JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the woods edge near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

June 16, 2008

PATCH GETS SNAKE-BITTEN
Last Monday Patch, a mixed terrier belonging to Karen and Jacky, came to the house with two bloody fang marks on his right cheek, and with his cheek swelling rapidly. The fang marks were far enough apart to show that the snake had been a big one. Since we're on a dry ridge here, it was probably a Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus; Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes don't make it this far west.

Over the years several pets here have been bitten by poisonous snakes so Karen was ready. After failing to get a Benadryl pill down the very upset dog's throat, she melted it and with a syringe (no needle) injected the liquid down his throat. Benadryl doesn't neutralize snake venom but it does help keep the body from overreacting with allergic responses when it detects the venom in the blood. It's important to keep the patient calm and quiet.

Karen felt that if she could keep Patch alive for twenty minutes he'd live, as her ten or so previously bitten pets had lived. After an hour Patch was still alive but his head was grotesquely swollen and the fang marks continued bleeding. The bleeding worried Karen because usually that stops after about half an hour.

The next morning Patch was still able to wag his tail when petted but his wounds continued to bleed profusely. He'd appear to be improving for a few hours, but then he'd suffer a wave of intense pain and a setback.

Before sunrise the next morning he let out a howl, and died in Jacky's arms.

Because of the heavy bleeding Karen believes that a fang must have penetrated a main artery in Patch's throat.

Typically swelling reaches its maximum in one day and the pet starts recuperating, though at this time the fang wounds may begin oozing pus. Karen says to clean this away with clear water, but to use no medicine. Hair falls out around the wound and sometimes the fang marks develop into deep pits. Often sick pets don't drink and you must insert water down their throat with a syringe. Sometimes the wounds become infected and an antibiotic must be applied. Had Patch lived, Karen would have continued giving Benadryl twice a day until the swelling went down and the pet felt better, probably for about three days.

You shouldn't use the above information for treating your own pets if they are snake bitten. First, if you're closer than we were to a vet, you should take them to a vet. Second, medications vary depending on pet size. If you have pets in a snaky area you should talk with your vet and have a plan ready taking into account your pet's size and medication available.

Karen says that if you can't get medicine into your cat, squirt it on its paw and it'll lick it off. You can smear medicine around a dog's mouth and it'll lick it from there.

*****

ANOTHER SNAKE SCARE
On the afternoon of the day when Patch came in with his bite, Karen was moving flowerpots when she herself let out a howl, which from a distance I recognized as a snake-spotting howl. A snake had been curled up beneath a pot Karen had just lifted. As I approached, Karen warned me that it looked like a rattler, and at a distance it sure did, though the snake was so small that I figured Karen's howl had been more from surprise than terror. You can see the unmoved snake at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616el.jpg.

Like a rattler it was thick-bodied, blotchy-patterned, and had a somewhat triangular head, which pit vipers tend to have because of the bulging venom glands behind their jaws. However, as you can see in the picture, this snake's black pupils are round, not "cat-eyed," as is a pit viper's, plus there's no pit between the eye and nostril, which gives the pit vipers their name. All of North America's venomous snakes except the Corals are pit vipers, and all have "cat-eyes" and pits. You can see a close-up of the round-pupiled, pitless head of Karen's snake at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616ek.jpg.

It was a water snake, maybe the Green Water Snake, NERODIA CYCLOPION, distributed on the Deep South's Coastal Plain and up the Mississippi Embayment to southern Illinois.

*****

KEELED SCALES
When I first began identifying snakes technically I often ran into the term "keeled scales," and I didn't know what a keeled scale was. Water snakes have conspicuously keeled scales, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616ke.jpg.

In that picture, find a well defined, diamond-shaped scale, perhaps over on the left, and notice that running down the scale's center longitudinally there's a definite slender ridge. That's the keel. You can see that all the keels end-to-end give the snake's surface a ribbed appearance, which surely helps the snake purchase hold on objects as he slithers past them.

Noticing whether a snake's scales are keeled or not can be important. Kingsnakes and racers have smooth scales while hognose, rat, water, garter and rattlesnakes have keeled ones.

