Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Funky Fungi Fingers

Gala Solari sent these photographs of what she identified as "Funky Fungus", a remarkable field of what I thought were Dead Man's Fingers. As usual, Mark Bower corrected me. "I think this is more consistent with Xylaria cornu-damae. The grayish dusting consists of the asexual spores. Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) are larger, fatter and grow in clusters. "

I felt better when I read the description of Xylaria sp in Mushroom Expert. The differences in the various species are described in terms that only a mycologist could love or even understand.  Being  absolutely certain usually requires microscopic examination of the spores.

Dead Man's Toes - Mark Bower
Typical Xylaria sp

In most photographs they only vaguely resemble fingers or toes as you can see to the right.  My favorite were the Dead Man's Toes that Mark Bower photographed on our land.  They were all the more incredible for growing on a huge moss covered rock with a large tree whose roots cling to it.

More "nails" on the Web
There are several photos on the web of "Dead Man's Toes".  This one above which is all over the web even has toenails, although when enlarged I suspected a little Photoshop manicure.  Lisa Berger however pointed out that lots of photos of X. polymorpha have the same nails.

Finally, Michael Kuo in Mushroom Expert writes "The genus Xylaria consists of funky, club-like decomposers of wood or plant debris that become black and hard by maturity, reminiscent of carbon or charcoal."  Note that even a world expert on fungi call them "funky".  I guess that means that Gala's ID was right in the first place.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Woodchuck in a Tree

Hanging out by our deck
Visiting our deck
Over the last year I have seen our resident groundhog several times in a tree at eye level off our deck, 10 feet above the ground.  Mammal resources say that they may climb a tree to look for escape from predators but our whistle pig seems to do it just for fun and may spend up to an hour hanging out.

Woodchuck in a tree - Terry Lange
Posing for a game camera

The groundhog, Marmota monax, also known as a woodchuck, is our only Missouri member of the family Sciuridae, large ground squirrels known as marmots.  It is common to see one or more nearly motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger. 

When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony, hence another name "whistle-pig."  They are intelligent and form complex social networks.  They have kinship  groups with their young, understand and communicate threats, and are able to work cooperatively to solve tasks such as burrowing.  The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland, and is rarely far from a burrow entrance. 

Mostly herbivorous, groundhogs eat primarily wild grasses and other vegetation, including berries and agricultural crops, when available.  Note that branches are not in their diet.  Apparently the answer to "How much wood would a wood chuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood" is very little.  Last week when Chuckey came down from the tree he spent the next 10 minutes munching on the grasses and forbs along our deck as seen in this video.

Visiting our truck
A risque fact is that groundhog social groups consist of one adult male and two adult females, each with an offspring from the previous breeding season (usually female), and the current litter of infants. Interactions within a female's group are generally friendly.They have a social greeting of nasal-oral contact much like an "Eskimo kiss" from my childhood.  OK, that was 75 years ago so put that down to ancient history.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Camouflaged Looper

Wavy-lined Emerald- Wikipedia

While collecting beetles off a flower head I noticed movement in some dried plant debris in the bottom of a bug box.  Laid on the table, it began to twitch.  Only when it stretched out did I recognize it as a camouflaged looper caterpillar, the larva of the Wavy-lined Emerald moth, Synchlora aerata (SA) It is a member of  the Geometridae family.

 Geometrids ("earth measuring") have larvae that as a child I called "inch worms" for their habit of holding on with their hind legs as they move their head forward, carefully measuring their ground.  They lack several pair of prolegs in front and therefore can't crawl like other caterpillars.  My SA caterpillar was having problems getting traction on our smooth kitchen counter as seen here on Youtube.

While most geometrid caterpillars are smooth, the SA camouflaged loopers are prudish and would never consider going out in public naked.  They chew off flower parts and seeds, sticking them onto needle-like projections on their upper body surface with a little silk from the spinnerets beneath the caterpillar’s mouth.  Remove the particles and they will immediately start dressing again.  Each time it molts the camo falls off with the old skin and it starts again, a real "clothes horse" of the insect world.

Moths usually have rather specific host plants.  Our SA larvae however feed on a wide variety of plants, including the flower heads of composite flowers and other flowering plants, as well as shrubs and trees. Recorded food plants include Aster, Rudbeckia, Liatris, Solidago, Artemisia, Achillea and Rubus species. (Wikipedia)  They will even venture into non-native territory and conceal themselves on chrysanthemums, daisies, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace

Because of its wide range of plant food, the SA caterpillar can dress up in many different colors and shapes.  Most sources say the caterpillar uses plant particles as camouflage to hide from predators.  I wonder if it doesn't make up for its drab adulthood by showing a juvenile sense of style.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Meadow Plant Bug

Ben Caruthers shot this photograph at Wilson's Creek Battlefield.  It was a bug in a meadow sitting on a plant so he immediately called it a meadow plant bug (MPB) which is its common name.  A quick trip to INaturalist didn't hurt.  It also answers to Leptopterna dolabrata (Miris dolabratus), but we will stick with MPB.

It is a native of the grasslands in almost all of Europe and east across Asia Minor to the Caspian Sea region.  It was introduced to North America in the distant past where it has found a lot to love in our north central grasslands as well as southern Canada.  It is considered a pest in the grass seed industry where it feeds on developing grass seeds, causing seed heads to shrivel and prematurely whiten.  They also will cut into the base of the grass plant to insert their eggs.  When it comes to wheat:

"MPBs exude a sticky saliva as they feed, and according to one source, the residue of this saliva can break down wheat’s gluten midway through the bread-making process, turning a yeast dough into a runny mess."  UWM.EDU

MPB Nymph - Charlie Eiseman

As a "true bug" in the order Hemiptera, it goes through incomplete metamorphosis, the young resembling the adults although the wings only develop in the last of their five successive molts.   You can see the early wings budding in this nymph and its grass stem acrobatics at this link.

MPB left some of its natural predators at home in the Old World but has lots of grassland predators and parasitoids here.  It exudes a smelly defensive chemical from scent glands on their thorax when threatened.  Fortunately Ben didn't snort it!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Fruit Flies Tipple

Lifting the lid on the compost bucket in the kitchen produced a small cloud of tiny flying creatures.  When some landed on the counter and refrigerator I was able to get this photograph which was enough to confirm on INaturalist that it is a common fruit fly(FF) with the catchy name of Drosophila melanogasterIf that sounds vaguely familiar, you could have come across them in basic biology courses.

FF have been the go to animal for studies about heredity and genetics since Thomas Hunt Morgan began using them at Columbia University in 1910.  They are undoubtedly the most studied insect and their sex life has been an open subject of discussion for a hundred years.  

FF are ideal for genetic and other research.  Measuring 2mm, they are easily contained in large numbers.  Their lifecycle is10 days at room temperature and the female lays up to 2,000 eggs.  They are easily anesthetized to study genetic changes in morphology.  Their reproductive rate isn't appreciated as much in our kitchen.

The female deposits feces on the eggs so the larvae can acquire the enzymes needed to digest bacteria on rotting fruit as well as the sugars.  Adults can use fruits, yeasts and insect carcasses as their food sources.  They are also attracted to the fermenting sugars present in spilled alcoholic beverages.

D. melanogaster male- Wikimedia
Now studies have demonstrated the effects of their alcohol intake.  Male fruit flies that have been rejected by females drink significantly more alcohol than those that have mated freely, suggesting that alcohol stimulates the flies' brains as a "reward" in a similar way to sexual conquest.

 Many people get flushed when they consume alcohol, and so do fruit flies but in a different and beneficial way.  Fruit flies feeding on fruit that is fermenting obtain protection from tiny parasitic wasps.  Not only were the wasps less likely to lay eggs on imbibing FF but the eggs are less likely to survive.  

"If you dissect open a fly that was fed alcohol food, the wasps were obviously dead and in a lot of cases the internal organs in the wasp larvae had fallen out the wasp's anus," Schlenke said. "They were turned inside out." Now that's a bad hangover."  LiveScience

FF on a banana - Wikipedia

A detailed Wikipedia page can answer questions I haven't even thought of.  A final connection you may have encountered in English class as an example of a pun or double entendre, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."  It even has its own page in Wikipedia.  Those fruit flies sure get around!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Milkweed Longhorn Beetle

Antennae divide the eye in two! 

Patrolling our backyard milkweed I came across this beetle.  It was colorful, red with sharp black spots and had black antennae almost as long as its body, identifying it as a member of the Cerambycidae family of Long Horn Beetles.  Back to INaturalist and out jumped the Red Milkweed Beetle.  Its scientific name is Tetraopes tetrophthalmus meaning “four-eyed” twice! Each eye is divided by an antenna base, making each eye look like two. 

The adults feed on sap from the leaf veins where the toxic latex is more dilute.  Both they and the larvae feeding on the roots acquire some of the toxin which they advertise with their red aposematic colors.  When startled they make a shrill noise and when interacting with another beetle, they make a 'purring' noise.  I lost that hearing range decades ago and will have to take the word of the entomologist audiologists.

On the next milkweed there was similar looking colorful beetle.  At first glance it looked the same but on photographs later I could see it had short antennae and the long snout of a weevil.  There were distinctive markings including a black diamond on the pronotum, easily identifying it on INaturalist as a Cocklebur Weevil, Rhodobaenus quinquepunctatus.  It likely won't harm the milkweed as its larvae feed on cocklebur stems only. 

The trademark 'snout' or 'nose' on the face identifies it as a weevil. This type of beetle uses that long rostrum to chew into plants.  Without the long nose you can be sure that you "see no weevil."  Their larvae normally feed on plants like sunflowers, cocklebur, and ragweed and it may have been just passing through and stopped for a rest.  

Melanic form - Bugguide

This Cocklebur Weevil has another cool trait.  A few have a melanic phase where the elytra are dark or even black.  This is the only Rhodobaenus species in North America that has this trait.

Some other milkweed longhorns are discussed on this MDC site.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Puddling Butterflies

Riding on the tractor I had a great spangled fritillary land on my hand and ride along with me for 3 minutes.  Intent on puddling, it remained there while I got out my camera for a video.  Hackberry emperor butterflies are also famous for landing on humans for sweat and I have had several times when I had one land on me repeatedly.

Dead opossum - Mort Shurtz

Puddling behavior is observed in lepidoptera and a few other insect species. They will collect fluid from damp soil, animal dung, and even carrion.  This red-spotted purple butterfly was on a two week old opossum carcass.  It is common to see several species puddling together in the summer.

These butterflies were on raccoon scat.  Males are especially prone to mass puddling. The collected sodium and amino acids are often transferred to the female with the spermatophore during mating as a nuptial gift. This nutrition also enhances the survival rate of the eggs.

One photographic trick to attract puddlers is to pour a little salt water on the ground and wait for butterflies to puddle for the camera. Some photographers suggest placing a decoy of a dead butterfly or even a piece of colored paper to attract species in the neighborhood. When out in the field, a male naturalist may chose to supply salts and ammonium in the form of urea from a convenient portable source. This is not a trick we have shared with the 5th grade WOLF students.

To watch some of the puddling action at Bull Creek, check out this
this Youtube video.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Tick Season


It is tick season in the Ozarks and combined with COVID-19 there has been a lot of news stories bordering on the sensational.  This led me to thinking of our history with the ticks of Bull Creek.  Above is one weekend in 2013 compiled on a piece of tape with all three stages all three stages represented.

"Most ticks go through four life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. After hatching from the eggs, ticks must eat blood at every stage to survive. Ticks that require this many hosts can take up to 3 years to complete their full life cycle, and most will die because they don’t find a host for their next feeding."   CDC

American dog tick - male
The definitive resource on all things tick is this CDC website, a comprehensive and yet succinct overview of ticks in general.  To make a deeper dive and identify ticks by species go to the University of Rhode Island web page.

Since the first instar hasn't had a chance to ingest a pathogen, it won't transmit a disease.  In addition to infectious diseases such as ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, there is the recently discovered alpha-gal.  This is an allergic reaction triggered by eating red meat as discussed in this Mayo Clinic link.

First instar filling up - annoying only

Alpha-gal is only transmitted by Lone Star ticks.  Since these are common in Missouri it is important to know the symptoms which include itching, hives, swelling of the face and lips and difficulty breathing.  Symptoms frequently first appear hours after ingesting red meat products.


If you haven't had enough, here is a video of our Ticks of Bull Creek.  Then for fun, listen to Tick Pickin Time in the Ozarks, sung by our special friend Annie Shelton, written for her by her late grandmother Winnie.