Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Jul 07 2013

Seeing Red

Red aphids on sunflower bud (photo by Kate St. John)

As soon as the woodland sunflowers started to bloom in Schenley Park their stems became coated with tiny red bugs. Last weekend I took the camera to the Upper Trail to see what the red was all about.

It didn’t take long to figure out these are red aphids.  Nose down, probiscus inserted, they sucked the sunflower juices.  They only ate from the Helianthus species, never from other plants nearby.

Among the hundreds of aphids I found a few with wings, the dispersal generation that can fly to new hosts.  In the photo above there’s a winged adult hiding behind the flower bud.

Most fascinating was their wide range of sizes.  From incredibly tiny to full grown adults there were many generations on one plant.  I saw no larvae, just fully formed bugs, because of their incredible reproductive strategy.

In the summer all aphids are female!  They reproduce asexually and give birth to live young.  In the photo above, the large aphid is the mother, the tiny ones daughters.  Some species of aphids can telescope generations.  Like Russian nesting dolls, the mother aphid has a daughter inside her who is pregnant with a daughter inside her.  No wonder there are so many of them!

In fall aphids switch to a different reproduction method.  The females give birth to males, mate with them, and lay eggs that overwinter and hatch as females.

Since they’re so small aphids are vulnerable to wind, rain and predators.  I blew on an infested stem and watched them crowd to the leeward side.  You can zap them off your garden plants by spraying them with a hose.  Or you can hire some ladybugs or lacewings to do the job.  (Lacewing larvae are nicknamed “aphid lions.”)

With such a bumper crop of aphids I’m on the lookout now for their predators. In this bug-eat-bug world that’s what will happen next.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 30 2013

The Value of Species

turtle_woodturtle_rsz2_wikiWood Turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend two pieces of a puzzle came together for me.  I saw an endangered turtle and I read a thoughtful book, The Value of Species, that describes how our values shape his plight.

The wood turtle is approaching extinction because of bulldozers and collectors — habitat loss and the pet trade.  He’s one of many species in this human-induced predicament.  In fact so many species are declining now that scientists say we’re heading into a great extinction, perhaps on the scale of the K/T event that killed the dinosaurs.

Our actions cause decline and extinction yet we continue to do them.  We’ve saved some species like the peregrine falcon with spectacular results but our overall track record is poor.  New problems arise faster than we can stop them.  Why?

In The Value of Species, Edward L. McCord explains that our values get in the way.

  • Human population growth is crowding out other species but we avoid thinking about our role in this problem.
  • We gladly protect an individual animal from harm but find it hard to protect an entire species.
  • We understand the monetary value of species but not their intrinsic value.
  • It’s hard for us to connect the need to save habitat (land) in order to save species.
  • Protections on land owned by the state for the common good can be trumped at the state level.  (The book discusses mineral leases on national land in Mongolia.  Marcellus leases in Pennsylvania’s State Forests is an example close to home.)
  • The common good erodes easily when people don’t trust that others will obey the rules.  When a society lacks trust species are vulnerable.

Chapter Three, The Fate of Life on Earth Hinges on Property Values, is especially apt this week.  On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District made it harder for the common good of living things to compete with property values.

The short time span of property ownership is microscopic when weighed against species who’ve been on earth for two million years and could disappear in a matter of decades.  “Still, many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if only for a week.”(1)

McCord describes a new and deeper way to see the intrinsic value of all species. When we do, we can change the trajectory of extinction by “drawing a line in the sand, something we do all the time to protect important values.”(2)

What will be the fate of the wood turtle?  The Florida grasshopper sparrow?  The red-breasted goose?

Ed McCord’s The Value of Species shows us the way to a brighter mutual future.


(photo of a wood turtle from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes from The Value of Species (1)page 51, (2)page xvii
Edward McCord is the Director of Programming and Special Projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College

p.s. Ed McCord gave a talk about the book at the University of Wyoming in April 2014.  Click here for the video.

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Jun 27 2013

Foam on Plants? Spittlebugs

Spittle bugs in Schenley Park, 15 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Have you seen these foamy spots on plants?  I found some last week in Schenley Park.

These are the hiding places of nymphal froghoppers, also called spittlebugs, tiny insects who suck the juice out of plants and excrete it as sticky foam to protect themselves from temperature extremes, dessication and predators.

With over 3,000 species of spittlebugs worldwide you’re likely to have some nearby.  They’re very small and hard to photograph but Rod Innes of British Columbia was able to video them and show what they’re doing much better than I could.  See below.

What a strange way for a bug to live.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 24 2013

Perhaps The Only One I’ll Ever See

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Wood turtle in the wild, 23 June 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

It was hot on Sunday when I decided to hike in Butler County and I wanted to travel light.  I debated taking the camera because I can only photograph close, stationary objects (plants) and it would be a burden but I carried it anyway.  I’m glad I did.

It was a big day for turtles.  I drove down a dirt road and twice had to swerve around large snapping turtles.  (Have you ever noticed they have tails like stegosauruses?)

During my hike I found this 8-inch turtle eating a leaf.  I didn’t know what it was so I took its picture and emailed Chuck Tague.  His answer:  Wood Turtle.  Good find.

A wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is a very good find.  It’s native from Pennsylvania to Nova Scotia and west to Wisconsin but it’s endangered due to habitat loss (suburban development, agriculture, logging) and collecting for the illegal pet trade.  Wood turtles are omnivorous on land and water, have homing instincts and can live 40 years.  In good habitat they live in colonies where they develop social hierarchies.  Sadly they are scarcer every year.

Since I don’t search for turtles and this species is declining rapidly, it’s likely this is the only wood turtle I’ll ever see.

I’m glad I took his picture.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 23 2013

Widow Skimmer

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Widow skimmer dragonfly (photo by Charlie Hickey)

When I first saw this cool photo of a dragonfly I thought, “I know the name of that bug.”   No.  I did not.

I confess I don’t pay much attention to insects unless they’re big and beautiful.  Dragonflies fall into that category but I don’t know many names.  The strikingly white tail on mature male Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) caught my attention years ago.  They have black and clear wings so I made a connection but…

This is a Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), a different genus but in the same family (Libellulidae).  If I’d paid attention I would have noticed that the Widow Skimmer’s wing pattern is black-white-clear while the male Whitetail’s is clear-black-clear.   Click here for a look at the Whitetail.

Dragonfly season is upon us.  Now I have something new to study in July.


(photo by Charlie Hickey)

p.s. Charlie tamed the wind to get this exceptionally sharp photo.  Click on the image to read how he did it.

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Jun 06 2013

Synchronous Fireflies

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Fireflies are just starting to emerge in southwestern Pennsylvania and with them the opportunity to see a very special phenomenon.

Most fireflies flash individually but in a few special places on earth — pockets in the Appalachians and in Thailand — the males flash in synchrony.   While the female fireflies wait on the ground, the males fly above and flash together — blinking in synchrony 6 to 8 times, then pausing for 8 seconds.  Their display is so beautiful that these sites have become meccas for firefly lovers.

Right now this light show is going on in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Elkmont, Tennessee as you can see in the video above.

If Tennessee is too far away, you can see them closer to home in the Allegheny National Forest.  Synchronous fireflies were discovered there in 2011 and studied last year by the experts from Tennessee who found that we have the same species that displays in the forest near Elkmont.

See them for yourself at the first annual PA Firefly Festival, June 21-23 at the Black Caddis Ranch Bed & Breakfast in Kellettville, PA.  Volunteers will guide you to the light show from 9:00pm to midnight on Friday and Saturday.  Visit the PA Firefly Festival website for more information.

We’re lucky to have such a cool light show near home.

(video from Knoxville News Sentinel on YouTube)

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Apr 20 2013

They’re Back

Tentworms on a cherry sapling in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

With warm weather, migrating birds and new leaves come leaf eaters like these tentworms that are building their tent on a choke cherry sapling in Schenley Park.

I noticed the first tents Friday morning after Thursday’s very hot weather.

I wonder what this weekend’s cold weather will do to them…

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Apr 01 2013

Sounds Like Ducks

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Wood frog (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last Saturday at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve I heard the sound of ducks in the woods but I wasn’t fooled.  I knew they were wood frogs.

For most of the year wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) keep a low profile.  In the summer they hide under leaves to avoid being eaten.  In the winter they’re literally frozen “frog-sicles” under the leaf litter, but in early spring they emerge for an orgy in the nearest vernal pond.

The male wood frogs float around and call to attract the females.  When the crowd really gets going they sound like ducks.  The first time I heard them I searched in vain for the flock of ducks making so much noise at the edge of a damp field.  Hah!  Wood frogs.  Click here to hear.

When the lady frogs arrive the orgy begins.  Multiple males grab a female and ride around on her back.  The pond becomes dotted with clumps of frogs.

After they mate the female wood frogs lay masses of eggs in big globs like this.

Wood frog eggs (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Then the orgy is over.  The adults disappear into the woods and the sound of ducks comes to an end.

Ironically, there’s a duck whose courtship call sounds like frogs:  the hooded merganser.

Nature is playing April Fools.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Feb 13 2013

Pepper On The Snow

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Snow fleas near a log (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Have you ever seen pepper on snow?  Did the pepper jump when you approached?

Last weekend Marianne Atkinson found black sprinkles on the snow near her home in Clearfield County, PA.

The “pepper” is hard to see in her first photo. Here’s a closeup.

Several snow fleas (photo by Marianne Atkinson)


These are snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola), a springtail species that earned its name because it appears on top of snow on warm winter days and, like all springtails, it jumps like a flea to avoid danger.

Springtails as a group are very interesting creatures:

  • They are very small, less than 0.24 inches long.  To see them well you have to magnify them.
  • They have a spring-loaded furcula (like a tail) that they clasp under their bodies.  When they let go the “tail” whaps the ground and propels them into the air.
  • Springtails are technically hexapods, not insects.
  • Most springtails live in leaf litter and topsoil where they eat decomposing plants and animals.
  • They are very gregarious.
  • They are highly sensitive to drought. Because they breathe through their cuticle (hard skin) they can’t afford to dry out.
  • Springtails are a sign of good soil because they are very sensitive to herbicides, pesticides and pollution. Folsomia candida are used in the lab for soil toxicology tests because they avoid — or die of — chemicals at very low levels.
  • There can be 100,000 springtails in one cubic meter of soil, making them one of the most abundant macroscopic animals on earth.

Snow fleas themselves are extra special.  They are active in winter because they have a protein in their bodies that works like anti-freeze.

Sometimes it’s the little things that are the most fascinating.

(photos by Marianne Atkinson)

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Jan 24 2013

Confuse A Cuttlefish

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Cuttlefish are masters of disguise.

What happens when you try to confuse one?

(video from YouTube)

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