Lessons from Travels: Caves

by Carl Strang

At present there are no caves to visit in northeast Illinois, unless one counts tiny Devil’s Cave on the Fox River. As far as I know there are none in the bedrock beneath us, though some of that bedrock is dolomite, which once was limestone, so we could in places have little caves under the hundred feet, more or less, of glacial till.

In order to appreciate the potential that a major cave can achieve, we need to travel. Today’s photos come from the Lehman Caves in eastern Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, which I visited in 2003. Most caves form in limestone, which dissolves slowly in the slightly acidic groundwater derived from rainfall. Rainwater picks up acid-forming carbon dioxide from the air and organic acids from the soil as it percolates down. Should time and circumstance drain the cave of much or all of its water, the stage is set for a new phase of activity.

Here you can see where rainwater continues to seep down, reaching the cave via cracks in the cavity’s ceiling. Dissolved minerals have begun to form tiny stalactites.

Over time, the oozing water builds the stalactites, and in places drips to the floor and creates stalagmites.

In this portion of the cave, unusual atmospheric conditions are producing occasional sideways extensions to some of the stalactites.

Stalactites continue to elongate.

Here is a striking example.

Eventually the stalactite and stalagmite may meet, forming a column.

The stalactite and stalagmite forms still can be distinguished within this example.

As water continues to flow, the column can achieve an impressive diameter and configuration.

Beautiful shapes have formed in these columns.

Some caves have unusual formations that go outside this standard sequence.

These structures are developing out of near-circular disks of stone.

Apart from the small caves which may or may not be in the bedrock beneath us, our major local connection to caves is in the shelter that southern caves provide in winter for most of our bats.

Here a migrating bat rests for the day in Aldo Leopold’s “shack” in Wisconsin.

Caves are the permanent homes for other organisms, whose survival is dependent upon import of nutrients from the outside. Some of that importing is done by the bats, which deposit guano from their ceiling roosts. At this moment, some cave invertebrate to our south is benefiting from a bit of fresh northeast Illinois guano dropped by a bat that grabbed a meal in our area on its way south.

We have two local kinds of ecosystems analogous to those in caves, likewise reliant on import of energy and nutrients to support their economies. Soil ecosystems are based in large part on the dead vegetable matter of the previous growing season, and in fact many of the small cave specialists clearly evolved from soil decomposer ancestors. Streams, though lacking such clear ties to caves, are small compared to the landscape through which they flow, and thus their character depends upon material and physical influences that come into them from all sides.

Pholcus Adjustment

by Carl Strang

Recently the sun highlighted some cobwebs in the house, pointing out that a round of housecleaning is overdue.

I host two species of cobweb makers.

Also overdue is an identification correction. I had thought for a long time that one of my spiders is the daddy-long-legs species Pholcus phalangioides. A year or two ago in my office at Mayslake Forest Preserve I saw a couple individuals that were relatively huge, but otherwise appeared to be just like the ones in my house. I wish now that I had photographed them, because I have learned that there are two common Pholcus species in eastern North America. Apart from some microscopic technical differences, for the most part they can be distinguished by size.

The smaller ones in my house almost certainly are a different species, Pholcus manueli.

A mature body length of more than 6 mm points to Pholcus phalangioides; those were the ones in the Mayslake mansion. The ones in my house apparently all are manueli, having body lengths of less than 5 mm. I have seen a comment that they are becoming or have become the more common species in eastern North America.

Literature Review: Antimatter Above Us

by Carl Strang

This week’s literature tidbit is from the ScienceDaily website earlier this year. A report from NASA cast an intriguing light on a familiar phenomenon.

Lightning, Dakota badlands

Analysis of data from a research satellite has revealed that thunderstorms can generate antimatter. This happens when the extreme electrical field near the top of a storm “drives an upward avalanche of electrons.” These electrons have been accelerated to near light speed, and when some collide with molecules in the atmosphere they can produce gamma rays. Some of the many gamma rays so produced decay into electron-positron pairs, and the satellite detected some of the antimatter positrons when they interacted with its sensors.

Winter Campfire: Ahtila’s “The House”

by Carl Strang

A recurring theme in the juxtaposition of science and spirituality is our subjective perception of the world “out there.” As I have discussed several times in the Winter Campfire series, there are problems posed by the limitations of our sensory perception, central nervous system function, theories of relativity and quantum theory that simply do not allow us to get away with regarding reality in the simple-minded way that everyday experience tempts us to do. In particular, I keep coming back to the little-appreciated fact that time is not what it seems to be. We regard time as an independent framework through which we move. This seems to work quite well for us. But the universe has demonstrated to us, through the work of Einstein and those who have come after him, that this is an illusion. In wrestling with this paradox I have been interested in what perceptual pathologies may reveal about the way we have come to our “normal” way of understanding reality. Earlier I reviewed the work of William Gooddy in this regard. Today I want to discuss a remarkable film.

I encountered this film last week during my annual trip to The Art Institute of Chicago. It was so gripping that I viewed it three times. It is titled Talo (The House), by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. In an on-line search I found comments on its emotional content and imagery, but what struck me were its insights into how psychosis pathology may inform our understanding of how our ancestors evolved a mechanism for ordering space-time. Ahtila studied references and interviewed people who have experienced psychosis as she did background research for this film.

The film begins with a young woman, Elisa, driving up to her house, parking the car, walking through the garden and into the house. As she goes, she describes her routine in matter-of-fact language (we hear her speaking in Finnish, but there are English subtitles). Her opening sentence is, “I have a house.”

The first sign that something is wrong is one of the three projected screens suddenly showing the car driving itself, quickly moving back and forth, in and out of its parking space with the loud sound of the motor as it does so. Elisa is shown standing, looking through the window. She comments that she sees the car parked outside, but loses sight of it when she takes a sideways step so the car is blocked by the curtain. She says that the car’s sound separates from it and comes inside the house. She can’t keep sounds out, and through them she is in many places at once. They bring outside elements into the house, and we see the car in miniature driving behind her on the wall. A cow is shown on the TV, and then it is walking through the house. A man and dog are outside, then the dog is walking past her as she sits in the house. She is jumping backward and forward through time (this film is one of a series, and I am guessing that this man’s identity was made clear in an earlier chapter). She says, “My garden is coming into my living room.” She is losing her boundaries. Through all of this, however, she is describing these impressions in a matter of fact manner, showing emotion only briefly at one point when she says she is getting confused. She never appears crazy, despite the bizarre experiences she is having.

She begins to address her difficulties, sewing curtains which she hangs on the windows to block her view of the outside. She does this to two windows, and though this was not addressed in the film or in any commentary I have seen, I connect those windows to the two eyes. The house then becomes a metaphor for the woman, and the woman for her point of view, the self that is experiencing time and space. With the windows/eyes closed, she has some control, some ability to keep outside things apart from the house. As she goes to hang one of the curtains she walks with difficulty. I thought that she was rocking as though she were on one of the boats she hears, but one commentary suggested that she has put weights on her feet so as to stay grounded. In the most remarkable special-effects scene, Elisa glides through the forest toward the house, her body parallel to the ground and she touches the tree branches as she goes. She reaches the house, and pulls herself back down to the ground.

Toward the end of the 15-minute film she summarizes her perception of reality: “The ship on the horizon is the same as all other ships…Things that occur no longer shed light on the past…Everything is simultaneously here, now, being…Nothing happens before or after. There are no causes.” She imagines people coming inside her, controlling her movements. This was an impressive depiction of a pathology in which someone’s “normal” perception of time separated from space has broken down. It demonstrates how our ability to order things and events by our separation of space and time also allows us to define our own boundaries, to have separate subjective points of view. The film left me with questions: Does space-time order the mind, or is it the reverse? Who is closer to experiencing space-time as it really is, the healthy person or the psychotic?

Note: I was fortunate to catch this film just before it is to be taken down on November 25. It is owned by the museum, and will be shown again someday, but not for a while.

Lessons from Travels: Tropical Herp Diversity

by Carl Strang

I have made two trips to the Central American tropics, a month-long graduate course in tropical ecology that explored Panama in 1975, and a briefer vacation trip to Belize and Guatemala in 1989. The sheer diversity of life forms provides the most striking contrast to northeast Illinois, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the reptiles and amphibians, or herps. Most of the species I could not name, but the sampling of photos will give some sense of this variety.

This forest floor toad is one example. Striking in its angular lines and the white mark on its lip, but I saw only one of these and never learned its name.

We have numbers of frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, lizards and turtle species whose variety could be summed up with the word “several.” In the tropics, “overwhelming” fits better. The needs of these animals for warmth and moisture are well met down there, and the imagination soars with what Illinois was like in periods of its geological history when the climate was more like that of today’s Central America. Such observations during the Panama class also set me up for some of what I was to learn later in my study of terrestrial turtles in Pennsylvania, but that is a story for a later time.

One of the students in the Panama class was a herpetologist, and one day he brought a fer-de-lance into our Limbo Hunt Club camp to show us.

The fer-de-lance was small, but venomous and needing respect. You can bet we were watching our step as we walked the forest trails.

We encountered few snakes, however. One of my fondest memories was the opportunity to hold a sea snake.

This was a captive, in a study tank at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. If memory serves, we were told it was from Southeast Asia. Highly poisonous, but very placid, it was amazing in its sideways-flattened body and its scales, which were like tiny bricks placed side by side rather than overlapping as in most snakes.

We have a few species of snakes that like the water, too, mainly associated with our rivers, but lacking the extreme anatomical specialization evident in the sea snake.

Most of the reptiles we encountered were lizards.

My notes say this skink is in genus Mabuya.

And here is another, nameless lizard, on the alert for insects.

Above all, however, the herps we found were frogs and toads. Some were hylids, like our spring peeper.

The red-eyed frog is a relatively famous example.

Another beautifully marked hylid.

This one has a color pattern reminiscent of our wood frog, which belongs to a different family.

There were unfamiliar behaviors, as well, like the protective bubble nests created by the túngara frog.

We went out at night to see these frogs in action.

I spent some time inventorying the color variations in Bufo typhonius (it apparently has no generally accepted English name), a forest floor toad species with various leaf mimicry patterns.

At one extreme were some with uniform coloration.

Others had complex patterns, this one going so far as to produce a midrib.

This by no means exhausts the subject of tropical species diversity, and I will have more to share on this subject.

(Note: I was saddened to learn recently that Panama’s frogs are in peril. A fungal disease has been spreading through the isthmus, and is threatening many of the country’s 200 species with extinction.)

Three Missing Meadow Katydids

by Carl Strang

The final three species of singing insects that are reported to occur in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana but that I have not yet found are meadow katydids in genus Orchelimum. These three are placed in the region in the 20th Century mainly from three published sources, Hebard (1934; Illinois Orthoptera), McCafferty and Stein (1976; crickets and katydids of Indiana), and Thomas and Alexander (1962; a paper that focused on these three species). The most abundant of these reportedly is the dusky-faced meadow katydid. Here is the map for that species in the Singing Insects of North America (SINA) website.

Thomas and Alexander write that the dusky-faced meadow katydid originally was described from northern Indiana in 1893, and their paper is the source for most records of that species in our region in the SINA database (in Indiana: Starke, Kosciusko, Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Marshall, and Fulton Counties; in Illinois: Lake, McHenry, Cook, Will, and DuPage Counties). Its face is said to be amber, with a red tinge. One early author described its northern Indiana habitat as upland pastures and dryer prairies, and seldom associated with lakes. Thomas and Alexander found it to be common, especially as compared to the stripe-faced and delicate meadow katydids, occurring in a wide range of marshes, “usually in vegetation over standing water,” and especially associated with grasses. The song is high pitched; I may need the SongFinder to hear it. Some sing during the day, but most singing is done from dusk into the night. Sometimes the song resembles those of the following two species, but usually it is different in having longer buzzes (more than 1-3 seconds), or longer strings of ticks (more than 5), or in eliminating ticks altogether (meadow katydid songs for the most part are variations on the pattern of several discrete, rapid ticks followed by a buzz). I am inclined to include this species in the broad range of wetlands I will continue to visit in my surveys.

Early descriptions placed the stripe-faced meadow katydid in dense grasses and sedges near ponds and streams. One account associated it with grasses and sedges around tamarack swamps and lakes. Here is its map from SINA.

Hebard gave swamps and bogs as habitat for the stripe-faced meadow katydid in Illinois. In the northeast part of the state he listed Glen Ellyn and the tamarack zone at Volo Bog as locations. Thomas and Alexander found it to be very limited in its distribution, occurring in “a few northern relict marl bogs and other alkaline situations.” The adult’s face is marked by a prominent stripe down its center, which Hebard says appears only after the final instar has matured. The song is high pitched; I may need the SongFinder to hear it. Some sing during the day, but most singing is done dusk into the night. To the ear the songs of this and the following species are nearly identical, having tick and buzz elements. Ticks are single rather than doubled, however. Indiana counties for which there are records are Lake, Starke, Fulton, Marshall, Kosciusko, and Porter. Illinois records are from Lake and Cook Counties. The old fish hatchery in Marshall County at Culver is a marl site worth exploring for this species.

