Costumes

 

‘Twas the week before winter break,

and Jemicy transformed itself into a wonderland of costumes.

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While the lower school students were outfitted for their performance of Snow White, the rest of the school celebrated each day with a different theme: wacky-tacky, pajamas, crazy hats, blizzard-white, holiday festive.

In the woods during recess, we continued to search for signs of creatures still active in spite of plummeting temperatures. In the relative safety of the stream, a frog caught one student’s eye as it crept through the silty substrate. A hellgrammite brought to the surface slowly uncurled, displaying formidable mandibles that it will probably not be using until the water warms in spring.

Meanwhile, I was concentrating on the bark of the trees lining the banks of the stream. “Why are you staring at the trees like that?” my companions wondered. “Trying to find a bug in a costume,” I replied, pointing to the patches of bright green lichen on the bark. “Look for a tiny bit of this that moves.” Within a minute, one child had spotted it: a minuscule lichen-covered blob making its way along a ridge of bark. We carefully pried it off the tree and flipped it over to see who was wearing this masterful disguise. It was a green lacewing larva, known as “debris-carrying” for their habit of picking up bits of plant material to camouflage themselves.

They are one of the few insects that can be found moving about even in winter temperatures, when the sun warms the dark tree trunks. It is a costume effective enough to evade the sharp eyes of winter birds, but we shall see how many more larvae the newly-trained Jemicy kids can spot before they metamorphose into their winged adult form.

In and out of season

The coordinators of the Maryland Biodiversity Project posted a challenge this week: Document “the most interesting” specimens of Maryland’s plants, invertebrates, and herps (reptiles and amphibians) appearing in December. For invertebrates and herps, this would mean simply showing up, given that December temperatures generally drop well below a level tolerable for these creatures. For plants, it would mean blooming, a stage that is usually synched with pollinator activity. In any case, it is a search challenge that highlights species showing behavior out of their normal seasonal range.

I presented the “out of season” challenge to some of my youngest Jemicy students on December 5, an unusually warm and sunny day at 55 degrees. We headed out to the garden and woods, almost immediately discovering several flowers in bloom, including a violet and a dandelion.

We noticed that the dandelion was nearly level with the ground, rather than standing tall on its stem as we usually find them in the spring. The violet was similarly well protected, peeking out of leaf litter on the sunny side of a building.

In the woods, kids headed for the stream, sure that they could locate a frog or salamander in a sunny spot. No amphibian showed itself, but a beetle larva wriggled through the rocks, and some tiny winged stoneflies floating on the surface looked as though they might have landed in the water by accident.

Up by the garden, we combed through the herb bed and discovered strawberries still attempting to grow fruit, while a hoverfly sunned itself on the edge of a bucket.

Several other types of insects and spiders had positioned themselves on a vertical wall to catch the sunlight. As the kids searched and pointed out creatures that I could barely see, I took pictures and wondered what they would mean.

Some were unsurprising: the Asian lady beetles, brown stink bugs, and boxelder bugs often persist all winter in protected, south-facing locations, squeezed tightly into cracks and crannies. Have these other invertebrates always been here in December, and we just haven’t taken the time to look for them?

Later, I submitted the photos of our finds to Bugguide for identification. The resulting information revealed several first-time records.  The tiny, brightly-patterned hopper known as a sharpshooter was a first for the Jemicy checklist, as were the hoverfly, the stilt bug, the harvestman, and the moth.

The moth was a green cloverworm moth, Hypena scabra,  a common late-summer and fall species. Checking the data page, I discovered that it had been recorded in December as far north as Maine, but only one other time in Maryland – at my house, in 2014. At least three of these species found during our search at Jemicy now held the first December records on Bugguide.

The kids were delighted that their bug-hunting had resulted in new data being added to Maryland’s biodiversity tally. These discoveries held the added significance of shifting what we know of certain animals’ seasonal behavior into new territory. The December column for most Maryland invertebrate species is currently nearly empty – what you might expect for a month with an average high/low of 45/27 degrees F. What will that column look like as the global climate continues to change and warm? Collecting evidence and building a robust database of species presence is one of the best ways to understand how these changes are affecting the seasonal patterns of all living things.

Anachronisms

Monkey brains are back!  For the moment, at least. In a series of confounding discoveries over the past month,  the iconic (and supposedly locally extinct) fruit of the Jemicy recess culture reappeared in all its lumpy green glory. First, one half-eaten, its seeds clearly scavenged by squirrels, and an intact fruit found down by the stream. Then they began to appear daily, two or three at a time. Someone left one as a gift on my desk.  I was completely stymied. Where could they have come from?

 

The kids were not bothered by this mystifying turn of events, but excitedly fanned out in search of more. I wondered out loud, to anyone who would listen, “How can this be? The only tree for a mile around was cut down in June for the new gym construction. No way would squirrels have dragged these fruit here from a tree far away. No, that would be more like something a human would do…”

 

As I contemplated this unlikely scenario before me, I realized that I was witnessing an anachronism – an instance of something existing out of its original time and place. It was, in fact, a double-anachronism. Monkey brain trees, Osage orange, Maclura pomifera, are a relic of the Pleistocene. They belong to a group of plants that evolved in conjunction with that era’s megafauna, such as wooly mammoths and giant ground sloths. In their native habitat of the southern midwest, monkey brain fruit would have been prized food for these browsers. The trees themselves have large thorns that would have deterred animals from consuming the leaves. Once the fruit were ripe and had fallen, they would be eaten in their entirety and their seeds carried away, to pass intact through the gut and be dispersed in fertile dung.

Monkey brain trees arrived in Maryland courtesy of that modern mega-disperser, human transport. They were planted as barrier hedges (thus the other nickname: hedge apples) and prized for the strength of their wood.  The aromatic fruits were sometimes collected to use as centerpieces. Over time the Osage orange tree was cut more than planted, and relegated to scrubby field edges and roadsides, where squirrels shred them apart and eat their seeds without dispersing them.

So, the Jemicy kids who continue to collect the fruit, carry it away, and hoard it in their forts until it rots, are putting a new twist on an ancient practice.  As I watched some of the middle schoolers stashing them high in the fork of a tree, I realized that I was observing modern megafauna gathering fruit much as giant ground sloths had done millennia ago, but with the opposite intent – to cache rather than to consume.

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As for the mystery of how monkey brains came to be in the Jemicy woods this fall, it was solved when another teacher admitted to bringing them in from a source near his house and scattering them about. So, once again, humans have taken over the job of spreading a species whose original dispersers are gone. Whether the seeds of any of these imported fruit will germinate and survive at Jemicy remains to be seen; if they don’t, it won’t be for lack of enthusiastic dispersal.