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Metamorphosis

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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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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Tadpole Maturation

5-22-19 green heron and tadpole _U1A1148The eggs of Wood Frogs, the earliest species of frog to breed in the Northeast, are just hatching and tiny Wood Frog tadpoles can be found swimming about at this time of year. This Green Heron is devouring a tadpole, but it is anything but tiny – certainly not a Wood Frog tadpole. How can this be?

The answer is that the tadpole that the Green Heron caught did not hatch this spring – it hatched last summer. Unlike Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers that mature in roughly two months, Green Frogs and American Bullfrogs can take two or even three years to metamorphose into adult frogs. By their second summer they are of substantial size. The Green Heron has caught a Green Frog or Bullfrog tadpole that has overwintered and would probably have matured this summer.

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Caddisfly Eggs Hatching

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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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Ladybugs Maturing & Seeking Shelter

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Ladybugs, along with roughly 88% of all insects, pass through four separate stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult) in their life cycle. This form of maturation is referred to as complete metamorphosis. Like many other insects that experience complete metamorphosis, the larval, pupal and adult stages do not closely resemble one another. While most of us would have no trouble recognizing an adult ladybug, the two middle stages are strikingly different from the adult spotted beetle we’re familiar with. After a ladybug egg hatches, the larva emerges, looking a bit like a tiny alligator. Anywhere from seven to twenty-one days later and after several molts, the larva attaches itself to a leaf and pupates. The pupa assumes yet another bizarre form, which some feel resembles a shrimp. Within a week or two the pupa matures and transforms into an adult ladybug. Most species of ladybugs hibernate (technically enter “diapause,” as it’s referred to with insects) as adults in large groups under leaf litter, logs and other protected spots.


Blue Mud Dauber Wasps Building Nests

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Yesterday’s Mystery Photo showed evidence of a Blue Mud Dauber Wasp (Chalybion californicum) scraping the mud with its mandibles as well as the resulting ball of mud it had formed to use as building material for its nest.  You can get a hint in this photograph of the iridescent blue wings that give this wasp its common name.

Mud dauber is a common name for solitary wasps that make individual nests for their eggs/brood with mud. There are many species of mud daubers, but most are between one and one-and-a-half inches long, black or metallic blue, and typically have a narrowing, or “thread-waist,” between their thorax and abdomen.

Most species of mud daubers, after making a small (1/4” diameter) tube nest out of mud or refurbishing an old nest, leave to forage for spiders. Once a spider has been located, the wasp stings and paralyzes it, but does not kill it (so as to prolong decomposition), carries it back to its nest, and repeats this process over and over until the nest is stuffed with living prey. The wasp then lays an egg in this mass of spiders and seals the nest with mud. The egg hatches and the wasp larva consumes the spiders as it grows. After pupating in the fall, the adult wasp emerges in the spring, mates and the cycle continues.

The reason that the ball of mud that the Blue Mud Dauber had formed was not taken back to the nest site as building material appears to be a small rootlet which anchors the ball to the ground, preventing the wasp from removing it.


Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

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Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Blueberry Stem Galls

3-29-17 blueberry stem gall IMG_7405Up to a dozen tiny black wasps (Hemadas nubilipennis) will emerge from this gall in the spring, around the time when blueberry bushes are flowering. After mating, the female wasp lays her eggs under the surface of the blueberry stems. Once she has completed her egg-laying, she climbs to the tip of the shoot and repeatedly stabs it, preventing further growth.

The plant reacts to the wasp’s egg-laying by forming a kidney-shaped gall. The majority of galls (up to 70%) are formed on stems within the leaf litter. These galls can be up to an inch in diameter, and they contain many developing larvae that feed on the walls of the gall and grow during the summer, overwinter as larvae, pupate inside the gall in the spring, and then emerge as adults when the blueberry bushes are in bloom in late May and early June. The adults are almost entirely females.

If a blueberry bush has many galls, it can be problematic.  A branch possessing a blueberry stem gall will not produce flower buds, and no flowers means no blueberries.

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Pine Tube Moth Pupae Overwintering

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In eastern North America, the Pine Tube Moth’s primary host is the Eastern White Pine. The moths deposit their eggs on White Pine needles in the spring. The larvae hatch and use silk to form a hollow tube by binding together 5 – 20 needles. They then move up and down their silk-lined tube to feed on the tips of the bound needles. When the tube walls (needles) have been eaten down to one inch, partially developed larvae will abandon their tubes and begin constructing new ones. When feeding and development is completed, larvae pupate inside the needle tubes. There are two generations per year, with second generation pupae spending the winter inside needle tubes and emerging as adult moths in early to mid-April. Pine Tube Moths are not considered a significant pest.

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Bagworm Moth Bags

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If you find a tiny (1/2″ long) bundle of stick-like pieces of vegetation clumped together into a “bag” that is attached to a structure, you have discovered the abandoned home of a bagworm moth larva, and the overwintering site of bagworm moth eggs. The bags consist of parts of the vegetation that the larva was eating and then bound together with silk.

In the spring, the eggs hatch and the larvae all leave and build protective cases, or bags, for themselves, inside of which they live while feeding, growing and molting throughout the summer. As the larvae increase in size, they increase the size of their bags. Eventually the larvae attach the bags to branches, trees, etc. and pupate within them. Female bagworm moths are wingless, and thus are confined to life within a bag for their entire lives. Upon emerging, adult male bagworm moths seek out the females and mate with them before perishing. After laying eggs inside their bags, females exit and die.

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Eggs Of Migrating Generation Of Monarchs Hatching

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The Monarch eggs that are hatching now contain the larvae that will metamorphose into the butterflies that will migrate this fall to central Mexico. Unlike earlier-hatching generations that only live six to eight weeks, the Monarchs that result from late summer and early fall hatchings live six to nine months. Part of the reason for this difference in life span is that, unlike the earlier generations that mate soon after emerging from their chrysalides, late-hatching Monarchs postpone mating (reproductive diapause) until the end of winter, thereby conserving energy for their two to three thousand-mile, two-month migration. (Photo: monarch larva’s first meal – its eggshell.)

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Case-bearing Leaf Beetles Eating & Growing

8-1-16 case-bearing leaf beetle 110It’s not every day that I discover a species I’ve never seen before, but when it comes to insects, it happens regularly.  Rarely, however, are they as interesting as the Case-bearing Leaf Beetle I observed on a blackberry leaf recently.  An oval, brown, stationary case about ¼” long was at a 45° angle to the leaf it appeared to be attached to it.  Upon closer inspection and with a bit of probing, a head and six legs appeared at the leaf end of the case, and the case began to move.

How its case was created is as, or more, interesting than the beetle itself.  The adult female Case-bearing Leaf Beetle lays an egg and wraps it with her fecal material as she turns the egg, until it is completely enclosed.  Once hardened, the feces create a protective case for both the egg and eventually the larva.  When the egg hatches, the larva opens one end of the case, extends its head and legs, flips the case over its back and crawls away.  As the larva eats and grows, it adds its own fecal material to the case in order to enlarge it.  Eventually the larva reseals the case, pupates and then emerges as an adult Case-bearing Leaf Beetle.  If it’s a female it then prepares to mate, lay eggs, and recycle its waste.

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Gray Treefrog: A Frog of Many Colors

7-28-16 young gray treefrog2 IMG_5078A Gray Treefrog starts life off as a ¼” yellow tadpole. Eventually it may reach 2 ½” in length, and its body will have turned olive green with a red tail. Upon metamorphosing into a frog, the Gray Treefrog turns a bright emerald green and gradually develops into a mottled greenish-gray adult which can change its color from green to gray in about half an hour to match its environment. The two color phases of the maturing frog (solid green of the young, and mottled gray or green of adult) are so different it’s hard to believe that they are the same species. (Photo:  young Gray Treefrog; insert- adult Gray Treefrog)

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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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Spring Peepers Dispersing

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If you live near a pond where you heard loud “peeping” in late April or May, now is the time to keep your eyes peeled for young subadult Spring Peepers in the woodlands near the pond, for they are just completing metamorphosis and moving onto land. Thanks to their enlarged toe pads, peepers are good climbers but are usually found on the ground or low in shrubbery. The best time to look for young peepers is in the early morning hours and in the late afternoon, when they tend to feed.  Even if your timing is right, it can be challenging to find one — a full grown peeper is only ¾” to 1 ¼” long, and recently metamorphosed individuals are not much longer than ¼”, about the size of your baby fingernail. You’ll know it’s young because of its diminutive size and  its snub nose!

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Young Wood Frogs Getting Land Legs

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Thank you all for your good wishes regarding my next book!

With the dry weather we’ve been having, there is reason to be concerned about vernal pool residents, especially those that need to undergo metamorphosis before the pools dry up.  Granted, those amphibians such as Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders which transform into terrestrial creatures have evolved to have very quick life cycles, due to the temporary nature of their aquatic environment, but were they quick enough this year?

A very young Wood Frog crossed my path yesterday and answered that question for me.  No bigger than a raisin, it had to have emerged from its aquatic home in the very recent past.  When you think about the changes that have to occur between egg stage and adulthood (a total of two months, and it takes three of those eight weeks for Wood Frog eggs to hatch), it is mind-boggling.  Gills disappear and lungs develop, tail is absorbed, legs develop, mouth widens, intestines adapt to a herbivore-to-carnivore switch in diet – all inside of five weeks.

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Young Green Frogs Absorbing Tails

6-30-16  green frog metamorphosing 183Generally speaking, green frog tadpoles that hatch early in the season will transform into frogs by mid-to late summer.  Tadpoles that hatch late are likely to overwinter in their ponds and metamorphose late the following spring or early in the summer. Thus, the Green Frogs you see now with both legs and a tail spent the winter as tadpoles and are maturing now.

A specific process called “apoptosis” occurs as the tail is absorbed by the frog.  It involves programmed cell death, and occurs in various forms in multicellular organisms.   Humans experience apoptosis throughout their lives.  It is responsible for the separation of fingers and toes in a developing embryo, as the cells between the digits undergo apoptosis and it is responsible for the death of between 50 and billion cells each day in the average human adult.  Once it has begun, apoptosis cannot stop, and thus is a highly regulated process.

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Rosy Maple Moths Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

6-13-16  rosy maple moth 059Rosy Maple Moths (Dryocampa rubicunda) are easy to recognize, with their pink and yellow woolly bodies, pink legs and pink antennae.  Many adults are emerging from their pupal cases now, having spent the winter underground as pupae. Once metamorphosis is complete, the adult moths lose no time in finding mates and laying eggs, not stopping to even eat.  These members of the family Saturniidae are most active during the first third of the night, reducing their body temperature and activity in the morning and afternoon.

Mating takes place at night on the underside of a leaf, and 24 hours later the female lays clusters of 10-30 eggs (a total of 150 – 200 eggs) on the underside of the leaves of the larvae’s host plants, most often maples and oaks.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae usually remain on the same tree throughout their larval stage.

Known as Green-striped Mapleworms, the larvae initially feed together, but become independent feeders as they age.  Mapleworms change color as they develop.  When young, most have black heads and yellow bodies, but with age their heads turns reddish-brown and their bodies assume a shade of green.

In New England there is only one brood per summer; further south, there are multiple broods.

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Dragonflies Eclosing

5-26-16  dragonfly eclosing2  347 The sudden hot weather seems to have triggered a mass emergence of dragonflies and damselflies.  The emerging vegetation along the shores of ponds is covered with larval Odonates (members of the order of insects that includes dragonflies and damselflies) metamorphosing into adults.  The adults, still in the skin of their last larval stage, crawl out of the water, climb up vegetation, rocks, etc., and split the back of their larval skin.  The adult flips backwards out of this opening, hangs upside down and then grasps the vegetation and/or empty larval skin while as its abdomen is released.  The dragonfly hangs in the breeze while it pumps air into its body, sending liquid into its wings.

To appreciate this process called eclosion, compare the size of the wings in the photo insert (recently-emerged adult) with those in the larger photograph, which was taken twelve minutes after emergence.  Within a day or so the sheen on the newly-formed wings goes away, the dragonfly’s body hardens and colors start to appear.

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Spotted Salamander Larvae Soon To Emerge From Eggs

spotted salamander eggs2  040Roughly a month after spotted salamanders participate in frenzied courtship dances, deposit spermatophores (males) and take the spermatophores into their bodies (females), the resulting eggs have developed into larvae.  These juvenile, gilled salamanders are still contained inside the gelatinous eggs, but the eggs are dissolving fast, and the larvae will soon be swimming free within the vernal pools where the eggs were laid.

Many spotted salamander larvae do not survive this long.  Eastern newts, caddisfly larvae, leeches, fly larvae and even turtles feed on the nutritious eggs.  Meteorological conditions also contribute to the fate of spotted salamander eggs.  Their situation is especially precarious because they develop in vernal pools, which often dry up by summer’s end, thus forcing a rapid metamorphosis for amphibious inhabitants.  Hot temperatures can evaporate the water before metamorphosis is completed, and cool temperatures can slow down their development.  Inevitably some will survive to adulthood, and  the inch-and-a-half to two-inch salamanders (see insert photo), having shed their gills and developed lungs, will adapt to a terrestrial life.

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Promethea Pupae Parasitized

12-21-15 promethea cocoon 257Although a lack of snow makes tracks difficult to find, there are other, more permanent, animal signs such as bird nests and cocoons that are visible this time of year. Among the more obvious is the cocoon of the Promethea Moth – a giant silk moth. When the time for pupating arrives the Promethea caterpillar selects a leaf and strengthens its attachment to the tree by spinning silk around the petiole of the leaf as well as the branch it grows on (to assure that it doesn’t fall off the tree). With more silk it rolls the leaf up into a tube and then proceeds to spin its cocoon inside the rolled-up leaf, leaving a valve-like structure at the top of the cocoon through which the adult moth exits in the spring.

Unfortunately for silk moths, many are parasitized by flies and wasps (there are nearly 100 natural parasites that affect the 24 species of silk moths east of the Mississippi River). Frequently flies or wasps lay their eggs in silk moth caterpillars and then develop inside them. Eventually the fly or wasp larva secretes a substance that causes the caterpillar to pupate, at which time the fly or wasp also pupates and then exits the moth pupa and cocoon (see exit hole in smaller photo), causing the death of the moth pupa. Silk moth populations are decreasing, in part as a result of these parasitoids. Among others, a non-native parasitic tachinid fly, Compsilura concinnata, is wreaking havoc on silk moths.

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Spring Peepers Peeping

12-16-15 spring peeper IMG_7853The sound of a peeping Spring Peeper in December (yes, this occurred in Vermont this week) conveys to one and all that climate change is not a figment of our imagination. Amphibians are extremely sensitive to small changes in temperature and moisture due to their permeable skin and shell-less eggs. Certain species, including Spring Peepers, Grey Tree Frogs, Wood Frogs, American Bullfrogs and American Toads, are emerging and mating earlier in the year than they did historically. Causal relationships have been found between irregular climate conditions (drought, increasing frequency of dry periods and severe frosts) and decreasing (extinction in some cases) of certain amphibian species.

Behaviorally and physically, warming temperatures are having an impact on amphibians. A recent laboratory study investigated changes in amphibian metamorphosis time due to pond desiccation and whether amphibian immune systems become compromised as a result of these changes. They found that amphibian immune responses became increasingly weaker and white blood cell counts were increasingly lower with higher desiccation. As a result of climate effects, immune systems are weakened, making it more difficult for amphibians to fight off diseases.

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Goldenrod Ball Galls Provide Important Source of Winter Food for Downy Woodpeckers

12-11-15 goldenrod ball galls 058A number of insects cause goldenrod plants to form galls – abnormal growths that house and feed larval insects. The Goldenrod Ball Gall is caused by a fly, Eurosta solidaginis. The fly lays an egg on the stem of a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) plant in early spring, the egg hatches and the larva burrows its way into the stem; the plant reacts by forming a gall around the larva. The larva overwinters inside the gall, pupates in late winter and emerges in early spring as an adult fly. Prior to pupating, the larva chews an exit tunnel to, but not through, the outermost layer of gall tissue. (As an adult fly it will not have chewing mouthparts so it is necessary to do this work while in the larval stage.)

Downy Woodpeckers (and Black-capped Chickadees) have discovered this abundant source of winter food, and dine on the larva after chiseling a hole into the gall. Downy Woodpeckers tend to make a tidy,narrow, conical hole by pecking, while Black-capped Chickadees tend to make a messy, large, irregular hole by grabbing bits of the gall with their bill and tugging them free. While woodpeckers prefer larger galls that are located high on goldenrod plants growing near wooded areas, these are not the only factors taken into consideration.

A woodpecker extracts the fly larva through the tunnel the larva excavates prior to pupating, as this facilitates rapid removal of the larva. Downy Woodpeckers can determine whether or not a gall has an exit tunnel, and if it doesn’t, they usually abandon the gall without drilling into it. The likelihood of smaller parasitic wasp larvae occupying the gall (and a plump fly larva not being present) is much greater if there is no exit tunnel, and these smaller prey apparently are not always worth the woodpecker’s time or energy.

NB: Correction: this week’s Mystery Photo was of a Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) bract, not a Paper, or White, Birch (Betula papyrifera) bract. While similar, there are differences between these two species of birch that I should have recognized (especially when looking at the leaf!). Thanks to Kathy, an alert blog reader, who caught this error.

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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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