Orange Mycena

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In the dark, damp swamps of southern Illinois, this fun fungus really stands out. Its bright orange coloration can be noticed from a distance.

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Though their caps are rather small (usually less than an inch), because they are typically found in clusters, Orange Mycena make for an eye-catching addition to the environment.

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This mushroom tends to grow on deciduous logs, which contain the moisture it needs to thrive. When handled, its orange pigment may stain your skin.

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Their brilliant hue fades as the mushrooms mature and the surface of the caps are sticky, especially in damp situations.

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Orange Mycena is a North American species and has been reported throughout the eastern and central United States and Canada.

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This striking and colorful mushroom provides the same service as many others – breaking down and digesting organic matter and in doing so, returning nutrients to the soil.

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Crab Spider

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This is a fun little invertebrate that I found on my latest trip to southern Illinois. I have also seen examples in California, as well as in my home state of Ohio.

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Many species on this family of arachnids are referred to as “Flower Crab Spiders,” though not all members are limited to ambush hunting in flowers.

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Crab Spiders get their common name for the way they hold their two front pairs of legs, their flat shape and their ability to scuttle sideways or backwards.

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Some types frequent promising positions among leaves or bark, where they await prey, while others sit in the open, well camouflaged and using stealth by matching their surroundings.

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Instead of spinning webs, they are hunt-by-surprise predators that wait motionless for flies, bees and similar prey. These spiders tend to be quite small, only about a half of an inch in body length, and go largely unnoticed.

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Although not especially dangerous to humans, scientists think that the venom of certain Crab Spiders is more potent than that of most other spiders and this allows them to quickly paralyze the large and tough bees that often visit flowers (or in this case, a cicada).

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Their cool shape and wide variety of colors make Crab Spiders fun photography subjects that also present a challenge to find.

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Central Newt

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I often see this amphibian on my visits to southern Illinois. Sometimes it is out and about (especially during rainy weather), sometimes it is found hiding under logs and sometimes I see it in the water (especially at night when walking around the edges of ponds).

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They look similar to the Eastern Newts that I find in my home state of Ohio, with olive backs covered in black spots and sporting a bright yellow belly. Two rows of small red spots may be present along the back, though in some cases this little salamander lacks the red spots entirely.

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The Central Newt’s habitat is woodland ponds, swamps and occasionally water-filled ditches. Its diet consists of small aquatic invertebrates such as worms, mollusks, insects and crayfish. They may also eat tadpoles and the larvae of other salamanders.

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In the Spring, adults mate and females lay their eggs in water. The eggs hatch out into one-half inch tadpole-like larva. Like the Eastern Newt, the Central Newt has a land dwelling “eft” stage that spends 2 to 3 years wandering the forest floor before returning to water and leading a primarily aquatic life.

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After completing their aquatic larval stage, efts emerge onto land in Autumn. Their skin as an eft is rough, rather than smooth, like most salamanders. Their skin becomes smooth again when they become adults and return to the water. It is thought that the eft stage allows them to investigate new territories to spread to.

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Efts are bright orange to advertise that they are toxic to most predators. The Central Newt produces toxins in all its life stages, but the toxin is strongest during its eft stage. Their poison is tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin, which makes this species unpalatable to predatory fish and crayfish.

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Although usually only about four inches in total length, these creatures have a surprisingly long lifespan of well over 10 years in the wild.

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Pawpaw

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While walking along the edge of a cypress swamp in southern Illinois, I encountered this iconic tree. It’s the only member of a large, mainly-tropical plant family naturally residing in the United States, and it produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.

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Pawpaw is a small tree, typically growing to a height of 35 feet. It tends to grow in the understory or at woodland edges, and is often found in moist places such as the bottoms of ravines, steep hillsides and on the banks of creeks.

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The fruit is fragrant and has a distinctly bright, tropical flavor, often compared to bananas, but with hints of mango, vanilla and citrus. It has the inelegant appearance of a small green potato and may occur in clusters on the tree.

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The dark green leaves (which turn yellow in Autumn) of the Pawpaw have a tropical look, with their large, shiny blades that are widest just behind the leaf tip. The leaves often hang down like “dog ears” from the twigs.

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The smooth, thin, gray bark of Pawpaw becomes more warty and rough with increasing trunk girth.

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Larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly feed exclusively on young leaves of Pawpaw, but never occur in great numbers on the plants.

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This tree is also known as Quaker Delight or Hillbilly Mango.

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Southern Leopard Frog

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This is one of the most conspicuous herps that I see on my visits to southern Illinois. At night they are often out and about and seen crossing roads. In the daytime I’ve encountered them in a range of habitats, including deep in the woods and high up in limestone bluffs.

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It is also one of the most variable amphibians in the area in regards to appearance. It can be green or brown in color with varying amounts of spots – and sometimes no spots at all.

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Although Southern Leopard Frogs are often found close to water, they are more terrestrial than other frogs in their genus and can stray far from water. They are active both by day and night and can be seen in large numbers on rainy nights.

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They are powerful, agile jumpers and may flee away from water rather than toward it. When being pursued, they leap in haphazard, zigzag patterns that make they very difficult to successfully pursue and capture.

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Southern Leopard Frogs search for food mainly on land. Insects make up the majority of their diet, but they also feed on spiders, pillbugs and worms.

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Despite is being quite common, I always enjoy coming across this beautiful amphibian – no two are alike!

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European Hornet

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While searching for snakes in southern Illinois this month, I flipped a rock and under it was this large (over an inch long) insect. This the only true hornet found in North America, having been introduced by European settlers in the 1800′s.

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Most examples I’ve seen have been in the Autumn and are probably females (mated queens) looking for a place to overwinter before starting a new colony the following Spring. Only overwintering queens survive in protected sites such as under loose bark, in tree cavities, under rocks and in buildings. All other colony members produced in the current year perish.

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I have seen European Hornets in my home state of Ohio as well. They are mainly carnivorous and hunt insects such as beetles, caterpillars, moths, dragonflies and crickets. They also feed on fallen fruit and other sources of sugary food. I saw this one at a hummingbird feeder. These insects have been observed stealing prey from spiders, which can be classified as an example of kleptoparasitism.

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Though they probably have a painful sting, they usually aren’t particularly defensive when not protecting their nest. This woodland species constructs its large paper hive in natural cavities, especially in hollow trees. The nests typically have 200-400 workers.

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It’s always a neat experience to observe one of these impressive invertebrates while out on a hike.

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Red Milk Snake

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I saw this beautifully colored serpent crossing Snake Road while visiting southern Illinois. It’s overall pattern is similar to the Eastern Milk Snake which I often find in my home state of Ohio.

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Its body color can be white, gray, yellow or light tan, with red or orange black bordered blotches. Like the Eastern Milk Snake, its belly is strongly checkered in a pattern of black and white squares.

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Red Milk Snakes are secretive and seldom seen out and about. They spend much of their time hiding under rocks and logs or in rodent burrows. They are not particularly large snakes, often only about two feet in length. They subdue their prey by constriction and feed on lizards, snakes and small mammals.

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It’s always thrilling to come across this boldly marked, colorful snake in its natural environment.

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Ant Mimic Jumping Spider

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Working in my yard this weekend, a came across this tiny, yet fascinating invertebrate. It’s very small size and body shaped more like ant than a spider, at first glance, it may be difficult to tell that this creature is a spider.

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It walks with its front pair of legs raised in the air as if they were antennae, making it tricky to identify it as a spider when first counting legs. The resemblance to ants is a defense against predators. Many types of ants are pungent to taste and are unlikely to become food for larger predators.

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Ant Mimic Spiders often live near ant hills or nests to benefit from the ant’s unsavory reputation for tasting bad. They can be found anywhere ants are found: fields, lawns, gardens, woods, on trees and under stones.

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The Ant Mimic Jumping Spider is one of the few species in genus Myrmarachne that is found outside the tropics. Its species name, formicaria means “ant-like” in Latin.

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Atlantic Ribbed Mussel

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While checking out a tiny cove in Rye, New York, I came across several examples of this bivalve that lives in low, regularly flooded marshes and mud flats.

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The Atlantic Ribbed Mussel grows 2 to 4 inches in length. Its glossy, oval, grooved shell varies in color from olive or yellowish-brown to black. The shell’s interior is iridescent blue to silvery white.

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These creatures are are filter feeders. During high tide, they open their shells slightly to draw in water, filtering out algae and other particles.

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They attach themselves to rocks and other surfaces and clumps of mussels can be found half-buried in the mud among marsh grasses.

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Mussels perform an important environmental function of filtering water entering marshes during each tidal cycle. This helps clean and clarify the water.

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An Atlantic Ribbed Mussel’s age can be determined by counting dark growth rings on the shell. Mussels typically live 10 – 15 years, but more advanced ages are not uncommon.

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Asian Shore Crab

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While visiting New York last week, I flipped a few rocks along the East Coast and encountered quite a few of these small crustaceans; they were often found in dense aggregations.

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Adults are small, measuring about an inch and a half in shell width. They have a squarish shell and light and dark bands on their legs.

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Though native to the western Pacific Ocean from Russia to Hong Japan, it is likely that Asian Shore Crabs were discharged at harbors in the United States as larvae from the ballast water of a cargo ship.

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This creature is not a picky eater, and feeds on a wide range of plants and animals. It can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions. These characteristics help to make it successful in areas where it is not native.

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Although undeniably cute, Asian Shore Crabs have displaced both large and small native crabs along the East Coast.

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