Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Friday, May 28, 2010

Jungle Cucumbers and Longwings

A longwing butterfly (Heleconius erato) visits a jungle cucumber (Psiguria umbrosa) flower

Longwing butterflies- species in the genus Heliconius- are a particularly important group in Butterfly Haven. Look out over the Haven at any time, and most of what you see in flight will be any of the dozen or so species that we fly. They do more than just about any other butterfly species in our exhibit to provide the interest that comes from motion and flutter.

The wall of jungle cucumbers in Butterfly Haven

We like to keep out butterflies healthy and living long lives. Generally this includes providing adequate sources of nectar for them. We carry this one step further with our longwings. Through their evolutionary history, these butterflies have developed a mutualistic relationship with Jungle Cucumbers- plants in the genera Psiguria and Gurania that are relatives of garden cucumbers.

Tiger Longwing (Heliconius hecale)
You can see the whitish pollen packed onto the proboscis

Longwings are the major pollinators of Jungle Cukes. The relationship is mutualistic, because the longwings get something in return for providing this service- and in this case it's more than the typical reward of floral nectar. Longwings can extract nutrients from pollen. A longwing will pack the pollen onto its proboscis and absorb vitamins, amino acids, and alkaloids. The pollen provides superior nutrition to nectar. Longwings that have access to this resource will live several months, as opposed to the roughly two weeks that is typical for most adult butterflies. We make sure that we always have blooming Psiguria in Butterfly Haven. In addition to keeping our longwings happy, it means that we get the maximum display time from them.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

How I got my Camembert groove back

It's been a while since I had any decent home made cheese. My last two batches of Camembert were uninspired to bad. In both cases I was fighting an outbreak of poile de chat, a black surface mold nicknamed "cat's hair." My last batch was a complete failure- I only got the barest of growth of the desirable white Penicillium mold. The rest of the cheese spoiled and I had to throw it out (painful!). Then there was a problem with my milk supply, and I feared that I might have to return to using Pasteurized store-bought milk. Yuk!

What to do? When I discovered that my milk supply was going to return, I immediately ditched all of my mold cultures (which were about a year and a half old) and purchased fresh ones. What a difference it made! I made four rounds of Camembert with beautiful snow-white rinds and the rich creamy yellow interiors that the raw Guernsey milk provides. I've got my groove back!


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Dunes in Illinois

Since I recently blogged about the wonders of the dune community in Indiana, it's only fair that I give some time to the sand dunes of Illinois Beach State Park. The park extends along the Lake Michigan shoreline right up near the Wisconsin border. The dunes are smaller here than in Indiana or Michigan. That's because the prevailing westerly winds blow a lot of the sand out into the lake rather than into or along the shore. The latter process is necessary to sculpt taller dunes.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylus uva-ursi)

Two rare butterflies are found at Illinois beach. They fly very early in the season, so on Friday afternoon, I made my way up to the park to attempt to find them. The Hoary Elfin is an endangered species in Illinois. The caterpillars feed exclusively on bearberry, a rare plant in Illinois. The population of Hoary Elfins at Illinois Beach is the only one known in the state.

Bearberry is a woody plant that grows in prostrate mats

Curiously, Hoary Elfins have never been reported from the Indiana Dunes, despite the existence of ample host plant in apparently similar habitat.

Friday afternoon was very windy, which helped neither the the butterfly watching nor the photography. I only saw about a half dozen elfins. The constant motion of even very low vegetation in the stiff breeze meant that most of my photos were blurry. I did manage to get one decent image.

I was keeping an eye out for tiger beetles during my visit, and only managed to see one. It's a terrible photo, but represents the only time I've ever seen Cicindela scutellaris in Illinois. This one is subspecies lecontii.

Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris lecontii)

The other butterfly that I was seeking, the Olympia Marblewing, was a no show. I suspect that the wind was just too high. Despite the suboptimal conditions, it's really hard to have a bad day at such a beautiful nature preserve. I even managed to continue my project of trying to get more digital images of butterfly species that I need to include in talks. Just before I reached the parking lot to leave, an American Lady posed very briefly for me. Up until now, my only images of that species have been on film.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

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