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Wings of mimicry

17 Sep

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The early rising sun greeted us with a visitor in the damp grass one morning of a camping trip near New York’s Thousand Islands. As sunlight glistened on the blanketing dew, this large winged visitor rested on the grass waiting for moisture to evaporate off its wings and the sun to warm its body. It reminded me of another large moth, the luna moth (Actia luna), that I knew well during my life in the Maine woods.

The moth found on the wet grass that morning was a polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus). Both moths are of the Giant Silkmoth family (Saturniidae). With a wingspan of up to six inches or more, the polyphemus moth is about the same size as a luna moth. These two species are the largest moths in continental America and may be found from Canada to northern Mexico.

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Male polyphemus moth (antenna are larger than female’s)

Polyphemus moths are generalists, which means they do not require a specific species of plant for the larvae to develop and survive. Females lay flat brown eggs on many species of decidous trees: elm, birch, willow, maple, beech, locust and a variety of Prunus species (cherry, plum, peach, etc). Like many Lepidoptera, polyphemus larvae develop through five stages and molts (instar). Unlike monarch butterflies, of which the instars are very similar in coloration, these moths have slightly different coloration with each instar. The fifth and final instar is an average of four inches long and a bright green color with silver spots on its sides. A caterpillar can devour about 86,000 times its weight from emergence to full development in two months.

From the photos of the adult moth below one can see hair-like body scales, small head and mouth parts, and the eye spots on the wings. Because of their small mouth parts, adults do not eat and only live for a week or less, during which their entire purpose is to avoid depredation and reproduce.

Mimicry

Mimicry throughout the animal kingdom is an example of natural selection in evolution. Ranging from mammals to tiny insects, mimicry may increase survival of individuals in their environment. Or it may reduce survival in another environment.

Lepidoptera are fascinating examples of how mimicry enables survival. One tactic is to mimic another insect that may be undesirable prey. Another tactic is the patterns and structures on butterfly and moth wings that mimic a component of their environment to hide from depredation. These tactics may be adaptive defense mechanisms (or artifacts of other patterns of coloration) in response to threats. Our polyphemus moth will serve as an example of mimicry as a defense mechanism.

Distraction Pattern

Like many saturniids the polyphemus moth has large ‘eye spots’ on its hind wings. These wing eye spots are translucent ‘windows’ which may be surrounded by bright colors. The pair of eye spots on the polyphemus hind wing are bordered by bright colors and, with the entire wing pattern, may resemble eyes of a predator. These are distraction patterns, which is a form of mimicry. They may resemble eyes of a different animal and confuse or deceive potential predators.

Wing eye spots can be a form of self-mimicry and a distraction pattern: to draw a predator’s attention away from the most vulnerable body parts or to appear as an inedible or dangerous animal. When threatened, adult polyphemus moths flash their  wings exposing the large hind wing eye spots to distract, startle, or scare off potential predators.

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The centers of the eye spots lack scales, so they are transparent.

Another example of distraction pattern in mimicry is camouflage which helps avoid detection by predators. Eye spots and wing color patterns on adult polyphemus can serve as blending camouflage (color matching) and pattern camouflage (pattern matching) in their environment.

Unrelated to mimicry, these eye spots may also play a role in mate attraction, but this has not been conclusively confirmed.

dscn1811-sMimicry is also exhibited by the polyphemus caterpillars. They can be protected from predators by their cryptic green coloration (another example of what kind of distraction pattern?). When threatened the caterpillars often raise the front part of the body up in a threatening pose. If attacked, the caterpillars make a clicking noise with the mandibles.  This clicking is associated with a distasteful fluid exuded by the caterpillars which can cause regurgitation by the attacker. Some animals (squirrels, birds, other insects) are deterred by the ingestion and regurgitation and the clicking may serve as a warning.

Mimicry and names

Since one of my interests is the etymology of animal binomial names (simply put, the naming of things), mimicry also plays a part in this moth’s name.

The four silkmoth species in the New World (the Americas) were assigned to either Telea or Metosamia genus. The polyphemus silkmoth in the Americas was first described and named by Dutch naturalist Pieter Cramer in 1776 as Telea polyphemus. Jacob Hübner, a German entomologist (1761-1826), assigned the Old World (endemic to Asia and Europe) silkmoths to the genus Antheraea in 1819.  In 1952, American entomologist Charles Duncan Michener (1918-2015) systematically categorized the Telea and Metosamia in with Antheraea classification. All the silkmoths are now in one genus classification.

The Modern Latin genus name Antheraea likely derives from the Greek anthēros, meaning brightly colored, brilliant, or flowery.  The Lepidoptera Antheraea type species (the species on which the description of a genus is based on, and with which the genus name remains associated during any taxonomic revision) is the beautiful and vibrantly-colored tasar silkworm (Antheraea mylitta, formerly Phalaena mylitta), named and characterized in 1773 by English entomologist Dru Drury. Although not a silkworm like the tasar species, the polyphemus is colorful and has similar eye spots.

Cramer’s choice of the species name was based on Polyphemus, the giant cyclops from Greek mythology who had a single large, round eye in the middle of his forehead. Cramer may have been reminded of the name because of the large eye spots in the middle of the hind wings.

And the commonly used name ‘sphinx’ moth?  It could have arisen because of the behavior of threatened larvae. When they raise their heads and thoraxes up, the pose superficially resembles Egyptian sphinxes. Someone had imagination.

Of course, the family name Saturniidae  also peaked my curiosity.  The consensus is that it was based on the eye spots of some members of the family that contain concentric rings reminiscent of the planet Saturn. I’ll take that, too.

 

Heading to the moon

16 Sep

This morning
Songs of geese
heading to the moon.

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A planetary merry-go-round

19 Aug

It is already 95 degrees F and about 85% humidity. Rain fell just 400 feet from the window where I sit with a cold ice tea.

I just read an article taking readers back in time to the supercontinent Rodinia, then the big (and my favorite) supercontinent Pangea. Then the epoch of volcanoes, and rapidly forward to the apes walking upright on the savannahs.

And I get a feeling that I’m riding a rocking horse through time, whizzing through the birth and growth of this merry-go-round.

I’m like an alien kid, loving the ride, and hugging the realization that we humans are a speck on a golf ball whirling around a lightbulb in a giant arena of wonder.

And I feel fine.

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Nature in Photography

6 Feb

A week or so ago on FaceBook I was nominated by two friends to participate in the #challengeonnaturephotography meme. Although I rarely participate in these memes, the thought “Why not?” prompted me to give it a try. The protocol is to post a nature-themed photograph, include the hashtag, give kudos to the friend that nominated you, and then nominate another friend in the caption.

I played by the rules for three days. Then life got in the way (long days in the field), and I got lazy. I posted when I had time, dropped the official hashtag, the nominators, and ran out of FB friends to nominate. I keep my FB friends to a relatively small number (up to 50 now!), and friends who are into photography have already participated once or twice.

Now I submit a story with the photograph instead. Why? Because photography to me is a storytelling medium. Today’s photograph is a glimpse into the secret lives on the ‘little people’.

Nearly every day for three months last summer, I was privy to an entire world few of us see in depth and detail. I felt like a giant studying, learning, and enjoying a network of soil, water, plants, and insects……….at their level. Sometimes I was so giddy with childlike delight, I forgot who and what I was. And I was full of anger and intense sadness when part of this magical world was destroyed by humans. That, too, was a lesson I won’t forget.

Revealed below is a monarch butterfly larva and several cobalt blue beetles all ‘doing their thing’. They use milkweed as a common food source. Yet they tolerate each other. I have watched members of both species consume leaf material, side by side without conflict. Here, two beetles are copulating, undisturbed and unfettered. While the monarch voraciously chows down, preparing to form its chrysalis. This, however, is only one tiny window into the lives that live in the ecosystem in which I immersed myself.

Most nature photography depicts landscapes of empty agents and actors. Or portraits of animals, still and silent in pose like a person sitting for a photograph. To me this is an injustice to the inhabitants of the landscape as they live out their drama and narratives in those spaces. Few ‘nature’ photographs reveal the complex interrelationships within the landscapes and with their fellow animals. They fail to show the communities of life in places other than within our own human preconceptions and expectations. As if we strive to capture and show only a snapshot in time and space that suits what we want to see.

In addition to the beauty, the silence and solace depicted in landscape and wildlife portrait photography is a dynamic world of creatures living their lives just like we do. The drama, the beauty, the good and bad, birth and death, at every level; from micro to macro. There are stories out there that are not of our own.

And we can learn from them: About their lives, their interactions with each other and how we interact with them. We can even learn about ourselves.

Think about that the next time you are out in the natural world. Take time to observe before you press on that shutter release button. You never know what you might find.

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Fifth instar monarch larva and cobalt blue beetles on showy milkweed.

Fuzzy owls day off!

8 Jun

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The four Great Horned owlets near the Refuge headquarters have fledged from their nest. I visited with the entire family for a few hours the other day as they roosted in two large cottonwood trees. I was privy to some interesting behavior and interactions.

At six to eight weeks old, Great horned owl nestlings will begin to venture from their nest. By climbing branches or other structures next to the nest, the  young begin to exercise and strengthen their leg muscles. They will also flap their wings for the same purpose, often jumping around in the nest while flapping. At this stage, these nestlings, and other large birds of prey, are referred to as ‘flappers’. They will then progress to taking flight for short distances.

The four owl siblings were often spotted flying around inside the fire tower structure, where they could safely exercise without falling to the ground. It was like a large playpen for these owl youngsters. We knew then that they would be fledging soon outside of the fire tower box and take wing.

Owl fledglings remain in close proximity for several weeks.  They will often roost together in the same tree or in neighboring trees. Adults generally roost away from the young, albeit nearby, and they will continue to feed their young with decreasing frequency throughout the summer.

I spotted three of the youngsters with the dad in one tree. The lone sibling was in a tree across the way with mom. I heard the adults communicating with each other shortly before I spotted them, which is how I identified the gender of the adults. A pair of nesting ravens (in a spruce tree ~400 yards from the cottonwoods) tried harassing the lone owlet. Mom had enough and chased them off.

I quietly chuckled while watching the group of three youngsters preen each other while perched on a large tree branch. When one tried preening the feathers on its sibling’s leg, it got a foot of talons in its face. So it stepped on its siblings foot and proceeded to continue preening its leg feathers, while the other tried in vain to pull its leg away. All the while, third sibling did it’s rolling and bobbing the head-thing while watching its two siblings argue about pedicures.

I returned later with the camera and found that the siblings had separated. Two were deep in the shade of the tree canopy, their heads pulled down into their shoulders and wings. They blended in quite well with the rough bark of the tree. One lone sibling was still awake, watching below and in plain view. I set up the tripod and zoomed in for a few portraits. These youngsters still have some downy feathers on their heads, which makes them look lighter than the adults.

As the day was getting warmer and brighter, this one eventually succumbed to nap time. It very slowly tilted to the side and laid prone on a branch next to it.

Unfortunately, a visitor appeared, yelling out, “Whatcha watching there?! Anything good?!” Because it was my day off, and I was not in anything associating me with refuge staff, I told him to be quiet!

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Where does one organism end? The art of seeing.

31 May

It began with my father telling me as a child, “If you want to talk to an animal, you have to learn their language.” So I started to learn and talk to animals. In their language. Decades later when I was in undergraduate university struggling through chemistry class, he again helped me to understand. During a phone conversation we discussed chemical bonding, which I was having trouble grasping. Again, “Think like electrons and you will see how they attract and repel. And that will illuminate how weak or strong they are in varying conditions and in relation to their neighbors.” It started to all make sense and I ended up loving chemistry.

When water from spring thaws threatened to invade my cabin where I lived in the woods of Maine, an old-timer on the farm up the road told me to ‘think like water’ and work with it rather than against it. Every spring found me constructing meandering ditches to channel water away from the cabin foundation. It became a game and it was like dancing with old friends (yes, we even had conversations).

Another time, Larry helped me build a dormer onto a loft in the cabin for a spare bedroom. He taught me much about carpentry and literature. (I never did learn why a man with three degrees in English and literature chose to become a carpenter.) While working where the dormer walls integrated with the main roof, I asked how to prevent the roof from leaking. It was déjà vu when he replied, “Think like water and work with it.”

A few years later a local trapper mentored me on tracking animals. By this time I already began infusing into my everyday perception the phenomenology of weather, plants, and soil. The old trapper was like the Dali Llama of animals and birds. The only organism I lacked any ability to ‘think like’ was human beings. Back then I had no interest, nor patience.

It was months before I was ‘allowed’ to look at animal tracks and relate them with a species identification. My first lessons were sitting or standing still, for hours. Silent. Listening. Observing. Letting go of any obtrusive thoughts that might separate me from my surroundings. I learned to meld into the tree I sat against, to become the bush that I stood in, and to move silently. I learned to appreciate silence. Not only in the woods, but also in my own habitat. It was not unusual for me to not see or talk to another human for a week or two.

I could be ‘invisible’.

Trumpet swans and cygnets

I became highly sensitized to the weather. I could smell and feel weather changes long before they arrived. Wind patterns in the upper or lower canopies of trees informed me when storms might be coming in, and where they came from. Animal movements were also predictive.

Birds and  animals began to approach me rather than flush away. In the winter, a mink was a common visitor to the porch of the cabin. It would approach and watch me as ardently as I watched it while sitting on the outdoor steps. At one point, it would come near my feet and groom itself or eat a caught prize.

I learned patience with the changes in the natural world around me, and the creatures that shared my space. I watched their behavior and learned how they interacted with their surroundings. We all learned to inhabit the same space with a mutual respect. They observed me as much as I observed them. And it was a smooth transition to learn how to piece together the stories of their tracks and sign as much as they did the same with me. It was not uncommon for me to spot a deer or badger that had been following me as much as I had been following them.

A quarter of a century later, and many chapters of life changes, I found myself doing the same last week. Every day I drove the cramped little truck down the chunky gravel road to park the truck so that it would not block visitors or other staff on the refuge. Sitting on the tailgate, I removed my regular boots and pulled on the chest waders. The field vest was the last item; heavy, with so many filled pockets it was like a weighted vest, binoculars hanging on my chest. And then wade through the canal waters to go out into a world that few really see. By that, I mean ‘see’.

My focus was surveying vegetation in the marshes and  transition zones from wetland to dryland, even the sagebrush steppe. I searched for plants (other than grasses and sedges) that were emerging, budded, and flowering. The prize was the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). However, I also searched for plants that might serve as nectar sources for Monarch butterflies. Because of the dearth of data for Monarch butterflies, the milkweeds and nectar sources in SE Oregon, my search was wide open. I decided to document all of the forbs and shrubs that might be candidate nectar sources, as well as any milkweed plants.

Red-winged blackbird.

Over four days I covered a large field accumulating a preliminary database of plant phenology that has been missing from this part of the refuge. However, my time out in the marshes also provided an opportunity to observe a variety of  birds and mammals within their own private lives. I learned many new bird calls, observed birds interact with each other and their interactions with me. Twice I was warned away from specific locations by female northern harriers, probably too close to their nests. Other times, I watched red-winged blackbirds dive bomb the same harriers, one blackbird even riding on the back of a harrier until it was out of range.

One early morning I quietly came upon two young black-tailed bucks as they grazed grass. While I froze in place, they watched me. Our eyes met, and when I blinked, they blinked. I could see them relax, and even when I slowly moved myself several feet away, they were not perturbed.

During these days, I found myself thinking, ‘Think like a butterfly’. Or ‘Think like this plant’, and ‘Think like that/those bird(s).’ As my father and others in my past taught me, I tried to look at their world through their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and their ears. Even their roots and leaves. Our lives and being overlapped.

At times I forgot what species I was. I became a part of the whole system. I found myself adopting their same behavior when a vehicle drove down the gravel refuge road: being still and blending in. Becoming ‘invisible’.

I began to ‘see’ and become a part of them.

Where the wild things are, go I

30 May

Last week was a string of days within this:

Malheur NW Refuge and Steens Mnt.

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
– Wendell Berry

The ultimate was watching a pair of swans with four cygnets. Watching for hours the intimacy of their body language with each other, their communication and connections so basic and honest simplicity, putting all of ours at shame and bumbling inadequacy. The poetics of space and place through the eyes of six swans was an experience I won’t forget. And it makes all our human drama seem so ignorant and trivial.

I belong where the wild things are.

Trumpeter swans and cygnets

White-faced ibis and cinnamon teal on marshes on the Refuge.

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