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

January 12, 2014

EURYMERODESMUS MILLIPEDE
Here even in winter if a decently warm day comes along you might spot an inch-long (3cm), orange-and-black millipede slowly foraging in shadowy zones beneath tree roots and outcropping bedrock, like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112mx.jpg.

At first I thought that this was a centipede because many millipedes have a greater number of body segments and their legs are less robust. However, you can see that on our critter each body segment bears four legs -- two pairs -- so it's a member of the Arthropod class Diplopoda (millipedes) instead of the class Chilopoda (centipedes), which bear only two legs per segment.

It's worthwhile to notice whether you have a centipede or millipede because centipedes normally are predators bearing a pair of venom claws or "forcipules" with which prey can be incapacitated, and which sometimes can execute painful bites to people. In contrast, most millipede species are peaceful, slow-moving vegetarians eating decaying leaves and other dead plant matter -- they're "detritivores." Some millipede species, however, can damage emergent seedlings, especially in greenhouses. Many millipedes have pores along their bodies that can emit hydrocyanide, formic acid and other irritants as a defense against predators. Most species release the liquid slowly, but some can discharge it as a spray.

Volunteer Bea in Ontario figured that our orange-and-black millipede was a member of the Family Eurymerodesmidae. Since that family contains only the genus Eurymerodesmus, we must have a Eurymerodesmus millipede. Rowland Shelley's 1989 work entitled "Revision of the millipede family Eurymerodesmidae (Polydesmida: Chelodesmidea)" can be downloaded for free from the Internet at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/part/49963#/summary.

That work describes Eurymerodesmids as "the dominant polydesmoid diplopod in prairie ecosystems, ranging westward onto the Edwards Plateau... " and of course the Edwards Plateau is where we are. The word "polydesmoid" refers to the Polydesmida, the largest order of millipedes with about 2,700 known species worldwide. Polydesmid millipedes are recognized in the field by having between 18 and 21 segments with each segment bearing wing-like projections, clearly visible in our photo, giving the millipede a flattish appearance.

With Shelley's paper and some dissection probably we could have identified our critter to species level, but I prefer having an intact unnamed millipede to a dissected one with a name.

Eurymerodesmus millipedes occur from southeastern Nebraska and southern Illinois south and eastward along the Gulf Coast Plain to southeastern North Carolina, and into Mexico.

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APAREJOGRASS
Scouring the landscape for organisms overlooked during the warm months, something really new looking turned up at the Dry Frio River's water edge. It was a foot-high tangle of grass looking like dried-out straw tightly stuffed beneath a layer of limestone jutting from the bank's wall. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112mh.jpg.

Notice how small this grass is compared to the brown-leafed Switchgrass occupying the picture's lower, left corner. The smaller grass's threadlike leaves, mostly about ¾-inch long (18mm), are shown with my hand behind them for scale at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112mi.jpg.

Within the tangle a few flowering heads were to be found. One with its spikelets not quite 2mm long (1/16th inch) and arrayed in a narrow panicle is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112mj.jpg.

And the grass's ligules -- earlike appendages that may or may not arise at the base of a grass's leaf where it meets the stem -- is well formed and distinct, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112mk.jpg.

With all its parts being so small, the spikelets' glumes and lemmas being so distinct, with its well developed ligule, and its unusual growing habit, this grass keyed out relatively easily. It's Aparejograss, MUHLENBERGIA UTILIS, both names suggesting that in the past the grass was regarded as useful.

The word "apareo" appeared in the US Spanish-speaking Southwest back in the 1800s, when it was applied to a kind of packsaddle constructed with stuffed leather cushions. A packsaddle is a saddle-like structure secured on the back of a horse, mule or other working animal so it can carry heavy loads such as baggage and firewood. Therefore, it seems that back when horses and mules carried loads on their backs, Aparejograss was the grass of choice for stuffing packsaddle cushions. Even the "utilis" in the binomial says how "useful" the grass was when it was named. My impression is that larger, coarser grass species when dried out tend to crumble, but masses of tiny grass like Aparejograss don't.

Aparejograss is distributed from the US Southwest through Mexico and as far south as Costa Rica. It grows in wet habitats, especially riverbanks and meadows. The grass in our pictures grows so near the Dry Frio's water that it must be submerged occasionally throughout the year after heavy rains.

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OAK ROOT GALLS
A Texas Liveoaks' roots emerged from a vertical roadcut face with some of its rootlets bearing tumor-like growths, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112ga.jpg.

You can get a better feeling for the growth's size in the next picture, showing a nodule that had been dangling in the air from a small rootlet, and which has been opened to show cavities inside it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112gb.jpg.

Once I saw the cavities I figured we had a root gall, for the cavities must have been made by larvae developing within the growths. I hadn't known about "root galls," but over the years I've encountered so many kinds on leaves, stems, in flowers and on fruits, that I didn't doubt at all that roots mush have galls, too.

On the Internet our root galls fairly well match those formed on oaks by the Oak Apple Gall Wasp, Biorhiza pallida, which occurs both in Europe and North America. Previously we've seen two different kinds of Oak Apple Gall on oaks in Mississippi and California, but neither was produced by Biorhiza pallida. Also, I haven't noticed Oak Apple Galls here, so I'm not sure who produced this gall.

The name "Oak Apple Gall" is applied to an apple-like gall appearing on oak stems, not roots. However, the tiny wasp producing the stem galls also produces them on the roots. Here's how that happens:

The wasp overwinters as an egg and then a grub-type larva in a root gall such as in our photograph, then emerges in the spring as a wingless female. This female climbs an oak trunk and lays eggs in young buds. Leaf tissue around the eggs swells and softens until the "oak apple gall" is formed, which is about two inches (5 cm) in diameter. The larva feeds on the gall, maybe sharing it with several other larvae. Males and females emerge from different galls after two to three months. After mating, the females descend to the ground and lay eggs on the roots, starting the cycle over again.

Not being sure that we're dealing with galls formed by Biorhiza pallida, it's not certain that that's exactly the story behind our galls, but probably it's close enough.

*****

STREAMING ALGA
In the Dry Frio, what's the yellowish-green alga whose long filaments anchor on the streambed and get carried downstream by the current, gracefully draping around rocks, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112zz.jpg.

Beneath the microscope back at Juniper House the filaments reveal themselves as what's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112zy.jpg.

With each cell containing two photosynthesizing chloroplasts, and some of the chloroplasts displaying jagged edges, we've seen this very distinctive species before, not realizing then that it could form these flowing strands. You can see how earlier the alga presented itself as a diffuse mass of filaments in shallow water at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/zygnema.htm.

This is Zygnema, a commonly occurring freshwater alga, so its presence here is to be expected. About a hundred Zygnema species are recognized.

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SUNBURST LICHEN
One overcast morning a Texas Liveoak leaned across the trail with a small part of its deeply fissured, dark bark aglow with bright-orange lichen growing in powdery clumps, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112li.jpg.

Other trees in the area didn't bear this lichen, but within a few feet of the above population bush stems bore many small colonies, as if they'd been splattered there by rain or carried by wind from the main group higher up on the tree, and probably they had been. On one of those bush stems you can see the lichen closer up, and see that it's a "foliose" (leafy) kind with a very small, flattish body (only about 0.5mm across), instead of a crusty "crustose," or upright, shrubby "fruticose" type, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112lj.jpg.

In the top, left of that picture notice the tiny, cuplike "apothecia," which are structures enabling sexual reproduction. The cups' inner surfaces are provided with a thin layer called a "hymenium," and it's where spores are formed and released. Raindrops splash into the cup, spores splash out, and new lichens form in the neighborhood. You can see the leafy lichen bodies, called thalli (singular thallus), much closer-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112lk.jpg.

At the top, left of that picture, an immature, doughnut-shaped apothecium is forming. Notice that several flat lichen thalli bear brightly orange bumps in their centers. The pimples are "pycnidia," inside which special fungal hyphae produce asexual germ cells known as conidia. Lichens are composite beings consisting of cells of fungi with those of an alga and/or a cyanobacterium, so when conidia are spread to good new locations they vegetatively produce hyphae that are strictly fungal in nature. These hyphae wander around looking for the right algal and/or cyanobacterial cells with which to join to form a new lichen.

