Arkansas/Oklahoma Insect Collecting Trip “iReport”—Rich and Ted’s excellent adventure

This is the seventh “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a 5-day trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma from June 7–11, 2019 with my friend and local collecting buddy Richard Thoma. As with all previous “iReports” in this series, this one too is illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs.

Previous iReports include the following
2013 Oklahoma
2013 Great Basin
2014 Great Plains
2015 Texas
2018 New Mexico/Texas
2018 Arizona

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…and so it begins!

Day 1 – Ozark National Forest, vic. Calico Rock, Arkansas
It’s been many years since I’ve visited these sandstone glades overlooking the White River near Calico Rock. Conditions were partly sunny when we arrived, but water on the ground suggested rain earlier in the day. We had only a short time to start exploring before the wind started blowing up and the smell of rain filled the air. I did manage to beat one Amniscus sexguttata from a branch of living Pinus echinata and collect a couple of Strigoderma sp. from Coreopsis lanceolata flowers before steady rain forced us to retreat.

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White River near Calico Rock, Arkansas—before the rain.
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White River near Calico Rock, Arkansas—rain’s a comin’!

Day 2 – Ouachita National Forest, Winding Stair Campground & Ouachita Trail, Oklahoma
We walked the trail from the campground S about 2½ miles and back. I started off with Acmaeodera tubulus on Krigia sp. flowers, eventually finding a lot of them on this plant at higher elevations along with a single Acmaeodera ornata, and I beat a few Agrilus cepahlicus off of Cornus drummondii. This had me thinking it would be a good buprestid day, but it wasn’t, the only other species collected being some Chrysobothris cribraria off of small dead Pinus echinata saplings and Pachyschelus laevigatus on Desmodium sp. Also beat a few miscellaneous insects off of Cercis canadensis and Vaccineum arborea and swept some from grasses and other herbaceous plants. Back at the campground I collected Chrysobothris dentipes on the sunny trunks of large, live Pinus echinata trees.

Emerald Vista, along the Talihema Scenic Drive.
Acmaeodera tubulus on flower of Rosa carolina.
Acmaeodera tubulus on flower of Rosa carolina.
Canthon sp.
Apheloria virginiensis reducta (ID by Derek Hennen).
The biggest cairn I’ve ever seen.

Ouachita National Forest, Talimena Scenic Dr at Big Cedar Vista, Oklahoma
There were lots of native wildflowers like Coreopsis tinctoria and Ratibida columnifera in bloom, so we stopped to check them out. There were lots of butterflies, however, I found only a single Typocerus zebra on Coreopsis lanceolata.

View south from Talimena Scenic Drive at Big Cedar Vista.
Coreopsis tinctoria (plains coreopsis).
Ratibida columnifera (upright prairie coneflower).

Ouachita National Forest, Winding Stair Campground, Oklahoma
We returned to the campground in the evening to do some blacklighting. I had high hopes, but only five cerambycids came to the lights, all represented by a single individual: Monochamus carolinensis, Acanthocinus obsoletus, Amniscus sexguttatus, Eutrichillus biguttatus, and Leptostylus tranversus (the first four are pine-associates). I also picked up a few other miscellaneous insects.

Rich processes the day’s catch as the blacklight hums in the background.

Day 3 – Medicine Park Primitive Campground, Oklahoma
There wasn’t much insect activity going on in eastern Oklahoma, so we drove out west to the Wichita Mountains for hopefully better luck. We found a small park with a primitive campground in the city of Medicine Park—my first thought was to beat the post oaks dotting the campground, but when I went into the native prairie between the campground and the creek I never came out! Right away I found what must be Acmaeodera ornatoides on flowers of Opuntia sp., then I found more on flowers of Gallardia pulchella along with Acmaeodera mixta. The latter were also on flowers of Thelesperma filifolium along with Acmaeodera neglecta—took a nice series of each, and I also got a few of the latter on flowers of Coreopsis grandiflora. Strangalia sexnotata were on flowers of C. tinctoria and Torilis arvensis, and then on the latter plant I saw a male Strangalia virilis—a Texas/Oklahoma specialty that I’ve never collected before! I spent the next hour looking for these guys and ended up with 3 males and 2 females along with a few Trichiotinus texanus—another Texas/Oklahoma specialty—and a single Agrilaxia sp. nr. flavimana (could be A. texana). One single Typocerus octonotatus was on flowers of Achillea millefolium. I think we may come back here tomorrow—I’d like to look for more S. virilis and beat the post oaks (the reason we stopped here to begin with).

A cacophony of native wildflowers!
An orgy of Euphoria kernii (Kern’s flower scarab) in Opuntia sp. flower. Multiple color forms exist for this species.
At first I thought this was a type of hover fly (family Syrphidae), but eventually I determined it to be Esenbeckia incisuralis, a horse fly (family Tabanidae)—incredible emerald green eyes!
Papilio polyxenes asterius (black swallowtail) caterpillar.
Echinocereus reichenbachii baileyi (lace hedgehog cactus).

Lake Lawtonka nr. Ma Ballou Point, Oklahoma
We stumbled into this area while looking for stands of Sapindus drummondii (soapberry)—found a small stand along the road, but it was too inaccessible. The same diversity of blooms were present as at the previous spot, so I picked a few longhorns off flowers of Coreopsis grandiflora and Gaillardia pulchella. Super windy, so we didn’t stay long.

View across Lake Lawtonka from Ma Ballou Point.
Neochlamisus sp. (case-bearing leaf beetle) larvae inside their “casas de caca” on Monarda fistulosa (bee balm).
I believe this is Harrisina coracina, a leaf skeletonizer in the family Zygaenidae. Both BugGuide and the Moth Photographers Group show records only from Texas.

Day 4 – Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
Before starting the day’s collecting, we wanted to go into the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge to have a look around. On the way into the refuge we some American bison near the road and had to stop, take photos, and simply admire these massive, majestic beasts. We then went to the Cedar Plantation, where I had visited before back in 2012 and photographed black individuals of Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle). No tiger beetles were out now (they come out in the fall), but I’d hoped to maybe see Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) along the 2-tracks in the area. No such luck—nevertheless, we saw a myriad of interesting insects, including several more Esenbeckia incisuralis (green-eyed horse flies) and a beautiful Trichodes bibalteatus (checkered beetle), the latter of which I photographed on flowers of Ratibida columnifera and Achillea millefolium with the big camera. Afterwards we visited the “prairie dog town” and got marvelous views and photographs of black-tailed prairie dogs.

Native American wildlife on a native American landscape.
American bison (Bison bison bison).
Wichita Mountains from Cedar Plantation.
Acmaeodera mixta on flower of Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan).
Typocerus octonotatus on inflorescence of Achillea millefolium (yarrow).
Strangalia sexnotatus on flower of Ratibida pinnata (gray coneflower)
Trichodes bibalteatus on flower of Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan).
Trichodes bibalteatus on flower of Ratibida pinnata (gray coneflower)
The author walks a bison trail through the Cedar Plantation.
Black-tailed prairie dog at its burrow entrance.
“Watch you lookin’ at, Willis?!”
Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).

Medicine Park, Jack Laughter Park, Oklahoma
We’d noticed this spot yesterday because of the old post oaks and wealth of wildflowers blooming up the mountainside. There wasn’t much going on today, however—just a few Acmaeodera mixta on flowers of Gaillardia pulchella. I did find an Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) sp. on my arm! Otherwise I spent some time photographing the landscape and some geometrid larvae on flowers of Gaillardia pulchella.

Opuntia sp. (prickly-pear cactus) amidst rocky exposures.
Small Oncoptus fasciatus (large milkweed bugs) nymphs colonize seed pods of Asclepias asperula (antelope-horns).

Medicine Park Primitive Campground, Oklahoma
We returned to this spot since we had so much luck yesterday. I was hoping to collect more Acmaeodera ornatoides and Strangalia virilis, but there was much less going on today than yesterday—basically didn’t see anything for the first hour and a half. I didn’t give up, however, and kept checking the area where we saw most of the S. virilis yesterday, and eventually I saw another male in the same area as yesterday on the same stand of Torilis arvensis. I found two more males in the same area over the next hour, so three males on the day was a good reward for the time spent looking for them. I also collected Trichodes apivorus and Trichiotinus texanus on flowers of Allium sp. Interestingly, beating the post oaks—the reason why I originally wanted to stop here—produced nothing. So, not very many specimens on the day, but happy with those I did get.

Thelesperma filifolium (stiff greenthread).
Coreopsis grandiflora (large-flowered tickseed).
Gaillardia pulchella (firewheel).
Coreopsis tinctoria (plains coreopsis).
Torilis arvensis (erect hedge parsley), introduced.
Opuntia sp. (prickly-pear cactus).
Opuntia sp. (prickly-pear cactus).
Allium sp. (wild onion).

Medicine Park, Jack Laughter Park, Oklahoma
I was pretty much done for the day after spending all morning at the refuge and most of the afternoon at the previous spot, but Rich wanted to take another look at Jack Laughter Park because he’d found some interesting grasshoppers there. As with earlier in the day there were few beetles of interest to me, but I did collect a couple of Trichiotinus texanus on flowers of Cirsium undulatum. I checked out some large post oaks with large dead branches thinking that might be what Strangalia virilis was breeding in but never saw any, and eventually I turned my attention to photographing a few interesting native plants that I found along the way.

Krameria lanceolata (trailing krameria).
Cirsium undulatum (wavyleaf thistle or gray thistle) inflorescence.

Cirsium undulatum (wavyleaf thistle or gray thistle) can be distinguished by its wavy leaves that are gray-green on both upper and lower surfaces.

Day 5 – Epilogue
We were tempted to do one last little bit of collecting on the way back to St. Louis, but since had pretty good luck during the last couple of days and the drive alone would take more than nine hours we decided to leave well enough alone and get home at a reasonable hour. A walk with Beauregard when I got home to stretch the post-drive legs was the perfect way to end the mini-vacation.


©️ Ted C. MacRae 2019

2014 Great Plains Collecting Trip iReport

During the past year or so I’ve followed up my longer (one week or more) insect collecting trips with a synoptic “iReport”—so named because they are illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs. It may come as a surprise to some, but iPhones actually take pretty good pictures (especially if you pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses), and their small, compact size makes it easy to take lots of photos while trying to use time in the field wisely. I find the iPhone to be a great tool for documenting the general flavor of a trip and for taking quick photos of subjects before getting out the big rig. I will, of course, feature photographs taken with the ‘real’ camera in future posts.

For this trip, I teamed up with Jeff Huether for the third time since 2012. Our quarry for this trip was longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) in the genus Prionus. Larvae of these beetles are subterranean, with some species feeding on roots of woody plants and others on roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants. Among the latter are an array of species occurring in the Great Plains, many of which have been very uncommonly collected. However, in recent years lures have been produced that are impregnated with prionic acid—the principal component of sex pheromones emitted by females in the genus. Originally produced for use in commercial orchards (which are sometimes attacked by P. laticollis in the east and P. californicus in the west), these lures are proving themselves to be useful for us taxonomist-types who wish to augment the limited amount of available material of other, non-economic species in the genus. While Prionus was our main goal, rest assured that I did not pass on the opportunity to find and photograph other beetles of interest.

I began the trip by driving from St. Louis to Wichita, Kansas to meet up with Jeff, who had flown there from his home in upstate New York. Our plan was to visit sites in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, where several of the Prionus spp. that we were looking for were known to occur. Before doing this, however, we stopped in Hardtner, Kansas to see “Beetle Bill” Smith and tour his amazing natural history tribute, Bill and Janet’s Nature Museum.

"Beetle" Bill Smith, founder of Bill & Janet's Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

“Beetle Bill” Smith, founder of Bill & Janet’s Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

After the tour (and a delicious lunch at his house of fried crappie prepared by his wife Janet), we headed west of town and then south just across the state line into Oklahoma to a spot where Bill had found a blister beetle (family Meloidae) that Jeff was interested in finding. During lunch I mentioned a jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) that I had looked for in the area several times, but which had so far eluded me—Buprestis confluenta. Emerald green with a dense splattering of bright yellow flecks on the elytra, it is one of North America’s most striking jewel beetles and is known to breed in the trunks of dead cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). Bill mentioned that he had collected this species at the very spot where we were going, and when we arrived I was enticed by the sight of a cottonwood grove containing several large, dead standing trunks—perfect for B. confluenta.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

I searched for more than one hour without seeing the species, though I did find a few individuals of the related (and equally striking) B. rufipes on the trunks of the large, dead trees. Once that amount of time passes I’m no longer really expecting to see what I’m looking for, but suddenly there it was in all of its unmistakable glory! It would be the only individual seen despite another hour of searching, but it still felt good for the first beetle of the trip to be one I’d been looking for more than 30 years!

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta, on large, dead Populus deltoides trunk | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

Buprestis confluenta, on the trunk of a large, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

I usually wait until near the end of a collecting trip to take the requisite selfie, but on this trip I was sporting new headgear and anxious to document its maiden voyage. My previous headgear of choice, a vintage Mambosok (impossible to get now), finally disintegrated after 20 years of field use, and on the way out-of-town I picked up a genuine Buff® do-rag. I know many collectors prefer a brim, but I don’t like they way brims limit my field of vision or get in the way when I’m using a camera. Besides, I’m usually looking down on the ground or on vegetation, so sun on my face is not a big issue. And do I be stylin’ or wut?

A "selfie" makes the trip official.

A “selfie” makes the trip official.

We made it to our first locality in southeast Colorado by noon the next day—the vast, dry grasslands north of Las Animas. Jeff had collected a blister beetle of interest here on an earlier trip, but as I looked out across the desolate landscape I wondered what on Earth I could find here that would be even remotely interesting to me.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Letting Jeff have some time to look for his blister beetle, I started down the roadside and after a short time found a live female Prionus sp. (later determined to represent P. integer). The only female Prionus I had ever collected before was P. heroicus, a giant species out in Arizona, and that was almost 30 years ago, so I wasn’t immediately sure what it was. Eventually I decided it must be Prionus, and a quick stop to kick the dirt while Jeff looked for his beetle turned into an intense search for more Prionus that surely were there. I did find two male carcasses shortly thereafter, and then nothing more was seen for the next hour or so.

Prionus integer male | Bent Co., Colorado

Prionus integer male (found dead) | Bent Co., Colorado

During the time that I was searching, however, I started noticing strange burrows in the ground. I excavated a few—they were shallow but contained nothing. Nevertheless, they matched the size of the beetles perfectly—surely there was a connection?

Prionus integer adult burrow.

Prionus integer adult burrow.

I wondered if Jeff knew about the beetles occurring here, but when I showed him what I had found the surprised look on his face told me this was not the case. I showed him the burrows, and we both agreed they had to be connected. I got the shovel out of the truck and walked back to the area where I had seen the live female, then sunk the shovel deep into the ground next to one of the burrows and pried up a chuck of the soil containing the burrow in its entirety. As we broke apart the soil another female was revealed, and we immediately decided to set out some traps baited with prionic acid lures. We expected the beetles to become active during dusk, so we went into town to get something to eat and then check out another nearby locality before returning to the site at dusk. While we were gone it rained heavily at the site, so we weren’t sure if or how this would affect beetle activity and their possible attraction to the traps. However, as we approached the site (slipping and sliding on the muddy 2-track), we could actually see beetles crawling on the road from afar. What we found when we got out of the car was nothing short of mind-blowing—the beetles were everywhere, crawling on the road, crawling through the grass, and overflowing in the flooded traps! The vast majority were males, as expected, but we also found a fair number of the much more rarely collected females. This was significant, as the chance to observe mating and oviposition behavior made the encounter far more informative than if we had only found and collected the much more numerous males.

Prionus integer mating pair.

Prionus integer mating pair.

The following day we headed south into northeastern New Mexico to look at some shortgrass prairie sites near Gladstone (Union Co.) where two species of Prionus had been collected in recent years: P. fissicornis (the lone member of the subgenus Antennalia) and P. emarginatus (one of eight species in the poorly known subgenus Homaesthesis, found primarily in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains). Fresh off of our experience the previous day, we were on the lookout for any suspicious looking “burrows” as we checked the roadsides at several spots in the area but found nothing, and while a few blister beetles piqued the interest of Jeff at one site, the complete absence of woody vegetation or flowering plants in general in the stark grassland landscape made the chances of me finding any other woodboring beetles remote. Eventually I became distracted by the lizards that darted through the vegetation around us, including this lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata) and a collared lizard (better photos of both forthcoming).

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Despite no clues to suggest that Prionus beetles were active in the area, we set out some traps at two sites with soil exposures that seemed similar to those seen the day before. As Jeff set the last pair of traps in place, my distraction with saurian subjects continued with a dusty hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus gloydi). While photographing the animal I looked down to my side, and what did I see but a male Prionus fissicornis crawling through the vegetation! I called out to Jeff, and for the next half an hour or so we scoured the surrounding area in a failed attempt to find more. We would not be back until the next morning to check the traps, so our curiosity about how abundant the beetles might be would have to wait another 18 hours. We cast an eye towards the north and watched late afternoon thunderstorms roll across the expansive landscape and decided to check out the habitat in nearby Mills Rim.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

The rocky terrain with oak/pine/juniper woodlands at Mills Rim was a dramatic contrast to the gently rolling grasslands of the surrounding areas. We came here mostly out of curiosity, without any specific goal, but almost immediately after getting out of the car a huge Prionus male flew up to us—almost surely attracted by the scent of the lures we were carrying. Within a few minutes another male flew in, and then another. Because of their huge size and occurrence within oak woodland habitat, we concluded they must represent P. heroicus, more commonly encountered in the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona. We stuck around to collect a few more, but as dusk approached we returned to the surrounding grasslands to set out some lures to see if we could attract other Prionus species. The frontal system that had waved across the landscape during the afternoon had left in its wake textured layers of clouds, producing spectacular colors as the sun sank inexorably below the horizon.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

This attempt to collect grassland Prionus beetles would not be successful, and as dusk progressed we became distracted collecting cactus beetles (Moneilema sp., family Cerambycidae) from prickly pear cactus plants (Opuntia sp.) before darkness ended our day’s efforts. This did not mean, however, that all of our efforts were done—there are still night active insects, and in the Great Plains what better nocturnal insect to look for than North America’s largest tiger beetle, the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis, family Cicindelidae—or subfamily Cicindelinae—or supertribe Cicindelitae, depending on who you talk to)?! We kept our eyes on the headlamp illuminated 2-track as we drove back to the highway and then turned down another road that led into promising looking habitat. Within a half-mile of the highway we saw one, so I got out to pick it up and then started walking. I walked another half-mile or so on the road but didn’t see anything except a few Eleodes darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae), then turned around and walked the habitat alongside the road on the way back. As I walked, tiny little rodents—looking like a cross between a mouse and a vole—flashed in and out of my headlight beam as they hopped and scurried through the vegetation in front of me. Most fled frantically in response to my attempted approach, but one, for some reason, froze long enough under my lamp to allow me this one photo. When I posted the photo on my Facebook page, opinions on its identity ranged from kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) silky pocket mouse (Perognathus flavus) to jumping mouse (Zapus sp.). Beats me.

silky pocket mouse? Zapus sp., jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Kangaroo rat? Silky pocket mouse? Jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Almost as if by command, it rained during the early evening hours where we had set the traps, and the following morning we were rewarded with traps brimming with Prionus fissicornis males. Not only were the traps full, but males were still running around in the vicinity, and we even found a few females, one of which was in the act of ovipositing into the soil at the base of a plant.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Eventually P. fissicornis activity subsided, and we decided to go back to the area around Mills Rim to see what beetles we might find in the woodland habitats. We also still were not sure about the Prionus beetles we had collected there the previous day and whether they truly represented P. heroicus. The scrubby oaks and conifers screamed “Beat me!”, and doing so proved extraordinarily productive, with at least a half-dozen species of jewel beetles collected—including a nice series of a rather large Chrysobothris sp. from the oaks that I do not recognize and a single specimen of the uncommonly collected Phaenops piniedulis off of the pines.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Not only is the scenery at Mills Rim Campground beyond spectacular, it also boasts some of the most adoringly cute reptiles known to man—such as this delightfully spiky horned lizard (I prefer the more colloquial name “horny toad”!). I’m probably going to regret not having photographed this fine specimen with the big camera.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Fresh diggings beside a rock always invite a peek inside. You never know who might be peeking out.

Who's home?

Who’s home?

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

The trip having reached the halfway point, we debated whether to continue further south to the sand dunes of southern New Mexico (with its consequential solid two-day drive back to Wichita) or turn back north and have the ability to collect our way back. We chose the latter, primarily because we had not yet had a chance to explore the area around Vogel Canyon south of Las Animas, Colorado. We had actually planned to visit this area on the day we encountered P. integer in the shortgrass prairie north of town, and a quick visit before going back to check the traps that evening showed that the area had apparently experienced good rains as shown by the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) in full bloom.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Whenever I see cholla plants I can’t help myself—I have to look for cactus beetles (Moneilema spp.). It had rained even more since our previous visit a few days ago, and accordingly insects were much more abundant. Several Moneilema adults were seen on the cholla, one of which I spent a good bit of time photographing. The iPhone photo below is just a preview of the photos I got with the big camera (which also included some very impressive-sized cicadas—both singing males and ovipositing females). The cactus spines impaled in the camera’s flash control unit serve as a fitting testament to the hazards of photographing cactus insects!

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

Later in the afternoon we hiked down into the canyon itself, and while insects were active we didn’t find much out of the ordinary. We did observe some petroglyphs on the sandstone walls of the canyon dating from the 1200s to the 1700s—all, sadly, defaced by vandals. Despite the rather uninspiring collecting, we stayed in the area for two reasons: 1) Jeff wanted to setup blacklights at the canyon head in hopes of collecting a blister beetle that had been caught there on an earlier trip, and 2) I had noted numerous Amblycheila larval burrows in the area (and even fished out a very large larva from one of them) and wanted to search the area at night to see if I could find adults. Jeff was not successful in his goal, and for a time I thought I would also not succeed in mine until we closed up shop and started driving the road out of the canyon. By then it was after 11 p.m. and we managed to find about a half-dozen A. cylindriformis adults. This was now the third time that I’ve found adults of this species, and interestingly all three times I’ve not seen any beetles despite intense searching until after 11 p.m and up until around midnight.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

The next morning we found ourselves with two days left in the trip but several hundred miles west of Wichita, where I needed to drop Jeff off for his flight back home before I continued on home to St. Louis. I had hoped we could make it to the Glass Mountains just east of the Oklahoma panhandle to see what Prionus species might be living in the shortgrass prairies there (and also to show Jeff this remarkable place where I’ve found several new state records over the past few years). As we headed in that direction, I realized our path would take us near Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma pandhandle, and having been skunked on my first visit to the area last year due to dry conditions but nevertheless intrigued by its very un-Oklahoma terrain and habitat I suggested we stop by the area and have a look around before continuing on to the Glass Mountains. We arrived in the area mid-afternoon and headed straight for a rock outcropping colonized by scrub oak (Quercus sp.) and pinyon pine (Pinus sp.)—very unusual for western Oklahoma—that I had found during my previous trip.

The author looks pensively out over the Black Mesa landscape.

The area around Black Mesa couldn’t be more unlike the perception that most people have of Oklahoma.

I wanted to beat the oaks for buprestids—surely there would be a state record or two just sitting there waiting for me to find them, but as I started walking from the car towards the oaks the approach of a loud buzz caught my attention. I turned around to see—would you believe—a large Prionus beetle circling the air around me and was fortunate to net it despite its fast and agile flight. I hurried back to the car to show Jeff what I had found; we looked at each other and said, “Let’s collect here for a while.” The beetle had apparently been attracted to the lures in the car, so we got them out, set them up with some traps, and went about beating the oaks and watching for beetles to fly to the lure. Sadly, no  jewel beetles were collected on the oaks, although I did find evidence of their larval workings in some dead branches (which were promptly collected for rearing). Every once in a while, however, a Prionus beetle would fly in, apparently attracted to the lure but, curiously, never flying directly to it and falling into the trap. Many times they would land nearby and crawl through the vegetation as if searching but never actually find the trap. However, just as often they would approach the trap in flight and not land, but rather continue circling around in the air for a short time and before suddenly turning and flying away (forcing me to watch forlornly as they disappeared in the distance). Based on their very large size, blackish coloration and broad pronotum, we surmised (and later confirmed) these must also be P. heroicus, despite thinking (and later confirming) that the species was not known as far east as Oklahoma. Not only had we found a new state record, but we had also recorded a significant eastern range extension for the species. And to think that we only came to Black Mesa because I wanted to beat the oaks!

Prionus heroicus male

Prionus heroicus male

Bite from Prionus heroicus male.

Proof that Prionus heroicus males can bite hard enough to draw blood!

We each collected a nice series of the beetles, and despite never witnessing the beetles actually going to the traps a few more were found in the traps the next morning after spending the night in a local bed & breakfast. I also found a dove’s nest with two eggs hidden in the vegetation, and as we were arranging for our room at the bed & breakfast a fellow drove up and dropped off a freshly quarried dinosaur footprint (the sandstone, mudstone, and shale deposits around Black Mesa are the same dinosaur fossil bearing deposits made more famous at places like Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument).

Dove's nest w/ eggs.

Dove’s nest w/ eggs.

Dinosaur fossil footprint

Freshly quarried dinosaur fossil footprint

By the way, if you ever visit the area, the Hitching Post at Black Mesa is a great place to stay. A longhorn skull on the barn above an authentic 1882 stagecoach give a hint at the ambiance, and breakfast was almost as good as what my wife Lynne can do (almost! 🙂 ).

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

132-year-old stagecoach - model!

132-year-old stagecoach – model!

After breakfast we contemplated the long drive that lay between us and our arrival in Wichita that evening—our longer than expected stay in the area had virtually eliminated the possibility to collect in the Glass Mountains. Nevertheless, there was one more thing that I wanted to see before we left—the dinosaur footprints laying in a trackway along Carrizo Creek north of the mesa. I only knew they were in the area based on a note on a map, but as there were no signs our attempt to find them the previous day was not successful. Armed with detailed directions from the B&B owners, however, we decided to give it one more shot. Again, even after we found the site I didn’t see them immediately, I suppose because I was expecting to see distinct depressions in dry, solid rock. Only after the reflections of light from an alternating series of small puddles—each measuring a good 10–12″ in diameter—did I realize we had found them. Recent rains had left the normally dry creek bed filled with mud, with the footprints themselves still filled with water.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

It is not surprising that I would be so excited to find the tracks, but what did surprise me was the effect they had on me. Seeing the actual signs of near mythical beasts that lived an incomprehensible 100 million years ago invites contemplation and reminds us that our time here on Earth has, indeed, been short!

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

By this time, we had no choice but to succumb to the long drive ahead. We did manage to carve out a short stop at the very first locality of the trip in an effort to find more Buprestis confluens (finding only a few more B. rufipes), but otherwise the day was spent adhering to our goal of reaching Wichita before nightfall. Jeff was home and sipping tea before lunchtime the next day, while I endured one more solid day of driving before making it back to St. Louis in time for dinner with the family. At that point, the trip already could have been considered a success, but how successful it ultimately ends up being depends on what beetles emerge during the next season or two from these batches of infested wood that I collected at the various spots we visited.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

If you like this Collecting Trip iReport, you might also like the iReports that I posted for my 2013 Oklahoma and 2013 Great Basin collecting trips as well.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Skulls on my desk

Even though I am a scientist working in an organization with hundreds of other scientists, I can lay claim to one true uniquity—I am the only one I know of that has a skull on their desk! Six, actually. They’re not real (sadly), but their impact on most first-time visitors to my office is no less amusing. Typically the first question is, “What are those?”—to which my standard reply is, “Those are former colleagues with which I’ve had problems.” Maybe that is a little mean, but it usually gets a laugh (sometimes nervous). Hey, if somebody doesn’t understand my sense of humor, they’ll have to learn sooner or later.

¹ In anthropology, most of these would actually be called “crania” (skull minus associated mandible) rather than skulls. We can be less pedantic here.

I am, of course, talking about my collection of hominid fossil replicas. Yes, I am an entomologist, but I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with paleoanthropology and human evolution. Actually, I think my broad interest in multiple disciplines is rather typical of those who are drawn to the natural sciences, so it surprises me that there aren’t more scientists where I work with a skull on their desk. After all, this was a common practice among ancient scholars as a reminder of their mortality. My reasons for having skulls on my desk are less philosophical—I just like having replicas of some of paleoanthropology’s most important fossil hominid finds. They are icons of a subject that couldn’t be more relevent—our own origins. Just as nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in human society makes sense except in the light of human evolution. The skulls are a reminder of not just who we are, but why we are.


Taung 1, “Taung Child”

Taung 1, "Taung Child"

Taung 1, “Taung Child” (Australopithecus africanus) | Taung, Republic of South Africa, 2.8 mya

The “Taung Child” is thought to be a 3-year-old child representing Australopithecus africanus (which means “southern ape of Africa”). Discovered in 1924, it was the first hominid fossil discovered that, while definitely not a member of our own genus, could still be argued as somewhat human. Nevertheless, it would take another 20 years—once other, adult, specimens were discovered in southern Africa—before A. africanus would begin gaining acceptance in the scientific community.

The significance of the Taung Child was that it provided fossilized evidence of upright, two-legged (bipedal) walking much earlier than expected. Up to that time, it was believed that humans began to walk upright only after they had developed a large brain. Robert Broom, upon arriving in South Africa in 1936 and seeing the Taung Child for the first time, is said to have knelt at the edge of the table and exclaimed, “I behold my ancestor!” It is now thought that A. africanus represents southern African descendents of A. afarensis from east Africa but is not in the direct lineage leading to modern humans. Nevertheless, the Taung Child remains an iconic hominid fossil, especially given the suspected circumstances of its death—attacked and killed by an eagle! Puncture marks at the bottom of its eye sockets resemble those made by the talons and beak of modern eagles, which are known to attack monkeys in Africa today. The skull was also found among eggshells and a mixture of bones from other small animals that could have been preyed upon and show damage resembling that made by modern eagles.


STS 5, “Mrs. Ples”

Australopithecus africanus, "Mrs. Ples," STS-5, Sterkfontein, South Africa, 2.5 mya

STS 5, “Mrs. Ples” (Australopithecus africanus) | Sterkfontein, Republic of South Africa, 2.5–2.1 mya

Discovered in 1948 by Robert Broom, this nearly complete adult A. africanus cranium actually served to convince scientists of the time that the Taung Child was not just a baby chimpanzee whose ape-like features had not yet developed. Broom named the new fossil Plesianthropus transvaalensis and hypothesized that she was a middle-aged female—thus the nickname, “Mrs. Ples.” The fossil is now regarded to represent the same species as the Taung Child, differing chiefly in the adult character of prognathous (forward projecting) jaws, and is also now thought to have belonged to a sub-adult male.

I had the good fortune to see the actual fossil in person on a private tour of the Transvaal Museum’s “Broom Room” during a trip to South Africa in 1999. I wrote about that experience in a guest post at Christopher Taylor’s Catalogue of Organisms titled, Origins – A Day in the Broom Room as follows:

As Dr. Fourie held the cranium for me to look at, I noticed the fossil was about 3.5 feet off the floor—about the presumed height for the species. I suddenly saw Mrs. Ples standing before me in life – a living, breathing being, not an animal, yet not quite human either. I may not have used Broom’s precise words, but I whispered something along those lines to myself as the slender, hairy virtual creature stood before me. The Museum Gift Shop was selling plaster replicas of Mrs. Ples, one of which now sits on the desk in my office. I think about that experience at the Transvaal Museum almost everytime I look at it.


SK 48, “Paranthropus crassidens

SK 48 "Paranthropus crassidens" (Paranthropus robustus) | Swartkrans, South Africa, 1.8-2.0 mya

SK 48, “Paranthropus crassidens” (Paranthropus robustus) | Swartkrans, Republic of South Africa, 1.8–1.5 mya

While Robert Broom was excavating in South Africa, he recognized that the fossils he was finding represented two distinct morphs—a “gracile” form now encompassed by A. africanus, and a more “robust” form that he described in 1938 as Paranthropus robustus. SK 48, discovered by Broom and Robinson in 1952, was until recently the most complete example of this latter type. The term “robust” refers not to the size of the body, but rather the characters of the skull that include a prominent sagittal crest and robust zygomatics and mandible with large, thickly enameled post-canine dentition. These features provide extra space for chewing muscles and larger molar surfaces—adaptations linked to a powerful chewing complex designed for processing tough, fibrous foods. Paranthropus robustus appears to have been a dead end taxon, being the last of the robust australopithecines and having no apparent descendants. It seems to have been a contemporary of early representatives of the genus Homo—our genus—in southern Africa (tempting speculation on what might have happened to them!).

This was another of the fossils I saw first hand during my visit to the Broom Room, and the plaster replica purchased from the Museum gift shop sits alongside Mrs. Ples on the desk in my office.


OH 5, “Nutcracker Man”/”Zinj”

KNM OH5, "Nutcracker Man" (Paranthropus boisei) | Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.8 mya

OH 5, “Nutcracker Man”/”Zinj” (Paranthropus boisei) | Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.8 mya

When it comes to fossil hominids, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is easily among the most famous of sites, and of the fossils found at Olduvai Gorge, OH 5 “Nutcracker Man” is easily the most famous. Discovered in 1959 by Mary Leakey, it was originally classified as a new genus and species, Zinjanthropus boisei, but is now accepted as a member of the genus Paranthropus. It is thought to represent a derived, “hyper-robust” species descended from P. aethiopicus (see “The Black Skull” below), which lived in east Africa a million years earlier. Like its congeneric contemporary in southern Africa (P. robustus), Nutcracker Man appears to have died out with no living descendents.

The discovery of Nutcracker Man (sometimes called “Zinj” in reference to its original genus name) brought the “robust” morph, typified until then by P. robustus, to a new level of robusticity: wide, outward-flaring zygomatic arches that projected forward of the nasal opening to form a dished-shape face, a large sagittal crest atop the skull, and a massive lower jaw. These traits no doubt allowed plenty of room and attachment for the huge chewing muscles needed for its diet. If features such as this aren’t enough to justify a nickname like Nutcracker Man, surely the megadont cheek teeth—up to four times the size of our own—will seal the deal!


KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull”

KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull” (Paranthropus aethiopicus) | West Turkana, Kenya, 2.5 mya

KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull” (Paranthropus aethiopicus) | West Turkana, Kenya, 2.5 mya

The “Black Skull” is actually one of the more recent hominid fossil finds. Discovered in 1985 by Alan Walker, it was originally classified as Paranthropus boisei—the same species as “Nutcracker Man.” However, the Black Skull is nearly a million years older than Nutcracker Man and apparently shares some characters with the even older Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy” being its most famous member). All three of these forms lived in east Africa, though at different times, and the Black Skull was eventually deemed to represent yet another distinct taxon—Paranthropus aethiopicus (described some time earlier, but from only a partial lower jaw). It is the earliest known member of the genus, and the Black Skull remains the only known skull representing the species. Paranthropus aethiopicus likely gave rise to the later P. boisei in east Africa and P. robustus in southern Africa.

The Black Skull isn’t as robust as Nutcracker Man, but it is my favorite robust australopithecine fossil because… it’s BLACK! How cool. Actually the skull started out white, just like any other bone prior to fossilization, and developed its dramatic dark blue-black color as a result of the manganese-rich soil in which it spent the past two and a half million years.


KNM-WT 15000 “Turkana/Nariokotome Boy”

KNM-WT 15000, "Nariokotome/Turkana Boy" (Homo ergaster) | Nariokotome, West Turkana, Kenya, 1.6 mya

KNM-WT 15000, “Turkana/Nariokotome Boy” (Homo ergaster) | Nariokotome, West Turkana, Kenya, 1.6 mya

The “Turkana Boy” skull is actually part of a remarkably complete skeleton excavated in 1984 by Richard Leakey and colleagues. Some regard Turkana Boy as a representative of Homo erectus, the first human to migrate out of Africa into Eurasia, while others consider the African populations to represent the distinct taxon, H. ergaster. One of paleoanthropology’s most contentious topics is whether modern humans evolved only from H. ergaster in Africa (the second “out-of-Africa”) or locally from H. erectus populations (including H. ergaster) throughout the Old World (“multiregionalism”). Molecular data seems to favor the former, but the latter has passionate adherents. Of all the skulls sitting on my desk, this one alone can be regarded as a possible near-direct ancestor!

Turkana Boy is not only remarkable by the completeness of its skull, but also the astonishing 90% coverage of the complete skeleton that results when bilateral symmetry is used to fill missing bone. Such completeness is extraordinarily rare among fossil hominids, and it has provided a wealth of information about the body size, shape, and growth rates of H. ergaster. The skeleton is thought to have belonged to a boy 12 or 13 years of age, measuring 5’3″ tall and weighing 106 lbs at the time of death. Interestingly, the pelvis reveals a greater ability to run than modern humans, while other bones more closely resemble those of Australopithecus. The long, slender body seems to be an adaptation to the hot, dry climate that existed in Africa.


Thanks to all who participated in ID Challenge #22. I have to admit how surprised and impressed I am about how many of you seem to be as interested in and up to date on human evolution as I. Congratulations to perennial BitB challenge master Ben Coulter, who takes the win with 63 pts. Dennis Haines (61 pts) and Mike Baker (60 pts) complete the podium, and honorable mentions go to Sam Heads (58 pts) and tandemtrekking (57 pts).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

ID Challenge #22: The Bone Collector

After a long hiatus, it is time to resurrect BitB Challenge Session #7 with this very unusual ID Challenge. Some of you may know (and most probably don’t) that, among my many other hobbies, I am a bit of an armchair paleoanthropologist. Over the years I have assembled replicas of a few of the more significant fossil hominid finds that have shaped our understanding of human evolution. For this challenge, identify the fossils shown below with 1) “nickname” of the fossil (2 pts), 2) currently accepted genus (2 pts) and species (2 pts) assignment, 3) country of origin (2 pts), and 4) approximate age (2 pts). Comments will be held in moderation while the challenge is open to give all a chance to play. Answers will be revealed in the next couple of days or so.

p.s. Don’t be afraid to try—I’ll be surprised (and impressed) if anybody gets a clean sweep of the points. Good luck!

Update: Bonus question (to be used in case of a tiebreaker)—which of these is my favorite, and why (up to 5 pts)?

BitB ID Challenge #22

© Copyright Ted C. MacRae 2013

Dressed in black

The first three days of this year’s Fall Tiger Beetle Trip had been fun, and finding a new state record jewel beetle and an unusual seasonal activity record for another were definitely icing on the cake. Still, tiger beetles (at least adults) had been notably absent, with my hunch that Cicindela pulchra (Beautiful Tiger Beetle) might occur in the Red Hills of northwestern Oklahoma not playing out. My next goal was to go down to northern Texas and look for Cicindelidia politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle)—a species I have not yet encountered in the field. When I saw that the route south took me through the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, I recalled seeing this photo of Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle) on BugGuide taken in these very mountains during the fall. I have seen on many occasions the greenish Missouri / Arkansas disjunct population of this subspecies, but I had not yet seen the main population and its decidedly black individuals, so this became my quarry for Day 4 of the trip. I had nothing more to go on for a locality than “Wichita Mountains NWR” and a sense of its habitat preferences based on my own experience with the MO/AR disjuncts, so after arriving at the refuge I began to look for access to a 2-track leading to higher, unforested ground (reminiscent of the dolomite glades of southwestern Missouri). I quickly found a parking lot with a 2-track leading from it, so I pulled off, geared up, and set out on what I figured was surely a wild goose chase. The track looked good, but no beetles were seen, and after walking about a half-mile I happened to look up and see this not too far ahead:

American bison | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Call me chicken, but bison can and will charge without warning. Even though they seemed unconcerned by my presence, I wasn’t with anybody that I knew I could outrun 🙂 and decided that a cautious, tip-toeing retreat would the best course of action (even taking the above photo—uncropped, I might add—made me nervous). What now? I was quickly back at the car and not sure what to do next when I saw a foot path leading into a cedar woods, behind which the land rose up to treeless heights. I decided that might be a good place to explore—as long as I didn’t run into any bison along the way! As I was hiking through the woodland—an open, obviously long ago planted grove of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)—I passed by a small opening and almost by instinct veered into the opening to have a look. As soon as I stepped into the opening I saw the unmistakable escape flight of two large tiger beetles—what the…?! No doubt about it, they were C. o. vulturina, and they had been hanging out by a fairly fresh bovid chip (bison or cow, I don’t know). (I have seen this behavior also with the MO/AR disjuncts.) I watched them land and decided which one I would try to photograph. I guess I picked right, because the following photo was among the first few that I got:

Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle) | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Despite the jet-black dorsal surface (which contrasts with the green to greenish-black to bronzy dorsal surface of the MO/AR disjuncts), these were colorful beetles with gorgeous metallic blue genae (cheeks) and intense violaceous tibia (lower legs). This first individual was quite cooperative (usually it’s the tenth or more beetle that I try to photograph that actually allows me to do so), so I spent a bit of time trying to coax it back to the bovid chip from which it flew. Eventually I succeeded in this and took a few more photos, the following of which I liked the best:

Shade seeking next to a bovid chip.

I’m still a bit puzzled about the habitat in which I found these beetles. I would have considered it an anomaly had I not seen two beetles at the same time and then subsequently seen a mating pair in almost the exact same spot. Prairie tiger beetles are known for their preference of open grassland habitats rather than woodlands, and indeed I saw more individuals back along the 2-track that I had abandoned earlier (once I got the courage to stray down it again later in the day). The photo below shows almost the entirety of the opening where I found the beetles, with the bovid chip located on the ground in the lower center of the photo:

An unusually wooded habitat for Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina.

Seeing these two individuals in the small woodland opening gave me greater optimism that I would be able to find more on the grassy higher slopes above the cedar grove. I crossed the creek and climbed to the top of the first ridge, passing through what seemed to be ideal habitat for the beetle but seeing none. Although igneous in origin, the rocky landscape reminded me very much of the dolomite glades that lace through the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri and that harbour robust populations of this beetle (but occurring nowhere else in the state).

Rocky grasslands extend towards Mt. Scott.

After posting one of these landscape photos on my Facebook page, I got a comment from Thomas Shahan saying he had been to the area recently and seen a “dark Cicindela” atop nearby Elk Mountain. Low and behold, the beetle in the photo that he included was none other than this subspecies, so at least now I know they do occur in this more expected habitat despite my not having seen them on this day.

Failing to find the beetle on higher ground, and wanting to try for even closer photographs, I returned to “the opening” and immediately found another individual to photograph. A female, she may (or may not) have been the partner to the male I photographed earlier, but at any rate she was not nearly as cooperative. I chased her back and forth through the opening for about a half-hour before I finally got close enough to get a shot (my use of tube extensions required that I get even closer than before). As typically happens, however, she gradually became more and more accustomed to my presence, and eventually I was able to get a few photos with the beetle in fairly relaxed, candid poses. The following are my favorites:

A less trusting individual relunctantly allows herself to be photographed.

She looks angry, but in reality I caught her mandibles half open in the midst of chewing movements.

After photographing these individuals, I returned to the car and decided to wander (tentatively) down the 2-track that I had to abandon earlier in the day. This time I fouund the beetles easily, seeing perhaps half a dozen individuals in just the first quarter-mile. My wanderings, however, were once again cut short when I came around a tree bank and saw those same two bison, much closer to the road this time. I really wanted to get a better photograph than the one above, but common sense at first prevented me from getting any closer. I studied the two magnificent behemoths looking for any sign of annoyance, and seeing none I began to creep ever so tiny a bit closer. Eventually my heart rose too high in my throat to approach any closer, and I snapped the following photo and began a hasty, horse-eyed retreat—not even knowing for sure if the shot was good but feeling a little too proud of myself and my stupidity courage!

A little too close for comfort!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Mass Grave

My friend Rich and I have begun hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail this winter in our quest to eventually hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (to this point we had completed ~230 miles).  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County and traversing rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest along the west side of Wappapello Lake as it courses north to Sam A. Baker State Park.  The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built and manages Wappapello Lake primarily for flood control in the rich farmlands the lie just downstream in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in extreme southeastern Missouri.  Because of this, stretches of the Ozark Trail are subject to frequent inundation.

Such was the case the day after Thanksgiving, when Rich and I tackled the northernmost 10-mile stretch of this section. Because of the flooding, we had to bushwhack to higher ground for a significant portion of the hike. This sounds easier than it was—elevational relief in this rugged southeastern portion of the Ozark Highlands is as much as 500 ft, with steep grades and thick leaf litter atop loose, cherty soils. We did our best to stay oriented using a basic contour map and the experience we’ve gained over the years in judging terrain.

Sometimes, diversions from the trail lead to unexpected discoveries. On an earlier hike, we had gotten lost trying to find our starting point (not a designated trailhead)—we drove through hill and dale and ended up on a losing 2-track that was quite obviously not where we wanted to be. While turning the vehicle around in the tight space between the trees, we noticed something white peeking out from under a black plastic tarp, and upon investigation discovered the clean and nearly complete skeleton of a horse (or mule? These are the Ozarks, afterall). A shattered left occiput and lead projectile protruding through the right maxilla of the skull told the story of this sad beast’s demise. Despite its gruesome origins, I simply cannot resist clean, whole skulls of any kind, so I placed it in the vehicle before we resumed our search for the trail. It now rests permanently in my “museum” and has been named Horace (sitting next to an even cleaner skull of a feral hog that I found a few years earlier—named Boris. Get it? Horace the horse and Boris the boar?).

On this day, as we blazed our own trail on higher ground roughly parallel to the actual trail, we happened upon the gruesome scene shown in these two photographs. Natural historians that we are, we began conducting our own “crime scene” reconstruction—first determining the identity of the remains, then hypothesizing the reason for their placement there based on what we could observe about them. As far as we could tell, the remains of at least three individuals were present, each in a different state of decay from the others and with no apparent evidence of trauma. Rich and I are pretty sure we know what these are, and we have our own ideas about how they got here and why, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think (click photos to embiggen).

This scene made me a little nervous—not because skeletons give me the creeps, but because the Ozark Highlands have a reputation for harboring what many people insultingly refer to as “hillbillies.” The stereotype that this term engenders—i.e., a barefoot man with a long beard and ragged clothes, banjo in one hand and shotgun in the other—may be an extreme and unfair caricaturization. Nevertheless, the presence of this mass grave, with apparently no effort to conceal it, made at least the shotgun part of that image seem a little too real for comfort.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Revisiting the Swift Tiger Beetle – Part 1

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 1 - Cylindera celeripes at Alabaster Caverns State Park in northwestern Oklahoma.

When my hymenopterist friend, Mike Arduser, came back from his first trip to Oklahoma’s Four Canyon Preserve last September, my first thought upon seeing his photos of the area was, “Ooh, that looks like a good place for tiger beetles!” Its rugged red clay and gypsum exposures reminded me of similar country I had seen in the not-too-distant Gypsum Hills of south-central Kansas, where I was fortunate enough to observe a nice population of the fantastically beautiful Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) back in 2005. When I later realized that the area was only 30 miles southwest of a confirmed recent sighting of Cicindela celeripes (swift tiger beetle, now Cylindera celeripes), I thought, “Ooh, I wonder if celeripes might occur there also.”

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 2 - Cylindera celeripes on lichen-encrusted clay soil at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Recall that C. celeripes is one of North America’s rarest and least understood tiger beetles. This tiny, flightless, ant-like species has been recorded historically from eastern Nebraska south to north-central Texas, but its range appears to have become highly restricted over the past century. It hasn’t been seen in Nebraska for nearly 100 years now, and most recent records have come from its last known stronghold in the Flint Hills of Kansas. In 2003, however, a photographer by the name of Charles Schurch Lewallen posted on BugGuide a photograph of this species taken at Alabaster Caverns State Park in northwestern Oklahoma, and last year small numbers of adults were seen in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. This last sighting triggered an immediate trip to the site by myself and Chris Brown, who has been co-investigating the tiger beetle fauna of Missouri with me for several years now. The occurrence of this species in Iowa’s Loess Hills had reignited our hopes – faint as they were – that the beetle might yet occur in extreme northwestern Missouri, where the Loess Hills reach their southern terminus. We wanted to see the beetle in the wild to better understand its habitat requirements before resuming our search for this species in northwestern Missouri. We succeeded in finding the beetle – an amazing experience in itself – and brought three adults of this never-before-reared species back to the lab for photographs and an attempt at rearing. We did manage to obtain viable eggs, but we were not successful in rearing the larvae beyond first instar. I wrote about that experience last August in a post entitled, “The hunt for Cicindela celeripes” (that post is now currently in press as an article in the journal CICINDELA).

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/11, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 3 - Cylindera celeripes on gypsum exposure at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Thus, when my friend Mike asked me earlier this year if I might be interested in joining him on his return trip to Four Canyon Preserve in June, I jumped at the chance. I figured I could look for celeripes at the preserve, and if I failed to find it there then I would go to Alabaster Caverns and see if I could relocate the beetle where it had been photographed in 2003. My goals were modest – I simply wanted to find the beetle and voucher its current presence in northwestern Oklahoma (and if possible photograph it in the field with my new camera!). Before leaving, I wrote to Charles Lewallen, who graciously responded with details regarding the precise location and time of day that he had seen the beetle at Alabaster Caverns, and on the first Friday of June I followed behind Mike and his lovely wife Jane during our ten-hour drive out to Four Canyon Preserve. For three days, I roamed the mixed-grass prairie atop the narrow ridges and dry woodland on the steep, rugged canyon slopes of the preserve – always on the lookout for that telltale “flash” between the clumps of bluestem and grama, ever hopeful that one would prove not to be the ant or spider that it appeared to be (and, indeed, always was). Many tiger beetles would be seen – chiefly the annoyingly ubiquitous Cicindela punctulata (punctured tiger beetle), but celeripes would not be among them. Whether this is due to historical absence from the site or a more recent consequence of the wildfires that swept the area a year earlier is hard to say, but its absence at Four Canyon meant that I would need to make a quick, 1-day detour to Alabaster Caverns before rejoining Mike and Jane at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, where we planned to spend the second half of the week.

Photo details: Canon 65mm 1-5X macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 4 - Cylindera celeripes on gypsum exposure at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Arriving at Alabaster Caverns I was filled with nervous, excited anticipation. Would I find the species, as Charles Lewallen had, or would I get skunked? I kitted up and started walking towards the area where Charles wrote that he had seen the beetle, noting the annoying “Removal of plants and animals prohibited” sign along the way. I hadn’t taken ten steps off the parking lot when I saw it! I froze at first, hardly believing that I had found it that quickly, then started watching the tiny beetle as it bolted urgently from one grass clump to the next. Recalling my experience with this beetle in Iowa (and fearing I would lose it amongst the vegetation), I captured the specimen and placed it live in a vial – I would talk to the park staff later about taking the beetle, but for now I needed to guarantee I had a backup for the lab in case I was unable to get field photographs of the beetle. I started walking again, and within a few minutes I saw another one – okay, they’re here in numbers. I carefully took off my camera bag and assembled the components, all the while keeping my eye on the beetle, and then I began trying to do what last year had seemed impossible – getting field photographs. It was easier this time – the vegetation was not so dense, so I could keep an eye on the beetle as he darted from one clump to another. I tried to wait until he settled in an open spot, but it soon became apparent that just wasn’t gonna happen without a “helping” hand. I started blocking the path of the beetle as he tried to dart away and then removing my hand to see if he would stay put. There were a few false starts, where the beetle looked like he would sit still and then dart just as I was set to take the shot, but eventually it wore down and started sitting still long enough for me to shoot a few frames. Torn between the need to get as many photographs as possible and the desire to look for more beetles, I decided to look around more to see how common the beetle was. As I walked out into the shortgrass prairie above the canyons, I began to see adults quite commonly. Most often they were seen as they bolted out into the open from a clump of vegetation when disturbed by my approach. The substrate was red clay and gypsum – just as I had seen in Four Canyon Preserve, but unlike that area the clay exposures were heavily colonized by a mottling of green, blue, and gray lichens. It made the beetles almost impossible to see when they were not moving – even at close range! I spent about an hour taking photographs of several individuals, even managing to photograph one that appeared to be parasitized by what I take to be a dryinid hymenopteran.

Photo 5 - Cylindera celeripes with parasite (dryinid hymenopteran?).  Note also the ant head attached to right antenna.

Photo 5: Cylindera celeripes with parasite (dryinid hymenopteran?). Note also the ant head attached to right antenna.

After getting a sufficient series of photographs (is there really such thing?), I went to the park office hoping to convey the significance of this find to the Park Naturalist and to convince him/her to let me take some live individuals with me for another attempt at rearing. The Park Naturalist was out of the office, but the Park Historian was there. I could hardly contain my excitement as I explained to her what I had found, why it was so important, and my hope to try to rear the species with adults collected in the field. She not only responded as positively as I had hoped, but accompanied back out into the field so that I could show her the beetles. She told me it would be no problem to take some live individuals for rearing and to please let them know if there was anything else they could do to help me.  She then provided me with the day’s natural history “dessert” by pointing out a Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) – Oklahoma’s state flying mammal – roosting up in the top of a nearby picnic shelter. Standing atop the picnic table put me within arm’s length of the little chiropteran – close enough to see his tiny little eyes looking quizzically back at me.

Photo 6 - Cylindera celeripes macrohabitat, Alabaster Caverns State Park, Oklahoma.  Note rather widely spaced clumps of vegetation (photo details: Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (17mm) on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/64 sec, f/8).

Photo 6 - Cylindera celeripes macrohabitat at Alabaster Caverns State Park. Note rather widely spaced clumps of vegetation.

It had begun sprinkling rain by then, so with some urgency I got my tools, extracted a couple of chunks of native soil and transferred them to the small “Critter Totes” that I had brought for the purpose, and began searching for live individuals to place within them. The beetles had become scarce as the drizzle turned to light rain, and by the time I had split about a dozen individuals between the two containers the rain was coming down hard enough to start puddling. I continued a last ditch effort to find “just one more,” but a lightning strike within a mile of the park put an end to that – the air now felt electric as I hurriedly walked back to the car (gloating unabashedly inside) and began the three-hour drive towards Tallgrass Prairie Preserve… (to be continued).

IMG_0580_1200x800

Photo 7 - Cylindera celeripes microhabitat at Alabaster Caverns State Park. Note thick encrustation of lichens on clay substrate amidst white gypsum exposures.

Photo details:
#1-3, 5: Canon 100mm macro lens w/ 68mm extension on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13 (photo 3, f/11), MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.
#4: Same except Canon 65mm 1-5X macro lens, flash 1/8 power.
#6: Same except Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (17mm), 1/64 sec, f/8, natural light.
#7: Same except Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (35mm), 1/100 sec, f/7, natural light.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Glades of Jefferson County

We stood a moment to contemplate the sublime and beautiful scene before us, which was such an assembly of rocks and water—of hill and valley—of verdant woods and naked peaks—of native fertility and barren magnificence… – Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1818-1819

In the Ozark Border south of St. Louis, a series of natural openings punctuate the dry, rocky forests of Jefferson County. Commonly called “glades” or “cedar glades,” these islands of prairie in a sea of forest are home to plants and animals more commonly associated with the Great Plains region further to the west. Extending in a narrow arc from central Jefferson County east and south into northern Ste. Genevieve County, these glades occur most commonly on south and southwest-facing slopes below forested ridges and are characterized by thin soils and exposed dolomite bedrock of Ordovician age. Glades are, in fact, a common natural feature throughout much of the Ozark Highlands, an extraordinary plateau where the great eastern deciduous forest begins to yield to the western grasslands. A much more extensive system of dolomite glades occurs in the White River Hills of southwest Missouri, where they often extend up steep slopes and over the tops of knobs to form what Schoolcraft called “naked peaks” and are now called “balds” (and spawning the “Baldknobbers” of Branson fame). Additional glade complexes occur throughout the Ozark Highlands on different rock substrates – igneous glades abound in the St. Francois Mountains, sandstone glades dot the Lamotte landscape in Ste. Genevieve County and the northern and western Ozarks, limestone glades can be found in the northern Ozarks near Danville and Lake of the Ozarks, and chert glades occur in extreme southwest Missouri. These different glade systems share a common feature – shallow soils where tree establishment is limited due to summer moisture stress. They differ vegetationally, however, due to differences in hydrology and soil chemistry as a result of their different substrates. Floristically, dolomite glades exhibit a high degree of diversity relative to other glade types.

The term “glade” is derived from the Old English “glad,” meaning a shining place – perhaps the early settlers found their open landscapes a welcome respite after emerging from the confining vastness of the eastern deciduous forest. Whatever the meaning, the glades of Jefferson County hold a special place in my heart, for I “grew up,” entomologically speaking, in those glades. As a young entomologist, fresh out of school, I spent many a day scrambling through the glades and surrounding woodlands. It was here where my interest in beetles, especially woodboring beetles, was born and later grew into a passion. For eight years I visited these glades often – attracted by the extraordinary diversity of insects living within the glades and congregating around its edges. My earliest buprestid and cerambycid papers contain numerous records from “Victoria Glades” and “Valley View Glades” – the two best-preserved examples of the glades that once occurred extensively throughout the area (more on this later). My visits to these glades ended in 1990 when I moved to California, and although I moved back to the St. Louis area in 1995, the focus of my beetle research has more often taken me to places outside of Missouri. It had, in fact, been some 10 years since my last visit to these glades until last week, when I was able to once again spend some time in them.

Ozark glades differ from the true cedar glades of the southeastern U.S. in that they are not a climax habitat – they depend upon periodic fires to prevent succession to forest. Some recent authors have suggested the term “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” be used to distinguish the fire-dependent glades of the Ozarks from the edaphic climax cedar glades of the southeast (Baskin & Baskin 2000, Baskin et al. 2007). Fires have been largely suppressed throughout Missouri since European settlement, leading to encroachment upon the glades by eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Pure stands of red-cedar have developed on many former glades, crowding out the herbaceous plants that depend upon full sun and leading to soil formation that supports further encroachment by additional woody plant species such as post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) from the surrounding woodlands. Fire has returned to many of the Ozark glades situated on lands owned or managed by state and federal agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as private conservation-minded organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. These agencies have begun adopting cedar removal and fire management techniques to bring back the pre-settlement look and diversity of the Ozark Glades. This is particularly true at Victoria Glades and Valley View Glades, the two largest and most pristine examples of the Jefferson County dolomite glade complex. Fires have been used to kill small red-cedars in the glades, as well as rejuvenate their herbaceous plant communities. Larger red-cedar trees are not killed outright by fire and must be removed by chainsaws. This above distant view of the TNC parcel at Victoria Glades shows many such burned red-cedars. The glades themselves are not the only habitat to benefit from this aggressive management – when I was doing my fieldwork here in the 1980’s the surrounding woodlands were a closed post oak forest bordered by fragrant sumac and with little or no understory in the interior. The photo at right now shows an open savanna with a rich understory of not only sumac and other shrubs, but also many herbaceous plants as well such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and American feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium). Such open woodland more closely resembles what Schoolcraft saw across much of the Ozarks during his journey almost two centuries ago.

Victoria and Valley View Glades are dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). A smaller but highly charismatic non-grass flora is also found on the glades – species such as Missouri evening primrose (Oenethera macrocarpa) (left), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata) (pictured above and below), and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) not only add beautiful color but also support both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife. The Fremont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a true endemic, occurring only in this part of Missouri and entirely dependent upon these glades for its survival. Less well studied is the vast insect fauna associated with the glades. It is here where I first discovered the occurrence of Acmaeodera neglecta in Missouri. This small jewel beetle is similar to the broadly occurring A. tubulus but at the time was known only from Texas and surrounding states. In collecting what I thought were adults of A. tubulus on various flowers in the glades, I noticed that some of them were less shining, more strongly punctate, and exhibited elytral patterning that was often coalesced into longitudinal “C-shaped” markings rather than the scattered small spots typical of A. tubulus. These proved to be A. neglecta, which I have since found on many glade habitats throughout the Ozark Highlands. Both species can be seen in this photo feeding on a flower of hairy wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) – the lower individual is A. neglecta, while the upper individual and two inside the flower are A. tubulus. Another interesting insect-plant association I discovered at these glades was the strikingly beautiful Dicerca pugionata – another species of jewel beetle – and its host plant ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Only a single Missouri occurrence had been reported for D. pugionata, despite the common occurrence of its host plant along rocky streams and rivers throughout the Ozark Highlands. This plant also grows at Victoria and Valley View Glades along the intermittent streams that drain the glades and in the moist toeslopes along the lower edges of the glades where water that has percolated through the rocks and down the slopes is forced to the surface by an impermeable layer of bedrock. Unlike the tall, robust, lush plants that can be found in more optimal streamside habitats with good moisture availability, the ninebark plants of Victoria and Valley View Glades are small and scraggly, usually with some dieback that results from suboptimal growing conditions. I surmise these plants have reduced capabilities for fending off attacks by insects, including D. pugionata, and as a result a healthy population of the insect thrives at these glades. Some might be inclined to call this beetle a pest, threatening the health of one of the glade’s plants. In reality, the insect finds refuge in these glades – unable to effectively colonize the vast reserves of healthy plants that grow along streams throughout the rest of the Ozarks, it strikes a tenuous balance with plants that are themselves on the edge of survival.

Despite the success in moving Victoria and Valley View Glades closer to their pre-settlement character, the integrity of these areas continues to be challenged. Poachers take anything of real or perceived value, and ATV enthusiasts view the open spaces as nothing more than tarmac. Pale purple coneflower occurs abundantly on these Jefferson County glades (but sparingly in other habitats – primarily rocky roadsides), where they provide a stunning floral display during June and sustain innumerable insect pollinators. Plants in the genus Echinacea also have perceived medicinal value, as herbalists believe their roots contain an effective blood purifier and antibiotic. There are no conclusive human clinical trials to date that fully substantiate this purported immune stimulating effect (McKeown 1999). Nevertheless, demand for herbal use has skyrocketed in recent decades, prompting widespread illegal harvesting of several coneflower species throughout their collective range across the Great Plains and Ozark Highlands. I witnessed massive removals of this plant from both Victoria and Valley View Glades during the 1980’s, but the pictures I took this year suggest that such illegal harvests have been suppressed and that the populations at both sites are recovering nicely.

The same cannot be said for the practice of rock flipping. This was a problem I witnessed back in the 1980’s, and I saw fresh evidence of its continued occurrence at both sites. The thin soils and sloping terrain leave successive layers of dolomite bedrock exposed, the edges of which shatter from repeated freeze-thaw cycles to create rows of loose, flat rocks along the bedrock strata. Lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions find refuge under these loose rocks, only to be ripped from their homes by flippers and transferred to a dark, cold terrarium to endure a slow, lingering death. As if poaching the glade’s fauna and watching them slowly die isn’t bad enough, the flippers add insult to injury by not even bothering to replace the rock in its original position after stealing its inhabitant, amounting to habitat destruction three times greater than the area of the rock itself. Firstly, the habitat under the rock is destroyed by sudden exposure of the diverse and formerly sheltered microfauna to deadly sunlight. Next, the habitat onto which the rock is flipped is also destroyed, as the plants growing there begin a slow, smothering death. Lastly, the upper surface of the rock, sometimes colonized by mosses and lichens that might have required decades or longer to grow, usually ends up against the ground – its white, sterile underside becoming the new upper surface. Rock flipper scars take years to heal, and nearly all of the flat, loose rocks seen in the more accessible areas of the glades exhibit scars of varying ages next to them. If a scar is fresh (first photo), I generally return to the rock to its original position – the former inhabitants cannot be brought back, but at least the original habitats are saved and can recover quickly. However, if a scar is too old (2nd photo) it is best to leave the rock in its new position – replacing it only prolongs the time required for recovery.

Even more damaging is ATV use. Herbaceous plants and thin soils are no match for the aggressive tread of ATV tires, and it doesn’t take too many passes over an area before the delicate plants are killed and loose soils ripped apart. I witnessed this become a big problem particularly on Victoria Glades during the 1980’s – actually finding myself once in a face-to-face confrontation with an ATV’er. Fortunately, he turned tail and ran, and it appears (for now) that such abuses have stopped, as I saw no evidence of more recent tracks during this visit. But the scars of those tracks laid down more than two decades ago still remain painfully visible. I expect several more decades will pass before they are healed completely.

My return to Victoria and Valley View Glades was a homecoming of sorts, and I was genuinely pleased to see the progress that has been made in managing these areas while revisiting the sites where my love affair with beetles was first kindled. Sadly, however, the larger glade complex of Jefferson County continues to deteriorate. Restoration acreage aside, red-cedar encroachment continues unabated on many of the remaining glade parcels – large and small – that dot the south and southwest facing slopes in this area. It has been conservatively estimated that as much as 70% of the original high quality glades in Missouri are now covered in red-cedar. Many of these are privately held – their owners either do not recognize their ecological significance or are loathe to set fire to them. An example can be seen in the picture here – this small parcel is part of the Victoria Glades complex but lies on private land in red-cedar choked contrast to the Nature Conservancy parcel immediately to the south. Small numbers of herbaceous plants persist here, but without intervention by fire or chainsaw their numbers will continue to dwindle and the glade will die. Aside from the loss of these glades, the continuing reduction of glade habitat complicates management options for preserved glades as well. Many glade associated invertebrates are “fire-sensitive” – i.e., they overwinter in the duff and leaf litter above the soil and are thus vulnerable to spring or fall fires. While these fires are profoundly useful for invigorating the herbaceous flora, they can lead to local extirpation of fire-sensitive invertebrate species within the burn area. Recolonization normally occurs quickly from unburned glades in proximity to the burned areas but can be hampered if source habitat exists as small, highly-fragmented remnants separated by extensive tracts of hostile environment. Grazing also continues to threaten existing remnants in the Jefferson County complex. Grazing rates are higher now than ever before, with greater negative impact due to the use of fencing that prevents grazers from moving to “greener pastures”. Over-grazing eliminates native vegetation through constant depletion of nutrient reserves and disturbance of the delicate soil structure, leading to invasion and establishment of undesirable plant species. Eventually, the glade becomes unproductive for pasture and is abandoned – coupled with fire suppression this leads to rapid woody encroachment. It is truly depressing to drive through Jefferson County and recognize these cedar-choked glades for what they were, able to do nothing but watch in dismay as yet another aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage gradually disappears. The continued loss of these remnant glades makes careful use of fire management on Victoria and Valley View Glades all the more critical – ensuring that a patchwork of unburned, lightly burned, and more heavily burned areas exists at a given time will be critical for preventing invertebrate extirpations within these managed areas.

I close by sharing with you a few more of the many photographs I took during this visit – stiff tickseed (Coreopsis palmata), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens – see the excellent post about this plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri), downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), and a “deerly” departed native browser.