St. James Farm is Humming

by Carl Strang

As the cold spells have become fewer and weaker, insects and other invertebrates increasingly have decorated the landscape at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. None decorate better than the butterflies.

A few American lady butterflies appeared early in May.

A few American lady butterflies appeared early in May.

The silver-spotted skipper attests to the presence of black locust trees on the preserve.

The silver-spotted skipper attests to the presence of black locust trees on the preserve.

Very early in the season I was seeing abundant grasshopper nymphs in the forest. I had a suspicion about them, which was confirmed as they matured.

The green-legged grasshopper is an early season forest species.

The green-legged grasshopper is an early season forest species.

Dragonflies increasingly appeared in the second half of May.

The most abundant dragonfly in recent days has been the common baskettail. Though they usually are seen on the wing, this one gave me a rare opportunity for a perched shot.

The most abundant dragonfly in recent days has been the common baskettail. Though they usually are seen on the wing, this one gave me a rare opportunity for a perched shot.

No baskettail this. It’s another early season species, a female dot-tailed whiteface.

No baskettail this. It’s another early season species, a female dot-tailed whiteface.

All these insects bring out the parasites and predators.

Epalpus signifer is a tachinid fly, a parasite of caterpillars.

Epalpus signifer is a tachinid fly, a parasite of caterpillars.

Morning dew highlights the abundant webs of bowl and doily spiders.

Morning dew highlights the abundant webs of bowl and doily spiders.

 

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Some April Insects

by Carl Strang

Insects began to appear during April’s warm spells. Inevitably I have been comparing my finds at St. James Farm Forest Preserve to my experience at Mayslake Forest Preserve, the site of my previous preserve monitoring. Some of the early insects at St. James Farm are shared with Mayslake.

The red admiral overwinters in the pupal stage.

The red admiral overwinters in the pupal stage.

Another early season butterfly is the spring azure.

Another early season butterfly is the spring azure.

Other species I never found at Mayslake.

The six-spotted tiger beetle prowls the trails at St. James Farm, as it does on many forest preserves. I was perennially surprised that I never found them at Mayslake.

The six-spotted tiger beetle prowls the trails at St. James Farm, as it does on many forest preserves. I was perennially surprised that I never found them at Mayslake.

One impressive insect I encountered at St. James Farm was entirely new to my experience. I first saw it flying, and I thought I was seeing a large bee fly or a fat bee. Then it landed.

It proved to be a beetle. The bumble bee flower beetle’s name reflects its impressive mimicry.

It proved to be a beetle. The bumble bee flower beetle’s name reflects its impressive mimicry.

This is a member of the scarab family, and it feeds from flowers, ripe fruits, and sap-exuding tree wounds.

McHenry County Visit

by Carl Strang

On September 3 I drove up to McHenry County, Illinois, to continue my regional survey of singing insects. I spent most of that hot afternoon at the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area.

This county park has some very good woodlands and savannas.

This county park has some very good woodlands and savannas.

The day produced 7 county records.

My first four-spotted tree cricket in McHenry was at Pleasant Valley.

My first four-spotted tree cricket in McHenry was at Pleasant Valley.

A shift to the Hickory Grove Conservation Area produced additional observations, some of them remarkable.

The most unexpected find was a small group of gladiator meadow katydids, still singing weeks after they normally are done.

The most unexpected find was a small group of gladiator meadow katydids, still singing weeks after they normally are done.

The photo shows the characteristic pronotum profile and cerci. The marsh habitat and the distinctive song pattern, with the ticks finishing, rather than preceding, the buzz portion of the song all were consistent with gladiator meadow katydid. The black spots on the abdomen may be signs of a parasite load; could that have delayed the completion of development?

The same site produced this marsh meadow grasshopper.

The same site produced this marsh meadow grasshopper.

The Lyons Prairie and Marsh, administered as part of Hickory Grove by the McHenry County Conservation District, actually is in Lake County. I followed the trail into a portion of the marsh dominated by reed canary grass. In addition to abundant slender and short-winged meadow katydids, I got an intriguing glimpse at a female Orchelimum that might have been a dusky-faced meadow katydid, which I have yet to find in Illinois. I was unsuccessful in getting a better look in that late afternoon, but at some point I need to get back there for a thorough search.

On the way back to the car I spotted this tiny grasshopper. Mature at around 3/8 inch long, it is a non-singing species, the black-sided pygmy grasshopper.

On the way back to the car I spotted this tiny grasshopper. Mature at around 3/8 inch long, it is a non-singing species, the black-sided pygmy grasshopper.

More Mayslake Insects

by Carl Strang

As we progress into the warm season, more and more insects jump, fly or climb into view. Most of the recent photographic subjects at Mayslake Forest Preserve have been moths or butterflies.

Monarch butterflies have received a lot of attention lately. Here a nearly mature caterpillar nibbles at a common milkweed flower.

Monarch butterflies have received a lot of attention lately. Here a nearly mature caterpillar nibbles at a common milkweed flower.

The beauty of moths is more subtle. This one is called the confused eusarca, a member of the inchworm family.

The beauty of moths is more subtle. This one is called the confused eusarca, a member of the inchworm family.

The prairies and meadows have produced dozens of tiger moths in the genus Haploa. These all seem to belong to two species.

I identify this one as a reversed haploa. A dark line extends from the midpoint of the leading edge of the forewing to the back corner of the wing.

I identify this one as a reversed haploa. A dark line extends from the midpoint of the leading edge of the forewing to the back corner of the wing.

This one appears to be a LeConte’s haploa. Here the dominant line goes out from the tip of the wing.

This one appears to be a LeConte’s haploa. Here the dominant line goes out from the tip of the wing.

Each species is represented by an array of confusing variations on these themes.

It hasn’t been just about moths. Here a Batyle suturalis longhorn beetle visits an ox-eye daisy.

It hasn’t been just about moths. Here a Batyle suturalis longhorn beetle visits an ox-eye daisy.

The most dramatic recent insect observation was this Laphria robber fly, with its prey, a honeybee. Laphria are bumblebee mimics.

The most dramatic recent insect observation was this Laphria robber fly, with its prey, a honeybee. Laphria are bumblebee mimics.

Centennial Bioblitz

by Carl Strang

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Centennial Bioblitz started under rain and somewhat cool temperatures last Friday night. We sent off the first plant survey teams and frog monitors, and a small bird team went out, but the rain continued. As the darkness built, it became clear that light stations for insects would get limited results. I gathered the group who had come for one of the public programs, and Purdue University entomologist Jeff Holland explained that the dripping water would explode their hot bulbs. We set up my ultraviolet light, and Jeff led the team into the forest at St. James Farm.

Dr. Holland examines a beetle one of the participants found.

Dr. Holland examines a beetle one of the participants found.

The kids had a great time catching fireflies, and finding insects and other creatures active in the rain.

Classic kid nature fun was had by all.

Classic kid nature fun was had by all.

When we stopped by the light on the way back, we found a few beetles and small moths, but the sheet mainly held a host of mosquitoes.

Amid hundreds of floodwater and other common mosquitoes, there were a few huge ones.

Amid hundreds of floodwater and other common mosquitoes, there were a few huge ones.

Late into the night, and much of the next day, my focus was on support and organizational work, but I did make two brief field excursions and added a few species to the count on the four preserves of the bioblitz survey.

This green darner showed off its bullseye face paint.

This green darner showed off its bullseye face paint.

Halloween pennants have been common around the county in the past week.

Halloween pennants have been common around the county in the past week.

I recognized the chickweed geometer from my preserve monitoring work at Mayslake.

I recognized the chickweed geometer from my preserve monitoring work at Mayslake.

Roesel’s katydids had begun to sing in the previous week. This mature male has short to medium-length wings.

Roesel’s katydids had begun to sing in the previous week. This mature male has short to medium-length wings.

This coneheaded katydid nymph at the edge of the parking lot meadow was large enough, and its cone the proper shape, to be a sword-bearing rather than round-tipped conehead.

This coneheaded katydid nymph at the edge of the parking lot meadow was large enough, and its cone the proper shape, to be a sword-bearing rather than round-tipped conehead.

The botany teams no doubt caught this one, but I couldn’t resist photographing these starry Solomon’s plume fruits at Blackwell.

The botany teams no doubt caught this one, but I couldn’t resist photographing these starry Solomon’s plume fruits at Blackwell.

Our rough estimate at the end of the bioblitz was 900 species documented for the four preserves. I will report more detailed numbers when we have them.

 

Mayslake Update: Insects

by Carl Strang

The warm weather has brought out a beautiful diversity of insect life at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Here’s the gallery from last week:

Early zanclognatha moths are appearing in good numbers this year in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Early zanclognatha moths are appearing in good numbers this year in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Here is a second one, showing some of the variation in this species.

Here is a second one, showing some of the variation in this species.

What they have in common is their relatively early season compared to similar relatives, a rather sharp bend in the dark line closest to the head, a kink or at least flat area in the tip of the curve in the middle line, and a rather straight outermost line. This is one of a large group of moths whose larvae make their living by eating dead leaves. Many are common in our woodlands thanks to that abundant resource.

This skipper put me through a long session with the references. I concluded that it is Juvenal’s dusky wing.

This skipper put me through a long session with the references. I concluded that it is Juvenal’s dusky wing.

It is very similar to the wild indigo dusky wing, which also occurs at Mayslake, and I need to be more careful in the future in identifying these butterflies. The difference, as I understand it, is that Juvenal’s has areas of pale color within the black inner part of the forewing, and just inward of the central tan area there is a pale dot (very faint in this individual) rather than a short bar.

Less ambiguous is this Virginia tiger moth. There are other white tiger moths, but they don’t have the fancy black-and-white barred legs, a couple of which are sticking out here. Also, this one patiently let me move its leaf so as to get a look at its front femurs. They were yellow-orange rather than pink.

Less ambiguous is this Virginia tiger moth. There are other white tiger moths, but they don’t have the fancy black-and-white barred legs, a couple of which are sticking out here. Also, this one patiently let me move its leaf so as to get a look at its front femurs. They were yellow-orange rather than pink.

This pretty little moth, photographed near the edge of the north savanna, was an addition to the preserve species list. The spotted grass moth is described as “uncommon” in references.

This pretty little moth, photographed near the edge of the north savanna, was an addition to the preserve species list. The spotted grass moth is described as “uncommon” in references.

Viewed dorsally, this Laphria thoracica robber fly is a very effective bumblebee mimic. At this angle, however, we can see how it is alertly watching for passing prey. The flattened abdomen, impressive predatory beak, and odd antennae prove that this is no bee.

Viewed dorsally, this Laphria thoracica robber fly is a very effective bumblebee mimic. At this angle, however, we can see how it is alertly watching for passing prey. The flattened abdomen, impressive predatory beak, and odd antennae prove that this is no bee.

First spreadwing damselfly of the year. The southern spreadwing is regarded by some as a subspecies of the common spreadwing.

First spreadwing damselfly of the year. The southern spreadwing is regarded by some as a subspecies of the common spreadwing.

Showy Insects at the Lights

by Carl Strang

The rain stopped for a while on the night of the Hills of Gold bioblitz in Johnson County, Indiana. I set my single ultraviolet light on a hilltop, following a muddy climb up a steep logging trail. My light faced a different downslope than the nearby, more elaborate multi-light array of the Purdue beetle team led by Jeff Holland. My aim was moths, and a satisfying variety came to the sheet lit by my UV tube. Today I will share photos of some of the more spectacular insects we found.

The biggest was this tulip-tree silkmoth which came to one of the Purdue lights.

The biggest was this tulip-tree silkmoth which came to one of the Purdue lights.

Two of these beautiful, strikingly marked green moths came to my station. Their English name is appropriate: green marvel.

Two of these beautiful, strikingly marked green moths came to my station. Their English name is appropriate: green marvel.

Another eye-catcher was this one, curiously named The Hebrew.

Another eye-catcher was this one, curiously named The Hebrew.

The unadorned carpet was one of the moths commonly encountered during the day. One came to the sheet as well.

The unadorned carpet was one of the moths commonly encountered during the day. One came to the sheet as well.

The splendid palpita has attractive patches of pinkish brown on all four wings.

The splendid palpita has attractive patches of pinkish brown on all four wings.

According to its page in the BugGuide website, the brown-spotted zale actually is a species complex containing several species distinguishable only by dissection.

According to its page in the BugGuide website, the brown-spotted zale actually is a species complex containing several species distinguishable only by dissection.

That last point may well be true of many of the moths of the North American forests. This is where I need to compromise my reluctance to collect insects. There are enough instances of sibling species or cryptic species among the moths that voucher specimens are necessary. Given the growth of DNA analysis, two specimens per species per site may be the standard I will need to follow, so that one or part of one could be sacrificed to future chemical analysis. From an ecological as well as an evolutionary standpoint, the existence of these cryptic species is an interesting problem that needs to be sorted out.

Of course, many insects other than moths came to my sheet. This fish fly appears to be Chauliodes pectinicornis.

Of course, many insects other than moths came to my sheet. This fish fly appears to be Chauliodes pectinicornis.

Several fiery searchers prowled my sheet and its vicinity. These large beetles are predators that frequently attack caterpillars.

Several fiery searchers prowled my sheet and its vicinity. These large beetles are predators that frequently attack caterpillars.

Next time I will elaborate on other moths that were drawn to the lights. These illustrate a number of additional points about forest moth populations.

Hills of Gold

by Carl Strang

This year’s chapter in the bioblitz series organized by the Indiana Academy of Science was called Hills of Gold. It was on a beautiful site being assembled by the Central Indiana Land Trust, and when complete will occupy around 2 square miles in Johnson County, south of Indianapolis.

The event took place on an intermittently rainy day, as illustrated by this less than sharp image of a representative bit of forest and one of the old logging trails we used to get around the site.

The event took place on an intermittently rainy day, as illustrated by this less than sharp image of a representative bit of forest and one of the old logging trails we used to get around the site.

Usually my role in these bioblitzes is to survey singing insects, but this was too early in the season for a sufficient number of species to justify my participating. I decided to reconnect with my experience studying forest Lepidoptera ecology in the 1980’s, and took on moths as well. As I walked the forest during the day, I found many beautiful plants and animals outside my target groups that gave joy.

Green dragons always make me smile, and I ran across a magnificent cluster of them along one of the streams.

Green dragons always make me smile, and I ran across a magnificent cluster of them along one of the streams.

And who can say “no” to fire pinks? Hummingbirds sure don’t.

And who can say “no” to fire pinks? Hummingbirds sure don’t.

Violet wood sorrel is a plant I haven’t encountered very often.

Violet wood sorrel is a plant I haven’t encountered very often.

There also were insects to note outside my target groups.

This Bombus impatiens queen still had not found a nest site, and was prospecting the forest floor.

This Bombus impatiens queen still had not found a nest site, and was prospecting the forest floor.

I interrupted this female scorpionfly’s feed on an emptied caterpillar skin.

I interrupted this female scorpionfly’s feed on an emptied caterpillar skin.

Speaking of caterpillars, the first target species I found was this eastern tent caterpillar:

They already had reached the final instar and were starting to pupate.

They already had reached the final instar and were starting to pupate.

I collected only four moth species during the day. All were fairly common.

This was one of them, which I identify as the unadorned carpet, a member of the inchworm family.

This was one of them, which I identify as the unadorned carpet, a member of the inchworm family.

Many more moths came to my ultraviolet light setup that night. Stay tuned for that episode.

For the record, there was one singing insect. This was my first encounter with a wood cricket. I heard them scattered thinly all through the forest, but never succeeded in seeing one. They probably were northern wood crickets (Gryllus vernalis), but might have been southern wood crickets (G. fultoni). I made a couple good sound recordings, which I hope will allow me to make the determination.

One of them was singing from this patch of leaf litter.

One of them was singing from this patch of leaf litter.

More on that later, after I have analyzed the recordings.

Mayslake Marsh Update: Amphibian Traps

by Carl Strang

I set out some amphibian traps in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh to assess how the marsh has recovered from the drought of 2012 and another drying out in 2013.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

 

Literature Review: Whole Genome Comparisons

by Carl Strang

Another hot area of biological research these days is the comparative study of whole genomes, the entire DNA sequences of different species. Birds received a lot of this sort of attention in 2014 publications, but the following notes also include interesting studies of insects and crocodilians.

Zhang, Guojie, et al. 2014. Comparative genomics reveals insights into avian genome evolution and adaptation. Science 346:1311-1320. They compared whole genomes of 48 species across the range of living species. Of the 37 orders, 34 are represented, the missing ones being some of the ratite groups (only tinamous and ostrich included). The genome is smaller than those of other amniotes, through loss of repetitive sections and large deletions. There are large areas shared by all birds, but plenty of areas where genes vary according to lifestyles, as well as convergences. They looked at vocal learning, which occurs in songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds, and earlier had been shown to have common brain circuits for song learning not present in other birds. Genomes showed convergence in the underlying protein-coding and regulatory genes, absent in birds that don’t learn songs. They also identified genes associated with bird skeletal development, lung structure, and feathers. Teeth were absent in the common ancestor of all modern birds, rather than being lost more than once. Birds have more genes for color vision than mammals, and the ancestral bird is supported as tetrachromatic.

Among the many interesting points from the following study is that falcons like this kestrel are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks and eagles.

Among the many interesting points from the following study is that falcons like this kestrel are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks and eagles.

Jarvis, Erich D., et al. 2014. Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. Science 346:1320-1331. Whole genomes proved problematic in phylogenetic analysis, thanks to convergences in protein coding portions and the jumble of rapid diversification in the early Paleogene. Non-coding sections, however, provided a more consistent picture. Some highlights: Anseriformes (ducks, geese, etc.) plus Galliformes (chickens etc.) are closest (sister) to one another, their combined Galloanseres group separate from “Neoaves” (together with them forming “Neognathae,” separate from Palaeognathae or ratites). Flamingoes and grebes are sister groups, confirming the earlier Field Museum study, with the next-closest local birds the pigeons and doves, all combined into “Columbea” vs. “Passerea” as the divisions of Neoaves. Hummingbirds are sister to swifts, then nightjars. Cranes are sister to shorebirds. Loons are sister to a cluster of water bird orders including pelicans, herons, tube-nosed seabirds, and penguins. New World vultures are sister to eagles and other Accipitriformes. Owls are sister to a cluster of orders with only woodpeckers represented locally. Oscines are sister to suboscines, together to parrots, then falcons. Groups charted as existing by the end of the Mesozoic are Palaeognathae, Galloanseres, Columbea, and Passerea, with nearly all orders in existence by 50 million years ago. The splits more recent than that are those between hummingbirds and swifts (both contained within order Caprimulgiformes), Coraciiformes (including kingfishers) and Piciformes (including woodpeckers), and oscines and suboscines within Passeriformes.

Romanov, Michael N., et al. 2014. Reconstruction of gross avian genome structure, organization and evolution suggests that the chicken lineage most closely resembles the dinosaur avian ancestor. BMC Genomics 15 (1): 1060 DOI: 10.1186/1471-2164-15-1060  Their portion of the avian whole-genome comparison project found that chickens and turkeys most resemble the computed common ancestor of birds and other dinosaurs.

Mitchell, Kieren J., et al. 2014. Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution. Science 344:898-900. They sequenced elephant bird DNA (extinct species from Madagascar) and found, surprisingly, that this was the New Zealand kiwi’s nearest relative. Their study concluded that the ratites (emu, ostrich, rhea, kiwi, etc.) descended from flying ancestors that once were widespread and dispersed easily. After the dinosaurs were gone, the larger ratites were able to fill some large-herbivore niche space and the various groups independently evolved into large flightless forms. That evolutionary window closed as the mammals caught up, except for isolated islands where, for instance, the dodo evolved. Continental drift separated some large flightless ratites geographically, but ancestral flight also contributed as indicated by the New Zealand-Madagascar connection.

Insect flight was fostered by the first forests, which created the 3-dimensional framework that made flight advantageous.

Insect flight was fostered by the first forests, which created the 3-dimensional framework that made flight advantageous.

Misof, B., et al. 2014. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution. Science 346:763-767. They did a massive genomic comparison across the insect class, and highlights include indications that insects first appeared 479mya (million years ago, Early Ordovician), coincident with the first land plants. They first developed wings 406mya (Early Devonian; the oldest insect fossils date to 412mya), becoming the first flying animals, at about the same time plants grew larger and began to produce forests, creating a 3D environment in which flight would be especially advantageous. Major lineages of today trace back to the Mississippian (345mya), and the major diversification of insects with complete metamorphic development happened in the Early Cretaceous.

American alligators are genetically very close to the other crocodilians.

American alligators are genetically very close to the other crocodilians.

Green, R.E., et al. 2014. Three crocodilian genomes reveal ancestral patterns of evolution among archosaurs. Science 346 (6215): 1254449 DOI: 10.1126/science.1254449  Whole-genome comparisons found that crocodilians are very similar to one another (93% similarity among species), and have changed very slowly. This slow evolutionary pace, shared with the nearest outgroup of crocodilians + birds, the turtles, indicates that the shared ancestor likewise evolved slowly, and that some time after the split, avian ancestors evolved the capacity for rapid evolution that set the stage for rapid diversification after the other dinosaurs went extinct.

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