Monday, August 29, 2011

Funnel Web Spider A.K.A Grass Spider

One of the most common spiders found throughout North America are the Funnel Web or Grass Spiders in the family Agelenidae. Each morning as I leave for work their webs are scattered throughout my yard like glistening crystal palaces. The sparkling of the dew covered webs is truly beautiful, and turns each web into a work of art. There are 600 known species Worldwide within this family and nearly 300 of them call North America home.

Update: A friend of mine from facebook and a spider expert sent me an email with the following correction. Thanks Mandy for pointing out my faux pas.

Hi, Shelly! Been a long time, I'm not as active on facebook and with keeping up with folks as I wish I was. i usually keep up with people behind the scenes... reading their pages and blogs, etc. I just read your cool blog post about funnel weavers. Loved it! ... but, I hope you don't hate me for it, I have a correction about the numbers presented... there's actually 1148 species in Agelenidae worldwide and only 116 of them live in North America (north of Mexico). It used to only be 90 but about 6 months ago, two genera from Amaurobiidae were transferred to Agelenidae, so that added 26 species, making the total 116 in North America now. The World Spider Catalog ( is updated every January and June and has all the up-to-date counts info on spiders and all the current taxonomy, as well. The "counts" tab will tell you how many genera and species in each family... and under the "families" tab, you can see the grand list of all species and which countries or areas they occur. It's pretty much THE source for spiders, so I would disregard any other sources that are telling you those numbers, to be honest (they're so far off that I'm curious who told you them, lol... unless it was just a really outdated book or something... but it'd have to be really, really outdated to come up with 600 & 300).

 I believe the one pictured here is in the genus Agelenopsis possibly naevia spp. Without inspection of the genitalia it is next to impossible to identify them to species with any accuracy. Agelenopsis are the most frequently encountered of all the genera within North America. Their sheet-like web spreads out for nearly a foot (or more) in a circular fashion with a distinct funnel-like opening near the center. It is this opening that earned them the common name of funnel web spider. These spiders should not be confused with another spider that goes by a similar name and that is the Sydney Funnel Web Spider of Australia. The genus Agelenopsis belongs to the Araneomorph spiders which are true spiders or modern spiders, whereas the Sydney Funnel Web Spider belongs in a completely different family called Hexathelidae belonging to the Mygalomorph spiders which are the primitive spiders making them more closely related to tarantulas than to the species of funnel web spiders living in North America. The Sydney Funnel Web Spider has earned a nasty reputation as being one of the most deadly spiders in the world. You will not find these spiders in the United States! Another spider belonging within the family of Agelenidae is the Hobo Spider in the genus Tegenaria , they unfortunately have made their way into the United States via shipments of goods from Europe and now reside in portions of the Pacific Northwest. They are reported to be highly venomous and dangerous, but no real proof exists that this is so.

 (Water droplet suspended from sheet web of funnel web spider)

Funnel Web Spiders are medium sized spiders with a legspan up to 1 1/2 inches. Their color varies from pale yellowish-tan with gray markings to reddish-brown with black markings. Their abdomen is gray to black along the margins with a light brown to brownish-red stripe bordered by lighter colored spots. They have very long legs that are banded at the joints. 

The females rarely leave their sheet-like web except to find a new location to build a web. They hide out inside the funnel laying in wait for an unsuspecting insect to crawl across the web. They will run rapidly out of their hiding place and envenomate their quarry. The webbing of this genus is not sticky like other spider webs, they instead rely on capturing their prey by using their extremely fast acting venom. Some species within this family will prey on other funnel web spiders. The funnel web spiders of some genus's actually do have sticky webbing and it is usually these particular species that become prey to the funnel web spiders without sticky webbing. The unsuspecting spider will crawl across the web, and instead of finding a web of the consistency that it is accustomed to walking on, it finds itself entangled in the sheeting of a totally different chemical makeup allowing the owner of said web to bite and drag the spider into her lair.
 (Spidey legs peeking out of her hideout)

They become sexually mature in August at which time the males will begin looking for females. Males of this family of spiders are wanderers and are constantly on the look-out for food and for mates. When a male comes upon a female of his own species he will approach cautiously, after all he does not want to become her next meal. After determining the female is receptive of his attention he quickly dominates her and mates. By no means is he out of danger, he must make a hasty retreat before she changes her mind and decides he looks scrumptious. Males die shortly after mating, leaving the females to deposit an egg sac under the loose bark of a tree that she will guard until the first frost. Once the first frost comes the female will die often still clinging to the egg sac, making the ultimate sacrifice. Her life for the life of her offspring. Some species of funnel web spiders may live up to two years, but most only live one season. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

End-Band Netwing

This moth-like insect that looks as if it belongs in the order Lepidoptera is actually a beetle....yes that's right a beetle and belongs in the order Coleotpera. I know the appearance goes against everything we were ever taught about hard wing coverings here. Netwings are one of those "exception to the rule" things that we always hear about. This particular netwing is called an End-Band Netwing (Calopteron terminale). They are small to medium sized measuring up to 17mm. Their size is nothing to write home about; what is truly remarkable aside from the fact that they are a beetle that looks like a moth is the coloring. They are vibrant orange and black giving them a decidedly Halloween appearance. They will be found near deciduous woodlands throughout the eastern United States. In Missouri they are found from August to September,   they may be around longer into autumn if the weather is warm enough.

After mating the females will deposit their eggs on or near dying trees. The larvae are predatory on other insects. The adults feed on the juices of decaying plants. This type of feeding habit makes them hugely beneficial.
This little creature proves that we should take nothing at face value, especially when it comes to insects. There are sure to be contradictions where ever you look.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Question Mark Butterly

Question mark Butterflies are one of the most commonly seen butterflies in the Midwest. They resemble a few other butterflies also found in their range, one being the Comma and the other the Gray Comma. To distinguish them from one another look for the tell-tale marking on the underside of their hindwing. The Question mark has (?) and the Comma has a (,).

On the above picture the silvery-white question mark is visible. These butterflies often occur in large numbers and may be found nectaring at flowers as a last resort. They instead prefer to glean moisture and nutrients from piles of dung, rotting fruit, sap, and carrion as the one pictured here is doing. Cow manure seems to be a favorite of theirs.

The caterpillars are spiny colorful alien-looking little munchers that feast on elm trees. They will also feed on nettle, false nettle, Japanese hop and hackberry. Last year proved to be a good year for them as I found dozens of them eating my young elm trees. This year I've only found a handful. Like many insects they seem to cycle up and down from season to season.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Common Snapping Turtle

One of the most misunderstood creatures to swim in our waters is the prehistoric-looking snapping turtle. They are vilified as fish killers and stalked by pond owners throughout North America. Never was there a creature more undeserving of it's reputation than this one. The truth of the matter is...."A pond is healthier with the presence of snapping turtles, than one without them" Snapping turtles eat the weakened, injured and sick fish. This habit of feeding on the slower fish helps to cull out the weaker genes and the sick fish, thus reducing the risk of disease or illness being spread to healthy vital fish. Your fish population will therefore be healthier. These turtles are simply not fast enough or agile enough to capture active healthy fish. These turtles are often killed by fishermen because of their opportunistic nature. If you have fish on a stringer, these turtles will feed on them. They simply see the struggling fish as a weakened or injured fish. This is an opportunity that no self-respecting snapper will turn down. Rather than killing and cussing the turtle for doing what it is programmed to do, why not just put your fish in a basket.....problem solved! Many people don't realize that a vast majority of the diet of these turtles consists of vegetation. In fact up to 40% of their diet will be aquatic plants. In many cases it is much higher than this. So the villainous reputation that the snapper has of being a greedy fish killing machine is grossly exaggerated and false.

Each spring and summer the turtles leave their watery homes seeking mates and looking for places to lay eggs. It is at this time we will see turtles on the highway or other roadways. While people will usually try to avoid hitting turtles they view as cute like painted turtles or box turtles, they take the opposite position when it comes to snapping turtles. I see many snappers hit on the road and it sickens me to know that these are avoidable and senseless deaths perpetrated by people with little to no knowledge of the creature they just destroyed.

The turtle pictured here was hit on the highway near the 102 River. When I first spotted it I thought it was alive, so I stopped to move it off the road before someone did hit it. Upon closer inspection the turtle had indeed already been hit and was bleeding profusely. I had nothing with me to kill it and put it out of its misery so I gently placed it off the side of the road in the shade. It was so sad to see this very old, once vital turtle being reduced to roadkill in the blink of an eye. I would never advocate swerving your car to avoid hitting any animal, human life is precious and it certainly isn't worth the risk of killing ones self or your passengers to avoid hitting an animal. That being said, 9 out of 10 times you can safely drive around a turtle or straddle your car over the top of it. Remember these are slow moving creatures. 

On top of the many snapping turtles being sacrificed to cars each year I just learned of a practice that takes place in Indiana each year, called SNAPPERFEST. This sickening event promotes the torture of snapping turtles in the name of sport and fun. Turtles are captured and slammed on the ground repeatedly while people try  to pull the neck of the turtle out of its shell until they can wrap their fist around the turtles very long neck. These turtles are often left in the heat to dehydrate and die. Turtles are thrown to the dogs to play with and to be further tortured. 

Don't get me wrong here, I am all for hunting in a responsible manner. Ethical hunters do not feel the need to torture or to be cruel to the game they are after. Any animal that is killed should be done so quickly and humanely with the ideology that the meat will be consumed. Killing to be killing is not hunting that is blood sport perpetrated by individuals of questionable moral standards. Anyone who can enjoy watching an animal being tortured and left to die is without compassion for living creatures and lacks understanding and knowledge of the ways of the natural world. Each creature serves a purpose, even if we don't fully know what that purpose is.

This event is held annually in Ohio County, Indiana at a place called Campshore Campground. This is a family campground where people spend their vacations. Children are running around playing, swimming, fishing and riding their bikes and being exposed to animal cruelty. Is it no wonder we as a society question the moral integrity of our youth? How could it be beneficial to expose impressionable children to something so heinous as this? What are we teaching our youth? That we have dominion over all living creatures? That we decide who or what has the right to live or die? That being cruel in the name of fun is ok? Then we punish these same children for torturing the neighbors cat. Seriously people, wake up! If we want to raise gentler more understanding youth, they first have to see us behave in such a manner.

I normally do not like to get political and I try  not to make waves, but occasionally I come across things that demand that I speak out against them. This is one of those times. I apologize if I have offended anyone with my rant, but I do not apologize for my stance against something as senseless as this event.

Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) reach weights up to 35 or 40 pounds and lengths up to 14 or 15 inches.  They have a big pointy head and sharp beak-like mouth that has the potential to snap off a toe or finger. They have an amazingly long neck, therefore holding them by the sides of the shell like you would other water turtles is not advised. They can with little difficulty reach their neck around to the side of their shell and bite your hand. Their carapace (shell) can be brown, tan or almost black. Because of their aquatic nature and the fact that they swim along the bottom of ponds, rivers and lakes it is not uncommon to see them covered in mud or algae. Their plastron (underside bony plate) is usually yellowish in color. It can be difficult to tell males from females, males are almost always smaller than females. Each turtle has an opening at the rear called a cloacal, this opening is used for mating, eliminating waste and for egg laying. In males the opening will be further out from the plastron than the females will be.

Snapping turtles rarely bask in the sun like other aquatic turtles do. They prefer to stay in their watery habitats, They do however leave if the water dries up or to look for places to lay eggs. On land these turtles are out of their element and will readily defend themselves by opening their mouths, and lunging at whomever is daring to pester them. Once many years ago my son and I were taking a drive in the country and found a snapper on the gravel road. I stopped and my son said he would get it off the road. He reached down to grab it by the tail and it literally jumped two feet in the air and launched itself at him. My son jumped back and screamed like a little girl. After we both had a good laugh at the audacity of this turtle, we finally managed to move it off the road to safety.

These turtles survive our cold bitter winters by burrowing into the mud at the bottom of ponds, lakes and rivers. They become active again in March and remain so until November (weather permitting). Besides feeding on aquatic vegetation and weakened fish, they will also eat frogs, crawfish, insects, worms, snakes, birds and small mammals. Another erroneously belief held by many is that these turtles kill significant amounts of waterfowl young. This is simply not true, at least not in normal conditions. In artificial ponds where waterfowl and fish production are enhanced and the population of these turtles is too high then this species can become a nuisance. Those types of situations are certainly not the norm.

Our local herpetologist has been doing an ongoing study/survey of the aquatic turtle population on MWSU campus. There are nine ponds on the campus and he and his students set turtle traps out to capture turtles and record data. They are hoping to learn more about the traveling habits of these turtles as well as the overall health of the turtles and the ponds. Last year some vandals damaged one of the nets before he was able to check it and two turtles drowned. We were all sickened by it, but  the turtles were ultimately used to dissect and check for parasites and to determine the gut content. This was a rare opportunity for us to get a closer look at the diet of the campus turtles. We discovered they were parasite free (with exception to a few nematodes) and that their diet was close to 85% vegetation.

WARNING: The following pictures of the dissection may be disturbing to some viewers!

(The plastron exposed on snapping turtle)

(Plastron has been cut away to reveal inner organs)

(Removing the organs to check for parasites under the microscope)

(Internal organs exposed)

(View of the intestines, which contained mostly mosses and other aquatic vegetation. We did find a few fish scales and one fish eyeball. There were a few tiny fingernail clams that were probably consumed along with the vegetation)

I have often taken the stance....... that our most misunderstood creatures are also our most fascinating. Snapping turtles are certainly interesting, but they are also an integral part of any aquatic habitat and should be valued as such. By all means if you enjoy eating turtle meat keep eating it and following the hunting laws. However, please reconsider the next time you pick up a gun or a club to kill one of these living dinosaurs and instead take a moment to watch and admire their uniqueness. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Western Massasauga Rattlesnake

Here is another snake hovering on the brink of extinction in Missouri as well as throughout most of its range. The Western Massasauga (pronounced mass-a-saw'-ga) Rattlesnake is one of the smallest rattlesnakes found in Missouri wetlands and marshes. Because these lands are greatly reduced due primarily to agriculture, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for these snakes to carve out a niche for themselves. Squaw Creek NWR has a fairly healthy population of these snakes in large part because the land is federally owned and the snakes are protected there. Ongoing studies help to determine population density and over all health of the snakes. The one pictured here is a captive snake used as an educational animal to help promote the importance of all creatures within their given habitat. 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 also 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. 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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Grapevine Beetle

Grapevine beetles (Pelidnota punctata) are one of many "junebugs" that are found throughout Missouri. These beetles occur throughout the eastern portion of the United States. They are sometimes called the Spotted June Beetle because of the visible black spots on their elytra. Unlike many of the June beetles that call Missouri home that are drab brown, this beetle is reddish-golden in color and actually quite beautiful. The one pictured here to the right was found on a sandy beach along the Platte River, It had somehow flipped onto its back and could not right itself. I noticed it struggling in the sand and helped it back onto its legs. The little beetle was covered in wet sand that had hardened onto its head and wings. I tried scraping it off but it was adhered like concrete. I spent a few minutes photographing it before leaving it alone.

Unlike most Junebugs that feed on the roots of grasses and turf as grubs, this species feeds on the roots of trees. As adults they feed on the foliage and fruit of grapevines. In large numbers this feeding habit could damage grapevines and the fruit. Normally though you will only see a few beetles, so feeding damage is minimal. Females will lay their eggs on rotting stumps or decaying trees. When the eggs hatch the young grubs must burrow into the soil and find the root system they will feed on. Once they reach full size they will create a pupation chamber to finish their development. The pupal stage lasts all winter with the adult beetles emerging the following June. There is only one generation per year.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Western Fox Snake

Western Fox Snakes (Elaphe vulpina) were once thought to be threatened or endangered in Missouri and were listed as such until just this year. Apparently some populations were found that were previously unknown to experts. So while they are no longer listed as threatened this in no way should  indicate they are without risk of becoming so. They are certainly rare and only occur in a few scant counties in Northwestern and Northeastern Missouri. Because their habitat consists of marshlands, and those lands are greatly reduced throughout their range it is easy to see that part of their population decline is due to habitat loss. They may also occur in open forested areas, farmlands and prairies. These are beautiful, large snakes closely related to the much more common Black Rat Snake. They reach lengths up to 60 inches with a record snake being reported at nearly 6 feet. The color of this snake once upon a time protected it from predation and from humans. It is a remarkable mimic of the Massasauga Rattlesnake and even occurs in the same habitat further carrying out the similarity. Some even mistake this snake for the Copperhead, which seems a stretch to me. The copperhead is all over coppery in color and has hourglass shaped markings, but I guess from a distance it could be mistaken for Missouri's most common venomous snake. The mimicry that once protected the snake now often seals its fate and result in humans killing first and realizing their mistake in identity later. In my opinion they most closely resemble bullsnakes. They are the same yellowish-tan color with black blotches. The main differences between the two are the size, bullsnakes are huge at 7 feet or larger. Bullsnakes also have a more pointed face, and the fox snake usually has a reddish colored head, but otherwise the similarity is uncanny.

Fox snakes get their common name from the musk scent they emit when disturbed that is reported to smell very much like a red fox. This snake is extremely mild mannered and is not prone to bite unless severely molested. If you are harassing a snake, you should expect to be bitten! The bite is not dangerous and the wound is always superficial. You need only clean the wound of any bacteria. Their bite is designed more for holding onto their prey than in defense. They will often rattle their tail in dried grasses or leaves which can sound very much like the rattlesnake it is a mimic of, which only goes further in sealing their fate with humans.
These snakes feed on fledgling birds, small adult birds, eggs, small rabbits, mice, rats and voles.

The adult fox snake pictured here is a program/educational snake belonging to Squaw Creek NWR. Amanda the onsight naturalist was kind enough to allow me to photograph the snake. Because "Foxy" was so well behaved and tolerant of us photographing it I gave her a treat in the form of three pinkie mice. She seemed to enjoy her treat and gobbled them down very quickly.
All gone---well almost!

Western Fox Snakes mate in the spring or early summer. The female will lay 10-20 eggs in June or July. The eggs hatch in late August or early September. The juvenile snakes will measure between 8-12 inches in length. We are very fortunate at my office in St. Joseph because we were just given a juvenile western fox snake by Amanda and Darrin of Squaw Creek. Apparently one of the on sight construction crew accidentally disturbed a nest of eggs. A few of the eggs were broken and Darrin was able to identify them as Western Fox Snakes. He told Amanda about the situation and she remembered I wanted one for our office. She asked me if I would be interested in incubating the eggs. Of course I was! I had incubated black snake eggs last year and had excellent luck with it. They felt they would stand a better chance at survival if incubated, so I set about getting my incubator when Amanda called laughing saying that two of the eggs hatched! By the next morning three more had hatched. Amanda told me I could come up and pick one out for our office. Cindy and I drove to Squaw Creek and played with the babies and picked the one we wanted as our program/educational snake. We chose snake #4 which seemed like a nice friendly snake. We looked at the cluster of eggs and of the seven eggs present, 5 had hatched, one was not viable, and one was odd. This "odd" egg felt like it had something in it, but it was concave and weirdly formed. Amanda said I could cut into it and see what was inside......

a fully formed, living and breathing was a tiny fox snake. We were so excited to have 6 out of 7 young snakes be fully formed and healthy. Amanda is going to use the juvenile snakes for a junior naturalist program tonight, then release all the new babies back to the wild where hopefully they will avoid predators. Many creatures feed on young snakes including hawks, raccoons, foxes, and other snakes. 
Snake #4 is a male and will make an excellent addition to our growing population of educational animals

Meet #4

As juveniles they very much resemble their cousins the black rat snakes. If you did not have in hand one of each species to compare you would be hard pressed to tell them apart.

Juvenile black rat snake for comparison.

Occasionally we are given opportunities to educate the public about these wonder and often misunderstood creatures. This juvenile fox snake will be one of those opportunities. We will be able to showcase a snake that hovers on the line of being threatened or endangered within Missouri. This opens up an avenue to discuss habitat loss and the importance of all creatures within a given habitat. To say Cindy and I are excited to have this little snake would be an understatement! Thank you Darrin and Amanda for allowing us to have this wonderful little snake and the opportunities it represents.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mottled Tortoise Beetle

This brightly colored beetle is a Mottled Tortoise Beetle (Deloyala guttata), they occur throughout the United States and Canada. The term Tortoise comes from their ability to "hide" under their pronotum much like a turtle hides within its shell. When disturbed they will tuck themselves away or drop off the leaf they are on. When the danger passes they will once again show themselves and move around. The margins of the wings and pronotum are clear and the overall color of the beetle is various or mottled shades of brown, rust and gold. They are very shiny, almost metallic in appearance just like a gold coin. These tiny beetles are easily overlooked as they often hide on the underside of leaves, and they are less than 5mm in length which puts them on the tiny side. Generally when you find one, there will be additional beetles in the same area. They are fond of bindweed, morning glory and sweet potato. If these beetles occur in large enough numbers the damage may be severe. Both the adult and larval stages of these beetles feed extensively on the leaves of plants, and the damage may look life threatening to your plants, but is rarely bad enough to require intervention. If the plants are very young it could be damging to the point of killing the plants.
There may be two generations per year with the last adult generation overwintering under leaf litter. These are beautiful little beetles and extremely unqiue in their appearance. Well worth giving a second glance.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dark Spotted Palthis

This extremely odd looking moth is a Dark Spotted Palthis (Palthis angulalis) or as my FB friend Jenn calls them "Snouty McSnoutmoth." They certainly look like they possess a sizeable schnoz on them. In fact it is the long snout-like feathery projection that makes this moth stand out, otherwise this is a drably marked paper airplane-shaped moth with a wingspan at around 2 inches. They are common throughout the Eastern portion of North America and there may be up to three generations per year in Missouri.
The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants including forbs, woody shrubs and trees (alder, aster, basswood, birch, chestnut, fir, gale, goldenrod, ninebark, rhododendron, scrub oak and spruce). Look for them in tall grasses, deep vegetation or overgrown gardens. They hide during the day in the foliage and fly at night, and are often attracted to porch lights, pole lights and other light sources just like most moths.