June 28, 2013

An Elegant Flying Sheep (Moth)

As I write this we are on our way to Yellowstone National Park, having spent a couple of glorious days in the Tetons.  One thing I've noticed is that my moth-consciousness has really risen, having recently attended Mothapalooza in southern Ohio.  I'm checking out lights in the morning and I'm more aware of day-flying moths as we hike.

Yesterday we did one of our favorite Teton hikes, the 4-mile loop trail to Taggart Lake.

The wildflowers were superb,

the views were fantastic, 

and the intensely fragrant ceanothus was blooming like crazy. 

Hiking though a meadow area, I noticed some movement in the grass. What I saw through my binoculars was a totally unfamiliar, brilliantly colored large lepidopteran.

Looking closely, I saw that it was a moth, and that there were actually two of these gorgeous creatures and they were in the midst of making more moths! 

Here is the post-mating female:

Usually I have some idea as to the identity of unfamiliar critters, but this one had me stumped. On the way back to the car we ran into a park naturalist we had met last year and showed him one of the pictures.  He identified it as a Sheep Moth, and that gave me something to Google. Apparently it goes by several names, the main one being Elegant Sheep Moth which is quite fitting.

These moths are quite closely related to silk moths. They tend to fly low to the ground and aren't very active. They have no mouthparts as adults--the caterpillars have to store enough energy to fuel the adults' only purposes: mating and laying eggs. What really surprised me was that these are day-flying moths--most moths that I have seen active during the day had been small and fairly plain. This animal was neither!

These moths tend to frequent high elevation meadows which historically have been used to pasture sheep, hence the name. Among other plants the caterpillars feed on ceanothus, and there was certainly plenty of that here!

The diversity of life on our planet never fails to stun me!

June 20, 2013

Some Bog Botany, Including Another Orchid

One day last week our explorations took us to a small nature preserve in northeast Ohio that owes its existence to the glaciers that covered two-thirds of the state over 10,000 years ago. The glacier left a large hunk of ice behind as it retreated, and also left a large amount of rocky material around the ice. Once the ice melted, a depression remained that filled up with water. This is called a kettle pond. Over time, a sphagnum moss mat formed surrounding the pond, and created an acid environment. Certain plants thrive in such wet, acidic conditions and those special plants were the reason for our visit.

The bog features a boardwalk that leads onto the sphagnum mat. Poison Sumac is one of the most common trees here, and it was in bloom during our visit. These tiny flowers will give way to drooping clusters of fruits that can be seen at this link.

Another acid-loving plant, blueberry, was heavy with fruit all along the boardwalk. A few berries were starting to ripen:

One of the more striking plants at the bog is this Swamp-Candle (Lysimachia terrestris), which truly does light up the shadowy places in this habitat:

Acid soils are typically low in nitrogen, one of the most important plant nutrients. One of the most interesting ways that plants have evolved to deal with a low-nitrogen environment is carnivory. That is, certain plants are able to digest animal material, primarily insects, in order to obtain the amino acids that they need. Two such plants occur in the bog that we visited, and they go about carnivory in very different ways.

We'll look at the smallest first! Growing on the sphagnum mat were many tiny Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) plants:

These plants have tentacle-like extensions on their leaves that hold a drop of gel-like material that looks like morning dew. This gel traps the small insects that land on the plant, and also contains digestive enzymes. Other glands absorb the resulting nutrients. Sundews of various species occur on every continent but Antarctica!

The other carnivorous plant at this bog is the Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Its strategy is to lure insects into modified leaves that fill with rainwater. Downward-pointing hairs, which can be seen in this photo, prevent the insects from crawling out. 

It has an upright bloom that is quite unusual:

Pitcher plants of various types occur all over the world and have really fascinating strategies for attracting and digesting insects. Evolution of carnivory is another interesting topic; for more information I'd recommend a book called Pitcher Plants of the Americas by Stewart McPherson.

Lush ferns grew all along the trail. The largest were the Cinnamon Ferns:

And we saw a few feathery Royal Ferns, among several other species:

Moving along the boardwalk, we caught a glimpse of some more enticing plants, growing along side a small Poison Sumac tree:

Ahhh--the gorgeous Rose Pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides). There were literally hundreds of these beauties blooming during our visit, and this was the first time we had ever seen this plant. 

Sometimes called Snakemouth Orchid, it only occurs in the eastern part of the US and Canada. The lip of the flower has three green crests on it; perhaps this reminded someone of a snake's mouth?

Ohio has a wide variety of nature preserves all over the state. Most feature good trails and habitats that are quite rare, and these places often have uncommon plants. It is well worth the time and effort to check out a few this summer. Just be sure to stay on the trails!

June 19, 2013

Ohio Orchids 3

June is a great month to be out and about in Ohio! But there is a bit of a lull between the spring woodland wildflowers and the stunning summer blooms of the meadows and prairies. We've turned our attention a bit to butterflies, and just got back from a great weekend at Mothapalooza, the first event of its kind ANYWHERE! I hope to cover the highlights of that event in another post, but in the meantime head over to this link for a description of the fun. So, in this post I'm going to look back a bit at some of the spring orchids that I haven't had a chance to write about.

Orchids vary greatly in color and form, but all have 3 petals and 3 sepals. One petal, often called the lip, is often quite specialized to facilitate cross-pollination. This is particularly obvious in the lady's slipper orchids, where one petal actually forms a pouch. In my previous posts I illustrated the Pink, Showy and Yellow Lady's Slippers, and Ohio has another slipper called the White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum). This diminutive plant grows in only two places in the state and has a fairly limited range overall. We were really pleased to find it in its best known location, Resthaven Wildlife Area near Lakeside. Check out this lovely flower:

Here is a close up--note the purple "guides" which lead the pollinating insect into the pouch:

In my first orchid post I said that these flowers ranged from spectacular to inconspicuous. Here are a couple that are very easily overlooked, but are no less exciting to us!

First is an unusual plant called Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale). You might remember that this winter I mentioned seeing the single leaf of this plant:

When the leaf emerges in autumn from the ground, it is fairly vertical, but after the tree leaves have fallen around it the Puttyroot leaf lays down horizontally, the better to absorb energy from the sun.  The leaf persists all winter and then by the time the plant blooms in the spring the leaf has disappeared

This spring we re-visited some spots where we had seen the leaves and we weren't disappointed. Here is what a blooming Puttyroot looks like; it is easily overlooked and can hide quite well in the surrounding vegetation!

Another inconspicuous orchid is the Lily-leaved Twayblade (Liparis liliifolia). This small woodland orchid is really hard to photograph! Here is one of our better attempts:

The large purplish lip is one of the three petals, and the threadlike extensions that you can see are the other two. Three sepals are also present. The reproductive parts are in the column above the large "lip" petal, and the white tube in the rear of the flower contains the nectar. Here is a photo from another angle:

Last weekend on the way home from Mothapalooza we stopped at one of the small Adams County prairies in southern Ohio. Most of the prairie flowers aren't in bloom yet, but we were really thrilled to find several Ragged Fringed Orchids (Plantanthera lacera), a plant that we had never seen before.

The delicate feathering of that lower "lip" petal was just amazing. The next picture shows a close-up of some of the flowers in profile view. The arrow points to the nectar tube of one of the flowers. Its length hints at the plant's pollinator--an insect would need a long, straw-like "tongue" to reach the nectar at the bottom. Indeed, these plants are pollinated by noctuid moths and hawkmoths that have a long proboscis ideal for reaching this plant's nectar.

So there you have it--four more beautiful and very different orchids. We have seen a few more this week, so stay tuned for more orchid posts!

June 4, 2013

Ohio Orchids 2: The Showy Lady's Slipper

The showy lady's slipper has to be Ohio's most spectacular orchid, perhaps the most spectacular wild orchid in North America. I decided that it deserves its own post, and although there are other orchids that I haven't posted about yet that bloomed earlier I wanted to let people know about it because its peak of bloom is RIGHT NOW! So drop everything and get over to Cedar Bog Nature Preserve just south of Urbana; you won't be sorry!

Here it is in all its glory:

Some were deep pink and others were a bit more pale but still lovely:

Here is a group shot. 

Note the brown structures on the left in the photo above; those are last year's seed capsules from which extremely tiny seeds were dispersed by the wind. Orchid seeds have been found high in the atmosphere; they are virtually weightless and can circulate on the winds until brought down to earth in a water droplet. Each type of orchid has very specific habitat requirements so the likelihood that a particular seed will fall in a suitable place is small. Each plant produces an amazing number of seeds, though, so the plants do manage to propagate themselves.

One final portrait, with an eager pollinator poised to help produce more flowers: