Early spring is not my favorite time of year. The growing sunlight on the seemingly dormant, dull world just irks me. The sunny blue skies and warming winds against a bleak backdrop does little for me. But signs of life slowly start to emerge, and the early flowering trees suddenly explode in shades of pink and yellow…. finally, some color. The magnificent magnolias, the explosive redbuds, the crabby crabapples, and the soon to be tasty fruit trees like apricots and cherries. But even before these, bloom the Red Maples (Acer rubrum). Though not nearly as showy as the other early spring flowering trees, the Red Maple has clusters of tightly packed red flowers all along their branches. One of the earliest bloomers, you might notice them because the flowers are not competing with any leaves, or you might just notice a red “presence” against the silver barked trees and wonder what it is. Take a closer look and you will see this.
Flowers of the Red Maple tree.
Though small in comparison to other tree’s flowers they are nonetheless showy in their own right. The male flowers contain several stamens dotted with yellow pollen that extend beyond the short red petals. The female flowers contain a stigma, to which pollen sticks to and leads to the pollination and thus reproduction of the Red Maple. From this pollinated flower forms the winged samaras or fruits of the Red Maple, you may know these as helicopters or whirlygigs or spinners. These are two winged seeds that fall and spin to the ground, seed dispersal in action. Young seedlings will then begin to grow from each of the seeds. Unlike Sugar Maples where the seeds do not drop until the fall, the seeds (and fruit) of the Red Maple fall in the spring before leaves fully emerge. You might not think of them as a fruit, but botanically speaking a fruit is simply a structure that holds the seeds of the flowering plants (angiosperms), leading to the dissemination and spreading of the seeds and thus new plants, or in this case new Red Maples.
Fruits (winged samaras) of the Red Maple.
Early spring is not my favorite, thank goodness for the Red Maples.
A European starling in its winter plumage. In summer the white spots disappear and they are a sleek, iridescent black.
This month’s blog I am sharing some more trail camera photos of my bird feeder. Specifically, I am going to talk about the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). As you can tell from the name this bird is not originally from North America. Starlings were introduced to North America in the 1800’s with the first successfully introduction documented in 1890, when approximately 80 starlings were released into New York City’s Central Park. Today there are an estimated 150 million starlings in North America (USDA), where the European starling is considered both an invasive and a nuisance species. Being highly adaptable and versatile they have expanded their range across all North America (Cornell). They are considered to be a nuisance species because they damage fruit crops, they congregate in concentrated animal feeding operations where they are believed to be disease vectors to livestock and they gather in large numbers in urban areas where their excrement can cover buildings and structures. Finally, they are thought to out-compete native bird species, especially bluebirds and others that use cavities for nesting locations (woodpeckers), possibly leading to declines in the populations of these native species (Cornell). However recent research suggest that even though they compete for nesting sites, they may not reduce the reproductive output (i.e. baby birds that successfully grow to adulthood) of native species (Koenig 2003, Ideas.Ted.com).
Given the problems that have risen from their introduction you may be wondering why they were even brought over from Europe. In the 1800’s a group called the American Acclimatization Society was founded with the purpose of introducing European wildlife to the new country for cultural reasons. Such societies were popular during this time when many European countries colonized other nations and felt either the need for the familiar or thought that the local wildlife were just not as good as that back home. It is even believed that one member of the American Acclimatization Society and a huge fan of Shakespeare, desired to bring to the USA all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
Two starlings fighting it out over some mealworms.
Regardless of their reputation here in North America, the starling is striking, with its jet-black color and iridescent feathers and bright yellow beak. In the wintertime they develop spots speckled across most of their body feathers. Many people do not welcome them at their feeders, as they are larger sized songbirds that crowd out other birds at a feeder. I usually have 5 -6 of them hang around my feeders in the winter but do not take much notice of them and they do not monopolize the feeders. In fact I often see then feeding quietly along with doves, sparrows, cardinals, juncos, titmice, downy wood peckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, a Carolina wren, and even my family of bluebirds.
One thing I like about starlings is their ability to mimic and copy different bird songs an even the searing scream of a red-tailed hawk. They will mimic human associated sounds as well like motorcycles and can even learn to say words. European Starling mimics words ("Talking" Starling) - YouTube
Even better than vocal mimicry, in my opinion, is the large flocks that they form and their “murmurations”, when they fly in large groups swirling back and forth in various undulating formations, dividing and then coming back together. They are always fun to watch. Check out this video, it is one of my all time favorites, plus I like flugelhorn music:
Murmuration, Birds various - Bing video
Finally, evolutionarily speaking the starling has spread across North America in a very short period of time and has been able to adapt to a variety of conditions. Interestingly starlings introduced from the UK to Australia have not spread across Australia as fast or as well as those in North America. A biologist is investigating what has allowed the North American starlings to become more adaptable relative to those introduced into Australia. Check out the story here: European Starlings’ Global Success Reveals Evolution Doesn’t Always Take Millions Of Years (forbes.com)
So, whether you are a fan of these birds are not, you must admire them in their beauty, tenacity, and adaptability.
USDA: European-Starlings-WDM-Technical-Series.pdf (usda.gov)
Cornell: European Starling Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Koenig 2003 https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.02262.x
Ideas.Ted.Com: Even if we don’t love starlings, we should learn to live with them | (ted.com)
What blooms in the middle of winter? Witch-hazel!
Witch-hazels are a group of winter flowering shrubs with 3 species (Hamamelis virginiana, H. vernalis and H. ovalis) native to the North America and 2 species native to parts of Asia. Witch-hazels are small trees or shrubs generally only growing to 10 -25 feet tall. American witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, blooms from September through December, whereas the other species, including the Ozark witch-hazel (H. vernalis) bloom from January through March.
Witch-hazel flowers are small but showy, with colors ranging from yellows, oranges and reds. They have thin, ribbon shaped petals. Witch-hazels flower after all their leaves have dropped, and so, even though the flowers are small, the flowers can be readily seen against a barren winter landscape. The pictures I post are of the Ozark witch-hazel that I planted in my backyard.
Given this seemingly strange trait of blooming when most pollinators are gone or hibernating, the question arises, what pollinates witch-hazel?
Bees and flies have been observed visiting witch-hazel but more likely in the warmer portion of their blooming period. The flowers are sweet smelling and contain nectar, which is used to attract pollinators, so it is unlikely that they pollinate via wind. One possibility might be a group of Noctuid moths known as owlet moths. The brown rather non-descript moths were studied by Bernd Heinrich who observed them feeding off of witch-hazel flowers in the winter. These moths are known for vibrating their wings (or shivering) to increase their body temperature, allowing them to be active in cold weather. This trait of shivering to increase their body temperature is not unique to this group, many other moths and butterflies are known to shiver. What is interesting is that they can initiate shivering a temperature much colder than other Lepidoptera (moths or butterflies).
In the winter these moths seek shelter under leaf litter, which is considerably warmer than winter air temperatures, and if it snows, the snow adds an additional layer of insulation. The moths also have an insulating layer of fur (actually modified scales). Heinrich also found that they only need to warm up and their thorax (the body part that contains the wings) and not their abdomen during flight. They can maintain a large difference in body temperature between the two main body parts. (Check out Bernd’s paper to see his cool experiments here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24979345 ).
One more cool thing about with-hazels is that their seeds are in long capsules, as the pods dry they explode open, shooting the seeds up to 30 feet away from the parent tree. Seed dispersal is fascinating….check out this video with David Attenborough to learn more about the cool adaptations plants have to ensure their seeds get a good start in life.
I bought a trail camera to set out by my peanut bird feeder to see if I could get a photo of the racoon that I suspected was raiding it at night. I would also hear strange, high-pitched squeaking sounds from the yard in the middle of the night, and I suspect it was racoon noises. Being lazy, I left the camera trap up during the day as well.
I did get one picture of a racoon at night, but what I am going to be sharing for the next few posts are the daytime photos of birds that the camera captures. The camera traps (or trail cameras) are a great way to get truly candid photos of animals and often you can get some pretty amusing pictures and surprises.
The first set of photos are of a tufted titmouse on the peanut feeder.
Titmouse determined to get a peanut
The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a year-round resident of Missouri and much of the eastern half of the United States. They are insectivores in the summer but can be found commonly at feeders in the winter enjoying sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts, as this one that I caught with the camera trap is doing. They have a gray back and head with a buffy, white belly and peachy sides. Their distinctive crest or tuft can be a quick way to identify them. They are pretty agile and like the trail camera shows full of acrobatic antics.
Now that I see the potential in using the camera trap to get these fun shots, I am working on figuring out the best location for the camera trap and the feeder to get sharper more clear photos, and also playing around with different feeders to attract different bird species. It is also great because instead of standing out in the cold of winter to get photos, I can let the camera trap take them for me. Obviously you have less control but like I mentioned you can also get more varied behavior.
In the next set of photos I have a meal worm feeder specifically set out for bluebirds, and as you can see I have a nice family of bluebirds that visits every year. They are the cutest and very pretty, I will write more about them later. They particularly like the dried mealworms. But I also get a variety of other birds checking out this feeder including, titmice, chickadees, and even this female cardinal and female red-bellied woodpecker.
A bluebird family munching on mealworms
Female cardinal checking out the feeder
A female red-bellied woodpecker missed out on all the mealworms
The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is also a common, year round resident of the eastern United States. They are striking birds, with their barred, black and white backs, yellowish belly and red cap. I learned that males have a red cap that extends from their beak down to their neck , whereas the females have a bit of red near the beak and then at the back of the neck but not on the top. So the one in the photo is a female. You might be tempted to call this a red-headed woodpecker, but that name already belongs to another species found in Missouri. The red headed woodpecker ‘s entire head is read with black wings and white belly.
So where is the red belly on the red-bellied woodpecker? Well it is there, it is just not very prominent and hard to see as they are usually perched with their belly to the tree.
A fun fact for those less inclined to keep their yard overly orderly, most woodpeckers nest in dead trees and make new cavities each year in the same tree. So if you have dead trees in your backyard, it might not be bad to keep one around for these cavity nesters. We have one in our back yard just for this purpose.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
For most in the Midwest and Northeast fall is a time when the leaves change colors. The bright reds, oranges, burgundies and yellows are from pigments in the leaves that are actually there all year long, we just do not see them because during the rest of the year the green pigment, chlorophyll, is most abundant. This is the pigment that allows the trees to capture sunlight and produce its own food (photosynthesis). But when fall and winter come around, the chlorophyll breaks down as the nutrients used for plant growth move from the leaves into the stems and roots for storage. With the chlorophyll gone, we now see the other pigments in the leaves before they fall to the ground.
Maple trees have some of the showiest fall foliage. Maple trees are native to North America, Europe and Asia, with the most number of species in Asia. Here I have what I believe to be a sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Sugar maples are native to eastern North America, and are best known for they sugary sap that is used to make maple syrup. As can be seen on this photo sugar maple leaves (like most other maples) have 5 lobes in a palmate pattern, that is the veins and leaf lobes extend from the base of the leaf.
Maples are really pretty in the fall, especially with a bright blue sky behind them. Maples are also one of the earliest flowering trees, at least in my yard. Usually in March, small, tiny flowers appear before any leaves do. This provides a great source of nectar for early spring insects. The fruits and seeds of the maple are the 2 seeded, papery-winged, whirlybirds or helicopters seen whirling from the trees in spring time.
The next tree is an oak tree. There are around 400 to 500 species of living oaks in the genus Quercus , and they are native to the northern hemisphere. The highest species diversity of oaks can be found in North America, with Asia having the second highest number of oak species. I do not know a lot about trees or oaks. I always assumed that oaks generally do not display a lot of fall color. From my experience oak leaves generally turn brown and either fall off the tree or remain on the tree over winter. When I saw this oak with is beautiful red/ burgundy colored leaves, I had to find out what it was. I assumed it was a red oak tree, because of the coloration….but was I wrong!
This oak species has leaves with rounded lobes, meaning it belongs to the white oak group.
There are about 60 species of oaks in the United States. These can be divided into 2 groups, the white oaks and the red oaks. White oaks (such as the white oak, burr oak, post oak and chinquapin oak) generally have rounded lobes on their leaves and red oaks (such as the red oak, black oak, willow oak, and pin oak) have pointy-end tipped lobes on their leaves. So, from this picture I can guess that this tree belongs to the white oak group based on the rounded lobes of its leaves. There are other differences between the groups, for instance the white oak group's fruit (acorns) mature on the tree in one season, whereas those of the red oak group take up to two seasons before they mature. Unfortunately, I am unable to identify this tree species any further, I will have to go back and visit in spring time to take a closer look at the leaves and stems. The acorns of the oaks are really important source of food for wildlife, and like the leaves come in various forms.
Credit: University of Minnesota Extension
Credit: Trees: A Golden Nature Guide
(Illustrators: Dorothea and Sy Barlowe)
While I was doing some research I came across this similar blog. According to the Back Yard Biology Blog team, oaks can be pretty colorful in the fall, check out their post and pictures! Apparently I will have to keep a keener eye out next fall on the oaks!
And Leeloo says don't forget to enjoy the fall leaves, whether they are still on the trees or on the ground!
The woolly bears are out and about this time of year. Those cute fuzzy black and rusty brown,orangish caterpillars found traipsing across the lawns and sidewalks.
All moths and butterflies belong to the insect order Lepidoptera, meaning scale wing, because when you look up close at the wings you will see they are covered in tiny, flattened hairs or scales (check out this neat close up pic of a butterfly wing https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/images/543-butterfly-wings-are-covered-with-scales “Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao, University of Waikato, www.sciencelearn.org.nz). But back to the caterpillars.
Why do these guys always seem to appear in the fall? And where are they going?
Woolly bears are the caterpillar (or larval) form of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) which is found from northern Mexico into southern Canada (bugguide.net/node/view/154649) . The caterpillars themselves are covered in short bristles or hairs, unlike some caterpillars, these hairs do sting or hurt when touched. They usually have a black front and back end with a band or rusty orange in the middle.
In the fall they are out searching for more food or perhaps a nice, cozy spot under some fallen leaves or under a decaying log to overwinter.
Unlike the monarch butterflies which migrate during winter, the caterpillars of the Isabella tiger moth will overwinter in northern regions. This species can be found all the way up into the Arctic. The caterpillars of this species can literally remain frozen over winter, using cryoprotectant to help protect its tissue and organs from the effects of freezing. Cryoprotectants are sugars, proteins and other chemical compounds that can help protect organs and tissue from freezing. Different compounds act in different ways to accomplish this. One way is to the lower the actual freezing temperature so that the cells and tissue never actually freeze and maintain their integrity. Many insects, amphibians and fish can produce these anti-freeze compounds when the temperatures get chilly, so as to survive in cold weather and habitats. The woolly bear caterpillars can thus safely overwinter, and in the spring time they will spin a fuzzy cocoon before emerging as an adult tiger moth.
Legend has it the woolly bear caterpillar can predict the severity of a winter.
The wider the rusty, orange band of hairs in the middle, the milder the winter. However, researchers believe that the amount of black versus orange depends more on the age of the caterpillar. The caterpillars molt several times before reaching adulthood and with each molt they shed their skin and bristles and change color.
Regardless, they are a pretty cute and always a treat to see.
According to legend we should have a mild winter, but I do not know, maybe he is just old. I moved him away from a busy street and placed in some nice leaf litter in our backyard, good luck little dude.
Fall is a time when lots of insects get active, sometimes it seems, even more so than in the summer.
Fall is also the time for many late blooming wildflowers, and what more perfect of a place to find insects than on flowers. While taking a walk at a nearby park I came across a couple different types of wasps and some cool beetles. The two wasps had very different markings on them so I assumed they were different species….but what species were they? The nifty yellow and black beetle was really cool but it left me wondering…what species was it? How can I identify these insects?
Taxonomically insects are a Class of organisms ...do you remember taxonomic classification from 7th grade biology… (Domain), Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. King Philip Came Over From Great Spain or Dumb King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain?
The idea of taxonomy and classification using this system relies on the observation that at all individuals within a taxonomic category share certain characteristics that make then different from others. For instance all individuals within a species share traits that make them different from individuals of another species, all species that belong in a genus share particular traits that species in different genera do not share, and all members of a family share traits that differentiate them from other families, etc. All animals belong to the kingdom Animalia, and insects are members of the animal phylum Arthropoda, which means jointed (Arthro) foot (poda) or jointed leg. All members of Arthropoda (insects, spiders, scorpions, crustaceans like lobsters and shrimp) have multiple pairs of jointed legs. They also have an exoskeleton, a hard outer covering that protects their internal organs and provides support and structure. This differs from other animals like us humans which have an endoskeleton made of bones and a cartilage and is internal (endo) to our body. So an exoskeleton and jointed limbs helps differentiate arthropods from other animals, but what makes an insect an insect? Taxonomists like to organize and categorize things, sometimes they need additional levels of classification beyond the 7 or 8 I initially mentioned. They like to have “sub” things and “supra” things…Like Hexapoda which is a “sub”-phylum consisting of all arthropods with six (hexa) legs (poda). Finally! Within Hexapod we have the Class Insecta….so what is an insect?
Well we can say that according to this definition, spiders are NOT insects, because they have 8 legs and not 6, spiders belong in a separate group of arthropods. Another trait that all insects share is that they have 3 main body parts (a head, a thorax and an abdomen) that are clearly segmented or separate from on another. This differs from other arthropods (like spiders) which have their head and thorax combined into one segment (the cephalothorax).
As an undergraduate majoring in zoology, I had lots of “ology” courses I could take….and I always wondered why anyone would be interested in entomology (the study of insects), I mean cockroaches …yuck! And then I took the course…..and I was forever changed…..
Insects are an incredibly diverse group, with over a million species described and millions more undescribed. With that kind of diversity who wouldn’t want to study them?!?! I mean mammalia, the class that we mere humans are a part of only consists of 5,500 to 6,000 species, mammals are sooooo boring!
Like anyone else who has taken at least one entomology course, I love correcting people on their insect misidentification…
When someone calls a spider an insect, I shudder …have you no shame?
Or when someone calls anything they see flying around a fly…do you NOT know about Dipterans?
Dipteran …the true flies! And you thought a house fly was a house fly was a house fly.
Dipterans (like your house fly, horse fly, mosquitos and crane flies) have one functional pair of wings and the other pair is now reduced in size and used as a sensory organ to help the flies maneuver better in flight. And what about those crazy Dipteran flies that mimic a completely different order of insects the Hymenoptera (bees and wasps)? Ever been buzzed by what appears to be a yellow jacket only to have your entomologically-minded friend tell you it is just a fly…and how did they know? Take a look at its wings (only one pair) and its eyes, most Dipterans have huge eyes covering most of their head, and Dipterans have short stubby antenna, not long, jointed ones like most bees and wasps.
But enough about flies because this months post is about two wasps and a beetle.
I could identify the two wasps to their order Hymenoptera (which means membranous wings) Hymenoptera have two pairs of wings and if you get close enough to look, you will see that their forewings are connected to their hindwings by a series of small hooks.
And I could identify the beetle to the order Coleoptera which have a hardened shield-like pair of forewings that protect their membranous soft hindwings.
But that was as far as I could get to…so I turned to a cool app called iNaturalist to get some help. With iNaturalist you can upload a picture along with location information and post your observation.
Within a couple of days my pictures had preliminary identifications, members had identified my two wasps as belonging to the Scoliidae family of wasps
Here are two pictures of the same wasp, this is the double banded Scoliid wasp, Scolia bicincta. See the two parallel pale bands on its abdomen?
This is the two-spotted Scoliid wasp (Scolia dubia).
Scoliid wasps are generally black wasps with bluish/ black wings and yellow markings. They are solitary meaning they do not live in hives or colonies like paper wasps or yellow jackets. They are parasitoids of beetles. The female will find the grub like larvae of a beetle, move it into the wasps' underground burrow, paralyze the larva and then lay its eggs on the larva. The young wasps then feed off of beetle larva, eventually killing their host.
As for the beetle I found, the best identification was the Amorpha borer (Megacyllene decora). Like other borer beetles, this beetle lays its eggs on a host plant (in this case the false indigo plant (Amorpha fruticosa) and the larvae burrow and eat the wood before turning into adult beetles. The adults are often found on Goldenrod and Boneset in the fall.
An adult Amorpha borer beetle (Megacyllene decora)
Identifying the species of organism you have can be tricky, many species look very similar so morphological traits cannot always be reliable. Furthermore given the diversity of organisms, many groups are still understudied and many species are undescribed. The iNaturalist app is nice to use, but asking a trained taxonomist to identify a species is the best way to get the most accurate identification.....if you can find one. Nevetheless, I was happy with the identification of my insects with iNaturalist, they seem the most likely match.
Adult Monarch Butterfly feeding off of milkweed.
August is a good time to keep an eye out for butterflies. By planting native plants in your yard like coneflowers, spicebush, yarrow and milkweed, you can attract a number of species. This is because butterflies have multistage life cycles in which their larval stage (the caterpillar) is dependent on a particular set of host species on which to feed.
The butterfly’s life cycle includes: going from egg; to larvae (the caterpillar); to chrysalis (the pupal stage-in which a complete rearrangement of organs and body parts occurs through metamorphosis); to adult (butterfly). Host plants are vital for ensuring butterfly populations persist. These plants are used by adults to lay their eggs and the caterpillars then feed exclusively off these plants. Host plants are native plant species that the butterfly species have evolved with and which the caterpillars primarily feed off of. By planting these native host plant species you will have higher success attracting butterflies. Some butterfly species' caterpillars will feed on non-native species such as Queen Anne’s Lace and Dill but these plant species are generally closely related to the butterfly’s native host plant so the butterflies do not seem to mind too much.
You can still attract butterflies to your yard even without native species, as the adult butterfly spends most its time searching for nectar. One of my favorite flowers to plant are zinnias and butterflies seem to like them pretty well too. Zinnias are not native to Missouri but are native to the southwest US through South America.
Monarch Caterpillar feeding off of common milkweed. See the caterpillar poop or frass! (Fun fact! Frass is the technical term for caterpillar poop)
Many butterfly species will migrate to wintering sites when it gets too cold. The most famous migratory butterfly is the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), the only species of butterfly to migrate over 2500 miles to reach their wintering grounds. Concern about Monarch population declines has led some people to raise monarch butterflies in captivity, but a recent study finds that these butterflies might not be able to migrate; suggesting that conservation efforts should be in habitat conservation (both in the winter and summer range). https://www.npr.org/2019/06/24/735389108/monarch-butterflies-born-in-captivity-have-trouble-migrating-south-study-says
If you are interested in helping monarch, grow native milkweeds – their host plants, and look into citizen science programs. MonarchWatch (https://www.monarchwatch.org/) allows you to catch, tag and release Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. With the data they collect MonarchWatch is able to keep track of population changes. I participated a few times and even got a certificate telling me that one of my tagged butterflies was found in Mexico!
What about the butterflies that do not migrate? How does the species continue to persist?
Spicebush (Papilio troilus) and Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterflies will overwinter in their chrysalis stage. The caterpillars, after getting their fill of their host plant, can then be found crawling on the ground looking for a good place to bury before it gets too cold. They bury under leaf litter where they will pupate (form a chrysalis) and stay like that until spring. Once spring returns, metamorphosis occurs and the adult form emerges from the chrysalis and looks for a place to climb and hang upside down. Once they reach a safe location, they may not look much like an adult butterfly because their wings are all folded and crinkled. They then pump fluid through their wings making them rigid and ready for flight. Because many butterfly species overwinter and bury under leaf litter, you might not want to worry about removing all the fall leaves in your yard. Biodiversity ...making your life easier!
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) feeding off of a coneflower.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) just chillin'...or maybe plotting to take over the world.
July is TECHNICALLY over but I got these photos and video in July, so I will make this the July post.
I will be talking a bit about a few insects that I have found in my backyard. Summer is the height of insect activity.
The theme for this post is cool insect communication interactions.
Communication? Insects interact? What?
So, I have a really tall sunflower growing in my front yard, it is huge, over 8 feet tall. Scurrying across the underside of its ginormous leaves are these large ants. The ants as you see in the picture are walking amongst smaller insects that cover the underside of the leaf. These ants are tending the treehoppers (the smaller insects which belong to the family Membracidae). The ants are basically farming or ranching the treehoppers for the honeydew that the treehoppers exude. The treehoppers feed off of the juices found in the plant. They then excrete honeydew which is sugary waste water that the insects do not need, but the ants find rather tasty. So the ants tend to these treehoppers, providing protection for the treehoppers against predators while also getting a tasty, energy laden snack for themselves. A similar association or relationship is also found between ants and aphids.
Treehoppers are known for communicating amongst themselves using vibrational signals. They vibrate their abdomen against the leaf or stem of a plant and this signal is transmitted though the plant to a receiver (another treehopper or animal). In this manner they can communicate to their offspring if predators are nearby or signal in search of a mate. They can even communicate to the tending ants if a predator is attacking them. The ants can then chase away the predator. Given that the treehoppers and the ants benefit in this interaction, we call this a mutualism as both partners in the interaction benefit.
Talking about communication and signals, this youtube video I posted (youtu.be/vqJHyrVd9W4) is of a conehead katydid calling for a mate. These are common throughout the Midwest US. This specific one is the Nebraska conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus nebracensis). Their calls can be heard all night along grassy roadside ditches and in field or …in this case...backyards.
Conehead katydids like other katydid species (family Tettigoniidae) make their calls by rubbing their wings together. Crickets (family Grillidae) also call or chirp by rubbing their wings together. Similar to crickets and katydids are grasshoppers. Most commonly seen are the short-horned grashoppers (Family Accrididae), which are generally more robust in appearance then crickets or katydids and have shorter antennae. They call by either rubbing their wings or wings and hindlegs together. You will often see these during the day jumping and flying close to the ground. You might hear them first as their wings make noise when flying and some have brightly colored wings.
Many conehead katydids have a continuous call, one long uninterrupted buzz, but the Nebraska conehead has a discontinuous call, with short phrases interspersed with silence. Males in a chorus of this species will synchronize their calls with their neighbors.
The calls of these katydids are really just another type of vibrational signal, except that we can hear them, so they are called acoustic signals.
If you are interested in learning about more insect calls check out this awesome site: http://songsofinsects.com/
It is the work of two amazing naturalists.
I found two of these in my own backyard and the other one just outside a local park near my house. To be more accurate, my dog found all three of these turtles.
First off is perhaps a familiar sight to many in the US, a box turtle, in this case, specifically, the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene Carolina triunguis)…or wait is an ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)? I do not know !!!!!
A box turtle, tucking her head and legs back into her shell to avoid the paparazzi.
Box turtles are fairly common here in Missouri. Every April -July they are often seen meandering through neighborhoods or crossing roads, looking for mates and places to lay their eggs. The three-toed box turtle is even the state reptile of Missouri. They are called box turtles because they can tuck their legs and head inside their shell and close up their shell completely. They do this with a hinge on their plastron (the underside part of the shell). In other species of turtles such as the hingeback tortoises of Africa, the hinge is on the carapace (or top part of their shell). This hinge and closing of the shell allows these species to escape predators. Most turtles and tortoises are not able to close their shell completely like these guys, because most do not have hinged shells. Interestingly one turtle has found another way to avoid predators, by squeezing into tight rock crevices.
Check out more on the pancake tortoise here!
The pancake tortoise of east Africa has a light, flexible carapace that is allows it to hide in these places, it also allow them to be lighter than most turtles, and therefor they are quicker than most and are good at climbing. In fact many turtle species are actually good at climbing.
Back to our friend the box turtle. If you find a box turtle with three toes on their hind feet, it’s a good bet its is a three-toed box turtle, other species of box turtles in North America have four toes, as does the ornate….I did not get a good look at this guy so I could not tell. However, some three- toed box turtles actually have four toes, so its not the best trait for identification.
What other traits can I use to distinguish between these two species? Ornate box turtles do not have a raised ridge on their carapace whereas the three-toed does. From this picture I really do not see a ridge on top of the shell, plus the markings look more like an ornate….however, those markings can be deceiving, I have come across three-toed box turtles with pretty elaborate markings on their shell as well. According to this nifty Missouri Department of Conservation video (below), ornates often have a yellow line down their center and 3 toes do not, this guy has a broken yellow line…so leaning I am leaning towards calling it an ornate. Finally this helpful little video says to turn over the turtle…if the plastron is vividly marked with similar lines it is an ornate, the three-toed box turtles have plain plastrons… Alas, had I had this video the time I found this guy, I would have checked the underside, but I did not. So for now I am going with ornate. Box turtles got me all mixed up.
Onto something perhaps a little less hard to identify. My dog found this beauty in our backyard. This is a painted turtle, (Chyrsemys picta). Painted turtles are the one of the most widespread turtle species in North America. At first glance you may be wondering why it is called a painted turtle, often their carapace (top of shell) darkens over age and is an olive brown coloration, but flip the turtle over and you might see a colorful plastron and under edges of the top shell. Not all subspecies will have this colorful bottom shell, some subspecies have just a plain yellow/ brown plastron. But the western painted turtle (which is widespread in Missouri) does. Painted turtles also have lovely yellow lines on their neck, throat and legs. If you see a red spot or stripe on the face of the turtle you might actually be seeing the next turtle the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta ).
Leeloo and her turtle friend, a western painted turtle, notice the drab olive, brown carapace
But then BAM! Underside of a western painted turtle, aren't they pretty!
The painted and red-eared slider are semi-aquatic spending most of their time in rivers and lakes and pond; eating aquatic plants, insects and invertebrates; and basking in the sun on logs. They both have webbed hind feet allowing them to better swim, compared to the box turtle which has adorable stubby feet, better for walking and digging. The red-eared slider is the only turtle in Missouri with a red marking on the head, so this is a good way to identify them if you are in Missouri, if you are on the southeast however, you might need to look at some other traits for a proper identification. That is because the southeastern United States has one of the highest diversities (number of species) of freshwater turtles in the world! Usually tropical areas are thought of as having the highest species diversity, but for some taxa temperate places like North America actually contain the highest diversity. In fact, the southeastern US has some of the highest diversity in freshwater fishes, turtles, salamanders and mussels.
This red-eared slider female (not the red behind the eye) is laying or about to lay eggs, I found her in a shallow muddy depression in the grass, slowing kicking her legs back and forth to move the mud.
Why are turtles and tortoise populations declining?
Sadly, turtles are also highly threatened by human activity. One of the major threats to population declines, is overexploitation by the pet trade (one reason why I am not a fan of keeping herps as pets). We usually think about exotic animals in the pet trade coming from other countries; but North American turtle populations are being decimated by poachers.
North American wood turtles, box turtles, gopher tortoises, diamondback terrapins, spotted turtles and more are highly sought after and poached species in the US to be shipped to other countries. In fact the ubiquitous red-eared slider has become so common in the pet trade, that it is now a highly invasive species outside the US .
Check out the links below for more info on the turtle trade:
On a slightly different but related note, one of the most interesting set of talks I have ever been to at a scientific conference was on the cultural, religious and ecological connectivity of wildlife conservation. It was fascinating. Here is a link to one of the presenters and his story pertaining to a Buddhist tradition of Life Release and turtles in New York City.
Turtles as pets?
I am not a proponent of keeping herps and especially turtles as pets, but I have kept some, I just generally do not seek them out as pets. Herps (lizards, turtles, snakes, salamanders and frogs) require conditions that can be hard to maintain (aquatic turtles are not for the faint of heart), some require special handling, they all require special care, many tortoises and turtles have VERY long lives, and many are often captured from the wild.
But if you feel that a herp is truly the right pet for you, please look into adopting an unwanted one. There are many herp rescues across the nation. Herps Alive is a Reptile Rescue out of Cleveland Ohio, where I obtained my Russian Tortoise. Trust me you will be surprised by what they have and what they “find” just wandering the neighborhood (escaped or abandoned pets). I included the link to their website above, but their facebook page is probably the best way to connect with them.
The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society is another amazing group of individuals helping in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife, conservation and public education. Here is a link to a recent article on one of the members in charge of rescue and rehab. https://nypost.com/2020/06/19/meet-the-carole-baskin-of-turtles-who-housed-600-in-nyc-apartment/
More fun links to info on herps in general
If you just want to know more about herps , both in the wild and captivity, what it requires to care for them and what conservation actions are being taken to help them, check out Afroherpkeeper on Instagram he has some really nice educational and FUN videos on herp care and conservation
If you want to go looking for herps from the comfort of your chair check out Afroherper on Instagram, she has a really fun "Find that Lizard" photo challenge.