Monday, June 11, 2018

Hiking The Beehive in Acadia National Park

Called by some as the "crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast," Acadia National Park in Maine is the only national park that can be found in New England. It's a relatively small park by national park standardscoming in at "only" 49,000 acres—but it protects much of Mount Desert Island, the 6th largest island in the lower 48 states. Back in May, a few of the educators from The Ecology School—myself includeddrove the 3.5 hours from Saco, Maine, to Acadia National Park for a weekend filled with hiking and exploring. While there, one of the other educators and I decided to climb the  famous Beehive.

The Beehive Acadia National Park
The Beehive is a granite knob that rises 520 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on the southeastern corner of Mount Desert Island. You can access the summit via The Beehive Trail, whose trailhead is found just near the Sand Beach parking lot. This trail is challenging and offers beautiful views, but it also comes with a much higher risk factor than your average trail. To give you an idea of just what you're climbing up when you hike this trail, take a look at the photo above. The knob pictured is The Beehive. If you look at the zoomed in portion (remember you can always click on a photo to enlarge it), you'll notice a red circle. In that circle is a person, and that person is on The Beehive Trail.

Original figure made by Martin D. Adamiker [CC BY-SA 3.0 (link) or GFDL (link)], via Wikimedia Commons. Figure modified (addition of arrows and text) by Kyle Brooks.
Before we get to what the actual hike is like, I want to spend some time talking about the geology of Mount Desert Island, and especially The Beehive itself. As with many places in the northern portions of the United States, Mount Desert Island was heavily shaped and modified by various glacial periods during the last Ice Age. The last glacial periodthe Wisconsin Glacial Episode—began around 70,000 years ago and finished up around 12,000 years ago. At its greatest extent, this giant sheet of ice completely covered Maine, including Mount Desert Island. In this part of the world, the glacier moved from the northwest toward the southeast. As it moved over Mount Desert Island, it eroded the mountains that were present on the island into long, yet narrow, formations that were separated by U-shaped valleys. 

The Beehive Geology Plucking and Abrasion
Left: A smooth granite face resulting from glacial abrasion.
Right: A jagged, steep granite face resulting from glacial plucking.
As the glacier eroded the mountains on the island, it did so in two different ways, all dependent on which direction the side of the mountain was facing. Take, for example, The Beehive. Parts of The Beehive experienced glacial abrasion, while other parts experienced glacial plucking. Glacial abrasion and plucking are both examples of how a glacier can erode bedrock, but these two types of erosion are a result of different factors and forces. Subsequently, they end up leaving behind different geological features after the glacier retreats. The northwest side of The Beehive was eroded by glacial abrasion. In this case, the glacier smashed directly into the northwest side of the knob. This force of pressure, coupled with the rocks embedded in the bottom of the glacier, smoothed and polished the bedrock like sandpaper on a piece of rough wood. This left behind a large face of smooth, rounded granite.

The southeastern side of The Beehive, however, experienced erosion via glacial plucking. As the glacier polished the northwest side of the knob, it moved over the knob and slid down the southeastern side. As the ice slid down this side, frictional forces caused some of the ice at the very bottom to melt. This liquid water then entered into cracks and joints that were already present in the bedrock, were the water consequently refroze. Since water expands when it freezes, this resulted in large boulders cracking and breaking free of the knob. These boulders were then "plucked" up by the bottom of the glacier, where they were transported and dropped into the ocean or elsewhere. The resulting rock face was not highly smooth and polished, but was instead a steep cliff side with a jagged face. It's on this plucked side of The Beehive that the trail ascends.

Photos of The Beehive Trail Maine
The trail up to the summit starts out easy enough. The trailhead is at the bottom of a gully lined with granite boulders of various sizes—many of which were dropped there after being plucked off the knob by the glacier. This part is straightforward; one just has to watch their footing as they walk from rock to rock and keep an eye out for the blue blazes marking the trail.

The Beehive Trail Mount Desert Island Maine
The boulder field eventually ends at the base of the plucked side of the knob. This is where the scrambling begins. Scrambling is the type of hiking that is in between walking and technical rock climbing. Basically, it's walking up or down a rocky area that requires you to use your hands relatively often, but it still doesn't require technical gear like rope and carabiners.

Metal Rungs The Beehive Trail
This is also the first part of the trail in which you encounter the metal rungs, which you will soon come to rely on. As with many of the steep, rocky trails in the national park system, metal rungs were added at some point along the trail for hikers to more safely navigate. In the case above, metal rungs were added so hikers could safely cross a gap in the rock face.

Sand Beach Acadia National Park
Rather quickly, you are rewarded with grand views of the southeastern side of Acadia National Park. Features like the Sand Beach come into view. Although sandy beaches are not rare in the world by any means, the Sand Beach in Acadia National Park is significant. Maine is not known for sandy beaches; in fact, of the 3,478 miles of shoreline found in Maine, there's only about 40 miles of sand-based shorelines (~1.15% of the total). The Sand Beach in Acadia National Park represents about 290 yards of that 40 or so miles, and the only sand-based beach you'll find on Mount Desert Island.

Climbing The Beehive Trail
While the trail gets higher and higher, and the views get better and better, the trail also becomes increasingly more climbing-based. The trail also becomes smaller, and gaps become more prevalent. At one point a short wooden bridge is required to cross a gap.

Views from The Beehive Trail
Your blogger embracing his inner mountain goat.
Some sections of the trail are very narrow, like the one pictured above. Sure-footing, grippy shoes, and patience are a must.

The Beehive Trail Maine
About halfway up the trail, you reach an "Oh boy" section—at least it was for me. There is a relatively long, and steep, section of the trail that requires lots of climbing up metal rung after metal rung. And to make things more interesting, decades of use by hikers have worn smooth the parts of the granite along the trail, making them slippery. This last half of the trail is extremely reminiscent of the Angels Landing Trail in Utah's Zion National Park. I hiked up Angels Landing in the summer of 2016, and that trail is another example of scrambling up a steep rock face with the use of metal rungs and chains. (Check out my "Hiking Angels Landing" post to see just what I'm talking about.)

Hiking The Beehive Acadia National Park
Leah ascends part of the more steep sections of The Beehive Trail.
Is the trail dangerous and hard to do? Yes and no. All hiking comes with risks. Although The Beehive Trail does have more risks involved than your average stroll through a city metro park, deaths and serious injuries are rare (but they do happen.) The trail itself isn't that strenuous for an average hiker that is at least somewhat in shape and has full control over their extremities. Hiking up the trail and returning via the Bowl Trail (it is not recommended that you descend the way you came up) is only 2 miles, and there's only about a 450 foot elevation gain in total. That's not much at all in the hiking world. The biggest challenge hikers face is the fear factor. Afraid of heights? Well, this trail might not be for you. I've heard stories about hikers getting halfway up the trail, only to become frozen in fear. The only way out is up, though.

The Beehive Summit Marker
If you don't mind heights and cliff sides, and you're willing to do a bit of non-technical climbing and scrambling, then you'll love this trail. It's absolutely beautiful, and it's been one of my favorite hikes that I've done east of the Mississippi River.

Kyle Brooks Nature Writer
Even though the summit is only at 520 feet above sea level, The Beehive sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, so the views are fantastic. You can see miles and miles of the ocean, Mount Desert Island, and the mainland. If you ever find yourself in Downeast Maine, head over to Acadia National Park and hike The Beehive; you won't regret it!

Update: Back in Ohio

Hello Again Folks,

As I wrote back on March 24, I had been living in Saco, Maine to work for The Ecology School as an ecology educator for their spring term. Sadly, the amazing season came to an end on June 8. The good news is that I will be transitioning to a new job in a few days.

For the next year, I will be working for the Greening Youth Foundation as a public affairs intern specializing in photojournalism at Ohio's Wayne National Forest. As some of you might remember, I previously worked at Wayne National Forest as a wildlife biology intern. I'm very excited to be working at Wayne National Forest again, and I'm also extremely excited to be trying my hand out at photojournalism in a more professional sense (as I already have been doing so on an amateur level for years).

As such, I'll be living once again in southeastern Ohio, near the Athens area. I'll also have a lot more time for blogging, as working at an environmental education camp tends to suck up all your free time. In fact, I have several posts in the works as of now, so keep your eye out for them!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Update: Temporarily Living in Maine!

Saco Bay Beach, Maine
Hello all! I've got a quick life update. If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you might have noticed I haven't been posting as much recently. That's not due to me giving up on the blog or anything; instead, I've been incredibly busy and haven't been able to make the time to write.

Last weekend, I made the move from Athens, Ohio, to Saco, Maine. I will be working the spring season for The Ecology School as an ecology educator. I love environmental education, and so I'm very excited for this opportunity. However, working at a residential science education camp is very time consuming, and I will be struggling to find the time to write blog posts at the pace I want. It also doesn't help that I don't have easy access to WiFi where I will be living. Because of this, any new posts will be made very sporadically until the end of the position (June 8th).

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My 2017 Amphibian Review

This past week, temperatures in Ohio soared into the mid-60's, and rain soaked the ground. Although it was still a bit early, some of the salamanders and frogs across the southern half of the state decided they would attempt the journey from their overwintering territories to their vernal pools in hopes of breeding. Their attempts were premature—the weather soon dipped below freezing, and a snowstorm moved across the state—but it got me excited for springtime. To get me through the remaining days of winter, I've decided to put together two posts reflecting on some of the species of amphibians and reptiles I saw last year. I'll start with the amphibians, as they are the first of the "herps" to become active during the year.

Spotted Salamander Ohio
Every year, people from around the eastern US look forward to the annual salamander migration. Throughout the forests of the east in the early spring, several species of salamanders belonging to the family Ambystomatidae venture forth from their subterranean homes and migrate upwards of a mile overland to reach vernal pools and ponds to breed in. This event is triggered by the weather, and it typically occurs the first night in spring in which the soil is not frozen, the air temperature remains above 50 °F, and it is either raining or it had rained all day and the ground is still wet. In southeast Ohio, "the night" happens most often between mid-March and the beginning of April. But 2017 was an abnormal year; we experienced extremely wet and warm nights toward the end of January and throughout February. This triggered some, but not all, of the salamanders to migrate early, such as this Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) which migrated to a vernal pool on the night of February 7th, 2017—over a whole month earlier than what it normally would.

Jefferson Salamander Ohio
The Spotted Salamanders weren't the only migratory species to be out the night of Feb. 7, 2017. This Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) was also making his way to a vernal pool. Migrating early, especially if a cold snap occurs right after, can be quite harmful for such migratory salamander species. Right after that night, people posted photos of vernal pools full of dead Jefferson Salamanders late last winter—they had frozen to death. Such instances will most likely increase in the future, as Ohio will face an increase in abnormal weather patterns due to climate change. Ohio is predicted to experience higher winter and spring rainfalls and warmer winter and spring temperatures over the next 100 years, and this will undoubtedly affect migratory salamanders.

Just how it will impact the salamanders is uncertain, but the end effect will more than likely be detrimental. Warmer temperatures and rainfall events earlier in the year will most likely trigger Ambystomatid salamanders to migrate earlier and breed earlier. In addition to the possibility of freezing to death due to the ever present threat of cold snaps in late winter, we could also possibly end up seeing an "out-of-sync cycles" effect, in which the salamander larvae are in the vernal pools, but their food might not be there. We are already seeing this occur with various species of birds. Migration in birds is relatively fixed and triggered by the amount of daylight. Their migration is supposed to be synchronized prior to the peak of mass insect activity so the nestlings will have abundant food available, but insect activity is happening earlier and earlier due to climate change. This is resulting in birds migrating to an area without that much food, and nesting success is decreasing because of it. Could we see such a problem arising with migratory salamanders? Although it’s too early to tell, it’s something herpetologists will be keeping tabs on over the years.

Northern Slimy Salamander Ohio
Not all salamanders migrate; in fact, the vast majority of species don't. For example, of the 24 species of salamanders which can be found in Ohio, only 7 migrate. The others are either fully/mostly terrestrial or fully aquatic, and they breed where they live. One of the more common terrestrial and non-migratory salamanders in the state is the Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus glutinosus). This species can be found throughout the southern and eastern halves of Ohio. Their name stems from their defensive behavior; if a predator (or a curious human) messes with a Slimy Salamander, the salamander will excrete this incredibly sticky and glue-like secretion from its skin. It will then try to rub this secretion all over the potential threat, which will hopefully deter whatever that threat is.

