Stone Centipede

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January isn’t the most ideal time to look for most types of invertebrates in northeast Ohio, but on above-freezing days some cool things can turn up. This month I found a few of these distinctive looking creatures by lifting rocks in my backyard.

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Centipedes (which in Latin means “hundred foot”) are exclusively predatory creatures. Because their exoskeletons lack a waxy coating that helps to retain water inside their bodies, centipedes require moist environments to survive.

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This particular type is known as a Stone Centipede; it was a species that I often encountered as a child growing up in Cleveland when looking for bugs. Though we used to call them “Hundred Leggers,” they only have 15 pairs of legs. They thrive in soil, leaf litter, under rocks and inside dead wood or logs.

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Centipedes are some of the oldest terrestrial animals and were some of the very first creatures to crawl from the sea onto the land. The first centipedes were probably very similar in appearance to modern centipedes. All are nocturnal and actively hunt down insects and other small animals.

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To subdue prey, this creature uses “poison claws” which are located on each side of its head. At less than two inches in total length, the Stone Centipede is harmless to humans, but deadly to spiders, sowbugs and any other smaller creature it may encounter.

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North American River Otter

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As I was hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath this week, I noticed some movement in the water in the Cuyahoga River. Once I got a good look at them and made a positive identification, I was pleasantly surprised to be observing my first wild North American River Otters.

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North American River Otters are native to Ohio, but in the early 1900s they were extirpated from the state due to poor water quality. Throughout the twentieth century, Ohio waterways started to bounce back and in 1986 the Division of Wildlife decided to reintroduce otters to the state.

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These mammals are built for swimming. They have an excellent cardiovascular and respiratory system that allows them to stay under water for up to 4 minutes at a time. They can also close their ears and nostrils to keep water out and have a clear third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane that protects their eyes while under water.

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A North American River Otter’s diet consists of mainly fish, but they will also eat various reptile and amphibian species as well as small mammals and birds. I got to see these animals eating their prey, which in this case was a European Carp.

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These animals are often seen in family groups in the Summer and early Fall. They are generally nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk), although daytime activity is not uncommon in undisturbed areas. They are known for being playful and I saw one rolling around in the sand, seeming to enjoy himself.

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A member of the Weasel Family, this is a stocky animal weighing 11 to 33 pounds, with short legs, a muscular neck and an elongated body. It has long whiskers that are used to detect prey in dark water. Its body length ranges from 26 to 42 inches.

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It was awesome to observe these animals in the wild and to witness their natural behavior.

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Hare’s Foot Inkcap

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Since the rain has started last week, our rock garden has filled with inkcaps. The small, umbrella-shaped fruit bodies (mushrooms) of the fungus grow in grass or woodchips and are short-lived, usually collapsing in a few hours.

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This is an inkcap of woodland habitats, where it grows among twigs and leaf litter. Outside of its “natural habitat,” in parks and gardens, this little mushroom is common in flowerbeds covered in woodchip mulch.

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Coprinopsis lagopus gets its common English name from the way the young “fur-like” fruiting body begins to come out of the ground before turning into a traditional-looking mushroom. this inkcap has a worldwide distribution, occurring on every continent except Greenland and Antarctica.

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The slender, whitish stems are up to 5 inches long and very thin. When the fruit bodies are young and fresh, the caps are reddish brown and can glisten – especially if wet. As the mushroom matures, the outer edge of the cap turn a greyish color while the center remains reddish brown.

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This is known as a saprobic species, meaning that it obtains nutrients by breaking down organic matter into simpler molecules. The cool shapes and intricate patterns of this fine, fragile fungus make it a welcome sight on a January day.

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Pitch Pine

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This interesting tree is found in environments which other species find unsuitable for growth, such as acidic, sandy and low nutrient soils. It is known as a “pioneer species,” since it is often the first tree to vegetate an area after it has been cleared away.

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Pitch Pine has an exceptionally high regenerative ability; if the main trunk is cut or damaged by fire, it can re-sprout using epicormic shoots.

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This is a rapid-growing tree when young, gaining around one foot of height per year under optimal conditions until the tree is 50 – 60 years old, whereupon growth slows.

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Pitch Pine trunks are usually mostly straight with a slight curve to them. They are covered in irregular, thick, large plates of bark. Its globular form of twisting, gnarled, drooping branches does a poor job at self-pruning.

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This is one of the most fire resilient eastern conifers. Its adaptations allow for survival in a high frequency fire area such as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

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High resin content in this species produced the name “Pitch Pine.” Early American settlers would often ignite pine knots for torches. Because of its high resin content, its decay-resistant wood was once popular for ship building, mine props, railroad ties and fencing.

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Today Pitch Pine Pitch is an important food source for wildlife. Sprouts and seedlings serve as browse for White-tail Deer, Cottontail Rabbits and Meadow Mice. Its seeds are eaten by Red Squirrels and a wide range of birds.

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Small Red Morning Glory

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While visiting southern Illinois in October, this brightly colored flower caught my eye as I was checking my minnow traps that I placed in a waterway near some railroad tracks.

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This plant is native to tropical America and has been introduced in much of the United States. It can be found in disturbed areas along roads, stream banks, fence rows, old fields and railroad tracks.

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Red Morning Glories are fast growing and have twisting, climbing flowering vines that attract butterflies. Their vines can reach 10 or more feet in length.

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As is name implies, its flowers are not as large as those of other morning glories, being about 2-4 inches long and about half as wide. The blooms are dull red with an orange throat.

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The leaves of this plant are heart-shaped at the base, and commonly are three-lobed. Their smooth margins sometimes develop low, pointy lobes, so that they almost look like ivy leaves.

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Though Small Red Morning Glory’s long, tubular flowers are clearly adapted for pollinators such as hummingbirds and hawk moths, they’re also capable of self-pollination.

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It was neat to encounter this plant, which is also known as Redstar, Scarlet Creeper, Starflower and Scarlet Morning Glory, for the first time.

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Clouded Sulphur

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This is often the last butterfly of the year that I see, sometimes here in Ohio as late as mid-November. I also come across them pretty consistently on my visits to southern Illinois in October.

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The Clouded Sulphur may be encountered in fields, lawns, alfalfa or clover fields, meadows and roadsides. Swarms of these butterflies often congregate at mud puddles. Their range covers most of North America.

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Unlike some other late-flying species, the Clouded Sulphur does not hibernate over the winter as an adult. On the upper sides of its wings, males have a solid black border, while the females have yellow spots in their borders (unfortunately, this butterfly rarely lands with its wings open).

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The word “butterfly” probably originated because of the yellow color of European sulphurs. The Clouded Sulphur has seasonal color variations that range from a white to yellow.

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To me seeing this insect is a sure sign of Autumn, as it often visits Fall-flowering plants like New England Aster.

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Southern Two-lined Salamander

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While visiting southern Illinois in October of this year, I came across a few of these fine amphibians while exploring a creek. Southern Two-lined Salamanders are fairly small, usually being three to four inches in total length inches in total length.

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They are tan to light yellow with two distinct black stripes running from their eyes to their tail. This creature is found in moist habitats – most commonly beneath rocks, leaves, and logs along the edges of woodland streams and seeps – but some may occur on the forest floor as well.

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Like most salamanders, the Southern Two-lined Salamander eats small invertebrates like spiders, ticks, earthworms, beetles, millipedes, snails, grubs, flies and ants.

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Adults head to breeding streams in late Winter to early Spring. Their eggs are attached under rocks in streams and the female attends the eggs until they hatch in late Spring. Their aquatic larval period lasts from 1-3 years.

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I have Northern Two-lined Salamanders residing in the creek in my backyard, so it was nice to see their southern relatives while herping in the Land of Lincoln.

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Eastern Prickly Pear

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While visiting a sandhill prairie in Missouri in October, I saw a fair number of these plants. Prickly Pears are considered an old group within the cactus family and contain around 150 species. Like other cacti, its fixed spines and small, hair-like prickles readily adhere to skin or hair, then detach from the plant.

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It has the largest range of any cactus in the United States and can be found from New Mexico and Montana east to Florida and Massachusetts. Because of special antifreeze chemicals in its cells, it can survive the freezing temperatures of the northern states where it resides.

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It some situations it can form large colonies, while in others it may occur as a few individuals in an area. Eastern Prickly Pear is a typical cactus in that its photosynthetic stem (also known as a pad) acts as a leaf. This stem also stores water.

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Generally the plants are no more than a foot and a half tall and tend to sprawl on the ground. Their flowers are produced at the ends of its pads in early Summer. The flowers are usually yellow, but east of the Appalachian Mountains and on dunes, the center is often red to orange.

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After flowering, a red, egg-shaped fruit begins to appear. The fruit is edible and can be eaten raw after removing the skin. Jellies, candies and other sweets are often made from the fruit, while some people also snack on the fleshy pads of the plant. Prickly Pear as been a Mexican and Central American dietary staple for thousands of years.

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This cactus grows in open, dry areas, often in rocky or thin soils. It can be found in or on fencerows, roadsides, rocky glades, rock outcrops, cliffs, old quarries, dunes and prairie. Its roots need to be dry during winter to prevent rot, so well drained sites are necessary.

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Cardinal Jumper

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While visiting a sandhill prairie in Missouri last month, I came across this very cool creature. Its bright colors mimic those of a “velvet ant” – a type of wasp that possess a very painful sting.

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The Cardinal Jumper is a Jumping Spider and part of a family that contains over 6,000 described species; it is the largest family of spiders and makes up about 13% of all known spiders.

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Jumping Spiders do not make webs to catch food, but use silk for building retreats, protecting eggs and creating safety lines while moving about. Having excellent eyesight needed for active hunting, Cardinal Jumpers tend to notice everything around them, including both large and small beings.

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This species is most often found in areas with tall grass and weeds and it frequently climbs up on the grass stems. Its main food is insects, including grasshoppers and katydids several times bigger than they are.

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Cardinal Jumpers have a well-developed internal hydraulic system extends their limbs by altering the pressure of the body fluid within them. This enables them to jump without having large muscular legs like a grasshopper. Most Jumping Spiders can jump several times the length of their bodies.

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Interestingly, it seems to be most commonly sighted during the month of October, which makes its Halloween colors quite appropriate.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

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Driving back from Snake Road in southern Illinois one evening last month, I saw this cool and unusual creature rooting around in an empty field.

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Though their body shape resembles that of an opossum, the Nine-banded Armadillo is more closely related to sloths and anteaters. Around 20 species of armadillo exist, but the Nine-banded is the only one found in the United States.

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The term “armadillo” means “little armored one” in Spanish, and refers to the presence of the bony, armor-like plates covering their body. Contrary to their common name, Nine-banded Armadillos can have 7 to 11 bands of armor.

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Nine-banded Armadillos are solitary, largely nocturnal animals that come out to forage around dusk. They are extensive burrowers, with a single animal sometimes maintaining up to 12 burrows on its range. I most often see them at night, like this one from a couple of years ago.

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They are mainly insectivores that forage for meals by thrusting their snouts into loose soil and leaf litter and digging up grubs, beetles, ants, termites, and worms, which their sensitive noses can detect through 8 inches of soil.

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During the Great Depression, the species was hunted for its meat in East Texas, where it was known as poor man’s pork, or the “Hoover Hog” by those who considered President Herbert Hoover to be responsible for the Depression.

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Nine-banded Armadillos nearly always have litters of four babies – identical quadruplets. Armadillo babies look very much like adults, but are smaller and softer than their armored parents. This is a fascinating animal that I always enjoy encountering.

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