• Blogtober: poison

    The idea of poison is really interesting among insects. Many plants have evolved toxins within their tissues, presumably because it reduces the amount of animals that eat them. But then several kinds of insects evolved not just tolerances, but preferences for these toxic plants. Insects like caterpillars (larval moths or butterflies) can build up those toxins in their flesh so that they too are distasteful to their predators. Probably the best known is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillar eats milkweeds. Although predators don’t instinctively know that certain organisms are toxic, they learn quickly after trying to eat their first example. Think about what it felt like to eat the sourest, most bitter, foul-tasting thing you ever tried- that’s probably what it feels like to be a young bird that unknowingly tried to eat a plump monarch caterpillar! One young blue jay was observed trying to eat a monarch– it gagged immediately and repeatedly. What a horrible surprise that must have been for the bird!

    To my knowledge, there’s no predator that evolved enough tolerance of toxic caterpillars enough to use the same toxins as their own protection (like the monarchs do with the milkweed they eat). In order to do that, the species would have to eat pretty much exclusively the toxin-carrying insect. Some predators do tolerate the chemical defenses, however, such as the Chinese mantis eating monarch caterpillars. A 2017 study by Jamie L. Rafter, Liahna Gonda-King, Daniel Niesen, Navindra P. Seeram, Chad M. Rigsby, and Evan L. Preisser (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371951/) found the mantids did not suffer reduced body size nor produce fewer eggs when fed a diet including monarch caterpillars. I don’t know if that applies to our native mantids, though.

    Do not eat.

    I wondered how insects can even taste poisons– they don’t have saliva and tastebuds like we mammals (or is it just humans?) do. It turns out that they do have tastebud-like sensors, just not mouth-based. Instead, they have tastebuds on their feet or antennae or even ovipositor. Wow! Guess the ovipositor makes sense, when you’re a ichneumon wasp that lays eggs on/in wood-boring beetle larvae. You need to tell if you’ve found a suitable food for your babies, while probing deep in the wood where you can’t see. Anyway, back to poison…

    A pair of mating wheelbugs. Note the long pointed mouthparts they use to liquefy and consume their prey (but not each other)

    Some insects use poisons more offensively too– like wheelbugs who inject their prey with a nasty toxin that basically dissolves the victim’s insides, so the wheelbug can slurp up the resulting insect smoothie. That might be more like venom than poison, though, now that I think about it. Still, though, it seems like poisons are pretty useful to develop , considering how many plants and insects evolved them independently. I wonder if I can take poisons I’ve metaphorically consumed and turn them into something useful? Sure would be nice if I could turn toxic relationship messages into, say, a brilliantly colored elytra! (Who couldn’t use a nice jewel-toned protective shell now and then?) But since I can’t, I’ll at least try to avoid consuming known toxins,

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    Blogtober: transformation

    My front yard garden, here in its third summer.

    So I’m a couple days late on this post. I’ve been working on a post about transformation for several days now, but the particular interpretation i chose is still too big to handle quickly. I bit off more than I can chew for a quick daily post. So I’ll try a slightly different interpretation. Never fear though, I’ll keep working on the original post– it’s something that I really want to write, I just need to take longer on it than usual.

    Native plants I grew included swamp milkweed (the pink flowers), common milkweed, and even a few persimmon trees grown from wild seeds.

    They say time spent in nature can be transformative, can change how you experience life. We also can transform nature itself– our climate itself is changing due to human activities. That’s the bad kind of transformation, at least unfortunate. But we can have a positive influence too. All the sterile monoculture lawns could be turned into wildlife gardens, for example. Imagine neighborhoods buzzing with activity as bees and other pollinators flit from flower to brilliantly colored flower. Birds sing as they hunt through the shrubs for plump caterpillars to feed their babies. Doesn’t that sound nicer than silent, sterile lawns? And there’s much less mowing to do! Bonus.

    One winter we even had a Cooper’s Hawk visit, hunting the songbirds that were attracted to my feeders.

    I transformed much of my front yard into gardens, back when I lived in Rockville. For ten years, I created and annually expanded a veggie garden, ending up with a 12’x 12′ patch full of tomatoes and hot peppers and summer squash and much more. Other areas of the yard I turned into native flower patches. It was wonderful! I loved looking out the window to see small animals enjoying my handiwork, from squirrels and chipmunks to rabbits to songbirds (and occasionally a hawk or two), even the neighborhood fox now and then. And so many gorgeous insects! Of course my heart’s desire was caterpillars, and I had plenty of them so long as I let plenty of dill reseed itself. If you’re looking for a completely hands-off crop, dill might be the way to go. It reseeds gloriously. I always had more than I needed, but barely had the heart to thin out too many, so usually had most of my garden taken over by towering dill by the end of the summer.

    Some of my yearly dill forest in bloom. All those yellow flowers will turn into seeds to grow more dill next year!

    That all being said, still the most triumphant feeling was when neighbors started putting in vegetable gardens after seeing mine. ๐Ÿ™‚ OnceI even surprised a neighbor’s kid “stealing” a couple tomatoes. I would happily have given him some if he asked, of course, so didn’t really chastise him. The idea that he wanted my fresh vegetables was so enchanting– especially since we hear so often about kids that hate veggies. (I never was one of those, but maybe because I helped my parents in our own garden so I had a different relationship with veg.)

    The birds often dropped sunflower seeds into the garden. Those flowers attracted lots of pollinators and always put a smile on my face.

    So I feel like I transformed a whole lot with just my front yard gardens– the neighborhood ecosystem, my neighbors’ views on gardens and gardening, my neighbors’ children’s ideas about veggies. It gave me so much happiness too.

    Migrating monarchs often visited my late-season flowers like these coneflowers.

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    Blogtober- Decay

    I did not know that fungi could bleed.

    It’s been a pretty good year for mushrooms. I’ve found bright red chanterelles, gooey inkcaps, and more. But the weirdest and maybe creepiest has been the globby fungus I found oozing dark amber liquid near the bottom of a tree.

    I think it’s Pseudoinonotus dryadaeus, also known as Oak Bracket. I don’t know whether the tree it was near was an oak, but one of the blobs is growing around an oak leaf– so there’s definitely an oak somewhere nearby.

    The way the fungus has grown around the oak leaf makes me think of a ghoulish hand pushing out of the soil.

    I haven’t had a chance to look for more resources on fungi that might tell me exactly what that amber liquid is. Or why it’s that color. Maybe it’s related to tannins from the oak tissues it grows on. That could make sense. I also read that Oak Bracket leads to further decay in its host tree. I know mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies (basically the reproductive organs) of a fungus colony. Underground, the colony is a massive branching network of threads. I knew fungi was weird, but this oozing species is one of the weirdest I’ve encountered so far.

    More of the Oak Bracket nearby

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    Blogtober: spiders

    I have a sign in my apartment that says, “Keep calm, it’s just a spider.” I was torn about whether to buy it when I saw it. Of course I think that nobody needs to get upset at the sight of a spider. I am more than happy to be the spider catch-and-releaser. But on the other hand, “just” a spider? More like “it’s a fantastic spider!” I really do love spiders.

    Shelob? No, just a spider in the bush.

    There are so many different types of web spiders in my area. Some are orb web spinners, who make the familiar eight-spoked roundish webs. There are grass spiders which spin flat sheets of webbing, and funnel spiders that spin funnels of webbing in which they hide, waiting to jump out at prey that blunders into their web. I even saw one orb web spider that apparently took a lesson from the funnel spiders– it had glued together the top edges of a leaf beside its web, creating a safe retreat when a big predator (me) came poking a camera near the web!

    Funnel web spider lurking in its funnel

    The different kinds of hunting (non-web-spinning) spiders fascinate me too. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, crab spiders. The latter are one of my favorites, especially when they match the flower they’re sitting on, so they are perfectly camouflaged. And I’ve already talked about how amazing mother wolf spiders are, in my Freaky Family post a few days ago.

    This crab spider doesn’t quite mat ch the green leaves, but it’s pretty close!

    As for venomous spiders, we do have black widows in my area. I had never seen one in the wild until moving to my current apartment, though. There’s a small field with a walking trail around its edge nearby, and I found my first wild widow (there’s a band name for you!) on the concrete retaining wall. It was so plump and glossy! Definitely worth the hunt.

    The red hourglass on the ventral abdomen shows this is a female Black Widow.

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    Blogtober: Owls

    At my very first park job, one of the programs I most loved to lead was the Owl Prowl. That consisted of wandering down the trail, just after dark, with my participants and a red-masked flashlight (to prevent us from losing night vision) and a way to playback recordings. We usually have three main owl species in my area: Eastern Screech Owls, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls in order from smallest to largest. The order in which we called them in was very important, assuming we wanted to run an ethical prowl. We’d always start with the smallest owl species, and end with the largest. Great Horned Owls (GHOs for short) sometimes eat the much smaller Screech Owl, and even Barred Owls who aren’t a lot smaller than the GHOs. If we started with the biggest, and had a Great Horned Owl not only call back to us but approach, then when we switched to the smaller owl(s) the GHO could just fall silent and lie in wait while we attracted its dinner. That just doesn’t seem fair for said dinner!

    A Great Horned Owl I saw on its nest in Florida. Perhaps it was thinking, “I’m a bit hungry, wonder if I could lure a Screech Owl or two?”

    So instead we called the Screech owls first. That gave them the chance to flee when they heard us play the Barred Owl’s calls. My boss could imitate all three species’ calls without needing a machine. Me, I mastered only one, the Barred Owl. I think it’s the easist to remember and also the simplest in terms of sound reproduction. The mnemonic for its cadence is, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Check out some recordings on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds pages if you’re interested. See if you can mimic too, in the privacy of your own home! (Those of you reading this at the office, maybe don’t try right away.) https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds

    Since they’re so easy to copy, even on prowls when absolutely no owls cooperated with my playback, I could still send my participants home with the ability to call Barred Owls themselves! I have successfully called back and forth with an owl in the wild, one afternoon on the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail. While I don’t know exactly what I was saying, I know owls call for territorial purposes, to see who else is in their area, and for courtship. So I only called a couple times, I don’t want to either bully an owl or have one develop a crush on me. ๐Ÿ˜€

    That reminds me, though, if you hope to see/hear an owl during the daytime, Barred Owls are a good possibility. I frequently hear them around 4 pm during the late summer and early fall, several hours before sunset. I saw one on a hike with my mom one time in May as well– we were really lucky to spot it. I’m sure there are many more times I’ve been within 20 feet of an owl and had no idea. Happy owling!

    The Barred OWl I saw with my mom, It looks shocked that we could see through its camouflage as a tree stump!

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