Hebard found only females of the final species, the delicate meadow katydid, and his only northeast Illinois locations were Beach (at Lake Michigan in Lake County) and Algonquin (McHenry County). According to Thomas and Alexander, early authors stated that this species occurred in low meadows near large lakes in the Indiana counties of Marshall and Starke. These records are included in the species’ SINA map:

Thomas and Alexander say from their own experience that it is “largely restricted to swales adjacent to sand dunes or sand beaches, where it is often associated with …[the grass] Calamagrostis canadensis.” Its face is green. The song is high pitched; I may need the SongFinder to hear it. Some sing during the day, but most singing is done dusk into the night. To the ear the songs of the delicate and stripe-faced meadow katydids are nearly identical, having tick and buzz elements. Ticks may be doubled in this species, however. Places to seek it are Indiana Dunes State Park, Illinois Beach State Park, and marshes and lakes in Marshall and Starke Counties, Indiana.

Scarlet Tanager Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have posted one of my species dossiers. This is an awareness support method I developed in the 1980’s, when I realized that for most animal species, including the common ones, there was little that I could say I knew about them from direct experience. I wrote starting paragraphs based entirely on memories of my own observations, then added notes as I noticed new things over time. This helped me to focus, to pay more attention when out in the field. As time went on there was less to add from casual observation, but I continue to expand the dossiers as I continue to learn. Today’s example is a species that is good at staying out of sight in the upper canopy during the breeding season, and heads to the tropics for the winter, so my dossier on it remains relatively brief. (Date codes begin with a number representing the day of the month, followed by a unique 2-letter code for the month, ending with the year.)

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet tanagers often forage closer to the ground in the spring migration, and are easiest to see then. There also is less obstruction as leaves still are expanding.

This bird lives in larger forest areas in summer, though sometimes they can be seen in smaller woodlands during migration. They mainly stay in the upper canopy in the breeding season, though often they are lower when migrating. Sometimes migrants occur in fairly large numbers for a week or so in mid-May in DuPage County. This was a fairly common breeder in the larger forests of south central Pennsylvania. They are more thinly scattered in DuPage County’s smaller forest islands. They are occasional in riparian strips in northern Indiana. This is a fairly deliberate, leaf-searching forager. The song is similar to the robin’s in its phrasing, speed and rhythm, but with occasional distinctive fuzzy or burry notes.

This male was rolled by the wake of a car as he flew over a road in Pennsylvania. He quickly recovered and went on his way.

10MY87. First tanager of the year heard singing at north Blackwell Forest Preserve.

13MY87. Willowbrook. A tanager in a willow top foraged by sitting for several seconds at a time, and hopping or flying 5 inches to 2 feet between perches. When it sighted prey, it hopped to a perch nearby, then reached for it.

Though she lacks the male’s brilliant breeding plumage, the female’s olive-yellow feathers, as well as the balanced symmetry of her shape, lend beauty to her appearance.

7MY88. First tanager of the year singing, Culver Indian Trails.

12MY99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last spring migrant noted there 18MY.

13MY99. Tanagers were common today, low in the canopy, at Willowbrook.

5OC99. A late migrant at Willowbrook.

28JE00. A pair of tanagers fed a cowbird fledgling at Willowbrook, in the riparian zone midway along the Nature Trail’s west leg. A tanager could be heard singing east of the Nature Trail late into the spring, as recently as a couple weeks ago.

2JL00. A male tanager was singing in southern Waterfall Glen, in the topmost branch of a large dead tree, 10 feet from the nearest foliage, just perched and singing.

I don’t recall whether this bird was singing, or just stretching his mouth.

22JL00. Tanagers still are singing at Waterfall Glen. The one at Willowbrook has not been singing since the first week of July.

16JE01. A male scarlet tanager fed a cowbird fledgling in the savanna area of the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail.

Tanager at Fullersburg Woods.

25MY02. Groups of scarlet tanagers moved together low in the forest today at Meacham Grove, and yesterday at Willowbrook. They all seemed to be males yesterday, but there were both genders today.

Maple Leaf Miners: Canopy Data

by Carl Strang

Last week I returned to Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves to collect leaf miner data from fallen sugar maple/black maple leaves. Fallen leaves mainly represent what happened in the canopy, and data from them allow me to make comparisons between preserves, between years, and between the understory and the canopy (I had collected understory data earlier in the season).

This year all the leaves had fallen by the time I did the survey.

It was a pleasant day, and I dressed warmly enough that the November weather was no distraction.

In fact, a number of male linden looper moths were flying at Maple Grove. Also known as winter moths, they wait until November to seek mates.

Though the main purpose of the venture was to count leaf mines, I also kept my eyes and ears open for anything else of interest.

I don’t remember noticing this small concrete foundation at Maple Grove before now. It appears to be an old latrine site.

With the leaves largely changed from yellow to brown, leaf mines were easy to see.

Typical leaf litter scene.

I counted 30 leaves at each of 10 randomly selected points on each preserve. Comparisons between canopy and understory counts this year revealed no statistically significant differences at either preserve, except that there were more Phyllonorycter clemensella tent mines in the Maple Grove understory than in the canopy. This species seems more tied to the understory, and seems to be more affected by controlled fall burns of leaf litter. There were no successful burns at either preserve last year, and I suspect that accounts for the statistically significant increase in this species in the understory at Meacham Grove this year. There were no differences between 2010 and 2011 in the canopy for any of the four mine types at either preserve, and there were no differences between the preserves in canopy counts.

Literature Review: Isle Royale Update

by Carl Strang

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, there were plenty of wolves and moose on Isle Royale when I visited there in 1996. That is one of the better monitored ecological systems, and I was interested in an update based on the 2011 winter count, as reported in ScienceDaily.

View from a fire tower on the central ridge of Isle Royale.

The year after my trip there, a new male wolf immigrated to the island from the Canadian mainland. For a time the wolves benefited from this boost in genetic diversity, but that influence has begun to decline with a resumption of inbreeding, and the island’s wolves are down to a single pack of 16 individuals.

At the same time, reduced moose numbers have allowed a rebound of vegetation and they are on the verge of an increase. One of the side benefits of travel is a personal connection that lends interest to such stories.

Lessons from Travels: Isle Royale Moose and Wolves

by Carl Strang

My short list of greatest adventures always will include my circumnavigation of Isle Royale by sea kayak in the second half of August, 1996. Isle Royale is the big island in northern Lake Superior that, to me, looks like the eye in the lake’s wolf’s head shape. The paddle around it is a 100-mile journey. I got there by ferry from Houghton, Michigan.

There was plenty of room in the hold for kayaks and camping equipment.

On the way out I had a happy encounter with Rolf Peterson, a fellow graduate of Purdue’s wildlife program, who took over the Isle Royale wolf-moose study from his mentor, Durward Allen. It turned out I was able to help. With my kayak I could reach a few moose carcasses Rolf had spotted from the air during the winter surveys but which were in remote places. There were some data and samples that needed to be collected on the ground.

I never had seen a moose, and Isle Royale is one of the best places in the U.S. to find them. I encountered around a dozen during this trip.

This fellow walked right through camp one morning.

Isle Royale is better known as a backpacking destination, but I’m really glad I did it by sea.

This is the kind of trail the backpackers must negotiate in places. I felt a mixture of respect and pity as I watched them staggering into camp at the end of the day, when I had done my relatively easy paddling in the morning and could explore the trails with a light day pack.

A sea kayak can carry everything one needs for a two-week trip. A micro-filtering pump allows one to strain the lake water for drinking and cooking.

I still have this tent, though it got a tear during a storm on a later sea kayak expedition. Shortly after taking this photo I lost the camera remote I was holding in my left hand.

Along the way I saw occasional moose skeletons previously inventoried by Rolf and his students.

Wolves and weather have scattered some of the bones.

In the southwest quarter of the island there are no established camps, so I set up on the beach that night. There I saw my first wolf sign.

The tracks were very fresh, but I knew my chances were slim of seeing one of these shy canids.

This was a very remote location, with only the occasional calls of golden-crowned kinglets to break the August silence. The following photo, which I took just before pushing off the next day, conveys some of the eerie mood of the place.

I liked to make an early start, so as to have as much of the afternoon as possible for day hiking.

The following camp at Huginnin Cove, on the north shore just east of Isle Royale’s tip, provided the next clue to the presence of wolves.

Stinkin’ fresh wolf scats on the trail near the campground.

There is a long stretch of the north shore which provides no good landing for a sea kayak.

Here you can see why.

Nevertheless, one of Rolf’s moose was there, just inland from a little break in the shoreline. I found the spot, wedged Water Strider (my kayak) between a boulder and the cliff, and climbed up carrying my tow line/anchor rope.

The little waves gave Water Strider some scratches from the rocks which she bears to this day.

After some searching I found the carcass, a female, and I bagged the smelly sample for transport to Rolf. I dubbed her Miss Moosie, and she was my companion for the remainder of the trip.

Moose were part of the northeast Illinois fauna in the wake of the last continental glacier, and wolves still were here in historical times. It was a pleasure to share a landscape with them for a while, and to imagine the days when such creatures left tracks and deposited scats on trails now occupied by Ogden Avenue and Army Trail Road.

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