Red Salamander Ohio
One of my absolute favorite salamanders to see is the Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). This species is a large one, with adult individuals coming in at 5-7 inches in length! The Red Salamander can be found throughout the eastern half of Ohio, where it spends its time either hiding under rocks and logs alongside forested brooks and springs, or within the water itself.

Red Eft Red Salamander Mullerian Mimicry
You might be wondering why it would benefit a salamander to be so vividly colored. Wouldn't a large red and black salamander scream "EAT ME" to predators? Well, it's actually the opposite! Bright coloration can be a sign of toxicity. Such conspicuous coloration/patterning is called aposematic coloration, which is more commonly known as a warning coloration. The Red Salamander, for example, has a toxin located throughout its skin which makes it poisonous to potential predators. As a result, the species evolved aposematic coloration to warn predators that messing with them is probably a bad idea. But there's something more complex going on than just simple aposematism. Several salamanders in the eastern US have evolved a similar red/orange coloration with black dots, and it seems to be a case of mimicry. Take, for example, Red Salamanders, Mud Salamanders, and the Red Eft stage of the Eastern Newt. All three of these species are toxic, and they have all converged on a similar red/orange coloration with black dots. This is a case of Mullerian mimicry, in which two or more toxic species converged on a similar appearance. The evolutionary idea behind Mullerian mimicry is that predators will only have to learn to associate one type of coloration with danger, despite there being 2+ toxic species in question. Mullerian mimicry benefits both the toxic species—which are more likely to be recognized as dangerous—and the predators—which are more likely to recognize the danger.

Long-Tailed Salamander Ohio
One last salamander! Meet the Long-Tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda). For years, this species had evaded me; and then 2017 happened. Not only did I see my lifer early in the summer, but I ended up seeing several more throughout the year, including 3 on one day! As the name implies, the Long-Tailed Salamander has an extremely long tail relative to its body; in fact, the tail typically accounts for around 60% of its total body length. They're a strikingly beautiful species, but it can take some searching to see one. The Long-Tailed Salamander can be found throughout southern and eastern Ohio, where they typically inhabit limestone or shale-based streams, caves, and springs. While the adults are terrestrial, the larvae are fully aquatic, and so the adults typically live close to appropriate aquatic habitats. In such appropriate locales—typically alongside streams or nearby seeps and springs—they spend their day foraging underneath rocks and logs. The individual pictured above was found in Adams County, where it was living under a limestone rock by a stream with a limestone bed.

Eastern Spadefoot Ohio
It wouldn't be a post on amphibians without mentioning frogs, so I'll end on with the most exciting amphibian species that I saw in 2017. This is the Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii). The Eastern Spadefoot is a notoriously hard species to see in Ohio for two reasons: their rarity and their life history. Regarding its rarity, the Eastern Spadefoot is listed as Endangered in the state of Ohio. Although it's hard to find exact information on their current range in Ohio—different organizations don't seem to agree on which counties have and don’t have populations, and just how many of those populations are extinct and extant—it can be safely said that this species has only ever been found in a handful of counties. Of those recorded populations, many have died out over the past century due to a variety of reasons, both known and unknown. ODNR reports that only 5 distinct populations of the Eastern Spadefoot remain in Ohio, and no one really knows how how many individuals are in each of these populations.

Scaphiopus holbrookii Ohio
Regarding its life history, the Eastern Spadefoot has a lifestyle that makes it rather difficult to go look for, even if you know exactly where a population is. The Eastern Spadefoot is an explosive breeder that's more akin to frogs inhabiting the desert southwest. For nearly the entirety of the year, this frog stays underground, where it lives in burrows in sandy areas adjacent to a few rivers in southeastern Ohio. When they're underground, they're essentially impossible to detect. They only emerge to breed, and breeding is triggered by very specific weather conditions. If there is a torrential rain event of 2+ inches of rain within a 24-hour period between the months of March and September, dozens and dozens of individuals might venture forth from their subterranean homes come nightfall to breed in the ephemeral pools the heavy rainfall created. The individuals pictured in this post were found on a visit to a known location in Athens County (all locations are kept secret to prevent unnecessary strain on the population) after nearly 2.3 inches of rain fell over the course of one and a half days.