Also interesting in that picture are the tiny granules along the margins of many of the thalli. The granules are "soredia," whose job is to simply break off the main thallus and be spread elsewhere, where they'll form new lichens. Soredia are different from spores produced in the cuplike apothecium in that the soredia are asexual -- actually little pieces of the mother lichen -- while apothecium spores are sexual. Soredia differ from germ cells produced by pycnidia in that a pycnidium's germ cells produce only fungal hyphae, which must find the right alga and/or cyanobacterium before they can begin forming a new lichen. Soredia have all they need to form a new lichen. An even closer look at some soredia is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112ln.jpg.

This is a kind of sunburst lichen, genus Xanthoria, one of the most conspicuous and beautiful types of all lichens, and thus a good group to know. Sunburst lichens grow in a variety of habitats, often are encountered and sometimes are abundant, and occur worldwide. Sunburst lichens are often the first kind of lichen beginning lichenologists are able to identify. About 15 sunburst lichen species are recognized for North America, so identifying them can be a challenge.

However, in 1997 Louise Lindblom at Lund University in Sweden published his "The genus Xanthoria (Fr.) Th.Fr. in North America," which is downloadable for free in PDF format at http://nhm2.uio.no/botanisk/lav/RLL/PDF/R11492.pdf.

With that publication -- especially using the distribution maps accompanying each species description -- I was able to identify our sunburst with fair certainty as the Bare-bottomed Sunburst Lichen, XANTHORIA FULVA, occurring mainly on the bark of trees, especially in the open or semi-open, though sometimes it turns up in shaded spots and on rock. It can be found throughout most of the Earth's northern temperate zone.

In this area we have another very common, brightly orange lichen species, but it's much larger and it's a shrubby "fruticose" type, unlike our leafy "foliose" sunburst. The larger orange lichen is the Slender Orange Bush Lichen, which can be compared to our sunburst at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/bushlich.htm.

Such brightly colored lichens traditionally were used for making dye, but the Bare-bottomed Sunburst is so small that too many colonies would have to be sacrificed for just a little yellowing, so making dye of them would be a shame.

.*****

SYCAMORE ABSTRACTIONS
Nowadays in quiet pools at the Dry Frio's edges often you find what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112sc.jpg.

In water blackened with tannin leaked from decomposing leaves --mostly sycamore leaves -- the water's surface is scored with prodigious numbers of fuzzy, fly-like sycamore fruits. With help from their tawny-colored fuzz, the fruits have parachuted from disintegrating fruiting heads, or "sycamore balls," onto the water, their gatherings often composing pleasing abstract compositions such as that shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112sd.jpg.

Some fruits fall onto land or dry leaves, where their structure is easier to make out. Several atop a crisply weathered sycamore leaf are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112se.jpg.

The clublike fruits are of the achene type, meaning that they are dry and upon maturity don't split open to release the single seed within them. In general, it's like a dandelion fruit, which also is an achene, except that the dandelion's long, parachute-forming hairs arise from a slender neck atop the achene, while the sycamore's long hairs arise directly from the achene's base.

Among birds documented feeding on sycamore fruits are finches, chickadees and juncos. Muskrats, beaver, and squirrels also eat them.

You can see the sycamore's fruit balls and read more about the tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/sycamore.htm.

*****

GREENBRIAR FRUITS IN WINTER
Our several hard freezes don't seem to have hurt the Greenbriar's grapelike fruits now dangling in pretty, blackish clumps from leafless stems, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112sm.jpg.

In that picture they look larger than they really are. They measure only 5/16ths inch across (7mm). They look so luscious that you wonder why birds haven't eaten them all. However, if you pluck a fruit and pop it into your mouth, you might decide that there's not much eating to it. You can see a fruit with some skin gnawed off to reveal two seeds inside at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112sn.jpg.

The thin, leathery skin is practically tasteless.

Technically, Greenbriar fruits are berries, which means that they are pulpy, arise from a flower's single pistil, and contain one or more seeds that are not large and hard enough to be called a stone. Therefore, a peach isn't a berry, but a tomato is. Blackberries and strawberries, technically, aren't berries.

Our Greenbriar page showing the vine in warmer weather is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/smilax.htm.

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PEEP INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE
A 10x10ft (3x3m) greenhouse consisting of an aluminum frame and a coated-woven polyethylene cloth covering purchased as a kit sits beside Juniper House, and I eat bunches of herbage from it every day. Inside, raised beds mostly grow mustard greens, but you can see several other crops at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112gh.jpg.

At the corner at the right of the picture, that's Bok Choy, to the left of which is Swiss chard, a little spinach, red lettuce and then a mixture of mustard greens and turnips. In trays on shelves above, there's spearmint and peppermint for hot teas.

The coated-woven polyethylene cloth covering blocks so much light that leaves, at least in winter, grow longer, more slender and more delicate than plants from the same seeds planted in beds outside. With no heating, at night the greenhouse typically keeps inside air three or four degrees warmer than outside. This week of the "polar vortex," when one night the temperature dropped to 16°F (-9°C), plants inside the greenhouse were not damaged at all, though greens such as this can withstand a little freezing.

Mustard green stems on plants in the greenhouse, if bent a little, crisply and easily snap, while stems on plants outside are pliable and tough. Leaves from inside are more tender and can be eaten with less cooking, which better retains nutrients, but tougher leaves from outside may taste better.

This little greenhouse is doing a great job this winter. We're currently building a much larger one that should be online next winter, so we'll just see what develops from that.

*****

SUNNY SPOT BESIDE THE RIVER
Last Sunday morning the big "polar vortex" pushing into eastern North America brought us a stiff wind from the north and a temperature hovering just above the freezing point. However, the cloud cover was so thin that you could feel the sun on your skin. Along the Dry Frio's banks a sunny spot out of the wind turned up at the grass-overgrown base of a cliff, right beside where water trickled over a gravel bar so I sat there awhile basking in the watery sunlight. The spot turned out to be so pleasant that I lay back in the grass as the wind whooshed through the junipers atop the cliff, gazing up through grass blades arcing over me. You can see what I saw at that moment at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140112__.jpg.

When you break from a plan or routine and unexpectedly settle into such a private, out-of-the-way, agreeable spot and just focus on what's happening right there, at that very moment, becoming conscious of such matters as the reddish blackness behind your eyelids, the rustling of grass blades and the trickling of water, the odor of the cold earth you're lying on, the sweet, oily odor your own skin issues as it warms in the sunlight, it's a form of meditation. From being a spot moving across the landscape, you become an awareness within that spot. You go inward, and the sky, the grass, the wind and the trickling help you do it. It's always the case that Nature invites awareness and reflection.

The more deeply you go inside, whether in formal meditation or behind your eyelids in a sunny little cove, the more clearly you perceive a certain humming-like, glowing-like, peace-radiating, infinitely stable, conceptually spherical presence hovering inside yourself. If you've ever glimpsed it, you'll not have forgotten it, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Near this presence, you sense its independence from all outside influences. It is unaffected by your genetically based predispositions, and independent of your psychological and emotional states. To me, its steady humming/glowing/somehow-singing nature is so clearly pure and simple that I think it must be exactly the same invisible but perceptible spark humming/glowing/somehow singing in everyone else, as well as in all living things, and maybe other things as well. In this little cove beside the trickling stream with roaring cold wind above me, my tiny, internal, glowing, universally shared humming tells me that I am rooted in something other than the wind.

Back to being a spot moving along the Dry Frio's banks, with tall grass and junipers gesticulating in the wind, temperature dropping and brown sycamore leaves skating across the water into brown piles against the opposite bank, it's like walking through a song, while that same music hums within me.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Intelligent Design" from the January 13, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060113.htm

"What to Do When There's Nothing to Do" from the June 22, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070622.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/.