Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mothing at Clear Creek: The Subtle

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a moth night at Clear Creek Metro Park. The attendees saw a lot of moths over the course of the night, and I wanted to highlight a few species in particular. I'll be doing so in two posts; this post will focus on some of the more drab and subtle moth species of the night, while the next post will focus on the more showy and colorful moth species of the night!

Mothing in Ohio

Moth nights are fun. The activity of mothing—a hobby involving the pursuit of moth diversity—centers primarily around moth sheets, like the ones pictured above. Moth sheets in themselves are nothing special; they're just plain white bed sheets. The magic lies in the lighting. Although normal household lights will attract moths here and there, you really need to use one of two types of special lights to really attract the moths. UV lights and mercury vapor lights are the weapon of choice here, with mercury vapor lights being the best of the best. This moth night at Clear Creek consisted of 4 mothing sheets set up throughout one section of the park. Several dozens of various moth species visited each sheet over the night, so let's jump right into some of the more drab and subtle species of the night!

Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria)
First up is the Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria). The Common Lytrosis is a rather large moth, coming in with around a 3 inch wingspan. I think this is a perfect species to start out with. If it were to fly by you, you might simply dismiss it as a big brown moth. But upon closer inspection, you would see all the minute and intricate details present in the wings. We humans tend to like the showy, eye-grabbing things in life, and we often skip over things that don't instantly grab our attention. But if you start taking a closer look at those "boring" things, you will soon find that they aren't so boring after all.

Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria)
Mothing is like looking at abstract art. With abstract art, the appeal lies not within some straightforward meaning that the elements of the artwork create, but instead lies within the elements of the artwork themselvesthe colors and the contrast, the changing patterns across the canvas, the lines that take you on a journey through the artwork. The appeal of mothing, at least in my opinion, is the same. It's just fun to look closely at each species and see how all the colors, patterns, and lines interact with each other, and how that changes from species to species. This moth is called the Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria), and its dark patches set among a pale gray background is a great example of contrasting elements.

Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata)
One of the most enjoyable parts of mothing lies in the process of identification. This is the Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata). At first glance, it looks almost identical to the previous Barred Granite, but closer inspection reveals differences in patterning. When I go mothing, I take photos of everything I see. I then spend the next week or so trying to identify each species from the comfort of my home. I use the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America for this part. Identifying moths can be super frustrating, but in a fun way. Identifying these drab moths involves a lot of flipping from page to page through the Peterson Guide. Over and over. Again and again. Eventually you find the species you're looking for (but not always). As the name of this species implies, the larvae feed on Eastern Hemlock and occasionally Basalm Fir. Clear Creek Metro Park has a big population of Eastern Hemlocks, so it's no surprise that the Hemlock Angle is there!

Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria)
When I first saw this moth, I thought it was some species of emerald (subfamily Geometrinae), but it's actually the Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria) in the subfamily Ennomina. The caterpillar of the Pale Metanema uses various poplar species, and occasionally willows, as a host.

Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis)
This is a Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis). When it comes to most moths, we really don't know much information about their natural history. With most species, we at least know what types of plants the caterpillars feed on. With the Bog Lygropia, we don't even know that. In fact, from what I can tell we don't even know what the caterpillar looks like! There's so much fundamental information we're missing when it comes to the dark side of Lepidoptera.

The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica)
This is The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica), a rather common sight at mothing sheets. The common names of moths are strange. For decades, there were no common names. When people began "getting into" moths, those who made guides decided that they needed common names in addition to the scientific names. To solve this problem, they simply began making names up! Some common names were based off the scientific names. For example, the Bog Lygropia is called such because its scientific name is Lygropia rivulalis and it prefers wet and boggy areas. Other names are not as straightforward, and The Beggar is one such example. No one is exactly sure why it's call that, but the speculation is that whoever named it thought the dark patches on the wings looked like the holes in a stereotypical beggar's clothes.

Adult Woolly Bear
Next up is the Isabella Tiger Moth, which you probably better know as the Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella). A single individual visited the mothing sheet that night, and it happened to be a very worn individual that had lost a lot of its patterning. Luckily, there isn't much else that looks like an adult Isabella Tiger Moth. If you've ever wondered what the Woolly Bear turns into after metamorphosis, now you know! Side note: If you want to learn about some more "fuzzy" caterpillars, check out my previous post "Caterpillars of the Fuzzy Variety."

Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata)
I'll end this post with the Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata). The adults are your typical moth; the caterpillars, however, are unique. During the Arched Hooktip's caterpillar stage, the caterpillars like to be with other caterpillars of the same species. How do they find other caterpillars? They drum! One caterpillar will roll a leaf up, tighten it down with silk, and then crawl inside this new home. Once inside, the caterpillar will begin making vibrations by dragging parts of its anal segments against the leaf, drumming with its mouthparts, and performing a series of other actions. The resulting vibrations are a signal to any nearby Arched Hooktip caterpillars to come over and hang out in the new leaf shelter and eat together. This communicative behavior is super interesting, and very unique among the moths (at least from what we currently know). If you want to read more, here is a link to the original study: Invitation by vibration: recruitment to feeding shelters in social caterpillars

That's it for this post! I'll have the next post covering some of the showy moths up in a few days. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

American Burying Beetle

The Wilds Ohio
This past Friday I ventured up to The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, with the wildlife biologist for the Wayne National Forest and another wildlife intern for the National Forest. The Wilds is a fantastic wildlife conservation center that is known for offering open air bus tours through pastures containing rhinos, giraffes, Sichuan Takins, and a whole host of other exotic and endangered species. Our trip wasn't for these large and well-known species, though. Our trip was for a beetle... 

