26 July 2009

What do we have here?

It's a tick! Specifically it's an American Dog Tick, aka Wood Tick, Dermacentor variabilis. The one in the picture is the only tick I've found on myself all this year so far. There's one path in a conservation area I like to go to that must double as a deer path or something. The grasses have gotten to knee-height this spring, and as you're walking through you see every other stalk has three or four black spots hanging around at the top. They hang on with their bottom two pairs of legs and wave the other pairs around to latch on to you. I was always told that ticks are slow stupid creatures. I can't vouch for their intelligence, but they aren't that slow, and they have certainly found a niche to exploit. Sometimes I couldn't get the ticks to crawl onto my shoe when I touched them on their grass stalk. But when I could, they grabbed right on.

In researching how ticks operate, I realized that for as much as I've heard about them as vectors of diseases (Lyme disease by Deer Ticks, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia by American Dog Ticks), I didn't know much about their operation. First off, ticks are arachnids. Eight-legged, related to spiders and mites. Secondly, ADTs are 3-host ticks, meaning that in the course of their life they will feed on three different hosts. As larvae and nymphs they feed on smaller mammals (mice, maybe birds if they can?), before tackling the larger ones (dogs, me) as an adult.

Another myth I somehow had as a lad was that ticks had one chance to make it onto an animal. I also thought they dropped from tree limbs. They would spend days crawling up a tree, out onto a branch to do their best bombardiering onto a deer, dog or person. They do not, in fact, do that. Ticks are amazingly long-lived (IMO) for something so small, as I learned at this University of Florida website. They will try many times to land on an animal if they don't make it from their grass stalk. Adults can survive two years (!) without eating. And nymphs and larvae aren't slouches either! All told, ticks are patient, deliberate parasites.

Finally, my grandfather was wrong with his advice about how to remove a tick that's bitten you. He recommended either placing a match head that had just been ignited and put out on the tick's body to make it say "I gotta get outta here!" He also said, if you're out of matches, just slap some petroleum jelly on there and it won't be able to breathe. The reason you want to do either of these, he said, is that if you pull it out the tick's "head" (really just it's mouth) may remain underneath your skin where it will continue to infect you with disease, or at least make healing a pain. Actually, you do want to pull it out, just make sure you use tweezers and not your fingernails or something. Hold on to it tight, get as close to the bite as you can, and tug it out. It won't hurt and you won't bleed. Get it out as soon as you find it, because even though it can take many hours for any possible diseases to get transmitted into your bloodstream, if you leave it hanging there out of laziness then you've reached a new low.

Headed for the counter's edge, will the tick make it to freedom?

Almost there! A cliffhanger ending! (They're really kind of quick, I had to keep putting the camera down and corralling it just to get these lame photos.)

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Arachnida (Arachnids - spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites)
Ixodida (Ticks)
Ixodidae (Hard-bodied ticks)
Dermacentor variabilis - American Dog Tick

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

19 July 2009

What do we have here?

I believe this is an Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) sniffing my sock. And guess what? It's introduced! This species is often compared to the Japanese Beetle, another introduced defoliating pest. The Oriental Beetle seems to be overlooked both by its lack of flashy color as an adult, and the lack of damage done as an adult. One .pdf even says the adult doesn't eat! While I'm not going to come out and directly accuse it of the crime, there were two on our tomato plants this afternoon, on freshly chomped tomato leaves. Other references mention that the adult might eat rose blossoms.

Apparently the real damage is done while in larval form as a grub. The larva eats grass roots, causing brown patches in lawns. We don't have much of a lawn, but I'll have to note whether there are any brown patches. I'm starting to get the feeling that whatever I decide to investigate ends up being invasive, so maybe our grass is too! Wouldn't be surprised! I often hear of people who want to use "native grasses" in their landscaping, leading me to believe that lawns aren't native to the Northeast. Where would they be native? Well-kept lawns seem too homogenous and high-maintenance. Questions for another time I suppose.

Of course, the onus on any introduced/"invasive" species is on the introducer. Erk. I guess that would be us, the humans. I'm not one to go off the deep end and say everyone needs to live off the grid, or deny themselves modern necessities or anything, but does anyone really need a lawn? Honestly, I don't really go on my lawn except to mow it. So if a beetle crossed an ocean and a continent because someone wanted an ornamental lily and then it started taking advantage of the great swaths of maintained bluegrass that feuding neighbors were keeping up for the sake of appearance, I have to reserve judgment as to whether it truly qualifies as a pest. It sometimes seems as if people only deal with the consequences of what they need to do, not what they simply want to do. Apologies for the unfocused post.

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Insecta (Insects)
Coleoptera (Beetles)
Scarabaeidae (Scarabs)
Anomala orientalis - Oriental Beetle

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

12 July 2009

What do we have here?

Is this an introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)? or the native, vulnerable New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)?

What began with a simple photo of a rabbit in our yard as it worked its way over to our garden beds has turned into a question I didn't even know I should be asking. I find myself having to ask these questions more and more as I become interested in the natural history of where I live. For my entire life I've seen cottontails in yards, on school fields, and I've always considered them the same way that I do squirrels: ubiquitous, herbivorous background animals that occasionally rise to the level of pest. Now that I've begun documenting the life that brushes up against us (hat tip: Urban Pantheist) I thought a bunny would be a fairly innocuous way to begin. I wanted to begin with a mammal because they are not exotic, and there are not so many of them to narrow down. My expectations have, however, been confounded.

When I began my rabbit research, I learned that in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, there are two types of cottontail rabbit, the Eastern and the New England. In differentiating between the two, I frequently read how similar the two species are, and how field marks alone wouldn't definitively tell me which rabbit was in my yard. Percentages figure prominently on the Mass. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife's webpage. Based on the numbers, I decided to focus on the New England Cottontail. As I read more, my reactions to what I learned migrated from elation (this might be a rare rabbit!) to confusion (wait, why would someone introduce a rabbit somewhere?) to incredulity (another native species marginalized by an introduced species!) to guilt (why didn't I know any of this before?).

The New England Cottontail prefers dense thickets in early succession forests. It usually has a dark spot between its ears, a dark line on the front of its ears, and always lacks a white spot on its forehead (indicative of the Eastern). My rabbit had these features, and around my house are some dense thickets of briars, blueberry and small stands of white pine, and some surrounding lots are abandoned and grown over or woodlots. The Eastern Cottontail often has a rusty patch on its upper back, is more numerous than the NE, and is more comfortable in suburban areas feeding in the open. Based on behavior more than field marks, I believe the rabbit in my driveway is an Eastern Cottontail, although I won't rule out a New England.

From what I've read, conservation for the New England Cottontail is not concerted, but it is underway. New Hampshire bans cottontail hunting in areas where NEs have been sighted, but other states seem only to recognize that NEs need help. Federal aid for Maine and New Hampshire has been announced. To think that this conservation effort has been going on for a few years now by people dedicated to seeing it through, and that I only stumbled upon it because I wanted to know more about the bunny in my yard is proof that Pandora's box came in plain packaging.

Animalia (Animals)
Chordata (Vertebrates)
Mammalia (Mammals)
Lagomorpha (Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas)
Leporidae (Hares and Rabbits)
Sylvilagus floridanus - Eastern Cottontail

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter