Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An amazing transformation

While down in West Virginia this weekend, I had occasion to visit the above outhouse on Saturday night. Now, that sounds really weird, I know. But, my purposes were noble - this structure, which is on the upper rim of the New River gorge in a small park called Burnwood, is famous for the moths that it attracts. That light remains on all night, and there is almost always something cool that has flown in and landed on the wall.

The field trips for the New River Birding and Nature Festival gather at Burnwood, and we always check the outhouse first thing in the morning. Lunas and many other cool moths are often found, and this may be the most heavily scrutinized john in the Mountaineer State.

While the outhouse was not as dense with moths as it is in spring, I wasn't disappointed. This is a Hog Sphinx, Darapsa myron, the larvae of which feed on Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and other members of the grape family.

This one is even cooler. It is a Small-eyed Sphinx, Paonias myops, which uses cherry and birch trees as hosts, among others.

Small-eyed Sphinx has a distinctive posture when at rest, with the abdomen strongly curled upwards.

Anyway, I heard Nebraska Coneheads, Neoconocephalus nebrascensis, singing from nearby scruffy woodland borders, so off I went to investigate. In the course of searching for the coneheads, I lucked into this - a newly emerging annual cicada, attached to the culm of a Deer's-tongue Grass, Panicum clandestinum. The above shot was taken at 10 pm, and the cicada had probably begun splitting its way out of its larval case within an hour of my arrival.

There are about a half-dozen species of annual cicadas in these parts, and they live most of their lives subterraneously as nymphs, tapping into tree roots for nutrients. When some internal alarm clock rings, they emerge from the ground, climb up a plant, and begin the process of transformation into the winged adult. At this point, the wing buds are quite apparent and the insect is in the process of pulling itself upright. Cicadas normally emerge under cover of darkness to avoid predators. If they tried this transformation during the day, a bird or some other predator would have an easy feast.

By 10:30 pm, it looked like this. I could practically see the wings pumping up as the creature's hemolymph coursed through its veins. It was like watching air being slowly pumped into an inflatable raft.

Ten-fifteen minutes later and the wings had filled out, becoming a gorgeous translucent shade of blue-green. The patterning on the thorax is developing nicely, and the abdomen is rapidy enlarging. The animal can now be identified with some certainty as a Lyric Cicada, Tibicen lyricen, a common species in the area and one that I heard singing during the day.

Only five minutes or so later, and the wings had become clearer and more expanded.

By 11:15, the cicada was pretty much developed, sans some coloration and final hardening of its body parts. I had to leave at this point, but shortly after sunup the following morning, the cicada probably took its inaugural flight, high into the boughs of nearby trees. There, it would join numerous others and add to the mid-summer cacophony of piercing drawn-out buzzes that these strange insects produce.



Janet Creamer said...

Very cool! You always have a knack for finding the coolest things.

Wil said...

Very cool indeed. Finding an emerging cicada is a real treat and your photo essay is terrific.
Ah, the out house, what a great place that is. Certainly a much check spot when in the area before first light. You certainly found some cool looking moths.

Nina said...

Great find, Jim.
And nice job capturing the unfolding of events...

OpposableChums said...

Yeah, how DO you manage to stumble upon these miracles?

Tom said...


Jim McCormac said...

Thank you. Thank you very much for the compliments. Wil, I know you've spent some time loitering around that outhouse!


Russell Reynolds said...

Awesome series of the cicada emerging. I was mentioning sphinx moths and lunas the other day and how I haven't seen any for a long time.Used to always come across osme on the buildings under the outdoor lights of my folks place.

Cathy said...

Love your bugs. And I'll bet you'll enjoy what I found this morning in the Mohican State park area:


A bolus spider that has yet to identified by species.

Jim McCormac said...

Very cool find, and nice photos, Cathy - thank you for sharing them with us! If you guys haven't checked these out, follow her link in her comment.

Looks like Mastophora hutchinsoni to me. These Bolas Spiders are EXTREMELY cool. They look just like bird droppings, but employ an incredibly devious ploy to snare prey. They emit a fragrance just like a moth pheromone. When the moth flies near to check it out, the spider swings a line tipped with a sticky drop, and snares the moth and reels it in.


Cathy said...

Jim! Thanks so much for the ID. Rich Bradley of OSU backed that ID up on BugGuide.

What neat spiders. I can't find her this morning, but in the search under the picnic table bench found some fascinating neospintharus egg sacs like the one I found at Cape Cod this year.

Really enjoy your blog. It's the best.

JSK said...

Great photos. Glad I'm not the only one who does this.
I'd visit the outhouse at our local state park and find interesting moths on the inside wall. I'd go back to the car and get my camera - hoping that no one saw me and called the local constabulary. I wondered how I would explain that my intentions were innocent.