Monkeyface Prickleback

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While exploring tide pools in north-central California, I came across this wonderful little fish. It tends to stay near the coast, rather than roaming the open ocean, and is often found in rocky areas.

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Young Monkeyface Pricklebacks, like this one, feed on zooplankton and crustaceans, while adults are primarily herbivorous, mainly consuming red and green algae.

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These long, slender fish, grow to about 18 inches in length and possess the unfishlike ability to breathe and survive out of water while hidden under seaweed or rocks. This was one of many fun finds during my tidal pool adventure.

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Sea Lemon

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While investigating tide pools near San Francisco, I found several cool creatures, this was one of them. It is a medium-sized, shell-less colorful Sea Slug – a marine gastropod mollusk. Its common name comes from this animal’s visual similarity to a lemon, featuring roughened skin, an oval shape (when seen from above), and its yellow coloration.

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Its bright colors are an advertisement to its distastefulness; its fruity, penetrating odor and acidic taste repels most predators, though Sea Slugs eat other Sea Slugs, this type feeds mainly on sponges. Like a land slug, it uses its filelike tongue to scrape sponges, its favorite being the Breadcrumb Sponge.

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The Sea Lemon has a ring of upright feathery gills, which are quickly retracted when a disturbance is sensed, similar to how a land slug retracts its eyes. It is hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female organs. This fascinating invertebrate is relatively short-lived, having a lifespan of about a year.

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Marbled Orbweaver

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While hiking along the edge of a swamp in southern Illinois, I came across this very cool creature. This species is impressive in both size and pattern. The unique marbled pattern of colors on the abdomen, as well its orange head and black and white legs make for visually stunning arachnid.

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This spider tends to build its web in trees and shrubs in moist, wooded settings. Unlike most other orbweavers in its genus, it hides in a silken retreat near its web. The retreat is made of leaves folded over and held together with silk. One strand of silk extends all the way the retreat. If it vibrates, the spider knows it has caught something.

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The “orbweaver” part of the name comes from its web, which the spider weaves to form a circular, or orb-like grid. The fragile web is easily damaged, so the spider spends time each day repairing it, regularly rebuilding it entirely.

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The Marbled Orbweaver often falls to the ground if it senses it is in danger. It is sometimes also called the Pumpkin Spider because of its resemblance to orange pumpkin.

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Zigzag Salamander

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While visiting Snake Road in southern Illinois, I came across this “lifer” amphibian which I’ve never seen “in person” before. It reminded me of a smaller version of a Redback Salamander that is common in my area of Ohio. Its body color is dark grey with a red or orangish wavy pattern, or “zigzag,” extending from the neck down the back to the base of the tail where it straightens out.

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This species is part of a large group known as Lungless Salamanders. They have no lungs and breathe through their skin and mouth. This unique trait requires them to keep the surface of their skin moist at all times. Females lay their eggs deep in underground cavities and guard their eggs until hatching. The baby salamanders do not go through an aquatic larval stage. Instead, when young salamanders emerge from their eggs they look like miniature versions of adults.

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Zigzag Salamanders inhabit temperate forests, rocky areas and caves. They have a preference for moist, rocky slopes. There they hunt for spiders and beetles, which comprise most of their diet. This is one of the smallest salamanders in the United States, reaching only about three inches in total length.

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Poison Ivy

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While visiting southern Illinois, I had several instances when I came across this plant, which belongs to the same family as mangoes and cashews. All three of these types produce urushiol, the compound that causes an itchy rash.

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Every part of the Poison Ivy (leaves, stems and roots) is poisonous, so not only should it not be touched, it should not be burned. With burning, the urushiol becomes volatilized in the smoke and you can get it in your lungs, which is very dangerous and can even lead to death.

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Scientists speculate urushiol evolved as an antimicrobial defense agent. Birds, deer, squirrels, reptiles and insects are not affected by it. In humans, contact with Poison Ivy causes a reaction known as a cell-mediated immune response. The rash it causes is a result of your immune system attacking its own skin cells.

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Poison Ivy fruit, called drupes, are an important food for wildlife. Over 60 types of birds eat Poison Ivy berries. Deer and insects eat the leaves.

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“Leaves of three, let it be; berries white, take flight” is a familiar saying to help identify and avoid Poison Ivy, though its characteristics are very diverse and change in different habitats.

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This plant often follows civilization, cropping up in disturbed sites like cut banks, roadsides and old fence rows. It prefers woodland borders and clearings and shuns the dense forest. Despite its common name, it is not a true ivy.

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For those who are allergic to the plant, its benefits are often overlooked. Poison Ivy is an early colonizer, often taking hold in areas disturbed by humans and it begins the slow process of rebuilding the landscape. It requires very little nourishment or moisture and it attracts and sustains a variety of wildlife.

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Snowy Tree Cricket

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I often find this insect in the Autumn, not only when visiting southern Illinois, but also in my home state of Ohio.

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This pale green species occurs over a wide distribution in the northern United States and parts of southern Canada.

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The Snowy Tree Cricket is known for having a chirping rate highly correlated with ambient temperature. This relationship is known as Dolbear’s Law and was published in 1897 in an article called “The Cricket as a Thermometer.”

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As their name implies, these creatures live in trees and shrubs, for which they are well camouflaged. The bodies of tree crickets are long and skinny compared to the bodies of other types of familiar crickets.

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Like other species of in their family, they feed on a wide range of items like plant parts, other insects and even fungi.

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The call of the Snowy Tree Cricket is commonly used as a background sound in movies and on television in order to depict a warm Summer evening.

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This is a neat, delicate-appearing invertebrate that I enjoy coming across, whether while doing yardwork or out herping.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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While visiting a lake in southern Illinois, I noticed a pair of these water birds that I have occasionally seen in my home state of Ohio.

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This is the most widespread grebe in the New World, and the most familiar in temperate parts of North America. Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked.

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Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling.

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When disturbed or suspicious, it may sink slowly until only head is above water. This bird is rarely seen in flight. It prefers to escape predators by diving and it migrates at night.

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The Pied-billed Grebe emits a series of hollow cuckoo-like notes “cow-cow-cow-cow, cow, cow, cowp, cowp, cowp,” that slows down at the end. They are often heard before they are seen.

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This bird is also known as the American Dabchick, Carolina Grebe, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper, Dipper, Hell-diver and Water Witch.

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Eastern River Cooter

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Walking along the Cache River in southern Illinois, I spotted this “lifer” reptile basking on a log. It was a lucky find, as it is endangered in Illinois. This one was a male, as evidenced by its long claws on its front feet. The Eastern River Cooter resides in sloughs and rivers, especially where aquatic plants are abundant. Though aquatic, like other water turtles, it will leave the water to bask on logs.

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They can grow to a shell length of around 12 inches. As part of their mating ritual, the male uses his long claws to flutter at the face of the much larger female. Like many other basking turtle species, they are very wary and quickly slide off their basking spot and into the water if approached. The term “cooter” may have come from the African word “kuta,” which means turtle.

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Not long afterwards, while visiting Virginia, I saw this young example of an Eastern River Cooter. Aquatic plants seem to make up almost 95% of their diets. Like many other freshwater turtles, they have a sleek but protective shell. This allows them to withdraw when threatened, but still efficiently reduce water drag while swimming. It was neat to see this creature for the first time in the wild, both as an adult and a juvenile.

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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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