Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Top of the Gob Pile

I was inspecting an area with an acid mine drainage problem last Wednesday for work and we found the source pretty easily: a massive gob pile. What's a gob pile? It's the pile of stuff left over from coal mining. There's a lot of different materials in it, including a lot of shale, giving it a black color. It's an ugly thing that causes lots of problems, but regulation in the US has stopped companies from abandoning them since 1977.

Interestingly enough, there were a few plants growing on the top of the pile, and a few old stumps, which held some biology after all.

This tiny grasshopper blended in with the fall colors, until it jumped onto a patch of moss.

Pixie Cup Lichen, Cladonia pyxidata, grew in a couple patches.

British Soldier Lichen, Cladonia cristatella, made itself known with its bright red caps. Those red caps on the stalks hold its spores.

And since I can never resist turning over a decaying log, I was rewarded with this scarab beetle grub. Not sure what it is, but it's kind of pretty. If you squint a lot, it almost resembles a delicious dumpling.

"Life will find a way."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Science Video Friday - The Naturalist President

There are a lot of reasons to admire Theodore Roosevelt, America's 26th president. Chiefly among them to me is his passion for conservation. This video from The American Museum of Natural History explores the roots of his passion, which grew from his interests in natural history during his youth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Herd of Zebras

After enjoying a meal in the park a few weeks ago with my girlfriend, I stopped by a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) to check for any insects. The sweet gum is abundant in Ohio and is one of my favorite trees. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would throw the seed balls at my friends. Good times.

I noticed an orange bug near the trunk of the tree and stooped down to investigate.

Success! I had found Pselliopus barberi, a species I like to refer to as the zebra-striped assassin bug. I kept looking and found another one. Then another. And another....all in all, I counted 29 in total! There were about six pairs which were mating, though I disturbed a few (as you can see in the above photo).

It's not every day that you find so many insects in one place. So what was going on?

The answer lies in the season. This species overwinters as adults, so when it starts getting colder in the fall, the adults band together to find hiding places under bark and wrinkly crevices on trees. Sometimes it results in a little hanky-panky as well. It's for the good of the species, of course.


On a related note, this was a time I was glad to have my Droid X with me. I didn't have my camera, but thankfully I was able to snap a few photos with my phone instead. They're not as high quality, but they get the job done and allowed me to identify the species of these bugs. And people say technology removes us from nature... Pro tip: it's all about how you use it.

Now, when will the assassin bugs come out again? That depends on when it warms up. Last year, I got my hands on an adult at the end of January. Last year was an abnormally hot winter, however, so (I hope) it won't be until early next Spring that we'll start to see the adults emerge from their hiding spots.

Heteroptera of Eastern North America. 1926. W.S. Blatchley. The Nature Publishing Company.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

This centipede is so happy!

Quick! Describe centipedes in one word!

You said "optimistic," right?

Because the face on the back of this centipede's head is super happy, even when suspended in ethanol. This is a centipede in the genus Strigamia, collected last October from leaf litter when I was searching for millipedes. I wonder if other species have different faces...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Portfolio of Historical Insects

I had some extra time after work today, which I used to visit Marietta College's Special Collections. They keep scores of old documents, many dating back to when the Ohio Company of Associates first established Marietta in 1788 as the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. What I was after today, however, had an Entomological bent to it.

A young Hildreth, via Wikipedia.
Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a doctor who lived in Marietta during the early to mid-1800s did some of the first work in Ohio studying insects. He was a naturalist and published the first observations of the periodical cicada's 17 year life cycle, which is what I was after. I didn't find any of his cicada papers, but the librarian did bring me a book he wrote and illustrated, entitled "Portfolio of Insects."

This book includes paintings by Hildreth of various insects from Marietta and elsewhere in Ohio. When I first opened the book, I was greeted with beautiful illustrations of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) during all of its life stages. I had an immediate visceral reaction to that page--the tobacco hornworm is one of the first insects I raised when I became interested in Entomology, and it was emotional for me to be confronted by this right after opening the book. It was a direct connection to a naturalist who had written this Portfolio 150 years ago.

That caught me by surprise. I was excited, but sheesh, that almost brought tears to my eyes.

I soldiered on, invigorated by each page and by the connection I felt with Hildreth. His book was a veritable menagerie of the most charismatic insects you can find around Marietta, and which are still around today--one of the perks of having a lot of woods and natural areas in the county.

The book is only about 40 pages long, and each page showcases a colorful new creature: a brilliant Luna moth, a royal walnut moth, a smattering of other large moths and butterflies, a giant water bug...even a red eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) and a sketch of what Marietta College looked like during his time! As for his handwriting, it was difficult to read. I could make out some descriptions and names of plants and insects, but that was about it. Fortunately, his labels for each illustration were neater. I recognized the scientific names for each species and even noted some that had changed during the previous 150 years. Imagine that, eh?

Hildreth was truly a Renaissance man: in addition to being a naturalist, he was a doctor, geologist, and historian. He was active in the community as well, and today has a street in Marietta named after him.

Sadly, I only had an hour to look at the book before I had to leave, but I'll definitely return soon. I have some more research to do vis–à–vis Hildreth's cicada research, which I hope will also feature some of his illustrations.

Hildreth's Portfolio of Insects is an achingly beautiful direct connection to the past. It means a lot to me, being a native to Marietta, and for me, it inspires a timeless feeling of camaraderie with Dr. Hildreth. I recognize these insects drawn so long ago and I can still go out and find them. Had we lived at the same time, I think he and I would be good friends.

I wish I had at least one picture from the book, but I'll have to speak with the librarian about any effects taking pictures would have on it. Who knows, maybe we can get it digitized. In lieu of any pictures, I will leave you with a quotation Hildreth used to begin a paper on cicadas he published in 1830:
"No part of natural history more abounds in wonderful and extraordinary productions, than that portion of it embraced in the study of Entomology."