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Harvestmen Harvesting

9-15-17 daddy longlegs2 049A3934Like their relatives – spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions – Daddy Longlegs, or Harvestmen, have eight legs (the second, longer, pair of legs are used as antennae). Of all the arachnids, spiders resemble Harvestmen most closely.  However, there are distinct differences between the two orders. Unlike spiders, the two main body sections of Harvestmen are nearly joined and appear as one structure. Harvestmen have no spinnerets nor do they possess poison glands. They also do not have the enzymes spiders have that are capable of breaking down the insides of their prey into liquid. Harvestmen ingest small particles, breaking them down with their chelicerae, or mouthparts, which resemble miniature, toothed lobster claws. One would surmise from this photograph that the legs of flies must lack the nutrition worthy of mastication.


Crustacean Deduction

9-18-17 crustacean 049A5188Arthropods are invertebrates possessing an exoskeleton, a segmented body and paired jointed legs. Crustaceans make up one group of arthropods. Insects, spiders, ticks, mites, crabs, lobsters, woodlice, centipedes and millipedes are all crustaceans. Underneath a rotting log I recently discovered a crustacean resting right next to a clump of eggs. Not wanting to disturb the creature, I hazarded a guess as to its identity from what I could see. Its form narrowed it down to either a woodlouse (also known as sow bug, pill bug and roly-poly), centipede or millipede. Most centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment, eliminating them from the field of possibilities, for the photographed crustacean has two legs per body segment, as do millipedes and woodlice.

The next clue had to do with the eggs, which I presumed were produced by the creature right next to them. Woodlice have a “marsupium,” a chamber under the thorax which is filled with water in which their (often several hundred) eggs are brooded. Millipedes, on the other hand, lay from ten to three hundred eggs at a time, and deposit them on moist soil. In some species an adult remains to guard the eggs.

I cannot categorically say that today’s subject is a millipede and its eggs, but all signs point to it. If there is a crustacean expert among Naturally Curious readers, please confirm or correct my deduced identification!

Grasshoppers Molting

8-31-16 grasshopper molting 049A3466

Molting is the process by which insects and other arthropods grow. They have an external skeleton (exoskeleton) that supports and protects their body, unlike the internal skeleton of most other animals. Since the exoskeleton is hard and its outer layer is non-living, it cannot grow bigger by small increments as the human skeleton does. As an insect increases in size, it sheds the inelastic exoskeleton on the outside of its body, and replaces it with a larger, soft exoskeleton that has formed underneath the smaller, shed exoskeleton. Eventually this new exoskeleton hardens. This process is repeated several times during the life span of an insect (the exact number depends on the species).

Grasshoppers experience incomplete metamorphosis: they go through three stages in their life cycle – egg, nymph and adult. Nymphs are miniature versions of adult grasshoppers, except that they are usually light in color and do not possess functioning wings. Nymphs undergo five or six molts and with each molt their size increases and their wing pads progressively develop. Usually within a month nymphs molt for a final time, emerging as adults with fully developed wings. (Photo: shed grasshopper nymphal skin showing small, developing wing pads; inset – fully mature grasshopper)

Millipedes Meandering

6-16-17 millipede IMG_0682

How do you distinguish a millipede from a centipede – both multi-segmented arthropods that have a lot of legs? Although there are many less obvious differences, centipede bodies are relatively flexible and they have one pair of legs per body segment. Most of a millipede’s segments have two legs, and their tubular body is quite rigid.

Depending on the species, millipedes have between 80 and 750 legs, with most having fewer than 100, but they didn’t start out their lives with this way. When they hatch, millipedes only have three pairs of legs; every time they molt, they add more body segments and legs. When threatened, millipedes quickly coil their body into a spiral, protecting their legs and fragile underbody with their armor-like body plates (tergites).

If you come across a millipede, know that you’re looking at one of the earliest animals to breathe air and make the move from water to land. Pneumodesmus newmani, a fossil found in Scotland, dates back 428 million years and is the oldest fossil specimen with spiracles for breathing air.

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American Dog Ticks Can’t Give You Lyme Disease

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With the plethora of ticks this spring, it is perhaps comforting to know that not every tick you extract from your body has the potential to give you Lyme disease (or the powassan virus or many of the other diseases carried by Blacklegged Ticks (Ixodes scapularis), also known as Deer Ticks).

The American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is the most commonly encountered tick in northern New England. It is found predominantly in areas with little or no tree cover, such as grassy fields and scrubland, as well as along walkways and trails. This species of tick feeds on a variety of hosts, ranging in size from mice to deer and humans. Despite the fact that the bacterium that causes Lyme disease has been found in American Dog Ticks, tests prove that the tick can’t transmit the organism to its hosts. Therefore, the American Dog Tick isn’t involved in the spread of Lyme disease. (It does transmit Rocky Mt. Spotted Fever, however, but there are relatively few cases of it in the Northeast.)

The UNH Extension Service has such a succinct description of this tick’s life cycle that I am sharing it here. It is a “three-host tick,” so named because it must find and feed on an animal three times to complete its two- year life cycle…The dog tick begins life as an egg, one of hundreds laid in a mass on the ground by a female tick. The egg hatches into a larva, which has six legs. The larva remains on the ground in leaf litter, or in low vegetation while waiting for a small mammal (usually a rodent) to brush by. It attaches to the animal and feeds for several days. Then it drops off and molts to the nymph stage, which has eight legs. Again it waits for a host (usually a rodent) to brush by. When that happens, the tick attaches and feeds on it for several days. When fully fed it drops off and molts to the adult stage. Adult ticks wait on shrubs or tall grass and attach to larger mammals such as people, deer, or pets. They also take several days to fully engorge (feed). A female fully engorged with a blood meal can be almost the size of a dime, appearing smooth and shiny. Mating takes place on the host, and when fully fed, the females drop off and lay eggs. The life cycle can be as short as three months. (Photo: American Dog Tick, Dermacentor variabilis)


Use repellents that contain 20% or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin.

Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, including boots, pants, socks and tents.

Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.

Check yourself, your kids, and your pets for ticks daily, especially after they spend time outdoors in areas where ticks may be found.

Remove attached ticks as soon as possible. The preferred method of removal is to grasp the tick close to the skin with tweezers or fine-tipped forceps and gently pull upward with constant pressure.

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Grasshopper Wings Growing

7-21-16  grasshopper wings 092Grasshoppers experience incomplete metamorphosis, with three life cycle stages – egg, nymph, and adult.  A grasshopper egg hatches into a nymph, which resembles an adult grasshopper, except that it is smaller and lacks wings and reproductive organs.  Because of its hard outer exoskeleton, a growing grasshopper has to shed its skin periodically to accommodate its increased size.  (A larger exoskeleton develops beneath the old, smaller one that is shed.) Grasshopper nymphs molt several times (each stage between molts is referred to as an instar) before they reach their adult size, and with each molt, their “wing buds” get larger.  After the final molt, the wings are inflated and become fully functional.  Wings play an important part in grasshopper courtship, as males “sing” to attract females by rapidly rasping their leg against their forewing, a process called stridulation.

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Darners Laying Eggs

9-1-15 dragonfly laying egg 135Females of different species of dragonfly have different techniques for laying their eggs. Most skimmers, cruisers and clubtails dip the tip of their abdomen to the surface of the water while hovering or flying, and release their eggs. Most darners, such as the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) pictured, have a sharp-edged ovipositor with which they slit open a stem or leaf of a plant on or near the water. They then push their egg into the plant tissue exposed by the slit. Because they are stationary during this process, female darners are vulnerable to predation by fish and frogs at this time. A close look at the bottom third of cattail leaves this time of year will tell you whether or not darners are in the vicinity, as the slits they make are very apparent, appearing as thin, tan, 1/2″ vertical lines.

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Hover Fly Mimics Bald-faced Hornet

8-5-15 bald-faced hornet and hover flyAdult hover flies, often referred to as syrphid (family Syrphidae) or flower flies, feed on pollen and nectar, and are often seen hovering at or crawling on flowers. Many have black and yellow bands on their abdomen, and are frequently mistaken for bees. There are certain species of hover flies that mimic stinging wasps, including yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets (see photo). Predators such as birds, ambush bugs, and spiders might think twice about eating an insect that can sting, and hover flies take advantage of this. The process through which this occurs is called Batesian mimicry, and refers to when a harmless species evolves to imitate a harmful species that has the some of the same predators.

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Snowfleas Appearing

snowfleas 049A7533One rarely even thinks about snowfleas (a species of springtail, Hypogastrura nivicola) until snow falls and then starts to melt. This is when these tiny wingless arthropods that catapult themselves through the air with the aid of a fork-like structure, or furcular, seem to magically appear out of nowhere. They actually are present year round, but their dark color makes them visible against the white snow.

The great majority of snowfleas live in soil, feeding on fungi, algae, decaying plant matter and bacteria. They work their way to the surface of the snow, crawling up the trunks of trees, plant stems and side of rocks where an open channel allows their migration. Thousands can be found on melting snow, especially in tracks or other depressions. No-one is absolutely sure of why they exhibit this behavior, though some scientists feel that these migrations are triggered by overcrowding and lack of food. Eventually those that survive on top of the snow make a return trip down into the soil.

Formerly classified as insects, snowfleas are now categorized as hexapods, due to some features they have which insects do not.

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Millipedes Migrating

11-11-14 millipede IMG_8982We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. Compost piles, heavily mulched shrub or flower beds, rotting logs, or the soil under logs and stones are likely spots to find these arthropods. Millipedes overwinter as adults, and have been seen migrating in the fall, presumably in search of overwintering sites that will provide them with some protection.

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Crickets Courting, Mating & Laying Eggs

10-10-14 cricket  003In late summer and autumn, crickets court by rubbing their forewings together, a practice referred to as stridulation. At the base of each forewing is a specialized vein with a series of hard “teeth,” or ridges – the “stridulatory file.” Only one is fully functional, and in crickets, it is usually the one on the left wing. On the inner, lower edge of the right forewing is the “scraper,” a sharp, hard projection that rubs against the file when the cricket opens and closes its wings during stridulation. In most species,it is the male crickets that “sing,” but both sexes have “ears,” or tympana, on their front legs. After mating, the female cricket deposits her eggs in the soil or in plant tissue, depending on the species. (Photo: female field cricket- note long ovipositor at tip of abdomen between the two sensory organs called cerci, which is lacking in male crickets)

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Black Widow Spiders

9-29-14 northern black widow spiderBlack widow spiders have been found in every state. They are a lot less numerous in New England than further south — their abundance is inversely related to the latitude — however, the northern black widow, Latrodectus mactans, (pictured) is here. According to Dr. William Spear, a noted arachnologist and provider of the information in this post, a black widow in northern New England would need a very sheltered site, such as the south-facing walls of buildings, south-facing sides of ditches, or perhaps even in barns and sheds, in order to survive.

The web of the northern black widow is a rather small (for the size of the spider) messy tangle, usually constructed close to the ground. The spider is generally not found on the web, but in a silk-lined pocket to one side and above the web. The silk of widow spider webs is unusually tough, and with experience one can learn to differentiate it from other spiders’ silk just by testing the web with a stick or pencil.

If knowing that black widows cohabit your state causes some discomfort, rest assured. Their bites are very rare and almost never fatal. The few fatalities that have been recorded are generally from children or persons weighing less than 100 pounds, or with precarious health. (Photo taken by Evan Kay in North Pomfret, Vermont in September, 2014; submitted by Caroline Robbins)

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Earwigs Mating

earwig2 -horizontal175Earwigs are elusive insects, primarily because they are nocturnal and during the day tend to hide in crevices. When we do see them, the first thing often noticed is their cerci, the pair of forceps-like pincers at the tip of their abdomen. These pincers are used primarily to capture prey (earwigs are scavengers for the most part, but some are omnivorous and prey on other insects) and for copulation. Male earwigs have curved pincers, while females have straight ones. After mating in the fall, the male and female earwigs spend much of the winter together, tucked away in a crack or crevice. By the time spring arrives, the male has left and the female has laid her eggs (the sperm stays viable within her for several months), which hatch in about a week’s time. Earwigs are one of few insects that provide maternal care for their eggs and offspring. (Photo is of male earwig eating the outermost tissue of a milkweed pod.)

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Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars Feeding

milkweed tussock moth2 038Female milkweed tussock moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name and make them resemble little mops. When still fairly young, the siblings stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume, leaving only the strongest veins that contain sticky latex. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf. At this point they often cut through a vein in order to prevent the latex from reaching the area of the leaf where they are feeding. (Older monarch caterpillars use this same tactic.) Like monarchs, milkweed tussock moths, because they’ve consumed the cardiac glycosides contained in milkweed and dogbane leaves, are toxic to predators.

