NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

December 2, 2001

SPRING PEPPERS IN NOVEMBER
This has been a good week for frogs. From Tuesday to Friday we received between 10 and 12 inches of rain (25-30 cm). I'm unsure of the total amount because the cup I use as a rain gauge overflowed twice. Whatever the measure our frogs have grown rambunctious and I hear them calling as I type this.

There's an ephemeral pond across the field near my trailer. During most of summer it has remained dry except after heavy rains, and during most of November when it didn't rain at all its bottom mud dried into a hard, dusty surface and the knee-high Water Peppers (POLYGONUM HYDROPIPEROIDES) choking the pond were stunted and wilted. Now the pond holds ankle-deep water and the emergent Water Peppers make perfect platforms for the frogs to call from.

During the warm first days I could wade into the middle of the pond and the frogs were so focused on their business that they just ignored me, unless I came close enough to step on them. This doesn't mean that they were easily seen. Even if I distinctly heard a frog calling just a couple of feet away and I bent over looking at the exact spot from which the call originated, often I could not see it, for these were well camouflaged frogs, and they hid themselves well. However, after standing quietly for ten or so minutes, before long they got used to me and I could spot them moving about and watch them with my close-focusing binoculars. Later in the week as it cooled they became a lot quieter, and less tolerant of my visits.

The species doing nearly all the calling is the Spring Peeper, HYLA CRUCIFER. This species is easy to identify because individuals are tiny, brown frogs only about an inch long (2.5 cm) and the back of each one wears a distinct, slender-armed X. The call is a series of brief, high-pitched, ascending whistles, something like a bird's peep, sometimes with a short trill. When hundreds call all around you it can actually hurt your ears. The "ascending" quality of the peeps conveys the effect of each peep pleading for something in a familiar, expectant manner, almost like a child's "Please? Please?" My Audubon frog-fieldguide says that the Spring Peeper's call is one of the first signs of spring, so Happy Spring!

Some years ago when photographing frogs while lying on my belly in a few inches of water in a similar ephemeral pond in Kentucky, after about half an hour the frogs began considering me part of the landscape. They allowed me to approach to within just inches as they lustily called. I had to brush them off my shoulders because their calls were too loud.

The rain responsible for these frog days has been warm, for the storms that brought them issued directly from the south, off the Gulf of Mexico. Usually when I'm frogwatching my feet grow numb from the cold water, but standing in this water has been a pleasure.

You can see Spring Peepers at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/idguide/speeper.htm   and if you have the standard "Windows Media Player" on your computer you may be able to hear their call by setting your browser to http://www.naturenorth.com/1np/Species/amphibian/Soun ds/sppeeper.au  

Also you may be interested in a chart I have posted listing the frogs and toads to be expected in this part of Mississippi, along with a description of the call of each species. This is at http://www.backyardnature.net/frogs.htm#x  

*****

FROG ENTHUSIASM
The theme for this week's frog-experiences has certainly been "enthusiasm." You can understand why this might be. These little beings cannot live active lives during long dry spells so they have spent the last weeks in a kind of suspended animation beneath fallen logs, below leaf-litter and other places. The technical name for this near-dead state during hot weather's dry periods is "aestivation." Lots of small creatures, such as snails, also aestivate.

When the rains began I imagined water seeping down through the crumbly, rotting logs and into the dusty leaf- litter, finally reaching the unconscious frogs. As cool wetness seeped around their bodies and diffused into their skins, internal organs slowly began to reactivate and the frogs gradually revived. There must have been some spasmodic, perhaps involuntary kicking of legs and twisting in the ever-more-soggy darkness, then a kind of struggle to regain access to the world above, a digging upward and a pushing and squirming, and finally when they emerged into a world of abundant clear, fresh water how good must have been the feeling of rain on long-unfeeling skin, and then the hormones kicked in...

Of course it was only male frogs who were calling, it being up to the females to listen and determine who in the chorus sings the most gloriously. These males certainly took their work seriously. I watched as every couple of seconds their throat pouches expanded into wet, almost-transparent bubbles much larger than a frog's whole head, then as the pouch collapsed the call sprang forth, then instantly another bubble appeared, then another call, the little frog as he sang expectantly holding himself high on slender legs, sometimes his whole body trembling from the force of the expulsion of his mighty peep...

This old hermit bent over in the rain in the pond's middle more than once simply laughed with commiseration as these eager, fragile little lifeforms expressed themselves so exuberantly.

And this happened in November... ! If this already-dawning spring is to be as luscious as these early indicators predict, I can only say "Hold on!"

*****

MILLIPEDE USING CHEMICAL WEAPON
Wednesday morning after one of our first downpours I noticed that some small millipedes ("thousand-leggers") had drowned in the water standing next to my outside kitchen. I needed a millipede picture for my nature-study site so I gathered up a specimen and you can see the resulting scanned image at http://www.backyardnature.net/1000legs.htm

About 600 millipede species are found in North America north of Mexico and they are often hard to distinguish. However, this was a pretty distinct-looking species and I chanced upon a good illustration of the drowning victim, so I am pretty sure that it is PACHYDESMUS CRASSICUTIS. Apparently it has no English name, and it is found only in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. This species has no eyes and, like all millipedes, feeds on various plant materials, especially soft, decomposing plant tissues. They are perfectly harmless to humans.

An interesting scientific paper about this species was found on the Internet. Apparently a researcher noticed that when fire ants attack this millipede the fireants are the losers. This so rarely happens in nature (fireants generally overwhelm all their enemies) that the researcher wondered what the millipede's weapon was.

Chemical defenses were suspected, so small squares of filter paper were touched to living Pachydesmus crassicutises, then gas chromatography and infra red photospectroscopy were used to examine any chemicals found there. It was discovered that this millipede defends itself with benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. In other words, it sprays its attackers with cyanide, and cyanide is one of the most deadly chemicals known to science.

You can read an abstract of this paper yourself at http://www.navi.net/~rsc/nitrilo1.htm. That's a big page so use your SEARCH tool to find the words "Science, 138:513, 1962," which also happens to be the literature citation.

*****

EASTERN HOGNOSE SNAKE
Monday morning next to our coldframe I was surprised by an Eastern Hognose Snake, HETERODON PLATYRHINOS, sunning himself next to a bale of hay. "Surprised" is putting it mildly since this species makes a living from looking mean. Though its coloration is extremely variable and some individuals are completely black, this one was boldly patterned like a Timber Rattler and thick like a Cottonmouth. My heart fluttered a bit before my brain took over and made a proper identification. You can see several pictures of this impressive species at http://herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/reptiles/snakes/e.hognose_snake.html

Making a proper identification was important because hognose snakes are among Nature's most spectacular bluffers. They are perfectly harmless critters but they look and behave as if they could chew your leg off. And the bold patterns and bright coloration of my Monday snake are only part of that bluffing.

The first thing my hognose did to increase my terror was to flatten himself. Basically hognoses are medium-size snakes, but when they spread themselves they look much more powerful than they are. When Monday's hognose saw that I wasn't running away he increased his apparent size even more by taking in an enormous amount of air and thus ballooning his body, and spreading his head into a dangerous-looking triangle, exactly like an Indian cobra. He even hissed!

This show did not prevent me from nudging my little friend with a finger, for I knew he would not bite. I have had hognoses strike at me, but they don't open their mouths. It's all pure bluff. I nudged Monday's hognose for a reason, for I wanted to see the last part of his performance.

Sure enough, after the nudge the poor snake flipped onto his back, held his mouth agape, let his tongue hang out, and just laid there, as dead-looking as a snake could possibly look. Of course, when I flipped him onto his stomach he promptly went onto his back again, and with that his repertory of responses was exhausted. You can see a very pitiful-looking "death-feigning" hognose at the bottom of the page at the above-mentioned address.

The body-flattening, air-imbibing, hood-flaring, hissing and final death scene are as inevitable with this species as its habit of eating toads and frogs -- except that tamed individuals stop going through the routines once they realize they do no good. As a kid in Kentucky when I saw my first Eastern Hognose I was sure that I'd discovered a circus escapee, a real death-dealing cobra. However, when I got out my books I learned that hognoses are a fairly common species in nearly all of the eastern US, except in the far north.

It's a wonderful snake but I fear that many have been slaughtered by humans impressed in the wrong way by their bluffing.

*****

THE MOON'S COMPANION
If you arise before dawn you will see a bright Moon, and shining brightly right next to it will be Jupiter. As the days pass the distance between the Moon and Jupiter will increase. You might enjoy seeing how long you can keep track of Jupiter.