Eastern Spadefoot Burrowing
Eastern Spadefoots are strange. They look strange, they sound strange, and they have a strange life history for a frog species that lives in the eastern US. The unusual name of "spadefoot" comes from a darkly-colored, hardened spur on their back legs that they use like a spade to help them dig into loose, sandy soil. With use of this specialized "tool," a Spadefoot can easily—and quickly—burrow into the soil, like the individual above. I couldn't get a photo of the spade (because the Eastern Spadefoot is endangered, it is illegal to touch the animal), but here is a link that will show you what I'm talking about: Spadefoot spade.

In a few days (or a couple weeks) I'll be posting the second installment covering some of my favorite reptiles from 2017, so keep your eye out for that post! Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

An Assortment of Beetles

For as long as I can remember, I've loved arthropods. Arthropods come in so many different shapes, sizes, and colors, and even one group can exhibit an incredible amount of variation. One has to look no further than the beetles to see this in action. Beetles are insects that belong to the order Coleoptera, and there are a ton of beetle species out there. An inconceivable amount really. Just how many beetle species do we know about? There are currently 400,000 described species of beetles in the world, which accounts for around 25% of all the described species on Earth. For comparison, there are only about 5,400 described species of mammals in the world, and only about 10,000 described species of birds in the world. And that 400,000 number only accounts for the described species of beetles, which means the individual species some scientist has officially described as a species separate from the others. That number isn't including all the species we currently don't know about. Some scientists have estimated that there might be a total of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 beetle species in the world, meaning there are hundreds of thousands of species out there waiting to be discovered and described!

Beetles exhibit a tremendous variety in both appearance and lifestyle. Some are all black, while others can resemble a rainbow. Some are carnivorous, while others are herbivorous, while even some others are omnivorous. Some are solitary, while others are relatively social. Some beetles provide parental care, and some navigate their landscape using the stars. Much of the allure of beetles lies in the sheer diversity regarding every part of their biology.

Despite the variety in form and function of beetles, I've never really spent too much time looking at their world. I have, however, collected many pictures of beetles over the past 5 years, and so I've finally decided to dive in and write up a post on a few of those species. This post is organized by family, so let's jump in to one of the more speciose families.

Carabidae

Chlaenius aestivus
The family Carabidae—whose members are commonly called the ground beetlesis incredibly diverse, with over 40,000 described species. Many of the Carabids are darkly colored, but a good number are colorful and metallic. One such example is the species pictured above, Chlaenius aestivus. Because there are so many species of beetles in the world, many of them do not have common names, instead only having a scientific name. Chlaenius aestivusas well as many of the other species included in this postdoes not have a species-specific common name, but the collective common name for members of the genus Chlaenius is "metallic ground beetle." The name is rather fitting, isn't it?

Eastern Red-Bellied Tiger Beetle, Cicindela rufiventris
My favorite group within the family Carabidaeand the beetles as a wholeare the tiger beetles. Although there are over 2,600 species of tiger beetles described in the world, the US and Canada is home to only about 117 species. The most recognizable species in Ohio is without a doubt the vibrantly-green Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle, but I want to talk about two other species. First up is the Eastern Red-Bellied Tiger Beetle, Cicindela rufiventris. I came across this individual while visiting Steve Willson's Blue Jay Barrens in Adams County, Ohio. As a side note, Steve operates a fantastic blog on the nature and management of the cedar barrens on his property. You can read his blog at Blue Jay Barrens! As with many other tiger beetles, the Eastern Red-Bellied Tiger Beetle prefers sunny openings in forests which can occur along ridgetops, near rock outcrops, and in recently disturbed areas.

One-Spotted Tiger Beetle, Cylindera unipunctata
Another tiger beetle which calls Ohio home is the One-Spotted Tiger Beetle, Cylindera unipunctata. I found this individual after it came to the lights during a mothing night at Clear Creek Metro Park in southeast-central Ohio. When it comes to the world of arthropods, tiger beetles are fearsome predators. They are lightning-fast, and the fastest speciesCicindela hudsonican reach speeds up to 5.5 miles per hour. Proportionally, if humans could run that fast, we would be running at speeds around 225 miles per hour! In addition to their speed and agility, they also have large, formidable jaws that can easily clamp onto a prey item, such as other beetles, small flies, and a host of other arthropods.

Pyrochroidae

Neopyrochroa flabellata
This orange and black beetle is Neopyrochroa flabellata, one of the flame-colored beetles of the family Pyrochroidae. Contrary to what one might assume, the reproductive habits of insects can be much more complex than "find a live individual of the opposite sex and mate." And N. flabellata has a rather fascinating love life. Many animals love to eat eggs; eggs are little bundles of protein and nutrients which don't fight back. Normally, at least. When female N. flabellata's lay their eggs, they cover the eggs in a protective compound called cantharidin. Cantharidin is a blistering compound that causes burns when applied to the skin of an animal, and can poison an animal in large enough doses. As such, covering your eggs in cantharidin would ensure that no one else messes with them. The problem is, N. flabellata can't make their own cantharidin.

So how does the female get it for her eggs? Well that's where the males come in! The job of the male is to find and consume enough cantharidin, and then approach the female. Upon approaching a female, a mating ritual will ensue. The two beetles will face each other, head to head. The male will begin to secrete part of his cantharidin reserve from a special gland found on his head, and the female will use her antennae to sense whether the male does indeed have any cantharidin, and if so, does he have enough. If he lacks it all together, he will almost surely be rejected. If he has some, but not a lot, he runs the risk of being rejected as well. If the female thinks he male has enough, she will then signal that she is willing to mate. During the mating process, the male transfers his cantharidin to the female, who will then coat her eggs with it.

Where does the male get the cantharidin, you might be wondering? That's a good question, and there's some uncertainty when it comes to the answer. Cantharidin is a rare substance in nature, and only two groups of beetlesthe blister beetles of Meloidae and the false blister beetles of Oedemeridaecan synthesize it themselves. It is currently assumed that male N. flabellata individuals will seek out blister beetles and either kill and eat parts of their body to accumulate the cantharidin, or that they scavenge on dead blister beetles to get the cantharidin. There's a few issues with this premise, as Thomas Eisner et al. points out in their 1996 paper on the subject. First, it hasn't been recorded that N. flabellata feeds on adult insects, such as the blister beetle. Second, blister beetles and false blister beetles rarely occupy the same habitats that N. flabellata occupies. And lastly, it seems unlikely that there are enough blister beetles out there to satisfy the need of N. flabellata individuals. The question of the source of the canthardidin highlights the lack of often basic information we have on so many of our arthropod species.

Lucanidae

Ceruchus piceus
As I mentioned with the previous beetle, we are lacking a lot of the "basic" facts when it comes to most of the arthropods on Earth. Take, for example, the beetle above. This is a Ceruchus piceus. There isn't a lot that's known about Ceruchus piceus, especially when it comes to random interesting facts. It is worth pointing out that the individual pictured is a male, as can be told by its large mandibles. This species belongs to the family Lucanidae, which is commonly known as the stag beetles. As male deer have a part of their body enlarged to attract females and fend off other males, so too do male beetles of the family Lucanidae. Male deer have antlers, but male stag beetles have large mandibles. These mandibles are used to attract females, fight other males, and defend themselves from potential predators. 

Scarabaeidae

Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata
It wouldn't be a post about beetles without throwing in one of the scarab beetles. A few scarab beetles—which are simply beetles of the family Scarabaeidae—are well-known to humans. May Beetles (AKA June Bugs), Green Fig Beetles, and dung beetles are all different types of familiar scarab beetles. But my favorite scarab beetle is one of the lesser-known species. Meet the Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata. The Grapevine Beetle is a large and relatively common species across the eastern US, but one that not many are familiar with. That is unless you happen to be a moth-er, as Grapevine Beetles love to come to mercury vapor lights. As the name suggests, the adults of this species feed on the various species of wild and domesticated grapes found throughout the eastern US. Despite this, the Grapevine Beetle is not considered a significant pest species. 

Chrysomelidae

Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis
In my opinion, one of the most under-rated families of beetles is Chrysomelidae. Chrysomelids—more commonly known as the leaf beetles—are beetles that feed exclusively on plants. Generally speaking, they are relatively small, round, and oftentimes colorful. Take, for example, the Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. As the name implies, this species feeds on various milkweed species, especially Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. Like the Monarch butterfly and other insects which feed on milkweed, the Milkweed Leaf Beetle sequesters the cardenolide toxins found within the plant for defense. And as with the Monarch, the Milkweed Leaf Beetle has a colorful and contrasting orange and black coloration to warn predators of its poisonous nature. 

