Friday, August 31, 2018

Speckled King Snake

Wrestling copperhead and king snake - Photo by BH's grandpa
One of the students in the new WOLF School Class (BH) shared these photographs of a copperhead and a speckled king snake in a fatal embrace.  I asked her grandpa to share the story with me.
"When I came upon the snakes they were already entangled, I took a few pictures. When the copperhead's head was exposed I hit it on the head, it seemed to relax. The king snake then started attacking the copperhead's head. I had to leave and when I came back there were no signs of either snake. I assume the king snake ate the copperhead."
First I want to address the copperhead.  Regular readers know that we protect snakes and never harm them unless they are a clear threat to humans.  We have had to kill a rattlesnake on our deck and copperheads in the front yard of the cabin on August nights.  Occasionally I can transplant them with the proper equipment - do not try this at home!  On the other hand we see venomous snakes out in our fields and roads commonly and we respect each other and would never harm them when they are in their territory.  This below from the MDC website sums this up well.
Missouri's Wildlife Code Protects Snakes
Few Missourians realize that all snakes native to our state are protected. The Wildlife Code of Missouri treats snakes, lizards, and most turtles as nongame. This means that there is no open season on these animals, and it is technically unlawful to kill them. There is a realistic exception, however: when a venomous snake is in close association with people, which could result in someone being bitten. We hope that more people realize that snakes are interesting, valuable, and, for the most part, harmless.  Snake Facts Overview
The copperhead's encounter with the king snake likely would not have ended well even without human intervention.  The speckled king snake is known to be immune to the venom of other snakes and even eats rattlesnakes, although it is not necessarily immune to the venom of snakes from different localities. Wikipedia
As he describes, the king snake tackled the problem head on, the only way to swallow a snake.

"Down the hatch!" - Photo by BH's grandpa
Heron eating snake - Wikipedia
Your new word of the day is "opiophagous," Greek for "snake eating."  Unlike the old adage of eating an elephant a bite at a time, animals without a knife and fork require special techniques.  Like the heron here, head-first is the recommended method for opiophagous (OP) critters lacking teeth like king snakes.  Other common OPs include skunks, collared lizards, hawks, and the famous mongoose.  The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has been found to have the most resistance towards snake venom, an immunity that is not acquired and has probably evolved as an adaptation to predation by venomous snakes in their habitat.

Died of a pellet in the head- 2011
We have a strict rule at Bull Mills - never harm any snake unless it is a threat to you or others.  The last rattlesnake we had to kill at the house was in 2011 although we see one several times a year on the road or the glade.  On those occasions we remind them that we are too big to eat and if it wastes it venom it won't be able to eat for several days.  They simply shake their tail and crawl away.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Fungi Finds

Between rains this weekend I took off for a vigorous hike in the woods, only to be slowed to a snail's pace by all the little fungi that had popped up.  Every few steps I stopped to see another treasure.  The tiny coral mushroom above was especially cute, measuring an inch tall.  I sent the picture to Mark Bower who gave me a tentative ID of Lentaria micheneri.

Many coral mushrooms are edible although eating too many at a time will give some people a case of what my father called the "green apple quick step."  Testing Google once again, I came up with the definition of a dance move seemingly taken on by people who have to run to the bathroom with explosive diarrhea or the name of a 1990's Seattle grunge band.

Entoloma sp.?- Mark Bower
Mark got back to me with several of his finds.  First was this beautiful blue fungus that even he couldn't initially identify.  Like many mushrooms these are tiny and easy to miss.  His next step was saving the specimen and placing the cap gills down on a paper.  A subsequent spore print was pink suggesting that it is an Entoloma sp.

Spore print - Mark Bower

Spore prints are a common way of separating some mushrooms that otherwise look similar.  By putting the mushroom cap on dark and light paper the spores will show up whether they are dark or white.

Wikipedia says there are over 1,000 Entoloma species which are generally drab but this one is certainly the exception.  Mark's uncertainty is justified by no less that Michael Kuo's description on Mushroom Expert.
"Would-be Entoloma identifiers need, above all else, patience and the ability to Keep Calm and Carry On when their Entoloma collections do not match a described species very precisely. Since "patience and cool-headedness" are not likely to make the Top Ten List for anyone who knows me and is asked, "What are Michael Kuo's personality traits?" it probably goes without saying that I despise Entoloma and everything about it."

Calvatia cyathiformis - Mark Bower

Another highlight from Mark's morning slow moving head-down stroll was finding a fairy ring of the common Calvatia cyathiformis.  I saw at least 50 on my quarter mile morning hike in the woods, all three to six inches high.This is a puffball mushroom that can grow to the size of a softball or soccer ball.   Cyathiformis means flask-shaped although the basal narrowing can occur late and can disappear under the round globe. As it matures the center dries out to fill with spores that can explode out with pressure.

Fairy circle of Chlorophyllum molybdites - Wikipedia
A fairy ring is a circle of fungi, frequently recurring and expanding annually.  Most fairy circles occur in wooded areas and like Mark's which is on a slope, it is often hard to photograph the whole circle in one picture.  It is easier to see the complete circle in the photograph from Australia above.  I will let Wikipedia explain how this happens.
"The mycelium of a fungus growing in the ground absorbs nutrients by secretion of enzymes from the tips of the hyphae (threads making up the mycelium).   This breaks down larger molecules in the soil into smaller molecules that are then absorbed through the walls of the hyphae near their growing tips.  The mycelium will move outward from the center, and when the nutrients in the center are exhausted, the center dies, thereby forming a living ring, from which the fairy ring arises."

Frequently they will occur in an open grassy area or lawn without the mushrooms appearing, just showing a more exuberant growth of grass as shown above in Mark's yard.  Remember that the mycelium are all spreading in the soil and the mushrooms represent their fruiting bodies (think of the transient blossoms of a flower).  The Illinois University Extension describes the process below.
"Fairy ring fungi are not attacking the grass directly, but are breaking down organic matter in the soil. As a result, nitrogen is released that the grass above may use, causing the green ring. In cases where the mycelia of the fungus get dense and inhibit water movement into the soil, grass in the arc may turn brown. Mycelia may also deplete soil nutrients and produce toxic levels of hydrogen cyanide. The mushrooms that appear after rainfall are the fruiting bodies of the fungus."
There are many different species that can make a fairy circle.  In older cultures in Europe they were associated either with hazardous or dangerous places or with good fortune.  Go figure!

Mark Bower discussed puffballs on this blog in 2016 and you can see what happens when grown adults encounter a patch of puffballs in this video.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Syrphid Fly

Airplane plant blossom

I noticed a tiny dark fly hovering around the blossoms of Barb's airplane plant, Chlorophytum comosum, on our porch.  It was patient with my camera and I was able to get within five inches to photograph it.  It was obviously a syrphid fly (hover fly, aka flower fly) but with 6000 species and 200 genera, I didn't hold much hope that I would be able to identify it, but I sent the picture to INaturalist and got an immediate identification.

This is a syrphid fly or hover fly with no common name, Ocyptamus fuscipennis.  They have a characteristic quick hovering flight, scouting out flowers and tend to frequent small blossoms.  In addition to its behavior and body shape, my specimen had a distinctive wing pattern and striping of the abdomen.

   - Susanna H

Syrphid flies are considered the second most important group of pollinators next to wild bees.  The larvae of many species prey on aphids.  Keep an eye out for these little guys and gals.  You can see their life cycle at this Bugguide link.

If you haven't tried it, checkout for identification of insects and plants.  I tried it with the airplane plant blossom above and it identified it as the number one choice.  They will even identify sound files of bird calls!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Brown Widow

Alee Huerta of our Master Naturalist chapter sent me this picture of a Brown Widow spider.  Although somewhat blurry when she photographed through a clear plastic box (a very reasonable precaution), it is still quite identifiable. She said that "It was super fast compared to how a Black Widow moves. Its web was very dense and it had multiple ant carcasses in there that it had been feasting on."

Brown Widows or Latrodectus geometricus are not a famous as their notorious cousin, L. mactans.  They are smaller and lighter in color, ranging from tan or gray to brown.  Their famous hourglass is yellow to orange rather than bright red.  They also have distinctive stripes on their legs as seen above.
Brown Widow dorsal view - Bill & Mark Bell CC

Brown Widow egg sac - Wikipedia

Some evidence suggests that they are more aggressive than their black cousins and are displacing them in California.  This may be good news for us as they are have a less toxic venom and their bites less serious.  Either way, Widow spider bites are unpleasant and painful although rarely lethal.

