View from the Col du Soulor, French Pyrénées.

Most of you have probably surmised by now that I’ve been away for the past two weeks.   More specifically, I’ve been in Europe following the Tour de France and testing my own mettle as a cyclist in the French Pyrénées and the streets of Paris.  In the past two weeks, I’ve logged 710 km (I’m too tired to figure out what that is in miles) – most of it in the mountains over the same Cols and descents as this year’s Tour de France.  I’ve climbed (and descended) 10 mountain passes totaling well over 10,000 m of vertical ascent, reached speeds of 75 kph, rubbed elbows with more than 10,000 other cyclists in the 181-km Etape du Tour (finishing in the top 10%), seen six stages of the Tour de France, sought autographs from the world’s top pro cyclists, and sprinted against some seriously fast guys in Paris.  Add gorgeous 200-year old hotels, sumptuous French cuisine, and the comradery of 17 other like-minded individuals (including my lovely wife), and you have the makings of a trip that will not soon be forgotten.

My sincerest thanks to Anne McCormack, Alex Wild, James Trager, and Rich Thoma for filling in for me during my absence with their guest posts here at Beetles in the Bush.  I hope you enjoyed their contributions as much as I did (a safe bet, judging from the many comments their posts generated).  I’m a little bleary-eyed from the trip back home today, but life should return to normal quickly.  My trip was light on natural history – sometimes one has to make choices, and for this trip I decided to maintain cycling as the focus.  The big camera stayed home, and the point-and-shoot was used mostly for capturing race action.  Still, scenes like the one above – taken from the ascent of the Col du Soulor – captivated the natural historian in me and left me wanting to learn more about the unique flora and fauna that must exist in these gorgeous mountains.  Perhaps next time…

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Six beetles Ted still needs for his collection

Today’s guest blogger is longtime friend and insect collecting partner Rich Thoma. Rich and I first met nearly 30 years ago and have been collecting insects together ever since. Rich is a strong advocate for educating children about natural history and has developed some rather fun methods for doing this. His unique sense of humor in doing this is on display in this post.

While Ted’s away, he asked me to fill in for him with an article for Beetles in the Bush.  I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce you to some unique beetle species found in my collection.  All were caught long ago when I first started collecting insects.  Here they are for your enjoyment!

Colorado Mr. Potato Head Beetle (Leptinotarsa decimlineata potatoea)

The Colorado Mr. Potatoe Head Beetle was first discovered by Dan Quayle, ex vice president of the United States cleaning his son’s toy box when the family moved from the vice presidential mansion.  Most entomologists feel this beetle is a subspecies of the very common potato pest, the Colorado Potato beetle.  It has been speculated that a shipment of Mr. Potato Head toys was somehow mixed with a shipment of GMO modified sweet California Russet Potato’s.  The beetles needing a new food source found the hollow, interior of the Mr. Potato head toy to their liking.  Inedible plastics from the toy have been incorporated into the exoskeleton of the beetle.

Lawn Ornament Beetle (Prionus phaenicopterus)

Today the lawn ornament beetle is considered rare.  This insect’s population exploded in the mid- 1900’s when lawn ornaments, particularly pink flamingos were popular.  This Cerambycid was named P. phaenicopterus after the flamingo genus Phaenicopterus in recognition of its strong association with plastic pink flamingos.  Beetle populations have steadily declined as the pink flamingos have decreased in popularity.  There is hope this species may rebound with the increase in other plastic yard items such as lawn chairs and big wheels.

Styrofoam Beetle (Zopherus styrofoamensis)

A common denizen of landfills of the mid-western U.S.,  Z. styrofoamensis is considered a scavenger preferring party garbage, plastic and styrofoam plates and cups.  The white coloration is variable.  Some specimens have only a few small white patches whereas others are nearly all white.  In rare instances the white exoskeleton expands so much that it takes the shape of a packing peanuts.  This explains why this species was overlooked for so long.  Scientists performing landfill research were unaware this species was present due to its exact mimicry of the packing material so often discarded in today’s dumps.   Recent research has shown the white coloration can be directly correlated to the amount of styrofoam eaten.

G.I. Joe Bug (Powella shellensis)

A common denizen of battlefields and army bases around the world.  This dung beetle is known to lay its eggs inside empty bullet shells and then pack it with dung.  Inside the bullet shell, larvae are protected from being crushed by the heaviest of military equipment.  One is likely to find this species any place guns are fired.  Adults have four extremely sensitive, orange and yellow sound sensors on the elytra.  At the sound of a rifle shot, adults fly from miles away towards the sound.  Hundreds of this beetle species can be found, after an army platoon has taken target practice for the day.  The first male to arrive at a bullet shell, quickly rolls it as far away from the noise as possible.  Females are attracted to males that stridulate a sound something like “Ready, Aim, Fire”.

Goodyear Beetle (Ackron firestonei)

This is the first known, genetically enhanced species developed to combat one of the worlds growing refuse problems, tires.  Essentially scientists were able to cross a common scarab beetle with a Mexican jumping bean.  The combination produced a new species capable of consuming rubber.  Scientists quickly released thousands of these beetles into the ever growing, piles of old and used tires found in today’s junkyards.  The tire decomposition program was deemed a complete success.  As so often happens, however, when all the tires in landfills and dumps were consumed, the beetles switched to tires still in use.  There has been a rash of flat tires causing millions in damage.  At its worst, the Goodyear Beetle can consume all four wheels and the spare in less than a week.

Pokemon’s Delight (Picachu lightningae)

This species of beetle is only attracted to flashes of colorful lights such as at fireworks displays and Pokemon reruns.  In flight, the body absorbs the flashes of color and retransmits them, often in technicolor.  Some of the latest fireworks displays have been enhanced by releasing thousands of this beetle prior to the show.  Similar flashes have been observed if a beetle lands on a television screen during a Pokemon show.  The same flashes that cause epileptic seizures in some people, cause this beetle to buzz the national anthem of Mexico.

As with other insects, the species described above are easy to collect if you know how.  Searching museum specimens, one quickly realizes that the only people collecting these insects were all under 12 (as was I when I collected each species).  If you want to collect these beetles, the best opportunities will come if you take along a child.  Children seem to be the only ones who have the imagination to find these beetles.

This is an opportunity to point out that today’s children are being denied the chance to enjoy the outdoors and learn about the wonderful creatures that live there.  For the most part, our education system no longer devotes the time to teach about the plants and animals that occupy our planet.  Even at home, children now spend their free time playing video games and watching TV instead of being outdoors.  Few kids get the chance to walk on a dirt path in the woods or hold any living creature in the palm of their hand.

This is where you, the reader of this blog can make a difference.  You can give our next generation the chance to enjoy the wonders from the creatures that live all around us.  The next time you go out in the field to collect insects, take a kid with you.  Volunteer at a local library, school or park.  All these places cannot exist without volunteers and you have a lot to offer.  It is amazing how much kids will learn about the world around them given the chance.  The surprise in how much you learn in return from them!

Copyright © Richard S. Thoma 2010

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A wiley wasp

[The following is an invited post by Alex Wild of Myrmecos blog]

Little did Ted know that giving me the keys to his beetle blog meant I’d be able  to use his own soapbox to convince everyone that Hymenoptera (the ants, bees, and wasps) are just waaaayyyyy cooler than Coleoptera.

Exhibit A:

Leucopsis sp. ovipositing into a solitary bee nest

Meet Leucospis. This colorful insect, about a centimeter in length, is a parasite of wood-nesting bees and wasps. In this photo she is drilling down through a leafcutter bee nest to lay her egg in one of the bee’s sealed cells. There, her larva will consume the developing bee.

Leucospid wasps aren’t terribly common, so I was rather surprised to see this one on my front porch in downtown Urbana.

The joys of ecological restoration

Indian paintbrush and lousewort now dominate patches of SNR

I moved to Missouri in the summer of 1988, having experienced 8 years of generous support of my family’s livelihood by my research on the infamous imported fire ants of the US Southeast, and their relatives in South America. When I arrived in the Midwest, I  hoped to land a job as an insect taxonomist in a university or museum, a goal of mine since before entering college. But this dream was one that even before moving to Missouri was dimming, and then receded ever further from the realm of possibility for me (and for traditionally trained taxonomists, generally), once here. So, I began to re-think what I might do with my work life. It would be something, I hoped, that would make some use of all the course work (mostly in entomology and botany) and research (on ant systematics) I had done during my 24 years (!) of getting educated and four additional years as a post-doc. As or more important, whatever job I ended up in would somehow have to allow me to share my life-long love of nature with others.

A museum drawer of ant specimens mounted for taxonomic study, the ants no doubt frustrated by the years of inattention they have received as I have tended to the duties of my day job.

Early in my residence in eastern Missouri, I made the acquaintance of the naturalist at a 2500-acre (1000-hectare) nature reserve outside of St. Louis. Shaw Arboretum, as it was then known, is country cousin to the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, and is named after the Garden’s founder Henry Shaw. Long story short, in the summer of 1990 the naturalist mentioned to me that he would soon retire, the position would become available, and that I ought to apply. So I applied, and was hired as the arboretum’s naturalist in January 1991.

A dolomite glade plant endemic to a few counties in eastern Missouri, this leatherflower was established at SNR in the 1930s, but expanded exponentially after prescribed fire was introduced in the 1990s. Here, an ant characteristic of glades and dry prairies forages on the flower.

When I came on board, the “Arboretum” had mostly ceased to be an arboretum (a formal collection of trees for display, breeding and research), and most folks seemed unable to either pronounce or define the word. Indeed we learned, through a public survey, that the strange name and the stone wall in the front actually dissuaded people unfamiliar with it from entering! Yes, there were a few patches of exotic trees scattered around the property, especially in the conifer collection near the front entrance know as the “Pinetum”, but ever since the Garden had decided around 1930 that it would not, afterall move all of its horticultural operations to this then very rural site (the original intent of its purchase), formal arboretum and botanical garden type activities had been few and far between, and the site began gradually reverting from abandoned farmland to a wilder sort of place, as well as a haven for native biota. Thus, on its 75th anniversary in the year 2000, Shaw Arboretum was renamed Shaw Nature Reserve.

Colony-founding queen bumblebees are the primary actors in loosening pollen with ultrasound from shootingstar anthers, and distributing it about the plant population.

Around that time, my title changed too, to “Restoration Biologist”. The job is multifaceted; presenting public programs and classes on various aspects of the site’s natural history, writing and reviewing articles, acting as liaison to the vigorous regional group of academic ecologists who use the site for research and teaching, a very intermittent personal research program on ants resulting in sporadic publications, and last but certainly not least, ecological restoration.

Ecological restoration, in the broad sense, consists of  two primary practices:

  • Restoration of a natural community to structure and species composition presumed characteristic of an  ;;earlier condition (however arbitrary or ill-defined).
  • Reconstruction of regional, native-like habitats, de novo, using locally acquired native plant propagules in the appropriate settings of soil, hydrology,  slope aspect and climate.

Both  require essentially perpetual, follow-up maintenance, including invasive species control, mowing, haying, grazing, selective timber removal, species richness enhancements, and prescribed burning. All of these have many variations and nuances in application, and there can be impassioned arguments about their implementation in the literature, at conferences, and in forums and blogs on ecological restoration, native plants, butterflies, beetles, etc..

An ecologically conservative lily ally of undisturbed moist soil habitats now thrives in prairie plantings at the Reserve.

Attitudes about ecological restoration vary, among practitioners, among sociologists and philosophers, and in the general public. One broad attitudinal schism lies along the lines of  whether ecological restoration activities are some sort of primitivist, grand-scale gardening, or do they represent ecologically valid landscape conservation? Another question some pose is to what extent we should interfere with “natural successsion”? Be this as it may be, most people with functioning sensory perception agree the results can be very beautiful. The loveliness of the mosaic of colors in the herb layer of a spring woodland is inarguable, especially so after it has had its woody stem density reduced, and had the leaf litter burned off, to allow more light, rain and seeds to the soil surface — even where there is genuine concern about damage to invertebrate assemblages residing in forest duff. A waving meadow of grasses and flowers in a tallgrass prairie planting, intended to replace just a few of the tens of millions of acres of this ecosystem that have succumbed to the plow, has its own grand beauty, though its per-square-meter species density of plant species remains less than half that of a native prairie remnant and it is dominated mainly by habitat-generalist insect species rather than prairie specialists, even after 30 or more years.

A self-introduced grassland ant forages among a thriving, human-introduced population of this wet prairie gentian.

The smaller, daily rewards of restoration, to the practicing ecological restorationist and to those who visit his or her work, are many. Over 20 years, in the opened-up woods, restored glades and prairie and wetland plantings at SNR, I repeatedly have enjoyed the “sudden appearance” and increase in populations of ant species (of course) that I never observed during my early years of working at SNR (then scouring it for purposes of preparing an annotated ant list). The feeling I get upon discovering that a grouping of shooting star, royal catchfly, bunch flower or bottle gentian plants, are in bloom at a site where I spread their seeds five, seven, or even ten years earlier is a bit like that one feels when a child is born. The spontaneous colonization of SNR grassland plantings by prairie ragged orchid never fails to amaze me. Bird, or frog, or katydid and cricket songs in a former crop field or pasture, as the “restored” vegetation fills in and matures, is as pleasing to my ear as it is to my soul.

A few days ago (in early July), the director of the Reserve came to my office asking if I had noticed a purply pink, “possibly orchid” flower growing on a section of a berm (planted with native vegetation) in our 32-acre wetland complex. I had not been in the area recently, but headed right out to see what it was. Joyously, and not a little surprised, I learned that seeds of the purple fringeless orchid, sowed at a location nearby 17 years previously, had washed to this site, taken root, and as terrestrial orchids are wont to do, flowered after so many years!

The black-legged greater meadow katydid thrives in low areas and near bodies of water in SNR

The prairie ragged orchid began to appear in old fields and prairie plantings where prescribed burning occurs at SNR. It has not been seen in fields maintained exclusively by mowing or haying.

The purple fringeless orchid surprised the restorationist and St. Louis area botanists by flowering in the SNR wetland area 17 years after the original sowing.

Copyright © James Trager 2010

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Collecting in Australia’s remote McIlwraith range

The following is an invited post by Alex Wild of Myrmecos Blog:

Myrmecologists Gary Alpert & Phil Ward mucking about with magnetic termites. Cape York Peninsula, Australia, 2004.

Ted MacRae so graciously guest blogged for me last week, so I figured it’s time to turn this around and send one Ted’s way. One of the great joys of Beetles in the Bush is Ted’s photojournalistic coverage of various insect collecting adventures. In that vein, I will recount an Australian expedition with famous ant guys Gary Alpert and Phil Ward from back in 2004. I never blogged the trip because, hey, I didn’t blog back then.

Continue reading

Guest Blogger: Dogbane for Dinner

Our guest blogger for today is Anne McCormack. I have known Anne (or known of her) for more than 25 years now, first as a long-time editor of Nature Notes, the journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, and more recently on a personal basis as I, myself, have followed in her editorial footsteps. Anne is an astute naturalist whose breadth of knowledge spans not only botany but also entomology and ornithology, all of which she write about in her own blog at Gardening with Binoculars.

I planted Common Dogbane (Apocynum cannibinum) because some of my butterfly-watching friends reported numbers of juniper hairstreak butterflies on the patch of dogbane at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood. I assumed incorrectly that dogbane was a host plant for hairstreaks, and believing it to be little more than caterpillar food, I placed it in a hot, dry, narrow strip along the driveway. Ragged, caterpillar-chewed leaves wouldn’t be noticed there, and I forgot about it. After a few seasons, it was still a modest-sized clump, but the leaves were in great shape. In fact, it had grown into an attractive bush of airy, elegant lime-green foliage, wine-red stems, and tiny white flowers. It’s quite a contrast to its relative, Common Milkweed, growing next to it, which looks as if it were designed by Dr. Seuss—even before it gets chewed to bits. At this point I decided it was time to look it up and see why it had failed to support hordes of munching caterpillars. As you have already guessed, gentle reader, the Juniper Hairstreak’s host plant is juniper, not dogbane, but good old Common Dogbane is a great nectar plant. Now that Dogbane and I understand each other better, I can appreciate the amount of traffic its tiny white blooms bring in, like this Peck’s Skipper butterfly. Ants, butterflies, tiny native bees, honeybees, and this mason wasp are busy there all day long.

Along with several species of moth, it is the host plant for the Dogbane Beetle, which spends its larval stage devouring the roots and its adulthood dining on the leaves of Dogbane, and nothing but Dogbane. Dogbane Beetle can be confused with Japanese Beetle by beginners like myself, but unlike its fellow Coleopteran, Dogbane Beetle is harmless. That makes its iridescence all the more gorgeous, as shown in this wonderful photo by Courtnay Janiak. It’s a native insect that has shared a long evolutionary history with this under-appreciated native plant. American Indians valued it for its bark, which is tough but peels off in long strips. They plaited it for bowstrings and anything that called for twine; hence, its other common name, Indian Hemp. Don and Lillian Stokes, in their 2002 PBS show about bird watching, demonstrated how birds seek out the dry stems of this perennial, pulling off strips for nests in early spring. Nesting material can be hard to come by for birds in the tidy suburbs, so I don’t clean up the stems after frost. “Bane” in the name refers to the toxin cymarin in the plant’s leaves, though the plant would have to be covered in braunschweiger before my dog would be interested. Edgar Denison, in Missouri Wildflowers, translates the genus name Apocynum as “away dog.” The species name cannibinum refers to hemp. Its seedpods remind me of French green beans. These split at the end of the season, and the seeds fly away on fibers similar to milkweed seeds. Collect some and try this plant in your butterfly or native plant garden. Give it a spot where it’s easy to watch the colorful visitors.

Dogbane beetle (Chrysochus auratus) - Copyright © Courtnay Janiak

Copyright © Anne McCormack 2010

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Special Delivery

Entomology is, of course, a wide and varied discipline that touches any number of human endeavors – from the practical (agriculture, food production, public health) to the esoteric (genetics, ecology, cultural symbolism).  Despite this far-reach, however, entomologists themselves are not all that common, and the number of people who know a fair amount about insects without actually being an entomologist is rather small.  Compare this to ornithology, where the number of people who know a good deal about birds exceeds by great measure the number of actual ornithologists.  This is merely an observation and not a criticism – insects are just simply too small and too diverse for most lay people to even attempt identification.  That’s good for me, as those who have an interest in insects but not the expertise to identify them often turn to me for help.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been “the bug guy” at social gatherings, often leading to questions such as, “I’ve got this green bug on my bushes – what is it?”  Sometimes the insect or its situation are described well enough that I can offer a guess (just a guess!), more often I can only say, “I’d have to see it to know for sure.”  Despite not always being able to answer the question, I really do enjoy serving as this very direct link between the science of entomology and the general public, as it gives me a chance to present insects and their study in a favorable light and with a sense of passion.

The level of this interaction has increased greatly during the past two years since launching Beetles in the Bush.  Now, my “clients” include not just family, friends, their friends, etc., but an unrestricted internet audience.  I am regularly contacted by those who stumble upon this blog during a Google search in their attempt to identify some insect they’ve encountered.  Again, I’m not always able to answer their queries, but I do try to offer my best guess.  Such was the case recently when I was contacted by a resident of southwestern Missouri, who had this to say:

While messing around here in the yard this morning I came upon a beetle I thought interesting. First time I have seen one like this. I Have a Simon and Schusters Guide to insects guide and attempted to look up the beetle. Closest thing I could find was a flat-headed borer (BUPRESTIS GIBBSI) from the Pacific Northwest. Emerald green with yellow slash or stripe along the side of the head. four matching yellow spots on the wing covers, first pair closest to the front of the covers elongated. Second set smaller, third set smaller yet and then tiny sopts on the wing cover tips. Yellow center pattern along the bottom from head to tail. Bettle length almost 2.5 cm. I am not much of a insect man but when I get something stuck in my head I need to know what I have. Can you help me and if you do not have one in your collection do you want this one?

This is perhaps the best, most detailed description of an insect I’ve ever received from a non-specialist wanting an identification, but the reference to it resembling Buprestis gibbsii was enough to immediately bring to mind an eastern U.S. relative – B. rufipes.  I responded that it was likely the latter, and since they had offered to send it to me I would be happy to receive it and confirm its identity.  I instructed them to wrap the beetle loosely in a square of toilet paper, put that in a film canister or other small, sturdy box, and slip that inside a padded envelope and mail it to me.  A few days later a small padded envelope arrived at my office, and inside was a film canister.  I popped the lid to find it stuffed full with tissue paper, but I noted that the tissue seemed all chewed up.  I pulled out the tissue and unfolded it, and there was no beetle – oh no, was it alive, and did it chew it’s way out?  I looked inside the canister, almost expecting to see a hole chewed though it, and there at the bottom sat a most stunning example of B. rufipes (literally meaning red-legged buprestis).  I hadn’t expected the specimen to be sent alive when I gave my mailing instructions (but I did not, after all, specify that it should be otherwise), and I felt a little sorry for the beast when I saw it drinking eagerly after I put it in a terrarium with wood chips and a stick and misted it with water.  Once it was rehydrated, I was glad to have this unexpected opportunity to photograph a living individual of this beautiful species.

Buprestis rufipes is not a rare species, but it is certainly not very commonly encountered either.  For many years the only specimens in my collectioni were two dead adults that I found in Japanese beetle traps that I monitored during my early days with the Department of Agriculture.  I finally cued into this species when I chopped some big buprestid larvae out of the trunk sapwood of a very large, standing dead slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).  They resembled the larvae of Chrysobothris but were larger and not so flattened, so I retrieved my chain saw from the truck and extricated the lower 6ft of the 6-8″ diameter trunk from the swamp in which it was growing.  My efforts were rewarded with a nice series of this species, and I have since reared it from even larger trunk sections of Acer saccharum and Quercus palustris. In each case, the wood was in early stages of decay with the bark partly sloughed and the outer wood layer slightly softened (MacRae and Nelson 2003, MacRae 2006). Knull (1925) recorded this species breeding in a variety of other hardwoods, thus, it would seem that the size and condition of the wood are more important than the species.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (1/4 power).
Photos 1-2: f/13, indirect flash in white box.
Photo 3: f/16, double diffused flash.
Typical post-processing (minor cropping, levels and unsharp mask).


Knull, J. N. 1925. The Buprestidae of Pennsylvania (Coleoptera). Ohio State University Studies 2(2):1–71.

MacRae, T. C., and G. H. Nelson. 2003. Distributional and biological notes on Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North and Central America and the West Indies, with validation of one species. The Coleopterists Bulletin57(1):57–70.

MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxiaviridicornis (Say) and A. (H.) viridfrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Friday Flower – Cleft Phlox

In a recent edition of my Friday Flower series I featured Tradescantia longipes (dwarf spiderwort or wild crocus), an exquisite Ozark endemic found scattered in dry igneous woodlands of the Missouri’s St. Francois Mountains and Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains and that I had seen this past April at Sam Baker State Park. Growing alongside these beautiful plants was this equally exquisite plant bearing strikingly cleft petals on its blossoms.  I recognized it clearly as some type of phlox, but not one that I recalled having seen before.  There is good reason for this, as a quick check of Steyermark (1963) revealed this to be Phlox bifida, which, though not a true Ozark endemic, is known from just a handful of Missouri counties where it grows typically in dry, rocky soils of upland woods, ravine slopes and bluff ledges.  Commonly called cleft phlox or sand phlox, the strongly cleft (bifid) petals distinguish it from other species in the genus and, not surprisingly, are the basis for its species name.  This is another plant that would seem to make a good choice for a native wildflower garden, as it can perform very well in cultivation.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (diffused 1/4 power), typical post-processing (levels, unsharp mask).


Steyermark, J. A. 1963. Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames. 1728 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

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