Fun with Fungus

Did you know that fungi are more closely related to people than to plants? It’s OK, I didn’t know that either until I took Biology at CSU a couple of years ago. I contemplated this as I saw several different types of rather eye-catching fungus while out this afternoon.

In addition to the beauty of some types, fungi provide a critical part of nature’s continuous rebirth: fungi recycle dead organic matter into useful nutrients. Fungi feed by absorbing nutrients from the organic material in which they live.

Fungi were listed in the Plant Kingdom for many years. Then scientists learned that fungi show a closer relation to animals, but are unique and separate life forms. So now fungi are placed in their own Kingdom.

You probably use fungal products every day without being aware of it. People eat mushrooms of all shapes, sizes and colors. Yeasts are used in making bread, wine, beer and solvents. Drugs made from fungi cure diseases and stop the rejection of transplanted hearts and other organs. Fungi are also grown in large vats to produce flavorings for cooking, vitamins and enzymes for removing stains.

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Midland Painted Turtle

Most reptiles are hibernating at this time of the year in Northeast Ohio. They need warmth to function and February is a cold time of the year – it’s winter. Today I saw this Midland Painted Turtle out basking. It was in the low 50s and partly sunny. I had seen turtles basking earlier in the month, when we had a warm spell, and this turtle was out basking on that day as well (the other turtles, which were further down the waterway, were not out today).

True to their common name, these turtles usually have red or orange markings along the edge of their shell. They also have yellow and red stripes on their neck and legs. Painted Turtles are among the most abundant and conspicuous turtles in Ohio. They are particularly fond of basking.

The Painted Turtle is also the most widespread turtle of North America. They range from coast to coast (though not continuously). More than any other turtle species in the U.S., they remain active for most of the year – even when its very cold, they can occasionally be seen swimming beneath clear ice. Seeing turtles in February makes for some great winter herping.

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Bess Beetles

Walking around in the woods on a windy, thirty-something degree day may not seem to be the ideal conditions to observe wildlife. But just by turning a few sun-warmed logs, a “hidden treasure” of invertebrates can be found. At over an inch in length, a Bess Beetle was the largest of the creatures I came across.

The Bess Beetle can give you some idea on how complex life can be – even for an insect. They communicate with each other through squeaking and clicking noises. Their larvae can also make sounds. Bess Beetles have distinct sounds that communicate different messages such as aggression or courtship signals.

There are only two species of Bess Beetles in the United States, though a couple more have occasionally shown up from across the Mexican border. There are over 500 species in the tropics. Their entire life cycle is spent in darkness inside standing and fallen dead timber.

Unlike many insects, Bess Beetles take care of their young. Adults prepare decaying wood for the larvae by chewing and mixing it with saliva. The also help their larvae construct a pupal case for the life stage of the insects undergoing transformation to adults. One remarkable aspect of the Bess Beetle social system is that adult males help care for the young, a phenomenon almost unheard of among insects.

Another common name is Patent Leather Beetle, due to its shiny black sheen. They live in their adult form for over a year, which is a long time for a beetle. Although they may look intimidating, I’ve handled many and have never been bitten.

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American Beech

Some trees just don’t want to “throw in the towel” and admit that it’s winter. The American Beech is one of those trees and I admire it for that. Their leaves often remain attached to the tree throughout the winter.

The American Beech is a shade-tolerant species, favoring shade more than other trees. It is commonly found in mature forests. The leaves have distinct, strong veins and toothed edges. Beechnuts are among the most important of wildlife food; squirrels, grouse, bear, raccoons, deer and many other animals eat them.

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Even when its leaves are green, this tree is easy to identify because beech has silver-gray, paper-smooth bark and unfortunately many people are compelled to carve into it.

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This sturdy, imposing tree creates beautiful scenery – even on overcast mid-February days like today.

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Cardinals in a Snowstorm

A decent snow storm hit the Greater Cleveland area this morning with white-out conditions and wind chill readings below zero at times. Here are a couple of Cardinals in my backyard weathering the storm.

Even non-birders recognize Cardinals, which are the mascot for the Arizona National Football League team and the St. Louis Major League Baseball team. They are the state bird of Ohio (as well as the state bird of six other states). Cardinals are named after highly ranked church officials who wear bright red robes and caps.

They are non-migratory birds and most live within a mile of where they were born. Cardinals are songbirds, but unlike most northern songbirds, the female also sings.

Cardinals often visit bird feeders and I bet they sure are glad that on a day like today they have easy access to a food source.

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Eastern Toebiter

Perhaps the most fearsome freshwater invertebrate in North America is the Toebiter. It has paddle shaped hind legs for swimming and raptorial front legs for catching prey. It is classified as a “true bug.” One of the criteria for true bug designation is the presence of a piercing, sucking mouthpart.  Toebiters cannot chew.  Instead, they pierce their food with their beak-like mouth, pump saliva into the food source to partly digest it, and then suck it out, as if using a straw.

Unlike many insects, whose eggs are abandoned by the adults, toebiter eggs are glued to the surface of the male’s outer wings and cared for and protected by the male until they hatch.

Toebiters occur in ponds and lakes, where they rest below the water’s surface. There are two tail-like breathing tubes at the rear end of the toe-biter that help it to breath while underwater. When it needs air, it extends the breathing tubes.

