Monday, May 26, 2008

Peregrine Update

Oh the little ones are growing up so fast! If you haven't checked out the Peregrine Falcon Cam on the Indy Star website, please do. Here is a pic of the new ones, now. They have all been given a shiny new bracelet or band with a identification number and they have all been named.

Magee - a male with band E/87. He is named after John Gillespie Magee, an American fighter pilot. He wrote the poem "High Flight" while serving overseas and sent it to his parents. This was the poem Ronald Reagan quoted after the Challenger 7 disaster. He was killed three months after penning the poem. You can find the poem here.

Edna - a female with band *P/*W. Named after Edna Parker who is now the oldest living human in the world as documented by the Guinness Book of World Records, was born and raised in Indiana and still lives in Shelbyville. She is 115 years and about 1 month old (WOW!!!). She was born on April 20th.

Adira - a female with band *P/*X. This name has both Hebrew and Arabic origins and means majestic, mighty and strong.

Val - a female with band *P/*Y. This name was chosen in honor of Val Nolan, Jr. a noted ornithologist at Indiana University who passed away this spring. He has contributed to publications such as The Birds of North America, The Auk, Current Ornithology and many others. To view Dr. Nolan's body of work, go to

Good luck little guy/gals! You'll be flying high in no time!


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Red-spotted Newt

Another cool find over the weekend was this critter, a red eft. The red eft is the terrestrial stage of the Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens). This animal is fascinating on so many levels.

I found this salamander scrambling over the forest floor. It looked like it was on a mission. And I found out that it really was. Red-spotted Newts have a three stage life-cycle. The first stage is an aquatic larval stage, where it has gills. Next is the red eft, a terrestrial stage which is responsible for dispersing the population and widening the gene pool. It explores new ponds and thereby insures survival and health of the population. If these salamanders were just to stay in one little pond and something happened, say a large predator or a pollution incident, the whole population could be wiped out. So, journeying out and finding new ponds is an important mission for the salamander. The last stage is also aquatic, the Red-spotted Newt adult. This stage of the salamander is olive green with red spots. It also has a laterally compressed tail, which means it is flattened on the sides, to aid in swimming.

Newts do not have to worry about too many predators because they are toxic. The skin of one red eft can kill the equivalent of about 2,500 mice. The adult newt's skin is less toxic but can still kill approximately 250 mice. If a fish or other predator does take a bite, still no worries. Newts can regenerate body parts. Here is a neat website that shows time-lapsed photography of a newt regenerating a limb. They recently discovered that Red-spotted Newts can even regenerate heart tissue. Nature never ceases to amaze me!

Garter Snake

This little guy was encountered on May 17th at Shawnee State Forest near Portsmouth, Ohio. He is curled up on a Mayapple leaf.

Garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are common to Indiana and can be found in a variety of habitats. They tend to prefer moist, grassy environments and are many times found near water. Garter snakes are interesting because they do not lay eggs like many other snakes. They are considered ovoviviparous, meaning to bear live young. Their young are incubated in their lower abdomen, about half way down the snake's body. Gestation is usually two to three months and most young are born in late July and October. Most litters range from ten to forty young and litter size depends on the size of the female, with larger females giving birth to larger litters. Baby garter snakes are independent and do not rely on the parent to find food.StumbleUpon

Friday, May 16, 2008


On April 25th, we were walking around behind our building at Southeastway Park and noticed a lone Monarch Butterfly flying low near the dirt in our garden area. Soon we discovered what she was up to. She was ovipositing, laying eggs, on some of the small Common Milkweed plants that were just emerging from the soil.
Above is a shot of the monarch with her abdomen curled forward. Next to her is a small stub of a just emerging milkweed. She can "taste" the milkweed with their feet and can tell when she is on the correct plant.

A few weeks later, on May 12th I took this shot of the caterpillars. Tiny little guys just munching away. Monarch caterpillars and butterflies use milkweeds as host plants to insure their survival.

The milkweed has chemicals called cardiac glycosides. When the caterpillar ingests the leaves, the glycosides make it toxic to other animals. If a bird eats a monarch caterpillar or butterfly, it will not eat another, for it will become very ill. The warning colors or yellow and black on the caterpillar and orange and black on the butterfly alert birds of their possible bad taste and toxicity, so they usually will avoid them.

Just a few days later on May 16th, they have obviously grown quite a bit. I will post again next week to show how these little ones are doing. We are very excited about our new family!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Don't Mess With Me! Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake, photo by John Howard.

Over the weekend I was treated to the most amazing display of defense behaviors I have ever witnessed. This is nature at its finest.

I was on a hike in Ohio with some amazing naturalists, John Howard and Martin McCallister, during the Flora-Quest conference. Our group of about twelve stumbled across a huge, gorgeous, Hognose Snake. Hognose snakes are completely harmless and get their name from their upturned nose that they use to find their favorite food, toads, by rooting under the leaves on the forest floor. The snake has a pair of sharp teeth in the back of its mouth that can "pop" the toad when it has inflated with air as its defense mechanism. Talk about specialization! Even though they are harmless, they do not want to be messed with and put on a series of bluffing reactions to make a predator leave it alone.

First the snake will fill up with air and flatten its head. It then repeatedly releases the air to make very loud hissing noises that would make a predator think twice. If one is brave enough to touch the snake during this display, which John Howard did, the snake will quickly strike. But no worries, it rarely opens its mouth during the strike. It is part of the bluff. This snake wants the predator to think he is a big, bad snake that shouldn't be bothered. If the predator persists, the snakes next defense is releasing a foul-smelling musk. Most animals will retreat after this.

Hognose snake playing dead. Note the tongue on the left side of its head. Photo by John Howard.

If the predator still will not leave the snake alone, its last resort is to play dead. It will act as if someone has chopped its head off and convulse and writh around on the ground, simultaneously vomitting its stomach contents. Finally, it will lay on its back completely still, with its tongue protruding out of its mouth. It wants to be so convincing, that if you flip it over on its belly, it will quickly flip back to the dead position.

The Eastern Hognose is common to Indiana and can be found in woodlands in and around Indianapolis. Hopefully, you too will be fortunate enough to encounter this wonderful animal.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Amazing Bugs! Water Scorpion

I have always been fascinated with creepy crawlies. I would eagerly devour the last pickle, or watch patiently as the last scoop of coffee was placed in the percolator, so I could beg my mother for the empty containers. Then I would methodically poke the lids full of holes and place my six-legged friends inside. I would carefully select a variety of soft leaves and grasses to line their new home. And, on a recent nature walk, it is obvious this childhood passion has not disappeared. I am still excited to see a cool bug! (Yes, entomologist types, I know that technically "bug" is not the correct term to use and that a true bug is in the order Hemiptera, so spare the comments.)
One of the coolest insects out there is the Water Scorpion ( Ranatra fusca). We caught a few during a recent pond exploration with our Habitats program. This amazing creature looks just like a reed or bulrush in the water. It will cling to vegetation with its four back legs and will hold its forelimbs directly in front. When an unsuspecting victim wanders nearby, the water scorpion will use the back pair of legs to shoot out and "BAM", just like Emeril, the prey is tight in the clutches of the water scorpion, soon to be devoured in a most gruesome fashion.
The water scorpion is a true bug, in the order Hemiptera. All true bugs have a long straight sucking mouthpart called a stylet. The stylet is usually found tucked undeneath and along the bug's abdomen. The stylet has two canals with one used to deliver enzymes that digest plant or animal material, depending on the bug and its choice of food. The other canal is used like a straw to suck up the digested material. Water scorpions will jab this stylet into their victim like a hypodermic needle. They deliver the digestive enzymes into the victims body, then slurp up the meal like a milkshake. Bug juice milkshake-Mmmmm!

Water Scorpion-check out the grasping forelimbs

Another very cool feature about this bug is it has a long ominous-looking appendage on its posterior end that resembles a stinger. This is actually a breathing tube made of two side by side filaments. The water scorpion will actually carry a submerged air bubble that will serve as a renewable air supply. The air is trapped by tiny hair-like structures on the forewings and abdomen of the insect. The breathing tube can replenish the oxygen supply to this air bubble from the surface or from dissolved oxygen from nearby vegetation. This allows the water scorpion to sit submerged for long periods of time, motionless, while in wait of prey. So basically, the water scorpion has a built in snorkel. You can also say it can breathe out of its butt!

Look at how well this guy is camouflaged! The coloration is perfect and if one was not looking for it, they could easily pass it by. What an amazing creature!