An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

August

Bald-faced Hornet Queens Laying Specialized Eggs

A Bald-faced Hornet colony begins in the spring when a queen emerges from winter hibernation. The queen builds a small nest, creates a few brood cells within the nest, deposits eggs in them and feeds the larvae when they hatch.  These larvae are female workers — they will continue the nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest while the queen concentrates on laying eggs.

During the summer the colony (and size of the nest) grows until there are between 100 to 400 workers. Toward the end of the summer the queen lays two special types of eggs. The first will be, like the workers’ eggs, fertilized eggs that will develop into females, but these females will be fertile (and develop into queens). The second group of eggs will be unfertilized eggs. These eggs will develop into fertile males. The maturation and emergence of the new queens and the fertile males marks the end of the functioning of the colony. At this point the workers are not replaced and die out. The ruling queen, having served her purpose, also dies. The newly-emerged adults (queens and fertilized males) leave the nest, mate, and the fertilized queens overwinter and begin their colony cycle all over again in the following spring.  Some small nests complete their cycle by mid-September, while some large nests are still going strong until the cold kills the larvae in late November.

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Spring Peepers Peeping

The peeps of male Spring Peepers can be heard fairly consistently this time of year. Unlike in the spring, these calls are coming not from bodies of water, but from the woods nearby. And they are single peeps coming from individual peepers, not the chorus of “sleigh bells” one hears in the spring. This phenomenon occurs so regularly in the fall that herpetologists have given it a name – “fall echo.” They speculate that the calling of peepers is spurred by light and temperature conditions that mimic those that occur in the spring, during Spring Peeper mating season.

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I meant “beeches!”

The last sentence of this morning’s post should have read : “The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.”  Believe it or not I proof read it several times and just didn’t catch that my fingers weren’t typing what my mind was thinking!


A Promising Fall Beechnut Crop

Beechnuts, high in protein and fat, are the primary fall and winter food for many forest wildlife species including Red, Gray and Flying Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black Bears, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed and Spruce Grouse.  The dependence of these animals on this food source makes them vulnerable to the American Beech’s cyclical nut production.

In the Northeast, American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) mast crops (amount of beechnuts produced by beech trees) have a two-year cycle: one year they produce an overabundance of nuts and the following year very few. Among other animals, Black Bears rely on these nuts to sustain themselves over the winter.  That a bear’s nutritional health affects its reproductive health was documented in  a study in Maine that showed that the mean proportion of female bears producing cubs decreased to 22% when a denning period followed a poor beechnut crop. During denning periods following good beechnut production, 80% of the productively available females produced cubs.

Many American Beech trees in the Northeast suffer from Beech Bark Disease which has seriously compromised their ability to produce nuts.  Invasive scale insects (Cryptococcus fagisuga) invade a tree. Through a presently unknown mechanism, excessive feeding by these insects causes two different fungi (Neonectria faginata and Neonectria ditissima) to produce annual cankers on the bark of the tree. This disease decreases nut production, and eventually lesions around the tree girdle it and causes the tree’s death. The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.

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Snowberry Clearwing Moths Gathering Nectar

There are four species of clearwing (also referred to as hummingbird) moths in North America. The most familiar ones are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe).  These day-flying moths fly and move like hummingbirds (hovering near flowers while drinking nectar) and the males have a flared “tail” like that of a hovering hummingbird.  It is also very easy to mistake one for a bumble bee.  Scales cover the wings of butterflies and moths, but clearwing moths lose many of these scales and thus have partially transparent (“clear”) wings.

Like most moths, clearwing moths have a very long tongue (can be twice as long as their body) which they carry rolled under their heads and that they use to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers.  They are attracted to the flowers of phlox, beebalm, honeysuckle and swamp milkweed (pictured), among others. If you approach a clearwing moth as it hovers, you may detect the humming sound that they make with their wings.

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Monarchs Splitting Exoskeleton For The Fifth And Final Time

In the Northeast there appears to be an amazingly large number of Monarch larvae this year, and most of these larvae will complete their metamorphosis by transforming into a beautiful green chrysalis. Once mature, the larva, or caterpillar, wanders about and finds a suitable spot (usually protected and stable) to spend the next two weeks hanging precariously in the wind.  It then spins a silk mat in this location, and puts a silk “button” in the middle of the mat.  It clasps the button with its last set of prolegs (it has three pairs of true legs, and five pairs of so-called prolegs) and spends about 18 hours hanging in a “J,” with its head down, preparing to split its exoskeleton for the last time and reveal the chrysalis within it.

Ba Rea, a Monarch specialist (and publisher of my children’s book, Milkweed Visitors), informs her “Monarchchaser’s Blog” (https://monarchchaser.wordpress.com/about-monarchs/) readers that even though the visible changes between the larval and pupal (chrysalis) stages of a Monarch are sudden, inside the caterpillar these changes are taking place gradually and long before we can see them.  “The parts that will transform the caterpillar into a butterfly are present from the time that the egg hatches.  Inside the caterpillar are “imaginal disks.”  As wonderfully fanciful as the word imaginal sounds, it is actually referring to the adult stage of the monarch which is called the imago.  These disks are the cells that will become the butterfly’s wings, legs, proboscis and antennae, among other things.  By the time the caterpillar is half an inch long its butterfly wings are already developing inside it.

After eight to fifteen days, the adult Monarch emerges from its chrysalis and heads towards Mexico (butterflies that emerge after the middle of August migrate). It is the great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of these migrating monarchs that will return next summer.  (Photo: Monarch hanging in a “J” from Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not — not the sturdiest of plants to hang from!)

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Young Snowshoe Hares Dispersing

Snowshoe Hares have up to four litters a summer (females mate within 24 hours of giving birth).  Their litters range from two to nine young (leverets), with larger litters the further north you go. Unlike cottontails, the Snowshoe Hare gives birth to precocious young – their eyes open shortly after birth, they have a dense coat of fur, and they are able to weakly move about within 30 minutes.

The female leaves the nest once she’s through giving birth, and returns once a day to nurse her young.  By the fourth day, the young hares scatter from the nest.  They reassemble at the same time each evening and their mother appears and nurses them for five to ten minutes.  She then leaves and the young disperse. This behavior continues for about a month, until the young are fully weaned.  (Thanks to Virginia Barlow and Wendell for photo op.)

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Turtlehead Flowering & Being Pollinated By Bumble Bees

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) can be found growing along stream banks and wetlands throughout eastern North America. This plant gets its common name from the flower’s long arching upper lip, or hood, which overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak.

The male parts of the flower mature before the female parts, and when pollen is being produced these lips are very hard to pry open. Pollinators are primarily bumble bees, which are some of the only insects that have the strength to open the flower. When the female pistil matures, the lips relax a bit, so entry is easier. However, access to the nectar at the base of the flower is restricted (by a sterile stamen) to long-tongued insects. Thus, it is specifically long-tongued bumble bees that are able to both enter the flower and to reach the nectar. (Photo:  bumble bee collecting pollen (see filled baskets on hind legs) from Turtlehead)  Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.

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“Mating Wheels”

Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate.  The male grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs.

Many male dragonflies go to great lengths to make sure their sperm have reproductive success. Prior to mating they often remove any sperm that happen to be in the female from previous matings.  In addition, depending on species, they may leave after mating, fly with and guard the female as she lays her eggs, or remain grasping the female as her eggs are laid.  His proximity to the female during egg laying prevents other males from removing his sperm.

Much of this information, as well as excellent photos for identifying dragonflies and damselflies, can be found in A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts, by Burne, Loose and Nikula. Another excellent Odonata resource is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson.  (Photo:  Mating darners (fast flying, large dragonflies), male above female)

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Cardinal Flower Blossoming

You can’t get much redder than the red of Cardinal Flowers.  Their petals act as brilliant red flags beckoning Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who favor red, to come drink their nectar (and at the same time, pollinate them).  Because their chief pollinator has wings and the ability to hover as it drinks, Cardinal Flower has no need for a landing platform, which most insect-pollinated flowers have.

Cardinal Flower has both male and female flowers.  Above the red petals is a red tube, at the tip of which the reproductive parts of the flower emerge.  First to appear are the male flowers, displaying pollen-bearing stamens.  After they die, sticky, Y-shaped pistils extend from the flower, ready to receive pollen.  The female flowers thus follow the male flowers (protandry).  These flowers mature from the bottom to the top of the spike and you often see both male and female flowers on the same plant (just barely discernible in pictured flower spike).

Male flowers produce more nectar than female flowers, and hummingbirds seem to know this, as they spend most of their time at the youngest, and therefore male, flowers on the top half of the flower spike.

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Juvenile Least Bitterns Foraging

The Least Bittern is the smallest member of the heron family, measuring 11-14 inches in length with a 16-18 inch wingspan.  It is so secretive and well camouflaged that it is heard far more often than seen. A soft cooing song is sung by the males in spring, and a variety of calls are given on their breeding grounds. (You can hear both types of vocalizations at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/sounds.)

This elusive bird of freshwater and brackish marshes is foraging for itself soon after it leaves its nest at two weeks of age.  Long agile toes and curved claws enable the Least Bittern to climb and grasp reeds while it looks for frogs, snakes, salamanders, leeches and other prey from on high.

Like its relative the American Bittern, the Least Bittern freezes in place when alarmed, with its bill pointing up, turns both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sways to resemble windblown marsh vegetation. (A few wisps of white down still remain on young Least Bitterns at this time of year, as is evident in photo.)

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Great Ash Sphinx Moth

Sphinx moths are notable for their fast flight and rapid wingbeat.  These attributes account for one of their common names — “hawk” moth. Most species of sphinx moths are capable of hovering in front of the flower from which they are drinking nectar, and some species are referred to as “hummingbird” moths.

In their larval form, sphinx moths are notable for the horn which extends upward near the end of their abdomen.  Tomato growers are familiar with the Tobacco Hornworm (Tobacco Hawk Moth/Carolina Sphinx Moth) and Tomato Hornworm (Five-spotted Hawk Moth).

Less frequently encountered is the larva of the Great Ash Moth (Sphinx chersis). Named for a host plant of the adult moth, this greenish or pinkish caterpillar has seven long diagonal lines along its body, which are sometimes edged with pink. Its black spiracles (external openings that allow gas exchange) are elongate and ringed with white. Its horn is blue or pink.  As an adult moth, it is gray with black markings and has a wingspan of up to five inches. You’re most likely to see this moth at dusk, feeding at deep-throated flowers. (Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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Wintergreen Flowering

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), also known as Checkerberry and Eastern Teaberry, is an aromatic, evergreen plant in the heath family (Ericaceae) that creeps along the ground.  This plant loves acid soil, and you can often find it growing alongside Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.).  Its single, white flowers develop into bright red berries which Ruffed Grouse consume with relish.

Not surprisingly, these berries taste like oil of wintergreen. The active ingredient in this oil is synthesized and used as a flavoring in chewing gum, toothpaste, breath fresheners, candy, and medicines, including Pepto Bismol.  This same ingredient, methyl salicate, is related to aspirin, which explains why Native Americans chewed and made a tea from the leaves and berries of Wintergreen to alleviate pain.

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Gray Treefrogs Metamorphosing

Gray Treefrogs are often heard but rarely seen, due both to their cryptic coloration as well as the fact that they are arboreal.  They tend to perch (grasping trees with their toes which bear large, adhesive, mucous-secreting disks at their tips) in vegetation surrounding swamps and ponds, where their robust, territorial and mating trilling can be heard (males call between 500-15,000 times per hour). To hear trilling Gray Treefrogs go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSkhM24Fi-k.

After choosing a mate and mating, Gray Treefrog females lay up to 2,000 eggs which hatch in 2-5 days.  For the next month or two the tadpoles breath with gills and consume vegetation.  Full-sized tadpoles are green or black with red or orange tails.  Towards the end of summer, the tadpoles begin their transformation into frogs, developing limbs and lungs, absorbing their tails and changing from a diet of plants to one of insects.

Adult Gray Treefrogs are mottled gray or green (depending on their surroundings, temperature, and humidity) and have an uncanny resemblance to lichen. Recently-metamorphosed young treefrogs such as the one pictured are a brilliant emerald green.  (Photo: young Gray Treefrog with adult Gray Treefrog inset) (Thanks to Brian Long for photo op.)

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Caddisfly Eggs Hatching

8-31-18 caddisflies_U1A6330

The Mystery Photo was of a caddisfly’s egg mass which had been deposited on the leaf of a Turtlehead plant that was growing adjacent to the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will drop straight down into the water. (Congratulations to “bcottam2014,” the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo!)

Almost all caddisflies lay their eggs in the water, but in New England there is a family of northern case makers (Limnephilidae) whose members deposit an egg mass above the water on vegetation (see photo). After hatching and dropping into the water, these caddisflies will spend anywhere from two or three months to two years as aquatic larvae and pupae, emerging as adults with about a thirty day lifespan.

While they are larvae, most northern case-making caddisflies have silk glands with which they construct portable cases or attached retreats. Each species of caddisfly builds the same type of case, out of similar material, thus, it is possible to identify the species of caddisfly you’ve encountered from the appearance of its case.  Some species use pebbles, some bits of leaves, some sticks. Vegetative material must be chewed into just the right size and shape pieces. The caddisflies use these cases as a source of camouflage, physical protection and as a means of acquiring food.  When it comes time to pupate, they build cocoons within their cases.

Emergence of adults eventually takes place and for the next month or so they live a terrestrial life.  Like their close relatives, butterflies and moths, adult caddisflies have wings, but they are easily distinguishable from moths and butterflies due to the  tent-like slant the caddisfly holds its wings in when not flying. (Photo:  caddisfly larvae hatching from egg mass; inset – older caddisfly larva inside pebble case it built)

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Mystery Photo

8-27-18 mystery photo_U1A7191

Do you recognize the spotted jelly-like blob on the lower right leaf of this Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) plant?  If so (or even if you want to make a wild guess), go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com), scroll down and click on “Comments” to submit your entry. Look for the answer in the next Naturally Curious post.  (Hint:  Turtlehead likes its feet damp.)

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Moose & Climate Change

9-3-18 cow moose_U1A7488

If predictions for the future of our climate are accurate, and if no significant measures are taken to counter it, one of the hardest hit animals in North America will be the Moose.  While well-adapted to winter conditions, Moose start experiencing heat stress when summer temperatures get above 57°F. Why this intolerance to heat?  A highly insulative coat, thick skin and low surface to volume ratio.  When faced with very warm summers, Moose start spending more time in the shade, in cool water and in locations with cooling winds. They also frequently move to higher elevations.  When it gets really hot, they stop foraging for food during the one season they have to bulk up.

Not only will their chances of survival during the coming winter be compromised as a result of this, but successful reproduction is far less likely. In addition, heat stress can cause lowered immune response which leaves the affected animals more vulnerable to disease and parasites such as winter ticks and brainworm. Adding to these challenges, the make-up of woody plant species in boreal forests will also be affected by warmer temperatures, which in turn will affect both the browsing choices and the availability of shade for Moose.

It is theorized that within the next 100 years temperatures will rise on average 9 – 13°F. in winter and 6 – 14°F. in summer (New Hampshire Fish & Game).  On top of that, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are at the southernmost part of the Moose’s range. The future does not look bright for the largest member of the deer family in the Northeast.

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Green Herons Starting To Migrate

8-24-18 green heron2 20160916_0770Green Herons breed throughout the eastern half of North America.  After their nesting season is over they tend to wander, often to more favorable foraging areas. This dispersal merges gradually into a protracted fall migration for birds in the Northeast, beginning around the end of August, with most birds having left by mid-October.

Most Green Herons from eastern United States migrate south to winter along the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, Caribbean islands, Mexico, through Central America to northern South America.   We usually see our first Green Herons returning in mid-April, earlier than other herons.  This may be due to their crepuscular feeding habits, which gives them a longer span of time to feed each day.

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Second Brood of Snowberry Clearwing Moths In Flight

8-22-18 snowberry clearwing moth_U1A6071

Clearwing moths are strong and fast fliers with a rapid wingbeat, like the other members of the Sphingidae family. Most species in the group are active at dusk and feed much like hummingbirds, hovering in front of a flower and sipping nectar through their extended proboscis.  In most species, the larval stage is called a “hornworm” because the caterpillar’s posterior end has a horn-like appendage protruding upward.

Like its close relative, the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is a day-flying moth, has transparent wings and is a mimic.  While they both hover at flowers, the Hummingbird Clearwing is said to mimic a hummingbird, while the Snowberry Clearwing is considered a bumblebee mimic.  To distinguish these two clearwings, if it has black legs and a black band that crosses the eye and travels down the side of the thorax, it’s a Snowberry Clearwing.

In addition to thistle, adult Snowberry Clearwings feed on honeysuckles, snowberry, hawkweed, lilacs and Canada violets. (Thanks to Barbara and Knox Johnson for photo op.)

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Swimming

e-gray squirrel swimming by Erin 2_H6A2563 copy (002)Imagine coming upon a stick floating in a large pond only to discover the “stick” had a head and tail and was making a beeline for the shore.  The fact that an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) had paddled half a mile to get from one shore to the opposite shore of a pond shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, as this rodent has a long history of migratory swimming behavior, but it’s such an incongruous and unexpected event that it made my companion and me initially question our eyesight and then laugh out loud.

Historical reports suggest there have been many massive Eastern Gray Squirrel migrations in the United States, beginning in 1749 in Pennsylvania.   Records show the state paid three cents for each squirrel killed; over 640,000 squirrels were turned in for bounty.  One migration from Wisconsin in 1842 lasted four weeks and involved a half billion squirrels. Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John James Audubon was erroneously convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the Eastern Gray Squirrel and gave them the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. (This proved to be inaccurate.)

During the 1800’s, thousands of squirrels would periodically move en masse across roads, fields and forests, and swim across lakes and rivers (including the Mississippi and Connecticut Rivers) in an effort to disperse. The consensus is that these mass movements were a response to local food conditions. They occurred mostly during the month of September following a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns).

The most recent mass migration of Eastern Gray Squirrels in eastern U.S. occurred in 1968, when a bumper crop of acorns in 1967 was followed with a corresponding bumper crop of young squirrels in 1968. By fall, as the first litter of the year left the nest, there was a severe shortage of food. As a result, massive numbers of acorn-eating squirrels dispersed in search of food.

One Eastern Gray Squirrel swimming across a New Hampshire pond does not a migration make, but it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye out for excessive numbers of paddling squirrels and/or road-killed rodents come September. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Viceroy vs. Monarch

8-18-18 MONARCH vs. viceroy1To clarify yesterday’s post on mimicry, here are the Viceroy and Monarch, side by side. Note the horizontal black line across the hindwings of the Viceroy.  The (larger) Monarch lacks this line.

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Viceroys — Master Mimics

8-17-18 viceroy metamorphosis

A plump caterpillar is irresistible to many insect-eating birds, and some of them (notably Viceroys and Giant Swallowtails) have outfoxed their predators by assuming the appearance of bird droppings, which one assumes is a far less appealing meal.  They do this using color, pattern, choice of resting place and even position – contorting their bodies to match the shape of bird droppings. The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) uses this technique during its later larval and pupal stages.

The adult Viceroy butterfly also uses mimicry to enhance its survival, but it mimics another butterfly — the Monarch — not bird droppings.  Both the Viceroy and the Monarch are unpalatable and contribute to each other’s protection from birds with this strategy, a relationship known as Mullerian mimicry.

In New England there can be up to three broods of Viceroys, with the larvae of some of the second brood and all of the third brood overwintering and pupating in the spring.

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Red and White Baneberry Fruits Maturing

8-16-18 red and white baneberry-1While the flowers of Red (Actaea rubra) and White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are quite similar (the flower head of Red Baneberry is more globular than the elongated head of White Baneberry), their respective fruits, the color of which gave them their common names, quickly distinguish these two species from each other.

White Baneberry produces white fruits commonly called “Doll’s eyes” due to the persistent remains of the flower’s stigma, which leaves a black dot on each fruit.  Red Baneberry’s shiny red berries also have these black dots, though they are not as apparent. All parts of both species are poisonous, with the berries being the most toxic part of the plant.

Seed dispersal is carried out by animals that have enough tolerance to feed on the berries. These animals include various mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles, as well as a wide variety of birds and White-tailed Deer.

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Young Wolf Spiders Dispersing

8-10-18 wolf spider 076Earlier in the summer, you may have glimpsed a spider carrying its white egg sac around with it, clasping it with the spinnerets at the end of its abdomen.  When the spiderlings hatch they crawl up their mother’s legs onto her abdomen, latch onto special knob-shaped hairs, and ride around with her for several weeks (see inset).  Only wolf spiders carry their egg sacs and offspring in this manner.

After molting, which occurs mid-summer, the young spiders disperse.  Eventually the mother is free to hunt for prey without the encumbrance of hitch-hiking offspring.  If you look closely at the pictured wolf spider, you may be able to make out the last lingering spiderling located at the junction of the wolf spider’s cephalothorax and abdomen.

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