American Burying Beetle in Ohio
Meet the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). This 1.5 inch long orange and black insect is a very special species. It once ranged all across the eastern United States, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast. However, over the course of the 20th Century the American Burying Beetle all but disappeared from the world. Population after population began dying out, prompting the government to list this species as Federally Endangered in 1989. The reason for the decline and near-extinction of the American Burying Beetle has been a mystery for decades, as no one has been able to unequivocally pin down the exact cause. Regardless of the reason why, the American Burying Beetle was in dire trouble. Zoos and other conservation centers around the United States began collecting what little natural populations remained in the northern Great Plains and other scattered regions in order to create captive breeding populations.

This brings us to The Wilds, which began captive breeding its own population of American Burying Beetles in 2007. Every year the conservationists at The Wilds take a portion of their captive population and reintroduces those beetles back into the wild at a location on their property. I was able to participate in the 2017 "Planting of the Beetles" and document the process.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction
The American Burying Beetle has a rather interesting and unusual reproductive method. A pair will search for a fresh animal carcass—typically something between the size of a mouse and a pigeon. Upon finding a suitable carcass, the pair will begin to bury it to a typical depth of 4-10 inches. Once buried, the beetles will alter the shape of the carcass and add chemical secretions to it which will slow down the rate of decomposition. After this, the female will lay eggs in a separate chamber above the carcass. After the eggs hatch, both the male and female will use the carcass to feed the larvae. Once the larvae are ready to pupate, the parents will leave the nest.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction Efforts
The whole point of this reintroduction day is for us humans to do all the hard work for the beetles about to be reintroduced. About two dozen volunteers from various agencies and organizations ventured into the forest and began digging lots of holes—110 to be exact. Once the holes were dug, each was then "seeded" with a dead rat.

Dan Beetem Director of Animal Management for The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, examines a pair of American Burying Beetles.
After each hole was dug and seeded with a rat, the fun part began. Two coolers were stocked with dozens and dozens of tiny plastic containers, each containing a male and female beetle, with a few containing some "single" females.

American Burying Beetle Conservation
The volunteers would grab a container, pick an available hole, and then carefully add the pair of beetles into the hole. By completing the first half of the beetles' work, the conservationists aim to give this new population a leg up. The hope is that the beetle pair will realize that there is an appropriate food source that's already buried, and will then decide to mate with each other and give rise to the next generation.

American Burying Beetle Nicrophorus americanus
I first learned about the American Burying Beetle several years ago, and I've wanted to see one since then. I honestly thought I would never get to see one, but then I found myself getting to hold one. Moments like these—interacting with such a special creature on such a personal level—are what captivate and inspire me. These are the moments I hoped to experience when I chose to venture down the wildlife biology path.

American Burying Beetle Reproduction
When it comes to Ohio, there are several other organizations that have either previously reintroduced, or are continuing to reintroduce, populations of American Burying Beetles across the state. Whether these efforts have been successful in establishing a self-sustaining population is yet to be seen, however. An American Burying Beetle only lives for a year. For a self-sustaining population to be created, enough of the reintroduced individuals have to mate and lay eggs. Enough of these eggs must hatch and enough of the larvae must be adequately cared for. Enough of these larvae must then successfully pupate and overwinter. Enough of these overwintering individuals must then emerge, find a mate, find a carcass, and successfully reproduce. There are many steps in which something can go wrong, and most times all traces of a given reintroduced population vanish by the next summer. Take for example the efforts by the Cincinnati Zoo. Between 2013 and 2016, the Cincinnati Zoo released a total 748 adults into a park. These 748 adults were estimated to have produced a total of 2349 larvae. Each year, zoo workers would attempt to find any new adults in the area which were from last year's efforts. They only ever found 2 adults. It's possible that many new adults survived and then simply dispersed to other areas and were consequently never captured. It's also possible that most of the reproductive efforts failed at some point.

Reintroduction of the American Burying Beetle at The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, looks on the American Burying Beetles' new homes with optimism.
You might be thinking that it seems like we're fighting a losing battle when it comes to reestablishing the American Burying Beetle. Maybe that's true; there have been more losses in the world of wildlife conservation than there have been successes. But when it comes down to it, the species is still extant. There is still a chance. Conservationists will continue their struggle to help this species survive. I hope to see a day where self-sustaining populations of the American Burying Beetle dot the landscape they once inhabited. It's too early to say whether this dream is realistic or not, but I will remain hopeful.