Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Round-Tipped Conehead Katydid


Hearing the word Conehead , for many of us middle-aged folks, brings to mind a classic skit from the older Saturday Night Live episodes by the same name. So popular were these skits they later became a movie starring the original cast members Dan Akyroyd and Jane Curtain. These awkward, friendly aliens did their very best to assimilate into society. As endearing as those lovable aliens were, I am referring to a completely different conehead, this particular conehead IS strange-looking, but not alien.

The round-tipped conehead katydid
(Neoconocephalus rotusus) is native to the Eastern United States and found from Eastern Nebraska, to as far north as Massachusetts and south into Florida (but absent from the extreme Southern portion of the state).  When you first encounter a conehead, of which there are approximately 22 known species in the United States, you can easily see the resemblance to those silly aliens. Their heads come to a rounded point at the base of the antennae. Some have long points others have short ones. In the case of the round-tipped conehead, they have the smallest of all the "cones" with a black line running through it (visible in the picture below), which is a key identification characteristic of this particular species. These katydid's come in two color forms. The bright green form is the most common, but there is also a less common brown variety.


You will most likely hear one of these katydid's long before you actually see it. They begin calling in late afternoon and continue calling well into the night. They are often difficult to see as they blend in with leaf-like camouflage on the plants they hide among. These are the smallest of North America's Coneheads, measuring 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches in length. Their song is not particularly appealing to the ears either, but what they lack in musical ability and size they make up for the looks department. They are subtly pretty with bright green bodies, accented with yellow and bright reddish-pink jaws and yellow leg markings. The brown variety is not near as pretty as their green counterparts, they seem to have been passed by in the looks department.

Their antennae are strikingly long and it these that I usually spot before I actually see the katydid itself. They wave these long antenna, which are loaded with special sensors, around their environment sensing for everything from food to mates. Something called Chemoreceptors, are used to pick up the pheromone scent given off by nearby females, or even other males that may be moving in on their territory after potential mates. They also possess tactile receptors that act like "feelers" which help them navigate their surroundings. Additionally they have a special receptor called the Johnston's Organ, located at the base of the antennae. This organ is used primarily during flight to sense gravity, air speed and even the wing beats of bats.

 Many studies have been done with this species in relation to bats. It is believed that bats are able to hear the calling of  katydids; essentially guiding them to the location of the serenading romeo. To evade predation by a hungry bat the conehead will use strong leg kicks and steering to move away from the echo-location pulses the bat is emitting. They have also been observed taking deep dives to literally drop out of the sky just as the bat swoops into empty space where once there was a tasty katydid meal. We all know bats in the Midwest are insect eaters and we've been taught they can consume 1,000's of mosquito-size insects in a single night. But to consume a large meal such as a katydid would require much less energy than chasing and swooping in on 1,000's of small snack-size insects. Think of it as going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and ordering a salad versus the smorgasbord that awaits you on the buffet. NOT going to happen, unless you possess extreme willpower. Generally speaking we will stuff ourselves instead of grazing.....viola, so does the bat. In late summer or early autumn bats are consuming larger quantities of food to pack on fat to see them through the long winter hibernation. So insects like katydid's or even large moths are definitely on the menu.

Katydid's possess ears on their elbows, or at the base of the first front leg joint. They are bright yellow and visible in the photo below. Called Tympana, these ears are used to pick up the sound of potential mates, and to hear other katydids nearby. Males can be territorial and will chase away potential rivals.



Ovipositor of female
Mating takes place in late summer or early autumn and the females will use a long bayonet-like projection, called an ovipositor, located at the tip of her abdomen to "inject" eggs into clumps of vegetation. The eggs are safely ensconced inside the stems of various plants, all tucked away from the wrath of winter. Next spring the eggs hatch and the young katydids are born looking much like their adult counterparts. They lack wings and functioning reproductive parts, but as they age, and molt these will soon appear. Often they will eat their shed skin casings for extra protein, but occasionally you will find a ghost-like shed skin hanging from a bush or clump of tall grasses.

They feed on a wide variety of grasses and weedy plants in old dry grassy-weedy areas, along roadsides and in old fields. You will also find them at the edges of marshes and in fence rows. Their feeding habits are not known to cause any significant damage to agricultural crops, but they will occasionally feed on garden plants which can be irritating.

We have this particular species in large numbers all around our farm. They even come to the lights at night. I for one look forward to the sound of the katydid as it calls incessantly from the grasses as the sun sets. Truly the sound of  a waning summer and the approaching Autumn.



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Toad Bug

Toad Bugs in the family Gelastocoridae are sometimes called "Funny Bugs" or "Laughing Bugs." They were given the common name Toad Bug from their superficial resemblance to the ever popular amphibian that goes by the same name. With a flattened, squat, warty appearance it is easy to see how someone would make the connection. 

Most are riparian in nature and you will find them near streams, ponds or other water sources with sand , mud or small gravel beds along the shore. A few species are found far away from water. These small insects are predators of other insects and use their strong legs to "leap" onto their prey in order to capture it. Again...we see the reference to their amphibian namesake.

Several species, when as nymphs, will cover themselves with tiny grains of sand. This is presumed to give them protection from predation, both in the form of an armor, but also as camouflage. There are nearly hundred species Worldwide, and most are found in the tropics, they are typically drab in color and blend in quite well with their habitats. 


Although they look like beetles, Toad Bugs are in the order Hemiptera with other true bugs. They possess a piercing, sucking mouthpart called a rostrum, or beak. They use this beak to inject a paralyzing enzyme into their insect prey. This enzyme helps dissolve tissue and allows the toad bug to slurp up the liquefied insides of their prey.
They possess claws along their front legs that help them grab and hang onto their prey preventing them from escaping. 

After mating, females will deposit eggs in the sand or mud along the shoreline. The eggs overwinter and tiny nymphs emerge the following spring. 

The camouflage of these little bugs is so convincing you are unlikely to spot them unless they move drawing attention to themselves. I found several along a small river in Southern Missouri and found myself sitting in the wet sand and rocks watching them for nearly an hour as they hopped around from spot to spot seeking prey and places to hide from large prying eyes, namely mine. If insects can be cute, these certainly fit that description. I found them endearing and was thoroughly enamored with them. 




Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Virginia Metallic Tiger Beetle

The Virginia Metallic Tiger Beetle (Tetracha virginica), also goes by the name of Big-headed Tiger Beetle and when you look at these pictures it is easy to see how it earned a name like "big-headed." Their face seems to meld into their thorax with very little definition between the two, this gives the illusion that their face and thorax are all one very large head. They are the largest tiger beetle in this genus, and are found throughout much of  the Eastern United States. While they are considered common they are rarely seen, most likely due to the fact they're almost strictly nocturnal. They are attracted to lights at night and spend the night time hours hunting for insect prey to feed on. During the day they hide out under debris of some kind, usually wood piles or rock piles. They are also known to occasionally congregate in large numbers in cracks or crevices of walls or in dry ground during the day.

You are most likely to encounter them in late summer or early fall, but it is not entirely uncommon to see them anytime between late spring and late fall before the first freeze.

No other tiger beetle looks quite like them, not only are they very large for a tiger beetle, they are a dark metallic green from the tip of their head to the tip of their abdomen. The legs, antennae, and mandibles are tan. Eyes are bulbous and dark.

Like all tiger beetles they are incredibly fast and difficult to get a good look at. Most tiger beetles can fly, but like all tiger beetles in the genus Tetracha they are flightless, or very poor flyers. They seem to rely on their rapid running abilities. They are often found near rivers and lakes. They also occur in suburban areas in lawns, open grassy areas and bare ground. I found the one pictured here alongside the Missouri River in St. Joseph. It was scurrying along the sidewalk right outside where I work.

