Moon moth

2015-07-29 luna moth 002Morning light flows through another arthropod: the luna moth, showing the spring-leaf green of her wings. The brown leading edge is a great match for viburnum twig on which she rests.

This species belong to a larger grouping, the Asian-American moon moths. Like the trees on which they feed, these insects look very similar (here are a couple of examples of look-alikes, and then some more crazy-winged cousins) and have a distribution that encompasses the east of North America and parts of Asia, reflecting the old biogeographic continuity of these places.

Unfortunately, parasitic flies introduced to North America to control gypsy moths are turning their attentions to the luna moth. So far, lunas appear to be more robust than most other large moth species, many of which are in decline or have gone regionally extinct, at least in New England. We lack long-term data (to my knowledge) on populations of moths in the south.

Why such long tails? Bat befuddlement. Ed Yong tells this luna-tale, with a review of some cool experiments, along with videos, on his fabulous blog at National Geographic.

Closing moth thoughts as they antennate the air’s breath, seeking pheromonal scent (attributed to Rumi from, as far as I can tell, Coleman Barks‘ interpretations of English translations):

“At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine. Breathe into me. Close the language-door and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.”

Posted in Moths | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Silhouette: a short hawk quiz

A fuss of blue jays and robins. Look up:


Some clues:
unhappy songbirds
a tail that extends beyond the wing tips, but not too far
stout chest

Red-shouldered hawk. Not a Cooper’s Hawk? The tail is too short and the body too chunky. (Birders: let loose with corrections as needed!)

I used the computer to zip down the brightness of the photograph:

hawk3Coarse streaking: an immature bird. It took off after a young robin… and so the next generation relearn the old ways.

Posted in Archosaurs | 7 Comments

Arachnid prism: Morning light refracted through a spider’s silk


From Keats’ Lamia:

…and, for the sage,
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Rest easy, John, the spinnerets of awareness are still weaving rainbows. Consciousness dwells in its gnomed skull-mine. Ontological mystery remains, despite the sages’ best efforts to clip and conquer.

Yet, it is not the sage, but the rainbow-spider herself who is most enamored with rule and line: the geometry that will snare her sustenance from the insect-haunted air. Her silk is woof and texture of protein, stranded and coiled, a fiber of living glass.


Now I am sensible all this is a mere sophistication (however it may neighbor to any truths), to excuse my own indolence – so I will not deceive myself that man should be equal with Jove – but think himself very well off as a sort of scullion-Mercury, or even a humble Bee. It is no matter whether I am right or wrong, either one way or another, if there is sufficient to lift a little time from your shoulders. — Keats letter to Reynolds, 1818


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“The fox also shall dwell with the armadillo…”

A few weeks ago, I saw a fox saunter through the woods, then slip into a hole that, judging from the earth piled at its entrance is at least several feet deep. I set up a camera to see what was shaking. Surprise: most of the comings and goings were of armadillos snuffling their way in and out of the pit.

The Xenarthans were not alone, though. A fox was also a regular visitor, always alone. My hopes for gamboling pups have not yet been realized. This may be a temporary canine interloper in a armadillo-dug chamber.

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What I think is a coyote also came by, no doubt looking for ‘dillo snacks or hot-dogs. The larger size, longer legs, proportionately shorter tail, and stout-shaped face all suggest coyote to me. I’d welcome other ideas.

coy_queryNo cockatrices, yet, in this den. Isaiah says they’re down there, though.

Posted in Mammals | 15 Comments

Ghosts rise from forest duff

2015-07-13 indian pipe monotropa 018Ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora, is now flowering in shaded woodlands. The species is also known as Indian pipe or corpse plant. Each stem is about finger-high and has a nodding flower at its tip. The plant’s pallor tells the story of its peculiar feeding methods. Rather than using pigments to gather sunlight, the roots are sheathed with fungi from whom the plant gets its food. Monotropa is quite specialized, connecting to a small number of Russula fungi species. The fungi in turn feed themselves by tapping the roots of trees, so Monotropa is indirectly feeding from other plants, using a fungus as the money-laundering intermediary. Whether the fungus gets anything in return from Monotropa is not known. The plant is usually regarded as wholly parasitic.

2015-07-13 indian pipe monotropa 009Monotropa belongs to the Ericaceae plant family, a group that includes heathers, blueberries, rhododendron, and sourwood. These species often live on nutrient-poor acid soil where symbiotic relationships with fungi help the plants to thrive in conditions that are otherwise hostile to roots. Monotropa also favors acidic areas and is often found in deep shade under conifers. It seems that Monotropa took its family heritage and changed it from mutualism to piracy. If so, this is the genus that no-one likes to discuss at the Ericaceae family reunion. Quite why the fungus would put up with its parasite is a mystery. It could be that the evolution of defensive mechanisms has not happened because the tiny Monotropa plant draws so little food compared to the supply that the fungus receives from trees. It is perhaps no coincidence that nearly all non-parasitic Ericaceae plants are shrubs and trees, and only Monotropa is a tiny sprout. The plant’s narrow range of fungal associates may also indicate that only a few fungus species can be fooled. All this has conservation implications: Chris Martine and Alison Hale have recently published a fascinating article suggesting that chemicals from invasive plants such as garlic mustard may disrupt the relationships between Monotropa and its fungi, causing population declines.

The species lives in North America, Asia, and Central America, with large geographic gaps between each population. Recent studies of DNA show that these populations have diverged from one another and have distinctive genetic signatures, suggesting that they might best be regarded as different species. How the species came to have such a distribution is unknown: the dust-like, winged seeds may have traveled by wind or the distribution may be an echo of the ancient geographic connections among these continents.

Five days after the bloom pictured above, pollinating bumblebees have done their work and the red fruit capsules are swelling. The flower’s rain-shedding, bee-welcoming droop has straightened and the fruit points directly to the sky, presumably the better to catch some favorable winds to a neighboring uncolonized fungus, or to Japan.

2015-07-18 monotropa fruit 002

Posted in Fruits, Fungi, Plants | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

“Let us now praise famous…” cats

Some feline stories caught my eye this week. They illustrate the important role that domesticated humans have played in the civilizations that cats have built over the past few thousand years.

The first tale (a tale not bottle-brushed) comes from Illinois, from the burial mounds north of St. Louis. The mounds date to about two thousand years ago, from a period and people now called the Hopewell tradition. Among many other artifacts, these peoples left many large mounds, some of them tombs, others of unclear significance.

A re-analysis of one of the funerary mounds has revealed that it contained a young bobcat. The cat was carefully lain in its grave, with its paws pressed together. It was wearing a necklace of marine shells and bear teeth. The cat’s bones bore no evidence of sacrifice or other damage. In a moment of feline ignominy, it was first incorrectly identified as a puppy and placed in a “puppy burial” box. But the bobkitten’s identity has now been corrected.

The mounds in which the cat was buried were otherwise reserved for humans. Dogs were buried back in the village, not at these mounds. So this cat was someone special. A photograph of the necklace and interviews with the scientists involved are on Science Magazine’s news pages.

The second feline story concerns Tama, the stationmistress cat of Kishi train station in western Japan. As business declined at the station, the human employees were dismissed, but Tama stayed on and was officially appointed to her duties at the station. She rose to vice-president of the rail company. She boosted rail traffic and her tenure resulted in an estimated 1.1 billion Yen boost to the local economy. Train carriages were painted in her honor.

She has now died, at age 16. The regional governor released a statement expressing his “deep sorrow and appreciation.” Her funeral rivaled that of bobkitten, with thousands in attendance. Now she is transformed to Shinto kami, a deified cat. Or, I should say, a cat recognized by humans as deified. Cats know themselves to be deified already, with or without human intervention. Nitama, a younger cat, is apprenticing to take her role.

Here in the Christianized West, no mention of cats in the Bible. The old Judeo-Christian prophets knew when they’d met their match, perhaps. But Mohammed understood the feline-divine order: he is said to have cut the sleeve of his prayer tunic rather than disturb the sleep of his favorite cat, Muezza. I can imagine a reincarnational thread from bobkitten to Muezza to Tama. Although, knowing cats and threads, it is likely to be tangled beyond hope of salvage or comprehension. Linearity is an abomination unto the cat.

Posted in Cat | 3 Comments

Fireworks echo through cellulose and chitin

I recorded the Sewanee annual firework display at a lookout spot across a mountain cove from the detonations. Before the pyrotechnics, the katydids made my ears ring, but the explosions out-shouted even the combined acoustic power of tens of thousands of singing insects.

Here is the finale of the show:

(email subscribers, here is a link to the sound, or click on the page title to go to the site)

If you listen with earphones, you’ll hear the low-frequency roar of the fireworks rushing down through the mountain cove for five long seconds after the blast. From where I sat at the Proctor’s Hall rock, the echo ran from right to left, flowing down, like a dark bird launching from the cliffs to the fields below the cove.

Thank you to the Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department for their annual extravaganza of sound and light.


Posted in Bioacoustic revelry | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

High water: Buggytop cave.

Last week brought seemingly never-ending rainstorms to Sewanee. The downstream effects were dramatic. Crow Creek, running from the entrance to Buggytop Cave, south of Sewanee, was overtopping huge boulders and engulfing trees.

2015-07-05 buggytop boulder2015-07-05 buggytop treeThe water here comes from the sinkhole in Lost Cove and from the many streams that run from the south side of Sewanee. The water’s brown tinge is a melange of woodland tannins, soil erosion, and whatever washes from the streets and houses of exurbia.

Inside the cave entrance, the water’s sounds echoed from walls and the low ceiling. Quite a thunder.

(to hear sound, email subscribers need to click on the post’s title to link to the webpage)

The Buggytop cave entrance is a wide maw, easily walkable when the water is low. One hundred or more feet of limestone cliff extend above the entrance. The cave goes back about a mile into the limestone. According to Gerald Smith and Sean Suarez’s ever-fascinating Sewanee Places, the cave gets its name from the folded appearance of the collapsed rocks inside the entrance. Coincidentally, an abandoned buggy trail from Sherwood into Lost Cove passes not far from the cave entrance. Smith and Suarez also relate that the cave’s accessibility and popularity make it the number one site for local cave rescues. Many a poorly-equipped wanderer has become disoriented after their lights fail, both inside the cave and on the sinuous trail from the road. I was not tempted to join the list of rescuees by attempting a solo passage through the whomping water. Sitting in the presence of the echoing tumult was excitement enough.

2015-07-05 buggytop entrance


Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Water | 7 Comments

What does a rattlesnake sound like?


…before being released from the bucket in which I transported the snake from a friend’s house.

One cannot age a rattlesnake by simply counting the rattles (they gain a rattle with each molt, but usually molt more than once per year). However, this one was a youngster, maybe two years old? My post from June 2013 has a look at their teeth and some better scale shots of a larger individual.

2015-07-07 rattlesnake 0112015-07-07 rattlesnake 0082015-07-07 rattlesnake 007May your crawlway be strewn with sunflecks and chipmunks, young snake.

Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Serpentes | Tagged , | 9 Comments

What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

I’m as thrilled as a snail in lettuce that The Forest Unseen‘s hexagonal sex scenes appear in Robert Krulwich’s blog on National Geographic‘s website. He has some fabulous drawings and also discusses Joan Roughgarden‘s work on the evolution of hermaphroditism:

What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

Posted in Snails | Tagged , | 1 Comment