Photo of the Week – October 8, 2015

Ok, I know I post an awful lot of spider photos.  I have a couple good excuses.  First, I like spiders.  I just do.  Second, for whatever reason, my eyes seem to find spiders as I walk through prairies.  Third, spiders are abundant in prairies (and most other ecosystems) and they play very important roles in prairie ecology.  It seems appropriate for them to be well represented in any collection of grassland images.

Spider on web on switchgrass. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

This tiny spider made its web on the flowering head of switchgrass in the Nebraska Sandhills.  Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

But mostly, I just like spiders.  I hope you do too.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

How big do prairies need to be?

There is an awful lot we still don’t understand about prairies (and the rest of the natural world, for that matter).  First and foremost, we haven’t even come close to discovering all the species that live in prairies.  We have probably identified all of the birds, and most of the other vertebrates, but there are still many prairie invertebrates no one has yet described.  The world of microorganisms is beginning to open up to us, but that is still, by far, the biggest pool of unknown species.  How can we manage a natural system when we don’t even know what’s there – especially when those inhabitants have a tremendous impact on ecosystem function?

It's still possible that we'll find more snake species in North American prairies, but we've surely discovered nearly all of them. This one is a juvenile eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) in TNC's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

It’s possible that we’ll find more snake species in North American prairies, but we’ve surely discovered nearly all of them. This one is a juvenile eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) in TNC’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

We need to discover more species and understand the basics of their life histories, but there are some other really big prairie questions out there that need attention as well.  I thought I’d share a few of the ones I think are most important.  I’m hoping you’ll find them thought-provoking and join me in trying to chip away at them.  We’re not going to answer any of them in the near future, but more people thinking about them and making careful observations will speed us more quickly along the path.  Because each question takes some explaining, I’ll just deal with one here and cover the others in future posts.

Big Question #1:  How big and connected does a prairie landscape need to be to support the majority of prairie species and essential natural processes?

This one has bothered me for a long time because not knowing the answer prevents us from setting reasonable goals for landscape-scale conservation efforts.  As prairie landscapes get carved up by rowcrop agriculture (e.g., the Dakotas), how do we know how much fragmentation will be catastrophic to the ecosystem?  On the flip side, in landscapes that were carved up long ago, what size prairie restoration projects should we aim for to truly restore sustainable prairie ecosystems?

We know that some prairie species require large patches of habitat.  Based on quite a bit of research on birds, we can make reasonable guesses about the size of prairie landscape needed to maintain populations of most bird species.  I’m not completely up to date on this research topic, but I think it’s fair to say that if you had a couple thousand acres of prairie and managed it for a diversity of habitat structure, you’d see most of the grassland bird species in your region show up to nest.  To ensure that those populations were large enough to survive tough years, it’d be nice to have more like 5,000 or 10,000 acres.  Depending upon where you live, that might sound like an impossibly big number or a very manageable one (Illinois doesn’t even have 10,000 acres of remnant prairie in the state, while 10,000 acres is pretty small for a ranch in the 12 million acre Nebraska Sandhills).


Upland sandpipers are found most often in larger prairies, especially those with relatively short vegetation.

Assuming that 10,000 acres is a comfortably large prairie for grassland birds, you might think we could just use that as a benchmark for other species as well.  Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with that assumption, many of which I laid out in an earlier post.  One big problem is that bird habitat (quantified largely by factors like vegetation structure and insect abundance) is not necessarily quality habitat for pollinators, ants, or many other species that rely on high plant diversity.  Each of those other species has particular needs, both for habitat size and habitat quality.

A few species (bison? prairie dogs? others?) might need considerably more than 10,000 acres to support a viable population.  However, many other species probably need considerably fewer.   In fact, 10,000 acres might seem like an entire universe to many invertebrate species – although the more we learn about insect migrations, the more complicated that picture becomes.  Is 10,000 acres enough to provide for the vast majority of prairie species?  Maybe.  We really don’t know.

Green darners, and many other dragonfly species, migrate long distances. So do a number of moths and butterflies. Other invertebrates can also travel long distances. Does that make them more or less reliant on large prairie blocks?

Green darners, and many other dragonfly species, migrate long distances. So do a number of moths and butterflies. Other invertebrates can also travel long distances. Does that make them more or less reliant on large prairie blocks?

