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Archive for October, 2015

Shaggy Mane Fruiting Bodies Dissolving

10-30-15Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps. Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink. Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores. In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquification/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.

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Beaver Incisors

10-29-15 beaver incisor marks 025Yesterday’s design was made by a beaver as it removed bark from a tree. The light-colored, curved little “bumps” that run horizontally across the middle of the tree were made by the two incisors in the beaver’s upper jaw. When eating the sought-after cambium layer of a tree, beavers grip the tree with their two upper incisors as they scrape towards their upper jaw with their two bottom incisors, sometimes creating this pattern. (Individual marks where the upper incisors gripped the bark and the four incisors didn’t quite meet can be seen in the insert.)

The ever-growing incisors of rodents are harder on the front surface (outer layer is hard enamel, colored orange from iron in a beaver’s diet) than the back (softer dentine), so the back of each incisor wears away faster than the front, creating a sharp, chisel-like edge to these four specialized teeth. So functional are beavers incisors as cutting instruments, Native Americans used to insert a beaver incisor in a wooden handle and use it to cut bones and to shape their horn-tipped spears.

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Mystery Photo

10-28-15 mystery photo2 025Can you identify what this design is, or how it was made? Please post responses under “comments” on my blog, and if you have enough self-restraint, don’t peak at others’ responses until you’ve posted your own! Thank you!

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Common Polypody Spores Dispersing

10-27-15 rock polypody 057Common polypody (Polypodium virginianum), also called Rock Cap Fern, is a perennial plant found most often growing on rock surfaces usually in moist, shady woods. Being a fern, Common Polypody reproduces by spores. Structures that produce and contain spores (sporangia) are found on the undersides of the fertile frond leaflets. The sporangia form round clusters called sori. The sori of Common Polypody are orange-brown when mature and lack the protective covering (indusium) that some other fern species have. At this time of year, the mature spores are being dispersed by the wind.

The ability of Common Polypody to tolerate extreme desiccation (the leaves roll up when moisture isn’t as available, and resume their normal state when moist conditions return) means it is well adapted to the extreme moisture fluctuations of rock surfaces. Its evergreen fronds are consumed in the winter by Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and White-tailed Deer.

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Shrew Eyes

shrew eyes 317Shrews have a very high metabolism and spend most of the day and night hunting for food. Subterranean worms and insects are their main prey, which means that a lot of their time is spent in tunnels, where there is little, if any, light. Consequently, shrews have little need for large eyes or excellent vision, neither of which they have.

While the sight of most shrews is probably limited to the detection of light, some species compensate by using other senses, including hearing and touch, to direct them. The Short-tailed Shrew has a well-developed repertoire of squeaks and clicks, including ultrasonic sounds, for navigation and predation. (photo: hair has been brushed aside in order to see eye slit)

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Yellow-fuzz Cone Slime Plasmodium Forming Fruiting Bodies

10-9-15 yellow-fuzz cone slime 034Yellow-fuzz Cone Slime (Hemitrichia clavata) is a slime mold that is found in clusters on rotting wood. Neither a plant nor an animal, slime molds are known for the dramatic transformations they go through from the time they first appear to their disintegration. Slime molds are slimy and mold-like when they first emerge, but they soon change color, shape and texture as they develop.

Yellow-fuzz Cone Slime was named for its reproductive stage. When its gelatinous plasmodium starts fruiting, it forms tiny, round, shiny spore-bearing sporangia that can be orange to yellow in color. When the spores are mature, the top of these sporangia open up, creating goblet-shaped cups filled with yellowish, fuzzy threads interspersed with pale yellow spores. (These threads are thought to be involved in the dispersal of the spores.) The stages of Yellow-fuzz Cone Slime are so different that you might well not recognize that they are the same species.

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Dung Beetle Feeding on Bear Scat

10-16 dung beetle 127Wherever there is scat, or dung, there are dung beetles. This is a photograph of a dung beetle in heaven as it has located a black bear’s gigantic (apple-filled) scat, which will provide it with food for a long, long time. Some species of dung beetles (rollers) shape pieces into balls and roll them away and bury them to eat later or lay their eggs on. Some species (tunnelers) bury their dung by tunneling underneath the pile of scat. And a third group (dwellers) actually lives inside dung piles.

Most dung beetles prefer the scat of herbivores. There are always bits of food that do not get digested, and these bits are what a dung beetle feeds on. Dung beetle larvae eat the solids, while adult beetles drink the liquids contained in the scat. A given species of dung beetle typically prefers the dung of a certain species or group of animals, and does not touch the dung of any other species.

Dung beetles have a brain that is the size of a grain of rice, yet they are very sophisticated insects. They use celestial clues (the Milky Way) in order to roll balls of dung in a straight line. Dung beetles are known for “dancing,” which helps them orient themselves after their path has been disrupted. They use their dung balls to regulate their temperature, and cool off. (In very warm climates, around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. Thermal imaging has shown that dung balls are measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.) And dung beetles keep track of the number of steps they take and the direction from which they came (instead of landmarks) in order to return to their nest with a ball of dung.

Even though they are remarkably clever, dung beetles can be duped! A flowering plant native to South Africa (Ceratocaryum argenteum) produces large, round nuts that are strikingly similar in appearance, smell, and chemical composition to antelope droppings, which the dung beetles accordingly roll away and bury, effectively sowing a new generation of C. argenteum.

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Striped Skunks Digging For Grubs

10-21-15 striped skunk 221Congratulations to the many of you who knew that the swirls/holes that are present in forest floors, lawns and anywhere there are grubs are the work of a Striped Skunk. The swirls (or “twizzles,”as one reader called them) are created when the skunk is actively looking for food, and probes the ground with its nose. If and when it smells a protein-rich earthworm or grub (larval insect) in the ground, it digs a hole in order to retrieve it. These cone-shaped holes are dug at night, when skunks are active, and often appear after a heavy rain. This is because grubs move closer to the surface of the ground when the ground is wet, making it possible for a skunk to smell them. When the soil dries, the grubs move back down into deeper soil and skunks will no longer be able to smell them — thus, no more holes will be dug. Because many animals are eating voraciously in order to put on fat for the winter, signs of digging activity are frequently seen in the fall.

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Mystery Photo

10-7-15  mystery photo 091Who has been here and what have they been doing? Please submit your answers as “comments” on my Naturally Curious blog. Interpretation will be tomorrow’s post. Thank you!

Snowberry Clearwing Larvae Pupating

snowberry clearwing larvae 125The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), a type of Sphinx moth, is one of several daytime-flying “hummingbird moths,” so-called because of their ability to hover while drinking nectar from a flower, and because of the humming sound they make, much like a hummingbird. The yellow and black bands of the Snowberry Clearwing’s abdomen also cause it to be mistaken for a bumblebee. The most distinctive thing about this moth is that a large portion of its wings are transparent, due to scales falling off.

Snowberry Clearwings are often seen around the time that beebalm is in bloom, in July and August. The females entice the males with a pheromone that they produce from glands at the tip of their abdomen. After mating, the females lay their tiny, round, green eggs on their larval food plants. Like many Sphinx moths, the larvae have “horns” at the end of their bodies. Most Snowberry Clearwing larvae are green, but they can be brown, as well. Both colors enable them to be well camouflaged as they feed on the leaves of honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry, cherry, mint, and plum. The caterpillars are active until late fall, when they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. The pupa spends the winter hidden under the leaves, and the adult moth emerges the following spring. (Thanks to Tom Wetmore and Heidi Marcotte for photo opportunity.)

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Reminder – 2016 Naturally Curious Calendar Orders Must Be Placed by October 31

calendar 2016 for blog post- 267In order to assure the delivery of your calendars by Christmas I am taking orders only until the end of this month (October). The monthly photographs (one per month) of these 11″ x 8″ wall-hanging calendars (11″ x 16″ when hanging) are the following: January-bobcat; February-snow buntings; March-red fox kit; April–beaver; May-fringed polygala; June–barred owl chicks; July-common loons; August-male ruby-throated hummingbird; September-black swallowtail caterpillar; October-bull moose; November-black bear; December-bald eagle. The calendar, made out of thick card stock, sells for $30.00, which includes postage.

To place an order, send me your name and mailing address, as well as email address, and the number of calendars you would like. Include a check made out to Mary Holland to confirm your order. I will let you know that I received it and that you are on my list of recipients. My mailing address is 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. Thank you so much.

Red Squirrels Making Middens

10-15 red squirrel midden 209Red squirrels bury food for winter consumption both individually as well as in caches or “middens.” These food supply piles may be in a hollow tree, in an underground den or in a hollow at the base of a tree. Middens consist of intact cones, cut when they are green with their seeds still enclosed, as well as debris (woody bracts, or scales, etc.) from the cones that accumulates from the squirrel’s eating the seeds. If a midden is located underneath a favorite feeding site, not only is the midden large (up to four feet tall), the moist, decomposing pile of scales provides an ideal place for stored cones to be kept fresh and viable, as the moisture keeps them from drying and opening. Other foods, including nuts, hawthorn and sumac fruit, are also stored in this way. (Note entrance hole at base of midden.)

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Green Stain Fungus Fruiting

10-15-15 blue green cup fungus 038Sac fungi, or ascomycetes, are a division of fungi, most of which possess sacs, or asci, in which spores are produced. The relatively common blue-green cup fungi, Chlorociboria aeruginascens and its close relative, Chlorociboria aeruginosa, are in this group and are referred to as Green Stain Fungi. (They differ microscopically by the size of their spores.) Most of the time you do not see the actual fruiting bodies of these fungi (see photo). More often you come across the brilliantly blue-green stained wood (these fungi grow on the rotting logs or barkless wood of poplar, aspen, ash and especially oak) for which these fungi are responsible. Woodworkers call this wood “green rot” or “green stain.” 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance woodworkers used Chlorociboria-infected wood to provide the green colors in their intricate wood inlays. The blue-green discoloration is caused by the production of the pigment xylindein, which can inhibit plant germination and has been tested as an algaecide. Xylindein may make wood less appealing to termites, and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties.

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Common Milkweed Seeds Packed in a Pod!

10-14-15 large milkweed bugs 095Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly, and thank you to everyone who participated in this week’s Mystery Photo. I find patterns in nature both intriguing and beautiful — they will be the subject of more Mystery Photos! When photographing these Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds, I discovered that there were other creatures attracted to them besides myself – hence, today’s blog post:

Only two to four percent of Common Milkweed flowers eventually produce mature pods. Each pod contains an average of 226 seeds (all from one flower). Resembling overlapping fish scales, the seeds are arranged in a way that allows the wind to successively, from the top to the bottom of the pod, catch their silk parachutes and disperse them.

Just as milkweed pods are opening and seeds are maturing, Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) in all stages of metamorphosis (there are five nymphal stages, or instars) congregate on milkweed pods to feed on the seeds. (Their eggs are laid on milkweed plants.) Like all true bugs, their mouthparts (rostrum) are not adapted for biting and chewing food, but are designed for piercing and sucking. The rostrum consists of two side-by-side tubes. The milkweed bugs use one tube to pump digestive enzymes into the tough milkweed seeds and the other to siphon up the softened plant material. Like other milkweed feeders, milkweed bugs obtain poisonous compounds from the milkweed plant that are used for defense, and their orange and black coloration warns predators of their toxicity.

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Mystery Photo

mystery photo 075Can you identify this? Please respond under “comments” on my blog!

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Bull Moose Sexually Advertising

10-12-15 moose 20090924-01 080As part of the rut, or breeding season, that they are in the middle of, bull moose seek to advertise their wares as far and as wide as possible. Information regarding the moose’s dominance is conveyed visually to cow moose (as well as other bull moose) by the size of a bull moose’s antlers. Additional information is conveyed olfactorily through the transfer of urinary pheromones via the bull moose’s bell, or dewlap (structure located under the chin of both bull and cow moose).

A moose’s bell increases in size with age (the pictured moose is just a yearling). While there are many theories as to the function of the bell (thermoregulation during the heat of summer, extra insulation for a moose’s chin when bedding down in snow and a secondary indicator of sex and age), it has been confirmed that the bell is an olfactory device that plays a role in communication.

During rut a bull often digs a depression (wallow) in the ground in which he urinates. He then proceeds to stamp and wallow in this depression, thoroughly soaking his antlers, belly and bell with his pheromone-laden urine. Cows are attracted to this pungent scent. Suspended from the bull’s body, the bell is an excellent way of dissipating these pheromones into the air – an innovative means of sexual advertising.

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False Solomon’s Seal Fruiting

10-9-15 false solomon's seal berries  079False Solomon’s Seal’s (Maianthemum racemosum) leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, bringing attention to its bright red fruit this time of year. This member of the Lily family’s flower arrangement differs from true Solomon’s Seal’s (Polygonatum biflorum) whose flowers dangle down below the leaves singly or in pairs. There are several theories as to the derivation of False Solomon’s Seal’s name, ranging from the appearance of its leaf scars (King Solomon supposedly was responsible for their markings which resemble a signet ring with Hebrew letters) to its six-pointed flowers that resemble the Star of David which was commonly called Solomon’s Seal.

False Solomon’s Seal often appears in clusters, as the stems are the annual growths off of a perennial rhizome (the subterranean stem of a plant). In the spring, each stem develops a terminal cluster of small, white, star-shaped flowers. Bees and beetles are the chief pollinators that enable the plant to produce green berries that turn red in the late summer and fall (soil pH affects the final coloration of the fruit formed). The roots of False Solomon’s Seal have been used medicinally in a number of ways, but one of the more unusual ways of utilizing this plant was that of a Native American tribe in California that used an effusion of crushed False Solomon’s Seal roots to stun fish and facilitate their harvest from streams.

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Sheet Web Weavers Still Active

10-9-15 sheet web IMG_5116Spider webs are constructed in a variety of shapes, for which many of them are named. Among others are orb webs, triangle webs, mesh webs and sheet webs. One of the most prevalent types of spider webs seen this late in the year is the sheet web, made by members of the Lynyphiidae family.

Several different web designs are found in this family including the bowl and doily, dome, and sheet. Tiny sheet web weavers spin small horizontal sheets of webbing and then hang upside-down underneath their web. Some species make two layers and hide between them for protection. When a small insect walks across the web, the spider bites through the silk, grabs its prey, pulls it through the web and eats (actually drinks) it.

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Bumblebees Foraging Fall Flowers

10-5-15 tri-colored bumblebee IMG_1479With frost just a whisper away, and in some areas not even that, there are still hardy plants, many in the Composite family (goldenrods, asters, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow), which defy the odds and optimistically send forth blossoms on the off chance that there are still pollinators on the wing. Fortunately for them, bumblebees can and do fly at much cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. When food is plentiful and outside temperatures fall below 50°F., bumblebees generally stay inside their nest and live off their stores. At times when food is scarce or stores are low, they will forage when the outside temperature is as low as 43°F. (In severe conditions they have even been known to vary their flying height to and from the nest to take advantage of any temperature differences.) Locally, Tri-colored Bumblebees (Bombus ternarius) have a near monopoly on the last vestiges of nectar and pollen (see photo).

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Red-osier Dogwood

10-5-15 red-osier dogwood IMG_1904Finally, the right photograph with the right name! So sorry.

Red-osier Dogwood

10-5-15 red-osier dogwood IMG_6598Gray Dogwood (also known as Gray-stemmed Dogwood) and Red-osier Dogwood both have white berries, a white pith, and red peduncles, or fruit stems. However, the branches of Gray Dogwood are gray, and those of Red-osier Dogwood are red. Hence, I believe the shrub identified as Red-osier Dogwood in today’s post was actually Gray Dogwood. This correction is thanks to John Gregoire’s keen eyes.

Red-osier & Silky Dogwood Fruits Ripening

10-6-15 silky dogwood 291Some of the most prolific flowering shrubs in the Northeast are dogwoods. In the spring, their flowers attract attention and at this time of year their colorful fruit stands out. There are many species of dogwood, two of which are Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum). These two shrubs can be hard to tell apart, as they both have white flowers, red stems and similar foliage. In the fall, however, the color of their fruit differs, as does their pith, or central stem tissue. The mature berries of Red-osier Dogwood are dull white and its pith is also white. Silky Dogwood’s blue berries have white blotches, and its stem and branches have a salmon-colored pith.

The fruit of these dogwoods and others is an extremely important source of food for many migrating songbirds, as well as resident birds. Wood ducks, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Robins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and Downy Woodpeckers all consume dogwood berries.

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Blister Beetles’ Defense Mechanism

10-5 short-winged blister beetle 064Blister beetles are aptly named, for when they are disturbed they emit a yellow, oily, defensive secretion (cantharidin) from their joints which usually causes blisters when it comes in contact with skin. This toxin deters many potential predators and is especially effective against ants. According to naturalist/forester/writer Ginny Barlow, as little as 100 milligrams is reported to be fatal to humans if ingested, and this amount can be extracted from just a few beetles. Humans used to crush and dry blister beetles and use the resulting concoction for gout and arthritis. It was also used as a popular aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. Because of its toxicity, it is no longer widely used in medicine.

Cantharidin is, however, indirectly used by tree-nesting nuthatches. With a limited number of tree cavities, there is competition among animals using them to raise their young, especially between squirrels and nuthatches. Nuthatches have been seen with Short-winged Blister Beetles (Meloe angusticollis, see photo) in their beaks, “sweeping” them on the bark around tree cavity entrances. The nuthatches don’t eat the beetles, they strictly use them as tools. It is assumed that the birds do this in order to repel squirrels with the cantharidin that is smeared on the tree. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo opportunity.)

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Pigeon Tremex Horntails Laying Eggs

horntails 239Horntails, also known as wood wasps, are non-stinging, wood-eating insects that lay their eggs deep within trees. Both male and female horntails have a pointed spine at the tip of their abdomen; females also have a long, slender ovipositor. (They get their name not from their spine or ovipositor, but from a knob (cornus) at the tip of their abdomen.)

Pigeon Tremex Horntails (Tremex columba) are active in late summer and early fall. A mated female inserts her ovipositor several inches into a dead or dying tree and lays an egg (where it is safe from most, but not all, predators). Along with the egg the adult horntail deposits some white rot fungus (Daedalea unicolor) which she stores in special abdominal glands. The fungus breaks down and softens the wood for the horntail larva to eat and is required for the successful development of the horntail. The larva typically begins consuming the soft, fungus-ridden wood around it, and then chews its way to the inner bark so as to provide a means of exiting the tree when it becomes an adult. The larva then returns to feed on inner wood. It completes its metamorphosis and emerges from the tree within a year as a winged adult horntail.

There is a parasitic wasp, the Giant Ichneumon Wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus), which possesses a long three-inch ovipositor capable of drilling into trees. There are several theories as to how this parasitic wasp detects the presence of horntail larvae deep within the tree. She may lay her antennae on the outside of a tree and pick up the vibrations of horntail larvae gnawing away in their wood chambers. Another theory proposes that the female wasp uses her antennae to smell the frass (droppings) of the horntail larva as well as the wood-softening fungus. Once she locates a horntail larva, the ichneumon wasp paralyzes it and then lays an egg on it. The ichneumon wasp larva feeds on the paralyzed horntail larva, consuming it completely within a couple of weeks. The ichneumon wasp then pupates and remains dormant under the bark until the following summer, when the adult emerges.

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