I have often found myself reading something, or wandering the woods and thought to myself, “Hey! Look at this amazing thing! I want to tell someone about this!” only to find no one to tell. Well, this blog is basically a place for me to do just that, to share things for all who may (or may not) be interested. More often than not, the types of things I am compelled to share are related to a beautiful piece of the natural ecosystem most people overlook.
And so, welcome the first in what I hope will become a semi-regular series here on the blog, entitled: Creature Feature. No, not that kind of creature feature... Each installment of this blog series will introduce a unique and amazing creature – animal, plant, and maybe even fungi! In this first installment I introduce you to a creature that spends most of the year out of sight beneath our feet, but once a year ventures from its subterranean home to breed in wooded pools and wetlands – the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).
Picture this, you are on an expedition to a distant and remote corner of the Australian Outback. An area so hot and dry that few scientists have ever dared visit, and yet, life persists. You are on your hands and knees peering down into a funnel trap at the base of a brick-red rock. Suddenly, something catches your eye, something unique. “Hey” you call to your field team “Come look at this cool bug I found! What do you think it is?!”.
Believe it or not, scenes like this are happening all over the world even now. From the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, to our own back yards. In fact, I just left a talk given by fellow UMass ECO grad student where she showed some of the work she’s done to help describe a new species of gall wasp right here in southern New England, it is even named after her, Zapatella davisae. Each new species that is discovered and described by scientists is given its own two-part name, and categorized alongside all other known species. After hundreds of years of counting, cataloging, and organizing life on earth, scientists have named about 1.7 million species, but estimates of the true number of species on earth ranges from a total of 4 million to a staggering 1 trillion species of microbes alone! (http://www.pnas.org/content/113/21/5970.full.pdf)
Zapatella davisae, the recently described gall wasp described and named after UMass Amherst graduate student Monica Davis. Buffington et al. 2016
The base of the tree of life, showing the three Domains, and four Eukaryotic Kingdoms
Ireland, the home of all things green, rolling hills, potatoes, and, of course, St. Patrick. But no snakes, there are no native snakes on the Emerald Isle. According to legend, this lack of seprentine squamates is thanks to none other than St. Patrick himself. The story tells of St. Patrick being bitten by a snake while on a 40 day fast in the wilds of Ireland, and in retribution he banished all the snakes from the island by chasing them into the sea!
So, in honor of our Saintly Snake Evictor, enjoy this beautiful smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) that I found last spring hiking in Acadia National Park. These are small slender snakes that very rarely exceed 2-ft in length. They like grassy areas with small trees and shrubs, where they seek out their favorite invertebrate prey, such as grasshoppers and spiders.
St. Patrick banishing all the snakes from Ireland (photo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/0317-san-patricio.jpg)