Miscellaneous Sightings

One of the best perks of my job is simply that I get to be outside enough to see a lot of interesting ecological phenomena.  Today, I thought I’d share a few vignettes from the last couple weeks.

Monarch caterpillar (finally) on common milkweed.

Last year, we set out to count monarch caterpillars on our sites, hoping to compare numbers between various management treatments.  We were stymied by the fact that there were almost no caterpillars to be found anywhere, let alone enough to make comparisons.  This year, I assumed the numbers would be better, but since finding eggs and caterpillars in May from the early migrants from Mexico that arrived this spring, I haven’t seen any caterpillars until this week.  And I only found one this week.  Whoopee.

Dodder flowers on Maximilian sunflower. Platte River Prairies.

Dodder is a fascinating parasitic plant that wraps its plastic twine-looking self around prairie plants like sunflowers and goldenrods and more.  Later in the season, the orange twine dries up and disappears, leaving only the fuzzy spirals of flower/seed heads on the stems of its host plants.  If you didn’t see both of them together, you might never guess the twine and fuzzy spirals were from the same plant.  This week, dodder is in transition, with both flowers and twine at the same time.

A male brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) perches high in the prairie, hoping to find and mate with an emerging queen of its species.

A few years ago, I found out about a fun behavior by male brown-belted bumblebees.  As colonies start producing queens for the next year, males spread out across the prairie and wait for those queens to enter the world.  The males sit on tall perches for hours, scanning for big females.  Once they see one, they (and all the other males who spot her) race to be the first to mate with her.  This week, they were at it again.  I’m really glad to have been clued into this really cool phenomenon.  Otherwise, I’d probably just see the bees and assume they were resting.

Finally, I’d like to thank those who helped with and attended our field day last Saturday.  The forecast didn’t look promising but the rain cleared out right before the event started and we ended up having fantastic weather.  The attendance was lower than hoped because of the forecast, but we still had people from at least 7 states and U.S. territories and we all learned a lot about prairie ecology and invertebrates.  Big thanks to presenters Julie Peterson of University of Nebraska Extension, Rae Powers of Xerces Society, and Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, along with Kayla Mollet and Katie Lamke from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hey Ed, your mom caught a toad.

Julie Peterson (pink shirt, blue hat) shows attendees an insect.

More to the Stories

This is one of those blog posts that feels like a cop out because I’m just redirecting you to things others have written.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen two stories that build upon topics I’ve dealt with in earlier posts on this blog, so it’s not like I’m just linking to videos of cats doing cute things…

1. Back in January of 2011, I wrote a post that described a neat cascade of impacts that started with a prescribed fire we conducted.  The fire influenced cattle grazing, which altered feeding habits of mice, which allowed prairie clover plants to make seed, which dropped to the ground in a place where they had a pretty good chance to germinate and grow.  It was an example of the kind of complex interactions that make nature so fun and interesting.  Well, Kevin G. Smith, associate director of the Tyson Research Center in Missouri conducted a study that shows a similar series of complex interactions.  In his case, however, he didn’t just stumble across it – he set up a research study to test it experimentally.  In a wonderfully simple design, he demonstrated that the flowering density of purple loosestrife can influence the abundance of zooplankton in wetlands.  You can read a description of the study here, which includes a wonderful chain of influences that includes purple loosestrife, pollinators, dragonflies (and their larvae), and zooplankton.  Although purple loosestrife is an invasive plant in wetlands, its invasive nature was not the point of the project (though there are potentially interesting ramifications there).  Instead, the project was simply a great example of the interconnectivity of species and natural processes.

In Smith’s research project, dragonflies favored wetlands with more purple loosestrife because there were more pollinators to feed on. The dragonflies also laid more eggs in those wetlands, and the larvae then impacted zooplankton populations.

2. Last summer I posted a photo of dodder in one of our prairies, and wrote a short description of this intriguing species.  Dodder is a parasitic plant that looks like orange plastic twine someone carelessly threw out in the prairie.  Because it leeches nutrients from the hapless plant(s) it attaches to, it doesn’t need its  own chlorophyll.  Robert Krulwich had a great blog post on NPR.org about a month ago that described how dodder uses its “sense of smell” to find the plant species it wants to attach to.  He included a fantastic short video that shows a dodder plant “nosing” around until it picks up the scent of its target plant and then grows quickly toward it.  Krulwich also summarized a research project that tested to be sure it was scent that drew the dodder to its “prey”.  Great stuff.

I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I enjoyed not having to write them!