31 May 2010

First tick of 2010

I was getting ready to go in the shower last night when I noticed a small black spot on my skin under my left breast. It was a tick, the 1st one I have so far noticed on my body. Here it is in situ while still partaking of my blood.


It survived the removal process and after I placed it on a piece of cardboard, started shambling the way ticks normally do while I measured and photographed it. It was 2 mm long. I believe it is the usual deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).


I have since developed a red, itchy welt on my skin where the tick was. Hopefully, it's a transient reaction that will have no lingering effects.

Last year's tick story was here.

30 May 2010

Another Anguispira fergusoni on a tree

Anguispira fergusoni is a native eastern North American land snail. They routinely climb trees, especially on warm and humid nights, probably in search of fungal food. Earlier this month, I wrote about one of them that unusually had gotten dormant on a tree.

Late Friday afternoon while searching for slugs, I saw this juvenile Anguispira fergusoni crawling on the trunk of a tree.


The shell diameter of this one was 5.5 mm. It has quite a bit of growing to do, for adults reach about 15 mm.

28 May 2010

Another well hidden Limax maximus


I found this Limax maximus under the loose bark of a tree late this afternoon. It was about 160 cm above the ground. Now I know that this species may take refuge not just on and in the ground, but also at elevated spots. Maybe that shouldn't be too surprising, for their preferred mating locations are almost always above the ground.

This was a quite large specimen worthy of its specific name.


It stretched to about 11 cm long. Imagine how much slime it left on my fingers.


The previous well hidden Limax maximus was here.

26 May 2010

Mysterious animal dead on the sidewalk

I photographed this unidentified casualty on the sidewalk during my daily walk today. The image turned out blurry in the fine tradition of cryptozoology.


The small brown object near the lefthand corner was an opportunistic ant partaking of the undoubtedly rare delicacy. But what was the identity of the dead creature itself? Was it a caterpillar? A worm of some sort? Or a mollusk? The lack of shell fragments ruled out a snail, but could it have been a slug? The long greenish appendage, presumably a tentacle, even raised the possibility that this was a heretofore undiscovered terrestrial descendant—the other tentacle being hidden from view underneath the rest of the remains—of, dare I say, Nectocaris pteryx.

Imagine my frustration later in the office when I realized that I had had a container with me and that I could have taken the remains for a thorough investigation. Not wanting to miss my chance at solving this once in a lifetime puzzle, I went back to the spot about an hour later. Luckily, the thing on the sidewalk was still there albeit in a slightly drier state in the blazing sun. I kneeled down and started scooping up the ghastly corpse into the container. And then I immediately knew what it was: a squished mulberry.

The yet to be solved real mystery is the provenance of the fruit, for there was no mulberry tree in the vicinity.

25 May 2010

There is no such place as an inhospitable habitat

What is wrong with the following sentence?

...primates have evolved in inhospitable habitats, both in terms of availability of preferred resources, and the not unrelated facts that plants have evolved myriad chemical and mechanical mechanisms to protect themselves from predators (Lambert, 2007).
No organism can survive indefinitely in an inhospitable habitat. Inhospitable means "unfavorable to life or growth; hostile". For our purposes, we can refine this definition to mean "unfavorable to life or growth of a specific species". Then, obviously, an organism's habitat, in which it has evolved and may still be evolving to survive, can not be inhospitable to the organism. That just doesn't make sense, for if the organism can survive and reproduce indefinitely in a given habitat, then that habitat is, by definition, hospitable to the organism.

Where there are plants, there are plant predators and when plants have predators, they "have evolved myriad chemical and mechanical mechanisms to protect themselves from predators". Does this, therefore, mean that my backyard is an inhospitable habitat for insects, even though there are hundreds of species returning year after year to munch on the plants? The absurdity of the statement that "primates have evolved in inhospitable habitats" should be obvious. Primates have evolved in hospitable habitats. Their habitats may have been hot, dry, without abundant food and with abundant predators, but they were, nevertheless, hospitable.

Is the intertidal an inhospitable habitat? If we follow the cited author's reasoning, it should be, because in the intertidal the sea recedes periodically, exposing everything to the hot sun and the desiccating air and when it returns, it brings back the predators and at the same time messes up the osmotic balances. Yet thousands of species call the intertidal home. Surely, it can't be that inhospitable.

In The Log From the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck & Ricketts wrote:
It is noteworthy that the animals, rather than deserting such beaten shores for the safe cove and protected pools, simply increase their toughness and fight back at the sea with a kind of joyful survival.
The phrase "inhospitable habitat" is an oxymoron.


Lambert, J. E. 2007. Seasonality, fallback strategies, and natural selection... in P.S. Ungar (ed.) Evolution of the human diet. Oxford University Press.

24 May 2010

Marissa the Cat under the umbrella


It wasn't even raining.

23 May 2010

Cochlicopa on the garage door—Part 2

There were 3 dormant Cochlicopa lubrica on my garage door on Friday afternoon and evening. As expected, Saturday's rain activated them. Last night around 10:30 I counted at least 25 of them crawling on the garage door in the light rain. I have no idea where the rest had come from. The one in the photograph below appears to have been eating something. That's one way to keep the garage door clean.


They were still crawling around this morning when it was still raining. The rain has since stopped. Tonight at 9 o'clock I casually counted 25 of them on the garage door. Most appeared dormant.

21 May 2010

Cochlicopa on the garage door


Shell length is usually 4-5 mm.

There were 3 of these snails dormant on the outside of my garage door this afternoon. I call them Cochlicopa lubrica, a widespread species that is also present in Europe and elsewhere. I often come across them around my house. The last time I mentioned them on this blog was in this post.

It is now 9 o'clock at night. I just stepped outside and checked on the snails. They were still dormant. It is warm but dry. Perhaps the rain predicted for tomorrow will revitalize them.

Part 2

20 May 2010

Poem for a preserved slug

TO A SLUG (IN ALCOHOL)

Hail, Limax!—clammy, slimy thing,
Poor houseless wretch, of thee I sing!
Though ended is thy earthly run,
Thy glory is but yet begun.
For Science, with obtrusive pride,
Will keep intact thy mortal hide
And suffer thee, for future gain,
In best of spirits to remain.

H. H. BRUENN
Oakland, Cal., Apr. 15, 1900
From the Nautilus, vol. 14, p. 36, 1900.

I don't know who H. H. Bruenn was. His name is not in 2,400 Years of Malacology (7th Edition).

19 May 2010

Ants carrying their prey up a tree


These ants were climbing slowly but steadily up the wet trunk of a beech tree while carrying a large prey, which seemed to be some sort of insect larva. When I first saw them they were ~1.5 m above the ground. Presumably, they had a nest way up in the tree.


They were relatively large ants, each ~8 mm long.

18 May 2010

Do snails grow on trees?


In response to that question, our reader Bruce Berman from Boston sent this picture of a couple of Cepaea nemoralis on a sumac tree. The picture was taken on Lovells Island off Boston in August 2008. According to Bruce, the snails were about 10 or 15 feet (3 to 4.5 m) off the ground. Bruce also provided the following observations:
I often see them dormant on the trunks or on a curled leaf after a few days of dry weather in the summer. as winter approaches they are much more common on the ground in leaf litter, etc. When it is damp or wet, they climb to the terminal growth and eat like little pigs.

17 May 2010

Velvet mite with one missing leg


This appears to be a velvet mite (family Trombidiidae). I photographed it last weekend in the woods near my house. Its body was 2 mm long.

One of the right legs was missing. This is one of those things that one is likely to notice not while in the field, but later while looking at the pictures. Here is a photo showing the right side.


16 May 2010

Foods of Anatolia prior to the introduction of American plants

A few days ago I read the chapter titled "New world foods and old world demography" in the 1972 book The Columbian Exchange. Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. Crosby's hypothesis was that the plant foods, especially corn and potatoes, introduced to the Old World, i.e., Europe, Asia and Africa, from the Americas were the main causes of the population increases that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Crosby's arguments didn't quite apply to the Middle East and Turkey (back then the Ottoman Empire). He was aware of it, but he nevertheless stuck with this claim.

While reading Crosby, I was reminded of a passage in On Horseback through Asia Minor, Frederick Burnaby's account of his voyage across Anatolia in the winter of 1876. In the city of Sivas in central Turkey, Burnaby visited some Christian missionaries and heard this from one of them:

There was actually a great deal of difficulty in introducing the potato plant...Some foreigners brought over the seeds and planted them. They came up very well; the soil is admirably suited for their growth. But the natives would not eat the potatoes. It was not until the military authorities, who were short of provisions, supplied them to the soldiers in lieu of other edibles that the soldiers would partake of this vegetable. They soon acquired a taste for it, and potato culture is gradually spreading throughout the district.
So if this was indeed a reliable account, potatoes seem to have been introduced to Turkey sometime in the mid-19th century.

Maize, that is, corn, on the other hand, had been introduced to the area much earlier. The oldest record of corn growing in Turkey that I know of is was given by Fredrik Hasselquist in the account1 of his travels to collect specimens for Carl Linneaus. In 1750, while going from Izmir to Manisa ("Smyrna to Magnesia"), he noted: "In one hour's travelling from the town we came to a large field, covered with Olive-trees, and in some places turned into corn land."

These were the main foods eaten in Anatolia prior to the introduction of American plants:

  • Wheat

  • Rice (not native to the area but probably of ancient introduction)

  • Legumes (Old World species, such as lentils, chick peas, etc.)

  • Grapes, mulberries, pears, apples, plums, etc. (not sure about the provenances of melon and water melon)

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Various locally grown indigenous leafy vegetables and roots2

  • Meat from cows, sheep and goats (and horses?)

  • Milk of the above and various fermented milk products, including yogurt and cheese

  • Chickens and their eggs (not native to the area, but probably of ancient introduction)

  • Fish in coastal areas

In addition, various wild birds and rabbits may have been consumed in rural areas. Domesticated geese may also have been raised but I am not sure how significant a food item they were. Nor am I sure how significant and widespread the consumption of nuts were, although at least hazelnuts and walnuts are native to the area. Finally, pure sugar was probably a rare commodity if it existed at all, but highly concentrated grape juice and honey were used as sweeteners.

These are the main edible plants of American origin introduced to Anatolia after the 15th century:

  • Potatoes

  • Corn

  • Tomatoes

  • Peppers

  • Squash

  • Pumpkin

Of these only the potatoes and corn are significant sources of calories and protein, while the rest, despite being rich in vitamins, has been used mainly as garnishes and side dishes.

Curiously, although potato the latecomer has since acquired a hefty share of the modern Turkish cuisine, the older corn has, at least until recently, never become a significant player in the Anatolian diet and is eaten mostly on the cob as a snack. Presumably, the corn grown in the 18th century was used primarily to feed animals.

So the bottom line is that I don't think the American plants have played a significant part in Anatolian history.

I will probably return to this subject in the future.


1Voyages and Travels in the Levant in the Years...Available in Google Books.
2Eggplants, often used in Turkish cooking, are not native to the area; they may have been introduced in the Middle Ages. And what about carrots? I believe they originated somewhere in Asia.

14 May 2010

A well hidden Limax maximus


This slug was in a narrow and wet crevice among the roots of a beech tree today around noon.

13 May 2010

Ventridens ligera on a box

There aren't very many eastern North American land snails that regularly climb trees or other tall plants and the few species that do so usually return to the ground once their feeding is over. In this recent post, I wrote about an individual of Anguispira fergusoni, a species that routinely climbs trees, that had become dormant on a tree.

Ventridens ligera, a very common snail of eastern North America, sometimes climbs trees and at least once I have seen a dormant individual on a tree.

Last Saturday while looking for snails to photograph in Great Falls Park in Virginia, I came upon a large, mysterious metal box in a clearing in the woods. It was locked, so I have no idea if there was anything in it.


On one of the upper corners of the box I saw a dormant Ventridens ligera ~50 cm above the ground. The snail's body was visible about a quarter of a whorl behind the aperture.


When a snail becomes dormant against a surface, it normally positions its shell so that the aperture will be against the surface. This provides some protection against intruders that might otherwise attempt to enter the shell via the aperture. It also slows down water loss from the snail's body, especially if the aperture is sealed to the surface with mucus. The peculiar thing about this Ventridens was that it was attached to the surface sideways and its aperture was completely open.

12 May 2010

Holding up an Odontotaenius disjunctus


I found this relatively large beetle inside a large rotten log while searching for snails in Great Falls Park last weekend. It appears to be an Odontotaenius disjunctus. Rotting logs are indeed their normal abodes.

They have a small horn on top of their heads that is difficult to notice. In fact, I didn't see it in the field. Only after I read that one of their vernacular names was horned passalus did I examine the pictures carefully and then noticed the horn. It is marked with an arrow in the next picture that shows the beetle crawling at the tips of my fingers.


11 May 2010

Snail eating feces

In this post from way back when I wrote about a slug and a snail that were enjoying a meal of dog poop. As far as the nutritional requirements of gastropods go, feces must rank right up there on the scale of wholesome nutrition.

And now here is a picture of a snail, Mesodon thyroidus, approaching some feces that may have been left by a raccoon.


The next picture shows the snail having its shit and eating it too!


These pictures are from last weekend's field trip.

10 May 2010

A Fowler's toad in my hand


This frog was on a trail in Great Falls Park near the Potomac River last Saturday. Like the eastern American toad (Bufo americanus) featured in this post, this one too was quite well camouflaged. If it hadn't hopped to get out of our way, we wouldn't have noticed it.

It was a Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri). The 2 Bufo species are separated from each other, in addition to other characteristics, by the number of warts in their dorsal spots: 1 or 2 in B. americanus, 3 or more in B. fowleri (White & White, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva, 2002). Three reddish warts are visible in the dorsal spots of this specimen.


Also like the eastern American toad of the previous post, once I picked up this Fowler's toad, it sat calmly in my palm and didn't attempt to get away as long as we didn't touch it. Interesting creatures these toads are.

09 May 2010

Saturday's snails

Yesterday I went on a field trip with Tim Pearce in a park in Virginia along the Potomac River. Our main quarry was a land snail called Xolotrema denotata. The only published record of X. denotata from that area dates back to 1910. So we thought it would be worthwhile to relocate the species.

Here are some of the snails we saw.

Ventridens ligera (left) and Mesodon thyroidus are probably the 2 two most common native species along the Potomac. Live snails, like these 2 I photographed yesterday, can be abundant even in the floodplains of the river. How they survive the floods is a mystery.


The snail on the left with the hairy shell and the long parietal tooth in the next picture is a Stenotrema sp., either S. barbatum or S. hirsutum. If you know how to tell the 2 apart, let me know. I can't identify the other snail, which was probably a juvenile.


As for Xolotrema denotata, we couldn't find any. It is possible that X. denotata doesn't live on or near the floodplain where we did all of our searches. So it may be worthwhile to return to the area on another occasion.

07 May 2010

A luckless snake that couldn’t cross the road

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a young garter snake I had managed to get off a road. A few days ago while biking on the same road I saw another snake that was too late to save.


It had undoubtedly been run over by a car. I believe this is too is a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). But it wasn't the one I had saved previously, because it appeared smaller and the location was ~100 m away from the spot where I had seen the previous one.


Let my shoe be the scale.

06 May 2010

Snail power

February 1895 of the Nautilus had this news item:

The train coming east from Suk-el-Arba [Tunisia] last Thursday was two hours late for a very singular reason. The road was literally covered with snails, the wheels of the locomotive crushing these mollusks into a pulp, which destroyed all adherence and caused the locomotive wheels to skate, so to speak, in their places.
The Nautilus had copied the news from the Philadelphia Recorder, which, in turn, had cited a publication called the Dipeche Tunisienne. Hopefully, the Nautilus's version was an accurate enough rendition of what had actually taken place in Tunisia.

This may have been the only time in history that snails were able to stop a train.

05 May 2010

The frog and the caterpillar

Last Sunday while I was walking in the woods, this large frog hopped once to get out of my way and then froze. As long as it was not moving, its well camouflaged body was almost unnoticeable against the leaf litter. But then something moved. Something small and green. I looked carefully and saw a little geometrid caterpillar crawling on the frog’s head.


As I took pictures, the caterpillar kept on crawling on the frog’s body until it got down to its leg and eventually left it for a nearby leaf.


Meanwhile, I had gotten uncomfortably close to the frog making it hop once again. But this time it got itself cornered inside a cavity among the roots of the nearby tree.


All I had to do was reach in and grab it. Afterwards, it sat calmly in my palm; I didn’t even have to restrain it. I believe it’s an eastern American toad (Bufo americanus).

04 May 2010

Snail's Tales forever


My facebook friend Cindy C., who also writes the blog Bug Safari, has made this wonderful picture in memory of my wife.

Cindy and I are virtual friends. She doesn't really know much about me—although I certainly hope to meet her one day. Nevertheless, the images she created, the moon-cloud snail in the sky as well as the 2 snails below that are seemingly in love with each other, by coincidence mean a lot to me in a deeply personal way.

Life goes on and will flourish like the dandelions that will grow from the seeds carried away by the wind.

03 May 2010

Anguispira fergusoni on a tree

Anguispira fergusoni is a native eastern North American land snail. On warm and humid days, especially at night, they climb trees probably in search of fungal food. During my 12+ years of wanderings in the park near my house, I've seen them crawling on trees many times, but I had never seen one dormant on a tree until yesterday.


This one, ~12 mm in shell diameter, was on a beech ~65 cm above the ground. The shell was attached to the tree weakly with some dried mucus along the rim of the aperture. After I picked up the shell and looked inside, I saw the snail's foot immediately within the aperture.

There is often something new to be witnessed out there.

02 May 2010

Meanwhile, back in the forest

Regular postings will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a primordial pond of the highly advanced variety.