Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 28, 2013

Thirteen-lined Seed Lover: Part 13

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:04 pm

No, this isn’t really part 13 –it is only part 2 and the final in a two part posting on the 13 lined Ground Squirrel (It just sounded good).  If I was a squirrel researcher I suppose I could have written a 13 part “War and Peace” version and it would have been riveting, let me tell you. But my scope and my knowledge  is much more limited in this case. That is not to say that this topic doesn’t deserve a few more words.

We’ve already spent time on the naming issue and established visually, and textually, that the bold patterning of the 13 liner acts as a perfect camouflage. For an animal that lives in open spaces this is a crucial feature since it is always subject to predation from coyotes, foxes, hawks and a whole host of Thirteen-lined Seed Lover Lovers. The chosen habitat consists of low grass fields located in sandy and well-drained soils. In nature such locations are called prairies and the original range of this squirrel was limited to the great central prairies and oak openings of the Midwest. The farming and mowing habits of humans have extended the animal’s range by carving ideal habitats out of the eastern woodlands.

Ground Squirrels, true to their name (yet again) are diggers. They perforate their chosen home space with a variety of burrows. Some are shallow escape tunnels while others lead to deeper nesting and storage chambers. The soil around a burrow entrance is fanned out so as not to stand out above the grass level. When constructed, these ground squirrels employ feet and even head tamping to pack and spread the soil – creating meandering furrows leading away from the entrance. My Wisconsin squirrels rarely ventured far from their burrows and were always within a body length of escape.

Surprisingly, however, they were not timid – allowing me to approach within a few feet before dashing into their refuge of safety.  Although it may be that they were frozen in fear, I believe part of this boldness stems from the fact that they know what is coming from a long way off and are rarely surprised.  Like tiny Meerkats, they will stand bolt upright to survey their environs.  Bulging eyes allow a somewhat panoramic view with a limited piece of vision behind their heads.

In this stance, and when examined close up, they look very much like Prairie Dogs (except in body décor, of course). They are related to them, so this is to be expected. Unlike “dogs” which are colonial town-dwelling beasts, thirteen-liners are basically solitary in habit. They will be found in groups only because they are mutually attracted to the same habitat (kinda like suburbanites who live in closely packed houses but rarely know their neighbor two doors down). Within their small family groups they will deliver Prairie Dog kisses to each other by touching noses.


Also like their Prairie Dog cousins TLGS have very small ears. For comparison, compare them with tree squirrels and chipmunks which have prominent “sticky outty” ears. For lack of a better word, I would venture to say that these ground squirrels have Cauliflower ears in the tradition of LaMancha goats. Having already stated that they have Prairie Dog ears it probably wasn’t necessary to bring up the goat comparison as well, but I’ve always liked LaMancha Goats and this was the first time in my blog that I had an opportunity to incorporate them.

In order to conclude this tome I’ll have to bring up that naming thing one more time. Even though Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels are truly “seed lovers” they actually trend toward the carnivorous side of the plate and are considered to be the most carnivorous of their clan. They frequently nab grasshoppers, eggs, or even flesh if it is available. So, after all this we must consider Carnophilus as yet another suitable genus name for the thirteen-lin……… I am getting tired of typing that name and trying to come up with suitable synonyms. In fact, I suspect you are getting a bit tired of reading about these Thirtee……things as well. So, let’s conclude while we can and retire in the knowledge that these…thir….er, little seed/meat lovers are fine little beasts. I will still, and always, call them Spermophilus tridecemlineatus no matter what the scientists say.

September 22, 2013

Thirteen-lined Seed Lovers: Part One

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:40 am

Alas, I just found out that one of my favorite scientific names of all time may have been yanked from the biological lexicon.  Spermophilus tridecemlineatus , which can literally be translated into “thirteen-lined seed lover” has been the long standing scientific name of the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. The name is so clearly descriptive and wonderfully Latin that I can scarcely think of another more perfect example. Being a simple, if often overly descriptive type of Naturalist, I employed it ad-nauseum over the years (almost as often as I used the phrase ad-nauseum). Today the creature’s name is frequently reported as Ictidomys tridecemlineatus – making it sound more like a disease than a rodent.

Up until a few weeks ago, before my trip to Wisconsin, I was still blissfully ignorant about this change. So, I could blame Wisconsin for my loss. The picnic grounds around Ottawa Lake in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest were crawling with these striped rodents.  But blame is not the proper word here.  I should praise them (whoever them, are) for pulling the blinders off mine…er, my eyes. After photographing and observing these little creatures ad-nauseum I hit the “books” to find out something more about them beyond my favorite Latin name factoid.

Imagine my horror upon discovering that someone had re-examined the whole ground squirrel classification system a while back and decided to make the change based on genetic reality.  No one told me about this and thus I was a bit miffed. My hurt translated into a Corn Nut eating binge which ended in a chipped tooth. Thank you Wisconsin, Corn Nuts, and you, you meddling taxonomists you.

The selected genus name- Ictidomys – actually predates Spermophilus name. It first appeared in an 1821 work by naturalist S.L. Mitchell which was called, in part, “A Description of Two Mammaliferous Animals.” You should have seen my spell check react when I typed in that title! My initial loss of a tooth and a name may have been replaced by a new favorite title. Well, anyway, one of the two mammaliferous types described was the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. The seed-lover designation has since been shifted over to a gang of closely related European ground squirrels (Mein Gott!).

The good thing about all this is that the animal itself has not changed one iota in spite of its many name changes. You know what they say about “a rose is a rose.”  J.J. Audubon called it the Thirteen-lined Spermophile, some call it the Leopard Ground Squirrel, and the Minnesotans supposively used this creature as the model for their “Golden Gopher” name. Gophers, as found in office place settings and across the Great Plains, are totally apart from ground squirrels but that is grist for another day. For the most part the common name of our subject has remained fairly consistent over the years.

Now that I’ve wasted sufficient screen space on Corn Nuts and naming notes, it is time to turn our attention to the ground squirrel in question.At this point it may border on the ridiculous to say that Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels are small ground dwelling members of the squirrel clan which have thirteen stripes running down their backs. Oh, yes, they also love seeds by the way.

Let’s go back to the stripe thing if we may. Mammals, at least our North American Mammaliferous types, tend to be rather boring when it comes to color and patterning. Chipmunks, other ground squirrels, the Wisconsin badger, and at least one bat do their part but the bold linear pattern of the T.L.G.S. tops them all.  An alternating set of seven dark brown and six cream colored stripes run down the entire length of their backs. The dark brown stripes are perforated with cream spots – starbursts really – prompting some to call this the “Star-spangled Banner Ground Squirrel.” In fact, probably only a few inebriated picnickers actually call it by that nom de plume but sometimes drunk people can be incredibly witty just before they toss their cookies.

The true meaning of this whole thirteen line thing becomes immediately apparent when you see this ground squirrel in its native haunts. It’s not about being different or flashy, quite the opposite.  It is all about blending in. The stripes offer a perfect camouflage against a grassy backdrop. I leave you with a photo to demonstrate this fact.

Sure twelve lines, even ten, would probably do the same job but in this case thirteen is not just an odd number, it is a perfect number.

September 14, 2013

Bundling Humblebees

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:19 pm

As the sun lowered on the horizon at Kettle Moraine State Forest (Wisconsin) it cast a level light into the vegetation and exposed the normally shadowed portions. Thanks to this new look on life, I spotted an unusual “nut” dangling from the branches of a Black Walnut tree. Instead of the expected fruit, this formation was a lumpy formation of yellow and black fuzz suspended off a leaf.  Initially it appeared to be a giant bumblebee. Closer inspection, however, revealed it to be a conglomeration of bees– a bundle of bumblebees, if you please.

To put this into musical terms, this unusual clump consisted of a B major surrounded by a half dozen B minors (Bm). To put this into natural terms (which I should have done in the first place) this appeared to be a Queen Bumble and her court of drones. In bee societies drones are male bees whose sole job is to impregnate the queen and die – preferably in that order. By all appearances this was a gang of hormonally enriched drones all sleeping with the queen and all hoping for a genetic chance to contribute to the betterment of beedom. Upon further research, this interpretation turns slightly suspect.

Bumblebees (known as Humble bees in Europe) are not cast in the same mold as the more familiar Honeybees. The Honeys form complex mega societies with well-defined caste roles and brooding structure (aka combs). Colonies can consist of thousands of individuals and last over several years. Bumblebees, on the other hand, create small colonies consisting of only a few hundred individuals who join together to make a ramshackle cluster of honey pots inside an abandoned animal burrow or an old birdhouse.  Every single worker, drone, and even the aging queen dies off every fall and the colony must be re-established annually by a new queen.

It would be easy to say “humbles bumble and honeys hum” in terms of their respective seasonal progressions, but that would be unfair. Both do what they have evolved to do and obviously the native Bumblebees are into the peasant mode of insect existence. The role of the queen and drone in Bumblebee society is a departure from the honeybee pattern. In late summer, the newly made queens and the drones fly away from the colony, but the queens will only mate with drones from other colonies.

So, you (and I) say the bumblebee cluster I observed must be a mating swarm, of sorts, consisting of a native queen and a court of un-related suitors. This activity does occur in late summer, but the problem lies in the manner. It seems that bumbles don’t “swarm” but instead mate individually with individual drones. I have yet to find a record of clustering such as I record here. Instead of declaring this unique or earth-shattering, I will simply repeat my earlier phrase “I have yet to find record” and bow to ignorance. Hopefully someone who got an A in B class will C this post and place a D on my B knowledge and provide the missing record.

As a parting thought, I believe the female had settled in for the cool evening and that the drones, also seeking night shelter, simply hung on for the night. The group was inactive when discovered – another reason to believe they were settling in for the night. By dawn’s light the next day, the group was gone. I imagine a bit of arguing and jostling occurred before things were resolved and the genetic intention of the gathering was completed.

It is worth noting that once a new queen has mated, she will return to the old colony and proceed to pig out on the stored honey. She fills her so-called “honey stomach” and then hibernates through the winter as a lone fat bee in small hole somewhere. As I mentioned before, all the other bees in the old colony die of starvation while the corpulent queen snores in comfort.

September 7, 2013

On Gaping Clams and Panting Squirrels

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:42 pm

The haphazard and somewhat random nature of this posting stems from the fact that I am writing this while on the road. Do you have any idea how demanding it is to type, scroll , and formulate meaningful thoughts with one hand on the wheel, the other on the keyboard and the third on a cup of coffee…er, I meant the second on the cup and the… see what I mean? Watch out for that deer. OMG it’s so small and…it…it’s not a deer it’s a lawn statue. O.K., where were we? Oh, yes…the blog. I have a collection of thoughts based on a few photos.

My road trip took place during an especially hot weekend towards the end of August. The thermometer was edging past 95 degrees in spite of the fact I was in northern Michigan.  There was a vigorous wind blowing but it wasn’t refreshing in the slightest – more like a blast from Hades (aka a Beazulbub blow). Nature is used to such events by this point in the summer and the deep leathery green of the leaves attests to many such scorchings.

I stopped at a roadside park and watched as a black Grey Squirrel sauntered across the path in front of me. It did not bound, but instead snuck across in that weasel-like way often associated with these weasely squirrels. The beast ignored my presence completely and plopped itself belly down on a cross rail of a split cedar fence. Pressing his tummy directly against the shade-cooled wood of the rail, it allowed one foot to dangle lazily down and leaned its chin on a pair of pensively folded front paws. It looked and acted hot. What a bummer, I thought, to be a long-haired jet black creature on a hot day.

This thought prompted a memory of an earlier conversation I had about black phase Grey Squirrels. A random color variation of the Grey, black varieties become much more common the further north you go in the squirrels range. In some places, even though the melanistic (black pigment) gene is supposively recessive, the black phase dominates (three out of the four Grey Squirrels I ran over on this trip, for instance, were of the black type). I’m not sure anyone really knows why this is so. Some have theorized that it is due to the colder nature of the climate in northern areas. Because black absorbs heat, ergo, blacker beasts stay warmer in northern climes. Indeed this may be true to some extent, but upon analysis this fails to hold any water (or heat).

Northern animals tend toward whiteness as a matter of fact. Some, like snowshoe hares and some weasels, even convert from dark to white as the seasons progress into coldness. Polar Bears do have black skin, but are covered head to toe with white fur and they live in the Arctic.  Skunks are black but they are also nocturnal. Large Black Bears are diurnal and they are just as black in the steamy environs of Louisiana as they are in chillier climes of northern Michigan. No, there must be some other hidden selective force at work and I am not smart enough to figure it out… at least for today.

Now that I think of it, perhaps the effect is the opposite. The black squirrels are the “normal” ones and the grey varieties are the odd ones. The gray Greys predominate in the southern population where long hot summers prevail. Northern black Greys cook in the southern sun and tend to melt away like tiny Wizard of Oz witches. Yes, that might be it. I will accept my genius award at the next rest stop.

A stopover at a shallow cedar lined pond revealed several freshwater mussels on the silty bottom. Their shells were gaped and they were feeding. The warmth of the day probably had little effect upon them and they may have been enjoying the rays of the late day sun (you know what they say about happy clams).

A feeding clam is a fascinating creature. The tiger-striped folds of the fleshy mantle are exposed and constricted to form a small intake siphon tube and a larger outflow siphon tube. Sediment/detritus rich water is sucked into the intake and blown out the outflow.  This is what a mussel does all day with little thought for black squirrels or lawn deer. Suck in –blow out. Easy.

These particular mussels also revealed a great pile of stringy poop piling up aft of their outflow siphons. Lack of current, or movement, on their part has enabled a sizable pile to accumulate. I realize that such an observation may not be especially pleasing to the reader, but it affords an opportunity to fully appreciate mussel anatomy. It also allows us to realize that even clams are smart enough to direct their poo away from their intake.

As cool weather approaches the clams will shut down and burrow into the muck to wait out the winter. The black squirrels will stand out like sore thumbs as the winter snow flies but at least they’ll be slightly warmer by the time they are grabbed by a passing hawk.

And now, let’s end with a shot of a bountiful crop of wild grapes and move on down the road.

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