Posts Tagged ‘insects’

Stacked wood, Falls of the Ohio State Park, Nov. 2013

Moving past the Woodland Trail Loop, I’m in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  It’s been more than a month since I last visited this area.  One of my favorite trees is here and although I’ve already missed the prime leaf color moment…I’m hoping some autumn splendor remains.  Along my walk I come across a driftwood structure that has been stacked teepee-style by other park visitors.  I see this kind of expression regularly and there must be a kinship between this activity and piling and stacking rock upon rock.  It’s satisfying to do and when you step back from your work…it’s obvious you left an impermanent mark in the landscape that says you were there.  The tree I seek is just a short walk away and in no time at all I arrive on the scene.

Cottonwood tree, late autumn, Nov. 2013

Under the Cottonwood tree, Nov. 2013

This old Cottonwood tree with its raised roots looms large in my imagination and is my personal favorite tree out here.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way because there is usually plenty of evidence laying around in the form of empty beer bottles, spent camp fires, and yes…the odd bits of furniture people drag to furnish the room that exists underneath the tree.  I’ll wager for some…this is known as the party tree.  I was elated to see that most of the junk (old tarps and a red couch) have been removed by some other purists.  The Cottonwood tree had already dropped most of its leaves, but there were still a few hanging on.  After resting a moment under the tree and admiring the distant view of Louisville across the Ohio River…I decide to turn for home.  I was in the process of walking away when I noticed something moving along the fossil rocks.  I froze to see if I could get a better look at the creature that was walking towards me.  Naturally, my camera is at the ready!

Golden Hour Ground Beetle, detail of head, Nov. 2013

detail of head from Golden Hour Ground Beetle, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2013

Regular visitors to the Riverblog know that the Falls of the Ohio State Park is home to several out-sized insect species that have uniquely evolved here.  All the different species are critically endangered and not to be harmed in any way.  I was quick to identify this as the Golden Hour Ground Beetle.  It was so named because it usually makes it first appearance of the day when the sun is about to set.  Otherwise, it is nocturnal in its habits.

Golden Hour Ground Beetle, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2013

Golden Hour Ground Beetle, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2013

The Golden Hour Ground Beetle does not fly.  It relies upon stealth and six strong legs to scramble across any surface.  In form, it is not unlike the much smaller tiger beetles that also make the park their home.  Unlike the smaller beetles, the Golden Hour Ground Beetle is a scavenger and not a hunter.  I suspect this specimen was at the Cottonwood tree because it has learned to find scraps of discarded camping food here.  This beetle has fairly large eyes that can gather the most meager light in the darkest of settings.  It’s abdomen is banded with a coarse hair that insulates this insect during cold nights.  As long as I didn’t make any rash movements, this giant bug was tolerating my presence.

Golden Hour Ground Beetle drinking water?, Nov. 2013

I observed my new “friend” moving to the water’s edge to obtain a drink.  I wondered if it had the ability to swim in its survival tool kit?  I watched the insect as it searched all around the fossil rock shelves that were created by the river dissolving the old limestone away.

Golden Hour Ground Beetle exploring a hollow log, Nov. 2013

View of the beetle through the hollow log, Nov. 2013

I came across a second giant beetle almost immediately after crossing the small creek that separates the western and eastern sections of the park.  Male and females are virtually identical.  There are gaps in our knowledge about their life cycle.  This specimen was in the process of checking out a short, hollow log.  I’m presuming that it was either seeking food or shelter?  I think poking my camera through the end of the log spooked this one a little.  It ran away, but didn’t go far.  I kept my movements to a minimum and after a while it seemed to relax again.

Golden Hour Ground Beetle relaxing on Sycamore tree roots, Nov. 2013

Beetle laying flat on a sycamore root, Nov. 2013

I observed this 14 inch or 35.5 centimeter beetle relaxing on the exposed roots of a Sycamore tree.  As the golden hour approached, the beetle stopped seemingly acknowledging this magic moment when everything is bathed in a warm golden light.  I did the same watching the sun set before finding my vehicle in the parking lot of the Interpretive Center.  To everybody in the wider world…have a great week.

The Golden Hour at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Nov. 2013

Read Full Post »

Tussock moth caterpillar, Oct. 2013   Red-faced and bizarrely hairy, the unique caterpillar of the Tussock moth was munching its way through a maple leaf.  Everything about its appearance says I’m not tasty and leave me alone.  It’s now October and it won’t be much longer before the first frost and freezes arrive and with it the colder temperatures which will quiet insect life at the Falls of the Ohio until next year.  The caterpillar inspired me to post a few other entomological images taken in the park.  I confess that I have always liked insects as examples of how diverse life can be.  I’m amazed at the incredible variety and forms that our six-legged friends can assume. Here’s another really weird caterpillar that I found at the Falls that I just haven’t been able to identify through any of my field guides.  Does anybody out there in blog land recognize this?

strange caterpillar from the Falls, late June 2013

This fluorescent green caterpillar has dramatic eye spots on its posterior that would incite a predator to strike there first.  Its anterior is located on the opposite end and I would have fallen for this trick too, but noticed that it was walking backwards.  I wondered once it completed its metamorphosis…would the adult be a moth or butterfly?  Maybe some day I will stumble upon and collect a large cocoon I don’t recognize and I’ll take it home and watch a miracle as it emerges from its silken home.

hornets and flies on willow bark, 9/2010

During this time of year, certain willow trees at the Falls are exuding sap which draws a variety of insect life including various flies, hornets, and butterflies to these sweet “licks”.  Whether the flowing sap is due to disease or injury is unknown to me? The large bullet-like hornets are so preoccupied with sipping the sap that they ignore me.  To test this, I’ve carefully touched them with my finger while they were feeding and they remained docile.  I was walking through the tall grass when I noticed a large flying insect land on the bush next to me.  Despite its wonderful camouflage I was able to locate our next insect after a short search.

Chinese Mantid, Falls of the Ohio, late Sept. 2013

This is the Chinese Mantid which I read was introduced into this country in 1896.  It is the largest praying mantis you are likely to come across in the United States and this specimen was about four inches or ten centimeters long.  I’ve seen them grow larger, but not in this park.  In fact, this is only the second mantid I’ve seen out here.  There are several native species, but they are smaller and more obscure.   And now, it’s time to reveal my most spectacular discovery which is a near but harmless relative of the praying mantis.  Here is a picture of its head.

detail, head of the Falls Phasmid Stick Insect, October 2013

And now, for the rest of its body which is about two feet long or roughly sixty centimeters.  I came upon this unique life form casually walking across the driftwood on its way to somewhere else.

full view of Falls Phasmid, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2013

Although as insects go this is a giant…it is also an extremely fragile creature.  It is a member of the walking stick family.  It relies on slow movements and its cryptic forms to merge with its surroundings.  The Falls Phasmid is strictly a vegetarian and eats the foliage from a variety of different trees.

aerial view of Falls Phasmid, Oct. 2013

I came across this specimen in broad daylight.  I had always heard that they were nocturnal and chose to restrict their movements during the day to avoid detection.  Walking stick insects are among the largest insects we have.  This species is additionally strange in that its head, thorax, and abdomen are so clearly differentiated.  Some scientists have gone so far as to suggest a bit of mimicry at work here.  On the surface it does seem to possess a superficial resemblance to a giant ant which might be enough to dissuade predators from attacking it.

Falls Phasmid hanging in a tree, Oct. 2013

I did observe this particular Phasmid making return trips to a particular willow tree where it clung to a nest-like structure that was hanging down from a branch.  The meaning of this structure was not immediately apparent.  Perhaps the Falls Phasmid uses this form to help it overwinter?  Keeping a respectful distance away, I did see the stick insect walking slowly over the riverbank, but I couldn’t tell if it was searching for something in particular and I did not witness it feeding.

Falls Phasmid Stick Insect, Oct. 2013, facing left

Falls Phasmid in the wetlands area, Oct. 2013

Originally, the Falls Phasmid may have had the ability to fly.  Other walking stick insects from around the world have vestigial wings that suggest a different past.  Our specimen lacks even the most superficial suggestion of wings which hints at an ancient lineage.  Perhaps all stick insects evolved here first and spread around the world much later?

Falls of the Ohio Phasmid Stick Insect, October 2013

I watched the Falls Phasmid for a while and took a bunch of photographs of it before leaving the park.  I’m curious about that tree that it likes to hang out on and so will check it the next time I’m here.  On my way out of the park, I also came around this wonderful Viceroy butterfly and thought that this would make a fitting image to end this post.  When I think of the butterflies that inhabit the park…this is the species that comes to mind first for me.

Viceroy butterfly, Falls of the Ohio, October 2013

Read Full Post »

I was walking through the woods on a sun-dappled day looking for migratory birds when I came across a new friend.  We talked for a little while before introducing ourselves.  Both of us remarked on the dry weather we have been having and I said that it’s official now.  September was the driest ever in the commonwealth of Kentucky since records have been kept dating back to 1871.  We have had a spits-worth of rain… that’s it.  Overall, this has been our third driest month ever, beaten only by two Octobers over the course of the past century.  We both wondered if this was an omen for this October?  We certainly hope not.  Having created some common ground, I introduced myself and she said to call her Minnie, Minnie Buckethead.

As it turned out, Minnie is an interesting old lady with a fascination for everything in the woods.  I asked if she had seen any migrating warblers and she had.  American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, were moving with small groups of other birds including Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.  I had seen nothing.  I definitely need to get up earlier in the day to catch the bird show.  Perhaps Minnie was taking pity on me and she said that there were a few other things happening in the woods and would I like to see them?  How could I turn down such a nice offer from an old lady?

We walked over to a large willow tree and I saw Minnie crane her neck and squint her eyes from the sun and she scanned the willow bark.  “Here” she said and I checked out what she was pointing at.

At first I thought it was a bee, but it was larger and more robust and not as big as a bumble bee.  There were others.  Walking around to the shady side I could determine that they are hornets of some kind.  The hornets and other insects were licking whatever was exuding from the willow tree.

“Don’t worry, they won’t get you”, she said.  The hornets were so preoccupied with the sap that they were quite tame.  Walking around the tree gave us this sight.  Three different species of butterflies also taking advantage of the willow bark.  The one in the foreground is the Red Admiral.  Although I hadn’t seen the hornets doing this before, I did say to Minnie that I had observed many butterflies on these willows and wasn’t it nice that so many living creatures could set aside their differences to take advantage of this common resource.  She just smiled.

I was appreciative of Minnie showing me the tree and so I tried to impart a little knowledge to her about the local cicadas.  I had come across a dead female in the sand,(identified by the hypodermic needle of an ovipositor she uses to lay her eggs under the thin bark of a tree).  I asked Minnie if she knew anything else about their life cycle and she said she didn’t and so I went on.  I told her that after the egg hatches under the bark, the nymphs drop down and burrow under the ground and attach themselves to the tree’s roots.  With this species, after a couple of years of sucking tree juices, they emerge from the ground and become adults which for cicadas, is a brief moment in time.  They mate, lay eggs, and then die after a glorious two weeks or so.  You find their split skins where they transform as juveniles into adults near where they emerged from the ground.  Here’s a pictures of the dead cicada, the split cicada skin, and a fresh adult.

With any life cycle it’s hard to know exactly where to begin and I suppose that’s the classic which came first question… the egg or the cicada? I’ll leave that to brighter minds than my own for now. 

Minnie listened attentively and then asked me to follow her.  She had something else to show me before we parted company.  We walked away from the willow tree to an area where several large logs were decomposing.  She pointed a thin finger at a yellow patch on one log’s side and I could see it was some type of fungus.  It seemed to be spreading outward as it broke down the tissues inside the tree. 

It was both fascinating and oddly repellent. On another nearby log was yet another fungi which I could identify as a fresh bracket or shelf  fungus.  The bright colors also seemed on the lurid side to me.

Minnie talked to me about what a wonderful system that nature has created to break things down after death.  Like these fungi were doing to what were once living trees.  She talked about how life depended on materials being able to decompose in order to release the nutrients that are needed for life to move forward.  This is what it means to live naturally and that we should look at the systems that the planet has in place and to learn from them.  With that, I took my leave and waved good-by to the old lady in the woods.

Read Full Post »

Dodging snakes and collecting washed up cigarette lighters with my friend Jeff was not the only action we had on this excursion to the Falls of the Ohio.  By now, I should not be surprised by what turns up at this remarkable location…because it happens with such regularity.  For me, the thrill of discovery has become addictive and interwoven into my creative process.  Recalling events, I believe it was my friend Jeff who stumbled upon this revolting artifact and so I will begin this story here.

It’s a very large jar of bologna.  The contents have more than settled, in fact they have decayed to the point of becoming cream of bologna.  I know, this is completely disgusting, but bear with me for the real point of the story follows this discovery.  It was a short distance from this jar that we encountered another remarkable member of the Genus Polystyrenus.

Hidden just out of sight among the debris line was this very large and aggressive looking insect.  I estimate that this impressive creature was about two feet long.  It would be an under estimation to say that both Jeff and I were taken aback (how we both avoided voiding our bladders upon our persons, I will never know).  After what seemed a very long length of time, the amateur naturalist in me took over and I began taking photographs and making observations.  Here’s a detail of its head and impressive jaws.  It’s small antennae were wiggling back and forth.

Looking at the mandibles, I’m guessing that this creature had adapted to eating meat or carrion, both of which are found at the Falls.  It emitted a sickly sweet odor.  I think our large bug friend had discovered the bologna jar before we did and we may have interrupted its meal?  Because this ant-wasp, (seems to have characteristics of both) did not defend its bologna bode well for Jeff and I.  In fact, we did learn that despite its fearsome appearance our bug friend was retiring and unaggressive.  I decided to tag along and learn what I could about this amazing one of a kind animal.

From a short distance away, I was able to observe some behaviors that I recorded with my camera.  I believe that my assumption about it’s being a scavenger is on target.  I watched our insect “friend” actively investigating an old bone it had come across.  The bone was rolled around in its jaws as though our bug was tasting it?  Finding no meat, it simply dropped the bone.  I also noted that this creature has vestigial wings that have atrophied to a yellow flap found attached to the rear of its thorax and ironically has the appearance of a fly swatter.  Perhaps its large size makes flight an impossibility and the wings have shrunk to the present size?

Near the tree line, and keeping a respectful distance away, I observed Polystyrenus investigating a large plastic pipe mostly buried in the sand.  It did attempt to dig away the sand blocking the entrance to the pipe, but soon abandoned this effort.  I don’t want to assume too much, but I was intuiting at the time that it was looking for a burrow in which to hide, etc…  I did make a discreet effort to determine its gender, but was unsuccessful.  Here’s my last picture of it.

Amazingly, our bug was making short work from what was once a large barge cable that was originally as thick as a stout man’s forearm.  It’s jaws easily shredded the nylon strands.  Why it was doing this…will require more research.  Shortly after this image was taken, the sound of loud, boorish people coming down the riverbank spooked our insect and it took off with surprising speed over the sandy surface of the Falls.  Perhaps it understood that Jeff and I posed no threat, but it couldn’t be certain of the strangers?  During the short amount of time I was studying this creature I also noted that it didn’t have claws to speak of and didn’t possess a stinger.  Perhaps I will encounter this insect or other large insect species again because this is not the only time I have come across similar giants.  Take a look at these specimens for which the genus Polystyrenus was originally named. 

This has been classified as Polystyrenus ichthyphagia, based in part on this remarkable photograph of it feeding on a non-native, dead fish.  I made this discovery several years a go…in fact, it is with some regret that I collected (euphemism for killed) this specimen and one other that turned out to be a male and female.  This was done of course in the name of science.  The one feeding on the fish is the female.  Note the flute-like ovipositor and vestigial wings which made a raspy sound.  The mouth parts on P. icthyphagia have adapted for sucking.  Why these large insects have appeared at the Falls is inconclusive.  But I believe this is evolution at work.  The more we change our environment, the more we affect not only ourselves but all the other creatures that call this place home.  It can’t help to release tons of fireworks chemicals into the atmosphere and what we do with the water in general is a crime.  I will leave my soap box for the moment.  I suppose the reason that these giant insects have evaded previous detection is that they so strongly imitate garbage and detritus that they can elude most people’s notice.  Here’s a photograph of the dried and preserved male and female P. ichthyphagia with its egg case.  There is some sexual dimorphism with the male being considerably smaller than the female.  These specimens are in separate collections now.  The name Polystyrenus was chosen because the exoskeletons of these amazing insects so strongly resembles polystyrene, also generically known as Styrofoam.  The largest bug here is over three feet long.

As a kid, I fell in love with one particular story that appeared in an old Natural Geographic entitled “Giant Insects of the Amazon”.  Its author, Paul Zahl must have had the best job in the world to be able to travel to exotic places to study rare and unusual animals.  I suppose, I’m doing something similar, but I’m not traveling far from home and making my own giants.  Here’s the last picture of how I began the latest Polystyrenus receiving inspiration from the materials I find on location.  Although I didn’t use all the stuff here…it provided a template of sorts. 

I dedicate this post to Julia Oldham, bug lover and current artist in residence at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in nearby Clermont, Kentucky.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: