Random Insect: Spring Azure

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Spring azure photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

Found in woodlands throughout much of eastern North America, spring azures (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae: Celastrina ladon) are rather eye-catching little butterflies. Relatively small in size, it is easy to overlook these insects when they are resting. The simple black-and-white pattern on the undersides of their wings makes them look rather drab at first glance. Once they take flight, however, the bright blue coloration flickering on the backs of their flapping wings makes them immediately apparent.

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Spring azure photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

Spring azure larvae feed on a variety of trees, shrubs, herbs and vines that flower in the spring. Like other butterfly species in their genus they have an interesting mutualism with ants known as myrmecophily. Azure caterpillars secrete a sugary substance known as honeydew, a byproduct of consuming more plant sap than they can digest. Honeydew attracts ants who then tend to the caterpillars as if they were dairy cattle. The ants get a steady food supply, and in turn they eagerly protect their little sugar-cows from predators. Together both insects help each other thrive.

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Random Fungi: Turkey Tails and Kin

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Turkey tail or similar fungus. Photographed 03/27/2016 at Zaleski State Forest near Logan, Ohio.

One of the most common forest fungi in North America is the turkey tail (Polyporales: Polyporaceae: Trametes versicolor). Found year-round on decaying hardwood trees and sometimes conifers, this mushroom gets its common name from its colorful, fan-like similarity to the tail of a wild turkey.

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Turkey tail or similar fungus. Photographed 03/27/2016 at Zaleski State Forest near Logan, Ohio.

Several other fungi also bear a strong resemblance to turkey tails, however. Other species of Trametes as well as the “false turkey tail” (Russulales: Stereaceae: Stereum ostrea) look pretty similar at first glance. They can be distinguished by identification techniques including pore count, spore print, microscopic features, and chemical reactions.

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Turkey tail or similar fungus. Photographed 03/27/2016 at Zaleski State Forest near Logan, Ohio.

Although fungus identification isn’t really within my realm of experience, I did want to share these interesting photos and basic information for future reference.

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Random Insect: Tachinid Flies

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Tachinid flies on mammal feces. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

There are over 150,000 described species of flies (Diptera) in the world, making them one of the most diverse animal orders on the planet. Although they are divided into over 160 families, a full seven percent of all known fly species are members of the massive family Tachinidae. They bear a superficial resemblance to other common flies like house flies (Muscidae) and flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), but have some notable differences. Generally they are a little larger, a little more bee-like in appearance, and have a large number of stiff bristles covering their abdomens.

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Tachinid fly on mammal feces. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

Tachinid flies are parasitoids of other insects. Females lay their eggs on a host insect, and once an egg hatches the worm-like fly larva eats its way into the host, slowly devouring it from within. Once fat and happy the larva pupates and emerges as an adult. Various Tachinids parasitize a variety of insects and other arthropods, but most commonly attack butterfly and moth caterpillars.

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Tachinid flies on mammal feces. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

I came across several specific Tachinids (Diptera: Tachinidae: Epalpus signifer) while hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park two weeks ago. These adults were feeding on what appeared to be the feces of a raccoon (Carnivora: Procyonidae: Procyon lotor). In spite of adult feeding habits, the larvae of this particular species are parasitoids of pinion moths (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae: Lithophane spp.).

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Squirrels Protesting My Campsite Location

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American red squirrel photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Earlier this month I spent a couple of nights camping in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Upon my arrival I started setting up my tent and almost immediately received a very vocal protest from a resident American red squirrel (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). I have encountered these small but loud tree-dwelling rodents many times across the country, and they are always quick to issue their loud warning calls. Found throughout heavily forested areas across the United States and Canada, their barks are unmistakable.

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Eastern gray squirrel photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Another concerned resident was this eastern gray squirrel (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Sciurus carolinensis). Although she never barked at me, she did circle my campsite a couple of times trying to figure out what I was all about. Before long both squirrels seemed content that I didn’t present a threat to them and they disappeared back into the trees.

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Random Plant: Yellow Trout-Lily

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Yellow trout-lily on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Found in moist woodlands of eastern North America, yellow trout-lilies (Erythronium americanum, Liliaceae) are one of many plants known as spring ephemerals. These plants germinate, grow, flower and reproduce in just a few weeks in early spring. Increasing day length and sun exposure in March trigger them to begin their short life cycles. By the time deciduous trees have leafed out in May, these plants have already gone to seed. During this period yellow trout-lilies can be found decorating forest floors with their mottled green-and-brown leaves and large, nodding yellow flowers.

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Yellow trout-lily on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The common name “trout” lily is thought to come from the variegated, oval-shaped leaves that superficially resemble the scales of certain trout species. This camouflage pattern may have arisen as a means to avoid herbivory by large mammals like deer.

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Yellow trout-lily on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The large, nodding yellow flowers are pollinated primarily by various wild bees. The seeds that develop grow accessory structures known as elaiosomes. These fleshy growths are rich in fats and proteins. This makes them appealing to ants who then try to drag them back to their nests. Along the way the ants unwittingly help disperse the seeds of this wildflower, encouraging its spread.

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Random Insect: Greater Bee Fly

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Greater bee fly on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Common and widespread across much of North America, greater bee flies (Diptera: BombyliidaeBombylius major) are usually found in and around woodlands. Adults are typically encountered from March through May feeding on the nectar of early spring wildflowers. Their larvae, in contrast, are parasitoids of solitary bees.

Female bees will repeatedly dig holes, provision them with food, and then lay a single egg inside each one. Bee fly females will locate these nests and lay one of their own eggs near the opening. The bee fly egg will hatch and the larva will eat the bee larva as well as the provisions the female bee left for her young. After pupating the bee fly will emerge as an adult.

This insidious behavior is great for the bee flies because it ensures their reproductive success. At the same time it is not so common that the bee populations suffer much as a whole.

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Plant-Insect Interaction: Bees on a Squawroot

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Squawroot on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Squawroot (Conopholis americana, Orobanchaceae) is a fascinating plant because it is a parasite of other plants. Found in eastern North America it feeds predominantly on nutrients produced by oaks and beeches (family Fagaceae). Since it does not perform photosynthesis and lacks the green chlorophyll found in most plants, it does not have true leaves. Instead small brown scales hug each of the equally small cream-colored flowers.

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Bee on a squawroot on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Also known as American cancer-root or bear corn, this seemingly unimpressive plant still manages to attract insect pollinators and reproduce. Although the flowers are small and lack color and aroma, insects are still drawn to the sweet nectar.

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Bumble bee on a squawroot on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The squawroot that I found on Big Fork Ridge at Great Smoky Mountains National Park the other day had attracted quite a crowd of various bees (Hymenoptera: Anthophila), all vying to extract what nectar they could from this plant. In early April it was one of few nectar-producing plants the bees could find.

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