Good Mamas

Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.

~Robert Browning

It has been a good few months for new mothers at work with several new babies among the staff. So, it seems only appropriate that I share a couple of extraordinary mothers from the Garden’s animal kingdom as well. First, an update on the amazing green lynx spider that I wrote about last time. You may recall she had been sitting with her egg case for a couple of months in the top of some rattlesnake master seed heads in our Piedmont Habitat. Her spiderlings emerged around October 20 after having their egg sac already guarded for about a month by their attentive mom.

Green Lynx spider with yellow jacket

Green lynx spider with a meal of yellow jacket last week (click photos to enlarge)

I have been keeping an eye on her off and on since the eggs hatched and am amazed at her site fidelity, even after most of her offspring had seemingly dispersed. Last week she caught a yellow jacket on one of the warm days when flying insects were out and about. This is the first prey I have seen her capture in all this time, although I heard from some other staff that she had caught a couple of other insects during her ordeal.

Green lynx and young on Dec 1

She is still at it on on December 1…amazing!

I made a special visit to see her last Friday, on December 1, to confirm that she had made it into another month. She is still at it and to my surprise, when I checked my photos, I saw one of her offspring sitting next to her on the egg sac (zoom in on the photo above). It looks like it has molted at least once since I photographed the group in October because the shape and color pattern now more closely resembles the adult female. I plan to keep tabs on this dedicated mom, but I don’t expect her to last much longer, with another wave of freezing temperatures headed our way later this week. She has been guarding this egg sac since late September, a truly amazing feat of motherhood.

Salamander pool in winter NCBG

The salamander pool was high and dry last week

While looking for some trees to use in an upcoming activity last week, I decided to check out the salamander pool in the woods near my office. When I started work last winter its water surface was probably 5o feet across and was a hotbed of activity of animal life, shifting from spotted salamanders and upland chorus frogs in winter to American toads and dragonflies as the seasons progressed. With the lack of rainfall this fall, it was no surprise to see it totally dry last week. This is typical for many vernal pools, and is one reason they are such hot spots for breeding amphibians (due to the lack of fish). I gently lifted a few of the smaller logs lying in what had been the water-filled area this summer, hoping to find some salamanders.

Marbled salamander eggs

Marbled salamander eggs under a log

After turning a few, I found part of what I was looking for – an egg mass of a marbled salamander, but minus the attending adult female. Females typically lay their eggs in September and October in these parts, usually under a log near the edge of a low-lying area that fills with water in the winter and spring. She stays with her eggs until rains begin to fill the pool and cover them (usually late October to December) and then she heads back to her woodland home nearby, leaving the eggs to hatch with hours or days of being inundated. If the rains don’t come, she may head back to the woods before they hatch. I wrote about this interesting species in a post a couple of years ago when we found a very late clutch of eggs (in March) that was finally about to be covered by water. I think the thing that surprised me the most that day was how quickly one of the eggs hatched after I placed it in a small container of water. It hatched within just a few minutes! As reported in my bible of salamander biology (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka), this is  caused by the release of digestive enzymes (from hatching glands on the snout) that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape.

marbled salamander guarding her eggs 1

An adult female marbled salamander guarding her eggs under a different log

Turning over a nearby log, i found a large female marbled salamander curled up around her egg mass. Studies have shown that egg clutches where the female remains with them until they are covered by water have a higher offspring survival, perhaps because she helps protect them from predation or getting too dry. I carefully laid the log back in place, and wished her well and for rains to soon fill this pool. Another case of a dedicated mother.

newt under log in dry vernal pool

Red-spotted newt under another log

Lastly, on a non-motherly note…the last log I looked under had a somewhat crumpled-looking red-spotted newt laying under it. At first, I thought it was dead, but looking a bit closer, its eyes were open, so I presume it is just lying in a protected spot, waiting for the waters to rise. Let the rains begin…

Big Cat in the Garden

Venom spitting spiders hatching out all over Alabama make great mothers.

~Ben Raines, title of article in Real Time News from AL.com

Green Lynx spider with hatchlings

Green lynx spider and recently hatched spiderlings (click photo to enlarge)

You may remember this photo from about a month ago in another post. It is a female green lynx spider perched near her recently hatched egg case, with many spiderlings visible in the surrounding web mesh.

Green lynx spiderlings

Close-up of spiderlings

Their egg cases (usually only one per female per season) contain anywhere from 50 up to 600 eggs. Mating occurs in late summer and egg are laid in September or October.

Green lynx spider with wasp and freeloader fly

Green lynx spider with one of their favorite prey, a wasp (note the small flies clinging to the wasp, most likely members of the so-called free-loader fly group that steals a meal from a large predator while it feeds)

Green lynx spiders are named for their bright green color and their stealthy hunting technique, much like a big cat. They do not make webs for capturing prey, but rather tend to stalk around flowers and then leap on their victims (often taking fairly large wasps and bees). These are one of our most recognizable spiders, females being large (3/4+ inch body length) with long legs adorned with stiff black spines. They have a distinctive hexagon-shaped whitish eye patch with eight keen eyes.

Green lynx spider near egg case after it hatched and broke free

A late season female has changed color and has one lone spiderling clinging to the seed head just to the right of her abdomen

Late in the season, they often change color, gradually losing the bright green and slowly blending more into the fall colors of the wildflower stalks where they usually place their egg case. This species is well known for guarding their eggs, and this female was no exception. She first spins a loose irregular web in the top of wildflower stalk or small shrub, and then lays her eggs, protected by a somewhat flattened egg case having several irregular projections. She then takes up a nearby position and guards her eggs, aggressively taking on any would be egg-eaters like ants or egg parasitoids. Eggs hatch into postembryos within about 2 weeks. After another 2 weeks, the postembryos molt and the now fully formed spiderlings soon emerge. The female often assists their emergence by tearing open the egg sac. Most of the young spiders disperse after a few days, but the mother continues to stay in the vicinity in “guard mode”. Perhaps it is to protect any stragglers (look for the one spiderling hiding on the seed head to the right of her abdomen in the photo above).

Green lynx spider egg case after hatching

Spider egg case weeks after the hatch

This particular spider has been a frequent stop on my tours this fall as she was right next to a path, and quite visible if you knew where to look. The amazing thing to me is how long she stayed with her eggs. The first photo was taken on October 20, a day after the eggs hatched. She had already been guarding her egg sac for at least 3 weeks at that point. I would check on her every time I walked past. On November 14, I noticed the egg case, and the female, were not in their usual place. I found the egg sac a few inches outside the web mesh, probably dislodged by wind or rain. The female had simply moved to the back side of the rattlesnake master seed heads.

Green lynx spider at end of season

The female holding her egg sac after I retrieved it

After taking photos of both the egg case and the female, I decided to move the egg sac back over to its former position. She stretched out one of her legs as I pushed the sac through the silk lines, and then gingerly pulled the egg sac from my fingertip, and clung to it again as she had for the past several weeks. A couple of days later, I showed some coworkers how she would take it from my hands and we all looked at her through magnifiers, admiring her markings and her motherly instincts. We discussed some aspects of the life history of this species and I wanted to find out more, so I did a web search when I returned to the office. That was when I stumbled across the article title used in the quote at the start of this post. It turns out this species has the unusual ability to squirt venom a distance up to several inches as part of her defensive strategy while guarding her eggs! A good mother, indeed. The venom is reportedly an eye irritant in humans, but it appears as though we were all lucky as we moved in for a closer look (I think my coworkers have forgiven me). I have never noticed this behavior when photographing this species, but I have only been close to a couple at their egg sacs over the years. Of course, now I want to test this next year and see for myself (with a clear piece of plastic rather than my eyes). I also want to see how much longer this female stays in this spot (she has been there almost 2 months at this point!). She will soon succumb to the freezing temperatures, but her young will overwinter, hidden in protected spots in the vegetation, and will repeat this amazing life story next year. Once again, I am amazed what I learn every time I wander outside and take the time to observe and ponder.

Halloween Spider

The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.

~Edwin Way Teale

Marbled orb weaver dorsal view

Marbled orbweaver hanging in her web (click photos to enlarge)

Every year about this time I run into (sometimes literally) one of my favorite spiders, the striking Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. This widespread beauty is usually seen in late summer and fall, hanging out in her large circular web, or, as is often the case, hiding nearby.

_

Hiding in her rolled leaf retreat

This species generally has a hiding place just off to the side of her web, usually in a curled leaf. She keeps up with the goings-on in her web by means of a connecting strand of silk that acts as an alarm when something hits her silken trap. When an insect is caught, she will run out and engage it, wrapping it in silk and injecting venom which will subdue the prey and set the stage for her dining pleasure.

Halloween spider

You can see why they are called the Halloween spider

Their dorsal view is spectacular, usually with a bright yellow background with some interesting ghoulish dark patterning. They can vary in color but I have read that they tend to turn darker with age and often appear more orange than yellow just in time for our pumpkin-spiced holiday. The picture above is from the archives of one I photographed several years ago in early November in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Marbled orb weaver ventral view

A ventral view

Underneath, they are less striking, but colorful nonetheless. You can also appreciate the black bands on the legs a bit better when not distracted by the bright colors of their top side.

Marbled orb weaver side view

Side view of a female Marbled Orbweaver in her web

I stumbled into this particular web this past weekend while looking for seeds for a program at work. Luckily, I only brushed against the web before realizing my mistake and was able to pull back without ruining her day’s work. As with many orbweavers, this species often makes a new web every evening.

Marbled orb weaver eye view

Here’s looking at you…

In spite of their association with spooky themes like this special holiday, I find these spiders particularly beautiful and a welcome addition to our woods.

Happy Halloween…

 

The Long Sleep

We are like caterpillars contemplating pupation.

