Hapalopilus croceus

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While hiking in the Cuyahoga River Valley, I noticed the orange glow of Hapalopilus croceus (this fungus has no common name) displaying its brilliant color.

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I have never encountered (or heard of) this organism before, so it was an unexpected find. This is a rather uncommon fungus found in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North America. Hapalopilus croceus is nationally red-listed (threatened) in 11 European countries.

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When fresh, this mushroom has a vibrant orange color, but it tends to fade or brown with age. This conspicuous wood-inhabiting fungus has habitat confined to wooded meadows and pastures.

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The stalkless, broadly attached, fan-shaped fruiting body has a colorful cap and grows on decaying broadleaf wood, especially fallen Oaks.

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Like its polypore relatives, Hapalopilus croceus contributes a crucial role in nature’s continuous rebirth, by breaking down dead wood and turning it into useful nutrients.

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Fungi digest their food outside their bodies by releasing enzymes into the surrounding environment and converting organic matter into a form they can absorb; nothing else is able to perform the function of reducing dead wood back down into soil.

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Melanistic Eastern Garter Snake

Melanistic Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snakes have a very large range, and within that range a number of color and pattern variations occur. Perhaps the most interesting being the version with no color or pattern. In northwest Ohio, populations of all-black snakes can be found along with their standard-looking relatives.

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Melanistic Eastern Garter Snakes are predominantly a deep black. Immediately after shedding their skin they can be extraordinary beautiful. Also, the underside is completely black. I came across several individuals on a recent trip to northwest Ohio, as well as many examples of striped garters, which would be considered typical in appearance.

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Often the chin, lip and some scales on the side of the head, can have their normal color of whitish or brownish. Melanism can be thought of as the opposite of albinism. While albinism is the absence of melanin (a dark colored pigment found in skin), melanism is the overabundance of melanin, leading to an individual with an abnormal amount of black coloration.

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Mutations that lead to melanism can arise randomly in any animal that has melanin; however, mutations that cause melanism and albinism are uncommon. This leads to sporadic occurrences of a color abnormality that randomly occur across multiple populations. For a trait like melanism to sustain itself in a population, being melanistic must benefit the individual in some way (give it an increased chance of survival).

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In the Eastern Garter Snake, being melanistic makes it faster for an individual to warm up while basking in the sun. The color black absorbs light wavelengths efficiently, resulting in the black individual gaining more heat energy than the yellow and brown striped individuals. This give them a competitive edge on the cool Lake Erie shore.

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Common Bladderwort

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While hiking along the Cuyahoga River, I encountered this very widespread species within the United States and throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is usually overlooked by nature enthusiasts, but is a common sight in wet ditches and wetlands across the state.

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Bladderwort is a carnivorous species many have learned about in their junior high/middle school science classes. Small bladders are inflated sacs that are triggered to ensnare tiny aquatic organisms. The bladders are scattered in the leaves, which is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Common Bladderwort.

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The bladders also fill with air to keep the plant afloat during the flowering period and fill with water to sink the plant when it goes into dormancy.

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Up to 20 bright yellow one-half to three-quarter inch snapdragon-like flowers form at the top of a stout reddish green stem, emerging up to 8 inches above the waterline. The flowers have finely articulated red veins.

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This plant is free floating and has no roots. Although the commonly held view is that the bladders of bladderworts are for capturing and digesting microorganisms that provide the plant with nutrients, bladders more often have been observed to contain communities of microorganisms (bacteria, algae, and diatoms) living in the bladders, not as prey, suggesting that the bladders may also, and perhaps more importantly, serve to establish mutually beneficial relationships with some microorganisms.

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Long-jawed Orb Weaver

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Long-jawed Orb Weavers are named because of their large fangs, which are, in some species, longer than the spider’s cephalothorax (first body segment).

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Like all spiders, babies hatch from eggs and look like tiny adults. They shed their skin as they grow. Most spiders in this family live for less than one year. They mate and lay eggs at the end of the Summer and the young spiders hatch during the following Spring.

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Long-jawed Orb Weavers can have a two inch leg span and are skinny. Most are tan with white and yellow markings. They are common in low-growing vegetation and in row crops. I tend to see them at the edges of the Ohio & Erie Canal while hiking on the towpath. Below is a photo one one that I saw eating another of its own species.

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To avoid being eaten by predators, they drop from their web at out at the slightest disturbance, or carefully camouflaging themselves by lining up with the long axis of a twig or grass blade.

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Most members of this family do not build vertical webs, they are usually tilted and sometimes close to horizontal. The bizarre appearance of this creature with its over-sized mandibles makes it a favorite of mine.

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Broadhead Skink

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While visiting Virginia this month, I came across a lizard that I have not seen in a few years. The Broadhead Skink can grow to over a foot long and is the northeast’s largest lizard.

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This reptile is essentially a woodland inhabitant. It easily climbs trees and can sometimes be observed high in the branches of dead trees.

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Though Broadhead Skinks live in trees and prefer open forest habitats, they can also found hunting, mating and nesting on the ground. Here is one that I saw crossing a gravel road in southern Illinois a few years back.

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The female and young closely resemble the female and young of the smaller Five-lined Skink. This is an immature specimen which has a bright blue tail. Adult males are a uniform olive-brown, often sporting a considerable amount of red-orange coloration on their enlarged heads.

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Their diet is comprised of mostly insects. Broadhead Skinks search for food in trees and on the the ground using visual and scent signals, which are detected by tongue flicking.

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Trumpeter Swan

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While visiting northwest Ohio recently, I observed several of these huge waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans are listed as Threatened in Ohio. In 1996, Ohio became one of a number of states involved in reintroduction plans to restore them to the Midwest.

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These birds were killed for food and skins, first by Indians and then by white men upon arrival on the continent. The plumage trade peaked in the early 1800s and swan populations were dramatically reduced by the mid-1800s. Loss of habitat for this wetland-dependent species resulted in further declines.

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Weighing from 25-35 pounds when fully grown, the Trumpeter Swan is the world’s largest waterfowl. Adults usually measure 4-1/2–5-1/2 feet long. When fully extended, their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet.

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The long neck of the Trumpeter Swan is an adaptation that allows the bird to access food inaccessible to other species of waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans forage on water and, especially in Winter, on land. Their long necks allow them access submergent vegetation without diving.

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Trumpeter Swans inhabit lakes, ponds, large rivers, and coastal bays. They were historically more common in fresh water than salt water, but this is no longer the case.

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They are a long-lived, social species.

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Cecropia Moth

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Last month a female Cecropia Moth emerged from underneath my neighbor’s deck; it spent Fall and Winter there in a cocoon.

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The very next night a male stopped by to mate. This is North America’s largest native moth – females with wingspans of six inches or more have been documented.

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This spectacular insect is prized by collectors and nature lovers alike for its large size and extremely showy appearance. Their caterpillars feed on leaves (mainly Maple) throughout the summer. The adult moths don’t eat at all and rarely live longer than a week.

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The adults’ sole function is to mate and produce a crop of eggs. In order to find a mate, male Cecropia moths use their extraordinary senses. A female moth produces chemicals called pheromones, which the male can detect from over a mile away.

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I haven’t seen one of these awesome insects since my childhood, so it was a thrill to get reacquainted with them.

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Star of Bethlehem

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Lately, when hiking on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, I’ve been seeing a lot of this plant. Star of Bethlehem belongs to the Lily Family and blooms in late spring or early summer. It is native to the Mediterranean region and is similar to wild garlic (though it does not have a garlic smell).

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The English name “Star of Bethlehem” seems to date from the Middle Ages. The bulbs were sometimes brought home as souvenirs during pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

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Its flowers are clustered at the tips of stems up to one foot tall. The three sepals and three petals form an attractive star, white on the upper surface, with green lines on the underside. It blooms from April to June; all parts of this plant are poisonous.

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The blooms open during the early morning hours and close by noon. This characteristic habit gives it the nickname “Nap By Noon.” Its leaves are grasslike, very dark green, rolled inward with a white center vein.

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Star of Bethlehem can be found in a variety of situations, including pastures, bottomland and upland forests, roadsides, suburban lawns and disturbed areas.

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Santa Cruz Garter Snake

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Being back in California last month allowed me to see my favorite Garter Snake in the wild. This species fills the niche of a Water Snake in the Golden State; it is often found around ponds and creeks.

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The Santa Cruz Garter Snake is only found California and resides in central and southern parts of the state. It has two pattern morphs: one with a single stripe along the back, and a three-striped morph more typical of garter snakes.

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Although they are usually less than three feet long, females can be rather stout-bodied. Its bright yellow (or sometimes orange) dorsal stripe creates a striking contrast with its black body color.

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This is an active and alert species that will seek the shelter of water and plunge to the bottom of a creek or pond and hide when approached.

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It feeds mainly on amphibians including frogs, tadpoles, and aquatic salamander larvae, but small fish are also eaten.

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Like all garter snakes, the Santa Cruz bears live offspring. Broods consist of three to 12 young.

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California Red-legged Frog

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This amphibian only lives in California. I’ve encountered them several times on my visits to the Golden State, though they are federally listed as a threatened species and are protected by law.

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This species is estimated to have disappeared from 70% of its range; it is an important food source for the endangered San Francisco Garter Snake. Two reasons for this amphibian’s decline are invasive species and habitat loss.

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The California Red-legged Frog became famous for being the frog featured in Mark Twain’s short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

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At two to five inches long, it is the largest native frog in the western United States. It has a reddish coloring on the underside of the legs and belly. The back and top of the legs are covered in black spots or blotches. Typically, the face has a dark mask and a tan or light colored stripe above the jaw that extends to the shoulder.

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Like most frogs, they will eat just about anything they can catch and fit in their mouths. Most of the time their food is insects. Their favored habitat is slow-moving or standing deep ponds, pools and streams. Tall vegetation, like grasses, cattails and shrubs, provide protection from predators and the sun.

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Some of its challenges are non-native American Bullfrogs (which are well established in California) competing for habitat as well as eating them. Another challenge is homes, farms and buildings being built on their wetland habitats.

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I enjoy coming across these very cool creatures when visiting the West Coast, hopefully a way will be found to preserve what’s left of their population.

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