My name is Karen and I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, working with students K-gray and doing outdoor science education based on Smithsonian research. I have also been a curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a contract curriculum writer for the Discovery Channel. In my spare time I love to explore nature topics that I want to know more about, which has lead me to blogging here on "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com). I've designed it to be a science and nature blog for every-day people, naturalists, and outdoor educators. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD. If you have questions you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know if you enjoy the blog or if you would like to see a particular topic covered. Thanks for reading!
Spiny Micranthena (Micrathena gracilis) (Photo: K. McDonald)
What is that Spiny Spider?
There's magic to fall, and the cycles that ramp up (or down) before the cold. You'll start to see all sorts of animals scurrying around caching nuts, humming birds stocking up on nectar, and general mayhem before the birds depart on their way south. To me, there are three signs that fall is coming:
Black gum tree leaves change their color (they're the first to turn red, along with poison ivy)
Fungus starts popping up everywhere
Spider webs smack you in the face constantly on the trail and you have to dodge spiny spiders.
This leads me to helping you identify those pesky spiders that you're dodging on the trails in fall.
A Story of Prehensile Jaws, Butt Propulsion, and Biting Mouth Bits
Dragonflies are one of those creatures that people love and hate. They show up on Memaw's knitted sweater, baby onesies, wine glasses, and summer napkins, but when it comes to actually seeing them in the wild many people cringe. They're fast moving, multi-winged, and bug-eyed creatures that look like aliens. Two of the most common questions I get asked is "Do dragonflies bite?" and "What do dragonflies eat?" In this blog we'll cover both questions, and the extraordinary world of dragonfly feeding, from prehensile jaws to mandibles.
Starting in spring bees and wasps begin to appear and I can always tell that people are concerned because my posts on "What Bit Me?" gets a lot more traffic. I completely understand fear and phobia of bees, ranging from concerns of severe allergies to those that have watched horror movies. As a former bee keeper though, I truly love and respect bees. One of my most favorite types of bees are the carpenter bees (here in Maryland we have Xylocopa virginica). Yes, they can be destructive; yes, they are big; and yes they can be scary, but when you really study them they're quite interesting. So, on to the question, "Do carpenter bees sting?" And more importantly what should I do around them?
Cecropia Moth (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Charlie Kellogg)
Identifying Big Moths of the Eastern US
Around this time of year I find a lot of moth cocoons and newly emerging moths at night. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the big moths that you may find in the Eastern US, and what they look like.
Cashew nuts (Photo: Wiki Commons, see attribution)
Unraveling the Mystery of the Cashew Nut
Most people know about the fact that a tomato is really a fruit and not a vegetable. In your science class you probably learned that fruits come from the ovaries of plants and bear seeds, while vegetables are all the other parts of plants (stems, roots, leaves, etc.). There are foods that continually get mis-categorized, and that's especially true of nuts. In this post I will explain what a cashew nut is, and why it's not truly a nut.
Female jumping spider, look at those legs! (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Spider Knees in the Know
I had a reader e-mail me for a 10 year old student who wanted to know exactly how many knees a spider has. If you Google the answer you get a web page that is aimed at kids and has the wrong answer as the first choice. This always infuriates me because they offer an easy, off-the-cuff quick answer that requires absolutely no thought or research. I hate it when people play down to kids and don't do the work required to give an accurate answer. So here's my answer.
Mallards on ice (By Proch (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
or "Why Ducks Don't Wear Mucklucks"
Have you ever looked at a duck swimming in icy water and wondered how they do that without wearing dive booties? Or have you ever looked at a squirrel sitting in snow calmly eating seeds and wondered why it's not racing for the nearest heated mani-pedi spa? All animals have unique adaptations for dealing with cold, ranging from boosted fat stores to growing extra feathers and double coated fur, but some animals have developed something called "countercurrent exchange." It's a trait that animals who are active in extreme conditions have converged upon as a way to deal with hot and cold temperatures, especially in snow, ice, cold water, and even tropical rain forests.
Collecting and sorting wild foods (Photo: K. McDonald)
How You Can Help Wildlife
When I walk I graze, I can't help it. I love looking for wild foods to munch on or smell. It's a lot fun to introduce students and adults to the bounty of nature that is all around them if they learn how to look. The other part to that is how to identify plants that are safe to snack on. At a recent conference I was made aware of how I could benefit more than just myself when I'm out there hiking around. Bear with me as I shift topics, but this will all make sense shortly.
As an apprentice wildlife rehabilitator I've always known that it's important to provide foods and stimulation for the animals that come into our care. Using foods that are as close as possible to their natural foods and environments as possible is really important. Until now I've stumbled around using prescribed diets, field guides, and books that could help us approximate those foods. I've pulled worms from compost for rails, to make mud-pie bowls of crawly goodness, and I've picked poke-weed for an impatient grackle, and I've cut oak leaves for squirrels to make nests (called dreys) in their hammocks. Wild food was one of those question marks for me, because I didn't want to bring anything into the center that wasn't safe, and I also wasn't always sure how to prepare it. (Is there a recipe for grubs and worms?) That's where this fun new website comes in. It's called Wild Foods4Wildlife at wildfoods4wildlife.com. The founder, Kate Guenther, is a wildlife rehabilitator who spoke at a recent conference in Virginia. I found her website interesting and very helpful, so I thought I'd share it with you.
If you're not convinced how happy food makes captive wild animals, then watch this video (yes, they really do smack that loudly when eating, especially mice):
Oxpecker bird, which is a sanguivore (blood drinker) (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Derek Keats)
12 of the Most Interesting
Let's face it, there are a lot of ways to eat and be eaten in the animal kingdom. Feeding ranges from the sponge-like mouth parts of flies to the flat molar-like chompers of clam-eating fish like black drum. If an animal or plant exists in the world, then something feeds in or on it. This is true of animals that drink blood, also called sanguivores (sang-wa-vors). Another word for this is hermatophagy (pronounced her- mat-oh-fay-gee). Any time you see the term "--phagy" at the end of a word it means "eating". Herma comes from the Greek word "haima" or "blood" and phagein or "to eat." For today's post I want to share with you the world of sanguivores or blood drinkers. There are more than you think, and even though you may already be squirming in your seat at the though, keep an open mind. Blood is little more than water with easily digestible proteins, lipids (fats), and nutrients. To humans blood is super taboo, and gross, we see blood as "disgusting" because we're taught that it's full of diseases and should only be seen in horror films. However, in nature blood is something not to be wasted or ignored. It's the "water of life" for some animals. Here are 12 of the most interesting.
Working outside, and in Education, I often get queries and questions about things people find in their yards or sidewalks. This week was no different, one of the researchers where I work messaged me asking about a big red fuzzy ant that has a black stripe on it. This fuzzy visitor is quite common in the Eastern US so it was an easy ID, but I thought it worth doing a post to introduce you to some quick facts about red velvet ants, also called cow killers, and their relatives. Most species of velvet ants are found in the southern and western parts of North America, and there are over 50 species in Florida alone,
As a birder and naturalist I love it when I learn new information that not only helps me understand the avian world but also my own, thus the post this week. Most of us learned long ago that birds have hollow bones. We learned in grade school that it helps the birds be lighter so that they can fly. However, there's something more to unpack in the story that I think is pretty neat, they can breathe with those hollow bones.
NON-ALCOHOLIC DRINKING GAMES TO GET KIDS TO DRINK WATER
Get kids to drink water (Photo: Maxpixel)
Get Kids To Drink by Transforming Alcoholic Drinking Games into Kid-Friendly Ones
This post is a bit off the main track of what I usually do, but it's very critical to the field I work in: outdoor education. I teach students of all ages, in all weather, and I find that one of the things that children (and adults) forget to do is drink water. Never mind the fact that it's a struggle just to get visitors just to bring water (4 oz bottles don't count), drinking water is even tougher when there are exciting things to do and see outside with our guides. However, it's critical to keep everyone hydrated. If you want to get kids to drink water it can be challenging to keep their attention. To this end I have put together a list of fun games that you can play with large or small groups of people to get them to drink water. Most of these have been converted from traditional alcoholic drinking games to kids-friendly versions.
