What’s In a Name When It Comes to Moths?

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National Moth Week has come and gone, but it’s still a great time to get outside and look for moths. Why bother with moths, you ask? Well, they come in a dizzying variety of colors, shapes and sizes, and occupy just about every terrestrial habitat in North America. They have fascinating life cycles and strategies for survival, lurking literally behind every leaf and branch. Many of them come to electric lights at night, so you can sit back, relax, and wait for them to come to you (a plus for fieldwork). But there’s another reason to study moths, something that rarely gets mentioned in the literature – their amazing names.

Where else on a summer night can you encounter the Cynical Quaker, the Unarmed Wainscot, Drexel’s Datana. the Georgian Prominent or the Toothed Somberwing (photo of this last moth above)? Aren’t you intrigued by the existence of the Confused Haploa, the Girlfriend Underwing, the Honest Pero, and the Friendly Probole? What’s the story behind the Shattered Hydriomena, the Retarded Dagger, or The Laughter? How can you sleep at night when the Black-Blotched Schizura might be resting on your porch? What about the Goat Sallow, the Abrupt Brother or the Grateful Midget?

There are moths with more prosaic names, of course. The Reed Canary Grass Borer, for instance, leaves precious little to the imagination. Others, like the Spiny Oakworm Moth or the Yellow-Necked Caterpillar Moth, are named for their juvenile appearance, and bear little resemblance to their former selves. Many species are named for the plant their caterpillars feed on, or some youthful quirk of habit, like the Pecanleaf Casebearer and the Basswood Leafroller. Other species go by multiple aliases, depending on their age: Woollybear Caterpillars grow up to be Isabella Tiger Moths, and Hickory Horn Devils mature into the elegant and reformed Regal Moths.

Other names invite questions. Is the Dubious Tiger Moth any less trustworthy than its fellows? What happened to the Once-Married Underwing? Why is it not the Divorced Underwing instead? (That’s different, of course, from the Widow Underwing, which is an entirely different species.) Is the Nameless Pinion actually nameless? What is the Grieving Woodling’s problem, and is the Disparaged Arches moth really that bad?

Clearly, lepidopterists have a lot fun (and more than a few beers) when it comes to moth names. It’s time for the rest of us to catch up on the action. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to learn about moths. Flick on a light switch in the evening and see who shows up. Take pictures with a camera or smartphone and post them online to websites like BugGuide or iNaturalist for identification suggestions and tips. You’ll be amazed by how much is out there once you start looking.

If you live anywhere between Maine, Minnesota, Iowa and Virginia, you can flip through the excellent Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, which has color photographs of 1,500 of the most charismatic species you’re likely to encounter. Unlike old-school entomology displays, where dead moths are pinned with their wings spread, the Peterson Guide features live moths in their characteristic poses, just as you see them in the field. The endpapers have silhouettes of the family groups, so with a little practice, you’ll be distinguishing your Tiger Moths from your Tussock Moths and your Prominents from your Geometers, just like the pros. Similar volumes for the rest of the continent are expected to follow.

Sure, most people are excited when a charismatic megamoth like a Luna Moth shows up in their lives. The bright colors of the Showy Emerald or the Pandorus Sphinx will make even the most jaded naturalist’s night. But I’m always happy to see a Dusky Groundling or the Cloaked Pug, however drab and grey their markings. The Beggar and The Neighbor (not to mention the The Slowpoke) will always have a place in my heart. Even a Simple Wave is a cause for celebration. My field notes sound like I’m auditioning for comedy night at the local club – and that’s before The Bad-Wing shows up. And I can promise you this: as a student of moth names, I will never, ever be bored.

The Hidden Gems of Lake Michigan

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A professionally polished Petoskey stone, similar to what you would find for sale in shops throughout Michigan.  The diagram in the corner indicates scale. Photo by Dr. Mark Wilson of the College of Wooster, Ohio, via Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, transport yourself to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, near the town of Petoskey, and perform a geological magic trick. Take a chunk of limestone on the beach – bland, grey and completely featureless – and dip it into the lake. Stare into the translucent depths at your chosen stone and watch distinctive hexagonal patterns emerge on the surface. But a funny thing happens when you pull the stone out of the water and let it dry in the sun – the markings abruptly vanish! What’s going on here?

As you might have suspected by now, this is no ordinary piece of limestone. Instead, you’ve stumbled across a Petoskey stone, beloved by geologists and beachcombers alike. Like all magic tricks, however, there is indeed a simple explanation for the vanishing act, impressive as it appears on first viewing. In this case, our mysterious rock’s origins in the distant past owe just as much to the animal as the mineral.

Four hundred million years ago in the Devonian era, Lake Michigan did not exist, but there was no shortage of water in the area. A wide, shallow tropical sea covered the area, home to a diverse array of bizarre-looking marine life: horseshoe crab-like trilobites, spiraling ammonites, brachipods and other shellfish, the first jawed fishes, sprawling crinoids and crustaceans. (When T.S. Eliot has J. Alfred Prufrock mutter, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” he was probably thinking of the Devonian.)  It was also a golden age for coral, including one family – now extinct – known as rugosans, or “wrinkled,” on account of their distinctive appearance.

While many of these rugosan corals were solitary polyps, other species opted for a more communal approach. They massed together, forming vast reefs similar to the ones we see in our own era off Hawaii or Australia.  One of these colonial coral species, Hexagonaria pericarinata, was particularly abundant around the future home of Petoskey, Michigan. As the scientific name suggests, these corals were highly symmetrical, with each animal forming distinctive six-sided walls as it tried to occupy the maximum possible space against its many neighbors. (Unlike the rigid chambers you see in honeycombs, you’ll often find five, four, or even three-sided corals who just couldn’t grow up fast enough to compete with their more aggressive counterparts, or asymmetrical hexagons formed by polyps that got “squashed”.)

When individual polyps died, others grew on top of them and the cycle repeated. Eventually, whole reef conglomerates were buried by ocean sediments in the shifting seas. Time and pressure transformed the coral and sediment matrix into calcium-rich limestone, the coral polyps preserved as flattened outlines of their former, three-dimensional selves in the rock. Each polyp’s alimentary canal became a dark speck that forms the “eye” of each hexagon; the lines that radiate outward from the center mark where tentacles were located.

Fast forward to twelve thousand years ago in the Pleistocene. The tropical ocean vanished long ago, replaced by bare stone and a wall of glaciers three miles high. As the glaciers advanced and retreated, they scoured the bedrock, kicking up chunks of the limestone reefs and gouging out the depression that would fill with meltwater and become Lake Michigan. Rounded and sculpted by water, the fossilized coral fragments were moved by centuries of robust freeze-thaw cycles southward in the lake, occasionally washing up on beaches tens or even hundreds of miles away from their original site.

Dubbed “Petoskey stones” because of their abundance on the beaches and bedrock of Petoskey, Michigan, these stone corals are ubiquitous in gift shops throughout the state. You can find their likeness on a number of “Petoskey tchochkes” including magnets, bumper stickers and t-shirts, so residents and tourists alike can proclaim their love. As a sign of their distinctive popularity, Petoskey stones have been the official state stone of Michigan since 1965. They remain a source of local pride and a prize find during any lakeside stroll. Most stones you find on the beach are tiny, but huge storms can wash five, ten, or even twenty pound specimens out of the lake overnight.

Why are they easier to spot in water? The contrast between the slightly lighter crystals of fossilized coral body (calcite) and the surrounding stone is greatest when wet, making them easiest to detect underwater or well within the splash zone of the lake. (Further away from the lake shore, less discriminating rockhounds opt for spittle or other body fluids as a way to test their finds.) Some stones will naturally keep their appearance without water or any further treatment, but most of the stones available for sale have been professionally polished to ensure that the distinctive hexagons remain visible even when dry.

You can replicate the same look on stones you find on the shore with some fine-grit sandpaper, elbow grease, and a little toothpaste and velvet cloth for polish. Limestone is soft and easily eroded, so a little bit of effort goes a long way – a conventional rock tumbler is overkill, converting beautiful stones into a dusty pile of sediment. But maybe you’ll keep any stones you encounter in their natural state, tucked away in your pocket, ready to perform a magic trick of your own.

A Passionate Pollinator

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A typical maypop pollination sequence in action. Note the shiny abdomen of the carpenter bee, and the oblong yellow anthers smearing pollen over the bee’s thorax. The round green stigmas, slightly above the anthers, will be jostled when the bee is preparing to move to another flower. Photo by the author.

Summer blockbusters at the multiplex are big and bold, but equally dramatic spectacles are happening outside as plants send up blooms to attract insect pollinators. While sunflowers and zinnias command quite a following, and anise hyssop and bee balm have their charms, the best show in town right now in central North Carolina is at the maypop—also known as the purple passionflower—hands down.

Colorful and vivid, with a curtain of tye-dyed strips surrounding a pillar of five anthers perched below three ovaries, any of the five hundred plus species of passionflower would fit right into a bouquet designed by Dr. Seuss. Some see the flowers as strangely clock-like; others view it as living metaphor full of religious symbolism. Despite its exotic appearance, however, the delights of passionflowers aren’t limited to the tropics. Five species can be found growing throughout the southeastern United States, and the maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the hardiest of the lot, ranging as far north as Pennsylvania in the wild.

Unlike many native perennials, which need specialized environments in order to thrive, the maypop is not fussy about its living space. It’s aggressive and vigorous, flourishing in full sun and disturbed areas, even in years with little rainfall. It clamors up over other plants in a race to get ahead, twining tendrils and pulling no punches, to the point where it’s occasionally listed as an agricultural weed. It can grow as much as fifteen feet in a season before dying back to the ground with the frost. This drive to survive at all costs, coupled with its showy purple and white blooms and edible fruit, has made it a beloved staple of Southern gardens. And with it come the pollinators.

Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) look and act much like their bumblebee cousins, with a few twists: bigger, buzzier, and boasting black and shiny abdomens. Aside from the occasional misstep of burrowing into wooden structures, they rarely bother humans. Like all bees, they are important pollinators for flowers—except when they “cheat” by nipping flowers at the base to get a quick hit of nectar.

The maypop, however, has an ingenious mechanism to foil cheaters. Instead of having a curled base for nectar storage, all of the good stuff is located at center of the flower’s disk. In order to reach it, however, the bee has to brush against at least one of the five stamens—conveniently located just the right height for a carpenter bee—which smear pollen all over the bee’s head. Once the bee is finished at the first flower, it will have to rub up against the receptive stigmas of the next flower in order to drink more nectar, thus ensuring successful pollination. I’ve never seen any of them stop at just one flower! Occasionally, a tiny wasp or a Japanese beetle might slip in to steal some nectar, but the vast majority of insects I see on maypop flowers are carpenter bees, obliviously pollinating away while they gorge on nectar.

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Not ripe yet…. but getting there! Photo by the author

And thus arises the other wonder of the maypop—namely, its fruit, which closely resembles its commercially grown tropical cousins in size and taste. You may think you’ve never tasted a passion fruit, but guess again—its distinctive flavor adds a kick to the popular fruit drink Hawaiian Punch. The egg-sized fruits—technically berries—fall to the ground when ripe, and can be eaten out of hand. They can also be used in jams and jellies, although I’ve never met anyone who’s managed to make it that far with them.

Dinner and a show—who could ask for anything more on a hot summer day?

Southern Comfort

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The Southern magnolia flower in bloom. Photo by DavetheMage. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

The grande dame of its family, the southern magnolia dominates the landscape. There is simply no overlooking its stately elegance, especially when it is in full bloom. Bearing flowers as wide as your face—worthy of the epithet grandiflora, “big-flowered,” indeed—a southern magnolia is no mere tree. A southern magnolia is an experience.

Let’s start with the blooms. Following a design ancient by evolutionary standards, they are similar in structure to the first flowers that appeared in the Jurassic era millions of years ago, a testament to success. Large simple petals, pearly in color and texture, fold over a bizarre-looking yellow cone-like structure at the center. Yellow stamens fall like matchsticks from the base of each cone—actually compendium of simple pistils—and collect in the folds of the petals. Once the flowers have been fertilized, the petals fall back in a brown and crinkled heap as fleshy red fruits dangle on tiny white threads from the now-green and black cone. Until that happens, though, the scent is heavenly—alternately described as lemon, citronella, or jasmine—as an enticement to its beetle pollinators.

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The fruit, seeds and cone in all their bizarre glory. Photo by Pmsyyz. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tree is equally impressive. The leaves are stiff and papery, green and waxy above and fuzzy brown velvet beneath. Typically boasting a single trunk, each tree stretches into a classic pyramid, broad at the base and narrowing to a single point at its apex. Given enough time and space to reach mature size, each magnolia tree becomes its own island, its lower branches hovering just above the ground, the evergreen leaves above form a dense canopy under which nothing else can grow. Blocking out the sounds and view of the world outside, each tree becomes a miniature oasis. A grove of mature trees forms a graceful archipelago—truly a sight to behold. Even in winter, the southern magnolia bears the occasional snowfall or ice storm with grace.

With the possible exception of live oaks, no trees are more evocative of the archetypal South than the southern magnolias. Yet they are true natives only to a swathe of the southern Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Known colloquially as “bull bay,” they join their cousin Magnolia virginica, the sweetbay, and the unrelated redbay and loblolly-bay to grace the swamps and pocosins with their presence. Left to their own devices, they would never have made it further into the uplands. Fortunately for gardeners everywhere, the southern magnolia thrives outside of its natural range, even when pushed to its limits. One such specimen can be found in Burlington, in the courtyard of Marsh Life Science building on the University of Vermont campus, where sheltered walls and a south-facing aspect create a microclimate warm enough for this southern tree to survive harsh New England winters.

Moreover, the southern magnolia is versatile in the human-dominated landscape: I have also seen it growing as a street tree in Monterey, California and lining parking lots and new developments in Cary, North Carolina. However, most of the trees used in the modern horticultural trade are dwarf cultivars that will never reach the width and stature the species is capable of. Although my heart is gladdened to see them, I cannot help feeling wistful, as if something important has also been lost.

Climbing those older, giant trees was an essential staple of my childhood. The wide, thick limbs were easy to scramble up with the ease of a squirrel, offering real height and perspective. For a time, I was removed from the cares of the world and fully immersed in the world offered by the trees. Attending college along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the southern magnolias grove tucked away in a sheltered courtyard soothed my soul during times of anxiety and change. The arbiter of student discipline, the Assistant Dean, had an office directly facing those trees, so I never found the courage to climb them. Still, I valued those trees for the reminder that I was not too far, ecologically speaking, from home.

It’s May now, and the southern magnolias are blooming again in the gardens of my hometown in North Carolina. When I breathe in the scent of its blossoms, I am in my childhood again, that long golden summer where anything is possible and no height is unattainable.

Green Mountains Walking

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The Green Mountains of Vermont, as seen from Jay Peak. Photo by from the nek. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?

Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.

What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.

In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.

Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.

Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Giving Thanks For Nature: A Meditation

solidago-550x764Despite the concrete, compelling realities of pine-cone gall aphids, winter buds, and migrating waterfowl, I head indoors as Thanksgiving approaches, trading adventures afield for the familiar comforts of food and friends. Chopping squash and garroting cabbage, I’m preoccupied with the wonders outside, even as I think about the purpose of this holiday—gratitude.

What do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? Family, of course. Not to mention food, football, and Black Friday shopping—maybe not quite precisely in that order. But something is missing for me, something that doesn’t neatly fit into that cozy human narrative. What else gives meaning to my life? Sunflowers and snow buntings, mourning cloak butterflies and polygonia orchids, mysterious fungi peeping from the trunks of trees. How can I bring them fully into the folds of my celebration? Where are they in all of this?

Across the waters of Lake Champlain, the Haudenosaunee people of upstate New York begin every gathering by thanking all of the beings of the world in a prayer they call “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” — literally,“The Words Before All Else.” Although it is often called “The Thanksgiving Address” in English, it was not limited to one day of the year. Sacred and holy, yet simultaneously woven into the fabric of everyday life, the words thanked everything in the universe for being exactly as it was and supporting life. The human folk, the earth, the sky, the winds, the animals, the food plants, medicinal herbs, trees, birds, the sun—the list seems exhaustive. Yet, at the end, anything still left unnamed is incorporated into the fold. Even the mysterious and unknown is worthy of honor and recognition. And every section ends the same way:Now our minds are one.”

So it can be done. We can bring all of the wonders outside into our kitchens if we want them there, whenever we want, by naming them and appreciating them as they are. But it’s not enough for me to see the world and appreciate it on my own; I want to share it with others and hear their own words in turn. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that level of connection every day, but on Thanksgiving, of all days, it feels more doable. We’re already gathered together, already here. Why not venture a few steps further in the outdoors and make the connection with a wider, marvelous universe?

But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start by expressing our gratitude for the natural world on this day of all days, for just one day. Let’s eat our turkey and pumpkin pie, and head outside for a walk. Or even a glance out of the window. There’s so much to see. The naked silhouette of sugar maples against the morning sky. The full moon on fallow fields burned by the frost. The rabbit skittering into the bushes, the chipmunk that skirts our path, the red-tailed hawk on the telephone wire. Look around. Try it out. See how it feels. Speak out, to family and friends on this one day, about all the things we experience and value in the natural world throughout the whole year. And maybe from those experiences will come new traditions—not dictated by some outside authority but welling up organically inside our own hearts.

Whether you’re spending Thanksgiving ensconced in the kitchen, up to your elbows in entrails, counting down the hours until Black Friday, or wandering afar in fields foreign or familiar, I hope your day is a joyous one. Wherever you are, find a way to stay connected to what truly moves you. The world is so big and rich when we take the time to stop for a moment and see it as it is. And complete the circle by sharing what you see with others and seeing the world through their own eyes in turn. Our minds may not be one, but we’ll be closer to being on the same page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

 

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

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