Saturday, June 22, 2019

Big Millipedes

On the wildflower walk we came across two large millipedes that attracted lots of attention.  The colorful specimen above is Apheloria virginiensis reducta (AVR)As usual, the bright yellow color is an aposematic warning to all potential predators of a poisonous or distasteful chemical.  A recently discovered Apheloria polychroma comes in a variety of bright colors, advertising that it is toxic enough to kill 18 pigeon sized birds. 

Like some other millipedes, AVR secretes cyanide compounds as a defense and can cause extreme irritation if you rub it in your eyes.  Carrying around hydrogen cyanide as a weapon sounds like a risky strategy but millipedes get away with it because of their specialized mitochondria.  They and many other millipedes have an oxidase that makes them resistant to cyanide.

Millipedes are the vultures of the plant world, patrolling the dark and damp world of rotting leaves and wood and recycling the debris, preparing it for the worms beneath.

This big boy is an American giant millipede, Narceus americanus, (NA) that can grow to 6" long but assumes a tight curl as soon as it is threatened.  They live in forested areas, emerging from under leaf litter and logs to search out dead plants and animals.  They molt during dry periods by burrowing into a log, sealing itself off, and shedding its skin.

Artistic posing for Wormboy magazine - Narceus americanus - Courtney Reece
Though they lack hydrogen cyanide, some South American Narceus sp. can release a noxious liquid that contains large amounts of benzoquinones which can cause dermatological burns. Our N. americanus is harmless except to your clothes.  Pick it up and may find an iodine-purple color stain on your skin.

Even I could not make up NA's method of reproduction.  "Its eggs are laid in a curious manner.  The female places each one in a wad of chewed leaf litter, passes it back ward with many cooperating legs and shapes it within the rectum before placing the egg in a pile with others."*  This teasing bit of information led me down an internet rabbit hole looking for the answer to the nagging question, "so how do they reproduce?"

I make a point of warning anyone handling a millipede that they should wash their hands.  You would think any normal person would do that automatically but we naturalists are not anything near normal.

Apheloria gonopod - Derek Hennen
And finally, "Just how do they reproduce?" you may ask.  I was intrigued by the photograph of a millipede gonopod in Derek Hennen's Normalbiology blog.  He kindly supplied me with more information.

If this is TMI ("too much information" for us olders), stop reading here.

Life History  (from

"Millipedes have special reproductive organs inside of the segments above some of their legs. The actual location of the organs depends on the species. These organs, called gonopores, are referred to as secondary sexual organs when they are inside the second or third segments, and primary sexual organs when they are inside of the seventh segment. Before a male millipede mates, he needs to transfer his gonopore to his seventh segment.

Female millipedes also have specialized gonopores, but for a more particular purpose. Females of each species of millipede have different gonopores in order to prevent hybridization between species.  Some females mate once per mating season, and others mate multiple times per season, depending on the species. Millipede reproduction relies on courtship before the female allows the male to mate with her.  Fertilization occurs internally, and is generally accompanied by long periods of clasping shortly thereafter.

Once her eggs have been fertilized, a female burrows into the soil and creates an underground nest. Females lay between a few hundred and two thousand eggs, depending on their size and health1. Life after reproduction also varies greatly between species. Some live for up to a year after laying eggs, and others are semeparous, and die shortly after laying eggs.

Juvenile millipedes hatch, stay in the nest for a short period of time, and then molt their first shell about twelve hours after birth.  Millipede development involves seven stages of growth.  During each one of these stages the millipede re-molts its shell and adds segments.  It generally takes about one year for millipedes complete the seven-stage cycle, and shortly after they become sexually mature.  It should be noted that larger tropical species might take up to ten years to become mature.

After reaching sexual maturity, millipedes stop growing and molting new shells. The life spans of millipedes vary from species to species, depending on size and environment, but in general, these organisms live for two to five years. However, some can live over ten years" 
A good source of information on myriapods (millipedes and centipedes) is

* Spiders and Their Kin, Levi and Levi

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Prairie Bioblitz 2019

Evening on the Prairie - James Trager
The 2019 Missouri Prairie Foundation Prairie Bioblitz was held on Dr. Wayne Morton's unplowed prairie outside of Cole Camp on June 1-2.  He manages it with a variety of recommended practices such as limited grazing and burning patches at varying intervals.  Here are a few of our personal highlights.
Hover flies - Toxomerus marginatus
When hearing the word "pollinator" most people think of butterflies and Monarchs get all the glory.  Looking carefully on the prairie we saw lots of insects on flowers harvesting pollen or dragging it around in their pursuit of nectar.  These hover flies are Toxomerus marginatus females, gathering energy for their future nuptials.  Sexing them (not sexting them -note the missing "t") is not my strength so James Trager id them as female for me.  As discussed in a previous blog, the males have larger eyes.  "The better to find you with my dear!"

Harmostes sp. scentless plant bug
There were lots of other nondescript insects on the flowers as well.  These scentless plant bugs, Harmostes sp, were common.  They are a member of the large Rhopalidae family which resemble their relative Coreid bugs but lack their well developed scent glands.  They live on flower petals, moving on to another one when the petals begin to fade.

This shiny beauty is most likely a green metallic sweat bee, Augochloropsis metallica.  There are over 140 Augochloropsis species, mostly in the tropics.  They vary from solitary to social and collect pollen from a wide variety of flowers.  We hear a lot about "colony collapse" with the European honey bees we have grown dependent upon, but our native bees have a broader spectrum of plants and behaviors that make them less vulnerable to a single disease.

This Hemaris sp. caterpillar was deep into a patch of Japanese honeysuckle, far from anything else.  It is in the clear wing moth family (think hummingbird or snowberry moths).  They eat leaves of a variety of species including honeysuckles, unfortunately the cats don't do enough damage to the invasive Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, to halt their spread.

We took the caterpillar home and raided our neighbor's endangered Japanese honeysuckle (at risk when Barb attacks it some dark night).  It munched on the honeysuckle leaves for two weeks before it formed a pupa.  We are raising it to identify the species before sending it off.  Meanwhile I made this video of its dance moves when I annoyed it with a ballpoint pen.

Lots of spiders were hanging around blossoms, waiting for an insect lunch.  This little crab spider blended in with the flower.  A young girl spotted it for me to photograph.  Kids on the prairie have an advantage over us in being energetic, sharp eyed and built lower to the ground.  Many of the spiders I found dropped to the ground at the sight of my camera.

Dr. Morton's highlight was when Mike Leahy found a small patch of Mead's Milkweed which hadn't been identified on his land before.  Historically it ranged throughout much of Missouri but the plow, row crops and fragmentation have led to its listing as endangered by the Missouri Department of Conservation and as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Crawling around it I found a single Monarch egg, proving that we weren't the first species to find this cluster, just the biggest.

Rosin weed and Shae's Sunflower- click to enlarge
Finally, here is a trick we learned from Brett Budach at last year's Bioblitz.  When faced with the leaves of two species of plants that look almost identical, hold them up to the sun to see through them.  The rosin weed and ashy sunflower leaves were identical to our untrained eyes until the sun showed subtle differences in their veins and structure.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Porchlight Moths

Giant Leopard Moth
Tuesday night it was humid and warm after an afternoon rain, the perfect conditions to start the 2019 Porchlight Moths project.  I left the light on against the gray painted concrete wall on the deck above Bull Creek and when I got up the next morning I was rewarded with 45 moths with 19 different species.  The most spectacular were the four Giant Leopard Moth (GLM), Hypercompe scribonia, above that we described in this 2018 blog.

Rather than edit them for beauty, I put these photographs together just as I shot them on the wall for identification.  Some of them I already recognized, but I ran all of them through just to demonstrate how you could identify your own.  I was able to quickly identify 12 of the 19 species by INaturalist alone.

Hypsoropha hormos
The Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa-rubicunda, is a frequent visitor to our deck from April through September.  It is just under 1.5 inches long with its wings folded at night.  That is larger than the Small Necklace Moth, Hypsoropha hormosthat showed up with its distinctive white dots along its back.  Its caterpillars feed on sassafras and persimmon leaves growing in the forest under story.  Like many small moths, their features and in some cases beauty, shows up best close up.

One of my favorites that morning was the Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth, Malacosoma americanumThis cutie is the first adult moth of the species that I have ever found.  We will be writing on this species soon as they will soon be depositing their eggs on our plum trees.  Unlike the Fall Web Worms, these are well behaved and scattered on only a few trees although they could be a major pest in a fruit orchard.

Even a drab gray moth  becomes distinctive when photographed close up.  This is a Porcelain Gray, Protoboarmia porcelaria.  Their caterpillars eat a variety of pines and junipers including our ubiquitous Eastern Red Cedars.

Sodium lamp and a sheet attracts moths, and moth-ers

Soon we will be holding more formal "mothings" before the official National Moth Week.  We will use special lamps and black light on white sheets that put out light in color spectrums that can be irresistible to moths. Special fermented baits are also used to draw moths, usually a mixture of beer or apple cider with over-ripe bananas painted on tree trunks.  Other insects and of course ants will show up so pick your tree carefully.

One final caveat, when moths land with their wings spread, they may look much different than when they are hanging out all night in a different pose.  See below for different views of the Glorious Habrosyne Moth, Habrosyne gloriosa.
Glorious Habrosyne Moth

Meanwhile, back at the porch light,  I have all compiled all 19 pictures into this Flickr album.  Try you own Porchlight Moths tonight. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Cordyceps Again

"There is no accounting for a person's taste," said the woman as she kissed her cow. - Elma Kipfer, circa 1950.
Tasmania- click to enlarge
Mark Bower just returned from 23 days in Tasmania where he hiked daily looking for and photographing fungi.  He found more than 150 species that were new to him.  Yes, that was his vacation!  His picture above from the Tarkine rainforest is the starfish stinkhorn, Aseroe rubra, meant to catch your attention so you will continue reading about the unrelated gruesome fungus find below.

Mark Bower's story:
Club-shaped fungus - MB
"I had been looking for fungi in the Tarkine rainforest for 2 weeks and decided to search a different habitat. I chose a path very near a beach on the northern coast of Tasmania. Right on the trail was this club-shaped structure which I didn’t recognize.  On close inspection, there were obvious black “pimples” on the surface which I knew were ostioles, the openings through which spores are forcibly ejected.

Cordyceps fungus growing out of a parasitized caterpillar - MB
Legs of the parasitized caterpillar- MB
The presence of ostioles indicated that this was an ascomycete, which led me to believe this was very likely a cordyceps fungus. Knowing that, I carefully removed the loose sandy soil until I found the host, which turned out to be a  caterpillar.  This is Cordyceps gunnii fruiting from the head of a moth caterpillar. The caterpillar was about 5 inches long and you can see the outline of legs. "

An entertaining way to understand their life cycle is in this script of a three act play describing its attack on a caterpillar.   

C. gunnii like other Cordyceps sp. has a history of use as a traditional herbal medicine.  Ophiocordyceps sinensis is the best known example which is used through out SE Asia.  Recent studies of polysaccharides from the C. gunnii suggest that they could enhance nonspecific immunological function, humoral immunity, cellular immunity in mice, and inhibit tumor growth.

Chris and Deb Barnhart have traveled a lot in Asia studying mussels (see the "no accounting for a person's taste" above) and they shared these photographs of O. sinensis, aka "vegetable worms," where they saw trays sorted for sale in the market in Dalien, Tibet. For more on our Missouri Cordyceps, see this past blog.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Spotted Salamander Special

Spotted Salamander - 14 days after hatching - Linda Bower
Linda Bower from our Master Naturalist Chapter has just completed her Magnum Opus, the video of spotted salamanders' trip from eggs to land over 2 months.  This is two months worth of video edited down to 7 minutes.  It covers the development from two weeks before hatching through 7 weeks after hatching, all in this 7 minute Youtube video.

They begin life in a cluster of eggs with their siblings.  The mass feels like a handful of tough jello which protects the eggs from dehydration as their ephemeral pond dries out.  Water is held inside but oxygen can't get in either.

Green eggs, hold the ham - REK
Then a strange thing happens, the cluster turns green!  Spotted salamanders have an interesting and unique symbiotic relationship with a single celled green alga, Oophila amblystomatis.  The algae takes up carbon dioxide and nitrogen waste products from the eggs and photosynthesizes oxygen.  The eggs acquire the needed oxygen, continuing to develop into larvae while producing more carbon dioxide and the cycle continues.

A New Scientist article calls this The First Solar-powered Vertebrate.  The relationship has been known before but now there is proof that the algal cells exist inside the cells of the salamanders themselves.  The algae is thought to be contained in the salamander germ cells and thus transmitted to each new generation.

Torn Tail trying to figure out what to do with the tadpole now - LB
Green Gill with a mouthful of tadpole

Then for a fun feature watch her video of a Food Fight over a Dead Tadpole.  The 75 minute competition is edited down to three minutes with a lively sound track.  Each salamander has a distinctive feature so you will meet Green Gill, Torn Tail, Notch Back and Round Butt with a guest appearance of a predaceous diving beetle with an attitude.  National Geographic, eat your heart out!

When you have some time, check out Linda's Nature in Motion channel.  You will need a lot of time as her Life Around the Pond play list alone has 129 videos!