Animals at the Jacksonville Zoo


Sometimes I just want a quick walkabout. When I only have an hour or two to spare, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is one of my favorite places to tromp.

Wild birds take advantage of the safe surroundings.
This wild Anhinga relaxes in the Asian garden.


Walkingstick Rescue

The two-striped walkingstick has a variety of color morphs.
In Florida, a black-and-white variety is found
only in the Ocala National Forest.

I’ve been partial toward stick insects since my husband and I hiked a Florida park, where sporadic high-pitched whines crossed the trail in waves. Sometimes the sound was nearly imperceptible, then slowly grew in volume. At its peak, the sound matched the whir of green aliens in outer space movies.

Late that afternoon, we noticed something among the palmetto fronds. A large swarm of black-and-white walkingsticks! Our jaws dropped in realization. They were mating, and they were everywhere!

But now we were living in Arkansas and, at our country home, I often “rescued” walkingsticks attracted to the porch light. At dawn, I’d gather the stragglers and return them to bushes and bramble.

One autumn morning, I noticed a dot on the bedroom wall. I leaned in for a closer look, then closer still. A tiny, translucent creature with six long legs. A nymphling walkingstick! I’d never seen one so tiny! It was less an a quarter-inch long.

I considered taking it outside, but heavy frost was expected. Maybe, I thought, I could keep it alive until spring.

I found a little container to put it in and tried to coax the little animal onto my fingernail. But it did something odd. Instead of probing my finger with its antennae or legs, it drew its front legs up and leaned back, as a cornered spider might do.

I counted the legs again. One, two, three, four, five, six. Insect, not arachnid.

But, in any case, my finger was scaring it. So I slipped a bit of paper beneath the nymph, and then placed the paper in the container.

With the youngster secured, I went to the pet store and bought a proper, see-through bug house. I lined the floor with a paper towel, and added some twigs. On a cardboard platter, I served lettuce and a chunk of apple.

Days went by, but my little walking stick showed no interest in climbing the twigs or eating the leaves. However, it pushed its face into the apple and stayed like this for an hour or more. Later, when I removed the apple, the fruit appeared untouched; no damage to its surface.

More days. More rejected greens. More apple sucking.

After 10 days, only apple was served. I watched the tiny creature as it went from one slice to another.

Yet, for all of its slurping, it failed to grow. Two months later, it was essentially unchanged.

Maybe it wasn’t a walking stick. I started browsing the internet, looking for pictures that resembled my pet. And there it was! But these were baby… assassin bugs?

My insect was a killer? A carnivore?

I didn’t want to believe it; but there was one way to know for sure.

I went back to the pet store and bought six baby crickets.

“Sorry guys, but I have to know.” I dumped them into the cage and immediately baby stick alerted; turned toward them.

As one cricket made its way across the paper towel, baby stick scrambled after it; Pounced and violently wrestled the intruder, then jumped away.

The cricket fumbled; collapsed; twitched; became still in seconds.

Stick scrambled forward; plunged its tube face into its kill. Sucked the intruder dry in surprisingly short time.

Once sated, it joined the other insects. Showed no interest in eating more. Seemed to rejoice in the companionship.

A misread on my part, since assassin bugs are ambush predators. They sit quietly, usually in an active location, until something passes within arm’s reach.

Two days later the weather warmed. Baby assassin and four surviving crickets were released.

I was relieved to be rid of the violence, yet amazed at the resilience of this tiny nymph. It had survived in isolation and sustained itself on sugar water until something more suitable became available.

And understanding often leads to appreciation. Now, in addition to stick insects, I have an affinity for assassin bugs.

Ranging from 1-1.25 inches (2.5-3.2 cm), the Wheel Bug
is the largest assassin bug in North America.

REFERENCES

Twostriped walkingstick: Anisomorpha buprestoides. University of Florida, Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Wheel bugs and other assassin bugs. Texas A&M, Agrilife Extension, Insects in the City.

Beauveria bassiana – An insect-eating fungus

Cicada or grasshopper suffering from muscardine disease
(covered by Beauveria bassiana)

I noticed something along the trail – a 1 cm, white gob hanging from the underside of a palmetto frond. It looked like a small bird dropping, except that it was alone and on the wrong side of the leaf. Something about the curvature of the spot suggested an insect. I’d read that some caterpillars and pupal cases mimic bird feces, so I pulled out my camera to take a picture.

I didn’t expect the shot to come out well. The sky was overcast and the lighting subdued, and my point-and-shoot camera struggles with objects less than an inch in length. At the same time, it couldn’t hurt to try.

In my office, I opened the pics in my editing software. Three were too blurry to be helpful, but the fourth was crisp. I zoomed on the white spot and saw that, indeed, there was an insect.

Although I’d originally believed this to be a moth pupa, the eyes were too large and suggested a cicada or grasshopper. Also, on the insect’s back I could see translucent wing tips. Were these emerging from a pupal sheath? No, because beneath the abdomen there appeared to be clear, developed wings. This had likely been a cicada or grasshopper.

The next question posed was whether the white belonged to the insect itself or was it invading? Looking at the legs, the white substance appeared to attach the insect to the leaf’s surface. Invading.

Time for a Google search: white covering insect.

No success. These weren’t whiteflies/mealybugs. I knew what those looked like.

Perhaps it was a fungus?

Next search: white fungus on insect.

Now the search narrowed. The white substance was Massospora cicadina or Beauveria bassiana. Although these fungi have similar life cycles, they affect different parts of the host. Massospora attacks the genitals and affects the mating behavior of the target insect, while Beauveria launches a generalized assault.

I looked at photos of each. With Massospora, the fungus was only visible on the lower abdomen. Beauveria covered the entire insect.

Beauveria bassiana lives worldwide in the soil. Although it can live independently, it is able to attach to plant roots and form a symbiotic relationship, through which it receives carbon and nitrogen.

It is suspected that its attacks on insects are opportunistic. Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the soil and emerging nymphs feed on low-lying plants. Hatchling cicadas drop to the earth and bury beneath the ground. Here they live most of their lives, re-emerging to become adults. As both types of insects emerge from the soil, some come into contact with Beauveria spores.

As Beauveria sits on the insect’s exoskeleton, it produces enzymes that erode the surface. Once the exoskeleton is breached, fungal hyphae (rootlike structures that allow the fungus to feed) penetrate. Fungal chemicals then weaken the host’s immune system and compete with intestinal bacteria.

The host is a rich source of carbon and nitrogen and, as a result, is consumed rapidly. Most insects die within 3-7 days, although the process may take twice as long for larger, hardier hosts such as adult beetles. Infected insects show no signs of infection while alive.

Once its food source is depleted, Beauveria bursts through the cadaver and blooms, producing more spores which fall to the ground.

Beauveria can kill most insects, but usually affects ground-dwellers. It is increasingly used as a natural pesticide in agriculture.

Although generally considered non-harmful, it has caused infections in captive reptiles. In 1979 it was found in the lungs of a dead American alligator at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 1995 it was identified in the lungs of a dead tortoise.

In humans, four cases have been documented in immunocompromised patients. In one of these, it was found in the liver and spleen of a 38-year-old leukemia patient. Since 1984, It has also been reported in 15 cases of corneal infection associated with eye injury or contact lens use.


REFERENCES

Insecticide Update: Beauveria bassiana is safe for beneficial insects, but avoid spraying where bees forage. LSU College of Agriculture.
Beauveria bassiana. Wikipedia.
Herrington Kelly. Beauveria bassiana. Missouri University of Science and Technology, 2006.
Ortiz-Urquiza A, Keyhani N O. Molecular Genetics of Beauveria bassiana Infection of Insects (Abstract). Advances in Genetics, vol. 94:165-249. 2016 Feb 11.
Henke Markus Oliver, de Hoog G. Sybren, Gross Uwe, et al. Human Deep Tissue Infection with an Entomopathogenic Beauveria Species. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 2002 Jul,  40(7):268-2702.
Fromtling R A, Kosanke S D, Jensen J M, Bulmer G S. Fatal Beauveria bassiana infection in a captive American alligator. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 1979 Nov 1, 175(9):934-6).
González Cabo J F, Espejo Serrano J, Bárcena Asensio M C. Mycotic pulmonary disease by Beauveria bassiana in a captive tortoise. Mycoses. Mar-Apr 1995; 38(3-4):167-9.
Ligozzi M, Maccacaro L, Passilongo M, et al. A case of Beauveria bassiana keratitis confirmed by internal transcribed spacer and LSU rDNA D1-D2 sequencing. New Microbes New Infect 2014 May; 2(3):84-87.
Atzamoglou S, Siopi M, Meletiadis J, et al. (June 17, 2021) A Corneal Perforation Related to Beauveria Bassiana and Post-Penetrating Keratoplasty Management Discussion. Cureus 13(6): e15724. doi:10.7759/cureus.15724

Paraners Branch Loop Trail in O’leno State Park

Santa Fe River, Oleno State Park, FL, December 2021

I visited O’leno State Park during a foggy, overcast day. My plan was to try Paraners Branch Loop Trail, which I missed during my last visit. I crossed the swinging bridge and stopped to take some pictures along the water.

I then took River Trail. After following yellow trail markers for a time, I turned left onto Paraners Branch Loop, or the green trail.


This 4.4 mile trail crosses through pine and scrub forest and around several sink holes. Although not as scenic as River Trail, it’s an easy and pleasant 4.4 mile hike.

North Florida is having record-breaking temperatures, with mid-December highs in the 80s (27˚C). I encountered a young toad and a fresh snake-shed, suggesting that some animals are taking advantage of the warm days.

Part of a snake shed noticed along the trail.
Its length a dark, longitudinal strip suggests
it was cast by a Ratsnake.

I found the shed in two pieces. The tail section was about 18 inches (46 cm) and had a dark stripe running its length, indicating a Ratsnake. The second section was wider and folded into itself. I was slowly unfolding it when I was overcome by the stench of decay. Throwing down my find, a Flesh Fly immediately investigated.


A Flesh Fly investigates the decaying
second half of the shed.

I also noticed something that looked like a bird dropping on the underside of a leaf. But it was by itself and hanging in a way that suggested an insect. A mimic? I snapped several shots of the 1 cm spot for identification at home. (Post revealing ID)

I noticed some Turkey Tail Mushrooms, which seemed appreciative of the damp air.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms
O’leno State Park, High Springs, FL

Throughout O’leno State Park, dark water projects captivating reflections.

While on River Trail, I revisited some sinkholes and “my” turtle buds.

As I admired one of the sinks, a large American Bird Grasshopper landed a few feet in front of me. It waited patiently as I pulled out my camera and adjusted its settings.

American Bird Grasshopper
Schistocerca americana

Before leaving for the day, I attempted to photograph the park’s picnic area. However, since the tables are spread far apart, I couldn’t capture how inviting it is. Instead, I photographed a nearby stand of cypress along the Santa Fe River.

O’leno State Park is at 410 S.E. O’Leno Park Road in High Springs, Florida.

To access the River Trail loop, walk from the parking lot and across the picnic grounds, toward the Santa Fe River. Then, look for the swinging bridge  and a big log cabin.

Trailhead, River Trail, O’leno State Park, FL

Cross the bridge and continue walking straight onto River Trail. Or, follow the trail that passes in front of the log building. This joins/becomes River Trail.

Paraners Branch Loop Trail is accessed via River Trail. There are several entrance points, all of which are clearly marked.

Scenic O’leno State Park

O’leno State Park (High Springs, Florida) surpasses expectations.

The road into the park is paved, and the parking lot holds a moderate number of cars. Visitors are greeted with well-kept restrooms, a playground, and an expansive, well-kept picnic area.

On this initial visit, I walked River Trail, Dogwood Trail (to Limestone Trail), and Limestone Trail, for a combined distance of 3.4 miles.

To reach River Trail from the parking lot, cross the picnic area. Soon you will see the Santa Fe River.

Terraces separate the picnic area
from the Santa Fe River.

Then, look for the long swinging bridge, which serves as the trailhead.

When I crossed the bridge, I veered toward the left, taking the section that parallels the river. There was still a bit of fall color during this mid-December outing. And, since the trees had dropped many leaves, viewing the water was easy.

Veer to the left as you cross the bridge.
This section of River Trail parallels the Santa Fe River.

Occasional alligator warnings remind hikers to stay watchful. Although I didn’t see any alligators during my visit, I did hear a juvenile barking for its mother.

The park is filled with natural gullies, which apparently fill when the area floods. But today the paths were dry and covered with leaf litter. Boardwalks extend across deeper depressions.

As I walked, the well-marked trail eventually turned away from the water, crossing drier scrubland.

It then curved once again toward the river, wrapping sink holes and some long, skinny lakes.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes flocked overhead, honking rhythmically.

Sandhill Cranes, O’leno State Park

After this 1.5 mile trail, I had some lunch and then walked to the other end of the parking lot. Walking the left-hand side of the road, I soon spotted a sign for Dogwood Trail, which parallels the pavement.

Seven-tenths of a mile later, the trail again met the paved road.

Limestone Trail was across the street.

I had high hopes for Limestone Trail and its rock outcroppings. But I saw only one outcropping and some standing water.

Rock outcropping and fall colors.
Limestone Trail, O’leno State Park.

However, there were some beautiful maples in glorious fall color that made the hike worthwhile.

The trail itself was covered with fallen leaves. Although it was a pleasant hike, it was a bit of a let-down after spectacular River Trail.

Limestone Trail
O’leno State Park, FL

Oleno State Park is at 410 SE O’Leno Park Road in High Springs, Florida. I hope to complete the 4.4 mile, Paraners Branch Loop Trail in the future. Paraners is accessed via River Trail. Just veer toward the right before crossing the swinging bridge and continue until you reach the trail sign. Or cross the bridge and go straight on River Trail. Again, look for the Paraners sign.

Turkey Creek – easy trail through new-growth forest

Turkey Creek Preserve, Gainesville, FL

This week, I visited Turkey Creek Preserve, which opened to the public last year (2021). A dozen years after its purchase in 2009, this 376 acre site remains new-growth forest. It is testimony to the fact that it takes decades to reestablish decimated habitat.

There are two trailheads, one of which offers a well-kept parking lot. There are no facilities or trashcans, so be prepared to pack-in pack-out. Although “leave no trace” is considered common courtesy, it’s particularly important when visiting parks that border residential areas. When residents fear noise and spilled garbage, they resist the expansion or establishment of preserves.

Turkey Creek Preserve trail

As one enters the park, there are signs warning of venomous snakes, which like to sunbathe on the trail. Although I saw no snakes during my December visit, I imagine there are copperheads and pygmy rattlers in the area, since both like to camouflage themselves against orange and brown leaf litter.

Trail at Turkey Creek Preserve

The map on the Turkey Creek Preserve web page said that portions of the trail were closed but, during this visit, all were open. It took an hour and a half to walk 4.2 miles of well-marked trail, which included most of the park.

The parking lot is located at 6300 NW 93 Avenue, Gainesville, Florida.

New-growth forest at Turkey Creek Preserve

My head debates religion

In my mind, I debate the question of religion frequently. It’s not a daily thing, but rather a repetitive one.

Buddhism American Style

Within Buddhism, each major school of practice has a family tree. Through it, the teachings are traced back to the Buddha himself.  But I find myself unmotivated to learn or even care about the lineage tree.

At one time, I considered this a failing. But I’m coming to accept that my version of Buddhism isn’t going to be the same as a native’s. Although I can appreciate Tibetan culture, I wasn’t born into it. So my Buddhist practices and outlooks will be different from those who are.

I’m going to content myself with just being me, and incorporating Buddhism as much as I can into my daily life. But it may not be reflected in the same manner as those living in Tibet. I don’t know all of the rituals. I don’t know all of the customs. I’m always taking a guess, no matter what I do, whether it’s bowing, prostrating, or chanting. Whether my practice is strong or whether it is weak, I always feel I’m mimicking. I always feel like a newcomer, even though I’ve followed the teachings to the best of my ability for decades.

I appreciate the Buddha’s teachings and, well, isn’t that enough? The rest, after all, is only trappings.

Now, someone raised within Tibetan Buddhism might believe those trappings to be important. If nothing else, they are reminders to keep beliefs and values close at hand. But the trappings themselves are ornamentation. Whether it’s mental ornamentation, procedural ornamentation, or visual ornamentation, all are add-ons. I mean, when the Buddha came to enlightenment, he had nothing. He didn’t have all of these adornments. It was just him and the wilderness.

But I think it’s in people’s natures to want to dress things up. It’s a way of making things seem more beautiful; even more concrete. But it also makes concepts more complicated than they need be.

Why I gave up on church

I felt that way when I was attending the Lutheran Church, too; even though, as far as churches go, they had relatively few procedures and unwritten rules. Yet I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t raised with the symbols and practices, and copying them made me feel like a faker. Later, I became a Methodist. The Methodist church has even fewer formalities, yet I felt like an imposter.

This wasn’t the only reason I failed to become a church-goer. Frankly, I don’t like going places where one is expected to dress up and display a façade. I don’t like dresses and I hate panty hose. Heck! I’m in my 60s now, and if I don’t want to wear something I’m not going to. And those little dress shoes! They hurt your knees, your hips and your lower back. Give you bunions. They’re vile on women’s bodies, and I’m not going to subject myself.

Are ceremonies necessary?

And when it comes to ceremonies, I’m always faking it.

Even when I graduated from college, the ceremony didn’t feel important or real. But I had to participate because it was important to my parents. At the time, I didn’t own a clothes iron, so I didn’t even press my gown for the procession. I may have been the only one donning a bolt of fabric with giant creases running through it. I could have found someone to help, but I just didn’t care.

While growing up, my family never maintained strong traditions. Granted, Mom always fixed the same meals for holidays, but that was an action she carried out. We had nothing to do with it.

And when I got older, I didn’t see the point of this one ceremonial meal, where you murder a bird and gorge yourself. If you really have a craving for a certain food, honor that craving when you have it. You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas. And if you feel you should give thanks, again, don’t wait for a holiday.

And scheduled worship seems equally pointless. Who are we trying to impress by showing up at a church? God already knows what we are, and what we’re capable of – both good and bad. If he just wanted people to sit around and perform ceremonies, he might have made a bunch of bots. It would have been easier than dealing with all of our individual personalities and anxieties.

The New Testament says that, if one feels they should practice certain rituals, then they should. But if one doesn’t feel rituals are necessary, they needn’t concern themselves.

Does going to church make true believers?

So I don’t think going to church should be one’s goal in life — unless you’re a minister or monk perhaps. It’s not that important. We simply make it important, because we need things to clutch on to – to grasp onto. It’s a way to anchor ourselves so we don’t wander away. But the anchor only works if a rope is attached; in other words, if we’ve been raised with certain habits and truly believe in them.

And sometimes people say they thoroughly believe, but do they? Because Christians in particular are quick to condemn another’s way of thinking. And they often protect themselves from outside influences, afraid they’ll hear something that might make them question. But if they fear so greatly, then the belief isn’t that strong. Otherwise their faith couldn’t be shaken, and they could simply accept others as they are without trying to convert them to self.

At the same time, I’m not criticizing those who follow a tradition or know a religion inside and out. I just don’t think it’s needed. If it makes you feel good, that’s great. If it helps you, even better. If it helps you help others, that’s outstanding. But I think rituals are created because we don’t feel we can hang onto certain ideas without them.

Is money necessary for worship?

Another reason I don’t like going to church is the constant demand for money. I understand it takes money to keep a church going. But, at the same time, I’ve never been able to earn high wages. In our culture, one’s value is linked to income bracket. Going to church simply emphasizes my lack of worth. Instead of helping me to feel good or inspired, it adds an additional layer of stress.

And do we really need a lot of money to worship? Maybe we do – in order to maintain the trappings. But are the trappings necessary?

The Buddha didn’t have diddly squat when he became enlightened. He had nothing. Did it make him less of a person? If it did, then why are we listening to him now?

And Christ had very little, although some churches distorted the tale and said he must have been wealthy, since master carpenters were highly valued. However, I’ve read the New Testament and nowhere does it mention Christ’s carpentry skills or a palatial demand for his work.

Or maybe we’re comparing Christ to our current TV evangelists – and we know how wealthy they are! However, TV evangelists usually teach to the wealthy or those who hope to become wealthy, whereas Christ taught to the poor and often reprimanded the rich.

Are Christianity and Buddhism one religion?

Over time, I’ve come to believe that Christ adopted the Buddha’s teachings, much as the Buddhists adopted aspects of ancestral Hinduism. Buddhism arrived in the world long before Christianity, and the world was exposed to it through extensive trade routes into the East.

Having studied both Christianity and Buddhism, I’ve discovered countless similarities. Here are a couple of examples.

Buddhism is essentially an individual practice. And Christ himself suggested we worship in private.

In Christianity, we are taught that Christ died on the cross for us. That he took on all of our sins.

This is similar to what Buddhists believe. When monks and nuns take their vows, they promise to keep coming back until everyone has been saved. So they are, in effect, condemning themselves for the sake of others. They’re taking on everybody’s sins, postponing nirvana, or heaven, or whatever you want to call it until every sentient being joins them.

Do people join churches out of loneliness?

Sometimes when I’ve joined a church, it wasn’t because of spirituality. I simply wanted to be around other people, and I knew church is a place where many people go. But then, to stay in the group, one has to jump through hoops, and I’ve never been a good hoop-jumper.

Traditionally I’ve had trouble staying with any group because, within them, I lose my voice. Probably because I just don’t care to shout above the fray. I mean, if the group wants to do something different than me or believe something different than me, that’s all right. Maybe those who shout feel a need to be heard; feel insignificant without the group’s approval.

However, I don’t feel that way. I’m okay with being me and sitting alone in the wilderness.

Indian Pipe flower – a rare sighting

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)
in White Springs, Florida

On the ground, I noticed a translucent stem with a pinkish tinge, black flecks, and drooping, waxlike petals. It resembled the potato I’d grown in darkness, part of a fourth-grade science experiment. I thought it might be a sucker emerging from a nearby tree root, but took a photo just in case. The lighting conditions were challenging, since it was overcast and the location heavily shaded.

Once home, I scrolled through my shots. Only one was salvageable, so I cropped it and uploaded the image to Plant.id, a site that instantly identifies likely candidates. I soon realized I’d seen a rare site.

Although Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) grows throughout much of North America, it is rarely seen. It prefers old-growth forest (now rare in Florida) with moist, decaying leaf-litter. Since it has no chlorophyll and doesn’t photosynthesize, it often grows in dark spaces.

This plant cannot be found in garden centers. Being a parasite that requires the company of Russula mushrooms which have developed a symbiotic relationship with neighboring trees, it cannot be grown commercially or added easily to gardens.

And, if one picks this flower, it quickly turns black or dissolves in the hand, a trait which may explain one of its monikers, Ice Plant.

This flower was drooping its head, waiting for a bumblebee or skipper butterfly to pollinate it. After pollination, a capsular fruit begins to grow. As the capsule matures, the flower erects, its petals reaching skyward. Then, at the base of the capsule, an opening forms which releases up to 100 seeds to the wind. Each seed has membranous wings, which allow it to drift.

There are 700 types of Russula mushroom.
Many have a red cap.
Photo by Jim Bahn with Flickr

Once a seed lands, it uses an attractant to gain the attention of a Russula mushroom. The mushroom mistakes the seed for a host tree and attaches filaments (mycelium) to it. Only after attachment by a Russula mushroom does the seed germinate.

The Russula also attaches its mycelium to the roots of host trees. The mushroom is beneficial to the tree, making nutrients in the soil available to it. In exchange, the tree sends the mushroom sugars. But the Indian Pipe intercepts some of these incoming sugars for itself, giving nothing in return to either host.

Indian Pipe flowers usually appear in early fall and early summer. They are found in most States, excluding:  Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming. Also look for them in the southern half of Canada and, in isolated populations, in Mexico, Central America, and South America.

A group of Indian Pipe flowers
Photo by pfly with Flickr

Monotropa uniflora, which grows singly or in groups, goes by these common names:  Indian Pipe, Corpse Plant, Ghost Pipe, Ghost Flower, Ice Plant, Bird’s Nest (which describes its tangle of black roots).

If you discover it on your journey, celebrate with a photograph; but leave it untouched for others to enjoy.


REFERENCES

Monotropa uniflora – Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe. U.S. Forest Service.
Dyer Mary H, What is Indian Pipe Plant – Learn About the Indian Pipe Fungus. Gardening Know How.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), Adirondacks Forever Wild.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora), The School of Homeopathy.
Indian Pipe, The Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Inc.
Vogelpohl Sid, Know Your Natives – Indian Pipe, Arkansas Native Plant Society, 2013 Oct 22.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington, The Pennsylvania State University, 2016 Oct 1.
Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes), midwestnaturalist.\Russula mushrooms. Hiker’s Notebook.

European Paper Wasp cooperative with nestmates and neighbors

Photo of European Paper Wasp on nest by Bernard Dupont with Flickr.

While hiking, I noticed a wasp with striking bands of yellow and black. It ignored me as I filmed, enraptured by the blossoms of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a poisonous plant native to the eastern United States.

The insect was a European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula), a species introduced into Boston in the 1970s. Unlike native paper wasps, it is docile and rarely swarms, only stinging if it or its nest is threatened or, strangely, if it is drinking. Only females have stingers, and they are less likely to sting than bumblebees.

The European Paper Wasp hunts a wide variety of caterpillars. It also consumes aphids and their honeydew, the nectar of flowers, and occasionally ripe fruit.

Only mated females storing sperm survive to see the spring. They overwinter in dead or hollow trees, the walls of houses, or beneath siding. When spring arrives, the female emerges from her quarters and begins construction of a nest, which will be suspended from wood or a rough surface. The female chews wood fibers and, with her saliva, creates a paper pulp, which she uses to build the first few cells of her home.

This founding queen then lays a fertilized egg in each of the cells, which hatch in 3-5 days. The hatched larvae grow over a period of weeks, with the queen caring for them and maintaining the nest herself. During this time, she hunts for insect larvae, which she masticates and then regurgitates to her young. When the larvae are grown and ready to pupate, she seals them in their cells.

The first adults to emerge are female workers. These initial colony members will maintain a preferential status throughout their lifetime and may have more facial spots, an indicator of dominance. Adults that are born as the colony expands will have a lower social status and may be excluded from the colony altogether.

As more and more workers assume responsibility for maintaining the nest, foraging, and caring for young, the queen relinquishes her roles and spends more time at home.

Sometimes, small groups of overwintering females will cooperate and begin a nest together. When this happens, one becomes the queen and the others become founders, or potential queens. If founders lay eggs, the queen eats them. However, if the queen dies or leaves the nest, the highest-ranking founder becomes the new leader.

Some mated females never build their own nest. Instead, they wait and take over an abandoned one. Larger nests are preferred, since they often contain mature larvae that will soon become workers. Younger larvae and abandoned eggs are eaten by the new queen.

As a nest continues to produce workers, space on its surface becomes tighter (a mature nest may be only 8 inches, 20 cm, across). At this point, founders remain in small, restricted areas where cells have been capped. Where crowding requires nestmates to share space, founders prefer to share with founders; workers with workers. At this point, a third of the colony’s residents may spend most of its time away from home or resting in its vicinity.

Fortunately, European Paper Wasps are not excessively territorial. Adults visit other nests, and groups of wasps may work together to recondition old nests. Nests may be close enough to form mini-neighborhoods. At any one time, up to 35% of a colony’s population may be unrelated. 

In late summer, no more workers are produced. Instead, adult wasps vibrate the colony’s cells by drumming with their antennae. This signals developing larvae to become founders and males. Workers already in development may be neglected, since food is provided preferentially to individuals having the potential to reproduce.

In late summer and early fall, the founders and males emerge from their cells.

Males establish territories, marking the leaves and stems of large trees with their legs and abdomen. Queens seek out and choose multiple mates, but reject many others in the process—biting, dodging, or even stinging them. When selecting a mate, females prefer attractive males from local nests. An attractive male has smaller, regularly-shaped abdominal markings and scattered facial spots.

As winter approaches, males and non-reproductive females die off. Females carrying sperm spend winter in a hollow and emerge again in the spring, when the cycle repeats.

A European Paper Wasp visits a poisonous native plant, White Snakeroot. Approximately 1.5 minutes.

REFERENCES

European Paper Wasps: Everything You Need to Know. Ed’s Dead Bug, 2020 Apr 20.
Cranshaw W, European Paper Wasp – 5.611. Colorado State University Extension.Polistes dominula (European Paper Wasp), Invasive Species Compendium, CABI.
European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula), Texas Invasive Species Institute.
European Paper Wasp, Plant and Pest Diagnostics, Michigan State University.
Stoud Eliza, Polistes dominula: European paper wasp. Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
European paper wasp, Wikipedia.

Screams in the garden: Encounter with an Eastern Black Racer

An Eastern Black Racer catches a leopard frog

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is known for its large garden and ancient oak trees. As I walked the roadside edging the garden, I heard a scream. I stopped and listened. Silence, then the screaming resumed. And this time it didn’t stop.

I was alone in the park and, as I ran to the sound, my mind raced. It didn’t sound quite human. Had a bird become entangled? Impaled?

I stood in the middle of a grassy field. Listened. The sound was coming from a distant tree line.

My eyes scanned as I covered the last few yards. And then I saw it.

A large leopard frog reached desperately forward, fingers spread, trying to grasp anything that might save it from being dragged away. It’s hind leg was gripped by the jaws of a long, shiny snake with a maniacal eye, an Eastern Black Racer.

The frog pleaded for help as I watched.

I could dissuade the snake by touching it. I’d done it before when a racer had a cardinal chick in its clutches – a chick I’d been observing in my garden since it hatched.

Cardinal chicks

I ran to our shed and grabbed a bag of topsoil; took a clod from the sack and thunked the snake’s tail.

The serpent spit out the bird, then raised itself high. Turned and confronted its attacker. But when it saw nothing there, it slithered away, scolded by birds that suddenly appeared.

That had been an emotional response. I’d been driven to defend one of my own. But now, although I felt pity for the frog, it didn’t seem right to take the snake’s meal. A meal it had caught fairly.

So being torn, I did what every person does in our modern world. I snapped a picture.

Although Washington Oaks’ gardens border woodland, Black Racers are often found in suburban gardens, which offer open areas bordered by low shrubs. When disturbed, their first line of defense is to flee. And in this case, the snake did retreat into the brush once its prey had been adequately subdued.

Their next defense is wild, undulating movement that might startle a predator.

If that doesn’t work, the snake may coil and strike, while thumping its tail against the ground. Or it may hide its head beneath its coils and secrete musk across its body. At this point, the animal is terrified, so it’s kinder to back off and leave the poor thing alone.

But if one persists and grabs the snake, it bites ferociously as a last resort. And relieves itself of pungent feces. When handled, it may panic and struggle so much that its tail breaks off—a permanent injury.

Reports differ as to how fast a Black Racer can move, ranging from 4 mph (6.5 km) to 10 mph (16 km), the speed of a brisk walk or quick jog. It uses its speed to escape enemies or overtake prey, which it hunts visually during the day.

The racer can raise the front of its body to peer over tall grasses. It can also hear its prey and is sensitive to vibration. And it can track prey using its forked tongue to capture scent molecules, determining which direction to move by gauging which tine is most affected.

Anything that it can overtake and overpower becomes prey, including insects, spiders, reptiles (including small turtles and other snakes), birds and their eggs, small rodents, and occasionally rabbits. Although the scientific name, Coluber constrictor, suggests that it squeezes and suffocates its prey, it only uses its coils to hold the prey down as it is swallowed alive. The snake’s backward-pointing teeth hold prey items fast and push the meal toward the animal’s throat.

In turn, racers are eaten by other snakes (including larger racers), predatory birds, dogs, cats, and coyotes. They are often killed by vehicles, as they lay on the road to bask, or by gardeners who fear snakes or mistake them for venomous species. Sometimes their winter dens are crushed by construction equipment.

Black Racers prefer warm sunny days, and retreat to their dens when temperatures fall below 60˚F (16˚C). They often overwinter in abandoned mammal burrows, which may be shared with other snake species, including venomous species. They do not truly hibernate during this time. Instead, the snake remains awake but becomes lethargic.

A brumation spot must offer space below the frostline, and the snake may investigate several options before deciding on a place to rest. In addition to discarded burrows, racers may also overwinter in rotted stumps or stony crevices.

The Eastern Black Racer mates in the spring. At this time, the female releases pheromones which may attract several suitors.

After she has mated, the female lays 3-32 oval eggs, with larger snakes having larger clutches. The eggs are deposited in a rotted stump, an old mammal burrow, under leaf litter, or even beneath garden mulch. However, communal oviposition has been recorded. At one site, 300 snake eggs were found together. Many of the eggs were from Black Racers, but other species were also represented.

Racer eggs incubate for 43-64 days (depending on temperature). Hatchlings appear in late summer or early fall.

Juvenile Black Racer
Photo courtesy of FWC Fish and Wildlife Rescue through Flickr’s Creative Commons License

Youngsters are gray with red-brown blotches, only taking on their adult coloring when 12 inches in length. Male snakes reach maturity at one to two years of age; females two to three. Unless they meet with unfortunate circumstances, Black Racers are long lived, having a lifespan of up to 10 years.

They don’t make good pets, however, since they dislike handling and need large cages. Home ranges in the wild can be 1.5 square miles (2.4 square km), and they can travel a half-mile (.8 km) in a single day. Instead of caging them, consider making your yard snake-friendly. And educate neighbors so they don’t kill your guests.


REFERENCES
UF Wildlife – Johnson Lab, Florida’s Snakes:  Black Racer or Blacksnake (Coluber constrictor), University of Florida, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
Hastings Angie, Coluber constrictor: Eastern Racer. Animal Diversity Web.
North American Racer (Coluber constrictor). Florida Stake ID Guide, Florida Museum.
North American Racer, Amphibians and Reptiles of South Dakota, South Dakota Herps.
Wilson J.D., Black Racer (Coluber constrictor). Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, University of Georgia.
Northern Black Racer (Coluber c. constrictor). Wildlife Fact Sheet, Wildlife in Connecticut.
Black Racer. Fort Matanzas, National Park Service.
Black Racer. State Endangered (Maine).
Litvaitis John, Black Racers: Living on the Edge. Northern Woodlands, Summer 2019, 17 June 2019.