JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

December 1, 2013

FLATCOIL SNAIL
Recent rains have the little Dry Frio River more or less flowing again. This week, on a gravel bar in the river, beneath an alga-encrusted rock resting atop pebbles with water trickling through them there was a snail about the size of the fingernail of a pinky finger. Field marks making it a little unusual included its several, tightly coiled rings, the manner in which the whorls were compressed into a flattish shell, and the pale brown shell's numerous dark spots. You can see it, its stalked eyes at the lower left, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201sn.jpg.

In snail identification the basic starting point is knowing whether your snail lives on dry land, in freshwater, or is marine. Our Dry Frio snail wasn't marine, but I couldn't say whether its position on a rock's wet bottom with water running among pebbles beneath the rock qualified it as a land snail or a freshwater one.

Happily, on the Internet a fine website turned up at Molluskman.com, dedicated to the study of mollusks in the Houston, Texas area. The man at Molluskman.com is Max Anton, a young, amateur artist and malacologist who volunteers a good bit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Max offers to identify snails. Seeing ours, he replied:

"I'm pretty sure the snail you photographed belongs to the terrestrial species Polygyra cereolus, but it might be something else. I'd need to see the aperture to make a definite ID, but I know for certain that it's a member of the Polygyra family. They're a native species that typically poses no threat to healthy plants or agriculture."

So, there you are. I offered to ID plants for Max in return for his help with snails, so maybe we have a future together.

If our snail is POLYGYRA CEREOLUS -- and it matches pictures of that species on the Internet -- one common name for the species is the Southern Flatcoil Snail, and it's an air-breathing land snail. It's been reported mostly in the US southeastern states, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and has been observed feeding on Red and White Clovers, though no clovers were near where I found ours.

The family to which Southern Flatcoils belong, the Polygyridae, contains many of eastern North America's land snail species, with a few other species scattered across western North America, Mexico and northern Central America, and the Caribbean. It's interesting to note the features experts use in distinguishing the family: Members have no "love dart"; muscles used to retract the eyes and pharynx are united into a single band, and; the jaws are ribbed. The "love dart" is such a bizarre feature of many snail types that if you want to know more you can visit Wikipedia's Love Dart Page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_dart.

Anyway, in the above list of features of the Polygyridae, notice that there's no mention of the shell. Features used are those you'd never see unless you cut your snail apart beneath a dissecting scope.

*****

GRACKLE AT THE FEEDER
Neighbor Phred sent another picture of a visitor at his bird feeder, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201gk.jpg.

That's a female Great-tailed Grackle, occurring mostly in tropical America, where in town parks at dusk they can create incredibly loud, weird-sounding cacophonies as they go to roost. In the US they're found in the southwestern and south central states as far north as Kansas and even Iowa. We have several pictures and stories about them, including a shot of them "sky-pointing" during courtship, and a YouTube video where you can hear some of the sounds they make, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/grackle.htm.

*****

TEXAS TRIDENS GRASS
This late in the season only a few common wildflowers and weeds continue to bloom; already I'm missing the pleasures of their colors and fragrances. In contrast, many grass species now are heavy with mature grains, which pleases sparrows and finches who come foraging, but mostly we've already seen those grass species.

But, in a way, this is when it gets more interesting, for now is the time to start looking for less conspicuous species, the ones that until now have escaped our notice. This week such a fugitive grass turned up and it was a pleasure meeting it. You can see its frost-killed blades and stem topped with a gracefully arcing head of mature spikelets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201tt.jpg.

A close-up of the head shows that the spikelets are arranged in a panicle, which is a head in which spikelets are held on stems, or pedicels, that arise from other stems, which arise from a main stem, or maybe yet other stems. If the spikelets arose on pedicels directly from a main stem, the head would be a raceme, and if the spikelets bore no pedicels but arose from the main steam directly the head would be a spike. A closer look at this grass's panicle appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201tu.jpg.

A close-up of a complete spikelet beside the remains of three other spikelets that already have dropped their grain-filled florets is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201tv.jpg.

That picture shows important field marks. First, a single spikelet contains six or more florets. Second, when the florets mature and fall off, they leave the spikelet's lowest two scales, or glumes, still attached to the pedicel. In many grass genera, the glumes fall off as well. A third important field mark is that the glumes are about the same length as each floret's main scale, or lemma. In many grass genera the glumes are much shorter than the lemmas, or much longer, sometimes even longer than the whole collection of florets.

Another important field mark just barely visible in the above picture is that on the top side of the spikelet still containing its florets, the tip of the lowest floret appears to end not with a sharp point, which is typical, but rather with a notch, and a very tiny spine seems to arise at the base of that notch. This is such an important and unusual feature that a floret was placed beneath the dissecting scope, to make sure I wasn't imagining things. You can see a floret's scoop-shaped lemma from the top at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201tx.jpg.

Do you see the notch at the far left? And the short, sharp spine, which actually is the lemma's midrib projecting just a little beyond the notch? Also, the single veins on each of the lemma's sides also end in tiny points, or "mucros."

Another field mark always needing attention when you don't know what genus of grass you're dealing with is the ligule, the little wall-like thing that may or may not occur where the leaf blade meets the stem. Ligules come in many forms, mostly cellophane-like or "membranous," or like a little wall of hairs. This grass's ligule is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201tw.jpg.

It's mostly hairy, but with a hint of a membranous line, which is very unusual, since usually it's one way or another, not a hybrid situation like this.

So, all these fine field marks lead us right to the Texas Tridens, TRIDENS TEXANUS, found only in southwestern Texas and adjacent arid, northeastern Mexico. This is a fine discovery, a native plant of very limited distribution. Texas Tridens is poorly documented but one source says that it often grows in the protection of shrubs and along fenced road right-of-ways. The plants I've seen have mostly occupied open places on our limestone hillside. The open places might be natural "prairie patches" or where decades ago the trees were removed but which now grasses claim.

*****

DYEMAKER'S PUFFBALL
Right beside Juniper House's kitchen steps an odd-shaped, four-inch-high (10cm), rusty-brown, fairly ugly heap of something turned up in very disturbed gravel and dirt where this summer I'd piled shattered rock pick-axed from the septic tank I was digging. Later I'd wheelbarrowed away the rocks, but the ground had remained hard-packed and rocky. The thing heaped there now looked like a dog turd, except it had a hint of a stem and was halfway forked. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201dy.jpg.

Surely it was a fungal puffball, though I'd never seen a puffball like this. I think of a normal puffball as ball-like with powdery spores escaping in dusty puffs. If this one is shedding spores, apparently it does so by simply breaking up like a hunk of crumbly cornbread.

After browsing hundreds of pictures of Texas puffballs I hadn't found anything like it. However, eventually I figured it out -- by accidentally stumbling upon a picture of one like it as I tried to identify yet another weird fungus, considered in the next section. This week's rains have caused lots of mushrooms to pop up.

Usually our kitchen-step fungus is called Dyemaker's Puffball, though mushroom guru Tom Volk at the University of Wisconsin unabashedly refers to it as the Dog Turd Fungus, and in Australia it's the Horse Dung Fungus, and in Europe a name is Bohemian Truffle, probably used to gleefully deprecate Bohemians.

It's PISOLITHUS TINCTORIUS, a member of the seldom-heard-of Hard-skinned Puffball Family, the Sclerodermataceae, a widespread family in both temperate and tropical regions embracing species that most people don't notice or think of. The more familiar puffballs most of us know belong to different families. Our Dyemaker's Puffball occurs nearly worldwide.

The genus name Pisolithus literally means "pea stone," and in this case the fungus's peas are pea-shaped, pea-sized reproductive structures called "periodioles," which are scattered throughout the fungus's interior in a black gelatinous matrix. The mushroom matures from the top down, so in our picture the top periodioles already have matured and they and their matrix have dried into a soft, spongy, rusty-brown, spore-filled "gleba." And, it's true: Its spores haphazardly disseminate as the fungal body degenerates from the top down, some carried away by wind, others washed downslope by rainwater, or maybe by being stumbled into, broken and scattered by deer.

The name Dyemaker's Puffball comes about because the mushroom in its immature state, when its periodioles still are suspended in blackish, gelatinous matrix, a dye can be extracted from the mushroom that imparts a reddish brown to blackish hue to wool.

The most important and useful feature of the Dyemaker's Puffball, however, is that it's a mycorrhizal fungus. That means that it acquires its nutrition in a mutualistic (mutually helpful) association with the roots of trees. If you need to brush up on what mycorrhiza is, we have a dandy page all about it at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/mycorhza.htm.

Dyemaker's Puffballs form mycorrhizal associations mainly with conifers and oaks. Ours was near a Texas Liveoak, so probably it was helping out that pretty tree.

In fact, Tom Volk calls Dyemaker's Puffball a "super-mycorrhiza" because it forms associations with many different plant species, and thrives in a broad range of soil types, especially disturbed and even polluted ones, such at those of old stripmines. Often mycorrhizal fungi associate with only a single or a very few tree species. Dyemaker's Puffball's spores are sold commercially as an "inoculum" for coating seeds of plants to be sowed. Plant's sprouting from seeds inoculated with Dyemaker's Puffball spores often are more robust and able to survive severe weather and soil conditions better than plants from uninoculated seeds.

You can buy a 1½ pound (680g) bag of "mycorrhizal landscape inoculant" containing the spores of Dyemaker's Puffball (listed as Pisolithus tinctorius) and eight other fungus species for $52.50 at http://www.bio-organics.com/product/mycorrhizal-landscape-inoculant/.

In that purchase you are guaranteed to receive 45,000,000 spores in each 1.5lb container.

*****

TEXAS STAR MUSHROOM
In rich, heavily shaded soil at the foot of our hill, just below a low ledge of outcropping limestone, I found the dark nuts of two acorns curiously situated very close together and with their pointy tops directed skyward. You can see their puzzling appearance at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201ch.jpg.

But, this just wasn't right. Acorns don't position themselves in such a manner. Looking around for other examples, I found three or four others scattered about just below the limestone outcrop, but they occurred singly. Most of the others had holes in them, apparently where rodents or birds had nibbled. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201ci.jpg.

But, acorns don't display white flesh beneath blackish skin. This was a fungus, but a fungus unlike any I'd seen. It was hollow. With a finger I pried away one side of one, the side seeming to break cleanly along fracture lines not apparent from the outside. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201cj.jpg.

The fungus's colored inner face suggested that this was an earthstar fungus, or something closely related, though this was unlike any earthstar I'd seen, even in photos. When earthstars mature, their several slender, sharp-tipped "arms" curve outward until they lie against the ground, causing the fungus to assume the shape of a star. In the picture, I've peeled away an arm.

After browsing hundreds of pictures of earthstars on the Internet, nothing turned up like our find. Finally, like a rank amateur, I Googled the keywords "fungus star-shaped Texas," and up came what looked like our discovery might become at maturity. It was the Texas Star, CHORIOACTIS GEASTER.

But, Texas Stars are not earthstars. The many earthstar species belong to the fungal phylum Basidiomycota. Texas Stars belong to the Ascomycota. Taxonomically, phyla are the next main subdivision after the kingdom, so saying that something belongs to a different phylum is like saying that an animal is a vertebrate instead of a sponge or starfish. Texas Stars may resemble normal earthstars, but they are profoundly unrelated fungal types.

Chorioactis geaster is such a rare and unusual species that I feared announcing that I'd found some without having the identification confirmed. I sent the pictures to Tim Wheeler at http://www.fungaljungal.org, who agreed that that's what it looked like, but to be sure he shared the pictures with Texan David Lewis, president of the Gulf States Mycological Society, mycology being the study of fungi. David Lewis's verdict:

"Yes, it is Chorioactis geaster. It seems to range from around the Austin area up to Dallas. Its range extends along the Balcones Escarpment, a limestone area in Texas."

This is one of my best Texas finds yet. We are at the western end of the Balcones Escarpment, which physiographically corresponds with where the Edwards Plateau meets the Gulf Coastal Plain.

One of the most remarkable things about Chorioactis geaster is that in the entire world it is known only from a handful of counties in the area described by David Lewis, and a couple of very limited spots in Japan! Sometimes fungi, whose spores can travel on winds for hundreds and apparently thousands of miles, do exhibit such "disjunct" distributions. Recent genetic analysis indicates that the Japanese and Texas populations have been separated for at least the last nineteen millions years.

Chorioactis geaster is such an unusual species that it's the only species in its genus, Chorioactis. The preferred host of Texan populations is typically roots and stumps of Cedar Elms, Ulmus crassifola, and there was a big Cedar Elm near where I found our fungus.

You can see a picture of the mature Texas Star with its arms open, and read a good bit about the discovery, debates and eventual figuring out what it was at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chorioactis.

*****

TEXAS EARTHBALL
Along a steep, rocky trail through the scrubby Ashe Junipers and Texas Liveoaks on our limestone hill, a brown, leathery, bowl-like, flower-shaped affair about two inches wide (5cm) turned up, seeming to contain something like mud or wet ashes in its bowl. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201sd.jpg.

It was the remains of some kind of puffball-like fungus, the ashy stuff in its center being what was left of a spore mass, the main body of which already had been blown or washed away. With such fragmentary remains I didn't figure I'd ever be able to identify the fungus species, but right after taking the above picture I noticed what was apparently an immature fungus of the same kind emerging between rocks just a few inches away, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201sc.jpg.

We've seen something like this before. Back in Oregon we found an "earthball" of the genus Scleroderma. You can see how similar it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/earthbll.htm.

Normally to be sure about an earthball's identification you need to see the spores with a microscope. We have a microscope, and you can see our earthball's spores at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131201se.jpg.

The three larger dark items are spores. Though at this very high magnification the picture is fuzzy, at least we can see that spines on the spores grow very close together and are more or less of the same height. That's important, since the spines on spores of many earthball species are more widely spaced and/or display very unequal heights. These spore features were critical when using Michael Kuo's identification key for the genus Scleroderma at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/scleroderma.html.

Using that key, matching our earthball with pictures on the Internet, reading about general habitat preferences, and comparing our spores with spore drawings on Michael Kuo's page, my best bet is that we have the Texas Earthball, SCLERODERMA TEXENSE.

Despite the "texense" in the binomial, apparently Texas Earthballs are widely distributed, being mostly tropical and regularly found in southern Mexico, as well as Spain and other countries.

Otherwise not much is known about the species, though there seems to be general agreement that none of the earthballs -- in contrast to some of the puffballs -- should be eaten. Some earthballs are known to have caused severe illness.

*****

COLD SNAP
The same winter storm that earlier in the week caused a mess for Thanksgiving travelers along the US Eastern seaboard, a few days earlier had passed just north of us. It brought us several days of overcast sky, drizzle, nighttime rain and near freezing temperatures. Here it's unusual for such weather to last so long. Normally if a cold wave passes through the next day is sunny and warmth soon returns.

The enduring cold was reminiscent of my hermit days in Mississippi when sometimes I stayed in my warm sleeping bag most of the day letting time pass, reading and listening to the radio. As was the case back then, this week's coldness was uncomfortable, but it left me feeling grateful for having experienced it.

Juniper House has gas heating, and gas is cheap, but this week I didn't figure it was cold enough for that. I wore extra layers of clothing and worked at the computer with blankets over my legs. If the cold started bothering me I put on hot water for tea, variously brewing Artemisia, aloe and juniper, and sometimes nothing at all, just hot water.

It was fine sitting in Juniper House's big-windowed room looking into the soggy, nearly frozen, somber woods, cupping hot tea in my hands and listening to, maybe, string quartets or Chopin etudes. It was a cozy, calm feeling, and a feeling that set me to thinking, and noticing things.

For example, I'll always remember those untold numbers of silvery water droplets dangling from dark green liveoak leaves just outside the windows, how the leaves and droplets created a kind of diffuse aura around the oak's gnarly, widely spreading, intricately branching, black trunk. As I sat there, it occurred to me that the tree was like the music, diffuse staccato 16th-notes structured around a dark, solid walking baseline. And after I'd savored that insight awhile, it further occurred to me that both tree and music were like the effervescent aura of thoughts clustering around my bone-and-tissue body cupping hot tea and looking out the window. And after thinking about that awhile, suddenly it was clear that tree, music and I all were like the broader Universe itself, with all its sparkling stars and billions of swirling galaxies diffusely structured on Nature's oak-tree-trunk-like, throbbing-baseline-like, bone-and-tissue-like immutable Laws.

I'm grateful to the cold snap for setting me onto that train of thought, which needs to be gone through from time to time, to remind me of how I fit in this world. Also I'm grateful to be reminded what a miracle warm sunlight is after a long cold snap.

In fact, now more than ever it's clear that I could never return to that world in which a certain thermostat setting is chosen, and then life is lived amidst similarly insulating settings, rules, regulations and cozy conventions. Let it be known that unequivocally and irredeemably I am one for the world of bumps, stains, stinks and fragrances, harmonies and dissonances, farts, burps, horselaughs, sweaty summers and cold snaps.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Waiting for The Light" from the June 9, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080609.htm

"Waiting for Toucans" from the February 20, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/110220.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.