Looking for a way to stay in shape and promote environmental awareness and conservation at the same time?
Consider Columbus Audubon’s inaugural Take Flight 5K, happening Saturday, November 8th at 9AM. Join fellow outdoors enthusiasts on a paved nature trail beginning and ending at the Scioto Audubon Metro Park and Grange Insurance Audubon Center. Not into running? No problem! You can also register as a walker to enjoy the trail at a more leisurely pace–on your own, or with a buddy or two!
If you’re not sure what to do with the kids, bring them along! They can build a birdhouse at the Grange Audubon Center while you walk or run.
Register for the Take Flight 5K here, but be sure to sign up by October 25! Registration fees are $25 for runners and $20 for walkers. Each participant receives a long sleeved t-shirt and other goodies, and the race is timed for serious runners. All proceeds from the event directly support Columbus Audubon.
Now for a change of pace! Here’s Freak of the Week # 26, submitted by Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History:
Are these Styrofoam Christmas decorations, just drying and waiting to be painted? What are they? Give us your thoughts – and later we’ll provide the answer.
Today is the fifth annual National Fossil Day, hosted by the National Park Service and the American Geosciences Institute. In trying to decide what to post today to honor this occasion, I thought we could post a series of photos of fossils from our collection or maybe discuss why fossils are important in helping us understand the past, etc. But then I ran across a letter written by the President of the United States when introducing the first National Fossil Day in 2010. I guess I’ll let him tell you about the significance of this occasion. Click here to read the letter.
OK, I guess a photo or two is called for as well!
Cedar Bog Nature Preserve will host “An Afternoon with John Ruthven” on November 1, 2014, from 1- 3 p.m. In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon in captivity, this renowned wildlife artist will discuss the inspiration for one of his latest works, “Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon”. Bob Glotzhober, Natural History Curator Emeritus for the Ohio History Connection, will also share the ongoing struggle for survival of Cedar Bog, home to many endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna. Reservations are required.
For this week’s Freak of the Week we need your assistance in helping to identify an object! It’s a rectangular piece of sandstone that was found in a stream near the Tarlton Cross Mound site in southwestern Fairfield Co. Another large stone found near this one we recognized as a natural piece of the sandstone bedrock, however we aren’t as certain about this one. The edges seem to be natural; there are no tool marks, etc. to indicate that it was intentionally cut to be this shape. However the flat surface shows an unusual pattern and is less definitive. Can this be due to normal weathering? Would the iron present in the sandstone be more resistant during weathering and create this pattern of “grooves” around the perimeter of the stone? Or could this pattern be due to quarrying of the stone or maybe it’s use in historic construction? However there are no known quarrying operations, historic foundations, or cemeteries near this site.
Natural weathering creates an infinite number of patterns and shapes in rocks, thus we don’t want to anoint this piece as a human-created unless we have definitive evidence. We’ve also sent these photos to geologists who are familiar with sandstone and to archaeologists for their opinions. What do you think? Ever seen something like this!?
By the way, if you’re looking for great places to visit this fall to enjoy the outdoors and beautiful fall leaves, Tarlton Cross Mound and Wahkeena Nature Preserve are both located south of Lancaster in Fairfield County. They are close to Columbus and would make a great day trip!
Dave and I performed our usual weekly check on the pond in OHC’s Bird Sanctuary a few days before the equinox and found a few interesting insects still hanging around and making the most of the last warm days of summer. Here’s a sampling of the highlights!
These Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) suck the juices out of milkweed plants with their piercing mouth parts. Both full-grown adults and younger nymph instars are pictured here. They are migratory in the northern reaches of their range, so these critters have likely headed south for warmer weather by now.
The tiny Candy-striped Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) is easy to overlook, but is surprisingly common and occurs in a wide variety of habitats. Even this late in the season you might still be able to find one in your own back yard! When disturbed they rocket away on their powerful hind legs, hence the name “leafhopper”.
Small but stunning Ailanthus Webworm Moths (Atteva aurea) can be found resting on vegetation during the day, like this one, but they are also drawn to porch lights at night. The drab grey larvae feed on the non-native ornamental Tree of Heaven.
I stumbled upon this Red-headed Bush Cricket (Phyllopalpus pulchellus) while pulling out some excess Common Bindweed from our milkweed patch. She was waving those paddle-shaped pedipalps like little boxing gloves as she explored the leaf surface. The male of this species produces a stuttering, high-pitched trill that is surprisingly loud for its size (1.5cm).
