Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 20, 2011

Back to Back Nature

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:54 pm

My recent encounters with a turtle, a snail, and a daddy long-legs, have introduced me to a leech, a fish, and a little pile of crap. Please let me explain.  In all three cases, these initial encounters led me to discover something new either upon the original creature’s back or pretty darn close to it. The third discovery led to yet another piggy back situation. So, you could say that I have a back-to-back nature theme going here. Let’s start with the turtle and his little friend.

June is turtle month (when local turtles come out to lay their eggs), so it was no surprise to come upon a medium sized Snapping Turtle lumbering across the grass the other day. She was headed back to the water – having already done her duty – and was looking pretty tired and dried out. She neither objected to, nor condoned, my presence but sat complacently for examination.  There was a large boldly patterned leech suckered onto the rear portion of her shell. I’ve rarely seen a wild turtle without a resident leech or two, but this one was an eye-catching example.  Not all leeches are plain and ugly – some are patterned and ugly (see below).

Snapping turtles are a safe bet for aquatic leeches because they are large, slow moving, full of nutritious blood,  and spend very little time out of the water. June leeches have to sweat it out in the open dry air if they chose a female for their ride. This one was “hangin’ shell” and waiting out the overland excursion. Condensed to a resting length of about two inches, this hitchhiking annelid (segmented worm) was conserving all the moisture it could. Leeches have sucker discs at both ends of their body and both the anchor and mouth discs were employed in this circumstance. When back in its liquid element it will stretch back out to eight or more inches in length.

A Ramshorn snail (see above) pulled up from the shallows of a Lake Erie marsh revealed another sort of shell rider.  June also happens to be Carp month (much to the angst of the turtle union). This is the time when so-called German Carp (aka Dutch Carp to the Germans) venture to the weedy shallows for spawning. The gravid females enter the marsh literally exploding with upwards of 2 million eggs per, and they spew their cargo onto the submerged plant stems and leaves. The eggs, about 1 mm in diameter, are sticky and they adhere to anything they touch. In this case, a slow moving snail was caught in the egg fall and became un-willing host to at least 4 carp eggs. Two of them are visible in this shot (below).  It is a good place for an egg and a completely indifferent situation for the snail.

Normally, carp eggs hatch in 3-6 days, so it remains to be seen if these fry will ever have the chance to acknowledge their unusual wet nurse.  Can you imagine the ribbing these carplets will take as their viscous schoolmates taunt them with chants of “Na, na…you’re a son of a snail!” Because there are no mirrors underwater, the snail would remain ignorant of the whole thing.  There is no chance his reputation will suffer given the slow communication network within the snail community.

On a final note, a close-up look at a Daddy Long-legs (above) revealed that the dropping on the leaf next to it was, in fact, an insect. I actually took a shot of the Daddy before I noticed the secondary creature on the leaf. This larval Tortoise Beetle was in little danger from the predator lurking right next to it thanks to its impressive array of defenses. An adult Tortoise Beetle, although well camouflaged, is a nice looking critter (see here), but the larva is not.

There turned out to be several of these unusual larvae on the Canada Thistle plant. All were equally un-noticeable thanks to their unique method of protection.  Tortoise beetle larvae are intensely offensive little beasts.  Not only are they are bristling with a body-encompassing array of outward facing spikes, they also carry a fecal shield over their backs. This shield is created by multiple deposits of droppings glued together by a liquidy paste politely called “exuvia.”  They are able to wave this poop club around when assaulted (see side view in begining photo).

Research has shown that the Tortoise beetle’s “S–t Shield (no, I will not spell that out for you) is laced with lots of nasty chemicals in addition to the nastiness already in the feces. So, there you have it. If you poop in your pants every day for the rest of your life, and never change those pants, you too can become a Tortoise Beetle Larvae. You’ll never have to worry about enemies…or friends for that matter.

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