Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 30, 2009

A Little Blue on Poo

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:26 pm

It’s often said that beauty is only skin deep and that butterflies are free.  When these two old saws are combined, the natural conclusion could be that beautiful butterflies are free to be shallow. This, of course, is about as far from the truth as you can get. Butterflies are complicated little beasts and their beauty is profoundly deep.  Perhaps a better read on this phrase combination would be that “beauty has a price.” Let’s take the little blue Azure butterfly as a simple example.

The Azure is a butterfly with a complex. You see, normally these little woodland inhabitants are called Spring Azures because they are among the first butterflies out in early spring. However, things get, well,…more complex, when mid-summer comes along and there are still spring Azures (like the one in the above photo) flying about. Spring is long over. The Spring Peepers have long silenced themselves and the Spring Beauty flowers have gone to summer seed. Summer is, in fact, getting long in the tooth so, what gives? The answer is that these particular seasonal Azures are actually Summer Spring Azures.

In some textbooks these warm season versions are known simply as Summer Azures and are endowed with separate scientific names as proof of their pedigree. Unfortunately, not all scientists agree that this is truely the case. They (you know, “they” -“them” – “those other people with no names”) believe that there are actually a variety of Azures out there which exhibit slight differences between them. They believe that these differences might just be seasonal in nature and assign them sub-species names as a result. Thus, these “thems” have created something called the “Spring Azure Complex” as a way to describe this tribe of six or so butterflies that pretty much act and look alike. They have created “Spring” Spring Azures and “Summer” Spring Azures.

I do not believe there is a category called the “Winter Spring Summer Fall Azure,” but this would actually simply things. We could call this one “the” Azure, with an emphasis on the “the,”  and be done with it.  We could forget about the others and be free to point and say “look, there’s a beautiful Azure butterfly acting free.”  But, for now, the fact remains that this is a complex situation and we have to think before saying anything.

One undeniable simplicity connected with the Azure is that they are poo drinkers. Yes, in order to keep those beautiful wings in working order, Azures dabble in doo juice. As caterpillars they only eat white flowers and as adults they deliberately seek out white bird droppings for the chemicals they provide.

The next time you see an Azure, forget the name and pay attention to its antics.  Follow the wandering course of an individual for more than a minute or two and you’ll note that it drops down to inspect every white object on the ground. White feathers, pebbles, and paper scraps are investigated until a choice dropping is located. At that point the long tongue is extended and the feed is on.  Take a closer look at the above picture (see here) and you can see this butterfly is enjoying a simple poo pleasure in a complex world.

July 26, 2009

O.M.G. What is That?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:04 pm

 Most people squirm at the sight, or even the thought of, leeches. I’d like you to think about leeches for just a moment . Go ahead and grab a salt shaker if you must, but this is for your own good. Frankly, I find the little blood suckers fascinating but I admit that they are a little unimaginative. As a group they don’t appear to vary too much in form and all are basically flattened segmented worms with sucker discs at both ends. Some species explore a variety of patterns and color shades, but that’s about it. When sucking blood, one doesn’t want to appear too flashy – that is a vampire’s rule.

A recent call from an old friend put me in contact with a pair of very unique leeches that bend the leech persona just a bit.  These creatures came from the gill arches of a fish called a freshwater drum or sheepshead. A local fisherman noticed two globular “growths” firmly attached to the gills of his catch. They were very difficult to pull off but, pull them off he did and he then transported the pair within a water-filled butter tub (see below). Although my first verbal impression was “O.M.G., what in the heck are these?” , I eventually learned that they were examples of a rarely encountered parasitic leech called Actinobdella pediculata.  Wow, eh? well hold on now, there’s more.

These creatures are only found on sheepshead fish (see here) and pose absolutely no threat to humans. They have no common name and only barely express their leechness (or is it leechennocity?).  Of the pair, the larger one was willing to show his two sucker ends for the camera  (see above) before contracting into a smooth gray ball (see first picture). The body segments were just barely visible. The other one tightened up into a hard heart shaped lump decorated with a fancy frill at the edge like some demented Valentine gift (see below). There was something creepy about the second one.  Neither one fully opened up during their captivity, but this one only gave name, rank, and serial number even after it’s partner uncurled.

OMG Leeches, as I will call them for lack of a better name, spend their lives as permanent blood-sucking parasites within the gill chambers of their exclusive host. I’m sure these fish are honored. The parasites anchor their large posterior sucker deep (up to 1/2″) into the flesh of the fish and wedge the disc firmly into place. The long slender sucker at the other end is the business sucker. 

Few people see these things. Even among seasoned fishermen, they go un-noticed. The fellow who initially described them  in 1903, Ernest Hemingway (Ernest A.  of the Univ. of Minnesota and not Ernest M. of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” fame) had to examine “hundreds” of sheepshead and succeeded in obtaining only 3 small specimens.  There are virtually no images of this creature other than those appearing in Hemingway’s original article and a few highly specific leech works.

So, there you have it. An obscure ugly leech is revealed in the full light of day on a blog that reaches 10’s of people. O.M.G. that’s exciting, eh?  Eh? Where did you go?

July 23, 2009

Un-distressed Damsels

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:04 pm

Dragonflies get all the attention these days. Because they are robust, colorful, and somewhat “in your face”, they command the attention of the average stream-side visitor. As folk entities they elicit mixed human reactions as sinister “snake doctors” or beneficial “mosquito hawks.” Damselflies, on the other hand, are generally viewed as gentle stream-side sprites – if they are viewed at all. These lesser beings, although exhibiting all the traits of their larger cousins, are often overlooked altogether. Damselflies don’t appear to mind, however. They are not in distress about living in the shadows.

The very name “damsel-fly” conjures images of grace, beauty, and delicacy. In appearance, they live up to that description when compared to their dragon-like cousins. While dragonflies have large compound eyes that touch along their top margins, damsels have small round eyes placed about as far apart as eyes can be (and still be located on the same head). Dragons tend to perch with their wings flat out while damsels perch with their wings carefully folded back. Finally, even though dragons have long slender bodies, their form is more like a pretzel rod when compared to the exceedingly thin pretzel stick bodies of the damsels.

They, like the dragonflies, are a colorful group of creatures as well. Take a look at these Damselflies as an example (see above). I recently spotted these creatures cavorting along the banks of the rain swollen Huron River. The American Rubyspot, located at the top of the photo,  is easily “spotted” due to the bright red wing and body markings. Below it, and facing in the opposite direction, the Stream Bluet lives up to its name. Both species are common river/stream species.

The Bluet represents a whole host of tiny blue damselflies which all look pretty much alike but this species happens to have clear equal-sized black and blue stripes on its thorax.  The most distinctive thing about them is their color – although I’m sure they have nice personalities – and their tiny slender form.  Of the two, the boldly patterned Rubyspot is the definite eye catcher. The male bears bright ruby colors on its thorax and inner wings (see below). Golden wing veins and body sutures add to the overall beauty of the beast. The true damsels of the lot, the females, have a subtle beauty all their own with stained glass wings accented by muted emerald body tones (see here).

On close inspection all these damsels begin to reveal their slightly uglier and practical side (see here). Of particular note are the long stiff hairs that line each leg. These un-ladylike features interlock to form a basket to scoop up unsuspecting prey. Make no mistake about it, Damselflies are predators equipped with powerful jaws. They intercept insects on the wing and voraciously chew them up into little pulpy bits before swallowing them. As aquatic nymphs they are equally voracious – possessing an extendible second jaw to reach out and snatch prey.

These damsels may be pretty on the surface, but they are built to cause distress.

July 20, 2009

A Symmetrical Swallow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:16 pm


Barn Swallows enjoy a working relationship with people throughout the temperate globe. The two species manage to find each other throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and here in the Americas.  The unwritten contract specifies that the people build the barns and the birds do the swallowing. They don’t swallow the barns, however, but they do swallow the bugs that fly about ’em. They also nest upon ’em. Although the specifics of this partnership have changed over the eons, as the nature of the man-made structures have changed dramatically, the intimacy of the partnership has not.

Swallows have integrated themselves into our very fiber. At one time it was believed that low flying swallows were a sure indication of impending rain. There is some validity to this because of the influence of low-pressure weather fronts usually associated with rain, but the association is not faultless. Like any bit of folk wisdom, this one only rings as “kinda true”. Last week, for instance,  I confidently predicted that it wouldn’t rain based on the sight of high flying barn swallows. Unfortunately, that same group suddenly dove and started flying  low over the ground just before it started to rain. The rains that followed were biblical.  It appears that the low-flying thing is not really a predictor as much as it is a confirmer of conditions – like the infamous “Indian weather rock” which, if wet, confirms that it is indeed raining. 

The ancients believed that swallows burrowed into the mud every autumn and hibernated through the winter. This also was not true – the birds  migrate away in late summer-but the conclusion was a logical one based on observations of mud-gathering swallows. Barn Swallows, like Cliff Swallows, build thier nests out of clay pellets (see a bird at work here). Their constructions are not nearly as picturesque as the Cliff Swallow creations but are built more on the robinesque cup-shaped plan. The nests, lined with dried grasses and white feathers, ultimately are used to house up to two broods per year. 

Unfortunately, these mud creations – along with the droppings associated with nesting – are about the only reasons human find cause to complain about these creatures. In a give and take world, where the swallow’s “take” pales in comparison to their “give,” such complaints are pretty weak.

Their constant chortling is one of those reassuring country sounds which should definitely be placed in the swallows “give” category, for instance. The  variety of calls produced by a cluster of singing swallows is an auditory treat for even the most cynical of ears.  One reference attempts to categorize these vocalizations into nine different types ranging from twitters & whistles to whines and chirps, but such words fail to capture the essence. The basic Barn Swallow call consists of a chippering “kvit” punctuated by some cracklets, gutteral buzzes, and rattle clicks (Listen to hirundo-barn-swallowswav). How can you not be delighted by such a bubbly expression of life, even if it’s not verbally definable?

Barn Swallows are easy to identify no matter where they are or what they are doing (see here). They are  irridescent blue birds with orange chests, sleek pointed wings, and gracefully forked tails (see below). Oddly enough, the symmetry of that tail is a key beauty point among the swallows themselves. Female birds tend to pick males possessing perfectly symmetrical tails and wings. No one is exactly sure how they do this. After-all, most Barn Swallows look balanced most of the time. But the fact remains that symmetrical birds have greater longgevity than the asymmetric ones. That’s not folk lore, by the way, that’s fact. What happens to those poor asymmetrical” males that are left out in the cold? Apparently they are the ones who fly high during rainstorms and drown their sorrows by diving headfirst into the mud.

July 17, 2009

Bonjour Luc!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:25 am

It’s not everyday that you get your own personal bald eagle. Yesterday was one of those “not everydays” as Luc, the re-habilitated bald eagle, was finally installed in his aeire at the Lake Erie Metropark Marshlands Museum. The bird, a handsome 5 year old male, was recovered last year after sustaining serious injuries. After treatment at the Michigan State University veterinary clinic and six months of careful rehabilitation under the expert care of Maybee resident Dave Hogan, the bird recovered its health. Unfortunately, the injury left him permanently blind in his left eye and capable of only limited flight – handicaps preventing him from ever leading a normal life in the wild.

In anticipation of receiving just such a bird, we built the eagle enclosure and obtained the necessary federal permit. It was nearly a two year process, made possible by the hard work of numerous volunteers and donors, that brought us this “delivery day.”  When the project began, we had no way of knowing that our resident would be Luc. It was a “build it and they will come” project. Luc was still a free-flying bird by the time we finished the structure. He was not even “Luc” until a month ago.

Naming a bird that could potentially be with you for 30 years or more, is a daunting task. You’d better like whatever you come up. The name will be written by countless school children, repeated by countless visitors, and pass over our lips a few million times as things progress. Luc refers to the scientific name of the bald eagle in which the species specific name is leucocephalus (pronounced “luke-o-sef-a-lus”) which means “white-headed” in Latin. The name is pronounced “Luke” but I chose to spell it  in the traditional French way as an homage to French-Canadian history of the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair region. It is a nice fact, however, that his Star Trek namesake Captain Jean Luc Picard is also bald!

Luc’s introduction to his new aeire (the name for a lofty eagle’s lair, by the way) was not a dramatic affair. Dave Hogan arrived with the bird at mid day and carefully pulled him out from the carrier. After a few photo ops with Bernie & Inge Rovenskie (see here), a few of the dedicated volunteers that help make this day a reality, he brought him into the enclosure.  Releasing ones hold on a powerful bird of prey such as an eagle is a procedure that must be performed with great care, so Dave laid the bird on the ground, rolled him over, and let go.  At that point, you’d think that Luc would have bolted, but he remained in his prone position. In fact, he remained laying down for nearly three hours – much to the consternation of those gathered to get a picture of the eagle in his new cage (see below and here).

Dave assured us that this was normal behavior. Having just gone through the stress of removal from his recovery enclosure and a half hour ride in a dog carrier, Luc was in no hurry to explore his new surroundings. Towards the end of the day he finally stood up and began to roam the enclosure – finally launching into a short flight (the only flight he is capable of) onto his main perch. I will admit to saying, upon witnessing this act, that “the eagle has landed.” I hope that this home will be Tranquility Base for some time to come.

July 13, 2009

The Bird with Muddy Lips

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 pm

They say that an average of 1,000 mud pellets go into the construction of a typical cliff swallow nest. Each mud ball represents a double trip to and from a moist puddled collection spot and each is put into place according to an instinctive plan. The building material is carefully selected – not just any old mud, but  mud composed of silty clay and sand. The building site must be a protected overhang safe from the elements.  The combined marriage of this effort, selection, and instinctive sense of structure is a gourd shaped masterpiece – an inverted urn with a gracefully curved neck. Not only is the nest artistically pleasing, but it is also structurally strong. I believe it’s safe to say that the cliff swallow nest is the most remarkable avian nest in North America (see above & here). Even the dangling nest of the Baltimore Oriole comes in second to this one.

In the days prior to European settlement, these birds were content with making their nests under overhanging cliff ledges. Because of this preference they were restricted primarily to the Western canyon country. Eventually human-made porches and concrete bridge abutments, which imitated these natural conditions, slowly lured them eastward. As a consequence,  these birds and their unique nests are now found throughout the country. Finding a colony can be a challenge, however, since they are usually located in fairly inaccessible locations.

The Manufacturer’s Marketplace in Monroe is one such choice location for a small cluster of these birds. I’m fairly sure the store owners don’t especially appreciate this fact since the sidewalk exhibits an ample amount of whitewash due to the overhead activity. But the viewing opportunity could be considered a public draw. After-all, these are the same species which annually draw visitors to watch the mid-March return of the swallows to the mission at San Juan Capistrano.

An attentive adult was in the process of feeding one of her young as I approached (see above). Cliff swallows provide a valuable service as bug zappers – especially when they have to keep up with the feeding demands of 4 or 5 younguns.  The nestlings peered out from the neck of their bottle home while they waited between parental visits (see below).

Adjacent to this nest another bird was in the process of nest-building.  These are highly colonial birds and one nest will inspire the construction of dozens more. Some colonies can reach suburban proportions if circumstances allow. A single light structure here at the mall can only support a ring of six or more nests. This bird (see here) was still in the basic foundation stage of building the second addition to this micro neighborhood. Interrupted by my presence, the creature paused to smile for the camera with a mouthful of mud (see below).  There is a glimmer of artistic pride in that muddy-lipped mugshot.

July 10, 2009

Within An Inch of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

The odd measured gate of the geometer caterpillar is performed as if  it were laying out a property line. Whether down the length of your finger or  across the green surface of a leaf, the “earth measurer”  appears to pace out its route with careful precision. First, the body extends out to full length, tiny forelegs grab the surface, and then the back end is slowly brought forward to catch up with the head end – resulting in a highly arched mid body. Each “step” is equal and geometrically precise. There are actually over a thousand different kinds of these creatures in North America, but they all mark distance the same way. These larval members of Geometer family are better known as loopers and spanworms, but their whole public persona is based on the well-known title of inchworm. Everyone knows an inchworm when they see it…or hear about it.

Frank Loesser, the popular composer of such wartime ditties as “Heart & Soul,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” penned “The Inchworm” in 1951. You know it.  “Inchworm, inchworm measuring your marigolds” and ” Two and two is four, four and four is eight…etc.” has become part of our culture nearly as familiar as the “Itsy bitsy Spider.”  Until someone writes a song about the plain looking adult moths, the child star status rendered upon the larvae will have to do.

The inchworm look is distinctive owing to the lack of legs in the middle part of their body. Most caterpillars have 16 legs – a set of six just behind the head, a set of eight at mid body, and two more to finish off the hind end. When operating on all 16 cylinders, the average caterpillar chugs along at an even linear rate. Inchworms typically have only ten legs -the requisite six prolegs behind the head and a cluster of four at their bum end.  They are forced by this stick figure anatomy to walk the way they do.

One of the advantages of being twig-like is that they are very good at, well, looking twig-like. When danger threatens, they can “go twig” and straighten out. Smooth green inchers end up looking like broken leaf stems and the brown ones become perfect imitations of dead sticks. Some even embellish their camouflage with warty bumps and lichen like clusters. Not everyone, or everything,  is fooled by this act, however.

I stumbled across a large inchworm (more like an inch-and-a-quarter worm) in the middle of a sandy two tract road the other day. Instead of blending in, the neon green larvae stood out like a sore thumb. It was apparent that the creature was paralyzed and within an inch of his life, but not apparent who was responsible for rendering it so. After a few minutes a medium sized black wasp with a dramatic red waist band returned to the scene of the crime and answered the question (see below and here). It was a Sand or Thread-waisted wasp (Ammophila sp.). These burrowing wasps paralyze moth larvae as food for their young. They stuff them down a burrow, lay a single egg upon them, and then stop up the tunnel. When the junior wasp hatches they feast upon the flesh of their not-quite-dead burrow mate.

This wasp was exceedingly nervous about my presence and paced around the limp prey as if walking on a hot griddle. The burrow entrance was located only a few centimeters away from the head end of the larvae. It gave a half-hearted effort to drag the inchworm to the entrance, but it soon took off . I waited with the helpless little “worm” for a few minutes and attempted to explain what will happen next (see here). I ventured that he probably wouldn’t  feel a thing, although I certainly couldn’t say that with any real authority. Quoting Mr. Loesser’s song, the best I could manage as a eulogy was to say that “You and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far.” 

There are a lot more inchworms in the world than there are sand wasps, so they’ve definitely got the advantage of numbers.

July 7, 2009

Baskin’ Robins

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:59 pm

 The sight of oil-soaked human sun-bathers on a sunny summer afternoon is nothing biologically unusual. They are doing what comes naturally, although they are performing the ritual in a slightly un-natural way (using sun block while purposely baking in the open sun, for instance).  Lots of wild creatures do it, however, so there must be some solid reason for sun-bathing. Humans are far from unique in this regard. Black butterflies do it, solar-seeking snakes do it, warmth-wanting water turtles do it, and yes, your basic birds do it too.

 When birds bask, they assume some very bizarre and un-birdlike poses that resemble human sun worshipping postures as much as anything (see baskin robbin above). One of the semi-worthless facts that I came upon states that over 170 species  of birds have been observed sun bathing. I have to assume that the rest choose private nude beaches. Double-crested Cormorants, one of those “observed species”,  perch with their wings “spread eagle” in order to dry their feathers in the sun. These birds lack the natural oils found in other water birds, so they actually get wet when they dive for fish (see here).  Turkey Vultures will do the same thing, but for different reasons. They spread their six foot wings in order to maximize the surface area exposed to the warming effect of the morning sun. Smaller birds aren’t quite so dramatic, but they do whatever it takes  to expose as much bare skin as possible.

Yesterday, my backyard became a basking haven for all the neighborhood birds. They chose a location where the mid-morning rays of the sun found a gap in the tree cover. Robins, grackles, and even a solitary red-wing blackbird sought out the site for a brief sun worship session. In the view above, you can see a red-wing and a robin so engaged. The robin was flat on his belly -back to the sun – with out-stretched wings and the blackbird was positioned perpendicular to the sun.  He had one wing out, head tilted over, and his mouth was agape. Both of these creatures maintained their respective poses for several minutes before resuming their previous bird-like dignity.  I was able to get a few more shots of another robin doing the belly flop (see below). Not only were his wings out, but his rump feathers were flared open to allow the warmth to penetrate all the way into to the bare bottom skin. In another view (see here) the robin is gaping like the blackbird and flaring his back feathers.

Not that I quote Australians much, mate, but in that country they refer to this behavior as “trancing.”  Indeed, the birds do seem to be in a trance-like state for a minute or two. Studies have shown that a condition similar to heat stress, or hyperthermia, is achieved during this activity. The eyes are at half squint and the bird opens his mouth to pant. “Bird pants” are not blue jeans with a hole cut out of them for the tail, but are actually a series of rapid short breaths. Like dogs, who also do not wear pants, birds can’t sweat so they have to get rid of excess heat from their mouths. Staying in such a state for too long could be dangerous for these very warm-blooded creatures, so they limit their exposure periods to just a few minutes at a time. Basking birds deliberately select still bright days with temperatures over the mid-70’s F.

Since tanning and baked beauty is not at stake, one might wonder why birds risk these potentially dangerous trances. Apart from the physiological danger, the momentary ignorance of predators could also prove fatal. The answer is…well, we don’t really know. Since reptiles bask to acquire vitamin D, it is likely that their feathered cousins do the same for the same reason. This would explain why the skin is exposed by lifting the feathers. Another equally likely reason is ecto-parasite removal. By introducing warm dry drafts into their nether parts, birds might cause mites and other pests to scurry about. After basking, the bathers do spend quite a bit of time preening as if plucking off heat-offended ticks!

It’s worth noting that birds worship the same sun that we do. Watching them is something like peering into our primitive past long before there were tanning booths and SPF’s.

July 4, 2009

Bubble Wrap

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:07 pm

There are several general rules to follow when spit is involved. First, never spit into the wind. Secondly, never spit in public and third, never spit  -period!  Baseball players obviously do not adhere to the last two rules and those who are stupid enough to ignore the first deserve to be plastered. These are human laws, however. Breaking all three of these rules is an absolute necessity if you are a Froghopper. Better known as spittlebugs, these tiny insects are relatives of the cicada . As immatures, they spend all their time within the  protective blanket of bubbly white foam- they come of age within a spitball (see above).

In order to find a froghopper nymph you’ll need to push the foam off to the side. The froglet will be exposed next to the stem (see above).  Should you coax him out even further and force him out into the open, the little guy will reveal himself  to be very froglike in appearance (see below and here). Once the froghopper is out of the picture you are left to examine his juicy little house .

To be completely honest about it, spittlebug spittle is not really spittle. It is sapple. As a very young hatchlings, young froghoppers sink their little tube mouths into the tender flesh of plants and feed on the juicy sap. They excrete the extra fluid out their rear ends and froth it up with bubbles. Eventually the resulting spittle completely covers the little beast and hides it from the drying rays of the sun and the prying eyes of predators. They stay concealed within this bubble wrap as they advance through 5 instar stages until reaching maturity as fully winged and hoppy adults. Way back when, these moist clusters were labelled by country folk as “frog spit” since they appeared on the lower stems of moist meadow plants – about where you’d expect expectorating frogs to land a shot. Today, the secret behind these little structures is out and it appears they are more complicated than they seem.

 The spittle building material is slightly sticky because it is composed of fruit juice. Oddly enough, the bubbles do not pop or rupture as they are pushed around by your finger. They stay together as a cohesive unit due to the waxy secretions added by the nymph as it is excreted. These homes are very durable and some of them can last over a week without drying up. For a long time, going back to the frog spit days, people thought that the hopper whipped the sap into a froth by beating it with spirited movements of the abdomen. Further studies, however, showed that several rows of platelets on the underside of the abdomen act as bellows to pump air into the mix. A Froghopper sticks the tip of his abdomen out into air and fills the platelet folds with air. As the nymph withdraws the abdomen back down,  the air is squeezed out as a series of  perfect little bubbles.

Applying scientific facts to something as innocent as spittlebug foam is not a necessary activity, but it is a worthwhile one. Before you go ahead and share this new knowledge with someone else, however, don’t go straight to the facts. Be sure to scoop up a bit of the foam on the tip of your finger and declare it to be frog spit then point out the “little frog” that lives inside. Then, only then, come out with the real story of the froghopper and its natural bubble wrap.

July 1, 2009

A Crappy Little Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:06 pm

Based on the title , you might think that the subject of this discussion, the Viceroy caterpillar, has a miserable life. Actually, quite the opposite is true. This is a beast for whom being crappy means staying alive – ah,ah,ah,ah, staying alive, staying alive, ah, ah, ah ah, staying a…….sorry, I had a momentary case of the heeby Beegees.  Anyway, my point is that this caterpillar literally makes a living looking like crap. Birds won’t eat their own droppings, you see, so what better way for a fleshy edible young’n to avoid being dinner than to look real fecal-like?

The young caterpillar (pictured above) has a dark body complete with a milky white saddle and  fake seeds to complete it’s dropping imitation. The only thing that looks slightly out of place are the two spiny knobs behind the head. These risky fashion statements are quickly lowered when the creature is disturbed. It begins to curl around (see here) and eventually doubles back on itself to complete the ruse (see below). Now tell me that’s not a bird dropping. O.K., so you know it’s not, because you are a superior human being. But imagine what a bird would think when coming upon this scene. The human equivalent would be seeing a Baby Ruth bar in a pool – it’s not what you think it is but are you going to pick it up? I think not.

When the larvae gets a bit older, it looks slightly less poop-like (see below and here). It retains its general crappy features but appears to put more emphasis on those spiny knobs. In fact, it appears to draw some defensive value out of these things by looking totally inedible. Imagine a cow pie adorned with mace clubs sitting on your breakfast plate and you have the idea. Still, when disturbed, the larvae curls back just like it did as a little turd.

The whole life cycle of the Viceroy is based on imitation and fakery. The egg looks like a plant gall and  the pupae mimics a drippy bird doo. Even the black and orange adult looks just like a Monarch butterfly for goodness sake. One might wonder if the real Viceroy ever has a chance for expression. You know, does it ever want to bust out and yell “I’m as mad as heck and I’m not going to pretend anymore. I’m a beautifully sensitive creature with the ability to draw, write poetry, and make pottery. Why, just the other day I wrote a love poem called ‘I is a wee me’.” Such expression would be sheer insecticide, however. Expressive insects become real bird crap. Crap mimics don’t.

There is one phase of Viceroy mimicry that is not passive imitation. The oft-repeated idea that the good-tasting Viceroy adult mimics the appearance of the poisonous Monarch is just not true. In reality, the Viceroy may be worse tasting than the Monarch and they imitate each other. In other words, the Monarch and the Viceroy both dress in the gang clothing of the “we be bad” club and dare all comers to try them out. Technically this is called Mullerian Mimicry when two equally noxious creatures mimic each other to the benefit of both.

The Viceroy does what it takes to get life done even if it means putt’n up with a little crap.  In a way you could say that they represent the ultimate in creative expression.

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