I believe this smallish wasp is a Blue Mud Dauber (Chalybion californicum). She seemed particularly interested in the rocks around the pond where we’d splashed them with the hose. She was very fast-moving (and difficult to photograph!) but totally uninterested in us. Blue Mud Daubers are solitary, and modify the abandoned nests of other wasps rather than constructing their own. Their preferred prey are spiders, particularly cobweb weavers like the Black Widow!
A very welcome surprise in our milkweed patch, this Monarch caterpillar is close to pupating. This was the only larva I was able to find. I hope he/she was able to pupate before the weather turned a couple days later!
The next time you’re at the Ohio History Center, stop by our Bird Sanctuary’s viewing area in the Archaeology exhibit. Although fall is upon us, many other wildlife species will continue to frequent the pond for several weeks to come. You never know what you might see landing on our bird feeders!
This Freak of the Week was pretty tough, but congrats to Clint who recognized it was from a mastodon and to Becky who knew it was the head of a femur! Put those two comments together and you’ve got the right answer: the femoral head of a mastodon! This one was hard because I didn’t include a scale so that you could get an idea of the size of the specimen, which I was afraid might give it away. The actual size is 8″ in diameter.
The head of the femur, which fits neatly into the socket (acetabulum) of the pelvis, is one of the few almost perfectly round skeletal structures in the body. When you see the lateral view of the femoral head (photo), you see that it’s more of a rounded cap that fits over the neck of the femur. And yes, humans have a rounded femoral head too! Check out this old engraving from Gray’s Anatomy.
The head of the femur is just one of many skeletal epiphyses in the body. An epiphysis is a separate ossification center which is present at one or both ends of some bones, and is where growth in length of a bone takes place. If you look at the bottom of this femoral head (photo), you can see that the surface has a roughened texture. This is where the epiphyseal disk is found, a layer of cartilage between the epipiysis and bone shaft, and this is where growth occurs. Once full adult skeletal growth is completed, the epiphyses will fuse to the main shaft of the bone and you’ll have one complete bone. Since this mastodon femoral head is unfused, we can infer that the animal was a sub-adult. It’s still one big mastodon; it’s adult size but not yet skeletally mature.
Speaking of femoral heads, at the last museum that I was with we had a large colony of flesh-eating beetles, called dermestid beetles, that we used to clean flesh off of skeletal specimens (more about that in upcoming blogs!). One of the graduate students that I worked with had unfortunately developed a severe case of arthritis, very unusual for someone as young as her. As part of the disease, the protective cartilage on one of her femoral heads had worn away and was causing her great pain, thus the head of her femur had to be surgically removed. After the surgery she hobbled on her crutches into the museum one day and said to me, “Dave, if I can get the femoral head from the surgery, would you put it into the dermestid colony and clean it up for me!?” I had used the colony several times to clean human bones from forensic cases brought in by the State Crime Lab, so I knew the beetles would clean human tissue. So I said “Sure, if you can get the specimen from your doctors go ahead and bring it in.” She then proceeded to reach into her backpack and pull out a small jar containing, you guessed it, her femoral head! I was surprised at first, but having worked with forensic science grad students for so long I really wasn’t too shocked!
By Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus, Natural History
Last week I posted a blog about finding five baby Timber Rattlesnakes inside a rotting stump in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio back on September 9, 2014. I made very brief mention in that blog about an interesting wasp, with interesting behavior, that was using the very same stump! Here follows what information I have from field observations and from various searches.
The wasp was about 7/8” long, mainly a dark reddish color, with the rear half of its thorax black, and four narrow black bands circling its red abdomen. The wings were a purplish black, and it hind legs were especially long.
We were led to the stump by signals from the telemetry transmitter implanted in the female rattlesnake. At first, we thought there was no snake present. A glance at the hole in the top showed it to be small – perhaps too small for the large female. At any rate, we were still confused about where the rattler could be. That is when the wasp caught our attention and we started watching it. Had it not been for the wasp, we just might have moved further away – at least until the telemetry signal brought us right back to the stump. It was only after watching the wasp briefly that Doug realized the signal was “hot” above the stump, and dropped off sharply as the receiver was moved away from the stump. Then we looked more closely at the small hole on top of the stump and noted the baby rattlers – which I discussed in my September 23rd blog.