 Click to enlarge -INaturalist

The map from INaturalist suggests that although they are uncommon outside of the southern states, some are occasionally found further north.  This is likely caused by their accidental transport by us bipeds that now are the most invasive species.  We are the only species to have ever covered all of the continents on the globe.* 

World wide distribution - Donald W. Hall,
Although the brown widow's range is reported to be in California and the deep south, Alee's sighting and others shows that they are now tolerating the temperatures of the Midwest, suggesting that global warming is having an effect on where they Brown Widows in this link.
* Yes, we are the only species that has covered the entire globe in its 4.5 billion year history.  That "fun fact" and many others come from Darwin Comes to Town, a book that I would highly recommend.  It focuses on the fact that evolution is occurring much faster than we ever dreamed.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Paper Wasp Nest

When I started to check out a bluebird box last week I was greeted by a red wasp which nailed me in the abdomen through my T-shirt.  I got my revenge on the wasps with pyrethrin spray*(see below).  I cleaned out the wasp bodies, and removed the nest to study the babies.

These were red paper wasps, Polistes carolina, a species that that commonly builds nests in bird houses as well as under eaves and other concealed places around our houses. They form their nests using wood fibers which they chew and mix with saliva to create hexagonal cells for their young.  The larvae are protected by the adults in a complex society described in Wikipedia.

Larvae in cells

The nest is attached by a thin but tough pedicle and cells are arranged to orient the growing larvae head-down towards the ground.  "Paper wasps secrete a chemical which repels ants, which they spread around the base of the anchor to prevent the loss of eggs or brood." (Paper wasps).  As they grow the larvae will pupate, spinning a cocoon of silk which caps the chamber.

Larvae inside pupal cells
In this video I first exposed the nest to sunlight.  Since they are normally hanging upside down in a dark place, the larvae of different ages began to move randomly, trying to figure out what was going on.  I then opened a few sealed chambers, exposing larvae that hadn't had a chance to complete pupation.  They wiggled aimlessly and were incapable of purposeful movement like many other species' larvae.

While nursing the sting I had to remind myself that paper wasps have a beneficial role in the nature.  They are are important in controlling populations of other species that we consider pests such as hornworms and tent caterpillars.  They also feed on other insects such as the larvae of beetles, flies and moths.  They also feed on nectar and thus serve as pollinators. 

Pyrethrum Spray - Several sources such as recommended pyrethrum as a safe way to remove wasps from a birdhouse.  Pyrethrins are gradually replacing organophosphates and organochlorides as pesticides of choice, since these other compounds have been shown to have significant and persistent toxic effects to humans.
"Pyrethrum is a powerful, rapidly acting insecticide originally derived from the crushed dried flowers of the daisy Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium. Permethrin is a manmade synthetic pyrethroid. It does not repel insects, but instead works as a contact insecticide, causing nervous system toxicity, leading to death, or ‘knockdown’, of the insect. The chemical is effective against mosquitoes, flies, ticks, fleas, lice, and chiggers. Permethrin has low mammalian toxicity, is poorly absorbed by the skin, and is rapidly metabolized by skin and blood esterases." Travel Medicine 2013
There is a lot of research on Polistes species learning and memory, behavior, facial recognition, and even personality at this link.

Colorado State University Extension has extensive information on the European paper wasps now found throughout the US.  The life cycle is similar to our native Polistes species as described here.

"Nests are constructed of paper, produced from chewed wood fibers of weathered fences, porch decks and similar sites. Initially, a few hexagonal paper cells are formed and eggs laid in the cells. Upon hatch, the wasp larvae are fed crushed insects, usually caterpillars, that the overwintered queen discovers in foraging trips among nearby plants.
According to, “The wasp then malaxates, or softens the food and in doing so absorbs most of the liquid in the food. This solid portion is given to older larvae and the liquid is regurgitated to be fed to younger larvae.” 
When full grown the larvae then seal over the cell and pupate. Development of the wasps to the adult form is usually completed in 3 to 4 weeks after eggs are laid. The new wasps assist in colony activities of nest construction, foraging, and caring for young. The original queen increasingly remains restricted to the nest as new workers take over colony activities.
The colony continues to grow through the summer and may contain several dozen individuals by the end of summer. The nest is continuously expanded and reconstructed through the summer and may contain a hundred or more cells by fall. A few of the wasps produced later in summer are males and increasing numbers of the females become sexually mature at that same time. Mating occurs and the mated females are the surviving overwintering stage. Males and non-reproductive females do not survive winter and the nest is abandoned by late fall."
Wasps like their honey

Friday, August 3, 2018

Singing Ants

I stopped along our road to checkout curled leaves on a young ash tree and once again found lots of ants crawling over the leaves to protect aphids inside and collect their honeydew.  After touching the leaves I saw the ants tapping their abdomens against the leaf repeatedly like a woodpecker in reverse.  I sent this video to James Trager for his interpretation.

