June 18, 2015

Great Stuff at Mothapalooza III

I've spent the past few days ruminating on the wonderful weekend we had, deep in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, at the third annual Mothapalooza event. Along with about 170 others, we shared discoveries, connected with old and new friends, and absorbed the wisdom of outstanding field trip leaders and speakers. It takes a huge amount of effort to pull off an event like this, especially one that is so well organized and friendly; Mary Ann Barnett, Elisabeth Rothchild and all the folks in charge did a fantastic job. We weren't exactly roughing it; the lodge at Shawnee State Park is a great place to host this event:

While the moths are a big part of the action, this event is really aimed at spreading the importance of biodiversity. Daytime field trips catered to every nature interest, from botany, butterflies, and birds to all sorts of reptiles and amphibians. Nights catered to the moth aficionados, with lights set up in diverse habitats, but also found many of us marveling at the deafening sound of randy tree frogs and at the sight of several bright planets and the International Space Station!

On Friday afternoon we were fortunate to accompany evolutionary biologist Dave Wagner, author of Caterpillars of Eastern North America, and Ohioan Jim McCormac, one of the country's most outstanding naturalists, on a field trip to some prime spots in Shawnee State Forest. Both are excellent leaders and get excited about everything they see. It is a real treat to hear Dave expound on the interplay between insects and plants, and their structural, chemical and behavioral adaptations that drive evolution. Here are Dave and Jim, checking for caterpillars on an oak tree:

In addition to his work with caterpillars, Dave is also a dragonfly guy, and will be off to the Amazon soon to continue work on a comprehensive odonata data base. Here he is showing us a lancet clubtail:

Extensive logging is occurring at Shawnee but sights like this swarm of spicebush swallowtails on orange milkweed can still be seen:

High up in the forest the staghorn sumac was in full bloom:

After excellent evening programs, which I will touch on in my next post, we headed outside to check the mothing set-ups:

One cool thing about this event is that it attracts academics, hobbyists, kids, young students, and all sorts of people who are drawn here by their interest in learning more about nature. Even those who are old hands at this were thrilled by the sheer numbers and variety of moths that came to the sheets, and I wish I had a better photo of some of the swarms of insects that we saw:

Here are some moth highlights:

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth

Tuliptree Silk Moth

Giant Leopard Moth

Io Moth

Polyphemus moth
A highlight for me was seeing and hearing the night time tree frog cacophony! We were able to get within a few feet of several in a shrub right after a downpour and I even got a photo: 

On Saturday our field trip was led by Jason Larson and Cheryl Harner, both extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of Shawnee. The trip was structured around seeing several species of milkweed and the insects they attract, but we looked at lots of other critters and plants as well. 

Here a poke milkweed is visited by a tiny plume moth:

A coral hairstreak checked out this orange milkweed:

The purple milkweed was gorgeous:

White milkweed was covered with insects: 

Common milkweed was just coming into bloom:

As we drove back to the lodge we were all thrilled and amazed to see this ruffed grouse standing in the middle of the road! It had been years since any of us had seen a grouse, and these are folks that are out a lot, so this was a great way to cap off an excellent trip:

So why does Shawnee have so much cool biology? In Dave's keynote talk on Saturday night he cited several factors:

  • It has a mixture of acid and alkaline (limestone/dolomite) soils
  • The area is located at the edge of the Appalachian foothills, with hilly terrain, giving many north and south facing slopes that differ in sunlight and moisture, thus supporting different plant communities
  • It is at the edge of the glaciated part of Ohio, so that northern species were pushed southward during glaciation and some have remained here at higher elevations
  • It has a mix of low mountains, forest, riparian areas, and prairies, resulting in a lot of edge habitats. These transition zones support the greatest plant and animal diversity.
  • The Shawnee State Forest and the nearby Edge of Appalachia Preserve comprise over 80,000 acres. Even though the state has authorized a great deal of logging in Shawnee, a lot of forest remains.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the country the native biological communities have been decimated, with steep declines being documented in many species of birds, insects and other organisms. In my next post I'll go into that in more detail, describing the trends and going over the very compelling message of our other keynote speaker, Doug Tallamy. The author of Bringing Nature Home, he emphasizes the significance of these declines to all life on our planet. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I'm eager to hear more. The moth pictures are amazing, especially the giant leopard!