Sphagnum bogs, home of weird and wonderful creatures

100_4827.JPG

The Big Heath in Bass Harbor, MDI, Maine, is a good example of a northern sphagnum bog. Note the ericaceous shrubs in the foreground and the black spruce trees behind them.

Most of us have heard the term bog used colloquially to describe any wet, muddy area, but the true definition of a bog is a wetland that accumulates large deposits of dead plant material known as peat. Often this comes in the form of sphagnum, a genus of about 380 species of mosses that retain water especially well. True bogs are typically acidic and low in nutrients, and in many cases all water in the bog comes from precipitation. Most ordinary plants would die under these conditions, but of course there are quite a few that have adapted to these unfavorable circumstances, creating a distinct community of species that is nonexistent elsewhere. Unique plants, in turn, play host to unique insects.

IMG_20160729_151934_605.jpg

McLean Bogs in Tompkins county, NY, is an odd area containing a very small round sphagnum bog surrounded by glacial eskers.

I have had the fortune to be able to visit several sphagnum bogs in Maine and New York, and although each one has its own character, the same familiar plants and animals tend to greet me at every spot. The most obvious player is sphagnum moss, which forms a soft, spongy mat across every bog. When the mat is pressed, it gives up its water like a giant sponge, often evicting many small insects from their hideouts as they swim to safety. This is the primary way I find the dominant orthopteran inhabitant of eastern U.S. bogs, Neonemobius palustris. This tiny ground cricket lives exclusively in these habitats, and were it not for its song one would be hard pressed to detect its presence. Their tie to the sphagnum is quite obvious at the bog’s edge; there one can discern that where the sphagnum ends, the singing ends as well.

IMG_7931.JPG

A female nymph of the sphagnum ground cricket, Neonemobius palustris (McLean, NY).

Before I visited bogs to look for insects, I visited them to see a very special group of plants: the carnivorous plants. These unbelievable organisms that have to be seen to be believed only grow in places extremely deficient in nutrients, such as bogs or rock outcrops. They make up for the lack of soil nutrients by capturing and digesting insects and occasionally other small animals. Carnivory has apparently evolved independently in 9 different groups of plants, and thus there are a wide range of different prey capture strategies. The most well-known is the snap-trap of the venus’s fly trap (Dionaea muscipula), but that species is restricted to bogs in North and South Carolina (it is also widely cultivated in captivity). The types found in most eastern sphagnum bogs are several species of sundews and pitcher plants. Sundews (Drosera), which I surprisingly have no good photos of, consist of flattened leaves with hairs that bear drops of sticky sugary liquid on their tips. These attract insects, which get stuck and are eventually digested by the plant. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia), in contrast, are literally pitchers of liquid containing nectar bribes that lure insects to the edge, where they fall in and cannot escape. I am always guaranteed to see these fascinating little plants every time I enter a sphagnum bog.

IMG_7863.JPG

Northern pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea (McLean, NY).

Although carnivorous plants may seem to have turned the tables on insects, some insects have turned the tables again and evolved to take advantage of their captors. Wyeomyia smithii mosquitoes only breed in the pitchers of pitcher plants; moths of the genus Exyra feed exclusively on pitcher plants; Buckleria parvulus plume moth caterpillars feed on the sticky glue of sundews; Camponotus schmitzi ants are known as diving ants because of their habit of diving into the pitchers of pitcher plants and retrieving the plant’s food items. Unfortunately I have never had the good luck to encounter any of these tricky little animals at work.

IMG_7569.JPG

Lichnanthe vulpina, the bumblebee scarab. A member of the family Glaphyridae (once part of Scarabaeidae), this animal looks uncannily like a bumblebee in flight. Another name for this species is cranberry root grub because the larvae feed on the roots of cranberry plants (Kennebunk, ME).

Sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants are not the only plants present in bogs. Many specialized sedges and orchids live in bogs, as well as plants of the family Ericaceae (which includes such things as heaths, heathers, blueberries, and cranberries). Heaths are often host to some very strange insects, such as Lichnanthe vulpina, a bee-mimicking scarab beetle. Most trees cannot survive in bogs, but black spruce (Picea mariana) and tamarack (Larix laricina) often invade the open bogs, albeit in stunted form.

100_4268.JPG

Tamarack (Larix laricina), a common bog tree. This is a highly unusual tree that is a deciduous conifer – that is, it has all the characteristics of typical evergreens such as pines and spruces, except it loses its needles every fall! This photo was taken in October (Saco, ME).

If you have never experienced a bog before, do yourself a favor and visit one. Many bogs have boardwalks through them to facilitate public encounters, since walking directly on the sphagnum tramples and destroys the rare plants there. There are tons of awesome organisms in bogs, and I have only attempted to depict a few of the most interesting ones that I have seen here.

100_4266.JPG

The Saco Heath, a large bog open to the public with a long boardwalk. The white tufts are the seed heads of cotton grass (Eriophorum), a characteristic sedge in bogs.

Advertisements

Orocharis: Northbound Traveler

100_3245.JPG

The male Jumping bush cricket from Newton, MA, that started me on my journey of understanding this species. 

Most people living in the eastern United States have never seen or heard of Orocharis saltator, the Jumping bush cricket, but they have surely heard its song. Click here for a recording from SINA. For a 20 mm-long insect, this is a very loud, distinctive song that can be heard in many an urban setting. This seemingly dull brown cricket has fascinated me for several years now because of its enormous range expansion, only recently documented, and its ability to live in very close association with humans.

Orocharis is a member of a chiefly tropical subfamily (Eneopterinae) of crickets, only a few of which make it into the U.S. Most of those species are restricted to Florida and the southeast, with only O. saltator and Hapithus agitator, the restless bush cricket, coming any further north than Virginia. Restless bush crickets have been documented as far north as New Haven county, Connecticut, but they are apparently uncommon in the northern part of their range. Jumping bush crickets were, up until recently, thought to only come north to New Jersey. This has changed very rapidly, very recently.

My first experience with Orocharis came on October 7, 2012, in Newton Highlands, MA. While listening to Fall field crickets and Carolina ground crickets (two common species in the northeast) in a small city park, I became aware of an odd cricket call that was distinctly different from anything I’d heard before. I tracked the call across the park to a row of cedar trees next to a basketball court. There were only a few isolated individuals calling, and one in particular was very close, but I couldn’t find him after almost 20 minutes of searching. Finally in desperation I grabbed the lower branches of the tree he was in and shook, and immediately a small brown creature rocketed out of the tangle. Upon capture, I recognized him immediately as a male O. saltator based on the habitus and song, which immediately sparked the memory in my mind of hearing it on the Songs of Insects website. I remembered reading that this was a mostly southern species, and I became very curious as to whether this could be a significant record. However, when I returned home and did some additional research, I found that according to photo records on BugGuide, Jumping bush crickets have been in New York state since at least 2005, and in Massachusetts since at least 2007. There were several other photos of the species from Newton, so it seemed like there were established populations in that area of Massachusetts.

IMG_2159.JPG

Female Orocharis saltator (Braintree, MA).

A year later, in September 2013, I was in Braintree, MA, and here I noticed that Orocharis was a dominant part of the nighttime insect chorus. Hearing this traditionally southern species calling in unison with traditionally northern species of crickets was an interesting sensation. Although they tended to be in very thick, impenetrable brush, I managed to secure a few specimens.

The next, and arguably most interesting point in this story is woefully incomplete. I was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on October 14, 2014, when I suddenly heard, incongruously, the unmistakable cry of Orocharis in a parking lot! There were a few individuals calling from three isolated trees surrounded by buildings. Unfortunately, they were high up in the foliage, and I did not want to call attention to myself by climbing the trees. I managed to get a short recording, but the singers are largely obscured by the noise of traffic. I have never seen any other records of the species any further north than Massachusetts, so this could potentially be the furthest tip of the species’ push northward. However since I was unable to collect specimens or get a good recording, this must remain an unconfirmed record.

IMG_9065.JPG

Dark form male Orocharis, found on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, NY.

My most recent experiences with Orocharis have been this year in Ithaca, New York. When I first went out at night on the Cornell campus, I was blown away by the enormous chorus of Orocharis from every bush and tree on campus. Clearly this was an extremely abundant and dominant species here. I collected several individuals over the course of the fall, some by deliberate searching and others completely by accident. They were one of the last cricket species to sing in November before cold and snow silenced the orthopteran hordes; only Allard’s ground crickets and Carolina ground crickets surpassed Orocharis by a few weeks in the wild. One male that I kept inside even survived to December 27th!

Orocharis appears to be a very hardy, adaptable animal that is seemingly moving north. Although some so-called “range expansions” are simply the result of more people looking at insects today than in the past, the fact that Orocharis has a well-recognized, easily distinguished song, and also does very well in urban habitats, points to an actual northward push, perhaps due to climate change. I am fascinated by this species and will continue to document their presence wherever I go.

More information, range maps, and photos on Singing Insects of North AmericaBugGuide, and Listening in Nature.

As an aside, I find Orocharis saltator to be a very endearing pet. Their song is pleasing to the ear, and they are very easy to keep happy – just give a male a carrot slice and fish flakes, and he will sing from dusk to dawn.

IMG_9904.JPG

Orocharis has an adorable face!

Gorongosa: A few thoughts

IMG_6311

Fever trees (Acacia xanthophloea) in Gorongosa, so named because early settlers associated these yellow-barked trees with rampant malarial infections. It is now known that this tree grows in wet areas that host the mosquito which spreads the malaria parasite.

I have returned from Mozambique after three unforgettable weeks. In just under a week, I will be on the move again, this time to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where I will be starting as a freshman studying entomology. I am sure that I will be extremely busy there, but I will try to continue posting here about my experiences in Gorongosa, time permitting. There are lots of interesting insects around the Cornell campus too, so perhaps I will recount some of my inevitable to-be encounters with these animals as well.

Being in Gorongosa was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The stunning habitats, large charismatic wildlife, and enormous insect diversity all blew me away, but I also learned a lot about being in a different country. The differences in living are huge. Electricity, for example, would occasionally sputter out for long hours, and would later pop back on with no explanation. The Chitengo restaurant served lovely food, but was often very unreliable; some days food would come out in 5 minutes, and on other days it might take an hour or more. Vervet monkeys prowled around the restaurant, looking for an opportunity to steal some food. They would also spend hours sliding down the slide in the small playground (unfortunately I have no photos of this!). Yellow baboons were omnipresent throughout the camp, and you could not leave anything unattended lest the baboons make off with it. On numerous occasions baboons stole food from the researchers at the Wilson lab, and once one even made off with a cage containing a large praying mantid! The cage was eventually recovered, but needless to say the mantid was gone. I experience none of this in Maine, and although annoying at first, I became accustomed to, and learned to take joy in the many quirks of staying here.

This trip taught me many things besides learning how to live in another country. I affirmed that I want to become a field biologist, and that I am completely cut out for it. Oftentimes you have to get dirty and try strange ideas out in the field, and sometimes there are real hazards to fear (wandering lions, for example). Although this life might not be for everyone, I welcome the adventure, and the chance to find something new. During this three-week stretch alone, I documented three grasshopper species that had never been found in the park before, plus several crickets and other insects. Because Gorongosa is just beginning to be explored by scientists, it is bursting with opportunity.

IMG_6363

A colorful little cricket in the genus Trigonidium. I found this creature on the last day of my trip, and I have not been able to identify it yet. One thing is certain, though: this is a new-to-the-park animal.

I have also decided, based on what I saw this trip, that I want to photograph more herps. Lizards are everywhere in Gorongosa, and I quickly discovered that they are just as much fun to catch and photograph as insects. There are snakes too, as well as frogs, toads, crocodiles, and a little-known group called amphisbaenians (check this out if you’re curious about those). I usually keep my camera pointed only at the insects, but I feel compelled now to redirect it toward a reptile or amphibian when the moment is right.

IMG_5909

Striped skink (Trachylepus striatus), a lizard species common on tree trunks in Chitengo camp.

One last unexpected thing about this trip: I came for the insects (and was not disappointed!), but the people were equally wonderful. Everyone I met, researchers, staff, and others alike, cares deeply about the Park and conservation, and are simply awesome people in their own rights. I am happy to be a part of this project and will surely be involved with Gorongosa for many years to come.

More soon!

The Sudden Appearance of a Cricket

IMG_4190

Beat-up male Phonarellus miurus.

On one of my first days in Gorongosa, I heard an insect call that stood out from the rest. It was a very loud, persistent, beeping sound emanating from a patch of short grass. I quickly located the singer, which turned out to be a striking black and white cricket. He was unfortunately quite beat up, having broken both antennae and also missing two legs. I photographed him anyway and then pinned him. Later, Piotr noticed it and recognized it as Phonarellus (Semaphorellus) miurus (Saussure, 1877), a species that he had only collected as females and nymphs once before in Mozambique. The very next day, I headed back to the same spot to see if I could find another. Sure enough, there was another male singing a short distance away from where I found the first male. He, too, was easily captured. This individual was in much better shape than the first one. Piotr took this one and managed to capture a recording and some photos of it.

IMG_4354

A much better specimen of a male Phonarellus.

Over the next week, Phonarellus started showing up everywhere. They were calling from almost every patch of grass, in nooks around the lab, and even right in the middle of the road. The species is a mimic of certain toxic carabid beetles, which explains their blatant singing behavior – they don’t have to worry about staying concealed. Both Piotr and I were amazed that this species, which Piotr had never encountered singing, suddenly appeared in such great numbers. Many insects in Gorongosa are very seasonal like this, so it is not especially surprising, but certainly very exciting.

IMG_4842

A singing male Phonarellus on one of the sandy roads in Chitengo Camp.

IMG_4835

A female of Phonarellus miurus. In this species, the ovipositor is very reduced, so it is tougher to distinguish the sexes. This is the only female I have seen, and unfortunately she escaped after I took this shot.

Three more awesome Gorongosa insects

IMG_4727

Homoeogryllus orientalis, one of the coolest cricket species in the park. Piotr and I were driving back to camp when we heard its distinctive fluty, almost birdlike call. He jumped out of the truck and tracked this male in a matter of about 2 minutes. This was, I might add, in the middle of the night, in an area that lions are known to frequent. 

IMG_4705

A beaded lacewing (Berothidae). The larvae of these insects live in termite nests, where they are predators of the termites. They dispatch their prey with toxic farts (I am not making this up! Google it).

IMG_4621

This little wingless grasshopper might not look like much at first, but it is in fact an undescribed species of the genus Eremidium, found only on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa.