Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Largest Native Land Snail in the Appalachians

The Whitelip, an enormous land snail
A live Helix aspersa crawling across two empty Whitelip shells
The Whitelip (Neohelix albolabris) is a treat to observe in its native Northern Hardwood Forest. On a humid, cool morning, you may see a large, spiral-patterned brown pebble sitting or crawling on the ground. Upon flipping the pebble over, you may see an empty cavity surrounded by a white rim, or a slimy blob retracted in the apparent snail shell. "What kind of snail is this?" is a logical question to be asking mentally. Well, it is a Whitelip. The Whitelip is a large and peaceful snail, feeding on mushrooms and maybe some low vegetation and is not bothered by many predators. Moles and shrews are the main attackers of the Whitelip, ambushing it from underground with needle-like teeth. Whitelips, as well as many other snails, will also feed on carrion and droppings, making them important for cleaning the environment. And if you are sweaty, most snails like the small quantities of salt (probably gastropod thrill-seekers) that is found in human sweat. By placing a Whitelip snail in your hand, you can feel a calcareous plate scrape the salts and oils off of your skin. Be sure to make sure there is moisture on your hands as well, snails get dry and sticky very easily. Other than that, the Whitelip is a mostly harmless highland snail. Oh, and ingesting a non-purged snail or its slime can transmit deadly diseases. Be careful. In fact, all snails are edible to some extent if purged and cooked well. Still, only snails in the genus Helix such as the invasive Common European Brown Garden Snail (Helix aspersa) are really any good as food to modern knowledge. Some highland gardeners and mushroom hunters are mad at Whitelips for eating their desired foods or food sources. Whitelips are an overall good species though, and it is mostly snails like the Common European Brown Garden Snail that do damage. Whitelips enjoy white pines and rhododendron underbrush. Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Two nicely sized living Whitelip specimens

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Miscellany of Interesting and Common Roan Mtn. Invertebrates

Green-legged Grasshopper (Melanopus viridipes)
Lots of interesting bugs are hiding and living on Roan Mountain, and there are several great naturalists there who can teach many others a love and expertise for invertebrates. Some insects and molluscs that I have learned from them or identified myself are favored by me over the vibrant  tropical rainforest bugs. You really just have to see what I mean. Take the colorful grasshopper in the picture above. They aren't one of the most amazing bugs, but a common and beautiful insect found near the Miller Farmstead and the Roan Balds, as well as other fields, in summer.
(Micrathena gracilis) Spined Micrathena
The Micrathenas (or Thorny-backed Spiders) are interesting arachnids that are some of the most common woodland spiders. It is easy to walk through one of their webs on a walk or hike, but luckily, they very rarely bite unless physically harmed. This allows a person to hold them (with caution, they still may bite). The reason for this is that their main defense is their spiky back, making a predator that bites into one feel like it is eating a chestnut shell.  Find these in deciduous forests almost everywhere in the Appalachians.
(Actias luna) Luna Moth
Luna moths are part of the Saturnid group, or the Royal and Giant Silkworm Moths. These are huge moths, usually with beautiful patterns. Males have feathery antennae, while females do not, and neither of them can eat as adults. At night, they are not that uncommon seen at porch lights or camping lanterns, as well as alighting on the back of a person's neck or in their hair, making the start of many a falsely accused bat myths. They can be seen in the day floundering helplessly on the ground or resting by hanging on the underside of a leaf. Even though they are graceful fliers in open air, taking off is not one of their strong points. A lot of saturnids are more common than the Luna Moth, which increases the odds of you seeing one.
(Papillio glaucus) Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
The tiger swallowtails are beautiful and large butterflies, another insect with a tropical appearance. Flying gracefully between trees and across glades, the butterflies most commonly identified are the yellow males. The females are usually black with a little yellow and blue, even though you can see yellow females. Earlier in the year, a hybrid with the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail can be seen throughout the Appalachians, called the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail, a larger, paler butterfly. These beautiful butterflies prodded the Irish to make legend about them, saying that following one will bring you good luck. This is true to some extent, because these butterflies are relatively long-lived (up to a few weeks) and don't land often, its seems that something along that journey will be a good thing, whether worth the walk or not!
(Vitrizonites latissimus) Glassy Grapeskin
The Glassy Grapeskin is a sight to behold. A high elevation species, it likes cooler temperatures. Its favorite food is a dead carcass or sleeping or sick prey, whether other snail, invertebrate, or even something such as a mammal. It can also "bite" when threatened by scratching the calcareous plate against its captor's skin. This ridged plate is also used to scrape meat from its meal. It gets its name from its shell which is translucent, glossy, and almost rubbery like the skin of a grape, revealing the unusually blue skin of this snail. Its shell also is the only high elevation land snail shell to resemble the ocean-dwelling nautilus.
(Arilus cristatus) Wheel Bug
This is probably the least or 2nd least common bug on this post, so if you don't see one of these on your first adventure or trek through a field, it shouldn't surprise you. I added this for an introduction of the even more bizarre native bugs. These bugs are very beneficial to the garden, as well, eating stinkbugs and Japanese beetles because the defensive scents of these pests doesn't bother them. They are one of the largest true bugs (stinkbugs, squash bugs, etc.) in North America. The nymph, or young stage, is iridescent blue and an orange-ish red. It has no wheel at this stage, but its abdomen stands up vertically and has a crowned top. The adult is various shades of brown, with wings and a wheel. They are a type of Assassin bug, waiting for their prey to land, then slurping its insides out and leaving the exoskeleton. The picture above is of a vulnerable, newly shed adult. It has barely visible red and yellow candy-stripes on the abdomen, if you can't see them. But be cautious around them; their bite is supposed to be 10x worse than a hornet's sting. Plantain (Plantago spp.) is supposed to heal the bite.
Hope you enjoyed the post,
                                          Happy Trails, Critter Cade

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Amanitas on Roan Mountain

Amanita flavorubescens or Yellow Blusher
Amanita sinicoflava
Amanita flavoconia or Yellow Patches
Amanitas are unique mushrooms that truly stand out in highland areas like Roan Mountain, whether enjoying the mycorrhizal nutrients that a spruce-fir forest has to offer (like the Amanita sinicoflava mushroom at the top left) or desperately trying to thrive in mowed lawns (like the panther cap on the bottom). And it is hard to believe that the deadliest mushroom, as well as some of the most edible mushrooms, come from this same genus. The thing that makes most people stop in wonder at patches of Amanitas, though, are the regal characteristics that make identifying the mushrooms so easy. The imposing, ornamental ring, along with the strange, ovate volva at the base, and some times even patches on a viscous cap. Interestingly enough, the ring, patches and volva, all are remnants of an early stage of the Amanita's growth. At first, the universal veil covers the whole mushroom. As the mushroom grows, however, the veil splits, either forming the volva and patches, or just a volva. The ring, on quite a few amanitas is the result of the remaining veil on the inside of the mushroom. So other than that, an Amanita grows like many other gilled mushrooms. But not only are Amanitas a dark fear looming over new mushroom hunters, a pride for the experienced mushroom hunter or culinary artist, or a beautiful addition to the natural landscape, they are needed by forests to allow them to survive. The well known Showy Lady's Slipper, a highly endangered orchid, relies on mycorrhizal fungus to survive. In fact, a whole group of plants need fungal symbiosis, and they are called mycotrophs. In fact, some scientists believe that American Beech trees are somewhat mycotrophs! But as well as helping a handful of plants by symbiotic relationships, the Indian Pipe plant and Coralroot Orchids all parasitize the mycorrhizal fungus. These factors are a big help in biodiversity, and that is very important to Roan Mountain. So as summer and fall turn to winter, if you see these amazing mushrooms, remember what all they do for the forests, indirectly and sometimes even directly helping humans. Happy Trails, Critter Cade
Amanita pantherina var. velatipes or Panther Cap