Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nature at its Best: Edwards' Hairstreak Butterfly

Edwards' Hairstreak, Satyrium edwardsii, is a beautiful little butterfly with a fascinating life cycle. It is called a hairstreak because of the hair-like projections found on the back of the hindwing. It is believed the "hairs" look like antennae and will fool a predator into biting them, thinking it is the head. The butterfly can then escape with only a little damage to the wing. A rarity for Indiana, this butterfly is found in only a few counties near Indianapolis-Brown, Tipton and Parke. But, most records are found in Northern Indiana. Check out the map for all the counties in Indiana where it is found.

Above is a photo of the Allegheny Mound Builders. What an amazing relationship between these two species!StumbleUpon

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Eyed Click Beetle

One of our campers, Kayla, found a click beetle at our playground roving around in the mulch. It was given the name "Fredward" and is the camp mascot for this week. An amazing creature, "Fredward" is an Eyed Click Beetle, Alaus oculatus. Its unique coloration is black, speckled with white and grey. The giant eyes located on the back of the thorax are not true eyes, but false eyespots used to confuse predators. Its true eyes are fairly small and located at the base of the antennae.

Click beetles like to eat the nectar of flowers and plant juices. So why was it discovered in the mulch? Eyed Click Beetles lay their eggs in old, decaying wood. The larvae of Eyed Click Beetles are predatory and will eat other wood-boring beetle larvae like longhorn beetles. So most likely, Fredward is actually a girl.

Click Beetles get their name from a startling behavior that allows them to escape predators. When placed on its back or when grabbed by a predator Click Beetles bend its head and prothorax backward and then straighten suddenly with a snapping motion. This in an audible clicking noise and launches the beetle several inches into the air. They are also very good at playing dead, which we have observed all week. Fredward will tuck all of its legs up close to the body and stay motionless for quite a while. Then when no threat is about, it will go right back to its business. Here is a video showing the Eyed Click Beetle doing its thing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fiery Searcher

This creature has a few aliases, but my favorite is "Fiery Searcher" which I found on BugGuide.Net, one of my favorite places to go if I have an unknown bug, or want to know more about one. Also known as Caterpillar Hunter, or Calosoma scrutator for the scientific name geeks, like myself. He has a nasty nip and gives off an unpleasant scent (more on that later). And yes, it does love to scarf down caterpillars.
What a monster! About an inch and a half long in length, these beetles are constantly on the move, looking for prey. I was running around like a crazy person trying to get this shot. Some onlooker probably thought I needed a refill on my medicine. Their prey, of course, are juicy caterpillars. The beetles like to hunt at night, when most caterpillars feel safe from the big, bad birds. This critter will scurry right up the tree and make a feast out of a tent caterpillar colony. The larvae also eat caterpillars.
One has to admire how beautiful a creature it is. The metallic green elytra or wings are grooved and have a reddish-purple border. The dark bluish-black thorax is also adorned with a coppery edging. No wonder it is named Calosoma which means "pretty body".

Fiery Searcher a.k.a Noxious Nibbler

You might wonder how I knew it has a wicked bite. Well, I couldn't get the darn thing to stay still while I was trying to take its portrait, so I picked it up thinking maybe I could get a shot that way. It wanted no part of that, thought my finger was a caterpillar and went "CHOMP". Not terribly painful, but I didn't care to have it happen again. And at the same time it let off a weird, yet familiar, scent. It was mediciney and reminded me of my Dad's slippers. He used to dump a half a bottle of medicated talcum powder in them to scare away gremlins. Foot Odor + Mennen's Talcum Powder = Fiery Searcher's defense scent. Pee-yew!

Fiery Searcher a.k.a Malodorous Muncher


Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Smell of Adventure

Kids say the darndest things and I have heard many funny comments this week at our Nature Explorer's camp. But my personal favorite was a quip by one of the boys on our creek stomp. We were traveling along some of the tributaries that lead to Buck Creek and just getting ready to enter the main branch. The air was filled with the smell of clay and mud, fish, frogs and whatever else. Some of the kids were complaining about the "stink" and how smelly the creek was. One loudly exclaimed, "I like the stink-it's the smell of adventure!" Anyone who knows me well would understand why I have adopted this as my new motto. Like a bee mimic, I can fool you. I do clean up nice and can be presentable. :) But if you come across me out in the field, don't be surprised if I have some part of me covered in mud!

