Wildlife Wednesday

Wildlife Wednesday: The Glory of Mistflower

Wildlife Wednesday: The Glory of Mistflower

Purple Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) aka Blue Mistflower is a common late summer and autumn blooming wildflower, found over much of the state of Texas. This bushy showy wildflower is extremely popular with pollinators and other insects, because of the copious amounts of nectar it produces on its bounteous small flowers. Recently, our naturalists have been watching a wide variety cool and interesting insects visiting the plant, which has been blooming in the Pocket Prairie and wildflower gardens around the Nature Center. Here’s a little review of some of the creatures we’ve found out on our Mistflower.

People don’t usually think of beetles as pollinators, but we’ve recently found Spotted Cucumber Beetles (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) flying between the flowers in the park, feeding on nectar and pollen from a variety of Fall wildflowers, like Mistflower, Sunflowers, and Goldenrod. The tiny leaf beetles are only about .64 cm (.25 inches) long. There are 2 generations per breeding season in the South, and we are currently enjoying the 2nd generation of adults for the year. These adults will most like overwinter in forest and garden leaf litter. The name “cucumber beetle” comes from the larva’s habit of feeding on the roots of cucumber plants, as well as other gourd and melon species.

The tiny flowers of mistflower are very popular with smaller butterflies, like Skippers and Little Yellows (Pyrisitia lisa). This small butterfly is aptly named, reaching a wing span of only 4.4 cm (1.73 inches). We seem to get an influx of them this time of year, because of the eclosion (emergence from the pupal case/chrysalis) of the last brood of the season in this region, and migration of more northerly populations to the South. The caterpillars feed on Partridge Pea, a native legume that grows in prairies and grassy fields.

Wool Carder Bees (Anthidium maculosum) are solitary bees, and are just a bit shorter than honeybees, but thicker-bodied. Unlike honeybees, the males males are larger than the females and territorial, and they survive after mating. The females mate with various different males, and establish a nest to lay eggs and raise young by themselves. They are referred to as “carder bees”, because of their habit of gathering plant hairs and fibers to construct their nests.

Tiny little moths, like this Coffee-loving Pyrausta (Pyrausta tyralis) are also covering. These dainty colorful moths only reach a wingspan of 1.7 cm (.67 inches). Their numbers suddenly jump this time of year, here in Houston, along with many other newly emerging and migrating moths. This species gets its name from the larval host plant, Wild Coffee. They have many other similarly patterned and similarly sized relatives in the same genus.

Well, we hope you enjoyed our mini review of some of the insects that have been visiting our Mistflower, here at the Nature Discovery Center. Also, we hope you will consider this beautiful and robust plant for your own home garden, both as decoration and food for wild pollinators.

If you get a chance, come out to the park on a sunny day, and see for yourself whio is visiting the mistflower!

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs:  Eric Duran | NDC; Little Yellow by Charles J. Sharp | Wiki; Wool Carder Bee by Jerry Friedman | Wiki; Pyrausta Moth by Thomas Shahan | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Nocturnal Creatures of the NDC

Wildlife Wednesday: Nocturnal Creatures of the NDC

Most of us hike and amble around the Nature Discovery Center during the day, but there is plenty of life afoot and active at night. On some of our night hikes, with flashlights in hand, we’re able to find some of these nocturnal animals. This week, we’ll take a look at a few species that we find in the park at night, and you may be able to find around your home, as well.

Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys volans) usually pass underneath our radar, as the only nocturnal tree squirrel in our area. That’s right, a nocturnal squirrel! Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, the way that bats, birds, and insects can, but rather they glide using skin flaps between the front and back legs. They are incredibly adept at controlling the direction of their glide by adjusting these flaps. Each flap is called a patagium. Like other tree squirrels, flying squirrels eat mainly seeds and nuts, and supplement their diet with insects and small vertebrates occasionally. they nest or shelter in tree holes, like old woodpecker nests and natural hollows formed from the scars of fallen branches. They’re our smallest squirrels, with a body length of only about 5 inches.

Two-striped Stick Insects (Anisomorpha bupestroides) leave marks on the Buttonbush leaves and other plants they eat from, all over the park. However, unless you uncover them under a rock or a log, you won’t see them during the daytime. If you find them, climbing through the bushes at night, you’re likely to notice that a smaller one appears to be riding a larger one. The males will actually attach themselves to the females while mating, for up to 2 weeks, to ensure that no other males mate with the female. This practice gives rise to the colloquial name in the South of “Devil Riders”. You should be careful when approaching these insects, as they are capable of releasing a caustic and toxic liquid from their back ends that may burn the skin and severely irritate the eyes. It’s best to admire them from a bit of a distance.

Mediterranean Geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus), as the name would suggest, are not from around here, but rather are originally from the Mediterranean coastal region of North Africa. Through shipping and international trade, they have been spread from there to coastal areas around the world. They have an especially vibrant population in the Houston-Galveston area of Texas, but can be found in larger cities around the state, like San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, as well. They are our only nocturnal lizard. As with most geckos, they climb exceptionally well, and feed on insects and other invertebrates.

Chuck-Will’s-Widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) isn’t always found in the par all year round, but often stop over in the park during Spring and Fall Migration. These very well camouflaged birds, in the nightjar family, are heard more than seen. They are of course known for their loud CHUCK WILLS WIDOW call (listen here). These enigmatic birds fly through the night, feeding on flying insects by scooping them up in their huge mouths. They usually appear on the Western fence line of the park.

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday. Keeping in mind, that the park closes to the public at 9 PM, feel free to come out after dark sometime, with a flashlight, to check out our nocturnal wildlife for yourself. Also, you could join us for a group night hike, or with a group of 5 or more, schedule one with a staff naturalist for yourself.

Cheers, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top Flying Squirrel by Ken Thomas | Wiki; Flying Squirrel by Judy Frederick | Flickr; Stick Insects by Bugenstien | Wiki; Gecko by Zoofari | Wiki; Chuck-will’s-widow by Dick Daniels | Wiki

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Wildlife Wednesday: Those Magnificent Moths

Wildlife Wednesday: Those Magnificent Moths

Moths don’t get quite as much attention and adoration as their showier day time counterparts, the butterflies, but they are just as fascinating and often just as beautiful. While most moths we think of are drab colored browns and grays, some moths can be quite colorful and frankly quite adorable. Moths and butterflies are both members of the insect order Lepidoptera, and have a lot in common. They both have an egg-caterpillar-pupa-adult life-cycle. They usually both have long extendable curled straw like sucking mouth parts (though some moths do not have mouth parts at all). Also, both groups tend to have large wings with scale like structures on them that give them their coloration.

There are differences, of course. Moths are usually nocturnal, while butterflies are diurnal (daytime). Butterflies have antennae with a small club like structure at the end, while moths have simple thin or ornate feathery looking antennae (both without clubs). Moths sometimes encase themselves in a silky cocoon as a pupa/chrysalis, while butterflies never do. The difference between the two groups is actually somewhat more complicated than night/day and coloration, as moths actually have varied bodies and lifestyles. Therefore, scientists group some families of Lepidoptera together and call them “moths”, and do the same for some families which they call “butterflies”. So there aren’t always hard and fast rules for considering them into one or the other, but more a history of conventional thinking.

Today, we have a look at 3 of the more common and noticeable moths in the Houston area.

The Luna Moth (Actias luna) is a large nocturnal green moth in the silk moth family Saturniidae. As with most moths in this family, they do not have mouth parts, and thus do not feed as adults, having received all the nutrients they need to carry out their lives, as larvae (caterpillars). This is indeed a large moth, with a wingspan of up to 4.5 inches across. They have long tails on the hind-wings, which give them a swallowtail like appearance. The plump green caterpillars, with small soft spikes and red bumps, feed on a wide variety of tree leaves. They spin a silken cocoon in leaves, where they turn into pupae, and later emerge from, Spring through Summer in the Southern U.S.

The Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea) is a colorful micro-moth, in the ermine moth family Yponomeutidae,, active during the day and night. They are quite small at only about 1 – 1.5 cm long. This moth is not historically native to the United States, but has moved into the Eastern U.S. as people have planted non-native host plants for their larvae (though not intentionally) across the country. The caterpillars feed on Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus sp.), a landscaping plant from China, as well as Paradise Tree from the American Tropics. Ailanthus Webworm Moths have seasonal movements, and often appear in Houston in great numbers in mid to late Autumn. The adults feed mainly of flower nectar.

The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyla lineata) is a large thick-bodied moth that is often mistaken for a hummingbird, if one is not looking closely. They are in the Sphinx Moth/Hawk Moth family Sphingidae. Unlike most of the moths you may know, this is a daytime (diurnal) moth, which spends its days flying amongst flowers and hovering while it feeds on flower nectar. They are found flying from early Spring to late October in the Southern U.S. Northern populations of this Sphinx Moth will migrate to the South to finish out their lives or overwinter. Though moths are known to make cocoons, this family of moths does not. The White-lined Sphynx caterpillars, which feed on a variety of tree and vine leaves, burrow into the soil or under logs or dead leaves, and turn to a pupa/chrysalis there in their subterranean lair. Maintaining ample leaf litter under trees and bushes around your home can help out Sphinx moths to complete their life cycle. Also, just as are butterflies and bees, nectar feeding moths, such as this species, are important pollinators, and contribute important services to human agriculture, home gardens, and natural eco-systems.

There is actually an incredible diversity of moths that occur in the Houston area, some throughout the year and some only in the fall or spring, as they migrate through. Many of these species are active at night, so we may not notice them and what they do for us as much as we would more obvious daytime creatures. They are however, just as important.

(Find out more: Gardening for Moths)

Thanks for joining us today, come out to the park some time and see if you can spot some our Houston area moths! tag us on Instagram (#naturediscoverycenter), if you photograph any moths in the park or in your own yard at home!

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photos: Luna by Rob Swatski | Flickr; Luna by Jim Mullhaupt | Flickr; Ailanthus by Predi | Flickr; Sphinx by Larry Lamsa | Flickr; Giant Leopard Moth by Ronnie Pitman | FlickrPuss Moth by Patrick Coin | Wikipedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Certainly, one of the hardships of living along the Gulf Coast of Texas in Summer is enduring the large and numerous mosquitoes. The nuisance and potential threat of mosquito borne diseases drives us to seek solutions, some of which are deleterious to local eco-systems and non-harmful native wildlife. There are already a number of native animals who help us everyday with mosquito control. We just need to help them out, and provide them with habitat near our homes and workplaces to get them to make our warmer months a little more mosquito free. Today, we take a look at 3 species that help keep mosquito population under control.

Bats eat an incredible number of insects every night, and one of the better known species of bat in the Houston area is the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). Along with other species, like the Evening Bat and the Little Brown Bat, they emerge from their daytime roosts every night to feed on a wide variety of insects. Mexican Free-tails in some part of the country are migratory, and go as far South as Brazil to spend the winter. Most of population in Houston stays for the winter and goes dormant when temperatures start to drop into the lower 50s. They roost in attics, cracks in the sides of buildings, and under bridges, amongst other places. A good place to see 1000s of them at once, is at the Waugh Bridge Colony (click link to find out more) off of Allen Parkway, where they will make a nightly emergence, again, as along as temperature are above the low 50s.

Another winged animal friend that helps control mosquitoes, by feeding on them is the Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). These little sooty black birds look very much like bats or little black boomerangs with heads, flitting around and squeaking overhead. Especially noticeable at the end of the day, as they fly lower and approach their night time roosts, they can sometimes be seen in great numbers together. As deforestation destroyed many of the hollow tree snags and dead branches where Chimney Swifts nested and roosted, they moved into nesting in chimneys and open towers, which for many years worked well for them. Continued deforestation and the practice of closing off chimneys and other open tower like structures has led to a marked decline in their numbers. Over the last several years, people have begun to help them out by building “Swift Towers” in parks and on private sites, to provide adequate shelters for them. Drop by the park some time in the evening, to see one of our swift towers, where you just might catch a glimpse of them returning home.

Mosquitoes breed in still water, so in our ponds we make sure to have robust populations of Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). This is a species of native live-bearing top minnow, which feeds on the aquatic larvae of Mosquitoes. If you have enough Mosquitofish in your pond, you can be sure that you won’t get any adult mosquitoes coming out of it! Mosquitofish are part of any thriving native pond eco-system, and they’re delightful to watch as they swim near the surface of the water and feed on various small invertebrates.

These 3 species are just are all important lines of defense against the threat of mosquito hoards, and they’re all native species, which are important parts of our local habitats. By insuring them healthy local natural areas  and adequate habitats near and in human settlement, we can be assured that they will continue to help us keep mosquitoes in check!

