Up the Glacial Staircase

During last year’s visit to Lake Tahoe, we attempted to hike Eagle Falls Trail, one of Lake Tahoe’s most scenic and popular trails.  Beginning at the Hwy 89 trailhead above Emerald Bay, this trail climbs a dramatic ‘glacial staircase’ with steep, narrow gorges connecting a series of deep lakes and meadows.  Each of these lakes, and indeed Emerald Bay itself, was formed as a result of glaciers that carved Lake Tahoe’s granite shores until as recently as 10,000 years ago – leaving behind scars of incomparable beauty.  Eagle Lake perches atop one of these steps – only a short, one-mile hike up the trail but rising nearly 2,000 feet above the trailhead.  Summer hikers have trouble enough dealing with this elevation gain, but winter hikers – as we learned last year –  find it impossible without the assistance of snowshoes.  The first steep section just short of Upper Eagle Falls would prevent any further progress, leaving me with only a teasing view up the gorge and a commitment to try again on our next visit.

There was even more snow this year than last – a good 4-6′ it appeared, but our rented snowshoes made this irrelevant (even desirable), and the four of us began the arduous task of climbing the snow-laden slopes all the way up to Eagle Lake.  It was a family affair, so the pace was dictated by 10-yr old Madison, who got us to Eagle Lake – serenely beautiful and frozen solid – in a leisurely 1 hour 45 minutes.  The hike back down the gorge passed more quickly (almost too quickly) but provided spectacular views of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe below. Those of you with an interest in the geological history of Lake Tahoe may refer to my earlier posts, Lake Tahoe, California (Mar 2008) and Born of Glaciers (Mar 2009).  The rest of you may just enjoy these pretty pictures.

View of Upper Eagle Falls - it was here where our hike last year would end.

View back down the gorge from bridge over Upper Eagle Falls.

Looking back down at Emerald Bay from Eagle Falls Trail.

Further up the trail, one looks back upon this spectacular view of Jake's Peak.

Eagle lake lies at 8,500' elevation (frozen lake surface visible through trees left).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Lampetis drummondi larva?

Back in February, I learned that Mark Volkovitsh (Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Science, St. Petersburg) would be visiting Chuck Bellamy (California Department of Food and Agriculture) in Sacramento the very week that I was planning to be in Lake Tahoe. Chuck and Mark are two of the worlds leading specialists in Buprestidae, or jewel beetles, and have worked together on a number of projects dealing with the taxonomy and systematics of buprestid beetles. Mark, in particular, has focused on describing the larval forms of buprestids (“white wormy things,” as my wife calls them) and using larval morphology to supplement adult morphology in phylogenetic analyses. I’m not anywhere near being in their league in terms of authority in the family – a comparative dabbler, really – but for some reason they’ve both seen fit to accept me into the fraternity. I’ve been fortunate to spend time in the field with each of them, as well as visit them at their respective institutions.  When I learned of Mark’s coincident visit, I couldn’t resist the chance to make the 2-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to Sacramento and spend the day with Mark and Chuck at the CDFA and discuss things buprestological.  The wife and kids were fine with that, since her brother also lives in Sacramento, and it would be a chance for them to do some sight-seeing before we all got together for dinner.  Upon arriving at CDFA, I also met Andy Cline, a nitidulid specialist at the CDFA (re-met actually, turns out we’d met some years back), and the four of us went out for an animated lunch at a nearby restaurant over some of the most delicious barbeque that I’ve ever tasted.

L-R: Mark Volkovitsh (Russia), Chuck Bellamy (CDFA), me, Andy Cline (CDFA)

After lunch, I was most interested in discussing with Mark some buprestid larvae that I had collected in Big Bend, Texas in 2004. My colleague Chris Brown and I were hiking a low desert trail west of Rio Grande Village when we encountered a large, uprooted Goodding willow (Salix gooddingii) tree laying on the river bank. Wilting leaves were present on some of its branches, suggesting that the half-dead had been washed to its current location by the river during a recent flood. At the base of the trunk where the main roots projected, I noticed what appeared to be frass (the sawdust that wood boring beetle larvae eject after eating it – that’s right, grub poop!) under the edge of the bark at the live/dead wood interface. I used my knife to cut away some of the bark and immediately encountered a huge buprestid larvae. Its enormous size is matched only by a few desert southwest species: Polycesta deserticola, which breeds commonly in oak and is known from willow, but breeds only in dead, dry branches; and Gyascutus planicosta, whose larvae are restricted to the living roots of Atriplex and a few other asteraceous shrubs.  Clearly, it could not be either of these species.  The only other desert southwest buprestids large enough to produce a larva this large (~50 mm) are Lampetis drummondii and L. webbii. However, the larvae of both of these species are unknown, as is basic information regarding what hosts they utilize for larval development. Lampetis webbii is quite rare, but L. drummondii is, in fact, one of the most conspicuous and commonly encountered buprestid species in the desert southwest – that fact that its larva has remained unknown suggests that it utilizes living wood, probably feeding below the soil line.  Thus, I immediately began to suspect that the larva might represent this species – a truly exciting development. 

As I continued digging into the wood, I encountered a second, somewhat smaller larva in a neaby gallery, and further digging revealed another clue about its identity in the form of fragments of a dead adult beetle – all brilliant blue/green in color (identical to the color of L. drummondi), and the largest (the base of an elytron, or wing cover) showing the same pattern of punctation exhibited by L. drummondi adults. I placed the two larvae individually in vials with pieces of the host wood; however, I knew there was little chance that either larva, requiring living tissue upon which to feed, would complete its development once removed from its host gallery.  They did survive for a time after my return to St. Louis, but when the largest larva became lethargic, I decided to go ahead and preserve them.  I sent the photograph below (taken by Chris) of the living larvae to Mark, who confirmed that it did indeed appear to be a species of Lampetis, based on its large size and the narrowly V-shaped furcus on the pronotal shield (typical for members of the tribe to which Lampetis belongs). 

Buprestid larva (prob. Lampetis drummondi) under bark of Salix gooddingii at trunk base - Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo by Christopher R. Brown.

Considering the complete lack of published information on the larval biology of Lampetis drummondi and the several lines of evidence that these larvae, in fact, represent that species, it would be worthwhile to publish a description of the larva.  However, formal description requires dissection, and I did not know how to do this.  Mark, on the other hand, has dissected literally hundreds of buprestid larvae, including representatives of nearly every genus for which larvae are known.  He is the buprestid larva expert, and what a thrill it was for me to learn how to do this from the Master himself, using the larger of these two probable Lampetis larvae as the subject.  While we were dissecting the larva, we compared its features to those published for the European species Lampetis argentata (Danilevsky 1980) – the only member of the genus for which the larva is known – and confirmed their similarity and the larva’s likely close relationship to that species.  Coincidentally, the larva of L. argentata develops in living roots of saxaul (Haloxylon) – a genus of large shrubs/small trees (family Amaranthaceae) that grows in the deserts of Central Asia.  It thus appears that Lampetis species may, as a general rule, utilize living wood below the soil line for larval development, explaining why the larva of only one (now two) of the nearly 300 species in the genus worldwide has been found.


Danilevsky, M. L. 1980. Opisanie zlatki Lapmetis [sic] argentata (Coleoptera, Buprestidae) – vreditelya saksaula [Description of the larva of Lapmetis [sic] argentata (Coleoptera, Buprestidae) – the pest of HaloxylonZoologicheskii Zhurnal 59:791–793.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel

Spring is beginning its “march” across the nation, and in typical fashion the month started out with the promise of pleasant weather but is throwing a few tantrums before giving way to April. For most folks in the lower Midwest, spring began a week or so ago when daffodils began popping up from nowhere and dotting the suburban and semirural landscapes with their yellow smiles. Forsythia are also set to burst forth, their appearance temporarily put on hold by this latest cold/wet snap, but when they do most people here will be satisfied that spring has finally come. For me, spring comes much earlier, and it’s not planted ornamentals that mark its beginning, but native trees.  Silver maples (Acer saccharinum) and American elms (Ulmus americana) are first, bursting open in the very first warm days of early March.  These are followed by the sugar maples (A. saccharum) and red maples (A. rubrum) that are in full bloom now, which will themselves give way to the redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and serviceberrys (Amelanchier arborea) that will close out the month before flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) dominates the area’s understories in April.

There is one tree in this part of the country, however, that shows its amazing blooms in January and February while winter’s grip is still strong.  Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is restricted to the Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas, where it grows along the rocky creeks and streams that dissect this ancient landscape.  I have long wanted to see its striking blooms, but despite my many wintertime hikes throughout the Ozarks, I have never found myself in the right place at the right time – until a few weeks ago when I hiked the Mina Sauk Trail at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park.  I found these plants growing below Mina Sauk Falls and along Taum Sauk Creek below, and even though it was the first weekend of March (and the very first warm day of the season), many of the plants had already passed their peak bloom.  Fortunately, I was able to find these several plants with flowers still in good shape.

There is only one other species in the genus – eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  Although distributed widely across eastern North America, it is restricted in Missouri to these same St. Francois Mountains where I saw H. vernalis.  The two species are very similar by the characteristics of their foliage but can be easily distinguished by floral characters.  Hamamelis virginiana blooms in fall rather than winter, and its flowers, while nearly twice the size, rarely show the amount of red on the inner calyx that is seen in this species.  Hamamelis vernalis flowers are also quite fragrant, having what has been described as a “vanilla” scent.  The photographs here show the rather unusual color range of the flowers of this species, which can vary from orange to deep red to deep yellow.  I suspect that flower color also changes with age, in that petals are initially deep red and later fade to yellow, as in the photo below.  It’s difficult to explain why H . vernalis is restricted to the Ozark Highlands while H. virginiana occurs so broadly, but the Ozarks are a well-known refugium for a number of other plants and animals, especially Ice Age relicts.

Sitting on a rhyolite ledge overlooking Taum Sauk Creek as I ate lunch, I wondered about the pollination biology of a plant that flowers during winter.  It was a warm day – certainly an unusual occurrence during the period in which this plant flowers – and even still it was too early in the season for a lot of insect activity.  I watched one of the nearby plants as I ate to see what insects came to the flowers, and for a time all I saw were a couple of European honey bees.  Clearly, the plant did not evolve in association with this now ubiquitous insect.  I continued watching, and at last I saw a native insect visiting the flowers – a large species of hover fly (family Syrphidae), perhaps something in the genus Helophilus.  After taking a few more photographs (unfortunately, none of the fly), another of the same species visited the plant.  Flies in general are famous for appearing during warm days in winter, and I wonder if the unusually extended bloom period of this species is intended to take advantage of those few, unpredictable days during winter when temperatures are sufficient for flies to become active.

Photo Details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D
Photo 1: ISO 100, 1/200 sec, f/11, MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen-Puffer diffusers.
Photo 2: ISO 200, 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ambient light.
Photo 3: ISO 100, 1/60 sec, f/9, flash w/o diffusers.
Photo 4: ISO 200, 1/250 sec, f/5.6, ambient light.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Lake Tahoe – 2010 Preview

How does an entomologist/wannabe botanist-ecologist-geologist-cyclist-nature photographer spend his time on a family vacation?

  • Thursday evening to Saturday late afternoon:
    – Drive from St. Louis to Lake Tahoe.  In between driving shifts:
    – Complete manuscript on Cylindera cursitans surveys
    – Complete manuscript on Dromochorus pruinina surveys.
    – Arrive late afternoon, quick 1-hr bike ride before dark.
  • Sunday:
    – Cross-country skiing with the family: Spooner Lake (~6 miles).
    – Sight-seeing: Sand Harbor Overlook on the east shore.
    – Hang out at the hot tub with the family and a glass of wine.
  • Monday:
    – Drive to Sacramento with the family.
    – Visit buprestid-colleagues Chuck Bellamy (CDFA) and Mark Volkovitsh (Russian Academy of Science).
    – Private lesson from Mark on how to dissect buprestid larvae for taxonomic description.
    – Dinner with my favorite brothers-in-law.
    – Drive back to Lake Tahoe.
  • Tuesday:
    – Snowshoe hike with the family: Emerald Bay to Eagle Lake and back (2 miles, 1,900′ of climbing).
    – Bike ride: South Lake Tahoe to Bliss State Park and back (33 miles, 1,100′ of climbing).
  • Wednesday:
    – Bike ride: all the way around Lake Tahoe (72 miles, 3,500′ of climbing).
    – Hang out at the hot tub with the family and a glass of wine.
  • Thursday:
    – Botanizing and hiking with daughter Madison at Mt. Rose (4 miles, 1,300′ feet of climbing).
    – Hang out at the hot tub with the family and a glass of wine.
  • Friday:
    – Alpine skiing with the family at Heavenly Ski Resort.
    – Join a 2-hour ski tour with US Forest Service rangers discussing natural and cultural history of Lake Tahoe.
    – Hang out at the hot tub with the family and a glass of wine.
  • Saturday morning to Sunday night:
    – Drive from Lake Tahoe back to St. Louis.  In between driving shifts:
    – Process/file photographs from trip (~250).
    – Complete reports for 2009 collecting permits.
    – Complete new applications for 2010 permits.
    – Begin manuscript on Cylindera celeripes conservation status.
  • Monday:
    – Return to work mentally refreshed!

I’ve already shared a bit of the trip with a view of Mt. Rose from 7,000′ and ensuing pismire quagmire.  Today I share some views of one of the most scenic of lakeside spots on the east shore – Sand Harbor Overlook.  I featured this spot in this post from last year’s trip due to its stunning beauty, and this year I was no less impressed.  I still had that same, annoying, afternoon sun to deal with (next year I’ve resolved to get here during the morning) but managed to get some passable photographs.  The one above is my favorite, and I hope you enjoy the following as well. (p.s. if someone knows how to fix a sun-blown sky in Photoshop Elements, please let me know).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Pismire Puzzle

I returned home from a much-needed vacation late last night, and even though it was a family trip I have much to share from the past 10 days. However, I must remain coy about where I was for the time being so that I may present this little quiz:

Who am I?

I had planned to post this yesterday, but the best title I could come up with – “Monday Myrmecine Mystery” – was just too similar to a Monday tradition on another blog that we’ve all grown to love.  (Also, I just couldn’t get to it.)  No longer constrained by an M-themed title, I came up with this alternative¹ that I hope will make the 12-year old boy in each of us giggle aloud.

¹ Pismire (from pissemire) is an archaic name of Scandinavian origin for ant. Derived from pisse urine (referring to the smell of formic acid) + mire ant.

What am I doing?

I expect members of the Formicine Guild will jump all over this, so I should probably make this quiz about more than just the name of the ant (which I don’t know, so does that make this an illegal quiz?).  Maybe I should offer double points to non-myrmecologists for a proper ID (but then, I would need the consensus of the myrmecologists – perhaps a conflict of interest?).

Why do I do this?

I could also offer points for correctly guessing what the ant is carrying – which again I wasn’t able to figure out, so I guess points will have to be awarded for the most plausible explanation.  What I do know is the ant carried this carcass while meandering aimlessly over the same patch of ground – occasionally stopping very briefly to dig its jaws into it before resuming its wanderings.  I followed the ant for about 10 minutes, and it never left an area of about 1 square foot – no nest nearby that I could see, no direction to its travels, no apparent purpose to its labors.

This is where I live.

I most definitely know where I was, so firm points are on offer for correctly guessing the answer to that question – either on the basis of the ant ID or the above photograph of its habitat.  Yes, that is snow on the ground – lots of it!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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The Inexorable March of Spring!

Granted, the progress of spring seems to advance in halting baby steps with occasional falls onto its muddy bottom, rather than as a determined forward march, but spring is welcome, no matter how it arrives. When little green tips start poking up and there’s a bit of that “spring smell” in the air, I simply must get out and catch up on the status of Nature — the old-fashioned way (she doesn’t have a Facebook account). Over the last week, I’ve gone forth in search of signs that everything else living is about as tired of winter as I am, and wants to get this spring show on the road! There is already so much happening, I can’t recount it all here — A partial list of unphotographed notables: owls breeding; hawks nesting; woodcocks doing their silly, repetitive and almost invisible (because it’s nearly dark) courtship displays; wood ducks on forest ponds; year-round resident songbirds reestablishing territories; spring peepers, chorus frogs, wood frogs and southern leopard frogs singing, especially in the fishless ponds; winter crane flies and midges swarming in sun flecks in the woods; wild filberts, silver and red maples flowering, etc…

Formica pallidefulva sniffs the spring air

Of course, I look for the first ants out at this time of year, though with the exception of 10 March, when the temperature exceeded 70F, they haven’t been notably active. However, that afternoon I encountered, among others, a worker of Formica pallidefulva poking its head out cautiously to sniff the spring air. This is one of my favorite local ants — largish (5-6mm), abundant, active in daylight even when it’s hot, usually shiny bronzy red to red-brown, usually with a darker gaster (the apparent abdomen of ants) around here, but ranging from a beautiful reddish gold (in the deep South) to almost pure black-coffee brown (New England and southern Canada) across its wide geographic occurrence (Rocky Mountain foothills of Wyoming to New Mexico, all the way east to Québec and Florida). It has the added charm of being the host species to a wide range of social-parasitic and dulotic (“slave-making”) ants both in its own and in another closely related genus, with which it lives in temporary or permanent mixed colonies (as with the Polyergus illustrated in my last post). The image below of these ants bringing home a charred earthworm was taken almost one year ago, as one of Shaw Nature Reserve’s prairie areas was beginning to resprout after a prescribed burn a few weeks earlier. Ants will take their food raw or cooked!

Formica pallidefulva with charred earthworm

Prenolepis imparis alate in the clutches of a gerrid

Another ant I mentioned last time I was with you, Prenolepis imparis, has the distinction of being the only ant in our fauna that has mating flights while there is still a good chance of frost in the forecast for the next few weeks. In this picture of a mating pair at  BugGuide, note the size difference that inspires their name “imparis”, Latin for disparate. Any time after mid-February when it is sunny and not too windy, and the temperature rises above 65F, the winged males and females reared the preceeding fall, fly out to partake of a grand insectan orgy. Typically, they have big flights on the first couple of appropriately warm days, then some smaller ones (i.e., fewer individuals participating) over the next few weeks. The flying males look like gnats, bobbing up and down in drifting swarms, a few feet off the ground over a shrub, near a woodland edge or in a sunny opening. (One of my co-workers got into the midst of a group of such swarms once when we were conducting a prescribed burn in a wooded area, and I recall her commenting she “felt like Pigpen with all the little bugs flying around”!) The much larger, golden-brown females lift slowly off the ground, fly ploddingly (or is it seductively?) through the male swarms, are there mobbed by the tiny fellows, and then glide away and slightly downward, mating in flight with the winner of the males’ tussling. Rather clumsy fliers, the females do not always land in a good spot, as occurred to this hapless one that ended up as a feast for a water strider. Those that survive break off their wings, dig a burrow, seal themselves in, and raise a small brood of workers on food produced in their own bodies (like say, milk in mammals or “cropmilk” in doves and some other birds.)

But lest you to think I only have eyes for ants, I feel indeed fortunate to have encountered a tarantula this week, of the same species as Ted recently posted and I didn’t even have to go to Oklahoma for it. This bedraggled individual was at the mouth of its completely flooded burrow in what is most often a very dry habitat — a dolomite glade. Stunned and muddy at the time, my guess is this creature, belonging to a resilient and ancient lineage, will dry off, clean up, and saunter away as soon as she warms up.

Aphonopelma hentzi in flooded burrow

And speaking of emerging from flooded burrows, how about this handsome fellow, a male three-toed box turtle, his sex revealed by his bright orange and red markings, coming up for a breather? In truth, it was perhaps only just warm enough to make him need air, but not really enough so for him to be up and about, so he just sat there, nearly immobile, looking pretty, notwithstanding mud and leaves glued onto his shell.

Male box turtle emerges

Copyright © James C. Trager 2010

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March moths, herps, and beetles

Nature blog carnival time used to be restricted to the beginning of each month – a mensual fix of inverts, birds, berrys, and trees.  Those stalwarts still greet each new month in rough synchrony, but lately a new crop of upstart nature blog carnivals has appeared, all vying to fill that former mid-month lull.  Covering mothsherps, and beetles, they cater to a more specialized audience (despite their subject matter being as diverse as any of the original carnivals).   New editions of these mid-month carnivals are hot off the press, just in time to stock up on fresh reading material for the weekend.

Jason Hogle is my hero!  Intellect, perspective, and artistic talent combine at xenogere to produce some of the most visually and spiritually compelling nature writing available.  In The Moth and Me #9 – the wingless one, Jason unleashes his considerable talents on 15 contributions, weaving them seamlessly into a beautiful story about a wingless moth and its place in The Creation.  Read it and be spellbound, then (after getting over your jealousy of his writing talents) visit the posts for more lepidopterous prose.

John from Kind Of Curious got the lucky draw by hosting House of Herps #4 – St. Patrick’s Edition on St. Patrick’s Day. John notes the ophiological connection to St. Patrick – famed for driving the snakes out Ireland (today seen as an allegory for his conversion of many of the Irish to Christianity) – and then provides scientific reasons for the lack of snakes in Ireland. Nine other contributions round out a menagerie of posts covering snakes, turtles, salamaders, frogs, and toads.

For An Inordinate Fondness (AIF) #2, Amber and AJ at Birder’s Lounge have cleverly adopted a musical theme to honor the coleopterological origin behind the name of the music group, “The Beatles” – complete with song snippets and the irreverent perspective that we have come to expect and adore in their writings. Buzz on over, listen to the music, and let their prose whet your appetites before visiting this month’s eleven contributions.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Clubmoss along the Ozark Trail

It has been a long, hard winter – one of the toughest I can remember during my years here in Missouri in terms of amount and frequency of precipitation and persistent cold temperatures. Tough winters, however, are no deterrent to my favorite wintertime activity – hiking. I’ve mentioned several times the goal of my friend Rich and I to hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail.  We’re at ~250 miles now (more than 2/3 done), thanks to the two 10-mile stretches of the Wappapello Section that we did on the days after Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

Hiking these trails is an opportunity to imagine the Ozark Highlands in their wild, pre-settlement state – expansive hardwood forests covering miles and miles of rugged up-and-down terrain.  Of course, try as I might to pretend otherwise, the Ozarks have changed, and evidence of man’s pervasive presence are everywhere.  Some are overt, such as this mass grave of domestic cattle, dumped by their former owner for others to worry about when disease prevented them from realizing their economic potential.  Others are much more subtle, but to the discriminating naturalist they are everywhere – even in the most pristine-looking of areas.  A cedar-choked glade here, it’s rich, tawny, native warm-season grasses pushed the margins and interspaces; a monotonous, stunted black oak forest there, sprigs of herbaceous plants giving a hint of the diverse understory just waiting for a fire to bring back the more open woodland it needs to thrive.  Settlement has brought with it not only direct impacts to the land, but also changes in its ecology and vegetational character.  Once a fire-mediated landscape with shifting mosaics of bald ridges, grassy woodlands, and riparian forests, a century of logging, grazing, and fire suppression have turned much of the Ozark Highlands into homogenous stands of oak with depauperate mid- and understories.

While loss of diversity has been the overwhelming trend in response to settlement, additions to the state’s flora are also being seen.  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the Ozark Trail sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County, and as we traversed the rugged terrain north to Sam A. Baker State Park, we encountered this most unusual of plants – a clubmoss.  Since they are vascular plants, clubmosses are not really moss (which are non-vascular).  Clubmosses are not flowering plants either, nor do they even produce seeds, reproducing instead by spores – just like ferns, horsetails, and other ‘primitive’ (sorry, Alex!) vascular plants.  Practicing botanists include them in a group known as “fern allies”, meaning that they are not ferns (ferns have multiple branching veins in their delicate fronds, while clubmosses have a single vein in their small, scale-like leaves), but they are somewhat like them.

This particular clubmoss belongs to the genus Lycopodium, or ground cedars – the name obviously derived from the resemblance of their foliage to various gymnospermous plants known as cedars (though completely unrelated) but growing very low to the ground. There are three species of Lycopodium in Missouri (Yatskievych 1999), all confined to the Ozark Highlands and all considered species of conservation concern due to their rarity in the state (Missouri Natural Heritage Program 2010).  Two of these species are highly restricted (designated S1 for “critically imperiled”), boreal species occurring only on moist sandstone bluffs in Ste. Genevieve County as Pleistocene relicts – holdovers from a time when glaciers advanced to within about 50 miles to the north and cool, wet conditions prevailed throughout the rest of the state.  The third species, shown here, is Lycopodium digitatum.  Although more widespread in the cool forests of the northeastern U.S. and Canada, it is apparently expanding its range and was first found in Missouri in 1993.  While still considered uncommon (and accordingly designated S2, or “imperiled”), its range has since expanded to a core of several southeastern Missouri Ozark counties that include Carter, Iron, Madison, Reynolds, and Wayne Counties (Doolen and Doolen 2008).  We found this colony at the base of a moist wooded slope amongst an invading stand of Juniperus virginiana (ironically, called “cedars” by local residents).

“Running ground cedar” has been used as a common name for L. digitatum, most likely due to its habit of spreading by rhizomes – or “runners” – along the soil surface.  From a distance, the spore-producing strobili stood out in bright yellow contrast to the dark glossy green foliage that carpeted the ground – itself in stark contrast with the surrounding brown leaf litter.  It is these club-like strobili from which the common name “clubmoss” is derived, and from a distance of 20 m away I knew instantly that this was something unusual and worthy of investigation.  Despite the gray November skies and cool temperatures, the strobili were actively shedding spores – clouds of yellow dust swirling briefly with each knock of the finger before dissapating into the air.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Carboniferous earth was covered with vast forests of giant clubmosses – extinct relatives of this species that soared to heights of one hundred feet. These giants eventually gave way to new kinds of plants – first the seed-bearing conifers, and later the flowering angiosperms. The giant clubmosses are gone, but their descendents have survived the vastness of time, represented today by these humble, diminutive forms – extant members of an ancient group hiding in the nooks and crannies of the modern flora. I don’t know whether the recent appearance of L. digitatum in the Ozark Highlands is a result of the anthropogenic changes brought upon the area in recent years, but given its ancient, relictual qualities, it is one change in the flora of Missouri that I do not mind.


Doolen, W. and C. Doolen.  2008.  Clubmoss wonders in southeast Missouri.  Perennis, Newsletter of the S.E. Missouri Native Plant Society 1(4):1–2.

Missouri Natural Heritage Program.  2010.  Missouri Species and Communities of Conservation Concern Checklist.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri, 53 pp.

Yatskievych, G. 1999. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, Volume 1. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 991 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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