~Terrence McKenna

Last weekend was one filled chores around the house. It seems many things have gone undone this fall with our hectic schedules. In putting away various caterpillar cages, floral tubes, plastic bags, and other gear associated with our many caterpillar programs last month, Melissa decided to look in the soil-filled plastic box we dubbed the pupation chamber. Every year at BugFest, we end up with several of our program specimens (often the stars of the show) deciding it is time to begin their long winter “sleep” where they form a pupa. Caterpillars tend to enter a “crawl-about” phase for several hours when they get ready to pupate and, if you don’t contain them, they will wander off their host plant (not a good thing if there are thousands of human feet attending an event). Most of our common species of butterflies and moths spend the winter in this life stage and usually emerge sometime next spring or summer, depending on the species.

Pupae from Bugfest

Contents of our pupation chamber from BugFest (click photos to enlarge)

We were pleasantly surprised at the number and variety of pupae in the soil-filled box. Before looking more closely at these pupae, a quick review of the terminology associated with the pupae of butterflies and moths. A pupa (Latin for doll) is a life stage of some insects. It is found only in insects that undergo complete metamorphosis – those that go from egg to larva to pupa to adult. The pupa is a non-feeding, usually stationary stage (although many pupae will move or twitch when disturbed). During pupation the adult structures of the insect are formed while the larval structures are broken down. While use of the word pupa is correct for any insect with this life stage, there are some special terms often used for the pupal stages of different groups of butterflies and moths.

Varigated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated fritillary chrysalis surrounded by loose silk spun by the caterpillar

A chrysalis is the “naked” pupal stage of butterflies. The word is derived from the Greek word, chrysos, for gold, and refers to the metallic gold coloration found in some types of chrysalises. The chrysalises of most butterfly species are attached to a substrate by a single silk pad.

Spicebush swallowtail chrysalis

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly chrysalis

Members of a few butterfly families use two attachment points for their pupae – the silk pad at the posterior end, and a silken girdle that suspends the chrysalis off of a substrate (looking much like a telephone repairman’s safety harness).

Luna cocoon

Luna moth cocoon

A cocoon is a pupa wrapped in an outer casing of silk (and often other materials) that acts as a protective covering. Many of the giant silk moths, such as a luna moth,  incorporate leaves into their cocoon. The last instar of the caterpillar wraps some leaves around itself using silk, and then molts one last time on the inside of this chamber to form the pupa.

Luna cocoon opened

Luna moth cocoon with outer covering gently cut open to reveal pupa inside and silk fibers

If you look inside a cocoon, you will see the familiar brown or reddish-brown cylinder-shape of a pupa (if done gently, the adult moth can still successfully emerge from an opened cocoon). The silk from a giant silk moth cocoon can be unraveled to harvest silk fibers on a very small scale (commercial silk production uses the cocoons of the domesticated mulberry silkworm moth). If you are an insect that creates a cocoon, you need to have a way to escape from it as an adult. Most species do this by either cutting their way out or by secreting enzymes that soften the cocoon. Some cocoons are constructed with one-way escape holes or with lines of weakness that allow easier escape from the inside.

Hickory horned devil pupa

Pupa of a hickory horned devil caterpillar (royal walnut moth)

The classic pupa is “naked” and is formed by a moth caterpillar in an underground chamber or some partially hidden location (under a log or rock, in loose soil, etc.). They are often encountered while digging in your garden and resemble little cigar butts. In a nod to this month’s unique holiday of all things scary, moth pupae also remind me of miniature mummies. The size of the pupa and associated structures can help you identify these mystery creatures. Large pupae (greater than 1.5 inches) usually belong to either the sphinx moth family or are one of the giant silk moths. The largest (about 2+ inches) we encounter are those of the fantastical hickory horned devil. The last instar caterpillar burrows into the soil and forms a crusty chamber around itself before pupating. The pupa is shiny dark brown and has a couple of dark circles on the back of its head that give it a Darth Vader appearance.

Imperial moth pupa

Imperial moth pupa

This pupa had the characteristic double-tipped projection at the end of the abdomen indicating it is an imperial moth.

unid pupa with reddish tint

Mystery pupa

The identity of one of the pupae remains a mystery as it is tough to remember which species were added to the chamber on a busy day of programming.

Tobacco hornworm pupa?

Tobacco hornworm pupa

Sphinx moth pupae generally have a distinctive “handle” on their heads.

Tobacco hornworm pupa close up

The head region of a tobacco hornworm pupa

This fishhook-looking apparatus is actually a sheath that contains the moth’s developing proboscis (tongue). You can also clearly see the developing eyes and antennae of the adult moth in the pupal covering.

Unid sphinx moth pupa

A different sphinx moth pupa

We found another sphinx moth pupa in the chamber that differed from the tobacco hornworm in that the proboscis sheath did not arch out away from the moth body but rather was laid flat against it. We had many species of hornworms this year, so we will just have to wait and see which one emerges.

Unid parasitoid pupa from moth pupa

Unidentified fly puparia

Our smallest discovery was one we weren’t very happy about – some fly puparia. These are probably a species of tachinid fly that are parsitoids on the larvae or pupae of butterflies and moths. We placed these is a separate container to see what emerges. Observing the life cycles of our wild neighbors always leads to additional stories and connections that continue to amaze and delight. Can’t wait to see what happens next spring and summer.