*****

"TRAIL SPIDERS"
If you walk woodland trails around here at this time of year you constantly run into spider webs strung across the trails at face level. For the most part one spider species constructs the webs. They're odd-looking spiders, mostly white with black spots and spines, and only ± 2/5-inch across (10 mm), as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616sp.jpg.

The webs also are distinctive, for some of their individual silk strands are spottily adorned with white, cottony clumps of teased silk, which make the web more visible. You can see such a web, with a spider dealing with prey at the picture's bottom, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616sq.jpg.

These "trail spiders" are members of the genus GASTERACANTHA, which contains tropical and subtropical spiders, so in the US apparently they're present only in the Deep South. If you live farther north than us and think you've seen this same spider across your own trails, probably you're thinking about a closely related but different genus, Micrathena, which similarly constructs webs across woodland trails, but without the white tufts. Micrathena abdomens are also white with black spots and spines.

It's interesting to think about why Gasteracantha spiders would adorn their webs with tufts of teased silk, making their webs more visible. The whole idea of spider webs is to catch prey that blunder into them not knowing they're there.

I'm guessing that the silk tufts are mainly visible to vertebrates with binocular vision and with brains enabling a more circumspect image analysis than enjoyed by the spiders' usual invertebrate prey. Invertebrate vision is less acute, and invertebrate brains may not grasp what the white spots mean. Since Gasteracantha spider webs so frequently are suspended across woodland trails, you can imagine that they are run into not only by wandering humans but also mammals such as deer, and birds. Maybe us "higher animals" tend to avoid the webs if we know they're there. I doubt that deer find it any more agreeable to have spider webs plastered across their faces than humans do.

*****

A COLORFUL TUSSOCK MOTH CATERPILLAR
While tearing down an old building we came across the fuzzy, very pretty caterpillar you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616tm.jpg.

That's a Tussock Moth caterpillar, one of the most distinctive and easy-to-identify of all caterpillars. Tussock Moth caterpillars always have a pair of pencil-like hair tufts at the front, a single similar tuft on the rear end, and four short, thick tufts on the back. I'm guessing that this is the caterpillar stage of the common White-marked Tussock Moth, HEMEROCAMPA LEUCOSTIGMA, which belongs to the Tussock Moth Family, the Liparidae, of which the most famous member is the introduced and destructive Gypsy Moth.

Tussock Moth caterpillars feed on many kinds of trees and shrubs and hatch in late spring. A curious thing about the moths is that the females are practically wingless, looking like fat, fuzzy cockroaches. The males are plain-looking, grayish, hairy little moths you'd hardly notice. As far south as we are, two generations are produced in a single season.

*****

A FLATID PLANTHOPPER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616ph.jpg you may recognize a sap-sucking insect you've seen many times. Sometimes a whole line of them can be seen feeding on something like a snapbean stem, one above the other, each with its tiny, strawlike proboscis inserted into the plant's stem, sucking sap. It's a flatid planthopper, a member of the large and widely distributed family Flatidae. The Flatidae belong to the Homoptera order, in which we also find cicadas, aphids, spittlebugs and scale insects. Planthoppers are NOT moths, despite having mothlike wings. Many genera and species occur in the family but I'm guessing that the individual in the picture belongs to the genus Anormenis, maybe the common A. septentrionalis.

If you get too close to a planthopper, instead of flying or hopping away, usually it'll quickly shift to the stem's opposite side so you can't see it. If there's a line of planthoppers, one above the other, they may all move at the same time, which is funny to see. Typically as they're feeding they hang with their wings downward exactly as in the photo.

Other kinds of planthoppers occur besides flatids, plus scattered among various homopterid families there are froghoppers, leafhoppers and treehoppers. Besides the round-headed wedge shape, one distinguishing feature of flatid planthoppers is the way many straight, outward radiating, parallel veins run around the wings' margins, as shown in the photo. The technical way of saying that is "numerous costal cross veins."

*****

THE MAGNOLIAS' NAKED BUDS
I poke my nose into every Southern Magnolia blossom I pass, unable to get enough of their sweet, lemony perfume, and it's always fun to see which critters -- mostly beetles and insect larvae -- live down in the blossoms' bottoms. Magnolias are considered primitive in the sense that they arose early in the evolution of flowering plants. For me their big, gaudy, perfumy flowers have always represented the "spirited youthful simplicity" of primitive things, as opposed to the more refined but more subdued "fusion, miniaturization and specialization" of modern things.

This train of thought arose one morning when my attention was drawn from a magnolia's flowers to its buds. The buds were "naked," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616mg.jpg.

By "naked" is meant that the buds aren't covered with scales. If you want to see a bud covered with scales look at the Black Oak bud at the upper left at http://www.backyardnature.net/leafscar.jpg.

"Naked buds" is a primitive feature of magnolias. During the early evolution of flowering plants when magnolias arose, flowering plants hadn't figured out how to protect their buds by armoring them with stiff, plate-like scales. Hairs already had arisen, however, so when magnolias wanted to protect their delicate buds from sunlight, cold, insects and such, they covered them with hairs.

In our magnolia picture, when you look at the rusty-haired, conical terminal bud, you're seeing the rusty-haired lower surfaces of future leaves.

*****

BENEVOLENT BLACK CHERRIES
Right above my porch a good-sized Black Cherry tree, PRUNUS SEROTINA, has been providing juicy black cherries to the surrounding wildlife community ever since I got here. You can see some black cherries at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616bc.jpg.

Before the cherries ripen they're red, and before turning red they're green. Mature cherries are only about ¼-inch across and their pits are relatively large, so humans usually don't bother with them, despite their being edible. Juicy, ripe fruits leave a residual slightly bitter taste in your mouth but fruits that have dried on the tree to the point of being wrinkled are almost like sweet little raisins. In the past brandy was sometimes flavored with black cherries. When you pick and eat wild black cherries they impart a lovely, hard-to-wash-off burgundy stain on your fingers and lips, like pokeberries.

I call my Black Cherry tree "benevolent" because each morning and late afternoon its branches are absolutely busy with birds who eat large numbers of its fruits. Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Bluejays, Cardinals, Orchard Orioles, Robins, Red-bellied Woodpeckers... Even insect eaters like Prothonotary Warblers and White-eyed Vireos range through the tree, maybe preying on insects drawn to the juicy fruits or maybe just enjoying being part of the bustling Black Cherry bird community.

Black Cherry trees produce wonderful wood much used in high-end furniture, and that's caused them be rarer than they used to be. I know some folks who heard how many hundreds of dollars they could get if they sold the big Black Cherry standing over their house, so they immediately sold it. But then they found that their backyard was so hot and glaring in the summer that it wasn't fun to go outside anymore. So they sold their house and never were happy in their new home. Serves them right, as far as I'm concerned.

For my part, every day I feel as if somehow the beautiful Black Cherry's benevolence seeps into me. When I sleep beneath the mosquito net on my new porch's floor with the Black Cherry nearby, it's almost as if just by being close to this wonderful tree I grow more beautiful and benevolent myself.

*****

TERMITE MUD TUBES
This week I've helped Karen and Jacky tear down an old building that for a long time has been falling down all by itself. One reason for its decay was that it had termites.

You might remember from my Yucatan days that often down there we ran into large termite nests suspended in trees. In the US, because of cold winters, nearly all termite species live in the soil. When our termites burrow through wood in buildings, then, they have the problem of traveling between their above-ground meals and their subterranean nests. Of course a plump, juicy termite with no stinger or pincher would make a good meal for many birds and other predators.

Subterranean termites solve that problem by building mud tubes between the ground and their above-ground meals. Workers travel back and forth in the tubes unseen. This week, once the collapsing building was removed, we found many termite tubes climbing up the foundation blocks. You can see some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616tt.jpg.

Not only does the tubing protect commuting termite workers, but also fungi grow in the tunnels' moist darkness. These fungi are eaten by the termites, and supply protein and vitamins that may not be present in wood.

You probably know that termites themselves can't digest the wood they eat. In the termites' digestive tracts the wood is converted into soluble nutritive substances by protozoans living there. The termites can't live without the protozoans in their guts, and the protozoans can't live without their termites. And both termites and protozoans benefit from those mud tunnels.

*****

DOG KIDNEY STONES
Some months ago Karen's elderly dog Cody, a small Schnauzer, got deathly ill. The vet removed the kidney stones you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616kd.jpg.

After the operation Cody made a full recovery.

*****

JIM ON YOUTUBE
{I'm always trying to find new audiences for my environmental education efforts, especially among young people. For awhile I had a MySpace page, but I got so many letters from porn purveyors that I removed it. Now I've set up a short video at YouTube.Com. I shot the video with my new camera, with the woods next to my trailer in the background.

I can't decide whether the somewhat blurry video helps or hurts my efforts. If you're curious and your computer can digest Flash Media, you might check it out and let me know what you think. You can access it at the bottom of my biography page at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/jim.htm.

*****

TWO YEARS OF MAIL
Last Sunday I read through two years of accumulated mail sent to my Natchez address -- the address of my friends Jacky and Karen.

Kathy in Vermont told me about people in her area who had become "locavores," who are folks who eat seasonally and locally -- foods grown within a fifty to hundred-mile radius. Shell in Virginia told me about her community's Barter Network in which, for example, someone might barter homegrown vegetables for plumbing. Others told me of great bird sightings, of insightful things their homeschooled kid had said, about how their backyard garden was doing...

I needed to hear about these Earth-friendly, peaceful instances of activism to neutralize other things I've seen and heard lately. For instance, a poll of University of Mississippi students at Oxford finds that most students there don't even believe that global warming exists.

How can the various parts of our country be so different from one another? Why as time passes do most "red states" seem to be becoming redder, while most "blue states" are growing bluer?

I interpret it as the same phenomenon I've alluded to many times during recent Newsletters -- that when any large, complex system begins dominating its environment too much, it inevitably fractures into a mosaic of ever-more-distinct parts, which eventually end up competing with one another. If we're dealing with biological organisms, new subspecies arise; if we're dealing with a major language, then local dialects result; if we're dealing with human politics, then a patchwork of regions with different political leanings emerge.

Because this fracturing process occurs at so many levels in Nature, we can say that the political and social fragmentation we're seeing in the US right now is perfectly natural.

However, Nature also shows us that once fragmentation is well advanced and competition between the newly crystallized entities commences, that competition generally causes much suffering among all parties. Often the extinction of the weakest and/or the least adaptable also results. (Most species that ever evolved are now extinct.)

If humanity is to avoid this path leading toward complete fragmentation and the extinction of some or most of us, then somehow, someday, a critical mass of us must begin behaving unnaturally. We must use our minds and begin doing something miraculous. Specifically, we must begin manifesting the Sixth Miracle of Nature. As I postulate in my essay online at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/o/6miracle.htm the Sixth Miracle of Nature is when a living thing transcends mere consciousness and begins learning and reflecting.

When a Florida orange tastes so good in December but a "locavore" in Vermont sticks to his or her principles and eats dried fruit grown locally; when the social fabric of a community is strengthened while tax money is denied an untrustworthy and war-making government by a network of barterers eschewing the use of money, though using cash is so much easier -- then that is miraculous, and reason for hope.

The Sixth Miracle of Nature is still a work in progress, manifesting itself only rarely among the great masses of humans programmed by genes and society to obsess on sex, status, wealth, power, and the rest. For that reason it can't be said yet that learning and reflecting is "natural." When learning and reflecting do occur, it's the Creator struggling to evolve Her Earthly creation to a higher level of sophistication and spirituality. It's "miraculous." If enough of us have the Sixth Miracle ignite within us, humanity will fuse, not fragment, into a whole new miraculous thing never seen on Earth.

And my letters this week remind me that sometimes miracles do happen.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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