Yep, I love a good adventure and many times it involves getting stinky and dirty. We had quite a few fun-filled adventures this week. Twelve active boys and three girls make for interesting discovery partners. Friday was water day, which involved a creek walk and pond exploration. The pond was full of life! In less than an hour, we had easily caught over one hundred dragonfly nymphs, snails, tadpoles, water scorpions, giant water bugs, frogs, and more.

The tadpole is such a cool animal that deserves close inspection. Look how camouflaged that creature is! It blends right into the detritis and muck that yours truly is holding. This is a bullfrog tadpole and it can take up to two years to transform into a frog. But what a transformation! It becomes an entirely new creature. Its body changes, it grows legs and the tail is absorbed into the body and used as food. The eyes change from small ones located on the side to bulging ones located on top of the head. The heart changes from two-chambers to three-chambers. It loses its gills and grows lungs. Its mouth loses its tiny teeth for feeding on algae. And, its digestive tract changes so it can go from a diet of algae to one of primarily insects. Whew! That would be the equivalent to the class nerd transforming into a super model in two years. Very unlikely!

Dragonfly nymphs are another favorite of the pond exploration. It also has an "extreme makeover" story. I apologize for the blurriness of the photo, but the dang thing wouldn't stop moving! They are truly so ugly they are cute! They spend their time on the bottom of the pond feeding on small insects, fish and even tadpoles. This video shows one feeding on mosquito larvae with its lightening fast jaw. The dragonfly larvae's lower jaw or labium is hinged and folded beneath its chin. It can propel it out to grasp prey almost half the length of its body. Here is another video with a great view of the labium.

When the nymph is ready, it climbs out of the pond and go through metamorphosis. Similar to a cicada, the nymph's exoskeleton cracks open and out comes the adult dragonfly leaving behind a shell, called the exuvium. This amazing video shows it in a way I could never explain.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Orchids of Indiana

I promised a much more pleasant post and I hope this one will fit the bill. In the last couple of months, I have done a lot of hiking and one of my goals on some of my trips were to view some of the beautiful orchids that live here in Indiana and Ohio. Many of my friends and family have remarked that they did not know that orchids lived in Indiana, but thought they were only found in remote places such as rainforests and jungles. Actually, Indiana has more than forty native orchid species and there is even a book out called Orchids of Indiana. Here are a few of the orchids I have seen in May and June.

Yellow Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium calceolus, blooms in late-April to mid-June. It can be found in mesic to dry-mesic forests and favors slopes facing east and west. I love the egg-yolk colored blossom. Looks like a dainty shoe fit for a fairy princess.

Pink Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium acaule, blooms late April to mid-June. Found mostly in northern Indiana. In Indiana the plant is primarily a bog plant, found associated with sphagnum moss and shaded areas. In other regions, they can be found in dry upland soils associated with conifer and oak forests. This picture was taken at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio.

Showy Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium reginae, blooms early June to early July. Mostly found in northern Indiana, this beauty can be found in Hamilton County. It likes shady "mucky" areas that typically occur in fens, where there is a constant supply of groundwater or seepage to keep the soil temperature somewhat cool.

Grass-Pink Orchid, Calapogon tuberosa, blooms mid-May to late July. Calapogon means "beautiful beard". Found mostly in northern Indiana. Like the Showy Lady's Slipper, it also likes mucky soils, but can be found in open, sunny places instead of shade. This one is my personal favorite. Since it was in the open sun, the color from my photo is a little off. It is actually a deep rich pink. What a stunning plant!

It always amazes me the beauty one can find in nature if you just take the time to look. I like the quote from Rachel Carson, "Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life." I do feel nature can rejuvenate me when I have had a rough or particularly trying day. Hoping all of you can take some time, take a walk and enjoy the beauty of nature.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Nature Isn't Always Pretty

I have been visiting family in Ohio the last couple of days. When heading home from a hike in Southern Ohio, I spotted a dead fawn along the side of the road. As I got closer, I noticed that the fawn was covered with butterflies. I was saddened by the loss of the fawn, but at the same time intrigued by the butterflies and their resourcefulness. Nature provides, but sometimes it isn't always pretty.

Butterflies sometimes exhibit a behavior called "puddling". This is when they will congregate, usually on a mud puddle, to find salts, minerals and moisture. But sometimes they will use feces and, in this case, a carcass to access the needed nutrients.

Above is a Tawny Emperor, Asterocampa clyton. There were many of these attending the gory puddle party. Tawny Emperors rarely visit flowers, but like tree sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion.This Hackberry Emperor, Asterocampa celtis, is related to the Tawny Emperor, but is duller in appearance. The name for this butterfly comes from the host plant for the caterpillars, the Hackberry tree. Like its cousin, it is also a butterfly that does not visit flowers very often. There were thousands, and I am not exaggerating, of these butterflies all along the road. Amazing!

A Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele, also joined the party. These three species of butterflies, the two emperors and the fritillary, are members of the brush-foot family, Nymphalidae. The name brush-foot comes from the fact that the front two legs on these butterflies are greatly reduced or brush-like. They only use their back four legs for walking around and the front ones are almost non-existent.

This Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucas, even went inside the carcass to find the nutrients it desired. Tiger Swallowtails are fascinating creatures. The caterpillars exhibit great camouflage techniques to keep from being eaten. As a young caterpillar, they look like bird droppings. When they become bigger, the caterpillars mimic a snake's head with large eyespots. Check out this site to view some great pictures of the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars.

Another group of visitors to the decomposing fawn were Red-lined Carrion Beetles, Necrodes surinamensis . There were hundreds of these, most of them under the carcass. The adults mainly feed on fly larvae, but the beetles' young feed on the carrion.

If you enjoy butterflies as much as I do, and want to see them in a much more pleasant place, you might considered attending the Appalachian Butterfly Conference, August 8th-10th in beautiful Southern Ohio. Information about the event can be found here. Hope to see you there!
I also promise my next post will be much more pleasant :-)StumbleUpon

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fishing Spider

As a child, and even as a young adult, I was completely wigged out by spiders. Didn't like them. Didn't want to. But a mentor of mine, Marvin Julien, who now works at The Wilds, showed me how truly amazing they were. I am ever grateful for this. I would have missed out on so many teaching moments and incredible encounters, if not for him. Now, with caution, I will even pick them up. They are fascinating and their intricate webs are architectural wonders.

Anyway, the other day, while giving a program on insects to preschoolers, we found some really cool creatures. One was this incredible, enormous Fishing Spider, most likely Dolomedes tenebrosus. A mom discovered it under a log and I pounced upon it immediately. With a little coaxing, I was able to put it in a viewing jar for all the little munchkins to see. It' s abdomen and thorax alone was about an inch in length. Add the legs and you have about three inches of spider. That is enough to send any arachnophobe into cardiac arrest!

They are fascinating creatures and are called fishing spiders because they many times are found near water. Fishing Spiders can float on the water and catch water insects and even small fish and frogs! They can easily dive under the water, if disturbed. I was surprised we found this one under a log in the woods, but discovered that this particular species is a wanderer. It will often stray far from water and be found in wooded areas, usually on trees or under logs. They are even known to eat gooey slugs. Spiders like these do not spin webs but rely on their speed to overcome and catch their prey.

With only a face a mother could love, this one has eight eyes that are located at the front of the cephalothorax. They are arranged in two rows with four eyes in each row. They have a unique structure found in a few spider groups called a tapetum. This structure is a layer of reflective cells found in the back of the spiders eye. Its function is to increase the amount of light hitting the retina of the spider's eye. This is important for spiders that do not rely on a web to catch their prey, but must rely on sight and speed. If you shine a head lamp in the forest at night, you can observe the eerie glow or eyeshine caused by the tapetum.

This video by National Geographic shows a different species of fishing spider, but you can still get an idea of how they hunt on the water. This one is catching small frogs.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A New Bug for Me: Summer Fishfly

We caught a cool new bug at our park today. It was almost 2 inches long and at first glance I thought it was a female Dobsonfly . After looking up some info on Dobsonflies, I realized this one's antennae were very different. They were comb-like and similar to a moth's antennae. After a little more exploring on various bug internet sites I came up with this ID: Summer Fishfly, Chauliodes pectinicornis. It is a cousin to the Dobsonfly; both are in the family Cordalidae, so that is why it looks so similar.

Above is a closeup of the head with the pectinate, or comb-like, feathery antennae.

The larvae look very similar to hellgrammites, the aquatic larvae of the Dobsonfly that are a favorite bait of many fishermen. They are aquatic and live in calm bodies of water with lots of muck and dead leaves. They will eat plant material and are predatory on minnows, tadpoles and aquatic insects. . The larvae will leave the water to pupate under bark and inside rotting logs. This process takes approximately 10 days. Adults emerge to mate and live only about a week. Eggs are laid in masses on vegetation near ponds and vernal pools. The larvae will hatch and crawl to water.

And just because it is such a cool looking bug, I will include a pic of the male Dobsonfly. It looks ominous, but the pinchers are only used to grasp the female during mating. I am very glad I am not a female Dobsonfly! Photo by John Howard.