Whistle While You Eat

Forget your trouble
Try to be
Just like the cheerful chickadee
And whistle while you work

~Alternative lyrics to the Disney song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Walnut sphinx  caterpillar 1

A brief post today to share a remarkable scientific study on an unusual caterpillar behavior. In an earlier blog, I mentioned the unique sound-producing capabilities of the beautiful walnut sphinx caterpillar. What I had read is that the sound was produced to startle would-be predators. New research has refined this explanation. As reported in The Scientist (check it out to hear the caterpillar), a new study has shown the loud sound, created by the forcible expulsion of air from specialized holes along the side of the larva, is now believed to mimic the alarm call of birds. Some birds, such as black-capped chickadees, make special vocalizations when they see a potential predator. Other birds react by diving for cover. When this caterpillar is threatened, it emits a similar sound that can fool a hungry bird into thinking there is danger nearby, thus breaking off the birds’ attack on the larva. Amazing!

Sexy Slugs

The mating of the leopard slug is one of the most sensuous film sequences you’ll ever see in your life.

~ Sir David Attenborough

The bizarre happenings just outside our door continue to astonish me. As is often the case, this discovery came while I was out on a completely different mission. I had several programs in a row last month on one of my favorite topics, caterpillars, and was out hunting at one of the best times for spotting these masters of camouflage – after dark. I was sweeping my UV flashlight back and forth among the tree saplings in the yard, hoping to catch the glow of a sphinx moth larva or one of the so-called slug caterpillars, when I saw something strange on a tree trunk. Not a slug caterpillar, but verbally close – two leopard slugs caught in the act of their bizarre mating ritual.

Slug sex

Early stages of leopard slug sex (click photos to enlarge)

First, a little background on these slimy stars. Leopard slugs, Limax maximus,  have been accidentally introduced into many parts of the world from their native Europe. They are large (up to 8 inches) slugs which have a small rudimentary shell hidden under the skin on their back. They are loathed by most homeowners since they may feast on garden vegetables, although much of their diet is decaying organic material and fungi. They are also carnivores, racing after and devouring other slugs at the break-neck speed of up to 6 inches per minute. You will also never forget them if you are unlucky enough to step outside one evening without shoes and suddenly feel a slimy blob underfoot. In addition to locomotion and protection, that slime serves another function – communicating readiness to mate. And this is what this species is  most famous for – its very unusual reproductive habits. Leopard slugs are hermaphrodites – they possess both male and female reproductive organs. They can self-fertilize, but what’s the fun in that?

Long before I saw them that evening, these two slugs were already engaged in their unorthodox breeding sequence.  When the time is right (it takes two years for this species to reach sexual maturity), one slug leaves a chemical trail in its slime signaling its readiness. Another slug may pick up that trail, following the first. There is then a long bout of slug foreplay involving circling one another, nibbling, and whispering sweet nothings. At some point they both climb a nearby vertical surface and entwine their bodies, dropping down on a mucus string they create just for this strange mating dance. They slowly rotate and extend their bright blue male organs out the right side of their heads (from a hole called a gonopore, just behind the tentacles). This is when I first encountered them. The photo above shows their male organs being extruded.

Slug sex 1

Their bodies and their male organs intertwine as they mate

The blue organs entwine and change shape into a translucent cerulean chandelier over the next hour or so and exchange sperm. There is even a scientific treatise (Taylor, J.W., 1894, Monograph of the land and freshwater Mollusca of the British Isles) that details how these blue extensions change shape through the mating sequence…

Limax_maximus_mating

I found myself transfixed by this strange behavior, and sat out there watching it for over an hour (I know what you’re thinking…). My only regret was that I had left my camera at work and so was only able to record this otherworldly occasion with my iPhone.

Slug sex 2

Changing shape as they exchange sperm

Slug sex 4

Nearing the end of their romantic encounter (you can see the mucus string in this photo)

When they finished, they slowly became untangled, one slug crawling off on the tree trunk (one often just drops to the ground), and the other slowly climbed the mucus love rope, consuming it as it went. Both presumably wandered off to lay a couple of hundred gelatinous eggs. I don’t know about them, but I was exhausted after all that. If you are up to it, you can google David Attenborough Leopard Slug Mating and find several YouTube clips online from his BBC series, Life in the Undergrowth. Hearing Sir David explain it all adds a certain elegance, lacking in my prose, to this most unusual backyard event.

 

 

Fall Herps

One of the most beneficial and valuable gifts we can give to ourselves in this life: is allowing ourselves to be surprised! It is okay if life surprises you. It’s a good thing!

~ C. JoyBell C.

