers in our structures.

They are more omnivorous than the native mouse species, adapted to a wide variety of insects as well as our stored and prepared foods, soap, glue, and apparently white wine.  They have a wide variety of predators but most of them don't have access to our structures.  In our creek house, its main threats are the resident Black Rat Snake and Barb.

Mus domesticus, western European house mice, and Mus castaneus, southeastern Asian house miceThey are 
I broke the bottle open as my friend said he didn't want to save the wine.  The mouse was totally pickled and quite relaxed. His next stop is in a flower pot in the garlic field to give insects a chance to clean the skeleton.  A story like that is worth preserving.
Lisa Berger's note:
Bouquet: Notes of 3-day old toast, and pickled mus-kleberries
Mouth feel: Exquisitely full bodied, especially if the mouse is in your first sip

Editor's note:
We have named the mouse George in honor of George, Duke of Clarence who was said to be executed by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine, as it is described in Shakespeare’s play Richard III.  This link describes the controversy over this which I think is confusing with facts a better story.  Long live George, but not in our case.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Leucistic Cardinal

Cardinal of a different color - Andy Schiller
We had a strange visitor hanging around the Stream Team meeting at the Watershed Center Thursday evening.  Andy Schiller spotted it and managed to get a cellphone snapshot.  It was competing with cardinals and chickadees for feeder space, looking somewhat like a cross between a cardinal and a cockatoo.
Same bird earlier - Charley Burwick
I first called it piebald, a common word, better described as leucistic.  While albino is used to describe the total loss of pigmentation, including pale red eyes reflecting the color of blood, leucistic can be various shades from spotty like our friend to nearly complete.  It gets a lot more complicated as described in's Abnormal Coloration in Birds page.

In addition to drawing the attention of birders, leucism has other disadvantages.  Since melanin is structural as well as a pigment, feathers may wear out sooner, affecting flight and temperature control.  The reflection of heat can be a big disadvantage when facing cool spring winds.

Piebald, leucistic, you name it. - Pinterest
The more obvious problem is looking different.  It might affect survival, especially in more camouflaged birds like a sparrow although a male cardinal can hardly be called cryptic.  Attracting a mate may also be a problem in Spring when all the other guys are bright red, although who knows, maybe looking different helps - think of teenagers with tinted hair.

Be on the lookout at Monday's meeting and maybe we will get a chance to see it alive and in color, sort of.
3-20-2018 addendum
Dave Shanholtzer shared with me that he was a passionate birder with Greater Ozarks Audubon Society in the 1980s, the lone kid on their field trips.  He had a leucistic cardinal at his backyard feeder that he followed.   This is little David out with GOAS in the 80s and that might be Burwick in the skirt.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Two Hepaticas

Liverleaf (Hepatica) found by Jill Hays
Jill Hayes was down prowling the creek today with her friend Hannah and sent me pictures of the first hepatica of Spring.  Another common name is liverleaf and both names refer to the deep beef red color of the leaves in winter.  The leaves are three lobed and stand up on a hairy stalk.  As spring warms up the leaves will turn green as it produces chlorophyll to start the new growing season.  The brownish green basal leaves are said to be poisonous and it seems unlikely that they are eaten by mammalian herbivores to any significant extent.

Hepatica leaves green up later in the spring.  Note the hairy stalks - REK
According to the USDA Forest Service link "the flowers are most commonly blue or lavender, although white forms may be common locally, especially in southern areas, and there may be various shades of pink." They too are on a hairy stalk. Missouri is in the southwestern edge of its range.

Liverleaf is also commonly called hepatica because of its previous species name Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa.  That was in the "good old days," but since it was one of the few plant names I knew, they had to change it to Anemone americana to confuse me as rationalized here.

One of the cool things about liverleaf is its propagation.  While it is self-pollinating and doesn't need insects for that step, it depends on ants to move and plant its seeds.  Each seed has an elaiosome, a small, soft appendage that contains fatty nutrition.  Ants pick up the seed and take it home with them, eating their treat while not harming the seed, a process called myrmecochory.  Frequently it ends up in a pile of ant poop, dispersed and fertilized at the same time.

A hepatica of a different color - and family - REK
Liverleaf is not the only hepatica you can see at Bull Mills.  This is Fistulina hepatica, commonly called the beefsteak or oxtongue fungus.  It is a polypore fungus that is primarily saprophytic, growing on tree trunks and stumps, a sign that the tree has seen its better days.  The flesh is soft and when cut or squeezed it exudes a blood like juice.  And no, it is not edible, not that anyone I know would be even tempted.
More on liverleaf is at skymea

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Timberdoodle Love Song

Timberdoodle - Paco Lyptic
This time of year Timberdoodles (American Woodcocks) pass through Bull Mills on their way north to find nesting sights and wait for the ladies who will follow.  A few years ago we wrote about research several of us participated in to better understand the habitat they choose for their overnight stop.

The Timberdoodle is a fascinating bird and I don't have the words to describe least not as well than our favorite Bug Lady.  Linger not here, go straight to her description at this Bug of the Week link.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Missouri's Smallest Bears

SEM image of Milnesium tardigradum in active state - journal.pone.0045682.g001-2.png
Scanning electron microscope view of a tardigrade - Wikipedia
Linda Bower found some "water bears" (tardigrades) in a spoonful of farm pond water/muck and has been filming their antics. These are tiny, water-dwelling, eight-legged, segmented animals ranging from 0.05 millimeters to 1.2 mm (0.002 to 0.05 inches) long.  From*:
"Tardigrades, often called water bears or moss piglets, are near-microscopic animals with long, plump bodies and scrunched-up heads. They have eight legs, and hands with four to eight claws on each. While strangely cute, these tiny animals are almost indestructible and can even survive in outer space. Tardigrades eat fluid to survive. They suck the juices from algae, lichens and moss. Some species are carnivores and even cannibals."
Their fame comes from their survival skills.  They are among the "Most Likely to Survive" contestants in the case of a catastrophic Earth event such as a massive asteroid strike.  Some of their survival records:
  • 300 degrees Fahrenheit (water boils at 212)
  • -328 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Pressure 6 times greater than the deepest part of the ocean.
More to the point, they are really cute!  Linda says of her recent Youtube video:
 “This footage offers a view of tardigrades moving freely among a variety of plankton. It is fun to watch them walking around underwater although they are too tiny to get much detail with my current equipment. Seeing how they move may help if you are going to try to find them yourself.”
The Livescience posting on tardigrades is an excellent overview of these cute yet indestructible critters including images and video links.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Anesthesized Plants?

When I was young, the feelings of plants didn't get much respect.  They grew out of the ground at our pleasure, or in the case of dandelions, our displeasure.  We modified them painlessly with clippers and lawnmowers just like caterpillars chewed on them.  They felt nothing. 

We have learned more over the last 60 years.  Plants seek out the sun like some people migrate to Florida in the winter.  Many plants aim their leaves toward the sun, and trees grow their branches toward the available sunlight. Vines touching a branch will start slowly wrapping around it, a process called thigmoplasty.  Sensitive briars and Venus flytraps close rapidly by a similar process called thigmonasty, responding again to touch, just much faster. Venus flytraps actually seem to count, awaiting a second stimulus before closing.

So if plants can "feel" and can respond to injury, is that pain?  But what actually is pain?  If I touch a hot pan, I withdraw rapidly to avoid a more serious burn.  Likewise, some plants produce chemicals to discourage an insect from chewing on it and even broadcast chemical signals to its cohorts to release defensive chemicals, just as I might warn someone, "Don't touch it, it will burn you."  This and many other examples are described in a fascinating book, What a Plant Knows - A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.

A new study has shown that these senses can be dulled with the same anesthetics that are used on mammals, including us, in surgery or the dentist's chair.  I came across this in a NY Times article, Sedate a Plant, and It Seems to Lose Consciousness. Is It Conscious?   It describes the results of research reported in the Annals of Botany.

In an experiment, scientists sedated plants that display thigmonasty, such as the Venus flytrap. They blocked their response to touch and "when the drugs wore off, the plants came back to life, almost as if they were regaining consciousness."

One of the plants they tested was sensitive briar,  Mimosa nuttallii.  Its normal response to touch is the rapid folding up of its leaves, seen in this video.  Diethyl ether in the air of its container, or lidocaine on its roots, caused it to stop responding to touch.  Withdraw the anesthetic and seven hours later it had returned to a normal response.

These same anesthetics were used on Cape sundew, Drosera capensis, a well-known carnivorous plant and Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula.  They rapidly lost their capture response to crushed dead flies.  Yes, I feel the same about dead flies, but in their case these are like M&Ms to carnivorous plants. After several drug free hours they recovered their appetites and responded normally by quickly closing around the treats.

Plants have feelings? -
Obviously there is a lot of difference between responding to an anesthetic and actually feeling pain.  Plants don't think, as far as we know, but some might say they are aware of the insult.  While these findings may cause a few more readers to become vegans, I suspect it won't keep many homeowners off their riding lawnmowers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Tramp and the Roughrider

Aldo Leopold and his shack
John Muir at his tent
Last year we had the opportunity to attend the Legends of Conservation event at Prairie Star Farm in central Missouri.  The program was the "Holy Trinity of Conservation" - a chance to visit with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold at authentic reproductions of their dwellings, all within a few hours of Springfield.  The experience was magical, still raising goosebumps when I watched the video highlights on Youtube.  You can get just a sense of it in the Youtube video link below.

Thoreau at the Walden Pond cabin
The passion of the re-enactors was palpable and the setting perfect.  You didn't have to be a "nature nerd" to feel the message.  Each actor has professionally portrayed their character for years and assumed the personas with passion.  It was hard to shake the feeling that you were there in the moment at Walden Pond, Yosemite, or the Wisconsin shack.

Roosevelt and Muir at Yosemite
I am sorry you missed it, but the not for profit Prairie Star Conservation Community will be holding the Legends of Conservation on March 17th and 18th that promises to be just as exciting.  The Tramp and the Roughrider will feature Lee Stetson again as John Muir, recreating his time with Teddy Roosevelt (Joe Wiegand) in Yosemite, a historic meeting that led to the development and preservation of the National Park System.  Hearing the words in person creates a permanent memory.
"After entering the park and seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. Muir and Roosevelt set off largely by themselves and camped in the back country. The duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point, and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning. It was a night Roosevelt never forgot."  .Wikipedia
Not only will you get to meet with these two giants of conservation but you can take the short tour which includes realistic recreations of the Leopold Shack and Walden Pond cabin.  You can watch the Holy Trinity video from last year to sample the flavor of the event.

Ticketing information is here.