Tadpole Madtom

01 Tadpole Madtom_8846

While visiting Southern Illinois last October, I found a few examples of a neat fish that I had never encountered before. A tiny catfish, an adult Tadpole madtom is typically 2–3 inches long – however they have been recorded to reach a length of 5 inches.

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This species lives in the pools and backwaters of sluggish creeks and rivers, as well as in shallow areas of lakes. It avoids fast rocky streams and usually is found near rocks or debris over a soft substrate. Its range includes most of the eastern United States.

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These catfish, as well as the other Madtoms, can inflict a painful puncture wound with the spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins. When one is stung or pricked by one of the spines, there is a burning sensation similar to a bee or wasp sting.

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Like many catfish species, Madtoms have venom glands at the base of these fins. The glands secrete venom that becomes incorporated in the slime and cells that make up the spine. This is a useful defense mechanism to keep it from being eaten by predators.

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Like others in its family, it is nocturnal and relies on its sensory “whiskers” (called barbels) to find its favorite foods. The Tadpole Madtom feeds on insects and other invertebrates, as well as occasionally consuming algae and aquatic plants.

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It was a really neat experience to meet this very cool fish while visiting the “Land of Lincoln.”

Third Eye Herp

Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racer

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I found a couple examples of this serpent while visiting the “Show Me State” last month. Although it is capable of reaching 5 feet, the average adult tends to be about 3 feet in length.

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The color of this smooth-scaled, slender snake is uniform but variable — from olive, tan, brown, or blue to gray or nearly black. The belly may be yellow, cream or light blue-gray.

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Like other American Racers, juveniles are tan or gray and marked with gray or brown blotches and spots on the back, and smaller, alternating spots on the sides. As the young snakes grow, the markings fade and eventually disappear by the third year.

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Active during daytime, these reptiles live in prairies, grasslands, pastures, brushy fields, open woods and along the edges of forests. In Spring and Fall, they are often seen on rocky, wooded, south-facing hillsides, which is where they overwinter (if they do not overwinter in a mammal burrow in an open habitat).

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Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racers hunt frogs, lizards, snakes, small rodents, birds and insects. Despite the Latin name, Coluber constrictor, racers are not constrictors. They simply overpower their prey. They use their speed and agility to catch prey — as well as to escape their own predators.

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It was an awesome experience to find an adult and juvenile version of this snake, which I had never encountered in the wild before, while on my trip.

Third Eye Herp

Western Slimy Salamander

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I came across several of these cool creatures on my visit to Missouri last month. The Western Slimy Salamander is a black to blue-black, medium-sized woodland salamander with a long, rounded tail and numerous silvery flecks irregularly distributed over the head, back, limbs and tail.

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This amphibian is in a group of some 13 closely related species called the Plethodon glutinosus complex; at one time these were all considered a single species, the Slimy Salamander. The Western Slimy Salamander is the only member of this group that occurs in Missouri.

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They are most active on the surface during cooler, wet conditions in the Spring and Fall. During the hot Summer months they are difficult to find, since they retreat underground into cool, moist caves, or find damp places by burrowing into large piles of leaf litter.

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Western Slimy Salamanders feed on a wide variety of arthropods, including ants, beetles, flies, worms insect larva and pill bugs. They can reach nearly 8 inches in total length, but most individuals vary from about 4 to 7 inches. Much of that length is because of its long tail.

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This salamander has an interesting defense mechanism. When handled, it produces a thick, sticky substance from glands in its skin. The substance is not only extremely sticky, but is also very difficult to clean. This ploy prevents it from being eaten by snakes and other potential predators.

Third Eye Herp

Predaceous Diving Beetle

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Although they are found in my home state of Ohio, I most often see these cool beetles when I retrieve my minnow traps in southern Illinois.

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This is a decent-sized insect with an adult maximum length of about 1-1/2 inches. It’s body is streamlined and oval in shape.

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Predaceous Diving Beetles prefer quiet water at the edges of ponds and streams, where they float gently among weeds. Before diving, they trap air between their wings and body, which prolongs their time spent under water.

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Their hindlegs are fringed with hairs and flattened for swimming; when swimming, they kick both hind legs simultaneously. Not only are they good swimmers, but they are also strong fliers that can fly away to a new waterway if the pond they live in dries up.

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Fierce predators, these beetles do not hesitate to attack prey larger then themselves, including small fish, tadpoles and frogs. Their sharp jaws inject enzymes that digest their prey, so that the juices can be ingested by the beetle.

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Species in this genus of beetle are edible and were enjoyed both in pre-settlement days and on tacos in present-day Mexico. They have been “farmed” for human consumption in various parts of Asia and have been used medicinally in China.

Third Eye Herp

Mist Flower

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This is a cool member of the Aster Family that I saw on my visit to southern Illinois last month. It is a late Summer-to-Fall blooming herbaceous perennial that is native to the Eastern United States.

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Also known as Wild Ageratum, it bears fluffy-looking, delicate flowers that are colored in pastel shades of pink, lavender or blue; it often occurs in large stands.

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Mist Flower occurs in bottomland forests, swamps, the banks of streams and rivers, the edges of ponds and lakes, marshes, ditches, gardens, railroads, roadsides and shaded-to-open disturbed areas.

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Butterflies, Skippers and Long-tongued Bees are strongly attracted to the flowers. Other insects eat the foliage. Not many mammals eat this plant, because of its bitter taste.

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Other occasional visitors include Short-tongued bees, various flies, moths and beetles. These insects primarily seek nectar, although the bees often collect pollen as well.

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Mistflower is often grown as a garden plant, although it does have a tendency to spread and take over a garden. It is recommended for habitat restoration within its native range, especially in wet soils.

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This plant is closely related to the white-flowered Bonesets.

Third Eye Herp

Lined Snake

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This month when visiting the “Show Me State,” I came across my first-ever Lined Snake while exploring a glades habitat in Missouri.

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This small, secretive serpent looks similar to a Garter Snake. It is mainly brown to grayish brown with three light stripes, one along the middle of the back, plus two on the sides. The belly is white with two distinct rows of half-moon shapes.

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Normally active from April through October, Lined Snakes hide during the day under rocks, logs, and other debris, becoming active at night.

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This snake lives in a wide variety of habitats, such as prairies, glades, empty lots in towns and suburbs, near old trash dumps, along highways where there is abundant debris for shelter, and in open, rocky woodlands.

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This species, which is typically about a foot long, feeds almost exclusively on earthworms. It was very cool to see this snake “in person” for the first time while on my herping trip.

Third Eye Herp

Bantam Sunfish

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While exploring waterways in southern Illinois this month, I caught a few examples of the smallest of all sunfish species that can be found in North America.

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This 3-inch fish occurs in swamps and mud-bottomed, heavily vegetated ponds, lakes and sloughs. It is perhaps the least colorful member of its genus.

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Like all sunfish, its body is deep and compressed. The symmetrical shape of its body gives the Bantam Sunfish the scientific species name symmetricus.

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Scattered populations of this fish exist in the southcentral United States. Adults have vertical bands of irregular brown spots often with scattered spots between the bars.

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The Bantam Sunfish feeds on a variety of freshwater invertebrates. It is considered to be the least studied sunfish in the United States and is also listed as “Threatened” in Illinois.

Third Eye Herp

Prairie Lizard

01 Victoria Glades_4775

While exploring this glade in Missouri, I can across a small, grayish brown, rough-scaled lizard that I’ve never seen in the wild before.

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This is a common species of open forests or along edges of woods and fields. It often lives around country homes and rock gardens, split rail fences and stacks of firewood.

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Adult range from 4-7 inches in total length, with their tail being over half of their total length. Males are easily differentiated from females by two bright blue patches on their underside that females lack.

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These lizards are extremely fast. When startled, they will often seek refuge in nearby vegetation or burrows. They also commonly escapes capture by running up trees.

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The Prairie Lizard eats a wide variety of insects and spiders. It was neat to see these cool creatures while visiting the “Show Me State.”

Third Eye Herp

Fairy Inkcap

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While looking for snakes in southern Illinois, I noticed a large number of tiny mushrooms at the base of a tree. This species derives its nutrients from decaying wood and is usually found on or near dead tree stumps or decaying logs.

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These gregarious little fungi occur from early spring until the onset of winter, and they are at their most spectacular when the caps are young and pale – sometimes nearly pure white.

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Common in Britain and Ireland and throughout Europe and North America, the Fairy Inkcap is truly a cosmopolitan mushroom, being found also in most parts of Asia and in South America and Australia.

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For most types of inkcap mushroom, the gills and caps melt into an inky black ooze – which is what gives the inkcaps their common name. Though this is not a feature of the Fairy Inkcap.

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Rather than melt into mush, the caps of the Fairy Inkcap remain brittle, and easily teared, hence their alternate common name of Trooping Crumble Cap.

Third Eye Herp

American Bird Grasshopper

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I happened to flush one of these creatures out of its hiding spot while walking through a field in southern Illinois. It did not just hop a few feet in front of me, like most grasshoppers, rather it took wing, flying several hundred feet and landing in high up in a tree.

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Although these large insects have two generations a year, they are most abundant in the Autumn. Mature females are approximately two inches in length, and the males are only slightly smaller. They are North America’s largest flying grasshoppers.

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While most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs in the soil, American Bird Grasshoppers overwinter as adults and lethargically active adults can be spotted on warm Winter days in meadows and along wooded edges throughout the colder months.

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The American Bird Grasshopper is found in fields and open woodlands in eastern and central North America, south into Mexico and South America. Somewhat migratory, in the northern part of range it may be an immigrant only and not breed.

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This species was the source of a newly discovered class of chemical compounds called caeliferins. When the grasshopper feeds on a plant, its caeliferins induce the plant to release volatile organic compounds. Caeliferins also play a role in defense, as the grasshopper expels large amounts of it when attacked.

Not only is its large size impressive, I found its detailed Art Deco-like pattern really neat.

Third Eye Herp