Southwestern Research Station, week 1: new vistas, lots of hopper nymphs, and a flash mishap

IMG-2007.JPG

Road to the station.

It’s been a little over a week since I arrived in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona, and I’ve got a lot to write about! I’ll only touch on a few topics here and hopefully expand on them in the coming weeks.

First thing’s first: there are some unbelievably beautiful and majestic landscapes here. In my life I’ve experienced many weird and wonderful habitats of the eastern U.S., from dry Florida scrub to cold sphagnum bogs; I’ve seen the Belizean rainforest; I’ve even been on the floodplains of Mozambique. But nothing compared to my first sight of the towering Chiricahua mountains rising up from the desert floor. Every day I walk out of my room and look up at the mountains, marveling at the fact that I am in such a place. The station is situated in a canyon, so within a short walk one can encounter several different habitats, all equally stunning. To my delight, the trees of this mountainous landscape are not too dissimilar from my familiar trees in the northeast. There are oaks, pines, junipers, boxelder, and sycamore – just different species than I’m used to, but not so weird as to be unrecognizable.

IMG-1993.JPG

View from the top of Rattlesnake Hill.

IMG_8276.jpg

Male (right) and female Abedus herberti giant water bug parents. 

Although you might think that southern Arizona would be warm and sunny all year round, that is certainly not the case here. The peaks of the Chiricahuas are snow-capped, and even here in the canyon, temperatures typically goes down to 30s (F) during the night. Days are generally pleasant, with temps in the upper 60s and lower 70s. I’m told that by April things will be much different. Despite the somewhat chilly weather, there is still plenty to see on the insect front. Moths come to the lights each evening, the pool is alive with water bugs, and some flowering shrubs are beginning to attract the first native bees and butterflies of the year. The buggin’ is quite varied, and in fact I have been very excited to see a few different bugs and behaviors that are typical fare of introductory entomology textbooks (but seemingly rarely found in the north!). It’s well known, for example, that many giant water bugs (Belostomatidae) exhibit male parental care. Females glue their eggs to the male’s back, and he protects them and aerates them until they hatch. A few days ago I was poking around the station pool and found an Abedus herberti giant water bug carrying eggs! It was very cool to see this behavior that I had read about for years but never seen. Another poolside find was a gorgeous Hyles lineata (white-lined sphinx moth) nectaring among the flowers. A photo of a sphinx moth hovering in front of a flower with its long proboscis extended to reach and suck up the nectar is a typical image in biology textbooks, but it was really something else to see this large, powerful animal going about its business (luckily, it didn’t seem to mind my flash snapping away!).

IMG_7865.jpg

Hyles lineata (white-lined sphinx) nectaring.

On the orthoptera front, things are pretty slow unfortunately. Most of the orthopteran fauna in the area matures later in summer, so I’m stuck with whoever overwinters as nymphs or adults – not too many species! I have been lucky enough to find 10 different species (11 if you count the Gryllodes from Tucson, which are not present at the station), most of which are new to me. I’m hoping that the nymphs among the lot will mature by the time I leave. It’s quiet at night – nobody singing except the occasional owl.

swrs_nymphs_collage.jpg

Orthopterans found around the Southwestern Research Station, AZ, March 7th to March 11th, 2018.

Speaking of vertebrates, my camera has been pointed at them quite a bit more than usual. There are numerous mammals, birds, and herps that are restricted to the Chiricahuas (at least in the U.S.), so I’ve tried to document them whenever I can. My macro lens is obviously not the best tool to image a bird, but I think I’ve done a reasonable job with a few species given my equipment.

IMG_7835.jpg

Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi), a common bird typical of mountainous areas in the southwest and in Mexico. 

IMG_7513.jpg

Sceloporus jarrovii, a nice-looking lizard that hangs out behind the lab buildings. 

Finally, The Frog Incident. I had heard that there were one or two individuals of the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis) living in the pool, but never saw them during the day. On Tuesday night I went to the pool in early evening to release the aforementioned giant water bug with eggs, and saw the frog hanging out by the edge! I raced to get my camera, but unfortunately the frog wasted no time before diving to the bottom. I poked around the other side of the pool and discovered a second leopard frog. This one was much more cooperative at first, staying still while I slowly moved closer with my camera. It got to the point where I was mere inches away. Then the frog jumped at me. Now before you laugh, let me tell you that this is one large frog, and it was pitch black outside at this point except for my fading headlamp beam. I spooked and my flash flew right into the pool. It took about 2 seconds to say “oh shit” and reach in to grab my poor, soaked flash unit (luckily this was the shallow end of the pool). I immediately hurried over to the technical equipment lab, which is kept much warmer than the other buildings, and attempted to dry everything out. Nothing seemed to be functioning so I eventually brought them back to my room and laid them out there overnight. In the morning the remote trigger was working but the flash refused to fire. This was really not ideal. I had a backup flash unit that I could use, but it’s an old one and very cranky. Luckily it never came to that, for just yesterday my flash showed signs of life, and now it appears to be no worse for the wear.

IMG_8316.jpg

The image that almost cost me my flash – Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis)

Advertisements

Killer moths

IMG_5644.jpg

Adult female Fulgoraecia exigua – the planthopper parasite moth (Memorial Lake, PA)

When one thinks of moths and their caterpillars, the first image that comes to mind is not of a killer that sucks its victims dry. Indeed, the majority of Lepidoptera are herbivores or detritivores. Some species occasionally resort to cannibalism or scavenging dead or dying insects when starving, but strictly carnivorous caterpillars are few and far between. The ones that exist, however, are pretty striking. Probably the most well-known and exciting are the Hawaiian species of the genus Eupithecia, small inchworms that are sit-and-wait predators of fruit flies. Videos such as this one abound on the internet, and it’s hard not to be impressed by their hunting prowess. Hawaii also hosts the predatory Hyposmocoma pupumoehewa (literally, ‘snail’s nightmare’), which ties down snails with silk, forces its way into the snails’ shells, and eats them. In the continental U.S, the predaceous Lepidoptera are not quite as cinematic, but equally fascinating.

There is a nice article on BugGuide that highlights the meat-eating moths of north america. One charismatic butterfly, the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) of the eastern U.S, feeds on wooly aphids as a caterpillar. The larva hangs out in the aphid colonies and munches its way through aphid after aphid. These colonies are usually attended by ants, who feed on the honeydew produced by the aphids and in theory are supposed to protect the aphids from predators – obviously they fail to do their job when Feniseca is involved. I first heard about this insect when I was in elementary school and I was told of an aphid colony in Holden, ME, where the Harvester was reported to frequent, but I never found it there. Years passed before I finally found a single adult sitting on a building on Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, NY. I have yet to see the caterpillar…

IMG_4992.jpg

The Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) from Ithaca, NY. A very innocent-looking butterfly, given the aphids it destroyed as a caterpillar. 

But among all these strange lepidopterans, one group stands out. The family Epipyropidae, with only 32 species worldwide, is fully parasitic on true bugs, mostly planthoppers but with at least one species, Epipomponia nawai, parasitizing large cicadas (see here for a fantastic photo of this). In the U.S. we have but one species, Fulgoraecia exigua, usually called the planthopper parasite moth. It ranges from southern NY to FL, west to CA, and has been found parasitizing many different planthopper species. The eggs are laid on plants, and the first instar caterpillars locate and attach to a planthopper, feeding on its bodily fluids for the rest of its days. The moth is a drab gray triangle that sometimes arrives at lights.

Fulgoraecia exigua cocoon (Owings Mills, MD)

I have run across this odd animal on two occasions. In Maryland (2014), I came across several Fulgoraecia cocoons, which are immediately recognizable because they look like the Sydney Opera House (seriously!). I wanted to collect one to rear out the moth, but I feared I’d destroy the cocoons if I tried to detach them from the substrate, so I left them alone. Last fall (2017), I was beating shrubbery in Lebanon county, PA, when I noticed a planthopper Metcalfa pruinosa in my net that looked a little woozy. Upon closer inspectionI found a Fulgoraecia larva attached to the hopper’s abdomen! Unfortunately by the time I got around to photographing it, the caterpillar had already dropped off the (now deceased) planthopper and spun its cocoon, so I was unable to photograph the parasitic behavior. Two weeks later, the adult moth emerged and I was finally able to at least get a shot of that life stage. Hopefully someday I’ll be lucky enough to photograph the caterpillar parasitizing a planthopper.