The busy schedule at home and work have left little time for getting out and about these past few weeks. But, in preparing for recent programs, I managed a couple of short walks at work searching for some educational props. One night, while out looking for caterpillars, my flashlight beam came across a sleeping reptile…

sleeping Carolina anole

Sleeping Carolina anole (click photos to enlarge)

… a Carolina anole clinging to a leaf along the edge of the meadow. I took a photo and observed it for a moment, pondering how it managed to hang onto a leaf while in that upside down position. I left it alone without disturbing its beauty rest, somewhat amazed that it didn’t budge.

A week or so later, a couple of us at work strolled through the Garden searching for some last minute additions for a weekend program. We spotted a couple of cool reptiles and amphibians along the way, perhaps getting in some of their last days of sun before cooler weather sends them seeking shelter for their long sleep.

Spring peeper and dead leaf

Camouflaged spring peeper

We (actually, she, my boss) spotted a spring peeper clinging to a fringe tree, trying its best to mimic a nearby dead leaf.

Spring peeper 1

Peeper portrait

With a gentle prod, we managed a peeper portrait that included a look at their incredibly long toes equipped with pads that allow them to perform their amazing arboreal acrobatics. A few minutes later, she spotted another tree-hugger…

Juvenile black rat snake in tree

Juvenile black rat snake resting in fork of a tree

… a small black rat snake resting about 6 feet up in the tight fork of a tree along the trail.

Juvenile black rat snake in tree  close up

Not sure he wanted his picture taken

That weekend, we had a successful public program that included our caterpillar table, and several other family-friendly topics. One station was all about our incredible carnivorous plant collection, showcasing a variety of insect-eating species found in North Carolina. The table included a few dissected pitcher plants to show visitors what the plants had captured and digested (a popular activity in one of our school programs). As they cut open one of the pitchers, the educators discovered a very interesting dietary supplement. One of the plants had caught something slightly larger than the usual bug…

Dead anole from pitcher plant 9/23/17

Digested juvenile Carolina anole from inside a pitcher plant

…a juvenile Carolina anole! Its shrunken countenance hinted at a somewhat horrifying tale of picking the wrong spot to take a nap or search for a meal. Though not unheard of, it is pretty rare for a pitcher plant to capture and digest a vertebrate.

While setting up for this program, another co-worker said she had seen a dead rough green snake at another location in the Garden. When I asked her if it had started turning blue, she gave me a quizzical look and rushed off to see if she could find it. She returned in a few minutes with snake in hand.

Rough green snake dead and blue

Dead rough green snake

It turns out that the usual beautiful green color of a rough green snake is created by a combination of yellow and blue pigments.

Rough Green Snake

The usual color (although there seems to be a blue spot down on the body, perhaps from a damaged scale)

Shortly after death, the yellow pigments break down quickly, leaving the dead snake a brilliant blue color. The world is full of surprises if you take the time to look for them.

Dead rough green snake turning blue

Turning blue

A Fondness for Caterpillars

And what’s a butterfly? At best, He’s but a caterpillar, drest.

~John Grey

Another season of caterpillar finds and larval programs is winding down. We have been searching high and low for larvae and, consequently, caring for a menagerie of crawling critters for several weeks now. My caterpillar programs have ended, and Melissa’s will be finished later this week. Our charges have been oohed and aahed over by hundreds of wide-eyed learners at a series of events at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the museum’s BugFest, and a well-attended (and well-run) Master Gardener’s conference in Greensboro. These little guys have really earned their keep this past month. Many have pupated in preparation for their long winter’s nap, others have been (or will be) released back into the wild, and, sadly, many have succumbed to a variety of parasitoid wasps. It is somewhat shocking how many caterpillars meet this fate, but I suppose it is one of the main reasons we are all not knee-deep in frass (caterpillar poop) by the end of the summer.

So, this post is to say thank you to all the marvelous Lepidoptera larvae that have graced us with their beauty and fascinating behaviors these past few weeks. Their variety of “attire” and striking forms are just one of the reasons that I have developed such a fondness for caterpillars over the years. Here are a few of the stars of this caterpillar season…

Hog sphinx green

Hog sphinx on wild grape (click photos to enlarge)

Hog sphinx 1

Same hog sphinx, later instar

Waved sphinx?

Waved sphinx on ash

Rustic sphinx

Rustic sphinx on beautyberry

pawpaw sphinx

Pawpaw sphinx deciduous holly

Hummingbird sphinx larva

Hummingbird clearwing on possum haw

Four-horned sphinx

Four-horned sphinx on river birch

Yellow-haired dagger

Yellow-haired dagger, early instar

Hoary alder dagger

Hoary alder dagger moth on tag alder

Retarded dagger moth

Bantam maple dagger on maple

Salt marsh caterpillar?

Salt marsh caterpillar

unid parasitoid pupal mass from salt martsh caterpillar

Strange, communal pupal case of parasitoid wasps that emerged from the salt march caterpillar

Black-etched prominent whipping tails

Black-etched prominent “whipping its tails” as a defense

unid early instar prominent

Mottled prominent, early instar, on oak

White-barred emerald

White-barred emerald, a wonderful twig mimic, on oak

Purplish brown looper larva - twig mimicg

Purplish-brown looper, a huge twig mimic with a head capsule that resembles a leaf bud, on sweetgum

Imperial green

Imperial moth on sourwood

Smaller parasa

Wavy-lined heterocampa just after a molt (you can see the thoracic antlers of the early instar on the shed skin), on wax myrtle

Stinging Rose Caterpillar and shed skin

Stinging rose caterpillar about to eat its shed skin (I accidentally touched this guy at BugFest and felt a mild bee sting sensation for about 45 minutes), on persimmon

Puss Moth caterpillar shedding its skin

Puss moth caterpillar shedding its skin (note color change), on wild cherry

Spiny oak slug

Spiny oak slug on witch hazel

Smaller parasa 1

Smaller parasa on ironwood

Nason's slug

Nason’s slug on oak

Io moth caterpillar

Io moth on hickory

Black-waved flannel moth early instar

Black-waved flannel moth, early instar

Black-waved flannel moth later instar

Same black-waved flannel moth, later instar

Skiff moth larva on cherry

Skiff moth, last instar, on wild cherry

Skiff moth larva approaching pupation

Same skiff moth, getting ready to pupate

Viceroy chrysalis

Viceroy butterfly chrysalis

Monarch chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking Among Giants

Walk in the Sequoia woods at any time of the year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth.

~John Muir

I am far behind in posting about recent events, sightings and travels. But I guess that is a good problem to have – doing and seeing so much that I don’t have time to write about it! So, here is the first of several  posts on our travels this past month. We finally made it to see the giant sequoias and the incredible high country of the Sierras. Melissa was awarded a trip for an interpretive training session in California, and I flew out to join her and Megan for a rather unplanned camping trip afterward. Our first planned trip had been postponed a few years ago when wildfires blanketed the area with smoke, so we made some last minute changes and hiked the Lost Coast Trail instead. Now we had the time, but little in the way of concrete plans (no reservations for campsites, since they fill up months in advance and this trip had been planned on much shorter notice). I flew into Reno, Nevada, and we drove several hours into the Central Valley of California, home to what looks like our country’s largest source of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with mile after mile of irrigated farmland. After an overnight near Fresno, we were up early and headed into Kings Canyon National Park. We lucked out and got a back-country permit for a 10-mile hike in Redwood Canyon, home to some large groves of giant sequoias. Since we only planned to hike a couple of miles before pitching camp our first evening, we decided to first take in a few of the iconic sites accessible by road.

deep canyon over 8000 ft deep

Junction View looking into Kings Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

Kings Canyon is considered one of, if not the, deepest canyons in North America. Just outside the park boundary, the canyon is almost 8200 feet deep from the Kings River to the top of an adjacent mountain peak. It is incredibly rugged and dry. The latter was the big surprise to me. No wonder forest fires are such a part of this landscape.

Zumwalt meadow Kings Canyon NP

Zumwalt meadow

The wettest habitats are, of course, along the waterways. We stopped at one of the classic Sierra landscapes, Zumwalt meadow, and arrived just in time for a ranger-led walk. The ranger was a young seasonal who had an amiable style and almost immediately shared a new learning.

Ranger next to incense cedar

A huge incense cedar was one of the first stops on the guided walk

What I at first assumed was a young, yet still substantial, giant sequoia, turned out to be an incense cedar, a common species in these habitats. There are several notable features that distinguish the two species, so it was a good lesson for our hikes to come.

Lorquin's admiral wings open

Lorquin’s admiral butterfly

At the meadow proper, we saw several butterflies – a few monarchs flitting about some milkweed out in the meadow, add a striking Lorquin’s admiral along the trail. We continued around the loop after the ranger finished his talk, but not before he gave us a good tip on a feature to look for on our drive out of the canyon.

chevron folds Kings Canyon

The famous geologic fold in Kings Canyon

A geologic highlight no less (those that know me know how unusual this is for me). The ranger (who had a degree in geology) told us about a distinctive fold on the highway which I now know is famous as the Kings Canyon Fold. He said it was the textbook example of how rocks can be deformed at high temperatures and pressures. Sure enough, it is not only on textbooks, but is also an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. The canyon does provide incredible views of a landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers, and huge geologic forces that have occurred over the millennia. But what I most wanted to see were the living things that have survived the millennia – the giant sequoias.

General Grant Tree

General Grant tree

A must stop for anyone in Kings Canyon is the General Grant tree, the second largest tree  (by volume) on Earth. Coastal redwoods are the tallest living organisms, but giant sequoias are the most massive. Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow naturally only on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow naturally only in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast.

A few facts about the General Grant tree

  • It is the widest sequoia known, being 40 ft across at its base ( with a circumference of 107 ft, it would take 20 people holding hands to completely encircle its massive trunk)
  • 268 ft tall
  • Estimated age – 1700 years (a full 1500 years younger than the oldest known sequoia)
  • First branch is 129 ft above the ground
Ranger hat with sequoia cone

Giant sequoia cones as symbols on National Park Service hat

The cones of these massive giants are a little larger than a chicken egg, and the seeds are like oak flakes. The ranger pointed out that the giant sequoia cone is one of the symbols on every National Park Service ranger’s uniform – on the band of their iconic wide brim hats.

Huge sequoia

A forest of giants

Late that afternoon, we finally made it to the trail head into Redwood Canyon (Giant sequoias are sometimes called Sierra redwoods). We started our climb and immediately passed through groves of huge trees that included giant sequoias, sugar pines (with the largest pine cones in the world), and Douglas firs.

Sugar Pine cone

Sugar pine cone

Grasses on ex[posed slope in Redwood Canyon

Grasses along a dry ridge in Redwood Canyon

Dead shrub twig pattern

Patterns of twigs

Late in the day we reached a rocky ridge line overlooking a small canyon. A few open areas provided great views and some interesting patterns in the growth form of plants.

campsite in Redwood Canyon

Our first campsite in Redwood Canyon

We finally settled on a spot near the edge of the ridge with a panorama on one side and a grove of giant sequoias on the other. The forest was incredibly quiet, a fitting silence in such a place of reverence.

Giant sequoias at sunset silhouette

Sunset among the giants

View from campsite B&W

The view at sunrise from our camp

Megan initially planned to sleep in the hollow base of one of the giants, but ended up setting up her tent in the middle of the night when the scurrying sounds of small mammals, and the more worrisome sound of some larger species, interrupted her sleep (we found what we assumed were three bear day beds on the slope above our campsite).

Sasquatch shadow

Origin of Sasquatch?

On a morning walk I discovered a surreal figure on one of the sequoia trunks – a burn scar that had an eerie resemblance to a human form, especially when viewed at a distance.

Sugar Bowl trees 1

We spent a lot of time looking up at the canopy in awe

Tunnel tree from far end

A tunnel tree

Tunnel tree with hiker

Walking through the downed giant with our backpacks and room to spare

Giant sequoia with Megan for scale

Megan standing at one of the giants in Redwood Canyon

Our second day was a longer hike ( about 7 miles) through incredibly beautiful terrain that included dry ridges, clear mountain streams, and more giant sequoias. Along the way we spotted a variety of birds, some deer, and an array of wildflowers.

Columbine flower 1

Crimson columbine against a backdrop of a small waterfall along the trail

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush was a common splash of red on our hike

Whisker brush

The beautiful flowers of whisker brush in a sunny spot

Sequoia stump

Our camp the second night was in the vicinity of an old logging camp dotted with massive stumps

We camped the second night along a stream surrounded by the weathered stumps of sequoias cut long ago in the age of loggers in these mountains. I can’t imagine cutting down one of these giants – both the physical effort and time required (it often took a couple of days just to cut through the trunk), and the process of getting the wood out of this steep terrain. We hiked out the next morning and headed to the adjoining Sequoia National Park (our second oldest national park) with the goal of seeing the General Sherman tree.

General Sherman tree outline

Melissa stands in the “footprint” display of the General Sherman tree

The largest tree (by volume) on Earth, the General Sherman tree is in a forest of behemoths, appropriately known as the Giant Forest. Described by John Muir when he entered this grove in 1873 – A magnificent growth of giants…one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them. I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble…this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me to be the finest, and I then named it “the Giant Forest”.

General Sherman tree

The General Sherman tree from a distance

We all are thankful for the efforts of Muir and the many others who saw the majesty in these trees and fought for their preservation. There is something magical and humbling about walking among them, and it is a feeling you cannot find anywhere else. As Muir noted after walking the ridges of this area …it seemed impossible that any other forest picture in the world could rival it. I will have to agree with him, there is no place like the sequoia woods.

 

 

Sweeping Grass and Rolling Logs

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

We had an adventure on one of the last weeks of summer camp at the Garden. It was all about discoveries – trees, dragonflies, aquatic macroinvertebrates, field and forest insects and animal tracks and signs. A highlight for me was sharing the incredible diversity of Mason Farm Biological Reserve with those budding naturalists. We sampled both field habitats and forest edges using various techniques from sweep nets (swinging a mesh net back and forth through tall grasses and examining your catch) to log rolling (gently turning over downed logs to check for decomposers and other critters).

Phidippus clarus, Brilliant Jumper, good eye view

Brilliant jumper, Phidippus clarus, in a sweep net (click photos to enlarge)

The kids were excited about their finds as they swept the nets back and forth along the edge of the meadows. I was so busy helping them catch and identify things I didn’t have much time to photograph anything, but when one camper saw a tiny jumping spider in his net, I had to grab the camera. I have a weakness for jumping spiders and their bold colors, huge eyes, and “inquisitive personalities”.

Phidippus clarus, Brilliant Jumper, looking up

Brilliant jumper right before it did just that (up onto my lens)

I later identified it as a brilliant jumper based on the green chelicerae and the orange pattern on the abdomen. I shot several images as it crawled about the edge of the net, pausing frequently to stare up at my camera gear looming overhead. It finally did what they often do, and leapt up onto my lens, ending its photo session.

Rabid wolf spider, Rapidosa rapida?

Rabid wolf spider, Rabidosa rabida

As we walked along the forest edge, someone spotted a huge wolf spider. I bent over for a closer look and a quick picture of its enormous (and numerous) eyes. I’m not sure how the common and scientific names came about (rabidus is Latin for wild, crazy, raging), but maybe some early arachnologist laid down and looked into the face of one of these huge spiders and felt a slight twinge just as I did.

We showed the campers the proper technique for rolling a log (gently roll it toward you so that any larger critters can escape away from you instead of coming at you).

Psallis beetle in gallery in log

Passalus beetle, Odontotaenius disjunctus, in one of their tunnels in a log

One log revealed a treasure trove of beetles – some adult passalus beetles (in the family Passalidae), and several large beetle grubs. These common large beetles are also called patent leather beetles, horned beetles, horned passalus beetles, bess beetles, and many other common names,

unid beetle grub;  not a psallis 1

Large beetle grub under log

The first two grubs were huge, curled in a C shape under the log. I did a quick glance and told the excited kids those were probably the larvae of the passalus beetles and bent down to pick one up. I then noticed another larva crawling nearby. It was slightly slimmer and was actively moving instead of being curled up.

Psallis beetle grub on finger for scale

Another, more slender, beetle grub

At first, I assumed they were just different ages of passalus beetle grubs. I remembered reading that their larvae have a reduced pair of legs used for stridulation (making sound by rubbing one body part against another, in this case, the reduced leg against the adjacent larger leg).

Unid beetle grub; probbly not a psallis

A closer look at the first grub shows 3 pairs of legs with the first pair slightly reduced

I always had wanted a photo of the reduced pair of legs (it’s what we nature photographer types do) so I flipped over one of the larger grubs and took a couple of quick shots. Sure enough, the first pair of legs was smaller then the other two pair. We gently replaced that log to its original position and rolled another. More beetles! And something else…

Psallis beetle pupa

Beetle pupa

There were a couple of beetle pupae under the log (I assumed they were passalus beetles). This was really cool as I had never seen large beetle pupae before. One was attached to the underside of the log in what looked like a chamber made of wood debris and maybe beetle frass.

Immature psallis beetle

Juvenile passalus beetle is brown in color

There was also a brown-colored passalus beetle. These are juveniles and they will gradually darken to black as they mature (I wasn’t able to find how long this takes).

Adult psallis beetle

Adult passalus beetle is black

Passalus beetles are fascinating critters and a frequent live animal used for environmental education demonstrations. They are one of the few beetles that are social and tend their young. They feed by chewing galleries through the soft wood of downed trees and then re-ingesting their frass after it has been colonized by bacteria and fungi. They also feed this mixture to their larvae. One way they maintain this social structure is through a complex communication system created by stridulation. Adults stridulate by rubbing rows of spines on the undersides of the soft, flying wings (the membranous wings hidden under their hard outer wing structures – the elytra) against a hardened textured area on the top of their abdomen. As I mentioned earlier, the larvae can also make sounds, and these are believed to be important not only for social communication, but also defense against predators. Pick a beetle up and hold it close to your ear, and you are likely to hear some squeaks (click this link to hear passalus beetle stridulation). This same reference states that passalus beetles have 17 known audio signals for both adults and larvae, making it the most elaborate sound communication system known for any arthropod.

I was all set to write up a blog post when I double-checked my information on the life cycle using various online resources. Then it happened…I began to think I had made a mistake in my identification of the large grubs. I found a reference that stated passalus grubs have a reduced pair of legs, but it is the third pair, not the first, as I had seen on the large grubs. Plus, it said these small legs were so reduced as to be difficult to see. Dang, I had to go back and check out those grubs again. Well, as luck would have it, it rained a lot the next day and the creek rose making it tough to drive across to Mason Farm. Things were busy at work that week, but as I was walking on our nature trail one afternoon preparing for a program, I saw a log off the side of the path. I walked over and flipped it, hoping to find…

Psallis beetle grub and adult

Passalus beetle adult and larva

There was an adult passalus beetle and a large slender grub! There were actually a couple of grubs under that log, so I gently grabbed one and flipped it over to look at its legs.

Psallis beetle grub showing reduced leg

The third pair of legs is greatly reduced on this grub

Yes, indeed, that third pair of legs is reduced and very difficult to even see on a passalus beetle larva! So, I had been wrong in my ID on that first quick glance. Those large grubs are most likely the larvae of some other beetle, perhaps a stag beetle. Not only did they not have the greatly reduced third pair of legs, but they were all curled into a C shape. Passalus grubs are usually straighter in posture and more slender. I’m not sure about the pupae, as I didn’t manipulate them to see all sides, but I think they still may have been passalus pupae. It was a good reminder that I need to make careful observations and to double-check my information. Of course, now I want to go back and check on the pupae and see if they are still there, and, if so, maybe keep one to see what emerges. It also showed me that there is always something more to learn about even the common creatures we share our world with, and that learning truly is a life-long endeavor.