Thursday, September 25, 2008

Major League Sluggers

My friend John is great at finding caterpillars and taking awesome photos of them. Recently, he sent me a few photos of slug caterpillars. Slug caterpillars are unique, crazy-looking caterpillars with spines, hair, weird colors and they can have a painful sting. These can all be found in Indiana and many can be found at night, munching away on plants. An easy way to discover them is to use a UV flashlight. These special flashlights will cause the caterpillar to luminesce or light up in neon colors of green and yellow.

Here is an interesting one. This is a Flannel Moth Caterpillar, Megalopyge crispata. Looks fuzzy, soft and inviting. Maybe it would like a hug or to be petted like a Persian kitty. Nope, hairs on this are "highly irritating". So, no petting Mr. Flannel Moth.

Next at bat, this crazy looking caterpillar that looks like someone took brown pipecleaners and twisted them together. It doesn't look at all like a caterpillar, to me. This one is called a Monkey Slug, Phobetron pithecium. The moth it becomes is equally bizarre. This one has a nasty sting.

A side note on caterpillar stings. Stinging caterpillars do not sting like bees, yellowjackets, hornets, and wasps (Order Hymenoptera). In the bee-wasp group, females (only females sting) are equipped with venom glands and stingers that penetrate skin and release venom. Caterpillars. on the other hand, possess specialized setae or spines. These structures are hollow and contain toxins from poison-gland cells to which they are joined. These help defend the caterpillars from predators and other enemies. If you are stung by one of these caterpillars, it is not from a deliberate attack, but the result of brushing against the setae or spines. When brushed against, these structures break away, releasing toxins. In some cases, broken setae may penetrate the skin; in others, toxins spill out to spread on the surface of the skin. OUCH!!!

Probably my favorite because it is so beautiful. This one is a Stinging Rose, Parasa indetermina . No doubt what this one can do. Should have DO NOT TOUCH tattoed on its side. It looks almost like a tropical lionfish, which also have a nasty sting. This one turns into a pretty little green and brown moth.

John has many more pictures of these fascinating caterpillars that I plan to share with you later. Enjoy the wonderful weather and see what captivating critters are outdoors on your trees and shrubs!


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not a Robber Fly...What Is It???

I love puzzles. I love to find a mystery plant, bug etc... and try to figure it out by looking through books, internet sites and other methods and use clues to solve it. I like the challenge.

My friends and I recently found a mystery bug. At first glance, it was posed like an ambush bug, with its legs up. Then we noticed the wings and knew it couldn't be that, it just wasn't shaped right. Had to be in the fly family. We thought, because it was so hairy and poised a certain way, it was a possible robber fly.

After looking at robber fly portraits until I couldn't see straight, I finally noticed the face wasn't right. I read on that the robber fly has a mystax, a moustache-like projection on its face that makes it look like a muppet or Magnum PI, whichever you prefer. The mystery fly did not. Wish I had figured out the mystax part BEFORE I had looked through the 117 pages of Robber Flies on Bugguide.
So now I knew I did not have a Robber Fly. I knew I had a fly, but the question was what kind of fly. I started looking through the various families of Diptera, the scientific order for flies, and wallah, there was a picture of our fly. A Golden Dung Fly!

I don't know about you, but I don't think the words "golden" and "dung" should be combined to name anything. Sounds like it should be the name of an award I would not want to get. "You just won the Golden Dung Award for kicking a puppy." Yep, Yellow Poop-eating Fly, would be better. The word "golden" just doesn't quite belong with "dung".

Anyway, it gets its name because it is obviously yellow in color and the young maggots eat poop. The female lays eggs in a pile of feces and the young maggots feast away for 21 days. One site said the larvae were also predatory on larval species found in the feces. The larvae will bury into the soil beneath the dung to pupate, then eventually turn into adult flies.

The adults are voracious predators and will attack other flies and insects, even ones much larger than them, and eat 'em. The scientific name is Scathophaga stercoraria. Scatho for "scat or dung" and phagein means "to eat". Stercoraria also refers to dung, so the scientist who named this really wanted you to know that this fly has a close association with feces.

Golden Dung Flies are found almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere. Keep your eye out for this furry little fly with the weird name.
Special thanks to John Howard for the pics!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Big Black Beetles

I love fall. I love bugs and bugs are prolific in the fall. They are everywhere, buzzing, crawling, climbing... and I am looking and looking and looking.

Anyway, I went out exploring this weekend with some friends. We were busily flipping over logs, looking for salamanders, which we found and I will blog about later. But, during our salamander quest, we found two very cool species of beetles. Both were big, shiny and black and I was pretty excited with each find. It was like Christmas for me, without the mess of wrapping paper.

Look at that whopper. It was almost an inch and a half long. This is a Blue-margined Ground Beetle, Pasimachus depressus . This one is shiny, so it is a male. The females are more dull in color. It is completely edged in violet-blue, like someone had painted it. It was under a rock, minding its own business until I picked it up. It gave off a mediciney odor, but it did not even try to bite. This beetle likes to snack on caterpillars. (This photo and the next one is by John Howard.)

We continued on our quest until my friend John Howard turned over another log and found this beetle family, Odontotaenius disjunctus. These have a couple of accepted common names. Horned Passalus is one. Another is Patent Leather Beetle, which reminds me of the shiny black patent leather shoes I had to wear to church and grandma's. I hated those shoes. They were hot, uncomfortable and I was forbidden to go exploring when I was wearing them. Of course, I did anyway. . . :)
This beetle can make up to fourteen different sounds. It communicates by rubbing various body parts together called stridulation. They also make these noises when disturbed. Ours didn't make any noise that I can remember. Notice the brown ones in the photo. These are the younger beetles. They stay together under logs in colonies and the adults will prechew wood for the larvae to eat. Their main food is rotting wood, but the larvae will also eat dung.
You never know what you will find until you flip over a log. Hopefully you will get out this fall and make a few new discoveries!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Beauty of the Rain

Ah, rain. Somedays, when it ruins my plans, I hate it. But today it was welcome. I love how the rain looks as it forms beaded jewels on the surface of leaves. And, I love the concentric rings that flow into one another as the rain breaks the surface of the pond. As I strolled around outside taking a few pictures before Ike hit, I started humming a melody that popped into my head-The Beauty of the Rain by Dar Williams. And today it was truly beautiful.

"This is your favorite kind of day

It has no walls

The beauty of the rain

Is how it falls, how it falls, how it falls..."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jasper-Pulaski INPAWS trip

For the plant lover, here in Indianapolis we have a great native plant group called INPAWS, short for Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society. (As a side note, my former boss from Spence Restoration Nursey, Kevin Tungesvick, is the vice-pres. I learned a lot about plants while working under Kevin, and I appreciate him putting up with the constant stream of questions I badgered him with :)) Recently, on Sept. 6th, they had a field trip to Jasper-Pulaski, way up in northwest Indiana. The trip was led by two great botanists, Roger Hedge and Mike Homoya. Jasper-Pulaski is well known for the sandhill crane migrations that occur in late fall. But few know that it is, also, a botanical heaven.

I was invited to the pre-trip scouting the day prior. Wow! Both days we saw some amazing things. I was able to see many life plants, ones I have never seen before. Many of the plants were rare to Indiana and only found in limited locations. Plus, I was in great company with some of the best botanists and naturalists around! See Jim McCormac's post for a pic of the crew and better photos of the plants. He has a set of awesome macrolenses for his camera and can take some great photos with those.
One plant we encountered was Horned Beaksedge, Rhynchospora macrostachya. The name beaksedge is in reference to the seeds that look like little beaks. Each seed was elongate, almost spine-like. I am sure these seeds could easily get stuck in an animals fur or feathers to be carried off to another pond or wetland.

My personal favorite, Little Floating Bladderwort, Utricularia radiata. I did a post a while back on bladderworts. These are carnivorous plants with a yellow flower that feed on small crustaceans and insects. The business end floats in the water with small bladders that capture the prey. I like how this plant looks similar to a starfish.

A plant I was super-psyched to see was Bog Yellow-eyed Grass, Xyris difformis. I had a list of plants we might see, and the week before the trip I looked them up so I would recognize some of them. I really wanted to see this one. A minute yellow flower on a slender stem. Of course, none of my pictures turned out. But here is a website that has a great picture of this lovely little plant.

Another beauty we encountered had gorgeous flowers and equally interesting seedheads. Virginia Meadow-beauty, Rhexia virginica, has fuschia blossoms contrasted with bright yellow anthers. The seedheads, also called calyces, look like tiny urns. Jim McCormac remarked that elves might drink from them. I didn't check his breath to see if he had taken a nip himself! :)

I don't have room to post all the many plants we encountered. I probably easily viewed forty or more life plants in the two days we were there, plus saw many others I have only seen on few occasions. This place is a real jewel and I hope you all take a trip to see such a diverse biological gem.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Crazy Cats

Sorry about my lack of posts, lately. I have been having some trouble with Blogger and been busy with projects and meetings. Yesterday I had the post almost finished and the text disappeared. After screeching a few unlady-like words and throwing a few objects, I decided I would just visit it at a later time and hope the blog gremlins were no longer hungry!

Fall is a great time to find all kinds of crazy-looking caterpillars. My friend John Howard from Southern Ohio, takes awesome night time pics and sent a few to me. Here I would like to share a few with you.

Above is a Luna Moth, Actias luna, caterpillar and it will turn into one beautiful moth. This caterpillar may be late enough to overwinter in a coccoon and emerge in the spring. The adults never feed, in fact they do not have any mouthparts. Just fly around, breed, then die. Sort of sad, but nevertheless a gorgeous beast that I really enjoy viewing.
Here is a Luna that we witnessed hatch out from a cocoon last summer. One of our summer camp kids brought the giant green caterpillar in to share. Note how it blends right in with the tree leaves. The edging of the wing looks very similar to a branch with leaf buds. The moth is so well camouflaged that a passerby on the ground probably would not even notice it.

This creature is the White-marked Tussock Moth, Orgyia leucostigma. It is exhibiting a type of mimicry. Some species of wasps will parasitize caterpillars and lay their eggs on the caterpillar. When the wasp larvae emerge, they will dine on the caterpillars innards. Mmmmmm! Caterpillar guts! Anyway, this caterpillar has found a way to fool the wasps. The row of hair tufts on its back looks similar to wasp eggs. When a wasp notices that , it will probably go elsewhere and the caterpillar is safe. The adult females are flightless and will lay a foamy mass of eggs right on their cocoon.

This critter looks like it has been rolled in those weird candy sprinkles that adorn some cake donuts. This is a Tulip Tree Silk Moth, Callosamia angulifera. It will spend about 10-11 months as a pupa in a cocoon. The adult has intricate patterns on the wings with rich, varying tones of brown and red.

This one looks like a smaller version of those Maltese dogs that usually have a bow in its hair.
This is a Spotted Apatelodes, Apatelodes torrefacta. What a mouthful! It feeds on cherry, oak, maple and and becomes a moth with a unique shape.

And lastly, my personal favorite. A Saddleback, Acharia stimulea. Dark brown, wicked spines and a green saddle. It looks like a creature from some fantasy movie that maybe a troll or perhaps a goblin would ride. Unfortunately, this guy has a very painful, lingering sting. I believe John, the photographer, has personal experience with this. I pick up a lot of creatures most would not, but I would not touch this guy! You would think this caterpillar would turn into a amazing-looking moth. Nope. Just a little brown jobby. But the caterpillar makes up for it.

So go outside, look for leaves that have been eaten or are turned under and find some of these great caterpillars!