Fieldwork 101: Identifying the “Infinite in the Small”

 

Summer in the northeast United States is a time for a bounty of life forms, little bugs munching leaves and landing out of nowhere in our midst and tiny weeds decorating “waste” places trying to show us that life can be lived in the most unassuming of places. Seemingly they have come from nowhere and humbly they will disappear at frost. Having a minor  reputation in my neighborhood as a naturalist, I am presented with various creatures for ID, and then one simply fell into my lap (precisely speaking, onto my page), and then there is the case of the striking stranger that came for the cat food. I write about them in the spirit that the least among us deserves recognition and has a story to tell–part of the Big Story of Life on Earth.

 

Carrion beetle on my kitchen counter.

Burying beetle on my kitchen counter.

 

This handsome beetle popped out of an empty cat food can in my sink.  We had gone to Columbus, Ohio, for a wedding, leaving Rex Fernandez the cat in the care of an expert cat sitter who left the nearly empty Fancy Feast cans in the sink as requested.  Upon tidying up I encountered this large, dramatically colored beetle. I was surprised but not horrified. As most naturalists would, I decided to photograph it with my iPhone for identification. Darwin, famously, put a beetle, or was it two, in his mouth for safekeeping to carry home for study, because his hands were full with specimens and equipment. I had just acquired Insects of New England & New York by Tom Murray, so it was a simple matter of flipping through pages of photographs of beetles to find one like this.

Insects of New England and New York by Tom Murray, published by Kollath + Stensaas Publishing.

Insects of New England and New York by Tom Murray, published by Kollath + Stensaas Publishing.

Simple-minded or not, this is my first approach to identification. It was quickly apparent that this individual belonged to the family of Carrion Beetles (Silphidae) and more particularly to the genus Nicrophorus, commonly known as Sexton (Burying) Beetles. Murray writes,

“In the Northeast we have 9 of the 15 Burying Beetles species. Adults bury the carcass of a small mammal or bird, and then lay eggs on it and are dedicated parents, feeding the larvae bits of carrion.”

That’s how life continues, by not wasting available resources and good parenting. I narrowed from genus to species. It looked exactly like the photo of Nicrophorus defodiens in Murray’s book, which I stumbled upon online as well. These beetles get around. One comment beneath the online photo indicates they are a pest on the Isle of Skye in western Scotland, or I should say a wee pest (the go-to lingo of the Scots). I am sure that I could not put this kind of beetle in my mouth.

And then in further tidying I discovered a note and a container from the expert cat sitter by the telephone.

“Elizabeth. I’m trying to find a home for this strange bug–also to find out what kind of bug he is. Maybe the [grand]children would be interested?! I consulted an insect ID book to no avail. Anyway he is a fascinating little (very) creature. Susan”

The Wegman’s Olive Bar container had beautiful little holes in the lid and nothing in it at first view. Near some shredded leaf parts I saw a tiny, very tiny as she had said, fuzzy little bug.

Susan's bug.

Susan’s bug, magnified considerably.

Higher magnification of Susan's bug.

Higher magnification of Susan’s bug. Note the widened “flanges” of the hind legs.

 

I went off on a wild goose-bug chase. The chances of ID-ing such a tiny bug, especially one that appeared to have been rolling around in gooey dust  seemed futile. I observed it, photographed it, and then let it go because I didn’t want it to die while I was on my chase. The hind legs were distinctive.  I immediately thought of leaf-footed bugs, known for “leaf-like expansions” (Murray) of their hind legs, and a photo in Murray’s book of the Distinct Leaf-footed Bug (Merocoris distinctus) bore some likeness. Murray’s description reads: “These little, fuzzy bugs can be found on flowers throughout the eastern U.S., except Florida where M. typhaeus occurs.” Susan said that she had found it on her shower curtain, but this unusual location did not necessarily rule out the Distinct Leaf-footed Bug because bugs get around for various reasons. Such a tiny bug could have blown on a gentle breeze from one of the flowers in her garden to her shower curtain, possibly. I wasn’t satisfied, however. The Distinct Leaf-footed Bug was supposed to be 9 mm or so, and Susan’s bug was smaller I thought. But perhaps it could be just a nymph, an immature stage in maturation of insects. It would get bigger and then look more like the photo in Murray’s book perhaps, especially if it was cleaned up. But that line of thinking was definitely fuzzy. I puzzled on.

Browsing around online, googling search terms like “tiny, fluffy bug” or “tiny, fuzzy bug” or “tiny, sticky bug,” I can’t remember exactly, I stumbled on Doug Green’s Simple Gifts Farm (www.simplegiftsfarm.com) with a great photo of a lookalike. You have to scroll down past the wooly aphid to get to the photo of the nymph of the Masked Hunter Bug (similar to Susan’s bug). The fascinating little creature on the shower curtain was a member of the Assassin Bug family, specifically Reduvius personatus. Called Assassin Bugs, because they hunt and kill other bugs, they like to be indoors and can, if disturbed, inflict very painful bites upon humans. The Masked Hunter is so-called because the nymphs go around covered in dust as a camouflage. The adults are not half as fascinating looking, as shown on Michigan State University’s webpage, written byHoward Russell, who notes that they have a “sizable beak” with a “needle-like mouthpart.” I am more entranced by the Masked Hunter with its costume of dust.

My third identification adventure occurred in a coffee shop. I was sitting with my portable, paper 2014 Edward Gorey’s The Evil Garden Calendar (Pomegranate) open and my coffee, plotting to get my life in order when a beetle dropped onto the page.

Beetle on calendar.

Beetle on calendar.

I had been immersed in beetles and bugs, and here was another one begging for attention. Had it dropped off the ceiling? my hair? At least it wasn’t an assassin bug. It seemed cheerful and actively explored my page.

Beetle on the move.

Beetle on the move.

The pattern on the back was interesting but not outstandingly helpful. After escorting the beetle outside to an ornamental planting by the parking lot, I started looked through all beetles that had three-pronged, black antennae. There were a lot. I narrowed it down to some type of scarab beetle, and after much wandering among beetle photographs decided that it was mostly likely the Oriental Beetle, Exomala orientalis (synonym Anomala orientalis). My photographs match those on bugguide.net almost exactly. Various accounts point out that the pattern often varies this way and that (i.e., no two snowflakes are alike), and sometimes it is completely black, as shown in Murray’s book. It is an immigrant from Asia, and frequents rose and hollyhock blossoms. The grubs live in the ground and feed on turfgrass roots.

In graduate school I took courses that gave me practice in some of the arts of identification–Agrostology, the study of grasses, at the University of Texas at Austin, and Entomology, the study of insects, at Cornell.  It’s not so much the name per se that a naturalist seeks, but knowing and honoring the individual through seeing well–discriminating between details of appearance with appreciation. I cannot fly around the world like David Attenborough, but I can engage in adventures that everyday life presents, and they are nonstop.

I found a wonderful website called Beetles in the Bush created by entomologist Ted MacRae. He posted  ID Challenge # 23on July 12, 2014. I was too busy investigating my own challenges to undertake his challenge, but I urge readers to get involved and accept challenges. For example, here is a long-legged insect that I found ensconced on peony fruit capsules in my Secret Garden.

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

 

Here's a higher magnification.

Here’s a higher magnification.

I think it is a katydid. The challenge is what kind of katydid? I also pose this challenge in the spirit of the  “revisioning the insect-human connection,” the subtitle of a wonderful book by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck titled The Voice of the Infinite In the Small. This is a beautiful book about tuning in to our smallest brethren and shedding human self-centeredness in order to really belong to the delicate lace of life on planet Earth. I for one feel that my life is more in order when I try to identify my fellow life forms.

A classic: The Voice of the Infinite in the Small: Revisioning the Insect-Human Connection by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck.

A classic: The Voice of the Infinite in the Small: Revisioning the Insect-Human Connection by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck.

Williwaw

I learned a new word recently. Williwaw. I like words that describe the earth’s atmosphere and geography.  It is a wind, and winds often have unusual names, like haboob or black bora. The williwaw belongs to the group known as katabatic winds, those whose swoosh is accelerated by gravity. Most specifically, a williwaw is a violent wind (120 mph or so) that blows down from the lofty mountains and glaciers looming over the Straits of Magellan. Here, in Fireland or Tierra del Fuego, at the end of the world, British sailors used the word to describe the ferocious winds that battered their little boats.

 

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A williwaw understood figuratively is “a state of great turmoil” according to several dictionaries and certainly it is a good word to describe Darwin’s culture shock meeting the Fuegians of Tierra del Fuego. The “calm naturalist” of the early chapters loses his dispassionate, even-handed stance. Chapter X is full of exclamation points as he describes the behavior of the “savages” or indigenous people. Readers become part of the strange, sad, and moving story of how three Fuegians were stolen from their home by Darwin’s captain, taken to England, dressed in European clothes, taught English, introduced to the King and Queen of England, where they carried themselves well, and then returned to the shores of their rugged, williwaw-swept landscape with tea cups, wine glasses, tablecloths, and seeds to spread civilization among their “savage” relatives. In order to further our understanding of Darwin’s account of “the Fuegian story,” the students and I read excerpts from Lucas Bridge’s Uttermost Part of the World: A History of Tierra del Fuego and the Fuegians and Nick Hazlewood’s Savage: the Life and Times of Jemmy Button. The Fuegians are extinct now, except for portions of their gene pool represented in the current population of South America, but they live on in books and the work of professional historians and students. In our reading we have learned how tough women can be. The Fuegians were dependent on the sea for much of their food, and the women ran that show. They paddled the bark canoes and they fished with plaited ropes made from their own hair. Men were barely able to paddle and they couldn’t swim. Nomads, the Fuegians carried their fire by boat, nestling it on a plinth of rock and sand. At night the woman would paddle close to shore, unload the man and children, and if unable to safely beach the canoe, paddle out hundreds of meters to a kelp bed, tie the canoe up with kelp fronds, and then swim back to shore in icy waters, completely naked. Darwin describes a naked woman nursing her infant in a canoe while sleet slashes down upon them. We, the students and I, are impressed by the physical fortitude of these Fuegian women (so far a cry from the near-contemporaneous delicate young women of Downton Abbey).  I admire the knowledge gained, the sensory experience earned, as the Fuegian women swam through icy kelp beds toward the fire on shore in the land of williwaws.

 

Kelp fronds

Kelp fronds

The Young Woman and the Zorillo!

It’s 7:20 am and I am rushing to work because I have a handout to prepare for my Darwin class. The roads are clear but a layer of fluffy snow covers the tree branches as billowy fast-moving clouds move across a blue sky. I proceed down Fall Creek Drive to the Stewart Avenue Bridge over Fall Creek gorge. There just completing her walk over the bridge is a stunning young woman, probably a graduate student walking up to Cornell. I gasp at how beautifully dressed she is for so early in the morning. She wears stiletto-heeled black leather boots that fit her slender calves tightly, ending at the knees where curly fringes dangle. Legs in black tights disappear beneath a short black mini skirt. Then a black jacket with postmodern styling. Silver buttons? Something sparkles. A generous swath of diaphanous black scarf tumbles artfully around her neck, intermixed with her own glossy black hair. A beautiful face beautifully made up. She strides along  eating something. It is hard to capture all the details at 10 miles per hour but my impression is that she is unwrapping a chocolate, but it could be a cough drop. So nicely put together, she looks the picture of confidence.

 

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis, photo courtesy Dan and Lin Dzurisin, Wiki Commons)

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis, photo courtesy Dan and Lin Dzurisin, Wiki Commons)

 

Then, I see a skunk maybe 15 or so paces behind her on the bridge’s sidewalk, fretful turning this way and that, appearing to feel indecisive about whether to follow in the direction of the young woman or retreat and go back to the other side of the bridge. Maybe it has just realized how deep the gorge lies below. A slightly bedraggled skunk, it still is striking for the amount of white on its back. Suddenly it runs quickly, extremely quickly for a skunk, who usually find little reason to get out of anyone’s way. In my rear view mirror I see that the skunk is now just a few feet behind the young woman. It looks as if the skunk is chasing her. How will this story end? There is no place for me to turn around, just as there is no place for the young woman and the skunk to get away from each other easily. Did the insouciant seeming young woman lose her insouciance? Did the skunk overtake her and pass by, following other urgent interests? I pose various fictional endings to myself, some amusing, others dreadful and fantastical, but am most interested in what I cannot know–the true ending of this true story.

Curiously the students and I had just been talking about skunks a propos of Darwin. We have been admiring Darwin’s lovely temperament–how unbiased and good-natured he is in his observations and encounters throughout his long voyage on the Beagle. He is painstaking in his descriptions of the Diodon (puffer fish) and the Aplysia (sea slug) and so on. He is curiosity itself–except when he comes across a skunk, which in South America is called the Zorillo: “We passed the night in Punta Alta, and I employed myself in searching for fossil bones, this point being a perfect catacomb for monsters of extinct races….In riding back in the morning we came across a very fresh track of a Puma, but did not succeed in finding it. We saw also a couple of Zorillos, or skunks,–odious animals, which are far from uncommon. …Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man….Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorillo” (The Modern Library edition, p. 72). And so he did–Darwin, the most tenacious naturalist of all times, made way for the Zorillo. I continue to speculate on the seemingly inevitable encounter between the young woman and the skunk that I have described. Did nonchalance meet nonchalance? In other words, perhaps nothing of note occurred after I rounded the corner beyond the bridge.