Archive | May, 2011

Won’t you be my neighbor? Wildlife visitors

27 May
Adult antlion preening in mirror (Myrmeleontidae).

An antlion considering itself in a mirror.

Ah, Texas summers.  Heat like a broiling pot and air conditioning bills that could eat you alive.  In honor of this lovely change of season (there’s a brief week where the nights still get below 80) I left my back door open the other night to help cool off the house.  All sorts of wildlife too this as an invitation to drop by and say Hi.  Aside from the the junebugs who spent the evening dive bombing my computer screen I saw a variety of nocturnal insects, including the charismatic fellow above.  I found this adult antlion perched in my bathroom, apparently checking himself out in the mirror.  I have seen exactly four of these locally in the past year, so apparently I should consider leaving my back door open more often.  All the fun of collecting in the comfort of my own home!

This wasn’t my most exciting visitor, however.  The real fun was when I came by the back door to find my dog having a stare down with a large snake.

Water snake waiting to come in.

Snake waiting outside the door.

I don’t normally freak out over snakes (I spent a summer catching copperheads for a field project) but I also don’t normally find strange ones trying to enter my home.  Turns out I find this kind of unnerving.  Especially when the porch light is out and all I can see is a large dark shape.  This leaves the ‘can it kill me?’ question wide open here in Texas.  Of course, my first reaction was still to tell my dog to stay while I ran to grab the camera.  Some instincts run deep.

A water snake (Nerodia) lurking on back porch step.

A water snake (Nerodia) chilling out on my back porch step.

The flash had the added bonus of lighting up the patterning, revealing it to be a water snake.  Mean tempered, but not venomous.

Best exchange when I told this story:

Mom: What did you do with it?

Me:  I closed the door?

All in all, a fun evening.

Hopper Babies – Distinguishing adult and juvenile orthopterans

20 May
Katydid nymph on a leaf (Tettigoniidae).

Katydid nymph on a leaf (Tettigoniidae).

I found this impressively large katydid nymph hanging out at a gas station.  I thought he provided a particularly clear illustration on the difference between adult and juvenile wings in grasshoppers, katydids, etc.  Adult and juvenile orthopterans can generally be distinguished by the presence or absence of wings.  However, like other hemimetabolous insects, juvenile grasshoppers and co. gradually develop their wings as they move through larval molts, so later instars have signs of small, developing wings (wing pads or wing buds).  Moreover, some orthopteran species are brachypterous (short-winged) or apterous (wingless) as adults, further complicating the matter.  In collections, which generallly exclude immature insects, such species are notoriously underrepresented.

So the question is, how does one distinguish final instar grasshopper and katydid nymphs (those in the last juvenile stage prior to adulthood) from short-winged adults?  Here’s the trick as I learned it from my labmate Paul Lenhart.

Final instar katydid nymph grooming its hind leg (Tettigoniidae).

Final instar katydid nymph grooming its hind leg.

It took me a while to develop an eye for this, but the principle is fairly straight forward.  In the last nymphal instar before adulthood, orthopteran wings “flip.”  The hind wing (eventually to become the large, fan-folded flight structure) sits on top of the forewing (the elongate leathery tegmina which will protect the hindwing in adulthood).  You can see this in the picture above.  The main, costal vein of the hindwing is located dorsally (at the top), with a fan of veins running downwards, giving the characteristic “D” wing shape of a nymph.

A small male and large female grasshopper of the same species.

Sexually dimorphic male and female grasshoppers mate.

After the molt to adulthood the wings flip again, tucking the hindwing under the forewing with the costal vein now located ventrally (to the bottom).   Compare wings of the katydid nymph above to the more elongate, “U” shape of the forewing seen in these adult male and female lubber grasshoppers. The  veins in the short forewing of the brachypterous female run mostly parellel, rather than fanning downwards.

Amber Twig Ants

6 May
An amber-colored twig ant poses by an amber ring (Pseudomyrmex pallidus).

An amber colored twig ant poses by an amber ring (Pseudomyrmex pallidus).

Ran across a few members of this small species of twig ants nesting in some hollow willow twigs near my home.  The little workers were so fast I only managed to snap one decent photo–the above picture where the honey colored ant showed off how well she matched my amber ring.

Pseudomyrmex ants are easily distinguished by their long narrow bodies and wasp-like appearance.  The most common local species is the elongate twig ant (Pseudomyrmex gracilis) a large-bodied ant with distinct black and red coloration.  By contrast, P. pallidus is tiny and delicate, with a characteristic amber coloration.

Like other Pseudomyrmex, the small colonies of P. pallidus nest in stems and twigs.  Twig-popping, or the snapping of dead tree stems, is an ant hunting technique that was recently recommended to me, and it has been fun to see what turns up.