Dr. Richard Konicek-Moran
Educator, Biologist, Author
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - traveling eft
a traveling eft

         We spotted a red eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) also known as the eastern spotted newt today on our muggy August morning walk. It was about 4 inches long and was crawling through the grass near our familiar trail in the woods. Actually it was our second spotting this fall as the little critters have left the water, having given up their gills and now are spending a few years wandering the woods eating snails, small insects and other tiny animals living in the leaf litter. They are the juvenile stage of the three-part life of the salamander.

         Since our walk takes us by a pond we expect to see these red forms during the late summer since that is the time of the year that they leave the water behind them and live on land for up to three years. They then return to the water and live out their lives as aquatic adults, where they mate and find food again in a liquid environment. When they return to the water, they eat mosquito larvae and other aquatic life. Vegetarians they are not. They move about swiftly in the water but are rather slow on land. They can live up to 15 years, quite long for an amphibian.

         I am never really tempted to pick one up since they look so fragile but I found that they can emit a toxic substance when disturbed and it can cause irritation unless you wash your hands after touching them. This toxin also protects them from fish when they are in ponds as adults or larvae and from land animals when they are in their eft stage

         When they leave the water, to spend their mid-life term on land, they often travel in groups. In Amherst, conservationists actually built tunnels under roads where salamanders usually travel so that they are not squished by autos as they head out on their terrestrial stage. Kathleen used to run on a road, in a town close by, where there were literally hundreds of red efts migrating away from their origins. An amazing sight.

         We wonder how old this little fellow is and guess by its size that it has been around for a few years. But we could be wrong…


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Sunday, August 15, 2010 - Even More Galling...
Open Gall
 A bit of research told us that the galls are often the home to colonies of aphids (Melaphis rhois), or as they are commonly called, plant lice. These aphids are members of the Hemiptera or true bugs and can have a devastating effect upon vegetation as they suck nutrients from their host plants at an amazing rate. Apparently they live in the gall and escape to do their damage through a tiny hole near the leaflet attachment. You may have seen these aphids on houseplants or garden plants and noticed the damage they do. They are often controlled by the addition of ladybug beetles (Harmonia axyridis), which feed upon the aphids. Aphids are also often found in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with ants, which protect the aphids and eat their sugary excrement.

         We saw no aphids in this particular gall, but we understand that many people do see them when the gall is opened.

         Questions abound: is the white fluff inside the excrement of the aphids? Will they spread to other parts of the plant? Are these aphids prevalent on other trees? Is this parasitism? Galls don’t usually affect the host plant too much, but this seems different to us. It didn’t look as if the entire sumac shrub was affected, but that particular branch was definitely unhappy! Is this because of aphid invasion?

         Rest assured that we will be keeping an eye on these galls, since we pass them everyday on our morning walk. 

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Sunday, August 15, 2010 - Even More Galling...
intact gall
 This morning we found some sumac galls on the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) (see photo). They obviously did not grow overnight but we had not noticed them until this morning and only then because the leaflets on the sumac leaf were prematurely turning red and were on the way to falling off. The galls looked like green sacs hanging down from the axils of the leaves.

         As we are prone to do, we collected one gall that did not have a hole in it, which would lead us to believe that whatever insect caused the gall had already escaped. When we cut it open, it had an almost powdery white fluff inside. 

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Friday, July 30, 2010 - Rattlesnake plantain (continued)
The tiny flowers
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Friday, July 30, 2010 - The Aptly Named Rattlesnake Plantain
The rattlesnake plantain in its piney woods
 Our miracle of the day is one that we have been watching for some time on our daily walks. It is the so-called rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) a hardy terrestrial orchid, native and common to eastern North America. Its flowering stalk is about a foot high with tiny ¼ inch white flowers. It loves an environment that is slightly acidic and seems to prefer the shade of the pine trees growing in our woods. We read that it reproduces by sending out short runners on or near the surface of the ground. It is listed as an evergreen but we haven’t been around during the winter for the last eleven years so we can’t verify that directly. However, when we return from the south each year and check up on our orchids, we see their leaves, still green, in March and April.

         For a while, we were looking at the pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellate) which has leaves so similar to the Goodyera that we were fooled into thinking that they were orchids. Then the plants bloomed and we could see that there was no resemblance at all in the flowers. Because it is also an evergreen it is also called wintergreen or in some areas prince’s pine. For years it was the prime flavoring ingredient in homemade root beer.

         The Goodyera bloomed two years ago and we watched it carefully all of last summer but it did not bloom or even put up stalks. This year it has added another blooming plant and we now have three stalks with their tiny, beautiful orchids. Its leaves, very unusual for the orchid family, have bright silver markings with a broad stripe down the center and a densely reticulated network of veins that are slightly less green than the rest of the leaves.

         We will continue to watch it and try to find out if it only blooms every other year. We have two theories. One is that last summer’s cool, rainy weather prevented a bloom. The other is that it only blooms every so often, so we have to keep some temperature records and see what happens. This year has been a hot, dry summer but in the cool, moist woods, the little gem has thrived and rewarded our patience with spectacular floral blooms. Spectacular, that is, for a plant with ¼ inch flowers. Maybe if you have a hand lens…


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