animals

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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Wildlife Wednesday: Spiders of the NDC

Wildlife Wednesday: Spiders of the Nature Discovery Center

To celebrate Ms. Jenny’s arachnid themed Summer Science Camp this week, I thought we should dedicate this week’s WW to common spiders of the Nature Center. Spiders are arachnids, along with scorpions, daddy-long-legs, Camel Spiders, and Whip Scorpions (amongst others). Spiders have 2 body sections (the abdomen and the cephalothorax), 8 legs, 2 front arms called pedipalps, and usually have 8 eyes. All spiders are predatory, and use venom to subdue and digest their prey, though none of the species in our park are seriously venomous enough to harm people.

The Carolina Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis) is one of the most commonly seen spiders here, especially under rocks and logs. They are free roaming spiders, and do not inhabit webs. They’re often encountered this time of year carrying an egg sac, or carrying around dozens of babies on their backs. These large brown spiders are often mistaken for tarantulas, but they’re not quite as hairy, and not quite as large. Though the venom isn’t medically injurious to humans, it is painful, so you should avoid handling this spider.

Orchard Orbweavers (Leucage venusta) are commonly found hanging out on webs found on bushes, trees, and other low vegetation all throughout the park. As with other orbweavers, the female constructs a typical orbweb, but also constructs other protective silk web structures around the main web, making it a little more complex than many other orbweaver webs. The males are much smaller, and hang out around the edges of the web, venturing in occasionally to steal food and mate with the female (if they’re able to avoid getting killed and eaten by the female). This little spider is easily identified by the bright orange spots that appear on the bottom of the abdomens of older females.

A really awesome spider, found only in the Cypress Pond at the South End of the park, is the Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton), which is known for running across the surface of the water. These large leggy water walkers prey on a wide variety of aquatic creatures, like:  minnows, tadpoles, aquatic insects, and even other spiders!

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at common and fascinating spiders at the Nature Discovery Center, and that you get a chance to go out look for them in the park sometime.

Thanks for joining us, see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Top image – Wolf spider face by Thomas Shahan (Wikimedia); Wolf Spider by John Flannery (Flickr); Orchard Orbweaver by Kaldari (Wikimedia); Fishing Spider by Stephen Little (Flickr)

 

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: Recent Butterfly Sightings at the Nature Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Recent Butterfly Sightings at the Nature Center

Springtime is a great time to see butterflies at the Nature Discovery Center. You may see one fluttering through the forest, visiting our wildflower gardens around the Henshaw House, or flitting from flower to flower in the Pocket Prairie. In this week’s Wildlife Wednesday, we’ll have a look at few species of butterfly that have appeared over the last few weeks.

Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae, above photo) are one of our most common butterflies in the park. Not actually related to other fritillaries, these butterflies are actually a kind of longwing or Heliconian butterfly. While the adults will feed on nectar from a variety of flower species, the larvae (caterpillars) will only feed on passionvines (Passiflora spp., Left photo). Passionvine leaves are toxic, and in turn the caterpillars are toxic, as are the adults. The bright orange and black coloration acts as a warning. Gulf Fritillaries have a wingspan of about 3.5 inches.

Another common species of butterfly in this park is the large black Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus), which can often be seen flying in an undulating manner through the forested sections of the park, but is really common all over. These large black butterflies have a 4 inch wingspan, and often fly close to the ground. The larvae feed on plants in the Laurel family, like Sweetbay, Red Bay, Spicebush, and non-native Camphor trees.

A butterfly that is not so common in the park, but that recently made an appearance is the gorgeous little Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus). We saw one feeding on white clover flowers near the Pocket Prairie a few days ago. These blue and brown butterflies have long projections on the hindwings, which look like 2 tails. They lay their eggs, and the larvae feed on plants in the legume family, like wild peas, wisteria, beans, and various others.

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday! Come out to the park soon, and see if you can spot some of these butterflies in the wild.

See you soon,

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Gulf Fritillary and Passionflower by Eric Duran; Spicebush swallowtail by Greg Hume | Flickr; Long-tailed Skipper by John Flannery | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Common Turtles of the Nature Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Common Turtles of the Nature Center

Welcome to the 3rd and final look at common reptiles of the Nature Discovery Center. This week, we review the turtles that are found here in the park. It’s a little misleading to talk about the “three most common turtles of the park”, because, while there are many turtle species found around the Houston area, we only have three species of turtle found in the park.

The Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene triunguis) is our most common species of turtle, and is therefore the one you’re most likely to see. As with most box turtle species, they’re terrestrial, and tend to be associated with forested and semi-forested habitats. They are rather omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of mushrooms, berries, flowers, insects and other small invertebrates. Also like other box turtles, their lower shell (the plastron) is hinged, which allows them to pull inside their shell and then close it up tightly. Three-toed Box Turtles usually have a caramel colored shell, which may have darker markings as well, and the males will will have various colorful markings around the face and legs. Males are larger and have reddish eyes, and the females have yellowish eyes.

Look for these turtles walking through all sections of the park.

Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata) also occur in the park, but much less frequently. These terrestrial turtles are associated more with open grassland habitats. They are omnivorous, but tend to eat more insects and small animals than other species of box turtle. They have been known to hang around cow and bison patties, and feed on the dung beetles that are attracted to them. Ornate box turtles, and indeed most North American box turtles, are inedible to humans and some other animals, because they feed on toxic mushrooms, which turns their flesh toxic (for us). Ornate box turtles have dark shells with yellowish rays on each scute (sections of the shell). The larger males often have bright olive colored heads and bright red eyes.

As far as we can tell, there is only one ornate box turtle currently in the park, and its randomly seen through the summer, walking near open areas of the parks

Just a note: With most species of terrestrial turtles, the males grow to be larger, and with most species of aquatic turtles, the females grow to be larger.

The only species of aquatic turtle that lives in our park is the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), which is also one of the most commonly encountered aquatic turtles in the Houston area. This is one of the “basking turtles”, aquatic turtles in the family Emydidae that are often seen basking in the sunshine on pond banks, rocks, and logs. Sliders are ominvorous turtles, but start out their lives as primarily carnivorous, and shift to a more plant based diet as they grow older. Despite the name, the red marks on the sides of their heads do not correspond exactly with the location of the ears. While the shells of the juveniles may be elaborately marked with yellow and green lines, the patterns fade away (eventually to black or dark gray), as they mature. Older individuals may even lose all markings and become totally black (a color condition called “advanced melanism”).

Look for baby red-ears in our Cypress Pond at the South end of the park.

Well thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday, we hope you get a chance to get out into the park soon and encounter some of our fascinating native turtles.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs: Three-toed Box Turtles by Eric Duran; Ornate Box Turtle by Andrew Dubois | Flickr; Red-eared Slider by Allan Hack | Flickr

*For any of you who are reptile enthusiasts, and perhaps confused or vexed by some our taxonomy choices, in most cases, we go by the 2016 4th Edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by Powell, Conant, and Collins.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Common Snakes of the Discovery Center

Wildlife Wednesday: Common Snakes of the Discovery Center

Last Week, we started our 3 week look at the common reptiles of the Nature Discovery Center. This week, we’re looking at the only 3 species of snake that have been seen in the park with any regularity.

The Rough Earth Snake (Haldea or Virginia striulata) is the most commonly encountered snake at the Nature Center. This small small all-brown snake only reaches a length of up to 10 inches, and only larger older females reach that length. Earth snakes are fossorial (spending most of their time underground), and are found under leaf litter, logs, and rocks. They are often found in home gardens. Earth snakes feed mainly on earthworms, but also take other small soft-bodied invertebrates.

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis sauritus orarius) are easily recognizable, with long black and yellow stripes. They have thin bodies, and reach a maximum length of up to ~20 inches. They prefer to live near bodies of fresh water, like lakes, ponds, and small streams. Ribbon snakes are live bearing, like vipers and non-venomous water snakes. They eat a wide variety of things; such as small fish, frogs and salamanders, small reptiles, and earthworms.

The Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platyrhinos) is one of the few creatures that can eat toads (with their toxic skin). Hognoses are (mildly) rear-fanged venomous, and use those fangs in the rear of their mouths to pop the toads which they eat (toads inflate themselves with air to keep from being swallowed). These snakes are known for spreading their hoods, like a small cobra, and hissing loudly when threatened. If that doesn’t drive away a potential predator, they flip over and play dead (even letting their tongue hang out and emitting a foul death like odor).

Thanks for joining us for another Wildlife Wednesday. Come back next week for another look at the park’s reptiles. Come out to the park sometime soon, and see if you can find some of these commons snakes.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

 

Photographs: Earth Snake by Kyle Weiring | Wikipedia; Earth Snake by Eric Duran; Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake by TheWanderingHerpetologist | Flickr; Eastern Hognose by Peter Paplanus | Flickr; Hognose by Marvin Smith | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Skippers

Wildlife Wednesday:  The Skippers

Spring brings butterflies back to the park, and the Skippers (family Hesperiidae) are one of the first groups to show up. These small butterflies are named for the fast darting manner in which they fly, as if they’re skipping around from flower to flower. There are over 3,500 spp. of skipper around the world, and a couple of dozen of those species are found in the Houston area. Many of the skippers look remarkably similar to each other, and can often be very difficult to identify. Many of the species are also rather drab, being various shades of brown, and can be misidentified as moths (but they are of course diurnal, and have the clubs at the tip of the antennae, which are indicative of butterflies).

Here are a few of the skippers that are found here at the Nature Discovery Center:

Fiery Skippers (Hylephila phyleus) are one of the more common species found here, visiting our wildflower gardens, wildflowers on the front lawn, and the Pocket Prairie. The males are a bit showier, with bright orange and dark brown on the wings (pictured left and top), and the females are a light yellowy brown with brown spots. The tiny greenish caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses, including Bermuda grass and St. Augustine grass. You may notice that this skipper keeps its forewings and hindwings separated at a right angle, with the forewings held up, when it’s resting. This is a small butterfly, measuring only about 1 in long.

 

The White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens) is easy to tell apart from most other skippers with its white and dark gray/black checkered pattern. There is however, another checkered skipper that is very similar to this species, the Tropical Checkered Skipper, which is also found in our area. They visit a wide variety of small flowers close to the ground, and their caterpillars feed on a variety of small mallow/hibiscus species, like Sida. They may attain a wingspan of up to 3.8 cm in width.

 

Juvenal’s Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis) is one of 2 species of Duskywing (dark colored skippers that keep their wings open and flattened when on a perch), found in our park. The other is the very similar Horace’s Duskywing, though there are many other species of Duskywing across the country. The caterpillars of these skippers feed on oak leaves. They are similar in size to the Checkered skippers, ~3.8 cm wingspan. Duskywings can make themselves rather conspicuous with their darting, climbing, and diving flight patterns, and their habit of sunning out in flat open meadows in plain sight.

We hope you enjoyed our profile of a few skipper butterflies common to our park. Come out and walk around our wildflower gardens, Prairie Wetlands, and  Pocket Prairie, the next time you get the chance, and see if you can spot these delightful little insects.

 

Thanks so much, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

 

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