Before noting the baby rattlers, and after we had spent 20 minutes or so photographing them and examining the situation, we watched the wasp with interest. Several times it struggled, walking backwards, dragging a dead leaf, or a partial green leaf, up onto the stump. Often the wasp would lose control and drop the leaf, and quickly start over again. When successful, it dragged the leaf into a cavity or crevice in the stump. It did this in more than one cavity – though how many different such cavities or crevices we did not ascertain. All the while, it mostly ignored us – even though we were at time only 6 to 12 inches away from it with camera. Why was it dragging these leaves and some small twigs or pieces of bark into the rotting stump? We had no clue. After watching it for a while, I decided to capture it inside an empty film canister. (I always have at least 2 or 3 of these in my pack or camera bag – even though I’ve not shot film for 8 years. They are handy containers for lots of interesting finds!)
Back in Columbus, it was not too hard to identify the wasp. The long antennae and long hind legs plus the wing venation quickly led to the family of wasps known as the Pompilidae, or spider wasps. As luck would have it, the natural history collections of the Ohio History Connection have one such specimen already in its holdings – so direct comparison of a known specimen confirmed its identification. The wasp is the Rusty Spider Wasp, also known as the Red-tailed Spider Wasp, Tachypompilus ferrugineus. The genus name is derived from tachy which means swift or rapid and the family name of spider wasps. The species name refers to the rusty red color, similar to iron rust. So the name means the rusty red, rapid spider wasp.
As it turned out, a web search on the species found lots of references, but not a lot of behavioral information. It is considered a solitary wasp – the females not nesting in colonies like hornets, but nesting alone. Apparently, at least some of their prey are large wolf spiders and fishing spiders, and I found a photo online of one of these wasps dragging such a spider – reproduced here from Wikipedia.
All the spider wasps sting and paralyze spiders, which they drag live to their nests, and then lay one or more eggs on the spider. When the egg hatches, the larval wasps eat the paralyzed spider before molting into an adult spider wasp. This behavior somewhat mimics wasps in a different family known as Mud Dauber Wasps. One common mud dauber, known as Organ Pipe Wasp, builds a series of mud pipe-like structures attached to buildings. Each “pipe” contains a series of cells with a single spider on which a single egg was laid. Most people have seen the mud nests of these wasps. As mentioned, the mud daubers are in a different family and only somewhat similar in behavior and ecology to the spider wasps.
None of the references I could find detailed why a spider wasp might drag leaves into a cavity. Are these a form of insulation, to keep the spider and the egg or larvae warm until next spring? Do they serve some other purpose? Or is it just aberrant behavior of a wasp that has already produced several litters of eggs, and is acting out a drama without the normal spider prey involved? If any of my readers have access to an answer to this – let us know!
Oh! One more thing. Several of the references repeat the statement found in Borror & White’s Peterson’s Field Guide to the Insects, that “Spider wasps inflict a very painful sting.” It’s probably good that I had not read that before trying to trap this specimen in a film canister!
This specimen will soon be added to the OHC natural history collections – and details of our observations will be added to a file folder for the specimen – along with a copy of this blog.
By Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History
If you haven’t heard, a recent article reports that crayfish (superfamily Astacoidea) experience stress and anxiety similarly to humans. The neurotransmitter that triggers an anxious emotional state in humans is also found in the brains of crayfish that exhibit anxious behavior (i.e. hiding), and the same drug used to treat human anxiety also caused crayfishes to become more exploratory (i.e., hide less).
Ohio is home to 21 species of crayfish. In addition to being used for bait, crayfish are also eaten by humans. Once considered a “poor man’s food”, crayfish are now served in upscale restaurants, depending on the season and your locality. They are primarily an aquatic animal but some species create burrows to access muddy terrestrial habitats. These burrows look like “mini volcanoes” and can be easily seen at Wahkeena Nature Preserve along the trail sections that pass close by the pond. Crayfish are more active at night, but may be found hiding under logs and rocks in ponds and streams during the day.
The thought of arthropod anxiety intrigued me, so I trawled the internet and discovered Gourmet Magazine’s Consider the Lobster, a hefty article describing not only the lobster’s role in our economy and how it’s been perceived through the ages, but also its physiology and ecology. This topical quote is on page 5:
This author posits that the lobster is capable of perceiving something akin to pain, or at the very least a strong preference to not be in boiling water. Boiling alive an organism that can exhibit a preference raises some interesting ethical questions.
