urbpan: (dandelion)

The last two in the project were flies pretending to be wasps. Hard for this one to pretend to be anything but what it is--the largest wasp in the northeast, or at least the longest. That thread protruding from her abdomen is her ovipositor, and it brings her length to about four inches. This is the giant ichneumon Megarhyssa macrurus. She'll stab that thing into a rotting stump right into the body of a pigeon horntail larva and deposit her egg. Her baby then feeds on the horntail baby and, as they say, the beautiful cycle of life continues.

Despite her warning coloration and her terrifying (to many people) appearance, the giant ichneumon is not at all harmful to humans.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Looking like a wasp is an adaptation assumed by many different species of flies. Looking like a really huge wasp is more rare, but this Mydas fly Mydas clavatus has it down. It has a wasplike flight and measures a full inch in length, making it one of the largest true flies around. Its larvae feed on beetle grubs in the soil, and adults visit flowers for nectar. It may look scary but its one of the most beneficial insects in the yard.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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When I saw this animal I wasn't sure if I was seeing a wasp or a fly or some other kind of insect. The illusion is intentional--well, maybe not--the illusion has resulted from evolution. This fly resembles a wasp because it helps it survive. The illusion extends to the fly's front legs, which are marked with white segments, and moved in a way to suggest that they are the wasp's antennae. This is the entirely harmless stilt-legged fly Rainieria antennaepes.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Imagine my surprise, walking down the sidewalk in a small New England town in January, when encounter a large beetle. It was moving in a determined but unhurried manner. I recognized its strange shape--small front segments, big wide abdomen--from looking through beetle pics on bugguide. I guessed "blister beetle," and set upon handling it very carefully.

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Blister beetles are named for their ability to exude a chemical that can cause chemical burns to human skin. This big one here is in the genus Meroe*, a group known as "oil beetles;" presumably the yellow hemolymph they ooze is more memorable for its alarming oily appearance then for blistering naturalists.

These beetles are noteworthy as well for their life cycle: a mobile larva hatches from the egg and makes it way up to a flower where it will hitch a ride on a non-colonial bee. Some oil beetles release a scent that attracts male bees. Then the "triangulin," as this life stage is known, gains entry to the bee's nursery. It metamorphoses into another intermediate stage, less motile and more suited to lazily consuming the fruits of the bee's labor. Eventually it becomes the glorious animal pictured here. As to why it was waltzing down Mountain Road in Suffield in the dead of winter, I blame Climate Change.

(thanks to [profile] ankhanu* Origin obscure, may come from early medical literature (the term melloes appears in the writings of Paracelsus);
urbpan: (dandelion)
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The presence of the jeweler's loupe here is a hint that this is a very small organism. We generally think of ants as small animals, but this species is the smallest I've ever seen. Each worker is just about 1 mm in length.

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Their size and distinctive coloration--dark in the front with light legs and abdomen--identifies them as ghost ants Tapinoma melanocephalum*. Like many inhabitants of the great indoors, their origin is not precisely known. They are from the Old World Tropics for sure, narrowing it down to roughly a third of the surface of the planet.

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A colony could form in a pile of dead leaves, or in between a plant pot and it's protective liner. As long as the place is warm and humid, the ghost ants can live happily, feeding on miniscule amounts of sweet things and dead insects. When a colony is successful, some amount of it departs to become a new colony--"budding" instead of the complex new colony creation that some other eusocial insects endure. Besides all the tropics and heated greenhouses in the world, ghost ants live in Florida and Texas, and appear to be spreading.

* Humble and dark-headed
urbpan: (dandelion)
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The edges of the thallus of this fungus suggest hammered metal, or at least they did back when such things were common, and lichen common names were up for grabs. Anyway, this is called "hammered shield lichen," Parmelia sulcata*

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Most of the visible part of it, and the part that we call Parmelia sulcata, is a fungus. The color comes from a green alga called Trebouxia, which is safely cared for within the flesh of the fungus, protected from drying out and blowing away. Or perhaps it is a prisoner, prohibited from living a free life apart from it's symbiont (there are free-living Trebouxia out there, apart from the lichen symbiosis).

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The fungus depends entirely on the algae living inside it, to photosynthesize and make food for both organisms.


* Little shield with grooves
urbpan: (dandelion)
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I'm currently using a second-hand point and shoot camera with a passable macro feature--and here I've put a hand lens in front of it in an attempt to visualize a very small animal.

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The animal is a globular springtail (Order Symphypleona*), less than a millimeter long. These charismatic relatives of insects walk about grazing on edible particles, but can jump away suddenly with a lighting-quick flex of their springy appendage, the furcula. Because their predators are also very small and necessarily nearsighted animals, this escape method is virtually teleportation.

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This pair of springtails may be eating mold spores growing on the surface of this damp moss. Their surprisingly complex behavior is explored on the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth.


*New Latin symphy- (from Greek symphyēs grown together) + -pleona (from Greek plein to swim
urbpan: (dandelion)
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There are only a handful of cockroach species that are adapted to live indoors with us. This one will only live indoors if the indoors in question contains warm humid air and moist soil with plants in it. Perhaps that explains the common name "greenhouse cockroach" Pycnoscelus surinamensis*. This species also goes by the name "Surinam cockroach," maintaining the long held tradition of naming pest roaches after places that are NOT where they came from.

Surinam roaches surely occur in Suriname (a former Dutch colony on the northeast coast of South America you goon), as they occur everywhere on earth with the conditions described above. They are thought to be native to Asia, down around Malaysia somewhere, and spread around the world with tropical plants. These roaches are burrowers, so it would be very easy for one or more to hide in the rootball of a Ficus or Lychee. And one is all that is needed to establish a colony, because these insects practice parthenogenesis--giving birth without sex. In fact, in North America, no one has yet found a male Surinam roach. A few have been found in Australia, but all female colonies appear to be the norm. The one pictured here is a wingless subadult; adult females grow tan wings over their dark brown abdomen.

*Thick-leg from Surinam
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Nature walk participant Keith pointed them out to me. "Fairy pins!" he said. I suddenly wished I had my reading glasses with me. With the naked eye I could see only the greenish white surface of the Trichaptum biforme*, a superabundant thin polypore mushroom. But through the loupe (good thing for a naturalist to carry) I could see the miniscule burnt matchsticks of Phaeocalicium polyporaeum.** These tiny mushrooms are the fruiting body of a fungus that parasitizes the Trichaptum biforme.
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*Double-formed, bound in hairs

**Dark buds of polypore
urbpan: (dandelion)
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"What are those mushrooms?" the nature walk participant asked, pointing way above our heads at some semicircular brackets. I peered up helplessly. Then I found these mushrooms. "Well, if they are the same as these here..." But who knows if they were. These are Daedalopsis confragosa*, a polypore caught in the act of evolving toward having gills. Gills, or lamellae, are apparently a very efficient way for a mushroom to maximize its spore-production surface area. Gill-like structures have evolved independently at least 4 times in mushrooms. In this species, the pores are elongated, changing what would be tubes into channels lined with spore-producing cells.

*Rough, resembling Daedalus (creator of the labyrinth)
urbpan: (dandelion)
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I really wish I had taken a better picture of this, my favorite Ascomycete. (Ascomycota is the smaller of the two main divisions of mushrooms; most mushrooms you can think of are Basidiomycetes; morels, cup fungi and most lichenized fungi are Ascos; the main difference is the shape of the spore-producing cells.) The green stain cup Chlorociboria aeruginascens* not only produces a blue-green fruiting body, but its mycelium stains its wooden substrate the same color. Often you might come by a chunk of dead wood stained this color, but I consider it a special occasion to come across one putting out mushrooms. It's fun to be reminded how rare shades of blue are among living things.

