Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dobsonfly: Bit of a horrorshow, this one

Ah, the legendary hellgrammite, many a bass fisherman's dream bait. This multi-legged larva looks like a mini dragon, and has a powerful set of pinchers to boot. Mishandle one of these aquatic beasts, and it'll nip you, too. I caught this one on a darter-hunting expedition in Big Darby Creek a few years back. Hellgrammites are strictly aquatic, and lurk in the substrate of streams, capturing whatever they can. Ugly as this insect may be, their presence is in a waterway is a nice thing - hellgrammites are indicators of good water quality.

If you are an entomophobe, you'll not find the dobsonfly any more appealing than its hellgrammite larval stage. Corydalus cornutus is a whopper of a bug, and males such as the one in this photo measure several inches in length.

We lured a few of these beasts to our lights last week in Adams County. We were after moths, but they're not the only critters attracted to bright lights at night, and I was pleased to spot this bruiser on the wall. It's a male dobsonfly, as can easily be told by the incredibly long scimitar-shaped mandibles (females' mandibles are much shorter). They use the swordlike mandibles for self defense, and typically fly suddenly at a person invading their space, quickly thrusting each mandible deep into the person's eyes. With an abrupt reversal of its flight coupled with a fierce jerk of the mandibles, the dobsonfly rips the victim's eyes from the sockets, and flies off to feed them to its mate.

Just kidding. Ferocious as the dobsonfly may appear, it is actually utterly harmless. While one may try to give a pinch with its mandibles if mistreated, they're too long and flimsy to gain much purchase, and would cause no harm. All visual bark and no real bite.

We were intrigued to see this Carolina mantis sneaking up on the huge dobsonfly. I watched this drama for a while, my camera's video function at the ready, hoping the mantid would attack. It bobbed, weaved, cocked its pointy triangular head, waved its legs and swayed side to side, but wouldn't get any closer to the dobsonfly than this. Fierce as the mantids are, this dobsonfly was apparently too much and the would-be predator chickened out. Can't say as I blame it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A commonplace miracle of transformation

Last Saturday night, at the Midwest Native Plant Conference (more on that in a soon to come post), many of the attendees set out on a nocturnal foray to look for anything interesting. As we passed a smallish white pine, I noticed several newly emerged annual cicada nymphs that had scaled partway up the trunk. Most had split open, and their inhabitants had liberated themselves, but we were interested to see that one nymph was still plodding its way up the tree. After spending a while at John Howard's mothing sheets, several of us circled back to check on the cicada nymph's progress.

By the time we returned, the nymph had reached the lowermost branch of the pine, and had moved out on it a foot or so and was firmly attached to its undersurface. One of its mates is in the background; that cicada has already emerged, leaving behind an empty shell. Annual cicadas in the genus Tibicen emerge every year, as you've no doubt guessed, with each crop spending at least two years under the ground feeding on tree roots. Finally, like strange little mud-caked zombies, some sort of cue triggers them to burst from the soil and commence the amazing transformation shown in this photo series.

I used my Canon Rebel T3i with its 100 mm macro lens and Speedlite 430 flash to make these photos. Fortunately, I had the camera's time and date stamp set correctly. The first photo, above, was made at 11:08 pm. The cicada within its soon to be former larval shell is pushing outwards; you can see the dorsal (upper) surface of the shell beginning to rupture.

By 11:19 pm, the cicada had broken through its shell and was rapidly expanding in size.

11:27 pm. The wing buds are nearly free.

11:30 pm. The stubby little wings - soon to grow much larger - pop free from the shell.

One minute later, 11:31 pm, and the animal's legs are nearly pulled free.

There! 11:34 pm and its legs are almost totally free. Short periods of rest were punctuated with flexing and wriggling of the legs, as the cicada pumped hemolymph into them and they grew and hardened. Note how the insect has taken on a beautiful bluish-green tint around the head and legs.

At 11:41, the cicada is hanging straight down, legs free, and giving periodic tremors as it pushes itself free. It is almost as if the insect is nearly imperceptibly oozing itself from its larval case.

At 11:45 pm, I shifted position and made this photo. The eyes are becoming pigmented and the wing buds are unfurling before our eyes.

By 12:08 am the animal was well on its way towards grabbing its nymph shell with its legs; bending forward and up as if executing an abdominal crunch.

By 12:10 am things were happening quickly. The animal has managed to reach its former shell, and has seized it with its legs. Not much of its abdomen remains imprisoned within the shell, and we were on full alert knowing the insect would soon pop free.

This photo is also stamped at 12:10 am; very shortly after the preceding photo the cicada pulled its abdomen completely free.

This is the last, or nearly the last, photo that I made, at 12:12 am. The cicada is completely liberated and will proceed to rapidly pump up, harden, and dry. I and my companions were pretty well beat by this time, and headed off for bed. Nonetheless, we hardly considered this hour or so of cicada-watching wasted time, as the process is one of those amazing little miracles that plays out untold thousands of times a night around here, but is very seldom seen.

I made this image of a nearby cicada that had emerged earlier and was a bit further along. In short order, the subject of my photo series will have reached this stage, a nearly adult lyric cicada, Tibicen lyricen. Come morning, the cicada will have made its way into the crown of the tree, and be fully flighted. If a male, it will add its buzz saw drone to the chorus of other cicadas; a symphony characteristic of the dog days of summer.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mega-cool bugs

Right up in the grill of a clamp-tipped emerald dragonfly. I've been off in the wilds of Adams County doing field work, much of it with the incomparable David Wagner, and I've managed to wrangle scads of interesting images. I'll share some later, when there's more time. The emerald was captured with my new Canon Rebel T3i, which is proving to be an awesome camera.

A black maple, Acer nigrum, with its telltale foliage. Look closely...

That bit of dying maple tissue on the leaf in the previous photo morphs into a spectacular caterpillar upon inspection. It is a checker-fringe prominent, Schizura ipomoeae; an extraordinary mimic of necrotic leaf tissue. Note how the caterpillar essentially assumes the outline of the leaf margin as it eats its way into the leaf. Remarkable; probably far more spectacular than the rather drab moth that this caterpillar will become - if nothing gets it.

More to follow...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

GoPro Hero Camera

Against my better judgment, I've become a bit of a kook for cameras. I've taken photographs for a long time - even back in the Dark Ages of print film - but didn't get my first digital camera until 2004. Like many addictions, things took a while to ramp up and for the first several years I was content with one camera.

Then, I felt it was time for an upgrade, and that's where the trouble often starts. From whatever it was that I first had, it was on to a Panasonic FZ-30 in 2005 or 2006. Then it was the improved Panasonic FZ-50 (which I still have and regularly use - fabulous camera!). Somewhere along the line I added a small rectangular Canon Powershot, to have something that would slip in a pocket.

The lens-lust steadily increased, with the upshot that I've now also got a Nikon Coolpix P510, which is an unbelievable point & shoot with a 42x zoom that actually holds up. You'd be stunned at the quality of the distant bird shots that thing can manage. Joining it is a Nikon D7000 SLR and a smattering of accompanying lenses, and the recent acquisition of a Canon T3i Rebel SLR, which looks to be an amazing camera and I can't wait to work with that some more.

Camera technology is growing better by leaps and bounds, and even the smart phone cameras/video are capable of stunning quality. I've got a Droid X, and it'll almost always come through in a pinch for both stills or video. But one of the coolest cameras out there follows...

The palm-sized GoPro HD Hero camera, an amazing little piece of technology. Inexpensive, too, at around $200.00. There isn't much to one of these. Two buttons control everything, and while it does have the ability to take still images, nearly everyone that gets one gets it for the video function. If you've seen onboard race car video, jumped (virtually) out of an airplane with a skydiver, or any manner of X-games type of video action, chances are it was filmed with a GoPro just like the one in my hand.

GoPros also come with a thoroughly waterproof case, and can be used at depths of up to at least 100 feet. The waterproof case is on the camera, above, and can be mounted in seconds. Its ability to function superbly both above and below water made the GoPro irresistible to me.

Nature videography really wasn't the primary reason I got the GoPro. It was bikes. That's my 2009 Ducati Monster 1100S, and it's the latest in a long line of motorcycles. In a weird melding of parallel universes, I became infatuated with motorcycles when almost as young as I was when birds hooked me into nature. It started with a rigid-framed minibike with a Tecumseh 2.5 horsepower engine that my brother John and I zipped around on when I was maybe ten or so. On it went, to a Hodaka, then Honda, then Suzuki, and to more Suzukis, Kawasaki, a Yamaha V-Max, a Buell, Harley-Davidson Softail, and some other stuff, finally coming to land on this Ducati which is the coolest unit yet, to me.

Well, one awesome aspect of the GoPro camera is that it mounts firmly onto steeds such as this bike. You can see it on its tank mount, just aft of the gas cap. It could be mounted on the back fender, too, or the front fender, on your helmet - almost anywhere. This allows for some cool footage.

When mounted on the gas tank of a motorcycle, it delivers video from the rider's perspective, and it's almost as if the viewer is along for the ride. The camera has a very wide-angle field, too.

For above-water purposes such as this, there is a vented camera case that allows for better audio. Because the audio pickups are at the rear of the camera, it cuts way down on wind noise and other obtrusive ambient sounds, thus allowing the rich mellifluous baritone of the Ducati to dominate.

After getting a waterproof case for the GoPro, I couldn't wait to test out its underwater capabilities, and finally did so about a week ago. This is a section of Mac-O-Chee Creek in Logan County, and its water is mostly clear as a bell. The stream is fed in part by springs, and water-quality is high and Mac-O-Chee hosts plenty of aquatic life.

Here's a brief video of life in the stream. As you can see, clarity remains high even when the camera is in the drink. Johnny darters can be seen shuffling along the stream bottom, and a number of bluntnose minnows swim past the lens. I'm looking forward to working more with this camera in underwater situations, as it'll allow footage of some very cool stuff that could never be recorded with a conventional camera.

The above video was compressed significantly for ease of uploading to the blog; it looks even better uncompressed. And GoPro didn't give me the camera or ask for any sort of endorsement. I just think it is a very cool and versatile piece of technology that can go where most cameras can't.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

National Moth Week: July 23 - 29

Stunning and artistic, a virgin tiger moth, Grammia virgo, rests on your blogger's hand. Moths are beautiful and infinitely diverse. More importantly, these insects provide ecological services that are invaluable to most other animals, people included.

The following information comes courtesy of Dr. Davis Horn, professor emeritus at Ohio State University, and widely known as “Mothman”.

National Moth Week – July 23-29, 2012

The time is almost here! National Moth Week is a nationwide celebration of moths and biodiversity, bringing together those interested in moths and raising awareness.  During NMW members of The Ohio Lepidopterists (and others) are invited to join in an all-out effort to see how many moth species we can find in Ohio. There will be organized blacklighting and baiting forays and individuals are welcome to report any moths you find.  Specific events are listed below.

Whether or not you participate in a NMW “event” you are welcome to simply make note of what species you encounter during the week of July 23-29.  If you’re not adept at moth identification, take a picture (or capture the moth).  Note date and location of sightings and send your results to me: e-mail davehorn43@columbus.rr.com or regular mail to 37 Arden Rd. Columbus, OH 43214.  Yes, caterpillars do count, as does any lepidopteran that washes up, dead or alive, on the north bank of the Ohio River.

For more information click on http://nationalmothweek.org/

National Moth Week Events

Below is the list of Ohio National Moth Week events known to us at press time.  Some of these events require sign-up in advance and fees may be involved, so check with contact persons.

23 July: Hocking Hills and Columbus.  Deep Woods BioBlitz mop-up, location TBA but most likely at OSU Museum of Biodiversity, sorting samples taken the night before in Hocking Co.  Contact Dave Horn (davehorn43@columbus.rr.com).  (Okay the night before was the 22nd but we didn’t see the samples until the morning of the 23rd.)

25 July: OSU West Campus, 8 PM: Bee Lab and OSU Wetlands.  Free food.  Contact Devon Rogers (rogers.781@osu.edu) or Dave Horn.

25 July: Kelleys Island.  As part of a comprehensive program requiring preregistration, Judy Semroc and Larry Rosche will operate a moth lighting station.  Contact the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (www.cmnh.org).

25 July, 9 PM: William H. Harsha Lake, Corps of Engineers Visitor Center, Batavia.  Pre-register by July 24 at 513-797-6081.  Contact Linda Romine (see page 2).

27 July: Franklin Park Conservatory, downtown Columbus.  Blacklighting.  Contact Greg Raterman (gregraterman@aol.com).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Moths galore at Wahkeena

Wahkeena Preserve, located just south of Lancaster, Ohio. This place is a state treasure, and I hadn't been there in far too long. If you ever find yourself in this area, you'll definitely want to pay a visit to Wahkeena.

Last Tuesday night, I rolled through Wahkeena's gate just as the sun was setting. I was there for some serious nocturnal moth action, and boy did we have it! Dennis Profant, kneeling at right, organized the affair, and along with Roger Grossenbacher (left), set up two well-lit white sheets in the woods. These brightly illuminated set-ups pull the moths like you wouldn't believe, if you've not seen this sort of operation yourself.

In addition to Dennis (he's got a GREAT blog, HERE) and Roger, we were joined by Wahkeena naturalist Robyn Wright-Strauss, longtime Wahkeena manager Tom Shisler, Alex Webb, and Lisa & Steve Sells. Lisa pushes the envelope of macro photography and her skills are extraordinary. Be sure to check her blog, HERE.

Profant, and Alex, are exceptionally knowledgeable regarding night-flying lepidoptera and this was an excellent opportunity for your narrator to expand his mothing horizons in the company of experts. We certainly weren't disappointed in what we saw. Wahkeena is full of interesting and diverse habitats, and it follows that it would host moths galore. The blizzards of insects attracted to our lights is testimony to the place's lepidopteran diversity, and following is a pictorial whirl of some of our subjects.

You know it's going to be good when a blinded sphinx, Paonias excaecatus, is perched on your light stand! OK, so we set it there, but the moth was apparently pleased with our operation and remained for some time.

Some species of moths are far flightier than others, while some are quite tame and easy to handle. Even some of the initially jumpy species settle down after being at the lights for a while and can then be handled and better posed for photographs.

Here's a closeup of that blinded sphinx, cooperating well with the paparazzi. All of the sphinx moths are ornate and detailed in their markings, and most are large. The caterpillars of this species are polyphagous - they eat a wide variety of woody plant species.

A good identification guide is helpful when grappling with the potentially hundreds of moth species that are possible at a place such as Wahkeena. The newest, and most user-friendly, is the above (details HERE). Get a copy if you wish to advance your moth IQ. A modest sphinx (formerly big poplar sphinx), Pachysphinx modesta, poses obligingly by the field guide.

Here's that same modest sphinx, quite unmodestly flashing its underwings for the camera. Some species of moths that appear drab and brown when at rest with wings folded can suddenly flip the forewings open and reveal bright colors on the hindwings. At least in some cases, by suddenly revealing a bold jolt of color, the moth can startle and spook would-be predators such as birds that are getting a bit too inquisitive.

The same modest sphinx, seen from an angle that makes it appear quite eerie. I find moths to be endlessly fascinating subjects for the camera. Even the plainest of the lot will reveal stunning detail if viewed in the right way.

As the best conditions for moth photography are - duh - at night, this means it is necessary to hone one's skills with flash. For all of these photos, I was using my Panasonic FZ-50 point and shoot, with only its standard built-in flash unit. The trick is to use full manual settings, and greatly underexpose the camera settings, then let the flash compensate. It takes practice and experimentation, but can yield excellent results.

For camera buffs, I shot the above image at an f-stop of 5, at a shutter speed of 1/60 with the camera's ISO value at 100, and the camera's flash intensity at its weakest setting. Without the flash the image would have been black as coal.

This is an arched hooktip, Deprana arcuata, and it resembles a stealth bomber. The caterpillars of this one apparently depend on alder and birch, and there is plenty of those plants in this general area.

Dennis Profant was quite excited when this tiny moth fluttered in. He should have been - Dennis coauthored THIS BOOK, the Slug Caterpillar Moths and other Zygaenoidea of Ohio (Dennis really isn't a total geek, I swear!). It is a yellow-shouldered slug moth, Lithacodes fasciola, and with only a cursory glance the moth doesn't look like much. Upon inspection it reveals a complex pattern along with showy gold and bronze coloration. The rather unsavory-sounding "slug" part of its name stems from the caterpillars. This species and its ilk have tiny caterpillars termed slugs, although in reality many of the slug cats actually outshine the adult moths in the looks department.

Looking just about as cute as a moth can be is this beautiful wood-nymph, Eudryas grata, peeking coyly over a leaf. See what I mean about moths as art?

Viewed from another angle, the beautiful wood-nymph takes on quite another look. These moths are bird dropping mimics, and look astonishingly like the fresh expulsion of a chickadee or some other songbird. They even have a wet-looking sheen, to better create that just expelled appearance. Who wants to eat a bird dropping? The moth world is full of clever deception such as this.

All of our emeralds are beautiful, but this aptly named showy emerald, Dichorda iridaria, may win the pageant. Its caterpillar is a bizarre looking affair that resembles a tubular stegosaurus, and eats... brace yourself! - poison ivy! And other members of the sumac family, too.

Always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, the rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicundula. This species is surprisingly common, and is probably one of our most commented upon moths. Even people who wouldn't give most self-respecting moths the time of day will do a double take when they see one of these perched by the night light. We've not got a lot of organisms that are pink and yellow, after all.

This the adult of what is almost certainly the most widely known caterpillar in North America, the legendary woolly-bear, famed (alleged) predictor of the coming winter's severity. Show most, or at least many, people a fuzzy black and orange woolly-bear caterpillar and they'll know what it is.

However, very few folks would probably recognize the abundant and widespread insect in its adult form, as an Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. I've got scads of good woolly-bear caterpillar images, and was pleased to finally make some decent photos of the adult.

I don't see much of horror here, but this is a horrid zale (zay-lee), Zale horrida. I'm not sure how it got saddled with the creepy name; the moth is quite beautiful and richly endowed with artistic detail. Some moths are not especially attracted to night lights, and this may be one of them. Roger Grossenbacher had painted moth attractant goop (rotten bananas, sugar, stale beer, that sort of thing all mixed up) on some trees and that's what lured in the zale.

Oh yeah! When one of these comes stumbling in, it's sort of like when the goshawk comes by the hawk watch tower. Great excitement ensues. This is one of our largest moths, the imperial moth, Eacles imperialis, and we had three of them come into one sheet. While the moth sticks out like a sore thumb when it alights on someone's sneaker, it blends beautifully with the mottled browns and yellows of fallen maple leaves where it would normally rest.

These jumbos look like bats when they flutter in, and they're every bit as big. Their appearance is  double-edged sword, though. On one hand, the imperials are big, showy, exciting, and wonderful photo subjects. On the debit side, they are like bulls in a china shop when they hit the sheets, bouncing and fluttering about maniacally and scaring off many of the lesser moths. More ominously, the conspicuous presence of these giants can attract the attention of predators such as flying squirrels, and if the sheets are left unattended for a while one may return to find lots of shucked wings laying about.

This hand provides scale to an imperial moth. Silkmoths such as this are essentially little more than flying gonads. They have no functional mouthparts, don't feed, and are lucky to last a week. Their sole purpose is to locate a member of the opposite sex, mate, and in the case of the female drop eggs, and then die.

Many other interesting night-flying bugs other than moths come into the brightly lit moth sheets. We were pleased to find this summer fishfly, Chauliodes pectinicornis, at one of the sheets. It's a whopper of a bug, some two inches in length and adorned with mothlike antennae.

Thanks to Tom and Robyn at Wahkeena for hosting us for this interesting evening, and to Dennis for setting things up and freely sharing his great expertise.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A caterpillar to watch for!

In a rather freakish lepidopteran coincidence (?), two of my co-workers brought me specimens of the above caterpillar yesterday. One of these colleagues resides in southern Franklin County, and one of the cats in the photo is her specimen. When she brought it in, the caterpillar was new to me - I had never seen one, and had no idea what it was. I did, however, know the plant that it was eating: wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis. Using the plant as a clue, it took nearly no time to pin a name on the mystery caterpillar. It is the larva of the genista broom moth, Uresiphita reversalis.

In what is either a remarkable coincidence or evidence of an expanding genista broom moth population, another co-worker waltzed in about an hour later with yet another of these caterpillars. He lives 40 or 50 miles north of the other caterpillar collector, in Morrow County. His caterpillar is the other specimen in the photo. After determining that my two colleagues weren't pranking me, I set about learning a bit about this moth and its larvae.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photographer unattributed

Several species of Baptisia, or indigos, are commonly sold and planted in gardens and yardscapes, including this wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis. In Ohio, it is primarily a species of gravelly river bottoms, and now is known but from one site in the wild and is listed as endangered. We've got two other native indigos in our flora: white false indigo, B. alba (white or creamy flowers), and yellow false indigo, B. tinctoria (yellow flowers). While both of these species are rather rare in the wild, they both are sold at least sparingly in the nursery trade. The genista broom moth caterpillar could turn up on any of them, as well as other pea family plants in the genera Genista, Lupinus, Sophora and perhaps others.

The caterpillar is quite striking and very distinctive. It's also easily noticed, as genista broom moth cats are active during the day, and highly gregarious, sometimes forming colonies of dozens of caterpillars. As they defoliate their host plant, the caterpillars lay down lots of filmy silk, creating a rather messy look sure to catch the eye of any gardener or casual observer.

I conferred with Dr. David Wagner about this species, and he tells me it does seem to be on the move and has turned up recently in new east coast sites (the species is principally a westerner). The caterpillars apparently can assimilate toxic alkaloids from their host plants and sequester them, thus they are chemically well protected. Thus, their daytime habits as most birds won't fool with them.

In spite of Internet maps showing dots in Ohio, there apparently is no validated record of genista broom moth for the state, or at least of larval infestations. This species may be an up and comer in our neck of the woods, and it bears watching for. If it increases and jumps from the garden Baptisias into the small, local and widely scattered native Baptisia stands, there could be trouble.

If you've seen this caterpillar, let me know, and ideally take a photo and send that too. The adult moths are rather plain and would be far more likely to go unnoticed than the conspicuous caterpillars.

Mothing in Wahkeena

An incredibly ornate cecropia moth caterpillar, Hyalophora cecropia, is heavily ornamented with colorful spiny nodules. It's big, too - a few inches in length. If all goes well for this caterpillar, it will eventually morph into one of our largest and most spectacular moths.

 A pair of cecropia cats happily noshes on the foliage of black cherry, Prunus serotina, a favored food plant.

I was out into the wee hours last night, participating in a moth-trapping expedition at the beautiful Wahkeena Nature Preserve just south of Lancaster. Wahkeena's naturalist, Robyn Wright-Strauss, raises the cecropia caterpillars and her charges made for some great photos. But our targets were wild, free-flying moths and we had great success, thanks to event organizer Dennis Profant.

A strange but showy beautiful wood-nymph, Eudryas grata, peers at your blogger from a leaf. I made many interesting images of some very cool night-flying insects on this foray, and will slap some of these up later today.

Monday, July 16, 2012

An interesting moth, new to science!

A tiny Adams County, Ohio prairie. This part of southernmost Ohio is notable for its "bluegrass province" prairies, which become more common in Kentucky, and barely nip north across the Ohio River. While many of these prairies are small, they are full of rare species. The prairie in the photo above has a very special treat, as we shall see.

I made the journey to Adams County last Saturday, and connected with John Howard and Tricia West, both of who live locally and are outstanding naturalists. Mary Ann Barnett ventured up from Kentucky, and Skip Trask joined us for the morning. Our mission? An incredible caterpillar. Lest you think me too foolish for chasing a caterpillar, rest assured that a field trip like this produces LOTS OF STUFF, from Blue Grosbeaks and Dickcissels to rare orchids to box turtles. But the caterpillar that follows was our primary quarry, and it is an intriguing tale.

This rather attractive member of the pea family is central to the story. It is scurf pea, Orbexilum onobrychis, sometimes known as sainfoin, french grass, or lanceleaf scurfpea (this is why botanists often communicate by scientific name; the variation in colloquial names can be maddening, and ambiguous).

Scurf pea (for that is what we shall call it) has a very limited distribution. While this USDA Plants Database map shows it in 12 states, it certainly isn't common or widespread in most of them. Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio are the states of core distribution; beyond this region the plant becomes downright rare. Scurf pea is only known from one or a few counties in several of the peripheral states.

This is the Ohio distribution of scurf pea, and it correlates fairly well with former prairie regions. Even those easternmost counties such as Athens have tiny relict prairie communities. This allegiance to prairies seems to hold true when one reviews scurf pea's range in other states, too.

I would describe the plant as rare to uncommon at best, and widely scattered. I think all of the populations that I have seen have been in prairies.

Well, it didn't take any time at all after entering the postage stamp-sized Adams County prairie and its rather luxuriant stands of scurf pea before we found our target. This is the "mystery" Schinia moth caterpillar, and insofar as is known it feeds exclusively on scurf pea. John Howard stumbled into a few of these caterpillars last year, and his efforts to make an identification ran into a brick wall. With good reason; it turns out this species has not been formally described so it isn't in any books. Moths in the genus Schinia are known as "flower moths", and the adult moths of this species apparently fly in spring and early summer, prior to our visit.

It turns out that a few other populations of the moth have turned up in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, all in the last few years and all on populations of scurf pea. Now is the time to search for it, as the caterpillars are very distinctive and far more conspicuous than the moths that they will eventually morph into.

We probably saw nearly 100 of the Schinia caterpillars in the mini-prairie, in an area no bigger than a small urban yard. It blows me away that this species could have been overlooked for so long. The caterpillars are reasonably good-sized - an inch or a bit longer - and quite boldly marked. Their creamy-yellow ground color is quite showy, and the ornamentation of black dots makes them really stand out.

These Schinia caterpillars are also active by day, which further aids in their detection. We assume that they must be chemically protected, as the predators such as birds seem to leave them alone. If they were tasty, one hungry Common Yellowthroat or other songbird could quickly lay waste to the entire caterpillar population, but this isn't happening. The caterpillar's apparent toxicity raises questions about the scurf pea, their only known host plant. There seems to be very little study of it, but I would guess that scurf pea must produce some sort of foul chemical compounds that these caterpillars have evolved the ability to assimilate.

For the most part, if not entirely, the caterpillars feed on the fruits of the scurf pea, and perhaps a bit on the flowers as well. I caught this one happily digging into a fruit, quite unbothered by my close proximity. Chemical compounds sometimes are sequestered in high concentration in plant seeds, and this may be why the Schinia cats harvest the fruit, and their emergence is timed to the plants' production of fruit.

Here's a closeup of a raceme of ravaged scurf pea fruit. The caterpillar bores a nearly circular hole through the fruit's protective wall, and efficiently vacuums out the contents.

After seeing the new caterpillar firsthand, I thought of a prairie remnant not far west of Columbus and some 115 miles to the north of where we saw the cats in Adams County. So, I skedaddled over to this prairie, seen above and only 25 minutes from my house, yesterday afternoon. There are nice stands of scurf pea here; far more of the plant than at the sites that I saw in Adams County. It seemed possible that the new caterpillar could also be here, but there's only one way to find out and that's to go have a look.

 Bingo! Within five minutes of beginning my inspection of the first patch of scurf pea I came across, I had spotted one of the caterpillars. That was a very cool experience. Note how this one is harvesting the scurf pea fruit and remaining utterly oblivious to your blogger, just as they acted in Adams County.

It wasn't long before I spotted a second caterpillar, and this one was firmly attached to the underside of a leaf. It's head was curled under in the J-shape that some caterpillars adopt just prior to entering the pupal stage and I wonder if that's what s going on here. I'm not sure anyone has yet seen a cocoon of this species, or understands that part of the life cycle. It may be that the fully mature caterpillar drops into the leaf litter and overwinters as a pupa on the ground.

I'm sure that I would have found many more of the caterpillars, but a prairie thunderstorm blew in with a vengeance, and chased me back to the car. I'll hope to get back to this site for a more thorough inspection very soon.

Photo: John Howard

John Howard managed to find one of the adult moths back in June, and made this photo. It is a rather sharp looking insect, just as is its caterpillar stage.

I look forward to learning more about this interesting moth, and its eventual formal scientific description and naming. This Schinia flower moth is yet more proof that we don't know everything and that fascinating new discoveries lurk under our noses. To me, it further reinforces the value of protecting significant natural areas such as the prairies where this moth has been found. Who knows what else is out there that we don't know about?