Random Insect: Robber fly

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Robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) photographed 06/20/2014 near Clayton, Michigan.

Robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) are sometimes also known as assassin flies, and for good reason. These stout-bodied predators routinely hunt down a variety of insect prey, some often larger than themselves. Wasps, bees, dragonflies, and grasshoppers are usually on the menu. They’re typically seen resting on high surfaces in relatively dry, open areas, watching for movement. When they see a potential prey item they swoop down, catching it while in flight. In addition to being dangerous to other insects, they can present a hazard to humans as well. Mishandled robber flies will not hesitate to deliver painful bites.

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Robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) photographed 06/20/2014 near Clayton, Michigan.

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Great Blue Heron on the hunt

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Throughout the summer Great Blue Herons (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) can often be seen in and around a variety of North American waters. These large birds spend a lot of time in both saltwater and freshwater environments, wading and patiently waiting for prey. Once a fish, frog, or other small animal wanders too close, these herons can strike with lightning reflexes and grab it with their long bills.

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Last week I came across this individual on the edge of a large pond at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio. At first it seemed odd to me that it would be hunting in a section that was completely covered in duckweed. I thought the duckweed must have made it impossible for it to see prey. On the other hand, however, the duckweed probably made the heron invisible to animals in the water. I suspect that when the prey animals moved near the surface, they must have disturbed the duckweed enough to draw the heron’s attention. At one point I almost got to witness the heron strike. Something seemed to catch its eye and it began to move…

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

…but then a moment later it stopped and went back to standing motionless. Must have been a false alarm.

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

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Random Plant: Pale evening primrose

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Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida, Onagraceae) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida, Onagraceae) is an eye-catching native of the North American west. Found growing in arid regions from British Columbia through Texas, it’s often seen in desert shrublands and pinyon-juniper woodlands.

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Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida, Onagraceae) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

This primrose features thick reddish stems and long, narrow leaves with wrinkled edges. The large, showy flowers can appear all the way from mid-spring through mid-autumn. The four wide, white petals are tinged with yellow near their bases where they give rise to eight long stamens. Pollination is performed by certain moths and bees, and this plant is an important food source for many native bees in particular. After pollination the petals turn pink and the flower develops into a seed-bearing four-chambered capsule.

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The decline and rise of burrowing mayflies in western Lake Erie

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Burrowing mayfly (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 06/28/2014 at Metzger Marsh east of Bono, Ohio.

The decline and rise of burrowing mayflies (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia spp.) in western Lake Erie represents an excellent example of how humans have the capacity to both ruin and save the world. Although our pollution decimated these insects and disrupted food webs, ecosystems, and human quality of life for decades, our ability to curtail our reckless behavior helped restore what we had once nearly destroyed.

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Burrowing mayfly (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 06/28/2014 at Magee Marsh east of Bono, Ohio.

First, a little background. Burrowing mayflies are most often encountered near lakes and rivers throughout North America, especially in the east. The adults are relatively large flying insects that can swarm and mate by the millions. Their eggs hatch into aquatic nymphs that dig into lake and river sediment where they wait to ambush and eat other arthropods. After spending a sufficient amount of time feeding and growing, they molt into adults, take to the air to mate, and complete their life cycles. Along the way many are eaten by fish and other animals, making them both predator and prey in the middle of local food webs.

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Burrowing mayflies (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 06/28/2014 at Magee Marsh east of Bono, Ohio.

Historically large numbers of burrowing mayflies lived in and around the western basin of Lake Erie. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, unchecked water pollution generated by unprecedented municipal, agricultural, and industrial expansion wreaked havoc on the lake. All forms of contamination filled the water including raw sewage, phosphorous and nitrates from fertilizer, heavy metals like mercury, and organic compounds like PCBs. Pollutants and subsequent reduced oxygen levels extirpated many species including burrowing mayflies, and by the 1960s Lake Erie was declared “dead.” Contamination was so bad in tributaries like the Rouge and Cuyahoga Rivers that they literally caught fire more than once. Beaches became unfit for swimming, water supplies became unfit for drinking, and sport and commercial fish populations took a big hit.

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Burrowing mayfly (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 06/28/2014 at Magee Marsh east of Bono, Ohio.

By the 1970s environmental and conservation movements had raised public awareness of pollution and its effects on our quality of life. Laws were enacted beginning in the 1970s to limit the amount of pollution released into our lakes and rivers. Throughout the 1980s water quality slowly improved. And then, by the 1990s, burrowing mayflies finally returned to western Lake Erie after a 40 year absence.

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hexagenia5 Burrowing mayfly (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 06/28/2014 at Metzger Marsh east of Bono, Ohio.

Today these “delightful nuisances” are a perennial phenomenon to be enjoyed and cursed by all. Their mating swarms again reach into the millions and are so dense that they appear on weather radar. Thousands of their bodies litter buildings and streets near the lake, simultaneously fascinating and disgusting the local populace. And not only do they adorn lakeside homes, they can be found spread out to 30 miles inland as well:

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Burrowing mayfly (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae: Hexagenia sp.) photographed 07/13/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Although the abundance of burrowing mayflies has become almost comical in recent years, their near-extermination and the effect on local ecosystems at the hands of human activity remain fresh and troubling memories. Our shameful behavior is to be abhored, to be sure, but our ability to reverse our actions is a sign of encouragement. If we can undo the damage we caused to the Great Lakes, surely we have it in us to undo the damage we have caused elsewhere.

Posted in Culture, Ecology, Entomology, General, Organism Interactions, Random Insect, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Random Plant: Scarlet globemallow

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Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea, Malvaceae) photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Native throughout arid regions of the North American west, scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea, Malvaceae) can be found inhabiting deserts, prairies, scrublands, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. This sun-loving perennial is highly tolerant to both drought and salinity, making it well-adapted to these xeric environments.

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Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea, Malvaceae) photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The above-ground parts of this plant arise from a deep, woody taproot that can reach three feet (nearly 1 m) in length. Early in the spring it begins to grow hairy shoots that reach only 4-16 inches (10-40 cm) in height. The leaves are palmately lobed, deeply incised, and fuzzy, having a whitish-green appearance. Dark orange, five-parted flowers appear from late spring through mid-summer. After pollination they develop into dry fruit bearing hard seeds.

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Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea, Malvaceae) photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Scarlet globemallow is an important forage plant for a number of large mammals including wildlife like pronghorn, bighorn sheep, bison, and prairie dogs as well as domesticated livestock. Although it’s not the most palatable plant to eat, it’s better than nothing when grasses are sparse.

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Black-throated Sparrow

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Black-throated Sparrow (Passeriformes: Emberizidae: Amphispiza bilineata) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Black-throated Sparrows (Passeriformes: Emberizidae: Amphispiza bilineata) are relatively easy to identify thanks to their bold facial markings and, unsurprisingly, black throats. These small birds inhabit desert scrublands of the western US and Mexico. They have a high tolerance for heat and can go for some time without drinking water. During dry periods they can get the water they need from the insects and seeds they eat.

These birds begin mating in February and nest throughout the spring and summer, raising two broods per year. After building nests low to the ground in shrubs and cacti, the females typically lay three or four eggs per brood. Adults spend a great deal of nesting season scouring the ground for insects to feed themselves and their chicks.

Posted in National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment