Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Time Slowed Down

Dorsal and ventral views of museum specimen, Morpho menelaus, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Dorsal and ventral views of museum specimen, Morpho menelaus, subspecies from Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The most beautiful butterfly I have ever seen lives in the jungles of Central and South America.

The blue morpho (Morpho menelaus) is as large as my open hand, iridescent blue above and patterned brown below.  When it flies, sunlight winks blue on its open wings.  On the upstroke it shines gold.

In Panama we were transfixed when blue morphos appeared one by one above the road, floating toward and over us.  They defied our efforts at photography so I looked for a video on YouTube.

But only the slow motion videos matched my memory of morphos. (We did not see the black-blue butterfly in this video, only the all-blue one.)

 

In fact they flew rather fast.  You can see in this video how hard it is to keep up with one.

 

My memory of these butterflies is in slow motion because my brain was busy processing the new and beautiful experience.  This happens to all of us when we focus on new information.  (Read more here about our perception of time. )

Perhaps that's why I enjoy the beauty of nature.

When I watch blue morphos time slows down.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  All videos from YouTube; click on the YouTube logos to see the videos full screen)

Something To Be Thankful For

Living with Alligators PSA 2018 from My FWC on Vimeo.

April 4, 2018:

Spring is on hold again as the temperature falls to 26 degrees F tonight -- but here's something Pittsburghers can be thankful for 😉

Yes, it's cold in Pennsylvania and spring takes too long to get here but we don't have to worry about this message from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

However, if you live in Florida or plan to visit please pay attention.

Tweeted last week by @MyFWC:  Warmer spring weather means #alligators are more active. Here’s how to stay safe: ow.ly/ULpK30ja6V4 #Florida

Alligator safety message from Florida WFC
Alligator safety message from Florida WFC

 

(message, video and poster from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission)

Pike Spawning!

Northern pike, Aquarium Dubuisson (photo by Luc Viatour | https://Lucnix.be via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons license)
Northern pike, Aquarium Dubuisson (photo by Luc Viatour, https://Lucnix.be via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons license)

I usually don't pay attention to fish but when Bob Machesney emailed me that northern pike are spawning at Moraine State Park I went there on Tuesday to see(*).

Northern pike (Esox lucius) are big predatory fish, 16-22 inches long, with a holarctic range.  When Europeans came to North America they found a fish they knew from home. Britons named it "pike" because it resembles the long thin poles historically used as weapons.

Like other predators northern pike lie in wait, camouflaged and motionless, until their prey comes close. They then burst out of cover, grab the animal, and swallow it whole.  Most of the time they eat fish but will also eat other animals in the water including birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs and even their own young.

Northern pike are loners except during the breeding season when the males and females hang out together and splash a lot in shallow weedy places.  Spawning is triggered by water temperature and runs full tilt when the water reaches 50 degrees F.  The female is larger than the males who swim close by her side as she broadcasts 3,000 to 120,000 sticky eggs over the vegetation.  Her eggs hatch unattended in 10 to 12 days.  (Read more about their life cycle here.)

This short GoPro movie from Ontario shows what spawning looks like above the water and what the fish looks like underwater.

And this video from the Norfolk Broads of England shows pike spawning and explains what they're doing.  (I went birding at the Norfolk Broads last summer.)

Lake Arthur warmed up early this year at Moraine State Park so the fish were busy when I saw them on 27 February.

In the days ahead, look for northern pike spawning in the weedy shallows of western Pennsylvania.  You'll find them in Lake Erie, in the Allegheny and Ohio watersheds, and in lakes stocked by the PA Fish and Boat Commission.

 

(photo by Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. videos by Chris Bro and Fishtrack on YouTube)

(*) Bob Machesney saw them spawning next to the Muddy Creek railroad grade on 26 Feb 2018.  It's a 0.8 mile walk from Burton Road.  If you go, wear your muck boots.

Caterpillar Flings His Enemies

This big, green hornworm is nothing to mess with.  When threatened, he hisses and lunges.  If that doesn't work, watch out!

See him grab attacking beetles and throw them across the room.  In every contest, the caterpillar wins.  Read more here in Science Magazine.

The Langia zenzeroides hornworm is from Asia but I wonder if our North American hornworms fling their beetle enemies.  Imagine the match-up between a tobacco hornworm and a blister beetle, both pictured below.

Tobacco hornworm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tobacco hornworm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blister beetle, Grove Run Trail, Linn Run State Park, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Blister beetle, Grove Run Trail, Linn Run State Park, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

I wonder if they ever meet.

 

(video from Science Magazine on YouTube; caterpillar photo from Wikimedia Commons, click on the image to see the original; blister beetle photo by Kate St. John)

Hope For What We’ve Lost

Fall colors of white ash, 26 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Fall colors of white ash, 26 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Two weeks ago I lamented that fall color is disappointing this year but I should have waited.  The trees in Schenley Park looked better last week with red maples, yellow hickories, and this small tree reminding me of what we've lost.

Those pale green, yellow, orange and violet leaves are on a small ash tree whose trunk diameter is too small to be plagued by emerald ash borer ... and now I've found out why.

Before the emerald ash borer (EAB) invasion, mature ash trees added pastel violet to the splash of color on our hillsides but now only the saplings are left.

Just across the trail from the ash sapling stands a mature ash that's alive, though struggling.  Some upper branches have died back and there are sucker branches below them.  An old emerald ash borer hole shows what the mature tree was dealing with.

White ash tree with emerald ash borer hole in bark (photo by Kate St. John)
White ash tree with emerald ash borer hole in bark (photo by Kate St. John)

The old tree is alive because it received insecticide treatments during the height of the EAB invasion from a program of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh.   Beginning in 2011, 158 specimen ash trees were treated in the city parks.  This one is #76 according to the metal tag.

White ash tree with tag indicating it is treated for emerald ash borer (photo by Kate St. John)
White ash tree with tag indicating it is treated with insecticide for emerald ash borer (photo by Kate St. John)

Years later it appears that emerald ash borer numbers have dropped and it wasn't because we used insecticides.

Scientists working on EAB biological control in Michigan found that many factors contributed to the emerald ash borer population collapse there.

"Woodpeckers, native and introduced parasitoids, intraspecific competition, disease, innate tree defenses, and reduced ash abundance contributed to the collapse of EAB populations."

Notice that woodpeckers are at the top of the list!

Second on the list are four tiny parasitic insects that kill emerald ash borer larvae.  Two native insects target emerald ash borers through the thin bark of saplings and at Michigan study sites scientists introduced two more parasitic insects from China, the emerald ash borer's homeland, to get through the bark of mature ash trees.

Thanks to the hard work of scientists and arborists we may hope that our ash saplings will grow into mature ash trees.

Read more about ash tree biological controls at this U.S. Forest Service webpage.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

An Insect Surrounded

Gall on black walnut leaf, 2 Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Gall on black walnut leaf, 2 Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

When an insect laid its egg on this black walnut leaf, the leaf responded by surrounding it to wall it off.

That's exactly what the insect had in mind.  The wall makes it safe.

Now that the leaf has fallen from the tree, I wonder what will happen to the insect.

p.s. I have no idea which gall this is.  Do you know?

 

(photo by Kate St.John)

Autumn’s Flying Ants

Citronella ant, Lasius interjectus, with wings (photo by Alex Wild via SmugMug)
Citronella ant, Lasius interjectus (photo by Alex Wild via SmugMug)

On warm fall days look up and you might see swarms of flying ants.  Flying high, they're annoying at hawk watches.  What are these ants and what are they doing?  The answer is more interesting than you might think.

Flying ant swarms are the mating dance, the nuptial flight, of winged male ants and virgin queens.  Each species has its own time of year for mating.

If you've never seen a swarm here's what it looks like, filmed at a tall grass prairie in Nebraska (20 seconds).

 

The ants are so preoccupied with mating that they don't pay attention to what's nearby and are easy prey for migrating dragonflies, cedar waxwings, and even ring-billed gulls.

 

Don't worry. The swarms are not termites. Termites make their nuptial flights in the spring and, if you look closely, they're different from ants.  Ants have pinched waists and "nodes" at their waistlines. Termites do not.  Here's a visual comparison -- not to scale -- of fire ants on the left and eastern subterranean termites on the right.

Compare body shape of two wingless insects: fireants and eastern subterranean termites (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Compare body shape of two wingless insects: fire ants and eastern subterranean termites (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

In autumn in Pennsylvania the swarms are sometimes citronella ants, Lasius interjectus (shown at top) or Lasius claviger, described here by Penn State Cooperative Extension.  The name comes from their lemon smell when threatened or crushed.

Citronella ants spend their whole lives underground except when they emerge to mate.  They're actually "farmers" who tend their livestock -- aphids -- and harvest the aphids' honeydew.  This video describes a citronella ant colony.

 

After the nuptial flight the male ants die and the fertilized queens shed their wings.  They don't just shed them, they yank them off!  Watch this citronella ant use two of her six legs to pull off each wing (7 seconds).

And then the queen walks off to find an underground place to nest.

There are so many ant species that it takes an expert to identify them.  If you know which ones fly at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in September, please let me know.

 

(photo credits: citronella ant photo Lasius interjectus by Alex Wild via SmugMug, composite photo of fire ants and eastern subterranean termites from Wikimedia Commons.  video credits: Ant swarm in Nebraska by Evan Barrientos on YouTube. Citronella ants by Chris Egnoto - The Naturalist's Path on YouTube.  Ant yanking off its wings by David Shane on YouTube)

Caterpillars As Transformers

Woolly bear caterpillar, Pyrrharctia isabella (photo from Wikimedia)
Woolly bear caterpillar, Pyrrharctia isabella (photo from Wikimedia)

On Throw Back Thursday:

More amazing than a Transformer toy that changes from a robot into a spaceship, this woolly bear caterpillar will wrap himself in a cocoon and spend the winter transforming into a moth.

So will this hickory tussock caterpillar ...

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)
Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

... and this Promethea caterpillar.

Caterpillar of the Promethea moth, twig held by Ramona Sahni (photo by Kate St. John)
Caterpillar of the Promethea moth, twig held by Ramona Sahni (photo by Kate St. John)

Odd and ugly caterpillars become beautiful -- or boring -- moths.

Who becomes what?

Chuck Tague's 2010 guide to caterpillars and moths has the answer in photographs.  See A Game of Cat and Moth: caterpillars and what they become.

 

(photo credits: wooly bear caterpillar by Christopher Jones from Wikimedia; click on the photo to see the original. hickory tussock moth caterpillar by Kate St. John. promethea moth caterpillar by Kate St. John)

 

Leaf Miner on Coltsfoot

Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)

Autumn is a good time to look for unusual leaves. They used to be boring until something happened to them.  Like this.

There's an elaborate squiggle on this coltsfoot leaf (Tussilago farfara) made by a leaf miner, an insect larva that makes a path as it eats within the leaf tissue.  Eventually the larva settles down to pupate and the path comes to an end.  When the adult insect hatches it leaves a hole.

What makes these lines?  I had no idea until I googled "leaf mine on coltsfoot"and found the answer.  A blogger at Nature Post collected similar coltsfoot leaves, put them in jars, and waited for the adult insects to appear.  It turns out his leaf mines were made by tiny moths called Phyllocnistis insignis.

See more leaf mines and a photo of the adult moth in his Nature Post from October 2013:  A Little Scientific Discovery.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

Webs in the Trees

In the spring we saw tents in the trees.  Now we see webs. Though similar in concept, the structures aren't made by the same species.

The springtime tent, located in the crotch of a tree, is made by eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) who emerge from their tent to eat young leaves as they unfurl.  The webs, located on the branches, are made by fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) who hide in the web and eat leaves that will fall off in a month or two.

Since late summer female moths have been laying egg masses on deciduous trees.

Fall webworm moth (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Fall webworm moth (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After a week the eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars who build a web to completely enclose themselves and their food.  As they eat, they build the web larger to enclose more leaves.

Fall webworms avoid coming out of the web until they're ready to pupate. Then they hide their cocoons under flaps of bark to overwinter and emerge next year.

Though the webs look ugly they don't harm the trees because the leaves will drop soon anyway.

See webworms in action in the video above from The Capitol Naturalist in D.C.  Read more in this vintage article from 2011:  Coming Soon To A Tree Near You

 

(photo of fall webworm moth from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)