IMG_5648.jpg

Empty cocoon and extruded pupal case of the Fulgoraecia adult in the first photo of this post. A small clutch of eggs (infertile) laid by the moth can be seen on the right. 

Black-and-white wonders

D08QA04QC04QD06QV02Q6K8QJ0WQY0UQOKMKTK7KRSGKVKUQRSWQTK7KY0GKOKVQZSGKOK8KHSXKOKMK.jpg

Barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) in pine-oak barrens habitat (Plymouth, MA)

Sometimes life comes at you in unexpected ways; such was the case this fall, on a trip to Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, MA. I had just finished examining a nice female Chinese mantis (Tenodera parasinensis) sitting on a telephone pole near the visitor’s center, when I looked up to see a black and white blur approaching me. It looked to be a little smaller than my hand and flying rapidly and erratically. Having just read about this animal online a few days before, I immediately knew what I was looking at, despite not actually being able to see it. “Barrens buckmoth!”, I yelled, to no one in particular. The fluttering form zipped overhead and whizzed off down the trail. No way was I going to pursue; when a bug like that is on a mission, one dares not intervene.

Buck moths (genus Hemileuca) are medium-to-large saturniid moths widespread in the U.S. Many are fall-emerging insects, with the caterpillars growing up during the spring and summer, pupating, and emerging as adults in autumn. Caterpillars are capable of inflicting a powerful sting. There are 23 species, all variously patterned in black and white, or sometimes with splashes of other colors. Only 2 of those species make it into the northeastern U.S. One, Hemileuca lucina, is actually a New England specialty, having only been found in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. It is usually found in wet, boggy meadows, where its principal host, Spirea alba (white meadowsweet) occurs. As caterpillars mature, they tend to disperse and feed on numerous other plants before pupating. The other species, Hemileuca maia, is distributed more widely across the eastern states, but is rare in the northern part of its range. In New England it is restricted to pine-oak barrens, where its sole host is scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia). Farther south it gains an additional host, live oak (Quercus virginiana), which is a common southern tree. Here the Buckmoth is sometimes considered a pest, a far cry from its status in my neck of the woods.

WRZQWRRQARHQBRHQARZQTQZQFQI0ARZQWR80YQX0OQ50BR80CQFKBRX0YQYKURSQCRN0YQX0DQZQYR7Q.jpg

Hemileuca lucina caterpillar (Scarborough, ME)

Prior to this year, I had only ever seen one individual of the genus: a good-sized H. lucina caterpillar that I had found feeding on Spirea at the edge of a salt marsh in Maine. Ordinarily I would have reared it to adulthood after photographing it, but this was only a few days before I left for Gorongosa, Mozambique, and I knew the caterpillar would die if I left it alone for several weeks. I ended up returning the animal to his home. After I returned from Mozambique, I had no time to check that area for adults before I headed off to begin college in Ithaca, a place where no buckmoths are known to live. In the past two years I haven’t been anywhere near a good buckmoth locality and the idea of seeing them faded from my mind. This October, however, I was in New England again, and one day while gathering food for a pet praying mantis, I came across a big adult buckmoth stumbling along a boardwalk in a powerline right-of-way! There was lots of Spirea present, and a little research later led me to conclude that this was also H. lucina.

0KPKMKEKQKPKKKWK8QUK0KCK0KDKSKO0SKC0LKB0PQ6K5QC05QO0VQZS5KY01QCK4KAK8KTKMKOKAQC0.jpg

New England Buckmoth (Hemileuca lucina) found in Rochester, NH

The story picks up again about a week later at Myles Standish, site of my first encounter with a healthy adult buckmoth. This state forest is a huge pine-oak barren, so I figured these had to be H. maia (some later research confirmed that H. lucina is absent here, while H. maia is relatively abundant). I didn’t expect to be able to catch or photograph any, given my first sighting. Throughout the day I continued to see them from time to time, always flying overhead, weaving swiftly through the pine branches. Towards the end of my visit I made a quick foray into a grassy area to listen for any interesting katydids. Suddenly a black and white form in front of me caught my eye. I stopped short. There was a buckmoth, a beautiful H. maia, just sitting on a grass stem! I ever-so-carefully set down my backpack, grabbed my camera, and inched forward for some photos. Luckily the moth seemed pretty oblivious to my presence, so I was able to get a few nice shots. Quite nice to be able to see both northeastern species of buckmoths within 2 weeks!

AL3LELYLWLYLNLZZELLZOLZZDZRZ3Z0RULIRKHQZBLMZNL3LPLQZBLFLUL7ZULLZFZQROZ8RVL6RKH2R.jpg

Hemileuca maia is generally darker colored than H. lucina, with more well-defined black and white bands.

Rearing North America’s largest moth

IMG_9614.JPG

Caterpillar of the cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia (Kennebunk, ME)

Almost immediately after finding the northeast’s rarest waterscorpion, my dad alerted me to a “really cool caterpillar” just a few steps away. When he pointed it out to me I was stunned–a cecropia moth caterpillar! An iconic species, Hyalophora cecropia is considered to be the largest moth in North America, with an equally large caterpillar. But they are not just large–they are absolutely beautiful in all stages. Caterpillars are plump green monsters bristling with red, yellow, and blue scoli (knobs with spikes), and the adults are an unbelievable mixture of reds, browns, pinks, and creams, one of the most charismatic moths out there and a perfect example to point to when people say that moths aren’t as beautiful as butterflies. I had only seen three adults in my life and never a caterpillar, so I was pretty dang excited about this one.

IMG_6862.JPG

The resulting moth.

After I had taken the caterpillar home and photographed it, I set up an enclosure with lots of food. The ‘pillar was originally on speckled alder, but I found that it would accept maple as well. The next day the leaves were gone, converted into a pile of frass at the bottom of the container, as any self-respecting caterpillar tends to do. This continued for several weeks, with daily replacing of the food and emptying of the waste a necessity for the caterpillar’s survival. Strange as this may sound, I found the frass pellets to be little works of art, intricately marked with lines and spots. Unfortunately I never thought to take a photo. Eventually the caterpillar pupated in a huge baggy cocoon, and into the garage it went to overwinter.

IMG_6804.JPG

What a wondrous sight to wake up to!

One lovely day next June, I found that the adult moth had emerged. The first thing I did upon seeing her hanging upside down in the rearing cage might seem a bit odd: I bent down and sniffed her. Something I have experienced with every cecropia moth I have encountered is that they smell very strongly of peanut butter! I initially thought this was just the female’s pheromones, but I have smelled it on males as well. It was a miracle that the caterpillar had not been parasitized by flies or wasps, as many such large caterpillars often are. My moth was a female, as evidenced by her plump abdomen full of eggs and her slender antennae (males have large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones of the female). Cecropia moth adults have no functional mouthparts and only live long enough to reproduce, so the next day my dad and I took her back to where we found the caterpillar and released her deep in the bushes, where she hopefully attracted a male and laid eggs to bring about the next generation of these spectacular insects.

IMG_6822.JPG

Detail of the abdomen.

Various shots from Gorongosa

A few photos from the past few days of several of the more spectacular animals found in Gorongosa National Park, in no particular order.

IMG_3388

A beautiful grasshopper Acrida acuminata, about the length of my hand.

IMG_3415

Enormous carabid beetle Thermophilum sp, with my index finger for scale.

IMG_3928

Nymph of the Precious Sibyll Mantis, Sibylla pretiosa. One of the oddest looking mantids out there, and one of my favorites. 

IMG_4188

A gorgeous day-flying noctuid moth, Egybolis vaillantina.

IMG_3966

Something a little larger – an adult male Impala (Aepyceros melampus) at the edge of the miombo forest. Not what I usually shoot, but definitely fun to see. 

Synanthedon acerni

IMG_0977

A maple callus borer (Synanthedon acerni) at a light (Kennebunk, ME). The pale orange moth above it is a Northern pine looper (Caripeta piniata).

For my first post, I want to quickly highlight an interesting little animal that recently came to my porch light. This funny-looking insect with a red tuft at the tip of its abdomen is Synanthedon acerni, the Maple Callus Borer moth. The only member of its family (Sesiidae) to regularly come to lights in the eastern United States, its caterpillars bore into maple trees, creating calluses. Despite this, they are not major pests, and are quite cool to look at, with their wasp-mimicking colors and patterns. If you live in the eastern United States or Canada, and have maple trees in your yard, watch for this little moth at your lights on warm June and July nights.

101_0924

Another Maple Callus Borer (Schoodic Peninsula, ME)

More info on BugGuide.