Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Surprise! A baby Black Rat Snake in the house...

A week or so ago, Rick went into the downstairs bathroom and jumped when he almost stepped on a plastic snake. "That Kelly and Matty," he said to himself, immediately assuming we put the snake there to scare him, but when he went to pick it up, it moved! Then he really jumped! It is strange to find a snake in your house, and if you're not used to them, it can be a bit unnerving. When Rick yelled up that there was a snake in his office (it had quickly slithered out of the bathroom and into his office), and could I please come down and get it, I was excited. "REALLY?" I yelled down to him. We've never had a snake in our house before, and I couldn't wait to find out what kind it was. I was happy to see it was a very sweet and cooperative young Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta). Funny thing about Black Rat Snakes, when they are young, they aren't black. They are grey with black designs called "saddles" on their backs and splotches on their sides...

How to identify a baby Black Rat Snake
This is the baby Black Rat Snake Rick found in our downstairs bathroom. He looks nothing like he will as an adult when his dorsal coloring will be mostly black (although the pattern still exists, it's just hard to see), and his ventral coloring will be white. As a baby, he has a gray background with dark saddles on top and splotches on the side. This baby was very docile. he didn't try to strike, and he didn't musk either. I held him loosely and he was content to climb from one hand to the next. (Rick took this photo with his iPhone, and the snake was constantly moving!)

Our little encounter with the baby Black Rat Snake reminded me that last year I photographed "Steve," the famous adult Black Rat Snake from Shawnee State Park's nature center, but I never got around to posting the photos...

Rostral groove
Steve was very cooperative. When I would lay on the ground with my camera, Steve would crawl toward me, which let me focus the lens on his face. I wanted to capture the "rostral groove," which is the small notch in a snake's upper lip. Snakes flick their tongues in and out of their mouths through this groove without ever having to open their mouths...

Closeup of an adult Black Rat Snake with tongue flicking out through rostral groove
Steve, an adult Black Rat Snake, flicks his tongue in and out of his mouth through the rostral groove.  
Jacobson's Organ
Once the tongue is pulled back into the snake's mouth, it is retracted into a protective sheath. A snake's tongue is vital to its survival because it functions as a sense organ of smell allowing the snake to seek out and find prey, so it's only natural it would be protected this way. When the tongue is flicked out, chemical particles in the air (scent molecules) adhere to the moisture on the tongue. Once retracted into the sheath, the forked tips of the tongue remain exposed and settle into two pockets in the roof of the mouth called the "Jacobson's Organ." Here the scent molecules are transferred to receptors in the nerve-laden lining of the Jacobson's Organ where they are interpreted and then relayed as messages to the brain. All this sounds time consuming, but just like when we touch something hot, the brain recognizes the stimuli almost instantly.  If the tongue or any part of the Jacobson's organ is damaged, it's difficult for the snake to survive. (For a detailed explanation of this process, click here and here.) In a way, the snake's tongue works in stereo. If more chemical particles are on the right fork, the snake turns right, etc.

Pencil sketch of a Black Rat Snake with rostral groove labeled (by Kelly Riccetti)
Pencil sketch of Steve, the Black Rat Snake, with the rostral groove labeled.

Pencil sketch of the open mouth of an Eastern Hognose Snake with Jacobson's Organ, protective sheath, and rostral groove labeled (by Kelly Riccetti)
Pencil sketch of the inside of an Eastern Hognose snake's mouth with Jacobson's organ labeled. I loved seeing the gaping maul of this snake. It's the only time I've been able to photograph the inside of a snake's mouth and actually see the tongue's protective sheath and the pockets for the Jacobson's Organ (where the forked tongue rests when retracted). 

Black Rat Snake crawling on ground with straight-on shot of the head (blue eyes indicate shedding)
Steve, the Black Rat Snake, crawling on the ground. Black Rat Snakes love woods, and they love to climb in trees. They are also big. I'm posting this photo just for Joni, my mom, who's not keen on snakes. "Hey, mom! Remember that huge Black Rat snake that came our way when I was about two years old?" I don't remember the snake. I've only been told stories, but I imagine he looked something like this!

This photo helps demonstrate how big Black Rat Snakes can get. They are the largest snakes in Ohio and can reach six-eight feet in length.  Again, this is Steve. He is being held by a young snake lover. To further drive the point home, the boy's twin is holding the other half of the snake. I never measured Steve, but he was at least six feet (if not more). 

Pencil sketch of a Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) by Kelly Riccetti
A partial pencil sketch of Steve, the Black Rat Snake. Steve was old. Over the years, he has  converted more "snake-a-phobes" (ophidiophobics) to "snake-a-philes" than any other snake at the nature center. This summer was sad, because Steve was no longer there. He died of a tumor this winter. He lived a very long life, and had an impact on many humans. Children (and adults) would walk into the nature center petrified of snakes, but after seeing and holding Steve, they fell in love with him and many were no longer afraid. Lots of kids (and adults) lamented Steve's death this summer when Matty and I were there for our week of volunteering.

p.s. Does that snake have cataracts?
I thought I'd pop this tidbit in quickly since a few of the photos show the snake's "blue" eyes. Last year when Matty and I were there, Steve's eyes turned cloudy and blue, and many of the visitors at the nature center asked me if the snake had cataracts. It looks like he does, but really its just a sign the snake is about to shed its skin. Snakes don't have eyelids. They have special scales called eye caps. These eye caps are shed along with the skin.

Baby Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.
A quick video Rick took of our little Black Rat Snake while I released him in the backyard.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Red Admiral at a sap flow...

A striking Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly joined the ash tree sap flow gang last week, but he was not having an easy time of it. Three large ants kept creeping in and trying to climb up his proboscis or his legs, but worse was a pesky little wasp that kept attacking him by rattling around in his wings. The butterfly did not seem to mind the ants, but he definitely did not like the wasp touching him and would become agitated and shake him away...

A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly shares a bit of sap from  a sap flow in our ash tree with an ant.
A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly shares a sap flow on our ash tree with an ant. 

Just like Monarch butterflies, who are visitors to our area and undergo seasonal migration, so too do Red Admirals. We normally get to see Red Admirals on the wing from late April through early October. This year, though, they arrived a little earlier. I saw a few in late March, and I've seen much higher numbers of them all season. It's been a stellar year for the Red Admirals! I didn't know much about Red Admiral migration, so I checked my books but didn't find much. After a quick internet search, I found admirals do not overwinter here because they cannot survive cold winters. Some individuals from the fall generation migrate south to winter in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and other southern states, but not all, and research is still needed on why some stay. Mostly North America is recolonized each spring by butterflies coming up from the south (click here and here). It always amazes me that creatures seemingly so fragile can undertake these massive migrations and survive.

The profile of a Red Admiral butterfly with a great view of his proboscis while feeding at a tree sap flow..
The profile of a Red Admiral butterfly with an extended proboscis. 

Red Admiral butterfly with curled proboscis prepares for attack from a bee while protecting its sap flow.
"Pesky wasp...surely, the devil with wings," seemed to be the thoughts of this Red Admiral butterfly. Here the butterfly and the ant were watching the wasp carefully. When it would come around, the butterfly would curl up his proboscis and prepare for the attack. It was interesting to watch.

Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) feeding at a tree sap flow.
...peace and quiet again. When the wasp would give up and fly away, the butterfly would go back to feeding on the tree sap. 

Dorsal view of Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly; beautiful orange-red stripes and white bars on a dark brown background
...eventually the Admiral had enough and flew off to another branch to find an unoccupied sap flow. The dorsal view of this butterfly is gorgeous. Bright orange-red stripes and white bars stand out easily against the dark brown-black background. 

No wonder I saw so many Red Admirals this season. It was an irruption year. The butterflies did very well overwintering in the south, and the extra mild spring helped usher them in during their northward migration. For more accounts, click here for a post titled, "Red Admiral Invasion," by Jim McCormac from Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, and here for an article titled, "Naboko's Favorite Butterfly Invades NYC (and Other Places)," from the Gothamist.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Mourning Cloak butterfly sips sap from our dying ash tree...

In our backyard we have a huge weeping willow tree and several birches, so I always hoped Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies would show up. Both of these tree species are host plants for the butterflies, but it took our dying ash tree to finally lure the beautiful butterflies in...

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly sips from a sap flow on our ash tree.
A Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly sips from a sap flow on our ash tree. Emerald Ash Borers have left their D-shaped holes all over our tree, and sap flows are everywhere. The only (short-lived) benefit of the infestation is an abundance of butterflies feasting on the sap, especially butterflies I don't normally see in our backyard, such as this Mourning Cloak. (Click here for an older post on the Emerald Ash Borer.)

Dorsal view of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; yellow border, black with iridescent blue spots
I photographed this Mourning Cloak butterfly at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The sun was bright and washed out the butterfly's color. Here the butterfly appears to be trimmed in white, but really the edge is yellow. The bright light also brought out a reddish cast on the wings, but when not in bright light, the dorsal side of the butterfly looks more like a dark brown or velvety black. Against the black, the border is noticeably more yellow. The same shade of iridescent blue spots show in dark or bright light. 

Close-up of the brush-footed front legs of a Mourning Cloak butterfly.
Morning Cloak butterflies are called "brush-footed butterflies" or "four-footed butterflies" (family Nymphalidae). They have six legs like any other insect, but you can only see four of the legs. The other two are very small and resemble brushes. They are tucked up underneath the butterfly's "chin," and are not used for walking or perching. To read a little more about brush-footed butterflies, click here.

Ventral view of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; the wings are dark and wrinkled-looking, and resemble bark
The ventral side of the Mourning Cloak butterfly looks wrinkled and bark-like. The dark, black color helps it blend into the tree bark. Mourning Cloaks love tree sap, so it's great camouflage. Additionally, this photo clearly shows how the butterfly looks like it only has four legs. The last two legs are small and brush-like, and make the butterfly look like it always needs a shave! 

Beautiful marking of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; dorsal view
The beautiful dorsal markings of a Mourning Cloak butterfly

Hot, dry summer weather triggers aestivation (a type of hibernation called summer sleep) in Mourning Cloak butterflies.
Mourning Cloak butterflies undergo aestivation—a type of hibernation sometimes called "summer sleep." Mourning Cloaks like cooler temps. In the summer during hot and dry weather, the butterflies will go into aestivation and do not resume feeding until the cooler temperatures of fall return. Saturday was our first cool day of the season. Rain on Friday pushed in a much-needed cool front, and two Mourning Cloaks took to the wing on Saturday in our yard. (Source: "The Life Cycles of Butterflies," by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards, pg 138.)

Electric blue spots on the dark wings always catch my eye. Here the yellow border is showing a little better.

Mourning Cloak butterfly tucks into a cedar for the night.
A Mourning Cloak butterfly tucks itself up into a cedar tree for the evening. I was surprised as I watched it land on the tree and then slowly crawl deeper and deeper into it. By the time it was all the way tucked in, I couldn't see it anymore. Mourning Cloaks are one of the longest-lived butterflies in Ohio (can live 8-10 months). They overwinter here by hibernating through the winter. I'll have to keep my eye on this tree. It is well protected and would be an ideal place to hibernate.

In the spring, Mourning Cloaks are one of the first butterflies to take flight, and I have seen them flitting on sunny March days when snow is still on the ground! Since they are dark, they bask in the sun to raise their body temperatures for flight. They are solar powered on those cold days! Being sap lovers instead of flower nectar lovers helps these butterflies because they have a ready food source as soon as the sap starts to flow. Mourning Cloaks also love to feed off rotting fruit. This summer, I started a little area in my "wild patch" part of the yard where I would dump fruit that had started to turn before we could eat it. I put it out there for the hummingbirds, because I know they love to nab fruit flies from the air, but maybe the little fruit dump helped to lure these butterflies in too.