American Oil Beetle

I flipped over a log today and found this very sluggish American Oil Beetle underneath it. Oil beetles are flightless and lack significant wings; instead they have stubby, shortened wing-pads that do not cover much of their bloated abdomen.

They belong to a family known as “blister beetles.” Like other blister beetles, the American Oil Beetle possess a chemical called cantharidin, which exudes from their leg joints when the insect feels threatened. The poisonous chemical causes blistering of the skin and painful swelling. It really does look like the motor oil you’d put in your car.

Oil beetles have some of the most extraordinary life cycles of any insect. The larva develop in bees’ nests where they eat the bee larva and the stored food of the bees.

To access a nest, the female oil beetle lays her eggs near the base of a flower. When the eggs hatch, the newly born larvae climb up the stalks to the blooming flower. Then the young larvae will cluster together and form a shape that very much resembles a female bee. To make the ruse even more complete, they emit a scent that smells like a female bee.

Male bees are often fooled and come to “mate” with the cluster of larvae. The larvae become his stowaways and eventually are transported to the nest. Different species of beetles have different hosts, the Solitary Ground Bee plays host to the American Oil Beetle.

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Common Mullein

Though most of the forest floor is colored brown with fallen leaves, there’s still some green to be found – like in this Common Mullein plant. During their first year, these plants are low-growing rosettes of bluish gray-green, with felt-like leaves that range from 4-12 inches. The leaves are large and soft to the touch.

Mature flowering plants happen in the second year. They grow to 5 to 10 feet in height, including the conspicuous flowering stalk. The five-petaled yellow flowers are arranged in a leafy spike and bloom a few at a time from June-August. Here’s what a two year old plant looks like in the Summer.

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Brought over from Europe by settlers, it was used as a medicinal herb, as a remedy for coughs and a respiratory stimulant for the lungs when smoked. Also known as the “Flannel Plant” due to its leaves, early settlers and American Indians placed the soft, woolly leaves in footwear for warmth and comfort.

Common Mullein provides shelter for insects in the winter. Since rosettes survive through the cold weather, the leaves provide protection and warmth for ladybugs and other insects. This plant is often planted in gardens for the blind, where its tactile beauty serves a worthy purpose.

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Thanksgiving Day Herping

With sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s in Northeast Ohio, I had no choice but to go do some “holiday herping” today. Here is some habitat that I checked out.

Turtle buddies – Midland Painted Turtles.

American Bullfrog, there were a bunch of these hanging out, though most were in the water. A few Spring Peepers were calling, but finding one would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

I was pleased to see this Northern Water Snake out basking.

I decided to get a shot of it from another angle, because snakes are cool.

Red-eared Slider and its reflection.

Redback Salamander.

What I saw the most of were Midland Painteds – it sure was a nice day to be out.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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American Bullfrog

November may be more than half over, but with sunny skies and mild temperatures, there’s still some herping to do in Northeast Ohio. For the past few days I’ve seen several examples of the largest frog native to the United States, the American Bullfrog. The easiest way to identify bullfrogs is by the male’s familiar “jug-o-rum” call. The deep, loud call can be heard from up to a quarter of a mile away.

Male bullfrogs have yellow throats and eardrums much larger than the diameter of the eyes. The females grow larger than the males, up to eight inches. Bullfrogs vary in color, from dark olive to pale green; they often have dark gray markings on their back legs.

These frogs regulate their body temperature by sitting in full sunlight on cool days like today. On warm days they cool off by diving into the water or resting in a shady location. American Bullfrogs are rarely seen far from the water’s edge and are usually in the water. They reside in large bodies of quiet water; such as ponds, lakes, or backwaters of streams.

Like a miniature alligator, the American Bullfrog employs stealth to catch its food, often staying submerged in the water with just its eyes protruding above the water’s surface, waiting to lunge out at any potential food item that comes within range. Due to its large size, the amphibian is capable of catching and consuming some very “unfroglike” meals – such as birds, bats, snakes, fish, rodents and other frogs. However, insects form the mainstay of their diet.

Before disappearing underwater for the winter, American Bullfrogs spend less time on riverbanks and shorelines. Eventually they burrow into the leaf litter and mud at the bottoms of waterways to spend the cold months.

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Creek Chub

The Creek Chub is a common minnow throughout Ohio. Its back is olive-colored with silvery sides and it has a long blackish-brown stripe down each side. The Creek Chub has rounded fins. Young examples, like the one pictured above, tend to be more pale than older fish, like the one pictured below.

Creek Chub live mostly in small to medium-sized streams, but they sometimes live in lakes too. They prefer clear to slightly cloudy water with a gravel bottom. They are most abundant in small streams where they are often the top predator. They are a tolerant species that can withstand a wide variety of water conditions.

To breed, the male Creek Chub will build a nest. He digs out a pit on the bottom of the stream by moving pebbles with his mouth. He will then pile pebbles up to build a small ridge upstream of the pit. Once he is finished, the fish will defend his nest from other males. Eventually a female will come along and spawn if she finds the nest to be suitable.

Creek Chub can grow to 12 inches, but they are usually much smaller. They can live up to eight years, which is surprisingly long for a minnow. They are one of two species of “backyard fish” that I regularly find in my creek.

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Northern Brown Snake

With back-to-back weekend days sunny and in the 60s, I decided to see what was up on the Erie Canal Towpath today.

It wasn’t long before I spotted this in the vegetation.

I removed it and set it on the pavement to get a better look at it. A Northern Brown Snake was the first wild snake that I ever caught; which took place on a family outing a long time ago. Later I learned that I could ride my bike to vacant lots in Cleveland and find them. One summer my friends and I caught a total of 17 of them – all in the same lot and all under the same truck mudflap.

We grew up calling these snakes DeKay’s Snakes, which is a common name that is not used as much anymore. The snake is named is in honor of American zoologist James Ellsworth De Kay who collected the first specimen in Long Island. It’s Latin name, Storeria dekayi, honors zoologist D. Humphreys Storer and James De Kay. This is the only North American snake whose scientific name is a double honorific – that is, both the genus and species name honor people.

This reptile is often mistaken for a baby Garter Snake. It is usually less than a foot long and mainly eats worms and slugs. Like the Garter Snake, it gives birth to live offspring. This secretive snake does well in urban areas and they seem to coexist well with humans in city settings and can be found in gardens, city parks, vacant lots, and old cemeteries as well as Metroparks.

Dekay’s Snakes are usually some shade of tan with two parallel rows of dark spots down their backs. Sometimes they sport a broad, lighter stripe in between the rows of spots. Though they are harmless, when they get scared they puff up or flatten out, showing white skin between their scales.

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Woolly Bear

Now is a good time in the year to find a common and well-known caterpillar. The Woolly Bear is black at both ends and reddish-brown in the middle.

There are two generations of caterpillars each year (May and August). The second generation is the one noticed in late Fall when Woolly Bears are often seen crossing roads, usually in great haste, as if they have someplace special to go.

They are scurrying to find a sheltered location under plant debris, where they will spend the winter as a larva. In the Spring they will feed briefly before changing into a cocoon and eventually a moth. I found one on my deck in one Autumn and put it in a jar in my garage. In early Spring it had formed a cocoon.


The adult is known as the Isabella moth. Eggs laid by the female moths start the cycle over again. The adult moth has cream colored wings with scattered black spots – its wingspan is about 2 inches. This moth emerged from the cocoon above a few weeks later.


The Woolly Bear is the species mentioned in winter-prediction folklore that claims the longer the black at the ends of the body, the more severe will be the coming Winter. This one seems to be predicting a very mild Winter.

Each year Vermilion, Ohio holds an annual “Woolly Bear Festival” – claimed to be the largest one-day festival in the state. Festivities include a parade, Woolly Bear races and an “official” analysis of the woolly bears and forecast for the coming Winter. Other states have “Woolly Worm” festivals for similar caterpillars.

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Northern Two-lined Salamander

One of the nice things about having a creek in my backyard is that I don’t have to go far to find cool stuff. The Northern Two-lined Salamander is a small (3-5”) stream-side salamander with a yellowish olive stripe down its back bordered by two black lines.

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In spring it lays eggs submerged underwater and attached to the underside of a rock. The larvae hatch one month later and remain in an aquatic larval stage until metamorphosis two years later. Adults live on land and can be found under rocks, logs and leaf litter at the water’s edge. These amphibians can be rather common and don’t seem to be affected by pollution as much as other types of salamanders.

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Northern Two-lined Salamanders exhibit complex courtship behavior. A male uses his head to nudge or poke a potential mate, and encircles the female’s head with the front of his body. The male scratches the female’s skin with his teeth, possibly allowing secretions to enter the female’s bloodstream.

The adult salamander’s diet consist of insects such as beetles, mayflies, and springtails, as well as spiders, pillbugs, and centipedes. Adults may also consume other small invertebrates including earthworms and snails.

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The Northern Two-lined Salamander has short stocky limbs. They are active mostly at night, especially after rains. This rainy Fall weather we’ve been having is “prime time” for finding them. Once, when coming home at night in the rain, there was one on the side door of my house!

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