Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

May 09 2016

Nature’s Perfect Partners: PBS NATURE May 11

Barbell fish clean hippo's skin and teeth (photo courtesy PBS Nature © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)

Barbell fish clean hippo’s skin and teeth (photo courtesy PBS Nature © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)

Oh my!  Is the hippo eating these fish?!?

No. He could eat them if he wanted to but these barbell fish are his helpers.  They eat ticks from his skin and food from his teeth.  It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The hippo and the barbell fish are just one example of the unlikely partnerships animals make with other species.  Watch the premiere of Nature’s Perfect Partners on Wednesday May 11 to learn about many more — lizards with lions, a fish with a blind shrimp, toads with tarantulas.

Here’s a preview:

Don’t miss Nature’s Perfect Partners this Wednesday May 11 at 8pm EDT/ 9pm CDT on PBS.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.


(photo courtesy PBS NATURE © Mark Deeble/Vicky Stone)

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Jan 08 2016

Natural Born Hustlers: PBS NATURE

Are humans the only species that fools others to survive, find food, and mate?  Not at all!

This month PBS NATURE premieres a new three-part series, Natural Born Hustlers, airing on PBS on Wednesdays, January 13, 20 and 27 at 8:00pm (ET) (check local listings).

Episode One, Staying Alive, focuses on survival techniques:  camouflage, dominance tricks, audio mimics and playing dead.  Early on I was amazed to learn how zebras’ stripes create an optical illusion.  You have to see them in motion to believe it!

Other fascinating finds are the amazing skin-morphing camouflage of cuttlefish, the lizard that walks like a stinky beetle, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys who calculate whether they’re needed in battle.  “More capuchins are killed by their own kind than by predators,” says the episode.  What an unfortunate trait to have in common with humans.

The video excerpt above gives you a good idea of animals’ ingenuity.  California ground squirrels use their enemy’s scent as protective camouflage.  Their arch enemy is the rattlesnake, so if you hate to look at snakes this video will make you flinch.

And fair warning to those afraid of snakes:  Staying Alive has quite a few snakes in it including a match-up in North Carolina of a harmless species that mimics the coral snake.  The bonus is that you can identify birds by song on the audio track.


(Natural Born Hustlers trailer from PBS NATURE)

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Jan 06 2016

The Living Bridge

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

A “living bridge” of army ants, species Eciton hamatum. (photo courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

Now that the Greenfield Bridge is gone over the Parkway East, my neighbors are joking that we need a zip line to get to Schenley Park.  If we were army ants, we could build a bridge of our bodies to solve the problem.

Native to the tropical rainforest, army ants are famous for their foraging habits.  The colony has no permanent home and is always on the move like an army, killing and eating other insects and raiding their nests.  The columns of workers are so focused on their task that they overcome obstacles by building living bridges of their bodies across the gaps.

How big a gap will the ants bridge? How do they modify it for different conditions?  To learn more about their behavior, Matthew Lutz of Princeton University and Chris Reid of the University of Sydney studied Eciton hamatum in Panama.  They inserted the apparatus shown below into army ant paths and varied the angle — 12, 20, 40, and 60 degrees — to see what the ants would do.  It turns out that ant bridges are more sophisticated than anyone knew.

Researchers found that the ants start from the narrowest point and work toward the widest point, expanding the bridge as they go. (Courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

For instance, the bridges are typically 10-20 ant-lengths but the ants don’t start building at the widest spot.  Instead, they start from the narrowest point and make the bridge longer to shorten the overall path.  They also give up on a bridge if it ties up too many workers to make one. As Iain Couzin, Lutz’s graduate adviser, explains:

“They don’t know how many other ants are in the bridge, or what the overall traffic situation is. They only know about their local connections to others, and the sense of ants moving over their bodies,” Couzin said. “Yet, they have evolved simple rules that allow them to keep reconfiguring until, collectively, they have made a structure of an appropriate size for the prevailing conditions.

Could we humans bridge the Parkway East with our bodies?  No.  We aren’t long enough and we don’t have enough legs to hold onto each other.  Besides, some of us are afraid of heights.

Army ants aren’t afraid of heights. They’re blind (!) and have no idea how far they’d fall if they failed.


(*)Read more about the study here at Princeton University news.

(photo courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

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Dec 27 2015


Oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Back in November I found these round hairy growths on the backs of many oak leaves at Hillman State Park in Washington County, PA.

From above they look furry but up close I can see that they’re fibrous.

Close-up of oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Close-up of oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No doubt these are galls, structures grown by the tree itself in response to chemicals deposited by a tiny insect that laid eggs on the underside of the leaf.  The insects are usually gall wasps (Cynipidae) whose larvae are protected by the gall.

There are 750 species of Cynipidae in North America, best identified by the characteristics of the gall and the plant it’s growing on.  What does the gall look like?  What species is it growing on?  Where is the plant located (geographically)?  What part of the plant is the gall growing on?  If on a leaf, is it on the upper or under side?  Is it on a twig?  A bud?  Etc. etc.

Extensive searches of produced similar photos but no final identification.  The closest was this one:  A gall wasp (Cynipidae) in the genus Acraspis, photographed in Guelph, Ontario.

So I’m back where I started.  I know the name of the wasp (as far as I care to know) but what is the name of the gall?


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Dec 08 2015

Invasive Species: Earthworms!

Robin feeding earthworm to its nestling (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

Robin feeding earthworm to nestling (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re all familiar with this sweet scene of a robin feeding earthworms to its young, but did you know this worm is non-native and invasive?

It’s true. 10,000 years ago the glaciers killed North America’s native earthworms.  Though there are still some natives in the south they work deeper underground than the European and Asian worms that arrived with immigrants in potted plants, root balls and dry ballast (soil).

Until quite recently I thought earthworms were native. All my life I’ve watched robins yank them out of the soil and seen them on the sidewalk after heavy rain.  Gardeners and composters are happy with them, too, but…

Lumbricus terrestris is an invasive earthworm in North America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Lumbricus terrestris is invasive in North America (photo by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, Belgium via Wikimedia Commons)

What’s good for the garden is lousy for North America’s forests. Earthworms churn the soil column and devour leaf litter, invertebrates and fungi that our northern forests rely on. The result is a lack of ground cover and poor regeneration of the trees.

The problems are especially acute at the edge of the earthworm advance around the 45th parallel, Minnesota for example.  Studies have shown this lowly garden friend is responsible for the decline of ovenbirds in northern Midwest forests and the decline of forest orchids. Oh my!

Like the emerald ash borer, we humans have accidentally introduced a species that’s bad for the forest.  The only way to stop it is for us to stop moving worms and soil.  Composters and gardeners take note!  If you’re on the edge of the earthworm advance — in Minnesota or Maine, for instance — don’t buy worms.  (Pittsburgh isn’t on that edge; earthworms have been here a very long time.)

Meanwhile, thank heaven that robins eat them!

Want to learn more? Watch this 10 minute video from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.


(robin photo by William Majoros via Wikimedia Commons. Earthworm photo by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, Belgium via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Dec 06 2015

Now’s The Time To Look For…

Hemlock wooly adelgid (photo courtesy Sarah Johnson, The Nature Conservancy)

Hemlock wooly adelgid (photo courtesy Sarah Johnson, The Nature Conservancy)

Last week Sarah Johnson at The Nature Conservancy reminded me that early November to late March is the time of year to be on the lookout for hemlock wooly adelgid.

The Nature Conservancy, Pennsylvania DCNR, and the US Forest Service are tracking the advance of hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) in hemlock conservation areas and the High Allegheny Plateau of northwestern PA and western NY.  They need your help.

Hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), originally from Japan, kills eastern hemlocks in 4-20 years by sucking the lifeblood out of them.  A hemlock with an adelgid infestation like the one above is doomed.

By knowing where HWA has newly arrived, the survey may be able to treat key trees until a winter-hardy biological agent is ready.

So if you’re out birding in Pennsylvania’s north woods(*) and you see these white wooly balls at the base of needles on the undersides of hemlock branches, it’s the dreaded adelgids.  Note your location and contact one of the folks on this list.  Do NOT take a sample.

If you’d like to participate in the official survey, call or send email to Sarah Johnson at, 717-232-6001 Ext 231.


(photo of hemlock wooly adelgid courtesy Sarah Johnson, The Nature Conservancy)

(*) The survey location runs from Cook Forest to New York’s Allegany State Park.

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Oct 13 2015

A Reason For Variegated Leaves

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Evidence of Leaf Miners (photo by Kate St. John)

Evidence of Leaf Miners (photo by Kate St. John)

Have you seen leaves with unusual patterns like these?  Did you know they’re caused by an insect?

Leaf miners are the larvae of moths, sawflies or flies (and a few others) that eat leaf tissue within the leaf.

The process begins when an adult insect lays her eggs on the leaf.  When the larvae hatch they eat a tunnel between the top and bottom surfaces and the leaf turns white where it’s been mined.  The mining squiggles are so unique that entomologists can identify the insect species by the pattern it makes.

In 2009 botanists discovered a healthy plant in the Ecuadoran rain forest whose leaves appeared to have leaf miner damage but did not.  They wondered if the pattern was a signal so they painted similar white trails on green leaves and compared leaf miner damage on three kinds of leaves: green, naturally variegated, and fake-variegated.

The results showed that variegation is a mimicry defense against insect invaders.  When an adult leaf miner sees a leaf that looks eaten, she won’t lay her eggs on it.

So that’s a reason why plants have variegated leaves.  Cool!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 11 2015

A Hairstreak On The South Side

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

White-M Hairstreak at Berg Street steps, 4 October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

White-M Hairstreak at Berg Street steps, 4 October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

A “hairstreak” is not a new fad in South Side hair styles.  It’s a small butterfly.

A week ago I walked the Black Route on South Side’s Pittsburgh Step Trek. It took me two hours to complete 3.29 miles and climb up and down 1,692 steps but I found a reward.

This White-M Hairstreak butterfly (Parrhasius m album) was perched on the railing at the Berg Street steps.

Local butterfly expert, Monica Miller, tells me this one is a good find.  She (who has so much experience!) has seen only three White M Hairstreaks in her life.

I had no idea I could find such good butterflies in the City.  Woo hoo!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 05 2015

Don’t Touch!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


This caterpillar is almost as cute as the Woolly Bear (Isabella tiger moth) with fluffy white fur, a black dash down his back, and a little black face, but…

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


Don’t touch him!

This is a hickory tussock moth caterpillar and those long white hairs contain allergens that will make you sting and itch as if you’d touched stinging nettle.

The hairs are actually hollow spines, the perfect delivery system for chemicals that prevent him from being eaten.  Even a clueless young animal will only mouth this caterpillar once.  Inquisitive humans who’ve touched him will tell you the spines can stay in your skin and make you miserable for weeks.

And don’t touch his cocoon either.  It’s covered with the same nasty hairs.   Click here to see his cocoon.

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are easy to find right now because they’re preparing to spin the cocoons where they’ll overwinter.

Here’s another view so you can memorize his appearance.

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


Follow this simple rule about caterpillars and you can’t go wrong:  Look but don’t touch!


(photos by Kate St.John)

p.s. Read more about hickory tussock moths in this entertaining article by the Bug Lady at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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Oct 03 2015

Correcting My Punctuation

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Question Mark butterfly, topside (photo by Kate St. John)

The butterfly in question, topside (photo by Kate St. John)

Let me begin by saying I am not a butterfly expert.  I can recognize 10 butterflies, yes only 10, and I regularly misname three of those.

On Thursday at Raccoon Creek State Park I saw lots of Comma(*) butterflies so I took some pictures.  Sorting my photos this morning, I looked for this one showing the comma on the underwing.

The Question Mark on the underwing (photo by Kate St. John)

The Question Mark on the underwing (photo by Kate St. John)

Uh oh!  That white mark is not a Comma.  That line has a gap!  This butterfly is a Question Mark and it’s likely the others were, too.

Commas and Question Marks look similar because they’re closely related, but I could have identified them without a photo if I’d learned these field marks:

Comma (Polygonia comma) Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
Less common Common
Smaller wingspan 1.75″ to 2.5″ Larger wingspan 2.25″ to 3.0″
Forewing Topside: 3 post-median spots Forewing Topside: 4 post-median spots
Hindwing ragged edge Hindwing rather straight edge
Hindwing Underside: Comma is white, large, hooked on one end, continuous, bulging at both ends Hindwing Underside: Question Mark is white, curved, broken in two pieces, one large & one small piece


Here’s an illustration of the Question Mark’s 4 post-median spots, circled in blue with a yellow arrow pointing to dash/spot #4.  Click here to see 3 spots on a Comma.

Question Mark butterfly, topside annotated (photo by Kate St. John)

Question Mark butterfly, highlighting 4 post-median spots (photo by Kate St. John)


Both butterflies are active this month so I’ll get another chance to try my ID skills before they overwinter.

I hope I’ve finally corrected my punctuation.


(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) No, not Commas. Question marks.

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