During mating season they fly from pond to pond. It is during these flights that these insects fly to lights, earning their other common name, “Electric Light Bugs.” Still another common name is the “Giant Water Bug.” The Eastern Toebiter is one of the largest insects in the U.S. and Canada. Below is an example of one that flew into our campsite when we were staying at Myrtle Beach in the early 1990s. It was photographed next to a cigarette pack for a size reference.

Toebiters are capable of inflicting a painful bite with their strong beak. They prey on aquatic insects, small fish, frogs, tadpoles and other organisms. They often play dead when threatened.

They are a fun and easy-to-keep insect pet. The type in the above photos have only eaten fish for me, but there’s a smaller type of toebiter in the Northeastern states that eats crickets, snails and mealworms readily. Here’s one that I kept for about a year, eating a cricket.

I keep mine in a large glass jar with a stick that they enjoy resting on, as well as some aquatic plants. They spend most of their time poised in a praying mantis-like way, waiting for food to swim by. They can live in groups if they’re about the same size – I have two toebiters. 

Don’t fret if you live in the western United States, because toebiters live there too. Here’s one that I found in a creek in Gilroy, California in 2007.

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Six-legged Frog

I was walking the Ohio Erie Canal towpath in the evening near my home in September 2011, when I spotted this young American Bullfrog at the edge of the path. Since there were a number of cyclists out, I decided to move the frog across the path, so it wouldn’t get hit.

When I picked up the little amphibian, I noticed that it held out its front leg in an awkward way. I thought maybe it had been injured. But then I noticed that it had extra legs. The cause of this is a flatworm known as a trematode. The flatworm starts out by parasitizing a snail. The snail serves as an “incubator” for flatworm larva. Eventually they the larva leave the snail and seek out tadpoles. By penetrating the tadpole’s skin, the resulting inflammation of the skin and tissue causes extra legs to grow, making it easier for the flatworm’s final host, a wading bird, to catch the frog and thereby complete the flatworm’s life cycle. You can learn more about this (and see a cool illustration) at Green’s website.

The use of fertilizers leads to runoff getting into the water system. This causes an overabundance of algae growth, resulting in more trematode-infected snails that eat it, and ultimately, more frog deformities. In addition, chemicals in agricultural runoff are widely thought to weaken the immune system of frogs and other amphibians.

I teach a community wildlife drawing class for kids and I decided to keep the frog, which I named “Seis,” because it offered an interesting opportunity to explain a little-known phenomenon. Here are a couple of my students drawing Seis’ relatives on “Amphibian Day.”

Sies now lives in a plastic aquarium and seems to be doing fine for the past five months. He eats well, but does not have much control over his “extra arms.” I’d be interested in knowing if anyone has had long-term success maintaining multi-legged frogs.

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It was in the upper 40s and sunny yesterday. It’s been a very mild winter in the Greater Cleveland Area. Though there have been warmer days in the past 5 weeks, I never really apply myself to searching for herps at this time of the year. So I was unprepared as I was walking along an area near the Cuyahoga River when I saw a Midland Painted Turtle. I thought maybe it was a “rebel reptile” in denial of winter. But about a half mile further down I saw two more Painteds.

I debated if I should walk a mile and a half back to the car, drive home (about 15 minutes), get the camera and walk a mile and a half back to get some photos. It was already late afternoon and the sun wouldn’t be out for that much longer. I decided to get the camera – even if the turtles were gone when I returned, it still was a nice (relatively speaking) day to be outside.

Well, the reptiles were long gone, but I did mange to get a few decent photos of this mammal that I’ve only seen once before in the wild – a Mink:

Mink are dark-colored, semi-aquatic, carnivorous mammals related to weasels, skunks and ferrets. The mink has a long, sleek body about two feet long. Lithe and agile, it pursues its prey on land and in water. It can swim and dive with ease and remain underwater for many minutes.

The mink is prized by the trapper both for its fur and for the great skill required to capture it. They have a distinct path of white on the chin.

To the wildlife enthusiast, the sight of this elusive furbearer is a thrilling surprise that must be experienced quickly, before the dynamic creature can scurry away to a place of concealment.

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Baird’s Rat Snakes

The Baird’s Rat Snake is only native to Texas and further south, less than five small disjointed ranges in Mexico. It is its own species (bairdi) separate from common rat snakes. It is difficult to find in the wild, as it is uncommon, has a spotty distribution and generally lives in relatively inaccessible areas. They tend to favor canyon habitats. Like other rat snakes, they are constrictors, feeding mostly on small mammals and birds. They average 3-4 feet in length. Baird’s Rat Snakes usually have small clutches of eggs (less than 10) late in the year compared to common rat snakes.

Once rare in captivity and therefore commanding a high price, the Baird’s Rat Snake has become more and more popular in recent years as snake keepers have discovered its beauty and docile nature. These snakes require the exact same care as a Corn Snake.

The most intriguing characteristic about this snake is it’s coloring. They start out as “ugly ducklings,” being primarily grey. Over time they dull grey coloration becomes a metallic silver. Between the scales a complex background coloration often features shades of red, orange, yellow and even purple.

This snake is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, a zoologist and administrator of the Smithsonian Institution during the 19th century. Baird (who also has a sparrow and sandpiper named after him) fueled much of the zoological discovery that accompanied the opening of the West.

I’ve been working with Vivid Line Baird’s for a few years. This winter has been quite mild and today seemed like a good day to take some snake photos. I dig the way these Baird’s Rat Snakes always seem to be changing color, depending on their age and what kind of light you’re looking at them under.

Adult male:

Adult female:

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