Random Insect: False Blister Beetle

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

True blister beetles (Coleoptera: Meloidae) get their common name from their ability to produce cantharidin, a substance that can cause chemical burns. They produce this compound to ward off potential predators, including humans. A person who touches one of these beetles can suffer blisters on the affected areas of their skin, and ingesting them can be fatal.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Similar to the true blister beetles are the false blister beetles (Coleoptera: Oedemeridae), and one particular species is shown here. Many species in this family look superficially similar to true blister beetles, and some species even produce cantharidin. Overall, however, false blister beetles are generally harmless.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

These beetles are widespread throughout the world, with nearly 100 species in North America and around 1,500 species worldwide. They are most common near coasts and in wet wooded areas. Their young larvae live among moist decaying wood and roots, and the adults feed mostly on pollen and nectar from flowers.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

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Timpanogos Cave National Monument

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Of all the caves administered by the National Park Service, a visit to Timpanogos Cave National Monument requires a bit more effort than most. Located in American Fork Canyon southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, this particular cave happens to be situated in a cliff far above the canyon floor. A cave tour here can only be had by hiking 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of trail up 1100 feet (335 m) of elevation.

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View up American Fork Canyon with Timpanogos Cave National Monument highlighted in red. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although this park is within a thirty minute drive of the nearly two million people in the Salt Lake City area, the inherent challenge of the trail seems to keep crowds manageable. I visited on a Saturday afternoon in late May but parking and cave tour tickets were still available.

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Trail map to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The hike up to the cave is as beautiful and fascinating as the cave itself. The trail starts off with a relatively modest grade as it winds gently through dense conifers, oaks, maples, and verdant ground cover.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Before long the grade gets steeper and rocks overtake plants as the dominant feature.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Rockfalls are common on these steep canyon slopes, and there are a number of especially dangerous spots where hikers are not supposed to stop for anything.

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Rock fall warning sign. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The National Park Service has helpfully painted striped lines in these hazardous locations, letting visitors know where they should not linger.

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Steep trail up to the cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Among the hazards there are endless gorgeous views of American Fork Canyon.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Farther up there are three tunnels that have been blasted through the canyon walls.

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Tunnel blasted through metamorphic quartzite rock. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The rocks along the trail are sedimentary in origin.  From roughly 400 to 300 million years ago this region was low and flat, bordering an extensive salt-water sea. Over millions of years sand, mud, and coral reefs each occupied this area, and along the way each environment left behind its own unique sediments. The lowest and oldest deposits are beach sands followed by shale and then several different limestones. Over the last 60 million years these rocks have been uplifted along the Wasatch Fault to form the Wasatch Range.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under the weight of overlying limestone and the heat and pressure of faulting and uplift, the lowest and oldest beach sands have undergone metamorphism. Over millions of years they have transformed from sandstone to quartzite. In some places faults created by Wasatch uplift are visible in these older rocks.

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Trail blasted through metamorphic quartzite rock with a fault. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Above the quartzite hundreds of feet of younger limestones dominate the rock walls. These sediments were deposited in deeper water where billions of marine organisms bearing calcite shells once lived. Over millions of years as these animals lived and died they left behind the mineral components of their bodies, and this calcite gradually accumulated into thick deposits of dark gray limestone.

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Trail blasted through limestone. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Near the top of the trail the steep switchbacks reveal how thick these limestone layers really are.

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Switchbacks across the limestone near the cave entrance. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Faulting, uplift, and mildly corrosive carbonic acid formed in groundwater have together lead to cave formation in this massive limestone. At the end of the long, beautiful, fascinating hike up the canyon visitors are finally greeted by the entrance to the cave.

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Entrance to the cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The cave tour here actually takes visitors through three different caves, each connected by man-made tunnels. The first cave is also the oldest, named Hansen Cave after its discoverer in 1887.

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Reflective pool inside Hansen Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

While reflecting pools of standing water make this cave rather attractive, this particular spot was heavily looted by early explorers. Many of the stalactites, stalagmites, and other calcite formations were broken loose and stolen. In spite of this much of the flowstone remains intact and is rather beautiful.

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Flowstone inside Hansen Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The second cave is Middle Cave, and the deep dark passageways here are some of the tightest and most challenging to navigate.

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Deep, dark passageway inside Middle Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The final cave is Timpanogos Cave itself which harbors a variety of interesting features. The first is the Great Heart of Timpanogos, a big heart-shaped stalactite stained an orange-pink color thanks to contamination by iron and manganese.

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The Great Heart of Timpanogos. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Right next to this formation is cave popcorn stained green by aragonite and nickel.

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Green cave popcorn. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Throughout the depths of the cave are some of its most famous features, known as helictites. These delicate dripstones grow out randomly, formed by calcite-laden water driven by capillary action evaporating in any direction.

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Helictites photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Once out of the cave visitors are greeted with a gorgeous view down American Fork Canyon with South Salt Lake in the distance.

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Looking down on South Salt Lake through American Fork Canyon. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Although this seems like a really long post and I have gushed on and on about the virtues of Timpanogos Cave, I really had to cut a lot out of this to keep it relatively brief. It’s funny to think that I almost did not visit this location, thinking its proximity to Salt Lake City would make it a crowded, unpleasant place to visit. I was honestly surprised by its relative remoteness, beauty, and abundance of fascinating nature features. I am glad that I had an afternoon to kill and decided to visit this spot on a whim. If you ever find yourself in Salt Lake City with a few hours to spare, Timpanogos Cave is definitely worth a visit.

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Random Insect: Click Beetle

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Click beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Click beetles (Coleoptera: Elateridae) are unique insects because of a special trick they can perform. When they find themselves stuck upside-down or alarmed by a potential predator, they can suddenly “snap” their flexible thoracic joints to create a “click” sound and launch themselves through the air. After jumping several inches from their starting point they usually find themselves upright, ready to continue about their day.

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Click beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

These beetles are found in a wide variety of habitats. Approximately 10,000 species have been described worldwide, with nearly 1,000 in North America alone. The adults and larvae of most species feed on a variety of plant material, but generally fall into the category of “mostly harmless” to humans.

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Click beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

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Random Plant: Mule-ears

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Mule-ears photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Mule-ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis, Asteraceae) are relatively conspicuous herbaceous plants found throughout much of the western United States. These sunflower relatives feature long, broad leaves that resemble mule ears as well as numerous large yellow flower heads. They inhabit the intermountain west and are most common among sagebrush, meadows, grasslands, and open forests. Although these perennials tolerate relatively low amounts of moisture, they do best in mesic environments with plenty of sunshine. Under ideal growing conditions they can form dense stands, outcompeting other plants in the immediate area.

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Mule-ears photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Leafy growth first appears as early as March and can be an important early-season food source for large grazing mammals. Flowers are produced from about April through June, and many large mammals find them to be particularly attractive treats. From July onward most of these plants largely dry up, making them uninteresting to foraging animals.

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Mule-ears photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

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The Great Salt Lake, Utah

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Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Beyond the Great Lakes that surround my native Michigan, the next largest lake in the United States is the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah. Although the lakes of both states share similarly impressive surface areas they are incredibly different in their geologic processes and resulting ecosystems and economic impacts.

The Great Lakes are the continent’s largest bodies of fresh water and teem with a massive array of fish and other interrelated organisms. This region receives a generous amount of annual rainfall, and all that water makes its way through streams and rivers across a vast watershed and eventually reaches the Great Lakes. There it collects and waits before it finally makes its way out to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence Seaway between the US and Canada. The constant flow of water ensures that salts and other minerals are continuously flushed out to sea and the system as a whole remains fresh. The abundance of fresh water lakes, rivers, and estuaries provide countless homes for a staggering array of invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Tourism and sport fishing are multi-billion-dollar industries, and the open channels to the sea provide billions of dollars in economic transportation benefits.

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Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Great Salt Lake, in contrast, harbors an entirely different yet equally fascinating environment borne of its unique geography. Located in the Great Basin of the intermountain west, this area is defined by its watersheds having no connection to the ocean. Runoff from relatively dry mountains and valleys collects in streams and rivers and makes its way to lakes, but from there the water has no outlet. Instead of flowing out to the sea it just sits and evaporates in the hot desert sun. Since salts and other minerals are not flushed out to the ocean they instead collect in these basins. They accumulate over time, increase the salinity of the lakes, and amass substantial mineral deposits. While the average salinity of the world’s oceans is around 3.5%, the salinity of the Great Salt Lake can fluctuate between 5% and 27% depending on location and environmental factors.

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Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The unique hydrologic cycle of the Great Basin gives the lakes within its borders some novel characteristics. The most common life forms within the water tend to be brine shrimp, brine flies, and salt-loving or salt-tolerant species of algae and bacteria. These novel yet abundant organisms provide a vast food source for a wide variety of migrating birds. Although the Great Salt Lake appears inhospitable to life, it actually hosts a complex web of organism interactions.

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Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The abundant salt and other mineral accumulations within the Great Salt Lake have also offered opportunities for industry. Deposits of sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium sulfate, and other minerals have been significant for such uses as water-softening, ice melt, salt lick blocks for livestock, dust suppressants, fertilizers, magnesium metal, and chlorine gas. The Great Salt Lake and other lakes of the Great Basin have proved not only invaluable to unique organisms, but to unique human needs as well.

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Marmot Crossing

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“Marmot Crossing” sign photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Last week I spent a couple of nights camping at Great Basin National Park in east-central Nevada. One point of interest was a stretch of road near Baker Creek that was crawling with yellow-bellied marmots (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Marmota flaviventris). So many of these small mammals were scurrying across the road here that I had to drive very slowly to avoid squashing any.

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Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

A western relative of the eastern woodchuck (M. monax), these marmots are sometimes called “rockchucks.” Living mostly among rocky slopes they dig burrows in coarse gravel and sand. They hibernate underground from autumn through the winter, and once spring arrives they begin their activities in earnest.

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Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

In April and May one of their primary activities is breeding. Males tend to form harems and typically guard three or four females and their offspring. Females gestate for only about 30 days so new marmot pups are a common sight in May and June.

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Yellow-bellied marmot pup photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Once reproduction is out of the way these animals focus the rest of the summer season mostly on eating. They feed on the stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of a wide variety of plants. They are not picky eaters, and this generalist herbivory has allowed them to flourish throughout the North American west.

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Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

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Random Insect: Short-tailed Ichneumon Wasp

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Short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Ichneumon wasps are perhaps the largest animal family on the planet, made up of between 60,000 and 100,000 different species. Approximately 5,000 to 8,000 can be found in North America, and of these eleven are of the genus shown here (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Ophion sp.). These are among the most common Ichneumon wasps in North America and they also happen to be attracted to lights. Because of this it’s not unusual to see them from late spring to late summer hovering around porches at night.

Although Ichneumon wasps are a vast and very diverse group of insects, one notable characteristic they all have in common relates to their wing venation. There are technical terms to describe this, but most people just call it the “horse head” shape that appears mid-wing:

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Wing detail of a short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Many insects feature one or more simple eyes called “ocelli,” often in conjunction with larger compound eyes. Ophion species have three very prominent ocelli, effectively giving them five notably large eyes. While the compound eyes have enough resolution to make out images, the ocelli only detect light and motion.

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Head detail of a short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Adult Ophion wasps breed during the warmer months of the year. Inseminated females seek out caterpillars and lay an egg on each one they find. Once the egg hatches the wasp larva bores into the caterpillar host and slowly devours it from within, eventually pupating and emerging as an adult. This parasitoid behavior is like parasitic behavior, but it ultimately kills the host. Since the caterpillars of many butterflies and moths are economically damaging pests of crops, many Ichneumon wasps are important biological control agents. Ophion species do not happen to be among of the more useful to humans.

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Short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

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