Some argue that things lacking an internal skeleton are too primitive to possess the neurological hardware required to feel pain, much less anxiety, but the crayfish study might bring some pause to that argument. Moreover, labeling organisms with value-laden terms like “primitive” (=not evolved) or “advanced” (=evolved) is erroneous, or misleading at best.
Take, for example, the humble horseshoe crab. These ridiculously adorable arthropods are not a crab but a chelicerate, sharing a common ancestor with today’s spiders and scorpions.
Often touted as a “living fossil”, we may never know if their ancestors had similar physiologies, but their body plan has endured 445 million years and five mass extinctions with relatively little change. That’s almost half a billion years, about 10% of Earth’s history, or nearly 50% of the history of multicellular life!
Their degree of relatedness is contested but it’s fairly certain that trilobites and horseshoe crabs were close cousins. Although horseshoe crab fossils are not as numerous and not quite as old, they overlap with the trilobites by one or two hundred million years, so it’s possible that they trundled alongside each other in the same shallow seas.
The trilobites were the most numerous and diverse life form on Earth throughout most of the Paleozoic era. Trilobite species numbered in the several tens of thousands, ranged in size from 1 millimeter to over a meter long, and some possessed improbably ornate and complex spines, antennae and prominences. How cool would it be to see one of these fascinating animals alive? But despite their incredible diversity and persistence over 300 million years of geologic time, after a slow decline in diversity and abundance in the fossil record they finally went extinct (along with over 95% of all other sea life) during the Permian-Triassic extinction 251 million years ago.
But the horseshoe crab did not. Trees evolved and colonized the land; mountain ranges rose and eroded into dust; whole orders of animals evolved and died out; temperatures soared and plummeted; glaciers repeatedly scoured the land; continents separated and collided and separated again, and not long ago human ancestors walked upright; but the horseshoe crab remained. The ancestral characteristics it’s retained have made it one of the most enduring and successful life forms to have ever lived. Perhaps we need only look at the horseshoe crab to get a glimpse into trilobite life.
Today, there are only four species of horseshoe crab in existence. In the United States the Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) is used in biomedical research. The horseshoe crab does not have an immune system like ours; its blue blood coagulates when it encounters endotoxins released by foreign bodies, thus trapping invasive organisms inside a clot. This clotting property makes it very valuable for testing vaccines and medicines for bacterial contamination. Once nearly decimated for fertilizer and fish bait, the horseshoe crab is now worth much more alive than dead. A single liter of copper-based horseshoe crab blood is valued at $15,000 a quart.
Although the blood collection is touted as non-lethal, one study indicates that up to 18% of crabs die after having their blood drawn. The blood drawing also appears to impair female mobility and feeding rates, which affects their reproductive output; this in turn may contribute to recent population declines. The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) is listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List.
Humans are not the only animals that benefit from horseshoe crabs. Their eggs are a vital source of fat and protein for many shorebird species, such as the Red Knot, which time their spring migration to match the seasonal egg-laying of these arthropods. A Red Knot’s migration can be up to an 18,000 mile round trip! Without this food source, the shorebirds can run out of energy and die without reaching their breeding grounds. Because of this, the North American subspecies of Red Knot has been proposed for “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act.
The unassuming horseshoe crab, despite its inoffensive habits, retiring nature, and relatively low populations, nevertheless has a disproportionately large impact on the ecosystem. I wonder how the loss of the trilobite influenced how our biome functions today.
Arthropods like the crayfish and horseshoe crab went down a vastly different evolutionary path than ours. Our common ancestor lived over 600 million years ago—so long ago that we’re not really sure what it looked like or how it lived. One side effect of this evolutionary happenstance is that we have a different number of limbs—probably the main reason why many people find them unsavory or even detestable—the crime of having “too many legs”.
But evolution does not find the best solution to a problem; it finds one solution. Completely independently of each other, chordates and arthropods both developed supportive tissue (i.e. skeletons), complex eyes, sophisticated sensory systems, intricate social behaviors and even flight; yet arthropods make up over 80% of all animal species. Chordates like us make up only 3-5%. Are arthropods primitive? You tell me.
They may not be composing symphonies or doing your taxes, but they might be feeling a little nervous when you walk by.