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.
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.
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.
Third Eye Herp
In the dark, damp swamps of southern Illinois, this fun fungus really stands out. Its bright orange coloration can be noticed from a distance.
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.
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.
Their brilliant hue fades as the mushrooms mature and the surface of the caps are sticky, especially in damp situations.
Orange Mycena is a North American species and has been reported throughout the eastern and central United States and Canada.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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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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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although usually only about four inches in total length, these creatures have a surprisingly long lifespan of well over 10 years in the wild.
Third Eye Herp