Friday, December 12, 2014


Carolina Anole

On the second Saturday of November while trimming shrubs at Big Pa's old house on Pottery Road, one of North Carolina's Scenic Byways (NC Highway 705), I happened across a pair of delightful Carolina Anoles (sounds like "uh-knoll-lee" or "uh-knoll" depending on whom you ask).  I love watching their independently rotating eyes as they stare me down. They are like little pointy-nosed dinosaurs.  

These small lizards have the ability to alternate between two basic colors, unlike chameleons which can modify the appearance of their skin to a multitude of colors to match their environment.  Anoles have three layers of pigmented cells in their skin that allows them to change their skin color. The three colors of pigmented cells are brown/black, yellow, and blue.  Typically these anoles will be a rich brown in environments that are cool, moist, and/or dark, and also when they are stressed. These are situations when an anole's activity is diminished. They will be brilliant green when they are warm, active, in bright light, and during the excitement and competition of mating season.  And of course green comes from the blend of the yellow and blue pigmented cells.  

Some individual Carolina Anoles have a light marking along the ridge of their back as in this individual.  Carolina Anoles have special toe pads that are a bit like those of geckos that allow them to climb on slick surfaces. They have a prominent ridge that runs from the eye to the nose.  

Anoles eat mostly insects and spiders.  In winter they avoid the cold in sheltered areas like under tree bark, in thick brush, or inside small outside openings in a house like under this deck where I found these two. Anoles have the features of other lizards, like dry and scaly skin, eyelids, claws, and behind the eye there is an external ear opening.  

Male Carolina Anoles have unusual territorial and dominance displays that involve doing a sort of push-up motion that causes their head to bob up and down.  Often at the same time they will extend their dewlap, a portion of skin along their neck and throat that is like a brilliant red blade.  Below are links to pictures of dewlaps, the two basic Carolina Anole colorations, and a short video of an anole changing colors.

Some of this information on Carolina Anoles came from:


Dekay's Brown Snake

On Veteran's Day as I was digging up little volunteer Nandina shrubs, I came across this small snake hiding under leaves next to the house.  This Dekay's Brown Snake is common in many habitats across the eastern US including forests and wetlands as well as the lawns and gardens of cities and towns.  They are a somewhat secretive snake and often spend their day under leaves, mulch, rocks, and landscaping timbers.  

Like all snakes, the Dekay's Brown Snake uses its tongue to gather information about the odors in the air around them as well as from items they may be considering to consume as food. These chemical "scents" attach to the tongue and are processed by the Jacobson's organ which is located in the roof of the snake's mouth.  This information is sent to the snake's brain which it interprets as a smell.

The picture below shows the snake curled up on a Formica table top. The two rows of small paired dark spots along its back are a key identifying feature.  Dekay's Brown Snakes can be light brown like this one, but can be gray or darker brown as well. This one has cream colored belly, but often the belly is grayish or pinkish.

In this picture you can see the pattern of scales on its belly that identifies it as a non-venomous snake.  On the right side of the picture at the snake's vent or cloaca (where the tail starts to turns downward) the scales go from a single scale across the belly to a braided pair of scales.  All of North Carolina's non-venomous snakes show this pattern of belly scales while our venomous snakes (except for the very rare Eastern Coral Snake) continue a pattern of single scales past the cloaca nearly to the tip of the tail.

In this close-up picture that I took in a white bowl, you can see a prominent dark mark behind its eye.  Another feature that you can see here are the keeled scales along its back and sides. On some of the scales, the keel is highlighted by the camera's flash as a small raised white line in the middle of the scale. These keels make this young 8 inch long snake feel a bit rough when holding it.  Dekay's Brown Snakes only grow to about 15 inches long.  Though these snakes are a bit wiggly, I have never had one even offer to bite.  They eat insects, earthworms, and slugs, etc.  Female Dekay's Brown Snakes do not lay eggs, but birth a few to as many as 20 young.

Some of this information on Dekay's Brown Snake came from:

Southern Two-lined Salamander

Also on Veteran's Day I uncovered this small amphibian while working with a gutter downspout drain.  On the wet ground under the corrugated pipe, I saw a little squiggle motion.  A quick scoop and I had this beautiful Southern Two-lined Salamander in my hand.  

One feature that biologists use to identify salamander species is the number of costal grooves along each side of the amphibian.  The Southern Two-lined Salamander has 14 costal grooves**. The salamander's ribs lie just beneath these narrow channels.  It appears the function of the grooves is to transport water across this semi-aquatic salamander's thin and fragile skin to keep it moist.   You can see several of the vertical crease-like marks in the picture below.  

The Southern Two-lined Salamander's basic color is yellow-orange with a broad pair of dark brown to black lines that run from behind the eyes and along the body nearly to the end of its tail.  It also has these dark speckles on its sides below these stripes as well as a few sprinkled between them.  Its legs are speckled, too.

Salamanders look a little bit like lizards, but are quite different.  Salamanders can breathe through their skin which is moist and smooth instead of dry and scaly as in lizards. And salamanders do not have claws or external ear openings like lizards. 

The Southern Two-lined Salamander's tail is nearly as long as the rest of its body. Salamanders can detach their tails as a way of escape from a predator or a rival. Within hours the salamander can begin growing a new tail through a process called regeneration. 

These sleek little 2.5 to 4 inch salamanders live in and around wet areas like streams, ditches, and seeps (like my gutter downspout drain), and are often found under leaves, rocks, or logs.  The adults eat a variety of prey including earthworms, millipedes, roly-polies (pill bugs), flies, beetles, snails, roaches, ants, spiders, bees, grubs, and ticks.  Yum!

It is easy to see some of the salamander's internal organs through its very thin, moist, and breathable yellow skin.  Its tail is remarkably long.

I took this picture in a white bowl with a small amount of water.  Here you can see the four toes on the front feet and the five toes on the hind feet.  There are a few salamander species that have four or fewer toes on the hind feet.

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diet of adults as including roachesspidersticksearthwormsisopodsmillipedesbeetlessnailsspringtailsflies, and of adults as including roaches, spiders, ticks, earthworms, isopods, millipedes, beetles, snails, springtails, flies, and hymenopterans.
adults as including roachesspidersticksearthwormsisopodsmillipedesbeetlessnailsspringtailsflies, and hymenopterans.
This is a link to a photo of a pair of Southern Two-lined Salamanders.   The males of this species develop a pair of fang-like projections from their nasal area called cirri that are thought to help them locate a mate during breeding season.

I found the link below to a very useful tool for identifying salamanders and other wildlife in a specific area. 

**  I also read that we humans have costal grooves, too.  Our costal grooves run along the inside of our ribs.  Contained in this protected channel is a grouping made up of a vein, an artery, and a nerve known as the "intercostal neurovascular bundle".   


Some of this information on salamanders came from:

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Early autumn brought opportunities to observe a number of flying insects, including a few that were species that I had not seen before.  This post features two wasps and two really neat flies.   


As I was pulling up the maturing sicklepod plants from around the bird feeders, this little metallic blue-green creature buzzed into view.  It made several brief landings on the stems of the largest plant.  Of course, I was off to Google in search of an identification.  It didn't take long to find that this insect was some species of cuckoo wasp.  I found that there are 61 cuckoo wasp species in North Carolina and about 3000 worldwide.  They are an insect that has been found in the fossil record up to 140 millions years ago!  

These wasps do not make their own nest, but lay their eggs in the nests of a host insect.  These hosts include bees, flies, and other species of wasps.  There are bird species that use this same nesting behavior.  One of  these is the European Cuckoo for which this wasp family is named.  Another is our native Brown-headed Cowbird. Some cuckoo wasp larvae eat the host insect's larvae as well as the food items stored for it, while some cuckoo wasp larvae eat just the host's paralyzed prey.

Though a bit blurry, the next three pictures helped me identify this particular species of cuckoo wasp.  One of the websites I found,, has a search page that has an array of detailed pictures and sketches. From this site I am pretty certain that this small wasp is the species, Chrysis conica, sometimes called the Neon Cuckoo Wasp.

The important detail in these pictures is the number of "teeth" along the back edge of the abdomen and their spacing.  The Chrysis conica species has four "teeth" along the end of the abdomen with the center two "teeth" forming a V-shaped notch.

Below is a link to an awesome macro-photo of the shape of the Neon Cuckoo Wasp posterior abdomen that I found on Wikimedia Commons.

This species of cuckoo wasp typically lays its eggs in the nest of a potter wasp (Eumenes fraternus).  Potter wasps build small marble-sized mud nests which they attach to vegetation as well as to man-made structures. These nests resemble tiny clay jugs.  The potter wasp stocks each nest with several paralyzed caterpillars before laying one of her eggs. The cuckoo wasp tries to sneak in and lay her egg before the Potter wasp's nest is complete. When the cuckoo wasp egg hatches, it will feast on the Potter wasp larvae as well as the paralyzed caterpillars. 

Cuckoo Wasps have a thick and pitted exoskeleton that protects them from possible bites or stings of the host insect. In addition, these wasps are one of the few insects that can curl up into a ball like a pill bug (roly-poly) as an added form of protection as illustrated in the images from the internet below.


In late September I noticed a few wasps nectaring on tiny yellow flowers arranged on the plume-like fronds of the Tall Goldenrod behind the lab. These were a species of paper wasp.  These wasps make their nests from fibers that they collect from plants or dead wood. Combining their saliva with these fibers, they produce a grayish paper-like* material that is resistant to water.  The wasp queen and her helpers fashion this material into a comb-shaped cluster of six-sided open cells. The nest may contain up to 30 cells or more by the end of summer with the queen depositing one egg per cell. Common places for paper wasps to build their nests include; under the eaves of houses, in out buildings, or to undersides of tree branches.  During the summer I'd found the nests of these wasps inside two of the seven bluebird nest boxes set up around the lab's perimeter.

*There is historical evidence that the nest making of paper wasps influenced a Chinese official in 105 AD to develop the process of making paper from wood fibers.  

The abdomen of the wasp below is marked with reddish brown blended with black and is ringed with a few thin bands of yellow. The legs are mostly yellow as well.  The antenna are bent and then hooked at the end.  After looking over the 22 species of paper wasps that live in North America, I believe this is probably a male Polistes dorsalis.  

A paper wasp colony consists of a foundress (queen), her daughters (includes non-egg laying workers plus "gynes" - next year's foundresses), and her sons (drones). Having mated with a male wasp prior to winter's onset, the foundress finds a protected place to survive the cold weather.  The cold temperatures kill the previous year's queen as well as the workers and drones. After finding a suitable location with the warmer weather of spring, the foundress begins her colony as a small nest. There she lays several eggs, one in each cell, that will become her first female workers.  She feeds and cares for these daughters. These worker wasps then help expand the colony by building more cells and taking over the duties of hunting for food and caring for the eggs and larva. The queen now focuses only on egg laying. Late in the season the queen will lay unfertilized eggs that will become drones. She will also lay some fertilized eggs that will become gynes. These females do not help care for the eggs or larva, but will mate with drones from other colonies, and will found new colonies next year. 

The underside of this wasp shows more yellow.  This is more obviously a male paper wasp because of its yellow squarish face and long hooked antenna.  Males are more abundant in the late summer and early fall.

I will be looking more closely at wasps next year to see what other species are neighbors of ours.


I noticed this small flying creature at the back of the lab in early fall.  One of the most interesting thing about this insect was it behavior, especially the "oaring" motion of its wings.

One of the marks that identify this as a Picture-winged Fly are the two white triangles on the leading edge of its wings. Picture-winged flies have a bulb-like abdomen, plum-colored eyes, and their head is shaped like a horse's.  This fly's grayish abdomen is a characteristic of the female of this species, Delphinia picta.

Picture-winged flies feed on decaying vegetation and rotting fallen fruit.  They are interesting and harmless creatures.  I hope I get to see more.


Back in late summer I took this picture of a black and yellow fly that looked somewhat like a bee, a wasp, or a hornet mining away for nectar in this aging Rudbeckia bloom.  This fly is from the family known as Syrphid flies (but also called Hover flies, Drone flies, or Flower flies). They are important pollinators of certain flowers. These flies have the hummingbird-like ability to hover in front of a flower on nearly invisible wings as they feed on nectar.  In fact they can fly backwards.  There are 23 species of syrphid flies in North America.  This group of hover flies has an unusual aquatic larval form known as a "rat-tailed maggot". These larva live in polluted or contaminated water and breath through a long slender tube which perhaps looks like a rat's tail.

The Larvae of the Drone Fly - aka "the Rat-tailed Maggot"


The common name for this particular fly is the Transverse Flower Fly.  The identifying marks are the gray color on the front portion of the thorax and the yellow scutellum.  This fly is a female fly which is indicated by the space between its eyes. In the fuzzy enlargement below you can see the yellow half-moon shaped structure at the top, the lighter gray front part of the thorax in the middle, and the separated eyes of the female at the bottom.

My first experience with this fly was many, many years ago through my friend and colleague, Susan.  She brought me a jar with several very strange wormy-looking creatures with long stiff tails swimming about.  She told me that her son had retrieved them from a wet polluted area behind her home.  I took these odd larva to Jesse Perry at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences.  When he saw them, he happily exclaimed, "Ah, Rat-tailed Maggots!", like he had just found a long lost friend.

Below is a link to a video of rat-tailed maggots swimming.

(link to video of Rat-tailed Maggot)

I did  not realize that the word "insect" comes from the Latin words that mean "cut into sections".  The name refers to the three segments of an insect's body; the head, the thorax, and the abdomen.

Some hover fly information came from the following websites.