  - University of Florida
He tells me that these are carpenter ants and they are communicating with their neighbors with sounds called stridulation. It turns out that they can make a lot of sounds but not in our hearing frequency, as discussed in Shhh, the Ants Are Talking!  Watching closely I can now see that the abdomen isn't actually touching the leaf.  Wild About Ants describes how the sound is made this way:
"On one segment of the gaster there is a patch of tiny ridges like a file. On the petiole is a curved ridge called a scraper. The ant produces a squeaking sound when she rubs them together, which known as stridulation. You can produce a sound in a similar way by rubbing a craft stick across a comb."
We don't know exactly what message the ants were sending. They may be communicating food sources, danger of possible predators or even "Smile for the old guy with the camera." What ever it was, the stridulation frequency increased when I disturbed a branch.

Inside the curled leaf
Frequently you will see an ant crawl inside one of the curled up leaves, probably for a honeydew snack. You can see what goes on inside the leaf in this video as there are multiple generations crawling over each other while feeding on leaf juice. The sight is enough to give a gardener the hives.

One week later I could see the aphid colony was thriving under the protection of the ants.  Since they deliver 3-4 live birth babies a day with no predators their population had outgrown the leaf curls and were now covering lots of leaves and petioles out in plain site.  As I was taking this photograph, my arm brushed a branch and the ants gave me a personal dose of their predator protection.  After those little ant jaws penetrated my skin I thought I heard her stridulating, bragging about the unmentionable words she made me say.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Badger Lodging

On school field trips we are frequently asked, "What lives in that hole." A better question might be "what doesn't."  A mammal hole may be built as a private residence but most likely will turn into an Airbnb over time.  Our own Richard Hermann documented the guests at a lodging on his land.
"It was mid-May, looking for invasive plants, when I came across this newly dug burrow. I was guessing /wishing I had found a fox den. I set my game camera up to discover who's residence this might be. I had left the camera there for about 2 weeks undisturbed. The first pictures showed a ground hog using the den. Then, an armadillo was going in and out of it. I was amazed as to how many animals were checking out this den, raccoons came by, deer, coyote, opossum and then, a badger!
Of my badger pictures only one was a day time picture, all the others were night time. The badger only stayed about 6 days in this den. I didn't know if it was my activity that had caused him/her to leave so I stopped trying to get more pictures. I found out since then that they often just use a den for a little while and then move on."
Nocturnal portrait of Richard's badger
Richard contacted Rhonda Rimer of MDC about the range of badgers in Missouri.  Her reply:
"The sightings go back into some of the historic records. The earliest record I have is from 1940. I have about 35 records between 1940-1975. However, there was no formal reporting system at that time, so these records have been drawn from books or other historic documents. The data I shared with you by no means represent all known sightings. Even with more recent records, these are just ones that MDC knows about or have been reported to us."

Badgers are primarily a mammal of open country, favoring prairies and open woodlands. They are more common in northwestern Missouri over the southern woodlands as seen in this map. They were probably never common in Missouri and "by 1900 had practically disappeared from the state."*  It is still listed as a species of concern in Missouri and was protected here until 1960 when a limited trapping season was opened.

Badgers tend to move a lot, and frequently have a lot of lodgings to choose from.  Some are dug while capturing a ground squirrel, one of their favorite meals, and then it becomes another lodge.  Digging a new hole is no big chore for a badger who can dig faster than we can with a shovel.  Their front claws excavate dirt that slides under their flat belly to the back claws which can throw dirt as far as five feet away!*  At that rate, a ground squirrel doesn't have much of a chance.

Badgers are strictly carnivores with their usual prey being ground squirrels, gophers and mice in season.  They also will eat rabbits, ground nesting birds and their eggs, insects in late summer and the occasional hibernating rattlesnake which is eaten except for the head!  Larger prey is occasionally dragged down into a burrow to be eaten at leisure.

Coyotes are their main predator but they have a complex relationship.  More frequently they may hunt cooperatively and they have even been seen playing together.**   Hawks also have been known to follow a badger on the prowl.

Richard's badger spent six nights in the den, a long term stay, as most sources report that they move every few days or even daily. He must have been a very good host.
*     The Wild Mammals of Missouri, Schwartz and Schwartz.
**   Wikipedia on Badgers 
For detailed information, see Peterson Guide Behavior of North American Mammals

Have you seen a badger lately?  MDC wants to know.  See this link for details.