Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Gentian and an Orchid

About three weeks ago, I and a couple of other Ohio University students made the trip up to northern Ohio to assist with a graduate student's salamander research. While up in Erie County, we decided to stop by Castalia Quarry Metropark to check it out.

Castalia Quarry Metropark
After pulling into the parking lot, we decided to head down the Fringed Gentian Trail. After a few feet in a forest, the trail opened up to this limestone-based prairie. Knowing that this was prime blooming time for the fringed gentians, I eagerly began searching the grasses for a fringed gentian, a lifer for me.

Greater Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis crinita
After only about 3 minutes of searching, a medium-sized blue flower caught my eye. Quickly moving to it, I laid eyes upon a beauty of a flower. There are multiple gentian species in Ohio, including two of the fringed kind (which get their names from the fringing on the flowers). These are the Lesser and the Greater. The ones I came across at Castalia Quarry were the Greater Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis crinita. This species is state-listed as "Potentially Threatened." As of 2008, this species has been recorded in only 10 counties here in Ohio, mostly in the north and northeast.

So why is this a Greater Fringed instead of a Lesser? Both occur in Erie County, so I wasn't sure. I didn't feel comfortable enough making the ID, so I consulted the Facebook group Ohio's Wildflowers and Flora. Andrew Gibson, a field botanist for ODNR and the blogger who runs the amazing Natural Treasures of Ohio, IDed it as a Greater Fringed Gentian. He said "there is distinct fringing across the summit of the petals and the cauline leaves are more lance-ovate and stubby. Lesser Fringed Gentian's leaves are much narrower/linear and longer by comparison."

Greater Fringed Gentian Ohio
Greater Fringed Gentians can be found in wet meadows and prairies, ditches, fens, and a variety of other open habitats. This is an Autumn-blooming species which blooms from September to October, which is relatively late in the year for flowers. They were definitely one of the coolest flowers I've seen, and they're definitely worth a look for those interested!

Great Plains Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes magnicamporum
While I was taking pictures of the prairie area, the others of the group decided to head back to the car. After I was finished with my photos, I began heading back to the car myself. Along the way, a tiny spike of white flowers made me freeze. Looking over, I saw to my surprise that it was none other than a species of ladies'-tresses, a type of orchid. Closer inspection revealed it was the Great Plains Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes magnicamporum, which is yet another state listed plant (Potentially Threatened). As the name suggests, this is a prairie species that is at home in the Great Plains. This species, however, does exist in other pocket prairies throughout the east, including a few places throughout Ohio.

Great Plains Ladies'-Tresses Ohio
This ladies'-tresses orchid is quite similar to S. cernua (in fact, it was considered the same species until 1973), but there are a few distinguishing features. The Great Plains Ladies'-Tresses is found in prairie habitats; the one above was found in a dry limestone prairie for example. There are also no leaves on the stem when this species flowers, and instead is just the stem coming straight up from the ground with a spike of white flowers. Closer inspection of the flowers also holds some identification traits. As you can see in the photo above, the lip of the flower curls downward. The sepals, which can be found above the curled flower, extend past the lip of the flower. This species also has a very strong scent.

Both of these flowers were a completely unexpected find; I'm very happy we stopped by the park! I've been going on these weekend salamander research trips for the last 3 weeks, and I've seen a lot of cool stuff. I'll be working on a few more blog posts that go over some of the things I've been able to get photos of, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Spiny Oak Slug

About two weeks ago I was hiking up along the Radar Hill Trail at The Ridges in Athens. I was checking trees along the path every now and again to see if I could find any cool caterpillars, as late Summer and early Fall are really great times for these Lepidoptera larvae. Lepidoptera is the order of insects that includes the moths and butterflies. As I glanced over a low oak tree, a small quarter-sized blob of colors and spikes grabbed my attention about 7 feel off the ground...

Spiny Oak Slug Euclea delphinii
Upon closer inspection, I saw this colorful "blob" was actually a Spiny Oak Slug caterpillar, Euclea delphinii. Although the word "slug" is in the name, these are not actual slugs, nor are they even closely related; slugs are molluscs and the Spiny Oak Slug is an insect. Moth species in the family Limacodidae are typically called "slug moths" because their caterpillars look very similar to slugs. Check out Jim McCormac's blog post on slug caterpillars to see their slug resemblance, as well as to see some of the simply outrageous forms these caterpillars come in.

Spiny Oak Slug
Spiny Oak Slugs come in a variety of colors ranging from green, yellow, red, and orange. Although they are called Spiny Oak Slugs, the larvae feed on a range of woody plants and not just oak trees. You can find the larvae here in Ohio typically from August to October. Many slug moths, including this one, are actually stinging caterpillars, meaning they can sting other creatures. Those spines you can see all over the caterpillar are specialized hollow setae that will inject poison into predators. With humans, most of the stings happen accidentally as a person rubs against one when hiking or touching a plant; these guys do not go out of their way to sting humans. When a person does get stung, the level of pain can vary not only with the species (as some have stronger poison than others), but can also vary depending on how reactive you are to the toxin. Generally speaking, Spiny Oak Slugs only cause mild discomfort. Still, slug caterpillars are those types of animals where you should only look and not touch.