Regardless of whether or not it’s big enough to sustain populations, we know that restoring and/or preserving a single 10,000 acre block of prairie somewhere in the central United States would not be sufficient to conserve all prairie species.  In order to preserve genetic health and allow populations to recover from catastrophic events, species need multiple habitats in multiple locations.  They also need connectivity between those habitats so that individuals can move between populations.  So, we will need multiple examples of large prairie blocks in every region of the country, with smaller prairies around and between them.  (Questions about what constitutes connectivity and how much connectivity each species needs are also big important questions, but before we address those, we first need to know how large individual habitat blocks need to be.)

Why is this so important?  I’ll give you two real world examples.  First, think about a prairie landscape that has been relatively intact for thousands of years, but is now becoming fragmented by a rapid increase in new rowcrop agriculture.  This is a situation all too familiar to conservationists in the Dakotas, where millions of acres of prairie have been converted to rowcrops over the last couple of decades.  As those conservationists struggle to protect remaining prairie through conservation easements and other strategies, they are doing so with limited time and money.  Knowing what size a prairie block needs to be to sustain species and ecosystem processes would be tremendously helpful.

Let’s say an organization obtains a conservation easement that prevents 5,000 acres from being farmed.  Should they prioritize obtaining an additional easement next to it so that if everything else in the county gets farmed up, there will still be a 10,000 acre block of prairie remaining?  What if they have to pay double the price to obtain that second easement?  Is it worthwhile?  Or should they spend the same amount of money on two more 5,000 acre easements in other locations?  Not knowing the answer to what seems a pretty basic question makes it really difficult to know how to proceed.

My second example is at the other end of the spectrum.  There are a number of large scale prairie restoration efforts going on around North America, where thousands of acres of cropland are being restored to high-diversity prairie communities.  The best of those start with a number of unplowed prairie fragments and enlarge and reconnect those through restoration. The complexes of interconnected remnant and restored grassland they build are many thousands of acres in size.  The Nature Conservancy’s Glacial Ridge project in Minnesota, Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, and Kankakee Sands project in Indiana are all great examples of this, as is the US Forest Service’s Midewin Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.

We have proven that we can rebuild prairie landscapes of 10,000 acres and larger.  The sites look good, with beautiful plant communities and abundant wildlife, but are they big enough to sustain that biological diversity?  Should those sites be spending $15,000 per acre to buy high-priced cropland around their borders and increase the size of their restoration projects? Or should they invest those funds in invasive species control and other management needs to protect the investment they’ve already made?

Unfortunately, the answers to these fairly simple questions are not going to be simple to obtain.  We and others have taken a few baby steps by comparing the diversity and abundance of invertebrate species among prairie fragments of varying sizes and degrees of isolation, but we’re just getting started.  I think a better approach would be a large collaborative project that focuses on some of our largest, most intact prairie landscapes such as the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.  Studying how populations and ecosystem processes differ between core areas of those landscapes and the fragmented edges would be an excellent start.  We could learn which species might be most vulnerable to the negative impacts of fragmentation, and then focus on those species through additional research looking at how they are doing in prairies of varying sizes across their ranges.

We can learn a lot by studying how species do in the core versus the ragged edges of huge intact prairie landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.

We can learn a lot by studying how species do in the core versus the ragged edges of huge intact prairie landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.

I’ve planted this idea with quite a few people, but nothing has really taken off yet.  I’m not giving up.  This is too important.  Does anyone have a couple million dollars to spend answering one of the most pressing conservation questions of our time?

Here are a couple other examples of big research questions I think about.  I’ll address them in more detail in future posts.

1. How effective is prairie restoration (converting cropfield to high-diversity prairie plant communities) at defragmenting prairie landscapes?  Do populations of plants, insects, and wildlife in small prairie fragments grow larger and more interconnected when surrounding cropland is converted to prairie?  What are the key ecosystem components that need to be restored in order for that to happen?

2. How do prairie species respond to fire and grazing management patches, and how should that affect the scale and frequency of those management treatments?  What happens to a vole or other creature living in the unburned patch of a prairie when that patch burns?  Can it travel to other suitable habitat?  How does it know where to go?  What kinds of habitat can it cross and how far can it travel?

3. How does plant diversity influence the productivity and sustainability of grasslands, especially in ways that directly influence agricultural production?  Why should a rancher care about the plant diversity of his/her pasture?  Are there demonstrable increases in soil health, pollination services, forage productivity, forage selection, etc., and are those strong enough that a rancher would trade slightly lower annual income for them?


Posted in Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 1, 2015

This has been a week of big black spiders.  …In a good way.

First, my wife brought home a huge black wolf spider one of her biology students caught.  It stayed the weekend, and my stepson helped me photograph it on Sunday.  Later this week, I found the biggest jumping spider I’ve ever seen just outside the house at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters.  I had to photograph that too, of course…  Here are some of the photos of those spiders, and a little bit about how I got them.

Big wolf spider. Aurora, Nebraska.

A big wolf spider (Hogna aspersa).  Including its legs, it was about as long as a lip balm container.

Another look.

Another look.

To photograph the wolf spider, I utilized a long-standing technique of mine.  Some of you might remember a previous post I wrote about using a wheelbarrow as a wildlife photography studio.  I brought out the same wheelbarrow again for this spider, but had my stepson assist me by holding a diffuser (to soften the bright sunlight) and helping to keep the spider from getting away.  Having an assistant made the job much easier, though also much less humorous for any potential observers of the process.  (Though I’m still pretty sure my neighbors are keeping their eyes open for houses in better neighborhoods.  Between the pile of garter snakes beneath our backyard snake board and the giant hairy spider in our wheelbarrow, we’re not exactly everyone’s picture of the ideal neighbor!)

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

When I first saw the jumping spider, I was talking with our Hubbard Fellows and waiting for someone to meet us at the house.  It was perched on a Maximilian sunflower plant in the prairie garden.  I put it in a paper bag until I had time to look more carefully at it.  Later, I took the top of the sunflower plant the spider had been on, cut it off, stuck it into a pocket gopher mound, and carefully relocated the spider to it.  The Fellows then got to watch me squirm around on my hands and knees with my camera, trying to cajole the spider into posing for the camera.  We did promise the Fellows a wide range of experiences, I guess…

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus) on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Isn’t she cute?  She was nearly 3/4 inches long – the longest jumping spider I’ve seen.

I’ve spent more than 20 years looking at spiders and other invertebrates in Nebraska prairies, and I pride myself on being a fairly keen observer.  It’s an inspiring thing to me that I’d never seen either of these spider species before this week.  I hope I never stop finding new prairie species to marvel at.

…especially species that fit into my wheelbarrow!

Many thanks (once again) to Bill Beachly of Hastings College for his help identifying these spiders – which, by the way, he called “lovely ladies”.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Follow Up: Windmill and Bales Photo

A week ago, I posted two similar photos of a windmill and hay bales in the Nebraska Sandhills.  I asked for help deciding which was a better shot.  In case you’re curious as to results and don’t want to sort through all the comments to see which photo was more popular, I thought I’d post the answer here.

As expected, there was a strong response but no consensus…

Of the 37 people who responded with a clear preference, 20 of you liked composition #1 and 17 liked #2.  Many of you had strong feelings for one over the other, while others liked them both about the same.  Again, this is what I expected based on previous attempts to get help choosing between photos, including this one that stimulated great discussion about two bison photos.  While it didn’t help me choose between the two photos, it’s always fun to hear people’s perspectives on images.  (By the way, this is why I’ve never liked to enter or judge photo contests.  Once you winnow out those photographers who are missing the basics of using light, aperture, etc., it’s all about the personal taste of the judges.)

I do appreciate the input.  Just for fun, here’s a third option I didn’t include in the first post.  No, you don’t need to vote again…

Thanks for your help – have a great weekend.

Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.

Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Photo of the Week – September 24, 2015

I showed up a little early for a meeting at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters this week.  While waiting for the others to arrive, I took advantage of morning sunlight filtering through the fog to photograph a few insects stuck in the dew.  I found a few big robber flies and dragonflies that were so cool and wet that I was able to stick my lens as close to them as I liked.  Here are four photos, two each of a robber fly and dragonfly.

Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Robber fly. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A more up close and personal view of the same robber fly.

Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A meadowhawk (dragonfly) in a patch of western ragweed.  This is migration season, and there were several of these nearby.

Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A second look at the same dragonfly.

Nothing like some dew and nice light to make me look like a great photographer!

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

How did everything work this year?

This is one of my favorite times of year.  It’s not the cool temperatures, the fall colors, or even the fall migrations of birds and insects coming through.  Instead, I like this time of year because it’s time to figure out how this year’s prairie management worked and start planning for next year.  Closing that adaptive management loop (gleaning lessons from one field season and applying them to the next) is really fulfilling for me.  I get to learn something and then put it right to use.  The only downside is waiting another year to see how things turn out again!

Northern bobwhite on fence post. Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

This northern bobwhite was calling from a fence post along the edge of our prairie earlier this summer.  Bobwhite are abundant in our prairie, probably because of the wide variety of habitat types available.

Earlier this week, I walked through our family prairie and tried to capture the results of 2015.  I wasn’t collecting data.  Instead, I took a few photos, wrote a few notes, and looked back at some photos and notes from earlier in the season.  I mainly tried to measure what I saw against the basic habitat objectives we have for our prairie.

Helzer Prairie Habitat Objectives

1) HABITAT HETEROGENEITY.  Provide patches of habitat that cover the spectrum from short/sparse to tall/dense vegetation, with areas of mixed-height structure in between.

2) PLANT DIVERSITY.  Increase plant diversity over time by allowing all plant species a chance to bloom and reproduce every few years, and periodically suppressing grass dominance to allow wildflowers a chance to maintain or expand their “territories”.

In general, I was pretty happy with what I saw this week.  There was definitely a wide range of habitat structure across the prairie.  We began the season by grazing most of the prairie pretty hard to knock back the vigor of smooth brome.  After that, we put the cattle into about 1/4 of the prairie for the month of June and then gradually gave them access to more of the prairie as the season progressed until they were grazing about 3/4 of the site by September.

Helzer prairie grazing. Pasture #2 se of water tank

This photo from earlier this week shows the contrast between the area in the foreground that hasn’t been grazed since May and the background where cattle have been grazing since late July.

Helzer prairie grazing. Pasture #1 nw of water tank

Some of the areas opened up to grazing late in the season weren’t grazed very hard because the grass was pretty mature by the time cattle came in.  However, the cattle did graze in patches, and also knocked down the vegetation as they walked around – altering the habitat and making it easier for both wildlife and people to walk through.

The grasses in the 1/4 of the prairie we grazed in June stayed short all season, and many of the wildflowers were also cropped off.  However, some of those wildflowers had a chance to grow back as we spread the cattle out across a larger area and they became more selective about what they ate.  Other plants went ungrazed, or only lightly grazed, all season.  As a result, the habitat structure was a mixture of short grasses and medium to tall forbs.  In July, I found a family of upland sandpipers feeding in that part of the prairie – their still-flightless chick searched for insects in the short grass while staying near the protective cover of the taller forbs.

Young upland sandpiper. Helzer family prairie. Stockham, Nebraska. USA

This young upland sandpiper and its parents were enjoying a part of the prairie where cattle had been grazing most of the season, keeping grasses short but allowing some forbs to grow tall.  The chick could feed in the open but remain close to protective cover.

Elsewhere in the prairie, the height and density of the vegetation varied by how much grazing pressure it received.  Areas that were rested much of the year were dominated by tall warm-season grasses, while areas grazed from July through September had much shorter vegetation.  Despite the fact that we’re still trying to boost plant diversity across the site (which consists of small prairie remnants surrounded by former cropland planted to grasses by my grandfather in the early 1960’s) there were good numbers of wildflowers blooming through the whole season.  In the more intensively-grazed portions, only a few species such as hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii), goldenrods (Solidago sp.), native thistles (Cirsium sp.), and other species panned by cattle were flowering.  However, there were many other wildflowers blooming across the rest of the site, including purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), leadplant (Amorpha canescens), stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), several milkweed species (Asclepias sp.), and many others.  The most abundant wildflowers were found in the portions of the prairie the cattle had grazed intensively in 2014 – grass vigor was still suppressed in those areas, allowing both “weedy” and “non-weedy” forbs to flourish.

Regal fritillary butterfly on milkweed at Helzer prairie, south of Aurora, Nebraska.

Regal fritillaries and other butterflies are common in our prairie. I photographed this one a few years ago as it was feeding on common milkweed in part of the prairie was only lightly grazed that year.

During 2015, just about any animal species should have been able to find what they needed in our 100 acre prairie.  Regal fritillaries had violets for their caterpillars and monarch butterflies had milkweed for theirs – and both found abundant nectar plants, including in the most intensively-grazed areas.  The varied vegetation structure supported a wide range of grassland nesting birds, including grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, western meadowlarks, northern bobwhites, dickcissels, sedge wrens, and others.  Small mammal trails were abundant, as were burrows of the badgers and coyotes that hunt those mice, voles, and ground squirrels.  Best of all, there were myriad bees, grasshoppers, katydids, prairie cicadas, spiders, and countless other invertebrates doing their jobs to support and nourish the plant and wildlife communities.

I haven’t yet worked out all the details of next year’s management plans, but I know a few things.  The portions of the prairie that were grazed hardest this year will be rested for most or all of next season.  We’ll likely bump the cattle stocking rate up a little because of this year’s abundant rainfall and strong grass growth.  I’ll try to make sure cattle have early summer access to the areas where I saw lots of first-year sweet clover plants this year – grazing those areas will greatly reduce flowering and seed production.  Finally, I’m thinking about letting the cattle stomp around for a week or two in one of the wet areas they’re normally excluded from because the vegetation is getting excessively thick there.

I’ll meet with my grazing lessee (the guy who owns the cattle) in late fall or early winter.  Between now and then, I’ll likely change my mind several times about some of my plans and come up with some new ones.  Next season we’ll make adjustments on the fly as we see what happens with rainfall, grazing behavior, invasive species, and all the other factors that influence management decisions.  Then, about this time next year, I’ll be walking around the prairie, trying to interpret the results of all those ideas and adjustments.

…and I’ll be having just as much fun as I am now.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo of the Week – September 18, 2015

There are reasons I am primarily a bug and flower photographer.  One of the biggest of those reasons is that bug and flower shot compositions are pretty simple.

Look – a flower!

Or Look – a bug!

Or sometimes Look – a bug on a flower!

One subject, simple background. Piece of cake.

Ants looking for extrafloral nectar on annual sunflower. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

Ants looking (I assume) for extrafloral nectar on annual sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).  The sweet substance produced by sunflowers and some other wildflowers attracts ants, which – in turn – may help repel herbivores.  Nebraska Sandhills on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

I admire good landscape photographers but I feel completely inadequate every time I pretend to be one.  While I’m composing landscape images I usually spend a lot of time fretting and second guessing about foreground, horizon line placement, and other factors that don’t come into play with close-up photography.  For whatever reason, my brain is wired such that composing close-ups of bugs and flowers comes intuitively but landscape photos are mentally painful.

That said, there are times and places when even I can take a decent landscape photo.  Last month, I was on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills, possibly the most scenic grassland landscape in the world.  The light was great and I had a little time, so I aimed my camera at a windmill and hay bales to see what I could do.  I took a lot of shots, and though I kept feeling like I wasn’t quite capturing the essence of what I was seeing, I liked the photos well enough.  After about 20 minutes, I had about 100 different images that were all very similar to each other and the next challenge was to narrow it down to my favorite.  I almost got there – I got down to two.

Windmill and hay bales on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Composition 1.

Windmill and hay bales on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Composition 1.

Option 3.

Composition 2.

Maybe you can help.  Let me know if you like either of these two images, and if so, which you like more. In the meantime, I think I’ll go look for a bug.  On a flower.  Something my brain can handle.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 46 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship – When is a Gopher not a Gopher?

This post is written by Kim Tri, one of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Kim is an excellent artist, as well as an ecologist, writer, and land steward.  As you can see, her drawings of animals are exceptional.


13-lined ground squirrel.  Ink drawing by Kim Tri.


When it’s a streaked gopher!  That is the common name that I grew up with for the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys or Spermophilus tridecemlineatus).  Imagine my disappointment when I found out that actual gophers are 1) not closely related, and 2) look like this:


Plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius).  Ink drawing by Kim Tri.


Pocket gophers are one of the few animals that I would describe as “ugly.”  Note: I do not use this word to describe pugs, star-nosed moles, aye-ayes, vultures, or a number of animals termed by most people as “ugly.”

As far as I can tell, the misnomer of “streaked gopher” (with streaked inexplicably being pronounced with two syllables) is unique to my family, as I have yet to find anyone who has ever heard of it who is not related to me.  “Striped gopher,” however, is a more common name, especially back in Minnesota, or the Gopher State (the MN Dept. of Natural Resources refers to it as the “Minnesota Gopher” on their website).  It is partially responsible for this unfortunate mascot.  University of Minnesota students will freely admit that mascot of Goldy Gopher was designed by someone who did not actually know what gophers look like.

Both thirteen-lined ground squirrels and pocket gophers are rodents, but the relationship ends there.  I. tridecemlineatus belongs to the family Sciuridae, which includes your familiar tree squirrels and chipmunks, and your less familiar (depending on where you live) ground squirrels, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, and marmots.  Pocket gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, which includes pocket gophers, end of list.  Both animals dig burrows and spend time underground, but since pocket gophers eat mainly roots and tubers, they need rarely come up to the surface and have taken burrowing to the next level.  They have oversize front paws for digging and lips that close behind their massive incisors, so that they can excavate with their chompers without getting a mouthful of dirt.  Their eyes and ears are small and weak because sight and hearing are not very important underground.  Thirteen-lined ground-squirrels, on the other hand, are part of the group of spermophiles, or “seed-lovers,” (though they eat a lot of insects as well) and consequently spend much of their time foraging aboveground and are less specialized for burrowing.  They’ve kept the squirrel’s nimble forepaws as well as good eyesight and hearing for detecting predators and prey alike.

I’ve always been enamored of thirteen-lined ground squirrels.  I mean, look at that face.  Then look at the clever little paws, sleek body, and intricate design.  Growing up, I could watch them sometimes from the kitchen window, and can do the same here.  We share the yard with a family of them, and it delights me to see them.  They build little tunnels through the pile of grass clippings that have accumulated by the walkway and use them as cover while they forage in the backyard.  Their favorite pile seems to be right outside of my window, so I have had plenty of opportunity to watch the little ones playing and growing throughout the summer.  They never paid me much heed, so I just assumed that they couldn’t see me through the window screen.  After spending quite a while standing not very still within a few feet of a foraging ground squirrel, I have since concluded that they simply don’t care about people.  They know that they can be underground before I can even bend down to snatch them.

Disclaimer: I am not bashing pocket gophers.  Their adaptations for burrowing make them pretty cool, at least to me, as do their “pockets”—cheek pouches for carrying food which extend all the way onto their shoulders and can be turned inside out.  I just think they’re ugly.

But, you know, the more I look at them, the more I see some cute in them.  I mean, look at that face.

pocket gopher head


P.S. If you want to see how Minnesotans feel about real gophers rather than people in striped gopher costumes, look up Viola Gopher Days, which take place near my home town.  I personally have never been and can’t decide whether I find it grisly or folksy.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Mummy Wasp!

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

How many naturalists does it take to spot a parasitoid? In this case, two. While we were harvesting seeds in a wet prairie, Chris spotted this caterpillar. He noted that it seemed to be mimicking horsetail (Equisteum sp.), a very common wetland plant, for camouflage. That was a really interesting idea, but it turns out be far from the truth, and you’ll soon see why.


At first it seemed that this caterpillar was mimicking horsetail (Equisteum sp.), but can you spot the real culprit of this caterpillar’s odd appearance?

Upon a closer look, I noticed that the caterpillar was honeycombed with holes. This  caterpillar wasn’t using camouflage; it had been parasitized! Did you know that there are forty to fifty thousand species of wasps so small that they are almost invisible to the naked eye? They are called Braconid wasps, and they have a fascinating life cycle. Nearly all Braconids lay their eggs on or inside another insect (called a host), which are often caterpillars. After the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae eat the host’s insides, pupate (turn into adults) inside the body, and chew their way out as full grown wasps! Insects that do this are called parasitoids. While I was taking photos of the dead caterpillar, Chris made an even better observation: there was one last wasp still emerging from it!!!


A Braconid wasp emerges from its caterpillar host. Keep reading to learn exactly what species they are.

It was awesome to witness and document a Brachonid wasp in action, but I wanted to go further: I wanted to know what species these two insects were. As a naturalist, I love learning about tiny and obscure organisms like this wasp. It just blows my mind that so much information exists about such unappreciated species if you can only identify them. When you learn a species’s name, it goes from a speck to an encyclopedia. So I posted this photo to and an incredible entomologist (insect scientist) suggested that this might be a Stigmata Mummy Wasp (Aleiodes stigmator) feeding on a Cattail Caterpillar (Simyra insularis). I did a little more research and found this publication on Aleiodes wasps. I learned that as Aleiodes larva go about eating their host, they line the caterpillar’s insides with a light silk. Eventually, the caterpillar dies and shrivels up, which is why the wasps are called “mummy wasps.” Aleiodes larvae chew a hole through their host and secrete a substance that glues it in place while they finish eating and pupating. Eventually, they chew their way out of the host and emerge as adult wasps.  If this all sounds gross to you, at least consider that mummy wasps and countless other Brachonids are important pest predators. Mummy wasps help keep gypsy moth and tent caterpillars in check, and several species of parasitoid wasps are sold to protect crops ranging from corn to tomatoes.

It turns out that each Aleiodes species makes a unique mummy. I went through the pictures in the publication I was reading and found one mummy that closely resembled my specimen (described as “appearing as though pelted evenly by shotgun pellets”). Sure enough, the guide listed the wasp as Aleiodes stigmator and the caterpillar as Simyra insularis! From there I learned that A. stigmator is the oldest known Aleiodes in North America and was discovered by the first American entomologist, Thomas Say, in 1824. Say thought the wasps’ exit holes looked like stigmata in the hands and feet of Christ, and so named the species “stigmator.” Despite having been discovered long ago, this species has never been carefully studied and many basic facts about it are still unknown.


When you look at the holes in this caterpillar, do you think of the stigmata on the hands and feet of Christ? I sure didn’t, but the entomologist who discovered this wasp somehow did.

I don’t know what’s more amazing, wasps that eat their way out of caterpillars or people who can identify them from a single photo.  It never ceases to astound me how every living speck of an organism has such an interesting story behind it. This process of stumbling upon mysteries and discovering their secrets is a large part of what drives me to spend so much time exploring nature. There’s just so much coolness out there!

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – September 10, 2015

A few weeks ago, I took my camera across town for a walk in a small local prairie.  There were numerous flowers blooming, but the stiff sunflowers (Helianthus pauciflorus) were stealing the show.  I shot quite a few photos of them from various angles.

Hover fly on Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

This little hover fly was enjoying a meal of stiff sunflower pollen.  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

The sunflower perspective.

I noticed that a few sunflowers seemed to have their “petals” (technically speaking, they are the ray flowers) folded in toward the center of the flower.  I’d seen this quite a few times before, but this time I decided to investigate.  I gently pulled the petals apart and found they’d be held down with what appeared to be silk.  Beneath them, an insect larva was hiding and, presumably, feeding on pollen or other flower parts.

Caterpillar in Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

A closed-up stiff sunflower.

Caterpillar in Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

The larva revealed.  Note the remnants of silk and the anthers still sticking to the petal after I pulled everything apart.

Caterpillar in Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

A close up of the caterpillar (?)

I’m not expert enough with insect larva identification to know for sure, but I’m guessing the larva is a moth larva – I know at least some of those have the ability to make silk.  Some of you reading this will surely know more about them and comment below.  (Thanks for your help.)

A few days later, I ran across some similarly closed up flowers in a different prairie.  When I opened those up, there was another larva inside, but it was much darker in color.  I wonder how many different species have this behavior?

The larva I found was just one of many examples of insects that create safe hiding places for their young to feed in.  Spittle bugs and gall-forming insects are two others that are common in prairies.  Of course, for every great hiding strategy, there is at least one predator that has developed a counter strategy.  I don’t know what eats the petal-tying larvae, but I bet there’s something out there.  I’m pretty sure guys-with-cameras are not the only ones who can find them.  Fortunately, for the larva I found, I wasn’t hungry at the time.


Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments