Happy Halloween!

by Carl Strang

There was a Fun Gus sighting at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve two Sunday evenings ago.

Guest photographer: Linda Padera

I’m very impressed that Linda recognized me under all of that. I was participating in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s popular annual Halloween walks. Happy Halloween!

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Slender Conehead

by Carl Strang

The next species in my series on singing insects which may occur in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana but which I have not found is the slender conehead. Here is the range map from the Singing Insects of North America website (SINA).

This appears to be another example of a species better represented by the dots on the map, which indicate concrete observations, rather than by the shading that connects them. The notes on the SINA page for this species refer to its disjunct populations. It is described as a species of bogs and marshes, and its song apparently is a continuous buzz like that of the round-tipped conehead.

Over the years the slender conehead has been found repeatedly in 3 counties in northern Illinois: Cook, Lake, and Carroll (the last in NW Illinois). It also was found once in Porter County, Indiana, in 1935. Likewise, all Illinois records are 1935 or older except for one undated record for Lake County and one for Carroll.

So far, every conehead population I have encountered has consisted of widely scattered individuals. For a species to persist in a narrowly defined habitat like a bog or a marsh, I therefore would expect the geographic extent of the marsh to be fairly large, to sustain a big enough population of slender coneheads to resist local extinction. Thus at some point I should seek out large marshes in the counties where the slender conehead has been found in the past. Perhaps the best starting point is the Indiana Dunes State Park (in Porter County), which has extensive marsh and bog areas that are relatively high in quality. It goes on my list for next year.

Worth the Effort?

by Carl Strang

On Saturday I went to Les Arends Forest Preserve in Kane County to watch a high school regional cross country meet.

The boys’ race, half a mile in.

While waiting between the girls’ and boys’ races, I sat and had lunch at a beautiful wooded edge.

Something caught my eye.

In the top of a spindly sapling 15 feet or so tall, there was a lump.

See it, near the top?

It proved to be a walnut, wedged in a fork of branches.

The sapling was not the source of the nut.

A walnut is a good bundle of calories for a tree squirrel, and one such rodent (probably a fox squirrel) had gone to the effort to grab a nut, husk and all, haul it out into the secondary growth perhaps 20 yards from the source tree, and carry it to the top of the sapling, wedging it well enough that recent storms have not dislodged it. Now, if that squirrel can just remember that the nut is there, and is not pre-empted by another sharp-eyed bushytail, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

Life goes on at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Though there haven’t been any major stories to share lately, there are enough small ones to assemble into an update. We are reaching the end of the active insect season, but there still are a few straggling migrants coming through like this male green darner.

Normally shy, he was slowed by cooler temperatures, allowing a close approach.

I thought I’d added the last new plant species to my preserve list for the year, but then I ran into some smooth blue asters.

A small group of them is growing in a corner of the preserve where several other plant species have their only representatives, presumably from a past seeding.

Elsewhere I thought I found another new aster species, but apparently it was just an odd individual.

It keyed to panicled aster, but the leaves are narrower than most plants of that species at Mayslake.

Up at the friary site, large areas are greening with new growth.

The grasses look like recently seeded lawn grasses. I’ll be interested in learning what they are.

I continue to get out onto the preserve regularly, and will continue to share what strikes me as newsworthy.

Winter Campfire Update

by Carl Strang

In November I will begin a new weekly winter series, on lessons from travels that reflect on local natural history. Today’s post updates the first winter series, from two years ago. Called the Winter Campfire, that series offered ideas on science and spirituality. Today’s notes come from the past year’s scientific literature relevant to the Winter Campfire material. In that series I touched upon quantum and relativistic physics, sensory physiology, and brain development and function. The following notes add some information in those areas.

Nicholas J Hudson. Musical beauty and information compression: complex to the ear but simple to the mind? BMC Research Notes, 2011; 4: 9 Abstract excerpts: “The entire life-long sensory data stream of a human is enormous. The adaptive solution to this problem of scale is information compression, thought to have evolved to better handle, interpret and store sensory data. In modern humans highly sophisticated information compression is clearly manifest in philosophical, mathematical and scientific insights. For example, the Laws of Physics explain apparently complex observations with simple rules. Deep cognitive insights are reported as intrinsically satisfying, implying that at some point in evolution, the practice of successful information compression became linked to the physiological reward system. I hypothesise that the establishment of this “compression and pleasure” connection paved the way for musical appreciation, which subsequently became free (perhaps even inevitable) to emerge once audio compression had become intrinsically pleasurable in its own right…I hypothesise that enduring musical masterpieces will possess an interesting objective property: despite apparent complexity, they will also exhibit high compressibility.”

According to an interview in an associated ScienceDaily article, Hudson has found that while random noise compresses only to 86% its original size in computer programs, present-day popular music commonly compresses to 60%, and Beethoven’s third symphony, in contrast, compresses to 40% despite its apparent complexity. The relevance of all of this to the Winter Campfire material is the recognition that our experience is created from the bits of sensory information our brains receive. We need to hold lightly to the assumption that reality is as we seem to perceive it.

Costas A Anastassiou, Rodrigo Perin, Henry Markram, Christof Koch. Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; 14 (2): 217 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2727   They have found evidence supporting the idea that, in addition to synaptic transmission, brain cell activity forms many overlapping electrical fields whose patterns can provide for communication. Furthermore, such fields may be subject to influence from external electrical field stimuli. The term “ephaptic coupling” in the title refers to communication among neurons through the field rather than through synapses. These fields are especially strong in the memory-forming hippocampus and in the neocortex, where long-term memory is stored. The relevance to the Winter Campfire essay is the connection to the holographic model of brain function.

J. J. Hudson, D. M. Kara, I. J. Smallman, B. E. Sauer, M. R. Tarbutt, E. A. Hinds. Improved measurement of the shape of the electron. Nature, 2011; 473 (7348): 493 DOI: 10.1038/nature10104    The electron is a sphere so perfect that, if it were the size of the solar system, the difference from perfection would be within the width of a human hair. This was determined by failing to find wobble in a molecule that would have been present if there had been asymmetry in electrons. The goal is to seek out possible differences between electrons and positrons that might explain why antimatter vanished and a residue of matter was left in the early universe. This expands upon the nature of matter and energy, addressed in an early chapter in the Winter Campfire series.

Tomohiro Ishizu, Semir Zeki. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (7): e21852 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021852    From an account in ScienceDaily. They found that a particular region of the brain, the medial orbito-frontal region of the cortex, becomes active when a person experiences beauty, both from visual art and from music. The medial orbito-frontal region is part of the reward/pleasure center. Experiences of sights which subjects identified as ugly did not produce activity in any particular brain region. As expected, activity in visual regions also increased when the beautiful stimuli were visual, and in auditory regions when sounds were provided. In addition, visual beauty produced activity in the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain, in proportion to how beautiful the subject found the object. That brain area has been associated with romantic love in other studies, and thus suggests a connection with such love and beauty. I find myself focusing on the results that point to the subjective nature of beauty. I hold to my statement that one potential Way of spiritual development is to expand the range of what one regards as beautiful.

The Meaning of “Range”

by Carl Strang

This is the third installment of a weekly series on singing insect species that supposedly occur in northeast Illinois or northwest Indiana but which I have yet to find after several years’ field work. Today I will consider two crickets representing different groups. They have in common a certain peculiarity in their range maps. We’ll start with the melodious ground cricket.

As you can see, the shaded area on this map (from the Singing Insects of North America website, or SINA) places nearly all of Illinois within the range of this species. However, that shaded area is computer generated from the only concrete records, which are represented by the black dots. Note that there are no dots anywhere in Illinois. As far as the SINA database goes, the species never has been found in Illinois, and there are only two records from northern Indiana. Illinois is included in the range thanks to a single record from northern Missouri. The species first was described from Ohio in 1957 by Edward S. Thomas and Richard Alexander. It is very similar to the Carolina ground cricket physically, but its song is described as a more melodious trill (lacking the Carolina’s discordant overlay of tones), and its habitat is narrower, limited to bogs and marshes. Even in Ohio there are few locations. The map shows melodius all over Florida, where Thomas Walker (who runs the excellent SINA site) is located.

The next example is the prairie tree cricket.

Northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana are included in the range for this species thanks to two records for Cook County, Illinois, from 1934 and 1935. On the other hand, two records from Iowa probably would have led the computer to shade our region even without those old Cook County records. I mentioned in an earlier post this year that I am looking for prairie tree crickets in sweep samples from meadow and prairie areas, but so far have found only four-spotted, and black-horned/Forbes’s tree crickets in that sampling.

These examples underline the need to be careful in thinking about the geographic range of species. Some singing insects are relatively general in their habitat choice, or tolerant of human alterations in the landscape, or simply have been fortunate to have passed through the sieve of history unscathed. They are the common ones. Shaded areas in range maps like SINA’s represent them best. Other species are much pickier, or their lower densities have made them subject to more frequent local extinctions over time. They are best represented by dots. The best example I have encountered here is the sphagnum ground cricket, which appears indeed to be limited to the narrow confines of sphagnum moss areas. These were more ubiquitous in the broad zone which trailed the last continental glacier north, but then in southern parts became isolated in little bits here and there.

I am not removing melodious ground crickets or prairie tree crickets from my hypothetical list for our region, but until I find them I will not list them as definitely occurring here today.

Red-legged Grasshopper

by Carl Strang

Over the past couple months there have been large numbers of grasshoppers at Mayslake Forest Preserve, especially around trail and parking lot edges where mowed lawns come up against a variety of unmowed forbs and grasses. My focus in recent weeks has been on singing insects, but with that research checklist essentially complete for the year I decided to look into those grasshoppers. Perhaps I waited too long, as every hopper I got a good look at last week appeared to belong to the same species. I collected a couple of them and, after a session with references and the microscope, settled on an identification.

Red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum

As I went through the references and keys I was surprised by the number of similar species and the small features that can separate them. Very close ones often segregate by habitat, however, and red-legged grasshoppers are one of the most abundant, weediest species. Ecologists think of weeds as organisms which reproduce in large numbers and occur in disturbed habitats. Therefore, animals as well as plants can be weedy.

While scrutinizing grasshoppers in the field I also got looks at several small (Conocephalus) meadow katydids. All clearly were short-wingeds, except for one.

The oddest feature on this female is the kink in her ovipositor.

She had an abdomen tip colored like that of a straight-lanced meadow katydid, but the shorter ovipositor and leg striping pattern pointed to short-winged meadow katydid, so I am staying with that more conservative identification.

2011 Flowering Phenology Final

by Carl Strang

With all the results in for 2011, I am able to make a season-long comparison of first flower dates between this year and each of the previous two. This year ended up very close to 2009, the net median first flower date for 178 species one day later than in 2009. This year was later than 2010 by 5 days, with 179 species to compare. One event which may have played a big hand in all of this was the blizzard in early February, followed by a spring cool enough to retain the lower soil temperatures and postpone plant development to the flowering stage.

Michigan lily

I am inclined to think that 2011 and 2009 were the exceptions, and we can expect most years to have earlier flowering seasons, but time will tell.

Seeking Robust Coneheads

by Carl Strang

Last week I began a review of singing insects I expected to find in northeast Illinois but which I haven’t yet encountered. The next species in this series is the robust conehead.

This is the range map for that katydid from the Singing Insects of North America (SINA) website. At the beginning of my study in 2006 I thought that I had found them in DuPage County, but more careful examination of photos and a found-dead specimen revealed that all so far have been round-tipped coneheads.

Like the robust conehead, the round-tipped has a relatively small cone structure at the tip of its head, but it has a larger black area. Also, it is a smaller insect.

The round-tipped conehead provides an example of how things can change over time. Here is its range map from SINA.

Note how the projected range does not quite reach DuPage County. Yet this is a common species here. Either no researcher previously has noted this or, more likely, round-tipped coneheads have expanded their range.

As mentioned last week, the next step in my search is to examine the SINA database for clues. As was the case with prairie meadow katydids, nearly all the Illinois and Indiana records for robust coneheads are from sand areas or from southern locations with which I am unfamiliar. Two exceptional records stand out, however. One is in fact from DuPage County on September 13, 1955. This observation cannot be discounted as it was made by Richard Alexander of the University of Michigan, who did a lot of pioneering research on singing insects in the Great Lakes region.

The other observation which jumped out was from my home town area of Marshall County, Indiana. That county has a lot of sandy soils, though.
I’m not sure what direction to take with this species. By all accounts its song is much louder than that of the round-tipped, so I guess in future years I need to do more nighttime cruising and listening, especially in sand areas.

Sweetgrass Harvest

by Carl Strang

Two springs ago on a whim I bought 3 plugs of sweetgrass at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s native plant sale. I planted them in 3 odd corners of my flowerbeds, and haven’t paid much attention to them since. As I was catching up on gardening in recent days I found that one of the plugs apparently didn’t make it, one barely is holding its own, but the third is going crazy, spreading as much as 2 feet in all directions from the initial spot. Sweetgrass, also known as vanilla grass, traditionally is used as incense, producing a sweet vanilla odor when burned. I decided to try harvesting this year’s growth. Traditionally sweetgrass is formed into braids, and so I cut the leaves and divided them into bunches.

Here are my clumsy looking braids, tied and ready to hang for drying.

The grass hasn’t flowered in my yard, but my understanding is that the species isn’t a heavy bloomer. Certainly I have yet to encounter flowers in the field. If the vegetative growth in my garden is typical, it can do fine without producing seeds.

I am guessing about everything: whether to harvest while still green, whether to braid while still green, and where best to hang it. I figured it would begin to decompose and its odor might go away if I waited for the leaves to senesce. It might not be flexible enough to braid when dry. My kitchen seemed an open enough place to hang the braids. Certainly after 24 hours my entire downstairs smells delightfully of vanilla. If any reader has experience with this and can advise me otherwise, I would appreciate it.

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