Alien Life Form?

I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe
is that none of it has tried to contact us.

~Bill Watterson

Today’s mystery comes to us courtesy of Beth Howard, a friend and teacher extraordinaire in the Wilmington area. She found this in her yard and sent me a pic hoping I could help her figure out what it is and whether she needed to sell her house. In her message she asked – What the heck is this? Is it some kind of alien life form or a carnivorous plant? That is a tunnel down through it.”

So, what do you think, and why? I’ll give you one clue…it smells a bit bad.

alien yard item

Alien life form or…? (click photo to enlarge) (photo by Beth Howard)

Melissa and I are happy to try to help solve your natural history mysteries (especially if you will allow me to post about it in this blog), so feel free to send me pictures of your alien life forms to roadsendnaturalist@gmail,com.

Cherry Tree Mystery Answer

We had a few good observations and comments on our mystery post from yesterday. Deb noticed the silk strand in one of the images (reprinted below) which made her suspect some sort of silk-spinning critter. That pretty much limits what type of animal since the only two groups of terrestrial critters I know that can spin silk are spiders and caterpillars. Of course, it could also be that a spider or caterpillar just happened to go by this spot before I took the photo.

cherry tree mystery 2

The single strand of silk in yesterday’s pic is one possible clue (click photos to enlarge)

The other clue I intended for you to see was the pic with the tiny hole in the emerging cherry leaf (see below). This indicates something has been feeding on the emerging leaf bud, again, hinting at the possibility of a caterpillar or some other vegetarian insect.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Notice the tiny hole chewed in the leaf.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have seen these critters in previous springs. I observed them slowly moving on the cherry twigs with a head and some legs protruding out the end. As I recall, I assumed it was a caterpillar based on what I could see, and then I looked online for caterpillars in swirled casings. I found images of what I now believe is a type of Pistol Casebearer Moth larvae, Coleophora sp. Below are a couple of closer images of these interesting larval cases.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 2

Two of the mystery critters on a wild cherry twig.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 1

A close-up of a Pistol Casebearer Moth larval case (Coleophora sp.).

There are hundreds of species of Coleophora moths in the U.S. and several are called Pistol Casebearers due to the resemblance of the spiral-shaped larval case to old-time pistols. Based on my web search, this one could be Colephora atromarginata, because of the host plant (cherry) and the shape of the case. But, according to the online expert, it would take dissection of the gentalia of the adult moth to be sure (oh well…). Caterpillars of this group construct cases of silk, plant material, and frass (caterpillar poop). I think the small brown clumps you can see on the outside of the case are frass pellets. The silk is hardened by an unknown secretion (giving it the black color) and is enlarged as the larva grows (giving the case that segmented appearance). The caterpillars never leave their case and carry it with them as the crawl around on the host plant (much like a snail). When ready to pupate, they use a heavy pad of silk to attach their case to a substrate. They then turn around inside the case and eventually emerge out the back end of the case into a tiny moth. If this is the species I think it is, it overwinters as a caterpillar inside these cases, which explains why they are already this large just as their host plant leaves are emerging.

For a great video of a casebearer larva moving about, check out the incredible work of Sam Jaffe at The Caterpillar Lab. Sam is doing an amazing job of helping people see the magic all around us in the world of caterpillars.

I hope you enjoyed this mystery and we will have another challenge tomorrow.

 

Cherry Tree Mystery

He who finds a thought that lets us penetrate even a little deeper into the eternal mystery of nature has been granted great peace.

~Albert Einstein

Melissa and I have been talking about how we can help students and teachers during this time of online learning so I want to try to do some different things with the blog for a little while and see if it helps. Please comment if you find this useful or if you have other suggestions. Our goal is to provide content about nature that can be found in our area in backyards, greenways, parks, and other natural areas, and that can be used as learning experiences by people of all ages. So, here goes…

cherry tree mystery

Mystery item found on wild cherry tree (click photo to enlarge)

While we were out observing the Eastern tent caterpillars the other day, I noticed some tiny blobs on the emerging leaves and adjacent twigs of the wild cherry saplings in our yard. They are strange-looking little things just a few millimeters across (one would fit on top of a pencil eraser). They are dark and curved into a somewhat coil-like shape.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Look for clues in the photo.

I had an idea of what they were, but I want you to use your observation skills and see if you can come to some rough conclusions. Are they from a plant, animal, fungus, or are they even a living thing? What clues can you see in the photos that might help you decide? What evidence do you have that supports your ideas?

cherry tree mystery 2

A last look…look for clues in the photos.

If you have cherry trees in your yard, go out and see if you can find any of these little blobs. I’ll also post this on social media so more people can answer. I’ll post more information and an answer tomorrow. If you already know, please wait until tomorrow to comment.