Thursday, November 24, 2011

Platycerus virescens

Here's a Thanksgiving beetle somebody might enjoy. It isn't officially the Thanksgiving beetle (which doesn't exist as far as I know), It's actually called the oak stag beetle (Platycerus virescens) but I found it a couple of weeks ago around Thanksgiving time. It isn't a stag beetle of the same proportions as its Asian relatives that can be ten times bigger (or more). Platycerus virescens is only about a centimeter long, but the male still bears a fine set of mandibles and it clearly a lucanid belonging to the Sacred Order of the Lamellate Antennae (christened SOLA by my scarab-collecting colleagues).

Perhaps more appropriately though, I found this individual within a block or two of where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated near Williamsberg, Virginia. I was visiting my son Spencer, who is working on his doctorate in Colonial History at William and Mary, and as I was driving towards town I stopped to have a look in some old fallen timber. This is where I found the beetle and this historical marker.

It surprised me that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia and not in New England - and in 1619, not later with the Pilgrims. Since I'm not a historian, I'll leave it others to explain my (and probably others') confusion on this. I should also mention, that mid-November is not a good time to be walking around the forests near Williamsburg. I was stopped by a gentleman dressed in hunting gear and notified that it wasn't safe to be about. In fact I was looking for beetles on the opening day of muzzle-loader season. Here's a picture of scenic Lake Matoaka near campus, and the habitat typical of P. virescens.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The American Alligator

About six years ago, Erik, Michael and I received an offer we couldn't refuse. Floyd Williams, a park naturalist with North Carolina State Parks, asked if we would like to take a canoe trip out into the swamp of Merchant's Millpond - a cypress-wooded backwater in Eastern North Carolina. I had been working with Floyd for a number of months identifying beetles from the park and he wanted to show us an area we couldn't get to by hiking.

We found a number of Donacia beetles on the pond lilies. We also saw several water moccasins swimming across the water. This was a new experience for me. I knew this particular species was fond of water but I had only seen snakes before on dry land. Watching its movement on water was at first fascinating and then a little disconcerting - especially when one swam right past our canoe. Floyd picked up the creature with his paddle for a closer look as if this was the natural thing to do.

After an hour or two, we came to the far end of the park and clambered out of our canoes near the largest cypress I had ever seen. It was well over 6 feet in diameter and must have been many hundreds of years old. There were also water moccasins all around the trunk. We didn't stay too long. It really wasn't very safe. On the way back, Floyd's wife spotted what we hoped we might see: an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). She pointed to an area covered with duckweed and it took me several moments to finally see the giant reptile. Only the top of its back and head were visible.

We were several yards away from it and I asked Floyd how close we could safely get to it. He suggested that fifteen feet would probably be a good distance and so I got out my camera and told Erik and Michael to paddle to within 15 feet. What I didn't account for was how effective the two of them were at paddling. They indeed stopped at 15 feet but then the canoe's momentum carried us several more feet forward. Sensing this, I hurried and instructed them to paddle the other way while I took a couple of pictures. Fortunately, the alligator was not in a mood to bother us and we managed our retreat without incident. It was quite a rush. I think we got to within seven or eight feet of the animal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Stenomorpha lecontella

Stenomorpha lecontella is a medium-sized darkling beetle that can be locally common here in the Central Valley of California in the spring. It likes to eat the fresh soft tissues of several plant species when they are just seedlings - as you can see from this picture.

Most individuals are only half an inch long and don't move very fast. Beginning entomology students sometimes have a hard time telling the difference between darkling beetles (especially ones like Stenomorpha) and ground beetles. One very easy way to tell them apart is to watch them in their natural habitat. Darkling beetles move a lot slower and some species will stick their back end in the air when disturbed.

Kathy and I found a large population around a small pond just outside of Fresno on a nature trail. There were painted cement walls and a central display board telling of the many interesting creatures that lived in the area. There were several local species of vertebrates listed but the darkling beetles were a little misrepresented. They were called "stinky head-stander beetles". Now I've been studying beetles for quite a few years (make that decades) but that's the first time I've heard of such a creature as a head-stander beetle. I think the name Stenomorpha lecontella has a nicer ring to it.