Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 28, 2009

Not All Bad

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:33 pm

If there’s one thing to say about gobies it’s that they are not evil. Yes, as an alien species here in the New World their existence threatens the delicate balance of life in the Lakes. Go ahead and Google the word Round Goby and you’ll be bombarded by page after page detailing the dastardly deeds of this finny villain. All of the bad press is certainly true – they eat fish eggs, out-compete native fish, and they are ugly (although this last charge is certainly not the most heinous). These destructive little Europeans are home-wreckers here in the Great Lakes. But, it is worth while to consider that back in their home world they are just another fish in their sea. They are, in fact, quite incredible little fish. This alone is enough reason to take a look at one of these fellows through un-judgmental eyes every once and a while.

The Round Goby is just another fish in the Caspian Sea- one of the largest bodies of enclosed water in the world.  It’s hard to say exactly – or easily – exactly where the Caspian lies because it is surrounded by so many countries. Let’s see, there’s Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran and a few more “stans.”  Back in the bad old days you could have simply said that they are from Russia (with love), but not any more. Gobies are also found in the Black Sea which happens to be bordered by the likes of  Turkey, Bulgaria, Romainia, Ukraine, etc., etc.  It is very possible that the gobies came to Lake Erie  in order to see what it was like to be in a place bordered by only two countries!  Admittedly, this is only a theory. This was a fish with no country to call it’s own. At any rate, there are at least five related goby species found in that region and all are stocky, tubular, and bottom dwelling (and all equally without a home country). Our little alien friend happens to be a very typical Goby.

I plucked our sample Goby (see above) out of the Lake Erie sand last month. This creature was waiting out a wind tide within the confines of a little pool of water under a rock (see below). He was very much alive when handled for these shots. The first thing to notice about this species is the compact structure and the bulldog facial features. The blue-gray eyes are located high up on the head and the mouth appears a bit over-sized. Gobies will eat anything that fits into that sizable maw – be it a bait worm or another fish of slightly smaller size. They are almost cartoonish is appearance (although not so funny if you are a bait worm or that other slightly smaller fish!).

Although you can’t see it in these views, the top fin has a prominent black dot on it which is employed as a signal beackon for “talking with” other gobies by semaphore. There are also two huge side fins, called pectorals, that flare out from just behind the head. The most unique fin feature is the pelvic, or bottom, fin that you can clearly see in the view below. This single fin is actually a pair of fins that are fused together to form a suction cup. None of our native fish have this bottom-hugging  feature.

Gobies have to stick to the bottom because they have no swim bladders to keep them afloat. They scurry along the substrate using their huge pectoral fins like legs. Whenever they achieve some height in the water column, after great exertion, they sink back to the bottom as soon as the effort ceases. I suppose I should mention that this individual appears to be so dark because it was a male in breeding color. Normally these fish are light brown with dark side spots, but males can turn dark brown or even black when in “the mood.” Even their eyes will cloud over with an iridescent glaze.

Apart from being interesting to look at, Round Gobies do reveal an unintentional good side to their alien nature. Here in their Great Lakes home they have proven to be a Godsend for Lake Erie Water Snakes, who eat them like popcorn. Small and large-mouth bass, along with Walleye, will also feast upon them. One fishing tackle manufacturer has even come out with a Goby-shaped lure as means to catch lunker fish.

So, as you can see, they’re not all bad.

November 24, 2009

As You Are Now So Once Was I

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:53 pm

I’ve been “on the road” lately and have had little time to post a significant blog entry (as opposed to a twitter tweet).  My recent travels delivered me through airports and cityscapes that are far removed from any inspirational wild place or thing. At least that was my excuse. But on one of my recent stops in Hartford, Connecticut I decided to challenge that idea. There had to be something of natural or historical interest here in the capitol of the Nutmeg State. I headed out of my hotel and ventured toward the largest green spot I could locate on the city map – venerable old Bushnell Park. Fortunately, the desired inspirational moment arrived well before reaching the park itself.

Just a block or so away from Bushnell, my gaze was drawn to an archaic looking wrought iron fence protecting a plot of burial ground adjacent to an old church building called Center Church. Everything about the place looked old -very old. As it turned out, the current church was actually the fourth edifice of its kind on that site. The first one was constructed back in the late 1630’s and this  “modern” building – the young upstart structure – was built in 1807! My thoughts on what was “old” and what was “very old” began to change.

It was the church’s gravestone studded hillock that really drew me in, however. The cemetery complex was tightly tucked within the modern town. A shimmering glass office tower walled in the north side while the constant hum of city buses defined the streetscape on the western border (actually, being an out-of-towner, I am not sure which direction was which in this case). Within the confines of the burying ground all trappings of modern society were held at bay. Here was a cluster of some of the most remarkable New England tombstones I had ever seen.

The stones spanned the centuries from the early 1600’s to the early 19th century, but most were of 18th century vintage. Not a one of them was straight, of course. Among the earliest was that of Andrew Benton who “dyed Ivly 31 Ano 1683” (see here ). “Ivly,” by the way, means “July” (“I” is an alternative form of “J” and “v” is the stonecarver’s version of the letter “u”.)  Sentiments carved into the brownstone ranged from syrupy to extremely sparse. One tiny stone bore only the name of “Katy Marfh” (again, “f” means “s”- her name was Marsh) while another waxed poetic with a rythmic reminder to the living by saying “as you are now so once was I.” I’ve included a few more photos of these stones for you to look at (see here, here, &  here ). We’ll come back some time later and discuss the meanings behind the flying skulls, cherubs, and urns topping these monuments.

By the time I was done viewing these incredible stones and thinking about some of the incredible lives they represented, my concept of “old” was really starting to morph. Some of the unmarked burials in this ancient ground are of native Pequot people who can claim original occupancy of this site. They represent “old old old” traditions going back a thousand years or so. But, long before the Pequot arrived, other nameless native groups lived and died on this spot for over the course of some ten thousand years.  Now I was getting to the “old old old old” category and in danger of thinking too much.

This train of thought continued to the level of the very gravestones themselves. A majority of the monuments were carved from native Brownstone quarried in nearby Middleton, Conn. This material was formed during the Triassic period about 230 million years ago at a time when North America and Africa were in the process of separation (Continental Divorce, you could say).  So, the stones which long ago were in-scripted with “Here lieth the body of…” were themselves formed during the age of dinosaurs. These rocks are really really very and truly old – perhaps the “oldestest” of the things I saw on the walk. For the sake of sanity, I decided not to include the sun in this mental exercise, by the way. It trumps all in terms of age.

Speaking of the sun, I left the graveyard and hurried down to Bushnell Park in order to take in the sights before that ancient star disappeared for the night. It’s not that I feared being in an old New England cemetery full of ghostly skulls and hollow-eyed angels after dark, it’s just that well… really, I had to be getting on. There in the park,  just before sunset, I stepped off the sidewalk and found myself treading over a golden carpet of Cypress & Gingko leaves (see below).

Both of these species are trees with ancient lineages. A forest floor covered with both of these leaves serves as a re-enactment of the dawn times. The Bald Cypress is a needle bearing tree (see below) which sheds its leaves like a deciduous tree come winter. It dates back to the Miocene era some 17-20 million years ago and it has remained relatively unchanged since that time. The Ginkgo (see fruit, leaves and seed here and here) has the oldest lineage of all. Leaf impressions of this species have been found in sediments dating back to the Permian.  Ginkgos were already old-timers by the time the dinosaurs arrived on the scene. And, oddly enough, they actually pre-date the formation of the brownstone formations by a cool 40 million years!

While I am fully aware that the actual trees are under 100 years old, it’s their family history that counts in this mental exercise. Members of their kind will likely remain to drop leaves on our tombstones long after you and I have entered the realm of “old older oldest.”

November 18, 2009

The Case of the Shivering Moth

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:22 pm

I will admit that the title of this blog sounds like one straight from the casebook of Sherlock Holmes – as in the “Case of the Creeping Man,” etc.  But this title instead refers to a case that has already has been solved and doesn’t require the services of that legendary sleuth from Baker Street. We know why the moth shivers, my dear man (as Sherlock would have put it).  He shivers to generate heat so that he can fly on a very cold day.  However, the very fact that there are moths that can fly on very cold days is in itself one of those mysteries of life that never fails to amaze, wouldn’t you say Dr. Watson? I therefore ask you to be the good doctor in this scenario and respond by saying “yes, Holmes, I guess it is a curious case of thermodynamic magic.”

It is a fact that there are a select group of moths living in the northern temperate zone that are actually active in the cold season and inactive during the warm season (see example in photo above). This frigid gang of Nacht-Vlinders , generally referred to as the Winter Noctuiids, completely reverse the normal life cycle of their fellow moths. They emerge as adults in the late fall and  live through the winter. Their eggs are laid and produce spring caterpillars but these ‘pillers “estivate” (or hibernate) through the summer and don’t finish up their business until the following fall. All of this is leading to the reality that these moths need to fly when the temperatures drop well below 50 degrees. In order to do so, they engage in thermogenesis.

Take a look at this video and you’ll see one of these winter moths preparing to fly on a recent 32 degree morning. I believe it is a type of Sallow Moth (see below). Don’t ask me exactly which kind of Sallow because I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t care, but I just don’t know and frankly haven’t had the time to track it down. In my defense, these things tend to be a bit non-descript in appearance and, …anyway, never mind we are getting off point here. This moth needed to get his body temperature up to around 86 degrees F before it could fly. That is the required minimum for flight muscles to work – it is also a 54 degree difference from the ambient air.

The necessary heat, in such a situation, can be generated by intense bouts of shivering – aka thermogenesis. On fairly warm days, it only takes a few minutes to get up to snuff, but there’s a whole lot of shaking needed as the temperatures approach the freezing mark. It takes nearly 30 minutes of shivering to reach the proper core temperature when the ambient air is 32 degrees F. Remarkably, these creatures are able to restrict the heat build-up to the wing muscles muscles only. Through a special set of internal vessels, the thing is able to keep the thermostat down in the abdomen, head, and feet. Because the body is covered with “hair” (actually modified scales called pile) the precious heat is retained.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see if this individual flew off. The morning sun beckoned me to other tasks. I’m confident he warmed up sufficiently enable himself to at least move into some protective shelter. Oddly enough these winter moths fly mostly in the evening when the sun is unavailable to provide any additional heat. As winter advances and the temperature falls well below the 30’s, our Sallow Moth will eventually retreat to the cover of the forest leaves and hibernate through the coldest months. Even winter moths can’t produce internal heat when the air is below 30 degrees F or so.

In the Case of the Shivering Moth, then, it’s all done with shivering  muscles, my dear Watson – the most elementary of means.

November 14, 2009

A Bitter Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:38 pm

There are times when wild animals really don’t want our help. Sometimes they just need to work things out on their own and without our opposably-thumbed assistance, thank you.  Take the recent case of an American Bittern recently “recovered” in the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area marsh. Two birders encountered this bird last week. The sight of an American Bittern is always a welcome sight – especially given the fact that these secretive marsh birds are becoming rare (listed as a “special concern species” in Michigan). Add to this reality the additional fact that they are very hard to see even when standing in front of you. Because of their cryptic coloration and their preference for slinking through the shadowy narrow spaces under the cover of cattails and rushes, they can be downright ghost-like.  On top of all this, the find was notable because of timing. Bitterns, like most members of the heron family, migrate south for the winter. Some individuals venture all the way to the sunny climes of Central America. Mid Novembertime is well past the time to expect a lingering Bittern.

This Bittern find was marred only by the fact that the bird was apparently injured. It was stumbling though the grass and suffering with an “apparently broken right wing.”  The birders were able to get hold of it (getting the proverbial bird in hand away from the bush) and secure a contact number for a re-habilitator.  I had nothing to do with the details of this particular affair other than having the opportunity to give the creature a quick visual inspection. Frankly, I had never seen one this close and my “inspection” amounted to little more than taking a few detail pictures (see above and here).  Since healthy bitterns do not, as far as I know, willingly allow people – even birders – to simply pick them up I assumed the thing had to be  “hurt.” The “injured right wing” was held tightly by the birder and was not visible.  The bittern exhibited  no signs of pain or discomfort, but did look…well, indignant at best or pissed at worse. Hurt things need help, however. The bird was safely in the hands of a wildlife rehabilitator, some 40 miles distant, by nightfall.

A few days later, contact was made with the re-haber – a Ypsilanti area resident named Carol – to see how her fragile charge was doing. She responded by saying that the bird was doing very well and was, in fact, without injury. It had neither a broken wing or leg or broken anything, she said. There was no visible sign of trauma what-so-ever. It simply stood in the corner, flared out his wings, and lunged at her with deadly intentions every time she approached. Apparently the Bittern had either ingested some bad minnows or perhaps eaten a fermented frog. Whatever the case, it had been only temporarily “out of it” and the issue was resolved by a good healthy “dump.” It was perfectly healthy and ready to kill anyone attempting to “help” it again.

The decision was made to get the poor thing back to Mouillee as quickly as possible. I picked it up, neatly re-boxed into a cat-carrier(see here), and delivered the bitter bird to a nice cat-tailed spot at the game area.  The box shuffled only slightly during the entire return trip – the occupant making quick moves whenever my shadow passed over one of the ventilation holes. A pair of very intense eyes greeted me when I cracked open the box lid (see above). American Bitterns are known for their terrific cattail pose in which they point their beak straight up and align their striped features with the surrounding vegetation. They even have been known to enhance this act by rocking gently back and forth like the wind blown plants about them. But, bitterns can also assume a terrific threat pose if frightened or ticked. This bird was in classic tick mode with flared head feathers and opened wings (perfectly healthy wings I might add). The beak was raised and both eyes were focused forward at a single point in the universe – me.

Like a frightening jack-in-the-box, the bittern suddenly lunged forward out of the box while delivering a dagger attack at the position where I was (as in formally) standing (see above). It then retreated immediately and prepped for the next jab. It would be professional of me to say that I was prepared for such an explosive action but I was not professional. You’ll note the blurred action in the photo as I reeled backwards. Only via a very careful and remote manipulation by a cattail stalk was I able to gingerly open the second half of the lid enough to convince the flustered soul to finally leave his confines. It jumped the box and stalked off into the marsh. After one angry look back, it lowered it’s neck and melted into one of those shadowy narrow spaces between the cattails.

This was not one of those magic goodbye moments that you see in the movies. Good intentions mean absolutely nothing to a marsh bird.

November 11, 2009

Blood on the Trail

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:27 pm

The autumn White-tail rut provides a showcase for all kinds of testosterone driven activities. There are saplings out there to be pummeled, ground to be pawed, and scent saturated urine to be spread about. No, I’m not talking about the activities of those orange-clad victims of buck fever who take to the woods pursuing monster bucks, but am referring to the animal these humans are seeking. For love-sick male deer, November is the signal bell that initiates a period of intense pummeling, scraping, strutting, peeing, and goring toward reproductive success. Individual females are only receptive for a few days and there is no room or time for weakness. Only the dominant males earn the right to breed.

Normally, the question of dominance is settled peacefully by a simple matter of size – antler size, that is. A meager spike horn will not challenge a stately six, eight, or ten pointer in the hierarchy. The larger antlered deer is assumed to be the rightful lord of all the does in the vicinity on the merits of his rack alone. Bucks of different rack sizes will often engage in innocent sparring matches, but these don’t amount to more than confirmation exercises. Dominant bucks also maintain a series of scrapes and sent marked trails to advertise their virility to all comers. The problem comes when two bucks of equal measure are interested in the same female. Unable to assess each other by visual means, they are forced to settle the matter with a show of power. A buck fight can be a violent and deadly affair.

I was lucky enough to witnesses to one of these matches recently.  A pair of eight point bucks elected to duke it out at the trail head at Lake Erie Metropark near the Marshlands Museum. The rumble took place at high noon and within photo distance of the museum lobby. I was able to record most of the event as a distant observer. From behind the protective enclosure of the glass I was even able to shout out like an animated viewer at a boxing match and engage in a bit of maleness. Fortunately, there was not another human soul around at the time.  Take a look at the tussle in this video here or slip on over to the longer You-Tube version (You-Tube video here).

Overall, the fight probably lasted only about three minutes. By the time I started filming, the thing was well underway but there was still two minutes of contact to go. The two bucks never broke their entanglement during this whole time. Each was trying to push the other backward and/or catch his opponent off balance. Bark chips and dirt flew up from time to time as one or the other would dig in with his hind legs and drive forward. They kept their heads down  and sideways with locked antlers maintained at right angles. Thickened necks were held rigid as high arched shoulders provided a platform for the front legs to claim ground. It was an exhibit of sheer power.

I never saw the contested doe during this match, but the fracas did draw the attention of a spindly four point. This smaller buck circled excitedly around the fighting pair like some sort of referee. He was hardly an impassioned observer, however. At one point he rushed at them as if considering a run at the prize money and then wisely veered off. This deer could have been shouting “deer fight, deer fight!” for all I know, but if he did I could not have heard it from my position behind the lobby glass.

If you look closely at the video you can see that the eventual loser tried to break things off about twenty seconds before finally succeeding. His left antler was hooked into his opponents rack as the dominant buck pushed him back. It took a quick sideways jerk to free his tines and then he was off. The winner was hot on his victims trail as they bounded off into the hawthorn thicket.

I saw the winning buck come out of the brush about ten minutes later (see above). Mouth agape and panting heavily, he trotted north and disappeared up the trail. The loser was seen sneaking south across the parkway by a park visitor. I’m sure the four-pointer went off to tell his fellow dorks about the “big fight.”

After the battle, I examined the arena where events had unfolded. The ground was plowed for about fifty feet along the trail (see here). Tufts of hair were scattered about the scene and the autumn leaves were evenly mulched into the bark chips and soil. Scattered drops of rich red blood (see below) on the ground provided evidence that this fight was an intense one. Since I saw no injuries on the victor, I assumed these scarlet markers were from the vanquished buck, although I doubt that the wounds were serious.

The heavy scent of testosterone still hung in the air only minutes after the conclusion of the fight. For a moment I felt an uncontrollable urge to do a head butt into a tree – but only for a moment.

November 8, 2009

Sweet Feet

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:12 pm

It’s duck hunting season out on the Detroit River right now. Along with all those mallards, black ducks, gadwalls, canvasbacks, and  buffleheads out there, coots are also on the list of fair game. Huge rafts of those round black birds can be seen floating across the autumn riverscape (see below).  They bob, dive, fly, and cavort within easy range of the well concealed waterfowlers. Such behavior might seem foolhardy- even crazy “as a coot” type behavior- but the fact is most hunters don’t bother taking them. They are just too easy to shoot and they aren’t especially desirable as a game bird. A few locals will take coot when the opportunity presents itself. In fact, according to a duck-hunting friend of mine they are good eating birds and he claims “they taste like any other duck”. This same friend  dropped a freshly killed specimen off at the nature center yesterday. The intention was for me to give it to our captive eagle for dinner, but that destiny would had to wait until I had the chance to give the potential meal a visual once over.

The thing that immediately impresses you about this creature are their incredible feet. In a natural world of fantastic feet these peds are over the top – more like pea pods than duck feet. Well, part of that discrepancy can be explained because Coots are not ducks at all. They are members of the rail family. Most rails are small-bodied secretive waders who sneak through the muddy spaces in the marsh undergrowth. Coots, on the other hand, are colonial and aquatic. They play the part of the “crazy uncle” within the rail world and dress up in a costume that makes them look like a chicken in a duck outfit. Ducks have fully webbed feet, however, and coots have only partially webbed toes.

One wouldn’t think that this bird could ever walk on land with those over-sized green and blue feet. Oddly enough, not only can they walk on land, they frequently do perform the task – and do it well. Coots can even run if pressed to do so. John James Audubon once described a scene where he witnessed a veritable herd of coots rumbling over the landscape adjacent to a river. He said they looked for all the world like Guinea Hens. Audubon shot into that herd’o coots and killed four birds outright (not for food, but as artistic subjects). The rest flew out over the river where he continued to pursue them. On terra firma, the long slender toes are allowed to spread out to provide support. In the water the lobes flare out with each backstroke and withdraw as the feet are brought forward. An underside view reveals that the lobes fold back like airplane flaps (see here). These feet are perfectly designed multi-tasking tools.

During the breeding season coots even duke out their differences using their feet. They will go at each other like kick boxers until the issue is settled (when the old coot is defeated by the crazy young coot).

One look at the face of a coot will reveal that they know just how great their feet really are (see here). Just look at that wonderful little smirk – a smile retained even in death. The snow white beak of this bird, complete with a frontal shield topped with a dashing patch of dark red,  is an amazing structure in and of itself. This is a chicken’s beak really- equally meant for active grazing on land and water, and for plucking snails and hard bodied invertebrates. No wonder the American coot is frequently referred as a Mud Hen (even though the name is also applied to the gallinule).

Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or space to look at the rest of the coot in question.  Suffice it to say that the charcoal gray body is plump and the wings are far too short to work properly. But, like the feet, the wings do work and these creatures are capable of long migration flights.  The ungainly nature of the coot is nothing more than a clever ruse to fool duck hunters and naturalists alike. They are neither sleek nor beautiful colored, but they are beautifully made if the beholder looks at them correctly.

November 5, 2009

Quality Tadpole Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 pm

November might seem an odd month to turn one’s attention to the subject of tadpoles. Indeed, most of the tadpoles out there have already converted over to adulthood and are now preparing to over-winter as four legged folk. Bullfrogs (and some Green Frogs) are the exceptions to this rule. They overwinter at least once (often twice or more) as a tadpole before moving on up into the big leagues. November, therefore, is a time when these big babies are still very active under the cold gray water.

I can’t really tell you why I chose to spend some quality Bullfrog tadpole time this week – call it guilt, I guess. The local marsh is chock full of  wiggling bullfroglets who make their presence known by breaking the surface for an occasional  gulp of air (you could say they are breaking wind). I momentarily stop to watch them but generally continue on. There’s only so much you can get out of a swarming mass of tadpoles sequentially breaking wind.  I also have two of these critters sitting in my aquarium and they spend a lot of time staring blankly through the glass. I’ve walked by them countless times without giving them so much as a glance. When I do glance over, I find them doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time- aquarium tadpoles apparently don’t find it necessary to break wind. They are, in fact, hard to see against a weedy background thanks to some superb camouflaging (see here).

Recently, I realized that a glance wasn’t enough.  Bullfroglets don’t give up anything at a glance – they require a prolonged visual assessment. Up close and personal, they are really exciting…o.k., not exciting…let’s just say fascinating.  They are fully developed creatures in their own right and much more than mere transitional forms. They are neither fully fish nor frog.

We can chalk that mindless fish look down to the fact that they have no eyelids. Adult frogs have the ability to close their eyes, but the young-uns are condemned to a life of blank unfocused staring. This look is accentuated by the fact that they hold their mouths open all the time. They breath using gills – two sets of three contained within a pouch behind the mouth- and, like fish, they take in water through the mouth and tiny nostrils and pass it through internal slits and over the gills. Unlike fish, however, these gill chambers are sealed and all the water is expelled through a single breathing pore located on the left side of the head (see above view).  This breathing pore, which appears as a spout, is hard to see unless it is in use. The adults are red-blooded lung-possessing air breathers

Bullfrog tadpoles also have lateral line spots just like fish. These special sensory organs are equipped tiny “hairs” (frog fur is very fine) which detect motion and changes in water pressure. The adults have no such thing because they rely on excellent eyesight and sound detection to avoid predators. Tadpoles can’t see or hear very well…I said TADPOLES CAN’T HEAR VERY WELL…they have no middle ear and apparently hear what they need through their skin (and what remarkable skin it is – look here at a detail). There is probably little need for a sophisticated ear to listen to all their aquatic buddies blowing bubbles in the tub.

Speaking of organs, perhaps the most remarkable organ is the mouth (see detail above and here). Here we have a beast that has a tiny mouth equipped with a horny beak (you know, like that giant squid that tried to eat Kirk Douglas in 20,000 leagues Under the Sea), fleshy lips (like Sydney Greenstreet in the The Maltese Falcon), and multiple rows of teeth on its lips (like…absolutely nothing else on the planet!). Yes, the Bullfrog tadpole has three rows of comb-like teeth on the lower lip and a few rows on the upper lip as well. Tadpoles are algae eaters. Every time the tadpole takes a bite with that beak those rasping lip teeth rake the surface like an industrial sander. There are even dozens of rubbery “lip fingers” lining the outer fringe of the mouth to prevent food particles from floating away.

There are many other Bullfrog tadpoles high points to cover, but after mentioning those incredible lips I feel that there is no real need to continue.  QTT has it’s limits.

November 2, 2009

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:03 pm

You might remember that a few weeks ago I posted a piece on some  un-natural late season events. I included a Red-Panicled Dogwood in flower & a trio of Monarch Caterpillars still munching away on late October milkweeds.  Since that time I’ve seen, or heard of, a few more somewhat freakish off season items including a few emerging Polyphemus Moths and a deer fawn still nursing from her mom. I can explain the moths since they weren’t from a local source. They were  probably southern types unaccustomed to this whole cold weather thing – their built in timers were unfortunately set on Dixie time. The nursing fawn, on the other hand,  illustrates a slightly out-of-the-ordinary late date for nursing. Apparently deer fawns have been known to  nurse until mid-October, even though most fawns are full grass-eaters by that time. The Monarch situation stilled baffled me.

I left that trio of Monarch expecting that they would a) die within a few days , b) live to pupate and then die within a week, or c) die from starvation because the milkweed has dried up. At any rate, death was the only possible option  in their case -assuming the sun didn’t explode and turn late October into August (my Polyphemus moths would have liked that!). I didn’t expect the sun to explode nor did I expect to see them again.  Last week I happened to wander by their withering milkweed patch and was shocked to see two of the caterpillars still in place. They were alive, although not especially well (see below). They’d not grown a millimeter since I last observed them and it was obvious they were stuck in their final instar. In short, they were cold, miserable and near death. It looks like the cool weather had stymied their digestive systems and they weren’t processing their meals properly.

At this point, I probably should have continued on and let nature take her course. After-all, these guys were representing the end of a somewhat stupid genetic line. We all know what nature does to stupid things. Instead, I elected to take in these seasonal orphans – along with what remained of the green milkweed leaves (five in all) – and let them finish out their mission within the summer climes of my workplace. I have done many stupid things in my life, so I felt empathetic towards these fellow stupids. They were like kin to me in a way. On the way back, I stopped to place one of the ‘pillers on some brightly colored Sugar Maple leaves and recorded another entry into my “Impossible Picture” file: A Monarch caterpillar against a fall background (see beginning picture).

Within a few days, my charges ate their fill (pooping out a ton of previously un-pooped poops!), and they prepared for poopation…er, I mean…pupation. Although both ‘pillers performed the ritual, only one chose a highly observable position on the aluminum foil at the top of the jar. They had woven a small patch of silk and dropped into the  “J” position which precedes pupation (see here). It was around 2:30 in the afternoon that I noticed this monarch twitching. On a whim, I then decided to catch this one in the act of transforming into a chrysalis. I set the creature in a place where I could take a series of photos and waited and waited and waited and…  Well, it took nearly eight hours of watching (including a trip in my car) before the event happened. It was well worth the wait.

The unveiling process unrolled quickly once it began. I took shot after shot until the final stage was reached.  Then, I went to bed.

Take a look above at a few of the sequential shots and then click onto this link to see a flip-book sequence of the events. Just before shedding its skin, the monarch’s “feelers” go limp and the creature does an alphabetical shift from a “J” to a capitol “I.”  The skin split along the back and slowly peeled up and away. One thing that I’ve never noticed before (Yes, I saw this twenty years ago) was the sudden appearance of a lateral line dark line just before the splitting occurred. I’m thinking this was some sort of ligament which acted to pull the old skin away. The eerie, but miraculous, sight of a lumpy green pupal form emerging out of a harlequin striped caterpillar is a sight that will never cease to amaze me.

Once the old skin was peeled all the way up, the caterpillar-turned-crysalid wiggled about until the hooked cremaster grabbed the silk pad. At this point the chrysalis was self supporting and it continued wiggling until the old skin finally dropped away. It took an additional hour for the chrysalis to assume the squat Monarch form as it shortened.

And so there you have it – a stupid caterpillar changing into a beautiful, but still stupid, chrysalis.  You and I are now witnesses to the last great miracle of summer. In a few weeks I trust the adult (s) will emerge like astronauts out of a remote time capsule. It will take a while before they realize that they are the only ones of their kind left on the northern edge of the planet. They may never actually realize this before they die. I will feed them none-the-less and thank them for their magnificent (though stupid) performance.

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