What a Summer!

Looking back, this was one of the best summers of my life. To begin with, it was the earliest spring in my fifty years of record keeping, with emergent butterflies flying in February, and a strong flight through March. Then the huge May freeze!DSC02488.jpgDSC02468.jpgDSC02499.jpg

Then, red tailed hawks nesting in the back yard. I never imagined that.DSC02862.jpg

Then, other birds, both on the mountain and in the garden.DSC02939.jpgDSC01531.jpg

And mothing! I had the pleasure of collecting moths in several areas, some new to me: Blodgett Peak Open Space, Ute Valley Park, Bluestem Prairie Open Space, Rock Creek Canyon, and Baculite Mesa. Keeping track of all those moths isn’t easy. I added 37 new records for the Pikes Peak Region, bringing my current total to 2073 species.

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And the garden OMG, what a year for the flowers!DSC01710.jpgDSC03440.jpg

And the July rains!

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I heard that it was the wettest July on record. So, up came the mushrooms. We found about 40 species on one hike in Bear Creek.

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And July on Shelf Road, the amazing rabbit bot fly!DSC03605.jpg

And rare butterflies. The third record of Nymphalis californica and the fourth record of Adelpha bredowi in El Paso County.

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Plus many new records of the butterflies like the pigmy blue, Brephidium exilis (photo by Tim Leppek), which reminds me of Eric Eaton and all the new friends I found on the Arthropods Colorado Facebook Group. That’s been a load of fun. (What will we do in the winter?)

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So it was an amazing summer. I already have seasonal affective disorder from the 7:30 twilight. I can’t wait until spring.

 

 

 

 

 

Leucism in Lepidoptera

Albinism and leucism are rare in Lepidoptera. If you google “Albinism and Leucism in Lepidoptera” you’ll find thousands of photos of mammals, birds, and reptiles, but only a scattering of leps, some of which are white species, not leucistics. The obvious exception is a white luna moth, which is normally green. But the photo is labeled “Albino,” while the dark ocelli stand out on all four wings. It is a leucistic. Leucism is caused by recessive alleles that don’t produce the normal pigments. Albinism is an extreme case of this in which all of the alleles are dysfunctional.

I found a Vanessa cardui that is partially leucistic, feeding with hundreds of normal morphs on Chrysothamnus bushes. I show it here with a normal form below.

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Siricids, Crab Spiders, Mimetics! Oh, my!

This morning in the flower garden I found a Siricid, a horntail wasp, a large male, crawling slowly up and down the raceme of a flowering mint. Soon I discovered, beneath him, a second male of the same species, and they seemed to be in some sort of competitive ritual. But, whoa! The surprise is that the smaller male hasn’t moved much because…DSC04521.jpg

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Did you see it? After watching them for about three hours, during which time the larger one continued wandering up and down the stalk, I noticed that the smaller one was moving only very slightly. I didn’t realize it until I enlarged a photo afterwards. Then I went back for a better look. Yikes! A crab spider!DSC04518.jpg

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Crab spiders are generalist predators that roughly match their substrate, so they qualify as “aggressive mimics.” The phenomenon is also known as “mimesis” when the model is inanimate, or at least not another similar species. Background mimics or cryptic species are mimetics.

 

Baculite Mesa, Pueblo County, a great place for bugs and spiders.

Here’s a few photos and a short video of trying to coax a tarantula out of her burrow.

Baculites are fossil cephalopods that formed long rod-shaped “bones,” much like the inner shell of a modern squid. The largest ones may be several feet long, but here at Baculite Mesa they are mostly small specimens.DSC04123.jpg

Here is one of the several preying mantises we found, a male.DSC04128.jpg

And the group, working on the tarantula burrow. We found several at home, but not eager to step into the sunlight.DSC04105.jpg

Here is a mating pair of Phyciodes picta, a desert version of the foothill pulchella. It seems to be common in Pueblo County. We found scores of them.DSC04119.jpg

And a whiptail lizard, apparently sleeping through our disturbances.DSC04129.jpg

And even birds, although besides the pond-side doves and killdeer, there were few. Here’s a rock wren, the best photo I could get as it kept moving.DSC04121.jpg

A Note on Aspen Ecology

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In 2004, the Catamount Biological Field Station published a research brief by Peter Marchand and Anne Havemann (http://www.catamountcenter.org/research-and-projects/research-briefs/phellinus-tremulae-and-nest-cavity-resources-in-the-upper-montane-forests-of-the-pikes-peak-region/) that reported that aspen tree holes are strongly favored over conifers in terms of nesting sites for birds. In a survey of montane breeding birds they found 14 cavity-nesting insectivorous bird species (29 pairs), all but two of which nested in aspen tree holes, even when conifer tree holes were available. They further discovered that 87.5% of the tree holes studied were visibly infected by Phellinus tremulae, a heart rot fungus that seems to be transmitted from tree to tree by birds, bats, and probably insects. This led Peter Marchand to embark on a separate study of the significance of Phellinus on the health of aspen stands at and around the Catamount Field Station. Marchand’s study was apparently never published, but the upshot was fascinating to me.

It all starts with an aspen tree hole, into which Phellinus fungus is introduced, probably by woodpecker beaks that have previously probed and hammered infected tree holes.

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http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2014/06/04/williamsons-sapsuckers-and-the-glory-hole-aspen/ Photo by Ron Dudley

The fungus makes the tree easier to excavate as time goes on, so tree hole inhabitants can find nesting spaces. The presence of hungry birds reduces the numbers of moth larvae that feed on aspen leaves. This is good for the aspen!

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Thus, aspen, indirectly, seem to benefit from having heart rot fungus to make the tree holes livable. Of course, too much fungus would threaten the whole aspen stand. But having some trees infected is apparently beneficial to the degree that they attract the insectivorous birds. Balance is everything. The 2004 study found that about 12% infection by heart rot fungus provides an adequate number of tree holes to host hungry birds to provide protection for the aspen stand.

Benefiting from a parasitic fungus seems unusual to me. It would be like finding that athlete’s foot attracts a beneficial microbe, so humans would maintain a significant infection rate to gain the benefit. Are there parallels in our species? I mean, we have mutualists galore. But what about “beneficial” parasites?

The first feedback loop is a simple relationship between aspen and the herbivores that defoliate and damage it. As moths increase, aspen decrease. Bad for the aspen!

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But, with the introduction of the Phellinus fungus, aspen find an indirect benefit due to the increase in tree holes and their nesting birds, which depress moth populations. Good for the aspen!

Second

Remember that the decrease in moths creates an increase in aspen. It might seem that since the nesting birds positively affect the aspen, they would positively affect the fungus, the tree holes, and themselves. So what prevents a runaway, reinforcing loop for the tree-hole-nesting birds? I imagine, predators:

Final

This balancing set of effects seems to create a dynamic advantage to all species involved, and maintains ecosystem health.

Williams Alumni at The Nature Place

What a great week at The Nature Place near Florissant, Colorado. Thanks to all the Williams alumni for being interesting people engaged in studies of geology and natural history. See the post below this one for an update on our rabbit bot fly. But first, here are a few photos. Remember the anicia checkerspot?Anicia checkerspot

And, of course, the blue columbine from above the snowfields on Horseshoe Mountain.Blue columbine

And the 50+ elk across the stream below the cirque.Elk at Horseshoe Mtn

And Parry’s primrose, one of the most photographed flowers in the tundra.Parry' Primrose

And meanwhile, back at the lodge, Caripeta aequaliaria, the red girdle moth, hiding under the eaves.Snowia montanaria

And this little mountain bluebird juvenile on Wilkerson Pass.W bluebird juv

Thanks for a great week! See you all in 2019? If I’m not in a wheelchair.