*Green cup becoming blue green
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Among the animals, termites pretty much have wood all to themselves. All that cellulose and lignin is just too difficult for most creatures to digest. Termites have symbiotic organisms in their guts that do the chemistry work for them. If you look closely you can see at least two different castes working their roles in this colony of eastern subterranean termites Reticulotermes flavipes*. Termites are the most primitive of the eusocial animals, having been chewing wood for up to 150 million years before ants or bees came along.

*Yellow-footed netted termite
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Weird growths on plants have always been fascinating to me. I was so happy when I learned that most of them are caused by animals! In this case, a very small fly--a midge called Polystepha pilulae*--laid her eggs in the flesh of this oak leaf. The tiny maggots hatched and began feeding, and the flesh of the leaf hardened around them, protecting them as they ate. Unless they were parasitized by a wasp, they will pupate in their galls and emerge as more tiny long-legged midges.


*Many crowned ball-maker
urbpan: (dandelion)
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The rubbery brown cauliflower-like thing you see is the fruiting body of the Tremella foliacea* fungus. I am not sure that I had seen it before encountering it multiple times last Sunday on the Urban Nature Walk. The fungus is a parasite that feeds on another fungus.

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You can see the mushroom of the parasite surrounded by the mushroom of the host. The little orangish mushrooms belong to Stereum hirsutum**, a very common wood-digesting fungus. Like VERY common--I could find it anywhere there are trees if you gave me 5 minutes. So why haven't I seen the parasite before? Dunno, but now that I'm aware of it, I bet you I'll see it all the time. Mushrooms have a way of hiding in plain sight, waiting for you to realize they were there all along.


*Trembling foliage

**Hairy and hard (Oh grow up)
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Exidia recisa* is one of those species I use to test out field guides. This gelatinous mushroom is exceedingly common, especially after windy and wet weather when the dead twigs it feeds on are blown down from the trees. Conspicuous and interesting, any decent guide to temperate mushrooms should include it. It is one of the few species that can produce spores in the winter: the mushroom can dry up and revive repeatedly, depending on how wet conditions are. This allows the fungus to attempt reproduction at a time when their are few others competing for resources.

*Exuding and cut back
urbpan: (dandelion)
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This little fly, about the size of a small mosquito, landed on the kitchen table next to my laptop where I write these things. It was surprisingly tolerant of my attempts to photograph it, staying put as I got very close. It turns out this is a winter cranefly Trichocera* sp., a small relative of the creatures that look like giant mosquitoes. Unlike mosquitoes, winter crane flies do not feed on blood, or anything else for that matter. Their larvae feed in the leaf litter and detritus, but adults fly in the late fall to mate and die.

*This means either "hair horn" or "wax hair."
urbpan: (dandelion)
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These little orange spots are spore-producing regions of a fungus that causes a canker disease of wood. The wood in this case is a root protuberance in the pathway, undoubtedly constantly stepped on and otherwise stressed. The fungus took advantage of the broken and worn wood to grow inside as a weak parasite. The fungus is known as coral spot Nectria cinnabarina*, for the colorful spore-bearing wounds it causes.

*Cinnabar-colored (orange) killer.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Most mushrooms become unrecognizable once they have released their spores and begun to rot. Bacteria and fungi invade the mushroom and reduce it to a withered husk or a pile of goo. These hemlock reishi mushrooms Ganoderma tsugae* are very durable, and still identifiable by their color and structure, and by the fact that they are growing from dead hemlock trees.
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* Shiny skin on hemlock
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Almost identical to the gem-studded puffball, but smoother and with a greater taste for wood, is the pear-shaped puffball Lycoperdon pyriforme*. It's generally found as seen here, in its hundreds on a big fallen tree. These are at peak puffability, with large open pores at the center already discharging spores.

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* Pear-shaped wolf fart.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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When I was a child I loved nothing more than to find a puffball ready to be stomped on. It had to be an old one, the outer skin turned leathery, maybe with a hole already formed at the top. Now I gently poke the skin rather than stomp the mushroom. The fungus doesn't care either way--no matter which method, the spores will be spread. This fresh beauty is called the gem-studded puffball Lycoperdon perlatum.*

*Everpresent wolf fart

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