Thanks for joining us, head out to the park sometime and see some of these creatures for yourself!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top bats by USFWS/Ann Froschauer; Mexican Free-tailed Bat by USFWS Headquarters; Chimney Swift by USFWS; Mosquito fish by USFWS

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Wildlife Wednesday: Life Under a Log

Wildlife Wednesday: Life Under a Log

One of the most popular activities we do with kids (and adults), in classes and on nature hikes, at the Nature Center is rolling over logs and rocks to see what creatures may dwell underneath. This week, we thought we’d have a closer look at 3 of the creatures we encounter out in the park and under logs, and consequently, creatures you may see in your own yard and garden.

Earwigs (order Dermaptera) are very common little insects, but are somewhat misunderstood. The common name comes from an old and common belief that earwigs crawl into people’s ears… this is not the case! Earwigs live in a variety of natural settings, and occasionally wander into our houses. They are nocturnal and omnivorous (feeding on a wide variety of small invertebrates and plant matter). Because of the pincers on the tail end, they are often misidentified as centipedes, which are not insects, and have longer bodies and many more than 6 legs. The pincers are used to seize prey and defend themselves from each other and other small predators.

Roly Polys (order Isopoda) also called woodlice, isopods. pill bugs, and sow bugs, are not insects, as some people would suppose, but are in fact terrestrial crustaceans (the group of animals that lobsters and crabs are in). Most species of isopods live in the ocean, but a group of them, that we call roly polys and pill bugs, have adapted nicely to various habitats on the land. These animals are detritivores (feeding on dead plants materials). They lose water easily, and therefore are usually most active at night.

Rio Grande Chirping Frogs (Eleutherodactylus cystignathoides campi) are more commonly heard around Houston, than they are seen. The males of these tiny brown frogs can often be heard emitting their chirp like squeaks on warm summer nights, especially after a rain. These frogs undergo do not need standing water to lay their eggs, and are fine laying them in damp places like flowerpots and under rocks and logs. The tadpoles stay in the egg, and hatch out as full formed tiny froglets. Rio Grande Chirping Frogs are native to Rio Grande Valley of Northern Mexico and far South Texas, and were introduced to the Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas unintentionally in flower pots brought up from that region.

Well, those are just a few of the small animals we encounter all the time during hikes through the park, turning over rocks and logs. We hope you recognized a few of them from your own yard, and learned something new. Come out to the park some time, and join us on a guided nature hike to look for some of them in person.

Thanks for join us. See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top earwig – fir0002 | Wikipedia; earwig – InsectsUnlocked | Flickr; Roly Poly by Franco Folini | Wikipedia; Chirping frog by Matthew Niemiller | EOL

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Wildlife Wednesday: Native Bees of Houston

Wildlife Wednesday: Native Bees of Houston

When most people think about bees, they think about honeybees, a species of bee that was introduced to the U.S. from Europe. Its one of the most numerous bees in the area, and if you have flowers in your garden, you’re likely to see many of them. However, honeybees aren’t the only bees that pollinate flowers around Houston. There are many more species of bees beyond honeybees, and many overlooked species of native bee that visit Houston gardens. Here, we’ll look at a few species of these native bees.

Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica), pictured above, as the name would suggest, nest by chewing holes into dead wood on branches, logs, and sometimes the wood in human made structures. Here in the park, we’ve noticed them burrowing into picnic tables, the picnic pavilions, and the border pieces on the outside of the house. Though this may be vexing, they rarely cause serious damage to structures. Unlike, honeybees, they’re not truly eusocial (colonial) bees, but live in loosely knit groups, in which there is a dominant female. Unlike “queen bees” though, the dominant females are not the only reproducing females in their group. Some carpenter bees, like the Southern Carpenter Bee (Xylopcopa micans), pictured left, are considered “solitary bees”, living in only in mating pairs.

While carpenter bees are large round bees, they are not bumble bees, which are in a different family. You can tell the difference by looking at the abdomen, which is bare on carpenter bees (look left) and furry on bumble bees (look down and to the right).

American Bumblebees (Bombus pennsylvanicus) are wide ranging fat fuzzy bees that can be seen flying slowly from flower to flower. Like carpenter bees, they are often too large to fit into some flowers to feed on nectar, and will “nectar rob”, chewing into the base of the flower to get at the nectar, without coming into contact with the pollen. Regardless of this occasional behavior, bumblebees are important and numerous pollinators for a wide variety of native flowering plants. The American Bumblebee is colonial, often excavating burrows in the ground and under logs and rocks, but have a more variable and changing social structure than that of honeybees.

The American Bumblebee, like many species of bumblebee, is declining in numbers, due to habitat loss and overuse of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids.

Metallic Green Bees (Agapostemon spp.), with their shiny green exoskeletons, are rather conspicuous when they visit a flower. Some are completely green, while others are green in the front with a yellow striped abdomen. They are in the Sweat Bee family, Halictidae, so named for their habit of occasionally landing on humans and drinking their sweat, which can be a welcome source of salts and other nutrients for bees (some butterflies, flies, and small beetles do this as well). Metallic Green Bees live communally in underground burrows. Each mating pair has its own separate burrow, where they raise their young, but the burrows are all close together, which helps with defense against predators and parasites.

Sweat bees, which are generally small bees, are important pollinators for smaller flowers, which larger bees may ignore.

Thanks for joining us this week, to learn more about some of our native bees. If you don’t find these animals in your own garden, take a trip out to the nature center sometime, and visit our native wildflower gardens or our Pocket Prairie.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

~ Many species of our native bees are in trouble, because of development and overuse of pesticides. You can help by planting native and wildlife friendly flowers, leaving some space for ground nesting bees, and not using neonicotinoid pesticides.

To find out more about how you can help bees, visit: https://xerces.org/bumblebees and https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html

photographs: Eastern Carpenter Bee by Daniel Schwen | Wikipedia; Southern Carpenter Bee by Bob Peterson | Wikipedia; American Bumblebee by Diana Terry Hibbits | EOL; Metallic Green Bee by Jon Sullivan | Wikipedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Salamanders are an underappreciated and overlooked group of amphibians. That’s because they often lead secretive lives underground, down in the mud, and underwater. As with frogs, salamanders undergo metamorphosis, in which their shell-less eggs are laid in a wet location (often in a pond), they go through an aquatic larval stage (the tadpole stage), and then become air-breathing adults. Also like frogs, they have semi-permeable skin that allows water to pass in and out, so they can dry out easily, but can also drink through their skin. Some adult salamanders “breathe” or respire using lungs, while others use gills, and a group called the “lungless salamanders” breathe through their skin and the lining of their mouths.

Though they are seldom seen around Houston, there are several species of salamander found in the area. Here’s a survey of 3 of the more common species.

The Central Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens louisanensis) is a small aquatic salamander that lives in still freshwater habitats. They actually have 4 life stages:  1. The eggs are laid on vegetation in the water.  2. The gilled tadpoles/larvae stay in the water while they develop. 3. After a number of months, the larvae change into a reddish orange terrestrial stage called an “eft”. They live in forested habitats for 1 – 3 years like this. 4. Eventually, they change to their adult yellow-olive brown coloration, and go back into a pond to live out their adult lives in the water. The Eastern newts of North America (which this is a subspecies of) are the only salamanders which go through this terrestrial eft stage, though some newts in other parts of the world are terrestrial as adults. As with all salamanders, Central Newts are carnivorous, eating a wide variety of small invertebrates.

The large 3-Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma tridactylum) doesn’t even look like a salamander! You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a eel. They are long bodied (up to almost 4 ft), aquatic, and their 4 tiny limbs are so small, that you’d only see them upon close inspection. They are highly carnivorous, eating a wide variety of fish, other amphibians, reptiles, and large invertebrates. Though salamanders are basically tooth-less, amphiumas have a sharp bony ridge in their mouths, which they use for defense and predation. Also unlike other salamanders, they are known to emit a squeaky bark noise, when molested.

Another fully aquatic eel-like salamander is the Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia), which grow to about 18 inches in length. They have 2 tiny front legs, no back legs, and a flattened paddle-like tail. Sirens are easily identified by their feathery gray and red external gills, which extend from the sides of the head. Much like the amphiuma, they are very carnivorous and can deliver a painful and bloody bite. However, instead of a sharp bony ridge, they have a sharp horny beak-like structure. Also similar to amphiumas, they have extremely smooth slimy skin. Both sirens and amphiumas are believed to guard their eggs in mud nests under the water or in burrows next to their ponds, lakes, and bayous.

Thanks for exploring a few of the local salamander species with us this week. While you may not encounter any wild salamanders in our park, many of our larger and wilder Houston area parks and nature centers offer chances to find these 3 species. And if you’ve never seen a live salamander up close, we invite you to visit the Nature Discovery Center some time, and get to know Sherman, our friendly Barred Tiger Salamander.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Adult newt – Psyon | Wikimedia; Newt eft – Corey Raimond | Flickr; Amphiuma – Ashley Tubbs | Flickr; Siren – Andrew Hoffman and Zeke Franco on Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Denizens of the Pond

Wildlife Wednesday: Denizens of the Pond

One of the park improvements that was put in this past Spring is the new larger Cypress Pond, at the South end of the park, near the playground. This larger pond, along with the new deck, gives us all kinds of opportunities to teach kids about aquatic ecosystems through dip-netting and observation. The larger size, with a greater variety of native aquatic plants, is bound to attract all manner of aquatic creatures, many which have not been seen in the park before. Today, we’ll have a look at some of the aquatic and semi-aquatic insects that we have already encountered in our new pond.

The Neon Skimmer (Libellula croceipennis) is an unmistakable dragonfly. The bright red males (above photo) are often seen sunning on perches or patrolling the shoreline, looking for prey, chasing away rivals, or looking for females. The females (left) are less colorful, but are gorgeous as well, with a golden brown coloration and a cream colored stripe down the back. Both are large active dragonflies, found near water, though the females are often found in fields away from water as well, being less territorial than the males. Neon Skimmers feed on other flying insects of various kinds. The females can often be seen leading males around in a complicated fast paced courtship ritual dance/chase, at the edges of ponds and streams. As with all dragonflies, they lay their eggs in the water, and the young, called nymphs, are aquatic, and emerge as adults months later.

The Giant Predaceous Diving Beetle (Cybister fimbreolatus) is rather large, for an aquatic beetle at least, growing up to 3 1/2 cm in length. With large hind legs, modified for swimming, they can be seen traveling up and down in the water column, searching for prey. These large shiny dark green beetles may feed on other aquatic insects, tadpoles, and even small fish, like minnows. This is just one of a few species of diving beetles found in the pond, some of them jet black, and some of them brightly colored with golden sunburst patterns on a dark background. Though they are mainly aquatic, they may sometimes be found flying from one location to another, away from water.

Sometimes called “Toe-biters”, Giant Waterbugs (Lethocerus americanus) grow up to 6 cm in length. As their names suggest, they may deliver a nasty and painful bite with their large proboscis. They usually use this tube-like mouth part to inject venom into prey (usually other aquatic insects, tadpoles, and small fish). They then suck out the liquifying insides! As with the diving beetles, there are actually several species of large water bugs in the pond, all of which are excellent swimmers, but can fly from one body of water to another. They’re all very well camouflaged, being various shades of brown and green.

The next time you’re out in the park on a walk, stop by the Cypress Pond, next to the South End playground, and see if you can find any of these insects  (or some we haven’t yet seen ourselves).

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran, Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Male Skimmer by Steve Berardi | Wikimedia; Female Skimmer by Bill Carrell | INaturalist; Diving Beetle by Monikah Schuschu | Flickr; Water Bug by David Hoover | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

There was a time, before European settlement of this part of Texas, when the area in and around the nature center would have been tall grass prairie as far as you looked. Most tall trees would have occurred on a few raised areas or along the banks of bayous. Today, 99% of this ecosystem is gone, and along with it, many of the animals that once inhabited this region. Though you may know that large herds of American Bison once roamed this area, and that morning bird song would have been deafeningly loud, you may not know about some of the predators that once prowled the tall grasses of our Coastal Prairies. Today, we’ll have a look at 4 lost species.