Cerambycidae

Eutrichillus biguttatus
Beetles in the family Cerambycidae are almost always attention grabbers. Species of this family are collectively called long-horned beetles—and often for obvious reasons. As the Eutrichillus biguttatus individual pictured highlights, the Cerambycids typicallyalthough not alwayshave long antennae that are normally as long as their body. Sometimes, such as with E. biguttatus, the antennae are much longer than their bodies. 


Elm Borer, Saperda tridentata
Although some of the long-horned beetles are subdued in color for camouflage, others can be fantastically colored. Take the Elm Borer, Saperda tridentata, for example, with its flame-colored oranges contrasting with its deep black. Long-horned beetles often get a bad rap among us humans, as many of their feeding habits result in them being labelled pests. Generally speaking, the larvae of long-horned beetles feed on wood. Depending on the long-horned species in question, this wood can be dead wood or—as in the case of the Elm Borerlive wood. For the species whose larvae feed on live trees, an infestation can result in the direct or indirect death of the tree. Of course, this might upset some people when the tree in the yard dies, but all is part of the natural balance within a forest (except, as I should point out, when it comes to non-native invasive long-horn beetle species. Such invasive species can cause significant harm). The native Elm Borers, for instance, almost always choose weak, broken, or sickly elm trees to lay their eggs in. Healthy elm trees are apparently left alone. With such a lifestyle, Elm Borers are actually inadvertently culling sickly elm trees from the forest while leaving the healthy individuals to proliferate.

Silphidae

American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus
The most exciting beetle I've seen my entire life has been—without a doubt—the American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus. The American Burying Beetle is a federally endangered species which has all but disappeared from its range across the eastern and central US. I learned about it years ago, and never thought I would get to see one because of how rare it is. However, I was lucky enough to visit The Wilds this past summer and help with a reintroduction of over 200 captive raised individuals. Not only did I get to see American Burying Beetles, but I also got to hold some! I have an entire post up on the strange life cycle of the American Burying Beetle, some of the most current thoughts as to cause of the decline of the species, and the reintroduction efforts by The Wilds. You can find that post right here at this link!

Nicrophorus pustulatus
Typically, I end my blog posts with the species I was most-excited to see, but not this one. Today, I will end with a species who has evolved a lifestyle unlike all of its cousins. Meet Nicrophorus pustulatus, another member of the burying beetle family. Like the previous American Burying Beetle, almost all burying beetles (genus Nicrophorus) follow the same general reproductive pattern: First, they find a carcass of some sort, then they bury that carcass within a chamber underground, then they modify the carcass into a meatball covered in anti-fungal anal secretions, and then they feed parts of that carcass to their young, which they laid in a chamber right above the carcass-ball. But not N. pustulatus. This species has evolved a rather remarkable alternative lifestyle. Nicrophorus pustulatus is a parasitoid of snake eggs. A parasitoid is a specific kind of parasite that actually ends up killing its host. Parasitoids are extremely common in the invertebrate world, but they all utilize other invertebrate as hosts. Nicrophorus pustulatus is the only invertebrate parasitoid currently known of in the world whose host is a vertebrate!

In the early 2000's, a team of scientists kept noticing that the Black Rat Snake nests they were finding regularly contained both adult and larval N. pustulatus individuals. Within these nestswhich often contained many separate clutches of eggs as these snakes regularly nest communally—many of the eggs had been obvious consumed. When the team of scientists looked into this phenomenon, they realized that no one had ever documented N. pustulatus burying carcasses before in nature, and they began questioning whether there was something unusual going on. They soon found that if you raise N. pustulatus individuals in the lab, and give them a dead mouse, they will bury that mouse, but they seemingly didn't do so in nature. A few studies later (the original in 2000 and a confirmation in 2007), and it can safely be said that N. pustulatus is indeed a parasitoid of snake eggs, a wholly new and remarkable phenomenon in the natural world!

Last fall, I purchased a macro lens with the intent to take more detailed photos of various arthropods, and hopefully I will take many more photos of beetles. If I do, you'll surely see some more posts on this diverse group! Thanks for reading!