Have you ever been out with friends, and you see a big hairy spider and someone yells, "wolf spider!"? Now the thing is, there are lots and lots of big brown spiders out there (and "big" is relative to how much you hate spiders too). Wolf spiders are the ones that have a bad reputation because they're big and brown and easy to see, and they have a fierce sounding name so people remember them. If they were called "floofy brown Betsies" or "hairy teddy bears" then most folks would probably just chalk them up to big brown things that happen to saunter through now and again. But no...a biologist long ago thought that wolf spiders hunted like wolves, in packs, and they named the family "Lycosidae." This comes from the Greek "lycosa" meaning wolf. Any time you see an "a" after a Greek name it means the critter is a predator, it eats meat. In the case of spiders, bugs and other small creatures, this particular family name is misleading because wolf spiders the world around are really solitary and don't like hunting in packs. They do pounce on prey but not quite like a wolf does. So let's get down to some real wolf spider facts and pictures.
This time of year there is a fun abundance of moths and insects flying around at night, and often hanging on buildings during the day. One such popular moth in our region is the luna moth (Actias luna). Luna moths are the charismatic megafauna of the moth world. They're big and flashy and easy to spot, as well as being quite harmless. In honor of these beauties, and the summer nights, here are ten interesting facts about luna moths.
Montem Trekking Pole Review, Ultra Z Folding Model
Hiking with the Montem Ultra Z folding trekking poles (Photo: K. McDonald)
Trekking Poles That Work
In a previous article I wrote about Why You Should Use Walking Poles to Hike, because they are great tools for all ages, and they help with burning calories, provide stability, and aid in endurance . I still strongly believe that walking or trekking poles are a wonderful tool to use and that's why I agreed to do a review of the Montem Ultra Z Folding Trekking Pole. You may remember that I mentioned this small start-up outdoor company in my previous post. You can read all about Montem on their home page here. I also want to take you on a journey of how to consider the different features and materials that you should consider when examining a trekking pole, using these as an example.
Let's face it, ticks are one of those creatures that everyone hates. Even I, the biggest nature nugget of them all, hate ticks. They're flat and creepy and they invade the private moist areas of the human body that only my doctor and I should have access to. As if that's not enough, they bury their mouth parts in our skin, latch on, and suck our life-blood all while possibly transferring diseases. This creates a real ick factor that keeps many people out of the woods altogether. However, there is some hope, namely because there is a cadre of creatures that eat ticks. There are the usual suspects of beetles, ants, centipedes, and other generalist eaters that wipe out ticks, but this list also includes chickens and ground fowl such as guinea birds and bobwhites. There's even an African bird called an oxpecker, which lives in sub-Saharan Africa that eats ticks off water buffalo and other hoofed animals (and who doesn't love that name!?). Well, since we're short on oxpeckers here in the Eastern US we have to rely on another creature to help us out, namely the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana).
Introducing the Butterfly Proboscis (Snoot, Sippy Straw & Sponge)
Butterfly tongue (Flicker Sharing: Thomas Quine)
How Butterflies Get Their Fluids
I think I have a form of nature attention deficit disorder because I get so easily distracted by anything in the natural world. In meetings I'm focusing on the sparrows outside my window and and analyzing their flock structure. At restaurants I'm looking at moths flying around lights and trying to identify them. I can't help it, it's what I do. Thus, while sitting on a dock watching the sunrise I noticed a butterfly probing a fairly fresh pile of scat that the morning's inhabitants had left. It sat there for a long time, probing with its long tongue and "dung sipping" (yes, there is a term called "dung sipping" that scientists use, makes for a great insult to other entomologists). Butterflies also can be found sipping carcasses and dead things too (so much for a butterfly's beauty eh?.."corpse sipper" anyone?). Here's a picture of what I observed:
Swallowtail butterfly drinking from dung (Photo: K. McDonald).
Most people that I meet think that when a butterfly visits a flower that it's using its tongue to sip nectar. This is what happens, but the butterfly's tongue is more like a combination sponge and sippy straw instead of just a straw. Let's start with the correct sciency terms for you to stash for future garden parties.....
I love random bits of nature trivia. I store them away like nuts in a chipmunk larder, to be taken out and paraded around when the right situation occurs. The term "raptorial claw" is one that most people will sort of know what it means, but not really, so for today's blog post a short introduction to my shiny chipmunk term of the day.
What's the Difference Between Moles, Voles, and Shrews?
Eastern mole (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Dave GovoniL)
A Quick Chart and Guide
I hate it when the first online search results for any creature involves their death and killing, and moles, voles, and shrews are no exception. This post will walk you through the differences between these three distinct types of animals that show up in yards but that are often confused and misunderstood. I won't give you management information here, that's up to you, but at least this will help you understand the animals you may be living around and with.
Great blue heron on trail camera (Photo: McDonald)
Wildlife Watching Unobtrusively
I find it a personal challenge to give gifts that will be meaningful and used well beyond the occasion when the gift was given. This Christmas I decided to buy a trail camera for my partner. In all fairness I thought it might be a good family gift too, mainly because I work in environmental education and I was also excited to see how one works and the potential use for educational programs or observations. What follows is a short article on my observations and suggestions for personal or educational uses of a trail camera (or multiple cameras).
I didn't really plan on writing about stomach eversion until I began researching how owls form pellets and I ran across some interesting information about frogs and their ability to burp up their entire stomachs. I started to follow this thread of research and thought I'd share with you information about stomach eversion in five different animals that I found absolutely fascinating. You'll probably never really use this information at polite cocktail gatherings but will make for great "one up" gross stories while drinking beer with friends.
Have you ever wandered around a parking lot, sidewalk, or trail in the fall and seen a Wooly Bear caterpillar? They're the familiar fuzzy orange and black caterpillars that everyone dodges stepping on and that kids love to pick up and play with.
Adult male Isabella Tiger Moth (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, Flicker Sharing).
These fuzzy wee beasties are technically called the "Banded Woolly Bear" and they are the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The adult moth isn't very striking. It has golden-brown wings. They also have faint darker brown lines on their wings and the females have a pinkish-orange hind wing. The nice thing is that the caterpillar isn't a crop pest and mostly feeds on common deciduous forest trees such as elm, ash, low growing herbs, and other forest plants (they're not very picky and tend to sat away from gardens).
THE WOOLLY BEAR MYTH
Now most people have heard the myth that the woolly bear caterpillar can predict winter's length and intensity based on how much black is on them or how big the orange band is around their middle. This is really an old wives tale because as the caterpillar grows, during each molt (or shedding of its skin) the fuzzy black tips become less and less pronounced and the orange band grows. So, the caterpillar color barometer is really subjective based on which one you found and what molt phase it's in. Not very reliable if you ask me.
Adult woolly bear caterpillar (Photo: Wiki Commons)
So, seeing all those fuzzy cute woolly bear caterpillars got me to thinking and wondering, if they don't predict winter, what exactly do they do to over-winter? Where do they go? How do they survive? Seeing as they can't crawl very far they have to have some strategy to make it through freezing conditions. After all they are found all the way from the Arctic to North America and Mexico.
Bold jumping spider (Photo: Flicker sharing, Tibor Nagy)
Little Spider, Big Attitude
I'll admit it, I'm a big fan of little spiders, especially little wee hairy ones with big attitudes. That's why I wanted to feature the bold jumping spider Phidippus audax (say it with me, fid-DIP-us Ow-dax) for today's post. The name alone says it all, they're small spiders, about the size of those removable pencil erasers on mechanical pencils (6-13 mm), but they've got attitude enough for a mega-spider.
Have you ever been digging in the garden or your flower bed and come across a HUGE grub or large black beetle? If you've ever spent any time digging around outside or under logs in the Eastern US (or Midwest) then you've probably encountered our guest beetle for today, the Bess beetle or Bess bug . Their Latin name is Odontotaenius disjunctus (O-don-tote-a-knee-us dis-junk-tus). Odon means "tooth" and taeni means "band" or "ribbon". This refers to the bands of teeth on their bodies (abdomen and wings) that they use to make sound. Dis refers to "separate", "double" or "two", and junc refers to a "rush" or "reed". This may reference that they sound like rushes or reeds rubbed together.
Bess beetle (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Bess beetles are one of the largest beetles you can find (1.2-1.6" long) and can be quite startling. Their backs look like shiny patent-leather dress shoes with legs (there's an image for you). Their bellies have golden hairs and their head has a single horn. Bess beetles are in the scarab super-family (Scarabaeoidea), and there are over 500 species around the world. The Bess beetles of North America (Odontotaenius disjunctus) are one of the few scarabs in the US. Look carefully and you can see the characteristic scarab looking club-like antennae on their head.
Bess beetle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Cotinis)
The common Bess beetle name probably comes from the the early English term buss meaning "kiss" or the French term baiser or evenune bise, which also means "to kiss." Both sound very close to "Bess." This name may attributed to the noise that the beetles make when they're startled or feel threatened. It's akin to a "kissy-sound," like what you'd make when making fun of your older brother kissing his girlfriend or the practice smooches you did as a kid in the mirror. The sound is made much like how a cricket makes sound, by rubbing body segments together, a process called stridulation (st-rid-you-lay-shun). Listen to this...
If you're like my friends then the thought of finding a spider in your house causes an immediate visceral response, least of which would be putting on boots and grabbing the Raid can. I know I can't change most people's minds, but I can at least help you identify the spiders you might find and reassure you that they are (for the most part) harmless and quite beneficial. In today's post I'm going to give you a quick guide to the types of spiders commonly found in and around homes in the Eastern United States. These spiders are often referred to as "common house spiders" but the term "house spider" is a bit misleading, and how common they are depends on where you live and the environment in and around your home.
How many comedies have you watched where someone was stung by a jellyfish and the "hero" very selflessly offers to pee on the sting site? It really is just a comedy line, there is no truth in the myth and it can even make things worse! Yes, research as been done on this, and there's a great article in "Scientific American." If you'd like to read it, click here. For this article I'm going to do two things: 1) Explain what happens when you get stung by a jellyfish and 2) Give you some treatment options.
Fairy ring or mushroom circle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Unukorono)
Magic or Mundane?
One of the magic parts of summer, for me, is the appearance of mushroom circles and lightening bugs. Fairy rings have captured imaginations around the world, and they are found in folklore from Scandinavia to Europe and North America. They're even included in fairy tales called "The Fairy Ring: A Collection of Tales and Traditions" by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1857).
There's some neat biology around mushroom circles (also called elf circles or pixie rings), but it makes them no less magical. So let's dive into to explore what is known about them.
Sometimes there's an irony to being a blog writer. When I was researching primary sources for information about wineberry vines (Rubus phoenicolasius, pronounced Rue-bus foe-knee-col-ass-e-us), I found out that the majority of the field research has been done by researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where I work. To be fair, there are 16-19 research laboratories at any given time and over 200 on staff, so individual projects and research is hard to keep up with. Being at SERC is what has inspired my interest in the wineberry, because it is a widespread plant that produces fruit in July and has become a significant symbol of summer for me and the staff and volunteers I work with.
Recently I had the good fortune to be paddling just past dinner time, in the cool twilight of sunset with some friends. We noticed fins sticking up out of the shallow waters of the Bay (Chesapeake Bay to be exact). Soon, we found ourselves in the middle of a nice school of cownose rays. They were just at the surface of the water, splishing and splashing their wings, while diving back down to blow and suck water to expose tasty clams. Several hit the bottom of my kayak. Now for some people this might be a terrifying sight, and at least one of our paddlers didn't find the "magic" in it that I did (though here's a video of what one looks like, imagine this magnified by about 50 rays).
After posting on social media I discovered a general fear of the gentle cownose rays that I didn't realize existed, specifically many people wanted to know, "can a cownose ray sting and hurt you?" To answer this questions I've prepare five basic facts for you.
As a child you learned about bees and how they fly from flower to flower pollinating the plants, and that they carry the pollen on the hairs of their legs while some even carry it on hairs their bottoms (called scopa). However, there's another way that bees can pollinate that most people don't know about and its immanently useful for gardeners to be familiar with. The process is called sonication or buzz pollination.