 As both grubs and adults they feed on various insects. Many tiger beetles in this genus seem able to "hear" or sense the underground activity of insects living in the soil. This ability helps them locate potential prey. Their feeding habits can help biologically control things like June Beetles or Mole Crickets (that may be feeding on your turf) while they are still in the grub stage.

We should consider these beetles beneficial and encourage their presence, even if those large mandibles make them look menacing. They are harmless unless you grab one, then you might earn yourself a nip from those oversized chompers, but leave the beetle alone and it will surely leave you alone.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Acorn Weevil

Acorn Weevils in the genius Curculio can be deceptively difficult to tell apart as they all look similar and have similar lifecyles. However, I believe this one is Curculio glandium. These tiny weevils measure up to 3/8ths of an inch or somewhere between 4mm and 10mm. They range in color from brown to brownish-gray with a somewhat mottled appearance. The distinctive characteristic is the oversized snout, or rostrum as it is referred to. It is easily twice as long as the body. The antennae are attached to the snout and they have large "buggy" eyes. They have a muppet-like appearance making them one of the most adorable beetles in the insect World.
 I KNOW, we aren't supposed to use words like adorable, or cute when describing insects (or any animal) as this anthropomorphizes them, but I'm okay with that.

I find them frequently at the white sheet and mercury vapor light that I put out each evening during the summer months. We have a lot of Burr Oak trees near our crop fields and close to an old pond that dried up. I am assuming the large number of acorn weevils are in direct relation to the amount of oak trees we have.

The female will use the modified tooth-like structures at the end of her snout to chew into the acorn (or depending upon species other tree nuts) and have herself a little meal before depositing a single egg inside.

Once the egg is safely planted inside the acorn, it will hatch and feed on the nut meat inside. Sometime in late fall or early winter the acorns begin to fall from the trees and this seems to signal the larva to begin chewing out of the nuts. Maybe it is the sudden jarring of the nut hitting the ground and a good sound thump to the head that lets them know it is time for the next phase of their development. The tiny white weevil grubs will then burrow into the soil as quickly as they can to avoid any predators that are keeping an eye on the acorns for just such an emerging snack. Once underground they are relatively safe from harm and can finish out their development to the adult form, which can take anywhere from one to as long as five years. I suppose temperature plays a large role in how long this final stage lasts.

The adults will emerge in the spring and mate soon after, and then the cycle will start all over again.
Acorn weevils are found throughout most of the United States and
portions of Canada. 

The feeding habits of these weevils will not cause any damage to fully grown oak trees. However, if there are large infestations of these beetles it may drastically reduce the amount of acorns capable of developing into trees. This will result in fewer trees.

There are two types of acorn weevils, the long-snouted variety in the genus Curculio (Pictured here) and the short-snouted variety in the genus Conotrachelus. The short-snouted variety have a little different lifecycle. Instead of the female chewing into fresh acorns and laying an egg, they will use acorns that have already dropped to the ground and have existing cracks.

If you are a forager and like to collect acorns for human consumption you will have to be quick to gather your harvest. The acorns that have been consumed by weevils will be left untouched by squirrels as they seem to realize there is not enough nut meat to be worth the effort it would take to collect them and bury them. So they go straight for the good nuts that have fallen from the trees and bury them at a record pace. If you find nuts that are lighter in weight and with a single tiny hole those are empty or "bad nuts." It is not uncommon to find some nuts with weevil larva in them, these nuts will often be "moving, or "jumping" like Mexican Jumping Beans as the larva moves around inside them. It is almost as if they are restless to escape their chamber and get on with the next phase of their lifecycle.




Monday, August 28, 2017

Rabid Wolf Spider

With a name like Rabid Wolf Spider, they sound like the stuff of nightmares and for anyone with arachnophobia these large, often defensive spiders would be. While the name suggests a maniacal, crazed spider that will chase you down and attack you, this simply is not true. While they are prone to stand their ground and may behave in a way that suggests aggression, they usually will choose to run away. Like all spiders they have venom that is used to liquefy the insides of their insect prey, the venom isn't known to hold any medical significance to humans though. While harmless, the bite would be painful, after all they do have large fangs.

Rabid Wolf Spiders (Rabidosa rabida) are found throughout the Eastern United States and are more frequently encountered in the fall when the large females are roaming around, often carrying an egg sac with them, or perhaps a passel of spiderlings on their backs. They are very protective, attentive mothers that will carry their offspring with them for up to 6 months. This added protection helps guarantee their protege will survive to carry on theirs and their partners genetics to the next generation.

There are several species of wolf spiders in this genus, and there is one that looks almost identical to the Rabid Wolf Spider. The Dotted Wolf Spider (Rabidosa punctulata) has a series of dots on their abdomen, if you are able to see them. Both are predominately yellow with bold dark brown or black stripes. On the Rabid Wolf Spider, the stripe is wavy and enclosed by lighter areas. The males have black front legs. Both are large with body lengths up to 1 inch and legspans up to 3 inches.
Rabid Wolf Spider
Dotted Wolf Spider

Depending upon how you feel about spiders, if you want to find them look in wooded areas, in areas where trash piles up, near ponds or other water sources and they seem especially fond of cotton fields.....or if you don't wish to find them avoid those types of places.

Unlike orb weavers that build beautiful, elaborate webs, wolf spiders use silk to create egg sacs for their eggs and to wrap their food up to consume later. They do not create webs for capturing prey, instead they are wandering spiders that roam around looking for good hunting grounds, then they will sit and wait for food to come to them. They will slowly stalk any prey that happens to wander too close, and then pounce, much like a cat would do, grabbing their prey and injecting venom that begins dissolving tissue which allows the spider to slurp out the liquefied insides like an insect slurpee. Some liken their behavior to wolves who also stalk their prey, and this wolf-like or dog-like stalking behavior is what earned them the common name of wolf spiders.
They are predominantly nocturnal, and hunt for food under the protection of nightfall. Wolf spiders make huge protein packed meals for hungry birds and other animals.

 
This particular species is long lived for a spider and may live up to 2 years or little longer. In colder climates they will hide out under logs, behind the bark of trees or in human structures. I find wolf spiders in my basement frequently and they are allowed to stay for the free insect control they provide. If they make it upstairs in my living area I gently escort them outside.

If you have have a phobia of spiders the thought of letting a spider live outside your home can bring about a panic attack, letting them live inside your house is down right unthinkable. I understand this completely as someone who had arachnophobia most of her life. I spent 4 years conquering my fear and now I am enamored with spiders and own 3 tarantulas. No more killing spider for me. I would encourage others to let the spiders live and try to put your fear aside and recognize the good they are doing by getting rid of harmful insects like cockroaches, crickets and other pests.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Say's Caterpillar Hunter

Recently at one of our pole lights this large black beetle was scurrying along the ground in frantic movements as if on mission to find something, but as if it had no idea what. Either that or it was drunk. These beetles are large, devilishly fast and difficult to photograph.

Like their common name Caterpillar Hunter suggests they are fond of eating caterpillars, but will also eat other insects when available. Because of their preference for caterpillars they are certainly to be considered a friend to farmers, gardeners, and anyone else that grows food which is fed upon by various munching caterpillars. Two of their favorite caterpillars are the gypsy moth and army worm offspring! Talk about free beneficial insect control!!

The Say's Caterpillar Hunter (Calosoma sayi) also goes by the name of the Black Caterpillar Hunter, for obvious reasons. Their body is overall black, and somewhat shiny, although there is bluish-green margins which is not always visible upon first glance. The elytra (wings) have a rows of reddish (or sometimes green) colored dots down them. They may reach lengths over an inch, but appear much bigger because of their long legs and fast movements.

They are more common in the Southern and Eastern United States, but may be found throughout most of the Country.

Look for them near crop fields, beaches, and in disturbed areas under stones, leaf litter, and wood piles, where they hide out during the day. They become active at dusk and search for food all night. They are especially active at dawn before hiding away during the day.

After mating, the female will lay eggs in the soil where the grubs will feed on beetle larvae. Once they emerge as adults they may live up to 3 years, which is especially long lived for a beetle.

 I noticed when I handled this one it gave off a somewhat offensive odor. I am assuming this is a defensive response to being bothered. Many animals, including insects give off a musky smell that tastes bad to would-be predators. To a beetle, even one this large, I must have looked like a massive predator because he released a mega amount of foul, odoriferous musk that had me releasing him quickly and me washing my hands as soon as I could. I would assume  if you harassed one too much it could give a pretty good pinch with those sizeable mandibles, fortunately I did not find out.

While this species may look scary and intimidating, that is not a good reason to kill it. Instead try learning about the critters that share your yard and garden and you may find they are unlikely friends. Often unbeknownst to us while they are going about their daily activities they are helping your garden be more productive and healthy.







Sunday, July 23, 2017

Leafy Cobweb Spider

Leafy Cobweb Spider (Theridion frondeum) are beautiful spiders that are rarely seen because of their diminutive size. Females measure between 3-6 mm and males between 3-3.5 mm. Aside from the fact that they are tiny, they also hide out in leaf litter on the forest floor on at the edge of forests in fields, making them even harder to spot. When they do "hang out" in a bush or shrub, it is usually on the underside of a leaf that has been curled up. All of these things combined makes for one difficult spider to find. The one photographed here was found quite by accident. I actually spotted the bright red of the ladybug first and then discovered the spider next to it. Obviously the spider is responsible for the demise of said ladybug.
 
The leafy cobweb spider is highly variable in color and some experts claim you can collect numerous specimens from within a particular area and all will look enough different to make you think you've found entirely different species. Typically however they are creamy white, to greenish yellow with various dark brown-black line or blotches. There are specimens that lack the dark marks and are solid in color. The head is light in color with dark lines. Legs are also light colored with dark spots. I think their legs look like they are wearing little black shoes on the tips.

There are over 600 known species Worldwide within the Theridion genus, making them one of the largest groups of spiders. This particular species is found from Southern Canada, southward to Alabama and west to North Dakota.

Females make an egg sac in late spring that hatches sometime in early August. She will place the egg sac within a curled leaf and guard it. Once the spiderlings hatch she will remain with them for a short period time. This maternal care helps protect her offspring from predation. After several molts the young spiders will spend the winter as sub-adults and emerge in the spring to finish their lifecycle into an adult spider.

These are truly one of the most beautiful little spiders I've ever encountered. If you would like to find one, try sifting through leaf litter on the ground and who knows what surprise creature may turn up.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Picture-Wing Fly

This picture-wing fly (Tritoxa incurva) in the family Ulidiidae are Sometimes referred to as the "Gas Mask Fly" and from the looks of that face it is easy to understand how it earned that nick-name. They are common throughout the Central and Eastern portions of North America.

Very little seems to be known about them and there is even less information available about them. Reportedly the larvae feed on organic matter as all fly larvae in the family Ulidiidae are known to do. They are found in meadows, fields and rural areas where flowers occur. It is not clear what their preferred food is as adults, but most likely flower nectar since they are known to be found where flowers are blooming.

Flies in this family are often mistaken for fruit flies, or in the case of the one pictured here, my husband tried to convince me it was a deer fly. In his defense, we had just returned from the farm north of where we live where he was surrounded by biting deer flies. I am guessing he still had that bad experience on his mind when he spotted this fly on my car after we returned home. I even went along with his ID and felt very sheepish when I asked about it's identity on a Facebook insect group page and was told it was a picture wing fly. I REALLY DID KNOW THAT! It seems I fell under the "It has to be a deer fly" spell.... same as my husband.

These small flies (6-8mm) are rusty-red in color and have strongly patterned black and clear wings. Look for them May through October in areas where flowers are. Also may be found at lights at night, at least they are around here.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis) are sometimes referred to as Hummingbird Moths and Lobster Moths, which are both colorful local names for these moths, which to some must superficially resemble the creatures they are nick-named after.





They are common throughout the Eastern United States, east of the Continental Divide and may be found anywhere there are flowers to nectar at and host plants to lay their eggs upon. Caterpillars feed on dogbane, dwarf bush honeysuckle, snowberry and honeysuckle. With the over abundance of invasive honeysuckle in much of Missouri, the feeding habits of these little caterpillars can only be appreciated.

These day flying moths hover at flowers and behave much like tiny hummingbirds as they unfurl their proboscis and sip nectar. They carry pollen with them as they visit flowers, making them somewhat important pollinators. While they prefer to fly around during the day, they will sometimes continue to be active at dusk if food sources are plentiful

These beautiful moths are bumblebee mimics which may afford them some protection from predation as many animals that would feed on moths may not tackle something that can fight back with a painful sting. Although once a predator learns of the dubious trick they will readily dine on them. Caterpillars are also susceptible to predation and use camouflage to blend in with the plants they feed on to help avoid hungry birds and other predators.

There is another moth in this genus also found locally and often mistaken for the snowberry, it is the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). The snowberry, pictured here always has black legs. Otherwise they are very similar with yellow and black furry bodies and mostly clear wings border in reddish-brown with black veins.


After mating, females will lay eggs on the host plant and once the caterpillar finishes growing it will drop or crawl to the ground and burrow into the soil where it will pupate. There are two generations in Missouri, but in colder climates further north there is only one generation.

As you visit your backyard flower gardens keep an eye out for these buzzing moths as they fly past you looking for flowers to sip nectar.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Pseudoscorpions

Peusdoscorpions, are a type of arachnid that superficially resemble true scorpions. They lack the stinger and are much, much smaller at only 0.08-0.31 inches in length. Although there is a species, Garypus titanius that may reach lengths up to 1/2 inch. Large by pseudoscorpion standards to be sure.
Body is flattened and pear-shaped and many people mistake them for ticks when they first spot them. In fact the one photographed here was discovered by my daughter when she was unwrapping a wedding gift. I heard her make a comment "oh look, we got a tick with this gift." I looked and discovered it was not a tick, but a pseudoscorpion.

The abdomen of pseudoscorpions have twelve segments and is made up of a protective substance called chitin. They are born looking very much like the adult and go through 3 instars, or molts, before reaching adult size. They may have 2, 4 or no eyes at all. Even those with eyes do not see well and do not rely on eyesight to find prey. Instead they use very sensitive hairs on their legs and pinchers. When a prey item brushes against them they are able to move quickly and grab dinner! Venom glands are located in the pincher-like claws that they use to inject venom into their prey. They are completely harmless unless you are booklice, mites, small flies, ants, or the larvae of carpet beetles and clothes moths. The venom works to dissolve the tissue of their insect prey so this little predator can slurp the insides out like a tiny insect slurpee.





Because of their tiny size they are rarely seen by humans, but they may occasionally show up in homes where you are likely to find them in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms. They seem to prefer moist areas and in the wild you will likely find them in woodlands hiding up leaf litter or wood piles. Being tiny and lacking wings can make it difficult to move from one location to another and to spread your genes around. They have conquered this potential problematic dilemma by hitchhiking on various beetles, and thus are carried from one location to another via the beetle buses they grab a seat on. All of the best travel options serve dinner and these beetles are no exception. Often covered in mites that can drain the beetle, the pseudoscorpion finds itself attached to a flying all-you-can-eat-buffet. This symbiotic relationship benefits both the beetle and the tiny hitchhiker. The beetle gets rid of the mites and the pseudoscorpion gets dinner and transportation. (Ivory Marked Beetle pictured has a pseudoscorpion attached to it).

Some species of pseudoscorpions will even mate on these flights, giving a whole new perspective on the "mile high club."
Males form a packet of sperm called a spermatophore that he deposits on the ground (or the back of a beetle), and then grabs the female with his pinchers and drags her across it so that she will take his sperm up inside her body. Other species push the sperm inside their mates. Females may mate with numerous partners and can retain the sperm of each. She will become impregnated when she is ready to reproduce. She can produce up to 40 offspring and will provide maternal care for them by carrying them on her back and washing them with her pinchers.

The first known fossils of pseudoscorpions date to 380 million years ago. Their body shape has changed very little since they first appeared. Aristotle was the first person known to have described them and  most likely encountered them in the vast amount of papers and books at his disposal They are sometimes referred to as Book Scorpions because they are often found in books and piles of paper where they are feeding on booklice.

They are completely harmless to humans and cannot sting or bite us. Their habit of feeding on insects and tiny arachnids, like mites, that can cause significant damage makes them hugely beneficial to us. You will most likely never find more than one or two every once in awhile, but should you be encountering them in large numbers you may have a moisture problem or a large population of prey items they like to feed on. those issues should be addressed, rather than outwardly killing these tiny arachnids by using chemicals.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge and Massasaugas

Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Squaw Creek NWR) is located outside Mound City, MO on approximately 7300 acres. Habitat varies from prairie wetlands to loess soil hills. Wildlife from whitetail deer to snow geese call this refuge home. Of all the wild animals that live here the Massasauga rattlesnake is probably my favorite. There are only a few locations throughout the state that have the appropriate habitat for these little rattlesnakes. They are a prairie wetland species and use crayfish burrows to hibernate in. Each spring the refuge biologist searches for these snakes on the burned prairies, often with the help of volunteers. I always feel honored and a little bit excited to be included in the field research.

Sunday myself, my husband Joey as well as my good friend Cindy participated in the first field day of the spring season. Today Cindy and I made the trip back up to the refuge and helped again. I feel like we walked miles in burned fields stepping over patches of grass and through swampy ground. To say we got our exercise is an understatement, but all the legwork was worth it. We were able to see 7 Massasauga Rattlesnakes, 2 Graham's Crayfish Snakes, 3 Plains Garter Snakes, 2 Diamondback Watersnakes and numerous Red-sided Garter Snakes.



When Cindy and I arrived and headed out to catch up with the other volunteers I spotted a Graham's Crayfish Snake and pointed it out to Cindy. She was excited by the find as this was a first for her. We took a few minutes to take pictures with it before releasing it back where we found it. The frightened little snake musked Cindy as soon as she held it. Musk is substance that snakes release when alarmed. It is a mixture of musk and feces.....yes it stinks! BAD! We walked a few feet more and spotted a Massasauga and a couple of red-sided garter snakes. In less than 5 minutes, we had spotted 4 snakes!!
This was already proving to be a great day. The temperatures were in the mid 70's and looking to top out at 80 by mid-afternoon, so along with snakes, and exercise we were getting some much needed sunshine.

Male Massasauga part way out of a crayfish burrow.

 Gently removing the snake from the burrow. With patience the snake will eventually relax and can be safely removed from the burrow.

 Safely bagging the snake to weigh it.

 Placing the snake in "squeeze box" to safely get data on him.

 Darren and one of the volunteers "Sexing" the snake. It's a boy! They were excited to discover he was a recapture and had been previously PIT tagged. Now they will get new data on a previously captured snake.

 Measuring the tail length and counting rattles. 7 rattles and a button on this one. The green color on him is nail polish. It does not hurt the snake and is used to mark him so he isn't recaptured as we walk back and forth in the field looking for more snakes. 

 Snake fungal disease is an increasing problem for many species of snakes. This snake is showing some signs of having had had the disease in the past. There are some obvious nodules and scarring near the tail.

 Clipping a scale off the belly near the tail to send in for testing. Sending it in for testing will determine if the snake has been exposed to the fungal disease.

 Me getting a vial ready to put the scale clippings in to send for testing. 

 Me swabbing the area on the snake where the nodules are present. The swab will be sent in with the scale clipping for testing. 

Resting after his abduction and probing by aliens.



This prairie kingsnake was the first of the day and had a funky looking eye. At first we thought it could be the fungal disease, but after looking more closely we decided he had just shed his skin and did not shed one of his eye capsules. This gives him a goggle-eye appearance. He seemed healthy and showed no other signs of having any fungal infection.I handed the snake to Cindy so we could show it to the biologist and it musked it her good! This required a good washing with sanitary wipes. Poor Cindy...two muskings in one day!  

The Prairie Massasauga, formerly the Western Massasauga (pronounced mass-a-saw'-ga) Rattlesnake is one of the smallest rattlesnakes found in Missouri wetlands and marshes.  Loess Bluffs NWR has a strong population of these snakes in large part because the land is federally owned and the snakes are protected there. These ongoing studies help to determine population density and over all health of the snakes. Snakes are especially important in rodent control and as a vital part of the food chain and should be left alone. They are also indicators of the health of their environment.

In the Chippewa language Massasauga translates into "great river mouth" which describes the lands where they are found. Like all Missouri venomous snakes they are "pit-vipers" , meaning they have an extra sensory organ in the form of pits located between the eyes and the nostrils. These pits are heat sensing organs that help them locate prey. They have excellent eye sight and a great sense of smell. All of these senses combined make for a formidable predator. They commonly prey on mice, frogs, insects. Juveniles are fond of other serpents with Midland Brown Snakes making up the bulk of their diet. These snakes are also an important part of the food chain and sometimes fall victim to eagles, herons, raccoons, foxes, and hawks. Not to mention the occasional motorist who would rather kill snakes as to look at them. This near-sighted viewpoint of snakes is what has led to the near extinction of many species. Humans should try to exercise tolerance for these misunderstood creatures and recognize their importance in the over all health of a given habitat. 

These are a slow moving snakes that rarely strike unless being provoked or handled. Although males tend to be rather testy! Their venom is less toxic than that of most venomous snakes, but should still be considered dangerous. If bitten; immediate medical attention should be sought.  During the spring they will be found in lowlands near marshes and wetlands. In the hotter summer months they are found in higher ground near grasslands, farmland and open fields. Like all snakes they are often found sunning themselves on rocks, and roadways. Massasauga rattlesnakes reach lengths up to thirty inches. Their ground color is gray or tan with numerous darker spots, there are even melanistic black varieties found occasionally.

Massasaugas are ovoviviparous (eggs develop in the body of the parent and hatch within or immediately after being expelled). The female produces large, yolk-filled eggs which are retained within her reproductive tract for a considerable period of development. The developing embryo receives no nourishment from the female, only from the yolk. Eggs of the Massasauga hatch inside the female and the young are born “alive.” A female snake that retains eggs in her body can bask in the sun, thus raising the temperature of the eggs and speeding their development, resulting in a variable gestation period of two to four months. The average litter size is 8 with anywhere from 3 to 12 being possible.

After birth, the young are on their own—no maternal care is known in snakes. As is the case for all cold-blooded vertebrates, the growth of the young is heavily dependent upon the amount of food available.




The knowledge I gain by participating in these field trips looking for massasauga rattlesnakes as well as other snakes is invaluable to me as a naturalist. I am able to take what I learn and apply it to programs and it better equips me to answer questions the public may have about our scaley wildlife. I am more than excited to return to the refuge this spring and offer my assistance in looking for these beautiful reptiles.