While most people think of Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) as creatures of Central and South American rainforests, these medium sized predators actually inhabit a variety of habitats, including deserts and grasslands, and once roamed our prairies. Today we have an extremely small population of possibly around 50 in the Southern tip of Texas, but they once ranged up the Texas coast all the way to Easternmost Louisiana. These spotted cats were driven to extinction in the state through overhunting and destruction of habitat, but have been reestablished in in the Lower Rio Grande Valley through conservation efforts by landowners, environmental groups, and government agencies, like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are another rainforest cat that is actually more variable than many people realize, and may live in a variety of ecosystems, beyond just rainforest. Like ocelots, jaguars once ranged our prairies and bottomland hardwood forests along the gulf coastal part of the state to the Eastern edge of Louisiana. Jaguars were killed off in Texas in the early 1900s, and have not returned to the state since, but they are slowly reestablishing themselves in Southern Arizona. These large powerful predators need a lot of land to roam in, and like ocelots, need to be able to roam back and forth across the border with Mexico, in order to maintain viable hunting grounds and territories.

Louisiana Black Bears (Ursus americanus luteolus) used to range all through East Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Northern Mexico. By the early 1900s, this subspecies of the Black Bear had been made extinct in the state of Texas through overhunting and destruction of habitat. Over the last few decades, conservation and reintroduction efforts in Louisiana have increased the numbers of these endangered bears, and they are slowly reappearing in East Texas forests. We have also recently seen Mexican Black Bears reintroducing themselves into West Texas, in and around the Big Bend area.

Though we are accustomed to seeing coyotes in this part of Texas, historically, they ranged much further to the West of us, and our native wild dog in this region of Texas was the Red Wolf (Canis rufus). These critically endangered predators were not only hunted to extinction in the state of Texas, but are almost functionally extinct in the wild, only living in parts of the Southeastern U.S. with help from conservation organizations and government agencies. It is not clear that this species will be able to escape total extinction in the wild, as they still face extreme pressure from poaching and habitat degradation in the few areas in which they still occur outside of zoos and assurance colonies.

While its a bit sad to think about, its important to know what we’ve lost, and what we could have again, if we wanted to reestablish our native ecosystems to a more historically natural state. Well, I hope you enjoyed our brief look at a few species we once had roaming the land that the Nature Center now occupies.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Jesse McCarty | Flickr CC

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Other Arachnids

Wildlife Wednesday: The Other Arachnids

Spiders aren’t the only arachnids! To honor the 2nd week of Ms. Jenny’s Spider themed Summer Science Camp, this week we’re going to look at 3 other arachnids that are found in the area. Arachnids are arthropods, invertebrate animals that have exoskeletons made of chitin and multiple jointed legs.They’re on every continent, and tend to be terrestrial, though there are several species of spider and mite that live in freshwater aquatic ecosystems. They are never found in the ocean. Here’s a look at 3 non-spider arachnids that are found in and around this part of Texas.

One of the most commonly encountered non-spider arachnids in this part of the state is the Striped Bark Scorpion (Centrutoides vittatus). This is a small scorpion, growing to only about 2.75 inches in total length. They may deliver a painful sting, though the venom is not usually injurious to humans, beyond the obvious pain and discomfort. As with all other scorpions, this species is carnivorous, seizing their prey with front pinching claws, and injecting the prey with venom from the tail stinger. They then spit out digestive juices onto the prey, and suck up the dissolving body of the prey. Maybe a bit gross, but its what they do!

Velvet Mites (family Trombiidae) are exceptionally small arachnids, a little bit larger than the size of a period at the end of this sentence. They are very easy to identify, with their tiny bright red furry bodies. They’re seen in a wide variety of ecosystems, crawling over vegetation, rocks, and picnic tables. These mites are active and voracious predators, hunting down a wide variety of tiny invertebrates.

The 3rd animal we’ll look at this week is from a much lesser known group of arachnids called the “whip scorpions”, and here in the U.S. we call them Vinegaroons (Mastigoproctus giganteus). These large chunky arachnids may grow up to 3 inches long (6 inches if you count the whip tail). They’re named for the practice of squirting a vinegar-like substance from from their “tail”, which they use to deter predators and disable prey. As with other arachnids, they are predatory on a wide variety of other invertebrates. Though we do get them rarely in this part of Texas, they are far more common in the arid regions of South and West Texas.

Now, in our park, you’ll only see spiders and mites, but make sure to keep an eye out for spiders, whip scorpions, scorpions, and velvet mites, when you’re out and about at nature centers, state parks, and national wildlife refuges around the Houston area. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Top photo – Charles&Clint | Flickr; Scorpions – Douglas Mills | Flickr; Velvet Mite – Chris Fifield Smith | Flickr; Vinegaroon – Acrocynus | Wikimedia

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