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Antlions Trapping Insects

8-14-14  antlions - 230The larvae of a predaceous group of winged insects (family Myrmeleontidae) that closely resemble dragonflies and damselflies are referred to as “antlions” – they have the ferociousness of a lion and prey mainly on ants. The manner in which an antlion traps its prey is ingenious. It excavates a conical pit in sandy soil (an antlion is also called a “doodlebug” because of the squiggly trails it leaves in the sand looking for just the right spot for a pit). Using its head as a shovel, it tosses out sand as it turns in a circle, digging deeper and deeper, until it forms a pit roughly two inches deep and three inches wide. The antlion lies at the bottom of the pit, covered by a thin layer of sand except for it pincer-like mandibles, which are ready to snatch prey at a second’s notice.

The slope of the sides of the pit is at the angle of repose – as steep as it can be without giving way – so when an ant accidentally steps over the edge of the pit and falls in, the sand beneath it collapses, carrying the ant to the bottom of the pit and into the pincers of the waiting antlion. If the ant tries to scramble up and out of the pit, the antlion tosses a load of sand at the ant, knocking it back down. The antlion then injects venom and digestive fluids into the prey via grooves in its mandibles, and drinks the innards of the ant through these same grooves.

The antlion’s anatomy is as unusual as its method of capturing prey. It has a mouth cavity, but no mouth opening, and no external opening for solid waste. Because digestion takes place outside of its body, the antlion doesn’t accumulate a lot of waste, but what it does accumulate stays inside of it until the antlion matures into an adult. This can be anywhere from one to three years, depending on the species. When fully developed, the antlion constructs a small, round pupal case out of silk and sand, in which it overwinters. It emerges from this case the following spring as a winged adult. (Thanks to Joan Waltermire and John Douglas for photo op.)

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Carrion Beetles Feeding

7-30-14 carrion beetle feeding 129When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle Larva at Work

7-24-14 tiger beetle adult and larva 040Without doubt, I have one of the most erudite readerships in the land of blogs. Several people recognized this uncommon phenomenon. To clear up a few misconceptions, however, being a male, this dragonfly was not laying eggs. Neither was it fertilizing them – male dragonflies perform this act when coupled with a female. This Chalk-fronted Corporal had the misfortune to sun itself on a tiger beetle-inhabited patch of sand. One of the most aggressive groups of insect predators is the tiger beetle family. They are especially known for their speed – up to 5.6 mph, which is comparable to a human running 480 mph. If you watch an adult tiger beetle hunting, you’ll notice that it stops and starts frequently. This is because it runs so fast it goes blind — its brain has trouble processing the information it sees, and the beetle must stop to regain its sight.

The larvae of the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle live in tunnels that they dig in the sand (some of you noticed tiny holes near the dragonfly) that can be up to a foot deep. The larvae have hooks located on the back of their abdomen to anchor them to the side of the burrow. Tiger beetle larvae are also predators, and after digging a tunnel the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle will crawl up it until just the top of its head is visible. From this position the larva watches for prey wandering by. When it sees a potential meal, such as yesterday’s dragonfly, it flips backwards faster than you can blink an eye and grabs its prey, pulling it down as far as it can into its tunnel, where it safely feasts on its catch. The portion of the Chalk-fronted Corporal’s abdomen that was inside the tiger beetle tunnel was completely consumed except for the outer skeleton.

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Eyed Click Beetle

7-10-14 eyed click beetle 789Although this Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus) looks ferocious with its large, black “eyespots” (actual eyes are below antennae), it is harmless to humans. Like all members of the click beetle, or Elateridae, family, it gets its name from the sound it makes when it flips itself upright. Click beetles possess a spine-like structure as well as a notch under their thorax. When they release the spine from the notch, it snaps and they are propelled into the air. Click beetles use this mechanism to right themselves if they are on their backs. Entomologists feel predators are deterred not only by the false eyes, but by this action. The larvae, called wireworms, spend most of their life (2 to 5 years) in the soil feeding on decaying plants and other insects in the soil before emerging as adults. (Thanks to Liz Ambros for photo op.)

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Jumping Spider Guards Egg Sac

6-5-14 jumping spider2  077Spiders protect their eggs by wrapping them up in a sac they make out of silk. Some species (such as garden, or black-and-yellow argiope, spiders) then die, leaving their egg sac to withstand the elements, as well as potential parasites and predators, on their own. As you would guess, these sacs are usually fairly impenetrable. In other species, female spiders survive long enough to guard their eggs until they hatch, or even until the young spiderlings disperse, and these sacs are usually far less tough. In the species where the female protects her eggs, some females carry their egg sacs with them at all times (wolf spiders, nursery web spiders) while others (jumping spiders) simply remain with the sac. Their excellent eyesight and impressive ability to leap many times their body length gives jumping spiders an advantage over any potential predators. (Photo – jumping spider with egg sac)

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Paper Wasp Queens Emerging From Hibernation

4-8-14 paper wasp2  152Paper wasps have annual colonies – only the young, fertilized queens overwinter, with the old queen, female workers and the males all perishing in the fall. The queens seek shelter behind tree bark, or in rotting logs or stumps, and emerge in the spring when temperatures rise and day length is increasing. Last year’s nest is not re-used – the queen mixes wood and plant fiber with her saliva, creating several waterproof paper cells into each of which she lays an egg — the start of her future labor force. Due to the lack of wildflowers (and therefore nectar) this early in the spring, queens rely on the sap from broken tree branches, as well as the sap found in drilled Yellow-bellied Sapsucker wells, for sustenance.

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Winter Stoneflies Still Emerging

4-2-14 stonefly 123It seems early, especially with feet of snow still on the ground, to be seeing insects flying around, but some have actually been present all winter. An order of insects (Plecoptera) known as stoneflies spends its youth (one to four years) living in streams before emerging as winged adults. Some of these species, referred to as winter stoneflies, emerge from January through April, providing food for early-returning, insect-eating migrants, such as Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds. Stoneflies only live a few weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs. Some do not feed, and others consume plant material. Because stoneflies are intolerant of polluted water, if you see one it’s a good indication that the water quality of the stream that it came from is excellent.

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Cold Snaps & Hardy Invertebrates

1-14-14 TICK IMG_0528As you may have heard, there could be a plus side to the sub-zero temperatures we’re experiencing this winter – the cold weather may well decrease the number of invasive pests we have. For example, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (the aphid-like introduced insect decimating the Eastern Hemlock population) succumbs at 4 or 5 degrees F. However, other insects aren’t phased by the cold until it dips way below zero. At -20 F., roughly half of the Emerald Ash Borer larvae (an invasive beetle that is highly destructive to ash trees) overwintering in trees will die. Once the temperature reaches -30 F., there’s a 90 percent mortality rate. Bed bugs face instant death at -22 degrees F., but it takes 24 hours to kill them at -11 degrees F. and 72 hours to kill them at 0 degrees F. Unfortunately, once an invasive insect establishes itself, even if its numbers go way down for whatever reason, it usually rebounds in several years’ time. Some invertebrates are not affected by the cold temperatures. The Black-legged (Deer) Ticks that reside on moose, deer, mice, birds and other hosts can withstand sub-zero temperatures as they have the warmth of their hosts’ bodies to keep them warm. In order for ticks to succumb to the cold, the frigid air has to last until May, when the fertilized female ticks fall off their hosts to lay their eggs.

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Snowflea Air Bags

12-23-13 snowflea IMG_0947Snowfleas are such remarkable little arthropods that they merit at least an annual post. The recent warm weather brought them up out of the leaf litter to the surface of the snow, where they constantly hurl themselves from one spot to another. If you don’t mind getting your knees wet, you can watch as snowfleas tuck their head down and catapult themselves through the air. Just before launching themselves, the snowflea everts three anal sacs from its anus. When the snowflea lands, these sticky appendages act like automobile air bags, absorbing the shock of landing as well as preventing the snowflea from bouncing around. There may be another function that they perform, but it is not known at this time what that might be. While there are many genera of snowfleas, only species in the genus Hypogastrura possess anal sacs.

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Praying Mantis Egg Case

12-9-13 praying mantis egg case 057In the fall, after mating, the female praying mantis lays up to 400 eggs in a frothy liquid produced by glands in her abdomen. This one to two-inch long mass is attached to vegetation, often grasses and goldenrod stalks, about a foot or two off the ground. The frothy structure hardens, providing a protective case for the eggs. In the spring, miniature (wingless) mantises, called nymphs, will hatch from this egg case. When hatching, the nymphs appear all at once, crawling from between tiny flaps in the case and then hanging from silk threads about two inches below the case. Within an hour or two, after drying out, they disappear into nearby vegetation.

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