Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mutualistic Symbiosis Between Mycorrhizal Fungi and their Hosts

Mutualistic Symbiosis Between Mycorrhizal Fungi and their Hosts

By Cade Campbell
(Above: The fruiting spires of the Ascomycete Helvella crispa in a Rhododendron grove beside a Beartree Lake campground parking lot. Notice how they resemble molten candle wax. This is a prized edible in England, and it is closely related to the delicious Yellow Morel, Morchella esculenta. If this mushroom is not served well-done, however, the low heat will not dissolve their poisonous monomethylhydrazine.)

Though fungus has been drastically underrated throughout the centuries, it has played a vital role in the masked life of the ecological communities around the world. One example are the successional forests. The average forest today, in our area, has grown from a logged area. Recently logged areas are inhospitable for most moisture-loving organisms, including plants, insects and especially fungi, and once they leave, all of the other animals and plants cannot survive. So, the forest begins its succession cycle. Lichen has a part in this process using its own internal symbiosis, along with bryophytes. These tiny, unique plants and plant-hybrids begin to build up soil in raw, nutrient-deficient ground and even on xeric outcrops. Soon layers of ferns and herbaceous plants can begin to repopulate the area and trees seeds begin to arrive by wind or animal traffic. That’s when the fungi arrive. Almost simultaneously with the first white pine, carolina hemlock, red spruce or Fraser fir that sends a woody shoot smothered in waxy needles from the damp loam of the Appalachians, fungal spores start to form a mycelium amongst the future forest. A thick wad of strong, filamentous hyphae stretch into the dirt like a science-fiction monster to form a mycelium, and after a while they begin probing for a living host. However, they don’t want to harm it. You see, after the mycelium generates over several months to a full year, the seedling conifers become saplings and begin to learn the struggles of successional growth. Wind, cottontails, drought, extreme temperatures and competition lower the chances of survival. Until, that is, coniferous mycorrhizal fungus comes in. In a lot of elementary school science books, fungi are talked about only as the best example of a decomposer. But mycorrhizal fungi don’t really decompose waste, but instead, they form alliances. Saprophytic fungi already had their turn in succession and will again as decomposers after a previous forest is destroyed. So, after several days of searching, the hyphae attach to a pine. Every single mycelium across the expanse of the new forest area, joins with a partner tree. In the next few years, the saplings without mycelia beg for mercy as their gargantuan softwood brothers pierce the sky above. How can the mushroom-infected trees continue to grow in a healthier, happier state than their suffering counterparts? It’s a simple process. The mycelium shoots haustoria into the tree roots, which begin to exchange minerals from the soil that the mycelium collected for energy before connecting to another source, for photosynthetic energy flowing throughout the trees nutrient canals.
(Above: This is a Basidiomycete in the genus Cortinarius. This is mycorrhizal in riparian mixed forest, so it has many hosts. It reflects the energy it retained with strands of a silky cortina, the mushroom’s namesake, a spider-webbed hymenium-guard that protects its sporophytes as the primordium mushroom matures. This mushroom’s hyphae connect to deciduous trees, so it is final succession species. You could see the dead pitch pines and hemlocks in the same woods as this mushroom by the lake at Steele Creek Park.)

But as this exchange takes place, new trees pop up amongst the mature conifers. These trees are the deciduous hardwoods. They seem to be perfect additions to the myceliums’ hosts, but they grow untouched by previous myceliums. Instead, new fungal spores travel through the air and begin doing their work on the hardwoods. Like the fungus on the conifers, these species of fungi create myceliums and start symbiosis. But after a while, catastrophic events begin to happen between the mycorrhizal relationships of a forest. The hardwoods and softwoods start crowding each other out, but both are fueled by powerful mycorrhizal minerals. However, the biggest problem in the mycorrhizal relationships as the forest becomes more diverse is that different species of mycorrhizal fungus don’t get along. Fungal warfare between fungus is high tech and strange. You see, mycelia need their hosts to grow bigger and healthier than all of the other mycelia’s hosts in order to survive. So, the battle begins in the cool, wet soil of the forest, below the seemingly tranquil forest floor where plants and animals thrive. But the future of the trees relies on the unknown, underground battle that is about to begin. A fungus such as Tricholoma portentosum, or Marvelous Tricholoma may extend a few hyphae towards the soil’s surface, farther from its beloved brother; the white pine, to grow reproductive fruiting bodies above the leaf litter, when it comes in contact with a symbiotic Pleurotus ostreatus, or Winter Oyster Mushroom’s mycelium that is attached itself to a small red oak. As soon as the two cellular threads collide, both shrivel back and create defenses. Small, chemical daggers called messenger crystals are inserted into each fungi as warnings, and they release harmful, lacerating chemicals. To escape maximum damage from the messenger crystals, each fungus creates a chemical “barbwire”, a barrier that blocks the advancing mycelium. However, nature has already dictated which will win. The one symbiotic fungus, with its relationship cultivating the deciduous hardwoods always beats the conifers’. One by one, battle by battle, the conifers turn into spiky lodgepoles piercing the sky, leaning against sturdy hardwoods, or lying fallen sideways in the moss of the forest floor. And still today, if you walk through a Central or Southern Appalachian hardwood forest, you can see the purple, spider-webbed cortinarius, marvel at the enormous jeweled caps and velvet rings of the towering amanita, smell the fruity scent of the golden chanterelle, and taste the fall armillarias; and all who appreciate the woods should remember how God gave the lowly mushrooms their jobs as the farmers of the forest.

(Below: Fomes fomentarius, the Tinder Polypore, is farming the forest by removing the old, wet and rotten yellow birch tree amongst the U.S. Forest Service’s maple sugaring groves, where pipes feed from the trees throughout acres down to the collection tank near Mount Rogers. This birch is valuable for arboreal cavity-nesting bluebirds, owls and Carolina flying squirrels, but it is also valuable fertilizer for the new trees of the forest and food for mushrooms, bacteria and digging beetles. Even though it is saprobic now, Fomes fomentarius mycelia can become mycorrhizal and create a symbiosis with the surrounding maples once the birch is digested. This fungus gets its name from the Native Americans, who used the warm, fuzzy felt inside the dried fungus to keep an ember alive for hours while starting a fire.)

Works Cited

Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. 2005. Ten Speed Press.

Roody, William C. Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians. 2003. University Press of Kentucky

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Awesome Possum of the Appalachians: Its Life Cycle and Natural History

(A Virginia Opossum in a cage trap before release.)
The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginianus) is a cat-sized, nocturnal marsupial native to most of the eastern U.S. and parts of California. It is a notorious scavenger, is relatively ugly and seeing one reminds some of an enormous, pale rat. The Algonquin tribe of northern Virginia called the opossum the "White Animal", due to its pale color. Still, most southerners, though stereotypically incorrect, despise the opossum because of its disgusting habits. First of all, the mother opossum basically gives birth to two sets of young. This extraordinary amount of baby opossums is drastically reduced even on the first few days of live, where the jelly bean sized baby marsupials make a journey from womb to a nipple on the side of the pouch. While opossums mature in the pouch, the mother may be hit by a car, resulting in the babies slowly starving to death. But after their eyes open, the young opossums begin to venture out of their mother's pouch and ride on her back. Many a baby opossum has been taken in by humans after it has unknowingly fallen from its mother's back. However, opossums that do mature do it extremely rapidly; in just a few weeks/months. Young, mature opossums are often a little bigger than a squirrel and they are fairly common. Once away from their mothers, young opossums may not find a denning site until they are full-sized. Until then, they will rest in hollows or crevices, but most famously, hang upside-down by their tail from a tree branch. Full-sized opossums do not have the flexibility to use their tail as their younger counterparts, so they must find a denning site. Opossums scavenge for varieties of food with an opportunistic manner. They will eat fruits (including normally poisonous horse nettle berries), insects, vegetable matter, fish, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and, mainly, carrion, pet food and garbage. Their habits of stealing pet food and rummaging through and sleeping in trash cans makes them very unpopular to some. Opossums do kill over four thousand ticks in a week due to the way they groom themselves. When opossums encounter a venomous snake or spider, they can eat it because they have an immunity to venomous bites. One main source of food for an opossum is roadkill, easy to find carrion. Whenever a raccoon,  deer, or fox is hit by a vehicle, the vulture is replaced by the opossum at night. This leads to the opossum's fame of being roadkill itself; opossums do not learn to adapt to roads like coyotes and cats do. Another reason it is hit by a car is because besides just being slow, it has a unique defense mechanism. If a predator such as a coyote or bobcat approaches an opossum and is seen, the opossum will run a short distance and stop. If it is pursued it will look its attacker in the eyes with its mouth open slightly and it will hiss. This behavior, as a matter of fact, gained it a nickname, "grinner". The reason it does this is for intimidation. An opossum's teeth are long, fang-like and sharp. If that's not enough, the opossum's teeth are often coated in extremely deadly and infectious bacteria due to the rotting carrion they are designed to tear apart. And to top it off, the Virginia Opossum has more teeth (fifty) than any other animal in North America!
(This adult Virginia Opossum is in the process of "grinning" before release.)
So a few predatory species will be deterred by this, but if one predator attacks the opossum it will feign death, or in other words; "play possum". It does this by opening its mouth, hanging out its tongue and drooling, falling on its side, and oozing a green, decay-scented fluid from its anal glands. But when an opossum manages to complete a successful roadkill harvest, it may have eaten a rabid animal; for that is one of the most common causes for death by vehicle to wildlife. Roughly all but about 5% of opossums have a gene that gives them a blood flow just cold enough that the rabies virus cannot affect them. As far as an opossum's home goes, it may be a rock crevice, hollow tree, an abandoned burrow, or often even the attic of a house, giving the opossum an even worse name. Opossum tracks are often found in the mud near chicken coops, sheds, barns, garages, springhouses and other outbuildings.
(An opossum track in mud behind a leak in the back of a stagnant pond.)
Another fun fact about opossums is that their feet are like hands. Their feet have no fur, and barely any hair, are pink, and have claws arranged like long, sharp fingernails. Their back feet, in fact, have an opposable thumb used for holding onto objects and climbing. Opossums come out soon after dark, and they are quite easy to catch with practice. If you approach a wild opossum, it will most likely turn around and run. You need to catch up or block it so it will freeze. Then you can either grab its tail without getting bitten and hold it upside-down by its tail so it cannot bite you, or provoke it until it plays dead. Catching opossums often leads to the question about the classic hillbilly/possum connections. The long and short of it is that the folks that the typical "Beverly Hillbillies" stereotype portrays didn't really eat opossums unless it was a certain occasion when they were starving, or more often, an adventurous young raccoon hunter who decided to eat an opossum he had shot. However, it was said that during the Great Depression, eastern travelers to California brought caged opossums over as a food source and they still exist there today. But of course, that theory has not and cannot really be proven. Another interesting fact is that on Roan Mountain, another species of opossum, the Southern Common Opossum (Didelphis marsupialis)  has been recorded on one of Tuttle's species surveys of the area. The name "Common Opossum" may have incorrectly been given to the undeniably native Virginia Opossum, as what most likely happened, because the Common Opossum reaches its most northern range into mid-Mexico. So now, I hope no matter how much you despise or appreciate opossums, you learned at least something new about our own "Awesome Opossum". Happy Trails, Critter Cade
(A young opossum, just after release from a cage trap.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Short History of Mushroom Hunting and How to Do It Today

(The Fluted White Helvella, Common Helvel, Elfin Saddle, White Saddle or Helvella crispa is often seen in European markets and Mexican cuisine. However, toxins in the mushroom can be quite potent unless the mushroom undergoes prolonged cooking. Mushrooms growing at Beartree Lake in VA.)
Long, long ago, when the first cave-men needed food, the mysterious but reliable mushroom provided fulfillments to many of their culinary needs. For thousands of years man has foraged edible fungus, and only until recently has learned the secret of cultivating the mushroom. So, in that long gap between the discovery of the edible fungus and the cultivation of it, humans required some method to gather edible fungus. They would hunt it, of course. Called mushroom hunting, mushrooming, mushroom picking or mushroom foraging, the art of collecting mushrooms has slowly advanced through the ages, metamorphosing from necessity to a useful hobby. However, mushroom hunting is dangerous because of poisonous look-alikes which are prevalent in the same moist, fertile areas in which edible mushrooms are found. Because of this, skill sets were developed by experts over the generations and so forth minimizing the fatalities exhibited by mycophagy, that is, the ingestion of mushrooms by organisms.
Hunts for mushrooms in Europe are as old as European culture itself. Celtic and Eastern European mushroom pickings for the White Button Mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), French truffle hunts, and English forays for Witch's Eggs, the immature stage of the stinkhorn mushrooms in the genus Mutinus date back into some of the oldest mushroom hunts in Europe.
And as with other customs, European mushroom hunting came to America along with European colonists. As mushroom hunting in America advanced, a few species of mushrooms became popular, such as morels, bradleys, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles.
(Cantharellus tubeaformis, also known as the Yellowfoot, Winter Mushroom or Funnel Chanterelle is a small chanterelle that tastes fairly good if well-cooked.)
Nowadays, in modern times, mushroom hunting is only enjoyed by a handful of folks. Most people, due to lack of necessity, forgot the art of mushroom hunting. The mushroom foragers today are known as mycophiles, and often have expertise in identifying fungus. If you learn about fungi, it is not hard to become a mycophiles. Only simple gear is needed. Today, collection baskets, a few field guides and dichotomous keys as well as a hand lens and possibly a mushroom knife will be sufficient to collect all sorts of mushrooms. But beware, practice is necessary before one can eat all sorts of mushrooms. A typical field guide will boast a list of similar fungi to a species, to help prevent identification errors. These mushrooms are dangerous to beginners.
(The regal Amanita bisporigera is a very lethal mushroom that looks ironically like a variety of edible mushrooms, including the average storebought White Button Mushroom.)
Here is sort of a list of how a mycophile may learn how to collect all kinds of mushrooms.
  • First, beginners need to ask the help of an expert. Many local forays are held all over the Southern Appalachians and experts may identify some edible mushrooms for the novice forager.
  • Second, beginners may want to forage on their own. Only the most absolutely edible fungus such as morels and oyster mushrooms with no look-alikes whatsoever should be sought after in their own particular seasons.
  • Third, a mushroom hunter may want to try looking for a species with other edible look-alikes, such as a golden chanterelle. This helps you learn how to pinpoint a species without any accidents.
  • Fourth, a mushroom hunter, with their gained experience, may now want to hunt mushrooms with poisonous look-alikes. More care must be taken in collecting this fungus.
  • Finally, an expert mushroom hunter who has successfully foraged for mushrooms before may take difficult to identify fungus such as edibles in the genus Amanita and also mushrooms with only certain edible growth stages, such as in the Elegant Stinkhorn.
So, as you can see, expertise is achieved by practicing the art of mushroom hunting. Hunting mushrooms is a great activity to do with family and friends as well, and if you really enjoy looking for fungi, mycophiles that probably reside in your community may be willing to go on forays and pickings. Also, once you learn how to hunt and identify mushrooms, you may want to try to cultivate some.
(Armillaria mellea, the Honey Mushroom. Though a prized edible, it has a ring on its stalk that is easy to confuse with that of a deadly Amanita and has the power to damage and destroy certain coniferous forests.)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Smallest Game Bird in the Southern Appalachians: The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Mourning Doves are known by several obsolete English names, including "Rain Dove", "Turtledove", or "Carolina Pigeon". These doves can be heard in the morning or evening, the male cooing in a five-note song to proclaim his home territory. In the day, pairs of doves rest on power line poles, rustling their feathers to keep warm. A single dove may be seen, especially in cloudy weather, soaring and diving without moving a muscle, making a three-pronged shape with its tail and two wings. However, almost everyone has seen a mourning dove strutting about the ground looking for seeds. Doves are granivores, meaning they only eat grain, seeds and/or nuts. Pairs gather in the spring and mate for life, normally having several clutches in one season as well. Nests are built from matchstick-sized twigs, hanging low in the dense foliage of conifers and other lush trees. Young doves, called squabs, are born with closed eyes, a soft beak, and wrinkly pink skin instead of feathers. After a few weeks, they hop out of the nest to learn to fly. The parents still feed them, and what the parents feed them is really kind of disgusting. A mother dove will land at the nest and blow out her chest. What happens next is hard to explain. The squabs will push their heads into their mother's feathers close to her head, and she will transfer a slimy, milky substance of digested nuts from her crop, the place where birds store grit and seed in their bodies to help them digest food, to the young birds. Here is a video of this phenomenon happening;
However beautiful doves are, they still aren't the most intellectual creatures on earth. Hawks and falcons enjoy feeding on them, and maybe that is why doves have several clutches per year. Doves will forage at your feet, but the instant you make a quick move, they will fly upward in a burst, which hunters call "flushing". Once they are "flushed", doves will make a whistling sound with their heartily flapping wings. They will usually swoop into the underbrush or hide in evergreen foliage after being flushed. Doves are common in fields, rocky or sandy areas, lawns with weeds or grass that is seeding, as well as in clearings. Male doves are larger, are the only ones who call, and have a barely-visible iridescent ring around their necks. As mentioned earlier, hunters also enjoy shooting doves. Most of the time, they will have a deer food plot which also attracts doves. Several kings of ring-necked turtledoves have been introduced to the US, and those food plots will attract one of the most widespread of those introduced doves, the Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). It is still rarely seen and not well established, but hunters seek these doves more so than mourning doves, however since collared doves are rarer, hundreds of mourning doves are shot instead on these food plots. The food plots also make a decent bird-watching site in the fall migration, attracting yellow-rumped warblers, American woodcock, common nighthawks and many other unique birds. Here are some pictures of mourning doves;
A male mourning dove, tilting his head (a sign of curiosity), while resting on a power line.
An uneasy mourning dove walking along a sand dune.
A mated pair of mourning doves (mourning doves customarily mate for life). The male is below left and the female is on the upper right.
One more thing; an old folk legend says that if you hear a mourning dove coo, it means rain is on the way. Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Creepy Crawly Exotica: Astounding Temperate Rainforest Invertebrates on Roan Mountain

Some people in Eastern North America believe that in order to experience the most amazing wildlife and nature, they need to travel abroad. This isn't true. Along with coral reefs, South American jungles and other exotic places, the Southern Appalachian region is one of the places dubbed a biodiversity hotspot. Roan Mountain is especially diverse. Two kinds of northern temperate rainforest mingle with southern nature, creating a haven for plants and animals, especially the small, overlooked ones. Invertebrates make up most of the world's species, and Roan Mountain's. But since the biodiversity of Roan Mountain includes many "bugs", some of these bugs are very large, impressive, or just plain amazing. Just take a look at some of them!
The monstrous creature above is powerful, large and its pattern tells that it is full of deadly toxins. Luckily, it is a peaceful detrivore which leaves other species alone. You can see these animals inching across gravel, burrowing through rotten wood, or crawling out of rocks on damp mornings and evenings. Their enormous size deters small predators, and their coloration deters large ones. They actually can't harm you if you only touch them. Their mouths are small and built for nibbling detritus the consistency of pudding, so bites aren't a problem. Their poisonous insides are kept inside by a calcareous armor of shell, and no stingers, pincers, or anything else of that sort are present on this creature. It is the North American Giant Millipede (Narceus americanus), and is very vulnerable to humans indeed. You can see them mashed by the tire of a bicycle or car, or squashed by the heel of a foot in the afternoon, after their crepuscular perambulation. They can be held, but not petted. This is because of tiny beneficial mites that help regulate the millipede's external membranes, and roughly handling one of these animals can expel these mites and eventually kill the millipede. It doesn't have a million or even a thousand legs, but around two hundred. If you watch one walk, its legs ripple like a wave along its body. Sometimes, several "waves" of legs will be traveling simultaneously up the millipede's underside if it's larger. They aren't common, so if you see one, you'll know it. This millipede also has an African relative, which is sought after as a pet because of its unique behavior, puzzling build and peaceful disposition.
A spout of orange mush bursting from a tunnel in a red oak log is a telltale sign of the Northern Patent Leather Beetle (Ododontotaenius disjunctus), "Jerusalem Beetle", or "Bessbug" on the move. If you turn over many red oak logs, you will see many things. Oriental cockroaches (an introduced species) scuttle or flutter away from the sunlight. Blind soil centipedes slowly but slyly disappear down holes, a few metallic green cuckoo bees may spread their wings and zoom buzzing away, but the real show-stopper is the occasional inch-and-a-half black, glossy beetle sitting in the rotten wood. Upon closer inspection, its legs and wings are fringed with long, bronze fur strips, and seersucker grooves decorate its back. On its belly, pink-red parasitic mites scramble over regal black plates extending the length of the bessbug. If you look inside the log under which you found the bug, you may find many more of its kind. They will make a remarkably audible squeaking commotion as the stumble and fall over each other in surprise if you come close. Some will be large and glossy black, but others are scarcely an inch, possess a slight maroon tint, and have a larger horn on their heads. The latter is the male, and the first is the female. Males prefer the deeper burrows in the log. Bessbugs are friendly to each other and other organisms. Their strength and labor provide tunnels large enough to easily be shared with smaller wood-dwelling insects (such as click beetles), and in cold-weather, may save the lives of warmth-loving insects such as bees. Their abandoned burrows can become homes for little furry creatures as well as snakes and salamanders. They settle down after being caught, and go about their business. Curiously enough, bessbug larvae cannot fend for itself, in fact, it can't even eat by itself. Parents must shove food in its mouth for it to be able to feed. Orphaned bessbug grubs are rarely left to starve in a colony. Instead, other parent bessbugs, male and female, will gather extra food to feed them. Yes, they live peaceful lives, most of the time at least. Their most frightening predator is the great Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). It will swoop upon a colony and hack at a whole log with a bessbug colony residing within. It determinedly drills into the log until a storm of clay-colored wood chips lash through the woods with echoing drumming that rivals the grouse in ferocity. Once the woodpecker is done, it flies away, hardly leaving a previous Bessbug inhabitant. Bessbugs, since they are beetles, have many relatives across the world.
The remarkable Northern Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), or "Stick Bug" is a well-known and beautiful insect. They are often seen in late fall, even after the frost sets. The reason for this appearance is their late breeding period, when they congregate to outdoor buildings such as sheds and campsite bathhouses. Though they don't have wings, they follow glowing lights to these buildings, where they meet with other stick bugs. Then they will depart and lay a single egg in the leaf litter. But the egg is cloned. Male stick bugs are extremely rare, maybe one in a hundred stick bugs is a male, in optimal conditions. So female stick bugs have been recorded to clone themselves, though they sometimes mate. They feed on foliage, usually of hickory or oak, and live peacefully high in the canopy outside of breeding season. Nymphs just look like small adults, and are only about an inch long. Some walkingsticks grow up to three and a half inches long. The giant walkingsticks, the Northern's larger relatives, live in tropical to subtropical environments and are more vibrantly colored. That''s another fact; Northern Walkingsticks can be green, yellow, red-streaked, brown, striped or any number of colors and shades, all for the purpose of camouflage. They also have a unique quirk about them. When it feels threatened, a stick bug will rock side to side on its spindly legs, making it almost invisible to predators with bad eyesight, and making it seem larger to creatures with better vision.  When resting, a stick bug will hang upside-down with its front legs and antennae pointing in front of it, and its two pairs of back legs symmetrically stretched out beside it.
With an unseen swoop and a precise landing, the hulking, inch-long body of the Bee Killer (Promachus fitchii) or Giant Robber Fly is a bold and imposing sight to forest insects. Almost as fierce and effective as the dragonfly in its hunting methods, robber flies don't hesitate to attack the most dangerous, stinging bees, and with their maneuverability and powerful bite, they can fly away with a tasty new meal. With their raccoon-striped tail, dusky, hairy back, as well as their neatly folded wings and obsidian-black eyes, these bugs are easily recognized. Robber fly larvae live underground and feed on burrowing insects and decaying matter, rarely noticed. But when they emerge from the earth, they are a fearful sight to other insects. When hunting, a robber fly may sit in ambush at a favorite perch, snatching unsuspecting prey as it goes by, especially bees and wasps. Piles of insect bodies with their insides removed gather under a favorite bee-killer perch. The adults fly mainly in late summer, but larvae hatch out in spring to devour June Beetle larvae before they turn into adults. Robber flies have many fascinating relatives, including a nectar-drinking pollinator and even a dancing robber fly. 
So this spring and summer, look for the four insects above. You may see them, their relatives, or even discover a whole new species!
-Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Monday, February 15, 2016

Thanksgiving Survivors: The poor ole Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

(A tom, or male, turkey. The bare skin around his face is called a "snood")
The Wild Turkey is a bird with a sad, sad history. It starts with explorers sending domesticated varieties of this species to Europe for exploration as a food source. The specimens became confused with a shipment of birds from the country Turkey, and the bird has forever been called a turkey. Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird, rather than the eagle because he saw that eagles weren't honorable in their lifestyle. Unfortunately, he never publicly voiced his opinion about this matter so the humble turkey was denied this opportunity. Turkey poults, or chicks have a tendency to drown and strangle by holding their heads to the sky during a rain storm, while opening their mouths! Wild Turkeys are also one of the most commonly hunted animals by humans and wild animals alike. Sometimes the turkey will even retaliate against its predator, only to make it angry! But through all this misfortune, turkeys are still numerous. In the morning, a turkey will awake and join his or her flock. I have counted two flocks in the past few days that have numbered sixteen and twenty birds. Gobbling and clucking, these flocks are normally seen hanging out with cattle in manure-filled pastures. Why would they forage in this "waste" land? The truth is that they eat cow patties. Really! They use the minerals from bovine waste because it is hard for them to find other regular sources for their proper nourishment. Cattle are stuck in a field, hence bringing flies and other bugs to feed on their blood and their waste. Turkeys eat these pesky insects as well. Cow pastures are buffets crammed full of food. Female turkeys, or hens, make hidden ground nests, sometimes laying around ten eggs! When her poults hatch, she will become more or less isolated from the flock by taking to the woods, hiding them from larger and fiercer turkeys and woodland predators.
(A Wild Turkey hen with her flock of poults)
Flocks of turkeys roost at night high in the self-pruning trees of the field's border. Some farmers still raise wild turkeys because they can sell them to hunting landowners for them to stock on their property, while eating some of the birds as well.
(A trio of wild turkey hens returning to the woods after visiting a feeder.)
All domesticated turkeys come from a Mexican strain of wild turkey, which is very closely related to the native wild turkey. The native strain of wild turkey is the Eastern Wild Turkey, and is relatively large compared to its relatives. Turkeys have enormous tracks that look like goose tracks without webbing between the toes. Turkey feathers can be found across paths and in fields. The Appalachian, Mountain, or Plucked Dulcimer, an instrument almost solely found in the Southern Appalachians, was traditionally picked with a turkey tail feather. In historic times, turkey feathers were used to write signatures, and goose feathers wrote the body of a document. Turkey wing feathers are zebra-striped, and are often misidentified as hawk or eagle feathers. So next time you see a turkey, marvel at its exotic nature and unfortunate history. Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Mystery of the Riparian Trees

Suppose you crossed paths with the stick in the picture above. But let's say it was laying in a pile of its bark-less kind well up the bank of a medium-sized creek, only a few feet from a hole horizontal to the flowing water. What is that pattern on the bark-less end? The stick was the snack of a now full beaver. Beavers have a unique method of survival that revolves completely around two elements: Water and Trees. Contrary to popular belief, beavers do not eat fish, nor do they eat wood. Beavers eat a layer of a tree trunk or branch between the bark and wood called cambium. The mystery branch in the picture was a small snack for a beaver, or the beaver was interrupted during its meal. This is evident because there is still un-stripped bark on one end of the stick. So now that we know about this stick, let's talk about beavers. The American Beaver (Castor canadensis) is an enormous, crepuscular and semiaquatic rodent, in fact, the largest rodent in North America. It is characterized by its enormous flapjack-shaped and hairless tail, its large size, and its habit of swimming with sticks in its mouth. In the water, or when it is wet, the beaver's fur looks black and glossy, not at all furry. This makes the animal look somewhat reptilian and it dives with a reverberating smack of its tail on the water's surface when alarmed. It makes this noise to alert other active beavers in the area that danger is approaching. The tail is also used to deal with dirt and mud for construction. A beaver's teeth are brown or yellow, but it is not because they are dirty. The discoloring is found in many rodents and it is apparent because of the extreme calcium build in their teeth, for they have to chew on hard things their whole life. In fact, rodent teeth never stop growing so they need to wear them down on hard materials to chew. Beavers can live in two environments; fast-moving rivers and streams or slow lakes, reservoirs and calm water. These two different environments have two distinct beavers, each with a unique behavior. The beavers that live in quick rivers and streams have to be intelligent builders. They will chop down full-sized trees (See picture gallery below) and sometimes you will find fresh chews with mulch-like chips scattered around the base. These trees are managed and chewed into smaller logs and are used to build a dam and a lodge. A beaver first builds a dam (See picture gallery below) out of sticks and mud. It takes a family of beavers around thirty-three days to build a dam, weaving sticks and securing them with mud placed by their tails. At first look, the beaver dam resembles a pile of brush that washed down the river and then stuck in a narrow spot. But behind the dam, there should be a large, flooded and still pond, called "beaver pond", and has only a little trickle on the other side. It is used to make a calm area where the beavers can swim and work. After beavers leave and the beaver pond gets lower, it makes a grassy, fertile clearing called a "beaver meadow". This dam is held together with mud carried and placed by the beaver's tail. A lodge (See picture gallery) is a formidable dome that's sun-dried and bark-less logs have discolored and reflective affects in the sun. The lodge also has no ground door, instead it has multiple plunge-holes in the floating stick floor that lead to underwater exits. Three generations of beavers live in a beaver lodge. The oldest is the breeding pair, which build the lodge and stay there for years, sometimes until they die. The next generation is made up of two or three young non-breeding beavers from last year's offspring. These beavers help with some lighter work and will leave the next season. The newest generation is the baby beavers or kits. Beaver kits squeak so loudly you can hear them if you walk by the lodge. They need to be supervised in the lodge by another older beaver to protect them from predators. Baby beavers don't exit the lodge during this time, and become a non-breeding lodge resident mostly by the next year.
The beavers that live in slow water are unofficially known as "Bank Beavers" and don't normally chew down full-sized trees. Bank Beavers normally just eat cambium from sticks and saplings. Bank Beavers will use eroded caves, old muskrat holes or just an overhang in the bank for shelter, sometimes digging their own holes. These beavers don't build with sticks, but swim carelessly for their lives and normally never breed. If they decide to breed, they will pair up and move to smaller rivers and streams to build a dam and lodge. 
Beavers have a saddening but great history relating to humans. In the 1700's to 1800's, there was a fur craze. In response to this, the Hudson Bay Company sent many men across the United States to trap and hunt beaver. Most were Iroquois trappers, "half-breeds" (an old term for a Native American with a white parent) or poor white men who had to look west for hope. These trappers, or "beaver men" took cruel-looking steel jaw traps and some western Native Americans who joined the Company on the way used spears. These traps were set in a precise and complicated process underwater. Many men died of hypothermia, cougar and bear attacks, as well as many other dangers related to the wilderness. However, large amounts of money were made by turning all of the U.S.'s beavers into coats and top hats. But at what cost? Once the Company realized the one snag in their plan, it was too late. The beavers were gone, "trapped out". All of the trappers went back east or started to farm. The whole fiasco was over. However, many beavers that had retreated silently to their holes in the riverbank started to rebuild. Now, with the help of conservationists and naturalists, beavers have recovered not only in the west, but almost all over the U.S. Today, small amounts of money are obtained by trapping beavers, but regulations have been declared so this tragedy will hopefully never happen again.
Oh, and one more thing. Northern River Otters (Lontra canadensis) are the sworn enemy of beavers. Otters sneak up on the beavers by swimming gracefully through the underwater entrance and stealthily assaulting the young beavers and beaver kits, sometimes even taking adult beavers. Otter tracks are good signs that beavers are in danger. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you may get to watch an otter play in the water or one long slides of snow or mud during the darker hours of the day. Otters are diurnal (active in the day) if not disturbed by human activity. Otter dens look like bank beaver or muskrat holes, and are called "holts". Otter droppings are known as "spraints" and are found in large latrines and are totally made up of fish scales and crayfish parts. Like the beaver, otters too were trapped out, and have made another remarkable comeback due to reintroduction. Both the beaver and the otter are now considered pests to the lumber and the fishing industry.
(A "beaver chew" on a large tree. Note worn ground and wood chips. Also notice the little hemlock sapling in the far left corner. Hemlocks may be gone from these mountains in a few years.)
(A small beaver dam that has recently been through a flood. Note bark, leaves and small twigs that have been unintentionally placed by rushing water. Walking across a beaver dam makes you feel like one of the "beaver men" of old, and makes you marvel at how beavers can build such strong structures.)
(A large beaver lodge in late fall)
(Beaver tracks; front leg tracks in the middle, back leg tracks at the edges.)
(Bank Beaver chews on one of the strongest trees, the Black Locust. This tree is prized for fencing, so someone trying to salvage these trees for later use may get angry with the beavers. These trees aren't full-sized, so they were probably only used as food.)
(A trail cut by extensive use by beavers, otters, snapping turtles and other aquatic and semiaquatic animals. It leads to forested land, so a beaver may use it to access his or her favorite foods.)
One more thing, beavers hate the sound of running water. They can't stand it; likely because it customarily means that their home is in danger of flooding. Happy Trails, Critter Cade